Thursday, January 17, 2019

Eat Them Alive by Pierce Nace (1977): Green Hell

They were monsters—greedy green monsters! 
They looked as if they would eat anything they could catch, chewing it to bits in their enormous jaws... One of the mantises had cornered a man... who couldn't run enough to escape the wildly dashing insect. It flopped him onto the ground and began eating him as if he were a fish, a hunk of meat, anything edible. 
And it did not bother to kill him before devouring him. 
He lay kicking, and no doubt screaming, as the green monster ate him alive.

From a mind deranged springs this ludicrous, bat-shit bonkers sleaze-horror novel about giant people-eating praying mantises. This is the book that's either the zenith or the nadir of paperback pulp-horror fiction. In fact I feel guilty selling it as either because as of today, this book is impossible to obtain for less than $300, and it is not worth that no matter where it stands on the horror scale. Eat Them Alive—its title alone appealing to our basest fears, crude and simplistic as a tabloid headline, humanity reduced to food—is truly garbage. There's no percentage in arguing otherwise. And yet...

First published by Manor Books in 1977 and then by New English Library (with cover art by Tim White), Alive is amateurish, moronic, thoughtless, sadistic, repetitive schlock with no redeeming value whatsoever. What enjoyment there is comes in the form of disbelief. You'll be amazed at the lack of any attempt at realism in any aspect. You'll be astounded at the depraved depths to which the author can descend! Pierce Nace (more on this person later) piles one outrageously graphic scene on top of another like a pulp writer suffering a fever dream.

They were clambering over each other to escape their caves or undersea holes or wherever else they had lived. They must have dwelt beneath the island for thousands of years. They must be a throw back to the dinosaurs...

Our main guy Dyke Mellis is just the worst, a craven, cowardly, ultra-violent crook. He's been living on the island in exile for 11 years, since being tortured almost to death by the criminal gang he tried to double-cross. This back-story in Chapter Two is torn right from dimestore crime stories, akin to the sere, spare, nihilistic works of David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Dan J. Marlowe, or Richard Stark—only in attitude, not in execution, good god no—in which men outside the law are betrayed (or as in this case, are the betrayer), beaten, and abandoned for dead by their (justifiably angry) crew. Dyke Mellis is almost superhumanly equipped with a taste for vengeance that keeps him alive despite coming so close to death; he bears hideous scars, poor vision, constant headaches.

Nace shoves in your face and smashes in your mouth what other pulp writers hinted at and around, that Dyke is hardly a man, as he was castrated by the four men he tried to rip off ("No, no! Don't cut me there! Slice off anything else, but leave me that!"). You won't forget this because Nace will lapse into repetition at a moment's notice. It's hilarious how Nace has Dyke talk to himself about his lust for vengeance, reiterating his personal motivation, as if Nace is writing a work of such complexity and nuance that the reader may have become unclear on the basics: "It's the only thing I've got to live for, because it'll further my plan for revenge on those four guys for making me what I am, an impotent no-man... I want to watch... as the giant mantises eat them alive!" Oh shit, how about that, that's the title of the book, wow, it totally slipped my mind. Way to bring it all back home, Pierce Nace!

Anyway, Dyke sees the destruction on that island from the safety of his fishing boat, he thinks: If he could tame this one insect, teach it to respect and follow his commands, then he could tame others, make them a powerful force to do his bidding. And par for the course in landscape of illogicality, Dyke does train the biggest mantis. Nace goes into lots of spurious logistics about how he goes about this without getting eaten. He paints its head red to tell it apart and then mutters to himself:

A name. The thing's got to have a name... But what will it be? How do you name a beast whose sole purpose is acting as your instrument of boiling revenge, of mind-racking torture, of slow and horrendous death? Well, how about "Slayer"? This man-sized bug is going to slay for me... Slayer will be the torturer, but I'll be the watcher, the enjoyer, the cheerer-on. I'll love watching my great green mantis as he rips into bodies, as he eats them part by part. I'll feel excited, obsessed, I'll grow tall in the feeling...

Manor Books, 1977, with accurate cover art (by artist unknown alas) so that's something
"Good boy, Slayer, You're the biggest of them all—and the only one with a red head. 
You will command them as I will command you!"

Somebody please tell me Kerry King read this book back in the early '80s. The story plods on, as thin as the paper it's printed on, with lots of gore and nonsense (the beasts lovingly devour women's breasts), till yes, he tracks down each of the men who tortured him... they all happen to live nearby. How fortuitous!

The unsparing of any detail in depicting the creatures' ravenous appetite and the ease with which they tear part the "human food" has a dehumanizing effect on the reader if one tries to imagine such a scene in the real world. And yet violence never gets next level: for all its intensity, the same descriptions of gore are used over and over again. Sure, the monsters do love eating the stomach contents of other mantises, and squeezing out human intestines for a dipping sauce. But when describing the massive trauma of tearing off of limbs and heads you won't read vocabulary like ligament, cartilage, tissue, or anything that would require any knowledge besides a child's understanding of anatomy. No one ever vomits or shits their pants in fear—why, that would be too far!

Many times Slayer ran his claws inside the pieces of skull, as if to be sure hew as getting every edible bite...

Next the beast pulled the arms from the man as Dyke had done to grasshoppers a thousand times when he was a boy. The arms came out of their sockets like paper in the mantis's pull. While the man screamed on, the enormous insect ate his hands, his wrists, his elbows, the whole of his arms...

Before the mantis rent the organs from the chest and stomach cavities, he bent low over the girl and filled his great maw with all that stamped the body as female. Watching, Dyke thought, God, I think I could eat that part myself. I could never touch a woman's privacy otherwise. Perhaps sometime I can share such a part with one of the beasts when he eats it...

Slayer crouched beside his master, eating babies and children almost whole, not bothering to tear them to bits—and finding his ultimate joy in the women he stripped and slit and ate.

One redeeming factor is that since Dyke is castrated, he can't really get erotically aroused by watching these monster consume human meat; I mean he almost gets there but it's one place the author stops short—on purpose? As he ponders to himself watching an old man he knew become mantis prey:

I'm not sure Nace even gets the biology of the mantis correct. The descriptions don't get more than "the mantis broke off a leg with its hands" and I don't think mantises even have hands but that's the word Nace keeps using. I don't think Nace ever mentions "mandibles," only "jaws," which doesn't sound right either. Nor does Nace seem to have familiarity with human speech. Cringe-worthy dialogue from Dyke's targets like "Don't let them eat her to death!" and "Are they really... eating my... folks?" and "I'm not going to stand here and see those prehistoric animals eat my wife and kids!" is nothing anyone would ever say, you have to laugh. Don't you?! Like when Dyke and his creepy-crawlies show up at a victim's home at breakfast and he sits down and devours the carefully laid-out meal, รก la Vlad the Impaler, while watching the bugs slaughter the man and his family. I had to give points on that scene.

Now, about Nace. For a long time there was doubt and debate about who Nace really was, but according to various internet sources who have really done some legwork, it seems near-certain the author was one Evelyn Pierce Nace, a part-time insurance secretary who published in men's crime magazines under "Pierce Nace." I wonder how many people who knew her in real life were aware that she wrote one of the sleaziest, most heartless works of horror fiction of all time?

Would not Dyke's four enemies beg pitifully, on their abject knees, if he came marching at the head of a hungry horde of praying mantises that were commanded to devour Dyke's torturers? God, what a devil's joy that would be!

To wrap up: not one of the books I've read by other sewage-purveyors like Guy N. Smith, Shaun Hutson, or Richard Laymon can compare with the trashtastic lunacy on display here. But it is obsessed with human degradation, humiliation, emotional torment, and the limits of physical pain while understanding none of it. Nace has produced a work that is the creative equivalent of pulling wings off flies, a childish cruelty that is virtually sociopathic in its divorce from actual human comprehension. As I said, there's no attempt to present the events realistically. I guess it's like reading porn written by someone who's never had sex.

Unlike other pulp-horror novels, which are often mediocre and boring in the extreme, Alive at least is hilariously inept; so poor and idiotic and unrelenting, going along for the ride offers sick thrills one doesn't get often. You will keep reading no matter what! For fans of that style of bottom-of-the-barrel horror fiction, Alive will provide the tackiest, most tasteless of delights.

I read Eat Them Alive in one day, finishing it up alone in my library on a Saturday night, my head buzzing pleasantly from beer and smoke, and my god, I found I was enjoying this degrading, damnable book! I actually couldn't put it down. When we get to the culmination of Dyke's vengeance, it's a delirious surreal kaleidoscope of bloody, gut-wrenching yet utterly ridiculous violence. The final chapter has the feel and the logic of an eight-year-old, tired of playing make-believe, crashing all his toys together at once in an apocalyptic blow-out. Those final sentences are a weird satisfaction.

Yes, this novel beggars all critical approach. I know it sounds irresistible, but I still don't know if I can recommend Eat Them Alive, and like I said it is not worth $300! I mean, I bought a copy, the New English Library edition maybe a year and a half ago, for $5 plus $10 shipping from the UK; is that luck, or something else? But it is part of the paperback horror boom so I feel duty-bound to write about it... such is my lot, my curse, my devil's joy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Top 8 of '18: My Favorite Horror Reads of the Year

2018 was in a way the biggest year ever for Too Much Horror Fiction: in March, the Grady Hendrix nonfiction book it inspired, 2017's Paperbacks from Hell, received the hallowed Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction. And Grady and I will be providing introductions to a series of reprint vintage horror novels to be published by Valancourt Books. I also wrote an intro (and signed copies) for a special hardcover edition of Ken Greenhall's Hell Hound from Centipede Press.

Yet my reading this year was unfortunately filled with dud books like the burnt kernels at the bottom of a popcorn bag. One straight bomb after another, I despaired of the era I was also so enamored of. Why do I keep reading this crap, I wondered. I turned to crime novels (Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett) for relief. 

Yet I did enjoy some fantastic vintage works, a few titles of which belong to my favorites of all time (I reread The Haunting of Hill House after the premiere of its Netflix adaptation; it remains one of the finest novels I've ever encountered). I think you'll dig these titles below; they offer a good breadth of the genre, from "mainstream" to pulp horror, from the graphic to the poetic, from the thrilling to the thoughtful.

The Tribe by Bari Wood (1980) - A fully-realized horror thriller about a creature from Jewish folklore bringing vengeance and mayhem to New York City.

The Flesh Eaters by L.M. Morse (1979) - Grim and grimy, this pulp-tastic tale of cannibalism and depravity, set in the filthy Middle Ages, is deliciously sleazy.

Lovers Living, Lovers Dead by Richard Lortz (1977) - A Seventies psychosexual romp with a bonkers shocker to explain why a professor's wife is—well,  you'll see.

Wilding by Melanie Tem (1992) - Female werewolf clans confront generational discord. Astute yet impressionistic, heartbreaking and bloody.

The Spirit by Thomas Page (1978) - Sasquatch adventure horror. I'd place it in the eco-horror subgenre.

Winter Wolves by Earle Westcott (1988) - Just what the title says. Written with a naturalist's eye, with a vivid frigid locale and some spooky titular creatures.

Koko by Peter Straub (1988) - Straub to the rescue! A mystery/serial killer/psychological thriller about the aftermath of Vietnam, Koko is a large-scale mainstream novel that's horror-adjacent; powerful, unsettling, and often brilliant.

Such Nice People by Sandra Scoppettone (1980) - A sadly relevant how-we-live-now novel about a teenage boy's descent into madness and the horror his family then experiences. Review to come!

Here's to a horrific 2019! Now get out there and read some good horror.