big grab bag of horror books

This week I'm taking the premise that you bought a bag of random horror novels at some used book store, and here's what you get. Like most grab bags, most of what's in there isn't going to be too great, but there are a few redemptively-good titles that make the whole thing worth it.

The grab-bag idea's basically just a way to make a bunch of random horror novel reviews seem more neato-er. I was writing shorter capsule reviews back then so there's not a lot of detail here (not that I have tons now - I'm kind of a capsule-reviewer anyway) so I tried to make up for that by giving you a lot of 'em. If nothing else, there are cover scans to look at, which is always fun.

And if that doesn't tickle your fancy, take your fancy over to my Twitter page and I'll tickle it and maybe do other profane and unspeakable things to it.


Black Easter - James Blish (Dell, 1968)
Black magic novel that does display a true working knowledge of magical rituals. A black magician is contracted to cast spells for an arms dealer, raising demons to cause the deaths of enemies, raising a succubus (which later turns into an incubus to recycle the semen she's absorbed!) and finally the raising of the major demons in Hell, just so they can be unleashed on the Earth for a night of mayhem. They invoke Armageddon in the form of a global nuclear war, and when they try to banish them back to hell, you get one of the greatest endings I've ever read in a book. Seriously, it's killing me not to tell you what happens, and I have to admire Blish's audacity at doing it. This book was a surprise for me, because I mostly knew Blish as the author of Star Trek novelizations when I was a kid. I didn't know he had this in 'im.

The Neighborhood - S. K. Epperson (Leisure, 1996)
Entertaining horror novel about the demented crime spree of everybody's least favorite neighbor, the guy down the street with all the exotic birds and the big tumor in his brain. He does all manner of nice things, like breaking his wife's arms and legs and keeping her in the spider-filled basement with the neighbor he's keeping chained up. And it kinda goes from there... Keeps moving and doesn't get dull, so so what if it'll never be looked on as another The Shining? Decent and worth picking up.

Drawn to the Grave
- Mary Ann Mitchell (Leisure, 1992)
This guy Carl has this magical Incubus-like power -- he preserves his life by making women die for him. He draws a detailed sketch of a lady friend and then buries it, and he gets healthy while the woman begins to rot while alive. So he beings seducing Megan (this really idiotic girl) while his last significant other dwells in the dark cottage across the lake, fighting off hungry rats and trying to keep her skin from sloughing off as she plots vengeance. Weird, sick horror while plenty of morbid gore... which, of course, means its recommended.

The House on the Borderland -William Hope Hodgson (Carroll & Graf, originally 1908)
Two guys find a manuscript in the ruins of a crumbling old house that overlooks a pit, and when they read it they learn of an old curmudgeon who had to fight off attacks from luminous swine-people who crawled out of the pit and tried to break into his house. While looking for them he discovered a vast black abyss under the cellars of his house. Then time goes wacky so days pass in minutes and he watches our sun die and the earth freeze and decay and get sucked back into the center of infinity, and the book pretty much crashes and burns during this all-but-unreadable stretch that seems to go on forever (and which was but a brief preview of the kind of stuff Hodgson would later write in The Night Land). But the first half of the book is worth it, even if the sci-fi elements (like all sci-fi elements if'n you're askin' me) are about as fun as reading a book on quantum physics. It's kind of like watching Night of the Living Dead except the last reel has been switched out with a documentary on Stephen Hawking. A major influence on H. P. Lovecraft's work.

Who Killed James Dean? - Warrne Newton Beath (Tor, 1995)
Who cares? ;) A guy researching a book on the fanaticism of James Dean freaks (they're almost as warped as Trekkies) learns that James Dean's death may have been part of a witchcraft cult's plot to create a new God-figure... and they'll kill to keep it going. This book's okay if you're really intrigued by James Dean. I'm not, but I still bought the book because I thought a possible Dean-zombie was in such poor taste that I had to read it. But, eh, I learned some stuff about him, and it might come in handy when watching Jeopardy or something. Cool for Dean freaks, relatively painless for anyone else.

Water Rites - Guy N. Smith (Zebra, 1997)
Puns in the title of a book are often a bad sign. An author slipping and having a deafmute character hear things in chapter two is another bad sign. But the worst sign of all is when you realize that the scary monster in a horror novel is going to be... a mermaid. A freakin' mermaid. Remember all those nights you spent cowering under your blankets, trembling because you thought a mermaid was going to get you? You don't? That's because you never spent any nights like that! Nobody did! England's premier horror hack really drops that ball on this one, which is really saying something considering that the book series this guy is most famous for are the killer crab novels, like Crabs on the Rampage. I can see the sequel to this one, Mermaids on the Rampage. Kill me first. Night Tide this ain't. Nice cover art, though, from the last days of Zebra books, when their covers started to get decent even if the content didn't.

Excavation -Steve Ransic Tem (Avon, 1987)
Damn near unreadable first novel by the most overrated horror writer since Charles L. fucking Grant. The idea is killer -- an archaeologist goes to excavate the site of his old house, in which his family died in a massive flood -- and that's why I was disappointed to the point of anger that the book was such weak, drippy gack. Sentimentality is a bad quality in a writer, and pretentiousness is another, and both bad traits go skipping merrily hand in hand through this shambled, overlong mess that makes me wonder if they guy even has any idea what's scary. I mean, a reincarnated bear running around? Sheesh. And the "woman with her hair on fire" comes across as completely laughable instead of scary. Reading this was a tedious chore -- it has no flow, no sense of clarity, no characters you can give half a damn about because they're all such simpering wimps. I was forced to skim the last 80 pages or so because I really and truly felt like I was being tortured mentally trying to read this thing. It was excruciating. Too bad, because, like I said, the idea had a lot of promise, especially since I love "archaeological” horror plots. One or two nice lines, but other than that, overblown bilge for masochists only.

The Mark of Lucifer - Edith Pinero Green (Dell, 1974)
Don’tcha hate when they try passing off a murder mystery as a horror novel? This woman named Edith thinks she’s possessed and when a dead girl is found in a neighboring apartment, she tries to figure out whodunnit to ward off her supposed possession. She gets help from a fake occultist. Not scary and not even all that sensical. Somewhat entertaining, but still bad.

Hungry Eyes -- Barry Hoffman (Leisure, 1998)
A lot of respected authors (Peter Straub, Poppy Z. Brite, William F. Nolan, etc.) heaped high praise on this serial killer novel, declaring that they couldn’t put it down. Well, they must’ve been paying up for stuff Hoffman published for them in his Gauntlet ‘zine, because “couldn’t put it down,” hell, I could hardly pick it up. A girl who was victimized by a pervert becomes a Dexter-type serial killer who preys on victimizers, and her reporter friend doesn’t know if she should turn her in or not. The killings aren’t frightening, the killer doesn’t seem very threatening, and it’s just another damn serial killer novel, and a boring one at that. And it was the start of a proposed four-book series? I think only three got written. No loss. Hoffman's probably a nice guy and all, but that praise has to be coming because of who he is rather than for what he wrote.

A Small Dark Place
- Martin Schenk (Ballantine, 1997)
When a small town family becomes homeless, they decide to trap one of their children in a deep hole in the ground in order to tap into some o’ that good ol’ American sympathy (remember baby Jessica?). Tragedy is profitable, don’tchaknow? But their daughter Andromeda spends too much time among some weird white roots and changes. Then she returns years later to avenge herself on all of those who profited from her misery and terror. Fairly typical supernatural-vengeance tale but with few cares. The end’s a little creepy. Overall, an entertaining-enough way to pass the time, but nothing special.

The Rootworker - Glenda Dumas (Holloway House, 1983)
After a somewhat-creepy beginning involving a figure walking across a foggy field, this turns into utter tripe. A young black woman and her white fiance get possessed and haunted by “haints” when they visit her parents and creepy old aunt in Potts Lake. Cliche-ridden, with the scary stuff more hilarious than anything else, and lots of naive “give your soul to Jesus” simplistic platitude-ing. There’s also an annoying tendency to overuse exclamation points, so it looks like the characters are idiotically shouting at each other in the middle of plain ol’ conversations. Aside from the unintentional comic relief, this is a typical Satanic-cult novel that’s only interest comes from its obscurity.

Forbidden Objects
- Maggie Davis (Tor, 1986)
Boring and confusing horror about a possible voodoo curse laid on the narrator (“Frankie” Jefferson - a crippled woman with clairvoyant powers) and her silly, irresponsible brother Julian. The curse seems to stem from the spirit of a dead slave (who happened to be versed in obeah) named Lazarus. And everything else is lost in a haze of weird prose... some of which is very good, other than the fact that it doesn’t tell the story. The narrative just doesn’t move, and when it does, it’s often unclear what’s actually happening. Obvious talent, but effort lost to pretension.

Ash Wednesday - Chet Williamson (Tor, 1987)
Largely unappreciated horror novel about the town of Merridale, where the images of the dead return -- glowing, bluish transparent forms, like holograms of people who died. No one knows why they’re there, and they don’t do anything -- they don’t move, speak, or even take up space, but they awaken the guilty feelings and fears of mortality in Merridale’s residents. A lot of people disliked this because it’s not especially scary, since the ghosts don’t do anything, but it’s a somber, well-written meditation on life’s relationship to death. They don’t all have to be screamfests...

The Prey - Robert Arthur Smith (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1977)
Years ago a friend and I were looking through his book collection and I saw that he had a copy of this book, too. He told me it was full of mutilation, and I was intrigued. Years later I finally read it and I see what he meant, but didn’t find it as excessive as he did, and considered any gore a good thing. This werewolf novel purports to be a “found” manuscript, detailing the 1825 adventures of a young Austrian named Morivania. Morivania learns that his father is under the influence of the leader of an evil werewolf cult, and after his father dies, the werewolves hunt Morivania because they think he has the secret of some immortality elixir. Morivania sets out to Paris, gets in some French Revolution trouble, meets new friends, and battles werewolves. The book is well-written (in an archaic style, like old gothics) but is a little overlong. Morivania has too much to distract him and it’s easy to get tired of the endless cliffhangers. But, despite that, this is one of the best werewolf novels around, with a convincing gothic writing style and a fast pace... maybe even too fast. The first half of the book maintained a darker tone, but later it becomes too much like a Doc Savage novel or something, with Morivania and his colorful team of werewolf hunters (including a clockwork robot woman) getting in tight scrapes and fighting their way out. That kinda killed the mood for me, but it’s still a decent read, and I’m surprised it’s so obscure.


  1. I had some hopes for EXCAVATION, as I've recently read a couple of Tem's stories and liked them. Oh well.

  2. You can still try it... it's just my opinion and your mileage may vary, but I was really disappointed in that book. I've read a few crime stories Tem wrote that weren't bad. And his wife's a pretty good novelist... she wrote some Abyss stuff I liked.