Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Devil’s Night (Universal Monsters Trilogy #3)


The Devil’s Night, by David Jacobs
 
February, 2001 Berkley Boulevard 

I’ve meant to read this concluding volume of the Universal Monsters trilogy for a few years now; I read the second volume for Halloween in 2016, and meant to get to this one sooner. But I haven’t really been on a horror kick in a while, so I just never got around to it. Anyway I kind of wish I’d gotten to The Devil’s Night sooner, as David Jacobs picks up events immediately after the conclusion of the previous book; despite the title, for the most part The Devil’s Night takes place the day after The Devil’s Brood, and someone new to the trilogy would have a hard time figuring out what’s going on. 

But while everything takes place immediately after the events of the previous volume, there have been some curious changes to both the personalities of the characters as well as to the narrative style itself. While for the most part we have new characters this time, the returning ones seem to have completely changed, like for example Dorian, the medium/witch who served black magician Uncle Basil in The Devil’s Brood. Dorian started a relationship with Mafia bigwig Steve Soto in that book, but in this volume she’s pretty much a cold fish, bitter and angry. She says she hated Basil, also drops the implication that he’d been molesting her since he took her on as his assistant (when she was 12!), and further says she has absolutely no feelings for Soto – who’s dead, anyway. But folks mark your calendars, because I was actually wrong last time; I figured Soto wouldn’t return to the series, but “zombie Soto” is indeed in this book…bearing none of the personality of his previous self. While he can think, talk, fight, and even make lame one-liners, he lacks any emotion or personality. 

Stranger still is the curious change to the narrative style itself. While The Devil’s Brood did an admirable job of capturing the vibe of classic horror movies with a bit of a Fangoria overlay, for the most part playing things straight, this time there’s a sardonic tone to Jacobs’s narrative. Characters often make lame jokes or comments about the nightmarish situations they’re in, which jibes with the otherwise-horrific vibe Jacobs tries to create. Even worse is that the narrative itself pokes fun at things – at one point Visaria, the fictional Eastern European fiefdom which is ruled by Dracula’s daughter, Countess Marya Zaleka, is referred to as “a Monaco for monsters,” given how so many of them congregate there. And whereas last time Jacobs correctly referred to Frankenstein’s monster as “the Monster,” this time for some unfathomable reason he keeps incorrectly referring to him as “Frankenstein.” You would think that an editor would’ve at least caught that. I mean that’s just basic Universal Monster knowledge – the creator was named Frankenstein, not the monster. It’s fine for the characters to make this mistake, but not the author. 

Otherwise Jacobs loses that “Aurora model” vibe from the previous book, with its glow-in-the-dark Dracula Blob and assorted zombies, and goes for more of an action-horror hybrid; the novel is for the most part padded out with overlong action scenes that ultimately go nowhere or overlong sequences of new characters trying to find the monsters. At the very least I’m happy that, unlike Jeff Rovin’s overly fan-fictionish Return Of The Wolf Man, all the characters here are aware that monsters exist and etc; I mean there’s no point where some dim-witted disbeliever has to learn the hard way that Dracula, the Monster, werewolves, and other assorted creatures actually exist. The “heroes” for the most part are all members of Marya’s Satanic coven, which is run out of Visaria, and they’ve come to Isla Morgana – the fictional Caribbean island from White Zombie which has featured in the trilogy from the beginning – to collect Dracula and the Monster and take them back to Visaria. 

Now Jacobs was a contract author, and as we know he had his hand in some men’s adventure series, like Tracker and Psycho Squad. Given this he was able to meet a deadline quickly for the publisher – and also given this it means he would often result to inordinate padding to fill up the word quota and meet the deadline. While The Devil’s Brood seemed like a well-thought-out novel, The Devil’s Night seems downright rushed. I mean consider this: the previous book ended with Marya capturing Winfred Glendon the Third, the grandson of the original Werewolf of London, whose ghost Marya conjured in a Satanic ritual. The ghost told Marya the secret of the Moon-Ray technology, a clever creation of Jacobs’s which tied together The Werewolf of London and The Bride Of Frankenstein; the ghost of Glendon the First revealed that it was the Moon-Ray which Frankenstein and Dr. Petronius used to bring the Bride to life, which is why all other succeeding attempts to revive her have failed. Now with the secret in her posession, Marya was poised to awaken the Bride from her century-long slumber and use her in some unspecified means of “propagating a new race” or somesuch. 

So that’s how The Devil’s Brood ended. Promises some cool shit, doesn’t it? Well get this. Jacobs ignores all of it until page 229 of this book…which only runs 252 pages! The vast majority of The Devil’s Night is composed of padded-out action scenes or lame “sarcastic” exchanges among the cult members as they try to collect the various creatures and take them back to Visaria. Even more damning is that the Bride is finally woken at the end of this book…but Jacobs blows the opportunity in a major way. In fact, and not to spoil things too soon, he pretty much rewrites the finale of The Bride of Frankenstein, with a lovestruck Monster chasing the Bride around a dungeon and the Bride shrieking at him. I mean Jacobs could’ve done something with the Bride, actually brought her to life (not just reviving her), as Elizabeth Hand did in her own Universal-approved sequel. But it’s as if Jacobs is only good at assembling all his various pieces and doesn’t know what exactly to do with them once they’re together. 

At any rate, Marya is the force that brings all this together, and Jacobs should’ve spent more narrative time with her. The majority of this book takes place the very day after the previous one, most of it occuring just a few hours later – and indeed the entire novel takes place over the course of this single day. Despite having the knowledge of how to revive the Bride, Marya basically rests during the day – after putting the captured Glendon the Third through a few tests. This being the last night of a full moon, she wants to test out his werewolf powers or something. Like all the other characters, Marya has nothing in common with her filmic ancestor: this Marya is a sleek beauty with some sadistic tendencies. Whereas the Marya of Dracula’s Daughter struggled with her vampiric condition, this one revels in it. She’s also presented as a much more, shall we say, hot babe, given to waltzing around her domain in “knee-length red-leather high-heeled boots.” She enjoys taunting the captured Glendon the Third with how he will become her loyal servant; curiously Glendon shows nothing but revulsion for the hot vampire queen, whereas I’d at least try to hit on her a little if I were in his position. I mean when it comes to hot evil babes, vampire chicks are at the top of the heap. The one thing I wanted from this trilogy was monsters having sex with each other, but dammit it’s the one thing we don’t get! 

This opening sequence gives us a taste of what we’re in for: an overlong action scene that doesn’t go anywhere, and ultimately comes off as pointless. Marya, instead of reviving the Bride immediately, instead taunts Glendon a bit, then has her various scientist underlings test him as he turns into a werewolf. Then she sets him loose on a captive local babe. But a big difference between Glendon’s “werewolf” and Larry Talbot’s “wolfman” is that Glendon is a thinking creature, not just a blood-driven beast. Jacobs again capably relays this from Glendon’s point of view; he thinks of himself as “Glendon,” remembers things from his human life and retains all his human knowledge – it’s just that he is no longer burdened with Glendon’s moral fiber and thus can kill whatever he wants and eat whatever he wants (the monsters are very fond of eating people, this time around). He’s able to escape, after mauling a few of Marya’s kevlar-suited guards; he even captures Marya herself, using her as a shield, but she turns herself into a giant bat-woman and flies away. Jacobs continues to make novel refinements to the Universal monsters; Glendon is also capable of shape-shifting, elongating his forearm to escape a pair of manacles. 

But here’s the thing – Glendon escapes, and the last we see of him he’s set fire to an orphanage to cause a distraction. However, the next time we see him…it’s the next morning, he’s back in human form, and he’s once again a captive of Marya. It’s like that throughout The Devil’s Night: elongated sequences that bear little impact on events. This sequence alone goes on for like 50 pages, with absolutely no plot-relevant outcome. Instead of doing something with all his assembled monsters – I mean for once in the trilogy, Jacobs has Dracula, the Monster, the Bride, Dracula’s Daughter, and a friggin’ werewolf, all together in the same location at the same time – our author doesn’t even deliver on the promise until like the last couple pages. And blows the opportunity once again when he does. It’s maddening in a way. Though still not as maddening as Rovin’s tiresome first installment, which wasted pages on incidental stuff, like about what happened to the characters Abbott and Costello played. 

Meanwhile on Isla Morgana it’s the morning after the zombie massacre which climaxed The Devil’s Brood. Jacobs here introduces a group of new characters who will take up the brunt of the narrative, all of them members of Marya’s cult: Jax Breen, foppish but merciless leader of the group; Julia Evans, “full-bodied Amazon” who serves as the muscle; and Kearney, “skull-faced” sadist whose most memorable moment has him happily gunning down some rioting natives with a .50 caliber machine gun. Breen gets the most narrative focus; his mission is to collect the “corpses” of the Monster and Dracula and transport them immediately to Visaria – indeed, to get them there that very night. That Jacobs chooses to focus more on these characters than Marya or Glendon – not to mention Dracula or the Monster – tells you all you need to know about his narrative approach to the trilogy. But still I say again: I enjoyed both his novels more than Rovin’s. 

The initial portion of this has Breen et al gunning down the restless natives, who understandably are a little freaked given the zombies, giant vampire bat, and giant monster that ran roughshod over the populace the night before. Julie blows away a few of the rioters, and as mentioned Kearney guns down more, but it’s all just so pointless given the denoument of the previous book: readers don’t want this, they want the revived Bride that was promised at the climax of the previous book, not to mention all the assembled Universal Monsters. But we get lots of stuff with Breen plotting with Obregon, leader of Isla Morgana’s “paramilitary” police force, as they get down beneath the ruins of Baron Latos’s castle to find the Monster and Dracula – as we’ll recall, the castle collapsed over the two at the climax of The Devil’s Brood. It takes quite a while to get there, though, but when it happens we have some memorable stuff, like Breen goading a local Christian into placing his cross on Dracula’s coffin to imprison him, and Breen’s men pouring noxious “plastigoo” onto the Monster, which forms into a huge block of plastic the creature can’t break out of. 

Dorian and Soto only feature a little in the narrative; Dorian just shows up, captured lurking around the grounds, and Breen sneers at her for Uncle Basil’s failure, previous volume, and says he’s now taking her back to Visaria for Marya to deal with. But as mentioned Dorian is a pale reflection of the character from the previous book. As is Soto, who only appears over a few pages. He’s a zombie, seems pretty unfazed about it, and while directionless initially he starts to feel pulled in various directions. This is because one of the characters is using him as an undead vassal, which is a pretty cool and subtly-developed subplot from Jacobs. Soto’s sudden penchant for one-liners only furthers the strange, sardonic tone of The Devil’s Night. Soto engages in a few battles, getting parts of him shot off, including one of his eyes; late in the book he commandeers a jeep from some horrified soldiers and tells them, “Zombie squad, official business.” That said, there’s a cool, gore-strong bit where Soto takes on Obregon’s military cops. 

I forgot to mention the part where the Monster is captured; before the “plastigoo” is dumped on him, the Monster is freed from beneath the collapsed castle and goes wild on Breen’s forces. As stated the monsters are particularly violent this time around, especially the Monster, who as we’ll recall is now fueled by black magic, courtesy Uncle Basil’s witchcraft last volume. In fact it’s hypothesized by Breen (the characters all spend most of their time talking about the monsters, by the way) that a demon might even posses the Monster. Well anyway this sequence, while good so far as the monster action goes, is another indication of the repetitive nature of the novel; the Monster raises hell, breaks free, escapes into Isla Morgana…then turns around and heads back for the castle…where he’s promptly captured by Breen’s men. Again, an overlong action bit that has no outcome on the plot – the Monster is still captured, regardless of the havoc. 

As for Dracula, he really gets narrative short shrift. After his Blob-to-Mothra transformation last time, wherein he regained his full vampire form at novel’s end (just in time for Latos’s castle to fall on him), he’s now in his coffin resting – and stays that way until page 209, when Jacobs finally returns to him. Throughout Dracula’s been stuck in the coffin, due to the cross Breen used to trap him there. Breen also devises outrageous means to subdue Dracula on the flight to Visaria: massive banks of high-power ultra-violet lights, which are so strong that humans break into a sweat mere seconds after stepping beneath them. But Breen is a moron, as he’s also placed the Monster, in his massive plastic square of a prison, in the same chamber…and the heat begins to melt the plastic. This leads to a suitably nightmarish scenario, as both Dracula and the Monster free themselves as the plane comes in for a landing in Visaria. Jacobs here proves how easily he’ll dispatch major characters, at least doling out memorable sendoffs: Dracula melts the cross with his own hand and shoves the molten metal down one character’s throat. 

And so now here they all are. Dracula and the Monster call off their battle as the plane lands; Dracula flies off as a bat and the Monster charges through the streets of Visaria after him. Meanwhile Marya is finally ready to bring the Bride to life. And here it all happens…like five pages before the book ends. Rather than reap any of the opportunities he has created for himself, Jacobs instead rushes through everything like a true contract writer with a deadline fast approaching. Dracula and his daughter meet and engage in casual conversation, despite this being the first time they’ve been together in the entire trilogy. But again, these characters bear little resemblance to their film counterparts; one could not see Bela Lugosi as this particular Dracula, who has none of Lugosi’s suave mannerisms. He’s a bloodlusting fiend, as is his daughter. Oh and by the way Glendon is here, the friggin Werewolf of London – but for some inexplicable reason Jacobs sets all this the night after the last full moon of the month, so he’s stuck in human form! 

The reviving of the Bride is pretty cool, but again seems lifted from The Bride of Frankenstein, save for the fact that the Bride is nude here. Plus we’re told in no uncertain terms she’s got a helluva body, though one that’s ruined by all those pesky surgical scars. But curiously the one thing these monsters lack is a libido; the Monster is about the only one who seems to want something more than just blood and death, and when he shows up on the scene he starts chasing the Bride around…again, all just like the ’35 film. But as a laughing Glendon – who’s a scientist, of course – relates, now that the Monster and the Bride share the same charge, they can’t attract, as only opposites extract. So as the Monster tries to touch the Bride, electricity shocks him. Dracula gets a good laugh out of this, making some of his own sarcastic comments, spoofing the situation – another indication of how no one takes anything seriously in the novel, which sort of ruins it for the reader. 

It gets worse. Spoiler alert for this paragraph. The Monster knocks the Moon-Ray device down, and it hits Glendon, who promptly turns into a werewolf. And folks, get this…it’s like a page and a half before the end of the book. So instead of having the giant monster fight we’d expect – I mean all the monsters are here, right now, in full force – Jacobs instead dispenses with everything in the most rushed manner possible. Werewolf Glendon hops over to the Moon-Ray device and starts shooting its beam across the dungeon, killing everyone. Dracula and Marya turn into bats to escape, but the ray hits them, turning them into “moon dust.” Soto even jumps into the ray to dispose of himself. As for the Monster and the Bride, Jacobs is so half-assed he doesn’t even mention what happens to them! Last we see of them the Monster’s chasing after her, and this is before Glendon gets hold of the Moon-Ray. The implication is that they all go up in the Moon-Ray…I mean all of them just disposed of in less than a full page. The end. Talk about one hell of an anticlimactic finale.  

In a way though, this rushed, piss-poor finale harkens back to those Universal classics, which also saved the monster fights for the final few minutes. But that’s no excuse for Jacobs to do the same thing! Just so much potential, squandered. Jacobs does try to incorporate a theme, baldly exposited in the final paragraph: that the monsters are really just reflections of the evil nature in the hearts of humans, only taken to ludicrous extremes. The theme comes off as lame, though, given that Jacobs has only presented human characters who are either warlocks, witches, Mafia thugs, or sadists. Even Glendon seems rather comfortable with his werewolf alter ego, which eats people. 

Regardless, this was it for the Universal Monsters Trilogy, and what a sad end it was. Actually, The Devil’s Brood and The Devil’s Night could’ve just been edited into one novel, making for a better read. So much of this one was padding, and it took way too long to pick up on the events that concluded the previous book. Again, Jacobs’s contract writer roots show strongly here. Perhaps the publisher should’ve just gone with yet another writer for this third book. Personally I would’ve done a sort of “Harold Robbins take on the Universal Monsters” thing, with coke-snorting, high-libido versions of Dracula, the Wolfman, and Dracula’s Daughter engaging in some Satanic depravity. Hell, maybe I’ll just write the book anyway.

1 comment:

Pork Chop Sandwich said...

If you haven't already, you should find a short story called "Last Call For the Sons of Shock" by David J Schow. It's a fun treatment of Universal's "Big Three". Sounds a lot better than this anyway.