Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A Month of Black Sabbaths: The Horror Paperbacks of Daniel Rhodes

Not much to catch the eye in this classy cover art for Next, After Lucifer (July 1988), but the critical blurbs seem to be impressed! One of those authors about whom I never knew anything but whose paperbacks have been plentiful in used bookstores for years, Daniel Rhodes had two more titles published in the late Eighties through Tor's prolific horror line, Adversary and Kiss of Death, from 1989 and 1990 respectively. In the United Kingdom they were put out by New English Library—adorned with much better cover art—complete with Graham Masterton singing the praises.
Looking into the author, turns out Rhodes is a pen name of thriller author Neil McMahon, who is still hard at work today. I was pleasantly surprised to find Next, After Lucifer to be written in a style not usually found in horror paperbacks, elevated and inspired by the stories of M.R. James—the novel is dedicated to the writer—but with requisite updating (drug use, illicit sex). Actually, it was published in hardcover by St. Martin's Press, which might explain the higher quality prose and all-around cultured nature of the tale within.
Anyway, there's an ancient evil in a quaint French town where American medieval studies scholar John McTell and his indifferent newlywed wife Linden are taking a sabbatical. It's Templar Knight Guilhem de Courdeval from the 14th century, burned at the stake for sorcery and various occult antics, whose spirit is trying to invade McTell, thanks to McTell stumbling across the knight's grimoire in castle ruins in the hills. Come on, dude, you're a medieval studies prof, you know waaay better than to mess with that stuff.

Rhodes is a literate and careful writer, and I was impressed by the depiction of local color, an indulgent priest, the villagers, and especially the snobby, drunken antics of Linden's sister, husband, and a Eurotrash hanger-on who crash the McTells' getaway and liven up the proceedings. It's quiet, allusive, historical horror here all the way, which was fine, a couple gory touches, but I definitely felt it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, or maybe I just mean it needed more oomph in narrative, dramatic tension. Plus there's a sequel I didn't know about, Adversary, so that means the climax is a touch half-hearted. Worth a read, worth adding to your collection, but remember to watch out for grimoires that write themselves...

Saturday, February 13, 2021

RIP Rowena Morrill (1944 - 2021)

Illustrator extraordinaire Rowena Morrill has died at age 76 after a long illness, according to Locus. I was just thinking of her too as only several days ago I purchased a copy of 1978's Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories, solely for her stunning cover art. It arrived on my doorstep earlier this past week (with more scuffing than I'd expected from a seller description of "F/NF" but oh well that's not what I'm here for today). I just love the "roll call" of Draculas, male and female alike! Pretty spectacular work, in every respect.

Many of my favorite horror paperback covers were painted by Morrill, regardless of whether I liked or even read the novel adorned. My personal taste runs to her horror work, obviously, like her stunning debut, 1978’s Jove paperback original Isobel:
Way to make an entrance! More late Seventies horror art came in the form of two Jove Lovecrafts and the haunting lesbian love story Burning
In the late Eighties she produced perhaps her most iconic horror covers, for the Pocket editions of Robert McCammon's novels. These editions are emblematic of that entire era of horror fiction, and truly belong on any collector's shelf:

Most of her work looked to me as if she'd actually read the stories she was illustrating, which is not always something artists had time to do, I'm sure. These two covers for Frank Belknap Long and George R.R. Martin classics are good examples:

Happily Rowena Morrill was lauded and well-thought of for her entire career, and did not, like so many other artists, languish in obscurity. I can’t count how many science fiction, fantasy, or horror books her work has graced over the decades, but the genres are all the better for it. For a good obit, with plenty of background, visit here.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Omen and Prophecy Author David Seltzer Born on This Date, 1940

Two of the most ubiquitous horror paperbacks of the Seventies were novelizations of movies, The Omen (Signet/July 1976) and Prophecy (Ballantine/February 1979). For decades virtually any and every used bookstore, thrift store, junk shop, flea market stall, or moldering cardboard box on a street corner marked "Free!" from here to eternity would almost certainly have scuffed-up copies of these little guys, each with its distinctive, nearly iconic title typefaces.

So numerous were they in used bookstores and so notoriously slow to sell after the movies had lost their "now" factor, booksellers should have been paying the customer to take them off their hands. Today copies should not cost book buyers more than a couple bucks, unless said copies are minty-fresh first prints. My copy of Omen that you see is like a 35th printing! My Prophecy is—ha, just checked it, a first print, actually.

Seltzer in 1976

Two bestselling books written by one guy, writer and filmmaker David Seltzer, who turned his own modern horror screenplays into bestselling novels and watched the royalties roll in. The Omen single-handedly introduced the concepts of "666" and "the number of the Beast" to people who hadn't been raised in a Christian fundamentalist home—Seltzer himself says he'd never even opened a bible until a producer asked him to come up with an Exorcist-type script. Prophecy traded in then-newly au courant environmentalism and indigenous people exploitation. Both movies have their horrific pleasures, but I recall little of my reading of these books sometime in middle school.

Seltzer, who early in his career had worked with Jacques Cousteau on his marine documentaries and supplied the original Willy Wonka movie with songs, subplot, and its final lines, was a pioneer in the concept of the novelization. Erich "Love Story" Segal had sold megamillions of his script-into-book in 1970, and after Seltzer had seen The Omen in production—the decapitation scene finally convinced him he’d written something truly shocking and special—he quickly wrote the novelization from his own screenplay. It was on bookshelves only weeks prior to the movie's debut. An immediate bestseller, the paperback's success caused film companies to devote entire divisions to the production of novelized screenplays, which have been standard ever since.