Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Manstopper by Douglas Borton (1988): If Dogs Run Free

Vintage "animal attack" horror novels run a gamut in quality, from the classic to the why bother, from the pretty good to the not bad, from the so bad-it's-good to I think it's just dumb-bad—not to mention the flat-out WTF! So where does my first read of the new year, a brief novel of killer dogs on the loose called Manstopper, by Douglas Borton, fit on the list? I'm going to say between "pretty good" and "not bad." Unexpectedly tough n’ gnarly, this 1988 paperback original from Onyx/New American Library pulls no punches, and is written with a clear eye for typical suspense/horror scenarios injected with high-test potency for maximum-impact canine carnage. 

"Douglas Borton" is a pseudonym of suspense author Michael Prescott—under which Manstopper has been reprinted today—and used for four other novels, also published by Onyx

Manstopper comes ripping out of the gate, telling us what killers these trained dogs are you're about to meet, the simplest  security system, and the most perfect. These babies cost upwards of two large, but for something that cannot be reasoned with or bribed or befriended or outwitted or evaded, you know these puppies gotta be worth it. And pity poor van driver Mike Tuttle, whose cargo is four of these finely-tuned slobbering attack machines. And if that's not bad enough, Mike has the ill-considered idea to pick up a hitchhiker on this cold October night. Then things go sideways, literally even, for driver Mike as the no-shit surprise of the hitchhiker pulls a knife on him and forces him off the highway down a dirt road... The monsters now are loose: It was the morning of Tuesday, October 21, and though Sea Cove, New Jersey didn't know it yet, Halloween was coming early this year.
Borton next introduces our cast of characters, in the usual paperback fashion. Alex Driscoll the small-town reporter; Ben Harper the small-town sheriff; Jessica "everybody calls me Jesse" Blair the small-town love interest; the Gaines family, their headstrong little girl and her beloved little dog Buster; a psycho killer now going by the name "Mike Tuttle"; and the mysterious Karl Masterson, the man with the tragic past who trained these animals to be the finest security available. Borton does a perfectly competent job of linking the characters, describing their lives and their work, and definitely at a bit more convincing level than many other paperback horror writers.
Less a horror novel, more a hard-edged thriller, Borton gets into the down-and-dirty with both fists, writing solid, if familiar, dog-attack scenes charged with adrenaline. Various characters are dispatched in stalk-and-kill set-ups that drip with dread. A woman defending her wounded husband and child offers an incredibly tense sequence, as well as a radio DJ working the overnight whose standard delivery order of a pizza-with-everything comes with an unexpected side of enraged, murderous Doberman. Called in to heel the cursed curs he trained, Masterson tells the authorities this won't be a simple task; these animals have been bred to survive at all costs: 
"[Razor] places a very high value on self-preservation. He would not fight a losing battle. Against overwhelming odds, he would the first to cut and run. Not out of cowardice, but cunning. And you couldn't stop him. His reflexes are quicker than yours—or mine."
Masterson talking about the deadly, finely-honed skills of his charges reminded me of First Blood relationship between Rambo and Colonel Trautman; as I said, most often the novel reads like a thriller with some typical horror moments scattered about. Not a bad thing, but not what I was expecting.

Sure, Manstopper hits bum notes, same as so many other Eighties genre paperbacks—I can do without the thought processes of horny teens, flirty grown-ups, and goggle-eyed children for the rest of my horror-reading life, while the psycho killer subplot is too conveniently slotted in to justify that "horror" tag on the spine—but provides other pleasures that offset those well-worn cliches. Borton excels at depicting animal mayhem, which is why you picked up the book in the first place, right? The chapters devoted to the dogs' point of view offer vivid, chilling glimpses of their bloodthirsty nature:  
He had been trained to leap and bark and slash... Cages and walls had no reality for him. The only reality was the throbbing sense of danger and the quiet, maniacal urge to destroy....


Mike said...

Sounds like a good one!

I've got a few good killer dog pack novels I hope you can please review in the future (if you haven't done so already):

*Hounds of Dracula (later known as Dracula's Dog) by Ken Johnson,
*The Pack (later known as The Long Dark Night) by David Fisher,
*The Dogs by Robert Calder (alias Jerrold Mundis),
*Dog Kill by Al Dempsey.

The first one was paperback only; the other three were both hardback and paperback. Only the first two had film adaptations (in fact, the first one was a movie tie-in novel).

Hope to see these reviewed soon! Thanks!

Will Errickson said...

I own both the Calder and Dempsey titles but haven't read them, but I've never sought out HOUNDS as I'm not a big collector of novelizations. As for THE PACK, well, head over to Valancourt Books and you'll see it's been reprinted as part of the PAPERBACKS FROM HELL reprint line, with an intro by--me! I even interviewed Fisher over the phone for it, he was a lot of fun to talk to, and is delighted to have people reading his first novel still, after 40 years.

Mike said...

So The Pack was David Fisher's first horror novel. I had no idea! Did he write any other horror novels after that and has he written any books on any other subjects besides horror?

I saw another killer dog pack novel in your book - Rabid by David Anne - but never read it. This one, I found out, is from Great Britain and is also both in hardback and paperback. Have you read this one, is it any good and is David Anne a pseudonym (it looks like it is) and if it is, do you know the author's real name? This one I hope will be reviewed in the future, too. Did you notice that the German Shepherd Dog on the U.S. paperback edition of Rabid looks just like the one on the paperback edition of The Pack, only tinted pink?

I think, however, that you should try Hounds of Dracula (preferably under that title and not the other one). I thought it was a good horror novel. In fact, if you read this book and then see the film that was based on it, there are a lot of differences between the two in many places of each one. I wish this one had been published in hardback as well, but one can't have everything, I guess.

Will Errickson said...

Pretty sure Fisher has written mostly nonfiction in the decades since PACK. I will hunt up a copy of HOUNDS!

Mike said...

Thanks, Will, you'll love that novel! It's got an interesting addition to vampire lore, to say the least.

I'll suggest again, though, when you finish reading the novel, watch the film version that's based on it. It's called ZOLTAN...HOUND OF DRACULA (which is its U.K. title; its U.S. title is DRACULA'S DOG) and is available on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber (or you can watch it online if you wish).

I will say one thing about both versions: there's a part in the novel that has entirely different dialogue than the same part in the film. I'll let you see for yourself what it is. Please let me know when you've read and seen both of them and tell me which one you like best.

Oh, one other thing: this is not the first story where non-human animals become vampires. I believe that honor goes to a Howard the Duck story from GIANT-SIZE MAN-THING #5, where Howard encounters (are you ready for this?) Bessie the Hellcow, a dairy cow who was turned into a vampire by Dracula 300 years ago (at the time the story occurred) and has been pursuing the vampire lord for revenge, always one step behind.

johnbgood52 said...

I know I'll likely be in the minority, but to me, a "horror" novel where the Big Bad is just a pack of ordinary (even if highly trained) dogs is the diametric opposite of interesting. For an old fart like me who cut his teeth on the likes of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and E.F. Benson, if it doesn't have a whiff of the supernatural - or at very least a weird beastie of unknown origin - it ain't horror, son.

Will Errickson said...

I don’t disagree—you will note I mentioned the book reads more like a thriller than a horror novel, and the “horror” aspect of a serial killer seems shoehorned in