Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Miss Finney Kills Now and Then by Al Dempsey (1982): I'm Younger Than That Now

I hope you enjoy this terrific Jim Warren cover art because that's the only enjoyment you're gonna get here: Miss Finney Kills Now and Then (Tor Aug 1989 reprint/orig Feb 1982) is inept, clunky, and dumb as hell. In short, unreadable. I began reading in all open-mindedness, but its idiocy factor is all-consuming. Nothing depicted has any relationship to humans, living or dead. If someone with a knack for the written word had attempted the same storyline (*cough* Michael McDowell *cough*), I have no doubt it would've been a lurid romp of some entertainment value. Instead we've got whoever Al Dempsey is writing what seems to be a novelization for a movie never made (copyright page notes "based on an original screenplay by Joseph Van Winkle").

Two young women, crude simpletons both, talk their rich aging aunt of the title into participating in a seance—we're in New Orleans, if you must know—and, coerced by an occult con man who only made me think of this guy, Miss Finney "learns" from the "spirit world" that she can become immortal if she simply, you know, kills people ("You must take a life and add to yours"). But she's in a wheelchair how can she do that?? Why, she'll get her two turd nieces to do the actual dirty work of killing, which Miss Finney brings up over coffee. But it's a scam solely to get money from the old biddy since they're not going to actually kill anyone and then oh my god it becomes all too real!

1st Tor edition, 1982

The first murder sequence is staged and executed in a manner reminiscent of a middle-school play made up and performed by, well, middle-schoolers. Aunt Finney's nieces, Brook and Willa (you know their names because neither one stops saying the other's) set up a rapey handyman (ain't they all) to take the "fall." They're gonna fake kill him, see, and collect $5,000 apiece ("Isn't that rather high?") from old Auntie!

Except that's not how it turns out, and from there I think there's some supernatural shit—book spine states "supernatural horror" under Tor monster logo—but by then my eyeballs were melting down my face like I was a Zap comix. I'd re-commit, take a deep breath, and try to read more, in good faith, but that was fuckin torture. I physically couldn't read this book any longer. Even with dialogue like "I've killed, Detective Scarne. I think that is pretty legal and pretty problematical!" 

Skipping to pages near the end, I discovered there's a Satanic cult ("He cannot speak. He has no tongue. Look at the power of Satan, dear Brook"), like you'd find in a satirical Levin, and bloody nonsense around the climax; I found this passage at random:

Men and women alike participated in the blood anointing of her body. Hands coursed sensually across her breasts, fingers ushered blood into her orifices... The participants in the ritual retreated and she could see that a thing, a vulgar form, was approaching her. Her efforts to cope with the horror were futile. She experienced total revulsion.... The form's skin was covered with open sores that dripped a gray mush, bearing an odor from the bowels of the earth... Its member was erect...


However it's all bargain basement rehash of shit any horror fic fan knows by heart. Turns out Dempsey was more a political thriller writer of the kinds of '80s novels with swastikas on the cover; his attempt at horror is unmitigated hackwork. I had to give up for my taste and my sanity. In all honesty Miss Finney is one of the special handful of pitiful horror novels I've attempted to read that make me despair: why am I, an adult grown-ass middle-aged man, reading, or trying to read, such shallow shitty pandering carelessly-produced garbage? Why do I do this to myself? How it got two printings from Tor boggles the mind. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Winter Wolves by Earle Westcott (1988): The Ice Age is Coming

Cold was there to greet you when you got out of bed in the morning, and keep you company when you climbed back in at night. It sought out your weaknesses like a patient enemy and whispered to your bones of death. It wore you down, physically and mentally, and long bouts of it could break you. 

I've noted before how horror works terrifically when set in a cold environment, and Winter Wolves (Bantam Books, March 1989, cover art by the great Tom Hallman) by its title alone fits the bill. And with this vividly written, powerfully-told tale, creative writing professor and one-time novelist Earle Wescott (b. 1946) has fashioned a frigid adventure yarn crammed with convincing details of horror, madness, and death.

It is a shame Westcott published no other novels, for here all the moving parts work just right: setting, character, dialogue, relationships, motivation. His scenarios, whether in a newspaper office, a homey restaurant, a hermit's shack, or the wintered forest itself, are all presented with utmost realism, with the palpable sense of real life as lived, all put down honestly by a person who understands and respects the craft of the written word. You know, a real book written by a real writer: something all too rare in the world of paperback horror fiction.

New English Library, 1989

Winter Wolves begins as all creature-horror tales must: thrilling the reader with the hapless fate of one who encounters the beast(s). An elderly drunk stumbling across frozen flats notices two shapes blacker than night coming closer, and then a third blocking his way to any safety, and it smiled at him with a mouthful of star-bright teeth. Man that's a tough break, going out like that, drunk but scared sober. Chapter Two begins with another familiar confrontation: the offices of a small Maine newspaper, where editor Ray Neville wants journalist Fran Thomas to go to Thomas's hometown of Steel Harbor to report on the story behind the dead drunk found with his body mutilated. Was the drunk, name of Sam Comstock, dead of natural causes catching up with him and then mauled post mortem? Was it a pack of dogs? Was it wolves? In Maine?

When his editor said the word wolves, Fran thought of an assembly line. He thought of the exhibit of prehistoric dire wolf skulls at the Page Museum in LA, dozens of them with only minor variation in size... how brutally mechanistic nature really was, stamping out skullcaps like brass shell casings in a wartime munitions plant.

After a quick sketch of Fran's personal life—He found relief only in quitting things— it's on to a couple other settings you'll recognize: the backwater funeral home and doctor's office. Fran chats with old Dr. Tagen, who's shadowed by two giant Great Danes. Tagen examined Comstock's mangled remains: "The extremities received great attention. The flesh torn from the corpse wasn't eaten. It was scattered around. I might say playfully." Like other creature horrors, the culprit is at first misidentified: this wasn't a wild animal but maybe a large dog (Like a Great Dane? Fran asks, and Tagen scoffs, noting the breed's cowardice in the face of cold.)

Fran speaks with Police Chief Boulting, who wants Fran to "educate the public" about the dangers of letting domestic animals run wild; no one thinks wolves are responsible, save Woody Parker, who discovered Comstock's corpse. Knowing he must speak to the reclusive, queer old man, Fran enlists the help of Caroline Parker (Westcott describes her as homely in the beautiful way redheads sometimes are), Woody's niece. From there they head out to his lonely fortified enclave where Woody sticks to his wolf story: "Nobody catches these wolves... They do the catching."

After another mutilation death, Woody is arrested, “the worst thing that could happen to a hermit, his worst nightmare, surely as harrowing as the torment of wolves real or imagined… he had become a public figure.” Before he’s taken away he says to Fran, “Think you know something, do you? Study the winter of 24 in your newspaper and you’ll know something for sure.” And from there Fran learns of eerily similar deaths, and that old Dr. Tagen who was young then had been the medical examiner. Fran asks Tagen about it, who crotchedly reminds Fran that he is a Thomas, of the local Thomases, and implies Fran knows more about this creature case than he thinks he does…. More research follows, again as it always must, and Fran reads in an 1820 newspaper about “the extermination of a verminous infestation of Wolves.” He learns that, and a little more, a fact that binds him tighter to this mystery than he had foreseen.

1988 hardcover

Fran and Caroline dance around their attraction to one another, and the consummation is detailed with an experienced eye: She whispered the most marvelous things to him, sweet and obscene, in a voice that was not entirely her own. As if she were possessed, bewitched, and her words an incantation. Westcott adds workplace drama too: Angela DeGregorio, 20-something copy assistant with some exotic kind of bone cancer that has crippled one leg and chemotherapy has turned her raven hair silver; and Tommy Blackburn, an ambitious colleague who resents Fran for what he sees as the editor's favoritism. Sexual tension between Fran and Angela is uncomfortable yet all too sad and real; violent tension between Fran and Tom also so.

Throughout the novel Fran is visited by dreams of a woman, her gown was made of snowflakes and he could see her nakedness beneath. She gave him a bold look, and he saw her eyes for the first time. They were not human. Westcott weaves notes of predestination and the otherworldly into his narrative, frigid little moments that speak of a man navigating his lost chances, failed ambitions, family ties to the proceedings, a doom-and-gloom vibe that every character seem to be fending off: It seemed to him that the pain, the deception, the chaos, the helplessness (especially the helplessness—everybody thinking he was a victim and nobody wrong) were all part of the universal state of human relationships...

The gripping climax of adventure and violence does not disappoint: Winter Wolves becomes both an ecological and personal nightmare. Westcott's prose achieves a natural poetry, a silvery sheen of terrible beauty as Fran confronts the phantoms of his life and dreams.


The glow was cold, faceted, like blood crystals in the snow, rubies, Mars. More aura than actual light, the ghost of a light, yet it did its job. As Fran stood at the edge, one of the pack charged, snapping with ferocious yanks of the head and threatening to bound across... cracking its jaws and casting a covetous glance at the man just out of reach...


A work of adult themes and situations, Westcott has produced an accomplished '80s horror novel, filled with fine writing, deft characterization, and satisfying scenes of bloodshed and eerie visions. When I began reading I expected nothing, and at first the pace seemed leisurely, leaving me somewhat cold (no pun intended); but by the end, as pieces fell into place and Westcott's abilities truly emerged, I was engaged, stimulated, chilled to the final lines. Make no mistake: track down these Winter Wolves and marvel at their icy, merciless power.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane by Laird Koenig (1974): Did He Go Away and Leave You All Alone

A mainstream suspense thriller with plenty of '70s vibes, adapted into a fairly well-known movie (if you follow cult films I guess), the 1974 novel The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (Bantam Books paperback edition, Feb 1975, cover artist unknown) was author Laird Koenig's second novel. He'd written TV teleplays and screenplays, and the structure, setting, and characters of Little Girl feels like an intimate stage play, taking place as it does in a rented home in a small New York village. Creepy cover art by artist unknown shows a spoooky girl whose tresses transform into bloody gore while a vampire phantom sort hovers in gonna-getcha pose. You won't be surprised to learn this imagery is misleading.

Our story begins on Halloween night, the kind of evening the little girl liked best...

The little girl is Rynn Jacobs, almost 14, and she's English so she doesn't celebrate Halloween. She and her poet father having been renting their small home in a small New York village. Won't surprise you to learn that Rynn is wise beyond her YA years, who loves the enigmatic lines of Dickinson, the glorious piano of Liszt, and her pet rat Gordon. She hates the shrieking girls her own age on the bus, their trashy teen hearthrobs, and especially the Hallets, the family from whom her father is renting their home.

Frank Hallet first shows up to visit Rynn's dad and to explain Halloween tradition as his two children are making their way to the house. Everything about the man seemed soiled, shiny or red, he reeks of sweet cologne and he giggles. Right away you just know he's a fucking creep. And you're right, especially after he learns it's Rynn's birthday as well.

"Pretty girl like you—on your birthday and all—no boyfriends?" The girl and her pet, in a world together, closed out the man.... 
Suddenly the man reached down and slapped the girl on the curve of her buttocks. Rynn wheeled around to face him, her eyes glaring hate. Hallet giggled nervously. "It's okay. I get to spank you. On your birthday you have to get spanked..." Rynn's green eyes held the man's until he slid his glance away. "It's a game," he protested. "A birthday game!" His voice was loud and shrill.

Sweet Jebus. Arriving the next day is Frank's mother, the imperious Mrs. Cora Hallet, an old woman with Barbie doll hair, who can't stand what she sees as Rynn's rudeness; the two of them get into an argument over jelly glasses and furniture that's been moved; everything goes downhill from there. Mrs. Hallet declares she is on the school board, and why isn't Rynn in school, where is her father...? All that jazz. She threatens Rynn with reporting her truancy, demands her father call as soon as he can—Rynn tells her he's in New York seeing his publisher—and is off. Rynn is terrified of exposure till she learns the truth of Mrs. Hallet's threats the next day.

Rynn, whose father is always working on either his poetry or translating others' and so we don't meet him face-to-face as he is not to be disturbed, is self-possessed and no-nonsense about taking care of herself and her home. We follow her into town where she runs grown-up errands to the bank, the hardware store, and her favorite: the bookshop. She stands outside it

...studying the shiny jackets of masses of books on display as eagerly as a starving urchin might stare into a bakery window, she was postponing the ultimate happiness, the moment when she would actually set foot inside the bookshop. Then she would be in a world she felt was far more wonderful than Alice found down the rabbit hole or the astronauts discovered out in the black vastness of space. 

Koenig, c. 1974

Two other characters feature in the tiny cast: police officer Ron Miglioriti, who might possibly or possibly not be trouble (he is the law after all), and young teenage magician Mario Podesta (who is actually Officer Ron's nephew), who uses a cane to walk and dons the garb seen on the cover. Both offer to Rynn sympathy and warmth, the former as a father-figure and the latter as a boyfriend (details of which are handled tastefully, gaze averted). Both treat Rynn with respect and a sense of equal standing; something neither Hallet is able to muster.

Rynn enlists Mario to help cover up a certain unfortunate incident, and their back-and-forth dialogue is a perfect snapshot of kids-against-authority, Mario the small-town kid trying to hold his own with cool, collected, sophisticated Rynn (she has traveler's checks! knows poetry! can cook better than his mother!). And it's this unfortunate incident that befalls Mrs. Hallet, and of course what happened to Rynn's father and mother, that power the engine of this little thriller. Koenig's style is subtle but sharp, with that mainstream narrative slickness that I feel good TV writers possess.

A hallmark of every creepy kid is the ability to outsmart adults; Rynn is no exception, even if she's not creepy. But as the novel tightens its grip, the giggling Frank Hallet proves to be more serious danger than bothersome neighbor, and he even comes to admire her: "I mean you're brilliant. No two ways about it. But you made one mistake." Isn't that always the case? But as Rynn's missing-in-action father had told her once, "Do anything you must, fight them any way you have to. Survive," we know that when we reach the final page, that instinct will be tested...

Coward, McCann & Geoghegan hardcover, 1974 

While it's certainly no must-read, Little Girl is crisp and bracing, like a brief autumn after a blistering summer and just before a blizzard; a minor work of its day that I read in a day and a half. I wouldn't call it a horror novel, maybe let's say it's horror-adjacent, as there are murders and secrets and other illicit behaviors. The backstory about her family is presented without ambiguity; I feel a stronger writer could have imbued her situation with perhaps more menace or atmosphere. Like other evil kids of the day, Rynn might be a budding sociopath, or she may just be taking her father's words about survival a tad too serious. Koenig keeps the action cozy in this little village rental home, venturing out rarely for, as Dickinson said and Rynn knows all too well, "I don't go from my home, unless emergency leads me by the hand." Indeed. Rynn protects what is hers; intrude upon it at your own peril.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Wilding by Melanie Tem (1992): Ladies of the Canyon

"Horror is a woman's genre," says my Paperbacks from Hell pal Grady Hendrix, and he is so right. Horror is often seen as a boys' club, and that is true to an extent, yet there is a feminine power flowing through the genre that is not always acknowledged. The genre features many novels, minor and major, from a beleaguered woman's point of view: "The Yellow Wallpaper," We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill HouseFlowers in the Attic, The Possession of Joel Delaney, The House Next Door, and others lesser-known, such as Burning, Nest of Nightmares, The Landlady. The female experience is not one unfamiliar with fear, pain, and betrayal of the body itself. So much of this kind of horror is entwined with the emotional weight that home and family bear on the feminine psyche since time immemorial. Horror offers a perfect opportunity to turn these anxieties into monstrous metaphor... and fiendish entertainment.

Such is the case with Melanie Tem's second novel for the fabled Dell/Abyss publishing line, Wilding (Nov 1992, cover artist unknown). Taking her title for the suspect term of marauding youth (then probably more recognized as such, being only a few years after the initial crime), Tem reclaims the word as a notion of subversion. You want wilding? She'll give you wilding: these wilding women are werewolves, wouldn't you know, and engage in just the right kind of wild werewolf behavior. And then some. In this thoughtful, temperate novel of lupine dark fantasy, Tem doesn't shy away from the tenderest, most elemental hurts (and this was family: ultimate alliance and danger more intimate, more knowing than any other). She goes further into these unsettling places and with more confidence than in her debut, another woeful tale of familial dysfunction, 1991's Prodigal.

The sisters had come most recently from wooded, green, and rainy Pennsylvania. Before that they'd lived in the Everglades, on an island off the Carolina coast, on the English moors, at the northern edge of the Black Forest, high and deep in the Carpathian Mountains (a-ha!)

There's a city-wolf/country-wolf dynamic at play: the family has split into two distinct factions, with distrust, suspicion, disagreement, and power plays at base. Should the women be away in the hills, so to speak, or should they be tested by city life and its pressures? This is the family riff, and a confrontation is coming. The heads of these clans, the murderers and devourers of their sisters, are Hannah, the country-wolf (the stench of the city poisoned her), and Mary, the city-wolf; Mary lives in one of four houses forming a square enclosed city block in Denver, a joining of them together against all the world that was not family.

The two clans have somewhat reluctantly come together at the novel's beginning on a full-moon night for the initiation of teenage Deborah, Mary's great-granddaughter. You might, as you begin reading, want to sketch a quick family tree of who's-who on a handy bookmark, for the litany of names can be numbing in its biblical simplicity: Mary, mother of Ruth, Ruth mother of Lydia, Lydia mother of Deborah. Then there are siblings and cousins. And teenage Deborah, pregnant and stubborn, rejects the initiation of wolf skin and escapes the house, leaving her relatives in a state of snipping, snapping frustration. The ancient grandmothers Mary and Hannah will not sit for it.

Teenage Deborah escapes into the city (the rest of the night she walked and ran, sometimes upright and sometimes on all fours—the women can transform at will) and various misadventures ensue: a diner pickup that leads to date rape; an encounter on a bus with a harasser that is quite satisfying for every woman who's been in the same sitch; then a ragged street person named Julian offers understanding, a place to stay, food, a sympathetic ear: This is to be a sanctuary relationship. For both of us. A place of peace and trust, Julian tells Deborah, even when she doesn't want to hear it. Tem's experience as a social worker dealing with the abused, the forgotten, the houseless, the addicted, was front and center in Prodigal and it is even more developed here; she well understands how the marginalized can create their own family dynamic. This moral dimension girds the novel into something uncomfortably real.

Anger. Wildness. Anger in the streets. Anger in the veins... anger pooling in the bedrooms, kitchens, hallways, stairways, cellars, attics, closets where people lived and loved and where they died... never enough anger. Never enough blood. Even though the world reeked of it... Little girls choked with chocolate cake they'd tasted without permission... little boys held in scalding bathwater for messing their pants again. 
Wilding, the ravening for transformation...

Finnish edition, 1994

Meanwhile, Lydia is beside herself with concern over her runaway daughter, even though her feelings towards Deborah are deeply ambivalent: She had never known how to take care of her. Lydia still mourns the death of her other children, in infancy, and the fate of newborn boys to any member of this wolf clan is absolute. She works in a drab office and a coworker, Pam, like Julian, offers sympathy and friendship, yet unlike Julian, perhaps something more. Yes, something more. The fate of this good coworker is... absolute, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes of horror I've yet read.

There is more, much more to Wilding. Emotional rawness, memories of beloved men and boys and normal lives thwarted, of unbearable tension between generations of powerful women who can barely fathom their own minds much less their relatives'. The final chapter reveals the dim history of this werewolf clan (The man stopped screaming when he heard the werewolf speak). Tem is unconcerned with presenting a traditional novel of horror: there are no wolf-hunters armed with silver bullets on the women's trail, no grizzled Kolchak investigating mauled remains found in a city park, no despair by a woman who wants to rid herself of the wolf curse. Why, it wouldn't be an Abyss book if there were! In all these ways Wilding is the quintessential Abyss title.

Current ebook

Wilding is often a state of mind rather than a exact rendering of the real and the true. Using a minimum of dialogue, Tem offers dense paragraphs of inner turmoil, anxiety, and doubt: in going after psychological truths, the story can slow to a crawl. But it's an illuminating crawl: Tem's perceptive insights into the characters' human nature are the real draw here. Don't worry, there's plenty of gory werewolf action—it's threaded through a curtain of heartfelt humanity, but it's there. Hearts are eaten, hearts are broken, hearts survive. Werewolves or no, family is family.

She could still feel the breath, still taste fresh kill, still hear the sounds of her grandmother saying her name. Blood instead of breath. Rage instead of love. Love.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Coming in 2019: Paperbacks from Hell Reprint Line from Valancourt Books!

Great news: at first it was just a secret dream among a few die-hard paperback horror fanatics, now it's a reality! In August, specialty publisher Valancourt Books announced that they would be launching a series of reprint vintage horror paperback titles, all of which have been featured in the Stoker Award-winning Paperbacks from Hell (Quirk Books, 2017), by Grady Hendrix and me (you may have heard of it!). They've asked Grady and me to choose the titles and write introductions, and Valancourt hopes to be able to use original cover art when possible.

It's beautiful!

Since virtually every book discussed in PfH is out of print and often going for expensive collector prices online, Valancourt Books hit on the excellent idea of reprinting some in quality trade paperback editions. Thanks to Quirk Books for agreeing to this amazing deal. Offering obscure and long-sought-after books anew to an eager reading public seems like the right thing to do! I'm thrilled to be part of this horrific venture.

Planned publication is early 2019, with maybe half a dozen titles at first, starting with Elizabeth Engstrom's 1985 collection of two novellas, When Darkness Loves Us, published in paperback by Tor in 1986 with a fantastic Jill Bauman cover illustration. Also featuring in the line will be Bari Woods's The Tribe and T. Chris Martindale's Nightblood. More titles to come, of course, and Grady and I are hot on the heels of potential reprint horrors. Tracking down authors or their estates and sorting the tangle of copyright is no mean feat but Valancourt is doing a stellar job of it. And don't forget: over the past several years Valancourt has already reprinted many of the books you've read about here on this blog and in PfH.


Friday, August 31, 2018

The Spirit by Thomas Page (1977): You Drive Me Ape You Big Gorilla

Bigfoot was big news throughout the 1970s, thanks to that infamous Patterson footage of the late 1960s. Stomping across the pop cultural landscape and metal-and-asphalt playgrounds of the decade, he showed up on TV ("Bigfoot and Wildboy"! "In Search of..."! "The Six Million Dollar Man"!) and in some cheapie movies I recall older relatives and brothers of friends going to see. Even the commercials and specials on TV terrified me. Amongst the drugstore spinner racks that held our precious horror paperbacks readers could also find "non-fiction" on Sasquatch, and the covers offer that same fine vintage frisson.

But Bigfoot was dead and gone by the '80s—I was just too old for 1987's Harry and the Hendersons—and although he's back in a big way today, I can't say I have any interest in him. So it was with some measure of "meh" that I approached The Spirit, a 1977 novel actually published in hardcover (scroll down for cover). Ballantine released the paperback edition in 1978 with a moody George Ziel cover, as he does so well, and I was sort of expecting an adventure-romance tinged with creature horror. Author Thomas Page (b. 1942, Washington DC) wrote a few other genre paperbacks in the day that I've seen here and there over the years but I know nothing about him. I do know he can spin a yarn and mix in some solid suspense and a few snatches of 'Squatch destruction.

There is something I think distasteful about implying Bigfoot is dangerous to humans, I've always felt, but now I see he is generally part of the "eco-horror" moment of that era, when the natural world has simply had enough of humans trashing it for big bucks and fights back by any means necessary. Bigfoot simply does not respond well to ski resorts in his 'hood! Page's novel, despite the slavering back-cover copy and its swooning-romance cover, is more tasteful than those pulp implications, as its specific horror elements are minimal and there is no romantic element whatsoever, which is a shame because two characters meet cute and I could've done with some sexy Seventies sex action.

1977 US hardcover, Rawson Associates
Easily the most accurate cover art

Still, I do think Spirit is a rewarding little read for those who dig the 'foot, as it has some terrific action setpieces and opens with a harrowing helicopter crash, characters and dialogue aren't a lot more than stock but serve adequate purpose for the story. Page isn't too shabby at mixing in Native American lore either, adding a dash of the hallucinating Vietnam vet and the vision quest, and has some fun theorizing on the anthropological origins of the creature (genetic deformity? cross-species banging?), thanks to our manly-man protagonist's visits to a primate specialist. Bigfoot sightings aren't overdone and have a bit of subtlety about them—She had materialized from the forest, as massive as a mountain and light as a wraith—but definitely convey the creatures' power and might. There's even sad note of irony at the end.

1979 Hamlyn UK paperback

But only dum-dum Lester, who works in the ski lodge kitchen and knows what he saw that one eerie night even though everyone thinks he made it up and he tries to recant even though he really wants to make some money off it on the Johnny Carson show, truly knows what's up with the 'Squatch:

Somebody once said on a late-night TV show that people were afraid of the full moon because thousands of years ago the earth was covered with different types of humans who came out then. These humans lived in the woods with saber-toothed tigers and snakes and dinosaurs and mastodons, and got along great with them because they all ate the same thing: other humans.

Berkley Books, 1977, rare collectible 
Er, no thanks, I'm good

Friday, August 10, 2018

Won't Forget to Put Roses on Your Grave: The Gloomy Gothics of Victor Banis

The esteemed Jeffrey Catherine Jones painted this, one of my favorite-ever covers, of a delightfully ghoulish lass writhing upon a coffin attended to by fluttering batwings. I mean, I think it is just spectacular. My expectations weren't high for the actual novel, but even so they were dashed as I began to read, for The Vampire Women (Popular Library, 1973) is a dreary rip-off of the original opening chapters of Dracula, right down to its epistolary narrative. Victor Samuels—or should I say "Victor Samuels" for reasons that will become clear in a moment—has produced a work of pure pulp hackery. Updated to 1969, it's the tale of a man, a woman, and her younger sister traveling to Castle Drakula. Yes, Drakula, so see, as their guide through the Carpathians informs them, it's not the same Dracula as from the books and movies! Whew, glad we cleared that up.

I tried to approach the story as a cheap Dracula flick, a lesser Hammer or a Naschy or something, but even that didn't work thanks to "Samuels"'s simplistic prose and bone-headed journal entries:

What was the name of the castle again?
Drakula. Do you know of it?
I recognize that name. It's been used in books and movies. Not very pleasant ones.... He was a werewolf or something like that.

It is those silly legends about that Wallachian—Drakula, I think the name was. I gather he was the subject of some books and movies. I never had time for things like that.

We can't afford to get mixed up with Count Drakula and his government or his politics.

Carolyn giggled. "I'm going to marry Count Drakula," she chirped. She looked cocky and defiant.

1976 German edition

Of course I trudged and skimmed most of the way through to the obvious climax—"Get back, Drakula!" I warned as I snatched up the stake at my feet—groaning the whole way. Then I looked up the author and quickly found it is the pseudonym of a writer named Victor J. Banis, and o my friends, lots of fun stuff came my way. Born in 1937 in Pennsylvania, Banis is considered the father of gay pulp fiction. That's a pretty big deal, and as I read about Banis and his illustrious history in the pulp trade, I learned he also wrote many Gothic romances of the late '60s and early '70s under other various pen names (he even wrote some of the perennial Executioner men's adventure series!). In interviews Banis has no illusions about the quality of some of his output—he was simply a working writer, but his subject matter had never been explored in mass market before. Fascinating! I live for these jaunts down forgotten paperback history...

Banis, 1973

I've found a handful of glorious paperback covers for his books from that long-ago era; I think you'll recognize a Hector Garrido cover down there too...


Saturday, July 28, 2018

She Wakes and A Cold Blue Light: Recent '80s Horror Reads

Hola amigos, I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya, but I've been real busy here. Been buying paperbacks like crazy, in and out of town, and have even had time to read a few. Unfortunately nothing has blown me away, a real bummer, but here are two brief reviews of the titles I've finished this summer.

While at first I was kind of digging She Wakes, the late Jack Ketchum's novel from 1989 published by Berkley Books, as it neared its end I realized I'd long lost any sense of enjoyment. Pretentious and mean-spirited, Ketchum seems to be floundering a bit in this rather overlooked title in his oeuvre. A supernatural story set in a well-depicted Greece, the She of the title is of course an ancient scary goddess ravenous for sex and death in the guise of vacation fling. You know how it goes. Characterization is dull and hollow, prose is Hemingway lite, and scares and/or creepiness marginal. The unrelenting conviction that made Girl Next Door and Off Season such horror powerhouses is missing.

I do like the at times despairing tone of Ketchum's style—He felt a moment of impotent fury. These were all good people. They didn't deserve this. None of them did—because it gets at my understanding of horror: that terrible things happen to good people for no reason. I mean, that's life, right? I'm not crazy about horror in which awful people get a dreadful comeuppance; that seems a cheap satisfaction. And while zombies and gore and flesh-eating appear in the last quarter of the story (a few sex scenes are written pretty well too in a sort of erotic horror manner), they produce no horrific frisson; no, it's just there, and it did nothing whatsoever for me. Lots of time drawing characters together for what promises to be a doozy of climax, but it is dead on arrival, muted, overwrought, even distasteful in an ugly way.

Apparently Ketchum wanted to try his hand at a "Stephen King style" work instead of his usual non-supernatural fare, but She Wakes is NOTHING like a King work, so I don't know what he (or the publisher?) was thinking. The combo of Ketchum's clipped, existential sentences and malevolent mythology, intriguing at first, adds up to nothing. I'm not surprised Ketchum gained genre fame only years later; his style, affect, and approach were pretty much the opposite of what was going on in horror writing at the time (although I suppose it bears the vaguest similarities to Simmons's Song of Kali). Despite a few interesting tidbits scattered throughout—his evocation of the Greek landscape and its people is admirable, but I mean come on, it's no Colossus of Maroussi!—She Wakes is a real miss.

In late summer of last year, three men and two women came to Aubrey House, each seeking something intensely personal. Five separate houses, if you will, all of them haunted.

1983's Charter Books original A Cold Blue Light, by fantasy writing team Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin, is a title I searched for awhile; I'm not sure exactly why. I think I liked the vibe the title and cover had, implying a chilly tale of atmospheric hauntings ("beckoning horror," anyone?). Another riff on Haunting of Hill House, you got your investigators all up in what was a summer rental for backstory folks who went mad. Back-cover copy really sells it:

Psychically speaking, it's a whole new equation. Good, Evil, God, Heaven or hell—I doubt that any of those words have much relevance in Aubrey House.

Didn't know anything about the authors, looked them up, they don't write at all the kinds of fiction I pay attention to. Which is ironic because Cold Blue is engagingly written, smart, insightful, sharp and observant—a party scene early in the story promised a bright, modern '80s novel of witty banter, solid characterization, believable motivation, paranormal skepticism, metaphysical ramblings (last two things not my favorite but I'll make an exception if there's some real creepiness to be had)—but there are absolutely no scares whatsoever until maaaybe the final couple pages. Cold Blue was a solid read otherwise, yet I can't recommend it as any kind of horror fiction. The authors were simply going through generic motions for commercial reasons. There's a sequel, I might buy it for completist reasons only.


Thursday, June 28, 2018

RIP Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

The inconceivable has happened: we now live in a world without Harlan Ellison. It is not exaggeration on my part when I tell you that he was perhaps the most important writer for me, an author whose words and ideas were apocalyptic when I began reading him in the mid-1980s (thanks to Stephen King's Danse Macabre, which I believe is where many fans of my generation first learned about him). My library includes more books, both in paperback and hardcover, by him than by any other writer (and I'm still searching for various editions).

I can still recall the excitement with which I read his classic collections Strange WineDeathbird Stories, and No Doors, No Windows these many years later. And of course it wasn't just the stories! No, it was the introductory essays and think pieces and forewords and such that really opened up my head, that put me in touch with a righteous anger and passion that I had never encountered before. Harlan Ellison pulled back the curtain on the writer's life and duty and I had never seen those workings before. I will never be able to thank him for that.

Below is an old blog-post of mine from 2007 that only scratches the surface of how I feel about Harlan.

Since the death of Tom Snyder several weeks ago, I got to thinking again about "the irascible science fiction writer Harlan Ellison," who Snyder interviewed famously many times over the years. One of my most favoritest writers ever of all time, I was introduced to Ellison's writing when I was around 14 or 15, when I borrowed Strange Wine from the local library after reading about Harlan in Stephen King's Danse Macabre. And in those many years since, I've amassed nearly 30 copies of his books, most all of which are long out of print but can be found through diligence and patience scouring used bookstores. 

Deathbird Stories, a collection of his early ’70s works, is one I had not read in some time. It's essential Ellison. It contains some of his tightest, most controlled works: moody and enigmatic, laced with an existential dread while displaying an unnerving knack for an ugly, yet appropriate, climax, like a crack of the whip—or a snap in the neck. The collection is subtitled “A Pantheon of Modern Gods,” which is the height of irony—is there anything less modern than a god? That’s exactly the point: people are still desperate to worship, to prostate themselves before some imagined superior power or any strange artifact that can somehow impart meaning upon this random and unexplainable life.

And Ellison, despite his compassion for such poor souls, spares none in these moral fables. "I am a religious man," states the melancholic protagonist of "Corpse." "One would think that would count for something. Apparently it does not." Then there's the gut-wrenching "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," in which Ellison recreates the chilling murder of Kitty Genovese as an act of sacrifice to a new and terrifying god. "The Deathbird," the final story, is an emotionally exhausting reimagining of the origin of evil—in the form of a multiple-choice final exam.

I can still remember the first time I read these stories, a hot summer in 1988 sitting in the stifling office of the gas station I worked at, filling my head with Ellison’s rants and ravings and obscure references that didn’t make me feel stupid or inferior—no, it was exciting, it made me feel like I had a lot to learn, and I had better get caught up fast. As he states in the intro, “As the God of Time so aptly put it, It’s later than you think.”


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