Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Interview with the Blogger: My Halloween!

Zombos Closet of Horror, that weird and wonderful blog of the macabre, has interviewed me on the true meaning of Halloween! He's published several others with fellow horror bloggers, all of which are worth checking out if you like to get some personal insight into why we all love October 31, and the entire month that leads up to it...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco (1973): Burning Down the House

Part of the recommended reading list in Stephen King's Danse Macabre, this slim first novel Burnt Offerings occupies part of that territory of early '70s horror bestsellers mostly forgotten today, ironically because of King's own impact on the field (comparisons to other then-current classics The Other, The Exorcist, and Rosemary's Baby on paperback cover: check). Robert Marasco's lifelong output was very small, although his only play, Child's Play, was a big Tony Award-winning Broadway hit in 1970, and it sounds pretty appropriately macabre. He wrote only one other novel, Parlor Games. If you think I'm setting up a forgotten classic... I'm not. Alas.

Burnt Offerings concerns the Rolfe family after they rent a lovely big house in Long Island to escape the summer in Queens, and all the muted, allusive horrors they face after. I suppose they should have been clued in when the mansion rents for a measly $900 for the entire season. As a bonus, the renters, brother and sister Allardyce, reveal that their elderly mother will reside, unseen, in an upstairs room the whole time the Rolfes are there and all they have to do is provide her meals; another warning bell. So soon come the subtle terrors, the ambiguous chills, the inexplicable accidents, as the atmosphere darkens and the house - or is it Mrs. Allardyce? - begins to wield some unearthly power over the family. You know how that goes, dedicated follower of horror fiction. Caretakers in this type of work never seem to make out well, do they? And they don't.

King has stated its influence on The Shining, which is probably clear from that simple description. I read it in 1994 during what was my last real heavy-duty jag of horror-fiction reading until I began this blog. So I dug out an old notebook from then in which I wrote about various books and movies and lo and behold, while I'd written down that I'd actually read Burnt Offerings, it seems I didn't write anything about it. Not a good sign. But I can recall my impression pretty well, and that is, despite some glowing reviews on Amazon, where it gets called a "seminal horror novel," I was underwhelmed by its subtlety and felt it promised more than delivered, that its final reveal simply wasn't that scary or effective (I kinda dig the movie version though, with the quite astonishing cast of Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, and Bette Davis). Probably I was spoiled because around the same time I was reading Ligotti's Grimscribe, Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness, Machen's "The Great God Pan," and Jackson's Haunting of Hill House; what mostly-forgotten novel could hold up to that classic line-up?

Robert Marasco (1936 - 1998)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

William W. Johnstone: The Paperback Covers

Another author whose books are perfect examples of the hilarious depths to which 1980s mass-market paperback horror novels could descend to is William W. Johnstone. A handful of his titles were published in the early 1980s, and resemble the more "artistic" imagery of 1970s bestsellers, but as the decade of excess rolled on, publishers had to come up with more eye-catching tactics, so we get silvery reflective foil-stamped titles, capering skeletons (in slippers!), and even holograms.

Wolfsbane (1982) The cover art at the top is nicely reminiscent of then-current An American Werewolf in London, of course, and still looks like a '70s paperback. The 1987 reprint - by the one and only William Teason - that at least acknowledges wolfsbane is a plant - but bet you didn't know it's given to you by a tri-headed skeleton!

The Nursery (1983) This one is all classic medical thriller, a genre in which I've read precisely nothing. But damn if they weren't once the rage. There's a missing question mark, however, that's driving me crazy.

Sandman (1988) I freaking told you about the skeleton in slippers! You didn't believe me, did you?! Isn't he supposed to be sprinkling dust on the baby? You know, to make it sleep? Praise artist Richard Newton for this stunner.

Devil's Cat (1987) I remember this one the best from my used bookstore stint, with its freaky hologram Anton LaVey cackling at me. So the devil has a cat. Is that a surprise? What the hell else would he have? Everybody knows a three-headed dog got nothing on a pissed-off cat.

Rockinghorse (1987) This one isn't so outrageous, but someone should've reminded the artist that it's little girls who have skeletons, not little pretend horses.

Jack-in-the-Box (1986) More effin' skulls with bulging eyeballs! Truly a Zebra Books stock-in-trade.

The Uninvited (1982) Two covers for your delectation: the cliched eyeball widened in fright and revulsion, or the cliched skeletal hand showing off its mani in the '87 reprint. Which one would embarrass you more to be caught reading?

Toy Cemetery (1987) Yeah, yeah, we all know which horror novel this is referring to, but at least that one makes sense. I also like that the "evil comes to life" in a toy cemetery. Where else, right?

Cat's Eye (1989) Good God! As they say on the internets, kill it with fire! Or, don't, and let it grow up to attend furry conventions, it'll be a real hit. Another Newton nightmare.

David Mann provided the cover art for Baby Grand (1987). Man, what are you doin' here?

Sweet Dreams (1985) Oft-used design of innocent blonde girl and creepy skull-faced toy.

And let's finish up with two so-so covers from the early '80s that are not egregiously trying to rape your eyeballs from the drugstore racks; a cleansing of the palate, if that's not mixing my metaphors too much.

Zebra Books really went all out, didn't they? And these tactics worked - my old bookstore's horror section was filled with this kind of crap, every copy creased and crinkled, obviously read and reread like readers were searching for the secrets of fucking life. Now I realize people just read this stuff as rotten brain candy and passed it on or traded it in, but damn if it didn't irritate my self-righteous 19-year-old ass. I mean, Clive Barker's stuff was right there. Come on people.

Of course I doubt Johnstone had anything to do with choosing any of these covers, but if anyone's read any of his books, can you let me know if he's as bad a writer as I imagine? I'd like to be proven wrong... and add yet more to my to-be-read list.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Stephen King Born Today, September 21, 1947

I can't believe I almost missed this, the 63rd birthday of the preeminent horror writer of the latter half of the 20th century, Stephen King! No one will be surprised to learn that I despise the current paperback covers of King's work. Sure, his books have been reprinted countless times over the past 30-odd years, but nothing stacks up against that awesome first edition cover art from the 1970s and '80s.

Take this paperback of Misery (Signet 1988): it's the same cover as the hardcover edition. But what sets it apart is the image at top, just inside on the second page; a faux-cover, if you will (it's actually called a step-back). It's a mock-up of the bestselling historical romances that protagonist Paul Sheldon writes which so obsess Annie Wilkes - except that's King himself in the place of, say, Fabio. Heh. Nice touch, no? Of course, Misery's Return is the book Annie forces him to write because she is, like many of us, his number one fan.

I love this classic-era "logo"

All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By by John Farris (1977): At Play in the Fields of Freud

I originally read John Farris's All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By in the summer of 1989-- fresh out of high school, working at a used bookstore--but years later, recalled virtually nothing of it, so it was one of the first vintage horror paperbacks I bought again for this blog. Even though I was unimpressed with and did not finish his 1976 psychic spies bestseller The Fury, I was keen on revisiting All Heads Turn. Good decision; I could hardly put it down this past weekend! 

This is mainstream bestselling horror at its finest: wholly entertaining and gripping, a horror fiction melange of classic adventure tales, multi-generational family sagas, Southern Gothics, and even those horribly dated "plantation novels," all to great effect. Even more astounding, perhaps, is that this Popular Library 1977 paperback cover is actually representative of events in the novel. The 1986 reprint from the Tor horror line, however, is one big spoiler. So do not Google it (but do check out this encomium from David J. Schow, who chose it as his entry in Horror: 100 Best Books).

Set during World War II, Farris has threaded together the fates of two great families, one from the States and one from England. The Bradwins are one of those wealthy Southern families made by generations of virile military men - and their servants barely more than slaves - plagued by arrogance, entitlement, brilliance, lechery, and charm in maddeningly equal measures. The Holleys are a British family who travel to Africa to administer health care to the remotest regions of that continent. Their unbelievably tragic back-stories are the most richly imagined parts of the book.

Farris settles in and moves his story along, writing smoothly and professionally, always a welcome surprise in what looks to be another junky horror paperback - albeit one with an oddly poetic and tantalizingly obscure title. Farris's prose is even impressionistic at times, once the delirium of horror and bloodshed begin. Which is, thankfully enough, just a few pages in, careening out of the gate with a blood-drenched military wedding ceremony in Virginia. Hot damn!

A flick of his wrist and slight thrust and the level blade went right through Corrie's veil and the column of her throat inches beneath her raised chin. Then the veil behind her head filled as if inflated by a gust of air, a backward breath, and I saw the elegant tip of the wetted blade holding the veil away from her nape for an instant before Clipper retracted it...

Playboy Press hardcover 1977

They are linked by the beautiful Nhora, a woman who, as a child, was kidnapped by a cannibalistic African tribe beholden to the superstitions of voodoo, that twining tight of the Christianity of the west and the native beliefs of Africa. So cultural imperialism figures large, the privilege and entitlement that people can feel when dealing with others they think may be beneath them, even when the others are members of one's own family. But all people are weakened by fear and greed and superstition - especially when that superstition turns out to be the truth.

1977 Popular Lib. back cover copy: 
"Gibbering horror! Gelatin!"

All Heads Turn might fit that oft-sought category of a forgotten classic; Farris is that successful both in concept and execution. From the endless tormenting rains in the wilds of Africa to the sultry evenings on a Southern plantation, from a near-madhouse in the English countryside to the hideous visions of symbolic dementia, Farris never falters in bringing it all to palpable life. Characters, even minor ones (the fingernail-less bomb expert Luxton; self-regarding patriarch Boss Bradwin; Boss's illegitimate half-black highly educated son Tyrone), arrive fully-formed even if flawed or broken. Especially if flawed or broken.

1987 French edition: Scales

Farris's evocation of the supernatural, a sort of Freudian/voodoo stew of myth, monsters, and magic, is wonderfully tasteless, primeval, and exotic; his depiction of fathers and sons beleaguered by ego and ignorance, believable. The attentive reader will notice an aside to several writers and poets (Haggard, Keats, Ovid) that explains much. And if some think this all gets wrapped up a mite quickly, then I have to say I prefer that to an ending that goes on for 50, 75, 100 pages and exhausts the reader's patience. Farris bring the story to a screeching shuddering sudden halt at the climax, a climax that speaks of the truly venomous nature of obsession, desire, and fear. Oh, and snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes? You'll see.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Karl Edward Wagner and The Year's Best Horror Stories Series

Just found an oh-so-worthwhile personal remembrance of the late Karl Edward Wagner, by one of his oldest friends, entitled "The Dark Muse of Karl Edward Wagner." Turned up on one of my periodic Google searches for new info on older horror writers. I love this kind of behind-the-scenes look at the life and struggles of a modern pulp/horror/fantasy writer, and I think a lot of you will dig it too. Guy was a powerhouse at whatever he did.

Known for both his medical expertise (he very nearly became a doctor) as well as for lighting up 1970s horror conventions with his Viking-biker appearance and appetite for drugs and booze - not to mention his own considerable fiction - Wagner took over the editorial reins of The Year's Best Horror Stories for DAW Books in 1980, and continued until his unfortunately early death at age 49 in North Carolina in 1994. He lived in nearby Chapel Hill for awhile. In fact, I recall years ago finding books from his own personal library in a used bookstore here in Raleigh. According to Amazon, none of his dozens of books are currently in print.

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (1976): Whining for Centuries

Anne Rice gets blamed for the whole "emo"-ing of the vampire in the horror genre today but you'd never know it from the cover art of this amazing 1979 reprint of the Ballantine paperback edition of Interview with the Vampire. That is some classic Gothic Dracula-style action going on. I've got too many new books piling up these days to reread it, but damn if I don't love this cover! I didn't even know this edition existed until a couple months ago.

It's been 20 years since I read Interview but I can still recall the self-absorption, the self-dramatization, the self-victimization, of Louis, the titular vampire, as he recounts his "life" story. No wonder young adults love this stuff; I once heard it described as "Catcher in the Rye for the Goth crowd." Yet the art has virtually nothing - and I mean nothing - to do with the book itself; in fact, one of the points of Interview was that it shed the whole opera-cape-and-tuxedo look of Lugosi and Lee. Rice's vampires didn't go after swooning ladies in nightgowns; they fed on criminals and even family members, as I recall. However it's certainly a striking piece of Gothic horror art, by recently deceased artist H. Tom Hall (uncredited).

And on the back cover we see, what? Ejaculatory blurbs, and two vampires in Dracula capes (Louis and Lestat, one presumes), one semaphoring like he's signaling in an airplane. Claudia is there, so maybe somebody told the artist about the poor little girl who's damned to be a vampire. Truthfully I only liked the first few Vampire Chronicles, as they were unlike anything else in the horror fiction field; however in the intervening years I've glanced back at parts of them and found her prose overheated, overwrought, and in some places, just plain bad. When Tale of the Body Thief came out in '92 I bought it straightaway but only got about a chapter or two in when I simply said, "Done. This is just awful." Never looked back either, until now.

There are other '70s paperbacks of Rice's first novel with cool cover art that I need to track down. I've seen this edition going for some fair cash on eBay but I was able to buy it recently for $2. It has that comforting old-book smell that hints of age and imagination and escape, and it's not too beaten up. Another vintage paperback coup for Too Much Horror Fiction!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin (1982): His Weapon is Teeth

Set aboard an Ohio River steamship in 1857, George R. R. Martin's only horror novel Fevre Dream may have an original setting but it's squarely in the traditional vampire sub-genre. Regal creatures of the night dressed in the finest dark velvet and flowing pirate shirts pontificate upon the nature of master and slave, life and death, good and evil, when not gulping down steaming freshets of blood. Or reading a volume of Byron poetry, natch. Look upon my works, ye Mighty, etc.

Since the period is pre-Civil War America, we see some of the grim literal actuality of the vampires' metaphor of master and slave. It's an interesting dynamic Martin's created. All humans are unwitting slaves to the vampire - a name the creatures reject - and the vampires are slaves to the "red thirst," while privileged whites make other races into subhumans. Horrified to learn that the all-too-real vampires refer to the human race as "cattle," Abner Marsh, the ugly, cantankerous yet still likable owner of the Fevre Dream steamboat, slowly makes the connection with that other plague upon humanity.

Martin's characters are colorfully drawn, from the various men - some former slaves, many seasoned rivermen - who run Marsh's ship to the mysterious Joshua York who enlists Marsh to build Fevre Dream for some unspoken reason, to the mad vampire "bloodmaster" Damon Julian and his cruel and cowardly human dogsbody Sour Billy Tipton; truly an impressive supporting cast. With a gift of pure storytelling and and historic detail, Martin spices his tale with time- and character-appropriate grammar and slang. And in its own gruesome and believable way, this story is ultimately about friendship.

However, it resembles Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles in its New Orleans and Revolutionary-era France portions. I don't know when Martin first conceived of this novel, so perhaps his predates hers; perhaps not. And its rich setting and descriptions of the river-boating working life also seem, after awhile, to bog it down so that about three-quarters of the way through, it rather runs out of, er, steam, despite an impending climax between Marsh and the "night people." I liked Martin's origin myth for his vampires - shades of Clark Ashton Smith...

From all lips I had heard a legend of a city we had built, a great city of the night, wrought in iron and black marble in some dark caverns in the heart of Asia, by the shores of an underground river a sea never touched by the sun... we had been expelled from our city for some crime, had wandered forgetful and lost for thousands of years... some day a king would be born to our people, a bloodmaster who would gather our scattered race together and lead us back to the city of the night beside its sunless sea.
Overall Fevre Dream is a good read; if not particularly scary, it is vividly imagined, quite violent, and mostly engaging; Martin is a solid writer and I can see why so many people devoured his later novels of heroic fantasy. Vampire fiction fans should pick it up for its unique setting, but it's not the kind of paperback horror novel I'd tell fans that they must drop everything for so they can scour old stores for a vintage copy. In fact, I somehow missed it on the shelf while browsing a warehouse-sized bookstore here in town; my girlfriend spotted it quickly and snatched it up. I had to promise not to wear it out any more than it already was if I wanted to read it first. I'm not sure what's up with that ketchup-letter font on the 1983 Pocket Books paperback edition; I much prefer that paperback's inner flap (below), which was the original hardcover art.