Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker (1989): Waiting for the End of the World

A British edition of the 1990 paperback of The Great and Secret Show, the first novel in Clive Barker's long-planned magnum opus trilogy called "The Art." It concerns, as Barker was fond of saying at the time, his three obsessions: "sex, Hollywood, and the end of the world," and features one of the more astonishing creations in his fiction: the vast "dream-sea" of Quiddity, which is pretty much a literalized Jungian collective unconscious. Heady stuff for a horror novel.

Presidents, messiahs, shamans, popes, saints and lunatics had attempted - over the passage of a millennium - to buy, murder, drug and flagellate themselves into Quiddity. Almost to a one, they'd failed. The dream-sea had been more or less preserved, its existence an exquisite rumor...

1990 HarperCollins paperback

Only two volumes have been published; the (excellent) sequel, Everville, was released in 1994. Barker unfailingly has insisted in the 15 years since that he's still planning on the final piece, but who knows? Barker has always insisted the project he was asked about was right around the corner, nearly finished. Hell, I remember him in 1991 talking about how he was directing the remake of The Mummy. The Mummy!

1999 Harper reprint

What I love about this UK cover is that each element is actually in the book. This is not always the case with cover art, as I'm sure everyone knows. I love the tiny embroidered details, in the same design as the UK edition of Weaveworld. Again, it's obvious the artist (unknown) read the entire book, from beginning to end, and didn't simply come up with one lame image to identify it. Compare it with the US cover, both paperback and hardcover: a mailbox. Because the first few pages take place in a post office. There you go. Guess that's as far as the artist read!

This hardcover UK first edition is actually my favorite horror fiction cover art ever; when I first saw it I thought it was some kind of fancy illustrated limited-edition version. It's not. It's the first edition UK hardcover, that's all. It's beautiful all the way round. I love its sickly yet elegant greenish hue. Guess I could live without the Groucho Marx there, though. Still.

2009 UK reprint

Now I haven't read Great and Secret Show since its original publication but I recall it fondly, and I loved Everville as well. Once I started reading scholarly mythologists Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade a little while later, I loved the books even more and could easily see from where Barker drew inspiration. Rich in transformative moments and transcendent visions, in themes eternal and ephemera most profound, the first two volumes of The Art have set a very high standard for that long-proposed third. We await the dream-sea, Mr. Barker!

Here's an impossibly young-looking Barker taking his trade to the housewives of the land on Good Morning America in 1990.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Night Shift by Stephen King (1978): Take My Hand As the Sun Descends

I don't know if there's a collection of horror stories that I recall as fondly as Stephen King's Night Shift, which brought together many of his early '70s works originally published in men's magazines like Cavalier, Penthouse, and Gallery. How many school nights did I stay up late as a teenager, engrossed and amazed by these perfectly composed tales? How many times did I attempt my own versions, getting maybe six paragraphs in before realizing I might be a better fiction reader than fiction writer?

I have no idea what happened to the paperback copy that I had back then; I just found this one (at top), the same printing, same cover, and realized I wanted to write on such an influential book. After a laudatory welcome by crime writer John D. MacDonald, King's introductory essay set the stage for his later Danse Macabre, an informal look at horror literature, what it is, what it does, why it works and why we love it in a world that holds enough real-life horrors on its own.

I can hear my wife as I write this, in the next room, crying. She thinks I was with another woman last night.

And oh dear God, I think so too.


Those are the final lines of "Strawberry Spring," lines I only recently reread, and rereading them caused the hair on my arms to stand up: I realized they'd been rattling around in my head and haunting me for over two decades; in their cadence and finality, in their sad and terrifying irony, the revelation and bitter acceptance of madness and murder. Horror writers work hard to get that last line just right, to get that tone, to save up through the whole story so they can sucker-punch you at the end. But it's not really a sucker-punch, though, is it? We know it's coming, we want it, we're reading the story - if not the entire genre - for that.

Writers like Charles Beaumont, Frederic Brown, and Gerald Kersh, though largely forgotten today, specialized in these kinds of short stories; crafted brief gems of suspense, weirdness, and outright horror. They're good models to have and King has often sang their praises. "Jerusalem's Lot" is a terrific riff on Lovecraft's "Rats in the Walls," set in the 1850s and told in epistolary form. "I Am the Doorway" is science-fiction horror with another one of those precise and chilling final lines, and provides the paperback's striking cover image (none of the many reprints of Night Shift through the '80s, '90s, and today can match it). "One for the Road" - now there's a phrase you don't hear anymore - takes place in 'Salem's Lot, the doomed town of King's second novel.

Then you've got your vengeful "Quitters, Inc." and "Sometimes They Come Back," morality tales that bring back memories of Twilight Zone but are a bit uglier. Suspense-filled ones like "The Ledge" and "Battleground" could have been on the old Hitchcock show, while "The Mangler," "Gray Matter," "The Boogeyman," and "Graveyard Shift" are straight horror, pulpy and ridiculous but with that sense of the quotidian that King excels in which grounds them; the Wicker Man-esque "Children of the Corn" was the basis for the inexplicably popular horror movies, while "Trucks" served for the best-forgotten Maximum Overdrive. "Strawberry Spring," probably my favorite, takes place on a Northeastern university campus that is terrorized by the murders of several of its co-eds (ah, the '70s!). Not supernatural in the least, it still manages to unnerve the reader in its depictions of regular people trying to live regular lives while a monster is in their midst - prime King, of course; prime, and untouchable.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Drive In (1988) and The Drive In 2 (1989) by Joe R. Lansdale: At the Late Night Double Feature Picture Show

"I would rather die as part of a movie than live as part of the normal world."

A genre unto his ownself, Texas-born-and-bred Joe R. Lansdale is the author of crime novels that up the ante for violence and cruelty, horror novels and stories that mine the blackest vein of humor and perversity, Westerns turned inside out as well as award-winning mainstream fiction. And The Drive In and The Drive In 2 are a bewilderingly weird combination of all of the above. I think if Joe Bob Briggs wrote novels this is how they would turn out: gory, grim, gleefully outrageous, and obsessed with bad movies, written in a down-home, vulgar, smart-alecky drawl: Had I been Jesus Christ, I'd have come back from the dead, made myself big as the universe, gotten the world between two bricks, and whammo, shit jelly.

I was lucky enough to discover them in 1991 after reading Lansdale's debut novel, The Nightrunners. The two books are sadly out-of-print in their wonderfully colorful Bantam Spectra "science fiction" editions (which I found in mint condition in a comic book store ages ago), but are back in print in a new collection that also includes a third volume, which is brand-new and I have not read.

A meteor unlike any ever seen (The comet smiled. Split down the middle to show us a mouthful of jagged saw-blade teeth) swoops down and then disappears over The Orbit, an enormous six-screen drive-in move theater specializing in horror and exploitation movies on Friday nights in a small East Texas town. In its wake it leaves The Orbit seemingly hanging in outer space, an island adrift in an utter blackness that fries anyone who tries to touch it into a vomitous goop. What follows is an outrageous horrorshow in which the movies that play over and over (Texas Chainsaw, Evil Dead, Night of the Living Dead, etc.) on the enormous screens cannot hold a candle to the horror the characters are now trapped in. It's a bit like Stephen King's "The Mist" except not quite as dreary but still as existentially, well, fucked. People start to get a little crazy - which, in a Lansdale novel, means a lot crazy.

Horrible cover from Carroll & Graf, 1997, but at least they brought it back in print awhile

Lansdale scores some easy points with his narrator's attempts to find meaning in a universe that would let something like this happen ("Give me something to blame this on. A random universe with no god, evil or otherwise, is just too much for me"), but hey, Jack is only 18 and two of his buddies have been struck by strange lightning and fused into the Popcorn King, an insane demi-god that promises salvation to those who'll worship him. But once Jack decides it's tentacled aliens shooting their own movie, his much more level-headed friend Bob tells him, "Always got to have something to believe in, don't you, Jack? Astrology, Christianity, now B-movie gods." Bob and Jack figure out a way to escape The Orbit, but end up crucified for their pains.
Picking up right at the end of the first book, The Drive In 2: Not Just One of them Sequels introduces dinosaurs on the loose, carnivorous film stock, and a young woman who, adept at martial arts (like Lansdale himself), survives The Orbit apocalypse but meets up with Popalong Cassidy, a monstrous dude that maybe could have stepped whole and breathing from Videodrome. Now the world seems to be on a soundstage existing for the pleasure of alien filmmakers. Really. Truly.

I don't know if I'd recommend reading these two back-to-back, for as much as Lansdale can be ridiculous and satirical with his characters trapped in a cartoony, absurdist nightmare, he doesn't shy away from the uglier, more realistic depictions of people pushed to extremes. It got kinda overwhelming actually. Still, The Drive In and The Drive In 2 really are unique in the annals of horror fiction; a two-shot bizarro sci-fi/pulp horror/apocalyptic-comic paean to trash culture in a world that's probably forgotten what "double feature" even means.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Crucifax by Ray Garton (1988): Little Angelfuck

A luridly sensual cover for a book that took me some time to track down in good condition; I couldn't even find a cover image online of Ray Garton's Crucifax. It was somewhat notorious in its day not for what was there, but for what wasn't: a chapter describing in graphic detail an extremely monstrous and bizarre abortion. Originally published in 1988 by small press publisher Dark Harvest in hardcover under the title Crucifax Autumn, the paperback publishers, Pocket Books, got nervous at such a depiction and edited it from this June 1988 edition. However, this censored chapter was widely published in 1990 in Paul Sammon's anthology Splatterpunks.

Dark Harvest hardcover, 1988

Crucifax concerns an underground Pied Piper/Manson-esque figure haunting the streets of the San Fernando Valley looking for disaffected teens. And lord, there's plenty; one even has raw, forbidden dreams about his pretty young sister as the back cover so charmingly puts it. Garton, as I've mentioned before, published paperback originals with copious amounts of sex and violence but had a bit of a social conscience too, so you didn't entirely feel like taking a shower after reading one of his books.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dark Gods (1985) and The Ceremonies (1984) by T.E.D. Klein: Children of an Elder God

The sadly non-prolific T.E.D. Klein published his only novel, The Ceremonies, in 1984. 1984! His second book, a year later, the collection Dark Gods, is comprised of novellas written the decade prior. He was, however, editor of Twilight Zone magazine, which published well-respected short horror stories until its demise in 1989. Although all of his fiction is set in the modern era, its care and subtlety hearken back to late 19th/early 20th century masters like M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Sheridan Le Fanu, Lovecraft, etc. Modern purveyors of this style work in what has been dubbed "quiet horror." Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, Charles L. Grant and Dennis Etchison are all familiar names in this sub-genre. These writers pride themselves on creating moods and atmospheres, a sense of awe, mystery, providing chilling intimations of fear and dread rather than, as Stephen King once put it, "going for the gross-out."

I quite like the Bantam cover of Dark Gods at top: out of a vast stormy sky an inchoate face, raging, fanged, demonic, a living darkness threatening a solitary house, even if most of the settings here are urban. The covers are larded with the kinds of blurbs from reviews any young writer would kill for. The first novella, "Children of the Kingdom" (originally published in the game-changing anthology Dark Forces in 1980), takes place in the midst of the infamous New York City blackout of summer 1977 at an old folks' home where the narrator's grandfather lives. Slowly and surely Klein builds the atmosphere, dropping hints and clues throughout, mixing vague supernatural dread with real-life threats caused by the blackout. The sewers of New York, it turns out, harbor more than just baby alligators, and roving gangs might not be from the next block over.

"Black Man with a Horn" (1980), one of Klein's most lauded stories, has as its narrator an old horror fiction writer who once knew Lovecraft himself. After a chance meeting with a nervous missionary returning from Malaysia on an international flight, the narrator learns the true meaning of a horrific bogeyman from ancient myth - myth he thought was made up entire by Lovecraft and his fellow circle of Weird Tales writers. Bookish and self-referential, "Black Man with a Horn" is similar to the works of Thomas Ligotti; it is both a sly, ironic meditation on the art of horror as well as a creepy, satisfying story on its own. "Petey" and "Nadelman's God" are the two other quite good novellas included, both worth reading; virtually all are whispery and mythic, tinged with nightmarish imagery, and even touch on tensions between urban and rural, upper class and lower, age and memory. Nicely done, Mr. Klein.

But I was little taken with The Ceremonies; all I can recall of it two years later is the sense of disappointment I felt while reading it. It is based on his acclaimed novella "Events at Poroth Farm" (1972), which, sadly, is not included in Dark Gods (it can be found in Year's Best Horror: Series II). That's one of the problems I had with The Ceremonies - it absolutely felt like an expanded short story, overstuffed and at times, simply boring. Another bookish narrator, a college professor who repairs to a farm in rural New Jersey to read Gothic literature to prepare for his upcoming class. But the countryside proves less restful than imagined. Of course it does! Perhaps my taste runs more towards bloodier, more intense horror than I think it does; maybe Klein's reputation has been magnified by his virtual disappearance from writing in the intervening 25 years.

Klein's work is not difficult to find despite having been out of print for years; copies abound on Amazon and eBay as well as in good used bookstores. While opinions may vary on The Ceremonies, I have to say that Dark Gods (perhaps) proves the genre functions best in the short story or novella format; it's an important piece of horror fiction, one that respectfully earns its place upon the shelf next to its mighty elders.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Audrey Rose by Frank De Felitta (1975): Children in Heat II

I have never had any interest in reading Audrey Rose, one of the quintessential bestselling horror novels of the mid-1970s. When I worked in a used bookstore in the late '80s it seemed everybody wanted to trade in their busted-ass copy; we had dozens of them (along with other '70s moldy-oldies Jaws, The Flame and the Flower, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Love Story - that last title many Americans' sole enriching literary experience of the decade, Harlan Ellison once said). "A novel of reincarnation" makes it sound more like "housewife horror" to me than anything cool, bloody, or really fucked up. I was probably inclined to think so by Stephen King, who wrote in Danse Macabre (1981):

Most of them [horror novels] are just downright bad, and I have no taste for the job of beating the field's most spectacular violators with their shortcomings. If you want to read John Saul and Frank De Felitta, go right ahead. It's your three-fifty.

Three-fifty?! Ha. To this day I have no idea who author Frank De Felitta is or what happened to him. I certainly don't think of him as a forgotten horror novelist awaiting rediscovery. Sorry, Frank. Blame Stephen King. Blame the decidedly mediocre film version. But little girls on fire--! Man, after The Exorcist, everybody must've hated 'em. I cannot deny the creepy, malevolent, and unsettling image of Audrey Rose herself on the cover of the book, which I'm sure many folks my age remember sitting on their mom's nightstand or taking up the racks at the grocery store. I know I do. And that makes for some good vintage horror cover art.

1982 sequel

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Weaveworld by Clive Barker (1987): The Uses of Enchantment

Only his second novel, Weaveworld shows Clive Barker already stretching as a writer of visionary horror fiction. At an epic 700 pages, it is an ambitious, genre-straddling work, evoking William Blake, Lewis Carroll, Jorge Luis Borges, and other fantasists and magic realists rather than the outright horror of Books of Blood and his first novel The Damnation Game (1985). Later titles like The Great and Secret Show (1989) and Imajica (1991) would find Barker continuing in this particular blend of fantastical worlds filled with both guttural horror and transcendent beauty - as well as splendidly perverse eroticism.

True to its title, there is a world woven into a carpet, a carpet which comes into the hands of Cal Mooney, an ordinary young man whose life in Liverpool seems to drift aimlessly. Called the Fugue, this world is inhabited by a race of mythical people known as Seerkind who through history had been viciously hunted by man (Cuckoos to the Seerkind), but have spirited themselves into this carpet to escape persecution. The human guardian of the Weave has fallen ill while several evil forces, led by exiled Seerkind sorceress Immacolata, attempt to destroy it.

Every inch of the carpet was worked with motifs. Even the border brimmed with designs, each subtly different from its neighbor. The effect was not overbusy; every detail was clear to Cal's feasting eyes. In one place a dozen motifs congregated as if band together; in another, they stood apart like rival siblings. Some kept their station along the border, others spilled into the main field, as if eager to join the teeming throng there... its colors as various as a summer garden, into which a hundred subtle geometries had been cunningly woven, so that the eye could read each pattern as flower or theorem, order or turmoil, and find each choice echoed somewhere in the grand design.

Pocket Books Oct 1987

This first edition of the US paperback has some pretty ridiculous cover art. There are a couple recognizable characters but on the whole I prefer the UK edition at the top, which clearly, and cleverly, incorporates specific images, people, places, and events from the novel into a carpet-like design. More cover artwork from around the world can be found here.

Inside Pocket Books '87 edition - art by Jim Warren

Barker has always spoken of the "subversive" qualities of the imagination, of its ability to save us from banality and a stifling status quo, and that's precisely what happens to Mooney once he's swept up into adventure. Weaveworld may not be Barker's best work - in his introduction to the 2001 edition he writes he was "on occasion irritated that [the book] found such favor among readers when other stories seemed more worthy" - but I certainly have enjoyed reading it several times over the years. And as a prose stylist Barker is unmatched; it's simply a pleasure to read his writing in a way not usually common in the genre.

Ahead there were such sights unfolding: friends and places they'd feared gone forever coming to greet them, eager for shared rapture. There was time for all their miracles now. For ghosts and transformations; for passion and ambiguity; for noon-day visions and midnight glory...

There is more than a touch of sentimentality, but Weaveworld is a good recommendation for people who don't enjoy straight-up horror novels. "That which is imagined need never be lost," Barker writes, intimately understanding the value of imaginary fiction and storytelling. People are enchanted by the myths and fairy tales woven into our cultural subconscious over the ages, and the most useful of all are not those that allow us to escape our nature, but the ones that dare to confront it directly; Weaveworld is one of those indeed.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker (1911): She's Lost Control

It's no wonder a Victorian author created the most famous horror villain of all time. With their society carefully constructed to hide every impolite aspect of life - and, let's face it, all life is pretty rude, insisting on its own way all the time - Victorian ladies and gentlemen had to suppress every natural instinct there is. Urges, ideas, fantasies, nightmares festered beneath corset and cummerbund alike, and burst forth in a glut of blood and other bodily fluids in Dracula. While Bram Stoker's 1897 novel became world famous, his other writings sank into obscurity, but Lair of the White Worm, his final work, seethes with the same sort of repressed fury at the indignity of life itself.

Tut-tut, I say, tut-tut!

Three cultivated men of the upper classes have to deal with a hateful estate owner, Edgar Caswell, who seems to literally mesmerize the pretty innocent young women of the town. The men are also busy being outraged by a mysterious, sinuous aristocratic, Lady Arabella March, who slinks about haughtily. Don't even get them started on the estate owner's black African servant. So there's this whole thing about ancient Roman pagans on British soil, and snake worship, and worms not being worms but serpents or dragons from time immemorial. Lady March is undeniable, cool, sensuous, and incalculable, with "diabolical cunning," and so an affront to Victorian decency - of course a modern heroine.

You can see how the book was co-opted by the Gothic romance fad in the 1960s (at top, Paperback Library 1966): retitled, one light on in the castle, subtle hint of predatory lesbianism, and a gorgeously rendered "garden of evil." The 1970s Zebra edition is more prosaic and features "Dracula" in much larger print that title or author, and a woman in a really unflattering nightgown and feathered hair. Oddly, the Zebra version rewrites some of the prose, switching from passive to active voice in a handful of passages, even the very first sentence! Pulpy, overdone, sexist, classist, and racist to the extreme, Lair of the White Worm presents the night-side of a morality intent on insisting, with utmost hypocrisy, it's the very purest ray of light in a world gone to the savages. Kind of a fun read, though.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Fury by John Farris (1976): Signifying Nothing

While this is certainly a 1970s classic of bestseller horror novels, with its cover blurb invoking past successes, The Fury is precisely the kind of book I have little interest in: psychic children, psychokinesis, mindreading, corrupt government scientists and shadowy multinational organizations, all that jazz. Didn't even make it 100 pages; while John Farris is quite a good writer, even a notch or two above Stephen King's contemporaneous work, I've no patience with pseudoscience when used as a plot device in horror novels. Creepy kids for sure, terrific illustration, cheesy and surreal at once. Are the kids "sexy, violent, psychic, sadistic"? Or is the blurb describing the book? Can a book be psychic? Is it reading my mind? Does it know I'm bored to tears? And lookit them Buster Browns - a sure sign that's the '70s!

I liked his next novel, All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By; I read that a long time ago, and I plan to write it up here upon a rereading. If anybody's read The Fury and can recommend it, I might have another go. I simply have plenty of other horror to read!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2, edited by John Skipp & Craig Spector (1992): Everything that Dies Someday Comes Back

What distinguishes Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2 from its 1989 predecessor? Easy: better stories, better writers, more gore, weirder gore, surreal gore, and women. It really is that simple. In the three years that separate the two John Skipp and Craig Spector-edited zombie-thologies, in which every story is contained within the George Romero universe of zombie hell, several female horror writers had published well-received shorts and debut novels. Kathe Koja, Nancy A. Collins, Elizabeth Massie, Roberta Lannes, and perhaps most well-known of all, Poppy Z. Brite, are all accounted for in Still Dead, and it makes all the difference. Their stories here are original, inventive, risky, and astonishingly well-written. Nobody's trying to self-consciously out-gross anyone else, or prove how splatterpunk they are, or show how flip and casual they can be about brain-eating, dead children, and evisceration. Thank zombie Jebus for that.

Mark V. Ziesing hardcover, 1992

To wit: Massie gets down-home with graphic zombie sex in "Abed," and Collins brings the goth-punk kids to the show in "Necrophile." Koja's "Prince of Nox" imagines the other side: her protagonist becomes a zombie who, sadly, still maintains some semblance of sentience and goes on a quest to rescue his damned brethren. Nancy Holder presents a liberal zombie-theology in "Passion Play," in which an old German town wants to use a zombie as Christ in its traditional performance so it can be truly and literally crucified. Nice little Easter-appropriate twist at the end, too.

The lead-off story, "The Old Man and the Dead" from Mort Castle, by whom I've never read anything else, is one of my favorites in modern horror. Prefiguring the current bestselling craze of melding zombies with classic literature, Castle imagines a man - quite obviously Ernest Hemingway if you paid attention in your first-year literature class - who encounters in Spain the horror not of World War I, but of the walking dead.

"I don't think I like this," Adam Nichols said. "I don't think I like it at all."
"I am sorry, but what you like and what you dislike is not all that important, if you will forgive me for saying so," Miguel said. "What does matter is that you are a good shot. You are one of our best shots. So, if you please, shoot some of these unfortunate dead people."

Love. It. Douglas E. Winter returns with another grim parody of (then-) contemporary hip-lit, "Bright Lights, Big Zombie" (You are not the kind of zombie who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning), and Dan Simmons, a schoolteacher before becoming a full-time writer, takes "This Year's Class Picture" to autobiographical heights (or depths). The surreal gore turns up in Brooks Carruthers' "Moon Towers," to which I still remember the climax 20 years later; famed cartoonist Gahan Wilson has "Come One, Come All," a sort of Bradbury/Sweeney Todd mash-up, and Skipp and Spector themselves present an odd poem, "The Ones You Love."

But really this tome is owned by "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves," Poppy Z. Brite's darkly poetic rumination on the nature of zombiedom and a strangely beautiful city besieged by filth and decay both natural and not. There's no real plot, just a decadent, luxurious, and deliciously gross sensibility:

The dead like pussy too. If they are able to catch a woman and disable her enough so that she cannot resist, you will see the lucky ones burrowing in between her legs as happily as the most avid lover. They do not have to come up for air. I have seen them eat all the way up into the body cavity. The internal female organs seem to be a great delicacy, and why not? They are the caviar of the human body. It is a sobering thing to come across a woman sprawled in the gutter with her intestines sliding from the shredded ruins of her womb, but you do not react. You do not distract the dead from their repast.

It's this sort of acceptance of horror and death that makes the tales of Still Dead believable, makes them linger, makes them sting; despite their visions of the human body in extremis, these stories are still about people, about men and women who matter-of-factly witness the worst the world has to offer, and continue on. It's not just the the dead who come back; it's living people too.

But I'm still not crazy about this cover, either.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Nameless by Ramsey Campbell (1981): Children in Heat

Now this is a classic cover for vintage horror fiction! Once the creepy-kid aesthetic (or is that cliche?) was set in stone with books and movies like The Bad Seed, Children of the Damned, The Exorcist, and Audrey Rose, it would be a long time before publishers could give it up. The image on this 1985 Tor reprint of Ramsey Campbell's 1981 novel The Nameless is perfectly precise: gaudy, tasteless, macabre. Little girl in her Sunday best! On fire! Staring at you menacingly like she doesn't even care about the flames! Fuck you, mom! I hate you, dad!

1985 UK reprint

Honestly I was pretty underwhelmed by The Nameless when I read it about two years ago. A young girl goes missing, presumed murdered, and her mother grieves until mysterious clues start turning up that the girl might still be alive... somewhere, and is at the mercy of a perhaps mythical, murderous cult (ooh, the best kind!). It's not a bad storyline, but the novel is overly quiet and too understated. While that style works very well in Campbell's short stories, spread out over 300 pages it loses its power. I know this sounds terrible, but as a horror fan, the cult needed to be even more horrible! As I recall, the climax is quite muted and happens pretty much in the last two pages. The book doesn't have nearly the intensity that either of the paperback covers above suggests, and this original, tamer hardcover art below is much more accurate.

The Nameless was made into a similarly just-okay Spanish film in 1999, Los sin nombre. I'm working on tracking down more titles in this creepy-kid subgenre, particularly the classics, or "classics," mentioned above.