Prowling for “Sh! The Octopus,” by Michael H. Price
In his frank and provocative “Writing under the Influence” commentary at ComicMix, John Ostrander speaks of imitation as “the starting point for what you eventually become” as a storyteller: “Nothing is created in a vacuum,” John avers.
Writing may often seem the loneliest of professions – and certainly so, if one lacks a reality-check communion with one’s customers and kindred souls in the racket – but who has the time to wallow in loneliness when besieged by the insistent Muses of Narrative Influence? Derivative thinking can make for an ideal springboard, given an ability to narrow the onrush of influences and a willingness to seek new tangents of thought and deed.
I have spent the past several months – with a stretch yet ahead – on a 20-years-after return to a comic-book series called Prowler for ComicMix, starting with a digital-media remastering of the original Eclipse Comics stories (1987-1988), moving into a short-stack file of unproduced scripts and raw-material ideas from that period, and settling in at length with a new novel-length Prowler yarn that will tie up some raveled plot-threads from the Eclipse episodes and then head off in other directions.
The reunion of the primary creative team (Timothy Truman, John K. Snyder III, and Yrs. Trly.) re-summons the influences with which we had sought to develop 4Winds Studios’ 10 Prowler books as a Mulligan Stew of such persistent interests as ancient Hebraic Law and American frontier vigilantism; the Deep Southern blues and gospel-music traditions as a response to repressive social and economic conditions; the now-horrific, now-heroic irrationalities of Depression-era pulp fiction; and the bizarre extravagances of Old Hollywood’s low-budget horror-movie factories.
Tim Truman and John Snyder had defined two vigilante Prowler figures, each representing a distinct generation of indignant humanity, by the time I signed on with the project, late in 1986. While Truman and I were sharing a bookstore tour to promote our respective titles at Eclipse – Tim, with Scout and Airboy, and my ownself with the movie-history book Forgotten Horrors – Tim came up with the idea of twisting the plots of some of those 1930s-period Forgotten Horrors titles to accommodate the early-day exploits of the Prowler.
Hence the appropriation of Bela Lugosi’s hoodoo-man character from White Zombie (1932) as a recurring annoyance for Leo Kragg, alias the Prowler. And hence the adaptation of such movie yarns asThe Vampire Bat and The Sphinx (both from 1933) as Prowler-series vehicles. References to Republic Pictures’ Saturday-matinee cliffhanger serials crept in, as well, as did another Lugosi character, the benevolent sorcerer known as Chandu the Magician. A recurring back-story allusion to an elusive world-beating Chinese Mandarin bespoke a shared fondness for the Fu Manchu tales of Sax Rohmer and such Tong-war movies as William A. Wellman’s The Hatchet Man (1932) and William Nigh’s The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1933). Such points rode a ragged edge between inside-joke overkill and heartfelt homage – with a saner middle-ground objective of crafting something new and unusual from a mixed bag of abiding influences. (Our nods to Lugosi garnered a favorably amused response from the actor’s son, Bela G. Lugosi, when I presented him with a run of the Eclipse Prowlers during the 1990s.)
The new Prowler story, in development, taps such influences anew – alluding here to a true-crime cause célèbre of the last century and delving further, there, into a tense if long-dormant relationship between Leo Kragg and his Lois Lane/Vicky Vale surrogate, a pure-gumption journalist named Geraldine Crane. No plot-spoilers, here, although it bears mentioning, too, that one element owes a tangled debt to a spontaneous-combustion combination of Richard Connell (1924’s “The Most Dangerous Game”) and H.P. Lovecraft (1937’s “The Thing on the Doorstep”) and Popeye’s E.C. Segar, by way of David Cronenberg’s film Scanners (1981). Mulligan Stew, okay, if not Creole Gumbo. My overriding narrative attitude combines the social-critic bearings of a lengthy career in newspaper editorializing – coupled, perhaps, with family ties to the satirist Roger Price – and an ancestral background in oral-tradition storytelling. To say nothing of a long-term admiration for the acerbic laughing-to-keep-from-crying wit of such comics masters as Walt Kelly and Steve Gerber. But I digress.
But about that ‘Octopus’ – expository spoilers ahead …
Yes, and lest I lapse into laundry-listing all the influences under which I write, I should cut to a single point of reference that cropped up, unbidden, a few weeks ago while Prowler artist John K. Snyder III and I were discussing how best to portray the conflict of two personalities inhabiting a single mind. I happened to notice a teevee-grid reference to a Turner Classic Movies marathon of octopus movies – 1955’s It Came from Beneath the Sea, 1948’s Wake of the Red Witch, 1933’s Below the Sea – and wondered if this package might include an oddity from 1937 called Sh! The Octopus.
Now, that Warner Bros. film is renowned (term used advisedly) primarily for its arresting title, and for its pageant of slapstick absurdities in the service of a murder yarn. In the midst of its concentrated foolishness, however, there lies one of the most jarring split-personality transformations ever to grace the screen. A fresh look at this sequence might yield a suggestion or two about how to play a similarly conceived moment in the new Prowler yarn. “Writing under the influence,” like the man said.
So I turned the teevee-book page and found a fourth title in the Turner lineup: The fine-print listing cited only Octopus, but a look at the Turner Classic Web site affirmed the selection as William C. McGann’s Sh! The Octopus. Time for a bit of rediscovery.
Sh! The Octopus springs from the Broadway-to-H’wood genre known as the Mystery Farce, which contains such essential titles as The Cat and the Canary (1927), Black Waters (1929), The Bat and The Bat Whispers (1926–1930), and two versions of The Gorilla (1927–1930).
Sh! The Octopus takes place in a presumably abandoned lighthouse, which has attracted an oddly matched gathering. A master criminal known as the Octopus is at large, but there also appears to be a marauding tentacled octopus lurking about. A corpse hangs from a high beam. Hidden passageways and peep-hole hiding-places abound. Two loopy detectives (Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins) are among the inmates. An ill-tempered caretaker known as Capt. Hook (George Rosener) seems to have wandered in from a Peter Pan troupe.
The tale veers off toward espionage and death-ray science-fiction but goes nowhere in particular until Hugh Herbert finds himself in a weird, almost poignant, interlude with a sweet little old granny-lady stereotype (Elspeth Dudgeon, from James Whale’s The Old Dark House of 1932). A gathering of the ensemble cast follows, with an outburst of violence that provokes a transformation in the granny-lady. Her pleasant face contorts itself into a grimace as her flesh rots and her teeth turn fang-like – seemingly in real time, without cutaways or stop-motion effects. (And of course it’s in real time: Camera chief Arthur L. Todd accomplished the trick with graduating lens-filters, revealing layers of grotesque makeup. This device is a variant upon the techniques that cinematographer Karl Struss had employed on the “healing of the lepers” sequence in the 1925 Ben-Hur, and on Fredric March’s transformations in the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)
The rubber-reality ramblings of Sh! The Octopus point toward a finale, following a climactic disaster-scene, in which the fidgety comedian Hugh Herbert wakes from a dream – cringing from Elspeth Dudgeon’s granny-lady, only to be reminded that she is his mother-in-law. One movie-buff blogger, Scott Ashlin, characterizes the film as “nearly impervious to synopsis, let alone analysis” and suggests “the disconcerting possibility that its creators understood exactly what they were doing,” noting, after all, “Isn’t that exactly the way dreams really work?”
Exactly, if not more so. And sometimes, one’s forgotten or dis-remembered dreams – whether in the slumbering mind or on the night-owl movie screen – will intrude upon the storytelling imperative to suggest new possibilities. So stay tuned for further developments, already. And stay attuned to those lurking influences.
And here, the coming-attractions trailer for Sh! The Octopus.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price is responsible for the Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books, from Baltimore’s Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s arts-scene commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com, and in the Times Leader of Wilkes–Barre, Pa.