Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series VII, ed. by Gerald W. Page (1979)

Don't worry, TMHF readers, that you've missed my reviews of previous entries in the long-running anthology series The Year's Best Horror Stories; this one, Series VII (DAW Books, July 1979), is the first one I've read in its entirety. I own only about half of the entire run, dipping into them here and there but never committing to a full volume. Till now, and I couldn't even tell you why this one, exactly. Sure, the cover featuring a ghoulish repast by the esteemed Michael Whelan is striking to the eye...

During this era, many paperback anthologies still included "dark fantasy" under the rubric of horror (DAW Books was a science fiction/fantasy publisher). "Dark fantasy" means to me fantasy, of course, but with major elements of the macabre and grotesque, with a fair amount of violence, usually with a medieval or mythic atmosphere and setting. The language too is often archaic, formal, stilted even. There may be sword 'n' sorcery going on as well. A few years later, Charles L. Grant used that term "dark fantasy" to describe his own stories and novels of subtle modern unease, but I prefer "quiet horror" for his brand of fiction. I say all this to simply state I'm not a fan of this kind of dark fantasy, and feel I don't quite have the critical acumen to judge dark fantasy. I tend to skim stories in that vein.

In Series VII, four stories fit this subgenre: "Amma" by Charles Saunders (above), "The Secret" by Jack Vance, "Divers Hands" by Darrell Schweitzer, and "Nemesis Place" by David Drake. I was unfamiliar with Saunders but liked well enough his West African griot's tale of a woman's unlikely secret identity; its comfortable switch-up ending evokes fables we first heard in childhood. Vance's story of Pacific islanders who know, unconsciously, that to leave their home is to encounter a strange wide world the knowledge of which may not be welcome. Again, something like a child's tale.

Schweitzer (above), well-known as a critic and editor of genre fiction, contributes a longish work never before published. Knights, horses, swords, chainmail, maidens... no thanks. But Schweitzer writes strong prose, knows his way around violence and creeping dread, so I think "Divers Hands" will appeal greatly to those whose appreciation of such works is greater than mine. Drake's "Nemesis Place" contains the phrase "trader in spices" and that pretty much was quits for me, though I read the last paragraph and it seemed pretty bloody, so cool I guess.

Anyway, on to the real horrors.

An early work from one of the 1980s greats, Dennis Etchison, "The Pitch" is a pitch-black bit of unexpected vengeance by a kitchen cutlery salesman. Ouch. Etchison is a master of the modern convenience and its impact on our lives. "The Night of the Tiger" is a very minor work from Stephen King; it appeared in neither of his classic collections Night Shift and Skeleton Crew. King's authorial voice is strong, and the circus setting is convincing, but the final twist is rote. I however enjoyed the relaxed charms of Manly Wade Wellman's tale of a lovely vampire lady, "Chastel."

Autumnal sadness/grief/heartbreak/terror of Charles L. Grant's "Hear Me Now, Sweet Abbey Rose" is bittersweet. A sensitive family man protects his daughters against some drunken louts but the final horror is almost mean-spirited. One of Grant's finest. Another familiar name in any late '70s/1980s horror anthology is Ramsey Campbell, and his offering "Heading Home" may elicit a groan thanks to its pun, but it works as horror and as comedy. TMHF favorite Lisa Tuttle's "In the Arcade" has a woman lost in a lonely nightmare, looking back over a shameful racial history. It didn't appear in her amazing collection A Nest of Nightmares; not sure why, maybe it's the slight SF twist.

Ah, I forgot that the fine "Sleeping Tiger" from Tanith Lee (above) is also dark fantasy: a Brave Prince named Sky Tiger happens upon two lovelies in the forest named Orchid Moon and Lotus Moon. They bring him to a tower and perhaps promise paradise; Venerable Priest appears and puts the kibosh on that. That final twist is impolitic. "Intimately, with Rain" is Janet Fox's modern fable of ancient guilt. Love the ending for this one, even if I've read and seen it elsewhere.

The two final tales are, I feel, the best of the lot: superb in style and sensibility, "Collaborating" by Michael Bishop and "Marriage" by Robert Aickman (above) offer the very best in genre fiction. The former is a kind of Cronenbergian medical horror story written with taste and steely-eyed insight (We gave them stereophonic sweet nothings and the nightmares they couldn't have by themselves); I don't want to spoil it for first-time readers. The latter is another of Aickman's precisely-penned tales of daily English life and the traps it holds in store for those who attempt to go against it (He glared brazenly at the universe). Fantastic works, and two of the best short stories I've read this year.

Editor Gerald W. Page was involved with Year's Best Horror Stories for several years. In his intro he rightly states "You  never know where a good imaginative story will take you, whether it's science fiction, fantasy or horror..." and notes that good writing is just good writing. That's true, certainly, but good writing isn't my only criteria; I find I prefer my horror to be generally modern. But that's between me and me, and I think many other readers will find Series VII a worthwhile addition to their shelves of horror fiction...

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ammie, Come Home by Barbara Michaels (1968): That Ghastly Thing in the Parlor

It may not surprise you when I say I only read Ammie, Come Home because I really dug the cover art for this 1969 Fawcett Crest paperback. The eerie landscape and the floating girl, her barefoot vulnerability and that blackening sky beyond, really struck me in a positive way, even though 1960s Gothic novels are not my thing. Venerable paperback artist Harry Bennett hooked me into reading a novel I never would have otherwise! Well-done, sir.

Barbara Michaels
is one of the pseudonyms of Barbara Mertz (1927 - 2013), a prolific writer and Egyptologist; her most famous nom de plume was Elizabeth Peters, under which she wrote like endless dozens of mysteries I remember from my old used bookstore days. Ammie is a pleasant enough read, nothing earth-shattering, perhaps even too mild for some contemporary readers. Here and there a jagged edge appears, a moment or a scene of black dread and emotional distress, a slow build-up of the supernatural; the evil deeds of the past wending their way through history only to end up at the tag-end of the groovy generation-gapped 1960s!

Ruth Bennett, widowed, mid-40s, lives in a stately Georgetown, Washington DC home built in the 1800s, inherited from an elderly aunt. Her college-aged niece Sara is boarding with her while attending a nearby school; the novel begins with Sara introducing her aunt Ruth to Professor Pat MacDougal. Big, blunt, brilliant, Ruth isn't sure she likes him. Right off the bat I'm a little iffy on this set-up because it's the stuff of romance novels, in which the two foreordained lovers hate each other on sight... until they don't. It's a generic convention I personally can't abide. Fortunately Michaels doesn't dwell on it overmuch. Prof has a tendency to bloviate and condescend, no surprise, but will prove a formidable foe in the soon-to-come battle against otherworldly forces. Also along is young Bruce, one of Sara's friends, a not-really-boyfriend who today would probably bitch and moan about his being friend-zoned. He's kind of a hipster doofus too, but like the Prof, he really steps up when strange things are afoot.

A black smoky shadow appears in a dream of Ruth's one night, but, as one other unlucky lady once put it, "This is no dream, this is really happening!" She hears someone calling "Come home, Sammie" and thinks maybe a neighbor is looking for their cat. This event is set aside as MacDougal invites Ruth to his mother's home for a society soirée, the main event of which is, can you dig it, a séance. Ruth thinks it's a scam, this medium Madame Nada conjuring up long-dead folks from the Revolutionary War (still kind of a big deal in tony Washingtonian circles). What's funny in a modern problems way is that Ruth invites both Mac's mom and the medium to a dinner party in her own home! Motivated more by social duty than true warm-heartedness, this dinner party turns into one bizarre affair. No good deed, etc.

Meredith Press hardcover, 1968

After a discussion on the paranormal between Bruce (he accepts it), Mac (he doesn't), and Ruth (she's unsure), Mac parses Ruth well: "You are fastidious," he tells her. "You dislike the whole idea, not because it's irrational but because it's distasteful." Oh snap! The author will well note the strain  supernatural occurrences put on daily living; it's difficult to keep up appearances when one's niece is suddenly a conduit to a crime committed in one's own house two hundred years earlier. Bruce endeavors in good faith to plumb the mystery, researching Ruth's home in town archives while Mac argues from the viewpoint of scientific rationality. Poor Sara, when not being possessed, kind of lounges about in a miniskirt, getting disapproving looks from  her aunt and opposite ones from the Prof (ew!). Every now and again she'll pop in with a stray observation (it's not Sammie, it's Ammie!) but otherwise she's only a pawn in the possession game. Unspoiled, modern, guileless; she's around but not all there, I suppose, a vessel for the plot but not in and of herself; how could she have character if she is unsullied?

 Uber-lame reprints

Experienced travelers in the realm of horror/supernatural/occult fictions will recognize familiar notes in the story. I find this rather comforting. I appreciated the author's efforts at detailing the banal everydayness that co-exists with the crazy: food, traffic, clothing, cleaning. The turbulent 1960s are noted here and there as Ruth is ambivalent about Bruce and his college-bred revolutionary airs and his designs on Sara. Ammie is also, as many of these pop novels are, charmingly dated: endless miniskirts, dudes with long hair, Ruth's old-lady attitudes (she's only in her 40s! She's never eaten pizza!), Bruce's hip-academic pretensions. Sometimes this aspect is less charming: gender normativity/misogyny out the wahoo in Prof's not-so-subtle lechery, and the time Bruce declares there are "women you rape and women you marry." Yee-ow.

Barbara Mertz (1927 - 2013)
aka Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters

As the origins of the possession become clearer, our narrative becomes tauter: Bruce learns more about the home and its literal foundations ("the whole house is rotten with hate"). A friendly Father figure is enlisted to aid in an exorcism and this goes poorly. Then the old Prof isn't so above-it-all as he'd like to appear; is he part of what seems to be a historical reenactment from beyond? The back-story is satisfyingly unsettling; you'll agree it's a crime that deserves retribution through the ages. Ammie, Come Home ends on a note of sentiment, but it is only the beginning in a three-book series that Michaels continued into the 1990s. I found the novel to be decidedly okay and won't be reading the rest; go ahead and check it out if you think you'll dig a quaint snapshot of the supernatural '60s and a helluva generation gap.

Postscript: for two other takes on the novel, check out Dark Chateaux and The Midnight Room. And thanks for the pix guys!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Clive Barker's Books of Blood: The Berkley Editions, 1986

June 1986 saw the first American paperback edition of the first volume of Clive Barker's unparalleled short-story collection Books of Blood. Vols. II and III followed later in the year (for those keeping score, August and October respectively). Sure, the covers were adorned with rubbery face-masks but there's no denying the power within, and the sober back-cover copy still delights. These are essential horror reads. As fellow Liverpudlian Ramsey Campbell writes in his intro:  

When it comes to the imagination, the only rules should be one's own instincts, 
and Clive Barker's never falters.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Death Valley of the Dolls

Behold the glory that is the cover and stepback art for a novel I only discovered yesterday, The Transformation, by Canadian thriller writer Joy Fielding. This Playboy Press paperback dates from the distant year of 1976. It's obviously a take on the era-defining Manson murder spree with a Jackie Susann angle and not a supernatural horror novel; I got the photos (art by Rob Sauber) from Groovy Age of Horror, who reviewed it years back. Looks like this edition is going for a few bucks, so alas I won't be buying a copy anytime soon. But it gives me hope that there are still vintage horror-related paperbacks yet to be discovered...

The stench of slaughter
An orgy of Satanism and death

Thursday, June 9, 2016

In Trance

"Take one tablespoon of Patty Hearst, a soupçon of Rev. Moon, a peck of bad writing, and a vat of bad taste—and,voilà, you have this stink-stew..."—Kirkus Reviews, Feb 1977

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Smoke by Ruby Jean Jensen (1988): When the Smoke is Going Down

It may surprise you to learn that on my used bookstore searches I very rarely see any of the dozen or so titles Ruby Jean Jensen (1927 - 2010) had published by Zebra Books throughout the 1980s and '90s. Guess they've become collectibles going by the inflated prices being asked for used copies on Amazon. Then on my recent trip to the Iliad Bookshop I happened upon a copy of Smoke (Zebra, Jan 1988) that was in acceptable condition, for $1.50.

I should have paid less. They should have paid me to take it off their shelves.

If you read Smoke on the sly as a curious pre-teen you might have fond memories of it, but for a 45-year-old adult man with some experience reading horror, the novel offers about as much substance as its title. While not unutterably wretched as that other Zebra perennial William W. Johnstone, nothing in Smoke offered any surprise or delight, nor even any tacky thrills. 

Jensen's prose is workmanlike, serviceable, obvious; if you were a creative writing teacher you wouldn't fail her, because the grammar and punctuation seem to be mostly correct and there are neither sentence fragments nor run-ons. However suspense, metaphor, analogy, insight, wit, humor: such writer’s tools seem to be missing from Ms. Jensen's creative toolbox. My god it's all dull dull dull and dry as mummy dust. 

I will say the story is told in a plain, straightforward manner and the characters seem to have motivation, I guess. For me though it was an enormous uphill trudge to even skim Smoke.

You can guess the ending too of course. Books like Smoke and writers like Jensen simply are not, nor ever have been, my kind of horror whatsoever. I avoided these skull-adorned novels back in the day because... well, because my impression was, going by the ones I've read, precisely correct. I feel kinda bad criticizing Smoke for what it's not—a novel for an adult—and yet I have to be honest: it's not good or fun or interesting, and every book should be at least one of those things. Smoke alas is none.

Though I do think some of her covers are fun