Thursday, June 22, 2017

Coming September 2017: Paperbacks from Hell!

For some years I've had TMHF readers asking if I was going to write a book about paperback horror fiction, and I've always shied away from the idea; I feel I write as a fan and amateur, not as any kind of professional critic. One day last spring, I received a message from author Grady Hendrix asking me if I'd be interested in working on a big project with him. I was intrigued; Grady and I had tag-teamed the Summer of Sleaze and Bloody Books of Halloween series in 2014 and then the Evil Eighties in 2015 over at, offering up reviews of some terrific lesser-known horror novels and writers on an unsuspecting readership. This time, however, Grady had a bigger idea: what about an entire book, complete with cover art and stepbacks, on the vintage era of horror fiction? How about that? And would I be interested in co-writing it with him and supplying covers from my own library? Would I?!

For the next few months we spoke on the phone discussing all aspects of the genre, the titles and the authors and the cover artists, the publishers, the themes and ideas and fads and how they all spoke to generational concerns of those long ago yet still beloved decades of the 1970s and 1980s. I don't remember how we decided on the title; that may have been the publisher, Quirk Books (one working title was The Books That Screamed). I spent hours scanning the covers of what must have been more than half of my collection. Using my Google-fu skills I scoured all the internets for artists' names, peered at barely-legible artist signatures with a jeweler's eye, ever eager to discover who was responsible for covers like Satan Sleuth, Crooked Tree, Ancient Rage, and Horrorscope.

Social media has shown me that the advanced reading copies available at book expos/conventions have been incredibly well-received, and other folks have posted their anticipation for the book. Quirk Books has produced a lovely coffee-table style book filled to the brim with paperback covers, and Grady has written a funny, thorough, insightful, affectionate tribute/critique of the genre we all love so much. His appetite for this stuff is almost more voracious than mine! I'm honored to be part of Paperbacks from Hell... and I do hope you will buy a copy when it is published in September.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Scorpion by Michael R. Linaker (1980): Animal Magnetism

Poor Old Blighty: the once regal lord of the world would, throughout the 1970s and '80s, find itself overrun again and again by hordes of vermin which laid waste to so many of its proud, if overly class-conscious, innocent citizens—in the pages of paperback horror fiction, of course. Blame James Herbert, of course (certainly the threat from the natural world could be traced back to Wyndham and Wells, but probably found its true footing in an unassuming 1952 tale by Daphne Du Maurier's blown up to existential proportions by one Alfred Hitchcock) but it was Big Bad Jim who unleashed The Rats in 1974 and truly made the country a feeding ground for all creatures great and small. America was of course overrun as well, but there was something in British culture that was especially ripe for the taking, suffering cats, dogs, crabs, slugs, and worse (gah, do teenagers count?!).

And so we come to Scorpion (Signet Books, Feb 1981), a very slim offering from author Michael R. Linaker (b. Lancashire, 1940). Originally a writer of Westerns set in America, he apparently gained the notice of someone at New English Library and was commissioned to write one of their popular horror novels. At least Linaker had a familiarity with the English language, and knew how to deploy it with some idea of suspense and efficient characterization.

Now I don't really have much to say about the storyline once you've read this back-cover copy. In fact it's about as big a spoiler as can be; intrepid characters go off in search of the cause of these mutated monsters when the answer is right there: radiation leak! Of course anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of evolution knows that radiation causes animals to grow from teeny-tiny critters to five-inch long death dealers with a knack for finding the tenderest parts of the human anatomy. I mean duh.

The cover art makes clear that sex-and-gross-death will be mingled and prevalent, and readers hoping for such lurid shenanigans will not be disappointed. At least by 1981 standards; MMV for readers raised on latter-day product of similar nature. Linaker isn't shy, as the novel progresses, with doling out the wretched horrors visited upon the helpless victims. And also of course they are drawn to only the hottest ladies, I mean otherwise why bother?

The scorpions advanced from every direction, scuttling swiftly across the floor. A few became entangled in the long, silky blonde hair, and in their frantic efforts to free themselves began to lash out with their stings. Venom, injected into the soft flesh of Casey's neck, spread swiftly into the bloodstream. Numbing agony exploded inside Casey's body and she jerked helplessly as tortured nerves emitted spasms. The pain of the stings helped to alleviate the pain caused by the ripping, tearing pincers as other scorpions shredded warm flesh from her bare legs. Blood began to stream from the countless wounds, streaking the tanned flesh, pooling on the floor beneath her body. 

Original New English Library ed, June 1980

Sectioned into three parts (hey! just like a scorpion!), each with a pretentious title ("Encounters," "Engagements," "Invasion"), Scorpion follows the template of all books of its type. Characters are introduced, given a quick backstory (usually incredibly class-conscious; in fact the guy who identifies the culprits is a rough-hewn working stiff, "Er, whatcha call 'em, a scorpion!"), and then shuffled off this mortal coil posthaste. A scene in a supermarket, with scorpions marauding dozens of (female) shoppers, is a show-stopper. Two villain-types, involved with the responsible nuclear plant, are dispatched with max grody pain and suffering, so there's that.

Otherwise Linaker gives more depth to his expendable players than he does to his mains, so you might mix up some of the doctors perplexed by all the "bee sting" vics suddenly dying in excruciating, mystifying pain. Requisite love angle introduced, breakfast-in-bed scene during a lull in arachnid apocalypse, blame is placed at modern world advancements (though not as blatantly as in some novels; here's it's more a given), and quick wrap-up climax holds things at bay for now but... the sequel would scuttle from the darkness, and a third was perhaps promised by Linaker, maybe even with the scorpions arriving in the States, but it never happened. Whew!

Allan crouched beside the woman's body. He couldn't help noticing, despite the mutilations, that she had been young and very attractive.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Something Evil by Arthur Hoffe (1968): Oh, Sister

After half a dozen chapters I knew Something Evil (Avon Books, Sept 1968) wasn't gonna be evil enough for me. The opening prologue, in italics—which I kinda hate—is set literally on a dark and stormy night with a guy sneaking up to a spooky old house, finding creepy statues in a stable, and then hiding when a woman comes running in... followed by another who then, to the man's horror, stabs the first woman! O horrors. Dude books off into the "murky blackness":

A flash of lightning illumined her face as she stared in fury after the retreating figure. Her eyes, in the light of the electric bolt, were deep, piercing, wild—the eyes of a thing gone mad.

Following chapters are set on the foggy New England coast, it's the 19th century, and you'll meet a cast of characters from any period melodrama, engaged in boilerplate soap operatics with the Gothic flair (moodiness, gloominess, doominess, craziness, drunkeness, murderousness) and one morning reading over coffee I realized the twist. I skipped to the final pages and, lo and behold, there it was. There's an incest angle (god again?) and a Psycho angle and a nice wrap-up with all the ugliness politely put away.

My impression is that most Gothic paperbacks of this era followed, as strictly as any Harlequin romance or detective series, the most restrictive of conventions, with nary a whiff of originality or uniqueness (I believe in some cases publishers had writers sign contracts to this effect). Now I'm always looking for something, anything, to relieve this conformity of genre, but Something Evil doesn't have it. Even searching for author Arthur Hoffe turns up precisely nothing other than this tome. Out of the void and back into the void.

But I was happy to find the cover artist acknowledged on the copyright page, one Bob Foster. Since Something Evil has always been a minor fave cover (I mean who doesn't love baby alligators, altho' I didn't read enough to see if they're actually in the book), I was happy to look up Foster and find his resumé includes lots of '60s and '70s science fiction paperback covers, along with other illustrations of the day. So let's say something good came out of Something Evil.