Over the month of October I actually read a couple of old paperbacks from out of the piles of unread books floating around my house. The titles aren’t so much important as the simple fact that I’m reading again, and that they were mass-market paperbacks.
I guess the “mass-market paperback” isn’t exactly, completely dead… but it’s dead enough and it’s been that way long enough that the books actually felt small and strange in my hands, and looked small and strange to my eye. Over the past twenty-odd years we’ve grown so used to the “trade” -sized paperback that it’s become the new standard, and made the Old Standard feel odd to us.
The books themselves… well, they were fun and light October reading. The best was an early-70s survey of horror movies made up to that time, Horror in The Cinema, by Ivan Butler — an ex-actor who himself played in the British stage production of Dracula in the 1920s and ‘30s.
This was a book that I’d read before, many years ago, when it was first published. I made the mistake of lending it to a high school chum (he wasn’t even that good of a friend) and never saw it again. Thanks to ABEBooks, I was able to replace it just last month, and reading and seeing it again was a particular delight. It came as somewhat of a surprise that I remembered whole swaths of it by heart. With this book, Butler didn’t just encourage my interest in the genre, but actually shaped my moral viewpoint of the cinema as a whole. Unlike many other volumes written later about Horror Movies, this one approaches the genre with a high level of standards and a contempt for unnecessary gore, violence and depravity that is today refreshing.
Butler has been criticized for getting certain details wrong in his descriptions of the specific movies — but it’s important to note that when the book was written there was no such thing as video on demand, Blu-Ray or DVD disks, and even VHS was just a gleam in some inventor’s eye. In 1972, movies still had a very brief shelf life. When they left the theater, many disappeared seemingly forever. You waited patiently (or not) for a TV or museum showing, and considered yourself lucky if you go it. Repeat viewings are a luxury of the modern age, folks. In 1972 and earlier, you had maybe one change to see a film, and if you wrote about it later, you wrote strictly from memory. To criticize someone of that era for getting a few minor details wrong is nothing short of churlish, especially considering the deliberate tricks that films oftentimes play on us.
(On a side note: fourteen-year-old boys of the modern era are now just a few clicks away from pornographic images of the most extreme sort. In 1972, when I was 14, the very chaste images of Fay Wray and other starlets appearing in Butler’s book were enough to inspire all sorts of lascivious thoughts and activity… again chaste by today’s standards!)
The other Octoberish title I read last month was The Frankenstein Wheel, by a “Paul Freeman” — probably a pseudonym for a better-known writer. This, too, had ties to my youth. It appeared at the local drugstore at approximately the same time as the Butler book, and was part of Popular Library’s “Frankenstein Horror Series” of the time.
The mass-market paperback was the actual descendant of and replacement for what were called Pulp Magazines back in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s; and in 1972 there were still paperback houses that took the association seriously! Popular Library’s Frankenstein Horror Series was as delightfully pulpish as paperbacks ever got, I think, and I was fortunate enough to actually be there when it was happening. The novels are frothy and written in purple prose and are full of monsters. In literary terms, they are very, very close to the kind of Monster Horror Thriller movie that Universal produced so well from the ‘30s to the ‘50s. The Frankenstein Wheel was the only only book in the series that actually had anything to do with Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, and one of four in the series that eluded me at the time. I finally got a copy a couple of years ago, from an online source.
It is a straightforward sequel to Mary Shelley’s novel, and if its literary worth is practically nil, in story terms it is one of the worthier sequels among the many Frankenstein knock-offs churned out by lesser writers than She. From my point of view, however, the literary worth of the thing is hardly the point. The Frankenstein Wheel was something New To Me that emerged from the fog of a particular moment in my personal history. For you and others like you, it would probably mean nothing. For me — it was like being fourteen years old again.