Monday, June 24, 2013

RIP Richard Matheson (1926 - 2013)

It is surely impossible to overestimate the influence that Richard Matheson had on the fields of horror and science fiction and fantasy throughout the latter half of the 20th century. The titles of his legendary works hardly need to be repeated for true fans of genre entertainment. His death today at age 87 ends a long reign as a respected master of the macabre mixed with the mundane, of the everyday horrors and wonders and threats that once were found only in places like ethereal Gothic castles of the old world. Matheson found terror in the abandoned streets of Los Angeles, in the skies 20,000 feet above the earth, in the high-rise apartment of a young single woman, on the winding roads of a West Coast desert. You know the stories, you love them, and fortunately for us all they will continue to haunt us for as long as we are able to be haunted...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Bad Seed by William March (1954): So Young, So Bad

While the pop culture trope of the "evil child" didn't begin with The Bad Seed, eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark, the "bad seed" herself, certainly is the most perfect and classic example of it. Author William March's last novel - he didn't live to see any of its many incarnations - The Bad Seed was recognized upon publication as a major work of popular fiction, nominated for the 1955 National Book Award (Indeed, the NYT Book Review stated "no more satisfactory novel will be written in 1954 or has turned up in recent memory"). Today's reader can easily see why: March is a careful, precise writer who doles out suspense and psychological insights with a master's pen. Every character's motivation and dialogue rings true, every development seems necessary and tragically unavoidable. In fact, March was inspired by the real-life serial killer Belle Gunness when writing the novel, and references the case in the story.

What I found most fascinating about The Bad Seed is that, despite all the perceptive passages about Rhoda's behavior, we never hear the word sociopath. But March, who never graduated high school, has every facility describing the condition. Again and again he details the girl's detachment, her blithe dismissals of wrongdoing, blaming the behavior of her victims, her mastery of outward displays of normalcy and her seemingly innate ability to successfully manipulate everyone around her, child or adult: "...the lies she told were the hard, objectives lies of an adult whose purpose was to confound and mislead." I don't know when that word, sociopath, entered our daily lexicon; I'm only assuming it wasn't in use in the 1950s, which sounds about right. Basically this is Rhoda Penmark: a case study.

Actually the horror here is not in Rhoda's misdeeds but in the slow realization her mother, Christine, has as she looks back over Rhoda's young life - accidental deaths of pets, schoolfriends, a neighbor who possessed something Rhoda desired. No matter how Christine tries to rationalize their lives, Rhoda's crimes, her own duty to her daughter, the truth is is more harmful than she had imagined. Christine begins researching cases of murderous children and learns something about her very own youth, distant, half-submerged memories roiling beneath the surface. She finds comfort in writing long, self-examining letters to her husband and Rhoda's father Kenneth, who is away on business for most of the story, but she never mails them: I feel now more strongly than ever that the problem of Rhoda is not the joint one I considered it. The problem is mine, and I must solve it alone...

One adult does see through Rhoda's machinations, and suspects her in the death of  Claude Daigle, a classmate who drowned during a summer picnic Rhoda attended. Leroy Jessup is the crude, angry, resentful repairman who tends the apartment building the Penmarks live in. He constantly makes "Zzzzz! Zzzz!" sounds at her - imitating the "little pink electric chair" where bad little girls are sent. Brilliantly, March adds that Leroy "would have been surprised to know that, in a sense, he was in love with the little girl, and that his persecution of her, his nagging concern with everything she did, was part of a perverse and frightened courtship." Oh, man, that's good stuff.

Reading The Bad Seed is good, satisfying fun, perfect for a chill on a hot summer afternoon. Characters like Monica Breedlove, the landlady and Christine's bestie, are wholly convincing; Ms. Breedlove's love of psychotherapy and social gatherings afford her plenty of opportunity to "armchair" analyze the despondent Christine (although she has no idea what truly is upsetting the concerned mother). Then there is Reginald, a writer, to whom Christine confides about her interest in very young female serial killers in the guise of writing a novel. His morbid wit:  Some murderers, particularly the distinguished ones who were going to make great names for themselves, usually started in childhood; they showed their genius early, just as outstanding poets, mathematicians, and musicians did. He gives her lots to read about these cases, and we learn that Christine's own father, a war journalist, had written extensively on one Bessie Denker...

Bessie Denker is another great character, but we meet her only at a remove. Denker had a long, successful career as a killer from childhood. She even raised a family, but that didn't dampen her desire for killing and gaining land, money, possessions. Christine is fascinated by the story, and the narcissistic arrogance which led to her downfall.

It was doubtful that she ever regretted the things she'd done, or thought with remorse of her acts. She probably regarded herself not as a criminal but as a cunning little businesswoman who traveled in an unusual line of merchandise, whose foresight and skill lifted her above the fates of those less gifted than herself...

No doubt about it: The Bad Seed is a first-rate psychological thriller, an unassuming yet wonderful bit of murderous merchandise itself, written with skill and insight, a small masterpiece of down-home horror that I urge you to become acquainted with at once!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Amulet by Michael McDowell (1979): The Valancourt Books Edition

Good news, vintage horror fiction fans: Michael McDowell's debut 1979 horror novel The Amulet has been brought back into print by specialty publisher Valancourt Books. As you can see, it boasts an introduction by another TMHF fave, the now-retired Poppy Z. Brite, which features some background on the writing of the novel and McDowell himself. Also of note: to my great surprise and complete delight, quotes from this blog are featured both on the back of the book - I've become a blurb! - as well as in Brite's intro. What! It's true. Anyway, I don't think you'll be disappointed if you drop a few bucks for this nicely-produced title from a publisher who knows just what it's doing. We can hope that more of McDowell's incredible '80s horror fiction will be treated in just the same way. Purchasing info here.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Night Visions: The Hellbound Heart, edited by George R.R. Martin (1986): Love Comes in Spurts

"Bad horror stories," writes editor George R. R. Martin in his perceptive introduction to the anthology Night Visions 3, "concern themselves with six ways to kill a vampire and graphic accounts of how the rats ate Billy's genitalia." Go on, I'm listening. "Good horror stories are about larger things. About hope and despair. About love and hatred, lust and jealousy... about loneliness and alienation and psychosis... the human mind and body and spirit under stress and in agony, the human heart in unending conflict with itself."

All this is true and all this is (mostly) what I want in my horror fiction. Sure sometimes you need to know six ways to kill a vampire, and who doesn't love a good rat chomping? But for this, the third volume in Dark Harvest's long-running hardcover series Night Visions (published in paperback by Berkley, Mar 1988), Martin has chosen well and wisely the kinds of the stories he's described, and almost to a one, they show the width and breadth of what good horror is. Or at least was, in the mid-1980s.

First, two of the biggest names of '80s horror, Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker. Campbell at this time was already fairly well-established as both an editor and an author, while Barker, hot off the Books of Blood, was the rising star, the enfant terrible, the upstart splatterpunk. Fellow traveler Lisa Tuttle, while much less known, had been writing SF/F shorts for years, and even co-authored a fantasy novel with Martin. Her 1985 collection (published in the UK only) Nest of Nightmares was well-received, and she also appeared in the seminal horror anthology Dark Forces in 1980. Together these three writers provide perfect contrast to one another. Let me not quibble: Night Visions 3 is as good a horror anthology as I've read lately; I enjoyed it immensely (a far cry from my experience with Night Visions 2).

First up are seven short stories from Campbell, and lemme tell you, these are classic Campbellian works (I know, I know). Lone, lonely characters are sloooowly immersed into a world askew, rural or urban, seeing distorted faces seen in tree trunks and deserted windows, hearing rhythmic whispers tangled up in their ears, threading through thought and deed, and deaths obscurely predicted and decidedly met. Everything seems to happen just at the jagged edge of perception, where one's identity bleeds out and some kind of violence - whether physical, psychological, supernatural - begins to breathe. 

I read all seven over about three or four days and honestly they flickered off and on in my head the entire time I was not actually reading them; "Looking Out," "Bedtime Story," "Root Cause," "This Time" and "Beyond Words" were all so so good, Campbell at his peak. Listen:

His wife lay face up beside him, her mouth gaping. She might have been panting in her sleep, except that her chest was utterly still. No, the sound was coming from the face that quivered above hers, the jowly face with its tongue gray as slime and its tiny pink eyes like pimples sunk in the white flesh. He thought of a bulldog's face, but it was more like a noseless old man's, and its paws on her chest looked like a child's hands.

Tuttle and Martin, 1970s

Now I've read a few of Tuttle's horror stories over the years and I've liked them just fine. After reading the three longish ones here - "The Dragon's Bride," "Another Country," and "Riding the Nightmare" - I hope to move on to at least one of her '80s novels. Yeah, she's good - an entirely different writer from the more stylized Campbell and Barker, her prose almost a palate refresher. Her depiction of male/female relationships is a welcome one, a healthy one - Campbell has almost none, and Barker's is beyond the pale - a believable one. Relationships she describes however don't necessarily end happily.

I don't want to make a whole thing about it but what makes Tuttle's stories so, as I said, refreshing, is the ease with which she writes about women. Which you didn't always find in 1980s horror fiction (quelle surprise!). In "Riding the Nightmare" (the basis for the cover art of the UK paperback above) Tess O'Neal rides the treacherous line in a ménage à trois when a nightmare from her childhood creeps back into her slumber. Then a pregnancy threatens to tear the whole relationship asunder. What terrifying revelation does a child bring? Only this: this baby girl made her feel not only love but also fear and frustration and pain. Motherhood was not as instinctive as she had believed it would be. And only that nightmare will give understanding.

"The Dragon's Bride" might have been my favorite work in Night Visions 3. It's interesting people doing interesting things. A young man picks up a shy young woman in a bookstore and learns she knows as little about her past as he does. Together they journey to the English countryside after the aunt who raised her commits suicide. Young man realizes he may, as the saying goes, have gotten more than he bargained for. Dragons, snakes, sex, caves, vaginas, father issues: "Dragon's Bride" has it all, plus a great - ahem - climax.

The cave was hot and moist around them, she was hot and moist, embracing him, and then he felt the dragon moving, still alive, and he tried to free himself, but she held tight, and it was too late. As he came he shouted. The orgasm seemed to empty him of everything, pain, pleasure, memory, desire, understanding. He lay, stunned, on top of her, unable to move, as he waited for his personality to come back from wherever it had gone.

Which brings us to, finally, the infamous novella that gave the paperback its subtitle and the world a new pantheon of monsters, "The Hellbound Heart," Barker's hellish fable of love, romance, and otherworldly sadomasochism. I wonder about those who read it before Hellraiser was released, and what they thought: did they think it wasn't as good as the book? Were the Cenobites what they'd imagined? Clear your mind of Pinhead and the Chatterer, for what Barker presents in impeccable prose is mostly insinuation: scars, hooks, wounds, stench, deep-sea phosphorescence. The first chapter captivates with its originality, its visionary power, with Frank Cotton opening Lemarchand's box and summoning the Cenobites:

He had expected sighs, and languid bodies spread on the floor underfoot like a living carpet; had expected virgin whores whose every crevice was his for the asking and whose skills would press him - upward, upward - to undreamed-of ecstasies. The world would be forgotten in their arms. He would be exalted by his lust, instead of despised for it. But no. No women, no sighs. Only these sexless things, with their corrugated flesh.
Original Dark Harvest dustjacket, Oct 1986 
Sure, there's more - there's always more with Barker - but there's not as much as you'd think; he could have more thoroughly fleshed out (pardon the pun) characters both human and not, given us more of the Order of the Gash, the Engineer, the backstory of Kirsty and Rory (renamed Larry in Hellraiser), because I had no idea why Kirsty kept turning up. She's not his daughter as in the film, which makes sense. Why would imperious, beautiful Julia permit one of Rory's former lovers - is that right? - to be part of their married life? I really don't know.

What I do know is that "The Hellbound Heart" showcases Barker's immense talent, his untouchable talent, for twining the repulsive and the seductive; for limning the limits of desire and the thirst for knowledge. Characters do not shy away from horror, at least not for long; they confront it, embrace it, confound it, bargain with it - as Kirsty does, promising Frank back to the Cenobities, to which one replies: "...And maybe we won't tear your soul apart." Gee, thanks guys! (Also includes the line "No tears please. It's a waste of good suffering," case you were wondering.)
Julia could not see Frank's eyes, but she felt them sharpened beyond pricking by envy and rage. Nor did she look away, but stared on at the shadow while Rory's moans increased. And at the end one moment became another, and she was lying on the bed with her wedding dressed crushed beneath her, while a black and scarlet beast crept up between her legs to give her a sample of its love.  
So, yeah: Night Visions: The Hellbound Heart. So good it hurts. And you wouldn't want it any other way.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

RIP Iain M. Banks

Sad, although expected, news: the great Scottish writer Iain (M.) Banks has died. Just two months ago he wrote an honest, clear-eyed note about his cancer, fully aware he would not live out the year. What bravery. I haven't read everything Banks wrote, but a couple of his works - The Player of Games (1988) and The Bridge (1986) - provided me with some of the most enjoyable reading I can remember. And I've always absolutely loved the cover art for his books published in the early 1990s, evoking as it does the epic grandeur of his space operas, all of which are filled with wit and drama, intellectual games, sharp characterization, beauty and sophistication - and yes, many a scene of alien guttural horror. I can't recommend his books highly enough!


Iain (Menzies) Banks, 1954 - 2013

Thursday, June 6, 2013

V.C. Andrews Born Today, 1923

The eternally prolific V.C. Andrews—she died in 1986 but is still "writing" new books, thanks to Pin author Andrew Neiderman—and her Flowers in the Attic (1979) series from Pocket Books were staple items on any paperback shelf throughout the 1980s. The cover images became iconic and the books themselves were devoured, I mean utterly devoured by teenage girls back in the day, probably while babysitting. Flowers, its sequels, and all her other books have never been out of print so I assume they're still being devoured today. I've never read a word and have never heard anything good about her; Stephen King said she wrote some of the worst prose he'd ever read. I can't however deny that almost totemic quality of the cover art. Classic vintage paperback stuff! Great stepback cover, too - you have to go here and read about its creation.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Borderlands, edited by Thomas F. Monteleone (1990): Wake Up in the Night with a Fear So Real

An admission: I almost didn't read this one back in the day. The cover art of a skeleton driver at the wheel almost turned me off Borderlands (Avon, Nov 1990), the first in the anthology series edited by Thomas F. Monteleone. At that time I was just so over skulls and skeletons on covers, thinking that whatever was inside was just as cliched and tiresome. But I finally succumbed to that wonderful blurb from Peter Straub, had already enjoyed Wagner, Klein, and Lansdale, and so found Borderlands to be a terror treasure trove, stuffed with inventive, colorful, eclectic stories I remember fondly - well, I remember fondly that I enjoyed them almost 25 years ago. I've been wanting to revisit and review Borderlands since I began this blog more than three years ago....would it hold up on this reread?

Some of the titles have jumped around in my head for ages, as did a few of the authors names, both because some became favorites and others because they seemed to become nothing. What Borderlands offers is stories that feature all kinds and styles of horror, from the non-supernatural to the otherworldly, from the quiet whisper to the shockingly violent, from dark fantasy to urban realism, psychological thriller to fairy tale, gritty suspense to gothic decadence. There's something here for the proverbial everyone. This means you.

The tone is set, wisely, with the first story, "The Calling." It's by the recently late David B. Silva, who edited one of the essential horror magazines of the 1980s, The Horror Show (many of the writers in this antho sold their first stories to Silva). Grim and despairing and all too real: a man caring for his mother as she slowly succumbs to cancer. This is horror of humiliation and embarrassment, failure and resentment. With a delicate yet graphic touch, Silva deftly explores what we choose to ignore. The ending is the essence of horror. And I just learned "The Calling" won the 1990 Bram Stoker Award for best short story; no surprise there.

"Scartaris, June 28th" is Harlan Ellison in Deathbird Stories (1975) mode: What happens to gods after their last believers die? Here Ellison's anger and impatience are tempered by a more forgiving, more understanding nature. A nameless man wanders the globe, giving a cessation of suffering to some, simply a hard time to others who deserve to be confronted about their outmoded beliefs. Ellison drops arcane comparative mythology knowledge on the reader and it'll help if you know who Arne Saknussemm is. Ellison's story is the most sophisticated and ambitious of works here and it contains some of his finest-ever writing.

(Speaking of Ellison, Borderlands was also my very first introduction to Poppy Z. Brite, whom Ellison lauded to the sky and back. "His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood" is a goth-punk update of Lovecraft's "The Hound," both factors endearing her to me at once. I wrote about this story here.)

1994 reprint from White Wolf, cover art by Dave McKean 

It was a pleasure to reread tales I'd half-remembered: "Muscae Volitantes" by Chet Williamson, but mostly unforgotten since I've been plagued by the titular condition for years. A husband's lover threatens to reveal the truth to the wife. Surely the husband can see his way out of this untenable position? And things get wonderfully, maniacally surreal in "Oh What a Swell Guy I Am," a story Monteleone happened upon out of the hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts he received. Jeffrey Osier, a regular contributor to small press mags like Deathrealm and The Horror Show, possesses a strong, passionate prose style; his bizarre images are conveyed fully formed, which resonated uncomfortably with me. In a good way. The title... is literal. Oh man, is it literal.

A quick stop in lycanthropy land, in which Les Daniels upends who's monster and who's man; like his other fiction, "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" uses standard horror tropes with wit and irony but is no less the horrific for it. Pure entertainment. John Shirley's "Delia and the Dinner Party" is part child's-eye view of the titular event and splatterpunk reveal, while Nina Kiriki Hoffman's creepy short-short "Stillborn" reminded me just a bit of the underseen 1990 film The Reflecting Skin, children obsessed with... well, no spoilers!
Ed Gorman's (above) "The Man in the Long Black Sedan" has a family man in the grip of madness - or utter calm rationality? - confront a most innocuous villain in a motel room. Gorman is more known for his crime fiction but wrote quite a few pulp-horror novels under the name Daniel Ransom. Likewise, "Suicide Note" by Lee Moler isn't necessarily horror but more dark erotic suspense, a man obsessed with carnality till the very end of life.

In a more general vein, two looming specters over horror fiction of this era appear in Borderlands: religious fundamentalists and sexual abuse/incest. Today these topics seem a little shelf-worn in fiction, tropes that inexperienced or lazy writers can trot out and use to push readers' buttons all too easily (it's not just in genre lit either you can be sure). But when these themes starting appearing in horror fiction it signaled efforts to make horror more serious, more real, more involved with the world at large than retreating into the vagaries of the imagination à la Lovecraft, say. These themes date Borderlands but negate it little.

Bizarre hands indeed

Fortunately their appearances here are for the most part handled with intelligence. And, yes, irreverence: Joe R. Lansdale's "By Bizarre Hands" trades in both businesses, riding the edge of irreverent black humor and down-home horror in his own inimitable style as a pedophiliac preacher/conman drives the dusty roads of Texas looking for simple-minded girls he can "save" with the Good Lord's help. Joe's story ends Borderlands on a very high note, no surprise there. And "The Good Book" from G. Wayne Miller works the Lord works in mysterious ways just right, I thought.

A handful of contributions leave the reader spooked but bewildered, such as "The Pounding Room" by Bentley Little (above). An author whose only work I've read have been this story, twice now. Neither read has gotten me interested in reading more of his stuff, but that's me. Obviously lots of readers like the inexplicability of this story, this style, revealing the unbelievable horrors that lurk behind, beyond, beneath the mundane. But to what end? Perhaps that's the point: the horror of incomprehension. He would become one of the big paperback horror writers of the turn of the century but oh well.

Nazis, chemical pollution, and the nightmare of a homeowner's lawn care make John DeChancie's "The Grass of Rememberance" an intriguing read; the connection of these disparate elements didn't quite come together for me. "Alexandra," from '80s anthology essential Charles L. Grant, was quite good but again, the ultimate intent seemed to dance away from me at the last moment. A subtle and powerful woman befriends an Oxrun Station physician. Cool, but you all know Charlie: it's what he leaves out that is probably the most important aspect of his fiction. Sometimes I wish he'd just left it in.

Works from my faves: several times Karl Edward Wagner (above) has written sensitively of the fallout of the Vietnam War; in "But You'll Never Follow Me" a veteran still beholden to his war-torn battlefield ethic must now deal with his aging, ailing parents. It's a sad, sad story, without a trace of the unreal, and the climax hits a lot harder today than it did in 1990. Read it, and see what I mean. Ouch.

In "Evelyn Grace," by Thomas Tessier, a young man feels up a female corpse in a funeral home. Then things get weird. This one ends with very nearly the most objectionable word in the English language... and it is oh so right. Another one outta the park for Tessier; he's batting 1.000 here at TMHF. The ever-welcome-but-rarely-seen T.E.D. Klein contributed one of his few short stories of the '90s, "Ladder." Fate is a gamesman, a wordsmith, trailing an Irishman as he travels the globe. Klein's sense of place and locale is impeccable, and his brand of Borgesian wordplay tickle the intellect but unsettle it too; surely we are not gamepieces for an idle god...

One of the more infamous short stories of its day - the impact of which I've never forgotten even if the specifics were vague - "Stephen" ruminates upon bodily disfigurement in several disturbing ways, none of which resort to the supernatural. Elizabeth Massie (above) knows that while it was once proper to look away from the physically unfortunate, we all want to stare. And stare she does, unblinking, sympathetic, but without pity. Anne Zaccaria volunteers at a nursing home for the disabled and learns to confront her own deformities - not of the body but of her mind, her past, her family - thanks to the title character. "Stephen" is perhaps the most emotionally wrenching tale in Borderlands, never faltering in places where a lesser writer may have stumbled into grotesque tastelessness - well, I suppose there's some grotesque tastelessness here, but that's life. Excellent stuff, and another Bram Stoker Award winner, for best long fiction.

When I solicited material for what I hope will be the first of many volumes, I made it clear I didn't want stories that employed any of the traditional symbols and images of the genre. I wanted writers to expand the envelope, to look beyond the usual metaphors, and bring me something new... They are all extremely well-written. Some stories will dazzle, while others will quietly subvert, but they will all reach down and grab for the soft parts.

So says Tom Monteleone (above) in his intro, and he really deserves kudos for his editing skill here - and I don't have room to go into everything included. There is an air of conviction in all the stories; every one means business, even the "lesser" stories. No juvenile hijinks mar the carefully crafted terrors, no lapses in the write stuff to break the spells cast. Even the tales that get under the skin in a surreal yet inexplicable manner are serious in intent and purpose but without that sense of literariness of, say, 1988's Prime Evil; it's not so high-minded as that anthology. Borderlands (and the subsequent volumes, of which I own only the second today) promises to take us far, and it does, oh it does. What you will see there you've not seen elsewhere, but it's a one-way trip. So be warned: you'll have to find your way back on your own.