Saturday, December 31, 2011

This List Goes to 11: Best Vintage Horror Reads of the Year

The best, and/or my favorite, horror reads of the year. List is random because I'm so lazy.

The Silence of the Lambs
, Thomas Harris (1988) - A pinnacle of pop success that is also a damn great novel. Don't avoid it, as I did, because of the iconic nature of the movie adaptation.

The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty (1972) - Ditto. It's kinda like if Dostoevsky's novel Possession (aka Demons) were about, well, literally that.

The Amulet, Michael McDowell (1979) - Paperback original that transcends its origins. The grim South and a series of strange murders. Find a copy.

Son of the Endless Night, John Farris (1984) - Large-scale horror with heft that doesn't stint on the quality of writing nor on the blood and gore.

The Shining, Stephen King (1977) - Third read's the charm.

Anno Dracula, Kim Newman (1992) - A must-read for Dracula fans, a delightful mash-up of history and horror. One of the most enthralling books I've read in years.

The Girl Next Door, Jack Ketchum (1989) - What you've heard about it is true. What you haven't heard about it is that it's got a soul, and that makes all the difference.

Incubus, Ray Russell (1976) - Wish more vintage novels were this outrageously tasteless and fun to read. Gruesomely sexual and terribly sexist... or sexy. I can't decide which.

The October Country
, Ray Bradbury (1955) - A must-read horror classic. Why I didn't read this 20-odd years ago I have no idea.

Echoes from the Macabre, Daphne du Maurier (1978) - Merciless stories of the random fates of men and women. The way she wields a pen is murder.

The Dark Country, Dennis Etchison (1982) - Jim Morrison once described the Doors' music as feeling "like someone not quite at home." Etchison's stories are the same... and he's not afraid to aptly quote Mr. Morrison once in a while either.

Other good stuff: Clive Barker's In the Flesh and The Inhuman Condition; the anthologies Cutting Edge and Shadows; The Tenant by Roland Topor; and Peter Straub's Ghost Story. I hope to get to review/collect some Machen, Blackwood, Crawford, and other classic writers in 2012... see you guys then.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"...the most poetical topic in the world."

"The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world."

E.A. Poe.
"The Philosophy of Composition" (1846)

Lingard by Colin Wilson (1970)
1980 Pocket Books cover art by George Ziel

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Blackwater II: The Levee by Michael McDowell (1983): In the Darkness by the Riverbed...

A few years after The Flood, the first book in the Blackwater series from the late Michael McDowell, a man named Early Haskew comes to the small Alabama town of Perdido to engineer the construction of, of course, The Levee (Avon, Feb 1983). Accepting an invitation from matriarch Mary-Love Caskey, Early moves in with her and her 33-year-old spinster daughter known as Sister. Readers know that Early has stepped into a family riven by strife and competition and manipulation, and when he is "courted" by Sister the tension rises. Mary-Love's daughter-in-law Elinor Caskey takes a dim view of Early's work, denying that a flood will ever again rise in Perdido. What does the mysterious and willful Elinor, rescued from the flood by, and now wife of, Mary-Love's son Oscar, know? How could she ever know such a thing? Well...

Meanwhile, the children play: Grace Caskey, Zaddie Sapp, and John-Robert DeBordenave, the young, mentally feeble son of one of the prominent Perdido sawmill families. Oh, the small cruelties the other youngsters inflict upon him. But another cruelty awaits him, one that pales before the taunts of thoughtless children, a cruelty beneath a foggy moon at the black river's edge and in the arms of a grimly determined woman. Definitely one of the few high points of the novel.

John Robert turned his face slowly and sadly back to the river. He stared before him at the levee construction and the muddy water that flowed silent and black behind it. What little mind and consciousness the child possessed was being burned away...

All in all, though, I didn't like The Levee nearly as much as The Flood. I was expecting another bit of chilling mystery and quiet horror; what I got was a naturalistic family (melo)drama set in a small Alabama town in the 1920s. It's not really horror, as it focuses on the daily lives of its characters; only nominally does it feature the whispery supernatural aspects of the first volume. The story drifts along lazily without any real suspense in the conflicts between the various characters: Elinor and Early; two new characters, James Caskey's ex-sister-in-law Queenie Strickland and her thuggish husband Carl; Mary-Love and just about every other person in Perdido. Those conflicts are there, you just don't feel it, McDowell doesn't get under the skin where it counts.

1985 Corgi UK edition, cover art by Terry Oakes

McDowell has an easy understanding of the lengths to which some people - especially Southern women - will go to manipulate others in order to gain or regain power and respect and authority. It reads like a mild soap opera - everything is detailed in such a plain, straightforward manner that honestly it got boring, as if McDowell were simply biding time, building his dramatic arcs for later use. His style becomes more than serviceable and quite convincing when writing about the strange or supernatural, which this second volume mostly lacks. Despite my disappointment with The Levee overall, I haven't been put off the Blackwater series, and I look forward to finishing it in the new year. Speaking of the new year, I hope to acquire copies of his other novels, like Cold Moon over Babylon (1980) and Katie (1982).

Friday, December 23, 2011

Death Tour by David J. Michael (1978): Come On Along, Honey

It might look like a Halloween mask on the cover but it's got a New York Times Book Review blurb! How could you resist Death Tour? It's an alligators-in-the-sewers deal by David J. Michael (don't know anything about him) but I haven't read it. I was kinda surprised to find a handful of reviews on the novel. I even found something on the artist, one Ivan Punchatz. So now you can enjoy your holiday well-contented with horror fiction lore! You're welcome.
Ooh, hardcover!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Year's Best Horror Stories Series: The 1970s

The Year's Best Horror Stories series ran for over two decades, from 1971 till 1994, collecting what one hoped actually were the year's best horror stories. Before Karl Edward Wagner picked up the mantle as editor in 1980 with volume eight, the series had two other editors: Richard Davis and then Gerald W. Page. But it's just the cover art I'm interested in for this post, not the stories within. Artist Hans Arnold's cover for the 1975 reprint (at least I think it's the reprint; I've found conflicting info on publication years) of the first in the series, seen above, evokes a nice balance of horror, dark fantasy, romance, and fairy tale. In other words (I think), "A witch's brew of sf grue"! First few times I looked at this cover I didn't even notice the rotting crone behind the crimson-eyed Victorian girl weeping blood... Karel Thole's surreal yet rather tame cover for the original 1972 paperback doesn't have nearly the same impact - but the names Matheson and Bloch and, uh, Tubb beckon. I wonder how many science fiction fans, the people who would normally buy books from the DAW line, were interested? Arnold returns for Series II (1974) and wham-bam, gives us an impressive double image of Mssrs. Jekyll and Hyde. Pretty cool. And an intro from Sir Chris? That's class. But the word "series" I find confusing; "volume" would be more accurate, no? With the third book in the series, the famous Michael Whelan brought his talents to the party; Series III (1975) seems more science fictiony to me than horror fictiony, and rather prefigures the cover of King's Night Shift. But this is apparently the "chill-of-the-year book" so who am I to say? Author Gerald W. Page's tenure as editor began with Series IV (1976), and Whelan contributed another cover, still with SF elements - I mean, behind that guy's head, that's no moon. There are some bats, though, I'll give it that. Okay, Whelan's cover for Series V (1977) is fucking metal as fuck. I mean, FUCK YEAH. You just know Steve Harris was grooving on this artwork after a few puffs while plonking away on his bass. Yee-haaawwwgggghhh... cowboy corpse comin' for ya! Series VI is from '78, and King gets the cover, of course (anybody else remember the short-lived horror/western mashup called "cowpunk"?). And finally a truly horrific cover for Series VII (1979), Whelan once more, this time not shying away from gut-wrenching (literally!) horror whatsoever. Thank the infernal gods below! Oh, before I go, anybody got a spare $300 lying about? You say you do? Then check this out.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Blackwater I: The Flood by Michael McDowell (1983): When You're Lost in the Rain and It's Eastertime Too

What Easter but that first in Jerusalem had dawned so bleakly, or stirred less hope in the breasts of those who had witnessed the rising of that morning's sun?

It is the early morning of Easter Sunday, 1919, and the Perdido and Blackwater rivers of Perdido, Alabama have flooded the small town - leaving only the spires and roofs and chimneys of the town's buildings to be seen above the foul and debris-choked waters. But a small boat containing Oscar Caskey and his black servant Bray Sugarwhite, two men rowing through the wreckage looking for anyone who may not have fled to higher ground days before when the rains began. Suddenly, in an upper-story room of the Osceola Hotel, Oscar catches sight of a redheaded woman - whom he had not seen when he first glanced inside the room. She seems to appear instantaneously, out of nowhere. Upon pulling her into the boat, she says she has survived in this room since the flood began, having apparently slept through the warnings several days before. Bray is suspicious of this survivor, Elinor Dammert, while Oscar is awkwardly intrigued. And Elinor will bring suspicion and intrigue to Perdido; especially indeed to all the ladies of Perdido.

And so begins The Flood (Avon, Jan 1983), the first book of Blackwater, a serialized Southern gothic/horror saga from cult paperback horror writer Michael McDowell. The second chapter is simply titled "The Ladies of Perdido," and we meet them all, from every age and class and color, but at the top is not, as one might expect, Annie Bell Driver, the Baptist Hard-Shell minister, but Mary-Love Caskey, Oscar's mother and part owner of the Caskey sawmill fortune. There's also Sister Caskey, Mary-Love's young spinster daughter, and other women whose husbands run the two other sawmills in town. Gossip flies about Elinor and her burgeoning relationship with Oscar, Perdido's "first gentleman," a kind and courtly man employed by his uncle James, Mary-Love's brother-in-law, at the family lumber mill. Unsurprisingly he is perplexed by Elinor's mysterious arrival: 

"Why did you come to Perdido? Perdido is at the end of the earth. Who comes to Perdido but to write me a check for lumber?"
"I guess the flood brought me," Elinor laughed.
"Have you experienced a flood before this?"
"Lots," she replied. "Lots and lots..."

At 189 pages, The Flood is a solid read with McDowell's sure hand settling us into this genteel sawmill town now besieged by natural, and perhaps unnatural, tragedy. The machinations and manipulations of the Caskeys are fascinating as McDowell develops them economically, without getting bogged down in psych 101 or a backstory of neuroses. Mary-Love has a house built for the not-so-surprising marriage of Oscar and now-schoolteacher Elinor, but will not sign the deed over to them; Mary-Love keeps Sister always under her thumb in a contradictory position; Mary-Love attempts to sully James's erstwhile wife Genevieve's reputation as that of a selfish drunk. McDowell well understands Southern life: how the land and the rain and the flood stain lives, and how family power predominates, especially matriarchal power (which features strongly also in his The Amulet (1979) and The Elementals (1981)):

Oscar knew that Elinor was very much like his mother: strong-willed and dominant, wielding power in a fashion he could never hope to emulate. That was the great misconception about men... there were blinds to disguise the fact of men's real powerlessness in life. Men controlled the legislatures, but when it came down to it, they didn't control themselves... Oscar knew that Mary-Love and Elinor could think and scheme rings around him. They got what they wanted. In fact, every female on the census rolls of Perdido, Alabama got what she wanted. Of course no man admitted this; in fact, didn't even know it. But Oscar did...

If this makes Blackwater sound more like a soap opera than a horror novel, I can see why you'd think so. But fear not: the creeps come, oh do they. Quietly McDowell stacks mystery upon mystery in a precisely calculated manner that keeps the reader turning pages, without straining credibility. Mary Bell Driver discovers Elinor naked submerged in the muddy red waters of the Perdido, undergoing some transformation. A young boy is swept up into the powerful junction between the Blackwater and Perdido and drowns, perhaps by something that lives at the bottom of the whirlpool, where it grabbed you so tight your arms got broken and then it licked the eyeballs right out of your head. There are those things and more. The foreboding black, gray, and red menace of gloom and doom on the cover are no cheat; you get what's promised there. 

Michael McDowell (1950 - 1999)

So far, McDowell's got me hooked. In cheaper paperback originals - and some hardcover bestsellers - chapters end with ridiculous cliffhangers, but McDowell ends his on some oblique note of unease or flat statement of uncomfortable fact, whether it be death, dismemberment, or a stand of water oak trees planted by Elinor that seem to grow overnight. Unassumingly soap operatic in its human conflicts, it does not hammer home horror; it insinuates and alludes and caresses. I know I can trust him as an author. The situations and the characters drive the narrative, not the other way around, which makes The Flood so readable.

Don't know why I was never interested in the books when I used to see countless copies of them in my old used bookstore; besides those unique covers I guess I thought they were cheap. Without the guilt or cheapness, without falsity or contrivance, this first volume in the uniquely serialized Blackwater saga bodes very, very well for the rest of the series... and bodes very, very grimly for all of Perdido's drowning souls.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Satan Whispers "Evil" with The Devil's Breath

See, I told you!

All kidding aside, this is a quick post as I've begun reading a vintage '80s horror saga, a multi-volume series by an unfortunately neglected, and now late, Southern author.... Human forces war against nature's ravages, a dead woman's legacy, and an awesome, blood-curdling dismemberment. That's just the tagline! Hot damn.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sleep by Lynn Biederstadt (1986): For I Will Walk Among Your Dreams

Fearless photojournalist Matt Wicker earned a Pulitzer Prize for his daring picture of a firefighter engulfed by a wall of flame. Bad dreams rarely frighten Matt, until he finds himself ruled by Sleep, a demon within that releases a deeply buried blood thirst...

Oh, it's "a horror story" - why, I never would have guessed. Never heard of this book or author till the other day, when I stumbled upon the Paperjacks edition in all its tacky, gaudy, overwrought cover art "glory" (thanks to British illustrator Ian Miller) The hardcover is fine, its allusion to Fuseli's The Nightmare complete - but I wonder what Ms. Biederstadt herself thought of that paperback cover. Nightmarish awake or asleep indeed.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Nightmare in Red (1981): The Strange Case of Jacqueline Marten

Here's a true tale of woe and horror in the publishing world: Playboy Press published dozens of paperbacks throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s, till its line was bought by Putnam and became part of their Berkley list. Boring behind-the-scenes stuff, yes, but one thing Playboy had done at its height was publish many titles that were basically historical romances with some darker, perhaps supernatural aspects to them, and present them as horror/occult paperbacks. Shameless! Outrageous! Unacceptable!

Well, I just found out about Nightmare in Red, and pity poor Jacqueline Marten: originally her title for this romance novel was Let the Men Stay Home, then it was Bryarly... but Playboy of course wanted to cash in on the occult craze of the day, so they gave the paperback a garish horror-themed cover and retitled it Nightmare in Red. Who could resist such an aggressive cover image?! (Very Alucarda if you ask me). It was such a crude marketing ploy that Marten literally cried when she saw the paperback for the first time. Fortunately for her, Pocket Books reprinted it in 1988 under the title Bryarly with a more accurate romance-y cover.

And that wasn't the first time! In 1979 Playboy had published her novel Visions of the Damned and presented it in the same manner, although this one isn't quite as tacky - but it does name-check the bestselling Reincarnation of Peter Proud. It too was reprinted by in '88 Pocket as Forevermore. Both Nightmare and Visions are considered precursors of that whole "paranormal romance" sub-sub-subgenre. Fortunately these two novels got good reviews in the romance genre, even with their utterly inappropriate cover art, which ensured their republication by more reputable publishers. Oh, Playboy: so very very naughty! And not in the hot way.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Karl Edward Wagner Born Today 1945

Today Too Much Horror Fiction celebrates another birthday, this one of a favorite writer and editor in the horror field, the late lamented Karl Edward Wagner. Happily I just found out that Centipede Press will be collecting all of Wagner's horror tales into two volumes: limited editions with illustrations by JK Potter and signed by the likes of Peter Straub and Stephen Jones. If you don't wanna shell out the big bucks for those special editions, fear not, for you can also buy them in more affordable hardcover editions: volume one, Where the Summer Ends, and volume two, Walk on the Wild Side, both set for a March 2013 publication. I absolutely love that cover at the top, Karl's smoky visage rising from an opened bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey (his early death a result of his love of imbibing, alas). All of his tales of horror will be included. Huzzah!

I've featured Wagner a few times on Too Much Horror Fiction: his paperback collections Why Not You and I? and In a Lonely Place as well as his Year's Best Horror anthologies. Usually I don't note new publications, particularly from a publisher like Centipede Press, who, although they deserve accolades for keeping obscure works "in print" and for carefully selecting texts, illustrations, and even old paperback cover art, their price points leave a lot to be desired. I've really no interest in paying hundreds of dollars for books... at all. For those who can afford their pricey editions of Hell House, The Fog, Some of Your Blood, 'Salem's Lot, The Other, or The Search for Joseph Tully, great, but I'm happy scouring used bookstores and library sales and the internets looking for that lost forgotten classic, and then paying about $2 for it...

Friday, December 2, 2011

Brian Lumley: The Lovecraftian Titus Crow Paperback Covers

On this day in the year 1937 the stars were right and born of man and woman was Brian Lumley, a British human whose tales of Lovecraftian and vampiric mayhem and mystery have been part of our beloved horror fiction for decades now. In addition to his ever-popular epic Necroscope series (many moons ago I got about 100 pages into the first volume and was overwhelmed by what I recall as ESP sensitives and Cold War espionage - topics which make me deliriously bored), Lumley added deeply and uniquely to the Cthulhu Mythos. Unlike the usual whey-faced antiquarian professor or amateur genaeologist that populate the Providence Gentleman's tales, Lumley's characters - particularly one Titus Crow - face the octopoid and batrachian obscenities with courage and high good humor, neither of which Lovecraft supplied in any real capacity.

Honestly I've not read any of these vintage-looking science-fiction horror paperbacks; I have however seen recent trade paperback editions that collect these and other Titus Crow stories. Guess which I prefer?

The Burrowers Beneath (at top, Daw 1974, art Tim Kirk) is a perfectly conceived landscape of Lovecraftiana; next, The Transition of Titus Crow (Daw 1975, art Michael Whelan). Also see a UK paperback of Burrowers, from Grafton with art by Alan Hood.

Third: A Clock of Dreams (Jove 1978), which looks more like a contemporary fantasy, particularly with note of the legendary Philip K. Dick and the mighty Harlan Ellison, definitely two writers of genre the who'd carved their own niches in that speculative field. Dude's beard gives a real hearty '70s sensitive masculinity vibe too. I'm safely guessing this novel takes place in Lovecraft's Dreamland of Kadath, Celephaïs, Sarnath and who can forget the Plateau of Leng? Good times for all, I'm sure.

Spawn of the Winds (Jove 1978), is apparently more of a Robert E. Howard-style men's adventure, even in prose style, despite the in the terrifying tradition of H.P. Lovecraft tag. With its cover art by Vallelejo - a polar bear? dude - how could it not be? Lumley apparently deepened the Mythos in a way few other writers did, even though it sounds like he deepened it in a direction I have no interest in, both by adding derring-do fisticuffs and fantastical alien fairie princesses and more insight into otherdimensional deities. I like my Mythos dank and sepulchral and maddening, thank you! The title font makes it look like a historical romance.

Same goes for In the Moons of Borea (Jove 1979): this is not the kind of Lovecraft-inspired fiction that I crave, seems like Edgar Rice Burroughs got in there somehow. And we all know old HPL would want nobody bare-assin' it on the cover of one of his books! Fine for some readers, not so much me. Ah well. I like those early DAW covers, as this UK paperback of the final volume in the Titus Crow series, Elysia: The Coming of Cthulhu (1989/Grafton 1993 with George Underwood art) recalls.

Cthlulhoid tentacles crawling, all evil, upon a coffin which contains... what? Humanity? Our world? The universe? Don't even bother telling me if I'm wrong. And finally, a '90s Tor paperback for Lumley's many short stories through the decades, the awesomely-titled Fruiting Bodies and other Fungi. That's a missed opportunity title for an aged Arkham House edition if I ever heard one!

Brian Lumley