Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Spook by Steve Vance (1989): The Day the World Turned Day-Glo

Neon was a popular genre paperback coloring for titles and cover art in the very early '90s, I can remember authors as varied as Joseph Citro and Iain Banks having their books adorned with it. Vaguely psychedelic, but also kinda cheap, these Day-Glo colors glaring out at your from the shelves. I guess you almost had to pick 'em  up, though, didn't you? And if you picked up Spook (Berkley Books, Nov 1991) back in the day and flipped it open expecting to see some more eye-penetrating imagery, you'd get instead:

Yep, critical blurbs in place of stepback art. So weird. And yet, Spook offers nothing but that toothy skull and neon typeface. Author Steve Vance has written other horror novels but I can't imagine reading any of them. This is really one of the most nothing books I've read in some time, and while I was intrigued by one aspect of the narrative—failed artist seeks vengeance on the man who impregnated her with the titular "spook"—this aspect should have been most of the story. Instead we get hohum romance, indistinguishable cops, a slackly-characterized protagonist, and a cast of the most obnoxious, tedious teenage morons you ever saw. The whole shebang is here on the back:

"Spellbinding"? Hardly. Vance can write, I guess, and you can tell he wants to produce a serious horror/thriller novel, but he has absolutely no sense of pacing, POV, dialogue, suspense, chills or thrills—you know, all the reasons you read. Maybe if he'd used this as a first draft and then broke the novel down into individual parts and reassembled it, making his backstory the story or something. The twist is good, but I feel the book was reverse-engineered from it. 

But I kept waiting for something, anything, to alleviate my lack of interest; it never came. I didn't find the book stupid or insulting, crass or tacky or inept like other bad horror novels; I found it utterly unengaging, devoid of almost anything unique, fresh, inventive. There's no there there. Even though I finished Spook, I have to recommend you keep far, far away from it—If you're smart, you'll keep your distance. As for reading Vance's other novels, I don't think that day will ever come.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Child of Hell by William Dobson (1982): Flaming Youth

...the elemental passion that forever rumbled in his belly: 
the delight in the mystical properties of flame, its godlike destructiveness, 
its leaping, growing, consuming might.

With cover art that is a near-perfect example of vintage paperback horror fiction, this slim volume from Signet Books is adorned by one of artist Tom Hallman's most dramatically lurid images, bowl-cut notwithstanding. Love how the firelight is reflected in his eyes, a nice derangement of the senses. Dig the menace of the title, Child of Hell, and its glorious ITC Benguiat typeface, stark and unmissable against an inky black background. William Dobson is a perfectly non-descript name (a pseudonym too). Yep, creepy kid, similarity to a previous bestseller (King's Firestarter of course), typeface and tagline—all that's missing is a comparison to The Other or Rosemary's Baby!

Dobson is the pen name of British writer Michael Butterworth (copyright is under this name). Under this name he published Fangs, The Child Player, and The Ripper, all early '80s and also from Signet.  Unfortunately there are two British writers name Michael Butterworth so parsing between the two was tricky, but I'm pretty sure this Butterworth was also a writer of crime thrillers and comic books, while the other Butterworth was a New Wave science fiction publisher and author. Our Butterworth died in 1986 at age 62.

With those bibliographic deets out of the way, let's discuss. Less a horror novel than a psychological potboiler with some very graphic scenes of pyromaniacal mayhem, Child of Hell isn't really about a child at all (thank ye gods), although the novel begins with a little boy of just seven burning down his house with his family inside on Christmas in the non-descript American town of Midchester. Good heavens, why? Well, because instead of the super-cool radio-controlled model fighter plane he asked, his folks ripped him off with a goddamn cheapo jigsaw puzzle! The discarded wrapping paper smolders in the ash of the dying living room fire and then catches on the Christmas tree branches and*poof*—fire!... and little Davie Fosset runs outside and along with horrified neighbors, watches his family burn to death unable to escape.

When he heard their screams—and they screamed till they died, 
and they died neither soon nor easily—he only grinned.

Jeff Angel is a young family man and a firefighter on the rise; while Little Davie is setting his family home alight, the firefighters are have a literal ball. Jeff is chatted up by a delightful woman named Marie, and they argue wittily about the Mad Arsonist, who's been lighting up Midchester for two years now. What motivates him? What's his background? How can he be caught, and how should he be punished? This conversation, as well as the ball itself, is interrupted by the blaze at the Fossets', and Angel is off to fight this war he can never win.

Arriving on the scene and finds ambulance nurse Janice Hooper comforting the young survivor. Now Janice nursed neither a motherly nor a platonic regard for the young rookie fireman, and Dobson neatly sets up some romantic interests for our ostensible hero within the first 10 pages. Then Janice hears the boy mutter that weirdo phrase again: goddamned cheapo jigsaw puzzle...

As I said, Child of Hell isn't exactly about a child: Dobson allows Davie to grow up as the novel progresses, and it's a solid narrative arc I think. He's adopted by an older preacher and his wife, Marvin and Teresa Allaun; they're strict adherents of the severe religion that founded the town, the Church of the Lonely Wanderers. One night at dinner our incipient maniac admits—"Speak out straight, lad"—that he wants to be a fireman when he grows up! O irony, like fire, you are an elemental force of the universe.

Then we follow Dave through grade school and college, with terrible glimpses of his fire mania and growing hatred toward the women who reject him. When making a date, he mutters to himself, You'd better be there, you little prick-teasing bitch, or you'll be goddamn sorry. He traps vagrants in abandoned buildings and then sets them alight.

He watched it all from the shadows beyond the inferno, and gloried in what he was doing, had done, and not with any unholy mirth, but with an awe and wonder at the power that lay in his hands.

Other than those personality tics, Dave grows into a fine upstanding fellow.

Meanwhile, Jeff Angel has married Marie, and they plan to start a family. Jeff's work is paramount, though, and Dobson gets into some police and firefighter politics, with chiefs and officers and all that, filler to make a fuller novel; not boring exactly but not always my favorite type of reading unless handled by a master. With pressure from various city muckety-mucks, the firefighters are determined to catch this arsonist, but Angel often thought that at his retirement party and presentation, he would be handing over the arsonist's dossier to his successor...

About halfway through the novel Dobson sets up a major setpiece of conflagratory terror, hearkening to the climax of Carrie. It's epic, cruel, horrifying. Debby Shearer, the belle of the Armadillo Country Club, is having her nineteenth birthday party there. Our Dave has become a busboy/waiter/bartender there, and even though he is of the lower classes, Debby has her eye on him—and seduces our pyro easily. Thinking of herself as a highborn lady of the eighteenth century, she knows she can take a lover beneath her station and is hidebound neither by convention nor by the acclaim of disapproval of the mob. But she certainly won't marry him... Yes, she's a terrible snob, and you know what happens to snobs in books like these.

And so Child of Hell progresses, twining the stories of Fosset and Angel as they move through normal life, its ups and downs, and the madness of one and the determination of the other. Characterization is economic but believable; there is even some early serial-killer profiling, as Janice reappears in Jeff's world and tries to assist in the identification and capture of the Mad Arson. Was it feasible that a child of six or seven would deliberately destroy his own family by fire, then go on to commit fourteen years of dedicated arson and murder? The mind recoiled away from it. And yet... and yet...

Dobson writes well enough, his dialogue doesn't distract (at times it sounds a little plummy),  and his ability to generate suspense is laudable. I did though notice a few particulars that either made me wince or laugh. His sex scenes, well, he's the kind of writer who uses the phrases "amatory vocabulary" and "couplings" and even, god save us, "darling." More distressing is the appearance, albeit brief, of  sibling incest, almost as if paperback horror contracts of the '80s were written with an ironclad clause that could not be unheeded. I had a chuckle at Dobson's failure to convince me he knew anything about America.

You'll be happy to hear I've not even mentioned all of the twists and turns and shocks that make up the entirety of this barely 200-page novel. Dobson is great at scenes of fiery destruction, at depicting Dave's psychopathic desires that he can suppress for a time—he even meets a nice girl! the killer fell in love at first sight—but oh how it can't be denied.When Dave lights up a theater full of retirees at a matinee, he sits eating a burger and watches it burn, in the curious amalgam of tension and relaxation, of cold-bloodedness and erotic excitement that informed his excursions into death, disfigurement, and destruction. As a fireman, how can he ever be suspected? How can he ever be found out? Dave Fosset has the perfect cover. Yes, Child of Hell brings the goods, hot and ready for you.

And speaking of perfect covers...

Paperbacks from Hell table of contents

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Richard Matheson Born of Man and Woman on This Date, 1926

The legendary Richard Matheson was born on February 20, 1926 and died on June 23, 2016. To mark the occasion I present to you this interview with him from Douglas E. Winter's indispensable nonfiction work Faces of Fear: Encounters with the Creators of Modern Horror (Berkley Books, Nov 1985). I think you'll find Matheson's thoughts on his writing career and life enlightening indeed. Click to embiggen and enjoy.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Shadows 4, edited by Charles L. Grant (1981): I Was Born Here and I'll Die Here

"This volume breaks almost every one of my rules," states esteemed author and editor Charles L. Grant (1942-2006)  in his introduction to the fourth volume of his long-running anthology series of quiet horror stories, Shadows. Published in hardcover by Doubleday in 1981, this Berkley paperback from 1985 promises ghoulish, skeletal frights by the cover art (artist unknown), but in truth the tales within aren't quite obvious as a mouldering corpse looking for revenge. But you can't deny the eye-catching quality, which is what it's really about, no? The lantern is a nice touch, I mean you can't expect that skeleton to see, he's got no eyeballs.

Grant's "rules" are that stories for Shadows had to be contemporary and nontraditional. He's right: rules are broken by several stories here that aren't contemporary or nontraditional, but still achieve the chilling vibes that Grant's name was associated with. Though at times I find this quiet horror style too mild or old-fashioned for my personal taste, I'm also open to subtle terrors that don't reveal themselves in a blast of super-heated prose or vistas of inhuman cruelty. Suppose my main issue with quiet horror from this era is that it's too cozy, too slacks-and-slippers, to truly disturb or unsettle. Oh well, these stories date from 1981, the big bulldozer of more graphic horror is still beyond the horizon. But our tastes are not so jaded and degraded that we can't enjoy a few more refined horror treasures?

Anyway. Check out the names in the contents list, I'm surprised not a one of them made it onto the paperback cover! You got Steve King, you got Tabitha King, and Ramsey Campbell and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Tanith Lee, Alan Ryan and Lisa Tuttle... I was even impressed that there was a story from science fiction giant William Gibson, albeit from before he was a science fiction giant as publication of his epoch-defining Neuromancer was still a few years off (although the Berkley paperback came out after that novel). Written with jack-of-all-trades John Shirley, "The Belonging Kind" is a story I've read before, in Gibson's own short-story collection of his early cyberpunk works, Burning Chrome (1985). Glad to have read it again!

Gibson, Shirley, 1980s

Set in countless bars, discos, nightclubs and cocktail lounges, "Kind" is mildly SF, with some bio-weirdness and identity crises as a slacker-slob kinda guy meets an attractive woman while out drinking one night and ends up following her from bar to bar (I can't help but picture a neon-lit cyberland of synths and urban squalor). But she's changing, always in flux, to "belong" in whatever environs she finds herself in.  

She stepped off the curb and it began. It began with tints in her hair—at first he thought they were reflections. But there was no neon there to cast the blobs of color that appeared, color sliding and merging like oil slicks. Then the colors bled away and in three seconds she was white-blonde. He was sure it was a trick of the light until her dress began to writhe, twisting across her body like shrink0wrap plastic. Part of it fell away entirely and lay in curling shreds on the pavement, shed like the skin of some fabulous animal... 

This is quality short fiction, not easily fitting into any genre, but capable enough to belong anywhere it chooses.

Tanith Lee's "Meow" presents the ultimate cat-lady scenario. Writerly fella meets a shy, independent woman... and her cats. Lee's story is so charmingly, brightly written, so fresh and winning, so unexpected in some of its imagery, that I will forgive its maybe short-sighted generic climax; Lee could have gone for bigger, deeper rewards with the end. Passages like I'd spot their eyes in the early morning darkness when I brought her home, ten disembodied dots of creme de menthe neon spilled over the air. Demons would manifest like that make "Meow" a high point of the antho.

Another favorite turns up as he does in many of the era's anthologies: fellow author/editor Alan Ryan. "A Trip to Brighton" breaks no new ground, yet it does its deed with all the clarity, precision, and sensitivity that Ryan is known for. A doll left behind on a train ride promises to be the perfect gift for a loathsome little girl, an ill-mannered, ungrateful little thing. A perfect beast.

Children are the main characters in both Steve Rasnic Tem's "The Giveaway" and Al Sarrantonio's "Under the Bed." They're competently written and creepy-clever enough, but the climactic twists can be seen coming and going, not uncommon when reading horror tales of this vintage; both authors have better-realized works elsewhere. "Need" I'd read in Lisa Tuttle's splendid collection A Nest of Nightmares (1986). A college student has her pleasant walk through a quiet cemetery spoiled by a clueless dude who sneaks up on her. She felt uneasy now, her pleasant mood shattered. She had no desire to be standing in a cemetery, talking to an odd boy who had watched her without her being aware. But force of habit kept her polite. Ugh, guys, really, leave women alone. And then he goes and kills himself and still won't stop bugging her? Seriously, this guy's the worst.

"Hearing is Believing" is Ramsey Campbell's contribution, and fine, vintage Campbell it is. A lonely man with a drab job begins hearing voices and pouring rain from his stereo speakers; the clerk at the repair shop is no help. Things get worse. My appreciation for Campbell's style has grown immeasurably since beginning this blog (nearly 10 years ago now!) and his twilight world of disorientation, decay, and dribbling rain that smears vision is the stuff of my literal nightmares. At one end of the unknown street, amid a chorus of unhurried breathing, something was feeling for him along the broken facades.

Although she's published several novels, I've never read anything by Tabitha King till "The Blue Chair." It's perfectly cromulent, a well-described tale of a businesswoman alone in her hotel room with the titular object who meets up with a male cousin she once had a crush on. Things get hot and heavy—you know that's totally legal and fine, right?—but that chair isn't gonna let things end so easily.

Would you shake hands with this man?

Does anyone actually talk like the characters in some of Stephen King's stories? Oh, who cares: in "The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands," King employs one of the most effective tools in his arsenal, the tale-within-a-tale (whyyy is that so terrifying?!). Group of old men at the old-men's club play a game with a stranger, a young man who won't—you guessed it. Much of the tale includes blow-by-blow card hands, which I never understand. Grant calls this one "Kiplingesque" and maybe that's so, I wouldn't know myself, but the story is minor King yet readable and satisfying, you can tell Steve's having some fun writing in a mannered period style.

Brower staggered away from the table, holding hand out in front of him like a masculine Lady MacBeth. He was as white as a corpse, and the stark terror on his face is beyond my powers of description. I felt a bolt of horror go through me... Then he began to moan. It was a hollow, awful sound, cryptlike. I remember thinking, Why, the man's quite insane...

1988 Doubleday hardcover, art by Christopher Zacharow

There are other stories, too: short-shorts and whatnot, meager morsels I found neither here nor there, so I won't bother noting them except that they made passably engaging reads while on the bus or at the bar for happy hour. Grant notes in one of his intros to each contribution that finding and publishing new writers is one of the joys of his job, and while he says nice things like "This is their first story but it won't be their last," it is often the case that some of these new writers never published again. Cherie Wilkerson's "Echoes from a Darkened Shore" is an accomplished work for a first-timer, a moody bit of parental love and guilt, a child who refuses to grow up, and an old man wandering the sea shore.

"How long has it been since you've been to sea?" 
"A long time," he said without glancing up. I stared at him and felt my scalp trying to lift from my skull. 
"Did you ever have children?" 
The Captain nodded slowly. "My grandson was about her age when he died." 
"I don't want you to touch her," I said, trying unsuccessfully to control the quiver in my voice.

There are also writers, such as Juleen Brantigham, who rarely wrote anything but stories for Grant's anthologies, so much so that I wonder if that's one of Grant's pen names! "The Hour of Silhouette" is all slithering shadows and misdirection, hallmarks of the Grant style.

The longest story is the last, "The Spider Glass" by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, one of her exquisitely detailed historicals featuring the Count St.-Germain, the "decadent foreigner" who is also a vampire. Another tale-within-a-tale, another men's club, a bookend to King's opener, it's lush, witty, somewhat romantic. Glistening in the mirror, the spider hung in its jeweled web. The body was red as rubies or fresh blood. The eight, finely-made legs were garnet at the joints and tourmaline elsewhere, delicate as a dancer...

I've enjoyed other volumes of Shadows more, but for the completist there might be an hour or two of whiling-away reading. Overall the stories are professional, mature, varied, and eerie (which is not always the case with horror anthologies as the Eighties continued). The whole series is, of course, essential for any paperback horror library, perfect for dipping into when one wants a bit of tasteful terror to darken the light.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Eat Them Alive by Pierce Nace (1977): Green Hell

They were monsters—greedy green monsters! 
They looked as if they would eat anything they could catch, chewing it to bits in their enormous jaws... One of the mantises had cornered a man... who couldn't run enough to escape the wildly dashing insect. It flopped him onto the ground and began eating him as if he were a fish, a hunk of meat, anything edible. 
And it did not bother to kill him before devouring him. 
He lay kicking, and no doubt screaming, as the green monster ate him alive.

From a mind deranged springs this ludicrous, bat-shit bonkers sleaze-horror novel about giant people-eating praying mantises. This is the book that's either the zenith or the nadir of paperback pulp-horror fiction. In fact I feel guilty selling it as either because as of today, this book is impossible to obtain for less than $300, and it is not worth that no matter where it stands on the horror scale. Eat Them Alive—its title alone appealing to our basest fears, crude and simplistic as a tabloid headline, humanity reduced to food—is truly garbage. There's no percentage in arguing otherwise. And yet...

First published by Manor Books in 1977 and then by New English Library (with cover art by Tim White), Alive is amateurish, moronic, thoughtless, sadistic, repetitive schlock with no redeeming value whatsoever. What enjoyment there is comes in the form of disbelief. You'll be amazed at the lack of any attempt at realism in any aspect. You'll be astounded at the depraved depths to which the author can descend! Pierce Nace (more on this person later) piles one outrageously graphic scene on top of another like a pulp writer suffering a fever dream.

They were clambering over each other to escape their caves or undersea holes or wherever else they had lived. They must have dwelt beneath the island for thousands of years. They must be a throw back to the dinosaurs...

Our main guy Dyke Mellis is just the worst, a craven, cowardly, ultra-violent crook. He's been living on the island in exile for 11 years, since being tortured almost to death by the criminal gang he tried to double-cross. This back-story in Chapter Two is torn right from dimestore crime stories, akin to the sere, spare, nihilistic works of David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Dan J. Marlowe, or Richard Stark—only in attitude, not in execution, good god no—in which men outside the law are betrayed (or as in this case, are the betrayer), beaten, and abandoned for dead by their (justifiably angry) crew. Dyke Mellis is almost superhumanly equipped with a taste for vengeance that keeps him alive despite coming so close to death; he bears hideous scars, poor vision, constant headaches.

Nace shoves in your face and smashes in your mouth what other pulp writers hinted at and around, that Dyke is hardly a man, as he was castrated by the four men he tried to rip off ("No, no! Don't cut me there! Slice off anything else, but leave me that!"). You won't forget this because Nace will lapse into repetition at a moment's notice. It's hilarious how Nace has Dyke talk to himself about his lust for vengeance, reiterating his personal motivation, as if Nace is writing a work of such complexity and nuance that the reader may have become unclear on the basics: "It's the only thing I've got to live for, because it'll further my plan for revenge on those four guys for making me what I am, an impotent no-man... I want to watch... as the giant mantises eat them alive!" Oh shit, how about that, that's the title of the book, wow, it totally slipped my mind. Way to bring it all back home, Pierce Nace!

Anyway, Dyke sees the destruction on that island from the safety of his fishing boat, he thinks: If he could tame this one insect, teach it to respect and follow his commands, then he could tame others, make them a powerful force to do his bidding. And par for the course in landscape of illogicality, Dyke does train the biggest mantis. Nace goes into lots of spurious logistics about how he goes about this without getting eaten. He paints its head red to tell it apart and then mutters to himself:

A name. The thing's got to have a name... But what will it be? How do you name a beast whose sole purpose is acting as your instrument of boiling revenge, of mind-racking torture, of slow and horrendous death? Well, how about "Slayer"? This man-sized bug is going to slay for me... Slayer will be the torturer, but I'll be the watcher, the enjoyer, the cheerer-on. I'll love watching my great green mantis as he rips into bodies, as he eats them part by part. I'll feel excited, obsessed, I'll grow tall in the feeling...

Manor Books, 1977, with accurate cover art (by artist unknown alas) so that's something
"Good boy, Slayer, You're the biggest of them all—and the only one with a red head. 
You will command them as I will command you!"

Somebody please tell me Kerry King read this book back in the early '80s. The story plods on, as thin as the paper it's printed on, with lots of gore and nonsense (the beasts lovingly devour women's breasts), till yes, he tracks down each of the men who tortured him... they all happen to live nearby. How fortuitous!

The unsparing of any detail in depicting the creatures' ravenous appetite and the ease with which they tear part the "human food" has a dehumanizing effect on the reader if one tries to imagine such a scene in the real world. And yet violence never gets next level: for all its intensity, the same descriptions of gore are used over and over again. Sure, the monsters do love eating the stomach contents of other mantises, and squeezing out human intestines for a dipping sauce. But when describing the massive trauma of tearing off of limbs and heads you won't read vocabulary like ligament, cartilage, tissue, or anything that would require any knowledge besides a child's understanding of anatomy. No one ever vomits or shits their pants in fear—why, that would be too far!

Many times Slayer ran his claws inside the pieces of skull, as if to be sure hew as getting every edible bite...

Next the beast pulled the arms from the man as Dyke had done to grasshoppers a thousand times when he was a boy. The arms came out of their sockets like paper in the mantis's pull. While the man screamed on, the enormous insect ate his hands, his wrists, his elbows, the whole of his arms...

Before the mantis rent the organs from the chest and stomach cavities, he bent low over the girl and filled his great maw with all that stamped the body as female. Watching, Dyke thought, God, I think I could eat that part myself. I could never touch a woman's privacy otherwise. Perhaps sometime I can share such a part with one of the beasts when he eats it...

Slayer crouched beside his master, eating babies and children almost whole, not bothering to tear them to bits—and finding his ultimate joy in the women he stripped and slit and ate.

One redeeming factor is that since Dyke is castrated, he can't really get erotically aroused by watching these monster consume human meat; I mean he almost gets there but it's one place the author stops short—on purpose? As he ponders to himself watching an old man he knew become mantis prey:

I'm not sure Nace even gets the biology of the mantis correct. The descriptions don't get more than "the mantis broke off a leg with its hands" and I don't think mantises even have hands but that's the word Nace keeps using. I don't think Nace ever mentions "mandibles," only "jaws," which doesn't sound right either. Nor does Nace seem to have familiarity with human speech. Cringe-worthy dialogue from Dyke's targets like "Don't let them eat her to death!" and "Are they really... eating my... folks?" and "I'm not going to stand here and see those prehistoric animals eat my wife and kids!" is nothing anyone would ever say, you have to laugh. Don't you?! Like when Dyke and his creepy-crawlies show up at a victim's home at breakfast and he sits down and devours the carefully laid-out meal, รก la Vlad the Impaler, while watching the bugs slaughter the man and his family. I had to give points on that scene.

Now, about Nace. For a long time there was doubt and debate about who Nace really was, but according to various internet sources who have really done some legwork, it seems near-certain the author was one Evelyn Pierce Nace, a part-time insurance secretary who published in men's crime magazines under "Pierce Nace." I wonder how many people who knew her in real life were aware that she wrote one of the sleaziest, most heartless works of horror fiction of all time?

Would not Dyke's four enemies beg pitifully, on their abject knees, if he came marching at the head of a hungry horde of praying mantises that were commanded to devour Dyke's torturers? God, what a devil's joy that would be!

To wrap up: not one of the books I've read by other sewage-purveyors like Guy N. Smith, Shaun Hutson, or Richard Laymon can compare with the trashtastic lunacy on display here. But it is obsessed with human degradation, humiliation, emotional torment, and the limits of physical pain while understanding none of it. Nace has produced a work that is the creative equivalent of pulling wings off flies, a childish cruelty that is virtually sociopathic in its divorce from actual human comprehension. As I said, there's no attempt to present the events realistically. I guess it's like reading porn written by someone who's never had sex.

Unlike other pulp-horror novels, which are often mediocre and boring in the extreme, Alive at least is hilariously inept; so poor and idiotic and unrelenting, going along for the ride offers sick thrills one doesn't get often. You will keep reading no matter what! For fans of that style of bottom-of-the-barrel horror fiction, Alive will provide the tackiest, most tasteless of delights.

I read Eat Them Alive in one day, finishing it up alone in my library on a Saturday night, my head buzzing pleasantly from beer and smoke, and my god, I found I was enjoying this degrading, damnable book! I actually couldn't put it down. When we get to the culmination of Dyke's vengeance, it's a delirious surreal kaleidoscope of bloody, gut-wrenching yet utterly ridiculous violence. The final chapter has the feel and the logic of an eight-year-old, tired of playing make-believe, crashing all his toys together at once in an apocalyptic blow-out. Those final sentences are a weird satisfaction.

Yes, this novel beggars all critical approach. I know it sounds irresistible, but I still don't know if I can recommend Eat Them Alive, and like I said it is not worth $300! I mean, I bought a copy, the New English Library edition maybe a year and a half ago, for $5 plus $10 shipping from the UK; is that luck, or something else? But it is part of the paperback horror boom so I feel duty-bound to write about it... such is my lot, my curse, my devil's joy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Top 8 of '18: My Favorite Horror Reads of the Year

2018 was in a way the biggest year ever for Too Much Horror Fiction: in March, the Grady Hendrix nonfiction book it inspired, 2017's Paperbacks from Hell, received the hallowed Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction. And Grady and I will be providing introductions to a series of reprint vintage horror novels to be published by Valancourt Books. I also wrote an intro (and signed copies) for a special hardcover edition of Ken Greenhall's Hell Hound from Centipede Press.

Yet my reading this year was unfortunately filled with dud books like the burnt kernels at the bottom of a popcorn bag. One straight bomb after another, I despaired of the era I was also so enamored of. Why do I keep reading this crap, I wondered. I turned to crime novels (Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett) for relief. 

Yet I did enjoy some fantastic vintage works, a few titles of which belong to my favorites of all time (I reread The Haunting of Hill House after the premiere of its Netflix adaptation; it remains one of the finest novels I've ever encountered). I think you'll dig these titles below; they offer a good breadth of the genre, from "mainstream" to pulp horror, from the graphic to the poetic, from the thrilling to the thoughtful.

The Tribe by Bari Wood (1980) - A fully-realized horror thriller about a creature from Jewish folklore bringing vengeance and mayhem to New York City.

The Flesh Eaters by L.M. Morse (1979) - Grim and grimy, this pulp-tastic tale of cannibalism and depravity, set in the filthy Middle Ages, is deliciously sleazy.

Lovers Living, Lovers Dead by Richard Lortz (1977) - A Seventies psychosexual romp with a bonkers shocker to explain why a professor's wife is—well,  you'll see.

Wilding by Melanie Tem (1992) - Female werewolf clans confront generational discord. Astute yet impressionistic, heartbreaking and bloody.

The Spirit by Thomas Page (1978) - Sasquatch adventure horror. I'd place it in the eco-horror subgenre.

Winter Wolves by Earle Westcott (1988) - Just what the title says. Written with a naturalist's eye, with a vivid frigid locale and some spooky titular creatures.

Koko by Peter Straub (1988) - Straub to the rescue! I didn't get around to reviewing this yet, but Koko is a large-scale mainstream novel that's horror-adjacent, it is powerful, unsettling, at times brilliant.

Such Nice People by Sandra Scoppettone (1980) - A sadly relevant how-we-live-now novel about a teenage boy's descent into madness and the horror his family experiences. Review to come!

Here's to a horrific 2019! Now get out there and read some good horror.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Miss Finney Kills Now and Then by Al Dempsey (1982): I'm Younger Than That Now

I hope you enjoy this terrific Jim Warren cover art because that's the only enjoyment you're gonna get here: Miss Finney Kills Now and Then (Tor Aug 1989 reprint/orig Feb 1982) is inept, clunky, and dumb as hell. In short, unreadable. I began reading in all open-mindedness, but its idiocy factor is all-consuming. Nothing depicted has any relationship to humans, living or dead. If someone with a knack for the written word had attempted the same storyline (*cough* Michael McDowell *cough*), I have no doubt it would've been a lurid romp of some entertainment value. Instead we've got whoever Al Dempsey is writing what seems to be a novelization for a movie never made (copyright page notes "based on an original screenplay by Joseph Van Winkle").

Two young women, crude simpletons both, talk their rich aging aunt of the title into participating in a seance—we're in New Orleans, if you must know—and, coerced by an occult con man who only made me think of this guy, Miss Finney "learns" from the "spirit world" that she can become immortal if she simply, you know, kills people ("You must take a life and add to yours"). But she's in a wheelchair how can she do that?? Why, she'll get her two turd nieces to do the actual dirty work of killing, which Miss Finney brings up over coffee. But it's a scam solely to get money from the old biddy since they're not going to actually kill anyone and then oh my god it becomes all too real!

1st Tor edition, 1982

The first murder sequence is staged and executed in a manner reminiscent of a middle-school play made up and performed by, well, middle-schoolers. Aunt Finney's nieces, Brook and Willa (you know their names because neither one stops saying the other's) set up a rapey handyman (ain't they all) to take the "fall." They're gonna fake kill him, see, and collect $5,000 apiece ("Isn't that rather high?") from old Auntie!

Except that's not how it turns out, and from there I think there's some supernatural shit—book spine states "supernatural horror" under Tor monster logo—but by then my eyeballs were melting down my face like I was a Zap comix. I'd re-commit, take a deep breath, and try to read more, in good faith, but that was fuckin torture. I physically couldn't read this book any longer. Even with dialogue like "I've killed, Detective Scarne. I think that is pretty legal and pretty problematical!" 

Skipping to pages near the end, I discovered there's a Satanic cult ("He cannot speak. He has no tongue. Look at the power of Satan, dear Brook"), like you'd find in a satirical Levin, and bloody nonsense around the climax; I found this passage at random:

Men and women alike participated in the blood anointing of her body. Hands coursed sensually across her breasts, fingers ushered blood into her orifices... The participants in the ritual retreated and she could see that a thing, a vulgar form, was approaching her. Her efforts to cope with the horror were futile. She experienced total revulsion.... The form's skin was covered with open sores that dripped a gray mush, bearing an odor from the bowels of the earth... Its member was erect...

However it's all bargain basement rehash of shit any horror fic fan knows by heart. Turns out Dempsey was more a political thriller writer of the kinds of '80s novels with swastikas on the cover; his attempt at horror is unmitigated hackwork. I had to give up for my taste and my sanity. In all honesty Miss Finney is one of the special handful of pitiful horror novels I've attempted to read that make me despair: why am I, an adult grown-ass middle-aged man, reading, or trying to read, such shallow shitty pandering carelessly-produced garbage? Why do I do this to myself? How it got two printings from Tor boggles the mind. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Winter Wolves by Earle Westcott (1988): The Ice Age is Coming

Cold was there to greet you when you got out of bed in the morning, and keep you company when you climbed back in at night. It sought out your weaknesses like a patient enemy and whispered to your bones of death. It wore you down, physically and mentally, and long bouts of it could break you. 

I've noted before how horror works terrifically when set in a cold environment, and Winter Wolves (Bantam Books, March 1989, cover art by the great Tom Hallman) by its title alone fits the bill. And with this vividly written, powerfully-told tale, creative writing professor and one-time novelist Earle Wescott (b. 1946) has fashioned a frigid adventure yarn crammed with convincing details of horror, madness, and death.

It is a shame Westcott published no other novels, for here all the moving parts work just right: setting, character, dialogue, relationships, motivation. His scenarios, whether in a newspaper office, a homey restaurant, a hermit's shack, or the wintered forest itself, are all presented with utmost realism, with the palpable sense of real life as lived, all put down honestly by a person who understands and respects the craft of the written word. You know, a real book written by a real writer: something all too rare in the world of paperback horror fiction.

New English Library, 1989

Winter Wolves begins as all creature-horror tales must: thrilling the reader with the hapless fate of one who encounters the beast(s). An elderly drunk stumbling across frozen flats notices two shapes blacker than night coming closer, and then a third blocking his way to any safety, and it smiled at him with a mouthful of star-bright teeth. Man that's a tough break, going out like that, drunk but scared sober. Chapter Two begins with another familiar confrontation: the offices of a small Maine newspaper, where editor Ray Neville wants journalist Fran Thomas to go to Thomas's hometown of Steel Harbor to report on the story behind the dead drunk found with his body mutilated. Was the drunk, name of Sam Comstock, dead of natural causes catching up with him and then mauled post mortem? Was it a pack of dogs? Was it wolves? In Maine?

When his editor said the word wolves, Fran thought of an assembly line. He thought of the exhibit of prehistoric dire wolf skulls at the Page Museum in LA, dozens of them with only minor variation in size... how brutally mechanistic nature really was, stamping out skullcaps like brass shell casings in a wartime munitions plant.

After a quick sketch of Fran's personal life—He found relief only in quitting things— it's on to a couple other settings you'll recognize: the backwater funeral home and doctor's office. Fran chats with old Dr. Tagen, who's shadowed by two giant Great Danes. Tagen examined Comstock's mangled remains: "The extremities received great attention. The flesh torn from the corpse wasn't eaten. It was scattered around. I might say playfully." Like other creature horrors, the culprit is at first misidentified: this wasn't a wild animal but maybe a large dog (Like a Great Dane? Fran asks, and Tagen scoffs, noting the breed's cowardice in the face of cold.)

Fran speaks with Police Chief Boulting, who wants Fran to "educate the public" about the dangers of letting domestic animals run wild; no one thinks wolves are responsible, save Woody Parker, who discovered Comstock's corpse. Knowing he must speak to the reclusive, queer old man, Fran enlists the help of Caroline Parker (Westcott describes her as homely in the beautiful way redheads sometimes are), Woody's niece. From there they head out to his lonely fortified enclave where Woody sticks to his wolf story: "Nobody catches these wolves... They do the catching."

After another mutilation death, Woody is arrested, “the worst thing that could happen to a hermit, his worst nightmare, surely as harrowing as the torment of wolves real or imagined… he had become a public figure.” Before he’s taken away he says to Fran, “Think you know something, do you? Study the winter of 24 in your newspaper and you’ll know something for sure.” And from there Fran learns of eerily similar deaths, and that old Dr. Tagen who was young then had been the medical examiner. Fran asks Tagen about it, who crotchedly reminds Fran that he is a Thomas, of the local Thomases, and implies Fran knows more about this creature case than he thinks he does…. More research follows, again as it always must, and Fran reads in an 1820 newspaper about “the extermination of a verminous infestation of Wolves.” He learns that, and a little more, a fact that binds him tighter to this mystery than he had foreseen.

1988 hardcover

Fran and Caroline dance around their attraction to one another, and the consummation is detailed with an experienced eye: She whispered the most marvelous things to him, sweet and obscene, in a voice that was not entirely her own. As if she were possessed, bewitched, and her words an incantation. Westcott adds workplace drama too: Angela DeGregorio, 20-something copy assistant with some exotic kind of bone cancer that has crippled one leg and chemotherapy has turned her raven hair silver; and Tommy Blackburn, an ambitious colleague who resents Fran for what he sees as the editor's favoritism. Sexual tension between Fran and Angela is uncomfortable yet all too sad and real; violent tension between Fran and Tom also so.

Throughout the novel Fran is visited by dreams of a woman, her gown was made of snowflakes and he could see her nakedness beneath. She gave him a bold look, and he saw her eyes for the first time. They were not human. Westcott weaves notes of predestination and the otherworldly into his narrative, frigid little moments that speak of a man navigating his lost chances, failed ambitions, family ties to the proceedings, a doom-and-gloom vibe that every character seem to be fending off: It seemed to him that the pain, the deception, the chaos, the helplessness (especially the helplessness—everybody thinking he was a victim and nobody wrong) were all part of the universal state of human relationships...

The gripping climax of adventure and violence does not disappoint: Winter Wolves becomes both an ecological and personal nightmare. Westcott's prose achieves a natural poetry, a silvery sheen of terrible beauty as Fran confronts the phantoms of his life and dreams.

The glow was cold, faceted, like blood crystals in the snow, rubies, Mars. More aura than actual light, the ghost of a light, yet it did its job. As Fran stood at the edge, one of the pack charged, snapping with ferocious yanks of the head and threatening to bound across... cracking its jaws and casting a covetous glance at the man just out of reach...

A work of adult themes and situations, Westcott has produced an accomplished '80s horror novel, filled with fine writing, deft characterization, and satisfying scenes of bloodshed and eerie visions. When I began reading I expected nothing, and at first the pace seemed leisurely, leaving me somewhat cold (no pun intended); but by the end, as pieces fell into place and Westcott's abilities truly emerged, I was engaged, stimulated, chilled to the final lines. Make no mistake: track down these Winter Wolves and marvel at their icy, merciless power.