Universal monsters Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man and others, primarily produced between the 1930s and 1950s, still stand today as not only icons of horror but pop culture.
And yet, so many of the horrifically haunting films featuring these creatures, including Bela Lugosi’s infamous bloodthirsty Count Dracula, have been buried away and forgotten.
Robert Guffey’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead revives Universal monsters. Furthermore, it raises the stakes, pun intended, with a second storyline depicting a writer down on his luck (Mike) who dreams of writing a supernatural screenplay and publishing a magazine all about classic horror, and… you guessed it, Bela Lugosi.
Mike meets a young actress, Lucy, at the grave of Sharon Tate, the actress notoriously known for her brutal murder at the hands of Charles Manson’s Family. Shortly after, Mike finds backers for his magazine called Ramboona, dedicated to remembering “forgotten films,” and stumbles into a haunted maze of sorts — attempting to uncover the lost test reel of Lugosi as Frankenstein (eventually played instead by Boris Karloff).
What readers and fans of classic horror movies will revel in is Mike and Lucy’s run-ins with Maila Nurmi (Vampira), Manly P. Hall (Lugosi confidant and author), and others.
Bela Lugosi’s Dead is a remarkably authentic, hypnotizing interpretation of all the glitz and pure talent behind Lugosi’s fame, as well as the hubris that steered his downfall. Guffey depicts how Lugosi’s Dracula transformed horror from a genre of make-believe to one that spreads the notion that monsters lurk among us, and disbelief equates death — now a core trope of the genre.
The Universal monsters components in the novel are stellar. However, the characters came together much too quickly, and their relationships felt underdeveloped and, at times, unbelievable. Without that dynamic or sense of empathy and relatability of characters, the rest of the story falls short.
The ending would’ve been far more satisfying if the characters felt a bit less vague and unlikable. I understand that Mike’s main character was intentionally narcissistic, but it never seemed like we saw him genuinely try to be better. This reminds me of what Kubrick missed in his film adaptation of The Shining.
Readers and viewers have to care about the who before the what.
Lastly, I struggled with the layout of the two storylines. While I enjoyed both and felt invested, the unmarked hops between the 1980s and the monster storyline often felt like hitting a speed bump you never saw coming.
Ultimately, Guffey’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead is a clever two-fold story that unveils the ugly curse too many descend when their passion and determination go a touch too far.
I’m looking forward to reading more from Robert Guffey.