Read a nice little bio of the late Mr. Cady from Valancourt Books, who recently republished his well-regarded 1981 horror novel The Well. Cady was a beloved creative writing teacher in the Pacific Northwest and published works in the horror, science fiction, and historical fiction genres, as well as dark fantasy under the pseudonym Pat Franklin (with decidedly '90s cover art!).
It's Friday the 13th! And there's another installment of Evil Eighties, my and Grady Hendrix's series over at Tor.com. Today my post is on the Hollywood horror of David J. Schow. Hope you've been keeping up with us--last week Grady reviewed the work of Elizabeth Engstrom, a writer I haven't featured on TMHF but hope to soon!
Everybody remembers their first Joe R. Lansdale story.
Mine was "Night They Missed the Horror Show," which I read in the 1990 anthology Splatterpunksin January 1991 (its first appearance was in 1988's Silver Screambut I must've missed it somehow). To say I was unprepared for this black-hearted tale of racist hillbilly snuff-film purveyors and the Texas high-school hellraisers who inadvertently stumble upon their doings is an understatement. Like a sucker punch to a soft belly or a club to the base of the skull, "Horror Show" leaves you stunned, out of breath, a hurt growing inside you that you know won't be leaving any time soon. Hasn't left me this quarter-century later. I know Lansdale (b. 1951, Gladewater TX) would have it no other way.
Funny thing was, I craved that feeling. Sought it out. So within a couple months I'd tracked down Lansdale's 1987 novel The Nightrunners (Dark Harvest hardcover 1987, paperback by Tor, March 1989). I recall coming home one afternoon from the bookstore I worked at with my brand-new copy, going into my room, locking the door and then reading it in one white-hot unputdownable session. That had never happened to me before; I usually savored my horror fiction over several late nights. But The Nightrunners wouldn't let go. Lansdale's skill in doling out suspense and the threat/promise of the horrible things to come was unbeatable, evident from the first. He even tells you flat-out, after quoting a newspaper article about victims of a "Rapist Ripper," that "no one knew there was a connection between the two savaged bodies and what was going to happen to Montgomery and Becky Jones."You know you got to keep reading after that!
The Joneses are a young married couple, living in Galveston, Texas, whose lives are shattered when Becky, a teacher, is raped by young men who were once her students in high school. She is haunted by the event, months later, can't even bear her husband's Montgomery touch. The nightmares are horrific re-enactments, almost as if her rapists are living in her head. Monty is a pacifist professor and he can't deal with how ineffectual the crime makes him feel; it throws his entire life philosophy into doubt. A conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, he worries that it's cowardice, not conviction, that may be his main motivation. Becky is horrified rather than being relieved when Clyde Edson, the teenage scumbag sociopath who led the attack and the only one caught by police, hangs himself in his jail cell: she'd seen his death in a vision. Monty, with his "sociological thinking," and a therapist try to explain it away, a result of her trauma, but Becky knows something worse is waiting. Monty's plan? Take her away to their friends' isolated cabin in the woods. Surely, they'll be safe there!
Kindle edition, 2011
Honorable, stand-up guy Clyde never named his accomplices, and so they're still out there, tooling around the night streets in a black '66 Chevy, eating up the lonesome Texas highways ("Its lights were gold scalpels ripping apart the delicate womb of night, pushing forward through the viscera and allowing it to heal tightly behind it"), looking for trouble, always first to draw when it shows up. Like a mini-Manson, Clyde drew the disaffected to him, into his poisonous orbit; a crew of violent losers with nothing to lose. His best bud Brian Blackwood, however, is different: together the two of them fancy themselves Nietzschean "supermen" (or, as Blackwood writes in a journal, "It's sort of like this guy I read about once, this philospher whose name I can't remember, but who said something about becoming a Superman. Not the guy with the cape"), ready, willing, and able to topple civilized society and live by muscle and wit, appetite and anger. AKA rape and murder, of course. And revenge.
1987 Dark Harvest hardcover
Here's where things get strange: one night Brian dreams, dreams of a god shambling up a black alley "and somehow Brian knew the shape was a demon-god and the demon-god was called the God of the Razor." Lansdale shifts from his tale of gritty crime and violence into something surreal and grotesque. It is, in its way, absurdly beautiful.
...tall, with shattered starlight eyes and teeth like thirty-two polished, silver stickpins. He had on a top hat that winked of chrome razor blades molded into a bright hatband. His coat (and Brian was not sure how he knew this, but he did) was the skinned flesh of an ancient Aztec warrior... out of nowhere he popped out a chair made of human leg bones with a seat of woven ribs, hunks of flesh, hanks of hair, and he seated himself, crossed his legs and produced from thin air a dummy and put it on his knee... the face the wood-carved, ridiculously red-cheeked face of Clyde Edson.
(You can see that the cover artists--Joanie Schwarz and Gary Smith--actually read the book! God how I love that Tor cover) Brian learns that Clyde is possessed by this God of the Razor, and now Clyde is going to inhabit Brian and together they're going to find Becky and, in Clyde's charming parlance, "cut the bitch's heart out." With the God of the Razor there to guide their hand. And if Brian fucks up, there's a razor to be ridden forever on the Dark Side... Idiot minions in tow as well as a bored teenage couple looking for kicks, Brian/Clyde begin their night run, rumbling through the countryside in that black Chevy, laying waste to any and all who get in their way. No one will be spared.
Woeful cover art for Carrol & Graf 1995 reprint
I haven't mentioned the many characters that inhabit the novel, men and women living the hardscrabble Texas country life Lansdale knows so well, using humor and sex to ease pain and poverty. Some of the folks seem like stereotypes but Lansdale always invests a knowing detail into them. He doesn't belabor characterization, but he knows it hurts the reader more when he hurts characters we care about. The teenagers are irredeemable evil, yes, smart yet deluded or stupid and easily led. Monty continually questions his manhood; Becky struggles to contain her fears and begin a normal life again. Despite the depths of sexual violence that Lansdale plumbs here--and make no mistake, he plumbs deep, disturbingly, humiliatingly deep, and there are moments where you'll want to put the book down and try to shake out an image from your head that he's put there--there is always an element of humanity; he balances his cold steel razor fear with an understanding of people in extreme situations. We can survive, if we fight. And if we can get our hands on a frog gig, all the better.
2013 trade reprint, dig the '70s color scheme
Don't get me wrong: The Nightrunners is not a noble book; it is mean, it is nasty, it is ugly as hell in places and it doesn't flinch, ever. It's also vulgar and crude and clumsy--the less said about a flashback to Monty and Becky's "meet cute" scene the better--obviously the work of a writer not yet in command of his craft. But beneath its exploitative surface beats an energetic heart. In cinematic terms, the novel is kind of a hodge-podge of '70s and '80s horror, thriller, and crime entertainment. Peckinpah's Straw Dogs is the obvious inspiration, I think, but one can also sense young Wes Craven and Sam Raimi nodding approval, while the Coen Brothers hang around in the background. Richard Stark and Elmore Leonard peek in every once in a while too. Going back to the '60s you can sense an AIP "wild youth" vibe when Lansdale describes that rumbling black Chevy and the teenage troublemakers inside.
1992 French edition: Children of the Razor!
Lansdale likes his humor icy black, Texas-corny, and in the direst of situations. While not as effortless as it would be in later novels, his bleak sarcasm and smart-ass attitude is threaded throughout Nightrunners. Doesn't always work; this attitude can seem callous, particularly in the humor the teens find in hurting people. Some readers might find this a turn-off. Still, it's what distinguishes him from a couple other extreme writers of horror from the same era, Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon. He's not as dour as the former or as dreary as the latter. He's unclassifiable. Joe R. Lansdale is his ownself, as he's always said, and I believe him. You will too.
In the years since this early novel, Lansdale has become more and more prolific (and even better at this writing thing), moving out of the cult ghetto, winning major awards (2000's The Bottoms took the Best Novel Edgar Award) and having film adaptations made (2002's Bubba Ho-Tep and 2014's indie crime flick Cold in July, based on his 1989 book). His personal Facebook page is filled with his terrific and honest advice about writing and the writing life. I've read quite a few of his '80s and early '90s novels and stories (try The Drive-In from '88, the short story collection By Bizarre Hands from '89, or Mucho Mojo from '94) and enjoyed them, but it is The Nightrunners that has stayed with me best: it is pulp '80s horror fiction at its rawest, nastiest, most unforgiving, most relentless. Behold the God of the Razor... but don't say I didn't warn you.
This post originally appeared on Tor.com in slightly altered form.
My series with Grady Hendrix, Evil Eighties, continues at Tor.com. This week I reread and reviewed Joe R. Lansdale's '80s splat classic, The Nightrunners. Incidentally, today is the fifth anniversary of Too Much Horror Fiction! And I began it with, natch, The Nightrunners!
Another re-read of a novel I loved back in the horror hey-day. There is no horror as fans know and love it in David J. Schow's 1988 novel The Kill Riff (Tor paperback published May 1989), despite it bearing the icon of Tor's horror line; this is a suspense thriller through and through. The most accurate blurb about is from Penthouse, that bastion of literary acumen, and it states the novel's high-concept succinctly: "Gives us the nightmarish psychology behind the systematic murders of a heavy-metal band." A dark nightmarish tune, Schow's first novel is all revenge and madness and the toll it all takes on the human psyche. Like lots of Schow's short fiction there is no supernatural element, and none is necessary. People can do crazy all by themselves.
Schow, early 1990s
Middle-aged Lucas Ellington, fresh out of a stint in a fancy, relaxing psychiatric "home," is attempting normalcy again. His beloved daughter was trampled to death at a performance by LA's heavy metal bad boys Whip Hand, Lucas went over the deep end and threatened Gabriel Stannard, the lead singer, but today, Lucas just wants to drive up to his cabin in the California wilds and chill, alone. He touches base with his business partner, Burt, with whom he runs an advertising company, as well as the female psychiatrist, Sara, who might be falling in love with him. Both think Lucas is well on his way to recovery... but he is not. In his still-fevered brain, Lucas wants to lay the members of Whip Hand to waste, kill 'em all, no mercy, and hidden in that secluded cabin is an arsenal direct from any Nam vet's worst nightmare... or wet dream.
The Kill Riff revels in a noxious stew of toxic masculinity. Lucas is obsessed with Whip Hand, stung by visions of his daughter's last moments worshiping at the rock'n'roll altar. He begins filling a room in that cabin with records and tapes and videos and posters of the band. Planning murder on large, media-saturated scale is a delicate and involved business, as the band has broken up and the members all play in different bands, so Lucas must navigate tour itineraries and concert hall logistics and backstage passes. His Nam experience make all that cake. Meanwhile we meet Gabriel Stannard, the cool and charismatic rock god who knows the whole circus is a sham to "make the teenies cream" but realizes, as his old bandmates are picked off one by one, that Lucas Ellington is gunning for him, and that's as real as it gets. With the help of his bodyguard Horus and bald maniacal guitar player Cannibal Rex, Stannard amasses his own arsenal for a final showdown. Cue collision course straight for chaos in the final chapters, immovable object meets irresistible force.
There are some terrific moments of tension scattered throughout Kill Riff, scenes that Schow treats with loving care: Lucas stalking the catwalk of a concert hall while a metal band goes through its ear-splitting pyrotechnics and thousands of kids in screaming worship; an abused young woman standing up for the first and final time to her grinning terrorizer; an injured sheriff crawling to his patrol car to radio for help. Gripping stuff in Schow's singular, stinging prose. No surprise he began writing more crime thrillers later in his career long after that whole splatterpunk thing was over. He throws in some twists that are just devastating, devastating I tell you! That's what I remembered most about the novel: the unexpected events that change everything.
UK paperback, 1990
But those twists aren't enough. The problem is that the scenes linking these set pieces vary in quality and reader interest level. Lucas discussing Whip Hand trivia with a cynical record shop manager rings true and cute, and Schow has a skill with detailing old friends Burt and Lucas and how they talk to one another. But rocker Stannard is a just a spoiled, posturing douchebag, so it's no fun listening to
him expound on anything, and all his hanger-ons and bandmates are
complete creeps. Why do I care if they stand up to Lucas? Anything to do with Stannard's slinky Euromodel girlfriend Sertha is just wasting time. Once Lucas's true self is revealed, the less of him the better. Minor characters pop in and out, often more interesting than the leads. You just want Lucas and Stannard to meet, draw their weapons, and kill each other, get it all over with! Blast away guys, nobody's gonna miss ya. Both men get what's coming to 'em, but will you still care by the end?
Schow loves the minutiae of subconscious motivation,
self-reflection, repressed fears, idle speculations, and the
contemporary (well, '80s contemporary) Los Angeles lingo of ad firms, psychiatry, and show-biz schmoozers. That's an area Schow has always mined in his short fiction, in his own particular style. His characters talk and talk and talk, diving deep into their own heads and trying to get inside others'. They are hyper-articulate but at times the reader will definitely think, People don't actually talk like that (unless everybody was snorting coke off-page; I mean the setting is 1980s LA). Between that and their dorky jokes, the dialogue alone can be exhausting. And Schow's experience as a men's adventure scribe mean lots of details about weaponry.
This can be difficult to integrate into a narrative, and my personal tolerance level for
gritty realistic odes to the AR-15, the M16, and the AK-47 is virtually
nil. It's not that Schow doesn't work this stuff in well, it's that I
tune out for it.
UK hardcover, 1989
I wasn't too taken with Schow's depiction of the '80s metal music scene either. As a dedicated reader of Circus and Hit Parader from 1983 till about 1988 (basically a generation in pop music), I think I can call foul on some of it. He's got guys in metal bands playing keyboards, guys with bald heads and names from the punk scene, dudes with muscles and Mohawks. So he's not describing WASP or Motley Crue or Dokken or Iron Maiden or Judas Priest or Motorhead, but actually more a band like the Plasmatics. Which actually kind of makes sense, because out of all those folks the only person I can imagine taking up arms against a rabid, raging father bent on vengeance would be Plasmatics singer Wendy O. Williams. What, I'm supposed to think Vince Neil would do that? Ha! Hardly. Is that Schow's point, all these wannabe badasses in metal bands thought they were all walking the mean streets but at heart they were really just pussies? Maybe so. Gabriel Stannard, beholden to the bullshit bad-boy code, sure ends up paying a high price trying to prove he's the real deal. Ironic, no?
I really wanted to like Kill Riff on this reread, because I loved it way back when (even though I had the same complaints about the band stuff) but I only enjoyed the book in fits and starts, and can't really recommend it, even to readers, like me, who have loved his short stories. Oh well. And I haven't given up on Schow at all: what I really want to do now is track down a cheap copy of his 1990 horror novel The Shaft, which for whatever reason was never published in the States. I mean, you can't beat this cover:
Compare, if you will, the covers for these erotic occult novels from the late 1970s by Brian McNaughton. The first three are from Carlyle Books, easily some of the dullest covers ever; then you'll find the early '80s UK editions from Star Books. Oh, land of Aleister Crowley and Hammer Horror, we'd expect nothing less!
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 willerror[at]gmail.com describing it and if I don't know it, one of my readers might!
Copyright 2010 - 2015. All text (except quotes) is the property of Will Errickson and should not be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the author. All images, unless otherwise noted, are the property of their respective copyright owners.