Sunday, July 28, 2019

Feast by Graham Masterton (1988): Stay Hungry

Published as a Pinnacle paperback original in 1988 with some fanfuckingtastic cover/stepback art by comic book artist Bob Larkin, Feast is today one of the more sought-after books of its era, usually going for close to $100, alas. Graham Masterton, an author who churned out—who still churns out!—reliably gruesome and fast-paced horror novels, presents a tale about a cult of enormous proportions, and a man and his teenage son who become mixed up in it. I was able to find a copy online four or five years ago for only a few dollars—diligence and patience is the key in collecting these vintage horror paperbacks—in very good condition. It's a sturdy one too, the spine held up and didn't crack while I read it. O huzzah!

Charlie and Martin are father and teen son and not, as their names would suggest, two late-middle-aged men, eating in a palate-displeasing restaurant when the novel begins. Charlie, the father, is a 40-year-old divorced restaurant reviewer for a traveling salesman guidebook, and let me tell you, Masterton really gets his digs in when it comes to subpar cookery and presentation; I think it's personal. Martin, 15, is along for the roadtrip, but he's been living with his mother and estranged from Charlie, so said roadtrip has not been a roaring success. It's about to get worse, though, a whole lot worse than just a gloppy sauce on dried-out schnitzel.

 All my friends are gonna be there too

While dining in The Iron Kettle, a dire New England restaurant with dismal food, their waitress casually mentions a rival spot called Le Reposoir. But Kettle proprietress Mrs. Foss  takes much offense—"Don't you even whisper that name! Don't even breathe it!" Le Reposoir is actually the headquarters of a religious/mystical organization known as The Célèstines, or The Heavenly People. It's "a secret eating society," Charlie is told, made up of folks who eat what "they're not supposed to." Uh-oh. And they don't let in just anybody.

Run by our villains, the refined M. and Mme. Musette, this "dinner club" is in a Gothic-y old house out of an Edward Gorey illustration, a place spoken of with distaste and barely-disguised fear. In this town of Allen's Corner, teens have been going missing, and while people suspect the Musettes and their various hangers-on and acolytes having something to do with it, there are no hard facts for the police to investigate.

Intrigued, fascinated despite himself (and in a fit of pique because he may not be allowed in), Charlie and Martin find this disreputable restaurant and are promptly rebuffed at the gated entrance by M. Musette himself—who already knows who Charlie is: "We are a very exclusive society, and I am afraid that the presence of a restaurant reviewer would not by our membership with any particular warmth." Father and son go back to their hotel. After a desultory meal alone in the dining room, Charlie finds himself in the dimly-lit hotel lounge being chatted up by a woman named Velma, who is exactly the kind of woman you expect to find in dimly-lit hotel lounges:

She sat down and crossed her legs. Her shiny black dress rode high on her thighs. He recognized her scent: Calvin Klein's "Obsession." She blew smoke over him but he wasn't sure he particularly minded. The top three buttons of her blouse were unfastened and Charlie could see a very deep cleavage indeed. White breasts with a single beckoning mole between them.

After a night of torrid porno foreshadowing action with Velma—recall that Masterton wrote popular paperback sex guides in the 1970s!—Charlie returns to his room and finds Martin... gone. And no one he enlists to help him, neither desk clerk nor manager, neither maitre d' nor waiter, have any memory of seeing a teenage boy with Charlie. Two useless deputies arrive and one tells him that perhaps his son was "only riding along with you inside of your mind." Being a restaurant critic is exhausting work, maybe you overtaxed your brain and imagined your son with you, sure, it happens! Charlie suspects that he knows someplace where there'll be answers... and heads back to Le Reposoir.

Storming into the building, Charlie learns much: not just about his son, but about the believers themselves. As the beautiful yet near-fingerless Mme. Musette explains, in the most rational of tones, how the Célèstines came to believe that true communion with God could only be consummated by the eating of human flesh and the drinking of human blood... one's own, and others' freely given. Dig:

"Did not Jesus say 'Take, eat, this is My body.' And did he not say 'Drink, for this is the blood of My covenant.' The whole essence of Christianity is concerned with the sharing of flesh and blood. Not murderously, of course, but voluntarily—the devoted giving of one's body for the greater glory of all..."

 
That's right: people are eating themselves to get closer to God! In a twist everyone saw coming, Charles finds Martin holed up in the Célèstine compound and wants nothing more than to self-sacrifice himself and become one of the auto-cannibals. Even more disturbing, they are convinced the Second Coming is at hand, and Martin is an essential component to bringing it about. Convinced he's been brainwashed or worse, Charlie is hellbent on getting his estranged son out of the clutches of these crazies. He even begins to blame himself, surmising that these fanatics have appeal for young people because their parents' way of life holds no appeal... "I mean, what have we given our children that has any spiritual value whatsoever?" Masterton is trading on the '70s phenomenon of Manson, Jesus freaks, and teenage runaways, perhaps a bit of stale sociology by the late '80s when kids were besotted with MTV and home video games.

To get Martin out, Charlie enlists the help of Robyn Harris, a smart, capable, oh yes and beautiful, hot-to-trot local reporter. Events conspire, gruesome and graphic, that put the two on an escape route out of Allen's Corners, which includes a delightful reference to an Elliott Gould movie. Although the two lovebirds get in some quality banging while on the run and get to take a leisurely walk around lovely New Orleans, ground zero for the Célèstines, Charlie may have to commit the ultimate sacrifice himself to save his beloved son.

Writing with more control and restraint than one would think in a book about a cannibal cult, Masterton's traditional over-the-top approach has been corralled into a sleeker format. I've read some reviews and comments on Feast about it being "bonkers" and "outrageous" but I did not find it so; scenes of ritual self-destruction and consumption are depicted with clean, austere, I guess you'd say a spiritual precision. I was reminded of the films Dead Ringers and, especially, Martyrs:

A young naked girl was... sawing through her own arm at the elbow. Her eyes were fixed and wild-looking. Her teeth were clenched on a rubber wedge to prevent her from biting her tongue. She had cut through the skin and muscle of her forearm with a surgical scalpel, and now she was rasping her way through the bones, radius, and ulna—bone dust mushing white into her bright leaking blood.

Sphere UK paperback, Aug 1989

Masterton is as always more than adept at keeping his story and characters trucking right along, always introducing a new threat or character or situation at the right moment—he's a pulp pro, and you'll enjoy the various skirmishes, confrontations, and well-described American settings (yet American characters still speak in British). But he never tries to scare you or present you with an eerie chill; all the "horror" here is (mostly) limited to scenes of cannibalism, or more accurately, self-cannibalism. What's more, this is a novel featuring skeletons on its cover and cannibalism inside, but is not exactly, I feel, a horror novel. Hear me out. 

Thriller from Tor looks almost like a horror paperback

Feast reads more like a paranoid suspense thriller (a genre in which he's written many novels) about a religious cult that's taken the Eucharist to its literal end. There is an ostensible kidnapping, fugitives on the run, a worldwide conspiracy angle competently executed but that's about all: Masterton's blocky explanations, his usual awkward dialogue, and exposition without any sense of humor or irony, actually undermine his setup, clever though it is. I wanted, like one of the cult acolytes, more.

Ira Levin would've used this scenario as comment on, say, faddish food trends, or cult-like psychologies, or the young generation's desire to escape their parents' hypocrisies and failures... but would have given us some real creeps and scares included in the recipe. And who can forget The Happy Man, the Eric Higgs novel that is surely the apex of '80s cannibal horror fiction that understands the bones beneath this flesh.

German paperback, 1988

If Masterton had acknowledged the absurdity of his cult creation I think the fear quotient would've been great: what's scarier than something ridiculous that's dangerous (there's a psycho "dwarf" stomping around who hearkens back to Masterton's ludicrously horrific monstrosities in minor form)? And what about the ultimate irony (a delicious irony, one could even say), a restaurant getting back at a food critic by kidnapping his son and getting him to believe that cannibalizing himself is the ultimate act of achieving godhood?! Masterton moves so fast, as is his M.O., that he doesn't let himself ponder this concept.

I wish he had engaged with the satire/parody of religion, Christianity, and doomsday cults that seems to suggest itself from the start. Unfortunately, for this reader, he leaves all that untouched, which gives the book a half-baked feeling in its scenes about the beliefs and behaviors of the cult. Masterton plays it straight, almost too straight, po-faced and literal. The twist at the end comes from a misreading of Célèstines scripture, something Charlie alone figures out, but Masterton implies no larger irony in that. Which is fine, I guess, because everything still works as it is. The climax is fiery, explosive, satisfying... but there is of course more to come after. I'm not sure how much I was into that.

Severn House UK hardcover, 1988

Oh, one biblographic fact that may help in your search for this work: Feast is the American title; in the UK it's known as Ritual, a distinction I feel is not much of a difference. I myself prefer this glorious Feast edition, not least because of that Larkin cover art and the presence of ITC Benguiat typeface, the premier horror typeface of the '80s. Either way, it might not be the tastiest Masterton treat you'll ever eat, but if you can find an inexpensive copy, dig right in.

4 comments:

Roger Allen said...

'It's "a secret eating society," Charlie is told, made up of folks who eat what "they're not supposed to."'

I hope Masterton gives a hat-tip to Stanley Ellin's "The Specialty of the House".

Surely restaurant critics don't tell people - especially not restaurateurs - what their job is.

Will Errickson said...

Charlie makes that point again and again!

There is no hat-tip.

Marina said...

I have that copy with the Larkin cover. It's a 'feast' for the eyes!

highwayknees said...

One of Masterton's best i think. My other favorites are PREY-(a bit of of Lovecraftian vibe), and MIRROR< (a completely bonkers Hollywood based novel). I've read a lot of his work though and he is nothing if not always a fun read.