I feel it’s time to shake things up a little with this series. Up to this point, we’ve only been looking at the movies which fall under the Universal Horror banner, and while the movies are certainly the backbone of this whole enterprise, they are not the only medium in which these stories and characters have existed. The monsters of Universal Horror can be found in books, TV shows, games, toys and much more. So for the month of Halloween, I thought it would be fun to dip our toes into this expanded universe.
You may recall how way back in my Bride of Frankenstein review, I bemoaned the fact that the Bride is the only major Universal monster who never appeared in another film. You may also recall my mentioning how I’d searched around to see what other official material had been released and found a licensed book intended as a way to continue the Bride’s story.
Well, you can imagine what I got my hands on a copy of!
The Plot: This sequel to Bride of Frankenstein opens with an alternate take on that movie’s explosive climax, following the Bride and Dr. Pretorius as they manage to escape the collapsing laboratory in which the former was born. Pretorius resolves to raise the Bride as his own daughter and introduces her to his narcoleptic assistant Cesare and the “Children of Cain,” his earlier malformed attempts at creating life. The Bride befriends them all and, quickly attaining human intellect and the power of speech, settles down to live in Pretorius’s home. She even chooses a name for herself: Pandora, after the ill-fated figure from Greek mythology. This odd family’s peace is short-lived when a series of murders in the countryside forces the group to flee their village. Separated from her loved ones, Pandora finds herself in the seedy underbelly of Berlin, where she becomes entangled in a gruesome mystery. If she wants to save her family and herself, she’ll have to confront her demons — including the Frankensteins and their creation.
In 2006 and 2007, Dark Horse Comics used its DH Press imprint to publish a series of licensed novellas featuring the Universal Monsters in all-new stories. Six books were written in all, each one by a different author, and each one exists in an independent continuity, i.e. ignoring all the others in the series. Most of them also ignore the official film sequels that these characters got. The book for Dracula ignores Dracula’s Daughter, the book for The Wolf Man ignores Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Frankenstein, etc. You get the idea.
Pandora’s Bride was the last book in the series. Its author, Elizabeth Hand, has had a long and successful career as a fantasy and sci-fi writer. Her original fiction includes bestsellers such as Winterlong, Waking the Moon, Black Light and Mortal Love. In the 1990s, she co-created a series called Anima for DC. Hand also has experience working with licensed material, having written original stories for the Star Wars expanded universe and novelizations for sci-fi properties like The X-Files and 12 Monkeys. Throughout her career, she’s won the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award and many other accolades. In short, she’s exactly the kind of author you’d want for a project like Pandora’s Bride. And her talent and experience shine through in the final product.
The novella gets off to a strong start just by how it approaches its source material. See, it’s not just drawing from Bride of Frankenstein and other Universal Horror films. Instead, it makes the clever and effective choice of returning to the sources that Universal Horror itself drew inspiration from: Gothic literature, 20th-century pulp and German Expressionism.
Right away, the timeless and vaguely European setting of Bride is transformed into 1920s Germany, a real time and place. And the book does a lot to immerse us in that setting. I’m not just talking about the fact that the characters are in Berlin or that they speak words in German. What fascinates and impresses me is how the book tries to tap into the cultural issues and attitude of that setting. Several characters talk about how the Great War ravaged the country, how the economy keeps getting worse, how people are angry and lost and dissatisfied with their lives.
“I see you are an art lover,” said Pretorius as we drove off.
The driver grunted. “Times are hard. People can’t afford food, let alone a hire car. In the city, a sausage costs a day’s wages. I do what I need to get by.
Pretorius nodded in sympathy. “Yes, times are very difficult for the working people,” he murmured. “And the government is precarious and corrupt. I wonder where it will all lead?”
His tone indicated he had a fair idea, but the man only nodded. “Straight to hell,” he said, wheeling the car around a precarious turn. “Or to Berlin. Same difference.”Page 19
Once the characters get to Berlin, the decadent and hedonistic side of the Roaring Twenties is brought to life in dazzling detail. There’s an extended sequence set in a hidden nightclub called the Mondkellar (or “Mooncellar”) and the narration overwhelms us with descriptions of the patrons’ provocative appearances and behaviors. It’s like a scene out of Variety or Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, only much weirder. Something that modern media tends to sanitize about the 1920s is how certain subcultures really started to experiment with sexuality and presentations of gender during this period. Germany, and Berlin in particular, was no exception to this. Look no further than the thriving cabaret scene or the work of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, an early advocate for gay and transgender rights. A lot of this culture died with the Weimar Republic, as the Third Reich attempted to erase anyone and anything that clashed with its own ideology. But of course, it didn’t die out completely. Allusions to these subcultures are scattered throughout Pandora’s Bride. One of the main characters, Thea, is a street-smart flapper who guides Pandora through the world of Berlin. Pandora herself spends most of the book wearing men’s clothing, and multiple characters remark on how it’s become fashionable for women to do so. Magnus Hirschfeld himself is briefly namedropped. Late in the story, Pandora encounters a pair of English writers who are inferred to be a gay couple fleeing from persecution in their home country. It’s details like this that help breath life into the setting, and it’s a fun way to expand on the themes and ideas that Bride of Frankenstein and the German Expressionist movement were already playing with.
But the influence of German Expressionism is not just felt through the themes and the setting: it appears in the form of recognizable characters as well. In a twist that delighted me to no end when I was reading, Pandora’s Bride becomes a Kim Newman-esque mashup of Universal Horror and German Expressionist film. You may recognize Cesare, for example, as being from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. One of the key villains is none other than the robot from Metropolis, with her creator Dr. Rotwang as a supporting character. And the character known only as the Pfeifer, a mentally ill child killer with a nervous tic of whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King”? That’s Hans Beckert from M. I don’t like to think of myself as the kind of person who can be entertained with glimpses of things I recognize, but I did feel pleased when a new character popped up and I knew what story they were originally from. Including the Metropolis robot is a particularly inspired idea, since that character is in some ways the prototype (pun intended) for the Bride herself. And the book tries to explore the many similarities and differences between them. Both characters lack true humanity, but in different ways. Pandora is cold to the touch and frightens people with her scarred appearance, even though she is intelligent and kind. Meanwhile, the robot possesses the human vivacity that Pandora wants so badly, but not in the emotional sense: she is uncaring at best and cruel at worst. Both characters were created by a man to serve a specific purpose, and both of them break away from that predestined purpose when they gain autonomy. The key difference between them arises from the diverging paths they take. Pandora becomes a scholar, a protector and a loyal friend; the robot becomes a seducer and murderer.
Because there was something undeniably fascinating about the fembot, an aura that compelled attention. It was not simply the beauty of her artificial form, the marvelous strangeness of an undeniably feminine likeness that had been poured, like wine, into a glass and steel and wire receptacle. The result, once decanted, seemed to have as intoxicating an effect on the denizens of the Mondkellar as the beer and champagne on their tables. There was also what I can only call an intelligence there, a spark of genuine consciousness or perception. Not the mere posturing and echolalia of an automaton or sophisticated machine, but a responsiveness, even (dare I say it?) a warmth — the heat of self-awareness, of cognition and intellect, generated not by the friction of shifting gears and pulsing wires, but by the fembot herself.Page 137
This is all well and good, but you’re probably wondering how well Pandora’s Bride works as a sequel to the film it’s based on, if it actually expands the story and character of the Bride in a fascinating and satisfying way. And I think that, for the most part, it does. Like Bride of Frankenstein itself, this is fundamentally the story of an outcast searching for a community to belong to. In Pandora’s case, it becomes a literal search after she’s separated from her family, but it’s a metaphorical search as well. From her first moments of life, she takes note of how people look upon her with revulsion. As her intellect grows, she starts to internalize that hatred and become acutely aware of the differences between her and other people. What she ultimately finds is that her path to happiness comes not from the acceptance of the wider world but from accepting herself as she is and finding refuge with fellow outcasts. The book compares and contrasts her development with that of the original Creature, who appears in the third act of the story. Throughout the novella, Henry Frankenstein and his creature serve as the boogeymen figuratively and literally haunting Pandora. She’s unable to get past that first glimpse of her counterpart as a lumbering, semi-mute monster, and a good deal of tension in the book comes from her fear that she’ll be recaptured by Henry and forced to be a wife to the Creature. But the main turning point for her character happens when the Creature actually shows up, and he’s changed drastically from how she remembered him. Having gone on his own journey of self-discovery, he’s now a lot closer to the character from Mary Shelley’s novel: fully literate, eloquent and well aware that he has the ability to choose between good and evil.
“With intelligence? With — humanity?” I thought he would choke upon the word. It is because I have had months to think upon these things, alone! Because I realized no one would teach me. If I did not want to be a mere animal, hunted to its death, I must teach myself.
“And so I did. Like Rotwang’s fembot, I was a tabula rasa. But the template for knowledge, for speech and reading and rational argument, was there. The raw mess of organs and sinews could be made to knit so that I could speak and laugh and weep. Electricity fired our limbs, but blood can be forced through them. This body may be a patchwork of corpses and mangled limbs, but my brain is a singular entity. And it is my own.”Page 154
Pandora thus realizes that she was wrong about the Creature, and by showing empathy to a being like herself, she becomes more accepting of her own flaws as well. It’s this newfound confidence, plus the knowledge that she has friends who love her, that compel her to reject the villains’ “we can rule together” offer at the end of the story and team up with the Creature to foil their plans. And in a nice touch, the book allows Pandora to maintain her independence by not having her end up with the Creature at the end.
However, the book does have some flaws that hold it back just a bit. The biggest one for me is its length. At just over 200 pages, I feel the book is a little too short for the story it wants to tell. There’s a pretty sprawling plot and a number of prominent characters, but the book is written in first-person perspective and sticks with Pandora the whole time. As a result, the readers don’t get to witness a lot of important things that happen. Pandora and (to a lesser extent) the Creature are the only characters who get any real development, and the rest of the cast is rather flat. Worst of all, the compressed length of the story means that a lot of important revelations and twists just suddenly happen because the plot needs them to. Like the part where Pandora unlocks the ability to have a heartbeat and bloodflow when that hadn’t been foreshadowed as a possibility. She clearly has issues about being cold to the touch and not having blood in her veins, but the fix for that gets revealed and implemented in just a few paragraphs. And there’s the part at the end where a minor character we met a hundred pages ago rocks up out of nowhere to help save the day. But perhaps the weirdest thing that just happens is the villain twist.
All through the book, Henry Frankenstein has been built up as the overall villain of the narrative. It’s established early on that he’s killing women as part of a plan to create an army of subservient Brides for…reasons, and he directly shows up to try and kidnap Pandora so he can brainwash her. When all the heroes are reunited towards the end of the book, their objective becomes dealing with Henry once and for all. Henry as the final boss of the story has been well established by this point.
Then the heroes get to the evil underground laboratory and find out that the true final villain is, in fact, Henry’s wife Elizabeth. A character that has not actually appeared in the book until this point, I should mention. In a few quick lines of dialogue, we are told that Henry planned to brainwash Elizabeth, that she then had him murdered by the Metropolis robot and used his own science to resurrect him as her undead slave and that she’s still going through with his plan to use artificial women to enslave the human race. Or something. I’ll admit, the book lost me at this point. It’s a bit of an ask to have the villain you’ve built up get killed off-page and then present a character we’ve never met before as the new villain.
This is somewhat related to another aspect of the book that readers may not like, which is the blatant Wicked-style revisionism of lore and characters. Dr. Pretorius is now a playfully sinister but fundamentally well-meaning protector of the downtrodden, particularly women. Rotwang is also defanged quite a bit, becoming a workers’ rights advocate who created the robot as a replacement for human manual labor. Meanwhile, Henry Frankenstein is now a misogynistic serial killer, with his wife being just as sadistic as he is. Honestly, I don’t mind this too much. Kind of. Elizabeth’s switch does come out of nowhere, and I think it does detract from the climax. But there’s definitely room to interpret Henry as not so good and Pretorius as not so bad. And this Rotwang is clearly not the same character from Metropolis, so you can be more flexible with him. The only piece of revisionism I take issue with is a crucial detail in the first chapter. We are told that Pandora’s brain came from a dead woman, which is one possible reason why she picks up on human language and intellect so quickly. Now, I hate to be this kind of nerdy asshole. Under normal circumstances, I would never be this kind of nerdy asshole. But I feel the need to point out that in the original movie, it was the Bride’s heart that came from a dead woman. The brain was Pretorius’s own creation. I only make note of this because I really liked the idea of the Bride having an artificial brain and the questions and possibilities which could arise from that, and I’m a little disappointed that this book discards them.
The final aspect of the book which detracts from the overall experience is that some of the editing is lackluster. Normally I wouldn’t comment on the editing of a book, usually because you don’t have to if the editing is good. I tend not to notice editing unless there’s something genuinely bad about it. I’ve read some books with atrocious editing from start to finish, and this doesn’t fall into that category. But when there are flubs here, they’re big enough that they really jump out at you. One of the chapters being given the wrong number, for example. But the worst one by far is a typo where…look, I’m just gonna show you the page from the book, because otherwise you may not believe me when I tell you this is actually what it says.
Note to my fellow writers: always double check your spelling. For the love of God, always double check your spelling.
So, what’s my final verdict on Pandora’s Bride? A rushed plot and flat characters keep this from being a great story, but overall this manages to be a decently entertaining horror/mystery novella. It proudly wears its literary, cinematic and historical influences on its sleeve, and the final product is all the better for that. A lot of creativity and heart went into the project, which creates an intriguing world that you want to explore further. While some of the side characters and subplots leave something to be desired, the central focus of the narrative — the Bride’s efforts to understand and accept herself — are done well enough to merit a read. As an attempt to continue the Bride of Frankenstein story, it’s a fun experiment that mostly pays off. I would tell you guys to go read it, but I’m not sure how easy it would be to find a copy: I’m pretty sure this thing has been out of print for over a decade. But if you go digging and manage to find it via a library or at a reasonable price, it’s worth the effort of looking.
The review for House of Dracula will be coming next month. In the meantime, you’ll probably see more book reviews as part of this series in the future. At the time of this writing, I’ve already acquired another of the DH Press novellas and I’m in the process of acquiring a third. When will I read and review them? I don’t know. It’ll be a surprise to me too. But for now, thanks for reading and have a happy Halloween!