Friday, November 28, 2014

Twelve Tales of Suspense and the Supernatural by Davis Grubb (1964)

Known for penning the novel The Night of the Hunter upon which the classic 1955 movie was based, Davis Grubb (1919-1980) was a West Virginia native well-versed in the pride, poverty, tribulations and superstitions that were endemic to that region. This collection of short stories ranging over 20 years, Twelve Tales of Suspense and the Supernatural (paperback edition from Fawcett Crest, June 1965) includes some Weird Tales works as well as tales first published in popular magazines like Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Woman's Home Companion, and Collier's: you know, all the middlebrow publications of the mid-century that your great-grandparents might have read of a TV-less evening (Cavalier too, but that was probably Grandad's privy reading).

Grubb's style has a slightly melancholy, forlorn (the variant "lorn," which I have never come across before, appears in places) note to it and his scenarios are decent time-passers, characters familiar: drawling ne'er-do-wells, laconic sheriffs, expansive judges, tempting women, shrewish wives, innocent children, cool killers. The aptly-titled "Moonshine" got me thinking of those Gold Medal paperbacks from the 1950s of Southern sleaze and backwoods ribaldry. That sensibility is everywhere, but not overwhelming; I wouldn't really call it Southern Gothic, but there is just a hint of it at the edges.

 From hardcover edition, 1964

While reading these stories I couldn't help but think of Grubb's contemporaries in short genre fiction. While his stories aren't quite as sensitively-wrought as Charles Beaumont's or as matter-of-fact believable as Richard Matheson's, as cold and cruel as Shirley Jackson's, Twelve Tales still has appeal. Readers fond of Fredric Brown and Gerald Kersh, two other unclassifiable writers whose fiction has strong echoes of crime, science fiction, suspense, and horror, should take note as well.

Most stories end with a ingenious image of violence, perhaps that's even the tale's raison d'étre, but we all know this is the pulp template. Nothing cuts too deep or too sharp, but you can see the bone in "One Foot in the Grave" and "The Horsehair Trunk," two good and grim revengers that echo Robert Bloch's punning but without that author's black humor. "Busby's Rat" and "Radio" could have served as minor entries in Ray Bradbury's October Country, and "The Rabbit Prince" is at once sad and sweet as a spinster schoolteacher is given a glimpse of wild abandon that could have come from his pen when he was feeling kinder. "Nobody's Watching!" is set in the high-tech world of TV production, and it's the kind of thing I could imagine Harlan Ellison writing about his early days, the dangers of the mediated image on the human mind... and body.

Hangin' with Bob Mitchum in the '50s. Lucky!

Orphaned children populate several of the short stories; of course endangered siblings form the crux of Night of the Hunter (which, goddammit, I must read!). Grubb has a particular sympathy for them--as who wouldn't?--but he doesn't present them mawkishly as a lesser writer would. "The Blue Glass Bottle" highlights how children misunderstand the grownup world about them. "Murder. It was a word. You heard the men say it at Passy Reeder's Store. Murder. It was black marks on the colored poster at the picture show house where the man clutched the red-haired girl by the throat." Grubb's writing shines here, with a slight To Kill a Mockingbird vibe, and the final lines quite affecting.

One of the oddest stories is "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod," which evokes the famous child's rhyme to a macabre end. You may find the reveal a tad ridiculous but it's handled nicely: "There is a moment--perhaps two--in the lifetime of each of us when the eye sees, the mind recoils, and all conscious thinking rejects what the eyes have seen." You might even think of Daphne du Maurier.

Grubb can imbue a phrase  like "not so much as a single scratch" with the most unsettling of implications. That's from "Return of Verge Likens," one of my faves, two brothers who react quite differently to the murder of their father. It was self-defense! claims the killer, and the cops agree. Too bad the man who did the deed was Ridley McGrath, "the biggest man in the whole state of West Virginia! Why, don't Senator Marcheson hisself sit and drink seven-dollar whiskey with Mister McGrath in the Stonewall Jackson lobby very time he comes to town? Don't every policeman in town tip his cap when Mister McGrath walks by?"

"That don't matter a bit," said Verge.

Arrow UK paperback, 1966

The collection concludes with the "Where the Woodbine Twineth," which was adapted for an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and included in Peter Straub's excellent anthology for the Library of America, American Fantastic Tales (2010). A little girl whose parents have been killed now lives with her father's sister Nell, who will not tolerate any dreamy foolishness from her new charge (all probably the fault of her brother's "foolish wife"!). Young Eva natters on about the "very small people who live behind the davenport," you know, Mr. Peppercorn and Mingo and Popo! Aunt Nell will have none of this, but when Captain Grandpa or whatever his name is arrives on a steamer from New Orleans with a Creole doll for Eva, things get interesting. Despite the use of an unwelcome (but context-accurate) racial slur, "Woodbine Twineth" ends on a clear, classic, sparkling note of pure unadulterated horror.

Twelve Tales offers old-fashioned pleasures for genre readers; not a classic by any means, but I think a handful of stories--generally, the last half of the book--are  worth checking out. There's nothing as terrifying as Robert Mitchum lurking inside with love and hate tattooed on the knuckles of his hands, but then again... I'm kinda relieved there's not.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Horror Paperbacks of Ken Eulo

Newark-born author Ken Eulo celebrated his 75th birthday this past November 17th, and although I've never read nor own any of his books, they were quite big paperback bestsellers in the 1980s. Certainly I saw dozens of copies of these titles while working in a UBS in the early 1990s but I wasn't ever drawn to them. His trilogy of "Stone" novels--The Brownstone (Oct 1980); The Bloodstone (Oct 1981); and The Deathstone (Nov 1982), all from Pocket Books--are set in the urban enclaves of Manhattan, and today are available as ebooks.

According to ISFDB, there is no artist credit given for any of these titles, and you can tell there are cutouts in the covers so we're missing some nice stepback images. The only actual stepback art I could find online was for the second book, The Bloodstone--and you'll note its similarity to the iconic Flowers in the Attic (1979). That art was done by a woman named Gillian Hills. Not the Gillian Hills, I can hear you saying. Well, brace yourselves: it is the same Gillian Hills! Perhaps she was responsible for the Eulo trilogy as well.

I never tire of skulls with flowing locks; Nocturnal (Dec 1983) really goes for it, bone by bone. The Ghost of Veronica Gray (Aug 1985/cover art by Lisa Falkenstern) would appeal to teenage girls, I suppose, but certainly not to a teenage me.

Pocket Books stopped putting out horror fiction in the late '80s, so Eulo's next couple books were published by Tor. 1988's The House of Caine features a nicely sensual lady vamp, but according to some Amazon reviewers, it's fairly terrible. Then in 1991 came Manhattan Heat, which has an uninspired mainstream cover, very Joseph Wambaugh meets Jackie Collins. According to Eulo, though, it's "about New York City, the underground subways, and zombies." Read a good behind-the-scenes, where-are-they-now interview with Eulo here.

I end asking: anybody read any of these?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Tor Paperbacks of John Farris

It wasn't only Ramsey Campbell, Graham Masterton, and Charles L. Grant whose books were adorned with garish and graphic paperback covers when published by Tor--check out the '80s output from John Farris! Some titles, like The Fury, Shatter, The Captors, and All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By (check out snaky Ann-Margaret on that one!), were from the 1970s and then reprinted by Tor once Farris had signed with that publisher. He was quite prolific then, and still writes even as he nears 80 (Tor published his latest novel, High Bloods, just a few years ago).

Scare Tactics (1989, cover art by Carol Russo). A collection of short fiction. The cover "demon" was also used as the icon for Tor's horror line.

Catacombs (1987/orig. 1981, cover art by James Warren). I tried reading this one, not really my thing, although it was well-written. Apparently it's a kinda-sorta retelling of King Solomon's Mines.

The Axman Cometh (1989). Was Farris an O'Neill fan? In the intro, Farris instructs readers to read this one in a single sitting. Don't know why (although one Goodreads reviewer suspects it's so you'll miss cracks in plotting and some really poor writing!).

The Uninvited (1987/orig. 1982, cover art by John Melo). King quote, check! Not related to the 1940s supernatural chiller of the same title. Dig how the ghost likes a nice button-down.

The Captors (1985, orig. 1971). Probably could not quite get away with this kind of cover art today.

Minotaur (1985). Looks like a globe-trotting political thriller. I wonder if there's an actual minotaur at the center of it all?!

Nightfall (1987). Great Southern Gothic cover!

Son of the Endless Night (1986, cover by John Melo). I read this one a few years back; it's awesome in that over-the-top '80s-horror way.

Wildwood (1986). Do yourself a solid and watch this TV promo for the paperback, featuring Zacherle! OMG I wish more horror paperback publishers had done this.

Sharp Practice (1988, orig. 1974) Love the Looney Tunes-style imagery, absurd as it is.

Shatter (1986, orig. 1981) Nobody stayed up late working on this cover.

Fiends (1990, cover by John Melo). According to the PorPor Books blog, not a must-read.

The Fury (1985, orig. 1976, cover by John Melo) The novel that made Farris's career. Melo was a master of depicting '80s hair, wasn't he?

I have most of these on my bookshelf; I really need to get to reading 'em!

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Paperback Covers of Bram Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars

The 167th anniversary of Bram Stoker's birth was this weekend, on Saturday the 8th. In previous years I've featured the paperback editions of Dracula and The Lair of the White Worm; this year, check out the mostly impressive covers for The Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903), a less well-known work of Stoker's, about one man's attempt to resurrect an ancient Egyptian queen.  

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson (1908): Into That Great Void My Soul'd Be Hurled

An unassailable classic of supernatural horror and science-fantasy, The House on the Borderland is a cosmic hallucination, a phantasmagoria of time dilation and psychedelic imagery, a monster mash of mind-expanding terror and loneliness across multiple dimensions and numberless aeons. William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) reached for the stars and beyond and gave us a novel that would deeply affect and influence H.P. Lovecraft (and of course many other genre writers); indeed HPL never hid the fact that he was indebted to Hodgson's visionary delirium [update: not as much as I'd previously thought; see comments]. It is the well from which so much weird fiction has sprung. But is that well still worth visiting today?

...perched almost at the extreme end of a huge spur of rock that jutted out some fifty or sixty feet over the  abyss. In fact, the jagged mass of ruin was literally suspended in mid-air. 
That's the house itself, as described by the two men who are tramping through the "dismal and and sombre" wilds of west Ireland. They come upon a striking landscape, a rushing waterfall and an enormous rocky cavern. Across it stands this house on the borderland, its crumbled remains high above the abyss. One of the men finds a crumpled old notebook in the debris; before the men can make their way back to their camp, an eerie wailing rises from the woods. Filled with "haunting dread," they hightail it out of there and read the manuscript later. Said manuscript is a nameless narrator's account of his life before this house fell...

Arkham House, 1946, cover by Hannes Bok

A widower who lives with his spinster sister and dog Pepper, the narrator relates how he'd moved into the garden-surrounded house 10 years before, that locals had said the devil built it, and that as years passed he became "aware of something unseen, yet unmistakably present, in the empty rooms and corridors." I'll say. Soon he's exploring the lightless depths of that chasm--"the Pit," he calls it--and battling with loathsome swine-monsters who swarm over the house! And that's not all.

One evening, the narrator is sitting in his chair and finds everything about him has become an insubstantial mist, and begins the first of several bodiless travels through the space/time continuum. It's the kind of thing would put the climax of 2001 to shame; eventually he's zipping along the cosmos, watching the Sun die, the earth freeze, stars born, collapse, and reborn. At one point he sees his own lifeless body still sitting in a chair and all covered in dust, sees his own home on a vast Plain in some other reality, crawling with creatures as in his own reality. Cosmic horror, complete with its incomprehensible deities and endless vistas, begins here.
Far to my right, away up among inaccessible peaks, loomed the enormous bulk of the great Ass-god. Higher, I saw the hideous form of the dread goddess, rising up through the red gloom, thousands of fathoms above me. To the left, I made out the monstrous Eyeless-Thing, grey and inscrutable. Further off, reclining on its lofty ledge, the livid ghoul-Shape showed--a splash of sinister colour, among the dark mountains. 
Hodgson was a badass athlete/author and died in battle in WWI

The ending itself you've read a million times before, but in the early 20th century I doubt it had been done much before then. Lovecraft popularized it but it quickly became a hokey cliché and I think you'll agree. And after the whirlwind of interstellar visions I think you'll find the climax a bit underwhelming. But. If you reorient your imagination by jettisoning from your memory the fiction it inspired, then House works like nothing before it. Even Hodgson's old-fashioned and comma-riddled prose can't impede on the power of some of the more hypnotic, disorienting passages.
Ace Books, 1962, cover by Ed Emshwiller, accurate depiction of events within!
House is almost two books in one, and my reaction to it was in places mixed. I enjoyed the adventure/horror of the narrator's battle with the Swine-people in the first part of the narrative but later found the seemingly endless pages of space-travel tedious. There seemed to be no anchor to the flights of fancy; just more and more riffing on the bizarre nature of traveling through the space-time flux, colored globes floating about, the sun speeding across the sky and changing colors, the world spinning faster and faster into the void--much like Lovecraft's fantasy tales, which were never my favorite of his. But Lovecraft shares with Hodgson a fascination, an obsession really, with the unexplored deeps beneath homes, beneath the earth, of places where other realities can slip through into ours, of an indifferent malevolence threaded through the very warp and woof of our universe.

Lots of good paperback editions have been released over the years, as you can see. My copy is the red one at top, Carroll & Graf, 1983 with cover by Richard Courtney; it and this one from Sphere, 1980 with cover by Terry Oakes, play down the cosmic angle in favor of the hulking, drooling, terrifying swine-people--and you'll note how prominently Lovecraft's name is featured on most covers (the quote is from his famed and essential Supernatural Horror in Literature).

The midnight-blues of this edition from Freeway Press, 1974 evoke the emptiness of outer space and the utter solitude the narrator feels when he's hurtling through it.

Manor Books, 1977. I'm struggling to recall if an ear of corn played any role in the story; that looks like a farmhouse on drought-struck land; pretty sure this cover was meant for a different novel entirely; E. Salter is the artist.

Panther Books, 1972. The ever-stunning Ian Miller's jacket art is delectably creepy and awesome; it well captures the wonkiness of Hodgson's visions.  

So in whichever edition you may read House on the Borderland, it'll be easy to see how it achieved its hallowed place in the pantheon of classic horror fiction. It's not always scary but it is always weird. He wrote other highly-regarded fantasy novels, like The Night-Land (1912) and The Boats of the "Glen Carrig" (1907) but it's upon this House which Hodgson's reputation is built.