Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Horrors, ed. by Alan Ryan (1986): Midnight... All Night

Happy Halloween, one and all! On this day of days I offer up a mixed bag of treats: Halloween Horrors (Charter Books/Oct 1987), one of Alan Ryan's several horror anthologies from the 1980s. Each short story is set at Halloween, of course, which allows for mining of all its myth and legend for the background details. You'll recognize all the familiar faces tonight, masked or unmasked, peering out at you from the pages, eager to have you step inside for a surprise, take one, won't you, or two, maybe three or more...

1988 Sphere paperback, UK

First up is "He'll Come Knocking at Your Door" by Robert McCammon. I've read this one before, in his 1990 anthology Blue World. It has a decent setup and payoff (intimate payment for townspeople's good fortune required by... someone) but, again, suffers from what I like least about McCammon: his square, earnest, almost dopey style; he's the John Denver of '80s horror. If he just took his gloves off more often, like he does in the stories final images—and even those could've been honed to a sharper edge–I'd like his stuff more. Ah well. On to "Eyes" from Charles L. Grant, a writer I can appreciate in the abstract but in the literal act of reading his stories, not always. But here his allusive, understated style fits a tale of grief and guilt and horror wrapped up tight together. A father can't forget or forgive when it comes to the death of his disabled son. The kicker is ironic, tragic, unshakeable. I think I'm gonna call this kinda thing heartbreak horror.

  Strieber: Hates Nixon

Whitley Strieber's "The Nixon Mask" is a droll satire of that ol' crook Richard Nixon. As a peek into the machinations of high office it's kind of funny, but Tricky Dick's paranoia gets the best of him. I liked the tone of this one, absurdist humor turning into horror, Ballardian big deals going on and on that have nothing to do with the people supposedly served and in fact the Watergate break-in is okayed on this eve. What happens when Dick Nixon wears a Dick Nixon mask? Oh, it's riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I dug this one myself but I don't know how much mileage it'll have to a reader born after, say, the Carter administration. "Samhain Feis" by Peter Tremayne delves into Celtic Halloween lore, has some nice scenery in the desolate Irish countryside, a bit of deserved comeuppance in the end. No biggie.

"Trickster," from Steve Rasnic Tem, hits true emotional notes absent from other works here. A man mourns his dead brother, who from childhood was an incorrigible practical joker, distrusted by his own family thanks to truly horrible pranks (like pretending to be dead or even pretend-killing a baby relative. Hilarious!). Murdered on Halloween night a year earlier, our protagonist reminisces about how their lives growing up and growing apart. This Halloween he thinks—improbably, impossibly—he sees his brother out cavorting in a Halloween parade in San Francisco, where he'd died, and spends a hallucinatory night chasing after this phantom. "Trickster" feels like a story about real people, written by someone who's been there. It's sad at moments and that final trick really stings. Another case of heartbreak horror.

1986 Doubleday hardcover

Editor Ryan's own contribution, "The Halloween House," doesn't display the careful sophistication of his other tales I've enjoyed; I suppose that wouldn't have fit this story of randy teens exploring a haunted house. An original idea there at the end, absurd even, but some nice horror imagery of a house, er, melting; otherwise it's as trite as its title. Guy N. Smith's "Hollow Eyes" gets a big no from me, some old dad complaining about his daughter's shifty, ugly boyfriend, searching for them during a Halloween rave-up, all wrong, no go, return to sender. "Three Faces of the Night" is Craig Shaw Gardner's  ambitious and complex tale, told in three time frames, of love and college parties. The two don't mix.
"Pumpkin" from crime writer Bill Pronzini (pictured) delves into Halloween and harvest lore, not bad but not memorable.

Weird Tales scribe and HPL pal Frank Belknap Long gives us "Lover in the Wildwood," a tale of criminal lust in the backwoods; somewhere I can here the Crypt Keeper cackling and I wish someone would just shut him up. "Apples" is Ramsey Campbell's minor chiller about kids stealing fruit from an old man's garden. Campbell gets kids' dynamics right and the climax offers a nice frisson of nausea and creepiness, I mean I hate raw apples too (She'd spat out the apple and goggled at it on the floor Something was squirming in it). Not one of Campbell's best but a highlight of this anthology. The concluding story is from Robert Bloch, is a mean-spirited little gem of a neighborhood's trick-or-treat session gone horribly wrong. "Pranks" seems light-hearted at first but grows in menace till its great reveal removes all doubt of malicious intent.

Okay then, now for the final trick: for my money the star of this Halloween Horrors is Michael McDowell's (pictured above) "Miss Mack." The first of his few short stories, it is as sure and capable as any of his novels, simply condensed to an essence of cruel terror. I read it several years ago and it's haunted me ever since, which is surprisingly rare. Our Miss Mack is a beloved schoolteacher in Pine Cone, Alabama (also the setting of The Amulet) who befriends young Miss Faulk, recently hired by Principal Hill. But Principal has designs on this lovely innocent girl and cannot bear the fast, intimate friendship between the two women. Stoked by jealousy and, okay, yes, the occult secrets of his mother, Principal Hill puts a hex on Miss Mack. McDowell writes so well, his quiet evocation of locale and character so confident and matter-of-fact, you won't want the story to end. And in a way it doesn't. The final sickening, maddening horror upends all human notions of time and place, and without those, what are we? Lost in a night that never ends looking for a place that does not exist. When she waked, it was night—still Halloween night. "Miss Mack" has become a favorite of mine from the '80s era.

1988 Severn House hardcover, UK

While enjoyable overall, I do wish Halloween Horrors had a few more tricks to play on readers; many of the stories are slight, mild, unremarkable. Still, a cheap copy is worth searching for, as a couple treats indeed have a razor blade tucked within...

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Look to the Sky Just Before You Die

Prolific beyond belief, William W. Johnstone was born in Missouri on October 28, 1938. Although he didn't begin writing till the late '70s, his Zebra paperbacks were all over bookstore shelves for decades. His '80s horror novels featured some of the grodiest, gaudiest covers of the era. 1992's Them, however, is a subtler example, thanks to artist Richard Newton.

There were dozens of westerns and men's adventure novels from his pen as well. Johnstone died in 2004, yet somehow still manages to write and publish new books...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Les Daniels Born Today in 1943

Born on this date in 1943 was Les Daniels, the creator of the vampire Don Sebastian de Villanueva, who found his evil was often outshone by humanity's historical horrors, in a series of novels published from the late '70s to the early '90s. He was also a horror and comix expert of some note (Daniels, not Don Sebastian). Daniels died in 2011. I read No Blood Spilled several years ago and really dug it and look forward to reading these other titles.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon (1973): What No Man May Know Nor Woman Tell

All I recall about my reading of this paperback of the bestselling Harvest Home (Fawcett Crest/June 1974) in the late 1980s is that there was one scene that left me breathless with horror, but I have never been able to remember specifically what happened in that scene. Rereading it recently proved no help, as there were several scenes that now left me breathless with horror. Well, maybe not breathless exactly, but in a state of extreme suspense. Actor-turned-author Thomas Tryon (1926-1991) continued his success after 1971's The Other, another tale of quiet down-home horror.

Long a well-known pre-Stephen King bestselling horror novel, I assume many readers of TMHF will be familiar with Harvest Home's set-up: New York ad-exec Ned Constantine wants to paint full-time, so he and his family (wife Beth and sulky asthmatic teen daughter Kate) buy, through some coincidental luck, an 18th century home in New England's Cornwall Coombe. This pocket of "heart's desire" is of course as picturesque a country town as one could imagine, a veritable rural Shangri-La of endless cornfields and dark woods. 

The Constantines settle in, welcomed by some, looked at askance by others, but generally find things satisfying. Life revolves around corn here, everything is tied to its cycles ("the eternal return"); these people are an ancient agrarian culture living in the 20th century. Most welcoming to them is aged matriarch Widow Fortune, a bespectacled black-skirted dowager who dispenses down-home wisdom and tends her farm with the energy of someone half her age. She speaks in that maddening country way in which answers only raise more questions.

"Just what is Harvest Home?" I asked.
"Harvest Home?" [the Widow Fortune] peered at me through her spectacles. "Why, I don't think I ever heard a pusson ask that before. Everybody knows what Harvest Home is."
"I don't."
"That's what comes of bein' a newcomer. Harvest Home's when the last of the corn comes in, when the harvestin's done and folks can relax count their blessin's... It means success and thanks and all good things. And this year's the seventh year."
"The seventh year?"
"Ayuh. For six years there's just feastin' and carryin' on but the seventh's a special one. After the huskin' bee there's a play, and—well the seventh year's particular for us. Harvest Home goes back to the olden times."
"When does it come?" "She looked at me as if I were indeed a strange species. "Never heard a pusson ask that either. Harvest Home comes when it comes
all depends."

Ned and family learn all about this Harvest Home business as they meet the inhabitants of Cornwall Coombe. Tryon does an able job of introducing characters and keeping them distinct personalities. There is Justin Hooke, the Harvest Lord (a traditional role in the festival with many perks and only one downside); his wife Sophie, chosen to be the Corn Maiden; Tamar Penrose, seductive postmistress who spells trouble for Ned, mother of little Missy, creepy little Missy who makes creepy little pronouncements about the future; Jack Stump, local ragamuffin man with a big mouth; the Soakses family, dangerous hillbillies out in them thar woods; Robert Dodd, a blind, retired college professor; and Worthy Pettinger, a rebellious, reluctant teen who has been chosen (by Missy in a creepy little scene) to be the next Harvest Lord. 

You'll spend a lot of time with these folks, and more. Bit by tiny bit Tryon ratchets up mystery and foreboding, and the downhill swing begins when poor Jack Stump gets his... well, I won't spoil it.

Ned becomes close with young Worthy, who may have innocent designs on Kate, and finds that Worthy is none too happy about being the next Harvest Lord. It's more than just teenage surliness; Worthy seems almost panicked and eventually leaves town, trusting only Ned. This is a huge disgrace to the Pettinger family. And the more Ned tries to learn about Cornwall Coombe, the more mystified he is, especially after he notices the gravestone of one Gracie Everdeen, outside the cemetery proper. What happened to her? How did she disrupt Harvest Home years earlier? Did she really kill herself? This unsettling tale swirls beneath everything that happens, a dark secret Ned pieces together himself.

 TV-movie tie-in, Fawcett Crest 1978

The hinge of Harvest Home is that readers must be in as much perplexity as Ned himself; I'm not sure they are, at least today. Those worldly smarts of a city slicker, his arrogance and condescension, mis-serve him in the environs of Cornwall Coombe and he misapprehends much, till it's too late. Of course. It wouldn't be a horror novel if he figured out what Harvest Home really was all about 20 pages in, would it?! The long climax I think works, secrets and horrors and suspicions piling up till a final reveal that satisfies, and must have even more shocking in the early '70s. Tryon writes a composed line of prose, thoughtful, literate, upper-class; this lends a gravitas to the proceedings which enhances the horrors.

Relying a little too easily on cultural stereotypes—the simple ways of countryfolk, their unthinking allegiance to tradition, their lusty women, their secrets and their distrust of outsiders as well as insiders who don't conform, the bloody rituals of paganism—Harvest Home could seem dated to the modern general reader. Gender politics may grate: Beth and Kate are somewhat under-characterized, Tamar is an evil vamp, yet Widow Fortune emerges as one of the great characters of '70s horror fiction (no surprise she was portrayed by the venerable screen legend Bette Davis in the TV movie adaptation). While touted as a horror novel, Harvest Home is not just that; the tactics of suspense loom larger than generic horror conventions. Some might not have patience for the hundreds of pages of country livin'.

Those looking for a roller coaster ride of shock and violence would well remember that this novel predates King and his progeny on the bestseller lists. Aside from a few moments here and there the tone is one of taste—at one point Ned goes to a doctor for fertility test and the exact mechanics of that go completely unmentioned! The lone violent, overheated sex scene, promised in early chapters and delivered near the last, was sure to please adventurous readers who wanted some well-written salaciousness between the hardcovers.

One bit of cleverness I noted on this reread: is the name "Constantine" a little in-joke for the history buff? Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor who converted and stopped the persecution of Christians and heralded its spread over the Western World, hastening the end of pagan rites and worship as he and his heirs destroyed their holy sites. Ned is confounded by the villagers' atavistic beliefs and rather than overcoming them, he is overwhelmed, very nearly killed by the same kind of believers his namesake persecuted: a bit of literary comeuppance, perhaps? Perhaps.

As I said, Tryon takes his time setting up scares but boy does it pay off. This leisurely approach makes Harvest Home that kind of read that's perfect for fall—for summer too if you need to take the heat off—providing hours of cozy chills as the season of the dead approaches, as it does every year, as it will continue, forever, the Eternal Return, for thus it was since the Olden Times.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Horror Fiction Help XVII

Anybody recognize any of these half-remembered short stories and novels?

1. The short story I'm looking for was from a compilation of about 10-12 stories.  I remember the cover was mostly black (big surprise there! ha!) with a small amount of line art in either red or white.  I think red, but I often remember colors wrong. Either way, the art was simple and not painting like. Scrawny teenager who grows into a well-built man over the course of a summer while working at a decrepit factory.  The story spoke about the bad vibes from the factory driving the young man's growth and how his newly strong body was somehow built of evil.  It wasn't really very horrific, but I remember liking some of the analogies and how they were worded.

2. I read this paperback in jr or sr high school sometime between 1976 and 1981.  I think the title was The Dark.  I also think the monster was named Harmon Quaid. The dark was darker than usual, and young ladies were disappearing/being murdered. Found! It's the novelization The Dark.

3. This book was paperback and had a beautifully designed cover the way many of these books had from the 1950's to the 1970's. I do not the date,publisher or author. This book was given to me as a birthday present some fifteen years ago in England when I resided there by a friend who is now deceased. I lost it with four thousand other books,half of our library because of the flood waters of Perfect Storm Sandy. Now,I believe the word Pan may have been a part of the title but I'm not sure. The one significant evidence I can offer of the book cover design is that at the top,not necessarily very top,of the design was what appears to be a naked baby but is actually an infant size man,bald with brown hair or black on the sides and back of his head,but the hair was most relevant on the sides. He had two little devil like horns and if I remember correctly he was smiling.

4.  Story unfolds from a father's perspective as he travels to visit his newly married daughter who was always pretty sharp and had some interesting ambitions, I believe they included some radical ideas involving psychology or something and she was pursuing research, had had some interview tapes or something. He finds her to be a completely different person, instead of his inquisitive, challenging daughter in pursuit of truth (she might have had a controversial thesis she was working on), she has become docile and dull, spending time engaged in domestic pursuits and watching daytime soap operas with her husband and inlaws who are equally boring. Turns out there's a mind-control program/ xperiment going on in this small town. They even have a factory that puts certain chemicals in canned foods, etc. and repackages them. Records are kept in the hospital with color codes and I think the police chief and others are in on it. The father discovers this, not sure how it turns out, I think they start trying to chase him down. Found! It's The Homing by Jeffrey Campbell.

5. I remember it being about this girl who is kidnapped. She's in this old abandoned house with this man that isn't a man...he tells her that Santa rearranged is one point she is tied to a bed and he sticks spikes under her toe nails? I seem to remember that she escaped...I think....I also remember that in the book she reads a book that ends up being about what happens (happened) to her.

6. When I was a kid, there was a paperback that sat with some other books in a hall closet. It had cover art that scared me so much that I dreaded anytime I had to open the door. I don't know the name of the book, but it was probably 1960s and certainly not newer than 1972ish. The cover art had a pair of women's (I think) shoes and the shoes had scary, moaning faces.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Stephen King: The Futura UK Paperbacks

In the mid-1980s and early 1990s about half of Stephen King's books were published in England under the Futura imprint (the others were published by New English Library (home of the redoubtable Guy N. Smith's Crabs series!). The covers, most differing wildly from the American counterparts, ain't too shabby—except that one for The Dead Zone; that's the lamest ever. Oh, and I don't remember any bats in the moonlight in Different Seasons.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Sweet Halloween Swag!

And straight from the publisher! An editor from Penguin Books contacted me a couple weeks ago saying how much he enjoyed this blog and would I be interested in their new horror offerings for the Halloween season? Would I?! These three trade paperbacksThe Case Against Satan by Ray Russell, Perchance to Dream by Charles Beaumont, and Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti— have each been given beautiful new covers that I believe accurately reflect the fictions therein. Thoughtful intros/afterwords are provided by folks like Ray Bradbury, Laird Barron, Jeff Vandermeer, and even William Shatner. These are welcome and affordable editions (the original Ligotti paperbacks from the 1990s are ridiculously expensive today) that will look terrific on your bookshelves. Get ready for some midnight reading...

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Throwback Thursday Yog-Sothothery

(An Amazon review I wrote back at the turn of the century...)

Finally, Howard Phillips Lovecraft seems to be getting some due from the mainstream literary world. First it was that long Joyce Carol Oates essay from 1996 in the New York Review of Books, than it was the "Annotated Lovecraft" updates from Ballantine/Del Rey a couple years later, and now Penguin Classics has seen fit to bestow the American reading public with The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Wow, I can't imagine what readers of Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, and T.S. Eliot will do when confronted with the likes of Yog Sothoth, the Goat with a Thousand Young, The Great Old Ones and that nasty ol' Cthulhu....

Seriously: this stuff is incomparable. Lovecraft's creation of the Cthulhu Mythos (or "Yog-Sothothory" as he referred to it in a charming light-hearted moment) heralded a new age in supernatural fiction. So vivid, so cosmic, so vast and imaginative, it is the equal of Middle Earth, of Oz or Wonderland. HPL's view of humanity and the cosmos is deeply, dark, nihilistic, and he used symbolic structures of his neuroses—political, sexual, racial, dietary—to portray that view.

As for the stories themselves, the cornerstones are "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926) and "The Colour Out of Space" (1927); they will still be read a hundred years hence for their controlled atmosphere of cosmic dread and awe. His skill at evoking a slowly dawning sense of terror is unparalleled in these tales. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (1931)—not too shabbily adapted in a 2002 film as Dagon—and "The Whisperer in Darkness" (1934) are later stories that are a bit wordy but still powerful, unsettling, and unforgettable. Man's place in the cosmos is revealed as paltry and inconsequential; his physical being rendered as mutated and degraded. Space and time become meaningless. The climactic chills will remain with you for ages.

Others in this collection include "Rats in the Walls," "The Outsider" and "The Hound." The latter two reveal his penchant for evoking Poe all too derivatively (although the erstwhile Poppy Z. Brite wrote a reverent Goth-punk update of "The Hound," "And His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood"); "Rats" is one of his major early works, the artist coming into his own.

Lovecraft forced horror and supernatural fiction out of its old world infancy of vampires, ghosts, and devils and into the adult, modern world of a cold, uncaring, nearly malicious universe that we can scarcely comprehend. While Lovecraft's prose at times leaves much to be desired, the power of his imaginings is unique and convincing. This collection belongs on the bookshelf of serious readers everywhere. S.T. Joshi is a marvelous editor and biographer of Lovecraft, and his efforts should not go unheeded. Kudos to Penguin for finally adding H.P. Lovecraft to their catalog of Twentieth Century Classics.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Clive Barker: The Art of Horror

The one and only Clive Barker was born October 5, 1952 in Liverpool. Here's a fantastic video biography from about 1990 or so, judging by his spiky mullet—probably my favorite Barker era, between The Great and Secret Show and Imajica. And remember these comics?! Those were the days!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

And the Dawn Don't Rescue Me

Vampire chronicler Anne Rice was born in New Orleans on this date in 1941. Above is a 1985 reprint of the original 1976 Interview with the Vampire (see earlier paperbacks, with stunning covers, here and here). Below are the later 1980s paperbacks, as she continued the tales of her undead brood and became a mega-bestselling author. I kinda like that they don't look like genre novels, featuring only big bold lettering.

These next three are the UK paperbacks, published by Futura throughout the '80s and early '90s.The cover for this reprint of Interview is the same art as the original 1977 edition.

I loved these books when I read them in the late 1980s. Rich, epic, decadent, thought-provoking and a whole lot of fun, I enjoyed them so much and recall them so fondly I'm rather reluctant to reread them today...

The author in 1979