It’s no secret that the shadow of cinema has loomed large over American horror fiction ever since the premiere of the country’s first devoutly supernatural chiller on Valentine’s Day, 1931. (That would be Tod Browning’s DRACULA for the philistines out there.) Since then novels and short stories alike have drawn inspiration from the silver screen and recycled its motifs—the reverse has held true less of the time—even, on some occasions, directly reacting to it and incorporating its characters and mythologies into its own form as well. This latter trend is, for the most part, a recent phenomenon, with genre luminaries such as Joe Lansdale, Norm Partridge, and David J. Schow being a handful of contemporary authors who proudly honor the celluloid gods and monsters of their youth by paying tribute to them in their stories. Orrin Grey may count himself a practitioner of this fine tradition.
While some writers choose to mask their influences in order to defer direct recognition, Grey is more than happy to call out his references by name. His characters react to situations as he conceivably might: by comparing them to a scenario from a movie and then judging what the next best course of action would be based on that knowledge. It creates a layering effect that becomes more complex and curious the more one thinks about it. Historical figures collide with beings from Grey’s imagination. Works of art that were never actually created or seen are treasured by aficionados in the stories. Characters talk of movies that exist in our reality while they themselves most definitely exist in a realm outside our own. Or do they? Painted Monsters becomes something akin to the climax of ENTER THE DRAGON, a kaleidoscope of images in a hall of mirrors that blur the lines of story and hi-story, revealing only further shards of homage and tribute upon any attempts to shatter them.
The first flicker of the camera comes with “The Worm That Gnaws,” a fun mood-setter in the spirit of the four-color bedtime gories of E. C. Comics and the intimate radio dramas of old. (The tale was originally written for Pseudopod, so its Cockney-accented resurrection man is a colorful narrator perfectly fit for the medium.) It makes a good bedfellow with “The Murders on Morgue Street,” which has less to do with Poe and everything to do with the rampant fantasies young, impressionable cinema fans concoct when the only access they have to a much-desired film is a set of evocative production stills. Grey constructs his very own macabre Monogram melodrama, replete with all the standard players (the determined detective, the beautiful damsel, the sinister and foreign doctor of strange arts, his trusty animalistic henchman) and plot mechanics along with a few anachronistic Rick Baker-esque transformations thrown in for good measure to create a thunderingly enjoyable piece that seems to crackle and pop with all the authenticity of a bad public domain print. The relative lightness of these two tales are indicative of Grey’s artistic goal of achieving a Jamesian sense of “pleasing terror” in his stories, a charmingly morbid atmosphere that is at odds with the heart-rending horrors of some of his contemporaries.
But Grey proceeds to demonstrate that he is more than capable at conjuring moods of oppression and sadness with his two riffs on the vampire myth. “The White Prince” might appear slight at first glance, adhering as it does to the classical style of the Gothics in its depiction of the hunt for a monster preying on the blood of a virtuous virgin, but Grey manages to fit in a jarring sequence where one of our “heroes” sees the beautiful core of the vampire underneath its hideous shell. Surely it is just a supernatural trick of the Beast, right? Perhaps, but there’s a bitterness to the crusaders’ victory that seems to say otherwise.
Just as this question plagues our mind well after reading, so does the beautifully depressing gloom of “Night’s Foul Bird.” The young girl at its center—an avid attendant of the movie-house who prefers her dreams in two dimensions—is not unlike a heroine straight out a del Toro film, or in this case the Frankenstein-haunted protagonist from THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE. Grey’s character is the recipient of an enviable treat: she gets to see a screening of the lost-to-the-ages Lon Chaney vehicle LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. The curious stranger rooming in the girl’s boarding house proceeds to feed on the last remaining drops of vitality left in the aimless lives of his neighbors before his reign settles over the ensemble like the wing of a fallen angel. In a word depopulated of hope, it’s easy for a vampire to assume the appearance of just one more hardship to endure, as inevitable as poverty and winter. The tale is a masterstroke of sustained dread.
Grey channels direct authorial homages with “The Labyrinth of Sleep” and “Walpurgisnacht.” The former trawls the seas of Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle and blockbuster action cinema to produce an interesting hybrid. There’s a wandering quality to the protagonist’s explorations of the ever-changing maze that complement the punchier secret agent search-and-rescue scenes nicely. The latter story occupies the mythical world of weird fiction maestro Laird Barron, and it’s one of the rare stories in which one can clearly see the strains of influence running through it while it stands as its own accomplished story. “Walpurgisnacht” is delightfully and unabashedly baroque, marrying Barron’s cosmic concerns with a wildly decadent vision of a Bald Mountain hotel swarming with witches and demons on the unholiest night of the year. If “The Murders in Morgue Street” is the Poverty Row chiller that was never filmed, “Walpurgisnacht” is the Italian Gothic starring Barbara Steele on the other end of that drive-in double bill.
Italian films are the inspiration behind “The Red Church,” or at least their robust images, and Grey manages to produce his own gruesome tableaux here. Utilizing one of the author’s pet themes—the mad artist privy to unseen vistas of insanity—the story doesn’t work as seamlessly as it should, but those familiar with the disjointed narratives of Argento and Fulci will find a like companion here. If the ultimate success of the giallo films rests on the power of their visual compositions, then Grey may be assured that his handling of them are in the true spirit of the form.
The gentleman from Providence is in evidence again for the eponymous “Lovecrafting.” It’s a Russian doll of modes and format, with a quote from H. P.’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” serving as the groundwork upon which the film treatment-styled main narrative is built upon, while also hosting excerpts taken from imaginary works of weird fiction as well. Self-confessed as “the weirdest story” Grey has written yet, “Lovecrafting” is a double-edged sword of wry parody and sinister implication bolstered by strong characterizations and an old-fashioned ending that mounts in tension before snuffing the lights out, its central horror kept to the darkness of our minds.
“Persistence of Vision” is another of the collection’s gems, one that only gets better on subsequent readings. Our narrator remains elusive even as he explains the spectral pandemic that has swept the globe, at turns lightly sarcastic, jaundiced, and melancholic in his assessment of the situation. He is another of Grey’s movie-savvy protagonists, but here the character’s knowledge and comparisons have a more direct and active role in the story, his mentions of KAIRO and PULSE serving to say “What’s going on here is even worse than that. We had no way of knowing. And there’s nothing we can do about any of it.” It combines the author’s talent for stark visuals (the red rooms, the medium’s cadaver in the summoning machine) with a tone of hopelessness unlike anything else in the book.
Ghosts appear to be a major preoccupation with Grey, as three other stories in the book deal with spirits of things left behind. It’s here that the author shows the influence of idol Mike Mignola in his yearning to conjure bizarre variations on classic tropes, as the shades that haunt the pages of “Ripperology,” “Remains,” and “Strange Beast” are all spiritual manifestations of a decidedly unique kind. “Ripperology” explores the legacy of fascination left in the wake of the Whitechapel murders, affecting in its glimpses into the lives of the lonely men who trace the evidences of true crimes to fill the void of their own existence. The form that the Ripper’s soul takes is actually a classic one, harkening back to stories like Renard’s The Hands of Orlac and Harvey’s “The Beast with Five Fingers,” but the effect that the story imparts is one of chilly minimalism.
“Remains” is also captivated with the long, deep scars left behind by murderers, but here the wounds are fresher as two friends attempt to exorcise the house of a noted child killer. The fact that Grey can grapple with the comic book action of one character’s battle with an amorphous monster-fog with expertly-handled emotional scenes of the friends trying to put their feelings into words is an impressive aspect of his craft. “Strange Beast” pushes the bizarro factor up a few notches by adopting the feel of a found-footage flick to unravel what happened to a documentary crew who attempted to settle the spirit of violence left by the disastrous filming of a giant Japanese monster movie on a deserted island. Under all the concerns with the mystery surrounding the eponymous forbidden film, the story acts a smart meditation on the process of making movies (and stories), namely how it is sometimes impossible to separate ourselves from our art and determine where “we” end and “the work” begins. For a collection obsessed with alternate worlds and the ouroboros of artistic influence, “Strange Beast” makes for an ideal ending.
But far be it for someone of Grey’s creature feature-mindset to let things go off without a bang. The opening quote from Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s novelty smash hit lets us know early on that “Painted Monsters” will indeed be a literal monster mash. It’s both a post-modern trip down the hallowed halls of horror cinema history and a pleasantly indulgent showcase of all the creepy, creaking, marvelously spooky atmospherics that make the classics of the genre so fun and accessible to audiences. Reading Grey’s concluding novella is like poring over a huge Valentine’s dedicated to the horror-shows from Universal, Paramount, MGM and all the independents in between of the 30s and 40s. For those whose cockles are toasted by the mention of wax museums, revolving bookcases, special makeup effects, shifty-eyed portraits, and rugose monsters coming to worship at the altar of their skull-faced master, then this one is for you. Read it close by the fire on a cold November night, bundling up against the scratch of bare branches upon the window. Painted Monsters is an invitation to a macabre masquerade, and one that we urge you to accept at the first notice. Orlok will be there to greet you upon your arrival.
When you get to his door, tell him Orrin sent you.
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.