Sunday, August 2, 2020

Quarantine Reads, Summer 2020

During the quarantine I've been reading a lot, of course, but I always feel like I could be reading more. Here are some quick short reviews of books I've read since the shutdown, a selection of the terrible, the mediocre, and the good. Let's start at the bottom and work our way up.

Despite bearing one of the Eighties' iconic paperback covers, thanks to the talents of Lisa Falkenstern, 1984's Night Train stalls early and leaves you high and dry. Although an astute editor, as an author Thomas F. Monteleone plods along in the squarest, most literal fashion, telling, telling, telling his story and leaving no room for readers to think or breathe or imagine anything for themselves. For all its bizarre trappings, cult religions, alternate dimensions, and such, Night Train is mortally dull. You know all these scenarios, all these characters, what they say, what they do—as soon as a cop says he's going to the morgue to see a body, you know the coroner there's gonna be eating a sandwich over the corpse, and he is. Add it to your shelf for the cover, and grab the UK edition, seen below (cover artist unknown), if you can as well, but reading it is a chore; I'd recommend John Shirley's livelier, grittier Cellars instead. But the ultimate New York subway experience is still, for my money, this. Or okay, this too.

Now I have never read any YA horror, as I started with "adult horror" when I was a kid in the early Eighties, with King and Lovecraft and the rest of the gang when I was around 13 or 14—the earliest King novel I remember is when my mom was reading Cujo in a brand-new hardcover, almost positive that was the first I'd heard of him. Before that the YA novels I read were not horror at all (except maybe Bunnicula). With so much time on my hands now, I went through my wife's collection of Christopher Pike novels and found Midnight Club, after I'd heard it was gonna be a TV show. Ok, cool, kids telling each other spooky stories...

Originally published in February 1994 by Pocket Books YA imprint Archway, Midnight Club sports fairly typical cover art for its type: neon typeface and good-looking teens, faces alight with apprehension, anxiety, delicious anticipation. Candles, fireplace, mysterious robed figure, doesn't it all look cozy?! Very appealing (yet somewhat misleading). I can see why Pike was and remains popular: his prose is engaging, his characters have unique identities, with interior lives and thoughts, the teens' relationships feel real enough, and he keeps the suspense rolling. Except this isn't a horror novel at all. Fine. I just don't know what it is. This is the kind of thing the phrase "not for me" was invented for.

There's a chance you don't know the name Taylor Caldwell, but in her day in the mid-20th century, she wrote bestselling historical novels and romances. Again, not my thing, but I well recall the shelves of her books in the used bookstore I worked at three decades ago, all thick moldy tomes of yesteryear that people traded in but never bought. My boss would groan at the sight of them.

Her 1965 thriller Wicked Angel is billed as "in the tradition of The Bad Seed," the 1954 bestselling novel of a homicidal little girl by William March. While Caldwell and March used different story lines to tell their tale of malevolent offspring, the underlying themes are too similar; Angel reads like a moral scold's response to the earlier novel. Instead of March's penetrating, clear-eyed psycho-social insights, Taylor uses a conservative religious lens to fathom the boy's depths of rage and hatred. In a style I'm positive was dated even in 1965, perhaps by two or three decades, Caldwell writes in starchy, fussy prose, exactly the way you'd think she'd write just by looking at those paperbacks covers above. Dialogue contains some Dostoevskian heights of hysteria:

Do you think, for one instant, that Angelo is moved by the prayers in your church, that he believes, for one moment, the glorious story of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion? Of course not! To him, they are childish fairy stories...

I've read worse books, and Caldwell does have a way with detail—she is an utterly professional and polished novelist—but the prissy, precious dialogue and self-righteous moralizing soured me. It's as if the Church Lady wrote a horror novel! The familiar trope of the creepy kid is a reliable one, but you don't want an imitator, you want the real thing, and so you want the one and only Bad Seed.

Something else familiar: unfortunately adorned with a most uninspired cover, this 1983 debut novel from Berkley Books is by Lisa Tuttle, whose 1986 collection A Nest of Nightmares is a personal favorite of mine. Set in a nicely described Austin, Texas, Familiar Spirit is the sad tale of heartbroken grad student Sarah who moves into a cheap rental house to start her life over and eventually begins a dalliance of sorts with an occult magician named Jade. He's hot and horny and needs a body... Dig the tagline on the NEL edition (cover art by Steve Crisp) below: 

Peppered with local color and some really graphic sex scenes, Familiar Spirit is a quick read at 220 pages in its original Berkley edition, with many of the admirable Tuttle attributes in play: domestic strife, friendship, women striving to create a life on their own, a matter-of-fact view of human sexuality, and creeping supernatural doings. It also has a pretty great last line that wraps things up deliciously. Look for the reprint from Valancourt Books, with introduction by me, soon! It will feature this Tor cover, from Lee MacLeod:

But my favorite of recent months is definitely Dearest by Peter Loughran (Stein and Day, 1984). I've seen this paperback around for years but was never really taken with it enough to actually buy it. Somewhere somebody mentioned it very favorably—pretty sure it was horror writer Chet Williamson in a Facebook horror group comment—and it was available for cheap online. In the UK it was published as Jacqui, whose macabre mummified-corpse cover you see at the top, which more than the US cover gives you an idea of what's in store...

Told first-person by a regular yet unnamed British bloke who works as a taxi driver, Dearest doesn't feature an unreliable narrator so much as one so coolly rational in his beliefs that he is delusional, utterly insane. He dictates his thoughts and musings on women and sex and love and family in such obsessive detail, with such working-class common sense, you start to think maybe he's right about it all. But what he's really doing is laying bare the worst of the male psyche. The problem is, no man can ever convince himself that a really beautiful girl could be a tart. A man always thinks a woman who looks like an angel must have the nature of an angel.... I should have paid attention to all the things wrong with Jacqui... 

The first chapter is long, and might test the patience of readers who have little stomach for listening to the aggrieved rants of long-suffering men with women trouble; this part is rife with the suffocating vibe that overheated first-person narration often has. It's all about them, clueless dudes unloading their deepest thoughts and passing observations onto you, the unwilling victim. But stick with him, because Dearest gets dark and twisted and gross (and much of it drily ironic as well). It's pretty difficult just to stick a knife in a human being and cut them, even if they've been dead for months. You feel it might hurt them.

There you have it: I can recommend Dearest and Familiar Spirit easily; the rest are best avoided. Wish me luck on my next reading binge! Stay safe and stay sane.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Latest Titles in Valancourt's Paperbacks from Hell Line & Other Stuff!

You asked for it and you got it! Due to high demand, Valancourt Books is publishing several more titles in their line of vintage horror reprints of books featured in my and Grady Hendrix's Paperbacks from Hell (Quirk Books, 2017). One is a reprint of a reprint, if you will: Joan Samson's 1975 classic The Auctioneer, complete with its original paperback cover; another is Garrett Boatman's Stage Fright from 1988, which boasts one of the most striking of vintage skeletal covers; and then there is Familiar Spirit, Lisa Tuttle's first novel, from 1983—although this edition will have the much better cover from its 1987 Tor reprint!

Be sure to head over to Valancourt Books to order and to ask any questions! I don't know if there will be anymore titles in the PfH series after these. I'll say it's been hard work for all of us, me, Grady, and the guys at Valancourt. When deciding which books to reprint there needs to be a perfect storm of quality and availability. Many authors are deceased, with book rights in the wind; others don't want to be bothered about work they did three or four decades ago; some (or extant family members) want too much money; often initial inquiries go utterly ignored; and some titles are available as ebooks which prevents Valancourt from reprinting them; more commonly, we simply don't like the books we thought we might! That's just how it is.

Otherwise I've been using my stay-at-home time productively: I've begun cataloguing my paperbacks! Been meaning to do this for years. I'm using an Excel spreadsheet, nothing elaborate, although I've heard of other software and apps for cataloguing books, but at this point I'm about 600 titles and am not about to start over! It's cool going back through paperbacks I haven't touched in years, and also a big help in updating my want list. Just in the past couple weeks I've added another dozen books to my shelves, having had some good luck finding stuff for reasonable prices. I splurge occasionally, usually because I'm tired of seeing the same titles on my want-list for years and years. And when I'm done with my horror titles I'll be moving on to mystery/crime, science fiction, and literature paperbacks as well.

Stay safe out there, gang, and I hope you're getting plenty of reading done!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Nine Horrors and a Dream by Joseph Payne Brennan (1958): The Goo Goo Muck

When it comes to pulp horror fiction, I don't think there's any doubt that "Slime" is one of the perfect gems of the style. Originally published in a 1953 issue of the venerated magazine "Weird Tales," Joseph Payne Brennan's 30-odd page tale is rife with all the weaknesses and all the glories of pulp horror in full flower. Brennan overuses words and phrases ("hood of horror" and "black mantle"), utilizes some weak analogies (alien as... some wild planet in a distant galaxy), and his country dialogue makes "Hee-Haw" sound like Olivier reciting the Bard. Indeed these "weaknesses," when delivered with conviction and narrative skill, are to my mind the most enjoyable aspects of vintage pulp.

 Cover story, March 1953. Illustration by Virgil Finlay

The central image of "Slime" is a roiling mass of sentient, ravenous black muck formed at ocean bottom—when the earth and sea were young—and is so utterly disgusting, so enthusiastically detailed, so shivery wrong you will be, forgive the pun, sucked right into the story. An embodiment of the inchoate unconscious, straight from the nightmare world of our worst fears, slithering about on the lightless, unknowable sea floor (man this style is contagious). Brennan imbues this noxious goop with predatory sentience:

It was plastic, essentially shapeless... by turns viscid and fluid... It was animated by a voracious, insatiable hunger... When the lifting curtain of living slime swayed out of the mud and closed upon [its victims], their fiercest death throes came to nothing... The horror did not know fear... The black mantle reigned supreme.

After an undersea volcanic upheaval sloshes it up from inky oceanic depths, the slime finds itself in a swamp outside a rural town. Images of it streaking out of the fetid grove of trees, vines, moss, and mud, onto land, over fields, to raise up and pounce on its hapless victims is nothing short of revolting. "O God," cries a woman who saw it but survived, "the darkness came alive!" You can imagine what occurs, all the story beats and characters and the efforts to dispatch this slimy blackness that had no essential shape, no discernible earthly features... a black viscid pool of living ooze which flowed upon itself, sliding forward at incredible speed. No doubt about it: "Slime" is a stone-cold horror classic about a perfect eating machine.

It is the lead story in Nine Horrors and a Dream, one of the oldest books in my horror paperback library. A slim Ballantine paperback from 1962, it's part of a series of that publisher's horror paperbacks, known as "Ballantine's Chamber of Horrors." Other titles from gents such as Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, Charles Beaumont, and those of like mind were included. This collection contains stories (mostly) published also in "Weird Tales" throuhout the early 1950s; it is Brennan's first of many short horror fiction collections.

A garishly creepy Richard Powers cover of surreal shapes, swirls, squiggles, and something like spider legs adorns the Brennan cover, with more of the Powers abstract imagery in the ad for the other books on the back cover, as seen above. Why, yes, that's Zacherle! Now, I myself prefer the folksy cover for the original Arkham House hardcover from '58, with Frank Utpatel art, a more accurate representation of Brennan's style and content. But, you know, that's just me!

Brennan was a lifelong resident of Connecticut, where virtually all of his work takes place, and wrote horror, fantasy, and poetry. He created Lucius Leffing, an occult detective, but I haven't read any of those stories. Brennan also created horror magazines to encourage other fans and writers of the supernatural, and was an early bibliographer of Lovecraft. "Slime" is easily his most famous work, and rightly celebrated, but Nine Horrors contains one other stone-cold masterpiece, so let's move on to that, shall we?

Concerning a desolate plot of land and its effects on the owner, "Canavan's Back Yard" has also long been lauded by horror fans, and if you haven't read it, please do so at your earliest opportunity. Narrated by a writer who befriends a bookseller who's moved himself and his wares into a house on the outskirts of town, this tale features not the overheated pulp stylings of "Slime," but a more somber and reflective tone:

a long desolate yard overgrown with brambles and high brindle-colored grass. Several decayed apple trees, jagged and black with rot, added to the scene's dismal aspect. The broken wooden fences... appeared to be literally sinking into the ground. Altogether the yard presented an unusually depressing picture...  

Brennan (1918-1990)

Our narrator spends his mornings writing and his afternoon in this fellow's little bookshop (ain't that the life!), and soon notices Canavan becoming preoccupied with this landscape, always gazing out his window, even to the detriment of his mail order bookselling business. One day he comes in and outside spies Canavan coming out of the tall grass in the yard, a lost bewildered expression on his face. He tells our writing pal, "I'll have no rest till I solve the riddle of that piece of ground." Next visit and Canavan is nowhere to be found inside. Then, with infinite dread, our narrator looks through the window:

The long stalks of brown grass slide against each other in the slight breeze with dry sibilant whispers. The dead trees reared black and motionless. Although it was late summer, I could hear neither the chirp of a bird not the chirr of a single insect. The yard itself seemed to be listening.
What happens after I won't spoil. The precise, measured pace of the telling heightens the horrific reveal; in fact I (re)read it late at night before bed and yes, its uncanny mysteries lingered.

The other stories here are competently written, but rather minor and for "Weird Tales" completists, I feel. Set-ups reminded me of he likes of Roald Dahl, Gerald Kersh, Fredric Brown, short story writers like that, but not as fiendishly clever or brutally unexpected. They take moments to read, and the twist endings barely register; they simply restate what was obvious from the opening passages: "If you ask me, chum, the murderin' thing in the black raincoat was something dead that came up out of the sea!" 

"I'm Murdering Mr. Massington," besides sounding like a classic Smiths song, is a non-supernatural work first published in Esquire mag, so, you know, class. You know how writers always get that query, "Hey, my life story would make a great book, you write it and we'll split the money," or "I have a great idea for a story, etc." (and that idea is always just an old "Twilight Zone"), well here a writer meets a melancholy fellow in a bar, and said fellow finds the idea of being forgotten after his death intolerable: ridden by a single, overwhelming obsession. Fellow begs narrator to write a story about him so he will be remembered, a record of his person. The twist is fatal. Poor guy.

"The Hunt" is about another poor guy being followed on a train by a man who, for some unknown reason, is scarcely short of terrifying. Of course he cannot escape this stalker, and their final confrontation in the last sentences would work a lot better if it weren't marred by some perplexing dialogue. "The Mail for Juniper Hill" gets some decent mileage out of a raging snowstorm setting, the kind of tale you just know Stephen King read as a kid, with New England old-timers marveling at "Big Ed" Hyerson, the local ne'er-do-well, a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing rascal. Told in flashback, we learn Ed is super-reliable as a mail carrier, no matter the condition of road or weather. Aforementioned snowstorm only makes Ed more determined to deliver sacks of mail, and he does; but not before freaking out all those old-timers, giving them a deadly chill which was not of the storm.

"Death in Peru" presents some decent travelogue descriptions, especially in the description of a treacherous mountain hike: he seemed to have entered another world, a world composed of soundlessness and space, a timeless world of brooding mystery where even the eons left hardly a sign. The reveal is predictable, alas. I enjoyed "The Calamander Chest," dude buys a fancy chest for cheap then it starts to creep him out for a very valid reason; the tale ends with a perfect line of fatal irony, a permanent change of locale indeed—which would have made for a much better title, methinks. "Levitation" is cute enough, like something from early Bradbury in "dark carnival" mode, while "On the Elevator" and "Green Parrot" are inconsequential.

Other than "Slime" and "Canavan's Backyard," Nine Horrors isn't an essential unless you collect Powers covers or the other "Chamber of Horrrors" titles; better is Shapes of Midnight, a 1980 paperback with a King intro (see above), featuring those two tales and later Brennan works I enjoyed more, such as "The Willow Platform" and "The Horror at Chilton Castle" (the latter collected by Ramsey Campbell in his 1988 anthology from Tor, Stories That Scared Me, which scared me too but I haven't reviewed here yet). Pleasant enough reading to while away a couple hours, however, and you'll forget neither that loathsome "hood of horror" nor the otherworldly curse of "Canavan's hellish back yard!"

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

World Dracula Day!

Dracula. First published May 26, 1897. I consider it the most important, most essential, horror novel of all. All of horror is in his shadow. Enjoy some of these fangtastic vintage covers!


"You play your wits against me, mine, who commanded armies hundreds of years before you were born?"

Friday, May 22, 2020

Horror Fiction Help XXII

None of these ring a bell for me, so I'm hoping one of my lovely TMHF readers will recognize them:

1. Possibly as early as 1969, no later than 1973.  COVER ART: in the background, there is a huge hulking silhouette behind a house window--inside the house. In the foreground is a shotgun--from the shooter's POV--blasting away at the silhouette.  CONTENTS: A group of suburbanites are under attack and running from an enemy--I can't remember now if it's gang members, the Commies, space aliens or who. The main gist of the story was the way that the worst in a lot of these people came out, and what they started doing to each other. Sort of an R or X rated variation on THE MONSTERS ARE DUE ON MAPLE STREET.  It also delivered on the violence promised by the cover.  There were a lot of raunchy situations and dialogue.  At one point, a villain gets the upper hand and threatens to rape one of the women all three ways…”Maybe the seed’ll meet somewhere in the middle!”

2. This was a paperback I read back in the late 80s-90s, out of my dad’s collection. It may have been published earlier. Not a typical incubus-succubus story, the main villain is a mythological immortal, half woman half-snake creature, possibly called Lamia or Naga, who feeds on blood and can possess people's bodies.  The plot I can remember: The protagonist is a single woman with a teenage son. The creature possesses the body of her sister and then comes to stay with them. The woman begins to notice odd things, and the sister begins killing random people, transforming from human into its snake woman form and draining them of blood. The first of the attacks is a girl from the local high school, very athletic, and the creature finds the smell of her blood irresistible.  More people die. There is a hint of a past lesbian relationship between the protagonist and another woman—the other woman ends up being targeted and killed by the creature as a warning not to pry. At some point, the sister leaves and takes the teenage son with her and seduces him. He returns later, but the only thing he remembers is ‘she kept putting me to sleep.’  The woman contacts the sister’s employer and discovers that her sister had been ill for several weeks before coming to see them. I think she learns about the creature possessing her and decides killing her sister is the only way to stop the evil. Thinking that’s the end she walks to the body, but the creature is waiting for her, thinking something like ‘It was a good body” and starts to speak the words for possession. Found! 1981's Ludlow's Mill.

3. On the cover, background was black or very dark blue, and it the extreme foreground was a noose.  A young man was coming up behind it.  He was white with short blond hair that curled on top, and wore a blue suit with a white dress shirt and dark tie.  On the left side the man's face had a look of horror, but on the right the face looked more eager, the mouth closed.  It looked like it might have been two of them coming up to the noose, but the outer edges of the noose covered part of their faces so it looked more half and half. Found! 1988's Surrogate Child.

4. The cover was dark, and depicted a sort of "Solid Gold" (the tv show) stage set, with large squares. It was a photograph, not a painted cover. And there was a single hand extended from behind one of them.

5. 1966, 67, somewhere around there, I read a story involving a boy who wakes up to witness small, lizard-like creatures entering his body and carrying away bits of it. Of course no one believes him, and this keeps happening. He discovers the creatures are somehow taking the place of the bits they carry off. In the end, he meets a copy of himself, assembled from the bits that had been stolen, and when this copy announces itself as the real boy, our protagonist disintegrates into a swarm of the lizards.

6.  The basic plot was a newlywed guy discovering his new wife was a member of some cult. She slips him a sleeping pill and sneaks down to the beach every night to engage in some weird ritual that involves crocodile critters coming out of the sea (they were called Sobeks, like the Egyptian gods) and eating dead bodies, and the cult leader sucking the life force out of his underlings.  Over the course of the novel, we find out that he was from Atlantis, and became a life force sucking vampire who can shape-shift. He is looking for his Atlantean lover who fled from him. Found! It's 1984's The Fellowship.

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