Thursday, December 24, 2020

RIP Guy N. Smith (1939 - 2020)

Prolific pulp-horror writer Guy N. Smith has passed at age 81, according to his website, from what looks to be COVID-19 complications. 2020 is just determined to squeeze out every last bit of misery from us, ugh. Maybe soothe yourself with even more Smith covers here and here. Be well, everybody.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Dell Abyss Promo Materials, 1991-1993

Here's something I never expected to have in my horror collection: promotional materials from publisher Dell for their new imprint line of horror fiction, the (now-infamous) Abyss. What a treasure trove of archival artifacts! Big thanks go to Kathe Koja, author of the first book published in the line, The Cipher, from whom I purchased it some time ago. Yes, I've been meaning to post this stuff for ages! Really excited to share it with you guys...

In fact, early next year, it will be the 30th anniversary of Abyss (hell, remember when it was 20?). It was perhaps my favorite era in horror, since I had been delving deep into the genre for a few years but also wanted something modern, relevant, au courant, if you will. Having just turned 20, working in a used bookstore, in college, and reading, reading, reading, I was eager to sate my burgeoning intellectual curiosities with my favorite genre. Named for a famous Nietzsche quote and with the ambitious mission statement declaring "Abyss is for the seeker of truth, no matter how disturbing or twisted it may be. It's about people, and the darkness we all carry within," this new imprint fit the bill to perfection. I think I was their target audience precisely!

However I first heard of the line, either through Fangoria magazine or the wonderful catalogs from the Overlook Connection, I had The Cipher in my hands by spring '91 (although I believe I read it over the summer, after I'd read the second book published, Brian Hodge's "Miami Vice"-meets-Mr. Hyde mashup Nightlife). Revisiting those days is a delight. I really get such a horror fan thrill at peeking behind the curtain, seeing inside the publishing world and the marketing research that went into launching a new line of paperbacks. Book displays, postcards, bound book samples, publicity releases, and newsletters: this stuff speaks deeply to my archivist nature. 
Who can resist these Xeroxed pix of horror writers hanging out and signing books, giving background and insight on their novels, little personals deets and info nuggets and cut-out art and upcoming releases, all crammed in like a classic punk zine. I would have killed to have had access to this stuff back then.

In 1992 I went with my bookstore boss to a huge booksellers convention in Atlantic City, held in one of the casinos (I found the zombie-like hordes on the gambling floors disturbing). I was a little intimidated by the "business" of it, but I recall scoring some great swag, in particular a hardcover copy of Poppy Z. Brite's Lost Souls. I recall the person working the Dell table came over to me as I picked the book up, giving me the hard sell like "She's one of the hottest horror writers around right now, this is her first novel, and we're super excited about it!" I was like, "Man, I totally know who that is, I've been waiting for this!" Of course the person promptly insisted I take the book and tell my friends about it. I'm sure I did and I'm sure they didn't give a shit which is why I'm writing this blog for you lo these three decades later. So thank you and enjoy!

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Horror Fiction Help XXIII

Can anyone help identify these? The first query sounds maddeningly familiar, but damn if I can't quite place it!

1. Late '70s/early '80s: The cover came straight out of Animal Hell, with an illustration of an oversized rat standing on its hind legs, holding the decapitated head of a cat in one hand and gouging its eye out with a bone in the other. Some other vague recollection of the cover includes a pile of bones. I think there also was a little more text on the cover than most books, which leads me to believe it was an anthology of some sort; however I am not positive about this. I remember absolutely nothing about the author(s), title, or back cover. Found! It’s Dr. Rat, 1977 Bantam edition. 

2. Unusual horror anthology that came out in the early '60s. It was paperbound, rather thin, and oversize, roughly 2X the dimensions of a paperback. The cover was dark blacks and purples with creepy drawings overlaid (I believe, going from a half century old memory!), and each of the short, 1- to 3-page stories had an illustration with it. Each story had an EC-like twist ending.

3. '90s or early '00s. It was a book of ghost stories, possibly British or Irish. I think there was a story about a banshee, and another about a ghost carrying a coffin and then appearing in an elevator as a warning, but the story I really remember is one where this girl, every birthday, tells her family a man (possibly named Billy, or William) will come for her. Year after year, he doesn't show - until her 18th(?) birthday, when the candles blow out and he appears on a horse and takes her away.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Kitty Telefair Gothic Series by Florence Stevenson (1971-1977)

If you've been following Too Much Horror Fiction or have read Paperbacks from Hell, you're likely aware of the scarcity of some of the titles talked about and the oft-times inflated prices online booksellers afix to those books. These disposable artifacts from a bygone age often are going for $75 to $100, and even more in some cases. To be blunt, it sucks. Mea culpa, and all that. Certainly collectors of all stripes run into this issue.
I also want to say that these inflated prices in no way reflect the "literary" quality of those books. Like, at all. The cost only reflects the scarcity and a near-mint condition (at least one hopes). Any good collector must be well aware of this, and proceed accordingly when opening the wallet. Don't expect that dropping 50 bucks on a rare book will get you the reading experience of a lifetime... alas.

Which brings me to these Florence Stevenson (1922-1991) Gothic paperbacks, the virtually impossible to find Kitty Telefair series. According to the much-missed blogger Curt Purcell, this occult series features terrific vintage Sixties and Seventies flavor while engaging in classic horror tropes like vampires, sorcerers, and past lives. Rare and good? Mmm-boy, sounds delicious!

According to Purcell, Kitty herself is a kind of psychic Nancy Drew, but what I really dig about these books is, of course, the cover art (all uncredited except Horror from the Tombs, by a George Bush). Candles, castles, bats, spooky windows, flowing gowns, widened eyes, sexy Seventies women, mustachioed mystery men, blurbs about The Exorcist: all the Gothic accoutrements one could ask for.

Also impossible to find is any info on Ms. Stevenson herself, which kinda drives me crazy. A few of these titles turn up very occasionally on Abebooks if you have a sharp eye and email alerts—same goes for many of her other Seventies Gothics; I myself only own two of her Eighties horror titles—but these are the kinds of paperbacks for which you must haunt thrift stores, garage sales, and junk heaps, cursed for eternity.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Favorite Horror Stories: "Shambleau" by Catherine L. Moore (1933)

One of horror's great scenes is when Jonathan Harker is confronted by three vampire women—the "weird sisters"—in Dracula. As one of them kneels at Harker's side, he hears the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, then he closes his eyes in langourous ecstacy, waiting for the moment when her sharp white teeth will pierce the flesh on his neck... Wonderful stuff (till of course the Count rushes in and ruins this tender moment). And I thought of this bit of sexual dread when I first encountered Catherine L. Moore's famous 1933 pulp horror/science fiction story, "Shambleau."

This was Moore's first story, believe it or not, and its popularity hasn't dimmed since it first appeared in the November 1933 edition of Weird Tales, having been included in dozens of science fiction and horror anthologies across the globe. There is something so primal about this work that nine decades have not dulled its power, and I think it operates as a kind of ur-text for erotic horror.

Featuring a semi-heroic character that Moore would use again and again named Northwest Smith, "Shambleau" at first comes across as standard pulp for its day: Smith is a space pilot, an outlaw, a smuggler, going about business in a kind of Wild West city called Lakkdarol, an outpost on Mars: a raw, red little town where anything might happen, and often did (Smith is obviously a precursor to Han Solo; this type of pulp adventure is just what George Lucas would repurpose for the Star Wars universe). 

A wild mob is chasing down a berry-brown girl in a single tattered garment whose scarlet burnt the eyes with its brilliance. Smith draws his laser gun in defense of the poor creature as she evokes a kind of sympathy in him, even though he's no hero. He talks down the mob, who keep shouting "Shambleau!" The leader informs Smith "We never let those things live," but Smith informs him that Shambleau is his, he's keeping her. This puzzles and astonishes the crowd; as they disperse, the leader spits out at Smith: "Keep her then, but don't let her out in this town again!"

Obviously relieved, this girl known only as Shambleau cannot speak much English, and Smith is perplexed by the bloodthirsty disgust the mob had evinced towards her. Their brief conversation is halting, but she manages to get out, "Some day I—speak to you—in my own language" (nice foreshadowing!). Smith knows he needs to get her someplace safe, like back to his sparse, rented room. As they walk, he notices others on the streets staring after him and the turban-headed alien girl in disbelief.

Back in his room, Smith tries to get the girl to eat, but she will not. He tells her she can stay safe here, and he goes out to do his business: Smith's errand in Lakkdarol, like most of his errands, is better not spoken of. Man lives as he must, and Smith's living was a perilous affair outside the law and ruled by the ray-gun. He returns that evening, drunk on “segir,” or Martian booze, and is surprised to see Shambleau still there. Yes, he's drunk... and suddenly horny. They embrace...

Her velvety arms closed around his neck. And then he was looking down into her face, very near, and the green animal eyes met his with the pulsing pupils and the flicker of—something—deep behind their  shallows—and through the rising clamor of his blood, even as he stooped his  lips to hers, Smith felt something deep within him shudder away—inexplicable,  instinctive, revolted. What it might be he had no words to tell, but the very touch of her was suddenly loathsome—

With a cry of "God!" he pushes her away, recalling that wild look in the eyes of that street mob. Shambleau falls to the floor and her turban slips. Smith had thought her bald, but no, quite the opposite is true:

a lock of scarlet hair  fell below the binding leather, hair as scarlet as her garment, as unhumanly  red as her eyes were unhumanly green. He stared, and shook his head  dizzily and stared again, for it seemed to him that the thick lock of crimson had moved, squirmed of itself against her cheek. 

Smith blames this "squirming" on too much too drink, tells the girl to sleep in the corner, and then gets into bed, where he dreams strange dreams beneath a dark Martian night, of some nameless, unthinkable thing ... was coiled about his throat . . . something like a soft snake, wet and warm, sent little thrills of delight through every nerve and fiber of him, a perilous  delight. He is like marble, rigid, unable to move, fighting against it, till oblivion takes him and then, bright morning. Dismissing this “devil of a dream,” he tells Shambleau she can stay again, but he'll be leaving Lakkdoral in a day and after that, she'll be on her own.

C.L. Moore, c. 1940s

It was not until late evening, when he turned homeward again, that the thought of the brown girl in his room took definite shape in his  mind, though it had been lurking there, formless and submerged, all day. "Formless and submerged," you say? Freud would, as it's said, have had a field day. Shambleau still has not eaten, still speaks in halting English obscurities like "I shall—eat. Before long—I shall—feed. Have no  worry." Smith brilliantly asks her if she lives off blood, and she scoffs: "You think me—vampire, eh? No—I am Shambleau!" Well, that clears things up. 

Where I first encountered Shambleau

That night brings a fuller realization of the horror that is Shambleau, and Moore spares nothing in her efforts to reveal what a danger to the rational human this alien is. Smith wakes to see Shambleau teasing him as she undoes her turban, allowing those scarlet locks to writhe and glisten in an obscene tangle, drawing Smith in helplessly. It's as if he recognizes what she is...

And Smith knew that he looked upon Medusa. The knowledge of that—the realization of vast backgrounds reaching into misted history—shook him out of his frozen horror for a moment, and in that  moment he met her eyes again, smiling, green as glass in the moonlight,  half hooded under drooping lids. Through the twisting scarlet she held out  her arms. And there was something soul-shakingly desirable about her, so that all the blood surged to his head suddenly and he stumbled to his feet like a sleeper in a dream as she swayed toward him, infinitely graceful,  infinitely sweet in her cloak of living horror.

Jayem Wilcox’s illustration for Weird Tales

Moore goes on in this amazing pulp fashion, overheated prose all silken seductive slidings, wet and glistening tentacle tresses like serpents, eager and hungry as they crawl towards this man frozen in fear... and desire. As she embraces him, she murmurs, "I shall—speak to you now—in  my own tongue—oh, beloved!" Whew. Smith is bewitched, nearly hypnotized, a drug addict now, his identity subsumed into the hungering that Shambleau is, welcoming mindless, deadly bliss. 

this mingling of rapture and revulsion all took place in the flashing of a moment while the scarlet worms coiled and crawled upon him, sending deep, obscene tremors of that infinite pleasure into, every atom that made up Smith. And he could not stir in that slimy  ecstatic embrace—and a weakness was flooding that grew deeper after each succeeding wave of intense delight, and the traitor in his soul strengthened and drowned out the revulsion—and something within him ceased to struggle  as he sank wholly into a blazing darkness that was oblivion to all else but that devouring rapture. 

Like the femme fatale of a noir story, Shambleau promises heaven but delivers hell. Only the arrival of a space-pal named Yarol saves Smith; Yarol engages in a last-minute feat of derring-do, as he recognizes the alien for what it is, recalling in him ancient swamp-born memories from Venusian ancestors far away and long ago. Moore concludes her wild tale with the two space friends discussing the origins of Earth myths, an alien race, half-forgotten legends, a race older than man... you know the stuff! Yarol insists that if Smith ever sees a Shambleau again, "You'll draw your gun and burn it to hell."

The science-fiction setting of "Shambleau" is beside the point—this story is all about the shivery-delicious erotic abandonment delirium, and that exotic scarlet-maned alien woman who made many striking paperback covers possible. Delving into forbidden sensuality, notions of addiction, and debased pleasures that I'm sure few others were exploring in pulp magazines then, "Shambleau" is fully realized, imagined with audacity, holding nothing back, its voluptuous vibe making it a favorite of 1930s pulp fans and beyond. Not too bad for a brand-new author.

While horror as a genre is so often concerned with revulsion, fear, despair, and the like, Moore seemed to be clued-in to the uncomfortable fact that horror also can explore forbidden, attractive, addictive desires that polite society deem unacceptable. But as psychologists understand, desire and disgust are rarely opposites; they mingle, coalesce, to beckon us towards our doom... and we’d have it no other way.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Favorite Horror Stories: "The Chimney" by Ramsey Campbell (1977)

"Deep down, we are all still as vulnerable as we were in childhood; sometimes it takes very little to break through our defenses," states Ramsey Campbell in his introduction to the 1982 collection of his short stories, Dark Companions. If there's anyone who's developed a mastery of breaking through our adult defenses, it's Campbell with his vast output of short stories and novels since the Sixties. He's one of the writers featured the most here on Too Much Horror Fiction, and while I've read only a fraction of that astounding output—I'd have to put everything else on hold to be able to do a complete read of him!—I've loved a lot of it. And perhaps none more so than "The Chimney," a 1977 tale that first appeared in the dark fantasy anthology Whispers, then later in Companions, and many more books after that.
An early example of his patented quiet, slow-burn, off-kilter style, Campbell makes sure that virtually every sentence in this story depicts something "wrong." Whether it's an emotion or a word, a shadow or an article of clothing, a parent or a fellow schoolchild, every thing is cast in an as uncomfortable light as possible. Step by step Campbell delicately puts down each sentence and oh-so-precisely injects un-ease into it, so we are always wobbling off-balance, fearful, in suspense, feeling like our poor unnamed protagonist... knowing that Campbell has something horrible awaiting us at the end. It's one of the purest Campbell stories I know, and rereading only confirms that fact.

The first-person narrator is now an adult looking back at the year of his life when he was but 12 years old, when he was "beginning to conquer his fears." Something traumatic happened back then, which he does not wish to attribute to those fears—of which there are many, but it is the titular object which causes the child the most distress: "I even went upstairs to do my homework, and managed to ignore the chimney. I had to be brave," he states. Well aware of how his mother is terrified of him going off to school, and how that seeps into his own experience of it, where children from social classes both above and below tease and bully him. Even those who approach him in friendship are rebuffed in his self-conscious anxiety. 

He tries to gain sympathy from mother by feigning sickness, but all his fears only embarrass father, who has his own problems with a struggling five-and-dime shop. "You only upset the child," father says to mother. "If you didn't go on at him he wouldn't be half so bad... you'll have him afraid to go up to bed next." And it is upstairs indeed where our greatest source of fear is: the chimney. Its firelight causes distressing shadows: "Everything was unstable; walls shifted, my clothes crawled on the back of the chair." He knows he must hide these feelings from his parents; he must conquer his terror of the chimney.

And so Campbell puts his man through the paces: nightmares, sleepwalking, sickness, cranky dad. And my god, does he say in front of a new pal and two girls they've just met that he still believes in "Father Christmas"? It's this last aspect that is actually the crux of this fellow's abject if inchoate fears, when he reveals to us that at three years old he'd seen a Christmas movie on television:

I'd seen two children asleep in bed, an enormous crimson man emerging from the fireplace, creeping toward them. They weren't going to wake up! "Burglar!" I'd screamed. "No, dear, it's Father Christmas," my mother said. "He always comes out of the chimney."

Perhaps if she'd said "down" rather than "out of"...

The ironic idea of Santa as the origin of night terrors is a believable one: "I lay awake listening fearfully for movement in the chimney: I was sure a fat grinning figure would creep upon me if I slept." Then one Christmas Eve, dear old dad borrows the neighbor's Father Christmas costume... "It was many years before I enjoyed Christmas very much." There are two climaxes, and each rattles the nerves, bringing past and future together into one horrific moment, a vision from that blighted holiday night: "What shocked me most was its size." But these set-pieces, taken together, add up to our narrator realizing he will never conquer his fear, suggesting that it may even have a life of its own... and "that would be worst of all."

"The Chimney" won the 1978 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction.

Grady Hendrix, Ramsey Campbell, & me
Providence, RI 2018