Hey gang, be sure to head over to Joe Monster's (in mundane reality he is known as Jose Cruz) blog The Grim Reader and feast your ears upon my deathless, trenchant, oh-so-piquant words in our lengthy discussion of paperback horror fiction, filled to brimming with the wittiest of banter, the most insightful of insights, and le bonniest of mots! Please be sure to leave your own wisdom-crammed words and let us know what ya think of our tête-à-tête of terror. Or, perhaps you'd care to listen to it here - the choice, constant readers, is yours!
There's a moment early in Nightwing as three men explore a verminous vampire bat cave rife with unimaginable creepy-crawlies and filth and endure a moment of agonizing nightmare tragedy; it could be an otherworldly scene of horror straight out of Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, but it's not - it's real, it's this world, and it's disgusting. Nature is great, except when it's trying to kill you. Or actually does.
The floor was a world of its own, a steaming brown soup of digested nectar, meat, insects, and blood. Twenty percent protein, it supported pools of bacteria. Over a million mites, scavenger beetles, toads and mountain crabs to a square yard. Giant cockroaches and venomous snakes. For them all, guano was a steady rain of food, or food for their food. The fall of an unlucky bat was a bonanza for them, and seconds of agony for the bat.
That's kind of the set-up for Martin Cruz Smith's novel. Not horror per se, the bestselling Nightwing still adheres to the generic template, and its pop cultural origins can be clearly seen: first and foremost, its killer-creature setup followed in the wake of Jaws; then there's is the "alternative spirituality" concerns of the Native American tribes; the threads of white guilt that had been gaining in the liberal conscience since the late 1960s; and overall a general sense that if humans fuck with nature, it will fuck right back (you'll recall Jaws had none of these angles; it was only about a thing with teeth that wanted to eat you). Vampire bats are bringing plague to the Painted Desert, but is it a natural disaster, or a bitter old Hopi shaman's curse to end the world?
No less an authority than Stephen King included Nightwing in his list of important horror fiction in an appendix of Danse Macabre. Honestly I don't really see why, and I have little to say about the novel: it's boringly straight in most places with a few bouts of decently written bat attacks, with bits of biology and mythology woven in. Smith writes of the tensions between the white man and the Native American well in that he doesn't seem to be writing a polemic; the conflict feels natural, exacerbated by the "bat situation," and the Native protagonist, a man in his late 20s, is interestingly a conflicted failure. But Smith takes forever to get to the climax as various folks fall victim to the bats and others don't believe the plague is real: all your standard "creature horror" is here.
My favorite parts were definitely those in which one character speaks of vampire bat biology, Matt Hooper-style, of its unique evolutionary adaptations and heritage - "The two glorious specimens descended from tree-hopping insectivores are man and bats. We climbed down and they flew out, although we share the same hand in different forms... and the closest of all bats to man is the vampire." I'm a big fan of pop-science books so I preferred that stuff to the actual story. Also, dig the mythic past in which bats were considered gods by the various Native tribes:
But in the New World, the bat was god. His Mayan name was Zotzilaha. Whole cities and people bore his name and throughout Mexico temples carried his image: a striding man with the wings, face, teeth and tongue of a bat, holding a severed human head in one hand and a heart in the other.
The original paperback (Jove/HBJ June 1978, at top) has a dumb title logo that looks like it was copped straight from a '70s hard rock band's album cover; the UK and later reprint paperbacks fare much better, though there is nary a goth moment to be found in the book itself. Smith was the kind of bestselling author I never had any interest in reading, which is why I've only come to Nightwing now. I remember watching the crappy movie when I was a kid and being utterly bored stiff; apparently the director made more of a "socially conscious" film (see Prophecy from the era as well) than a horror flick. Bleh!
Born and bred in Brooklyn, USA, artist and author Robert W. Chambers left a legacy of horror lauded by Lovecraft (although with some reservations) and other lovers of supernatural fiction. Me? I read and kinda liked okay "The Repairer of Reputations" a gajillion years ago, in Hartwell's The Dark Descent (1987), and now a copy of the 1982 Ace paperback (boring cover at bottom) of his major work, The King in Yellow (1895), sits unread upon my shelf. That's cool at least.
Anyone else in need of some chilling horror fiction with appropriate cover art to fend off the coming summertime blues? I've said before that freezing temperatures and blinding snow are settings for great horror. Two classic
tales from the first half of the 20th century, At the Mountains of
Madness and "Who Goes There?", help prove my point, while two classics of the vintage era, The Shining and Ghost Story, nearly secure it. But wait - there's more. Ahh, that's the stuff.
Known primarily as the author of the Adversary Cycle and Repairman Jack series of supernatural thrillers, Jersey-born physician F. Paul Wilson (born today in 1946) also made fairly regular appearances in various genre anthologies throughout the '70s and '80s. The Keep from '81 is probably his most famous novel (made into a woefully misbegotten film I watched last year on Netflix Instant and has about 20 seconds of goodness in it), and I've got a copy of it here on my desk but haven't read it yet. I'd heard very good things about this out-of-print short story collection, Soft and Others - very high ratings on both Amazon and Goodreads - and recalled liking a couple of his stories back in the day. It was on my must-buy list for ages, and I was excited to find a mint paperback copy (Tor July 1990) at a huge book sale last month.
And the verdict... Soft is kinda really meh. Which kinda sucks. No way around it: despite some really inventive and unsettling scenarios, Wilson's pedestrian, humdrum prose and tin-eared dialogue dampened any enthusiasm I originally had. His writing isn't terrible, no, just bland, flavorless, middling. Some readers don't mind this and don't read horror to be challenged literarily, but I'm not a fan of letting my brain coast through fiction, and sometimes his "style" is so flatfootedly clunky it snapped me right out of a story. That's the last thing a writer should want. Arranged chronologically, this collection starts off with some ho-hum science fiction tales from the early '70s and finishes up with some trite and obvious '80s horror.
Sorry 'bout the shitty review on your birthday
The titles are stark and simple, which makes them sound menacing: "Traps," "Buckets," "Muscles," "Cuts." Problem is, he's stuck in that cliched EC Comics manner of telling simple, one-dimensional revenge stories, or nasty ones that simply dispatch the protagonist for no other reason than to have a "Twilight Zone" twist at the end, in final sentences which are too hacky to have any real impact. I didn't mind the SF tales "To Fill the Air and Sea," a charming sort of alien Old Man and the Sea, and "Green Winter," which vaguely mines Planet of the Apes territory, they're well-imagined, if derivative. The less we say about the two rock'n'roll pieces, "The Last 'Oldies Revival'" and "The Years the Music Died," the better. Cringeworthy.
Oh Lansing State Journal, my most trusted source of horror lit criticism!
Straight horror can be found in "Ménages à Trois" - which I read years ago in the first Hot Blood anthology - and "Cuts," again, a story I remember from Silver Scream. Straight horror, yes, if more than a little cheesy and predictable. "Traps" is pretty dumb and one-note although the final line strikes a sadly thoughtful moment of real fear and helpless despair. Kirkus may have loved "Dat-Tay-Vao" but I sure didn't; the main character is such a cowardly shitheel I never believed he was a real person. The titular tale works really well even if underwritten in places; it's
graphic in just the right and disturbing way and has gained itself many
fans in the intervening decades since its first publication in 1984's Masques. Honestly, I had no idea what it was about, and... I'm not inclined to spoil it for y'all! Even the ebook cover won't give it away:
You may have heard of "Buckets," as it achieved some minor notoriety in
horror fiction circles for its, uh, indelicate subject matter (it was
chosen by Karl Edward Wagner for inclusion in Year's Best Horror Stories 18 and published as a standalone chapbook in 1991 - bought a copy back then, never read it, now can't find it).
Now "Buckets" sorta works as a standard horror tale of comeuppance, with a foolish and self-important "protagonist" receiving his
just deserts. The problem is in the execution. The touchy topic should have been
dealt with in a deft and sure and perhaps even ironic hand - which ain't
the case here.
A 50-ish gynecologist - presented as vain and self-regarding - faces the "ghosts" of the children he's
"killed" performing abortions (guess what's in those buckets). All kindsa conundrums here render the
story's reactionary point moot. It made me posit a ludicrous question: can there be ghosts of people who never existed?
How can those who never were rage about never being? Is this some
bizarre alternate reality tale? "Buckets" is as clever, as subtle, as
insightful as a raving
anti-abortionist's misspelled placard decorated with a photo of a bloody aborted fetus. About as brave, too. Fuck that.
Man, now I'm not looking forward to reading The Keep at all.
This week saw the birthday of Rebecca du Maurier, the esteemed British author of the darkly romantic popular novels Rebecca (1938) and Jamaica Inn (1936), as well as the classic short stories "The Birds" and "Don't Look Now" (movies all). In the early 1970s, Avon Books reprinted much of her catalog in loverly vintage paperback editions with moody, Gothic-y cover art just brimming with menaced '70s ladies and virily sideburned men. Love the covers, the colors, and the author's name featured so prominently in a distinctive font. Kiss Me Again, Stranger, a collection of her wonderfully written and icily macabre short stories, features some ghostly birds up to no good. Another collection, Echoes of the Macabre, was one of my fave reads last year. In 1969 du Maurier became a Dame of the British Empire, so, you know, fancy!
Can't really beat that tasty tagline can you? I've never read Pranks (Leisure 1993) but it's one of those books that I seem to find in all the used bookstores I haunt. I can't bring myself to purchase it, not with one of the most uselessly ludicrous covers ever. But I had to share it, and you can thank me later. Cinema Somnambulist reviewed it awhile back, see what he says here.
Unrelated note - or maybe it is related, as I'm featuring a cover for a book I neither own nor have read - I'm reading a couple horror short story collections this week, almost finished one, and should have a review up soon. I'll give you a few story-title hints: "Buckets," "Soft," "Cuts"... Stick with me now!
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!
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