Friday, May 22, 2015

Queen of Hell by J.N. Williamson (1981): Queen Nothing Approximately

I swear I bought this one only for the cover! And it's a good thing too, because while Queen of Hell (Leisure Books, 1981) boasts a breast-baring beauty with forked tongue beckoning us to our doom, the novel itself offers little but boredom. Despite a few thoughtful nods to what J.N. Willamson probably thought of as "women's lib," the descriptions of female characters are all hair color and body types (so I guess the cover is at least accurate in that respect). Willamson seems hell-bent on shoving in all the history, biography, and mythology he's read but his own style is square and stuffy, with awkward dialogue crammed into characters' mouths like wooden blocks, and a grating pall of pretension over everything.

Williamson seems a perfect example of the prolific over- and self-educated pulp writer, eager to show off his erudition, but unable to work it into his writing seamlessly. Check out the full page of quotes that introduce each section: he employs the likes of Homer, Milton, Byron, Freud, Algernon Swinburne, et. al. The author's belief that these great minds are somehow relevant to his piece of pulp dreck is silly. Williamson might be a reader and appreciator of great literature, but he can hardly write it.

So: there's a prologue set in turn of the century, one that mentions Hecate, this horrific bloody dark goddess of ancient Greece, and hints at her returning in the new century. Okay, my curiosity's piqued some. Then we're in the new century, and there's a teenage girl who was raped--of course, of course--so she's convalescing in a Catholic hospital, writing down weird visions she has of the past that are freaking out nuns and priests left and right. They think she's possessed--of course, of course--but her mother, a modern lady, is skeptical. Mom is a college prof, wants to teach a course on goddess mythology to empower female students, walking in the footsteps of her father, a great and respected scholar. She argues with a priest about the origins of her daughter's visions and takes her daughter home. Daughter wonders if Hecate is living in the modern world. End Part One.

In the second half of the novel we meet three of those female students and trudge through their shenanigans--I'm skimming, more like flipping pages at this point--and there's graphic violent sex, gross old lady corpses, mythic rituals with naked people--of course, of course--and an apocalyptic climax featuring Satan himself. The novel's final lines are literally "THE END, ALMOST..." I mean, just ugh. Nothing in Queen of Hell clicked with me, and Williamson's tendency to overwrite and have characters over-speak was exhausting.

J.N. Williamson (1932 - 2005)

But wait, there's more! For whatever reason, Williamson adds an author's note, titled--not too pretentiously now--"A Necessary Adieu from the Author." It's completely nonsensical, a cranky rant from an old white man upset about uppity women who don't believe in God but follow all that hippy-dippy goddess stuff. He tries to be funny with it but man it's just.. odd. And another odd thing is that Williamson is totally wrong about Hecate. In Greek myth she has nothing to do with darkness, death, destruction, lust, violence, etc., at all, so I don't know what sources Williamson was reading. Probably Aleister Crowley, who turns up a couple times in Queen of Hell.

I don't want to get all down on Williamson, because in his interview in Dark Dreamers (1990) he seems like a nice enough old fella, ready and willing to help young writers get published. An editor of some renown, he put together the well-regarded, all-star, multi-volume Masques series. But he actually was aware that his speedy skill at the typewriter produced less-than-stellar horror fiction, and lots of it. It's fine that he's honest about that, but honestly for me, I doubt I'll be reading any more of it.

10 comments:

Joe Kenney said...

I'm not surprised by this. Luckily I learned the easy way that Williamson was not my kind of horror novel -- I picked up one of his other Leisure paperbacks, "The Dentist," and read several pages right there in the bookstore. "This sucks!" I then said, putting the book back and thus saving my money.

Jonathan Stover said...

Yeah, I was exposed to PLAYMATES last month, as you know, and am not going there again. Looking at his entry in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, I see that he had 17 novels published in 1980-1982 (inclusive). I'm assuming some of those must have piled up in a drawer over the years (his first short-story sale was in the mid-1960's), though maybe not. So I guess if you were a JN Williamson fan, 1980-1982 was some sort of Golden Age.

Authorfan said...

A bad novel perhaps but what a cover. Would have bought it for that alone.

Authorfan said...

Then I start reading Will's text and, what do you know, he has a thing for that book cover as well. Guess I'm not alone on this. :)

[lrf] said...

Sounds like it would have made a better movie than a book--particularly if the author couldn't write all that well. And that cover is wow.

William Malmborg said...

I love the cover as well. Seems quite a few people do, especially since used copies with that cover are going for nearly fifty bucks on the web. Yikes. I remember being pretty underwhelmed by THE MONASTERY a few years back. Loved the cover on that one as well, but the text . . . it was a struggle to get through for me.

Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

I too would have left the store with this book, just for that sweet cover!

Will Errickson said...

I bought this online for $5 a few weeks ago, now I see it going for between $45-$80. That is truly insane.

Mark West said...

Great review

Ron Clinton said...

THE BOOK OF WEBSTER'S is pretty good, and he has a number (perhaps a small number, but still...) of other decent ones, including HORROR HOUSE. Like many authors who were too prolific for their own good, the ratio of good to bad wasn't in his (or his readers') favor, but I always admired his passion for the genre. I did an interview with him quite some time ago, and that passion came across clear and strong, as did his friendly demeanor. You can find the interview archived here:

http://rlk.stevegerlach.com/spoton13.htm

I've never read this featured QUEEN OF HELL.