Tuesday, January 29, 2013

No Blood Spilled by Les Daniels (1991): Who Dares Love Misery

Don Sebastian de Villanueva is a particularly nasty and old-school vampire who goes by different names in different historical eras, headlining five different novels, all by the sadly late Les Daniels (1943-2011), beginning with The Black Castle in 1978. No Blood Spilled (Tor Books/Feb 1991) is actually the first novel I've read in the series. Daniels was a great chronicler of pop horror culture, having written the ambitiously-titled Living in Fear: A History of Horror in Mass Media way back in 1975. More, he's even considered the first serious historian of comic books, publishing Comix: A History of Comic Books even wayer back in 1971! That is just awesome, I gotta say.

But the only work of Daniels I'd read till now were his ghoulishly witty tales "They're Coming for You" and "The Good Parts," respectively, for two classic '80s anthologies, Cutting Edge and Book of the Dead. Daniels's friends and colleagues remember him fondly as the guy who knew it all but didn't act like a know-it-all and gladly, happily introduced them to the finest and funnest horror entertainment. This pic of him looking jovial pretty much says it all, I think:

For more on Daniels, go here and here.

Set in a finely-detailed Calcutta during the 19th century when India was under British rule, No Blood Spilled is not very long, just over 200 pages, and moves efficiently from one vivid scene to the next in an almost cinematic fashion. Don't take this as a criticism: No Blood Spilled is plenty gory (so yeah, the title is kinda ironic), envisioning a meeting of two masters of macabre mayhem: the dread vampire and the Thuggee cult... and ultimately, the goddess of death and nothingness herself, Kali. As a diehard fan of modern classic horror works set in India like Song of Kali and "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves," can you blame me for reading this last volume first?

You can read the basic setup here on the back cover, but it doesn't capture the deftness with which Daniels paces his story, nor the characters he so easily brings to life (or takes to death). There's Callender, who tricks his way out of a British prison to track the vampire Don Sebastian de Villanueva, centuries before a Spanish nobleman but now known by the English name Sebastian Newcastle. Once in Calcutta Callender meets up with an old school chum, Lieutenant Hawke, now a cruel, ambitious military man intent on wiping out the last remnants of the Thuggee cult. Jamini is the young, wily street urchin who "befriends" Newcastle after rescuing his coffin from the sea. The silk merchant Kalidas Sen is actually a Thug leader addicted to cobra venom, and who sees in Newcastle perhaps an ally in the battle against the British. Or perhaps not. And of course there's the beautiful Sarala Ghosh, who finds herself caught between the living, the undead, and the divine...

Daniels well utilizes the darker aspects of the Hindu mythology that features Kali, contrasting the vast murderous impulses of the Thuggee with those of Newcastle, murderous impulses that must not shed blood (their method of murder is strangulation). Newcastle is somewhat of a cipher, which I suppose is appropriate. I think Newcastle identifies with the bloodthirstiness of the goddess, her eternal power and might, and wishes to get as close to her as he can. A quote engraved on the Kali shrine in which Kalidas and his men bunker down in with firearms and gunpowder to battle the British:

Terror is they name, O Kali
And Death is in thy Hand
Who dares love misery...
And hugs the form of Death
To him the Mother comes!

Man do I love that stuff! The more dramatic and horrific set pieces could be descriptions of early 1970s cover art from Creepy, Eerie or Tomb of Dracula comics; you can tell how much fun Daniels is having with the tale, evoking horror tropes with real respect. Newcastle, clad in black while walking the night, tears off heads and drinks the jetting blood. Callender witnesses one awesome scene as he's stranded in the forest with Sarala, just as his horse has been devoured by a black panther. The animal, bloody-muzzled, nuzzles a familiar dark shape and purrs:

And as the moonlight carved shadows in the figures set before him, the scene began to change. Sarala, her sari still hanging from one hand, began to tear at Newcastle's clothes, while he writhed and twisted like a thing possessed... stripped to the waist, Newcastle dropped to his knees, his white back heaving and darkening as malignant growths sprouted from this shoulder blades and bloomed into gigantic leathery wings. Sarala clutched their clothing to her breast as the vampire embraced her, his great wings rippling like sails in a high wind, and suddenly they were aloft, dwindling in an instant to a black bat against the moon.

Man do I love that stuff! Throughout, Daniels writes in a lively, simple prose with plenty of wit mixed in with the violence and bloodshed. While it touches on some ideas of man's inhumanity to man that make monsters seem obsolescent, No Blood Spilled isn't weighted with moral concerns that may have bogged down The Vampire Chronicles or A Delicate Dependency. This approach results in a lightweight, yet highly enjoyable and unique vampire novel that truly satisfies and which I can recommend as serious horrific fun.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Signet Paperbacks of Richard Bachman

These four long-out-of-print paperback originals from Signet/New American Library are some of the most highly collectible books in Stephen King's, uh, oeuvre. Written under the now-famous pseudonym of Richard Bachman while his career was beginning to take off at the turn of the 1970s and early '80s, they were King's effort at anonymity, seeing if his work could survive without the name "Stephen King" attached to it. It couldn't, and these books pretty much disappeared into obscurity. I believe the only one to gain a cult following was The Long Walk (July 1979), which I happened to read well before King was exposed as the actual author. Ooh lucky me! It's pretty cool and I recall being shaken by it.

His first work as Bachman, Rage (Sept 1977), has become one of King's most notorious, one he actually has refused to allow back in print. The story of a disturbed teenager who brings a gun to his high school, kills his teacher and then holds the classroom hostage... well, I think you can see why King might be squeamish about it today. It's probably impolitic of me to tell you how much a couple friends and I enjoyed Rage when we were about 16, but 'twas so.

Roadwork (March 1981), the third Bachman book, never appealed to me and I think I gave up after a few pages. Rereading its synopsis on the back, though, has got me intrigued enough to try it again. Then there was The Running Man (May 1982), of which I recall nothing save it was quite different from the campy fun of the  Schwarzenegger/Richard Dawson flick.

I think they all have pretty great cover art - well, Running Man's isn't so hot - and if you've got several hundred bucks (or maybe a grand?) lying about you can pick 'em up off eBay. The only one I own is an old library-discarded Long Walk, probably the same one I read as a kid.

This omnibus entitled The Bachman Books (Nov 1986) was a popular read among my horror-fiction-reading pals and me, but I lost my copy years ago, so I can't recall just what King said in "Why I Was Bachman." You can read a thorough tale of the Bachman years here. Bachman's cover was blown just after Thinner came out in hardcover in 1986. But you probably knew that.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Night Visions: Dead Image, ed. by Charles L. Grant (1985): I Don't Care About These Words

I had some high hopes for Dead Image, the second in the long-running horror anthology series Night Visions, published by the specialty line Dark Harvest. Everyone involved was writing good stuff throughout the 1980s: editor Charles L. Grant, of course, and contributors David Morrell, Joseph Payne Brennan, and Karl Edward Wagner. But those hopes were dashed pretty quickly, even with the very first story; suddenly I wasn't so excited about reading vintage horror fiction. Pick your critique: dull, lifeless, trite, half-hearted, corny, bland, old-fashioned. I haven't read a clunker like this in ages. Don't believe the back-cover copy: this is not a "landmark collection," and for the most part there is nothing original or nightmarish about the works contained herein. These "craftsmen" have done much better work elsewhere.

Berkley Books, September 1987

Recently I've read a handful of Brennan's short stories in various anthologies and enjoyed them a lot ("The Horror at Chilton Castle," "The Willow Platform," "Jendick's Swamp"). But when he's bad, his stuff is run-of-the-mill horror pulp relying on cliche and traditional "scares" and would barely pass muster for "The Twilight Zone" or "Night Gallery." His effective tale "Canavan's Backyard" from 1958 was rightly lauded highly by King in Danse Macabre. The sequel is here - "Canavan Calling" - and actually it contains my fave horrific scene in the whole anthology. "Wanderson's Waste" has its moments, but his others follow a threadbare template.

Ugh - Morrell's contributions are little more than YA fiction. "Black and White and Red All Over," reads like super lightweight King, and "Mumbo Jumbo" - well, the titles alone are coma-inducing. His title story is a riff on James Dean's legend, but it adds little and offers no insight to it, there's just a tasteless bit of gore for the punchline.

"Shrapnel," "Blue Lady, Come Back" and "Old Loves" are Wagner's efforts and if you want to read them, I'd suggest buying Why Not You & I?,  his 1987 collection that they also appear in. Wagner was a grand personality of '80s horror fiction, a giant both figuratively and literally, but I don't think Night Visions is his finest hour. The stories aren't bad, they're just okay. But Wagner's personal interests always come through in his fiction: "Old Loves" is geeky fandom gone awry, while "Blue Lady" - named after a creepy old waltz - involves academic rivalry and plenty of alcohol. "Shrapnel" made no impression whatsoever.
Original hardcover from Dark Harvest, 1985

UK paperback, 1989

These stories are much too earnest and literal in their approach to horror, written in too obvious a manner, lacking either powerful imagery or prose. I really have to wonder what Grant was going for. In his intro he states The sound of horror is not always a scream, which is true, yes, but Night Visions is pretty much a yawn.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Thomas Tryon Born Today, 1926

Author-turned-actor Thomas Tryon wrote two of the best of pre-Stephen King horror bestsellers of the early 1970s, The Other (1971) and Harvest Home (1973). Here are the UK paperback editions; you can see the US editions here. If you haven't read 'em, get to it! Such chilling delights.

They were also made into movies, of course, the former title I've seen, while the latter was made for TV but still starred Bette Davis. Creepy kids and malevolent old ladies...

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Night Hunter Series by Robert Faulcon

Until today I had never heard of this series, Night Hunter, first published in the States in the late 1980s by Charter Books. Robert Faulcon is a pen name of respected British dark fantasy author Robert Holdstock. The series seems to be an odd mash-up of men's adventure novels and pulpy occult horror fiction. In the anthology I'm reading right now there's an ad for the series, so while I'm finishing that book and working up a review, check out these perfectly vintage paperback covers! Read a review here.


Monday, January 7, 2013

Cold Moon Over Babylon by Michael McDowell (1980): Lot of Water Under the Bridge... Lot of Other Stuff Too

This is one paperback horror novel in which the creepy cover art actually recreates the imagery contained within the story itself. O huzzah! The second of Michael McDowell's many paperback originals published by Avon Books, Cold Moon Over Babylon (Feb 1980) takes its title very seriously: throughout the novel, the moon and its "light" reveal guilt and terror, hiding only temporarily the ghosts - and worse - of innocents slaughtered. This cold moon grows immeasurably large in the eyes and nightmare visions of Babylon's worst denizen, the result of his actions now seen all too clearly in that bleaching, blue-silver, not-quite-blinding light. There is no place to hide from the consequence of misdeed.

(Some spoilers ahead) Cold Moon is a novel I've been waiting to read for a few years now, and read it excitedly over the holidays. Back in my used bookstore days of the late '80s I remember countless copies of it crossing my hands, yet the eye-catching silver-blue of the cover art never quite captivated me enough. Shame, because this is a work that, like most of McDowell's (all out of print) output, I can now recommend without hesitation. Would I have liked Cold Moon back then? Perhaps not; this is horror solidly in the mainstream. Characters, quickly sketched, have believable dialogue and motivation; solid structure keeps you reading. Indeed, McDowell had stated in interviews how he preferred being a writer of paperback originals, books sold monthly on drugstore racks.

His style however is not cheap, cloying or sentimental, and McDowell strikes a welcome tone of moodiness and doom in his prose. His death scenes are some of the most surprising and affecting of the era; there is a prosaic, shocking realism to them that one finds less in horror than one would think. The very first ones appear on the second page and wow, was I not expecting them. McDowell just reels out the words without bothering to create suspense. It works; you know no one is safe in the book, you know any old horrible thing could happen at any time.

UK paperback, 1985 - also with accurate cover art!

Babylon is a tiny town in Florida's panhandle, just scant miles from the Alabama border. Nearby is the River Styx, a slow-moving, rattler-infested river in a sparsely populated part of the town. The crumbling old bridge that spans it is maintained by Jerry Larkin, 20-something son of deceased Jim and JoAnn Larkin. The remaining family -  Jerry's sister, 14-year-old Margaret, and their elderly grandmother Evelyn, Jim's mother - try to maintain the blueberry farm that is their only source of income, but that's a losing proposition. Then Margaret goes missing walking home from school one afternoon. Her grandmother  is terrified of the worst, suspecting immediately foul play, while Jerry takes a more practical approach by explaining Margaret is visiting a friend, and is hesitant at first to call Sheriff Ted Hale. But a storm, a bad one, is coming, and Evelyn can't bear the idea of her beloved caught in the deluge, but as the rains come the news will be dire: the next morning, Margaret is still missing.

But the reader knows just what's happened to Margaret. Without hope or mercy she is dispatched just within sight of her home, her grandmother's window, tossed carelessly from that bridge her brother tends into the shallow muddy waters of the Styx. This is not a mystery novel, and the reader soon learns the murderer's identity as well. It's precisely who Evelyn suspects: a man named Nathan Redfield, the estranged son of Babylon's widowed, wealthy bank owner, a man with a lust for money and high school girls. But there's no evidence, just Evelyn's fear of Nathan because the Larkins owe the bank money, and could lose their farm. Sheriff Hale, however, suspects poor Warren Perry, the school's vice principal; he was the last to have seen Margaret alive. Then Margaret's body is pulled from the Styx by a fisherman's errant hook - a sad and pathetic moment of human tragedy - and Nathan easily supplies Hale with bloody evidence for Perry's guilt when more dead bodies turn up.

Ashen and faintly luminous, the head and the neck rose from the Styx waters, still turning softly in that same unvarying rhythm... 

Nathan's nightmarish visions, hallucinatory and unreal, provide the book's best moments. Margaret Larkin will not rest easily, and in cinema-ready scenes featuring the watery black-haired girl ghosts of classic Japanese horror, Nathan begins to see her form beneath the streetlamps along deserted Babylon roads, at cemetery gates, in the bank he works in, in the restaurant where he makes his crooked deals. She leaks grainy Styx muck and mud from her mouth and her eyes are empty and the moonlight is everywhere, the moon is all wrong, so bright he dare not look directly at it... Damn if McDowell doesn't revel in some classic horror imagery: in corpses crawling out from graves, in the grue of corrupted flesh, and in revenants floating above the Styx and slithering through the forest. These parts are fucking brilliant.

...all without color, a liquid, a phosphorescent grayish-white...

If there's any flaw in CM, it's that ultimately it's only a simple revenge story, and that the final quarter or so of the novel is taken up only with the ghostly pursuit of Nathan and his attempts to elude it. A more expansive and elaborately-plotted story could have included more detective work by Sheriff Hale, or efforts by wrongly-accused Warren Perry to find the killer himself. Something other than the one-dimensional route to the (gruesome, yes) climax, which reveals nothing new about past events. This is not a major failing, but the thinness made it seem like a missed opportunity for McDowell to turn CM into an even more potent, satisfying work of horror.

The eyes opened, but behind the gray lids was a flat infinite blackness, blacker far than the muddy Styx in that shadow of the rotting bridge...
Still, why quibble? Cold Moon Over Babylon is a must-read, (and, I'd forgotten, recommended in King's Danse Macabre), filled with bone-cracking moments of haunting dread, despair, and death. Michael McDowell is gone, but let us not forget what horrors he so humbly brought us.

Those terrible eyes were without surface; the lids opened directly onto noisome void and nonentity, and the black holes were fixed on the darkened window...

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Frankenstein Published Today, 1818

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

Mary Shelley, on the dream that created Frankenstein

The first four below are my favorites...