Saturday, April 7, 2018

ShadowShow by Brad Strickland (1988): Theatre of Pain

If, before I picked up this book, you'd have asked me, "Hey Will, do you wanna read another horror novel about a middle-aged man in the '80s looking back on his '50s childhood in a small town and the immortal evil he confronted, and thus grew up and has not been able to escape its influence over his life?" I would have answered with a resounding "Fuck no." How tired I am of that structure, of reading about boys riding bikes in the soft summer evenings, oh god how syrupy and saccharine, spare me. No, really: spare me.

But I believe originality can be overrated. Striking out into new territory doesn't always guarantee success, while going back over covered ground can yield pleasant, if familiar, surprises. The latter is the case for ShadowShow (Onyx Books, Dec 1988, cover artist unknown), a novel set in small-town 1950s Georgia. Now the name of author Brad Strickland didn't mean anything to me till I looked him up for this review, and it turns out he has written lots of fantasy and YA novels, genres I do not follow. So while I knew nothing about him, it was obvious early on that Strickland's manner of imitation was skillful and not slavish. Ah, in good hands, let's see what you got, Strickland....

The gist of it: shuttered movie theater in Gaither, Georgia reopens under now ownership by a creepy polite-speaking dude named—not too spooky now!—Athaniel Badon. As local tongues wag, he employs local no-gooder, drunkard and wife-abuser Andy McCrory as his dogsbody to traipse through town on various weird errands that arouse suspicion in any seasoned horror reader: "He had worked, oh, the dark man had made him work like a dog... He had worked harder on that theater harder, probably, than he had worked at anything else in his life. But he had a reward to look forward to..." 

We have young Alan Kirby, whom we met in the novel's opening chapter set in the 1980s, growing up motherless with his widowed father John, a WWII vet, shop owner, and paternal saint. Alan, a sensitive, mature child, wakes up one night with the knowledge of sure death and sees out his window the lighting up of the SHADOWSHOW marquee, which then haunts his dreams...

Other men and women in ShadowShow have origins we've read before: Brother Odum Tate, the preacher with a dark secret trying to make amends; Ann Lewis, a 20-something schoolteacher who's beginning to imagine herself in sultry trysts with John Kirby; Harmon Presley the cop who takes offense at folks calling him "Elvis" because that is a white man who imitates a n*** (racism plays an integral part in the story) and expects everyone to look on him and despair, that is, except for the cadaverous man driving a pre-war Lincoln who stares on-duty Presley down one night and makes him wet his pants so you know that dude's pissed. Whatever is Sheriff Quarles gonna do with this guy?

There's Bellew Jefferson, the rich bank president, also widowed, also with a secret, whose black maid Mollie Avery will become the first victim of the ancient evil that has arrived in Gaither ("The miserable town is mine"), murdered so foully that even the coroner has to vomit. A few other characters you'll know from other books: Ludie Estes, an old black woman who also works for Jefferson but is out of a job when, spooked by Mollie's unholy death, locks himself in his home. At first I'd hoped Ludie wasn't going to be "magical Negro" but I suppose she is: for it is she who knows what happened at the farmhouse which became the theater which became the ShadowShow. She knows how one of America's greatest evils was perpetrated right on that spot decades before, and how the town "forgot" it, and now exploited by Athaniel Badon, the "man" whose name is a bastardization of scary biblical names.

Strickland has a sure hand in depicting that era of American life and holds back on the nostalgic glow. Sure, a few chapters in you'll find a sentence like "It was the way everyone remembered summer ending, droning lazy days with the cry of July-flies audible even in the center of town, days that moved as slow, sweet, and golden as sorghum syrup." But immediately after that Strickland presents us with the old men of Gaither grumbling about world affairs and biblical prophecy while also complaining about the theater showing movies like I was a Teenage Werewolf, "ungodly trash about things that never were and never would be real" and how they admire Strom Thurmond for at least trying to stand up against the civil rights bill, and "They sat on their benches, the old men on the square, and talked over the news, and waited to die." That's a pretty good turnaround. I mean cranky old white guys, wrong about shit forever.

The most notable thing about ShadowShow is that it is a very competent imitation of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and to a lesser extent, Michael McDowell. Of course I don't need to tell you how many, many works were "inspired" by those authors, so perhaps you think I'm not saying much. What makes this inspiration notable is that Strickland has control over this influence, and knows the byways well on his own. The conversation between Alan and his father when John talks about his war experience is realistically dark yet sincerely touching; the glimpses into human evil are unsparing. Strickland eschews sentiment and favors the straightforward prose which goes for serious dread in a kind of understatement, that plain affect of King, the hint of unfettered madness that speaks of the chaos hiding behind the facade of daily banality, the shrieking howling madness of nothing, that grabbing onto an electrical current, onto live wire running through everything that is always there no matter that we give it no thought whatsoever until it's too late.

Alan had once turned over a huge rock, the way ten-year-old boys will... beneath it he found squirming, crawling horror, gelid gray brown-spotted eggs of some creature stirring vaguely almost born life (but already looking as if death had laid a rotting hand on them)... Alan had recoiled in horror from the damp black path of earth, revolted by what he had revealed.
Alan felt the same way now, as if he alone were privy to all the darkest secrets of the town, and they were all like the concealed, light-hating life under the rock, all of it cold and stinking already of decomposition...

That said, Strickland underplays the power of his central conceit. What I really wanted here, what was promised on the back cover, was a movie theater that showed films to people of their own personal worst fears, darkest secrets, of fates unavoidable, of a future filled with horror and pain and woe, of twisted desires that play out onscreen and will not be denied, of a past rife with evil that stains the present in unimaginable ways. It happens to Bellew Jefferson, oh yes: "And for the rest of that dreadful midnight show, Mr. Jefferson sat and watched—and learned." This seemed like a spectacular setup for what was in store for other hapless characters. Later Alan asks fellow kid Diane English to a movie matinee, and he sees not the movie they paid to see—Lon Chaney biopic Man with a Thousand Faces—but a dream-like horror show, and it’s implied Diane does as well, but we only see Alan's. Then the movie becomes sexualized death as Mollie Avery appears to him:

"You can have me," she promised... "All the things you dreamed of doing. He will give me to you." "Who?"
"The master... He gives us freedom. Freedom. To do anything you wanted, to anyone you want. And live forever."
"It's what you want. It doesn't have to be me. Would you like the little girl? He says he will give you the little girl. Would you like to love her? To hurt her? She will be yours."

Ah, a corpse promising immortality and illicit embraces, while offering up glistening entrails and speaking of Alan's mother in Hell, that's pretty fucking good horror... but I wanted more. I wanted all the characters to have stumbled into the ShadowShow, alone, confused, and then to have their haunted selves reflected on the silver screen. But we get the library research, the vampirism angle, blood-sucking, revenants reminiscent of McDowell, the creepy midnight disinterment, the ragtag band of heroes, a bit of Christian mythos, a sacrifice play, a final confrontation: "You can't give eternal life—you can only work dead bodies like puppets, play the shadows over and over, like your movies—"

ShadowShow is an enjoyable, well-written paperback, with a fair amount of gruesomeness, believable dialogue, light on hazy nostalgia, a backstory that is truly horrific, and a climax that doesn't overstay its welcome. But in the final pages, back in the 1980s, I wanted some more lingering horror, something inescapable, some looming shadow of doom after all that's happened. It's hinted at but not explicit. Yet this pulled punch doesn't mean the book is not a worthwhile read; I believe it really is. If you're looking for another '80s horror novel set in the '50s that examines the secrets of small-town life and death, ShadowShow (mostly) fits the bill.


Captain Blake said...

See, this is what I love about this place. I've picked this up countless times since it first turned up in the late 80's. The central conceit of a malignant movie theater was right up my alley, but I always ended up putting it down, assuming it was another lame King/SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES knock-off. I figured if no one was talking about this Brad Strickland guy, there was probably good reason.

Hearing it's a good King/SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES knock-off changes everything. I'm one of those who actually enjoyed SUMMER OF NIGHT, and had a good time with Laymon's THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW, as offensively Laymon-esque as it was. And that name was finally ringing a distant bell, so I looked it up, and damned if this wasn't the same Brad Strickland who took over John Bellairs wonderful series of YA ghost stories after the great one's passing. Tried reading the first one, THE GHOST IN THE MIRROR, years ago, but it seemed to be missing that Bellairs magic. Maybe it was too soon.

So yeah, I'm taking the plunge, and if SHADOWSHOW is as much fun as it sounds, I'll be giving his Bellairs pastiches another spin.

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