Thursday, August 3, 2017

By Bizarre Hands by Joe R. Lansdale (1989): Apocalypse Wow

If you were a horror fiction reader in the late 1980s and paid attention to such things, you knew that Joe R. Lansdale was being marketed, if that's not too strong a word, in a manner not seen since probably Clive Barker. Their respective publishers knew, even if they couldn't put their finger on it exactly, that these writers were incredibly special (this has nothing to do with the individual styles of Barker and Lansdale, which are markedly different, only that they both went further, deeper, harder, than other even very good writers of that age did) and deserved to be widely read. Check out the cover copy, front and back, of By Bizarre Hands (Avon Books, Sept 1991): "Renegade Nightmare King"?! "May Be Hazardous to Your Health"?! These types of superlatives reach higher than the usual boilerplate encomium, and worked to entice readers who wanted more than just the latest humdrum hack horror.

I was ecstatic to be reading Lansdale for the first time in various anthologies; like many readers I'd never read anything like him. Sure there was the Vonnegut and the Twain, the Mencken and the Joe Bob Briggs, the King and the Matheson and the Bradbury, here and there a whiff of Elmore Leonard and Harry Crews (I noted these last two much later as I had not read them on my first encounter with Lansdale). But still there was something original, tough and sure and daring that sang beneath those familiar notes... and I wanted more.

Around '90 or so I paid big bucks for a signed copy of Joe's short story collection, the 1989 hardcover edition from specialty publisher Mark V. Ziesing. Consisting of his earliest as well as his major stories, I devoured it, loved it, but sometime later, during a bleak broke span during my college years, I had to sell off a major chunk of my limited-edition horror collection, so it was bye-bye By Bizarre. Ah well. Then a month or so ago a TMHF pal emailed a link to this Avon paperback edition from 1991, adorned with the same illustration as the hardcover, thanks to usual suspect JK Potter; it was in good shape and at a fair price, who doesn't love that. Sold! So it's great to have By Bizarre Hands back on my shelves. Couldn't wait to revisit Lansdale's singular landscape of horror, black humor, science fiction, crime, and whatever the hell else he puts in.

Lansdale often succeeds at impossible tasks, with setups that would make lesser writers blanch (or not even realize what deep waters they were in), and pulls them off with a tough, vulgar, self-conscious but not arch energy. He may wink at you but it's not a cute wink of "Hey we both know this is ridiculous" but a wink of devilish glee, acrobatic mischief, "You can't believe I'm getting away with this, can you?!" Like a sort of Tarzan swinging through the jungle hoping a vine will appear in the nick of time, you can't fault him because it all kinda takes your breath away even when his moves are occasionally clumsy or crude. His confidence and his trust in his own instincts, talent, character sketches, and unique vision thrills the reader, makes the reader forgive those tacky lapses scattered about (as if Lansdale were afraid of upsetting social niceties in the first place). YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Let's get to the goods, right from the opener. "Fish Night," hearkens back to Bradbury's love of dinosaurs and other creatures of our earth's past, but lacks any wide-eyed nostalgic innocence. Nostalgic for the ravenous extinct monstrous creatures which swam that prehistoric sea, perhaps... "Duck Hunt" satirizes male camaraderie and companionship, machismo and violence masquerading as such. The terrific title story was also published in the first Borderlands (1990); I wrote a little about it here. It's tasteless, sure, sometimes you think, "Jeez, Joe, I didn't need to know all that," but that's just Joe: he's gonna give it to you straight, maybe chase it with pickle juice and gasoline. Then light the match.

Ever read any of the Black Lizard pulp reprints from the 1980s? Not just Jim Thompson, but Dan J. Marlowe, David Goodis, Charles Willeford? Written with pulp muscle and refusal to sugar coat with any moralizing, Lansdale presents the criminal lifestyle as-is, no returns, no refunds. More than one tale here reminds me of those stark, sere, brutal crime novels, particularly "The Steel Valentine" and "The Pit." "I Tell You It's Love" revels in the romantic sadomasochism of James M. Cain. "Down By the Sea Near the Great Big Rock" is almost whimsical, a Gahan Wilson cartoon come to life. And three stories became three novels: "Boys Will Be Boys" part of The Nightrunners; "Hell Through a Windshield" is the beginnning of The Drive-In; "The Windstorm Passes" became The Magic Wagon. All are must-reads, both the stories here and the actual novels themselves.

One of the very best stories included is "Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back," the title alone which has bounced around in my head for 25 years even as the details faded, is a mean little masterpiece. It's funny, sad, disgusting, outrageous, insightful, empathetic, painful, humiliating, gory, unsettling, a near-effortless melange of SF and horror tropes. His weirdo SF is kinda mind-blowing. I'm not sure what apocalyptic authors Lansdale read—John Brunner? JG Ballard? John Wyndham?—but it's just powerhouse stuff nobody else could've written. Guilt, hatred, regret, only these human emotions survive the apocalypse, along with monstrous thorny vines and mutated animals. Behold the surreality:

The collection concludes with two of Joe's most infamous stories, late 1980s classics that made a splash then and still retain their power decades later: "Night They Missed the Horror Show" and "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folk." The former contains some of the ugliest, most blistering imagery and dialogue for its time, and isn't even really a "horror" story in the generic sense; it's the blackest of noir, maybe. Scorched earth policy here, a glimpse of unfettered human depravity and ignorance, outcast kin to the blistering art and exploitation of, say, Taxi Driver or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or James Ellroy's LA Quartet. If you haven't read "Night They Missed the Horror Show," I can't say you've missed a treat but you have missed a milestone in extreme fiction. The latter tale, from the zombie universe of George A. Romero (RIP!), is a long rambling road story of bounty hunters and the undead, plus lots of Bible talk (a staple of many a Lansdale), gunplay, and gore. You won't be scared but you will be impressed by its colorful energy.

New English Library, 1992

We all are aware of how unique voices can be forgotten, or become cult/fringe favorites, and never find a broader audience. Not so with Joe.  It's satisfying to know that today he has a bigger following than ever, with a movie and TV series adapted from his work (Cold in July and Hap & Leonard, respectively), and more and more award-winning novels. He is a friendly and supportive online presence as well. Reading Joe Lansdale is a free-for-all. For the adventurous, unsatisfied reader who demands more, more, more, I can say get your hands on By Bizarre Hands; it is an essential and uncompromising read.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco (1973): Ride Ride Ride in a Long Black Limousine

The house was absolutely essential, 
a vital part of herself 
which she recognized immediately. 

There's no getting around it, and if you've read  it (or seen the movie adaptation), I'd wager the most memorable aspect of Burnt Offerings (Dell Books/Mar 1974) by Robert Marasco has to be that chauffeur driving a limousine, a suave harbinger of luxurious death. One of the "four horseman" of the early 1970s horror apocalypse—you see the other three guilty parties named on this cover—Burnt Offerings is remembered only by the die-hard horror fans, but I'm not sure how beloved it is. Marasco's novel is a staid, stately, slow-burn exploration of domestic ruin; it offers the mildest of chills with the very occasional horror set-piece. It's a modified haunted-house novel; there are no ghosts, no rattling chains, but an overarching evil power nonetheless.

Marasco (1936 - 1998)

New York City sucked in the '70s and it sucked especially in the summer back when A/C wasn't a commonplace household item. Everyone was looking to get out (a bit of a theme in vintage horror) and if you could afford it, renting a summer home was tops. Knowing she can't spend another sweltering season in their Queens apartment, Marian Rolfe finds and shows her husband Ben an ad in the paper about a countryside home to rent "for the right people," (Ben hears a dog whistle and comments racist pigs but Marian is not dissuaded). Along with their young son David in tow, they drive the couple hours upstate, out of the city, and find a home, a mansion, an estate really, set back in foresty wilds. Towering above them, ballustraded and pavillioned and mullioined and multi-storeyed, it leaves the Rolfes with jaws agape. Yet on close inspection there is much wear and tear; a mortal sin, Marian thinks.

Once inside—even more astonishing than outside—they meet the caretaker Walker and then the eccentric Allardyce siblings, sixty-ish, who chat and charm and finally do the hard sell:

"And, God, Brother!" Miss Allardyce said, "—it comes alive—tell them that, tell them what it's like in the summer." 
"They wouldn't believe it... It's beyond anything you ever seen..."

But they needn't have bothered for Marian, and they even raise the price from the unbelievably low $700 for the summer to a still-unbelievable $900. And then comes the hitch, the hitch Ben has suspected: the Allardyces' "dear darling" Mother, "a woman solid as this rock of a house." She lives in an upstairs room, locked away, and will remain so even while the Rolfes live there. All you have to do, the Allardyces explain, is leave her a meal tray three times a day. They'll never even see her. No one who rented the house in previous summers—and there have been plenty!—ever saw her either. Surely there is nothing to be concerned about? Marian can sense the greatness beneath the disarray and disuse, the greatness that she can bring out and restore over their stay. And stay they do, even inviting along Ben's old yet still lively and independent Aunt Elizabeth.

Ben remains aloof from the house; an introspective, rational English teacher, he hopes to prepare for his fall courses but never seems to get around to it. For too long he cannot put his finger on the change in Marian's behavior. Marian becomes fascinated by the extensive photos of faces from Mother Allardyce's past which decorate her sitting room; Marian will sit there in a wingback chair when she delivers meals, rarely touched, to the old woman's bedroom door. That door is carved with elaborate decoration (referenced in cover art), shifting in the light, almost hypnotic. Soon Marian lies to both Ben and Aunt Elizabeth that she's actually spoken to and seen Mother, and then even begins eating her food....

Marian spends hours cleaning, polishing, dusting, rearranging, bringing the house to life, as it were. Clocks begin ticking again, the pool filter starts working, the neglected gardens spring back to lushness. A rift begin in the Rolfes' marriage ("Christ, it's a rented house, it's two months...." "Don't remind me."), and their sex life dissolves in several rather unpleasant scenes that are too tame to be truly disturbing (All Marian could think was "Let him come, for Christ's sake let him come. Now."). Things aren't good between little David and his parents: he and his father are playing around in the pool when Ben suddenly gets seriously violent, shocking poor Aunt Elizabeth who watches helplessly till David has to practically wallop his dad in the mouth with a diving mask. Afterwards, Ben feels like he's hallucinating, as an old image haunts him in reality:

There was a dream—the playback of an image really—which had been recurring, whenever he was on the verge of illness, ever since his childhood. The dream itself was  symptom of illness, as valid as an ache or a queasy feeling or a fever. The details were always the same: the throbbing first, like a heartbeat, which became the sound of motor idling; then the limousine; then, behind the tinted glass, the vague figure of the chauffeur.... What's death? —he'd have to say a black limousine with its motor idling and a chauffeur waiting behind the tinted glass.

1974 French edition

And poor little Davey! The astute reader will wonder why more emphasis wasn't put on his view of the proceedings. He hurts himself climbing on some rocks the very first visit to the house, his dad tries to kill him playing in the pool, his mom's hair turns grey then white, his beloved Aunt Elizabeth is showing her fragility more and more. One night, somehow, the gas in his room is turned on and he almost dies (again!) in a harrowing bit. Marian suspects Aunt Elizabeth, who's actually a sweet character and you hate to see her so upset by Marian's hints. Things don't go well for Elizabeth after that, but that does provide one of the novel's few shock scenes.

In distressed vain Ben watches his wife drift from him, the house assuming a larger and larger psychic area in her mind and in her life: "It is the house. As crazy as it sounds, I know it's the house." "How is that possible, Ben?" "I don't know." "If it were true, darling, if I could believe what you're saying—God, don't you think we'd leave? I'd drag us all out of here so fast. But it's a house, nothing more than a house...." So yes, as the novel begins its descent into the maelstrom, as it were, and we wonder like Marian what the deal is with Mother Allardyce, we're rather drained by all the steps we've taken to get here. We will meet her, in a way, and I found the climax—"Burn it! Burn it out of me!"—and denouement to be a satisfying, eerie conclusion, open-ended but fair play to the final line.

We have to remember this was a mainstream novel aimed at general readers who gobbled up, I dunno, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Love StoryValley of the DollsThe Flame and the Flower, you know the names, and not just those other apocalyptic horsemen. Modern readers may be frustrated with the holding-pattern narrative: too many implied threats, too many indecisive arguments, and experienced horror fans already know what's going on, what's been going on, but Marasco is not a genre writer, and there's nothing in Burnt Offerings that would make you think he'd  read any horror.

I felt the same about Blatty and The Exorcist, but Blatty is a much more powerful, visceral writer. Ira Levin would've used this scenario to score some ironic points about the expected role of women in married life, or the perils of being a renter. Tom Tryon might not have kept Mother Allardyce hidden away, or delved deeper into the physical and psychological obsessions. But as it is, Robert Marasco has written a quiet, polite "horror" novel decidedly of its time, with barest minimum notes of blood and madness. And I mean the bare minimum. I wish he'd gone darker, deeper, with the chauffeur and the limo; it's quite a creepy concept but still feels somehow reserved.

Personally I don't rate or enjoy Burnt Offerings as much as those three other works of the same era, nor similar titles like The House Next DoorThe Shining, or The Elementals. When I first read it back in 1994, I was deeply unimpressed. Then again I was reading some powerhouse stuff at the time: Haunting of Hill HouseOur Lady of DarknessGrimscribe, as I recall. This reread, I found it to be more agreeable, but it is not gonna scare the bejabbers out of you, nor is it unputdownable or scarifyingly chilling—all those quoted blurbs are so much PR hot air—but it is an integral work of the pre-King horror-bestseller era. Perhaps it is subtler and more sophisticated than I'm giving it credit for and my brain muscles are just atrophied from reading too much, well, horror fiction. While not a forgotten masterpiece, Burnt Offerings is a work that can reward the patient, thorough reader, and remains in print today. You could spend your summer worse places.

Valancourt Books, 2015

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Coming September 2017: Paperbacks from Hell!

For some years I've had TMHF readers asking if I was going to write a book about paperback horror fiction, and I've always shied away from the idea; I feel I write as a fan and amateur, not as any kind of professional critic. One day last spring, I received a message from author Grady Hendrix asking me if I'd be interested in working on a big project with him. I was intrigued; Grady and I had tag-teamed the Summer of Sleaze and Bloody Books of Halloween series in 2014 and then the Evil Eighties in 2015 over at, offering up reviews of some terrific lesser-known horror novels and writers on an unsuspecting readership. This time, however, Grady had a bigger idea: what about an entire book, complete with cover art and stepbacks, on the vintage era of horror fiction? How about that? And would I be interested in co-writing it with him and supplying covers from my own library? Would I?!

For the next few months we spoke on the phone discussing all aspects of the genre, the titles and the authors and the cover artists, the publishers, the themes and ideas and fads and how they all spoke to generational concerns of those long ago yet still beloved decades of the 1970s and 1980s. I don't remember how we decided on the title; that may have been the publisher, Quirk Books (one working title was The Books That Screamed). I spent hours scanning the covers of what must have been more than half of my collection. Using my Google-fu skills I scoured all the internets for artists' names, peered at barely-legible artist signatures with a jeweler's eye, ever eager to discover who was responsible for covers like Satan Sleuth, Crooked Tree, Ancient Rage, and Horrorscope.

Social media has shown me that the advanced reading copies available at book expos/conventions have been incredibly well-received, and other folks have posted their anticipation for the book. Quirk Books has produced a lovely coffee-table style book filled to the brim with paperback covers, and Grady has written a funny, thorough, insightful, affectionate tribute/critique of the genre we all love so much. His appetite for this stuff is almost more voracious than mine! I'm honored to be part of Paperbacks from Hell... and I do hope you will buy a copy when it is published in September.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Scorpion by Michael R. Linaker (1980): Animal Magnetism

Poor Old Blighty: the once regal lord of the world would, throughout the 1970s and '80s, find itself overrun again and again by hordes of vermin which laid waste to so many of its proud, if overly class-conscious, innocent citizens—in the pages of paperback horror fiction, of course. Blame James Herbert, of course (certainly the threat from the natural world could be traced back to Wyndham and Wells, but probably found its true footing in an unassuming 1952 tale by Daphne Du Maurier's blown up to existential proportions by one Alfred Hitchcock) but it was Big Bad Jim who unleashed The Rats in 1974 and truly made the country a feeding ground for all creatures great and small. America was of course overrun as well, but there was something in British culture that was especially ripe for the taking, suffering cats, dogs, crabs, slugs, and worse (gah, do teenagers count?!).

And so we come to Scorpion (Signet Books, Feb 1981), a very slim offering from author Michael R. Linaker (b. Lancashire, 1940). Originally a writer of Westerns set in America, he apparently gained the notice of someone at New English Library and was commissioned to write one of their popular horror novels. At least Linaker had a familiarity with the English language, and knew how to deploy it with some idea of suspense and efficient characterization.

Now I don't really have much to say about the storyline once you've read this back-cover copy. In fact it's about as big a spoiler as can be; intrepid characters go off in search of the cause of these mutated monsters when the answer is right there: radiation leak! Of course anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of evolution knows that radiation causes animals to grow from teeny-tiny critters to five-inch long death dealers with a knack for finding the tenderest parts of the human anatomy. I mean duh.

The cover art makes clear that sex-and-gross-death will be mingled and prevalent, and readers hoping for such lurid shenanigans will not be disappointed. At least by 1981 standards; MMV for readers raised on latter-day product of similar nature. Linaker isn't shy, as the novel progresses, with doling out the wretched horrors visited upon the helpless victims. And also of course they are drawn to only the hottest ladies, I mean otherwise why bother?

The scorpions advanced from every direction, scuttling swiftly across the floor. A few became entangled in the long, silky blonde hair, and in their frantic efforts to free themselves began to lash out with their stings. Venom, injected into the soft flesh of Casey's neck, spread swiftly into the bloodstream. Numbing agony exploded inside Casey's body and she jerked helplessly as tortured nerves emitted spasms. The pain of the stings helped to alleviate the pain caused by the ripping, tearing pincers as other scorpions shredded warm flesh from her bare legs. Blood began to stream from the countless wounds, streaking the tanned flesh, pooling on the floor beneath her body. 

Original New English Library ed, June 1980

Sectioned into three parts (hey! just like a scorpion!), each with a pretentious title ("Encounters," "Engagements," "Invasion"), Scorpion follows the template of all books of its type. Characters are introduced, given a quick backstory (usually incredibly class-conscious; in fact the guy who identifies the culprits is a rough-hewn working stiff, "Er, whatcha call 'em, a scorpion!"), and then shuffled off this mortal coil posthaste. A scene in a supermarket, with scorpions marauding dozens of (female) shoppers, is a show-stopper. Two villain-types, involved with the responsible nuclear plant, are dispatched with max grody pain and suffering, so there's that.

Otherwise Linaker gives more depth to his expendable players than he does to his mains, so you might mix up some of the doctors perplexed by all the "bee sting" vics suddenly dying in excruciating, mystifying pain. Requisite love angle introduced, breakfast-in-bed scene during a lull in arachnid apocalypse, blame is placed at modern world advancements (though not as blatantly as in some novels; here's it's more a given), and quick wrap-up climax holds things at bay for now but... the sequel would scuttle from the darkness, and a third was perhaps promised by Linaker, maybe even with the scorpions arriving in the States, but it never happened. Whew!

Allan crouched beside the woman's body. He couldn't help noticing, despite the mutilations, that she had been young and very attractive.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Something Evil by Arthur Hoffe (1968): Oh, Sister

After half a dozen chapters I knew Something Evil (Avon Books, Sept 1968) wasn't gonna be evil enough for me. The opening prologue, in italics—which I kinda hate—is set literally on a dark and stormy night with a guy sneaking up to a spooky old house, finding creepy statues in a stable, and then hiding when a woman comes running in... followed by another who then, to the man's horror, stabs the first woman! O horrors. Dude books off into the "murky blackness":

A flash of lightning illumined her face as she stared in fury after the retreating figure. Her eyes, in the light of the electric bolt, were deep, piercing, wild—the eyes of a thing gone mad.

Following chapters are set on the foggy New England coast, it's the 19th century, and you'll meet a cast of characters from any period melodrama, engaged in boilerplate soap operatics with the Gothic flair (moodiness, gloominess, doominess, craziness, drunkeness, murderousness) and one morning reading over coffee I realized the twist. I skipped to the final pages and, lo and behold, there it was. There's an incest angle (god again?) and a Psycho angle and a nice wrap-up with all the ugliness politely put away.

My impression is that most Gothic paperbacks of this era followed, as strictly as any Harlequin romance or detective series, the most restrictive of conventions, with nary a whiff of originality or uniqueness (I believe in some cases publishers had writers sign contracts to this effect). Now I'm always looking for something, anything, to relieve this conformity of genre, but Something Evil doesn't have it. Even searching for author Arthur Hoffe turns up precisely nothing other than this tome. Out of the void and back into the void.

But I was happy to find the cover artist acknowledged on the copyright page, one Bob Foster. Since Something Evil has always been a minor fave cover (I mean who doesn't love baby alligators, altho' I didn't read enough to see if they're actually in the book), I was happy to look up Foster and find his resumé includes lots of '60s and '70s science fiction paperback covers, along with other illustrations of the day. So let's say something good came out of Something Evil.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Surrogate by Nick Sharman (1980): Father Do You Wanna Bang Heads with Me

Malevolent doll alert! Yes indeed, that mainstay of '80s horror fiction is at it again, a supernaturally-possessed innocent child's toy goes on a murderous rampage, controlled by the evil whims of a man so hateful and angry and resentful that he operates from beyond the grave. Nick Sharman (aka A.G. Scott, both pseudonyms of Norwegian/British author Scott Grønmark) also wrote Childmare, an intensely grim novel of a teenage riot in the James Herbert tradition. I found that novel to be solid horror entertainment, so have been looking forward to The Surrogate (Signet Books, July 1980) for some time now. The cover is replete with the coming  (and going) decade's hallmark imagery: solitary child, evil doll, leering old man. Oh, and the requisite King blurb at the top, too, almost literally overshadowing the actual author's name!

Unlike Childmare, Surrogate is an intimate affair, with only a few characters and smaller stakes. The prologue is a banger, with a defiant boy being locked in a cellar room with rats for disobeying his terrifying despotic father in their huge estate home. Next we meet 30-something Frank Tillson, that little boy now grown. He is a radio talk-show host and is raising his eight-year-old son Simon alone after the death of wife and mother Kathie. Frank is driving back to the family estate, which he has not visited in many years, after the death of his own mother. Summoned by long-time family caretaker Reece, Frank reluctantly goes to see the old man, now being ravaged by cancer and at death's door. The reason? Why, his father's riches, who is to inherit them? The thought of taking his father's money sickens Frank, but the old man has found a loophole: he will leave the fortune to Simon upon his 18th birthday. Frank thinks the man has gone senile, and flatly refuses to hear of this idea. "When you're gone there'll be no coming back," Frank responds (foreshadowing!). "What you've built dies with you. For God's sake don't try and involve the living."

For awhile Sharman is slow to boil the pot, letting the reader experience Frank's daily life as a single, attentive father and as a popular radio talk-show host. Simon is introduced, a well-meaning, polite boy who quietly still mourns the death of his mother. Watching him read endless comic books, Frank wryly hopes he's not "rearing a pop culture junkie." Frank has never told Simon about his hated relation, ever, and when he does now the boy seems uninterested... until he's accosted at school by a man he doesn't know speaking about an obligation. Frank is enraged but not surprised that his father would stoop to such a trick. He phones Reece, who tells him his father did take a drive, but it proved too stressful and he's now in a coma, death expected soon. "Phone me as soon as he dies, Reece, I want to know my son is safe."

Frank escapes into his work, where we meet his producer Eddie, a likeable, middle-aged man of slovenly appearance and hedonistic tendencies tempered by a solid work ethic. His assistant Angela, a timid woman that Frank holds in some contempt for her incompetence if not her sex (and the mystifying allure she holds for Eddie). Sella Masters, an American beauty, is a psychic guest on one of Frank's shows; Frank is amazed to learn she is sincere about it: "You can't believe all this psychic nonsense. We're all adults here you know. Level with us." She agrees to a demonstration of her sixth sense and, as any astute reader will expect, it turns out gut-wrenchingly horrible when she sees the car accident that killed Kathie as well as her funeral, and at the funeral an old man in black watching Simon...

Interrupting this scene of awkward horror there's a phone call for Frank: it's Reece. The old man is dead. One of the enjoyable aspects of the novel is the vintage manner in which everyone drinks and smokes after a shock or while debating supernatural phenomena, and that's just what happens now. And more mysterious events pile on: a spooky figure in some photographs (Frank's a cranky sort, thinks of complaining on his show about a shop that can't develop photos right); malfunctioning radio equipment that screeches in the voice of an angry old man; a wad of cash mailed to Simon; a terrible dinner with Eddie and Angela that leaves Angela screaming and saying she saw a corpse climbing out of the bath; all that sort of thing, all rendered in a staid, realistic style that's neither pulpy nor literary.

1981 New English Library ed with different doll, 
not sure why, does Raggedy Andy not translate?

Soon, sadly, Frank begins to suspect Eddie and Angela are behind these spooky intrusions into his and Simon's lives, sort of Scooby-Doo style, even while Sella the psychic is telling him that Simon is in real danger from his grandfather who is now on the other side, or what have you. He will not be denied! Frank's not crazy about that explanation: "The supernatural doesn't fit into my pattern of beliefs." "Screw your beliefs, Frank!" Sella half-shouted. "We don't have time for that pompous bullshit. You've seen things, for Christ's sake. You've been attacked by a frigging doll!" Ah yes, the doll! Wow, I won't spoil it, but that attack scene is pretty sweet, written in that tone that refuses to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the scenario. Sharman goes it with dead seriousness, knowing that any wink will deflate the horror (The doll glided toward him along the carpet. There were no individual limb movements, it just... glided). The toy once belonged to Kathie when she was a child, so its possession is extra obscene.

The climactic confrontation between father and son successfully brings together all that has come before, and doesn't overstay its welcome. We learn some horrible stuff about Frank's parents' relationship, the death of his mother, that sort of thing. The supernatural explanation seems the only rational one after Simon disappears, and Frank has to make a final trip to the family home he so despises. Some violence and gore, racy sex scene, not bad. The final pages is dark stuff, man. "What's worse than death, Sella?" he demanded again, fury building up inside him. "The boy's alive, Frank," he heard...

Sure, the reader will notice lapses in believability, like even though Frank is desperate to find his son, there are moments when he's like, "Oh he's probably back at the apartment" or something along those lines. These child-in-jeopardy plots don't work today; we can't really exploit them for suspense any longer since the reality is so unbearable. Dialogue, too, is creaky, the old amateur mistake of having every character say each other's names a dozen times in one conversation. The novel would've made a cracking good flick during its day, certainly not a classic, maybe in the style of adaptations of The Sentinel and The Manitou, with a virile British lead (Alan Bates? Albert Finney?) and maybe Jane Seymour or Jenny Agutter as Sella (doing a half-assed Yank accent). The novel is barely 250 pages, and even that's padded out some, but for a diverting vintage horror read, The Surrogate is a solid choice. 

Frank then saw another narrower passage leading off to the left. The stench was thickening. It was almost tangible, as though the basement complex were his father's diseased insides and he [was] approaching nearer and nearer to the center of corruption.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

RIP William Hjortsberg (1941-2017)

Sad news for lovers of good writers: author William Hjortsberg has died. His 1978 crime-horror novel Falling Angel is a favorite of mine, and should be one of yours as well.


Monday, May 1, 2017

Hunter of the Shadows: The Lovecraft Omnibus 1-3, 1985

'Warning! You are about to enter a new dimension of utmost terror. When you open this book you will lost - lost in a world of dreadful nightmare brought to screaming life by the century's greatest master of adult fantasy and horror' - H.P. Lovecraft. Here is a collection of the most famous stories of this master of tomb-dark fear: "The Rats In The Walls", "The Call Of Cthulhu", "The Haunter Of The Dark", "Pickman's Model", "The Lurking Fear" plus other tales designed to haunt your dreams and bring you to sweat-soaked wakefulness in the darkest reaches of the night! "Terror in the fourth dimension! A master of cosmic horror"

Three giant collections of Lovecraft's stories, all published by Panther Books in the United Kingdom in 1985. The garish covers were done by Tim White, a British artist known for highly detailed science fiction art. While I can't deny that these are eye-catching and probably sold a ton, I can only imagine how displeased ol' Ec'h-Pi-El would've been with the explicit gore...