Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The Accursed by Paul Boorstin (1977): Coils of the Serpent Unwind

Snake-handling, a bizarre cult behavior formed from several lines in the Bible, is ripe for horrific exploitation. While I was working in a Southern indie bookstore in the mid-Nineties we sold lots of copies of Salvation on Sand Mountain, a nonfiction account of the phenomenon. Eighties horror giant John Farris wrote a harrowing scene of it in his book Wildwood. Earlier, in 1976, noted grit-lit groundbreaker Harry Crews gave adventurous readers A Feast of Snakes, a grimy, raucous, raunchy bit of violent Southern Gothic grue with a literary air. I mean, dig this cover art:

And who can forget that great line from the Scorsese version of Cape Fear, with deranged De Niro snarling, "Granddaddy used to handle snakes in church, granny drank strychnine"? I haven't seen that flick since the grunge era and yet have never forgotten it. I was reminded of it recently when I picked up a book that's long taken up residence on my bookshelves, The Accursed, a slim novel published by Signet in November 1977. With a perfectly-rendered cover of innocence and evil, reduced to their most primeval, Paul Boorstin's first novel is one of the many titles Signet put out that feature animals run amok. This time, the animals are snakes of various deadly varieties, all part of the worshipful country cult ceremonies held by one Preacher Varek. [He] seized a hissing Indian cobra, the scaly coils writhing in his grasp, its forked tongue, sophisticated  sensor both taste and smell, flicking, bringing minute chemical particles back to be analyzed in the Jacobsen's organ above its jaws.

At the edge of Desperation Swamp in Clay-Ashland County, South Carolina, sits Thornwald Memorial Hospital, a time-worn edifice showing its age in the sweltering clime of mid-July. Run by a power-hungry administrator with no medical degree and rotating crew of indifferent, autocratic, and/or horny employees, the hospital is hardly a place one would want to spend any time in, much less perform as a doctor or recuperate as a patient. Unfortunately for Dr. Adam Corbett, a man of character and do-goodery vibes, perform here he must, and when he learns that the newborn baby of poor swamp denizen Mary Ann Cotter is suddenly and inexplicably dead, a baby he elivered, he is not convinced of the coroner's explanation of crib death: Adam would have to tread lightly or lose his job.

There's no doubt what's going on: dangerous serpents are about in the dark hidden places of Thornwald Memorial; just like in the movies of the era, we've encountered the creature from the outset, and now all we can do is watch/read in suspense as our cast of characters slowly come to the ultimate realization. The perplexing noises of Clay-Ashland County after dark were enough to convince anyone that man was not the source of all evil, that there were other more sinister forces at work in the universe, powers all the more terrifying because they were unknown, removed from the familiar, even endearing sins and vices of humanity.


Early on, we learn that this crumbling hospital was built on the site of a Confederate infirmary that, in 1863, was attacked and laid waste by Yankee soldiers, forever a place where bloodshed and black powder had poisoned that strip of land overlooking the swamp forever... the only thing the property was good for was a hospital or a graveyard, take your pick. More than once I was reminded of the late great Michael McDowell and his Avon paperbacks, and the Southern territory, both physical and psychological, that he would mine in a few short years. Author Boorstin certainly doesn't have the meanness, the mercilessness, the weird vivid characters, the deadly droll narrative of McDowell's works, but that's fine; Boorstin acquits himself well in these proceedings.

We're not here for finely-wrought characterization of human foible, we're here for monster mayhem, and Boorstin has the skills for just that, getting right at the skin-crawling repulsion that coiling serpents engender in us: Man's world seemed a simple matter of neat geometry, straights lines precisely drawn to meet at sensible right angles. But this cold-blooded hunter curved, twisted, a devious, sinewy, supple being eluding rational explanations.

The paperback's bio page states that he was inspired to write The Accursed while "filming in the Amazon interior" and spending time in the hot South Carolina sun. Boorstin's experience is wide-ranging, a professional documentary filmmaker/producer and TV screenwriter; his father was American historian and author Daniel J. Boorstin. His next novel, Savage (which I own but have not read), also happens to feature some fantastic cover art:

The Accursed especially snaps to life when Preacher Varek, a giant of a man shrouded in black, [his] head shaved bald by a straight razor, is onstage. Suspense ratchets up when he comes into contact with Jean, Dr. Corbett's pregnant wife, rescuing her when her car gets stuck in the mire, and shames her for wanting to have, you know, her baby in a hospital with modern medicine and all. The preacher contradicted everything the young doctor stood for and Adam worried where Jean's naive belief in this swamp healer might lead.

Other unsavory characters abound, mostly snake fodder, and Boorstin isn't above the cheap thrills of the Seventies, like the sexy nurse who caresses herself—not too tacky now!—and meets an inspired "sex and death" end in a bubbly bathtub. Unhooking her bra with one hand, she rubbed the icy champagne bottle along her bare, sweaty breasts, beds of moisture condensing around the enlarged crests of her nipples. Or the poor burn victim bastard who tries to get an old nurse to read him dirty magazines, utterly immobilized, a free meal for a ferocious reptile. Maynard's eyes peered over the coils of his murderer, the orbs nearly popping out of their sockets from the pressure...

Yeah, I gotta say, Boorstin has written some truly tasty scenes of serpentian gore and horror. There are two climactic scenes of confrontation; the first is good, yes, but the second is a fuckin' ripper, and I could easily see the fake blood flying and the mechanical snake writhing and roiling in a cheap TV-hospital set. Her blood mingled with the serpent's, to drench her nightdress in gory impasto. 

Boorstin, 1980

Like the previous novel I read, The Night Creature, this book got better as it went on, doling out its suspense level in a workmanlike manner, crisscrossing plotlines, very much in a cinematic narrative. You're definitely getting you your dollar-ninety-five's worth of B-movie entertainment. Did Boorstin miss a few opportunities to imbue a little more, I dunno, gravitas here and there? Sure, I guess; there are several times when the author's voice rings out over the standard cliche melodramatic proceedings that you wish he'd have given this baby one more writerly polish. But even its more lackluster moments didn't last too long. Boorstin's adeptness at describing ophidian destruction makes The Accursed a satisfying pulpy read, and its inclusion on the very cover of Paperbacks from Hell is thus the perfect place for it.               

The intruder seemed to congeal out of the moist and heavy air, gliding stealthily,
almost as if knowing this was a place of such fragility that it must trespass with infinite care.
Thick as a fire hose, it slithered slowly from the air-conditioning vent: five, ten, fifteen feet long, and still extending, an uninvited guest so out of place in the room it hardly seemed possible the interloper was there at all...

Friday, May 17, 2024

The Night Creature by Brian N. Ball (1974): She Rides

All over the social media of bibliophiles you can see people who insist that they must finish any book they've started reading. Sometimes this dogged commitment comes off as bragging; more often, as a kind of desperation, a sad realization of a fault: the utter inability to not finish a book that is simply not grabbing you in the way you wanna be grabbed. Me, I've quit more books than I recall, and have my entire book-reading life, but ever since starting this blog I've tried harder to finish the horror novels I start. What if the best part of the book is the ending?! Let me tell you, book lover—and I'm probably not telling you anything you didn't already know—that is rarely the case.

Fortunately it is the case for this 1974 novel The Night Creature (published in the UK as The Venomous Serpent), by British scribe Brian (N.) Ball. For several weeks I meandered through the first two-thirds of it. Not because it was bad, or uninteresting; Ball, a prolific writer of SF, is a capable author, if kinda dry (it's told in first person, a style I've found myself losing interest in over the years). No, I just found it all rather tame and indistinct; for every little aspect that made me perk up, I'd have another several pages of, sure, okay, whatever. The book would sit on my nightstand for days untouched, till last week. Dammit, I can finish this guy! Spurred on by a few positive reviews on Goodreads, I sat down early one afternoon determined to get to the end. And I did! And boy was I glad!

Anyway. I found the hippie-ish young couple, Andy and Sally, enjoyable enough, picturing their artsy 18th century stone farmhouse Seventies-style charmed me, as did their making a living selling crafty antiques and landscape paintings in the touristy British countryside. Everything changes in their idyllic life when Sally comes home with a brass rubbing and... wait, what the fuck is a "brass rubbing"?! Turns out it's a chiefly British hobby, so it made sense, born and bred Yank that I am, that I had no idea what the dang thing was that starts all the trouble. Then I recalled I had seen the cover for the UK edition of the book, under its original title The Venomous Serpent; had, even posted it to this very blog a decade ago! Wonder of wonders.

One night Andy gets the fright of his life when the woman on the rubbing, as well as her dog, seem to come to life when the moonlight filtering in through the high barn windows illuminates it. Ball does a decent enough job describing the eerie escapade, which happens several times, each time more and more disturbing to the young man: I had never known the condition which we call "terror" before. It's something far beyond fear, for it's unreasoning.

(oddly, incorrect names of people on the rubbing on back of NEL edition)

And thus follows standard procedure: Andy convincing Sally what he's seen, a visit to the ruined church where Sally first made the rubbing, learning the local lore of the people in said rubbing, intimidating locals warning them off the church property, cranky coppers (I was fool enough to call on our local policeman), and one truly old eccentric priest Andy tries to enlist in his aid when Sally disappears one day. The lady Andy seeks is one of the blood-drinking living dead: Undead, blood-crazed, monstrous thing from the tomb she might be, there was no doubting her beauty. Can he rescue Sally in time from the Lady Sybil?

Not unlike a contemporaneous Hammer horror film, The Night Creature is a mere wisp of a book at barely 150 pages. It truly does ramp up suspense and interest in the last third, so by the end, the tale has found that sweet spot, the one I personally truly adore and crave, and nuzzles there, suckling and secure.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Wet Work by Philip Nutman (1993): Too Tough to Die

In 1993, in my early 20s, I was working in a giant chain bookstore known as BookStar in Cary, NC. It wasn't a bad place to work, basically a Barnes and Noble (who eventually bought and then closed down the store), although the guys had to wear ties and dress pants, like it was fucking church. Several of my coworkers were horror fiction fans, both of the modern and classic variety, and we wasted many a working hour talking about the genre while ignoring our shelving duties. At this time the horror mass-market paperback boom was beginning its downhill swing, although I well recall the publication of many a serious title around then: Animals by Skipp n' Spector, Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite, After Age by Yvonne Navarro, Skin by Kathe Koja, as well as the continuing titles from the Dell/Abyss line. And in June came Wet Work, published by Jove Books, the first novel from young British author and journalist Philip Nutman.

I already knew the author's name from various Fangoria articles as well as a few of his short stories. They were good, smart, effective, and I remember shelving fresh new copies of Wet Work and thinking it might be worth a read. The critical blurbs came not from, you know, the newspaper reviewers but from fellow horror scribes like Clive Barker, Kathe Koja, Douglas E. WinterNancy A. Collins, Skipp n' Spector themselves, and Stephen King as well (although we've  learned how unreliable a King quote can be). All a good sign to me!

And yet—I didn't read it. My taste for the genre was waning some; sure, I was rereading some favorites but not really keeping up any longer. Like I said, I could tell the boom was slowing down, despite some interesting works arriving. This was when I was getting into my hardboiled/crime/noir phase, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, Woolrich, Cain, Chandler, James Lee Burke. Tastes change, you gotta go where your heart leads you.

So when I finally got around to Wet Work last week, I wasn't sure if it gonna read like a last gasp or fresh breath. Turns out, it was neither, and it didn't need to be: it's simply a briskly-told horror novel of a zombie apocalypse. Ignore the "epic terror" comparison to The Stand on the cover; compared to King's mammoth-sized tome, Wet Work is a wee little rodent, scurrying about busily while getting the job done in a fraction of the pages.

It's radiation from a comet that sets things off, akin to the space probe origins of the zombies in the original Night of the Living Dead. Sections of the first half resemble the early parts of the 1978 Dawn of the Dead, although these characters don't know yet that they're dealing with the undead. All this is no ripoff or plagiarism, however: Wet Work is an expansion of a Nutman short story of the same name, and it was first published in 1989 in the essential undead anthology Book of the Dead, borne upon us by Skipp n' Spector. A major work of the splatterpunk movement, it featured stories all written in the ghoulish universe of Romero's (then-) trilogy of zombie horror movie classicks.

2005 reprint by Overlook Connection Press

Any consumer of popular entertainment, horror or not, will be right at home in the familiar environs of Nutman's various characters and settings: secret military assassins, rookie cops, seasoned cynical cops, adults with dying parents, the lovelorn, the alcoholic, the teenage dirtbag, the cheating rich, the drug dealer, the junkie, DC/NYC, the airport, the strip club, the lab, the White House. Nothing to criticize, really; Nutman fills in color and detail no matter where he's describing. It's all as immediate as any movie or TV show, slick but not shallow, but not overladen with heavy meaning or a desire to upend tradition. His prose is lean, cynical, our tale starting off with the whitehotwhiteheat italics and ...ellipses... so beloved of the splatterpunks, what better way to get to the meat of the matter?

Skipping in well-played rhythms, Nutman shuffles his plotlines well, not lingering too long on any one locale. This is a skill I wish more horror writers had mastered: the thrust of narrative, the propulsion of story, the ability to convey movement in time forward while conveying a sense of impending doom. Nutman's background as a film historian has to account for his crisp, capable hand at this task, as the novel is cinematic as hell. Horror violence and gunplay action mingle here expertly.

Nutman didn't write another novel, I'm not sure why and couldn't find out, but did write comic books and more short stories, collected in 2010's Cities of Night. He died just over 10 years ago; it's a little sad to see all these encomiums from his colleagues praising his talents and to know he wouldn't add to his bibliography. Maybe with the end of the paperback era he just couldn't get another publisher interested in a full-length horror novel? I also feel bummed because in spring 1994 I attended a comic book convention in Durham with a pal, and saw Nutman himself engaged in a lively conversation with one of the movie memorabilia sellers, and I thought, hey, you should go chat with him, tell him you liked his stories... but I did not! Damn.

Overall Wet Work is a short sharp shock of splat fiction, never dwelling too long on any character(s), moving at a brisk pace as the end of the world approaches. Not that the story is shallow or insipid, it's just that Nutman knows that we know how the story goes, and isn't trying to reinvent the wheel. His fresh take on zombie myth isn't exactly mind-blowing, but it is interesting enough to keep even a seasoned horror fic fan reading to the bleak, downbeat ending. Who'd want it any other way?

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Latest Titles in Valancourt Books' Paperbacks from Hell Line: Two by Jere Cunningham

Around Spring 2024, Grady Hendrix, Valancourt Books, and I will be unleashing two devilishly good horror titles in our series of Paperbacks from Hell reprints: Jere Cunningham's The Legacy (1977) and The Abyss (1981). While the author, who died in 2018, only wrote a few horror novels, we think he deserves to be better known. The latter book, with Grady's intro, is available for pre-order; the former title, with my intro, is still in the wings. Be sure to join their mailing list on their homepage to keep up-to-date on their latest horror happenings!

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Fine Frights: Stories That Scared Me, ed. by Ramsey Campbell (1988): A Feast of Fiends

Despite it coming out at the height of the Eighties horror boom and published by genre giant Tor Books, I have no recollection at all of Fine Frights: Stories That Scare Me. An anthology of short stories compiled by the great and prolific Ramsey Campbell, the subtitle is the seller here: a story that can frighten one of horror's premier authors will surely reduce regular readers to a slab of shivering Jello. I've owned my minty-fresh copy of the book—never reprinted—for well over a decade, after finding it a library book sale and paying a whopping single dollar for it. The Jill Bauman cover, while perhaps not one of her most accomplished, references one of the stories therein; and if you look closely at the bottom brick on the right corner, you can see her sig: "Jill."

Campbell in 1988, photo by J.K. Potter

Campbell has assembled a dozen stories that he has deemed his favorites, and are actually only "a sampling" of the short works that have scared him over the years. Some of the names readers of science fiction will recognize more than horror fans, some stories are decades old and virtually forgotten, while others are—were—contemporary of the time but had not yet made their bones. I can assure you that, whenever a particular story was written is of no matter; these are top-flight tales of terror, with (almost) each one containing masterful soul-freezing moments of fear, unease, or shock.

Not a moment is wasted as we begin: "Child's Play," by respected Danish literary author Villy Sorensen (pic above), worms right under the skin. Written in the early Fifties, its unassuming title belies the story's utter remorseless cruelties; it's underwritten in a sly, chilling manner, almost like child-speak. This is fitting, as we meet the two little brothers, never named, who happen upon a smaller boy named Peter. A highlight of the entire anthology. "Shut up! We must clear this up before mother gets home."

Two of the best authors of the day are represented: Karl Edward Wagner's classic "More Sinned Against" has been one of my personal favorite horror tales since I first read it back when I was in high school, when it appeared in David J. Schow's essential 1988 antho Silver Scream. Two people trying to make it in the sleazy show-biz environs of Eighties El Lay, with all the ups and downs that requires. This bit of comeuppance is rife with Hollywood grit 'n' glamour, and what happens after the glitter fades. The ending is a total banger, unforgettable lo these many decades later. Candace couldn't have endured it all if it weren't for her selfless love for Rick, and for the coke and smack and pills and booze.

Thomas Ligotti's "The Greater Festival of Masks" is from his Songs of a Dead Dreamer, just after its small press pub in 1985, but prior to the mass market release; only then would his name would gain more and more recognition. All the Ligottian trademarks are here: nameless city, crooked streets, eerie moonlight, shops of bizarre accoutrements, and reflections upon identity and reality. This is not my favorite Ligotti story, but its essence of the esoteric is so strong, so pervasive, its climax so uncanny, I can see why Campbell chose to include it. For these are the declining days of the festival when the beginning and the end, and the old and the new, the existent and the nonexistent all join in the masquerades.

One of the dozens of anthologies in which "Thurnley Abbey" appeared, 1984

Dating from the early years of the 1900s, both "Thurnley Abbey" by Perceval Landon and "The Necromancer" by Arthur Gray work wonders with the musty trappings of classic ghost stories. While the former has to be one of the most anthologized around, Campbell notes in his little intro that he found many of his readers didn't know Landon's story at all; Gray's work is a brief, erudite, M.R. James-style spooker. While these old-fashioned tales-within-tales can, to some modern readers, seem a little dusty and remote, I can assure you they retain their ice-cold powers. "I know that my heart stopped dead, and my throat closed automatically."

"The Fifth Mask" by British author Shamus Frazer (pic above) is certainly a precursor to the output of both Campbell and Ligotti. A nervous man reminisces over double whiskies about a frightful occurrence from his boyhood, when he and a pal, on the Fifth of November, were out and about pranking while wearing masks, which was the style at the time (published originally in 1957, there are several uses of the n-word to describe said masks here). But someone has beat them at their own game of disguise... The entire dank and anxious mood is one that must have affected Campbell greatly, because many of his works have precisely the same vibe. She was as thin as her voice, dressed all in black... there was a stucco wall behind her, patched and discoloured as a gravestone, and the ghosts of winter trees rising above and losing themselves in the twilight.

"The War is Over" by David Case is original to this anthology, so maybe Campbell commissioned it. It is grim. Case wrote two cult horror/Gothic novels, Fengriffen and Wolf Tracks (1971 and 1980 respectively, both back in print from, who else, Valancourt Books), but was not overly prolific. This tale is set just after WWII, but the main story is one of enemy soldiers. This one has teeth and no mercy. "The brave soldier was not then so brave. He pleaded, he begged. He called upon God. Soon he could no longer plead with words, for he had no tongue."

From 1963, "The Horror at Chilton Castle" by Joseph Payne Brennan (above) is, I believe, fairly well-known among horror aficionados. I first read it some 10 or 12 years ago, and haven't forgotten it. Brennan was a respected mid-century horror/fantasy writer whose work stretches back to the Weird Tales era; his "Slime" is one of the great novellas of pulp horror ever. Here, Brennan evokes time-honored horror tropes with his narrator traveling through Europe looking for his ancestors. He hopes to visit the legendary Chilton Castle, to which his family has distant connection.

In a pub nearby the castle on a storm-lashed night, he ruminates on its spectral legends, and chances to meet someone who can give him a tour of the place—and, well, things go on from there. Strongly and vividly written, "Chilton Castle" is another fine example of Fine Frights... and the inspiration for the cover art. It would've made one helluva an episode of "Thriller"!

There were variations of the legend. Without doubt the original tale had been embroidered down the centuries, but the essential outline of the story concerned a secret room somewhere in the castle. It was said that this room contained a terrifying spectacle which the Chilton-Paynes were obliged to keep hidden from the world.

The four remaining stories are from science fiction authors; I'm sure that Campbell was reading them in magazines in his adolescence. This is to be expected: before the Paperbacks from Hell era, and even well into the Seventies, horror itself was cloaked in terms of SF, mystery, thriller, suspense, Gothic, speculative, fantasy, et al. Still, the authors know how to pluck a nerve ending.
"Cutting Down" by Bob Shaw (above) is by far the most graphic story included, a piece of Eighties grue originally published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. I have absolutely no idea how he rates as a science fiction writer, but as a horror writer he does admirably. An Irish author who got his start in SF fandom, here Shaw gets right at one man's disgust, and the lengths he goes to to relieve himself of this ill. Another tale of comeuppance, oh so vaguely reminiscent of Stephen King's "Quitters, Inc." He drove a roughly estimated cubic centimeter of the fluid into his wife's bloodstream, withdrew the needle and stepped back, his breath coming in a series of low growls which he was unable to suppress.

Okay, I kind of guessed where Peter Phillips's (above) "Lost Memory" was going, but still found it fairly gruesome. A Fifties SF tale through and through, in which awkwardly made-up words, clunky characters names, and stilted "scientific" dialogue and description run amok while information is clearly withheld from the reader solely for an effective twist at the end. Not really my kind of thing at all, but I can imagine being a kid back then reading it for the first time, yikes. Chur-chur was muttering to himself about the extreme toughness and thickness of the stranger's skin. He had to make four complete cutting revolutions before the circular mass of white-hot metal could be pulled away by a magnetic grapple.

Not last, but least: John Brunner's "The Clerks of Domesday" is not completely terrible, I get the chilling implications of the narrator's paranoid delusions, but found the execution tedious. Brunner was connected to the New Wave of SF of the late Sixties and Seventies with prophetic novels such as Stand on Zanzibar, The Shockwave Rider, and The Sheep Look Up, and while this story seems to fit his dour predictions and predilections, it was the only one I struggled to finish. It had never been published prior to Fine Frights and has never been reprinted again.

Our final story is from the mighty Philip K. Dick (above), an early work, dated 1954, entitled "Upon the Dull Earth." If at first it is obscure, it will become haunting and forlorn; Dick's powers at evoking an emotional response was there from the beginning of his career. A young couple, angels, stars, an alternate plane of reality; a myth of the underworld, and lost in it. Dick's long interest in spiritual lives, esoteric religion, heretical beliefs, day-to-day reality versus cosmic illusion: all here. It was a terrified reflection that showed out of the mirror above the bowl, a face, tear-stained and frantic. The face was difficult to catch—it seemed to waver and slide. Grey eyes, bright with terror.

There you have it! And it should be no surprise that Ramsey Campbell has assembled such a high caliber anthology; the various styles of horror represented gives the book a wide appeal. It's a no-brainer: Fine Frights is a fine feast, a repast of morbid morsels that belongs on the shelves of any and all paperback horror collectors.