Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Legacy by Jere Cunningham (1977): That Demon Life Got Me in Its Sway

You might or might not be familiar with the name Jere Cunningham, a writer who published several horror paperbacks during the classic vintage era but who moved on to Hollywood screenplays later in his career (couldn't turn up a photo of him anywhere, only an illuminating interview, and I'm never sure if the name "Jere" is pronounced "Jare" or like the standard spelling "Jerry"). Not to be confused with that other late 1970s horror paperback of the same title—a novelization of the Katharine Ross/Sam Elliott/uh Roger Daltry movie—Fawcett Gold Medal's The Legacy, with art-student nude-model cover art and a cawing raven 'cause ravens are always spooky, is a 1977 paperback original. Cunningham's not a complete unknown, as other books of his have been rediscovered, but I haven't read any. That could change, since I found The Legacy to be an effective horror read, with all the hallmarks of its day and few of the faults.

A prologue of mysterious import on a stormy night, death, madness, and despair, sets the stage (and not in italics, thank the gods!). Then switch the scene to Dr. David Rawlings, wife Sandra, daughter Melanie, and her Doberman Streak; he's a successful Memphis doctor but as the novel begins he has an upsetting dream about his estranged father one night. Chester Rawlings has died, suicide by gunshot—a-ha, that prologue! Father's lawyer calls David to break the news, maybe they could come to the small Mississippi town of Bickford in which David grew up in but left for med school against Chester's wishes, to where his father met his untimely doom.

You've got the wrong Legacy

He reacquaints himself with the old family estate, Whitewood, and its attendant memories, including old Sam, his father's stalwart friend, who in many ways raised David himself. Sam gets off one of the creepiest lines in the novel, one night when they're trying not to talk about the weirdness going on as they watch the Mississippi beneath a bright moon: "They says if you sleep under the moon without a rag over your face you go moon-crazy. That the moon got blood on it and it'll come down and get in your head." Uh, yeah, thanks for the advice, Sam.

Lots of pages are spent on the Rawlings marriage, of Melanie and Streak playing in the fields surrounding the estate, of David tooling around Bickford and realizing what a shithole it is and seeing old faces again. Other characters come into David's orbit: Dewey Pounds, with whom David had played football in high school, now Bickford sheriff well aware if he doesn't solve this issue of a missing body he'll be working in a gas station. There's sketchy teenager Woody, long-haired and resentful, son of Ruth, the local soothsayer living in a trailer and another old friend of Chester's. She drops mysterious hints and warnings, inscrutably vague (basically "You should get the fuck outta Dodge"). Then there is blind Philip Sprague, a man of perhaps 70 who looks younger (uh-oh), who arrived in town some years before and rebuilt a nearby old DeBois manor into a grand new edifice.

The first true note of oddness comes when dad's lawyer Barksdale reads the will and its requirements of David: "I ask that you stay on at Whitewood for seven weeks, never leaving for a single night. Check the seal on the crypt daily. Tend the ivy around the manor and my crypt. I am sure that Sam will stay on with you"—hold up hold up! Did he say check the seal on the crypt?! The fuck? Except Sandy seems to think it an unreasonable burden on David's burgeoning medical practice, but David knows he must do it. Unlike other sons in horror novels, in which family secrets metamorphose into supernatural elements, David loved and respected his father, even if they had grown estranged over his decision to leave.

Exploring his father's library one afternoon, David seemed to feel the hours and hours of his father's presence here. As if the man and years had soaked into the books and walls and floors. Chester Rawlings was a closet intellectual, reading ancient history and philosophy in Latin and Greek. But David is taken aback when he finds a new shelf of books on sorcery and witchcraft and whatnot. There's even a locked door with more spooky shit behind it. Wizard and sorcerer spooky to be precise:

Daddy, he thought, my poor daddy... is that what happened in your mind? Did fantasies kill you? Don't you know that one real cigarette is more evil than all that silly occult shit put together?... A foulness clung to his hands from the cloying leather. in the light the stretched hide looked almost like human epidermis... He left the room with a sadness tainted by revulsion. Never would he have dreamed his father—of all people—would have sought solace or refuge in an area so degrading in its vulgar absurdity. The foulness of the iron-bound book felt ugly on his hands.

Sphere Books UK paperback, 1980

I don't have to tell you, dedicated reader of horror fiction, how important this is. This kind of exploration and discovery is one of my favorite genre devices. And Cunningham deploys it well; a foreshadowing that hovers even though it will be quite awhile before the payoff. Slowly but surely all kinds of horrible things will happen: a missing corpse, a vandalized crypt, a dead friend, Sandra sleepwalking, a figure following Melanie and Streak through the nearby woods. Add in a backstory of the recent suicide of a Bickford banker, the institutionalization of his wife, and the disappearance of their young daughter, and you've got a sweet potboiler recipe.

Eventually David finds his father's journal and learns Chester knew Sprague, also dined with him, was taken on a tour of the manor's foundation, and there saw something that drove him to near madness, breaking his heart and setting Chester into a morass of despair.

Now I am considering the murder of Sprague. Or the end of myself. No night of rest.... I spoke with Ruth. She is more afraid than I am, if that is possible, and she knows nothing we can do. What can we say about the little girl? What would the authorities believe? That we are mad?

Cunningham's 1982 novel, UK paperback

One of the best scenes in the novel is a dinner party, of course. Sprague invites the family to dinner, unerringly pouring them drinks and serving them an elaborate European meal. He is a continental sort and his blindness poses no real problems; in fact it seems to give him a preternatural sense for anyone around him. Après dinner Sprague entices Sandra—whose pretensions to culture and wealth he appeals to—to play for them on his luxurious piano, even joining in with her on his violin. What beautiful music they make ("That was really wonderful," she beamed, hardly able to retain modesty)! And you can be sure David isn't too happy about it. This sequence sets up the finale in high style.

I must admit though that early on, The Legacy had me iffy on continuing; there is a lot of build-up. The narrative tightens up considerably as the book nears conclusion, with occult horror and mayhem rampant, elevating this unassuming-looking paperback original beyond others of its ilk. Cunningham is adept at writing dialogue and character, mood and suspense: aspects horror writers much more famous and wealthy often suck at. Plentiful sex scenes are warm, believable, titillating but restrained. There are touches of early King in the depiction of modern family life while some gruesome set-pieces—David and the dog, David and the corpse fingers, Sandra sleepwalking with Melanie in tow—which reminded me of the work Michael McDowell would soon publish. Despite the leisure taken with setting the story in motion, once it kicks into gear, The Legacy delivers the demonic goods.

Cernunnos, Lord of my Fathers, Lord of Ages, I summon thee. Lord of Agonies, of Carthage and Hiroshima and Doomed Great Ones, I summon thee to wed and to sup. Rise from thy eternal legions and I shall perform thy shapely introduction as ages ago I vowed in time upon time upon time to fulfill...

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Horror Fiction Help XVII

OK horror fiends who can help out here?

1. Sci-fi/horror novel about insect aliens taking over a town, people getting body-horror mutations, place gets quarantined by the government, turns out the aliens are harvesting psychic energy to power their spaceship. Pretty standard for the genre I guess. Must have been from the '80s (maybe early '90s), the cover art showed human faces cracking open with insectoid features emerging, the title was one of those unpronounceable sci-fi words that's all Xs, Ys, and Zs. Found! It's:

2. When I was a kid my grandma had a copy of a paperback that freaked me out enough I threw it behind the basement steps. And then when she caught me I made her throw it away. I remember the cover as being artwork of a dead looking bride soaked from head to toe in blood. (I've thought about it being Carrie and mixing a prom dress and wedding dress up, but I've never found a Carrie paperback that looks like my memory.) This all took place probably around 1988 to 1991.

3. The title I remember as The Secret (I think) and had a silver quasi-swastika on its cover. Found! It's:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

By Bizarre Hands by Joe R. Lansdale (1989): Apocalypse Wow

If you were a horror fiction reader in the late 1980s and paid attention to such things, you knew that Joe R. Lansdale was being marketed, if that's not too strong a word, in a manner not seen since probably Clive Barker. Their respective publishers knew, even if they couldn't put their finger on it exactly, that these writers were incredibly special (this has nothing to do with the individual styles of Barker and Lansdale, which are markedly different, only that they both went further, deeper, harder, than other even very good writers of that age did) and deserved to be widely read. Check out the cover copy, front and back, of By Bizarre Hands (Avon Books, Sept 1991): "Renegade Nightmare King"?! "May Be Hazardous to Your Health"?! These types of superlatives reach higher than the usual boilerplate encomium, and worked to entice readers who wanted more than just the latest humdrum hack horror.

I was ecstatic to be reading Lansdale for the first time in various anthologies back then; like many readers I'd never read anything like him. Sure there was the Vonnegut and the Twain, the Mencken and the Joe Bob Briggs, the King and the Matheson and the Bradbury, here and there a whiff of Elmore Leonard and Harry Crews (I noted these last two much later as I had not read them on my first encounter with Lansdale). But still there was something original, tough and sure and daring that sang beneath those familiar notes... and I wanted more.

Around 1990 or so I paid big bucks for a signed copy of Joe's short story collection, the 1989 hardcover edition from specialty publisher Mark V. Ziesing. Consisting of his earliest as well as his major stories, I devoured it, loved it, but sometime later, during a bleak broke span during my college years, I had to sell off a major chunk of my limited-edition horror collection, so it was bye-bye By Bizarre. Ah well. Then a month or so ago a TMHF pal emailed a link to this Avon paperback edition from 1991, adorned with the same illustration as the hardcover, thanks to usual suspect JK Potter; it was in good shape and at a fair price, who doesn't love that. Sold! So it's great to have By Bizarre Hands back on my shelves. Couldn't wait to revisit Lansdale's singular landscape of horror, black humor, science fiction, crime, and whatever the hell else he puts in.

Lansdale often succeeds at impossible tasks, with setups that would make lesser writers blanch (or not even realize what deep waters they were in), and pulls them off with a tough, vulgar, self-conscious but not arch energy. He may wink at you but it's not a cute wink of "Hey we both know this is ridiculous" but a wink of devilish glee, acrobatic mischief, "You can't believe I'm getting away with this, can you?!" Like a sort of Tarzan swinging through the jungle hoping a vine will appear in the nick of time, you can't fault him because it all kinda takes your breath away even when his moves are occasionally clumsy or crude. His confidence and his trust in his own instincts, talent, character sketches, and unique vision thrills the reader, makes the reader forgive those tacky lapses scattered about (as if Lansdale were afraid of upsetting social niceties in the first place). YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Let's get to the goods, right from the opener. "Fish Night," hearkens back to Bradbury's love of dinosaurs and other creatures of our earth's past, but lacks any wide-eyed nostalgic innocence. Nostalgic for the ravenous extinct monstrous creatures which swam that prehistoric sea, perhaps... "Duck Hunt" satirizes male camaraderie and companionship, machismo and violence masquerading as such. The terrific title story was also published in the first Borderlands (1990); I wrote a little about it here. It's tasteless, sure, sometimes you think, "Jeez, Joe, I didn't need to know all that," but that's just Joe: he's gonna give it to you straight, maybe chase it with pickle juice and gasoline. Then light the match.

Ever read any of the Black Lizard reprints of 1950s crime/hardboiled pulp fiction? Not just Jim Thompson, but Dan J. Marlowe, David Goodis, Charles Willeford? Written with pulp muscle and a refusal to sugar coat with any moralizing, Lansdale presents the criminal lifestyle as-is, no returns, no refunds. More than one tale here reminds me of those stark, sere, brutal crime novels, particularly "The Steel Valentine" and "The Pit." "I Tell You It's Love" revels in the romantic sadomasochism of James M. Cain. "Down By the Sea Near the Great Big Rock" is almost whimsical, a Gahan Wilson cartoon come to life. And three stories became three novels: "Boys Will Be Boys" part of The Nightrunners; "Hell Through a Windshield" is the beginnning of The Drive-In; "The Windstorm Passes" became The Magic Wagon. All are must-reads, both the stories here and the actual novels themselves.

One of the very best stories included is "Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back," the title alone which has bounced around in my head for 25 years even as the details faded, is a mean little masterpiece. It's funny, sad, disgusting, outrageous, insightful, empathetic, painful, humiliating, gory, unsettling, a near-effortless melange of SF and horror tropes. His weirdo SF is kinda mind-blowing. I'm not sure what apocalyptic authors Lansdale read—John Brunner? JG Ballard? John Wyndham?—but it's just powerhouse stuff nobody else could've written. Guilt, hatred, regret, only these human emotions survive the apocalypse, along with monstrous thorny vines and mutated animals. Behold the surreality:

The collection concludes with two of Joe's most infamous stories, late 1980s classics that made a splash then and still retain their power decades later: "Night They Missed the Horror Show" and "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folk." The former contains some of the ugliest, most blistering imagery and dialogue for its time, and isn't even really a "horror" story in the generic sense; it's the blackest of noir, maybe. Scorched earth policy here, a glimpse of unfettered human depravity and ignorance, outcast kin to the blistering art and exploitation of, say, Taxi Driver or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or James Ellroy's LA Quartet. If you haven't read "Night They Missed the Horror Show," I can't say you've missed a treat but you have missed a milestone in extreme fiction. The latter tale, from the zombie universe of George A. Romero (RIP!), is a long rambling road story of bounty hunters and the undead, plus lots of Bible talk (a staple of many a Lansdale), gunplay, and gore. You won't be scared but you will be impressed by its colorful energy.

New English Library, 1992

We all are aware of how unique voices can be forgotten, or become cult/fringe favorites, and never find a broader audience. Not so with Joe.  It's satisfying to know that today he has a bigger following than ever, with a movie and TV series adapted from his work (Cold in July and Hap & Leonard, respectively), and more and more award-winning novels. He is a friendly and supportive online presence as well. Reading Joe Lansdale is a free-for-all. For the adventurous, unsatisfied reader who demands more, more, more, I can say get your hands on By Bizarre Hands; it is an essential and uncompromising read.