First Frankenstein on Film


To all those observing Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, may you have a marvellous end to the holiday season!

In honor of the awesome month of October, all but two of my posts this month are Halloween-themed. My Monday, Wednesday, and Friday posts will focus on famous horror films of the silent era with landmark anniversaries this year. We’re starting off with one of the granddaddies of horror film, the 1910 Frankenstein.

For years, this first film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel was one of the most famous lost films. (The discussion of why so many films of the silent and early sound era are or were lost is a subject for another post!) Then, in 1963, a 15 March 1910 issue of The Edison Kinetogram surfaced, containing stills and the plot description.

In the early Fifties, Alois F. Dettlaff, a Wisconsin film collector, bought a copy of this film from his mother-in-law, who was also a film collector. He didn’t realize the importance of this film until many years later. The film’s existence was finally revealed in the mid-Seventies. Though it was somewhat deteriorated, it was still in watchable condition.

At only 13 minutes, this isn’t a film with a very detailed, complex, developed storyline, but we shouldn’t expect that from the typical 1910 film. Instead, we should marvel at how amazing it is such an old film is still with us, and how these pioneering filmmakers were able to do so much with the medium in its infancy. They didn’t need 60 or more minutes to tell a complete story. Though my favorite period of the silent era is from about 1921 till the end, I have a special fondness for these early short subjects.


Perhaps the special effects might seem lame by modern standards, and the horror aspect not so horrific, but once again, we must put ourselves in the shoes of a 1910 viewer. While it’s natural to have our own reactions as modern people in a specific culture, we can’t divorce anything from its historical and cultural context. It’s really unfair to watch a film past a certain age and laugh at it for not being exactly like the films we’re used to.

In this iteration of the film, young Victor Frankenstein heads off to college to study science and learn the secret of creating his own human being. He finally believes he’s found the winning formula, and brings his monster to life. Frankenstein, however, is so repulsed by what he’s wrought, he abandons his creature in disgust.


Frankenstein returns home to marry his sweetheart Elizabeth, and starts recovering from his horrific shock.  However, his monster has tracked him down, and won’t leave without a fight. During their struggle, the monster sees his reflection in the mirror, and he’s so terrified he runs away. But he just can’t stay away, and returns once more on Frankenstein and Elizabeth’s wedding night.

The monster goes after Elizabeth, who manages to escape. The monster and Frankenstein get in another fight, and the monster leaves the house after overpowering Frankenstein. When the monster returns, he gazes at himself in the mirror and gradually vanishes. Frankenstein presently comes back to the room, and sees his monster’s reflection in the mirror. Finally, the horrific image fades, Frankenstein sees his true image, and he and Elizabeth embrace.

This film was once on the Top 10 Most Wanted Lost Films and Films Lost Forever lists, and yet it was miraculously discovered. These kinds of miracles give me hope for other valuable lost films to someday be found and restored, particularly Theda Bara’s catalogue.

WeWriWa—Halloween 1945


Happy Hoshanah Rabah and Shemini Atzeret to those who celebrate!


Vintage Halloween Card

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. In the spirit of the Halloween month, I’m sharing holiday-related excerpts during October.

This comes from Chapter 95 of my third Russian historical, Journey Through a Dark Forest. It’s Halloween 1945, and 21-year-old Darya Koneva is spending the holiday weekend at the University of Minnesota. Darya has no idea the true reason for the invitation is because her lifelong friend and neighbor Andrey Vishinskiy wants to spend more time around her. She thinks this weekend was his twin sister Anzhelika’s idea.

For the party in the campus center, Darya is dressed in a dark blue Victorian gown and Anzhelika is a milkmaid.

The room in the campus center is decorated with die-cut skeletons; devil, black cat, jack-o-lantern, and skull lanterns; candy containers in the shape of scarecrows and jack-o-lanterns; cut-out bats and spiders on the walls; a display of Halloween greeting cards; a die-cut orange moon with owls and leaves in the forefront; and streamers with black cats, pumpkins, and skeletons.  Anzhelika’s friends include a clown, witch, American Indian, pirate, Renaissance princess, Pilgrim, fairy, and Bohemian.  Darya lets Anzhelika introduce her to everyone, grateful Anzhelika isn’t telling them her true story.  Anzhelika only says Darya was in Paris during the war, studied at the Sorbonne briefly, and had her education interrupted by the Nazis.

“What would you like to do first?” Anzhelika asks. “We have bobbing for apples, fortune-telling, cutting a fortune cake, floating a walnut boat, telling ghost stories, and a Ouija board.”

“Cake, please.”

Darya grabs the knife and cuts into a cake with raspberry icing, trying not to cut an overly large piece so she won’t make a bad first impression.  She plunges her fork into the cake until she hits the baked-in charm, a ring.

“Marriage within a year!” Anzhelika proclaims.


The only male guest is Anzhelika’s twin Andrey, who’s dressed in a vintage Army dress blue uniform. He’s extremely reviled by almost everyone on account of having a draft deferment for his university studies. Darya too initially excoriated him upon her homecoming, but soon had a change of heart, and now Andrey is starting to fall for her.

Darya and her best friend Oliivia Kalvik were studying abroad at a Parisian lycée for their sophomore year of high school, and unable to return home in the wake of the Nazi invasion. Darya now has latent tuberculosis, a number tattooed on her arm, amenorrhea, and hair growing back abnormally slowly under a wig. Her hair is so slow to grow back because her body is using all its strength to keep the TB latent, though as she comes to suspect, the TB may be hibernating in another part of her body and waiting to return worse than before.

Writing potentially controversial content


To mark Banned Books Week, this post covers writing something which might set the censors off. Over the course of my development as a writer, I’ve learnt from some embarrassing mistakes.

This is such a great video, from a fellow writer and lover of classic literature, and her 17-year-old twins. I love the point about how it’s important to see these words used in historical context in literature, as opposed to hearing them bandied about in high school halls. The N-word has more shocking impact in a book like Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men, where it’s not some positive term of endearment. It’s the same way with how strong curse words have more impact when used very judiciously, instead of peppering every other page with F-bombs.

Another great point is the importance of teaching young people how to properly read and analyze literature. It’s sad to learn many modern-day folks can’t distinguish the views of a writer and his or her characters. Here I thought it were obvious if it’s a writer vs. a character expressing a POV.


When I was 16, in my sophomore year of high school, I had an excerpt from Cinnimin published in my school’s literary magazine, Inkblot. One of my friends in Creative Writing Club, a senior, spoke to me privately and asked if I’d mind having the N-word taken out of my excerpt. Since this school was, and remains, about 50% African-American, and this was shortly after the polarizing O.J. Simpson verdict, I agreed. I didn’t want anyone to falsely accuse me of being a racist.

When I saw the excerpt in print, I cringed. It was one thing to shorten a scene where Cinni and Quintina angrily discuss school desegregation and other racial issues, but when Cinni’s stepfather castigates his daughter Alix for tuning to a radio station playing Elvis, it made no sense for him to say “the white devil Elvis.” There’s an important word missing there, giving real context to his outrage and opinion of Elvis.


My most facepalm-worthy first draft, at least in regards to this issue, is the third book of my Max’s House series, with the dreadful working title Resolutions. It’s so obvious I gut-loaded it with extremely offensive, controversial, hot-button stuff just to goad my imagined future censors and come across as cutting-edge as possible.

There was no need to have so many curse words (which I couldn’t even write, just represented with symbols), use the K-word 45 times in reference to my Jewish characters, depict a ridiculous “party” where everyone burns Bibles and flags, show so much violence, or any of the things I saw fit to include. They don’t even freaking fit into the core storylines.


If you’re including something like flag-burning, a character who curses a lot, a racist character, sexist “jokes,” a sex scene in a book that’s not erotica or romance, or a rape scene, it has to make sense in the context of the story and the character. It’ll be painfully obvious if you just shoehorned it in there to try to seem cutting-edge or controversial.

We all have boundaries, however, and there are ways to be true to a time and place without writing something which makes you uncomfortable. For example, since I can no longer bring myself to write the K-word, I use the word Yid as an anti-Semitic slur.

If I were ever to write a Chinese historical, I couldn’t depict footbinding as normal and beautiful, even knowing it was considered as such by the vast majority of Han Chinese for over a thousand years. Instead, I could get around it by having Hakka or Manchu characters (who never bound women’s feet), a Han family who converted to Christianity (and thus would be less likely to continue the practice), or a very modern, radical, reform-minded family in the late 19th or early 20th century.

You also shouldn’t feel obliged to include potentially censorable content just because you feel it’s expected. You can still have a good story that works without any curse words, 20 different kinds of diverse characters, or discussions of hot-button topics.

On a similar note, if you can’t bring yourself to use a historically accurate word like Negro or depict historically accurate attitudes towards minorities, you should really reconsider either writing historical or writing that particular type of story.

Celebrating Strike (Stachka) at 90



Stachka (Strike) is a very special film to me, since it’s one of the earlier silents I saw, before I made the move from casual interest to an active, passionate cultivator of silent cinema. As you can see from my list of silents seen (which doesn’t start out in chronological order), it’s one of the first listed. Even though I recognize a number of the earliest entries on the list as being out of the order I actually saw them, Strike was still one of the ones I first saw before I became an active participant in the hobby in 2004.

This was one of the films we saw in my Modern Russian Culture class my junior year of university. I’m so old, we actually saw all our films on laser disc.

Released on 28 April 1925, this was the début feature-length film of the legendary director Sergey Mikhaylovich Eisenstein. (His surname really transliterates as Eyzenshteyn, but I’m violating my normal purist style to conform to the common Romanized spelling. Even I think Eyzenshteyn looks really awkward in English.) It’s based on a real 1903 strike at a locomotive factory, though the clothes and technology shown are from the 1920s.

Courtesy Антон Михайлович Левинский (Anton Mikhaylovich Levinskiy),

The powers that be are shown spying on the workers and looking over a list of spies with rather colorful code names. The atmosphere is thick with tension as a strike is planned. Then a micrometer screw gauge is stolen, valued at three weeks’ pay (25 rubles). A laborer named Yakov is accused of the theft, and subsequently hangs himself. In response, the other laborers riot and stop working.

The third reel begins with images of geese, kittens, piglets, and ducklings. By now the strike is well in progress, and birds are moving into the vacant factory. Some of the laborers’ children play at what their fathers did to the boss, putting a goat in a wheelbarrow and taking it through a mob. All the while, orders continue to arrive at the factory, all unfulfilled.

The shareholders and powers that be go over the strikers’ demands, like 6-hour days for minors, 8-hour days for adults, and 30% pay increases. These demands are derided over drinks and cigars, and the police raid the workers. Undeterred, the strikers continue. At their next meeting, the shareholders use the list of demands to wipe up a spill.

Khitrovskiy Side Street of Khitrovskiy Square in Moskva, as seen in the film

The situation becomes even worse in the fourth reel, as business has ground to a halt without any workers or consumers. Fights break out at home, and children are starving. There’s also a lot of trouble with a spy named Owl.

In the fifth reel, we meet a new character, code-named King, who makes a deal with an Okhrana (secret police) agent to hire some agitators to loot, raze, and set ablaze a liquor store. A crowd naturally gathers at the site of the fire, and when they try to leave to avoid trouble, the firemen set upon them with hoses.

In the sixth and final reel, the governor sends in the military, and the carnage commences. Even children aren’t spared. The final image of carnage is alternated with the footage of a cow being slaughtered.


This film is full of metaphorical images, like a lemon being squeezed, various animals morphing into characters, and dead cats hanging from rafters, and has been called Eisenstein’s purist film, free from the Bolshevik propaganda he was compelled to use in later films. It’s obviously not the type of film one watches for fun or light-hearted entertainment, but it’s a very historically important film and a must-see for those interested in Russian or Soviet film history, general film history, or Russian history.

When to change a character’s name


If you observe Sukkot, may you have a joyous holiday!

Rare is the writer who’s never changed even one character’s name. It happens to just about everyone, growing to think of a character by one name and then suddenly realizing that name doesn’t work, no longer appeals to us, or just doesn’t have the kind of standout flair needed for a protagonist. Here are some of the reasons I’ve changed characters’ names, reasons also applicable to many other people.

It’s not culturally/linguistically accurate

This was a big issue with my Russian and Estonian characters until 2011. Even after I knew better, I engaged in some powerful cognitive dissonance to justify keeping English names. I innocently copied what I saw, and then just became so emotionally attached to these names. It was rather selective attachment, since I changed some names in 1996, like Alexis, Anne, and Kathie, yet kept holding onto names like Margaret, Amy, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Peter.

This is why it’s so important to use accurate names for characters in a culture outside of your own. Otherwise, you risk younger or less-informed writers copying you and assuming those are real names in that language. The entire world doesn’t speak English, and generally only certain people in reigning families went by non-native forms of their names. I only kept a few non-Russian nicknames, and found plausible reasons.

This also explains why my Jewish characters of oldest vintage have German, Dutch, and Polish surnames instead of names like Katz, Cohen, Kaganowicz, Lipschitz, and Rosenfeld. Many of them also have normal, secular names, or common Bible names just as likely to be used by Christians. However, this isn’t completely inaccurate, and I like how it makes my characters appear like regular members of their home cultures. I don’t want insular characters with shtetl names like Faige, Shternie, Avrumie, and Mottie.

It’s not historically accurate and is anachronistic

When I was younger, I naïvely believed the names I knew had always been used, either altogether or on girls instead of boys. Therefore, I created a few minor female characters named Ashley in my Atlantic City books. It’s one thing to have an outlier within the realm of plausibility, like a Jennifer born in 1940 or a Liam born in 1984, but there are some names which just weren’t used on girls prior to very recently, as well as names which simply didn’t exist. Either change the name entirely, or find a close-enough-sounding substitute.

The two oldest sisters in my long-shelved but to-be-resurrected 18th century series were originally named Marionetta (nicknamed Jinx) and Marilyn. Neither of those names existed in that century, so I’ll have to change them when I finally dust them off. Since the third, much-younger sister’s name is Labyrinth (called Lady), I found the perfect new names and reasons for them. Their mother is so enamoured of Greek mythology, she names all of her children after rather obscure Greek deities, including all the children she lost between the former Marilyn and Labyrinth. Jinx’s real name will be Iynx (pronounced like Inks), and Marilyn will become Myrina. Jinx is merely an alternate Romanized form of Iynx.

You want a more standout name for a protagonist or important character

A lot of the names in my hiatused or planned soft sci-fi/futuristic books have names which aren’t standout enough for a main character. There’s nothing wrong with names like Casey, Terri, or Shelly, but they just seem kind of “there” when it comes to an important character. The average reader is more likely to remember a character with a distinctive name one doesn’t encounter every day. I changed Casey to Arcadia, and will change the names of Terri and her two sisters to Esperanto names, since they live in a large Esperantist commune.

You’ve already used the name on more than one other character

You can get away with using the same name on multiple characters in the same series or story (as long as they don’t really appear together or go by different nicknames or titles), as well as using the same name on characters in different books, but it can feel kind of unoriginal or wrong to use the same name too many times.

I kind of reached my saturation point with the name Victoria. There are two Viktoriyas in my Russian novels (the elderly Mrs. Yeltsina and Katrin’s whipper-snapper little sister), and a Viktoria (Vikki) in my Atlantic City books. Therefore, I no longer want to have a Vikki and a Victoria Jane (V.J.) in two more books, despite those being the planned original names for those characters.

You just don’t like it anymore

You should never feel bound to keep using a name you no longer like or have grown to find boring. The unlikely Tsaritsa in my alternative history was originally named Varvara (Varya), but changed to Arkadiya, and the Tsesarevich’s name was changed from Stepan to Yaroslav (Yarik).