Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Woodwitch by Stephen Gregory (1988): There's Fever in the Funkhouse Now

Well, there's nothing for it: another vintage horror novel read in 2017 that promised much but delivered little. Despite the endless reservoir of talent that Stephen Gregory shows with his ability to craft a tasty line of prose or pinpoint an indelicate bit of human psychology, The Woodwitch (St Martin's Press paperback/Nov 1989) is a frustratingly narrow story, insular to the point of absolute zero, and disagreeably disgusting. Gregory's first novel, 1986's The Cormorant, was a doom-laden, penetrating work of deep obsession. Woodwitch is that too, but less as well. Sure, there are lots of quoted encomiums printed front and back, accurate, sure, but what they leave out is that the book is mostly a grimy slog of a read. 

Our protagonist is uber-clueless buffoon Andrew Pinkney, guilty of the worst kind of turd-human behavior: smacking his date in the head for laughing at his limp penis. And that's it: that's the impetus for this shortish novel about a man's spiraling descent into madness (and where it stops, nobody know—er I mean you can probably guess). I suppose for many men that would be plenty enough reason, penile humiliation is the worst thing ever of course, but reading a whole book about it? Whew. I mean there's no room to breathe, and every breath one can draw is poisoned by enough rot and maggoty decay as to test any reader's tolerance.

The tale begins in a Welsh forest with Andrew traipsing about with his dog, a small collie called Phoebe. Phoebe is his only companion, an eager, bright, sometimes willful dog (but I just described a dog, didn't I, any dog); together they discover a badger corpse in the woods. Of course Andrew picks it up and takes it back to the cottage they're staying in and hangs it in the work shed. "You're perfect," he says to it as it drips maggots. Of course. Next, a jog back to the beginning so we can get a full dose of the square courtship between Andrew and his solicitor colleague Jennifer, a severe older woman, an amateur artist and naturalist who, on their romantic walks together, likes to point out various flora and fauna in their Latin scientific names. Hot stuff! No, it's rather charming.

Finally they get down to it, miserably, and Andrew fails at being a man, because that's what a man is of course ("Was that it?" the woman asked. That was it. "Heavens! What a lot of fuss about nothing!") and she sees his failure and begins to laugh. And Andrew simply punches her right in the mouth. Horrified at what he's done, Andrew calls cops and an ambulance; Jennifer is whisked away (no damage which a little dentistry could not repair), while their boss vouches for Andrew's good name and behavior so he is not charged. Boss suggests time off for both, which angers Jennifer, but Andrew takes him up on the offer of using the boss's holiday cottage so "then he could come back whenever he liked, refreshed and wholly recovered from the shock he had had." Well I am certainly glad of that, imagine how awful and oppressive and traumatizing it must be to have to punch a woman in the mouth, you totally need a vacay after that shit.

1989 UK paperback

As for Jennifer, who knows, she disappears from this madness. She will only continue to exist as a fantasy in Andrew's mind... because he's got this great idea about how to win her back. Her fascination with flora and fauna has subtly influenced his own behavior. How about a little joke at his expense, to show her he's not such a bad guy? He'll give her the gift of fungus! He'll grow it himself out of a blooming animal carcass. And not just any fungus, but the stinkhorn, or Phallus impudicus, a wretched-smelling thing sticking six inches up out of the earth, oozing oil-green and viscous black... the forest's unashamed caricature of the human phallus, at which the ancient peoples of the mountains had marveled for century after century... the object of their wonder and witchcraft, a totem, a thing to be prized and loathed and feared... What a great idea! Send her one of those, ha-ha, see I'm a fella can laugh at himself!

You won't believe how much mileage Gregory gets from describing the lewd, dripping stinkhorn fungus, the busy little maggots burrowing inside the badger and (later, after a trip to the grim seaside) the swan corpses, the damp, suffocating weather. It's overwhelming, it's disgusting (not in any moral sense, but literally so) and ultimately: boring. As. Hell. Even when Gregory turns an apt phrase about one of these aspects, the reaction is "Oh, well done," not "Holy shit, the implications of this for the character's mental state is now clearer and scarier!" Just page after page of this obsession, All there was in the world, in the entire universe, was the man and his dog, enveloped by the night. Sure, there are creepy sheep about, staring at them through the dense overgrowth, sheep that haunt Andrew's dreams like marauding women...

1989 US hardcover

Things get more interesting when Andrews meets a teenage brother and sister who live on a nearby farm caring for the sheep and kennel with hounds for fox-hunting. They mock him to his face in Welsh, but the girl, Shan, calls him "Pinkie" and seems amenable to conversation. They have a few pints in a woodsy lodge bar, something seems off. The novel's best sequence takes place on Halloween night, a party at this hotel bar, and the drunken, hallucinatory chaos which ensues. Told prior by Shan that folks would be in costume, Andrew bedecks himself in the weakest, lamest excuse for a vampire outfit ever, then with Phoebe at his side he trods in his wellies through the woods to the bar. Shan is flirty, her brother moody, the crowd oddly desultory. Phoebe becomes pathetically sick, distressing and angering the other drinkers and the barkeep asks them to leave. This leads to a bizarre attempt at a tryst with young Shan back at Pinkie's cabin, encrusted in dirt and soot, enticing Andrew on; there's wine, drunkeness, mockery, humiliation, even animal cruelty, I mean really. You can imagine the outcome of this seduction.

In the firelight, it looked as though some disgusting torture had been practised on the girl and was about to be resumed, for her body, skeletal and black, appeared to have been burned, branded and charred by the naked man who once again loomed over her

2015 Valancourt Books trade paperback

This whole sequence is very unsettling, I mean even the fungus gets a voice: In its effortlessness, its arrogance, its brazen lewdness, the stinkhorn sneered at him and said, "Look at me, Andrew Pinkney, and compare your flaccid maggot of a cock with mine!" The story continues on, I put the book down for weeks, ugh, same thing, then when it all wraps up there's hardly a surprise. Sure, with novels of obsession (Campbell's Face That Must Die, Tessier's Rapture, McDowell's Toplin, Koja's Cipher) that's often the case. I guess this time I was just exhausted by the literalness.

Once I read a rock critic who said something like the double-entendre lyrics of AC/DC were so obvious they were single entendres. That's the issue here too: Gregory is so on-the-nose with the symbolism of the fungus it's not even symbolism any longer; his conceit takes away any work on the reader's part: In Wales, Andrew Pinkney, having failed dismally in his last attempt to rear a home-grown erection, could sit back and enjoy these surrogates as he relaxed beside the fire. The sexual psychology here is all too obvious. This book isn't truly terrible, it has its moments like many horror novels I've overall disliked, but wow is it a bleak, dismal, dreary read with little payoff. I still recommend The Cormorant, but The Woodwitch left me unsatisfied. Traipse this dank darkness at your own peril.

Somewhere in the gloom, it seemed that something had crawled away to die and now was being dismantled by the silently working teeth of the maggots. The smell arose like a vapour exhaled by the earth itself, and then it was gone again, as if Andrew had imagined it, as though the stink were conjured in the darkest recesses of his own mind, to appear and disappear like a memory.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

RIP Berni Wrightson (1948-2017)

The horror world mourns as it learns of the passing of unsurpassable artist Berni(e) Wrightson, who died Saturday after a long battle with brain cancer.

I first became aware of his work in 1983, when Cycle of the Werewolf was published in hardcover. A very short Stephen King "novel" with astonishing illustrations by Wrightson, my 12-year-old self was obsessed with it from the first time I saw a copy on that bookstore shelf. I saved up my paper route money and bought a copy ($28.95!) and pored over those great and gory images. Even smuggled the book into school to astonish my classmates. I'm virtually positive it was my first King story as well.

A few years later, junior high, I met a guy my age who was a true comic book aficionado. Although a novice myself, I went along with him to comics shops and that's where I learned more about Wrightson (and comics in general; this is precisely when The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were being published): his hand in Swamp Thing, Creepshow, "Jenifer" (!!!), and what I think of his masterpiece: his 1983 adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

I can still recall how Wrightson's delicate yet detailed art made me feel dizzy with delight. This was how the Frankenstein story was supposed to look! My god. It was perfect. Unfortunately my copy has been lost to the ages, victim of a wild North Carolina storm that flooded the basement of the house I was living in back in the late '90s (which destroyed a nice chunk of other awesome books as well). I've never replaced it, and I'm not sure why.

The horror world is pouring out condolences and memories of Mr. Wrightson, and it seems by all accounts he was a terrific human in addition to being a master genre artist... and a dashing '70s fellow.

Rest well, Mr. Wrightson

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Blood of Nostradamus Trilogy by Andrew Laurance (1991): Eye of the Prophet

Consisting of three occult horror novels originally published a decade prior in the UK under different titles, Blood of Nostradamus (Diamond Books/1991) is the work of one Andrew Laurance, the pen name of a French-British author André Launay. Not sure if the original novels, the titles of which you see on the paperback covers, were related; seems like that "Blood of Nostradamus" titling (and I suspect the trilogy-izing) was an after-the-fact creation by the publisher. Speculation on my part; I had never heard of any of this till this very day.

Nostradamus and his supposed prophesying is a topic that bores me to tears. Going by the back-cover copy, these don't sound too terrible, but I really have no idea and probably won't find out. In my research I see that Diamond Books reprinted several other of his early '80s horror novels, including Ouija, The Black Hotel, and Catacomb. Haven't seen any of these out in the wild at all, and I wonder if any horror fiction readers have any familiarity with them. Let me know!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Obelisk by Ehren M. Ehly (1988): A Ghost Lives in My Veins

Ye risen gods but is this some terrific 1980s paperback cover art! Behold the stepback below, in which artist Ben Perini really went for broke in his depiction of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh's golden visage revealed to be rotting and diseased, a mummified wretch of humanity which brings blinding terror. Man, I can hear potential readers thinking to themselves back in the day, if this novel is half as good as this cover, I am in for some groovy horror excitement! It may have even been you, dear reader (it wasn't me certainly; I hadn't seen this book prior to beginning TMHF). Long on my to-read list, Obelisk (Leisure Books, July 1988), was the first novel of one Ehren M. Ehly, pseudonym of Moreen Le Fleming, whose life story is quite a read.

When Steve Harrison, a young American scholar desperate to pay back an unscrupulous loan shark, attempts to rob a newly-opened Egyptian tomb hoped to contain another world-famous trove of treasure and mystery, he becomes, in so many words, possessed by the undead spirit of Menket, a pharaoh of antiquity. Much like the werewolf curse, Steve cannot remember what he does at night beneath the risen moon... only that he feels much guilt and anxiety during daylight hours and a godawful thirst. After arriving back in New York City, the horrific hijinks continue, Steve/Menket terrorizes that always terrorizable town, killing innocent folks unlucky enough to cross his path (you know the drill: quickly-sketched characters introduced solely to be slaughtered). Driven by a desire to be fully resurrected, Menket's thoughts read like translated heiroglyphics:

Now come, vessel of life-giving marrow.
Let my teeth crush your bones, that my flesh may live, and renew itself.
Hands of stone, tear the sinews. Teeth of stone, crush the bones.
How sweet the marrow, give of life and blood.
Now Re, now Osiris, come. Share with me this feast of nourishment,
that we may exult in the day of resurrection.

And in the great tradition of paperback horror novels with stunning covers, Obelisk delivers much, much less than promised. It trades in the most basic of TV-movie characterizations and behavior sprinkled liberally with '80s VHS horror flick gore (which is not necessarily a bad thing). It's not unreadable, say, like Ruby Jean Jensen or J.N. Williamson, but it certainly lacks the vigorous tastelessness of a Graham Masterton. Ehly is an earnest, competent yet square kind of writer; the pulpy elements are all in place, but I feel if the narrative and characterizations had been trimmed down we'd have a respectable '80s horror novel. Amateurish dialogue, boring cops on the chase, oh man, I just had to skim the last third of the novel. However I did learn one fun fact: there truly is an obelisk in Central Park!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Valley of Lights by Stephen Gallagher (1987): Watching the Detective

When I need to take a break from reading horror, the genre I look to most often is crime and private detective fiction. On and off for years, and mostly on these days, I've built up a small collection of mass-market paperbacks by writers like Cornell Woolrich, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, Dan J. Marlowe, Ross and John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith, Walter Mosley, Jonathan Valin, Charles Willeford, Richard Stark, all in addition to leading figures Cain and Chandler and Hammett of course (some years back I started a blog in that vein—Neat, Clean, Shaved & Sober—but I haven't kept it up, but always mean to restart it!). 

So I was intrigued when I began reading Valley of Lights (Tor Books, Feb 1988) and found it a private detective novel through and through. Can't recall how I'd heard of it or why I bought it recently. British author Stephen Gallagher, who wrote Dr. Who novelizations and other medical/tech thriller-style works, captures that American milieu of cop shops, trailer parks, and skid-row motels and its language well, which isn't that easy (I don't believe Clive Barker quite ever mastered it, and I don't know if James Herbert even ever tried). Gallagher well follows all the detective first-person hallmarks: the hard-boiled insights, the trouble with women, the observations of those he meets and the places they live, and the dogged pursuit of lowlifes. Except this particular lowlife happens to be a body-hopping supernatural being spreading death and mayhem wherever he goes for as long as the being can remember.

This back-cover copy only sets up the first half or so of the novel; then comes a twist that piqued my interest, because I have to say I was not much hooked at all prior. It was all too little too late. Sure, Gallagher can write just fine but the story and pace were tepid; while stakes get higher when the killer kidnaps someone dear to the detective, neither character nor situation elicited much tension and even less horror save for a moment here and there. In its combo of horror and detection it isn't a patch on Progeny of the Adder (1965), Falling Angel (1978),  or Red Dragon (1981).  The ending I admit is disturbing, a bit of vengeance hinted at on this cover of the 1988 New English Library paperback, but again, too little too late. It's a bit of a struggle to even write this review!

The title metaphor works, I'll give it that: lights are lives, of course, lives to be exploited; references to "lights out" and "turned off" and such meaning dead are plentiful, in classic hard-boiled style. The Tor cover art at top reminds me of a computer schematic, however, a hacker floating through cyberspace, but that's a coincidence only. Those are all potential victims. Despite a promising scenario and solid writing, I can't really recommend Valley of Lights to either the serious horror or crime fiction reader.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

It Wants Revenge

Daniel Ransom was the horror/thriller pseudonym of the well-respected late crime writer Ed Gorman. I think this cover art might be by John Melo (he was great at '80s perms and clothing).

Monday, February 13, 2017

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Beautiful Corpse

1973 Curtis Books, artist unknown

1980 Playboy Press reprint, artist unknown