Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A Month of Black Sabbaths: The Horror Paperbacks of Daniel Rhodes

Not much to catch the eye in this classy cover art for Next, After Lucifer (July 1988), but the critical blurbs seem to be impressed! One of those authors about whom I never knew anything but whose paperbacks have been plentiful in used bookstores for years, Daniel Rhodes had two more titles published in the late Eighties through Tor's prolific horror line, Adversary and Kiss of Death, from 1989 and 1990 respectively. In the United Kingdom they were put out by New English Library—adorned with much better cover art—complete with Graham Masterton singing the praises.
 
Looking into the author, turns out Rhodes is a pen name of thriller author Neil McMahon, who is still hard at work today. I was pleasantly surprised to find Next, After Lucifer to be written in a style not usually found in horror paperbacks, elevated and inspired by the stories of M.R. James—the novel is dedicated to the writer—but with requisite updating (drug use, illicit sex). Actually, it was published in hardcover by St. Martin's Press, which might explain the higher quality prose and all-around cultured nature of the tale within.
 
Anyway, there's an ancient evil in a quaint French town where American medieval studies scholar John McTell and his indifferent newlywed wife Linden are taking a sabbatical. It's Templar Knight Guilhem de Courdeval from the 14th century, burned at the stake for sorcery and various occult antics, whose spirit is trying to invade McTell, thanks to McTell stumbling across the knight's grimoire in castle ruins in the hills. Come on, dude, you're a medieval studies prof, you know waaay better than to mess with that stuff.

Rhodes is a literate and careful writer, and I was impressed by the depiction of local color, an indulgent priest, the villagers, and especially the snobby, drunken antics of Linden's sister, husband, and a Eurotrash hanger-on who crash the McTells' getaway and liven up the proceedings. It's quiet, allusive, historical horror here all the way, which was fine, a couple gory touches, but I definitely felt it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, or maybe I just mean it needed more oomph in narrative, dramatic tension. Plus there's a sequel I didn't know about, Adversary, so that means the climax is a touch half-hearted. Worth a read, worth adding to your collection, but remember to watch out for grimoires that write themselves...
 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

RIP Rowena Morrill (1944 - 2021)

Illustrator extraordinaire Rowena Morrill has died at age 76 after a long illness, according to Locus. I was just thinking of her too as only several days ago I purchased a copy of 1978's Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories, solely for her stunning cover art. It arrived on my doorstep earlier this past week (with more scuffing than I'd expected from a seller description of "F/NF" but oh well that's not what I'm here for today). I just love the "roll call" of Draculas, male and female alike! Pretty spectacular work, in every respect.

Many of my favorite horror paperback covers were painted by Morrill, regardless of whether I liked or even read the novel adorned. My personal taste runs to her horror work, obviously, like her stunning debut, 1978’s Jove paperback original Isobel:
 
 
Way to make an entrance! More late Seventies horror art came in the form of two Jove Lovecrafts and the haunting lesbian love story Burning
 
In the late Eighties she produced perhaps her most iconic horror covers, for the Pocket editions of Robert McCammon's novels. These editions are emblematic of that entire era of horror fiction, and truly belong on any collector's shelf:

Most of her work looked to me as if she'd actually read the stories she was illustrating, which is not always something artists had time to do, I'm sure. These two covers for Frank Belknap Long and George R.R. Martin classics are good examples:

 
Happily Rowena Morrill was lauded and well-thought of for her entire career, and did not, like so many other artists, languish in obscurity. I can’t count how many science fiction, fantasy, or horror books her work has graced over the decades, but the genres are all the better for it. For a good obit, with plenty of background, visit here.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Omen and Prophecy Author David Seltzer Born on This Date, 1940

 
Two of the most ubiquitous horror paperbacks of the Seventies were novelizations of movies, The Omen (Signet/July 1976) and Prophecy (Ballantine/February 1979). For decades virtually any and every used bookstore, thrift store, junk shop, flea market stall, or moldering cardboard box on a street corner marked "Free!" from here to eternity would almost certainly have scuffed-up copies of these little guys, each with its distinctive, nearly iconic title typefaces.

So numerous were they in used bookstores and so notoriously slow to sell after the movies had lost their "now" factor, booksellers should have been paying the customer to take them off their hands. Today copies should not cost book buyers more than a couple bucks, unless said copies are minty-fresh first prints. My copy of Omen that you see is like a 35th printing! My Prophecy is—ha, just checked it, a first print, actually.

 
Seltzer in 1976

Two bestselling books written by one guy, writer and filmmaker David Seltzer, who turned his own modern horror screenplays into bestselling novels and watched the royalties roll in. The Omen single-handedly introduced the concepts of "666" and "the number of the Beast" to people who hadn't been raised in a Christian fundamentalist home—Seltzer himself says he'd never even opened a bible until a producer asked him to come up with an Exorcist-type script. Prophecy traded in then-newly au courant environmentalism and indigenous people exploitation. Both movies have their horrific pleasures, but I recall little of my reading of these books sometime in middle school.

Seltzer, who early in his career had worked with Jacques Cousteau on his marine documentaries and supplied the original Willy Wonka movie with songs, subplot, and its final lines, was a pioneer in the concept of the novelization. Erich "Love Story" Segal had sold megamillions of his script-into-book in 1970, and after Seltzer had seen The Omen in production—the decapitation scene finally convinced him he’d written something truly shocking and special—he quickly wrote the novelization from his own screenplay. It was on bookshelves only weeks prior to the movie's debut. An immediate bestseller, the paperback's success caused film companies to devote entire divisions to the production of novelized screenplays, which have been standard ever since.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Sudden Dead, Sudden Life

Fifty pages in, and despite my reluctance to give up on books, I had to bail on the 1980 psychic thriller Platforms, by New York-born novelist John R. Maxim. Despite the author’s well-written, thoughtful approach to matters both supernatural and not, his characters of education, intelligence, and taste, and sharp observations on marital discord and class envy, the novel is not for me. I have never been overly excited encountering psychic phenomena in horror, and only in small doses do I tolerate it. An entire story based around dead people speaking from beyond the grave about the various “levels” of the afterlife—“platforms” I’m presuming—really leaves me cold. 

However, its paperback covers offer immediate pleasures for the horror art connoisseur, so let’s just be thankful for that. The uncredited illustration for the 1982 Pocket edition (at top) might be by Lisa Falkenstern, or perhaps Don Ivan Punchatz, depicting business attire-clad commuters sucked into a vortex, is a personal favorite; really great conception and execution of the ominous brick-wall face. 

Reprinted for Tor's horror line in 1987, with J.K. Potter art, the book now boasts an eerie tableau of ghostly figures in the artist’s signature photorealistic style. Lastly we have a knockout French edition from 1989, by French artist Matthieu Blanchin. Dig those dark circles around the woman’s eyes—super unsettling! Blanchin did stellar horror covers for the J’ai Lu Épouvante line, most of which rival anything done by American counterparts of the era, I think you’ll agree...

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Manstopper by Douglas Borton (1988): If Dogs Run Free

 
Vintage "animal attack" horror novels run a gamut in quality, from the classic to the why bother, from the pretty good to the not bad, from the so bad-it's-good to I think it's just dumb-bad—not to mention the flat-out WTF! So where does my first read of the new year, a brief novel of killer dogs on the loose called Manstopper, by Douglas Borton, fit on the list? I'm going to say between "pretty good" and "not bad." Unexpectedly tough n’ gnarly, this 1988 paperback original from Onyx/New American Library pulls no punches, and is written with a clear eye for typical suspense/horror scenarios injected with high-test potency for maximum-impact canine carnage. 

"Douglas Borton" is a pseudonym of suspense author Michael Prescott—under which Manstopper has been reprinted today—and used for four other novels, also published by Onyx

Manstopper comes ripping out of the gate, telling us what killers these trained dogs are you're about to meet, the simplest  security system, and the most perfect. These babies cost upwards of two large, but for something that cannot be reasoned with or bribed or befriended or outwitted or evaded, you know these puppies gotta be worth it. And pity poor van driver Mike Tuttle, whose cargo is four of these finely-tuned slobbering attack machines. And if that's not bad enough, Mike has the ill-considered idea to pick up a hitchhiker on this cold October night. Then things go sideways, literally even, for driver Mike as the no-shit surprise of the hitchhiker pulls a knife on him and forces him off the highway down a dirt road... The monsters now are loose: It was the morning of Tuesday, October 21, and though Sea Cove, New Jersey didn't know it yet, Halloween was coming early this year.
 
Borton next introduces our cast of characters, in the usual paperback fashion. Alex Driscoll the small-town reporter; Ben Harper the small-town sheriff; Jessica "everybody calls me Jesse" Blair the small-town love interest; the Gaines family, their headstrong little girl and her beloved little dog Buster; a psycho killer now going by the name "Mike Tuttle"; and the mysterious Karl Masterson, the man with the tragic past who trained these animals to be the finest security available. Borton does a perfectly competent job of linking the characters, describing their lives and their work, and definitely at a bit more convincing level than many other paperback horror writers.
 
Less a horror novel, more a hard-edged thriller, Borton gets into the down-and-dirty with both fists, writing solid, if familiar, dog-attack scenes charged with adrenaline. Various characters are dispatched in stalk-and-kill set-ups that drip with dread. A woman defending her wounded husband and child offers an incredibly tense sequence, as well as a radio DJ working the overnight whose standard delivery order of a pizza-with-everything comes with an unexpected side of enraged, murderous Doberman. Called in to heel the cursed curs he trained, Masterson tells the authorities this won't be a simple task; these animals have been bred to survive at all costs: 
 
"[Razor] places a very high value on self-preservation. He would not fight a losing battle. Against overwhelming odds, he would the first to cut and run. Not out of cowardice, but cunning. And you couldn't stop him. His reflexes are quicker than yours—or mine."
 
Masterson talking about the deadly, finely-honed skills of his charges reminded me of First Blood relationship between Rambo and Colonel Trautman; as I said, most often the novel reads like a thriller with some typical horror moments scattered about. Not a bad thing, but not what I was expecting.

Sure, Manstopper hits bum notes, same as so many other Eighties genre paperbacks—I can do without the thought processes of horny teens, flirty grown-ups, and goggle-eyed children for the rest of my horror-reading life, while the psycho killer subplot is too conveniently slotted in to justify that "horror" tag on the spine—but provides other pleasures that offset those well-worn cliches. Borton excels at depicting animal mayhem, which is why you picked up the book in the first place, right? The chapters devoted to the dogs' point of view offer vivid, chilling glimpses of their bloodthirsty nature:  
 
He had been trained to leap and bark and slash... Cages and walls had no reality for him. The only reality was the throbbing sense of danger and the quiet, maniacal urge to destroy....

Thursday, December 24, 2020

RIP Guy N. Smith (1939 - 2020)

Prolific pulp-horror writer Guy N. Smith has passed at age 81, according to his website, from what looks to be COVID-19 complications. 2020 is just determined to squeeze out every last bit of misery from us, ugh. Maybe soothe yourself with even more Smith covers here and here. Be well, everybody.


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Dell Abyss Promo Materials, 1991-1993

Here's something I never expected to have in my horror collection: promotional materials from publisher Dell for their new imprint line of horror fiction, the (now-infamous) Abyss. What a treasure trove of archival artifacts! Big thanks go to Kathe Koja, author of the first book published in the line, The Cipher, from whom I purchased it some time ago. Yes, I've been meaning to post this stuff for ages! Really excited to share it with you guys...

In fact, early next year, it will be the 30th anniversary of Abyss (hell, remember when it was 20?). It was perhaps my favorite era in horror, since I had been delving deep into the genre for a few years but also wanted something modern, relevant, au courant, if you will. Having just turned 20, working in a used bookstore, in college, and reading, reading, reading, I was eager to sate my burgeoning intellectual curiosities with my favorite genre. Named for a famous Nietzsche quote and with the ambitious mission statement declaring "Abyss is for the seeker of truth, no matter how disturbing or twisted it may be. It's about people, and the darkness we all carry within," this new imprint fit the bill to perfection. I think I was their target audience precisely!


However I first heard of the line, either through Fangoria magazine or the wonderful catalogs from the Overlook Connection, I had The Cipher in my hands by spring '91 (although I believe I read it over the summer, after I'd read the second book published, Brian Hodge's "Miami Vice"-meets-Mr. Hyde mashup Nightlife). Revisiting those days is a delight. I really get such a horror fan thrill at peeking behind the curtain, seeing inside the publishing world and the marketing research that went into launching a new line of paperbacks. Book displays, postcards, bound book samples, publicity releases, and newsletters: this stuff speaks deeply to my archivist nature. 
 
 
Who can resist these Xeroxed pix of horror writers hanging out and signing books, giving background and insight on their novels, little personals deets and info nuggets and cut-out art and upcoming releases, all crammed in like a classic punk zine. I would have killed to have had access to this stuff back then.

 
In 1992 I went with my bookstore boss to a huge booksellers convention in Atlantic City, held in one of the casinos (I found the zombie-like hordes on the gambling floors disturbing). I was a little intimidated by the "business" of it, but I recall scoring some great swag, in particular a hardcover copy of Poppy Z. Brite's Lost Souls. I recall the person working the Dell table came over to me as I picked the book up, giving me the hard sell like "She's one of the hottest horror writers around right now, this is her first novel, and we're super excited about it!" I was like, "Man, I totally know who that is, I've been waiting for this!" Of course the person promptly insisted I take the book and tell my friends about it. I'm sure I did and I'm sure they didn't give a shit which is why I'm writing this blog for you lo these three decades later. So thank you and enjoy!