Monday, March 25, 2013

Childmare by A.G. Scott (1980): A Riot of Their Own

A pack of children had reduced London's most highly trained law enforcers
to a chaotic rubble.

This quote is the essence of Childmare (Signet, June 1981). It's a horror novel that almost voyeuristically revels in death and destruction, both up close and at a distance. Appropriately enough, I was reading it when James Herbert died, because Childmare is 100% in the Herbert tradition of fast-paced, graphic pulp horror, filled with snippets of everyday British life and locales. At times I even forgot it wasn't written by Herbert! But these are not criticisms at all, not for a moment: Childmare is a rip-roaring ride with some nicely tasteless moments of bizarre violence and cruelty that I think will make quite an impression on horror lovers.

I first heard of Childmare through a reader who remembered one of those tasteless scenes but not the title of the book, and another, sharp-eyed reader was able to identify this book as the culprit. Later I found a copy - pretty sure it was Artifacts in Hood River, OR - and immediately snatched it up. Glad I did! This is vintage horror fiction with a pretty bad-ass mean streak.

We get right into things with some bullying in the Martin Balliol School, a comprehensive in London, a perfect example of the modern industrialized educational facility. Small, fat and unathletic Samuel Rose is pretty much getting the snot beat out of him by a gang of teenage thugs when, at the last moment, the school's American head of security, a 38-year-old New Yorker named Max Donnelly, arrives to bark orders and assert authority. Of course Rose refuses to rat out his attackers, knowing that to do so would simply result in more, and worse, abuse. After a disgusted Donnelly dismisses him, Rose sneaks into the cafeteria storeroom, gorges himself on pilfered food - as most emotions did, fear had left him ravenously hungry - and hides out till the schoolday's end. That night, after lying to his parents about his torn clothes and various bruisings, he pummels them both to death with a cricket bat.

Original UK 1980 Hamlyn paperback

And so on from there. Soon all - almost all - of the 1,500 schoolchildren have rolled their pupils up into their eye sockets (an image sorely lacking on both US and UK paperback covers) and begun systematically attacking, in the most gruesome manners possible, teachers and other staff members. Think Dawn of the Dead-style mayhem and striking set-ups just not with bloody tattered zombies, but hordes of uniformed teenagers. There's mass destruction as special forces are called in with their guns and helicopters and tactics, all to no avail.

The children soon take to the streets of London, leaving mutilation and death in their wake. Donnelly, accompanied by sly, slovenly cop Tarrant and female interest and English teacher Tracy - herself nearly raped to death by her students in one particularly unsettling scene - narrowly escape the school and commandeer an ambulance and race through the familiar streets and boroughs of London, trying to deliver to authorities a folder of medical notes that could solve the entire unbelievable catastrophe, aghast at what the children have wrought. All too close for comfort for our protagonist:

To Donnelly it was a familiar sight, yet startling in its present context. It was Vietnam... Donnelly himself had led patrols which had perpetrated this sort of monstrous barbarity. And like the streets in Vietnam this one did not appear the victim of a sudden holocaust. There was something oddly long-term and durable about the destruction; as though it had wasted away over a period of many years to its present dilapidated sate. The street looked uncared for, abandoned, rather than the victim of a few minutes of inconceivable violence.

Childmare is, as was once said about other matters, nasty, brutish and short. The pace never slackens in its 200 pages; the writing is powerful, direct, taut. The author allows readers to see the horror from all angles: from the grimly-determined heroes to the hapless victims, from one young student not affected but swept up into the madness and fearful of being found out, to the actual perpetrators, victims themselves of a raging unquenchable thirst for violence: It was as if his cranium no longer contained a brain but, instead, an imploded star that raged with heat and light and pulsed fierce, agonizing energy through his body. Yikes. More and more of England's cities are plagued by the same nightmare, and in a few hours half a million kids are running to the town centers...

At times Childmare seems a dire, almost callous affair as the main characters must fend for themselves and leave others to the homicidal hands of the teens. Everything comes to an appropriately fiery end, but not before several pages of somewhat tiring jargon as to the origins of this ordeal - you really want to get back to the good stuff! Then there are the usual sentiments against uncaring royals and politicians, big business greed, scientific endeavor and progress: all deemed guilty of causing the tragedy. The children, it's true, are innocent, but they pay the final price.

Oh yeah: author A.G. Scott is the pseudonym of a writer named Nick Sharman, the name Childmare is copyrighted under. In the '80s a handful of genre novels were published by Signet in the US under this name, but the only other info I could find about a Nick Sharman was the fictional detective. After some internet sleuthing - and where I ended up is where I should have started, at the Vault of Evil - I discovered that "Nick Sharman" is the pseudonym of one Scott Gronmark. However I don't know why the American paperback was published as written by A.G. Scott - I suppose it's a closer pseudonym to the author's real name. Such are the interests and pursuits of a horror bibliophile.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Shadows 3, edited by Charles L. Grant (1980): Death is No Dream

I am so glad that I continued to read all of Shadows 3 (Berkley Books Jan 1985), even when some of the stories were pretty underwhelming. Couple times I was about to put it back on the shelf half-read, but I bore on and was treated to "Cabin 33," Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's longish tale that ends the book. It is easily one of the best horror short stories I've read in ages. It's so wecomingly well-told, with a vivid sense of place - resort cabins in the mountains for vacationing folks with a little money to spend - strong, true dialogue, and characters given enough room to live and breathe (and die, of course). As editor Charles L. Grant writes in his little intro, "For those of you familiar with Hotel Transylvania, Blood Games, and The Palace... welcome to Cabin 33; for those who are not... read this first, then go buy the books." I can only hope her novels of the vampire life are as thoughtfully written and just fun to read as "Cabin 33." I think I can trust Grant on that.

Yarbro

I cannot however trust Grant about Bruce Francis, a writer who apparently only ever published two stories: he states Francis has a long career ahead of him. Not with the frustratingly elusive and fractured short-short, "To See You With, My Dear." I felt like something's going on, but I - just -couldn't - grasp - it. Some nice imagery that I think was supposed to link together to imply... Lycanthropy? Dream transference? Psychotic delusion? Grrr. Same thing with Steve Rasnic Tem's "At the Bureau," a sort of eternal-recurrence riff that ends uneasily if vaguely. "Opening a Vein," from crime duo Bill Pronzini and Barry Malberg, is only a page long, jumping off with an I Am Legend-inspired pun to imagine a new genesis by a familiar demiurge. Mostly these were stylistic experiments rather than full short stories.

Onward: "The Partnership," from perennial William F. Nolan, is hokey and silly; next. Peter Pautz's "Ant" is another all-too-quiet, subtle story of an odd young boy's first experience of death, parental strife, and perhaps how the two are entwined. I preferred "Wish Hound," by science-fiction scribe Pat Murphy, which has a nicely nasty ending, and Ray Russell's "Avenging Angel," a black-comic revenge story about a particularly unlikable painter artiste. I really have enjoyed what I've read of Russell's work and really need to get a copy of Sardonicus, his 1961 modern-gothic story. "Tell Mommy What Happened" is Alan Ryan's little gem of dawning revelation, that moment when the seemingly inconsequential trivialities of everyday life open up unexpected vistas of horror. Aw yeah!

A pensive Grant.  
But there is seldom a doubt that the shadow over there, 
the one in the middle of the noonday desert, 
doesn't belong.

Other good stuff: for fans of the politely told and old-fashioned tale of weirdness and mystery (literally Holmesian in one), there are "The Ghost Who Limped" by R. Chetwynd Hayes, "Janey's Smile" by Juleen Brantingham, and "The Brown Recluse," by Night of the Hunter author Davis Grubb. These are, along with "Cabin 33" and "Tell Mommy," the best in this volume, with carefully-chosen language appropriate for the subject matter. Hayes and Grubb are master craftsmen indeed. They also feature that sort of last-line climax so often seen in horror fiction, and I think they really work.

Altogether, Shadows 3 offers entertainments of the "macabre and bizarre," as the 1980 hardcover states. I don't want to say the stories are light-hearted, but they don't often seem to have that gravitas - or is it pretension? - that I see in short horror fiction later in the decade, when younger writers seemed more intent on disturbing and upsetting readers rather than providing them with cozy chills. Then again, I'd say there were more real writers working in the field in the '70s and early '80s, or there were fewer less talented writers being published (of course Grant would disagree with none of what I'm saying, I'm sure). The series is called Shadows, after all, not Wounds or Headshots or Guts. While the good writing is much appreciated, and the solid composition of the stories bespeak experience and skill, sometimes I like my horror fiction to cut closer to the bone, or engage the world at large, or aspire to bigger concerns than the simple formality of tales-well-told. These stories are like a bit of warm milk spiked with a only tiny splash of whiskey to help you get to sleep.

But it would really be unfair to criticize something for being what it is not; rather I should - and did - enjoy Shadows 3 for precisely what it is: mostly mildly satisfying short stories of the weird and the uncanny with occasional touches of excellence. It's not nearly as good as the first volume in the series, but I believe I will be dwelling amidst these Shadows for some time to come...

Thursday, March 21, 2013

RIP: Rick Hautala

Sad and shocking: I can't believe we've lost yet another horror fiction writer! Prolific Maine author Rick Hautala died of a heart attack today; he was 64.
 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

RIP: James Herbert, Horror Fiction Icon

Sad news in the horror fiction world: bestselling British horror writer James Herbert has died at age 69. From The Guardian:

"James Herbert, who has died aged 69, will be remembered as one of the pillars of British horror writing. Herbert managed the rare feat of straddling both genre and mainstream fiction; at the height of his career, he was often spoken of in the same breath as Stephen King, and sales of his books have run to more than 42 million copies.

"He shot to fame in 1974 with the publication of The Rats, and there can be few people who grew up in the '70s who didn't furtively pass around a dog-eared copy of this and its follow-up, Lair, revelling in Herbert's gory set-pieces and plentiful graphic sex scenes."


Reading The Fog when I was in high school remains one of the highlights of my horror youth; I can still recall the shock and jaw-dropping awe I felt at his over-the-top style and imagination - and I definitely did pass it around to friends. As King himself put it so well in Danse Macabre:

In his novels of horror - The Rats, The Fog, The Survivor, The Spear, The Lair, and The Dark - Herbert does not just write... he puts on his combat boots and goes out to assault the reader with horror.
 

Many thanks, Mr. Herbert, many thanks indeed.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Psycho by Robert Bloch: Warner Books 1982 edition

Amazing stepback art - artist unknown, alas - from the September 1982 paperback reprint of Bloch's Psycho. Madness never looked so glorious!


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Wolfsblood


THE WINNING SEASON: Dominic Lombardi remembers the summer of '63. It was the year he managed the Wolves to the league championship. It was the year they won it all.

THE DEADLY SEASON: The summer of '88 is the season it all might happen again. "Bunny" Bunsen has inherited the team, and with a sharp business sense, has rebuilt the organization. For the first time in 25 years, the Wolves have it together.
Yet it soon becomes clear that something evil is stalking the stadium: An unexplained series of gruesome attacks is launched. The more victories gained, the more heinous the crimes become. As ex-coach Lombardi looks on, a hidden and horrifying past begins to piece itself together.


THE SEASON OF THE WEREWOLF: All the evidence suggests that there is something out there that doesn't care if the team wins or loses ... only if they survive.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cast a Cold Eye by Alan Ryan (1984): Blood Will Follow Blood

The late Alan Ryan really hit a high note with his Irish ghost story Cast a Cold Eye (Tor Books, Jul 1984/cover art by Jill Bauman). Contributing to its success is the vivid sense of place, somber prose, and convincing characterization, as well as a slowly mounting sense of dread reaching out from a horrific past which can never be forgotten. Yes, a ghost story that has its roots in the real-life horrors of the Great Famine. I really appreciate this kind of fact-based historical horror, where unrelenting reality collides with our primitive notions of supernatural agents. The ghosts that haunt are the shameful memories of the diseased and the dead, our guilty conscience manifested in shades and shadows that seem to our hand and eye more real than our very selves.

Writer Jack Quinlan comes to the rocky, sea-lashed coastal Irish village of Doolin, meets a young lovely lass named Grainne at the local bookshop, and begins working on his book about the Famine. The developing relationship between the two is drawn well and truly by Ryan, and he handles their differences - he a well-traveled published New York author, she a Catholic virgin still under the yoke of her parents - with a sensitivity that speaks of experience. It's a relaxed give-and-take between two real people that really grounds the story.

Dark Harvest hardcover, 1984

But as Jack researches the Famine, he soon finds himself face-to-face with people who seem to have stepped whole and starving from that horrible era: a ragged man unconscious in the mud on the side of the road, vomiting green rot; a young girl who was only bone covered in skin in tattered clothes; tortured shapes milling through the cold fog and damp air and mud surrounding his cottage. He puts this all to his readings, an overworked imagination, but still dreams of facing his own corpse. Soon he meets Father Malcolm Henning, the local priest and seanachie, a sort of historian and storyteller in one. Father Henning wields a gentle hand over Doolin, both in church and in the pub: the two most popular places for these provincial people.

But Father Henning's tales in the pub are grim and foreboding, filled with gruesome "Monkey's Paw"-style ironies, although they seem to ease the aging pains of a group of old, old men Jack sees around the town. One in particular is John MacMahon, practically a cadaver now, who is treated with a deference that befits a mortal responsibility nearly impossible to bear. Jack is drawn into this circle when Henning confirms that the visions accosting him aren't simply... visions. Perhaps Jack isn't an interloper; perhaps Jack's Irish heritage means that he was meant to come to Doolin, meant for something greater than just writing a book, meant to be part of a ritual where blood is everywhere.

The whole book is a quiet horror, er, delight, despite its nightmarish source, and will make you seek out Ryan's other work (he published plenty of stories in various '80s horror anthologies like Whispers, Shadows, and Year's Best Horror; I've liked all the ones I've read). It'll also make you lament that Ryan didn't write another novel. It's much more effective than his previous work, 1983's Dead White, and evinces a cozy fireside feel one finds in the classic tales of the weird and uncanny. There are creeps and chills to be sure, but the real power lies in the setting and the characters. And I have to say there's a lovemaking scene - that's truly what it is, I can't phrase it any other way - that is about the best I've ever read in a horror novel.  

Cast a Cold Eye is a chilly, atmospheric read in which one can feel the salt spray of the ocean, the icy air working its way inside your clothes, the sense of real history in every stone building and rotting fence, and grasp the sad, earthbound horrors that lurk in the Doolin graveyard. "Blood is everywhere," Father Henning has said, and we will learn the truth of that all too well.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Let's Go Play at the Adams' by Mendal Johnson (1974): The Last and Only Day

Innocence is the most frightening sight of all.

This compelling but squicky little cult novel by one-time author Mendal W. Johnson is the kind of book that makes you reevaluate what you read for entertainment and why - I mean, why was I somewhat disappointed that Let's Go Play at the Adams' wasn't as disturbing an experience as I'd... uh, expected (not hoped; no, surely not that)? You can tell just by the reprint cover art (Bantam Sept 1980), with its exploitation and fetishization of sexual abuse, that moral discomfort will be in full effect ("A novel of lingerie horror"? Oh, wait, oops). There's also a promise of rare and illicit thrills. Johnson has written a very strange work that offers credible motivation - at first - for a group of five seemingly normal kids who, during one hot rural summer week while their parents are away on vacation, tie up their downy blonde 20-year-old babysitter and... well, you know.

These five children and young adults -  Dianne, 17, John, 16, Paul, 12, Bobby, 10, and Cindy, 9 (they've dubbed themselves the Freedom Five in a bit of stick-it-to-the-man early '70s counterculture vernacular) - have upended one of the most basic social conventions: that kids and adults are basically two different species and that the adults are the superior ones. And now, they've captured an adult. They shouldn't have been able to, even with all the planning, because of that bedrock social convention, but here they were, out in the open, breaking the law between children and adults, and nothing was happening. They ignored the taboo, and no lightning fell. 

This transgressive thrill motivates them, especially for grubby, twitchy 12-year-old Paul, but ultimately they know and resign themselves to the bald fact that they are entirely responsible and answerable for their own actions, no matter what comes next. They get unknowingly existential, as when Bobby explains to the captive: "Like when we were all figuring out if we could do it, it seemed like something we had to do. Like if you think you can do something, you have to"... till the end, when they realize someone has to pay for the end result of their hellish "fun." 

 Original non-exploitative 1975 paperback

Loosely based, as you may have guessed, on the torture/murder of Sylvia Likens (like Jack Ketchum's much more accomplished 1989 novel The Girl Next Door), Johnson's work goes down dark avenues and doesn't want to come back. Horror fans will want to keep reading, but they might find, as I did, that Johnson seems conflicted as to why he wants to go to those cruel and twisted places; is his motivation to show us the darkness so we can better understand it? Or is the author secretly getting off on the whole sitch? Judging by the endless descriptions of the knots and ropes and other items that bind poor Barbara in more and more uncomfortable positions, these S&M aspects seem less depictions of fictionalized reality than Freudian slips from Johnson's repressed fantasies. 

As for characterization, the tormentors are well-drawn, particularly budding sociopath Paul and oldest sister Dianne, who has some commonality - no matter how denied - with their babysitter. But Barbara is more blank cipher than sympathetic victim and often Johnson intellectualizes her plight rather than giving us the raw, naked hysteria and then detachment that I can only imagine would be real. The author saw Let's Go Play as a political allegory (read here), which honestly I didn't even think of while reading. I suppose if I ever read it again it will be all I can think. This makes me ambivalent about the novel.

 Mendal W. Johnson (1928 - 1976)
 
The final chapter, a shuddering repercussive fadeout that gives no quarter and no ultimate answer, is as unremittingly sad as it is, at moments, difficult to read. It will most likely haunt you afterwards. In the epilogue, we learn of the intimate guilty and ambiguous thoughts of Barbara's one-time roommate Terry as she grieves: Barbara, I hated you for being so easy and simple and happy. You deserved it, I hated you, too...Beauty, I knew you, and I never want to see you again... Goodness, go out of the world so that we can live in it. This seems so ungracious, so unseemly, so terrible a thought to have about a murdered loved one that it actually has a ring of truth. In his own sometimes awkward, sometimes pretentious manner, Johnson might be on to something.

That is some tagline

When he's not focused on babysitter bondage, I believe Johnson is saying that instead of ennobling us, beauty can make us feel lesser beings by showing us its unattainability; that we are cramped and craven, as it awakens in us whispers to dole out pain and humiliation, a torturous desire to topple beauty, to stain it in the dirt-crusted earth from which we can never escape. As if beauty were somehow an escape from the harshest of life's realities, as if it were some ideal beyond the everyday banalities we must endure. How dare beauty remind us, by its very existence, that we'll never possess it? 

The difference tonight - her nakedness - did not much affect Bobby. Barbara appeared to be sweet, defenseless, and all that, but to him, she was also a trifle repugnant. The raw thrust of genitals and hair was a little too much for him at his age; everything was overscale compared to his own slight build. Her nudeness was simply another grotesque item in Bobby's troubled week.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Arthur Machen Born Today, 1863

A towering figure in weird fiction, Arthur Machen (who died in 1947) was an influence and an inspiration for many of the writers I've covered here at TMHF: Lovecraft of course, and the whole circle of Weird Tales folks like Clark Ashton Smith and Frank Belknap Long, on up to King, Straub, Campbell, T.E.D. Klein and Karl Edward Wagner. And while Machen's output is out of my self-defined era of "vintage" horror fiction, these wonderful paperback covers most certainly are not! These collections date from the 1960s to the early '80s, American and British editions, with covers highlighting various lurid and sensational aspects of the Welshman's superb tales. They're are all highly collectible paperbacks as well; I've lost one or two over the years and have not yet replaced them.

These top four paperbacks are from Pinnacle in the 1970s, two reprints of two volumes. Robert LoGrippo is responsible for the garish, blood-drippy covers from 1976. The fifth Pinnacle paperback is from 1983 and contains all the stories from the two-volume set. Can't even recall which one(s) I owned, and I haven't reread even "The Great God Pan" in over 15 years. Surely it is one of the seminal tales of classic horror.


In 1972 the highly-regarded Ballantine Adult Fantasy line published The Three Imposters (1895). This novel - with Boschian art again by LoGrippo - in episode form includes two of his most influential stories, "The Novel of the Black Seal" and "The Novel of the White Powder." Below you can see the British paperbacks with those titles, from Corgi in the mid-'60s; love the covers by Josh Kirby.

 
Two more British paperbacks from Panther - a publisher known for putting out lots of horror fiction - dated 1975, with eye-catching occult cover art from Bruce Pennington.