Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fangs, Rattlers, Death Bites, and More: Love You Like a Reptile

Hook-toothed serpents and leathery alligators seek the greatest prey of all - humans! Nothing like some vintage horror cover art featuring animals gone amok. Although man-eating creepy creatures, whether mutated or in just their natural state of deadliness, have always been one of the horror genre's mainstays, after the success of Jaws (1974) you could barely escape them. Today I present a fearsome collection of herpetophobic paperback horror. First is Fangs (Signet 1980) which features an added taste of exploitation, the ever-popular naked lady.

Now I remember furtively reading a copy of Gila! (Signet 1981) in the public library when I was 11 or 12, marveling over, of course, the conflation of sex and violence and its overall tawdriness. Les Simons is the pen name of Kathryn Ptacek, wife of the late Charles L. Grant and prolific author in her own right.

One rattlesnake is plenty scary, but a nest, a swarm, a rhumba of them? Rattlers (Signet 1979) might be Indiana Jones's purest nightmare.

This 1977 Dell paperback of the prosaically-titled Alligator (what, no exclamation point?) is excellently done; how can you not love those forest green scales? And something about mysterious underwater action - seen much more often post Jaws, duh - coupled with above-water scenes has always fascinated me: this back cover is an undeniably glorious work of horror/thriller paperback art.

...and it makes The Snake (Berkley 1979) seems tame by comparison!

Oooo, Death Bite (Ace 1980)! Actually Brent Monahan went on to write more horror fiction alone, including one title that I see on almost all my used-bookstore jaunts, The Book of Common Dread from '93. This falls just outside my (self-imposed) vintage-era limit, so...

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Searing by John Coyne (1980): Now She's Got No Cerebellum

Despite its all-too-glaring titular indebtedness to the vastly superior bestselling horror novel The Shining, The Searing is not a part of any horror fiction tradition as I consider it. There's a slick superficial feel to this John Coyne novel that means one forgets it not long after reading it; already it's drifted from my mind even though I finished it less than a week ago. It may be billed as a novel of unrelenting terror, but it exists in that bland and banal universe of yesterday bestsellerdom. There's no Lovecraftian awe, no attempt to depict "how-we-live-now" of King, nor the prosaic reality of Matheson or the maniacal tasteless glee of Masterton. Spoilers coming so highlight if you know or don't care: The Searing's a thin soup of then-current pop culture "ideas" like telepathy and Uri Geller, sexual "liberation" books about the female orgasm, Von Daniken's ancient aliens BS, and even a nominal nod in the direction of Carl Sagan's Cosmos popularity, all obviously thrown in to get people to part with their money.

1980 Putnam hardcover

Women in a newly-developed suburban enclave in what was once the Virginia wilds outside DC suddenly experience horrifyingly intense orgasms while feeling what they describe as a "searing" in their brains. It proves fatal for some - seared brains blown out noses and such - then the intensity grows and the others fear for their lives. There's also a young autistic girl (constantly referred to as "retarded" reminding you this was the late '70s, folks) who seems to have some connection to it all. Factor in some manly men and passages like this:

He knew he had to control, to make decisions for both of them, and without giving her a chance to protest, he stood and picked her up in his arms. She was lighter than he expected, a child's weight, and he carried her across the living room and up the dark stairs to her bedroom. He would protect her...

1987 reprint Charter Books

That's an adult woman being carried up the stairs. Blech. Still, Coyne isn't a terrible writer, and the mystery of "the searing" along with a few shocks of violence against infants and women make turning the pages easy, but overall it's just a blurt of hackneyed situations and execution. Much of The Searing reminded me of mediocre '70s Hollywood horror films like Burnt Offerings, The Sentinel, The Manitou, Audrey Rose, etc. In fact I'm sure the movie rights were bought up for this, and that at one time Jane Fonda, say, or Faye Dunaway or Katharine Ross or Farrah Fawcett or Sissy Spacek were, as they say, "attached" to the project. Anyway, it's a diverting read, dated and inconsequential, but by no means a must-read, and really with no connection at all to the horror fiction we all truly love.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

R. Chetwynd-Hayes: The George Ziel Paperback Covers

The little-known George Ziel is quickly becoming one of my very favorite paperback cover artists. Here you see the wonderfully macabre illustrations he did for the 1970s Pyramid Books editions of R. Chetwynd-Hayes's short story collections (which I haven't read). Zeil paints sultry, sexy, deadly, slightly maddened women, malevolently blank-eyed skulls, drifting tendrils of mist and clouds of living darkness, and mysterious men who blur the line between saviors and psychos like someone with a direct line to their roiling subconscious (of course he was a Holocaust survivor). That gangrenous gray-green hue should be de rigueur for all horror fiction paperbacks!

See more of Ziel's amazing, alluring work for horror, crime, mystery, Gothic and other vintage genre paperbacks here. And yes, you're welcome.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Demons by Daylight by Ramsey Campbell (1979): The Sunshine Bores the Daylights Outta Me

Another vintage horror fiction paperback cover that has precisely nothing to do with its contents. This May 1979 Jove reprint of Ramsey Campbell's first non-Lovecraftian short story collection Demons By Daylight features some strikingly vivid cover art. But as I recall, there are exactly no snake-demons horny for hot human ladies in silver space-age bikinis in these tales. Somebody forgot to tell artist unknown that. While it would indeed catch a bookbuyer's eye, it's a little Heavy Metal for me.

Oh well the artist probably had no idea his painting would be used for a collection of shorts about unsettling urban decay, pasty-skinned and alienated Englishmen, and quiet, oblique madnesses that flitter at the edges of a bright noon and beyond. I read this Carroll & Graf edition from 1990 over a decade ago, trying to get back into horror fiction, but was distinctly underwhelmed and very much disappointed, as I knew I'd liked a lot of Campbell's HPL-style stories. These seemed fuzzy and unfocused and quite tepid. Honestly Demons by Daylight (along with Caitlyn Kiernan's Silk and John Shirley's Wetbones) put me off horror for many years. Fortunately, I came back to it... thanks, ironically, to his Dark Companions collection.

Original Arkham House hardcover

Friday, February 17, 2012

Ruby Jean Jensen: The Paperback Covers Redux

In the interest of completion, here are covers from Ruby Jean Jensen's 1970s Gothic novels, well before she got the Zebra treatment for her horror fiction. The Girl Who Didn't Die (Warner 1975) is my favorite: great painting, the woman's expression of fear perfectly captured, and in an odd twist, she's not actually running from the castle. Perhaps she will try to get help there to protect herself from whatever's chasing her across the misty moors, and then find a whole new world of horror waiting...

The House That Samael Built (Warner 1974) This Samael sounds like one pretty cool dude.

Hear the Children Cry (Leisure 1983) Meh. More like her Zebra paperbacks.

Seventh All Hallows' Eve (Warner 1974) Uh, what? Some kinda tribal or kabuki mask?

House at River's Bend (Dell 1975) Boring run-of-the-mill standard Gothic romance.

Child of Satan House (Manor 1978) Golf club? Cane? I expect her to break into a little soft-shoe at any moment.

Satan's Sister (Major 1978) That is one bizarrely specific tag line.

For more on Jensen, be sure to check out Phantom of Pulp's post.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Blackwater III: The House by Michael McDowell (1983): Power and Greed and Corruptible Seed

The story of the Caskeys, a grand and wealthy yet conflicted Southern family, is far from over: In The House (Avon, Mar 1983), the third book (of six) in the Blackwater series, author Michael McDowell happily returns to the quietly Gothic style, creeping unease, deft characterization, and shocking violence that made me such a fan of the first book, The Flood. The lack of most of these aspects, or their under-use, made the second in the series, The Levee, rather lackluster. Fortunately I trusted McDowell, continued on, and was rewarded with a fantastic little work of horror fiction.

It is now 1929, ten years after the events of The Flood: the Caskeys still preside over Perdido, Alabama in wealth, mystery, and prestige. Mary-Love Caskey reigns over her family with imperious passive-aggressiveness; her son Oscar and his wife Elinor (who arrived from nowhere, it seems, with the flood) raise their timid daughter Frances next door; her brother-in-law, the widowed James, raises his lovely daughter Grace alone; and Queenie Strickland, another relative, raises two unruly children and fears the return of her abusive husband Carl. They hardly notice the Great Depression. That strange crisis of faith and paper so many miles away is nothing compared to the violence Perdido experiences on that very day...

Despite a few "telling-not-showing" mis-steps in the first couple chapters that read more like back-cover copy or McDowell's own notes before fleshing them out, the novel deepens, if not broadens. The crisscrossing currents of emotional manipulation between Mary-Love and her daughter-in-law Elinor are believable as the latter subtly begins her ascent to the Caskey throne in order to control the family fortune:

There was no rancor in Elinor's voice. She spoke as if she stated obvious truths. The very baldness of Elinor's assertions wounded Mary-Love, who never looked at a thing directly, and now had no idea how to confront her daughter-in-law's unexpected forthrightness.

When Mary-Love suddenly falls ill, who is it that cares for her? It is Elinor who puts her to bed in the front room of her and Oscar's home, the room which so frightened their daughter at the end of The Levee, a closet from which emanates an unearthly light (see the cover)... and perhaps something more. Other strange things surface, sometimes literally: Caskey daughters Frances and Grace go for a boat ride to the source of the Perdido River, where all civilization seemed separated from this strange spot by space and time, and when the waters roil, a familiar visage appears from its red-tinged depths.

Rot and corruption arise and destroy weak men while vanity and self-delusion destroy weak women. Then there is the fate that befalls one character: mercilessly beyond all human endurance, an incident of monstrous woe and bodily destruction; truly one of the worst deaths I've ever read in horror fiction. Nearly Barkerian in its unexpected explicitness, I was pretty horrified. A real butt-clencher to be sure!

1985 Corgi UK edition, cover art by Terry Oakes

But all is not misery: I was charmed by the lives of widowed James Caskey and his young teenage daughter, Grace, and found the chapters about them a pleasure to read. The sweet and unaffected child Danjo Strickland, the result of Carl's rape of Queenie, goes to live with James after Grace reluctantly leaves for college (all the Caskeys live within yards of one another and have traded off children before). And it's always satisfying when someone like Mary-Love, a perfect example of imagined victimization, gets her comeuppance: when Oscar finally refuses to speak to her any longer after she turns down his request for money owed him to save the Caskey mill, it is particularly painful because it wasn't public; she therefore couldn't represent herself as a martyr.

I really had a blast reading The House this past weekend during a mini-vacation, swept up into its story and its people, McDowell's sure, even style, and the note of uber-creepiness upon which this book ended. I can only hope - and trust - that the rest of the Blackwater series is as horrifically satisfying.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day from Too Much Horror Fiction

Horror and lust, sex and death, love and violence... Valentine's Day is a perfect holiday for horror fiction fans!

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Force and Spellcaster by J. Edward Ames: Crap Strikes Back

Get that tagline: "His Evil Eye Will Turn Mardi Gras Into a Carnival of Blood!" It's his evil eye we have to worry about?! Spellcaster (Zebra 1989) probably is not going on my to-be-read pile.

1987 Leisure/BMI Books

Yeah, I can just hear that editorial meeting: "The Force? The Force. Hmm, The Force....? Nope, doesn't ring a bell; it'll be the perfect title for a horror novel!" Funny review here.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mad House Mag: White Coats to Bind Me

Something different, something fitting: a quick guest post from fellow horror scribe Joe Monster, bludgeoning blogger of the darkest arts; you may know him as the shadowy figure behind From Beyond Depraved (RIP!), Grim Tidings, or Mephisto's Castle. And if that's not enough, Mr. Monster's got more macabre mayhem up his bloodstained sleeve:


Do you crave classic horror stories? Do you love the musty smell of a paperback anthology containing vintage horror? Stories about creepy old houses, aristocratic vampires, Lovecraftian creatures, and tales of psychological spooks?

We wanted to send a shout out to all interested parties who would want to submit pieces in this vein to MAD HOUSE, the new digital magazine that’s eager to hear the terrifying tales that all you storytellers have to share. In addition to fiction, we're open for nonfiction, poetry, and artwork.

If you pine after the Universal and Hammer horror films and worship authors like Poe, Lovecraft, M.R. James, Clark Ashton Smith, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Fritz Leiber, Shirley Jackson, and many others, than MAD HOUSE is the monster mag for you!

The official deadline for any and all submissions for our premiere issue is May 5th, 2012. We are planning on releasing the anthology in time for the Halloween season and need to have all materials at the ready by the above timeline. Don’t miss out on your chance!

At this time we cannot offer payment to our contributors. We're putting this magazine together for the pure fun of it and out of our love for all that is classic horror. We hope to someday offer monetary compensation for the great work that we’re provided with. In the meantime it is our desire to simply put together a loving publication that we can all share with other terror-loving friends.

We prefer that your submission is in Word document format, 12 point Times New Roman, single-spaced.
Stories can reach up to a 7,000 word maximum. Maximum word count for articles is 5,000 words.
Attach it to your email and make sure you include the piece's title and your name in the subject line.
We will request short bios upon acceptance of your piece(s).

Address all submissions to madhousemag [at] yahoo [dot] com.

MAD HOUSE will require the non-exclusive right to use submissions in our free online edition and any possible PDF editions. First world electronic rights revert back to the creators three months after publication in MAD HOUSE. Reprints are more than welcome. We only ask that creators notify us of previous appearances of their work and credit MAD HOUSE for future publication of their accepted piece.

Check out our blog for more information. Be careful as you traverse through MAD HOUSE and always keep your hands at the level of your eyes! You never know who you may run into.

Hope some of you Too Much Horror Fiction folks are up for this little madness. For me, till now, "Mad House" made me think one thing and one thing only:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Kiss Not the Child by John Tigges (1985): I'll Put a Knife Right in You

I should say not! But I have to wonder what this fantastic cover art has to do with the title. You got your skull and a pretty lady, what more do you want? John Tigges wrote lots of horror paperbacks for Leisure Books in the 1980s, most with some really cool and grotesque covers. I have to ask: are they any good? Are they anywhere near as good as the covers suggest? Hmm. Perhaps one day I shall find out.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Dark Advent by Brian Hodge (1988): Countdown to Extinction

Cursed—or blessed—with a demonic kids-in-peril stepback cover, the post-apocalyptic horror novel Dark Advent from Pinnacle Books is a passably okay work, Brian Hodge's minor-league version of The Stand (1978), Alas, Babylon (1959), or Swan Song (1987). You got your germ "warfare" gone wrong, the inadvertent regular-guy heroes and opportunistic bad guys, and large-scale horror setpieces as a flawed and violent humanity struggles to rebuild after the unthinkable happens.

The story moves along all right as Hodge introduces his large cast of survivors, but by the halfway mark I just couldn't take it anymore and really skimmed over the rest. Dark Advent is not overly bad; it's actually overly nice, if that makes any sense. Hodge's tone is eager and earnest tinged with an adolescent cynicism. Guilelessness is simply not to my taste at all (perhaps if I'd read it when I was a teenager). Hodge himself noted these "rampant immaturities" in a recent blog post about an upcoming updated reprint.

Hodge still wrote in this manner in Nightlife a couple years later (the second title from the impressive Dell/Abyss line), but that novel is much more original and engaging. The cover (by an uncredited Marvel Comics' Bob Larkin) may promise something satanically cheesy but Dark Advent really isn't - nor does it feature any children lost in a wilderness of flames - but it's not a work of horror fiction that I can say you must read, unless you've just gotta read every post-apocalyptic horror novel ever till the end of the world. However the cover makes it a solid horror collectible, although these demon teeth have seen better days.

Hodge himself

Friday, February 3, 2012

"All the children are insane..."

Check out the scary mom jeans on this young-adult-fiction-looking girl of Salem's Children (1978)! But the ghostly figures behind her... anything creepier than 19th century garb? No - unless it's kids wearing it. Yikes.

This Salem's Child (1987) looks like one of them - well, it's kinda not PC for me to say it, so I'll let this do the talking.

Okay, I know, I know, 'Salem's Lot (1975 - this paperback probably mid-'90s)) doesn't take place in Salem, it's not the same thing at all... but the cover of this edition works, and it references one of my all-time favorite scenes in all of horror fiction, so.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

You Should Play with Madness...

...and watch this pretty amazing 2008 documentary on H.P. Lovecraft, directed by Frank H. Woodward. It's an incredible labor of love, accomplished and thorough, with lots of interviews with horror fiction icons Ramsey Campbell and Peter Straub, as well as horror and dark fantasy giants like John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stuart Gordon, and others (like S.T. Joshi, who wrote the essential - and expensive - biographies of Ech-Pi-El, H.P. Lovecraft: A Life [1996] and the two-volume I Am Providence [2010]). Features lots of great Cthulhu mythos art throughout as it covers not only Lovecraft's reclusive, epistolary life but also the creation and import of his singular and towering achievement in horror fiction, for which I know we are all eternally grateful.

I know it's been out a couple years, but I only got around to it last night - glad I finally did! It's one of the best genre writer docs I've ever seen (up there with Dreams with Sharp Teeth [2008], about the mighty Harlan Ellison). Definitely worth taking 90 minutes out of your day, if you want to know the truth... Oh, and have you guys seen the cover for the recent Penguin Classics Lovecraft trade paperback?! Too clever/cutesy by half, I think.