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?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Dead White by Alan Ryan (1983): A Cacophony of Clowns

We all know good writing and we all know bad writing, but what about the stuff in-between, writing that simply exists on the page without any atrocious similes or tone-deaf dialogue or unbelievable coincidences, no passages that take poetic flight or shine with human insight, writing that only tells a story quietly and efficiently? I hardly knew it was possible to write in such an unadorned manner until reading the paperback original Dead White (Tor, Nov 1983) by Alan Ryan. A detailed moment here or there in the narrative made me think this book was Stephen King-lite, but even that is inaccurate as King's style is famously colorful, homespun, and even vulgar; Ryan can barely be said to have a style at all. Which isn't necessarily a criticism, for the story itself, as well as the suspense generated by short, time-stamped chapters, is just enough to keep a casual reader's interest.

The setting is comfortably familiar: the New York Catskills town of Deacons Kill is beset by an enormous snowstorm that cuts it off from whatever civilization exists outside it. Endless, but not quite tiresome, descriptions of the hushing nature of snow abound. In fact that got me to ruminate that, at least to me, cold weather seems quintessentially "horror" in the same way that a very hot weather seems quintessentially "crime." Think of At the Mountains of Madness or The Thing, The Terror, The Dead Zone, or The Search for Joseph Tully, then think of Body Heat or the greenhouse opening scene in The Big Sleep, or the entire sub-sub crime genre of "Florida noir" and writers like Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, James W. Hall, and Carl Hiaasen. But I digress.

Into this snow-blasted landscape comes a mysterious old train bearing the legend Stanton Stokely's Stupendous Circus. And you know what comes with a circus. Yep, clowns. Ryan does creepy clowns pretty well; nothing too blood-chilling but still. As for the characters, I almost want to call them cliched: the stern but kindly old doctor, the first-time sheriff who knows everyone in town is waiting to see if he'll screw up, the young woman who is learning to assert herself, the beleaguered husband and the harridan wife, the bratty little kid, the superstitious old black woman, the weird circus ringleader who speaks with polite gentility, and oh yeah, those ghostly clowns that float and cavort silently in the snow. Ryan takes all the time in the world to get to where he's going, but it's an inoffensive little journey, a slow build to a fair-enough climax. Dead White does what it does just well enough so it doesn't seem a waste of time. If that sounds like a recommendation, it is; if not, that's cool too.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Top 10 of '10: My Favorite Horror Reads of the Year

Since I don't read contemporary horror fiction, I have no idea what the "best horror of 2010" is. This probably comes as no surprise to you. The following "vintage" reads were the books I dug the most this year, the ones I insist that all horror fiction fans read as soon as they can, and that I think will give some sense of the depth and breadth of the genre we love so much. Some were rereads, some not, but I loved them all and treasure my well-worn copies. From quiet horror to splatterpunk horror, from Gothic horror to erotic horror, from literary horror to pulp horror, I think this list covers the genre pretty well. The list is alphabetical by author.

Wormwood, Poppy Z. Brite (1994) - Essential short stories that show the growth of a young writer and her new vision for modern horror.
All Heads Turn as the Hunt Goes By, John Farris (1977) - A vivid and original kind of Southern Gothic complete with Freudian neuroses.
Live Girls, Ray Garton (1987) - Sleazy good fun with scary/sexy vampire ladies.
The Search for Joseph Tully, William H. Hallahan (1974) - I've read nothing else like it: a psychological mystery with blasts of suggestive, chilling horror.
The Sundial, Shirley Jackson (1958) - An end-of-the-world fable with the ruthless character disintegration Jackson's known for.
Dark Gods, T.E.D. Klein (1985) - Four short novels of classic literary horror that echo Lovecraft, Machen, James, etc. but alive with very modern concerns.
Falling Angel, William Hjortsberg (1978) - Hard-boiled crime fiction and satanic horror collide in the New York City of the 1950s.
The Auctioneer, Joan Samson (1975) - Her only novel, one about doomed people who can't seem to help themselves for helping others.
Floating Dragon, Peter Straub (1982) - A towering, near-epic example of bestselling 1980s horror.
Finishing Touches, Thomas Tessier (1986) - The power of eros to drive and destroy our lives cannot be denied.

Other works I was happy to find I still liked many years after first reading them included stories by Clark Ashton Smith and Charles Beaumont, as well as Kathe Koja's The Cipher and the zombie anthology Still Dead. Overall it was a very rewarding year; I discovered a good handful of writers to read and books to search for. And just as I'd hoped, my recent trip to Los Angeles provided me with more than a dozen "new" paperback horror novels that I can't wait to get to in the new year. See you then!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson (1967): The Villain with a Thousand Faces

The British writer Colin Wilson published his best-selling first book, The Outsider, when he was just 24. A work of existential philosophy about the role of the misfit artist in the modern world, it seems not far removed from the concerns of some of Lovecraft's stories, particularly the one with the same title. In his preface to The Mind Parasites, Wilson talks about his first experience reading Lovecraft and how much it affected him, obsessing not only over the fiction but also Lovecraft's life. He states he intended this novel to be a tongue in cheek and affectionate tribute to the Providence gentleman but I don't, however, think that Wilson knows just what "tongue in cheek" and "affectionate" mean: a more dour and self-serious piece of fiction I have not read for this blog!

A handsome lad he was: Wilson in 1956, not looking so serious

At first I was intrigued as the story built up slowly, with all the kinds of faux-scholarship that one finds in Lovecraftian fiction. The unexpected suicide of the narrator's old colleague sets everything off, of course. This narrator, archaeologist Gilbert Austin, then discovers mysterious remains of a huge, heretofore unknown civilization two miles beneath the surface of the earth; yes, it seems Lovecraft's tales were based on fact, "discovered" by the "racial consciousness" of which Carl Jung wrote. This leads Austin and a fellow investigator to suspect the existence of a malevolent race of entities who seek to undermine man's free will and natural "evolution." But as the philosophical concerns began to make themselves more and more present and long-winded, I was distracted by Wilson's know-it-all superior tone. Much of Mind Parasites is a pompous bore, stuffy and fairly pretentious; a stereotype of the intellectual Englishman enamored of his own thought processes and insights.

Arkham House first edition, 1967

Austin - an obvious stand-in for the Wilson himself, if one looks at Wilson's other writings - is nearly obsessed with those "superhuman geniuses" that have blessed mankind with their existence: fuddy-duddy cultural folks like Goethe, Mozart, Nietzsche, Shaw, Wordsworth, and other musty white dudes (always white, always dudes) from the dark ages who the narrator sees as life-affirming artistic forces. But sometime after the 1800s these parasites gained control of men's minds and forced on them triviality and boredom and submission to base appetites, producing folks like de Sade and Hitler as well as making the average person a total loser too.

The parasites of the title are an ancient vampiric alien race, the Tsathogguans, who reside not in the depths of the sea or on the plains of Leng but in our very minds, feeding on us as a cancer and bending human history to their will. As a metaphor for the neuroses and fears that prevent humanity from living up to its own potential - or at least certain individuals from doing so - it isn't bad; it is just too obvious that Wilson has made Lovecraftian lore a vehicle for his own intellectual pet projects. This gets tiresome fast, and there is no irony or charm here to mitigate this high-mindedness:

The sheer size of the task overawed us. Yet it did not depress us. No scientist could be depressed at the prospect of endless discovery... we found ourselves looking at the people around us with a kind of god-like pity. They were all so preoccupied with their petty worries, all enmeshed in their personal little daydreams, while we at last were grappling with reality - the one true reality, that of the evolution of the mind.

Late '60s UK edition

This my be overly critical but I also found Wilson lacking in imagination in the science-fiction department: in his future world of the early 2000s (!) he imagines still playing records on gramophones, calling the British Museum itself to look up simple facts about a previously unfamiliar American writer named Lovecraft, and reading the evening paper. Yeah, I know, that's not really Wilson's job here to completely re-imagine the future like a Clarke or a Gibson but I certainly found it off-putting and dated. Writing a Lovecraftian tale was not something Wilson had even entertained until August Derleth himself suggested it in their correspondence.

If you know anything about the literary avant garde of the 1960s you might find Mind Parasites to your liking; the (half-baked?) ideas of Aldous Huxley, Wilhelm Reich, William Burroughs, and other like-minded writers are referenced, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely (surely the author described as having "a high reputation among the avant garde for his curious blend of sadomasochism, science fiction, and world-weary pessimism" could be none other than Burroughs). The whole concept of psychedelic drugs and mind expansion plays a part in the novel, which interested me for about 10 minutes when I was 20 but I admit no specific concern in that area today. Throw in psychokinesis, or "PK energy," and I'm tuning right out.

Oneiric Press edition, 1972

Yes, all this is pretty heady stuff for a simple horror fiction read; its impetus may have been Lovecraft but the style reminds me more of H.G. Wells, while the appropriately "cyclopean" cover art (Bantam 1968), despite the spaceman, appealed to my love of vintage SF imagery. Less a straight horror novel than science fiction philosophy of an immature and cranky sort, its relationship to the Cthulhu mythos might make The Mind Parasites of some interest to completist Lovecraft fans, but the general horror reader can probably pass.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Shirley Jackson: The Paperback Covers

"The Lottery" is easily one of the most famous, and notorious, short stories of the 20th century (I love making big pronouncements like that but in this case it can be said truly). When it was published in The New Yorker in 1948, it caused unforeseen outrage amongst that venerable publication's readership; canceled subscriptions and indignant letters poured in. Author Shirley Jackson was nonplussed and surprised by the reaction; some letter-writers actually wanted to know where they could go to watch such "lotteries." Even her parents, she said, did not like it! It's a deceptively chilling and primal tale, simple in its effect, perhaps bewildering in its meaning, ultimately unforgiving in its indictment of humanity. Long an essential text in American schools, I'm sure "The Lottery" has stunned and maddened countless kids who were forced to write essays on that most famous bane of frustrated high-schoolers, the dreaded symbolism. It isn't fair, it isn't right, indeed. I was thinking about the "The Lottery" because earlier this week I read Jackson's story "The Daemon Lover" (found in the utterly lovely two-volume set American Fantastic Tales from The Library of America, which I received for my recent birthday) which apparently is the subtitle of these collections. Editor Peter Straub was wise to choose this one over the ubiquitous "Lottery." Jackson's hapless bride-to-be (at age 34 no less!) slowly realizes her fiance is, on the morning of their wedding, nowhere to be found. Detail by detail Jackson ratchets up suspense as she combs the nearby city streets asking if anyone has seen a rather tall, fair man in a blue suit, possibly carrying flowers... "Daemon Lover" was published originally in Woman's Home Companion in 1949. The anxiety of a marriage that may never come - surely one for many of that periodical's audience - is unpleasantly literalized. I do wonder what the reaction to that story was! How about this poor disheveled young woman? Obviously the cover was part of that long-ago era when publishers tried sexing up the paperback art for authors like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Orwell to pique the interest of the American philistine and get him to shell out two bits. As for other Jackson works, I really dig the logo of Jackson's name and the imagery, thanks to artist William Teason, on these 1970s paperback reprints from Popular Library; my collection boasts a few Jackson titles, all of which I've loved, but you really need to check out the unmissable Shirley Jackson Book Cover Project for the rest. On a personal note, I'm heading off on vacation to Los Angeles on Monday for 7 or 8 days, so this will probably be my last post till I get back. However I've scoped out the used bookstores and plan on coming home with plenty of vintage horror paperbacks for the new year!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Richard Matheson: Shock! The Paperback Covers

X-- This day when it had light mother called me a retch. You retch she said. I saw in her eyes the anger. I wonder what it is a retch.

With those opening lines to his first published short story "Born of Man and Woman" in 1950, Richard Matheson was let loose upon the world. Many of his short stories became famous "Twilight Zone" episodes or appeared in Playboy, the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and various mystery/crime magazines. Just the other night I read for the first time "Prey," his 1969 short that became the legendary episode "Amelia" in Dan Curtis's Trilogy of Terror TV movie (1975). The story was splendid: perfectly conceived and then executed with stark believability and conviction. I can't imagine there's a horror fan out there without at least some passing knowledge of that horrific Zuni fetish doll!

These four different Shock collections gather those tales, and though long out-of-print they seem to be fairly widely available online in various editions: the original Dell publications from the early and mid-1960s, as well as the Berkley reprints from the late 1970s (cover art by Murray Tinkelman).

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)...