Saturday, March 23, 2019

Joyride by Stephen Crye (1983): Long After the Thrill of Living is Gone

Pity poor Robert James Atchison. Living in a California town known as America's preeminent burial ground, where the dead outnumber the living five thousand to one, he's a sensitive 17-year-old boy with a fondness for poetry, instilled in him by his dear departed mother, and he actually enjoys reading books like The Iliad for school. He may have good hair, vibrant eyes, and fine features, but all that's lost on his high school classmates: to them he's a gangly, awkward-limbed, tongue-tied goof who they've nicknamed "Coma Man" with an embarrassing crush on Carla, the prettiest girl in school. He's written Carla a poem and has two scarlet ribbons to give to her. What could go wrong?

And then there's Robert's widowed father, a cemetery caretaker paralyzed in a graveyard accident—sure, those things happen—who is a raging bastard in a wheelchair, demanding the same breakfast every morning at the same hour and wants Robert to continue the family tradition of being a raging bastard cemetery caretaker. But one morning Robert has had enough. He's had more than enough: I won't let him make me dead inside... I just want to live a normal life.

This 1983 paperback original from Pinnacle, one of the mainstay publishers of the era, is nothing more nor less than a slasher flick in book form. Joyride, by Stephen Crye (according to a post on Goodreads, the pseudonym of a Ronald Patrick, who also wrote a previous Pinnacle novel from 1978 called Beyond the Threshold). And while I'm no slasher fan—it's one of my least favorite types of horror—I have to say Joyride is a competent, no-frills novel that does what it does perfectly well. If it ain't Halloween, it's maybe at least The Burning.

You can see the setup cinematically: a group of dumb, horny, wise-cracking, junk-food-snarfing teenagers cruising around looking for a place to party one night ignores a No Trespassing sign outside the gates of All Saints Hill Cemetery and drives on in. Yep, that's the cemetery that our pal poor Robert is caretaker of; he's been living there in the years since high school, after lying to officials that he had an adult guardian staying with him. Nope. And ever since a tragic last-day-of-school fireworks accident—sure, those things happen—Robert has festered with his scars, both mental and physical, in this cemetery, dreaming his dreams of his high school princess and of vengeance:

He wondered if any of them really understood how deeply he had suffered because of their cruelty... how he had been forced to retreat into the loneliness and despair of total isolation just to avoid the endless succession of humiliating stares from people who could never understand... how he had thought of killing himself at least a thousand times since the accident...

Pinnacle, 1978

In his fevered mind, the killer thinks one of the girls, Priscilla, is his old teenage sweetheart Car-r-r-r-la, so after he burns her boyfriend alive he stuffs her in a sepulcher, hoping to teach her to love him. Don't make me hurt you, you made me do it, I didn't mean to hurt you, Cleats is thinking, a thought process which should surprise absolutely no one. He's also stalking her friends, wandering about in the cemetery and who by now have discovered the gates have been locked again and are too high to climb over. The kids get dead in various ways, as Robert—now dubbed "Cleats" because of, you know, his shoes—goes after them with various cemetery caretaking implements. The kills are graphic but not too graphic, just like in an R-rated flick: The blade cut deep into his skull, splitting it down the center like a ripe melon.

The fat kid (I didn't say there was a fat kid? there's a fat kid) who is of course called Twinkie, ends up searching for help in the caretaker house (why doesn't he look for a phone) and there finds an old gentleman sitting alone at a dining room table. Stepping forward, he craned his head around the edge of the chair to meet the eyes of the man who would liberate him from the clutches of All Saints Hill. Ah, can't you guess what's coming? Some final kids are left for the face-off in the time-honored slasher tradition, when the killer seems to be everywhere at once.

Sphere 1982. Sweeet Christ
(also: I feel like this is a still from maybe a British '70s horror...?)

At times Crye is tedious in his descriptions of dumb teens in a panic—Pleeeese don't kill me, oh my god oh my god, he's coming back! I hope he kills me fast I mean you can see EC Comics speech balloons—but occasionally he writes a passage like A shimmering mosaic of buttery morning sunlight filtered through the checkerboard of dusty windowpanes or Priscilla had eased her mind into a state of suspended rationality that others, for wont of a clearer understanding of her despair, would call madness and you'll be glad for it. I found the high school flashbacks more interesting than the teens flailing away in the cemetery more engaging, so I'll be honest and say I did skim some pages but I don't think I missed much.

Joyride is not original and doesn't intend to be anyway, but nor is it terrible at all: I've read more original novels that were worse-written, unreadable and charmless. At 250 pages, Joyride is brief and mostly brisk, won't insult your intelligence, and you can read it in a weekend. It's a tasty, mindless little morsel of slasher mayhem. Oh, and that glorious cover art at the top by Sonja Lamut and Nenad Jakesovic? Yeah that's in the book! O joy indeed.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Spook by Steve Vance (1989): The Day the World Turned Day-Glo

Neon was a popular genre paperback coloring for titles and cover art in the very early '90s, I can remember authors as varied as Joseph Citro and Iain Banks having their books adorned with it. Vaguely psychedelic, but also kinda cheap, these Day-Glo colors glaring out at your from the shelves. I guess you almost had to pick 'em  up, though, didn't you? And if you picked up Spook (Berkley Books, Nov 1991) back in the day and flipped it open expecting to see some more eye-penetrating imagery, you'd get instead:

Yep, critical blurbs in place of stepback art. So weird. And yet, Spook offers nothing but that toothy skull and neon typeface. Author Steve Vance has written other horror novels but I can't imagine reading any of them. This is really one of the most nothing books I've read in some time, and while I was intrigued by one aspect of the narrative—failed artist seeks vengeance on the man who impregnated her with the titular "spook"—this aspect should have been most of the story. Instead we get hohum romance, indistinguishable cops, a slackly-characterized protagonist, and a cast of the most obnoxious, tedious teenage morons you ever saw. The whole shebang is here on the back:

"Spellbinding"? Hardly. Vance can write, I guess, and you can tell he wants to produce a serious horror/thriller novel, but he has absolutely no sense of pacing, POV, dialogue, suspense, chills or thrills—you know, all the reasons you read. Maybe if he'd used this as a first draft and then broke the novel down into individual parts and reassembled it, making his backstory the story or something. The twist is good, but I feel the book was reverse-engineered from it. 

But I kept waiting for something, anything, to alleviate my lack of interest; it never came. I didn't find the book stupid or insulting, crass or tacky or inept like other bad horror novels; I found it utterly unengaging, devoid of almost anything unique, fresh, inventive. There's no there there. Even though I finished Spook, I have to recommend you keep far, far away from it—If you're smart, you'll keep your distance. As for reading Vance's other novels, I don't think that day will ever come.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Child of Hell by William Dobson (1982): Flaming Youth

...the elemental passion that forever rumbled in his belly: 
the delight in the mystical properties of flame, its godlike destructiveness, 
its leaping, growing, consuming might.

With cover art that is a near-perfect example of vintage paperback horror fiction, this slim volume from Signet Books is adorned by one of artist Tom Hallman's most dramatically lurid images, bowl-cut notwithstanding. Love how the firelight is reflected in his eyes, a nice derangement of the senses. Dig the menace of the title, Child of Hell, and its glorious ITC Benguiat typeface, stark and unmissable against an inky black background. William Dobson is a perfectly non-descript name (a pseudonym too). Yep, creepy kid, similarity to a previous bestseller (King's Firestarter of course), typeface and tagline—all that's missing is a comparison to The Other or Rosemary's Baby!

Dobson is the pen name of British writer Michael Butterworth (copyright is under this name). Under this name he published Fangs, The Child Player, and The Ripper, all early '80s and also from Signet.  Unfortunately there are two British writers named Michael Butterworth so parsing between the two was tricky, but I'm pretty sure this Butterworth was also a writer of crime thrillers and comic books, while the other Butterworth was a New Wave science fiction publisher and author. Our Butterworth died in 1986 at age 62.

With those bibliographic deets out of the way, let's discuss. Less a horror novel than a psychological potboiler with some very graphic scenes of pyromaniacal mayhem, Child of Hell isn't really about a child at all (thank ye gods), although the novel begins with a little boy of just seven burning down his house with his family inside on Christmas in the non-descript American town of Midchester. Good heavens, why? Well, because instead of the super-cool radio-controlled model fighter plane he asked for, his folks ripped him off with a goddamn cheapo jigsaw puzzle! The discarded wrapping paper smolders in the ash of the dying living room fire and then catches on the Christmas tree branches and*poof*—fire!... and little Davie Fosset runs outside and along with horrified neighbors, watches his family burn to death unable to escape.

When he heard their screams—and they screamed till they died, 
and they died neither soon nor easily—he only grinned.

Jeff Angel is a young family man and a firefighter on the rise; while Little Davie is setting his family home alight, the firefighters are having a literal ball. Jeff is chatted up by a delightful woman named Marie, and they argue wittily about the Mad Arsonist, who's been lighting up Midchester for two years now. What motivates him? What's his background? How can he be caught, and how should he be punished? This conversation, as well as the ball itself, is interrupted by the blaze at the Fossets', and Angel is off to fight this war he can never win.

Arriving on the scene, Angel finds ambulance nurse Janice Hooper comforting the young survivor. Now Janice nursed neither a motherly nor a platonic regard for the young rookie fireman, and Dobson neatly sets up some romantic interests for our ostensible hero within the first 10 pages. Then Janice hears the boy mutter that weirdo phrase again: goddamned cheapo jigsaw puzzle...

As I said, Child of Hell isn't exactly about a child: Dobson allows Davie to grow up as the novel progresses, and it's a solid narrative arc I think. He's adopted by an older preacher and his wife, Marvin and Teresa Allaun; they're strict adherents of the severe religion that founded the town, the Church of the Lonely Wanderers. One night at dinner our incipient maniac admits—"Speak out straight, lad"—that he wants to be a fireman when he grows up! O irony, like fire, you are an elemental force of the universe.

Then we follow Dave through grade school and college, with terrible glimpses of his fire mania and growing hatred toward the women who reject him. When making a date, he mutters to himself, You'd better be there, you little prick-teasing bitch, or you'll be goddamn sorry. He traps vagrants in abandoned buildings and then sets them alight.

He watched it all from the shadows beyond the inferno, and gloried in what he was doing, had done, and not with any unholy mirth, but with an awe and wonder at the power that lay in his hands.

Other than those personality tics, Dave grows into a fine upstanding fellow.

Meanwhile, Jeff Angel has married Marie, and they plan to start a family. Jeff's work is paramount, though, and Dobson gets into some police and firefighter politics, with chiefs and officers and all that, filler to make a fuller novel; not boring exactly but not always my favorite type of reading unless handled by a master. With pressure from various city muckety-mucks, the firefighters are determined to catch this arsonist, but Angel often thought that at his retirement party and presentation, he would be handing over the arsonist's dossier to his successor...

About halfway through the novel Dobson sets up a major setpiece of conflagratory terror, hearkening to the climax of Carrie. It's epic, cruel, horrifying. Debby Shearer, the belle of the Armadillo Country Club, is having her nineteenth birthday party there. Our Dave has become a busboy/waiter/bartender there, and even though he is of the lower classes, Debby has her eye on him—and seduces our pyro easily. Thinking of herself as a highborn lady of the eighteenth century, she knows she can take a lover beneath her station and is hidebound neither by convention nor by the acclaim of disapproval of the mob. But she certainly won't marry him... Yes, she's a terrible snob, and you know what happens to snobs in books like these.

And so Child of Hell progresses, twining the stories of Fosset and Angel as they move through normal life, its ups and downs, and the madness of one and the determination of the other. Characterization is economic but believable; there is even some early serial-killer profiling, as Janice reappears in Jeff's world and tries to assist in the identification and capture of the Mad Arson. Was it feasible that a child of six or seven would deliberately destroy his own family by fire, then go on to commit fourteen years of dedicated arson and murder? The mind recoiled away from it. And yet... and yet...

Dobson writes well enough, his dialogue doesn't distract (at times it sounds a little plummy),  and his ability to generate suspense is laudable. I did though notice a few particulars that either made me wince or laugh. His sex scenes, well, he's the kind of writer who uses the phrases "amatory vocabulary" and "couplings" and even, god save us, "darling." More distressing is the appearance, albeit brief, of  sibling incest, almost as if paperback horror contracts of the '80s were written with an ironclad clause that could not be unheeded. I had a chuckle at Dobson's failure to convince me he knew anything about America.

You'll be happy to hear I've not even mentioned all of the twists and turns and shocks that make up the entirety of this barely 200-page novel. Dobson is great at scenes of fiery destruction, at depicting Dave's psychopathic desires that he can suppress for a time—he even meets a nice girl! the killer fell in love at first sight—but oh how it can't be denied.When Dave lights up a theater full of retirees at a matinee, he sits eating a burger and watches it burn, in the curious amalgam of tension and relaxation, of cold-bloodedness and erotic excitement that informed his excursions into death, disfigurement, and destruction. As a fireman, how can he ever be suspected? How can he ever be found out? Dave Fosset has the perfect cover. Yes, Child of Hell brings the goods, hot and ready for you.

And speaking of perfect covers...

Paperbacks from Hell table of contents