Thursday, December 28, 2017

Descent by Ron Dee (1991): A Child's Dream of Death

Not even Dell's ambitious Abyss line of horror fiction could avoid the dregs of the genre: Ron Dee's second title for the imprint, Descent (October 1991) is indescribably awful, incoherent, at once over- and underwrought. You can't imagine the Sisyphean task it was to trudge through this novel. From the very first sentence—perhaps even before, as you'll see in a sec—"Suck (ha I shoulda seen it coming) away my death and bring me alive. Lose your self and I arrive." Good God I was groaning inside instantly ("They threw me off the hay truck about noon" it ain't). I'd put the book down after struggling through a few pages, then pick it up again, ad nauseam, hoping against hope something could be salvaged...

But my original instinct was correct: this is unreadable amateur garbage, confusing and clumsy from the first. Peopled by angry, incomprehensible, and whining "characters" who talk of needing and wanting death and sex, how death is life and vice versa, Descent is irritating beyond belief. There is no pacing, no suspense, no humanity here, not to mention any scares at all. Its po-faced religious imagery is ludicrous. I wish I could joke about it all but nope, I'm getting angry about it all over again.

Descent engages in one of my least favorite endeavors in literature: the creation of a fictional rock star. Here, it's a dude who goes by the stage name Aliester "Yeah that's not how it's spelled" C. The novel's epigraph is a sampling of the author's "lyrics" for Aliester, and read like a fundamentalist Christian's (or maybe the PMRC's) imaginings of what Alice Cooper or King Diamond or Venom or whoever were singing back in the day. "To know true life you have to fuck death," Aliester says from the stage, a witless ripoff of Udo Kier in Warhol's Frankenstein; I mean if you're gonna omit the kicker, why bother? He engages in all sorts of Cooper-esque show-biz shenanigans (ostensibly the time period is the early or mid-'70s), then a crazy hot chick appears on stage with him and gets bloody and is it all real or a dream or special effects or...?

Her long fingernails stabbed both breasts, making them bleed freely. Aliester's eyes were round. He saw her perfect nakedness and gulped (what kind of rock star gulps at the sight of a naked woman?!), even harder as he saw her purpose: the sharp nails tore slowly down from the base of her rib cage to her pubic hair with a wet tearing scream, flaunting her ghastly whit bones and pink organs as they peeked out and shimmered with her giggle (can we this word from the world?!). "Fuck off with life—and fuck with DEATH!"

Dee's first novel for Abyss, dare I...?

Aliester gets mixed up with Vickie, our protagonist, somehow, and her grief over her stillborn child plays out over the whole novel, which in capable hands could have been effective; here it is only tacky tasteless first-draft hackery. Graphic violence, most of it sexual, is unbelievable and bears no referent to our shared inhabited reality—that is, none of the violence hurts or unsettles; it is, to use an actual metal lyric, a child's dream of death. It means nothing because it comes from nothing. Descent neither disturbs nor delights; it is ponderous, pretentious sludge. And even that doesn't begin to describe this Descent. I'm sick of seeing this book on my desk, mocking me, beggaring my critical faculties; avoid by every means necessary.

I will give a few points to that stepback art above, artist unknown, which depicts an actual scene in the book, and to whoever wrote the tagline and back cover copy:

But if you really want unbearable truths about the living, 
go listen to what Timmy Baterman has to say

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Fangoria Nightmare Library Reviews, Sept 1987

Another stellar crop of Fangoria mag fiction reviews of works by esteemed '80s horror writers, including erstwhile Eric C. Higgs. I really can't thank reader Patrick B. enough for sending these along to me! I'll get back to reviewing in the new year if not before.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Fangoria Nightmare Library Reviews, October 1986

More Fango reviews! Lots of favorite names here: Klein, Skipp & SpectorBloch. Thanks to Crypticus for sending these along, I'm still going through them! Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Fangoria Nightmare Library Reviews, February 1988

Another installment of Fangoria mag's vintage book reviews, thanks to TMHF reader Patrick B. Authors should be familiar to horror fans: Joe Lansdale, Whitley Strieber, Michael Talbot, Rex Miller, and Thomas Monteleone. And I myself have reviewed three of these titles: Lansdale's Nightrunners, Talbot's Bog, and Miller's Slob.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Fangoria Nightmare Library Reviews, March 1987

The Fangoria vaults have been opened once again, this time thanks to reader Patrick B., who sent me a treasure trove of Nightmare Library review scans from the golden era of '80s horror fiction. Behold this particular cache, as it features reviews of some of our favorites... 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

John Farris Fangoria Interview, 1987

And one more terrific Fangoria magazine interview with a prominent 1980s horror writer, this time John Farris (issue 67, Sept 1987). Thanks again to TMHF reader Peter F. for sharing these scans with me. Hope you've enjoyed them, I know I did!


Friday, December 1, 2017

Ramsey Campbell Fangoria Interview, 1986

Continuing this little excavation of old Fangoria mags by TMHF reader Peter F., here is an interview with horror giant Ramsey Campbell, from the June 1986 issue of the magazine.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

James Herbert Fangoria Interview, Jan 1984

From the Fangoria vaults courtesy of TMHF reader Peter F., another vintage interview with an '80s horror legend, James Herbert (1943-2013). Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Michael McDowell Fangoria Interview, 1984

Thanks to TMHF reader Peter F. for sending me this terrific interview with Michael McDowell (1950-1999), published in Fangoria #40, December 1984. Peter graciously emailed me several other Fango interviews with other '80s horror greats, and I will be posting them in days to come. Hope you dig these behind-the-pages looks into some of our fave writers of the era....

Friday, November 17, 2017

Unholy Mourning by David Lippincott (1982): Ain't It Time We Say Goodbye

Oh that smirk on the face of blow-dried '80s-'do dude, it's the worst. He's even lifting an eyebrow like burying you alive is just some kind of joke. Folks in the know might be reminded of a classic Vault of Horror cover, or even a vintage punk record. Alas, in David Lippincott's wholly unremarkable Unholy Mourning (Dell Books, Nov 1982), only a few moments achieve this kind of horror goodness. A dorky mortician with the disturbing name of Jorbie Tenniel is besieged by a homicidal "Voice" which tells him to bury various townspeople alive to avenge the death of his twin brother. Or something. It's been over a week since I finished reading this and it took me around three weeks to trudge through all 366 pages, so forgive me if I'm a little iffy on the nitty-gritty.

 Lippincott (1924 - 1984)

To begin with, I couldn't even with the name "Jorbie." Oh god it's just the worst, a mish-mash of consonants in the diminutive (I know I'm risking a Joey Jo-Jo moment here). His brother, dead by Jorbie's own sociopathic indifference as the tale begins, has the far more normal name of Kenneth. Like many horror novel siblings, They neither needed nor wanted other children; they lived in a private world of their own. No surprise that Jorbie particularly resented intruders into this world. They didn't always listen to him or do what he commanded the way Kenneth did. A-ha! The prologue was promising, I'll give it that, when Kenneth drowns in Lake Michigan due to Jorbie's daring him to swim too far. Later Jorbie finds Kenneth's water-logged rotting corpse when it washes into some rocks he visits on the shore. It's a life-changing moment: There was no wonderful, happy life after you died at all. You just rotted and fell apart... He would never trust anyone again.

You can see Unholy Mourning gets off to a halfway decent start. Now it's present day, we're introduced to 20-something Angie Psalter, who's cut from the Talia Shire-as-Adrian cloth. A young lay teacher at a parochial school, she lives with her drunkard dad who, we learn a few chapters later, attempted to rape one of Angie's little schoolfriends years before during Angie's birthday party (everyone knows and is cool with that, though, Lippincott points out. And not ironically. Too bad for that little friend, oh well, these things happen). Angie spies Jorbie at a dinner/dance she's working at the school, and thinks he's kinda swell, despite being an outsider as he's a mortician (does that really make one an outsider? Lippincott implies yes). Jorbie had had a promisingly brilliant but short-lived stint in medical school, which he left and went back to the family mortuary business after his father's death. Of course these two lonely misfits start courting, I guess is the term.

Corgi Books UK, 1981

This courtship is nonsensical and abusive. Not even borderline abusive. Of course I'm looking at this 1982 novel through today's lenses, but that only means that victim/abuser relationships have never changed. Her relationship with Jorbie is practically a checklist of abuse: when he goes into one of his brooding moods, gets caught in a pathetic lie, or even brandishes a chair at Angie, she always tries to figure out what she said or did to set him off. He even gives her a black eye! It happens over and over, a tiresome refrain. Twice more a bewildered and hurt Angie tried to apologize for doing something she wasn't even sure she had done.

Repeatedly Lippincott makes awkward authorial observations out of nowhere that Angie would have been better off if she'd just gotten away from Jorbie as fast as possible, but Angie is so put-upon she believes it's all her fault and promises to do better "next time." At one part early in their affair, Jorbie shows Angie his crematorium and other work areas, and he's left out dead bodies of people she knows for her to see, "Oops, I forgot you knew her!" and makes horrible dumb jokes—posing a dead Jewish man so he's making a Nazi salute—while she mildly rebukes him. Mildly. Angie, DTMFA!

Corgi Books UK, 1983

Lippincott makes no attempt to evoke sympathy for any character. Angie is a dishrag/doormat, while Jorbie is the worst kind of arrogant person even discounting his penchant for burying people alive. He verbally abuses his assistant, Pasteur (a pathetic lumbering giant on loan from horror cheapie central casting). The police chief, Hardy Remarque, is okay I guess, but standard cop stuff in stories like this, two steps behind what's really going on (personally I'm rarely into cops in my horror fiction). Some religious characters, nuns and priests, yawn, to help people through their grief after Jorbie's through with his victims. Jorbie's crippled father Caleb is interesting, sad, hiding family secrets, that kind of guy. The only truly likable character, Edith Pardee, a sweet thoughtful older woman, is around only to tell the dysfunctional lovebirds how they truly belong together and the whole town—it's always "the whole town" in these books—thinks the two belong together. It's utterly depressing.

Turns out, Jorbie is going after people who were at the lake the day his brother drowned, they or their now-grown children, injecting them with curare, which he'd stolen from his old school lab, with a tiny hypodermic needle he has specially made hidden in a ring on his finger. It knocks out people's nervous systems, so they can't move or feel, like living death—suspended animation. Yep. The person gets ill, then "dies," basically, and Jorbie pretends to embalm them but he doesn't: he puts them in a coffin and they're buried that way. Then they wake up, six feet under. Shivery indeed... but Lippincott's handling of this gruesome endeavor pretty much saps the scenario of real horror. In the hands of a committed writer, the experience of waking up in a buried coffin is about as ripe as it gets for full-blown fear and madness. The stepback cover artist for the UK edition, Terry Oakes, got it right:

This dud is an excellent example of how the popularity of horror was considered a cash-in for publishers and writers who knew nothing about the genre and cared even less. Lippincott's style is square, dull, obvious, and belabored. Can't imagine what his other mainstream thrillers are like. Horror content was needed and writers were needed to provide it no matter what. I imagined him hunched over his typewriter with a publishing agent behind him, Lippincott looking back over his shoulder and saying "Is this what you want? Horror? Am I doing it right? Horror is scary and violent, right? Huh, right? Booooo!"

I grinded through pages of blocky conversations, banal insights, psycho first-person ramblings, turgid plot mechanisms, and general unpleasantness that offered not a whisper of the weird or eerie. There's an autopsy scene on one of those poor folks, that kinda works, I'll give the author that, but his central idea of revenge and the manner in which Jorbie goes about it—which anyone should be able to guess, as there is nothing supernatural going on in the novel—is unbelievable, even for a horror novel.

Dell Books, 1984

The climax is rendered with professional precision, sure, and its horribleness is notable, but it is all cliche and tired trope and predictable jump scare, with a denouement you know is coming. "This is horror, right? Is this how you do it? It is, right? Boo, argh, aaah!" I wish there'd be a scene of the exhumation of Jorbie's helpless victims: god, I can scarcely imagine! Nope, this is not how it's done. At all. Dedicated reader of horror do yourself a favor: buy a copy of the book for its cover, maybe, but be sure to avoid actually reading it.

Am I finished with this review? Is this it? Okay, good, I can't wait to get back to the actual good horror novel I'm reading now...

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Possession of Joel Delaney by Ramona Stewart (1970): Supernatural City

Published a year prior to epoch-making The Exorcist, this slim 1970 novel by Ramona Stewart (1922 - 2006) features a young man in thrall not to a demonic power of the netherworld but to a dead serial killer. I don't think The Possession of Joel Delaney (Bantam paperback/Oct 1971) is much talked-about these days in the small subset of people who talk about vintage horror novels; I can find little about Stewart herself online. She seems like a mainstream novelist who produced some other derivative minor thrillers (The Sixth Sense; The Nightmare Candidate; see below) that got some middling reviews and more middling cover art. None sound all that interesting to me.

1980 Dell reprint, Paul Caras cover art?

Happily for me, Possession is interesting: it's set in the Manhattan of the late '60s and early '70s, and is quite convincing at what it does. Stewart's depiction of the city, from the Upper West Side enclave in which our narrator Norah Benson lives to the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods of immigrants, is vivid, lived-in, and sympathetic but not overwrought or sanitized. Akin to Blatty's iconic novel, Stewart lays down a bedrock of normalcy and realism as Norah describes her life in plain terms in the opening pages:  It's when I'm skating along on smooth ice that the dark crack splits open at my feet.

Back cover gives you the low-down, 
good so I don't have to waste time rehashing it

The voice she provides for the story is refreshingly confident. Norah is self-aware, intelligent, and self-possessed, without an ounce of self-pity for her past. Our family hadn't been the cheery thing of children's books: her youth was made difficult by her wayward, somewhat grifter of a father and a mother who committed suicide leaving Norah to mostly raise her decade-younger brother Joel. She married a professor and left for the University of California, and feels lingering guilt about abandoning her brother. Now divorced, she maintains a civil relationship with her ex, raising two citified children with the help of Veronica, her Puerto Rican maid (this detail will become important).

 Dell Books 1980; Kirkus review here

Certainly, the night the trouble began with Joel, I had no prickling sense of the extraordinary. When Joel doesn't show up for dinner, she calls him but when the phone is answered no one is there, just music and a stranger's strangled voice. Concerned, she rushes to his downtown apartment, in an unsavory neighborhood ("Sure this is the place you want?" inquires the cabbie) and finds Joel on the floor, his face contorted like a man in a nightmare. He's off to the hospital, then Bellevue, you know it's the late '60s, maybe he's taking LSD. Norah speaks to the building manager, glimpses into his apartment: she recognizes an Espiritismo shrine, a religion invoking water and air spirits.

This will play a large part in the "possession" angle of the novel, as Norah investigates Joel's increasingly bizarre behavior with the help of a psychiatrist friend and a couple of professors. Together she and the reader learn about Tonio Perez, who lived in Joel's apartment before him, an immigrant teenager with a terrible childhood and a murderous hand, who suffers a ruthless death and who has struggled back from the other side... "There's a supernatural city all around you," Dr. Reichman said. "Belief working on thousands of psyches."

Okay: I have to note the ethnic tensions in the book. This is an indelicate matter. Thing is, Norah is the one who notices them; she is well aware of being an interloper into the minority community and its esoteric belief system (which may or may not be a sham/scam). Is Stewart/Norah evincing a fear of ethnic taint, of "white American culture" being far too influenced by a dangerous foreign one (literally possessed by it here)? If so, author/narrator seem ambivalent about their feelings, knowing that that's a secret fear one should keep bottled up; an irrational, unwarranted fear with no place in polite society. This could be taken the other way: that's what oblivious white people get for moving unwelcome into minority neighborhoods: taken possession of by murderers. The fear of the other, so often invoked in cultural horror criticism, isn't so high-minded or abstract: to each individual, everything is other/foreign/potentially dangerous, no? Anyway.

Dell Books 1981; Kirkus review here

There are several comparative religion lectures as a couple scholars talk about the long history of religion, possession, exorcism, and the occult in general dating back to ancient days. I'm always up for that!

Dr. Reichman seemed embarrassed. "My dear Mrs. Benson, it is not so simple. The history of exorcism is largely one of failure. Not only does it often increase the state of possession but the exorcising priests risk falling victims to the state themselves.... Even the spectators are liable to it. All over the world, in every culture, this is considered dangerous."

Stewart's narrative pace is snappy and her characters, intelligent and modern, believably drawn, although at times her descriptions of domestic detail borders on boring readers when they should be tingling with suspense. At its core its a novel of its era, showing the incursion of the supernatural into the everyday that broke from the ghetto genres onto the bestseller lists. The film version a few years later, with a perfectly-cast Shirley MacLaine as Norah, amps up the Fire Island climax to an unbelievable, uncomfortable degree but also offers some authentic scares. As a novel, Possession of Joel Delaney is an enjoyable minor work of mild occult thrills and a lovely window into vintage NYC city life. It is in no way better than Rosemary's Baby, nor The Exorcist, but as I said, Stewart's writing is clear and captivating and the backstory of the serial killer is heartbreakingly horrifying. Those readers who appreciate the quieter vibe of pre-Stephen King horror might dig it.