Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Late Great Creature

The Late Great Creature, by Brock Brower
No month stated, 1971 Popular Library

Every few years I get on a classic horror movie kick; last time I was on one I discovered and picked up this obscure novel, but never got around to reading it. Published right as the horror boom of the '70s was taking off, The Late Great Creature is all about the fictional Simon Moro, legendary '30s and '40s horror actor who is making his comeback in 1968.

Moro is an amalgam of Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Sr. I've read that Brower did a lengthy Esquire piece on Lorre in the early '60s, interviewing the man before his death; word is The Late Great Creature approaches the "true" life story of Peter Lorre from a novelistic perspective. For one, Moro has built up a "thing" in his movies for killing little girls, and first came to fame in his native Germany for a film where he played a murderer of them -- for Lorre in the real world this was M. For Moro in the world of fiction it was a film titled Zeppelin.

But where Lorre was able to get the occasional "normal" role in mainstream movies (ie Casablanca), Moro was stuck in the slums of horror. This is where the Chaney comparisons set in, as Moro really gets off on scaring people. He's a weird, freakish, sadistic little man who can contort his body into unnatural positions, can use his feet in place of his hands just like Chaney in The Unknown, and enjoys playing macabre pranks on victims. He looks to his comeback film The Raven -- ostensibly starring a foppish Vincent Price analogue -- as a chance to jolt the supposedly-"jaded" sensibilities of '60s America.

The best parts of the novel are the unfortunately-sparse references back to Moro's '30s and '40s heyday. His most notorious film is the 1937 Ghoulgantua, directed by Todd Browning (!), in which Moro played a sort of Frankenstein mixed with Nosferatu. A film long supressed but now available uncut, the movie is so shocking as to shake up a "hip" '60s audience. My only issue with this is no Hollywood studio in the real world of 1937 would've produced a film like Ghoulgantua. Joseph Breen and his Nazis in the Hays Office would've killed it before it got past the script stage. Even better is mention of Moro's schlocky Moth Man film, in which he played the title character and was killed by "a sort of Spider Lady (Fay Wray)." How sad it is we live in a world in which there's no film where Fay Wray played a Spider Lady.

It's also sad that these fictional digs into Hollywood's Golden Age are so few in The Late Great Creature. Instead, the majority of the novel is given over to tiresome battles of wits between Moro and Warner Williams, an Esquire writer who unfortunately is our main narrator -- not to mention an analogue of Brock Brower himself (note the alliteration). In fact I'm certain this novel would've been a lot better if it had just taken place squarely in the '30s and '40s -- better yet, Brower could've appropriated an "oral biography" approach just like James Robert Baker did in his superior Boy Wonder.

For the main problem with The Late Great Creature is the writing. It is wholly a part of its age, Literature with a capital "L." So much so in fact that it veers right into Pretension, capital "P." This is a novel that goes on and on about incidental shit -- for example, early on we are "treated" to an endless bit where Williams visits a quack psychologist who once knew Moro, and we see him pull his "schtick" on a pair of patients in front of a crowd -- but yet when it comes to the important plot developments, Brower gets vague.

The novel freefalls in the last third, in which Brower drops Williams as his main narrator -- the novel so far, by the way, has been the unedited notes Williams has kept on his Esquire piece -- and hopscotches between a PR man, Williams, the Vincent Price analogue, and even Moro himself. The only problem is, all these characters sound the same, which results in reader confusion. The novel culminates in Moro's last stab at decency and morals -- previously we've seen him "shock" the cast of The Raven by sneaking a skeleton into his screen coffin and mimicking sex with it -- but again the scene is neutered by the "Literary" approach and diffused by the hopscotching between narrators.

So, not the most enjoyable novel I've read, horror or otherwise. I think the idea presented is interesting enough, and I'm certain it would've benefitted from a different approach. It would appear the reading public at large agreed, as the novel, while regaled by critics, didn't make much of a dent in the public conscious, and Brower himself didn't publish another one until 2005. Also, I've just learned that Overlook Press will be reprinting The Late Great Creature in September 2011.


OlmanFeelyus said...

Imagine the poor, gullible 60s nerd who picked this book up thinking they were going to get some awesome story about a hot naked chick who flies around on her man-bat and instead get what sounds more like a wankfest.

Unknown said...

I bought this one in hardcover way back when. I wasn't as disappointed as you were, but I was sure hoping for something better.

revelshade said...

I remember enjoying this one. In fact I found it fascinating, maybe because to a boy who grew up in 80s Arkansas the doings of the literati in 70s NYC were just as exotic as Moro's old Hollywood career and European origins. But looking back now all I remember clearly is the very convincing and evocative (I thought) descriptions of his old movies. And his final trick of course.

Will Errickson said...

I have this book but haven't read it. I first heard of it reading Dan Wakefield's memoir NEW YORK IN THE '50s. He was friends with Brower. I am not surprised this book's failing is that it tries to be Literature. All those guys at that time were trying to be the next Fitzgerald or Hemingway. Tiresome, really.

Zwolf said...

Great cover. Too bad the book doesn't measure up. Always happy to be exposed to obscure stuff, in any case. :)

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. Would've replied sooner but was on vacation last week.

Olman -- "a hot naked chick who rides around on her man-bat"....I want to read that story!

Will -- I've actually been reading through your blog quite often during my recent horror phase. Love the title of your blog, btw; I'll never hear "Horror Business" (or "Horror Biz," for that matter) the same way again. I used to have a few of Wakefield's novels but haven't heard of his memoir.