Skulls in the Stars

Orrin Grey’s Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts

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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.

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.

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Disclaimer: For those who worry about such things, I am friends with Orrin Grey on Twitter and Facebook.

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