Peter Haining’s The Ghouls: The Stories Behind the Films

The Ghouls

Of all the books edited by the one-man anthology factory Peter Haining, The Ghouls from 1971 has one of the nicest ideas. Haining’s aim with this collection (published in both a one- and two-volume edition; I own the latter) was to collect the stories that inspired the classics of horror cinema, along with a foreword by Vincent Price, an afterword by Christopher Lee and short introductions by Haining himself which, together, form a potted history of horror films.

How does it work in practice? Well…

First, the weaker points. The stories are listed chronologically by year of adaptation, and in the first few cases the films are somewhat obscure: Francis Oscar Mann’s “The Devil in a Nunnery” was the basis of an 1896 trickfilm by Georges Melies; Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” was filmed by Maurice Tourneur as The Lunatics; and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop” inspired a Broadway play called The Scarecrow, which was itself adapted into the 1923 film Puritan Passions. Printing stories that are linked only by the fact that they inspired now-forgotten silent movies is, perhaps, not really delivering on the promise of publishing the inspirations behind the classics.

After this, Haining runs into another problem: many classic horror films were based on novels, rather than short stories. He responds to this by including an abridged, 62-page version of The Phantom of the Opera, along with an excerpt from Somerset Maugham’s novel The Magician (adapted into a 1926 film which, at the time the book was published, was thought lost.) The abbreviated Phantom works well enough, but The Magician is an odd choice: surely an excerpt from Frankenstein or Dracula would have been more appropriate?

Bram Stoker does turn up in the anthology, but he is represented by his short story “Dracula’s Guest” – included because Dracula’s Daughter was initially conceived as an adaptation, before evolving into a totally different story.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher” is included because it was turned into one of the lesser-known Karloff/Lugosi vehicles; perhaps Poe’s “The Black Cat” might have been a better nod to those two actors. W. F. Harvey’s “The Beast With Five Fingers” made the book because, according to Haining, the movie version with Peter Lorre was “the only true horror picture in the accepted sense of the word” to come out between 1946 and 1950.

When Lovecraft’s “The Color Out of Space”, a masterpiece of horror fiction, is used to represent the largely forgotten 1965 Karloff film Monster of Terror, we have a case of the source material outlasting the adaptation by a considerable margin. A contemporary reader is likely to stop and think “wait, did they make a film out of that?”

An inevitable weakness is that, as the anthology reaches its end, it falls back on films that may have been fresh in the mind in 1971 but, decades down the line, are not remembered especially well. Amongst these are Ambrose Bierce’s “Incident at Owl Creek” (adapted into a 1961 French film) and Robert Bloch’s “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” (made into a 1966 Amicus film called The Skull). The most recent film represented in the set is the 1970 Vincent Price vehicle The Oblong Box – a rather awkward note to close on, as it now stands as one of the lesser-regarded of Price’s Poe films. “The Fall of the House of Usher” would have been the best choice to represent this cycle.

The anthology’s high points are the George Langelaan’s “The Fly”, Tod Robbins’ “Spurs” (filmed as Freaks), Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game”, Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster”,  Nikolai Gogol’s “Viy” (filmed as Black Sunday) and Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn” (filmed as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms). In each of these cases the film is well-known, while the original story – except perhaps “The Devil and Daniel Webster” – is rather less so. It is with these stories that The Ghouls lives up to its promise.

The Ghouls, in conclusion: nice idea, questionable execution, but some good stories between its covers. Worth a look if you find it cheap second hand and don’t already own the better entries.

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