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 Rex."
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 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.