Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Bats Out of Hell by Guy N. Smith (1978): Wings of Pain Reach Out for You

Can you believe it's been over a decade since I read a Guy N. Smith novel?! Despite his having written a near countless number of books, none ever made it to the top of my to-read list. In my paperback collection I have maybe eight or so of his titles, some part of his infamous Crabs series, and others just random I've bought over the years. The itch was coming upon me to revisit the infamous pulp novelist, but I wanted something other than those giant crustaceans, so chose Bats Out of Hell (Signet/Nov 1979) from my shelves. Similar in size and shape to simultaneously-published Killer Crabs—both part of the many "animal attacks" works Signet put out back then—Bats is a sleek 150 pages or so, and doesn't muck about with unnecessary plot or character. Smith knew exactly what worked for him, and for that cool $1.75 price tag, he was gonna give it to ya.

We begin in a science lab at the Midlands Biological Research Center, smack-dab middle of beloved tourist spot Cannock Chase, acres of natural land. Against the wishes of the locals, this "ugly scar on the landscape" now is filled with scientists studying disease, ostensibly "to benefit the good of all mankind Except for... for this!" That emphatic "this" refers to the study subjects of Professor Brian Newman: bats. The poor experimental animals locked in cages, have been injected with disease, in a rage, flying futilely about, dying paralyzed, ugh, poor things. I'll let manly Prof. Newman himself explain the  method to the madness:

"The virus is a mutated one caused by experimenting. I've tried to determine the difference between bacterial and viral meningitis... I've never known the disease lead to madness or such awful agony. And I have created a new horror. A mutated virus! God knows how it happened... my God, how far could it spread... even humans? It doesn't bear thinking about!"

1st printing, New English Library, Bob Martin cover art

Newman's pulp hysteria is calmed by sensible on/off gal-pal and fellow scientist Susan Wylie, as she notes this disease, is trapped inside the cages with the bats, surely nothing bad will happen, there's no way it can escape, they can wait till the creatures die off, be cremated, and Newman will admit to his superiors that his experiment was a failure. How big of him! Then Susan and he argue over their romantic entanglement after he breaks their date for that night; then Newman and his boss Haynes argue, all the while, many of the enraged bats are dying in agony beside them. Its eyes seemed to meet his, and they glittered accusingly, with sheer malevolence. Blaming Man, as though in its last seconds it understood.

I'm sure you can see where this is going...

1985 reprint, NEL, Terry Oakes cover art

Newman has broken his date with Susan to hook up with Fiona at a local pub, and of course Susan sees them together. Next morning at the lab, before Susan arrives, he notices the death rate of the bats has slowed and the creatures still alive seem more agitated than ever. Newman again ponders what he hath wrought: 

Whereas earlier he had been repulsed, he now experience a morbid fascination almost to the point of being hypnotized. He had crated something, death in a form that had not hitherto existed. It was all his doing... This was different, exciting. Death could occur at any second.

Well, dear reader, here comes the part we've been waiting for. Susan arrives and is cool and dismissive towards him—how dare she! It's back to professional relationship only. Newman's masculinity is so shattered by this he of course cries "You bitch!" and cracks her in the face. Enraged, Susan attacks him, and Newman falls against the glass bat cage and breaks it wide open... and the last living disease-bearing animals have their escape at last. Wow, can you say toxic masculinity?

1987 reprint, NEL, cover artists unknown

Smith now embarks on the time-honored tradition of vignettes of bat swarms attacking hapless British (specifically Birmingham) citizens in farms, banks, churches, wherever. Now, as noted, the bats are spreading a gruesome disease that causes agonizing pain, insanity, and paralysis; they are not blood-suckers out looking for a treat. Authorities are called in, Newman wants to accept responsibility—there's a novel idea!—as the bats wreak their havoc. The media have a field day and call out Newman by name, putting his life at risk. Vigilantes patrol the streets as thousands die from contagion. Cities burn, armored tanks fire upon citizens who try to gather in protest of the stay-at-home directive. Petty politicians rise up with conspiracy theories. What will it take to stop the bat epidemic? It's all a little unsettling to read these days!

I was impressed with Smith's steady narrative and solid, no-nonsense prose as he depicts his tale of apocalypse. His dialogue is generally poor; that's where you can tell he's not too concerned with realism. But his scenes of attacks are effectively creepy, his depictions of nature overrun with maddened bats chill, and his ability to draw a picture of the workaday lives of various characters is solid. Are there lapses in taste and sensibilities, seen from the vantage point of nearly half a century? Sure, but that's Seventies pulp horror. Smith seems committed to his tale, and that is truly all I ask from my paperback horror fiction. While not reaching the hallowed heights of The Rats or The Nest, these Bats Out of Hell should definitely find a home on your bookshelves.

Once an infected bat touched you, that was it. Finis.
There was no antidote.
Nothing on God's earth could save you.

Monday, November 27, 2023

The Revenant by Hugh Zachary (1988): The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Well, this was an unexpected treat. Long on my to-read list after the author's 1974 eco-horror Gwen, in Green become a personal favorite, Hugh Zachary's umpteenth novel The Revenant (Onyx, Aug 1988) is a respectable addition to the haunted house pantheon. The esteemed illustrator Richard Newton provides the stunning skull cover art, which perfectly illustrates the terrors within (while he is not credited on the copyright page, you can spy part of his signature just under "Zachary" on the dead soldier's collar). A top-tier paperback cover, thanks to its fine detail and delicate depiction of teeth and bone and hair. Only his hate and desire for vengeance were strong...

Zachary has written a charming haunted-house tale, readable and engaging, that has more in common with PG-rated horror than adult fare like Hell House (1971) or The House Next Door (1978). I'd say the tone is more akin to something to Eighties movies like Poltergeist or House: there are spooky/scary scenes to be sure, but  tempered by Zachary's good-natured style. And unlike the aforementioned Gwen, in Green, which was rife with sexual exploit, The Revenant is about as spicy as a vintage television commercial, coyly "fading to black" whenever the adults close the bedroom door. Jean got into the shower with Vance and washed his back—among other things—and for about thirty minutes forgot about ghosts...

Our protags are the Whitneys: husband Vance and wife Jean, and their two very young daughters, Ridey and Min. The girls are slightly precocious for their ages, but Zachary keeps them from becoming an annoyance to readers—like myself—who find children in horror fiction poorly depicted, by  verisimilitude. The girls' dialogue has the ring of truth to it, perhaps from Zachary actually listening to his own grandchildren, who are mentioned in the book's dedication. Younger Ridey has something akin to a psychic pipeline to the supernatural shenanigans going on, saying things like "He doesn't like it" or "He broked it" when the adults are discussing amongst themselves what in the world could be causing their unexplained problems. But Ridey has always been a little "off," born as she was with a rare, fortunately treatable, brain condition. The center section of the infant's brain had been a vast, frightening void.

There's more, though, but I don't need to go into it all. Gothic standards like hidden rooms, torture chambers, secret journals, evil secrets, all now exposed to the rational airs of the late 20th century. It got a bit Jebus-y for my taste at the end, with the psychic family friend arriving to provide spiritual assist as an amateur exorcist, well-worn Bible in her hand. Even though he's dealing in basic tropes of pulp haunted house horror, Zachary's prose, honed by decades of writing fiction of all stripes, is fresh, familiar, convincing. He keeps things lively right to the end. And while you'll run into a dated notion more than once—I suppose the marital politics aren't exactly progressive, he's like your granddad, isn't he?—he never devolves into crudity or idiocy, like so many other paperback horror originals.

I've read worse novels by more famous authors. With its tension well-mounted between modern people who just want to live in the now and seemingly still-fresh Civil War wounds from crimes committed long ago, The Revenant might not quite be a Southern Gothic, but it's not far off. Hugh Zachary brings a smooth, professional vibe to all the proceedings, even and especially when you notice the nicely time-worn notes of unease begin to be plucked. "You are not going to do this to us," she said softly, speaking to the night, to the sudden chill, to the feeling of uneasiness that had come over her so suddenly. This was her house, her home...

Thursday, August 17, 2023

The Pyx by John Buell (1959): She's Like Heroin to Me

With the finely-detailed image of a nude willowy blonde, tresses flowing, nipples bared, stomach taut, slim legs, and arched feet in full Playboy-model effect, the cover art for The Pyx promises a helluva lot! Especially for the Sixties when it was originally published by Popular Library (no specific pub date given, nor is artist identified). This little guy was on my want-list for a few years till I lucked upon it for only a few bucks on eBay. Sure, it practically fell apart as soon as I opened it, cover popping off spine, oh well, who's complaining? Should I be surprised that there is no naked woman in the book, nor creatures with disparately colored eyes? Do I demand my money back when reading this novella-length paperback that is basically a crime story about a dead prostitute, her madame, gay friend, criminal consorts, and the dogged detective on the trail of her death? No, I do not.

John Buell
(1927 - 2013), a little-known Canadian author and professor, is a fine, insightful writer, starting his book off with a bang and drawing the reader right in with a nice grasp of place and character. A woman has dropped from an apartment window several stories high, accident or suicide no one knows, but it's Detective Henderson's job to find out. Now, you've seen and read this tale a thousand times. And in all the years I've known about The Pyx, reading about the movie version with Karen Black, the words "occult" and "satanic" always filtered about it. I don't know what a pyx is, who does, Buell knew no one really would so its definition is at the beginning of the book: in Catholic ritual, it's a little vessel that holds the Host. Sure, whatever.

What a pyx is not, however, is a little demon or genie or ghostie or ghoulie that I, in my religious ignorance, had originally idly wondered it may be. And if there is any "occult" or "satanic" to be found here, it sailed entirely over my head. But I went back and reread the penultimate chapter, the ultimate confrontation between Henderson and the guilty party, and I suppose I could see where Buell was hinting at some "otherworldly" aspect to his narrative ("Die? I can't die. I'm immortal."). The very last line put me in mind of Ray Russell or William Peter Blatty, but only in an indirect way.

Too much of this story is coy and reticent, since it deals with a sex worker with a drug problem and it was written in the late Fifties by a Canadian: referring to actual sex acts or drug-taking logistics is simply out of the question in those pre-Naked Lunch days, and the impact of this sordid work is muted almost beyond comprehension. Those cover blurbs announcing "eerie" and "powerful" and "the secret" and "climax of diabolic evil" are so much hot air, alas (I can't speak at all to the Graham Greene reference, I mean I know who he is, but in this context, not really).

A few scattered moments of violence, sure, but nothing you wouldn't have seen elsewhere in the era. For the most part, despite some rock-solid prose on Buell's part, I found it a standard detective story, populated with the typical various lowlife characters, flashbacks to the dead girl's life and hopes and failures, you know what I mean. I've seen good reviews of The Pyx online, sure, I'm glad people dug it, but for me, it really missed the vein. But that cover, man...

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Latest Titles in Valancourt Books' Paperbacks from Hell Series: Two by Thomas Tessier

Valancourt Books has announced the 2023 release of two more titles in their long-running series of paperback horror featured in my and Grady Hendrix's Paperbacks from Hell. This time it's two 1980s novels by the esteemed Thomas Tessier: we've got Finishing Touches (1986) and Rapture (1987), major works of psychosexual horror. Tessier is no pulpy schlockmeister: his style is chilling, literate, and assured. Those of you appreciate the more, ahem, refined stylings of, say, Peter Straub or T.E.D. Klein or Dennis Etchison, will find these titles to your liking.

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

Hide and Seek by Jack Ketchum (1984): Linger on Your Pale Blue Eyes

A brief, stark coming-of-age tale of terror, Hide and Seek was the second novel from the late Jack Ketchum—famous pseudonym of author Dallas Mayr, who died of cancer in 2018 at age 71. Published as a paperback original by Ballantine Books in June 1984, this slim little book reads like a James M. Cain or a Jim Thompson crime novel, with a no-account narrator meeting an enticing woman far outside his league (I was way outclassed and I knew it), related in plain prose rife with hard-boiled philosophizing, a sense of unavoidable fate lurking behind the everyday facade. I don't believe in omens, but I think you can know when you're in trouble.

Set sometime in the Sixties, Hide and Seek is told in retrospect by Dan Thomas, a regular young guy living and working in a lumber mill in Dead River, Maine. Pretty much a dead-end town, he's in a dead-end job, but when he and another blue-collar friend are hanging out at the touristy local lake, Dan happens to meet three college "rich kids," Kimberly, Steven, and most intriguingly, Casey White. Casey, with eyes pale, pale blue that at first it was hard to see any color in them at all. Dead eyes, my brown-eyed father calls them. Depthless.    

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 Crouch place Casey is talking about is Dead River's haunted house, situated on a cliff above the sea, abandoned years before by the two owners, Ben and Mary Crouch. Rumored to be imbecilic siblings, they had lived in filth with their many, many dogs. Which the couple left behind, starving and near-mad, when the police pay a visit a month after they'd been evicted for not paying their mortgage. To be honest, all this became too Richard Laymon-style for me, this scenario of teens sneaking into an empty old creepy house at midnight to play a child's game, tying up one another with nylon ropes when "found." "How do you feel about bondage?" "I love bondage!" She finished buttoning her blouse.

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"?

I never heard of Ketchum till the early 2000s, around when The Girl Next Door was reprinted, and he published no short stories in the Eighties, which is where I learned about new writers then. I doubt I'd have enjoyed his books anyway, as I was looking for more challenging, more imaginative vistas, writers like Barker, Koja, Tessier, Lansdale, Brite, Ligotti, etc. people stretching the boundaries of horror into weird new realms. Novels trading in giant monster dogs and slasher cannibals like this novel would've seemed to me like tired retreads of tropes I didn't care about in the first place.

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

Tricycle by Russell Rhodes (1983): Crimin' Simon

Christopher Hennick, a young English literature professor and former star athlete, is blinded in a terrible accident but is now returning to Talbot Academy, the New England boys' school he'd taught at and attended previously. His relationship with his girlfriend, Susanne, is strained due to his reluctance to come to terms with his new disability. And while he is welcomed back to teach by headmaster James Harrothwait and colleague Arthur Catterby, Chris feels something amiss... and that something is a someone, a five-year-old child named Simon, Arthur's son.

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?

The setting of a preparatory school was fine with me. Personally I'm fond of tales of professors and academics and college/university life in horror, so that was one point in the book's favor. Then there are a couple illicit sex scenes get things going nicely, that's good too. After the one that opens the novel, a fiery, helpless death: "I'm dying," he cried, "I'm dying!" Holding his face, the flaming boy whirled around in tight circles. His lungs gulped a last searing breath, then exploded within him as he toppled forward into the inferno. Okay, we're rolling right along!

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!

So I'm reading along, it's fine, sure, and then, oh joy, what should make an appearance but that most disgusting yet popular cliches of junk pop fiction of the era: incest. Here it's twincest! Huzzah. It forms the backstory of a major character, motivational thrust (oops, no pun intended) for the psychosexual shenanigans occurring in the present day. And it all happened under the Nazi regime, natch. "Come feel my flame, little sister." He had laughed as he pushed her hand between his thighs.

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.

Author Russell Rhodes (1931 - 2010), late 1970s

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.

It's easy to tell the author isn't a horror writer, probably wasn't even particularly interested in the genre; as I said, Tricycle was simply another title in the glut of paperbacks saturating book racks of the day. The novel's intensity level reaches about that of a TV-movie, desiring to be nothing more than a paycheck for Rhodes and a couple hours' diversion for the reader. I didn't expect much more, and honestly expected much less.

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.

That yellow Hamlyn UK edition from 1985 is creepy, but just doesn't have that je ne sais quois of Simon bearing implacably down on you on the Pocket Books version, an image I found deeply unsettling when I saw it on the supermarket book racks as a kid. Alas, Simon isn't even close to being in the Creepy Kids Hall of Fame, but with an all-timer cover like this, Tricycle definitely belongs in your paperback horror library.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Cats by Nick Sharman (1977): Apocalypse Meow

Scott Grønmark was his name and writing pulp horror paperbacks under the pseudonym "Nick Sharman" was his game. Born in Oslo, Norway, in 1952, he was working in the PR department of New English Library (which is why of course he had to use a pseudonym) when he began his published career with The Cats. It was originally published by NEL in 1977 (below), and then by Signet in America in May 1979. Subsequently he wrote six or seven novels, only one under his real name. Notoriety came Grønmark's way some years back when internet wags postulated that he was the person responsible for the infamous sleaze-horror "classic" Eat Them Alive, which wasn't so; you can read his response here.

An early entry into the animal attack publishing craze led, of course by 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.

I wish Grønmark had attempted to give his rampaging cats a smidge of personality. We all know cats in our personal lives who are more interesting than some people in our social circles. Imagine if he'd spent just a chapter on the creatures themselves, even just a couple kitties, perhaps even inspired by then-bestselling juggernaut Watership Down—recall how Richard Adams did marvels with cuddly rabbits! That would've given this slight 154-page novel some much needed ballast as well as some empathy for innocent animals.

But that's not what this book is or wants to be. Despite several vivid attacks early on, Grønmark doesn't seem to have much energy to inject his tale with anything but the driest essentials. There's little spark in the proceedings, not even anything but the most workmanlike approach to feline slaughter. Prose is competent, serviceable, but lacking any real juice. He simply keeps the narrative going faster and faster but with diminishing results, I mean I've kind of already forgotten the specifics of the climax, such as it is, and the cute yet utter by-the-numbers final paragraphs fail to surprise. I did like the guy who tries in vain to fight back against the beasts with acid, is still overwhelmed, and croaks, as his last words, "Oh well, you can't win 'em all."

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.

As he lay on the ground he could see people jumping from the smashed upper windows of the double-decker bus, and then his eyes locked with those of the black cat. Its jaws gaped for a ghastly instant before its teeth rammed straight through the flesh of the man's nose and crunched into the hard knuckle of gristle underneath.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Damnation Game by Clive Barker (1985): Gambling's for Fools

Another reread of a famous Eighties horror novel, in which I ask the time-honored question: does it hold up lo these many decades later?

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.

Reading the 1988 Sphere UK paperback poolside

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!"

A somber, gloomy, somewhat subdued tale of men and their debts, desires, and debaucheries, The Damnation Game helped affirm Barker's place at the top of the Eighties horror pantheon. For many years this was Barker's sole "horror" novel, in that it had none of the unique fantastical world-building that he would become known for in such subsequent epics as 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.

Hell is reimagined by each generation. Its terrain is surveyed for absurdities and remade in a fresher mold; its terrors are scrutinized and, if necessary, reinvented to suit the current climate of atrocity; its architecture is redesigned to appall the eye of the modern damned.

Paperback promo from publisher

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.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, first UK hardcover 1985
Cover art by Geoff Shields

Whitehead's revelation 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.

Barker in 1985

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 European cinematic masters such as Cocteau, Antonioni, Bunuel, Fellini, Fassbinder. 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:

...something 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.

My signed hardcover. See the water damage at bottom?
I let my own mother take this to the beach to read
and she left it on her blanket and the tide came in.

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.

Sphere reprint, 1988, Steve Crisp art invoking
The Thing

yet also referencing a moment in the novel

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 myself with some intellectual pretensions of my own beginning to sprout, Barker appealed to me precisely because he used horror as a way to get at deeper truths about human nature, 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.

French translation, 1989—a depiction of one of the book's most potent scenes

On this reread I found the novel somewhat—dare I say?—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.

Perhaps that was the problem: later, longer works show him in stronger form as he unlooses chains and breathes free. Damnation Game isn't a total loss, and I see from Goodreads reviews that many fans enjoyed it; esteemed horror critic S.T. Joshi called it "a sparklingly flawless weird novel." I wouldn't tell first-time Barker readers to start with this novel, however, not at all. His next book, Weaveworld, would begin his successful foray into the unique, epic dark fantasy that he'd mine again and again. While there were aspects of the book I found satisfyingly horrific, and he is still one of my top fave-raves of all time, I think The Damnation Game may be best read and enjoyed by Clive Barker completists.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

IT by Stephen King (1986): I Don't Want to Grow Up

"Oh Christ," Bill groaned to himself,
"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.

This is IT, this is the Eighties horror epic to end all epics, the sum total of Stephen King's career up to that point. King sweeps up all the detritus, cultural and psychological, of a certain class and generation of middle Americans, their tastes and desires and fears and imaginations and jobs and failures, and stuffs them inside a horror story that is part Fifties monster movie and part mind-expanding cosmic revelation. As 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...)

My wife and I read IT at the same time late last year, fortunately I had two copies of that Signet paperback from September 1987—what a sturdy little fucker that edition is! She grew up terrified by the famous 1990 TV movie, and therefore was a little reluctant to read it (she's a Dark Tower acolyte), while I was already out of high school (oh by fall 1990 I was a college sophomore) when that adaptation aired. Me, I was more freaked out by the '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.

1st hardcover edition, Viking Press, Bob Giusti cover art

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!

New English Library, 1987

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.

French translation, 1988
It had come here long after the Turtle withdrew into its shell, here to Earth, and It had discovered a depth of imagination here that was almost new, almost of concern. This quality of imagination made the food very rich. Its teeth rent flesh gone stiff with exotic terrors and voluptuous fears: they dreamed of nightbeasts and moving muds; against their will they contemplated endless gulphs. 

TV-movie tie-in, 1990

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.

Truth in advertising

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.

1990s Signet reprint

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.

Japanese translation, 1994

I've got to talk about the real-life horrors that populate IT: the homophobic murder of Adrian Mellon in the opening of the Eighties, Tom Rogan's beatings of his wife Beverly Marsh and her friend, the sad lonesome deaths of the abused Corcoran boys, and young sociopath Patrick Hockstetter's animal and sexual cruelty are the scenarios that trouble many contemporary readers—not to mention the tween "love-fest" at the climax (if you'll excuse the pun) of the Losers' tale in the Fifties. As they say now, these situations all hit different today. I recall no particular upset at these occurrences when I first read the book; today, yes, certainly as an adult I'm more sensitive to these depictions that, when used in fiction, can seem exploitative or tone-deaf.

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.

Many times on this reread I thought, this book has just as much right to be called A (not The, certainly no one book could or should ever be The) Great American Novel as anything else written in the last 50 years or so. The stories of his thirty-something characters after their lives in Derry come with all the attendant concerns—college, money, sex, career, ambition, health, aging—well-sketched examples of "how we live now" school of contemporary fiction. He weaves this tapestry of middle American life into a shared whole, in the guise of genre fiction, to reflect back at us our fears both as children and as adults.

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...
Turkish translation, 1987
Make no mistake: IT contains some of the author's finest frights of his career, none of which are diluted by the book's massive size. King flexes his well-honed horror muscles in memorable scenes large and small, missing no chance to scare the bejabbers out of readers. Chilling, lurid, pulpy, flat-out disgusting—King has mastered every aspect of terror, while knowing that often the most frightening things aren't necessarily a monster on the rampage, but a man who talks to the moon, a child contemplating death, a woman realizing her husband will kill her if he can. King knows how to sneak past your defenses, cut you deep, and then be off before you realize you're bleeding. A balloon, a toy boat, a friendly folk hero, and other icons of childhood can freeze your blood, electrify your spine, make you contemplate gulfs of endless pain in the silvered eyes of a BEEP BEEP RICHIE

"I'd rather stay here in my room/Nothin' out there but sad and gloom," sings Joey Ramone in the Ramones' snarled-up cover of Tom Waits's creaky dirge "I Don't Want to Grow Up", and you can just see all the Losers nodding in agreement, even if it isn't Little Richard or, god forbid, Pat Boone. It's a nice rebel sentiment, but you won't win any points trying to avoid the inevitable. Adulthood is coming, it is definitely coming. It will have its way with us all, and there surely is intent in Stephen King ending this inevitable journey of losers and winners with that single, all-encompassing, all-meaning word: it

And oh yeah… my wife loved it too.