Friday, November 12, 2021

Christopher Pike Born on This Date, 1954


The pen name of New York City-born Kevin Christopher McFadden, Christopher Pike was one of the big-selling writers of young adult speculative fiction during the late Eighties and well into the Nineties. I well recall selling lots of these slim little paperbacks during my bookstore days back then. Published by Pocket Books under their YA imprint Pathway, his books popped off the shelves with his name featured in neon as well as distinctive, evocative cover illustrations, most by artists Brian Kotzky, Danilo Ducak, and Mark Garro. Die-cut peekaboo and stepback covers abound!

I was too old to read them myself, but I know Pike's books strike a real nostalgic chord for younger horror fans who later graduated to adult horror writers. Tor Books published his two adult novels, Sati (1990) and The Season of Passage (1992). Pike is famously reclusive, but a recent, illuminating interview can be found here. These paperbacks you see in this post are from my wife's collection; she's been buying them off and on for years!

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Beast House by Richard Laymon (1986): I Suck Like a Beast

Look, you gotta believe me: I gave cult favorite Richard Laymon another try because I wanted to give him a fair shake. Over the years I've been writing this blog I've read and disliked four of his novels and a couple short stories; and each time I've reviewed something by him I've been told by fans some variant of: "Oh, you should read this one," or "You should've read that one," or "This is one of his weaker titles," etc. But what I've found is those bits of advice are distinctions without a difference (I even read all the free excerpts I could find on Amazon). And The Beast House is no exception. First published by Paperjacks in 1987, the first sequel to his 1979 debut dud The Cellar, it is failure in its purest form. Inept and inert, dull and dopey, it lacks any and all of the requisite qualities for a good book.
As I've said about his novels before, their scenarios aren't the problem. The story line of a secret sex diary from the woman who once owned the Beast House, and characters like an unscrupulous author and a teenage girl looking to make a buck from said diary, aren't terrible per se. At first, I thought I might even kinda end up liking Beast House... but then all the weak Laymon traits appeared. The problem is that, in the writing and unspooling of said story, there is nothing upon which a reader's mind to find purchase—not a line of interesting prose, not a snatch of realistic dialogue, not a human quirk observed, not an arresting image captured, not a simile or metaphor utilized to quench the thirst of one who reads for pleasure. Not even a scene of well-imagined graphic violence or gut-wrenching depravity for the gorehounds. It's all empty calories. A starving man apprehends a single potato chip. You're hungrier than when you started.
Laymon's reputation as some sort of graphic horror maestro is to laugh. Beast House is about 98% horror-free, stuffed with sawdust, the nonsense padding of characters moving from car to car, motel room to bar, titular Beast House back to motel room, speaking and thinking juvenile inanities all the while. Herein he describes the "gruesome" injuries of wax dummies no less, akin to the cynical idiocy of trying to fool readers of 1987's Night Show with descriptions of violence and gore that turned out to be upon reveal scenes from horror movies. Not funny. Not clever. Insulting, actually.
Speaking of horror movies, I often find a defense of Laymon made that his books are akin to "B-movies." To me this kinship argument is disingenuous at best and simply ignorant at worst: lots of B-movies are made with skill, care, and good sense; I mean, Jesus Christ, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a fucking "B-movie." Halloween is a B-movie, Re-Animator, Evil Dead, B-movies all, and all are fun. Unconcerned with good taste, the filmmakers knew the limit and knew precisely when to go above and beyond. Gleeful, rebellious, anarchic, even. Laymon is a dreary hack producing no-hearted novels that have all the energy of nursing home inhabitants after a hot lunch and a game of cribbage. 

Laymon is infamous for his use of rape and violence and abuse in his work, but it's not because he's adept at describing those things or has any particular insight into them; it's more that he's heard that stuff is "cool." This is condescending to the horror fan. His deployment of such is ham-fisted, one-dimensional, oblivious and trite. Put simply, Laymon is a clueless square. Not cool, daddy-o.
Overall, Laymon writes like an amateur, unable to invest believably in any of his scenarios. His depiction of the titular beast is anemic, a dearth of imagination so complete you wonder if he was aware he was writing anything at all. An incompetent hacking away at his typewriter with zero command or respect for any aspect of the craft of writing, Laymon simply does not do the heavy lifting required to produce quality horror fiction. To write is free, it costs nothing—except the drive to commit to the hard work of mastering the art.
As terrible as they are, at least writers like William Johnstone and J.N. Williamson tried to give their readers a bang for their buck, cramming their tales full of monsters, however ludicrous, from zombies to werewolves to dark goddesses and demons and satanic cats and whatnot, as well as dense plots bonkers beyond belief. Richard Laymon seems content to give the least he can give. Virtually every jot and tittle of his that I've read has been a total dispiriting drag for me, and I can not imagine that ever changing.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Horror Fiction Help XXV

Thanks in advance to anyone who can help ID these books!

1. 1980s. A man contacts various individuals and tells them they have magic potential, and he will chose one to be his successor. They all travel to his big ol’ gothic home to compete. The story switches perspective between the people. They kill each other off in magical ways over the days, until one person is left who (I think) didn’t kill anyone. Turns out the gothic house guy actually wants them all dead as threats rather than looking for a successor. The last man standing is special (of course) and more magical and can transform into animals, which is this big deal. The last man and gothic house guy do battle as various animals, last man manages to kill gothic house guy, the end. I know there’s a scene where one of the characters is on a commercial flight headed to the gothic house, and another character almost succeeds in bringing down the plane through magic - the character on the plane stops it, also through magic. Found! It's:

2. It wasn’t scary but it was all about ghosts. I think it was about a kid that moved into a new house that had a whole family of ghosts living there. There was a bit where the family of ghosts went on a trip to the beach but the moment that really stuck with me but I can’t seem to turn up anything on was that the little boy ghost got stuck between the sheets of double glazing when trying to pass through the window which turned out to be a big hazard for little ghosts. I must have read it ten times and this is all I can remember! It had illustrations throughout and I believe the front cover might have been the beach scene. It might be that it’s some very niche little British book that just happened to be in my library.

3. Very early '90s, vampire performs oral sex on women and drinks their menstrual blood (not Memnoch the Devil). A scene early in the book.

4. Scientists have literally run out of things to study -they know everything. One scientist comes across a spell for conjuring a demon. Hmm, something that hasn't been studied. He runs it through his computer and presto! a demon appears and asks his bidding. Scientist has a back and forth with the demon, demon surprised humans are no longer grasping and lustful, so decides to kill/eat the scientist. Scientist pulls out a ray gun and stuns the demon and locks him up for further study.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Latest Title in Valancourt's Paperbacks from Hell Series: Gwen, in Green!

Great news, everyone! The series of reprints of classic titles featured in Paperbacks from Hell from Valancourt Books is not over—coming next is the 1974 eco-horror novel Gwen, in Green, by Hugh Zachary. The book will feature the stunning George Ziel cover art from the Fawcett Gold Medal edition; I will be writing the introduction for it. This is a personal favorite of mine and I lobbied hard to get it back in print, while the guys at Valancourt diligently tracked down the late Zachary's estate to obtain the rights. The process seemed to take forever, but here we are! 

Valancourt hopes to have it ready to go by year's end. And Valancourt, Grady Hendrix, and I are still hoping to bring you more of these. For all information on ordering and whatnot, go here. For more on this series, go here.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Intensive Scares: The Paperback Cover Art of J.K. Potter

Vintage horror fiction fans are well aware of American artist J.K. Potter, born Jeffrey Knight Potter in California on this date in 1956. His macabre photorealistic imagery decorated the covers of dozens of small-press hardcovers, various magazines, and plenty of paperbacks throughout the Eighties and beyond, most often for such genre heavyweights as Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, Charles L. Grant, and Karl Edward Wagner, along with many other writers in the fantasy and science fiction fields as well. 

With its surrealistic blending of collage and contrasting elements along with ghostly hues and piercing eyes, Potter's art probably unsettled and attracted as many readers as it repelled! Here is a  sampling of his paperback work:

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Horror Fiction Help XXIV

Some recent emails I’ve received from people hoping to find these forgotten horrors. Thanks in advance for helping to ID them! 

1. A children's horror book from the late 80s or early to mid 90s, a collection of short stories. One was about a party of kindergartners who make paper lanterns and march around, disappearing over a hill never to be seen again. Another about a child in a yellow raincoat getting hit by a car. It also included a story about a kid staying home from school "sick" but the sickness was actually that he was a werewolf or something. Found! It's a 1989 Scholastic collection:

2. Cover art: a man sitting down at a table, either with silverware in each hand or eating food, and a pig standing on two legs (possibly dressed in an apron or chef's outfit) holding a butcher's knife behind his back. (ed.—Argh! This one sounds sooo familiar!) Found! It's the 1968 Penguin edition of: 

1970s: Two boys are abducted by a flying saucer, controlled by what seem to be human-sized aliens with an insectoid look. But the kids figure out all's not as it seems: the "aliens" are really evolved ants who have been living underground for ages, and they're using the UFO as a cover story for whatever their real plans might be. I don't remember much else, except that 1. I learned the word "chitin" from this book, and 2. in the scene where the kids first discuss this theory, they know the ants are listening in, so they use a private code where you spell out words with the initials of made-up names (e.g. for "ants" it'd be something like "Remember when we hung out with Amy Nugent and Todd Smith"). Found! It's a 1981 kids' book:

4. Two or 3 young kids (a teen and one much younger I think) visiting an aunt or similar. They take a train, I think, and the woods surrounding the station are covered in nightshade/belladonna. The aunt lives in some kind of old mansion and has a weird man servant/sex demon named Jared or Jarad.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Thomas Tessier: The Paperback Covers

Author Thomas Tessier, born on this date in Westbury, CT, in 1947, has long been one of my personal favorite horror writers. One of the first books I reread when I began this blog was Finishing Touches, which I hadn't read since the late 1980s. It's an erotic horror masterpiece, filled with a fatalistic conviction that I find irresistible—and featured a credible mad scientist too. He forayed into the devious mind of a stalker in Rapture and made his shocking sociopathic behavior seem rational. Nightwalker, his second novel, is an ambiguous tale of lycanthropy praised by both Stephen King and Peter Straub. Not too shabby!

Tessier's short work was published in many horror anthologies of the late '80s and into the '90s, and these should not be overlooked. Stories like "Food," "Evelyn Grace," "In Praise of Folly," "Addicted to Love," and "Blanca" brim with a wit and fearlessness that is too often absent from horror fiction; they never fail to disturb, provoke, disgust, and chill the reader. And I can't ask too much more from any horror writer than that.