Chosen as an entry for Horror: 100 Best Books by none other than notorious gore-king Shaun Hutson, the nature thrillerThe Totem is the third novel from David Morrell, and his first in the horror genre. Morrell isn't a huge figure in modern horror fiction - although he wrote one of my favorite horror stories ever, "Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity" - but he created one of the '80s hugest and most recognizable pop-culture fictional figures, one John Rambo, the protagonist of his 1971 debut title, First Blood. Although I've never read that, I know you can dig this first edition paperback of it:
The Totem is another one of those books that was edited down
greatly from its original manuscript form, then republished years later
(in this case, 1995) with all edits restored. I read the 1985 Ballantine
books paperback (seen below; at top is the first paperback, Fawcett Crest August 1980, fantastic cover, thanks to Secondhand Horror) so I don't know first hand what was "missing," and
don't think the book needed much more than it had: it's a dour,
no-nonsense, single-minded tale that grimly presents flawed and
frightened men trying to forget past failures as they confront... well, somethings from the hilly wilds just above a small Wyoming town, something making mincemeat, and more, of innocent citizens. There is disease running through the veins of these somethings, a new kind of rabies - but it brings the same old kind of death.
Opening with a cinematic and suspenseful scene in a working-man's bar, The Totem wastes no time introducing us to Potter's Field, that small Wyoming town residing beneath a gorgeous mountain range. The usual cast of characters show up: the police chief, Slaughter, newish in town from back east; the old coroner, Markle, who'll be dispatched promptly; the younger medical examiner, Accum, who'll replace him, but who hides a hideous secret; Parsons, the wily, oily mayor/newspaper publisher; Dunlap, the alcoholic journalist returning to town after disgrace; and various other cops and love interest and town-folk and their children. Potter's Field comes complete with its own dark past: once in the early '70s a caravan of back-to-nature types, under the aegis of rich and eccentric Quiller, took to the unforgiving mountains to live in their own compound. But: They didn't know what every six-year-old around here knows instinctively. You try to take on nature. It'll kill you.
Morrell, in this version of the book, has made what might be a reduction of prose and character and motivation from his original manuscript that might take some getting used to; he has a habit of referring to people simply as "he" or "she" and even "it" when describing the monstrous and possibly inhuman creatures. His prose also has that weird mix of clarity and obscurity favored, I feel, by writers influenced by Hemingway. But none of this affects the power of scenes dealing with Dunlap's drinking, Slaughter's guilt about something that happened to him back in Detroit, or especially a terrifying and saddening scenario with a little boy beset by disease. The account of Accum's moment of weakness years before is deftly and quickly told, but leaves a real chill. Action scenes come thick and fast, but that's where Morrell's talents are (you can see that element highlighted in the '90s reprint below).
The Totem isn't truly original - time and again I was reminded of other books and movies (Rabid, Raw Meat, 'Salem's Lot, even Morrell's own First Blood). The climax is underwritten but believably chaotic and satisfyingly weird - evolutionary atavisms and ancient religious iconography figure in. It's a gripping read, mostly, even in this apparently "edited" version, and while I don't agree with Hutson that it is one of horror's 100 best novels, The Totem definitely deserves to be tracked down and read.
I said I'd have more Tor Horror paperbacks! Some of these I'd never seen till beginning my search. Such good stuff! The Devouring, from F.W. Armstrong - pseudonym of regular Tor author T.M. Wright - reveals the sordid yet utterly believable truth behind the Kutcher/Moore marriage. Don't know anything about Seth Pfefferle but you can read a decent review of Stickman at the PorPor Books Blog (source of the cover scan as well).
Love these covers for somebody named Lee Killough, got a real "Night Stalker for the '80s" vibe. Who is that guy with the gun, Robert Culp? I sure he's got Bill Cosby or at least William Katt for some midnight backup.
Tor Books really held nothing back when it came to designing their horror paperbacks during that beloved 1980s boom. They were probably the most prominent purveyor of the day, even putting out titles in hardcover editions with usually the same cover art as seen here. Bold title fonts, breathless blurbs, highly charged color schemes, images that were sometimes subtle, sometimes absurd, sometimes even actually creepy. Their roster of authors included giants like Robert Bloch and Richard Laymon, as well as up-and-comers like K.W. Jeter and Lisa Tuttle, and folks who never made much of an impact in the genre either (I shall refrain from mentioning them, you know how I don't like to hurl my opinions about). I present simply a few...
And there is nothing in the sky, nothing I can see through the window. There is the moon, of course, high and round. But no shadow falls across the moon, no churning chaos of smoke that chokes the frail order of the earth, no shifting cloud of nightmares enveloping moons and suns and stars. It is not a squirming, creeping, smearing shape I see upon the moon, not the shape of a great deformed crab scuttling out of the black oceans of infinity and invading the island of the moon, crawling with its innumerable bodies upon all the spinning islands of inky space. That shape is not the cancerous totality of all creatures, not the oozing ichor that flows within all things...
from "Nethescurial," collected in Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991). Read my short review of Songs of a Dead Dreamerhere.
With these odd, detached, near-catatonic icy eyes peering from unknown shadows, this cover for Crawlspace at first seems rather generic - till you read the book. This Pocket
Books paperback (June 1972) for Herbert Lieberman's second novel features, as you'll learn, some accurate and appropriate imagery. I wasn't familiar with the book till a TMHF fan - yes, I have a few! - kindly and considerately shipped me some of his old paperbacks, and this title was one of the first to catch my eye (although I was thinking and at first hoping it was related to this Crawlspace). Knowing that some of my favorite vintage horror novels have been those pre-King bestsellers of "growing menace and terror" I had some expectations... and huzzah - had them (mostly) met.
Elderly, retired, and recuperating from a heart attack, Albert Graves lives quietly but satisfactorily with his wife Annie. They tend with much care to their New England farmhouse and garden, and look to spend their remaining decades in peace with their lives, their home, and each other. Lieberman - or rather Albert - lovingly describes his surroundings, and I could just feel the cool damp stone of their house, the summer wind blowing through the many old trees on the front lawn, my mind's eye refreshed by the verdant green of the wild land beyond. Ahhh, I thought, this is just the kind of '70s slow-burn spookiness I'm craving right now, because mild
hints rise immediately that something will go entirely wrong - Give me fifteen minutes of your time and I shall make you loathe me. Okay, you're on!
Then one day the oil man shows up to help with their furnace, a shy young man who lingers so long working in the basement that Annie surprisingly invites him to stay to dinner. His name is Richard Atlee, his manners are lacking - Albert is shocked when he asks to borrow a copy of Albert's treasured Blake: I've always considered it an impertinence to ask to borrow anything as intimate as a book - and despite his "brutal" face he has about him an oddly beautiful quality, rather religious in some indefinable way, like an Eastern saint. Richard will return after this meal, seeking another but under the guise of wishing to check again their furnace, and he will most impertinently not have read the Blake. And he spills the wine. What the what?! This type of affront will not stand, and Alice insists simple Richard frightens her. Soon after, however, in a carefully wrought scene of chilly intimation and discovery, Albert finds.... well. You can guess.
UK paperback (and below)
Richard circumvents all rules of social conduct by simply
taking up residence in the dirt and grime of the crawlspace of their
home. Oddly, but with a vague sort of Christian charity and sympathy, the Graves allow this. Ideally he is to reside with them only till he finds a job. At first Richard may seem to lack any knowledge that what he's doing goes against every convention, but almost imperceptibly he becomes entwined in their lives, making himself indispensable to their rural home and hearth: We never saw him, mind you. Only the effects of his work. He was like the elf in the fairy tale that performs Herculean tasks while everyone else in the house sleeps.
He chops wood, bakes breakfast pastries and perks fresh coffee every morning, sets out clean laundry (which eventually upsets Annie as this is a chore she much prefers to do herself), then disappears into the wilds for the rest of the daylight hours doing God knows what. He builds an enormous wall bordering their property using the heaviest stones. Soon the Graves have invited him to sleep in their guestroom, a prodigal son, offspring they never produced themselves. Albert's narration, somewhat defeatist while marveling at the events over which he seems to have no control, sweeps you along and despite its unlikeliness, you can't imagine the situation any other way.
The townspeople - always with the townspeople in these kinds of books - start to turn against the Graves and their strange young interloper when they learn of this seemingly untenable living situation. Richard, who has let his hair grow wild and looks generally unkempt, runs errands for the couple and so becomes the target of abuse by ignorant redneck teenagers - abuse which turns violent. Later, these same hooligans will turn up at the Graves's home at night in deadly, harrowing scenes that are some of the best of the novel. Cue ineffective, resentful local sheriff who condescendingly placates the Graves but truly hates Richard. When our crawlspace-dweller takes vengeance in town, it's ferocious, brutal, shocking, feral. The no-exit climax is primed, a foregone conclusion...
Now some fun stuff! This reprint from the early 1980s is too literal by half, and deprives a potential reader of the gently building unease and disquiet that the novel does so well. The guy looks like a deranged predator, and that's not what's going on, Lieberman's style is not that obvious.
And I dislike this '70s reprint because the clashing colors are all wrong; it looks like some kind of science fiction or ghost story.
There's a lot more to this slim novel than I'm giving you; Lieberman is a
skillful writer, evoking mysterious psychological depths to Richard
Atlee without spelling them out, convincing us that the Graves are
acting out of good faith and trust even while the situation bewilders
them. Though at times the story seems stuck in a holding pattern, moving
in circles but not quite moving forward, its uniqueness kept me
reading. When the Graves begin to feel put out and put upon by their
guest, their guilt is palpable. And while I don't want to give away the climax and the denouement, I have to say I didn't entirely buy the background Lieberman eventually provides for Richard. There is a parable-like quality to it all that doesn't impress me. Perhaps I
should've seen that coming, what with a Bible verse about strangers and
exiles as the book's epigraph. Crawlspace isn't a true horror novel but if you've enjoyed The Auctioneer, Harvest Home, or other early-'70s creepy thrillers, I say crawl on in. And oh yeah, of course it was made into a TV movie in '72!
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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