Tuesday, July 29, 2014

When the Dying Calls: The Cover Art of Tom Hallman

Recently a TMHF reader hipped me to Tom Hallman, an artist I was unfamiliar with by name but several of whose books I've featured here before. Really effective artwork on a lot of these - the old lady's blank orbs and jutting cheekbones on The Dying (1987), ginormous Gila on, well, Gila!, a two-faced head-phoned horror on Beyond (1980), superb serpent shock on Fangs (1980),a vintage James Herbert Shrine...

Blood Child, Judgment Day (both 1982), and Limbo (1988), not much to say about 'em except they're '80s through and through, scary baby carriage, boobs, creepy kid, and... uh, menacing music box?

A Personal Demon (1985): dark fantasy dorkery? Maybe so, but I kinda dig the flaming pentagram.

Winter Wolves (1989): Hmm... reminds of that Twilight Zone rabbit.

Paperback perennial Robert McCammon's first Pocket Books hardcover was Mine (1990); Hallman's art was used for this 1991 mass market edition as well. Hallman has been very prolific and still produces book covers today, both in and out of genre fiction.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Summer of Sleaze Continues...

We continue with the Summer of Sleaze: my latest post, this one on '90s horror writer Kathe Koja and the late lamented Dell/Abyss line of paperbacks, went up on Tor on Friday. Fellow reviewer Grady Hendrix and I are only halfway through, so more to come. Hope you guys are digging the series!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lee Brown Coye Born Today, 1907

Behold the mighty works of Lee Brown Coye, born today in Syracuse, NY, in 1907. A self-taught artist and illustrator, Coye's cover art for many Arkham House hardcover editions is well-known and loved. Years later he would illustrate covers for Stuart David Schiff's Whispers magazine, and was even the inspiration for Karl Edward Wagner's classic 1974 short story "Sticks." 

 For more on Coye, read here. He died in 1981.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Creatures of the Night: The Universal Horrors of Charles L. Grant

Moonlight over a lonely town. Swirling fog. Whispering shadows. Footsteps in the forest. A voice from the darkness. A movement seen from the corner of your eye. A slowly spreading stain of red.

New Jersey-born writer and editor Charles L. Grant (1942–2006) championed these hallmark details of old-fashioned horror tales, even in spite of their simplicity, their overuse, indeed, their corniness, because he knew in the right hands such subtle details would build up to an overall mood of dis-ease and weirdness. Evoking fear of the unknown, not the graphic revelation of a psychopath with a gore-flecked axe or an unimaginable, insane Lovecraftian nightmare, is what a truly successful horror writer (or, for that matter, filmmaker) should do. And especially during the 1980s, when he published dozens of titles through the Tor Books horror line, Grant did precisely that.

Grant was a prolific, well-respected, and award-winning horror novelist, short story writer, lecturer, and editor throughout the late 1970s until his death in 2006. He was perhaps the most vocal progenitor of what came to be known as “quiet horror.” In cinematic terms, Grant had more in common with the horror film classics of Val Lewton and Roman Polanski than he did with the writings of Stephen King or Clive Barker: suggestion, suggestion, suggestion, that was Grant's motto.

Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Richard Aickman, and Shirley Jackson were forebears; Ramsey Campbell, T.E.D. Klein, T.M. Wright, and Dennis Etchison fellow travelers. Many of the writers that appeared in Grant’s long-running horror anthology series Shadows (1978—1991) also belonged to this sub-subgenre. These were tales, like Grant’s own, of subtle chills, crafted prose, and (sometimes overly) hushed climaxes that might leave readers looking for stronger stuff a bit perplexed. But when quiet horror worked (which was quite often) you felt a satisfactory bit of frisson knowing you were in the hands of a master teller of terror tales.

Shhhh... Lewton's The Seventh Victim (1943), w/ Kim Hunter

Like many horror writers of the ’70s and ’80s, Grant had grown up in the 1940s and ’50s and therefore was a great lover of the classic monster movies from Universal Studios, whose stars have become legend. The (then) lesser-known works of producer Val Lewton also made a huge impression on Grant, and in an 1990 interview with Stanley Wiater in the book Dark Dreamers, he expressed his admiration for Lewton’s style of light and dark, sound and shadow, with only mere hints of madness and violence... and all the more frightening for that.

In 1981 Grant spoke with specialty publisher Donald M. Grant (no relation), ruefully noting that the classic monsters like Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolfman had become objects of fun and affection (and breakfast cereal) rather than the figures of terror they had been intended. As a lark, the two Grants decided to produce new novels featuring the iconic creatures, although still in a 19th century setting.

Original Donald M. Grant hardcover editions

All three take place in Grant’s own fictional Connecticut town of Oxrun Station—the setting for about a dozen of his novels and many of his short stories—these books “would be blatantly old-fashioned. No so-called new ground would be broken. No new insights. No new creatures,” according to Grant. Setting out to recreate the moonlit mood, graveyard ambience, and cinematic stylings of those old monster movies, Grant delivered three short (all around 150 pages) novels for those hardcore fans of black-and-white horror.

The first title, issued in hardcover in 1982, was The Soft Whisper of the Dead. In the late '80s they were republished in mass-market paperback editions from Berkley Books. Here you see the October 1987 reprint featuring a kinda-sorta Dracula (one presumes Universal wouldn’t allow the use of Lugosi’s image) in classic pose. In the intro Grant also expresses a fondness for Hammer horror, so I threw on a mix of James Bernard’s Dracula scores as I began reading (I often read with background music playing; soundtracks for films like Silence of the Lambs, Cat People, Sorcerer, The Thing, and Crash make for uber-creepy ambience).

Like lots of Hammer horrors, you get upper-crust polite society and regular folks and then the help, and does Count Brastov like the help! Pity the poor. Anyway this night creature wants Oxrun Station all to himself, along with the help of Goth gal-pal Saundra Chambers, who can get him invited into all the best parties. Lots of description of weather and damp stone and a black wolf prowling about, some bloody fang-action, couple drained bodies turning up, lots of Brastov’s speaking imperiously and a chilly climax make Soft Whisper more a novel of “classic terror” than the other way ’round.

The next volume followed only a month or two later. Although we see Chaney’s Wolf Man about to pounce on the cover of The Dark Cry of the Moon, the werewolf that appears in the novel is actually a white-furred creature of much greater viciousness than we remember from the 1944 movie. I’m not a great fan of werewolf fiction (I prefer something like Whitley Strieber’s wonderful Wolfen) because the appeal of them lies in seeing the transformation. The emerging snout and sprouting hair and teeth becoming fangs simply don’t have the same gasp-inducing awe in cold print, but Grant does a nice brief bit of attempting it:
A baying while the figure began to writhe without moving, began to shimmer without reflecting, began to transform itself from shadow black to a deadly flat white. The baying, the howling, a frenzied call of demonic triumph.
Last is The Long Dark Night of the Grave, and here we get the Mummy. Mummy fiction, huh, I dunno. The Mummy was never really all that scary, was he? Perhaps it’s his implacable sense of vengeance and not his speed that’s supposed to terrify; he won’t stop, not ever, like an undead Anton Chigurh, I suppose. There’s no reasoning, there’s nothing behind those shadowed sunken eye sockets (remember the ancient Egyptians took out the brain through the nasal cavity). This mummy goes after unscrupulous Oxrun Station fellows dealing in Egyptian artifacts, creeping up on them and then when they turn around he’s got ’em by the throat. Never saw it coming. Well, maybe a shadow and a scent of sawdust and spice...

Overall, these three novels are very light, very minor entries in Grant’s Oxrun Station series; maybe imagine scary 1940s flicks never made. I think it’s obvious he wrote them more to satisfy his own nostalgia than anything else, a vanity project. His other fiction is more astute and focuses on modern fears than these simple, sincere, cobwebby tales. They certainly won’t appeal to readers who like their horror cheap and nasty; I felt they were quieter even than "quiet horror," and there's lots of meandering in plot, dialogue, and action. Grant should have concentrated more on the beloved Universal monsters rather than the relationships between people you can hardly keep track of. The scattered moments of goosebumps are rare, all too few and far between.

Those looking for Grant in top form would be best served by his Shadows anthologies and his own short fiction—collected in A Glow of Candles and Tales from the Nightside (both 1981). While nicely written and offering some mild, Halloween-y spookiness and old-timey charm, Charles L. Grant’s Universal novels are probably more collectible for their illustrated covers (artist unknown, alas) than for what’s between them.

(This post originally appeared in slightly altered form as part of "The Summer of Sleaze" on the Tor.com website)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Adult Books, I Don't Understand

Hello! Some scandalous cover art here, for two different editions of the same novel, Succubus. The original edition is below, Lolita-esque model, pub'd 1970 by Dell Books. Above is a later '70s reprint under a pseudonym - Irving A. Greenfield just not the most tantalizing of author names - complete with reference to the almighty Exorcist. I'm gonna side with the dark-fantasy, Heavy Metal-esque reprint from Manor Books under the silly pseudonym Campo Verde cover over the adult-bookstore vibe of the one below. Although with those bare nipples I'm gonna guess Verde's version wouldn't have been on Woolworth's racks either. But still - great work, 1970s cover art designers!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I'll Let You Be in My Dream if I Can Be in Yours: The Erotic Horrors of Thomas Tessier

I was fortunate enough to discover the horror novels of Thomas Tessier (b. Waterbury, CT in 1947) back in 1989, when I began working in a used bookstore just out of high school. Horror junkie that I was, my favorite authors were still limited to King, Lovecraft, Barker, Campbell, and a few of the splatterpunks. So I was grooving on the fact that I had access to all the beat-up old paperbacks in our horror section; it was time to branch out.  At the time of course I was an aspiring horror writer myself, so I wanted to know who else was out there and what else had been done, and read the writers I'd only heard of who were horror masters.

Tessier's name was unknown to me, however. Maybe it was the Ramsey Campbell blurb on the cover of Finishing Touches (originally published in 1986, Pocket Books paperback from 1987), or maybe it was the promise of illicit thrills in those ribbon-bewrapped, ruby-tipped female hands that drew me to the book and take it home (why, I could take home any book I wanted!). Impressed by it, I then read a couple of his other books—The Fates, Shockwaves—and rather enjoyed them all, but when I began this blog, I realized I couldn’t recall anything about them! Weird. Time for a reread...

Rereads can be tricky things, especially when a quarter century has passed between. Readers change, mature, move on, give up, crave more challenging (or less challenging, whichever) literature. What was once revelatory at age 18 seems obvious and banal at 35. The opposite, happily, was true with Finishing Touches. I couldn’t believe how I’d forgotten the powerful dark undercurrent of eroticism that propelled it. Perhaps it was because it evinced a maturity I was unfamiliar with on first read, a sense of obsession I couldn’t quite grasp yet.  So many horror writers utilize the scary power and mystery and thrill of sex to snag undiscriminating readers, or they think publishers are more likely to buy a book with graphic or tawdry sex than one without. Whichever it is, few horror writers have written novels which so successfully fuse our erotic lives and our nightmare lives.

And I don’t mean to sound crass but to put it another way, Tessier writes like he’s actually had adult sexual relations with another adult, rather than the usual juvenile T n’ A that was so prevalent in horror of the day. Now sure that kind of approach can be good for a laugh or an easing of tension, but when in Tessier’s more literate, more intimate approach (he began his career as a poet), he illustrates how sex and horror entwined can create fiction of a most disturbing kind.

I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours. This clever little line from an old Bob Dylan song sounds innocuous and playful enough, but in  Finishing Touches, it takes on a dreadful, terrifying enormity. American Thomas Sutherland, just out of medical school, idle and alone, visiting London for six months before deciding what the rest of his life will be. He casually meets an older, odd little cosmetic surgeon drinking alone in a pub. Roger Nordhagen invites him out for nights of carousing in which Sutherland gets to see a London of elite establishments, the likes of which tourists never see. One such place fulfills dark fantasies, a playpen for the pampered few.

But these dark fantasies will pale and recede once Sutherland meets Nordhagen’s assistant, Lina Ravachol. All alabaster features and raven-black hair, confidence and mystery, she soon has Sutherland willingly in her thrall. Sutherland is astonished that she desires him sexually, and their acrobatic, fantasy-driven trysts make him forget all about his past American life. Step by step Sutherland descends, all too believably; he seems a willing participant. How could he not be? Eventually Lina and Sutherland forge an unimpeachable bond in a moment of orchestrated horror, of sex and death, with an unwitting young woman (orchestrated, that is, by Nordhagen and Lina herself). Sutherland is now complicit, his darkest fantasies made flesh and blood, and Nordhagen can reveal himself as a modern Marquis de Sade.

Espousing a philosophy of cruelty, its necessity and ineluctability, the good doctor now shows Sutherland his life’s work, deep beneath his London offices, his medical talents have reached their fullest and most depraved potential. And it is obvious he wishes the young American and Lina to continue his mad work after his death from drink. Sutherland dares to ask, why?
 “Why, why, why.” Nordhagen’s face brightened with interest. “You might as well ask why the Mayan civilization collapsed, why Kennedy rode in an open limousine in Dallas, why we came down out of the trees. What is why? There is no why; there is only now, and this, this now.”  

Told in first person in a clear strong voice by a man who slowly comes to face the fact that he can plumb depths of moral—and sexual—insanity, but remain psychologically intact and even thrive, Sutherland is well aware of his descent. “There was a malignancy in me I could not explain away,” he states clearly. An exploration of men and women and the madnesses and obsessions they can succumb to and embrace, and even, perhaps facing extinction, use to forge meaning in the teeth of raw dumb nature, Finishing Touches resembles no other horror novel I’ve read. And even at the end Tom and Lina (whose namesake she seems to aspire to) desire to be a part of that nature, “instead of trying to steer it ourselves, we would have to learn to let it go its own way. Death and terror will follow, like leaves falling out of trees.”

Rapture followed in 1987; the story of a cool, calm sociopath, Tessier’s prose and conviction rivet the reader to the page. While Rapture isn’t as decadent or perverse as Finishing Touches, eros plays a large motivating factor in the disintegrating mind of Jeff Lisker’s growing obsession with an old high school friend (platonic, however), Georgianne. Both are now in their thirties and living successful lives on opposite coasts. When Jeff’s father dies he goes home for the funeral and tracks down Georgianne, in full stalker mode. He follows her from her home and pretends to “accidentally” bump into her as she runs errands. Soon he’s having dinner with her and her husband Sean, whose sarcasm, condescension, and impatience simmer barely below the surface (or is that just Jeff’s insecurity?). Jeff also meets Bonnie, their brilliant teenage daughter just out of high school—Bonnie, who looks not unlike Georgianne 20-odd years ago. Jeff’s fantasies kick into gear...

In one moment, Jeff decides he will simply take Georgianne from Sean. That’s all there is to it. No matter how. Georgianne will fall into his arms, and Bonnie would come after.

 Sean was on the way out; he just didn’t know it yet. And why not? Why the fuck not? “Take her,” he said aloud. “I’ll just take her!” And as he said this over and over again, he fell in love with the words, what they meant and the sheer beautiful sound of them. He seemed to be completing a sentence he’d begun to form during some previous incarnation. 

Tessier is also adept at the psychological study. His great trick in Rapture is that he so slowly guides us into Jeff’s mind, its rationalizations and inventions, its almost charming delusions, its grandiose planning and seeming lack of guile, that we don’t quite realize just how crazy he is—and when we do, his plan still makes perfectly logical sense. It’s why the book is so readable: it’s all easily believable, since the characters and situations feel so real. In writer of lesser skills, a couple of twists in Rapture would seem forced; Tessier makes them seem like destiny.

He had treated the whole thing like a problem at work... you let it simmer in the depths of your brain, and sooner or later the answer will come to the surface. It was, he reckoned, an essentially creative process.... He belonged to the select handful of individuals who had the courage, imagination, and sheer will to create their own destinies.  

One step follows another, problems arise and are dispatched, all leading deeper and deeper into a conflagration of desire and death. “Desire” is key as well, as Tessier understands and presents sex not as exploitation, but as human nature. Jeff’s sex life, as well as his fantasies, are on full view in Rapture, and in this, we truly see his self-absorption. Women are to be dominated, to play along with his every whim, they are to pretend; they are not real in and of themselves. When the novel opens, he’s having sex with a woman young enough to still be living with her parents (“You won’t tell your parents?” “Not if you come back.” “You got me.”). Jeff’s almost willfully letting himself be blackmailed, but we know it’s only a game he’s playing... and the reader is even a bit sympathetic, which is the scariest thing of all.

I own most of Tessier’s novels now and look forward to reading them all, although I’m not sure if they can top the darkened sexual nature of Finishing Touches and Rapture (to a lesser extent, his 1979 novel The Nightwalker also has a twisted sexual element). Tessier doesn’t simply toss in a peep-show of naked flesh willy-nilly; his horrors spring from honest exploration of our erotic impulses. His precise, sinuous prose, his empathic sense of human failure and delusion, and his effortless ability to pinpoint and expose the secret self that drives and even dooms us all make Thomas Tessier a horror writer that will satisfy the discerning horror fan.

(This post originally appeared in slightly altered form as part of "The Summer of Sleaze" on the Tor.com website)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Summer of Sleaze in Oxrun Station

Today my latest post in the Summer of Sleaze series is up at Tor.com! This week I write about three novels by Charles L. Grant that feature the classic Universal monsters, all terrorizing Grant's own fictional town, Oxrun Station. Hope you like it!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Robert M. Price Born Today, 1954

Lovecraft scholar and editor Robert M. Price has contributed much to the study and appreciation of weird fiction both vintage and modern. With his fanzine in 1981, Crypt of Cthulhu, Price featured fiction from all the familiar names associated with the Lovecraftian circle, as well as nonfiction and reviews by himself and fellow writers. His background was in theology, so his approach to the Mythos was thorough and perceptive. Price kept Crypt going for 20 years, and you can get later issues from Necronomicon Press.

Dig these hand-drawn covers for Crypt! Really love the aesthetic, I daresay ol' HPL, amateur journalist that he was, would've too. You can find a lot of the articles included in these online, which I highly recommend reading, especially his early Stephen King reviews.
In the early-mid 1990s Price began editing Mythos anthologies for the RPG publisher Chaosium, and below are a few of the trade paperback anthologies, each which expanded on a particular entity or town in the Mythos. These titles  seemed ubiquitous while I was working in a chain bookstore then, but I never read any though. What am I missing?