Sunday, July 24, 2016

Robert Lory's Horrorscope Series (1974 - 1975)

Spent my Sunday morning with coffee while Googling forgotten horror fiction and discovered this astrology-based paperback series (ah, the '70s!) titled Horrorscope (Pinnacle Books). Author Robert Lory, known for his Dracula Horror Series, mined one of that decade's many pseudoscientific obsessions. Horrorscope apparently only lasted four titles (looks like a fifth was published in Germany only); don't know what happened to the other eight signs of the zodiac! One can only imagine the rest of the series...

I couldn't find cover artist info but I think it's a safe guess to posit John Holmes, a British artist whose bizarre illustrations adorned H.P. Lovecraft Ballantine paperbacks around the same time.


Monday, July 18, 2016

The Landlady by Constance Rauch (1975): Can't You Hear Her Knocking

You've probably never heard of The Landlady (Popular Library, June 1976), nor had I when I stumbled on its cover art during one of my regular Google journeys trying to find more forgotten horror fiction. The juxtaposition of wrinkled old hands deftly undressing a creepy little doll jumped out at me, as did the tag-line "terror turn-on," the essential references to The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, and publisher Popular Library has long been a trustworthy one for me during those pre-Stephen King days. I looked into author Constance Rauch's biography, learned this was the first of her three novels. I was hoping to discover a lost classic, and while The Landlady isn't that, it's easy to say that this is an unassuming chiller with some terrific unique creepiness.

At first the setup seems a little too Burnt Offerings (1973), in which a family rents a summer home while the owner resides in an upstairs room, a virtual recluse. But unlike that earlier novel, the landlady of the title is Mrs. Falconer, and she makes no bones about being seen and heard in her apartment. She pops in at unexpected and inopportune moments to disturb the Porters: young wife Jessica, her older husband Sam, and toddler daughter Patience. Falconer is eccentric, that's no surprise, with odd habits and, the Porters come to learn, an unsavory reputation with other citizens of this well-to-do town.

There's a murder, eerie night-time sounds coming from a disused stairway that connects the two apartments, a cop doing research into Falconer and her dead husband's doings, and well-staged parties with the Porters interesting friends and colleagues that get weird. Rauch is particularly good at detailing a business arrangement Sam sets up with a friend; the delicate pairing of money and friendship can go wrong in so many ways, and Rauch elicits some knowing moments of discomfort, embarrassment, and upward mobility that's not so upward. As in Rosemary's Baby, Rauch puts wife and mother Jessica in a position of precarious paranoia, then tightens the screws. Tiny Patience has mysterious fits that seem impossible to control, there's the horrific scene when Jessica searches Mrs. Falconer's apartment, and my goodness, that doll you see on the cover—! Yep, it turns up too but inside it is so much more repulsive:

The doll was made of aging, half-sticky, half-dry and corroded latex stretched over a spongy composition frame, its "skin" luridly jaundiced. It was, admittedly, a slightly naughty toy. Perhaps a novelty item sold by mail through the pages of some bygone stag magazine some 30 or 40 years earlier... The body was as obscene as the head was grotesque...

Futura UK paperback, 1977

I mean, ick, right? Anyway, this is 250 pages of prime mid-'70s setting, not deep or disturbing, with a few familiar notes of horror and squickiness, a pretty good pay-off, written by someone who has an ear for dialogue and class conflict. No earth-shattering discovery, not even a minor classic, but simply a refreshing read to take the edge off the heat of a summer afternoon. If you enjoyed the aforementioned Burnt Offerings, Crawlspace, Stepford Wives, and other quiet, slow-burning '70s horror novels, you really can't go wrong with The Landlady.

Why didn't I tell him how the day really went? 
Why didn't I tell him that I'm scared out of my wits... 
that this place is a nightmare... 
that I want to get the hell out of here!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Orpheus Process by Daniel H. Gower (1992): Death Machine Infest My Corpse to Be

Occasionally I read a horror novel that buggers my critical facilities, and I must ask myself that age-old question: is it so bad it's good, or is it so bad it's simply terrible? I know what I like and what I don't, but what if those things are wrapped up together? Which aspect outweighs the other? Is it so important that I know? Take the first novel by Daniel H. Gower, a paperback original from the fabled Dell/Abyss line entitled The Orpheus Process (Feb 1992). A story of medical horror and reanimated corpses, it features one cliche after another, with impossible dialogue, unbelievable motivations, iffy characterization, leaden attempts at black humor, tasteless over-the-top gore, wonky "science," and an exhausting climax that seems to go on and on. But. But.

I cannot tell you the last time a novel kept me reading more (I kind of agree with the various blurbs on the paperback; it is compulsively readable!). I enjoyed the hell out of it, good and bad alike. Gower's style has energy, conviction, and forward thrust, even accounting for lapses into amateur psychology, weak analogies, telling and not showing: first-novel flaws all present and accounted for. Orpheus Process goes to dark places of nihilistic blasphemy, and often what it finds there is unbearably silly, other times it touches on real existential dreads, plumbing deep into nightmare psyches. I loved the over-the-topness of it even when wrong-headed, its death-in-the-midst of life scenario, and all the sickening metaphysics of a biochemist playing God with his "reanimants." Welcome to the abyss indeed.

Dr. Len Helmond turns his family life into a hellish hash and the reader is along for the ride. There's lots of family drama in Orpheus Process, believable on the face of it but Gower's depiction of conflicts strains credibility. Helmond's relationship with wife Janice is somewhat rocky; his teen daughter Ally is going through a Goth phase; his beautiful lab assistant Sharon has the serious hots for him; and his experiments with reanimating animals in a university lab have been gross failures. Then one rhesus monkey, all-too-obviously named Lazarus, comes back seemingly normal...

Laz is so normal in fact Helmond does then what any good scientist would do and takes the creature home to his family. I mean what. His two younger children, seven-year-old Eunice and five-year-old Andy of course love the monkey. But its mind, its incomprehensible little monkey mind, has seen things on the other side that will destroy its sanity, and its body is changing in all kinds of incomprehensible ways due to that fancy violet amniotic fluid Helmond's created. Things take a turn for the worse: Ally is involved in a car accident with her boyfriend; we meet deranged Vietnam vet Cully Detwiler; and Helmond reanimates Osiris (duh!), a chimpanzee. None of this, you can expect, goes well at all. I mean, it all turns to absolute shit. There's even an impossible decapitation!

Little Eunice is killed on Halloween night when Detwiler goes on a maddened shooting rampage at an ice cream shop. Improbably Helmond is able to grab up her bullet-riddled body and toss her in the trunk... then zooms off to his lab to reanimate her. But of course! The rest of the family is away visiting grandma so isn't that convenient? Helmond successfully revives Eunice, the energized solution heals her wounds, and Helmond hopes his wife won't notice anything amiss with her reanimant daughter. This is not to be: Eunice's necromorphosis, however, is not into living death, but into hyperlife. She is becoming a totally new kind of life-form...

In her new state Eunice has gone beyond madness after peering into the reality that lurks beyond death; she out-Goths her sister Ally with her disturbing sketches (She must be watching a lot of horror movies the older sister muses) and Helmond finds the little girl's notebook, filled with mind-chilling philosophy:

I have experienced the unity and tranquility of nothingness, the absolute knowledge of the universal abyss... I have tasted the annihilation of all human feeling... I have been on that darkest of all levels of existence, the complete void of mind and soul... I know that supreme unbearable truth, have seen the agonizing revelation when the thin veil of materiality is pulled back, when the skin of the night is torn open to expose the pulsing primal core of the universe...

Gower doesn't quite seem to realize the enormity of his own creation; a few moments of levity or a better understanding of the horror and taking it even more seriously would've been welcome. When confused, horrified townspeople and police confront Helmond about, well, all the blown-up zombie parts outside his house, his response is "Look folks, it was an accident." That kind of incongruity—and there are plenty—really grates on me as a reader. After Laz the reanimated monkey nearly kills Janice, she says to her husband "You almost killed me, you know?" and he responds "It was an honest mistake." I mean WTF: this is not how humans in extremis talk, think, or behave (an all-too common flaw in the genre). For horror to work, the characters have to react realistically; otherwise it is all just a barrage of nonsense.

But I loved the lair Eunice builds for herself in a graveyard, a necropolis of noxious fog and reassembled corpses beneath the earth:

It was a chapel... dozens of empty caskets arranged like pews, and against the far wall Eunice luxuriated on a throne made of human bones surrounded by an altar constructed of the decomposing parts of a hundred corpses, torn apart and jumbled together in a collage of carnage... "Nothing in the world seems quite alive, but nothing in the world seems really dead, either." 
To emphasize her point, she casually waved the back of her right hand at the mural of twisted, decaying shapes behind her, momentarily infusing them with a violet corposant glow, and several eyeless skulls chattered like novelty teeth while intestinal tendrils flailed around them.

French paperback, accurate cover art

I've still only summarized about half of the events in the novel. The climax is so over-the-top it's proto-bizarro, evoking the nightmarish landscapes of Lovecraft's darkest fantasies, the cosmic nihilism of Ligotti, but with a dour tone that some may find off-putting (his appropriation of Ligottian themes is unsubtle, crude, even banal in places: "Did God fall asleep and have a nightmare?"). Eunice's reanimated monstrosities, demented and deformed, could be out of Barker but are described without his deft touch; ideas about death and resurrection read like Pet Sematary on cheap speed and weed (was Jesus the Nazarene a hypervital reanimant?!); Helmond's weapon of choice when attempting to kill Eunice is played straight by actually belongs in an Evil Dead sequel.

In spite of all the novel's faults, I feel justified in recommending it. There's just something so batshit crazy here, reminding me of that Masterton style of not letting plausibility factor into the storytelling. Ambition is part of it; Gower goes for broke, unleashing a farrago of grotesqueries parading by in an endless loop of madness (you won't forget Janice's midnight walk to find Eunice). As the title implies, elements of Greek tragedy are shoehorned in, as are references to Frankenstein and Repulsion. The final chapter, how could it compete with what's gone before, but I think it kinda worked in a redemptive manner: Her father had been an ingenious, doomed man, and she still loved him in spite of everything...

Gower, who published only one other novel, Harrowgate, also from Abyss, in 1993, now apparently self-publishes science fiction on Amazon with hand-drawn cover art.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series VII, ed. by Gerald W. Page (1979)

Don't worry, TMHF readers, that you've missed my reviews of previous entries in the long-running anthology series The Year's Best Horror Stories; this one, Series VII (DAW Books, July 1979), is the first one I've read in its entirety. I own only about half of the entire run, dipping into them here and there but never committing to a full volume. Till now, and I couldn't even tell you why this one, exactly. Sure, the cover featuring a ghoulish repast by the esteemed Michael Whelan is striking to the eye...

During this era, many paperback anthologies still included "dark fantasy" under the rubric of horror (DAW Books was a science fiction/fantasy publisher). "Dark fantasy" means to me fantasy, of course, but with major elements of the macabre and grotesque, with a fair amount of violence, usually with a medieval or mythic atmosphere and setting. The language too is often archaic, formal, stilted even. There may be sword 'n' sorcery going on as well. A few years later, Charles L. Grant used that term "dark fantasy" to describe his own stories and novels of subtle modern unease, but I prefer "quiet horror" for his brand of fiction. I say all this to simply state I'm not a fan of this kind of dark fantasy, and feel I don't quite have the critical acumen to judge dark fantasy. I tend to skim stories in that vein.

In Series VII, four stories fit this subgenre: "Amma" by Charles Saunders (above), "The Secret" by Jack Vance, "Divers Hands" by Darrell Schweitzer, and "Nemesis Place" by David Drake. I was unfamiliar with Saunders but liked well enough his West African griot's tale of a woman's unlikely secret identity; its comfortable switch-up ending evokes fables we first heard in childhood. Vance's story of Pacific islanders who know, unconsciously, that to leave their home is to encounter a strange wide world the knowledge of which may not be welcome. Again, something like a child's tale.

Schweitzer (above), long a critic and editor of genre fiction, contributes a longish work never before published. Knights, horses, swords, chainmail, maidens... no thanks. But Schweitzer writes strong prose, knows his way around violence and creeping dread, so I think "Divers Hands" will appeal greatly to those whose appreciation of such works is greater than mine. Drake's "Nemesis Place" contains the phrase "trader in spices" and that pretty much was quits for me, though I read the last paragraph and it seemed pretty bloody, so cool I guess.

Anyway, on to the real horrors.

An early work from one of the 1980s greats, Dennis Etchison, "The Pitch" is a pitch-black bit of unexpected vengeance by a kitchen cutlery salesman. Ouch. Etchison is a master of the modern convenience and its impact on our lives. "The Night of the Tiger" is a very minor work from Stephen King; it appeared in neither of his classic collections Night Shift and Skeleton Crew. King's authorial voice is strong, and the circus setting is convincing, but the final twist is rote. Now I enjoyed the relaxed charm of Manly Wade Wellman's tale of a lovely vampire lady, "Chastel." This dude hated it though. Ah well.

Autumnal sadness/grief/heartbreak/terror of Charles L. Grant's "Hear Me Now, Sweet Abbey Rose" is bittersweet. A sensitive family man protects his daughters against some drunken louts but the final horror is almost mean-spirited. One of Grant's finest. Another familiar name in any late '70s/1980s horror anthology is Ramsey Campbell, and his offering "Heading Home" may elicit a groan thanks to its pun, but it works as horror and as comedy. TMHF favorite Lisa Tuttle's "In the Arcade" has a woman lost in a lonely nightmare, looking back over a shameful racial history. It didn't appear in her amazing collection A Nest of Nightmares; not sure why, maybe it's the slight SF twist.

Ah, I forgot that the fine "Sleeping Tiger" from Tanith Lee (above) is also dark fantasy: a Brave Prince named Sky Tiger happens upon two lovelies in the forest named Orchid Moon and Lotus Moon. They bring him to a tower and perhaps promise paradise; Venerable Priest appears and puts the kibosh on that. That final twist is impolitic. "Intimately, with Rain" is Janet Fox's modern fable of ancient guilt. Love the ending for this one, even if I've read and seen it elsewhere.

The two final tales are, I feel, the best of the lot: superb in style and sensibility, "Collaborating" by Michael Bishop and "Marriage" by Robert Aickman (above) offer the very best in genre fiction. The former is a kind of Cronenbergian medical horror story written with taste and steely-eyed insight (We gave them stereophonic sweet nothings and the nightmares they couldn't have by themselves); I don't want to spoil it for first-time readers. The latter is another of Aickman's precisely-penned tales of daily English life and the traps it holds in store for those who attempt to go against it (He glared brazenly at the universe). Fantastic works, and two of the best short stories I've read this year.

Editor Gerald W. Page was involved with Year's Best Horror Stories for several years. In his intro he rightly states "You  never know where a good imaginative story will take you, whether it's science fiction, fantasy or horror..." and notes that good writing is just good writing. That's true, certainly, but good writing isn't my only criteria; I find I prefer my horror to be generally modern. But that's between me and me, and I think many other readers will find Series VII a worthwhile addition to their shelves of horror fiction...


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ammie, Come Home by Barbara Michaels (1968): That Ghastly Thing in the Parlor

It may not surprise you when I say I only read Ammie, Come Home because I really dug the cover art for this 1969 Fawcett Crest paperback. The eerie landscape and the floating girl, her barefoot vulnerability and blackening sky, really struck me in a positive way, even though 1960s Gothic novels are not my thing. Venerable paperback artist Harry Bennett hooked me into reading a novel I never would have otherwise! Well-done sir. Author Barbara Michaels is one of the pseudonyms of Barbara Mertz (1927 - 2013), a prolific writer and Egyptologist; her most famous nom de plume was Elizabeth Peters, under which she wrote dozens of mysteries I remember from my bookstore days. Anyway, Ammie is a pleasant enough read, nothing earth-shattering, perhaps even too mild for some contemporary readers. Here and there a jagged edge appears, a moment or a scene of black dread and emotional distress, a slow build-up of the supernatural; the evil deeds of the past wending their way through history only to end up at the tag-end of the groovy generation-gapped 1960s!

Ruth Bennett, widowed, mid-40s, lives in a stately Georgetown, Washington DC home built in the 1800s, inherited from an elderly aunt. Her college-aged niece Sara is boarding with her while attending a nearby school; the novel begins with Sara introducing her aunt Ruth to Professor Pat MacDougal. Big, blunt, brilliant, Ruth isn't sure she likes him. Right off the bat I'm a little iffy on this set-up because it's the stuff of romance novels, in which the two foreordained lovers hate each other on sight... until they don't. It's a generic convention I personally can't abide. Fortunately Michaels doesn't dwell on it overmuch. Prof has a tendency to bloviate and condescend, no surprise, but will prove a formidable foe in the soon-to-come battle against otherworldly forces. Also along is young Bruce, one of Sara's friends, a not-really-boyfriend who today would probably bitch and moan about his being friend-zoned. He's kind of a hipster doofus too, but like the Prof, he really steps up when strange things are afoot.

A black smoky shadow appears in a dream of Ruth's one night, but, as one other unlucky lady once put it, "This is no dream, this is really happening!" She hears someone calling "Come home, Sammie" and thinks maybe a neighbor is looking for their cat. This event is set aside as MacDougal invites Ruth to his mother's home for a society soirée, the main event of which is, can you dig it, a séance. Ruth thinks it's a scam, this medium Madame Nada conjuring up long-dead folks from the Revolutionary War (still kind of a big deal in tony Washingtonian circles). What's funny in a modern problems way is that Ruth invites both Mac's mom and the medium to a dinner party in her own home! Motivated more by social duty than true warm-heartedness, this dinner party turns into one bizarre affair. No good deed, etc.

Meredith Press hardcover, 1968

After a discussion on the paranormal between Bruce (he accepts it), Mac (he doesn't), and Ruth (she's unsure), Mac parses Ruth well: "You are fastidious," he tells her. "You dislike the whole idea, not because it's irrational but because it's distasteful." Oh snap! The author will well note the strain  supernatural occurrences put on daily living; it's difficult to keep up appearances when one's niece is suddenly a conduit to a crime committed in one's own house two hundred years earlier. Bruce endeavors in good faith to plumb the mystery, researching Ruth's home in town archives while Mac argues from the viewpoint of scientific rationality. Poor Sara, when not being possessed, kind of lounges about in a miniskirt, getting disapproving looks from  her aunt and opposite ones from the Prof (ew!). Every now and again she'll pop in with a stray observation (it's not Sammie, it's Ammie!) but otherwise she's only a pawn in the possession game. Unspoiled, modern, guileless; she's around but not all there, I suppose, a vessel for the plot but not in and of herself; how could she have character if she is unsullied?

 
 Uber-lame reprints

Experienced travelers in the realm of horror/supernatural/occult fictions will recognize familiar notes in the story. I find this rather comforting. I appreciated the author's efforts at detailing the banal everydayness that co-exists with the crazy: food, traffic, clothing, cleaning. The turbulent 1960s are noted here and there as Ruth is ambivalent about Bruce and his college-bred revolutionary airs and his designs on Sara. Ammie is also, as many of these pop novels are, charmingly dated: endless miniskirts, dudes with long hair, Ruth's old-lady attitudes (she's only in her 40s! She's never eaten pizza!), Bruce's hip-academic pretensions. Sometimes this aspect is less charming: gender normativity/misogyny out the wahoo in Prof's not-so-subtle lechery, and the time Bruce declares there are "women you rape and women you marry." Yee-ow.

Barbara Mertz (1927 - 2013)
aka Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters

As the origins of the possession become clearer, our narrative becomes tauter: Bruce learns more about the home and its literal foundations ("the whole house is rotten with hate"). A friendly Father figure is enlisted to aid in an exorcism and this goes poorly. Then the old Prof isn't so above-it-all as he'd like to appear; is he part of what seems to be a historical reenactment from beyond? The back-story is satisfyingly unsettling; you'll agree it's a crime that deserves retribution through the ages. Ammie, Come Home ends on a note of sentiment, but it is only the beginning in a three-book series that Michaels continued into the 1990s. I found the novel to be decidedly okay and won't be reading the rest; go ahead and check it out if you think you'll dig a quaint snapshot of the supernatural '60s and a helluva generation gap.

Postscript: for two other takes on the novel, check out Dark Chateaux and The Midnight Room. And thanks for the pix guys!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Clive Barker's Books of Blood: The Berkley Editions, 1986

June 1986 saw the first American paperback edition of the first volume of Clive Barker's unparalleled short-story collection Books of Blood. Vols. II and III followed later in the year (for those keeping score, August and October respectively). Sure, the covers were adorned with rubbery face-masks but there's no denying the power within, and the sober back-cover copy still delights. These are essential horror reads. As fellow Liverpudlian Ramsey Campbell writes in his intro:  

When it comes to the imagination, the only rules should be one's own instincts, 
and Clive Barker's never falters.



Friday, June 10, 2016

Death Valley of the Dolls

Behold the glory that is the cover and stepback art for a novel I only discovered yesterday, The Transformation, by Canadian thriller writer Joy Fielding. This Playboy Press paperback dates from the distant year of 1976. It's obviously a take on the era-defining Manson murder spree with a Jackie Susann angle and not a supernatural horror novel; I got the photos (art by Rob Sauber) from Groovy Age of Horror, who reviewed it years back. Looks like this edition is going for a few bucks, so alas I won't be buying a copy anytime soon. But it gives me hope that there are still vintage horror-related paperbacks yet to be discovered...


The stench of slaughter
An orgy of Satanism and death


Thursday, June 9, 2016

In Trance

"Take one tablespoon of Patty Hearst, a soupçon of Rev. Moon, a peck of bad writing, and a vat of bad taste—and,voilà, you have this stink-stew..."—Kirkus Reviews, Feb 1977


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Smoke by Ruby Jean Jensen (1988): When the Smoke is Going Down

It may surprise you to learn that on my used bookstore searches I very rarely see any of the dozen or so titles Ruby Jean Jensen (1927 - 2010) had published by Zebra Books throughout the 1980s and '90s. Guess they've become collectibles going by the inflated prices being asked for used copies on Amazon. Then on my recent trip to the Iliad Bookshop I happened upon a copy of Smoke (Zebra, Jan 1988) that was in acceptable condition, for $1.50.

I should have paid less. They should have paid me to take it off their shelves.

If you read Smoke on the sly as a curious pre-teen you might have fond memories of it, but for a 45-year-old adult man with some experience reading horror, the novel offers about as much substance as its title. While not unutterably wretched as that other Zebra perennial William W. Johnstone, nothing in Smoke offered any surprise or delight, nor even any tacky thrills. Jensen's prose is workmanlike, serviceable, obvious; if you were a creative writing teacher you wouldn't fail her, because the grammar and punctuation seem to be mostly correct and there are neither sentence fragments nor run-ons. However metaphor, analogy, insight, wit, humor: such tools seem to be missing from Ms. Jensen's creative toolbox. My god it's all dull dull dull and dry as mummy dust. But maybe not to a 12-year-old, or a person who was not really a reader, as the story is told in a straightforward manner and the characters seem to have motivation, I guess. It was an enormous uphill trudge for me to even skim through the book.

You can guess the ending too of course. Books like Smoke and writers like Jensen simply are not, nor ever have been, my kind of horror whatsoever. I avoided these skull-adorned novels back in the day because... well, because my impression was, going by the ones I've read, precisely correct. I feel kinda bad criticizing Smoke for what it's not—a novel for an adult—and yet I have to be honest: it's not good or fun or interesting, and every book should be at least one of those things. Smoke alas is none.

Though I still think some of her covers are fun

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Blood Rubies by Axel Young (1982): He Who Fucks Nuns

More a suspenseful melodrama than an outright horror novel, Blood Rubies (Avon Books, Apr 1982) was published under the pseudonym Axel Young. Really it was Michael McDowell and pal Dennis Schuetz, who also collaborated on a gay mystery series and "Tales from the Darkside" screenplays. I found it highly readable fun, a smart fast-paced story for the most part that took me two days to read. This tale of twin sister fate twisted like a DNA helix could have been a swell TV-movie back in the day, starring perhaps two young night-time soap stars (or maybe just one in the role of a lifetime!). While I'd hoped to find out some backstory on those precious titular jewels—if they held some supernal agent within—I was still fairly satisfied overall, if a bit baffled by the abrupt conclusion. But as I've said before, I prefer that to an ending that lasts forever.

Back-cover copy does a good job of setting up the tale. Prologue is all gloom and doom on New Year's Eve 1959 as a woman gives birth in a tenement building in Boston's North End. A winter storm approaches in the night. Twin girls are born, one on either side of the new decade. The only thing the distraught mother, Mary Lodesco, has to give them is a pair of ruby earrings which was given to her by her mother, which she demands the midwife affix to the girls, one each. Bad luck, the midwife mutters, to separate them, but she does so. Woman and children sleep but are awakened by, of course, a raging fire set accidentally by a drunk on the first floor. Only the twins will survive; separated, but alive. One is found and given up for adoption; the other is stolen away, unseen, presumed dead...

The first half of the novel is the adopted twin's story. Raised by a religious working-class couple outside Boston, young Katherine Dolan attends Catholic school and wants nothing more than to become a nun in the order of the Slaves of the Immaculate Conception. She is quiet, not very popular nor very intelligent. Her adoptive mother Anne is a McDowell type through and through: pious, short-tempered, petty, delusional. James, the father, strolls in drunk and begins to engage in my least favorite trope of '80s horror; you can probably guess what happens, I mean it's even there on the back cover.

The nun stuff gets a bit much, it really does, lots of details about getting into a nunnery that may test one's patience. It all rings true, though, I guess, but what do I know? Still the authors get inside Katherine's head to show the disconnect between her desire to be a bride of Christ and her desire to escape her parents at any cost (In her father's heart, they found a butcher knife). What troubles her however is her continuing dream of a beautiful popular girl, herself perfected... and at the end of Part I and the beginning of Part II, the two young women who share a pair of ruby earrings set eyes upon one another.

In the second half of Blood Rubies we meet Andrea LoPonti, the child who was stolen away and raised with no knowledge of her origins. The LoPonti family is also devoutly Catholic but there the similarity ends: the family is well-off and well-respected. Andrea wants for nothing, is brilliant and ambitious, if sheltered from reality. As she sets off to college, we follow her as she again and again is exposed to the harshness of the world outside a Boston suburb. This stuff was my favorite part of Blood Rubies, Andrea's forays into the early '70s singles' bar scene in Boston, casual drug use, and travels throughout Europe with bestie Marsha. The two girls want nothing more to become worldly; when Andrea meets leather-clad bad-boy Jack, she becomes worldly in a hurry. Reminded me, unexpectedly, of those first two Bret Easton Ellis novels, Less Than Zero (1985) and The Rules of Attraction (1987)... except several years earlier than those.

 
The aspects of McDowell's skills that make him great are shown off well here, as he peers inside the lives of two different families and two different women. He knows people, and this sets him apart from other paperback original writers of his era. We'll go down dark paths, not necessarily supernatural, but bloody and horrific all the same, yet we'll always be accompanied by someone who knows the territory. When Katherine and Andrea finally meet everything is up-ended; that good girl/bad girl dichotomy is flipped around again. Irony abounds. The mechanics near the end are almost unbelievable: pulpy, near camp, kinda sleazy but oh so fun (the role of a lifetime!). An abrupt climax at first baffles but chills on afterthought. Blood Rubies will be a pleasure for McDowell fans; sure, it's a minor work in his oeuvre, yet still a worthwhile read.