Tag Archives: Frankenstein

SoCal Creatures — A review of Lisa Morton’s Monsters of L.A.

As I commented in my previous reviews of The Lucid Dreaming and The Castle of Los Angeles, Lisa Morton’s fiction output has recently increased significantly. In the last couple of years, she’s published not only that novel and novella, but also the novella The Samhanach and the collection Monsters of L.A., the latter of which I’ll be taking a closer look at here.

Published by Bad Moon Books, Monsters of L.A. is Morton’s first collection and includes 20 stories, all published here for the first time. Each story is named for and focuses on a classic trope — such as Dracula, the Mummy, the Werewolf, and the Hunchback — but each bears a twist that makes it a distinctively L.A. story. Take, for example, the aforementioned “The Mummy,” in which a vain trophy wife in search of the latest in skin treatments finds more than she bargained for behind the doors of a new spa with Egyptian influences. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” features a doctor specializing in gender reassignment whose zeal for greater efficacy leads her to try an experimental drug on herself, resulting in…well, you can imagine, given the title. In “The Invisible Woman,” a nondescript and oft-ignored woman begins to take advantage of her inconspicuous status. A unique perspective — that of the house itself, wanting to be rid of the crew of a Ghost Hunters-style TV series — distinguishes “The Haunted House.” And “Cat People” stands out due to its effective use of the Latin American legend of “La Japonesa” legend, transplanted to Southern California by the workers who migrated there.

Many of the tales are less horrific and more focused on other emotions, such as the poignant “Quasimodo,” wherein a gay high school student tries to finish the musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that he’s creating while fending off abuse from fellow students. Or the darkly comedic “Dracula,” which concerns an aging film star who finds there’s more to fear than just a young upstart actor hastening the decline of his career. Or “The Creature,” which has an attention-grabbing beginning — an amphibious creature crawls from the La Brea tar pits, while onlookers assume it be a publicity stunt — but is too short and ends a little too abruptly, with a little too much of a tongue-in-cheek tone, to be successful. The issues of brevity and “winking” tone are ones that are evident at several points in the collection, and unfortunately detract a bit from the book’s overall impact.

At 55 pages, “The Urban Legend” is drastically longer than any other story in the book and, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the best story in the book, featuring the Professor and Teaching Assistant from “Cat People” and focusing on legends of a series of hidden tunnels stretching beneath LA. It’s worth noting that this is not the only story to re-use elements from elsewhere — a handful of other stories are loosely-connected to one another and one features a reference to Morton’s novel The Castle of Los Angeles. These are neat little touches that serve to unify the shared milieu, creating more of a cohesive whole, and I would’ve liked to have seen Morton do more of this. Story notes close out the collection nicely, with Morton describing the inspiration for each of the tales.

Writing twenty original stories for a collection is admirable but challenging, and Morton is not up to the task with every story, but she succeeds more often than not, resulting in an unpredictable and entertaining collection.

For what ails you — Frankenstein’s Prescription, by Tim Lees

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a title from Tartarus Press, the UK-based publisher of fine limited editions and winner of three World Fantasy Awards and a Stoker. My reintroduction to the press came in the form of the novel Frankenstein’s Prescription, by Tim Lees.

Set in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, this pitch-perfect period piece chronicles the experiences of Hans Schneider, who when we first meet him is a rather arrogant medical student at Heidelberg University. Forced to abscond after he unintentionally kills another student in a duel, Hans’ forced exile leads him to a post as an assistant at a remote asylum. From the moment he arrives, things seem decidedly strange, and that includes the nature of Hans’ new boss, the enigmatic Dr. Lavenza, who manages to seem both crazed and detached at various times. To further complicate matters, there’s a murderer loose in the woods nearby.

Hans eventually discovers a series of increasingly disturbing facts:

  1. Lavenza is engaged in experiments to reanimate the dead;
  2. Lavenza’s real name is Frankenstein, and he is a descendant of the good Doctor himself, Viktor;
  3. the murderer in the woods is none other than the Frankenstein Monster, both immortal and immoral;
  4. as seen elsewhere, the monster wants a mate, and won’t cease plaguing the Frankenstein family until he gets one.

The tale is enlivened by frequent doses of subtle humor, as here:

“I wondered what I had been a party to; was it surgery or was it torture? In truth, I had often found it hard to tell the two apart.”

But then again, not all the humor used is quite so, er, subtle, as evidenced by the following exchange between Hans and Lavenza, which is joined by their servant Karl, a not-overly-bright former asylum patient.

“‘This is a problem to be solved Hans, not a crime. Not — what did you call it? Not a massacre. More the reverse. Indeed, an anti-massacre.’

‘Like on a chair,’ said Karl.”

Even though there’s a healthy dosage of such humor, comedy is certainly not the prevailing mood — there is plenty of drama and horror to be found in these pages. But what’s unfortunately missing is really any sense of mystery or suspense. Given that most of the info I disclose above is revealed, or otherwise apparent to the reader, early in the story, and given that the monster’s quest for a bride has been explored multiple times before across various media… well, there’s a lot of familiar ground being trod here. For the most part, though, Lees’ evocative writing manages to keep the reader engaged.

It’s worth noting that the author explores at length Lavenza’s role as the creator of the monster — and hence as God in the monster’s eyes — as captured in the monster’s monologue here:

“‘The life was shot into my veins…and then the light inside my skull caught fire, so fiercely I could never shut it out again, and even when I sleep, the colours dance upon my eyes and tease me with a mockery of life; and the sounds I heard still thunder in my ears… I was not born as you are, helpless maggots, squirming through your first few years of life. I was born awake, and I was born full-made. And I remember.’”

Frankenstein’s Prescription is clearly a labor of love by Lees, as it’s hard to see a story such as this appealing to a mass audience in today’s world. His appreciation for the subject shines throughout, making this an appealing read, beautifully packaged by Tartarus Press (as always).