Novelisations are often very shaky ground in terms of quality — I am still, to this day, haunted by Peter Lerangis’ novelisation of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow — but Peter H. Brothers’ effort, Devil Bat Diary: The Journal of Johnny Layton, indicates that there might still be some hope for the genre yet. It could be considered a disadvantage that I have never seen The Devil Bat, the 1940 horror-comedy classic which Brothers is drawing his source material from, but this allows me to consider the text with a clearer mind without the burden of drawing comparison.
If you have never seen The Devil Bat either, please allow me to fill you in with the details: Dr. Paul Carruthers, a cosmetic company chemist frustrated by his employers, uses his scientific genius to breed giant bats to slaughter his enemies. Johnny Layton, a Chicago-based reporter, and photojournalist ‘One Shot’ McGuire are both assigned to cover and investigate the grizzly murders surrounding Carruthers. It is through Layton’s eyes that Devil Bat Diary is told. Despite the title, however, this is not written in the diary format you can find in Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but instead as a straight narrative.
Telling the story from the perspective of a newspaper journalist works extremely well. In the opening paragraph, our narrator states: “I’ve worked as a reporter for Chicago’s biggest newspaper for so long and have trained myself to observe people in their various habits and hobbies that it’s during these casual observations I learn things they would never wish to admit about themselves.” The words of a professional and experienced journalist introducing himself to the reader is not an uncommon technique in non-fiction, especially since the 1960s and 1970s when the writers themselves became celebrities in their own right, thanks to American big-personality authors like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. This adds an absurd edge of realism to the story, and although Layton leads in the movie, it allows Brothers to retell The Devil Bat from a unique, first-person angle.
It is this theme of journalism in Devil Bat Diary that really captures me. The story is wacky in itself, but the love-hate relationship between Layton and McGuire, the latter of whom is referred to by the former as a “pain-in-the-ass to work with” among other things, is reminiscent of the tremulous relationship between Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman — and of course the way in which a detective and his sidekick interact in any mystery novel is worth its salt. Brothers has done a fine job in keeping that reality intact here. If you’re a fan of The Devil Bat, this is your chance to fall in love with the movie all over again. If you’re not, I’d still recommend this piece of work. As an independent piece of literature, it’s fun, original, and can stand on its own two legs.
Devil Bat Diary: The Journal of Johnny Layton is available now