Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Gila! by Les Simons (1981): Big Lizard in My Backyard

Boasting one of the purest examples of vintage horror paperback cover art, Gila! is a title burned into my brain from discovering it when it first appeared in the spinner rack of my local library. I was 10 years old when it was published by Signet Books in October 1981, and mesmerized by the carnival barker-like tagline, as well as its back cover copy that luridly mixed sex and death into one noxious stew that froze my child's brain. Plus that exclamation point!

I don't recall if I actually read the book, I doubt it, but I cannot forget the sense of the forbidden, the aura of "don't let an adult see you looking at it" that came off it like a miasma. I was taken by the stark simplicity of the cover art, familiar with movies like Them! (there's that exclamation point again!) and other giant-animals-run-amuck movies thanks not only to Saturday afternoon creature double features but also my endless hunger for devouring the weekly TV Guide and monster movie books checked out from that same library. Gazing at that lurid, gaudy cover enflamed my imagination, about the same way dinosaur picture books did. Thanks be to the wonderful artist Tom Hallman for his mad skillz.

"Les Simons" is the one-time pseudonym of Kathryn Ptacek, who wrote and edited a fair amount of horror fiction and nonfiction in the Eighties and Nineties, and still puts out short stories today. Born in Omaha in 1952, she was raised in Albuquerque, and much of her fiction is set in the American Southwest and utilizes local native mythologies. The anthology Ptacek edited in 1988, Women of Darkness, is a terrific high point of the era, featuring only women writers (there was a second volume as well, which I haven't read and was only issued in a Tor hardcover). She was married to esteemed "quiet horror" writer and editor Charles L. Grant from 1982 until his death in 2006.

Grant & Ptacek, c. late 1970s

Now, four decades later, and Gila! is hard to find these days, and try as I might I cannot remember how I came to have a beat-up copy in my library. I used to be good at that, remembering when and where I'd gotten the books in my collection, but as the years have piled on and the shelves get bigger, I can't keep that info in my head anymore. No matter. I read this guy in a couple days, the kind of book you don't expend a lot of mental energy on, it's pure pulp with all that entails.

Swedish edition, 1983, title translates as Nightmare without End!

Main characters are having sex in the midst of all the monster mayhem, disposable stock characters arrive on the scene and spout cliches, everyone says everyone's name a million times in conversation, dated references to native peoples, simplistic musings on the environment, war, nuclear power. And oh yeah, the depiction of giant, nuclear-radiated Gilas chomping on us poor humans! It all veers close to the inanity of gore "classick" Eat Them Alive; no attempt at gritty realism, but only the absurd descriptions of violence and carnage. And yes, the cover art is a thing that happens...

The Gila monster reached its massive head down and began chewing on the bodies at its feet, pawing through them as though searching for a choice morsel. Legs, arms, and torsos disappeared into the cavernous maw. Disjointed bones, flesh still clinging to them, were scattered...

Recommended reading for all you monster maniacs, you know who you are!

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Lucifer Society: The Paperback Cover Art of Don Punchatz

New Jersey-born illustrator Don Ivan Punchatz was born on this date in 1936. His surreal, otherworldly, even whimsical imagery adorned paperback covers in the horror, science fiction, and fantasy genres from all the top publishers: Avon, Signet, Dell, Berkley Medallion, and Warner, as well as for top authors like Asimov and Vonnegut. Especially prolific throughout the late Sixties and Seventies, he worked until the turn of the century and died in 2009. For a complete bio, read his obituary, which made the New York Times.

Here I've collected my favorite Punchatz covers. Enjoy!

The monstrous triptych above that makes up Signet's 1978 three-fer of horror icons is a perfect example of Punchatz's style. A really great idea, melding those nightmare men into one terrifying visage!

Punchatz more often than not signed his illustrations, but for some reason not this distinctive cover for Michael McDowell's first book, the amazing Amulet, from 1979. I think Grady ID'd it for sure when we put together Paperbacks from Hell.

While not exactly a horror collection, the cover for this Roald Dahl 1975 Warner collection features an unsettling image that reveals Punchatz's clever playfulness.

Punchatz like giant Easter Island-style heads; this imagery appears in several of his works.

I really feel like Tim Burton had this 1974 August Derleth anthology on his bookshelf, don't you?

Peter Haining edited countless anthologies, but not all were published in the US. This one from Signet in 1973 boasts Punchatz really going for it...

Half-man, half-alligator, right? Nice work. Look how clearly Punchatz's signature stands out!

Dangerous Visions was an era-defining 1967 science fiction anthology, famously edited by Harlan Ellison. The book was huge, and later reprints divided it up into separate volumes. Punchatz's work was for the 1969 Berkley Medallion reprints.

I absolutely love this kitty cover for the 1979 animal-attack novel The Cats. On my to-read list for sure!

A germinal text of science-fiction horror, this 1967 reprint of The Body Snatchers has Punchatz's art capturing the novel's central idea perfectly.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

RIP Peter Straub (1943 - 2022)

Sad news today: Locus magazine has reported that Peter Straub has died at age 79 after a long illness. A giant of modern horror since the late Seventies, with major bestselling works like Ghost Story, Floating Dragon, Koko, and, with Stephen King, The Talisman, to his credit, Straub was a writer of uncommon power and literary skill. In novels, short stories, and novellas alike, he was able to explore depths of emotional terror and physical violence in a way that made them immediate, visceral, sublime. Characters in Straub's works arrive full-blooded, while plot and themes reverberate with the echoes of past horror classics; his prose crackles with vitality as almost effortlessly he depicts a contemporary world suffused with our past and collective guilt, often garbed in the supernatural but just about as often unadorned with genre trappings.

While not as prolific as King, Straub was writing award-winning fiction well into the 21st century. I myself have read only a portion of his catalog, but what I have read, I have enjoyed almost more than any other horror writer. We have a lost a true master of horror, and if by any chance you have not read him, I urge you to avail yourself of his books at once!

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Wells of Hell by Graham Masterton (1979): Rock Lobster!

Whenever I find myself picking up and then tossing aside paperback horror novel after paperback horror novel, dismayed and distressed at the author's inability to hook me to the narrative even in the first few pages; whenever it pains my soul that it's been months since I've read a good book; whenever I begin to despair of the genre I love and almost desire to leave it all behind—I know it is high time to get myself back to my trusty old authorial standbys. And Graham Masterton, thanks be to him, is one of those standbys.

For some time I've been hearing chatter, whether on Facebook or Instagram, Twitter or Reddit, about Masterton's 1979* novel The Wells of Hell, which I believe was his 12th (yep, a dozen novels since his 1975 debut!). Don't know how long I've owned a beat-up copy of the 1982 Tor/Pinnacle edition, which you see at the top there, lackluster cover art by artist unknown, and to be honest I never really gave it much thought till, as I said, hearing chatter about it. Good chatter. (After more than a dozen years running this blog, I've developed a second sense about that kind of thing).

After glumly returning for the fourth or fifth or hundredth time some or other books back to my shelves unread that had failed to impress, that chatter got louder in my head and I plucked Wells from my Masterton collection. Won't say I had high hopes, but I knew I was in good hands—probably. 

Aaand—I was! In good hands! Masterton's sure, sarcastic, first-person narration drew me into his tale in an instant, welcoming me back to the fold. Mason Perkins, our narrator, is a humble horror hero, once a college fella studying psychiatry but who dropped out to make a go at something more useful but no less essential when getting to the cause of a problem: plumbing! 

When we meet, Mason is driving along a rural road on a cold Connecticut afternoon with his cat, Shelley (named for the poet, a hint of his school days), to visit the Bodines. A young couple in a cozy country home, Jimmy and Alison hope Mason, reliable plumber extraordinaire, can determine why their well-water is coming out of the faucets an unappetizing yellow-greenish color (or "colour," as the British text in this American paperback has it) and smelling kinda fishy. 

After some foreshadowing conversation—a missing local child, Jimmy's recent dreams of drowning—Mason takes a sample of the water to his pal Dan Kirk, a scientist working at the town Health Department. There Mason makes cute talk with Dan's assistant, the "provocative" Rheta Warren. Mason delivers the corniest of come-on lines to Rheta—"Is this really a job for a girl like you?"—while Dan looks at the water sample under a microscope. No surprise: swirling through the liquid are tiny seahorse-shaped micro-organisms complete with twisted horns and crusty bodies, excreting a urine-looking substance. Disgusting!

 Tor Horror reprint, 1989. Charles Lang cover art

Things take a turn for the worst when, after Dan and Mason go out for dinner and drinks (Rheta has a date with a football player whom Mason mocks like a teenager) and return to the lab to find an unsettling sight: a single mouse, from the crevices of the lab's breakroom, afflicted by a crustacean/insectoid shell and claws on its rear half. They realize it must have drunk from the Bodines' water sample. Mason immediately tries to call the couple to tell them of this alarming development and warn them off the water, but to no avail. The two men make the trek to the Bodines' home, finding it dark, silent, and empty inside, yet dripping with water, as if the house had been submerged in the tide. In an upstairs bedroom, they find the incredible: the body of the Bodines' young son Oliver, impossibly drowned... and in the bath, the chitinous carapace of some kind of enormous insect, crab, or lobster. Disgusting!

Sphere UK, 1988.
Maybe if I put a little dish of butter sauce here with a nutcracker, it will run out the other side.

And, of course, from here more Masterton mayhem. In his classic style of breezy, no-rest-for-the-wicked narrative, he invokes Native mythologies and cosmic Lovecraftian lore as our cast of characters rush to solve the mystery of lobster-shelled locals and flooding waters, missing children and the meaning of "Pontapo's curse." Where are Jimmy and Alison? What lies in the deep crevices beneath the earth of New Milford? What caused the unaccountable drownings of the 1770s? Why is it happening again? Who is Ottauquechee? And last but not least: what the hell is in that well?! I won't spoil it for you, but as one of those creepy monstrosities says:

"I am everything and everyone. I am the servant of the god of times gone by and times yet to be. My name is everything and my face is everyone. I am preparing for the resurrection of the greatest of those who lived beyond the stars... The day will soon be here when the great god will rise out of the wells which have been his sleeping-place for so long, and when all men will bow down before him and offer themselves happily as sacrifice..."

Sphere UK, 1981. Terry Oakes cover art

Freaking awesome. There's a headlong sprint to the well-done, eerie subterranean climax, with Shelley (pun intended, one presumes) the cat playing an important role, which should please many readers. Despite his tongue-in-cheek approach, Mason comports himself well for being a simple plumber, bravely facing off with a nightmare nearly beyond comprehension. Wells of Hell may not be the most suspenseful horror novel you'll ever read, as its plot construction is by-the-numbers, and characters even talk about how real life is suddenly feeling a lot like Invasion of the Crab Monsters from the 1950s. But why quibble? This is all good familiar horrific fun.

Masterton has never wasted too much time on the rational understanding of events; his heroes tend to dive in the deep-end with pulp conviction. Nor does he bother making anyone speak American English, they all sound like proper (and not so proper) Britons, but that's part of the Masterton charm. As with his other books, many of which I've enjoyed, there's an almost first-draft vibe; I felt the very ending could've done with another polish. Oh well. Masterton and his Wells of Hell got me out of a summer-long reading slump, I can recommend it to lovers of vintage horror without a second thought, and I can't ask for much more than that!

*The copyright is dated as 1979, but I cannot ascertain which edition was published that year; there is conflicting info online. I know, I know: something wrong on the internet?!

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

The Case Against Satan by Ray Russell (1962): Hell is for Children

There was a rattling, gagging sound from the girl, and they turned to watch in pity and loathing as she retched violently, her body curling in spasms, her fingers and toes clenched, her gaping mouth spewing jet after jet of reeking substance that covered her and splattered the wall and ran sluggishly in long viscous tendrils down to the floor.
A young teenage girl in unbearable torment of unknown origin. Her beleaguered parent. Two priests with competing ideas about their belief in God and Satan. A harrowing test of wills against a force the modern world has forgotten...
Modern horror would be a poorer thing were it not for the book and film The Exorcist—that's not an overstatement. William Peter Blatty's thrilling, chilling tale of innocence soiled and faith tested, of doubt, guilt, and ultimately of sacrifice, has touched the popular horror imagination at that same primal archetypal level as Dracula and Frankenstein. But as it was with those two monstrous icons, The Exorcist also had its own forgotten precursor. I'm talking about the 1962 novel The Case Against Satan, by the late great Ray Russell (1924-1999, seen below in an undated photo, but probably late Sixties or so).

You may recall I've written positive reviews of several of Russell's works over the years, I'm absolutely a fan, happy to see all his horror Gothics back in print today. His adeptness at combining a dark, literate sophistication with "distasteful" genre elements, which might seem beneath his skill set, is admirable. Grand Guignol bloodiness in works like "Sardonicus" and Incubus is polished by his steady pen in prose both accessible and lively, often delivered with an ironic tone, a devilish wink. As editor for Playboy magazine in its early days, he no doubt sharpened that pen and that penchant for macabre philosophy when working with writers like Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, Kurt Vonnegut, and others of that sensibility.

Russell's dialectic in his genre fiction, and first seen in this novel, is one of superstition versus rationality, of tradition versus modernity, of enlightenment versus religion, as one reviewer of Case Against Satan notes. Indeed, this kind of against-the-grain approach was also part and parcel of the Playboy "philosophy," if you will: unshackling our minds (and bodies!) from the strictures of the past, strictures too often rooted in myth and superstition (i.e., religion). From such conflict does Russell approach demonic possession in the modern world. And no surprise that sex is suspected at the root of the "possessed" girl's problem: repressed sex, of course, a great raw force that seethed and snarled for release.

As tête-à-têtes go, here Russell is in the "both sides" camp, a final answer which Russell leaves open-ended. The first chapter is titled "The Two Sides of Midnight"—indeed, all the chapter titles seem to predict black metal songs!—and that gets right at Russell's views about the difficulty we have perceiving even what we see right in front of us. "The Hand of God is quicker than the eye," as one character quotes.
Russell combs through history and literature to find some delicious, torturous horrors, as is his wont, easy enough to do with the Catholic Church. Intellectual talk between the two conflicting priests, Father Halloran and Father Sargent, when they're not actually exorcising poor young Susan Garth is stimulating; the cranky teetotaling anti-Catholic John Talbot was a hoot, with his scandalous insight that the Church and communism are opposed to one another solely because they are both totalitarian... Total power, total control. Control over everything—over the body, over the mind.
Compact and tightly-wound at around 150 pages, Case is deceptively simple, but still dramatic and lurid at times; like The Exorcist it is not necessarily a novel of horror but one about belief, doubt, conviction, redemption, but are these antiquated ideas in the 20th century? The concept of God and Diabolous struggling for the human soul is accepted only if it is translated into Freudian jargon—the superego and the id struggling for human reason.
I can’t say for sure but it seems like, for all the similarities, that Blatty took Russell's book and blew it up to bestselling mass-appeal status. Case does not have the scorching vulgarisms, the relentless throb, that all-hell-breaks-loose energy that kept millions upon millions of Exorcist readers turning pages and unable to sleep. Its dry-as-dust title perhaps an inkling to what's inside, Case didn't wow me like Russell's other works; he always has his characters talk a lot but the theological discourses here can wear on the reader. 

Yet the author's intelligence, subtlety, and psychological astuteness can make up for some of the drier sections, as he uses a sensational topic to illuminate the darker regions of the human mind. Ray Russell is the kind of just-maybe-smarter-than you pal you enjoy talking with over a bottle of good booze late into the darkening night... but just maybe you've heard this particular story before.

But have any of you ever heard and wondered at strange sounds in Catholic rectories? In the Unholy Hours, past the witching time of night, have you ever heard sounds that seem like the screams of poor girls in mortal agony? Have you ignored them? How long will your conscience let you ignore them?

Monday, May 30, 2022

The Bridge by John Skipp & Craig Spector (1991): The Ultimate Sin

The horror genre isn't generally thought of as being socially conscious, and historically was often seen as just the opposite. This has changed most notably in the last few years, but back in the Eighties and into the Nineties, horror entertainment was more a place to indulge in anti-social behaviors than in healthy ones. Famed splatterpunk duo John Skipp and Craig Spector, those "bad boys" of horror novelists, however, evinced an awareness of societal ills along with their penchant for depicting scenes of no-holds-barred graphic gore and violence in Eighties classicks like The Scream (1988) and The Light at the End (1986).

This aspect grew to the forefront by the time they published their ambitious second-to-last novel, The Bridge (Bantam Books/October1991/cover art by Lisa Falkenstern). This was adult, eyes-open horror, the guys were saying, writing about the here-and-now and not looking to horror for escape any longer: humans were no longer the sole items on the menu, for Earth itself (her self?) was on the chopping block. It was time to acknowledge that, ecologically, the planet was in dire straits.

Ecological horror stories were more a part of science fiction than horror (Skipp has often name-checked The Sheep Look Up, a 1972 dystopian novel by John Brunner, which depicts a world so polluted by human endeavors it is almost uninhabitable), but The Bridge is eco-horror in high gear. An impassioned plea for the state of our very planet that pulls no punches, it is an apotheosis of the authors' combined talents. That is, it has most of what's good about their work and some of what's bad, but it's all delivered with an earnest intensity. Dig the back-cover copy, which gives only a hint of what's lurking inside:

The good times start when two young redneck cousins, Boonie and Drew, working for Boonie's dad's dumping company, furtively chuck barrels of toxic waste into a nice secluded area in the Pennsylvania hinterlands, from the Black Bridge, a spot in the Codorus Creek (yes, a real place!). This is the breaking point, as S&S tell us in the pretentious italics that will run rampant throughout the novel, "a sin-eater since the Industrial Revolution, a chemical cessway" choked (illegally, of course) with the runoff of modern convenience: now a primordial stew giving birth to a new form of life, which S&S will dub "Overmind." And boy are we in trouble.

What results is so awful, so mind-bendingly terrifying, so rarefied and beyond man's ken that S&S have no choice but to revert to free verse poetry to describe it: 

born of poison
raised in poison
claiming poison for its own
it rose
a miracle of raw creation
hot black howl of life and
death intertwined and converted to
some third new option

2010 reprint, Leisure Books

And so on. It's "an enormous oily serpent" that "fractures physics, disembowels logic." It is made of rotting fish and broken barrels, the sludge and slurry of the creek, and it—the Overmind—wants the bodies and souls of us hapless littering mall-dwelling gas-guzzling dullards to wreak its vengeance. Host and parasite in one. Puppets of this sentient sludge. It devours and expels, creating a misshapen, oozing, zombie horde to act as avatars of our own destruction. It is the literal embodiment of the processes that created it: the greedy, insatiable eating machine. Shoveling resources in the one end, shitting poison out the other. A fat, blind, dying carcass, smothering all as it wallowed in its own excrement.

These grotesqueries on display are beyond reproach, offered up with spunky elan, gloopy and disgusting. This roiling mass of deformed life, "toxic ground zero," is eager to ingest everything it comes into contact with, to make it one with the Overmind. Reanimated bodies, human and helpless animal alike, march—or, more accurately, drive trucks filled with nuclear waste barrels—upon the unsuspecting small town of Paradise, PA: At the center of the only Hell that mattered. The Hell that mankind had created on Earth.

Our cast of characters is large, varied, as S&S dip down and then back up the social ladder. There are the aforementioned rednecks, duplicitous businessmen, young couples in love, a pregnant woman in crisis and her New Age friend, television reporters and crew, nuclear power plant workers, hazmat crew members, and teenage punk rockers. S&S keep things on the move, never lingering too long on any one narrative thread, spiking the wobbly narrative with odes to pain like a raggedy ratcheting metal fist, a screaming bonesaw violation so far beyond ordinary pain it boiled down endorphins and tortured the steam... blowtorching her mind into into crisp hyperclarity.

The Bridge is a perfect work of splatterpunk. And splatterpunk is not simply outrageous gore—it has heart, it has a conscience, an adolescent energy; it has raw primal emotions about injustice and disparity (y'know: punk) and the ironic confluence of the two is what made splatterpunk a thing. And if The Bridge has one thing, it's that: an emotional core of outrage, betrayal, injustice surrounded by a spiky, unruly, deeply pissed off surface eager to scrap, bringing mucilaginous pustular rotting amorphous tentacled things to a gunfight.
Our old buddy Harlan Ellison is surely one of the fathers of this righteous screed, as S&S shift into full-throttle, Deathbird Stories-style jeremiad mode, a kaleidoscopic apocalypse harrowing our souls, a beast screaming at the heart of the world. I was also reminded of the infernal parade in works like Clive  Barker's "Skins of the Fathers" and  Stephen King's "The Mist." Timely, modern movies like The China Syndrome, Network, and the soul-deadening BBC-TV movie Threads—which I first heard of when Spector mentioned it in Silver Scream—also have deep echoes here; I'm sure that was intentional, and it was all cool with me.

this bad boy had a soundtrack

The novel has faults, though, many. I read it when it came out, and the only thing I recalled before this reread was an awkward, lopsided vibe. This vibe remained: the set-up is bold and powerful, but there's no plot, only the one-way-ticket to oblivion, a downbound train doomed to destruction, peopled solely with folks in service to it. Hysteria and mania are at fever pitch; some readers may tire of the terse, melodramatic single-sentence paragraphs, or the overly earnest emotional outbursts, the endless fucking italics, or the glib, smart-alecky, even dated approach to violence, with a phrase like "Vlad the Impaler on a Funny Car Saturday" clunking in. None of the characters is the protagonist, per se, and none really come to life except when they're about to die, if even then. And the less said about the garden gnome orgy (pp. 260-261), the better! (Also: do not read past Chapter 60. Two very, very short pages follow, and they are from hunger and add not a drop to what you've just read.)

What we have then is a polemic aimed at the people who dump and poison without a backward glance or a twinge of remorse, who would use our environment, our home, as a dumping ground so they can fill their pockets. This ain't rocket science; S&S aren't saying anything particularly new. But that's not the point. The point is to deliver this oft-ignored message to the masses with a white-hot flaming sword, and that sword is The Bridge. It's not fully a novel; it's "a warnin' sign on the road ahead," as Neil Young once sang. But those people at fault will never read a book like this (although I wouldn't be surprised if some were Neil Young fans), and so S&S are left to include a long appendix filled with environmental tips n' tricks and the addresses of ecological organizations. It's (still, alas) up to us, and us only. 

It was a ring of thorns rising high into the viscid swirling fog... ten thousand barbed biting tendrils... taking on the appearance of armor. there were easily a hundred thousand bristling, glistening spikes pointing menacingly... pulling themselves up...

Despite those enumerated faults, I quite enjoyed my revisit to The Bridge; I was most often captivated by the book's gleeful passion, the commitment to its monstrous, unavoidable finale. And there’s no doubt eco-horror is more relevant than ever, which only added more sting to the proceedings. John Skipp and Craig Spector would only write one more novel after this, then quit for reasons I've never been able to ascertain—personal fallout? The waning of the paperback horror era? Creative differences? No matter, really. With one of the best, literally explosive, most disheartening climaxes in horror fiction of the era, The Bridge is an apex of the "new," early Nineties horror, delivered unto you without a care in the world—except saving it.

Horror was love, in this Brave New Hell: the capacity for caring, and for sharing pain.
To find oneself both in love and in Hell was more than torture, worse than madness.
It was tantamount to sin.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Where Nightmares Are: Peter Haining Born This Date, 1940

Anthologist and horror historian Peter Haining was born on April 2, 1940, in Middlesex, England. His books number into the hundreds, and his anthologies boast some of the most bizarre art of the late Sixties and Seventies, often by recognizable genre artists such as Bruce Pennington and John Holmes. Favoring "the subtle and the classic over the shocking and the graphic," he collected tales not often found in other horror anthologies and sought to broaden the scope and appeal supernatural fiction. Other books were about fictional British icons like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Dr. Who, and James Bond. Prolific almost beyond measure, he produced works into the 21st century, and died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2007. See more covers here.