Thursday, November 29, 2012

Off Season by Jack Ketchum (1981): At Night Everything Hunts

You see that tagline up there, bold white against the starkest of blacks, a not-so-discreet arrow of crimson, a barely-visible title? It says The Ultimate Horror Novel. This kind of thing makes me, has always made me, skeptical. Not even skeptical; when I see that encomium so obviously from the PR dept of a paperback publisher, it's not even something worth considering as truth in the first place. In fact, it puts me in the opposite direction: this is hype to cover hackwork, and I walk away. But. That tagline...

Ketchum today

It's not so far wrong, actually. Surprised? I was, some. But considering it the ultimate horror novel in no wise means it's to be considered the best horror novel. Which is fine. But Off Season, the first novel from Jack Ketchum (long-standing pen name of Dallas Mayr) and published in July 1981 by Ballantine, features some of the most primal images of human fear in the starkest terms - just like that cover art - so primal that they are nearly mythic. Off Season can be seen as an ur-text for the horror genre in that it reduces all fears to their simplest form. In this way it could be the ultimate horror novel. However it gets this aspect from its adherence to the structure and style of films like Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, I Spit on Your Grave, et. al. So if you crave the utmost originality in your horror fiction, Off Season might not be your season. But according to Ketchum himself, these films were the impetus for his novel: "It seemed to me that there was something the movies were doing that the books were not doing. And that was going at the violence very directly and in your face."

And that's just what Ketchum sets about doing in Off Season.This is not a pulpy roller-coaster ride or a cozy chiller. This is horror that knows few, if any, bounds, with nary a whisper of the supernatural or the Gothic. It's a highly disturbing and graphic novel that lulls you with well-sketched characters and then hammers you with breathtaking horror, never flinching or blinking in the face of utmost atrocity. Then it ends. It bears almost no resemblance to any horror fiction before it. The Sawney Bean-inspired cannibal clan is so unlikely as to be almost supernatural; credulity may be strained.

1991 sequel

I don't really feel it necessary to get into the plot and character specifics; you can find those in reviews all over the internet. I'd rather talk more generally about what's going on in the novel, how Ketchum's style, even in this debut work, is careful, measured; at rare moments it even achieves a dark thoughtful poetry. Power lies in its matter-of-factness, in the precise control he has over what the reader experiences. The long character-driven build-up works well, and the conflicts and desires in his young people are rooted in an experiential reality (you'd be surprised - or perhaps you wouldn't - how many horror novelists, if their writing is to be taken at face value, have no idea how humans talk, think, behave, and interact; if they have had those experiences then their writing shows nothing of it, shows only what they've learned through TV commercials). You believe in these characters, for the most part, and it's so satisfying to read a writer who can convey that easily. These aren't Stephen King-style characterizations, of course, but for a paperback original, they're something unexpected.

1999 Overlook Connection hardcover, unexpurgated edition

Off Season's horror is the realization we are nothing but meat to a bizarre cannibal tribe, that the identities we cradle within our skulls are invisible and worthy of no consideration. The horror is in the full awareness of our impending death by dismemberment, of a violation so beyond the realms of human decency as to be dizzying. Watch as your severed limbs are piled around you, your mind reeling. Watch as your friends and lovers are broken before you and set aflame. Watch as you are eaten alive. Then, when you have the chance to retaliate, watch as you become as vile, as depraved, as degenerated as your enemy.

He was keeping her alive as long as he could, and she participated in her torture by her body's blind attempts to survive it. Didn't she know that it was better to be dead now? What awful fraud animated her? Her will to live was as cruel as he was.

 
Ketchum in '81

Ballantine Books printed up hundreds of thousands of copies of Off Season, even sending out this advance reader's edition (above) to booksellers in January 1981, along with other promotional items. And the outcry was immediate: no bookseller wanted to sell what they considered "violent pornography." Ketchum's career as a novelist was almost over before it'd begun. While it gained some word-of-mouth sales and became a cult title, it wasn't till the advent of the internet that the author's work became better known. The republication of it in 1999 included material excised by the publisher originally for being too violent. I can't even imagine what that'd be!

2006 Leisure Books reprint, unexpurgated edition

As with his The Girl Next Door, I read Off Season in one go; it's got a merciless propulsion to it, a sense of doom that will not be avoided, like a clockwork collision course. Can I recommend it? I'm not sure: it's the kind of book that can get you wondering just why we read books like this: there is no enjoyment in it, no secret thrill (god, I hope not), no escape, nor does it inspire you to get other people to read it. It's an endurance test, really, and when you get to the end, what have you gained? Simply a badge that states "I Survived Off Season"? I don't really have an answer other than: you do it to see if you can take it.

As they stood in the kitchen facing each other nobody said a word for a few minutes. There was nothing left to do but what they had said they would do, and now that seemed enormous and filled them up with a kind of awe.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Books of Blood, Vol. 6 by Clive Barker (1985): Only the Living Are Lost

Originally published in paperback by Sphere Books in the UK in July 1985, Books of Blood Vol. VI completed Clive Barker's era-defining collection of short stories. Written in the evenings by hand after working days in London's underground theater circuit, these 30 stories in total were '80s horror fiction's watershed and its high-water mark. This final volume can stand with the rest; before turning to his unique brand of epic dark fantasy novels, Barker ended his Books on a high and inspired note of horror, a talent fully matured (these stories weren't published in the United States till 1988, when they appeared under the title Cabal, the name of Barker's then-newest novella, with which they were accompanied).

Barker's own handwritten ms. for the Books of Blood

Readers and publishers loved to compare Barker to King and - gack! - Koontz back in the day, and that has always seemed an ill-fitting comparison to me. While Barker may, at least in these early writings, have lacked the human warmth and bestseller plotting mechanics that gave K&K their huge middle-America audience, Barker is worlds ahead of them when it comes to style and imagination; he is also literary in a way those guys aren't. Barker easily employs irony and wit to his horrors; an erotic and perverse sexuality is threaded throughout; the metaphysics, if you will, of his stories aren't borne out of old monster movies or tawdry thriller novels but from ancient mythology, classic European art and philosophy, and obscure religious history (bet you didn't know a cenobite was a real thing!). Not content to simply scare us, Barker's world is one in which characters confront death, confront monsters, and learn to accept that sometimes banishing "the other" will result only in a world less worth living in, one that's been sanitized and banalized till it's fit for consumption only by toothless children.

The first story is "The Life of Death," and one might think it a trite title but the tale itself lives up to that literalization. It also is a perfect example of how facing fears enables us to see the world afresh... even as we see it for the last time.The world of Elaine Rider, a 34-year-old woman who's just had a hysterectomy and almost died twice during the surgery, has now become wintry and dull; she cries all the time and feels utterly bereft. That is until she happens upon the excavation of a 17th century church, All Saints, and meets near the underground crypts an interesting man, Kavanaugh, who piques her curiosity about whatever lies within those walls. He had legitimised her appetite with his flagrant enthusiasm for things funereal. Now, with the taboo shed, she wanted to go back to All Saints and look Death in its face. But it won't be as simple as all that, of course, not with Barker at the helm.

The jungles of South America, and the greedy foreign interlopers looking to exploits its riches, feature in "How Spoilers Bleed." Confrontation between those deceitful men and a tribal chieftan ends in death; curse is imposed; watch the bodies felled. But it is the precision of the curse, its nightmare delicacy, that unsettles:

 In the antiseptic cocoon of his room Stumpf felt the first blast of unclean air from the outside world. It was no more than a light breeze... but it bore upon its back the debris  of the world. Soot and seeds, flakes of skin itched off a thousand scalps, fluff and sand and twists of hair; the bright dust from a moth's wing... each a tiny, whirling speck quite harmless to most living organisms. But this cloud was lethal to Stumpf; in seconds his body became a field of tiny, seeping wounds. 

Oh, that's not going to end well at all.

One of Barker's strengths, I think, is that he never dipped into that seemingly bottomless well known as the Cthulhu mythos. He wasn't above mixing genres, however, in several of his stories he went to other wells - here, hardboiled crime fiction in "The Last Illusion," and Cold War spy fiction in "Twilight at the Towers." The latter has spies, no strangers to shedding and changing skins, subjugating personalities that, upon discovery, could get them killed. Surely there is power in that half-forgotten personality, power still within reach? Ballard is sent on the trail of potential KGB defector Mironenko, but petty bureaucracy and petty, angry men seem always in the way. Mironenko, Ballard will find, has more in common with him that he thought, and the defector will show that beneath the skin - ever-changing - the two are brothers. Becoming a spy, Ballard lost a part of himself, but the thing he was becoming would not be named; nor boxed; nor buried. Never again.

1992 French paperback

Harry D'Amour is one of Barker's few characters that spans stories and novels and movies, and he appears in "The Last Illusion," a New York City detective in the classic world-weary Bogart tradition. But D'Amour is otherworldly-weary, dealing as he does - for a price, of course - with real magic and real demons. The Castrato is one of those:  

It did not carry the light with it as it came: it was the light. or rather, some holocaust blazed in its bowels, the glare of which escaped through the creature's body by whatever route it could. It had once been human; a mountain of a man with the belly and the breasts of a neolithic Venus. But the fire in its body had twisted it out of true, breaking out through its palms and its navel, burning its mouth and nostrils into one ragged hole. It had, as its name implied, been unsexed; from that hole too, light spilled.

Sept 1989 Pocket Books paperback - probably the worst of Barker's book covers

A short-short tale ends Volume VI, one that didn't appear in Cabal; it is "The Book of Blood (a postscript): On Jerusalem Street," and it brings the entire story arc back to the beginning, the very first tale told in Volume I, quite nicely. I hadn't read this volume in well over 20 years; in fact, I'd never finished "The Last Illusion," and the only one I recalled anything about was "How Spoilers Bleed," and that because of its perfectly abrupt ending. Again, Barker in no way let me down as I found these final pieces a fitting end to perhaps '80s horror fiction's greatest artistic achievement. Volume VI might not be my favorite - to be fair my favorite tales are spread across all the Books - but it is, as virtually all of Barker's '80s output, essential horror reading.

The dead have highways.

Only the living are lost.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Elizabeth by Jessica Hamilton (1976): She'll Reflect What You Are In Case You Don't Know

"It doesn't follow, Elizabeth, 
that because you are old enough to be evil, 
you are an adult."

So says Grandmother. And so will any reader say upon finishing Elizabeth, the debut novel from Ken Greenhall, writing under the pseudonym Jessica Hamilton. At just 14 years old, Elizabeth Cuttner is a startling little sociopath with powers natural and not (A Novel of the Unnatural states its tagline). She tells her story in a voice quite distinctive, yes, but also as cool and unforgiving as a marble tombstone. With dispassionate precision, she grasps the motivations of those around her, fathoms their subconscious desires; Elizabeth has psychological insights that people thrice her age never attain. She amazes, charms, bewilders, and ultimately horrifies. When I was younger, she tells us on the very first page, I saw James, my father's brother, look from our dog to me without changing his expression. I soon taught him to look at me in a way he looked at nothing else. And oh that's just a hint of what's to come.

Elizabeth lives in lower Manhattan, in a very old building not far from the once-bustling harbor. Her grandmother appears each evening in a full black dress and tells ever-changing stories about the family's ancestry at dinners to the remaining members of the Cuttners: the aforementioned James, her son, his wife Katherine, and their son Keith. Their live-in servants are the Taylors, who reside in the basement but have little interaction with the family (I suppose there is no need to speak to those whose dirt and appetites you know intimately). Grandmother's husband left her years before, but his office building is next door. Oh, Elizabeth's parents? You can probably guess why they're not around, can't you?

1988 Bart Books reprint

The supernatural slips in very early but oh-so-quietly. In the second chapter, Elizabeth and her parents vacation in a cabin at Lake George, and while on a nature walk she finds an unlikely-looking toad the color of decaying meat and takes it home, then she is compelled to hold it between her breasts. As she does this, a visage swims into view in the antique mirror in her room. "Do not fear me, Elizabeth. I have come to help you." She has a fearsome beauty and speaks in an antique language; her name is Frances, a distant Cuttner relative; indeed, we learn she is an English witch from centuries past. Elizabeth seems to fall in some kind of love or obsession with Frances, who wants to reveal and guide all of Elizabeth's familial powers... and warns Elizabeth of the new tutor from England that James has hired for her, Miss Barton. Young Miss Barton, who strangely resembles the woman in the mirror...

1978 Sphere UK paperback

There's all that, as it's said, and more. There is barely a whisper of actual violence or overt sex, yet the novel seethes with these powers, and the tone throughout is cool, almost affectless. Affairs that speak more of desperation and opportunity than real human feeling spring up in the home. Elizabeth is no Lolita-esque coquette; she is a young woman who accepts impassively the male sexual appetite - especially when it serves her own needs and ends. Her knowledge of male vanity, and flattery of such, is complete. Elizabeth notes that James feels about the Don Juan legend the same way a priest feels about the New Testament. Something seems to be going on between Katherine and Miss Barton too, but that's only par for the course:

James had never been happier. He accused Katherine of being in love with Miss Barton and pretended to be outraged. Actually, the thought of his wife being involved with another woman excited him... he became much more open about his relationship with me and on afternoons when Katherine and Miss Barton were uptown shopping together he would take me to his wife's bed. "You be Katherine," he'd say, "and I'll be Miss Barton."


Elizabeth is one of the most intriguingly written novels I've read in some time; it is deceptively rich and rewarding. Hamilton's style is one of allusion, of casual reference, an author in full command of the writing craft, knowing what to tell, what to show, and most especially what to conceal. And ironically in that concealment revealing all. Elizabeth herself is an amazingly complex character, her voice so confident, so ageless, so wise, as she begins to use her unnatural talents to harm others, such as Grandmother...

"Martha," I found myself saying, "with my gift and  power I bid thee desist. Martha Cuttner, I bid thee vanish. Thrice, Martha Cuttner, my gift and power bid thee desist and vanish." 
And then there was silence. Behind me stood the city and its people. Some of those people had passed me on the street and admired me, thinking I had never done unmentionable things in the night, as they had done or wanted to do.

1979 Sphere UK reprint

I really cannot recommend Elizabeth highly enough. This unheralded, forgotten work deserves rediscovery by fans of weird fiction. Copies are easily found online and I urge you to purchase one. If you enjoy the literary chill of calculating children, the frosty tales of du Maurier and Jackson, the quiet horrors of witchery and those it dooms, the foolishness of men in the thrall of women, do yourself a favor and become acquainted with Elizabeth.

For a little more on Greenhall, check out the Phantom of Pulp's blog.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Animalize!

It began, of course, with Jaws: the horror of our animal brethren rising against us, their appetite unending, teeth/fangs/mandibles/stingers at the ready, no matter whether they were mammal, reptile, fish, or insect. The bookstore shelves of the '70s and '80s were loaded with these cheap paperbacks, and Signet Books featured some really, really fantastic covers. Feast yourselves!

 
 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Bram Stoker Born Today, 1847

Dracula. You know it, you love it. Perhaps you've even read it.

 
 
 

"You play your wits against me, mine, who commanded armies hundreds of years before you were born?"

Sunday, November 4, 2012