Friday, May 9, 2014

Hot Blood, ed. by Jeff Gelb & Lonn Friend (1989): Heaven's on Fire

It's a no-brainer that horror and sex  are a popular pairing. A thrill is a thrill as far as our central nervous systems are concerned, and we can look to Freud and other psychologists and philosophers to intellectualize the seeming contradiction. As for as our beloved horror fiction goes, vampirism is the most obvious, and dare I say popular, manifestation of this theme. Fangs penetrating flesh and the sucking out of lifeblood barely counts as symbolism! But for 1989's Hot Blood anthology  from Pocket Books (alternately subtitled Tales of Provocative Horror or Tales of Erotic Horror), editors Jeff Gelb and Lonn Friend have chosen no real vampire stories... which I think was smart. Other horny creatures are slinking through the night, sure, but no Draculas or Lestats here. There've always been anthologies of great tales of vampire action, but the "erotic horror" market was, as a separate publishing entity back in the '80s, barely existent. Way to find a hole and fill it guys.

The authors included are a veritable who's-who of '80s horror fiction, which meant I was on top of this release immediately back in the day, although I don't recall reading it all. However I certainly never associated McCammon, Etchison, or Wilson with erotic horror, but I was willing to give 'em a shot. I liked seeing Harlan Ellison in a horror anthology, as his stories of adult relationships seemed always tinged with a loneliness and a darkness that, if presented just so, could be horrific. Ramsey Campbell had already produced his collection Scared Stiff, while Gary Brandner, Ray Garton, and Graham Masterton had all written overtly sexual horror fiction (hell Masterton was once an editor at Penthouse and had written a handful of popular sex manuals!). So, on we go...

First up is "Changeling" from old pal Mr. Masterton.  Set-up you've heard: Englishman away from home on business, meets too-hot-to-believe woman who - shock of shocks! - wants to fuck him. He can't stop himself. What horror ensues may be too literal but Masterton's  approach to sexual politics and gender identity - "Because it doesn't matter how beautiful a woman you are, or how rich a woman you are... Not even the poorest, most downtrodden guy in the whole world has to endure what women have to endure" - seems almost prescient today. A solid start to the anthology.

Signet '75... but of course

"The Thang" from all-American boy Robert McCammon kinda comes off like EC Comics porn: it's juvenile and silly, there's no reason for the extreme punishment for a guy who's just lookin' to... well. I think other readers will like it more than I did, though, because it does exhibit a ridiculous kind of charm. At the other end of the spectrum is  Richard Christian Matheson's "Mr. Right," which exists in that uncomfortable world of non-PC desires and behavior. Like most of his fiction, it's barely three pages long, but packs an illicit wallop. Indeed, one woman's horrifying Mr. Wrong...

Not all the stories are original to Hot Blood; Gelb and Friend looked backward as well. From 1962, "The Likeness of Jenny" by the estimable Richard Matheson is a cool, calm and plainly written story of (prefiguring King tales like "Nona" and "Strawberry Spring") an undeniable criminal urge. The comeuppance is implied, and the more chilling for that.

Major SF/F author Theodore Sturgeon appears with "Vengeance Is." (period included), a 1980 story that might be the best in the anthology. Told with muscle and imagination mostly through dialogue, it's a harrowing story of sexual assault, with a perfect reveal in the final line, like so much of vintage genre fiction. Modern readers might think it a bit gimmicky, but I felt Sturgeon's style mitigated that. Another 1980 tale from a major SF/F/and whatever else author is Harlan Ellison's "Footsteps," written in the front window of a bookstore (a stunt he performed many times). Claire is a woman of the world, and now is in the City of Light, preparing for a meal...

Her orgasm was accompanied by a howl that rose up over the Seine and was lost in the night sky above Paris where the golden sovereign of the full moon swallowed it, glowing just a bit brighter with passion.

 1989 chapterbook

Unmistakably Ellison, it is beautifully written, darkly witty, expertly conveying Claire's loneliness and fear and hunger. A winner for sure, even with an ending that might leave some scratching their heads.

Masques editor and prolific author J.N. Williamson gives us "The Unkindest Cut," which concerns a vasectomy *shiver*. Not bad, but it simply reminded me of  an anecdote Stephen King tells in Danse Macabre about an old Arch Oboler radio program and an unfortunate day at the dentist... Editor Gelb himself contributes "Suzie Sucks," in which we get a pure example of a primal male fear (an image that appears in a couple stories here, bet you can guess what).

"Aunt Edith" by the recently-late Gary Brandner, whose first novel The Howling was powered by a very strong and effective erotic charge, sets up a scary/sexy scenario. A young man meets his girlfriend's voodoo-practicing aunt, who turns out to be well-nigh irresistible. It all ends as a dirty tasteless joke but it actually works. F. Paul Wilson, who I'm not a fan of, presents "Ménages à Trois," about a crippled old woman and the young man and young woman who tend to her, and her shocking manipulation of their teenage desires. Not bad, standard '80s fare with that little zing at the very end.

Several entries I was familiar with: Dennis Etchison's story from '73 before as it was included in his collection The Dark Country. May I quote myself? "I adored 'Daughter of the Golden West,' which begins as a Bradbury-esque fantasy of three college-age men (the collection is dedicated to Bradbury) and ends with a revelation of one of California's greatest tragedies." Exactly the same goes for Les Daniels's "They're Coming for You" (in Cutting Edge), Lisa Tuttle's "Bug House" (in Nest of Nightmares), and David J. Schow's "Red Light" (in Lost Angels). All fine, good stuff!

"Punishments" is the most depressing story, another of Ray Garton's broadsides against the oppressive Seventh-Day Adventist faith he was raised in (and later rejected). No stranger to the mingling of sex and horror - not erotic horror - Garton presents a sad, fatalistic short that reveals how abuse is handed down, how it exploits ignorance, how its effects pervert a healthy curiosity, how the innocent are made to be guilty through not fault of their own. It pulls no punches. Ouch.

Other stories by the usual horror suspects - Campbell, Bloch, Skipp and Spector, Rex Miller - who twine sex and death in their own recognizable styles, the effects of which range from quite good to simply okay. Then there was the sensitive if perplexing "Carnal House" from the generally reliable Steve Rasnic Tem... necrophilia right? Oh well.

2004 Pinnacle Books reprint

Successful enough that it became the first of a long-running series, Hot Blood provides decent horror entertainment, with a smattering of true gems. These gems understand the id of our sexual selves from experience, not just fruitless imaginings. Several of the stories, while not outright duds, combine sex and horror in a clumsy, even trite, manner and aren't erotic at all (provocative, I suppose, yes). Some use an easy narrative trick, to greater and lesser effect, to get men understand what it's like to be a woman, that of physical or emotional transference. And I certainly would have appreciated a Thomas Tessier or Poppy Z. Brite entry (Tessier appears in a later volume, and female writers appear as well), two writers whose tales of eroticized horror are smart, sly, and modern, and lack that regrettable obsessive adolescent tone that mars the underwhelming stories here. But rereading it 20-odd years later, I still think Hot Blood is a worthwhile addition to the groaning shelves of '80s horror anthologies.


Alejandro Omidsalar said...

I've seen this bad boy around on a few used book shop/library sale shelves in my time, but was always too embarrassed to flip through it. Plus, I figured it was too silly to hold up. However, as is often the case, your recommendation means I'm gonna have to hunt it up.

Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

Nice review. I bought this one and each new book in the series as they came out. I still have most of them. The subsequent collections contained all original stories to the series which was cool. This was a good series for me in that it introduced me to horror authors I hadn't been all that familiar with. While many stories were "drive-in" quality (one book in the series includes a Brinke Stevens intro!) they were always entertaining. And the covers were fun too. Just the kind of covers to earn you that "look" from others seeing you reading it.

Will Errickson said...

"'Drive-in' quality"! Ha, yes, that's just right. Many of the stories should be read through those lenses, great point!