Friday, August 29, 2014

Lyrica by Thomas F. Monteleone (1987): She Loves Naked Sin

A minor erotic horror novel that's neither sexy nor scary, Lyrica (Berkley/Jan 1987) travels back and forth in time following the seductive adventures of a lamia, a mythical creature who drains the life from the men she sleeps with (that's not really how the ancient myth goes, Lyrica is technically a succubus, but whatevs). I really wanted to like Thomas F. Monteleone's novel, his eighth, since I dig the cover and found a mint copy during my recent cross-country trip. The back-cover copy makes the book sound like an excellent read...

In her human form Lyrica Rousseau snakes her way through the ages, hooking up with brilliant, accomplished men like Mozart, Keats, and James Crichton, fucking them superbly, then leaving them as they, of course, die, withered and emptied of their particularly potent life force... which Lyrica needs to live her eternal life. She's repeatedly described as gorgeous, obviously, with a rampant sexual vibe no man can resist (one character can, and when you find out why, yikes), but we don't feel it, we just get characters talking about it, or Monteleone telling us how hot she is--at one point, she shrugs "sexily." What?!

The modern setting is New York City and show biz, as Lyrica comes to the New World and almost instantly gets an agent (he doesn't chomp a cigar but he might as well) and is on her way to becoming a huge star. Thinly-veiled real life men pop up--is that Stephen Sondheim? Frank Sinatra? Yep!--and she bones all of them. That's right, she kills a guy as famous as Frank Sinatra! Don't monsters know they gotta stay under the radar? On her trail is a guy who's written lots of books on pseudoscience, and of course he's found out the lamia, or succubus, is real! So with the help of the one guy who can resist Lyrica's charms they go after her with a silver sword made in midtown.

Well, there ya go.

I wasn't much impressed with Lyrica herself. For a woman of endless desire and vast powers, one who's part demonic snake and another a temptress from hell, who masters men and controls her own destiny with a fierce and iron will, Lyrica sure smiles and giggles a lot. Ugh. She comes off as more like a young girl playing adult-sexy, say Pretty Woman Julia Roberts rather than, um, I'm gonna go with Body Heat Kathleen Turner.

Monteleone, probably known more for his brilliant editorship of the Borderlands anthology series of the 1990s, has written what could have been a steamy, sultry, sensual historical horror novel about the dangerous allure of an evil woman; instead Lyrica is an unremarkable, by-the-numbers paperback horror novel. It's not a bad story at all and the historical details feel right, but Monteleone just tells everything--there's no showing. While it has a few scenes of graphic sex, it's neither erotic nor sleazy; mostly I found it all dull and suspense-free. No twists, no irony, no atmosphere. But, surprise surprise, the epilogue was a nice and I suppose believable touch--the proverbial happy ending.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Eyes Have Seen You: The Sixties Supernatural Spy Novels of John Blackburn

While on my cross-country trip earlier this summer to relocate to Portland, OR, I visited many a used bookstore and bought many a used book (you may have seen photos). In one store I found a cache of paperbacks in very good condition by John Blackburn (1923-1993), a writer I was familiar with only because his first novel, 1958's A Scent of New-Mown Hay (published in the US as The Relucant Spy in 1966), was included in Horror: Another 100 Best Books. These paperbacks were a bit out of my price range (although I did spring for Charles Birkins's Smell of Evil), but now I'm kinda regretting not biting that bullet and buying 'em.

Many weren't even released in the States, or were published only in the 1960s--hence the collectible prices today. Small independent press Valancourt Books is doing the good, good work of reprinting many if not most of Blackburn's other previously out-of-print novels. The trade paperbacks these guys are putting out are splendid, with new introductions and smart, vibrant, modern covers that also reference some of these vintage editions.

I've never read any kind of spy/espionage novel, not a LeCarre or Ludlum or Fleming in all my entire collection of paperback fiction, so admittedly I'm intrigued by ones that have a supernatural twist to them, especially when it seems to have been done with skill and invention (Clive Barker did such a thing in his short "Twilight at the Towers"). The word "ingenious" gets mentioned with Blackburn a lot, and man, I just don't read enough books that make me go, "Wow, now that was ingenious!"

Anyway, I'm posting these old paperback covers solely because I dig 'em; don't you? I mean that Children of the Night (Berkley Medallion/1970)--one of the most over-used titles in all of horror, thanks Count Dracula!--is something to behold, a true creepfest, as nudists there seem to be enjoying an adults-only getaway in a monster maw.

The title-switch of New-Mown Hay to Reluctant Spy (Lancer/1966) makes sense; I'm the sure the original title refers to some moment of dreadful import within the story itself (although I don't think it refers to a bikini-clad ass [NEL/1976]), but for unfamiliar readers it doesn't exactly scream "must-buy!". The stark simplicity of cold marble and black iron of Bury Him Darkly (Berkley Medallion/1970) bespeak... well, someone buried darkly.

For Fear of Little Men (Coronet UK/1974) uses poor John Merrick to some touching effect, and the juxtaposition of rat and child on Wreath of Roses (Lancer/1966), might that be a precursor to a Mr. James Herbert? Perhaps. Broken Boy (Lancer/1966) has a good review and some author background here. "Cold-war espionage" leaves me, well, cold, but knowing what I know about Blackburn now, I wonder. Cold war? I think it likely also means cold chills....

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Nest by Gregory A. Douglas (1980): Loathsome, Ornery and Mean

The nicotine-yellow fingertip tapped the paperback cover. "Scary fuckin' book," said the grizzled old bookstore owner, grinning, "scare the shit outta ya!" When I set my stack of horror paperbacks on the counter of that used bookstore in Utah I was not expecting such an encomium about any of them, much less one of the sleazier-looking titles. But nope: this guy was jazzed I'd found a copy of The Nest, a Zebra paperback published in 1980, written by an utterly undistinguished Gregory A. Douglas (actually the pseudonym of one Eli Cantor; more on him later). Don't remember where I first heard of this one, but I'd been searching for it quite awhile. Imagine my surprise when I found out it was totally worth the wait!

Yep--The Nest is powerhouse pulp horror, written with enthusiasm and tasteless know-how, a creepy-crawly scarefest that assaults the reader with one revolting sensation after another. If everyday roaches are disgusting, six-inch-long roaches with mandibles of chewing death are immeasurably more disgusting! A swarm of mutated cockroaches have somehow "organized" themselves by some unknowable miracle of evolution into a thinking organism, each individual creature a cell in the larger mass. Get used to that wave of shivers across your neck and shoulders, because this writer doesn't skimp on the gory details (like how the insects eat through the victim's eyes into the brain!). All-out over-the-top '80s schlock-horror doesn't get much better.

Oddly understated New English Library edition

You can learn the set-up by the front and back cover copy, so I won't get into that. Just know there are plenty of characters that Douglas handles well enough so they each have an identity other than just as roach repast, while the setting itself of fictional Yarkie Island off Cape Cod is depicted as if by someone who's actually been to a Cape Cod town and knows a little of its seafaring history, which adds notes of local color. Happily for the reader, he lays out truly suspenseful scenes of terror and unbelievable tragedy with a professional pulp writer's commitment. I don't know if he was literally getting paid a penny a word, but Douglas sure could stretch a dollar:
Dimly, Bo Leslie saw himself in a mad magician's crate, with sharpened swords slashing his viscera. Or, he was a side of beef on a butcher hook, and cleavers were hacking his carcass into small chunks. The man wanted to curse and howl, but there was no sound except hissing air because his throat was gone. It happened so quickly that the man's body was still shuddering with his orgasm when his final breath issued, a crimson foam out of his decapitated torso... The Yarkie cockroaches, in obedience to commands encoded in their preternatural genes, mounted the new food supply Nature had bounteously furnished again...
You got your town authorities stymied by this surge of Nature at its most nastiest, so they call in Harvard help and big-city scientists show up. Various Yarkies end up victims, and the rag-tag team of heroes can scarcely believe what they're up against, even after seeing it with their own eyes, these swarms of cockroaches that advance like a "living brown carpet" over everything in their path. The creatures' preternatural behavior seems insurmountable; they are piranha-like in their appetite and aggression (and some can even fly!).  

The Nest is a bit of an overwhelming story, emotionally, despite its ridiculousness. Gregory repeatedly notes the character's states of mind, their anger and despair and grief and sadness and fear, but his attempts at humor fall flat and don't lighten the mood. The constant descriptions of the repulsive roaches wears the reader down too, increasing not just horror but hopelessness, which is almost worse. After one particularly unsettling lecture from scientist Hubbard:
When the scientist stopped, the room was silent. Elizabeth and all the men were stunned. Peter Hubbard and Wanda Lindstrom had moved them into a world so alien, ogreish, and alarming that they had no way to formulate their reaction. The ghastliness was in the blood, beyond the reach of words or horror or comradely comfort. A strange, raw wind was blowing up from a biological nether world of phantasmagoric claws, fangs, and mindlessness.
Behind the Douglas pseudonym is Eli Cantor, a man of some erudition--like many pulp writers--so he is easily able to infuse his story with science, history, character detail and motivation, etc. His style is muscular and verbose, which makes The Nest a more effective read than many other pulp-horror paperbacks--because don't get me wrong, this book is definitely pulp, but somehow I can see Mr. Cantor just running hell-for-leather over good taste and restraint with a grin on his face as he pounds out page after page of hellish delight!

For example: a little over halfway through the book, he sets up a harrowing sequence in which children must face the ravening insect hordes; your tolerance for such a scene will depend on how you feel about animals and children being killed in horror fiction. Me, I found it kinda ballsy; maybe he didn't know better; more likely he thought, Fuck it, they want a cheap pulpy horror novel, I'm gonna give 'em one! It's shocking stuff, no matter what.
The boy dropped his own body over his sister's, trying to shield her. The bloodthirsty insects crawled between them, now tearing and ripping at both juvenile bodies. Kim's silken corn hair was ropy with her blood and her brother's. Their empty-socketed eyes stared at each other face to face as  they perished... It was not a field of battle, only a rapine slaughter of innocents, because there had been no way to fight back.
Sure, there are mis-steps: for one, the book is about 100 pages too long! Tightening this baby up would have done wonders, made it a lean and mean machine, and I think readers would agree that much of the scientific speeches/lectures should've been whittled down. Asides spent on character development needed more economic skill, while virtually every attempt at humor is leaden, obvious, and painfully cornball. The conversation isn't exactly scintillating, mostly blocky chunks of wooden exposition and exclamation ("Goshdarn critters!"). So with all this excess verbiage, the narrative drags in spots. Maybe Cantor really was being paid a penny a word! I skimmed some sections if I didn't see the words "roach" or "bloodthirsty" or "vomit."

Cantor's only other horror novel, 1981. Woah.

On the plus side: there are just too many amazing passages in The Nest, purple and ripe and rotting even, for me to quote them all!

Having partaken of human meat and drunk human blood, the new cockroach breed was ravenous for more... they could not get enough of the human taste and would seek it endlessly, implacably, and with many more victories... While she could see out of one eye, Deirdre Laidlaw had to live with the inconceivable sight of great cockroaches coating her husband's face, a vicious, quivering crust of filth...

All that and more (even a well-earned sex scene near the end)! Hoo boy. No doubt, I highly recommend The Nest, despite its length, and because of its delirious lapses in taste and good sense, and a climax which, while straining scientific credibility, makes a bizarre kind of sense. With its well-turned out cover art of moody, moonlit menace, The Nest might appear to be another forgettable piece of Zebra flotsam, another derivative vintage animals-attack bit of trash fiction, but I'm here to tell ya: it'll scare the shit outta ya!

Her horror enclosed the whole space of her life; it came to her that there was another meaning to "the fourth dimension." In addition to time and space there was a dimension of terror, a world of its own, for dying in.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Blackwater VI: Rain by Michael McDowell (1983): You're Gone Make Me Lonesome When You Go

Power wills death itself in the final chapter of Blackwater, the six-volume saga of Southern life in a small Alabama town called Perdido. Rain (Avon Books, June 1983) has Michael McDowell concluding with a drenching torrent that seems to drown the whole world, or at least Perdido itself, and for its inhabitants that's enough. I'll tell you I was a bit bummed to come to final chapter of this weird, Southern Gothic-lite saga of the wealthy Caskey clan and their family entanglements, both natural and not, as I've been reading Blackwater slowly over a year and a half. Honestly, I think I did it wrong: the whole series comes to a total of around 1,100 pages so I spaced my reading out, but now I really wish I'd read them  closer together so I could've gotten fully immersed in them. Oh well. (Some spoilers in this review).

Michael McDowell (1950 - 1999)

Now set in the 1960s, we begin with the conflict between spinsterly invalid Sister Caskey and her niece Miriam (daughter of Elinor, the inhuman--or more than human--woman who married into the Caskeys), who runs the family sawmills and has enriched their bank accounts immeasurably, and continues to do so. Sister had taken to bed on account of a supposed weakness in her legs. And in order to avoid her husband, she had kept to that bed, willing her legs to wither... More and more demanding and dismissive and dramatic, it is noted Sister is becoming more and more like the last Caskey matriarch Mary-Love, whom nobody much misses save Sister. In a moment of rational decision-making she's known for, Miriam decides she will marry milquetoasty Malcom Strickland, the family closest to the Caskeys. 

This upsets Sister and she insists they hold off the wedding, but Miriam will hear none of it. The wedding goes on, an enormous affair to which all Perdido and many important folks known through Miriam's successful business dealings are invited. Sister stays in her room, and while Oscar--Miriam's father, Elinor's husband--sits at her bedside comforting her, Sister passes. Out of spite, it seems!

The odd family tradition of giving up children to other family members continues: in this last volume, Billy Bronze and (the late--or, more accurately, the "late") Frances's daughter Lilah, first living with her grandmother Elinor, comes to live with Miriam and Malcolm, as they cannot bear their own children. With Miriam's guidance and to Elinor's dismay, Lilah begins exhibiting the willful imperiousness of Mary-Love and Sister; she toys with the affections of young Tommy Lee. He lived with his mother Lucille and her "partner" Grace Caskey on an enormous farm, but now lives with his grandmother Queenie Strickland (Malcom's mother--got all that?). Elinor wishes Lilah and Tommy Lee would marry and produce offspring to keep Miriam and Malcolm company as they age, and ensure the Caskey clan continues. This is not to be; Lilah will not be a pawn in the Caskey game.
It gradually became known in Babylon and Perdido that Tommy Lee had been disappointed in love. He had hoped, and all his family had hoped, that he would marry Lilah Bronze; Lilah, herself trained by Miriam, had done a sort of Miriam-like thing and married herself to a man with name that was two inches long and who declared on a stack of Bibles that he would never set foot in Alabama again.
Lilah even gets Tommy Lee to go to college so she, still a high schooler, can be invited to the awesome and socially important frat parties. With Tommy Lee gone, Queenie Strickland cannot bear to be in her house alone; strange noises assault her while she tries to sleep. One night she hears bootsteps outside and when she peeks out and sees it was Carl Strickland, her husband, who had been dead these thirty years, drowned in the black waters of the Perdido. *shiver* Queenie is found cold and dead the next morning, two quarters, each bearing the date 1929, were pressed over her eyes, and the key to the house was stuck in her mouth.

Hardcover omnibus editions from SF Book Club

McDowell engages in more of his patented quiet, weird, Southern Gothic scenes of horror and the macabre: Queenie's torment and death, and Tommy Lee returns and while boating through the swamp has the fright of his life when he's attacked by a creature unlike any swamp denizen he's ever known. The voices that blind, aging Oscar hears, of his mother Mary-Love and a little boy who died in the Perdido decades before, draw him into a dark embrace.The ugly death of this good, caring man by monstrous hands that stink of that river is heartbreaking. In his home Billy Bronze hears voices too, of his late wife Frances and Nerita, the daughter he never knew who lives and hungers in dark waters, singing and talking with Elinor in her room. In the morning the stairs' carpet is damp with river water. He is not afraid however:
The three voices--female but not human, Billy thought--went on for more than an hour, lasting as long as the rain. But as the rain slackened, so did the three voices. When the water was no more than an irregular dripping from the eaves, the singing stopped altogether. Billy had long ago lost the habit of prayer, but now he prayed for the clouds to return, and to open up above the house in hope that voices might again unite in song.
Then the rains come, long and incessant, and the government arrives and sees the levees will not hold and insists on evacuating Perdido. Most leave, but not Billy Bronze, not long-time family help Zaddie Sapp, not Elinor Caskey, who now lays dying in her bed. She has sent everyone but those two away, and the waters rise and rise on the Caskey house as Billy and Zaddie keep a death watch on this mysterious matriarch whose connection to those waters is the stuff of myth and legend... and the end comes for our family saga in the manner we knew from the start: Without further heralding, the water set about to wipe Perdido from the face of the earth.

1985 Corgi UK edition, lovely cover art by Terry Oakes

Yeah, I was bummed when it was over. For all its pluses, however, I don't quite rate Blackwater as highly as I do McDowell's standalone novels The Amulet, Cold Moon over Babylon, and The Elementals; I could've used even more horror or supernatural strangeness in these 1,100 pages, but that's just me. Sometimes the narrative drive is listless; the writing underdone; the family drama too drawn out. But there's plenty to enjoy too, in this unique family saga unlike anything else published in 1980s horror fiction. For modern readers Blackwater exists for Kindle; I believe Valancourt Books is trying to publish the series in trade paperback as they have two of McDowell's other novels; and Centipede Press is set to put out a schmancy illustrated hardcover as well next year. In whatever form you choose to read of the Caskey family's strange and sodden journey through the 20th century, in vintage paperback or as ebook, I think you will agree it is one worth taking, and that Michael McDowell is the perfect guide.

My review of the entire Blackwater series is on; go here to read it.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Feral by Berton Roueché (1974): Stray Cat Blues

This sleek, efficient little thriller won't let go once it gets its claws in ya! I read Feral (Pocket Books, 1975/Avon reprint, 1983) in one lazy, sunny, mildly hungover afternoon, eagerly eating up every gruesome morsel Berton Roueché was serving. First time I ever heard of it was in King's Danse Macabre, in which he writes it's "one of that select handful [of books] that I have given to people, envying them the experience of the first reading." Indeed. Feral is a soufflé of a suspense/horror novel, barely 125 pages in paperback, offering light, satisfying entertainment with little cause for regret.  It's got some butt-clenching scenes of feline violence, but not too many, although you can still practically feel those claws slashing and razoring your flesh. Ouch.

Boy, do I like horror novels written by people who know how to really write, and don't need to show off. Roueché was a writerly dude, employed by The New Yorker mag for 50 years, also penning medical mysteries, and one of those books inspired early episodes of the hugely popular TV show "House." Huh, whaddya know? His clean, plain, unencumbered prose is disarming, with a natural flow to it that's a pleasure to read, which lends a quiet believability to unbelievable events--even the characters can hardly believe what's happening before them.

Feral also gave me the kind of setting I enjoy more and more in my vintage horror, that of the vacation home in an idyllic locale--here, we're in Amagansett, Long Island (where Roueché himself lived), a little seaside community for the well-to-do. City folks come up for the summer, then head home as autumn arrives. The novel begins a bit like a travelogue as Jack and Amy Bishop buy a 1920s farmhouse near the ocean (but ick! There's a dead cat in the bedroom closet. Bad omen!). Turns out to be a huge mistake. 

Many of those summer vacay-ers ditch new pets on the side of the road before leaving the town, unwilling to bring the animal with them into the city. I know it's pretty difficult to imagine today, but yep. In fact, the otherwise likeable Jack and Amy do the same thing with a kitten they're given, reluctantly, but Jack rationalizes to his wife, "What else can we do? We sure can't take her into town. That would be awful. She's a country cat. She'd die penned up in that apartment." So they drop it off near homes obviously inhabited with families, and hope for the best. We don't see little Sneakers again, but when countless cats are left roadside this way, what else can be expected to happen? They return to their natural state. This action also makes the couple complicit in the horror that's coming.

The next year, Jack and Amy come to like Amagansett and their home so much they decide to stay year-round, to the envy of their friends who have to work in the city (Jack is a science magazine editor). They find a stray dog and name it Sam, and at the vet's are given a guilt-inducing earful by him about vacationers who ditch their pets:
"But you can't exactly blame the cats. I'm more inclined to blame the people that put them there. I mean the folks that come down here for the summer and get a little kitten for the kids, and then when it's time to go back to the city, they dump it off at the side of the road. Sink or swim. And the trouble is, it usually manages to swim. Those people make me really mad." ... Amy gave me an anguished look. I knew how she felt. I felt a little sick myself... We hadn't just dumped Sneakers. Not really. And yet, of course, we had. It was just that we hadn't realized.
But they begin to notice cats around their home, while they're driving down a deserted road at night, then during the day, and not just one or two mangy strays; there are usually three or more, mistaken for dogs at first because of their size, and often seen gorging on dead animals in a field or by the side of the road. Locals begin commenting that no one can find birds to watch on the nature trails, and a stable owner notes he has no rats creeping about his property this season. The first real note of terror happens off-screen, as it were, when Jack and Amy hear of a friend nearby who's bitten by a stray cat she tried to feed and falls seriously ill... then dies several days later. One fall day Jack goes out to cut down a tree for firewood with Sam and:
I sensed a movement... it was a dirty white cat with a missing ear, and it sat watching me from behind a screen of lopped-off branches. There was something odd about its gaze. It was a natural look. It was too steady, too fixed, too tensely concentrated. It held my eye. I stared compulsively back--and saw another cat... the tumble of branches was full of cats. I counted seven. I counted eight of them. I counted eleven crouching cats watching me through the branches....
With his skilled pen, Roueché quietly ratchets up suspense here, and I swear I could sense those yellowy eyes glaring at me too. And Sam is nowhere to be found, so you know that's not gonna turn out well.

1977 Pan Books, UK, retitled The Cats

Jack casts around for help, accessing some scientific literature that's of little use, contacting the police department with the same results. They put him in touch with the dog warden, who doesn't know how to handle cats. He does inform Jack there's no law against shooting 'em, but Jack does not relish this idea. Still, he buys a small-bore shotgun: There was something about a gun. It made a difference. It made all the difference. I wondered what I would do without it. Even the thought of it was a little scary. Jack shoots a few cats but this only scares the others off for awhile, and they return, in larger numbers, their yowling filling the air at night. And then one day it happens: countless cats have flowed out of the woods and essentially have the Bishops trapped in their home. He calls the police for help, and they send one young lone rookie...

Original 1974 hardcover 

The final chapters are filled with a sort of despairing tone as the men of Amagansett fight the crazed animals, whose numbers seem to impossibly increase; one might think of James Herbert's The Rats, from the same year, but Roueché is a much more tasteful and restrained writer (no tawdry sex scenes here!) so the climax has no pulp hysteria, but it's still unsettling because it's matter-of-factly written--as I said, you can still practically feel those slashing claws, writhing bodies, piercing fangs. The subtle implication is that humans are at fault for this nightmare scenario, but the point is not belabored, yet it is obvious. The ending at first seems cliched but I think it speaks more to newfound paranoia than generic trickery.

Feral isn't a forgotten horror masterpiece or anything, but it's a gripping high point of the "animals gone amok" subgenre, and probably better written than any others. You can find copies for cheap and I definitely recommend you do. Set aside a free afternoon for Feral--but put Fluffy away first.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Summer of Sleaze Goes Southern Gothic

I finally finished Michael McDowell's epic 1983 Southern saga of the Caskey family, Blackwater, and posted a review at as part of the Summer of Sleaze series. Hope you dig it!

Above illustration is by Terry Oakes for the UK paperback of Blackwater V: The Fortune.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Koontz by Any Other Name

A handful of suspense/thriller novels Dean R. Koontz wrote under various pseudonyms before he became a brand-name author. I've heard a few of 'em are pretty good even! You can see a few more here.

Even though I'm not a Koontz fan, they'd probably be worth adding to my paperback horror collection in the name of completion (I buy Laymon's old original paperbacks too). It's a curse!