Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Manitou by Graham Masterton (1975): He Who Devours...

It was a distinct pleasure to finally read this vintage mid-'70s bestselling horror novel and find it tasteless and outrageous fun, taking elements of contemporaneous famous and popular works of the "occult" like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby but then one-upping, or a dozen-upping, them. Graham Masterton has for years been a familiar name to me but I had never read anything by him; I was vaguely aware that there had been a movie version of The Manitou, and that such a thing was some kind of ancient Native American spirit, perhaps like the Wendigo. Expecting little when I sat down to read, I actually finished the book in less than a day - it's a brisk 216 pages in its 1976 Pinnacle Books paperback edition. Masterton, even in this first novel, does a credible job weaving the dated occult aspect of Tarot cards and reincarnation (yawn) together with a Lovecraft-style twist on Native mythology (yay). Damn, I only wish I'd read this years ago!

Behold the inner cover! Artist: Ed Soyka

An attention-getting prelude introduces young Karen Tandy, who's in the hospital baffling doctors with the strange moving tumor on the back of her neck that X-rays reveal to be a developing fetus. A fetus. I know, right? Then Masterton switches to first-person narration by Harry Erskine, a 30-something guy earning his living providing sham psychic readings (are there any other kind?) to little old rich ladies in a wintry New York City. Just before she enters the hospital, Karen Tandy comes to see him about a disturbing dream she's been having.

Her sense of doom and foreboding about it causes Harry to start thinking there might be something to this occult business after all (I don't mind messing around with the occult when it behaves itself, but when it starts acting up, then I start getting a little bit of the creeps). Cue more strange happenings that Masterton makes believably unsettling and convince Harry, and soon comes the big reveal: the fetus developing in Karen's neck is the reborn spirit of the great and powerful Native American medicine man Misquamacus. Of course this being the 1970s and all, that phrase "Native American" is never uttered; instead, we get the charmingly offensive "redskin" or "Indian" or "red man." Ah well.

1977 UK edition

As the tumor grows and the arrival of Misquamacus becomes ever more imminent, Karen's life hangs by a thread. Harry consults the anthropologist Dr. Snow, who tells him about "Red Indian" spirits and how this Misquamacus was able to magically implant himself in Karen's body, to be reborn 300 years after his tribe was exploited, caught disease and run off by Dutch settlers. The "manitou" is his spirit, and we learn everything that exists has its own manitou. Misquamacus now wants vengeance, and his occult powers are virtually unstoppable by modern scientific men. Only another medicine man fully in control of these powers can stop him - and perhaps that is not even possible. Can they even find a modern-day medicine man to fight back?

1982 UK edition - more cover art here

If all this is making you think, what the fuck? you'd be right. But Masterton makes it work. Despite its implausibility, I actually loved how everyone seemed to accept the reality of what was going on: Karen's doctors and parents, Dr. Snow, Harry himself. The only people skeptical are the police, and they come to a very bad and very gruesome - and very awesome - end. Pretty graphic for the era, I thought; a great shock moment.

Tor Books edition, 1987

Masterton's style may sometimes inadvertently belie his Britishness but he really keeps the action going while also touching on broader, more thoughtful concerns. Harry's seeming skepticism about the reality of occult powers is treated with some ambivalence, and at one point Karen's doctor, Jack Hughes, wonders aloud about the inherent guilt the white race must feel about their treatment of Native Americans, and shouldn't they feel at least a little sympathy for Misquamacus? Which, as it turns out, is a terrible idea: as the story races to its climax, Masterton introduces a wonderful Lovecraftian menace as Misquamacus attempts to open the gateway for the Great Old One, aka The Great Devourer or He-Who-Feeds-in-the-Pit. You know that's never good.

But it was not Misquamacus himself that struck the greatest terror in us - it was what we could dimly perceive through the densest clouds of smoke - a boiling turmoil of sinister shadow that seemed to grow and grow through the gloom like a squid or some raw and massive confusion of snakes and beasts and monsters.

The Manitou is a pulpy, funny, gory, and even ridiculous read; like I said, a damn-near perfect example of vintage '70s horror fiction that strikes just the right balance between each of those aspects. Glad I also bought a copy of its sequel, Revenge of the Manitou (1979). So well done Mr. Masterton - I'd say I made my favorites-of-the-year list one book too early!

You were expecting a 1970s horror author to look otherwise?


Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

Yes indeed, I love The Manitou! I picked it up because of seeing the film adaptation. The film is fun but the book offers so much more. Much of the gore isn't in the film and The Great Devourer is just a bunch of lights in the movie. I've been trying to track down the rest of the series online to order. Also, I highly recommend Mr. Masterton's Night Warriors series. I've only read the first two in the series, they contain some great gory popcorn horror entertainment.

jaleach said...

You cannot go wrong with this author. He's still churning out great horror novels. They always take odd twists and turns so that by the time you reach the end of the story you're asking yourself, "How in the heck did we wind up here?"

He wrote one novel called "The Burning" that is an absolute must read. Starts out with people setting themselves on fire and ends up with some old Nazi conspiracy involving a lost work from Wagner and immortality. This one would be a good find for you, Will, since it came out back in the 1980s or early 1990s.

Just about everything I've read from this guy is great. The House That Jack Built, Prey, Spirit, and a few others are loads of awesome fun.

Brent Wade Smith said...

Director Girdler, who died shortly after completion of the film, showed a great deal of promise with "The Manitou," juggling a host of special effects laden scenes that are still effective--others merely dated but my belief suspension is very forgiving and there are enough to keep this a visual rollercoaster ride much like "Equinox," so one doesn't linger long on what fails to stick. Misquamacus' head rising flush from the table duirng the early seance still remains quite creepy. Of course the film is also full of 70s kitsch and the sort of campiness that pays off repeat screenings. Ann Sothern is a truly a hoot and makes Curtis seem almost Shakespearean--I remember my mother being in stitches at the drive-in. One wonders what Girdler might have done had he lived as "The Manitou" is such a mature, dramatic (in every sense) departure as well as a great leap forward from his earlier "Grizzly" and "The Day of the Animals."

On a personal note, I read the Masterton novel in the hospital in 78 with the movie-tie in cover while being treated by a 6 ft tall Native American respitory therapist! A 13 year old's imagination could not ask for more if one doesn't count the sponge baths courtesy of fresh, young nurses just out of school.

venoms5 said...

Great post, Will! How's the sequel book coming along?

Will Errickson said...

Thanks, guys. I watched the movie immediately after finishing the book and it was pretty ridiculous, but not in the fun, compulsive way the novel was. However, Curtis referring to Misquamacus as "the Mixmaster" was a delight. Haven't decided what I'm reading next, got stacks of stuff...

Bill said...

Fantastic post Will! I'll have to track this one down.

Luis said...

Great post! I was not aware that The Manitou (movie) was based on a book. I remember seeing the movie and loving it, ridiculous as it was, I admit. This is another book I will have to track down, preferably with that first cover posted since it has all the elements 70's horror paperbacks should have: An evil looking dude, a semi nude woman and references to The Omen and The Exorcist.

highwayknees said...

Hi there Will! I am a new poster/mem
ber here,but had to finally write after stumbling upon this tres cool blog!I've loved your writings on the Shirley Jackson books.She was one my first literary obsessions.I discovered her in 7th grade and have read everything since...I recommend one of her earlier novels to you: THE ROAD THROUGH THE WALL.It's in keeping with her quiet horror of middle class mores paranoia. I think you'd enjoy it after reading your take on THE SUNDIAL.

Now on to Graham Masterton! My recommends are:PREY,FEAST,WALKERS,and my fave MIRROR. All great gory fun!

I wanted to write about your trip to L.A. That's where I'm located.And maybe direct you to some used book stores I know of-but,guess I was too lazy at the time to create an account here! lol

I share your lovve of amazing cover art for the genre and especially love those "one-off" authors of the late 60's/70's.
The covers got a lot cheaper and less "painterly" in the 80's! Which is not to say that there still weren't some good books published.
Speaking of which -one of my re-readable faves is: BLOOD SECRETS by Craig Jones . A real page burner! (I have many more recs where those came from-but ,I realize I'm being long winded here so...ask me and ye shall receive!lol)

Luis said...

NEWSFLASH! Just discovered that The Manitou movie is available for free online viewing at Just scroll down to "Drive In Movie" and then "Horror Theater".

Anonymous said...

Well, shit Will. Thanks a lot.
You've REALLY done it now.
This review/retrospective on THE MANITOU has caused me to spiral into an obsessive compulsive state regarding Masterton's work.
Back when I was 15 I bought the movie tie-in copy of THE MANITOU & loved it. After which, I got the author's entire Pinnacle run. Every one of which I thought was awesome, with my fav probably being CHARNEL HOUSE.
Once his six book streak was over at Pinnacle though, he sort of fell off my radar for a couple of years until THE WELLS OF HELL appeared on the shelves. Followed by TENGU & PARIAH.
Then, Masterton went into a period of producing more mainsteam novels, none of which appealed to me. So, once again, he fell off my radar.
Until Leisure began to put out his stuff & I read PREY ( a great Lovecraftian novel BTW ) & THE DEVIL IN GREY.
Which brings us up to date.
Until this post. Which inspired me to look up his official site & marvel at all of the genre work he'd done that I wasn't even aware of.
Which, in turn, caused me to hit up Amazon, e-bay & Alibris for far too many of his books. All of which went well over my alloted budget, for which my wife will probably kill me for!
So, you're to blame for my imminent demise.
Funeral arrangements to follow...


Will Errickson said...

Luis - Yep, this one was indeed the perfect vintage horror novel.

highwayknees - I am always on the lookout for more Jackson! Thanks for the rec on Masterton.

bluerosekiller - Love it! More Masterton to come...

Anonymous said...

Cool. Can't wait.
Masterton's stuff will never be confused with the great literary works, but, then again, all those great literary works fail to be the page turners that Mastertons' novels are IMO.
I've yet to be bored by any of the author's books. His penchant for short chapters & sub-300 page counts make for the perfect quick, enjoyable read. Especially during those times when you're just not in the mood to invest your time & attention to a longer, more complex novel.
Know what I mean?

One thing I'm surprised about is the fact that more of his work hasn't been adapted to film. By all accounts THE MANITOU was a moderate success back in the day, so it would seem that more of his work would have been optioned. But, thus far it hasn't been.
Sad thing is, the way that Hollywood works these days, we're far more likely to see a remake of THE MANITOU someday rather than one of his other novels adapted.

Peace bro & keep up the good work.

BTW, it looks as if I may survive my online buying splurge. So far, so good anyhow...

Anonymous said...

I have read the book "The terrible beauty" by Graham Masterton and I think that was the most horrifying book i ever read. because honestly that was my first time reading horror books.. And believe me i was like hallucinating for about 3 hours(12am-3am).. his really a great author!

MikeGibbonz said...

Did anyone else feel like this novel may have influenced "Ghostbusters"? I did. There are alot of parallels, what with wry con men being confronted with real ghosts in modern day NYC and authority figures unable to believe in what was going on. Akroyd is a super weirdo and his father was a Spiritualist, wouldn't be surprised if this book influenced him while writing the script for "Ghostbusters".

George said...

I've read about a dozen Graham Masterton horror novels. Loved them! Masterton is an underrated writer.