Thursday, June 28, 2018

RIP Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

The inconceivable has happened: we now live in a world without Harlan Ellison. It is not exaggeration on my part when I tell you that he was perhaps the most important writer for me, an author whose words and ideas were apocalyptic when I began reading him in the mid-1980s (thanks to Stephen King's Danse Macabre, which I believe is where many fans of my generation first learned about him). My library includes more books, both in paperback and hardcover, by him than by any other writer (and I'm still searching for various editions).

I can still recall the excitement with which I read his classic collections Strange WineDeathbird Stories, and No Doors, No Windows these many years later. And of course it wasn't just the stories! No, it was the introductory essays and think pieces and forewords and such that really opened up my head, that put me in touch with a righteous anger and passion that I had never encountered before. Harlan Ellison pulled back the curtain on the writer's life and duty and I had never seen those workings before. I will never be able to thank him for that.

Below is an old blog-post of mine from 2007 that only scratches the surface of how I feel about Harlan.

Since the death of Tom Snyder several weeks ago, I got to thinking again about "the irascible science fiction writer Harlan Ellison," who Snyder interviewed famously many times over the years. One of my most favoritest writers ever of all time, I was introduced to Ellison's writing when I was around 14 or 15, when I borrowed Strange Wine from the local library after reading about Harlan in Stephen King's Danse Macabre. And in those many years since, I've amassed nearly 30 copies of his books, most all of which are long out of print but can be found through diligence and patience scouring used bookstores. 

Deathbird Stories, a collection of his early ’70s works, is one I had not read in some time. It's essential Ellison. It contains some of his tightest, most controlled works: moody and enigmatic, laced with an existential dread while displaying an unnerving knack for an ugly, yet appropriate, climax, like a crack of the whip—or a snap in the neck. The collection is subtitled “A Pantheon of Modern Gods,” which is the height of irony—is there anything less modern than a god? That’s exactly the point: people are still desperate to worship, to prostate themselves before some imagined superior power or any strange artifact that can somehow impart meaning upon this random and unexplainable life.

And Ellison, despite his compassion for such poor souls, spares none in these moral fables. "I am a religious man," states the melancholic protagonist of "Corpse." "One would think that would count for something. Apparently it does not." Then there's the gut-wrenching "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," in which Ellison recreates the chilling murder of Kitty Genovese as an act of sacrifice to a new and terrifying god. "The Deathbird," the final story, is an emotionally exhausting reimagining of the origin of evil—in the form of a multiple-choice final exam.

I can still remember the first time I read these stories, a hot summer in 1988 sitting in the stifling office of the gas station I worked at, filling my head with Ellison’s rants and ravings and obscure references that didn’t make me feel stupid or inferior—no, it was exciting, it made me feel like I had a lot to learn, and I had better get caught up fast. As he states in the intro, “As the God of Time so aptly put it, It’s later than you think.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Horror Fiction Help XIX

Can you help ID these forgotten horror novels and stories? Thanks in advance!

1. I think it's from the 1980s and it takes place in the country. A young boy begins to receive body parts in the mail and I think the killer ends up being the town doctor? Towards the end, one of the boy's family members goes on a shooting spree and kills most of his family. Maybe there was a grim reaper on the cover?

2. Published between 1980-1983, featured a “butcher cleaver” on the cover that I think is smashing through glass or a window or something. Found!

3. The best description I can give of it is that its set in a semi modern urban environment, a western city, not dystopian of any kind. It follows a couple characters, and the discovery of a creature that follows a victim based on a gifted object, secretly containing a foul smelling scrap of fabric. Its slowly understood that this item and the ‘curse’ of death via this creature can only be passed on by gifting the object to another person and thereby transferring the way the creature tracks you down. Its a pale hunched creature, (I always imagined it looking much like the urban legend of The Rake that circulates the internet every so often, but not inspired by it as I read this novel far before I knew of the legend) and comes for you while you’re asleep, and you are seemingly unable to escape it. The characters discover that the creature travels through the sewers, and is very old and has been around the area for a while. After finding an entrance to the sewer through a cupboard in a house they discover the bodies of all the creatures victims hanging from the ceiling in the creatures lair/home rotting and they realize this is where the scrap of fabric came from.

4. It was a white or cream colored paperback on the slim side and I remember the copy on the front maybe said “more terrifying than Psycho” (definitely something relating it to Psycho)-it looked 60s and like it was definitely written to cash in on the Psycho hype. The picture, I THINK, was almost like a big drawing of a cracked egg with something unidentifiable and ominous seeping out-very odd because it didn’t seem to relate to the plot. I think the lettering was in black or red. The plot centered on a teen (or slightly younger) girl who, in some way, “wasn’t quite right.” I think she was described (unfortunately) as being “slow” in some way, but there was the suggestion that there was more of a calculating mind hidden behind the mask. I remember a sinister and possibly alcoholic mother, and the story began with the girl’s new tutor showing up, a college coed (I think). She was replacing the odd girl’s previous tutor who I think was a college guy (possibly the boyfriend of the new tutor?) and also was mysteriously missing (I bet you can see where this is going). I didn’t get further than about 10 pages in, so don't know much more, but I get the sense I put it down just before a series of people are dispatched in suspicious ways-clearly in some way by this underestimated kid (I remember thinking the plot really paralleled Psycho, with the girl being like a seemingly harmless Norman Bates type, and the story starting with the missing person in her orbit).

5. A book that I owned during the late nineties/early 2000s (I'm thinking 2000s more than the 90's) that was about a woman's husband was murdered in a way where he was badly burned and after , looked like a ' monster '. The woman had bad dreams every night about him and she stopped dressing in ' sexy ' clothing after his death and only wore baggy clothes and his shirts. The villains in the story were an older woman that was a case worker / social worker (?) who liked torturing her female clients and a younger man (he may have been a gang member?). They were in a Satanic cult and had a mother and son type of friendship. I remember clearly one scene where the older woman ties up a young woman in the kitchen and fixes the ice maker to keep dumping ice on her. The pair kidnap the widowed woman for their sacrifice and raising demons (or) the Devil in a mall. The murdered husband , back from the dead, goes to rescue his wife and heads through the sleazy parts of the city / town where he meets a young woman who is blind or a prostitute or both. She falls in love with him but he won't have sex with her because he still loves his wife.

6. It was about a couple struggling to have a child who move to a small town (American setting I think) with a doctor with some unusually high success treatment for conception via IVF methods.The lady becomes pregnant but notices the others Kids turn out weird and disturbing. really violent etc, I remember it was incredibly gratuitous in its violence, gore etc. Other things i vaguely remember are there where lots of twins as a result of the experiments in it and I seem to remember one of the messed up kids killing a crow or eating it or something, and an evil doctor and a monster of sorts providing the sperm.

7. I'm looking for a book that was released maybe 20 years ago. I actually never read it; I didn't have the money to buy it and then when I did I could never remember the title. Anyway, the only things I remember is that it was a horror novel that took place after something snuffed out the sun - everything was in perpetual blackness; and I feel like maybe the author was some sort of martial arts expert. (It's not Lansdale's Drive-In!)

8. A teenage boy dies in an accident, wakes to find his brain and eyes have been removed. Part of his brain gets put into a computer and given to another kid. The computer makes kid suspicious, so he takes it apart and discovers the chunk of brain inside. Slutty teenage girl gets abducted and raped by some pink tentacle machines hooked up to a blue alien dude. Other girls are there and pregnant. Bluish hybrid people run the "prison" and are children of the alien and abducted girls. I swear the cover of the book was a white on black drawing of a house that was screaming or looking angry, with swirls around it. Found!

9. From what I remember it had an eyeball in a Petri dish or something like that on the front cover, the cover was red, it was a collection of short stories, can’t remember if it was adult or teen, doubt it was goosebumps though.. one of the stories was about an old recluse who lives in a shack that was surrounded by thorns, then the recluse disappeared, some kids spurred on by this old legend, decide to visit the shack, but one by one the meet an untimely end in the Thorns. I remember something about spiders that bore the resemblance to the old hermit as well, they may have contributed to the kids' deaths.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Rockabye Baby by Stephen Gresham (1984): I Just Met a Nurse That I Could Go For

With its distressing yet utterly striking cover image, you'd probably think there was no way the novel Rockabye Baby (Zebra, Nov 1984) could live up to it. Aaaand... you'd be right. Prolific '80s author Stephen Gresham penned a solid handful of paperbacks for the infamous Zebra line of horror fiction and this is the first I've read. Gresham's writing is a touch better than his Zebra fellows, but that's about all: I found Rockabye to be interesting only in fits and starts, was not taken with its young protagonist, a towheaded boy named—wait for it—Prince, and while the psycho dude depicted on the cover features in the story, he doesn't quite feature enough. He was the most readable character, a nutjob with real psychosexual identity concerns.

Sorry, Judy Packett, but I must respectfully disagree

There's the out-of-town cop trying to solve the children murders, the country occult old lady and young girl, Aunt Evvie and Nandina, living in the woods who possess supernatural powers that Prince attempts to learn and master to find the killer's identity, various other kids from Prince's class—I really am done with kids in my horror fiction—and then there is Maris Macready, our cover model. What a piece of work he is. He calls his female identity, in a classy, literate horror reference, "the Bloofer Lady." No one will be surprised that Macready has a shelf crammed with

dolls, an array that would please any little girl. But these dolls had been given a different sort of attention from the apprentice mothering common to little girls. These dolls were naked. As a result, peering down into the box was like peering down into flesh-colored water—a pool of arms, legs, heads, and torsos. And each had been marked with a black felt-tip pen. Their anatomies were strewn with black circles, arrows, doodlings and a few indecipherable words...

This is on page 27. Without a doubt I had images of a deranged Joe Spinell in the role, so I was psyched at this early point. If only Gresham had drilled down on this perversity. If only. Instead, he doubles down on a gloomy coming-of-age story as Prince learns about "darkness" from Aunt Evvie and Nandina. Their phonetic Southern dialect is a constant distraction. Yeah, I definitely wanted more of dude on the cover (by Lisa Falkenstern, perhaps?), and more of the "Macready family of monsters" as it's put. Alas.

Frankly, I gave up more than halfway through, skimmed through the last part and found nothing of import to note. The first chapters were intriguing; I was relieved that Gresham could write. His sense of place and setting isn't too bad, and I appreciated his attempt at melding a vague Southern Gothic vibe with dark fantasy as well as the exploitative child-killer angle. Gresham adds some depth to the story when Prince's beloved father discovers he has cancer. But there remains an earnest, amateur vibe that I think one finds in a lot of Zebra books, a vibe I find hard to forgive and after awhile, harder to read. When I can hardly bother to pick up the book I'm ostensibly reading, going several days without any desire to find out what's happening to the characters, putting it in my jacket pocket to read on the bus and then not actually reading it, I know it's time to shelve the book. Bye-bye, Baby, bye-bye. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

New Terrors, edited by Ramsey Campbell (1980): There's a Place for You In Between the Sheets

Throughout the 1980s paperback horror boom, there was no shortage of horror anthologies. Sure, prior decades had seen their share of tomes of short horror fiction, but often they were mixed with tales of science fiction, fantasy, and crime. The American paperback original edition of New Terrors (Pocket Books, October 1982), showcased writers of various genres right there on the cover. As the '80s wore on this practice was seen less and less and horror anthologies began to feature solely horror writers. For the most part, horror anthos were a treat, even if they were uneven; useful for voracious readers to sample writers they were unfamiliar with, to see what short sharp shocks they could deliver, to learn in a bite-size morsel who might be worth reading an entire novel by and who might be best to avoid.

Pan Books UK, 1980

The American edition doesn't include all the stories as the 1980 original from across the pond, but it does have an utterly delightful cover. Lisa Falkenstern, illustrator extraordinaire, painted vivid portraits of the macabre that have become icons of the era. Sure, okay, the lovely wrapped in bedsheets doesn't exactly align with what's going on between the covers (heh) but who cares? Did anyone ever try to return a book because what was depicted on the cover never actually occurred inside?

As an author Ramsey Campbell is one of the modern horror greats, that hardly needs to be stated, and he is no slouch as an editor either. For New Terrors he's chosen short works of various styles and themes, but which are wrought with fine instruments, presented with an artist's care, then deployed just so for maximum horror impact. The authors wield scalpels, not sledgehammers. The caliber of imagination at work here and the general quality of the prose in its service is impeccable. There is no jokiness, no ill-timed humor, very little grue. The writers strive for elevated implication rather than spell-it-out twists. For the most part the writers succeed at this distinctive style of quieter horror—indeed, many if not most stories have a Campbellian quality to them.

Aickman (1914-1981) 

New Terrors reveals its high pedigree from the first. It begins with one of Robert Aickman's inimitable stories, "The Stains," and it is the longest tale here at nearly 60 pages. Stephen is a middle-aged widower who visits his brother at his small parish in the British moors, where Stephen goes on long lonesome walks. He meets a young woman collecting lichen-covered rocks for her father; Stephen's brother is an amateur expert on the topic but she seems unimpressed, and knows her illiterate father won't care either. This is Aickman's version of "meet cute." He entices the girl to meet him the next day, and they do, exploring an abandoned primitive country home which contains an old mattress in a small room upstairs, where:

...every night the moon shone across their bed and their bodies in wide streaks, oddly angled. "You are like a long, sweet parsnip," Stephen said. "Succulent but really rather tough." "I know nothing at all," she said. "I only know you." The mark below her shoulder stood out darkly, but, God be praised, in isolation. What did the rapidly deteriorating state of the walls and appurtenances matter by comparison with that?  

Allusive, symbolic, literary, lightly weird: yep, this is vintage Aickman, and it won the 1981 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction. I appreciated its mild earthy eroticism, the "stains" that creep up on Stephen and slooowly subsume him. Give yourself some time to savor this mature master.

Wellman (1903-1986) 

"Yare" by Manly Wade Wellman is written in his own country grammar, which I can enjoy in doses very small. But Wellman's pen is sure and fine as he characterizes well rough-hewn working men with good trustworthy hunting dogs and backwoods superstitions that turn out to not be superstitions at all. One man has been summoned: "Hark at me good. It ain't no fox that we come out here tonight to have the dogs run." A tale of rural dark fantasy, it's good, but I think it would would have been more at home in Stuart David Schiff's Whispers anthologies.

One of Steve Rasnic's earliest stories, "City Fishing," has two men and their two young sons going out on a fishing trip. Simple. Except they had to physically restrain the mothers:  Jimmy overhears his mom: "You can't take them!"... then there was a struggle as his dad and Bill's dad started forcing the women to the bedrooms. Bill's mother was especially squirmy, and Bill's father was slapping her hard across the face to make her stop. His own mother was a bit quieter, especially after Bill's mother got hurt, but she still cried. Yikes. The travelogue that follows grows more surreal as the men drive into a city that grows more and more decrepit but buildings begin to appear hung down from the sky on wires. Is this an initiation rite of toxic masculinity? Perhaps; its weirdness stands on its own.

Lee (1947-2015) 

Filled with graceful contours and female perception, the late Tanith Lee's "A Room with a Vie" (that's not a misspelling) has no mythic dark fantasy, but an English country vacation home, a rented room, a former tenant now deceased, and Caroline, who must get away. But escape from one's past and personal problems is impossible in horror, and her "hallucinations of fecundity" will bring the room to life. "Oh, Christ, please die," she said. Her lucid prose, even when depicting impossibilities, as well as a tinge of black humor at the climax, make Lee's story a standout.

"Tissue" by a young Marc Laidlaw has some unsettling imagery of the flesh as you might guess by its title, and it works beautifully. Macabre, insane family issues come to the fore when a young man brings his girlfriend to meet his father after the death of his mother. Dad's idea of family? "One optimally functioning individual organism." Laidlaw gets literally under the skin with some startling imagery and ideas, assisted by certain Campbellian touches. Another high point.

Shaw (1931-1996) 

Bob Shaw was a beloved Irish science fiction writer. His "Love Me Tender" reads like a '40s crime story with an escaped convict named Massick on the lam, trudging through muddy forest, following train tracks, a city boy in a prehistoric landscape. He comes upon a shack and an old man drinking whiskey, sorting dead butterflies for the university nearby, talking about mimics and lookalikes. When Massick gets a look inside the shack's sole locked door, he's eager... but of course all that stuff about lookalikes wasn't idle chatter, and the common noir trope of femme fatale becomes all too literal. Good stuff, great payoff.

Another science fiction author offers another very good story: "Kevin Malone" by the highly-regarded Gene Wolfe. A couple in dire straits answer an ad for free living arrangements in exchange for "minimal services." Oh my god, seriously people?! Do not do this ever. Though brief, in his stately, sophisticated prose Wolfe's literate story bewitches: I felt that pricking at the neck that comes when one reads Poe alone at night.

Reed (1932-2017) 

"Chicken Soup" is about Harry, who loved being sick, and thus develops a rather unhealthy relationship between Harry and his mother. Another writer known for SF as well as mystery, Kit Reed, in addition to be a revered professor and who died last fall, ventures into domestic Shirley Jackson territory, with perhaps a hint of Harlan Ellison's 1976 darkly comic story of Jewish guilt, "Mom." Like all happy couples they had their fights which lasted only an hour or two and cleared the air nicely. Reed wraps it all up in traditional horror manner. Not bad. Neither "The Pursuer" by James Wade nor "The Spot" by Dennis Etchison and Mark Johnson rose higher than "that was okay" for me: the former is a rescue from 1951, an "urban horror" not unlike Beaumont or Matheson; the latter is, as Campbell even notes "more allegorical than most of the tales in this book," make that "too allegorical for its own good."

Wilder (1930-2002) 

New Zealand SF/F author Cherry Wilder contributes "The Gingerbread House," which has some familiar touches but a couple fresh notes. Amanda visits her brother Douglas, newly divorced and cranky as hell, living in a German cottage owned by a madwoman now in a sanitarium. Together they face ugly secrets about themselves: he may have killed a child in a hit-and-run, she suffers from anorexia (a rare acknowledgement of the disease in that day).

"You must stop running away." 
"So must you," he said, with a reassuring touch of the old self-righteousness. "Yes," she said, "yes, I promise. I'll eat... I'll put on ten pounds, twelve. Only we must leave this house... this is a rotten place. It plays tricks." 
His eyes swiveled nervously in the direction of the cupboard. 
"You may be right," he whispered.

Wagner (1945-1994)

".220 Swift" is one of Karl Edward Wagner's long, major works. It's a sweaty, claustrophobic tale of two men heading into a cavern in a North Carolina hillside, inspired by, as Wagner put it, "archaeological curiosa." Solid dialogue, solid grounding in reality, solid everything, it has all the components that made Wagner a legend in his lifetime. While I could do without passages about guns and ammo (it's the title), I realize this is something Wagner knew intimately. And Campbell's own contribution "The Fit" also hit my horror sweet spot; it also features everything that makes Campbell great. Rather alienated young man spends holidays with his aunt who is a dress-maker. She runs afoul of local crone named Fanny Cave (I kept imagining her in her cottage, her long limbs folded up like a spider's in hiding) who lives down by the water. Notes of uncomfortable sexual tension and inanimate dress dummies and clothing that take on sinister agency appear—Eventually I managed to sleep, only to dream that dresses were waddling limblessly through the doorway of my room, towards the bed. Add a shuddery finish and you've got a maybe a precursor to his classic The Face That Must Die

New Terrors ends on a celebrity note, and Stephen King's name looks great on the cover, but wow has this one always been one of my least favorites by the man. I first encountered "Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game" in Skeleton Crew, when it was published some years after first appearing here, and in that collection it was rewritten for whatever reason and to whatever effect. Either version is a lesser work. One creepy image can't make up for these characters' drunken, tiresome, pointless antics. "This is his strangest story," Campbell notes, sure, but it offers little else.

Taken as a whole, New Terrors does feature some terrific writing, effectively horrific scenarios, and a couple first-rate stories, but today, some weeks after reading it, I'm hard-pressed recalling specifics about the lesser stories. Strong works from Aickman, Lee, Laidlaw, Wolfe, Wilder, Wagner, and Campbell; okay ones from the others and a couple "why bother?" equal around a 75 or 80% competency rate, so like a C+ or B if we're grading. However that Falkenstern cover is an A+ on its own merits, I think you'll agree!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

ShadowShow by Brad Strickland (1988): Theatre of Pain

If, before I picked up this book, you'd have asked me, "Hey Will, do you wanna read another horror novel about a middle-aged man in the '80s looking back on his '50s childhood in a small town and the immortal evil he confronted, and thus grew up and has not been able to escape its influence over his life?" I would have answered with a resounding "Fuck no." How tired I am of that structure, of reading about boys riding bikes in the soft summer evenings, oh god how syrupy and saccharine, spare me. No, really: spare me.

But I believe originality can be overrated. Striking out into new territory doesn't always guarantee success, while going back over covered ground can yield pleasant, if familiar, surprises. The latter is the case for ShadowShow (Onyx Books, Dec 1988, cover artist unknown), a novel set in small-town 1950s Georgia. Now the name of author Brad Strickland didn't mean anything to me till I looked him up for this review, and it turns out he has written lots of fantasy and YA novels, genres I do not follow. So while I knew nothing about him, it was obvious early on that Strickland's manner of imitation was skillful and not slavish. Ah, in good hands, let's see what you got, Strickland....

The gist of it: shuttered movie theater in Gaither, Georgia reopens under now ownership by a creepy polite-speaking dude named—not too spooky now!—Athaniel Badon. As local tongues wag, he employs local no-gooder, drunkard and wife-abuser Andy McCrory as his dogsbody to traipse through town on various weird errands that arouse suspicion in any seasoned horror reader: "He had worked, oh, the dark man had made him work like a dog... He had worked harder on that theater harder, probably, than he had worked at anything else in his life. But he had a reward to look forward to..." 

We have young Alan Kirby, whom we met in the novel's opening chapter set in the 1980s, growing up motherless with his widowed father John, a WWII vet, shop owner, and paternal saint. Alan, a sensitive, mature child, wakes up one night with the knowledge of sure death and sees out his window the lighting up of the SHADOWSHOW marquee, which then haunts his dreams...

Other men and women in ShadowShow have origins we've read before: Brother Odum Tate, the preacher with a dark secret trying to make amends; Ann Lewis, a 20-something schoolteacher who's beginning to imagine herself in sultry trysts with John Kirby; Harmon Presley the cop who takes offense at folks calling him "Elvis" because that is a white man who imitates a n*** (racism plays an integral part in the story) and expects everyone to look on him and despair, that is, except for the cadaverous man driving a pre-war Lincoln who stares on-duty Presley down one night and makes him wet his pants so you know that dude's pissed. Whatever is Sheriff Quarles gonna do with this guy?

There's Bellew Jefferson, the rich bank president, also widowed, also with a secret, whose black maid Mollie Avery will become the first victim of the ancient evil that has arrived in Gaither ("The miserable town is mine"), murdered so foully that even the coroner has to vomit. A few other characters you'll know from other books: Ludie Estes, an old black woman who also works for Jefferson but is out of a job when, spooked by Mollie's unholy death, locks himself in his home. At first I'd hoped Ludie wasn't going to be "magical Negro" but I suppose she is: for it is she who knows what happened at the farmhouse which became the theater which became the ShadowShow. She knows how one of America's greatest evils was perpetrated right on that spot decades before, and how the town "forgot" it, and now exploited by Athaniel Badon, the "man" whose name is a bastardization of scary biblical names.

Strickland has a sure hand in depicting that era of American life and holds back on the nostalgic glow. Sure, a few chapters in you'll find a sentence like "It was the way everyone remembered summer ending, droning lazy days with the cry of July-flies audible even in the center of town, days that moved as slow, sweet, and golden as sorghum syrup." But immediately after that Strickland presents us with the old men of Gaither grumbling about world affairs and biblical prophecy while also complaining about the theater showing movies like I was a Teenage Werewolf, "ungodly trash about things that never were and never would be real" and how they admire Strom Thurmond for at least trying to stand up against the civil rights bill, and "They sat on their benches, the old men on the square, and talked over the news, and waited to die." That's a pretty good turnaround. I mean cranky old white guys, wrong about shit forever.

The most notable thing about ShadowShow is that it is a very competent imitation of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and to a lesser extent, Michael McDowell. Of course I don't need to tell you how many, many works were "inspired" by those authors, so perhaps you think I'm not saying much. What makes this inspiration notable is that Strickland has control over this influence, and knows the byways well on his own. The conversation between Alan and his father when John talks about his war experience is realistically dark yet sincerely touching; the glimpses into human evil are unsparing. Strickland eschews sentiment and favors the straightforward prose which goes for serious dread in a kind of understatement, that plain affect of King, the hint of unfettered madness that speaks of the chaos hiding behind the facade of daily banality, the shrieking howling madness of nothing, that grabbing onto an electrical current, onto live wire running through everything that is always there no matter that we give it no thought whatsoever until it's too late.

Alan had once turned over a huge rock, the way ten-year-old boys will... beneath it he found squirming, crawling horror, gelid gray brown-spotted eggs of some creature stirring vaguely almost born life (but already looking as if death had laid a rotting hand on them)... Alan had recoiled in horror from the damp black path of earth, revolted by what he had revealed.
Alan felt the same way now, as if he alone were privy to all the darkest secrets of the town, and they were all like the concealed, light-hating life under the rock, all of it cold and stinking already of decomposition...

That said, Strickland underplays the power of his central conceit. What I really wanted here, what was promised on the back cover, was a movie theater that showed films to people of their own personal worst fears, darkest secrets, of fates unavoidable, of a future filled with horror and pain and woe, of twisted desires that play out onscreen and will not be denied, of a past rife with evil that stains the present in unimaginable ways. It happens to Bellew Jefferson, oh yes: "And for the rest of that dreadful midnight show, Mr. Jefferson sat and watched—and learned." This seemed like a spectacular setup for what was in store for other hapless characters. Later Alan asks fellow kid Diane English to a movie matinee, and he sees not the movie they paid to see—Lon Chaney biopic Man with a Thousand Faces—but a dream-like horror show, and it’s implied Diane does as well, but we only see Alan's. Then the movie becomes sexualized death as Mollie Avery appears to him:

"You can have me," she promised... "All the things you dreamed of doing. He will give me to you." "Who?"
"The master... He gives us freedom. Freedom. To do anything you wanted, to anyone you want. And live forever."
"It's what you want. It doesn't have to be me. Would you like the little girl? He says he will give you the little girl. Would you like to love her? To hurt her? She will be yours."

Ah, a corpse promising immortality and illicit embraces, while offering up glistening entrails and speaking of Alan's mother in Hell, that's pretty fucking good horror... but I wanted more. I wanted all the characters to have stumbled into the ShadowShow, alone, confused, and then to have their haunted selves reflected on the silver screen. But we get the library research, the vampirism angle, blood-sucking, revenants reminiscent of McDowell, the creepy midnight disinterment, the ragtag band of heroes, a bit of Christian mythos, a sacrifice play, a final confrontation: "You can't give eternal life—you can only work dead bodies like puppets, play the shadows over and over, like your movies—"

ShadowShow is an enjoyable, well-written paperback, with a fair amount of gruesomeness, believable dialogue, light on hazy nostalgia, a backstory that is truly horrific, and a climax that doesn't overstay its welcome. But in the final pages, back in the 1980s, I wanted some more lingering horror, something inescapable, some looming shadow of doom after all that's happened. It's hinted at but not explicit. Yet this pulled punch doesn't mean the book is not a worthwhile read; I believe it really is. If you're looking for another '80s horror novel set in the '50s that examines the secrets of small-town life and death, ShadowShow (mostly) fits the bill.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Horror Fiction Help XVIII

Hey y'all, it's another installment of Horror Fiction Help! Readers have emailed me their descriptions. Anyone recognize these forgotten horrors? Much appreciated!

1. A slim paperback and the cover was of a man wearing a pig mask and the book had something to do with astral travel. Found! It's:

2. YA thriller/horror from some point in the '90s. I recall this being part of a series, don't think it was from Point Horror as none of the titles on its wiki article jogged my memory but I could be wrong. I do know for sure it wasn't from Fear Street or Nightmare Hall. Cover art was spooky-looking picture of guy on motorcycle, which probably doesn't narrow it down much but plot-wise... Plot concerns girl being haunted by the presence of her jerk biker ex, though he didn't die only moved away, and it was somehow determined the spirit was lingering about because she hadn't emotionally let go of him yet. Found! It's:

3. Paranormal horror novel written around 1981 set in late '50s, small Midwest town. A little girl cursed by a weird pedophile that tried to lure her in his home with candy, but the girl fled and he cursed her under his breath. He said something like “to hell with you The girl was a normal person until she turned (I believe 18) and still a virgin although she was engaged. When her fiancĂ© tried to go too far a malevolent spirit would interrupt in some manner. She broke her engagement and announced to everyone that she wanted to become a nun. She enters a convent and begins her training as a postulate. While she is there strange things and supernatural occurrences began, soon they realized that they are under demonic attack and they request an exorcism on the young woman. One of the scenes that occurred and I remember well is on a thanksgiving day the sisters prepared a large amount of traditional Thanksgiving food. One of the sister was in the process of setting the table and left to get another food dish, She was shocked to see that the food already place on the dining table had changed into feces within a few minutes. A priest was sent to investigate and to do the exorcism on the young woman. Found! It's:

4. Short story about the dawning of an "age of plastic" where a boy wakes up one day and finds that he's completely made of plastic. He rearranges his facial features and then his parents don't recognize him, causing him to go on the run. He eventually comes home to realize his parents are now made of plastic as well and that this apparently is the new norm. I want to say it was in a Hitchcock anthology of sorts, but it was in a book prior to 1987-8. Found! It's "The Plastic Age" in:

5. A young girl abused by her father, younger brother finds out and I think the father kills him and blames the girl who is then institutionalized. The murder weapon is some type of tool like a wrench, cover had a blonde girl holding it. Remember them playing Manhunt near beginning, brother's name Bubba maybe.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Recent Horror Reads

Some capsule reviews of three horror novels I read early this year; none exactly essential, alas, but the first title is lightly recommended.

With its flame-swept cover of a mysterious beauty transforming into another mysterious beauty, you might think I would've skipped this book when I found it at Powell's last year. You'd be wrong! Shouldn't surprise you now that I picked it up solely because of its cover art and also because I'd never ever heard of it before. Then, lo and behold, I was rewarded with several hours of creepy, darkly romantic, even refreshing reading. Yes: The Burning Ground (Pocket Books, July 1987, cover by Peter Caras) more than met expectation. Author Madeena Spray Nolan, whoever that is, writes in a smart, modern, lively style that belies Gothic romance origins.

Odd to feel so sad at the death of someone I had never known. Back cover synopsis a fair inkling of what to expect inside, while Nolan elevates material somewhat by her knowing skills and insights into hidden human motivation; dialogue comes from having listened to others, not from imagination. Entertaining read with elements of (mild) horror, occult, mystery, contemporary romance (couple overheated sex scenes work, maybe a laugh), and Gothic fiction. Some grim poetic imagery works well. At base is desire to live a creative life, and the stranglehold grip it can have on people whether they want it or not—and worse, whether they have talent or not.

I could find little about Nolan online, other than that she wrote a children's book and another horror novel. But note how thoughtfully Pocket Books moved their logo to accommodate Caras's illustration!

Featuring a sexually reductive cover—from Playboy Paperbacks, natch—Satyr by Linda Crockett Gray (July 1981) is about as subtle. Imad Gurdev is a real-life satyr, escaping from his kind's historic monastic abode in the wilds of Turkey to the sleazy grindhouse streets of Tampa, FL, to get his rocks off and blaspheme. He hides his goat-legs in baggy clothes and plays mind-tricks on his female victims so they have only vague memories of the rape. Anti-rape crusader Martha Boozer speaks to high schools and women's groups—at one point she blithely shows the latter a slide show not just of questionable ancient art but also "kiddie porn" and then a snuff film "confiscated by Tampa police." Talk about triggering.

Operating almost as a feminist manifesto in the Dworkin/MacKinnon/Brownmiller mold but also offering up stalking scenarios like a slasher film, Satyr features some moments of suspense as the two characters hurtle towards confrontation, and the obligatory research visit to an anthro prof who declares "These mixed-breed creatures where the human and beast are combined have existed in every culture I have studied." Well fuckin' duh. Fortunately the other older satyrs aren't such creepos and follow the apostate to America's wang to punish and destroy him. Though not terribly written or paced—I mean, it's published by Playboy, not Zebra—I have no reason to recommend the novel.

The late Brian McNaughton is also a writer of some real ability, but it's wasted mostly on nonsense in Satan's Mistress (Carlyle Books, 1982 reprint of 1978 original), number two in a Satanic/occult series that is fairly infamous for its UK cover art (this American edition looks like adult bookstore fodder). Family of three, father, mother (with a witchy history), and son, moves into an upstate New York mill, we learn mother's own father raped her as he was leader of a religious cult and had declared himself God. Slooowly weird stuff starts to happen, dreams of hot redheaded chicks, mom and son have some sexual tension (ugh) and whatnot. There's a secret room in the basement, somebody left a lot of books down here, oh look it's the Necronomicon! Let's go ask the old lawyer nearby who also happens to be a pulp horror aficionado and Lovecraft expert all about it: "I had it this afternoon from a thoroughly reliable source that, when 'The Call of Cthulhu' was first printed in 1928, Albert Einstein panicked. He had drafted a letter urging Farnsworth Wright, Lovecraft's editor, in the strongest possible terms, not to print any more stories on similar themes..."

I did enjoy the Halloween party sequence—writing good party scenes is hard, all those characters mingling and drinking and flirting all at once, and I enjoy a good one whether in real life or on the page. Still, I don't understand how an ostensible horror writer can spend so much time writing about nothing and so little time on, you know, horror. Isn't it more fun to write of horrific events and encounters than of a neighbor's pack of dogs or a teenage boy's crush or the New York commercial art world? Grady Hendrix told me the book works better if you read it along with the other in the series. Again, I liked McNaughton's bright, adept approach, he knows people and life (not all horror writers do, one of my constant criticisms), and the climax gets Yog-Sothothy, but I'm not rushing to read the others. Although Mistress does contain my favorite line of the year so far: He went and changed to his work clothes, a pair of jeans that the Ramones would have discarded. Gabba gabba hey, that's hilarious.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Paperbacks from Hell Wins the Stoker Award!

I am so excited to tell you that Grady Hendrix's Paperbacks from Hell (Quirk Books, Sept 2017), the book inspired by Too Much Horror Fiction and for which I did much research, organizing, identifying, brainstorming, and also wrote an Afterword, won the 2018 Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction. What an incredible thrill! After the nomination was announced, there was no way my wife and I were going to miss a first-time trip to the StokerCon at the Biltmore Hotel in Providence, RI. It was literally a whirlwind weekend—never had time to get to HPL's grave, sadly—and Friday the whole region was beset by a ravaging Nor'easter, and practically trapped us all in the hotel, just like in a King novel! Enjoy some of the pix from that weekend.

Grady took our selfie right after we won. What an indescribable rush. "Jesus fucking Christ," I whispered aloud to myself when the book was called out as the recipient of the award. Talk about satisfaction and a weird kind of relief. All our work culminated in that moment!

At the after-party. You can see how good it feels.

Can't get enough pictures with this thing!

The list of nominees at the dinner banquet. We had some real competition and I certainly wasn't convinced we were going to win no matter what some very kind fans were telling us. However I feel no one has ever celebrated horror fiction the way that Paperbacks from Hell (and Too Much Horror Fiction) has!

Another hoped-for event actually occurred: at the awards after-party—emphasis on party, it was loud, energetic, and fun!—Grady and I got to chat with Thomas F. Monteleone and Douglas E. Winter, whose critical, editorial, and fictional contributions to the horror genre in the 1980s and '90s were vastly influential on me. We got into some fun anecdotes about people like Michael McDowell, Whitley Strieber, Dennis Etchison, and others, while I got to gush at Tom about how much his Borderlands series meant to me as a horror reader back in the day. Check out Grady's deathgrip on both the Stoker and his beer.

 (I did not take this pic)

Alas, there was only one award given, with Grady's name inscribed, so it was his to take home. I don't want to think about the night of passion that followed.

As I do in every new city I visit, I try to find the used bookstores right away. These pics are from Cellar Stories, only a block from the Biltmore. I know several attendees shopped there, so I can only imagine their paperback horror section is now a barren wasteland!

In the dealers' room we signed some copies of the book. I will never get tired of this.

Setting up Saturday afternoon for Grady's performance of Paperbacks from Hell. This was the first time I'd seen it myself, and everything I heard about the song about skeletons was true.

Saturday night, Ramsey Campbell and Caitlin Kiernan announcing the Stoker for Best Novel (which went to Christopher Golden for Ararat).

View from the stage, pic taken by Rose O'Keefe of Eraserhead Press, who won a Stoker for Specialty Press. I'm over on the left throwing the devil horns. What a happy, loud, enthusiastic crowd! Drinks were flowing freely I can tell you that.

This was one of the best nights, late Friday with booze and snacks, hanging and drinking with (L-R) author Adam Cesare, director of the StokerCon Final Frame Film Competition Jonathan Lees, and Nate Murray of IDW Publishing. There were plenty of other warm, friendly, funny, brilliant folks I met, and many who were fans of both Too Much Horror Fiction and Paperbacks from Hell. I love hearing about others' experiences with old paperbacks and their intro to various writers and books. It was all incredibly gratifying and humbling. Got to see some great panel discussions on Bram Stoker and Dracula, on Shirley Jackson, on horror film of the '70s and '80s, and on the Universal and Hammer horror classics (although no one, not even Ramsey Campbell, mentioned one of my faves, The Black Cat). So much to do and see and talk (and drink and drink) about!

Early Sunday morning I myself was on a panel of vintage paperback horror fiction moderated by Grady. It was maybe a bit subdued; a weekend of conventioning and drinking and talking late into the night and freezing weather had taken its toll! There's Jonathan Lees again, and also Elizabeth Massie, whose '80s short stories I found and still find to be disturbing, brilliant, and filled with real human emotion. I talked about my beloved Dell/Abyss series as well as Queen of Hell (not so beloved) and Book of the Dead 2: Still Dead (still beloved).

And look who attended the panel: yes, that is indeed horror legend Ramsey Campbell! What an encouraging, approachable presence he was at the convention.

The Horrors Writers' Association seems to be just filled with extremely talented people dedicated to horror (and it made me realize I need to devote some time to contemporary horror writers). To finally mix and mingle among them as an equal is something I'm proud of. Being recognized by them, me, who began as an amateur fan with a free blogspot domain, a scanner, and an obsession for cataloguing the wonderful past of the genre I love, is an immeasurable honor. It's spurred me on to continue looking for the lost and forgotten horrors of the paperback past!

A dream come true.

Thanks to the awesome Jonathan Lees for this lovely pic.