Wednesday, June 8, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 30, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010 reprint, Leisure Books

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

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

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

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

this bad boy had a soundtrack

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Where Nightmares Are: Peter Haining Born This Date, 1940

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

Friday, April 1, 2022

Harry Adam Knight's Carnosaur Coming from Valancourt Books!

Hey gang, look what's coming soon from Valancourt Books! It's the 1984 prehistoric animal-attack classick Carnosaur, by prolific pulp purveyor Harry Adam Knight (John Brosnan when he's at home). Highly sought-after in its original Star UK and Bart Books US paperback incarnations, you now will not have to pay an astronomical sum to own a copy. I've contributed a new introduction for this edition, which features a brand-new cover by artist extraordinaire Lynne Hansen. Finally, Carnosaur gets a cover worthy of its contents. I mean, look at that baby! Fearsome indeed. 

This book will not be part of the Paperbacks from Hell series, however; rights issues prevented Valancourt from reprinting it as a mass-market, so this guy will be a trade paperback. However I can recommend it to all and sundry who enjoy the finest of dino destruction tales. You won't be disappointed! Looks to be let loose September 2022, so go here for all pre-order and other info. 

P.S: I've just now noticed the date and say to you this is no April Fool's Day japery! Good God, would I joke about something like this?!

Friday, March 25, 2022

Some Say Love It is a Razor

In the early and mid Eighties Zebra cranked out a handful of paperbacks that featured photos of knives slicing through various fruit, and in one case, a rose—not too obvious now! You'll recognize a few names: Joe Lansdale's first novel, Act of Love; two from hack supreme William W. Johnstone; and two from "Philip Straker," an pseudonym of Edward Lee, who would become a prolific extreme horror author in later years, and from what I can tell, he has disowned these two early titles.

According to various Goodreads and online reviews, these are more police procedural/serial killer thrillers, and at least one, Without Mercy by "Leonard Jordan"—another pseudonym, this one used by prolific pulp writer Len Levinson—is worth a read

Monday, March 7, 2022

Kiki by John Gill (1979): Plastic Fantastic Lover

When I first saw a copy of the gloriously-covered Kiki (Fawcett Popular Library, Oct 1980, no cover art credit) on a fellow paperback horror fan's Instagram, I bought a copy immediately, $5 on Abebooks. Mannequin horror, it looked like, promising illicit erotic thrills, you know I had to have it. How had this book passed me by? I'd never come across it before, and the author's name, John Gill, meant nothing to me. Factor in that Publishers Weekly blurb about "A cool little horror story with a triple twist at the end," and I was expecting a nice, tight creepy thriller. Which is, happily, about what I got...

Ellis Sargesson, "Sarge" for short, is an American physician practicing medicine in the French Riviera. He is grieving the death of his teenage daughter. He is looking for an out-of-the-way house with a basement that can be soundproofed. Some nights Sarge drinks an iceless martini with a single olive soaking in it and listens to the Ray Noble Orchestra; other times its Armagnac while he plays the soundtrack to Singin' in the Rain. He buys Kiki, a Swedish-blonde, anatomically-correct blow-up doll—she's not a mannequin after all!—in a sex shop in Nice. The shop also sells Black and Asian dolls, even a rosy-lipped boy, an imitation catamite ("You would prefer a boy?" the clerk asks Sarge in halting English, "The boy is very popular with the priests.") More than that of the plot I don't want to say.

Nor can I say much about Gill himself. A brief bio of him (born in the South Pacific, no birth year given, "now" lives in Europe) is appended to the last page of the Kiki paperback; my bibliographic Googling turned up little about him other than that he once apparently was the head of drama at the BBC. Copies of his other novels were on eBay, all suspense thrillers. He had no Goodreads author page and his books were misattributed, identifying him as a John Gill who was a Catholic theologian in, oh, the 18th century. I corrected that as well as I could.

There's a very subtle, creepy quality to Kiki that I think would appeal to horror fans who appreciate offbeat, genre-adjacent works. If you've enjoyed past TMHF favorites The Happy Man, The Tenant, The Cormorant, you just might find Kiki to your taste. Gill’s smoothly professional prose and pacing isn’t entirely original, but much welcomed anyway. The vibe is reminiscent of vintage Polanski: European, insular, obsessive, cool, detached; Hitchcock himself would have approved of the goings-on as well. Twists and turns are ably deployed; the climactic confrontation(s) satisfy, all laced with a delicious black irony. I went into Kiki blind; I'd encourage everyone else to do the same!

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Horror Fiction Help XXVI

Time once again in which I seek identification of these forgotten horrors for fellow blog readers. Thanks in advance!

1. In the late 1990s or 2000 I read a paperback about a married couple who move into a new house. The wife somehow disappears in a room or door in the attic that leads to another world or dimension. 

2. A horror/supernatural/ghost anthology published 1985-1993. One story was set in the last years of the 19th century/first years of the 20th century, probably 1890s. A young woman is involved with seances or psychic research in some way, and an older, unattractive man is pursuing her sexually. She's not interested. The older man dies, but she gets no respite : Now his GHOST is harassing her, and publicly covering her with "ectoplasm". It is not blatantly pointed out  that the "ectoplasm" is similar to semen, but that was sure the impression I was left with. The story ends with the young woman retreating back to her home, where her sister(s) lock her in her bedroom with a lock they had  surreptitiously  put on the OUTSIDE of the door... And the reader is left with the impression the girl might be locked up for the rest of her life, because the haunting is so embarrassing for her sister(s). Found! It's Lisa Tuttle's short story "Mr. Elphinstone's Hands," first published in 1990's Skin of the Soul.

3. Circa 1988-1993, probably more towards the end of that range. The cover painting showed a blonde woman using her fangs on the neck of a dark-haired man, who I realized looked a lot like Hitler. So I read the blurb on the back, confirmed the blonde was Eva Braun and her victim was Hitler, and I put it back as probably dumb and trashy. I've been regretting it ever since. No clue as to author or title, I just remember the cover painting.

4. A forty-something guy and teenage girl are harassed by an Aztec god's cult that want to sacrifice one of them,don't remember if they were father and daughter or  just neighbors, but I remember the girl's boyfriend is part of the cult.

5. Little girl is possessed by the soul of a pedophile serial killer that was executed in the electric chair, it follows the father of one of the little girl's friends.

6. A bizarre short story in some anthology long ago when I was a teen where a father is out for revenge over someone in a carnival raping or killing his daughter I think. He finds the guy and essentially turns him into an animal. Breaks his knees, cuts out his tongue, sews him into a be a suit and at the end the guy is a sideshow attraction crawling and grunting. Found! It's Robert Bloch's oft-anthologized short story "The Animal Fair," first published in the May 1971 issue of Playboy.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Latest Title in Valancourt's Paperbacks from Hell Series: Progeny of the Adder!

Coming this summer, the 15th title in the Paperbacks from Hell reprint series published by Valancourt Books! Progeny of the Adder is a 1965 horror-thriller by Leslie H. Whitten (1928 - 2017), a Florida-born journalist who also wrote several genre novels. I first read this title over 10 years ago and reviewed it here, and mentioned it in my recommended reading afterward for PfH. I'm looking forward to rereading it so I can write the introduction. Head over to Valancourt's page for ordering info. Psyched that we're able to continue this line of books!