Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Modern Masters of Horror, ed. by Frank Coffey (1981): Two Minutes to Midnight

When I first saw this cover I thought that little tag read "The Best of the Scaries!" which I found disarmingly cute for an anthology of horror fiction. Turns out I just missed the final "t" and then the uniqueness disappeared. Modern Masters of Horror (orig. 1981, Ace paperback 1982, Berkley paperback 1988) offers up plenty of bankable names who for the most part are definitely "masters." Editor Frank Coffey has two '80s genre titles to his name, neither of which I've read but both of which I own thanks to some sweet cover art; otherwise I have no idea what relation he had with horror back in the day. His introduction feels rote, as he ruminates on why horror/occult goes through cycles of popularity. 

Neither Modern Masters paperback cover offers much to catch a prospective reader's eye (the Ace '82 resembles a Hitchcock crime anthology) and the only reason I picked up the '88 edition was because it was in pristine condition. Lucky too because inside are several standouts that aren't available anywhere else.

The unexpected star of this anthology is not, as one might think, the long Stephen King tale that starts it off ("The Monkey," which headlined Skeleton Crew [1985]; good but not great King), but the sole short story from one George A. Romero. "Clay" bears no resemblance to his zombie movies, but there are similarities to his excellent 1977 film Martin (and fine with me; Martin is my favorite Romero flick). With a careful and a vivid pen, Romero lays out a tale of two men in the New York City of decades ago: one a priest and one a neighborhood drunk. Compare and contrast: If the priest had ever visited Tippy's brownstone under the el, if he'd ever gone up to the third floor, he would have seen the beast of the city at its most dissolute... The matter-of-fact descriptions of horror and perversion elevate "Clay" to the top rank; one wonders what if Romero had written the story as a screenplay...!

 Romero & King, early 1980s

These days—if ever—I'm not crazy about the threat of rape used as a generic horror device, but hey, this was some three decades ago, times were simpler, so I take it as it comes. Written without any whiff of exploitation, "The Face" by Jere Cunningham speaks of secret selves to maintain sanity, but perhaps that's where we hide our madnesses as well. Robert Bloch's "In the Cards" is a terrible example of his old-man puns in short-story form. In Gahan Wilson's bit of playful metafiction, "The Power of the Mandarin," a mystery writer has created the ultimate villain for his Sherlockian detective—and doomed himself in the process. "The Root of All Evil" boasts a banal and cliched title but is a serviceable tale of ancient myths in the modern world thanks to Graham Masterton. Enjoyed William Hallahan's returns to the sort of astral projection he utilized for his 1978 occult thriller Keeper of the Children in "The New Tenant"; brief and to the point and dig that ice-cold climax.

Long-time SF/F/horror scribe William F. Nolan's piece was originally published in 1957, which I didn't now as I began "The Small World of Lewis Tillman." "What is this?!" I thought to myself as I read, "some shameless rip-off of I Am Legend?" Except instead of a last man on earth facing a vampire horde, Nolan's protagonist faces a horde of children. I honestly don't know which would be worse.

"Absolute Ebony" by Felice Picano (above) is a another gem. Set in a well-wrought 19th century Rome, it's about an American painter's discovery of the "blackest of the black," a charcoal so black it is like peering into infinity, somehow pulsing alive with the very negation of matter. This revolutionzies the man's art, but is cause for greater concerns. "Absolute Ebony" predates David Morrell's "Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity" and the surreal mind-bending of Thomas Ligotti as it mines similar ideas and images.  Despite penning some lurid thrillers in the 1970s and early '80s, Picano is not associated with the genre; his prose has a confident panache often lacking in horror fiction which makes the story a highlight of the anthology.

Wasn't too taken with Ramsey Campbell's contribution, "Horror House of Blood." A couple lets a horror film crew shoot a few scenes in their home, and subtle weirdness ensues. I couldn't figure out what was happening in some places due to Campbell's opaque stylings but I do like the effect of ending the story just before the horror begins.

"The Siege of 318" is Davis Grubb's (above) tale of an Irish immigrant family living in West Virginia in the 1930s. Young master Benjy receives, as a gift from an uncle in Kilronan, an enormous crate of toy soldiers and attendant vehicles and weapons, enough even to reenact the Great War. At first father Sean approves: "'Tis time you learned the lessons of life's most glorious game." Except of course it goes slowly downhill as the "game" obsesses Benjy and enrages his father. You may be reminded of King's "Battleground" from Night Shift but this story is subtler, better written, with a tinge of world-weary resignation about the world's historic horrors that really chills. Another gem!

Two writers I'm not crazy about have two stories worth a read. "The Champion" from Richard Laymon is a competent bit of undeserved turnabout that wouldn't have seem out of place as an episode of Hitchcock Presents. Not a whiff of his retrograde approach to horror but features his trademark lack of believability. Laymon never bothers to convince a reader that the impossible is possible; he simply assumes it because, hey, this is horror fiction, right? Robert McCammon's "Makeup" I recall reading in his 1990 collection Blue World and thought it was merely kinda okay; this time I kinda enjoyed it more: loser crook in Hollywood inadvertently steals an old makeup case that once belonged to horror movie star Kronsteen (also featured in his novel They Thirst) and when he smears some on his face he—well I won't ruin it for ya.

Howling author Gary Brandner presents another type of body transformation in "Julian's Hand," a surprisingly straight-forward story about an accountant growing a hand under his arm. I liked it right up till its unexpectedly illogical conclusion. I mean, it just doesn't work, and an alternate ending, involving a coworker with whom the accountant has an affair, was up for grabs (pun intended, you'll see). There could've been a strange and happy ending instead of the lazy twist Brandner employs.

Another story marred by its ending is "A Cabin in the Woods" from John The Searing Coyne (above). It's a solid work of literally growing unease when the titular domicile is overrun by a fungus. The only problem is that the final line of the story, creepy as it is, is entirely too reminiscent of King's "I Am the Doorway." (And if you haven't read that story, you've got some treat waiting for you!)

Despite a few so-so fictions and lackluster cover art in all editions, Modern Masters of Horror is worth seeking out for the Romero and Picano, Grubb and Hallahan stories. I don't think you'll be too disappointed with the other stories included either. The "Scaries" indeed.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Birthday Score!

A birthday bonanza of '80s horror paperbacks! Hit Powell's Books in downtown Portland today after a lovely birthday brunch with my wife (who found Monster in their Nautical Fiction section, of course). Really looking forward to Girl in a Swing, but I spent the afternoon drinking mimosas and re-re-re-re-reading this first paperback edition of Danse Macabre.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Horrors, ed. by Alan Ryan (1986): Midnight... All Night

Happy Halloween, one and all! On this day of days I offer up a mixed bag of treats: Halloween Horrors (Charter Books/Oct 1987), one of Alan Ryan's several horror anthologies from the 1980s. Each short story is set at Halloween, of course, which allows for mining of all its myth and legend for the background details. You'll recognize all the familiar faces tonight, masked or unmasked, peering out at you from the pages, eager to have you step inside for a surprise, take one, won't you, or two, maybe three or more...

1988 Sphere paperback, UK

First up is "He'll Come Knocking at Your Door" by Robert McCammon. I've read this one before, in his 1990 anthology Blue World. It has a decent setup and payoff (intimate payment for townspeople's good fortune required by... someone) but, again, suffers from what I like least about McCammon: his square, earnest, almost dopey style; he's the John Denver of '80s horror. If he just took his gloves off more often, like he does in the stories final images—and even those could've been honed to a sharper edge–I'd like his stuff more. Ah well. On to "Eyes" from Charles L. Grant, a writer I can appreciate in the abstract but in the literal act of reading his stories, not always. But here his allusive, understated style fits a tale of grief and guilt and horror wrapped up tight together. A father can't forget or forgive when it comes to the death of his disabled son. The kicker is ironic, tragic, unshakeable. I think I'm gonna call this kinda thing heartbreak horror.

  Strieber: Hates Nixon

Whitley Strieber's "The Nixon Mask" is a droll satire of that ol' crook Richard Nixon. As a peek into the machinations of high office it's kind of funny, but Tricky Dick's paranoia gets the best of him. I liked the tone of this one, absurdist humor turning into horror, Ballardian big deals going on and on that have nothing to do with the people supposedly served and in fact the Watergate break-in is okayed on this eve. What happens when Dick Nixon wears a Dick Nixon mask? Oh, it's riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I dug this one myself but I don't know how much mileage it'll have to a reader born after, say, the Carter administration. "Samhain Feis" by Peter Tremayne delves into Celtic Halloween lore, has some nice scenery in the desolate Irish countryside, a bit of deserved comeuppance in the end. No biggie.

"Trickster," from Steve Rasnic Tem, hits true emotional notes absent from other works here. A man mourns his dead brother, who from childhood was an incorrigible practical joker, distrusted by his own family thanks to truly horrible pranks (like pretending to be dead or even pretend-killing a baby relative. Hilarious!). Murdered on Halloween night a year earlier, our protagonist reminisces about how their lives growing up and growing apart. This Halloween he thinks—improbably, impossibly—he sees his brother out cavorting in a Halloween parade in San Francisco, where he'd died, and spends a hallucinatory night chasing after this phantom. "Trickster" feels like a story about real people, written by someone who's been there. It's sad at moments and that final trick really stings. Another case of heartbreak horror.

1986 Doubleday hardcover

Editor Ryan's own contribution, "The Halloween House," doesn't display the careful sophistication of his other tales I've enjoyed; I suppose that wouldn't have fit this story of randy teens exploring a haunted house. An original idea there at the end, absurd even, but some nice horror imagery of a house, er, melting; otherwise it's as trite as its title. Guy N. Smith's "Hollow Eyes" gets a big no from me, some old dad complaining about his daughter's shifty, ugly boyfriend, searching for them during a Halloween rave-up, all wrong, no go, return to sender. "Three Faces of the Night" is Craig Shaw Gardner's  ambitious and complex tale, told in three time frames, of love and college parties. The two don't mix.
"Pumpkin" from crime writer Bill Pronzini (pictured) delves into Halloween and harvest lore, not bad but not memorable.

Weird Tales scribe and HPL pal Frank Belknap Long gives us "Lover in the Wildwood," a tale of criminal lust in the backwoods; somewhere I can here the Crypt Keeper cackling and I wish someone would just shut him up. "Apples" is Ramsey Campbell's minor chiller about kids stealing fruit from an old man's garden. Campbell gets kids' dynamics right and the climax offers a nice frisson of nausea and creepiness, I mean I hate raw apples too (She'd spat out the apple and goggled at it on the floor Something was squirming in it). Not one of Campbell's best but a highlight of this anthology. The concluding story is from Robert Bloch, is a mean-spirited little gem of a neighborhood's trick-or-treat session gone horribly wrong. "Pranks" seems light-hearted at first but grows in menace till its great reveal removes all doubt of malicious intent.

Okay then, now for the final trick: for my money the star of this Halloween Horrors is Michael McDowell's (pictured above) "Miss Mack." The first of his few short stories, it is as sure and capable as any of his novels, simply condensed to an essence of cruel terror. I read it several years ago and it's haunted me ever since, which is surprisingly rare. Our Miss Mack is a beloved schoolteacher in Pine Cone, Alabama (also the setting of The Amulet) who befriends young Miss Faulk, recently hired by Principal Hill. But Principal has designs on this lovely innocent girl and cannot bear the fast, intimate friendship between the two women. Stoked by jealousy and, okay, yes, the occult secrets of his mother, Principal Hill puts a hex on Miss Mack. McDowell writes so well, his quiet evocation of locale and character so confident and matter-of-fact, you won't want the story to end. And in a way it doesn't. The final sickening, maddening horror upends all human notions of time and place, and without those, what are we? Lost in a night that never ends looking for a place that does not exist. When she waked, it was night—still Halloween night. "Miss Mack" has become a favorite of mine from the '80s era.

1988 Severn House hardcover, UK

While enjoyable overall, I do wish Halloween Horrors had a few more tricks to play on readers; many of the stories are slight, mild, unremarkable. Still, a cheap copy is worth searching for, as a couple treats indeed have a razor blade tucked within...

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Blitzkrieg Bop

Is that a tank in your pocket or are you just happy to see me? Yeeesh.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Look to the Sky Just Before You Die

Prolific beyond belief, William W. Johnstone was born in Missouri on October 28, 1938. Although he didn't begin writing till the late '70s, his Zebra paperbacks were all over bookstore shelves for decades. His '80s horror novels featured some of the grodiest, gaudiest covers of the era. Example: The Devil's Cat (Zebra 1987), with its spiffy Satanic hologram, can never be forgotten...

There were dozens of westerns and men's adventure novels from his pen as well. Johnstone died in 2004, yet somehow still manages to write and publish new books...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Les Daniels Born Today in 1943

Born on this date in 1943 was Les Daniels, the creator of the vampire Don Sebastian de Villanueva, who found his evil was often outshone by humanity's historical horrors, in a series of novels published from the late '70s to the early '90s. He was also a horror and comix expert of some note (Daniels, not Don Sebastian). Daniels died in 2011. I read No Blood Spilled several years ago and really dug it and look forward to reading these other titles.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon (1973): What No Man May Know Nor Woman Tell

All I recall about my reading of this paperback of the bestselling Harvest Home (Fawcett Crest/June 1974) in the late 1980s is that there was one scene that left me breathless with horror, but I have never been able to remember specifically what happened in that scene. Rereading it recently proved no help, as there were several scenes that now left me breathless with horror. Well, maybe not breathless exactly, but in a state of extreme suspense. Actor-turned-author Thomas Tryon (1926-1991) continued his success after 1971's The Other, another tale of quiet down-home horror.

Long a well-known pre-Stephen King bestselling horror novel, I assume most readers of TMHF are familiar with Harvest Home's set-up: New York ad-exec Ned Constantine wants to paint full-time, so he and his family (wife Beth and sulky asthmatic teen daughter Kate) buy, through some coincidental luck, an 18th century home in New England's Cornwall Coombe. This pocket of "heart's desire" is of course as picturesque a country town as one could imagine, a veritable rural Shangri-La of endless cornfields and dark woods. The Constantines settle in, welcomed by some, looked at askance by others, but generally find things satisfying. Life revolves around corn here, everything is tied to its cycles ("the eternal return"); these people are an ancient agrarian culture living in the 20th century. Most welcoming to them is aged matriarch Widow Fortune, a bespectacled black-skirted dowager who dispenses down-home wisdom and tends her farm with the energy of someone half her age. She speaks in that maddening country way in which answers only raise more questions.

"Just what is Harvest Home?" I asked.
"Harvest Home?" [the Widow Fortune] peered at me through her spectacles. "Why, I don't think I ever heard a pusson ask that before. Everybody knows what Harvest Home is."
"I don't."
"That's what comes of bein' a newcomer. Harvest Home's when the last of the corn comes in, when the harvestin's done and folks can relax count their blessin's... It means success and thanks and all good things. And this year's the seventh year."
"The seventh year?"
"Ayuh. For six years there's just feastin' and carryin' on but the seventh's a special one. After the huskin' bee there's a play, and—well the seventh year's particular for us. Harvest Home goes back to the olden times."
"When does it come?" "She looked at me as if I were indeed a strange species. "Never heard a pusson ask that either. Harvest Home comes when it comes
all depends."

Ned and family learn all about this Harvest Home business as they meet the inhabitants of Cornwall Coombe. Tryon does an able job of introducing characters and keeping them distinct personalities, like Justin Hooke, the Harvest Lord (a traditional role in the festival with many perks and only one downside); his wife Sophie, chosen to be the Corn Maiden; Tamar Penrose, seductive postmistress who spells trouble for Ned, mother of little Missy, creepy little Missy who makes creepy little pronouncements about the future; Jack Stump, local ragamuffin man with a big mouth; the Soakses family, dangerous hillbillies out in them thar woods; Robert Dodd, a blind, retired college professor; and Worthy Pettinger, a rebellious, reluctant teen who has been chosen (by Missy in a creepy little scene) to be the next Harvest Lord. You'll spend a lot of time with these folks, and more. Bit by tiny bit Tryon ratchets up mystery and foreboding, and the downhill swing begins when poor Jack Stump gets his... well, I won't spoil it.

Ned becomes close with young Worthy, who may have innocent designs on Kate, and finds that Worthy is none too happy about being the next Harvest Lord. It's more than just teenage surliness; Worthy seems almost panicked and eventually leaves town, trusting only Ned. This is a huge disgrace to the Pettinger family. And the more Ned tries to learn about Cornwall Coombe, the more mystified he is, especially after he notices the gravestone of one Gracie Everdeen, outside the cemetery proper. What happened to her? How did she disrupt Harvest Home years earlier? Did she really kill herself? This unsettling tale swirls beneath everything that happens, a dark secret Ned pieces together himself.

 TV-movie tie-in, Fawcett Crest 1978

The hinge of Harvest Home is that readers must be in as much perplexity as Ned himself; I'm not sure they are, at least today. Those worldly smarts of a city slicker, his arrogance and condescension, mis-serve him in the environs of Cornwall Coombe and he misapprehends much, till it's too late. Of course. It wouldn't be a horror novel if he figured out what Harvest Home really was all about 20 pages in, would it?! The long climax I think works, secrets and horrors and suspicions piling up till a final reveal that satisfies (it put me in mind of "The Rats in the Walls" actually), and must have even more shocking in the early '70s. Tryon writes a composed line of prose, thoughtful, literate, upper-class; this lends a gravitas to the proceedings which enhances the horrors.

Relying a little too easily on cultural stereotypes—the simple ways of countryfolk, their unthinking allegiance to tradition, their lusty women, their secrets and their distrust of outsiders as well as insiders who don't conform, the bloody rituals of paganism—Harvest Home could seem dated to the modern general reader. Gender politics may grate: Beth and Kate are somewhat under-characterized, Tamar is an evil vamp, yet Widow Fortune emerges as one of the great characters of '70s horror fiction (no surprise she was portrayed by the venerable Bette Davis in the TV-movie!). While touted as a horror novel, Harvest Home is not just that; the tactics of suspense loom larger than generic horror conventions. Some might not have patience for the hundreds of pages of country livin'.

Those looking for a roller coaster ride of shock and violence would well remember that this novel predates King and his progeny on the bestseller lists. Aside from a few moments here and there the tone is one of taste—at one point Ned goes to a doctor for fertility test and the exact mechanics of that go completely unmentioned! The lone violent, overheated sex scene, promised in early chapters and delivered near the last, was sure to please adventurous readers who wanted some well-written salaciousness between the hardcovers.

One bit of cleverness I noted on this reread: is the name "Constantine" a little in-joke for the history buff? Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor who converted and stopped the persecution of Christians and heralded its spread over the Western World, hastening the end of pagan rites and worship as he and his heirs destroyed their holy sites. Ned is confounded by the villagers' atavistic beliefs and rather than overcoming them, he is overwhelmed, very nearly killed by the same kind of believers his namesake persecuted: a bit of literary comeuppance, perhaps? Perhaps.

As I said, Tryon takes his time setting up scares but boy does it pay off. This leisurely approach makes Harvest Home that kind of read that's perfect for fall—for summer too if you need to take the heat off—providing hours of cozy chills as the season of the dead approaches, as it does every year, as it will continue, forever, the Eternal Return, for thus it was since the Olden Times.