The town of Galen seems to have more than its fair share of attractive females. Maybe that's how the trouble started.
What's all this then? Small California town invaded by outside evil. Teenage girls on the ripe cusp of womanhood ravaged and murdered. Young men plagued by dreams - memories? - of ancient evils. Steely-eyed men searching for a truth no one else will face. Superstitious old ladies, helpful doctors who drink too much, incredulous town sheriff... and did I mention young women ravaged? Right. Incubus has all the right ingredients for a '70s pulp-horror novel and dishes them out well poker-faced. I started it late one evening and yes, couldn't put it down. Even better, I was barely expecting such entertainment! Comparable to other '70s Too Much Horror Fiction favorites like The Manitou or The Rats, Incubus is definitely a forgotten high point of the vintage horror fiction era.
Ray Russell (read a good little bio in his obit here) has got horror cred: why, he discovered Charles Beaumont when working as an associate editor for Playboy. He wrote lots of horror and fantasy and screenplays for William Castle and Roger Corman. His most famous tale, "Sardonicus," is a highly regarded modern Gothic story which Stephen King recommended in Danse Macabre. His stint at Playboy in the late '50s into the '70s becomes quite obvious as you read Incubus. Quite wonderfully obvious indeed.
Back to Incubus: In the seaside California town of Galen, young women - not really innocent - are suddenly being raped and killed. Their bodies are left ripped and torn, leading some to think the perpetrator is not wholly human. But what is driving the deranged individual is not power, but procreation. Yep. Enter Julian Trask, well-known esoteric anthropologist who once taught in the town and returns because he has a terrifying theory about the killer...
Russell's book is pure delightful pulp told with tongue nowhere near cheek. You know King would never note his hero's square jaw or steely eyes, the heroine's small but perfect breasts or her high cheekbones, much less her "fleecy down" and his "ebony thicket." Russell loves these kinds of details and I daresay you will too. There are Middle Ages torture interstices that rival anything the later splatterpunks would produce, perverse sexual goings-on that would shame Bataille, de Sade, or Krafft-Ebing. It's oddly in lurid good bad taste, if that makes any sense, and even a thoughtful moment or two turns up as Julian and old Doc Jenkins debate supernaturalism, agnosticism, skepticism, and whatnot. (And I really liked Doc Jenkins; every time after a crisis he suggested everyone join him at his home or his office to discuss the disturbing events over Scotch whiskey).
Considering the debased quality of the story and the many scenes of questionable taste, the Dell cover art for this 1981 paperback (at top) could have been much, much worse, and by that I mean much, much better... although I understand now what's giving that Clairol model the frights. Yikes.
Sometimes I couldn't tell if Russell was satirizing traditional sex roles or, like Playboy thought it was doing in its heyday, embracing them with open fervor and celebrating a healthy lust for, uh, life in both men and women. Was he being sexy or sexist? You decide. Maybe it was just me, but I felt these concerns swirling beneath the sleazy surface. You can take 'em or leave 'em though. Containing all the sensitivity and gender enlightenment of a Spinal Tap album, Incubus is prime '70s horror that never heard of Stephen King.
Here's the awesome John Cassavetes from the 1981 movie adaptation: "I swear to God, there's gonna be a rape tonight."