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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Fright Club: On the Equality of Monsterkind

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

“It’s no use, dear boy. The shadmocks aren’t going away. We have to learn to live with them.” My impression of how the fictional world of R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s The Monster Club may have come about. (Stock image, dated 1884, titled “Moonshine” and edited by the author’s talented wife.)

In a hot moment of confrontation between members of the club, one monster questions another’s pedigree and we can see a brawl threatening. Just then a “dignified ghoul” condemns the insult and recalls the members to their creed: “Gentlemen, please...I would request everyone to remember the club’s irrevocable rule: ‘All monsters are equal’.” And as in a melodramatic light opera they sing a rousing round of the Monster’s Anthem, dampening the eyes of more than one.

It is in scenes like this from R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s clever omnibus novel,

The Monster Club, that it is hard for me not to imagine an entire history, running parallel with that of Great Britain, in which all of the odd categories and subcategories of monsters, after generations of mutual animosity, had to agree to accept one another in uneasy fraternity in order to thrive in the world hunted by humans. The British class system and multitude of cultural backgrounds and ancient animosities find themselves humorously at home in this collection of short horror stories set at the end of the twentieth century in a club where the both the old and new elite monsters of the British Isles rub shoulders.

In The Monster Club Chetwynd-Hayes has written a mischievous love letter to British society and English humor. The stories often play on class differences, and that loveable flaw in the English character: its impulse toward civility and good-fellowship. It begins when the protagonist of the frame story, unable to risk insult, is pressured into an invitation to a vampire’s private club. This is after the vampire takes advantage of his kindness and steals a drink from him. It seems a very English thing to do, like the Saxon Earl Byrhtnoth, who, in 991 CE, was goaded out of his strategic military advantage by a Viking warchief because it was not very sporting. Byrhtnoth and his men were, of course, all slaughtered in the Battle of Maldon. The problem with wily Viking chiefs and these monsters, it seems, is that they are so jolly polite.

The question of social rules and proper etiquette is often the point upon which the tales pivot. In one tale a freshly-bitten werewolf must learn to behave properly in the home of the parents of the young vampire who loves him. In another, a young man comes into his monstrous inheritance and “parboils” the heartless beauty who tormented him when he believed he was only an ugly human. I may go too far in thinking that Chetwynd-Hayes had Dickens’s Pip and Estella in mind with this pairing, but in another tale when the son of a country estate’s former cowherd returns as the cold, millionaire lord of “Withering Grange,” and his trophy wife is stolen by son of the monstrous servants, it is clear that Chetwynd-Hayes was considering the class-oriented literature of his land.

I was compelled to give a chance to this forty-seven-year-old text—by an author I had not heard of—because of a foggy memory of a creature from a film I had seen in the early 1980s: a ghoul that whistles. It turned out to be an adaptation, of the same title, of Chetwynd-Hayes’s book, starring Vincent Price and John Carradine, late in their careers. (I read that Christopher Lee turned down a role upon hearing the title!) I had remembered moments from that marvelously dated and deliciously horrible film for years and, given the free time over the holidays, was finally able to research whether there was, in fact, a creature from traditional folklore, that met that description. I discovered that the shadmock was Chetwynd-Hayes’s creation and that it didn't stop there.

1981 Film Adaptation

Price and Carradine and one of the better-looking makeup effects in a werewolf. The film is fun to watch if one has a sense of humor, as it is in parts both moving and ridiculous, but Chetwynd-Hayes’s book is better.

Chetwynd-Hayes seems to have known that readers like me would be skeptical of his silly-sounding hybrid monster coinages: werevamp, vamgoo, maddy, shaddy, raddy. He built a few ingenious defenses of the creatures. A vampire complains that horror films have taught humans how to thwart them, and this is true of the werewolf as well. But no one is ready for a shaddy. Not even a vampire is equipped to take one on, as seen in one tale. The Monster Club’s central rule, that all monsters are equal, seems to anticipate a newcomer’s objection to Chetwynd-Hayes’s new creations, as well as teach us that the monsters we’ve grown up with have decided that it’s better to accept the newcomers into the fold. Chetwynd-Hayes seems to tell us that it is important we learn about his creatures if we know what is best for us. As the ill-fated Rev. John Barker puts it: “Monstrumology. A much neglected line of research which is unfortunately often treated with derision by the uninformed.” Barker is immediately mocked as insane by a character who is soon killed by the creatures he doubts. But they kill Barker first, so knowledge is not always an aegis against the monsters.

A Monster Family Tree

A poster made for the 1981 film to help explain the new monsters of British horror author R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s The Monster Club.

A new creature is like catnip for me and creature categorizations—fantasy beasts collected into any format suggesting empirical knowledge—is irresistible. I was a little let down to discover that shadmocks weren’t “real” folklore. But I kept finding new reasons to continue reading. For instance, Chetwynd-Hayes’s rule of monsterdom: “Vampires—sup; Werewolves—hunt; Ghouls—tear; Shaddies—lick; Maddies—yawn; Mocks—blow; Shadmocks—only whistle.” With this piece of fictional gnomic wisdom, my curiosity was piqued and I am grateful for the clever read it provided me over the dark nights between the solstice and Christmas.

If I appreciate Chetwynd-Hayes’s cleverness and storytelling, it was the polite, period voice of the text that disarmed and continually delighted me. Consider his opening apology: “I would like to stress that the Monstereal Table which can be found on page 54 is only intended as a rough guide to the breeding habits of modern monsters…Doubtless if the serious student of Monstrumology keeps his eyes open, he will discover many strange mixtures walking about in our public places or strap-hanging in the underground.” Chetwynd-Hayes’s sense of humor also won me: “Donald McCloud, despite his Scottish name, had a heart as big as the world.” And perhaps, just as the various cultures and classes of Britain have had to learn to appreciate one another and create a modern society in the twentieth century, its monsters too have found it necessary to take in their upstart cousins. Chetwynd-Hayes inherited vampires, werewolves and ghouls and bequeathed us the ridiculously-named werevamps and vamgoos, but it is worth it to read about Chetwynd-Hayes’s most original and terrifying creations, including that whistling ghoul, the shadmock.

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