When I was eight, my brother, five years older, received a of copy Alan G Frank’s The Movie Treasury: Horror Movies for Christmas. He soon got bored of it but I never did. It was a different time and my mother and father, cut from the cloth of nineteen seventies more lax attitudes to parenting, seemed happy for me to pour over the cornucopia of horrific cinematic images contained therein. The very first picture in it, if we ignore the magnificent front cover featuring the closing scene from Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), was a color still from Joan Crawford B-Movie, Trog (1970). It stuck with me so much that when the movie finally ended up on TV, my mother, maybe a bit tipsy from that night’s trip at the pub, dragged me out of bed so that I could finally watch it.
Times like that, when I was half awake trying to keep my eyes on that glaring late night screen of bad make-up and wonky storytelling, seemed to dominate my childhood. I was never a July sunshine kid, instead I was a creature of the post watershed world of vampires, monochrome gangsters flicks and the ghosts of Chaney and Lugosi. Frank’s book was my first window onto that strange land. In the pre-VHS/DVD/Netflix days older work was accessed only through the medium of the small screen, my eager tastes either appeased or done way with in the stroke of a programmers hastily drawn up schedule. The Movie Treasury: Horror Movies, became my go to guide into that ever so hoped for list of possibilities.
There were many photographs littered throughout its hundred and sixty page confines. Black and white glimpses of Christopher Lee either injecting a syringe into a disembodied eyeball in Horror Express (1972) or having his tongue ripped out in The Mummy (1959), danced around with other monographs from The Man-Made Monster (1941) or Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), where an apologetic Leonard Whiting stares straight at the camera, a bloody severed arm spilling from his upturned battered Gladstone bag. One such frame from Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972) would haunt me longer than most. Not being something which ever appeared on British television I would have to wait forty years to see the actual thing, but somehow thanks to Frank and his impeccable taste those undead knights Templar have galloped after ever since. This grim collage of prints swirled together in my brain with the glossy full colour reproductions of theatrical posters such as Hammer’s Twins of Evil (1971) and Vampire Circus (1972) or Amicus feature, Tales from the Crypt (1972). The latter was again something which I would have to wait patiently to appear in one of those endless double bills that subjugated the seventies and eighties. Before I got to see it, I would piece it together in my mind from the scant pictures available and the description from my friend Justin who had caught it a year or so before. That was the thing with Frank’s book, not only did it act as guide, it was also a reliable consolation prize. I may not have seen the film but I knew all too well its horrific prospects. Never did the scene where an already embalmed man is bought agonisingly back to life feel quite so real as it did in my pre-screening head.
I thumbed through the book on a daily basis, often creating crude pencil drawings of some of the more lurid delights. One particular image though sent me into spasms of confusion, beguilement and undying fascination. A single frozen frame from Tod Browning’s disturbing pre-code production Freaks (1932), concerning the bearded lady and her newly born baby, with her all too-real fellow circus performers gathered round the bed, threw my young mind into morbid overdrive. The sight of these unlikely stars including Coo-Coo the pigeon woman, a dwarf and most disconcerting of all Johnny Eck – the half-man, balancing one hand on the bed stead, pretty much created the back bone of my life long obsession with all things horror. That production, which I saw first when I was twelve, it being shown cautiously on BBC 2 after its thirty-year ban reputation, at first left me wishing I had only ever known that famous image from Frank’s text. Though I have since come to respect Browning’s controversial exploitation piece, back then it’s subject matter ripped me from my comfort zone, I was unable to tell myself, as I had with so many other silver screen scares that it was just make-up because obviously, it wasn’t. The poor sound and degraded print only added to my trauma as I lurched uneasily to my bed that night.
But essentially, as good as Frank’s hardback was, for quite a while it remained, for me, no more than a groovy picture book, something I could impress my less horror-savvy friends with. It wasn’t until a few years later that I began to pick apart the text, when I was off sick from school. It was the first time that I had come across names like James Whale or the term German expressionism, the first time I began to make connections between what I was seeing on screen and the people behind those images. This was hugely important for it not only opened up my limited view on scary movies, it threw open the doors to a whole universe of cinema. I simply never looked back, my existence would be forever shaped by those formative forays into distant celluloid dreamscapes.
Other texts from this period also helped sculpt my off-kilter movie appreciation, there was Frank’s other effort The Movie Treasury: Monsters and Vampires, The Movie Treasury: Science Fiction Movies by Philip Strick and of course there was the massively educational and immeasurably entertaining A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by the wonderful Denis Gifford.
Initially purloined from the dusty school library, my original copy of this tome, not the classic hardback version with the green hued cover but the later reissue paperback with the crappy skull in a wig motif, eventually fell to bits after being devoured night after night. Though the Frank’s books were great, what Gifford did was to take all the hinted of wonder from those works and fashion them into an actual chronological narrative. Beginning of course with the European productions of the twenties, it also focussed its attentions on other early celluloid experiments previously overlooked or consigned to history’s dustbins. Weirdo and distinctly ominous two-reelers such as Baloo the Demon Baboon (1913), or Fight with Sledgehammers (1902) or the oddly hypnotic fantasy spook shows of George Melies sank into my subconscious somewhere, somehow becoming as important in my lexicon as The Wolf Man (1941) and Dracula (1931) already were. If Frank had afforded me a primary education then Gifford was preparing me for my horror movie A-Levels. But there again, as vital to me as the title’s informative possibilities were, it too contained some splendid images now forever burned into my impressionable head-space. The brightly coloured lobby card for Son of Kong, with a cartoon gorilla wearing a sandwich board replete with the words A Serio-Comic Fantasy, followed by a terrifying still from Michael Reeves film The Sorcerers (1967) depicting a scorched Boris Karloff, melded together with classic publicity shots from I was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) or rare stills of strange fish-men from the forgotten silent version of The Mysterious Island (1929). British Godzilla rip-off Gorgo (1961), Der Golem (1920), the ‘even mightier than King Kong’ Gappa (1967) stamped through my imagined ruined cities, dodgy looking graveyards and cardboard laboratories, their collective power crackling like the buzzing electrodes in Frankenstein’s crumbling castle. In a sense, Gifford removed Frank’s earlier randomness, it placed everything into a context, for once I could enjoy a history lesson, they would never teach at school and I was rapidly going to the top of the class.
Gifford and Frank developed not just an insatiable appetite for horror within me they provided indispensable texts that helped me later to carve out my living as writer and creative. They taught me that books and movies and the written word, were inextricably linked and that ideas and concepts once explored in a non-threatening un-academic sense, could be understood and absorbed, providing a gateway into new realms, perhaps denied to me by other more formal routes.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that my day to day existence would be slightly worse without having discovered these texts. What they were and offered me did not become part of my life, for a time they were my life. They turned on lights and also showed me what lurked within the shadows. My nightmares from that point on were never quite the same. Thank God for that.