Friday, November 12, 2021

Christopher Pike Born on This Date, 1954

 

The pen name of New York City-born Kevin Christopher McFadden, Christopher Pike was one of the big-selling writers of young adult speculative fiction during the late Eighties and well into the Nineties. I well recall selling lots of these slim little paperbacks during my bookstore days back then. Published by Pocket Books under their YA imprint Pathway, his books popped off the shelves with his name featured in neon as well as distinctive, evocative cover illustrations, most by artists Brian Kotzky, Danilo Ducak, and Mark Garro. Die-cut peekaboo and stepback covers abound!

I was too old to read them myself, but I know Pike's books strike a real nostalgic chord for younger horror fans who later graduated to adult horror writers. Tor Books published his two adult novels, Sati (1990) and The Season of Passage (1992). Pike is famously reclusive, but a recent, illuminating interview can be found here. These paperbacks you see in this post are from my wife's collection; she's been buying them off and on for years!

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Beast House by Richard Laymon (1986): I Suck Like a Beast

Look, you gotta believe me: I gave cult favorite Richard Laymon another try because I wanted to give him a fair shake. Over the years I've been writing this blog I've read and disliked four of his novels and a couple short stories; and each time I've reviewed something by him I've been told by fans some variant of: "Oh, you should read this one," or "You should've read that one," or "This is one of his weaker titles," etc. But what I've found is those bits of advice are distinctions without a difference (I even read all the free excerpts I could find on Amazon). And The Beast House is no exception. First published by Paperjacks in 1987, the first sequel to his 1979 debut dud The Cellar, it is failure in its purest form. Inept and inert, dull and dopey, it lacks any and all of the requisite qualities for a good book.
 
As I've said about his novels before, their scenarios aren't the problem. The story line of a secret sex diary from the woman who once owned the Beast House, and characters like an unscrupulous author and a teenage girl looking to make a buck from said diary, aren't terrible per se. At first, I thought I might even kinda end up liking Beast House... but then all the weak Laymon traits appeared. The problem is that, in the writing and unspooling of said story, there is nothing upon which a reader's mind to find purchase—not a line of interesting prose, not a snatch of realistic dialogue, not a human quirk observed, not an arresting image captured, not a simile or metaphor utilized to quench the thirst of one who reads for pleasure. Not even a scene of well-imagined graphic violence or gut-wrenching depravity for the gorehounds. It's all empty calories. A starving man apprehends a single potato chip. You're hungrier than when you started.
 
Laymon's reputation as some sort of graphic horror maestro is to laugh. Beast House is about 98% horror-free, stuffed with sawdust, the nonsense padding of characters moving from car to car, motel room to bar, titular Beast House back to motel room, speaking and thinking juvenile inanities all the while. Herein he describes the "gruesome" injuries of wax dummies no less, akin to the cynical idiocy of trying to fool readers of 1987's Night Show with descriptions of violence and gore that turned out to be upon reveal scenes from horror movies. Not funny. Not clever. Insulting, actually.
 
Speaking of horror movies, I often find a defense of Laymon made that his books are akin to "B-movies." To me this kinship argument is disingenuous at best and simply ignorant at worst: lots of B-movies are made with skill, care, and good sense; I mean, Jesus Christ, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a fucking "B-movie." Halloween is a B-movie, Re-Animator, Evil Dead, B-movies all, and all are fun. Unconcerned with good taste, the filmmakers knew the limit and knew precisely when to go above and beyond. Gleeful, rebellious, anarchic, even. Laymon is a dreary hack producing no-hearted novels that have all the energy of nursing home inhabitants after a hot lunch and a game of cribbage. 

Laymon is infamous for his use of rape and violence and abuse in his work, but it's not because he's adept at describing those things or has any particular insight into them; it's more that he's heard that stuff is "cool." This is condescending to the horror fan. His deployment of such is ham-fisted, one-dimensional, oblivious and trite. Put simply, Laymon is a clueless square. Not cool, daddy-o.
 
Overall, Laymon writes like an amateur, unable to invest believably in any of his scenarios. His depiction of the titular beast is anemic, a dearth of imagination so complete you wonder if he was aware he was writing anything at all. An incompetent hacking away at his typewriter with zero command or respect for any aspect of the craft of writing, Laymon simply does not do the heavy lifting required to produce quality horror fiction. To write is free, it costs nothing—except the drive to commit to the hard work of mastering the art.
 
As terrible as they are, at least writers like William Johnstone and J.N. Williamson tried to give their readers a bang for their buck, cramming their tales full of monsters, however ludicrous, from zombies to werewolves to dark goddesses and demons and satanic cats and whatnot, as well as dense plots bonkers beyond belief. Richard Laymon seems content to give the least he can give. Virtually every jot and tittle of his that I've read has been a total dispiriting drag for me, and I can not imagine that ever changing.