Friday, April 27, 2012

Fawcett Horror Paperbacks of the 1980s

By the early 1980s, Fawcett seemed to have moved on from the moody, studied paperback cover art they used in the 1970s. Perhaps the growing horror field of the new decade gave them more competition and those books didn't sell as well any longer. Perhaps talented artists who worked in paints and canvases and good old-fashioned suggestive spookiness were too expensive. These covers are simpler, more direct, not as impressive, and in a couple cases just corny, tasteless without being quite ridiculous enough for a laugh. The three volumes in The Howling series, Gary Brandner's werewolf saga, (1977/1981/1985 respectively) utilize the same monstery font and stylization; I do kinda like the "one fang/two fangs/three fangs" motif.

When Paul Schrader remade the 1940s classic B&W Val Lewton horror film Cat People in 1982, Brandner wrote the novelization. Sure, this cover has the same image as the movie poster, but what an image! Truly one of my favorite horror ladies of all time.

Vampire Notes (1989) and The Keeper (1986), Robert Arthur Smith. No idea who Smith is, but he got some of the better '80s covers from Fawcett. 

Killing Eyes, John Miglis (1983) Yikes. I mean, look away! Those eyes are so unsettling, I missed the bullet hole first time I saw this cover.

The Boogeyman, B.W. Battin (1983) This kind of simplicity actually works: the child's scawl, the bloody fingerprint that looks almost real...

The Beast, Walter J. Sheldon (1980) Move along, nothing to see here folks.

Death Sleep, Jerry Sohl (1983) He sure sounds like Freddy Krueger...

Falling Angel, William Hjortsberg (1978) - Yeah, it's from '78, but I'm throwing this in as a freebie. I've featured this cover before, in my review; it's absolutely one of my favorite books that I've read for this site! I even sent an effusive fan email to Hjortsberg a month or two ago (drinking and the internets don't mix), but luckily received an appreciative reply. Whew.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fawcett Horror Paperbacks of the 1970s

Thanks to the incomparable bibliographic efforts of both The Paperback Fanatic and The Vault of Evil, I'm able to feature a mere morsel of the strangely tasteful yet effective paperback covers featured on horror/thriller novels published several decades ago by Fawcett, which includes Fawcett Crest and Fawcett Gold Medal imprints. So many skilled, eerie, beautifully specific paintings, evoking in us the ghostly chill of mere shadows and gloom... and making you realize how much most paperback horror covers today suck. Hauntings by Norah Lofts (1977) above, the creepy old crone, glaring owl, and robed figure make for a wonderfully gothic horror cover, even if it is all painted in gold.

American Gothic, Robert Bloch (1974). Ah, yes, By the author of Psycho, the ever-present quote. That dark figure following... looks a bit like Bloch's other fave psycho, that Saucy Jack!

Leviathan, John Gordon Davis (1977) Really really great cover in the style of Jaws.

The Dark Below, Michael Hinkemeyer (1975) Love the contrast between title and cream-colored cover art. Veeerrry menacing.
The Running of the Beasts, Bill Pronzini and Barry Malzberg (1976) I've heard good stuff about this thriller... gotta love the reflection of the woman in the knife. Well, I suppose you don't gotta, but I do.
The Night Creature, Brian Ball (1974) A perfectly reductive horror title, and such an evocative macabre piece of cover art, darkly unfocused except for that look of paralyzed fright.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Horror Fiction Help X

Yes, once again: a handful of email queries I've gotten from desperate TMHF readers recently, folks looking for forgotten horror novels and stories of years past. These are ones I unfortunately don't know myself; I'm sure some of you horror sleuths out there can get on the case - don't leave your fellow horror fiction fans hanging!

1. It was a picture of a house and I believe the house was twisted and looked like some kind of demonic face... and from what I can remember the basis of the story was about a family moving into this house and they had a son who seemed to be the protagonist that had to deal with the monster or ghost.

2. A giant tree, little people climbing it and on up the tree were some kind of monsters, like lizard looking maybe. When I say big tree I mean like the tree was the size of the Empire State Building.

 3. Graphic, intensely shocking story about a pregnant insane woman who stitches herself shut to keep the baby from coming out.

4. A temple-looking place that was lit up golden by torches and there was a statue of some kind of beast holding a bowl that looked like the top part of a bird bath that had a bright red liquid in it, blood possibly. In the distance looking down from the temple or well kept ruins, seemed to be jungle-looking type growth. I want to say the statue holding the cauldron may have had an
ox head or goat head.

5. Mutated fungus or mold that turned the infected into highly light-sensitive zombie-like creatures that would then stalk around after dark looking for new people to infect (by mouth-to-mouth contact, no less!). The plague started with an infected cat, and the main character was a teenage girl (I forget her name, but her best friend was Maxine). Found!

6. From what I remember, a family moves to New England. Wouldn't you know it, the oldest son soon grows distant and more reclusive, eventually moving into the basement. The family is content to leave him down there, listening to his music and being a teenager. Eventually he paints the basement all black, blacks out the windows, etc. At the climax of the novel, a parent (the mother?) goes down there to find that he is just about to open a portal to hell, assisted by a few red-robed supernatural beings doing some kind of supernatural incantation over a supernatural altar. The parent is able to disrupt the ceremony, portal to hell closed, fin.

Friday, April 20, 2012

John Tigges: The Leisure Horror Paperbacks

Haven't read any of these John Tigges novels from Leisure Books, but most of their covers are nicely typical of '80s horror paperback cover art in their cheesy monstrous faces and foreboding titles. My favorite is easily Venom (1988), love the erotic bliss of the snake lady. This one's on my must-read list!

Garden of the Incubus (1982)

Unto the Altar (1985)

Evil Dreams (1986)

As Evil Does (1987)

Hands of Lucifer (1987)

Vessel (1988)

Book of the Dead (1989)

But wait - there's more. Tigges also had a pen name, William Essex. Dig on these ludicrously tasteless covers, so over the top and grotesque...

The Pack (1987)

Slime (1988)

From Below (1989)

Who's read any of 'em? Worth hunting down? As that Dirty Harry punk put it, I gots to know.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Whispers, edited by Stuart David Schiff (1977): A Craft of Love

My tale had been called "The Attic Window," and appeared in the January, 1922, issue of Whispers. In a good many places, especially the South and the Pacific coast, they took the magazines off the stands at the complaints of silly milksops, but New England didn't get the thrill and merely shrugged its shoulders at my extravagance.
- Lovecraft, "The Unnamable" (1925)

In the early 1970s, a young military dentist named Stuart David Schiff began a seeming inexhaustible labor of love by putting together a little magazine of original horror and dark fantasy stories, which he titled, in a nod to HPL, Whispers. Finding the horror genre lacking in outlets for good writers, Schiff simply created one himself, was able to offer money, and attracted the attention of an impressive roster of scribes, both the classic - Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Manly Wade Wellman - and the (then) newly minted - Dennis Etchison, Karl Edward Wagner, Ramsey Campbell, as well as folks never heard from again. Illustrators too, were welcomed, some hearkening back to the original Arkham House days, like Frank Utpatel and Lee Brown Coye - Schiff's editorial senses were impeccable.

Whispers #1, July 1973 - great cover art by Tim Kirk

Later in the decade anthologies of the best stories were published in hardcovers, and then, of course, came the paperbacks. In February 1977 the first Whispers paperback was released, from Jove/HB. You can see the cover art below, by Rowena Morrill, and how it features not a single real image of horror; it seems more fantasy-oriented, I mean, what is that, a dragon, and a princess? (Actually it's inspired by Wellman's adventure tale of Native American mythology, "The Dakwa").

At the top you see the June 1987 Jove reprint and its startling cover art by Marshall Arisman, intimating distorted psychological states in the sleek metallic sheen of a modern world, terror for the end of the century. But that's not what Whispers is; the terrors of Whispers are of the comforting old-fashioned sort, evil fantasies vividly told, well-oiled engines of weirdness and frightful fun that invoke demons and devils, Lovecraftian entities, vengeful madmen, landscapes of legend and myth, and other staples of the much-loved pulps era... with a few new twists.

Editor Schiff today

Almost to a one, the stories Schiff has compiled are solidly entertaining. Whispers starts off strongly with "Sticks." Originally written as a kind of horror writer's in-joke, Karl Edward Wagner's (pic below) story mixes Weird Tales art, anthropology, and vague cosmic malice to terrific effect, and it has become a classic in that Mythos; it won the 1975 British Fantasy Award for best short story and has been reprinted plenty (you'll also note its striking similarity to a popular indie horror movie that came along two decades later). Amazingly enough it was inspired by real-life events! A pulp horror artist comes across a strange collection of bundled lattices of sticks in the lonely woods of upstate New York.

It should have been ridiculous. It wasn't. Instead it seemed somehow sinister - these utterly inexplicable, meticulously constructed stick lattices spread through a wilderness where only a tree-grown embankment or a forgotten stone wall gave evidence that man had ever passed through.

And things just get worse from there. Really worse. Pretty great, unique, disquieting, although I could have done without the little explanatory afterword included, just a paragraph down from the story's final doom-laden lines.

Whispers #9, July 1976- eerie art by Steve Fabian

I've noted before that with the explosion of paperback horror in the 1980s the quality of the writing itself suffered much, but that in the '70s the genre was still populated by professional authors who could actually and truly write. How refreshing! There is the delicate style of Robert Aickman's (pic below) tale "Le Miroir," in which the most complex of ordeals sometimes finds its own resolution, and now Celia sat before the beautiful mirror or looking glass, now in one new dress, now in another, and intermittently without troubling to put on a dress at all.
Dark fantasy elder statesman Fritz Leiber's penchant for horror set in the current day appears in "The Glove." A tale of rape and guilt written in a smartly casual manner, Leiber's narrator wonders, Gloves are ghostly to start with, envelopes for hands - and if there isn't a medieval superstition about wearing the flayed skin of another's hand to work magic, there ought to be. Although I'm not a fan of sword-and-sorcery, and Brian Lumley's "House of Cthulhu" is firmly in that field with its medieval vocabulary and dialogue (speaking in "ayes" and "Os" and names with lots of Zs, Hs, and Ys), the story began to charm me, especially because of its skin-crawl climax and Cthulhu references.

Weirdbook Press, 1984

Some comic relief too: Bob Bloch contributes a mordantly self-referential piece, "The Closer of the Way" (his first book was entitled The Opener of the Way; get it?). "Mirror, Mirror" has a classic deal with the devil gone wrong, Ray Russell's satiric swipe at vain Hollywood types. You'll dig the Cockney cannibal of "The Inglorious Rise of the Catsmeat Man" by Robyn Smith. And Richard Christian Matheson's "Graduation" is an epistolary tale of a college student's clever, insightful, but not-quite-self-aware letters home; he keeps mentioning you-know-who but, sadly, I'm not quite sure who that was... but I don't think I'd want to be there when he comes home for spring break.

Matheson - Man I gotta find & reread his Scars

And Whispers ends with a bang: "The Chimney," one of the best Ramsey Campbell stories I've read. A child learns of Santa in the worst way, much too young, a fiend on television:

I'd seen two children asleep in bed, an enormous crimson man emerging from the fireplace, creeping toward. They weren't going to wake up! "Burglar!" I'd screamed. "No, dear, it's Father Christmas," my mother said. "He always comes out of the chimney."

Perhaps if she'd said "down" rather than "out of"...

This is one of Campbell's straightforward tales of quiet creeping dread, and the payoff lingers, finding that our deepest childhood fears resonate throughout our - and perhaps others' - entire lives. Stellar stuff. And winner of the 1978 World Fantasy Award for best short fiction.

Doubleday hardcover, 1977

And so many other satisfying tales of vintage weirdness, perfect for reading while curled up before the proverbial fireplace: "The Pawnshop" by Charles Fritch; "Goat" by David Campion; another with a good Lovecraft vibe, "The Willow Platform" by Joseph Payne Brennan. There are darker, more realistic stories here too, especially Etchison's murder-on-coed-campus "White Moon Rising," which hints at the fragmented types of stories he'd produce for the next several decades. But mostly Whispers presents carefully-crafted works that evoke the 19th and early 20th century masters, just the kind of horror that Lovecraft himself always loved.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bad Brains by Kathe Koja (1992): You Got the Silver

How fear the void when the void is where you live?

Ready for a long luxurious swim in the grimy waters of another Kathe Koja novel? Thought you were. March 1992 saw the publication of her second novel from Dell/ Abyss, that ambitious little imprint that wanted to put an experimental edge into horror fiction. Appropriately titled Bad Brains, it features an artistic, alienated, rather unsympathetic protagonist whose world is collapsing into a nightmare of surreality and neurological despair (much like Nicholas, the main character from Koja's 1991 Stoker Award-winning debut novel, The Cipher).

Depression would be a huge psychological improvement for Austen Bandy, a young man whose wife Emily has left him and who then finds so have his skill and passion for painting huge oil portraits of sphinxes and other human-animal hybrids. Once he accidentally cracks his head wide open - his grieving bitter head - he begins having seizures and sees things. Or rather, one thing that bleeds into everything, a dustdevil of fluid, liquid, mucus; silver, almost scalelike, delicate as fish skin and stretching out, elongating...

Think A Monstrously Decaying Blood-Limned Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Or think Cronenberg's films like Spider or The Dead Zone. For better or worse, Koja drills into Austen's every hurt and weakness and casts all in a drizzly grey light or a harsh winter cold. The atmosphere this creates can be suffocating, even tedious, in its insularity. Here, human interactions are stilted and ineffective (just wait till Austen visits mom!); grime and grease tinge every surface; homes and clothes are worn out, threadbare; food and coffee always foul; sex, ugh; hopelessness and hard-won creativity mingle to create a stew of incipient insanity. But is it Austen's psyche that's wounded, or is it his very brain?

Read the back of the paperback (such accolades!). It's pretty accurate but it only hints at the sanity-shattering silvery snotty serpent thing that threads and drips and convulses and glides now in Austen's vision, befouling corners, mirrors, faces, beer bottles, then out the nose and ears because it is inside Austen's brain. And when the brain, where our true self resides, surges silver and pink and rebels against its own best interests, why it will show you just what it's up to, when you look in the silvered mirror:

I am standing here seeing it, I am seeing it

and took off the top of its skull

where the brain is

and inside, the most delicate writhe, each lobe filigreed, threaded and girdled with silvery death in all its masques and manifestations, in all its irrevocable forms: the elegant pulse of an aneurysm, an extravagant clutch of tumors concealed like an oyster's pearl, clots like molded caviar and each molecule burning, shining silver light on the bone chips ragged and blood like the swirled center of a dubious treat; and nestled in the rich middle like eggs in a nest, eyes.

1996 Dell reprint

Minor spoilers ahead! But transcendence - come disguised as an illness - awaits. After finding no mere medical doctor can cure him, Austen embarks on a long squalid car trip to see his ludicrous mother, then finds a new friend with lunatic father issues, and on till Emily reappears, unsmiling, unsympathetic, certain that Austen can never get past all that Art 101 bullshit and accept the responsibilities of his life without her. Then Austen hears from a gallery owner acquaintance back home that he's sold some of Austen's old paintings, and they're all changing: but in everything one constant: the relentless drip of a color so pale it was nameless; but if he had to, Peter said, he would call it silver.

Cover & stepback art by Marshall Arisman

Soon they all find reclusive Dr. Quiet and Dr. Quiet can help, gets Austen painting in a frenzy again (I assume his portraits look much like the creepy Marshall Arisman cover art), starts using terms like "the stone of folly" and "duende" and "limbic borders" or some such, and reveals through videotapes of monstrosities - some of the novel's best moments - that Austen might not be alone in his sore world. Or he might be. Everything Koja depicts, everything Austen encounters, could it all just be code for the blasted crumbling architecture of Austen's brain, starved of its art, its love, its vision, its power of creation, that machine of luminosity and magic...? cross the border where the air itself is glass burned black... not only live and die for your art but become it, go past it, eat it bloody and alive and make it over to devour again and again like Cronus eating his children, ignoring their screams because what is is what must be and in all the rooms in the house of art there is only one altar, one half-seen silver priest and one demand

UK paperback 1993

As you see, Koja's prose style is all edge and poetic deconstruction, stripped bare and decorated in discomfort. A weird poet of the crumbling and the crazy. This is no epic novel of horrors human and hellspawned, but a novel of inner horror, which I find captivating; I like her anguished artist characters who suffer for their (lack of creating) art, who twist and turn helplessly through a worn-out world, insides spilling out as they search for answers to a madness that seems more than chemicals misfiring. However I understand not everyone is so enamored of arty characters engaging in what could be seen as self-indulgent self-pity... "Shut up and paint!" you want to yell at Austen at times, but he really does have a physical ailment, so that seems a bit impolitic, no?

I read and liked Bad Brains when it came out, as Koja's writing appealed to my growing appreciation for uncompromising non-horror authors like Burroughs and Ballard and Celine, and lately I'd been wondering if it would it hold up for a second read, over 20 years later. Well, I couldn't put it down for the last 70 or 80 pages, the nightmare ratcheting up, and a strange haunt lingered about me for days afterward... proof that Koja, for all her stylistic eccentricities and lack of providing a real plot (Austen himself has no plot), effectively creates dread, suspense, fear and, okay, bewilderment. But what finally awaits Austen and the people he's, let's face it, dragged passive-aggressively along with him - everything ends in silver: messy, unpredictable, bizarre - I hope haunts you too. But that's no big surprise.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Happy Birthday to James Herbert!

Birthday greetings to bestselling British horror author James Herbert, who celebrated his 69th birthday yesterday. A nice coincidence, since I scored some great vintage paperback copies of his books last week at a huge library book sale. A giant of horror, particularly during the great heyday of the 1970s and '80s, Herbert practically invented graphic, go-for-the-throat horror fiction with his first novel, the plenty entertaining The Rats (1974). You can read my review from a couple years ago here. This edition doesn't have a date listed but I'm placing it around '87 or so, since it notes 1986's Magic Cottage on its cover. Not nearly as lurid as the original paperback, but has an intense, splatterpunky vibe.

These next three I haven't read but look forward to immensely (I've also got a copy of The Fog I'm dying to reread): The Dark (Signet Sept 1980), The Spear (Signet Feb 1980), and Survivor (Signet March 1977). What do you think, The Dark is the best one, right?