Thursday, April 30, 2015

Spectre by Stephen Laws (1986): Down at the Rock and Roll Club

For 1980s horror fiction aficionados like me, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as when you buy an old paperback based solely on its promising cover art and then finding, upon actually reading the book, that the contents deliver on said promise. Now, ironically, the photo-realistic cover for Spectre (Tor, July 1987) by Stephen Laws—featuring some young denizens of that amazing decade in various stages of disappearance—doesn’t exactly scream “Horror! Terror! Dismemberment!” So why pick it up?

Because that's precisely what struck me about the cover, thanks to the talents of J.K. Potter, a renowned artist who’s illustrated countless volumes of horror fiction: its utter lack of tacky tasteless imagery (aside from an oversize sweater or two). I was drawn to Spectre because it promised, perhaps, quiet chilling scares, rather than the full-on assault of so much ’80s horror, often done with all the finesse of Leatherface working his saw. Did the novel deliver on its promise of quiet horror? Actually, no: Laws’ novel is filled with tentacles and teeth, torn limbs and slashed throats, abhorrent rituals and hungry gods… but it’s all done with the finesse of Hannibal Lecter preparing you dinner.

1986 UK hardcover

Not quite a coming-of-age story, Spectre introduces the reader to a group of inseparable friends from Byker, a blue-collar town in Newcastle in the northeast of England. Although they grew up together, and dubbed themselves the Byker Chapter, Laws doesn’t spend too much time detailing their childhoods like, say, Stephen King; he flashbacks mainly on their university years a decade ago. It’s the present, as they enter their 30s, that Laws is concerned with. The horrific death of one of the Chapter opens the novel, as Phil Stuart languishes drunkenly in his flat, TV and radio blaring to vanquish the fear and depression that has plagued him for weeks. A photograph of the last night the Byker Chapter spent together comforts Phil, a charm against his panic, but it works no longer: unbelievably, he seems to be fading from the photograph. He knows that can mean only one thing. And alas, he is correct.

After Phil’s introductory demise, we meet our protagonist Richard Eden, drinking with his memories at a nightclub called the Imperial. He’s 10 years older than the others partying in this disco, which was once a movie theater at which he and the others in the Byker Chapter saw many a Hammer horror film in the 1960s (Laws has dedicated Spectre to Peter Cushing). Richard’s wife has left him and her new boyfriend has humiliated him, and soon he will learn one of his old friends has been murdered horribly. Employed as a lecturer at a college, his coworkers are still sexist morons, and the one person he hopes to feel a connection with, the beautiful and smart Diane Drew, susses him as an emotional wreck. When Richard pulls out his own copy of that Byker Chapter photo, he sees Phil is gone… and so now is another, Derek Robson. It all makes Richard think of the “spectre,” an inside joke between the friends, a word used as shorthand for all the horrible things that could go wrong in one’s life, whether a schoolyard bully or an absent parent, a police siren in the night or, indeed, the deaths of one’s old schoolmates.

NEL reprint, 1994

What better way to get back on one’s feet than to get drunk and then investigate the death of one’s former mate? Richard enlists the help of a colleague of Derek’s, who coincidentally was also Derek’s landlord. Together they pay a visit to the scene of the crime—and so begins one of the more effective scenes of horror I’ve read recently. I read it one morning over coffee before work, and was excited at how convincing Laws presents and pulls off the two men’s encounter with—wait for it—a ventriloquist’s dummy. What could have been laughable is rendered with a physical realism and dream logic. It happens about 50 pages in, and while I was quite enjoying Spectre up to that point, it was this sequence that convinced me Laws truly knew how write a horror novel: his characters were real enough, with just the right amount of back story to explain motivation and relationship, while his skill in offering up the horror genre goodies as well was rather an unexpected treat. I spent my whole day at work marveling over that scene in my head, eager to get back to the tale and see what else Laws had in store.

It’s obvious that Laws has based these characters’ experiences on his own, and ably conveys it in these pages; the Imperial must be a real place as well, I decided (and the author’s postscript proved me right). The characters that work there could be people you'd actually meet: young single-mother bartender Angie; Josh, who hides his true nature from mates; and doorman/bouncer Paul, exploiting his "power" over anyone he dislikes (which is mostly everyone). Too many horror paperbacks seem written by people who have no ability to capture the real world, the one of friends and lovers and colleagues, work and play, “writers” who don’t care about character or plot but only the next shock. If these authors realized that shock is heightened only when we care about characters, have some insight into what they fear, what they hold dear, what loss will mean to them...

Sphere Books, 1988 

Richard now realizes he must track down the other people in that photo, old friends he hasn’t been in touch with for years. Drinking again at the Imperial (lots of drinking in this one, which I totally dig), he is surprised to see Diane arrive with some friends. They engage in some banter that isn’t embarrassing at all to the reader, and find they actually rather like one another. When Diane reveals that her mother had been a psychic, Richard dares to tell her about what’s going on his life… and it doesn’t scare her off. She offers to help him track down the other people in the photo, three men and the lone woman, Pandora Ellison. But this proves unnecessary; returning from work one evening to Richard’s home, they are met by two men in his doorway: Joe McFarlen and Stan “the Man” Staftoe, two more of the Byker Chapter. They’ve all been depressed, feeling trapped and hunted, and have tracked Richard down first. All are determined to get to the bottom of the Photo of the Disappearing Chums.

Memory is one of the strangest tools of the human brain; Laws literalizes its tenuous quality using that photograph. Music, too, evokes the powerful sense of our past, emotional cues buried deep and forgotten but brought to instant life the moment, as here, “Layla” is heard (he uses it to punctuate and underline various scenes, and this well before Scorsese used it the same way in Goodfellas). It’s this kind of personal sentiment that lends depth to his tale; it reminded me of when one dreams of memories of things that never happened, thus lending one's actual dream a palpable sense of heartbreak. The survivors of the Byker Chapter are racing against something worse than heartbreak, of course.

Laws in 1985

Along the way we learn that Pandora had told each of the men that she loved him alone and wanted to sleep with him, and then she did. She broke each of their hearts, unbeknownst to the others, and moved back to her parents and broke off any contact with the Bykers. Eventually, after much horror and death—all exquisitely rendered—Richard, Stan, and Diane arrive in the Cornish port town of Mevagissey, looking for Pandora’s family. Which they find, and then learn the answer to Pandora’s deceit and departure. It’s a doozy: Greek myth and occult orgies, an Aleister Crowley wannabe and an unholy motherhood, and a vision of humanity extinct. Now that’s a horror novel!

French paperback, 1992

In every way, Spectre is a success, and I was delighted that a book I bought on a whim, solely because of its cover art, turned out to be such a pleasure to read. Stephen Laws doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, and many scenes and characters are comfortably familiar. But his prose presents fresh insights, his depiction of English life and streets and architecture authentic and gritty. Best of all, he never hesitates to ramp up the horror with a vivid eye for the grotesque, and a ready pen to describe it: from a sludge monster rising from a developing tray in a photo lab, to a clay sculpture coming to life and embracing its creator; from a stuffed grizzly bear in a museum exhibit mauling a man in his own office, to electric-blue tentacles shooting from a TV screen; from an old woman with no face and a bloody gash for a mouth who explains all to the intrepid survivors, to a blood-drenched finale on the dance floor reflected in the glittering glass of a revolving disco ball—Laws lays on the ’80s horror good and thick.

But not too thick; Spectre doesn’t even reach 300 pages, and can be speedily read in a day or three, which was another thing I appreciated about the novel. In that '80s era of bloated bestsellers, paperbacks with over-large type, and novellas padded out to novel length to give merely the impression of value for money, a sleek torpedo of a horror novel like Spectre is a welcome addition to the genre.

(This post originally appeared on

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Oh It Feels Like Dying

Can't find any information about Oh, It Feels Like Dying, a novel by someone called J.J. Madison. It was reprinted several times through the 1970s under the wildly imaginative title The Thing, with requisite references to The Exorcist and The Other on the covers. In 1978, the publisher simply copped an image of actress Anouska Hempel from Hammer's Scars of Dracula (1970), subbing a lurid tagline for the "glittering world" one of the first two paperbacks. According to Vault of Evil, whatever the title it is essentially only a (terrible, at that) porno novel dressed up as horror. Alas, what could have been!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Someone Else Was Living in Her Body

Don't know anything at all about Anima, a 1971 novel by one Marie Buchanan and originally titled Greenshards. There's a whole Wikipedia article on it but it looks all spoiler-y. I dig the blue/brown/green eyes and yet find it odd that the paperback celebrates the fact that it's from the same publisher as The Other!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

More of the Evil Eighties Series

Be sure to check out my latest review in Tor's Evil Eighties series; it's of a novel by a writer new to me, England's Stephen Laws. His 1986 work Spectre was pure '80s horror joy!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks by Richard Christian Matheson(1987): Do the Ultra Twist

Long before Joe Hill made horror a family tradition, Richard Christian Matheson was born of legendary Richard Matheson and began cranking out short-short genre fiction that appeared in The Twilight Zone and Night Cry magazines and 1980s anthologies edited by Charles L. Grant, Dennis Etchison, and Stuart David Schiff. While his name alone could have gotten him published, Matheson garnered much attention in the field on his own skill for stripping his stories to the absolute bone, with some consisting solely of one-word sentences or very nearly that. During an era in which horror showed a tendency to bloat and stuffing, some editors and readers found Matheson's pared-down work refreshing, while still maintaining edge and bite. For a short while he was aligned with the splatterpunks, mostly because he was young and had a background in television (you know--so modern) and palled around with Skipp, Spector, Schow, et. al. My first experience with him was in 1986's Cutting Edge, which included "Vampire." It's just two pages of:

In the '80s I found it quite striking, and the title is more metaphor than literal. Today, I dunno, it seems more gimmicky than powerful. Which is the problem with Matheson's whole style of clipped brevity: does it engender more chills for the reader, is it essential to the story to be told so? What's frustrating about this wildly uneven collection (first published by Scream/Press in 1987, Tor Books paperback July 1988) is that the style is in service to stories that are threadbare and obvious, rife with twists and fillips that depend only on leaving out crucial details. Oh, the servant is a human and the served is a robot! Oh, they're not people, they're endangered whales! Oh, the little girl is death itself! If he'd just told us that stuff at the beginning then maybe there'd be an interesting story. Stories often end just when they should be beginning. They seem like tales told inside-out, writerly warm-up exercises to get to the good stuff. Except that never really happens, not like I remembered from first reading Scars in the early '90s.

Too many scenarios are redolent of moldy "Twilight Zone" and "Night Gallery" tropes: beware "Sentences," "Obsolete," "Intruder," "Beholder," "Incorporation." Did Rod Serling come over and babysit a young Matheson?! Treacly beyond endurance, "Holiday" rolls out a real Santa Claus, while the 60-page teleplay for an episode of the Steven Spielberg-produced '80s TV anthology "Amazing Stories" is well-nigh unreadable. Ballplaying kids and their grampas and dopey dogs in a Norman Rockell town... oh god, spare me. Please. Try to read "Cancelled" without cringing at the ridiculous slangy stream-of-consciousness and labored satire of crass network television shows. "Conversation Piece" was done with more subtle chills, sincerity, and thoughtfulness by Michael Blumlein with his "Bestseller." Graphic unsettling violence rears an ugly head--or ugly bump--in "Goosebumps," a bit of meta-horror that would be silly were it not for the image of a guy stabbing a butcher knife into his own mouth. It's still silly but now it makes you wince, so...

Is it ironic that "Graduation," which I'd read in Whispers, is probably Matheson's best work, and it was his first published? Written with strength and style and its only gimmick is the letter-writer's references to "you-know-who" and even on this second read I have no idea who that's supposed to be. Unreliable narrators can be great devices for horror but not when the reader has no way to grasp the truth. Still, I found it vivid and unsettling; "Graduation" has a precision that briefer works lack. Other standout works--the aforementioned "Vampire," "Mr. Right," "Red," "Dead End"--can be found in various anthologies. Editors chose wisely (Paul Sammon included the broiling, LA's burning, high-pressure radio-DJ nightmare "Hell" in Splatterpunks). I believe it was "Red" that got Matheson attention in the first place, and how could it not? It's about SPOILER a guy picking up parts of his daughter's mangled corpse off the road after he accidentally dragged her behind his car. Of course Matheson doesn't spell that out like I just did and while it's pretty shocking it kind of stretches the boundaries of belief. Would the police and EMTs even allow that?!

When you look at Matheson's TV-ography as a writer, it's prolific but the quality is actually rather dismal. Highlights include such well-loved but not terribly brilliant shows like "Three's Company," "Knight Rider," "The A-Team," and "The Incredible Hulk," as well as not so-well-loved and not terribly brilliant shows like "B.J. and the Bear" and "The Powers of Matthew Star." With that in mind, the horror stories make more sense: they're not changing the world, they're just entertaining you for 22 or 45 minutes or so. But they're entertaining you not because they've got a new vision; they're entertaining you because it's the familiar dressed up in unfamiliar garb. The only raison d'ĂȘtre is that twist, that surprise, so anything that would get in the way of that--character, dialogue, realism--is jettisoned. As I said, perhaps in the 1980s a writer could have gotten away with this--and obviously, he did!--but today, as a much more experienced reader and fan, I find Matheson's approach to horror fiction incredibly jejune.

I began to think of this collection as high-concept horror: ideas that seem intriguing at first but are little more than tiny gimmicks, not actual stories about real people and situations. His penchant for writing stories made up of one-word sentences is interesting at first, but when it's over you think, That's all? Despite the introductory encomiums from Stephen King and Dennis Etchison, I was very little impressed with Scars, and despite the Matheson family name, found it not very distinguishing at all.