Dreadful: A Retrospective

The Dreadful Doctor Faust
The first edition cover for The Dreadful Doctor Faust. Poor Louise, lying down on the job.

This morning, I added the final few lines to Bride of Doctor Faust, the rather long-awaited sequel to The Dreadful Doctor Faust. As I did so, I started thinking about the series’ long, weird history, and I thought it might fascinate a few of my readers and fans to see inside the creation of the books.

Near the end of 2010 I finished a novella called The Dreadful Doctor Faust. It was an all-organic, spontaneous project. That is to say, I didn’t sit down and agonize over it at all. I didn’t even do very much research or pre-planning, as I usually do for a project.

It was a bad, dark and thoroughly frustrating time for me. I was working at holding KHP Books together while also working a crappy part time job to make ends meet. The job was nothing glamorous, I assure you. I was working a cash register on the late shift at my local Shop-Rite and had what would quickly turn out to be one of the worse supervisors I had ever had on a job. He was a large part of the reason I wrote the book in the first place. His name was Justin, he was a huge, imposing brick wall of a man, angry and reckless.

He was a person of color, and even though he came from a nice, middle-class upbringing, he felt compelled to emanate the worse elements of racial stereotyping. There was an ongoing rumor that he was gay, or, at the very least, bi-curious, which might have had something to do with his overall loathing of others and himself, but I never found out for sure. He stormed into the store in the evenings, bellowing commands primarily at the women, although the boys were hardly exempt from his endless, bull-like wrath. Just the year before, he had broken a stock boy’s arm, though he was never taken to task for his infarction.

Another supervisor let it slip that Justin often used his minority status to wiggle out of his dressing downs, even going so far as to threaten the top brass with minority discrimination complaints to home office. It didn’t help that the top brass were, in fact, discriminatory, which is likely how he managed to get away with his behavior. Overall, it was an endless cycle of anger, threats, and bad work vibes. I would have felt a little sorry for him, had he not had the habit of threatening, sexually harassing and handling women when he felt he could get away with it, which was almost all the time.

The brass refused to listen to reports of abuse even from their other supervisors. There were multiple complaints being filed, women were frightened to answer to him, boys were afraid of finding themselves alone in the bathroom with him, and things were spiraling out of control. By then, the job had so demoralized me that I hardly cared what was happening around me and chose to stay outside the rings of fire. I dreamed of finding another job, or finally realizing my dream as a full-time writer.

The Dreadful Doctor Faust
The newest cover for The Dreadful Doctor Faust. Somebody needs a bib.

I was lucky in that I was never an object of interest to Justin, though his character–or lack thereof–did wiggle its way into the character of Tim in the book. Tim was nothing physically like Justin, but the roots of his self-loathing–his small-minded desire to dominate all those around him–was borrowed whole cloth from my supervisor.

The job ran between six and seven hours a night–not quite full time because then the brass would have to offer benefits, which they were loathed to do–and I had only a 15 minute break halfway in between. During that time, I usually had something to drink, tried to cool down, and zen out so my temper would not get the better of me. I also wrote in my little notebook. I had started taking it with me as a way of keeping track of codes and commands for the computer-run cash register while I was on the line, but after a while, it turned into my little book of big book ideas.

It was on my pathetic 15 minute break that I started making the notes that would eventually become the skeleton of The Dreadful Doctor Faust. It was a rough skeleton, made up mostly of thoughts and vaguely connected ideas. I had to keep it well hidden from nosy, over-the-shoulder co-workers because nothing in the break room was off limits, and I was afraid if they found it, they might wonder why I was keeping what looked like a diary full of torture porn ideas.

I was a pretty anger person at the time. I was frustrated with both my life and my career, and I was discovering that I was becoming an extremely introspective person. I liked working alone and under the guidance of my own intellect. Dealing with customers, and, in particular, co-workers and supervisors, was both mentally and emotionally draining for me. I dreamed of having more time to work on my stories, more time to be alone with my thoughts and ideas and less as a worthless cog in some huge, corporate machine I cared nothing about.

Dr. Phibes
Love means never having to say you’re ugly.

My only real solace were the short periods of time I had at home to do some honest writing and the movies I was watching at the time. Working the last shift of the day meant having dinner around mid-day, followed by the one movie I would allow myself before work. Having exhausted all the monster, big bug and mutant animal movies of the 1950’s through to the modern era, I found myself on a mad scientist kick.

I’m not sure how that came about, exactly, but I think it was Vincent Price’s fault. I’d run through his full gamut of titles, many of which he had done for William Castle, and was looking for something new, something I hadn’t seen before. Two of the group of movies I was watching at the time were cult favorites by the titles of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again. They were the kind of movies I wished I had seen at an earlier age, as they probably would have influenced my whole way of writing and how I saw horror in general.

I was instantly in love. The garish colors, art deco set pieces and Price’s black humor make the two movies as close to pieces of cinematic art as you can get (for the time). I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Phibe’s finesse, the way he always appeared to be one step ahead of Scotland Yard, and how that little face melting incident in a violent car accident just couldn’t seem to keep him down. It was still a rare thing in the early 1970’s, but here was a movie where the bad guy wasn’t caught, where things didn’t necessarily turn out for the best, where the white hats didn’t really win.

I confess to a morbid fascination with Vulnavia, Dr. Phibe’s creepy and apparently mute assistant, played with rickety, puppet-like charm by Virginia North. Lover, acolyte, pet…whatever she was to the good Doctor, she certainly infused it with a rabid loyalty to her master, and she paved a fine road for the creation of the Poppet. (As an aside, Vulnavia has a fascinating history all her own, according to Hollywood lore. From what I’ve read online, her name was deliberately meant to sound like a particular type of female anatomy, and in fact she was never meant to be a human at all. Instead, she was supposed to be one of Dr. Phibe’s many robotic “toys,” but somehow that little twist never made it into the final story. Shame.)

The next, and perhaps the biggest influence in the creation of the book, was Awful Doctor Orloff, who was, himself, influenced by Dr. Génessier, the mad scientist extraordinaire of Georges Franju’s French fright-fest, Les Yeux Sans Visage (aka, Eyes Without a Face). More on that later. Italian director Jess Franco was always very upfront about the powerful influence he took from Eyes Without a Face to create his own version of the French classic, though most people consider Orloff Eurotrash of the lowest common denominator.

Awful Dr. Orloff
The monster(s) and the girl, a popular horror motif in movies. In the case of Awful Dr. Orloff, the monster title belongs to both the doctor and his vile creation.

They aren’t wrong. Orloff is trash, but its the kind of trash you come to love and develop a taste for. It’s surprisingly fun and even artsy with its bleak, almost pitch-black set pieces, trundling, disjointed soundtrack, and rabid, shameless nudity. Women are captured, tortured and openly defaced in Orloff’s blind obsession to fix his daughter’s face, while his disfigured, face-biting, almost wind-up-toy-like assistant Morpho helps out–or only makes a bigger mess of things than they already are. The movie is messy and disgusting. It makes little sense, yet it put Jess Franco on the map as one of the more famous trash-movie directors. It’s the kind of movie your mother warned you never to go out with because it can only do you wrong, but you’ll love every moment of it even as its screwing you over.

Awful Dr. Orloff
Morpho, Dr. Orloff’s assistant/wind-up toy, gets all touchy-feely with a potential victim.

Dr. Orloff and Dr. Génessier are flip-sides of the same dark coin. Both men are in the business of stealing girls’ faces in their mad attempts to right the wrongs they themselves have inflicted upon the women in their lives. In that sense, their purposes are almost noble. However, much like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, their moral compasses were broken a long time ago–and, at least in Dr. Orloff’s case, he really does seem to get off on the work, whereas Dr. Génessier goes about his job with a kind of plodding disgust as he attempts to fix his daughter’s apparently un-fixable face, angry as much with himself as the rest of the world.

Which brings us to Eyes Without a Face, a movie that actually does attempt–and succeed–in being artsy and fascinating to watch for reasons other than the obvious gore. In fact, there is remarkably little gore in the movie, aside from one face-peeling scent which, considering the special effects of the day, doesn’t exactly come off as particularly convincing. At its roots, Eyes Without a Face isn’t a horror movie so much as a morality play. Dr. Génessier, unlike Orloff or Phibes, isn’t a tall, suave, frightening man. He’s a sad, bearish oaf more likely to remind you of your drunken Uncle Jack than a mad scientist.He’s trying to do the right thing and failing horribly while his daughter, played by the ethereal Edith Scob, floats specter-like around his vast manse, caring for the animals her father routinely tortures in an attempt to defeat tissue rejection and periodically calling her ex-finance on the phone to silently listen to his voice for a few seconds before hanging up. She knows she cannot be with him until her father has fixed her face, and now she’s also part of his ongoing murder machine, so what future do they really have anyway?

Eyes Without a Face
It’s true. If you do that with your face, it WILL freeze.

And yes, before you ask, the Billy Idol song was, in fact, influenced by the movie, particularly if you pay attention to the lyrics:

“When I’m far from home, Don’t call me on the phone, To tell me you’re alone” (a not-so-veiled reference to Christiane’s incessant and obsessive phone calls to her fiance) and “Reading murder books tryin’ to stay hip, I’m thinkin’ of you you’re out there so, Say your prayers”. Yeah, you really, really don’t want to wind up a guest at the Génessier chateau unless you have police back-up.

Billy Idol sez: “Watch me silent-snarl.”

All three movies played heavily into the creation of the Doctor and Louise. And yes, I’m aware that Dr. Génessier’s cutthroat female assistant is also named Louise, although that was merely a happy accident, as I partially modeled Louise on someone I knew in real life who passed away some years ago–and yes, her name really was Louise. She died in a violent and completely senseless assault at a young age but became the core creature at the center of Louise’s doll-like, determined and vaguely demonic character.

Horrible Dr. Hitchcock
If you’re going to be in a Gothic melodrama, you need a candelabra. That is all.

Other, lesser–but no less important–influences include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, my favorite Gothic novel, Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, and even the movie, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.

Although often overlooked, Hitchcock is a movie swimming in self-indulgent horror eroticism. It’s about an otherwise well-respected Victorian surgeon with a rather…um, unusual predilection in his style of lovemaking and the unspeakable disasters that it all eventually leads to. Like demonic dominoes, things go from bad to worse to oh shit we’re good and fucked. But hey, in Italian Gothic melodramas, almost everything leads to unspeakable disasters so this should come as no surprise to anyone.

All of these influences boiled down together eventually gave birth to The Dreadful Doctor Faust. As I recall, the book itself only took a few days to write, when I got down to the blood and guts of it all. I remember it made me feel angry, depressed and vaguely embarrassed to complete. I had poured a great deal of unhappiness and frustration into the finished book, and even added a few reoccurring nightmares to finish it off–most prominently the Pymm monster which guards the tunnels of the Doctor’s body farm. Afterward, the book sold fast, though it bounced around a bit among publishers before returning to me, where it’s been ever since.

Phantom of the Opera
“Gimme some sugar, baby.”

Penning Bride of Doctor Faust over the past few weeks has been nearly as cathartic as the original book. I borrowed once more from a number of the above movies and influences, but added yet more nightmare stuff to glue it all together. In this case, it’s the House of Stairs, which figures prominently in Bride. The House of Stairs is a neo-castle constructed by an obsessive industrialist and haunted by his own guilty madness in the form of endless staircases that go up, down and sometimes nowhere at all. But the house itself has its own secrets, and people keep disappearing into it, never to be seen again. Very soon you’ll learn why, and what the house has in store for Louise and the Doctor. There will also be new allies…and new enemies. I hope you’ll stick around for the long, bloody and sometimes trashy ride.

If there are any movies mentioned here that you have yet to feast your bloody eyes on, I hope you will take the time to indulge yourself. You really can’t go wrong with any of them. After all, you’re only really in danger if you’re an hysterical Victorian female without a fainting couch close at hand.

Look for Bride of Doctor Faust, coming from yours truly at the beginning of August. Meanwhile, be good…or not. Heh.

Bride of Doctor Raust
Louise and the Doctor are waiting for you.

Listen to the Bride of Doctor Faust Soundtrack now!


Shout it Out!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s