Friday, July 30, 2010

Firestarter by Stephen King and More: Children in Heat III

More creepy kids and their raging fire fetish! There is the virtually-unknown - let's make that entirely-unknown - William Dobson, with his all-too-aptly titled Child of Hell (1982); then the stalwart Ramsey Campbell with The Influence (1988), another in his long line of paperbacks from the Tor horror line; and perhaps the ultimate novel of a fire child, Stephen King's Firestarter (1980).

Dobson's book seems like a straight ripoff of King's bestseller; I only bought it for its cover (kid with bowl cut, check) and its ad absurdum title. I mean, virtually every single creepy kid book could be called that; it's like titling your horror novel Good Versus Evil or Scary Monster or Do Something Stupid and Die. Ugh.

Campbell's eighth novel has some respectable blurbs on it and seem like it'd be a decent read but I really think I prefer his short stories. Compare this cover to The Nameless or someone else's work of flaming youth, Audrey Rose.

The only of these that I have read is Firestarter, King's sixth published novel. I've always thought of it as a lesser novel of his, though I'm sure it has its fans. The paperback cover art is the same as the hardcover, which I like. King has said that during the late '70s and most of the '80s he was writing books like it, Cujo, Christine, and The Tommyknockers, et. al., while drunk or jacked up on cocaine and therefore doesn't remember actually writing them at all (why, those are the same reasons Drew Barrymore doesn't remember making the movie, haw-haw). I myself recall almost nothing about reading it, so I guess we're even.

UK movie tie-in edition

Michael Whelan's cover for the 1980 limited edition hardcover

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Interview with the Blogger

Joe Monster, of the mighty and fearsome horror blog From Beyond Depraved, was kind enough to include me in his brand-new Demented Dialogues feature, in which he interviews horror bloggers of all kinds. He asked terrific and insightful questions both about my thoughts on horror in general and about my blog in particular. I had a great time talking about some of my favorite stuff in the world. Hope you enjoy it!

Meanwhile, I've got a hot stack of newly-acquired horror paperbacks and am just waiting for the right moment of inspiration to decide which I read next! Why, there's Shirley Jackson, Robert W. Chambers, Poppy Z. Brite, Suzy McKee Charnas, Les Daniels, Ira Levin. I might even settle in with a reread of a King or Lovecraft classic, who knows? See you guys soon.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Floating Dragon by Peter Straub (1982): Bind the Devil a Thousand Years

After reading a couple of thin, unsubstantial, craptastic pulp horror novels, I needed a book written by someone on a friendly professional basis with the written word. And with just a glance at my bookshelves, I knew Peter Straub was my man. Best-known for his 1979 bestselling mainstream horror classic Ghost Story, as well as two collaborations with Stephen King, The Talisman (1984) and its sequel Black House (2001), Straub has been publishing quality literary horror novels since the early 1970s. Floating Dragon is a typical example of Straub's talents and thematic concerns, a long novel filled with ghostly - or perhaps not ghostly - doings, upper middle-class marital strife, vaguely malevolent children, somewhat experimental narrative disjointedness, the disorienting conflation of place and time, and a self-consciously literary narrator, a pedigree that's at once John Cheever and M.R. James.

Set in idyllic seaside Hampstead, Connecticut, in 1980, populated by snooty folks whose roots go back to the bloody battles of the Revolutionary War, Floating Dragon establishes a solid sense of place but it is time that Straub bends and jumbles immediately. Events occur simultaneously in different chapters, future events are revealed like spoilers as asides and in visions, and past events creep up everywhere ("Pasta is prologue," quips one character when being served overdone fettuccine at an unfortunate dinner party). The novel begins with the 1980 murder of Stony Friedgood, a promiscuous housewife who seems to have picked up the wrong man at a local bar.

At the same time, Stony's husband Leo is called to a secret government defense plant to help do damage control on a chemical spill. DRG-16, a new kind of nerve gas, has turned three men into slush as it seeps out of its containment tank and soon becomes very nearly conscious, a malevolence creeping across the land. By the time Leo returns home it is high above Hampstead and already causing death and hallucinations, but his dead wife in their bed is no hallucination; in fact, she was not even killed by DRG; it was another, older, more transcendent evil, one that has returned each generation to this town and is known by many names in men of ugly hungers and strange eyes, men who meet awful fates for their awful deeds: Gideon Winter, Robertson Green, Bates Krell... Many names, but ultimately one: the Dragon.

As many other characters are introduced, we slowly see four that stand out; each of them has a family line that stretches back centuries in Hampstead. Graham Williams, an aged alcoholic novelist who never recovered from being called out by Joe McCarthy, living alone in a book-filled home; Richard Allbee, a former child TV star who's returned to his hometown after years abroad in London; Patsy McCloud, a vibrant woman slowly losing her self-possession to her abusive husband; and young Tabby Smithfield, a 12-year-old boy with an alcoholic father. Williams has done his research on Hampstead and explains that the four of them had ancestors who murdered Gideon Winter. Now more women are being killed and Williams fears that his past confrontation with madman Krell may explain what is going on again now.

As a prose stylist Straub is one of the very finest in horror and his slow and sure reveal of this New England town beset by horrors both real and imagined is masterful and enthralling. The "thinking cloud" isn't necessarily fatal and much creepiness is found in the bizarre behavior suddenly exhibited by the townspeople. He digs deep into the sheer wrongness of what's happening to Hampstead and boy, it's disturbing. His set pieces are magnificent, full of towering and mind-numbing terror and harrowing images of a gleeful and savage inhumanity. Characters react realistically and I believe I felt a palpable sadness and shock when some of them died. The carnage is astonishing in places. Those policemen in the movie theater... the children who drown... the likable young reporter who ventures into Krell's old home... that tidal wave of blood and mangled bodies. And that's barely a scratch on the surface.

(One thing that I did not expect about Floating Dragon was its similarity to Stephen King's 1986 epic horror novel, It. Both have vast, intertwining back-stories, concern the horrible crimes of the past and their effect on people as well as place, and have an evil force that's cyclical in nature against which a disparate group of people with various weaknesses and special powers band. Even the actual horrors that Straub dreams up seem replicated by King in his novel...)

There is so very much to recommend about Floating Dragon that I don't think anyone will be surprised to find out that the climax of this 600-page novel doesn't quite seem worthy of what's gone before. I'm almost to the point where I don't even like reading the ends of some novels because I just know they're going to be a letdown as they rush - or meander - to tie everything up. I didn't dislike the hallucinogenic climactic battle between good and evil but it's certainly not the best thing about the novel; surely its many, many brilliantly done scenes of calamity and woe are that. The horror fan's cup do runneth over. Yep, still and all, Floating Dragon is an absolute must-read.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The First-Ever Billy Loves Stu Meme for Horror Bloggers

From the terrific horror movie blog Billy Loves Stu comes his first horror meme, and who doesn't love a good horror meme, especially on a lazy and sweltering Saturday? Who doesn't love to use the word "meme"? Never thought I'd be thanking Richard Dawkins here!

1. Describe your blog in 10 words or less:

All horror fiction, all the time. As simple as that.

2. During which cinematic era were you born? a) Classic Horror Era (late 1930s-'40s)
b) Atomic Monster/Nuclear Angst Era (late '40s-'50s)
c) Psycho Era (early '60s)
d) Rosemary's Baby Era (mid-late '60s)
e) The Exorcist Era (early-mid '70s)
f) Halloween Era (late '70s-early '80s)
g) Slasher Era (mid-late '80s)
h) Self-Referential/Post-Modern Era ('90s)

It's The Exorcist era for me (b. 1970), although I am a much bigger fan of Rosemary's Baby.

3. The Carrie Compatibility Question: who would you take to the prom: Sue Snell or Chris Hargensen?

Easy-peasy: Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen). That girl's serious trouble.

4. You have been given an ungodly amount of money and total control of a major motion picture studio. What would your dream horror project be?

What else could it be but a truly epic and faithful H.P. Lovecraft adaptation? I'd probably have to try to bring At the Mountains of Madness to the screen.

5. What horror film franchise that others have embraced has left you cold?

I have never been a slasher movie fanboy, so that would be Friday the 13th or Halloween. Just not my thing, although I of course recognize the brilliance of Carpenter's movie.

6. Is Michael Bay the Antichrist?

I couldn't care less about him or his shitty movies and "remakes." Just say no.

7. Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein's Monster: which of these three classic villains scares you and why?

Dracula has an undeniable power the others do not have to literally control you and make you do his bidding.

8. A scene from a non-horror film that scares the crap out of you.

Recently, from Fincher's Zodiac, when the killer comes upon a couple having a picnic, makes them tie one another up, then stabs them. It's so... prosaic and unreal it becomes all too real.

9. Baby Jane Hudson invites you over to her house for lunch. What do you bring?

Why, ratatouille, of course.

10. Between you and me, do you have any ulterior motives for blogging?

To meet chicks, right? No, what you see is what you get. I've had a lot of these books rattling in my head for over 20 years, sitting on my shelves gathering dust, so I decided to share it all.

11. What would you have brought to Rosemary's Woodhouse's baby shower?

As Stephen King noted in Danse Macabre, a custom-made Little League cap, with two little holes for horns.

12. Godzilla vs. the Cloverfield monster: who wins?

This being a horror literature blog, I'd have to say that either Cthulhu or Pennywise would smoke 'em both.

13. If you found out that Rob Zombie was reading your blog, what would you post in hopes that he read it?

I have little interest in either his music or films, really, but he seems like a really cool fan of all things horror so I'd hope he would just leave some good, insightful comments on a book he liked.

14. What is your favorite non-horror film and why?

Well, as far as I'm concerned the greatest American film ever is Taxi Driver, which isn't "horror" but sure is terrifying; so I'd say Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye with Elliott Gould and Sterling Hayden. Chandler updated and re-envisioned for the 1970s, it gets no better.

15. If blogging technology did not exist, what would you be doing?

What I did for more than two decades without it: reading horror fiction and listening to the Misfits, duh! Danzig-era only, of course.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Books of Blood, Vol. 2 by Clive Barker (1984): The Delights of Dread

There is no delight the equal of dread.

So begins the aptly titled "Dread," the lead story in the second volume of Clive Barker's essential six-volume collection, Books of Blood. In a way, it's a mantra for his early novels and tales, a neatly-done epigram that sums up not just his work but the entire horror genre itself. Filled to bursting with woundings and madness, monstrous absurdities of flesh and bone, and the nonsenses of fear, despair, and revulsion, Volume 2 is one of my favorites in Barker's series and contains two of his very greatest stories.

College students and their mad messiah: "Dread" takes a philosophical approach to terror, as strange Quaid posits that fear underlies everything humans are. Nation, family, Church, law. All ash. All useless. All cheats, and chains and suffocation. There was only dread. Don't you know that Quaid, who forces others to face their fears, will have his never-ending moments of dread himself? This is often considered one of Barker's finest moments and has turned up in several best-of horror anthologies. I wholeheartedly concur with this sentiment.

Hell hot on runners' heels, the infernal nether regions come to race, literally so, in the streets of London. In "Hell's Event," Barker imagines, Without the human urge to compete, and to bargain, and to bet, Pandemonium might well have fallen for want of citizens. Don't look behind to see who's gaining on you, runners; remember Lot's wife. Clever boy, Clive Barker.

On the UK paperback seen here, illustrated with Barker's own art, we have the title character of "Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament." Easily one of my favorites of all Barker's fictions, as it is a perfect example of his mastery of economic characterization, copiously inventive bloodletting and bodily injury, and the twining tight of Eros and Thanatos (he said, consulting his thesaurus). Too long beleaguered by the ennui of modern life and the condescension of men who think they know better, Ms. Ess discover she has the power to bend them to her will. And not figuratively. Behold her belittling psychiatrist:

She thought: Be a woman. Simply, as she thought that preposterous idea, it began to take shape. Not a fairy-tale transformation, unfortunately his flesh resisted such magic. She willed his manly chest into making breasts of itself and it began to swell most fetchingly, until the skin split and his sternum flew apart. His pelvis, teased to breaking point, fractured at its center; unbalanced, he toppled over onto his desk, his face yellow with shock.

In the baking Arizona desert, "The Skins of the Fathers." A lone, stranded motorist sees the full riot of what Clive Barker can describe as a procession of monsters cavorts in the shimmering distance, like something out of Bergman's Seventh Seal, one whose head is a cone of exposed teeth, another is three-winged, and two more are married in a union of monstrosities the result of which was more disgusting than its parts. It can only get worse from there, can't it? And finally, an update of Poe in "New Murders in the Rue Morgue." It had come to this; offered a human woman by this naked ape... From love to murder back to love again. The love of an ape for a man. A man, an ape, and a woman. And a happy ending for two of those three.

So remember, upon reading Books of Blood, Volume 2 - or indeed any tome of horror - that there is no delight the equal of dread... as long as it's someone else's.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Midnight Graffiti, edited by Horsting & Van Hise (1992): What Thou Lovest Well

Something new for Too Much Horror Fiction: guest blogger (& girlfriend extraordinaire) Ashley Louise!

I especially love horror in short story form, so I was delighted to find a new collection - and thrilled to find it so gratifying. Midnight Graffiti (Warner Books, Oct 1992) is an engaging anthology from the now-defunct magazine of the same name from the late '80s. It specialized in all kinds of horror and weird fantasy fiction from authors both new and established.

I will give reasonable warning that the biggest difference with this collection from others I have read is the editing. I would prefer to be almost entirely unaware of the editor's existence, and allow their selections to speak for themselves. Unfortunately, Jessica Horsting will not shut up. She opens the anthology with an eight-page introduction, smugly explaining to her readers every obvious, bromidic reason that people are fascinated by horror. Further, Horsting attempts to flatter each author with an introductory bio, but just comes off overly congratulatory and all too chummy. It is painful. I can think of positively no reason for any collection to have twenty-four introductions written by one person. What immediately springs to mind is how much more charming it would have been to ask each of the authors to write their own short bio. Ah well, tant pis.  Irksome editor aside, this is one of the better horror anthologies I have read.

David J. Schow expectedly leaves you green around the gills with "Bad Guy Hats"; J. Michael Straczynski's "Say Hello, Mister Quigley" is simultaneously disturbing and heartwarming; Joe Lansdale's "Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland" is a fun and clever satire, though not at all horror; "Blue on One End, Yellow on the Other" by K.W. Jeter is a heartbreaking insight into mental illness and addiction.  I had heard about Steven R. Boyett's "Emerald City Blues" - shocking! disturbing! Nah, just grown up Wizard of Oz. I found it to be a bit underdone. It did have a great line, jauntily poking fun at military/old man lingo:  Goldilocks was SAC - Strategic Air Command - headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska; ETA was Estimated Time of Arrival. It was fun to think up names to go with important things. Ha.

The celebrity authors contribute varying stories. Stephen King's "Rainy Season" is passable, but classic King filler; Neil Gaiman impresses as always - perhaps more so alongside some of the less experienced authors included in this collection. The mighty Harlan Ellison predictably thrills me with his anecdotes, and Dan Simmons - oh my. His award-winning short story "The River Styx Runs Upstream" is easily one of my favorite short stories, ever. Mother never blinked. At first I didn't notice; but then I began to feel uncomfortable when I saw that she never blinked. But it didn't make me love her any less.


Gil Lamont and R.V. Branham were truly the surprise gems. Lamont's "Sinus Fiction" was evocative of Simmons's 1990 science fiction masterpiece Hyperion - almost difficult to picture in its stark originality. He is an editor, and seems to have written only one book, The Great Mildew Creek Harlot Massacre - erotic fiction, and only a few copies to be found, all for more than $30 US. Huh. Branham's first of two stories in this anthology, "The New Order: 3 Moral Fictions," was remarkable, and I would love to see it expanded into a novel. Sadly, he seems to have written just one book I can find - on cursing in a profusion of languages.

As with any collection, there are the middling stories. Among those I found to be particularly unreadable: "The Domino Man," "Salvation," and most of all, "Rant" by Nancy A. Collins. The final story, "Dark Embrace," comes from (mercifully silent) co-editor James Van Hise and is an adroit, if somewhat predictable, story of a boy who is forced to mature with cruel haste. It provides a fulfilling ending to a diverse and appealing collection.  As horror short story collections go, this one is a stand-out. It has just enough timeless and affecting stories to put it ahead of many other collections. I am pleased to say it is just what I was hoping for - and more. Unfortunately, the cover... meh. Nice stock photo or even Giger ripoff, I guess.

Thanks again to our special guest blogger, Ms. A. Louise. In the meantime, Will Errickson has begun a 600-page horror novel by a real writer so it might be a minute or two before he gets back.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Claw Hammer by Paul Dale Anderson (1989): Got a Bad, Bad Brain

Wish I could recall how I'd heard of Claw Hammer - perhaps on a horror message board, an Amazon review, or maybe even a comment on this blog - but I'd expected a fun, gory, clever little read that I'd overlooked back in the early '90s. Filled with cliche after cliche, peopled with characters who stepped whole and cardboard from any cop show, and written in a style reminiscent of a middle-schooler's hastily-composed essay, Anderson's novel is easily the worst book I've read for Too Much Horror Fiction. There's nothing in it that the author couldn't have gleaned from any cheesy slasher flick of the '80s or "Nightline" serial killer investigation.

The hammer had severed her corpus calloseum and she was unable to coordinate the two halves of her brain. Though she recognized their questions and wanted to answer, that part of her brain which coordinates thought and speech had been irreparably damaged... On numerous occasions she'd tried to tear the flesh from her face with her fingernails, ripping and pulling as though trying to remove a Halloween mask that was glued to her skin. "It's not my face!" she wanted to scream. But the words came out of her mouth as, "How do you do? I'm pleased to meet you."

That's the sole paragraph I thought had any merit whatsoever. I shudder to recount the simple plot, which is chock full of stupid teenagers, ridiculously abusive families, and hilarious descriptions of women's lady parts. Faces get smashed with the titular instrument, bits of teeth choked on, screams die in throats, and vomit dribbles from the mouths of the people unfortunate enough to find the victims' bodies. Deformity, incest, teenage girls in bikinis, religious mania, loner cop on the case, lady pathologist with great boobs: Claw Hammer is a sad and angering example of the worst, most reductive kind of horror fiction; the kind that gives it and its fans a bad name. Anderson utilizes none of what makes the genre great: atmosphere, imagination, suspense, dread, shocking and unexpected violence, and realistic psychological depictions of people in very great danger.

Perhaps you might think I'm being too hard on what is meant to be a throwaway paperback original meant solely to waste a few hours, to give your brain a vacation... but I respect my brain much more than this "writer" does. This was only depressing - I have got to be more careful in choosing my next read! Avoid Claw Hammer at all costs.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Slob by Rex Miller (1987): Killing is His Business...

When I was in high school, a copy of Rex Miller's then brand-new debut novel Slob went around my (very) small circle of horror-fiction-fan friends rapidly and furtively, and was discussed with much glee. Can you believe this? Oh, man, that one scene! Damn, but what about--? I couldn't believe it when--! Now I don't know who first picked up this paperback original but one day it wasn't there and the next it was all we could do to not open it and keep reading during class. Let's see: The Mayor of Casterbridge, or a graphic, unrelentingly ugly pulp horror/crime novel about a rampaging homicidal psychopathic Vietnam vet and the alcoholic and aging cop who's after him?

Daniel Bunkowski is a 400-pound KILLING MACHINE. How do I know this? Because Rex Miller never stops telling you. Even in caps, he's telling you over and over how much Bunkowski, aka CHAINGANG - yes, all caps again - is an enormously obese sociopath who dreams endlessly of the foulest, most bone-crunchiest murder and mayhem. He's nearly superhuman in strength and feels little pain and no empathy nor remorse, an idiot savant (and a real whiz at snapping lengths of chain into the base of people's skulls). Discovered by the government in a maximum-security prison, the titular character is tapped to be a secret assassin in the Vietnam War. Once back in the States he simply kills. And kills. And kills again. Some authorities in that prison wondered if he was, like, the most killingest killer ever.

1990 sequel

Miller writes the sort of muscular yet oddly understated prose that so many crime writers who aspired to be Hemingway or Hammett affected at some point; lots of ands in long sentences that wend in and around human experience, both prosaic and profound. That's what Miller wants to sound like at least; the pages of Slob may be filled with long dense paragraphs but you can skim them because you won't find anything real; only an approximation, a litany of received cultural truths. But the book is fast-moving and gruesome, lots of graphic sex and violence both singly and together, so any weaknesses can be shot past as you try not to peek ahead to see what horrible thing comes next.

Third in series, 1992

Despicably violent, fairly readable, and at the crossroads of that grim world where crime and horror fiction meet, Slob also engendered several sequels all featuring charming Chaingang. However Miller's style and imagination have nothing on the L.A. Quartet of James Ellroy, those utterly bleak and violent and masterful crime novels which have the added bonus of being written by a master of the English language (I've written on The Black Dahlia elsewhere; it truly is more of a horror novel than many that purport to be; maybe I should include it on Too Much Horror Fiction one day). I wonder how Stephen King and Harlan Ellison, whose blurbs are all over this paperback, feel about Slob in 2010. Today I'd really only recommend Slob to completists of 1980s genre fiction.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Auctioneer by Joan Samson (1975): When the Man Comes Around

One of the most compulsively readable books I've come across for Too Much Horror Fiction, Joan Samson's only novel The Auctioneer (Avon, Jan 1977) is a virtually unheard-of work from mid-1970s bestseller-dom, the kind of old paperback you'd overlook at a flea market or used bookstore. The first time I heard of it was literally two or three weeks ago, when I was reading some background on The Other. Someone referred to Samson's book as an undeservedly forgotten, minor classic of quiet, unassuming horror comparable to Thomas Tryon's earlier novel, and that was it; I had to have it. Didn't take me long to find it at all, and even less time to read it. It's worth keeping an eye out for, and plenty of copies are on eBay and Amazon for cheap.

 

Arriving in the New England country town of Harlowe that has changed little in decades, the auctioneer is Perly Dunsmore, a smiling, confident stranger bearing not gifts but the desire to receive them, given gratis by the good people of this farming community. As the crimes of the 20th century start to seep into Harlowe, Dunsmore convinces the town's only policeman that deputies are needed, and in order to gather deputies, there needs to be an auction to raise money, perhaps even enough to procure an ambulance for Harlowe. We see all this through the eyes of the Moores, a proud family who unwittingly start the whole thing off by giving unused items from around their farm to be auctioned off: first some old wheels, then a buffet table, an old sink, unused tools...


But Samson makes an interesting decision by keeping Dunsmore off-stage, as it were, for large portions of the novel, and we hear of his doings through Bob Gore, the policeman, as he relates them to John and Mim Moore and John's invalid mother. And when Dunsmore finally does make an appearance, he is charming, deferential, and polite, when the Moores see him in action doing his auctioneer's spiel. To the city folks who come to the auction he spins a lovely fable of country life, flattering the townspeople for their good Christian virtues as well as the people who wish to capture some of it. But each and every Thursday, Gore and Dunsmore arrive at the Moore farm, as well as everyone else's homes, quietly demanding something for free. The Moores give at first with no thought, for, as Mim says to their four-year-old daughter Hildie, "It's nothin' to do with us. Nothin' at all."

Joan Samson (1937-1976)

Samson, who sadly died of cancer shortly after the publication of this, her only novel, has a way with drawing you into the landscape of the Moores' lives and letting you feel their growing unease and quiet helplessness as the auctions increase. You get the sense it just wouldn't be neighborly to refuse Dunsmore. Who doesn't want to do good for Harlowe, Dunsmore reminds them, even as he seems to cast a spell over many of the right-thinking men in town as he deputizes them. Mim's words are so ironic it becomes more and more painful as the story goes on. This has everything to do with them.

 

Because, of course, after awhile some of those deputies - men the Moores have known all their lives - start showing up for castoff items. And this time they come armed. And they don't take castoff items anymore but property that has meaning and value to the Moores. And those in Harlowe that don't give freely? Certain accidents start being reported. A car crash. A shooting. A missing child. And the accidents always somehow get mentioned when John Moore tells Dunsmore and his deputies that no, this time is the last time, he has nothing left to give. But he does. He realizes he may have more to give than he'd ever thought.

Simply and strongly told, it's the kind of book you don't want to stop reading because there is such a sense of place and time and character and most of all, story. The Auctioneer unfolds slowly, with the tiniest hint of menace, with the seeds of destruction sown in the very first pages. Even with its unobtrusive sociopolitical allegory - which I can take or leave - this is a mainstream thriller that actually thrills, while touching on the brutal and uncomfortable fact that some victims give themselves piece by piece, bit by bit, to their tormentors, all the while refusing to see their complicity in their own inevitable doom.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Toplin by Michael McDowell (1985): The World's Forgotten Boy

Toplin fits very few subcategories of horror fiction, and upon finishing I'm not entirely sure the word "Horror" on its spine is deserved; it's unsettling in places but not scary. But then I'm not sure what genre would be appropriate. Author Michael McDowell wrote many paperback horror originals (as well screenplays for Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas) dealing with family curses and historical haunts, but Toplin seems unlike anything else in his oeuvre. Originally published a limited-edition hardcover by horror specialty publisher Scream/Press in 1985, it saw print again in paperback (seen above) in August 1991 thanks to Dell's Abyss imprint. The Abyss line of experimental and challenging horror fiction (see Kathe Koja's The Cipher) was a perfect home for this surreal first-person novel of a near-anonymous man living in a horrifying world that he perceives as strangely as if he were an alien on earth.

With his obsessive, disaffected detailing of the geometry of place and thought, of numbering and organization, Toplin himself seems like a character out of J.G. Ballard's magnificent experimental "novel" from 1970, The Atrocity Exhibition. The symbolic nature of the corridors in his apartment seems just out of reach - a man with a mind such as this is probably adding up the degrees of corners and planes in his home to arrive at the date of the Apocalypse, or the day he will assassinate the President. In Toplin's case, he will instigate the death, and therefore freedom, of Marta, a horribly deformed waitress at his local greasy-spoon diner to give his life meaning.

The disfigurements of her birth were compounded with the ravages of disease. I saw them in her face. Her mouth was a running sore. Her bulging eyes were of difference colors. Her ears were slabs of flesh pillaged from anonymous victims of accidents. her nose was a bulging membrane filled with ancient purulence... beneath her uniform I sensed - I smelled- ever greater deformities. Her uniform, stained to a filmy translucence by God knew what manner of excretions, showed the irregularities of her skin beneath.

Scream/Press 1985 hardcover

The motley cast of dingy, repellent, enigmatic characters is practically out of "Desolation Row," and McDowell intimates that they all might be either figments of Toplin's imagination or symbols for various aspects of it. Random street people run into the diner and harangue customers about pornography and government corruption. His coworkers seem to exist only to play a deadly practical joke on him that leaves him color-blind, but it's a situation into which Toplin could have gotten himself into. He consciously attempts to befriend Howard, a young deliveryman Toplin sees every day at work.

He must see the interiors of so many offices and many flats. In the doorway of how many livings rooms has Howard stood... into how many lives has Howard entered, albeit in the most peripheral fashion? Has he been affected by this experience with the apartments and offices of total strangers?

Howard's grandfather seems to be an insane old scholar, now locked in a room in the home they share. The nighttime streets are prowled by an ultimately violent street gang called Tempis Fugit. Marta's maintenance man is a hermaphrodite - or is he simply Howard in disguise? And you don't even want to know who Toplin has regular consensual sex with. Everything in Toplin is askew, deranged, crumbling, so much deformity beneath one roof he muses at one point. His occasional rants about effeminate men bring on the usual suspicion. He's paranoid, unreliable, solipsistic, monomaniacal - you know, quite mad.

This works in places, but reading Toplin in fits and starts breaks its spell; once I was reading 50 pages at a time its ghastly psychopathology was able to seep into my head... some. It only really captured me here and there and the ending was about as obscure as I'd anticipated. McDowell (pictured above) is a fine writer and I'm looking forward to reading his more traditional early '80s horror novels such as Cold Moon over Babylon and The Elementals, but I feel that Toplin is a bit underdone, maybe too abstruse for its own good. The paperback publisher has blown up the print so the book is 277 pages long; in its original hardcover it is 186 pages. The solarized illustrations in the middle of the book, by Harry O. Morris, a holdover from the hardcover, are a little too on-the-nose to be truly disturbing but are still creepy. And then again, how much time do you want to spend in the head of someone who thinks the slime built up in my testicles, and I made no effort to release it. I felt its slow poison seeping through my body?