Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Scream by John Skipp & Craig Spector (1988): Satanic Panic

Novels about rock'n'roll are difficult to pull off. When authors invent artists and their songs and try to write about the music industry from an insider's point of view they're leaving themselves wide open for criticism from a whole different type of critic: the rock'n'roll nerd. Ironically, much of rock'n'roll is about being cool, not nerdy, and if an author can't get that attitude just right, it all comes off as smug and dorky rather than as admirable, aloof, and sexy - suddenly nerds are experts on cool. Splat-pack duo John Skipp and Craig Spector's magnum opus The Scream (Bantam, Feb 1988 - remember buying it on Easter Sunday that year!), about a truly and literally evil rock group, treads this oh-so-dangerous line. But in their intensity, their passion and their commitment to outright horror, S&S overplay their hand. They try a little too hard. The Scream isn't cool; it's loud, outrageous, enthusiastic, earnest, and often quite ugly. And yet, ironically again, that is about the actual definition of rock'n'roll.

Spector, Skipp, cautious passerby

Set against a nicely-drawn '80s backdrop of "moral majority" religious groups' outrage over "satanic" rock music and their attempts to censor it, The Scream offers up a huge cast of characters and relationships. Jake Hamer, a Vietnam vet, is now leader of a popular rock group; Jesse Malloy, girlfriend of Jake's guitarist, desperately trying to get an abortion; Pastor Furniss, the Falwell-esque religious leader out to bring down rock'n'roll; as well as band members and wives and exes and kids and groupies and bodyguards. And then there is the Scream, the mysterious titular band whose album The Critical Mass has kids coast-to-coast mad with rock-star obsession. But there's something more to them than just cocaine and limos and blown-out amps and a stage show that would put Live After Death-era Iron Maiden to shame, something dark and eternal, and a lead guitarist who admires the Marquis de Sade.

2001 hardcover reprint from Stealth Press

The Scream might be a bit overlong in its inter-connecting character arcs, the prose might be informal and sometimes painfully amateurish, but it has energy and drive and bloodshed to spare, and a positively Dantean climax. Not for nothing was this sub-sub-genre of '80s horror dubbed "splatterpunk." Its main characters are treated with some sympathy; its behind-the-scenes nuts-and-bolts have credibility; its Vietnam War flashbacks are effectively intense. In fact, parts of the novel made me think of a mashup between Oliver Stone's Platoon and The Doors, but with George Romero happily stepping in to direct scenes with the Screamers, the zombified, maniacal, and supernatural followers of the Scream:

The Screamer lay in a long skid mark of gore, twitching and flailing. His spinal column had been sheared away between the fourth and sixth vertebrae; his lower half dragged uselessly behind him, connected only by ruined tendrils of muscle and skin. The white fluted ends of his shattered spine jutted out into the cool night air... But the lunatic howl that spewed forth from his lips was somewhere between a laugh and a howl...

Over 20 years later, of course, all this is ripe for hipster humor; something like The Scream can be seen on Adult Swim now in the guise of Dethklok from "Metalocalypse" and their murderous and blood-drenched - yet hilarious - gorefest performances. But in the '80s, man, people were totally terrified by this heavy metal stuff, and I kind of miss that.

And I recommend looking for the first edition paperback because it comes with this totally bitchin' pull-out mini-poster (by Stan Watts) just like rock albums from days of yore. Done by an artist who actually read the book, too.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Delicate Dependency by Michael Talbot (1982): Collecting Madness

Book collecting - all collecting, I'm sure - is maddening. Take The Delicate Dependency, a paperback original vampire novel, by a late author more known for his pseudoscientific books than his horror fiction, Michael Talbot. Way back when, probably 1990 or so, I had this book in my hands at my old job in a used bookstore, thinking it was just another historical vampire Anne Rice clone by a nobody author, and shelved it along with a hundred other moldering and worn old horror paperbacks. Hell, I probably even took it home, read a page or two, and just brought it back to the store. And now a copy on eBay is going for - get this - $1,149 (it's at $500 as of November '10. And now in March '11 it's $90! Nope - as of September '11 it's at 50 bucks). Yup. One thousand one hundred and forty-nine dollars. That's more than even other perennial vintage paperback collectibles like Jim Thompson. On Amazon the cheapest copy is about $65 used.

It's not that I'm some vampire fiction completist or anything, but when you dangle a horror paperback novel like this in front of me and demand the cost of a nice new TV for it, well, I'm just more than determined to find a copy for, like, a dime. The guy on eBay has "Best Offer" on his listing. Think he'll take a buck for it? Two bucks, tops, that's as high as I'll go. Wish me luck.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Other (1971) and Harvest Home (1973): Two by Tom Tryon

Everybody loves summer reading, even if you're not a student or a teacher with the entire season free and clear. The heat makes you want to slow down and bask in the sun on a deck or at a pool or the beach, and paperback novels are an essential part of enjoying lazy summer days. Might I recommend two semi-forgotten bestsellers from yesteryear, by a one-time actor who turned to writing and became a well-known horror author in the days before Stephen King? While I'm not exactly sure how I came upon reading them, I fondly recall both of Thomas Tryon's early '70s novels, The Other and Harvest Home, as leisurely-paced and precisely written, slowly and surely captivating you as the settings are carefully drawn and characters, and readers, come to realize idyllic towns are always hiding some fucked-up thing or another. Ugh, it's always gotta be something.

The Other is set in a rural New England town in the 1930s, evoking both "The Waltons" and Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, with the young Perry twins, Niles and Holland, enjoying a carefree childhood. Except - well. I won't spoil it for you. Childhood is never quite "carefree" is it? Harvest Home takes place in a country village in Connecticut where a New York artist and his family relocate. The farmhouse they buy is ancient and charming, while the villagers in the town of Cornwall Coombe still hew to "the old ways." Which of course are always terrible, right? Right.

These were great summer reads when I was 17 or 18, quietly done chillers with subtle moments of breathless horror that I remember lo these many years later. The Other might still be in print as it's regarded as a minor classic in the field but I doubt Harvest Home is; I'm sure any good used bookstore will have some treasured old musty-smelling copies of them, their cool icy frights just the thing to help put the kibosh on the upcoming sweltering summer afternoons. I'm looking at a week of high-90s temps here after the first day of summer, so it might be time to dig my copies out for a revisit to the golden days of bestselling horror fiction...

Mr. Tryon and his '70s sideburns

Friday, June 18, 2010

Peter Benchley Paperbacks: The Legacy of Jaws Lives On

None of these quintessential '70s paperback bestsellers by Jaws author Peter Benchley could be classified as horror, but in the wake of the success of his first novel it's interesting to see how that single cover image dictated how his books would be marketed for pretty much his entire career. After my less-than-stellar experience reading Jaws, I have to say I have never read anything else by Benchley. According to Amazon, none of these titles are even in print any longer. Still, check out these awesome vintage covers and ponder their eerie if not down right ripoff similarity to Jaws.

The Deep (1976) is probably the most famous of Benchley's post Jaws works. I think it's about undersea treasure. It was made into a so-so '77 movie with Robert Shaw, Nick Nolte, and Jacqueline Bisset's nipples.

Love this cover for The Island (1979), a book I'm going to assume is about pirates who simply tattoo jolly rogers onto their hands so everybody knows who they are. Wasn't this made into a movie too? I really can't recall. Please, somebody Google.

And finally, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez (1982). Even almost 10 years later Benchley is being sold on Jaws, but I guess that's to be expected. I don't know anything about this except I recall my mom reading it when it came out and enjoying it a lot. According to Wikipedia it's more of a sea fable than a suspense novel and is widely regarded as Benchley's best work.

The paperback artwork on these is pretty cool, I really dig the deep blues of them all, the ocean surfaces that seem so placid and calming but that are about to be disrupted by unseen powers from below, and that ever-present word: JAWS. I have strong memories of these books on supermarket checkout racks and on my mom's nightstand as well as at the homes of various relatives throughout the late 1970s. Summertime trips were incomplete without an accompanying cheap paperback novel; what better way to cool off at the blistering beach than with one of Benchley's chilling tales of high-seas menace and adventure? Why you're still going to the beach during the late 1970s after Jaws, though, I have no idea.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb (1975): The Making of Jaws

June 20th, 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of the movie JAWS. This post is part of Radiation-Scarred Review's 2010 SHARKATHALON, which celebrates this milestone with blog posts around the web.

The Jaws Log, a paperback-original making-of detailing the famously tortured production of Jaws in 1974, came out just after the film hit theaters. Written by co-screenwriter and actor Carl Gottlieb (he's the reporter Meadows in the film), it's a great little book about the horrors and scattered joys of film-making, but it also is a bit of not-so-subtle hucksterism designed to sell the movie by using some carefully chosen words. Witness the back cover copy:

"The brilliant director who refused to compromise with authenticity!" "The jaws of danger and horror became all too real!" "The writer who saw his fiction turning into fact!" This sounds like Spielberg was ready to serve up his cast a smorgasbord. In fact, that's exactly what I thought when I spotted this book at neighborhood friend's house when I was about seven or eight. It was sitting on a kitchen counter and I was afraid to pick it up because of the gory shark's maw on the cover. Incredible.

Also scattered throughout are misleading photos of Bruce the mechanical shark identified as a real great white - purportedly to confuse moviegoers. Guess I can't blame Gottlieb or whoever was involved with writing text for the photos; in 1975 people weren't quite as savvy about great white sharks as they are today, what with Air Jaws and Shark Week and now Expedition Great White. People are so shark-jaded these days.

If you can't track down a vintage paperback copy of Jaws Log, it is fortunately back in print!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jaws: The Reader's Digest Illustrations (1974)

Ugh, Reader's Digest Condensed Books. I can't really imagine a more anti-book concept. Four seemingly random bestselling novels are "condensed" so that they can be stuffed into one volume so folks who don't care about reading can decorate their mustard-yellow and pea-soup-green living rooms. Everyone knew some family who "collected" them, could have been your own. It was always a depressing sight to walk into someone's home and see these books; these weren't people really interested in reading or collecting books per se. Reader's Digest Condensed Books were just another knick-knack taking up space on shelves.

They were one step up from junk mail and so were most of the authors published (do you remember such musty-crusty authors of yesteryear as Taylor Caldwell, Howard Fast, Conrad Victor, Victoria Holt, Helen MacInnes, or Morris West?). They devalue everything I, and countless others, love about books as objects. To me these things are exemplars of the horror of middle-brow American taste throughout a sizable chunk of the 20th century.

And then add the artistic crime of tampering with an author's intent for his work by removing anything that wouldn't upset the sensibility of your average viewer of "Hee Haw" or "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom," and you get the literary equivalent of Spam and Kraft Singles on white bread with mayonnaise and yellow mustard. Plus these things (along with National Geographic mags) were the bane of the used booksellers' existence; no one would buy them secondhand and I can only imagine the landfills they're choking up now.

All that said, aren't these illustrations (by Stanley Galli) for the 1974 Reader's Digest version of Jaws pretty cool? Yeah, I thought so too. I saw it once when I was a kid, was blown away by it, and I literally only found it again last week on eBay. So wonderful to see how the story was imagined before the movie.
For the literal-minded who still can't quite keep all those characters straight (why, Dostoevsky's publishers should have thought of this!):

A nerve-wracking scene in the novel in which nobody gets eaten; probably the inspiration for the two old guys who get the pier pulled out from under them when they try to bait the shark with a Sunday roast.

Poor Alex Kintner's mom. Here she looks the right age; in the movie she looks like his grandmother, right?

Hooper and Ellen Brody have a fling in the novel (she'd dated his older brother in college). At a dinner party, Brody watches warily but never catches on. Makes for some tension on the Orca later, as if hunting a 25-foot man-eating great white shark weren't aggravating enough.
Hooper never makes it back from his little shark-cage foray. He's pretty douchey in the book so nobody's really sorry to see him go. His last thought is something like, Oh my god, those jaws are going to reach me, but you won't find that line here.
And the climax. Awesome. Except Quint doesn't get eaten and the shark just sorta dies quietly. You can bet Quint's immortal line "I can see your cock, you bastard!" was tastefully deleted.

And finally: Brody finds the way to go home.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974): The Amity Island Horror

June 20th, 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of the movie JAWS. This post is part of Radiation-Scarred Review's week-long 2010 SHARKATHALON, which celebrates this pop culture milestone with blog posts around the web.

Simply: Peter Benchley's bestselling novel Jaws is not a good book. Robert Shaw, Quint in the movie and a playwright and novelist himself, famously called it "a piece of shit written by a committee." On his first reading of it, Spielberg said the characters were so unlikable that he was rooting for the shark. It's tepid and ridiculous, even restrained, with tawdry aspects of The Godfather and Peyton Place thrown in - themselves no great shakes as literature - and millions who saw the film first were probably vastly disappointed upon reading it. It was a huge bestseller a year before the movie came out but I can't believe anybody thought afterward, "Well, it wasn't as good as the book!" Virtually every single thing that makes the movie great is absent from the novel.

Original UK hardcover 1974 - fantastic!

1970s UK paperbacks

What is in the book that made it to the movie? The characters' names, the opening attack, the Kintner attack (he's even younger here), Quint's obsessive irascibility (but no USS Indianapolis), Matt Hooper's youthful enthusiasm (which comes across as douchebaggery in the novel), Vaughn's sleazy cowardice, and Brody's ambivalence about the sea. That's about it. I don't think there's one bit of dialogue that survives, although I love the bit when Hooper excitedly goes off on a tangent about megalodon:

"Can you imagine what a 100-foot white would look like? Can you imagine what it could do, what kind of power it would have?"
"I don't want to," said Brody.
"It would be like a locomotive with a mouth full of butcher knives."

God, "mouth full of butcher knives"! Hell yeah. Quint's line "I see your cock, you bastard!" when the shark leaps fully out of the water and exposes its claspers, man, I can totally see Shaw belting that one out. The reporter Meadows (Carl Gottlieb, co-screenwriter, in the movie) has a larger role which works believably; he's Brody's only ally in Amity. The way the shark - excuse me, the great fish, as Benchley under-whelmingly refers to it - dies is perhaps the lamest climax ever. Quint's death is also unspectacular, drowning when his foot catches in the barrel rope speared to the shark.

But at least the paperback edition did give us one of the most iconic pop culture images of all time - used first for the book, and then the movie poster - thanks to artist Roger Kastel. Also, I read Jaws - or at least skimmed through it looking for the shark attack scenes - when I was probably 10 or 11 and it was the first time I'd ever seen the word fuck in a book. Huh, I recall thinking, I thought the older kids in my neighborhood invented that one.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Jaws 2 by Hank Searls (1978): The Haunting of Amity Island

June 20th, 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of the movie JAWS. This post is part of Radiation-Scarred Review's 2010 SHARKATHALON, which celebrates this milestone with blog posts around the web.

Somewhere I'd gotten a hold of the Reader's Digest Condensed Books (ugh, what a concept) edition that included Jaws 2. It had these cool little illustrations - none of the shark, alas - and I must've read that thing a dozen times. It took me forever to figure out that Brody's son's name, Sean, was pronounced "Shawn" and not, of course, "Seen." But I was like 10, give me a break.

On vacation the summer of 2008 visiting my hometown, I found a copy of the original at the bookstore I used to work at, and read it pretty much in an afternoon with a rum and Coke (the only booze I could find in my mom's cupboards, left over from her Christmas fruitcake). What did I find, as an adult reader? Why, the book held up. Remarkably well. Hanks Searls' novelization is better than Peter Benchley's original 1974 novel, and better than the 1978 movie, which I feel is more of a teenage slasher flick.

Simply terrifuckingfying.

This "version" of Jaws 2 is rather moody in a believable way, and much more concerned with character conflict. In the fictional town of Amity, business is down and shops are closing up. Police Chief Martin Brody broods, and can't shake the nightmare, or the Trouble, as it's vaguely referred to around town. It's as if the original great white still haunts Amity, as if its ghost still glides silently through the darkened offshore waters. But it is no ghost. The titular great white is a female this time, over 30 feet long, gravid with rapacious young.

This novelization is based on an earlier draft of the screenplay than the one produced, and Searls is a much more competent and skillful writer than Benchley; he'd already written several novels that took place at sea and dealt with marine life. As for the cover art, the movie could never hope to replicate such a dramatic image (courtesy of legendary cover artist Lou Feck). But the attacks as Searls writes them are weirdly metaphysical and existential at the same time:

He had a vision of himself, as if from above, enveloped by a dark shadow from the sea. No thought of a shark entered his consciousness: he'd offended somewhere, this was the hand of God. Mangled and torn, he knew nothing else.

It's this fatalistic quality that gives Jaws 2 a grim verisimilitude the original novel only hinted at. Any serious Jaws fan should give it a try.

Before her, an invisible cone of fear swept the sea clean, from bottom to surface. For a full mile ahead the ocean was emptying of life. Seals, porpoises, whales, squid, all fled. All had sensors - electromagnetic, aural, vibratory - which were heralding her coming. As she passed, the Atlantic refilled in her wake. Man would have ignored such sensors, if he still had them.

She grew more ravenous with every mile that passed...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Bloodright by Peter Tremayne (1977): I Love the Nightlife

Dracula and vampires in general went through some re-mythologizing in the 1970s and early 1980s. Stephen King, Anne Rice, Suzy McKee Charnas, Fred Saberhagen, Michael Talbot, Les Daniels, Tanith Lee, and George R.R. Martin were all writing well-regarded vampire novels, Bram Stoker virtually forgotten. In movies you had Frank Langella and Klaus Kinski (my favorite Dracula of the era? George Hamilton). This title I was totally unfamiliar with. Here, on the cover of Peter Tremayne's Bloodright (titled Dracula Unborn in his native England) you can see him in the traditional opera-cape getup that dates back to Lugosi's theatrical performances on the 1920s, along with the Dracul family crest medallion on his chest. Very old-school. But check out the actual dude: with his thick wavy hair and chiseled features, he could have stepped from the pages of Playgirl or a daytime soap! I guess he's Dracula's son, going by the tagline. I love the swooning oh-so-'70s woman in her nightgown and its strap just so; on the spine of the book you can see she's clutching her diary. Was she professing her secret desires for Dracula, or simply writing her own vampire tale? If not, she's got one to tell now.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Orchard by Charles L. Grant (1986): It's Oh So Quiet

Whispering shadows. Footsteps in the forest. A voice from the darkness. Moonlight over a lonely town. A movement seen from the corner of the eye. A slowly spreading stain of red. Charles L. Grant championed these hallmarks of old-fashioned horror tales, even in spite of their simplicity, their overuse, indeed, their corniness, because he knew in the right hands such subtle details would build up to an overall mood of dis-ease and weirdness. Evoking fear of the unknown, not the revelation of a psychopath with an axe or a tentacled, Lovecraftian nightmare, is what a truly successful horror writer (or, for that matter, filmmaker) should do. Especially during the 1980s, when he published dozens of titles through Tor Books' horror line, Grant did precisely that.

Grant was a prolific, well-respected, and award-winning horror novelist, short story writer, lecturer, and editor throughout the late 1970s until his death in 2006. He was perhaps the most vocal progenitor of what came to be known as "quiet horror." In other terms, Grant had more in common with the horror film classics of Val Lewton and Roman Polanski than he did with the writings of Stephen King or Clive Barker: it's all suggestion, suggestion, suggestion.

The Orchard is the first novel I've read by Grant. Many of his works take place in a fictional town called Oxrun Station. Each long chapter is its own story, only vaguely related the others, about the strange, deadly effects the titular plot of land has on Oxrun's inhabitants: "My Mary's Asleep," a group of young college friends see their bonds slowly torn apart; in "I See Her Sweet and Fair," a middle-aged police officer has a teenage son who may be a murderer; in "The Last and Dreadful Hour," townspeople are mysteriously trapped in a movie theater during a storm; and finally, "Screaming, in the Dark," a reporter in a hospital recovering from a broken leg has a new bunkmate in his room.If you can find this for maybe a dollar or so, pick it up; "The Last and Dreadful Hour" is one of the better tales I've read recently, creepy and claustrophobic; the darkened theater practically comes to life.

Throughout the novel, Grant shows a cinematographer's eye for light and shadow and a knack for detailing men's weaknesses when dealing with women. His descriptions of Oxrun reminded me some of Something Wicked This Way Comes; I don't think that would surprise anyone when taking a look at its quaint, sweetly archaic Halloween-friendly cover art. I wouldn't call The Orchard a lost classic or anything of the sort, but I'll be on the lookout for more of Grant's countless books and anthologies.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Next by Bob Randall (1981): Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?

The Next is a book I have no intention of ever reading but man if that cover doesn't make you laugh out loud. Just bask in its ridiculous absurdity. I like that the kid is all decked out in a big-collared shirt, moppet hair, thumbs in pockets, just hangin'. Don't mind me, I'm just busting out, figuratively speaking. No idea who Bob Randall is, I think The Fan was made into a latter-day Bacall flick, and there's one five-star review of it on Amazon which makes it sound kinda okay, but still, I've got limited time and in the last two weeks have bought about 15 or 20 cool new/old paperback horror novels. Good stuff too, like Michael McDowell, more Skipp and Spector, Charles L. Grant, some anthologies, a couple vintage vampires, the novelization of a certain classic sequel, and more. So stick around, kids.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Rosemary's Baby (1967) and The Stepford Wives (1972) by Ira Levin: Only Women Bleed?

One of the great sequences in horror - literature or film - is when Rosemary Woodhouse, protagonist of Rosemary's Baby, uses the letter tiles from a Scrabble board game to discover the true identity of her kindly old neighbor. Polanski, in his film adaptation, underlines these utterly prosaic and harmless everyday items with portent, but it was author Ira Levin who first created such a richly creepy, and yet playful and knowing, scenario. All of them witches indeed.

Although Levin also wrote traditional suspense novels and popular plays (his Tony-winning Deathtrap from 1978 is still highly regarded and plays continually), and neither Rosemary's Baby (originally published 1967) nor The Stepford Wives (1972) are solely horror novels, he deserves recognition within the field for creating such lasting pop culture horror icons as a mother who gives birth to Satan's child (sorry, that wasn't really a spoiler for anybody, was it?), and especially in the latter's case where simply referring to someone as a "Stepford wife" - or, indeed, a Stepford husband or anybody else - means that person is an unwitting or mindless slave to conformity and empty bourgeois values.

Both books fall into the how-we-live-now style of fiction and address contemporary mores: secular versus spiritual lifestyles and motherhood in Rosemary's Baby, feminism and the role of women in the home in Stepford Wives. Their datedness - not nearly as prevalent as one might think - only enhances their charm. Levin is a master of economical prose, understatement, and sleight-of-hand misdirection as he doles out the clues and plot twists. Paranoia figures largely, out in the suburbs and within the city, and menace can be found anywhere, over idle chat and coffee, sitting in a doctor's waiting room, when your husband goes off to work. They never stop, these Stepford Wives... they work like robots all their lives...
I love that both novels can be read either as totally straight thrillers or as black-comedies-of-manners. And while a superficial interpretation might convince some that Levin disdains women, I think it's rather obvious that he is really condemning men and the fact that they think women with any kind of power will diminish their own. Irony: it's good for the blood, no?

I read Rosemary's Baby in high school, after I watched its masterful movie adaptation (surely the most faithful of all movie adaptations!); Stepford Wives only in the last few years after falling for Katharine Ross and (especially) Paula Prentiss in that bittersweetly vintage 1975 film adaptation. The novels can be undertaken in a couple sittings and offer up numerous pleasures, a few chills and ironic grins, and are easily found in used bookstores everywhere, so why you'd want to pay $14 for a new trade paperback edition of books around 200 pages long is a mystery Levin himself certainly wouldn't deign to write. Especially when you can get that ridiculous Gothic-romance version of Stepford Wives, because what all men secretly desire are women in shapeless gowns colored like M&Ms.