And so we've reached the final installment in Tor's Summer of Sleaze series. Grady Hendrix and I sure had a
blast writing 'em, and seems like readers enjoyed learning about
vintage forgotten horror fiction and writers. For this last post I reread and reviewed Ray Russell's guilty-pleasure Incubus, his 1976 novel of demonic perversity. You know you love it!
I am not much sure who Florence Stevenson is but going by these paperbacks of hers written throughout the late '60s, '70s and into the horror heyday of the 1980s, she wrote the gamut: quiet horror, Gothic horror, witches, vampires, even cat lady horror--I love Ira Levin's blurb on Ophelia (Signet/Apr 1969): "fresh, delectable, refinedly sexy."
Amazon lists dozens of her paperback novels. The cover art on all of these offers much to be enjoyed, from the creepy-kid vibe of A Feast of Eggshells (Signet/Dec 1969--and don't miss that body at the bottom of the stairs) to the proto-paranormal romance imagery of Moonlight Variations (HBJove/Jan 1981), or the delicious bosomy Gothic of The Curse of the Concullens (Signet Gothic/Nov 1976) and The Witching Hour, to the luridly overdone '80s covers for Household (Leisure/Mar 1989) and The Sisterhood (Leisure/Oct 1989).
I found only the most basic biographical info on a romance site; if anyone knows anything more, let us know. And oh yeah, if you've read any of these too!
Nothing pains me more than being unable to finish reading a novel, for whatever reason. Picking books off my horror shelves and finding them less than captivating is a real bummer; I like to keep this blog updated with new reviews, but sometimes I read several novels in a row that I'm simply underwhelmed by, and motivation to finish flags. Here are the last four I couldn't finish (four! Ugh). Now, don't get me wrong, these aren't novels without merit, so I feature them here with the thought that some TMHF readers might find them worthwhile.
Dance of the Dwarfs by Geoffrey Household (1968). I'd heard plenty of good things about this novel, some from TMHF readers. It's been in my collection for five or six years; I'd bought it on a whim knowing nothing about it except it was shelved in the horror section of my local bookstore and didn't look like your average genre paperback. Subtle, literary horror? Sure! It sounded fascinating: a British doctor living in an agricultural station at the edge of the Amazon, where the locals are afraid of... what? Dwarves that dance? The novel deals with superstition, fear of the unknown, the nature of fear itself, cultural imperialism, political wranglings, and all that, and Household is a good although detached writer. Sure, there were other things going on, like said doctor constantly banging a 15-year-old Peruvian girl given to him as a gift.... but everything just took. So. Damn. Long. To. Happen. Guess that's what I get for trusting The New Yorker about horror.
Dark Twilight by Joseph A. Citro (1991) Not terribly written--it has pages of respectable critical blurbs--but not terribly interesting either. Citro is an expert on the legends and lore of Vermont, but so what? I have no especial interest in cryptozoology or any kind of "monster hunter" scenario, just as I have no interest in writers who take real life "psychic" phenomena or other pseudoscientific nonsense and try to turn it into a horror story. I'm a hardline nonbeliever and atheist in the HPL tradition and, like him, I'd rather writers make up their horrors entirely (or, of course, swipe someone else's!). That said, there was too much folkloric exposition from an old professor and too little folkloric horror action so I gave up halfway through.
Siren by Linda Crockett Gray (1982) Opening chapter has a father forcing his 11-year-old daughter to give him a hand job. Not my scene, man. I don't care how awesome the original cover art below is.
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1971). Toyshop is the only title here I might give another try; it really sounds like something I'd dig, kinda Shirley Jackson-esque. I am of course well aware of Carter's reputation and standing in the
literary community and that she takes fairy tales and updates
them through a feminist/postmodern lens and so on. Awesome. But I found
the style, story, and its telling to be pretentious, precious, and
precocious ("She was too thin for a Titian or Renoir, but she contrived a pale, smug Cranach Venus with a bit of net curtain wound round her head and at her throat the necklace of cultured pearls they gave her when she was confirmed. After she read Lady Chatterley's Lover, she secretly picked forget-me-nots and stuck them in her pubic hair"). Yes, my tolerance for "writerly" writing has waned; to me it's akin to the acting style Jon Lovitz used to parody in his "Master Thespian" SNL skits--the prose simply shouts "Wrrriting! Brrrilliant!" at me, and who likes to be shouted at, no matter how pretty the words?
Again, these titles are simply not to my taste, but I don't consider them, you know, not good.--some of you might like 'em just fine. Let me know what I'm missing, huh? Thanks.
Sad news about a major behind-the-scenes figure in horror/science fiction/fantasy fiction: agent and editor Kirby McCauleydied on August 30 from diabetes complications (today is actually his birthday). He was Stephen King's first agent and was instrumental in King's earliest success, and worked with major figures in genre fiction. Also, far as I can tell, even sold a lil' something called Games of Thrones to Bantam for a little-known author named George R.R. Martin. McCauley edited the seminal anthology of modern horror, 1980's Dark Forces, which surely made the genre fresh and relevant for the post Exorcist/Rosemary's Baby age.
Apparently there was little note of his passing, which is a crime. I only found out about it visiting ISFDB to see which genre writers were born today. Fortunately, the mighty Martin has a wonderful piece on McCauley; it is a must-read.
I offer a heartfelt, if belated, thanks to McCauley for all his contributions to the horror genre, and for his insistence that genre writers should have the best talent working in their favor so that their words can be read by millions.
Okay everybody, you know how it goes, who can help some TMHF readers track down these lost and forgotten horror novels?
1. It's no older than 1993, and I believe it was a paperback. The cover had a very deep blue tint, a haunted looking house in the distance with a log in the foreground, perhaps a felled tree, and above the house was a giant skull with its hands around the house.
2. A large image of a skull filling up the cover with
type above it. A very straight-on and brightly/flatly-lit (not shadowy)
shot of a skull, but I
think perhaps a skull-headed figure (perhaps from the top of the
shoulders on up) wearing clothes (and a hat?) - but with a straight-up
skull head, and done in a fairly "realistic" style I think. After
looking online at countless 1970s (not '60s or earlier)
paperback covers I'm sure, based on my basic memory of the cover layout
+ illustration, that it would have been ten years old or less at that
time. Found! It's:
3. I think I read it in the late '70s. It most likely would have been
in the horror genre section of the library, since that was my big
interest back then. The main character was a young teenage girl, whose mother was dead (possibly had recently died). Her father was devastated by grief, and didn't pay much attention to the girl. As she matured, she bound her breasts down with tape...I assume to try to stay a little girl, and keep from growing up. At
the end of the book, she unbound her breasts, let her hair down,
dressed as an adult, and went to her father, pretending to be, or
possibly believing she was, his dead wife (her own mother). Found! It's:
4.A fairly well-to-do couple move from the city to a place in the
woods (I even think they're renovating the place they buy). The wife is
doing research in the area about the mountain folk who have been
inbreeding and eventually comes to respect them... but of course there's
some sort of menace in the woods. I remember she throws a fit at a high
society party, a handsome but shady local laborer, and that she finds
safety with the inbreds.Found! It's:
A minor erotic horror novel that's neither sexy nor scary, Lyrica (Berkley/Jan 1987) travels back and forth in time following the seductive adventures of a lamia, a mythical creature who drains the life from the men she sleeps with (that's not really how the ancient myth goes, Lyrica is technically a succubus, but whatevs). I really wanted to like Thomas F. Monteleone's novel, his eighth, since I dig the cover and found a mint copy during my recent cross-country trip. The back-cover copy makes the book sound like an excellent read...
In her human form Lyrica Rousseau snakes her way through the ages, hooking up with brilliant, accomplished men like Mozart, Keats, and James Crichton, fucking them superbly, then leaving them as they, of course, die, withered and emptied of their particularly potent life force... which Lyrica needs to live her eternal life. She's repeatedly described as gorgeous, obviously, with a rampant sexual vibe no man can resist (one character can, and when you find out why, yikes), but we don't feel it, we just get characters talking about it, or Monteleone telling us how hot she is--at one point, she shrugs "sexily." What?!
The modern setting is New York City and show biz, as Lyrica
comes to the New World and almost instantly gets an agent (he doesn't
chomp a cigar but he might as well) and is on her way to becoming a
huge star. Thinly-veiled real life men pop up--is that Stephen Sondheim?
Frank Sinatra? Yep!--and she bones all of them. That's right, she kills
a guy as famous as Frank Sinatra! Don't monsters know they gotta stay
under the radar? On her trail is a guy who's written lots of books on
pseudoscience, and of course he's found out the lamia, or succubus, is real! So with the help of the one guy who can resist Lyrica's charms they go after her with a silver sword made in midtown.
Well, there ya go.
I wasn't much impressed with Lyrica herself. For a woman of endless desire and vast powers, one who's part demonic
snake and another a temptress from hell, who masters men and controls
her own destiny with a fierce and iron will, Lyrica sure smiles and giggles a lot. Ugh. She comes off as more like a young girl playing adult-sexy, say Pretty Woman Julia Roberts rather than, um, I'm gonna go with Body Heat Kathleen Turner.
Monteleone, probably known more for his brilliant editorship of the Borderlands anthology series of the 1990s, has written what could have been a steamy, sultry, sensual historical horror novel about the dangerous allure of an evil woman; instead Lyrica is an unremarkable, by-the-numbers paperback horror novel. It's not a bad story at all and the historical details feel right, but Monteleone just tells everything--there's no showing. While it has a few scenes of graphic sex, it's neither erotic nor sleazy; mostly I found it all dull and suspense-free. No twists, no irony, no atmosphere. But, surprise surprise, the epilogue was a nice and I suppose believable touch--the proverbial happy ending.
While on my cross-country trip earlier this summer to relocate to Portland, OR, I visited many a used bookstore and bought many a used book (you may have seen photos). In one store I found a cache of paperbacks in very good condition by John Blackburn (1923-1993), a writer I was familiar with only because his first novel, 1958's A Scent of New-Mown Hay (published in the US as The Relucant Spy in 1966), was included in Horror: Another 100 Best Books. These paperbacks were a bit out of my price range (although I did spring for Charles Birkins's Smell of Evil), but now I'm kinda regretting not biting that bullet and buying 'em.
Many weren't even released in the States, or were published only in the 1960s--hence the collectible prices today. Small independent press Valancourt Books is doing the good, good work of reprinting many if not most of Blackburn's other previously out-of-print novels. The trade paperbacks these guys are putting out are splendid, with new introductions and smart, vibrant, modern covers that also reference some of these vintage editions.
I've never read any kind of spy/espionage novel, not a LeCarre or Ludlum or Fleming in all my entire collection of paperback fiction, so admittedly I'm intrigued by ones that have a supernatural twist to them, especially when it seems to have been done with skill and invention (Clive Barker did such a thing in his short "Twilight at the Towers"). The word "ingenious" gets mentioned with Blackburn a lot, and man, I just don't read enough books that make me go, "Wow, now that was ingenious!"
Anyway, I'm posting these old paperback covers solely because I dig 'em; don't you? I mean that Children of the Night
(Berkley Medallion/1970)--one of the most over-used titles in all of
horror, thanks Count Dracula!--is something to behold, a true creepfest, as nudists there seem to be enjoying an adults-only getaway in a
The title-switch of New-Mown Hay to Reluctant Spy (Lancer/1966) makes sense; I'm the sure the original title refers to some moment of dreadful import within the story itself (although I don't think it refers to a bikini-clad ass [NEL/1976]), but for unfamiliar readers it doesn't exactly scream "must-buy!". The stark simplicity of cold marble and black iron of Bury Him Darkly (Berkley Medallion/1970) bespeak... well, someone buried darkly.
For Fear of Little Men (Coronet UK/1974) uses poor John Merrick to some touching effect, and the juxtaposition of rat and child on Wreath of Roses (Lancer/1966), might that be a precursor to a Mr. James Herbert? Perhaps. Broken Boy (Lancer/1966) has a good review and some author background here. "Cold-war espionage" leaves me, well, cold, but knowing what I know about Blackburn now, I wonder. Cold war? I think it likely also means cold chills....
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 willerror[at]gmail.com describing it and if I don't know it, one of my readers might!
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