Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Shadows, edited by Charles L. Grant (1978): "Soon You Shall Be As We"

A stark and simple cover image introduces Shadows, first in the long-running quiet horror/dark fantasy anthology series put together by quiet-horror maestro Charles L. Grant. At this period in the 1970s horror fiction had apparently not yet quite found its full and singular identity in the publishing world; Grant solicited tales by fantasy and science fiction writers - and in at least one case, crime writers - to fill out this original volume. The anthology itself won the 1979 World Fantasy Award, as the Bram Stoker Award was still years off; and the lead story, (the maddeningly elusive) "Naples" by SF writer Avram Davidson, won Best Short Fiction as well.

First though - what's up with the refrigerator magnet alphabet cover?! Ew boy. Playboy Press really went all out, no? Berkley Books, who published the reprint a few years later, used the same artwork but subsequent volumes fortunately had more oomph. Like this one, from '88.

Some of the stories in this first Shadows may be so quiet as to have their final import unheard or unrecognizable - common enough in this style of horror; others end with an unexpected shout in a dark silent room. But the caliber of writing, the actual prose, is uniformly good, from the capable strong hands of the known and unknown author alike. Grant writes intros for each, praising the writer for letting the reader's imagination do most of the work, for carefully crafting tales that lull us into dark and dangerous places, for "leaving out" that "final" sentence which might break the delicate spell of quiet horror: stories that are, as he puts it, like a razor that summons pain after the blood has been spilled. Nice.

Charles L. Grant c. late '70s

Overall the stories vary widely and well. Eternal horror anthology staple Ramsey Campbell contributes two stories: one long, "The Little Voice," and one very short, "Dead Letters." I found the latter, about a drunken suburban seance, to be chilling good fun; it would have made a fine, light "Night Gallery" episode. The former is in that classic Campbell style that either sneaks up on you and creeps you out, or bores you to tears as you trudge through his subtle allusions and asides in the pluperfect tense. I appreciated the haunting guilt of the main character but found the execution interminable.

Published 1987 as Shadows II for whatever reason in the UK

Two very little known writers give us two good stories: "Butcher's Thumb," by William Jon Watkins, is a grimly funny EC Comic, and "A Certain Slant of Light" by Raylynn Moore is a sensitively written haunted house story. Mystery writer Bill Pronzini muses longingly upon sex and death in the fractured "Deathlove" (natch). R.A. Lafferty's "Splinters" is odd, quirky, playful; I can't believe I had to Google "eidolon." Cover-noted Stephen King presents his fatalistic tale of a college student and drifter swept up in madness and crime, lust and murder, "Nona." Filled with creepy Freudian psychosexual imagery, it's marred only slightly by a trite final line. He really should have followed Grant's advice and left it out.

A college-age King

But my favorite was about a young Italian-American man who travels to his family's mother country for genealogical research. "Where All the Songs are Sad" by Thomas F. Monteleone is the longest story and very effective, evoking the rustic superstitions of the old country that aren't quite superstitions. With details of Italian villages so real and minute, he may even be writing an autobiographical piece, and uses a setting similar to Bradbury's marvelous "The Next in Line."

...they came upon the somber entrance to a very old cemetery. Pausing, he was arrested by the starkness of the gates, as if the gray stone and rusted ironwork led into a colorless, other dimension - as perhaps they did. He saw an inscription above the gate in the form of a short couplet: "Un tempo fummo come voi, Presto sarete come noi.""What does it say?" he asked Victoria, who stood silently watching him.
A shudder seemed to pass through her, her eyes lost their sparkle for a moment. "It says: 'Once we were as you, Soon you shall be as we.'"

Thomas F. Monteleone

(In the '90s Monteleone would himself edit an anthology series, the ambitious and experimental Borderlands - I can't believe I don't have my copies anymore! Must re-buy and review). Now, is "Ellisonian" a literary adjective? Because it should be. So let's say "Mory" from SF writer Michael Bishop is Ellisonian: a dark fantasy about an older man plagued by what first appears as a robber, yet without a weapon, in the man's liquor store; what he takes from him will be everything, everything and more. Not even Clark Griswold had a worse time at an amusement park. I wasn't too thrilled with Dennis Etchison's "The Nighthawk" when I read it recently in his The Dark Country, but I suppose it does fit the hushed fantastical tone Grant was looking for.

Doubleday hardcover 1978 - note "science fiction" label

"Picture" is Robert Bloch's wryly morbid entry, a Faustian fable of devilish deals gone wrong, so blackly comically wrong. Classic Bloch. And John Crowley is one of those not-so-prolific fantasy writers who has garnered effusive praise from folks who would never read fantasy (his classic Little, Big sits on my shelf in its original hippy-dippy 1981 paperback edition) and for Shadows he presents "Where Spirits Gat Them Home," a Wallace Stevens-titled tale of distant family relations, lost time, and even religious heresy... oh and death that awaits us patiently no matter what our intentions.

John Crowley

And deaths are well-met everywhere in these Shadows stories. Death inescapable, foreordained, a meeting whose arrangements have been made since long before you were you and we were we (No, the Things that live at the bottoms of old wells and the tops of old houses are old themselves, far older than anybody's ghost). Call it what you will: fate, destiny, bad luck, but it will be there for us all, and often and ironically not even in a respectful darkness but in a bright and unclouded noon, shadowless.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Paperback Covers of Shaun Hutson: Ain't Nothin' but a Gorehound

Well, nobody asked for 'em but here they are: the covers of Shaun Hutson's pulp horror paperbacks from the 1980s, all published by Leisure Books. Hutson's reputation is that of a goremonger for gore's sake and often gets lumped in with the splatterpunks. Me, I'd put him in with Guy N. Smith, pale imitators of James Herbert, and not to be confused with Barker or Schow or Lansdale et al. Still, this being a horror fiction blog and all, I feature Hutson because he was pretty central to the paperback boom of the era.

1985 UK paperback

Some of you may have read my review of Slugs (1982), Hutson's most infamous work; while it had energy and gleeful carnage, it was rather a shitty Xerox of Herbert's The Rats. Yes, this stuff has its place in horror, when you want to put your brains on vacation, but honestly Hutson's never interested me at all; I generally want a lot more from my horror fiction than sleazy grody pulp. But I have to say these cover images are really cream of the crop of excessively graphic '80s horror paperbacks! Enjoy.

Admittedly, The Skull (1982/Leisure 1989) is pretty reductive for a horror paperback cover; not only is it a skull, but it's a skull with fangs.

Erebus (1984/Leisure 1988) is the personification of darkness in Greek mythology as well as a region of the Underworld, so yeah, great horror title! I love the intensity on the vampire's face - he's got a real Ray Liotta vibe.

The inevitable sequel to Slugs came in the form of Breeding Ground (1985/Leisure 1987). This has a Tor Horror look to it, but it's nothing too outrageous.

Holy shit, this cover for Spawn (1983/Leisure 1988) is amazing! Reminds me of mad-scientist science-fiction pulp from the '50s. Check out a good review at PorPor Books blog - thanks for the pic!

Aaaaaaahhhhh!!! With its obnoxious and intense cover art, Shadows (1985/Leisure 1990) is as far removed from the vintage Charles L. Grant identically-titled anthology series as you could probably get. It's also about psychic healers and whatnot, which is one of my least favorite sub-sub-subgenres of supernatural horror. Ah well.

And as for Charlie Grant's Shadows, well, check back real soon!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Blooding by William Darrid (1979): The Rabid Dog on Main Street Howls

Well, it's certainly no The Bloodening. Alas.

I really wanted to like this first novel by William Darrid, a paperback original with somber cover art and the perfectly '70s title of The Blooding. There are no reviews for it on Amazon, one on Goodreads, and one here, which is where I first found out about it. Interesting that one of the novels it's compared to isn't The Other or Rosemary's Baby, but James Dickey's Deliverance. Why, that's literary class right there!

Darrid, a Broadway and television producer, is a solid writer, easily bringing to life this dusty locale during WWII, and begins weaving in the plight of a rabid dog (hmm...) named Jim Dandy as it slowly wends its way through the lives and roads of Crowley Flats. But I just couldn't stick with it; I tried and tried but somehow the novel never clicked for me. And did I want to like it! Really great cover (artist unknown) of a placid, stillborn town; it all just oozes dread the more you look at it, the landscape sere and foreboding, noonday evil beneath a blazing sun...

Of course "a haunting novel" is not the same thing as "a horror novel." That's not a bad thing, as it's much more a quiet, brooding kind of Western (perhaps a weak Xerox of Larry McMurtry?) and it was probably unfair to compare it to 'Salem's Lot. I simply was not captivated and put the book back on my shelf only half-read. But maybe, just maybe, some of you have read The Blooding, and you can just let me know what you thought, especially if its nerve-shattering climax haunts you forever.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Clive Barker Paperback Covers: The UK Harper Voyager Editions

Okay, they're not vintage and they're not collectible and they're not even available in the United States, but I recently found out that Clive Barker's novels have been reissued by Harper Collins under their Voyager imprint. I dig 'em; thought you might too. They're classy and accurate. How refreshing!

Above you see The Hellbound Heart, his 1986 novella which was the basis for some movie or other. I haven't read it since 1992 but I remember enjoying it. That cover image is perfect, utterly perfect, don't you think? Unfortunately I could not find the artist's name.

Odd that Tarantino has a blurb for an epic dark fantasy novel, but still, it's cool. I've read Weaveworld (1987) a few times, and reviewed it here.

Cabal (1988), another novella that led to another movie you mighta heard of. Nice tattoo-like imagery, evoking perhaps the monster Peloquin.

The American editions of The Great and Secret Show (1989) never used the strange totemic pendant that features so largely in the novel, its details showing the strange physical and spiritual evolution of humanity. The first in that eternally-planned trilogy entitled - not too pretentiously now! - The Art.

Ah, Imajica (1991). One of my favorite novels ever, and still Barker's magnum opus and, I believe, the work he wants to be remembered by. A dark and erotic epic fantasy novel that ultimately kills off God - Hapexamendios his name. But I hate to use that word, "fantasy," because it evokes hobbits and chainmail and faeries, which is precisely what Imajica is not. Unlike anything I've ever read. Except maybe other Barker books.

The first sequel to Great and Secret Show, 1994's Everville, also uses the pendant and reuses another famous King quote about Barker. I loved Everville back in '95 and wrote an effusively earnest review for Amazon way back when that makes me cringe now.

Sacrament (1996) was a departure: not an epic, but a much more personal story about a wildlife photographer's near-fatal run-in with a polar bear, and his recovery. Although the photographer is Barker's first major homosexual character, Sacrament is more mainstream than most of his stuff, but still has that unique sort of dark fantasy Barker's great at. It's a novel I recommend to non-horror readers.

Lots of sex and intrigue, this was Barker obviously out for a lark, producing a straight potboiler but in his own unmistakable voice. He's insisted that Galilee (1998) was the beginning of another series of novels about a Kennedy-esque clan. I'll believe it when I see it.

I never finished Coldheart Canyon (2001) and it's the last full-length adult novel he's written to date. The cover gets right at the historical Hollywood orgies depicted within. Nice.

And here's Barker on the back cover of the US paperback edition of Everville. Handsome!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Meat the Authors! John Skipp and Craig Spector 1988

Ha ha ha - get it?! I had to share this awesomely ridiculous, or ridiculously awesome, illustration of splatterpunk maestros John Skipp and Craig Spector, which can be found in their rollicking 1988 rock'n'roll horror epic The Scream. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Delicate Dependency by Michael Talbot (1982): You Can't Even Touch the Books They've Read

I had always viewed the vampire as the interloper, but if they were interwoven in our history, if they were responsible for many of our ancient churches and monuments, how must they view themselves? They were not homeless ghouls or wanderers. They communicated with one another in ways we could not fathom. What sense of possession must they feel for this world, and how must they view us mere scurrying mortals?

Here's a paperback original from Avon Books that was in print for about five minutes back in 1982 but has garnered a reputation as a stellar and original vampire novel, much sought after by collectors who will pay ridiculously inflated prices for it. People wax nostalgic over the novel and rue the day they lent out their only copy, never to be seen again (I had a copy in 1990, read a few pages, thought meh, then traded it in at a used bookstore). I guess I can see why. In The Delicate Dependency, nearly all the traditional vampiric trappings are eschewed; the late Michael Talbot gives us a story not from the vampire's POV - as one might expect from its subtitle A Novel of the Vampire Life - but from that of a mortal doctor ensnared in that endless life. I may not have been as blown away as those diehard fans, but it is worth searching out for fans of cult horror novels. But then... is it really horror? God, that question, again?! Yep, again.

The time is the turn of the last century. Dr. John Gladstone is a man of science, a successful yet widowed English virologist who lives the examined life, who has benefited from the Ages of Reason and Enlightenment and is refreshed and renewed by them. And then, of course, he runs into - literally! - a vampire. Dr. Gladstone however recognizes the gravely injured young man who fell beneath his carriage's wheels, recognizes him from a dream-like encounter he had as a child with a person of such unearthly and supernatural androgynous beauty that Gladstone takes this individual to be an angel, an angel that seemingly stepped whole and breathing from da Vinci's "Madonna of the Rocks."

Talbot's vampire Niccolo, the angel in red

The man is named Niccolo Cavalanti, and he will lead Gladstone into a night-time world of which he had never imagined. Through machinations inconceivable to the mortal mind, Gladstone's life and the lives of those he loves - his two daughters Ursula and the "idiot savant" Camille - become entwined with that of the vampire. Soon Camille is missing, and so is Niccolo... and at his door one morning is the Lady Hespeth, a driven woman of society with her own woeful tale of the vampire, and her own missing child. Gladstone and Hespeth join together and begin their search for those who seem to be only legend. They are now caught in the enormity of vampire destiny, mere mortal cogs in the eternity of the undead.

The Delicate Dependency is quite the rational philosophical treatise (I recall Rice doing something similar years later with The Queen of the Damned). These immortal creatures crave not blood but knowledge, and knowledge is the ultimate good. Their centuries are filled with neither blood orgies or guilt-ridden despair but with learning, traveling, art, building, collecting, experimenting. Their lust for life is not motivated by a desire for death but to amass as much total experience as possible. The vampire as a race are cunning and brilliant and nothing will stop them because first, no one believes they are real, and then, they are "evolved" so far past us they can communicate with one another without speaking, and have such wealth as they can appear in public as eccentric as they wish. They are effectively "invisible" to us.

But there's also some bosh about freemasonry and the illuminati, two topics I find so utterly useless that I nearly swoon with boredom every time I try to read their Wikipedia articles. I guess it's because the vampire is, as I said, so far beyond us mortals they are like another race entirely. It definitely makes sense within the novel, these "Unknown Men" who work behind all the world's scenes, but Talbot doesn't drone on about those specific esoterica. It colors his novel in just an appropriate amount, hinting at the timeless time and exceeding grasp of the vampire.

Michael Talbot (1953 - 1992)

At a dense 400 pages, Dependency is overloaded with Talbot's sensuous descriptions of men, women, children, angels, buildings, furniture, clothes, art, cities, etc., and this adjective OD can get exhausting. It does however create a sort of hothouse atmosphere, steamy and oppressive, which is apt since the orchid itself - as seen on the Avon paperback cover, evoking decadence, and purple, royalty - functions as a metaphor for the vampire (as does Gladstone's study of virology). One of the oldest and most brilliant vampires, Des Etiennes, cultivates a vast greenhouse of rare orchids on his estate, just as carefully as his kind cultivate their immortal minds. It's just that humans can't begin to comprehend this cultivation, how advanced the vampire is, in his learning, in his communication, in his accomplishments. Talbot's characterizations are top-notch as conflict and ambition and love and deceit vie within human and inhuman alike. Gladstone fortunately is a rich character, driven by love for his daughters, fear of his late father, an ugly competition with another doctor, ultimately fearful he may never find his way out of this strange new world he's accidentally stumbled upon.

There is virtually no bloodshed; this is pure dark historical fantasy. Little is made of the so-called romance of the vampire, much less its horror at having to literally feed on humanity; no odes to the never-ending night or the pleasures of the hunt or the taste of innocent blood; no slick fangs being licked by pink tongues or red-mouthed ghouls clad in black or eternally young fish-belly white women whose darkened eyes speak of nightly hungers and worse - uh, can you tell I kinda missed that stuff? But I'm not being fair: that's not the novel Talbot set out to write. And actually I'm glad he didn't, because do we really need another vampire novel like that? Well, yeah, I suppose I will always want to read that traditional kind of vampire novel, but with The Delicate Dependency, Michael Talbot has written something much more substantial, something special, a unique and engrossing paperback original. How satisfying it is, or how much you want to pay for it, well, that's between you and you.

Finding a copy for 50 cents

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And oh yeah, if you're wondering how and where I came across my copy, any diligent book hunter will appreciate this: last summer I was vacationing at a Carolina beach and was fortunate enough to find a used bookstore and a local public library book sale. So I of course found two copies! For about 50 cents apiece. Sorry guys. We can hope that someday it gets reprinted... yeah, right.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Christine by Stephen King (1983): Out of Her Way, Mister, You Best Keep

Argh. For more than two weeks I'd been trying to find an approach to my review of Christine, the first of two novels Stephen King published in 1983 (the second was Pet Sematary). This way, that way, whatever way, but I couldn't quite figure out what I wanted to say. I had paragraphs but no overarching point other than something about baby boomers and American cars and independence, with plenty of Springsteen references. The review just wasn't coming together. Then, of course, a technological glitch saved me the headache and deleted virtually all of what I wrote. This has really only happened once or twice before while writing this blog, so I count myself lucky.

Probably the reason I had such a tough time writing my review was because I realized Christine isn't a King classic in any sense. All the King aspects are there: vulgar yet thoughtful teenagers, evil old men, well-meaning but doomed parents, a smallish town (in Pennsylvania, not Maine), and lots of rock'n'roll references; just seems like King's kinda on autopilot here. Enjoyable in a cozy way, yes, but did it affect me as deeply as Pet Sematary, 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, "The Mist," "Nona," "Strawberry Spring," "Apt Pupil"? Nope, not even close.
Christine was one of my favorite books to read and reread when I was a teenager, but now I find it entirely too middle-of-the-road (sorry), with horrors that are not particularly scary, characters that for all their vividness are actually quite cliched, and a lot of unnecessary stuffing. I certainly didn't think Roland LeBay's backstory was horrific enough - and when his rotting corpse shows up in Christine's passenger seat, I could really only think of this. The most chilling part of Christine is the final lines. Overall I think the novel is more about friendship and growing up than about the supernatural power that literally drives Christine. And yet, perhaps Christine is ultimately about an old man who hates kids on his lawn, and who has one helluva way of getting back at them.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Unholy Passion I Feel for You: The Erotic Horror Paperbacks of Russ Martin

Now discovering this kind of horror paperback cover art is why I have this blog! Russ Martin is a name unfamiliar to me; none of my Google-fu turned up anything about him whatsoever, and even his bibliography is scattered and uncertain. I unknowingly featured his 1981 novel The Desecration of Susan Browning awhile ago here; I simply had no idea Martin had an entire series of erotic-satanic-cult-horror paperbacks back in the day - how wonderful! In all my bookstore jaunts I don't think I've come across one of these. You can bet if I do you'll be hearing all about it...

Above is Rhea, his 1978 novel, published in paperback in 1980 by Playboy Press. Utterly fantastic! Vintage-y lady of many looks draws you in, probably seals your doom but not before draining you of precious bodily fluids. One would hope. Love the reptilian tail trailing from the R...

Hello nurse! I really need to know what happens between The Devil and Lisa Black (1982). The bloody fingers thing has got to be some sort of fetish.

Tor Books started publishing Martin in the early 1980s and reprinted them in '88. You can see how paperback horror cover art changed during that time in the two editions of The Possession of Jessica Young (1982). I'm not crazy about either one, though; is the woman supposed to look threatening, or threatened, or what?

From 1983, The Obsession of Sally Wing. "Vastly evil sensuality"! Well alright. The cover from '88 makes the white liberal in me feel a mite uncomfortable.

1984's The Education of Jennifer Parrish. Now this is some '80s preppy shit. (What was it about the '80s and preppies anyway?) Look at that hair! I get a real "Silver Spoons" meets "The Facts of Life" vibe, maybe some Less Than Zero too. These kids don't really look all that monstrous though once you really look at them.

Be sure to read this guy's short comments on Martin's books - he loves 'em all. Anybody know these books? Are they really worth tracking down? Please, spill!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Crabtastic Mr. Smith: The Dell Paperback Covers of The Crabs Series

For your crustacean delectation, I present these paperback editions of Guy N. Smith's infamously crass yet undeniably charming Crabs series. Which is about giant man-eating crabs. Which of course you knew. Originally published in England by New English Library and Grafton, during the late 1980s the series was repackaged for American consumption by Dell. To which I'm sure pulp-horror fans shouted a heartfelt Huzzah!

At the top, you'll see Night of the Crabs (UK 1976/Dell 1989) The original (but not the first published in the States; that was Killer Crabs). But this cover doesn't give you a sense of scale so there's no way to know that they're GIANT CRABS. Boo. But check this out!

Killer Crabs (UK 1978/Dell 1989) Okay, here you can see this is a GIANT CRAB. Also, I'm assuming, a KILLER CRAB. Read it early this year.

The Origin of the Crabs (UK 1979/ Dell 1988) The crabs have crossed the pond!

Crabs on the Rampage (UK 1981/Dell 1988) Is that crab drooling?

Crabs' Moon (UK 1984/Dell 1988) Now that's an ENORMOUS CRAB! But what makes me happiest about this cover is the correct use of the plural possessive apostrophe, which is quickly becoming obsolete because people are illiterate.

Crabs: The Human Sacrifice (UK 1988/Dell 1989) What the eff is going on here?! Why is a GIANT CRAB using a knife?! Why is it sacrificing anything? Is it a special ritual knife the crabs brought over from Old Blighty? Does anybody know? Most of these Dell editions are collectors' items and not easily found; I don't think I'm gonna spend $20 to find out. However, they are available as something called an "ebook" which I'm led to believe is a book that is not printed on paper between two cardboard covers and that you can't find after diligent searches in musty old used bookstores. That, truly, is a tale of horror unlike any I've ever known...

The crabtastic Mr. Smith himself