Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury (1971): Candy Apples and Razor Blades...

There are few other people who can write with authority about Halloween, its origins, and its hold on our imaginations than the iconic and legendary Ray Bradbury. Long a chronicler of the childhood sense of wonder and fear, myth and mystery, Bradbury's boundless delight in all things fantastical, innocent, macabre, magical, and ancient is virtually unmatched in American literature. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) is one of the greatest of seasonal celebrations, a perfect amalgamation of a Midwestern reverie and creeping dark fantasy; see also his 1955 short-story collection The October Country.

However, the book I come to praise on this day of days is his 1972 young adult work The Halloween Tree. With his trademark flights of poetic language and dream-like imagery, Bradbury attempts to synthesize the irreplaceable childhood experience of Halloween once and for all. He revels in the sights and sounds and smells of the season, the excitement of ragtag costumes and candy corn, the chill of delicious fear when gazing upon a house such as this:

Illustrations by Joseph Mugnaini

Eight boys join the magnificent Mr. Carapace Clavicle Moundshround, inhabitant of above house, on a search for their missing friend Pipkin - "the greatest boy who ever lived" - but this search encompasses all of Halloween's primordial history. From cavemen cowering in the dark to the building of the Great Pyramids, through the Celtic festival of Samhain to constructing the gargoyles of Notre Dame, Mexico's Day of the Dead, and more, Bradbury's boys sweep through it all on a wondrous carnival kite shaped something like a pterodactyl. It's a crash course in a secret history often misrepresented in popular culture. Last year I read a comment by a befuddled anti-Halloweener: "Isn't Halloween Satan's birthday?"

The Halloween Tree is an essential read for Bradbury fans, Halloween fans, and lovers of horror fiction. Stellar black-and-white illustrations by Joseph Mugnaini capture the enchanting creepiness of the story itself. I imagine it'd make a good week of bedtime reading for those with kids - or, hell, even for those without - a sweet, ghostly treat redolent of bonfires and pumpkin pie, mummy dust and autumn leaves, a love letter to that perfect Halloween we all of us desire to recapture.

"So," said Moundshroud. "If we fly fast, maybe we can catch Pipkin. Grab his sweet Halloween corn-candy soul. Bring him back, pop him in bed, toast him warm, save his breath. What say, lads? Search and seek for lost Pipkin, and solve Halloween, all in one fell dark blow?"

They thought of All Hallows' Night and the billion ghosts awandering the lonely lanes in cold winds and strange smokes.

They thought of Pipkin, no more than a thimbleful of boy and sheer summer delight, torn out like a tooth and carried off on a black tide of web and horn and black soot.

And, almost as one, they murmured: "Yes."

Friday, October 29, 2010

All These Monster Kids' Books

Halloween has almost arrived. Since this awesome holiday is (usually) about kids, I wanted to share some great books I - and plenty of other folks - loved to read and reread as a child. These are the books that made me the diehard Halloween and horror fan I am today.

Norman Bridwell, most famous for creating Clifford the Big Red Dog, had several books of charmingly-drawn monsters. Monster Holidays (1974) and How to Care for Your Monster (1970) were the best. I mean, the monsters are adorable. Look at Dracula waving, for Chrissakes! Who would not want to open their door on Halloween night and find those folks outside?!

Another fantastically well-illustrated monster book was Movie Monsters (1975). This makeup how-to by Alan Ormsby, who had starred as the most obnoxious theater troupe leader ever in Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1973).

Bunnicula (1979)! A classic tale of a vampire rabbit. Lots of sequels apparently.

All I remember about The Mystery in Dracula's Castle (1975) is that I read it over and over and over. Don't even know if I ever saw the Disney TV movie.

Books like these, found in the kids' non-fiction section of the library, were a treasure trove of horror movie history. In the days before VCRs, much less DVDs and the internet, the only way a kid could see a lot of these movies was to read these books and imagine them in his head...The distinctive orange-spined Crestwood Series has sent many a 30-something dude scouring the net for hours trying to figure out what the heck they were called.

I don't draw like I used to as a kid, but I fondly recall these two how-to books, by illustrator stalwarts Lee J. Ames and Ed Emberley, were staples for the after-school and Saturday hours.

Hope everyone's Halloween is a delight... even if this crazy lady doesn't want you to celebrate it!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bloodletter by Warren Newton Beath (1994): But I Didn't Even Know Her

James Ellroy in a cape and fangs? Now that's terrifying. And thanks to Joe DeVito for the spectacular creepy-erotic cover art.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tricycle by Russell Rhodes (1983): Out of His Way, Mister, You Best Keep

Now this is a title I definitely remember seeing on the Woolworth's checkout racks when I was a kid, and even though I was a monster-movie fan it still freaked me out. I don't know who Russell Rhodes is, nor if Tricycle is any good because I doubt I'll ever read it, but I just had to share it. Even at that young age the cover art still disturbed me, not because of its ridiculousness - I doubt I had that sensibility as a pre-teen - but because it seemed so dead serious. This conflation of evil and innocence is an essential go-to for horror. How else do you get housewife and teenage girl shoppers to pick up your book?

Now this UK version here doesn't have that same je ne sais quois. Actually, that's not true; I know exactly what's wrong with it: it doesn't have the skull-faced kid staring you down and coming at you all implacably unstoppable and all. What did that poster for the movie of No Country for Old Men say? You can't stop what's coming. You can't reason with eyeless sockets, and you certainly can't appeal to any kid's better nature, not even a dead kid's. Especially not a dead kid, I mean, they're the absolute worst. And you know I'm right.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Danse Macabre by Stephen King (1981): Oh, Baby, Do Ya Wanna Dance?

He may not be Harold Bloom, Leslie Fiedler, or Michiko Kakutani, but Stephen King once wrote what I consider one of the most perfectly devastating criticisms of bad writing ever. Comparing a now mostly-forgotten novel by an unknown writer that he felt was "written pretty good" to the then-current rulers of the bestseller lists, King wrote this author was no Saul Bellow, no Bernard Malamud, but at least not down there in the steerage with people like Harold Robbins or Sidney Sheldon, who apparently wouldn't know the difference between a balanced line of prose and a shit-and-anchovy pizza.

Down there in the steerage. A shit-and-anchovy pizza. Holy living fuck, do I love that. Inelegant, crude, and yet right on the money. In fact, I love nearly everything about King's Danse Macabre, which is where you'll find that immortal dismissal. Written after he'd just made a name for himself with the hardcover success of The Shining (1977), it's a very personal and informal rumination on horror entertainment in the latter half of the 20th century, coinciding mostly with King's life specifically and baby boomers in general (he was born in 1947 - which means he was nearly 10 years younger than I am now when he wrote this book. Sigh). I first read it as a young teenager, and it also served well in introducing me to various cultural touchstones I wasn't learning about in high school: the uneasiness Americans felt after Sputnik (a pivotal event in a young King's life), the Charles Whitman and Kent State shootings, Charles Manson, the Vietnam War, Black Panthers, and Erica Jong's charming concept of the "zipless fuck."

Almost effortlessly (the genesis of the book was his college lectures teaching a course on supernatural literature), King relates background info on horror in all media: he fondly recalls the Cold War "bug-eyed monster" horror films of the '50s and '60s but heaps scorns on Plan 9 from Outer Space and Robot Monster. Then there's old-time horror radio star Arch Oboler and his "Lights Out" series, as well as TV shows like "Thriller," "Night Gallery," and "The Outer Limits." He muses about changing tastes and sophistication in audiences as well as root causes for our fascination with the macabre (or "mcbare" as he pronounced the word as a youngster). Tying all this together are autobiographical sketches about his youth as an American kid brought up by a single working mother, moving from one town to another and engaging with some of the odder members of his extended family. And then one day he discovers a box of old pulp fiction paperbacks that had once belonged to his now long-departed father, read his first H.P. Lovecraft tales, and a fate was sealed (Lovecraft; as it ever was, as it ever shall be).

As you can probably guess, this is no academic tome filled with references to "hermeneutics" or "metatextualism" or anything like that; Danse Macabre is digressive, insightful, funny, unpolished, wide-ranging, wrong in some places and oh-so-right in others. King's background as a one-time English teacher and lifelong committed reader with catholic tastes allows him to expound, if only briefly, not simply on the horror fiction we all know and love but also commonly venerated writers like Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Theroux, James M. Cain, Joan Didion, and Jim Thompson. And ever the rock'n'roller, King references late '70s punk rock kings the Ramones and the Sex Pistols - at a time when few music fans in America had any inkling who they were - noting a similarity between their gleeful noise-making and anti-establishment rabble-rousing and the seemingly antisocial aims of many horror movies. He admits he kinda likes The Prophecy, a much-hyped film failure in the late '70s but says his favorite horror movie of that day is the little-seen Tourist Trap. King is one of those guys that just soaks up whatever's out there; it is as if he is quite literally no snob.

As one might expect, he devotes an entire long and thorough chapter on horror fiction in which he covers a handful of modern works that he feels define various aspects of the genre: Peter Straub's Ghost Story, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Anne Rivers Siddons' The House Next Door, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Harlan Ellison's collection Strange Wine, Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man, and Ramsey Campbell's first novel The Doll Who Ate His Mother. While expressing disdain for the lifeless aridity of grad-school student theorizing King does some of his own, but it's a livelier, chummier, albeit just as informed approach he takes, sometimes graceless and glib, but often apt and unpretentious.

Whether it's breaking down the famous opening paragraph of Jackson's novel, or marveling at the "ominous jocularity" of Ellison's stories, or discussing how the Gothic tradition is twisted around in Straub's early novels, King really just likes kicking back and talking about what he loves and knows. He lets the authors speak for their own works by quoting at length their letters to him, although acknowledging that sometimes authors are not the best critics of their own work.

A few of King's ideas in Danse Macabre have become pretty well-known as part of horror criticism: the horror genre is "as conservative as an Illinois Republican in a three-piece pinstriped suit" because it wants us to reject the maniacal and monstrous outsider, to see the taboo and avoid it and celebrate our healthy selves (this was some years before Clive Barker, remember). He posits that when a horror movie builds up suspense and then shows the audience a 10-foot tall insect, they sigh, "I can handle a 10-foot tall insect; at least it wasn't 100 feet tall, that would've been pretty bad" (I don't think that one holds up well today in the CGI age; modern audiences are more likely to complain "A 10-foot tall insect? Why wasn't it 100 feet tall?"). But most famous of all is this honest admission, which seems to sum up Stephen King and much - but absolutely not all - of his fiction:

I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.

Two appendices complete Danse Macabre: one on essential horror film and one on essential horror fiction since the 1950s or so; I've mentioned here before that I've used the latter list as general guide over the years. This is a book I have dipped into over and over again over many years with a deep and abiding pleasure and which inspired in me the desire to look at horror in a larger and more thoughtful way, rather than just taking in the latest movie or novel everybody's talking about. All serious, and burgeoning, horror fans should own a copy. Functioning like a kind of alternative education in art high and low as well as in 20th century Americana, Danse Macabre is an absolutely unmissable and essential piece of horror entertainment itself, from the one and only King.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Nightlife by Brian Hodge (1991): Tonight in Jungleland

Another novel that I loved when I first read it and have been looking forward to rereading for this blog is Brian Hodge's Nightlife (May 1991), the second title from the Dell/Abyss line of paperback originals (which had begun with Kathe Koja's The Cipher). At the time, I'd never read anything by Hodge, but I was sufficiently impressed by the goals set by Dell for this supposedly new style of horror - one of more psychological realism and fewer supernatural cliches - that I bought it almost immediately upon publication. Nightlife was Hodge's third novel and it did mine a rather new landscape for horror: the South American rain forest and its psychoactive plants , which the native tribes use as part of their ritualistic communions with hekura, the demon-spirit underworld.

Hodge imagines a monstrous mind- and body-altering entheogenic drug stolen by a drug kingpin from a primitive and violent Venezuelan tribe, the Yanomamo, who've kept it from modern civilization for ages. It doesn't just cause hallucinations; it melds bodies into flesh-and-bone animal hybrids, which is why the tribe who cultivated the drug are the most feared in the jungle. An ambitious drug dealer dubs it "skullflush" and launches into the "city-soft bodies" (as the back cover puts it) of the denizens of Florida's, er, nightlife. But then one young male native, Kerebawa, trained in civilization's ways and language by a doomed missionary who was actually converted to the Yanomamo's beliefs, comes to Tampa to retrieve it before it can wreak its demonic havoc on us American pussies who never engage our, you know, spirit animals.

Pan UK paperback 1993

Now, this kind of human transformation is in one sense familiar horror territory: Jekyll and Hyde and werewolves reside near one another on this mythic map, but Hodge goes Schultes instead of Stevenson; it's more Chagnon than Chaney Jr, Huxley more than Henry Hull. You can tell Hodge did his anthropological research, if at times a little too obviously since incorporating facts about the infamous Yanomamo tribe is tricky in a narrative. The flights of infinite metaphorical fantasy when characters snort the drug seem underwritten, or rather perhaps too earnest and literal - people seeing to the edge of the cosmos or getting in touch with their own personal demon-animal inside them, that sort of thing; peering into the broken places and seeing what a modern world cannot heal.

Like a lot of splatterpunk stories - which this novel definitely is not - Hodge is concerned with the betrayers and the betrayed and the wounds his characters carry around like a totem. But I could only take so many "soulful" and "desperate" confrontations between Justin and April, the new lovers on the run from the skullflush-addicted drug dealer, and ruminations upon "what went wrong" in the past. Tightening this baby up by 50 or 75 pages I think would not have hurt at all.

Hodge's next two novels, Deathgrip (1992) and The Darker Saints (1993), were also published by Dell. I know I read and enjoyed them but can't recall much, but I always remembered Hodge fondly. For years I wondered what he had been in up to as I never saw any of his books again; once I was able to find info about him on the internet it turns out he began writing crime novels around 2000. Rereading Nightlife, that now makes sense: it's not scary at all, there is the detailed drug trade and narco cops, the attendant thugs and bodyguards with quirky tastes befitting more educated men, the last-ditch machinations of losers trying to get their lives back together, and then there's Kerebewa, that resourceful Yanomamo warrior. I don't think Hodge ever actually met a Yanomamo warrior, but Kerebewa's culture-clash moments and his loyalty are at once corny and endearing.

Current ebook

These aspects seems more like something you'd find in a Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, or Donald Westlake crime novel than in horror fiction. I'm not saying Hodge is anywhere near as good as those guys - god, who is? - just that today I can see who his inspirations probably were. His action set pieces are maybe overdone but I think he should get points for the set-ups, and the whiz-bang climax is good. And I found a 1990 interview from just before Nightlife was published, and I had one of those "oh shit" flashbacks: I recalled that I'd read this same interview back in the day and read my first Hiaasen novel because of Hodge's recommendation. I knew I remembered Hodge fondly for a reason.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Elementals by Michael McDowell (1981): Just a Meanness in This World

Using the well-worn but welcome literary trope of a rich and influential Southern family who suffers grief and hardship, The Elementals is Michael McDowell's fourth paperback original horror novel from Avon Books. Meet Mother Marian Savage, matriarch of the Savage family from Mobile, Alabama. Although her strangely ritualistic funeral forms the novel's prologue, her spirit, for lack of a better word, hovers about her adult children and grandchild as the story continues. But it is not only Mother Savage who will hold nightmare sway over her brood ("Savage mothers eat their children up!"). With touches of the Gothic and the surreal, McDowell has wrought a not-quite-ghost story that's both intimately real and metaphysically unreal.

Surviving son Dauphin Savage and his wife Leigh, as well as Leigh's family the McCrays - mother Big Barbara, brother Luker, and his 13-year-old daughter India - try to escape the oppressive weight of mother's memory by spending the summer at Beldame, a bit of land on the Gulf with three Victorian homes on it. The family summers here have been going on for decades. With them is Odessa Red, the Savages' long-employed black servant, who knows virtually every secret there is about the family. Even, perhaps, why two of Beldame's homes are livable, but the third is, astonishingly, slowly being buried beneath an enormous dune of blinding white and sugar-fine beach sand. Indeed, it is piling into the rooms through every crevice and crack; it did not merely encroach upon the house, it had actually begun to swallow it... sand covered the entire front of the house to a line well above the verandah roof.

McDowell smartly pays out his story in even, rational measures, never overplaying it as he gives mild hints through dialogue, image, and circumstance that something unnatural is going on in that third house. This vacation won't be pleasurable: Big Barbara's given up her bourbon-soaked afternoons and worries about her crumbling marriage to local politician Lawton McCray, who wants to buy Beldame from Dauphin for oil drilling. None of the adults will go near the third house; Luker and Dauphin have vague disturbing memories of it from their childhood.

When India, the bright, charmingly foul-mouthed, New York-born young teenager driven to lassitude by the maddening heat during the day and the dead-silent blackness of night, becomes fascinated by the third house, she asks Odessa to help her take pictures of it. Odessa might be uneducated and superstitious but she's loyal to the family, goes along with the girl. Later, India shows her father the photograph:

It was a photo of the verandah showing the handsome curve of the dune that was overtaking the side of the third house. But Luker saw at once the fat gray creature that was huddled behind the low porch railing.... Luker thought that it might be the animated fetus of an elephant. Its white pupil stared out into the camera lens.

"It makes me want to vomit," said India matter-of-factly.

*shiver* And just what are the "elementals" you ask? Wisely McDowell alludes to them subtly; they are something like three-dimensional hallucinations, living between the very molecules of the air, the land, the sea, the house. They are human weaknesses and wounds and rot and heat and they can recreate themselves as us... imperfectly. The beleaguered family will battle them, but hopelessly, and one will see with their very own eyes the full extent of the power of the elementals.

Overall The Elementals made me think of those morbid 19th century photos of families posing with their dead children, which is quite a tone to recreate. Sadly it's out of print - as are all of McDowell's novels - but I'd love to see The Elementals (inexpensively) reprinted with a more accurate and evocative cover; there are plenty of weird and striking images from which to choose, not the least the house filling with sand; also apparitions with sand spilling out of their mouths; a lone black-and-orange sail on the Gulf horizon; and a monstrous blind baby that can still find its way by using its huge misshapen ears to hear the final tortured breaths of its victims...

Update 2014: You can now purchase a new trade paperback edition of The Elementals from Valancourt Books! Click here.