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.