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 on...as 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.

 
 

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Paperbacks from Hell Reprint Series, Part II from Valancourt Books!

You asked for it, you got it! Beginning later in 2019, Valancourt Books will be releasing another five titles in their mind-blowing reprint series of vintage paperback horror novels, featured in my and Grady Hendrix's Stoker-winning Paperbacks from Hell (Quirk Books, 2017). For complete info, read Valancourt's blogpost about it. Of course, Grady and I will be doing intros again, and we will keep original art as much as possible. You can see the list of titles there features some true horror rarities... and now they can be yours!

Thursday, August 29, 2019

She's an Angel Witch: The Witches Series by James Darke (1983-86)

Still so many treasures to be found in paperback horror! I was rereading a Sphere book recently and noticed this back pages ad that I had previously missed, for a horror series I had never heard of before:

Immediately I got on the Google to see what I could see and lo and behold my faithful readers I was rewarded with these delightfully vintage softcore covers for The Witches, an eight-volume series of historical horror novels by one James Darke.

If you were around in the early '80s, then these covers bring back forbidden images of men's mags like Gallery, Oui, Hustler, Penthouse, as well as MTV video starlets and instructional aerobics programs. How the janky lighting, the fog machine, and cheap set design takes me back!

James Darke is, you won't be surprised, a pseudonym; in this case, for a writer new to me, Laurence James (1942 - 2000), who wrote mostly pulp apocalyptic science fiction. The Witches was never published in the States, which certainly accounts for my unfamiliarity with it.

The few reviews I've found online range from good to not-good, neither which makes me eager to read them, but I would not pass up an opportunity to add them to my shelves! If anyone's read them, please, do tell...

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Fawcett Gold Medal Paperbacks of Robert Arthur Smith

British horror novelist Robert Arthur Smith, born on this date in 1944, produced these paperback originals between 1977 and 1991. He lives in Toronto today but other than that I could find out no real biographical info about him. I own copies of The Prey and Vampire Notes but have not read them; the latter book notes "by the author of The Leopard" but I could find no cover image for that title. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says Vampire Notes is "an unusually intricate take on Vampire topoi" and I thought "topoi" was a typo of "topics" till I looked it up and learned it is the plural of a new-to-me, and quite relevant, word! Weird, don't know how that escaped me all these years...


Sunday, July 28, 2019

Feast by Graham Masterton (1988): Stay Hungry

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

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

 All my friends are gonna be there too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sphere UK paperback, Aug 1989

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

Thriller from Tor looks almost like a horror paperback

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

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

German paperback, 1988

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

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

Severn House UK hardcover, 1988

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

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Horror Fiction Help XX

Wow, the 20th post in my quest to help horror fans find forgotten books and stories! These descriptions have me stumped, so can anyone help ID these works? Thanks in advance y'all!

1. Paperback, cover mostly black, front cover illustration of an evil or feral-looking naked woman lying on grass, glaring angrily up at the us, the viewer. She was on her side in a semi-foetal position, so no NSFW frontal nudity is visible, her head is totally bald, her skin seemed to be overly veiny or tautly muscled (to emphasize she isn’t meant to be attractive or alluring) and she may have been clutching a kind of laurel wreath to herself. The synopsis described a little boy discovered alone with his entire town/village community vanished, and when questioned about it he can only furiously draw a naked bald woman on the ground, like the one on the cover. I can’t remember if he is the main character grown up, or the main character. Found! It's the UK edition of John Farris's Fiends:

2. My aunts left a paperback around in the early '80s, might be a late '70s publication. Simian hybrids reminiscent of Lovecraft's Arthur Jermyn live in tunnels below a town. They're extremely sexually voracious and the author lavishes detail on how their massive and agile genitalia turn women into blissed-out hostages. (There's a mutation where the tip of the urethra can extend as a kind of "mouth," with its own tongue if I recall correctly.) There's an assault on the tunnel system that fails, leaving the women happily pregnant. I'm sure there's a lot more context but it was a lot to process. Found! It's one of Laymon's Beast House novels:

3. Late ’70s or 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.  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. 

4. An orphan who goes to live with some wealthy relatives, an uncle (I believe) who seems nice but is actually super creepy. There's also either a young girl who might be another relative or maybe household servants who is not mentally stable and has been raped by someone (there was a real ick factor in this one that really didn't compare with other gothic books I've read). I feel like puppets or dolls might have been involved - like the uncle collected them or made them as a hobby or something).  I know the writer was responsible for at least several more gothics. I also know they weren't one of the super famous/more talented writers. No Victoria Holt (under any name), Daphne Du Maurier, or Mary Stewart here. It was also definitely not Phyllis Whitney, Dorothy Eden, or Dorothy Daniels as I've read and own many books by them and would have remembered that.  

5. A werewolf tale. A homeless man, or a hobo, or some kind of derelict, unfortunate soul, cursed with lycanthropy. He lived in the basement of an abandoned building of some sort, maybe a house, or a factory. The story might have been told through his journal entries, but I'm not sure. What I remember most vividly though, was that he had a radio that he would turn on occasionally, as a sort of reward to himself. He didn't want to use up all the batteries. The story might have taken place in the 50's. Found! It is a short story by Kathe Koja, "Angel's Moon," published in 1991's Ultimate Werewolf antho.

6. A magazine in the 1970s (one of those with lots of sci-fi and horror tales) and featured a monster that lived in a junk yard named Otto. That's about all I can remember about it. I was wondering if you might know the story name and author. Found! It's "The Dump" by Joe Lansdale, published in a 1981 issue of "Twilight Zone" mag.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Koko by Peter Straub (1988): Born Down in a Dead Man's Town

In a way the Vietnam War was an Eighties war, much as we revisited it in that decade and as its after-effects began to be confronted in our most popular culture. After 1975, people weren't eager to talk about it; the wound still fresh, the stitches still in place. Of course there had been books and movies in the previous decade, like The Deer Hunter and Dispatches, Going After Cacciato and Coming Home, but an Eighties character such as Rambo (and even a performer like Bruce Springsteen from that era) more embodied a perfect wish fulfillment fantasy for the decade of excess, as the damaged national psyche transformed itself into oiled, striated, male musculature pushed to the limit of human endurance. We're back, baby! Nothing's gonna stop us now.

Peter Straub's entry into this cultural reckoning of the conflict was his ambitious 1988 novel Koko (Signet Books paperback, July 1989, cover by Robert Korn). One of the most ubiquitous of all 1980s paperback novels found in many a used bookstore's horror section, Koko's cover art of primary colors and thick, high-contrast spine has captured my eye for years. It wasn't ever very high on my to-read list, however, as I knew it was more mainstream thriller and that it dealt with Vietnam, which was not my thing at all when I was in my early twenties (despite the fact that I was devouring films like the aforementioned Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, but that was because they happened to be great '70s movies, not because they were about Vietnam). How glad I am that I finally took the leap and read it!

 
 Straub in 1988

Straub's book is about four men, Vietnam vets who served together, on a journey, circling around a secret, a secret unknowable and unimaginable, a secret that may not even have happened: a Schrodinger's cat event of battletime horror. Michael Poole, Harry Beevers, Tina Pumo, Conor Linklater: a children's doctor whose marriage is breaking up, an asshole lawyer, a NYC restaurateur in over his head, an unambitious carpenter. In shades of Straub's horror breakthrough Ghost Story (1979), these men live their lives around a horrible event; in this case, something that happened in a cave in the Vietnamese village of Ia Thuc during the war, akin to the real-life My Lai massacre. Koko opens with a powerful, resonant, emotional scene of the men reuniting after more than a decade in Washington DC to visit the Vietnam Memorial:

For Poole, the actual country of Vietnam was now just another place... its history and culture had briefly, disastrously intersected ours. But the actual country of Vietnam was not Vietnam; that was here, in these American names and faces.

 

Having learned of a serial killer named Koko in southeast Asia who may be one of their fellow vets from their old combat unit, the four men begin an international search: Beevers, Poole, and Linklater travel to Asia to track him down; Pumo remains in New York and deals with the demons of restaurant management and a one-night stand that goes horribly wrong. Visiting Singapore and Bangkok, the three men begin searching for answers no one can give them, carousing East Asian bars and whorehouses, being taken to secret shows in dingy basements where humans are killed for expensive thrills, plumbing their own natures in that Heart of Darkness manner. These colorful travelogue sequences are interspersed with scenes from the war, and we meet the other soldiers in their unit: Manuel Dengler, Tim Underhill, Victor Spitalny... who is Koko? What is Koko? Fortunate reader, you will learn.

In the eerie and violent chapters featuring the title character, Koko's psychic state reminds me very much of Francis Dollarhyde in Red Dragon: the cunning, the mania, the grandiosity, the sick poetry of it, and this bit about "the nearness of ultimate things." It's a dead-eyed glare, an interiorized fantasy world so powerful that he must remake the real world in trauma. While Straub does not trade in the same forensic ingenuity as that Thomas Harris title, the madnesses of men and its origins are kindred: "God's hand hung in the air, pointing at him."

By far my favorite sequence—in a novel filled with great sequences—is a trip to Milwaukee to track down Spitalny's and Dengler's families. This visit to a sad, broken, gloomy town to speak with sad, broken, gloomy people is a glimpse into a part of America that isn't a beacon of shining hope: these are people with petty approaches to life, who exile themselves from the main street of life and gloat over past pain, who never seem to grow out of the small-minded provincialites, who cripple themselves and indulge in the small sick sadistic voice that whispers of their inadequacy and vanity. Small-town America, as horror reminds us over and over and over, is rife with the evil of banality.

One of the criticisms/complaints I hear against Straub is that he is long-winded, pretentious, ponderous, boring. I mean, I guess I can see that. He writes big books and he's not just writing scary ones; he's after bigger prey. So yes, Straub, for all his expansive depiction of human nature in its deeps and valleys, also often obscures certain details from the reader, leaving them to ponder if they missed a sentence or phrase or snatch of dialogue somewhere along the line. No, that's not it: Straub uses implication, a shaded eye, to keep some aspects of the narrative in doubt. And indeed, the central trauma at the center—that village massacre involving these men when they were young soldiers—is open to interpretation.

What I'm saying is: Straub doesn't always tell you everything you need to know. Is this a literary pretense? Is it lazy writing? Or is it because the truth, for all we venerate it, is unknowable, unfixed, changeable through the stories we tell? Not for nothing has Straub created a character who has written the short stories Straub has already written ("Blue Rose" and "The Juniper Tree") and published. Meta-fiction has been hot for a long time now, authors winking at us from inside the pages of their own work, but Straub's version is not whimsical, ironic, jokey, or cute; it simply is. We write our stories every day; this is as commonplace an idea as the fact that sometimes an author doesn't even know what his story is about. So let's keep things interesting by keeping some things in the dark. But illumination can come from an unexpected source: as one character thinks to himself while reading a paperback novel called The Dead Zone during his travels: "Improbability and violence overflowed flowed from everyday life, and Stephen King seemed to know that." That's good stuff.

To readers who like their horror graphic and nasty, I'd say there's nothing here for you; this is not that kind of novel. To readers who like to step off into a larger landscape of human tragedy, Koko is recommended. Straub is not trying to scare the reader; there are no attempts at jump scares or spine chills. These fears dissipate in the morning light. "The nearness of ultimate things" he notes again and again, an existential mantra that implies a whole host of misery and revelation: those are frightening things in and of themselves.

 
 

This is the kind of full-on novel that takes up a lot of space in your head; this review has touched on only a portion of what it offers. Straub's fine and thoughtful prose, rich vein of humanity, eye and ear for marital discord, and ability to launch widescreen emotional horrors of deep, profound impact, will satisfy the discerning reader. For such a thick tome (600 pages), the story moves along weightlessly, fleet-footed yet penetrating, disturbing but empathetic, never bogged down in useless detail or dialogue, everything in its right place. The climax is in another unlit cavern in a modern American city, where everything meets one final time, where "eternity happened all at once, backwards and forward."

Reviews found online range from "masterpiece" to "meh," but I can tell from some of those "meh"s that the readers were expecting a giant feast of guttural horror—which Koko surely is not. Two volumes follow in a very loose trilogy: Mystery (1990) and The Throat (1993), and I know little about either, but I've added them to my must-read list. Koko might not be a perfect novel—perhaps its sights are sometimes beyond its reach—which is not even something that needs to be said, but for the adventurous horror fan who doesn't mind the occasional foray into non-supernatural madness, a huge armored tank of a book that looks into one of America's darker eras... Koko is singing a song you'll want to hear.

Couldn't believe Straub himself retweeted me...!