I have no idea what makes "dew claws" scary but this cover is simply nothing but awesome; it must be one of the "greatest" paperback covers of the '80s horror fiction era. It's gotta be, right? Zebra Books really outdid themselves for Mr. Gresham. So many things to unpack: Is the banjo a Deliverance reference? What's up with the baseball cap? "Withered black talons"? Non. And I can't believe that skeleton's phalanges bled all over his banjo head, so it has to be someone else's. Creepy. Found a couple decent reviews of the novel on Amazon and such; anybody read this can give us a little insight?
Although it may be Stephen King's most famous horror novel and certainly the one that made him a household name, I must confess that for many years, The Shining was not a novel I really liked. It was never a book that I revisited as I did with many of King's other works, although I knew its reputation was stellar. About five years ago I skimmed through a copy and was even more disheartened as it seemed to me - yes, it's true - poorly written and conceived. Well, I don't know what the hell I was smoking: I picked up my recently-acquired Signet '78 first-edition paperback (only edition with that fantastic, yet easily faded, Mylar cover) on Friday morning, ready to give it another try and... could barely put it down all weekend: this time I got it. I raced through The Shining and barely gave myself the time to jot down a note or page number. It is awesome fun to find that a reread of a once-dismissed book is so rewarding. If you haven't read King, The Shining would be a fine intro.
Original 1977 hardcover
Do I even need to recount the plot and the characters? Jack Torrance is a struggling writer, trying to create believable people and conflicts in his play, when he's had no shortage of conflict in his life. His alcoholism has put serious rifts in his relationships with his wife Wendy and five-year-old son Danny; he's lost his job as prep school English instructor; he's also had two very grave moments of violence. But all that, he hopes - they all hope - that's in the past now that he's hired to be the winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel, thanks to an huge favor from an old drinking buddy who's cleaned up. Sitting high atop a frigid, panoramic Colorado mountain, the enormous hotel is closed for the season and the only occupants will be the Torrance family.
Jack's feelings of inadequacy are front and center in the opening chapter, in his humiliating job interview with that infamous officious little prick, Mr. Ullman (one of my favorite scenes in the book is when Jack calls Ullman and tells him he's going to write a book about the history of the Overlook and Ullman freaks the fuck out). But Jack knows it's time to do right by his family, and taking this job is the classic point of starting over. He's not drinking and he's writing again, but Jack's about to go on one hell of a dry drunk, and have one motherfuck of a writer's block.
UK hardcover 1977
As for "the shining" itself: Danny's psychic power comes in the form of Tony, a little boy a bit older than Danny who appears inside mirrors and as a tiny shadow down a midnight street, always with some bit of information that Danny would have no other way of knowing. It is this ability of Danny's that the Overlook "wants," so it "employs" Jack's troubled past as it spurs Jack on to murder his family, to truly own the Overlook and inherit its foul nature. You almost ache for Danny, who so wants to please his parents, his daddy most of all (which makes Wendy feel guiltily jealous), who wants his daddy to be well and not do the Bad Stuff. King is great at getting inside kids' heads, their goggle-eyed yet strangely rational perception of the strange adult world that surrounds them.
Thematically, The Shining is one of King's richest. Yes, the Overlook Hotel is a repository of human evil; Jack knows this when, in the basement, he finds the scrapbook containing clippings of its unsavory past. Generations pass on their faults; sons pay for their father's transgressions. Abuse becomes a family trait. These are all very much in the grand tradition of haunted house and Gothic tales. Jack's creativity suffers; the real first sign of his madness is a complete 180-degree reversal of his feelings towards his play's characters. The relationship between Jack and Danny is mirrored in the memories of Jack's relationship with his own father, as both are fraught with a heartbreaking mixture not only of love and concern, but also of violence and alcoholism.
UK paperback 2007
It is the back-story in which King *ahem* shines, as he reveals what he wants when he wants for maximum impact. There's the Overlook's blood-drenched past, of course. We get glimpses throughout the novel of Jack's fearsome father, as well as harrowing moments from his drinking days with a colleague. The tortuous memory of accidentally breaking little Danny's arm plagues him, as does his beating of a debate student of his whom he had to kick off the debate team because of a stutter. Both Danny and this student had destroyed something of Jack's: Danny, as a toddler, pours beer over the manuscript of Jack's play, while the student slashes Jack's car tires. He was drunk when abusing Danny but sober when attacking the student, but no matter: it's all Jack Torrance.
UK paperback 1984
The novel is easily one of the most "unputdownable" - wretched word - I've ever read, at least it was this read. The pacing is relentless, lulling you at one moment and then shocking you the next. Suspense wracks up in the final chapters by interlacing chapters on the family's last stand against Jack - or whatever he is at that point - with Dick Hallorann's journey through the snowstorm, the Overlook head cook who also has "the shining" and is heeding Danny's psychic call. But still, we must ask: are there faults in The Shining? Of course. King's writing can be thin in places, too familiar, too pedestrian; there are times where a character's feelings of horror are told to us, instead of simply letting the horrific scenarios speak for themselves. The constant italicized interior thoughts, or maybe too many flashbacks. That final chapter, perhaps (King has intimated he may write a sequel).
Holy shit, they made a movie out of it?!
But these are to quibble; when you're reading King you know you're not getting an elegant flight of poetic prose or a delicately composed novel of modern manners and foibles. Fuck no! You're getting shrieking blasts of icy terror happening to real people. That might sound like one of the myriad cheesy critical blurbs from the first page ("REAL SCARE-ABILITY!""DELICIOUSLY SHIVERY READING!" "BACK-PRICKLING!") but I don't know how else to phrase it. My moments of fear? When the wasps come back. When Jack hears his dead father's voice on the radio. When the unmanned elevator starts to clank into use. When Danny enters Room 217. When Wendy turns around and sees Jack. When the long-dead masquerade party guests screech "Unmask! Unmask!" and reveal rotting insect faces...
Mmm, now that's good horror, from a good little boy.
The first of two collections of David J. Schow's horror stories published in 1990, Seeing Red was one of my favorites back then. While Lost Angels included his longer, more ambitious, less genre-specific works, Seeing Red is just a bit more traditional. Many of the 14 tales here were originally published in magazines such as the '80s return of Weird Tales, or in Night Cry, Twilight Zone, or Whispers. What made them so appealing to me was their breadth of style: some are almost EC comic-like, others are glimpses into writers' lives, still others are energetically violent, and a couple even show some real sentimentality.
Unused 1990 cover art by Tom Canty
After the friendly, if slightly critical, intro by T.E.D. Klein - he relates how impressed by Schow's work he was as editor of Twilight Zone magazine in the early '80s and wonders if Schow is "too smart for horror" - the opener "Red Light" is one of Schow's best but was also in Lost Angels. "Bunny Didn't Tell Us" is a gleefully gross revenger about hapless graverobbers. "Incident on a Rainy Night in Beverly Hills" might be too much of a Hollywood in-joke; L.A. is Schow's bread and butter and the movie industry figures largely in many tales here, but I found "Incident" distractingly talky. "Coming Soon to a Theater Near You" is one of two stories set in movie theaters, and is straight-up repulsive, flesh-crawling horror.
Original Twilight Zone mag art
The willfully obnoxiously-titled "Blood Rape of the Lust Ghouls" is a true entertainment of a creepy gore-movie reviewer whose critical savaging of the titular film puts him in a delicate and unexpected place. This is the kind of insider-style horror story I truly dig. Another fave is "One for the Horrors," which has warmly occupied my heart of horror these many years. How could I not love a story about a movie theater that shows the movies that never were, shows the scenes the censors demanded cut, and is a love story about movie-lovers to boot? Cinephiles rejoice, it's wonderful.
Original Twilight Zone mag art
Same for "Pulpmeister," an autobiographical account of a hack men's adventure scribe who inexplicably meets the macho hero of his stories. Like Karl Edward Wagner, Schow uses his own experiences as a pulp writer and its attendant miseries for his fiction, dining on Kraft mac-and-cheese and dealing with harried, careless agents and editors, not to mention the horror of cranking out 200-page action novels in under a week. A graffiti sigil stands in for the title of another, a tag from the beyond; a seriously authentic tale of street-punk lowlifes hustling on Hollywood Boulevard: Where was Sid Vicious's star? Jello's? Wendy O's? Nothing on the Walk of Stars related to Eye Man's reality. Fuck it. Schow's detailing of a horrific car crash that kills one of the punks hits dead-on. It also provides the collection with its title. "The Embracing" did nothing for me and was a drag to finish; it seemed like a pale imitation of one of Harlan Ellison's dystopic moral screeds of dark fantasy; it's also the earliest story here so maybe that explains its derivative quality.
2002 reprint from Babbage Press
The star of Seeing Red is easily "Not from Around Here," the last in the collection, and one not published previously. Herein Schow's prose is more thoughtful and measured but not to fear: when the gore comes it's graphic and upsetting. Set in the rural areas outside San Francisco, it's sort of a story about a city slicker in the big bad woods who gets more than he bargained for. There are shades of Klein and King and Wagner, yes, but the sexual nature of the violence is presented in an unexpectedly new manner. "Not from Around Here" is actually scary, monster scary, which isn't something you find in horror fiction as much as you'd think. But it's about something too: there is bravery, loss, realization, and a new life to be had when fear is conquered.
While Schow's hyper-literate, arch, sometimes obnoxiously insider-y prose and endless now-dated cultural references might seem off to readers today, there are still some real gems in Seeing Red, some that I didn't even get around to discussing ("Lonesome Coyote Blues," "The Woman's Version," "Night Bloomer"). I find that dated quality kind of charming in a way. He liked to play with the genre and wasn't out solely for shocks; this probably lost him as many readers as it gained him. Schow may have moved on to a life of crime-writing these days, but I'll always remember him for Seeing Red.
Behold with dismay the tasteless cover art for most of J.N. Williamson's horror output during the 1980s. Published mostly by Leisure and Zebra, he was pretty prolific and won a lifetime achievement award from the Horror Writers of America. Beginning in 1984, Williamson also edited Masques, a series of anthologies that collected the best writers in the horror biz. As for the novels themselves? Never read a word of 'em. More reductive titles that reveal a real poverty of imagination ensure I most likely never will: Horror House? Ghost Mansion? The Evil One? Ghost?! Yikes. What happened to Blood? SpookyHouse? Scared? It's maddening - and not in the Lovecraftian way.
Above you can see the ridiculousness that is Dead to the World (1988). What the hell? The title, the image, the tagline make not one whit of sense and aren't related whatsoever. But really: a skeleton jogging. Cheap horror paperbacks would try to cash in on any fad.
The Ritual (1979) Which cover would you prefer? The original or the '87 reprint? I like how the T is drilled down into that stoned hippie's head.
The Houngan (1980) Obviously stealing a march from The Manitou, but missing the point: a houngan is simply a priest in the voodoo religion, not some kind of demonic entity, and it's certainly not a genie.
The Offspring (1980) Ironically this cover reminds me of the Dell/Abyss covers. I think it's a mummy.
The Evil One (1981) Standard Zebra Books cover art, and one of the most cliched images in horror: the scary ventriloquist's dummy.
Premonition (1981) The original paperback looks like it's going for those many fans of, uh, Demon Seed and The Entity; the '86 reprint isn't too bad in its utter cheesiness. Poor kid.
Ghost Mansion (1981) Here's a cash-in on another popular horror novel; in this case, Straub's Ghost Story (which I promise I'll get around to rereading and reviewing some day here) I do however like the sorta photo-negative image.
Queen of Hell (1981) Okay, you can't deny the awesomeness of this one.
Horror House (1981) Easily one of the worst horror-fiction paperback covers I've ever seen. Holy moly.
Playmates (1982) That's a little girl and Troy, far as I know, is a boy's name.
Ghost (1984) I love that obvious tagline.
The Longest Night (1985) This title I see quite often in my bookstore hunting. I've nearly bought it several times because I dig this cover; something about skulls with hair totally cracks me up. The conflation of sex and death is a genre mainstay. Hells yeah.
These final four - Death-Coach, Death-Angel, Death-School, Death-Doctor - are from Williamson's Lamia Zacharias series, published in '81 and '82. I could not find anything about them at all as there are no reviews whatsoever on Amazon or Goodreads. However, these covers are not so bad; there's real detail in them, especially in the skull-face on Death-Coach.
Anybody who's read any of these, please, lemme hear your two cents. Is my snark unwarranted? I suppose it wouldn't be the first time.
And special thanks to the Phantom of Pulp, who sent me this cover for The Dentist (1983).
Somewhere I'd seen this unlauded - and seemingly unloved - horror paperback (it features no critical blurbs whatsoever) on a list of forgotten-but-good horror novels of the 1980s. But I beg to differ, whoever composed said list: R. Patrick Gates's first novel Fear should be forgotten for good. With its ridiculously generic title, clunky pacing, boring plot, inept characterization of kids and their abusive parents, idiot dope-smoking teens, elementary-school level intro to psychic phenomena, pretentious prologue and epilogue which reference Adam, Eve, and the serpent... where do I stop? Along with the author's rudimentary attempts, and wholly successful failures, at engendering said fear in its readers, it is horror fiction at ebb tide, where you can see all the wreckage that better writers rejected.
And last but not least, its most egregious failure is the always-unwelcome '80s trope of sibling incest (He turned and walked out of the bathroom, but not before he stole one more glance at his sister's tight buttocks). Fear not, fair reader, I read this stuff - or skim, to save eyeballs and brain - so you don't have to. Fear is an utter travesty. Avoid at all costs. Blue-black skulls ain't so bad, though.
With a title seemingly ripped from tabloid news headlines, The Doll Who Ate His Mother was Ramsey Campbell's first novel and leagues away from the Lovecraft-inspired short stories with which he'd made his name. Campbell first parted ways with the Gentleman from Providence in the collection Demons by Daylight (1973) and continued to forge ahead with his own unique, if often maddening, style of skewed reality and malevolent urban blight. Despite having noted time and again here on Too Much Horror Fiction about my - and plenty of other folks' - hot-and-cold feelings about Campbell's output, I have a fair collection of his stuff published by Tor in the 1980s, when he was one of their leading lights, and I wanted to try his novels from the beginning. Stephen King also wrote favorably of Doll in his Danse Macabre, and although I certainly don't agree with King all the time, this novel seemed like an essential horror read from that vintage '70s era.
HB Jove paperback 1978
Another cool thing about Doll is that it's in the fine tradition of bold, tasteless horror titles: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2,000 Maniacs, I Spit on Your Grave, Night of the Living Dead, et al., titles without ambiguity or allusion. Which is odd because Campbell is known for being a disturbingly quiet and reserved horror writer. So how does the novel itself stand up against its eye-catching title - or at least its creepy, evocative cover art (Tor edition with art by Jill Bauman, August 1985, at top)?
That most prosaic of real-life horror opens the novel: the car crash. On a drive through the night streets of Liverpool, young Clare Frayn survives the accident uninjured, while her brother Rob - a local radio celebrity - is killed. A man had stepped directly into the road in front of them, causing the accident, and witnesses see him running off cradling something in his arms. And the police are horrified to find that Rob's arm is nowhere to be found. Clare is soon visited by Edmund Hall, a real asshole of a sleazy crime writer, who thinks the man seen running from her accident was Christopher Kelly, with whom he'd gone to boys' school. Kelly was a fat, bullied child, but known to have fits of cruelty and violence. Hall wants to track him down and write a book about him, and enlists Clare's help. Soon they also add cinema owner George Pugh, whose mother was also killed, as well as hippie actor Chris Barrow, who lost his beloved cat to the monstrous Kelly. They muddle through the "case," hoping, bickering, afraid; no heroes they.
UK Universal/ W.H. Allen paperback 1978
Campbell gives us glimpses of Kelly's background life and childhood, his mother's dalliance with black magic, his grandmother's utter terror of him. Slowly the four amateur sleuths get closer and closer to the truth as they probe the ugly, dank, broken-down estates of Liverpool. This is the kind of decaying setting Campbell can be both good and bad at illustrating; his descriptive powers are effective but jarring, displacing the reader from the narrative. There are a few satisfying moments of horror, but usually at a remove and not terribly graphic or shocking, while one rather major character is kept off-stage almost entirely. The climax is set in the muddy earthen basement of a condemned building where Clare confronts Kelly and other secrets that speak of the black magic that spawned our killer.
The earth gaped at him, its lips crumbled, glistening. At the bottom he could see a doll. It was a woman with a swollen belly. A mouth was emerging from the belly. At once he knew it was him in his mother.
When I began reading Doll I was half-expecting to be underwhelmed and confused as I often am with Campbell's fiction; in fact, I happily finished reading it in about a day. The narrative is fairly strong and the build-up doesn't lead you to expect a shattering finale (as The Nameless seemed to), the atmosphere is appropriately dour and grim, and the characters are distinctive (especially Kelly's horrid self-pityingly religious grandmother). The Doll Who Ate His Mother is not a forgotten classic but a passable, enjoyable read for horror fiction fans - and thankfully does explain that glorious and tacky title.
"Tales of quiet terror" is the descriptor on the cover of Echoes from the Macabre, and it's perfectly correct. This collection from Daphne du Maurier, most famous for penning Rebecca (1938), contains her two most famous long tales, "Don't Look Now" (1971) and "The Birds" (1952). Yes, each story is the basis for the respective movies of the same name. They are richly rewarding in their own right, however, as are the other half-dozen works here, all originally published in various hardcover editions in the '50s and '70s. This is the Avon paperback edition of the book originally published by Doubleday in hardcover in 1976.
Filled with disquiet and unease, creeping doubt and slow-dawning horror - a du Maurier trademark - these stories of the uncanny share other similarities than just quietness. Each precisely-described character defect will be an undoing; each note of suspicion will come true in the most unexpected manner. Vacationers abroad should have never left home, while home offers its own miseries. Her style is tough-minded, unsparing, carefully wrought. Cold and cruelly calculating, du Maurier dooms her men and women to humiliating defeats (what a bloody silly way to die...).
"Don't Look Now," the lead story, is justly famous in the horror field; editor David G. Hartwell chose it for his enormous Foundations of Fear anthology in 1992. A married couple who have recently lost their young daughter are vacationing in Venice in order to ease their minds; wife Laura is befriended, of sorts, by two elderly female twins. One is a blind psychic who tells Laura that their daughter is still with them, laughing and carefree. While this news fills Laura with happiness, it distresses husband John. What follows is the darkest comedy of errors, which leads to fateful absurd tragedy. The way du Maurier slowly closes the circle around one of her characters is breathtaking.
Another man desperate for a vacation appears in "Not After Midnight." In Crete to paint its lovely seascapes and hoping to stay far from his fellow travelers, boys' schoolteacher Mr. Gray inadvertently attracts the attention of a fat drunken lout of an American who informs him that the cabin in which Gray is staying was previously occupied by an unfortunate fellow who drowned and washed up on shore, half-eaten by octopuses. In a very vague way it reminded me of Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth." But get out your Hamilton's Mythology for this one, gang. Old gods do not die quietly.
1972 Avon paperback
Set at the beginning of a cold hard winter on the grim English seaside, "The Birds" is a matter-of-fact tale of nature gone horribly, irrevocably wrong. Hitchcock's adaptation retained the matter of birds attacking humans but du Maurier's version is all her own. There is suspense and dread and human failing, and a pervasive sense of futility. While most other aspects of the movie are absent in the story, there is actually no need for them here. Whatever human drama there was before the birds came is rendered moot.
In "The Pool," a pubescent girl finds that a new life for her means that something else must die after offering a sacrifice to the promising body of water in her grandparents' garden; a driven hunter obsesses over "The Chamois" (a rare type of goat in the central European wilds) while his wife fears their secret shames might both be symbolized by the animal. The natural world, as presented in Echoes, is one that must be appeased or acquiesced to; there seems to be no harmonious living with it.
Back in the city, post-war English life is well-drawn in "Kiss Me Again, Stranger," but it's not a life for everyone. And "Blue Lenses" tells us that hospital stays are always disorienting; while this isn't quite a story about eye trauma, it is, in its own way. Horror always reminds us that people are not often what they appear to be; in this story, perhaps they are. Which is even worse.
Not all the stories are overtly macabre, as it were; some have wistful, dreamy moments while others offer more psychological insights, particularly of the marital kind, as in "The Apple Tree." The cover art has its source in one of my favorite stories here but I won't spoil it for a first-time reader. If you are fan of the merciless and misanthropic ironies of Roald Dahl, Patricia Highsmith, or Shirley Jackson then one is advised to pick up this collection posthaste; I've seen cheap copies of it for sale all over the internet. Worldly and sophisticated, Echoes from the Macabre is the literary equivalent of, if not a knife, then a dull club in the chest from a dearest, albeit well-traveled, loved one.
When I reviewed Topor's The Tenant last month I noted I'd been unable to find any cover art online for its first American paperback edition from Bantam Books. Well, thanks to Dan Mosier of Dead Man's Brain, I can now finally post it. He just sent me a photo of his own copy of the book, noting that the "tear" on the cover is actually part of the artwork. So perfectly composed, so accurate to the book's description; dig the look of fascinated horror on poor Trelkovsky's face--! Unfortunately the artist is unknown. Glorious vintage horror cover art indeed. Thanks again, Dan!
You know what's really crazy about this absurd cover art for Graham Masterton's 14th horror novel Walkers? It's completely accurate. It is! Walls and floors are somehow horribly alive. Masterton's penchant for making the ridiculous seem plausible is in full effect in this violent, quick read. Going by the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, Walkers seems to have a pretty good reputation in the Masterton canon, which is why I chose to make it my second novel of his after I absolutely loved The Manitou. While it isn't close to being as much fun as that horror-fiction classic, it follows the same formula: ridiculously horrible thing happens for no good reason - oh, wait, it's some kind of ancient religious mythology! In this case, the Druid myth of earth-walkers: men whose spiritual powers allow them to walk inside the earth, inside walls, floors, glass, etc. I don't even know if that's a real Druid myth and kinda don't care. There is some bosh about ley lines, as well.
There is a very good haunted-house style opening in which Jack Reed discovers an abandoned, decrepit building called the Oaks, hidden from view for decades and forgotten. Jack wants to turn it into a country club, and in his effort to buy the place learns that 60 years ago, it was an asylum for the criminally insane - but one night they all disappeared. The ostensible criminal "leader," a truly despicable human called Quintus Miller, found Druid spellbooks in the warden's library - but of course - and in an attempt at freedom, led his fellow inmates into the very walls themselves. However, they were trapped by Father Bell, using his own Christian brand of hocus-pocus, and Quintus vows revenge, and "kidnaps" Jack's young son Randy by pulling him into the walls. But of course. Quintus wants out, wants some kind of eternal Druidic godhood, and plans on sacrificing not only Jack's son but hundreds of other innocent people. Masterton really knows how to ante up.
1991 UK paperback
Novels like Walkers are essentially critic-proof; what can I say about it? It's the sort of thing you'll like if this is the sort of thing you like. There's no depth or real thought here, no overarching theme or human concern, nothing to really talk about other than the many scenes of graphic horror which are, yes, cringingly gruesome and lovingly detailed. Masterton's characterization is crudely succinct and rather unimaginative: the blue-collar regular guy, the shrewish wife, the busty blonde who wears high heels everywhere, the resourceful British scholar. Masterton doesn't waste time trying to make dialogue believable, or even having his characters behave believably (particularly Jack's reaction after he realizes his son is missing, as well as the final chapter). But he's good at pacing and conjuring up a storyline solely for the payoff of those big, bloody scenes of horror: people getting dragged into walls and floors and through the bottoms of cars by the imprisoned madfolk and Masterton spares us no grisly detail.
Walkers isn't bad at all; it's fun but disposable, definitely one for fans of trashy '80s horror and Masterton himself. Just like The Manitou, there are moments of dated cultural insensitivity and a couple head-smacking bits of obvious dialogue. It's also got a crazy final showdown between Jack and Quintus and the rotting corpse of a two-headed dog. If you like that sort of thing.
Looking for a forgotten horror novel or short story? Remember the cheesy paperback art but not who wrote the book? Send me an email at willerror[at]gmail.com describing it and if I don't know it, one of my readers might!
Copyright 2010 - 2014. All text (except quotes) is the property of Will Errickson and should not be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the author. All images, unless otherwise noted, are the property of their respective copyright owners.