Sunday, September 27, 2020

Night, Winter, and Death by Lee Hawks (1990): Of Wolf and Man

One of the most popular subgenres of crime fiction is what's known as the "cozy mystery." Authors like Lilian Jackson Braun, Diane Mott Davidson, and even good old Agatha Christie with her Miss Marple series, as well as a television show like "Murder, She Wrote," are prime examples of this style, in which graphic sex and murder are "off-stage," the setting is an inviting village, and the cast of characters is a likeable, friendly lot. I have never read any, but I can see the appeal.

Lately I've been thinking that there are horror novels that provide the same sort of vibe: well-known tropes and characters in a story that isn't trying to reinvent the genre or expand its parameters. Violence is plentiful but not off-putting. The writing is well-crafted, not arch or ironic; no self-referential winking at the reader. Homey, satisfying, you've had this meal plenty of times before and that's the point: it is a dish served with care and love, hot and ready for eager consumption. Familiar frights that delight the long-time horror reader, well-worn, but freshly presented anew.

That's what Night, Winter, and Death (Ballantine, May 1990) seemed to offer up when I first began reading it. Lee Hawks is a pseudonym of Dave Pedneau (1947-1990), who also wrote crime fiction. A journalist before he began publishing books, he's a capable, engaging writer, at ease depicting a small town and its inhabitants; he draws you in with a practiced eye and notes the right details that makes you feel right at home. His evocative title is drawn from a 1933 bestseller, Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris (a book I own but haven't read). A blog reader brought Night to my attention some years back when I reviewed Pedneau's How Dear the Dawn, also a comfort-food style horror novel, which he wrote under another pseudonym, Marc Eliot.   

So my hopes were up... but were dashed maybe halfway through. The set-up in the first few chapters was perfectly cromulent: a cranky old lady talking nonsense about a local curse; a plucky but not obnoxious high school kid who's fascinated by said curse; some surprisingly explicit sex scenes. You can read this back-cover copy for the whole story-line, I won't rehash it here. But the tale began to meander, the tension went slack, everyone argues for no good reason, more interesting characters (like a writer obviously a Pedneau stand-in) are relegated to the background, and the promised horrors are rote, uninspired scenes of gore had me almost skimming pages. Even one of my favorite kinds of horror setting, the winter storm that the title makes palpable, doesn't sink into your bones the way you need it to (for a good example of how to do that, check out Earle Westcott's Winter Wolves). Man, this book was bumming me out.

I don't understand when horror writers skimp on the horror. Pedneau doesn't seem to be following the quiet horror less-is-more school; he doesn't shy from sex and gore, yet he refrains from describing the shapeshifter/werewolf (it's a wolf-man yes, but the curse refers to a shapeshifter) any more than necessary, or in the most banal manner possible. I kept waiting, in vain, for a great monstrous reveal. In a movie, I get it, making movies costs money, so crappy effects to cut corners at least makes sense. But writing is free, so give with the goods!

Also: I've been done with cops in my horror fiction for ages, long before our current sociopolitical climate. If I wanna read about cops I'll read a crime novel, but in horror I feel like they never add anything to the proceedings. Graham Masterton in The Manitou and Clive Barker in Cabal feature the police in the correct way: as being completely, utterly useless in dealing with the supernatural and getting wiped out in the process. Thematically I think that's perfect, but in practice I don't even want them as characters. Whooo cares.

The teenage boy at the center of the story, Zach, didn't bother me at all, but schoolteacher Mona is always smiling at people even in the midst of terror and doesn't know what "metamorphosis" is and when someone says "Oh no, the power is out!" she is confused as she's never heard someone say "power" for "electricity." It's the kind of tiny note of oddness that makes me think Pedneau knew someone like that in real life! But rather than charming, it's annoying; does anyone really want to read a book with a person dumber than they are as the protagonist?

Scattered throughout Night there are decent enough moments—one man's painful descent into lycanthropy was handled well—but eventually that "coziness" becomes the curse itself, a smothering folksiness that defangs, if you will, the general proceedings. I couldn't wait to be done. Despite its terrific title, Night, Winter, and Death offers little more than a good writer working beneath his skill set, an uncomfortable fact quite the opposite indeed of coziness.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Stephen King: The 1980s Signet Reprints

  Stephen King's 73rd birthday this week put me in mind of my first collection of his paperbacks: these reprintings of his classic '70s and early '80s titles. I unfortunately don't own them any more, and haven't for decades. Since I began this blog I've amassed most first printings of his original Signet editions, but I can't quite forget my first true loves...  

That famous, eye-catching “Stephen King” logo can be traced back to the Christine paperback in late 1983. Some short time later, I think around late 1985 with the first paperback appearance of Thinner, all his earlier books were repackaged with that logo, now a silver/gray, and smaller cover art images from the original editions (except Christine itself, as the title was the art). The consistent design, color scheme, title typefaces, and spine detail truly branded King’s work, and for those readers coming of age in this era, they remain the Stephen King paperbacks. Now, to begin my collection of these again!

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Raw Pain Max by Dean Andersson (1988): Nothing's Shocking

One of the most famous literary putdowns of all time is what Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac's iconic Fifties beat novel On the Road: "That's not writing, that's just typing." Ouch. Reading Raw Pain Max (Pinnacle Books, Oct 1988), that quote came immediately to mind, not least because the two protagonists here are constantly in a car driving hither and yon. Author Dean Andersson, who I have not read before, spends pages and pages padding out a practically non-existent narrative about torture goddess Countess Bathory in the modern day; his "writing" seems like he's making up his travelogue of terror as he goes. What we have here, then, is one of those horror paperbacks that sports a gloriously lurid cover, thanks to J.K. Potter, that it can never live up to. The clumsy title, invoking one of Clive Barker's most ferocious tales, helps not at all.
Andersson makes all the mistakes of an inexperienced writer. Filled with non-horror-ific details like characters' "bad-ass" clothing style of motorcycle boots and rock t-shirts, heavy metal on the radio, various highway routes from Texas to Kansas, numerous detailed fast food repasts, and tin-eared dialogue in which the main characters say each other's names on an endless loop (for me, the A-number-one indicator of an amateur author) Raw Pain grated on my nerves like, well, torture itself. There is no attempt at pacing, plot, suspense, scares, or insight; it is all just so much typing.
Now I don't know anything about Andersson, maybe he's gotten better, but I have seen his later horror paperbacks around over the years, published in the Eighties through the Nineties: two Avon paperbacks, 1981 and '82 under the pseudonym Asa Drake, then Torture Tomb in 1987 and Max the following year, with some Zebra titles later. They pretty succinctly show the variety of horror paperback covers, from historical romance vibe to more generic images like grasping hands and widened eyeballs, then the more photo-realistic style of the Nineties, which you can see at bottom. Love these two Avon covers, totally new to me. Honestly they sound pretty cool, but after reading Raw Pain, man, I dunno.
Back to the task at hand: Raw Pain Max is about "whip-toting Amazon" Trudy, a twenty-something bodybuilder, who, along with friends-with-benefits young metalhead Phil, performs a torture act in a sex club, called, improbably enough, the Safe Sex Club (look, don't @ me if there is actually a club with that name; it's a terrible name whether it's a real place or not). On-stage she goes by the nomme de S&M—wait for it—"Raw Pain Max," or "RPM" for short. Clever. Here, have a taste:

Raw ripped away [Phil's] rip-away clothes, leaving him all but naked in his black sequined G-string. As always the moment of humiliation, even though fake, excited Phil... Raw's whip came down across his stomach. The soft material only barely stung, but he convulsed as if in agony... the music changed to a gear-grinding heavy metal rock number, in response to which RPM removed her cape and began a hip-thrusting, breast-shaking dance around her chained victim... Then she produced a fake knife with a hollow blade that discharged prop blood (washable)... used it to pretend-carve R-P-M on Phil's heaving chest. Crimson dribbles slide down his torso toward his G-string...
Still here? There's a little more:
Raw leaned forward and pantomimed lapping up some of the blood with her tongue... gave the audience a wink, and started to insert the blade beneath Philip's sequins just a moment before the lights went out and the music suddenly stopped. In the silence and darkness, Phil bellowed a long, tortured scream, Raw laughed maniacally, and the act was over.
That wink and maniacal laughter reach across three decades to bring the deep, unsettling cringe. Later, when the Lady Bathory appears, she will also jest and chuckle and grin and do everything else to undercut the gravity of every situation. I find that type of thing—sarcasm, mockery, giggling, laughing evilly—unbearable, utterly unbearable, and it never stops in this book: The Countess chuckled at the jest she had made, then leaned forward, kissed the peasant's mutilated lips, and touched the blood-soaked stitches with the tip of her tongue. "Chuckled." Jesus wept, is this a Bazooka Joe comic.
Ok, ok, and they also make fetish videos for polyester-clad sleazeball Marv, who runs the joint (yes, he chomps on a cigar). Phil's backstory is porno-obsessed kid; Trudy's is addict getting better through health food and weightlifting, and getting in touch with the darker impulses. This is how Andersson writes their sex scenes: They got undressed, Phil put on his condom, they made love, and went to sleep. Oof. This is an odd contrast with the hyper-described sex show.
Then Phil's cousin Donna turns up with sleazy girlfriend "Liz" who is pretty obviously Countess Bathory doing some time- and spirit-traveling. Donna's in a weird catatonic state while Liz is an old-school lech, hitting on Trudy right in front of Phil ("Great abs. Great ass. Great everything. Yum"), then later plays mind tricks on them to show her supernatural powers and force them into a deadly sex orgy. Torturing to death a young woman she's brought back to Trudy's home S&M dungeon, Liz then makes all bloody evidence of the horror disappear by the next morning... and the game is afoot! Be ready for all that driving.

The convoluted metaphysics explaining how Bathory's spirit comes to visit the excessive Eighties seems like they were invented in the moment. Reincarnation? Mind-melding? There are also demonic "pain eaters" lurking in a dream netherworld who have a history of fucking things up royally for everyone, up to and including Christianity. Ironically, the novel's depiction of torture falls flat, amounting to tying victims up with baling wire and sticking fishhooks in their lips, all the while "teasing" punishments that are dead on arrival thanks to Andersson's inexpert approach.
An instant later, the strands of barbed wire began glowing with purple fire, sizzling Trudy's flesh while they also tightening around her breasts, between her legs... "Your breasts will probably be next," Liz told her, "or maybe your head." With a sickening jerk Trudy felt something give way between her legs. Barbed wire ripped upward into her intestines as blood poured down her thighs. 
"And just think, darling, this can go on as long as I want. Isn't it just absolutely wonderful?"

This modern-day Countess Bathory sounds more like Sally Bowles than a queen of pain. The culmination of all this blather is scenes of mind-numbing gore, lip-sewing and ball-busting, but nothing an experienced reader hasn't encountered before (I'm considering the book both now and as if I'd read at the time it was first published), and I haven't even mentioned the mind-possession angle. It's all just padded paper depicting juvenile sadism in the most immature, inane manner; there's nothing real or true or honest in Raw Pain. I never felt anyone's pain as I read except for my own.

I can't be the only person to think it's odd that nobody had much utilized Bathory and her crimes in horror fiction up to this point. Ray Russell did it in over 50 years ago in Unholy Trinity; Andrei Codrescu wrote The Bloody Countess as a mainstream thriller in 1995. Andersson was onto something with the basic concept of a reincarnated Bathory, has done his homework, including in the story itself the actual books he used for research, as well as the Eighties metal bands inspired by her misdeeds. Which, you know, great, I too enjoy classic heavy metal and books about history's notorious serial killers. But, as Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers once sang, it's not enough.
And how I wanted to enjoy this novel! How I wanted a sleazy, no-holds-barred, bad-taste extravaganza of pain and pleasure, lust and fear, blood and other bodily fluids. Sure, all that stuff is here, but Andersson's penchant for filling up the page with mundane irrelevancies, and amateur execution of actual scenes of horror—or of any kind of real life—negate their presence. Nothing is scary, nothing is sexy, nothing's shocking. Like many a paperback original with a striking cover before and after it, Raw Pain Max over-promises and under-delivers. And so I am reminded of another famous putdown, a paraphrase of Seinfeld's words about his neighbor nemesis Newman: there's not more than meets the eye here—there's less.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Year's Best Horror Stories XVI, ed. by Karl Edward Wagner (1988): Savage Amusement

Sorry to say that nothing quite as terrifying as J.K. Potter's cover illustration appears inside this 16th installment of The Year's Best Horror Stories (DAW Books, October 1988). Which is not to say this anthology isn't worthy of a place on your horror bookshelf; indeed, any self-respecting vintage horror fiction fan probably has at least a few of these, published from 1974 to 1994. It is to say that the stories collected here by Karl Edward Wagner are generally on the more mature end of horror, stories written with flair, intelligence, and only a little gratuitous grue—though there are several worthy exceptions to this observation. As book designs go, I dig this one a lot: the bold red, the gargoyles bordering the bizarre image, as well as something not seen: a tacky blurb noting the presence of a new Stephen King story! Most paperbacks then would've blasted that info from here to kingdom come.
This new King story, first printed in the J.N. Williamson anthology Masques II, "Popsy," wouldn't appear in an King book till 1993, in his third short-story collection, Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Wagner puts it first, although its vibe doesn't really give you much of a feel for what comes after. It's a mean little story, with pulpy crime fiction elements, probably King was reading a lot Jim Thompson, Ed McBain, and Andrew Vachss at the time. Dude owes lots of money from gambling debts, a mysterious criminal boss wants little kids, so dude's gotta step up, doesn't wanna know what'll happen to either himself or the kids if he doesn't. But he kidnaps a child who has more to protect him than simply human parents. Wish I'd read this one back in the day, with a terrific climax, oh that delicious King snap: and his breath was like flyblown meat.

Children's and young adult author Jane Yolen (above) brings us her "Wolf/Child," a fine little tale of colonial exploitation, native superstition, and comeuppance. As one character says, "There are many odd things out here in the jungle... It just takes an observant eye, my boy." The title is perfectly literal, the payoff perfectly delivered. In David Campton's "Repossession" a middling accountant becomes fascinated by a light burning in the window of a derelict factory building. Soon he's having visions in which he imagines himself inside the factory, seeing a man in a black Victorian frock-coat, which you know isn't good.
Well-known genre practitioners appear: quiet horror maestro Charles L. Grant's "Everything to Live For" is a thoughtful exploration of teen life, one of my least favorite topics, and encroaching death. A sadness at the core makes for chilly reading. Pure Grant goodness. Ramsey Campbell wrote "Merry May" for his 1987 collection of "sex and terror" stories, Scared Stiff (heh). Campbell mixes his brand of urban decay with some folk horror, and the result is truly unsettling: a creep drives a few towns over for some illicit vacation satisfaction promise from a magazine ad and  gets a fine how-do-you-do from the villagers celebrating May Day in their own special way.
Wagner reaching across Ramsey Campbell, 1980s
"The Scar," Dennis Etchison's entry, is one of his oblique and metaphoric works of psychic anomie, and in his intro Wagner notes its "mood of paranoid urgency," but this one truly left me scratching my head, alas. Guy has a violent freakout in a diner, woman with a disfigured face... Wagner also mentions Etchison "is planning a new anthology, Double Edge, to follow his tremendously successful Cutting Edge." A sequel to Cutting Edge, the terrific 1986 anthology?! It never came to be, alas, although Etchison did publish a Dell novel with that title in 1997.

Noted film historian Leslie Halliwell (below) provides some great suspense and claustrophobia in "La Nuit des Chiens," bringing to life a  rich European paradise. A group of old friends make their way through a small town celebrating a local festival, looking for an upscale restaurant, but find themselves on darkened unfamiliar streets, an increasingly large number of dogs following them... and in imagination he felt the savage amusement of beasts at the group's clumsy, hesitant progress. The unexpected appearance of the n-word surprised me, although I got it—British Halliwell is referencing the British-only title of the world's bestselling mystery novel, but I wish maybe Wagner had simply bleeped it out. But story trades on its twist which isn't truly worthy of the careful buildup before it. Have you noticed that when people who aren't horror writers try to write horror they think it's only about that twist ending? And cannibalism? 
The man behind the endless psychic vampire Necroscope saga, Brian Lumley, presents "The Thin People." It elicits some absurdist shivers with the literalization of its title—but it only made me think of this classic "Simpsons" bit, sorry. R. Chetwynd-Hayes is in top form, in his witty yet still scarily effective "Moving Day." This title is euphemism, to the horror of the man who's gone to live with his great-aunts, surely always a poor idea. "Give your Auntie Edith a nice kiss, dear!"

My appreciation of horror poetry begins and ends with Baudelaire, so I'm not sure what to make of t. Winter-Damon's "Martyr without Canon" other than it's a jumble of nonsense, like those liner notes a Beat-besotted Bob Dylan used to write for his albums back in the Sixties. It appeared first in Grue magazine, which I don't think I'd heard of before this, a semi-pro zine that ran from 1985 to 1999. Winter-Damon, whose poetry appeared in many small-press horror publications, died in 2008. Another small-press poet, Wayne Allen Sallee, provides "The Touch," a non-supernatural bit of gritty, everyday violence, always Sallee's stock-in-trade.

British periodical that ran 1979-2001, first appearance of "Echoes from the Abbey"
Fans of more old-fashioned frights, like prior to the 20th century, shouldn't miss "The Bellfounder's Wife" by A. F. Kidd and "Echoes from the Abbey" by Sheila Hodgson. These two women, neither of whom I was familiar with till now, are at ease evoking subtle terrors in the manner of M.R. James: My last impression was of a series of gaping mouths set in folds of dirty linen. These are as far from typical "Eighties horror" as it is possible to get, and Kidd's ice and fire ghost is one of this antho's most arresting entities... 

She was almost close enough to touch, now, and I saw with a sort of fascinated revulsion that the whole of her side and her arm were boiling, like milk on a stove, bubbles rising to the surface and bursting. The flesh hissed and simmered, and I felt the heat which radiated from it. Her ruined face drew close to mine, and then she smiled.

Wagner finishes on a high note with Michael Shea's "Fat Face," originally published as a chapbook by Axolotl Press. Patti is a prostitute working in a Los Angeles massage parlor in a cheap hotel; across the street in an office building a man sits at his office window and looks down on the activity below. Despite the mockery of her colleagues, Patti feels kindly toward him as he runs an animal shelter there, and one day decides to visit. While I found it over-written and overlong, the payoff is a wonderfully disgusting bit of Lovecraftian grue, body horror so gooey and grotesque it would've been a perfect Stuart Gordon vehicle. 
Nightmare ought not to be so simply there before her, so dizzyingly adjacent to reality. That the shapes should be such seething plasms, such cunning , titan maggots as she had dreamed of, this was just half the horror...

I haven't mentioned all the stories, however they're fine if lacking a bit of real bite. Wagner's brief introductions provide biographical background on each contributor, which is great because I knew virtually nothing about a handful of them (many included were more SF&F writers, which may be why). He also states "these stories are chosen without regard to theme or method, style or approach," and that well-known writers appear along with the not-known. That's certainly how I myself learned my way in and around the genre back in the Eighties, buying and devouring anthologies filled with names I only dimly was aware of, and then sought out more work by the authors who had the most effect on me—I'm sure you've done the same.

While I enjoyed this volume as I read it, impressed by the high-caliber, professional-grade prose and imaginative flair on display, I began to feel there was little potency, little that reached down deep to disturb, to linger. Not to say this title isn't full of good horror moments; it is, with lots of the authors working at the top of their respective games. But I often wonder, when reading a vintage horror for the first time, if I would have enjoyed it had it on its original publication. That's why I chose this Volume XVI: it came out in late 1988, when I was starting my senior year in high school and really ramping up my horror intake. Would I have been impressed by the stories herein? Not sure, as nothing here is as inventively ground-breaking as what Clive Barker or Joe Lansdale or Michael Blumlein or Poppy Z. Brite were doing back then. Still, anything with Wagner's name attached is a must-have for your horror paperback library, and I look forward to collecting every volume—only three left to go for me!—of Year's Best Horror.