Friday, June 27, 2014

Burning by Jane Chambers (1978): Your Lover's Lover's Alibi

It's as if no paperback horror novel of the '70s was complete without a blurb that referenced The Omen, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, The Other, or 'Salem's Lot. But why shouldn't publishers try to market their books to an audience that was growing unexpectedly large? Anything that got the book into readers' hands even for a few moments was necessary; anything to get them to part with a cool buck-fifty was legit. Same for cover art: my God do I love this Rowena Morrill illustration - that is some intense shit. And while Burning (Jove Books, May 1978), playwright Jane Chambers's first novel, certainly isn't a classic horror novel like those other '70s heavyweights, it is something entirely its own: a lesbian love story told by fusing two time periods into one.

A sweltering '70s summer in New York City is beginning, and the Martins have little interest in being around for it. But can they afford a vacation? David is a talent agent who, thanks to his wife's urging, has newly gone into business for himself; Cynthia is a harried mother of two who once had grand dreams of filling canvasses with daring visions but soon after moving to NYC met her now-husband. They seem to be a quite typical couple of the day: not a dream team but one that works hard to overcome difficulties. They get a break when one of David's clients offers to "pay" David with the offer of staying at his family's summer house in the Massachusetts countryside. Along with Angela, the 19-year-old student David hired part-time and now helps Cynthia with Martin kids Peter and Janet, Cynthia loads everyone into a Buick station wagon and makes the drive north, with David to join in several days (I kept seeing Katharine Ross and her family in the early parts of The Stepford Wives here, which was cool).

Everyone is delighted by the farmhouse and its attendant lake and woods, but one thing captures Cynthia's attention more than anything else: a small, unpainted room just off the kitchen, older than the home it's attached to, with hearth, dim windows, and roughly-hewn bedframe and chair. The room reached out to her, impatient, as though it had been waiting for her... She stepped inside and felt no fear. She was at home. Images come to her, of the room as it was, of trees being felled to build it, of planks being pounded together. Cynthia cleans it thoroughly, happy that David cannot disturb her enjoyment of it, wryly noting, A D&C... she'd scraped the womb and it was fresh to start again, building protective layers of lust and love and birth. This room will become integral to the story, the reader will have no doubt.

But Cynthia is also concerned that Angela has a crush on her. Angela herself thinks she does but won't say anything - what would be the point? Unspoken love was safest. There is a bit of tension and distrust at first, but that ebbs away as the women focus on the immediate pleasures and tribulations of caring for two rambunctious children during vacation. Thrown into the mix is Red Richmond, the 20-something neighbor, all masculine muscles and ginger beard, who begins a mild flirtation with Angela. Red fills in some history on the house and the room - built in the 1700s, older than the house itself, a crazy migrant must've built it - but his mannish manner puts Cynthia off: She knew a woman had lived in the old room.

1983 JH Press reprint

The first discordant note is really heard one afternoon when Cynthia skinny dips  after the satisfaction of cleaning out that room. Naked, sunloved, fulfilled; then she heard the cry.Without dressing, Cynthia runs towards the commotion and finds Pete in the rushing creek grasping a boulder, Angela and Janet helpless to save him. Unclothed, Cynthia rescues Pete herself. And now it gets weird. You trusted me with your greatest possession and I failed you, distraught Angela tells Cynthia. The conversation the two women have now is suddenly italicized, formal, archaic even, encoded with a knowledge and intimacy and a spiritual aspect neither woman can fathom. The words are not theirs, but the emotion, the longing, the fear is.

I'll never give you reason to lose faith in me again. That is a covenant between us, Angela said. Trust me. We need compatriots. You and I are destined to fight this world together... Angela laughed. The sin of nakedness. I shall never understand God.

Now a new story is teased out of these italicized thoughts and exchanges, and a history emerges the reveals once in this very spot, in that very room attached to the house, two unlikely women forged an unbreakable bond. Three hundred years have passed, but their passion, their honest yet forbidden love, has wended its way through the ages and finds a kind of release through these two women of the 1970s (note that tagline, A love that defied the grave!). Cynthia and Angela experience near fugue states in which they are - possessed? - by Martha and Abigail, two outcasts who found comfort in one another's arms and caresses... in a time when that could very likely lead to death. There are others involved: Red Richmond has strange reveries of a Squire Richmond, a poetic gentleman who attempts to court Abigail, against his father's wishes. In an agonizing moment, Squire Richmond visits Abigail to propose but finds her and Martha in flagrante delicto:

Squire Richmond did not understand what he had seen; he tried to liken it to the time when he'd caught farm girls bathing naked in the bay, although that was against the rules of every village, and, they said, displeasing to the sight of God.

When they tell him they are married, he is aghast. How is that even possible? And these events are being replayed, relived, in the present, nearly beyond the comprehension of the participants. This is a haunting, a possession, of love, terror, guilt, tumultuous emotions that offer great freedom but also exact a terrific price once the Squire informs his father, a respected town elder, of what he has seen in the two women doing in the dark forest. The devil takes a woman's body to perpetuate his work. The devil is possessed to seize a virgin for his mistress.

T'n'T Press reprint 1995

Now the novel's title becomes agonizingly real. The (literal) witch hunt that ensues is well done by Chambers; she gets across the paranoia of the village, all of which seem ridiculous today but then was a soul-freezing fear. Events reach a hysterical, gut-wrenching pitch - both in the past and in the present (there's a perceptive, angering bit making bigoted male cops akin to the elders of the past). But by story's end, a strange peace has been achieved, a kind of evening out of past "sins" and an acceptance of love's cost. As Cynthia notes, "When love is good, it doesn't matter who the lovers are." It's a hard-won knowledge, a sad, bitter wisdom neither woman would have apprehended without Martha and Abigail.

What really makes Burning work is the quality time Chambers spends with her characters, winding their thoughts through the present-day story: passages about David and Cynthia's oft-fraught marriage and the give-and-take of men and women (Their marriage was ingrown, they fed on one another's weaknesses... bloated with a sense of security, knowing each one depended on the other for survival); of Angela's overprotective, vulgar, drunk widowed father and her ambivalence about the opposite sex (Men puzzled her just as her father puzzled her. They frightened her, just as her father did... she discovered male knowledge was a clever sham); and Red's somewhat old-fashioned history with women (if he enjoyed a liaison, he wanted to romance the girl, protect her from the advances of other men) that doesn't quite jibe with the era, and now seeing young Angela... These are the details that real writers use, drawn from observation and experience of  the real world.


I was drawn to Burning solely for its lurid cover, but I stayed for the story and the writing. This knowing, quiet, yet emotionally-charged story of a lesbian affair exists in that uncomfortable realm of being not horrific enough for a horror audience and too horrific for a non-horror audience. The garish cover may have kept away an audience that might have found in its pages a sensitive, realistic portrayal of the secret relationships gay women were "forced" to have in intolerant, ignorant societies. The analogy of lesbians and witches as creatures of the night performing bizarre rituals that threaten male hegemony is a sadly apt one, and one Chambers infuses with a poignant, romantic, and heartfelt authenticity that rings true still these many, many years later.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Summer of Sleaze Continues at Tor.com

My new article in the Summer of Sleaze series by me and Grady Hendrix went up this morning, "The Erotic Horrors of Thomas Tessier." Hope you guys dig it, and leave a comment if you like!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

We're Off to the Witch, We May Never Never Come Home

British author Brian N. Ball was born today in 1932. I haven't read a word of his books, but damn do I love these UK covers from the early (when else?) 1970s. I believe The Venomous Serpent was the only title published in the States, but retitled The Night Creature.

 
 
 
You can learn a little about Ball at (where else?) Vault of Evil!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gwen, in Green by Hugh Zachary (1974): Every Time I Eat Vegetables It Makes Me Think of You

Is erotic eco-horror a thing? I'm trying to think...

One of my favorite paperback covers since I first came across it on one website or another, George Ziel's sensual, provocative, darkly luscious art here strikes a potential reader immediately. Who can penetrate the mystery of this woman's skyward gaze, full of awe and perhaps understanding, in thrall to some mysterious force, naked and exposed to the swamp flora crawling up her flesh as if claiming her for its own purposes? Fortunately, author Hugh Zachary is up to the task of solving this mystery; and Gwen, in Green (Fawcett Gold Medal, July 1974) is a quiet and bewitching little work that provides a bit of sexy '70s fun and fright. Ziel's cover perfectly captures the tone and texture of Zachary's tale - and you know what a special treat it is when cover art and content align in harmony.

Some spoilers ahead. The back cover gives the basics. Our lovely Gwen has been married to electrical engineer George Ferrier for seven years when the story begins. After coming into family money, he's just bought a plot undeveloped land on an island on the Cape Fear River; nearby a nuclear power plant is being built (George's research shows the danger of radioactivity is, apparently, nil). So in come the developers, earth movers, bulldozers, and crewmen to clear away the swamp and brush and undergrowth and build the Ferriers' new home. Here they indulge in a full and healthy sex life (a large part of the novel which Zachary delights in) but Gwen, whose childhood was one of misfortune and neglect, still feels twinges of shame and guilt: her widowed mother was a loose woman who wasn't careful about keeping the bedroom door closed. A complex grew, encouraged by the teasing by Gwen's schoolmates, and so as an adult Gwen considers herself a prude, a nut - in the parlance of the day, frigid.

But gentle and patient he-man paramour George has coaxed Gwen into experiencing much sexual pleasure (no way this modern man's wife is gonna be frigid! All she needs is a real man's touch seems to be his motto):  

She lay in total darkness, limply submitting to his touch, his obscene kiss, his fast, labored breathing. And her clitoris swelled. A tendril of something went shooting down, down, centered there. She jerked her eyes open, shocked. A stiffening in her legs, an almost imperceptible lifting of her loins... She found that certain body movements are instinctive.

And so it goes. Husband and wife now engage in playful banter (which of course includes some rape references that will bemuse today's reader) and a newfound happiness. Gwen begins painting trees and caring for lush African violets, and becomes enamored of the Venus fly-trap plants she finds at a nearby lake and begins feeding raw hamburger. But creeping into this domestic bliss are her nightmares: the mass roared down on her, huge teeth snapping at her. The mouth closed, clashing metal teeth, and she screamed once before she felt the tender flesh being punctured and rendered. Her upper body fell, being ripped from her legs and stomach and hips...

These dreams continue till one afternoon while George is at work, Gwen seduces a meter reader. Yep, you read right; the classic porn scenario. It's rather an out-of-body experience for Gwen, and she's shocked and mortified by the physical act she's shared with a stranger.  

She held her arms out, smiling. No question of morality. No right. No wrong.  It was the way things were. Fertile, ripe, passive, she accepted him, eased his fevered haste, and bathed him in the sweet juices of her body.

1976 Coronet UK w/ art by Jim Burns
(I blacked out spoiler tagline) 

This is some serious '70s softcore! Sadly a suicide attempt is next. George and their doctor set her up with elderly psychiatrist Dr. Irving King - a Freudian by training, who had developed some rather independent ideas in thirty-five years of practice in an area of the country where psychiatry was not fully understood - and the required questioning begins, and we can begin to fathom Gwen's disordered mind. "Have you ever killed anything, Gwen?" "No. Oh, insects. Plants." "Plants?" "Isn't that silly?" And off we go! Gwen is slowly but surely identifying, in her mind, with the flora all about her on their spot of land, the Venus fly-traps, the African violets, the giant trees, the slimy green things beneath the water - all of which are being torn asunder by the developers and even her husband. Gwen feels mad, invaded, but by what? The painful dreams continue... and so do the illicit trysts. Only sex can ease the horrific sensation of dismemberment. Happy George has no idea that his wanton, sexy, endlessly hungry woman is truly not herself any longer.

And so sex and death commence to commingle. The men who drive the bulldozers come one by one to Gwen (sometimes not even one by one). They don't return to drive the bulldozers. Dr. King suspects, researches, finds, confronts. We get a crazy, nutty explanation for Gwen's "possession" that could be real or could be her own sexual, perhaps even maternal, guilt turning round on her and eating her up. Zachary hints one way, then the other, then the tale ends as the sharp reader will have predicted. It couldn't go any other way, and do I love doomy downward spirals. She continued to chop, breathing in sobbing agony. The strap to her bikini top had broken. The small scrap of material hung from her neck, flapping with her movements. Water and perspiration and blood beaded her lower legs.

Zachary wrote under pseudonym Zach Hughes. Dig Tide 1975!

I found Gwen to be a mild and relaxing read; nothing earth-shattering, but confidently written and just odd enough (and oh-so-'70s enough) to keep me reading happily. I liked the cozy, isolated forested locale; Zachary puts in lots of detail about how rewarding working your own land is. Characters have specific natures and interior thoughts that ring true. The plentiful sex scenes were done well, Zachary knowing when to be graphic and when to leave us to fill in the blanks. Even Gwen's dalliances with teen boys were more hilariously dated than ickily offensive (again, the anything-goes vibe of the '70s !). The sexism that pops up in the book raises a chuckle and can be forgiven; after their first meeting, Dr. King says to Gwen, "You are much too pretty to be eaten by nightmare things," or when she tells George her bizarre dreams and he chides her, "You are one spooky broad." And yes, good death scenes that have bite, reminding me some of Michael McDowell: a nice leisurely story carrying you along then boom, a short sharp shock of violence.

Gwen, in Green, is a satisfying work of smart, fun, pulp horror that could only have been written in the early 1970s. Which is one of my highest compliments! Find a copy, admire its magnificent cover, and read while sipping a gin & tonic under the summer sun near a crystal-clear lake beneath towering, creeping greenery. Shouldn't take you more than an afternoon or two to read it, but you just might feel differently about that vegetation when you're done.

Postscript: Some background on what surely inspired the novel. In 1973 the nonfiction book The Secret Life of Plants was first published. A bestselling and highly popular book of its day, it even became a film documentary (with a soundtrack by Stevie Wonder!). However it was speculative pseudoscience, appealing to hippies and to folks amenable to proto-New Age ideals filtering into the mainstream, swept along in the same current as astrology, crystal healing powers, and the lost continent of Mu. Secret Life's bubble-headed thesis was that plants have sentience and emotion, even telepathic powers, all girded by laughable "scientific" "experiments" like attaching polygraph electrodes to plant leaves. I know, I know! Whether he meant to satirize the theory or not, Zachary uses it as the launching pad for Gwen. In horror fiction, that sort of nonsense is a plus. Had I not worked in a used bookstore in the late 1980s and saw old copies of Secret Life, I wouldn't have been aware of it as the novel's impetus. It won't really affect your enjoyment of Gwen, but I myself dig the dated context.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Night Show by Richard Laymon (1984): Master of Chills is Pulling Your Strings

If you're a regular reader of this blog, then you know I'm not of a Richard Laymon fan. The two novels of his that I've read, Resurrection Dreams and The Cellar, struck me as dopey and lame, and in the case of the latter book, boring and stupidly repulsive at once. This puts me at odds with many horror fiction fans, since the late Laymon has become a cult writer with a large (and vocal!) following. Many think he is the ultimate horror writer, one who shocks and goes too far and cares not a whit for taste or restraint. Fine for his fans, sure, but my problem with Laymon is simply that he is, going by what I've read, a terrible writer. When it comes to putting pen to paper he cannot deliver. He writes like a rank amateur and it drives me fucking crazy, reading "prose" so lunkheaded and dull, so square and humorless.

Some readers agree with me and can't understand his popularity either. Cool. But I'm also kinda intrigued by what his fans see in him, so I have been open to giving him another chance. I found Night Show (Tor 1986, originally published in the UK by Futura, 1984) online for cheap. Always liked the cover (thanks Jill Bauman, a Tor regular), and it takes place in Hollywood and the main character is a female Tom Savini. All right, not bad, I thought, let's check it out, see if Laymon can do this.

Aaaand... he doesn't. He can't. His scenario is fine - weirdo horror-filmmaker wannabe wants to apprentice with female FX expert and so begins to stalk her - but Laymon's delivery fails in every aspect: it's all dreary, insipid hackwork, same as before. There's not one moment of believable human behavior in Night Show, not one second of fear, not one new twist, nothing to make it stand out among the hundreds of legit horror paperbacks already on my shelves. Laymon even pads out the novel with passages describing onscreen mayhem. Like, not-real mayhem he was tricking you into thinking was real at first. That's right, he actually relates what's going on in the various horror movies being made or being watched. God, now that's lame - hell, in a horror novel it's practically a fucking crime.

I had no sense that Laymon cared or was excited by what he wrote in Night Show (or in the other two novels of his I've read), unlike pulp writers such as Graham Masterton or Shaun Hutson, both of whom at least seem to be having a high old time creating dumb mayhem, which of course translates to enjoyable reading. I had a problem believing in any of the events occurring, and Laymon makes no effort to convince the reader of any truth. As for horror itself, there's virtually none. I had read reviews of the novel that noted this, so I wasn't expecting graphic splatterpunky horror - but when there is blood-spilling, Laymon describes it, more than once, as "red gore." Come on dude, really?

 Original first edition, 1984 Futura UK paperback

Beginning with the abduction of a teenage girl, Night Show is comprised of two interlocking story arcs with nutjob Anthony Johnson being the thread between them. Young bald Tony calls himself the Chill Master and gets off on scaring people. Not hurting them, mind you, but just freaking them out. Like grabbing them in the movie theater, or throwing them into a car and then tying them up in an abandoned house. Sure! But he wants more, so he moves to Hollywood to get close to Dani Larson, gore effects specialist extraordinaire (Laymon does an okay job detailing her FX work at least). He follows her in his hearse (duh) through the LA streets, then finally gets close enough to engage her. Tony wants to be her apprentice in horror but her partner in work and life, Jack, is getting in the way (poor stalkers, ain't that always the way?). The other storyline features teenage Linda, the girl kidnapped and tied up in a spooky old house. She's looking for her assailants - in her escape she runs into the road and is hit by a car - and she'll stop at nothing to get them. Her misadventures mingle Laymon's staple puerile sex and death in a couple ridiculous set-pieces till she ends up in Hollywood hot on Tony's trail.

1992 UK reprint (in the book both head and monster are fake)

Laymon sets everything up in the most banal, one-dimensional manner possible. Plodding along from one chapter to the next, riddled with corny tone-deaf dialogue, nothing in Night Show seems dangerous and nothing that feels real is at stake. Why do I care about these people? Dani deals with Tony in an entirely inappropriate, unbelievable way, inviting him to hang around and even sharing beer with him while Jack looks on bemusedly. And Dani has no strength whatsoever; how in the world did she make it in the movies? A female artist so successful in the horror industry in the 1980s who's not a scream queen is unique, but I had the feeling the character is only female so she can be menaced as the victim. And teenage Linda's storyline is simply a cheap, pale imitation of I Spit on Your Grave: abused woman goes after her attackers, using her sexuality as bait. Since I knew nothing about Linda, I had no reason to believe she had such fortitude to kill and kill again.

So Linda is the real psychopath, while Tony is a total twerp who needs his clock cleaned, but he never really hurts anyone. Was Laymon making an attempt at irony? Perhaps - and certainly not a bad idea at all - but his writing is so lazy, so enervated, that the irony seems more inadvertent than intended. There's no suspenseful build-up, and then when the two storylines do collide, the resultant climax - which is basically the same as a 1970s made-for-TV thriller or a by-the-numbers '80s stalk 'n' slash - goes off like a damp squib. Just... yawn.

I almost feel bad criticizing Night Show like this since it's such a lame little dud, no ambition in it, barely a wisp of an actual novel by and for adults. But I shouldn't. Here Laymon takes the tiredest horror tropes and puts no gloss or originality on them; I find no enjoyment in this kind of cynical exploitation of the genre. Fans make the argument that Laymon's books need to enjoyed in a sort of B-movie way, that they're fast reads that don't require any brain work, that he's raw and lurid, that he peels his prose to the bone and doesn't get bogged down in unnecessary details. I don't buy that argument, and contend that pulp schlock still needs to be competent and fun. I've read plenty of fast, pulpy, lurid horror novels that still have time to give me a unique character trait, an unsettling scene or three, a fresh writing style, a surprising plot twist. Laymon's lack of all that is what so frustrates me. To continue the movie metaphor: the camera's out of focus, the boom mic is visible, the fake blood is red finger paint, and somebody spilled coffee on the only copy of the script so the actors have to come up with their own dialogue on the spot. Yeah, B-movies are wonderful, definitely, but if Laymon's Night Show were a flick, it'd be grade-Z through and through.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Last Big Score

Wow! One last score before arriving in Portland. This one thanks to Utah Book & Magazine. It's the kind of store that's overstuffed with not just old books but vintage paraphernalia from our pop culture past: posters, board games, VHS tapes, Halloween decorations, toys, all crammed into towering dusty wooden shelves adorned with handwritten signs (the classic being "Horror" written in blood drippy red marker). I feel such relief and excitement when I see that horror section sign.

Now their horror section was stacked three piles deep on the shelves and in no order whatsoever. An enormous task lay before me, and I didn't have long to search either; my girlfriend Ashley dropped me off and was circling the block till I was ready. I took a deep breath and dove in. Hard.

Success, as you can see. Again I couldn't believe my fortune. The one book I was dying to find - McDowell's Katie - I couldn't. But I found other  novels of his that I already own, so I stacked 'em and left 'em on the shelf for any other horror fiction fans who may come after me. Anybody near SLC and a McDowell fan, they're waiting for you - just call me Arne Saknussemm.

What an adventure this trip has been! Nearly 100 titles have been added to my collection. I owe Ashley a huge thanks for helping me in my pursuit (she even got stuck in SLC's enormous Pride parade traffic waiting for me!). Now I live in a new city that's home to one of the US's best bookstores... You know where I'll be haunting!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Even More Horror Biz

The cross-country trek continues, including stops at bookstores in Kansas City, Omaha, and Laramie. Spoils have been incredible! And yes, I'm collecting some firsts of Laymon...

Many thanks to my girlfriend Ashley who's been gracious and generous and patient, allowing me to scour dusty old shops scrounging for vintage horror novels! I couldn't have done this without her.

And this morning I snagged another dozen in Salt Lake City; pix of those to come. Boise is next...

Friday, June 6, 2014

Summer of Sleaze!

A few months back, author Grady Hendrix emailed me to say he was a big fan of TMHF, dug what and how I wrote about horror, and would I be interested in writing a series of articles on vintage paperback horror with him for Tor.com (and maybe make a few bucks doing it)? Naturally I said yes! He called it Summer of Sleaze, and his first piece went up last Friday, on John Christopher's infamous (well, for people into paperback horror) The Little People. We're gonna alternate Fridays every week through August. And so today comes my first piece, titled "In a Dark Country, Red Dreams Stay with You: The Horrors of Dennis Etchison."  I hope you guys check it out, let me know what you think - either in comments here or on Tor's site - and then stay tuned for the rest of the Summer of Sleaze!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

More Horror Biz!

The journey continues with more gruesome goodies, this time from Patten Books in St. Louis. This truly was one of my best horror hauls ever! The shop's paperback horror section was an awesome sight: shelves packed with books in good-to-excellent condition, starting with a wide selection of anthologies, and continuing from floor to ceiling with novels I've been searching for for years as well as titles I hadn't known even existed!

Before I even knew it I had a stack of over two dozen titles, and could have added another 12 easily. Only two were priced in that collector category, but what the hell, I had 'em in hand and I can see they're mint. Aaaaand... my wonderful girlfriend extraordinaire even footed the bill! 

So if you're ever around St. Louis, stop in Patten Books. Believe it or not, I left some great books behind! Now on to Kansas City...


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Horror Biz Update

Here's a nice used bookstore haul I got in Louisville, KY! At the moment I'm headed across the country to relocate in Portland, OR. Plan is to hit all the bookstores! Here's a less horrific haul from Saturday in Durham, NC:

Also, this Friday on Tor.com my first article in the Summer of Sleaze series with author Grady Hendrix will appear. Through August we'll be alternating Fridays with posts on the horror paperbacks we all love. Go read his first piece on John Christopher's maniacal book The Little People - you'll be glad you did!