An Interview with Paul McComas and Greg Starrett: Men of Monstrous Ambitions

October 19, 2013

FIt For A Frankenstein

Paul McComas wears many hats…as well as the occasional half-head Frankenstein’s Monster mask.  McComas is the author of two novels and two short story collections, and the editor of two short-fiction anthologies.  In addition, the Evanston resident is an award-winning indie filmmaker, a teacher of writing, literature, and film, and a performance artist of no small repute.  His latest project is the novella Fit For A Frankenstein, co-authored with his long-time friend, Greg Starrett.  This is the first book for Starrett, a resident of Munster, Indiana, and the founder of Veidt Radio Theatre.

Fit For A Frankenstein pays homage to Universal Studio’s monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, as it follows Ygor’s and the Monster’s increasingly zany quest for a size 66 X-X-Long suit. Logan’s Run author William F. Nolan recommends it for any reader with “fond memories of the iconic Monster.”  On Saturday, October 26, McComas and Starrett will perform scenes from the book, answer questions, and sign copies for anyone brave enough to venture to the Community Meeting Room at 3 p.m.  We recently overcame our fears, and sat down to talk with the co-authors about their monstrous collaboration.

Evanston Public Library:  Tell us about how you first met. 

Paul:  When I was 11, I founded the Lon Chaney Junior Fan Club and placed an ad in the classified (or “classi-hyde”) section of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.  Greg was a fellow subscriber, and he joined the club and started getting the fanzine I wrote.  We began corresponding and talking on the phone, and finally got to meet for Greg’s 12th birthday.  We’ve been friends ever since.

EPL:  How many other members joined the Lon Chaney Junior Fan Club? 

Paul:  There were anywhere from 5 to 25 members during the 24-issue run of the magazine.  Greg started his own magazine, and so did some of other kids, and we called ourselves Macabre Publications.  The profits were negligible, but out of that, I got two really good friends whom I have collaborated with – Greg, and John Scott in Milwaukee.

EPL:  Greg, what was your magazine about?

Greg:  Conrad Veidt.  I was a huge fan of his.  It ran about 10 to 12 issues.

Paul:  You’ll notice that Conrad makes a brief appearance in the story…the whole book is full of inside jokes, some for fans of monster movies, and some just for Greg and me!

EPL:  How did you first encounter these monster movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and become fans?

Greg: From the 1950s through the 1970s, monsters were a craze going around the whole country.  There were toys, and television shows … The Munsters came out of all of this.  I got involved in the late ’60s, watching shows like Creature Features on WGN and Screaming Yellow Theater (with the original Svengoolie) on WFLD.  And, of course, I read Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.  The term didn’t exist back then, but they refer to us these days as “Monster Kids,” and we were really into it.  In the late ’70s, Star Wars and Close Encounters seemed to steer kids in a different direction, more towards science fiction.

Paul:   I was a less brave boy than Greg!  I lived in Milwaukee, so I watched Shock Theater and Nightmare Theatre, with Dr. Cadaverino.  I was still afraid of The Wolf Man when I was young.  And then it pivoted almost overnight, and all of a sudden I loved The Wolf Man!  Lon Chaney, Jr. was my favorite actor.  When he played The Wolf Man, you got two for one, because he played both parts of the character so well.  On the one hand, he made you feel such sympathy for Lawrence Talbot, the man saddled with an awful curse through no fault of his own.  And then, he was unrecognizable as the same person when he turned into The Wolf Man half of the character – he really brought the character to life.

EPL:  Greg, who was your favorite monster?

Greg:  The Wolf Man was my favorite, too.  I was in a club with some other kids in my neighborhood,  and that’s always who I picked to be.

Paul:  We never grew out of these films.  They imprinted on us at an early, formative age, but you enjoy the different levels of meaning as you view them at different times in your life.  As you get older, you can appreciate the shadows, the lighting, the sets, the musical scores.  As a kid, I enjoyed these films on a visceral level.  Now, I can also appreciate something like The Ghost of Frankenstein as a German art film.  One of the flashes of brilliance Universal conceived of is that when Lon Chaney, Jr. is The Wolf Man, he prowls around on the balls of his feet, and leaves wolf prints instead of human footprints.

EPL:  One of the dedications for the book is to “Forry.”  I’m assuming this is Forrest Ackerman?  What influence did he have on you?

Greg:  He was the creator of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and that was how we got interested in the movies, and how we met.  We wouldn’t be having this converstion today without him.  He was known as the “Yenta of Monsterdom” – he provided the common ground on which fans met.  Monster Kids think of him as “Uncle Forry.”

Paul:  His magazines were full of puns, so you could say that that was an influence on our book, too.  I actually met Forry once at a monster-themed store in Chicago.  He came in wearing Bela Lugosi’s ring, and he offered to let my date wear it, but not me!  She didn’t really appreciate it, but I never would have washed that finger again.

EPL:  In the preface, you reveal that the Inspiration for the story comes from an essay on the film The Ghost of Frankenstein by Leonard J. Kohl, which notes that The Monster has somehow acquired a new suit between one scene and the next.  What about this missing scene, in particular, struck you as a good idea for a story?

Paul:  Well, as writers, we like to address the major issues of our time!  I don’t think I noticed this continuity error as a kid, did you, Greg?

Greg:  Not as a kid.  I definitely noticed it before we wrote the book.

Paul:  As a kid, I assumed that Ygor washed or dry-cleaned The Monster, but it’s actually a whole different outfit.  In the previous scene, The Monster was in a sort of tunic and loose pants, and covered in sulphur dust, and then suddenly he’s in this nicely fitted suit.  After I read the comment [by Kohl], and he pointed it out so starkly, it lodged in my head.  I started thinking about writing a funny short story to explain the change.  It demanded to grow into a novella, as monstrous ideas created against the will of God tend to do.

EPL:  It certainly seems like you enjoyed bringing this missing piece of the puzzle to life!

Paul:  Yes.  At first, you think about the plot – how are we going to get from point A to point B in a way that makes sense?  But as you are bringing this world back to life, you begin to enjoy the small moments, the grace notes, the dialogue.  Given that the whole story could be called an interstitial bit, we ended up spending more and more on the bits between the scenes in this bit between the scenes.  It became about this buddy relationship between Ygor and The Monster, and between this long-suffering tailor and his daughter.   Two of the characters were given to us by the movie, and two we created, and the more we wrote about those four characters, the more we cared about all of them and wanted to do them justice.  It became less about the problem of getting The Monster out of the sulphur-caked tunic, and more about the characters.

Greg:  We also expand the plot of the movie to tell the tale of how Ygor’s neck became as it is, and how he met The Monster – the stories we wanted to tell.  Plus, I got to write dialogue for Bela Lugosi!

Paul:  We also need to thank Steve Sullivan of Walkabout Publishing in Wisconsin, who makes up for the size of his press with the size of his taste.  And also Nick Endres, our cover illustrator.  We couldn’t be happier with the art, and the way it avoids lawsuits with Universal by reducing The Monster to a silhouette.

EPL:  How did you divide up the writing?

Paul:  I took the first scene, and sent it off to Greg.  He added some things to it, and then he followed up with scene two, and I had notes for that.  Basically, we played literary ping-pong and tweaked each other’s work.

Greg:  We each had ideas for how different scenes should progress, so we got to pick and choose based on that.

Paul:  Right.  For example, when we flashed back to the origin story for Ygor, and flashed forward to future adventures, Greg did the bulk of the writing, but I got to add the punchline!  Meanwhile, I enjoyed writing about Klaus, the tailor.

EPL:  You mention, at the end of the book, that Klaus is inspired by the character of Niles Crane, played by David Hyde Pierce, on the television show Frasier.  

Paul:  Yes, Klaus was very fun to write for.  I’m a fan of David Hyde Pierce’s acting, and Frasier in general.  In our story, Ygor is completely comfortable in his own, warped skin.  On the other hand, Klaus is totally flummoxed by the situation.  I kept seeing David Hyde Pierce as Niles, disoriented and alienated by this creature, Ygor, and then even more so by The Monster at the climax.  I like Gretl [the tailor’s daughter], too.  Maybe she started out as the standard cheesecake character in story like this, but as we wrote it and got to know her better, we got to see her as a strong-willed character in her own right, who was taking up a lot of slack around the house and business for her father.  When she encounters The Monster for the first time, her first instinct is not to run, but to protect her father.  We’re walking a thin wire between humor and entertainment, on the one hand, and making the reader care about these people – the widower and his daughter, and the two psychopath buddies – on the other.  We put a lot of work into making the story realistic, or as realistic as a story about these characters could be!  We even spent some time online researching sewing and sewing machines for Klaus, so we would know what we were talking about.

EPL:  Did either of you take up sewing as a hobby after writing this?

Paul:  I would probably be more likely to try sewing a hand to an arm or a head to a neck than cloth.  We did get to do a lot of research about cheese, also – which are the stinkiest, which come in wheels vs. blocks…

EPL:   I did notice that cheese and puns are two common threads in the story, and I have a monstrous question for you:  if you had to give up one or the other for the rest of your life, which would it be:  puns, or cheese? 

Paul :  I would give up puns before cheese.

Greg:   Definitely.  Cheese is better than puns.

EPL:  I like that the story of the suit sets the stage for future movie adventures – Ygor dreams the plots of other movies in the Frankenstein series from Universal, and decides that the suit will need to be durable to get The Monster through them. 

Paul:  It’s absurd!  That suit is the one thing that carries through all the movies.  We felt we could justify all future visions in the story if you brought them all back to the suit.

EPL:  Tell us about the reading.  Will The Monster and Ygor make an appearance? 

Paul:  It will be more than a reading.  Greg and I will be in costume, and will perform two scenes from book.  One of the reviews for the book mentions that it moves from a fair approximation of the horror of the original movies to full-out zaniness.  So we will see the first scene from the book, to establish that horror atmosphere, with Greg as Ygor and me as The Monster/Narrator.  Then, there will be a later scene with Ygor and Klaus, to cover the zany side.

EPL:  We look forward to meeting both of you, and all of your alternate personas, on October 26!

Paul:  Thanks!

Greg:  We look forward to being there!

EPL interview by Lorena N.  


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