Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Blood Rubies by Axel Young (1982): He Who Fucks Nuns

More a suspenseful melodrama than an outright horror novel, Blood Rubies (Avon Books, Apr 1982) was published under the pseudonym Axel Young. Really it was Michael McDowell and pal Dennis Schuetz, who also collaborated on a gay mystery series and "Tales from the Darkside" screenplays. I found it highly readable fun, a smart fast-paced story for the most part that took me two days to read. This tale of twin sister fate twisted like a DNA helix could have been a swell TV-movie back in the day, starring perhaps two young night-time soap stars (or maybe just one in the role of a lifetime!). While I'd hoped to find out some backstory on those precious titular jewels—if they held some supernal agent within—I was still fairly satisfied overall, if a bit baffled by the abrupt conclusion. But as I've said before, I prefer that to an ending that lasts forever.

Back-cover copy does a good job of setting up the tale. Prologue is all gloom and doom on New Year's Eve 1959 as a woman gives birth in a tenement building in Boston's North End. A winter storm approaches in the night. Twin girls are born, one on either side of the new decade. The only thing the distraught mother, Mary Lodesco, has to give them is a pair of ruby earrings which was given to her by her mother, which she demands the midwife affix to the girls, one each. Bad luck, the midwife mutters, to separate them, but she does so. Woman and children sleep but are awakened by, of course, a raging fire set accidentally by a drunk on the first floor. Only the twins will survive; separated, but alive. One is found and given up for adoption; the other is stolen away, unseen, presumed dead...

The first half of the novel is the adopted twin's story. Raised by a religious working-class couple outside Boston, young Katherine Dolan attends Catholic school and wants nothing more than to become a nun in the order of the Slaves of the Immaculate Conception. She is quiet, not very popular nor very intelligent. Her adoptive mother Anne is a McDowell type through and through: pious, short-tempered, petty, delusional. James, the father, strolls in drunk and begins to engage in my least favorite trope of '80s horror; you can probably guess what happens, I mean it's even there on the back cover.

The nun stuff gets a bit much, it really does, lots of details about getting into a nunnery that may test one's patience. It all rings true, though, I guess, but what do I know? Still the authors get inside Katherine's head to show the disconnect between her desire to be a bride of Christ and her desire to escape her parents at any cost (In her father's heart, they found a butcher knife). What troubles her however is her continuing dream of a beautiful popular girl, herself perfected... and at the end of Part I and the beginning of Part II, the two young women who share a pair of ruby earrings set eyes upon one another.

In the second half of Blood Rubies we meet Andrea LoPonti, the child who was stolen away and raised with no knowledge of her origins. The LoPonti family is also devoutly Catholic but there the similarity ends: the family is well-off and well-respected. Andrea wants for nothing, is brilliant and ambitious, if sheltered from reality. As she sets off to college, we follow her as she again and again is exposed to the harshness of the world outside a Boston suburb. This stuff was my favorite part of Blood Rubies, Andrea's forays into the early '70s singles' bar scene in Boston, casual drug use, and travels throughout Europe with bestie Marsha. The two girls want nothing more to become worldly; when Andrea meets leather-clad bad-boy Jack, she becomes worldly in a hurry. Reminded me, unexpectedly, of those first two Bret Easton Ellis novels, Less Than Zero (1985) and The Rules of Attraction (1987)... except several years earlier than those.

 
The aspects of McDowell's skills that make him great are shown off well here, as he peers inside the lives of two different families and two different women. He knows people, and this sets him apart from other paperback original writers of his era. We'll go down dark paths, not necessarily supernatural, but bloody and horrific all the same, yet we'll always be accompanied by someone who knows the territory. When Katherine and Andrea finally meet everything is up-ended; that good girl/bad girl dichotomy is flipped around again. Irony abounds. The mechanics near the end are almost unbelievable: pulpy, near camp, kinda sleazy but oh so fun (the role of a lifetime!). An abrupt climax at first baffles but chills on afterthought. Blood Rubies will be a pleasure for McDowell fans; sure, it's a minor work in his oeuvre, yet still a worthwhile read.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Manly Wade Wellman Born Today, 1903




Four preceding books: Ballantine Fantasy 1984/cover art by Carl Lundgren

Baen Books 1988/cover art by Steve Hickman

May 21, 1903 - April 5, 1986

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Happy Man by Eric C. Higgs (1985): When I Got Some Flesh Off the Bone

Sometimes I would think back to the times 
Ruskin Marsh and I used to talk. 
I would think about the things he had hinted at, 
things that were so monstrous on the face of it 
that I never dreamed he might be in deadly earnest. But he was. Oh yes...

Whatever you do don't read the back-cover copy of the paperback edition of The Happy Man (Paperjacks/April 1986). It gives away everything. I went in knowing nothing about the novel save a couple intriguing reviews by folks I trust (which of course I avoided reading). I found myself quietly guided into a private universe of amoral appetites and infernal indulgences. Akin to Thomas Tessier's Finishing Touches, published around the same time, Eric C. Higgs's first novel is literate, incisive, and restrained, even when presenting behavior that leaves human decency far, far behind. Especially then. A scathing, chilling absurdist satire of the 1980s consumerist lifestyle, The Happy Man has an easy and readable quality to it that belies its cruel intentions. A slim 166 pages, I would've happily read more and more about these two men, narrator Charles Ripley and his new neighbor Ruskin Marsh, and their "friendship," a bond that tests all limits... and a few beyond.

No current info on Higgs could be found, although I located a 1987 newspaper article on him. He wrote one other horror novel, Doppelganger, that looks worthwhile, as well as a screenplay for Happy Man (it could be an excellent little blackly comic/horror indie flick). Wish he'd stuck to the game, because as a writer, Higgs is a marvel, a wonder, a relief and a delight: he says what he means and means what he says. He knows what he wants to say and he says just that. Mature and insightful, Higgs parses human complexities with an economic, unpretentious grace.


As I rushed upon [the old man] I told myself there could be no pity, not for his kind, not ever. 
And when I knocked him over and got on top of him, 
I brought the hammer down so hard and so often 
I was entirely unaware that I was making it end 
too quickly.

This, in the first few pages. What compels Charles to murder? Why is he disappointed he didn't make the killing last? We don't even know why exactly he is in a homicidal rage, why Charles attacks the man: ("confident that his death was as preordained as the orbit of the solar system"). The first chapter ends with Charles driving away in the dead man's car ("The inertia that had once held me was indeed gone"), ruminating on what's happened to lead him here. We will learn.

1985 hardcover, St. Martin's Press

In the suburban milieu of San Diego called Mesa Vista, Charles Ripley and his wife Shelly enjoy a comfortable life, having moved past the loss of a baby. The weeks and years pile on and maybe things aren't so exciting any longer. But when the Marshes move in next door, they seem to fit right into the dinner parties, home improvement projects and such. Ruskin Marsh has a charisma, a ruthless charm really ("the Aggressive Exec type" Charles notes), that draws Charles in. And Sybil Marsh, Ruskin's effortlessly attractive wife, makes a personal connection with Shelly. What strikes Charles most is Ruskin's ability to get him talking about things Charles had forgotten he'd once cared about: art, literature, ethics, life. Could his new neighbor have the long-sought, near-mythical key to a happy, satisfied life?

As their friendship begins, Ruskin lends Charles a leather-bound book; will you be surprised to learn it's a private printing of the Marquis de Sade's Juliette? *hint, hint* Ruskin also plies Charles with marijuana and cocaine, shows off his gun collection and tells a harrowing tale of being a fighter pilot in Vietnam. A fresh note of unease begins the night Charles and Ruskin go out for dinner together without their wives. We've already seen that Charles is not adverse to a little something on the side, as he's starting an affair with a young woman at work. But Ruskin, with gorgeous Sybil? Ruskin likes to slum: The brunette's name was Mandy. Her face was just this side of being haggard, but her figure was ripely endowed. The other one, Hariette, looked as if she belonged in a trucker's honkeytonk. Their after-party turns into a moment of sheer horror... but the two men walk away unscathed: But the most surprising thing of all was that I found I could live with it.

Things start to go wrong in this suburb. Surrounding this little oasis is an encroaching minority populace, being so close to the Mexican border, which causes mild worry for the Mesa Vista denizens. Brutalized bodies are discovered after horrifying screams in the night (a centerpiece of the novel). Several young women suddenly leave town. Violence (and sex) breaks out at neighborhood dinner parties soundtracked by Jobim. All of this is masterfully detailed by Higgs. Ruskin tells Charles about the "society of friends" he belongs to (not the Quakers!), slowly reveals to him the happy life: His tone was of the utmost reasonableness... His life had the serenity and peace that forever eluded me... "I think it's important to know oneself, Charles."

Screenplay, 2012

After I finished my first reading of Happy Man I set it down to ruminate on it, work on this review. Days, weeks, months went by, and I couldn't quite say what I wanted about the book. Finally I had to re-read it, three months later, something I almost never do. It captivated me yet again! I liked the various dinner parties, minor Cheever but twisted and cruel like Dahl. The pen Higgs wields is deft and ironic, exposing the base instincts, the very worst ones, satirizing them ably, all that suburbia tries to tamp down. I noted that Sybil and Shelly's affair, revealed near the end, probably went down very much like Charles and Ruskin's: platonic seduction leading to something... deeper, darker, almost delusional. Shelly leaves Charles, leaving him open to the final happy horror Ruskin has in store. The plan all along, I assume.

No way around it: Higgs makes many other horror writers I've reviewed for this blog seem like clod-hopping buffoons stomping and stumbling all over the English language. Do other horror writers even care about humans, pay attention to them, the small details that afford a glimpse into their inner workings? To the grit and grind of daily living? No, too often the horror genre appeals to writers unworthy of the craft, to the lazy and those satisfied with cliche and banality, unwilling to do the hard working of scraping off the surface and peering at what lies beneath, and then attempting, with honesty and imagination, to describe that which lies there. Higgs makes it all seem so easy, polished, yet still raw and painful. Pity he wrote only two novels. The Happy Man is an essential '80s horror read: smart, sharp, unforgiving, unlike anything else in the genre at the time. You need this book to make you happy: satisfy that unnamed hunger and read it!

Ruskin and I were one now, united on a plane of perfect understanding. 
My unhappiness had come to an end.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Hollywood Book Score

I was in Los Angeles for a long weekend, just arrived back in Portland today. On Thursday I went to Iliad Bookshop. This was my second trip there; my first visit was back in 2010 and it was a doozy! So was this one. What I love about the place is that they still stock vintage genre mass market paperbacks, and their horror section is quite large (so is their mystery and science fiction). I probably coulda bought more—lots of Dell/Abyss titles in stock—but I knew I was gonna have to lug these books home. I chatted about horror fiction, Michael McDowell in particular, with two of the folks working there. Today I found out one of them was author/editor (and Horror Writers' Association president) Lisa Morton! Funny coincidence. And of course their film section is top-notch as well. Check out these pix! This is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, used bookstore I've ever shopped in. If you're ever in Hollywood, you simply must go.

 Somebody stuck a pic of the original cover inside!

 Bukowski, of course

 Love all the newspaper clippings taped up

 Real paperbacks!

 
 Film bios out the wazoo. An entire book on Jon Cryer?!

 Bookshop kitty, check

Dig those "books"

 Yrs truly hard at work

These came from Counterpoint Records & Books, good spot, mostly hardcovers and old vinyl


Friday, April 15, 2016

MetaHorror, ed. by Dennis Etchison (1992): Beyond Man's Fears—Review Cont'd

Let's continue, shall we? 1992's MetaHorror (Dell/Abyss) contains a wealth of stories I couldn't get to in my first review.

Thomas Tessier presents us with "In Praise of Folly," and if you don't know now, Tessier is one of my favorite horror writers of the era. Our story goes along in Tessier's patented confident prose, his usual set-up, the travelogue of a man alone in search of something just beyond reach. While the premise of "folly" is a good onea genuine folly was a building, garden, grotto or other such architectural construct that had been designed with a deliberate disregard for the normal rules—and the payoff is quite unsettling, something seemed missing for me; the protagonist's reaction to his predicament is muted, almost elided; I needed it for the story to have frisson. A rare mis-step for Tessier, but still a worthwhile read.

Ramsey Campbell's "End of the Line" is about a man who slowly loses the ability to communicate. Since the guy is a telemarketer by trade, it's an ironic notion. Always with the modern world's dehumanization, Campbell is. "Nothing Will Hurt You" by David Morrell is a parent's cry of desperation after the loss of a child—something I know Morrell actually experienced—and the story is a raw, painful, an exorcism of grief. The central idea is kinda wonky, and you'll see the climax coming, but it worked for me.

Lisa Tuttle offers "Replacements" in her story about a domestic intruder. Jenny brings home a strange little creature she's found in the street to husband Stuart.

"...I realized how helpless it was. It needed me. It can't help how it looks. 
Anyway, doesn't it kind of remind you of the Psammead?" 
"The what?" 
"Psammead. You know, The Five Children and It?"

Ick. She doesn't know Stuart killed one of the repulsive things in a fit of disgust earlier that day. I really dig stories about dysfunctional relationships that have the bitter tang of real life experience, but cast in the generic structure of horror fiction. A winner.

Karl Edward Wagner's "Did They Get You to Trade" is one of MetaHorror's finest offerings. Now I'm generally not into fictional rock'n'roll (see Shock Rock, Never Mind the Pollacks, Great Jones Street, or CBGB [obviously not fictional but ugh] on how to get it wrong): authors always seem to miss that ineffable quality to the music, tiny details are wrong, but Wagner's up to the task. It's not perfect, couple notes ring slightly false, but that is to quibble. American Ryan Chase, visiting and drinking in London, stumbles upon forgotten punk-rock hero Nemo Skagg, now a meth burnout, but still retains the most satisfying part of his '70s fame. The determined grit, the encompassing humanistic tone, the assured narrative flow, the sense of place, and the just-so rambling drunken conversation show Wagner about as good as he gets—alas, as good as he would ever get; he'd be dead within two years. Stories like this one make readers realize just how much good horror fiction would never be with Wagner's death. A lost giant.

 Wagner

Donald Burleson's "Ziggles" reminded me of Ramsey Campbell in its step-by-step elevation of the banal to the absurdly horrific. A schoolteacher and her children are pursued in the oddest way by the titular character, which is, believe it or not, a stick figure. I know, right? But it works. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Barry N. Malzberg (again?!) provides "Dumbarton Oaks," an ostensibly irreverent fable casting the doings of devils as analogous to the drudgery of earthly business management. I dunno, with its archness ("It is best to retain the appearance of humility, even in the intimation of its opposite"), it reads like something Ray Russell could've dashed off back in '65 during his days as a Playboy editor, and probably after a three-martini lunch.

M. John Harrison (above, and another author known more for SF) "GIFCO" is a real mind-fuck, literate and allusive, about... child death/abduction? Grief? Marriage woes? Harrison is a heavyweight of a writer, no falsity, no dull edges, but just what he's getting at eludes the reader. That is the intent, it has to be: that feeling of unsettled, free-floating anxiety and doubt, that there are things going on around us that flit from comprehension. The tiniest detail can have the largest import. A husband and wife lose their daughter; a cop uses their upstairs room to spy on an abandoned house spray-painted with the word "GIFCO"; then suddenly GIFCO is part of the proceedings as a shadowy agent as the man and the cop search for a missing teenager (I had been warned: "Be certain to say that first. 'GIFCO sent me.'") . I really had no idea what the fuck was going on here; I googled the tale and while other readers dig it, nobody can apprehend its final meaning. I suppose there isn't a point, and that's the point. How meta.

1996 German paperback

A violent shoot 'em up of biblical proportions, Robert Devereaux's "Bucky Goes to Church" affects that down-home vulgarity of a redneck spinning tales at the cracker barrel, disarming you with philosophical asides and then an apocalyptic climax. Definite Joe Lansdale territory. Devereaux went on to write at least one notorious over-the-top splatterpunk novel (1994's Deadweight, also from Abyss). At times bizarrely silly and ridiculous, so much so I wanted to dismiss the story utterly, at other moments Devereaux shows a deft hand with his monstrous conceit: "You sending me to hell?" he asked. She laughed. "Looks to Me you found your own way there." Her eyes surveyed the carnage... This has got to be one of the founding stories of bizarro horror.

Devereaux

My issue with MetaHorror is that I wish there'd been a Poppy Z. Brite, an Elizabeth Massie, a David B. Silva, a T.E.D. Klein, a Kathe Koja—I guess I'm naming writers that appeared in the Borderlands series, aren't I? MetaHorror is very good in places but quite weak in others, and stories by the writers I named would have been a better fit. While not essential, MetaHorror is, as Etchison notes in his intro, "wonderfully varied in both content and style." I think there will be something here for adventurous readers seeking something beyond.

1992 hardcover title page

Friday, April 8, 2016

MetaHorror, ed. by Dennis Etchison (1992): Beyond Man's Fears

In 1992, with Dell's horror imprint Abyss up and running, it made good sense for the publisher to hire Dennis Etchison to put together their first anthology of original fiction. As we saw in his 1986 anthology Cutting Edge (a personal and important favorite of mine, both then and now), his pedigree of intelligence and taste, willingness to experiment in the genre and test boundaries, made him the right man to acquire even cutting-edgier stories. We got MetaHorror (July 1992). Right from the start you can see the ambition: check the prefix meta. Now that's a scholarly, academic word, this meta, one not generally bandied about by readers and purveyors of paperback horror fiction. What gives?

I was definitely into this idea of horror that went beyond horror, horror aware of its history, horror that left behind its tepid tropes and banal cliches in search of real true darkness, horror aware of its place in the literary pantheon (that is, nowhere) and eager to show its intellectual bonafides. I mean, we got Joyce freakin' Carol Oates on the cover! MetaHorror hit me at the right time: I'd been moving away from horror, reading more and more crime, more science fiction, more literary fiction, more world classics. I was in college at the time and reading serious academic books too (one title that I recall fondly that combined horror and academia was Lee Siegel's City of Dreadful Night—which I read about in Fangoria!). So yeah: I was all about some meta. Problem was, I seem to recall reading the few duds in the anthology first, which put me off reading the rest. So I've been meaning to get back to MetaHorror for years...

MetaHorror begins with "Blues and the Abstract Truth" by Barry Malzberg and Jack Dann, which is followed by the not dissimilar "Are You Now?" by Scott Edelman. All three authors were more known for their science fiction than horror—I'm not doing headstands here. These two openers are weak Xerox copies of the masterful futurist J.G. Ballard: fractured, dissociated, clinical tales of men still in thrall to the sociopolitical events of the 1950s and 1960s, searching for the (Freudian? Jungian? McLuhanian?) key that will unlock their tortured psyches. My psyche was tortured by Ballard's books throughout the 1990s, and while I absolutely adored them, if I'm going to revisit their corrosive obsessions I'd just as soon pull The Atrocity Exhibtion off my shelf and read it again (I don't think I read these two stories on my initial encounter).

Next up: two so-so short-shorts by Lawrence Watt-Evans and Richard Christian Matheson, all blood 'n' blades stuff, then Joyce Carol Oates shows up with "Martyrdom" and shows everybody how it's done. I don't always like her short fiction—I've been dipping in and out of her 1977 collection Night-Side for ages—but this one is a doozy. Oates strikes a bold contrast between a woman who marries into high-society and the life of a city rat (yes, you read that right); when the two meet it's the most unsettling scenario this side of (then-current) American Psycho. Densely packed with disgusting imagery and written with consummate skill, "Martyrdom" is a marvel.

Mr. X grew systematically crueler, hardly a gentleman any longer, forcing upon his wife as she lay trussed and helpless in their marriage bed a man with fingernails filed razor-sharp who lacerated h er tender flesh, a man with a glittering scaly skin, a man with a turkey's wattles, a man with an ear partly missing, a man with a stark-bald head and cadaverous smile, a man with infected draining sores like exotic tattoos stippling his body...

 Oates

"Briar Rose" features a young woman regaining her identity through tattoos ("I'm my own Sistine Chapel"). Kind of a dated concept today, sure, but Kim Antieu's perceptive pen confers a fresh eye to the conceit. Plus it was 1992. I've liked her stories in Borderlands II and other anthos, and this one is no exception. Old-schoolers William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson had decades of publications to their name even in 1992. I know it's impolitic of me to say, but I inwardly sigh when I see their names on an anthology roster. Their stories here—"The Visit" and "The Ring of Truth" respectively—are relatively quaint, the "unexpected" twists of the genre long utilized by themselves and their colleagues but painfully dated today (or "today"). They're outclassed by the deeper, darker, more finely wrought and conceived works that MetaHorror also contains.

Tem

Steve Rasnic Tem's "Underground" was a favorite: a sensitive, penetrating work about a man's friend slowly dying of AIDS who doesn't want to be buried after the disease finally wins. This is juxtaposed with the excavation of a city block near the man's home; Tem fills the story with imagery of raw earth, dirt, blood, bodies, loss. The fear is palpable. One of MetaHorror's finest.  

On the news they'd reported the discovery of a human skull, thought to be over a century old. Foul play was not suspected. They thought it might have drifted down from the cemetery a half-mile away. Tom tried to imagine such a thing, dead bodies drifting underground, swimming slowly through what most of us liked to think of as too solid ground.

Editor Etchison

I quit Strieber's story as soon as it was clear the protagonists were Barbie and Ken dolls.

MetaHorror ends strong, with two solid powerful works that, however, seem less like horror fiction than straight-up war literature. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro offers some of the best prose in the anthology; her piece "Novena" reads more like a novel excerpt. In a nameless wartorn city reduced to rubble, rubble that houses wounded children, a nun/nurse is desperate to provide service and comfort. She has little luck. It's confident and affecting, but almost too bleak on its own as it offers no relief from its scenario, which is why it seemed to me a part of a larger story. Genre giant Peter Straub's "The Ghost Village" is part of his "Blue Rose" universe, which includes at least three novels and a handful of short stories about a group of men before, during, and after the Vietnam war. This one is set in the war itself, and it's chilling, nightmarish, ugly; one of the best stories I've read so far in 2016 and reminds me I just have to get to those other books.

There are other good stories (and others not so good) in MetaHorror from favorite names: Tessier, Wagner, Tuttle, Campbell, Morrell; I'll get to them in a follow-up review.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Sunday, April 3, 2016

RIP Frank De Felitta (1921 - 2016)

Bestselling author and filmmaker Frank De Felitta has died at age 94. Please enjoy these terrific vintage paperback covers!