Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ammie, Come Home by Barbara Michaels (1968): That Ghastly Thing in the Parlor

It may not surprise you when I say I only read Ammie, Come Home because I really dug the cover art for this 1969 Fawcett Crest paperback. The eerie landscape and the floating girl, her barefoot vulnerability and blackening sky, really struck me in a positive way, even though 1960s Gothic novels are not my thing. Venerable paperback artist Harry Bennett hooked me into reading a novel I never would have otherwise! Well-done sir. Author Barbara Michaels is one of the pseudonyms of Barbara Mertz (1927 - 2013), a prolific writer and Egyptologist; her most famous nom de plume was Elizabeth Peters, under which she wrote dozens of mysteries I remember from my bookstore days. Anyway, Ammie is a pleasant enough read, nothing earth-shattering, perhaps even too mild for some contemporary readers. Here and there a jagged edge appears, a moment or a scene of black dread and emotional distress, a slow build-up of the supernatural; the evil deeds of the past wending their way through history only to end up at the tag-end of the groovy generation-gapped 1960s!

Ruth Bennett, widowed, mid-40s, lives in a stately Georgetown, Washington DC home built in the 1800s, inherited from an elderly aunt. Her college-aged niece Sara is boarding with her while attending a nearby school; the novel begins with Sara introducing her aunt Ruth to Professor Pat MacDougal. Big, blunt, brilliant, Ruth isn't sure she likes him. Right off the bat I'm a little iffy on this set-up because it's the stuff of romance novels, in which the two foreordained lovers hate each other on sight... until they don't. It's a generic convention I personally can't abide. Fortunately Michaels doesn't dwell on it overmuch. Prof has a tendency to bloviate and condescend, no surprise, but will prove a formidable foe in the soon-to-come battle against otherworldly forces. Also along is young Bruce, one of Sara's friends, a not-really-boyfriend who today would probably bitch and moan about his being friend-zoned. He's kind of a hipster doofus too, but like the Prof, he really steps up when strange things are afoot.

A black smoky shadow appears in a dream of Ruth's one night, but, as one other unlucky lady once put it, "This is no dream, this is really happening!" She hears someone calling "Come home, Sammie" and thinks maybe a neighbor is looking for their cat. This event is set aside as MacDougal invites Ruth to his mother's home for a society soirée, the main event of which is, can you dig it, a séance. Ruth thinks it's a scam, this medium Madame Nada conjuring up long-dead folks from the Revolutionary War (still kind of a big deal in tony Washingtonian circles). What's funny in a modern problems way is that Ruth invites both Mac's mom and the medium to a dinner party in her own home! Motivated more by social duty than true warm-heartedness, this dinner party turns into one bizarre affair. No good deed, etc.

Meredith Press hardcover, 1968

After a discussion on the paranormal between Bruce (he accepts it), Mac (he doesn't), and Ruth (she's unsure), Mac parses Ruth well: "You are fastidious," he tells her. "You dislike the whole idea, not because it's irrational but because it's distasteful." Oh snap! The author will well note the strain  supernatural occurrences put on daily living; it's difficult to keep up appearances when one's niece is suddenly a conduit to a crime committed in one's own house two hundred years earlier. Bruce endeavors in good faith to plumb the mystery, researching Ruth's home in town archives while Mac argues from the viewpoint of scientific rationality. Poor Sara, when not being possessed, kind of lounges about in a miniskirt, getting disapproving looks from  her aunt and opposite ones from the Prof (ew!). Every now and again she'll pop in with a stray observation (it's not Sammie, it's Ammie!) but otherwise she's only a pawn in the possession game. Unspoiled, modern, guileless; she's around but not all there, I suppose, a vessel for the plot but not in and of herself; how could she have character if she is unsullied?

 Uber-lame reprints

Experienced travelers in the realm of horror/supernatural/occult fictions will recognize familiar notes in the story. I find this rather comforting. I appreciated the author's efforts at detailing the banal everydayness that co-exists with the crazy: food, traffic, clothing, cleaning. The turbulent 1960s are noted here and there as Ruth is ambivalent about Bruce and his college-bred revolutionary airs and his designs on Sara. Ammie is also, as many of these pop novels are, charmingly dated: endless miniskirts, dudes with long hair, Ruth's old-lady attitudes (she's only in her 40s! She's never eaten pizza!), Bruce's hip-academic pretensions. Sometimes this aspect is less charming: gender normativity/misogyny out the wahoo in Prof's not-so-subtle lechery, and the time Bruce declares there are "women you rape and women you marry." Yee-ow.

Barbara Mertz (1927 - 2013)
aka Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters

As the origins of the possession become clearer, our narrative becomes tauter: Bruce learns more about the home and its literal foundations ("the whole house is rotten with hate"). A friendly Father figure is enlisted to aid in an exorcism and this goes poorly. Then the old Prof isn't so above-it-all as he'd like to appear; is he part of what seems to be a historical reenactment from beyond? The back-story is satisfyingly unsettling; you'll agree it's a crime that deserves retribution through the ages. Ammie, Come Home ends on a note of sentiment, but it is only the beginning in a three-book series that Michaels continued into the 1990s. I found the novel to be decidedly okay and won't be reading the rest; go ahead and check it out if you think you'll dig a quaint snapshot of the supernatural '60s and a helluva generation gap.

Postscript: for two other takes on the novel, check out Dark Chateaux and The Midnight Room. And thanks for the pix guys!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Clive Barker's Books of Blood: The Berkley Editions, 1986

June 1986 saw the first American paperback edition of the first volume of Clive Barker's unparalleled short-story collection Books of Blood. Vols. II and III followed later in the year (for those keeping score, August and October respectively). Sure, the covers were adorned with rubbery face-masks but there's no denying the power within, and the sober back-cover copy still delights. These are essential horror reads. As fellow Liverpudlian Ramsey Campbell writes in his intro:  

When it comes to the imagination, the only rules should be one's own instincts, 
and Clive Barker's never falters.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Death Valley of the Dolls

Behold the glory that is the cover and stepback art for a novel I only discovered yesterday, The Transformation, by Canadian thriller writer Joy Fielding. This Playboy Press paperback dates from the distant year of 1976. It's obviously a take on the era-defining Manson murder spree with a Jackie Susann angle and not a supernatural horror novel; I got the photos (art by Rob Sauber) from Groovy Age of Horror, who reviewed it years back. Looks like this edition is going for a few bucks, so alas I won't be buying a copy anytime soon. But it gives me hope that there are still vintage horror-related paperbacks yet to be discovered...

The stench of slaughter
An orgy of Satanism and death

Thursday, June 9, 2016

In Trance

"Take one tablespoon of Patty Hearst, a soupçon of Rev. Moon, a peck of bad writing, and a vat of bad taste—and,voilà, you have this stink-stew..."—Kirkus Reviews, Feb 1977

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Smoke by Ruby Jean Jensen (1988): When the Smoke is Going Down

It may surprise you to learn that on my used bookstore searches I very rarely see any of the dozen or so titles Ruby Jean Jensen (1927 - 2010) had published by Zebra Books throughout the 1980s and '90s. Guess they've become collectibles going by the inflated prices being asked for used copies on Amazon. Then on my recent trip to the Iliad Bookshop I happened upon a copy of Smoke (Zebra, Jan 1988) that was in acceptable condition, for $1.50.

I should have paid less. They should have paid me to take it off their shelves.

If you read Smoke on the sly as a curious pre-teen you might have fond memories of it, but for a 45-year-old adult man with some experience reading horror, the novel offers about as much substance as its title. While not unutterably wretched as that other Zebra perennial William W. Johnstone, nothing in Smoke offered any surprise or delight, nor even any tacky thrills. Jensen's prose is workmanlike, serviceable, obvious; if you were a creative writing teacher you wouldn't fail her, because the grammar and punctuation seem to be mostly correct and there are neither sentence fragments nor run-ons. However metaphor, analogy, insight, wit, humor: such tools seem to be missing from Ms. Jensen's creative toolbox. My god it's all dull dull dull and dry as mummy dust. But maybe not to a 12-year-old, or a person who was not really a reader, as the story is told in a straightforward manner and the characters seem to have motivation, I guess. It was an enormous uphill trudge for me to even skim through the book.

You can guess the ending too of course. Books like Smoke and writers like Jensen simply are not, nor ever have been, my kind of horror whatsoever. I avoided these skull-adorned novels back in the day because... well, because my impression was, going by the ones I've read, precisely correct. I feel kinda bad criticizing Smoke for what it's not—a novel for an adult—and yet I have to be honest: it's not good or fun or interesting, and every book should be at least one of those things. Smoke alas is none.

Though I still think some of her covers are fun

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Blood Rubies by Axel Young (1982): He Who Fucks Nuns

More a suspenseful melodrama than an outright horror novel, Blood Rubies (Avon Books, Apr 1982) was published under the pseudonym Axel Young. Really it was Michael McDowell and pal Dennis Schuetz, who also collaborated on a gay mystery series and "Tales from the Darkside" screenplays. I found it highly readable fun, a smart fast-paced story for the most part that took me two days to read. This tale of twin sister fate twisted like a DNA helix could have been a swell TV-movie back in the day, starring perhaps two young night-time soap stars (or maybe just one in the role of a lifetime!). While I'd hoped to find out some backstory on those precious titular jewels—if they held some supernal agent within—I was still fairly satisfied overall, if a bit baffled by the abrupt conclusion. But as I've said before, I prefer that to an ending that lasts forever.

Back-cover copy does a good job of setting up the tale. Prologue is all gloom and doom on New Year's Eve 1959 as a woman gives birth in a tenement building in Boston's North End. A winter storm approaches in the night. Twin girls are born, one on either side of the new decade. The only thing the distraught mother, Mary Lodesco, has to give them is a pair of ruby earrings which was given to her by her mother, which she demands the midwife affix to the girls, one each. Bad luck, the midwife mutters, to separate them, but she does so. Woman and children sleep but are awakened by, of course, a raging fire set accidentally by a drunk on the first floor. Only the twins will survive; separated, but alive. One is found and given up for adoption; the other is stolen away, unseen, presumed dead...

The first half of the novel is the adopted twin's story. Raised by a religious working-class couple outside Boston, young Katherine Dolan attends Catholic school and wants nothing more than to become a nun in the order of the Slaves of the Immaculate Conception. She is quiet, not very popular nor very intelligent. Her adoptive mother Anne is a McDowell type through and through: pious, short-tempered, petty, delusional. James, the father, strolls in drunk and begins to engage in my least favorite trope of '80s horror; you can probably guess what happens, I mean it's even there on the back cover.

The nun stuff gets a bit much, it really does, lots of details about getting into a nunnery that may test one's patience. It all rings true, though, I guess, but what do I know? Still the authors get inside Katherine's head to show the disconnect between her desire to be a bride of Christ and her desire to escape her parents at any cost (In her father's heart, they found a butcher knife). What troubles her however is her continuing dream of a beautiful popular girl, herself perfected... and at the end of Part I and the beginning of Part II, the two young women who share a pair of ruby earrings set eyes upon one another.

In the second half of Blood Rubies we meet Andrea LoPonti, the child who was stolen away and raised with no knowledge of her origins. The LoPonti family is also devoutly Catholic but there the similarity ends: the family is well-off and well-respected. Andrea wants for nothing, is brilliant and ambitious, if sheltered from reality. As she sets off to college, we follow her as she again and again is exposed to the harshness of the world outside a Boston suburb. This stuff was my favorite part of Blood Rubies, Andrea's forays into the early '70s singles' bar scene in Boston, casual drug use, and travels throughout Europe with bestie Marsha. The two girls want nothing more to become worldly; when Andrea meets leather-clad bad-boy Jack, she becomes worldly in a hurry. Reminded me, unexpectedly, of those first two Bret Easton Ellis novels, Less Than Zero (1985) and The Rules of Attraction (1987)... except several years earlier than those.

The aspects of McDowell's skills that make him great are shown off well here, as he peers inside the lives of two different families and two different women. He knows people, and this sets him apart from other paperback original writers of his era. We'll go down dark paths, not necessarily supernatural, but bloody and horrific all the same, yet we'll always be accompanied by someone who knows the territory. When Katherine and Andrea finally meet everything is up-ended; that good girl/bad girl dichotomy is flipped around again. Irony abounds. The mechanics near the end are almost unbelievable: pulpy, near camp, kinda sleazy but oh so fun (the role of a lifetime!). An abrupt climax at first baffles but chills on afterthought. Blood Rubies will be a pleasure for McDowell fans; sure, it's a minor work in his oeuvre, yet still a worthwhile read.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Manly Wade Wellman Born Today, 1903

Four preceding books: Ballantine Fantasy 1984/cover art by Carl Lundgren

Baen Books 1988/cover art by Steve Hickman

May 21, 1903 - April 5, 1986

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Happy Man by Eric C. Higgs (1985): When I Got Some Flesh Off the Bone

Sometimes I would think back to the times 
Ruskin Marsh and I used to talk. 
I would think about the things he had hinted at, 
things that were so monstrous on the face of it 
that I never dreamed he might be in deadly earnest. But he was. Oh yes...

Whatever you do don't read the back-cover copy of the paperback edition of The Happy Man (Paperjacks/April 1986). It gives away everything. I went in knowing nothing about the novel save a couple intriguing reviews by folks I trust (which of course I avoided reading). I found myself quietly guided into a private universe of amoral appetites and infernal indulgences. Akin to Thomas Tessier's Finishing Touches, published around the same time, Eric C. Higgs's first novel is literate, incisive, and restrained, even when presenting behavior that leaves human decency far, far behind. Especially then. A scathing, chilling absurdist satire of the 1980s consumerist lifestyle, The Happy Man has an easy and readable quality to it that belies its cruel intentions. A slim 166 pages, I would've happily read more and more about these two men, narrator Charles Ripley and his new neighbor Ruskin Marsh, and their "friendship," a bond that tests all limits... and a few beyond.

No current info on Higgs could be found, although I located a 1987 newspaper article on him. He wrote one other horror novel, Doppelganger, that looks worthwhile, as well as a screenplay for Happy Man (it could be an excellent little blackly comic/horror indie flick). Wish he'd stuck to the game, because as a writer, Higgs is a marvel, a wonder, a relief and a delight: he says what he means and means what he says. He knows what he wants to say and he says just that. Mature and insightful, Higgs parses human complexities with an economic, unpretentious grace.

As I rushed upon [the old man] I told myself there could be no pity, not for his kind, not ever. 
And when I knocked him over and got on top of him, 
I brought the hammer down so hard and so often 
I was entirely unaware that I was making it end 
too quickly.

This, in the first few pages. What compels Charles to murder? Why is he disappointed he didn't make the killing last? We don't even know why exactly he is in a homicidal rage, why Charles attacks the man: ("confident that his death was as preordained as the orbit of the solar system"). The first chapter ends with Charles driving away in the dead man's car ("The inertia that had once held me was indeed gone"), ruminating on what's happened to lead him here. We will learn.

1985 hardcover, St. Martin's Press

In the suburban milieu of San Diego called Mesa Vista, Charles Ripley and his wife Shelly enjoy a comfortable life, having moved past the loss of a baby. The weeks and years pile on and maybe things aren't so exciting any longer. But when the Marshes move in next door, they seem to fit right into the dinner parties, home improvement projects and such. Ruskin Marsh has a charisma, a ruthless charm really ("the Aggressive Exec type" Charles notes), that draws Charles in. And Sybil Marsh, Ruskin's effortlessly attractive wife, makes a personal connection with Shelly. What strikes Charles most is Ruskin's ability to get him talking about things Charles had forgotten he'd once cared about: art, literature, ethics, life. Could his new neighbor have the long-sought, near-mythical key to a happy, satisfied life?

As their friendship begins, Ruskin lends Charles a leather-bound book; will you be surprised to learn it's a private printing of the Marquis de Sade's Juliette? *hint, hint* Ruskin also plies Charles with marijuana and cocaine, shows off his gun collection and tells a harrowing tale of being a fighter pilot in Vietnam. A fresh note of unease begins the night Charles and Ruskin go out for dinner together without their wives. We've already seen that Charles is not adverse to a little something on the side, as he's starting an affair with a young woman at work. But Ruskin, with gorgeous Sybil? Ruskin likes to slum: The brunette's name was Mandy. Her face was just this side of being haggard, but her figure was ripely endowed. The other one, Hariette, looked as if she belonged in a trucker's honkeytonk. Their after-party turns into a moment of sheer horror... but the two men walk away unscathed: But the most surprising thing of all was that I found I could live with it.

Things start to go wrong in this suburb. Surrounding this little oasis is an encroaching minority populace, being so close to the Mexican border, which causes mild worry for the Mesa Vista denizens. Brutalized bodies are discovered after horrifying screams in the night (a centerpiece of the novel). Several young women suddenly leave town. Violence (and sex) breaks out at neighborhood dinner parties soundtracked by Jobim. All of this is masterfully detailed by Higgs. Ruskin tells Charles about the "society of friends" he belongs to (not the Quakers!), slowly reveals to him the happy life: His tone was of the utmost reasonableness... His life had the serenity and peace that forever eluded me... "I think it's important to know oneself, Charles."

Screenplay, 2012

After I finished my first reading of Happy Man I set it down to ruminate on it, work on this review. Days, weeks, months went by, and I couldn't quite say what I wanted about the book. Finally I had to re-read it, three months later, something I almost never do. It captivated me yet again! I liked the various dinner parties, minor Cheever but twisted and cruel like Dahl. The pen Higgs wields is deft and ironic, exposing the base instincts, the very worst ones, satirizing them ably, all that suburbia tries to tamp down. I noted that Sybil and Shelly's affair, revealed near the end, probably went down very much like Charles and Ruskin's: platonic seduction leading to something... deeper, darker, almost delusional. Shelly leaves Charles, leaving him open to the final happy horror Ruskin has in store. The plan all along, I assume.

No way around it: Higgs makes many other horror writers I've reviewed for this blog seem like clod-hopping buffoons stomping and stumbling all over the English language. Do other horror writers even care about humans, pay attention to them, the small details that afford a glimpse into their inner workings? To the grit and grind of daily living? No, too often the horror genre appeals to writers unworthy of the craft, to the lazy and those satisfied with cliche and banality, unwilling to do the hard working of scraping off the surface and peering at what lies beneath, and then attempting, with honesty and imagination, to describe that which lies there. Higgs makes it all seem so easy, polished, yet still raw and painful. Pity he wrote only two novels. The Happy Man is an essential '80s horror read: smart, sharp, unforgiving, unlike anything else in the genre at the time. You need this book to make you happy: satisfy that unnamed hunger and read it!

Ruskin and I were one now, united on a plane of perfect understanding. 
My unhappiness had come to an end.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Hollywood Book Score

I was in Los Angeles for a long weekend, just arrived back in Portland today. On Thursday I went to Iliad Bookshop. This was my second trip there; my first visit was back in 2010 and it was a doozy! So was this one. What I love about the place is that they still stock vintage genre mass market paperbacks, and their horror section is quite large (so is their mystery and science fiction). I probably coulda bought more—lots of Dell/Abyss titles in stock—but I knew I was gonna have to lug these books home. I chatted about horror fiction, Michael McDowell in particular, with two of the folks working there. Today I found out one of them was author/editor (and Horror Writers' Association president) Lisa Morton! Funny coincidence. And of course their film section is top-notch as well. Check out these pix! This is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, used bookstore I've ever shopped in. If you're ever in Hollywood, you simply must go.

 Somebody stuck a pic of the original cover inside!

 Bukowski, of course

 Love all the newspaper clippings taped up

 Real paperbacks!

 Film bios out the wazoo. An entire book on Jon Cryer?!

 Bookshop kitty, check

Dig those "books"

 Yrs truly hard at work

These came from Counterpoint Records & Books, good spot, mostly hardcovers and old vinyl