Monday, October 31, 2016

The Devil's Brood (Universal Monsters Trilogy #2)

The Devil's Brood, by David Jacobs
June, 2000  Berkley Boulevard

Two years after Jeff Rovin* published Return Of The Wolf Man, the Universal Monsters trilogy continued with this sequel courtesy David Jacobs, which takes its title from the original script treatment that eventually became the 1944 film House Of Frankenstein. Providing perfect Halloween reading, Jacobs accomplishes in The Devil’s Brood what Rovin did not – be drags the Universal monsters kicking, screaming, and clawing into modern pulp horror, with all the mandatory gore and sadism one could want.

Not that I hated Rovin’s novel; I just didn’t enjoy it. It was a little too hamstrung by Rovin’s clear enthusiasm for the monsters, and also by his fan fictionish penchant for chasing various “who cares?” leads from old Universal movies. I mean when you have pages and pages devoted to what happened to the characters Abbott and Costello played, you know you’re in trouble…not to mention that 30 or so-page sequence devoted to the inspection of the haunted castle the novel’s irritating heroine inherited.

Speaking of that irritating heroine, Jacobs must’ve disliked her, too, as she’s gone without a trace in The Devil’s Brood, and so much the better. In fact, none of the characters from Return Of The Wolf Man are here! I’ve seen reviews from fans who raved about Rovin’s novel complaining that in this sequel Jacobs only delivered “second stringer” Universal monsters. This is ironic, given that Rovin killed off all the main monsters in his novel!!

So Jacobs, showing true creativity, goes for the less famous Universal monsters, and to tell the truth that’s fine with me. To be noted, though, the (amateurish) cover art is very misleading: the Mummy does not appear in this novel, sad to say, and neither does the Wolf Man. The Frankenstein Monster eventually shows up, and as for Dracula…Jacobs does some truly novel things with the character, turning him into a sort-of vampiric Blob! Otherwise, the monsters in The Devil’s Brood are Dracula’s Daughter, The Bride of Frankenstein (who spends the entire novel comatose), and the grandson of the Werewolf of London, not to mention a ton of zombies from the non-Universal picture White Zombie. There are also tie-ins to ‘30s Universal horror films like The Invisible Ray and The Black Cat, but never once does it come off like the connect-the-unrelated-dots fan fiction of Rovin’s novel.

Dracula’s Daughter is for the most part the protagonist of the novel, while at the same time serving as the main villain. Jacobs’s version of the character is a bit more evil than the character in the understated ’36 film, not to mention described as being sexier (though she does retain her preference for female victims, as in the film). She’s also much more comfortable with her vampire nature and indeed is looking to assert herself as the queen of the underworld, now that daddy Dracula is dead – the novel opens with this crazy Satanic rite where Dracula’s Daughter, aka Countess Marya Zaleka, leads her coven of cultists in an art deco chamber somewhere in Eastern Europe, where they channel the blood of sacrificed virgins into an orb that turns into a veritable supernatural television. Here Jacobs relays the climactic moments of Rovin’s novel, and Marya learns that Dracula is dead. 

This stellar sequence is just the first instance where Jacobs capably captures a horror vibe, with the red glow of the orb, the deep black shadows of the chamber, and even with Marya pulling on a robe and hood like in the famous expressionist sequence in Dracula’s Daughter where she attempted to cast off the spirit of Dracula. It also proves posthaste that this isn’t Rovin’s book, which was married a little too faithfully to those Universal classics. Marya here is openly Satanic, her followers are too, and theirs is a nightmarish world of blood and death.

As this is occurring on the same day that Return of the Wolf Man ended, Jacobs jumps over to Isla Morgana, the Caribbean isle upon which White Zombie took place and, per Rovin’s novel, was eventually taken over by Dracula (another of Rovin’s incessant in-jokes, Bela Lugosi having played both Dracula and Baron Latos, ie the villain of White Zombie). Here Jacobs delivers a regular zombie massacre, with hordes of the creatures, freed from their bondage to “Baron Latos” now that Dracula is dead, setting upon their tormentors. It’s very much in the EC Comics mode with the zombies getting revenge on the sadists who tortured, raped, and/or killed them – Baron Latos’s men, we learn, also ran a lucrative sex-slave trade, turning some of their female victims into zombies when they were done with them.

Jacobs also quickly proves he won’t be bound by tradition. This is nowhere more evident than in what he does with Dracula, who as we’ll recall was staked by the Wolf Man at the end of Rovin’s novel. He’s dead for sure when The Devil’s Brood opens, but a “hate cloud” of the vampire lord’s spirit remains behind. Retaining its vampiric tendencies, the cloud eats the green blood of the Frankenstein Monster’s corpse (which itself was gutted by wolves in Rovin’s novel), becoming a “blood-slug.” Jacobs captures an Aurora model feel here (and throughout the book, really), going on about the greenish luminescence of the creature, which to my mind brought forth images of glow-in-the-dark toys and models.

The blood-slug, which Jacobs dubs “Drakon” (Jacobs by the way has a sometimes-annoying tendency to lecture the reader via an omniscient narrative tone), is the Blob-like entity mentioned above. Sounding truly gross, it slithers across Isla Morgana, seeking out human prey – and it ingests humans directly into its luminescent, translucent skin, so witnesses can see the bodies quickly digesting within; Drakon sheds the slimy bones and undigestable innards, and it’s growing larger and larger with each human it eats.

In the other novels I’ve read by Jacobs, he generally proves himself more of a “dialog and characters” writer and not so much a “plot” writer. Which is to say, the books of his I’ve read have started off promising but quickly derailed with new character after new character popping up out of the woodwork and clouding the overall story. This doesn’t happen quite so much in The Devil’s Brood, proving that Jacobs became a more skilled craftsman in time. However, that isn’t to say a reader new to Jacobs’s work might not get a little annoyed with the seeming lack of a main character, particularly given the almost-endless tide of one-off characters in the opening half who become zombie or Drakon victims. But compared to the other Jacobs books I’ve read, this one is downright streamlined.

With the presence of Steve Soto, an American underworld type on Isla Morgana on “business,” the reader thinks he has finally come upon the protagonist. But Soto will come and go in the narrative. I was fine with this, as he seems to have stepped out of a ‘30s Warner Bros. crime movie, and he gets to be annoying; despite the movie occurring in the “present day” of the time of publication, Soto talks like it’s 1939. He’s apparently a Mafia bigwig, though still young, and has a torpedo and an underling with him. He happens to be in Isla Morga when the zombies begin attacking; during this Soto befriends Basil Lodge, an old lush with arcane knowledge, and Dorian, Lodge’s hotstuff young niece with “high breasts.”

The two main plots gradually coalasce as we learn that both Marya and Basil Lodge are seeking the Frankenstein Monster, which is now anyone’s for the taking given that Dracula is dead. Lodge hires Soto to serve as a strongarm on a looting expedition to the ruined plantation which was owned by “Baron Latos,” while meanwhile Marya astrally connects with Wilford Glendon III, the grandson of the Werewolf of London. Another character who could lay claim to the “main protagonist” tag, Glendon is a wealthy London-based professor who has a way with women (his intro opens with a good-looking babe in his bed, though the novel has no sex scenes). He doesn’t realize that he has inherited his grandfather’s curse of lycanthropy.

Jacobs indulges in his own bit of Wold Newtonism by linking Werewolf of London with The Invisible Ray, The Black Cat, and even The Bride of Frankenstein. Glendon’s grandfather, the hero of Werewolf of London, was colleagues with Bela’s and Boris’s characters from the first two films, and Dr. Petronius from the third film; Marya has learned by strange means (namely, slicing off the head of a dying mad scientist servant and then bringing the brain to life via dark magic!) that the Bride can only be resuscitated via the “moon-ray,” ie artificial moonlight.

Glendon’s grandfather created a device which replicated moonlight, the Moon-Ray Projector, something which we’re informed Dr. Petronius employed when he helped Henry Frankenstein create the Bride. This is why no one has ever been able to bring the Bride back to life – and who those other would-be Bride revivers were, Jacobs doesn’t elaborate. At any rate the Bride, despite being blown up at the end of her film, is whole in one piece, and spends the majority of the narrative lying asleep in a glass coffin in Marya’s massive headquarters – Jacobs again delivering on the lurid horror with the tidbit that the Bride is fully nude, her otherwise-lovely body horrifically scarred from its patchwork construction.

Marya’s goal is to use the Bride and the Monster to propagate a new super-slave species or somesuch, so first she needs to awaken the Bride, and for that she needs Glendon. By visiting him in his dreams, she subconsciously prompts Glendon to travel to Visaria, the fictional Bavarian country in which the Frankenstein movies took place. Glendon as mentioned doesn’t know he’s a werewolf – there are times throughout where he changes, and Jacobs skillfully writes the scenes from Glendon’s perspective, with him chasing after people (even killing some would-be robbers in one memorable sequence) and not realizing anything strange is going on…and then not remembering anything when he wakes up the next day.

In the final quarter Basil Lodge raids the Baron Latos plantation, taking along Soto, his underlings, and some dirty Isla Morgana cops, as well as Dorian and a mother-son pair of “witches.” (Oh and meanwhile Soto’s scored with Dorian, but Jacobs keeps it all off page, dammit.) This sequence features Dracula’s three undead brides (like Dracula’s daughter, given sexier makeovers in this modern novel, down to the detail that they wear lingerie!), his wolves, and his bats, not to mention more of those damn zombies. Jacobs gets wild again with Lodge using black magic to resuscitate the Frankenstein Monster – his goal by the way is to make the Monster a zombie! – capped off with the memorable image of Lodge shoving a still-beating human heart into the Monster’s mouth.

In fact, there’s a lot of good horror stuff throughout. The zombie massacre in the opening is so “EC Comics” it could’ve been illustrated by Johnny Craig or Graham Engel. There’s a nice part where Marya and her mad scientists try to bring the Bride back to life while a supernatural thunderstorm rages, and Marya’s salvaging of one underling’s brain – turning him into a sort of oracular severed head – is very cool. Throughout Jacobs does his best to capture the Universal feel, greatly setting up each and every scene, as if this were the novelization of a real film (if only!). That being said, some of it can be overdescription at times, with Jacobs occasionally being guilty of dragging scenes on past the breaking point.

Jacobs takes unexpected directions with the final quarter. For one, the fate of Steve Soto, which isn’t anything like I expected. Skip the paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers. Anyway, during the raid on the plantation, Soto is killed – shot several times by his own lieutenant, who lusts for Soto’s power in the Mafia. But Soto somehow keeps walking and talking, despite being dead. Turns out Lodge’s spell affected him, as well, bringing life not only to the Monster but Soto. He helps Dorian escape; no idea if she appears in the sequel. However I have a feeling that’ll be it for Soto.

In the final several pages we get a return of Dracula – Drakon it turns out wasn’t just a Blob riff, it was also a Mothra riff, as the “blood-slug” has secreted itself into one of Dracula’s hidden coffins, beneath his castle on Isla Morgana…and that very night the coffin bursts open and Dracula comes out, “more powerful than ever.” Jacobs again demonstrates how his monsters are more cruel than the versions in the original films, with Dracula, in giant bat form, spending the entire night feasting on humans, killing scores of them, usually for no other reason than the sport of it.

Jacobs pays tribute to the climax of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, with Dracula running into the reborn Monster, which has now broken free of Dracula’s decades-long mental control. The Monster by the way is apparently possessed by demons now, or something, Lodge having broken the “magic circle” that surrounded the Monster during the rite, thus resulting in a blood-crazy, demonic Monster, one who even rips off human heads (including the spinal columns!). It’s a brief fight between the two main Universal monsters, ending with them both buried in the rubble of Dracula’s collapsing castle, but there of course will be little surprise when they each return next volume.

Marya again proves herself as the main character in the finale, chaining the captured Glendon to several corpses and performing yet another black magic rite. She summons the ghost of Glendon the first, ie the original Werwolf of London, and badgers him into providing the secret to his Moon-Ray Projector, which Marya needs to reawaken the Bride, and thus “spawn a race of super-slaves.” And here The Devil’s Brood ends, with Glendon III the unwilling colleague of Marya, and a reborn Dracula over on Isla Morgana looking to reclaim his title of Lord of the Underworld.

As yet another too-long review will attest, I really enjoyed The Devil’s Brood, and I eagerly look forward to reading Jacobs’s sequel, The Devil’s Night, which was published a few months later and wrapped up the trilogy.

*Imagine my surprise when, shortly after I finished reading this novel, Jeff Rovin himself popped up in the news, as yet another footnote in the crazed story that is the 2016 Presidential Election; turns out Jeff Rovin claims he worked as a media “fixer” for Bill and Hillary Clinton!  I haven't read too much about this story (and admittedly it’s only the right-aligned news outlets that have even reported on it, which in itself isn’t surprising), but still I thought it was a crazy little bit of synchronicity.

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