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...


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