Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Wet Work by Philip Nutman (1993): Too Tough to Die

In 1993, in my early 20s, I was working in a giant chain bookstore known as BookStar in Cary, NC. It wasn't a bad place to work, basically a Barnes and Noble (who eventually bought and then closed down the store), although the guys had to wear ties and dress pants, like it was fucking church. Several of my coworkers were horror fiction fans, both of the modern and classic variety, and we wasted many a working hour talking about the genre while ignoring our shelving duties. At this time the horror mass-market paperback boom was beginning its downhill swing, although I well recall the publication of many a serious title around then: Animals by Skipp n' Spector, Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite, After Age by Yvonne Navarro, Skin by Kathe Koja, as well as the continuing titles from the Dell/Abyss line. And in June came Wet Work, published by Jove Books, the first novel from young British author and journalist Philip Nutman.

I already knew the author's name from various Fangoria articles as well as a few of his short stories. They were good, smart, effective, and I remember shelving fresh new copies of Wet Work and thinking it might be worth a read. The critical blurbs came not from, you know, the newspaper reviewers but from fellow horror scribes like Clive Barker, Kathe Koja, Douglas E. WinterNancy A. Collins, Skipp n' Spector themselves, and Stephen King as well (although we've  learned how unreliable a King quote can be). All a good sign to me!

And yet—I didn't read it. My taste for the genre was waning some; sure, I was rereading some favorites but not really keeping up any longer. Like I said, I could tell the boom was slowing down, despite some interesting works arriving. This was when I was getting into my hardboiled/crime/noir phase, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, Woolrich, Cain, Chandler, James Lee Burke. Tastes change, you gotta go where your heart leads you.

So when I finally got around to Wet Work last week, I wasn't sure if it gonna read like a last gasp or fresh breath. Turns out, it was neither, and it didn't need to be: it's simply a briskly-told horror novel of a zombie apocalypse. Ignore the "epic terror" comparison to The Stand on the cover; compared to King's mammoth-sized tome, Wet Work is a wee little rodent, scurrying about busily while getting the job done in a fraction of the pages.

It's radiation from a comet that sets things off, akin to the space probe origins of the zombies in the original Night of the Living Dead. Sections of the first half resemble the early parts of the 1978 Dawn of the Dead, although these characters don't know yet that they're dealing with the undead. All this is no ripoff or plagiarism, however: Wet Work is an expansion of a Nutman short story of the same name, and it was first published in 1989 in the essential undead anthology Book of the Dead, borne upon us by Skipp n' Spector. A major work of the splatterpunk movement, it featured stories all written in the ghoulish universe of Romero's (then-) trilogy of zombie horror movie classicks.

2005 reprint by Overlook Connection Press

Any consumer of popular entertainment, horror or not, will be right at home in the familiar environs of Nutman's various characters and settings: secret military assassins, rookie cops, seasoned cynical cops, adults with dying parents, the lovelorn, the alcoholic, the teenage dirtbag, the cheating rich, the drug dealer, the junkie, DC/NYC, the airport, the strip club, the lab, the White House. Nothing to criticize, really; Nutman fills in color and detail no matter where he's describing. It's all as immediate as any movie or TV show, slick but not shallow, but not overladen with heavy meaning or a desire to upend tradition. His prose is lean, cynical, our tale starting off with the whitehotwhiteheat italics and ...ellipses... so beloved of the splatterpunks, what better way to get to the meat of the matter?

Skipping in well-played rhythms, Nutman shuffles his plotlines well, not lingering too long on any one locale. This is a skill I wish more horror writers had mastered: the thrust of narrative, the propulsion of story, the ability to convey movement in time forward while conveying a sense of impending doom. Nutman's background as a film historian has to account for his crisp, capable hand at this task, as the novel is cinematic as hell. Horror violence and gunplay action mingle here expertly.

Nutman didn't write another novel, I'm not sure why and couldn't find out, but did write comic books and more short stories, collected in 2010's Cities of Night. He died just over 10 years ago; it's a little sad to see all these encomiums from his colleagues praising his talents and to know he wouldn't add to his bibliography. Maybe with the end of the paperback era he just couldn't get another publisher interested in a full-length horror novel? I also feel bummed because in spring 1994 I attended a comic book convention in Durham with a pal, and saw Nutman himself engaged in a lively conversation with one of the movie memorabilia sellers, and I thought, hey, you should go chat with him, tell him you liked his stories... but I did not! Damn.

Overall Wet Work is a short sharp shock of splat fiction, never dwelling too long on any character(s), moving at a brisk pace as the end of the world approaches. Not that the story is shallow or insipid, it's just that Nutman knows that we know how the story goes, and isn't trying to reinvent the wheel. His fresh take on zombie myth isn't exactly mind-blowing, but it is interesting enough to keep even a seasoned horror fic fan reading to the bleak, downbeat ending. Who'd want it any other way?

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Latest Titles in Valancourt Books' Paperbacks from Hell Line: Two by Jere Cunningham

Around Spring 2024, Grady Hendrix, Valancourt Books, and I will be unleashing two devilishly good horror titles in our series of Paperbacks from Hell reprints: Jere Cunningham's The Legacy (1977) and The Abyss (1981). While the author, who died in 2018, only wrote a few horror novels, we think he deserves to be better known. The latter book, with Grady's intro, is available for pre-order; the former title, with my intro, is still in the wings. Be sure to join their mailing list on their homepage to keep up-to-date on their latest horror happenings!

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Fine Frights: Stories That Scared Me, ed. by Ramsey Campbell (1988): A Feast of Fiends

Despite it coming out at the height of the Eighties horror boom and published by genre giant Tor Books, I have no recollection at all of Fine Frights: Stories That Scare Me. An anthology of short stories compiled by the great and prolific Ramsey Campbell, the subtitle is the seller here: a story that can frighten one of horror's premier authors will surely reduce regular readers to a slab of shivering Jello. I've owned my minty-fresh copy of the book—never reprinted—for well over a decade, after finding it a library book sale and paying a whopping single dollar for it. The Jill Bauman cover, while perhaps not one of her most accomplished, references one of the stories therein; and if you look closely at the bottom brick on the right corner, you can see her sig: "Jill."

Campbell in 1988, photo by J.K. Potter

Campbell has assembled a dozen stories that he has deemed his favorites, and are actually only "a sampling" of the short works that have scared him over the years. Some of the names readers of science fiction will recognize more than horror fans, some stories are decades old and virtually forgotten, while others are—were—contemporary of the time but had not yet made their bones. I can assure you that, whenever a particular story was written is of no matter; these are top-flight tales of terror, with (almost) each one containing masterful soul-freezing moments of fear, unease, or shock.

Not a moment is wasted as we begin: "Child's Play," by respected Danish literary author Villy Sorensen (pic above), worms right under the skin. Written in the early Fifties, its unassuming title belies the story's utter remorseless cruelties; it's underwritten in a sly, chilling manner, almost like child-speak. This is fitting, as we meet the two little brothers, never named, who happen upon a smaller boy named Peter. A highlight of the entire anthology. "Shut up! We must clear this up before mother gets home."

Two of the best authors of the day are represented: Karl Edward Wagner's classic "More Sinned Against" has been one of my personal favorite horror tales since I first read it back when I was in high school, when it appeared in David J. Schow's essential 1988 antho Silver Scream. Two people trying to make it in the sleazy show-biz environs of Eighties El Lay, with all the ups and downs that requires. This bit of comeuppance is rife with Hollywood grit 'n' glamour, and what happens after the glitter fades. The ending is a total banger, unforgettable lo these many decades later. Candace couldn't have endured it all if it weren't for her selfless love for Rick, and for the coke and smack and pills and booze.

Thomas Ligotti's "The Greater Festival of Masks" is from his Songs of a Dead Dreamer, just after its small press pub in 1985, but prior to the mass market release; only then would his name would gain more and more recognition. All the Ligottian trademarks are here: nameless city, crooked streets, eerie moonlight, shops of bizarre accoutrements, and reflections upon identity and reality. This is not my favorite Ligotti story, but its essence of the esoteric is so strong, so pervasive, its climax so uncanny, I can see why Campbell chose to include it. For these are the declining days of the festival when the beginning and the end, and the old and the new, the existent and the nonexistent all join in the masquerades.

One of the dozens of anthologies in which "Thurnley Abbey" appeared, 1984

Dating from the early years of the 1900s, both "Thurnley Abbey" by Perceval Landon and "The Necromancer" by Arthur Gray work wonders with the musty trappings of classic ghost stories. While the former has to be one of the most anthologized around, Campbell notes in his little intro that he found many of his readers didn't know Landon's story at all; Gray's work is a brief, erudite, M.R. James-style spooker. While these old-fashioned tales-within-tales can, to some modern readers, seem a little dusty and remote, I can assure you they retain their ice-cold powers. "I know that my heart stopped dead, and my throat closed automatically."

"The Fifth Mask" by British author Shamus Frazer (pic above) is certainly a precursor to the output of both Campbell and Ligotti. A nervous man reminisces over double whiskies about a frightful occurrence from his boyhood, when he and a pal, on the Fifth of November, were out and about pranking while wearing masks, which was the style at the time (published originally in 1957, there are several uses of the n-word to describe said masks here). But someone has beat them at their own game of disguise... The entire dank and anxious mood is one that must have affected Campbell greatly, because many of his works have precisely the same vibe. She was as thin as her voice, dressed all in black... there was a stucco wall behind her, patched and discoloured as a gravestone, and the ghosts of winter trees rising above and losing themselves in the twilight.

"The War is Over" by David Case is original to this anthology, so maybe Campbell commissioned it. It is grim. Case wrote two cult horror/Gothic novels, Fengriffen and Wolf Tracks (1971 and 1980 respectively, both back in print from, who else, Valancourt Books), but was not overly prolific. This tale is set just after WWII, but the main story is one of enemy soldiers. This one has teeth and no mercy. "The brave soldier was not then so brave. He pleaded, he begged. He called upon God. Soon he could no longer plead with words, for he had no tongue."

From 1963, "The Horror at Chilton Castle" by Joseph Payne Brennan (above) is, I believe, fairly well-known among horror aficionados. I first read it some 10 or 12 years ago, and haven't forgotten it. Brennan was a respected mid-century horror/fantasy writer whose work stretches back to the Weird Tales era; his "Slime" is one of the great novellas of pulp horror ever. Here, Brennan evokes time-honored horror tropes with his narrator traveling through Europe looking for his ancestors. He hopes to visit the legendary Chilton Castle, to which his family has distant connection.

In a pub nearby the castle on a storm-lashed night, he ruminates on its spectral legends, and chances to meet someone who can give him a tour of the place—and, well, things go on from there. Strongly and vividly written, "Chilton Castle" is another fine example of Fine Frights... and the inspiration for the cover art. It would've made one helluva an episode of "Thriller"!

There were variations of the legend. Without doubt the original tale had been embroidered down the centuries, but the essential outline of the story concerned a secret room somewhere in the castle. It was said that this room contained a terrifying spectacle which the Chilton-Paynes were obliged to keep hidden from the world.

The four remaining stories are from science fiction authors; I'm sure that Campbell was reading them in magazines in his adolescence. This is to be expected: before the Paperbacks from Hell era, and even well into the Seventies, horror itself was cloaked in terms of SF, mystery, thriller, suspense, Gothic, speculative, fantasy, et al. Still, the authors know how to pluck a nerve ending.
"Cutting Down" by Bob Shaw (above) is by far the most graphic story included, a piece of Eighties grue originally published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. I have absolutely no idea how he rates as a science fiction writer, but as a horror writer he does admirably. An Irish author who got his start in SF fandom, here Shaw gets right at one man's disgust, and the lengths he goes to to relieve himself of this ill. Another tale of comeuppance, oh so vaguely reminiscent of Stephen King's "Quitters, Inc." He drove a roughly estimated cubic centimeter of the fluid into his wife's bloodstream, withdrew the needle and stepped back, his breath coming in a series of low growls which he was unable to suppress.

Okay, I kind of guessed where Peter Phillips's (above) "Lost Memory" was going, but still found it fairly gruesome. A Fifties SF tale through and through, in which awkwardly made-up words, clunky characters names, and stilted "scientific" dialogue and description run amok while information is clearly withheld from the reader solely for an effective twist at the end. Not really my kind of thing at all, but I can imagine being a kid back then reading it for the first time, yikes. Chur-chur was muttering to himself about the extreme toughness and thickness of the stranger's skin. He had to make four complete cutting revolutions before the circular mass of white-hot metal could be pulled away by a magnetic grapple.

Not last, but least: John Brunner's "The Clerks of Domesday" is not completely terrible, I get the chilling implications of the narrator's paranoid delusions, but found the execution tedious. Brunner was connected to the New Wave of SF of the late Sixties and Seventies with prophetic novels such as Stand on Zanzibar, The Shockwave Rider, and The Sheep Look Up, and while this story seems to fit his dour predictions and predilections, it was the only one I struggled to finish. It had never been published prior to Fine Frights and has never been reprinted again.

Our final story is from the mighty Philip K. Dick (above), an early work, dated 1954, entitled "Upon the Dull Earth." If at first it is obscure, it will become haunting and forlorn; Dick's powers at evoking an emotional response was there from the beginning of his career. A young couple, angels, stars, an alternate plane of reality; a myth of the underworld, and lost in it. Dick's long interest in spiritual lives, esoteric religion, heretical beliefs, day-to-day reality versus cosmic illusion: all here. It was a terrified reflection that showed out of the mirror above the bowl, a face, tear-stained and frantic. The face was difficult to catch—it seemed to waver and slide. Grey eyes, bright with terror.

There you have it! And it should be no surprise that Ramsey Campbell has assembled such a high caliber anthology; the various styles of horror represented gives the book a wide appeal. It's a no-brainer: Fine Frights is a fine feast, a repast of morbid morsels that belongs on the shelves of any and all paperback horror collectors.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Bats Out of Hell by Guy N. Smith (1978): Wings of Pain Reach Out for You

Can you believe it's been over a decade since I read a Guy N. Smith novel?! Despite his having written a near countless number of books, none ever made it to the top of my to-read list. In my paperback collection I have maybe eight or so of his titles, some part of his infamous Crabs series, and others just random I've bought over the years. The itch was coming upon me to revisit the infamous pulp novelist, but I wanted something other than those giant crustaceans, so chose Bats Out of Hell (Signet/Nov 1979) from my shelves. Similar in size and shape to simultaneously-published Killer Crabs—both part of the many "animal attacks" works Signet put out back then—Bats is a sleek 150 pages or so, and doesn't muck about with unnecessary plot or character. Smith knew exactly what worked for him, and for that cool $1.75 price tag, he was gonna give it to ya.

We begin in a science lab at the Midlands Biological Research Center, smack-dab middle of beloved tourist spot Cannock Chase, acres of natural land. Against the wishes of the locals, this "ugly scar on the landscape" now is filled with scientists studying disease, ostensibly "to benefit the good of all mankind Except for... for this!" That emphatic "this" refers to the study subjects of Professor Brian Newman: bats. The poor experimental animals locked in cages, have been injected with disease, in a rage, flying futilely about, dying paralyzed, ugh, poor things. I'll let manly Prof. Newman himself explain the  method to the madness:

"The virus is a mutated one caused by experimenting. I've tried to determine the difference between bacterial and viral meningitis... I've never known the disease lead to madness or such awful agony. And I have created a new horror. A mutated virus! God knows how it happened... my God, how far could it spread... even humans? It doesn't bear thinking about!"

1st printing, New English Library, Bob Martin cover art

Newman's pulp hysteria is calmed by sensible on/off gal-pal and fellow scientist Susan Wylie, as she notes this disease, is trapped inside the cages with the bats, surely nothing bad will happen, there's no way it can escape, they can wait till the creatures die off, be cremated, and Newman will admit to his superiors that his experiment was a failure. How big of him! Then Susan and he argue over their romantic entanglement after he breaks their date for that night; then Newman and his boss Haynes argue, all the while, many of the enraged bats are dying in agony beside them. Its eyes seemed to meet his, and they glittered accusingly, with sheer malevolence. Blaming Man, as though in its last seconds it understood.

I'm sure you can see where this is going...

1985 reprint, NEL, Terry Oakes cover art

Newman has broken his date with Susan to hook up with Fiona at a local pub, and of course Susan sees them together. Next morning at the lab, before Susan arrives, he notices the death rate of the bats has slowed and the creatures still alive seem more agitated than ever. Newman again ponders what he hath wrought: 

Whereas earlier he had been repulsed, he now experience a morbid fascination almost to the point of being hypnotized. He had crated something, death in a form that had not hitherto existed. It was all his doing... This was different, exciting. Death could occur at any second.

Well, dear reader, here comes the part we've been waiting for. Susan arrives and is cool and dismissive towards him—how dare she! It's back to professional relationship only. Newman's masculinity is so shattered by this he of course cries "You bitch!" and cracks her in the face. Enraged, Susan attacks him, and Newman falls against the glass bat cage and breaks it wide open... and the last living disease-bearing animals have their escape at last. Wow, can you say toxic masculinity?

1987 reprint, NEL, cover artists unknown

Smith now embarks on the time-honored tradition of vignettes of bat swarms attacking hapless British (specifically Birmingham) citizens in farms, banks, churches, wherever. Now, as noted, the bats are spreading a gruesome disease that causes agonizing pain, insanity, and paralysis; they are not blood-suckers out looking for a treat. Authorities are called in, Newman wants to accept responsibility—there's a novel idea!—as the bats wreak their havoc. The media have a field day and call out Newman by name, putting his life at risk. Vigilantes patrol the streets as thousands die from contagion. Cities burn, armored tanks fire upon citizens who try to gather in protest of the stay-at-home directive. Petty politicians rise up with conspiracy theories. What will it take to stop the bat epidemic? It's all a little unsettling to read these days!

I was impressed with Smith's steady narrative and solid, no-nonsense prose as he depicts his tale of apocalypse. His dialogue is generally poor; that's where you can tell he's not too concerned with realism. But his scenes of attacks are effectively creepy, his depictions of nature overrun with maddened bats chill, and his ability to draw a picture of the workaday lives of various characters is solid. Are there lapses in taste and sensibilities, seen from the vantage point of nearly half a century? Sure, but that's Seventies pulp horror. Smith seems committed to his tale, and that is truly all I ask from my paperback horror fiction. While not reaching the hallowed heights of The Rats or The Nest, these Bats Out of Hell should definitely find a home on your bookshelves.

Once an infected bat touched you, that was it. Finis.
There was no antidote.
Nothing on God's earth could save you.

Monday, November 27, 2023

The Revenant by Hugh Zachary (1988): The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Well, this was an unexpected treat. Long on my to-read list after the author's 1974 eco-horror Gwen, in Green become a personal favorite, Hugh Zachary's umpteenth novel The Revenant (Onyx, Aug 1988) is a respectable addition to the haunted house pantheon. The esteemed illustrator Richard Newton provides the stunning skull cover art, which perfectly illustrates the terrors within (while he is not credited on the copyright page, you can spy part of his signature just under "Zachary" on the dead soldier's collar). A top-tier paperback cover, thanks to its fine detail and delicate depiction of teeth and bone and hair. Only his hate and desire for vengeance were strong...

Zachary has written a charming haunted-house tale, readable and engaging, that has more in common with PG-rated horror than adult fare like Hell House (1971) or The House Next Door (1978). I'd say the tone is more akin to something to Eighties movies like Poltergeist or House: there are spooky/scary scenes to be sure, but  tempered by Zachary's good-natured style. And unlike the aforementioned Gwen, in Green, which was rife with sexual exploit, The Revenant is about as spicy as a vintage television commercial, coyly "fading to black" whenever the adults close the bedroom door. Jean got into the shower with Vance and washed his back—among other things—and for about thirty minutes forgot about ghosts...

Our protags are the Whitneys: husband Vance and wife Jean, and their two very young daughters, Ridey and Min. The girls are slightly precocious for their ages, but Zachary keeps them from becoming an annoyance to readers—like myself—who find children in horror fiction poorly depicted, by  verisimilitude. The girls' dialogue has the ring of truth to it, perhaps from Zachary actually listening to his own grandchildren, who are mentioned in the book's dedication. Younger Ridey has something akin to a psychic pipeline to the supernatural shenanigans going on, saying things like "He doesn't like it" or "He broked it" when the adults are discussing amongst themselves what in the world could be causing their unexplained problems. But Ridey has always been a little "off," born as she was with a rare, fortunately treatable, brain condition. The center section of the infant's brain had been a vast, frightening void.

There's more, though, but I don't need to go into it all. Gothic standards like hidden rooms, torture chambers, secret journals, evil secrets, all now exposed to the rational airs of the late 20th century. It got a bit Jebus-y for my taste at the end, with the psychic family friend arriving to provide spiritual assist as an amateur exorcist, well-worn Bible in her hand. Even though he's dealing in basic tropes of pulp haunted house horror, Zachary's prose, honed by decades of writing fiction of all stripes, is fresh, familiar, convincing. He keeps things lively right to the end. And while you'll run into a dated notion more than once—I suppose the marital politics aren't exactly progressive, he's like your granddad, isn't he?—he never devolves into crudity or idiocy, like so many other paperback horror originals.

I've read worse novels by more famous authors. With its tension well-mounted between modern people who just want to live in the now and seemingly still-fresh Civil War wounds from crimes committed long ago, The Revenant might not quite be a Southern Gothic, but it's not far off. Hugh Zachary brings a smooth, professional vibe to all the proceedings, even and especially when you notice the nicely time-worn notes of unease begin to be plucked. "You are not going to do this to us," she said softly, speaking to the night, to the sudden chill, to the feeling of uneasiness that had come over her so suddenly. This was her house, her home...

Thursday, August 17, 2023

The Pyx by John Buell (1959): She's Like Heroin to Me

With the finely-detailed image of a nude willowy blonde, tresses flowing, nipples bared, stomach taut, slim legs, and arched feet in full Playboy-model effect, the cover art for The Pyx promises a helluva lot! Especially for the Sixties when it was originally published by Popular Library (no specific pub date given, nor is artist identified). This little guy was on my want-list for a few years till I lucked upon it for only a few bucks on eBay. Sure, it practically fell apart as soon as I opened it, cover popping off spine, oh well, who's complaining? Should I be surprised that there is no naked woman in the book, nor creatures with disparately colored eyes? Do I demand my money back when reading this novella-length paperback that is basically a crime story about a dead prostitute, her madame, gay friend, criminal consorts, and the dogged detective on the trail of her death? No, I do not.

John Buell
(1927 - 2013), a little-known Canadian author and professor, is a fine, insightful writer, starting his book off with a bang and drawing the reader right in with a nice grasp of place and character. A woman has dropped from an apartment window several stories high, accident or suicide no one knows, but it's Detective Henderson's job to find out. Now, you've seen and read this tale a thousand times. And in all the years I've known about The Pyx, reading about the movie version with Karen Black, the words "occult" and "satanic" always filtered about it. I don't know what a pyx is, who does, Buell knew no one really would so its definition is at the beginning of the book: in Catholic ritual, it's a little vessel that holds the Host. Sure, whatever.

What a pyx is not, however, is a little demon or genie or ghostie or ghoulie that I, in my religious ignorance, had originally idly wondered it may be. And if there is any "occult" or "satanic" to be found here, it sailed entirely over my head. But I went back and reread the penultimate chapter, the ultimate confrontation between Henderson and the guilty party, and I suppose I could see where Buell was hinting at some "otherworldly" aspect to his narrative ("Die? I can't die. I'm immortal."). The very last line put me in mind of Ray Russell or William Peter Blatty, but only in an indirect way.

Too much of this story is coy and reticent, since it deals with a sex worker with a drug problem and it was written in the late Fifties by a Canadian: referring to actual sex acts or drug-taking logistics is simply out of the question in those pre-Naked Lunch days, and the impact of this sordid work is muted almost beyond comprehension. Those cover blurbs announcing "eerie" and "powerful" and "the secret" and "climax of diabolic evil" are so much hot air, alas (I can't speak at all to the Graham Greene reference, I mean I know who he is, but in this context, not really).

A few scattered moments of violence, sure, but nothing you wouldn't have seen elsewhere in the era. For the most part, despite some rock-solid prose on Buell's part, I found it a standard detective story, populated with the typical various lowlife characters, flashbacks to the dead girl's life and hopes and failures, you know what I mean. I've seen good reviews of The Pyx online, sure, I'm glad people dug it, but for me, it really missed the vein. But that cover, man...

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Latest Titles in Valancourt Books' Paperbacks from Hell Series: Two by Thomas Tessier

Valancourt Books has announced the 2023 release of two more titles in their long-running series of paperback horror featured in my and Grady Hendrix's Paperbacks from Hell. This time it's two 1980s novels by the esteemed Thomas Tessier: we've got Finishing Touches (1986) and Rapture (1987), major works of psychosexual horror. Tessier is no pulpy schlockmeister: his style is chilling, literate, and assured. Those of you appreciate the more, ahem, refined stylings of, say, Peter Straub or T.E.D. Klein or Dennis Etchison, will find these titles to your liking.

Grady and I love both these books, and are thrilled to be getting them out to the reading public once again! While there is no set publication date yet, Valancourt did release the cover art, as seen above. Don't they look incredible?! Be sure to visit their website for any and all information about pre-ordering and whatnot.

Okay, back to reading!

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Hide and Seek by Jack Ketchum (1984): Linger on Your Pale Blue Eyes

A brief, stark coming-of-age tale of terror, Hide and Seek was the second novel from the late Jack Ketchum—famous pseudonym of author Dallas Mayr, who died of cancer in 2018 at age 71. Published as a paperback original by Ballantine Books in June 1984, this slim little book reads like a James M. Cain or a Jim Thompson crime novel, with a no-account narrator meeting an enticing woman far outside his league (I was way outclassed and I knew it), related in plain prose rife with hard-boiled philosophizing, a sense of unavoidable fate lurking behind the everyday facade. I don't believe in omens, but I think you can know when you're in trouble.

Set sometime in the Sixties, Hide and Seek is told in retrospect by Dan Thomas, a regular young guy living and working in a lumber mill in Dead River, Maine. Pretty much a dead-end town, he's in a dead-end job, but when he and another blue-collar friend are hanging out at the touristy local lake, Dan happens to meet three college "rich kids," Kimberly, Steven, and most intriguingly, Casey White. Casey, with eyes pale, pale blue that at first it was hard to see any color in them at all. Dead eyes, my brown-eyed father calls them. Depthless.    

Dan is of course completely besotted with Casey, and reluctantly hangs out with Steven and Kimberly too just to be with her. Steven loves Casey but has settled for Kimberly; this is a fact known by all. They drink beer, hit the beach, skinny-dip, shoplift, pull dumb pranks. They laugh a lot but nothing's really funny. Dan meets Casey's father, who seems a broken man, and learns of a horrific tragedy in the family' life. Dan and Casey have sex in a graveyard. Just like in a classic noir novel, Casey is the femme fatale, but she's most fatal to herself; that tragedy has caused her to be reckless, which is what  frightens, and yet attracts, our narrator. In the Middle Ages, they'd have burned her at the stake.

Ketchum builds tension well in the book's first half, with short declarative sentences, simplistic dialogue, and that sense of fatalism permeating everything—the kind of thing crime noir is known for. I appreciate his attempt at writing a horror novel that incorporates other genre elements, to infuse his stories with a grimy grindhouse slasher feel combined with tentative attempts at character detail, but to what end? I was really into the long fuse of the set-up, wondering what character flaw would trip the deadly spring I knew just had to be poised over the characters' heads. And then Ketchum reveals it, and all the goodwill built up by his careful tightening of the noose is spent. "Hide and seek. Just the way we used to play it when we were kids. But we play it in the Crouch place."

I'm going to talk freely about what happens in the second half of the story, so I guess a spoiler warning is warranted from here on. 

The Crouch place Casey is talking about is Dead River's haunted house, situated on a cliff above the sea, abandoned years before by the two owners, Ben and Mary Crouch. Rumored to be imbecilic siblings, they had lived in filth with their many, many dogs. Which the couple left behind, starving and near-mad, when the police pay a visit a month after they'd been evicted for not paying their mortgage. To be honest, all this became too Richard Laymon-style for me, this scenario of teens sneaking into an empty old creepy house at midnight to play a child's game, tying up one another with nylon ropes when "found." "How do you feel about bondage?" "I love bondage!" She finished buttoning her blouse.

The novel is too "talky" and 90% horror-free for a horror novel, while the origins of its violence too hokey for a crime novel. And Ketchum is so damn solemn about everything. Lighten up, Francis! He invests too much seriousness in that trite finale, a lot of po-faced silliness that squanders all that great suspense he worked so hard to build up. A giant dog in the caverns beneath the house eating people? Monstrous Ben and Mary Crouch living down there in the earth? In a schlockier horror novel, sure. But all this time spent laying down a prosaic reality, hinting at horrors in the future that cannot be avoided, alluding to human flaws that will lead to tragedy, and then it's just some B-movie monster ripping people apart in gory, yet somehow bland detail. It's not as dumb as Laymon, you can tell Ketchum cares a lot, but it's still thin gruel for a seasoned reader.

In the Eighties, fat horror novels were the rage; books that featured lots of characters, situations, settings, plots, conflicts, and blood and scary scenes splashed throughout. Ketchum bothers with none of that. Not even 200 pages, Hide and Seek is a novella padded out to get to even that length. With this bare bones approach, he must have felt like a man without a country back then. No one really wrote this style of book, and the reason is: it doesn't work. Hide and Seek just doesn't work, not as horror, not as crime, not as coming-of-age. Why push your readers through to an end where you rip the characters apart, ostensibly for the moral of "the world is a horrible place but I think I've learned to cope"?

I never heard of Ketchum till the early 2000s, around when The Girl Next Door was reprinted, and he published no short stories in the Eighties, which is where I learned about new writers then. I doubt I'd have enjoyed his books anyway, as I was looking for more challenging, more imaginative vistas, writers like Barker, Koja, Tessier, Lansdale, Brite, Ligotti, etc. people stretching the boundaries of horror into weird new realms. Novels trading in giant monster dogs and slasher cannibals like this novel would've seemed to me like tired retreads of tropes I didn't care about in the first place.

Ketchum has a great reputation in the field, as a mentor and as a mensch, and his death was mourned by everyone who loves the genre. But this second novel is failed ambition, a concoction that promises terrifying delights but in the end delivers little of real interest, almost negating itself. This was the fourth book I've read by Ketchum, and while not as bad as She Wakes, Hide and Seek is a step down from, and a little derivative of, his brutal and grueling debut, 1980's Off Season. The more I thought about it the more I felt it was like a writing exercise, a very first draft, a practice session to prepare for the real thing.

Eventually Ketchum would come into his own and define his own style with The Girl Next Door—the real thing—but I'm realizing I haven't liked even his books that I consider successful. From what I've read about his later novels, many seem to be extreme scenarios of sexual violence and cruelty mixed with that fatalistic philosophy and slow build-up. Never say never, of course, but I doubt I'll be picking up one of his other books any time soon.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Tricycle by Russell Rhodes (1983): Crimin' Simon

Christopher Hennick, a young English literature professor and former star athlete, is blinded in a terrible accident but is now returning to Talbot Academy, the New England boys' school he'd taught at and attended previously. His relationship with his girlfriend, Susanne, is strained due to his reluctance to come to terms with his new disability. And while he is welcomed back to teach by headmaster James Harrothwait and colleague Arthur Catterby, Chris feels something amiss... and that something is a someone, a five-year-old child named Simon, Arthur's son.

Perpetually riding around the school grounds on his squeaky tricycle, Simon weirds out students and faculty alike. Susanne tells Chris he's got a hateful look on his punchable little face too. And also, what of the recent accidental deaths of several promising teenage boys there? And why does Mrs. Karen Catterby, Arthur's smokeshow of a wife and Simon's mom, have such a bad reputation on campus? And suddenly taken such a liking to Chris himself?

Featuring one of the grandest of all Paperbacks from Hell-era covers, by the fantastic Lisa Falkenstern, Tricycle (Pocket Books, August 1983) by Russell Rhodes, seems to promise Bad Seed levels of Creepy Kid Horror. That's a pretty tall order. Can it deliver?

The setting of a preparatory school was fine with me. Personally I'm fond of tales of professors and academics and college/university life in horror, so that was one point in the book's favor. Then there are a couple illicit sex scenes get things going nicely, that's good too. After the one that opens the novel, a fiery, helpless death: "I'm dying," he cried, "I'm dying!" Holding his face, the flaming boy whirled around in tight circles. His lungs gulped a last searing breath, then exploded within him as he toppled forward into the inferno. Okay, we're rolling right along!

But I noticed some issues soon after. Chris is kind of a wienie, and his attempts at teaching seem condescending; his feelings of inadequacy don't evoke much sympathy in the reader. Our author is more concerned with the banal gossip cocktail party chatter of rich academic folk ("I don't care what you say, Linda, slacks and that blouse don't belong at the Academy. The thing's open practically to her navel"), which sure can be entertaining, but at the expense of other aspects—like horror itself. There's a lot of pages spent on literary classroom discussions—Shakespeare, Hemingway, other fine fellows, etc.—and a burgeoning friendship between Chris and Lucas, the student assigned to read aloud for him and assist in his coursework. Of course that leads to twinges of baseless gay panic!!1!

So I'm reading along, it's fine, sure, and then, oh joy, what should make an appearance but that most disgusting yet popular cliches of junk pop fiction of the era: incest. Here it's twincest! Huzzah. It forms the backstory of a major character, motivational thrust (oops, no pun intended) for the psychosexual shenanigans occurring in the present day. And it all happened under the Nazi regime, natch. "Come feel my flame, little sister." He had laughed as he pushed her hand between his thighs.

As (slasher-style and post-coital) deaths mount, Chris slowly starts to suspect the incredible: He, Christopher Hennick, at one time big man on campus, was at the mercy of a little five-year-old. Fear gripped him. It was all so very simple, so logical, so inevitable. I mean, all that goddamn squeaking of the tricycle wheels following him around, what other conclusion could he make?!

The tale reaches its climax in the school as the suddenly raging waters of the Connecticut River surge over the grounds, rising into the halls and stairwells and gym, where Christopher must battle his unseen enemy alone after everyone else evacuates. And oh shit, now a fire's started! In this last section, Rhodes delivers what I found it to be a convincing and well-staged finale, with some decent mounting suspense and a couple plot twists. Nothing revolutionary, you'll probably see 'em coming, even if some don't quite seem to square with what has been happening all along.

Author Russell Rhodes (1931 - 2010), late 1970s

Rhodes, who was an adman by trade while he also produced fiction, writes with a serviceable, polished pen, and while nothing ever made me cringe, nothing sparkled for me either. He misses lots of opportunities he's set up for himself. Too often, Rhodes writes at a remove, like he's afraid to get granular as we say today. When Chris is trapped alone in a classroom with rattlesnakes, I was sure the rattlesnakes Chris hears would be revealed as an auditory prank on his blindness, but no: they're real. Yet Rhodes makes only a half-hearted attempt at conveying such distinctive creatures, which have to rank among the most frightening and fearsome on all the earth. "You know the rattlesnake, or Crotalina," the boy continued, "represents the highest type of serpent development and specialization."

Same with Milton, Chris's seeing-eye German Shepherd, another distinctive animal that Rhodes seems reluctant to include the interesting particulars of (I will warn you, the poor dog is killed eventually). Susanne disappears. Tricycle is definitely market fodder, commercial unit shifter, designed to give minimum thrill for maximum profit, an adman's idea of "horror." Rhodes's other titles seem like standard thrillers of the Seventies, spies, KGB, technology, super-hot ladies who have it all and want more, with back cover copy like "bizarre orgies, brain-searing terror, and the nightmare secret of Hitler's human experiments," awesome, I guess, but not my kinda thing at all.

It's easy to tell the author isn't a horror writer, probably wasn't even particularly interested in the genre; as I said, Tricycle was simply another title in the glut of paperbacks saturating book racks of the day. The novel's intensity level reaches about that of a TV-movie, desiring to be nothing more than a paycheck for Rhodes and a couple hours' diversion for the reader. I didn't expect much more, and honestly expected much less.

is not a forgotten horror classic, and is better characterized as a suspense thriller especially since the ending wraps up the preceding events all too neatly. (When someone shouts "Satan's whore!" you'll wish that was a literal thing rather than just a misogynist slur.) Rhodes doesn't offer up much creepy atmosphere or dread, there is nothing supernatural going on, but the book did keep me turning pages over a few snowy days. Okay, okay, I skimmed here and there, don't think I missed much.

That yellow Hamlyn UK edition from 1985 is creepy, but just doesn't have that je ne sais quois of Simon bearing implacably down on you on the Pocket Books version, an image I found deeply unsettling when I saw it on the supermarket book racks as a kid. Alas, Simon isn't even close to being in the Creepy Kids Hall of Fame, but with an all-timer cover like this, Tricycle definitely belongs in your paperback horror library.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Cats by Nick Sharman (1977): Apocalypse Meow

Scott Grønmark was his name and writing pulp horror paperbacks under the pseudonym "Nick Sharman" was his game. Born in Oslo, Norway, in 1952, he was working in the PR department of New English Library (which is why of course he had to use a pseudonym) when he began his published career with The Cats. It was originally published by NEL in 1977 (below), and then by Signet in America in May 1979. Subsequently he wrote six or seven novels, only one under his real name. Notoriety came Grønmark's way some years back when internet wags postulated that he was the person responsible for the infamous sleaze-horror "classic" Eat Them Alive, which wasn't so; you can read his response here.

An early entry into the animal attack publishing craze led, of course by Jaws and The Rats, The Cats offers up most, but not all, of the usual template, even though the subgenre had only been going on a couple years by 1977. Most characters are irritable, stuffy, smug, and/or macho. Or American, for no reason I could discern. Victims run the gamut of British society, briefly introduced, quickly dispatched. Requisite cynicism about politicians while the mighty military comes in swinging their dicks. Science is responsible for the poor kitties' condition. There isn't even a love interest, believe it or not, but there is an attempted rape—about the only woman who appears (the assault is prevented at the last second). Two sets of estranged fathers and sons lend a tad bit of character conflict. One human is afflicted by the same disease as the cats have, maybe there's a psychic connection too, an addition I found intriguing.

I wish Grønmark had attempted to give his rampaging cats a smidge of personality. We all know cats in our personal lives who are more interesting than some people in our social circles. Imagine if he'd spent just a chapter on the creatures themselves, even just a couple kitties, perhaps even inspired by then-bestselling juggernaut Watership Down—recall how Richard Adams did marvels with cuddly rabbits! That would've given this slight 154-page novel some much needed ballast as well as some empathy for innocent animals.

But that's not what this book is or wants to be. Despite several vivid attacks early on, Grønmark doesn't seem to have much energy to inject his tale with anything but the driest essentials. There's little spark in the proceedings, not even anything but the most workmanlike approach to feline slaughter. Prose is competent, serviceable, but lacking any real juice. He simply keeps the narrative going faster and faster but with diminishing results, I mean I've kind of already forgotten the specifics of the climax, such as it is, and the cute yet utter by-the-numbers final paragraphs fail to surprise. I did like the guy who tries in vain to fight back against the beasts with acid, is still overwhelmed, and croaks, as his last words, "Oh well, you can't win 'em all."

Previous Grønmark books I've read, The Surrogate and Childmare, were more entertaining, written with a bit more skill and conviction. As noted, The Cats was Grønmark 's debut novel, and I guess he simply didn't have the chops yet. (At least it led to a successful writing career, I'll give it that; he died in 2020 aged 68.) Unfortunately, I found The Cats lackluster, offering nothing fresh to the all-too-common cliches of animal-attack literature. If you're a collector, you'll want the Signet edition with that spectacular Don Ivan Punchatz cover, but unless you're an animal-attacks obsessive, you can probably leave the book on the shelf.

As he lay on the ground he could see people jumping from the smashed upper windows of the double-decker bus, and then his eyes locked with those of the black cat. Its jaws gaped for a ghastly instant before its teeth rammed straight through the flesh of the man's nose and crunched into the hard knuckle of gristle underneath.