In reader circles, it's never surprising to hear that the book is always better than the movie. It's a bit less common to hear that the novelisation is better than the movie, but here's a great example.
'The Ghoul' was a 1975 horror movie by the British company Tyburn, whose name has kept much more prestige than it really deserves. Formed during the dying days of Hammer by Kevin Francis, the son of Hammer cinematographer and director Freddie Francis, it carried on in very much the same traditions and with many of the same people. 'The Ghoul' was directed by the elder Francis, of course; and it was written by Anthony Hinds, long term Hammer producer, using his usual pseudonym of John Elder. The star of the show is no less a Hammer mainstay than Peter Cushing, with a young John Hurt in support, a couple of horror starlets and a strange introductory role for Don Henderson, both in substance and in order of his filmography, given that he was hardly new at the time.
So far, so good! Well, there are a number of problems about to be made obvious. One is that it's not a good film. While Hurt is excellent and Cushing is as reliable as ever, it's slow and drawn-out and there really isn't a lot of ghoul action going on in a movie called 'The Ghoul'. Another is it that it's hardly an original story, most Hammer fans calling it a transparent rehash of the 1966 film 'The Reptile', which was written by the same scriptwriter using the same pseudonym. What's more, not a single character is sympathetic at all, so we're never in danger of caring what happens to anyone.
It follows a quartet of rich and beautiful people on an ill-advised automobile race across the nation to Land's End. Given that we're in a period setting, clearly around a hundred years ago in the Jazz Age, and our unknown starting point is at least a couple of hundred miles from the destination, things are very likely to go wrong. And they do, by the next morning, when the leading car of the two runs out of petrol and the spark behind this ridiculous race stumbles through the fog into the mansion of former clergyman Dr. Lawrence, who seems nice but who's hiding a particularly ghastly secret. Lawrence is a torn man because of about what he's allowing to happen but that's about all the depth we get.
Fortunately, a year after the release of 'The Ghoul' and its sister picture, 'Legend of the Werewolf'which you will surely be shocked to discover was also directed by Freddie Francis, written by Anthony Hinds as John Elder and with Peter Cushing in the leadTyburn licensed both films to be novelised. It fell to Sphere and a pair of reliable writers, Guy Smithsans the usual middle initial for the second of four booksand future World Fantasy Award winner Robert Holdstock, writing as Robert Black, to do something to spice these duds up and give them some oomph.
Smith took a very simple approach, in what is his only novelisation of a film for adults, after four brief Disney adaptations for New English Library. This book runs very closely to the film's screenplay, with a very minor but notable differences. Firstly, he provides a few details that were left unexplained in the script: he gives the date as 1923, "a modern age where reality counted", and suggests that the racers were going the wrong way, starting in London and ending up near Monkton, which places them on the very opposite side of the south of England to Land's End, which even on today's roads, is unreachable in fewer than 362 miles. The idiots.
More importantly, he ratchets up the sex just a little and the gore a lot. There's not really anything in the book that isn't in the movie, but Tyburn were surprisingly reticent to put sex and violence into this 1975 horror movie, so Smith extrapolated. Tom Rawlings, Mr. Lawrence's sadistic gardener, is more of a rapist than a lech, even if his unbuttoning of Angela's blouse is interrupted by his gruesome murder at the hands of the ghoul, while his cruel murderous nature is exposed just as gleefully. And the kills, which are underplayed in the film, are gloriously gratuitous here.
The first murder, of the entitled bitch whose selfish actions prompt everything that follows (except an actual flesh-eating beast, which we can't really blame on her), is a great example. We see her blood in the film scene, but Smith has a field day with his equivalent here. She's dead after two stabs of a wide steel blade, but the ghoul keeps stabbing with wild abandon. "Only when she was a heap of partially dismembered bloody joints did he stop." And the gore doesn't stop along with him. Tom helps Ayah, a Hindi nurse, to move the corpse. "Between them they managed to lift the body, which was still held together by sinews and strings of uncut flesh, resembling a broken wooden puppet."
Why Tyburn was so reluctant to bring the gothic horrors of Hammer into the video nasty era, I have no idea, but it's evident that Smith's playing up of the gory elements is exactly what this particular film needed. "With a sickening squelch, the ghastly mutilation landed squarely on the blanket." Ayah has half a chapter to hack and saw her way through Daphne's mangled corpse, stuff her limbs into a barrel of salt and clean up the kitchen, before collapsing, drained, in the corner to nap for a couple of hours.
What Smith does that's most important of all, though, is to bloody-well-get-on-with-things. The worst thing about the movie isn't really its lack of ghoul action or its avoidance of sex and violence, it's that it takes far too long for anything to happen. After a cool opening scene, we seem to be stuck at Billy's party forever until Daphne persuades him into a race, then we seem to be stuck forever racing down country roads until she gets stuck in the fog right before a precipice which Smith names Devil's Drop.
In this novelisation, on the other hand, all of that is over and done with in eight pages. He really gets down to business! Sure, everything is familiar, right down to the dialogue, which he repeats verbatim, but it's done a heck of a lot quicker. Hinds managed to have us bored before we even get to the house with its overdone Victoriana and Oriental knicknacks, let alone to meet Peter Cushing. Smith won't let us take a breath before he's inviting Daphne in and she's happy to oblige to get away from the creepy gardener.
If there's a flaw, it's that it seems too easy. Smith adapted this so closely and so faithfully, only adding the missing lechery and grue,that it's over too quickly. That he did a better job telling this story than an entire production company with an experienced writer and an experienced director fails to conceal the facts that he probably knocked this off in a week and could have done it much more justice had he taken two. I wonder if he enjoyed the process of writing up someone else's story instead of his own or not. It has to be said that, after this one, which landed him easily his biggest payday to date, he never wrote another novelisation, so I'm guessing he really didn't like the process.
Fortunately, at this point in his career, he had more work than he could handle. This was his fifth book of five for 1976, hitting shelves in October with a gorgeous Les Edwards cover, and three more would see print by the following April. He was also churning out porn at a rate of knots, including batches of "reader's letters", for which he also got paid very well. The success of 'Night of the Crabs' had meant that he was able to live his dream as a full time professional author, but he still had work to do to find a comfortable balance between what he wanted to write and what he didn't, not to mention leaving a substantial amount of room for his many other interests.
Next up, a brief hiatus from horror, so Smith can explore the world of 'The Truckers' in a pair of books for Mews, the series imprint of New English Library. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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