Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Cellar by Richard Laymon (1980): It's a Sick World, Sick, Sick, Sick

We all know horror writers have a creepy reputation; any mainstream interview or feature about them must point out how, well, normal the writer seems. This surprises who exactly? Do people who don't follow horror think that all its writers - or filmmakers - are hunchbacked, drooling monstrosities with blood beneath their fingernails and fetid breath? My god. Non-fans seem to think that dreaming up all that horror must mean there's something not right with the creator's brain.

Of course we fans know how insulting and idiotic this is.

But while I was reading The Cellar (Warner Books, Jan 1980), the debut novel from the late cult horror writer Richard Laymon (1947 - 2001), I suddenly felt like one of those non-horror fans who wonders how people can write this stuff. There's something that squicked me when faced with Laymon's horror scenario; I was unsettled not by the situation but by his envisioning of it: it seemed like a peek into a part of his mind I really wanted nothing to do with. Sadism and humiliation are in clear detail; human relationships and sex scenes, not so much. You got your rape and torture, but when it comes to depicting, even minimally, real human interaction and psychological motivation, Laymon's at a complete loss. Total amateur hour - The Cellar is that bad. I have been reading horror fiction for almost 30 years and it is easily one of the very worst books in the genre that I have ever read.

Craptacular '06 reprint from Leisure Books; prolly gonna throw my $3 copy away

The story? Tissue-thin (which actually is fine with me). Donna and her daughter Sandy are fleeing Roy, Donna's vengeful husband, who's just been released from prison for abusing Donna and raping their daughter. Classy. They head to a California town known as Malcasa ("evil house," get it?) Point, which has its own problems, as its tourist attraction is what the locals call Beast House. Throughout the 20th century, brutal murders and rapes have been committed there, and some say the perpetrator wasn't human. A man who survived an attack by the "beast" as a child hires another man - oddly named Judgment - to kill it, and then they meet Sandy and Donna in a diner. Meanwhile Roy has a little family fun of his own. And then on to the Beast House...

1980 UK edition

It's not a bad setup, I guess, but Laymon's waaay out of his depth and simply doesn't have the writing chops to get the job done. Sure, at the end there's some gruesome tasteless monster sex stuff, and a real no-one-here-gets-out-alive vibe, but The Cellar isn't a patch on, say, the awesomely fun and carnal Incubus. That's what you should read if you want the real stuff by an actual writer - Laymon "writes" without wit or insight and seems to be making the plot up as he types. And so much of it is dull, dull, dull! Up to the last 20 pages, The Cellar is very often simply boring: my mind would drift off the page thanks to the inane, repetitive dialogue and the weak overall execution.

The final pages are a ludicrous extreme - perhaps in 1980 this was seen as extreme - but since they stretch credibility and nothing Laymon has described about his characters previously would make you suspect the outcome, one can surmise the motive was shock value alone. Shock value alone isn't always terrible, but there's no fun to be had, nor even any scares, unless you dig it when men rape and kidnap little girls after slaughtering their parents. Some fun, huh, kid?

1987 Paperjacks reprint

This is the kind of dumb, one-dimensional "horror" that Barker and Schow and Lansdale (who each go - or went - out into gut-wrenching territory but did so with skill, smarts, irony, and tough humor) and the Dell/Abyss series from the early 1990s wanted to do away with, make obsolete. What is it about Laymon that got him major blurbs, that sees all his novels back in print, avidly sought out by collectors, and first edition paperback originals going for collectors' prices? Are novels like The Woods Are Dark, Night Show, Flesh, Funland, et. al., really so terrific that I'm missing out? It's difficult for me to imagine so.

I like fucked-up horror, I like schlocky, bad-taste horror, I love it, you guys know I do, but thoughtless exploitation of child rape is really something I can do without in my horror fiction - particularly when it's handled so cheaply, so clumsily, thus making all its horrors trite and phony rather than deep and true  - to say nothing of simply inept writing and an amateur approach. It's a fine line for a horror fan, but it's my line. It might be my only line.

Postscript: I just remembered that Stephen King rightfully dismissed this novel in Danse Macabre:

There are haunted-house stories beyond numbering, most of them not very good (The Cellar, by Richard Laymon, is one example of the less successful breed).

Then he goes on to discuss two excellent haunted house novels that make The Cellar seem like the piece of inept hackneyed pulp it truly is: The House Next Door and The Haunting of Hill House. Respect.

Monday, September 26, 2011

13 Paperback Horrors: Where All It Ever Does Is Rain

Down Bound Train (Popular Library 1974) by Bill Garnett. Don't you feel like you're a rider? This cover's got a Bradbury vibe for me; also the obligatory reference to surpassing The Exorcist. Yeahhh... no.

Dark Prism by David Lippincott (Dell 1981) Creepy nuns, not quite as popular as creepy kids or clowns, but still up there. This one's particularly effective.

The Midnight Tree by Charles Higham (Pocket 1979) Despite its feyness I dig the mood.

Deadly Eyes by James Herbert (Signet 1983) Movie tie-in edition for Herbert's pulp '70s classic. Meh.

The Other Child by Michael Hale (Avon 1986) Creepy digitalized kid. Fancy and modern!

Saxon's Ghost by Steve Fisher (Pyramid 1972) Psychedelic, we-are-floating-in-space, Stranger In a Strange Land kinda thing. I grok it.

Unholy Child by Catherine Breslin (Signet 1980) Hmm, a pregnant nun? Or not? Or something. Don't think I need to tell you what better books the publisher was trying to evoke.

The Sibling by Adam Hall (Playboy Press 1979) Truly a "What's in the box?!" moment. Don't know what the image has to do with a sibling, though, do you?

Dark Seeker by K.W. Jeter (Tor 1987) Not really sure what's going on here. Anyone?

Owls' Watch (Crest 1965) Delightfully classic vintage horror paperback cover art!

Shadow Child by Joseph A. Citro (Zebra 1987) Damn, this one's no joke. Nice going Zebra!

The Witches by Francois Mallet-Joris (Paperback Library 1970) Great cover art by the Dillons, whose work I was first introduced to through their classic Harlan Ellison covers.

Desecration of Susan Browning by Russell Martin (Playboy Press 1981) Of course this is a Playboy publication.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Junkyard by Barry Porter (1989): And I'll Lay Right Down in My Favorite Place

Oh, Barry Porter, where are you now? Not only does this monstrous Junkyard dawg feed on terror... and blood!, it can also bend the rules of physics so it can fit in oil drums to hide out, waiting for unsuspecting teenagers necking, or hapless homeless folk. You know that's coming. Dark Souls also came out in '89; for the life of me I can't tell what's going on in that cover. Anyone...?

Horror Fiction Help V: Another Short Story to Find...

Okay, for the fifth time, a reader seeks our help in horror! Reader Rayo writes:

It's a short story I read 10 years ago. It was in a horror anthology from the mid-90s though the story could be older. The story (or perhaps part of a story) is a menu/recipe for preparing an exquisite cannibal feast. It breaks down the "meal" course by course in the language of fine dining, detailing how to prepare every disgusting dish as all of the body is used. It's the only story that ever made me gag. Any ideas?

Any ideas indeed! Well, it doesn't sound familiar to me, but surely one of you guys knows...

Update: Looks like we've already found it! It's "The Secret Shi Tan" by none other than Graham Masterton, first published in The Hot Blood Series: Fear the Fever (1996, Pocket Books). I myself have only read the first two anthologies in that series. So thanks, Lazlo!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Someone Like You (1953) and Kiss, Kiss (1960) by Roald Dahl: Keeping It Creepy

World-famous for his singular children's fiction, Welsh author (and WWII fighter pilot) Roald Dahl was born today in 1916. But fans of the dark and the disturbing also celebrate his short stories: blackly comic, unsparingly ironic, finding fatal foibles in the class and taste distinctions of post-war British life. Dahl's language is plain but precise, scalpel-sharp, cool and confident, in stories that are sometimes suspenseful, sometimes playful, but all generally quietly creepy.

They were often published in The New Yorker, Collier's, Harper's and other top periodicals of the day. Unsurprisingly, Alfred Hitchcock adapted half a dozen of Dahl's tales for his own television show in the late '50s and '60s, all six can be found between these two collections, Someone Like You and Kiss, Kiss: "The Landlady," "Dip in the Pool," "Man from the South," "Lamb to the Slaughter," "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat," and "Poison." Also recommended: "Royal Jelly," "Taste," "The Great Automatic Grammatisator."

Original Dell publications

Somewhat more recently, Stephen King included these two in his recommended reading list in the appendix of Danse Macabre, noting their importance to the horror genre specifically. Which is - surprise, surprise - why years ago I sought out and read these nicely vintage paperbacks from Pocket Books, reprinted in 1972 (old book smell included!). Perhaps some of Dahl's twist endings can be seen coming today as we've had decades of that kind of thing in our entertainment, but many of the stories here are still deadly delights, disarmingly nasty stories of human depravity. Those of you who enjoy the short fiction of writers like Shirley Jackson, Fredric Brown, Harlan Ellison, Charles Beaumont, Gerald Kersh, and/or Richard Matheson will find much to enjoy in Roald Dahl's work... if you haven't already, of course!

Here's something I just learned: back in 1961, Dahl hosted his own CBS TV show, "'Way Out"! His macabre humor and utter Britishness was very much in the Hitchcock vein (heh) and the show was paired with "Twilight Zone" on Friday nights. It only lasted one season, though. Oh man, I had never heard of this till just today. Full episodes are on YouTube; at least check out Dahl's droll intros.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Horror Paperback Covers: The Good, the Erotic, the Ridiculous

Dead of Night (Dell, 1957) I'm completely charmed by this cover - it reminds me of drawings I did when I was a kid! Super Halloween-style. Don Congdon was a behind-the-scenes guy in fantasy and horror.

Invisible Men (Ballantine, 1960) How can you not love the framed boobies?! A humorous delight indeed.

Ghosts and Things (Berkley, 1962) Classic writers, classic '60s horror art.

Something Evil (Avon, 1968) Avon Books really had evocative, mysterious cover art back in the paperback original days before horror achieved its bestselling status in the following decade.

Translation (Ballantine, 1977), The Searing (Charter, 1987), The Wanting Factor (Playboy Press, 1980) Ladies, ladies, ladies! Please.

Blood Sisters (1988), Dream House (1987), Cry Wolf (1987) And leave it to Zebra Books to bring us to the ridiculous. That skeleton sniffing a rose has got to be one of the dumbest, most idiotic cover images I've ever seen. Argh! *gasp* *choke*

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Djinn by Graham Masterton (1977): Jean Genie Let Yourself Go!

It's the return of Harry Erskine, Graham Masterton's dry-witted, comic-hardboiled phony "clairvoyant," first seen in the masterful The Manitou. This time Harry's tangling with The Djinn, an Arabian supernatural entity (from which we get the English word "genie"). But this is no lantern-bound wish-granting jokester; it has 40 monstrous manifestations and they're all, well, fatal for humans. A slim and economic 200 pages, you can read it in one night whilst enjoying its vintage-y paperback horror goodness, as seen in its inside cover:

Art by Ed Soyka. Thanks to The Cover Art of Graham Masterton

It begins with the funeral of Harry's godfather, Max Greaves, who committed a horrendous, self-mutilating suicide. Max was a respected amateur scholar and collector of Islamic artifacts who, in his last years, grew increasingly cantankerous and paranoid. Max's widow Marjorie unsettles Harry when she tells him Max wanted their house, a rambling old Cape Cod estate called Winter Sails, burned down, along with all the Arabian artifacts inside, after his death. One item in particular, a very large jar decorated with eyeless horses that Harry remembers from childhood visits, is now locked away at Max's insistence. But with the help of the foxy-eyed woman Anna who shows up at the funeral (whose pants Harry is dead-set on getting into), a Middle East folklore professor, and an old doctor, we get to the very black heart of this Arabian mystery.

Tor reprint 1988

Brimming with pseudo-scholarship and ancient mythology - for which I'm a total and complete sucker when featured in horror fiction - Masterton's novel is simple and fast-moving. Passages about the fearsome djinn and their unholy powers fascinated me. They are also utterly repulsive in that outrageous '70s way:

"The Arabs used to say that Ali Babah had made a pact with a strange and evil sect of necromancers who lived in the hills. These wizards performed extraordinary and quite obscene rites, one of which was said to involve carrying around a young girl on top of a long pole which had been pushed through her vagina. This sect is sometimes known as the N'zwaa or the Unswa, and sometimes by an unpronouncable name which means Those-Who-Adore-The-Terrible."

Star UK edition 1977
Oh hells yes. You can probably guess at some of the mayhem that's coming. Or maybe you can't. Masterton writes without extraneous plot or detail, but with lots of corny/snarky comments from Erskine (Not that I was frightened or anything like that, but I prefer to meet the supernatural on my own terms - in broad daylight, with running shoes on), entertainingly clunky dialogue from everyone else, and a mounting dread that culminates in a graphic and bloody good climax. The Djinn is no Manitou, but it's certainly a fun, though minor, example of '70s horror fiction (comparing it to 'Salem's Lot is of course ridiculous). Thanks again, Graham!

Mr. Masterton

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Foundling by Frank Lauria (1984): She's My Little Rock'n'Roll

I know Frank Lauria is a trashy cult writer but I don't know anything about him. Looks like he was writing novelizations by the late '90s and early '00s, but back in the '70s and '80s his books were adorned with some pretty tasty horror/occult fiction cover art. When I found The Foundling in New Jersey, I bought it solely for its cover alone. It epitomizes the absurd lengths to which publishers would go to snag a passerby at a bookstore or drugstore rack. Her eyes have the power! The tagline is cute, I'll give it that. And though the young girl depicted on the cover (wearing what appears to be a Mormon dress) looks nothing like this in the book itself - she looks less like a child, has more of a charismatic dark beauty - rock'n'roll does figure in the story. At least it does in the first 75 pages; that was as far as I could get into this mild, so-so horror novel. Maybe it got better later, but I got no time to mess around.

And more: will you all bear witness to the magnificence that is the original 1970s paperback covers for Lauria's "psychic detective" Dr. Orient? My favorite is Baron Orgaz, followed by Lady Sativa... Pick your favorite! Be sure to visit The Groovy Age of Horror to read reviews of the each book in the series; I myself have never run into any of them in my bookstore haunts, nor had I heard of them till Groovy Age reviewed them. So behold such glorious and evocative covers.

Ballantine 1979

Bantam 1974

Bantam 1972

Ballantine 1979

Bantam 1978