Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Face That Must Die by Ramsey Campbell (1979): I'm Determined and I'd Rather See You Dead

When it comes to horror titles, Ramsey Campbell's first two novels, 1976's The Doll Who Ate His Mother and 1979's The Face That Must Die, must be considered as some of the most provocative of their day; in their tasteless glories they shout like cheap tabloid headlines. Yet within the books readers will find an imagination that is fine and not crude; sensitive and not exploitative; authentic and not postured. Indeed, the introductory essay included with the 1985 Tor edition, "At the Back of My Mind: A Guided Tour," is Campbell's well-known account of his worsening relationship with his mother as she sank into dementia over many years. These days mainstream memoirs and fiction of life with crazy parents are a dime a dozen, but Campbell's piece has no distancing irony or comic effect. Harrowing and sad and enlightening, it is Campbell's explanation for ''why I write what I write," and readers can come to their own conclusions about how this influenced The Face That Must Die.

Campbell in 1980

Face is the story of the aptly-named Horridge, a nobody kind of fellow in a precisely-drawn Liverpool whose growing paranoia is exacerbated by his obsession/revulsion with an overweight, effeminate older man who lives in his Liverpool neighborhood. After reading in the papers about a "man whose body was found in a Liverpool flat was a male prostitute" and studying the accompanying suspect police sketch, Horridge comes to realize "he had seen the killer three times now, in as many days. That was no coincidence. But what was he meant to do?" His conviction that random events are a secret code to him alone is unshakeable.

Horridge finds out the man's name is Roy Craig by searching through library records (and mildly creeping out library clerk Cathy Gardner, who with her long-haired boyfriend Peter actually lives in the same building as Craig), Horridge begins systematically stalking and harassing the man. Craig's homosexuality--Horridge is correct in his presumption--offends him to his core: "If he was a homosexual he was perverted enough for anything." Which of course means he will continue to kill, and must be stopped by any means necessary--actually he can be stopped by any means necessary, because Horridge is doing away with degenerates and doing society a favor.

Campbell does a solid job of making the reader feel uneasy. Everywhere, things seem off: conversations are snippy, irritated, impatient; graffiti stains walkways and alleys (Horridge keeps seeing the word "killer"); the wheezing buses are crowded and smoke-filled; twilight is always seeping into Horridge's apartment; his limp is painful and insistent; library customers are resentful, grumbling at the clerks wielding petty powers (in a scene Campbell admits is autobiographical); fog prevents everyone from seeing clearly. Liverpool is as much a character as Horridge or Cathy or Peter, and at times even seems conspire against Horridge; he sees the tower blocks, rundown flats, loud pubs, grimy gutters, grey skies, and bare concrete as one big institution, a prison ready for its cowed inmates. Everywhere the banal, the mundane, threaten to swallow the sane and insane alike; the suffocation is palpable.

Sometimes he thought the planners had faked those paths, to teach people to obey without questioning... the tunnel was treacherous with mud and litter; the walls were untidy webs of graffiti. All the overhead lights had been ripped out. He stumbled through, holding breath; the place smelled like an open sewer... A dread which he'd tried to suppress was creeping into his thoughts--that sometime, perhaps in fog, he would come home and be unable to distinguish his own flat.

Immersed in Horridge's psyche, the reader is also both fascinated and revolted by his thought processes as they cycle through mania and grandiosity, memories of a painful childhood, and his ever-present desire to clean up the filth (moral and literal) he sees growing everywhere around him. Every tiny detail, every sliver of dialogue, every simile, drips with an uneasy threat of everything about to fall apart, as if reality itself were trembling on the precipice of chaos. Campbell allows us a few views outside of Horridge's, but overall we feel as he does: threatened, maligned, powerless. Then he lashes out in anonymous--and unwittingly ironic--calls to Craig: "Just remember I'm never far away. You'd be surprised how close I am to you."

 1st UK paperback, Star Books Dec 1979

The novel also offers some insights into contemporary British life. Craig's backstory of his marriage breaking up is sad and all too common, I'm sure. His wife discovers his gay porn, is horrified, and her last words to him are, "I think I could have borne it if it been another woman." In his opening essay, Campbell talks about his non-use of illicit drugs, but he sure gets the details right describing the dregs of late '70s drug culture, the desultory nature of trying to score, the hangover of 1960s radical politics ("I bet he thought I'd have to be middle-class and polite. No chance, brother"), and the nagging suspicions that the Establishment is just waiting to pounce. Peter and Cathy are growing apart due to his continued use of marijuana and LSD; they're a counterculture couple suffering bourgeois relationship ills. They, and Craig, along with bohemian artist Fanny who also lives in the building, will have their confrontations with Horridge, moments in which a razorblade flashes its brilliance in dingy rooms...

There is one scene I must point out. Horridge goes to the cinema to see a film, but the only title that resonates is the one that contains the word "horror" ("Horror films took you out of yourself--they weren't too close to the truth"). Check it out:
Was it supposed to be a musical? He'd been lured in under false pretenses. It began with a wedding, everyone breaking into song and dance. Then an engaged couple's car broke down: thunder, lightning, lashing rain, glimpses of an old dark house. Perhaps, after all--They were ushered to meet the mad scientist. Horridge gasped, appalled. The scientist's limp waved like snakes, his face moved blatantly. He was a homosexual.

This was a horror film, all right--far too horrible, and in the wrong way.
Yes: Horridge inadvertently attends a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show! One of the funniest and most telling--and most deserved--moments I've ever read in a horror novel (AFAIC all homophobes should have Tim Curry's Dr. Furter shoved in their faces and, yes, down their throats).

Scream/Press hardcover, Oct 1983, art by J.K. Potter

Campbell keeps the story moving quickly as Horridge's fears grow and grow. He's a bit of a walking textbook of serial killer tics and tactics, but it's not just serial killers who display these attributes. His hatred of homosexuality (his hatred of any sexuality: at one point late in the novel, Cathy is running after him, trips and falls, and Horridge hopes the breasts she flaunts have burst); his belief that society is degrading more and more; his hatred of foreigners and anyone different, gay or not; the shades of his disappointed parents hovering about him--is this an indictment of Thatcher-era England? All I know about English culture I learned from '70s punk, but this sounds about right. Campbell is also wise to draw a parallel between Peter and Horridge, who are both aware of how out of step they are with modern society and the paranoid fantasies this engenders in them.

Futura UK reprint, 1990

Readers who enjoy the experience of being thrust into the killer's mind will enjoy Face; no, it's no American Psycho or Exquisite Corpse, it's not nearly so deranged or explicit, but for its time it's a brutal expose. A more accurate comparison could be made to Thomas Tessier's Rapture; both books are able to make their antagonist's irrationality seem rational, which is where the horror sets in. Despite a meandering chapter here and there, The Face That Must Die is an essential read for psychological horror fans. Many times Campbell hits notes that only now are we beginning to hear and understand about the minds of Horridge and his like. When Horridge finds one of Fanny's paintings is of himself, he slashes it apart with his beloved razorblade (see the Tor edition's cover, thanks to Jill Bauman); somewhere inside he knows, but can never admit, that the face that must die is only his own.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Take Another Little Piece of My Heart Now Baby

An astounding stepback image for an unremarkable '80s mainstream horror novel. The artist signature reads "Campantle," which turns up little upon Googling. Whoever that person is, they outdid most other horror paperbacks of the era with this one! I mean, a werebear-lady feasting upon unfortunate shirtless dude...


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Karl Edward Wagner's Kane: The Frank Frazetta Covers

Born on this date in 1945 in Knoxville, TN, the late great Karl Edward Wagner made his bones writing countless tales of Kane, a somber swordsman from prehistory. Warner Books published these paperbacks throughout the 1970s and '80s with cover art to catch anyone's eye, thanks to the mighty Frank Franzetta's depictions of ripped . It was a match made for the pulp ages...

I haven't read these myself--Wagner's horror fiction is more my thing--and I don't usually see these books when I'm out book-hunting. So I leave it to you guys: how much do you like Wagner's Kane books?


Friday, November 28, 2014

Twelve Tales of Suspense and the Supernatural by Davis Grubb (1964)

Known for penning the novel The Night of the Hunter upon which the classic 1955 movie was based, Davis Grubb (1919-1980) was a West Virginia native well-versed in the pride, poverty, tribulations and superstitions that were endemic to that region. This collection of short stories ranging over 20 years, Twelve Tales of Suspense and the Supernatural (paperback edition from Fawcett Crest, June 1965) includes some Weird Tales works as well as tales first published in popular magazines like Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Woman's Home Companion, and Collier's: you know, all the middlebrow publications of the mid-century that your great-grandparents might have read of a TV-less evening (Cavalier too, but that was probably Grandad's privy reading).

Grubb's style has a slightly melancholy, forlorn (the variant "lorn," which I have never come across before, appears in places) note to it and his scenarios are decent time-passers, characters familiar: drawling ne'er-do-wells, laconic sheriffs, expansive judges, tempting women, shrewish wives, innocent children, cool killers. The aptly-titled "Moonshine" got me thinking of those Gold Medal paperbacks from the 1950s of Southern sleaze and backwoods ribaldry. That sensibility is everywhere, but not overwhelming; I wouldn't really call it Southern Gothic, but there is just a hint of it at the edges.

 From hardcover edition, 1964

While reading these stories I couldn't help but think of Grubb's contemporaries in short genre fiction. While his stories aren't quite as sensitively-wrought as Charles Beaumont's or as matter-of-fact believable as Richard Matheson's, as cold and cruel as Shirley Jackson's, Twelve Tales still has appeal. Readers fond of Fredric Brown and Gerald Kersh, two other unclassifiable writers whose fiction has strong echoes of crime, science fiction, suspense, and horror, should take note as well.

Most stories end with a ingenious image of violence, perhaps that's even the tale's raison d'étre, but we all know this is the pulp template. Nothing cuts too deep or too sharp, but you can see the bone in "One Foot in the Grave" and "The Horsehair Trunk," two good and grim revengers that echo Robert Bloch's punning but without that author's black humor. "Busby's Rat" and "Radio" could have served as minor entries in Ray Bradbury's October Country, and "The Rabbit Prince" is at once sad and sweet as a spinster schoolteacher is given a glimpse of wild abandon that could have come from his pen when he was feeling kinder. "Nobody's Watching!" is set in the high-tech world of TV production, and it's the kind of thing I could imagine Harlan Ellison writing about his early days, the dangers of the mediated image on the human mind... and body.

Hangin' with Bob Mitchum in the '50s. Lucky!

Orphaned children populate several of the short stories; of course endangered siblings form the crux of Night of the Hunter (which, goddammit, I must read!). Grubb has a particular sympathy for them--as who wouldn't?--but he doesn't present them mawkishly as a lesser writer would. "The Blue Glass Bottle" highlights how children misunderstand the grownup world about them. "Murder. It was a word. You heard the men say it at Passy Reeder's Store. Murder. It was black marks on the colored poster at the picture show house where the man clutched the red-haired girl by the throat." Grubb's writing shines here, with a slight To Kill a Mockingbird vibe, and the final lines quite affecting.

One of the oddest stories is "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod," which evokes the famous child's rhyme to a macabre end. You may find the reveal a tad ridiculous but it's handled nicely: "There is a moment--perhaps two--in the lifetime of each of us when the eye sees, the mind recoils, and all conscious thinking rejects what the eyes have seen." You might even think of Daphne du Maurier.

Grubb can imbue a phrase  like "not so much as a single scratch" with the most unsettling of implications. That's from "Return of Verge Likens," one of my faves, two brothers who react quite differently to the murder of their father. It was self-defense! claims the killer, and the cops agree. Too bad the man who did the deed was Ridley McGrath, "the biggest man in the whole state of West Virginia! Why, don't Senator Marcheson hisself sit and drink seven-dollar whiskey with Mister McGrath in the Stonewall Jackson lobby very time he comes to town? Don't every policeman in town tip his cap when Mister McGrath walks by?"

"That don't matter a bit," said Verge.

Arrow UK paperback, 1966

The collection concludes with the "Where the Woodbine Twineth," which was adapted for an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and included in Peter Straub's excellent anthology for the Library of America, American Fantastic Tales (2010). A little girl whose parents have been killed now lives with her father's sister Nell, who will not tolerate any dreamy foolishness from her new charge (all probably the fault of her brother's "foolish wife"!). Young Eva natters on about the "very small people who live behind the davenport," you know, Mr. Peppercorn and Mingo and Popo! Aunt Nell will have none of this, but when Captain Grandpa or whatever his name is arrives on a steamer from New Orleans with a Creole doll for Eva, things get interesting. Despite the use of an unwelcome (but context-accurate) racial slur, "Woodbine Twineth" ends on a clear, classic, sparkling note of pure unadulterated horror.

Twelve Tales offers old-fashioned pleasures for genre readers; not a classic by any means, but I think a handful of stories--generally, the last half of the book--are  worth checking out. There's nothing as terrifying as Robert Mitchum lurking inside with love and hate tattooed on the knuckles of his hands, but then again... I'm kinda relieved there's not.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Horror Paperbacks of Ken Eulo

Newark-born author Ken Eulo celebrated his 75th birthday this past November 17th, and although I've never read nor own any of his books, they were quite big paperback bestsellers in the 1980s. Certainly I saw dozens of copies of these titles while working in a UBS in the early 1990s but I wasn't ever drawn to them. His trilogy of "Stone" novels--The Brownstone (Oct 1980); The Bloodstone (Oct 1981); and The Deathstone (Nov 1982), all from Pocket Books--are set in the urban enclaves of Manhattan, and today are available as ebooks.

According to ISFDB, there is no artist credit given for any of these titles, and you can tell there are cutouts in the covers so we're missing some nice stepback images. The only actual stepback art I could find online was for the second book, The Bloodstone--and you'll note its similarity to the iconic Flowers in the Attic (1979). That art was done by a woman named Gillian Hills. Not the Gillian Hills, I can hear you saying. Well, brace yourselves: it is the same Gillian Hills! Perhaps she was responsible for the Eulo trilogy as well.


I never tire of skulls with flowing locks; Nocturnal (Dec 1983) really goes for it, bone by bone. The Ghost of Veronica Gray (Aug 1985) would appeal to teenage girls, I suppose, but certainly not to a teenage me.

Pocket Books stopped putting out horror fiction in the late '80s, so Eulo's next couple books were published by Tor. 1988's The House of Caine features a nicely sensual lady vamp, but according to some Amazon reviewers, it's fairly terrible. Then in 1991 came Manhattan Heat, which has an uninspired mainstream cover, very Joseph Wambaugh meets Jackie Collins. According to Eulo, though, it's "about New York City, the underground subways, and zombies." Read a good behind-the-scenes, where-are-they-now interview with Eulo here.

I end asking: anybody read any of these?
 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Tor Paperbacks of John Farris

It wasn't only Ramsey Campbell, Graham Masterton, and Charles L. Grant whose books were adorned with garish and graphic paperback covers when published by Tor--check out the '80s output from John Farris! Some titles, like The Fury, Shatter, The Captors, and All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By (check out snaky Ann-Margaret on that one!), were from the 1970s and then reprinted by Tor once Farris had signed with that publisher. He was quite prolific then, and still writes even as he nears 80 (Tor published his latest novel, High Bloods, just a few years ago).

Scare Tactics (1989, cover art by Carol Russo). A collection of short fiction. The cover "demon" was also used as the icon for Tor's horror line.

Catacombs (1987/orig. 1981, cover art by James Warren). I tried reading this one, not really my thing, although it was well-written. Apparently it's a kinda-sorta retelling of King Solomon's Mines.

The Axman Cometh (1989). Was Farris an O'Neill fan? In the intro, Farris instructs readers to read this one in a single sitting. Don't know why (although one Goodreads reviewer suspects it's so you'll miss cracks in plotting and some really poor writing!).

The Uninvited (1987/orig. 1982, cover art by John Melo). King quote, check! Not related to the 1940s supernatural chiller of the same title. Dig how the ghost likes a nice button-down.

The Captors (1985, orig. 1971). Probably could not quite get away with this kind of cover art today.

Minotaur (1985). Looks like a globe-trotting political thriller. I wonder if there's an actual minotaur at the center of it all?!

Nightfall (1987). Great Southern Gothic cover!

Son of the Endless Night (1986, cover by John Melo). I read this one a few years back; it's awesome in that over-the-top '80s-horror way.

Wildwood (1986). Do yourself a solid and watch this TV promo for the paperback, featuring Zacherle! OMG I wish more horror paperback publishers had done this.

Sharp Practice (1988, orig. 1974) Love the Looney Tunes-style imagery, absurd as it is.

Shatter (1986, orig. 1981) Nobody stayed up late working on this cover.

Fiends (1990, cover by John Melo). According to the PorPor Books blog, not a must-read.

The Fury (1985, orig. 1976, cover by John Melo) The novel that made Farris's career. Melo was a master of depicting '80s hair, wasn't he?

I have most of these on my bookshelf; I really need to get to reading 'em!

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Paperback Covers of Bram Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars

The 167th anniversary of Bram Stoker's birth was this weekend, on Saturday the 8th. In previous years I've featured the paperback editions of Dracula and The Lair of the White Worm; this year, check out the mostly impressive covers for The Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903), a less well-known work of Stoker's, about one man's attempt to resurrect an ancient Egyptian queen.