Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1983): And Jesus Said Unto Lazarus, "Hey-Ho, Let's Go"

It's probably wrong to believe there can be any limit to the horror which the human mind can experience... and the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity.

This passage from Pet Sematary makes me think of the famous opening paragraph of "The Call of Cthulhu," as well as Eliot's dictum that humankind cannot bear very much reality. Too, Shirley Jackson's description of Hill House. In his 10th published novel - the one he's famously said frightened him so much he wasn't sure if he should finish it - Stephen King tests those beliefs by subjecting an all-American family to the single worst horror a family can suffer... and then pushes further into taboo realms that reveal the blinders many people live with when it comes to death and dying. And whatever comes after.

Back cover of original 1984 Signet paperback

I don't suppose I need to recap the plot - young doctor Louis Creed and his family moves to delightful country house in Maine, befriend old-timers, meet destruction - since the strangely long-lived, decidedly mediocre 1989 film adaptation is rather faithful to its source (although of course this book-appropriate meeting of geniuses is perfect). Actually I can't recall if my favorite sequence is in that movie, and I really don't care; I just want to say two words to those of you who've read the book: Timmy Baterman. Timmy Baterman. I've read lots and lots of horror and one of its stylistic "tricks" that I find unfailingly terrifying is the old tale-within-a-tale. Like most things are in genre fiction it's practically a cliche, but damn if this one doesn't get at my soft vulnerable places and flay them wide open.

Told by Jud Crandall, the crusty old Maine native who lives across the road (or, rather, the rud, ayuh) from the Creeds' new home, this singular tale of a very young soldier killed in WWII and shipped home is one of sheer wrongness. A mountain walked or stumbled. A dead man lives again. That image of zombie-like Timmy Baterman, fresh from being reburied beyond the pet cemetery in the woods (an Indian burial ground, can you dig it?) by his grieving father ("So fuck the army, and fuck the War Department, and fuck the United States of America, and fuck you boys too. I got him back"), stumbling around town or screaming horrible secrets about the men who've come to kill him, is one I haven't ever been able to shake since I first read it in, oh, 1985. Nor, honestly, would I want to.

Of course the novel has its vulgar homespun moments, as one would expect; what King fiction would be complete without 'em? My, uh, favorite is when Louis's friend and colleague Steve Masterton, one of the few sane people in the entire narrative (and even he suffers, but survives, a bad shock at the end), tries to comfort him but can only cry out desperately in true King style, "Oh, Christ, Louis, what a cock-knocking, motherfucking mess this is!" Cock-knocking indeed, sir.

But what I find most effective about Pet Sematary - even after countless readings - is that its most unsettling scenes aren't necessarily the ones of gruesome supernatural horrors from beyond the grave; they're the simply observed and detailed moments of overwhelming grief, loss, regret, and numbness. The fight at the funeral home? Brutal. But later, when Louis awakens from a dream in which his son was not killed only to find his pillow soaked in tears brought on by that part of his mind that will always know the truth? Damn.

Now, sitting on his bed in the grip of this numbing hangover, rainwater spilling its lazy courses down the window beside him, his grief came for him fully, like some gray matron from Ward Nine in purgatory. It came and dissolved him, unmanned him, took away whatever defenses remained, and he put his face in his hands and cried, rock back and forth on his bed, thinking he would do anything to have a second chance, anything at all.

Nope, nothing can beat the original hardcover/paperback cover art

With its effortlessly bleak depiction of a normal home rent asunder not only by death but by weakness, neglect, and failure, not to mention a true resurrection of the dead ("Resurrection... ah, there's a word (that you should put right the fuck out of your mind and you know it)"), Pet Sematary can be a dispiriting and unhappy read. And some have compared its denouement negatively to a similar scene in 'Salem's Lot. But how else could this story have ended? You tell me.

So maybe think of this as King channeling Kubler-Ross with a(n un)healthy dose of "The Monkey's Paw," as directed by George Romero. With a soundtrack by the Ramones. Honestly I don't know where Pet Sematary sits with King fanatics, but for me it's about the top of the heap. Or the cairn, as it were. That useless, useless cairn. Because I don't wanna be buried in a...

Why am I not wearing this right now?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Nightwalker by Thomas Tessier (1979): The Howling Beast on the Borderline

In a way, The Nightwalker is the best werewolf novel in which the werewolf never appears. Or does it? A slim read at 200 pages, Thomas Tessier's second novel is deceptively complex and thoughtful. It depicts a young Vietnam vet who succumbs to unbidden violent desires: but are these desires the result of supernatural lycanthropy, or simply (well, as simply as these things ever are) homicidal bloodthirst and rage, purely natural?

Bobby Ives is an American living in London in the late 1970s, plagued by migraines and memories of Vietnam. While in Hyde Park one day he has an intense hallucination of becoming a zombie (not the cannibal kind) on the island of Guadelupe in the West Indies. He tells this story to his English girlfriend Annie, and also about an incident in Vietnam in which he shot a young Vietnamese girl. He also relates how a soldier also named Bobby Ives is killed  in the war, but the army thinks it's our Bobby Ives that died. With these types of memories swirling in his subconscious, Tessier intimates, Bobby seems psychologically predisposed to some sort of mental breakdown. When Annie is killed suddenly, he wonders if he is responsible and, strangely, goes to see a clairvoyant. Yeah... she's got some bad news for him. Real bad.

Hilariously awesome, rather accurate, UK promo poster

Improbably he picks up a runaway punk girl in a park and takes her back to his flat. Improbably until she reveals she's having her period. I suppose you can guess what follows - or maybe you can't. When she takes Bobby down to a dingy punk club, Tessier gets good metaphoric mileage out of the scene. The whole time, however, Bobby's distress at his symptoms comes and goes; some moments he wishes to embrace his predatory new nature as a logical step in his life, while others, he is truly fearful and guilt-stricken at his terrifying capacity for evil. Perhaps he can even control it...

The black hole he was flying into was sick, morbid, cruel and murderous. It couldn't go on; it had to end, full stop, forever. Not just for this lifetime. He wanted to disintegrate into scattered atoms that would never again reform as a conscious entity. It's not my fault, Ives almost said aloud...

1989 Berkeley Books edition with Halloween werewolf glove

Tessier's approach is believably psychological, and he inserts ambiguous moments throughout and has an interesting discourse on lycanthropy in history from the clairvoyant. This ambiguity can be seen on the cover of the original 1981 paperback from Signet, top, but by the late '80s when The Nightwalker was republished after Tessier had gained more of a name for himself, all doubt is removed in order, I suppose, to trick the potential book-buyer. Same goes for the latest paperback cover, which makes it look like a paranormal romance. Sucks, because if someone is expecting An American Werewolf in London-style horror novel or, I don't know, an erotic wolfman, they're not gonna get it. Solidly written and containing vivid passages of grungy sex and violence, The Nightwalker is another worthwhile and original work from the underrated Tessier.

Current 2008 edition; still wrong, guys!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Paperback Covers II: In Madness You Dwell

Let's continue, shall we, with more terrific (and terrible) cover art for various vintage paperback editions of H.P. Lovecraft. It's addictive - I can't get enough! And I'm certain you guys can't either. And if there are any Lovecraft novices out there, these covers give you only the slightest glimpse of the dread and nameless horrors that await all humanity should we venture too far from our placid islands of ignorance. So gaze upon them affrightedly, and despair...

Friday, August 20, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Paperback Covers: Draining You of Sanity

On this, the 120th anniversary of the birth of the greatest and most influential horror writer of the 20th century, I present a small portion - a very small portion - of some of the amazingly gruesome, sometimes ridiculous, and indeed, sometimes inaccurate, H.P. Lovecraft paperback covers.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ruby Jean Jensen: The Paperback Covers

I haven't read word one of Ruby Jean Jensen's paperback original horror novels of the 1980s, published by Zebra Books (Z for dead last) and I probably won't ever. But I have to give props to whoever was doing her book covers back in the day because these are some freaky and unsettling images. I think my favorite is the above Home Sweet Home (ugh, really?) from 1985, which adds some bloodshot eyeballs to one-up Mrs. Bates. And boy do I love skulls with hair! Thanks be to artist Richard Newton for this one.

Baby Dolly (1991) Evil babies and dolls! They were everywhere in this era. But of course. The delightful Little Miss Zombie has a review here.

Lost and Found (1990) Another staple of '80s horror, the utterly generic title. I kinda like this cover, actually. Is she an albino or a statue come to life? Who knows but I find the pinpoints of light for eyes wonderfully malevolent.

Wait and See (1986) Gotdamn you have to admit eyeballs in skulls are effin' terrifying. But the hair overplays the hand, as it were. You just gotta laugh, right? Right?

Best Friends (1985) Now we even have animal skulls. I heard this in my head as a kid would say it, Best Fwends. I think a very young Andy Richter modeled for this one.

With a glorious cover by David Mann, the 1987 novel Chain Letter reminds me of a story I wrote when I was 12 about a newspaper boy who gets run over by a drunk driver; the driver rushes home without reporting the accident and tries to shrug it off, doesn't report the crime. Of course said drunk driver is also a subscriber to the newspaper so he's awakened later that night when his doorbell rings and he answers it to find.... well, you figure it out.

Smoke (1987) leaves me pretty underwhelmed because that's not really smoke, is it? It's like a green fog that will turn into a genie any minute. At least the artist, Mann again, is reading the books he's designing the covers for.

Victoria (1990) gives us two more dolls bent on evil. Or just one? Oh, I don't know.

Yes, they're utterly ridiculous and anyone over the age of 13 caught reading one should die of embarrassment but they really capture the essence of paperback horror originals that took up so much rack space in bookstores, drugstores, grocery checkout lanes (I can still recall one of a skeleton kid on a trike with a shiver), only to turn up at yard sales and thrift stores worn out and ready to fall apart. Undiscerning readers would trade these in for credit at the used bookstore I worked at and yes, I looked down my nose upon them while I eagerly devoured the latest King, Barker, Kathe Koja, Skipp and Spector, Brian Hodge, Joe Lansdale, Hot Blood, Borderlands, or Splatterpunks anthology. Snob, you say? Who, moi?