Wednesday, April 27, 2011

You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory

... but you sure can put 'em around a creepy kid, doll, or infant. Helps if you're a skeleton, too, but it's not required.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Julia by Peter Straub (1975): Mama, Where's Your Little Daughter?

It's been some time since I read this whispery and subtle novel of a dead child who may or may not be haunting her sad, confused, dominated mother, so my recollection of it is just as hazy and diffuse. Julia was Peter Straub's third novel and his first that incorporated any kind of horror or supernatural doings. Definitely paved the way for his later novels. The accidental death of little Kate Lofting, in the bright kitchen of her family's home, is shocking, bloody, prosaic, heartbreaking. Afterward, her mother Julia, an American, spends time in a mental hospital and then abandons her English husband Magnus (all-too-obvious name) as she flies to London and purchases an old home, eager to start a new life... but is the young girl she starts to see in the mirrors her beloved Kate, or some other manifestation...? Or the child in the nearby park, whom the other children shun, is she...?

Unsurprisingly, Julia has a dreamy and indistinct feel, sort of modern Gothic, complete with a callous and cruel husband, his evil plotting sister, and their ineffectual brother to whom Julia runs to for understanding. The specter of a lost, malevolent child will feature largely in Straub's Ghost Story in just a few short years. In 1977 the novel was adapted into the little-seen (at least, I've never seen it) movie Full Circle, aka The Haunting of Julia, with, if I imagine correctly, the perfectly-cast Mia Farrow as Julia. I don't think any of these paperback images quite accurately captures the slightly hallucinatory haunting-ness quality of the novel itself, but then, that'd hardly be the first time.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Revenge of the Manitou by Graham Masterton (1979): If the Kids Are United...

It's no surprise that after the success of his debut horror novel The Manitou in 1975 that Graham Masterton would want to return to his Lovecraft-inspired mythology of Native American medicine men and their attempts to wreak vengeance on the evil, plundering white man. Invoking the unpronounceable names of inhuman gods and demons from the great beyond, these powerful priests are virtually unstoppable, and can reincarnate themselves in unsuspecting humans almost at will. Perfect for sequelization! Revenge of the Manitou (Pinnacle 1982), however, is not that perfect sequel. I felt it lacked the eyebrow-raising absurdity of the original novel, its sense of fun and menace as it dispensed with rational believability in the service of a ripping horror yarn. Revenge was all too easy to put down for a day or two, as it retreads ground already covered in the original, and doesn't really bring any unique characters to the proceedings.

Sphere UK 1980

The story has plenty of potential: a boy named Toby Fenner begins to freak out his parents when he and his classmates start seeing ghostly apparitions, having nightmares, drawing horrendous pictures in crayon, and speaking in guttural voices about nonsense like "the day of dark stars" and "the prophecy buried on the stone redwood." Cue more mysterious and deadly occurrences that convince the boy's father, Neil, that his son is being controlled by the dread Misquamacus, the most powerful medicine man, like, ever. He, and 20 other great old Indian medicine men of enormous occult skills, have taken over the bodies of Toby and his young friends in an attempt to call down, using all their combined powers, those amorphous entities of darkness and tentacles (the most fearsome of which has the oddly familiar-sounding name of Ka-tua-la-hu) that will demand the blood of the white man for all his destruction of the Indian way of life. Masterton puts it all too plainly:

The day of the dark stars begins at noon and lasts through to the following noon. It's supposed to be 24 hours of chaos and butchery and torture, the day when the Indian people have their revenge for hundreds of years of treachery and slaughter and rape, all in one huge massacre.

Tor Books 1987

Uh-oh. Mostly the novel feels a bit half-hearted and even under-written in places, although things pick up with the return of that sham occultist Harry Erskine (and I now see a bemused, cynical Tony Curtis in my head after watching him as Erskine in the movie version of The Manitou) and his pal Singing Rock, the modern-day medicine man who uses his powers for good, you know. The lurid cover of the Pinnacle paperback at top (by Paul Stinson) depicts the climax: a schoolbus on a treacherous bridge with the possessed schoolchildren battling it out against Erskine, Fenner, and Singing Rock, as well as a bunch of unfortunate cops and National Guardsmen (the usual expendables). The climax is violent and grotesque, but simply not as exciting as the original novel's; as I said, seems too much a retread.

If you're a Masterton completist you've probably already read Revenge; if not, I'd say you could maybe skip it. However, I'm still eager to read his other titles like The Djinn, Picture of Evil, and Pariah, but I think I'm done visiting with the likes of Misquamacus. As Tony Curt--I mean Erskine hilariously understates at the end, "I don't want to meet that goddamned Misquamacus again as long as I live."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971): Begat Your Cunting Daughters

From the cab stepped an old man. Black raincoat and hat and a battered valise. He paid the driver, then turned and stood motionless, staring at the house... standing under streetlight glow, in mist, like a melancholy traveler frozen in time.

The preeminent 1970s bestselling horror novel. Millions of copies adorning nightstands and coffee tables everywhere. The unfocused cover photograph of a young girl in torment. The exotic, sibilant title--exorcist--why, the word itself sounded evil. If you were of an impressionable age at the time, surely the iconic imagery of the book alone made a nightmarish impact, even if you didn't read it. Perhaps even more so, because I'm not even sure The Exorcist, the fifth novel from William Peter Blatty, is a horror novel. I know, I know, that old argument: what makes horror fiction, well, horror? The Exorcist has some of the most infamous moments of shock and terror in popular culture, but is horrifying readers its sole raison d'ĂȘtre? I'd argue non.

Vastly influential in the genre, as paperback horror shelves started filling up with books adorned with endless possessed little girls in frilly smocks and Mary Janes, The Exorcist helped make satanism and the occult everyday notions. With relish fans ate up stories of innocent young women defiled, but in the end, saved. But the book bears little relation to literary horror before it. Somehow I don't see Blatty tucked up in bed with a worn volume of Poe or Lovecraft or Machen or the like. His forebear really seems to me to be Dostoevsky, or at least Crime and Punishment. Take Lieutenant Kinderman, the movie-loving detective. The way he tries to disarm, misdirect, and placate in his questioning to get to the truth reminded me, if I recall correctly, of Petrovich, the detective from Dostoevsky's classic. And without a doubt, Blatty's concerns bear similarity to old Fyodor's lofty theological notions of guilt, forgiveness, love, etc.

But no matter how lofty Blatty's intentions, he hasn't written a tract or a treatise; no, you just cannot stop reading; this fucker moves. At times it's thoughtful; other times it's brooding; still others, cranked up and hitting on all cylinders, smooth, confident, powerful. What struck me first was how Blatty tells his story like a journalist. The early scenes with Hollywood actress Chris MacNeil, renting a home in the DC neighborhood Georgetown while she shoots a movie, and her 12-year-old daughter Regan seem like a setup for a nonfiction piece. The slow build is pretty outstanding: the noises in the attic, Regan's casual mentioning of Captain Howdy or of her bed jumping around, a mysterious book on witchcraft that appears and disappears. The word exorcism isn't even mentioned till exactly the halfway point.

Yes, The Exorcist is much better written than I'd expected; compared to other bestsellers of the era that became movies, such as Jaws or The Godfather, it's positively a literary masterpiece. Blatty lays down a bedrock reality with a professional's writer's conviction and authority, which sells the outrageous tale; he's a storyteller who knows that in order to buy the impossible, the possible must be undeniable. He wisely makes much of the psychological/neurological explanations for Regan's ghastly and inexplicable behavior... until that becomes untenable. Denying Regan has become possessed is more ludicrous than thinking she simply has a physiological disorder; now the rational answers from doctors and psychologists sound like mumbo-jumbo: split personality, psychosomatic, epilepsy, autosuggestion, temporal lobe, neurasthenia, electroencephalograph, clonic contractions...
Then there's the famous prologue, with old (unnamed) Father Merrin on an archaeological dig in Iraq, which seems to imply, upon later reflection, that Regan's possession is incidental; Merrin and the demon Pazuzu have been on a collision course for who knows how long: Abruptly he sagged. He knew. It was coming... But darkly-natured Father Damien Karras has his own battle: his overarching guilty conscience about being unable, as a priest with a vow of poverty, to provide a comfortable living for his ailing mother. His childhood was grim, hand-to-mouth: He remembered evictions: humiliations: walking home with a seventh-grade sweetheart and encountering his mother as she hopefully rummaged through a garbage can on the corner. That's one of the most vivid descriptions of shame I've ever read.
Blatty on the set of The Exorcist, c. 1972

Ultimately, The Exorcist isn't about the nature of evil, it's not about violence and its legacy, it's not out to chill us with intimations of our own mortality, as all good horror fiction should; it's about the corrosive power of guilt and the redemptive qualities of love, wrapped up in an irresistibly glistening package of vomit, bile, foulness, and blood. It's an essential read, but whether all that makes it a horror novel or not is between, well, you and you.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Blue World by Robert R. McCammon (1990): This Isn't Really Anything I Think I Like

When it comes to the work of Robert R. McCammon, I think I'm in the minority of fans of 1980s horror fiction: I have never had my interest piqued by one of his books. He's got plenty of rabid fans who swear by Swan Song (1987) or Wolf's Hour (1989) or A Boy's Life (1992), still, even though he went on a 10-year hiatus and only recently began writing and publishing again. Despite his widespread popularity in the late '80s, he always seemed to me bland and middle-of-the-road, a writer for teenagers or hausfraus. I read a few of the stories in his only short-story collection Blue World (Pocket Books, April 1990, cover art by Jim Warren) when it came out, and remember absolutely nothing about them. But I really wanted to give him another try for this blog. Fair enough, right? Well...

UK paperback, Grafton 1990

The writing is simplistically homespun, the metaphoric descriptions amateurish, the psychological insights jejune, the storylines passable but unremarkable for the most part. His prose is so mild that I was never hooked, never captivated. The best story is probably "Nightcrawlers," about a maddened Vietnam vet whose nightmares come to life (wow, really) in an out-of-the-way diner. But the "magical Negro" and one-dimensional sentimentality of "Yellachile's Cage" seems not a patch on King's "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption." The venomous insects of "Yellowjacket Summer" are pretty nasty, and this story works in a straightforward manner. Post-apocalypticism features in "Doom City" (written for Charlie Grant's 1987 anthology Greystone Bay II) and "Something Passed By." Both of these are decent reads, and the mixed-up town of the latter is filled with places like Straub Street, King's Lane, Ellison Field, Barker Promenade, and McDowell Hill. Is that supposed to be funny, or clever, or...?

More: "He'll Come Knocking at Your Door" mines the territory of Joan Samson's The Auctioneer, in which a creepy dude demands payment for the townspeople's good fortune. The solitary madman of "Pin" and his murderous fantasies, and self-mutilation, are somewhat disturbing. "Makeup," "The Red House" and "I Scream Man!" are some of the tritest horror stories I've ever read. They don't suck, mind you, they're just kinda there. Never could get into "Night Calls the Green Falcon," way back when it was Schow's Silver Scream anthology. And I tried, tried to read the titular story, a 150+ page novella about a priest who falls for a porn star, but if there's one thing in this world I care about less than the tortured conscience of a priest who suddenly discovers sex is real and people like it, I don't know what it is.

"One-dimensional" is really the best way to describe these stories. I know some of them date from the early days of his career, a period he's said did not showcase his best work. But many were written for and published in this collection, after he'd become a successful writer of paperback originals for Pocket Books. And I can tell he wants you to like his stories; maybe it's that kind of eagerness, earnestness, that puts me off. As I said, McCammon's work has never appealed to me; I went into this read of Blue World hoping my impressions were wrong but found that, no, my old impressions were right: he's simply not a very interesting or inventive writer, at least not in these stories.

I need more from my horror fiction! This stuff's not trashy, it's not particularly well-written, it's not graphic, it's not haunting, it's not dangerous enough. But McCammon does have an inoffensive readability; perhaps if I'd read this when I was a young, inexperienced horror fan, say about age 13 or 14, I would have enjoyed it. But that's an impossibility no matter what since Blue World came out in 1990 when I was already 20 and well into the genre. It's sadly ironic that one of the most prolific writers of '80s paperback horror novels is one I find least essential.

Monday, April 4, 2011

John Russo: The Paperback Covers

John Russo was the co-writer of George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, and in the early 1980s Russo was determined not to let you forget that. Somehow, these slim and silvery paperback originals from Pocket Books never brought him the same respect and acclaim that Romero had in the genre. Go figure. At least the cover art was a great snapshot of '80s horror fiction: skulls with hair, skulls with candles, malevolent felines, and grasping hands. And a grasping feline hand, of course.

The Majorettes (1979) was a staple title on the shelves in the used bookstore I worked at, and I'm pretty sure Midnight (1980) made its rounds as well. I paid about $10 for that Night of the Living Dead novelization from '81 but haven't gotten around to reading it. I've got the movie memorized, why bother? I like the generic font of the titles: stark and simplistic, a promise, a threat... although Limb to Limb (1981) makes no sense; I believe the phrase is "limb from limb," no?

I got to thinking about John Russo thanks to an email I got from a Too Much Horror Fiction reader; he said The Majorettes was truly awful. Anybody got anything else to report about Russo? These books seem ready-made to haunt some '80s kids' nightmares...

And one more: Day Care (1985). Hmm... some sort of cyberpunk/horror mashup? Who knows...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ghost Story by Peter Straub (1979): Old Man Take a Look at Your Life

"What was the worst thing you've ever done?"
"I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me... the most dreadful thing..."

What more bewitching words could a horror fan want as the opening lines of a novel? There is no doubt that Peter Straub intended his breakthrough bestselling third book to be a summation and continuance of its literary forebears. Straub consciously evoked those great ghost-story tellers of antiquary: Poe, M.R. James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Ambrose Bierce, and the like. A reader doesn't have to be familiar with those writers to enjoy Ghost Story, not at all (I've really only a passing acquaintance with them myself) but I'm sure anyone who is will find Straub's allusions done with skill and respect. Just as much as Stephen King's bestselling horror novels of that day, Ghost Story, a critical and commercial success, ushered in the great era of '80s horror. Few modern horror novels can compare with its ambitions.

Back cover of 1980 Pocket Books edition

In fictional Milburn, a small town in upstate New York that's soon to be under siege by a terrifying Christmas blizzard, the members of the Chowder Society meet over whiskey and cigars to keep one another company as age creeps up on them: Frederick "Ricky" Hawthorne, Sears James, Lawrence Benedikt, John Jaffrey, and, till his death one year prior, Edward Wanderley. They are bound by a past more important than their present, a past some 50 years gone but that includes dead women and feral children. Nightmares have become prevalent for all the men since Edward's utterly unexpected death at a party for a beautiful young actress named Ann-Veronica Moore (Edward was a celebrity ghost writer - heh). Ghost stories have become their means of passing time, but they find in the town around them - and in Edward's fear-stricken face in death - hints that their past, their unholy past, is catching up with them. In distress, they write to Edward's nephew Donald Wanderley, who is, of all things, a horror writer.

Pocket Books 1994 reprint

Now I love horror fiction about horror writers! Don's novel Nightwatchers impresses the Chowder Society and is the impetus for their letter asking for aid (I'm their Van Helsing, Don wryly notes). Although this aspect isn't fully developed as it could have been, Don's creative faculties play into what happens later in the novel; it gets rather meta as the book comes full circle. He must tell a story, of course, to gain the old men's trust, and his past also reveals a relationship with a strange woman... who leaves him to be in a relationship with Don's brother David, who ends up dead. Don suspects this woman, Alma Mobley, of the worst, but can prove nothing. When the Chowder Society, or what's left of it, finally tells him the story of Eva Galli, an improbably beautiful and vexing woman they knew in their youth, and of her wretched fate, Don realizes she was a kind of shape-shifter, perhaps even our old friend the manitou. Indeed, Straub gives us a ghost, a werewolf, and a vampire, of sorts: all the horror essentials. She, and her minions, have come back, and the men are now launched into a time when madness offered a truer picture of events than sanity.

2001 Pocket Books edition. Meh.

Straub spins out his long novel in short chapters, mostly, crisscrossing between characters that, early on, can be confusing. I simply wrote the character names on my bookmark, a habit I picked up when plowing through the Russian novels I used to read before the internet came along. Once the characters came into focus for me I found Ghost Story a rich and very readable novel; Straub's style is literary without being pretentious or ostentatious, his ability to create and populate a believable setting is really second to King's if not, at times, the equal. 'Salem's Lot is, without doubt, its structural model, which is interesting: Straub is linking the great old ghost stories of yesteryear with modern large-scale horror storytelling. And while it works, I wasn't as emotionally invested in the novel as I was with his Floating Dragon. It's chilling and chilly, despite its rich tapestry of character and psychology, and remains just at a distance. This certainly could have been an intentional effect on Straub's part.

There is so much going on in Ghost Story I can only sketch out a few details that struck me as essential. Pay particular attention to the vague prologue and epilogue about a man and a little girl; they are of an illuminating piece. The vengeful manifestations of Eva Galli all take names with the initials A.M., which I'm supposing should make you think of identity, as in "I am." The old American ghost stories located the inherent sin and guilt of humanity in the wild woods of New England; this is where Lewis Benedikt confronts a deadly fantasy of his life's guiltiest moment. There is Sears James's astonishing story of the nightmarish little boy Fenny Bate, as filthy and ignorant as our most prehistoric forebears, who evokes his pity but ensures his doom. Other inhabitants of Milburn will meet frigid, horrid deaths as they pay for a sin that was not theirs, against which they have no defense, but is as much a part of the landscape as the fields and forests. Could you defeat a cloud, a dream, a poem?

Lovely UK cover art by Tom Adams (thanks to Trashotron)

As its rudimentary title implies, Ghost Story wants to be an urtext of horror, encompassing all the stories that have come before it... and that will come after it. One supernatural battle takes place in a movie theater showing the first modern horror film, Night of the Living Dead. The striking similarity to 'Salem's Lot and, in one tiny reference in the epilogue, to The Shining, is intentional; old and new in one story. The shape-shifting obscenities that terrorize Milburn and the Chowder Society have been with us forever: You are at the mercy of your human imaginations, and when you look for us, you should always look in the places of your imagination... where we make up stories to exorcise demons, but we forget who those demons are. In these tales within tales, characters within characters, mirrors within mirrors, the conceit is that which haunts us is only ourselves: I am a ghost.