Well, I didn't have quite the book-shopping success I was expecting while on vacation but I was able to check off a good handful of titles/editions from my must-have list. San Francisco bookstores unfortunately had some really paltry horror sections, but Powell's in Portland (see pic above) and Artifacts in Hood River, OR, supplied me well. I'm not exactly sure which of the books I bought I'll be reading next - I'm halfway through the astonishing science fiction novel A Fire Upon the Deep, my travel-read - but perhaps the names Masterton, Derleth, Grant, Oates, and Newman sound familiar? And oh yeah, here I am outside the amazing Lovecraft Bar in Portland, fortuitously on August 20, checking the skies to see if the stars are right:
Featuring the least impressive of cover art of Russell Martin's books from Playboy Press, The Desecration of Susan Browning is a decently agreeable paperback original horror/erotic thriller. With liberal dashes of titillation, a stale if well-handled and mild "satanic" cult angle, painfully dated gender stereotypes, it's written pretty good with a bit of a knowing wink. Nothing too special is going on - it's certainly not "scary as hell!" - but Martin keeps the storyline hopping with the promise of illicit sex and sacrificial death; me, I liked the sleazy detective playing both sides just so he can get a little girly action. By the time poor hapless Susan Browning finds herself lying on a cot in a freezing room, shaved bare from the neck down, awaiting the unthinkable at the hands of a powerful and mesmerizing occult leader, you'll swear you can't wait to read Martin's other books. Or you'll at least add them to your ever-growing "must-read" list. If you want more Desecration, check out this in-depth review at William Malmborg's blog.
Two more vintage '70s paperback covers to compare, this time Smart as the Devil, the 1975 debut novel from Felice Picano. At the top is the 1976 paperback; below, the 1978 reprint, both from Dell. I vaguely recognized Picano's name from my days shelving this kind of paperback as a used bookstore clerk; Picano wrote bestseller-type thrillers, sort of an Ira Levin lite, maybe? Ever-present '70s horror-paperback blurb comparing it to Rosemary's Baby: present and accounted for!
As for his other titles, man, I just love, absolutely love these other Dell paperbacks of his. He may have began his career writing what look to be tawdry contemporary thrillers, but he's got excellent cred in the gay literary world today. But these glorious old paperback cover illustrations are a cornucopia of bad hair and sexual threat. And I wouldn't have it any other way!
The Lure (Dell 1980) Eyes (Dell 1977) The Mesmerist (Dell 1977)
Satan's Manor, a paperback original from Leisure Books by someone with the utterly unassuming name Mark Andrews (doubtless a pseudonym and stuck at the top almost as an afterthought). Which one would you rather read: the original at top, or the 1983 reprint? I absolutely adore the '77 version - go figure - even though it features no monsters or demons or satanic ladies. The sanguine color scheme, the towering title carved in stone, the foreboding house itself, that squelch of lightning... dig it all. Truly an abode for evil. Meanwhile the reprint? I got nothin'.
Using his considerable storytelling skills in The War, the fourth book (April 1983) in Blackwater,his pop-lit Southern-Gothic-lite paperback-original miniseries, author Michael McDowell tantalizes us with stronger, stranger glimpses of what goes on down there in Perdido, Alabama with that whole Caskey family. McDowell tells much of his grand tale at a far remove, describing the impact of WWII on the townspeople, particularly how this business of war fills the Caskey family coffers; Oscar Caskey signs a lucrative contract with the US government to produce much-needed items such as utility poles, and lord, as Stephen King might put it, how the money do roll in. His daughters, formerly estranged sisters Miriam and Frances, now in their late and young teen years respectively, form a speechless bond over car trips to the beach every morning. There, Frances - truly her mother Elinor's daughter - finds an exhilarating and illuminating connection to the sea. Other Caskey kids beget trouble, or look to the faraway war for a new frontier.
In general the Caskey children are growing up and moving on, falling in love and starting careers and seeking wartime assignments, all which bear hard on the previous generation, who are now facing growing gracelessly, hopelessly old, a losing proposition no matter how much money the family has. Some, like imperturbable Elinor (whose sudden appearance in Perdido during a flood began the tale entire), welcome these changes, and foresee a future of success and happiness never experienced during the reign of late-but-not-lamented matriarch Mary-Love Caskey. But aging Uncle James sees his beloved young nephew Danjo eventually shipped off to Germany, and worries and frets and foresees nothing but his own death...
But then McDowell zooms in close for those intimate revelations so essential to the Blackwater saga. Miriam seems to be turning out like Mary-Love, full of secret plans withheld from the family, impatient, imperious. Servicemen hang around Perdido at a dancehall on the lake, much to Lucille Caskey's delight. James's daughter Grace, once a phys-ed instructor at a girls' school (yes, make of that exactly what you will) returns to Perdido and ends up discovering she loves the country life, using Caskey money to begin a small farm outside of town. A new character is introduced: Billy Bronze, a handsome and intelligent (but of course) North Carolina corporal stationed nearby. His strong character impresses Elinor, who every Sunday invites soldiers to the Caskey home for a hearty after-church meal. Billy, raised by an abusive albeit wealthy father, realizes the unique quality of the Caskeys, and guilelessly plans to marry into them.
But not only were there a great many Caskey women, the women were in control of the family. Billy had never seen anything like it, and the whole notion fascinated him. He loved being around the Caskeys, and had grown very quickly to love them all... Oscar seemed rather put upon, and might have been utterly powerless had he not enjoyed at least superficial control fo the mill. James Caskey had abdicated his rights entirely, and had become a kind of woman himself. Danjo was a strong, masculine boy, but one trained nevertheless to believe that real power and real prestige lay with women and not with men.
I saw lots of these in used bookstores in the early '90s... and never bought 'em.
"But wait!" I hear you saying; "I thought this was a novel of bloodcurdling horror - gimme the goods!" Well, there isn't a lot of horror at all, bloodcurdling or otherwise, in The War; nope, just a scant few moments that bode (un)well for the final forthcoming tomes: an old lunatic man confronts Frances about her mother's origins and the Blackwater river; two teens go missing when they are to report for army duty; a woman is raped and inhuman vengeance doled out. McDowell knows when to underplay and when to lay it all out on the table, sure, but I must report that The War isn't quite up to The Flood or The House in intensity, but neither is it as lackluster as The Levee. It's an easy, entertaining read, comfortable and satisfying. Not everything can be splatterpunk you know.
One last thing, and tell me if I'm crazy: early one morning I was lying in bed, thinking about The War and Blackwater in general, when it hit me: women, water, and the Y-shaped intersection of the rivers, evidenced by this map included in each book. Do you see it? Grove of live oaks? I mean... yeah. I'm not crazy!
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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