September 26, 2007

The Step of Frankenstein

Part Two of 'Jean-Claude Carrière’s Frankenstein', my contribution to the Luis Bunuel Blog-a-Thon hosted by Flickhead.

Under the Benoit Becker pen name, Jean-Claude Carrière wrote six Frankenstein novels between 1957 and 1959 for the Paris-based Editions Fleuve Noir’s Angoisse (“Dread”) collection. The titles translate as: The Tower of Frankenstein, The Step (or, Footstep) of Frankenstein, The Night of Frankenstein, The Seal of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Prowls, and The Cellar of Frankenstein. The original editions were true pulp paperbacks, bound in cheap cardboard covers, with thick, rough-cut newsprint interiors.

The inspiration for Le pas de Frankenstein is the Orkney Island sequence from the Mary Shelley original. This is where Victor Frankenstein undertook to build a mate for The Monster. At the last moment, just short of galvanizing his new creation to life, Frankenstein reneged and destroyed the female monster, provoking The Monster’s wrath and dooming his own bride, Elizabeth.

Carrière's story takes place 100 years later on Frankenstein’s desolate retreat which he calls, awkwardly, “Cround” Island. This is typical of the somewhat ridiculous, made-up English surnames used throughout the novel, names like Flawtter, Bobsom, Pilljoy, and a village called Plosway, all meant to sound like what an English name should sound like, at least to the ears of a young French writer in 1957.

The villagers of Plosway, on Cround, live hard, isolated lives, at the mercy of sea and superstition. The island’s most unusual inhabitant, incongruously, is a mysterious Caribbean man named Percy. He is believed to practice voodoo and is suspected of grave robbing, no less, but no one dares or bothers to venture out to his remote, decrepit shack.

Into this world arrives Dr. Pilljoy, a mad scientist type looking for the site of Victor Frankenstein’s experiments. He soon zeroes in on Percy’s isolated cabin, confronts the voodoo man, and uncovers the remains of the dismembered bride and Victor Frankenstein’s journal.

Cue The Monster…

Gouroull rises out the sea, having literally walked to the island. The implacable Monster doesn’t breathe, its heart doesn’t beat, and blood doesn’t circulate in its black veins. Guided by distant memory and primitive instinct, the giant makes a beeline for Percy’s cabin. Percy and Dr. Pilljoy hear his step, as if announcing imminent doom, as he approaches.

When Gouroull bursts in, Dr. Pilljoy greets him a la Pretorius and lays out his plan for world domination. Combining the remains left by Frankenstein with “materials” of his own invention, Pilljoy proposes to mold, Golem-like, a new Bride for Gouroull so that they may populate the world with their superior monster offspring and rid the planet of its useless humans. Horrified, Percy makes a break for it, but Gouroull catches up with a leap and a stride, and kills him with his patented neck chomp.

Pilljoy gets down to business. When a handful of villagers work up the courage to investigate the weird goings on, Gouroull goes on a rampage, killing and maiming all who dare approach.

As his work nears completion, Pilljoy sends The Monster out to fetch a young woman from nearby Plosway so that he may perform a full-body blood transfusion to the new Bride and thus bring it to life.

Here, the novel reaches its lurid, Grand Guignol climax. A young widow, Mary Flawtter, her husband having drowned in a fishing accident, is captured and strapped — nude, of course — to a slab next to the fetid, waiting Bride. Just as Pilljoy is about to proceed and drain the helpless woman of every last drop of her blood, something stirs among the piles of baskets left behind by Percy. The voodoo man is exerting revenge from beyond the grave, willing his zombies to life.

Pilljoy and The Monster are tackled by the walking dead. When Gouroull rips a zombie limb from limb, every torn piece of it continues to writhe with supernatural life. Complicating matters, a severed hand lands on the tied-down widow and begins a slow crawl up her nude body to her throat.

All is lost. Pilljoy perishes and the Monster, for all its inhuman strength, is overwhelmed by the hordes of clawing zombies. Roaring in frustration, lightning booming all around, Gouroull escapes, trailing zombie parts, "never to be seen again". Or, at least until the next adventure.

In the end, villagers rescue Mary and the cabin of horrors is consumed in flames. Unbeknownst to the widow, we learn that the most ferocious of the attacking zombies had been her lost husband, risen from the grave to save his forever beloved.

Carrière’s Step of Frankenstein is simple, straightforward pulp horror, with its requisite monsters, bloodbaths, cliffhangers, and naked lady. Characters are barely sketched out, relying on clichés to register with the reader. The plot, in pure pulp tradition, stretches to fill the space between the brief bursts of action parsimoniously peppered throughout the novel. The scene where Pilljoy arrives by boat and disembarks at a pier uses up several pages. Sometimes you wish the writer would just get on with the story, but it must be said that Carrière maintains a palpable feeling of menace throughout the book, the proceedings are steeped in an oppressive atmosphere of doom and gloom, and the payoff is so over the top that readers must have come away wanting to read the next one in the series.

If not for Carrière’s reputation, and the Frankenstein Monster’s brand name, these books would probably be forgotten today and collected solely for their wonderful covers.

The artist, Michel Gourdon, produced the near totality of covers for the Fleuve Noir paperbacks, some 20 different covers per month. In a period covering 1950 to 1978, in addition to his other book cover contracts, advertising and film poster work, Gourdon created a staggering 3500 covers for Fleuve Noir alone.

Today, he is best remembered for his San Antonio series of covers, and his crime and espionage covers that always seemed to feature a prominent topless blonde. It’s nice to know that Gourdon himself is most fond of his old Angoisse horror pulp gouaches.

In 1972, Aredit Pocket Comics adapted Carrière’s Frankensteins in their Hallucinations title (artist not identified), throwing in a seventh issue based on Mary Shelley’s book.

The black and white excerpts I posted here are taken from an overview of the Hallucinations Frankenstein comics on the excellent Beyond The Groovy Age of Horror blog.

See more Gourdon covers here, and here.

The Bunuel Blog-a-Thon continues through the weekend at Flickhead. Click over there for all the links. There's lots of wonderful posts to read.


rob! said...

love that Hallucination cover!!

Bibi said...

Hi, I found a Franken toy to you:

Pierre said...

Wow! That’s a great find, Bibi. Thank you very much. I’ve been digging up extra info and I’ll make a post about it next week.

Cinebeats said...

I absolutely love your blog and I'm surprised I haven't come across it sooner since I'm rather obsessed with Frankenstein myself and Mary Shelley.

I'm so glad someone wrote about Jean-Claude Carrière for the Bunuel blog-a-thon. I considered writing about him myself since he was briefly a topic of conversation in my own blog recently. I really enjoyed your posts about Carrière and I like the way you approached his work.

I also contribute to the Groovy Age of Horror blog on occasion so it was nice to see it linked here. Since I love your blog I should let you know that I'll be adding it to my blog links as well.

Pierre said...

Thank you! I'm glad you found me!

I love your blog (and Groovy Age, too). I’m happy you liked the Carrière posts. I have great admiration for him. He is such a monumental talent.

daniel said...

in chronological terms, when does this series take place? is it in 1895 since shelly's novel took place in 1795 as suggested by textual evidence? or is it 1916-18, if becker accepted 1816-18 as shelly's year? i ask because there's a recent novel called quest of frankenstein that you may find interesting.

also, did the monster in this novel rise out of the sea as did godzila? how is that explained?