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HomeArticleNovel About Bela Lugosi’s Fictionalized Fall From Fame Sheds Light on Truth and Beauty

Novel About Bela Lugosi’s Fictionalized Fall From Fame Sheds Light on Truth and Beauty

Novel About Bela Lugosi’s Fictionalized Fall From Fame Sheds Light on Truth and Beauty

Close-up of the book cover for This Thing of Darkness. (photo: Courtesy photo / Ignatius Press)

In a world of deceits, one must desperately seek truth — even if that truth proves painful.

When I was asked to review This Thing of Darkness, I was initially reluctant. Outside some novels by Dean Koontz, horror is a genre I have carefully dodged. I would guess my reticence is shared by many Catholics. After all, if Stephen King is the “King of Horror,” it’s a largely depraved and despairing kingdom — and one we’d just assume avoid.

But let me assure you: In the best of ways, This Thing of Darkness, co-written by the Register’s U.K. correspondent, K.V. Turley, is a polar contrast with today’s horror genre.

Harold Bloom, author of dozens of books on literary criticism, including The Western Canon, has called Stephen King “an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.” Whether poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction, good writing must examine — and ideally, champion — truth, goodness and beauty. Where King and most of his contemporaries often fail in that regard, Darkness authors Turley and Fiorella De Maria succeed.

The book’s prologue opens in the year 1971, but the story is largely set in 1956. Journalist Evangeline Kilhooley, nicknamed “Evi,” is assigned the task of writing a piece about Bela Lugosi, an actor who had risen to stardom in Hollywood by assuming the title role in the 1931 film Dracula. A quarter-century after that film, Lugosi has fallen from fame and grace. Evi’s assignment is to interview Lugosi and write a story about his “Life and Times” before he dies.

Evi, in dire need of money since her husband died in the Korean War, begrudgingly accepts the job. To assist her with research, Evi’s editor points her toward a film expert named Hugo Radelle, who also served in the Korean War.

Evi listens to Lugosi’s accounts: his childhood, his failed marriages, how he came to be Dracula, and why the darkness of his past remained so influential in his life. As Lugosi puts it, “The ancient world of forests and castles and deserted graveyards clung to me.”

Over the course of their meetings, Evi discovers that Lugosi was more bizarre than the fictional character he seemed born to play. These meetings also provide the opportunity for comparison between Evi and Lugosi: “Evi’s unwashed, unpainted face in the glass stared back. Perhaps that was why she felt drawn to Bela, and he to her, in a strange way. They were both freaks.”

Evi’s series of interviews force her to face her own demons — including alcohol: her chosen method of escaping the world when her writing could not take her far enough away. It’s a problem we discover early on:

 

“In spite of years alone, Evi still found herself hesitating to reach into her desk drawer, as though the ghost of her mother might appear in the room to remonstrate with her. It was the ghost of a bad conscience; she shrugged it off as she opened the drawer and took out the hip flask. Her husband’s hip flask. When she drank from it, the act felt like a desecration. The urge was stronger than the shame now, that is, since the arrival of the telegram telling her he was missing.”

 

Darkness vs. Light

The theme of darkness versus light is used powerfully throughout, and Evi is compelled to make a choice between the two: “Evi no longer felt the need to sit near the window, craving the little shaft of light that broke through. The darkness suited her well enough after all.”

Throughout the book, the authors utilize subtext beautifully, as they employ deep meanings beneath the words. For example, in her first meeting with Lugosi, the room is very dark, so Evi asks, “I wonder if I might pull back the curtain a little?” Indeed. What is the curtain? Is it possible to pull it back only a little? Are curtains closing?

As Evi gets to know Radelle over the course of their meetings, she begins to suspect that Radelle has some secrets of his own — secrets that may have a profound effect on her life and her view of the world.

In large measure, Darkness is a story of the conflict between truth and falsity — whether that falsity takes the form of deceptions or outright lies. And in a world of deceits, one must desperately seek truth — even if that truth proves painful.

Ultimately, This Thing of Darkness is a story of good versus evil. Simple enough. But this book provides for a refreshing change for novel readers. In many recent blockbuster novels, the line between good and evil is intentionally blurred, and evil advances in the absence of a clear distinction. Many modern novels do not even admit the good, much less a good God.

Back in 2007, in a piece about Stephen King’s novels, columnist Ross Douthat wrote:

 

“God doesn’t make an appearance in most of King’s stories, which is understandable enough: The horror genre requires the supernatural, but it doesn’t require the divine. Indeed, a too-powerful divinity sucks all the suspense out of a supernatural thriller, since the outcome of a God-and-the-devil showdown is never really in doubt.”

 

I disagree with Douthat’s premise. If what he says is true, then life itself has no suspense — to say nothing of novels. Very often, the suspense lies in whether we fallen men and women will choose to accept the grace of God. And that suspense has made for some of the best novels of all time.

One last point that I trust will not give too much of the story away. As one who has written much in the defense of marriage, I appreciate the authors’ illustration that the power of matrimony remains far beyond death. It’s a beautiful message that I hope finds its way into more literature — fictional and non-fictional alike.

As I mentioned at the outset, many Catholics might dismiss this book due to its genre. The book may have trouble finding an audience. That would be unfortunate, because not only is this an entertaining book with an excellent message, but it proves that the horror genre can make for a powerful means to explore truth, goodness and beauty.

 

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