Friday, October 28, 2011

The October Country by Ray Bradbury (1955): The Season in My Veins

That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts...

There's not much of an autumn here in the American South where I live. We get some chilly mornings and chilly nights, but they're more like winter cold, and at mid-afternoon the sun's glare can make you think it's mid-July and Halloween is a cruel lie. There's little of the crisp smoky coolness that signals the year's end, nothing in the weather here around October that makes me think back on past autumns... and isn't autumn the most nostalgic, the most contemplative of seasons? I believe it is.

I miss autumn, a real autumn, so: to what could I turn to give myself a feeling of the season's changing? What could provide the scent of burning leaves, apple cider, pumpkin spice, the early darks and the bonewhite moons, the chilled air that nuzzles your neck, the growing thrill of the arrival of All Hallow's Eve and the macabre treats upon which to feast...? You guessed it: this collection of poisoned confections entitled The October Country, from the incomparable Ray Bradbury (although it's certainly not the first time I've turned to Ray this time of year).

A quick history: in 1947, the esteemed Arkham House published Dark Carnival, Bradbury's debut book, consisting mainly of his stories written for the classic pulp magazine Weird Tales. In 1955 Ballantine Books reprinted the collection, subtracting some of the stories and adding a few others, under the title The October Country. So basically what you have here are Bradbury's earliest works. Does that mean that they're unformed, not quite ready for consumption, perhaps timid things unsure of their footing before Bradbury gained confidence and experience as a writer? Oh, not at all! These stories are amazing. Why, I kept saying to myself as I read, am I only reading this now?

Original paperback cover art (illustrations by Joseph Mugnaini)

The longest story included, "The Next in Line" is one of the best I've read in ages; in it I could sense the seeds of Matheson, Beaumont, King, Campbell, Etchison, others who would come along in the future to join Bradbury in delighting readers with dread. A young couple vacationing in Mexico visit the mummies in the catacombs and learn how the poor bury their dead. Marie, the wife, is struck dumb and cold by the dried-husk bodies:

Jaws down, tongues out like jeering children, eyes pale brown-irised in upclenched sockets. Hairs, waxed and prickled by sunlight, each sharps as quills embedded on the lips, the cheeks, the eyelids, the brows. Little beards on chins and bosoms and loins. Flesh like drumheads and manuscripts and crisp bread dough. The women, huge ill-shaped tallow things, death-melted. The insane hair of them, like nests made and remade...

And much more like that throughout. Yep, Bradbury's unmistakeable style was there from the beginning. Many of you have probably come across "The Small Assassin" somewhere or other; it's been anthologized plenty. Its ingeniousness wins out over its central implausibility because it sounds true: What is there in the world more selfish than a baby? Guess there's one sure way to cure post-partum depression.

Some stories have such plain titles the words themselves take on a simple malevolence: "The Jar" (obviously the basis for the cover art at the top). "The Lake." "The Emissary." "Skeleton." "The Crowd." "The Wind." As someone who finds blowing winds anxiety-inducing, I could really relate to that last one. There's a vaguely Lovecraftian or Algernon Blackwood feel: That's what the wind is. It's a lot of people dead. The wind killed them, took their minds to give itself intelligence. It took all their voices and made them into one voice...

Death appears in myriad forms: on an endless field of wheat, at 92 degrees Fahrenheit on the thermometer, in the very bones in our bodies, down in the earth itself. "The Emissary" starts off innocently autumnal with a sick boy in bed who lives vicariously through his roaming pet dog; it finishes not so innocently at all. Bradbury perennials like sideshows and carnivals feature in "The Dwarf" and "The Jar," and his sense of boundless, mischievous joy buoys "The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse" and "The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone." There is sadness too: Timothy, the young boy in "Homecoming," yearns and yearns for a monstrous familial identity that will never be his, while "Uncle Einar" wishes he could be a normal father for his brood.

Poised between the sweet and the scary, I see The October Country as a beginner's book of horror; something to be given out like candy to eager children, to satisfy a sweet tooth, to prime burgeoning taste buds for a lifetime of fearsome entertainments. The marvelous Bradbury prose is appropriate for younger readers while offering us adults plenty to appreciate and exclaim over; poetic and playful, with rich veins of darkness powering through, as in "Touched with Fire"...

Some people are not only accident-prones, which means they want to punish themselves physically... but their subconscious puts them in dangerous situations... They're potential victims. It is marked on their faces, hidden like - like tattoos... these people, these death-prones, touch all the wrong nerves in passing strangers; they brush the murder in all our breasts.

(And I haven't even mentioned the stark black-and-white illustrations by Joseph Mugnaini; be sure to go here to see them all. *shiver*.)

It's no surprise to state, finally, that The October Country is a horror classic for all ages for all the ages, one that I wish I had read years ago; it is a must-read, a must-have, preferably in one of these musty old paperback editions, creased and worn from years of seasonal readings, of visits again and again to a country where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.

Thinking only autumn thoughts.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

October Reading Update!

The ghoulfriend and I threw a monster of an early Halloween party last night; it took us 10 days to prepare for it so as you might imagine, I'm a bit behind on my seasonal reading. I've been making my way through the Weird Tales-era work of Ray Bradbury, collected in his classic The October Country, as well as re-re-re-reading a vintage King, both for future review. So here are some covers of Bradbury's book to hold you over till I get myself back together after last night's ghoulish gala...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Schoolhouse by Lee Duigon (1988): Can't Even Think of a Word That Rhymes

Can't get enough of horror paperbacks adorned with skeletons - who still have all their hair! This one of a creepy skeletal schoolteacher is especially hilarious. I'm doing some Halloween-appropriate reading while getting ready for a big Halloween bash this weekend, so no reviews this week, alas. Enjoy Schoolhouse!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum (1989): How Do the Angels Get to Sleep?

Whew, where to begin? The Girl Next Door has, in the near quarter-century since its publication, achieved a notoriety few other modern horror novels can match. It was the third novel from Dallas Mayr, written under his now-famous pseudonym Jack Ketchum. Now, I hadn't even heard of Ketchum or this book until the last five or six years, I guess around the time it was reprinted by Leisure Books. None of his other vintage-era books, Off Season (1980), Cover (1987), or She Wakes (1989), look familiar to me, and he didn't start getting nominated for the Bram Stoker Award till the mid-'90s by which time I'd stopped reading modern horror, so it seems the book's reputation grew as a result of the reprints and the internet. Which isn't to say it isn't deserved, because it is. Oh is it.

The Girl Next Door is loosely based on the mind-curdling 1965 torture/murder case of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens. While some readers, if not most, may balk at the depths to which Ketchum goes in "recreating" what happened, he fills out his book with enough convincing details so that the matter never seems exploited or cheapened. Ketchum is, for better or worse, a reliable and insightful guide as he delves into these places of heartlessness and cruelty found not in the supernatural or the extraterrestrial but, well, literally, next door. He presents it all in plain strong prose that neither titillates nor overstates; he is in command of his words and images in a way a cheap and foolish writer - whose ranks in the horror genre are legion - could only ever dream.

It's told in first person by David, 30 years after the horrific events, which occurred when he was about 12 years old. His regret and sadness and confusion set everything in motion. Pondering his three failed marriages, he attempts to tell the story. The whole story, without faltering, of when teenage Meg Loughlin and her 11-year-old sister Susan come to live with David's next-door neighbors, the Chandlers, after the girls' parents are killed in a car crash. Ruth Chandler, a distant relation to the Loughlin girls, middle-aged, a heavy smoker and drinker but not without her looks, is well-known to all the kids living on the tree-lined, dead-end street as the parent who will give beers to them while they hang out with her own pre-teen sons Willie, Woofer, and Donny. Her husband left the family years earlier, running off with another woman (which explains some of her future behavior towards Meg).

David becomes smitten with Meg in a not-quite-romantic way; he's three years younger than her anyway, but spends some nice, memorable moments with her early in the story. Cute, sweet, well-done, a yearning without knowing quite what one is yearning for. Which makes the following descent the more upsetting. When the boys try from a tree outside her window to spy on Meg undressing and are denied it, David's response is bitter and black: I could have smashed something. I could have torn that house to bits. That surprised me; it could have come straight from one of James Ellroy's noir crime novels, for sure (more on Ellroy later).

Overlook Connection Press 2002

The most difficult thing about reading the book is that you know where it's going. When it happens - when Ruth's abuse of Meg begins - it happens fast but it also happens slow, if you know what I mean. The pall of inescapable doom threads through the early narrative, a malevolence hovering over every scene of innocence. It waits. It waits. It will not be denied. There is simply no other word for what happens: torture, physical and mental and sexual. First restricted from eating on her own, Meg then physically defies Ruth in front of David and other boys. Outraged beyond measure, and with the help of her sons, Ruth ties her up in the abandoned bomb shelter in the basement and the horror starts. This goes beyond the "horror" genre into what Douglas Winter talked about: that horror is not a genre, but an emotion. An emotion that's going to settle in and stay awhile.

There are things you know you'll die before telling, things you know you should have died before ever having seen. 
I watched and saw.

Since Ketchum structures the novel as a troubled adult looking back on a traumatic occurrence in his past, The Girl Next Door reminded me of Stephen King's novella "The Body" (found in Different Seasons from 1982, and the basis for Stand By Me. I guess I don't need to tell you that). Still utterly haunted by Ruth, adult David slips in at times and explains why this or why that, and especially how he was able to stand by while Ruth orchestrated such horror and why his friends went along. And it simply makes sense. Kids are powerless. Kids are supposed to endure humiliation. Adults control every avenue of kids' lives. I find this especially convincing in children growing up in the early 1960s, when adult authority was divine order. The divide between the world of children and the world of adults was vast and unbridgeable. Why didn't he try to tell? Meg actually does, once, to a cop who doesn't take her very seriously. This causes the boys to begin to feel a vague contempt for her. (Let's not forget Matt Dillon's immortal words in that teenage riot classic Over the Edge: "A kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid"). Because, as David reminds us:

Shit, [adults] could just dump is in a river if they wanted to. We were just kids. We were property. We belonged to our parents, body and soul. It meant we were doomed in the face of any real danger from the adult world and that meant hopelessness, and humiliation and anger.

The kids know better than to try to tell. Telling is bullshit. Telling makes things worse. Telling is an insult and a cheat. The kids even play what they call "the Game," a questionable past-time which, when Ruth learns of it, wants to play. And that makes it all even easier for the kids to go along... it's all a game, right? If Ruth says it's okay, well, it's okay for the kids no matter what is inflicted upon flesh ("You said that we could cut her, Mrs. Chandler"). This is when David admits he "flicked a slow mental switch [and] turned off on [Meg] entirely." Because How could she be so dumb as to think a cop was going to side with a kid against an adult, anyway? So I think Ketchum does a dead-on job of getting into a mindset that would become a willing witness to Hell, even drink a Coke and play crazy eights while doing so. It is totally believable.

2005 Leisure Books reprint

So other neighborhood kids get involved and it's all just normal, they're spending boring summer afternoons in the basement of the Chandlers', hey, didja hear, they got a girl down there and they... do stuff to her. When describing the sniggering remarks and dispensed humiliations and then the torturous cruelty in unflinching detail, Ketchum is carefully dispassionate, even when things turn, unsurprisingly, sexual for the young boys, as well as for Ruth and even a young neighborhood girl (at first Ruth restricts the boys from touching Meg after she's been stripped, not because molestation or rape is wrong but... because who knows what diseases this whore has. Did you just feel your throat close up? Good). He has David wonder if it all would have happened had Meg not been so pretty, had her body not been young and health and strong, but ugly, fat, flabby. Possibly not. The inevitable punishment of the outsider. But he reconsiders as he looks back on it:

But it seems to me more likely that it was precisely because she was beautiful and strong, and we were not, that Ruth and the rest of us had done this to her. To make a sort of judgment on that beauty, on what it meant and didn't mean to us.

Notice it says 'Terror,' not 'Horror'

It's this kind of insight that allows Girl Next Door to work so well when you might think it couldn't: This is true, this is how people who do these things think. Debase, degrade, deflower. Once the words I FUCK FUCK ME are burned onto her stomach - yes, you read that right - it's as if the boys lose interest; Meg has been reduced to a nothing. David tries to help her escape, and he fails. He tries to tell his father, then his mother, but cannot find the words to express something so... so. I mean, could you? Knowing you knew the whole time? David realizes he's the only one who has the imagination to conceive of the enormity of what's going on. I think that's what makes this book stand out from other "extreme" horror novels. The darkness may be complete, but it is true and real.

You may not be surprised to learn that I read The Girl Next Door in a one-sitting white-heat rush, utterly compelled and spellbound, my eyes burning and wet by the end. I could feel a thick sadness in my chest and shoulders. But it's not without its faults, and I can't really go into the major one because it's a spoiler, but I understand it. I do. I've seen it in other books and films too. Can't really blame Ketchum either, I suppose. But none of the faults are the result of the subject matter or the graphic detail; this is an "extreme" novel done right, with an understanding and an honesty I found utterly sincere.

Look at it again, in case you forgot how dumb it was

This is no tawdry paperback filled with high-school horror hijinks, as the clueless cover implies; there is no fun nor ridiculous cheese. In fact, that Warner Books cover art is one of the most insidious of paperback horror covers ever, an affront to both readers and the book itself (I don't blame artist Lisa Falkenstern; it's likely she had no idea what cover she was illustrating). Who the fuck okayed it? Someone who doesn't give a shit about books, that's for sure.

In some of the Amazon reviews I skimmed over after finishing I saw that many people hated the fact that Ketchum fictionalized the Likens case, but so what? What Ketchum does with the novel is quite similar to what Ellroy did with The Black Dahlia: take a real-life case of murderous savagery and fictionalize it, inventing characters so as to probe the psychology of those involved in a way unavailable to us normally, to attempt an understanding of the weakness, the fear, the rage, that could lead to such incomprehensible acts. In this respect Ketchum's book has more in common with crime fiction than it does with horror fiction. Which is absolutely fine with me. Horror fiction or crime novel or a hellish concoction of both, or perhaps something else entirely, The Girl Next Door gets my highest, but most reserved, recommendations.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Horror Fiction Help VII: The Sinister Chauffeur

Okay guys, I've got another horror novel for us to find. Reader Tim sent me a note earlier today:
In 1980 or 1981 I read a paperback which I bought at a supermarket or drugstore. I think the book was published by Zebra or Leisure or another that I would have thought of as a cheapo publisher. What I remember about the book is that it was about a kid who was made to live in a creepy boarding school/orphanage. I also seem to remember a ride in a limousine with a sinister chauffeur. Other than that, all I remember is how spooky the book's atmosphere and setting were.
This reminds me of a couple books I haven't read in decades: Robert Marasco's Burnt Offerings and Peter Straub's Shadowland. However I really don't think they're quite it. So - thoughts anybody?
Update 5/14: Found!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Seductions by Ray Garton (1984): Sweet Lovely Death

Promising a tale of eroticized bloodshed and death, this first novel by proto-splatterpunk Ray Garton boasts a truly lurid and ludicrous cover image (thanks, Steve Kropp, whoever you are!). Sadly it is pretty much a miss for any horror-fiction fan. Not sure if this will surprise anybody. I really had fun with Live Girls (1987), but Crucifax (1988) left me feeling vastly indifferent. True, I like how the title Seductions is rendered in gore and the lady looks to be having a lovely time hanging there, but that's the best thing about the novel.

Once again ancient mythical creatures the succubi and incubi are making trouble for regular folk in a small town populated by horny teenagers and their put-upon high school teachers. Death becomes something like the ultimate orgasm as the creatures seduce, fuck, then somehow... uh, absorb their victims, which makes for some okay icky '80s horror imagery. And while Garton makes several of his characters sympathetic and concerned for others, it's obvious this is an early novel by a writer who would grow more confident both with characterization and horror. YA style and themes jostle around with pretty graphic sex-and-violence scenes - more toothy genitalia! - while shaky dialogue creaks everywhere.

1999 reprint from Subterranean Press

This is a book I remember having when I was a teenager but couldn't really get into it even then, and got rid of my copy. I like having the book now because its cover is a great example of tacky horror paperback cover art, but reading it was a bit embarrassing for me today. I did appreciate the vintage-y scenes taking place in a video rental store and a reference to Val Lewton, and the final page acknowledges that no one can ever make nightmares go away. True that. Still, unless you're a horror or Garton completist - do not pay collector prices for it - I can't honestly recommend Seductions to anyone

Friday, October 7, 2011

Horror Fiction Help VI

An email I received this week about a book that I am unfamiliar with. Any ideas? Simmie writes:

I stumbled across your site last night while trying to find the title/author of a horror novel I read in junior high. All I recall from the book is that citizens of the town start turning evil once they have been exposed to a strange rainfall. I think there was also a scene where a girl is raped in a bathtub by a guy who has just come in from the rain.

Thanks again everybody! Hope we can find this one too.

UPDATE: I just got an email from a reader with the correct book, and it's Richard Laymon's 1991 novel One Rainy Night. This was the fastest I've ever gotten an answer! Thanks to Abraham Phillips of Show Me Your Books.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Happy Birthday Clive Barker!

Too Much Horror Fiction favorite Clive Barker turns 59 today. Above you'll see him with a few other familiar horror folks - yes, that's Dennis Etchison, Karl Edward Wagner, and Charlie Grant, circa 1986, in London on the set of Hellraiser. One of the Barker books I've not gotten around to rereading yet is Cabal, aka Books of Blood Vol. 6 (kind of; see comments). So here's a preview of some of those paperback covers. I simply love that tagline: At last, the night has a hero... Indeed, Mr. Barker. Indeed.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sweet, Sweet Heart: The Horror Paperback Covers of Bernard Taylor

Born today in 1937, British horror and suspense author Bernard Taylor probably isn't a very familiar name even to horror fans. However, his 1977 ghost story Sweetheart, Sweetheart was chosen by Charles L. Grant as one of the 100 best horror novels. I read it last year and quite liked it, although it does have a long, slow build-up that's oh-so-very British. But how about that Moorstone (St. Martin's Press, 1981) cover? Never get tired of drippy blood-letters!
If you like the kind of pre-King horror novels of the early 1970s, ones that take their sweet, sweet time to introduce whispery moments of chills and the supernatural, Taylor's probably your guy. I haven't read any of 'em, though, but I did just come across his short story "Out of Sorts" in a Grant anthology and really liked its dark humor. The Godsend (1976) looks of perfect vintage...
1991 Leisure Books reprint
And holy shit, check out this cover for The Reaping, Taylor's 1980 entry into the gerund-horror post The Shining. Demonic fetus? Fuck yes thank you!