Thursday, August 17, 2023
definition is at the beginning of the book: in Catholic ritual, it's a little vessel that holds the Host. Sure, whatever.
Ray Russell or William Peter Blatty, but only in an indirect way.
Wednesday, March 22, 2023
Grady and I love both these books, and are thrilled to be getting them out to the reading public once again! While there is no set publication date yet, Valancourt did release the cover art, as seen above. Don't they look incredible?! Be sure to visit their website for any and all information about pre-ordering and whatnot.
Okay, back to reading!
Thursday, March 9, 2023
Dan is of course completely besotted with Casey, and reluctantly hangs out with Steven and Kimberly too just to be with her. Steven loves Casey but has settled for Kimberly; this is a fact known by all. They drink beer, hit the beach, skinny-dip, shoplift, pull dumb pranks. They laugh a lot but nothing's really funny. Dan meets Casey's father, who seems a broken man, and learns of a horrific tragedy in the family' life. Dan and Casey have sex in a graveyard. Just like in a classic noir novel, Casey is the femme fatale, but she's most fatal to herself; that tragedy
has caused her to be reckless, which is what frightens, and yet attracts,
our narrator. In the Middle Ages, they'd have burned her at the stake.
Ketchum builds tension well in the book's first half, with short declarative sentences, simplistic dialogue, and that sense of fatalism permeating everything—the kind of thing crime noir is known for. I appreciate his attempt at writing a horror novel that incorporates other genre elements, to infuse his stories with a grimy grindhouse slasher feel combined with tentative attempts at character detail, but to what end? I was really into the long fuse of the set-up, wondering what character flaw would trip the deadly spring I knew just had to be poised over the characters' heads. And then Ketchum reveals it, and all the goodwill built up by his careful tightening of the noose is spent. "Hide and seek. Just the way we used to play it when we were kids. But we play it in the Crouch place."
I'm going to talk freely about what happens in the second half of the story, so I guess a spoiler warning is warranted from here on.
The novel is too "talky" and 90% horror-free for a horror novel, while the origins of its violence too hokey for a crime novel. And Ketchum is so damn solemn about everything. Lighten up, Francis! He invests too much seriousness in that trite finale, a lot of po-faced silliness that squanders all that great suspense he worked so hard to build up. A giant dog in the caverns beneath the house eating people? Monstrous Ben and Mary Crouch living down there in the earth? In a schlockier horror novel, sure. But all this time spent laying down a prosaic reality, hinting at horrors in the future that cannot be avoided, alluding to human flaws that will lead to tragedy, and then it's just some B-movie monster ripping people apart in gory, yet somehow bland detail. It's not as dumb as Laymon, you can tell Ketchum cares a lot, but it's still thin gruel for a seasoned reader.
In the Eighties, fat horror novels were the rage; books that featured lots of characters, situations, settings, plots, conflicts, and blood and scary scenes splashed throughout. Ketchum bothers with none of that. Not even 200 pages, Hide and Seek is a novella padded out to get to even that length. With this bare bones approach, he must have felt like a man without a country back then. No one really wrote this style of book, and the reason is: it doesn't work. Hide and Seek just doesn't work, not as horror, not as crime, not as coming-of-age. Why push your readers through to an end where you rip the characters apart, ostensibly for the moral of "the world is a horrible place but I think I've learned to cope"?
Ketchum has a great reputation in the field, as a mentor and as a mensch, and his death was mourned by everyone who loves the genre. But this second novel is failed ambition, a concoction that promises terrifying delights but in the end delivers little of real interest, almost negating itself. This was the fourth book I've read by Ketchum, and while not as bad as She Wakes, Hide and Seek is a step down from, and a little derivative of, his brutal and grueling debut, 1980's Off Season. The more I thought about it the more I felt it was like a writing exercise, a very first draft, a practice session to prepare for the real thing.
Eventually Ketchum would come into his own and define his own style with The Girl Next Door—the real thing—but I'm realizing I haven't liked even his books that I consider successful. From what I've read about his later novels, many seem to be extreme scenarios of sexual violence and cruelty mixed with that fatalistic philosophy and slow build-up. Never say never, of course, but I doubt I'll be picking up one of his other books any time soon.
Monday, February 27, 2023
Perpetually riding around the school grounds on his squeaky tricycle, Simon weirds out students and faculty alike. Susanne tells Chris he's got a hateful look on his punchable little face too. And also, what of the recent accidental deaths of several promising teenage boys there? And why does Mrs. Karen Catterby, Arthur's smokeshow of a wife and Simon's mom, have such a bad reputation on campus? And suddenly taken such a liking to Chris himself?
Featuring one of the grandest of all Paperbacks from Hell-era covers, by the fantastic Lisa Falkenstern, Tricycle (Pocket Books, August 1983) by Russell Rhodes, seems to promise Bad Seed levels of Creepy Kid Horror. That's a pretty tall order. Can it deliver?
But I noticed some issues soon after. Chris is kind of a wienie, and his attempts at teaching seem condescending; his feelings of inadequacy don't evoke much sympathy in the reader. Our author is more concerned with the banal gossip cocktail party
chatter of rich academic folk ("I don't care what you say, Linda, slacks and that blouse don't belong at the Academy. The thing's open practically to her navel"), which sure can be entertaining, but at the expense of other aspects—like horror itself. There's a lot of pages spent on literary classroom discussions—Shakespeare, Hemingway, other fine fellows, etc.—and a burgeoning friendship between Chris and Lucas, the student assigned to read aloud for him and assist in his coursework. Of course that leads to twinges of baseless gay panic!!1!
As (slasher-style and post-coital) deaths mount, Chris slowly starts to suspect the incredible: He, Christopher Hennick, at one time big man on campus, was at the mercy of a little five-year-old. Fear gripped him. It was all so very simple, so logical, so inevitable. I mean, all that goddamn squeaking of the tricycle wheels following him around, what other conclusion could he make?!
The tale reaches its climax in the school as the suddenly raging waters of the Connecticut River surge over the grounds, rising into the halls and stairwells and gym, where Christopher must battle his unseen enemy alone after everyone else evacuates. And oh shit, now a fire's started! In this last section, Rhodes delivers what I found it to be a convincing and well-staged finale, with some decent mounting suspense and a couple plot twists. Nothing revolutionary, you'll probably see 'em coming, even if some don't quite seem to square with what has been happening all along.
Rhodes, who was an adman by trade while he also produced fiction, writes with a serviceable, polished pen, and while nothing ever made me cringe, nothing sparkled for me either. He misses lots of opportunities he's set up for himself. Too often, Rhodes writes at a remove, like he's afraid to get granular as we say today. When Chris is trapped alone in a classroom with rattlesnakes, I was sure the rattlesnakes Chris hears would be revealed as an auditory prank on his blindness, but no: they're real. Yet Rhodes makes only a half-hearted attempt at conveying such distinctive creatures, which have to rank among the most frightening and fearsome on all the earth. "You know the rattlesnake, or Crotalina," the boy continued, "represents the highest type of serpent development and specialization."
Same with Milton, Chris's seeing-eye German Shepherd, another distinctive animal that Rhodes seems reluctant to include the interesting particulars of (I will warn you, the poor dog is killed eventually). Susanne disappears. Tricycle is definitely market fodder, commercial unit shifter, designed to give minimum thrill for maximum profit, an adman's idea of "horror." Rhodes's other titles seem like standard thrillers of the Seventies, spies, KGB, technology, super-hot ladies who have it all and want more, with back cover copy like "bizarre orgies, brain-searing terror, and the nightmare secret of Hitler's human experiments," awesome, I guess, but not my kinda thing at all.
Tricycle is not a forgotten horror classic, and is better characterized as a suspense thriller especially since the ending wraps up the preceding events all too neatly. (When someone shouts "Satan's whore!" you'll wish that was a literal thing rather than just a misogynist slur.) Rhodes doesn't offer up much creepy atmosphere or dread, there is nothing supernatural going on, but the book did keep me turning pages over a few snowy days. Okay, okay, I skimmed here and there, don't think I missed much.
Tuesday, February 21, 2023
Eat Them Alive, which wasn't so; you can read his response here.
Jaws and The Rats, The Cats offers up most, but not all, of the usual template, even though the subgenre had only been going on a couple years by 1977. Most characters are irritable, stuffy, smug, and/or macho. Or American, for no reason I could discern. Victims run the gamut of British society, briefly introduced, quickly dispatched. Requisite cynicism about politicians while the mighty military comes in swinging their dicks. Science is responsible for the poor kitties' condition. There isn't even a love interest, believe it or not, but there is an attempted rape—about the only woman who appears (the assault is prevented at the last second). Two sets of estranged fathers and sons lend a tad bit of character conflict. One human is afflicted by the same disease as the cats have, maybe there's a psychic connection too, an addition I found intriguing.
Previous Grønmark books I've read, The Surrogate and Childmare, were more entertaining, written with a bit more skill and conviction. As noted, The Cats was Grønmark 's debut novel, and I guess he simply didn't have the chops yet. (At least it led to a successful writing career, I'll give it that; he died in 2020 aged 68.) Unfortunately, I found The Cats lackluster, offering nothing fresh to the all-too-common cliches of animal-attack literature. If you're a collector, you'll want the Signet edition with that spectacular Don Ivan Punchatz cover, but unless you're an animal-attacks obsessive, you can probably leave the book on the shelf.
Tuesday, February 7, 2023
If you've followed Too Much Horror Fiction at any time over the past 13 (!!!) years, you'll know Clive Barker is one of my lodestars of genre fiction, up there in my own personal pantheon with H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Harlan Ellison. It's not just Barker’s fictional writings that have influenced and inspired me, but also the many interviews and intros to other books he did in which he discusses his beliefs about what horror (and other speculative fictions) is about, can do, and what it reveals about our humanity, our culture, our desire for something more than our daily lives. Given that I started reading him as a high school student in 1987, Barker's world has had an untold impact on me, both within the genre and out.
First published in hardcover in the UK in 1985 and then in 1987 in the US, The Damnation Game (Charter Books paperback, July 1988, Marshall Arisman cover art), was anticipated on both sides of the Atlantic as a major novel debut. Barker was the enfant terrible of then-contemporary horror fiction, after his 1984 collection of genre-expanding stories, Books of Blood, were propelled by that famous Stephen King quote. Barker was ready to take over the mainstream. Its impetus was maybe more commercial than artistic; short story collections have always been seen as "lesser" product by publishers. As the editor of Sphere Books told Barker after unexpected success with Books, "Now do something sensible and write a novel... something we can really sell!"
Weaveworld (1987), The Great and Secret Show (1989), and Imajica (1991). After rereading Books for this blog, I then reread The Hellbound Heart and Cabal, so I figured I'd continue chronologically with this guy. I read Game several times over 30 years ago, recall liking that Barker had made the leap from short story to novel, that the detailed eye he had for transgressive terrors was not lost in this longer format.
The opening chapter, set in bombed-out Warsaw, crackles with dread and enormity, yet with a strange sense of freedom to be gained from playing games, chancing fate, plying one's wits against a devilish opponent—ideas Barker returns to again and again. In his mind this faceless gambler began to take on something of the force of legend. Then the narrative shifts to the 1980s, where we meet protagonist Marty Strauss, a thirty-something prisoner doing time for a botched robbery, debts owed from gambling, life lost, security van empty. Offered parole if he accepts the could-be-more-dangerous-than-prison job of bodyguard for world famous industrialist Joseph Whitehead, Marty accepts, wary though he is.
He doesn't know Whitehead
is hiding out in his vast, well-secured London estate, with laconic bodyguard Mr. Toy and a menagerie of dogs, from the mysterious Mamoulian, aka The Last European—the fellow from the
opening. What follows is Marty learning the truth of Whitehead's wealth,
why his teen daughter Carys is a junky, and other unsavory facts about a world of woe just a whisper's breath away.
to Marty about his and Mamoulian's history in those WWII ruins contain a
mystery as something few Americans truly grasp. Various set pieces
underscore Barker's notions of the existential dread of nothingness
("nothing is essential") so at odds with the more common horror
dichotomy of good and evil, Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil. The two
young American missionaries who appear at the end, empty-headed Chad and
Thomas, offer a somewhat witty addition to the grim proceedings; they
can only interpret what they're seeing through the inanities of
Christianity, their Pastor Bliss, their hunger for the Deluge to wash
all sinners away. In Chad's mind waters—red, raging waters—mounted into foam-crested waves and bore down on this pagan city.
Much, perhaps most, of Barker's appeal was and is his ability to pluck beauty from the
monstrous; his prose style, sleek and polished, unhurried and measured, is informed by classic
continental literature and film, with imagery inspired by cinematic
masters such as Cocteau, Antonioni, Bunuel, Fellini, Kurosawa. There is a pathetic dinner sequence with Whitehead's aged cronies and available young women drinking copious amounts of wine in a brightly-lit room, decorated only by a grotesque painting of the Crucifixion, that seems right out of a socialist satire about the insipid appetites of the rich. The old man had wanted to see him naked and rutting.
The scenes with Breer the Razor-Eater, Mamoulian's dogsbody, and his unholy passions pedophilia, cannibalism, necrophilia, whose rotting body as a reanimated corpse parallels in physical form the moral corruption in the characters around him, are pure classic Clive:
in his chest seemed to fail, a piece of internal machinery slipping
into a lake around his bowels. He coughed and exhaled a breath that made
sewerage smell like primroses... He was moving into a purer world—one
of symbols, of ritual—a world where Razor-Eaters truly belonged.
I let my own mother take this to the beach to read
and she left it on her blanket and the tide came in.
NEVER LEND BOOKS.
All Barker's strengths are on display, scattered throughout the book. Irony, opposites,
contrasts: delicate petals falling onto human wreckage, cities laid to
waste beneath spring skies, "death at laughing play in a garden of bone and shrapnel." Barker has always delighted in such contradictions, believing they get at a truth unreachable by simple black-and-white binaries. This approach lends an air of maturity to the proceedings, a sophistication rarely seen in the horror offerings on the same shelf. I recall reading the US hardcover when it came out, and indeed that format made this gruesome tale somehow respectable.
The notion of "nothingness" as a final terror is one Barker would address in various works throughout his career. Here, we have the room in Mamoulian and Breer's hideout—who has kidnapped children in the cellar shiver—which Marty discovers.
This wasn't the adventure he'd thought it would be; it was nothing. Nothing is essential... all of it was like a fabrication. A dream of palpability, not a true place. There was no true place but here. All he'd lived and experienced, all he'd taken joy in, taken pain in, it was insubstantial. Passion was dust. Optimism, self-deception.... Color, form, pattern. All diversions—games the mind had invented to disguise this unbearable zero. And why not? Looking too long into the abyss would madden a man.
As I said above, I don't think Americans have a concept like existential
nothingness the way people who were close to the atrocities of WWII
were. Maybe I'm generalizing, but that's my serious impression; not for nothing is Mamoulian nicknamed "the Last European." He remembers the horrors. As a
young guy with some intellectual pretensions of his own beginning to
sprout, Barker appealed to me precisely because he used horror as a way
to get at deeper truths about human nature, and not simply as a vehicle
for cheap thrills and messy bloodshed.
Oddly, unlike the Books of Blood excesses of surreality and guttural fears, Barker only refers to atrocities—he literally keeps using that word, "atrocities"—rather than regaling us with more poetic descriptors as only he can. Early on, some gruesome dog deaths play a large part in a scene of confrontation (and resurrections; the creatures would've looked spectacular in a practical-effects kind of way in a movie), particularly now knowing what a dog-lover he is—a cheap shot at unsettling readers? As I said: Damnation Game was his bid for success, and so perhaps he felt he had to tone down his tendency to terrorize readers with things never before imagined.
Worms, fleas, maggots—a whole new entomology congregated at the place of execution. Except that these weren't insects, or the larvae of insects: Marty could see that plainly now. They were pieces of flesh. He was still alive. In pieces, in a thousand senseless pieces, but alive.
On this reread I found the novel somewhat tame, believe it or not. In his bid for bestsellerdom, Barker eschews the epic flights of fancy and imagination that so marked his previous output for a more mainstream narrative, the Faustian deal gone bad (of course there are no Faustian deals that go well).
Stretched out over 430 pages, the bizarre imagery he conjures up loses
its impact and the story falters. Yes, there are very good set-pieces of perverse gore and grue, and the secret history of Whitehead and Mamoulian's long relationship is darkly fascinating, but pages of irrelevant detail, unfocused narrative, and a somber tone slow the proceedings into a dreary crawl. Rather than emboldening him to stretch out for the long haul, it
seemed this novel format constrained Barker's visions. These are all first-novel problems, indeed.
Wednesday, February 1, 2023
"if this is the stuff grownups have to think about
I never want to grow up."
"I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries," Stephen King famously said back in the Eighties, as a comment on, and perhaps a defense of, his rising popularity, which was heading right into the stratosphere. It's a cute, self-deprecating line that defends against the stuffy critical backlash he often got, and still gets lo these many decades later. Heading critics off the pass, as it were. But sometimes I think King undersold himself at times, regular "jes' folks" guy that he is, and his demotic work often rose above a common fast food meal eaten on the run. Sometimes it rose above other meals that critics said were much healthier, more nourishing, for you... but, you know, fuck that.
he said at the time, "Wouldn't it be great to bring on all the monsters one last time? Bring them all on—Dracula, Frankenstein, Jaws, The Werewolf, The Crawling Eye, Rodan, It Came from Outer Space, and call it It."
Look, here there might be a few spoilers: proceed, if at all, with caution. Come back, friend, when finished with IT. (Or more precisely, when IT is finished with you...)
'Salem's Lot TV-movie of the late Seventies!
Back in the autumn of 1986, I read IT as soon as it appeared on bookshelves in hardcover; even sooner, because my librarian mom brought it home for me as soon as the library had received it but before they put it into circulation (a real perk of her job for me, sorry patrons of Millville Public Library 35 years past—or Millville Pubic Library, as it was for awhile after a prankster pal of mine swiped the "L" off the sign on the building front, a real Falstaffian wit he was). Fifteen years old and hauling that behemoth into junior high, reading it in study hall, savoring its every terror, is one of my favorite memories of school days.
I read through the novel I'm not sure how fast, because it felt like something you wanted to savor. While it's easy to say IT is, at almost 1,100 pages, self-indulgent, I don't recall ever being bored or frustrated by IT; while I'd been a reader all my life, by that point my tastes weren't varied at all: King was very much my whole book world, and what he said, went. I don't think I would have even understood that phrase, "self-indulgent," as a criticism. If he wanted to spend 15 pages on, I dunno, a pharmacist and his patient, or half a dozen pages on a town's sewer system, or a man and wife arguing about driving Al Pacino in a limousine, well, dammit, I was gonna read it and be happy!
After my utter disappointment rereading The Stand ("I need more about how society collapses" I thought while reading it in January 2020, how's that for irony, har-de-har-har) I almost expected to be just as let down by IT. But let me make it clear: IT was an utter satisfying delight to reread. I practically felt married to it for a few weeks, so thoroughly absorbing as it was. This was, oh so aptly, like visiting an old friend that you thought too many years had passed between you to still have a connection, and then finding out that was not true. My wife and I both were swept up in the propulsive narrative.
Gone was the repetitiveness of The Stand, gone the bloat, the shallow philosophizing, the social naivete, the tacky characters, the amateurish repetitiveness. There was little self-indulgence to be found. Here, now, was something thoughtful, refined (as refined as King can be, I guess), streamlined (as streamlined as an 1,100-page novel can be, I guess), a smooth-humming vehicle ready to take you to the dark side, all revved up and ready to go.
Online I often see horror fans almost reluctant to read IT, intimidated by its weightiness. But there's no need to be afraid to tackle this tome: King's prowess in sucking you into the story and enveloping you in his world knows few equals. His storytelling might is in full flower here, and there are few pleasures as welcome as disappearing into a really good read. Rarely did I feel like King was overwriting, or getting bogged down in useless details or wandering off into digressive weeds as he is wont to do. Sure, here and there, he could've pared down a paragraph, a page, a section. But that is to quibble; this shit is pretty tight.
I have loved since my first read the Derry Interludes, ostensibly compiled by loyal Mike Hanlon, which are so vivid, so real, so captivating. Found I had forgotten little about them over the years; the eerie chills of Pennywise's infamous appearances throughout Derry's history are some of King's most striking imagery in his catalogue. How I thrill to hear about him capering in the background of a Bonnie-and-Clyde-style ambush, a sad and horrific KKK burning of a Black nightclub, a lumberjack barfight that is more Texas Chainsaw than Texas Roadhouse. The midnight clown prince appears wherever humans wear the mask of evil; he is both its progenitor and its excuse, eager and grinning to join in the fray.
I had forgotten about how the townspeople of Derry looked the other way, literally, when trouble was afoot, knowing their whole lives that the place they live is tainted, and always has been, in 27-year cycles. In 'Salem's Lot King showed that the town itself is corrupt, and thus drew the vampire to it; here, while Derry is wrong, it may be because IT has existed inside Derry for millennia, literally buried in its earthen self. The parents of our main characters often seem to look the other way, or who don't quite grasp what's going on with their children: Bill Denbrough's parents are lost in the depth of their grief over the murder of Georgie; Eddie Kaspbrak's mother is delusional about his fragile health; Ben Hanscom's mother takes his attempt at weight loss as a personal affront; Beverly Marsh's father "worries a lot about her." Kids and adults exist, or at least they once did, almost on opposite continents, and King understands this intuitively.
But King is trying to get at real life, and there's no way one can mistake his gut-wrenching depictions for the sleazy, skeevy pulp-horror of so many an Eighties horror writer. These horrific non-supernatural occurrences lend a moral weight to IT that is an essential component; if King had left these disturbing realities out of IT due to some squeamishness, or sense of political correctness, or some idea of "too far," or some notion that certain things cannot be used in fiction, then the book would have been a cheat. And there's nothing worse than a cheat.
Monsters from Baby Boomer fare like the Teenage Werewolf and the Mummy, midnight clowns and vampires, are something like placeholders; our brains are primed for fear, and those primitive childish creatures build the muscles that we'll use to defend ourselves against the hazards and vicissitudes of life when we're grown. Even ITs final form, the nature-gone-amuck giant-sized Spider that the adult Losers face in the sewers of Derry, can not be fully comprehended. Not all of us have the stamina—it was right and it was correct for a character like Stan Uris to exist, one person in the troupe utterly unable to face IT again— but those of us who do...