My series with Grady Hendrix, Evil Eighties, continues at Tor.com. This week I reread and reviewed Joe R. Lansdale's '80s splat classic, The Nightrunners. Incidentally, today is the fifth anniversary of Too Much Horror Fiction! And I began it with, natch, The Nightrunners!
Another re-read of a novel I loved back in the horror hey-day. There is no horror as fans know and love it in David J. Schow's 1988 novel The Kill Riff (Tor paperback published May 1989), despite it bearing the icon of Tor's horror line; this is a suspense thriller through and through. The most accurate blurb about is from Penthouse, that bastion of literary acumen, and it states the novel's high-concept succinctly: "Gives us the nightmarish psychology behind the systematic murders of a heavy-metal band." A dark nightmarish tune, Schow's first novel is all revenge and madness and the toll it all takes on the human psyche. Like lots of Schow's short fiction there is no supernatural element, and none is necessary. People can do crazy all by themselves.
Schow, early 1990s
Middle-aged Lucas Ellington, fresh out of a stint in a fancy, relaxing psychiatric "home," is attempting normalcy again. His beloved daughter was trampled to death at a performance by LA's heavy metal bad boys Whip Hand, Lucas went over the deep end and threatened Gabriel Stannard, the lead singer, but today, Lucas just wants to drive up to his cabin in the California wilds and chill, alone. He touches base with his business partner, Burt, with whom he runs an advertising company, as well as the female psychiatrist, Sara, who might be falling in love with him. Both think Lucas is well on his way to recovery... but he is not. In his still-fevered brain, Lucas wants to lay the members of Whip Hand to waste, kill 'em all, no mercy, and hidden in that secluded cabin is an arsenal direct from any Nam vet's worst nightmare... or wet dream.
The Kill Riff revels in a noxious stew of toxic masculinity. Lucas is obsessed with Whip Hand, stung by visions of his daughter's last moments worshiping at the rock'n'roll altar. He begins filling a room in that cabin with records and tapes and videos and posters of the band. Planning murder on large, media-saturated scale is a delicate and involved business, as the band has broken up and the members all play in different bands, so Lucas must navigate tour itineraries and concert hall logistics and backstage passes. His Nam experience make all that cake. Meanwhile we meet Gabriel Stannard, the cool and charismatic rock god who knows the whole circus is a sham to "make the teenies cream" but realizes, as his old bandmates are picked off one by one, that Lucas Ellington is gunning for him, and that's as real as it gets. With the help of his bodyguard Horus and bald maniacal guitar player Cannibal Rex, Stannard amasses his own arsenal for a final showdown. Cue collision course straight for chaos in the final chapters, immovable object meets irresistible force.
There are some terrific moments of tension scattered throughout Kill Riff, scenes that Schow treats with loving care: Lucas stalking the catwalk of a concert hall while a metal band goes through its ear-splitting pyrotechnics and thousands of kids in screaming worship; an abused young woman standing up for the first and final time to her grinning terrorizer; an injured sheriff crawling to his patrol car to radio for help. Gripping stuff in Schow's singular, stinging prose. No surprise he began writing more crime thrillers later in his career long after that whole splatterpunk thing was over. He throws in some twists that are just devastating, devastating I tell you! That's what I remembered most about the novel: the unexpected events that change everything.
UK paperback, 1990
But those twists aren't enough. The problem is that the scenes linking these set pieces vary in quality and reader interest level. Lucas discussing Whip Hand trivia with a cynical record shop manager rings true and cute, and Schow has a skill with detailing old friends Burt and Lucas and how they talk to one another. But rocker Stannard is a just a spoiled, posturing douchebag, so it's no fun listening to
him expound on anything, and all his hanger-ons and bandmates are
complete creeps. Why do I care if they stand up to Lucas? Anything to do with Stannard's slinky Euromodel girlfriend Sertha is just wasting time. Once Lucas's true self is revealed, the less of him the better. Minor characters pop in and out, often more interesting than the leads. You just want Lucas and Stannard to meet, draw their weapons, and kill each other, get it all over with! Blast away guys, nobody's gonna miss ya. Both men get what's coming to 'em, but will you still care by the end?
Schow loves the minutiae of subconscious motivation,
self-reflection, repressed fears, idle speculations, and the
contemporary (well, '80s contemporary) Los Angeles lingo of ad firms, psychiatry, and show-biz schmoozers. That's an area Schow has always mined in his short fiction, in his own particular style. His characters talk and talk and talk, diving deep into their own heads and trying to get inside others'. They are hyper-articulate but at times the reader will definitely think, People don't actually talk like that (unless everybody was snorting coke off-page; I mean the setting is 1980s LA). Between that and their dorky jokes, the dialogue alone can be exhausting. And Schow's experience as a men's adventure scribe mean lots of details about weaponry.
This can be difficult to integrate into a narrative, and my personal tolerance level for
gritty realistic odes to the AR-15, the M16, and the AK-47 is virtually
nil. It's not that Schow doesn't work this stuff in well, it's that I
tune out for it.
UK hardcover, 1989
I wasn't too taken with Schow's depiction of the '80s metal music scene either. As a dedicated reader of Circus and Hit Parader from 1983 till about 1988 (basically a generation in pop music), I think I can call foul on some of it. He's got guys in metal bands playing keyboards, guys with bald heads and names from the punk scene, dudes with muscles and Mohawks. So he's not describing WASP or Motley Crue or Dokken or Iron Maiden or Judas Priest or Motorhead, but actually more a band like the Plasmatics. Which actually kind of makes sense, because out of all those folks the only person I can imagine taking up arms against a rabid, raging father bent on vengeance would be Plasmatics singer Wendy O. Williams. What, I'm supposed to think Vince Neil would do that? Ha! Hardly. Is that Schow's point, all these wannabe badasses in metal bands thought they were all walking the mean streets but at heart they were really just pussies? Maybe so. Gabriel Stannard, beholden to the bullshit bad-boy code, sure ends up paying a high price trying to prove he's the real deal. Ironic, no?
I really wanted to like Kill Riff on this reread, because I loved it way back when (even though I had the same complaints about the band stuff) but I only enjoyed the book in fits and starts, and can't really recommend it, even to readers, like me, who have loved his short stories. Oh well. And I haven't given up on Schow at all: what I really want to do now is track down a cheap copy of his 1990 horror novel The Shaft, which for whatever reason was never published in the States. I mean, you can't beat this cover:
Compare, if you will, the covers for these erotic occult novels from the late 1970s by Brian McNaughton. The first three are from Carlyle Books, easily some of the dullest covers ever; then you'll find the early '80s UK editions from Star Books. Oh, land of Aleister Crowley and Hammer Horror, we'd expect nothing less!
The other day, the 10th, was John Shirley's birthday, so I was perusing his vintage paperback covers and this one jumped out at me. I haven't read In Darkness Waiting (Onyx, Apr 1988) and I've come across this cover before, but damn if it didn't strike me this time as a certain female pop singer c. early-mid 1980s. Does anybody else see it, or am I just crazy?
OK everybody you know the drill: any ideas about any of these? Numbers 2 and 5 sound maddeningly familiar to me.
1. 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.
2. This book or digest actually had short stories in comic-book form but
they weren't comics per se. Two of the stories I do remember went like
this and apparently these stories were based on some type of true
The first story involved a guy who was caught in a
terrible storm. He found refuge in a dilapidated castle. It was there
that he met a lady who stated that this was her home. He extended his
stay and they fell in love. Her only condition was that he may never
see her either in the daylight or in any sort of light (don't remember
which). They had two kids together. One day, he broke that promise and
saw her for what she was. Some sort of monster (kind of a cross
between a wolf or bear) that walked upright. Needless to say, she
banished him due to his mistake and his kids also were these creatures.
other story involves a guy who basically wants to get rid of his wife
(for whatever reason). So he takes her into the woods. Of course, he
gets out of there and abandons her leaving her to the wolves who do kill
her. After a period of time, the guy is looking out into the woods
from his balcony when he sees the ghost of his wife floating toward
him. Not believing what he sees, he leaves his house to follow said
ghost. She continues to float about 15-20 feet off the ground and leads
him into the woods. The last scene is of him getting attacked by
wolves (probably the same ones that attacked her). In other words, she
got her revenge by getting him ambushed.
3. Titles by the same author. All of the were about serial killers who dispatched their
victims via a special method (e.g., drowning, suffocation, burning). Each cover depicted
a woman's face as she was being murdered by that book's method. For
example, the suffocation book's cover sports a screaming woman's face in
a bag. The drowning book shows a woman being drowned from underwater. Found! It's the Dean Grant series by Robert Walker. Yikes:
4. I'm probably grasping at tentacles here, but on the off chance, but I'm trying to remember a fantasy-horror story or novel that would have been released in the early 1990s (?)- based on the fact that I heard about it in a GALAXY Bookshop [an Australian specialist bookseller] mail newsletter from then, in a special insert devoted to the upcoming output from this particular author (a somewhat famous one I think) - the primary sequence in an excerpt was about a little man, Mr Pix/Puck/Pim(?), arriving outside the door of a main character in a cardboard box like a homunculus. If memory serves the backdrop was of a strange hotel or lodging in some weird town. I don't have much more info than the above, but I've always assumed it was Thomas Ligotti, but I probably have been incorrect.Found! It is Ligotti: "The Bells Will Sound Forever," and it's in Mammoth Book of Best New Horror: Volume 9 (1998).
5. A detective is investigating the murder rape of a young girl. He arrests a man (a dwarf) who confesses
that he had done that in a ritual to obtain wings.
The detective has no other proofs, so, in
order to punish the rapist he torn out of his back the budding wings already
growing there.Found! It's "A Fly One" by Steve Sneyd, found in both Whispers III and Year's Best Horror VIII.
6. Late 1990s or early 2000s. Set in the forests of the northern U.S., or maybe Canada. Plot ultimately centered on a werewolf, and I think it
featured a woman heroine.
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 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.
7. Horror trilogy and the first book is about a Korean vet who
becomes a priest. His wife is part of a satanic cult and married him
only because she knew he would eventually lead a group against the cult.
There are creatures that guard a cave, and if one of these creatures
bite you, you turn into them, kind of a Neanderthal monster. Also, if
you have sex with any of the cult, you also are turned. The preacher
leads the battle against the cult and in the first novel, winds up in a
fight (although it is just assumed in the writing) and even though he
lost, the devil left a remark about how he was a great adversary. Two
sequels followed in which the girlfriend of the preacher gave birth to a
child, and also one of the women of the evil cult seduced him in the
fight with the devil and she gave birth to a child also. Found! It's William W. Johnstone's early 1980s Devil series from Zebra.
Horror writer Evans Light has been having some great luck with his book-buying sprees recently, finding lots of books I was unfamiliar with. He has graciously allowed me to share their cover art. The title above, The Craving (Dell 1982), was one a TMHF reader was looking for, who provided a description of the cover which I posted on the Facebook page. Evans came to the rescue, ID-ing the book right away, one he'd just purchased himself! Screaming Whitman's Sampler, totally brilliant. Be sure to check out his (and his brother's) site, www.lightbrothershorror.com.
The Sharing (Avon 1984) shows some folks all going for--what? Moist brownies? An evil lust for moist brownies? Is that it?
The Heirloom (Pocket 1981) is by one of Graham Masterton's pseudonyms. '80s kids had all the fun...
Don't Tell Mommy (Pocket 1985) with more face-melting mayhem.
Masques (Berkley 1981) has a creeptastic voodoo doll and a nice tagline and that font I love, ITC Benguiat. Pronzini is a crime writer but his books were often marketed to horror readers; you can see this title's other covers here.
The Breeze Horror (Onyx 1988) Hungry hungry curtains! I find breezy winds rather foreboding, but will that work for a whole novel?
And a couple creepy kids to wrap up: Children of the Dark (Ballantine 1980) and Satan's Spawn (Avon 1988).
Looking for a forgotten horror novel or short story? Remember the cheesy paperback art but not who wrote the book? Send me an email at willerror[at]gmail.com describing it and if I don't know it, one of my readers might!
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