Monday, May 31, 2010

Finishing Touches by Thomas Tessier (1986): One Last Caress

I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours. That clever little line from an old Bob Dylan song sounds innocuous and playful but in Thomas Tessier's Finishing Touches, it takes on a dreadful enormity. American Thomas Sutherland, just out of medical school, alone and visiting London for six months before deciding what the rest of his life will be, casually meets an older, odd little cosmetic surgeon drinking alone in a pub. Roger Nordhagen invites him out for nights of carousing in which Sutherland gets to see a London of elite establishments, the likes of which tourists never see.

One such place fulfills dark fantasies, a playpen for the pampered few. But these dark fantasies will pale and recede once Sutherland meets Nordhagen's assistant, Lina Ravachol. All alabaster features and raven-black hair, confidence and mystery, she soon has Sutherland willingly in her thrall. He is astonished that she desires him sexually, and their acrobatic, fantasy-driven trysts make him forget all about his past American life.

1986 Atheneum hardcover

And once Lina and Sutherland have forged an unimpeachable bond in a moment of orchestrated horror, Nordhagen can reveal himself as a minor Marquis de Sade. Espousing a philosophy of cruelty, its necessity and ineluctability, the good doctor now shows Sutherland his life's work, deep beneath his London offices, his medical talents have reached their fullest potential. And it is obvious he wishes the young American to continue his mad work after his death from drink. Sutherland dares to ask, why?

"Why, why, why." Nordhagen's face brightened with interest. "You might as well ask why the Mayan civilization collapsed, why Kennedy rode in an open limousine in Dallas, why we came down out of the trees. What is why? There is no why; there is only now, and this, this now."

Tessier has written a book both disturbingly grotesque and powerfully erotic. Finishing Touches (originally published in paperback by Pocket Books in 1987, with cover art by Peter Caras) fortunately back in print) is told in first person in a clear strong voice by a man who slowly comes to face the fact that he can plumb depths of moral insanity and remain psychologically intact (There was a malignancy in me I could not explain away) and even thrive.

This is a great horror novel, filled out with touches of London life, an exploration of men and women and the madnesses and fantasies they can succumb to and embrace, and even, perhaps facing extinction, use to forge meaning in the teeth of raw dumb nature. And even at the end Tom and Lina (whose namesake she seems to aspire to) desire to be a part of that nature, instead of trying to steer it ourselves, we would have to learn to let it go its own way. Death and terror will follow, like leaves falling out of trees.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley (1980): Faces of a Million Hells

I don't think I'm overstating when I say that Dark Forces was the most important anthology of short horror fiction of its day. Editor Kirby McCauley went far afield with familiar horror/fantasy/SF names like Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Ramsey Campbell, and Robert Bloch, to contemporary literary writers Isaac Bashevis Singer and Joyce Carol Oates, to then-new folks like T.E.D. Klein, Dennis Etchison,and Lisa Tuttle. This tasteful bit of editing revealed a breadth and depth to horror fiction that hadn't really been seen before; stylistically the tales are pleasingly all over the place and therefore still a must for the horror fiction fan. Somehow I missed out on it during my days of reading nothing but horror. It's now out of print but widely and cheaply available in a not-too-fancy hardcover and several paperback editions.

This was when horror started to try to gain respectability as a literary force; Kirby McCauley was King's editor and ambitious novels by folks like Peter Straub were bestsellers at the time. Certainly including Oates and Singer, two highly-lauded writers of mainstream literary fiction, didn't hurt. While Oates's contribution, "The Bingo Master," is well-written and has odd moments, Singer's "The Enemy" operates in that dreamtime of myth and fable, like an old Jewish legend that speaks of the timeless evil nature of man. Bloch's "The Night Before Christmas" is a snappy tale of vengeance complete with the type of pleasantly groan-inducing pun he's known for. Gene Wolfe, Davis Grubb, Robert Aickman, and Manly Wade Wellman contribute oblique, darkly fantastical tales that are powerfully imagined, original, and genre-broadening. Two of my favorites were Lisa Tuttle's "Where the Stones Grow" and Karl Edward Wagner's "Where the Summer Ends." I could go on and on about these stories, and still have a handful left to read.

UK paperback

The cornerstone here is, of course, Stephen King's novella "The Mist," which appeared, slightly changed in the final sentences (which do nothing to the plot), in his Skeleton Crew (1985). The morning after a violent thunderstorm, a glowing wall of white mist creeps across and envelopes a rural Maine town. There are things in the mist. Things from a madman's prehistoric nightmare. Like a classic Twilight Zone episode it forces common people to bond against an uncommon enemy. As the lead story, its famously ambiguous ending seems to affect the rest of the stories in Dark Forces, as if tendrils of that mist drifted throughout them.

King's humble, near-utilitarian prose, vividly-drawn characters, and first-person narration bring a flat believability to the events. While King has described it as little more than '50s-style low budget monster movie, the futility of virtually every action the characters take casts a pall of hopelessness and despair over the proceedings. It was probably 1986 when I first read "The Mist" and it has never ever left me; I can recall sitting in boring high-school classes, staring out the window and trying to will that mist across the streets of my hometown. Horrible, I know, but man, "The Mist" got in there early and it got in there deep.

As for the paperback cover at the top (Bantam Dec 1981), I assume that the mesmerized woman is gazing off into that mist, although if she is expecting any sort of transcendence or transformation, she is going to be sorely disappointed. Snipped in half or burnt by acid or eaten alive, too. So, you know, look out, lady.

25th anniversary limited edition from Lonely Road Books

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dark Dreamers, edited by Stanley Wiater (1990): First You Dream, Then You Die

Although this is the first nonfiction book I've written about here, it's absolutely appropriate: Dark Dreamers: Conversations with the Masters of Horror collects journalist Stanley Wiater's interviews with the very best horror writers of its day - and many of all time: Bloch, Matheson, King, Barker, Straub, Campbell, as well as (at the time) up-and-comers like Lansdale, Skipp & Spector, and Robert McCammon. While some of the writers covered do nothing for me (yes, there are a few), any behind-the-scenes info on the writing of horror and its attendant difficulties and rewards is fascinating.

Clive Barker lays out his ambition to write horror fiction that confronts and confounds; Richard Matheson realizes you can never escape the horror label; Richard Laymon admits he tempers his fondness for gore to get mainstream publications; Charles L. Grant reveals his wish to make a Val Lewton-type movie; Gary Brandner intimates the real horror hell is Hollywood; James Herbert lets it be known he was a horror writer from birth; Les Daniels speaks of the dream which gave him his idea for his historical vampire novels; Steve King and Peter Straub team up to talk of the perception of horror fiction in the mainstream literary world; and of course Whitley Strieber gotta talk about those damn aliens.

All that and more, Dark Dreamers is a wonderful exploration of the men (alas all, save for one Ms. Rice) who imagine the darkest, the bleakest, the blackest of worlds, so that we might see better in this one.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (1978): Damned Damned Damned

Where do you search for a guy who was never there to begin with?

Hard-boiled crime writers like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler were vastly influential on a whole range of 20th century literature, except, I think, horror fiction. With their post-Hemingway style of terseness and understatement they seem to be the antithesis of horror writing. While these authors got their start in the pulp magazines of the pre-WWII era just like H.P. Lovecraft, it's only been within the last 10 or 15 years that Lovecraft has been taken seriously by more mainstream academics, literary critics, and taste-makers, while those crime novelists have been lauded for decades.

But I don't think it was until Falling Angel (Fawcett Popular Library 1982 edition above) that the genres of hardboiled crime and horror met, thanks to author William Hjortsberg. He has said he came up with the idea when in high school, winning an award for a short story whose first lines were "Once upon a time, the devil hired a private detective." Brilliant.

Set in a wonderfully-depicted New York City 1959, Falling Angel is the story of hard-boozing private detective Harry Angel ("I always buy myself a drink after finding a body. It's an old family custom"), hired by the mysterious Mr. Cyphre to find the missing '40s crooner Johnny Favorite, a big band star very much like Sinatra. Horribly injured physically and psychologically while serving as an entertainer in the war, Johnny ends up in a VA hospital, but then disappears one night...

Inside 1979 UK paperback

Angel tracks down Johnny's former doctor, who then turns up dead; next Angel speaks to an old band member of Johnny's, "Toots" Sweet (but of course) who tells him Johnny was mixed up in voodoo and the black arts, can you dig it, and crossed ethnic barriers no one dared cross in the 1940s when he became the lover of a voodoo priestess. Toots ends up dead too. Horribly dead. You get the picture. Angel ends up involved with the priestess's daughter, Epiphany Proudfoot, a carnally-driven young woman who believes acrobatic sex is how we speak to the voodoo gods. Awesome.

1986 Warner Books

There's more; much more. Falling Angel is, in a word, spectacular. It's inventive while playing by the "rules" of detective fiction; it's appropriately bloody and violent; its unholy climax in an abandoned subway station is effectively unsettling and graphic. Hjortsberg knows his hard-boiled lingo and the New York of the time and makes it all believable. This is no humorous pastiche or parody; it's a stunning crime novel bled through with visceral horrors of the most personal and, in the end, damning kind.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Rats by James Herbert (1974): Down in the Tube Station at Midnight

Near the end of The Rats there is a government official who, forced to resign from his position as under-secretary of the Ministry of Health because of this whole, well, rat thing, appears back on the scene, beleaguered and harried, tieless, badly in need of a shave, but with an excited look in his eyes... giving way to a look of bitterness. His name is is the oh-so-British Foskins, and I suddenly realized that were The Rats a movie made when it was published, he would be played by Donald Pleasence.

1974 UK hardcover

Since James Herbert's debut horror novel is propelled by the same energy and pacing as a B-movie from the era, I now felt inspired to cast it. It's set mostly in the tower blocks and slums of London, early '70s. I can see the bad hair and enormous sideburns, the plaid slacks, black-framed glasses, ladies in stockings, miniskirts, and bunned-up hair. Harris, the young teacher in charge of a class of hooligans, who finally faces down the hordes of mutant rats, seemed to me Trevor Bannister, from "Are You Being Served?" His girlfriend Judy would no doubt be played by the loverly Jenny Agutter.

The rest of the book's characters are mostly interchangeable; men and women introduced with a lively little backstory, snapshots of post-war British life at various social levels - mostly lower to highlight the fault and ineptitude of government - and then mercilessly cut down by horrid ravenous vermin the size of dogs.

Herbert plunges into his novel without apology or surcease (or, as Stephen King put it in his 1981 horror memoir Danse Macabre, he "does not just write, he puts on his combat boots and goes out to assault the reader with horror") and the result is a really enjoyable piece of pulp horror fiction, barely 200 pages long. The various set-pieces of carnage - a primary school, the tube, a movie theater - are well-conceived and executed, filled with as much blood and bits of bodies and grue as he could get away with. The climax is a corker. And it all works. 

Introducing a new graphic sensibility in horror fiction (and which Herbert continued in his second novel The Fog, which I will be rereading soon), The Rats is a quick and a satisfying read, a slight guilty pleasure and, I'm happy to learn, the first in a horror-fiction trilogy. Cheers, mate!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

'Salem's Lot by Stephen King (1975): Because The Night Belongs to Us

To this day, Stephen King's second novel, 'Salem's Lot, is one of only two or three works of horror fiction that, upon first read, instilled in me a palpable sense of fear and trembling not simply for the characters but for myself as well. Over a quarter of a century later I can still feel the chilling vice that clamped around my scalp, recall how my stomach flared hot and sick and how the goose-flesh quickened along my arms, neck and shoulders, as if someone were behind me. I was up way too late on a school night, alone in my teenage room and I was afraid to look outside. But why would I want to look outside that late at night? In that I know I am not alone.

But I wonder, is that feeling even possible today? Is it because I was a not-so-experienced horror fiction reader at the time I read 'Salem's Lot? That I had yet to experience Lovecraft and Straub and Machen and Blackwood and Jackson and Leiber? Or was it that King so effortlessly wrote about simple fears of wrongness and malevolence in a common world that is perhaps inured to such things that I couldn't help but respond as if I myself were in danger? Honestly I don't even read horror (or watch horror films) to be scared anymore. Sometimes I wish I could recapture that feeling.

King has said this novel was his attempt at bringing Dracula - one of the few other books to physically frighten me, in the middle of 8th grade study hall - to the modern age, at imagining how this Old World villain would fit into a New World environment. Would the master vampire, in all his darkest wisdom, choose to arrive in New York City or Boston, or would he perhaps choose a quiet, near-forgotten rural town far from any outsider's concern? King felt the latter would provide the best cover and placed upon 'Salem's Lot the curse of the undead through cultivated Mr. Straker (I cannot see anyone else but James Mason in my head) who prepares the way (where have I heard that before?) for the dread Kurt Barlow, vampire king.

Their locus is the black and shuttered Marsten House, which overlooks (where have I heard that before?) the Lot; the distasteful and perhaps satanic owner of said house Mr. Barlow had illicit communications with decades before the novel begins. The town has its secrets, King informs us, but it keeps secrets even from itself:

They know that Hubie Marsten killed his wife, but they don't know what he made her do first, or how it was with them in that sun-sticky kitchen in the moments before he blew her head in, with the smell of honeysuckle hanging in the hot air like the gagging sweetness of an uncovered charnel pit. They don't know that she begged him to do it.

No sexy vamps or victims here

This was the first novel of King's in which he employed a rich panoply of everyday men and women, giving them believable backgrounds, interior lives, conflicting desires, and fears that finally make themselves manifest just past midnight. While no one would mistake King's depictions of such for those of an Updike, a Cheever, a Carver, his characters don't have the preciousness of those who populate more, ahem, lit'ry fiction. Ben Mears, the protagonist, is the first in a long line of King stand-ins, young writers obsessed with childhood fears who struggle to move past them. Mears grew up in the Lot, left it, and now after the accidental death of his wife and the nightmare of what happened to him inside the abandoned Marsten House have drawn him back again, he wonders aloud if it could be anything like Hill House in that famous book by Shirley Jackson. Oh it is, it is that and more. And worse.

First edition Signet paperback August 1976 - without King's name on cover
Art by James Plumeri

Although I've owned the hardcover of the book since high school, I found this '70s Signet paperback recently (at very top); I'd forgotten how simple it was. I like that you can barely see King's name on the cover (didn't even appear on the first Signet paperback printing), so obviously this edition was published before he was a name-brand author. The androgynous, angelic face looks like it's carved from stone, or maybe forged in iron; it reminds me of the Jacob Marley doorknocker from "A Christmas Carol." And blood so subtle, just a drop, just a drop to hint at the immortal terrors within, those terrors that millions know and have never forgotten, but they are terrors that sound strangely like a child laughing, laughing right outside your upstairs bedroom window, long after the sun has gone down on the final night of your life... or on the first night of your new one.

"And all around them, 
the bestiality of the night rises on tenebrous wings. 
The vampire's time has come."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cold Print by Ramsey Campbell (1985): Down on the Beach

I believe Cold Print was the first Ramsey Campbell book I bought, and I recall thinking it was a novel but it turned out it was a short story collection. No mention of this was made on the book itself because, as I've pointed out before, short story collections don't sell as well as novels even if it can be argued the genre is at its best in the short form. And Campbell truly shines (usually) as a short-story writer, and I feel I appreciate his style even more today. There does not seem to be a whole lot going on on the cover of this November 1987 edition from Tor Books, however, so I'm not sure just what drew me to the book. But I did, and do, like the J.K. Potter cover art; there is something faintly... crustacean about that face, is there not? Potter's weird collages graced many a horror paperback and limited-press hardcover in the 1980s. The first edition of Cold Print came from Scream/Press in 1985:

The book turned out to be mostly satisfying, as I recall; all the stories included are Campbell's (mostly) Lovecraftian tales. There are efforts from the '60s with the requisite "Noun preposition Place" ("The Church in High Street," "The Insects from Shaggai," "The Inhabitant of the Lake") and then later pieces from the '70s and '80s such as "The Face at Pine Dunes" (see? it's addicting), "The Tugging," and the masterful "The Voice of the Beach." In these we are treated to Campbell's penchant for intertwining intimate stories of drab workaday British life with his own style of cosmic horror. A few stories did leave me a little bewildered due to his sometimes well-known vague prose stylings. He also wrote a must-read intro about the incalculable influence Lovecraft had, and has, on him since he was 14 years old: "I read [Lovecraft's] book in a single malingering day off school; for a year or more I thought H.P. Lovecraft was not merely the greatest horror writer of all time, but was the greatest writer I had ever read."

But don't expect more octopoid gods with gibberish for names, strange batrachian races of semi-humans, or ancient tomes of unknown binding; what Campbell does in these dense, carefully-wrought stories is create an overwhelming mood of dis-ease and fetid decay, of perception widened and skewed just so, so that one suddenly and for only a moment becomes aware of that chitinous skittering of something like claws at the cosmic rim.

I dozed gratefully, for I felt more delirious, my head felt packed with grains of sand that gritted together; in fact the whole of me was made of sand. Of course it was true that I was was composed of particles, and I thought my delirium had found a metaphor for that. But the grains that floated through my vision were neither sand nor atoms. A member, dark and vague, was reaching for them. I struggled to awaken; I didn't want to distinguish its shape... for as the member sucked them into itself, engulfing them in a way that I refused to perceive, I saw that the grains were worlds and stars.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Perchance to Dream: The Short Fiction of Charles Beaumont

Another writer sadly lost to time, Charles Beaumont (1929-1967) helped cement one of the most distinctive pop-culture totems of the 20th century, TV's The Twilight Zone, bringing speculative fiction, whether horror, fantasy, or science fiction, to the mainstream. He wrote around two dozen of that show's episodes, third only to Richard Matheson and creator Rod Serling himself. He also wrote screenplays for Roger Corman, The Masque of the Red Death and The Haunted Palace, Poe and Lovecraft adaptations, respectively.

Beaumont's one of those "writer's writers" who are so fondly recalled as a major influence by the likes of Matheson, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Dan Simmons, Dean Koontz, John Shirley, et. al., but little-read among genre fans today. He died tragically young and there are no widely-available, mass-produced editions of any of his works readily available.

I found these editions of Night Ride (1960) and The Hunger (1959) on eBay recently, and was fortunate enough to get them cheap, maybe $5 apiece and in very good shape for paperbacks five decades old. Haven't read nearly all the stories contained as there are three dozen between the two collections; many were originally published in Playboy or Esquire and some Beaumont adapted himself for Twilight Zone episodes, classics like "Perchance to Dream," "Shadow Play," and "The Howling Man." The last story is one of his most famous; the Tor collection The Howling Man from 1992 is very highly sought after these days... would that I had picked it up when I used to see it on used bookstore shelves in the mid 1990s.

His technical skill and humanity, conciseness and clever imagination shine forth in the handful I have read, reminding me a bit of Bradbury's works from the same era. But Beaumont has a cool sophistication too; not for nothing did many of his tales appear in Playboy - particularly the stunning story of love and jazz "The Black Country," as well as "The Crooked Man," a positive depiction of homosexuality - in the '50s. Beaumont's influence on the horror genre is undeniable; although the tales might not quite be the "violent entertainments" that The Hunger promises - a charming conceit back then, now rather tame today - and they might not really appeal to many modern horror fiction readers, their concerns and conflicts, and of course twist climaxes, are still effective and surprising. Charles Beaumont is simply a must-read writer for the true horror fiction fan.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Cipher by Kathe Koja (1991): Your Place in Oblivion is Secure

I still don't think there's been anything in horror quite like Kathe Koja's debut novel, The Cipher (Feb 1991, Dell/Abyss). These days she writes only young-adult fiction, but close to 20 years ago she was, as far as I was concerned at the time, the absolute cutting edge of horror. The Cipher won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel (shared with Melanie Tem's excellent Prodigal), and it also launched Dell Publishing's Abyss line of innovative horror fiction. As their mission statement went, printed on the inner flap of each of its titles, Dell/Abyss dispensed with "haunted houses, evil children and Indian burial grounds." They wanted to present a new breed of horror novel, one that tried to get at a more real, more human, more, if you will, illuminating darkness. Very much a reaction against the bestseller coziness of King, Koontz, Saul, and V.C. Andrews, Abyss published (mostly) unknown young writers who were literate, underground, cool, and defiantly horror.

Well, Dell/Abyss couldn't have picked a more perfect work to kick off a new darker, artier style of horror fiction than The Cipher. The cover image (by illustrator Marshall Arisman) is reminiscent of Francis Bacon, and Koja's clipped, unpolished, impressionistic prose evokes surrealist, avant-garde icons like William S. Burroughs or J.G. Ballard. All of this sets a jittery, jagged tone of bleakness and rot. Her 20-something characters are poverty-gagged "artists" who exist in that demimonde of shitty jobs, squalid art galleries, and thrift stores; her settings are run-down studios, flat-beer bars, and dingy urban streets choked with black snow. Long way from Castle Rock, Dunwich, or Stepford, that's for sure.

The Cipher is about literally that. Nicholas and Nakota, an unloving, dysfunctional young couple, find, in a disused storage closet of Nicholas's decrepit apartment building, a hole in the floor. A hole. Into nothing. And maybe it is nothing.

Black. Not darkness, not the absence of light but living black. Maybe a foot in diameter, maybe a little more. Pure black and the sense of pulsation, especially when you looked at it too closely, the sense of something not living but alive, not even something but some - process. Rabbithole, some strange motherfucking wonderland, you bet...

They dub it "the Funhole" (Koja's original title for the novel) but it is anything but fun; it is a locus of obsession and transformation. Nakota, conniving, manipulative, angular, and demanding, constantly pressures Nicholas to fuck with the Funhole, to test their limits. First, a jar of insects goes down into it; then a mouse. All come back monstrously deformed and mostly dead. Finally they lower down a camcorder (a funny dated bit is how difficult it is for them to actually get a camcorder) and when they watch the recording they see something like bloody stalks, caressing the screen like hands behind the glass, a figure carving itself...

And this home movie that Nakota can't stop watching ("You're watching that like porno"), and Nicholas accidentally gets his hand in there, and now there's a weeping seeping cipher in his hand, and his empty, aimless life is going down, down, down... Until the local art-world poseurs get wind of something strange going on through Nakota, and start haranguing Nicholas to show them what he's doing, what's he got in there, can we see too? They all find out, because the Funhole is calling him from its deeps, not music but the elegant drone of bodily organs...

If anything the only real flaw in Koja's book is that it is too relentlessly bleak, too scummy, too hopeless; characters bicker and bite, sex is a joyless spasm, Nicholas an alienated, near-unsympathetic loser and Nakota a bitch without the goddess. But the cipher hungers for lives, no matter how derelict, and in a way the ending is foretold. What if somehow I'm crawling blind and headfirst into my own sick heart, the void made manifest?

Dell reprint 1996

I loved this kind of existentialism 101 when I was 20 but now, with a larger literary emotional palette, rereading it (a third time!) I found it somewhat one-note. Maybe that's the point; it's oddly like a movie that was adapted from a one-set play in its insularity. No matter. There is a powerful originality in The Cipher that one usually doesn't find in paperback horror fiction; a fearlessness too as the novel operates, single-mindedly, in that metaphoric realm in which the monster always and only represents ourselves.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Slugs by Shaun Hutson (1982): It's Not Good Bad, It's Just Stupid

I can't imagine a blog devoted to horror fiction paperbacks not featuring the ludicrously gory and tasteless novels of Shaun Hutson, a notorious figure in British horror since the early 1980s. Slugs, his first, is still probably his most infamous "work," as it operates in the lowest common denominator hell of cheesy, grossout horror. Exploiting our revulsion at certain members of the animal kingdom - always a safe bet in the genre with a long and illustrious history (particularly in film) going back to Them!, Jaws, and even Alien. And once James Herbert published The Rats in 1974, we would never again be free from the horrors of nature, no matter how poorly written or conceived.

Leisure Books' 1987 edition cover art, by John "Not That John Holmes" Holmes, at top is gloriously idiotic: somehow this poor fella has been stripped of everything but his skeleton - skeletons again - even his central nervous system, even his brain by the looks of one slug creeping out his skull - and yet he's still grimacing in what looks like gut-wrenching pain. I guess I shouldn't be looking for CSI-level of accuracy on horror paperbacks; I mean, the last book I posted on had a skeleton driving a car, for God's sake. Skulls are one thing, I suppose, but any more than that risks absurdity. And it's from Leisure Books, surely the bottom of the barrel for horror fiction.

Honestly, Hutson's is the kind of low-rent horror writing that I've learned to avoid over the years. "Tell, don't show" is his maxim; anything that isn't 100% obvious to a remedial reader is jettisoned. Slugs "enjoy the taste of warm blood" over and over again. Sometimes Hutson writes "gastropod" instead of "slug." Dialogue between a husband and wife sounds like a coffee commercial. Characters are introduced, given a quick back-story, and then dispatched with martial efficiency and maximum grossness. The novel's last sentence is a rote twist that lacks imagination or care and can be guessed before you finish reading the books title. Oh, there is a teenage couple who get et listening to Iron Maiden, so that's something, at least.

Certainly people can mindlessly enjoy Hutson's energy and glee, understanding it's bad when they begin reading, approaching it like a big-bug movie from the 1950s or a SyFy one today except a whole lot grosser (I will give Hutson a couple pulp points for his boundless enthusiasm in coming up with unique scenarios of disgust), but this kind of horror is just not for me. That's why I'm only reading this now, over 20 years since I first started seeing copies of Slugs turn up in that used bookstore I worked at. I found it last week at a local bookstore and buying it made me recall those days when you had to buy porno mags in an actual shop. Ugh, the embarrassment! And it probably won't be the last time--I've still got a couple Hutsons on my shelf.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Resurrection Dreams by Richard Laymon (1989): Rockin' Bones

Now we get into the realm of the truly ridiculous horror fiction cover art. Let's parse this one a sec, shall we? Where do we begin? There is a skeleton driving a car. Not a rotting, pustulant, zombified corpse driving a vintage badass hot rod, but a simple, goofy, grinning Halloween-y skeleton, bared phalanxes at a sharp 10 and 2, careering off in a late-model sedan from what looks like a bordello of fellow active skeletons. And one of those skeletons has hair, quite feminine hair. Do you see the woman in the window? Second floor, middle. Ooh-la-la! Also, a skeleton pondering a noose and one swinging an ax. Huh. Skeletons are not scary; they're silly. And what about ol' mom jeans giving our skeletal pal the once-over twice? I do believe the fates have something in store for these two, putting them on a cover of a fairly lame '80s horror novel like Resurrection Dreams, Richard Laymon's agreeable but ultimately underwhelming and underwritten 1989 novel.

Laymon, who died in 2001, has had most if not all of his old novels republished in mass market paperback editions due to his growing posthumous cult status in the field. I do not belong to this cult. He was the type of author I avoided in my horror-reading heyday of the late '80s and early '90s and this book confirms my suspicions: I was seriously judging his books by their covers and the only story I'd read of his, "Mess Hall" in Book of the Dead, seemed to me an artless mess of sexual violence and gore.

Evoking the film version of Lovecraft's Re-Animator, with a madman trying to resurrect dead bodies, Dreams is hackwork of the most inoffensive kind. Melvin Dodds is the high school nerd (you can tell that by his name) who, in a completely unbelievable moment just a few pages in, shocks the town with a horrifying experiment he displays at the school's science fair: trying to resurrect the body (with jumper cables!) of a popular female classmate, recently killed in a drunk driving accident. He ends up locked away in a mental hospital for 20 years; after he's released he heads back into town and operates a gas station. One of his former classmates, now Dr. Vicki Chandler, returns, and Melvin realizes he's loved her all along. The resurrection techniques he began in high school are now perfected, and if Vicki won't love him willingly, well....

I am certainly a fan of ladies resurrected from the dead and the unholy passion that will thus occur, but Laymon really misses out on a chance to explore this taboo. There are a couple rom-com moments when Melvin realizes he's in a relationship with a zombie woman, Patricia, his first victim, rather than the woman of his dreams; Laymon is too poor of a writer and scenarist to make something out of this. Resurrection Dreams is ham-fisted and obvious, gory in the dullest manner, lacking the wit or passion or intensity that could have made his somewhat intriguing premise memorable. Let's just turn off the lights and close the door, shall we, and never speak of this again.