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.


Lincoln said...

Big coincidence - I started this a couple of nights ago. My first thought was that the author was trying way too hard, but it grew on me. Only about 80 pages in, but really enjoying it so far. Some dated dialogue - when was the last time you heard/read police called 'the fuzz'?! - but that never really worries me. Some really tasteless death scenes in this one! Pretty much the polar opposite to my last read, the rather laid back 'Dead White', which was great by the way.

Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

I read The Nest in high school, trashy fun. Still have it, though it's dog eared as all heck. I had a thing for nature running amok books. There where the Crab books, Slugs, Wolfen, Prophecy and The Uninvited a even sleazier book about killer cockroaches.

Will Errickson said...

I love that dated stuff! And yes, as far from DEAD WHITE as possible.

Justin S. Davis said...

Read this one in high school, back in the late '80s. Remember sitting on a bench in a mall at Christmas time as my ma shopped, me happy as can be with my book and a pretzel.

Lincoln said...

Finally got this one squared away - very enjoyable. I'm suprised that it hasn't been reprinted, it's better than most of the contemporary pulp horror that I've tried.
I'd rate it just behind Herbert's rats trilogy.
Not sure where to go next, maybe Oxrun Station.

Will Errickson said...

THE NEST really went above and beyond for pulpy horror, and I hope more horror fans get to reading it.

John Seavey said...

Reading this one now--you were not kidding about the purple prose! We get "cornucopianly plentiful" as a description of the garbage dump by page three, and page two describes the ground as "mucidly flowing on hermetic currents".

Still, it definitely grows on you, and the pacing is downright propulsive. I can see why you enjoyed it.

Will Errickson said...

John, let me know what you think when you're done!

3Fs said...

I was struck by the amount of research that apparently went into this book (the author even name-checks E.O. Wilson in the acknowledgments). For that reason the highlight of the book was the couple passages told from the cockroaches’ point of view, IMO. As for the other parts, yes, it’s a bit long, but it’s hard to deny the effective gore therein.