A Monstrous Legacy

by Greg Kishbaugh

greg_kishbaughGreg Kishbaugh is a Ray Bradbury Fiction Writing Award winner. He is a Consulting Editor for Evileye Books, and the editor of the Burning Maiden anthology series. He is also the co-founder of Kaleidoscope Entertainment, a company specializing in high-end comics.
His novel Bone Welder is available at Amazon.com and BN.com. He can be reached at grkishbaugh@gmail.com.

 

The Frankenstein Monster breaks my heart. Always has.

My first exposure to the Monster, like most children, was in the form of Boris Karloff’s indelible creation, a feat of acting (and makeup design) that forever etched the monster into a generation’s consciousness.

And it’s in my reaction to Victor Frankenstein’s creature — as well as the dark beauty and solemnity of Karloff’s performance — that my lifelong love, and undying sympathy, for monsters was born.

One thing that always puzzled me and affected me deeply was in the creature’s moniker. Quite simply, why was he called The Monster when his creator seemed more aptly to bear that designation?

As my formative years progressed, it became quickly clear that I viewed monsters much differently than those around me. In many instances, the ‘monsters’ were clearly not the villains but were, quite often, in my mind, the heroes!

After viewing the classic 1933 King Kong for the first time, I sobbed.

My friends, on the other hand, cheered.

How could that be?

I was seven years old, maybe eight. I watched it, mesmerized, on a late night Saturday evening Creature Feature. On Monday, running around the playground with a gaggle of my friends during recess, I brought up the movie. Gushed over the awe-inspiring dinosaurs, the lush jungle setting of Skull Island and, naturally, the majestic Kong, the most amazing cinematic creature I had ever seen.

kingkong

One of my friends (I’ve happily exiled his name to the mists of time), exhaled sharply, showing an almost palpable level of disgust and declared (spoiler alert, for those of you who have led such sheltered and terrible lives that you have never seen King Kong), “It was so cool when they shot that stupid ape down. All those planes, rat a tat tat.” Then he mimed the guns firing and Kong spiraling to his death.

He thought it was great.

I was left wondering, what movie did this kid watch?

Definitely not the same one I had seen.

But the answer was simple. The movie he watched was different, because his perception of the world was so much different.

He had watched a movie in which noble explorers capture a terrifying creature that breaks free, terrorizes all of New York City in general (and the beautiful and full-voiced Fay Wray in particular), and threatens to destroy everything in its path. The protective humans are left with no choice but to gun the brute down.

But that is not the movie I saw. In the movie I watched, mindless, uncaring humans capture a noble creature, chain it, drag it from its native home, humiliate it and then, when it tries only to find a way back home, they murder it!

Like I said: it’s all about perception.

To me, the greatest aspect of pop culture fandom is the sense of community. When I was a kid (just after mankind had finally left the cave), all of us geeks, freaks and nerds were tremendously isolated. No Internet, no Facebook, no Instagram. There were scattered fan clubs but very few ways of connecting with fans with whom you shared a common interest, let alone the creators that made it happen.

It’s been such a joy, and surprise at times, to discover that the creators whose work I so greatly admire were influenced by the very same people that drove me to want to be a writer.

There’s no greater example than Guillermo del Toro. I’ve admired his work for years and have seen every film he’s ever written, directed or produced. But it was not until very recently, until I already felt a kinship with him through his films, that I realized how many of the same grand masters of fantasy had steered both our lives.

It’s quite clear from del Toro’s work that his love of monsters parallels my own, but it is amazing to discover that the very same people who inspire me also nurture his undying affection.

When I try to pinpoint a ground zero for my love of monsters, it seems an impossibility. But as to when I finally discovered I was not alone in my ghastly affections — well, that’s easy. It’s when I saw this for the first time.

monsters_cover

Famous Monsters of Filmland was like a clarion call for Monster Kids everywhere, calling to us, a dog whistle that only we could hear. For the first time, monsters were not just acknowledged for what they truly were. They were celebrated. And they were done so with an unabashed, glorious sprinkling of fun.

No question, monsters were serious business to us, but that was no reason they should be dour. And the founder and editor of Famous Monsters, Forrest Ackerman, ole’ Uncle Forry, knew that better than anyone.

And it’s no exaggeration at all to say, like many others before him, that Famous Monsters completely changed del Toro’s life. For so enchanted and bewitched was the young del Toro by the gloriously gruesome images in Famous Monsters, so the story goes, he immediately began learning English in order to further unlock the dark treasures within those pages and allow himself the joy of reading Uncle Forry’s pun-filled prose.

Forest J. Ackerman, while far from being a household name, is someone to whom millions upon millions of modern day science fiction, fantasy and horror fans owe an incredible debt of gratitude. In addition to his work on Famous Monsters he was a pivotal player in the creation of what is now known as Fandom. Ackerman understood that simply loving something was not enough — the love had to be shared.

ackerman

No one enjoyed a terrible pun or play on words as much as Ackerman, but he was also dead serious about having society in general give more respect to the movies and literature he enjoyed. With this goal in mind, he formed the Los Angeles-area Science Fiction League, and soon an array of other creative geniuses was in his orbit.

In very short time, the Holy Trinity of my creative inspiration would be formed, with Uncle Forry as the spiritual figurehead.

One of the first people he befriended was a young visionary artist so enraptured by monsters that he began building them in his garage. After being mentored by Willis O’Brien, King Kong’s father, he embarked on completely altering the world’s perceptions of what could be created on the big screen. And to this day, the creations of effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen retain their ability to inspire fear and awe.

harryhausen

When, in 1992, Tom Hanks presented Harryhausen with the Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he said, “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane … I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made!”

I devoured Harryhausen’s movies as a kid. It seemed as if every weekend, one of our local Chicago stations would run Mysterious Island or one of the Sinbad movies. I loved them all fiercely and deeply and they stoked a passion for creatures that could never be quelled.

I suppose I should not have been terribly surprised, years later, to discover that del Toro was equally enthralled by Harryhausen’s movies and that they inspired the depths of his imagination in much the same way. How much did Harryhausen influence del Toro? The director’s glorious monster showdown Pacific Rim is dedicated to Harryhausen, and in the garden of the director’s Bleak House in Los Angeles a statue of Harryhausen stands ever vigilant.

Shortly after befriending Harryhausen, Forry introduced the future special effects grand master to a young writer — the third piece on our triptych —he felt he had much in common with. Harryhausen and the young, brash writer hit it off immediately.

Forry was so assured of the writer’s future success he served as his agent in his formative years and paid his way to the very first science fiction convention in New York City. So thanks to Forry, the world was able to get its first glimpse into the boundless imagination of Ray Bradbury.

bradbury

Ackerman and Harryhausen fueled and nurtured my love of monsters, but without Bradbury, it’s very possible I would never have picked up a pen and reached deep enough into my own psyche to create monsters of my own.

Bradbury was the world’s greatest poet of the fantastic, a man who spun metaphors into stories that had the power and dark beauty of dreams. Bradbury’s glorious prose and imagery joined all us romantics and allowed us to share common ground. In the worlds he created, we were not the outsiders and loners. We were the dreamers that helped conquer the stars.

After Bradbury’s passing, del Toro said, “I feel lonelier. The world is vast and barren: Bradbury was one of the titans of fantastic fiction and a unique voice in American literature. The lyricism of his prose influenced many generations across the globe. A humanist before anything else, Bradbury nurtured my youthful hopes, my flights of fancy. His soul was gentle but his imagination was fierce.”

When I was much younger, reading Bradbury for the first time, I thought I had unlocked some deep and mysterious secret known only to me. But, like all great works of art, Bradbury was — even without my knowledge — joining me to a larger, more meaningful group. Del Toro and I may have grown up countries apart, but art erases borders.

Which brings us right back to Baron Frankenstein’s creation.

frankenstein

My recently released novel, Bone Welder, is my attempt to restore a measure of dignity to the beleaguered creature, to scatter the pitchfork carrying villagers back to their homes and peek inside the Monster’s soul. It imagines that Frankenstein’s creation is still alive, exiled in the arctic as he was at the end of Shelley’s masterpiece, and that a terrible legacy from his past forces him to return to the modern world.

I didn’t know it at the time, but writing the book was clearly my love letter to the creative geniuses that came before me, that inspired me, that lit a spark of wonder in me years ago that has never died.

When asked in an interview who I thought would be the perfect choice to direct a film adaptation of the book (should such a dream ever become a reality) it should come as no surprise that my immediate, unwavering answer was: Guillermo del Toro. What other director, I wondered, loved monsters the way I do? What I didn’t know at the time was just how deep and abiding was del Toro’s love for Frankenstein’s creation. A dream project for him has long been to bring a faithful adaptation of Shelley’s opus to the screen. And the reality is that there is currently no single person on earth better qualified to do it.

If you have not yet read Orrin Grey’s magnificent piece written for Del Toro Con (which you can find here), do so immediately. It clearly defines one of the most substantial aspects of del Toro’s creative greatness, which is that he honors those who have come before him. Many creators shy away from their influences. del Toro, wisely and beautifully, honors them.

Ultimately, the grandest testament to the beauty and importance of art is its ability to bind us all…to forge relationships that did not previously exist, and, hopefully, to compel us to bring the beauty of our own creations into the world.

While each individual piece of art — whether film, book, painting, etc. — holds its own special significance, its true legacy remains in what it inspires others to do.

It’s impossible to assess the works of Bradbury, for instance, without acknowledging what they inspired in others. Steven Spielberg has said often that his early science fiction movies were inspired mightily by Bradbury’s stories. So, not only can we glory in Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man but we can also marvel at E.T. and Close Encounters and the host of other works that would never have been created had Bradbury not shared his visions of wonder with us all.

And how many artists did Harryhausen influence? They surely number in the thousands! Without Harryhausen there is no way to anticipate the path special effects in film would have taken. Because of his movies, cadres of animators, makeup artists, special effects people, etc., all realized the path their lives needed to take. And, as mentioned, there is a direct and unalterable path from Harryhausen to Guillermo del Toro.

harryhausen_deltoro

Truthfully, I would argue that del Toro is, in many ways, this generation’s Harryhausen, as well as a clear and proud descendent of Ackerman and Bradbury. The films of Guillermo del Toro speak for themselves; he has created some of the most indelible images of the past century. But del Toro’s lasting legacy is just now being written. How many young people, inspired by del Toro’s glorious visions, will be motivated to share their creativity with the world? How many writers will del Toro’s works — and his passionate advocacy of other artists — forge? How many directors? Painters? Years from now, I have no doubt whatsoever, Hollywood will be teeming with creators of all stripes who, upon being asked who inspired them to pursue a career of the imagination, will answer simply: Guillermo del Toro.

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