Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Maynard's House by Herman Raucher (1980): Girl from the North Country

[The tree] was gnarled and twisted and barren. It sported no foliage, not a sprig of green or a somnolent bud waiting for April. Nor was there snow on any of its branches. It was just stuck, apparently lifeless. And even in that sunlit afternoon where the evergreens shot mammoth black shadows across the snow, this tree cast no shadow at all.

Should I be surprised that such an evocative piece of horror fiction should spring from the pen of a literal "Mad man"? During his stint in the New York advertising world during the Fifties and Sixties, author Herman Raucher (b. 1928, Brooklyn) wrote plays and for television, then hit the jackpot with the autobiographical script and novelization for the hugely successful 1971 coming-of-age film Summer of '42 (for all y'all horror film fans out there, this is what little Danny is watching on TV in an early scene of Kubrick's Shining).

Dell Books, 1976 paperback

I've neither read the book nor seen the movie of '42, but they made Raucher a heavy hitter, and heavy hitting is what he's doing in his 1980 Vietnam-by-way-of-winter-Gothic, Maynard's House (Berkley paperback edition, Sept 1981, cover artist unknown). Should've known a man who can plumb and create the unspoken desires of the American consumer can also plumb darker recesses as well: Maynard's House is a gripping vintage read of low-key horror and mounting suspense.

Twenty-three-year-old Austin Fletcher is on a chugging train heading into the wilds of the great frozen state of Maine in the winter of '72-'73 when Maynard's House opens. Freshly home from the conflict in Vietnam, he's on his way to a house on eight acres of land in the god-knows-where town of Belden, said house having been willed to him on an entirely legal scrap of worn notebook paper by the late Maynard Whittier. Maynard is—was—a fellow young servicemen who, and Austin's not exactly sure how, had befriended Austin but then had the unfortunate luck of being killed in the line of duty.

Death had come quickly. Incoming mail, just one round round. Probably fired off by a Cong infiltrator who came upon the abandoned mortar in the brush and wasn't all that sure how to use it or where he was aiming it. Things like that happened every day. Luck of the draw. Spin of the wheel. Something like that.
Ah, the familiar tang of Vietnam-era fatalism and nonchalance about death and fate. With neither man having much in the way of family, the house will become a locus of their relationship, even after death. Austin is the kind of young man who hasn't made much of an impression on the world, wherever he went in life, he was never missed when he left. But maybe here, in Maynard's house, he can begin to live...

1980 hardcover from Putnam's

Upon arriving in Belden, Austin meets Jack Meeker, local mailman and general store owner, face like a favorite leather wallet, teeth like a barn door in an Andrew Wyeth painting, who speaks perfect Maine-accented English. He introduces Austin to not only the other men around but also to the delicate nature of personal interaction thereabout. You know these types of country men, literal to a fault, taciturn and distrustful, ornery, quick to find fault in others, full of assumption that everyone does things the way they do and thinks they're fools when they don't. "Gettin' a little testy there, Austin," Meeker says at one point early on when Austin grows a little weary of local know-it-alls. "That'll be the wrong attitude for a man let out heah to his own devices." 

Eventually Meeker takes Austin to Maynard's house, crouched low and gray and brown like a cat, its tail pressed against the cushiony hill, its mind semi-shut in a winter nap... a low-slung thing, cedar-shingled and loosely built, seemingly haphazard yet somehow indestructible. Then Meeker tells him that nearby is a shadowless witch's tree, where 250 years before a woman was hanged for being a witch, and her house—now rebuilt as Maynard's house—burned to the foundation. Thus begins a short discussion of the hows and wherefores of a witch's powers: "A witch can occupy a house and do things to ya if you cross its threshold," Meeker explains, noting that a witch can manipulate people. Austin isn't very much convinced, but agrees that a respectful awareness of these beliefs is in order.

1980 UK paperback

Austin settles into his old friend's house, marveling at how well-stocked it is, admiring its huge library (lots of Thoreau, who becomes a kind of intellectual beacon throughout) and tools and decor, seeing into Maynard's character and nature. Adventures with a deer, with the outhouse, and even a colorful hunter tracking a bear ensue, all delivered in Raucher's hale, hearty style. Austin learns about local history, of legends about woodland sprites called Minnawickies that dance on an outcropping known as the Devil's Dancing Rock—more notes of oddness and unease. On an old wooden plank hung up as ornamentation, he discovers messages carved in it by previous inhabitants about their lives, going back a hundred years. These were not happy people, it seems, and their scratchings leave Austin unsettled: This house is not fit. It never was. Nor will it burn. To hell with it.

The mood lightens some with the appearance of Ara and Froom, a 16-year-old girl and her little brother. Their origins are unclear, but they seem to be from a family living somewhere in the countryside, and they traipse through the snow to play pranks on Austin. He and the lovely Ara begin a smart-alecky banter while Froom throws snowballs in the background. They show up now and then, while Austin attempts to become proficient in his new homestead. Slowly he develops feelings for her, lamenting her youth. The only thing she wasn't that he wished she was—was older, but Never in his life had he been exposed to such simple beauty, to such a fine winter creature, to such innocent sensuality.

1981 UK hardcover

Vietnam always hovers in the background and at times in the foreground... like when Maynard begins to appear to Austin and the two converse in airy philosophical conundrums. Raucher highlights the duality of the house: by day something out of Robert Frost, a cozy Christmas card setting, but at night it becomes Poe and Hawthorne, terror and shadow. Austin struggles mightily to make this home his own but it may prove too much for him. Vietnam has wounded him more than he thinks.

Soon comes the realization that rather than living in or with the house, he has to live against it: Fuck you, house! he exclaims at one point. Then, people begin to die, leaving Austin virtually stranded, unable to discern what's real, what's illusion, and whether that pointy witch hat tumbling through the snow is able to kill him...
Raucher's a pro, writing rich, evocative prose perfect for the lonely scenario; you can feel the cold winds blowing, Austin's endless struggles with both what he can see and what he can't, the darkness settling down into the snowy trees outside... and whatever may lurk there. Welcome touches of earthy humor and sensuality give the novel a mainstream feel, but Raucher can certainly lay on the eerie shivers when necessary, applying different tones of unease, ambiguity, or the outright supernatural. Raucher's given readers a true winter Gothic, none of the predatory beasts he knew to be outside came close to matching the fear he had of the apparitions he knew to be inside his house and his mind.

While it has more on its mind than just scaring you, the novel's wintry, isolated setting and uncanny erasing of the lines between life and death, memory and prophecy, reality and illusion, provide plenty of quality reading for thoughtful horror fans who dig character-driven stories you can take your time with. It all builds to a climax of repulsive, subterranean horror goodness that lingers through to the last haunting page, over and over and over. In short, gang, Maynard's House is a must-visit.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Sweet Taste of Burning by Paul Andreota (1972): Witchery Weakening

Slim oh-so-Seventies French novel detailing the life and loves of, well, French sophisticates who get mixed up with the supernatural. Savor The Sweet Taste of Burning (Le Piège in French, "The Trap"; this edition from Warner Books, Sept 1974), a mild romantic thriller with witchy undertones. Journo Serge heads to the countryside to investigate occult goings-on and regular old murder at the behest of his scandal-hungry editor—the Golden Age of peasant witchcraft, old boy! There Serge goes looking for the local healer/shaman, Bonafous, but he first meets the man's niece, Teresa, and quelle surprise things slowly start to ooh là là. Cue middle-age crisis for Serge!

Then Serge's wife gets sick, and it's the same type of sickness that had plagued some now-dead folks in the country town where Bonafous and Teresa live, the reason Serge went there in the first place. Could Teresa, in a fit of jealousy and cold hate, cast a spell on her? In this day and age? Unbelievable for modern, sophisticated people to entertain. Carry on like this and you'll soon go completely mad yourself...

Our author, Paul Andreota (1917-2007), wrote novels of suspense and witchcraft, sez the paperback's bio page, as well as screenplays for French films I've never heard of (decidedly not the arty Truffaut/Godard type) ranging from the 1950s to the 1970s. Looks like he enjoyed himself, seems a regular bon vivant type here:

 Author Andreota
The book reads easily enough, if it's the sort of thing you like, but any comparison to contemporaneous works like The Exorcist or Rosemary's Baby is wildly overstating the case. Much of it reads like an obsessive hard-boiled novel of fatalistic love but with that tinge of the otherworldly, especially the final pages. But it's too little too late.

Although I was intrigued by the idea of a French occult novel, the main reason I bought Sweet Taste was for that sweet cover. Artist Charles Sovek, best known for his work on the early Seventies series Satan Sleuth published by Warner Books (and prominently featured in Paperbacks from Hell!), has a moody model evoking just the right amount of come-hither crazy ("Sometimes at night I'm two people," she tells Serge at one point). Not a terrible book overall, nothing I'd recommend, but you could—and probably do—have books with worse covers in your collection.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell (1989): The Wheat is Growin' Thin

Folk horror has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity in recent years, but it is certainly not a new subgenre. Fans have long spoken of the rustic, pagan, creepy charms of books and movies like Harvest Home, Blood on Satan's Claw, The Wicker Man (based on the near-forgotten 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner), Witchfinder General, The Ceremonies, "Children of the Corn," "The Lottery," most recently Midsommar, and of course back to the greats like Arthur Machen. Rural landscapes, taciturn locals, primitive religious and cult practices, and doomed interlopers are the essential tropes that form the basis for this always-fascinating pocket of horror.

So I'm well chuffed to report that Ramsey Campbell's 1989 novel Ancient Images (Tor paperback, June 1990, art by Gary Smith) ticks all those boxes successfully. A measured, mature, and well-paced thriller that finds the prolific modern master Campbell plying his quiet horror trade in top form, I devoured this book in a matter of days, eager to get back to it every time I had to put it down.

Campbell in 1989, photo by JK Potter

Interestingly, the impetus here is utterly modern: the search for a lost (fictional) film. Tower of Fear stars horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, produced during the same era as their real dual-starrers like The Black Cat (1934) and The Body Snatcher (1945). Graham Nolan is a film critic for television news who has finally tracked down a copy of the film, suppressed and never released, after searching for it for two years. He invites his colleague, film editor Sandy Allan, from the TV station they work at, to watch it with him. When Sandy arrives at Graham's apartment that evening for the "premiere," she finds it's been ransacked, the film projector knocked over and empty film canisters strewn about... and no copy of Tower of Fear. Then she sees Graham on the roof of the adjacent building, and as Sandy rushes to an outer door, she can only watch in horror as he tries to leap back to his own building, but misses and falls to his death:

His mouth was gaping, silenced perhaps by the wind of his fall, and yet she thought he saw her and, despite his terror, managed to look unbearably apologetic, as if he wanted her to know that it wasn't her fault she hadn't been in time to reach him.

Upon learning of the rarity of the film, the police think that Graham chased a thief across the rooftops. Sandy thinks this makes as much sense as anything, and writes an obituary for Graham to be broadcast by the station, mentioning his search for Tower of Fear and its theft. A day later a snarky tabloid critic who knew Graham pays him a backhanded tribute in print, angering Sandy by the dent it makes in Graham's integrity. She confronts this pompous writer, Len Stilwell,  at a horror movie premiere with American film historian Roger Stone (our eventual love interest). Stilwell dismisses the two of them and their mission: "I write consumer reports, I've no time for cleverness. Nor to argue." Wow do you wanna smack the guy! (Was Campbell inspired by a real-life critic?!)

Armed with Graham's notebook that contains contact info of people who'd worked on and starred in the film so many decades before, Sandy begins tracking them down, determined to save Graham's reputation. The mystery grows, for director Giles Spence was killed in a car accident just after filming ended. Karloff and Lugosi themselves never spoke of it. Like so many novels before and since, this research quest is a pleasure to read. What sinister force made this movie such a troubled production, caused it to be banned, led its makers and stars into seclusion, secrecy, even death? I mean, I love this kinda shit!

Campbell shines as he creates the unique characters Sandy meets. To a one they seem agitated, even fearful, to have Tower of Fear brought up again and again; many principals are aging and their adult children don't want their parents bothered by some trash horror nonsense from long ago. Even Sandy's parents are put off by it, although Dad admits, "Neither your mother nor I have heard of it, though it's the kind of thing we would have lapped up before the war changed all that."

Legend Books UK, 1990

Sandy meets the editors and designers and and writers and actors who were involved with Tower of Fear, and as I said, it's a pleasure to read; Sandy is a smart and capable character. She even hangs out with a disreputable group of grungy young movie fans who put out a gore zine. His fictional cinematic creations and their intersection with real-life movie culture isn't cute or self-aware, nor is it pretentious or faux-intellectual (*cough* Flicker *cough*), it simply is.

But it's the creeping unease when dealing with those who helped make the movie, the paranoia and distrust, which Campbell conveys with such subtle mastery, that propels the novel forward. There are also notes of tragedy, particularly in the sad career of once-popular actor Tommy Hoddle, who'd provided the comic relief for Tower of Fear. Sandy tracks him to down at a beach resort town where he is playing in children's afternoon theater shows, this one a pathetic vampire spoof. She tries to engage him about the movie, to no avail, and succeeds only in terrifying the poor old chap...

Eventually, after much to-do that involves a burgeoning affair with Stone, professional pressures, and figures that flitter and caper just at the edge of perception—that hallmark of Campbell's off-kilter approach to chills and dread—Sandy finds the owner of the movie rights. This is Lord Redfield, of the township Redfield, known far and wide for its successful agriculture which provides the wheat for Staff o' Life bread, a popular brand whose commercials always seem to be playing in the background. Lord Redfield invites Sandy to his palatial home, and in Bond villain fashion, explains (almost) all to her. Political strings and newspaper ownership factor in, but there are still unsettling questions in Sandy's mind about the film and its relationship to Redfield... and sullen locals to avoid. She scales an historic tower, obviously the inspiration for the film, and traipses through the cemetery, where death dates have an uncomfortable 50-year regularity going back centuries. And that name: red... field. Uhhh, that can't be good. Folk horror fully engaged!

US hardcover, cover art by Don Brautigam

And I haven't even mentioned Enoch's Army. What's Enoch Army? It's a sort of leftover band of hippie revolutionaries who are trudging in a caravan through parts of England, looking for a safe haven to call home, but tabloids are biased against them (guess who owns one of those tabloids). Tensions are rising as no one wants these folks around. Campbell has them on a parallel with the search for Tower of Fear, both literally and figuratively. During her travels, Sandy comes across them in the road with police escort, but one of the children runs in front of her car and she nearly hits him and his mother. Apologetic, Sandy talks with them and then the leader himself, Enoch Hill. His words form the thematic core of the novel:

"Our way is to move on when the land wants to rest and dream, but the mass of men won't leave it alone. Man and the land used to respect each other, but now man pollutes the land...There'll come a day when the earth demands more of man than it ever did when man knew what it wanted... All fiction is an act of violence... Man can't resume his old relationship with the earth until we remember the tales that told the truth. We had a blueprint for living, and civilization tore it up."

Basically, Enoch himself made me think of Alan Moore.

UK hardcover

All these disparate elements are steadily making their way towards one another in Campbell's sure hand: Enoch's Army, those strange twig-like shadows hovering at the corners of the narrative, Lord Redfield, Tower of Fear, the harvest... step by careful unavoidable step. Beautifully paced, restrained, subtle, and intriguing, I've only sketched the aspects that make this such a satisfying read; it has to be one of Campbell's very finest works of the Eighties. It's also cool that Campbell is no mean film critic and fan himself, so you just know he had a high old time writing it (and he thanks our old pal Dennis Etchison in the notes for his help with cinematic minutiae).

Like the atmospheric black-and-white movies of the past that Campbell invokes, there is scarcely a drop of blood, but there is a great deal of suspense and mystery. If you love film history and behind-the-scenes accounts of film-making, the trappings of folk horror, or a sharp, well-crafted tale, this is a must-read. Ancient Images is also a great place to start if you've never read a Campbell novel. No doubt about it: this is a masterful piece of quiet horror. That quiet, however, just means you can't hear what's sneaking up behind you.

 She imagined the land was able to send something to hunt victims on its behalf...

Saturday, February 1, 2020

RIP Mary Higgins Clark (1927-2020)

Suspense novelist Mary Higgins Clark has died at the age of 92 (Dec 24, 1927–Jan 31, 2020). While I've never read one of her books, they usually ended up in bookstore horror sections. Her 1970s and '80s paperbacks are perfectly vintage, even Paperbacks from Hell-adjacent. I've heard some of her early novels are more Gothic in nature than the pure suspense thrillers she wrote later. I'm sure lots of young horror fans of that era supplemented their Stephen King/John Saul/V.C. Andrews diets with plenty of Clark!

Clark in 1975

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Stand by Stephen King (1978/1990): Dancing on the Grave of the World

"You're nothing! Oh pardon me... it's just that we were all so frightened... we made such a business out of you... I'm laughing as much at our own foolishness as at your regrettable lack of substance..." 
—Glen Bateman, upon first meeting Randall Flagg

Let's get right to it, gang: The Stand has never been one of my favorite Stephen King novels. No need to get excited; I'm well aware of its status as maybe his most beloved book, if one may use that word for a novel about a plague that kills more than 99% of humanity. Despite its imposing length, it may be the one Stephen King novel people have read who've read only one Stephen King novel.

 Doubleday hardcover, Oct 1978
Bosch-inspired art by John Cayea
But when I read it in 1987 or '88, I found it lacked what I most loved about Stephen King; that is, an intimacy, an atmosphere of the chummy detailing of the American quotidian that he'd done so supremely well in his other novels and short stories. Reading King felt like home, and The Stand most definitely did not feel like home. How could it? It is an epic story about people who no longer have one and are desperate to build a new one. That epic length never bothered me: I'd already read It (1986) as soon as it was published in hardcover. But the giant panoramic post-apocalyptic canvas really did not appeal to me, and while I read almost every other King work over and over and over again, The Stand was one and done for me.

King in 1978

Most horror fiction fans probably have a decent understanding of the book's publication history: Doubleday hardcover in '78, Signet paperback in '80, then in 1990 another Doubleday hardcover edition in which King put back in something like 500 pages from his original manuscript that he himself had edited out before its first publication (Complete & Uncut, this new edition said; Uncircumcised would've just been impolite). In case you don't know the particulars, he spells them out in more detail in his intro to the '90 edition. Going by online reviews, this expanded edition is either: A) the best thing ever; B) the worst thing ever. Many prefer the shortened original. People have strong opinions about Stephen King books, it may surprise you to learn, especially one regarded as his greatest. In fact, you're about to read one now.

 First Signet paperback, Jan 1980
Don Brautigam cover art

(Okay, friends and neighbors, before I forget, here there be spoilers galore. I'm gonna be rambling all about The Stand and you won't want to continue if you haven't read either version. But maybe come back after you have!)

Doubleday hardcover, May 1990

Working in a bookstore when this massive 1,200-pager arrived on shelves, I was interested just enough to skim the new opening and closing chapters. The opening is now the family that careens into Hapscomb's Texaco at the beginning of the '78 version; it's fine, I guess, starting off the story in a panic (They're all D-E-A-D down there). But I recall being particularly put off by the final chapter, in which the evil, otherworldly Randall Flagg's time has come round again... accompanied by a Bernie Wrightson illustration that's entirely too comic-booky. It seemed all too obvious, weirdly unimaginative (but probably a way to link the Gunslinger/Dark Tower series into it, which King was now writing and Signet  publishing in earnest). I was deeply unmotivated to read this new leviathan, and remained so... till now.

I'd never seriously considered rereading The Stand. What a commitment! Perhaps it was something deep-seated in my unconscious, who knows, guess that's why I can't even recall how I picked it up at the beginning of December, because before I knew it was knee-deep in that mother. Reading the 1980 Signet paperback—I'm happy to own a mint first-print of it, but I'm not a monster, I do have a beat-up copy for actual reading—I was something like three or four hundred pages in and the story-line felt... constrained. Uptight. Airless. Condensed. I began to think maybe there was something to the idea of the complete uncut edition after all. Maybe I did owe it to myself to bite the bullet, go for broke, ride the lightning, and dive in. So I put my reading on hold till I was able to locate a nice, also first-print, sorta mint paperback (published in a sturdy mass market edition in May 1991) for a sawbuck, then went back and started over a week or so later. Seriously. I did.

And I'm not gonna lie: it was a grind. King's well-known weakness to overstuff his narratives with irrelevance and folksy analogies is on full display. He went wide instead of deep, expanding but not layering. The problems with The Stand are more serious than simply the number of pages: the real fault lies in execution, in writing, in characterization, and in scenario. Neither the 1978 nor the 1990 version is exempt from these fatal flaws; the longer edition simply reveals these flaws as baked-in, that's all.

Well-known and -loved characters like Stu Redman, Frannie Goldsmith, Larry Underwood, Nick Andros, et al, all get extra sentences in their personal histories, but nothing I found essential or particularly enlightening. Better were the vignettes of superflu survivors who meet grisly ends, with King evincing both sympathy and merciless horror: a Catholic man whose family dies but won't commit suicide because it's a mortal sin; a child on its own falls down an improperly sealed well but does not die right away. Chilling, classic King... but mere crumbs.

Anchor Books, 2011

Also better and included now is one of King's patented family breakdown scenes that's top-notch. Early on, pre-apocalypse, it's pregnant Frannie, our heroine, in an argument with her mother in the family's parlor drawing room, whose hysteria over Fran's out-of-wedlock family way borders on the absurd. The confrontation crackles with real emotion, King getting at class and social standing and good breeding all at once. I hungered for more of this kind of King Americana.

 "How could you do something like this to your father and me?" she asked finally... "How could you do it?" she cried. "After all we've done for you, this is the thanks we get? For you to go out and... and... rut with a boy like a bitch in heat? You bad girl! You bad girl!"

New English Library, 1988 reprint
Trashcan Man, a pyromaniac gutter bum, with stupid dancing and cries of "Cibola," remains a tacky, tasteless character. And then King unleashes, in the uncut, a dude known as The Kid, so now we've got Trashcan and the Kid (heeey! don't tell me you forgot that Saturday morning teevee classic). It is a dopey read, a side travelogue no one asked for, almost too King for King, if you know what I mean. "Kill your darlings" goes the old writers' adage, and this darling should have died, died, died. The Kid is a caricature of a King character, a parody. While the Kid comes to disturbing end, he's cringe-inducing, dressed like a greaser extra from, well, Grease, spitting out embarrassing dialogue like "Coors beer is the only beer, I'd piss Coors if I could, you believe that happy crappy, awhoooooga" then sprinkles in some Springsteen and Doors lyrics. Then he rapes Trashy with a pistol. You believe that happy crappy?

Despite the various gross, gruesome scenarios King revels in, there's a naivete I hadn't noticed on first read. This depiction of the good folks of Boulder rebuilding society, all-American salt-of-the-earth types, was just so square. Why, they even have a ready-made town drunk and a hot-rodding teenager to contend with, and good god I was up to here with old prof Glen Bateman's observations about "-ologies" not being enough anymore, the glad-handing and back-slapping, the jokes during their endless, oh god endless meetings to figure out how to get busy being born all over again. Like everybody just up and knows Robert's Rules of Order and has a perfect conception of deploying committees and subcommittees and voting and vetoing and accepting in toto and everyone is happy to vote for the main characters.

New English Library paperback, 1991

Speaking of characters, too many fade in and out under the weight of the expanded narrative. Women are, in old-time pulp fashion, described in terms of physical appearance. And the endless litanies of names! If one more character said about another "Joey Shmoey, by name" I was gonna plotz. "Sally Lovestuff, her name is," or "Goes by the name of Bigtop Ragamuffin, he does" or "Tall, pretty girl, she is, that Wendy Jo" and "Heckuva nice guy, sounds like, over this jerry-rigged CB contraption we got going on here." Their dialogue is irredeemably corny, as if virtually every character was being voiced by a cast of cracker barrel regulars. He's always populated his books with jes' folks types, but Jesus everloving Kee-rist, King, did everybody who survived the superflu just walk fresh off the set of "Hee Haw"?

I'd forgotten deaf-mute Nick Andros was even around, and overshadowing him is a crime as there's no doubt he's one of King's greatest characters. His sacrifice during Harold Lauder's bombing is one of the novel's high points, maybe its most heartbreaking moment: He couldn't talk, but suddenly he knew. He knew. It came from nowhere, from everywhere. There was something in the closet. Rereading it just now to get this quote right, hairs on my arms stood up. Nick's dream appearances to poor Tom Cullen, explaining how Tom has to try to save Stu Redman's life, are touching—if a little too convenient plot-wise.

 French edition, 1981

Speaking of Lauder, how's he for King's prescience about a certain type of American male we see all too often these days? The creep, the outcast, the psycho, the loner (today he's the incel, the school shooter, the edgelord, the MRA, the dude who complains about "nice guys" and getting "friendzoned," folks, these entitled losers are nothing new). Nadine Cross's unholy seduction of him for Randall Flagg is disgusting, sad, and all too successful (she lets him fuck her in the ass but not in the pussy, saying that will keep them pure for Flagg, my goodness what a lovely couple those two make). Harold's suicide after the bombing sticks in the throat—men like him shouldn't get free of the consequences of their actions so easily, even if they do express remorse as he does in a suicide note.

 Later '90s reprint

Let's just say it: for all his storytelling prowess, King can be a lazy writer. Much of the novel I read on autopilot; for as long and weighty the book is, it's easy—too easy—to read. Complexity, density, ambiguity is out; useless puffery and bloat is in. I skimmed pages because King was repeating himself, describing things I already knew: someone grimacing, people gossiping, everybody walking every goddamn place, Stu calling Glen "baldy," Flagg grinning, Fannie crying, I mean sweet Jesus Fran crying. He uses simple phrases over and over, engages in sophomoric philosophizing, his details about character behavior ring false: I lost count how times someone laughs till tears stream down their cheeks, uses someone's name more than once in a conversation, is described as being "naked except for shorts" (i.e., not naked), etc. And how much do you like reading about car-crash pileups? There are more of those here than in a J.G. Ballard novel. Where was everybody going?

And where's the mass breakdown of society? That's what I felt the '78 edition was lacking, why the story felt abbreviated. I expected more in the complete edition, but King takes the easy way out. Rather than do the heavy lifting of imagining and describing the political and social fallout as the world's (is it the entire world? This is never made clear for no real reason) population succumbs to a man-made disease, King presents his scenario as fait accompli. There's more of the military scientists realizing the enormous oopsie they've done and their futile attempts to fix it, which I liked as it was precisely the kind of approach I felt was missing from the '78 edition. I can't help but think this was a huge miscalculation, leaving out the nitty-gritty of not only world-building, but world-destroying. I needed a bigger bang, not this whimper. Ironic to say this about a 1,200-page novel, but I wanted more.

 Later Signet reprint with iconic Eighties typeface

It's all too easy today to see the creaky underpinnings and cracks in the foundation of King's scenario. Again, I needed more social apocalypse. If you're gonna have superflu-sick black soldiers dressed like pirates take over a TV station and begin to execute white soldiers on live broadcast television, you better bring some wit, irony, or satire to the proceedings; just slapping it down bald-faced on the page makes you seem oblivious to the racist tropes you're invoking... or maybe not even oblivious. It's dangerous ground, and if you're gonna tread on it, know what you're doing. Have a bigger, more audacious plan. Reveal the racism, the sexism, the classism and all the other -isms that permeate American society, that have festered and eaten us from within, and which now have exploded in the advent of the end of the world.

Speaking of racism, what of Mother Abagail Freemantle, the century-old black woman who is the locus of the survivors' dreams and visions, a wizened, hearty Christian woman of the Midwest who knows well the time is nigh and perhaps the Lord in all His infinite wisdom and glory will show her a way to guide these good people in their final confrontation with the Walkin' Dude, the hardcase, the Man in Black, please allow him to introduce himself, Randall Flagg? While King gives her a real backstory, strength, and fortitude, the fact that she is the only black character is conspicuous. I feel this is narrow-mindedness on King's part, a lack of imagination in a work that is intended to be the opposite!

Finnish translation, 1994

King has never shied from letting it all hang out (something he may have gotten from goodbuddy Harlan Ellison). This book was written by a guy of his era, a Cold War kid. It's a book of its era too; that is, the late 1960s and 1970s. Its creation was inspired by the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. The death of flower power and the downfall of Nixon propel its engine (indeed, The Stand is so of its time that it presages both Three Mile Island and the Jim Jones mass suicide in Guyana). The lyrics of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Jim Morrison float through the prose and dialogue and epigrams. Springsteen too, but he's a '70s guy, so it fits that zeitgeist I'm talking about. Larry Underwood's rock star burnout reads more like late '70s scenario too... Warren Zevon, anyone?

Our villain Randall Flagg's nickname is the Walkin' Dude, and he walks like a hitchhiker, but hitchhiking was vastly out of public consciousness by the time the '90s arrived. Hitchhikers weren't killers on the road, despite what the Doors said; hitchhikers got picked up by serial killers. So changing the dates to 1990 and switching in Bush for Carter and so on is just that: it changes only the dates and the names, not the psyche of the characters, and country, involved. Like Glen Bateman's estimation of Randall Flagg himself, this aspect of the book was a big nothing. And Flagg is a big nothing, but not in a horrific way: nah, he's just a grinnin' fool, like Bill Paxton in Weird Science or something.

German translation, 1985

People like to read about themselves, about regular people in extraordinary situations, and King has always provided that pleasure. Larry Underwood's grueling passage through the Lincoln Tunnel is certainly an all-timer sequence in King's output, and there are many scenes of dire heroics, such as the shootout between our heroes and the men who've been keeping several women as sex slaves is quite good: Four men, eight women, Fran's brain said, and then repeated it, louder, in tones of alarm: Four men! Eight women! Nadine Cross's college experience with a Ouija board, in which Flagg contacts her years prior to the book's events, was a nice touch too in the expanded version. But these sequences are very few and far between, which I was not expecting at all. For such a long book it is curiously empty of import.

In fact I found the latter half to be tighter in every aspect, and that climax, long-maligned, not nearly as disappointing as I'd recalled. Reading about Flagg and his coterie of boot-lickers and hangers-on in Las Vegas who've formed a cult around him that would make Manson proud is infinitely more interesting than those goody-two-shoes Free Boulder folks. Many readers have complained of the deus ex machina, virtually a literal "hand of God" (even noted as such by Ralph in the final seconds) that brings about the climax. It has nothing to do with the travails of Mother Abagail, nor any of the people of Boulder, so there is no ultimate confrontation between good and evil as the medieval-style cover art suggests.

French J'ai Lu editions, 1992

It was almost a relief, not having a giant ending that exhausts readers. This is, I know, the opposite of many readers' experience, who prefer the first half of the book. The 1990 edition expands, after their witnessing the nuclear doom of Flagg's Vegas, Stu and Tom's hard road back to Boulder, a bitter denouement that drags, I suppose, appropriately. So having Flagg reappear in the final pages struck me as pointless, a cheap twist...

Large-scale, good-versus-evil horror is not for me. My long-ago read of The Stand was the first inkling that I was outgrowing this pedestrian worldview. My other two big go-tos back then were Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft, who didn't deal in this kind of Manichean duality; I preferred ambiguity and agnosticism, subversion and confrontation, certainly not King's idea that "horror is as conservative as a Republican banker in a striped suit." Today I've outgrown completely this "tale of dark Christianity" as King himself puts it in his intro.

While I wasn't actively reading the book, I was also watching HBO's devastating historical drama Chernobyl, an all-too-relevant coincidence. The show's images of abandoned houses and tower blocks and vehicles and pets and  the dead and dying bodies were utterly haunting, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching. Never once did King's descriptions of similar landscapes affect me the same way; he's unable to scale the heights of his imagination with his pen. These grievous oversights and failures actually angered me: ask my wife about the rant I went on about how displeased I was with the book during our drive to a relative's house on Christmas Eve! Or rather don't ask my wife about my Christmas Eve rant. I mean and I wasn't even high.

It comes down to this, and I'll admit it seems almost churlish for me to say so, but I can not recommend either version of The Stand. The 1990 uncut edition expands on the weaknesses of the 1978 version, making that book's faults even more obvious, while adding new ones. Despite random strong passages and scenes, there is so much shallowness, naivete, and lack of commitment to the central idea—a grand battle between good and evil that never comes to pass—The Stand left me disappointed in a very deep and lasting way. This surprised me a lot; I was unprepared for how very little I enjoyed this book.

While my rereads of two other King novels I was never fond of, Carrie and The Shining, were surprising successes, The Stand remained as I'd found it nearly 35 years ago: foundering under its own weight and undone by a banal, half-baked theology. On this reread I noticed how larded it is with middlebrow observations of human relationships, American culture, and societal ties; and not nearly as profound as it thinks it is: all in all, a deeply superficial account of the end of the world. As a fan of vintage King I don't understand the novel’s esteemed status, other than nostalgia by fans who first encountered it as inexperienced readers. It pains me to say all that, but here I am, making my honest stand.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Horror Fiction Help XXI

Wow, Horror Fiction Help is old enough to drink! We've had some great success tracking down the forgotten titles of yesteryear, so how's about a few more? I and the folks looking for these books thank you, so cheers—you know who you are.

1. ’66/’67: Story involving a boy who wakes up to witness small, lizard-like creatures entering his body and carrying away bits of it. Of course no one believes him, and this keeps happening. He discovers the creatures are somehow taking the place of the bits they carry off. In the end, he meets a copy of himself, assembled from the bits that had been stolen, and when this copy announces itself as the real boy, our protagonist disintegrates into a swarm of the lizards. End of tale. 

2. My mom had a paperback book that I read a few times when I was a kid that I thought was called Black Mass or Black Sabbath. It was a black cover with a pentagram embossed on it and (I think I’m remembering correctly) a satanic goat head. The story was about a girl, deja-vu with a tree (because she was reincarnated), and a man she falls in love with who ends up being a satanic priest out to kill her (again). I THINK this is right, but not entirely sure, as it’s been about 40 years since I read it last. Found! It's Black Sabbat by J.B. Herman:

3. Sometime ’80s, purchased at a grocery store, drugstore, or Kmart. The cover is black-embossed and it is I believe a large black cat, jaguar or something. The cat is or is possessed by an evil spirit, attacking the people of a woodsy lake area or island... like in New England, not somewhere tropical. The main character is a detective/cop trying to hunt the beast. I believe the large cat is a female, maybe referred to as a she-beast by the main character. Found! It's Moonslasher by Douglas D. Hawk.

4. ’70s/early ’80s: the cover was purple and had the embossed, in black, wide-stretched jaws of a big cat, all fangs and stuff, alluringly emblazoned upon it. Or maybe it was the open maw of a panther of some sort, open mouth that sort of encompassed the book’s title, more a line drawing than a painting, and embossed. I could have sworn the book was about an ancient evil/demon being released and its grisly killing spree in a museum of some sort (*not* The Relic and *not* Panther!). 

5. ’70s/early ’80s: had to have been a best seller, because it was in the supermarket. This was the rural south, so they weren't gonna waste shelf space. The cover was dark and depicted a sort of "Solid Gold" (the tv music show) stage set, with large squares. It was a photograph, not a painted cover. And there was a single hand extended from behind one of them. It was inexplicable, and SO eerie, and scared me silly, and I don't even know why.

6. 89 or 90. It's a compilation of horror stories. The cover is black on top with a square of illustration covering the bottom. It features a man in ill-fitting clothing. Ripped jeans, letterman's jacket (red?) and I know there's a severed leg somewhere in there (the memory of it is kind of fading). He's crouching in the middle of a forest. A few items are around him, maybe from his victims (a red shoe?). He looks animalistic, perhaps not to the extent of being a werewolf, but like he degraded into insanity.

The one story I read was written in the form of log entries by the captain. His crew is in space looking for a habitable planet, from what I recall. The planet they land on is full of vegetation and the only life they can see are butterflies. The planet is full of butterflies. Previously I had thought that by eating some of the vegetation that the crew, having landed there, had turned into butterflies, themselves. I don't even remember what happened to them. Eventually, the captain's log degenerated as his mind failed him. The last page was full of big loops and curly cues as he forgot how to write.  

Found! It's "Gestation" by Bruce Jones:

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