Saturday, December 29, 2012

Robert Lory, author of The Dracula Horror Series, born today 1936

Some classics from Robert Lory's nine-volume The Dracula Horror Series, which began April 1973, with the aptly-titled Dracula Returns. The covers for the US editions published by Pinnacle featured at first traditional opera-caped Drac, bats, sexy vampire brides, and full moons. As the series progressed you saw other pulp/horror icons like the zombie and the mummy, and then-hot fads like cults, pyramids, and lost civilizations. Artist Harry Borgman illustrated the first four, a "J. Thompson" did number five, and Victor Valla did the last bunch. All have their groovy charms, but I think my favorites are the first two. Read full, positive reviews of the series here.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Rod Serling Born Today, 1924

Without Rod Serling's iconic TV show "The Twilight Zone," the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy would probably be less a part of pop culture than they are. By installing the weird, the uncanny, the awesome and the dreadful in middle American living rooms throughout the '50s and '60s - and on into eternity - Serling made this kind of entertainment acceptable fare for all. He got us to see that our lives were in thrall to powers beyond our control, that what was strange, bewildering, horrific for some was the normal course of things for others. Sometimes these moments of realization led to acceptance of human foibles; as often, they led to death and despair.

Joey Ramone enjoys some Serling, 1977

Of course Serling also helped the careers of writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont (not to mention the countless actors and actresses that got their start on the show) for which we must be thankful. I read quite a few of these Bantam "Twilight Zone" paperbacks, originally published throughout the 1960s, as they were reprinted through the late 1970s and '80s. Of course I even tried my hand at my own versions of TZ stories when I was a pre-teen. Serling and "Twilight Zone" were indeed my introduction, my gateway, to all of horror fiction!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Horror Fiction Help XI

Once again I'm asking my readers for help in ID-ing some forgotten horror novels. The following are descriptions which I've received in emails from folks eager to lay their hands upon tomes read long ago...

1. A demon that controls people minds in the jungles of Africa and sucks the blood of the victims through the eyes of the person with two tentacles. Leading character is taken to a village to talk to a man who was blinded by the demon but was able to survive because he had a tumor. the demon is transported to the united states before he can be killed. It turns out that the leading character is a distant relative to a hero who fought the demon a long time ago, thus the demon cannot control his mind. This was found out after he was hypnotized.

2. Remember finding this old hardcover book on the library shelf with an possibly embossed sort of melting eye on the cover. It freaked me out so I had to read it but the only memory seems to be about a some students? or a couple? that for some reason enter an old mansion and find some secret passage going deep into the earth. 

3. A child who was hanged for witchcraft in the 1700's and consequently, sells her soul before she dies so she can avenge herself upon the descendents of the ones who hanged her. She is reincarnated as a child in modern times and draws pictures of gallows poles while she is in school. Throughout the book, she lives with her religious driven father who doesn't allow her to watch tv while she carries out acts of vengeance against those around her who are the bloodline of her accusers. The book ends with her being adopted out by a family who is the sole remaining descendent she intends to kill. 

4. Some kids who go into an old house in the middle of nowhere and they know the old story about the owner of the property being a witch.  The old lady is some kind of witch and spells the souls of children into the bodies of all the old dolls she has in and around her property.  I think the setting for this story maybe the Bayou, but I can’t remember much more.

5. A guy who falls in love/gets married to a woman who has some sort of dark secret.
I think her family home is a big mansion in the woods... maybe not. Eventually it turns out, if I'm remembering correctly, that the woman is promised to the devil. So when she reaches a certain age he will come for her. There are sinister hints about her father (who is dead or missing I think) and a mysterious trunk that is eventually opened to reveal photos documenting their incestuous relationship and devil worship. It's all kind of subtle and I don't remember a lot of 'action'... not a lot of murders or gruesome scenes... just a building apprehension. 

6. The cover was a light yellow, I believe. Nothing too fancy except I think a creepy kid on the cover. Kid scared the bejesus out of me. White glowing eyes. The story had something to do with a kid conceived by insects. Insect kid. That's all I have. I think the mom gets raped by insects out in the forest, but that could just be me. I can't recall if the boy on the cover has antennae or not. 

Any help is much appreciated. I'm halfway through two different horror novels this holiday season, so should have some good new reviews up soon!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Stephen King: The First Signet Paperback Covers

You know 'em, you love 'em - well, probably you do - these are the classic early novels from Stephen King, all published by Signet/New American Library. The bold, striking, even iconic original first-edition paperback cover art for The Stand (Jan 1980) is by Don Brautigam, and is (mostly) superior in every way to all the countless King reprints that have followed. The short novels in Different Seasons (August 1983) are my favorites of these, followed very closely by The Dead Zone (August 1980), while Cujo (August 1982) and Firestarter (August 1981/art for both by Stephen Stroud) I've always felt were somewhat minor works. I haven't reviewed any of these titles here yet but they provided me hours upon hours of pure horror entertainment, and there's not much more I want!

(Check out other first-edition paperback covers of earlier King classics: Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, and Night Shift. I loves 'em all.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Count Saint-Germain: The Signet Paperback Covers

Must plead complete ignorance of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's long ongoing series about the Count Saint-Germain, a vampire she based on a real-life personage of dubious nature; I haven't read a word of them. However I find the cover art an intriguing mix of sweeping historical romance and traditional Gothic/vampire horror imagery, the whole heaving breasts and ripped bodices thing, and tall, dark, vaguely threatening men in full Lugosi-style vampire garb (cover artist unknown).

 The prolific Yarbro began the Saint-Germain story with 1978's Hotel Transylvania (Signet paperback, Jan 1979) which takes place in the court of King Louis XV. Next was The Palace (Signet Dec 1979), set in Florence during the Renaissance. Blood Games (Signet Sep 1980) goes all the way back to Nero's Rome, while Path of the Eclipse (Signet 1982) has the Count under the 13th century Mongolian reign of Genghis Khan. Finally we get to the 20th century with Tempting Fate (Signet Nov 1982), in which the Count witnesses the rise of Nazi Germany before WWII. Whew. Epic.

Not sure which audience the publisher wanted to snag, either: the ever-discerning fans of Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers, or the Anne Rice crowd - but since Yarbro's vampire "reimagining" predates Rice's, there might not have been a huge horror fiction fanbase for such books. So I wonder if these were shelved with the romance novels or the horror novels? Burning questions for all the ages, no doubt.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Psycho by Robert Bloch (1959): Motel Money Murder Madness

Then the horror wasn't in the house... it was in his head.

Modern horror entertainment would not be what it is today were it not for the seminal work Psycho, the sixth novel by the vastly prolific Robert Bloch. The book's main character, Norman Bates, has become an immortal symbol of the madness hiding behind the banal, the prosaic, the mundane. It is horror rooted in the everyday; it does not haunt a crumbling Gothic castle, nor does it reside outside space and time. It's here and it's now and it's coming through the bathroom door...

Famously inspired by the Ed Gein case, Bloch pieced together the vague details he'd heard about his fellow Wisconsinite and created Bates, a fellow with, shall we say, mother issues. In the novel, Bates is balding, overweight, a voracious reader and somewhat of a drunk - one of the few changes Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano made when they adapted Psycho for film. Another is - probably a major disappointment for readers hungry for violence; I know I was when I first read Psycho as a teenager - the infamous shower murder. Bloch dispatches the character in a single lurid, pulpy sentence; there is nothing that even hints of what Hitchcock would put on the screen.

And I must admit I found it difficult to keep from picturing Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam, etc., in my head. Suspense and mystery are mostly muted when reading Psycho because of that classic movie. That's why I appreciated seeing how Bloch concealed the fact that Mother Bates is dead; I think those who read it before the movie would never have suspected she's an exhumed corpse. Bloch takes us right inside Bates's head, understanding the origins of his homicidal rage and impotent fury. The conversations between mother and son are ultimately one-sided, her vicious beratements taking on a pathetic poignancy, knowing as we do that they're Norman's own thoughts:

"I'm the one who has the strength. I've always had it. Enough for both of us. That's why you'll never rid of me, even if you really wanted to. Of course, deep down, you don't want to. You need me, boy. That's the truth, isn't it?"

Young Bloch in undated photo, from

One of my favorite parts was when Lila Crane is sneaking through the Bates home, looking for clues to her sister's disappearance, and finds Norman's library:

Here Lila found herself pausing, puzzling, then peering in perplexity at the incongruous contents of Norman Bates's library. A New Model of the Universe, The Extension of Consciousness, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, Dimension and Being. These were not the books of a small boy, and there were equally out of place in the home of a rural motel proprietor. She scanned the shelves rapidly. Abnormal psychology, occultism, theosophy. Translations of La Bas, Justine. And here, on the bottom shelf, a nondescript assortment of untitled volumes, poorly bound. Lila pulled one out at random and opened it. The illustration that leaped out at her was almost pathologically pornographic.

Warner Books reprint (with stepback), 1982

We get some of Bloch's famous word play in that first line, as well as the "forbidden books" trope so popular in weird pulp fiction. Bloch wrote an unassuming little thriller that shows touches of real-life horror in places, and one that's as singularly important to the horror genre - pre-King of course - as anything by Lovecraft or Matheson or Levin. That it's overshadowed by its unparalleled film adaptation is no inherent fault, and Psycho should still be read and savored today. See more paperback editions here.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Off Season by Jack Ketchum (1981): At Night Everything Hunts

You see that tagline up there, bold white against the starkest of blacks, a not-so-discreet arrow of crimson, a barely-visible title? It says The Ultimate Horror Novel. This kind of thing makes me, has always made me, skeptical. Not even skeptical; when I see that encomium so obviously from the PR dept of a paperback publisher, it's not even something worth considering as truth in the first place. In fact, it puts me in the opposite direction: this is hype to cover hackwork, and I walk away. But. That tagline...

Ketchum today

It's not so far wrong, actually. Surprised? I was, some. But considering it the ultimate horror novel in no wise means it's to be considered the best horror novel. Which is fine. But Off Season, the first novel from Jack Ketchum (long-standing pen name of Dallas Mayr) and published in July 1981 by Ballantine, features some of the most primal images of human fear in the starkest terms - just like that cover art - so primal that they are nearly mythic. Off Season can be seen as an ur-text for the horror genre in that it reduces all fears to their simplest form. In this way it could be the ultimate horror novel. However it gets this aspect from its adherence to the structure and style of films like Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, I Spit on Your Grave, et. al. So if you crave the utmost originality in your horror fiction, Off Season might not be your season. But according to Ketchum himself, these films were the impetus for his novel: "It seemed to me that there was something the movies were doing that the books were not doing. And that was going at the violence very directly and in your face."

And that's just what Ketchum sets about doing in Off Season.This is not a pulpy roller-coaster ride or a cozy chiller. This is horror that knows few, if any, bounds, with nary a whisper of the supernatural or the Gothic. It's a highly disturbing and graphic novel that lulls you with well-sketched characters and then hammers you with breathtaking horror, never flinching or blinking in the face of utmost atrocity. Then it ends. It bears almost no resemblance to any horror fiction before it. The Sawney Bean-inspired cannibal clan is so unlikely as to be almost supernatural; credulity may be strained.

1991 sequel

I don't really feel it necessary to get into the plot and character specifics; you can find those in reviews all over the internet. I'd rather talk more generally about what's going on in the novel, how Ketchum's style, even in this debut work, is careful, measured; at rare moments it even achieves a dark thoughtful poetry. Power lies in its matter-of-factness, in the precise control he has over what the reader experiences. The long character-driven build-up works well, and the conflicts and desires in his young people are rooted in an experiential reality (you'd be surprised - or perhaps you wouldn't - how many horror novelists, if their writing is to be taken at face value, have no idea how humans talk, think, behave, and interact; if they have had those experiences then their writing shows nothing of it, shows only what they've learned through TV commercials). You believe in these characters, for the most part, and it's so satisfying to read a writer who can convey that easily. These aren't Stephen King-style characterizations, of course, but for a paperback original, they're something unexpected.

1999 Overlook Connection hardcover, unexpurgated edition

Off Season's horror is the realization we are nothing but meat to a bizarre cannibal tribe, that the identities we cradle within our skulls are invisible and worthy of no consideration. The horror is in the full awareness of our impending death by dismemberment, of a violation so beyond the realms of human decency as to be dizzying. Watch as your severed limbs are piled around you, your mind reeling. Watch as your friends and lovers are broken before you and set aflame. Watch as you are eaten alive. Then, when you have the chance to retaliate, watch as you become as vile, as depraved, as degenerated as your enemy.

He was keeping her alive as long as he could, and she participated in her torture by her body's blind attempts to survive it. Didn't she know that it was better to be dead now? What awful fraud animated her? Her will to live was as cruel as he was.

Ketchum in '81

Ballantine Books printed up hundreds of thousands of copies of Off Season, even sending out this advance reader's edition (above) to booksellers in January 1981, along with other promotional items. And the outcry was immediate: no bookseller wanted to sell what they considered "violent pornography." Ketchum's career as a novelist was almost over before it'd begun. While it gained some word-of-mouth sales and became a cult title, it wasn't till the advent of the internet that the author's work became better known. The republication of it in 1999 included material excised by the publisher originally for being too violent. I can't even imagine what that'd be!

2006 Leisure Books reprint, unexpurgated edition

As with his The Girl Next Door, I read Off Season in one go; it's got a merciless propulsion to it, a sense of doom that will not be avoided, like a clockwork collision course. Can I recommend it? I'm not sure: it's the kind of book that can get you wondering just why we read books like this: there is no enjoyment in it, no secret thrill (god, I hope not), no escape, nor does it inspire you to get other people to read it. It's an endurance test, really, and when you get to the end, what have you gained? Simply a badge that states "I Survived Off Season"? I don't really have an answer other than: you do it to see if you can take it.

As they stood in the kitchen facing each other nobody said a word for a few minutes. There was nothing left to do but what they had said they would do, and now that seemed enormous and filled them up with a kind of awe.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Books of Blood, Vol. 6 by Clive Barker (1985): Only the Living Are Lost

Originally published in paperback by Sphere Books in the UK in July 1985, Books of Blood Vol. VI completed Clive Barker's era-defining collection of short stories. Written in the evenings by hand after working days in London's underground theater circuit, these 30 stories in total were '80s horror fiction's watershed and its high-water mark. This final volume can stand with the rest; before turning to his unique brand of epic dark fantasy novels, Barker ended his Books on a high and inspired note of horror, a talent fully matured (these stories weren't published in the United States till 1988, when they appeared in hardcover under the title Cabal, the name of Barker's then-latest work, which they  accompanied).

Barker's own handwritten ms. for the Books of Blood

Readers and publishers loved to compare Barker to King and - gack! - Koontz back in the day, and that has always seemed an ill-fitting comparison to me. While Barker may, at least in these early writings, have lacked the human warmth and bestseller plotting mechanics that gave K&K their huge middle-America audience, Barker is worlds ahead of them when it comes to style and imagination; he is also literary in a way those guys aren't. Barker easily employs irony and wit to his horrors; an erotic and perverse sexuality is threaded throughout; the metaphysics, if you will, of his stories aren't borne out of old monster movies or tawdry thriller novels but from ancient mythology, classic European art and philosophy, and obscure religious history (bet you didn't know a cenobite was a real thing!). Not content to simply scare us, Barker's world is one in which characters confront death, confront monsters, and learn to accept that sometimes banishing "the other" will result only in a world less worth living in, one that's been sanitized and banalized till it's fit for consumption only by toothless children.

The first story is "The Life of Death," and one might think it a trite title but the tale itself lives up to that literalization. It also is a perfect example of how facing fears enables us to see the world afresh... even as we see it for the last time.The world of Elaine Rider, a 34-year-old woman who's just had a hysterectomy and almost died twice during the surgery, has now become wintry and dull; she cries all the time and feels utterly bereft. That is until she happens upon the excavation of a 17th century church, All Saints, and meets near the underground crypts an interesting man, Kavanaugh, who piques her curiosity about whatever lies within those walls. He had legitimised her appetite with his flagrant enthusiasm for things funereal. Now, with the taboo shed, she wanted to go back to All Saints and look Death in its face. But it won't be as simple as all that, of course, not with Barker at the helm.

The jungles of South America, and the greedy foreign interlopers looking to exploits its riches, feature in "How Spoilers Bleed." Confrontation between those deceitful men and a tribal chieftan ends in death; curse is imposed; watch the bodies felled. But it is the precision of the curse, its nightmare delicacy, that unsettles:

 In the antiseptic cocoon of his room Stumpf felt the first blast of unclean air from the outside world. It was no more than a light breeze... but it bore upon its back the debris  of the world. Soot and seeds, flakes of skin itched off a thousand scalps, fluff and sand and twists of hair; the bright dust from a moth's wing... each a tiny, whirling speck quite harmless to most living organisms. But this cloud was lethal to Stumpf; in seconds his body became a field of tiny, seeping wounds. 

Oh, that's not going to end well at all.

One of Barker's strengths, I think, is that he never dipped into that seemingly bottomless well known as the Cthulhu mythos. He wasn't above mixing genres, however, in several of his stories he went to other wells - here, hardboiled crime fiction in "The Last Illusion," and Cold War spy fiction in "Twilight at the Towers." The latter has spies, no strangers to shedding and changing skins, subjugating personalities that, upon discovery, could get them killed. Surely there is power in that half-forgotten personality, power still within reach? Ballard is sent on the trail of potential KGB defector Mironenko, but petty bureaucracy and petty, angry men seem always in the way. Mironenko, Ballard will find, has more in common with him that he thought, and the defector will show that beneath the skin - ever-changing - the two are brothers. Becoming a spy, Ballard lost a part of himself, but the thing he was becoming would not be named; nor boxed; nor buried. Never again.

1992 French paperback

Harry D'Amour is one of Barker's few characters that spans stories and novels and movies, and he appears in "The Last Illusion," a New York City detective in the classic world-weary Bogart tradition. But D'Amour is otherworldly-weary, dealing as he does - for a price, of course - with real magic and real demons. The Castrato is one of those:  

It did not carry the light with it as it came: it was the light. or rather, some holocaust blazed in its bowels, the glare of which escaped through the creature's body by whatever route it could. It had once been human; a mountain of a man with the belly and the breasts of a neolithic Venus. But the fire in its body had twisted it out of true, breaking out through its palms and its navel, burning its mouth and nostrils into one ragged hole. It had, as its name implied, been unsexed; from that hole too, light spilled.

Sept 1989 Pocket Books paperback - probably the worst of Barker's book covers

A short-short tale ends Volume VI, one that didn't appear in Cabal; it is "The Book of Blood (a postscript): On Jerusalem Street," and it brings the entire story arc back to the beginning, the very first tale told in Volume I, quite nicely. I hadn't read this volume in well over 20 years; in fact, I'd never finished "The Last Illusion," and the only one I recalled anything about was "How Spoilers Bleed," and that because of its perfectly abrupt ending. Again, Barker in no way let me down as I found these final pieces a fitting end to perhaps '80s horror fiction's greatest artistic achievement. Volume VI might not be my favorite - to be fair my favorite tales are spread across all the Books - but it is, as virtually all of Barker's '80s output, essential horror reading.

The dead have highways.

Only the living are lost.