Forty years ago, American International Pictures released The Abominable Dr. Phibes starring the late Vincent Price to movie theaters and Award Books published the novel, Dr. Phibes by the character’s creator, William Goldstein. The novel serves as an intriguing variant to the camp classic film in treating the same story with a great deal of reverence and pathos. The following year Price starred in a hastily-produced sequel for AIP, Dr. Phibes Rises Again and Award Books again published a tie-in novel by the character’s creator which expands upon and corrects a number of the film’s flaws. Flash forward to 2011 and William Goldstein’s new novel, Dr. Phibes: In the Beginning has just been published.
I am not aware of any other creator having returned to his seminal work after such a lengthy passage of time. That said Goldstein had never truly abandoned Phibes. Much like the good doctor’s own quest to revive his beloved wife Victoria, Goldstein has had his own never-ending quest to re-launch the franchise with a new film or a television series. He is a rarity among screenwriters in that his literary efforts do not read like little more than movie treatments or as typical novelizations that slavishly follow the source material.
As Phibes’ creator and a fine author in his own right, Goldstein imbued his two Phibes novels of the early seventies with a tragic quality that frequently bordered on the poetic. Like his celebrated character, Goldstein had a vision of showing love as an all-consuming obsession and constructing a self-contained universe where Phibes is free to play God. This is the root of the Phibes universe and why his deranged decision to punish those he holds accountable for his wife’s death by re-creating Biblical plagues seems perfectly rational within the context.
All of that aside, after forty years would Goldstein find the same voice to tell Phibes’ tale? It was a valid question and one that made me approach In the Beginning with some trepidation. The book is anything but conventional (and in that, one must admit, it is a wholly Phibesian work) in that it reads as an episodic collection of tales moving backward and forward through time and regularly changing focus until it achieves a surprising degree of coherence that makes it obvious that the author’s idiosyncratic approach is the only one that would succeed for the story he is telling or rather embroidering. it is not a prequel or a sequel to the earlier works so much as it is a companion volume designed to deepen the reader’s understanding of what makes Phibes and his world tick and whets the reader’s appetite for where this marvelous character is going in the 21st Century.
Like any good creator, Goldstein wants immortality for his creation. Phibes is to survive to carry on after his mortal maker is smoke and dust. Creating a cult classic film character is well and good, but it is not enough…in fact, “it” can never be enough and, in that respect, creator and creation are clearly cut from the same cloth.
Happily, Dr. Phibes: In the Beginning fully delivers on the promise of the author’s first two books. Goldstein quickly finds his narrative voice in a contemporary opening depicting the Phibesian death visited upon the sleazy Roddy Ambrose and introducing the reader to the new protagonist, Inspector Valor Pretorius. Evoking character names from the original works and the 1935 Universal horror classic, The Bride of Frankenstein seems an entirely appropriate move and one that quickly sets out the book’s ambition.
In many ways, the reader’s journey is the same one that Pretorious undertakes in tracing Phibes history from the First World War to the present. The lingering question of how Phibes could still be alive in the near future is one that is explained gradually as Goldstein peels away one layer after another much the same as Phibes removes his prosthetic features following one of his rare public appearances. Goldstein never attempts to explain everything for doing so would violate the fantasy, but the reader is given an ever-deepening understanding of Phibes’ world (which is expanded to include a number of new characters) that the end result is not only a far richer universe to enjoy the originals, but a work that makes the reader long for the promised sequel, Dr. Phibes: The Real Androbots.
The book is now available from Amazon Kindle and from CreateSpace as a trade paperback at https://www.createspace.com/3652600
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press). A sequel, The Destiny of Fu Manchu is coming in early 2012 from Black Coat Press. Also forthcoming is a collection of short stories featuring an original Edwardian detective, The Occult Case Book of Shankar Hardwicke and an original hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com