From Paper to the Big Screen: Author Sharon Healy-Yang Talks Horror Adaptations

I’ve been an old movie buff since I was a teenager, a few years back. When I first started hunting down older films, when dinosaurs roamed the airwaves, cable had few channels, and my family couldn’t afford even that limited version. You had three networks and a hand full of UHF stations. Did I mention there was no such thing as DVDs? So, hunting down films of the 1930s-50s was difficult. Consequently, many of the films I’d read about and wanted to see just weren’t available. Being an avid reader, I went for the next best thing: finding the books on which these classic films were based. As a result, even though I now possess my precious films on DVD, there are still three novels to which I usually return in October: The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle, The Undying Monster by Jessie Douglas Kerriush and The Sign of the Ram by Margaret Ferguson.

What I admire in these books is the depth of characterization, the creation of a powerful mystical/eerie atmosphere, the vividness of the landscapes, and the intelligence of the storylines. They are such a pleasure to read because in them there’s enough detail to savor and to shape your imagination but no excess or filler. Right now, I’m re-reading The Uninvited, originally published as Uneasy Freehold. The novel conjures up excellent atmosphere with beautiful descriptions of the Cornish coast; the haunted mansions; and the characters’ hopes, fears, and growing horror. This is one of my favorite books to read for getting into the holiday “spirit.” For her expertise in wielding language, her probing of character, and her deft plot twisting I highly recommend Macardle.

The film has a lighter touch than the beautifully crafted, brooding novel and many events and characters have been excised or condensed and combined. Still, that’s appropriate for a film, where you only have about 90 minutes to tell your tale. The humor works by making you enjoy the characters. As a result, you feel their horror more dearly as it creeps in and takes over. Ray Milland is intelligent, funny, and no weak sister, but humanly daunted by the malevolent supernatural force. Ruth Hussey, playing his sister, is warm and witty. Gail Russell is luminously intense as the haunted Stella. Elizabeth Russell (Rosalind Russell’s one-time sister in law!) does an unbilled turn as a menacing wraith. The film’s visuals movingly convey the eerie beauty of the novel: from the gorgeous coast and mansion to the slow wilting of roses in a haunted room to the misty tendrils of the ghost.

Jessie Douglas Kerriush’s The Undying Monster is part of the psychic detective genre, with a psychic brought in to help a scientist uncover the nature of the beast that has ravaged an ancient British family for centuries and now threatens to destroy the narrator’s two close friends. The psychic detective genre came into play mainly with the ghost and vampire chasers of Sheridan LeFanu and Bram Stoker and flourished in the nineteenth- and the early twentieth-centuries. The Undying Monster deftly captures the post WWI fascination with spiritualism and psychic phenomenon, leading characters and readers into the dark depths of ancient ruins, crypts, and family history to reach a final, mystical resolution – and it’s an exciting ride! Here, the female psychic is a strong, smart, learned investigator, but no less feminine. The search for truth by sifting through ancient hints and clues is Holmes-worthy, and the ultimate confrontation with past and present sins is mind-blowing.

The film The Undying Monster is enjoyable but not quite so engaging. The sets of the Cornish countryside and the halls and crypts of the ancient mansion are wonderfully gothic, filmed in glorious black and white. The suspense of “is it or isn’t it” an actual werewolf, and if so, who, provides a nice mystery. However, the investigators are not nearly as interesting as those in the book, with the female investigator becoming a slightly superior male scientist and his ditsy female lab assistant. The werewolf effect towards the end is pretty nifty, though.

The Sign of the Ram is one of my favorite novels from the era. The gorgeous descriptions of the Cornish coast capture its magnificence, creating a strong sense of place. The characters are intriguing, with the gradual revelation of what lurks beneath their surfaces skillfully worked out. The subplots neatly intertwine with the main conflicts for a read that is richly pleasurable. As in many novels of the era, descriptions of place and character are full and spot on without being heavy or verbose. Margaret Ferguson knows how to wield language. The film version is true to the novel, though much is pared down to fit the 84-minute running time. The casting is pretty solid, though I pictured the doctor as Cary Grant, definitely not Ron Randall. Ah, the limits put on casting by budgets. Susan Peters does a bang up job as the lovely lady of the house, seeming a wise and well-balanced guardian from her wheelchair, while she actually manipulates her family, crushing anyone she perceives as threatening her power.

Image Sources

Dorothy Mcardle portrait: Wikkipedia, creative commons, Wilted flowers- screen shot from The Uninvited (Paramount Pictures, 1944), author’s collection Dust jacket The Sign of the Ram, author’s collection

About Sharon Healy-Yang’s Jessica Minton Mystery Series

It’s wartime New York, 1943. Jessica Minton, an up-and-coming young stage actress, is pondering the mixed blessings of rehearsals for a play that just doesn’t seem to be jelling, the attentions of a reliable beau she isn’t quite sure she wants to marry, and playing referee for her sister and brother-in-law’s tempestuous marriage. Just as she thinks her life couldn’t get any crazier, she becomes entangled with deceit, espionage, and murder when an unsettlingly attractive stranger makes her the unwilling custodian of a mysterious package in a Manhattan stalked by fifth columnists. Those who claim to be her allies may or may not be on the level, as Jessica is shot at, nearly stabbed in the midst of a performance, and held at gun point by a Nazi double agent. As if dodging homicide were not enough, Jessica finds herself romantically torn between her boyfriend and the elusive owner of the package––either of whom could be an Axis spy. With the help of her madcap sister Liz and a smart-aleck cat Dusty, Jessica is challenged to puzzle out whom to trust, with not just her country but her own life depending on her. Romance and adventure in the vein of Susan Elia McNeal, Kathryn Miller Haines, and Rhys Bowen.

Spring 1945: WWII may be crashing to a close, but Jessica and Liz Minton’s hopes for the future are short-lived as they become entrapped in a noir world of intrigue and murder. Jessica’s beloved is missing in action in Europe, leaving her on her own to save herself and those she cares about from the shadows of a dark past entangling them in false identities, a cut-throat search for stolen jade, and murder. Join Jessica and Liz as they strive to restore a friend’s family honor, to save Elizabeth’s love from the deadly frame-up of a predatory socialite with underworld connections, to outsmart two dogged detectives, and to deal with an F.B.I. agent from Jessica’s past with secrets of his own – all without getting themselves killed! It’s enough to make Dusty the cat’s fur stand on end!

Sharon Healy-Yang is an aficionado of 1940s cinematic and written mysteries.  A professor emerita at Worcester State University in Massachusetts, where she was known for her 1940s hats, she had the great fortune to share her love of literature and film with her students in her courses.  Now retired, she’s excited to recapture for readers the smart-talking heroines, suspense, adventure, and sharp wit of 1940s films in her Jessica Minton Mystery series:  Bait and Switch, Letter from a Dead Man, and Always Play the Dark Horse.

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