Monday, June 7, 2010

The Kids are Alright.... or Are They?

Monster Tales: Vampires, Werewolves, & Things
edited by Roger Elwood

New York: Rand McNally & Company, 1973

One of the creepier horror anthologies I read during my elementary school years was Monster Tales: Vampires, Werewolves, and Things. Assembled by horror/fantasy author Roger Elwood (who would edit numerous anthologies featuring tons of up-and-coming authors of the '70s), with bizarre and haunting illustrations by Franz Altschuler, this collection provided me many a sleepless night.

The introduction is written by Robert Bloch (known for writing Psycho, among other prolific contributions to the horror genre), who vividly describes the true horror of what lies in the dark, behind the shadows, and in our imaginations. There are six stories in this book highlighting encounters with supernatural forces drawn from folklore. As noted in the title, the book is divided into three categories: Vampires ("Precious Bodily Fluids"), Werewolves ("Werewolf Boy") and Things ("Wendigo's Child", "Torchbearer", "The Call of the Grave" and "The Vrkolak").

The uniting concept of this anthology is the fact that each story has a young main character whose parental figures are powerless to protect them from the forces of darkness, be they human or supernatural. "Wendigo's Child" details the horrible events begun by a curious boy who disrupts an Indian burial ground by stealing a mummified creature; "Torchbearer" follows a young man who is sold by his father to a sinister Count who practices witchcraft; "The Call of the Grave" recalls the narrator's childhood in Wales where calling on the dead after a mining accident yields horrible repercussions; in "Werewolf Boy" the title character makes a pact with a witch who will transform him into a wolf to avenge the death of his puppy at the teeth of a local Baron's dogs; "Precious Bodily Fluids" involves a strain of vampirism that haunts a boy and his father in a crumbling ancestral home; and "The Vrkolak" ends things on a more humorous note with a disgruntled summer camper who turns himself into a giant frog-like creature to get back at bullies.

What I like about the stories in this collection is that most of them drive home the fear of the unknown without implying that everything has returned to normal at the end.
Each tale has a cadence in the writing style that evokes a sense of unease. Franz Altschuler's illustrations have a jarring peculiarity to them that complements the narrative similar to Stephen Gammell's work for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. While each story is effective in its own way, the ones that stuck out for me were "Torchbearer" and "Precious Bodily Fluids."

"Around the man at the stake were perhaps forty or fifty hideous, loathsome figures. Human Beings? Men? Women? Ghosts? Creatures of the netherworld?" - Arthur Tofte, Torchbearer
"Torchbearer" is particularly interesting because it deals with the question of evil without adhering to the immediate assumptions readers might have. Rolfe is sold to the Count Monterrant, a sinister nobleman whose castle is a sanctuary to the deformed outcasts of France. His job is to carry the torch to light the passages and help out the witch who lives in the underground rooms. Rolfe witnesses a graphic ritual where a Magistrate responsible for the torture and deaths of innocents accused of witchcraft is condemned to a hellish inferno for his misdeeds. This scene plays out with chilling drama that hints of Poe's narratives. Mayhem ensues and Rolfe is left to ponder which is more blasphemous, a group of outcasts who use witchcraft as a cloak of protection against an ignorant political structure or the banal cruelty practiced by the church against anyone who stood in their way.

"As the old caretaker quietly left Michael's room, the young boy couldn't help but notice how much the old man looked like a skeleton, withered and almost dead, yet still alive." - Mario Martin, Jr., Precious Bodily Fluids

"Precious Bodily Fluids" brings the vampire of legend into a more modern setting. Michael and his father go to a rural English village to move into the ancestral estate previously owned by his uncle. They are greeted by Mr. Gaskell, the creepy caretaker of the crumbling castle. The discovery of his Uncle's morbid scientific research coupled with the fact that his father grows weaker by the day (as Mr. Gaskell appears younger) tips Michael off to the danger that he is in. The power of this tale lies in the unsettling feeling Michael is left with when he realizes that he is alone against a
Lamia (a creature who lives off the bodily fluids of humans and animals), and his father is powerless to help him.

I would recommend this book to young readers who enjoy scary stories rooted in folklore. Like the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Short and Shivery collections, each tale feels as though it is being read to you near a campfire or fireplace on a dark and stormy night.

1 comment:

  1. Man,

    How strange. I was just thinking about this book yesterday and even commented as such on my Facebook page, not having remembered the title or the editor. I do still have visions of the illustrations and the vibrant stories, esp. the frog story which I've retold to countless children albeit with various misdirections.. he he..

    The memeory overwhelmed metoday at work and, when I returned home, I started Googling "monster stories with wendigo" and "dead Welsh miner calling thtough mine shaft" to no avail..

    Finally, I tried "giant frog at summer camp" and was led here.. Voila!

    So.. great reminiscence and nice writing.. now I have to find a copy somewhere on the Interwebs..

    Cheers, Eric