Friday, January 17, 2020

The Stand by Stephen King (1978/1990): Dancing on the Grave of the World

"You're nothing! Oh pardon me... it's just that we were all so frightened... we made such a business out of you... I'm laughing as much at our own foolishness as at your regrettable lack of substance..." 
—Glen Bateman, upon first meeting Randall Flagg

Let's get right to it, gang: The Stand has never been one of my favorite Stephen King novels. No need to get excited; I'm well aware of its status as maybe his most beloved book, if one may use that word for a novel about a plague that kills more than 99% of humanity. Despite its imposing length, it may be the one Stephen King novel people have read who've read only one Stephen King novel.

 Doubleday hardcover, Oct 1978
Bosch-inspired art by John Cayea
But when I read it in 1987 or '88, I found it lacked what I most loved about Stephen King; that is, an intimacy, an atmosphere of the chummy detailing of the American quotidian that he'd done so supremely well in his other novels and short stories. Reading King felt like home, and The Stand most definitely did not feel like home. How could it? It is an epic story about people who no longer have one and are desperate to build a new one. That epic length never bothered me: I'd already read It (1986) as soon as it was published in hardcover. But the giant panoramic post-apocalyptic canvas really did not appeal to me, and while I read almost every other King work over and over and over again, The Stand was one and done for me.

King in 1978

Most horror fiction fans probably have a decent understanding of the book's publication history: Doubleday hardcover in '78, Signet paperback in '80, then in 1990 another Doubleday hardcover edition in which King put back in something like 500 pages from his original manuscript that he himself had edited out before its first publication (Complete & Uncut, this new edition said; Uncircumcised would've just been impolite). In case you don't know the particulars, he spells them out in more detail in his intro to the '90 edition. Going by online reviews, this expanded edition is either: A) the best thing ever; B) the worst thing ever. Many prefer the shortened original. People have strong opinions about Stephen King books, it may surprise you to learn, especially one regarded as his greatest. In fact, you're about to read one now.

 First Signet paperback, Jan 1980
Don Brautigam cover art

(Okay, friends and neighbors, before I forget, here there be spoilers galore. I'm gonna be rambling all about The Stand and you won't want to continue if you haven't read either version. But maybe come back after you have!)

Doubleday hardcover, May 1990

Working in a bookstore when this massive 1,200-pager arrived on shelves, I was interested just enough to skim the new opening and closing chapters. The opening is now the family that careens into Hapscomb's Texaco at the beginning of the '78 version; it's fine, I guess, starting off the story in a panic (They're all D-E-A-D down there). But I recall being particularly put off by the final chapter, in which the evil, otherworldly Randall Flagg's time has come round again... accompanied by a Bernie Wrightson illustration that's entirely too comic-booky. It seemed all too obvious, weirdly unimaginative (but probably a way to link the Gunslinger/Dark Tower series into it, which King was now writing and Signet  publishing in earnest). I was deeply unmotivated to read this new leviathan, and remained so... till now.

I'd never seriously considered rereading The Stand. What a commitment! Perhaps it was something deep-seated in my unconscious, who knows, guess that's why I can't even recall how I picked it up at the beginning of December, because before I knew it was knee-deep in that mother. Reading the 1980 Signet paperback—I'm happy to own a mint first-print of it, but I'm not a monster, I do have a beat-up copy for actual reading—I was something like three or four hundred pages in and the story-line felt... constrained. Uptight. Airless. Condensed. I began to think maybe there was something to the idea of the complete uncut edition after all. Maybe I did owe it to myself to bite the bullet, go for broke, ride the lightning, and dive in. So I put my reading on hold till I was able to locate a nice, also first-print, sorta mint paperback (published in a sturdy mass market edition in May 1991) for a sawbuck, then went back and started over a week or so later. Seriously. I did.

And I'm not gonna lie: it was a grind. King's well-known weakness to overstuff his narratives with irrelevance and folksy analogies is on full display. He went wide instead of deep, expanding but not layering. The problems with The Stand are more serious than simply the number of pages: the real fault lies in execution, in writing, in characterization, and in scenario. Neither the 1978 nor the 1990 version is exempt from these fatal flaws; the longer edition simply reveals these flaws as baked-in, that's all.

Well-known and -loved characters like Stu Redman, Frannie Goldsmith, Larry Underwood, Nick Andros, et al, all get extra sentences in their personal histories, but nothing I found essential or particularly enlightening. Better were the vignettes of superflu survivors who meet grisly ends, with King evincing both sympathy and merciless horror: a Catholic man whose family dies but won't commit suicide because it's a mortal sin; a child on its own falls down an improperly sealed well but does not die right away. Chilling, classic King... but mere crumbs.

Anchor Books, 2011

Also better and included now is one of King's patented family breakdown scenes that's top-notch. Early on, pre-apocalypse, it's pregnant Frannie, our heroine, in an argument with her mother in the family's parlor drawing room, whose hysteria over Fran's out-of-wedlock family way borders on the absurd. The confrontation crackles with real emotion, King getting at class and social standing and good breeding all at once. I hungered for more of this kind of King Americana.

 "How could you do something like this to your father and me?" she asked finally... "How could you do it?" she cried. "After all we've done for you, this is the thanks we get? For you to go out and... and... rut with a boy like a bitch in heat? You bad girl! You bad girl!"

New English Library, 1988 reprint
Trashcan Man, a pyromaniac gutter bum, with stupid dancing and cries of "Cibola," remains a tacky, tasteless character. And then King unleashes, in the uncut, a dude known as The Kid, so now we've got Trashcan and the Kid (heeey! don't tell me you forgot that Saturday morning teevee classic). It is a dopey read, a side travelogue no one asked for, almost too King for King, if you know what I mean. "Kill your darlings" goes the old writers' adage, and this darling should have died, died, died. The Kid is a caricature of a King character, a parody. While the Kid comes to disturbing end, he's cringe-inducing, dressed like a greaser extra from, well, Grease, spitting out embarrassing dialogue like "Coors beer is the only beer, I'd piss Coors if I could, you believe that happy crappy, awhoooooga" then sprinkles in some Springsteen and Doors lyrics. Then he rapes Trashy with a pistol. You believe that happy crappy?

Despite the various gross, gruesome scenarios King revels in, there's a naivete I hadn't noticed on first read. This depiction of the good folks of Boulder rebuilding society, all-American salt-of-the-earth types, was just so square. Why, they even have a ready-made town drunk and a hot-rodding teenager to contend with, and good god I was up to here with old prof Glen Bateman's observations about "-ologies" not being enough anymore, the glad-handing and back-slapping, the jokes during their endless, oh god endless meetings to figure out how to get busy being born all over again. Like everybody just up and knows Robert's Rules of Order and has a perfect conception of deploying committees and subcommittees and voting and vetoing and accepting in toto and everyone is happy to vote for the main characters.

New English Library paperback, 1991

Speaking of characters, too many fade in and out under the weight of the expanded narrative. Women are, in old-time pulp fashion, described in terms of physical appearance. And the endless litanies of names! If one more character said about another "Joey Shmoey, by name" I was gonna plotz. "Sally Lovestuff, her name is," or "Goes by the name of Bigtop Ragamuffin, he does" or "Tall, pretty girl, she is, that Wendy Jo" and "Heckuva nice guy, sounds like, over this jerry-rigged CB contraption we got going on here." Their dialogue is irredeemably corny, as if virtually every character was being voiced by a cast of cracker barrel regulars. He's always populated his books with jes' folks types, but Jesus everloving Kee-rist, King, did everybody who survived the superflu just walk fresh off the set of "Hee Haw"?

I'd forgotten deaf-mute Nick Andros was even around, and overshadowing him is a crime as there's no doubt he's one of King's greatest characters. His sacrifice during Harold Lauder's bombing is one of the novel's high points, maybe its most heartbreaking moment: He couldn't talk, but suddenly he knew. He knew. It came from nowhere, from everywhere. There was something in the closet. Rereading it just now to get this quote right, hairs on my arms stood up. Nick's dream appearances to poor Tom Cullen, explaining how Tom has to try to save Stu Redman's life, are touching—if a little too convenient plot-wise.

 French edition, 1981

Speaking of Lauder, how's he for King's prescience about a certain type of American male we see all too often these days? The creep, the outcast, the psycho, the loner (today he's the incel, the school shooter, the edgelord, the MRA, the dude who complains about "nice guys" and getting "friendzoned," folks, these entitled losers are nothing new). Nadine Cross's unholy seduction of him for Randall Flagg is disgusting, sad, and all too successful (she lets him fuck her in the ass but not in the pussy, saying that will keep them pure for Flagg, my goodness what a lovely couple those two make). Harold's suicide after the bombing sticks in the throat—men like him shouldn't get free of the consequences of their actions so easily, even if they do express remorse as he does in a suicide note.

 Later '90s reprint

Let's just say it: for all his storytelling prowess, King can be a lazy writer. Much of the novel I read on autopilot; for as long and weighty the book is, it's easy—too easy—to read. Complexity, density, ambiguity is out; useless puffery and bloat is in. I skimmed pages because King was repeating himself, describing things I already knew: someone grimacing, people gossiping, everybody walking every goddamn place, Stu calling Glen "baldy," Flagg grinning, Fannie crying, I mean sweet Jesus Fran crying. He uses simple phrases over and over, engages in sophomoric philosophizing, his details about character behavior ring false: I lost count how times someone laughs till tears stream down their cheeks, uses someone's name more than once in a conversation, is described as being "naked except for shorts" (i.e., not naked), etc. And how much do you like reading about car-crash pileups? There are more of those here than in a J.G. Ballard novel. Where was everybody going?

And where's the mass breakdown of society? That's what I felt the '78 edition was lacking, why the story felt abbreviated. I expected more in the complete edition, but King takes the easy way out. Rather than do the heavy lifting of imagining and describing the political and social fallout as the world's (is it the entire world? This is never made clear for no real reason) population succumbs to a man-made disease, King presents his scenario as fait accompli. There's more of the military scientists realizing the enormous oopsie they've done and their futile attempts to fix it, which I liked as it was precisely the kind of approach I felt was missing from the '78 edition. I can't help but think this was a huge miscalculation, leaving out the nitty-gritty of not only world-building, but world-destroying. I needed a bigger bang, not this whimper. Ironic to say this about a 1,200-page novel, but I wanted more.

 Later Signet reprint with iconic Eighties typeface

It's all too easy today to see the creaky underpinnings and cracks in the foundation of King's scenario. Again, I needed more social apocalypse. If you're gonna have superflu-sick black soldiers dressed like pirates take over a TV station and begin to execute white soldiers on live broadcast television, you better bring some wit, irony, or satire to the proceedings; just slapping it down bald-faced on the page makes you seem oblivious to the racist tropes you're invoking... or maybe not even oblivious. It's dangerous ground, and if you're gonna tread on it, know what you're doing. Have a bigger, more audacious plan. Reveal the racism, the sexism, the classism and all the other -isms that permeate American society, that have festered and eaten us from within, and which now have exploded in the advent of the end of the world.

Speaking of racism, what of Mother Abagail Freemantle, the century-old black woman who is the locus of the survivors' dreams and visions, a wizened, hearty Christian woman of the Midwest who knows well the time is nigh and perhaps the Lord in all His infinite wisdom and glory will show her a way to guide these good people in their final confrontation with the Walkin' Dude, the hardcase, the Man in Black, please allow him introduce himself, Randall Flagg? While King gives her a real backstory, strength, and fortitude, the fact that she is the only black character is conspicuous. I feel this is narrow-mindedness on King's part, a lack of imagination in a work that is intended to be the opposite!

Finnish translation, 1994

King has never shied from letting it all hang out (something he may have gotten from goodbuddy Harlan Ellison). This book was written by a guy of his era, a Cold War kid. It's a book of its era too; that is, the late 1960s and 1970s. Its creation was inspired by the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. The death of flower power and the downfall of Nixon propel its engine (indeed, The Stand is so of its time that it presages both Three Mile Island and the Jim Jones mass suicide in Guyana). The lyrics of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Jim Morrison float through the prose and dialogue and epigrams. Springsteen too, but he's a '70s guy, so it fits that zeitgeist I'm talking about. Larry Underwood's rock star burnout reads more like late '70s scenario too... Warren Zevon, anyone?

Our villain Randall Flagg's nickname is the Walkin' Dude, and he walks like a hitchhiker, but hitchhiking was vastly out of public consciousness by the time the '90s arrived. Hitchhikers weren't killers on the road, despite what the Doors said; hitchhikers got picked up by serial killers. So changing the dates to 1990 and switching in Bush for Carter and so on is just that: it changes only the dates and the names, not the psyche of the characters, and country, involved. Like Glen Bateman's estimation of Randall Flagg himself, this aspect of the book was a big nothing. And Flagg is a big nothing, but not in a horrific way: nah, he's just a grinnin' fool, like Bill Paxton in Weird Science or something.

German translation, 1985

People like to read about themselves, about regular people in extraordinary situations, and King has always provided that pleasure. Larry Underwood's grueling passage through the Lincoln Tunnel is certainly an all-timer sequence in King's output, and there are many scenes of dire heroics, such as the shootout between our heroes and the men who've been keeping several women as sex slaves is quite good: Four men, eight women, Fran's brain said, and then repeated it, louder, in tones of alarm: Four men! Eight women! Nadine Cross's college experience with a Ouija board, in which Flagg contacts her years prior to the book's events, was a nice touch too in the expanded version. But these sequences are very few and far between, which I was not expecting at all. For such a long book it is curiously empty of import.

In fact I found the latter half to be tighter in every aspect, and that climax, long-maligned, not nearly as disappointing as I'd recalled. Reading about Flagg and his coterie of boot-lickers and hangers-on in Las Vegas who've formed a cult around him that would make Manson proud is infinitely more interesting than those goody-two-shoes Free Boulder folks. Many readers have complained of the deus ex machina, virtually a literal "hand of God" (even noted as such by Ralph in the final seconds) that brings about the climax. It has nothing to do with the travails of Mother Abagail, nor any of the people of Boulder, so there is no ultimate confrontation between good and evil as the medieval-style cover art suggests.

French J'ai Lu editions, 1992

It was almost a relief, not having a giant ending that exhausts readers. This is, I know, the opposite of many readers' experience, who prefer the first half of the book. The 1990 edition expands, after their witnessing the nuclear doom of Flagg's Vegas, Stu and Tom's hard road back to Boulder, a bitter denouement that drags, I suppose, appropriately. So having Flagg reappear in the final pages struck me as pointless, a cheap twist...

Large-scale, good-versus-evil horror is not for me. My long-ago read of The Stand was the first inkling that I was outgrowing this pedestrian worldview. My other two big go-tos back then were Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft, who didn't deal in this kind of Manichean duality; I preferred ambiguity and agnosticism, subversion and confrontation, certainly not King's idea that "horror is as conservative as a Republican banker in a striped suit." Today I've outgrown completely this "tale of dark Christianity" as King himself puts it in his intro.

While I wasn't actively reading the book, I was also watching HBO's devastating historical drama Chernobyl, an all-too-relevant coincidence. The show's images of abandoned houses and tower blocks and vehicles and pets and  the dead and dying bodies were utterly haunting, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching. Never once did King's descriptions of similar landscapes affect me the same way; he's unable to scale the heights of his imagination with his pen. These grievous oversights and failures actually angered me: ask my wife about the rant I went on about how displeased I was with the book during our drive to a relative's house on Christmas Eve! Or rather don't ask my wife about my Christmas Eve rant. I mean and I wasn't even high.

It comes down to this, and I'll admit it seems almost churlish for me to say so, but I can not recommend either version of The Stand. The 1990 uncut edition expands on the weaknesses of the 1978 version, making that book's faults even more obvious, while adding new ones. Despite random strong passages and scenes, there is so much shallowness, naivete, and lack of commitment to the central idea—a grand battle between good and evil that never comes to pass—The Stand left me disappointed in a very deep and lasting way. This surprised me a lot; I was unprepared for how very little I enjoyed this book.

While my rereads of two other King novels I was never fond of, Carrie and The Shining, were surprising successes, The Stand remained as I'd found it nearly 35 years ago: foundering under its own weight and undone by a banal, half-baked theology. On this reread I noticed how larded it is with middlebrow observations of human relationships, American culture, and societal ties; and not nearly as profound as it thinks it is: all in all, a deeply superficial account of the end of the world. As a fan of vintage King I don't understand the novel’s esteemed status, other than nostalgia by fans who first encountered it as inexperienced readers. It pains me to say all that, but here I am, making my honest stand.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Horror Fiction Help XXI

Wow, Horror Fiction Help is old enough to drink! We've had some great success tracking down the forgotten titles of yesteryear, so how's about a few more? I and the folks looking for these books thank you, so cheers—you know who you are.

1. ’66/’67: Story involving a boy who wakes up to witness small, lizard-like creatures entering his body and carrying away bits of it. Of course no one believes him, and this keeps happening. He discovers the creatures are somehow taking the place of the bits they carry off. In the end, he meets a copy of himself, assembled from the bits that had been stolen, and when this copy announces itself as the real boy, our protagonist disintegrates into a swarm of the lizards. End of tale. 

2. My mom had a paperback book that I read a few times when I was a kid that I thought was called Black Mass or Black Sabbath. It was a black cover with a pentagram embossed on it and (I think I’m remembering correctly) a satanic goat head. The story was about a girl, deja-vu with a tree (because she was reincarnated), and a man she falls in love with who ends up being a satanic priest out to kill her (again). I THINK this is right, but not entirely sure, as it’s been about 40 years since I read it last. Found! It's Black Sabbat by J.B. Herman:

3. Sometime ’80s, purchased at a grocery store, drugstore, or Kmart. The cover is black-embossed and it is I believe a large black cat, jaguar or something. The cat is or is possessed by an evil spirit, attacking the people of a woodsy lake area or island... like in New England, not somewhere tropical. The main character is a detective/cop trying to hunt the beast. I believe the large cat is a female, maybe referred to as a she-beast by the main character. Found! It's Moonslasher by Douglas D. Hawk.

4. ’70s/early ’80s: the cover was purple and had the embossed, in black, wide-stretched jaws of a big cat, all fangs and stuff, alluringly emblazoned upon it. Or maybe it was the open maw of a panther of some sort, open mouth that sort of encompassed the book’s title, more a line drawing than a painting, and embossed. I could have sworn the book was about an ancient evil/demon being released and its grisly killing spree in a museum of some sort (*not* The Relic and *not* Panther!). 

5. ’70s/early ’80s: had to have been a best seller, because it was in the supermarket. This was the rural south, so they weren't gonna waste shelf space. The cover was dark and depicted a sort of "Solid Gold" (the tv music show) stage set, with large squares. It was a photograph, not a painted cover. And there was a single hand extended from behind one of them. It was inexplicable, and SO eerie, and scared me silly, and I don't even know why.

6. 89 or 90. It's a compilation of horror stories. The cover is black on top with a square of illustration covering the bottom. It features a man in ill-fitting clothing. Ripped jeans, letterman's jacket (red?) and I know there's a severed leg somewhere in there (the memory of it is kind of fading). He's crouching in the middle of a forest. A few items are around him, maybe from his victims (a red shoe?). He looks animalistic, perhaps not to the extent of being a werewolf, but like he degraded into insanity.

The one story I read was written in the form of log entries by the captain. His crew is in space looking for a habitable planet, from what I recall. The planet they land on is full of vegetation and the only life they can see are butterflies. The planet is full of butterflies. Previously I had thought that by eating some of the vegetation that the crew, having landed there, had turned into butterflies, themselves. I don't even remember what happened to them. Eventually, the captain's log degenerated as his mind failed him. The last page was full of big loops and curly cues as he forgot how to write.  

Found! It's "Gestation" by Bruce Jones:

Thursday, November 14, 2019

To the Devil's Ballet: The Cover Art of Robert Heindel

These pale, haunting, geometric sketches for very late Sixties and very early Seventies occult paperbacks from Signet Books are a refreshing palate-cleanser for when the lurid and tacky covers one usually sees becomes overwhelming. Whispers work wonders here, thanks to the delicate, intimate style of illustrator Robert Heindel (1938-2005), an artist I only learned of after spying his signature "R. Heindel" on a recently purchased copy of the 1970 edition of The Mephisto Waltz.

The doll's head in a circle, carefully drawn hands at the piano, and eyes closed in repose reminded me of a favorite cover for a book I have been unable to find cheaply, the intriguingly titled A Feast of Eggshells. Somewhere in my searches I discovered another similar cover and noted that signature, then began to track down more by Heindel. Which is how I discovered that he's a world-famous painter of ballet and other dance, whose artwork has been collected by Princess Diana, Andrew Lloyd Weber, and George Lucas! Claaaaasssy for a guy whose earliest works appeared on these "easy-to-see large-type" Gothic/occult paperback originals. I love it!

I could find only these four other horror covers, Suffer a Witch, Along Came a Spider, The Ouija Board and The Devil Boy. Personally, I think these are simply wonderful, as they feature all the signifiers of genre works of the era: creepy kids, eerie witches, haunted houses, Rosemary's Baby. If anyone knows of other covers he did like this, please let me know...

More interesting is that I've been seeing his work on more famous paperbacks for decades and didn't even realize it: his most well-known cover illustrations are for Signet's series of Ayn Rand reprints. Crazy, right? You can even buy the originals of these here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

False Idols by Betty Ferm (1974): A Demon Needs a Maid

Remember that scene in 1979's Love at First Bite in which Richard Benjamin, the Van Helsing character, attempts to thwart George Hamilton's Dracula by pulling a crucifix from his pocket—but mistakenly takes out a Star of David? When I saw the movie as a kid I didn't get the joke, but it's a good one. Jewish-themed horror is, alas, the tiniest of subgenres in vintage horror fiction, and it can be done well (or, like anything else, not well), but I don't think it's been done enough. This explains why I was intrigued by this back cover copy hinting at a Jewish, rather than a typical Christian, origin for the otherworldly horrors and chilling premonitions promised here. Alas, there's not much going on, Jewish or otherwise, in False Idols (Fawcett Crest paperback, June 1975), a 1974 supernatural thriller that fails to thrill or do anything much at all. False is right.

Everything is leftover Levin and Blatty: the dash of social concern, a whiff of current mores, but nothing goes deep. Familiar elements are all-too-smoothly cobbled together from those better works, from Dark Shadows, soaps, TV movies, commercials, et al. (Similar contemporaneous novels by Ramona Stewart and Barbara Michaels are smarter and spookier too). The upper middle-class setting is bland and rote, and no ethnic flavor is to be found to give the novel its own identity. Our tale goes from bad to worse as soon as Fran, our beleaguered protag, leaves the home to return to the work she left behind once married, and it's the South American maids with their "almond eyes" and "faint musky scent" who cause all the demonic trouble. It's hard to get good help these days!

Mezuzahs replace crosses and the terrified old mother-in-laws shrieks about the Dybbuk, some Jewish grieving practices are only slotted in, that's all, surface details only. The possessive demon hails from Mesoamerican Incan mythology: Taguapica by name, and boy does he have it in for the Old Testament God: "Look around you, Yahweh. Your world is dead as you are dead to the world. It is Taguapica who will reign now" he bellows in the overheated climax. It's the kind of comparative religions scenario Graham Masterton would crank up to 11 in just a few short years. Maybe the novel had some effect for readers in its era as a decent enough time-waster, but nearly half a century later False Idols is simply a dull, unremarkable artifact from a bygone age.
Putnam hardcover, 1974

Psychiatrist Livvy Webber—the kind of smart, helpful, good-hearted character you just know is toast sooner or later—actually says at one point early in the novel that "Each time a Rosemary's Baby or an Exorcist hits the market I can be guaranteed a number of new patients who lay claim to related phenomena as the cause for the fouled-up lives." More of this contemporary self-awareness would have given a fresh coat of paint to our tired tale, which lasts a scant 174 pages. The ending is not an ending, it's all still going on, you know how it goes.

Speaking of coats of paint, at least the paperback offers up eerie cover art thanks to the masterful George Ziel, although the lusty, brazen, confident lady in red never—sadly—makes an appearance.
Author Betty Ferm (1926-2019) wrote nearly a dozen novels in various popular genres (see some below) and taught college courses in writing suspense novels.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Moon Lamp by Mark Smith (1976): Whose Barn? What Barn? My Barn

Often reading bad or mediocre books can hone your reading skills and critical acumen just as much as reading a good book. God knows I've read plenty of the bad and the mediocre, and unfortunately, that's my conclusion of The Moon Lamp, an ostensible "ghost story"  that at times almost casts a bewitching spell of spooks and eeriness, but more often than not veers off into insubstantiality, just like the purported "ghost(s)" of the tale itself. First published in hardcover in 1976, the foil-covered paperback was issued in June 1977 by Avon Books, replete with copy and blurbs that identify the novel as a "classic horror story." How am I still taken in by this kind of publisher swindle?! Honestly, I think it's because Avon generally published work of relative high quality. Also, shiny silver!

Author Mark Smith (b. 1935 in Michigan), with whom I was unfamiliar prior to reading this novel—although I had come across its cover before, and which I featured on a long-ago blogpost—had also published, just a few years prior to Moon, another new-to-me novel called The Death of the Detective, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1974. Further research revealed the 1975 paperback edition of that book was also issued by Avon and also boasted an eye-catching Mylar cover:

I mean, kinda cool, right? This 700-page (highly-lauded) tome is one I've never seen in all my years of haunting used bookstores; nor have I come across any other of Smith's work, which—wait for it!—also includes in their similar design that glowing font, the better to ensnare the unwitting browser and turn him into the prospective buyer. The Middleman and Toyland (below, both 1977 Avon paperbacks) display distressed faces squoze into that typeface, promising suspense, terror, and madness, but after buying and reading Moon because of an unsettling spirit visage and the attendant critical blurbs, I am enormously disinclined to look further into Smith's ouevre, despite, as I'll get into in a moment, his more than capable aptitude for character detail, dialogue, and overall general insight into various sectors of class, ambition, and the vagaries of married life...

In full, Moon Lamp is not a horror novel in any way, nor is it much of a thriller; it's a character study put into motion by spirits of the past. Whether those spirits are imagined or part of the warp and woof of consensual reality make no difference, neither to our main character, nor to the reader. The Lindquist couple, middle-aged Winnie and Gene, have, in the time-honored vintage horror tradition, thrown off the shackles of city life (here, suburban Chicago) to land free and clear in rustic New England, purchasing a Revolutionary War-era home and barn. The setup seemed ripe for a cozy, down-home kind of horror that is quite agreeable this time of year, so despite some narrative awkwardness at first (more on that later), I settled in.

Homesteader wannabes who take up the mantle of the local past more than even the present locals whose families have lived in this town for centuries, the Lindquists enjoy "putting on" dinners and cocktail parties, complete with old-timey recipes, clothes, and of course furnishings, showing off their adopted house, attic, and barn... and the attitudes that go with them. And ex-high school theater teacher Gene enjoys spinning yarns before the fire, imbibing grog and regaling his rueful, amused guests with ghost stories.

The interest of these Lindquists in the house we understood. Or thought we did. But the interest in the ghosts was something else, a fascination far more complicated than it seemed. It was probably no more than the theatricality of the subject that attracted Gene. But what was there about the character of Winne that would explain her interest in the things? 

Penelope, the Lindquists college-age daughter, also partakes in these period recreations, when she's not away at school or canoodling with her boyfriend, Dwight. Dwight is a type that Winnie has seen "already around these parts, college kids who mixed a blue-collar or artsy-craftsy life of old New England with the spirit of Buddha." Dwight says things like "Why should the scientific method be the only way of looking at the world? Why should its laws be the only laws?" which are 100% late-night dorm-room convo questions. Fair enough, because that's exactly who Dwight is. Once Winnie becomes convinced the homestead is the site of at least one spirit, she and Dwight discuss in academic terms telepathy and other paranormal phenomena. *yaaawn*

Now for an actual—or is it?!—ghost, which Winnie thinks she sees while she's walking in the fields near the house, a man hobbling over a small stone wall, straddling it, virtually floating over it, unsure of which side he wants to be if an "some mysterious power or invisible hand had picked him up by the back of the belt while his legs made the motions of walking through air." This sequence is one of the very best in the book (which isn't saying much)... but it comes 40 pages in and there's not very much after that, because now Smith is writing about another aging woman who has to confront what her marriage, her life, her very self have become. Winnie and Penelope develop a somewhat contentious relationship, leading to one of those long conversations between mother and daughter about disappointment: "Life is awfully strange, awfully cruel, and it doesn't make an awful lot of sense."

We learn that Winnie was previously married, and Smith takes a long detour to give us the whole story of her first husband, a man called Sneevy. This section of Moon Lamp reads like The Adventures of Augie March, rich and lusty and overstuffed to the point of exhaustion about a knockabout kinda guy in Chicago—Chicago, that somber city—always looking for the good money, the next adventure, sprawling through the middle of the century, military service, working hard in various jobs, palling around in a beloved car, drinking whiskey, playing penny-ante poker and chainsmoking, blowing money with his best gal, his buddy, and his buddy's gal, what a cock of the walk that Sneevy was on Friday nights! She begins to moon over him, comparing him and Gene, wondering where Sneevy is today, surely he'd have been more ambitious than Gene (who she suspects, but doesn't really care, is having an affair). Oh, how she had loved Sneevy, why had she ever left him, could they communicate... telepathically...? Is he trying to send her messages through some ghostly intermediary...? *yaaawn*

Smith's style is an odd one right from the very first sentence: "We all knew the same thing about the Lindquists." Sounds like country folk gossiping at the general store about the odd yet endearing new couple in town, but I wasn't really digging it; forced and unclear rather than illuminating. The reader never learns who this "we" is, or rather why it is, and eventually Smith turns traditional omniscient narrator because the story turns interior in a way not not visible to townspeople (there needed to be more contrast between styles). Smith's not very sympathetic either: "Winnie and Gene had no stake or interest in the land itself, had not much more feeling for it than the city people spending weekends in the country." I feel like he could've utilized some subtle ghostly vengeance on the Lindquists, like embarrassing them at one of their poser parties or something, but alas, no.

Smith is a classic over-writer, a writerly-writer, writing not just what's happening, but also what isn't happening, like Winnie's daydreams and impressions and wishes and wonderings and who the ghosts were in their previous lives. So much energy put into detailing events that are not even occurring, god, the literary equivalent of a dream sequence or the fake jump scare—without even a real scare that follows up. 

Which leads me to this: the creepiest scene, with the longest buildup, is simply a fakeout. Winnie watches a flickering light outside in the darkness, and ponders what it could be, imagining Sneevy, but it's not a ghost creeping up on the house, it's the reflection of her fucking husband Gene as he comes up behind her! What a bunch of bullshit. Unforgivable. It's the basis of the dustjacket for the 1976 hardcover, which tells you something of the drama of the scene... but not its utter snuffing out of would could've been a terrific scare.

I don't want to criticize this novel for something it's not, so let me say that I didn't really like what it was.  Despite some engaging cultural observations by Smith about trying to fit into a new community, about American class and economic mobility, about the interior lives of married people or the unsatisfied self, The Moon Lamp simply doesn't hold together as a novel. The climax is muted, confusing, not even close to a powerful wrap-up of disparate events. Why did Smith even use the ghost story/haunted house as a springboard for his work of marital woes? This book is not a patch on that great work of a year or two later, Siddons's The House Next Door, which approaches many of these same concerns in a much less ostentatious style and much more modern manner—and is much, much spookier and savvier to boot. The Moon Lamp is a major disappointment for anyone looking for seasonal chills and thrills, or anything else for that matter.

The author in the Sixties

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Even Clive Barker Would Flinch: The Horror Paperbacks of Gene Lazuta

Late '80s and early '90s horror writer Gene Lazuta was born on this date in 1959. Lazuta wrote several paperback originals under pseudonyms (as well as a mystery series), but did not continue his career as a horror author; indeed, you can see his professional bio here. While the cover art is striking and in keeping with totemic pulp horror imagery—drippy typeface, fangs, skulls, hands crawling out of eyes—I haven't read any of these titles, and I don't think I've seen any in the wild when I'm out haunting used bookstores, so I can't tell you whether Barker would actually flinch or not! Bloodshot Books reprinted 1992's Vyrmin in 2016.