Following up with the literary theme of Dave Alexander’s previous posting is my look at a set of highly beloved children’s books that many readers may recognize from their youth, and of which may even be responsible for setting them on the path to becoming lifelong horror fanatics: Crestwood House’s Monster Series!
As a child growing up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was infatuated with these books and used to repeatedly check them out from my school’s library. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to reacquire several of the titles again and even more fortunate to be able to write a piece for our Classic Cut column in issue #92 – released in August of last year. At the time though, I remember somewhat lamenting the fact I was unable to include more images in the piece, but alas, now we have more than enough room to do that here. So, without further delay, here are some of those unused photos as well as a bit of history of the books and the company that released them.
First released in 1977, these books was put out by Mankato, Minnesota-based publishers Crestwood House – a former imprint of Simon and Schuster which specialized in producing books for elementary school libraries. Initially consisting of six titles including Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, Mad Scientists, King Kong and Godzilla, these slim, yet informative little volumes (which usually ran around 48 pages each) were easily spotted on library shelves by the deep orange (read: Halloween) hue of their spines and back covers. Of interest to me when I was a kid was the design of the Crestwood House logo itself – featured along with King Kong on the back of the book covers. The company’s name was featured directly below a stylized silhouette of a spooky-looking forest which was (and remains) particularly endearing to me.
The author of the books, Ian Thorne (in fact a pseudonym for popular sci-fi novelist Julian May – The Adversary, Blood Trillium), also went on to pen numerous other Crestwood House releases including books on The Bermuda Triangle, aliens and cryptozoo-related subjects like The Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot. As indicative of most books aimed at a juvenile audience, Thorne/May’s prose is uncomplicated, easy to understand. But what is really great about the books and a surprise to some who re-visit them as adults is just how much content the author manages to include. In addition to reviewing the plots to all the Universal films, the books give a lowdown on the history of the particular monster character including its origins in folklore, superstition and literature before moving onto subsequent films (from companies like Hammer and AIP), television movies and even TV series (i.e.: The Munsters). The King Kong book, for example mentions the usual suspects like the follow-up Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young, but it even goes so far as to briefly include flicks like King Kong vs Godzilla, King Kong Escapes – not to mention other films which feature ape characters, such as Murders in the Rue Morgue and the Planet of the Apes series!
Also making the Monster Seriesbooks especially appealing to young monster fans were their abundance of gorgeous black and white stills – many provided by Forrest J Ackerman. The photos themselves were enough to cause little boys and ghouls to salivate over.
Strangely enough, several of the books’ dust jackets/covers featured images not from the original films nor of the actors who imortalized the roles – but rather from various sequels, remakes, etc. Therefore, the Frankenstein cover is curiously not that Boris Karloff, but rather Lon Chaney, Jr. from Ghost of Frankenstein; for The Wolf Man, instead of Lon Chaney, Jr., we have an image of Henry Hull from Werewolf of London; and King Kong features Rick Baker in makeup from the 1976 redux instead of the stop motion model of 1933’s original. Perhaps in a way though, this made the books more unique and set them apart from other offerings at the time.
To say the Monster Series line was an influence on monster fans growing up during the time period would be an understatement. In fact, with the advent of home video and the internet still years away, the books would actually act as many a youngster’s introduction to the world of classic horror films – not to mention the people who created and performed in them. And though there were of course publications like Famous Monsters of Filmland available, many seemed more intent at the time to cover sci-fi hits of the day like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind than the monster flicks of yesteryear.
Enormously popular with elementary school aged children, (with many school libraries owning multiple copies of each book), the initial six titles were later reprinted – both in hard cover and paperback. They would be briefly released with a weird, brightly colored day-glo effect for their dust jackets – which looked akin to what a five-year-old armed with magic markers would do . The Godzilla cover was undoubtedly the best; the others however, were pretty bad.
Come 1981, Crestwood House would begin to release additional entries to its series – nine in all – including The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein Meets (the) Wolfman, Murders in the Rue Morgue, It Came From Outer Space, The Deadly Mantis and The Blob. Perhaps to help reduce the workload on Thorne, another author, one Howard Schroeder was also brought in to collaborate on some of these releases.
In 1985, the company went on to release an entirely new series of twelve books entitled Movie Monsters. This time, the books would explore individual films as opposed to entire series, and included such titles as Dracula’s Daughter, Bride of Frankenstein, Werewolf of London and Tarantula. Deviating from the look and format of the previous series, this line – now authored by Carl R. Green and William R. Sanford – featured purple and red covers with the books reduced in size as well. I don’t personally own any titles from this series, but here’s an image of the Werewolf of London release:
Apart from the books themselves, of interest to fans are the small amount of promotional items produced. A set of read-along audio cassettes, two advertising posters (one, featuring a stunningly beautiful illustration of Bela Lugosi as Dracula) and a teachers’ kit remain some of the rarest Monster Series items and can fetch big bucks when found.
It’s somewhat ironic, that although Crestwood House put out children’s books of all subjects, it appears their Monster Series line is the one the publisher will probably always be best remembered for. And for many monster fans, they wouldn’t have it any other way.