Thursday, September 17, 2020

Raw Pain Max by Dean Andersson (1988): Nothing's Shocking

One of the most famous literary putdowns of all time is what Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac's iconic Fifties beat novel On the Road: "That's not writing, that's just typing." Ouch. Reading Raw Pain Max (Pinnacle Books, Oct 1988), that quote came immediately to mind, not least because the two protagonists here are constantly in a car driving hither and yon. Author Dean Andersson, who I have not read before, spends pages and pages padding out a practically non-existent narrative about torture goddess Countess Bathory in the modern day; his "writing" seems like he's making up his travelogue of terror as he goes. What we have here, then, is one of those horror paperbacks that sports a gloriously lurid cover, thanks to J.K. Potter, that it can never live up to. The clumsy title, invoking one of Clive Barker's most ferocious tales, helps not at all.
 
Andersson makes all the mistakes of an inexperienced writer. Filled with non-horror-ific details like characters' "bad-ass" clothing style of motorcycle boots and rock t-shirts, heavy metal on the radio, various highway routes from Texas to Kansas, numerous detailed fast food repasts, and tin-eared dialogue in which the main characters say each other's names on an endless loop (for me, the A-number-one indicator of an amateur author) Raw Pain grated on my nerves like, well, torture itself. There is no attempt at pacing, plot, suspense, scares, or insight; it is all just so much typing.
 
Now I don't know anything about Andersson, maybe he's gotten better, but I have seen his later horror paperbacks around over the years, published in the Eighties through the Nineties: two Avon paperbacks, 1981 and '82 under the pseudonym Asa Drake, then Torture Tomb in 1987 and Max the following year, with some Zebra titles later. They pretty succinctly show the variety of horror paperback covers, from historical romance vibe to more generic images like grasping hands and widened eyeballs, then the more photo-realistic style of the Nineties, which you can see at bottom. Love these two Avon covers, totally new to me. Honestly they sound pretty cool, but after reading Raw Pain, man, I dunno.
 
Back to the task at hand: Raw Pain Max is about "whip-toting Amazon" Trudy, a twenty-something bodybuilder, who, along with friends-with-benefits young metalhead Phil, performs a torture act in a sex club, called, improbably enough, the Safe Sex Club (look, don't @ me if there is actually a club with that name; it's a terrible name whether it's a real place or not). On-stage she goes by the nomme de S&M—wait for it—"Raw Pain Rex." Clever. Here, have a taste:

Raw ripped away [Phil's] rip-away clothes, leaving him all but naked in his black sequined G-string. As always the moment of humiliation, even though fake, excited Phil... Raw's whip came down across his stomach. The soft material only barely stung, but he convulsed as if in agony... the music changed to a gear-grinding heavy metal rock number, in response to which RPM removed her cape and began a hip-thrusting, breast-shaking dance around her chained victim... Then she produced a fake knife with a hollow blade that discharged prop blood (washable)... used it to pretend-carve R-P-M on Phil's heaving chest. Crimson dribbles slide down his torso toward his G-string...
 
Still here? There's a little more:
 
Raw leaned forward and pantomimed lapping up some of the blood with her tongue... gave the audience a wink, and started to insert the blade beneath Philip's sequins just a moment before the lights went out and the music suddenly stopped. In the silence and darkness, Phil bellowed a long, tortured scream, Raw laughed maniacally, and the act was over.
 
That wink and maniacal laughter reach across three decades to bring me deep, unsettling cringes. Later, when the Lady Bathory appears, she will also jest and chuckle and grin and do everything else to undercut the gravity of every situation. I find that type of thing—sarcasm, mockery, giggling, laughing evilly—unbearable, utterly unbearable, and it never stops in this book: The Countess chuckled at the jest she had made, then leaned forward, kissed the peasant's mutilated lips, and touched the blood-soaked stitches with the tip of her tongue. "Chuckled." Jesus wept, is this a Bazooka Joe comic.
 
Ok, ok, and they also make fetish videos for polyester-clad sleazeball Marv, who runs the joint (yes, he chomps on a cigar). Phil's backstory is porno-obsessed kid; Trudy's is addict getting better through health food and weightlifting, and getting in touch with the darker impulses. This is how Andersson writes their sex scenes: They got undressed, Phil put on his condom, they made love, and went to sleep. Oof. This is an odd contrast with the hyper-described sex show.
 
Then Phil's cousin Donna turns up with sleazy girlfriend "Liz" who is pretty obviously Countess Bathory doing some time- and spirit-traveling. Donna's in a weird catatonic state while Liz is an old-school lech, hitting on Trudy right in front of Phil ("Great abs. Great ass. Great everything. Yum"), then later plays mind tricks on them to show her supernatural powers and force them into a deadly sex orgy. Torturing to death a young woman she's brought back to Trudy's home S&M dungeon, Liz then makes all bloody evidence of the horror disappear by the next morning... and the game is afoot! Be ready for all that driving.


The convoluted metaphysics explaining how Bathory's spirit comes to visit the excessive Eighties seems like they were invented in the moment. Reincarnation? Mind-melding? There are also demonic "pain eaters" lurking in a dream netherworld who have a history of fucking things up royally for everyone, up to and including Christianity. Ironically, the novel's depiction of torture falls flat, amounting to tying victims up with baling wire and sticking fishhooks in their lips, all the while "teasing" punishments that are dead on arrival thanks to Andersson's inexpert approach.
 
An instant later, the strands of barbed wire began glowing with purple fire, sizzling Trudy's flesh while they also tightening around her breasts, between her legs... "Your breasts will probably be next," Liz told her, "or maybe your head." With a sickening jerk Trudy felt something give way between her legs. Barbed wire ripped upward into her intestines as blood poured down her thighs. 
"And just think, darling, this can go on as long as I want. Isn't it just absolutely wonderful?"

This modern-day Countess Bathory sounds more like Sally Bowles than a queen of pain. The culmination of all this blather is scenes of mind-numbing gore, lip-sewing and ball-busting, but nothing an experienced reader hasn't encountered before (I'm considering the book both now and as if I'd read at the time it was first published), and I haven't even mentioned the mind-possession angle. It's all just padded paper depicting juvenile sadism in the most immature, inane manner; there's nothing real or true or honest in Raw Pain. I never felt anyone's pain as I read except for my own.

 
I can't be the only person to think it's odd that nobody had much utilized Bathory and her crimes in horror fiction up to this point. Ray Russell did it in over 50 years ago in Unholy Trinity; Andre Codrescu wrote The Bloody Countess as a mainstream thriller in 1995. Andersson was onto something with the basic concept of a reincarnated Bathory, has done his homework, including in the story itself the actual books he used for research, as well as the Eighties metal bands inspired by her misdeeds. Which, you know, great, I too enjoy classic heavy metal and books about history's notorious serial killers. But it's not enough, it's not nearly enough.
 
And how I wanted to enjoy this novel! How I wanted a sleazy, no-holds-barred, bad-taste extravaganza of pain and pleasure, lust and fear, blood and other bodily fluids. Sure, all that stuff is here, but Andersson's penchant for filling up the page with mundane irrelevancies, and amateur execution of actual scenes of horror—or of any kind of real life—negate their presence. Nothing is scary, nothing is sexy, nothing's shocking. Like many a paperback original with a striking cover before and after it, Raw Pain Max over-promises and under-delivers. And so I am reminded of another famous putdown, a paraphrase of Seinfeld's words about his neighbor nemesis Newman: there's not more than meets the eye here—there's less.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Year's Best Horror Stories XVI, ed. by Karl Edward Wagner (1988): Savage Amusement

Sorry to say that nothing quite as terrifying as J.K. Potter's cover illustration appears inside this 16th installment of The Year's Best Horror Stories (DAW Books, October 1988). Which is not to say this anthology isn't worthy of a place on your horror bookshelf; indeed, any self-respecting vintage horror fiction fan probably has at least a few of these, published from 1974 to 1994. It is to say that the stories collected here by Karl Edward Wagner are generally on the more mature end of horror, stories written with flair, intelligence, and only a little gratuitous grue—though there are several worthy exceptions to this observation. As book designs go, I dig this one a lot: the bold red, the gargoyles bordering the bizarre image, as well as something not seen: a tacky blurb noting the presence of a new Stephen King story! Most paperbacks then would've blasted that info from here to kingdom come.
 
This new King story, first printed in the J.N. Williamson anthology Masques II, "Popsy," wouldn't appear in an King book till 1993, in his third short-story collection, Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Wagner puts it first, although its vibe doesn't really give you much of a feel for what comes after. It's a mean little story, with pulpy crime fiction elements, probably King was reading a lot Jim Thompson, Ed McBain, and Andrew Vachss at the time. Dude owes lots of money from gambling debts, a mysterious criminal boss wants little kids, so dude's gotta step up, doesn't wanna know what'll happen to either himself or the kids if he doesn't. But he kidnaps a child who has more to protect him than simply human parents. Wish I'd read this one back in the day, with a terrific climax, oh that delicious King snap: and his breath was like flyblown meat.

Children's and young adult author Jane Yolen (above) brings us her "Wolf/Child," a fine little tale of colonial exploitation, native superstition, and comeuppance. As one character says, "There are many odd things out here in the jungle... It just takes an observant eye, my boy." The title is perfectly literal, the payoff perfectly delivered. In David Campton's "Repossession" a middling accountant becomes fascinated by a light burning in the window of a derelict factory building. Soon he's having visions in which he imagines himself inside the factory, seeing a man in a black Victorian frock-coat, which you know isn't good.
 
Well-known genre practitioners appear: quiet horror maestro Charles L. Grant's "Everything to Live For" is a thoughtful exploration of teen life, one of my least favorite topics, and encroaching death. A sadness at the core makes for chilly reading. Pure Grant goodness. Ramsey Campbell wrote "Merry May" for his 1987 collection of "sex and terror" stories, Scared Stiff (heh). Campbell mixes his brand of urban decay with some folk horror, and the result is truly unsettling: a creep drives a few towns over for some illicit vacation satisfaction promise from a magazine ad and  gets a fine how-do-you-do from the villagers celebrating May Day in their own special way.
 
Wagner reaching across Ramsey Campbell, 1980s
 
"The Scar," Dennis Etchison's entry, is one of his oblique and metaphoric works of psychic anomie, and in his intro Wagner notes its "mood of paranoid urgency," but this one truly left me scratching my head, alas. Guy has a violent freakout in a diner, woman with a disfigured face... Wagner also mentions Etchison "is planning a new anthology, Double Edge, to follow his tremendously successful Cutting Edge." A sequel to Cutting Edge, the terrific 1986 anthology?! It never came to be, alas, although Etchison did publish a Dell novel with that title in 1997.

Noted film historian Leslie Halliwell (below) provides some great suspense and claustrophobia in "La Nuit des Chiens," bringing to life a  rich European paradise. A group of old friends make their way through a small town celebrating a local festival, looking for an upscale restaurant, but find themselves on darkened unfamiliar streets, an increasingly large number of dogs following them... and in imagination he felt the savage amusement of beasts at the group's clumsy, hesitant progress. The unexpected appearance of the n-word surprised me, although I got it—British Halliwell is referencing the British-only title of the world's bestselling mystery novel, but I wish maybe Wagner had simply bleeped it out. But story trades on its twist which isn't truly worthy of the careful buildup before it. Have you noticed that when people who aren't horror writers try to write horror they think it's only about that twist ending? And cannibalism? 
 
The man behind the endless psychic vampire Necroscope saga, Brian Lumley, presents "The Thin People." It elicits some absurdist shivers with the literalization of its title—but it only made me think of this classic "Simpsons" bit, sorry. R. Chetwynd-Hayes is in top form, in his witty yet still scarily effective "Moving Day." This title is euphemism, to the horror of the man who's gone to live with his great-aunts, surely always a poor idea. "Give your Auntie Edith a nice kiss, dear!"

My appreciation of horror poetry begins and ends with Baudelaire, so I'm not sure what to make of t. Winter-Damon's "Martyr without Canon" other than it's a jumble of nonsense, like those liner notes a Beat-besotted Bob Dylan used to write for his albums back in the Sixties. It appeared first in Grue magazine, which I don't think I'd heard of before this, a semi-pro zine that ran from 1985 to 1999. Winter-Damon, whose poetry appeared in many small-press horror publications, died in 2008. Another small-press poet, Wayne Allen Sallee, provides "The Touch," a non-supernatural bit of gritty, everyday violence, always Sallee's stock-in-trade.

 
British periodical that ran 1979-2001, first appearance of "Echoes from the Abbey"
 
Fans of more old-fashioned frights, like prior to the 20th century, shouldn't miss "The Bellfounder's Wife" by A. F. Kidd and "Echoes from the Abbey" by Sheila Hodgson. These two women, neither of whom I was familiar with till now, are at ease evoking subtle terrors in the manner of M.R. James: My last impression was of a series of gaping mouths set in folds of dirty linen. These are as far from typical "Eighties horror" as it is possible to get, and Kidd's ice and fire ghost is one of this antho's most arresting entities... 

She was almost close enough to touch, now, and I saw with a sort of fascinated revulsion that the whole of her side and her arm were boiling, like milk on a stove, bubbles rising to the surface and bursting. The flesh hissed and simmered, and I felt the heat which radiated from it. Her ruined face drew close to mine, and then she smiled.

 
Wagner finishes on a high note with Michael Shea's "Fat Face," originally published as a chapbook by Axolotl Press. Patti is a prostitute working in a Los Angeles massage parlor in a cheap hotel; across the street in an office building a man sits at his office window and looks down on the activity below. Despite the mockery of her colleagues, Patti feels kindly toward him as he runs an animal shelter there, and one day decides to visit. While I found it over-written and overlong, the payoff is a wonderfully disgusting bit of Lovecraftian grue, body horror so gooey and grotesque it would've been a perfect Stuart Gordon vehicle. 
 
Nightmare ought not to be so simply there before her, so dizzyingly adjacent to reality. That the shapes should be such seething plasms, such cunning , titan maggots as she had dreamed of, this was just half the horror...

I haven't mentioned all the stories, however they're fine if lacking a bit of real bite. Wagner's brief introductions provide biographical background on each contributor, which is great because I knew virtually nothing about a handful of them (many included were more SF&F writers, which may be why). He also states "these stories are chosen without regard to theme or method, style or approach," and that well-known writers appear along with the not-known. That's certainly how I myself learned my way in and around the genre back in the Eighties, buying and devouring anthologies filled with names I only dimly was aware of, and then sought out more work by the authors who had the most effect on me—I'm sure you've done the same.

While I enjoyed this volume as I read it, impressed by the high-caliber, professional-grade prose and imaginative flair on display, I began to feel there was little potency, little that reached down deep to disturb, to linger. Not to say this title isn't full of good horror moments; it is, with lots of the authors working at the top of their respective games. But I often wonder, when reading a vintage horror for the first time, if I would have enjoyed it had it on its original publication. That's why I chose this Volume XVI: it came out in late 1988, when I was starting my senior year in high school and really ramping up my horror intake. Would I have been impressed by the stories herein? Not sure, as nothing here is as inventively ground-breaking as what Clive Barker or Joe Lansdale or Michael Blumlein or Poppy Z. Brite were doing back then. Still, anything with Wagner's name attached is a must-have for your horror paperback library, and I look forward to collecting every volume—only three left to go for me!—of Year's Best Horror.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Quarantine Reads, Summer 2020


During the quarantine I've been reading a lot, of course, but I always feel like I could be reading more. Here are some quick short reviews of books I've read since the shutdown, a selection of the terrible, the mediocre, and the good. Let's start at the bottom and work our way up.

Despite bearing one of the Eighties' iconic paperback covers, thanks to the talents of Lisa Falkenstern, 1984's Night Train stalls early and leaves you high and dry. Although an astute editor, as an author Thomas F. Monteleone plods along in the squarest, most literal fashion, telling, telling, telling his story and leaving no room for readers to think or breathe or imagine anything for themselves. For all its bizarre trappings, cult religions, alternate dimensions, and such, Night Train is mortally dull. You know all these scenarios, all these characters, what they say, what they do—as soon as a cop says he's going to the morgue to see a body, you know the coroner there's gonna be eating a sandwich over the corpse, and he is. Add it to your shelf for the cover, and grab the UK edition, seen below (cover artist unknown), if you can as well, but reading it is a chore; I'd recommend John Shirley's livelier, grittier Cellars instead. But the ultimate New York subway experience is still, for my money, this. Or okay, this too.

Now I have never read any YA horror, as I started with "adult horror" when I was a kid in the early Eighties, with King and Lovecraft and the rest of the gang when I was around 13 or 14—the earliest King novel I remember is when my mom was reading Cujo in a brand-new hardcover, almost positive that was the first I'd heard of him. Before that the YA novels I read were not horror at all (except maybe Bunnicula). With so much time on my hands now, I went through my wife's collection of Christopher Pike novels and found Midnight Club, after I'd heard it was gonna be a TV show. Ok, cool, kids telling each other spooky stories...

Originally published in February 1994 by Pocket Books YA imprint Archway, Midnight Club sports fairly typical cover art for its type: neon typeface and good-looking teens, faces alight with apprehension, anxiety, delicious anticipation. Candles, fireplace, mysterious robed figure, doesn't it all look cozy?! Very appealing (yet somewhat misleading). I can see why Pike was and remains popular: his prose is engaging, his characters have unique identities, with interior lives and thoughts, the teens' relationships feel real enough, and he keeps the suspense rolling. Except this isn't a horror novel at all. Fine. I just don't know what it is. This is the kind of thing the phrase "not for me" was invented for.

There's a chance you don't know the name Taylor Caldwell, but in her day in the mid-20th century, she wrote bestselling historical novels and romances. Again, not my thing, but I well recall the shelves of her books in the used bookstore I worked at three decades ago, all thick moldy tomes of yesteryear that people traded in but never bought. My boss would groan at the sight of them.

Her 1965 thriller Wicked Angel is billed as "in the tradition of The Bad Seed," the 1954 bestselling novel of a homicidal little girl by William March. While Caldwell and March used different story lines to tell their tale of malevolent offspring, the underlying themes are too similar; Angel reads like a moral scold's response to the earlier novel. Instead of March's penetrating, clear-eyed psycho-social insights, Taylor uses a conservative religious lens to fathom the boy's depths of rage and hatred. In a style I'm positive was dated even in 1965, perhaps by two or three decades, Caldwell writes in starchy, fussy prose, exactly the way you'd think she'd write just by looking at those paperbacks covers above. Dialogue contains some Dostoevskian heights of hysteria:

Do you think, for one instant, that Angelo is moved by the prayers in your church, that he believes, for one moment, the glorious story of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion? Of course not! To him, they are childish fairy stories...

I've read worse books, and Caldwell does have a way with detail—she is an utterly professional and polished novelist—but the prissy, precious dialogue and self-righteous moralizing soured me. It's as if the Church Lady wrote a horror novel! The familiar trope of the creepy kid is a reliable one, but you don't want an imitator, you want the real thing, and so you want the one and only Bad Seed.


Something else familiar: unfortunately adorned with a most uninspired cover, this 1983 debut novel from Berkley Books is by Lisa Tuttle, whose 1986 collection A Nest of Nightmares is a personal favorite of mine. Set in a nicely described Austin, Texas, Familiar Spirit is the sad tale of heartbroken grad student Sarah who moves into a cheap rental house to start her life over and eventually begins a dalliance of sorts with an occult magician named Jade. He's hot and horny and needs a body... Dig the tagline on the NEL edition (cover art by Steve Crisp) below: 

Peppered with local color and some really graphic sex scenes, Familiar Spirit is a quick read at 220 pages in its original Berkley edition, with many of the admirable Tuttle attributes in play: domestic strife, friendship, women striving to create a life on their own, a matter-of-fact view of human sexuality, and creeping supernatural doings. It also has a pretty great last line that wraps things up deliciously. Look for the reprint from Valancourt Books, with introduction by me, soon! It will feature this Tor cover, from Lee MacLeod:

But my favorite of recent months is definitely Dearest by Peter Loughran (Stein and Day, 1984). I've seen this paperback around for years but was never really taken with it enough to actually buy it. Somewhere somebody mentioned it very favorably—pretty sure it was horror writer Chet Williamson in a Facebook horror group comment—and it was available for cheap online. In the UK it was published as Jacqui, whose macabre mummified-corpse cover you see at the top, which more than the US cover gives you an idea of what's in store...

Told first-person by a regular yet unnamed British bloke who works as a taxi driver, Dearest doesn't feature an unreliable narrator so much as one so coolly rational in his beliefs that he is delusional, utterly insane. He dictates his thoughts and musings on women and sex and love and family in such obsessive detail, with such working-class common sense, you start to think maybe he's right about it all. But what he's really doing is laying bare the worst of the male psyche. The problem is, no man can ever convince himself that a really beautiful girl could be a tart. A man always thinks a woman who looks like an angel must have the nature of an angel.... I should have paid attention to all the things wrong with Jacqui... 

The first chapter is long, and might test the patience of readers who have little stomach for listening to the aggrieved rants of long-suffering men with women trouble; this part is rife with the suffocating vibe that overheated first-person narration often has. It's all about them, clueless dudes unloading their deepest thoughts and passing observations onto you, the unwilling victim. But stick with him, because Dearest gets dark and twisted and gross (and much of it drily ironic as well). It's pretty difficult just to stick a knife in a human being and cut them, even if they've been dead for months. You feel it might hurt them.

There you have it: I can recommend Dearest and Familiar Spirit easily; the rest are best avoided. Wish me luck on my next reading binge! Stay safe and stay sane.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Latest Titles in Valancourt's Paperbacks from Hell Line & Other Stuff!

You asked for it and you got it! Due to high demand, Valancourt Books is publishing several more titles in their line of vintage horror reprints of books featured in my and Grady Hendrix's Paperbacks from Hell (Quirk Books, 2017). One is a reprint of a reprint, if you will: Joan Samson's 1975 classic The Auctioneer, complete with its original paperback cover; another is Garrett Boatman's Stage Fright from 1988, which boasts one of the most striking of vintage skeletal covers; and then there is Familiar Spirit, Lisa Tuttle's first novel, from 1983—although this edition will have the much better cover from its 1987 Tor reprint!

 
Be sure to head over to Valancourt Books to order and to ask any questions! I don't know if there will be anymore titles in the PfH series after these. I'll say it's been hard work for all of us, me, Grady, and the guys at Valancourt. When deciding which books to reprint there needs to be a perfect storm of quality and availability. Many authors are deceased, with book rights in the wind; others don't want to be bothered about work they did three or four decades ago; some (or extant family members) want too much money; often initial inquiries go utterly ignored; and some titles are available as ebooks which prevents Valancourt from reprinting them; more commonly, we simply don't like the books we thought we might! That's just how it is.

Otherwise I've been using my stay-at-home time productively: I've begun cataloguing my paperbacks! Been meaning to do this for years. I'm using an Excel spreadsheet, nothing elaborate, although I've heard of other software and apps for cataloguing books, but at this point I'm about 600 titles and am not about to start over! It's cool going back through paperbacks I haven't touched in years, and also a big help in updating my want list. Just in the past couple weeks I've added another dozen books to my shelves, having had some good luck finding stuff for reasonable prices. I splurge occasionally, usually because I'm tired of seeing the same titles on my want-list for years and years. And when I'm done with my horror titles I'll be moving on to mystery/crime, science fiction, and literature paperbacks as well.

Stay safe out there, gang, and I hope you're getting plenty of reading done!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Nine Horrors and a Dream by Joseph Payne Brennan (1958): The Goo Goo Muck

When it comes to pulp horror fiction, I don't think there's any doubt that "Slime" is one of the perfect gems of the style. Originally published in a 1953 issue of the venerated magazine "Weird Tales," Joseph Payne Brennan's 30-odd page tale is rife with all the weaknesses and all the glories of pulp horror in full flower. Brennan overuses words and phrases ("hood of horror" and "black mantle"), utilizes some weak analogies (alien as... some wild planet in a distant galaxy), and his country dialogue makes "Hee-Haw" sound like Olivier reciting the Bard. Indeed these "weaknesses," when delivered with conviction and narrative skill, are to my mind the most enjoyable aspects of vintage pulp.

 Cover story, March 1953. Illustration by Virgil Finlay

The central image of "Slime" is a roiling mass of sentient, ravenous black muck formed at ocean bottom—when the earth and sea were young—and is so utterly disgusting, so enthusiastically detailed, so shivery wrong you will be, forgive the pun, sucked right into the story. An embodiment of the inchoate unconscious, straight from the nightmare world of our worst fears, slithering about on the lightless, unknowable sea floor (man this style is contagious). Brennan imbues this noxious goop with predatory sentience:

It was plastic, essentially shapeless... by turns viscid and fluid... It was animated by a voracious, insatiable hunger... When the lifting curtain of living slime swayed out of the mud and closed upon [its victims], their fiercest death throes came to nothing... The horror did not know fear... The black mantle reigned supreme.

After an undersea volcanic upheaval sloshes it up from inky oceanic depths, the slime finds itself in a swamp outside a rural town. Images of it streaking out of the fetid grove of trees, vines, moss, and mud, onto land, over fields, to raise up and pounce on its hapless victims is nothing short of revolting. "O God," cries a woman who saw it but survived, "the darkness came alive!" You can imagine what occurs, all the story beats and characters and the efforts to dispatch this slimy blackness that had no essential shape, no discernible earthly features... a black viscid pool of living ooze which flowed upon itself, sliding forward at incredible speed. No doubt about it: "Slime" is a stone-cold horror classic about a perfect eating machine.

It is the lead story in Nine Horrors and a Dream, one of the oldest books in my horror paperback library. A slim Ballantine paperback from 1962, it's part of a series of that publisher's horror paperbacks, known as "Ballantine's Chamber of Horrors." Other titles from gents such as Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, Charles Beaumont, and those of like mind were included. This collection contains stories (mostly) published also in "Weird Tales" throuhout the early 1950s; it is Brennan's first of many short horror fiction collections.

A garishly creepy Richard Powers cover of surreal shapes, swirls, squiggles, and something like spider legs adorns the Brennan cover, with more of the Powers abstract imagery in the ad for the other books on the back cover, as seen above. Why, yes, that's Zacherle! Now, I myself prefer the folksy cover for the original Arkham House hardcover from '58, with Frank Utpatel art, a more accurate representation of Brennan's style and content. But, you know, that's just me!

Brennan was a lifelong resident of Connecticut, where virtually all of his work takes place, and wrote horror, fantasy, and poetry. He created Lucius Leffing, an occult detective, but I haven't read any of those stories. Brennan also created horror magazines to encourage other fans and writers of the supernatural, and was an early bibliographer of Lovecraft. "Slime" is easily his most famous work, and rightly celebrated, but Nine Horrors contains one other stone-cold masterpiece, so let's move on to that, shall we?

Concerning a desolate plot of land and its effects on the owner, "Canavan's Back Yard" has also long been lauded by horror fans, and if you haven't read it, please do so at your earliest opportunity. Narrated by a writer who befriends a bookseller who's moved himself and his wares into a house on the outskirts of town, this tale features not the overheated pulp stylings of "Slime," but a more somber and reflective tone:

a long desolate yard overgrown with brambles and high brindle-colored grass. Several decayed apple trees, jagged and black with rot, added to the scene's dismal aspect. The broken wooden fences... appeared to be literally sinking into the ground. Altogether the yard presented an unusually depressing picture...  

Brennan (1918-1990)

Our narrator spends his mornings writing and his afternoon in this fellow's little bookshop (ain't that the life!), and soon notices Canavan becoming preoccupied with this landscape, always gazing out his window, even to the detriment of his mail order bookselling business. One day he comes in and outside spies Canavan coming out of the tall grass in the yard, a lost bewildered expression on his face. He tells our writing pal, "I'll have no rest till I solve the riddle of that piece of ground." Next visit and Canavan is nowhere to be found inside. Then, with infinite dread, our narrator looks through the window:

The long stalks of brown grass slide against each other in the slight breeze with dry sibilant whispers. The dead trees reared black and motionless. Although it was late summer, I could hear neither the chirp of a bird not the chirr of a single insect. The yard itself seemed to be listening.
What happens after I won't spoil. The precise, measured pace of the telling heightens the horrific reveal; in fact I (re)read it late at night before bed and yes, its uncanny mysteries lingered.

The other stories here are competently written, but rather minor and for "Weird Tales" completists, I feel. Set-ups reminded me of he likes of Roald Dahl, Gerald Kersh, Fredric Brown, short story writers like that, but not as fiendishly clever or brutally unexpected. They take moments to read, and the twist endings barely register; they simply restate what was obvious from the opening passages: "If you ask me, chum, the murderin' thing in the black raincoat was something dead that came up out of the sea!" 

"I'm Murdering Mr. Massington," besides sounding like a classic Smiths song, is a non-supernatural work first published in Esquire mag, so, you know, class. You know how writers always get that query, "Hey, my life story would make a great book, you write it and we'll split the money," or "I have a great idea for a story, etc." (and that idea is always just an old "Twilight Zone"), well here a writer meets a melancholy fellow in a bar, and said fellow finds the idea of being forgotten after his death intolerable: ridden by a single, overwhelming obsession. Fellow begs narrator to write a story about him so he will be remembered, a record of his person. The twist is fatal. Poor guy.

"The Hunt" is about another poor guy being followed on a train by a man who, for some unknown reason, is scarcely short of terrifying. Of course he cannot escape this stalker, and their final confrontation in the last sentences would work a lot better if it weren't marred by some perplexing dialogue. "The Mail for Juniper Hill" gets some decent mileage out of a raging snowstorm setting, the kind of tale you just know Stephen King read as a kid, with New England old-timers marveling at "Big Ed" Hyerson, the local ne'er-do-well, a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing rascal. Told in flashback, we learn Ed is super-reliable as a mail carrier, no matter the condition of road or weather. Aforementioned snowstorm only makes Ed more determined to deliver sacks of mail, and he does; but not before freaking out all those old-timers, giving them a deadly chill which was not of the storm.

"Death in Peru" presents some decent travelogue descriptions, especially in the description of a treacherous mountain hike: he seemed to have entered another world, a world composed of soundlessness and space, a timeless world of brooding mystery where even the eons left hardly a sign. The reveal is predictable, alas. I enjoyed "The Calamander Chest," dude buys a fancy chest for cheap then it starts to creep him out for a very valid reason; the tale ends with a perfect line of fatal irony, a permanent change of locale indeed—which would have made for a much better title, methinks. "Levitation" is cute enough, like something from early Bradbury in "dark carnival" mode, while "On the Elevator" and "Green Parrot" are inconsequential.

Other than "Slime" and "Canavan's Backyard," Nine Horrors isn't an essential unless you collect Powers covers or the other "Chamber of Horrrors" titles; better is Shapes of Midnight, a 1980 paperback with a King intro (see above), featuring those two tales and later Brennan works I enjoyed more, such as "The Willow Platform" and "The Horror at Chilton Castle" (the latter collected by Ramsey Campbell in his 1988 anthology from Tor, Stories That Scared Me, which scared me too but I haven't reviewed here yet). Pleasant enough reading to while away a couple hours, however, and you'll forget neither that loathsome "hood of horror" nor the otherworldly curse of "Canavan's hellish back yard!"

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

World Dracula Day!

Dracula. First published May 26, 1897. I consider it the most important, most essential, horror novel of all. All of horror is in his shadow. Enjoy some of these fangtastic vintage covers!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

"You play your wits against me, mine, who commanded armies hundreds of years before you were born?"

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