Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Wolfman

The Wolfman, by Carl Dreadstone
August, 1977  Berkley Books

In the late ‘70s Berkley published a few novelizations of the Universal horror classics, all under the house name “Carl Dreadstone.” While I don’t think all the novels have been accounted for, it is known that this one was written by Ramsey Campbell, who also provides an intro under his own name. But to address the pink elephant in the room straightaway, the title is incorrect: the movie was actually titled “The Wolf Man,” ie two words. It’s incorrectly “The Wolfman” throughout this Berkley paperback, even in Campbell’s intro. I was of course outraged. 

Otherwise, Ramsey Campbell takes a story that encompassed slightly over an hour of screentime and turns it into an epic tragedy; in some ways his novel, more introspective, dark, and violent than the 1941 film it is based on, seems to have more in common with the 2010 Benecio Del Toro remake, which by the way was also titled “The Wolfman.” Curiously, in his intro Campbell enthuses over the acting of Lon Chaney Jr. in the film, and the way Chaney brought to life the plight of his doomed character, Larry Talbot, destined to become the Wolf Man. Chaney makes his Talbot an affable, good-natured lug; there is a lot of smiling in The Wolf Man. There is not much smiling in Campbell’s novelization. 

Instead of the affable lug of Chaney’s portrayal, the Larry Talbot of this novel is already a wolf before he even gets bitten. He is a driven, angry man, quick to lash out and quick to prove himself – even when the challenge only exists in his mind. It was not much fun spending 212 pages with this Larry Talbot. He is very much in the vein of the average Manning Lee Stokes protagonist, only even more aggressively macho. His background is similar to his film counterpart: born to wealth in Wales, but leaving home for America at some point and now returning, in his early 30s, due to the sudden death of his brother. There are some additions to this in Campbell’s novel: Talbot’s brother was his twin, and Talbot left home at 16 due to a fight. 

This Larry Talbot lacks however all of the affable nature that Chaney brought to the role. In his intro Campbell states that the novel makes use of material that was in Curt Siodmak’s original script but didn’t make it to film. One wonders if Siodmak’s version of Larry Talbot was this much of a prick. If so, the producers made a wise choice in making him more likable. Thus, the Larry of the film – and you can’t help but think of Chaney’s character as “Larry” and not “Talbot” – is more of a tragic hero, and one feels sorry for him when his life is thrown into chaos. But the “Talbot” of this novelization already has the nature of a wolf from the start. It isn’t so much a tragedy as it is inevitable that he will come to a bad end. 

This was to me the greatest difference betwween Campbell’s novelization and the film. The story follows mostly the same beats, only with the added resonance of a novel, with more characterization and more introspection. I don’t believe I have ever read a Ramsey Campbell novel before, but he does a great job of turning this old film into a sort of timeless thriller with Gothic touches; it seems we are reminded of the fog or the mist every other page. He also gets it right by setting the novel in the era of the movie’s release; the Universal horror movies are notorious for taking place in uncertain time periods, but it seems clear that The Wolf Man is contemporary. Campbell follows this, with an errant mention early in the book of “Hitler’s Germany.” 

Campbell opens the novel same as the film, with Larry Talbot being chaffeured to his childhood home in Wales. Actually that should be “childhood castle;” as mentioned, Larry comes from wealth. But whereas the Larry of the film is all smiles and warm handshakes, here in the novel the trepidation and anger is laid on thick; Talbot’s almost in physical pain at the thought of returning to this hell he once called home. Also here in the novel the town itself is named “Talbot.” The reunion with his father, Sir John, is also more tense than in the film; another addition to the saga here in the book is that Talbot’s mother died in childbirth. This is nice subtext from Campbell, that Talbot is so driven perhaps because he blames himself for his mother’s death. 

Even if so, this Larry Talbot is hard to root for. He is of course a ladykiller, but even more toxic about it than a Stokes protagonist. Like in the film, Talbot helps his father set up a powerful new telescope and then accidentaly spies pretty blonde-haired Gwen in her bedroom, down in the village. She’s left her curtains up and she’s putting on some earrings before heading downstairs to the antique store her father owns. In the movie, this is played as an innocent lark; a goofy variation on the “meet cute” scenario of contemporary screwball comedies. In the novel, as with everything else, it’s much darker. First of all there is the recurring line that Gwen is “just a girl.” Courting her is just another challenge to be surmounted. Talbot spies on her with the telescope, then goes into town and starts coyly referring to her bedroom and all this other stalker shit – same as in the film, and while the entire premise was a bit “off” even there, here it’s just downright creepy. 

Gwen has also changed a bit in the novel. Here she is presented as younger than the character Evelyn Ankers portrayed in the film; the way Gwen thinks and acts, she could still be in her teens. It’s also quite clear she is a virgin. Campbell tries his damnest to make the spark between Gwen and Talbot believable; again, in the film it’s kind of easier to buy, given the aw shucks demeanor Chaney gives the role. But the Talbot of the novel is a wolf and he aggressively goes after Gwen; the rapport between them is more along the lines of a battle, with Talbot ever trying to press his “advantage” and then Gwen scoring points with an acidic rejoinder. Particularly amusing from our wisened era is when Talbot insists Gwen go out with him at night, despite her firm “No.” His “I’ll pick you up at eight” is practically a threat here, whereas, again, it’s more of a good-natured joke in the film. 

The date of course is to the gypsy camp, that night, where Talbot’s life changes course. Again Campbell stretches the tension more than in the film; Gwen brings along her dowdy friend, Jenny (we learn that Gwen is thinking of setting her up with Talbot), who gets a reading from a gypsy named Bela (Lugosi himself!). Overall the characters in this novelization are just meaner than their film counterparts; whereas Bela sends off Jenny with concern in the film, here he snaps at her to the extent that she runs off in tears – only to be attacked by Bela in wolf form. A curious thing is that the Bela werewolf is basically just a wolf, on all fours, whereas Talbot becomes a wolf man after being bitten by it. Maybe there’s some hierarchy in the world of lycanthropy. If so, Campbell doesn’t dwell on it in his novelization. One thing he does a good job of is noting that the chest wound Talbot gets from the wolf quickly heals, to the point that it can barely be seen…though Talbot is certain it’s shaped like a pentagram. I only say this because we never see the pentagram wound in any of the films; Larry will just open his shirt and the other characters will gawk at what is apparently a pretty nasty wound. 

One of the biggest differences in the novel is a scene, supposedly filmed though no material exists of it any longer, in which Larry Talbot fights a bear. This happens at the gypsy fair, another scene that Campbell brings more to life than in the film. Talbot’s just killed what he claims is a wolf, but all the cops can find is the body of a man (Bela the gypsy), and this has only served to make him seem more of a bad seed; Campbell also has a recurring subplot about an old biddy, who was responsible for Talbot leaving town years ago, still gossiping that he’s nothing but trouble. The bear fight is another display of Talbot’s uber macho drive; the bear is old, pushed into fights by its greedy owner, but a driven Talbot beats the shit out of the poor animal anyway. At this point the werewolf in him is driving him to be even more aggressive, especially toward other animals – another cool part is where Gwen’s fiance Frank comes in with a dog, and Talbot rushes out. In the film, again, it comes off like Larry is just nervous and awkward. In the book, he leaves because he has the sudden desire to tear the dog apart. 

Ramsey Campbell’s The Wolfman is really a slow burn affair when compared to the fast-moving film. Talbot doesn’t even turn into the titular monster until page 126. Curiously, he leaves some of the Wolf Man material off-page, rendering the action from the point of view of the victims. For example, Talbot’s first kill is a gravedigger (who happens to be digging Jenny’s grave), and the attack is more about the mounting terror the poor guy experiences before he is killed. While the novel is not violent, Campbell does bring more gore to the post-attack scenes: we learn that Jenny’s head has almost been severed from her body, to the point that Sir John pukes at the sight. 

As The Wolfman progresses, it seems clear that Campbell is more interested in Larry Talbot than the Wolf Man. While the monster continues to appear “in the shadows,” as it were, we get even more probing of Talbot’s confused thoughts; he is certain he has become a werewolf, though no one believes him. The way this dawns on him is clever, but involves more of that slow-burn vibe, like another scene (unsure if it was filmed or a product of Campbell’s imagination) where Talbot tries to go to church but gives in to a sudden impulse to run out of the place. Otherwise the novel goes on to follow the film faithfully, only with more character depth…and basically different characterization for Larry Talbot. The part at the end where Gwen is willing to leave town with him is especially hard to buy, given how this version of Talbot is such an unlikable, hate-filled prick. But then maybe that’s Gwen’s type. 

The conclusion of the novel is the same as the film, too, but again Campbell does a good job of making Sir John more of an empathetic character than the self-involved Sir John of the movie, who almost came off as maliciously indifferent to his son’s plight. Here one feels Sir John’s horror as he realizes the “creature” he just brained with his son’s silver-headed cane happens to be his son. As with the film, here the novel ends…though of course Larry Talbot would return for a handful of sequels. Unfortunately none of them were novelized as part of this Berkley series. 

Indeed, the Berkley editors chose some oddball titles; in addition to The Wolfman, there were novelizations of expected classics like The Bride Of Frankenstein (also apparently by Ramsey Campbell)…as well as unexpected ones like The Werewolf Of London. One would think they would’ve gone for more obvious choices, like maybe a novelization of 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. It would’ve been a lot of fun to read Campbell’s take on that; perhaps we would’ve gotten the cut material of the Monster actually speaking. At any rate these Berkley Universal tie-ins are woefully scarce and overpriced on the collector’s market; I was lucky to get this one, and happy to read it. I’d love to read some of the others someday.

On a related note, check out my Neca Glow-In-The-Dark Frankenstein Monster!  All the Monster Kids on my block are jealous!  I saw it in a Target and couldn’t resist:

1 comment:

Jerry House said...

Campbell has been credited with three of the six Universal Monster adaptation from Berkley Medallion: THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, and THE WOLFMAN. THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAgOON and THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON are both credited to Walter Harris. The author of the rmaining novel, THE MUMMY, remains unknown. Both THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE MUMMY were released in hardvoer omnibus fron Allen Wingatein 1978 as THE CLASSIC LIBRARY OF HORROR OMNIBUS under the Dreadstone pseudonym. Three of the books (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, and THE WOLFMAN were individually reprinted in 1980 under the name "E. K. Leyton" in British paperbacks by Star. All six of the original Berkley paperbacks were published in 1977.