Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Crestwood House . . . of Horrors!




Because of my personality trait of obsessive introspection, I can cite the many things that have contributed to my state of perpetual geekery / arrested maturity / dubious connection to reality over the years. Star Wars was my gateway drug to all things science fiction and fantasy, while Spider-Man (courtesy of The Electric Company TV show and its companion magazine of the same title) got me started on superheroes and all things comic book-ish. On the other hand, my interest in horror is a bit more convoluted in its history and took much longer to blossom. What I can say, though, is that my introduction to classic horror cinema was provided not by the movie theater itself, but instead by a publishing company called Crestwood House.

Some background information: This happened in the early 1980s, when there were no video rental stores and VCRs--let alone DVD players--were not common household appliances. My family didn't have cable and what syndicated TV stations (remember those?) we could get outside of the major networks were rarely of watchable quality. It was against this backdrop that my elementary school started getting these strange, fun "Monster Series" of books from Crestwood House. Once my buddies and I found the first set of these books at the library, we couldn't get enough of them. Between 1980 and 1982, we gobbled up each book we could find and looked forward to each new book as if it were the next set of new Kenner Star Wars action figures. For kids our age, that was a big deal. Read on . . .




Each Crestwood House Monster Series book was devoted to a classic movie monster, with plot descriptions and movie stills printed on black and white pages, while the books' covers featured a Halloween-esque orange and black color scheme. When I did some searching around the Web for some additional information about the Crestwood House Monster Series books, I found out that I wasn't alone in my experience with them. Several blogs have had their own retrospectives about the books, including pictures of the books themselves which I have included in this post. Go to the following links to see the interior of the following Crestwood House Monster Series books:
A few points of interest:

* What was remarkable about the Crestwood House Monster Series books was that they weren't just books about classic movie monsters; they were books about classic movie monster franchises. Because the first few books were devoted to classic Universal Studio monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, etc.), the books featured plot summaries of the movies in which each of the monsters first appeared, provided descriptions of many of the sequels, spin-offs, sequels-in-name-only and adaptations that featured the monsters, and even listed some behind-the-scenes trivia.

This may not sound like much, since franchises dominate the horror/sci-fi landscape today, but it was quite a find for me in my childhood. At that time, most of the to-be "blockbuster" summer franchises such as Star Wars and Jaws were in their relative infancy, with only one sequel each, and the multi-sequel slasher sagas commonly associated with the 80s hadn't really started yet. Furthermore, the multi-movie series that was the Planet of the Apes franchise, probably the biggest franchise that was the closest to me and my friends chronologically, was largely inaccessible to us at the time since we couldn't just go and rent or buy the films on video cassette. Thus, you could say that the Crestwood House books were primers for up-and-coming horror geeks who would crave monster movies, merchandise, and production trivia. You know, folks like me.



* The publishing run of the Crestwood House Monster Series books, which started in 1978, roughly coincides with Remco's release of action figures, accessories, and play sets based on the Universal Studio Monsters. You can read more about these toys at ToyMania.com and The Gallery of Monster Toys site. Whether Crestwood House and Remco ever deliberately attempted to cross-market the books with the toys (or vice-versa) I cannot say.

* Finally, when I used Amazon's search engine to do some research on Crestwood House, some monster books of a different sort also appeared on the search results list. In addition to books about movie monsters, Crestwood House published another series around the same time about monsters of legend in their Search for the Unknown series. (Not to be confused with Leonard Nimoy's In Search Of TV series, which was similar in both name and subject matter.) As far as I can tell, there were only six books in this series, and the covered the following subjects: Ancient Astronauts, The Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster, Monster Tales of Native Americans, and UFOs. Two of the authors who worked on Crestwood House's movie monster books, Ian Thorne and Howard Schroeder, also wrote the Search for the Unknown books. I can only wonder how Thorne and Schroeder felt about juggling movie monsters with legendary "real life" monsters.

If I'm remembering correctly (although I can't be sure because no pictures are available for the books in this series), our school library had the Search for the Unknown books too but they weren't nearly as popular as the movie monster books. Nevertheless, they had some pretty impressive full-color covers, which featured painted depictions of the book's subject matter. For example, the Bermuda Triangle book featured an F-14 jet fighter flying into a dark, empty hole in the sky, a hole created by the clouds literally opening up into a circular pattern of flat panels. The Loch Ness Monster book cover was split between the areas above and below the loch's surface and it featured not just one but two monsters, each depicted in ways that were similar to two famous (albeit hoaxed) photographs of the monster--the grainy, black and white 1934 photo and one of the underwater pictures from 1975. The first monster had a snake-like head peering above the waters of the loch and a huge plesiosaur-like body below the surface, while the shadow of the completely submerged second monster could be seen peering out of the murky loch water behind the first monster.



Sadly, Crestwood House's brief run of books devoted to monster movie franchises came to an end. As the book series went on, it ran out of multi-sequel monsters such as The Invisible Man and Godzilla and shifted to books about sequel-less, single-movie creature features such as It Came From Outer Space and The Deadly Mantis. Unlike the first few books, the later books were little more than summaries of the movies, with no mention of any production details or similar films. Oddly, Crestwood House did a book about The Blob, but it only mentioned the first film and not the 1972 sequel, Beware! The Blob; however, the book nevertheless used a still from the sequel as its cover(!).

My school stopped getting the books in 1982, but I learned from the other blogs that Crestwood House did continue its movie monster book series with a different color scheme and an ongoing focus on individual horror films, such as Tarantula and The Mole People. To see pictures of the later books, go to the Scotty ART site and the Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Movie Books page on Facebook (Facebook access required).

With the ready availability of monster movies both on DVD and the Internet, I honestly cannot say how future horror fans will catch the monster movie bug. I also don't know if other publishing companies took up the movie monster kids book mantle after Crestwood House ended their Monster Series. Regardless, I still cherish my memories of the books, if for no other reason than that I directly benefited from a publisher who believed that Hollywood's glorification of reanimated corpses, blood-sucking fiends, homicidal human/animal hybrids, atomic age freaks, and sanity-challenged scientists with perverse moral agendas made ideal reading for the pre-teen set. I am so blessed!

4 comments:

  1. Excellent feature on this book series. My experience mirrors yours quite closely. I recently found some of these at a library sale and remembered them for the first time in decades. Thanks for the insight. I may link back to this one from my blog.

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  2. I'm glad you like this post, and please feel free to link to it. Things were certainly different for budding movie monster lovers in the era before VHS and DVD, weren't they? I can only imagine how kids get into classic movie monsters nowadays.

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  3. I noticed in the blog above that my monster movie book site is mentioned. Unfortunately due to site restrictions etc. I had to drop that website. My book collection can now be seen however in my public Facebook album
    http://www.facebook.com/update_security_info.php?wizard=1#!/pages/Classic-Horror-and-Sci-Fi-Movie-Books/172213476141693

    Look under Juvenile books for the Crestwood Monster Book Images and Teachers Kit.

    Thanks
    Dustin

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  4. Thanks for the update and the link, Dustin--I'll make the necessary changes. Anything to keep the Crestwood legacy alive!

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