Friday, July 29, 2011

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988): Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement

Bought this battered, chewed-up (natch) first edition paperback copy of The Silence of the Lambs (St. Martin's Press June 1989) off the 10-cent rack at a local bookstore last week and spent the next day and a half utterly immersed in it. Larry King's "double-dare-ya" is no joke, guys, as there's no putting this one down. About 10 years ago I read Red Dragon (1981) and was duly impressed, although today I remember little of it; I put off reading Silence for so long because the movie is so etched in my - and everyone's - imagination. But what struck me most about the book is that while Thomas Harris gets credit for creating one of the great pop villains of all time, his female protagonist is every bit that villain's equal. Before Hopkins and Foster even stepped before the camera, Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling had been created and depicted with total mastery and psychological realism.

I've wondered before if Silence can be considered horror, and after reading the novel I'm still not sure if it is or not. The violence and degradation is presented so starkly that there is nary a whiff of exploitation or gleeful malevolence in Harris's intent. However, in this edition I found, the original paperback from 1989, you can see who the book was being marketed to originally, with Clive Barker's blurb emblazoned prominently on the front cover... something quite noticeable in its absence on the later movie tie-in edition.

While reading it the film buff in me marveled at the screenwriter's adaptation of such a psychologically taut and precise work; he knew just what to leave in and what to leave out. What got left out works wonderfully in the novel but would have weighed the film down: Starling's precarious place as a rookie on such a treacherous case, Crawford's dying wife, the intricacies and political jostlings of the FBI Academy, Lector's maroon eyes and six fingers on one hand, and especially, the hideous history of Jame Gumb presented in almost police-report detail.

Harris is that kind of popular writer that can move a story forward with power, with conviction, but doesn't stint on those tiny insights into human nature that convince you you're reading something real, by a writer who's lived and isn't just repeating what he's heard. Describing the crude dirty joke to Crawford that gave Gumb the serial-killer nickname "Buffalo Bill," Starling discovered she had traded feeling frightened for feeling cheap. Of the two, she preferred feeling frightened. Later, when in a rural funeral home processing the monstrously wounded victim found in a river, Crawford knows he made the right choice in plucking Starling from school to help in this case:

Crawford saw that in this place, Starling was heir to the granny women, to the wise women, the herb healers, the stalwart country women who have always done the needful, who keep the watch and when the watch is over, wash and dress the country dead.

One of the men who had a relationship with Gumb describes him well and truly, chilling in its simplicity: You always felt the room was a little emptier when he came in. Whew. That's good. And poor Catherine Martin, Gumb's current victim, who in that horrid hole dreams the dark came into her, insidious, up her nose and into her ears, damp fingers of dark proposed themselves to each opening of her body.

As for Lecter, he is quite what we saw in the movie version, although Dr. Chilton (god, that asshole!) and imposing orderly Barney both have insights into his nature that are quite penetrating: Lecter is not afraid of pain, of solitude; no, what he fears most is boredom and indignity. A mind as vast and all-consuming as Lecter's cannot bear those things, and it is with these coins that Starling attempts to bargain...

If you've seen the movie but haven't read the book thinking there's no point: read the book. If you've read the book but not seen the movie - what? - then see it and marvel over its wonderful adaptation to the screen. If you've done both, do both again! I think both are popular culture in its finest hour, horror or not.

Next, Lecter dropped a note to Dr. Frederick Chilton, in federal protective custody, suggesting that he would be paying Dr. Chilton a visit in the near future. After this visit, he wrote, it would make sense for the hospital to tattoo feeding instructions on Chilton's forehead to save paperwork.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Creature from the Black Lagoon by Carl Dreadstone (1977): Can't Figure Out Your Watery Love

Writing under the unparalleled horror-fiction pseudonym of "Carl Dreadstone," Ramsey Campbell produced a series of novelizations of the classic Universal monster movies. They've long been collectors' items going for quite a few bucks despite being thin mass-market paperbacks from Berkley Medallion. But one day a month or so ago, browsing one of my usual used bookstore haunts, I happened upon Creature from the Black Lagoon... and paid an entire dollar for it!

Campbell writes, under his own name, a nice little intro to the novelization about the making of the 1954 film and its various subtexts - sexual, political, evolutionary - as well as the Creature's place in the pantheon of vintage monster gods. Loaded with b/w movie stills (oh, Julie Adams!), Carl Dreadstone's Creature from the Black Lagoon is another cool collectible coup for Too Much Horror Fiction.

Julie Adams, I'm on a submarine mission for you baby

Update: According to ISFDB, Campbell didn't actually write Creature; somebody named Walter Harris did. Ah well. Campbell did write at least 3 others in the series. Guess I shoulda checked this out first.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Horror Paperback Covers of Zebra Books: What Happened?

Zebra Books used some ludicrous and cheesy art for most of their paperback originals they published in the 1980s and beyond, but the horror titles they put out in the 1970s had much more vintage-styled covers. Definitely some quality work for their reprints of pulp kings like Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, and Robert Bloch. Gaze upon the mighty art of Jeff Jones above, in the 1976 edition of Pigeons from Hell. Okay, sure, that's not even close to what goes on in Howard's seminal 1938 horror story, but how can you not be charmed at the evocative mystery of old-style dinosaurs cavorting in the surf?

Night Fear (1979) from Long boasts some kind of Elephant Man that I think is supposed to evoke the Cthulhu sculpture from Lovecraft. Art by Clyde Caldwell.

Also in '79, Zebra reprinted some of Bram Stoker's other works, The Lair of the White Worm (1911), Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903), and Dracula's Guest (1914). I'm digging 'em all!

But then as the decade turned, Zebra suddenly switched to the endless procession of dancing skeletons and wide-eyed innocents to sell their books, and a brand-new horror cliche was born. Most just look like Halloween decorations today, and have about as much atmosphere. Consider Wild Violets by Ruth Baker Field: the first cover is from 1980; the second, from '86.

See what they did there? Another example is Leslie Whitten's The Alchemist, published by Avon in 1974 with a pretty cool, well-painted cover that's part of a set with his Progeny of the Adder; 12 years later... ooh, a skeleton and a pumpkin! And Leslie is changed to "Les," because, of course, men won't read books by women... even though Leslie Whitten is a man.

I wonder though what the impetus was for this change: were readers actually getting less demanding? More likely, the horror paperback boom was happening so fast the publishers had to use gaudier, less atmospheric art, as well as those foil-stamped titles, to stand out from other books on the drugstore racks. The genre's covers moved from the otherworldly eeriness of Jeffrey Catherine Jones's art to the skeletal hijinks of Lisa Falkenstern...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror, edited by Paul Sammon (1990): The Filth and the Fury

We're all aware of the origins of the term "splatterpunk" aren't we? Feels like I've covered it a million times before, and if you have any interest in horror fiction you probably have a fairly good idea of its practitioners and artistic aims already. But just like every offshoot of a mainstream genre, people disagree over its identification and meaning. Basically, "splatterpunk" describes a small faction of horror writers in the 1980s and early 1990s who, while bestselling horror (or "horror") novelists were offering cozy, polite thrills to unadventurous readers, wanted to shake up conventional generic expectations. And they kinda pissed off quiet horror writers like Charlie Grant, Dennis Etchison, and even Robert Bloch himself with their "there are no limits" attitude.
For me, though, not solely gore for gore's sake were the splatterpunks; this wasn't just shock tactics without substance. No, these young writers wanted to fuse extreme violence and horror (the "splatter") with a confrontational social sensibility (the "punk") to provide a countercultural, more streetwise take on our collective fears at the end of the century. It was not just extreme violence and viscera and degradation - psychological insight into alienated characters was as essential as blood-on-the-walls-and-ceiling taboo-smashing. Outsiders are now insiders; listen to what they have to say...

Editor and film critic Paul Sammon, who'd previously produced documentaries on Platoon, Dune, and most famously Blade Runner, was so enamored of the movement he put together Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror. And even though virtually every author in this anthology states that they are not splatterpunks, it's obvious the stories themselves are, and that's really all that matters. They're willfully ugly and despairing and silly and angry and unflinching, sometimes all at once. This book was pretty much my jam back in the day; I remember eagerly buying my trade paperback copy of it at the 1991 Weekend of Horrors Fangoria Convention in New York City, and it's never left my collection.

Me in NYC 1991; in that bag is this book!

After a short intro from Sammon, the bar is set very high with the first story: Joe R. Lansdale's utterly harrowing "Night They Missed the Horror Show." I've read this several times over the years and it never fails to feel like a solid punch in the gut. Redneck racism, one of Lansdale's staples, is exposed in all its soulless and dehumanizing excess. He pushes our snouts right into the rawest filth. It'll leave you feeling hollowed out and horrified. Is it art? It's unforgiving and the bleakest of the bleak, so... yes? Yes. A modern classic it is.

Lansdale his ownself

One of the few non-American writers in the movement was the esteemed (and bestselling) Clive Barker. But of course. His Books of Blood changed the nature of horror fiction in the 1980s. "The Midnight Meat Train," with its ludicrously graphic title, is one of his most vividly realized and icily graphic tales: a city that feeds on innocent lives, a race that exists solely so that humanity can ignore it, a god that demands the ultimate fealty, a man whose urge to know leads to a horrible new life. Another classic:

It was a giant. Without head or limb. Without a feature that was analogous to human, without an organ that made sense, or senses. If it was like anything, it was like a shoal of fish. A thousand snouts all moving in unison, budding, blossoming, and withering rhythmically...

"Film at Eleven," from actual unapologetic splatterpunk John Skipp, of Skipp & Spector fame, springboards from the on-air TV suicide of Pennsylvania politician R. Budd Dwyer and the spousal abuse of a diehard Oprah fan. The final effect of eternal recurrence seems almost cruel, but it implies that justice does not come easy. Not bad. I've written before of my appreciation for Douglas E. Winter's zombie parodies of contemporary literature, and here it's "Less Than Zombie." Capturing Bret Easton Ellis's style of anomie and privileged rich-kid sociopathy perfectly - And, oh yeah, the thing with the zombies - it ironically prefigures Ellis's American Psycho. It's also the first time I encountered the curb stomp, nearly a decade before American History X.
Recently deceased splatter film connoisseur Chas. Balun presents an essay, "I Spit in Your Face: Films That Bite," on the most extreme gore movies of the day: loverly films such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Nekromantik, Last House on Dead End Street, and Roadkill. He warns "hipsters" not to act too blasé when confronting these flicks; they'll knock those sniggering grins right back through their teeth, or something. Awesome.

Freak-show fiction became something of a thing after Katherine Dunn's masterful Geek Love (1989) was published, and that's where "Freaktent" comes in: Nancy A. Collins is a solid writer which gives the story a real grounding for its natural physical atrocities: Images of children twisted into tortured, abstract forms like human bonsai trees swam before my eyes. Mediocre TV horror-movie director Mick Garris sleazes it up with "A Life in the Cinema," about hack horror director who adopts a soul-and other things-sucking monstrous turd baby for his next exploitation flick; it's a real charmer. The lost chapter from Ray Garton's Crucifax is presented here, so grotesque his publisher excised it from its paperback edition, but I seriously prefer "Sinema," which appeared in Silver Scream. Read that one instead.

Hugo Award-winning Martin in the 1970s

Although today he's known as an outrageously popular fantasy author, George R.R. Martin wrote a matter-of-factly horrific science-fiction story in 1976 which is included here, "Meathouse Man." It's the oldest story collected, but it's also one of the very best, an emotionally complex story of a man, his work, and unrequited love. Oh, and zombie sex on distant planets called corpseworlds. Probably the best-written and most affecting piece in the anthology: He slept with a ghost beside him, a supernaturally beautiful ghost, the husk of a dead dream. He woke to her each morning.

Spector, Lansdale, Matheson, Schow, Garton, McCammon, & Skipp:
Yes, The Splat Pack c. 1986/7

TV writer Richard Christian Matheson (yes, the son) contributes two of his short-short fictions, "Red" and "Goosebumps." Short sharp shocks, nicely done. Reminds me that I'm still trying to find a decent copy of his collection Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks, which I lost ages ago. Another British writer, Philip Nutman, who interviewed many filmmakers for Fangoria mag, presents a grim picture of the bloody-minded no-future youth of his home country in "Full Throttle." Tough stuff; I can practically see the young Tim Roth and Ray Winstone carousing in a movie version.

Also included are solid stories of varying grit and grisliness by Edward Bryant ("While She Was Out," years later made into a film), Wayne Allen Sallee ("Rapid Transit," first in a trilogy of short urban terror tales), and Roberta Lannes ("Goodbye Dark Love," which I'd first read in Cutting Edge) also feature, each probing the depths of contemporary non-supernatural horror with an emphasis on character. The worst in the anthology is truly Rex Miller's "Reunion Moon," which I'll not even describe except to say it's a piece of shit.

Splat poster boy David J. Schow is not included here for various reasons, as Sammon explains, but it's just as well because I prefer his non-splat work. I thought J.S. Russell was a Schow pen name but it's not; Russell's "City of Angels" reads just like one of Schow's stories, so I think it was a fair guess: Porqy, he's got this thing about the nuts and how they're the "bestest part"... he's been talking about baby nuts for days. "I figure," he says, "they got to be more tender. Tastier, like lamb or baby corn," and pops them in his mouth like wet jelly beans.

Splatterpunks finishes with Sammon's 75-page (!) essay on the movement, "Outlaws." While it's unearned and ridiculous to compare these writers to hallowed transgressors like de Sade, Baudelaire, William Burroughs, Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard, as he does, trying to give weight to a fleeting literary moment that was named as an inside joke, he certainly helped me get to reading lots of those folks back then. It's okay to simply be a graphic yet thoughtful horror writer but I guess he didn't feel that way. He includes an extensive splat reading list and influences (and presciently notes that Ballard's Crash would be a perfect David Cronenberg, uh, vehicle).

Like a lot of anthology editorials of its day, "Outlaws" is overwrought and overly generous to the practitioners. Virtually none of the authors appreciate the label, and only a handful are still active today. Only Garton and Lansdale continue to publish well-received novels; Skipp is only recently back after a long hiatus; Barker has slowed down his publishing pace considerably. These authors transcended the style. A lot of splatterpunk might seem like a shallow, adolescent pose, a "look how gross and rebellious I can be" kinda thing, but plenty of it has heart and attitude—and guts—to spare.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman (1992): A Nightmare of Delight

Look, I'm just gonna jump in head-first and not fuck around: Anno Dracula, the fourth non-pseudonymous novel from British film writer Kim Newman, is one of the most accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable novels I've read, not just for Too Much Horror Fiction, but, like, ever. Would that I read it upon its original publication, when I was working in a big chain bookstore and reading at a pace like never before or since (blame the internets). For some reason, when reading its jacket, I just thought, Oh, sounds kinda cool, but wasn't overly convinced of its readability and anything about the British monarchy generally bores me beyond tears. Shame, because I'd loved loved loved Newman's book on the modern horror film, Nightmare Movies (1988). But last month I found a perfect edition of the original Avon paperback and bought it on a whim. Just think: if I'd read Anno Dracula back then, I'd have had well over 15 years to recommend it to people. Damn, what a missed opportunity. Out of print for ages, it's finally back in 2011!

With a breathtaking effortlessness, Newman brilliantly weaves together the twin nightmare mythologies of real-life monsters Vlad Tepes and Jack the Ripper into an alternate history whole unlike any horror novel I have ever read. All manner of historical figures waltz through the book, particularly fictional vampires (and other people too) from film and literature. Part of the fun of reading Anno Dracula is recognizing these characters, often wittily referenced and employed. Famous Victorian characters from Conan Doyle, Dickens, Wells, Stevenson, Le Fanu, and others appear (much as in Alan Moore's later The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels). Lord Ruthven is made Prime Minister; Count Iorga, a much-mocked general; Drs. Moreau and Jekyll are consulted in the Ripper case; Kate Reed, a character cut from the original 1897 Dracula, is a young reporter; Oscar Wilde stops by; why, even Florence Stoker, Bram's wife, is part of the action. Too bad Bram was exiled after his friends failed to stop the king of the undead.

Newman's Vlad Tepes is also Stoker's literary creation Count Dracula, and it is this towering king vampire who wins out over Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker and the other men who'd banded together to stop him. This happens before the novel begins, but Dr. Jack Seward (he ran the madhouse and studied Renfield, remember) recounts the tragedy in his diaries early on: We were defeated utterly. The whole country lay before Count Dracula, ripe for the bleeding. Dracula, ever the military strategist, makes his way to Buckingham Palace and marries Queen Victoria, and then turns her into one of his unholy concubines. Van Helsing is recast as a traitor to the British Empire, his head placed upon a pike. Dracula, who had been King of the Vampires long before he was ruler of Great Britain... the undead had been an invisible kingdom for thousands of years; the Prince Consort had, at a stroke, wiped clean that slate, lording over warm and vampire alike.

And now it is the year and age of our Lord and our Savior, the mighty Prince Vlad Dracula, and every knee shall bend, every tongue shall... well, not confess, exactly, but you know what I mean. From here he turns the country into a new police state; the reign of Dracula is powered by the Carpathian Guard, brutal old-world vampires (you'll recognize some of their names; does Graf Orlok ring a bell?) he has brought to England for the purpose of spreading vampirism and stamping out any political insurrections. Criminals and traitors and others - living or undead - who try to defy the edicts of the "Prince Consort" are, of course, summarily impaled. Newman relishes those details, you can be sure. Unpleasant indeed, particularly for those who get not the pointed spike, but the, uh, rounded blunt spike. Hey-oh!

As the novel begins, vampire prostitutes are being murdered on the foggy midnight streets of Whitechapel by a killer at first dubbed the "Silver Knife," alluding to his weapon of choice, since only pure silver can truly kill these nosferatu newborns. In this bloodthirsty new world, many living want to become immortal undead - it's seen as a step up in society - while vampires can live quite well on small amounts of blood that humans - or "cattle" - willingly give up. Vampire whores offer sex in exchange for a, ahem, midnight snack. As one might expect, though, Christian anti-vampire groups have formed, and England faces turmoil and riot in these days of class struggles and uncertain future.

Anno Dracula also enlists elements of espionage and detective fiction. The Diogenes Club, a mysterious gentlemen's group referred to by Doyle in his stories, sends for the adventurer Charles Beauregard and requests his services in bringing the Silver Knife to justice. The head of this club? While not mentioned by name, he is the criminal mastermind Fu Manchu. One of Newman's long-running creations, Geneviève Dieudonné, is a vampire, older than Dracula himself, who is driven and brilliant but an outcast whose long life puts her at odds with the warm, or living, and vampire newborns around her. She and Beauregard, aided by real-life Inspector Abberline, join together after the infamous murderer, soon to be dubbed Jack the Ripper. Although widowed Beauregard is now engaged to a prim and proper social climber, he will find he and his beautiful vampire partner are alike in many ways.

Like vampire or Gothic erotica? Well, even if you don't, I was quite impressed with this: Dr. Seward, in a Vertigo-esque bit, "keeps" a vampire prostitute named Mary Jean Kelly, bitten by the doomed Miss Lucy Westenra. You'll recall she was Dracula's first victim, or "get," those many years ago. Mary Jean was Lucy's get, a little girl lost who slaked Lucy's thirst and was repaid with immortality. Seward and Kelly engage in bloody erotic fantasies fueled by memories of his unrequited love, Lucy:

Sometimes, Lucy's advances to Kelly are tender, seductive, mysterious, heated caresses before the Dark Kiss. At others, they are a brutal rape, with needle-teeth shredding flesh and muscle. We illustrate with our bodies Kelly's stories.

Other wonderful scenes abound: Beauregard's misadventures in the city, Jack's heartless murders, explosive riots in the streets, the hopping Chinese vampire who stalks Geneviève, trickery and ruthlessness, general bloodletting and blood-drinking of various sorts. It is definitely part gruesome horror story; Newman regales us with this almost eternal England night.

For virtually all of the novel, Count Dracula is referred to but never seen, but when he finally is revealed, in all his revolting glory, ensconced in a filthy throne room in the Palace, Newman outdoes everything that's come before. Beauregard and Geneviève have been summoned to appear before him and his Queen, and they are aghast at how they find him in his rank and hellish quarters (highlight if you want to read the spoiler): bestial and bloated, enormous and naked but for a bedraggled black cape, his beard matted with the gravy of his last feeding, yellow fangs the size of thumbs, shadows of all his other shape-shifted selves in his crimson corpulent face, the great Count Dracula is obscenity personified. Chained to him at his feet is the newborn Queen, while nearby his famous Brides writhe in feral lust and red thirst. This is no regal steel-haired gentleman clad in elegant black bidding his guests welcome and to leave some of their happiness; this is a bursting tick gorging on humanity itself. The novel's ultimate confrontation is at hand.

Audacious and unique, written in an unobtrusive manner that doesn't scream "Hey, get this name, get that reference, wink-wink," Anno Dracula is an unparalleled work of popular fiction, filled with inventive touches, expertly twining several sub-genres into an utterly satisfying and engaging whole. Historical fact and historical fiction bound together with nary a seam to be found. My review only touches on a few of many pleasures to be found between the covers; Mr. Newman has written an essential, unmissable horror read that is a nightmare of delight for fans and horror newcomers alike.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Horror Fiction Help III: Do You Know This Story?

It's that time again! A reader emailed me describing a short story he once read but can no longer recall the title of, so I enlist you folks for assistance:

I’m trying to find a short story I read in a horror anthology from the library a decade ago. It included a race of creatures that could control snakes, and I think the story was set in a museum that artifacts had been shipped to and one of the creatures reanimates a snake skeleton to attack the protagonist. As much pulp adventure as horror.

Sound good? Sure does! We're two for two here in helping horror fans find forgotten works, so let's go for three. Thanks everybody!

Update 7/8/11:
The 1979 story is "Extension 201" by Cyril Simsa, found in The Best Horror from Fantasy Tales. Thanks to Anonymous!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Night Cry magazine, Fall 1985

This is issue #3 of Night Cry, with black-and-white illustrations by Paula Goodman. I like them lots better than J.K. Potter's from the previous post. The only story in this ish that I've read is David J. Schow's "The Woman's Version," which was in his fine collection Seeing Red. Pretty cool; you can see its illustration on the cover there, by Manuel Morales. I found that editor Alan Rodgers wrote a handful of Bantam horror novels in the early '90s that I recall seeing around, but never read. Anybody...?

Update: Right now I'm halfway through a wonderful horror novel, one I'd almost choose to keep reading on and on, but that can't be, so I hope to have the review up by week's end. If you're jonesing for more than just magazine scans right now, do yourself a favor and hie on over to The Mighty Blowhole, and feast upon these nasty creature-feature delights!