Paul McComas’ works of fiction have garnered critical praise across the board; most recently, his genre short story collection "Unforgettable: Harrowing Futures, Horrors & (Dark) Humor" took second place at the 2012 Midwest Book Awards and is now in its third edition.
But despite the accolades, McComas likes to keep his fiction grounded. He specializes in what he calls "accessible fiction" and says he likes to challenge his readers more with ideas than with language.
And there’s nothing more accessible than a good old-fashioned monster movie. To that end, McComas and lifelong friend Greg Starrett recently co-authored "Fit for a Frankenstein," a fun, whimsical novella that follows famous monster minion (and sometime body-snatcher) Ygor as he attempts to find a custom-made suit for the Frankenstein monster. Along the way he encounters the tightly-wound tailor Klaus Hauptschmidt and his beautiful daughter, Gretl.
Any fan of what McComas affectionately calls "horror-wood" movies of the 1930’s knows that the long-suffering Ygor is an unsung hero in the genre. The victim of a botched hanging, Bela Lugosi’s broken-necked, limping Ygor first appears in 1939’s "Son of Frankenstein," totally eclipsing the forgettable assistants of the previous movies.
It’s not easy being a Bela Lugosi in a Lon Chaney world (just watch "Ed Wood"). And McComas and Starrett thought it was about time Ygor got his due.
"There was no Ygor film!" laments McComas. "He shows up out of the blue in movie No. 3. You don’t know where he came from. You hear that he worked for the doctor but that was never dramatized. He shows up in No. 3, kinda steals the show, shows up in No. 4 and is gone. So I think part of it was that Greg and I have always loved Ygor and wanted to give him his due and give him his moment."
Of the four main characters, Ygor is the only one not depicted on the cover of "Fit for a Frankenstein" – a deliberate move to avoid copyright infringement, McComas said. The stance and face of Ygor is so ubiquitous in popular culture that to make him look like anyone other than Bela Lugosi would be sacrilege.
"One genesis of this (novella), you could say, is that one of my books had a baby," McComas jokes. Originally slated for inclusion in the third printing of "Unforgettable," "Fit For a Frankenstein" instead became a stand-alone work born of the friends’ love of classic horror movies.
McComas likens co-authoring the book with his friend of 40 years to playing in a sandbox. "There's a wardrobe continuity issue in ‘The Ghost of Frankenstein’ 1942 – and what could be more important than solving that continuity error and getting the monster a new suit!" he laughs. "Greg embraced that and ran with it."
"Telling Ygor's story was a chance to write lines (for) and give new life to a character I have loved since childhood," says Starrett. "How many people get a chance to do that in their lifetimes? And since Paul and I have been friends since we were kids, it was easy for us to collaborate on this. We both have the same love and respect for the Universal monster movies of the 30's and 40's. Knowing the subject matter as we both do, and knowing each other for so long gives the novella that singular narrative voice."
The result is a surprisingly light-hearted, joyful homage that reads like a buddy film. Ygor and the Monster make their way to the town of Kostadt, where they enlist the help of the widowed Klaus, who has recently left his career as a brewer in order to realize his dream of becoming a tailor. Hijinks and hilarity ensues. After all, it’s no simple feat, dressing the Frankenstein monster.
And there couldn’t be a better time for McComas and Starrett’s piece – these days, nothing’s hotter than horror. The weird and wonderful is making a comeback big-time with books, movies and TV shows dabbling in everything from vampires to werewolves to angels.
"It’s not the horror of my generation," McComas says. "I see overlap but also differences. I guess I’m somewhat heartened by the return of vampires and werewolves, because for a while horror meant serial killers. So at least this is a renaissance of the romantic and supernatural approach to horror...whereas serial killers it’s more ripping things off the headlines, exaggerating it exponentially and reminding you of what an awful real world you live in."
McComas will appear tomorrow night, May 7, at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., alongside Dave Luhrssen, author of "Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen." The duo is calling it "Forties Film Night," and the event promises to be a celebration of both the genre and the time period.
"As a Milwaukee native I’m delighted to keep that (Boswell) tradition alive and well," he says. "It is the best bookstore in town with the best people."
And attendees should know that the night won’t be your average book reading. As an author whose roots are in spoken word and slam poetry, "I’m really known for my live performances more than my readings," he says. "People should not come expecting my nose in the book. I’m going to deliver."
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.