What's the name of this song, Mister Johnny Two-Bags?

I dunno, but the second verse is the same as the first...

(That post title's from the Social Distortion Live in Orange County DVD, just in case it sounds familiar and is gonna drive you crazy or somethin')

Anyway, I'm gonna go with the same premise I did last week and say you bought two grab-bags o' them horror books, and, you lucky dog, this is what was in the second one. You got some finds this week... lotsa good old-school stuff. Man, I miss foil-embossed covers. O' course, if these foolish e-book-suckin' brats have their way, we may all be missing any kind of cover at all pretty soon, since tenth-rate book art's just another thing those lousy devices are fooling the public into settling for. Borders closed down this week. Another 11,000 people out of work, and another option taken away from the public. Be sure to thank some short-sighted Kindle/Nook-totin' asshole for that if you see one.

Anyway, forget them, we've got bags of the good stuff to go through here...

- Brad Strickland (Onyx, 1988)
A '50's Georgia town is turned into a hell when a demonic man comes along and re-opens its old movie theater. Pretty soon the whole town is being taken over by evil forces and people are in danger of losing their souls as they have visions of vengeful dead and are tempted into Hell. Kind of reminiscent of (and likely inspired by) Stephen King's It, but it's still well-done, with interesting '50's atmosphere and some effectively-creepy horror scenes. There's not as much about movies as it'd lead you to believe, however.

The Curse of Quintana Roo - Matt Gardner (Popular Library, 1972)
The chief charm of this pulp horror novel is that it's one of those Frankenstein Horror Series books that we all drooled over in the back of Famous Monsters. This means it's already magic before you even read it, so if it's actually got any entertainment merit, that's a bonus. An archaeological expedition to an ancient Mayan pyramid awakens the hell-fiend Rahu -- a ten-foot tall humanoid beast who wants to breed with a professor's daughter. He's also helped by some zombies he resurrects. Not badly written at all (it's strange that Gardner narrates this under his own name), but you don't get a lot of action until the last fifteen pages or so -- the rest is a needlessly-long buildup. Still, all I expected from it was a cheap pulp read, old-school style, and in that it delivered okay.

Ghoul Lover - Robert Tralins (Popular Library - 1972)
One of the Frankenstein Horror series from the pulp days of the 70's, this is a decently-written horror tale from the mad doctor school. A medical genius, Dr. Karl Von Cosel, learns the secrets of bringing back the dead. Unfortunately he hasn't quite gotten all the kinks worked out, and the living dead are often insane or keep rotting away. He practices a little on his helper, Otto, trying to get everything just right so he can marry his soulmate, a girl named Elena who he met before she was born (in astral projection) and whom he'll really get to hook up with after she's dead from tuberculosis. The novel spans several decades and locations as Von Cosel moves from Germany to Australia to a swamp in New Orleans and then to the backwoods of Key West. Plenty of creepy stuff and not badly done at all -- grade A pulp horror.

For more in-depth examination of the whole Frankenstein Horror series, check out The Groovy Age of Horror, who did a good job with 'em.

The Cross of Frankenstein - Robert J. Myers (Pocket, 1976)
Decent follow-up to the Mary Shelly classic, happening a few decades after the close of the original. An illegitimate son of Frankenstein is approached by agents of The Monster to mix an artificial blood for him, because he's been badly injured by a gunshot. The young Frankenstein mixes the blood under duress and finds his father's creation presiding over a cult, which he leads in sex orgies (the monster's been graced with monster-sized equipment). When the Monster rapes Frankenstein's lady, things get personal. Not bad, preserves the dignity of the original (while adding a lot more sex), but reads more like an adventure novel than horror. Myers followed this up with another, Slave of Frankenstein.

Katie - Michael McDowell (Avon, 1982)
Riveting suspense that was apparently McDowell's take on "What if Charles Dickens had written something really vicious?" In the years following the Civil War, a poverty-stricken girl named Philomela Drax has amazing runs of both good and bad fortune as she comes into money (always the result of a tragedy) and then has it stolen from her, repeatedly. All the while, she and the Slapes -- a family of extremely violent degenerates who kill all Philo's friends and rob her -- track each other through New York and Philadelphia. A lot of the coincidences and twists of fate are pretty far-fetched -- just like in a Dickens-type novel -- but that’s part of the fun. And the violence is intense and nasty -- a McDowell trademark. Very good. It’s a crime that this man’s work is out of print. Even e-book versions would be better than nothing (although not by much, since e-books are shit). Somebody really needs to get on the ball here and collect McDowell’s work in some hardback omnibus editions. I nominate him for Library of America treatment. He’s that good.

The Walking - Bentley Little (Signet, 2000)
Certain people die and, for some reason, keep walking. At first their corpses pace around their homes, but then they begin walking to a lake that covers the sunken town of Wolf Creek, a town that had been deeded to witches by the government but then flooded by a dam. One of the walking dead is the father of private investigator Miles Huerdeen, and Miles decides to find out what vengeful evil is behind this reanimation and to see if it can be stopped. The novel starts out well, but becomes more mundane and unbelievable as it goes along, and the ending is rather weak. Little is never at his best when he tries to pile too much horror into a plot -- what’s supposed to be an armageddon tends to come across as a chaos of unexplained, motiveless activity that gets lost in a jumble. But, that’s just how I react to it; some people may be able to suspend their disbelief further. Overall I still think there are no bad Bentley Little books (well, ’cept maybe The Return), because this is certainly well-written and has some good ideas; it just doesn’t grab me with its originality the way some of his books have, and I sense a formula encroaching. Still, it’s worth checking out.

Strange Seed - T. M. Wright (Playboy Press, 1978)
Strange horror that is creepy despite - or possibly because of - the fact that it doesn’t make much sense. A newlywed couple move into a dilapidated farmhouse so they can live off the land, but soon weird children -- who seem to be plants -- are invading their lives and making them go crazy. The pace is slow and Wright’s prose obscures a lot of what’s actually going on -- almost everything is just implied -- but apparently the kids are evil and eat some people and (maybe?) impregnate the wife. It’s not completely satisfying because of the obscurity and murk, but it does have some nightmarish moments and even spawned a few sequels, Nursery Tale, Children of the Island, and People of the Dark.

For a more in-depth review of this book, check out Too Much Horror Fiction, and Phantom of Pulp. Good info on those blogs, as always.

The Keep - F. Paul Wilson (Berkley, 1982)
Something in a Rumanian keep is killing off the Nazis who are occupying it during World War II. Desperate for help, they bring in a crippled Jewish professor and his daughter, and discover that the keep is housing an evil, which at first seems to be a vampire but is something far worse, and if it is not stopped then the world will be damned. Very well-written horror with some extremely creepy scenes and a convincing aura of menace throughout. I wasn’t expecting much from this after being bored by the film adaptation, but it’s one of the most important horror novels of the 80’s. Spawned so many follow-ups that I haven’t even collected them all yet -- The Tomb, The Touch, Reborn, Reprisal, Nightworld.

Escardy Gap - Peter Crowther and James Lovegrove (Tor, 1996)
A desperate - desperate!!! - attempt at being a cross between Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, this novel melds the worst traits of each author into an overlong muck of Norman Rockwell cliches. The writers have a very annoying tendency to make a “style” of re-stating everything three or four times. For example, they wouldn’t say “book” - they’d say “a collection of pages, made of paragraphs, paragraphs of sentences, sentences of words, words of letters” - etc. No one lives in a house -- they live in a home, a dwelling, a domicile, a residence... you get the idea. Sometimes it’s as much thesaurus as it is novel. It sounds like someone trying to re-write Bradbury’s (vastly over-rated) Something Wicked This Way Comes using what they think would be Stephen King’s bag of literary tricks. You will soon want to scream, to shriek, to utter a sound of outrage and exasperation! Once you get past the self-conscious artificiality and gimmicks of the prose, the story itself is full of inventively sick stuff, and is non-stop action-packed... maybe a little too action packed. There are so many people getting wound around trees, blended with cars, eaten by vaginas, turned to ash, given tumors, rotted alive, and other far-fetched atrocities that it’s hard to keep track or give a damn. It’s a sincere attempt, and partially successful, but tedium sets in nonetheless, because I never cared about any of the characters and thought the monsters were too “fantasy” for me. But then I never liked Something Wicked This Way Comes, either, because Bradbury’s sentimentality was so overbearing in that one that it made me feel like I’d been force-fed syrup. There’s also a part of this that’s a total lift from Hodgson’s House on the Borderland. Not all bad... but gets awful damn close in parts, like when they overindulge in playing with alliteration, changing words with an aplomb heretofore seen only in schizophrenics. A frustrating book, because there’s lots of good imagination woven into someone else’s plot and too much clumsy, self-indulgent wordplay.

The Night Man - K. W. Jeter (Onyx, 1989)
Faster-paced-than-usual Jeter horror about a poor little kid named Steven who gets dumped on by everybody. His alcoholic mom screams at him, his slut sister hates him, and all the total assholes on the high-school football team beat the hell out of him. Nobody ever takes up for him... until a mysterious, always-silhouetted man in a black car shows up and starts doing a Jack the Ripper act on all of Steven’s enemies, even though Steven is more horrified by what his “defender” is doing than by his abusers. But he can’t make the guy stop. Well-written as usual, and full of some incredible mean-spiritedness. There are no positive characters here; even Steven is pretty much of an ungrateful, sulking brat. A juvenile hall guard comes closes to being a nice guy, but even he comes across as pretty bitter. And Jeter seems to have a real hatred for high-school jocks; they all come across as criminal bastards. I never liked ‘em, either, but, wow. Still, it’s refreshing to read a book with a bunch of angry creeps now and then, so, I liked this.

The Face that Must Die - Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 1985)
This Campbell novel is infamous for being disturbing and gory, but I think some people are just overly sensitive, because it is a disturbing book, but it’s not hardcore enough to damage you. A psychotic named Horridge goes out killing people with a razor because he’s afraid that the world is full of homosexuals. He suspects everyone of either being gay, or implying that he’s gay, so he ends up committing a string of killings, first because he thinks one gay man is a killer, and then because he thinks he has to cover up so witnesses won’t implicate him. It’s a more compelling and readable work than most of Campbell’s novels, and the violence is effective, although not particularly extreme. The novel disturbs because it spends so much time inside the head of an insane, bigoted, arrogant, thoroughly-unlikable main character. The only person you’re really invited to identify with is a homophobic murderer, and that’s a bit much to handle for more sensitive readers. The book also contains a very personal autobiographical essay from Campbell about his late mother’s bouts with insanity... it’s as disturbing and compelling as the fiction and is worth the price of the book all by itself, even though it’s only about 20 pages.

Wire Mesh Mothers
- Elisabeth Massie (Leisure, 2001)
I liked Massie’s earlier Sineater, so I knew this would be good... but I didn’t know it would blow me out of the water! The story is the kind of no-holds-barred violence that Richard Laymon always came up with (and I love Laymon so that’s a big compliment) but the writing is even better and there is more depth. Troubled schoolteacher Kate McDolen has a little breakdown at work because the kids in her class are such mean little shits, so she decides to quit and make a difference by kidnapping an abused little girl named Mistie, so she can take her somewhere safe. But this ill-fated plan turns into a torturous nightmare when they get stuck with Tony, a misogynistic young girl who’s on the run from a convenience store robbery that turned into murder. The kidnapper becomes the kidnapped as Tony demands that Kate drive her to Texas, and since Tony is a teacher-hating psychopath, she does everything she can to make Kate miserable. Massie knows no limits to the amount of suffering she’ll put her characters through, and keeps the violence realistic to make it even more shocking. Amidst all this dark nihilism (it’s horror, but not traditional horror -- there’s no supernatural stuff) there are some feminist statements, comments on the effects of child abuse, and discussions of what it is to be a mother... and what it’s not. But Massie deadpans it and doesn’t preach, making it all the more powerful. I’m jealous of the whole thing.

The Traveling Vampire Show - Richard Laymon (Leisure, 2001)
Laymon’s last book to come out stateside before he died is firmly in the Laymon tradition -- it’s great and you’re not gonna be able to put it down, unless it rattles you so hard you’re afraid to pick it back up (which almost happened to one friend of mine who read it). As is the case with most Laymon, it takes place in a 24-hour span and is filled with maybe a little too much “puberty” (no disrespect to the dead, especially an author I love this much, but Laymon was horny as a 12-year-old who just discovered jerking off) and plenty of gore. Three kids in the late 50’s/ early 60’s decide to visit a traveling vampire show that comes to their town, and if they’re lucky they’ll live to regret it. And that’s basically it, other than that this is kind of Laymon’s version of something like Stephen King’s “The Body.” It ain’t exactly art, but you’d have a tough time finding a better page-turner... unless maybe you went to another Laymon novel, since the man had a powerful gift for creating those. And that’s a good thing. Hardcore stuff here, it’ll smack you in the mouth and leave you stunned.

The Woman Next Door - T. M. Wright (Tor, 1981)
A woman who’s stuck in a wheelchair because of some violence incurred as a toddler at the hands of a psychotic babysitter moves into a house next door to a woman named Marilyn... who’s pretty psychotic, too. Marilyn’s having troubles with her husband and son and is getting more angry and dangerous and crazy. A bit too flowery prose-wise but knows when to chuck the poetry and get nasty, this is decent psychological horror and well worth seeking out.

Hunted Beyond Reason - Richard Matheson (Forge, 2002)
Matheson takes two classic plots -- Deliverance and “The Most Dangerous Game” - and manages to fuse them perfectly into something new, despite the fact that both those plots have already been imitated countless times. Two guys, Bob and Doug (not McKenzie), go on a backpacking trip. Bob’s a sensitive, wimpy writer fella who knows nothing about the woods, while Doug is a macho actor who’s a complete expert. Unfortunately for Bob, Doug is also a fiendishly-demented psycho who plans all sorts of horrible things for Bob once they get deep in the woods. Matheson milks a suspenseful situation for even more suspense, and it’s scary and brilliant, marred only by a bunch of metaphysics-ex-machina and “spiritual belief” bullshit (Bob ends up reacting so unrealistically and pacifistically in the face of the profound evil done to him that it costs him some reader sympathy and compromises some of the otherwise gritty and stark reality of the book), but even though that is a fairly big flaw, at least it’s a flaw in a gem; this is definitely worth a read, and I blazed through it in one sitting, despite it being 300 pages.

Hope that was fun. And now for my customary plug (for my silly-ass Twitter account full of comedy-jokes and bad ideas) and a couple of new plugs I'm happy to pass on - Psychotronica Redux is baaaaaaack! I was missing that blog and am twelve kinds of glad to see it re-starting. And it's proprietor - and all-around good guy and personal friend of mine (I got to see some of this bad art in person, and it's feckin' glory-ass, ya'll) - has added another blog, Unpopular Culture. Ye are beseeched to check 'em out and make 'em part of your blogging diet. They're delicious, nutritious and, unlike my Twitter account, probably won't give anyone a grisly case of the devil-farts.

So "devil-farts" won't be the closing image you have to carry with you 'til next time, here's a wholesome photo of a way-too-happy cutiepie with a shotgun.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, sounds like some good reads! I haven't read KATIE but I agree that McDowell is one underrated writer. THE AMULET is fantastic. I'm trying to collect all of his BLACKWATER SAGA books. Your comments about STRANGE SEED are spot-on too. Years ago I tried to read THE KEEP but wasn't digging it; I wasn't reading much horror at the time so it just wasn't where my head was at. Definitely need to try again. Oh and that Massie book sounds cool - love the title. And thanks for the link!