Friday, May 22, 2015

Queen of Hell by J.N. Williamson (1981): Queen Nothing Approximately

I swear I bought this one only for the cover! And it's a good thing too, because while Queen of Hell (Leisure Books, 1981) boasts a breast-baring beauty with forked tongue beckoning us to our doom, the novel itself offers little but boredom. Despite a few thoughtful nods to what J.N. Willamson probably thought of as "women's lib," the descriptions of female characters are all hair color and body types (so I guess the cover is at least accurate in that respect). Willamson seems hell-bent on shoving in all the history, biography, and mythology he's read but his own style is square and stuffy, with awkward dialogue crammed into characters' mouths like wooden blocks, and a grating pall of pretension over everything.

Williamson seems a perfect example of the prolific over- and self-educated pulp writer, eager to show off his erudition, but unable to work it into his writing seamlessly. Check out the full page of quotes that introduce each section: he employs the likes of Homer, Milton, Byron, Freud, Algernon Swinburne, et. al. The author's belief that these great minds are somehow relevant to his piece of pulp dreck is silly. Williamson might be a reader and appreciator of great literature, but he can hardly write it.

So: there's a prologue set in turn of the century, one that mentions Hecate, this horrific bloody dark goddess of ancient Greece, and hints at her returning in the new century. Okay, my curiosity's piqued some. Then we're in the new century, and there's a teenage girl who was raped--of course, of course--so she's convalescing in a Catholic hospital, writing down weird visions she has of the past that are freaking out nuns and priests left and right. They think she's possessed--of course, of course--but her mother, a modern lady, is skeptical. Mom is a college prof, wants to teach a course on goddess mythology to empower female students, walking in the footsteps of her father, a great and respected scholar. She argues with a priest about the origins of her daughter's visions and takes her daughter home. Daughter wonders if Hecate is living in the modern world. End Part One.

In the second half of the novel we meet three of those female students and trudge through their shenanigans--I'm skimming, more like flipping pages at this point--and there's graphic violent sex, gross old lady corpses, mythic rituals with naked people--of course, of course--and an apocalyptic climax featuring Satan himself. The novel's final lines are literally "THE END, ALMOST..." I mean, just ugh. Nothing in Queen of Hell clicked with me, and Williamson's tendency to overwrite and have characters over-speak was exhausting.

J.N. Williamson (1932 - 2005)

But wait, there's more! For whatever reason, Williamson adds an author's note, titled--not too pretentiously now--"A Necessary Adieu from the Author." It's completely nonsensical, a cranky rant from an old white man upset about uppity women who don't believe in God but follow all that hippy-dippy goddess stuff. He tries to be funny with it but man it's just.. odd. And another odd thing is that Williamson is totally wrong about Hecate. In Greek myth she has nothing to do with darkness, death, destruction, lust, violence, etc., at all, so I don't know what sources Williamson was reading. Probably Aleister Crowley, who turns up a couple times in Queen of Hell.

I don't want to get all down on Williamson, because in his interview in Dark Dreamers (1990) he seems like a nice enough old fella, ready and willing to help young writers get published. An editor of some renown, he put together the well-regarded, all-star, multi-volume Masques series. But he actually was aware that his speedy skill at the typewriter produced less-than-stellar horror fiction, and lots of it. It's fine that he's honest about that, but honestly for me, I doubt I'll be reading any more of it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Zebra Paperback Horror: The 1990s Part II

More early '90s mayhem from Zebra. I haven't read any... have you?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Zebra Horror Paperbacks: The 1990s

Even as the paperback horror boom raced toward its inevitable fall, Zebra Books continued to crank out these little lovelies. The creepy kids' hair and clothing styles get updated and more photo-realistic, but overall it's still the same old story, tales of death all gory...

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Horror Fiction Help XVI

All right guys: any ideas? Help some people who wanna find these long-forgotten horror stories!

1. The book was a black cloth hard-cover, and appeared to be a treatise or horror essay (not an anthology of stories). If ONLY I could remember the title or the author I'd find it fast enough online, but the only thing that stands out in my mind are parts of two sentences: ". . . frozen wagon wheel ruts" and "trees denuded of leaves . . ."    "The woods were gray with denuded trees, and the frozen wagon ruts in the mud of the road as cold and hard as iron." There was mention of vampires but also mention of werewolves as well. It might have been published in the early 40s or 50s, maybe earlier.

2. Back in the way back (1963-4) my dad gave me an anthology of one page horror stories that were so well written, I still, these many years later, will not eat a can of food sans wrapper--even if it's from my own pantry. There were also two stories about babies--one read as a prisoner escaping his cell, turning the bars, pretending to sleep when the guards came by, only to find its a toddler in his playpen. Found! It's:

3. Story begins when a man of American Indian heritage, living in a cabin in the woods alone, wakes up one morning in early autumn to find that a spider has spun a web across his porch. The man’s Indian heritage leads him to take this event as a sign of an early and harsh winter, and also as a possible omen of something much more dreadful. The man’s misgivings are then amplified into a sense of impending doom by a second incident on the same day: While walking in the woods, he is attacked by a savage, angry rabbit. This latter incident convinces the man that he is going to die that winter, and he does in fact die in the course of the book. I remember that these opening pages set a magnificent sense of dark impending fate in the midst of the bright colors of a beautiful autumn morning.     The only other things I remember about the book is that the latter part is set in a hunting lodge in the deep woods, and that the action culminates in a hunt in which a giant wolf—or maybe werewolf—is killed. The heroine is involved in the hunt, but I think that she might be something akin to a werewolf herself.

4. The book was a collection of stories - three in all, I think, and by the same author - intended for young readers. We read it when we were in third grade, which would have been 1998ish, and it was not a new book. My feeling is that is was published in the '80s or early '90s.  I don't remember much about the appearance of the book other than the fact that it was a paperback, but my sister says it was a dark background with lurid bright colors. She thinks it was a fairground setting with two children cowering in fear, and that there might have been a scary old man involved.   I remember two of the stories in the book with great clarity, which makes it all the more infuriating that I can't identify the book. One story was about two friends, a boy and a girl, who ran afoul of a man at a fairground/carnival who had special pencils that made whatever he drew with them real. Pretty sure he turned someone into a chicken thing (a la Freaks), and he messed with the kids by doing stuff like skipping from the afternoon to the next morning in order to deprive the kids of sleep. The kids ended up sending him to a tropical island somehow, and the story ended with him sending them a letter saying he would be back soon because the island had all the stuff he needed to make more magic pencils. Found! It's:

5. When I was in elementary school there was a 2- or 3-set anthology Horror/Sci Fi if I remember correctly. One of the stories was titled "Wendonai’s Child." Found! It's :"Wendigo's Child" from:

6. A man wants revenge against creatures that only come out at night, they killed his wife or lover. He finds them at an amusement park and he is going to blow them up. That is pretty much the sum of my memory regarding this book/story.

7. All I remember is on the cover it has a picture of a burnt doll's face. It was about a man who survived the crash and it was the doll he was going to take to his daughter.

8. I remember having an anthology back in the late 80's/early 90's. I remember parts of a particular story. The story was about the devil getting to come to earth on a particular Sunday. I believe Sunday may have been in the title. Also there were references/quotes from the kookaburra song.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

You Wanna Be A Dog?

You can, with this Cujo promotional mask, 1991.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Spectre by Stephen Laws (1986): Down at the Rock and Roll Club

For 1980s horror fiction aficionados like me, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as when you buy an old paperback based solely on its promising cover art and then, upon actually reading the book, that the contents deliver on said promise. Now, ironically, the photo-realistic cover for Spectre (Tor, July 1987) by Stephen Laws—featuring some young denizens of that amazing decade in various stages of disappearance—doesn’t exactly scream “Horror! Terror! Dismemberment!” So why pick it up?

Because that's precisely what struck me about the cover, thanks to the talents of J.K. Potter, a renowned artist who’s illustrated countless volumes of horror fiction: its utter lack of tacky tasteless imagery (aside from an oversize sweater or two). I was drawn to Spectre because it promised, perhaps, quiet chilling scares, rather than the full-on assault of so much ’80s horror, often done with all the finesse of Leatherface working his saw. Did the novel deliver on its promise of quiet horror? Actually, no: Laws’ novel is filled with tentacles and teeth, torn limbs and slashed throats, abhorrent rituals and hungry gods… but it’s all done with the finesse of Hannibal Lecter preparing you dinner.

1986 UK hardcover

Not quite a coming-of-age story, Spectre introduces the reader to a group of inseparable friends from Byker, a blue-collar town in Newcastle in the northeast of England. Although they grew up together, and dubbed themselves the Byker Chapter, Laws doesn’t spend too much time detailing their childhoods like, say, Stephen King; he flashbacks mainly on their university years a decade ago. It’s the present, as they enter their 30s, that Laws is concerned with. The horrific death of one of the Chapter opens the novel, as Phil Stuart languishes drunkenly in his flat, TV and radio blaring to vanquish the fear and depression that has plagued him for weeks. A photograph of the last night the Byker Chapter spent together comforts Phil, a charm against his panic, but it works no longer: unbelievably, he seems to be fading from the photograph. He knows that can mean only one thing. And alas, he is correct.

After Phil’s introductory demise, we meet our protagonist Richard Eden, drinking with his memories at a nightclub called the Imperial. He’s 10 years older than the others partying in this disco, which was once a movie theater at which he and the others in the Byker Chapter saw many a Hammer horror film in the 1960s (Laws has dedicated Spectre to Peter Cushing). Richard’s wife has left him and her new boyfriend has humiliated him, and soon he will learn one of his old friends has been murdered horribly. Employed as a lecturer at a college, his coworkers are still sexist morons, and the one person he hopes to feel a connection with, the beautiful and smart Diane Drew, susses him as an emotional wreck. When Richard pulls out his own copy of that Byker Chapter photo, he sees Phil is gone… and so now is another, Derek Robson. It all makes Richard think of the “spectre,” an inside joke between the friends, a word used as shorthand for all the horrible things that could go wrong in one’s life, whether a schoolyard bully or an absent parent, a police siren in the night or, indeed, the deaths of one’s old schoolmates.

NEL reprint, 1994

What better way to get back on one’s feet than to get drunk and then investigate the death of one’s former mate? Richard enlists the help of a colleague of Derek’s, who coincidentally was also Derek’s landlord. Together they pay a visit to the scene of the crime—and so begins one of the more effective scenes of horror I’ve read recently. I read it one morning over coffee before work, and was excited at how convincing Laws presents and pulls off the two men’s encounter with—wait for it—a ventriloquist’s dummy. What could have been laughable is rendered with a physical realism and dream logic. It happens about 50 pages in, and while I was quite enjoying Spectre up to that point, it was this sequence that convinced me Laws truly knew how write a horror novel: his characters were real enough, with just the right amount of back story to explain motivation and relationship, while his skill in offering up the horror genre goodies as well was rather an unexpected treat. I spent my whole day at work marveling over that scene in my head, eager to get back to the tale and see what else Laws had in store.

It’s obvious that Laws has based these characters’ experiences on his own, and ably conveys it in these pages; the Imperial must be a real place as well, I decided (and the author’s postscript proved me right). The characters that work there could be people you'd actually meet: young single-mother bartender Angie; Josh, who hides his true nature from mates; and doorman/bouncer Paul, exploiting his "power" over anyone he dislikes (which is mostly everyone). Too many horror paperbacks seem written by people who have no ability to capture the real world, the one of friends and lovers and colleagues, work and play, “writers” who don’t care about character or plot but only the next shock. If these authors realized that shock is heightened only when we care about characters, have some insight into what they fear, what they hold dear, what loss will mean to them...

Sphere Books, 1988 

Richard now realizes he must track down the other people in that photo, old friends he hasn’t been in touch with for years. Drinking again at the Imperial (lots of drinking in this one, which I totally dig), he is surprised to see Diane arrive with some friends. They engage in some banter that isn’t embarrassing at all to the reader, and find they actually rather like one another. When Diane reveals that her mother had been a psychic, Richard dares to tell her about what’s going on his life… and it doesn’t scare her off. She offers to help him track down the other people in the photo, three men and the lone woman, Pandora Ellison. But this proves unnecessary; returning from work one evening to Richard’s home, they are met by two men in his doorway: Joe McFarlen and Stan “the Man” Staftoe, two more of the Byker Chapter. They’ve all been depressed, feeling trapped and hunted, and have tracked Richard down first. All are determined to get to the bottom of the Photo of the Disappearing Chums.

Memory is one of the strangest tools of the human brain; Laws literalizes its tenuous quality using that photograph. Music, too, evokes the powerful sense of our past, emotional cues buried deep and forgotten but brought to instant life the moment, as here, “Layla” is heard (he uses it to punctuate and underline various scenes, and this well before Scorsese used it the same way in Goodfellas). It’s this kind of personal sentiment that lends depth to his tale; it reminded me of when one dreams of memories of things that never happened, thus lending one's actual dream a palpable sense of heartbreak. The survivors of the Byker Chapter are racing against something worse than heartbreak, of course.

Laws in 1985

Along the way we learn that Pandora had told each of the men that she loved him alone and wanted to sleep with him, and then she did. She broke each of their hearts, unbeknownst to the others, and moved back to her parents and broke off any contact with the Bykers. Eventually, after much horror and death—all exquisitely rendered—Richard, Stan, and Diane arrive in the Cornish port town of Mevagissey, looking for Pandora’s family. Which they find, and then learn the answer to Pandora’s deceit and departure. It’s a doozy: Greek myth and occult orgies, an Aleister Crowley wannabe and an unholy motherhood, and a vision of humanity extinct. Now that’s a horror novel!

French paperback, 1992

In every way, Spectre is a success, and I was delighted that a book I bought on a whim, solely because of its cover art, turned out to be such a pleasure to read. Stephen Laws doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, and many scenes and characters are comfortably familiar. But his prose presents fresh insights, his depiction of English life and streets and architecture authentic and gritty. Best of all, he never hesitates to ramp up the horror with a vivid eye for the grotesque, and a ready pen to describe it: from a sludge monster rising from a developing tray in a photo lab, to a clay sculpture coming to life and embracing its creator; from a stuffed grizzly bear in a museum exhibit mauling a man in his own office, to electric-blue tentacles shooting from a TV screen; from an old woman with no face and a bloody gash for a mouth who explains all to the intrepid survivors, to a blood-drenched finale on the dance floor reflected in the glittering glass of a revolving disco ball—Laws lays on the ’80s horror good and thick.

But not too thick; Spectre doesn’t even reach 300 pages, and can be speedily read in a day or three, which was another thing I appreciated about the novel. In that '80s era of bloated bestsellers, paperbacks with over-large type, and novellas padded out to novel length to give merely the impression of value for money, a sleek torpedo of a horror novel like Spectre is a welcome addition to the genre.

(This post originally appeared on

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Writhing Evil and Raw Terror

Reprinting paperbacks... you're doing it wrong.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Oh It Feels Like Dying

Can't find any information about Oh, It Feels Like Dying, a novel by someone called J.J. Madison. It was reprinted several times through the 1970s under the wildly imaginative title The Thing, with requisite references to The Exorcist and The Other on the covers. In 1978, the publisher simply copped an image of actress Anouska Hempel from Hammer's Scars of Dracula (1970), subbing a lurid tagline for the "glittering world" one of the first two paperbacks. According to Vault of Evil, whatever the title it is essentially only a (terrible, at that) porno novel dressed up as horror. Alas, what could have been!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Someone Else Was Living in Her Body

Don't know anything at all about Anima, a 1971 novel by one Marie Buchanan and originally titled Greenshards. There's a whole Wikipedia article on it but it looks all spoiler-y. I dig the blue/brown/green eyes and yet find it odd that the paperback celebrates the fact that it's from the same publisher as The Other!