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 Tor.com, 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...

 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Horror Fiction Help XVI

1. Comics series in mid to late '80s, one issue was a about a woman whose husband was a giant wasp-man creature. Cover featured nude woman carried through the air by a giant wasp. Found! It's


2. Three people stuck on an evil, malevolent train that tries to eat the passengers

3. Story about a man who followed people that were abusive to their pets around in I think New York and exacted revenge on them in a typical fashion (he sees a guy kicking his dog in Central Park and breaks into his house or accosts him on the street and wails on him with steel-toed boots). In the end he goes a little over the edge on someone who is using flypaper, breaks into their apartment while they're on vacation and glues the entire floor. Can't remember for sure but I think the plan backfires and he ends up either painting himself into a corner, as it were, or gluing himself to the floor and starving to death. Found! It's "How Would You Like It?" by Lawrence Block from Monsters in Our Midst.



4. Novel about a couple who hired a maid or possibly an au pair, I think there's a baby but not sure, the maid immediately starts trying to psychologically control and also seduce both of them. Husband figures out something is up, one of the key points is him hunting down her references and finding out that her previous employer is horribly burned to invalidism, afraid of the maid, who faked her own reference. Turns out the maid was a witch centuries ago, I think, cursed to something-something till someone loves her. Husband burns down house trying to kill her, is arrested/thrown into an asylum. Novel ends with the maid, reincarnated into a new body, having an interview for another job... Found! It's:


5. Story in which Harry Houdini dies (as the reader understands; he just wonders why he has suddenly woken up back in his childhood home with his beloved "Mutti" [mother]). As the story progresses, it becomes obvious to both Houdini and the reader that "Mutti" is not his mother and that he maybe trapped for all eternity in his own special hell with a thing that looks like his mother but isn't, giving (against his will) fallacious words from the afterworld to people at seances.

6. A vampire novel very much like 'Salem's Lot except set in the '60s after Kennedy was assassinated. I think a reporter comes to the town and finds it overrun with vampires. Head vampire is very handsome and sleeps in a coffin in the basement of a dilapidated old house. He has the power to enter people's dreams in order to control them. Found! It's:


7. Maybe the book came out in 1999 or so. Mostly white cover, close up of a pale white vampire face with mouth wide open showing fangs and blood around lips. Eyes red and yellow I think. Face filled the whole cover, framing the face so that just above the eyes down to just below the mouth were visible. Maybe a Pinnacle book. Found! It's:


Gah, some of these sound so familiar, but are just maddeningly out of reach! All help appreciated.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Women of Darkness, edited by Kathryn Ptacek (1988): Fear of a Female Planet

Featuring the usual distinctive orange typeface against a black background, Tor's Women of Darkness (October 1989) showed a refreshing self-awareness about the genre's tendency to overlook female writers when compiling horror anthologies. In her quiet and unobtrusive introduction, author and editor Kathryn Ptacek notes that she realized women were not being included in large or notable numbers in horror anthologies, for whatever reason, and decided to amend this. Odd that this was long an oversight, considering the genre was in large part begun by women—Mary Shelley and Ann Radcliffe—and continued through the century with Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. Of course Anne Rice and V.C. Andrews were two of the most recognizable names on the horror shelves of the decade. Women of Darkness is a corrective which (I think, I hope) was and should still be embraced. While not every story could be to my taste, almost every one is very, very good, and deserves (re)reading.

Kathryn Ptacek w her husband Charles L. Grant
c. late '70s

To be honest, I remember little of reading Women of Darkness back then, which is a shame because a handful I would have loved. I bought it because I'd heard of two stories it contained that were splatterpunky efforts well worth a horror fan's time. These were Elizabeth's Massie's "Hooked on Buzzer" and Nancy Holder's "Cannibal Cats Come Out Tonight." Both are solidly of their time: the former features a young woman who'd been abused by a fundamentalist cult; the latter presents a young man abused by his father who befriends a rebel dude and together they meet a crazy-hot rocker chick. Massie's story seems inspired by Roberta Lannes's notorious "Goodbye, Dark Love" from Cutting Edge (1986), while Holder's resembles a little the edgy outsider world that Poppy Z. Brite would become praised for. This is not to say the two tales are lacking; I quite liked both, real exemplars of short '80s horror. Happily both women continue as successful writers today.

The late British fantasist Tanith Lee (pictured) is the most well-known author included; she provides one of her impeccably mannered historical tales, "The Devil's Rose," a darkly sensual (it is Lee, of course) work of a woman "obsessed by dark fancies, bad things. Unrequited love had sent her to perdition." Yes thank you. You all know how much I love Lisa Tuttle's short horror fiction, and "The Spirit Cabinet" is no exception. No time wasted in setup, first sentence: Frank and Katy Matson had no sooner moved to London than they found a haunted house. Katy begins seeing a seance from the dim past, but she finds the ghost charming, not frightening. She realizes she's the ghost, a future ghost for the 19th century seances she glimpses. As Tuttle often does, this clever, light-hearted setup is just a distraction from the horror to come. Wonderful, wonderful horror!

Many writers included are utterly unknown to me, but for the most part they contributed respectable stories. Nancy Varian Berberick's (pictured above) "Ransom Cowl Walks the Road" is a sort of horror-cozy about a serial killer in a small Jersey town. A little gruesome and little creepy, however I felt the first-person narration didn't quite work with the twist ending. Still, not bad. "True Love," by Patricia Russo, with its utter cliche of a title, is the kind of thing I'd have passed up back in the day; it's a short historical tale of a stranger stopping by a country inn, tales told by a fire, a feisty old lady as bartender, and a nasty finale straight out of EC Comics. Kinda cool still. I loved "In the Shadow of My Fear," Joan Vander Putten's effective poetic-noir that mixes murder and spooky oceanic imagery with a real bite of a climax. My Felicia floats, slave to the whim of the tides, ever straining at her anchor.

A handful of stories venture far from familiar shores. Her first published story, "The Baku" from Lucy Taylor (above) benefits from its exotic locale and mythology. In a tiny cold seaside Japanese farm community, living with her husband who's working in Tokyo, Sarah drinks and frets over losing him. Noting her distress, a local gives her a "baku," a tiny ivory figurine that "eats bad dreams" when you place it beneath your pillow at night. Man I loved this little shocker. In Karen Haber's "Samba Sentado" a humiliated wife flees to Rio after her husband takes up with another woman. She is haunted by him: Over the next three days, I learned to stay calm, not to betray my horror and disbelief each time Jim's body washed up in the surf. The title means "Dance of the Initiates," the narrator visits a medium, a ritual voodoo dance and trance is involved, and a new power embraced, with chilling implication. Well done. "When Thunder Walks" by Conda V. Douglas has its white protagonist meet a fate reserved for those who use Navajo culture for their own monetary gain. These cultures depicted felt lived and authentic; Ptacek's mini-bios of each writer reveal this to be the case.

Women are most likely to bear the emotional (and physical) burdens of family life; Women of Darkness proves this in both text and subtext. The antho begins with "Baby" by long-time speculative fiction author Kit Reed, you can guess the scenario: a woman is reluctant to visit her sister and her newborn, babies were revolting; love must make mothers blind. Elva is the modern woman in the city, glamorous, "a collector of men." But when sister Rilla promises to introduce Elva to eligible bachelors if she visits, Elva cannot resist. What she finds and learns in that home has her rethinking everything. Good stuff, generic end but hey when it works it works.

"Aspen Graffiti" is Melanie Tem's sensitive story of a marriage crumbling, a husband leaving a family and its effect on the couple's sons. Filled with tiny details that ring true (an argument in the K-mart shoe department), it's a sad, quiet, melancholy bit of domestic horror, which Tem has done so well so many times. A mother's boyfriend visits the ultimate violation on her daughters in "Sister," from someone named Wennicke Eide Cox. What could have been distasteful and unseemly is here delicate and sympathetic, yet with a grotesque climax that speaks of horror's everlasting torment.

You can just tell by its title that "Nobody Lives There Now. Nothing Happens," is going to be "literary," can't you? Creative writing professor Carol Orlock's (above) story was Bram Stoker-nominated for best short fiction in 1988; it lost to "Night They Missed the Horror Show." No matter; its intelligence and attention to the life of a neighborhood are reminiscent of Jackson, its spooky, matter-of-fact cadence recalls Anne Rivers Siddons, its mood of domestic mystery perhaps vis-à-vis Alice Hoffman. No one ever sees the Marquettes, who move into a monstrous Victorian home tinged by Gothic tragedy, but everyone wonders about them, especially the children that venture to their front door on Halloween. Orlock avoids generic convention but the story lingers still: The house still stands. It is empty now, but I remember the afternoon the Marquettes arrived. I remember it as more remarkable than it probably was.

"Slide Number Seven" by Sharon Epperson (pictured) invokes modern (or then-modern) fears of intimate disease, a very common theme in horror in those days. One need not use vampires to literalize the metaphor either, and Epperson's somewhat oblique telling gets right under your skin, natch, trapped in dirty, sweating, traitorous flesh. And a horror anthology by and about women could not be complete without a tale of twin sisters and the man who unwisely comes between them. This is Melissa Mia Hall's "The Unloved," and its final screech to a halt is a powerhouse.

Ptacek really did the genre a terrific service with Women of Darkness. What the anthology lacks is refreshing: there's no smart-aleck tone, no blasé attitude, no dick-swinging, no sniggering moments of sexualized violence, no one-upmanship. Nor is there much, if any, literary pretension; the styles on display are ones which evince maturity, not just in prose but in life: understanding—from experience—disappointment and heartbreak, longing, desperation, betrayal, unconscious notions of vengeance, not just the traumatic acrobatics of horror-loving, ham-fisted goons trying to replicate the latest slasher movie. You can feel these women's lives, the emotions are real, and the supernatural horrors that spring from them insidious and subtle. The stories are also utterly human. There is much to be feared from these women's darknesses, but also much to be learned.