Monday, November 29, 2010

Wormwood by Poppy Z. Brite (1993): Being Nothingness

Horror's purview is one of good versus evil, obviously, but that's one battle which doesn't interest me much in fiction; I do not think art has to be didactic or proselytize to be effective. In Poppy Z. Brite's first stories, collected in Wormwood, there is no real sense of good or evil, just the aesthete's pose of worldliness and boredom. She was concerned not with morality but with sensuality and brought a sort of fin de siecle decadence to the genre just as its paperback popularity seemed to be fizzling out. This approach was something horror mostly lacked in the era, concerned as it was with middle American families, or children and teenagers.

A teenager herself when her stories were being published in The Horror Show magazine in the mid 1980s, Brite's characters were the misfit kids, part of subcultural movements that I was familiar with and sympathetic to—punk and goth and whatever the mixture of the two beget. They hung out in filthy, ill-lit clubs, wore black rags and had messy hair and crashed in abandoned houses and churches, sleeping on stained mattresses and consorting intimately with a variety of partners, usually all in a New Orleans of perfume and rot. Certainly to an audience used to the familiar comforts of Koontz, King, or Saul this wasn't going to go over well at all, but it didn't need to; Brite's first novel, the highly anticipated Lost Souls (1992), was part of Dell's line of innovative and edgy horror novels not geared towards a mainstream audience. Published in hardcover, Lost Souls made Brite the hot horror commodity of the early 1990s. And it didn't hurt that her two earliest champions were Dan Simmons (who wrote the introduction for this collection) and the mighty Harlan Ellison.

When I first read most of these stories it was late 1993 and the collection was entitled Swamp Foetus, a limited-edition hardcover from Borderlands Press. This paperback edition from Dell did not come out until 1996, and then retitled Wormwood probably because someone took offense at the original. Still, it's a good title, evoking the poison and delirium of absinthe, then still a more or less obscure liqueur beloved of true arty decadent types. But it's also relevant since it refers to "His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood," which was the first story I ever read by Brite, in 1990's Borderlands. I was hooked immediately. This story always reminded me of Lovecraft's minor tale "The Hound," yet it is undeniably Brite's own. Two young men, jaded and bored beyond belief by their excesses in art, sensuality, drink, and drugs, turn to grave-robbing for ghoulish kicks. Then, in a dank punk rock nightclub, they meet another boy who may offer them their greatest and most final thrill.

Dying: the final shock of pain or nothingness that is the price we pay for everything. Could it not be the sweetest thrill, the only salvation we can attain... the only true moment of self-knowledge? The dark pools of his eyes will open, still and deep enough to drown in. He will hold out his arms to me, inviting me to lie down with him in his rich wormy bed.

Original limited-edition hardcover, 1993

As the above passage might attest, much of Brite's fiction was populated by gay or bisexual young men; homoerotic overtones were the norm for her and definitely gave her work a true "outsider" edge. Her darkly elegant conflation of sex and death, usually so clumsily done in paperback horror, owes more to Baudelaire or Gautier than Barker or Rice (with whom she was often, and erroneously, compared). This is best seen in the later stories, both from 1991, the marvelous "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" (which I wrote about here) and "The Sixth Sentinel," which show Brite maturing as a stylist. They are poisonous confections, two of my favorites from the time, and ripe with the beauty of putrescence and the stink of sex. In "Sentinel" she lovingly describes a flooded, ancient graveyard:

Some of the things that have floated to the surface are little more than bone. Others are swollen to two or three times their size, gassy mounds of decomposed flesh... silk flower petals stuck to them like obscene decorations... Yawning eyeless faces thrust out of stagnant pools, seem to gasp for breath. Rotting hands unfold like blighted tiger lilies. Every drop of water, every inch of earth in the graveyard is foul with the effluvium of the dead.

1992 hardcover, Delacorte Press

Two friends from her first novel Lost Souls (1992), Ghost and Steve, appear in "How to Get Ahead in New York" and "Angels," adrift and wayward, on their own for the first time. The sleazy environs of 1980s New York comes right to life in the former tale while the latter evokes the circus-freak setting of Katherine Dunn's Geek Love (1989). Unkempt, doomed musicians play large roles in "A Georgia Story" and "Optional Music for Voice and Piano," depicted sympathetically and believably. "The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire" is set in the restaurant industry - many years later, all her novels would be - in a brutally modern world that has little need for love or flesh. Certainly the earlier stories, like "The Elder" and "Missing," may be a little slight, but it's obvious they were written with passion and care and intensity.

All in all, I feel Wormwood is a must-read; it's been good, rewarding fun revisiting it. Are the stories scary? Not really, no. This, as well as the brooding teenage characters and sensual depictions of death, might be a turnoff off for some readers. But with their strange and compelling visions of a world populated by the outcast, the marginalized—indeed, by the dead themselves—Poppy Z. Brite's short stories show that true horror, facing it and embracing all its woes, may be bravest, most beautiful, the most rewarding thing of all.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ramsey Campbell: The Paperback Covers

The prolific Ramsey Campbell, born in Liverpool in 1946, was a staple of Tor Books's horror line throughout the 1980s and well into the '90s (and remains so, I believe). Lately I've learned, through posts and comments on various horror blogs, that some horror fans are ambivalent about Campbell, who is quite famous within the horror fiction field but not well-known at all outside of it (perhaps he suffers from being the "horror writer's horror writer"?), as author, editor, and critic. Some feel he's overrated and consider many of his stories well-nigh unreadable due to an overly oblique, subtle, or confusing prose style. In Danse Macabre, King likened reading Campbell to taking a small hit of LSD. I don't know how many horror fiction readers find that particularly appealing.

My own impressions of Campbell have been decidedly mixed as well. I still plan on reading his first couple novels, The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976) and The Face That Must Die (1979) - such wonderful titles! - but must admit barely even getting to the 30-page mark on both Obsession (1985) and Ancient Images (1989) many years ago for the reasons noted above. But I've enjoyed a lot of Campbell's short stories throughout the years as well, in his collections Cold Print, Scared Stiff, and Dark Companions. If anybody would like to weigh in on their feelings and experiences with Ramsey Campbell, I'd love to hear them. Meanwhile, what (mostly) lovely cover art (much of it by Jill Bauman, who illustrated many a Tor cover)...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Pin by Andrew Neiderman (1981): The Kids Just Want Something to Do

Remember when the "second cover," or "stepback," was common in paperback horror? You had the actual cover usually with a cut-out of a face and something peeking out, and then when you opened it up there was—boo!— a full picture that gave you a taste of what was to come (gasp! horror! Slim Goodbody!). 
This approach never seemed to work on me; I mostly just found it cheesy and dated in a bad way. I remember lots of copies of Pin (Pocket Books, April 1981) around at my old used bookstore, and the dual covers plus its lack of blurbs from either other horror writers or critics was a real turn-off. 

Thanks to amazing artist Lisa Falkenstern for this iconic image!
You know what else is a real turn-off? Incest. Man, I don't even like typing the word. I certainly didn't like typing it into Google with the phrase "in popular fiction" to see what other books also dabbled in this ultimate taboo. Didn't The Hotel New Hampshire have a brother and sister who--? And of course there was The Flowers in the Attic series so popular in the '80s too, and in fact Pin author Andrew Neiderman actually took over writing all the continuing V.C. Andrews series after that author's death in 1986. Wikipedia listed both those titles, along with lots of other books I'm never going to read. I mean, look at that tag line: "Brother, sister, madness, sin..." And that's supposed to actually get people to want to read the book? Ick.

Andrew Neiderman

In these reviews I often give detailed story lines but with Pin I'm afraid I'd give too much away, while the back cover copy below offers up a menacing summation. The characters are few: the mysterious Pin, of course, about whom I won't go into detail; then there's Leon and Ursula, teenage brother and sister, and their parents, or "the doctor" and "mother" as they refer to them. The doctor relates to his children almost as fellow medical professionals, or as med school students, especially when it comes to sex; mother is withholding neat freak cipher. Leon and Ursula's bond is by necessity a close one, even as they get older and begin showing interests in the opposite sex.

And when the parents are killed in a car accident, Leon has a great urge to see the accident, to see how badly they had been mangled, to see the expressions on their faces. I imagined my father would been terribly annoyed, and my mother would have been absolutely terrified that her clothing would get dirty. Now it's pretty much these two adolescents at home alone. And sometimes with "the Need" as the doctor always put it. Why, it's a completely natural impulse.

Told in first person by Leon, the tone of the novel is detached to the point of sociopathy, with that medicinal chill that would not seem out of place in a Cronenberg film; in fact I heard Pin's dialogue in that HAL 9000 voice. Murder is not murder but a treatment for infection, a rationally arrived at solution to an unwelcome situation. Neiderman's style is cool and calm and if this Pocket Books paperback didn't have such a lurid and tackily creepy cover it could almost pass as an edgy piece of mainstream fiction. 

You might see where the novel is headed halfway through, as I did, but don't let that put you off; if you're looking for quick-read clinical, graphic account of disturbing family behavior and reasons to keep your kids in the dark when it comes to sex, Pin just may have what you're looking for. I just hope that's not what you're looking for! But no, seriously, Pin is a must-read for lovers of forgotten paperback horrors.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Robert Bloch: The Paperback Covers of the AUTHOR OF PSYCHO!!!

No reader of horror fiction needs an introduction to Robert Bloch. Once asked how he had the energy to be such an endlessly prolific writer, Bloch replied, "I have the heart of a small boy... in a jar on my desk." A groan-inducing pun? Yes, but that type of macabre, old-man humor is one of Bloch's trademarks. Since his teenage days in the 1930s as a personal correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft's, Bloch's countless novels and story collections have mined black humor and pathological criminal behavior. His works have been printed and reprinted for decades by various publishers with all different styles of cover art, but one thing was virtually a constant after a certain 1960 movie: the phrase "author of Psycho" beneath his name.

Early works like the crime novel The Scarf (1947), or The Opener of the Way (1945) originally from Arkham House, have it on their later mass market paperback resissues. And it's really no surprise, is it? Bloch had ostensibly created (with a filmmaker's assist, of course) the most iconic murder in all of horror - and crime - fiction. Publishers were not about to let reading audiences forget that.

A UK edition of Opener of the Way (1976), as well as Mysteries of the Worm (1981), collect Bloch's Weird Tales/Cthulhu Mythos stories of the 1930s, which he admits were maybe just a little too amateurishly Lovecraftian to be of much interest years later.

The Dead Beat (1960) and Firebug (1961) are suspense pulps with the appropriate cover art. Dig how the match flame is burning up Psycho...

Pleasant Dreams (1960/1979), Nightmares (1961), Strange Eons (1978), and The Skull of the Marquis de Sade (1963) collect Bloch's short stories. Yes, that's Peter Cushing examining the Marquis skull in the 1965 movie The Skull.

Terror (1962) and Horror-7 (1963) don't really go out of their way in the title department but know that a terrified woman is simply irresistible to horror fiction readers. Or at least a woman who seems slightly perplexed and pissed by her situation.

Novels like Night World (1972) and The Cunning (originally published as There is a Serpent in Eden in 1979 with a completely incongruous cover) followed. By the 1980s Bloch was being published by the Tor horror line, who even went way back to 1954 with its reprint of The Kidnapper. "Better than Psycho!" it exclaims. One seriously doubts that claim. The Night of the Ripper (1984) and Lori (1989) look like any other mass market horror paperback of the era; the latter title part of Bloch's boundless fascination with Jack the Ripper, whom he first wrote about in his classic short story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" way back in '43. I read it way back in '89 or so and yet remember nothing about it.

By the time of his death at age 77 in 1994, Robert Bloch was, of course, considered a grand master of genre fiction. One wonders just what became of that small boy's heart in a jar on his desk...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sweetheart, Sweetheart by Bernard Taylor (1977): She's Hot, She's Sexy, and She's Dead

Love from beyond the grave - it's a common theme in horror fiction. Emotional bonds made during life, our superstitious forefathers thought, surely cannot simply disappear when one of the lovers dies; that powerful and undeniable connection with another must carry on even into eternity, right? Well, yes; the person living still carries that torch - we all love people who've passed on - but what about the lover who dies? Do their emotions continue on? Well, I seriously doubt it myself, but Bernard Taylor's second novel, Sweetheart, Sweetheart, utilizes this aspect of the genre to pretty decent effect, creating a female ghost who likes her men... a lot.

Ghosts often seem to be made not of ectoplasm and smoke and the like but of actual human emotions like love, like hate, like jealousy and possessiveness. The places they haunt are redolent of their strongest passions. Most of the horror fiction I've read has actually not been in this area, just as I haven't read a lot of satanic possession stories. I find it - them - quite old-fashioned. They are, but they can still be effectively creepy. Sweetheart, Sweetheart is that. I don't know if I agree with Charles L. Grant, who chose it as his selection for the 100 greatest horror novels, but with his love of subtle moods and shadows I can see why he so admired it.

1990s reprint from Leisure Books

Mostly set in a cozy cottage in the English countryside, Taylor carefully details the homecoming of David Warwick, who had been living in New York City for years until the deaths of this twin brother, Colin, and sister-in-law, Helen, bring him back. They had lived in the cottage; Helen died horribly falling off the roof trying to rescue her kitten while Colin died in a vicious car wreck days later. David takes up residence there and over time meets the quaint locals who are the tiniest bit taken aback seeing as how he's Colin's twin. He meets Jean, the hypersensitive caretaker for the cottage; her father knows some of the secrets from the cottage's past.

UK paperback

There are a few sad, touching moments as David grieves for his brother, with whom in recent years he'd not been close, and especially when he sees the remains of the car he'd been driving in the crash that killed him. As he learns more about Colin and Helen's lives at the cottage, he also seems ambivalent about his girlfriend Shelagh back in New York as well as his emotionally-stunted elderly father, who resents Colin's final attempt at reaching out to David. The mystery deepens as David learns more about the cottage's previous tenants and their unfortunate demises. Then there's the body he finds buried in the garden. And the spirit that so obviously stalks the halls... and David's bedroom.

1977 original hardcover

Like a lot of ghost-haunting fiction Sweetheart takes its own sweet time getting to the good stuff, as it were, trying to build suspense and discomfort - although honestly even that stuff doesn't get going until nearly the halfway mark. But once it does it doesn't let up. Read carefully in the first half; I didn't - I almost didn't finish the book, it has such a leisurely build-up - and so when everything is falling into place near the climax I had to flip back to figure out some characters' relevance. I really did like the horrifying culmination, sad and bloody and shocking as it was.

When I first saw Sweetheart's hardcover art I knew I had to read it - a '70s dude nuzzling a skull-headed woman, awesome! The Ballantine paperback from '79 is the edition I read, which at first glance seems a romance but then you realize the letters are stylized blood; the glaring eye of the madwoman is pretty wicked too (thanks to artist George Ziel). I don't get why both depict mansions; it's definitely a cottage that the ghost-lady is haunting. And that is one dirty ghost-lady, David finds out, who knows just how to keep the men in the cottage from ever leaving. Ever.

Friday, November 5, 2010

John Skipp Speaks

Crossroads Press has released an ebook edition for the 25th anniversary of Skipp and Spector's 1986 debut novel, The Light at the End. Here are three brand-new interviews with John Skipp to mark the occasion. He's talking about the novel itself, then the rise of splatterpunk fiction in the '80s, and last the zombie anthologies he and Spector edited with George Romero's blessings. Skipp is articulate and engaging, and all are must-sees for fans of horror fiction of the era. Can't believe I've never seen or heard an interview with him before! Thanks to both Brian Keene and Little Miss Zombie, who featured these videos and encouraged other fans to do so.

1992 Bantam reprint

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Stephen R. George: The Paperback Covers

More tacky, foil-stamped, overwrought horror paperback cover art from the esteemed publisher Zebra Books. This time it's an author I only recently heard of, Stephen R. George, and about whom I can find virtually nothing online, other than that he's a Canadian author who wrote under several pseudonyms. Well, whoop-de-damn-do. At least he left behind a couple howlers of paperback covers—the artist of several is Richard Newton.

When I first came across the ludicrously grotesque cover for Nightscape (1992), thanks to The Mighty Blowhole, I was gobsmacked. It really is one of the most dumbfounding covers I've ever seen, more reminiscent of a cheap 1980s VHS box cover for some ghastly shot-on-video atrocity than an actual book. At least the kid still has all his hair.

Like Near Dead (1992) above, Dark Miracle (1989) appeals to the psychologically healthy among us who dig corruption of little girls.

Beasts (1989) I much prefer canine teeth as fangs than the current "True Blood" style that use incisors as fangs; those kind look truly ridiculous to me.

The Forgotten (1991) I think my best friend in junior high drew this during study hall and passed it to me after class.

Grandma's Little Darling (1990) Sure, why not use the tagline from Cronenberg's version of The Fly? Nobody remembers where it came from anyway.

Dark Reunion (1990) Masked a legacy of cliche is more like it.

I really can't believe these covers were still popular in the early '90s; I associate this type of pulpy tastelessness with the 1980s. Doesn't look like George wrote anything after the mid-'90s, either. Is he much missed? You tell me.