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.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

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

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

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

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

Grant & Ptacek, c. late 1970s

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Lucifer Society: The Paperback Cover Art of Don Punchatz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

RIP Peter Straub (1943 - 2022)

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

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Tor Horror reprint, 1989. Charles Lang cover art

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

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

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

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

Sphere UK, 1981. Terry Oakes cover art

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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