Thursday, July 28, 2016

Résumé with Monsters by William Browning Spencer (1995): Not My Place in the 9 to 5 World

Perhaps taking its inspiration from the Dell/Abyss line of the early 1990s, RPG publisher White Wolf introduced a line of kinda-sorta horror novels under the imprint Borealis. Beginning in 1994, these well-produced (and ecologically-minded!) paperbacks often featured cover art that resembled Dave McKean's cover art for Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics. At the time I was working in a bookstore in Raleigh, NC, and plenty of their titles caught my eye but, for whatever reason, I never read any (I did buy their reprints of the Borderlands series—with actual McKean cover art). How many times did I pick up a copy of Résumé with Monsters (April 1996), intrigued by that blurb about Woody Allen writing a Cthulhu Mythos novel? Plenty. Finally took the plunge and found William Browning Spencer's novel to be fun, smart, dark, sensitive, and ridiculous in near-equal measures. An engaging read, I enjoyed it more as a quirky little '90s novel than as a serious work of horror fiction.

As a satire of the insane, life-depleting demands office drudge-work makes of its "victims," RwM predated pop-culture giants like Office Space and "The Office," and so it might not have the same bite today as it did 20 years back. The novel uses Mythos ideas and terminology in an almost-too-glib manner at first; this might be a turnoff for some readers. Stick with it: Spencer fleshes the old ideas out with some new ones, giving them a contemporary weight and implication. Not scary or horrifying, mind you, just weighty. Heavy, man.

There's an autobiographical tone to the tale, which is fine with me; this story feels lived: it's set in Austin ("a laid-back town, the last refuge for hordes of aging hippies who drifted up and down the Drag, gray-bearded artifacts who knew all the lyrics to old Leonard Cohen songs"), our protagonist 45-year-old Philip Kenan, who works as a typesetter in a dreary industrial park office run by a micromanaging boss named Pederson, and pines mightily for his ex Amelia Price. Oh, yeah, also he's afraid of ancient encroaching entities Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth.

His coworkers are drones, he has few friends, and his novel he's been writing for years, The Despicable Quest, seems to be unfinishable. Philip, as they say, can't catch a break. Looking for someone to help order his cluttered thoughts, he seeks help in the ads of a weekly paper and there finds Lily Metcalf, an aged hippy who lends a non-judgmental ear. She doesn't blanch when he blurts out that "Hideous, cone-shaped creatures from outer space are going to leap, telepathically, across six hundred million years and destroy human civilization."

Spencer provides flashbacks to Philip's past interspersed them with the present: a father who reads him Weird Tales but who hits Philip's mother when he's drunk; a neighbor who pays him to swim naked in his pool. Philip's first marriage was to Emily, a painter; together they'd lived a perfect kind of late '60s life: listening to Dylan, playing folks instruments, smoking dope, going to political protests in DC, trying to live as artists (he's gonna write a first novel that will make Norman Mailer jealous). This doesn't happen. Emily ODs and dies; Philip ends up at corporate giant Micromeg in Virginia. This is where he meets Amelia. This relationship is mostly wonderful but she hates hates hates the Lovecraftian novel he's working on and what it does to his psyche. Philip and Amelia split too; she heads to Austin and Philip follows, taking another desultory job at Ralph's One-Day Résumés. He and Amelia speak often in guarded, cautious words; she speaks mostly of her poor relationship with her sister, and oh, check it out, she got a job at Pelidyne, another faceless giant whose headquarters suggest hostile takeovers.

One of Philip's coworkers, Helga, is fired for getting physical in an argument with an "I Love Lucy" obsessive named Monica. Helga begins stalking Monica and one day runs her down in the parking lot with her car. Philip is also run down (of course), leg broken, hospitalized. Pederson calls: "If there's some way you could come in..." Unbelievably, Philip does go back to work before he's fully healed, sees mostly new employees (except for 60-year-old Al Bingham, a sanguine avuncular philosopher), but Monica is back too, stitched and scarred and utterly different. Nothing more about "I Love Lucy" and in fact she professes her love to Philip. Then she attacks him with a knife and Philip realizes, thanks to some nightmares, she is under an alien sway. Confrontation ensues—"an animate darkness, trembling with malevolent rage, it recognized Philip"—he blacks out, and wakes to find:

What happened to [him] was similar to the fate suffered by the narrator of Lovecraft's The Shadow Out of Time. The Great Race had, in the case of that unfortunate man (a professor at Miskatonic University), hurled him back across millions of years to reside in a monstrous, alien body.

In Philip's case, the time leap was only a matter of a few years, and he had landed in his own body.

O the ignominy! This means he's going to have to relive every crappy job he's ever had.

It's at this halfway point that the HPL stuff really ramps up, and we learn what really runs this corporate world, the one Philip's dad drunkenly called "the System." It's the mind-bending amorality of the Old Ones and their hunger for domination, it'll grind you down to a nothing, "Don't let the System eat your soul," or worse, make you a mindless slave working for the profit of a thankless leader. And just after he's gotten a call from one of the best independent publishers in New York interested in putting out his novel!

The second half of RwM gets a bit wonkier as Philip flips back and forth in his lifetime, a Christian terrorist shows up and must be stopped, Philip's novel is published and a comely fan arrives on his doorstep, and he continues his therapy with Lily (who's started a relationship with Al). There's some derring-do and more Mythos madness. But there is no attempt to truly imbue Lovecraftian awe in the story—which is fine; Spencer's usage of Mythos icons is unique: to satirize American corporate work culture. Wait till you get to the nameless rituals of the Xerox and fax machines!

In fact, the author I felt loomed largest was not HPL but another giant of genre fiction, and one who, like HPL, has seen his posthumous reputation grow and grow to world status: Philip K. Dick (oh, and in that cover blurb change "Woody Allen" to "Albert Brooks." Seriously). I'm not a PKD expert (even less so Vonnegut but he's peeking out of the pages too I believe) but over the years I've read at least half a dozen of his major works (as well as his biography Divine Invasions back in the early '90s), and the ones RwM put me in mind of are his later, even last, novels. These works feature lonely, literate, arty men and women searching for clues and symbols to understand their loneliness, their regret, the passage of their lives, while weird time-hiccups entwine themselves with the everyday. This was a welcome surprise to me while I read. There's a countercultural undercurrent too in RwM that reminds me of Dick, of that vague sense of having our revolutionary days behind us, and did they mean anything at all? Philip fights that self-pity, fights the worst monsters of our minds, fights against the meaningless of the cosmos, and realizes that even in the very name of Lovecraft there is the most profound meaning of all.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Robert Lory's Horrorscope Series (1974 - 1975)

Spent my Sunday morning with coffee while Googling forgotten horror fiction and discovered this astrology-based paperback series (ah, the '70s!) titled Horrorscope (Pinnacle Books). Author Robert Lory, known for his Dracula Horror Series, mined one of that decade's many pseudoscientific obsessions. Horrorscope apparently only lasted four titles (looks like a fifth was published in Germany only); don't know what happened to the other eight signs of the zodiac! One can only imagine the rest of the series...

I couldn't find cover artist info but I think it's a safe guess to posit John Holmes, a British artist whose bizarre illustrations adorned H.P. Lovecraft Ballantine paperbacks around the same time.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Landlady by Constance Rauch (1975): Can't You Hear Her Knocking

You've probably never heard of The Landlady (Popular Library, June 1976), nor had I when I stumbled on its cover art during one of my regular Google journeys trying to find more forgotten horror fiction. The juxtaposition of wrinkled old hands deftly undressing a creepy little doll jumped out at me, as did the tag-line "terror turn-on," the essential references to The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, while publisher Popular Library has long been a trustworthy one for me during those pre-Stephen King days. I looked into author Constance Rauch's biography, learned this was the first of her three novels. I was hoping to discover a lost classic, and while The Landlady isn't that, it's easy to say that this is an unassuming chiller with some terrific unique creepiness.

At first the setup seems a little too Burnt Offerings (1973), in which a family rents a summer home while the owner resides in an upstairs room, a virtual recluse. But unlike that earlier novel, the landlady of the title is Mrs. Falconer, and she makes no bones about being seen and heard in her apartment. She pops in at unexpected and inopportune moments to disturb the Porters: young wife Jessica, her older husband Sam, and toddler daughter Patience. Falconer is eccentric, that's no surprise, with odd habits and, the Porters come to learn, an unsavory reputation with other citizens of this well-to-do town.

There's a murder, eerie night-time sounds coming from a disused stairway that connects the two apartments, a cop doing research into Falconer and her dead husband's doings, and well-staged parties with the Porters interesting friends and colleagues that get weird. Rauch is particularly good at detailing a business arrangement Sam sets up with a friend; the delicate pairing of money and friendship can go wrong in so many ways, and Rauch elicits some knowing moments of discomfort, embarrassment, and upward mobility that's not so upward.

As in Rosemary's Baby, Rauch puts wife and mother Jessica in a position of precarious paranoia, then tightens the screws. Tiny Patience has mysterious fits that seem impossible to control, there's the horrific scene when Jessica searches Mrs. Falconer's apartment, and my goodness, that doll you see on the cover—! Yep, it turns up too but inside it is so much more repulsive:

The doll was made of aging, half-sticky, half-dry and corroded latex stretched over a spongy composition frame, its "skin" luridly jaundiced. It was, admittedly, a slightly naughty toy. Perhaps a novelty item sold by mail through the pages of some bygone stag magazine some 30 or 40 years earlier... The body was as obscene as the head was grotesque...

I mean, ick, right? Anyway, this is 250 pages of prime mid-'70s setting, not deep or disturbing, with a few familiar notes of horror and squickiness, a pretty good pay-off, written by someone who has an ear for dialogue and class conflict. No earth-shattering discovery, not even a minor classic, but simply a refreshing read to take the edge off the heat of a summer afternoon. If you enjoyed the aforementioned Burnt Offerings, Crawlspace, Stepford Wives, and other quiet, slow-burning '70s horror novels, you really can't go wrong with The Landlady.

Why didn't I tell him how the day really went? 
Why didn't I tell him that I'm scared out of my wits... 
that this place is a nightmare... 
that I want to get the hell out of here!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Orpheus Process by Daniel H. Gower (1992): Death Machine Infest My Corpse to Be

Occasionally I read a horror novel that buggers my critical facilities, and I must ask myself that age-old question: is it so bad it's good, or is it so bad it's simply terrible? I know what I like and what I don't, but what if those things are wrapped up together? Which aspect outweighs the other? Is it so important that I know? Take the first novel by Daniel H. Gower, a paperback original from the fabled Dell/Abyss line entitled The Orpheus Process (Feb 1992). A story of medical horror and reanimated corpses, it features one cliche after another, with impossible dialogue, unbelievable motivations, iffy characterization, leaden attempts at black humor, tasteless over-the-top gore, wonky "science," and an exhausting climax that seems to go on and on. But. But.

I cannot tell you the last time a novel kept me reading more (I kind of agree with the various blurbs on the paperback; it is compulsively readable!). I enjoyed the hell out of it, good and bad alike. Gower's style has energy, conviction, and forward thrust, even accounting for lapses into amateur psychology, weak analogies, telling and not showing: first-novel flaws all present and accounted for. Orpheus Process goes to dark places of nihilistic blasphemy, and often what it finds there is unbearably silly, other times it touches on real existential dreads, plumbing deep into nightmare psyches. I loved the over-the-topness of it even when wrong-headed, its death-in-the-midst of life scenario, and all the sickening metaphysics of a biochemist playing God with his "reanimants." Welcome to the abyss indeed.

Dr. Len Helmond turns his family life into a hellish hash and the reader is along for the ride. There's lots of family drama in Orpheus Process, believable on the face of it but Gower's depiction of conflicts strains credibility. Helmond's relationship with wife Janice is somewhat rocky; his teen daughter Ally is going through a Goth phase; his beautiful lab assistant Sharon has the serious hots for him; and his experiments with reanimating animals in a university lab have been gross failures. Then one rhesus monkey, all-too-obviously named Lazarus, comes back seemingly normal...

Laz is so normal in fact Helmond does then what any good scientist would do and takes the creature home to his family. I mean what. His two younger children, seven-year-old Eunice and five-year-old Andy of course love the monkey. But its mind, its incomprehensible little monkey mind, has seen things on the other side that will destroy its sanity, and its body is changing in all kinds of incomprehensible ways due to that fancy violet amniotic fluid Helmond's created. Things take a turn for the worse: Ally is involved in a car accident with her boyfriend; we meet deranged Vietnam vet Cully Detwiler; and Helmond reanimates Osiris (duh!), a chimpanzee. None of this, you can expect, goes well at all. I mean, it all turns to absolute shit. There's even an impossible decapitation!

Little Eunice is killed on Halloween night when Detwiler goes on a maddened shooting rampage at an ice cream shop. Improbably Helmond is able to grab up her bullet-riddled body and toss her in the trunk... then zooms off to his lab to reanimate her. But of course! The rest of the family is away visiting grandma so isn't that convenient? Helmond successfully revives Eunice, the energized solution heals her wounds, and Helmond hopes his wife won't notice anything amiss with her reanimant daughter. This is not to be: Eunice's necromorphosis, however, is not into living death, but into hyperlife. She is becoming a totally new kind of life-form...

In her new state Eunice has gone beyond madness after peering into the reality that lurks beyond death; she out-Goths her sister Ally with her disturbing sketches (She must be watching a lot of horror movies the older sister muses) and Helmond finds the little girl's notebook, filled with mind-chilling philosophy:

I have experienced the unity and tranquility of nothingness, the absolute knowledge of the universal abyss... I have tasted the annihilation of all human feeling... I have been on that darkest of all levels of existence, the complete void of mind and soul... I know that supreme unbearable truth, have seen the agonizing revelation when the thin veil of materiality is pulled back, when the skin of the night is torn open to expose the pulsing primal core of the universe...

Gower doesn't quite seem to realize the enormity of his own creation; a few moments of levity or a better understanding of the horror and taking it even more seriously would've been welcome. When confused, horrified townspeople and police confront Helmond about, well, all the blown-up zombie parts outside his house, his response is "Look folks, it was an accident." That kind of incongruity—and there are plenty—really grates on me as a reader. After Laz the reanimated monkey nearly kills Janice, she says to her husband "You almost killed me, you know?" and he responds "It was an honest mistake." I mean WTF: this is not how humans in extremis talk, think, or behave (an all-too common flaw in the genre). For horror to work, the characters have to react realistically; otherwise it is all just a barrage of nonsense.

But I loved the lair Eunice builds for herself in a graveyard, a necropolis of noxious fog and reassembled corpses beneath the earth:

It was a chapel... dozens of empty caskets arranged like pews, and against the far wall Eunice luxuriated on a throne made of human bones surrounded by an altar constructed of the decomposing parts of a hundred corpses, torn apart and jumbled together in a collage of carnage... "Nothing in the world seems quite alive, but nothing in the world seems really dead, either." 
To emphasize her point, she casually waved the back of her right hand at the mural of twisted, decaying shapes behind her, momentarily infusing them with a violet corposant glow, and several eyeless skulls chattered like novelty teeth while intestinal tendrils flailed around them.

French paperback, accurate cover art

I've still only summarized about half of the events in the novel. The climax is so over-the-top it's proto-bizarro, evoking the nightmarish landscapes of Lovecraft's darkest fantasies, the cosmic nihilism of Ligotti, but with a dour tone that some may find off-putting (his appropriation of Ligottian themes is unsubtle, crude, even banal in places: "Did God fall asleep and have a nightmare?"). Eunice's reanimated monstrosities, demented and deformed, could be out of Barker but are described without his deft touch; ideas about death and resurrection read like Pet Sematary on cheap speed and weed (was Jesus the Nazarene a hypervital reanimant?!); Helmond's weapon of choice when attempting to kill Eunice is played straight by actually belongs in an Evil Dead sequel.

In spite of all the novel's faults, I feel justified in recommending it. There's just something so batshit crazy here, reminding me of that Masterton style of not letting plausibility factor into the storytelling. Ambition is part of it; Gower goes for broke, unleashing a farrago of grotesqueries parading by in an endless loop of madness (you won't forget Janice's midnight walk to find Eunice). As the title implies, elements of Greek tragedy are shoehorned in, as are references to Frankenstein and Repulsion. The final chapter, how could it compete with what's gone before, but I think it kinda worked in a redemptive manner: Her father had been an ingenious, doomed man, and she still loved him in spite of everything...

Gower, who published only one other novel, Harrowgate, also from Abyss, in 1993, now apparently self-publishes science fiction on Amazon with hand-drawn cover art.