Why oh why did I not keep my brand-new copy of Joe R. Lansdale's debut novel, Act of Love? It was 1991, I'd just flipped out over The Nightrunners, and got my hands on all his books that were in print at the time (which were mostly crime and westerns back then). Well, as I read the reviews on Amazon, I was reminded this was about cops hunting a serial killer of women - not really my horror thing back then. Ah well.... Still wonder if a strawberry really figures in the story.
But wait! Check out this cover, also from Zebra, the very same year! Hmmm.
Love this unlikely cover art for Hell House, the haunted house novel by the one and only Richard Matheson. Showcasing the classic Gothic romance elements that were then so popular in mass-market paperbacks, this 1972 Bantam paperback features a woman threatened and fearful of a house she cannot even see from the position she's standing in. Wonder how many old ladies picked this up thinking it was your standard Goth romance, but then ended up on a tour of real horror and perversion not even hinted at on the cover... Heh.
This edition from 1973 includes the two essential horror buzzwords of the era, "possession" and "occult" - and even by '73, two years after its original publication in hardcover, Hell House was considered a "classic novel." Oddly it doesn't mention either Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist! A horror fiction rarity indeed in those pre-King days.
Did you notice that all the women are in the exact same stance?! This Warner Books cover from '85 is a little too starkly blocky for my taste, and having King's and Straub's names above the author's must have stung Matheson a bit - but this had to really stand out on the paperback racks. And after actually reading Hell House I am not at all surprised to see their blurbs here.
The plot: four people enter the famously haunted Hell House and... well, not all of them leave. The original owner and occupant of the house, the legendary Emeric Belasco, got up to some pretty nasty stuff there, and it seems his negative vibes still permeate the place: no one ever saw him after a November night in 1929, when all his party guests ended up dead. Skeptic physicist/paranormal investigator Dr. Barrett brings his electronic ghost-detector called the Reversor, basically a framus that intersects with the ramistan approximately at the paternoster. Florence Tanner is a kind of Christian medium who can contact the spirit world. Ben Fischer was a child prodigy medium and a member of a previous and tragic endeavor into Hell House that left him the only survivor. Edith is Barrett's wife, prim, proper, unsure why she's along. Hired by the cranky old Rolf Deutsch, a rich eccentric man who wants them to determine if there is life after death, they plan to spend one week within its walls...
So, the good: early chapters include some tasty details about Belasco's predilections at home, which put him in a locus of Crowley, de Sade, and de Rais. Matheson strikes a somber and bleak tone throughout, hinting at times at a Gothic atmosphere - Hell House sits enshrouded in an eternal fog, its windows all bricked up, its rooms enormous and arrogant, the grounds a marshy, deadly tarn. Later, unfortunate characters pinball through this house of horrors, hit by wave after wave of fear and disbelief and pain in nightmarish collisions with their deepest repressions (revealing, I felt, where King and Straub got a lot of ideas for their own excesses). "It's me!" cries one character over and over again at the climax, maddening in idiocy, perhaps my favorite chilling moment in the whole book.
The bad: too much down-time and repetition in the week's activities and lots of bickering. Barrett's Reversor and his and the others' theories on psychic phenomena bore me silly and aren't scary at all. That "somber and bleak tone" becomes humorlessness; the book isn't really any fun in that "gotta keep turning the pages" way I like my vintage horror fiction. And the characters are virtually sympathy-free: Barrett's imperious, Florence a whiner, Fischer's generally out of sorts, and Edith's... well, her name's Edith, you can figure it out.
1999 cover art
The ugly: mostly the graphic sexual assaults, all originating in the rampant orgies of sex and death that were the norm during Belasco's reign in the house. One attack, on Florence, is lurid and somewhat ridiculous in its over-the-topness. Overall it's pretty baldly obvious that Matheson took The Haunting of Hill House and made it faster, cruder, meaner - but a lot shallower too, stuck in its '70s vibe of psychic/paranormal BS, which is my least favorite kind of horror fiction. The author bio states that Matheson is "a man who knows of what he writes, he is a long student of ESP and related psychic phenomena." Big whoop, honestly. Maybe in the stoned '70s that carried some cred, but not today. You might want to stop by Hell House for a visit, there's some really funky stuff going on there you'd like, but if you wanted to skip this tour and spend more quality time with, say, I Am Legend, I wouldn't blame you.
Quick post while I finish up a haunted house novel and prepare a review: I have no idea who Charles M. Collins is, but in the late 1960s he put together three anthologies of horror fiction of the classic sort, stories by Stoker, Bierce, Polidori, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Lovecraft, and other much lesser-known folks. Avon's cover art - artist unknown - is creepy and yet slightly comic at once.
I do dearly love this series of Avon horror paperbacks from 1968 and '69 - such vintage-y and creepy goodness! The only one I own is the Matheson; I'd seen a couple here and there over the years and dug 'em, but it wasn't till today that I actually looked at the Stir of Echoes copyright page to find out the artist: Hector Garrido. He was quite prolific too. Great stuff, sir, and thank you. I hope you guys find the off-kilter red-and-black design as horrifically delightful as I do!
As for new horror fiction reviews, I'm halfway through a pretty good '70s novel right now and plan to have my post up later this week...
For weeks now I've been slowly getting through A Manhattan Ghost Story, the seventh horror novel by T.M. Wright. He's a prolific but rather cultish author whose first book, the oddly poetic and ambiguous Strange Seed, I read and reviewed last year; it left me nonplussed, unsure of how I really felt about it. But Wright had skill, a manner and tone I found intriguing, so I didn't give up on reading another horror novel by him. Then I happily found a copy of MGS, feeling that his talents would lend themselves well to a quiet tale of haunting in the Big Apple. Dared I hope for, I dunno, Woody Allen meets Roman Polanski (to put it in cinematic terms)? Well... yep, kinda I was hoping for that! But now, I'm feeling that same ambivalence about this novel too.
A photographer named Abner Cray visits the city to do a coffee-table book of his work, staying at an old friend's empty apartment. He muses obsessively on the nature of death and the dead but not in any way I found insightful or surprising. A struggle, trudging through "poetic" elegiacal passages such as Yes, definitively, this is what it's all about, this is what Death is all about; sit back now, I'll tell you, my God, they'd swarm all over like angry bees, the dead would, like angry bees which appear again and again throughout the narrative. Then there's flashback chapter sections in which Abner and a delinquent friend break into a mausoleum as young teens in 1965, which contain some really and truly clunky, amateur-hour prose and dialogue (if I read one more conversation in which two characters say one another's names over and over again...).
The present day sees ghosts intermingling with the living in a sort of purgatorial New York City. At least, if you can't figure out that the odd people who speak in repetitive near-riddles to the narrator are merely shades of the dead - well, there, I spoiled it for you. But I didn't really: the book is titled "A Manhattan Ghost Story" - what else is the reader supposed to expect? Just look at the Tor paperback's cover art!
Anyway, I had to give up two-thirds of the way through, and quickly skimmed the final chapters. Don't feel like I missed much. There's an interesting story here, absolutely: Abner's friendship with a man who's abandoned his apartment and left the country because he murdered someone; his burgeoning relationship with that friend's ex-girlfriend; Abner's own past in which he'd slept with an attractive cousin; his misadventures in the dark and gritty city streets and parks and apartment buildings. But there's little atmosphere and, as I said, you pretty much know what's coming. The pacing is stop/start and the editing should have tightened up a lot of the writing. I felt like MGS was an old manuscript Wright had in a desk drawer and turned it in without rewriting it.
I really wanted to like A Manhattan Ghost Story; I haven't read a good ghost story in some time, and I felt the Manhattan setting would work to Wright's advantage. It's just that I don't think he took enough advantage, certainly not enough to convince this reader. He has some real fans, though, as his Wikipedia page reads more like disguised fanboy gushing than impartial biography (who gives a fuck who the movie rights to MSG were bought by and which celebrities were attached to act in it? You don't see that in other Wikipedia novel entries). Not finishing a book is one of my great pet peeves, but it really is the only sensible course: three weeks of reading and I didn't even make it to page 250 (out of 381). My shelves are overstuffed these days; what would you have done?
Born today in the barely conceivable year of 1929, Charles Beaumont is one of the forgotten figures in horror/science fiction/fantasy. Well, not at Too Much Horror Fiction! I originally featured Beaumont here. You can also watch his many episodes of "The Twilight Zone" on Netflix Instant. You ever find one of his vintage paperbacks in a used bookstore, buy it. I've got a few, but not these (Yonder, a collectionfrom 1958, is especially desired):
Novel 1959(Corman adapted the '62 movie, a Shatner film before "Star Trek")
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 toomuchhorrorfiction[at]gmail.com describing it and if I don't know it, one of my readers might!
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