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.

15 comments:

Unknown said...

One of his books (The Stake) was enough for me. I admire your perseverance.

tarbandu said...

I'm aware of Laymon mainly through his short story contributions to horror / splatterpunk anthologies of the 80s and early 90s, and I've never read any of his novels. Probably because the fact that he released at least one novel a year from 1980 to 2001 made me suspect that quantity was outpacing quality.

Your review, which is decidedly devoid of sugarcoating, leaves me thinking that I'm not missing much from avoiding the Laymon shelving section of the 'Paperbacks from Hell'......

Dr. Jerrold Coe said...

I gave Laymon a few chances but was similarly disappointed. Just thin gruel all around, nothing exciting or shocking in his rote stories. Like John Saul with some naughty words added.

Unknown said...

(Zwolf, if the blog doesn't show my I.D. -- for some reason it doesn't anymore, even if I sign in)


I don't mine if you don't like Laymon, but don't ever, ever, EVER try to defend William W. Johnstone in any way, shape, or form. That guy was THE WORST. He never gave any "bang for the buck" -- he just spewed absolute idiocy and even cut and pasted huge chunks of his books into other books. That's right -- he wasn't just a completely incompetent writer, he was LAZY! Nobody is anywhere close to being as bad as William W. Johnstone. There's nothing defensible about him, not in any way, shape, or form.

As for Laymon, eh, he varies. He definitely has a formula, and it's apparently not one you like, and that's okay. If you tried Night In The Lonesome October or Traveling Vampire Show you *might* like 'em, or you might not.

But even Laymon's worst is better than William W. Johnstone's best. It ain't even close.

Will Errickson said...

Noted. Thanks for the reminder!

cdkingla said...

I know I read The Beast House back in the 80s but couldn't tell you a thing about it. I read a handful of Laymon books back then and the only one I remember really enjoying is Out Are The Lights and even that was more the concept than the execution (a deaf woman attends midnight horror movie screenings and through lip-reading comes to discover they are actually snuff films and the "actors" are really being killed. That one would actually make a decent B-movie.) I've always been baffled by the fervent Laymon cult and how they refuse to accept any criticism of his work.

Will Errickson said...

Dr, “thin gruel” is perfect

cp49 said...


I get why many don't like Laymon, truly. But "Night in the Lonesome October", "In the Dark", "Endless Night", and "The Traveling Vampire Show" to me are some of the best pulp horror novels of the late 20th century. I think he was hugely influential on so many other horror writers that followed. His writing style is widely under-rated and I don't think he (or his prose) is guilty of half of what his critics claim. That said, I get why he's not everyone's cup of tea.

John said...

I read Laymon while working a night shift as a security guard in the late 90’s mainly because it was quick and easy. Revisiting some of those titles years later and I’m amazed that stuck with them. The focus on rape and sexual violence is just gross and distasteful and the characters are paper thin. Some decent premises that are just wasted.

Alexander Braun said...

I'm actually the reader who is always pushing himself on to the next Laymon novel, even though I disliked the previous one. I can also feel that if you gave one of his books to a non horror reader, it would confirm their idea that fans of the genre were low brow, sinister people. I'll say that there have been a few moments where I had fun reading his novels, but they are far and few between. I only managed to get through three quarters of his novel Once Upon A Halloween this season.Maybe I'll finish it next year, but with unbelievably perplexing characters and situations, it doesn't seem likely. Next on my Laymon to read list is Beware.

Jonathan Stover said...

I agree. Indeed, THE BEAST HOUSE was also my last Laymon, one I gave up on after 25 pages. A lot of his reputation comes, I think, from him being a stand-up guy who helped young horror writers.

Will Errickson said...

Yes, I think that’s it—same for Williamson, another horrible writer but who mentored young writers and put them in his Masques anthologies

Juliet said...

I read, “Paperbacks From Hell” and found your blog through that book. It feels very sad that the first post of yours I read is such a brutal dismemberment of one of my favourite authors. I respect your right to dislike Laymon however, I feel your method is a little extreme. It costs nothing to be polite.

Will Errickson said...

Thank you for reading, Juliet. I have almost a dozen years’ worth of paperback horror reviews here, and most of them are positive!

Mark West said...

I liked him, back in the mid 90s with the earlier books but the later ones - wow. He was skating on thin ice with the rape and perving over female characters before but once he got to door-stop sized novels, it went into overdrive. Now, years and years later, all I can remember is that in "The Lonesome October" one, the hero has the mum and daughter and both are ok with it, in "Come Out Tonight" there are literally pages dedicated to explaining how naked the heroine is and in "Alarums", the lead spends an entire chapter thinking her knickers have been stolen because, when she leans forward, she spots her own pubic hair and realises she doesn't have them on.