I have a novelisation of The Bride of Frankenstein. It was published in 1978, and I came across it in a Norwich newsagents at some point that year. I’m not sure it’s even possible to convey the bliss of that entirely unexpected surge of wonder – that sense of being touched by the divine amongst the bookshelves in John Menzies (as opposed to being touched by a smelly old pervert in a dirty mac among those same bookshelves, as I was a year later).
Back then, you see, it was still possible to be surprised by joy. The existence of something wonderful did not necessarily involve foreknowledge. Prior to glimpsing the book in a heart stopping moment of disbelieving wonder, I had no idea at all that such a thing was available. Nowadays, with all our shopping histories recorded by Blade Runner AI central, all those ‘personal recommendations for you’, ‘58% of other customers who looked at this also bought’, ‘if you liked that you may also like this’, ‘we thought you might like to know about’ ‘available for pre-order’: the world of your desires is thrust ever more assertively under your nose. You can’t stumble across a book you never knew was even possible any more. Such a sudden, transcendent moment of delight, immediately followed by an onrushing defensive certainty that this was too good to be true and this had to be a dream because surely in truth there could be no brave new world that had such novelizations in it – all that has been search-engined out of existence.
That’s not entirely a complaint. My shelves are groaning under the weight of much loved books and DVDs which I wouldn’t ever have been able to access without those search engines and a lot of internet persistence. American imports of obscure – and not so obscure – 30s and 40s and 50s horror films never released over here, reprints and remaindered copies and rare books bibliofindered into my fetishistic fingers.
I had a bit of a collection as a 70s horror fan back in my teens – mainly the Aurora plastic monster kits, but also the Gifford and Frank books, David Pirie’s The Vampire Cinema, Allen Eyles The House of Horror (a particular favourite that last one, since not only did it offer a wealth of production information about Hammer films, it also included a sixteen page photo appendix of Hammer’s leading ladies in various stages of undress to which I turned very frequently for research purposes). I still own all of them, but a combination of house moves and breakups and relocations and parental indifference to the future fortune a mint condition Aurora Jekyll as Hyde might bring, means I wouldn’t now own any of them without having tracked down replacements from eBay and amazon and sellers around the world.
My Bride novelisation, though, is original – the self-same copy I grasped and gasped, heart pounding, mustering (either from my pocket money or by shameless begging and pleading) the 75p necessary to make the wondrous object my own nearly forty years ago.
It’s just a slender little paperback – the cover a simple illustration of the bride herself with lurid green skin and a border of faux Gothic wallpaper. Re-reading it as I’ve just done, I would have to say it’s very well written, by the wonderfully and almost certainly pseudonymously named Carl Dreadstone, about whom I know absolutely nothing else, though the entertaining little three page introduction by Ramsey Campbell makes me suspect he may have been the book’s true author. But viewed in one way – and perhaps the only rational way – it’s nothing special.
So why does it – and by extension, all those other fannish collectibles, mean so much to me, and to the other souls like me? A couple of days ago, on a particularly nice spring morning my wife and kids came and sat for a while in the memorabilia-lined shed in which I write. After a while she turned to me, her face assuming a pained expression suggestive of the most profound disappointment imaginable, and said, her voice a curious mixture of fondness, bafflement and exasperation, ‘Why do we have two Hammer Horror shoulder bags hidden in the corner?’ Beyond the desperate nit-picker’s defence that we only had one shoulder bag, because in fact the Curse of Frankenstein one was actually a messenger bag, not a shoulder bag at all, I found myself rather at a loss for an answer. These were secret purchases you see – picked up quietly in a TV and Movie Store sale maybe a year or more ago – and slipped incognito into a space between two free standing bookshelves, themselves creaking and groaning with a wealth of not dissimilar objects.
Don’t trouble to lie, by the way. You’re a secret purchaser too – we all are, whether it’s shoes or handbags or teapots or magazines or novels or downloads or whatever it is that our partners can’t see the need for or the value in. Because of course, rationally there is not and cannot be any value whatsoever. We just want them. I have two entirely functionless secret Hammer bags because I wanted them, no better defence. But why did I want them? What is the appeal to a fifty year old family man of a plastic glow in the dark Aurora Creature from the Black Lagoon, or a NECA Wolf Man headknocker? Why did I want yet another near identical Bela Lugosi biography, or to replace books I’d already read a hundred times by the time I was fifteen solely in order for them to accumulate dust on a shelf? Come to that, why did my thirteen year old self even want the novelisation of Bride of Frankenstein, in the first place?
The answer, I think, lies somewhere in the gap between evanescence and permanence. Back in the pre-video days of 1978, a novelisation was your only means of holding on to or reliving the experience of the film. Remember those Target Doctor Who books from the 70s and 80s? It was only through them that I was able to encounter old Hartnell and Troughton stories – and they remain the best available form of many of those episodes, given the BBCs unfortunate habit of wiping the original videotapes – or to re-experience, or re-imagine the Pertwee or Baker stories I had seen. The Web of Fear by Terrance Dicks was my favourite – purple spine, grim-faced soldier, laser beams shooting from the eyes of a Yeti in the Underground, Pat Troughton’s marvellously craggy face all on the cover. In almost every other respect, all those episodes of my favourite show were gone forever immediately after their transmission.
In the same way, those Saturday night Horror Double Bills were the very definition of ephemeral. They spanned maybe ten weeks across a summer – rushing by as summer holidays do as a kid – to be watched and relished once and once only before disappearing almost as quickly as the career of a winner of The Voice. I was desperate for anything which might help me grab hold of the experience, to retain a stronger sense of how that film felt. As time went on I got into the habit of desperately scribbling down credits and a few lines of dialogue onto scraps of paper as I watched, managing handwriting much speedier and more efficient than I was ever to be able to achieve in exams. If we ever had a copy of Radio Times – it had to be Radio Times, because back then it published only the BBC listings while TV Times did ITV, and you had to buy both if you wanted to know everything that was on – I’d wait eagerly for the end of the week and then rip out the listings for the previous two films. I obsessively loaned, renewed, loaned, and renewed the two horror movie books the library could offer – Carlos Clarens and Dennis Gifford – and would have given anything to find any small way of holding onto the experience for a little longer than the running time of the films themselves.
Some time ago I came across a wonderful article by one of my favourite contemporary novelists, Jonathan Coe, in which he describes a lifelong obsession with Billy Wilder’s wistfully elegiac The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and its legendary lost footage, and he finishes by concluding that it hadn’t been the complete version of the film he’d been searching for all those years but ‘something even more unreachable: trying to recapture, somehow, the sense of wonder, of comfort, of security, of perfect happiness I felt when I first saw the film on that Sunday evening, when it made me forget, for two blissful hours, my fear of returning to school the next day. It is that young self I have been trying to bring back to life.’
For me that is precisely the desire at the heart of my obsessive consumption: of my fetishistic compulsion to hold, to possess, and to own. In a better world, or in a better adjusted individual, there would be no need you see. We should experience a film – like a piece of music, a painting, a novel, or a play – with our eyes, in our heads, in our own responses, and to see should be enough in itself. The craving to own, to possess, should be entirely foreign to the world of art. But it isn’t. We fans dwell in a twilight nether world somewhere between the arthouse and the marketplace, forever caught in the mid-ground between the temple and the moneychangers. The desire to have the film, the experience, the sensation, available and ready whenever and wherever, is the desire to freeze time’s cruel, onrushing indifference. Collecting, prizing, owning – these are our buttresses against time’s predatory nature; these are the fantasist’s anti-death medicine. We horror fans are not alone in feeling the instinct, by the way. It’s not intrinsic artistic merit that makes parents hang on to their kids’ pre-school paintings, or that makes holidaymakers experience huge chunks of their surroundings through a camera lens rather than head-on.
All of that stuff, that plastic mass-produced rubbish and those production line paperbacks; they matter to me like the extraordinary magic of quantum entanglement, in which the tiniest particles of existence are mysteriously connected and will, simultaneously, behave in identical ways regardless of the distance between them, almost in effect being in two places at the same time, because they put me, however briefly and emptily, in vivid and immediate contact with specific frozen, golden moments: moments in which it’s always a Saturday night in the 1970s and mum and dad are sleeping contentedly upstairs and I’m 12, with a lifetime of limitless possibilities ahead of me.
The idea that those moments are simply gone, and will not, cannot, come again is a surrender to death, to extinction: an acceptance of our flickering mortality. I shall not yield so cravenly. I choose to fight, in my own way, to retain and redeem and recapture those lost moments, to fix them in place, to make them mine forever in a world outside the transient and the temporal. I don’t know if an Aurora Dracula or Carl Dreadstone’s eternal Bride of Frankenstein novelisation were what Dylan Thomas had in mind when he urged us to rage, rage against the dying of the light, but until the immortality pill comes along they’ll have to do for me.