Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The Accursed by Paul Boorstin (1977): Coils of the Serpent Unwind

Snake-handling, a bizarre cult behavior formed from several lines in the Bible, is ripe for horrific exploitation. While I was working in a Southern indie bookstore in the mid-Nineties we sold lots of copies of Salvation on Sand Mountain, a nonfiction account of the phenomenon. Eighties horror giant John Farris wrote a harrowing scene of it in his book Wildwood. Earlier, in 1976, noted grit-lit groundbreaker Harry Crews gave adventurous readers A Feast of Snakes, a grimy, raucous, raunchy bit of violent Southern Gothic grue with a literary air. I mean, dig this cover art:

And who can forget that great line from the Scorsese version of Cape Fear, with deranged De Niro snarling, "Granddaddy used to handle snakes in church, granny drank strychnine"? I haven't seen that flick since the grunge era and yet have never forgotten it. I was reminded of it recently when I picked up a book that's long taken up residence on my bookshelves, The Accursed, a slim novel published by Signet in November 1977. With a perfectly-rendered cover of innocence and evil, reduced to their most primeval, Paul Boorstin's first novel is one of the many titles Signet put out that feature animals run amok. This time, the animals are snakes of various deadly varieties, all part of the worshipful country cult ceremonies held by one Preacher Varek. [He] seized a hissing Indian cobra, the scaly coils writhing in his grasp, its forked tongue, sophisticated  sensor both taste and smell, flicking, bringing minute chemical particles back to be analyzed in the Jacobsen's organ above its jaws.

At the edge of Desperation Swamp in Clay-Ashland County, South Carolina, sits Thornwald Memorial Hospital, a time-worn edifice showing its age in the sweltering clime of mid-July. Run by a power-hungry administrator with no medical degree and rotating crew of indifferent, autocratic, and/or horny employees, the hospital is hardly a place one would want to spend any time in, much less perform as a doctor or recuperate as a patient. Unfortunately for Dr. Adam Corbett, a man of character and do-goodery vibes, perform here he must, and when he learns that the newborn baby of poor swamp denizen Mary Ann Cotter is suddenly and inexplicably dead, a baby he elivered, he is not convinced of the coroner's explanation of crib death: Adam would have to tread lightly or lose his job.

There's no doubt what's going on: dangerous serpents are about in the dark hidden places of Thornwald Memorial; just like in the movies of the era, we've encountered the creature from the outset, and now all we can do is watch/read in suspense as our cast of characters slowly come to the ultimate realization. The perplexing noises of Clay-Ashland County after dark were enough to convince anyone that man was not the source of all evil, that there were other more sinister forces at work in the universe, powers all the more terrifying because they were unknown, removed from the familiar, even endearing sins and vices of humanity.


Early on, we learn that this crumbling hospital was built on the site of a Confederate infirmary that, in 1863, was attacked and laid waste by Yankee soldiers, forever a place where bloodshed and black powder had poisoned that strip of land overlooking the swamp forever... the only thing the property was good for was a hospital or a graveyard, take your pick. More than once I was reminded of the late great Michael McDowell and his Avon paperbacks, and the Southern territory, both physical and psychological, that he would mine in a few short years. Author Boorstin certainly doesn't have the meanness, the mercilessness, the weird vivid characters, the deadly droll narrative of McDowell's works, but that's fine; Boorstin acquits himself well in these proceedings.

We're not here for finely-wrought characterization of human foible, we're here for monster mayhem, and Boorstin has the skills for just that, getting right at the skin-crawling repulsion that coiling serpents engender in us: Man's world seemed a simple matter of neat geometry, straights lines precisely drawn to meet at sensible right angles. But this cold-blooded hunter curved, twisted, a devious, sinewy, supple being eluding rational explanations.

The paperback's bio page states that he was inspired to write The Accursed while "filming in the Amazon interior" and spending time in the hot South Carolina sun. Boorstin's experience is wide-ranging, a professional documentary filmmaker/producer and TV screenwriter; his father was American historian and author Daniel J. Boorstin. His next novel, Savage (which I own but have not read), also happens to feature some fantastic cover art:

The Accursed especially snaps to life when Preacher Varek, a giant of a man shrouded in black, [his] head shaved bald by a straight razor, is onstage. Suspense ratchets up when he comes into contact with Jean, Dr. Corbett's pregnant wife, rescuing her when her car gets stuck in the mire, and shames her for wanting to have, you know, her baby in a hospital with modern medicine and all. The preacher contradicted everything the young doctor stood for and Adam worried where Jean's naive belief in this swamp healer might lead.

Other unsavory characters abound, mostly snake fodder, and Boorstin isn't above the cheap thrills of the Seventies, like the sexy nurse who caresses herself—not too tacky now!—and meets an inspired "sex and death" end in a bubbly bathtub. Unhooking her bra with one hand, she rubbed the icy champagne bottle along her bare, sweaty breasts, beds of moisture condensing around the enlarged crests of her nipples. Or the poor burn victim bastard who tries to get an old nurse to read him dirty magazines, utterly immobilized, a free meal for a ferocious reptile. Maynard's eyes peered over the coils of his murderer, the orbs nearly popping out of their sockets from the pressure...

Yeah, I gotta say, Boorstin has written some truly tasty scenes of serpentian gore and horror. There are two climactic scenes of confrontation; the first is good, yes, but the second is a fuckin' ripper, and I could easily see the fake blood flying and the mechanical snake writhing and roiling in a cheap TV-hospital set. Her blood mingled with the serpent's, to drench her nightdress in gory impasto. 

Boorstin, 1980

Like the previous novel I read, The Night Creature, this book got better as it went on, doling out its suspense level in a workmanlike manner, crisscrossing plotlines, very much in a cinematic narrative. You're definitely getting you your dollar-ninety-five's worth of B-movie entertainment. Did Boorstin miss a few opportunities to imbue a little more, I dunno, gravitas here and there? Sure, I guess; there are several times when the author's voice rings out over the standard cliche melodramatic proceedings that you wish he'd have given this baby one more writerly polish. But even its more lackluster moments didn't last too long. Boorstin's adeptness at describing ophidian destruction makes The Accursed a satisfying pulpy read, and its inclusion on the very cover of Paperbacks from Hell is thus the perfect place for it.               

The intruder seemed to congeal out of the moist and heavy air, gliding stealthily,
almost as if knowing this was a place of such fragility that it must trespass with infinite care.
Thick as a fire hose, it slithered slowly from the air-conditioning vent: five, ten, fifteen feet long, and still extending, an uninvited guest so out of place in the room it hardly seemed possible the interloper was there at all...

Friday, May 17, 2024

The Night Creature by Brian N. Ball (1974): She Rides

All over the social media of bibliophiles you can see people who insist that they must finish any book they've started reading. Sometimes this dogged commitment comes off as bragging; more often, as a kind of desperation, a sad realization of a fault: the utter inability to not finish a book that is simply not grabbing you in the way you wanna be grabbed. Me, I've quit more books than I recall, and have my entire book-reading life, but ever since starting this blog I've tried harder to finish the horror novels I start. What if the best part of the book is the ending?! Let me tell you, book lover—and I'm probably not telling you anything you didn't already know—that is rarely the case.

Fortunately it is the case for this 1974 novel The Night Creature (published in the UK as The Venomous Serpent), by British scribe Brian (N.) Ball. For several weeks I meandered through the first two-thirds of it. Not because it was bad, or uninteresting; Ball, a prolific writer of SF, is a capable author, if kinda dry (it's told in first person, a style I've found myself losing interest in over the years). No, I just found it all rather tame and indistinct; for every little aspect that made me perk up, I'd have another several pages of, sure, okay, whatever. The book would sit on my nightstand for days untouched, till last week. Dammit, I can finish this guy! Spurred on by a few positive reviews on Goodreads, I sat down early one afternoon determined to get to the end. And I did! And boy was I glad!

Anyway. I found the hippie-ish young couple, Andy and Sally, enjoyable enough, picturing their artsy 18th century stone farmhouse Seventies-style charmed me, as did their making a living selling crafty antiques and landscape paintings in the touristy British countryside. Everything changes in their idyllic life when Sally comes home with a brass rubbing and... wait, what the fuck is a "brass rubbing"?! Turns out it's a chiefly British hobby, so it made sense, born and bred Yank that I am, that I had no idea what the dang thing was that starts all the trouble. Then I recalled I had seen the cover for the UK edition of the book, under its original title The Venomous Serpent; had, even posted it to this very blog a decade ago! Wonder of wonders.

One night Andy gets the fright of his life when the woman on the rubbing, as well as her dog, seem to come to life when the moonlight filtering in through the high barn windows illuminates it. Ball does a decent enough job describing the eerie escapade, which happens several times, each time more and more disturbing to the young man: I had never known the condition which we call "terror" before. It's something far beyond fear, for it's unreasoning.

(oddly, incorrect names of people on the rubbing on back of NEL edition)

And thus follows standard procedure: Andy convincing Sally what he's seen, a visit to the ruined church where Sally first made the rubbing, learning the local lore of the people in said rubbing, intimidating locals warning them off the church property, cranky coppers (I was fool enough to call on our local policeman), and one truly old eccentric priest Andy tries to enlist in his aid when Sally disappears one day. The lady Andy seeks is one of the blood-drinking living dead: Undead, blood-crazed, monstrous thing from the tomb she might be, there was no doubting her beauty. Can he rescue Sally in time from the Lady Sybil?

Not unlike a contemporaneous Hammer horror film, The Night Creature is a mere wisp of a book at barely 150 pages. It truly does ramp up suspense and interest in the last third, so by the end, the tale has found that sweet spot, the one I personally truly adore and crave, and nuzzles there, suckling and secure.

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 was basically a Barnes and Noble (who eventually bought, rearranged, and then closed down the store), 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.