The Undying Monster by Jessie Douglas Kerruish
It was around five years ago that I had the pleasure of watching the 1942 horror thriller The Undying Monster on DVD. I was moderately impressed with the film, enough to write the following:
“B material given A execution” is how film historian Drew Casper describes 20th Century Fox’s first horror movie, 1942’s The Undying Monster, in one of the DVD’s extras, and dang if the man hasn’t described this movie to a T. The film, a unique melding of the detective, Gothic and monster genres, though uniformly well acted by its relatively no-name cast, features a trio of first-rate artists behind the camera who really manage to put this one over. And the film’s script isn’t half bad either. Here, Scotland Yard scientist Robert Curtis (James Ellison) comes to eerie Hammond Hall, a brooding pile on the English coast, sometime around 1900, to investigate some recent attacks ascribed to the legendary Hammond monster. Viewers expecting this legend of a voracious predator to wind up being explained in an anticlimactic, mundane fashion may be a bit surprised at how things play out. Ellison is fine in his no-nonsense, modern-detective role (he uses a spectrograph to analyze various clues!), and Heather Angel (who does have the face of one), playing the house’s mistress, is equally good.
But, as I’ve mentioned, it is the contributions of three men behind the scenes that really turn this little B into a work of art. Director John Brahm, who would go on to helm Fox’s The Lodger and Hangover Square, and DOP Lucien Ballard have combined their formidable talents to make a picture that is noirish, moody and fast moving, with superb use of light and shadow. And composer David Raksin, who two years later would achieve enduring fame for his score for that classiest of film noirs, Laura, has co-contributed some background music here that is both mysterious and exciting. Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck apparently had hopes that The Undying Monster would be the opening salvo in his studio’s bid to challenge Universal’s monster domination, and in retrospect, it does seem like a fair way to start. This DVD, by the way, looks just fantastic, and sports more “extras” than you would believe capable of accompanying a minor B. All in all, a very pleasant surprise.”
But what I failed to mention in that mini-review back then was that this Fox picture was hardly an original conception of the studio, but was rather based on a 1922 novel by English authoress Jessie Douglas Kerruish. And now that I have finally read the original source material, I can recognize the film for what it is: a watered-down, abridged version of an infinitely more complex story, and a film whose debt to Universal Studios’ 1941 classic The Wolf Man is a considerably large one. As for the novel, whose full title is actually The Undying Monster: A Tale of the Fifth Dimension, it was Kerruish’s third out of an eventual four, released when its author was 38. This book was the anomaly of Kerruish’s oeuvre; the others, Miss Haroun al-Raschid (1917), The Girl From Kurdistan (1918) and Babylonian Nights’ Entertainment (1934), as their titles might suggest, all dealt with Middle Eastern themes. The 1922 novel, on the other hand, was pretty much straight-out horror, set in a rather Gothically inflected England and combined with a 1,000-year-old mystery into one very atmospheric brew.
In the book, World War I has just about decimated the entire Hammand family (why the film changed “Hammand” to “Hammond” is quite beyond me), to the point where only brother Oliver and sister Swanhild remain at the ancestral castle in the Sussex village of Dannow. When a village woman is brutally murdered, and Oliver’s pet mastiff is literally torn apart, it becomes horribly apparent that the Hammand curse has struck again. For a millennium, some kind of creature has been attacking the villagers, but only on cold, starlit nights, and under firs or pines. Now, however, after an absence of some four decades, the “undying monster” would seem to have returned. To assist in their dilemma, Swanhild and her fiancé, Goddard Covert, enlist the aid of self-styled “supersensitive” Luna Bartendale, who, Swanhild declares, combines “the functions of the White Witch and detective.” And remarkably, employing her trusty divining rod, old-fashioned footwork, some archaeological digging, historical research, hypnosis and the use of racial memories, Luna IS able to discover the monster’s secret… to the dismay of her Hammand employers…
OK, I’m not going to lie to you: The Undying Monster was something of a labor for me to get through, but only because I happen to be one of those oddballs who feels the need to look up every single word, place name and historical reference of which I’m not familiar when reading. I’ve always found that a little extra work usually pays big dividends as regards a fuller appreciation, and such was surely the case here, but my goodness, how much research Kerruish herself must have done, preparatory to penning her book! In short, readers should be prepared to bone up on their War of the Roses, Norse mythology, and medieval English and Danish history while committing to this novel, and be ready to encounter a lot of 100-year-old British slang (“napoo,” anyone?). You don’t know about Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the Marian persecution of 1555, or the type of swords that were used in 700 B.C.? You will, by the time you finish Kerruish’s work! Fortunately, having said all that, I must also report that the book in question IS a fascinating one, with great suspense, a truly engaging mystery, some beautifully written passages (overwritten, some might fairly accuse), and interesting characters. And foremost among those interesting characters is Luna Bartendale herself, a character wholly excised from the 1942 film in favor of the more prosaic Scotland Yard inspector. Petite, bedimpled and golden curled, Luna is yet completely in charge of events, dominating every scene that she appears in. What a shame that Kerruish did not use her as the central character in an ongoing series of stories; an Edwardian-era supernatural detective a la Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki, and Aleister Crowley’s Simon Iff. To read a potential spoiler, highlight the following sentence: To be quite fair, events at the conclusion of The Undying Monster do preclude Luna appearing again in another, similar tale; a pity. (end spoiler)
Ultimately, as mentioned, Luna does succeed in the Dannow case, a case that had earlier stumped (real-life personages) Madame Helena Blavatsky and Prof. William Crookes; the mention of these two famous spiritualist researchers adds both humor and credence to the affair. “There’s nothing so actively alive as the dead,” Luna declares; just one of many wonderful quotes from this most remarkable woman. Kerruish’s tale is somewhat complexly plotted, and a slow and careful reading is necessary to process all the many bits of disparate evidence that Luna (sometimes literally) unearths. So yes, the book is challenging, but ultimately rewarding, and the pseudoscientific explanation that Kerruish gives us for the monster’s origin is an intriguing one. A most impressive piece of work, all around!
I would like to say a word now about the edition of The Undying Monster that I just read. It is from a U.K. publisher called Flame Tree 451, and, to be blunt, is an absolute disgrace. The book contains more typographical errors of every description than any other book I have ever read, and dozens of them on practically every page! Thus, punctuation is a complete botch, Swanhild’s name is spelt three different ways on the second page (Swanhild, Swanbild and Swanhuld!), the word “monster” turns into “Kenster” (!), “cataclysm” becomes “catadysnr,” “Magnus” is transformed into “Ivlagnus” and on and on, to the point where the book becomes, at times, borderline unreadable. Between the complexity of the story itself, the requisite research involved and the flabbergasting number of typos, I often felt as if I were translating this book, rather than reading it!
As a proofreader and copy editor myself, I found this edition of an English classic deplorable, and so availed myself of the publisher’s e-mail address, which is accurately given (halleleujah!) on the book’s back cover. I asked whether or not ALL their books had been brought to market without the benefit of a thorough proofreading, because if so, I would not be able to purchase any others from their impressive catalog. (And Flame Tree 451 DOES have any number of comparatively rare titles that I would be interested in acquiring, such as Algernon Blackwood’s Jimbo, Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror, John Buchan’s Witch Wood and Sax Rohmer’s Brood of the Witch-Queen.) They never responded to my e-mail. Thus, I must assume that all their books are in a similar, execrable state, and would warn all readers away from this British outfit. The Undying Monster deserves to be in bookstores, and to be made available to a new generation of readers. I urge all lovers of vintage horror to experience it… but please, do so in another edition…
As good as the film version sounds, the source material sounds even better!