Whatever ‘happened’ to King Kong’s Carl Denham? Read this book
A couple of years ago, author and scholar Frank Dello Stritto penned the “history” of the ill-fated “wolfman.” It was titled “A Werewolf Remembers: The Testament of Lawrence Stewart Talbot.” It weaved Talbot’s life through half a century of history, connecting him through several scores of films and film characters. It was a unique, scholarly page-turner capable of seducing readers through the darkest hours of the night.
Dello Stritto has written a new, also fascinating and engrossing book along the same structure, taking an iconic character of film and weaving his life throughout the history of his times and the genre films that populated his “life.” “Carl Denham’s Giant Monsters” (Cult Movies Press, 2019), shares with readers the full “life” that Denham enjoyed and endured, long before his adventures with King Kong and Son of Kong left him an elusive target of bounty hunters and vengeful friends and family of Kong’s victims. (Note: I helped edit this book pre-publication).
The book is set in Indonesia, early 1970s, where author Dello Stritto and his wife Linda, live. Frank works there. On a visit to one of the smaller islands, Kotok, the couple encounter a white, elderly man who lives in a home with faithful servants. It turns out to be the reclusive Carl Denham, whiling away his life, now bereft of visits from former colleagues save one, and eager to relate the adventures of his life to appreciative listeners.
Every couple of weeks or so, Frank and Linda, or Frank by himself, spend hours listening to Denham relate the many adventures of his long life. The book combines, history, film, and a cascade of cinema and historical figures. They all orbit at some time around the man Carl Denham and it’s a lot of fun to read the adventures of Denham and his film genre contemporaries.
As he relates to Frank and Linda, Denham was part of Teddy Roosevelt’s expeditions to South America. Later he’s among the explorers who finally conquer the plateau of the Lost World and later take “Gertie” for an ill-fated trip to London. For a while, Denham becomes a journalist, and covers the Scopes trial. Another adventure: he even gets close enough to Tarzan to witness his decibel-shattering yell.
King Kong is described in vivid detail, from the casting of Ann Darrow, the voyage, Skull Island, the return to New York City and the deadly chaos and tragedy. It sets Denham on a lifetime of exile, trying to stay the adventurer, but now also the hunted, always on the watch to keep his freedom.
So many films provide background and interaction with characters. Just a few are Island of Lost Souls, Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Africa Screams, Return of the Ape Man, Godzilla, Creature From the Black Lagoon. … Either Denham is involved in the actual explorations or the characters run into him across the world, or visit him on his small island.
Dello Stritto is a well-known scholar/fan of Bela Lugosi and readers will appreciate the respect he provides some of Lugosi’s poverty-row outings. Examples include scientists Lorenz Dexter of Return of the Ape Man, and Alexi Zabor, of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.
There is a poignancy in the tales Denham relates. He regrets the lust for publicity and money that drove him to take Kong to civilization, and the creature’s death. Forty years later, he still assails himself.. He’s had a hard life. He spends time in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on the island for years. He had love, and lost it, with the young lady, Hilda Peterson, whom he took to Skull Island to meet Kong’s son.
This book is an essential for genre fans. But more casual fans will enjoy it too, as well as history buffs. Dello Stritto pens a confident, detailed tale. The friendship between the couple and Denham is believable, the passages where they interact on the island well described. The author knows his subjects, films and history.
At the end of the tale, Denham, along with one of his few remaining contemporaries, embarks on a final adventure. I’ll leave it to the reader to discover the identity of his companion.
This book review is cross-posted from the Plan9Crunch blog.