Monster Memories: Big Reader

It began with the boob tube, but books were the best. Those little orange-and-black books about old monster movies, films that made the our parents dream in shades of gray. Mom had Stephen King. Dad had guitar mags, a whole other story from this keyboard guy. If we were lucky enough to have a badass school librarian, we had the eighties equivalent of Famous Monsters.

These books - and I wish I knew what the hell they were called - were the gateway drug for many future film nerds and monster kids. We were the modern version of David K. Skal's monster boomers, always trying to go deeper, find cool new scares, even if they were only new to us. For those of us with fuzzy memories of Lon Chaney, Jr. in bandages, these books were a Garfield-colored goldmine.

I went for Frankenstein immediately, of course.   He always was the best, and probably always will be. The novel is thoughtful, romantic and terrifying, but the image of Karloff in Jack Pierce's make-up is why most of us read it. Having access to the story at an early age - even a bite-sized, kid-friendly edition of a fifty-year old film of a truncated stage version of the story - was incredibly powerful. The photos were the same promotional stills you see today, viewed by eyes as fresh as those that had gazed upon Forry Ackerman's wares a generation before. Karloff's monster in chains, his hands and face in strange contortions, his massive, powerful frame rendered weak at the torch-and-torment-bearing hands of Fritz. The monster by the water with little Maria, the friend he will later lose in a fatal error. The final confrontation in the burning mill between the monster and his creator, as epic a final battle as any child could imagine.

Which is exactly what we did. We imagined because we could back then. We didn't have a ton of choices for entertainment, and it wasn't as easy as you'd think to catch Frankenstein on TV, not when Commander USA was hosting Friday the 13th double features. Besides, we didn't always have cable, and regular TV wasn't making with the old-fashioned scares anymore. (You could catch Planet of the Apes now and then. That was cool.) Until the VHS boom that would soon hit, and the slick, shelf-worthy videotapes of years later, the books would have to do. They were strangely better in their own subversive way, proving that stories for adults were much more fascinating than the kiddie fare we'd been swallowing. They even had a supplemental section, like readable DVD's, where you could find out what happened in the sequels, or see a photo of Frank Langella as Dracula. Black-and-white photos of dead men in Halloween costumes beat Thundercats any day.

I didn't get to see all of the movies until years later, but that first glimpse of the old monsters was a doorway to a world I would tread for the rest of my days. Monsters weren't under the bed or in the closet, waiting to eat us alive. Monsters could be our friends.