Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Howling by Gary Brandner (1977): Don't Scratch At No Doors

Mostly by-the-numbers horror tale featuring vaguely described werewolves, The Howling at least revived the long-dormant lycanthrope trope and let it loose into the modern world via its unfaithful yet awesomely fun 1981 film adaptation. And while Gary Brandner's paperback original (Fawcett World Library, 1977) isn't as blood-and-guts gory as one might think, it doesn't stint on graphic sex. Its opening rape scene is tawdry in the extreme but at least Brandner can write okay, nothing special but not terrible either. Appreciate the fact that The Howling is not overly long, moves quickly, is lean and sometimes mean.

1978 UK paperback

One bothersome trait: he kept referring to the werewolves as simply wolves - like Benchley in Jaws, repeatedly referring to his monstrous Carcharodon carcharias as simply a fish - which I found distinctly underwhelming (I have always thought of werewolves as having both human and wolf physical characteristics). The transformation sequence doesn't shock or surprise, gets the job done, and simply underlines the point that werewolf stories are best told in images and not in prose. I mean we all remember Cycle of the Werewolf, right?

What the novel does have going for it is a powerful vein of erotic abandonment (which fortunately did make it into the movie), something I don't think had been seen much in werewolf stories prior. There are several sequels too. And check out Brandner's interview in Dark Dreamers, in which he relates the sad, frustrating, rewardless travails of trying to write werewolf stories for Hollywood. But I must mention Whitley Strieber's Wolfen  or Thomas Tessier's The Nightwalker for those interested in really provocative, well-written, thoughtful wolf tales. The Howling is pulp horror through and through - and it's not, I probably don't have to tell you, in any way, shapeshift or form, in the tradition of 'Salem's Lot whatsoever.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Dreamthorp by Chet Williamson (1989): Dreams of the Night Will Vanish by Dawn

Damn, I'm having no luck with the titles I'm pulling off my shelves: this is another bummer of a book. After a couple effective, well-written opening chapters (particularly one set in the Native American past), I was hoping Dreamthorp would keep up its momentum; alas, Chet Williamson's fifth novel (Avon Books, July 1989) suffers from too few scares, indifferent pacing, corny dialogue, and an over-graphic reliance on a serial killer's mother issues. The off-putting cover - by James Warren, from a woodcarving character's project - and obscure title don't help. The original "Dreamthorp" is a treatise of philosophical essays from the 19th century by Alexander Smith. Williamson integrates quotes from it into his tale, using them as chapter headings which illuminate the action therein. It's not a bad idea, I suppose... but what was the point?

If Williamson had held back, made the novel quieter, more streamlined, and especially shorter, it might've worked. Conversely, if he went hell-bent-for-leather à la Masterton, disregarding believability in favor of intensity and outrageousness, it might've worked. But this in-between style, going for character and motivation and life and history and art and love and parenting and divorce and death and loss, shows all the weaknesses in a writer. Certainly not the worst book I've ever read, as there are a few moments that took me by surprise, but I kept cringing at the obvious dialogue and the pages and pages of inaction... so if you have Dreamthorp on your shelf, you might want to give it a miss.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Jeffrey Catherine Jones: The Paperback Covers

These stunning covers illustrations by the late Jeffrey Catherine Jones help confirm that 1960s and 1970s horror-fantasy paperbacks were a world unto themselves. Like comrade-in-ink Frank Frazetta, Jones reveled in the mythical past, but it was one perhaps darker, more Gothic, less heroic. Rather than hulking loincloth primitives and armor-clad villains, though, her covers here showcase a misty nighttime world of sorcerers and shadowy cults, of masters of occult powers and animal familiars, the hungry undead and their victims. My faves? Definitely The Vampire Women (Popular Library, 1970) and The Curse of the Undead (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1970). She died in 2011 after years of poor health. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Horror Café (1990) with Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Lisa Tuttle, and Others

A wonderful roundtable discussion of horror hosted by Clive Barker, shown on BBC way back when (according to Barker's website, it was filmed April '90 and broadcast that September). With guests Pete Atkins (old Barker buddy and Hellraiser 2 scribe), Ramsey Campbell, Lisa Tuttle, and a couple filmmakers you mighta heard of, John Carpenter and Roger Corman. Hell, even the waiter is a somebody! I would've gladly killed for a chance to have seen this when it was on originally, but of course only with the advent of the internet....

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Dean Koontz Born Today, 1945

Dean R. Koontz wrote dozens of genre paperbacks throughout the 1970s and early 1980s before he became the eternal bestseller king he's been now for over 25 years. Me, I haven't read a book of his since the first Bush Administration, and even then I quickly tired of his formula after just three novels. In fact, one of his books, Midnight (1989), has what I consider one of the worst endings I've ever read in a book written by an adult man writing for adult readers: the protagonist, after defeating some sort of science-gone-wrong evil, barges into his estranged teenage son's bedroom and proceeds to smash all his heavy metal records (revised to CDs, in the paperback reprints in the ensuing years), then forces him into an embrace. All's well that ends well, amirite? Man, as a teenage Jersey metalhead, I was all like "Fuck. You." to Mr. Koontz. Still: he got some pretty decent vintage covers, even for his various pseudonyms - Demon Seed (Bantam 1973, art by Lou Feck) and The Flesh in the Furnace (1972) definitely the high points.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons (1991): No Cure for the Summertime Blues

How much of a book do you have to read before you decide to quit? Most readers hate leaving a book unfinished, and I'm no exception. When I was younger I left all sorts of classics half read - have you ever tried to get through Nausea, The Magic Mountain, or all three volumes of The Rosy Crucifixion? - but I'm usually able to finish most horror novels. But Summer of Night, the sixth novel from Dan Simmons, joins that sad small shelf of the unfinished (and damn, I just remembered - I never finished Carrion Comfort when I tried to read it back in '90 or '91). Shame, because of course his debut novel Song of Kali is great, as are the two Hyperion novels, but otherwise I've not had much luck with the few other books of his I've tried. Really, I've got so many other horror paperbacks waiting to be read...

Summer of Night is obviously Simmons attempting to set up camp in some familiar horror territory. However the book simply doesn't have its own identity while laboring under the shadow of the largest horror of all, Stephen King's 1986 thousand-plus-page It. Sure, Simmons writes without all the junky pop-culture references that can clutter King's style, and actually I started to miss that as Simmons tries for universality and ends up with cliche, goes after profundity but gives us triteness. In fact I didn't find it all that, uh, Kingian: Summer of Night feels like it was plotted and written on autopilot. Although I am sure much of it is based on the author's own childhood, nothing feels real or lived. Everything could have been written by someone who was simply regurgitating It, maybe "The Body," maybe Dandelion Wine with a smidge of The Outsiders thrown in. Several hundred pages elapse before we get any kind of real palpable menace, madness, or evil, only threads of mildly interesting bits that dissolve into thin air.

Paperback edition Warner Books, Mar 1992

One major problem is that few of the children come truly alive as characters. The kids in this story aren't nearly as rag-tag as the Losers in It; one is a devout Catholic who loves assisting "Father C" - you know, the cool priest - with Mass, and another is well on his way to becoming an overly bookish intellectual. Other kids in their gang are weakly drawn, meek and mild kids whom you can't really keep straight because they're all such squares. Strictly dullsville. The other problem for me was Simmons's story is so normal and so middle-America I wasn't fearful for the characters or the town's safety; I was bored nearly to death by its banal, prosaic lifelessness. But on I trudged, on past repetitive chase scenes and descriptions of summer evenings and fields of corn and gravel roads. Kids on bikes bug the fuck outta me, why do I wanna read an entire 600-page novel about 'em?

There is also a cloying sentimentality throughout the book, but especially in the last few pages - I cheated - that made me cringe. After surviving the epic final battle, the kids then sit around and talk about what they're going to do when they're grown up. Ugh. These passages aren't profound; they're mawkish and lazy and I could almost hear sappy orchestral strings from emotional '90s Hollywood flicks rising in the background. Even scenes of horror - if you stick around long enough to get to 'em - have been done before:

Father C's smile continued to broaden, pulling back to show his back teeth, broadening further until it seemed the man's face would snap in half as if on a hinge. The impossible mouth opened wide and Mike saw more teeth - rows and rows of teeth, endless lines of white that seemed to recede down the thing's gullet...

There were lamprey-like creatures burrowing beneath cornfields, chasing folks, in some cinematic sequences, cool, okay, but these scenes weren't anything fresh, almost rehashes of Tremors. Scenes of characters investigating historical documents and ancient tomes to determine the true nature of their adversary is an aspect of horror fiction near and dear to my heart, but here it seems by-the-numbers. The bookish kid, Duane, tries to learn about the Borgia Bell, supposedly hidden inside the public school's bell tower, and which may have supernatural properties, the well from which the horror springs. This simply did nothing for me, sounding more like a droning history lecture in a stuffy classroom.

Today it seems readers, going by reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and various other blogs, love love lurve this Summer of Night. And I remember well back in the early '90s Simmons was riding pretty high, based on the originality of Kali and the imaginative prowess of Hyperion, as well as various very good short stories. But I can distinctly recall the disappointment I felt when Summer of Night came out; this seemed like a huge step backward for Simmons. Growing up in 1960, kids face a monstrous evil? I really thought he could do better than that. I never once thought about reading it till I bought a copy - in mint condition, which was my true impetus for picking it up - two or three weeks ago, hoping maybe it'd be one of those great summer reads you lose yourself in. I was wrong.