Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Devil's Cat by William W. Johnstone (1987): Satan Laughing

I tried. I really did. The immortally prolific William W. Johnstone (1938 - 2004), one of the mainstays of Zebra's horror line throughout the 1980s, churned 'em out just like his pulp forebears did 50 years earlier. The Devil's Cat is the first book of his I've ever bought and read, despite them being all over the used bookstore I worked at 25 years ago. Who could forget that ridiculous hologram on the cover—worn off of my copy—of a cat/Anton LaVey face? Indeed, a publisher's note first thing explains this "laser holography" and states "So look for the Zebra Hologram whenever you buy a horror novel. It is a shimmering reflection of our guarantee that you'll find consistent quality between the covers." Oh man.

For a scant few moments in the early chapters I thought there might be a chance I'd like Devil's Cat, as Johnstone builds a foursquare story of satanic worship in swampy Louisiana. I politely tried to ignore its robotic dialogue, its slavish imitation of 'Salem's Lot, its retrograde metaphysics (a simple-minded God vs. the Devil scenario drawn from what I can only guess were other shitty horror novels and movies and maybe a Geraldo Rivera TV special on "satanic" heavy metal bands) and enjoy it as a bit of sleazy '80s pulp horror. Check the set-up:

But 'twas impossible. Impossible, I tell you! No surprise: Johnstone commits that gravest of writerly sins: all tell, tell, tell, no show; his turgid writing makes the story a grinding, uphill trudge through stale stupid silliness that takes itself waaay too seriously. Even the thought that he was writing this tongue-in-cheek did nothing to alleviate my frustration. Devil's Cat is so dull, so boring, it's worse than watching paint dry, it's like watching dry paint. Sure, occasionally an image of grue, a situation, or a setting would provide a vague, distant resemblance to decent horror fiction, but that would provide only more frustration.

Johnstone affects a solemn pomposity in his declarative, single-sentence paragraphs, obviously meant to add gravitas to the proceedings; of course it all topples under the strain of his complete inability to write dialogue or character and his regrettable mastery of the cliche. He throws in everything: Satan, zombies, witches, werewolves (or werecats), etc. as well as the ending-that's-not-an-ending. None of Devil's Cat is fun or exciting or scary or creepy or interesting, and if a writer can't make his story any of those things—regardless of the quality of prose—I can't in good conscience recommend it. The Devil's Cat is idiocy itself, terrible garbage horror fiction pure and simple. Let us not cross paths again.

You paid money for this book? Satan laughs at you

9 comments:

wbogacz said...

If you look up Johnstone in Google and read just the search result blurbs, one of them mentions 405 books on Goodreads, most of them series books. Westerns + horror + survivalist. Many of them ghostwritten since his death. I am pretty sure I've read a few of his horror ones, probably even this one. Can't say I remember it, though.

Blofeld's Cat said...

Why do some of his early horror titles cost so much on ebay?

Zwolf said...

Until print-on-demand and e-publishing toward down the firewall that had been protecting us and let completely untalented people become "published," I used to consider Johnstone to be The Absolute Worst Writer Ever. His prose is awful, his plotting incompetent, his characterization nonexistent, and... well, you name it, William W. Johnstone sucked at it. His idea of moving a story along was to have somebody shot on every page. Didn't matter that we didn't know who they were, just as long as somebody was getting shot. He was that perfect storm of subliterate prose-smith combined with dumbass-who-ain't-got-no-clue-how-to-tell-a-story.

The more you read him, the worse he gets. A lot of his western series books actually lifted whole chunks from previous books and just re-inserted them, hoping readers wouldn't remember that, hey, we read all this stuff six or seven books ago. Some of the later volumes of his "Mountain Man" series were supposedly over 60% material from previous books. He was a lazy, dumb crook... and god, did he get damn near anything he hacked out published. I have no idea why, or how, but I guess he sold copies to SOMEbody, because he was all over the place. Maybe a relative owned Zebra Books or something, but you name a genre and he took a shot at ruining it.

I still read a book of his occasionally just for laughs (they can be unintentionally hilarious), but back in the days when publishing standards were still a thing, I'd read them for encouragement. That was one thing a Johnstone book was always good for: a wanna-be writer to read and think, "THIS dreck got published, so surely MY stuff could get into print!" Because no matter how bad a writer you were, it was a good bet you weren't as bad as ol' Willie Dubya J.

Craig Johnston said...

Totally agree. If only the cover art on these things wasn't so alluring to me as a kid. I own most of his horror titles (I can't seem to ever give up my horror novels) and every one of them has never had the spine cracked anywhere past page 50. I always start them with good intentions but they lose me fast.

Will Errickson said...

Zwolf, that's one of the best comments I've ever gotten here on TMHF.

Will Errickson said...

People will turn anything into a collectible

CrabbyCrib said...

I'm actually brushing up on my zebra and have dug up a couple of Jack Scaparro books. To tell you the truth, they're not fantastic. I've considered snagging a couple of Johnstone's books as well when they come out on kindle, since he was a Zebra heavyweight. They have to be better than Scaparro. Although nothing so far has been worse than Neiderman.

Will Errickson said...

Ugh don't torture yourself!

Griffin Calhoun said...

I find it funny how William W. Johnstone exploited the "Satanic panic" of the 80's and today his name is being used to peddle Islamophobic, anti-Obama books about Muslims taking over the US, same shit, different decade.