Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Unfinishing

Nothing pains me more than being unable to finish reading a novel, for whatever reason. Picking books off my horror shelves and finding them less than captivating is a real bummer; I like to keep this blog updated with new reviews, but sometimes I read several novels in a row that I'm simply underwhelmed by, and motivation to finish flags. Here are the last four I couldn't finish (four! Ugh). Now, don't get me wrong, these aren't novels without merit, so I feature them here with the thought that some TMHF readers might find them worthwhile. 

Dance of the Dwarfs by Geoffrey Household (1968). I'd heard plenty of good things about this novel, some from TMHF readers. It's been in my collection for five or six years; I'd bought it on a whim knowing nothing about it except it was shelved in the horror section of my local bookstore and didn't look like your average genre paperback. Subtle, literary horror? Sure! It sounded fascinating: a British doctor living in an agricultural station at the edge of the Amazon, where the locals are afraid of... what? Dwarves that dance? The novel deals with superstition, fear of the unknown, the nature of fear itself, cultural imperialism, political wranglings, and all that, and Household is a good although detached writer. Sure, there were other things going on, like said doctor constantly banging a 15-year-old Peruvian girl given to him as a gift.... but everything just took. So. Damn. Long. To. Happen. Guess that's what I get for trusting The New Yorker about horror.

Dark Twilight by Joseph A. Citro (1991) Not terribly written--it has pages of respectable critical blurbs--but not terribly interesting either. Citro is an expert on the legends and lore of Vermont, but so what? I have no especial interest in cryptozoology or any kind of  "monster hunter" scenario, just as I have no interest in writers who take real life "psychic" phenomena or other pseudoscientific nonsense and try to turn it into a horror story. I'm a hardline nonbeliever and atheist in the HPL tradition and, like him, I'd rather writers make up their horrors entirely (or, of course, swipe someone else's!). That said, there was too much folkloric exposition from an old professor and too little folkloric horror action so I gave up halfway through.

Siren by Linda Crockett Gray (1982) Opening chapter has a father forcing his 11-year-old daughter to give him a hand job. Not my scene, man. I don't care how awesome the original cover art below is.

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1971). Toyshop is the only title here I might give another try; it really sounds like something I'd dig, kinda Shirley Jackson-esque. I am of course well aware of Carter's reputation and standing in the literary community and that she takes fairy tales and updates them through a feminist/postmodern lens and so on. Awesome. But I found the style, story, and its telling to be pretentious, precious, and precocious ("She was too thin for a Titian or Renoir, but she contrived a pale, smug Cranach Venus with a bit of net curtain wound round her head and at her throat the necklace of cultured pearls they gave her when she was confirmed. After she read Lady Chatterley's Lover, she secretly picked forget-me-nots and stuck them in her pubic hair"). Yes, my tolerance for "writerly" writing has waned; to me it's akin to the acting style Jon Lovitz used to parody in his "Master Thespian" SNL skits--the prose simply shouts "Wrrriting! Brrrilliant!" at me, and who likes to be shouted at, no matter how pretty the words?

Again, these titles are simply not to my taste, but I don't consider them, you know, not good.--some of you might like 'em just fine. Let me know what I'm missing, huh? Thanks.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

RIP Kirby McCauley, 1941-2014

Sad news about a major behind-the-scenes figure in horror/science fiction/fantasy fiction: agent and editor Kirby McCauley died on August 30 from diabetes complications (today is actually his birthday). He was Stephen King's first agent and was instrumental in King's earliest success, and worked with major figures in genre fiction. Also, far as I can tell, even sold a lil' something called Games of Thrones to Bantam for a little-known author named George R.R. Martin. McCauley edited the seminal anthology of modern horror, 1980's Dark Forces, which surely made the genre fresh and relevant for the post Exorcist/Rosemary's Baby age. 

Apparently there was little note of his passing, which is a crime. I only found out about it visiting ISFDB to see which genre writers were born today. Fortunately, the mighty Martin has a wonderful piece on McCauley; it is a must-read.

I offer a heartfelt, if belated, thanks to McCauley for all his contributions to the horror genre, and for his insistence that genre writers should have the best talent working in their favor so that their words can be read by millions.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Horror Fiction Help XIV

Okay everybody, you know how it goes, who can help some TMHF readers track down these lost and forgotten horror novels?

1. It's no older than 1993, and I believe it was a paperback. The cover had a very deep blue tint, a haunted looking house in the distance with a log in the foreground, perhaps a felled tree, and above the house was a giant skull with its hands around the house.

2. A large image of a skull filling up the cover with type above it.  A very straight-on and brightly/flatly-lit (not shadowy) shot of a skull, but I think perhaps a skull-headed figure (perhaps from the top of the shoulders on up) wearing clothes (and a hat?) - but with a straight-up skull head, and done in a fairly "realistic" style I think.  After looking online at countless 1970s (not '60s or earlier) paperback covers I'm sure, based on my basic memory of the cover layout + illustration, that it would have been ten years old or less at that time.  Found! It's: 

3.  I think I read it in the late '70s.  It most likely would have been in the horror genre section of the library, since that was my big interest back then. The main character was a young teenage girl, whose mother was dead (possibly had recently died). Her father was devastated by grief, and didn't pay much attention to the girl. As she matured, she bound her breasts down with tape...I assume to try to stay a little girl, and keep from growing up. At the end of the book, she unbound her breasts, let her hair down, dressed as an adult, and went to her father, pretending to be, or possibly believing she was, his dead wife (her own mother). Found! It's:

4.  A fairly well-to-do couple move from the city to a place in the woods (I even think they're renovating the place they buy). The wife is doing research in the area about the mountain folk who have been inbreeding and eventually comes to respect them... but of course there's some sort of menace in the woods. I remember she throws a fit at a high society party, a handsome but shady local laborer, and that she finds safety with the inbreds. Found! It's:

Friday, September 5, 2014

Misquamacus and the Summer of Sleaze

The Summer of Sleaze at is nearing its end; today my article on Graham Masterton's wonderful first novel The Manitou (1976) is up; be sure to check it out!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Lyrica by Thomas F. Monteleone (1987): She Loves Naked Sin

A minor erotic horror novel that's neither sexy nor scary, Lyrica (Berkley/Jan 1987) travels back and forth in time following the seductive adventures of a lamia, a mythical creature who drains the life from the men she sleeps with (that's not really how the ancient myth goes, Lyrica is technically a succubus, but whatevs). I really wanted to like Thomas F. Monteleone's novel, his eighth, since I dig the cover and found a mint copy during my recent cross-country trip. The back-cover copy makes the book sound like an excellent read...

In her human form Lyrica Rousseau snakes her way through the ages, hooking up with brilliant, accomplished men like Mozart, Keats, and James Crichton, fucking them superbly, then leaving them as they, of course, die, withered and emptied of their particularly potent life force... which Lyrica needs to live her eternal life. She's repeatedly described as gorgeous, obviously, with a rampant sexual vibe no man can resist (one character can, and when you find out why, yikes), but we don't feel it, we just get characters talking about it, or Monteleone telling us how hot she is--at one point, she shrugs "sexily." What?!

The modern setting is New York City and show biz, as Lyrica comes to the New World and almost instantly gets an agent (he doesn't chomp a cigar but he might as well) and is on her way to becoming a huge star. Thinly-veiled real life men pop up--is that Stephen Sondheim? Frank Sinatra? Yep!--and she bones all of them. That's right, she kills a guy as famous as Frank Sinatra! Don't monsters know they gotta stay under the radar? On her trail is a guy who's written lots of books on pseudoscience, and of course he's found out the lamia, or succubus, is real! So with the help of the one guy who can resist Lyrica's charms they go after her with a silver sword made in midtown.

Well, there ya go.

I wasn't much impressed with Lyrica herself. For a woman of endless desire and vast powers, one who's part demonic snake and another a temptress from hell, who masters men and controls her own destiny with a fierce and iron will, Lyrica sure smiles and giggles a lot. Ugh. She comes off as more like a young girl playing adult-sexy, say Pretty Woman Julia Roberts rather than, um, I'm gonna go with Body Heat Kathleen Turner.

Monteleone, probably known more for his brilliant editorship of the Borderlands anthology series of the 1990s, has written what could have been a steamy, sultry, sensual historical horror novel about the dangerous allure of an evil woman; instead Lyrica is an unremarkable, by-the-numbers paperback horror novel. It's not a bad story at all and the historical details feel right, but Monteleone just tells everything--there's no showing. While it has a few scenes of graphic sex, it's neither erotic nor sleazy; mostly I found it all dull and suspense-free. No twists, no irony, no atmosphere. But, surprise surprise, the epilogue was a nice and I suppose believable touch--the proverbial happy ending.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Eyes Have Seen You: The Sixties Supernatural Spy Novels of John Blackburn

While on my cross-country trip earlier this summer to relocate to Portland, OR, I visited many a used bookstore and bought many a used book (you may have seen photos). In one store I found a cache of paperbacks in very good condition by John Blackburn (1923-1993), a writer I was familiar with only because his first novel, 1958's A Scent of New-Mown Hay (published in the US as The Relucant Spy in 1966), was included in Horror: Another 100 Best Books. These paperbacks were a bit out of my price range (although I did spring for Charles Birkins's Smell of Evil), but now I'm kinda regretting not biting that bullet and buying 'em.

Many weren't even released in the States, or were published only in the 1960s--hence the collectible prices today. Small independent press Valancourt Books is doing the good, good work of reprinting many if not most of Blackburn's other previously out-of-print novels. The trade paperbacks these guys are putting out are splendid, with new introductions and smart, vibrant, modern covers that also reference some of these vintage editions.

I've never read any kind of spy/espionage novel, not a LeCarre or Ludlum or Fleming in all my entire collection of paperback fiction, so admittedly I'm intrigued by ones that have a supernatural twist to them, especially when it seems to have been done with skill and invention (Clive Barker did such a thing in his short "Twilight at the Towers"). The word "ingenious" gets mentioned with Blackburn a lot, and man, I just don't read enough books that make me go, "Wow, now that was ingenious!"

Anyway, I'm posting these old paperback covers solely because I dig 'em; don't you? I mean that Children of the Night (Berkley Medallion/1970)--one of the most over-used titles in all of horror, thanks Count Dracula!--is something to behold, a true creepfest, as nudists there seem to be enjoying an adults-only getaway in a monster maw.

The title-switch of New-Mown Hay to Reluctant Spy (Lancer/1966) makes sense; I'm the sure the original title refers to some moment of dreadful import within the story itself (although I don't think it refers to a bikini-clad ass [NEL/1976]), but for unfamiliar readers it doesn't exactly scream "must-buy!". The stark simplicity of cold marble and black iron of Bury Him Darkly (Berkley Medallion/1970) bespeak... well, someone buried darkly.

For Fear of Little Men (Coronet UK/1974) uses poor John Merrick to some touching effect, and the juxtaposition of rat and child on Wreath of Roses (Lancer/1966), might that be a precursor to a Mr. James Herbert? Perhaps. Broken Boy (Lancer/1966) has a good review and some author background here. "Cold-war espionage" leaves me, well, cold, but knowing what I know about Blackburn now, I wonder. Cold war? I think it likely also means cold chills....

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Nest by Gregory A. Douglas (1980): Loathsome, Ornery and Mean

The nicotine-yellow fingertip tapped the paperback cover. "Scary fuckin' book," said the grizzled old bookstore owner, grinning, "scare the shit outta ya!" When I set my stack of horror paperbacks on the counter of that used bookstore in Utah I was not expecting such an encomium about any of them, much less one of the sleazier-looking titles. But nope: this guy was jazzed I'd found a copy of The Nest, a Zebra paperback published in 1980, written by an utterly undistinguished Gregory A. Douglas (actually the pseudonym of one Eli Cantor; more on him later). Don't remember where I first heard of this one, but I'd been searching for it quite awhile. Imagine my surprise when I found out it was totally worth the wait!

Yep--The Nest is powerhouse pulp horror, written with enthusiasm and tasteless know-how, a creepy-crawly scarefest that assaults the reader with one revolting sensation after another. If everyday roaches are disgusting, six-inch-long roaches with mandibles of chewing death are immeasurably more disgusting! A swarm of mutated cockroaches have somehow "organized" themselves by some unknowable miracle of evolution into a thinking organism, each individual creature a cell in the larger mass. Get used to that wave of shivers across your neck and shoulders, because this writer doesn't skimp on the gory details (like how the insects eat through the victim's eyes into the brain!). All-out over-the-top '80s schlock-horror doesn't get much better.

Oddly understated New English Library edition

You can learn the set-up by the front and back cover copy, so I won't get into that. Just know there are plenty of characters that Douglas handles well enough so they each have an identity other than just as roach repast, while the setting itself of fictional Yarkie Island off Cape Cod is depicted as if by someone who's actually been to a Cape Cod town and knows a little of its seafaring history, which adds notes of local color. Happily for the reader, he lays out truly suspenseful scenes of terror and unbelievable tragedy with a professional pulp writer's commitment. I don't know if he was literally getting paid a penny a word, but Douglas sure could stretch a dollar:
Dimly, Bo Leslie saw himself in a mad magician's crate, with sharpened swords slashing his viscera. Or, he was a side of beef on a butcher hook, and cleavers were hacking his carcass into small chunks. The man wanted to curse and howl, but there was no sound except hissing air because his throat was gone. It happened so quickly that the man's body was still shuddering with his orgasm when his final breath issued, a crimson foam out of his decapitated torso... The Yarkie cockroaches, in obedience to commands encoded in their preternatural genes, mounted the new food supply Nature had bounteously furnished again...
You got your town authorities stymied by this surge of Nature at its most nastiest, so they call in Harvard help and big-city scientists show up. Various Yarkies end up victims, and the rag-tag team of heroes can scarcely believe what they're up against, even after seeing it with their own eyes, these swarms of cockroaches that advance like a "living brown carpet" over everything in their path. The creatures' preternatural behavior seems insurmountable; they are piranha-like in their appetite and aggression (and some can even fly!).  

The Nest is a bit of an overwhelming story, emotionally, despite its ridiculousness. Gregory repeatedly notes the character's states of mind, their anger and despair and grief and sadness and fear, but his attempts at humor fall flat and don't lighten the mood. The constant descriptions of the repulsive roaches wears the reader down too, increasing not just horror but hopelessness, which is almost worse. After one particularly unsettling lecture from scientist Hubbard:
When the scientist stopped, the room was silent. Elizabeth and all the men were stunned. Peter Hubbard and Wanda Lindstrom had moved them into a world so alien, ogreish, and alarming that they had no way to formulate their reaction. The ghastliness was in the blood, beyond the reach of words or horror or comradely comfort. A strange, raw wind was blowing up from a biological nether world of phantasmagoric claws, fangs, and mindlessness.
Behind the Douglas pseudonym is Eli Cantor, a man of some erudition--like many pulp writers--so he is easily able to infuse his story with science, history, character detail and motivation, etc. His style is muscular and verbose, which makes The Nest a more effective read than many other pulp-horror paperbacks--because don't get me wrong, this book is definitely pulp, but somehow I can see Mr. Cantor just running hell-for-leather over good taste and restraint with a grin on his face as he pounds out page after page of hellish delight!

For example: a little over halfway through the book, he sets up a harrowing sequence in which children must face the ravening insect hordes; your tolerance for such a scene will depend on how you feel about animals and children being killed in horror fiction. Me, I found it kinda ballsy; maybe he didn't know better; more likely he thought, Fuck it, they want a cheap pulpy horror novel, I'm gonna give 'em one! It's shocking stuff, no matter what.
The boy dropped his own body over his sister's, trying to shield her. The bloodthirsty insects crawled between them, now tearing and ripping at both juvenile bodies. Kim's silken corn hair was ropy with her blood and her brother's. Their empty-socketed eyes stared at each other face to face as  they perished... It was not a field of battle, only a rapine slaughter of innocents, because there had been no way to fight back.
Sure, there are mis-steps: for one, the book is about 100 pages too long! Tightening this baby up would have done wonders, made it a lean and mean machine, and I think readers would agree that much of the scientific speeches/lectures should've been whittled down. Asides spent on character development needed more economic skill, while virtually every attempt at humor is leaden, obvious, and painfully cornball. The conversation isn't exactly scintillating, mostly blocky chunks of wooden exposition and exclamation ("Goshdarn critters!"). So with all this excess verbiage, the narrative drags in spots. Maybe Cantor really was being paid a penny a word! I skimmed some sections if I didn't see the words "roach" or "bloodthirsty" or "vomit."

Cantor's only other horror novel, 1981. Woah.

On the plus side: there are just too many amazing passages in The Nest, purple and ripe and rotting even, for me to quote them all! Having partaken of human meat and drunk human blood, the new cockroach breed was ravenous for more... they could not get enough of the human taste and would seek it endlessly, implacably, and with many more victories... While she could see out of one eye, Deirdre Laidlaw had to live with the inconceivable sight of great cockroaches coating her husband's face, a vicious, quivering crust of filth...

All that and more (even a well-earned sex scene near the end)! Hoo boy. No doubt, I highly recommend The Nest, despite its length, and because of its delirious lapses in taste and good sense, and a climax which, while straining scientific credibility, makes a bizarre kind of sense. With its well-turned out cover art of moody, moonlit menace, The Nest might appear to be another forgettable piece of Zebra flotsam, another derivative vintage animals-attack bit of trash fiction, but I'm here to tell ya: it'll scare the shit outta ya!

Her horror enclosed the whole space of her life; it came to her that there was another meaning to "the fourth dimension." In addition to time and space there was a dimension of terror, a world of its own, for dying in.