Bikers, Bad Dudes, And A Bitch

While my insanely-unreliable computer is connected to the net (for once in a blue moon) I figured I'd leave it on for a couple of days so I could fit in another blog post.   So, when it rains it pours, I guess.   If you missed the horror fiction reviews, please read them here (just in case they get bumped off the page).  This post will cover a bunch of non-fiction books dealing with bad dudes (and a bad chick).   I don't always mean "bad" in terms of evil... just capable-of-kicking-your-ass.   Although in some cases, it does just mean evil, such as the Bundy and Gacy books.   I've been reading a lot of biker stuff lately, so, there's tons of that here.   If you'd like more, there are also some here, as well as another Buford Pusser book.

Now, onward into dangerous territory... so I can finally turn off this computer.


Vagos, Mongols, and Outlaws: My Infiltration Of America’s Deadliest Biker Gangs - Charles Falco, with Kerrie Droban   (Thomas Dunne Books, 2013)
Faced with a 22-year prison stretch for his involvement in a Bulgarian meth ring, Charles Falco agrees to go undercover and infiltrate the Vagos motorcycle club, collecting info to lead to prosecutions.   Not sure waht to do, and not even having a motorcycle, Charles starts hanging around biker bars and meeting Vagos.  Even though they always seem a little suspicious of him, they prospect him and he eventually becomes full-patch and even gets busted and spends jail time with them.   He -- and other infiltrating agents -- almost get caught several times.  Once that assignment -- Operation 22 Green -- is done, Charles (perhaps insanely) wants more, so he gets another assignment -- Operation Black Diamond -- and starts hanging around The Mongols, which leads to him getting patched into The Outlaws instead.   Once again, a lot of dangerous situations happen and he and other agents are almost caught, and Charles fears a few times that he may have to kill someone to stop something worse from happening.   Reading these books makes you wonder why anybody would really want to join one of these MC’s;   you do get strength-in-numbers so only a fool would mess with you, and there is a sense of family for people who often don’t have any other, but you also get made a fool of and put through hell to join (I’m not sure I’d want members who’d put up with the kind of shit these prospects do) and then you end up a slave to the club, having to maybe land in jail for doing things for the club, or get killed fighting it out with guys you have everything in common with except a patch.   And most of the “fun” doesn’t sound like much fun, just more constant proving yourself.  But I guess some people need to belong to something, and at least it’s better than church, I’ve got to give it that.   Well-written without a dull moment, and was later turned into the TV miniseries, Gangland Undercover.

Gods of Mischief: My Undercover Vendetta To Take Down The Vagos Outlaw Motorcycle Gang
-- George Rowe   (Touchstone, 2013)
It’s interesting to read this book right after Charles Falco’s Vagos, Mongols, and Outlaws, because Charles appears in it, as do a few of the same Vagos as their paths cross.  George Rowe decided (in retrospect probably foolishly) to volunteer to infiltrate the Vagos MC after they beat his friend Dave half to death over a pool game (which seems to be the main thing Vagos fight about) and then “disappear” him once he gets out of the hospital.   The Vagos are terrorizing his hometown of Hemet, California, and George wants to do something about it, so the ATF sends him in to prospect.   George puts up with an astounding amount of abuse and causes a lot of trouble before managing to get patched in... and then still narrowly manages to keep the patch.   It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to go through but it’s fascinating to read about, and George is a really good writer, making this a good choice for taking on an airplane or a doctor’s waiting room or anywhere else you’ll be trapped and in need of soemthing engrossing -- Big George won’t bore you, guaranteed.   Charles Falco’s book is also great but I think this one is even more entertaining because George is a bit more of an asshole.   Not that he’s unlikeable -- he’s honest about his faults so you can forgive them -- but he’s kind of full of himself, which gets him in a lot of trouble and trouble is, of course, interesting stuff to read about.   George also likes to fight and is good at it, so there’s a fair amount of brawling involved.   Where Charles tried to avoid trouble, George seems to be eager to make his next mistake.   He gets engaged to a psycho junkie girl, he provokes fights with the Sons of Hell (a Hell’s Angels support club) in hopes of getting a gang war started so there’ll be juicer stuff to bust these guys for when the time comes.    George is a big conflicted knot of regrets, vices, bad decisions made in haste, and attitude, and that all makes for a read you can’t put down, so I recommend this book highly.   Now I have to read Terry The Tramp’s book and get his side of things, which should be interesting;  George paints Terry as a big round clown who shafted the club for money to live off of and support a big gambling habit.  Should make for a neat intersecting Vagos trilogy.  Anyway, yeah, get this book -- George pretty much wrecked his life for it so that’s the least you can do.

Terry The Tramp:  The Life And Dangerous Times of a One-Percenter
  - K. Randall Ball  (Motorbooks, 2011)
First of all, this is NOT a biography of John Terrence Tracy, the more-famous Terry The Tramp of the Hells Angels in the 60’s.  From everything I’ve heard about that guy, that’d be one hell of a crazy book that I hope someone will write one day.   No, this book is about Terry Orendorff, President of the Vagos MC.   I was interested to read Terry’s side of things after reading the way he was depicted in George Rowe’s Gods of Mischief, where, according to George, Terry’s basically a clown who lived off of dues paid by the club (including sales of member’s bikes when they got sanctions imposed on them), which he used to support a big gambling habit after closing down his motorcycle repair shop.   Well, none of that is addressed here, but it’s still an interesting book, chronicling how Terry got started being a biker, building a Harley out of an old wrecked panhead and teaching himself from a Harley manual.   About the only crime Terry was ever involved in, according to the book, was stealing coins out of a fountain as a kid,  but he did engage in a good bit of violence, partially learned from beatings he got from a drunken stepfather, and later from a crazy girlfriend who’d try to shoot him.   Terry did some film work on The Glory Stompers and taught Dennis Hopper some things about riding.   He built a lot of bikes, joined the Vagos, got in a lot of fights, eventually became president and saw the club through a lot of legal battles, federal infiltrators, and less dangerous (but more strange) problems such as what to do about some guys who took it upon themselves to start their own Vagos chapter in Mexico, wearing homemade patches and riding Kawasakis.   Terry helped out brothers who served jail time, lost his own brother to cancer, and suffered health (and financial) troubles of his own.  Of course, the book depicts the Vagos as just a motorcycle club, not a criminal organization, with a few bad apples who got in some trouble due to a persecuting law enforcement system that had a grudge against them.  Where the real truth lies is anyone’s guess, but I’d imagine it’s somewhere between this book and George Rowe’s and Charles Falco’s.   But, that’s only my guess, since I only know what I read.   In any case, it’s an interesting booik, although it does get a bit dull during the legal struggles (invariably a low point of these type of books).  Terry’s life story and all the motorcycle stuff is great, though.  The writing is not bad but it does have odd quirks;  I guess Ball is trying to create historical context but he sometimes inserts completely unrelated things at random.   In the middle of a story about Terry we get a brief history of how James Brown was moving from soul to funk, or what hits Aretha Franklin was having, or what Roger Corman was doing.   It’s strange and awkward and I kept waiting to find out what that had to do with Terry (was James Brown his favorite singer?  Not that I can tell).   Also the design of the book is really obnoxious, with the text having to fit around random sentences that have been picked out and blown up, like “teaser” text to get you to read a magazine article. It’s obtrusive and a pain to ignore them and read around them to keep up with the narrative.  It’s the kind of thing people do to pad out a too-short book, but since this clocks in at 266 fairly-small-print pages, that’s really not the case here, so... I don’t know why the book designers made such a dumb choice.   The book has a couple dozen pictures, a few of Terry but mostly other Vagos (including an odd one with Sonny Bono with the club!), so that’s cool.   Overall it’s mostly a praise-piece (Terry gets compared to John Wayne a lot) but that’s fair enough in a biography, right?   Worth a read.

Outlaws:  One Man's Rise Through The Savage World of Renegade Bikers, Hell's Angels, and Global Crime   --  Tony Thompson         (Penguin, 2011)
Consistently interesting but rather muddled account of a biker named Daniel "Snake Dog" Boone, who joined a British motorcycle club called The Pagans in the early 80's and ended up as part of the European wing of The Outlaws MC, who are at war with The Hells Angels worldwide.   Most of the book is centered on European branches of the gangs, which makes it a little less interesting to me since most of the big trouble happens in the U.S. and Canada.   And Thompson is determined to pack in as much MC history as he can so Boone isn't really the focus of the book, and, thus, it doesn't really have one;  it's a scattershot conglomerate of histories of the Hells Angels, The Outlaws, The Bandidos, The Pagans (U.S. and U.K. versions -- the difference almost gets Boone killed by some U.S. Outlaw buddies who see his Pagans (U.K.) tattoo -- Outlaws are supposed to kill (U.S.) Pagans on sight to keep them out of their territory.   The difference between the U.S. and U.K. also gets Boone in trouble when he wants a cigarette and asks some Outlaws, "Are there any fags in this clubhouse?"   It's very informative and it's well-written and never gets boring because these clubs are attacking one another pretty constantly (if usually not that effectively -- a lot of fights have low body counts), but it does meander and doesn't maintain one storyline to follow very well.  I found it was best read in short chunks, which is why I quit trying to read it all day at home and read it on my lunch breaks at work instead.   Since it's so all-encompassing and focuses on Europe instead of North America, you'll probably want to look elsewhere for the definitive story on the Outlaws vs. Hells Angels conflict, but, in general, it's worth the read. 

Street Justice -- Chuck Zito, with Joe Laydon    (St. Martin's Press, 2002)
Autobiography of bodyguard/fighter/Hells Angel/actor Chuck Zito, who is perhaps as famous for beating up other actors as he is for things he's starred in (Oz, Sons of Anarchy, etc.)  The book is consistently interesting and Chuck seems like an honorable, honest guy, even if he is a bit of an egomaniac.   There's no doubt he's a legitimately tough guy, but it's also clear he's thin-skinned and can't let any insult, no matter how mild, go by without giving somebody a pounding;   he knocked John Claude Van Damme out just for saying he "had no heart," for christsakes.   Most people would know he was wrong, consider the source, and trust everyone else to know he was wrong, and shrug it off.   But, what the hell, Jean Claude probably had a clock-cleaning due anyway.   Zito talks about being in the Hells Angels, which I imagine is quite a feat considering he doesn't drink or do drugs and that's a notoriously hard-partying organization.   Chuck served jail time for a brother's involvement in a drug deal that he had nothing to do with  (Chuck blows his own horn a lot -- and why not, it's his autobiography -- but he does seem honest about things, so when he says he's not guilty I tend to believe him).    He also talks about his experience as a bodyguard to such people as Sylvester Stallone, Liza Minelli, Cher, Charlie Sheen, and Mickey Roarke (who comes across as a much nicer fella than you'd expect for such a loose cannon).  Chuck shows a lot of respect for those who earn it, and he's fair even to those who don't -- even people Chuck didn't like don't get sniped at much in the book, so it's not mean-spirited.   Chuck reveals some vulnerabilities he may not have intended to reveal, with all the stories of how easily provoked to fight he was -- more people get hit in this book than they would if it were an autobiography of Popeye -- but he comes across as honorable, likeable, no-bullshit, and never boring.   A great book if you're interested in Chuck, the Hells Angels, or just like reading about fistfights.

Check out the 1971 "photoshopping" on the cover there... pretty sure that's a transplanted head, there.

The Twelfth of August -- The Story of Buford Pusser  - W.R. Morris  (Aurora Publishers Inc., 1971)
Classic biography of the Tennessee sheriff immortalized in the Walking Tall movie, published while Pusser was still alive.   It covers his early life, starting out as a bit of a mama’s boy, growing up to be a high school basketball and football star, then a stint in the Marines (he wanted to make it a career but asthma got him discharged).  he came home, got married, worked in a funeral home, had a side career as a professional wrestler, then worked for his police-chief dad as a cop.  Through all of this he had struggles with a mob who came up from the infamous Phenix City, Alabama crime rackets;  they beat him almost to death once when he caught them cheating at dice, and later tried to frame him and his friends for assault.  Deciding to do something about them, he ran for sheriff (barely beating a dead man for the job) and then cracked down on the violent gambling joints and moonshine stills, and in the course of the job he got stabbed and shot multiple times, got rammed by a car and got in car wrecks and brawls, and had to shoot two people.  What comes through is a guy who was incredibly lucky about being unlucky -- he repeatedly gets into situations that should have been fatal, but he survives.   Of the two people he killed in gunfights, one had a gun misfire while it was pointed at his face.  The other emptied his gun at Buford and missed every shot before Buford shot back.   He also survives by being able to take a lot of punishment, such as when he got his jaw shot off during an ambush that killed his wife.   As the Drive-By Truckers (unkindly) put it, “Some folks just can’t take a hint.”  The book was published before the car crash that took his life (possibly the result of tampering, but Buford wasn’t the greatest driver and wrecked a few cars on his own), so for the full story I highly recommend also reading Buford’s daughter’s book, Walking On.   W. R. Morris also fleshes out the story in The State Line Mob (also recommended), which has kind of a Reader’s Digest condensed version of this book in it.  The writing is very simple and folksy-clumsy, but this is still a good book which should be brought back into print; used copies usually go for ridiculous prices.  When I got lucky to find a like-new copy for $20 I pounced on it; I thought I’d never get a copy of this one.  Glad I did, because it was worth the wait.

The Beast - Paul Di'Anno  (John Blake, 2010)
Autobiography of Iron Maiden's original frontman, who turns out to be pretty much of a psycho.   Sex, drugs, and violence are all done in excess, and Di'Anno brags about all if it in detail;  even stuff he should be ashamed of, he seems to take a weird delight in telling you about.   According to Di'Anno he's beaten up (and usually tried to murder) everybody who's ever looked at him funny, drank "enough to drown a dwarf" pretty much every night, snorted more cocaine than Scarface on a regular basis, and had sex with just about every woman he's ever met and usually in lots of half-a-dozen at a time.   He's pretty obsessed with his own fame (I don't remember Killers or Battlezone being that huge, but maybe I was out of the loop), and Maiden has definitely had a big influence in his life.   There's a lot of braggadocio in this, but also some honesty -- Paul doesn't try to hide that he's beaten the crap out of his multiple wives, even though that's not going to make him look good.   His assessment of Bruce Dickenson is pretty fair -- he thinks Bruce is the best singer Maiden ever had, but that Paul's voice works best for the older material and Bruce's for the new.   I can agree with that.   The writing is raw and full of so much British slang it's almost Clockwork Orange, but it's good to read one of these rock-star autobiographies that were actually written by the subject instead of some ghost-writer.  Paul doesn't come across as a guy you'd want to hang out with (he likes to break things, shoot up hotel lobbies with BB guns, piss wherever he happens to be standing, throw his shit around the walls like GG Allin, and you never know what will provoke him to try to kill you) but since you don't go into this book expecting the story of a nice guy (it is titled The Beast, after all), it delivers.   If you want sex, drugs, violence, rock and roll, and general insane behavior, you've got it.  

An American Demon
- Jack Grisham   (ECW, 2001)
They say a crazy person isn’t really crazy if they know they’re crazy, but maybe that doesn’t work with sociopaths, because the former TSOL frontman doesn’t take it easy on himself in this memoir, which casts him as no less than a demon.  He never comes off as completely repentant -- Jack knows the stuff he did was hateful and wrong but even at his worst he still seems to take an impish glee in telling you about it.  And even though it all leads to him being pretty much of a sad sack loser, he doesn’t do a whole lot of self-pity-wallowing, either -- just enough to accurately reflect what he was going through.   it’s not a strict autobiography because Jack depicts himself as a semi-supernatural being, visited occasionally by God or the Devil, and with magical powers that let him see other people’s fates or help him escape trouble through un-divine intervention.  Those expecting just a scene-report will be disappointed -- there’s not a lot of name-dropping or details about the making of TSOL albums; it’s not about punk rock, it’s about Jack, and it’s admittedly self-indulgent because that’s what Jack’s life was all about -- self-indulgence.   There’s not really a lot to explain how he got that way;  you gather that his childhood wasn’t the best, but he also depicts himself as such an asshole that you can hardly expect it to be; he got spanked a lot, but he also tried to burn his dog alive, so it could be more cause-and-effect than plain abuse.   Through it all, Jack doesn’t blame anything -- he is, simply, a demon.   He goes on to desecrate churches and graveyards, burn schools and businesses, burglarize houses (mostly just to make the owners feel violated), beat the hell out of people for very little reason, treat girls like sex dolls, abuse substances, you name it -- he does everything short of murder and really avoids that only by chance, since he did jump up and down on a guy’s head and throw another off a bridge onto the rocks.   It’s a pretty disturbing narrative because Jack doesn’t feel bad about any of it (although you get a sense that he trusts the reader to do that for him) and he doesn’t really condemn his behavior -- as a “demon” he kind of glamorizes it, but knows the reader will judge him harshly for it.   But you may cut him a little slack just for being redemptively honest.   Hopefully he’s better now (he’s become a hypnotherapist, but I don’t think I’d let the dude hypnotize me).  Whatever else this book is (or isn’t), it’s extremely well-written and hard to put down;  you may be disturbed (god, I hope so), but you aren’t going to be bored.   And I’m not even a huge TSOL fan (they really only had one good album and an EP), so you can easily get into Jack’s writing without being a fan-boy.

My Dark Places - James Ellroy   (Vintage, 1996)
Crime novelist James Ellroy may be a neurotic creep, but he's an honest one... maybe more honest than some readers will be able to handle.   His mother was murdered by a person unknown in 1958, apparently the victim of a date rape that went worse.  At the time Ellroy -- already a bit warped at 10 years old -- saw this as kind of a lucky thing because he'd followed his divorced dad's lead in hating his mother and considering her a drunken whore.   As he lived with his father he realized the man was a weak, vindictive liar, and became more curious about who his mother really was.   He developed an obsession with the Black Dahlia murder case, as kind of an obsession with his mom’s strangled-and-dumped body by proxy.   And the whole thing messed him up pretty good;  in an autobiographical section he details what a crime-obsessed creep he was.  He shoplifted almost everything he owned, ate, or got stoned on.   He masturbated constantly (both himself and one of his friends), peeked in windows, and broke into houses to steal panties.   His house was so full of dog shit from an un-trainable pet that it ended up condemned.   He drank and took drugs (especially eating cotton out of stolen decongestant inhalers that worked as a cheap form of meth) and was a hard-line right-wing racist who idealized Nazis (or at least pretended to because he got attention when he acted crazy).  He had sex fantasies about his mom and apparently knew the penis-size of all his male relatives.  He read crime novels obsessively and eventually wrote them.   That part of the book is train-wreck fascinating and Ellroy’s brutal on himself.   Then, thirty-five years or so down the line, he decided he wanted to re-open his mother’s murder case, mostly because he’d been unfair to her and wanted to know who she really was.   So he contacted a Detective Stoner (the section on Stoner is a digression on other cases he handled, and it’s interesting but distracts from the real story and breaks the obsessive focus of the book -- there isn’t much of a flaw in this book but what little there is is that) and they doggedly searched for anybody who could know anything about this very cold case.   They don’t get many answers but Ellroy does get some of what he needs out of it.  Well-written (of course) and fascinating true-crime/autobiography/biography that may be a bit rough for some, dwelling as it does on such warped and unhappy things, but it’s unflinching and, though Ellroy had it rough and got handed a raw deal, he never whines about it or uses it as an excuse... just explanation.    Recommended.

 Legion of the Damned - Sven Hassel  (Cassell, 1957)
Autobiographical anti-war novel written by a German soldier from WWII.   Sven is not sympathetic to the Nazi cause and hates Hitler, but he’s pressed into the worst kind of service when he deserts and is then sentenced to a penal battalion.   His life becomes a hellish nightmare as he and the other prisoners are trained past the point of exhaustion, abused by sadistic maniacs, fed slop and kept in a constant state of fear, all so they’ll be at home in the worst battlefield conditions.  Then they’re sent to the Russian front to man a tank.   Hassel’s more concerned with finding food or warmth and avoiding mean officers than he is with fighting, and his friends Porta, Old Un, Bier, and Titch are similarly unmotivated, not giving a damn about the Third Reich, just survival and finding a way out of the war.   They do get in hellish battles nevertheless, and Hassel ends up captured by the Russians and forced to work in a factory, which the prisoners mostly sabotage.   He finally manages to escape that, only to find that his wife’s been murdered by the Nazis.  Feeling dead inside, Hassel endures more starvation and misery and terrifying tank duels, but they also have parties with the enemy, and each side fires into empty spaces in no man’s land to keep up the pretense of fighting and appease the officers, who are the only ones who care about having a war.  Then Hassel almost gets killed in a brutal armored train attack that leaves him with shrapnel in his gut and soaked in a friend’s blood and brains.  The hospital does surgery on him with barely any anesthesia, but he survives and is sent back to his unit, which is soon down to seven men out of an original six thousand.   If you’re looking for a war-is-hell book, congratulations, buddy, you damn sure found it.   The writing is good but the narrative gets a bit disjointed because he’s got a lot of time to cover and is just picking representative bits, sometimes without much background info.   Also, he’s concerned with army life in general, not just battles, so you should be as interested in stealing chickens or gambling for booze as you are gunfights and shelling.  In any case, it’s pretty brutal stuff, and war is anything but glorified.   And don’t worry that you’re reading something from the enemy’s point of view;  even though they can’t resist typing his name with lightning bolt SS’s on the cover, Sven’s no Nazi type.

Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders
- Terry Sullivan & Peter T. Maiken  (Pinnacle, 1983)
Intensive account of the investigation and prosecution of one of the most notorious serial killers in American history, John Wayne Gacy, who strangled over thirty young men and buried them in his crawlspace or threw them off a bridge.   Gacy comes across as an extreme sociopath, palling around with the cops who are keeping him under surveillance, certain to the very end that nothing will happen to him and he’ll get away with it.  Even when the bodies are found under his house he tries to shrug it off by saying a lot of people had keys to his place.   It’s all told for the viewpoint of the cops and prosecutors, so you get more police procedural than lurid details about the murders, but it’s still unavoidably nasty given the subject matter (such as pumps trying to clear water out of Gacy’s crawlspace getting clogged repeatedly by lard-like rotting flesh).   And Gacy’s attitude toward the killings is horrific.  As in most true-crime books, the last section -- dealing with the trial -- gets a bit boring, but the first two-thirds give you a lot of insight on how cops conduct long-term investigations.   Well written.

The Last Victim - Jason Moss   (Warner Books, 1999)
Ambitious high school kid Jason Moss decides he's going to get inside the minds of serial killers by writing them letters, posing as their type of victim.   He gets mail back from Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez, Henry Lee Lucas, and even Jeffrey Dahmer... but his biggest response comes from John Wayne Gacy, who even starts calling Jason on the telephone.   Jason thought he was smart enough to manipulate these killers, but with Gacy he bit off more than he could chew, and Gacy out-gamed him and subjected him to letters and calls filled with all kinds of twisted perversions (even trying to get Jason to have sex with is own brother).   Despite the wear and tear on his mental health, Jason keeps up the correspondence, thinking he's on the verge of some insight.   He even agrees to fly to the prison and visit Gacy on death row, believing it will be under safe conditions.   It isn't.   The writing's pretty simple and Jason comes across as a bit arrogant and unaware of his own naivety, even after the fact, but it’s still a dark, scary book and hard to put down.    And Gacy comes across as a real monster, determined to keep following his predator drives right up to the day of his execution.   There’s insight into the other killers as well; Manson’s letters were incoherent and rambling, Dahmer’s polite and shy but intrigued (he almost never wrote back to anyone), and Ramirez was a Satanic show-off who thought he’d found a disciple.  But Gacy thought he’d found another victim, and in a way, perhaps he did; it’s not covered in the book because it happened seven years after it was published, but Jason Moss eventually (driven by what, no one knows) shot himself in the head on 6-6-06 (you have to wonder if it had something to do with Ramirez because of the date).   Dark but compelling stuff, and later made into an equally-dark movie, Dear Mr. Gacy, which is also recommended.

The Stranger Beside Me -- Ann Rule   (Pocket Books, 2009 (first published 1980))
Ann Rule’s blockbuster about Ted Bundy is the Winchester Mystery House of true crime novels -- it’s not likely to out of print and so she’ll probably have to keep adding on chapters with new editions for the rest of her life.  It’s very well-written and has a unique perspective, since Rule was a friend, co-worker, and correspondent of Bundy’s for years, even while working on this book before Ted was even a suspect.   Even though Rule is a bit of a ghoul, making a living writing about murder, she balks at gory details here, so some of the more lurid aspects of Bundy’s crimes (his necrophilia, for instance -- Bundy liked to revisit bodies, put makeup on them, and keep having sex with them) barely get a mention, so if you’re looking for that stuff (and let‘s be honest - those of us who read these books totally are), you may be a little let down.  But as to what Bundy was like (as much as anybody can know since he was a sociopath who created a fake persona for the world) or the trials, that’s handled in sharp focus.   Rule worked at a suicide hotline with Ted, who seemed like a nice, compassionate, gentle guy.   She also wrote articles for detective magazines and became aware of missing-girl cases, writing about them (and discussing them with Ted) before ever even dreaming he was the one responsible.   During the trials they kept up heavy correspondence, much of which is reprinted here, and Rule also recounts some of the mail she’s gotten since Bundy’s execution, from women who were picked up by him in the ‘70’s but managed to escape.   one thing that strikes you in this book is how easily Ted Bundy got away with things.  Girls disappeared one after the other and he made little effort to be inconspicuous, using fake arm and leg casts to get their sympathy (and attract everyone’s attention) so they’d help him and be lured into his trap.   He did his crimes with a gold VW Beetle -- a very noticeable car that even people with no knowledge of cars would recognize and remember even if they weren’t paying much attention.   And yet he racked up body after body -- exactly how many is still not known;  they confirmed 36 but it’s likely in the hundreds, since Ted drove around from state to state, indulging his compulsions, bludgeoning and strangling.   The girls tended to be the same type -- long dark hair parted in the middle -- and this seems an attempt to deal with the humiliation of being dumped by a girl named Stephanie.   Ted remade himself to get her back, and when he succeeded he promptly dumped her just to get even.   But that didn’t seem enough for his sociopathic ego, so he killed dozens of girls who looked like her.   Bundy is revealed as a master manipulator, holding off his own execution for years, tricking Ann and hundreds of “groupies” who thought they were in love with him, even jerking around Focus on the Family’s James Dobson by telling him what he wanted to hear (which is fair enough since Dobson’s another  (albeit non-homicidal) sociopath who does the same thing to millions).    it’s a thick, intimidating-looking book of 625 pages of relatively-small print, but I never had any trouble staying with it.   Definitely worth your time.

 Green River Killer: A True Detective Story - Jeff Jensen & Jonathan Case  (Dark Horse Books, 2015)
Well-done true-crime graphic novel written by the son of Tom Jensen, one of the detectives who worked the Green River Killer case.   With exhaustive effort, Tom Jensen keeps trying to get information out of a frustrating, misleading Gary Leon Ridgeway until they can find missing bodies and confirm that Ridgeway actually was the killer.  Told in simple, stark, but effective black and white, this reads very fast but packs a lot of emotional impact, blending years of investigation with well-handled time shifts, and focuses more on the emotional hardship of the detectives and the victims’ families instead of Ridgeway, who doesn’t seem to know why he killed, either;  he just felt a need to.   Well done. 

Born Evil - Adrian Havill  (St. Martins, 2001)
Hadden Clark was a weirdo from birth.  His mom blamed a bad forceps delivery for his strangeness, and his dad called him “the retard.”  That might explain why he’d get confused by patterns in rugs and fall down, but not why his parents -- who’d wanted a girl -- put him in dresses and called him “Kristen.”   When kids picked on him their pets would go missing and then be returned to their doorstep, butchered.  Hadden had a whole zoo of animals he ended up dissecting.  And his brother (who presumably wasn’t a forceps case) wasn’t much better -- he ended up biting a girl’s nipple off during sex and then deciding he’d better kill her, so he did, then cooked and ate one of her breasts before dismembering her in bathtub.  He failed to fit all eleven pieces of her in his small car so he kept some in the closet, then tried killing himself but kept passing out during the stabbing.   Anyway, turns out he was the good kid in this family.   Hadden became a chef but got fired from a restaurant for drinking beef blood.  He also used to surround his bed with rotten turtle carcasses that stank up the neighborhood.   He got kicked out of the Navy for wearing women’s panties.  Eventually his weirdnesses turned homicidal and he murdered and partially ate a five-year-old girl.  Then he decided he wanted to be a woman in whose house he was boarding, so he dressed up as her, suffocated her by winding her head in duct tape, and lay in her bed for a while.   Eventually the cops caught him, living homeless in the woods, and tried to get him to confess, which he wouldn’t do.   After he got convicted he started claiming to have a dozen or so more, but that may be a Henry Lee Lucas syndrome of wanting attention;  on trips to find the bodies he has to be dressed as a woman, claiming “Kristen” is another personality.  Very weird and fairly graphic true crime.

The Burn Farm - Michael Benson    (Pinnacle, 2009)
Sheila LaBarre was incoherently crazy and was known as a local crank for yelling at everybody who came near her New Hampshire farm.   She kept using near-retarded hired hands for sex partners, then would beat them until they "admitted" to being pedophiles... and then she'd kill them because she believed she was an angel sent down to cleanse the Earth of pedophiles.   She'd record the "confessions" - I guess thinking that'd justify what she did - and then burn the bodies.  This book rambles along about the case without building much impetus, and really gives no insight on how Sheila was able to attract any victims at all;   she seemed so completely crazy you can't imagine anyone wanting to get within a country mile of this nutcase.   The cover copy tries to paint her as some sort of "dominatrix" but it sounds more like flat-out beatings and murder than anything that was supposed to be "erotic."  It's a very strange book in that it goes into lots of graphic details about sex (and is preoccupied with telling us, at great length, that Sheila had an abnormally tight vagina, like it didn't grow since she was a child and made sex painful... and then she goes on to have tons of sex?), but despite all of that, the book is prudish about language: I can't remember ever seeing another modern book where the word "fuck" was starred out.   Yep, the book is full of "f***"s.   Seems like Sheila's not the only sexual weirdo working the room....  Not terrible if you're interested in the case, but not engrossing otherwise.


We All Live And Die And Slowly Rot In The Castle Where Nobody Gets Out Without Their Head Full of Revived Ghosts: Horror Fiction Book Reviews

 Well, that's a jackassy title.  But, what the hell, it's different, gotta give it that.

Anyway, here's a long, long overdue collection of horror book reviews.  I don't post often, but when I do, I try to give you your money's work, so, there's a lot here!    Since my flaky computer finally connected to the internet for once, I figured I should put this up even if it is Thanksgiving Day.  (Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, by the way).   I'm also working on a couple more book review posts which will hopefully be put up someday, one on non-fiction books about bikers and badass folks, and, of course, another action-series review post (if you're aching for more of those, don't forget that Glorious Trash is the flagship of such things and is updated way more regularly than us - every Monday and Thursday, by my calculation).  I know I'm slow, but just remember, the longer I take to do it, the longer the post will be when I finally deliver it.  Think of it as getting interest.

In any case, late for Halloween but just in time for Christmas shopping, here are way too many reviews of horror novels and short story collections, both new and vintage.  Most of them are positive because I've been very lucky in my reading lately, not many clunkers.  Few things would make me happier than turning you on to something good, so I hope this does the trick.  They're in no particular order, other than the Shirley Jackson first because I believe a few of these are influenced by her book.  Enjoy, and remember, keep buying paper!

  I did both sides of the paperback because it's got some classic back-cover copy.  Not many horror novels try to make you afraid of the book itself!

We Have Always Lived In The Castle - Shirley Jackson   (Library of America, originally 1962)
Brilliant, beautifully-written tale of haunting strangeness.   A family of eccentrics live in isolation in their old family home on the edge of a town that hates, fears, and bullies them;  they’re simultaneously shunned and an object of curiosity, due to most of the family dying from arsenic in their sugar bowl.   The older sister, Constance, was accused of the crime, and even though she was acquitted the town still thinks she was guilty.   The younger sister, Mary Katherine (known as Merricat) is our narrator, and the only one who ever leaves the grounds of the estate.   She does the shopping while shut-in Constance does the cooking and housekeeping.   Merricat is highly imaginative and semi-feral, always pretending to live on the moon and working her own invented witchcraft to ward off evil.   She’s fascinated with poisonous plants and breaks things when she’s upset.   The two girls take care of their senile Uncle Julian, who spends all his time writing down every detail of the day the family got the arsenic (which he survived, albeit in a permanently-invalid condition).  The three live out a quietly happy existence in their exile from the world until their cousin Charles shows up and disrupts things by trying to drag Constance back into society.   And things only get stranger from there.   It’s technically not a horror novel -- it’s not scary, just spooky -- but it’s so soaked in strangeness and gothic atmosphere that it’s an indispensable  landmark in the horror genre anyway;  you need to experience its mood, its obsession, its separate-from-reality-as-most-know-it characters, and its ability to make an alien world out of familiar things to understand what the root of horror is.  It’s a haunted house novel where the ones doing the haunting are still alive, and where the mad people are the ones with whom we identify.  Merricat is crazy, and she’s taking you with her.   It’s amazing that so much darkness can be woven out of so much sunlight, but Shirley Jackson’s prose is phenomenal enough to do it, and her writing will immerse you in a very weird place that will seem every bit as real as the one you live in.   A masterpiece which only gets better with repeated readings, so invest in a good edition.  The Library of America version is a helluva bargain, also including The Haunting of Hill House and her best short stories, and I consider it an indispensable part of any respectable library.

Where We Live and Die - Brian Keene    (Lazy Fascist Press, 2015) 
I like reading about writing.  Danse Macabre is my favorite Stephen King book, with On Writing a close second.   One Writer’s Beginnings is my favorite Eudora Welty.   Hell, I even watch The Waltons just because John Boy wants to be a writer.  So, when this collection of Brian Keene’s stories about the writing life came out I was doubly psyched because (A) writing! and (B) it has “The Girl On The Glider” in it, which I’ve wanted to read ever since he once mentioned it to me on Twitter when I asked if he’d ever seen a ghost.  It came out as a small press special edition that I didn’t buy because it was $11,000.   Okay, it wasn’t really, but for my cheap ass it may as well have been.   So, I waited it out... and it was worth the wait.   It’s a very spooky non-fiction piece on Keene’s house being haunted by a girl killed in a car wreck near his driveway.  It’s not only spooky -- it has a deep lesson, and it’s some of Keene’s finest writing.  If you did pay that $11,000 you got your money’s worth, so there’s no excuse a’tall for not snagging it here for only $13, with extra stories.   Also included is “Musings,” which is in the form of nonfiction but veers away from it into a strange fantasy.  Appropriately for a book about writing, Keene tells a lot of truth with a lie.  That’s what most good fiction is about, anyway, right?   It’s about meeting three girls and even though it didn’t happen it’s very honest... which may sound like it doesn’t make sense, but read it and you’ll see that it does.   “Golden Boy” is about a kid whose bodily waste is all gold, which is a curse wrapped in a blessing and a nice quick metaphor.   “The Eleventh Muse” is a horror story about a writer battling writer’s block and other frustrations.  “House of Ushers” is a gruesome tale of an escape attempt from Hell and it has little to do with writing, but it’s still good so you won’t catch me bitchin’.  Round things out with a beat poem and some well-chosen writer’s tips and you have a collection that’s well worth seeking out.

Slowly We Rot - Bryan Smith   (self-published, 2015)
I’ve always been a fan of Bryan Smith’s books but even I was surprised at how great this one is; it’s deeper and more mature than the splatterfests he usually writes (and don’t get me wrong -- those are great splatterfests that would do even Richard Laymon proud).  But this, this is something a step above, and I wasn’t expecting it (especially since the title comes from my favorite Obituary song, and this is more a Solitude Aeturnus kind of book).   It’s a zombie novel, but like no other zombie novel you’ve ever read;  it’s more akin to The Road than it is Dawn of the Dead.    Set years after a zombie apocalypse, most of mankind is dead, and the zombies they turned into have rotted away.   Noah is a guy living in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains, spending his days smoking weed, reading old Westerns, and going a little stir-crazy.  It’s been years since he’s seen a zombie or another living person.  Then his sister, who he’d thought was dead, shows up and demands he leave the cabin; she’d spent years as the captive sex slave of a cop and unreasonably blames Noah for not having rescued her.   Noah decides he’ll go looking for his old girlfriend in California, just to have a goal.   I’d love to tell you more but I don’t want to spoil a great book, so here are just a few tidbits; even though the zombies are no longer plentiful, they’re still around and dangerous.  And the people he meets are even worse (there’s a truly harrowing passage where Noah’s chained up by a sadistic old pervert who’s been raping a girl he caught and plans to do the same to Noah).   And, if the living and the dead weren’t enemy enough, Noah is a massive alcoholic who rediscovers booze and is soon in a losing battle with it; in a world of menaces to his well-being, he can‘t help making himself into yet another one.  At times hellish, sometimes melancholy, and always brilliantly written and sparing the reader nothing, this is one of the deepest zombie novels ever and something very different in a genre that I thought had been overplayed.  Really good stuff and very highly recommended.

A Head Full Of Ghosts - Paul Tremblay   (William Morrow, 2015)
Excellently-written, creepy demonic possession story with a complex structure and a very engaging narrator who makes this book owe as much to Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle as it does to Blatty’s The Exorcist (if not more so).   It reads like a tribute to both books while maintaining its own voice so it’s not a pastiche of either.   Merry Barrett, who tells the story both as her adult self and as the 8-year-old she was when it happened fifteen years earlier, runs a blog (under a pseudonym, as all the best blogs are, wink wink) that reviews horror movies.   One thing she reviews in depth is a reality show called The Possession, which she’s obsessed with for a good reason --- she was in it.   When she was eight, her fourteen-year-old sister Marjorie started exhibiting extremely creepy behavior, saying terrible (and insightful) things, vomiting spectacularly, and having convulsions -- all the signs of demonic possession.     Her father was desperately out of work and a religious nut, so he invited a film crew into their home to make a show around his daughter’s exorcism.   Young and very imaginative Merry (who is reminiscent of Merricat in We Have Always Lived In The Castle -- I’m sure her name’s a wink at the reader on Tremblay’s part) tries to make sense of the whole nightmarish situation.  Marjorie alternately terrorizes Merry and tells her that she’s faking it all to manipulate the ridiculous grown-ups... but Marjorie is really hard to trust and if she’s faking it then she’s good at it well beyond her years.    Meanwhile, her parents are becoming crazier, too, and the situation heads toward tragedy.  Inventively mingling the story with commentary on itself, Tremblay gives depth to what could have just been another possession tale.   Merry’s observations are brilliantly done and he captures that smart-eight-year-old filter skillfully, making it all seem even scarier because, through the narrator, the reader’s brought down to a child’s level.   A definite must-read.  Run, don’t walk to pick this one up.

No One Gets Out Alive - Adam Nevill    (St. Martin’s Press, 2015)
This blockbuster is like two horror novels in one; a great one and a pretty-good one.   The first mostly deals with the horror of not having options, and has a vibe like Bentley Little’s best books, where someone’s gotten themselves into a situation that should be a normal part of life, but which just gets more and more nightmarish as it goes.   Young Stephanie is woefully underemployed and, having ended things with her boyfriend, has to move into a cheap apartment.   The place is really shabby and filthy (Nevill’s great at describing this, and I unfortunately recognize many details from my own house!)  and she is also disturbed by ghostly voices and movements, including a muttering under the bathtub and scratching under the bed.   She wants to get out but her insidiously creepy (and at first almost comically sleazy) landlord is uncooperative, and all her appeals to friends fall flat because they’re in dire straits themselves.  She senses men with horrible body odor outside her door, and girls in other apartments sound like they’re being raped.   Then her landlord’s cousin -- a giant mean-spirited psychotic  - shows up and things get even worse.  Stephanie learns that the place is a brothel and her landlords (maybe the scariest literary pair since the mountain men in Deliverance) are keeping her prisoner and demanding that she work in it... or get killed, which is a fate that the other girls are meeting on a regular basis.   And then -- if you can believe this -- things become even more horrific as the living dead become a factor.   The chapters between 50 and 56 run you through the funhouse and spare you nothing; it’s an assault of the darkest, nastiest imagery you’re likely to encounter.   I read (and write) a lot of horror and some of it still managed to wallop me.   Then there’s a climax... and the book starts over again and becomes a more conventional supernatural horror novel, with a badly-traumatized Stephanie (now rich from books and movies about her experience) trying to start a new life, but not being allowed to by the vengeful “Black Maggie” fertility goddess that was behind much of her misery.   This is a must-read even though it does have flaws.  It’s bloated by too many details that slow it down (it’s especially hard to get into -- even some of the prose in the early chapters is uncharacteristically clumsy for Nevill), and then ends up wearing you out with too much chaos, throwing SO MUCH horror at you that you get numb to it, and the story starts getting lost in more and more ghost-visions.   Overall, there’s not much control of the pacing, which is mostly due to the overlength... but when it works, it REALLY works, and more than rewards you for riding out the rough spots.   The atmosphere is heavy and filthy, and has a palpable sense of desperation that builds into dread as it piles up.  And you’ll have a tough time finding villains more frightening than the landlords, Knacker and Fergal.  They’re so well-drawn have with so much presence it feels like they may step off the page... and you really wouldn’t like it if they did.    So, even though it’s overlong (it could honestly be pared of almost a forth of the material) and the aftermath stuff is a little too conventional and anticlimactic after the “nine days of hell,” dealing with the drawbacks is so worthwhile as to be a no-brainer.  Like House of Small Shadows, even a book that’s not Nevill’s best is still better than 90% of what most horror writers are turning out nowdays.   If you're not reading Nevill, you're falling behind.   Recommended.

For more Nevill reviews, see House of Small Shadows , Banquet For The Damned, Last Days,  and the one to start with if you haven't read Nevill before, The Ritual.

Revival - Stephen King   (Scribner, 2014)
Excellent creepiness from Stephen King concerns a preacher who suffers a crisis of faith when his wife and child are killed.   After delivering a blasphemous (but all-too-true) sermon, he loses his job and devotes himself to the only faith he has left -- studying the mysteries of electricity.  He discovers a form of electricity that has healing powers and uses it to cynically reinvent himself as a faith healer, mostly to avail himself of guinea pigs.   Most of the healings work, but they’re not quite miracles; they usually have bad side effects down the road.   Our narrator, Jamie Morton, was six years old when he met the Reverend Charlie Jacobs, and was later “healed” by him when he grew up to be a strung-out rhythm guitarist, killing himself with heroin.   Jamie is ill-fated to aid and abet Rev. Charlie’s increasingly-sinister goals, and will learn far more than anyone can stand to know about the nature of death.  Contradicting an earlier King work, perhaps dead is not better.   Compelling in its narrative and incredibly dark in its implications, this is one of King’s strongest horror works in quite a while, and it’s riveting enough that I considered cashing in some personal leave time from work just so I wouldn’t have to put it down for nine hours.   It’s one of those books that makes you wonder how the hell King can write so well, while never taking you out of the story,. And while it’s not totally free of the “Stephen King Bad Idea” that has compromised other otherwise-excellent King novels (such as Duma Key’s ridiculous ending, which makes that one 3/4ths of a classic), it’s pretty small here (in the form of a giant leg coming out of the sky that has a claw made of baby’s faces... seriously, dude?  You're lucky I love ya so much...) and it’s not bad enough to put more than a scratch in a four-star read.  Very highly recommended.

Nyctophobia - Christopher Fowler       (Solaris, 2014)
Nyctophobia is the fear of the dark, a condition suffered by Callie, the narrator of this newest effort from horror veteran Fowler.   Sexual abuse by her father left Callie psychologically fragile, and she has a history of anorexia and cutting herself.  At first her family moving into Hyperion House seems like a good idea; it's an architectural marvel built in Spain, placed against the side of a cliff so the strategically-placed windows of the front take in all the sunlight possible, while the back rooms against the cliff -- which have been locked for decades -- are in perpetual darkness, without electricity.   Since her husband Mateo is gone away on business a lot, Callie is often left with her stepdaughter Bobbie and a couple of old servants, a housekeeper who resists any attempt at exploring the closed-off rooms and a tongueless gardener (who grabs her hand and shoves it in his mouth so she can feel the nub where it was cut off!) .   Callie starts thinking someone's living in the darkened part of the house, and can hear a girl crying behind the locked doors.   A little girl gets attacked at a birthday party and is found scratched up in one of the dark rooms.  Other weird things happen, like Callie imagining her husband is being attacked by hornets, and sightings of a withered ghost woman in a smiling porcelain mask.  Callie has a background in architecture so she starts researching the house, uncovering strange secrets about its design (it was apparently built by sun-worshiping cultists who aligned it with the stars) and the family who lived there (the mother went insane, killed her children, and lived with their corpses for years).   She thinks that the ghosts from the dark side want to possess her family so they can live in the light, but the real truth may be even more horrifying.  Moody, creepy horror has some effective scares and dark revelations, and the premise -- while borrowing a few things from The Shining and The Others, and maybe a bit of The Haunting of Hill House -- is original.  It gets undone from time to time when Callie’s sanity gets slippery and makes the narrative verge on chaotic, but overall it’s well worth reading.

The Sea of Ash - Scott Thomas   (Lovecraft E-Zine Press, 2009)
“Quaintly creepy” sounds like a weird concept but it’s what comes to mind reading this indie-published novella.  In 88 pages of huge print and a good deal of blank space we’re led by a rather effete narrator on a quest to retrace the steps of a Victorian ghost-hunter, and, later, a doctor who also tried to follow him, seeking out some unknown supernatural manifestation.   Working from the doctor’s obscure diary, our narrator runs into all sorts of strange craziness.   The doctor, a Dr. Pond, had found a naked and apparently dead woman on the beach and brought her home, where she miraculously revived.   Then she had a dead baby with a seashell for a face.   Upon removing the shell he found a hole of a depth of sixty feet or so.  From that he fished up a note that sent him on a quest, previously undertaken by the Victorian, Mr. Brinklow.  And our narrator (who seems far too timid for such a quest) follows Pond’s diary.   This story throws loads of bizarre, very original imagery at you.   Some is silly (fossilized trilobites for teeth and fingernails), some hideously creepy (the dead baby melting into a wad of molasses-like rot that attacks a man’s face, a drowned sea captain washing up with his mouth stuffed with hair, a guy growing a third arm out of his chest), and much of it amazingly able to balance between both (like Fractured Harry, a ghost that puts together odds and ends to make itself a body; something with a teakettle for a head, mop legs, and hands that are gloves full of bees should be laughable, but somehow isn’t; and a barrel of leaves with other things shuffling around in it is also goofy-creepy).   The story gets a bit disjointed but stays interesting by always putting some new weird image in front of you.  The writing is very good and almost poetic, even if it does go a bit overboard on trying to sound archaic.   Despite a few drawbacks this is well worth seeking out for infusing originality into a Lovecraft/M. R. James type of tale, and it’s only going to take a couple of hours at most to read, so, why not?   Definitely worth the time.

Out Are The Lights - Richard Laymon   (BCA (hardback) or Warner Brothers (paperback), 1982)
Early Richard Laymon novel that really blew me away when I first read it when I was fifteen years old, in a garage in Pensacola Beach, Florida (in a house that no longer exists, thanks to Hurricane Ivan).  When I chanced upon a hardback edition for $5 I figured it was due for a re-read.   Laymon finds a near-perfect outlet for his gory skills in this tale of snuff filmmakers who produce short horror films starring a maniac named Schreck (an homage to the guy who played Nosferatu, no doubt), who saves money on special effects by murdering girls for real.   The people who see the Schreck shorts between double features at The Haunted Palace don’t know they’re watching actual killings that have been dubbed over with new voices to help conceal the identities of the mostly-rootless-and-non-local victims.  But then Connie, a deaf girl who’s an expert lip-reader, sees one of the films and knows what the victims are actually saying... which means the jig is up, IF Connie can survive to tell anyone.   But since this is a Laymon novel, survival isn’t a certainty.   Besides all of the snuff film mayhem (which includes axe murders, cannibalism, bitten-out throats, forks in the eyes, and more) there’s another plot involving Connie’s ex-boyfriend’s affair with a very sick-minded woman;  it’s almost a noir plotline running parallel to the horror one.   The writing is stripped bare and raw;  Laymon tells you the tale like the transcript of a splatter film, free from any look-how-nice-I’m-writing stuff that would get in the way, and it’s effective.   It’s not Laymon’s best, but there’s really no bad Laymon, and it delivers all the sex and violence you’d want.  The hardback also includes five excellent short stories: “Mess Hall” (this one gives you a sadistic serial killer AND flesh-eating zombies; it jams the accelerator to the firewall on the first page and never eases up on it), “Dinker’s Pond” (a gruesomely humorous tall tale of a couple of prospectors fighting over a woman), “Madman Stan” (a psycho who’ll get you if you leave your doors unlocked), “Bad News” (a vicious rat-like thing comes with the morning paper), and “The Tub” (a woman cheating on her husband gets stuck under her lover when he has a heart attack and dies on top of her while they’re screwing in the bathtub;  this one’s got an ingenious and highly gruesome ending).   As Laymon novels go you can find better (try Night in the Lonesome October or The Traveling Vampire Show for just a couple of examples) but you’ll still have a gory good time with this.  Even though plenty of people have followed in his gruesome footsteps, Laymon is still sorely missed.

The Wasp Factory- Iain  Banks     (Simon & Schuster, 1984)
Very strange semi-horror novel on the “literature” end of the scale.  Maybe I’ve just got We Have Always Lived In The Castle on the brain, but this seems inspired by it;  the narrator, a 16-year-old young man named Frank (whose genitals were supposedly bitten off by a bulldog when he was a baby) is part of an odd family (some of whom he’s murdered) and, like Merricat from ...Castle, he has built up a vast personal mythology and wards off evil by nailing up totems of dead animals.  They don’t work too well, I guess, because Frank’s even-crazier brother Eric has escaped from an asylum (where he was placed for setting dogs on fire and feeding worms to children) and is making his way home.   He calls Frank with insane progress reports, most of which end with the sounds of Eric smashing up the phone booth.   While waiting for Eric’s return, Frank works on some of his own bizarre hobbies, such as using small animals for ammo in a giant slingshot, or blowing up rabbit warrens (Frank is very fond of explosives) and then frying the rabbits with a homemade flamethrower.  He also tries to tell the future using an elaborate torture chamber he’s constructed for wasps he catches.  While all of this is going on, Frank recounts the strange ways he murdered three of his young relatives, including the brother he fooled into trying to ring a bell that was actually an unexploded bomb from the war, or the snake he put in one cousin’s artificial leg, and another who he tied to a giant kite and sailed off for god-knows-where!  This isn’t the kind of book you read for plot, because there really isn’t much, and it’s not too suspenseful waiting for Eric to come home (because, really, how much worse can he be than Frank, who thinks he’s sane?);  mostly it’s Frank explaining his totems (such as the skull of the dog who emasculated him)  or hanging out drinking with his dwarf friend Jamie.  There is a surprise at the end, but mostly you read it for the writing, and for the character study of a bizarre individual.   Many find this a disturbing book (all of the animal violence upset readers in Banks’ native Scotland) but I found it blackly humorous and hard to take seriously.   In any case, it’s well worth a read;  I don’t know if I’d call it one of the 100 best horror novels ever written, as Stephen Jones & Kim Newman’s book has labeled it, but it’s still one to check out.

The Boss in the Wall:  A Treatise on the House Devil - Avram Davidson and Grania Davis   (Tachyon, 1998)
This unique, highly-creepy short novel was the final work of noted sci-fi/fantasist Davidson, put together and finished years after his death by his ex-wife, Davis.   It’s a strangely-structured, jumbled semi-documentary/narrative about a horror that inhabits the walls of old houses and goes by many names -- the Paper Man, Hyett, Hetter, Greasy-Man, Stringfellow, Rustler, Clicker, House Devil, Boss In The Wall.  They may be zombies or old Confederate solders or derelicts suffering from some horrible disease... no one really knows, but they’re thin, greasy, mummified, astoundingly filthy things with bits of old newspaper stuffed into places where their flesh is missing.  They’re seldom seen but are no urban legend, since certain libraries do have pieces of their bodies, and mind-shatteringly disturbing photographs of them do exist.  Encounters with them have left people mad or missing limbs that had to be amputated after their bites went septic.   The whole thing is in the form of a professor Vlad Smith’s search for information about them after a rustling and stench in an old house results in his daughter entering a catatonic state, which someone tells him means the Boss in the Wall took her soul and he has to get it back.   I’ve read this novella twice and still can’t fully keep up with its flow, but it doesn’t matter;  the constant barrage of creepiness, presented as factual evidence, is nearly overpowering and will leave you paranoid about any odd sounds in your house.  There’s nothing else quite like this and describing it is a futile exercise;  you’ll have to experience it for yourself.   The Tachyon book is now quite pricey, but luckily it was reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror Volume 10 and used copies of those are quite reasonable.  Very strange.

Bigfoot Beach - Kristopher Rufty    (Lazarus Press, 2015)
Not to be confused with the Shakespeare play of the same name, this is a Sasquatch-based horror novel from goremeister Rufty, author of The Lurkers.   I didn't like The Lurkers much but didn't think Rufty was a bad writer, so I wanted to give him another chance (especially since I have kind of a Bigfoot fetish).   Well, I still don't think Rufty's really a bad writer, but I close-to hated this thing and had to force myself to keep reading it out of sheer stubbornness.    Rufty’s prose is good (other than a tendency to slow things down with too many unnecessary details, but I catch myself doing that when I write, too... but, then, I’m an amateur without an editor) but the story quickly becomes tedious and a lot of the killings are just stupid.   If you enjoy Troma movies maybe they wouldn’t insult your intelligence (but then if you enjoy Troma movies there’s very little that can), but... a guitar shoved up somebody’s ass?   A torn-off arm thrown through somebody’s chest so when it comes out the other side the hand’s holding the guy’s heart?  Bigfoot somehow reaching a paw bigger than a guy’s head down his throat to yank stuff out?   I was hoping for Richard Laymon and instead I got Tex Avery.   Anyway, the plot has a guy bringing his kids to a seaside town where he’ll serve as a deputy under his sheriff brother.  The town’s desperate for tourist money so it’s trying to exploit local sightings of a Bigfoot.   The Bigfoot in question has a nasty rash all over its body, and a girl it kidnapped fell in love with it and is pregnant with its child.   Mostly, though, it just kills anyone it encounters in various cartoonishly-gory ways, and the rest of the time the book’s mired in domestic situations that seem to have no end.   It goes on far too long (there’s not nearly enough story for 326 pages) and the Bigfoot’s made too familiar -- it might as well be some big, mute surfer guy.   And the end, with a Rambo-like Bigfoot hunter named Striker (because why the fuck not at this point, right?) leading citizens to hunt a wounded Bigfoot through an abandoned miniature golf course is far fetched and so confusing that the action’s slowed to a crawl just when it should be going into high gear.  Like I said, Rufty’s prose isn’t bad, and maybe it’s unfair of me to expect a book called Bigfoot Beach not to be cartoonish, but... this was a chore.  If your tolerance for silliness in horror novels is higher than mine (and it probably is, since mine is admittedly near zero) then you may like this more, but, sorry, this one wasn’t for me, despite Bigfoot.

Waiting Out Winter - Kelli Owen    (Gypsy Press, 2011)
Apocalyptic novella in which the government tries to control a plague of tent worms by releasing a bunch of biting black flies.  Unfortunately the government screws up and the flies are infected with a very contagious plague, and soon people and animals are infected and dying.  Brothers-in-law Nick and Jerry return from a long hunting trip to find their hometown on lockdown, with everyone hiding in their homes to avoid the flies.   They have to forage for supplies, burn the dead, and fight off sick wolves to survive the winter, knowing the flies will come back in the spring and their long-term chance for survival is bleak.  The writing is good, although after a point it stops reading like a narrative and more like reporting, and it’s more of a situation than a story with real drama.  It’s not bad at all, just a bit too straightforward to be very intriguing;  it could use more characterization and action to draw the reader in.  The only real tension is provided by the wolf attack.  Since it’s a 70-page novella, though, it won’t take much more than an hour of your time, and it’s very inexpensively priced, so it could be worth it for fans of end-of-the-world scenarios.   A sequel, Hatch, is available.

The Creek - Chris Hedges    (Gallows Press, 2012)
Fast-moving novella, styled a bit after Stephen King’s “The Body,” in which two boys, Charlie and Sam, are playing in the local creek when they meet a girl their own age who’s out collecting fossils.   They make friends with her but then there’s an accident, which they tragically make worse.   Also included is a related short story about Sam’s abusive home life, and an interesting interview with the author.  It’s a fairly simple tale and the prose has a few awkward moments, but overall it’s nicely done and easily holds the reader’s interest for the brief time it takes to read.  Not bad at all.

Maynard’s House - Herman Raucher  (Berkley, 1980)
Strange, immersive, and haunting, this is a minor horror classic to the few who’ve read it, thanks to the excellent writing and uniquely-weird atmosphere.   A troubled, rootless, and moody young Vietnam veteran named Austin comes to the Maine backwoods to take possession of a cabin willed to him by an army buddy who was killed in action... but the house takes possession of Austin instead.  He’s out of his element among the wisecracking New Englandahs... but you get the feeling that Austin has no element;  he’s probably an odd fit back home, too, which is why the idea of living by himself in the wilderness appeals to him.   A friendly local takes him to the cabin, explaining the basement is the remains of a witch’s house that stood there originally, a flat rock nearby is where the devil comes to dance, and he should be on the lookout for Minnwickies -- small, mischievous, and possibly-supernatural Indians.   Austin finds plenty of supplies and spends his days reading Thoreau and his buddy Maynard’s writings, and talking to a girl named Ara, a beautiful 16-year-old smartass who plays pranks on him with her brother (they consider themselves Minnawickies).   But Austin gets snowbound and in the isolation, things get weird.   There’s not much overt menace (Austin gets chased by a witch’s hat at one point but I wouldn’t count that as too threatening) and not a whole lot really happens until the chaotic climax, and yet the book builds a creepy, unsettling spell and puts the reader inside it with Austin.   You don’t really know what’s happening any more than he does but you feel a constant low hum of dread, and wonder if the threat is something external and supernatural, or Austin’s wounded psyche souring in an environment that’s bad for it.   Cerebral and literary horror that should have a larger audience.

Feral - Berton Rouche   (Avon, 1974)
“Critter” horror about what could happen if careless people dump their unwanted cats to fend for themselves.   Jack and Amy Bishop are one such thoughtless couple who learn the (t)error of their ways when they move to a Long Island community that’s infested with feral cats, so mutated from generations in the wild that they’ve become larger and more aggressive than average, and there are hundreds of them.  It’s a pretty simple, straightforward, meat-and-no-potatoes book, with a few locals falling victim to the vicious cats before Jack and his neighbors take up shotguns and go on a big cat round-up.  And that’s basically it.  The writing is pretty good and there’s plenty of action, but it’s pretty repetitive, just a lot of cats getting blasted.   The human body count is low, while the cat body count is ridiculous -- I’m not sure how a small ecosystem like that could support around 500 cats without them all starving, especially since they’d already made short work of the birds, rats, and other fauna.   Nothing special and pretty mild for a “critter horror” book (which tend to be gorefests) but it’s surprisingly short (124 pages, albeit with small print) and it does deliver a cats-on-the-rampage tale, as promised, so there’s little to complain about.

For another review of Feral, and for all kinds of paperback horror goodness in general, I refer you to the always-excellent Too Much Horror Fiction blog, which also sports several alternate covers.

For more critter horror reviews in general, I've got some of those for ya - here and here and here and here
, and hopefully more someday - I'm 'bout due to read some more of those.

“Down By The Highway Side” by Paul R. MacNamee in A Lonely & Curious Country - ed. by Matthew Carpenter  (Ulthar Press, 2015)
Okay, gird yer loins for a couple of full disclosures:
DISCLOSURE ONE:  I haven’t read the whole book yet.  I’ve only read one story, so I’m only reviewing that story at this time.   I shall surely read more of the book later on because it looks like a really good one, but for now, we have time constraints, and I’m odd with short story collections;  I seldom read them straight through.  My preferred method is to usually read one or two stories, then move on to another anthology and read one or two there.    So, all I’m reviewing is “Down By The Highway Side” by Paul R. MacNamee.  Which, really, is fair enough because his story is the reason I bought the book.
DISCLOSURE TWO:  I know Paul from way back in the day.  He’s even been to my house  before, so, Paul's a  good dude, we cool.  But, don’t let that make you think I’m giving the story a good review just because it’s by a friend.  Me liking you will get your book read and it’ll keep me from dogging you out if I thought it was bad, but I bought the book without telling anyone and therefore had no pressure or obligation; if the story had sucked, I could’ve (and would’ve) just said nothin’.  So, I’m sincere in telling you it’s good stuff.  And very good stuff indeed!   I love Lovecraft, I love the blues, and I love stories that combine the two (and I can prove it -- remember Southern Gods?   It was Robert W. Chambers instead of Lovecraft, but still, close enough!)
Disclosures done, this is a finely-tuned tale of a burned-out, used-up-all-his-luck country singer who meets a young bluesman on a bus ride who has a guitar touched by Nyarlathotep, which can reach a powerful note that he really shouldn’t play.  And I won’t give away any more than that, but, it’s a good idea and very well-handled.   I’m sure there are other great stories in this book, and I’ll count them as bonuses.  Check it out.
And you can and should follow Paul on Twitter.

Best Ghost Stories
- ed. by Marcus Clapham    (Collector’s Library, 2010)
As I just said, I don’t usually read short story collections straight through, but I picked away at this one long enough to complete it, so I figured I’d review it.   I love these Collector’s Library books.  The quality is really nice -- they’re designed like Library of America books, with the same cloth covers and ribbon bookmark, plus some nice gilt edging, but about half the size, and very inexpensive.  They’re just really neat little things to have in your library.  And the stories are classics.   If you’re as into horror short story anthologies as I am you probably have most of these stories already, but the presentation makes it worth buying an “upgrade.”  This book was almost all a re-read for me (a few of these stories I’ve probably read a dozen times) but, unless I get hit by a bus, it won’t be the last time I read ‘em, either.   Here are the contents:
“The Tapestried Chamber” - Sir Walter Scott
“The Signalman” - Charles Dickens
“The Shadow In The Corner” - M. E. Braddon
“Strange Events In The Life of Schalken The Painter” - Sheridan Le Fanu
“The Body-Snatcher” - Robert Louis Stevenson
“The Phantom Rickshaw” - Rudyard Kipling
“Man-Size In Marble” - Edith Nesbit
“Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” - M. R. James
“The Brown Hand” - Arthur Conan Doyle
“The Watcher By The Threshold” - John Buchan
“’Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad’” - M. R. James
“The Screaming Skull” - F. Marion Crawford
“Laura” - Saki
“The Tractate Middoth” - M.R. James
“Brickett Bottom” - Amyas Northcote
“Naboth’s Vineyard” - E. F. Benson
I’m going to resist the urge to review every story (you can probably track down all of them online if you'd like to sample them), but I’ll just chat with you a minute about some of the highlights, just to whet your appetite.   You get three M. R. James stories (Collector’s Library also has a volume of just his stuff, and getting that one is a no-brainer if you ask me) and they’re both strong ones.   “Oh Whistle” is one of the creepiest damn things you’ll ever read, with a unique horror that will give you a fear of sleeping in a room with an empty bed and make you hesitant to pick up things you find by the seaside.  If it's not the greatest ghost story ever told, then it's definitely on the short list, duking it out with only one or two other contenders.  And “Tractate Middoth” is library-horror at its best, with a truly horrible cobweb-eyed ghost-thing in the stacks.   And the thing in "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" provides an amazing shock-effect on paper.  Your skin will crawl.   “The Brown Hand” involves a certain anatomical specimen whose owner wants it returned, and that’ll give you some bad dreams, buddy.   Anything by E. F. Benson is a must-read, and “Naboth’s Vineyard” is fairly typical of his work, but “typical” in Benson’s case is still better than most can turn out.   “The Tapestried Chamber” has a really creepy ghost, and “Watcher By The Threshold” involves a bizarre case of possession in which only one side of the body is affected.  Very strange, that one.   And “The Screaming Skull” is one of the eeriest stories you’ll ever read, an old-school heavyweight.  I first read that on in the essential Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural when I was about eight years old, and it messed me up pretty good.  “Brickett Bottom” handles some vague strangeness very well; two girls walking near their summer home spot a house they’ve never noticed before (or at least one does; the other’s too nearsighted to really see it) and when one tries to visit it, she doesn’t come back.   Spooky.  And Dickens’ “The Signalman”... I re-read that one every few months and the atmosphere gets me every time.  Really, there’s not a bad story here, and they’re all stories any student of horror should have inscribed in their DNA.   So snag this book and Collector’s Library’s similar volumes already.

Songs of  a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe - Thomas Ligotti   (Penguin Classics, 2015)
I'm cheating a bit here, because I haven't read this entire book.  Or at least I haven't re-read it;  I've read most of the stories a time or two (or more).   But it's only morally wrong to give bad reviews to books you haven't finished, and since I'm not about to do that, I'll proceed, because I want you to get yourself a copy of this immediately.   Thomas Ligotti is to our era what H. P. Lovecraft was to his, and if you're a horror reader and are missing out on him, that just makes me sad.   Unfortunately, a lot of his work was out of print for a while (unjustly!) and was quite pricey, so now that the excellent people at Penguin Classics have done the world a great favor and put out a very nice reprint of two of his books in one, and at the beautiful price of around $13 if you get it at Amazon, I'm going to scream at you... BUY THIS!  I beseech you.  If you aren't familiar with Ligotti, well, he writes like no one else.  There are plenty of other people trying (hell, I've tried myself) but it just can't be done.   Ligotti has a bizarre ability to make you think you've experienced the things he writes about, or at least dreamed of them, and have buried the memory.  He writes directly to your subconscious, and I don't know how he does it.   Ramsey Campbell is also skilled in this area, and is about the closest writer I can compare Ligotti to, but Ligotti is even more dreamlike and bizarre.  He'll scare you and you won't be certain what you're scared of.  He'll make your brain itch.  He'll make you feel like you've just woken up from a bad night.  I swear things show up in his stories that are familiar to me from my own nightmares, and I don't know how he got them.  It's enough to make me think of wrapping my head in tinfoil...   There are all kinds of classics-to-be here, from "The Last Feast of Harlequin," (where a man researching clowns attends a festival that's more than he imagined) to "The Music of the Moon" (involving  a man attending a musical performance that's very strange; this one will push buttons inside of your mind and give you a creeping unease that'll be hard to shake).   I always feel like I've dreamed "The Night School" instead of read it, and "The Glamour" creates the same feeling.  "The Frolic" takes something as mundane as a serial killer and infuses a liquid-nitrogen chill in it again, all through language, and "The Lost Art of Twilight" manages to revitalize that most-tired of all horror cliches:  vampires.   I could go on and on, but I wouldn't be able to do Ligotti's work justice, and wouldn't be able to describe the effect these stories have on you;  they're almost a drug as much as they are words on a page.   You will read these again and again and again.  Also recommended is Teatro Grottesco,  another modestly-priced still-in-print collection of Ligotti's work, which includes several of my all-time favorite stories which aren't included here, such as "The Clown Puppet" and "Gas Station Carnivals."  It's my hope that someday Library of America will collect Ligotti's complete works and keep them in print, but until then much appreciation must go to Penguin Classics for giving us this beautiful collection.  You can't afford not to have this in your library.   I have the hardbacks and I still bought it, just because Penguin always does such a nice job.

Until next time, follow me and a bunch of other people on Twitter.   If you'd just like to look at more book covers, this and this are still pretty fun.  And if you need anything else to read, horror wise, please partake of these -- I could always use the feedback.   Hopefully another story will be forthcoming before too much longer, as well.