Milwaukee-born author Jack Finney published the iconic science fiction/horror/thriller novel The Body Snatchers in 1955. It's become one of the seminal genre texts of the 20th century (and beyond, one presumes), along with the likes of I Am Legend and Stepford Wives: works that have permeated mass cultural consciousness, concepts known to people who haven't even read the source material. There've been plenty of paperback editions over the decades, most including the prefix "Invasion of" after the 1956 film adaptation was released. A sampling:
An unexpected find in a Washington used bookstore with an otherwise decidedly anemic horror section, Shadowings had been on my want list for years. Editor Douglas E. Winter was the preeminent horror critic of the 1980s, to me a kind of personal guiding light, and so I knew any "reader's guide" he put together had to be sought out. Subtitled The Reader's Guide to Horror Fiction, 1981-1982, it was issued by Starmont House, a small literary press specializing in SF/F/H criticism, and intended more for library reference shelves than for the casual everyday reader. It's an enlightening foray into the state of horror art in that decade so pivotal for the genre. Winter's foreward notes the burgeoning of the field, as well as his aim for this collection critical essays:
Criticism—effective, conscientious criticism—is not simply a means of informing the reading public about the availability of books. It is vital to the integrity and advancement of writers as well as of the literary form in which they work... traditionally [horror fiction] has found its best critics within the ranks of its working writers, as attested by H.P. Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature and Stephen King's Danse Macabre.
Shadowings isn't up in the rarefied heights of those two works (what is?!), but there's lots here to enjoy: Winter's own general overview of highlights and lowlights of the genre between '81 and '82 will blow up your to-read list, or at least get you to reassess titles and authors you've already read (The Delicate Dependency is disappointing?!). Stephen King contributes a short review of Red Dragon, praising the novel's "raw, grisly power" and laments the fact that "serious critics" won't deign to review such a work of suspense, even though "the best popular fiction can combine art with nearly devastating insights into The Way We Live Now."
Karl Edward Wagner takes a look at "an original visionary," Dennis Etchison and his outstanding collection The Dark Country. Jack Sullivan covers Ramsey Campbell's short fiction, noting his "uncompromising bleakness" and "compression and intensity" as he moved from Cthulhu Mythos tales to his own "fragmented, jagged" psychological horror. Charles L. Grant reviews Peter Straub's Shadowland, Alan Ryan reviews titles by Charles L. Grant, Michael McDowell, and Thomas Tessier, Winter himself talks to David Morrell about the part violence plays in fiction, while others like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, John Coyne, and Suzy McKee Charnas also weigh in (no one more perceptively than Etchison, however: "I submit that death, like anything else in art, may be used as a symbol"). Also included are several essays on "modern" horror films, Cronenberg, Creepshow, et. al. All this and more!
Douglas Winter, 1985
One can find copies of Shadowings online for around $10, which is what I paid for it; I'd say it's worth the sawbuck for an in-depth tour through early '80s horror at ground zero, back when Stephen King had published novels that numbered in the single digits and nobody yet, no matter what they thought, had seen the future of horror. Also: dig that typeset!
This little Bantam paperback from 1967 seems slight and cheap—the Halloween-costumed models beyond silly, although making specific reference to the three novellas within—but it packs a solid wallop of historical horror. Unholy Trinity collects Ray Russell's three greatest tales of the neo-Gothic, "Sagittarius," "Sanguinarius," and of course the much more well-known "Sardonicus," which was made into a 1961 film by notorious showman William Castle. Long a TMHF favorite, Russell was fiction editor at Playboy magazine during its height of 1960s influence, publishing Vonnegut, Bradbury, and others, so, you know, class (quite unlike the sleazy delights of his 1976 novel, the infamous Incubus). And class is what Russell brings to the proceedings, a triumvirate of history's most monstrous: Countess Bathory, Gilles de Rais, and Jack the Ripper (what, you say, no Vlad III? Nope) all appear. These monsters may be garbed in the finest raiment, but beneath they are as ghoulish, as diabolic, as unspeakable, as ever they have been.
As one can surmise from a 1985 dust-jacket photo of the author, his style is at once saturnine, urbane, regal even, with a wicked vein of dark humor and irony winding through. His work suggests a
sophisticate's interest in pain and debasement, mitigated by the mists
of history but also given weight by the fact these the events described
actually happened (for the most part; "Sardonicus" is Russell's own
literary conceit). Therefore it can be stated that one's sadism is sated
while using the cloak of respectable historical detail as disguise... if you even care about that.
We begin with "Sanguinarius"—actually no, wait, we begin with an intro essay by Mr. Russell, "The Haunted Castle: A Confession." He recounts a taxing day as an editor in a modern office and upon returning home, exhausted by the existence of television, telephone, Dictaphone, typewriter, etc., and reading "smart, savvy stuff full of bright slang and hip allusion," he wants to relax with "one of those good old aromatic baroque tales, told in an unhurried, leisurely, painstakingly structured way, with plenty of unashamedly elaborate language." Of course Russell's read everything like that on his shelves (giving credence to Harlan Ellison's cry, "Who the hell wants a library full of books they've already read?"), so what's he do? He begins writing one himself! "Fevered with compulsion, totally absorbed," he produces first "Sardonicus," and within a short time the other two works within. Huzzah!
And so: "Sanguinarius" is a fictionalized first-person account of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, written in faux-16th century hand, detailing her descent into blood lust. From her entombment in a high Castle Csejthe room she writes this memoir, beseeching her Lord to hear her now that she's being punished for unimaginable deeds. In the village below, she writes, "no soul will dare display a thing of crimson." The marriage of the Bathory and Nadasdy lines brought together Hungarian royalty; she is expertly wooed by Count Ferencz Nadasdy (although it was probably an arranged marriage). Imprisoned Elizabeth writes of her and Ferencz's lovemaking, which gets Russell's pen flowing:
...for indeed to peaks of pleasure Ferencz led me, slowly to start with, step by timorous step, then setting out with more audacity, striving together, each succouring the other, climbing, first to one ledge, then to a higher, and then to yet a higher more dizzying ridge, finally to soar as if on wings to attain, both in the same heart-bursting moment, that cloud-capp'd ultimate point.
When Ferencz is called off to battle, Elizabeth mopes and mourns, unconsoled by "faithful old servant" Ilona, till one day Dorottya arrives. A beautiful young "woman of the wood" with the knowledge of healing herbs and ointments, she offers her services to the lonesome Countess. Things turn... heady. Ilona hears illicit cries in the night. You know how it goes. When Dorottya asks Elizabeth if she might bring others to cheer her, the Countess agrees, although slightly hesitant. What follows when of course Ferencz's sudden arrival home interrupts proceedings. Will it surprise the reader to learn that Dorottya is Ferencz's long-time mistress in unholy arts, that he sent her to Elizabeth at her time of weakness, and she was to be his wife's teacher in torture?
"And let us lead thee onward," added Dorottya, "to keen delights far stranger and more bold than those thou has already savour'd..."
"Ay, wife" said Ferencz, "and be thou Bathory not but in name, but in hot deed, as well!"
"And let us seal this compact with a solemn pledge," Dorottya said, "a ceremonial bath to signalize our fealty to sin."
I think you know what kind of ceremonial bath is to follow. Russell doesn't attempt to make her a sympathetic character.
Self-serving, oblivious, even if at times regretful, Bathory blames her
husband and Dorottya for developing
her taste for blood and torture (even if such traits ran in her family). The little twist at the end is welcome, however; welcome, appropriate, refreshing even.
"For who would be disposed to smile under the same roof with him who must smile forever?"
Sandwiched in the middle of the book is Russell's most famous work, "Sardonicus." In 18— (I've never been able to ascertain why that
dash was used in dates in pre-20th century literature...) one Dr. Robert Cargrave, an esteemed English physician, is called to a mountainous region of Bohemia by an old friend, Maude Randall. She is now married to a man who calls himself Sardonicus and together they live in a castle, a "vast edifice of stone... cold and repellent... of medieval dankness and decay" which "strike[s] the physical and the mental eye as would the sight of a giant skull." Of course they do! Once there, Cargrave and Maude strike up their old friendship (never consummated) and then she introduces her husband, Mr. Sardonicus.
"The gentleman before me was the victim of some terrible affliction that had caused his lips to be pulled perpetually apart from each other, baring his teeth in a continuous ghastly smile. It was the same humourless grin I had seen once before: on the face of a person in the last throes of lockjaw. We physicians have a name for that chilling grimace, a Latin name... risus sardonicus."
German edition, 1971
Sardonicus's backstory is a clever one, reaching back to creepy Eastern European folklore. He then reveals himself to be a diabolic mastermind, enlisting Cargrave's medical prowess to cure his wretched face while dangling a promise of bliss with Maude—or, failing in this, Sardonicus threatens the tortures of the damned for his platonic wife:
"Perhaps now you will better understand the necessity for this cure. And perhaps also you will understand the full extent of Maude's suffering should you fail to effect the cure. For, mark me well: if you fail, my wife will be made to become a true wife to me—by main force, and not for one fleeting hour, but every day and every night of her life, whensoever I say, in whatsoever manner I choose to express my conjugal privilege!" As an afterthought he added, "I am by nature imaginative."
It may not surprise you to find that Russell's attitude is one firmly set in the 1960s it was written in; the
"Sardonicus" is like a recasting of the Playboy
philosophy, that libertine stew of sex, sophistication, and rationality, in
terms of the Gothic. In the end modern urban bachelor Cargrave outwits the violent, boorish cad and wins the woman. Sardonicus's comeuppance is utterly terrible and unutterably fitting. As I said: Playboy! Philosophy! No, really: whether you agree with my reading or not, "Sardonicus" is superb.
Playboy Press, 1971
The final piece, "Sagittarius," is a tale-within-a-tale, two men in an upper-class club exchanging bon-mots over cigars and Scotch. You know the scene. Elderly Lord Terrence and young Rolfe Hunt converse of "the series of mutilation-killings that were currently shocking the city, and then upon such classic mutilators as Bluebeard and Jack the Ripper, and then upon murder and evil in general..." You know, the yoozh. Lord Terry then launches into speculation: what if Mr. Hyde, of Stevenson fame, were real? And supposing that, what if he had sired a son? Then that conversation, about the twists and turns of good and evil in one soul, turns into Lord Terry's reminiscences about his younger days in turn-of-the-century Paris, when he knew a famous actor of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol named Sebastien Sellig.
Ah, the Grand-Guignol! Theatrical performances of death and dismemberment, madness and the macabre, that drew standing-room-only crowds to witness buckets of stage blood spurting about. A terrific setting for a horror tale, and for Russell to show off his erudition. Into this brew he mixes Hyde, Jack the Ripper, and as a pièce de résistance, Gilles de Laval, Baron de Rais, that 15th century butcher of children and occult dabbler, compatriot of Joan of Arc and a man of—but of course—wealth and taste. Mystery piles upon mystery, and young Rolfe Hunt has, in the story's final sentence, a mind-freezing realization...
In the street, I felt I had to make some utterance. "To think, I said, "that her last evening was spent at the Guignol!"
smiled sympathetically. "My friend," he said, "the Grand Guignol is not
only a shabby little theatre in a Montmartre alley. This—" his gesture
took in the world "—is the Grandest Guignol of all."
I spent several days entranced by Russell's imagination, the twists and insights, the decadence of an aesthete's intelligence, enchanted by his delicate yet precise prose used to describe the indescribable. Russell's affection for the wormy tropes of Gothic literature is clear; his facility with them dexterous; his ironic repositioning of them enlightening. Thus I can recommend Unholy Trinity without hesitation (in print as Haunted Castles). High-minded, cultivated, blackly ironic and delighting in the
debauched and the deranged from the vantage point of the mighty, Russell
is a trustworthy guide through this netherworld populated by crumbling
castles, dank dungeons, torture chambers, bleak landscapes, and most
terrifying of all, the unfathomable cruelties of the human mind.
Not from God above or Fiend below,
but from within his own breast, his own brain, his own soul.
Couple weeks ago on the Reddit horrorlit page someone asked for recommendations in "archaeological horror." I don't know if that's an actual sub-subgenre but it was nicely coincidental as I'd just begun reading The Bog (Jove paperback, July 1987), the second horror novel from the late Michael Talbot. I replied to the OP and I sure hope whoever it was gets around to reading this one because it's pretty much what they asked for: "archeological finds open for an unsuspected horror." Ancient evils indeed are unleashed when two unsuspecting American archaeologists, working from Oxford University, unearth "bog bodies" in West England's Hovern Bog (bog bodies are mummified human corpses, preserved for even thousands of
years, that are a unique and immediate window into the past). This ancient evil hearkens back to the Roman occupation, and even to humanity's earliest civilizations, when our imaginations were in thrall to sorcerers and demons, pagan rites and sacrifice. Cool!
Above you can read the back cover copy, as solid a set-up any reader could want. Throw in an imperious, mysterious Marquis who owns a vast estate which encompasses the bog and therefore whatever's found in it, plus his super-hot companion Julia who makes our protagonist, the American archaeologist Macauley, weak in the knees. Macauley and his grad student Hollister have found two bog bodies, male and female, which they date from the Roman Britain era, well preserved but bearing unseemly wounds: the woman was a suicide, a knife buried in her stomach by her own hand; the man has animal bite marks that bear no resemblance to any known bog wildlife. Macauley must penetrate the mystery of those bog bodies and what their deaths imply...
Complications ensue: townsfolk of Fenchurch St. Jude warn Macauley against messing with the bog (in the village inn no less, evoking memories of the Hammer Horror extras who tried in vain to stop folks heading up to Dracula's castle), then some of them end up dead. The Marquis hints he has mystical magical powers, as does hottie Julia, and Macauley, so thirsty for esoteric knowledge, is tempted by them both. Of course later Macauley's wife, teen daughter and young son are threatened, and he must balance his academic ambitions against his love for his family—and whatever immortal ravenous thing that stalks the Hovern Bog.
Setting a horror novel in a dangerous, creepy locale like a bog was pretty ingenious; I mean it could almost write itself, right? Talbot does a decent job of evoking atmosphere and shoe-horning in some nuts and bolts about
archaeological technique and academic historical study. There are passages set in the past and one long, powerful sequence owes much to The House on the Borderland (1908). At times though Talbot
underwites his intriguing storyline and characters should have had more
emotional depth to bear what he puts them through. None of this
gets in the way of the story and Talbot brings it all together with a real '80s-style climax. While The Bog may not have the epic, decadent, and sure-handed feel of the author's debut, 1982's The Delicate Dependency,
it's still a fun, albeit uneven, '80s horror novel.
Looking for a forgotten horror novel or short story? Remember the cheesy paperback art but not who wrote the book? Send me an email at toomuchhorrorfiction[at]gmail.com describing it and if I don't know it, one of my readers might!
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