Wednesday, March 31, 2010

August Derleth's Cthulhu Mythos stories: (Dead) Dreaming is Free

August Derleth, founder of Arkham House Publishers, kept the H.P. Lovecraft legacy alive when it threatened to disappear into pulp obscurity. Now, more than half a century later, Lovecraft's name is venerated the world over. Derleth (along with countless other writers over the decades including Robert Bloch, Robert Howard, Brian Lumley, and Ramsey Campbell) penned his own tales utilizing the Lovecraft mythos, published in hardcover originally by Arkham House as The Mask of Cthulhu (1958) and The Trail of Cthulhu (1962). What you see here are the paperback reprints from Beagle Boxer, July 1971.

Derleth has been criticized by Lovecraft purists for drastically altering the philosophical underpinning of Lovecraft's original stories into a more balanced, even Christianized, cosmic whole. Lovecraft was a staunch atheist who saw a bleak, cold, and absolutely indifferent universe in which humanity had no special place. Most of Lovecraft's followers, however, adapted the mythos to their own needs and creative visions. Some feel this more humanized viewpoint weakens the impact of Lovecraft's mythos; I tend to that opinion, and have read very few of the Lovecraft followers.

However, Derleth (below) succeeded where Lovecraft (above) often failed: in writing readable prose. In fact, many of the stories here seem almost to be the classic Lovecraft stories re-written in actual readable prose. His style is almost hard-boiled, with no affectation of language, no preoccupation with archaic style, no excessive adjectives. Yet still the stories achieve an atmosphere of cosmic dread, of fear and loathing, of awe at the vastness of space and the littleness of mankind in its void.

But there was time for me to to delve into the secrets of my uncle's books, to read further into his notes. So much was clear - he had belief enough to have begun a search for sunken R'lyeh, the city or the kingdom - one could not be sure which it was, or whether indeed it ringed half the earth from the coast of Massachusetts in the Atlantic to the Polynesian Islands on the Pacific - to which Cthulhu had been banished, dead and yet not dead - 'Dead Cthulhu lies dreaming!' - biding his time to rise and rebel again, to strike once more for dominion against the rule of the Elder Gods...

See? Nary an "eldtritch" or "noisome" or "star-flung" to be found. The above passage is found in "The Seal of R'lyeh" from Mask; it is my favorite story here, with a deepening (or perversion, as Lovecraft experts may see it) of the Cthulhu mythos and some really strong, evocative, subtle writing. It is similar to "The Shadow over Innsmouth," but since that's such a wonderful story I don't mind. "The Return of Hastur" and "Something in the Wood" are standouts too, with everything we love about Lovecraft: lonely landscapes, ancient books, strange old locals with funny accents and terrifying tales. Trail is an entire novel by Derleth but I have not read it.

 
Original Arkham House editions, art by Richard Taylor

It's good to see these two works back in print together in Quest for Cthulhu (although boo on that Godzilla-esque cover art). My moldering copies were published by Beagle Books in the early 1970s and have that great old-bookstore smell that reminds me of staying up late on summer nights reading when I was 15. I wouldn't part with them for anything, not even my very own shoggoth. While I obviously prefer the original visions of Lovecraft himself, Derleth's stories are powerfully imagined, clearly told, and come recommended from this (almost) lifelong Lovecraft fan.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959): Who Are the Mystery Girls?

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Often cited as the greatest opening paragraph in horror fiction, Shirley Jackson's now-classic haunted house ghost story The Haunting of Hill House was a huge popular and critical success upon publication. And what a wonderful cover; this edition is dated March 1977 from the Fawcett Popular Library, from the era of Gothic romances: always heroines fleeing across windswept moors or down castle stairs, about them flowing their black hair, in diaphanous nightdresses revealing tasteful decolletage, an imposing house in the background with one single light burning in an upstairs room. Perhaps there is a dominant, darkly-shadowed male nearby as well, with the threat of sex looming. However I don't have much interest in Gothic romance except for the covers; there's a great selection here.

Viking Books hardcover, 1959

But then, all this talk of Gothic romance only applies to the cover of this particular edition of Hill House, as the novel is not really a Gothic romance at all. I suppose a literary historian could argue that all horror fiction is, at bottom, Gothic romance - I recall that argument being made by a professor of mine back in my very early college years - but Jackson's rational approach to her tale doesn't seem "romantic" at all. The "love story" might be between Eleanor Vance and fellow intrepid haunted house investigator, the psychic Theodora. Whose hand is Eleanor holding? Is it not Theodora's? What does Theodora see but won't tell Eleanor? I know this lesbian subtext is discussed as an undercurrent in the 1963 movie version, with its images of the two women embracing each other in bed - out of fear, true. But fear of what, exactly? Ghosts? Or something much more... intimate?

Warner Books paperback, 1982

So perhaps the romance is between Eleanor and, chillingly enough, Hill House itself. Journeys end in lovers meeting, she repeats to herself throughout, this timid, mousy young woman seeking a personality. I confess it's been about 15 years since I read Hill House, my memory might be off, and I'm a bit afraid to read this little old paperback I've got because it might not stand up to the strain.

This all reminds me of starting a new job at a used bookstore back in the late '80s, when my boss was showing me how the store was organized. He asked me, "Do you know what Gothic romances are?" I had to admit complete ignorance. What use would a teenage guy have for that? And he described it just the way I have above: a girl in a nightdress beneath a house with one light on upstairs. I think he told me the perhaps apocryphal story of one such Gothic romance title whose cover art had a house with no lights on at all; the book sold miserably. Fans of genre fiction tend to want things their way or no way at all. And there's no mystery about that.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book of the Dead, edited by John Skipp & Craig Spector (1989): How Far Can Too Far Go?

Everybody knows something about the world of the walking dead.

Long, long before this current mania for everything zombie-related, but well after George Romero had made his mark on the modern horror film (that is, practically invented the modern horror film) a bunch of upstart horror writers decided that a world in which the zombies won would be a great setting for horror
short stories. Imagine all of these in one place, an anthology of apocalypse, a collection of cannibalism, a grimoire of gore, even; stories so intensely graphic, relentless, and artistically uncompromising that the tepid, comforting bestselling "horror" novels of Koontz and Saul and Andrews would collectively melt off the shelves next to it. Zombie stories would show us the way, by facing our ugliest fears head-on, to a braver new world. Or so they wished in 1989. Me too.

Editors Skipp & Spector

That's how splatterpunk editors/authors John Skipp and Craig Spector envisioned Book of the Dead, according to their chummy, if self-serving, introduction, "On Going Too Far, or, Flesh-Eating Fiction: New Hope for the Future." They link Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the Kennedy assassination and the Manson murders and Vietnam TV carnage with the emergence of Night of the Living Dead, and they might not be wrong. They're right when they say turning a blind eye to such horrors can never prevent them. I can appreciate their lofty goals and certainly think genre fiction can address important and everyday issues; I also think - as does every other horror fan - that this genre gets no respect. But too many of the stories here go too far in the most adolescent way, in the most obvious and tritest manner possible. Still, others make a solid, lasting impression.

Mark V. Ziesing hardcover 1989

Skipp and Spector wanted social relevance comparable to Dawn of the Dead, but most of the authors went with, What's the grossest thing I can think of? Well, you know how Fulci movies all have eye trauma? Book of the Dead revels in penis trauma. "A Sad Last Love at the Diner of the Damned," by Ed Bryant (otherwise a decent piece), "Home Delivery" by Stephen King (has its moments), "Mess Hall," by Richard Laymon (ugh), and opener short "Blossom" by Chan McConnell (pseudonym of David J. Schow), all feature this charming conceit. Probably more, but those were the handful I just reread after about two decades.

The dead deputy reached down and grasped Bertie's penis, fingers wrapping around the thick base and the scrotum. With one powerful yank, he pulled back and up, the flesh giving way, tearing like rotten fabric. The zombie's arm came up and Bertie's abdomen and stomach opened like someone had jerked the seam on a full Ziploc bag of lasagna.


David J. Schow and Joe R. Lansdale (pictured in 2008): two splatterpunk stalwarts who loom large, and whose tales here use apocalyptic religious imagery to make the (now cliched) believers-as-zombies analogy. Schow goes grosser-than-thou in the inventively, outrageously gross and ironic - a fat kid who eats zombies! - "Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy." His experience as a writer of men's military adventure tales comes in handy in this undead survivalist setting.  Lansdale's overlong but energetic "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folk" (yeesh!) has not just zombies but bounty hunters and cowboys and killer nuns. Yep, Lansdale's beloved hand-to-hand combat is in full effect. Neither story is scary but each goes for broke. These guys were the cult punk-kings of mid-to-late '80s horror, definitely two of my fave-rave writers from the day.


Horror critic, biographer, and editor Douglas E. Winter's contributes "Less Than Zombie," which is of course a parody of Bret Easton Ellis's seminal work of disaffected-to-the-point-of-sociopathy '80s youth, Less Than Zero. Here he gets Ellis's tone just right but with a nice twist. Listen:

Summer. There is nothing much to remember about last summer. Nights at clubs like Darklands, Sleepless, Cloud Zero, The End. Waking up at noon and watching MTV. A white Lamborghini parked in front of Tower Records. A prostitute with a broken arm, waving me over on Santa Monica and asking me if I'd like to have a good time. Lunch with my mother at the Beverly Wilshire. Jane's abortion. Hearing the Legendary Pink Dots on AM radio. And, oh yeah, the thing with the zombies.

Ramsey Campbell deports himself well with a thankfully short and simple tale of door-to-door zombivangelists, "It Helps If You Sing." "Eat Me," Robert McCammon's solid contribution that ends the anthology, wonders sadly how zombies love - and went on to win the 1989 Bram Stoker Award for best short story. The lesser-known writers also deliver the ghoulie goods: Les Daniels ("The Good Parts" indeed!), Philip Nutman, Steve Rasnic Tem, Glen Vasey, Steven R. Boyett. Buy Book of the Dead if you find it cheap but don't pay those collectors' prices for it. Despite any faults, this is an essential '80s/'90s horror anthology.

In a way, Book of the Dead - and its superior 1992 sequel, Still Dead - paved the way for the current appreciation of zombie fiction and movies and all kinds of pop-cultural references. Watching both Zombieland and Land of the Dead and the like got me thinking, Jeez, I've seen this approach before, in the Skipp & Spector collections. But in a way they didn't; I doubt few if any of the folks buying Max Brooks's World War Z or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and/or the DVDs of said films, not to mention comics and video games, have any inkling these books even ever existed. They've been out of print since practically the day were published. The '90s? As Bart Simpson said, I never heard of 'em. But zombies? They're scratching at your windows and doors even now. But it's just the neighbor kids on a zombie walk. Oh well, whatever, never mind.

And all I've got to say about the cover is, oh, look, a big ol' typo: George R. Romero.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Blood of the Impaler by Jeffrey Sackett (1989): Legacy of Brutality

Intended to be a sort of sequel to Bram Stoker's original Dracula, Jeffrey Sackett's Blood of the Impaler is much like its title: stilted, awkward, obvious, and tone-deaf, in dialogue, characterization, plotting, and horror. What became of Sackett I don't know but he apparently wrote four or five historical horror novels that came and went without a trace and are now all out of print. I had never run across one of his books that I can recall back when he was publishing them. Even if I had seen this book, its lack of any critical or author blurbs would've turned me off, I mean, I'm that much of a book nerd. A Google search did turn up this interview with him from, oh my god, 1990.

Malcolm Harker, a twenty-something bartender in Queens, NY, is the great-grandson of Jonathan and Mina Harker. Of course you remember them. He learns his family has Dracula's blood literally in its veins, caused by Dracula forcing Mina to drink his blood in the original Dracula. Which really happened. Except Malcolm thinks it was just a book and those crazy movies. But his grandfather Quincey, son of Jonathan and Mina, has all the letters and documents that Stoker based his classic book on. And only being really super-religious can prevent Dracula's blood - the blood of the Impaler - from taking the Harkers over. But Malcolm feels terrible during the day and loves the nightlife, so after reading said documents, he thinks there might be something to all this nonsense. He decides to hie it on over to England with his friends, bartender-womanizer Jerry and best gal Holly, to track down Lucy Westenra's remains. Fans of the novel will remember her as Mina's best friend and Dracula's victim, a young Englishwoman who would feed on children. Of course they find her remains with a stake through her heart and her head severed. So - get this - Malcolm bleeds on her to bring her back to undead "life" in her crypt, and quizzes her on her master Dracula. Seriously. They learn if they find Dracula's ashes and distribute them outside his native land they can prevent him from ever returning to seek vengeance on the Harkers.

Sackett, a professor of ancient history and languages, knows his Draculean lore, both the real Vlad the Impaler and Stoker's fictional character. He fills in some gaps in Dracula, invents some reasons for this or that vampire factoid, and inserts scenes of Vlad the Impaler's life throughout. Malcolm starts having terrifying visions, historical visions, of Vlad doing what he did best, which of course start to freak him out. Eventually Jerry meets the woman of his nightmares and Holly meets the only woman who can keep her from Malcolm. Sackett makes the all-important shift from Vlad the Impaler to Count Dracula rather clumsily and much too quickly - one page he's sealed his pact with the Devil to become nosferatu and the very next, he's welcoming Jonathan Harker into his castle. Would've liked to have seen some of the in-between, oh, four centuries.

I have to say, I almost gave up on this one: much of the tale plods along and the dialogue is achingly bad; one mark of an amateur writer is how many times characters refer to one another by their names ("Jerry, listen to me: we have to go to England." "Malcolm, you're crazy." "You may be right, Jer, but please!" "All right, Malc, let's go"). Resolving to speed through the final chapters, I then happily found that the novel wraps up everything satisfactorily. It ties together the disparate plot points with elements from Stoker's novel - such as how Dracula survives to the modern day - which causes a crazy final confrontation between the vampire lord and the Harkers that's bloody and gruesome and unholy. But I'm still not crazy about that cover; the artist could've come up with some specific and relevant to the novel's inventive storyline. And those dopey unsubtle fangs. And who's she supposed to be? Lucy Westenra? Holly? One of Dracula's wives? More please. If there's one thing I've learned about vampire stories, it's never, ever stint on the vampire ladies.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti (1985): Fascinating to Observe What the Mirror Does

But stories, even very nasty ones, are traditionally considered more satisfying than reality - which, as we all know, is a grossly overrated affair.

The reclusive Thomas Ligotti writes hermetic, maddeningly quiet and exotically bizarre short stories populated by professors, physicians, poets and painters who slowly but surely find that the universe is fractured, unknowable, and ravenous. His 1985 collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer contains rich, dense stories with titles like "Les Fleurs," "Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes," "Dr. Locrian's Asylum," and "The Chymist," which reveal a baroque and decadent view of reality twisted and askew just so. Speculates the narrator of "The Sect of the Idiot":

To suffer a solitary madness seems the joy of paradise when compared to the extraordinary condition in which one's own madness merely echoes that of the world outside...


Many of Ligotti's protagonists go almost willingly into this madness, to the edge of the world where an endless ribbon of road continues into space by itself, as the drunken children's book author of "Alice's Last Adventure" puts it while she ponders the identity of her most famous storybook character. Ligotti also displays a charmingly creepy self-referential tendency in "Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror" and "Notes on the Writing of Horror." I've always been a sucker for the horror story that is also about horror fiction.

On the one hand, there's the writer who can't face his fate: that the telling of a story has nothing to do with him; on the other hand, there is the one who faces it all too well: that the telling of a story has nothing to do with him.

The cover blurb about shelving this work between Poe and Lovecraft certainly piqued my interest in Ligotti when I found a copy on its first paperback publication (top, Carroll & Graf June 1991). Fellow traveler Ramsey Campbell provides the laudatory introduction: "He belongs to the most honourable tradition in the field, that of subtlety and awesomeness rather than the relentlessly graphic." Ligotti has nothing like Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos but still hints at awesome powers and entities that flit and gibber just beyond the scope of one's perception. And is the "dead dreamer" of the title an oblique reference to the Great Cthulhu itself? According to the cover illustration... uh, well, no.

Ligotti's worldview is one of pessimism and despair, his philosophy born of the perception that what we see as reality is merely a false mask obscuring an unimaginable, even unfathomable truth. He reveals our own distorted reflection, in a foggy mirror, in a glass of Scotch, in the swirling waters of the bath drain, in the cracked lenses of antique spectacles, where we see our aging faces, our corrupt nature, our final doom (It had dozens of legs and looked all backwards and inside out). But then as Professor Nobody says, Horror is more real than we are; and who are we to disagree?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Richard Matheson's Other Classics: 3 Hits from Hell

"The occult" was what publishers called horror before Stephen King. Ursula Andress will massage your temples if you're feeling psychic. And black widow spiders aren't fuzzy.

That is all.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Long Walk by Richard Bachman (1979): Teenage Kicks

Have you looked up how much original paperback editions of Stephen King's pseudonym Richard Bachman are going for? Hundreds of dollars. Unfortunately I don't think my copy of The Long Walk is worth nearly that much; it's a discarded book I grabbed at a sale some time ago from my hometown library. I'm sure it's got to be the same one I read as a teenager in the '80s. It's actually coded inside as YA: Young Adult. Guess that kid in bell-bottoms on the cover makes the book look like it should be shelved with the S.E. Hintons and Robert Cormiers and Paul Zindels.

UK paperback
 
It's a grim and unrelenting short novel set in the near future in which there's an actual "long walk," undertaken by teenage boys deemed the fittest and healthiest. There is no finish line, no half-time, no fouls and no timeouts. Military men in tanks follow them to make sure no one walks slower than 4 mph; anyone who does is shot dead on the spot. The winner literally gets anything, everything, he wants. Like another Bachman book, The Running Man (1982), it posits a terrifying world in which games are played to the death while an enraptured populace looks on. The boys themselves succumb to their physical and mental limitations as well as the psychological tensions that arise between the last few Walkers. Its allegorical nature and ambiguous ending align The Long Walk with such maddening young adult fiction as I Am the Cheese and Lord of the Flies.

I was probably 14 or so when I read it, and it was a disturbing read, totally unlike King's horror novels. Probably not even fair to compare it to King's books because at the time, no one knew Bachman was his pseudonym. Now the book I really want to track down is an original copy of Bachman's Rage (1977), which King has let go completely out of print. Anybody got a spare $200 for an old paperback?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon (1961): Somebody Put Something In My Drink

Usually known as a classic science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon reworked vampire mythology with his short 1961 novel Some of Your Blood. George Smith is not an undead creature of the night but a young American soldier with a blood thirst. Profiled by a military psychiatrist, Sturgeon presents a sympathetic view of his protagonist pretty much at odds with virtually all vampire fiction to date.

This first printing paperback original from Ballantine Books was a pretty good eBay score recently; in like-new condition, reasonably priced, but the spine is a little off which always kinda bugs me--would it kill booksellers on eBay to photograph their books at an angle so you can see the condition of the spines? I can't be the only one who thinks about stuff like that. But how can you not dig that title font, so jaunty and rakish? The impressionistic man and woman at the bottom of the cover? Love that midnight blue as always. Back in the '90s I bought the reprint from Carroll & Graf, which has kind of a spooky cover but is really nothing on the original:

Pretty sure that's always the case. Somewhere though there has to be an exception, don't you think? I can't be the only one who thinks about stuff like that.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons (1978): The Dinner Party Horror

I simply love that glow-in-the-dark X, remember X was a big naughty letter in the '70s, exotic and spooky and enticing all at once: you had The Exorcist phenomenon and the rise of X-rated movies. Why, who knows what goes on in that house neXt door? Wife swapping, demon possession, adultery, Satan worship, stag films, key parties, or, perhaps, someone is wearing white after Labor Day! Serving bottom-shelf liquor at dinner parties! Hanging a velvet print of dogs playing poker in the den! Quelle horreur!

1993 reprint

Indeed, that's just the kind of faux-pas that Anne Rivers Siddons, in The House Next Door, realizes terrifies up-and-coming, well-to-do folk in the New South in the modern age. They don't believe in boogeymen or poltergeists or their ilk, but an untended lawn in the dog days of August, or a family with too many kids' toys on the lawn, or a car in the drive that wasn't traded in this year, those are the types of things that make the neighborhood collectively shudder. Siddons, known today for genteel mainstream fiction, wrote her early bestseller in 1978. Stephen King himself championed it over several in-depth pages in his masterful study of horror Danse Macabre (1981), which is where I first heard of it.

Polite 1995 reprint

I've read this a couple times and really really liked it; I recommend it wholeheartedly. The novel's depiction of the easy, satisfying, slightly liberal social lives of smart young professional couples living in the rather upscale suburbs of Atlanta, is spot-on. But when the house in question, a stylish inviting marvel of modernity (unlike the home depicted on the original paperback), built by an aspiring and likable young bohemian architect, begins to affect its inhabitants at their most vulnerable spots, the game is on. The anxieties of trying to fit into predetermined societal strata, even when one is aware of their total bullshit quality, is relentlessly exploited. Colquitt Kennedy, the attractive Vanderbilt graduate in public relations, narrates the story in her calm, rational and perceptive manner:

We like our lives and our possessions to run smoothly. Chaos, violence, disorder, mindlessness all upset us. They don't frighten us, precisely, because we are aware of them. We watch the news, we are active our own brand of rather liberal politics. We know we have built a shell for ourselves, but we have worked hard for the means to do it; we have chosen it. Surely we have the right to do that.

1990 reprint

And it's Colquitt's, and her husband's, calm perception of what's happening that makes the reality so hard to accept or define. It's horror of the suburban kind, a masterful haunted house tale that's rooted in the most polite behavior, people horrified of giving offense or of having bad taste. Jobs could be lost, marriages broken up, ugly family secrets revealed, tennis partner can turn against tennis partner. But The House Next Door don't really give a fuck about your property values or your oh-so-tidy lives, that's for sure.

Siddons, from back of original hardcover dustjacket

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dark Companions by Ramsey Campbell (1985): Something's Gone Wrong Again

Can't help but love this Tor Horror paperback cover for Dark Companions: creepy kid and creepy clown all in one (thanks to artist Jill Bauman)! Well-known to fans of horror literature but not to readers outside the field, Liverpudlian Ramsey Campbell has been writing award-winning short stories and novels since the 1960s. Starting out with an Arkham House collection of Lovecraft-inspired terrors, The Inhabitant of the Lake, Campbell then moved on to a more mature style, oblique, chilly, precise, and vaguely unsettling. Many tales are set in his native Liverpool, where characters are dissociated from others, caught in a landscape they can't quite grasp, something's amiss, something's just out of joint. Are the ocean's waves calling my name? What flitted through the debris in the abandoned amusement park? Is that a strangled cry in the dial tone? Why does that decrepit storefront look like a fanged mouth? That child in the park, isn't that the murdered one I saw in all the newspapers? Or am I just imagining - no.

Dark Companions collects 21 of Campbell's stories. However, nowhere on the book is there any indication this is a short-story collection; story titles could just be chapter titles, right? Short story collections have always sold more poorly than novels, although it's quite arguable that horror is best as a short, sharp shock. The award-winners are "Mackintosh Willy," "In the Bag," and "The Chimney." Other must-reads: "Napier Court," "The Companion" (which Stephen King praises unreservedly in his Danse Macabre), and "The Pattern." This 1982 UK paperback cover is not quite as lurid as its American counterpart.

I've got a nice handful of classic Campbell paperbacks published by Tor Books, so more are coming: Incarnate, The Nameless, Cold Print, The Doll Who Ate His Mother...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Every body is a book of blood..."

Here you can see a good chunk of the Clive Barker collection I've been making happen since January 1987, when I bought my first Barker book ever, Books of Blood Vol. III. Barker was fortunate to get (eventually) some of the very best covers in the genre, and a handful he did himself (at least in the UK). The framed photo is me meeting Barker at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors convention in NYC, circa 1990. What an enthusiastic, sincere, and charming master of horror. Paperback covers and reviews to come!

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Light at the End by John Skipp & Craig Spector (1986): Midnight Graffiti

Horror writing duo - yes, duo - John Skipp and Craig Spector stormed the horror fiction field in 1986 with this paperback original about vampires in the New York subway system, The Light at the End. "Unique, funky, masterful," states the back cover, always the place to go for truth in advertising, "It's a guitar riff fingered by Satan, bizarre graffiti splashed in blood." Uh, what? This is the kind of novel that wants to impress you with its attitude, casual and swaggering, and it might work if you were a teenager (like me) when you first read it.

But it's still kind of a fast fun read today, even if it tries too hard to be cool with lots of smart-ass, ironic knowing humor, its bike-messenger protagonist and tough cops and gothy streetwise ladies - so, maybe Taxi Driver meets Quicksilver meets The Craft meets Fright Night (woah, S&S wrote the novelization for that)? Yeah, cool. Silvery-red cover with graffiti-style font, but who's that vampire dude think he is? Dean Stockwell?!

Skipp and Spector put out a handful of pretty cool collaborations and edited the essential zombie anthology Book of the Dead in 1989 before splitting up to pursue solo projects. They spear-headed that whole splatterpunk movement which ruled horror for a red-hot minute (the "splat pack"), pissed off the old guard like Robert Bloch and Charles L. Grant, and then disappeared for quite a few years (although I'd swear someone like Chuck Palahnuik owes a debt to it, and definitely Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho). I've still got a fondness for these guys, obviously, so more on 'em is coming, particularly Book of the Dead and its sequel, 1992's Still Dead. Irony-free, I promise.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Sunglasses After Dark by Nancy A. Collins (1989): They're So Sharp

I don't remember a thing about the vampire novel Sunglasses After Dark except that at one point, Jim Morrison comes back as a vampire for a chapter, or something like that, which I thought was pretty cool back in the day. Nancy Collins wrote some sequels to this featuring her character Sonja Blue, a vampire hunter, but I never read them. This was part of the post-Anne Rice generation when authors were reimagining vampires for the modern age. I guess that's better than reimagining them teenage and glittery. These days I'd just as soon put on an old Siouxsie Sioux album and be done with it. I've heard Collins was not too keen on the Underworld movies since they seemed too similar to her Sonja Blue series and sued the producers. But you can't deny the striking artistry (courtesy of Mel Odom) of this cover, which is the sole reason I kept my copy for 20 years in pretty nice condition. I love that the title and author are only on the back cover; later printings added them to the front which is far less effective.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962): Everybody Has a Poison Heart

Shirley Jackson is one of the best "horror" writers ever and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) is one of the best covers ever (thanks to artist William Teason). Something about the midnight blue and the girl's hands, her one staring eye and windswept hair, the kitty-cat ears and the title font (so reminiscent of Rorschach's journal) captivate me. Two young sisters, Merricat and Constance Blackwood, and their ill uncle live alone in an old house after the rest of the family had been poisoned years before. Slowly the real story of what happened to the family is revealed and why the townspeople view the Blackwoods with anger and suspicion. I love these kind of subtle chillers with creepy, maybe even murderous, young women as unreliable narrators.

See the black-and-white art of the current paperback edition with a more literal cover. Again, give me the strange evocative painting from the original paperback. "The Lottery" and The Haunting of Hill House are Jackson's more famous works, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle ranks right up there with them. A must-read!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Silver Scream, edited by David J. Schow (1988): Hooray for Horrorwood

How can any horror paperback fan resist spooky drippy letters scrawled in Crayola-red blood? I'm not really sure what the Chinese dragon shadow has to do with a movie-themed collection of horror stories, though (thanks again to Tor's horror line). Silver Scream is a thick anthology that I read off and on for ages during my later high school years. Honestly, I still have not read everything in it. The authors included were the top of the line of the genre for the day: Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Robert McCammon, Joe R. Lansdale, Karl Edward Wagner, John Skipp, Craig Spector, and noted horror critic and biographer Douglas E. Winter. The editor, David J. Schow (pictured below), was known as the writer who jokingly, perhaps cringingly, coined the term "splatterpunk" a few years earlier in response to the William Gibson/Bruce Sterling/John Shirley-powered "cyberpunk" movement over there on the science fiction shelves.

And the stories contained herein? Mostly terrific. There's the very first Barker short story I ever read, "Son of Celluloid," about a cancerous demon that infests a flea-bitten old cinema and causes poor doomed patrons to hallucinate eyeballs popping out of Norma Jean's nethers; "Night They Missed the Horror Show," a knock-your-dick-in-the-dirt tale of racist hillbilly snuff-film connoisseurs from Lansdale his ownself; Winter's oblique alphabet of gore movies in the always not-so-distant future where censorship reigns, "Splatter: A Cautionary Tale."

Also included are Ray Garton's "Sinema," which is one of my faves of the era, standing up to the hypocrisy of religious mania; "More Sinned Against," from Wagner, a wicked whip-snap of Hollywood comeuppance; then there is Mick Garris, F. Paul Wilson, Robert Bloch, Richard Christian Matheson, and others lesser-known. But all are defiantly horror, passionately written and filled with enough perversity, bodily effluvia, and viscera - as well as dorky attempts at splatterpunky bad-assery - to embarrass the man who was once the boy who loved this stuff, and (usually) still does. Then there's an intro by director Tobe Hooper, and a rambling and overly chummy final end-note, "End-Sticks," from editor Schow. This was pretty standard for the day. I can't imagine what kind of trouble these dudes got up to at the horror conventions back then. If Wagner was around, you can bet it was a raging all-nighter.

Babbage Press reprint

But my favorite story in Silver Scream is Steven R. Boyett's "The Answer Tree." Wow. A skeevy film professor attends the secret showing of a deranged and legendary filmmaker's final movie, a mix of the midnight movies of Jodorowsky with the confrontation of Artaud and the surrealist imagery of Buñuel (who said horror fiction fans were cultural dullards? Or perhaps I'm compensating). In recent years lots of people loved John Carpenter's episode "Cigarette Burns" for Showtime's Masters of Horror, and I liked it too, but it was really already covered by Boyett's story: a film that will drive its viewers to madness and murder and beyond.

The hardcover was first published, also in 1988, by the now-defunct (as far as I can tell) Dark Harvest Publishers, who put out cool hardcover editions of mostly anthologies. But as usual, I prefer my original vintage paperback copy, which went for a cool $3.95 in 1988. That's okay with me. Hooray indeed.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Live Girls by Ray Garton (1987): Leave You with a Lethal Dose

After about 20 years, I recently reread Ray Garton's infamous paperback original from the heyday of splatterpunk, Live Girls (Pocket Books, Jan 1987). And man, is it one delightfully sleazy read that holds up. You got Times Square in all its squalid neon-soaked glory, vampire ladies who haunt strip-club glory holes, even some ravenous creepy-crawlies squirming in the basement of said strip club, and a poor shlub of a regular workaday guy who gets swept up in it all. Can't really blame him, I suppose. I remember reading it as a teenager with my jaw hanging at about the neck of my Ramones t-shirt back in '88 or '89 (was probably wearing the same Ramones shirt this read too).

Garton garnered a bit of reputation as a horror author who pushed boundaries but in a less artful way than, say, Clive Barker. But that's okay with me; Live Girls has energy and spirit and daring to spare.  It was out of print for ages but came back in 2006 (thanks to Leisure Books) due to popular word of mouth, and with this rather more accurate - yet clip-arty - cover imagery:

I prefer the understatement of the original because the reader doesn't really know what's in store, and that's just great. There are sequels and an upcoming movie adaptation, apparently, but one Live Girls is plenty enough; I just don't have that much jam.