Friday, February 25, 2011

Dell/Abyss Books: The Paperback Covers

It was 20 years ago this month that the Dell/Abyss line of contemporary horror fiction began publication. Yes, 20 years! Ah, I remember it well. This imprint from Dell Publishing was spearheaded by Bantam Doubleday editor Jeanne Cavelos in an attempt to give the paperback horror genre a boost of originality and conviction - and, of course, a boost in sales - as it had long been plagued by tired cliches and half-hearted imitations of better books and writers. The appropriately-named Abyss was intent on publishing works that plumbed dark depths of psychology and the supernatural not for cheap, exploitative, escapists thrills but for more disturbing and revelatory chills. This kind of horror was interiorized, found not in a Gothic mansion or small town overrun by vampires but in the blasted landscape of the human mind.

The Abyss paperback originals used striking cover design - haunting, creepy, anguished faces and tormented bodies, albeit perhaps sometimes a tad clumsy - to separate themselves from the anonymous bloody skulls, graveyards, and evil babies then on horror covers. The icon on the spine of its books was a mark of distinction; indeed, Abyss even had a mission statement:

Launched in February 1991 with Kathe Koja's stunningly bleak and unsettling The Cipher, Abyss published one title a month, ending up with more than 40 titles overall. Most of the authors were first-time novelists, or at least writers with only a few books under their belts, but in the case of MetaHorror (July 1992), an anthology edited by ever-present '80s author Dennis Etchison, the line also featured well-known horror masters. Women writers were plentiful - the most successful was easily Poppy Z. Brite, but also Tanith Lee, Nancy Holder, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Melanie Tem - and guys like Brian Hodge and Rick R. Reed really got started here. What they all had in common was a desire to do something new with horror fiction. But, for various industry reasons, Abyss folded later in the '90s and my love of current horror pretty much went with it.

Obsessed, Rick Reed (July 1991)

Deathgrip, Brian Hodge (June 1992)

I'm not exactly sure how I first heard of the Abyss books; it may have been a Linda Marotta review in Fangoria, or maybe a review from the Overlook Connection catalog. Reading Koja, Brite, Hodge, and others back then was a revelation, one of the most exciting times I've had as a horror fiction reader. I doubt all the novels and two short story collections were as "cutting edge" as promised, but I always loved the ambition and the effort. Some writers launched new careers, others weren't heard from again. I've read a handful over the years but nothing could compare to Koja's first two novels, or Hodge's Nightlife (March 1991). Still, the Dell/Abyss line was a great moment in paperback horror, and deserves to be remembered today. Most titles are readily available used, cheap (ah, except The Cipher, which has now gone to collectors' prices!) on Amazon, eBay, ABE, and the like. The following are a random sample.

Whipping Boy, John Byrne (March 1992)

Facade, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (February 1993)

Lost Futures, Lisa Tuttle (May 1992)

Post Mortem, ed. by Paul Olson and David Silva (January 1992)

X, Y, Michael Blumlein (November 1993)

Anthony Shriek, Jessica Amanda Salmonson (September 1992)

Shadow Twin, Dale Hoover (December 1991)

The Wilding, Melanie Tem (November 1992)

Tunnelvision, R. Patrick Gates (November 1991)

Making Love, Melanie Tem & Nancy Holder (August 1993)

Dusk, Ron Dee (April 1991)

Dead in the Water, Nancy Holder (June 1994)

Bad Brains, Kathe Koja (April 1992)

Shadowman, Dennis Etchison (January 1993)

You can read here a long, detailed, scholarly look at the nuts-and-bolts of the Dell/Abyss line, "The Decline of the Literary Horror Market in the 1990s and Dell's Abyss Series": What makes the Abyss line a cultural phenomenon worthwhile of study is its self-conscious positioning within the declining horror market. Its marketing strategies, text selection, and construction of a commodity identity speak volumes on the horror market and its transformation at the time.

This image thanks to Trashotron

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Son of the Endless Night by John Farris (1984): Wrestlin' with the Devil

With its wonderfully lurid paperback cover that features a blurb from Stephen King and a review quote comparing it to The Exorcist, and its artwork of both a scary-looking young girl as well as a black-winged demon, Son of the Endless Night is a quintessential 1980s horror novel. Is the little girl in jeopardy, or is she responsible for whatever evil the novel promises? Perhaps a bit of both...

Despite its 500-page length, this reads smoothly and quickly, while the writing is strong as John Farris doesn't dumb down or simplify his prose like many mainstream horror novelists. In fact, he's quite skilled at the odd description and the unexpected simile or clever metaphor. Endless Night is also partly a legal thriller, which was unique but, as far as I could tell, realistically portrayed even when, dare I say, a demon is on trial!

UK paperback, 1987

A young woman named Karyn Vale is murdered on a skiing vacation in Vermont by her boyfriend, Richard Devon, in front of a handful of witnesses who are frozen to the spot by the sheer violent intensity of the attack. Using a tire iron, Rich pulverizes the poor woman beyond recognition, breaking virtually every bone in her body. The community is horrified, but from jail Richard tearfully insists to his half brother, Conor Devon, that he wasn't in control of himself when the murder occurred, that he was not in possession of his body or his mind. Rich insists to Conor that he was only trying to help Polly. But who's Polly?

Well, she's a 12-year-old girl who Rich believes was being held captive and abused by a Satanic cult, her father a member, her father the owner of the chalet Rich and Karyn were staying at when the murder occurred. Rich tried to rescue her, failed, then led the police back to the place she was being held, to find - nothing whatsoever. The purported leader of this cult, the mysterious scarred woman Inez Cordway, with whom Rich shared a bizarre and hallucinatory evening, has now seemingly disappeared. Richard, what's going on?

Decidedly non-lurid hardcover edition, 1984

The problem is that hoary old standby of horror fiction, demonic possession. Fortunately Conor was once a priest, although he gave it up to become, of all things, a professional wrestler called Irish Bob O'Hooligan, working on the fringes of the so-called sport, drinking a bit more than he should, hurting a bit more than he should. Now into Conor's not-so-perfect family life - mostly money problems - comes an opportunity to help his beloved half brother. Convinced of Rich's innocence, Conor starts asking old seminary pals who are now bona fide priests themselves just what they know about exorcism and how in the modern world one goes about getting one. Meanwhile, Rich's young, ambitious defense attorneys are gearing up for the insanity plea, as Tommie Horatio Harkrider, a lion-maned and famous criminal lawyer, is hired by Karyn's rich parents for the prosecution. None of them, rational and reasonable to a fault, have any idea what's coming... Surely the legal world is not ready for "not guilty by reason of demonic possession" defense?

Original Tor cover, 1986

Farris is quite good at creating people with real lives in a real world; his knack for apt and earthy physical descriptions of people is more like that of, say, Robertson Davies than a horror novelist's. One character's skin tone is the color of day-old hollandaise, another has a Southern accent hock-deep in hominy grits, still another has the frosty radiance of a new penny, flaring to red along the taut bonelines. And the sex? Yeah, plenty of graphic sex, but not exploitative, not pornographic; graphic in that Farris captures the carnal thoughts that flit through our minds, as well as the pleasures and pains of the act itself. But not all of Endless Night is about humanity; indeed, Farris also excels at envisioning a demonic presence, a chaos of fire and death and insanity, of untreated wounds and charred flesh, of black vomit and cesspools and mass open graves. Of a world totally corrupt, ravaged and dead as it hurtled one last time around the sun.

Pretty cool, huh? With all its intermingled characters, sense of place and time, hints at class struggle, scenes of epic terror and violence, and its dramatic unspooling of such a large canvas of events, Endless Night is quite a bit reminiscent of some works by King and Straub. While it veers close to a sort of Catholic apologia in the climax - similar perhaps to the deux ex machina of The Stand (1978) - I still found the novel utterly engaging, the kind you simply devour over a weekend. Sure, there are some tasteless, ridiculous moments here and there (Conor's devout Catholic wife Gina finds herself battling evil forces with broadly-drawn Southern redneck fundies) but that's just what horror fiction fans want, right? Soon as we see that paperback cover art, we know what we're in for, or at least what we hope we're in for, and Son of the Endless Night gives it to us straight, no chaser.

Interior paperback art by John Melo