Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Stephen King Paperback Covers: The 2011 Anchor Books Editions

You guys know I rarely feature the latest mass market paperback editions of older horror fiction classics; let's face it, the cover "art" generally sucks. Mostly it seems like Photoshop or clip art hodge-podge of cliches, so terribly bland and boring we fans can only respond with indifference, i.e., not buying the book. Last week on the racks at my local supermarket I noticed an edition of Night Shift (1978) I'd never seen before, and it turns out it's Anchor Books 2011 reprints of several seminal Stephen King works.

After looking around online I found the newest covers for Carrie (1974), 'Salem's Lot (1975), and The Stand (1978). On one hand I hope it gets folks who may only know King as the author of epic The Dark Tower fantasy series to check out some of his horror stuff; but really, on the other hand, these covers are only merely okay (at least they're not terrible like this pop-art design from the early '00s). The hand poking out from under the sheet on Night Shift is cool, but it has nothing to do with the stories. Carrie's skull-corsage is rather appropriate. The cover for 'Salem's Lot shows the Marsten House... on fire. Is it a firemen drama, à la Backdraft or "Rescue Me"? Sure it is!

But you gotta love the (unintentional? Most likely) irony of a book called The Stand which features on its cover a bunch of people lying down (I know, I know - they're dead. But still). All of course with King's name so bold and silvery you're practically blinded by it. And they're all going for about $8 each! It's a long way from when the publisher didn't even bother to put King's name on the cover, and the paperback of Carrie would set you back a cool buck-seventy-five. See more of this edition here.

Signet/NAL first paperback edition, 1975

Monday, August 29, 2011

Books of Blood, Vol. 5 by Clive Barker (1985): In the Flesh

But then monsters were seldom very terrible once hauled into the plain light of day...

Four more stories of challenging, thoughtful horror in which our bodies and our world are transformed in ever more complex and illuminating ways. This penultimate volume of the Books of Blood, his famous series of short horror fiction, finds Clive Barker diving deep into the subconscious myth-pool and coming up with more utterly fantastic tales: of crime and punishment in "In the Flesh," of gender fluidity in "The Madonna," of the insane vagaries of international politics in "Babel's Children," and perhaps most famously, of the fearsome legends we pass on to one another in "The Forbidden" (the basis for the 1992 horror movie Candyman). Sound good? Of course it does.

Poseidon Press hardcover, 1986

Like its companion The Inhuman Condition, which was originally simply titled Books of Blood Volume IV in the UK, Volume V was retitled after one of its stories when published in the US in hardcover in 1986 and a Pocket Books paperback in 1988; it became In the Flesh (with cover art by Jim Warren). As the volumes went on, Barker’s strengths as a writer grew; the long stories here - the longest of any volume in Blood, each over 50 pages - allow some of his strongest, most evocative prose to shine and features some of his most thematically potent imaginings. My review could be double its length, such is my admiration for Barker and these tales! Invention, boldness, terror, eroticism, and yes, self-knowledge await...

The title story is an ironic rumination on sin - or, if you prefer, "sin" - within the walls and bars of a prison. Young Tait might look like fresh fish to his new fellow inmates, but his forebears are of stronger stuff: his grandfather, known as Saint Tait, hanged for murdering his family; all of them, except his daughter, who would grow up to birth Tait the younger. Sharing a cell with petty experienced thief Cleve, Tait slowly reveals the shadows of his truest self and a dream-city which, despite its appearance of vacancy, houses the worst of humanity. Cleve wants to know (as do all of Barker's heroes): Why? Why does Tait call upon the rotting shade of his grandfather and allow himself to be transformed painfully? Tait's answer is chilling in its simplicity: "To be not myself; to be smoke and shadow. To be something terrible."
"The Forbidden" is like the best Ramsey Campbell story you’ll ever read. One of urban destitution and a dilettante intruder who seeks to intellectualize the vulgar graffiti of a rundown, crime-ridden housing estate, it evokes Barker's fellow Liverpudlian but is still distinctly his own. It is also, quietly, unobtrusively, about the “pleasures” of horror itself: of the stories we tell solely to chill the blood but ultimately to familiarize ourselves with our final ends. We are drawn to it, no matter who disdains us. Myths and legends live, literally live, Barker shows, and when they step from shadow, we must be ready to meet them. Filled with passages and ideas I must refrain from quoting at length, this is surely one of Barker's best works. Was there a place, however small, reserved in every heart for the monstrous?

In Barker's own illustration for the cover of the UK paperback of Vol. V, you'll see"The Madonna." This story is ripe to bursting with Jungian imagery of feminine fecundity, pools of water, sucking vortices and suckling babes (part squid, part shorn lamb), and prefigures part of the climax for his magnum opus Imajica (1991). Two business-criminal men lost in a labyrinth of an abandoned health spa, and the wet, shimmering female wonders at its center. Barker's talent is to subvert notions of normalcy and reveal unseen truths: There were miracles in the world! Forces that could turn flesh inside out without drawing blood; that could topple the tyranny of the real and make play in its rubble.

1996 Audiobook

And last, "Babel's Children" is unclassifiable; like his earlier "In the Hills, the Cities," it's an example of his ability to meld the sublime and the ridiculous slyly, ironically. Vacation-adventurer Veronica, lost in the scrub of a Greek isle, comes upon a sort of monastery for the mad, and finds the entire world owes all to it. And if - as her dizzied mind had concluded - these were creatures as sane as herself, then what of the tale that Mr. Gomm had told? Was that true too? Was it possible that Armageddon had been kept at bay by these few giggling geriatrics?

The Pocket Books edition at the top has a surreal cover painted by Jim Warren; look again after reading and you'll see those grotesqueries spring from the pages themselves. Don't wanna spoil any for you but one: the eyeball impaled by a knife, a piece of graffiti art from "The Forbidden" that would please a Dali or Cocteau or Breton: Close by was an image of intercourse so brutally reduced that at first Helen took it to illustrate a knife plunging into a sightless eye.

2001 Pocket Books trade paperback

Having not read In the Flesh for some many years (it's another book I clearly remember reading in high school classes instead of doing schoolwork), I was thrilled upon returning to find them as fresh and effective as ever; the years have not dulled their ability to chill, to amaze, to repulse, to provoke. Barker was certainly in a class by himself; as I’ve been reading and rereading all this horror fiction from that era I can easily see why everyone was so taken with him: the high caliber and unexpected elegance of his writing and his boundless imagination that left nothing to the imagination are simply greater than almost anyone writing at that time. His towering conceptual powers have few equals. He still ranks as one of my all-time favorite writers, horror or not. Whichever way you refer to it, In the Flesh or Books of Blood Vol. V, Clive Barker has provided us with yet another collection of essential horror fiction.

Barker in Highgate Cemetery, London, c. 1986

Friday, August 26, 2011

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (1976): Ballantine First Edition Paperback

This is one of those horror paperbacks that began my obsession with, well, horror paperbacks. Another one of my recent finds from the used bookstore in South Jersey (a choice find too as I lost my copy of this edition many years ago), this May 1977 first mass market paperback of Anne Rice's influential Interview with the Vampire is luckily in excellent condition... and I think I paid $1.25 for it!

First time I saw it I must've been 9 or 10, wandering around in the library, when I saw the word "vampire" featured on its spine in the paperback racks. Upon picking it up I was nonplussed to find the elegant cover photo with everything in... white. That's not right, my monster-kid brain told me, Vampires always wear black! Little did I know that Rice was doing away with decades of Draculean lore. But it was obvious even then that the cover design was such so that it appealed to non-horror fans. I love it now: the three characters figured prominently, dressed to the nines (even if Lestat and Louis didn't exactly wear early 20th century dinner tuxes in the novel), beside their beloved Claudia, who's looking childlike and ancient at once. An immortal family portrait. Creep-ee.

Claudia and Lestat might hunt and seduce, stay long in the company of the doomed victim, enjoying the splendid humor in his unwitting friendship with death...

And... how about this pre-publication edition? Looking as she did then, how could Anne Rice have ever done anything but write something called Interview with the Vampire?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Dark Country by Dennis Etchison (1982): Nightmares Stay with You

For some time I've been searching for a copy of Dennis Etchison's first collection of short fiction, entitled The Dark Country. Finally found it on my recent trip to my hometown! Originally published by specialty publisher Scream/Press, this paperback is from Berkley in 1984. It consists of Etchison's stories from the 1970s, and his World Fantasy Award-winning 1981 title tale. Like Stephen King, Etchison had many of his short works appear in men's magazines of the day, as well as various anthologies edited by Charles L. Grant and Kirby McCauley. Interestingly, for an author so associated with the horror genre, lots of his stories here could be classified as crime noir and science fiction rather than supernatural horror. Perhaps they all fall under the never-clear "dark fantasy" tag which Grant touted.

But this is all academic: what's important is that Etchison's stories are crafted with a true writer's care and originality, although at times his penchant for experimentation and quiet intimation can lose even careful readers. Like me. Therefore I suppose you won't be surprised to learn that one Ramsey Campbell introduces The Dark Country...

A California son, Etchison often sets his fictions in the desert highways and late-night byways of his home state; he knows well this empty land and the darknesses therein. "The Late Shift," one of his more well-known works that was first published in the seminal Dark Forces (1980), reveals a sinister source for those poor souls working the graveyard shift in 7-11s and gas stations and diners throughout that region. I adored "Daughter of the Golden West," which begins as a Bradbury-esque fantasy of three college-age men (the collection is dedicated to Bradbury) and ends with a revelation of one of California's greatest tragedies. Reading the noir-ish "The Walking Man" put me in mind of the spectacular "modern" noir film Body Heat (1981) and once again shows how the horror and crime genres uneasily shadow one another.

Original '82 Scream/Press hardcover, art by JK Potter

The maddeningly enigmatic "You Can Go Now" finishes without wrapping and bow but I found its dream-like, episodic psychological structure utterly intriguing. Chilling, sad, realistic stuff... even if perhaps it doesn't quite come together. "Calling All Monsters," "The Dead Line," and "The Machine Demands a Sacrific" form what Campbell calls the "transplant trilogy... one of the most chilling achievements in contemporary horror." Blurring SF and horror in a vaguely Ellisonian manner, Etchison offhandedly imagines a future (?) of living bodies at the service of some (mad) science, evoking Moreau's House of Pain. The breaking mind of a man in extremis:

O now the obscene sucking sound growing fainter even as my hearing dissolves, wet tissue pulling apart. They suction my blood, the incision clamped wide like another mouth a monstrous Caesarean and I hear the shiny scissors clipping tissues clipping fat, the automated scalpels striking tictactoe on my torso and i know they are taking me, the blood in my head tingles draining down down and I am almost gone, O what are they doing to me the monsters ME they must be it can't be that other... I have seen the altered specimen on the table the wrapped composite the sutured One Who Waits drifting in fluid for the new brain the shaved skin the transplanted claws the feral rictus the excised hump

Futura UK 1988 edition

Others: I didn't have much for "The Nighthawk," a gothic-y tale of siblings on the rainy California coast, nor "Deathtracks." Writing's good, stories not so much. The first story, "It Only Comes out at Night," despite its generic title, is a nice little traditional horror piece, as is "Today's Special." The frigid vengeance of "We Have All Been Here Before" and especially "The Pitch" is quite satisfyingly nasty. Etchison has a skill for diversion, letting you think a story going's one way when - record scratch - it goes somewhere else.

Now, on to the award-winning title story. Nothing SF or noir or supernatural about this piece at all; it reads more like an autobiographical piece (the protagonist's name is Jack Martin, Etchison's pseudonym) of an inadvertently nightmarish vacation. His friends callously and drunkenly exploit locals at a Mexican beach resort, then he's forced to face a fate dealt at random. This is not the kind of story you expect to find in a book with the little "HORROR" label on its spine. Does that matter? I still don't know. Somewhere Martin/Etchison wait, probably not knowing either, hoping... but fearing, as always, the worst.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane (1939)

Dig this super-creepy cover! The little-known novel The Edge of Running Water was one of only two written by William Sloane, who was born on this day in 1906 (his other book, To Walk the Night, I featured here). It was chosen for Jones and Newman's Horror: Another 100 Best Books in 2005. The above edition is from Bantam Books, 1967. For an appreciation of Sloan, be sure to read this. The article's first paragraph is excellent:

Whenever a genre writer appears whose work even literary critics can't pretend they don't enjoy--someone like Raymond Chandler, Shirley Jackson, or Philip K. Dick--he or she is officially allowed to have "transcended the genre." There's something disingenuous and galling to the genre fan about this special dispensation, as though any work of crime, horror, or science fiction that's actually good must not, by definition, actually be crime or horror or science fiction.

Indeed.

1956 retitled Dell paperback

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Psycho Paperback Covers: We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes

Today is the 112th birthday of Sir Alfred Hitchcock. I just wanted an excuse to feature some of the many paperback editions of Robert Bloch's immortal Psycho that have appeared over the years since its original publication in 1959. Now, if you're rather desperate to obtain some of these lovely paperback editions, why, I just know none of you would even hurt a fly. Enjoy...

The edition at the top is from Tor 1989, with cover art by Joe Devito. The one above is from Bantam 1969.

Warner Books 1982
Corgi UK 1962, 1977 and 1982

Crest Books 1960 and movie tie-in 1963
Don't be late...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Prime Evil, edited by Douglas E. Winter (1988): No Safe Place to Die

"Horror is not a genre," writes editor Douglas E. Winter in his introduction to the classy anthology Prime Evil, "it is an emotion." Winter was really onto something there, I thought upon first reading it, and it's been something of a philosophical beacon for me in my choices of entertainment in the two decades since. Fans don't have to limit themselves to movies or books labeled "horror" to find things that are violent, creepy, disturbing, terrifying. But I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, right?

I'd always held this anthology in high esteem but rereading it now I realize that's only because it contains one of my favorite horror stories ever, "Orange is Anguish, Blue for Insanity" (and going by reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, lots of other readers felt the same). Otherwise, these original stories in Prime Evil are so concerned with classiness that many don't quite deliver on the horror. Mood and psychology, yes, diffuse surreality and obliquity, mais oui, some good writing and imagery, true, but only a few stories are actually gruesome or horrifying or memorable. Even the moodier pieces seemed inert. So I'd say these mild, nondescript "horror" covers are rather apt.

I tried nine ways to Sunday to reread Stephen King's "The Night-Flier" but only found it dated; a sleaze journalist you'd think would actually be au courant but in King's relentless need to brand-identify everything is tiring because you keep thinking, "Oh, right, this story was written in the late 1980s," rather than, "Damn, is this story creepy." I just thought it was junky and its only reason for existence was to feature a vampire pissing blood into a urinal. I didn't reread Clive Barker's "Coming to Grief" and don't recall any of it, but Winter describes it as one of his "quiet, sentimental stories." Dennis Etchison's half-screenplay/half-short story "The Blood Kiss" is fun, nothing special; could've fit right into Schow's Silver Scream anthology that same year. "Alice's Last Adventure" I wrote a bit about here; Thomas Ligotti's story is fine, good stuff.

David Morrell, creator of Rambo himself, in "Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity," delivers a terrific story of a poor art student, his friend, and an obsession: the paintings of Van Dorn, a 19th century painter driven mad by his perceptetion of the world and the colors he used to denote that madness. I love stories about crazy fictional artists of any kind, and the story also features the art students' academic research as well. Here's the narrator on one of Van Dorn's pieces:

All it took was a slight shift of perception, and there weren't any orchids or hayfields, only a terrifying gestalt of souls in hell. Van Dorn had indeed invented a new stage of impressionism. He'd impressed upon the splendor of God's creation the teeming images of his own disgust. His paintings didn't glorify. They abhorred.

David Morrell

Read Morrell's story! "Orange" won the Stoker Award for best long fiction (side note: I first read this story in high school, and was wryly delighted that my school's own colors were the very same). Jack Cady's contribution starts off very well - Cady was a professor of creative writing and it shows in his powerful detailing of the lives of three friends many years after they served together in Vietnam. It's tough and violent and poetic and impressive. The problem is that the gunfight climax lasts about, I dunno, 20 pages or something and I was completely uninterested as the tale went on and on and on; Cady broke the spell he'd woven so convincingly.

1989 Corgi UK edition

I found "The Great God Pan" (ugh, I hate stories named after better, more deservedly famous stories) by M. John Harrison far too detached and mild, thought Paul Hazel's (who are these writers?) "Having a Woman at Lunch" to be too old-fashioned, and was simply unimpressed with Charles L. Grant's "Spinning Tales with the Dead." Look, Charlie, we all know you love quiet horror but you can't just write the words "moonlight" and "cloud" and "whisper"; ya gotta do the work too.

A minor Ramsey Campbell story of a stalker who thinks writers are stealing his ideas, "Next Time You'll Know Me," is okay; nothing particularly Campbellian about it though. "Food" is sly, gross, and witty; I'd expect nothing less from the stellar Thomas Tessier. One of the solid stories with its tone of world-weary grief and loss, Whitley Strieber's "The Pool" is a dream-like tale of the death of a child who seems in touch with worlds beyond this one. Childhood trauma underlies Peter Straub's "The Juniper Tree"; specifically, some rather graphic sexual abuse and years later, its fallout. It's more mainstream lit than "horror."

And there you have it: although Winter's introduction was thoughtful and influential, Prime Evil is less a major horror anthology of the 1980s than mostly an attempt to get horror fiction read by people who wouldn't deign to read it in the first place. It's true that horror doesn't have to have "potboiler prose, lurid covers and corny titles," but why are we trying to impress people who already look down on the genre? I mean, fuck them, right? Right.