I’ve just been reading London After Midnight by Marie Coolidge-Rask. This is the 1928 novelization of the Tod Browning film starring Lon Chaney. It is one of the most famous of lost films, one that has tantalized generations of horror movie fans with the gorgeous stills of Chaney in monstrous make-up, even as it frustrates with the knowledge of the twist — the vampires in the film are not the real deal, and are part of the plan by Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard (Chaney again) to unmask a murderer.
(Yeah, I know, no spoiler alert. But as this twist is beyond infamous, and has been discussed for 87 years, I think we’re past the statue of limitations.)
Barring a miracle rediscovery, I will never see the film, and though there is a still-image reconstruction available, as well as Tod Browning’s own sound remake (1935’s Mark of the Vampire, with Bela Lugosi), Coolidge-Rask’s novel is one of the closest approximations to seeing the movie I can hope for. And a delightful substitute it is. It’s a terrifically fun crime novel in its own right, and the aforementioned twist is not the annoyance I had imagined it might be. It’s clear from the start that Burke is setting up something, so the question is not whether the supernatural shenanigans are real, but rather how they fit into his mysterious scheme.
Reading the book also made me reflect upon the many joys, as both reader and writer, tie-in fiction has given me. My very first encounter with the form was circa 1976, when my father gave me John Burke’s The Hammer Horror Film Omnibus (novelizations of The Gorgon, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb) and The Second Hammer Horror Film Omnibus (The Reptile, Dracula – Prince of Darkness, Rasputin the Mad Monk and Plague of the Zombies). I read (and re-read, and re-read) these books at a time when the odds of actually seeing the movies in question were slim at best. Today it’s hard to imagine an era when any movie you wanted to see was not immediately available to you, yet such were the conditions of that benighted age. So novelizations were how I experienced those films instead of seeing them. Just like with London After Midnight.
Even in the cases of movies I did see, novelizations were a way of re-experiencing them. I read the newspaper serialization of the Star Wars novel before I saw the film, and many times thereafter. And I don’t know how many times I re-read Alien. Indeed, Alan Dean Foster was a pretty formative influence as I approached adolescence, having written both those novels. And then there was his Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which I devoured on a family trip in 1978. This was my first encounter with a tie-in that was not a novelization. Here was something that was not, and never would be, a film. It was a story set in a universe I knew, telling me knew adventures of characters I cared about (to be more precise — Darth Vader, whom I was rooting for all through the book). It was my introduction to a form of fiction that (obviously) would come to play a big role in my life.
I could multiply the examples, but the short version is that I owe many years of pleasure to tie-in fiction, starting at a young age. Reading London After Midnight has felt like coming full circle, once again reading a story of a film I will never get to see.
I now also myself becoming more interested in the history of the field. Anyone curious about an even older tie-in than London After Midnight can have a look here at The Master Mystery, the novelization of a Harry Houdini serial from 1919. I followed up London After Midnight with Dean Owen’s novelization of Reptilicus (1961). That book was a fascinating read, as it was simultaneously very faithful to the dialogue and scenes of the film, while at the same time working graphic sex scenes into the interstices between the scenes. I’m trying to picture what this assignment must have been like. What I imagine is something like being tasked with writing a faithful novelization of Casablanca but being asked to have some of the minor characters killed by velociraptors. I’ll be curious to read Gorgo, another novelization in the same series, to see how the… er… mature content is inserted into a movie that only had one female character (and she was 200 feet tall).
Now, of course, I also know the other side of tie-in fiction. I get to write it, to be part of the process of developing universes. I hope I can give some of the same pleasure to readers that I’ve experienced. Creatively, the work is invigorating. Personally, it is also deeply satisfying, as it feels like a direct link back to the works that were so important to me over the years.
I would love to be able to tell my younger self just how lucky he would be down the road.