Friday, October 27, 2017

The Possession of Joel Delaney by Ramona Stewart (1970): Supernatural City

Published a year prior to epoch-making The Exorcist, this slim 1970 novel by Ramona Stewart (1922 - 2006) features a young man in thrall not to a demonic power of the netherworld but to a dead serial killer. I don't think The Possession of Joel Delaney (Bantam paperback/Oct 1971) is much talked-about these days in the small subset of people who talk about vintage horror novels; I can find little about Stewart herself online. She seems like a mainstream novelist who produced some other derivative minor thrillers (The Sixth Sense; The Nightmare Candidate; see below) that got some middling reviews and more middling cover art. None sound all that interesting to me.

1980 Dell reprint, Paul Caras cover art?

Happily for me, Possession is interesting: it's set in the Manhattan of the late '60s and early '70s, and is quite convincing at what it does. Stewart's depiction of the city, from the Upper West Side enclave in which our narrator Norah Benson lives to the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods of immigrants, is vivid, lived-in, and sympathetic but not overwrought or sanitized. Akin to Blatty's iconic novel, Stewart lays down a bedrock of normalcy and realism as Norah describes her life in plain terms in the opening pages:  It's when I'm skating along on smooth ice that the dark crack splits open at my feet.

Back cover gives you the low-down, 
good so I don't have to waste time rehashing it

The voice she provides for the story is refreshingly confident. Norah is self-aware, intelligent, and self-possessed, without an ounce of self-pity for her past. Our family hadn't been the cheery thing of children's books: her youth was made difficult by her wayward, somewhat grifter of a father and a mother who committed suicide leaving Norah to mostly raise her decade-younger brother Joel. She married a professor and left for the University of California, and feels lingering guilt about abandoning her brother. Now divorced, she maintains a civil relationship with her ex, raising two citified children with the help of Veronica, her Puerto Rican maid (this detail will become important).

 Dell Books 1980; Kirkus review here

Certainly, the night the trouble began with Joel, I had no prickling sense of the extraordinary. When Joel doesn't show up for dinner, she calls him but when the phone is answered no one is there, just music and a stranger's strangled voice. Concerned, she rushes to his downtown apartment, in an unsavory neighborhood ("Sure this is the place you want?" inquires the cabbie) and finds Joel on the floor, his face contorted like a man in a nightmare. He's off to the hospital, then Bellevue, you know it's the late '60s, maybe he's taking LSD. Norah speaks to the building manager, glimpses into his apartment: she recognizes an Espiritismo shrine, a religion invoking water and air spirits.

This will play a large part in the "possession" angle of the novel, as Norah investigates Joel's increasingly bizarre behavior with the help of a psychiatrist friend and a couple of professors. Together she and the reader learn about Tonio Perez, who lived in Joel's apartment before him, an immigrant teenager with a terrible childhood and a murderous hand, who suffers a ruthless death and who has struggled back from the other side... "There's a supernatural city all around you," Dr. Reichman said. "Belief working on thousands of psyches."

Okay: I have to note the ethnic tensions in the book. This is an indelicate matter. Thing is, Norah is the one who notices them; she is well aware of being an interloper into the minority community and its esoteric belief system (which may or may not be a sham/scam). Is Stewart/Norah evincing a fear of ethnic taint, of "white American culture" being far too influenced by a dangerous foreign one (literally possessed by it here)? If so, author/narrator seem ambivalent about their feelings, knowing that that's a secret fear one should keep bottled up; an irrational, unwarranted fear with no place in polite society. This could be taken the other way: that's what oblivious white people get for moving unwelcome into minority neighborhoods: taken possession of by murderers. The fear of the other, so often invoked in cultural horror criticism, isn't so high-minded or abstract: to each individual, everything is other/foreign/potentially dangerous, no? Anyway.

Dell Books 1981; Kirkus review here

There are several comparative religion lectures as a couple scholars talk about the long history of religion, possession, exorcism, and the occult in general dating back to ancient days. I'm always up for that!

Dr. Reichman seemed embarrassed. "My dear Mrs. Benson, it is not so simple. The history of exorcism is largely one of failure. Not only does it often increase the state of possession but the exorcising priests risk falling victims to the state themselves.... Even the spectators are liable to it. All over the world, in every culture, this is considered dangerous."

Stewart's narrative pace is snappy and her characters, intelligent and modern, believably drawn, although at times her descriptions of domestic detail borders on boring readers when they should be tingling with suspense. At its core its a novel of its era, showing the incursion of the supernatural into the everyday that broke from the ghetto genres onto the bestseller lists. The film version a few years later, with a perfectly-cast Shirley MacLaine as Norah, amps up the Fire Island climax to an unbelievable, uncomfortable degree but also offers some authentic scares. As a novel, Possession of Joel Delaney is an enjoyable minor work of mild occult thrills and a lovely window into vintage NYC city life. It is in no way better than Rosemary's Baby, nor The Exorcist, but as I said, Stewart's writing is clear and captivating and the backstory of the serial killer is heartbreakingly horrifying. Those readers who appreciate the quieter vibe of pre-Stephen King horror might dig it.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Meet Grady Hendrix and Me Tonight at Powell's Books in Beaverton, OR!

This is it everyone! Grady and I will meet for the first time face-to-face and discuss our book Paperbacks from Hell, out now from Quirk Books. Starts at 7:00pm at Powell's at Cedar Hills just outside Portland. We'll be talking about all those great vintage paperbacks you know and love and signing copies of ours. If you're in the area it'd be great to meet you!

Meanwhile I am working on a new review of a '70s occult paperback and reading an '80s novel about an insane undertaker. But of course.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Deathchain by Ken Greenhall (1991): My Baby Just Wrote Me a Letter

Reading Ken Greenhall is unlike reading anyone else in paperback horror. Never a glimpse of a cliche or tired phrasing, an ill-chosen word or jejune observation, his precision prose is whisper-quiet but razor-sharp and deceptively deep. You'd never know it from the dire cover art of Deathchain (Pocket Books/Dec 1991), which evokes '80s YA computer lab intrigue and little else. Boy, if anyone deserved a King-sized blurb extolling the virtues therein, it was Greenhall. Long a TMHF favorite thanks to his quiet paperback original masterpieces Elizabeth (1976) and Hellhound (1977), Greenhall died in 2014 after a career of being unappreciated for his fine, fine talent. It's disheartening and I'd rather not dwell on it. To the task at hand:

Chain letters have long poked and prodded at the deep superstitions seeded deep in even the most rational minds; even while one is tossing them in the trash it's a creepy thought that someone out there thinks so little of their fellow humans that they will compose a missive of vague threat and malice intended to motivate behavior for selfish gain. Kinda gross, actually, as it implies the letter-writer knows something about you that you yourself do not. Which is what's behind Deathchain: the Chainmaster, as the letter-writer refers to itself, knows There is someone you wish were dead. And so begins the novel, with youngish clock-repairer Dwight Bailey murdering an old indigent woman as instructed by a letter he's received. Rather than creeping Dwight out, the letter pleases him, flatters him, inspires him. He will do what it says because  there is indeed someone he wishes were dead, someone who never pleases or flatters him or notes how careful and perceptive and resourceful he is: that person is his hateful mother. And so the chain, though its beginning to us is clear, will not be unbroken.

Ken Greenhall (1928-2014)

Paul Monay is a divorced father, a New York portrait painter who makes most of his living working for his family's business as a producer of fine, and not-so-fine, French cognacs. His 11-year-old son Luke is smart in a budding engineer way, while his ex-wife remains if not a friend than an ally in raising the boy. Dalliances with women are not uncommon but his life is perhaps too footloose and fancy-free (He seldom asked himself questions of any kind—primarily because he thought self-analysis would probably just add to the vague dissatisfaction he felt with his life).

When Paul almost inadvertently notices people in town are dying off and sees their connection to one another, he idly begins to look into it and eventually enlists a detective. All this while starting up a romance with a hot-to-trot NYC theater actress named Phyllis Arno. Since he meets Phyllis through his current casual lover, psychiatrist Hillary Brock, and dumps her for Phyllis, this causes some conflict, duh, which is well-described by Greenhall: "What I want you to realize is that I'm losing both of you," Hillary tells him, and the reader can feel the heartbreak. It's good, grown-up stuff, and as such will lead to problems later on.

A novel about a deadly chain letter would be worthless without some good murder-by-chain-letter sequences. The men and women who receive the letter and then become casual murderers involved all have a tenuous connection to Paul: aforementioned Dwight, who enters Paul's orbit when his son wants to build clocks as a hobby; auto mechanic Lamb Johnson, who works on Paul's car and has grievances against his wealthy father (he believed death should be sought only over matters of family honor, as in an ancient tragedy); Connie Nickens, the shrewd sultry hostess at a good restaurant Paul frequents upon whom Paul has a minor crush (he liked looking at Connie and that wasn't because there was a great beauty or character in her features; it was because there was the implication that intimacy was a possibility) who is mixed up with a shady business partner. And last is Sarah Hopkins, an editor and researcher who hates her former boss (hey, that was one of Greenhall's jobs!). Last because Sarah is now shadowing Paul, and surely after what he's noticed about recent mysterious deaths this can't be an innocent coincidence...

They all hear the icy madness commanding them to kill: You must not break the chain, you must not become anxious or confused... You are a person who goes not the way of the crowd but the way that you have chosen and that has been chosen for you. It appeals to their narcissism and ego, that deadly, deadly psychological combo.

Aw man read this scene the day after Harry Dean died!

We get those scenes, but, unfortunately, they are after the first one somewhat strangely muted. It's like Greenhall didn't want to let his hair down and give us the gory details of "accidents" and "mishaps." His pen is spent more in describing the characters' interior lives and motivations than in the final outcomes of such. Which I enjoy, as Greenhall is an astute chronicler of the impolite notions most people have about others. He's also very good at depicting healthy sex lives, an appreciation for good food and drink, art and its creation, parenting, and other adult activities that so many horror writers find bewildering to contemplate and impossible to convey. It's just that Deathchain is ostensibly a horror novel—it says so on the spine! It has a bloody knife on the cover! It has the word "death" in its very title!—there is very little real horror to be found. It rather feels like a missed opportunity, despite the high caliber of prose.

I had a sense that Greenhall may have felt he was somewhat above the material, that much of what he was writing could have been in a book not about or entitled Deathchain. The lead-in to and the climax itself feature some grody stuff, but too little and too late. I would have loved a gruesome scene or three in Greenhall's inimitable style. I kept waiting and waiting but it didn't happen. There isn't much suspense and there's nothing really scary going on, not on the surface anyway. There's an intellectualization of pain and death that's akin to Thomas Tessier, but not as satisfying. It is simply Greenhall's skill at observing truths about human nature that make Deathchain readable. It is not a must-read like Hellhound or Elizabeth, and his other novels are still on my to-read list, but if you dig his style like I do and don't mind a novel that isn't trying to terrify you constantly if at all, Deathchain could be for you.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Paperbacks from Hell is Here

Today is the day that Paperbacks from Hell hits bookstore shelves everywhere! My and Grady Hendrix's trade paperback from Quirk Books, it's a loving tribute to the 1970s and '80s horror paperbacks we all know and love. Crammed full of terrifying cover art, novel synopses, author and artist bios, as well as an in-depth look at the trends and themes and behind-the-scenes intrigue that kept drugstore racks spinning and bookstore clerks groaning at having to shelve all those books, it's a coffee-table-sized glossy-paged masterpiece if I do say so myself. I also contributed an Afterword of Recommended Reading.

Stellar reviews are pouring in from all over! The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, EsquireThe AV Club, Bloody Disgusting, Pulp Curry, Forces of Geek, Horror Fiction Review, and Syfy. More, even. Amazon has us at #1 in 20th Century Literary Criticism. Listen to Grady and me talking about the book on last week's Know Fear podcast. It's thrilling!Beyond my expectations! If you're in the Portland, Oregon area, come see us:


All readers of TMHF should avail themselves of Paperbacks from Hell posthaste. You will love your time in Hell.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

My and Grady Hendrix's Paperbacks from Hell Oregon Appearance, Oct 12, 2017!

It's happening! Grady and I will be appearing together at Powell's Books in Beaverton, OR (only a few miles outside of Portland) at their Cedars Hills Crossing location. From Grady's site:

Will Errickson & Grady Hendrix Talk Your Ears Off 
at Powell's Books
Thursday, October 12 @ 7pm

Paperbacks from Hell didn't magically pop out of my pants. I was assisted every step of the way by the evil genius, Will Errickson, of Too Much Horror Fiction fame. Will is a man who owns too many books, a man whose head is stuffed with too many facts, and a man whose name contains too man R's. Come hear us talk horror paperbacks until the crowd cries out for mercy. And we shall reply, "Never!"

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Inquisitor Series, 1974-1975

Proof that there are still horror-related paperbacks of the 1970s I have never heard of before! Thanks to critic Andrew Nette of Pulp Curry, I've been introduced to this six-volume series The Inquisitor, by Simon Quinn. Published by Dell Books throughout 1974 and '75, the covers feature incredible imagery of their day, conflating spy and occult tropes with a steely-jawed hairdo dude depicting one Francis Xavier Killy, "an Irish American lay brother of the Militia Christi, a tertiary branch of the Dominicans, working for the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Rome."

I don't know what any of that means, but I do know that "Simon Quinn" is the pseudonym of bestselling author Martin Cruz Smith, best known for Gorky Park and Nightwing. You can read more about the books here, here, and here. A search of Abebooks shows most of these paperbacks in the $10-$45 range.


Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Legacy by Jere Cunningham (1977): That Demon Life Got Me in Its Sway

You might or might not be familiar with the name Jere Cunningham, a writer who published several horror paperbacks during the classic vintage era but who moved on to Hollywood screenplays later in his career (couldn't turn up a photo of him anywhere, only an illuminating interview, and I'm never sure if the name "Jere" is pronounced "Jare" or like the standard spelling "Jerry"). Not to be confused with that other late 1970s horror paperback of the same title—a novelization of the Katharine Ross/Sam Elliott/uh Roger Daltry movie—Fawcett Gold Medal's The Legacy, with art-student nude-model cover art and a cawing raven 'cause ravens are always spooky, is a 1977 paperback original. Cunningham's not a complete unknown, as other books of his have been rediscovered, but I haven't read any. That could change, since I found The Legacy to be an effective horror read, with all the hallmarks of its day and few of the faults.

A prologue of mysterious import on a stormy night, death, madness, and despair, sets the stage (and not in italics, thank the gods!). Then switch the scene to Dr. David Rawlings, wife Sandra, daughter Melanie, and her Doberman Streak; he's a successful Memphis doctor but as the novel begins he has an upsetting dream about his estranged father one night. Chester Rawlings has died, suicide by gunshot—a-ha, that prologue! Father's lawyer calls David to break the news, maybe they could come to the small Mississippi town of Bickford in which David grew up in but left for med school against Chester's wishes, to where his father met his untimely doom.

You've got the wrong Legacy

He reacquaints himself with the old family estate, Whitewood, and its attendant memories, including old Sam, his father's stalwart friend, who in many ways raised David himself. Sam gets off one of the creepiest lines in the novel, one night when they're trying not to talk about the weirdness going on as they watch the Mississippi beneath a bright moon: "They says if you sleep under the moon without a rag over your face you go moon-crazy. That the moon got blood on it and it'll come down and get in your head." Uh, yeah, thanks for the advice, Sam.

Lots of pages are spent on the Rawlings marriage, of Melanie and Streak playing in the fields surrounding the estate, of David tooling around Bickford and realizing what a shithole it is and seeing old faces again. Other characters come into David's orbit: Dewey Pounds, with whom David had played football in high school, now Bickford sheriff well aware if he doesn't solve this issue of a missing body he'll be working in a gas station. There's sketchy teenager Woody, long-haired and resentful, son of Ruth, the local soothsayer living in a trailer and another old friend of Chester's. She drops mysterious hints and warnings, inscrutably vague (basically "You should get the fuck outta Dodge"). Then there is blind Philip Sprague, a man of perhaps 70 who looks younger (uh-oh), who arrived in town some years before and rebuilt a nearby old DeBois manor into a grand new edifice.


The first true note of oddness comes when dad's lawyer Barksdale reads the will and its requirements of David: "I ask that you stay on at Whitewood for seven weeks, never leaving for a single night. Check the seal on the crypt daily. Tend the ivy around the manor and my crypt. I am sure that Sam will stay on with you"—hold up hold up! Did he say check the seal on the crypt?! The fuck? Except Sandy seems to think it an unreasonable burden on David's burgeoning medical practice, but David knows he must do it. Unlike other sons in horror novels, in which family secrets metamorphose into supernatural elements, David loved and respected his father, even if they had grown estranged over his decision to leave.

Exploring his father's library one afternoon, David seemed to feel the hours and hours of his father's presence here. As if the man and years had soaked into the books and walls and floors. Chester Rawlings was a closet intellectual, reading ancient history and philosophy in Latin and Greek. But David is taken aback when he finds a new shelf of books on sorcery and witchcraft and whatnot. There's even a locked door with more spooky shit behind it. Wizard and sorcerer spooky to be precise:

Daddy, he thought, my poor daddy... is that what happened in your mind? Did fantasies kill you? Don't you know that one real cigarette is more evil than all that silly occult shit put together?... A foulness clung to his hands from the cloying leather. in the light the stretched hide looked almost like human epidermis... He left the room with a sadness tainted by revulsion. Never would he have dreamed his father—of all people—would have sought solace or refuge in an area so degrading in its vulgar absurdity. The foulness of the iron-bound book felt ugly on his hands.

Sphere Books UK paperback, 1980

I don't have to tell you, dedicated reader of horror fiction, how important this is. This kind of exploration and discovery is one of my favorite genre devices. And Cunningham deploys it well; a foreshadowing that hovers even though it will be quite awhile before the payoff. Slowly but surely all kinds of horrible things will happen: a missing corpse, a vandalized crypt, a dead friend, Sandra sleepwalking, a figure following Melanie and Streak through the nearby woods. Add in a backstory of the recent suicide of a Bickford banker, the institutionalization of his wife, and the disappearance of their young daughter, and you've got a sweet potboiler recipe.

Eventually David finds his father's journal and learns Chester knew Sprague, also dined with him, was taken on a tour of the manor's foundation, and there saw something that drove him to near madness, breaking his heart and setting Chester into a morass of despair.

Now I am considering the murder of Sprague. Or the end of myself. No night of rest.... I spoke with Ruth. She is more afraid than I am, if that is possible, and she knows nothing we can do. What can we say about the little girl? What would the authorities believe? That we are mad?

Cunningham's 1982 novel, UK paperback

One of the best scenes in the novel is a dinner party, of course. Sprague invites the family to dinner, unerringly pouring them drinks and serving them an elaborate European meal. He is a continental sort and his blindness poses no real problems; in fact it seems to give him a preternatural sense for anyone around him. Après dinner Sprague entices Sandra—whose pretensions to culture and wealth he appeals to—to play for them on his luxurious piano, even joining in with her on his violin. What beautiful music they make ("That was really wonderful," she beamed, hardly able to retain modesty)! And you can be sure David isn't too happy about it. This sequence sets up the finale in high style.

I must admit though that early on, The Legacy had me iffy on continuing; there is a lot of build-up. The narrative tightens up considerably as the book nears conclusion, with occult horror and mayhem rampant, elevating this unassuming-looking paperback original beyond others of its ilk. Cunningham is adept at writing dialogue and character, mood and suspense: aspects horror writers much more famous and wealthy often suck at. Plentiful sex scenes are warm, believable, titillating but restrained. There are touches of early King in the depiction of modern family life while some gruesome set-pieces—David and the dog, David and the corpse fingers, Sandra sleepwalking with Melanie in tow—which reminded me of the work Michael McDowell would soon publish. Despite the leisure taken with setting the story in motion, once it kicks into gear, The Legacy delivers the demonic goods.

Cernunnos, Lord of my Fathers, Lord of Ages, I summon thee. Lord of Agonies, of Carthage and Hiroshima and Doomed Great Ones, I summon thee to wed and to sup. Rise from thy eternal legions and I shall perform thy shapely introduction as ages ago I vowed in time upon time upon time to fulfill...

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Horror Fiction Help XVII

OK horror fiends who can help out here?

1. Sci-fi/horror novel about insect aliens taking over a town, people getting body-horror mutations, place gets quarantined by the government, turns out the aliens are harvesting psychic energy to power their spaceship. Pretty standard for the genre I guess. Must have been from the '80s (maybe early '90s), the cover art showed human faces cracking open with insectoid features emerging, the title was one of those unpronounceable sci-fi words that's all Xs, Ys, and Zs. Found! It's:


2. When I was a kid my grandma had a copy of a paperback that freaked me out enough I threw it behind the basement steps. And then when she caught me I made her throw it away. I remember the cover as being artwork of a dead looking bride soaked from head to toe in blood. (I've thought about it being Carrie and mixing a prom dress and wedding dress up, but I've never found a Carrie paperback that looks like my memory.) This all took place probably around 1988 to 1991.

3. The title I remember as The Secret (I think) and had a silver quasi-swastika on its cover. Found! It's:



Thursday, August 3, 2017

By Bizarre Hands by Joe R. Lansdale (1989): Apocalypse Wow

If you were a horror fiction reader in the late 1980s and paid attention to such things, you knew that Joe R. Lansdale was being marketed, if that's not too strong a word, in a manner not seen since probably Clive Barker. Their respective publishers knew, even if they couldn't put their finger on it exactly, that these writers were incredibly special (this has nothing to do with the individual styles of Barker and Lansdale, which are markedly different, only that they both went further, deeper, harder, than other even very good writers of that age did) and deserved to be widely read. Check out the cover copy, front and back, of By Bizarre Hands (Avon Books, Sept 1991): "Renegade Nightmare King"?! "May Be Hazardous to Your Health"?! These types of superlatives reach higher than the usual boilerplate encomium, and worked to entice readers who wanted more than just the latest humdrum hack horror.

I was ecstatic to be reading Lansdale for the first time in various anthologies; like many readers I'd never read anything like him. Sure there was the Vonnegut and the Twain, the Mencken and the Joe Bob Briggs, the King and the Matheson and the Bradbury, here and there a whiff of Elmore Leonard and Harry Crews (I noted these last two much later as I had not read them on my first encounter with Lansdale). But still there was something original, tough and sure and daring that sang beneath those familiar notes... and I wanted more.

Around '90 or so I paid big bucks for a signed copy of Joe's short story collection, the 1989 hardcover edition from specialty publisher Mark V. Ziesing. Consisting of his earliest as well as his major stories, I devoured it, loved it, but sometime later, during a bleak broke span during my college years, I had to sell off a major chunk of my limited-edition horror collection, so it was bye-bye By Bizarre. Ah well. Then a month or so ago a TMHF pal emailed a link to this Avon paperback edition from 1991, adorned with the same illustration as the hardcover, thanks to usual suspect JK Potter; it was in good shape and at a fair price, who doesn't love that. Sold! So it's great to have By Bizarre Hands back on my shelves. Couldn't wait to revisit Lansdale's singular landscape of horror, black humor, science fiction, crime, and whatever the hell else he puts in.

Lansdale often succeeds at impossible tasks, with setups that would make lesser writers blanch (or not even realize what deep waters they were in), and pulls them off with a tough, vulgar, self-conscious but not arch energy. He may wink at you but it's not a cute wink of "Hey we both know this is ridiculous" but a wink of devilish glee, acrobatic mischief, "You can't believe I'm getting away with this, can you?!" Like a sort of Tarzan swinging through the jungle hoping a vine will appear in the nick of time, you can't fault him because it all kinda takes your breath away even when his moves are occasionally clumsy or crude. His confidence and his trust in his own instincts, talent, character sketches, and unique vision thrills the reader, makes the reader forgive those tacky lapses scattered about (as if Lansdale were afraid of upsetting social niceties in the first place). YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Let's get to the goods, right from the opener. "Fish Night," hearkens back to Bradbury's love of dinosaurs and other creatures of our earth's past, but lacks any wide-eyed nostalgic innocence. Nostalgic for the ravenous extinct monstrous creatures which swam that prehistoric sea, perhaps... "Duck Hunt" satirizes male camaraderie and companionship, machismo and violence masquerading as such. The terrific title story was also published in the first Borderlands (1990); I wrote a little about it here. It's tasteless, sure, sometimes you think, "Jeez, Joe, I didn't need to know all that," but that's just Joe: he's gonna give it to you straight, maybe chase it with pickle juice and gasoline. Then light the match.

Ever read any of the Black Lizard pulp reprints from the 1980s? Not just Jim Thompson, but Dan J. Marlowe, David Goodis, Charles Willeford? Written with pulp muscle and refusal to sugar coat with any moralizing, Lansdale presents the criminal lifestyle as-is, no returns, no refunds. More than one tale here reminds me of those stark, sere, brutal crime novels, particularly "The Steel Valentine" and "The Pit." "I Tell You It's Love" revels in the romantic sadomasochism of James M. Cain. "Down By the Sea Near the Great Big Rock" is almost whimsical, a Gahan Wilson cartoon come to life. And three stories became three novels: "Boys Will Be Boys" part of The Nightrunners; "Hell Through a Windshield" is the beginnning of The Drive-In; "The Windstorm Passes" became The Magic Wagon. All are must-reads, both the stories here and the actual novels themselves.

One of the very best stories included is "Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back," the title alone which has bounced around in my head for 25 years even as the details faded, is a mean little masterpiece. It's funny, sad, disgusting, outrageous, insightful, empathetic, painful, humiliating, gory, unsettling, a near-effortless melange of SF and horror tropes. His weirdo SF is kinda mind-blowing. I'm not sure what apocalyptic authors Lansdale read—John Brunner? JG Ballard? John Wyndham?—but it's just powerhouse stuff nobody else could've written. Guilt, hatred, regret, only these human emotions survive the apocalypse, along with monstrous thorny vines and mutated animals. Behold the surreality:

The collection concludes with two of Joe's most infamous stories, late 1980s classics that made a splash then and still retain their power decades later: "Night They Missed the Horror Show" and "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folk." The former contains some of the ugliest, most blistering imagery and dialogue for its time, and isn't even really a "horror" story in the generic sense; it's the blackest of noir, maybe. Scorched earth policy here, a glimpse of unfettered human depravity and ignorance, outcast kin to the blistering art and exploitation of, say, Taxi Driver or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or James Ellroy's LA Quartet. If you haven't read "Night They Missed the Horror Show," I can't say you've missed a treat but you have missed a milestone in extreme fiction. The latter tale, from the zombie universe of George A. Romero (RIP!), is a long rambling road story of bounty hunters and the undead, plus lots of Bible talk (a staple of many a Lansdale), gunplay, and gore. You won't be scared but you will be impressed by its colorful energy.

New English Library, 1992

We all are aware of how unique voices can be forgotten, or become cult/fringe favorites, and never find a broader audience. Not so with Joe.  It's satisfying to know that today he has a bigger following than ever, with a movie and TV series adapted from his work (Cold in July and Hap & Leonard, respectively), and more and more award-winning novels. He is a friendly and supportive online presence as well. Reading Joe Lansdale is a free-for-all. For the adventurous, unsatisfied reader who demands more, more, more, I can say get your hands on By Bizarre Hands; it is an essential and uncompromising read.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco (1973): Ride Ride Ride in a Long Black Limousine

The house was absolutely essential, 
a vital part of herself 
which she recognized immediately. 

There's no getting around it, and if you've read  it (or seen the movie adaptation), I'd wager the most memorable aspect of Burnt Offerings (Dell Books/Mar 1974) by Robert Marasco has to be that chauffeur driving a limousine, a suave harbinger of luxurious death. One of the "four horseman" of the early 1970s horror apocalypse—you see the other three guilty parties named on this cover—Burnt Offerings is remembered only by the die-hard horror fans, but I'm not sure how beloved it is. Marasco's novel is a staid, stately, slow-burn exploration of domestic ruin; it offers the mildest of chills with the very occasional horror set-piece. It's a modified haunted-house novel; there are no ghosts, no rattling chains, but an overarching evil power nonetheless.

Marasco (1936 - 1998)

New York City sucked in the '70s and it sucked especially in the summer back when A/C wasn't a commonplace household item. Everyone was looking to get out (a bit of a theme in vintage horror) and if you could afford it, renting a summer home was tops. Knowing she can't spend another sweltering season in their Queens apartment, Marian Rolfe finds and shows her husband Ben an ad in the paper about a countryside home to rent "for the right people," (Ben hears a dog whistle and comments racist pigs but Marian is not dissuaded). Along with their young son David in tow, they drive the couple hours upstate, out of the city, and find a home, a mansion, an estate really, set back in foresty wilds. Towering above them, ballustraded and pavillioned and mullioined and multi-storeyed, it leaves the Rolfes with jaws agape. Yet on close inspection there is much wear and tear; a mortal sin, Marian thinks.

Once inside—even more astonishing than outside—they meet the caretaker Walker and then the eccentric Allardyce siblings, sixty-ish, who chat and charm and finally do the hard sell:

"And, God, Brother!" Miss Allardyce said, "—it comes alive—tell them that, tell them what it's like in the summer." 
"They wouldn't believe it... It's beyond anything you ever seen..."

But they needn't have bothered for Marian, and they even raise the price from the unbelievably low $700 for the summer to a still-unbelievable $900. And then comes the hitch, the hitch Ben has suspected: the Allardyces' "dear darling" Mother, "a woman solid as this rock of a house." She lives in an upstairs room, locked away, and will remain so even while the Rolfes live there. All you have to do, the Allardyces explain, is leave her a meal tray three times a day. They'll never even see her. No one who rented the house in previous summers—and there have been plenty!—ever saw her either. Surely there is nothing to be concerned about? Marian can sense the greatness beneath the disarray and disuse, the greatness that she can bring out and restore over their stay. And stay they do, even inviting along Ben's old yet still lively and independent Aunt Elizabeth.

Ben remains aloof from the house; an introspective, rational English teacher, he hopes to prepare for his fall courses but never seems to get around to it. For too long he cannot put his finger on the change in Marian's behavior. Marian becomes fascinated by the extensive photos of faces from Mother Allardyce's past which decorate her sitting room; Marian will sit there in a wingback chair when she delivers meals, rarely touched, to the old woman's bedroom door. That door is carved with elaborate decoration (referenced in cover art), shifting in the light, almost hypnotic. Soon Marian lies to both Ben and Aunt Elizabeth that she's actually spoken to and seen Mother, and then even begins eating her food....

Marian spends hours cleaning, polishing, dusting, rearranging, bringing the house to life, as it were. Clocks begin ticking again, the pool filter starts working, the neglected gardens spring back to lushness. A rift begin in the Rolfes' marriage ("Christ, it's a rented house, it's two months...." "Don't remind me."), and their sex life dissolves in several rather unpleasant scenes that are too tame to be truly disturbing (All Marian could think was "Let him come, for Christ's sake let him come. Now."). Things aren't good between little David and his parents: he and his father are playing around in the pool when Ben suddenly gets seriously violent, shocking poor Aunt Elizabeth who watches helplessly till David has to practically wallop his dad in the mouth with a diving mask. Afterwards, Ben feels like he's hallucinating, as an old image haunts him in reality:

There was a dream—the playback of an image really—which had been recurring, whenever he was on the verge of illness, ever since his childhood. The dream itself was  symptom of illness, as valid as an ache or a queasy feeling or a fever. The details were always the same: the throbbing first, like a heartbeat, which became the sound of motor idling; then the limousine; then, behind the tinted glass, the vague figure of the chauffeur.... What's death? —he'd have to say a black limousine with its motor idling and a chauffeur waiting behind the tinted glass.

1974 French edition

And poor little Davey! The astute reader will wonder why more emphasis wasn't put on his view of the proceedings. He hurts himself climbing on some rocks the very first visit to the house, his dad tries to kill him playing in the pool, his mom's hair turns grey then white, his beloved Aunt Elizabeth is showing her fragility more and more. One night, somehow, the gas in his room is turned on and he almost dies (again!) in a harrowing bit. Marian suspects Aunt Elizabeth, who's actually a sweet character and you hate to see her so upset by Marian's hints. Things don't go well for Elizabeth after that, but that does provide one of the novel's few shock scenes.

In distressed vain Ben watches his wife drift from him, the house assuming a larger and larger psychic area in her mind and in her life: "It is the house. As crazy as it sounds, I know it's the house." "How is that possible, Ben?" "I don't know." "If it were true, darling, if I could believe what you're saying—God, don't you think we'd leave? I'd drag us all out of here so fast. But it's a house, nothing more than a house...." So yes, as the novel begins its descent into the maelstrom, as it were, and we wonder like Marian what the deal is with Mother Allardyce, we're rather drained by all the steps we've taken to get here. We will meet her, in a way, and I found the climax—"Burn it! Burn it out of me!"—and denouement to be a satisfying, eerie conclusion, open-ended but fair play to the final line.

We have to remember this was a mainstream novel aimed at general readers who gobbled up, I dunno, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Love StoryValley of the DollsThe Flame and the Flower, you know the names, and not just those other apocalyptic horsemen. Modern readers may be frustrated with the holding-pattern narrative: too many implied threats, too many indecisive arguments, and experienced horror fans already know what's going on, what's been going on, but Marasco is not a genre writer, and there's nothing in Burnt Offerings that would make you think he'd  read any horror.

I felt the same about Blatty and The Exorcist, but Blatty is a much more powerful, visceral writer. Ira Levin would've used this scenario to score some ironic points about the expected role of women in married life, or the perils of being a renter. Tom Tryon might not have kept Mother Allardyce hidden away, or delved deeper into the physical and psychological obsessions. But as it is, Robert Marasco has written a quiet, polite "horror" novel decidedly of its time, with barest minimum notes of blood and madness. And I mean the bare minimum. I wish he'd gone darker, deeper, with the chauffeur and the limo; it's quite a creepy concept but still feels somehow reserved.

Personally I don't rate or enjoy Burnt Offerings as much as those three other works of the same era, nor as highly as similar titles like The House Next DoorThe Shining, or The Elementals. When I first read it back in 1994, I was deeply unimpressed. Then again I was reading some powerhouse stuff at the time: Haunting of Hill HouseOur Lady of DarknessGrimscribe, as I recall. This reread, I found it to be more agreeable, but it is not gonna scare the bejabbers out of you, nor is it unputdownable or scarifyingly chilling—all those quoted blurbs are so much PR hot air—but it is an integral work of the pre-King horror-bestseller era. Perhaps it is subtler and more sophisticated than I'm giving it credit for and my brain muscles are just atrophied from reading too much, well, horror fiction. While not a forgotten masterpiece, Burnt Offerings is a work that can reward the patient, thorough reader, and remains in print today. You could spend your summer worse places.

Valancourt Books, 2015

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Coming September 2017: Paperbacks from Hell!

For some years I've had TMHF readers asking if I was going to write a book about paperback horror fiction, and I've always shied away from the idea; I feel I write as a fan and amateur, not as any kind of professional critic. One day last spring, I received a message from author Grady Hendrix asking me if I'd be interested in working on a big project with him. I was intrigued; Grady and I had tag-teamed the Summer of Sleaze and Bloody Books of Halloween series in 2014 and then the Evil Eighties in 2015 over at Tor.com, offering up reviews of some terrific lesser-known horror novels and writers on an unsuspecting readership. This time, however, Grady had a bigger idea: what about an entire book, complete with cover art and stepbacks, on the vintage era of horror fiction? How about that? And would I be interested in co-writing it with him and supplying covers from my own library? Would I?!

For the next few months we spoke on the phone discussing all aspects of the genre, the titles and the authors and the cover artists, the publishers, the themes and ideas and fads and how they all spoke to generational concerns of those long ago yet still beloved decades of the 1970s and 1980s. I don't remember how we decided on the title; that may have been the publisher, Quirk Books (one working title was The Books That Screamed). I spent hours scanning the covers of what must have been more than half of my collection. Using my Google-fu skills I scoured all the internets for artists' names, peered at barely-legible artist signatures with a jeweler's eye, ever eager to discover who was responsible for covers like Satan Sleuth, Crooked Tree, Ancient Rage, and Horrorscope.

Social media has shown me that the advanced reading copies available at book expos/conventions have been incredibly well-received, and other folks have posted their anticipation for the book. Quirk Books has produced a lovely coffee-table style book filled to the brim with paperback covers, and Grady has written a funny, thorough, insightful, affectionate tribute/critique of the genre we all love so much. His appetite for this stuff is almost more voracious than mine! I'm honored to be part of Paperbacks from Hell... and I do hope you will buy a copy when it is published in September.