Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dell Horror Paperbacks

Venerable paperback publisher Dell Books offered some pretty great cover art throughout the 1970s and '80s, dramatic and creepy and sometimes even classy! Love the little boy skull for Entombed - perfect horror paperback imagery.

Supernatural sex! Hells yeah. A lovely cover for Rick DeMarinis's A Lovely Monster. This one is, from what I gather, a literary, metafictional reimagining of the Frankenstein story. I think. 

Not too much going on here. I've enjoyed a few Farris novels and began reading this a few months ago, but the story really didn't grab me at all. Great title for a horror novel, though - Catacombs. You never know what you're gonna find in 'em.
These two by Richard Lortz are now on my to-read list; I find the title Lovers Living, Lovers Dead particularly intriguing. Children of the Night, sure, ok, pretty cliched title, but I like the off-kilter photography and even the plastic fangs.

'80s hair, check; glowering stare, check; glowing demon face medallion, check. All good here!
Famed illustrator Boris Vallejo applies his instantly recognizable style to the "evil child" trope. Weird science-fictiony title though.

Oh the trippy '60s! Not my favorite cover, but I do so love a satanic feast.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Pinnacle Horror Paperbacks

Some of the better covers I've seen lately are from Pinnacle, a regular publisher of thrillers, SF, and horror throughout the 1970s and '80s - that golden era of paperbacks we so dearly love! I haven't read any of these, so I can't comment on content, but I think you can appreciate 'em still.

First up, two by Kenneth Girard: at top, Altered Egos, showcasing the ever-popular and extra-creepy ventriloquist's dummy. I'm diggin' it! The Calling is all kinds of off, and the title and illustration seem to have no connection, the same way dude's arm has no possible connection to his body.

The Hearse is apparently a novelization of a movie I've never heard of, but I like its random thrown-together look. Is the lady being run over by the titular vehicular? Dunno, but damn, the irony!

Heh. I said titular.

Sexual possession! Aw yeah. Great art thanks to Paul Stinson. Is she about to blow a ghost?!

 Fuck yeah! Love this. Watch out mom and dad!

Hey-O. This isn't offensive at all!

"The unsuspecting footsteps" - is that right? What the hell? Although I always like a quieter style of cover too.

Anyway, I hope to get a solid review up soon, but right now I'm leisurely reading my first Agatha Christie book - Endless Night - so I don't know when I'll pick up my next horror novel. Not sure what, or who, to go with next...

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Chill Series by Jory Sherman

Thanks to random Google adventuring, I just discovered this Chill series, published by Pinnacle Books from 1978 through 1980, all by an author I was previously unfamiliar with named Jory Sherman. Seven volumes in all, beginning with Satan’s Seed.

Actually I am still pretty unfamiliar with him, although I've learned he's written about a gajillion Westerns over the decades. This psychic investigator stuff looks like sheer pulp fiction cashing in on the pseudoscientific tabloid trends of that wild n' wooly decade known as the 1970s. 
The series title is the nickname of one Dr. Russell V. Chillders, the aforementioned "psychic investigator" (why do psychics need to "investigate" shit? Wouldn't they already know?) Cover art is by Paul Stinson, save for the first two titles above; their more mildly Gothic imagery done by Jack Thurston (for UK cover art and some plot synopses, go here). I can't get over that Cabbage Patch doll head at the bottom! 

As you peruse the covers, note the wonderfully dated fashions, standard horror tropes, occult fads, and paperbacks that cost merely a buck seventy-five. The '70s indeed.

Please, if anybody out there's read any of 'em, let us know!

Friday, November 15, 2013

J.G. Ballard Born Today, 1930

While he isn't usually associated with horror fiction, British author J.G. Ballard, born on this day, November 15, in 1930, his dystopian, quasi-science fiction novels and short stories from the 1960s and '70s have countless moments of deeply disturbing shit that I think will appeal to horror readers looking for new thrills. God knows throughout the 1990s I spent hours with his books, underlining passages that spiked deep and found purchase into some unknown region of my brain.

The collision of our two cars, and the death of her husband, had become the key to a new sexuality.

I visualized her lying on a metal bed in the emergency ward, her bloodied face and shattered nasal bridge like the mask worn at an obscene halloween, the initiation rite into one's own death...

Ballard fused sex and death like a duet. Crash (1973), High-Rise (1975), and The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) are famous works of modern fiction, offering challenging ideas and even experimental structures, all in prose as shining, precise and unsettling as a table of surgical instruments. Peering into the deepest structures of society, he extrapolated into the future - not a future of spaceships and other fictional technologies, but of the human mind.

In the future, violence would clearly become a valuable form of social cement.

Their real opponent was not the hierarchy of residents in the heights far above them, but the image of the building in their own minds...

At first, you might be baffled by Ballard's obsession with celebrities, with automobiles and highways and tower blocks and the JFK assassination, with clinical sex and our deteriorating bodies. But the more closely you read, a pattern seems to emerge, perhaps a new mythology born not of our interaction with natural elements as our prehistoric forefathers, but of those very things we've caused and created.

However, you must understand that... science is the ultimate pornography, analytic activity whose main aim is to isolate objects or events from their contexts in time and space. This obsession with the specific activity of quantified functions is what science shares with pornography.

James Graham Ballard, 1930 - 2009

I highly recommend the three titles you see above. Also, Ballard is the only writer to have two novels - Empire of the Sun and Crash - adapted into films directed by both Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg, respectively. I mean, there you go - that gives you some idea of his breadth and depth as an artist. And I am quite happy that we share a birthday!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

1983 Horror Fiction Panel Featuring King, Straub, Wagner & More!

An unexpected treat today, thanks to a TMHF Facebook pal who alerted me to its existence just this morning. This is a 50-minute video of a horror fiction panel from 1983 - yes, 1983, 30 years ago exactly - featuring the greats: Stephen King. Peter Straub. Karl Edward Wagner. Charles L. Grant. Dennis Etchison. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Whitley Strieber. Alan Ryan. I mean what!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (1981): Terror the Human Form

Featuring the infamous first appearance of dreaded Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, perhaps the most iconic, most powerful, most thrillingly nightmarish of modern pop-fictional villains, the bestselling Red Dragon is a police procedural par excellence, depicting the cutting-edge techniques of serial killers and their profilers with utmost clarity, thanks to the brilliant honed sheen of Thomas Harris's prose. I don't have the space to go into everything I enjoyed about Red Dragon; the entire story and characters are perfectly imagined and executed (sorry). We peer not only into the broken jagged minds of murderers driven mad by an early life of neglect and deformity, but also the brilliant, tireless lawmen who go after them no matter the personal consequences.

While The Silence of the Lambs is much more well-known both as book and movie, I'm sure many readers are on familiar terms with Red Dragon as well. Again, Lecter isn't necessarily the main villain. Will Graham, only 38, is an early-retired "special investigator" for the FBI, asked by his former supervisor, Jack Crawford, to help find the serial killer dubbed "The Tooth Fairy" (because of his biting fetish) who has just murdered two whole families in their homes. Graham left the force when he was very nearly killed by Dr. Hannibal Lecter several years earlier. Lecter was captured and imprisoned right after but Graham still lives with the scars, mental, emotional, physical. This is a brilliant backstory for both characters; putting such a dramatic event in the past is a stroke of genius on Harris's part. For Graham, going back into the field looking for a monster, just as he's started a new life with a woman and her son... well, it's beyond the last thing he wants to do.

Back cover of reprint, Bantam Mar 1987
No surprise, Red Dragon can be depressing reading, a grim, immersive experience one can get uncomfortably lost in, unable to come up from its suffocating depths for breath. Airless, without any attempt at a creeping atmosphere that would place it firmly in the horror genre (yet it is rightfully included in Newman and Jones's Horror: 100 Best Novels), this is realistic fiction told in a toneless prose that withholds judgment. It is amoral and matter-of-fact about the grossest of human depravities. This is precisely Will Graham's grotesque talent, what makes him the only man for the job, why Crawford is so desperate for his help: Will Graham can slip inside a killer's mind and see all from his perspective without the clouding effects of socialization, morality, and compassion:

 Often his thoughts were not tasty... His learned values of decency and propriety tagged along, shocked at his associations, appalled at his dreams; sorry that in the bone arena of his skull there were no forts for what he loved... His value judgments... could never keep up and direct this thinking.

Obsessed with an apocalyptic painting by English poet William Blake, from whose works the title comes, Francis Dolarhyde is the 42-year-old serial killer Graham is after. With grandiose fantasies of his Great Becoming, Dolarhyde is held in a strange thrall to Blake's painting The Great Red Dragon: Never before had he seen anything that approached his graphic thought. He felt that Blake must have peeked in his ear and seen the Red Dragon. For weeks Dolarhyde had worried that his thoughts might glow out his ears. When the narrative begins Dolarhyde has already murdered two families, the Jacobis and the Leeds - he chose them after seeing their home movies, which he develops in his day job at a film processing company - and is planning on a third (Families were mailing their applications to him every day). A classic if over-melodramatic psychopath, he is utterly detached from his victims; they are only a means to an end: becoming fully the Red Dragon itself. The dead were not people, they...

are not flesh, but light and air and color and quick sounds quickly ended when you change them. Like balloons of color bursting... they are more important for the changing, more important than the lives they scrabble after, pleading.

Dolarhyde bore screams as a sculptor bears dust from the beaten stone.

Original 1981 hardcover with Blake's conception of the Red Dragon
Francis Dolarhyde's dire childhood is relayed in all its sad and shocking array, a tale we know all too well now that serial killers are cultural mainstays (thank in large part to Harris's fiction). These may be the most gripping parts of the novel: born with facial deformities (he looked more like a leaf-nosed bat than a baby... Springfield in 1938 was not a center for plastic surgery. In Springfield you wore your face as it was), abandoned by his mother, left in an orphanage. Five years later, his grandmother comes for Francis. For the first time someone smiles when they see him. His deformed mouth makes speech nearly impossible. However, Grandmother Dolarhyde insists he tell her his name. We are shocked, heartbroken, and filled with the knowledge that it all begins here.

The child's face brightened. The big boys had helped him with this. He wanted to please. He collected himself.
"Cunt Face," he said.

And eventually, grandmother threatens to cut off his penis if he continues to wet his bed. Her mental health collapses. Francis learns to cope through killing chickens on his grandmother's farm (the peace was endless and all around him). The horrifying connection is made, the emotions become entwined in a waking nightmare: Francis sat silently at his place, opening and closing his hand on the memory of an eye blinking against his palm. Sometimes in bed he held himself to be sure he hadn't been cut. Sometimes when he held himself he thought he felt a blink. God god that line crawled up my spine. There are plenty others.

Original paperback, Bantam Oct 1982
Today we are also familiar with the people who chase these killers, the profilers who can parse out their identities from things insignificant to the untrained eye. The agents and detectives after Dolarhyde are professional men who, with icy resolve, do a very serious and very dangerous job. Underneath they are sick with fear that they will not find Dolarhyde before he slaughters another thriving American family. Harris engages in no cop-show hysterics, no macho thundering, no young hotshots fighting against the system and defying their by-the-book superiors. Nope. Jack Crawford, based on the first FBI profiling expert John E. Douglas, knows he has to stand back and let Graham do the ugliest work inside his head and at the scenes of the crimes, and he needs calm, reflective quiet. And a good chilled martini or three doesn’t hurt either.

Will Graham's bravery is a testimony to this commitment and seen early. At night he walks through the home of the Leeds family, the second group of murder victims, after investigators have left. What clues did they miss? All that's left are the bloodstains, whose patterns hold secret codes that Will must crack. He was an old hand at fear. He could manage this one. He simply was afraid, and he could go on anyway. He could see and hear better afraid... Walking around a bloodstained house at night in which people had been mass murdered only days before? Holy shit that freaked me out. Imagining myself doing it? Out of the fucking question.
Early '90s Dell reprint after Lecter became famous
It's no surprise Dolarhyde is a Lecter fan, and his letter to the good doctor is discovered just after Graham visits Hannibal in the Chesapeake Hospital for the Criminally Insane. This really sets the chase in motion. While not as dramatic or intimate as Clarice Starling’s visit to Dr. Lecter, Graham’s seeking out of him is an act he realizes that he must do if he is to stop the Tooth Fairy. Unlike Starling, Graham has a past with Lecter, so he's unnerved to talk with him again. Why wouldn't he be? Lecter makes the most of this time to fuck expertly with Graham's head: "Do you dream much, Will? Do you know how you caught me? The reason you caught me is that we're just alike!" Good God. I know that's become a cliche, killer and cop psychological twins, but Harris makes it work. We revisit how Graham realized Lecter was the killer he was looking for years before. It was this image, the Wound Man illustration from a Middle Ages surgical text, that was the final clue.

It's this kind of esoteric detail that makes Red Dragon an especially fascinating read, one that makes you want to - carefully! - Google asides in the story and dialogue, like references to medical textbooks and forensics methods and physical deformities and psychological tests and of course Blake's biblical art and poetry. Harris inserts tiny details about people's lives and possessions that read like real things observed with a restless mature eye, not simply made up on the spot and tossed into the mix. Even while writing of monsters, Harris is a fully sensitive humanitarian, taking a minor note - the rising color of someone's face, a deft hand on a shoulder, a speech tic, a particular lack of sympathy - and letting it bloom with import. Characters, even ones we meet a single time, live and breathe and exist; we can imagine them outside the narrative itself. Harris follows the stone-carved dictum for all creators of fiction: show, don't tell. Harris implies; the reader infers. Harris can do more damage with one understated sentence - "Cunt Face," he said - than many horror writers can do in a 400-page novel. The ending? Fine and deep and true and haunting. I fucking love it.

Wow. Maybe I need to start looking into large-print book covers too.
If not the equal of Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon is as good a precursor to it as possible (I find Clarice Starling a more captivating and sympathetic protagonist than Will Graham). It is not a novel to approach lightly; it is not simply a popular bestselling thriller to kill a few hours on a flight or waiting at the dentist (oof). Yes, it moves with lightning speed but Harris never lets the reader to get lost in the settings. Whether it’s a film processing lab, an insane asylum, a police headquarters or a newspaper-printing press, Harris writes of them with an authenticity and economy learned from his days as an AP reporter. Sometimes the suspense is unbearable as we move between two worlds so effortlessly, sucked into a drama filled with moments we recognize - the frustrations of work, fraught relationships with spouses and offspring, even budding romance - and those we hope in a million eternities never to face.  

Red Dragon needs nothing supernatural or otherwordly to horrify, it simply and honestly confronts and exposes a nightmared world. It's one of those books whose unrelenting nature will snatch you up and carry you away, leaving you bleary-eyed and sleepless, an aching emptiness inside you from peering into all the darknesses people can hide... and the flesh- and mind-rending terror they can visit upon their fellow man without remorse.