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.


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