In Praise of Monsters
What is it with 9 year olds? I remember being in 4th grade and being absolutely in love with 3 things: Dinosaurs, bugs, and monsters. We could order books though school and every 2 months or so, the catalogue and order form would go around and you’d tick off the choices and then beg your parents for the money or use your hard-earned allowance to buy your little paperbacks. I always bought Wizard of Id, B.C. and monster books. My favorite was “How to Care for Your Monster”.
The book included Frankenstein, werewolves and of course, vampires and detailed things like what to feed them and where they should live. It was one of my prized possessions. At about the same time, or maybe even earlier, I started watching monster movie – usually in black and white and usually on late night T.V. Since I couldn’t stay up late, this was usually in the company of an adult like my older sister, Pat, who I know loved monsters as much as I did. In fact, she encouraged me to learn how to do a Peter Lorre impression and I remember doing it for her and making her laugh. Saturday afternoons were filled with The Black Cat, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Dr. Phibes, The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
I read The Pit and the Pendulum (I didn’t really understand it – Poe being a little difficult for 9 and 10 years olds). The stories that made the biggest impression on me however, were Hop-Frog and the Masque of the Red Death. Why did I love monsters so much? Why did I secretly hope that Vincent Price would win, that Christopher Lee would get his long, tremulous fingers on the prize he reached for? For one thing, it was their power. They seemed to be on the winning side and who doesn’t want to have power? For a kid, I think it is very attractive. You are told what to do all day long by adults, you are threatened by older siblings or older siblings’ friends and the idea that you could have a “monster in your pocket” to do your bidding is cool.
Of all the actors who I identified with and admired, no one could touch Vincent Price. He was cool under pressure. He was passionate. And he was sad. There was that regret that is necessary for all monsters. It actually became a touchstone for my acting: the idea of the flaw. The hesitation. The momentary pang of understanding. For some reason, in the monster’s psyche, these things seemed more noble. Vincent Price was also damned. As a Catholic fanatic, growing up reading gruesome books of saints, I could relate to damnation and torture. In fact, my two other reading sources besides books on monsters were Grimm’s Fairly Tales and the Lives of the Saints. Whether it’s a giant poodle being fed hot coals by a witch or someone being stoned to death or hung upside down on a cross or having their eyes plucked out, the source didn’t much matter – there was a lot of cross pollination. So it was a no-brainer that Halloween was my favorite holiday. I was Frankenstein with a bleach bottle cut-out forehead. I was a werewolf with cotton balls stuck to my face . And my favorite – I was a vampire. The year I was the vampire I actually was on crutches because I was suffering (or I was misdiagnosed as suffering) from Perthes disease – a hip bone degenerative disorder. To this day one of my legs is shorter than the other. But then, I think that is true of everyone. Doesn’t matter. Being on crutches and wearing a cape and feeling both victim and victor was a winning combination and I had a great haul that October 31st.
Later in high school, we read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – 2 books which still resonate with me – especially Mary Shelley’s . Such a stroke of genius to have the first book the monster reads be “Paradise Lost” (also a great monster book – Satan being the best character). I remember I was so scared at one point reading Dracula, that I got into our canoe and rowed out into the middle of the lake. I figured crossing water was some sort of ancient prohibition.
In college, I turned to more sci-fi and philosophical “horror”. Stranger in a Strange Land. The Martian Chronicles. Anything by Phillip K. Dick. Eventually , in college, I started making fun of the monster movies and of Vincent Price’s acting. It became un-cool to think that Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney were as good as Peter O’Toole or Albert Finney. Peter Lorre was saved by his cross-over career: M alone would keep him in the pantheon of great actors forever.
I remember reading the obituary for Vincent Price. I think it said that he was happily married to Coral Browne. He didn’t seem to have been a drug addict or a lost soul. He didn’t kill anyone. In fact, he seemed to have a great sense of humour about himself, but more importantly, he seemed to genuinely enjoy his work and he seemed to work all the time and in every medium. If you asked me who my acting idol was, I would never have said Vincent Price but as I look at him now, it doesn’t seem a bad choice.