I rather wish that the stories in The Smell of Evil were more in line with the moody, melancholy vibe of the paperback cover for the 1969 Award Books edition. Instead, British-born author Charles Birkin (1907 - 1985) offers up blistering contes cruels with a kind of demented genius; there's not a moment of moodiness or atmosphere anywhere at all. Editor Dennis Wheatley perceptively notes in his intro, however: "Young writers are
always sadly handicapped by lack of experience; whereas anyone who has
been through a war, met a great many people in all walks of life and had
to face a number of crises on their own, must have automatically
acquired a wide knowledge of places, events, unusual happenings and
varied emotions. Charles Birkin has this advantage...."
This is all true, no doubt. The wide-ranging settings and types of characters are a pleasure appreciated (in fact I was put in mind of Barker's approach to Books of Blood 20 years later) and well-deployed. The baker's dozen of tales contained are ingenious clockwork toys, ready
to snap and trap hapless folks within their merciless jaws. Which story
element, I wondered while I read, will be the tripwire? I wanted to like the stories more than I did; I didn't mind that for
many I could guess the twist; or the dated sociopolitical stances; or the lack of the supernatural (featured in a couple tales, and not very original at that). What I minded was the unremitting cruelty, the vagaries of fate that scoop characters up to dash them upon the rocks, the utter misanthropic (and often sexist and racist and homophobic) nature of each and every tale.
It's not that I dislike that merciless ironic last sentence-style reveal of an unimaginable horror; Birkin does it very well. But a whole book full of them makes for some dispiriting reading. Perhaps if I'd read a story here and there—indeed, I first read the title story over two years ago and enjoyed it on its own—I'd have been more satisfied. I don't know. Anyway, there were some positives. In "The Smell of Evil" a novelist on an island holiday learns of a horrific
scheme to bilk a young mute heiress out of her inheritance. It's the
only first-persona narrated work in the collection; its denouement
benefits greatly from the technique, a reaction of rage against an unconscionable breach of trust.
"Text for Today" is a silly trifle of literal cannibalism set in Papua New Guinea; "The Godmothers" is kitchen-sink realism without mercy as it puts a child in grave danger. "Green Fingers" was my favorite of all: a well-observed story of a WWII Nazi officer and the unsuspecting woman he coolly romances. The twist crept up on me slowly as Birkin takes his time setting it up with an unforgiving depiction of self-deception and willful delusions. The original nature of zombies features in "Ballet Nègre" but feels icky for other reasons. "The Lesson" is kind of like a "Mad Men" party gone horrifically wrong (don't get drunk around children), while "'Is Anybody There?'" flirts with ghosts and psychic drama in an agreeable way. The brutal climax of "The Serum of Dr. White" is bitter and hopeless as a mysterious doctor attempts to treat a disfigured young girl.
Tandem UK edition, 1965
The teenage ruffians of "'Dance Little Lady'" could be right out of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, but they go down one of the darkest paths known to humanity. The whisper of otherworldliness works well in "Little Boy Blue," another family on a holiday that ends in tragedy. "The Cornered Beast," meh, freak-show escapee. "The Interloper" is quite good in and of itself but its sexual politics are, um, troublesome: a tropical island of lesbians who've left civilization and men behind deal with a wounded man who stumbles ashore. At first it seems Birkin is showing some sympathy to women who've endured such humiliation and violence at the hands of men; the climax reveals otherwise, I think.
The final story, "The Cross," is a predictable bit of science-fiction that uses nonsense words to hide its turnabout. It's been done before. Throughout, Birkin's prose is unfailingly British: crisp, precise, mature, stuffy sometimes and irreverent at others. Fine with me. It's just that, as I said, the unforgiving quality, the bleak ends and meaningless deaths, the utter lack of humor, scares, wit, and/or creepiness (that Tandem UK paperback cover is irrelevant as well) add up to a work I'm not sure I'd recommend to readers of traditional horror fiction. Proceed, if at all, with caution.
Perhaps taking its inspiration from the Dell/Abyss line of the early 1990s, RPG publisher White Wolf introduced a line of kinda-sorta horror novels under the imprint Borealis. Beginning in 1994, these well-produced (and ecologically-minded!) paperbacks often featured cover art that resembled Dave McKean's cover art for Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics. At the time I was working in a bookstore in Raleigh, NC, and plenty of their titles caught my eye but, for whatever reason, I never read any (I did buy their reprints of the Borderlands series—with actual McKean cover art). How many times did I pick up a copy of Résumé with Monsters (April 1996), intrigued by that blurb about Woody Allen writing a Cthulhu Mythos novel? Plenty. Finally took the plunge and found William Browning Spencer's novel to be fun, smart, dark, sensitive, and ridiculous in near-equal measures. An engaging read, I enjoyed it more as a quirky little '90s novel than as a serious work of horror fiction.
As a satire of the insane, life-depleting demands office drudge-work makes of its "victims," RwM predated pop-culture giants like Office Space and "The Office," and so it might not have the same bite today as it did 20 years back. The novel uses Mythos ideas and terminology in an almost-too-glib manner at first; this might be a turnoff for some readers. Stick with it: Spencer fleshes the old ideas out with some new ones, giving them a contemporary weight and implication. Not scary or horrifying, mind you, just weighty. Heavy, man.
There's an autobiographical tone to the tale, which is fine with me; this story feels lived: it's set in Austin ("a laid-back town, the last refuge for hordes of aging hippies who drifted up and down the Drag, gray-bearded artifacts who knew all the lyrics to old Leonard Cohen songs"), our protagonist 45-year-old Philip Kenan, who works as a typesetter in a dreary industrial park office run by a micromanaging boss named Pederson, and pines mightily for his ex Amelia Price. Oh, yeah, also he's afraid of ancient encroaching entities Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth.
His coworkers are drones, he has few friends, and his novel he's been writing for years, The Despicable Quest, seems to be unfinishable. Philip, as they say, can't catch a break. Looking for someone to help order his cluttered thoughts, he seeks help in the ads of a weekly paper and there finds Lily Metcalf, an aged hippy who lends a non-judgmental ear. She doesn't blanch when he blurts out that "Hideous, cone-shaped creatures from outer space are going to leap, telepathically, across six hundred million years and destroy human civilization."
Spencer provides flashbacks to Philip's past interspersed them with the present: a father who reads him Weird Tales but who hits Philip's mother when he's drunk; a neighbor who pays him to swim naked in his pool. Philip's first marriage was to Emily, a painter; together they'd lived a perfect kind of late '60s life: listening to Dylan, playing folks instruments, smoking dope, going to political protests in DC, trying to live as artists (he's gonna write a first novel that will make Norman Mailer jealous). This doesn't happen. Emily ODs and dies; Philip ends up at corporate giant Micromeg in Virginia. This is where he meets Amelia. This relationship is mostly wonderful but she hates hates hates the Lovecraftian novel he's working on and what it does to his psyche. Philip and Amelia split too; she heads to Austin and Philip follows, taking another desultory job at Ralph's One-Day Résumés. He and Amelia speak often in guarded, cautious words; she speaks mostly of her poor relationship with her sister, and oh, check it out, she got a job at Pelidyne, another faceless giant whose headquarters suggest hostile takeovers.
One of Philip's coworkers, Helga, is fired for getting physical in an argument with an "I Love Lucy" obsessive named Monica. Helga begins stalking Monica and one day runs her down in the parking lot with her car. Philip is also run down (of course), leg broken, hospitalized. Pederson calls: "If there's some way you could come in..." Unbelievably, Philip does go back to work before he's fully healed, sees mostly new employees (except for 60-year-old Al Bingham, a sanguine avuncular philosopher), but Monica is back too, stitched and scarred and utterly different. Nothing more about "I Love Lucy" and in fact she professes her love to Philip. Then she attacks him with a knife and Philip realizes, thanks to some nightmares, she is under an alien sway. Confrontation ensues—"an animate darkness, trembling with malevolent rage, it recognized Philip"—he blacks out, and wakes to find:
What happened to [him] was similar to the fate suffered by the narrator of Lovecraft's The Shadow Out of Time. The Great Race had, in the case of that unfortunate man (a professor at Miskatonic University), hurled him back across millions of years to reside in a monstrous, alien body.
In Philip's case, the time leap was only a matter of a few years, and he had landed in his own body.
O the ignominy! This means he's going to have to relive every crappy job he's ever had.
It's at this halfway point that the HPL stuff really ramps up, and we learn what really runs this corporate world, the one Philip's dad drunkenly called "the System." It's the mind-bending amorality of the Old Ones and their hunger for domination, it'll grind you down to a nothing, "Don't let the System eat your soul," or worse, make you a mindless slave working for the profit of a thankless leader. And just after he's gotten a call from one of the best independent publishers in New York interested in putting out his novel!
The second half of RwM gets a bit wonkier as Philip flips back and forth in his lifetime, a Christian terrorist shows up and must be stopped, Philip's novel is published and a comely fan arrives on his doorstep, and he continues his therapy with Lily (who's started a relationship with Al). There's some derring-do and more Mythos madness. But there is no attempt to truly imbue Lovecraftian awe in the story—which is fine; Spencer's usage of Mythos icons is unique: to satirize American corporate work culture. Wait till you get to the nameless rituals of the Xerox and fax machines!
In fact, the author I felt loomed largest was not HPL but another giant of genre fiction, and one who, like HPL, has seen his posthumous
reputation grow and grow to world status: Philip K. Dick (oh, and in that cover blurb change "Woody Allen" to "Albert Brooks." Seriously). I'm no PKD expert by any
means (even less so Vonnegut but he's peeking out of the pages too I believe) but over the years I've read at least half a dozen of his major
works, and the ones RwM put me in mind of are his later, even
last, novels. These works feature lonely, literate, arty men and women searching for clues and symbols to understand their loneliness, their regret, the passage of time, while weird time-hiccups entwine themselves with the everyday. This was a welcome surprise to me while I read. There's a countercultural undercurrent too in RwM that reminds me of Dick, of that vague sense of having our revolutionary days behind us, and did they mean anything at all? Philip fights that self-pity, fights the worst monsters of our minds, fights against the meaningless of the cosmos, and realizes that even in the very name of Lovecraft there is the most profound meaning of all.
Spent my Sunday morning with coffee while Googling forgotten horror fiction and discovered this astrology-based paperback series (ah, the '70s!) titled Horrorscope (Pinnacle Books). Author Robert Lory, known for his Dracula Horror Series, mined one of that decade's many pseudoscientific obsessions. Horrorscope apparently only lasted four titles (looks like a fifth was published in Germany only); don't know what happened to the other eight signs of the zodiac! One can only imagine the rest of the series...
I couldn't find cover artist info but I think it's a safe guess to posit John Holmes, a British artist whose bizarre illustrations adorned H.P. Lovecraft Ballantine paperbacks around the same time.
Looking for a forgotten horror novel or short story? Remember the cheesy paperback art but not who wrote the book? Send me an email at toomuchhorrorfiction[at]gmail.com describing it and if I don't know it, one of my readers might!
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