I admit it, here, now and of my own free will, I love monster movies. I love the good ones and the bad ones and I most certainly love the classics. Evidently, so does James K. Morrow. This book is a love letter to the monster films of the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s, the ones starring Karloff and Lugosi, Lorre and Chaney. And Syms J. Thorley.
Syms J. Thorley is the man behind the mask in the second tier, just a rung or two behind those old time legends. He’s the guy you call when you want to do “Frankenstein” but not call it “Frankenstein.” Thorley is also Isaac Margolis, a first generation Jewish American who, in 1945, enjoys what he does playing monsters, enjoys his life living with a sexy B Movie writer and enjoys hanging out on sound stages and in famous Hollywood eateries. And he’s good at all those things. So good, in fact, the government comes calling to recruit him to play a part in what could ostensibly end WWII.
The plan is this: Since the Manhattan Project is slightly off-track a second weapon has been developed, a pack of 200 foot tall, fire breathing mutant iguanas (if you think this sounds like Godzilla… you’re quite right), which, if Japan doesn’t surrender, will be unleashed on the island of Honshu. Naturally, the Japanese aren’t going to take our word we have these creatures and it would be a little presumptuous to release the full-size critters as a demonstration so the Navy is going to show the Japanese brass a smaller version destroying a model town. This is where Thorley comes in. No one can “shamble” like he can so he’s hired to get inside a suit and tear apart Shirazuka (the actual miniature versions are quite docile and friendly).
Thorley agrees and we follow him through rehearsals and the performance… all told from the perspective of a memoir Thorley himself is writing 40 years after the fact, sitting in a hotel after winning a life-time achievement award (the Raydo – “a name meant to evoke not only the rhedosaurus, that ersatz dinosaur featured in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but also the two Rays without whom the movie wouldn’t exist — Bradbury, author of the original story, and Harryhausen, stop-motion animator extraordinaire.”) but just before he plans to jump from the window, thus ending his life.
As he tells his story of “The Knickerbocker Project” we also get the various interruptions to his writing, the people who knock on his door, the sidetracks his memories take. Through out it all, Morrow keeps it light and breezy, interspersing his fictional world with enough vérité to let us know he’s done his homework. A monster film class could be taught using the movies he mentions as a course viewing list. Thorley is a pleasant character and the supporting cast are all well-drawn and appropriate for the times (a few “real” peopley, including Willis O’Brien, have co-starring roles).
Then things change. Just before the one and only performance the story takes a left turn and becomes a bit more serious. Cartoon villains suddenly become all too real and the light-hearted adventure turns deadly and filled with pathos. Morrow takes Thorley through his paces, eliciting real emotions and making his readers question the motives of the early August 1945 US government when they unleashed “Fat Man and Little Boy” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The final few pages twist the story so we finally understand why Thorley is planning on ending it all… after he tells the whole story.
This isn’t a long book (technically, it’s a novella, and was nominated as such for the Hugo and Nebula awards) but it is well with the couple of hours it’ll take you to read it.