When I was a kid, I was terrified of horror stories. I really couldn’t handle even the mildest of tales: one that sticks out in my head as particularly scary at the time was the 1962 movie version of Day of the Triffids, an enjoyable film but not one I would classify as particularly scary.
All this changed quite suddenly, when one day I decided, for no obvious reason, to watch an episode of Tales From the Darkside. (It was an episode called “The Madness Room,” which came out in 1985 — so I was 14.) I was genuinely nervous to watch it, but was pleasantly surprised when it turned out the episode had a dark sense of humor and irony about it. That was perhaps the first time it really, truly dawned on me that horror fiction, while it doesn’t always have to be funny, could actually be fun: that it could convey a gruesome story without being excessively, well, horrific. From then on, I was hooked.
I thought of this again while reading the excellent collection Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts by Orrin Grey.
This volume, Grey’s second collection after 2012’s Never Bet the Devil and Other Warnings, contains 13 stories of weirdness and horror that pay tribute, directly and indirectly, to the cinematic monsters of the past. In fact, the book is dedicated to horror greats Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and others that made an impact as monsters or their opponents. The stories are all very good — one of them, “Persistence of Vision,” was recently selected for inclusion in volume 7 of The Best Horror of the Year anthology. But, above all, I found these stories to possess a sense of fun amidst the creepiness that really captivated me.
A brief summary of each story follows.
- The Worm That Gnaws. A pair of resurrection men (i.e. grave-robbers) find that their usual hunting grounds — a cemetery, of course — have been taken over by the titular creatures. When they drunkenly take actions to eliminate the competition, they provoke a reaction much more horrible than they bargained for.
- The White Prince. A creature crawls through a woman’s window at night, draining her life’s essence. A familiar story, it seems at first — but there is a twist right out of a fairy tale that will cast events in a new and horrifying light.
- Night’s Foul Bird. A young girl lives with her mother in the Arcangel Hotel along with a curious collection of other residents. When a new man named Milton moves in, the girl sees him as the strangest of all. Her suspicions are confirmed when things start happening to the others, one by one.
- The Murders on Morgue Street. In the midst of a brutally hot summer, Detective Laughton and his partner are called in to investigate a horrific murder. All that remains of the victim is her perfectly removed skin; the rest is nowhere to be found. The case seems somehow connected to a new hypnotism show in town, performed by one Mister Mirakle. But the secret behind the soon-to-be-multiple-murders is more shocking than even Poe could imagine.
- Ripperology. “When a monster dies, its power is just beginning.” This enigmatic statement begins a tale about a man obsessed with Jack the Ripper; the man will discover exactly what it means by the end.
- Walpurgisnacht. Two young men travel to The Brocken Hotel in Germany, in the shadow of The Brocken’s peak, to attend a unique party. Their wealthy and decadent acquaintance, Henri, has acquired a previously unknown early film of Edweard Muybridge, motion picture pioneer, rumored to be of infernal subject manner. The film will be shown at the party, which will be held on Walpurgisnacht — the Witches’ Night.
- The Red Church. Yvonne at last gets a journalism assignment of real import: a unique interview with the reclusive underground sculptor Wade Gorman, known for his macabre works that toe the line between madness and brilliance. But why is he giving an interview now? And is Wade or Yvonne the true subject of the interview?
- Remains. Children are once again going missing in the neighborhood, mirroring a tragic series of murders years earlier. But the perpetrator of those murders, Dr. Terrence Klinter, has been dead a year. On a hunch, or a premonition, two police officers return to Klinter’s home, to find if something of him carries on.
- The Labyrinth of Sleep. Scientists have discovered that are dreams are more than dreams — we all go to the same place when we sleep, a twisted labyrinth which is seemingly without end. When one professional dreamwalker commits suicide, his former colleague attempts to follow in his footsteps in the labyrinth to find what led him to his fate.
- Lovecrafting. Dana and Conner find themselves excavating their friend Gordon Phillips, writer of the macabre, like Lovecraft and Poe. Like his predecessors, Gordon died an untimely death, and Dana and Conner told Gordon they would dig him up to find the common thread between them…
- Persistence of Vision. The excavation and refurbishing of a Victorian machine of unclear purpose leads to a global apocalypse. The dead have risen, but they’re not zombies. Zombies can be put down.
- Strange Beast. From an author’s notes, we learn about her research into a bizarre 1972 kidnapping and murder of several filmmakers, taken to a remote island and forced to make a movie, as well as the disastrous attempt by a documentary crew to return to the island. The original movie to be made was a giant, Godzilla-like monster movie, but something even more strange and terrifying is born in the attempt.
- Painted Monsters. Film producer Kirby Marsh III gets an invitation to the wake and will-reading of Constantin Orlok, a long-neglected director of classic monster movies. Kirby brings along his bodyguard — excuse me, “driver” — Marla Crane, just in case anything goes amiss. And it is good that he does, because Orlok felt that he had been betrayed by his peers in life, and in death he seeks to give those peers what he feels they are owed.
As I have already noted, Grey’s collection is also a tribute to the classic monster movies — “Creature Features” — that he grew up with. The stories are filled with nods to many of these movies: for example, Constantin Orlok is clearly a reference to Count Orlok of the classic silent film Nosferatu. Understanding these references is not necessary to enjoy the tales, but for those like me who get them, it adds an extra bit of joy. Grey is an excellent scholar of horror; I first learned of his work when he wrote an introduction for the Valancourt reprint of J.B. Priestley’s Benighted, which I blogged about several years ago.
One that stood out for me in particular is built into the plot of “Strange Beast.” As soon as I started reading the story, I knew that the kidnapped filmmakers were inspired by the stranger-than-fiction story of Pulgasari, the North Korean monster film that was produced by Kim Jong-il and directed by a kidnapped Japanese director! Strange Beast and Painted Monsters were my favorite two stories of the collection, imaginative, weird, and atmospheric. Both appear for the first time in this volume.
After each story is a short note by Grey about its history and inspiration, something I always love to see in a book. It is really nice to see the process, sometimes straightforward, sometimes very strange, by which a story makes it to the page.
I should note, in all my discussions of the stories in Painted Monsters being “fun,” they are still horror stories. Nasty creepy things happen in them, bad things happen to good people and so forth; it just so happens that these stories, in a way that is hard to describe, end up giving more of a thrill than an appalling sense of nastiness like many modern works. Grey touched upon this idea himself in a recent column titled “The H Word: But Is It Scary?” He discusses how there is room in horror for strange stories which convey a whole spectrum of emotions, from the horrific to the scary to what is known as “pleasing terror.” The latter phrase describes his work in this volume well.
In summary: Painted Monsters is a fantastic collection of horror fiction that captures the spirit of fun of classic monster movies and fiction. It is well-worth reading, and in my case I found it a perfect book for creepy bedtime reading.
Disclaimer: For those who worry about such things, I am friends with Orrin Grey on Twitter and Facebook.