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.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

By Reason of Insanity by Shane Stevens (1979): Master of Reality

Today the serial killer is as common a stock character in popular entertainment as the kooky neighbor or the cranky dad. True crime, whether book, TV, or podcast, is bigger than ever. Yes, yes, it was always available in vast quantities, but so much of it seemed only steps removed from the tacky tabloid racks. Now it's about as classy as you can get, and as au courant ("Reading murder books/Trying to stay hip" as Billy Idol once sang). However, one of the foundational building blocks of the perception of serial killers as fictional mainstay has been forgotten, a work which has amassed a cult following in the 40 years since its release.

The reclusive author in 1970

I'm talking about By Reason of Insanity, an armored tank of crime, horror, and police procedural by crime author Shane Stevens (1941-2007), published in hardcover in 1979 with a Dell paperback issued in February 1980. Apparently it was a big deal back in its day—see the publisher's PR below—and even lauded as an inspiration by Stephen King in an afterword to his 1989 novel The Dark Half. But it's been eclipsed by its countless imitators, alas, as has its author.

Shane Stevens was probably born in Hoboken in 1941 and raised in Harlem. He was attuned to the streets and the people who made their lives there. Early novels, published in the Sixties and Seventies, were about juvenile delinquents, black and white gangs, the mob, class and money, "the dark side of the American Dream," as King put it in his Dark Half afterword. I haven't read any of his other novels, although I gather Insanity was the logical next step for Stevens. With By Reason of Insanity he reached the big leagues of American publishing, but he'd write only one more novel after that, and then, silence. While it's been in print in various paperback editions over the years, no movie adaptation was ever made, and today it is mostly forgotten except by adventurous readers seeking the obscure.

Simon & Schuster hardcover, 1979

Published several years prior to Red Dragon, Thomas Harris's famous bestseller that introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter and Francis Dolarhyde, Insanity may be the first mainstream depiction of a serial killer as we know him today. With a journalist's objective pen, displaying the somber quality of a nonfiction account, Insanity first recounts the case of execution of Caryl Chessman, a real-life rapist whose shadow will encompass the entire novel. Quickly we move on to the travails of a young woman named Sara Bishop, 21, who will become the mother of one Thomas Bishop... the result of her rape by, she believes, Chessman himself. Sara's resentment, indeed hatred, of men, all men, with a passion others usually reserved for love, foreshadows her son's future disgust at womankind.

Sara abuses child Thomas beyond belief (In September Sara bought a whip), until of course the day he snaps and murders her and consumes part of her corpse before burning the body. He is found several days later in their isolated house, and authorities commit him to the Willows, a state mental hospital in northern California. There he grows up, plagued by female demons in his nightmares and so consumed with anger the doctors use shock therapy to treat him. Bishop realizes his only chance of ever escaping is to submit dutifully to authority, which he does, gaining their trust and more independence. He befriends another homicidal young man, Victor Mungo, all the while devising a plan to  break out into the unwitting world. His escape is ingenious and ensures his identity will remain a mystery to those who wish to capture him. He was the master of reality, and he held life and death in his hands.

 Carroll & Graf reprint, 1990

Now a free man at 25 years old, Bishop uses techniques learned from television crime shows to hide his true identity and gain new ones. Indeed, the authorities will have no idea who he is, and once his mutilated victims begin to turn up, their massive manhunt is futile. Bishop is on the move, and he's procured cash, driver's license, birth certificate, bank account, disappearing into the slipstream of modern life. He is attractive, charming, non-threatening, the consummate sociopathic actor, eager to outwit his pursuers as he fulfills and ritualizes his obsessive, narcissistic fantasies. Filled with unceasing rage against all women, Bishop embarks on the most savage killing spree the world—the world of 1973, that is—has ever seen. His wake was strewn with the butchered bodies of the enemy and as in any war of diabolic purpose, no mercy was expected and none given.

He starts a relationship with one older, moneyed woman so convincing they plan to marry... until they don't. Los Angeles, Las Vegas, towns across the country by train to, of course, New York City. By this time he is happily famous, taking delight in how the nation is reeling before him in terror, and he boldly announces his arrival in the Big Apple by leaving a dead woman in her train cabin. In the official lexicon of New York City, the date eventually came to be known as Bloody Monday.

 Sphere UK paperback, 1989

Thus ends Book One, "Thomas Bishop," and begins Book Two, "Adam Kenton." We've already met Kenton, as well as many of the other men who are spearheading the attempts at identifying Bishop and capturing him. But now Stevens delves further into Kenton: a successful journalist—nay, the most successful journalist!—in the biz. His skills at getting people to talk to him is thanks to an ability to become like them, no matter what walk of life they're from, are well-known among his colleagues; he can even, in a way, predict his subjects' thoughts. This mental bit of magic, grounded in voluminous information and a brilliant imagination, probably more than anything else had led to the nickname of Superman given him by his peers, not without a strong touch of envy.

This extraordinary skill comes at a cost of his personal life: Kenton's views of women are about as worrisome as Bishop's except not as deadly, a sad irony Kenton is at least aware of. In other words, he's a proto-serial killer profiler, the perfect person to go after Bishop, and hired by a major news magazine in secret to find the killer himself... out-thinking even the various hardened cops and experienced psychiatrists also working the case. Bishop, although a cause célèbre in all media now and virtually a household word, takes a backseat in this section to the dozens of characters who are eager to be on his trail in one way or another. Book Three, "Thomas Bishop and Adam Kenton," natch, will ante up the suspense as Bishop plans his ultimate apocalypse against womankind, and the two men finally come to their ultimate, maybe even predestined, fates. The voice on the other end was distant, metallic, funereal. "It has already begun." Kenton heard the soft click as the line went dead.

Its ambition prefigures writers like James Ellroy and of course Thomas Harris; I was also reminded of Michael Slade's Headhunter. A massive, dense 600 pages in tiny print, Insanity is a powerhouse, brimming with dozens of characters, appalling violence, intricate detective work, emotional distress. It's been on my shelves for years, and I was never sure when I wanted to take the deep dive into it. But once begun, it is virtually unstoppable. Stevens' style is big and bold, no frills; he takes you step-by-step through the creation of evil. This is big, baby, and you better be ready for it. The leisurely Eisenhower days were over and soon Kennedy would begin the years of Camelot.

There's an authority in his voice from the first, as he lays down a solid historical structure upon which to build his massive edifice of crime and terror. A precise documentation of the places and personalities that birth such a man as Thomas Bishop. The structure is epic; a widescreen panorama of our American life, from the Fifties to the early Seventies, a world populated by small-time hoods all the way to, yes, the White House. That's how far the ripples of Bishop's crimes reach, and every person touched by them will react according to their nature. Henry Baylor did not believe in premonitions. He was a doctor, a scientist of the mind. Precognition and inner voices were components of the occult, and the occult quite properly had no place in the discipline of science.

This is not to say that Insanity is perfect; invariably, weaknesses and fault lines appear. A book this large will have to have a few. One is the sheer quantity of characters (all men) who, if one is not careful, can be difficult to tell apart. Mob guys and cheap hoods and cheating husbands and surly blue collar workers and calculating media leaders and vengeful fathers and crooked politicians populate Insanity, and that can be a chore to read sometimes. Few are depicted with much warmth, as virtually all are overworked, shrewd, gruff, seen-it-all types who grouse and resent, men in high-pressure, difficult jobs whether legal or not (or some melange thereof, like Senator Jonathan Stoner—the story takes place during the Age of Nixon), men at the top who want to stay there or are desperate to get there. During his sojourn, Stoner been introduced to some political favorites, women of beauty and quality who were apparently turned on only by men of enormous political power.

Scenes of graphic sexual violence are depicted in a grim, matter-of-fact manner, unflinching, unblinking, Bishop's bloodletting a Jack the Ripper-style Grand Guignol directed at women he ties up for photo shoots when he pretends to be a photographer for True Detective magazine. The relentless subjugation of women may wear on some readers; the era of the story accounts for some of it, obviously, as does the subject matter, so while accurate for time and place, it might be a deal-breaker. He removed and fondled the girl's organs again and again, caressing them, needing to touch them, to possess them.

Maybe it's my pandemic brain, but I did grow a mite weary past the two-thirds mark. There are many unrelieved pages of police procedural, behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of mental health professionals, harried journalists, media moguls, and ambitious politicians doing their thing. It is 1973 here, and 1973 had no serial killer profilers or DNA database, when all the work was grinding away at newspaper clippings, hospital paper files, and endless phone calls (recall Fincher's Zodiac). There is no judgment on all their crudities, bigotries, and prejudices of characters which may unsettle some modern readers. Stevens spares us nothing. Maybe he was part Mexican, what kind of name was Spanner anyway?

We always know who the killer is, and it can be tiresome to read about each investigator's wrong ideas at such great length. What's the point? ("Probably moot," as Rick Springfield once sang). Too much time is spent away from Bishop and his psychopathic grandiosity, and often his exploits are off-screen as it were, sometimes graphic, sometimes unseen: inconsistently written, Stevens veers in style from cold hard non-fiction facts to lurid men's magazine pulp to hard-boiled detective to political thriller to guttural horror. It won't surprise you to learn that there are some last-minute twists and turns that I'm not convinced were successful, or necessary. Both men were shaken. Everything they knew to be substance had suddenly become shadow.

Still and all, By Reason of Insanity offers a lot of high-value, gruesome diversion for readers with lots of time on their hands; it's a blistering exposé of a ruthless, remorseless killing machine overloaded with ego and delusional self-regard, while men ironically not entirely unlike it try to extinguish its very existence. But it exists still, and Shane Stevens has exquisitely, if imperfectly, mapped out its hellish identity for all to see.

They were all secretly jealous of him. He was doing what they couldn't do, what they longed to do if only they weren't so cowardly. He was fulfilling all their deepest desires, their unconscious cravings. And why not? They were men and had the same chance he had. Only he took his chances. He showed them all up, and so they were angry with him...