Thursday, June 23, 2011

Strange Seed by T.M. Wright (1978): Strange Eyes Fill Strange Rooms

It's rare that I'm at a loss for words after reading a horror novel of any kind. Usually I can gather an argument somehow, pro or con, or even just wing a review going by gut instinct. But in the case of Strange Seed, a vintage horror paperback that's garnered a fair reputation over several decades as an effective example of "quiet horror," I'm a bit baffled. T.M. Wright's first novel, published by Playboy Press Paperbacks in 1980, is a subtle and even obtuse tale of nature and its effects on the human psyche. Or maybe it's about the disintegration and reintegration of personhood. Or the ineffable and alluring evil of natural perfection. Or perhaps it's just about a couple's crappy misadventure in the country. It's kinda up for grabs, folks.

Original hardcover from Everest House

The setup is simple enough: newlyweds Paul and Rachel Griffin escape from the stress of city life to the countryside, moving into Paul's childhood home in upstate New York. There they meet Hank Lumas, the neighboring handyman who remembers the tragedy of the Schmidts, the family who lived there after Paul's father died. Lumas doesn't think the Griffins will be able to adjust to life so far removed from "civilization," but Paul is determined, grimly so, to prove him wrong.

...the day the Schmidt woman threw herself from the second-floor window, followed soon afterward by her husband - those small deaths proved what Lumas had contended all along: Some folks can learn to accept what happens here, and some can't. Some can't shake what the cities do to them...

1987 Tor reprint

Then the odd, silent child from the forest appears in the Griffins' kitchen, naked, mute, its eyes and face unwholesomely perfect, harmonic, hypnotic. The boy appears from nowhere, and Rachel thinks as she realizes she can't look away, He is some wild creature that's gotten into the house, and the only thing human about him is his form. And there are more of them, and while they don't speak, they are excellent mimics, which makes for some chilling confrontations for those unfortunate enough to run across them in the woods...

One thing I've found while reading '70s horror is that in general it tends to be better written than '80s horror; it's obvious the "horror boom" of the later decade allowed the publication of many lesser authors whose talents were wanting. Wright's style may be enigmatic and oblique but it's definitely literate, allusive, even poetic. He melds scenes of the heartless natural world with the slow-burn collapse of the Griffins' relationship, and the letter Rachel writes to her mother throughout the novel gives insight into her hopes as well as her denial. Why Wright was doing this felt too vague to grasp; the allusive becomes elusive.

However Wright strains credibility when the Griffins accept the weird "earth children" as part of their new world, even when, after death, Paul has to bury them beyond the house. That really threw me off, but just as Wright does that, he also tightens up the narrative and his prose gets sharper as the story begins to close. A decidedly erotic undertone makes its appearance and we do get some sort of ultimate explanation of the eerie events. That was a relief.

Overall, Strange Seed made me feel off-center quite often, as I was not sure what I was reading. The cover art of both editions makes you think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Children of the Damned, but that's not really the case. Stephen King included it in his horror fiction appendix in Danse Macabre, and has compared Wright to Ramsey Campbell and Michael McDowell, which I can sorta see. Strange Seed is unlike other horror novels I've read recently, I'm just hesitant to say whether I liked it or not. Well, that'll happen. For a more positive take on Wright's stuff, be sure to check out this Phantom of Pulp post.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday I'm in Love: The Ladies of Paperback Gothics

Though I've never read a word of these novels, I can't say I'm immune to the darker charms of the vintage cover art of the Gothic-romance novel, so popular in the 1960s and early 1970s. Long after midnight, with their ivory flesh and smoldering eyes, in flowing gowns and shawls, these ladies sweep down castle steps and through foggy moors, flushed with eroticized terror hoping to escape some unnamed threat above. The women evoke Jackie O, Liz Taylor, Barbara Steele, Vampira, Morticia Addams... More, please. If you can't get enough either, see here, here, and here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King (1985): Many Dead at Many Scenes

"I got to thinking about cannibalism one day - because that's the sort of thing guys like me sometimes think about - and my muse once more evacuated its magic bowels on my head. I know how gross that sounds, but it's the best metaphor I know, inelegant or not..."
King on his 1982 story "Survivor Type"

Does that sum up Stephen King or does that sum up Stephen King? I mean really. Gathering stories that he'd written from his earliest days as a writer until the mid-1980s, Skeleton Crew is King's second collection. You've probably read it, right? Right. If you're like me you pored over it, trying to figure out the inner mechanics of King's seemingly effortless storytelling and characters so real you could almost smell the Black Label on their breath. I was 15 or 16 when I read Skeleton Crew for the first time, which is about the perfect age for stories featuring such an assortment of giant primordial bugs and psychos masquerading as regular folks.

Without a doubt, the opening novella "The Mist" is one of King's best and simply one of my favorite stories in all the English language. It first appeared in the 1980 anthology Dark Forces; in Skeleton Crew it appears mildly rewritten, most noticeably in the final sentences, but that doesn't change much. I can lose myself in that story again and again and again; at this point I think it's fused with my DNA. "The Mist" is deliriously fantastic and fatalistic, ridiculous and sublime, all at once. Who can ever forget those two Cyclopean legs going up and up into the mist like living towers...? Not me, friends and neighbors, not me.

"Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" is another favorite, an old-timer's tale of a uniquely desirable woman whose search for the quickest route around town leads her through a landscape not on any earthly map. Dig what the narrator says about "the Todd woman": "I like a woman who will laugh when you don't have to point her right at the joke, you know." While King is aware of the "wonky science" in "The Jaunt," it remains an icily unsettling SF tale of the "history" of teleportation, related by a father to his family as they prepare to "jaunt" to Mars. Enter one portal, get disintegrated, and come out the other, whether it's across the room or across the galaxy. The climax is one of King's most notorious; a fondly remembered shock of sheer madness.

Other fondly remembered shocks for lots of fans are "The Raft" and the above-mentioned "Survivor Type," stories that are inimitably King but also hark back to the blackly-humored grotesqueries of EC horror comics, although "The Raft" also has a strangely elegiacal tone, especially in its strange and doomed refrain of "Do you love?" What else would you expect from a story about a ravenous bit of oily muck in an inviting lake? He referred to "Survivor Type" in Danse Macabre as an example of a story he didn't think he'd ever be able to publish, but it was, finally, in a Charles L. Grant anthology. A surgeon/drug smuggler/junkie ends up a castaway on a little spit of land with little hope of rescue. His supplies? His medical kit, some heroin, and a near-superhuman will to survive...

King's influences come hard and fast in Skeleton Crew: "Gramma" and of course "The Mist" have the merest whisper of Lovecraft. The echo of Shirley Jackson is loud and clear in "Here There Be Tygers," and Charles Beaumont gets a sort of retake in the jazz-based "The Wedding Gig," which reminded me of Beaumont's classic "Black Country." "Nona" is pure James M. Cain or Cornell Woolrich noir, complete with a drifter, his sordid and alienated past, and the mysterious femme fatale he meets on the road. Even Peter Straub's Chowder Society seems to appear in "The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands." And do you hear an echo of Harlan Ellison's jaunty modern fantasy in the title "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" too? Despite their familiarity, these stories are captivating and still purely King. When the young narrator of "Nona" beats the unholy shit out of a road-scarred trucker in a diner parking lot, you can practically taste the gravel and blood in your teeth.

The source for the cover art by Don Brautigam, a long-forgotten child's toy wreaks its horror in "The Monkey," terrifying an adult man who thought it forever gone. What would that toy say if it had a chance? Stephen King knows:

Thought you got rid of me, didn't you? But I'm not that easy to get rid of, Hal... We were made for each other, just a boy and his pet monkey, a couple of good old buddies... I came to you, Hal, I worked my way along the country roads at night and the moonlight shone off my teeth at three in the morning and I left many people Dead at many Scenes. I came to you, Hal, I'm your Christmas present, so wind me up, who's dead...?

"The Reach" is mainstream King, a heartfelt story of real places and real people and ghosts that haunt not houses but the human heart; it ends this collection on a high note. As for the poems "Paranoid: A Chant" and "For Owen," I really can't say much whatsoever. A handful of stories here date from the late 1960s, such as "Cain Rose Up" and "The Reaper's Image," milder works that still point toward his bestselling future.

Still I'm not blind to King's weaknesses as a writer: he can be corny and overly familiar in the middle of a tale of creeping dread, using dull down-home humor in asides that almost seem like self-mockery. His acknowledged tendency to overwriting, to bloat and stuffing, can deflate the delicate suspension of disbelief one needs for horror fiction and render a story inert. He can be shallow and perhaps glib, showing his pulp roots. And sometimes his characters talk too damn much, or he gets mired in their italicized thought processes. And perhaps I'm simply not quite as enamored of drunken Maine rednecks and their fatal shenanigans as I once was.

I can't finish up without mentioning that I really enjoy King's intro (PS: There really was more beer in the fridge, and I drank it myself after you were gone that day) and end notes. When I was a young aspiring fiction writer, I looked to King because he gave a sort of behind-the-scenes glimpse of the writing life in these pieces, which I often got more out of than his stories (much the same is true for me with the mighty Harlan Ellison). Personable and folksy, he lets you in on his writing process, how his brain spits up (or shits out) ideas, how he submits his stories and how many times they were rejected. He's well aware of his weaknesses and foibles but also knows he's got an unparalleled imagination that is often more powerful and demanding than he knows what to do with. Skeleton Crew might not - might not - reach the rarefied heights of Night Shift, but it's still an essential read for horror fiction fans. As if you could be one and not already have read it...

"I guess Faulkner never would have written anything like this, huh? Oh, well."

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

RIP Alan Ryan (1943-2011), author of Dead White and Cast a Cold Eye

Bronx-born horror writer Alan Ryan has died of pancreatic cancer, according to reports from Shocklines, Nancy Holder, and Brian Keene. Last year I read and liked his third novel Dead White; his other novels are Panther (1981), The Kill (1982), and Cast a Cold Eye (1984), the last of which sits on my shelf so far unread.

Recently I've a read a couple of Ryan's many short stories, published throughout the 1980s in various anthologies like Shadows and Whispers. As an editor he compiled Halloween Horrors (1986), a fave of my teenage years The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories (1987), chilling stories by famous female writers in Haunting Women (1988), as well as the first in the long-running horror anthology series Night Visions, In the Blood (1984).

"... horror fiction offers some pretty extreme critical situations, extreme in the sense of being even more than life-threatening. It offers a set of conventions that allow a character to be challenged in a way that threatens perhaps everything he believes in - very basic things, including his grip on reality. I'm interested in seeing what characters will do when confronted by some ultimate evil - not something as trivial as losing a job or a girlfriend, the sorts of things that so much mainstream fiction is about - but really dark, unfathomable evil, evil that is cruel and random in the way it frightens and inflicts pain."

From Ryan's interview in Faces of Fear (1985).

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Horror Paperbacks of Fritzen Ravenswood

Who the hell is Fritzen Ravenswood, and why did this writer produce only two Zebra paperbacks? I don't think anyone knows. First, "Fritzen Ravenswood" is, obviously, a pen name* (update: actually, it's not; see comments below), but what a pen name (why, it's more impressive than Garth Marenghi). At least, I think it's a pen name; don't you? I suppose it's entirely possible the author's parents foresaw their child's future as a pulp horror author, and wanted to provide the kid with an appropriately morbid moniker. The titles of the only two works attributed to Ravenswood, The Spawning and The Witching, both published in 1981, feature the gerund form that was inescapable in cheap horror novels post The Shining.

1989 Zebra reprint

At the top you can see the typical horror-fiction creepy twins - looking like the Holland brothers from The Other - bathed in blood with the tagline They were the children of her demon lover. Coool. For The Witching, there are exquisitely detailed hands bound together... Obviously these two novels were published before Zebra's famously ridiculous skeletons began cavorting about the covers in all manner of scenarios. Like this one:

Although I don't think the skeleton here is cavorting as much as he is frozen in utter embarrassment...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Prodigal by Melanie Tem (1991): A Headful of Strangers

Dig on that cover for a second: the expressionistic image of a body in torment and a mind in anguish trapped inside a rudimentary house, the title Prodigal in a bold silvery-red font. This is horror cover art that accurately depicts the novel it adorns, as well as standing out from the usual clich├ęs like ghosts and hauntings and evil leering children or psychos and demons. The person is not screaming from external fear but from some inner disturbance, relentless and unformed (Rage hot and cold, red and flashing silver and every color, bursting out of her ears and mouth and vagina. She was screaming). This kind of mental landscape is well-explored by first-time author Melanie Tem, and Prodigal is another excellent title from the Dell/Abyss horror line, one that (shared with Kathe Koja’s The Cipher) won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel.

In his critical blurb inside, Dan Simmons compares Tem to Shirley Jackson, and he is not far wrong. Tem's interest in the strange and volatile dynamics of family life and death, of young girls and women and mothers maneuvering treacherous grounds of growing up, is prime Jackson territory. She may not have Jackson's iciness or dry wit, but Tem can certainly create a believable 12-year-old as a main character, much as Jackson did in We Have Always Lived in the Castle; here, Lucy Brill, whose two elder siblings, brother Ethan and sister Rae, both troubled teens, have inexplicably disappeared. Gone missing. Separately. This loss will rend the Brill family asunder.

Tem reveals some of the true horrors of childhood: the incomprehension of the adult world, the white-hot hatred of parents, the first blush of sexuality and crushes, the bitterness between siblings, the overwhelming desires to both flee the home and to burrow into its safety. But Lucy is learning how adults can barely comprehend the enormity of the world's unpredictability themselves, nor can they keep their own children safe forever… or even at all.

If she thought about home, there were Mom and Dad and Ethan and Rae and danger and sadness and her little brothers and sisters and fear. If she thought about her friends, there were all kinds of things she didn't even understand, like boys and makeup and AIDS and college and French kissing and drugs. If she thought about herself, there was a headful of strangers.

The family learns from the social worker who’d attended to Ethan that Ethan has died, most likely from a drug overdose. Which is bad enough but Lucy, Lucy is visited by his… ghost? Her own guilt and fears? Eventually even her parents confess to sometimes seeing the shades of their two missing children (hence, I'm assuming, the title). Lucy is terrified that their disappearances mean more to her parents than her own life, or the lives of the younger Brill children. In her rebellion, Lucy turns to Jerry, the social worker who she can't seem to stop thinking and writing in her diary about. Then Rae's handwriting appears in Lucy's diary, messages from... where, exactly?

2005 hardcover

Now, it took me a while to really get into Prodigal; in the first few chapters it seemed unsteady, pacing a bit off, some of the family dialogue seems too rote; but bit by bit Tem's writing grew stronger and Lucy's personality more vivid. Several disturbing scenes of unexpected horror, of everyday mental anguish, have lingered in my memory since I first read Prodigal in 1991; I won't spoil them here. The subterranean climax feels odd but right, a nightmarish menagerie of dirty runaways (They looked like pictures Lucy had seen of fetuses in a womb) and a parent in jeopardy, as Lucy goes down, down, down to confront, to defeat, for once and all, that headful of strangers that haunts her childhood so.