Friday, January 13, 2017

RIP William Peter Blatty (1928 - 2017)

Exorcist scribe William Peter Blatty has died, less than a week after his 89th birthday. If you've only seen the movie, do yourself a favor and read the novel too. It's truly astounding and deserves its legendary status.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Yellow Fog by Les Daniels (1988): Blood and Tears

Now here's a Stephen King paperback blurb you can believe! Author Les Daniels (1943-2011) had been writing his series of historical vampire novels for about a decade, all featuring the "protagonist"  Don Sebastian Villanueva, an immortal Spanish nobleman. Yellow Fog (Tor Books, August 1988/cover by Maren) was originally published in 1986 by specialty genre publisher Donald M. Grant (see cover below) and is the second-to-last in the series. The only other novel of his I've read is the last one, No Blood Spilled (1991), which I quite enjoyed. In fact I wished Daniels had written more of these! Daniels has lively way with common classic monster tropes, delivered in the fond, knowing manner of someone well-acquainted with them. Yellow Fog is highly reminiscent of Charles Grant's Universal Monsters series (also published by Donald M. Grant) but surpasses that because Daniels is a much, much livelier writer, engaging the reader with effortlessly-drawn characters and setting.

To begin: after an intense train crash prologue in 1835 that leaves one survivor, we move forward to 1847 and meet twenty-ish Londoner Reginald Callender, a callow, immature, shallow, and greedy fellow. Rather than being a unlikable protagonist, Reggie (how he hates that diminutive!) provides much delight for the reader as he is repeatedly confounded in his efforts to secure vast wealth at his own minimum cost. His rich uncle William Callender, he of upper-crust London country clubs, of wealth and taste and hidden vice, has shuffled off this mortal coil, which doesn't upset Reginald overmuch as he stands to inherit the old man's hard-earned money. And yet that is not to be. Even though betrothed to the lovely Felicia Marsh, a young woman with her own inheritance—and the survivor of that earlier train crash— Reginald is beside himself with frustrated greed when he learns Uncle W. left behind nothing save enough to cover his (extensive) funerary, legal, and my-mistresses-shall-be-cared-for-after-I'm-gone costs.

Felicia, as well as her middle-aged Aunt Penelope, are intrigued by all manner of the occult, superstition, and questions of life after death. "Death is only a passage," Felicia tells a nonplussed Callender after his uncle dies, "A journey to another land." She speaks of a man named Newcastle, who can communicate with spirits, and invites Callender along with her and Auntie to one of his seances. Grumbling at the indignity of a betrothed who believes such nonsense, Callender goes along. He's taken aback by this Sebastian Newcastle: clad in black, drooping black mustache on a scarred white face, inviting them into his darkened home lit only by candlelight. The creepy seance that follows, in which Uncle W., in all his irascibility, appears, does nothing to convince Callender that Newcastle isn't a fraud after Felicia's inheritance. Neither does Callender realize that Newcastle is, the astute reader will have noticed, a real live vampire.

Callender, suspicious as only a crook can be, hires a former "runner," a kind of private detective, named Samuel Sayer, to look into the elusive Newcastle. Callender learns of Sayer through Sally Wood, a nightclub singer and dancer, a woman of "cheerful disarray" who would not do as a wife but does great as a mistress (but of course) and who is fond of a new work of fiction titled Varney the Vampyre ("Sounds deucedly unpleasant to me," he sniffs). A wonderful scene ensues of Callender tracking Sayer down at The Black Dog, a dingy bar of ill repute, and later Sayer explains who, and what, he is, and what he does and how. It's a great bit of political theater, a hard-bitten old gent explaining things to a clueless snob.

"A pup like you has no idea what London was like before there was such a thing as a Bow Street runner. Nobody to enforce the law at all... [the runners were] men who were as sly and strong and ruthless as the thieves and murderers they were hired to catch. And I was one of 'em!"

 Donald M. Grant hardcover, 1986, art by Frank Villano

A visit to Madame Tussaud's House of Horrors thrills and chills Aunt Penelope and Felicia as they are accompanied there by Mr. Newcastle, Callender muttering behind the latter two as they view torture instruments and waxen murderers. Then out steps aged Mme. Tussaud herself, who takes one look at Newcastle and states, "Have we not met, sir?... There were stories in Paris, when the revolution raged, about a magician, one who had found a way to keep himself alive forever." Newcastle, polite and deferential as all get-out, engages her in an ironic conversation that Callender can barely stand. The nerve of this guy! Sayer really better be worth it, he's thinking. Of course you can probably guess what happens to Sayer, and to Felicia as she's drawn under Newcastle's spell. Or is she? Perhaps she goes willingly, to see the other side...

Of course you may be able to guess what happens a lot of the time. That's rather the enjoyment factor in Daniels's work. He doesn't belabor readers with details they can fill in themselves: the stinking fog-enshrouded cobblestone streets of early 19th century London; a dank, frigid dock on the Thames; a derelict bar; the Gothic horror/romance of a church graveyard haunted by the shades of the dead; the candlelit drawing room during a seance. Sketched briefly, these settings are perfect for the characters that inhabit them. Sharp dialogue and keenly-observed human folly Daniels does quite well, and his knack for plot, short chapters that clearly advance the narrative, are quite welcome; moments of dramatic confrontation are scattered throughout the book, satisfying hooks of grue that propel readers forward. Daniels could have in my opinion been quite a scriptwriter.

Raven UK paperback 1995, art by Les Edwards

Weaving interesting historical trivia into an larger story to add color and background isn't always easy; it can read too much like an encyclopedia entry. Daniels knows, and does, better. In Yellow Fog, readers will learn a bit about the origins of England's professional police force, the class distinctions relevant to it, and find it all fits with the larger tale of vampirism, greed, and desire (Daniels shrewdly compares Callender's incipient alcoholism to the vampire's bloodthirst). I read the novel over two cold, rainy days, listening to John Williams's score for the 1979 Dracula, and I consider it time well-spent.

Early on the notion struck me that, considering the familiar scenario, that Yellow Fog was a cozy-horror. Unlike the cozy-mystery, there is violence, and sex, fairly explicit, but in such a way that is easily digestible; Daniels is not upending decades of horror convention, he is simply utilizing them in a satisfying, understanding manner. You know what you're getting, you get it, maybe a little bit extra, but it's all been seen before... which is precisely the point. Sayer's meeting with Newcastle, Callender meeting Sally at novel's end: both provide the serious horror creeps. The finale sets up No Blood Spilled, I guess at some point I'm gonna go back and read the previous installments, see what I missed.

Origins of cover art: in El Vampiro (1957)

This is horror comfort food, if you will. When you want mom's mashed potatoes, or grandma's mac n' cheese, nothing else will do; when you want a Universal or Hammer-style vampire story, that's what you want and no revisionist take will do. Okay, there's some Anne Rice-style eroticism tinged with immortal regret, but you had that first in Universal Dracula's Daughter way back in '36. Daniels knows what's up.

Then they were on the carpet, her carefully coiffed pale hair spilled upon its darkness, her gown in disarray, her body throbbing with delight and dread. She felt an ecstasy of fear, stunned more by the desires of her flesh than by the small, sweet sting she felt as he sank into her and life flowed between them... She took life and love and death and made them one... 
She was at peace, but Sebastian knew that she would rise full of dark desire when the next sun set. 
His tears, when they came, were tinged with her bright blood.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Razored Saddles, ed. by Joe Lansdale & Pat LoBrutto (1989): One-Half Hillbilly and One-Half Punk

Boasting cover art that strikes a sweet spot between absurd and awesome, the wonderfully-titled Razored Saddles (Avon Books paperback, October 1990) rustles up a heap of horror/SF/western/whatever short fiction to boot. Edited by the always-welcome Texan Joe R. Lansdale and co-conspirator Pat LoBrutto, the anthology collects a hatful of recognizable genre names of the day, plus a few new to almost anybody. I remember this tome way back when thanks to that cover (thanks to Lee MacCleod) and its regrettable joke categorization on the spine, "cowpunk." But Western-themed anything had always been low in my interest level, and it pains me to say that my holiday reading of Razored Saddles reminded me why.

Lansdale and McCammon, c. 1990

Another of Robert McCammon's pleasant, inoffensive horror tales, "Black Boots," begins the anthology. A cowboy is being followed across the desert by a gunslinger wearing the titular objects. He stops in a dusty small "town" to drink some watered-down whiskey but soon sees "Black Boots" at the door of the saloon. Ironic tragedy follows. Its touches of surrealism are well-noted, but McCammon's simplistic style neuters the creepiness and final twist.

"Thirteen Days of Glory" by Scott A. Cupp upends a famous Western showdown with a decidedly transgressive aspect. Freedom must be for everyone or for none at all. Not bad, rather daring, probably offensive to some and liberating for others. Cupp's story is engaging and yet sad, one of the few here that are memorable.

"Gold" by Lewis Shiner is strong, well-told, tinged by magic-realism (a style much favored by genre writerly-writers), set in Creole swamps with strong characterization, but it ends with a damp whimper as it goes into mind-numbing financial details. A huge letdown.

Pulphouse Paperbacks, 1991, art by Doug Herring

David J. Schow's "Sedalia" is just... weird. Not fun weird, not weird weird, but just kinda what? weird, a proto-bizarro tale of ghost dinosaurs, maybe some kind of fossil fuel metaphor. Taking its title from the old-as-dinosaurs TV show "Rawhide," we've got "drovers" herding those ghost dinos in some future Los Angeles. It's marred by juvenile talk of dinosaur poop and incomprehensible politics, although I appreciated the fact that characters refuse to call a brontosaurus an apatosaurus as it "seemed too-too." 2015 showed that was correct.

Introduced by the editors as a bit of "Weird Tales" or EC Comics, Ardath Mayhar's "Trapline" is precisely that: a fur-trapper and a gory comeuppance. Sure, why not, whatever. The late Melissa Mia Hall, whose short fiction I've enjoyed in the past, contributes "Stampede," about a single mom and her obnoxious brood and her attempts to raise them right. Realism to spare, sure, but wow those kids suck.

Dark Harvest 1989 hardcover, art by Rick Araluce

Two of my least favorite '80s horror writers, F. Paul Wilson and Richard Laymon, join the rodeo but get bucked off. Respectively, "The Tenth Toe" and "Dinker's Pond" aren't as bad as some works I've read by these guys, but they're both flat and immature, corny and obvious. Several names were new to me, even for a almost-30-year-old anthology: Lenore Carroll, whose "Eldon's Penitente," with its theme of pain, suffering, loss, and guilt, is rather memorable; and Robert Petitt, who swipes Lansdale's title and uses it all-too-literally in an SF tale.

Science fiction features in Al Sarrantonio's "Trail of the Chromium Bandits" and Gary Raisor's "Empty Places." Neither did anything for me, although the latter's mawkishness struck me as particularly lame and derivative of both Lansdale and Ray Bradbury. Neal Barrett Jr's tale of a Native criminal "Tony Red Dog" reads like Elmore Leonard-lite when it is readable at all, which it isn't mostly thanks to a constant barrage of character first and last names. Howard Waldrop's metafictional academic treatise on Western movies, "The Passing of the Western," strains even the most patient reader with its faux film history. God it was a grind getting through these stories.

The final three tales offer some surprises. Lansdale's own story, "The Job," is a mean little bugger with a nasty twist, a pre-Tarantino riff about two articulate killers and their unexpected target. I hope you like racist slurs, though. Richard Christian Matheson offers "I'm Always Here," with his usual pared-down prose, utilized here to solid effect in a story about a dying country singer in the Hank Williams mold finds a new lease on life. It's way better than most of the stories in Matheson's Scars. And for the finale, there's Chet Williamson and his too-cutely titled "'Yore Skin's Jes's So Soft 'n Purty...'" Man, there's a horrific climax waiting for you here.

That "cowpunk" novelty can't sustain an entire anthology, and the few tales here that I kind of enjoyed aren't essential reads by any means. I know every author has more and better work elsewhere; head out on the trail searching for those doggies, and let Razored Saddles fade into the sunset.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Ramsey Campbell Born on This Date, 1946

Greetings 2017! Let's start the new year appreciating Ramsey Campbell and the paperback covers for the UK editions of his books. Of course several years ago I posted the US Tor covers. Enjoy them all!

PS: Working on a new review of a late-'80s anthology I read over the holidays. Did not enjoy it at all but wanted to start the new year on a more positive note.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Homing by Jeffrey Campbell (1980): I'm Not a Prisoner I'm a Free Man

Middling mainstream thriller with touches of Stepford Wives and Thomas Tessier's psychological ambiguities, The Homing (Ballantine Books, 1981) was written under the pseudonym Jeffrey Campbell, in actuality authors Campbell Black and Jeffrey Caine. First I found it rather entertaining, at times an ingenious puzzle, an enigma as one man tries to sort out dreams, memories, and reality through various coincidences and correspondences in the quietest little country town ever. But as the first notes of "medical thriller" began to tinkle, however, my interest began to fade, although the writing alone was engaging enough to keep me going.

Our protagonist, Manhattanite George Kenner, is trying to reconnect with his beloved daughter, once a promising psychology student but now content to live in this one-horse town of Chilton as a one-dimensional housewife married to a dopey well-meaning dork. In fact everyone in town is a boring homebody, and it chafes Kenner terribly that his daughter Katherine, with whom he'd shared private jokes and intelligent conversation as she grew up, should find herself at home amongst them. These folks are, to Kenner, committing the worst sin ever: they're fucking boring beyond belief. His acerbic wit is lost on these dullards!

1980 Putnam hardcover
50 cents at Woolworth's. Seems about right.

Not everyone is so harmless, though: there's the cop with that crooked grin and an ironic tone (irony being in short supply in Chilton), there's the old drunk who begs for a ride out of town, or the teenage hitchhiker harassed by that same cop. And yet nothing too terribly scary or even eerie happens, and it should have. Kenner's bouts of dreamy déjà vu are mysterious, clues placed here and there but just out of reach, and his enlistment of Katherine's former professor Elaine Stromberg allows for decent romantic interplay. Cue the suspicion, the research trip, the car chase, the revelation. But nothing scary or even really eerie happens. That '70s paranoia/conspiracy theory vibe is in full effect (it's been years since I've seen it but 1966's Seconds had to be an influence) but never seems to hit hard enough, alas. The authors seem to have been phoning it in (as was the cover designer). I bet this is the kind of case Mulder and Scully would've solved before the hour was up. You've seen and read this story before. Don't bother again.

1992 UK paperback

Friday, December 16, 2016

Philip K. Dick Born on This Date, 1928

One of my favorite non-horror writers whose vintage paperbacks I dig collecting is the esteemed science fiction giant Philip K. Dick. He had dozens of novels and collections published by numerous publishers over several decades and I haven't even read all the ones I own, so yeah, there's lots to look forward to!

Philip Kindred Dick (1928 - 1982)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Shirley Jackson Born on This Date, 1916

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Shirley Jackson. If you've never seen this 1969 short film adaptation of her classic 1948 short story "The Lottery," do yourself a favor and watch it! Wow I can still remember the chills it gave me when I watched it in my 9th grade English class. Read Jackson's obituary from the New York Times as well... her reputation was secure even in 1965.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Effigies by William K. Wells (1980): Don't Shake Me Lucifer

First things first: this might be the most soused horror novel I've ever read. Everybody's always topping off their drink, or sneaking one, or suggesting they grab one together and talk, or exclaiming they need one. They're drinking while they're frantic with worry and dread over the horrible things happening to their town of Holland County and to their family members. One guy's drinking during a seance! It's like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf up in here. This is all okay with me. Effigies (Dell Books, November 1980), with its cover of a leering visage and its lurid stepback, looks like just another creepy satanic kid paperback original of its day, with a no-name author (sorry, William K. Wells!) and lacking even the most rudimentary of relevant blurbs (what, no "Scarier than The Exorcist!", no "More shocking than The Other!", no "Makes Rosemary's Baby look like Love Story!"?). Seems like a real, well, loser. Yet I totes dug it and I did not expect to totes dig it.

The story proper: a young suburban mother, Nicole Bannister, a children's book author and illustrator, receives a terrible shock when she finds a package delivered to her contains a child's amputated finger. While police chief Frank Liscomb and medical examiner Thomas Blauvelt begin their investigation looking for a dead body, rumors start to fly in this upscale artist community that there's witchy satanic coven up in the woods, a spot called Job's Camp, occupied by young itinerants who a few years before would've been called hippies. Now they're seen—well, one of them, a crude, abusive yet charismatic 20-something named Freddie Loftus, is seen as a Charles Manson follower, perhaps eager to start his own murderous cult...

Lots of characters, get ready: Nicole's husband Jonathan, a commercial artist working in the (dangerous) city; his colleague Henry Dixon, a bitter drunk whose tipple is Boodles gin (crime readers may note this was Travis McGee's drink as well); Dixon's wife Estelle, who feels intellectually inferior in this environments of creatives, has been digging pseudoscience as of late and has discovered the Ouija board; Father Daniel Conant, a darkly handsome yet friendly, thoughtful young priest who wishes to help Nicole deal with her shock; Maria Braithwaite, a worldly European sophisticate who eyes Americans as shallow and impulsive; Judge Oliver Marquith, expansive and greedy, eager to purchase the plot of land called Job's Camp; and more. Also: little Leslie Bannister, the girl on the cover, whose invisible playmates bode unwell for her and well everyone; babysitter Susan Dixon, who straddles the line between dutiful daughter and drug and sex experimenter up in the woods; Ken Brady, maybe her boyfriend, maybe not, he hangs around too much with that creep Freddie Loftus.

Also, weird natural stuff is happening in town: the oppressive heat, the appearance of giant beetles and rattlesnakes, darkening skies, your general gloom and doom ("There seemed to be a giant pall over Holland County, like a tarpaulin covering an open grave"). To get Nicole's mind off all the unpleasantness, Jonathan throws her a birthday party and everybody's there having a high old time. One guy talks about the book he's gonna write, another declares Wertmuller can't compare to Herzog, another simply must get this recipe, and what about the "sex orgies" and LSD up in Job's Camp? Estelle and Maria and Father Conant talk about seances. Dixon gets drunk. Presents for Nicole are opened: lots of booze to ensure the party continues. And then one present in particular that no one recognizes and you can probably guess what's coming. 

Still reeling from that one present that turned a great party into a bummer one, the people who attended are encouraged by Estelle to attend a seance in which she will be the medium. Oh man you know that's not gonna turn out well. And it doesn't. Roaring tornado winds invade the house, lots of screaming in Latin, a spirit named Elvida makes contact ("I am young but old, I am alive but dead, I am flesh but not flesh") and not everyone makes it out alive. A grand set-piece of terrific mayhem, it was great sequence for this horror fan.

Meanwhile Freddie is holding his stoned gang up in the woods spellbound with his "sermons" on the illusory constructs of good and evil. Soon they're gonna have a special night where all boundaries are crossed (wait till you get a load of "the pentagon"!). This night of Rites ends in a climax of sacrifice, violent sex, and whatnot. But of course! It sends Blauvelt and Liscomb into more frantic efforts to find out who Freddie Loftus really is, and if he's behind the gruesome packages sent to Nicole Bannister. Wells takes his time drawing it all together—Effigies is not quite 500 pages—and there are ugly, guilty revelations a-plenty about Freddie, about Nicole, about Father Conant to come. The title too will become clear. Disgustingly, bizarrely, satanically so.

While it's not a great horror novel by any means, Effigies provided me with some solid hours of reading enjoyment, probably because I was expecting so little. I never once went "Oh come on!" or "Are you kidding me?" or rolled my eyes at a clunky descriptive phrase, an amateur analogy, or a wooden exclamation like one too often finds in horror paperbacks—Wells, whoever he is, is a serviceable writer. The death and degradation of the '60s revolutionary spirit is part of the novel's setup, and Wells does a nice background sketch of the era, how the '70s came on and slowly laid waste to those ideals. I did not get a sense of "You kids get off my lawn!" from the author's stance; seemed fairly judgment-free to me. Everybody felt this way after Manson, no? Maybe the author was saying something about how those lofty ideals, once corrupted by time and age and carnal pleasures and the lure of society at large, opened up a place for evil to slip in. But the Church also has its faultlines ripe for exploitation. What difference is there between Freddie Loftus and Father Conant? 

And while satanic/occult horror is one of my least favorite styles of horror, here, for me, it just seemed to work. Many sequences would have lent themselves well to a sleazy '70s or '80s horror flick, especially the seance(s) and the climax(es); shame nobody got on that. One problem is that the cast of characters remain somewhat vague; Wells could've filled in some more detailed specifics about each one, some apt note of behavior or thought or motivation that differentiated them. Sometimes I had trouble identifying some of the minor players. The ending satisfies but just maybe could've hit a note of horror I was imagining. But there's also lots of vintage goodies to enjoy, a mood of fatalism, plenty of post-Exorcist foulness (the passages from "The Journal of a Satanist" are metal as fuck) and even a couple scenes of straight-up hippie/demonic porno! Yee-ikes. Yep, Effigies kinda brings it. If you'll pardon the pun, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

As jaded Maria Braithwaite muses perceptively:

How little Americans know about spiritualism, mystery, the inexplicable, the unforeseen... Astrology, yoga, Buddhism, meditation, all become fads, something to "do"... to show off like a new possession. Psychiatry had been twisted, warped, torn asunder and completely reshaped into a meaningless mass of pseudoscience... And now the American masses had lately discovered the occult. As though it had never been there in the first place! 
Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub were new characters in the American drama... 
What will these Americans do with their new fad?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Guardian by Jeffrey Konvitz (1979): Blinded Eyes to See

It was a few years back that I tried reading The Guardian (Bantam Books, Jan 1979), well before I knew it was actually Jeffrey Konvitz's sequel to his 1974 religious horror novel The Sentinel. I gave up pretty early on, after being bored to tears by the various involved and detailed church-y goings-on. Not my scene, man. The cover should've told me all I needed to know, I mean a creepy old nun with blank orbs for eyes. Dig the '70s hair on these folks, though. Did I miss anything by skipping this one?