Incredibly, Universal’s “Frankenstein” is nearly 80 years old. Like Lugosi’s “Dracula”, with which it shares it’s venerable birthday year, the film has become a horror icon of the 20th Century, and made a legendary star of its principal performer, the beloved Boris Karloff, and the monster which he, Colin Clive, Jack. P. Pearce, James Whale, and Junior Lemmlie unleashed on the unsuspecting world in 1931.
Gothic Fantasy Writer Glenn James has a deep seated love for their film, and took huge early inspiration as a writer from finding out that Whale came from the same part of the Midlands as himself in England. Whilst passing Dudley Castle on his route to college as a student, he discovered that it is widely thought to have inspired Whales watchtower in “Frankenstein,” and penned the story “A Shock to the System” during his journeys. This is a love-letter to Karloff, and Whale’s Universal films, and in celebrating the movies 80th anniversary, delves into where Dr. Frankenstein might have got his information concerning the reanimation of dead tissue…..
“A Shock to the System”
(A tribute to Boris Karloff and Universal’s “Frankenstein”)
© By Glenn James 1994
The first thing he really became aware of was an electrical humming sound, filtering in to his sleeping mind like the lazy droning of a bee on a summer afternoon. This wound its way through his dreams for several minutes, being quite comforting if you aren’t really awake enough to think about it, and it was a while before he registered that it might mean anything alarming. Then he realised that it was raining.
Behind the constant purr of electricity was the persistent sound of heavy rain falling overhead, and a possible deluge at that. Electricity and water! He snapped awake in an instant, inhaling deeply to gauge how damp the atmosphere felt. Ancient instinct kept his eyes closed and his body as still as possible, because he realised straight away that not only had he been moved, but that he was strapped down to a flat surface. Eyes shut and body immobile, his considerable senses were on full alert for the slightest indication of danger, and ready to fight.
He could sense that he was no longer in the same comforting dark place where he had settled down to rest, and something very strange indeed was happening.
The air was sterile, antiseptic. He still didn’t open his eyes because he could painfully sense artificial light. Yet although he could hear the rain hammering on the roof, as a storm gathered momentum and swept across the mountains, he could sense no dangerous moisture in the air. If anything the place smelt stifling and dusty, an old, old building called into service for activities completely and totally unsuited to its original purpose, and forced upon its reluctant stonework like a parasite. It was a cold and gritty atmosphere, the inside of a huge stone building, but he couldn’t sense any intrusive water.
Fully awake now, he cautiously tested his bonds as unobtrusively as possible. It was impossible to say as yet who had done this to him, and they might be watching, waiting for him to wake up, so he moved as slowly and un-noticeably as he could. No doubt about it, he was strapped tightly down. Across both wrists, both ankles, and across his middle and chest he was bound so closely that he could barely move, by what felt like some kind of flexible metal straps. There was no play whatsoever to pry himself free. Fighting off a surge of furious panic he forced himself to keep calm, and so finally, but very slowly, he opened his eyes.
Far, far above, crowning thick walls that seemed higher than anything he had ever seen, was a sturdy wooden roof with a very large trapdoor. Dusty cobwebs hung from the beams, but the wood itself was new. There was even sawdust in some of the cobwebs. Someone had replaced the old timbers, quite recently too, going to enormous trouble to renovate this abandoned building and then moving all of this equipment in. Unsuitable it may have been, but they had a pressing use for the place.
It seemed to be some kind of circular tower, built from huge blocks of granite and most of them of very oddly assorted sizes. The rain sleeted down past high barred windows set into impossibly thick walls, and tapped its chorus on the distant roof. Blackness showed beyond the bars. At least it was still night time, but that was of very little comfort.
Someone had placed him on a light metal table, clean and white, with an uncomfortably surgical look. Those light bands of a metal alloy bound him, and held him fast tighter than the thickest leather. He should have been able to tear them like tissue paper, but they were unaccountably strong, and if they touched the bare skin of his wrists there was a nasty burning sensation which made him stay as still as possible. He couldn’t escape by physical effort, and had to consider other means.
And then, as he realised how he had got here, a wild surge of anger ran through his body, a red mist filling him with a deeply brutal rage. Body Snatchers!
Three times now he had been disturbed, and when he got free the men responsible would never touch a spade again. He didn’t take this kind of rude awakening lightly, and despite all his precautions it had finally happened… Someone had successfully disinterred him whilst he slept, and here he lay on the surgeon’s table waiting to be dissected. Not the most enjoyable prospect, and he was going to have one or two serious objections to raise when they came at him with a scalpel. Not that he had any intention of still being here when this would-be Doctor Knox returned, and he was just turning his mind to promising escape alternatives when a door opened somewhere to his right, and his host returned; “Ah! Good, you’re awake, then….”
The prisoner’s senses strained as he approached, making a shrewd analysis. His captor was seventy years old if he was a day, judging by his voice, and suffered from bronchitis. The unseen man coughed as he approached, and his unwilling guest could hear the tell-tale arthritic shuffle of an elderly man. It bought a nasty smile to the captive’s face, as he thought that all he needed to do was get free, and then this old boy would be no trouble at all….
Gradually the old man came into view around the side of a generator housing, and revealed himself to be on the tall side but walking with a stoop. He was dark skinned, with white hair and a rather spivey pencil moustache, wearing a long, old fashioned surgical gown. He was also carrying a bone china tea-cup and saucer, on the side of which there was half of an Arrowroot biscuit. He had obviously popped out for a cup of tea, and that thirst had given his prisoner the vital chance of waking up and taking stock of his surroundings, rather than gradually being deposited in a number of jars whose grizzly contents he could see on the other side of the room.
On the whole this jailer looked rather frail, but then the captive caught sight of his eyes. They were wide and deep set, a brown verging on ebony, and they were filled with life and a fierce questioning intelligence. The eyes of a formidable man, no matter what his age, who also now revealed himself to have a very charming smile.
He stopped a good four feet away from the operating table, well out of arms reach, and bowed slightly, “I trust you are quite comfortable?” He had a slight lisp. The creature on the table said nothing, sizing up his captor.
The old man’s smile broadened, “No doubt you’re wondering how you came to be here…”
Then his captive laughed, “It’s more a case of how long you think I’ll be staying.”
The elderly man raised a hand, “Oh, please don’t disillusion yourself on that count! You really are made quite, quite secure, you know. You may have noticed a strange sensation from those bands around you? Well, they’re quite unique, you see, made from silver crucifixes, in fact made from the metal of half a dozen crucifixes, one of which was over two hundred years old. You wouldn’t believe the donation I had to make to the church restoration fund to to get my hands on that one, but no matter. The point is, you see, friend, I’m afraid you’ll find them very difficult to break.”
The captive frowned and said nothing, but made no attempt to test the strength of his bonds; for now, at least. He gave the old man an inquiring look, and changed the subject. “Since it looks like I might be enjoying your company for a while, may I ask to what do I owe the pleasure, Mr…?”
He bowed again stiffly, “Viktor will suffice. I never did much care for the family title, and it’s becoming somewhat notorious nowadays. But you are?”
“Incognito,” and with a wicked grin the prisoner closed his eyes.
“Yes,” grumbled the old man, “I might have expected an answer like that! You’ve caused me rather a lot of trouble, you know. It’s taken me years to find someone with just your abilities.”
“Oh yes?”He sounded indifferent, eyes shut and lying still, but he was far from it.
Viktor nodded rather sternly, glaring at him from under his eyebrows, “Yes indeed, vampires are not exactly easy to track down, you know, and I don’t appreciate hanging around in damp graveyards in the dead of night. A thermos of tea only goes so far, in the deeper watches of the night, sandwiches always get soil in them, and one can’t see to do a crossword! I’ve been watching you for two years, waiting for a quiet night, waiting for you to return to your grave when I’d have time enough to remove your body inconspicuously.”
The vampire smiled, “Sorry to put you to such inconvenience! It must have been pretty tough trying to keep awake.”
“Well, I had little choice in the matter. I had to be there in person, didn’t I? Because you have twice disposed of the men I sent to bring you here!”
The vampire actually laughed, “Oh, come on, you can hardly blame me for that!”
The old man scowled, “The difficult thing”, he mused, walking the length of the operating table, “Was to dig so very quietly, to ease away the soil without you waking. I had to actually buy your plot and construct a false gravestone so that
no-one could see what I was up to.” Stopping by the vampire’s feet he looked up into his eyes, “And then, of course, there was the matter of opening your casket without you stirring.”
“Not exactly easy,” the vampire conceded, making mental notes for future reference, “how did you achieve it?”
“Well, we went to quite a lot of trouble, actually,” Viktor’s tone of voice seemed to imply that his guest was being rather ungrateful, “We didn’t just tear the lid off and throw you on a handcart, you know,” he snapped, “Who do you think you’re dealing with, Burke and Hare? Five of us took it in turn to dig down, very, very slowly, with hand trowels, and we dissolved the coffin nails with acid. We lifted the lid with a block and tackle, and before you could rouse I gave you a drug which would endure a cataleptic trace, deepening your natural sleeping state, and doubling the time you would be unconscious. After that, it was a piece of cake, home and dry in no time! Just a little matter of dodging the constabulary…”
The vampire digested this, rather uncomfortably, “Well…. Now that you have my undivided attention, what do you plan to do?”
Viktor put on a pair of half-moon spectacles, and began to study one of his hands, “Do?” he repeated incredulously, without looking up, “What do I intend to do? Why, to study you, of course. You, my Undead friend, are going to be an enormous help in realising my greatest work, the dream of a lifetime, and, I might add, an unparalleled scientific achievement.” He began probing amongst the vampires fingers with a wooden spatula, “No sign of decay or putrefaction whatsoever, just like it says in all the stories. Remarkable, absolutely remarkable! Tell me, after a prolonged period in the grave, do you ever find that you suffer from desiccated, flaking skin, or extremely long, brittle nails?”
The vampire glared, “Don’t you think that’s a bit of a personal question? I’d rather not discuss things like that, Doctor, thank you very much.”
“Suit yourself,” said Viktor cheerfully, and peered into his eyes. Something about the pupils of his subject seemed to fascinate him, and he bent closer. At once, the vampire snapped at his neck savagely, fangs fully exposed. Quite unconcerned the old man chuckled and patted him on the chest, “Temper, temper!” he muttered, “We’ll have less of that, thank you very much,” and he made a note in his book. The vampire started to struggle wildly, and Viktor sighed. “Now do stop that, there’s a good fellow. Try not to be so resentful, and we’ll all get along splendidly! Try to understand that while you’re here you’ll be well looked after, fed very regularly, and protected from the light. And I promise that the whole thing will be absolutely painless. Well, up to a point, at least, but then we can’t have everything, can we?”
“I do resent it! I’m not accustomed to being penned in like this!” The clasps were completely fast, and he started to get desperate, “Can’t you just go and kidnap someone off the street?”
“Don’t be silly, that wouldn’t be proper at all.” Viktor raised an eyebrow, “And it’s against the law, too.”
“Isn’t grave robbing slightly illegal!”
Viktor grinned, “Not when the occupant is up and about at sunset, and something of a civic nuisance. I like to think of it as something of a service to the community, and I do wish you’d embrace the same public spirited attitude! And besides, I needed to study someone like you, someone… Undead. I told you, you have special qualities.”
“What kind of “special qualities?”
“For my research,” and the old scientist wandered over to a rack of test-tubes, and scrutinised the contents.
“Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it?” snapped the vampire, “What kind of research?”
One of the test-tubes seemed quite fascinating, “I’m researching the creation of life, if you must know…”
“Life?!” the vampire laughed bitterly, “well, I can’t help you much there, I’m afraid; I’ve been dead for 183 years.”
“Oh, I know that, that’s why I chose you,” something about Viktor’s smile made the vampire feel rather uncomfortable, “you are dead, and you have been for nearly two centuries, that’s the point which concerns me.” Fiddling with his pen, Viktor walked over and laid his hand right over the vampire’s heart. Then he felt his neck for a pulse, and biting his lip he returned to his notebook, and tried to explain whilst he was writing something down. “The question of what constitutes life, intelligent life, is my major area of interest. You have no vital action whatsoever in your veins, at least in human terms. Medically, you are quite dead-”
“Undead,” corrected his patient.
“-A rather superstitious description,” Viktor went on, “but alas, one which is circumstantially correct. You have no circulation, no apparent need to breathe, and you can move through material objects in a way which a magician could spend a lifetime failing to imitate. Technically, you are stone dead, Persona Non Grata, you have shuffled off the mortal coil, and should be in an advanced state of Rigour Mortise, with all the signs of imminent dissolution. Yet you are a conscious being, vigorous and supple of muscle, free of decay, and enjoying every semblance of life.” Producing a stethoscope, Viktor listened thoughtfully to his chest, just to make sure.
“Well, I can’t fault you there; I haven’t seen a Doctor for nigh on 200 years, present company excepted”. The vampire tried to sound cheerful, “You find my condition interesting?”
Viktor nodded vigorously, “Indeed I do, you’re quite awake and lucid, and you should be nothing but an empty rotting husk. You’re exactly what I need for my final experiment.” The vampire didn’t like the sound of this at all, and hoped to put off whatever the old man had in mind, but nothing that he said for some time bought any kind of response from Viktor except an absent minded grunt. Viktor had become completely absorbed in his notes, scribbling urgently and passionately for some moments in silence, and saying nothing.
Then, with a determined “Right!!” he snapped the book shut, thrust it into his pocket, and marched to another part of the Lab. He wasn’t gone for long, either, and returned briskly pushing a sinister looking portable machine, which trailed a thicket of long sturdy looking electrical cables, back to the table. Gleaming surgical white, it stretched up from the ground into a rather heavy steel headset, mounted on an old fashioned leather Great War flying-helmet. A series of thick wires radiated out from this headset and coiled up into a nest of dials on the top. Whilst busily checking this over, Viktor was cheerfully whistling through his teeth, and he donned a pair of elbow length thick rubber-gauntlets. The vampire watched all this rather coolly, “What exactly are you intending to do with that little gadget?”
Viktor was checking connections, and spoke with the evangelical air of a real enthusiast, “I intend to determine just how the electrical currents of your brain and body differ from those of a living man, exactly what kind of balance of electricity in your brain makes you a “living” creature, rather than a somewhat uncommunicative corpse.”
“If you would only come a little bit closer,” purred the vampire, “I can give you the secret of eternal life, right here and now.” His fangs shone like ivory, but he didn’t expect Viktor to take him seriously, and wasn’t disappointed by the shake of the head and tut-tut face he got in response. Instead, the old man briskly strapped the helmet onto his patient, none too gently, fastening the strap under his chin.
The machine was making a rather ominous sound now, and as Viktor stepped back to survey his handiwork his patient started to get anxious, “Look, why do you need to do this, what are you going to do with it when you’ve got the information?”
There was a slightly mad gleam in Viktor’s eye, “Once I know the difference between yourself and a living man, it should be possible to generate a current which combines the two life forces artificially”
“But what are you going do with it?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know!” and Viktor gleefully rubbed his hand together, as he got down to work. The helmet slid somewhat down over the vampire’s face. Try as he might it was impossible to get free by conventional means, and there was an increasingly angry drone of power from the helmet.
Viktor donned a pair of thick industrial-strength dark goggles, produced a large hypodermic, and rolled back the vampire’s sleeve. “Please lie still, my dear fellow, while I give you this little anaesthetic…”
But the vampire had no intention of lying still, or of taking this lying down, and he began struggling like a madman. Fear lent strength to his need to overcome an old natural obstacle, in the stinging restraints of sacred silver, and one hand actually burst free. Viktor struggled madly to restrain the vampire, but it’s wildly flailing arm knocked the old man flying, and as he fell he hit the power switch.
The vampires scream echoed for some distance across the dark mountainsides outside. A blinding white light seared though his head with a screech that set his teeth together. Pain invaded every limb in a blitzkrieg that convulsed his muscles, and his skull burned through his skin.
Staggering desperately to his feet, Viktor slammed off the power, but it was too late. Terror had done its work, and survival ruled. Before he could even react to what he had seen, the old man saw the vampire flash down into the shape of a bat, and shoot towards the window the second the power died – out into the cool rain and inky darkness, away from light and torment. All that was left was the smell of singed fur, and the sound of the rain on the planking above.
Viktor slammed his hands palms-down on the operating table, cursing violently. There was so much he could have learned, and two years of planning and surveillance had just been totally overturned in as many minutes!! He had never felt so despondent in his life, but as he stood there, he noticed a dial on the helmet…
Cautiously at first, he began to examine it, and then to check the figures against those he had recorded in his notes during earlier experiments. And as he did so, a slow smile began to spread over his face, and a steady thrill of excitement to grow stronger by the second. This blossomed into a triumph, a sudden elation which drained him of all other emotion except a quiet satisfaction… It had worked….
Too tired to plan anything properly yet, he walked across the lab and killed the power. Far above him the rain beat relentlessly down, drumming through the darkened tower. Viktor stood looking up absently into the night and thought that it might be a good idea to start wearing a cross from now on. You never know…
But now he could really get down to work in earnest. It should be quite simple, really. At the end of the day, all he needed was a dead body, a good brain, and a way to give them a really powerful electric shock. And as he stood there, the building was illuminated by a stark flash of lightening, and shaken by a terrific roll of thunder. Viktor blinked at it in wonder, then stared sharply at the night sky, smiled to himself, and nodding his head thoughtfully, he began making notes….