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?



Friday, December 2, 2016

The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz (1974): Call for the Priest

A mainstream horror bestseller in the wake of the far better novels The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, and The Other, 1974's The Sentinel (Ballantine paperback, January 1976) offers similar ominous occult/religious horror trappings but brings nothing new to the proceedings. I don't know what Jeffrey Konvitz did before he wrote this, his first novel, but afterwards he produced B-movies and wrote a couple more shlocky novels (one, a sequel to The Sentinel called The Guardian, was similarly unimpressive). Today it's less remembered than the also-shlocky yet star-studded 1977 movie adaptation.

Allison Parker is a fashion model returning to New York City after her father's funeral in Indiana, a place she'd fled years before due to some icky stuff going on at home. Now she's struggling with some guilt issues due to the fact that her boyfriend, big-shot lawyer Michael Farmer, was the husband of her friend Karen, who killed herself because he was having an affair... with Allison, unbeknownst to her. This soap-opera set-up is slowly parceled out to the reader, and later the "icky stuff" with her father is revealed. The Sentinel begins with Allison moving into an apartment building on the Upper West Side to get her life back in order, but the other residents she meets prevent that.

Back cover copy gives you the inside skinny.

Also featuring is a grizzled city cop chomping on a cigar who's convinced that Michael actually killed Karen for her family's money and is setting Allison up the same way. Boring and predictable, neither scary nor suspenseful (unless under-pacing and ending sections with characters' faces bearing looks of terror count as suspense), The Sentinel stands not with the aforementioned classics of early '70s horror fiction but with dullards like The Searing. This is pretty much hackwork that utilizes TV cop-show tropes and the Latinate mysteries of the Catholic church liberally dosed with Dante's Inferno. Konvitz's prose is literate but not illuminating, and I can see why it was a bestseller. The climax mixes violence with otherworldly demonic forces in the guise of people from Allison's past. Not terrible, mind, but nothing really special either.

Kinda cool stepback art, nothing so dramatic inside
Requisite note of better novels 

I read The Sentinel with indifference mixed with impatience over several weeks, meandering through it without really caring. This is not horror fiction as we fans know it and love it. It is solely marketing fodder branded by its betters, a hash cobbled together from commercials, soap operas, and several other pieces of extremely popular culture; it's a work of mainstream dullness that will bore and frustrate long-time readers of the horror genre thanks to its crass origins. The Sentinel's unique image is for me not even the blind priest that so unimaginatively adorns the cover. For me it's that tasteless yet effectively creepy moment of two women fondling themselves and then one another in front of Allison, a bit of unexpected shock-value that works as it transgresses social norms. It's the only moment of unsettling frisson (no pun intended) in the entire work (and yes, it's in the movie). Utterly missable and inessential despite the implied menace of the title (which really isn't that menacing when you think about it), The Sentinel will make a nonbeliever out of you.

1976 Star Books UK paperback

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Powell's Birthday Visit

Spent Friday afternoon kinda hungover after a late night of birthday dinner and drinks on Thursday. But I wouldn't let that deter me from shopping at Powell's House of Books, here in Portland. One of America's premier bookstores, I visit maybe three or four times a year. Their horror section is a mix of new and used titles (all of their stock is, actually) and while their pricing reflects a knowledge of the collector (Charles Beaumont's 1960s paperbacks going for $15; a first-edition paperback of I Am Legend for $35), you can often find great deals mixed in. In fact, they had a whole spinner rack of 1980s horror paperbacks for fans of Netflix's "Stranger Things" series, priced around $2 - $3 each.

First read is that Barker bio from 2001 by the great Douglas E. Winter; I'm enjoying all the behind-the-scenes stuff about deals with his first publishers and editors. Not sure what's next; I've got some other writing projects I'm working on and am halfway through a not-so-great 1970s horror title that I'll probably review before the end of the year. Anyway, any visitor to Portland needs to stop in at Powell's and give themselves plenty of time to explore their delirious maze of seemingly endless shelves... hope you make it out alive!


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Friday, November 11, 2016

Monday, October 24, 2016

Wildwood by John Farris (1986): Snakes of Christ

There is cosmic weirdness galore, fantastical creatures from mythical history traipsing through a Southern forest lost in time and space, and some fascinating characters, but very little true horror in Wildwood (Tor/August 1986), a weighty novel from genre giant John Farris. One of his many works from publisher Tor, they did a spectacular job with Farris's books, and Wildwood is no exception: dig that moody eroticism of the cover art (no artist credit given) reptilian fangs and silvery glow, so '80s! And that imagery is straight from the story; snakes and ladies, kind of a Farris thing. I've got a fair collection of Farris novels, and two of them, All Heads Turn As the Hunt Goes By (1977) and Son of the Endless Night (1986) are two of the most satisfying horror novels I've read for TMHF. I was psyched when Wildwood got off to a mysterious, intriguing start, hunters chasing strange quarry through that treacherous wood; could this be another Farris classic?

A North Carolina forest on the Tennessee border, Wildwood is deep, dark, and foreboding, traversed by only the most experienced of outdoorsmen (and, we'll see, outdoorswomen). Set in 1958, there is a backstory from half-a-century earlier; Farris moves well between eras and characters with consummate professional skill. This back-cover summation does well enough to entice the potential reader, but doesn't capture the depth and knowing subtleties that are the hallmarks of the author's style, his easy ability to get into the nitty-gritty of his characters hearts and minds. There is the father-son relationship between divorced Whit Bowers and 15-year-old Terry, who lives with his mother, a bestselling author, in Paris. Then there's the respect between Whit and Arn Rutledge, a gruff, macho sort who served under Whit but, you know, that was years ago in WWII; things have changed, perhaps. Between Arn and his Cherokee wife Faren, an uneasy marriage. The turn-of-the-century characters, pseudoscientific scholar Edgar Langford, his wife Sibby, and the architect who is designing Langford's ambitious estate, James Travers, a dark love triangle that teeters not just on the edge of morality but also on the space/time continuum itself.

An example of Farris's sensitivity to human relationships is the friendship the builds between Faren and Terry. Whit and Terry come to stay with Arn and Faren as Whit enlists Arn to show him Wildwood and what remains of Langford's estate, now a local piece of legend and spooks. Terry and Faren go off for a drive to the reservation town to sell some of Faren's art and then take a break by a stream. Of course Terry is crushing hard on this beautiful, open, smart, exotic older (well, 30s!) woman, and Faren is impressed with Terry's maturity and cultured manner (ritzy schools in France will have that effect). Lazing about in nature of an afternoon gets them feeling very comfortable with each other. Nothing untoward happens, but it is addressed:

"I know, I know," she murmured. 
"You're such a good-looking boy; and I do have a sweet tooth for you. We could get each other stirred up here and now. But Terry, what that does, believe me, just leaves good hearts full of trash. I want my heart to go on feeling kindly, with friendship for you that'll last forever. Understand?" 
He nodded. More relieved than disappointed.

Man, that's good, that's real, that's true. Other aspects, particularly the bits about Langford's penchant for ancient Babylonian mystical texts and Tesla's bizarre silver-spun perpetual-motion contraption held in a dome above the estate, were solid reading. I dug the adventures in the Wildwood forest; the descent into a subterranean lair; the space-time continuum inside-out and destroyed; the hybrid humans known as Walkouts flung from natural biology the night of Mad Edgar's Revels; the appearance of everyone's favorite cult inventor Nikolai Tesla in a small yet important role; the illicit romance between the brilliant architect of Langford estate and Langford's wife: all of this told in an adult, engaging manner. Earthy imagery predominates, with an emphasis on the human body and a nightmarish bestiary of half-man/half-beasts, the origin of which is Mad Edgar's thirst for vengeance (One character notes "his brilliant scholarship, his foolish intrusions into magick, his dark vendettas, his romance with old and dangerous gods" and I'm all like, COOL MORE PLEASE).

Also: lots of talk of genitals and bodily functions; however it's not a juvenile sort of obsession, more of an adult acceptance of such. This grounds the narrative, as does Arn's threatening masculinity, his temper flares; he's a believable character even as he chases unbelievable beings (you can see one of them on the cover of the New English Library paperback below). The trials and tribulations of the Native community are depicted with respect. Farris's writing is always strong, readable, original, so I was kept glued to the page even while the horrors I kept expecting to appear remained aloof. Ah well. Wildwood I suppose is more of a dark fantasy, the kind of book I associate with Robert Holdstock, perhaps; not a genre I read much if any in. I'm not used to my fiction being populated by pretty girls with butterfly wings who speak in an Irish brogue and flutter about the forest naked. A bit coy and corny for my tastes.

There are some powerful set-pieces, grim and grungy, and the whole scene in which Terry accompanies Faren to her church's gathering and witnesses it turn into a kind of Holy Roller orgy of snake-handling, is one of the skin-crawlingest whirlwinds of horror I've read recently. You're exhausted when it's over but the revulsion remains.

Bunches of dappled diamondback pied snakes, some nearly six feet in length and thick as a man's wrist. Some earthy, some ashen, a few with the liquid darkness of eels, all heatless as death. Writhing snakes in the hands of preachers, his stomach plunged to the level of his knees and he gasped in shock...

The problem is that, for as evocative and precise and meaty as Farris's writing is, for all the narrative and character heft that promise epic thrills and terrors, he's left out one key component of story-telling: suspense. Surprising, right? I was more than half through when I realized we weren't getting much of anywhere. Page after page of intriguing set-ups and scenarios but no tautening of the threads that bind them. My attention was drifting as the climax approached, Farris beginning to weaken to overwriting as he constructs an epic '80s conflagration: ...a moment of writhing, a silvery pop, a thousand insignificant serpents, then nothing buoyant impulses of light, all going their separate ways... pathways to blue oblivion... The wind was a lash, a beast, a wailing, a remonstrance, an outpouring from the deep-set caverns of time and space.

Wildwood has much of what I've loved about Farris's books before, but it's missing a vital component I can't quite place. Lack of suspense, lack of deep-rooted conflict, lack of a certain je ne sais quois. That said, I found the final page and-a-half an effective scene of calm and acceptance after the storm, an upbeat but hard-won bit of otherworldly knowledge for a character who maybe should have been the protagonist in the first place. But that would be a different book, and honestly: probably not one I'd read. You can see I'm unsure what to make of this novel!

So I can kinda sorta recommend Wildwood, if you appreciate dark fantasy more than I do I guess, but what I can recommend heartily is this: a one-of-a-kind TV commercial for the novel featuring Zacherle. Yes it's true. Behold: