I’d like you to buy my book. Also, I’d like you to help some kids you’ve never met.
The Curse of Frankenstein: A Dissection is my e-monograph on the 1957 Hammer Films picture, exploring the themes of queer sexuality in this classic British horror film. At about 76 pages, it’s a scene-by-scene analysis that tackles the relationship at the heart of Terence Fisher’s lurid Gothic chiller — between renegade scientist Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), his mentor-collaborator Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), and the murderous, symbolically rich Creature (Christopher Lee) that is the product of their scientific union.
The book becomes available September 24th as a US$2.99 Kindle download, with other formats still to come. I previously posted an excerpt here, back in February, when it was still a work in progress. As the film gradually revealed itself to me, I came to understand that I was actually writing not just about a film’s depiction of queer identity, but about the repression of queer identity and the harm this causes — through the metaphoric lens of a monster movie. I wanted this book to somehow help alleviate this harm.
For every $2.99 Kindle purchase of The Curse of Frankenstein: A Dissection, 50 cents will go to the Family Acceptance Project — a research program that studies the dynamics of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people coming out to their families, and offers tools to ease the transition. Parents who reject their LGBT children risk pushing them toward alienation, substance abuse, and suicide … and that’s real horror.
Fifty cents isn’t much, but it means that The Curse of Frankenstein, a movie that’s important to me and countless other horror fans, could have some small impact in yet one more dimension.
If you’re a writer who’d like to review the book for your blog or publication, contact me to receive an advance PDF copy. You can follow this blog, my Twitter feed, or the related Facebook page to find out about new e-formats, possible print editions, or other news related to the book. Reviews posted at Amazon are always appreciated too.
Below, find the Introduction to The Curse of Frankenstein: A Dissection. Up above, see the great cover illustration crafted by my multitalented friend Ron Evans. If you read this book, I hope it will help you enjoy the film with a new understanding of its depths.
The flat-topped beast that lunged out at me from the library-book cover invited me to enter. It was the rheumy-eyed ghoul on page 41 that demanded I stay, and explore further. I was eight years old, probably, and the flat orange hardback picture book was simply called Frankenstein.
Not the Frankenstein. This was part of a twelve-book series, published exclusively for schools and libraries, on the famous monsters of film lore. (The cover wasn’t the Frankenstein monster either, as portrayed by Boris Karloff; it was Lon Chaney Jr., in Ghost of Frankenstein.) I remember hunting up Godzilla, The Mummy, and Mad Scientists from the same series, all written by one Ian Thorne. The Frankenstein creature on page 41 was Christopher Lee’s portrayal, from 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, the Hammer shocker that redefined the cinematic legacy. I had to see it.
This was the late 1970s, and no media were provided “on demand.” My household was at least five years away from its first VCR. I haunted the UHF channel listings of my childhood until it finally appeared, probably on a Saturday afternoon or late Friday night.
I don’t remember what I thought of it. It didn’t matter; it was already in my DNA, thanks to Ian Thorne and my own acquisitive imagination. The monster was mine, I was its maker. I didn’t even remember, until as an adult I found a reprint of Thorne’s Frankenstein, what the author wrote about the Hammer gem: Not much, other than to say it was “vivid, chilling, and very gory,” and better than I Was A Teenage Frankenstein.
“I don’t remember the Hammer Frankenstein,” Ian Thorne confessed when I inquired by letter in preparation for this monograph. “Ian Thorne,” as it happens, is actually Julian May, author of several acclaimed science fiction and fantasy novels. You can read about her at John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and you should, and then you should buy her books. A native of Illinois, like me, she now lives in Washington state, like me. She and her late husband T.E. Dikty set up a profitable small business in the 1970s, crafting and peddling their genre-specific book series for junior readers — because boys love monsters, and because May was adept at telling the stories behind those monsters.
So like a lot of my delvings in pop culture, I was working backward, from a book inspired by the cultural artifacts of the films to the films themselves. It was this same kind of reverse engineering that would later lead me from Led Zeppelin to Bukka White. Contexts and antecedents matter. They are what make us.
It was only when I reapproached The Curse of Frankenstein more than twenty years later that I saw in it, as queer-theory essayist Harry M. Benshoff says, “a rather homoerotic retelling of the Frankenstein myth.” I found it more than that: The Curse of Frankenstein is a fable of gay coupling that takes place under cultural repression. It produces unnatural issue, and that issue is monstrous — an annihilator of youth, purity, and family. “A demon had made a man-made monster,” intones the film’s U.S. trailer, “and now, the monster was the master.”
The film’s two male leads fit solidly into the paradigm of the “monster queer couple” that Benshoff describes in his essential 1997 text Monsters In the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Such couples are represented by “the mad scientist, who, with the frequent aid of a male assistant, sets out to create life homosexually — without benefit of heterosexual intercourse. … The secret experiments they conduct together are chronicled in private diaries and kept locked away in closed cupboards and closets.” The monster-makers’ stories always follow a well-trod path: “The ‘normals’ are safely reunited and the queer couple, whose desires can only be spoken through metaphors of predation and violence, are destroyed.”
The Curse of Frankenstein was crafted by a cadre that was to become a Hammer Films assembly line of sorts. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster wrote the script to studio specifications, and director Terence Fisher shot the work within the confines of Bray Studios, a converted 17th-century estate. It’s nigh impossible to pin Curse’s homoerotic impulse on any one of its creators — and Sangster, in his 1997 memoir Do You Want It Good Or Tuesday?, resists any such interrogation. “… What was the hidden meaning of this scene, what was the undercurrent of that; was I trying to tap the audience’s secondary emotional level when I had Peter Cushing say so and so; and wasn’t that last scene terribly anti-Freudian. Why did you write it like that? My answer is always the same. I wrote the way I did for wages.”
Sometimes, though, the theme slips past its creators. It’s tempting to call The Curse of Frankenstein revolutionary, but only insofar as it allowed its self-despising subtext to swim so close to the surface in 1957. This was not art raging against the closet — this was the closet, packed full to bursting with the monsters we’d made.