Sunday, February 26, 2017

Obelisk by Ehren M. Ehly (1988): A Ghost Lives in My Veins

Ye risen gods but is this some terrific 1980s paperback cover art! Behold the stepback below, in which artist Ben Perini really went for broke in his depiction of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh's golden visage revealed to be rotting and diseased, a mummified wretch of humanity which brings blinding terror. Man, I can hear potential readers thinking to themselves back in the day, if this novel is half as good as this cover, I am in for some groovy horror excitement! It may have even been you, dear reader (it wasn't me certainly; I hadn't seen this book prior to beginning TMHF). Long on my to-read list, Obelisk (Leisure Books, July 1988), was the first novel of one Ehren M. Ehly, pseudonym of Moreen Le Fleming, whose life story is quite a read.

When Steve Harrison, a young American scholar desperate to pay back an unscrupulous loan shark, attempts to rob a newly-opened Egyptian tomb hoped to contain another world-famous trove of treasure and mystery, he becomes, in so many words, possessed by the undead spirit of Menket, a pharaoh of antiquity. Much like the werewolf curse, Steve cannot remember what he does at night beneath the risen moon... only that he feels much guilt and anxiety during daylight hours and a godawful thirst. After arriving back in New York City, the horrific hijinks continue, Steve/Menket terrorizes that always terrorizable town, killing innocent folks unlucky enough to cross his path (you know the drill: quickly-sketched characters introduced solely to be slaughtered). Driven by a desire to be fully resurrected, Menket's thoughts read like translated heiroglyphics:

Now come, vessel of life-giving marrow.
Let my teeth crush your bones, that my flesh may live, and renew itself.
Hands of stone, tear the sinews. Teeth of stone, crush the bones.
How sweet the marrow, give of life and blood.
Now Re, now Osiris, come. Share with me this feast of nourishment,
that we may exult in the day of resurrection.

And in the great tradition of paperback horror novels with stunning covers, Obelisk delivers much, much less than promised. It trades in the most basic of TV-movie characterizations and behavior sprinkled liberally with '80s VHS horror flick gore (which is not necessarily a bad thing). It's not unreadable, say, like Ruby Jean Jensen or J.N. Williamson, but it certainly lacks the vigorous tastelessness of a Graham Masterton. Ehly is an earnest, competent yet square kind of writer; the pulpy elements are all in place, but I feel if the narrative and characterizations had been trimmed down we'd have a respectable '80s horror novel. Amateurish dialogue, boring cops on the chase, oh man, I just had to skim the last third of the novel. However I did learn one fun fact: there truly is an obelisk in Central Park!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Valley of Lights by Stephen Gallagher (1987): Watching the Detective

When I need to take a break from reading horror, the genre I look to most often is crime and private detective fiction. On and off for years, and mostly on these days, I've built up a small collection of mass-market paperbacks by writers like Cornell Woolrich, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, Dan J. Marlowe, Ross and John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith, Walter Mosley, Jonathan Valin, Charles Willeford, Richard Stark, all in addition to leading figures Cain and Chandler and Hammett of course (some years back I started a blog in that vein—Neat, Clean, Shaved & Sober—but I haven't kept it up, but always mean to restart it!). 

So I was intrigued when I began reading Valley of Lights (Tor Books, Feb 1988) and found it a private detective novel through and through. Can't recall how I'd heard of it or why I bought it recently. British author Stephen Gallagher, who wrote Dr. Who novelizations and other medical/tech thriller-style works, captures that American milieu of cop shops, trailer parks, and skid-row motels and its language well, which isn't that easy (I don't believe Clive Barker quite ever mastered it, and I don't know if James Herbert even ever tried). Gallagher well follows all the detective first-person hallmarks: the hard-boiled insights, the trouble with women, the observations of those he meets and the places they live, and the dogged pursuit of lowlifes. Except this particular lowlife happens to be a body-hopping supernatural being spreading death and mayhem wherever he goes for as long as the being can remember.

This back-cover copy only sets up the first half or so of the novel; then comes a twist that piqued my interest, because I have to say I was not much hooked at all prior. It was all too little too late. Sure, Gallagher can write just fine but the story and pace were tepid; while stakes get higher when the killer kidnaps someone dear to the detective, neither character nor situation elicited much tension and even less horror save for a moment here and there. In its combo of horror and detection it isn't a patch on Progeny of the Adder (1965), Falling Angel (1978),  or Red Dragon (1981).  The ending I admit is disturbing, a bit of vengeance hinted at on this cover of the 1988 New English Library paperback, but again, too little too late. It's a bit of a struggle to even write this review!

The title metaphor works, I'll give it that: lights are lives, of course, lives to be exploited; references to "lights out" and "turned off" and such meaning dead are plentiful, in classic hard-boiled style. The Tor cover art at top reminds me of a computer schematic, however, a hacker floating through cyberspace, but that's a coincidence only. Those are all potential victims. Despite a promising scenario and solid writing, I can't really recommend Valley of Lights to either the serious horror or crime fiction reader.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

It Wants Revenge

Daniel Ransom was the horror/thriller pseudonym of the well-respected late crime writer Ed Gorman. I think this cover art might be by John Melo (he was great at '80s perms and clothing).

Saturday, February 11, 2017