Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Recent Horror Reads

Some capsule reviews of three horror novels I read early this year; none exactly essential, alas, but the first title is lightly recommended.

With its flame-swept cover of a mysterious beauty transforming into another mysterious beauty, you might think I would've skipped this book when I found it at Powell's last year. You'd be wrong! Shouldn't surprise you now that I picked it up solely because of its cover art and also because I'd never ever heard of it before. Then, lo and behold, I was rewarded with several hours of creepy, darkly romantic, even refreshing reading. Yes: The Burning Ground (Pocket Books, July 1987, cover by Peter Caras) more than met expectation. Author Madeena Spray Nolan, whoever that is, writes in a smart, modern, lively style that belies Gothic romance origins.

Odd to feel so sad at the death of someone I had never known. Back cover synopsis a fair inkling of what to expect inside, while Nolan elevates material somewhat by her knowing skills and insights into hidden human motivation; dialogue comes from having listened to others, not from imagination. Entertaining read with elements of (mild) horror, occult, mystery, contemporary romance (couple overheated sex scenes work, maybe a laugh), and Gothic fiction. At base is desire to live a creative life, and the stranglehold grip it can have on people whether they want it or not—and worse, whether they have talent or not.

I could find little about Nolan online, other than that she wrote a children's book and another horror novel. But note how thoughtfully Pocket Books moved their logo to accommodate Caras's illustration!

Featuring a sexually reductive cover—from Playboy Paperbacks, natch—Satyr by Linda Crockett Gray (July 1981) is about as subtle. Imad Gurdev is a real-life satyr, escaping from his kind's historic monastic abode in the wilds of Turkey to the sleazy grindhouse streets of Tampa, FL, to get his rocks off and blaspheme. He hides his goat-legs in baggy clothes and plays mind-tricks on his female victims so they have only vague memories of the rape. Anti-rape crusader Martha Boozer speaks to high schools and women's groups—at one point she blithely shows the latter a slide show not just of questionable ancient art but also "kiddie porn" and then a snuff film "confiscated by Tampa police." Talk about triggering.

Operating almost as a feminist manifesto in the Dworkin/MacKinnon/Brownmiller mold but also offering up stalking scenarios like a slasher film, Satyr features some moments of suspense as the two characters hurtle towards confrontation, and the obligatory research visit to an anthro prof who declares "These mixed-breed creatures where the human and beast are combined have existed in every culture I have studied." Well fuckin' duh. Fortunately the other older satyrs aren't such creepos and follow the apostate to America's wang to punish and destroy him. Though not terribly written or paced—I mean, it's published by Playboy, not Zebra—I have no reason to recommend the novel.

The late Brian McNaughton is also a writer of some real ability, but it's wasted mostly on nonsense in Satan's Mistress (Carlyle Books, 1982 reprint of 1978 original), number two in a Satanic/occult series that is fairly infamous for its UK cover art (this American edition looks like adult bookstore fodder). Family of three, father, mother (with a witchy history), and son, moves into an upstate New York mill, we learn mother's own father raped her as he was leader of a religious cult and had declared himself God. Slooowly weird stuff starts to happen, dreams of hot redheaded chicks, mom and son have some sexual tension (ugh) and whatnot. There's a secret room in the basement, somebody left a lot of books down here, oh look it's the Necronomicon! Let's go ask the old lawyer nearby who also happens to be a pulp horror aficionado and Lovecraft expert all about it: "I had it this afternoon from a thoroughly reliable source that, when 'The Call of Cthulhu' was first printed in 1928, Albert Einstein panicked. He had drafted a letter urging Farnsworth Wright, Lovecraft's editor, in the strongest possible terms, not to print any more stories on similar themes..."

I did enjoy the Halloween party sequence—writing good party scenes is hard, all those characters mingling and drinking and flirting all at once, and I enjoy a good one whether in real life or on the page. Still, I don't understand how an ostensible horror writer can spend so much time writing about nothing and so little time on, you know, horror. Isn't it more fun to write of horrific events and encounters than of a neighbor's pack of dogs or a teenage boy's crush or the New York commercial art world? Grady Hendrix told me the book works better if you read it along with the other in the series. Again, I liked McNaughton's bright, adept approach, he knows people and life (not all horror writers do, one of my constant criticisms), and the climax gets Yog-Sothothy, but I'm not rushing to read the others. Although Mistress does contain my favorite line of the year so far: He went and changed to his work clothes, a pair of jeans that the Ramones would have discarded. Gabba gabba hey, that's hilarious.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Paperbacks from Hell Wins the Stoker Award!

I am so excited to tell you that Grady Hendrix's Paperbacks from Hell (Quirk Books, Sept 2017), the book inspired by Too Much Horror Fiction and for which I did much research, organizing, identifying, brainstorming, and also wrote an Afterword, won the 2018 Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction. What an incredible thrill! After the nomination was announced, there was no way my wife and I were going to miss a first-time trip to the StokerCon at the Biltmore Hotel in Providence, RI. It was literally a whirlwind weekend—never had time to get to HPL's grave, sadly—and Friday the whole region was beset by a ravaging Nor'easter, and practically trapped us all in the hotel, just like in a King novel! Enjoy some of the pix from that weekend.

Grady took our selfie right after we won. What an indescribable rush. "Jesus fucking Christ," I whispered aloud to myself when the book was called out as the recipient of the award. Talk about satisfaction and a weird kind of relief. All our work culminated in that moment!

At the after-party. You can see how good it feels.

Can't get enough pictures with this thing!

The list of nominees at the dinner banquet. We had some real competition and I certainly wasn't convinced we were going to win no matter what some very kind fans were telling us. However I feel no one has ever celebrated horror fiction the way that Paperbacks from Hell (and Too Much Horror Fiction) has!

Another hoped-for event actually occurred: at the awards after-party—emphasis on party, it was loud, energetic, and fun!—Grady and I got to chat with Thomas F. Monteleone and Douglas E. Winter, whose critical, editorial, and fictional contributions to the horror genre in the 1980s and '90s were vastly influential on me. We got into some fun anecdotes about people like Michael McDowell, Whitley Strieber, Dennis Etchison, and others, while I got to gush at Tom about how much his Borderlands series meant to me as a horror reader back in the day. Check out Grady's deathgrip on both the Stoker and his beer.

 (I did not take this pic)

Alas, there was only one award given, with Grady's name inscribed, so it was his to take home. I don't want to think about the night of passion that followed.

As I do in every new city I visit, I try to find the used bookstores right away. These pics are from Cellar Stories, only a block from the Biltmore. I know several attendees shopped there, so I can only imagine their paperback horror section is now a barren wasteland!

In the dealers' room we signed some copies of the book. I will never get tired of this.

Setting up Saturday afternoon for Grady's performance of Paperbacks from Hell. This was the first time I'd seen it myself, and everything I heard about the song about skeletons was true.

Saturday night, Ramsey Campbell and Caitlin Kiernan announcing the Stoker for Best Novel (which went to Christopher Golden for Ararat).

View from the stage, pic taken by Rose O'Keefe of Eraserhead Press, who won a Stoker for Specialty Press. I'm over on the left throwing the devil horns. What a happy, loud, enthusiastic crowd! Drinks were flowing freely I can tell you that.

This was one of the best nights, late Friday with booze and snacks, hanging and drinking with (L-R) author Adam Cesare, director of the StokerCon Final Frame Film Competition Jonathan Lees, and Nate Murray of IDW Publishing. There were plenty of other warm, friendly, funny, brilliant folks I met, and many who were fans of both Too Much Horror Fiction and Paperbacks from Hell. I love hearing about others' experiences with old paperbacks and their intro to various writers and books. It was all incredibly gratifying and humbling. Got to see some great panel discussions on Bram Stoker and Dracula, on Shirley Jackson, on horror film of the '70s and '80s, and on the Universal and Hammer horror classics (although no one, not even Ramsey Campbell, mentioned one of my faves, The Black Cat). So much to do and see and talk (and drink and drink) about!

Early Sunday morning I myself was on a panel of vintage paperback horror fiction moderated by Grady. It was maybe a bit subdued; a weekend of conventioning and drinking and talking late into the night and freezing weather had taken its toll! There's Jonathan Lees again, and also Elizabeth Massie, whose '80s short stories I found and still find to be disturbing, brilliant, and filled with real human emotion. I talked about my beloved Dell/Abyss series as well as Queen of Hell (not so beloved) and Book of the Dead 2: Still Dead (still beloved).

And look who attended the panel: yes, that is indeed horror legend Ramsey Campbell! What an encouraging, approachable presence he was at the convention.

The Horrors Writers' Association seems to be just filled with extremely talented people dedicated to horror (and it made me realize I need to devote some time to contemporary horror writers). To finally mix and mingle among them as an equal is something I'm proud of. Being recognized by them, me, who began as an amateur fan with a free blogspot domain, a scanner, and an obsession for cataloguing the wonderful past of the genre I love, is an immeasurable honor. It's spurred me on to continue looking for the lost and forgotten horrors of the paperback past!

A dream come true.

Thanks to the awesome Jonathan Lees for this lovely pic. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Headed to StokerCon 2018 in Providence, RI

Exciting news: I am going to this weekend's StokerCon convention in shadow-haunted Providence, Rhode Island! It's a dream come true to have Grady Hendrix's and my Paperbacks from Hell nominated for a Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction. I can hardly believe it! Grady will be there too, on several panels as well as presenting an audio-visual discussion of our book. I can't wait to meet some great horror folks and spread the love for vintage paperback horror fiction. If you're there, say hi, what's up! Gonna be a great weekend... I'll see you in Hell.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Flesh Eaters by L.A. Morse (1979): Eat 'Em and Smile

Behold the Frazetta glory that adorns this paperback! Inhuman brutes, their flesh gone grey-green from their ghastly diet (yet somehow they're ripped as hell), drag along another hapless victim to their lair hidden by great rocks in a misty, nightmarish landscape—what self-respecting horror fan could resist reading this book? Why it promises terrors beyond imagining! Slim, grim, and altogether grimy, The Flesh Eaters (Warner Books, Dec 1979), an unheralded vintage title by one L.A. Morse, operates in that unwholesome arena of dead-eyed depiction of graphic, taboo-obliterating violence with not a whiff of concern for taste or restraint. As you'll see, this is an altogether good thing.

This story of legendary Sawney Beane and his unholy clan is a master class in unsettling the unwary reader. Me, I had some idea of what I was getting into, but even so I was somewhat astonished—and impressed—at the darker turns the narrative took. A straightforward tale of supposedly historical events: a preface declares the factual (meh) basis of the novel, and Morse spares no ugly detail in describing the sheer shittiness of life in 15th-century Edinburgh. There are the houses basically made of mud and straw, the miasma of garbage and human waste, the scavenging creatures animal and man alike, the cathedral filled with light and wealth. The townspeople have no experience of any alternatives. If a clean town does not exist for them, then this town is not dirty.... This filth is merely one of the necessary accompaniments of progress.

We're introduced to Sawney and the other townspeople as they're watching the merciless executions of several prisoners, a momentous event that breaks the monotony of daily life. Of course after watching the men killed in vile ways he feels a tingling throughout his body, a pleasant warmth in his groin. He even sniffs blood from the ground and totally gets off on it. Then it's off to work in the blacksmith's, a horrible abusive guy, known as Master, but he's got this hot teenage daughter, Meg, who hates being her father's slave. Meg and Sawney develop I guess a "relationship." One night the blacksmith is drinking with a pal, and they humiliate Sawney and grope Meg. After being rejected by Meg, the pal leaves, and the blacksmith then attempts to rape his own daughter—till Sawney steps in to stop him. You can guess what happens:

At last Sawney Beane and Meg become exhausted and stop. There is blood all over them. Sawney Beane puts his hand in a wound on the Master's chest and brings it out covered with blood. He licks his hand, then holds it in front of Meg's face. She licks one finger slowly with the tip of her tongue; and then takes each of the other fingers into her mouth and sucks them greedily. Her lips are swollen, as though with passion.
They begin to laugh maniacally. 

ebook cover 2014

Two kids have killed the father, now they've gotta be on the run. That they do. Before, Sawney Beane was practically mute, a cipher, a dullard, a nothing, barely existing, barely thinking, barely feeling. Post-murder he is in touch with desires and sensations that before had only moved about him like beckoning shadows. Oh he has solved the sweet mystery of life, Sawney Beane has! He explains to Meg as they leave that dirty old town:

"We will become hunters. We will be like the great wolves of the forest. Only we will not attack cows and sheep and deer. We will hunt men... Aye, eat them! Feed upon them..."

Well all right! Now we're talkin'. The two self-imposed exiles trudge through spooky forest and across lonely beach and lo and behold, Sawney finds a tiny crevasse in a cliff face which he explores, finding that it turns into a dry, lofty cavern: the perfect home for he and his carnal bride, virtually invisible to any human eye. Here will be their hearth from which they will venture only to kill unsuspecting travelers on the road above. What follows are simple, sometimes gut-wrenching depictions of remorseless killers at work and the enjoyment they find in overpowering the weak things. To wit:

  They are the hunters and it is natural to hunt; anything else would be unnatural. Eating the flesh of their victims no longer has special significance. It is natural for hunters to eat what they kill. They feel no connection between themselves and their victims, no common humanity... they stand over their fallen victims, yelling at the corpses, cursing them, kicking them, spitting on them, dancing in triumph over their bodies

Then the inevitable occurs: Meg becomes pregnant. The baby's birth makes Sawney squeamish; he can't watch and he certainly can't cut the umbilical cord! Even looking at this mewling creature is beyond him... till he realizes: their numbers can increase. So will their strength. And so then will the fear they can cause in the others. Our numbers will increase.... We have only begun.

Once the Beanes start to procreate, things get sketch as eff. Meg gives birth yearly. The children have no names but their jaws are strong. They function almost as one organism, moving and breathing in harmony. The children know no life other than that of the cave; they accept it as normal. Sawney rules as patriarch, of course, teaching his loathsome offspring that "the things are stupid.... It is very funny when they know they are dead." To his clan he spins a myth of the grey wolf of the forest, a tale he remembers from his hazy youth: the wolf is both his own father and he, the supreme predator of the dark woods. The children lie in wait in lonely roads, one pretending to be injured, perhaps, to lure the unsuspecting travelers to aid; then father pounces. The eldest son wants dearly to be a hunter like his father, and the younger children want to partake in the kills on their own. Sawney is not sure if they're ready... but he is willing to let them try.

(Maybe skip this section if you want to experience the book for yourself) If you thought murder and cannibalism were the deepest depravities Flesh Eaters was going to plumb then you've thought wrong. There is rape and incest, and, in one dizzying moment of pure outsider horror, Morse notes the undercurrent of sexuality in the family... sexual energy crackles through the cave; the smell of lust is heavy. Like a pack of wild dogs, the family couples at every opportunity. All but the youngest children are involved, and these imitate their elders, pressing their naked loins together, thrusting their hips in a parody of the sexual act. Holy Jeezus.

They exist apart from human notions of morality or value; again and again Morse notes the uselessness of money and clothes and other "booty" accrued from their victims. "It's shit," Sawney Beane says more than once, tossing away gold coins and fine clothing, "all that belongs to them is shit. This is why they are weak." Morse crafts these scenarios for maximum impact with minimum stylized force: he doesn't overwrite or oversell his disturbing visions; his plain, unadorned prose simply documents horrific events but does not comment on them. Victims rarely have identity; those that do serve a larger purpose to the plot.

The only image of author Morse found

There is more to the novel than these grotesqueries of appetite and destruction:  the townspeople hear of more and more traveler disappearances (the story takes place over two decades). Their idiot Sheriff is lazy, not very smart except when it comes to avoiding difficulties, cowardly, and inordinately fond of his own voice. Perhaps it is a demon responsible? A priest is called. No luck. Several innocent men are accused of devil worship and human sacrifice after a rotted arm is found washed ashore; the men are tortured to confess and executed (the classic "throw the accused in the water, if he drowns he is innocent" is employed to sad effect). Morse gets good mileage out of dry political satire in these instances. Finally the King is involved, a search party started, and the noose begins to tighten around the Sawney Beane clan.

This brief work—just over 200 pages—has power and pull; you'll read it quick as Morse goes straight for the jugular with his clean prose shaved to the bone (he was also the author of several hard-boiled crime novels and won an Edgar Award). Don't let that Frazetta cover fool you: this is no tale of dark fantasy or thrilling adventure; it is all too prosaically real. Like Jack Ketchum, whose own landmark work of stark yet extreme horror Off Season (1981) was almost surely inspired by this novel, Morse notes depravity with clarity but does not linger or cheapen. Flesh Eaters is perhaps not a book for every horror fan, but it is a must for every horror fan who likes horror fiction nasty, brutish, and short. Get your hands on this book, devour and enjoy.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell: The Cover Art of Peter Caras

Peter Caras (b. 1941) is a long-time and well-respected illustrator and graphic designer whose paperback cover artwork dates back to the 1960s. Inspired by the great Rockwell and mentored by James Bama, it's cool to see their styles mingled in pulpy yet highly skilled art. Much, if not most, of Caras's output was in genres I have never followed: Westerns, spy thrillers, adventure yarns, historical novels, young adult fiction, modern romances, pulpy erotica, and superhero novelizations. Appreciate his attention to the realistic detail of tormented faces, menacing leers (almost Kubrickian!), to contrasting design, and the vivid use of light and shadow. Despite his prominence in other genres, there can be no doubt Caras is a master of the paperback horror cover.

Two fairly recognizable covers for paperbacks by one Duffy Stein, The Owlsfane Horror (Dell, Nov 1981) and Ghost Child (Dell, 1982). Word is these are disposable, mediocre novels, but I gotta have them on my shelf anyway.

(thanks to La Creeperie for this stepback image)

Effigies from 1980 was one of my favorite reads of 2016. How can you not love this cover and its stepback revealing the shocking evil that lurks behind an innocent visage. Virtually perfect.

Total '60s style for this 1967 Paperback Library Black Magic Library of Terror (some kind of series, unknown number of volumes, that I'm trying to track down).

I've heard goods things about Predators (1987), I mean Nelson DeMille, trusted name in horror. Below is a smattering of various '80s titles, including one TMHF classic, 1987's Finishing Touches from the terrific Tom Tessier.

Review of this paperback coming soon!

Now the following covers are ones I was unable to find precise credit as being by Caras; however I think you'll agree after having seen Caras's style that the odds are excellent these are by him. If anyone knows otherwise, let me know.

You can see more of Peter Caras's non-horror work here.