Friday, December 31, 2021

2021: The Year in Review

Alas: 2021 was another year in which I've had more luck buying horror paperbacks than I have had in reading them. You've probably noticed the dearth of reviews on the blog. This year I started to read so many but gave up on them in a flash, realizing I'm having the same reaction to them as editors/critics like Karl Edward Wagner, Dennis Etchison, and Charles L. Grant had back in the day: the books I was reading were tired, dumb, lazily written, and/or noticeably cribbed from more popular works. Even titles I've searched for for years and had high hopes for, like Florence Stevenson's A Feast of Eggshells, left me disappointed in the first handful of chapters. As Diamond David Lee Roth once put it, "I got no time to mess around," so I've been feeling less guilty about books going back on the shelf unread. Have I lost my touch for plucking and rescuing forgotten titles out of obscurity?!
The last novel I read, The Devil's Advocate, a 1990 Pocket Book from Andrew Neiderman, was disgracefully, shamefully dumb. A pale, 90-pound weakling of a book. A spineless, enervated ripoff of Ira Levin and John Grisham. No idea why the spine has the word "horror" on it. At one point the main character says, "Bob, I have come to the conclusion that John Milton is an evil man with supernatural powers. Probably he's not a man, or, what I mean is, he's more than a man. He's most probably Satan himself." This might be the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard anyone say in "horror novel," and you know that's saying a lot. 

But all that aside, I'm thrilled with the books I've been purchasing online lately (visits to brick-and-mortar stores are few and far between these days). I am a collector building a library, and in my possession I have books that are proving harder and harder to find at affordable prices. This isn't a brag; it's my growing awareness that these books are truly the ephemera of the past and I'm doing a part in keeping it alive and archived. This year I've leaned into that more.

Valancourt Books continues to publish sought-after horror fiction from the Paperbacks from Hell era; this year we reprinted Hugh Zachary's 1974 eco-erotic-horror novel Gwen, in Green. We have another title in the chamber for the PfH series: Les Whitten's Progeny of the Adder. This 1965 horror/mystery novel was a precursor to TV's "The Night Stalker" as well as, indirectly, 'Salem's Lot. Not part of the series but still highly anticipated, Valancourt will be offering Carnosaur by "Harry Adam Knight" (pseudonym of Australian pulp author John Brosnan) and In a Lonely Place by Karl Edward Wagner.
The former is a 1984 "animal attack" thriller that presages Jurassic Park by several years, while the latter is one of the rarest of vintage horror paperbacks, containing some of Wagner's best work, like "Sticks" and "Where the Summer Ends." I'll be doing intros for Adder and Carnosaur, so that's something for me to look forward to.

My wife and I made a trip to France back in September, first time for me. It was of course wonderful (and very safe, we got tested twice while there and had the results emailed to us in 15 minutes). I found one terrific English-language bookstore in Paris, and while they didn't have a horror section per se, there was at least one tiny treasure tucked away in the vast paperbacks shelves: a signed US copy of Slither!

The biggest news was of course the death of Anne Rice. While I haven't read one of her books in 30 years, the ones I did read—that is, the original trilogy of The Vampire Chronicles—were very important to me way back when (I went to one of her book signings in Philly in 1991 or 1992, sad to say no pictures were taken though). Her contributions to horror and Gothic literature are immeasurable. I've since added first-editions paperbacks of The Witching Hour and The Mummy to my shelves; perhaps 2022 is the year I will finally read them!

We also lost beloved artist Rowena Morrill, whose illustration adorns this wonderful, if scuffed, Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories. I got this guy in the mail about a day before she died.

Below are many of my acquisitions from this year. I don't think I paid more than $15 for any one. This year I finally finished cataloguing all of my horror paperbacks; I'm at around 1,100 or so mass-markets alone. Here's to a brighter 2022 everyone!

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Living in Fear: A History of Horror in Mass Media by Les Daniels (1975): Immaculately Frightful

Despite being able to Google any and all topics at any and all times, I still cherish having my own nonfiction collection of horror reference books. I've always been interested in author biographies and critical appreciations of the genre, especially for the general reader and not (necessarily) the literary academic. While my shelf of these titles pales in comparison to my shelves of actual horror fiction, this latest addition to my library deserves a post of its own.

Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media (Da Capo Press oversize paperback, 1983) is virtually a one-stop shop for most of your horror literacy requirements. Author Les Daniels (1943-2011) made his bones in the early Seventies when he published Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, one of the very first books on the topic. He gained a reputation as a serious, but not stuffy, chronicler of the overlooked, the forgotten, the thrown-away popular enjoyments of the past. (Hmm, sounds familiar...)

Daniels continued to write about comic books, with histories of Superman, Wonder Woman, and others following later. As his favorites had been the notorious EC horror comics of the Fifties, it's no wonder that he soon turned his attention to that also much-maligned genre in toto. We should be glad he did, because he almost effortlessly draws a line from Greek mythology, Biblical mystery plays, epic poetry, and proto Gothic literature to early American religious sermons, and then more recognizable horror fare like The Monk, Frankenstein, Varney the Vampyre, Dracula, Poe, Bierce, Washington Irving, et. al. 

But of course he's practically just getting started. The Order of the Golden Dawn, Weird Tales, the Lovecraft circle, "Inner Sanctum," Universal monster movies, Boris Karloff, William Gaines, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, Hammer flicks, even a brief consideration of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and Alice Cooper in the context of psychological horror and nihilism—all come under his discerning eye and fluid pen. Daniels also generously included several classic short stories to serve as markers of their era, from Poe, M.R. James, Machen and more, including a solid-gold personal fave-rave, Matheson's "Blood Son."

I haven't even mentioned the lovely b&w art that accompanies the text, vintage illustrations from down the ages,woodcuts, iconic movie stills, comic and magazines covers (but nary a single, believe it or not, actual book cover) even a full-length EC Comics story. I can't tell you how excited I was to learn about Irish artist Harry Clarke's Art Nouveau-inspired drawings for Poe's dreadful tales (above). 

As for "modern" horror, Daniels seems almost dismissive of both film adaptations of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, which maybe made sense back then but today I find inexplicable: those two movies are, along with their base novels, the tent poles of modern horror entertainment. Thomas Tryon gets a mention of a paragraph, as does non-horror author John Fowles, and a few other "contemporary" writers, but Daniels wrote this book prior to Stephen King's ascension and domination of even the very concept of "horror." Daniels himself would start to publish his own horror novels, a historical series about the vampire Don Sebastian de Villanueva, in the ensuing years. The final words are about the monster cereals of the Seventies, perhaps an ignominious end to such a towering work, alas...

1975 Scribner hardcover
Obviously a precursor to King's chummy horror/Cold War kid memoir Danse Macabre from 1981, Living in Fear is a reference work at heart. I think anyone attempting to read it from cover to cover would simply get bogged down by the sheer weight and heft of Daniels' approach. You may be thinking now that this isn't the type of book you read straight through, and you'd be right.

Indeed, I see many fans online make this mistake with Danse, and then give up in frustration. I was introduced to King's book in 19-effing-86 and I still don't think I've read it in its entirety. Books like these are to nosh and nibble at, appetizers and hors d'oeuvres for the brain. It is something to keep on your shelf and when you run across some horror blank spot and you think, What did ol' Les Daniels have to say about "The Night Stalker"? Or Creepy magazine? Or Robert Bloch? Think how ridiculous it'd be if you tried to eat an entire Thanksgiving dinner spread all by yourself. No, you help yourself to a serving, go back for seconds later, eat some leftovers for a midnight snack or the day after.

I'll be honest: Daniels writes with such casual authority, from such a wellspring of knowledge and experience, in such clear prose, that I found myself dealing with pangs of jealousy as I read. While I knew of many of the topics and names and stories contained herein, it is the brisk aplomb with which Daniels sets down his insights that impressed me most mightily. His ability to synthesize and summarize decades upon decades of fearsome entertainments, to move from classic literature to pulp fiction, from silent film to the Seventies cinematic excesses, from radio to television and magazines, is nothing short of magnificent. 

Striking a path between the academic and the aficionado, Daniels has offered up a clear, deep well to drink from. Despite it being almost half a century old, Living in Fear provides so much context, insight, enthusiasm, and appreciation for the origins of, and the genre as a whole, that it belongs in every serious horror and pop culture fan's library.

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 of 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.