Friday, February 23, 2018

The Flesh Eaters by L.A. Morse (1979): Eat 'Em and Smile

Behold the Frazetta glory that adorns this paperback! Inhuman brutes, their flesh gone grey-green from their ghastly diet (yet somehow they're ripped as hell), drag along another hapless victim to their lair hidden by great rocks in a misty, nightmarish landscape—what self-respecting horror fan could resist reading this book? Why it promises terrors beyond imagining! Slim, grim, and altogether grimy, The Flesh Eaters (Warner Books, Dec 1979), an unheralded vintage title by one L.A. Morse, operates in that unwholesome arena of dead-eyed depiction of graphic, taboo-obliterating violence with not a whiff of concern for taste or restraint. As you'll see, this is an altogether good thing.

This story of legendary Sawney Beane and his unholy clan is a master class in unsettling the unwary reader. Me, I had some idea of what I was getting into, but even so I was somewhat astonished—and impressed—at the darker turns the narrative took. A straightforward tale of supposedly historical events: a preface declares the factual (meh) basis of the novel, and Morse spares no ugly detail in describing the sheer shittiness of life in 15th-century Edinburgh. There are the houses basically made of mud and straw, the miasma of garbage and human waste, the scavenging creatures animal and man alike, the cathedral filled with light and wealth. The townspeople have no experience of any alternatives. If a clean town does not exist for them, then this town is not dirty.... This filth is merely one of the necessary accompaniments of progress.

We're introduced to Sawney and the other townspeople as they're watching the merciless executions of several prisoners, a momentous event that breaks the monotony of daily life. Of course after watching the men killed in vile ways he feels a tingling throughout his body, a pleasant warmth in his groin. He even sniffs blood from the ground and totally gets off on it. Then it's off to work in the blacksmith's, a horrible abusive guy, known as Master, but he's got this hot teenage daughter, Meg, who hates being her father's slave. Meg and Sawney develop I guess a "relationship." One night the blacksmith is drinking with a pal, and they humiliate Sawney and grope Meg. After being rejected by Meg, the pal leaves, and the blacksmith then attempts to rape his own daughter—till Sawney steps in to stop him. You can guess what happens:

At last Sawney Beane and Meg become exhausted and stop. There is blood all over them. Sawney Beane puts his hand in a wound on the Master's chest and brings it out covered with blood. He licks his hand, then holds it in front of Meg's face. She licks one finger slowly with the tip of her tongue; and then takes each of the other fingers into her mouth and sucks them greedily. Her lips are swollen, as though with passion.
They begin to laugh maniacally. 

ebook cover 2014

Two kids have killed the father, now they've gotta be on the run. That they do. Before, Sawney Beane was practically mute, a cipher, a dullard, a nothing, barely existing, barely thinking, barely feeling. Post-murder he is in touch with desires and sensations that before had only moved about him like beckoning shadows. Oh he has solved the sweet mystery of life, Sawney Beane has! He explains to Meg as they leave that dirty old town:

"We will become hunters. We will be like the great wolves of the forest. Only we will not attack cows and sheep and deer. We will hunt men... Aye, eat them! Feed upon them..."

Well all right! Now we're talkin'. The two self-imposed exiles trudge through spooky forest and across lonely beach and lo and behold, Sawney finds a tiny crevasse in a cliff face which he explores, finding that it turns into a dry, lofty cavern: the perfect home for he and his carnal bride, virtually invisible to any human eye. Here will be their hearth from which they will venture only to kill unsuspecting travelers on the road above. What follows are simple, sometimes gut-wrenching depictions of remorseless killers at work and the enjoyment they find in overpowering the weak things. To wit:

  They are the hunters and it is natural to hunt; anything else would be unnatural. Eating the flesh of their victims no longer has special significance. It is natural for hunters to eat what they kill. They feel no connection between themselves and their victims, no common humanity... they stand over their fallen victims, yelling at the corpses, cursing them, kicking them, spitting on them, dancing in triumph over their bodies

Then the inevitable occurs: Meg becomes pregnant. The baby's birth makes Sawney squeamish; he can't watch and he certainly can't cut the umbilical cord! Even looking at this mewling creature is beyond him... till he realizes: their numbers can increase. So will their strength. And so then will the fear they can cause in the others. Our numbers will increase.... We have only begun.

Once the Beanes start to procreate, things get sketch as eff. Meg gives birth yearly. The children have no names but their jaws are strong. They function almost as one organism, moving and breathing in harmony. The children know no life other than that of the cave; they accept it as normal. Sawney rules as patriarch, of course, teaching his loathsome offspring that "the things are stupid.... It is very funny when they know they are dead." To his clan he spins a myth of the grey wolf of the forest, a tale he remembers from his hazy youth: the wolf is both his own father and he, the supreme predator of the dark woods. The children lie in wait in lonely roads, one pretending to be injured, perhaps, to lure the unsuspecting travelers to aid; then father pounces. The eldest son wants dearly to be a hunter like his father, and the younger children want to partake in the kills on their own. Sawney is not sure if they're ready... but he is willing to let them try.

(Maybe skip this section if you want to experience the book for yourself) If you thought murder and cannibalism were the deepest depravities Flesh Eaters was going to plumb then you've thought wrong. There is rape and incest, and, in one dizzying moment of pure outsider horror, Morse notes the undercurrent of sexuality in the family... sexual energy crackles through the cave; the smell of lust is heavy. Like a pack of wild dogs, the family couples at every opportunity. All but the youngest children are involved, and these imitate their elders, pressing their naked loins together, thrusting their hips in a parody of the sexual act. Holy Jeezus.

They exist apart from human notions of morality or value; again and again Morse notes the uselessness of money and clothes and other "booty" accrued from their victims. "It's shit," Sawney Beane says more than once, tossing away gold coins and fine clothing, "all that belongs to them is shit. This is why they are weak." Morse crafts these scenarios for maximum impact with minimum stylized force: he doesn't overwrite or oversell his disturbing visions; his plain, unadorned prose simply documents horrific events but does not comment on them. Victims rarely have identity; those that do serve a larger purpose to the plot.

The only image of author Morse found

There is more to the novel than these grotesqueries of appetite and destruction:  the townspeople hear of more and more traveler disappearances (the story takes place over two decades). Their idiot Sheriff is lazy, not very smart except when it comes to avoiding difficulties, cowardly, and inordinately fond of his own voice. Perhaps it is a demon responsible? A priest is called. No luck. Several innocent men are accused of devil worship and human sacrifice after a rotted arm is found washed ashore; the men are tortured to confess and executed (the classic "throw the accused in the water, if he drowns he is innocent" is employed to sad effect). Morse gets good mileage out of dry political satire in these instances. Finally the King is involved, a search party started, and the noose begins to tighten around the Sawney Beane clan.

This brief work—just over 200 pages—has power and pull; you'll read it quick as Morse goes straight for the jugular with his clean prose shaved to the bone (he was also the author of several hard-boiled crime novels and won an Edgar Award). Like Jack Ketchum, whose own landmark work of stark yet extreme horror Off Season (1981) was almost surely inspired by this novel, Morse notes depravity with clarity but does not linger or cheapen. Flesh Eaters is perhaps not a book for every horror fan, but it is a must for every horror fan who likes horror fiction nasty, brutish, and short. Get your hands on this book, devour and enjoy.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell: The Cover Art of Peter Caras

Peter Caras (b. 1941) is a long-time and well-respected illustrator and graphic designer whose paperback cover artwork dates back to the 1960s. Inspired by the great Rockwell and mentored by James Bama, it's cool to see their styles mingled in pulpy yet highly skilled art. Much, if not most, of Caras's output was in genres I have never followed: Westerns, spy thrillers, adventure yarns, historical novels, young adult fiction, modern romances, pulpy erotica, and superhero novelizations. Appreciate his attention to the realistic detail of tormented faces, menacing leers (almost Kubrickian!), to contrasting design, and the vivid use of light and shadow. Despite his prominence in other genres, there can be no doubt Caras is a master of the paperback horror cover.

Two fairly recognizable covers for paperbacks by one Duffy Stein, The Owlsfane Horror (Dell, Nov 1981) and Ghost Child (Dell, 1982). Word is these are disposable, mediocre novels, but I gotta have them on my shelf anyway.

(thanks to La Creeperie for this stepback image)

Effigies from 1980 was one of my favorite reads of 2016. How can you not love this cover and its stepback revealing the shocking evil that lurks behind an innocent visage. Virtually perfect.

Total '60s style for this 1967 Paperback Library Black Magic Library of Terror (some kind of series, unknown number of volumes, that I'm trying to track down).

I've heard goods things about Predators (1987), I mean Nelson DeMille, trusted name in horror. Below is a smattering of various '80s titles, including one TMHF classic, 1987's Finishing Touches from the terrific Tom Tessier.

Review of this paperback coming soon!

Now the following covers are ones I was unable to find precise credit as being by Caras; however I think you'll agree after having seen Caras's style that the odds are excellent these are by him. If anyone knows otherwise, let me know.

You can see more of Peter Caras's non-horror work here.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Lovers Living, Lovers Dead by Richard Lortz (1977): Go Rimbaud!

How I love when my low expectations are shattered by a horror novel. Nothing like that feeling of giddiness when a nondescript book rises above the slag heap of cliche and convention to offer surprising, even—especially?—perverse, bizarre chills and thrills. Published in hardcover in 1977, Lovers Living, Lovers Dead (Dell paperback, June 1979), by playwright/TV writer/novelist Richard Lortz, is a dated humdinger of a horror novel, replete with cringe-worthy sexual politics that seem positively Neanderthal today. However it still manages to fascinate with an ethereal female protagonist, her murky psychological depths, and the analytic attempts to plumb them. And oh, her put-upon husband! Won't someone please think of him? It's a good thing it's the '70s because he can talk freely with his wife's psychiatrist to get to the bottom of her mysterious ways.

Richard Lortz (1917–1980)

Our protagonist, Michael Kouris, is a hale-and-hearty comparative lit professor of late middle-age, an egotistical, masculine manly-man, married for seven years to the much younger Christine, who earlier had been one of his English students (more on that later). With their two children, little weirods Jamie and Rose, they've just moved into a many-roomed ramshackle home in a New England forest. But something's not right: in the unsettling scene which opens the novel, Christine displays a violent streak by shooting up a nest of starlings in one of the huge trees on their new property. Also: the children are unruly and worst of all, the Kourises have been celibate for almost the entirety of their marriage! This simply won't do.

All this conflict stems, Michael is certain, from Christine's vagabond childhood, thanks to her father, Marcus Damenian, a brilliant eccentric anthropologist who took her on his many adventures deep into the exotic, dangerous jungles of far, far away, where they lived with primitive tribal peoples. Father's been dead for years now but his memory lives on, up in the couple's attic, in a trunk belonging to Christine which she keeps forever locked...

Poor unfathomable Christine is depicted as a woman-child who charms everyone she meets, especially Michael's dowdy old academic colleagues and their wives ("Where is that delightful creature? I simply must see her!") and who plays pretend, acts theatrically, as if she's playing a joke on everyone. But Michael must have her, Lortz tell us, and marries her after knowing her four days, the man must possess his bride, he will not be denied this elusive creature! The May-December romance seems so, so incredibly dated today, as does the domestic abuse portrayed as a lovers' game of passion and teasing ("Go on, hit me!") but with no clear line of consent (the old adage "better to ask for forgiveness than permission" seems to be employed). Even the cops are called, and one of them smiles "knowingly" as he leaves. It's a bit of a groaner.

Other dated groaners: that sexual relationships between older professors and their students as a given; the comparison of a wife to a child as a compliment; Michael and Christine's therapist talk together about Christine's sessions; drawing a link, perhaps tenuous, between the idea of feral children and autistic children. Christine also functions as a proto manic pixie dream girl, which in its day was not nearly as noted as it is now: the young woman's lack of convention and self-consciousness, her quirkiness and spontaneity, her almost-literally animalistic nature, are a balm to grown-up uptight Michael, helping him get in touch with a less rigid masculine persona.

But her intermittent fugue states and hallucinations (of a chauffeur no less!) lead to regression therapy with MDMA, administered by a psychiatrist, Dr. Ellen Ellenbogen (yes that's right), which becomes an entertaining mishmash of Freud and Jung as Christine mentally travels back to her unusual, to say the least, upbringing. Michael eventually allows the doctor access to his psyche as well, but it's all about getting Christine to explain the source her paternal obsession... and why can't this wife lay her husband once in awhile?!

1977 Putnam hardcover

Lortz's style might take some getting used to; the first few pages are shaky, while the opening chapter is a grotesque scene of obscure motivation in Christine's violence against starlings. The fussy, digressive manner can cause the reader to get lost in a tangle of brief asides, rife with sensual imagery which evokes classical Romantic poetry, high-minded yet earthy, somewhat pretentious yet not off-putting (for this reader anyway). Epigrams courtesy of iconic 19th-century teenage rebel-poet Rimbaud, perhaps a nod to Christine's wild, untamed manner: He entertained himself with the torture of rare aimals. He set palaces flame. He rushed into crowds and slaughtered all who were near him. Yet throngs, gilded roofs, beautiful animals remained. 

Overall however Lortz seems to be having a weird sort of fun with his outrageous (and truly shocking, even offensive to many probably) conceit, threading the narrative with unconventional sexual mores, anthropological, mythological, and psychological musings, all delivered in an allusive prose that maintains an intellectual distance from the perverse proceedings.

Conversion is an unconscious incubation (of knowledge forgotten or slowly acquired and synthesized) that enters consciousness with something like a burst.
So with Christine: not conversion exactly, but what she had previously understood to be ĂȘtre vu: a flooding up of subliminal knowledge whose sum is more than its parts... left her chilled from spinal column to surface skin...

 Ooh, kinky!

1991 reprint

My review is only scratching the surface of the book's transgressive qualities. Despite being only nominally a horror novel—it's creepy and weird, there are some suspenseful chills, a few violent acts, and the shock of that ultimate discovery—I pretty much loved every minute of Lovers Living, Lovers Dead (now that I think about it, it was the hauntingly romantic title that originally piqued my interest). I dug how Lortz totally pulls off his nutso surprise, it's pure delight for thrill seekers like me. Like two other TMHF '70s favorites, Incubus and Gwen, In Green, Lortz's work is a pure product of its era. An uncomfortable echo of our sexual past, warts and all, highlighting scenarios we'd never countenance today, I can recommend this novel to those readers who enjoy such inappropriate dalliances. Cock an eyebrow at the shenanigans delivered with a straight face, laugh ironically from the comfortable vantage point of 40 years' distance, and wait to be amazed at what Michael eventually finds in Christine's locked box.

With a croak of loathing, he dropped it back into the trunk and slammed the lid, collapsing over it, his head and stomach pounding in waves of vertigo and nausea.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Tribe by Bari Wood (1981): Ghetto Defendant

I'll be honest: Bari Woods's books are ones I've seen in used bookstores for decades—decades I tell you—and I have never been interested in them. I mean not ever. Titles like The Killing GiftAmy GirlDoll's Eyes, and even Twins, the basis for Cronenberg's masterpiece Dead Ringers, did nothing to whet my horror appetite. Actually I'm certain I wouldn't have really appreciated The Tribe (Signet Books, Nov 1981) when I was in my early 20s, World War II and Nazis, ugh I mean old news. It wasn't until I read Grady Hendrix's review a year or so ago that my interest was piqued. And what a delight it was to be so well-rewarded: The Tribe is a superb, thoughtful thriller about a series of gruesome murders over several years and a group of aging Holocaust survivors living in New York City.

Hardcover, Dutton 1981

A novel that uses one of history's ultimate horrors not as an exploitative stage already set, but as a window to peer into the evil that can live and thrive in even the kindest, most unassuming soul, The Tribe offers no groundbreaking advancement in the genre, nor is it a summation of it or anything so profound. Dare I even say it's horror? Stylistically it is more akin to The Exorcist or Silence of the Lambs (yet had no movie adaptation to launch it into the pop culture stratosphere): aimed squarely at that mainstream of general readers who've never heard of Lovecraft or Matheson or Bloch or Blackwood.

Wood (b. 1936)

Beginning with one of the strongest, most mysterious prologues I think I've ever read, it is a humane work, concerned with more than solely horrifying readers (although it absolutely does). And Wood, unlike many a genre author, writes like a true pro: she knows her characters, even minor ones, and imbues them with life, desire, and love, with a sense of duty and sacrifice, of overwhelming fear and hate and vengeance. The story's tempo reminded me now and again of a solid '70s film in its plot beats and character arcs, and in that sense The Tribe truly is of its time. And that's okay with me!

Oh that enigmatic prologue, it's a model of the form. American forces have liberated Polish death camp Belzec, and found the German officers near death while the Jewish inmates are healthy and well-fed. Major Bianco must know what happened, and he interviews Speiser, the Nazi commandant at Belzec. What Speiser tells him is obscured to the reader, but its suggests madness and the unbelievable, a vast and dark horror that drives that Nazi commandant to insane laughter even as he contemplates his execution after Nuremberg. Dang it's so good.

Author's first novel, Signet 1977

New York, 1970s-ish. A young Jewish professor named Adam Levy is mugged and murdered on the Brooklyn streets while on his way to visit his father, the rabbi Jacob Levy. This sad yet prosaic event—the one thing everyone knows about New York is how easy it is to get murdered there—sets all in motion. Roger Hawkins is a black cop and Nam vet who has long known Adam, and been a dear friend and something of an adopted son to Jacob, and it is he who breaks the terrible news to Jacob and Adam's young and pregnant wife, Rachel. 

Here Wood deftly interweaves the origins of this friendship between a middle-aged Jewish man whose son is away at the University of Jerusalem and a young black cop with ambition: their days discussing life and literature in Levy's small bookshop along with Levy's fellow survivor, big, handsome Isaac Luria, who generally has no time for Hawkins. Jacob Levy is the kind of unassuming man in whom others instinctively place their trust, love, respect, and honor; Luria may be jealous of Hawkins, or maybe he just hates black people. Later Hawkins and Adam will become friends, but Hawkins realizes he was some sort of substitute... yet that doesn't diminish his deep affection for Levy.

Onyx, 1988

Almost immediately five teenagers are picked up for Adam's murder, gang members who hung out in a filthy clubhouse, but the police find no evidence connecting them to Adam's murder. Hawkins is angry and frustrated, doubts they'll do any kind of hard time if they even are convicted... but then all five boys are found again in that clubhouse, only this time... they are dead, smashed, broken, torn apart, in a graffitied room splashed with blood and, oddly, gray slime and mud smelling of a swamp. His gorge rose but he made himself look. Femoral blood leaked slowly, marrow oozed out of smashed bone on the muddy cement floor. Hawkins retched and dropped the flashlight...

Some of Hawkins's fellow officers mention the obvious but the impossible: that Levy, or Luria, or others of their "clan," are responsible for the murders ("If you say that again," Hawkins says to one cop, "I'll tear your fucking head off."), but surely that is ludicrous. When a neighbor witness comes forward, Hawkins is afraid he'll describe Levy... but he doesn't. Instead, he describes three maybe white men he saw outside that clubhouse, and a fourth: "Oh God," he moaned, "the fourth one was bigger..." and improbably denotes a man nine feet tall and three feet wide...

Art by Don Brautigam, perhaps?

But this is all only Part 1 of The Tribe. Part 2 is about Rachel Levy, Adam's widow. She has Adam's baby, names her Leah, and she and her father-in-law move away from the city and learn how to care for the baby together. Time passes, and Rachel wonders about Hawkins, who'd been so close to the Levys prior to Adam's death. She remains horror-struck by what happened to the boys who killed her husband, but slowly tries to regain her life. She meets and begins to date well-to-do Allan, and spends time with new neighbor Willa Garner, a black woman who moves nearby with her doctor husband and their children, who take to Leah. All of this is written in a warm, knowing, familiar style—who doesn't find descriptions of Jewish home life and especially food, and all those Yiddish words peppering conversation, cozy and comforting?—but there is more darkness to come.

It's at this point that the reader learns of the silent specter haunting the novel. One day Rachel looking for canning jars in her attic, she comes across an old schoolbook of Jewish folklore, flips through it, then alights on something that piques her memory: Rachel read the first few paragraphs. It wasn't a man, but a monster shaped like a man. It was called a golem and it was made of clay. Clay. That was the connection. A child's horror story that must've given her nightmares, and that came back to her when Ableson [one of the investigating officers] said clay. That simple. She went back to the beginning and read the whole story...

Signet 1978

The golem, we learn along with Rachel, is a giant, silent, mindless creature made from mud through a series of occult rituals, and controlled by its maker. It is built by a rabbi at the bequest of an angel, the legend goes, in 16th century Prague to defend the Jewish ghetto from marauding Gentiles. It is a hellish story about playing God, an amoral fable of the long conflict between Jews and the rest of the world, about protecting one's people at any cost, and it chills Rachel to the bone with its mind-bending implication: And forever after that, the Jews in Prague lived in peace...

But this is put to the back of Rachel's mind when one of the Garner teens is involved in a fatal fight between black and white kids at the local high school. One of the dead is Isaac Luria's oldest grandson. The funeral is a travesty, and Rachel squares off almost literally down in the dirt against Luria, who let it be known is a real cocksucking sonofabitch, even if his grandson was just killed. From here we get into the tensions between the black community and the Jewish one, an uncomfortable contemporary issue in New York.

In grieving anger, Luria goes to Jacob Levy and demands Levy "Prove to me you loved my grandson!" Wood takes us back to Levy's boyhood in Krakow, when his father takes him to a Cabalist mystic living in the forest ("Cabala isn't dumbheads looking at palms and calling up demons"). What can this boy do to protect his family from the encroaching Germans? And here it all begins. Wood draws the past and present together, showing how the friendship between Levy and Luria hides many horrors, not all of them human.

More death is coming, the worst of the worst, and Rachel and Hawkins meet up again and maybe are falling in love and there's a Jewish gangster and more about what happened in Belzec and of course the past is not a precursor but woven into every part of life. Rachel and Hawkins slowly try to investigate the murders, trying to convince people of the impossible, that it is not only possible but actual. Please God, Rachel thinks as the enormity of the task ahead and all they must do to face it, rises in her mind, don't let me die tomorrow. I won't give away any more of the plot, so let me move on to general insights.

Signet 1985

There's a lot of cop politics for a horror novel, and a lot of "romance" for one too, and the ancient Jewish mysticism of Cabala, some of which I vaguely remember from my college days when I studied religious history. There's a warm humanism, a pragmatism, threaded throughout the novel that is not often found in horror fiction, so much so that, as I stated above, it makes me doubt this is actually a "horror novel." Using the smooth narrative rhythm of popular bestselling fiction, Wood eschews generic bloody excesses, clumsy graphic sex, and pulpy sensibility. Woods depicts the monstrous in the midst of a carefully-denoted reality, perhaps the key to any successful work of make-believe. Mundane details, like a drawn curtain or a child's pig lamp, are noted again and again. Also particularly good is the payoff for that prologue, stick around for that set-piece of horror mayhem.

I will say The Tribe is a helluva book for folks who like good reads. The characterization shines: rich, warm, and enveloping, the crossing currents of life, the threads that break and the ties that bind, the budding of romance and the rising of hate, the caustic stain of fear and the slow poison of bigotry, the primitive desire for vengeance, for retaliation, for identity: Wood is adept at depicting all in a mature, satisfying manner, how traumatic history affects the present, and I think she handled with good faith the racism and prejudice that plague even minorities. And this is a book about minorities, religious, racial, sexual, intellectual, and mystical, all those who must defend themselves against the larger world. I mean, the book is called The Tribe, after all. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

RIP Jack Ketchum (1946-2018)

Sad news: renowned horror writer Jack Ketchum (pseudonym of Dallas Mayr) has died today at age 71. Two of his novels, Off Season (1981) and The Girl Next Door (1989), remain two of the most effective examples of the genre I can imagine. He remained prolific and gained quite a reputation in the 21st century as his novels reached a larger audience and movies were adapted from his works. The horror community mourns the loss, as he was generous with his time and advice to fellow horror writers and his fans. One of the best ways to remember him is to read his books...

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Fangoria Nightmare Library, March 1988

Here we go again! Peer into the vault of Fangoria's Nightmare Library reviews. (Don't worry, I've got more of my own coming...)