Monday, May 4, 2015

Return Of The Wolf Man (Universal Monsters Trilogy #1)

Return Of The Wolf Man, by Jeff Rovin
October, 1998  Berkley Boulevard

In 1998 Universal decided for whatever reason to bring back their old movie monsters – but this time in a trilogy of paperbacks that took place in the modern day. There was no series title or volume numbers, but this was the first of the trilogy, and the only volume to be written by Jeff Rovin. (The other two were written by David H. Jacobs.) This is also easily the rarest of the trilogy these days, going for stupid prices from online booksellers.

Rovin is clearly a fan of those old Universal monster movies, and who can blame him? I recently rewatched all of the major franchise films in a sort of chronological order,* so it was the perfect time for me to finally get around to reading Rovin’s novel, which begins immediately as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein ends. But unfortunately Rovin’s own enthusiasm undermines Return Of The Wolf Man, as he’s too eager to pepper the book with in-jokes and references to old monster movies. In a way it makes the book come off like fan faction – which, I guess, is exactly what it is. But still, the in-jokery gets old fast.

Our author is also very concerned with tying up loose ends – even if they’re ones that happened in other Universal franchise films (like what exactly happened to the Invisible Agent, or, uh, Abbott and Costello in their other movies!) To prove this, the first 47 pages of Return Of The Wolf Man are a prologue set in 1948 in which Rovin documents the final few minutes of Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein and then tells what transpired after the film’s end.  The reader is much encouraged to watch that movie before reading this book; another indication of the novel’s fan fiction vibe.

Anyway, fans will be happy to know that the fall out of the castle and into the ocean at the climax of the movie did not kill Dracula or the Wolf Man, who were engaged in mortal combat at the time. Dracula escapes, and the Wolf Man is left to pull himself out of the ocean and go back to the castle – Mornay Castle, owned by the beautiful, evil, and now dead Dr. Sandra Mornay, killed by the Frankenstein Monster at the climax of Meet Frankenstein. We’re in LaMirada, Florida, on the little island of La Viuda, upon which Mornay’s castle looms.

The Wolf Man, driven to fury to kill (Rovin introduces the interesting concept that, if the Wolf Man doesn’t kill, Larry Talbot’s human mind retains a stronger hold on him), ends up feasting on Professor Charles Stevens, good looking young dude who, when last we saw him in the film, was about to walk off into a “happily ever after” with hotstuff 27-year-old insurance investigator Joan Raymond! Avoiding the girl, who as we recall from the film is dressed in a gypsy disguise (due to the costume party at Mornay Castle), the Wolf Man goes after Stevens. This is another nice bit from Rovin; the werewolf avoids Joan due to her gypsy outfit, which reminds him of Maleva, the kindly old gypsy who helped him in the earlier films.

Rovin has no qualms with exposition; after the Wolf Man turns back into his human form, “stocky” Larry Talbot (aka “Mr. Potato Head” himself, Lon Chaney, Jr.), he relates to Joan his long, troubled history. It all culminates with Talbot finally attempting suicide to end his misery, and Joan assisting, helping him jam a shard of silvered glass through his heart. She pulls his corpse into the castle’s basement and calls the police to come clean up Dr. Mornay’s corpse, out in the marshes – the Frankenstein Monster, meanwhile, has been burned and dumped in the moat, and Dracula has taken off for points unknown.

Finally we move to the “present,” aka 1998. Joan we’re informed long ago bought the Mornay Castle, which she renamed The Tombs. Rovin also fills in other little blanks, like the fact that James McDougal, the host of the House of Horrors who was bitten by the Wolf Man in Meet Frankenstein, has himself become a werewolf, where he feasted on the locals for several years before heading off to Tibet – yet more in-jokery, with the Tibet stuff an obvious call-out to the 1935 Universal movie Werewolf Of London; but it’s also just more fan fiction-esque stuff, as McDougal’s fate would only be wondered over by die hard fans of the film.

But anyway Joan, who became a successful horror author, has recently died, and has willed The Tombs to her attractive grand-niece, Caroline Cooke. The next thirty or so pages are given over to the pointlessly-drawn out story of Caroline’s first view of the castle, accompanied by a lawyer named Henry Pratt; they’re here to show the place to a government assessor named Porterhouse. Seriously my friends, so much time is devoted to this whole “the government wants to assess the previously-sealed-off basement of the castle, Caroline, and I did all I could to stop them” garbage that you want to bang your head against the wall.

I mean, let’s say Universal gave you the go-ahead to write a novel based on their franchise of classic horror monsters. Would you devote 20-30 pages to pointless bickering between a lawyer and a government assessor?? As I read this banal stuff, it occurred to me that perhaps this was the reason Rovin did not return to write the next two volumes of the trilogy; maybe someone at Berkley or Universal realized that there was more potential to be reaped from these characters than just needlessly-elaborated stuff about building foreclosures and local politics.

But anyway, Portherhouse manages somehow to resuscitate the Wolf Man, who promptly kills him off, as well as Pratt, but it all happens off-page. But the werewolf’s locked in a little dungeon, and a crying Caroline sits out front of it, only to be confronted by a confused Larry Talbot the next morning. Here Rovin actually has Talbot relay his story again, even though he just told it all to Joan in the 1948 prologue a mere 70 pages ago. But yes, you do read practically the same story again, with Caroline just as thunderstruck and disbelieving as her great aunt had been.

And I have to say, I really disliked Caroline Cooke. Rovin seems too eager to create a “strong, modern woman” in the character, to the point where Caroline comes off like an unlikable smart-ass, constantly pissed off about something or bickering with someone. This becomes evident quite soon, which makes it all the more unfortunate that she will be our main protagonist for the duration of the 339-page novel. I don’t know about you, but I could only wonder how much more enjoyable Return Of The Wolf Man would’ve been if perhaps Larry Talbot had been the main protagonist. You know, the dude whose werewolf half is proclaimed in the book’s title.

Regardless, Caroline takes center stage for the most part, escorting Larry Talbot into the modern world, making for a sometimes bumpy ride. (At one point she calls him “politically incorrect,” and not in a joking manner – what more proof do you need that this novel is a product of the 1990s?) First though they must escape the just-awoken Frankenstein Monster, who apparently was stuck in the ocean beneath the basement and dislodged by a jackhammer used when the assessor was breaking open this closed-off portion of the castle. The Monster comes after Talbot, still acting on Dracula’s orders from the climax of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – Dracula had been in the attempt of making the Monster his faithful servant in that film.

The Tombs is destroyed in the process, burning down in a fire started as Talbot and Caroline escape the Monster – so much for those 30 pages devoted to assessing the place! This not-very-exciting sequence culminates with the Monster once again knocked into the ocean, and then Talbot and Caroline call the local cops, where Talbot once again explains his background, making the third time in a row in less than a hundred pages. Now Caroline is determined to use modern medical science to “cure” Talbot of his condition, which she’s certain is at least partly psychological. Yes, friends, we are once again in a horror story in which the protagonists are unwilling to believe that they’re in a horror story.

Things finally improve with the introduction of Dracula, almost always referred to as “Count Dracula” in the narrative and dialog, likely due to that being the name Universal has trademarked. Since 1948 Dracula’s lived on Marya Island, which we’re told is “midway between Key West and Havana.” He runs a plantation in “the jungle-thick footholds of Mount Hood,” where eleven zombiefied locals serve as his henchmen. Yes, this is all yet another in-joke/reference, all of it taken from Bela Lugosi’s 1932 film White Zombie; Lugosi’s character is even referenced in the text, and we’re informed that Dracula, when he came to the island, killed him and took over the place.

Dracula still wants the Monster to be his servant, to help guard him against those who seek to destroy him, such as the Wolf Man. When Dracula learns through supernatural means that the Monster has reawoken, he activates a sort of “sleeper agent:” none other than Dr. Sandra Mornay, who we learn was in fact turned into a vampire at the climax of Meet Frankenstein. Rovin really captures the eerie vibe as Mornay comes back to life, which climaxes with a fun sequence of her bringing down a Medevac chopper that’s carrying off the Monster, the paramedics unwittingly trying to revive the unliving creature. But talk about lots of buildup with no payoff…Mornay’s killed off like a few pages later, when the Wolf Man breaks free of his jail cell.

This is another sequence that plays off more on dialog than action (there’s a lot of dialog in the novel, most of it of expository nature), as Talbot turns into the Wolf Man in front of a few witnesses, Caroline among them, and then Dracula gets himself invited into the jail, where he taunts the werewolf with death from a silver sword. Instead they engage in close-quarters combat, with Dracula escaping with a mind-controlled Caroline (thankfully, she shuts up at last) and the Wolf Man running amok. This leads to another fight, down on the La Mirada docks, with the Wolf Man tossing Dr. Mornay onto an errant hunk of wood that serves as a makeshift stake.

I haven’t mentioned yet the violence/gore factor (as for the sex factor, forget about it – there was more sex in the actual ‘30s and ‘40s films, believe it or not!). While Return Of The Wolf Man is indeed violent, the impact is minimized, because for whatever reason Rovin describes the gore with clinical or medical terms, as if instead of just writing “Dracula ripped the man’s guts out” he chose to consult a copy of Gray’s Anatomy:

Dracula looked at him. He didn’t answer. Instead, the vampire reached his right arm across his own waist and sunk it into the folds of his cloak. A moment later he withdrew his ancient smallsword and slashed backward, cutting the officer’s subclavian artery and up through the trachea and esophagus. Clyde fell to the floor, clutching under his chin and gurgling as blood cascaded from the wide, gaping wound.

It all builds to a slow-burn climax in which a now-human Talbot (after again explaining his backstory to disbelieving cops) teams up with yet another lawyer, this one a ponytailed dude named Tom Stevenson. (Rovin peppers the novel with a host of “in-jokes” with characters named after horror movie actors and characters – Billy Bevan, Dr. Wedergast, Trooper Matt Willis…even Ludwig and his little daughter Marilyn…and yeah, it gets very distracting and very annoying very fast.) Together they fly on over to Marya Island to save Caroline and to finally destroy Dracula and the Monster.

It isn’t a big climax by any means; Talbot openly declares himself to Andre, Dracula’s main zombie henchman, and thus he and Stevenson are escorted onto the vampire’s estate shortly before nightfall. They just sort of roam around, finding the unconscious form of the Monster; there’s a goofy part where Talbot tries to revive the creature using Stevenson’s cell phone, as Talbot has heard that these strange devices emit power. (Later Stevenson revives the Monster, using an old piece of machinery called a “Strickfadden,” yet another tiresome in-joke in a novel too filled with them.)

So how does it all wrap up? Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers. Basically it escalates into an oldschool monster rally, and thanfully Rovin, unlike those old Universal screenwriters, actually has his monsters fight each other. First the Monster turns against Dracula, only to be torn apart by Dracula’s loyal wolves – an ignoble end for the Monster indeed. Then the Wolf Man and Dracula go after each other, with the Wolf Man scoring 2 for 2 when he hurls Dracula and once again inadvertently stakes a vampire on an errant stick of wood. Then the Wolf Man goes after a now-sane Caroline (Stevenson meanwhile having been killed by Andre the zombie, who is later killed by the Wolf Man), and she beats him to death with a silver candalarbum, Talbot speaking through the werewolf’s mouth as he dies, thanking her.

And that’s that; Caroline returns to the now-rebuilt Tombs and decides to live there. Rovin ends the tale so that the novel is self-contained, but drops enough hints for a sequel. Thankfully it appears that David Jacobs did not bring Caroline Cooke back for the next volume, however he did pick up the major development Rovin ends on – namely, that the grandson of the Werewolf of London has just discovered the existence of the Bride of Frankenstein and is now determined to find her and bring her back to life.

So, while I definitely appreciate Rovin’s enthusiasm for the Universal films and characters, I just felt that Return of the Wolf Man was a missed opportunity, filled with unlikable characters who blathered at each other in the baldest of exposition. Worse yet, not much happened, and when it did happen it got repetitive fast – it seemed like the Wolf Man and Dracula got in a fight every other page, and as mentioned above, the fights were always the same. (Not to mention that both vampires in the tale met their ends exactly the same way!)

Strangely enough, Rovin’s novel is beloved by most monster kids, whereas Jacobs’s two volumes are for the most part derided. I have a feeling though I might prefer his books – after all, Jacobs is the guy who was able to salvage the loathsome Tracker series!

*The Universal horror movies are notoriously vague when it comes to when the stories take place, and continuity is not a strong suit – just try to explain why Dracula and the Wolf Man are around in House Of Dracula, given how House Of Frankenstein ended. Universal clearly didn’t care to explain it!

Here is the “order” I came up with to view the films, an order not based on date of release but on when I think each movie takes place. I followed this order for my most recent viewing of the movies, and it actually worked out pretty well:

1. Frankenstein
2. Bride Of Frankenstein
3. Dracula
4. Dracula’s Daughter
5. Son Of Frankenstein
6. The Wolf Man
7. Ghost Of Frankenstein
8. Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man
9. Son Of Dracula
10. House Of Frankenstein
11. House Of Dracula
12. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein


Grant said...

Good book or not, I can't help automatically liking the idea of a sequel where Larry Talbot and Dr. Mornay both survive. Those are about my only two problems with A & C MEET FRANKENSTEIN - You hate seeing "poor Larry" get killed once again (especially after the HOUSE OF DRACULA ending), and you want (or at least, I want) something a little less violent for Dr. Mornay.

AndyDecker said...

You lost me after Abott & Costello. I really loathe those movies, and I can't imagine why anybody should want to read a sequel to that.

At first I thought you mean the Dark Horse Universal novels from 2006/7, where they did basically new stories with the Monsters, sometimes rather far out. Especially the Bride of Frankenstein by Elizabeth Hand was a weird read. How many of those Universal series are out there?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Andy, I hear you on A&C. The only way to watch that movie is to skip through all the parts with those two. Otherwise the monsters are in fine form throughout; the Frankenstein Monster for example is featured more in A&C than he was in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula combined. Another plus for the movie is that Larry Talbot is transformed from a "I just want to die" moper into a sort of unhinged vampire hunter.

It's interesting -- if you read old monster mags, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is derided. These days it's given a lot more respect. That being said I much prefer the straight Universal horror movies. I guess Rovin chose to continue on from that movie because it really was the finale of the old Universal franchise.

I read Elizabeth Hand's Bride novel a couple years ago. An interesting feminization of the Universal horror mythos for sure, but I'd actually say I preferred Rovin's book. In fact those '07 Universal novels were all pretty unique in that the majority of them had nothing to do with their source films and in fact seemed to have been written by people who had never even seen the movies!