Tuesday, September 30, 2014

She Can Take the Dark Out of the Nighttime

Can't quite make out that artist's signature; anybody?

Never mind, it's Ken Barr! He also illustrated this cover, obviously inspired by "American Gothic" by Grant Wood.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Shadows 2, edited by Charles L. Grant (1979): Darkness at the Break of Noon

A step back into the slowly gathering Shadows; this the second volume in Charles L. Grant's famous horror series of short fiction. I own the complete set, thanks to some very impressive library book sales I was lucky enough to attend, but I haven't been reading them in order (see my previous reviews for vols. one and three). The hardcover from Doubleday was published in 1979 (cover below); I own the 1984 Berkley paperback reprint adorned by a Halloween skull that appears nowhere in the stories (is that Bogart on the hardcover? He shows up in one, though).

Anyway, Shadows 2 is more, and even more so less, of the same: whisper-quiet short horror fiction of traditional chills and shivers, mostly filler and mostly too tame and polite to offer any real horror. The paucity of imagination is unsettling in itself: two stories feature the same style of twist ending; one features the hero dispatching a witch by dumping a bucket of water on her; while others simply disappear the moment you turn the page, wispy and insubstantial, either too obscure or too dull to elicit much reaction.

None of the stories are outright bad, and even the more staid, traditional ones are at least pretty well-written and engaging. More than once I was reminded of TV shows like "Night Gallery" or "Tales from the Darkside," so take that as you will. Let me however concentrate on the good: "The Chair" by novelization master Alan Dean Foster (seen below in 1980) and a Jane Cozart, about a couple out antiquing who find the titular object in a closed-off portion of a shop, the owner of which has eyes "green as a young kitten's." Should've left that chair there! The taut climax benefits from a surprise image that's funny and unnerving at once.

Another good entry is "Dead End" by Richard Christian Matheson, known for his stripped-down prose and short-short fiction. Here he uses the time-honored rite of a married couple arguing in the car as they get more and more lost, in every way possible, looking with no success for their destination. Matheson's writing is mature and ably carries the obvious metaphor all the way to its foregone conclusion. 

Intriguing and oddly affecting, "The Closing of Old Doors" by Peter D. Pautz has its protagonist rising from the grave--a story that idly imagines the unlikeliest of zombie apocalypses, long before that scenario became a cliche:
A multitude so great that, given the mere ability to move, to walk uninhibited, could stroll their way to power. With time at their leisure, and bodies stayed from decay by their need, their pent-up frustration, such an ungodly throng could rise to ascendancy by their presence alone, by sheer numbers. An election here, a lobby there. Referendum, plebiscite; even their own candidates. All secretly. No reason to invite physical resistance. Use democracy, the will of the people.
"Seasons of Belief" by Michael Bishop I could've sworn I'd read elsewhere but turns out I was wrong. Cute one about parents scaring their children with a story about the "grither," a creature who lives in the wreck of an ancient ship in the ice floes of the Arctic Circle (cool!). Fun suspense as the parents tease their offspring; ending of course you can guess. And finally, ironically, two stories included here are top works from major writers: "Mackintosh Willy" from Ramsey Campbell (pic below) and "Petey" from T.E.D. Klein. I'd read both of these before and on this reread found them just as excellent as the first.

Campbell (above) won the 1980 World Fantasy award for "Mackintosh Willy," and it's apparent from its opening lines that this work is leagues beyond the other entries. In full control of his horrors, he even denies the piece's very title:
To start with, he wasn't called Mackintosh Willy. I never knew who gave him that name... One has to call one's fears something, if only to gain the illusion of control. Still, sometimes I wonder how much of his monstrousness we created. Wondering helps me not to ponder my responsibility for what happened at the end.
A group of children taunt a tramp who "haunts" a local park lake, and then one day the narrator finds him dead on a bench. Of course that's not all, not by a long shot, and in his distinctive style, Campbell casts everything in a distorted, greasy film:  
He had turned his radio louder; a misshapen Elvis Presley blundered out of the static, then sank back into incoherence as a neighboring wave band seeped into his voice... I could see only the dimming sky, trees on the far side of the lake diluted by haze, the gleam of bottle caps like eyes atop a floating mound of litter...
I enjoyed the very subtle, very subtext conflation of sex and death and the implication that the narrator looks back now on this horrific event from his childhood and understands all too well his "responsibility." Classic Campbell. The cozy-drunk dinner-party setting in a ramshackle farmhouse in rural Connecticut of Klein's "Petey" appealed to me greatly. The long tale unfolds at a leisurely pace, two storylines woven together: one, a suicidal madman in a straitjacket and the cranky orderly caring for him; the other, two dozen middle-aged people exploring the impressive farmhouse recently renovated by owners and party hosts George and Phyllis. Lots of talking and kidding by old friends, while George experiences a fit of IBS--"he never knew the things his mind contained until his stomach told him"-- then explores the attic, where he finds bottles of rotting animal fetuses, each labeled "PD#13, PD#14," and so on. Factor in Tarot card-reading and French folktales about "le petit diable," so that when the two stories coalesce, they form a single horrifying picture...

Sad to say, but without the Campbell and Klein stories, Shadows 2 is a decidedly minor anthology, and you can get those two stories in Dark Companions and Dark Gods respectively. I know Grant hated how the splatterpunks rose up a few years later, and that horror in general became more graphically violent, but that's simply how the genre evolved; it couldn't sustain itself on the mostly meek and mild stories herein. There is no use in trying to deny it: Shadows 2 is for horror fiction completists only; everyone else can step into the light.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Charles Birkin Born Today, 1907

Charles Birkin was a long-time editor and author of horror tales, putting together the popular Creeps Library anthology series in England throughout the 1930s. In the 1960s he began publishing collections of his own short stories, many which were published in the States. The most famous of these seems to be The Smell of Evil (Award Books/1969). This summer I was able to buy a copy and read the title story--it was cruel, macabre, delicious! For a bibliography of his many books, refer to the Vault of Evil. For a new trade paperback edition of Smell of Evil, buy it at Valancourt Books. Birkin died in 1985.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Stephen Gresham Born Today, 1947

According to his informative website, author Stephen Gresham wasn't thrilled with these Zebra paperback covers for his novels. Can't say I blame him, but looking back on 'em today, hoo boy. Awesome. Credit goes to illustrators David Mann (Runaway), Lisa Falkenstern (Rockabye Baby and Shadow Man), Jim Thiesen (Blood Wings) and Richard Newton (Abracadabra).


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Summer of Sleaze Comes to an End

And so we've reached the final installment in Tor's Summer of Sleaze series. Grady Hendrix and I sure had a blast writing 'em, and seems like readers enjoyed learning about vintage forgotten horror fiction and writers. For this last post I reread and reviewed Ray Russell's guilty-pleasure Incubus, his 1976 novel of demonic perversity. You know you love it!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Horror Paperbacks of Florence Stevenson

I am not much sure who Florence Stevenson is but going by these paperbacks of hers written throughout the late '60s, '70s and into the horror heyday of the 1980s, she wrote the gamut: quiet horror, Gothic horror, witches, vampires, even cat lady horror--I love Ira Levin's blurb on Ophelia (Signet/Apr 1969): "fresh, delectable, refinedly sexy."
Amazon lists dozens of her paperback novels. The cover art on all of these offers much to be enjoyed, from the creepy-kid vibe of A Feast of Eggshells (Signet/Dec 1969--and don't miss that body at the bottom of the stairs) to the proto-paranormal romance imagery of Moonlight Variations (HBJove/Jan 1981), or the delicious bosomy Gothic of The Curse of the Concullens (Signet Gothic/Nov 1976) and The Witching Hour, to the luridly overdone '80s covers for Household (Leisure/Mar 1989) and The Sisterhood (Leisure/Oct 1989).

I found only the most basic biographical info on a romance site; if anyone knows anything more, let us know. And oh yeah, if you've read any of these too!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Unfinishing

Nothing pains me more than being unable to finish reading a novel, for whatever reason. Picking books off my horror shelves and finding them less than captivating is a real bummer; I like to keep this blog updated with new reviews, but sometimes I read several novels in a row that I'm simply underwhelmed by, and motivation to finish flags. Here are the last four I couldn't finish (four! Ugh). Now, don't get me wrong, these aren't novels without merit, so I feature them here with the thought that some TMHF readers might find them worthwhile. 

Dance of the Dwarfs by Geoffrey Household (1968). I'd heard plenty of good things about this novel, some from TMHF readers. It's been in my collection for five or six years; I'd bought it on a whim knowing nothing about it except it was shelved in the horror section of my local bookstore and didn't look like your average genre paperback. Subtle, literary horror? Sure! It sounded fascinating: a British doctor living in an agricultural station at the edge of the Amazon, where the locals are afraid of... what? Dwarves that dance? The novel deals with superstition, fear of the unknown, the nature of fear itself, cultural imperialism, political wranglings, and all that, and Household is a good although detached writer. Sure, there were other things going on, like said doctor constantly banging a 15-year-old Peruvian girl given to him as a gift.... but everything just took. So. Damn. Long. To. Happen. Guess that's what I get for trusting The New Yorker about horror.

Dark Twilight by Joseph A. Citro (1991) Not terribly written--it has pages of respectable critical blurbs--but not terribly interesting either. Citro is an expert on the legends and lore of Vermont, but so what? I have no especial interest in cryptozoology or any kind of  "monster hunter" scenario, just as I have no interest in writers who take real life "psychic" phenomena or other pseudoscientific nonsense and try to turn it into a horror story. I'm a hardline nonbeliever and atheist in the HPL tradition and, like him, I'd rather writers make up their horrors entirely (or, of course, swipe someone else's!). That said, there was too much folkloric exposition from an old professor and too little folkloric horror action so I gave up halfway through.

Siren by Linda Crockett Gray (1982) Opening chapter has a father forcing his 11-year-old daughter to give him a hand job. Not my scene, man. I don't care how awesome the original cover art below is.

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1971). Toyshop is the only title here I might give another try; it really sounds like something I'd dig, kinda Shirley Jackson-esque. I am of course well aware of Carter's reputation and standing in the literary community and that she takes fairy tales and updates them through a feminist/postmodern lens and so on. Awesome. But I found the style, story, and its telling to be pretentious, precious, and precocious ("She was too thin for a Titian or Renoir, but she contrived a pale, smug Cranach Venus with a bit of net curtain wound round her head and at her throat the necklace of cultured pearls they gave her when she was confirmed. After she read Lady Chatterley's Lover, she secretly picked forget-me-nots and stuck them in her pubic hair"). Yes, my tolerance for "writerly" writing has waned; to me it's akin to the acting style Jon Lovitz used to parody in his "Master Thespian" SNL skits--the prose simply shouts "Wrrriting! Brrrilliant!" at me, and who likes to be shouted at, no matter how pretty the words?

Again, these titles are simply not to my taste, but I don't consider them, you know, not good.--some of you might like 'em just fine. Let me know what I'm missing, huh? Thanks.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

RIP Kirby McCauley, 1941-2014

Sad news about a major behind-the-scenes figure in horror/science fiction/fantasy fiction: agent and editor Kirby McCauley died on August 30 from diabetes complications (today is actually his birthday). He was Stephen King's first agent and was instrumental in King's earliest success, and worked with major figures in genre fiction. Also, far as I can tell, even sold a lil' something called Games of Thrones to Bantam for a little-known author named George R.R. Martin. McCauley edited the seminal anthology of modern horror, 1980's Dark Forces, which surely made the genre fresh and relevant for the post Exorcist/Rosemary's Baby age. 

Apparently there was little note of his passing, which is a crime. I only found out about it visiting ISFDB to see which genre writers were born today. Fortunately, the mighty Martin has a wonderful piece on McCauley; it is a must-read.

I offer a heartfelt, if belated, thanks to McCauley for all his contributions to the horror genre, and for his insistence that genre writers should have the best talent working in their favor so that their words can be read by millions.