Saturday, June 3, 2017

Talking about A Werewolf Remembers with Frank Dello Stritto


Frank J. Dello Stritto has written some great books, essays and articles on classic horror films. I place him with Gary Rhodes and Arthur Lennig as the finest scholars chronicling the career of Bela Lugosi. Like his peers, Dello Stritto has written essays on many genre subjects, including King Kong, Svengali, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.

He's published a book of essays, "A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore," full of genre articles, many of which were published in Cult Movies Magazine. He, along with the best Bela Lugosi blogger Andi Brooks, broke new research ground with "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain," that detailed Lugosi's last major Dracula tour as well as provide strong overviews of his British films. The first edition was superb; a longer second edition even better.

Several years ago Frank published a memoir, "I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It" that recalled his life as a child, a Monster Boomer, becoming familiar with the films children loved in the "shock theater" TV days. As interesting is his account of how these films, particularly "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," extended their influence into adulthood, prompting him to search for films of that era he missed, leading him into fandom, and eventually scholarship.

Frank's latest book has just been released. It's "A Werewolf Remembers: The Testament of Lawrence Stewart Talbot." It's a fascinating pseudo non-fiction "documentary" account of the "Wolf Man's life," and how it interacts with much of the monster genre of almost two generations of films. "A Werewolf Remembers" also contains the the "journal" of Talbot, detailing the many journeys of his existence. Frank introduced the book at the recent Monster Bash.

This is a work only a scholar could weave together. I plan to review it in a few weeks. I was fortunate enough to help proof a draft of the book six months ago. I'm happy to announce its publication on our blog and interview the author. This is a lengthy interview, but it's well worth your time and will whet your appetite for "A Werewolf Remembers."

Readers will be able to purchase "A Werewolf Remembers" very soon (we'll let you know when). It will be at Amazon, as well as the Cult Movies Press website where his other books are available.

In the meantime, enjoy this interview with Frank Dello Stritto, about "A Werewolf Remembers."

-- Doug Gibson


Why was Lawrence Talbot the primary individual to focus on? Is it his ubiquity in the films and his relationship to so many aspects of the genre?

DELLO STRITTO: Talbot certainly gets around. He is always searching, and thus crosses paths with a lot of people. In my book, he meets everyone seen in his movies, and he meets a lot more.
When I began the book, I did not plan that Lawrence’s tale would span so many of the horror and monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, but that’s what happened. When I needed a character to advance the plot, or an adventure for him to have, I found them ready and waiting for me in movies, whether Lawrence appeared in them or not. In his movies, the only werewolf that Lawrence meets is Bela the Gypsy, who infects him. In my book, he encounters many characters from The Undying Monster, Return of the Vampire, Werewolf of London, The Mad Monster, The Cat People, and so on. He even meets Carl Denham. Lawrence is a real wanderer, and having so many characters cross his path was not hard.
I hope readers will enjoy the challenge of identifying the movies from where I plucked each character. Some are easy to spot, some are really hard.
Lawrence befriends the real-life writer Jack London. I could not resist bringing him into Talbot’s tale. The real London took the name of his stepfather. His birth father was (probably) an astrologer named William Chaney. With London’s tie to Talbot (played in his five films by Lon Chaney), and his apparent fixation on wolves (Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea Wolf), I had to bring him in. In my book, Talbot meets a few other real-life figures as well.
I can’t say that I was looking for excuses to bring other movie monsters into Talbot’s story, but when the chance arose, I jumped on it.
Talbot’s travels are not why he is the center of the story. Lawrence is a character whose story begs to be told. We know something about him from his movies, and my book fills in the gaps. From the films, we know that he is the son of a Welsh aristocrat, and that he left home at age 13. We know that young Lawrence went to America where he did a lot of jobs working with his hands. He worked at Mount Wilson Observatory in Southern California. At age 31, he is summoned home. His older brother has died, and Lawrence is now heir to the Talbot estate. The first part of my book fleshes out the life of young Lawrence.
The theme of his life, before and after becoming a werewolf, is resolving his issues with his father. The doctors from whom he seeks help are surrogates for his father. But their real goal is to revive Frankenstein’s Monster, just as Sir John Talbot would bring back his older son if he could.

What kind of research was necessary, in both studies of the films and the first half of the 20th century, to create both parts of the book, the diary and the historical narration? 

DELLO STRITTO: I had to stay consistent with Talbot’s story as told in his five movies. When he meets a character from the real world, like Jack London, or from other movies, like Carl Denham, the narrative has to be consistent with their lives as well. So, I watched the movies a lot, and studied up on the real world figures to be sure that I got their stories straight. And from that I got a lot of ideas for the plot.
The big challenge is that I had to place those stories on a timeline consistent with the real world. Talbot’s last film appearance, in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, was in 1948. So, I anchored his last (known) day on Earth as February 25, 1948, and worked backed from there. That involved both World Wars, the Great Depression, and basically all of early 20th Century history. Sir John Talbot was an astronomer, and I involved him to the hunt to prove Einstein’s Relativity Theory. The Talbots live in Wales, so I read up on Welsh history. In The Wolf Man Sir John mentions a distant ancestor, “Red Talbot,” and so I made him the founder of the Talbot line. That was important, because in my book, Lawrence’s family history weighs heavily on him.

As I developed the narrative, I always knew what the Moon was doing. Fortunately, the dates of the Full Moons going back centuries are easy to find online. Also, lunar eclipses figure in Talbot’s tale, and their dates are also pretty easy to find. In my book, when the Moon is full, or when an eclipse occurs, it occurred in real life.
Of course, some things in the movies are really hard to reconcile with reality. In Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Talbot takes an airplane from London—after Full Moon sets—and arrives in La Mirada, Florida before the Moon rises again. Not easy to do now, and all but impossible in 1948. I managed to explain that in my book, but I can’t blame any readers who say “I don’t think so.”

I'm intrigued by your explanation for the immortality of Talbot, the Frankenstein Monster, and Dracula. It helps to explain the many deaths and resurrections of these characters. Explain your reasons for making Dracula the supreme evil and the monster a more sympathetic character? 

DELLO STRITTO: The Universal monsters—The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and—though he’s not in my book, The Mummy—are immortals. Thanks to super science or the supernatural, they are not bound by the same laws of life and death that we are. But they do go to apparent “deaths” for long periods until they return to “life.” For my book, I had to have Talbot go somewhere—which he calls “The Deep Darkness”—and I got a bit creative with that. I hope readers will be intrigued by those segments of the story when Talbot is supposedly “dead.”
It is Talbot who makes Dracula the supreme evil. One of the unexplained elements of Talbot’s tale as told in the movies is his drive to hunt down and destroy Dracula in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. In my book, I give Talbot a personal motive for hunting Dracula, and the vampire became more and more evil as the story developed. Another unexplained feature of Talbot’s movies is his return to lycanthropy after being cured at the end of House of Dracula. My story ties those loose ends together, but still leaves some mysteries for the reader to ponder.
I don’t think that I made The Monster more sympathetic than he is in the films. Dracula and The Wolf Man hunt for victims, but The Monster rarely acts for any other reason than self-defense. He is a tragic figure, an outcast, a victim of mad doctors who create and revive him with no regard for The Monster himself. Before he meets Talbot, he can be a murderer, particularly in Ghost of Frankenstein, but with Talbot he is quite a sympathetic figure.

Besides Universal, of course, other studios' efforts are included. I particularly enjoy The Cat People references and think it's great that even The Alligator People are included. What was the research process of tying so many films together? Did you need a solid outline to write this book?

DELLO STRITTO: I needed an outline for the first part of Talbot’s life, before the movies pick up his tale with The Wolf Man. And I needed an outline for the gap between the end of House of Dracula and the beginning of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. The outline between those two segments really came from the plots of The Wolf Man movies, because I had to stay consistent with them.
Once assembled, think of the outline as a Christmas tree, and then you start hanging the ornaments. That’s the fun part. Talbot passes through New York City, on the way home to Wales (which is the start of The Wolf Man). So, I have him meet some characters from The Cat People (which takes place in New York).  Later, Talbot searches for a doctor to cure his lycanthropy. In the movies, he goes straight to Dr. Frankenstein (who dies before Talbot reaches him), but I had him go to a few others first: Lady Jane Ainsley (from Return of the Vampire) and Dr. Yogami (from Werewolf of London).
When I bring in those characters, I have to create lives for them outside of their movies. Since the actress who played Lady Jane (Frieda Inescort) also played the doctor in The Alligator People (which also stars Lon Chaney), I brought some of that movie into my story. I do that throughout the book with a lot of characters and movies.

Personally, who were some of the characters you enjoyed fleshing out beyond their activities in the actual films?

DELLO STRITTO: Almost every character had to be fleshed out quite a bit, particularly Lawrence’s father, Sir John. But the character who almost wrote himself was Vollaz Yogami. I gave him that first name, or maybe he gave it to me. Once I brought in Dr. Yogami, the writing took on a life of its own. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before. It was as if I were not writing, but taking dictation. I am not a fast writer, but the chapters with Yogami wrote themselves very quickly.

As a Monster Boomer, do you have satisfaction in creating a narrative that brings the films together and works to solve so many continuity problems?

DELLO STRITTO: Definitely. When I first watched the movies as a child, any inconsistencies in the plots—and there are plenty—nagged at me. So did any plot disconnects between movies, and there are a lot of those, too. Of course, as I developed the plot for my book in detail, I uncovered more (like Talbot’s flight from London to La Mirada). A lot of these had to do with the timeline. Keeping the story consistent with the movies, and with a chronology that made sense was a challenge.
One of the inconsistencies is geography. The Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies confuse the villages of Frankenstein, Vasaria and Visaria. I resolved that, I think.
As a kid, I was always trying to resolve the discrepancies within the movies and between the movies, and it was fun to do it again in my book.

Do you think the book provides more than just a tale of Lawrence Talbot and his many interconnected experiences? Is there an intention to comment on any issue beyond the monster genre?

DELLO STRITTO: At face value, the book is, I hope, an exciting tale and a homage to the horror and monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. The book’s dedication is “To Second Sons Everywhere, And Their Older Brothers.” Talbot’s relationship with his father, and his older brother is at the core of Talbot’s story, and at the core of my book. I expanded on it when I could, and I tried not to hammer the reader with it. If the book is any more than the tale it tells, it is how our closest blood relations, dead or alive, are never far from us. In the book, those relations are all male because in Talbot’s movies they are all male. I bring plenty of female characters into the story, including Talbot’s mother, but the basic tale is fathers, sons and brothers.  

How will the book be publicized? Do you have another one in mind?

DELLO STRITTO: A Werewolf Remembers is my fourth book. Whenever I finish one, I always think: that’s it, I have no more to say. That’s how I feel now, and have no plans to do another book. Time will tell. Whether or not I write another one may depend on another mode of writing. My first book (Vampire Over London – Bela Lugosi in Britain) is non-fiction history. My second one (A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore – The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films) is analysis and criticism. My third one (I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It – Growing Up in the 1950s & 1960s with Television Reruns and Old Movies) is a memoir. And A Werewolf Remembers – The Testament of Lawrence Stewart Talbot is fiction.
I did not set out to write on the same topic in different ways, but that’s what happened. I suppose a new mode is what I need to get the creativity. But I really don’t know—we will see.
Publicizing the book: well, I will go to movie conferences where the likely readers congregate. I will be getting my website ( overhauled soon. I will have to become more active and savvy in social media to get the word out. Honestly, I am not looking forward to that.

What's an issue I missed, something that you'd like readers to know about your book?

DELLO STRITTO: I would like to make the premise of the book clear.
Lawrence Talbot was last seen on Feburary 25, 1948 when he went off to confront Count Dracula. A few weeks later a steamer trunk arrived at the apartment house where he had rented a room. The landlord put it in storage room, and there it stayed for 30 years.
That landlord was my Uncle Joe. When he died, the trunk passed to me, and in it I found Lawrence Talbot’s journals. I read them, and thought them the fantasies of a delusional man. Yet, the deeper I looked into his story, the more it squared with any facts that I could uncover.

So, the book is both Lawrence Talbot’s story, and my investigations into his claims. It is a journey for me as well as for him.
ONE MORE THING: Enjoy this recent chat with Frank at Plan9Crunch that deals with Bela Lugosi's "Poverty Row" films.

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