Sunday, March 19, 2017

RIP Berni Wrightson (1948-2017)

The horror world mourns as it learns of the passing of unsurpassable artist Berni(e) Wrightson, who died Saturday after a long battle with brain cancer.

I first became aware of his work in 1983, when Cycle of the Werewolf was published in hardcover. A very short Stephen King "novel" with astonishing illustrations by Wrightson, my 12-year-old self was obsessed with it from the first time I saw a copy on that bookstore shelf. I saved up my paper route money and bought a copy ($28.95!) and pored over those great and gory images. Even smuggled the book into school to astonish my classmates. I'm virtually positive it was my first King story as well.

A few years later, junior high, I met a guy my age who was a true comic book aficionado. Although a novice myself, I went along with him to comics shops and that's where I learned more about Wrightson (and comics in general; this is precisely when The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were being published): his hand in Swamp Thing, Creepshow, "Jenifer" (!!!), and what I think of his masterpiece: his 1983 adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

I can still recall how Wrightson's delicate yet detailed art made me feel dizzy with delight. This was how the Frankenstein story was supposed to look! My god. It was perfect. Unfortunately my copy has been lost to the ages, victim of a wild North Carolina storm that flooded the basement of the house I was living in back in the late '90s (which destroyed a nice chunk of other awesome books as well). I've never replaced it, and I'm not sure why.

The horror world is pouring out condolences and memories of Mr. Wrightson, and it seems by all accounts he was a terrific human in addition to being a master genre artist... and a dashing '70s fellow.

Rest well, Mr. Wrightson

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Blood of Nostradamus Trilogy by Andrew Laurance (1991): Eye of the Prophet

Consisting of three occult horror novels originally published a decade prior in the UK under different titles, Blood of Nostradamus (Diamond Books/1991) is the work of one Andrew Laurance, the pen name of a French-British author André Launay. Not sure if the original novels, the titles of which you see on the paperback covers, were related; seems like that "Blood of Nostradamus" titling (and I suspect the trilogy-izing) was an after-the-fact creation by the publisher. Speculation on my part; I had never heard of any of this till this very day.

Nostradamus and his supposed prophesying is a topic that bores me to tears. Going by the back-cover copy, these don't sound too terrible, but I really have no idea and probably won't find out. In my research I see that Diamond Books reprinted several other of his early '80s horror novels, including Ouija, The Black Hotel, and Catacomb. Haven't seen any of these out in the wild at all, and I wonder if any horror fiction readers have any familiarity with them. Let me know!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Obelisk by Ehren M. Ehly (1988): A Ghost Lives in My Veins

Ye risen gods but is this some terrific 1980s paperback cover art! Behold the stepback below, in which artist Ben Perini really went for broke in his depiction of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh's golden visage revealed to be rotting and diseased, a mummified wretch of humanity which brings blinding terror. Man, I can hear potential readers thinking to themselves back in the day, if this novel is half as good as this cover, I am in for some groovy horror excitement! It may have even been you, dear reader (it wasn't me certainly; I hadn't seen this book prior to beginning TMHF). Long on my to-read list, Obelisk (Leisure Books, July 1988), was the first novel of one Ehren M. Ehly, pseudonym of Moreen Le Fleming, whose life story is quite a read.

When Steve Harrison, a young American scholar desperate to pay back an unscrupulous loan shark, attempts to rob a newly-opened Egyptian tomb hoped to contain another world-famous trove of treasure and mystery, he becomes, in so many words, possessed by the undead spirit of Menket, a pharaoh of antiquity. Much like the werewolf curse, Steve cannot remember what he does at night beneath the risen moon... only that he feels much guilt and anxiety during daylight hours and a godawful thirst. After arriving back in New York City, the horrific hijinks continue, Steve/Menket terrorizes that always terrorizable town, killing innocent folks unlucky enough to cross his path (you know the drill: quickly-sketched characters introduced solely to be slaughtered). Driven by a desire to be fully resurrected, Menket's thoughts read like translated heiroglyphics:

Now come, vessel of life-giving marrow.
Let my teeth crush your bones, that my flesh may live, and renew itself.
Hands of stone, tear the sinews. Teeth of stone, crush the bones.
How sweet the marrow, give of life and blood.
Now Re, now Osiris, come. Share with me this feast of nourishment,
that we may exult in the day of resurrection.

And in the great tradition of paperback horror novels with stunning covers, Obelisk delivers much, much less than promised. It trades in the most basic of TV-movie characterizations and behavior sprinkled liberally with '80s VHS horror flick gore (which is not necessarily a bad thing). It's not unreadable, say, like Ruby Jean Jensen or J.N. Williamson, but it certainly lacks the vigorous tastelessness of a Graham Masterton. Ehly is an earnest, competent yet square kind of writer; the pulpy elements are all in place, but I feel if the narrative and characterizations had been trimmed down we'd have a respectable '80s horror novel. Amateurish dialogue, boring cops on the chase, oh man, I just had to skim the last third of the novel. However I did learn one fun fact: there truly is an obelisk in Central Park!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Valley of Lights by Stephen Gallagher (1987): Watching the Detective

When I need to take a break from reading horror, the genre I look to most often is crime and private detective fiction. On and off for years, and mostly on these days, I've built up a small collection of mass-market paperbacks by writers like Cornell Woolrich, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, Dan J. Marlowe, Ross and John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith, Walter Mosley, Jonathan Valin, Charles Willeford, Richard Stark, all in addition to leading figures Cain and Chandler and Hammett of course (some years back I started a blog in that vein—Neat, Clean, Shaved & Sober—but I haven't kept it up, but always mean to restart it!). 

So I was intrigued when I began reading Valley of Lights (Tor Books, Feb 1988) and found it a private detective novel through and through. Can't recall how I'd heard of it or why I bought it recently. British author Stephen Gallagher, who wrote Dr. Who novelizations and other medical/tech thriller-style works, captures that American milieu of cop shops, trailer parks, and skid-row motels and its language well, which isn't that easy (I don't believe Clive Barker quite ever mastered it, and I don't know if James Herbert even ever tried). Gallagher well follows all the detective first-person hallmarks: the hard-boiled insights, the trouble with women, the observations of those he meets and the places they live, and the dogged pursuit of lowlifes. Except this particular lowlife happens to be a body-hopping supernatural being spreading death and mayhem wherever he goes for as long as the being can remember.

This back-cover copy only sets up the first half or so of the novel; then comes a twist that piqued my interest, because I have to say I was not much hooked at all prior. It was all too little too late. Sure, Gallagher can write just fine but the story and pace were tepid; while stakes get higher when the killer kidnaps someone dear to the detective, neither character nor situation elicited much tension and even less horror save for a moment here and there. In its combo of horror and detection it isn't a patch on Progeny of the Adder (1965), Falling Angel (1978),  or Red Dragon (1981).  The ending I admit is disturbing, a bit of vengeance hinted at on this cover of the 1988 New English Library paperback, but again, too little too late. It's a bit of a struggle to even write this review!

The title metaphor works, I'll give it that: lights are lives, of course, lives to be exploited; references to "lights out" and "turned off" and such meaning dead are plentiful, in classic hard-boiled style. The Tor cover art at top reminds me of a computer schematic, however, a hacker floating through cyberspace, but that's a coincidence only. Those are all potential victims. Despite a promising scenario and solid writing, I can't really recommend Valley of Lights to either the serious horror or crime fiction reader.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

It Wants Revenge

Daniel Ransom was the horror/thriller pseudonym of the well-respected late crime writer Ed Gorman. I think this cover art might be by John Melo (he was great at '80s perms and clothing).

Monday, February 13, 2017

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Beautiful Corpse

1973 Curtis Books, artist unknown

1980 Playboy Press reprint, artist unknown

Friday, January 27, 2017

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman (1975): The Image Within

It is probably a mistake to label Robert Aickman (1914 - 1981) a horror writer. While his stories have been featured for decades in a myriad of horror fiction anthologies, I believe he was uncomfortable with confining his output to any single tradition; Aickman preferred to label his works as "strange stories." To me, this seems right and apt. Another word I'd use to describe his stories is "uncanny," since they rarely adhere to generic conventions but instead move subtly around them, hinting at unconscious drives, highlighting how the real world and the real people in it may be illusions obscuring darker forces at work. Odd occurrences do not add up; the killer does not remove a mask and identify himself, because we aren't sure there's a killer at all, but only time and chance and that what might be called fate. You might not be surprised when I suggest Aickman is a bit of an acquired taste.

Aickman has long been a favorite of adventurous readers who search high and low for the forgotten or the overlooked, the challenging and the obscure; in recent years his reputation has grown and grown, and  his books have been brought back into print by several publishers. After years of fruitless search myself, I recently bought, for a few dollars more than I generally like to pay for old paperbacks, a copy of Cold Hand in Mine (Berkley Books reprint 1979, cover art by Michael Whelan). The paperback's spine reads SCIENCE FICTION but that is ridiculous: these are quiet, literate tales of creepiness; the front and back ad copy oversell it and I wonder of buyers' remorse back in the day...

I bought a hardcover copy of Painted Devils (1979, never issued in paperback) years ago because, of course, Danse Macabre. And to be honest, I never really took to him: the few stories I read in that collection seemed affected, remote, intellectualized to a sanitary degree. Reading Aickman takes a little more patience than many readers are willing to give, perhaps; it's more akin to reading the classics of James, Blackwood, Machen, and that crew, even though he was writing through what I loosely call the modern era. That is to say, his type of fiction, was somewhat out of style. I mean, that Whelan cover art up there, there's nothing like that in the book, either in imagery or mood. As you can see below, the hardcover editions featuring Edward Gorey's macabre gentility reflect a bit more accurately the uncanny chills you'll find inside.

These stories generate little heat; no melodrama, no generic twist, no jump scares, no slow dawning of horrible realization. When the "horror" occurs, rarely does it overly alarm or unduly concern anyone. The polite thing seems to be to ignore it... for that whisper of other worlds, or even an intimation that our perception of this world is flawed and incomplete, not up to the task, is simply intolerable. Characters view these things askance, never head-on.

Anyway. First story I read in the collection was "The Real Road to the Church," about a young woman’s rental home, her memories of the men in her life, and a creepy country parson who hints at esoteric uses the village had for her house. I found it weak, anemic, Aickman's style doing more to obscure than illuminate, and the twist, as it were, was a common one. Not off to a great start.

Next up, "Niemandswasser" (Aickman is nothing if not a continental author) was better, thank the gods. A young German prince stays at his family’s abandoned seasonal home on Lake Constance. Accompanied by a—friend? Lover?—the prince ponders the local legend of a dangerous something in a part of the lake called No Man’s Water. He consults an old professor of his, who intones, as old professors in these types of tales are wont to do:

If any man examines his inner truth with both eyes wide open, and his inner eye wide open also, he will be overcome with terror at what he finds. That, I have always supposed, is why we hear these stories about a region of our lake. Out there, on the water, in darkness, out of sight, men encounter the image within them.
Then come "The Hospice" and "The Same Dog," both highly readable, intriguing, with clearly delineated settings and such. The former is about a traveler who gets lost and winds up dining at a sort of hotel/waypost filled with overly-attentive aides and oddly-behaviored guests. The latter is a tale of a mundane childhood struck by tragedy. Neither story concludes with what you'd call a resolution, but their utter unwillingness to is what echoes in the reader's mind. "Pages from a Young Girl's Diary" is excellent, meticulously wrought; I'll give you a hint as to its contents: "It was really strange to have Mamma's blood in my mouth. The strangest part was that it tasted delightful; almost like an exceptionally delicious sweetmeat!" I believe this was my intro to Aickman, back in the late '80s/early '90s when I first read this anthology.

"Meeting Mr. Millar" was another high point of Cold Hand for me. A would-be literary pornographer relates his story of "a haunted man rather than of a haunted house." Mr. Millar moves his business into the house the narrator rents a room in. Now telephones are ringing constantly, people banging about all hours, but just who is Mr. Millar? He invites the narrator into his office for a drink of sherry but shows little of himself: "Though everything was in a sense wide open, nothing was revealed from first to last." At one point the narrator is wakened in the middle of the night and what follows is a terrific scene of a midnight creep through darkened halls to peer down a stairwell, the most "horror" moment in this whole book, and the climax, such as it is, horrifies as well.

1988 UK paperback

After failing to engage with the final story, "The Clock Watcher," at any level, I went back to the beginning: "The Swords" is a major work (rightly collected in the 1987 anthology The Dark Descent, David G. Hartwell's towering anthology that traces the horror story's evolution through the 20th century), more immediately interesting and accessible perhaps to the general reader than some of Aickman's other more opaque tales. With its careful layering of social and sexual unease, set in a dreary English town that features a half-hearted amusement park, and the utterly perplexing ritual of the titular objects, "The Swords" is a haunting weird classic.

There was nothing in particular to be seen... The bed looked as if some huge monster had risen through it, but nowhere in the room was there blood. It was all just like the swords.
As I thought about it, and about what I had done, I suddenly vomited. 

Faber & Faber 2016, Tim McDonagh cover illustrating "The Hospice"

There were moments throughout Cold Hand in which I was reminded of Ramsey Campbell, of Dennis Etchison, but in general Aickman is a writer unto himself. This is not always a good thing. At its best, Aickman's craftsmanship is lovely, with care taken to ensure each word and phrase and parenthetical aside heightens the reader's understanding, illuminating even common thoughts and feelings with a fresh light. However other times I was left adrift, either disinterested in the details (foreign royalty, World War I, fancy boarding schools for sickly rich kids, clocks) or unsure of just what Aickman was trying to impart upon the reader. More than once I had to stop and reread passages several times to ascertain what exactly was happening. Stories would end and some small comprehension would be whisked away from me. Am I a poor reader, or is Aickman fucking with me? Or is this all an example of the uncanny? I still kinda don't know.