The Good, The Bad, and the Meh - some horror book reviews

Greetings, whoever's still here!

No, I'm not dead... just lazy and distracted by other stuff.  The blog's overdue for some book reviews, I guess, so here we go.  Read a lot of not-all-that-great stuff, and some of it is very familiar to everybody by now so a review may not be all that useful, but there are a couple of obscurities in here that you might welcome some information about.

The Parasite - Ramsey Campbell (Pocket Books, 1980)
Ramsey Campbell is a master short story writer, turning out some classically creepy, nightmarish works,  but his  hallucinogenic style doesn't translate well to novels... and this is a long novel, which seems even longer than it is.  As a child, Rose is invaded by some soft, horrible thing in an abandoned house, while she and her friends are playing a séance game.  As an adult, she starts exhibiting psychic powers, such as getting glimpses of the future and being able to leave her body and fly around.  She struggles to maintain a normal life with Bill, her husband and writing partner (they’re film critics), but the attacks of paranormal powers become more pervasive, and she begins to research them, finding out things about Adolph Hitler, Aleister Crowley, and an evil man named Peter Grace who mastered powers like the ones she’s exhibiting.  Grace had apparently achieved some sort of immortality through rebirths, which scares Rose.  She soon realizes she’s been possessed and the intruder within her is growing stronger and demanding more control.  There’s some very creepy stuff here and a lot of it is really effective, but there’s an awful lot that feels like padding, too.   And Campbell’s prose is too much of a good thing;  he comes up with brilliant, hallucinatory images, but at 372 pages it gets overwhelming and drowns the narrative flow; it’s a good style for small bites but a feast of it will make you sick, and the book becomes tedious and reading it soon feels like a chore.  The opening bit is great and the last 50 pages or so are a strong payoff, but the middle -- though undeniably well-written -- feels like torture.  I attempted this book five or six times because I believed it was important to the horror genre, and finally only made it through out of sheer determination.  I’m an admirer of Campbell’s short stories and will give his other novels a try because I’ve read a couple that weren’t bad (Face That Must Die is great, and Ancient Images was good), but this one... agh, I gotta say pass on it.

Dark Inspiration - Russell James (Samhain Publishing, 2011)
A couple who were suffering some estrangement after the miscarriage of their twin girls move to a small town in Tennessee, setting up a new life in an old house with a bad reputation.  The wife starts interacting with the ghosts of some twin girls who drowned in a nearby pond, while the husband starts writing a Southern gothic novel and discovers an attic full of taxidermied animals and an ancient book on Egyptian magic.  Driven by some malefic spirit, he starts experimenting with taxidermy himself, and that hobby soon gets out of hand...   It’s an entertaining horror novel, although the writing feels a bit amateurish (not bad, just rather unskilled) and some of the ghost stuff gets pretty corny and makes it feel like a young-adult novel at times.  Flawed, but not boring.

Dagon - Fred Chappell (St. Martin’s Press, originally 1968)
Strange Lovecratian horror mixed with Southern gothic, written in an almost-hallucinatory style that reminded me a bit of Faulkner’s Sanctuary.   Peter is a priest interested in pagan gods, and he plans to write a book on Dagon, a maimed sea-monster deity, while he and his wife stay at the farm he inherited from his grandparents.  It turns out the farm had a connection to a cult worshipping Dagon and other ancient gods, and staying in the area has a bad effect on Peter.  Going through his granparents’ correspondence he finds references to Lovecraftian deities, and he’s both seduced and repulsed by Mina, the daughter of a moonshiner who squats on his land.  Mina is noseless and vaguely fish-like but has a strange control over him.  Peter almost gets trapped in his attic with the same chains that imprisoned his father when Peter was a young boy, and under the farm’s evil influence he ends up a degraded, addicted, maimed thing who’s being prepared for a dark purpose.   The story falters a lot and often doesn’t make a lot of sense, and most of it deals with Peter becoming a pathetic alcoholic dependent rather than having much to do with ancient gods.  Some of the writing is brilliantly poetic but it adds up to something that’s a bit too murky and obscure to pack the impact it could have had.  The pretenses at “literature” get in the way, but it’s still a worthwhile though not particularly compelling read.  A lot of people consider this an important work in the genre, but I’d say it was dispensable.

Where the Chill Waits - T. Chris Martindale  (Warner Books - 1991)
A gung-ho asshole boss with major daddy issues drags three apple polishing employees into the deep Canadian woods for a deer-hunting trip.  The city boys have enough trouble roughing it, but things soon get worse when they waken an evil Windigo spirit.   A huge deer they shoot turns out to have been rotting for months, and their Indian guide wants to turn back, getting very bad vibes.  But it’s too late and the Windigo curses them all.  Two of the men come back semi-conscious and frozen to the core, and growing taller as they start transforming into cannibalistic ice-monsters.  The wife of one of the men seeks help from the Indian guide and his old grandfather, and they try exorcising the Windigo... but that’s not an easy thing to do, especially for people who don’t really know the old rituals.  The writing is good and Martindale tries hard to pack in logs of scares, but after a while it comes across as an overlong B-movie with too many climaxes, and none of them especially powerful.  It’s not bad and it’s well-crafted, but not particularly special.

Exorcism - Eth Natas  (Lexington House, 1972)
Reading like a rush job to cash in on The Exorcist, this pretty-badly-written obscurity deals with a guy named Bentley (our first-person narrator) who takes in his 19-year-old niece, Melanie, after her parents are killed in a mountain-climbing accident.  Almost immediately upon arrival, Melanie starts acting strangely, displaying knowledge of her new town’s past, limping for no reason, and having weird fits.   Things quickly get worse as her face changes, her body twists, she starts calling Bentley “Daddy,” and says her name is Lotte.  She somehow manages to get across town (despite being so crippled she can barely shuffle around) and murders Bentley’s snooty girlfriend.  It becomes clear (to the reader, at least -- our narrator’s not quite as quick on the uptake) that she’s possessed by the spirit of some diseased little girl who burned to death in the house.  Very conveniently, Bentley’s eccentric neighbor is a warlock who performs exorcisms (or at least tries to).  The prose is pretty clumsy and odd (any sex scene that uses the word “phallus” is a sign of writer’s-discomfort) and there are few things that seem put in just to spice the book up, like a dream where Bentley’s almost forced to blow a hooded cultist, or an LSD trip during which he has sex with Melanie/Lotte.  It’s nothing special story-wise but it’s short (190 large-print pages, with frequent blank space) and it’s interesting as an artifact -- the publisher’s obscure, the cover art looks like a badly-doctored photo from a ‘60’s J.C. Penney catalog, and the backwards-Satan author name is a strange choice of pseudonyms (especially since the book’s about a different sort of possession and has no Satanic activity).  Junky weirdness whose main charm is its obscurity.

This Dark Earth - John Hornor Jacobs (Gallery Books, 2012)
Zombie apocalypse stories are, almost by necessity, derivative, and this one’s no exception; it (probably accidentally, since I think he wrote it a while back) almost exactly parallels a certain storyline in The Walking Dead comics.  But, Jacobs (as with Southern Gods) is such a good writer that you’ll forgive him the limitations of the genre, and the story’s so great you won’t mind if you’ve heard this one before.  An outbreak of a zombie virus is followed by nuclear bombs in an apparent containment effort.  The resultant EMP knocks out all electronics, shutting down everything mankind has become so over-reliant upon.  A doctor trying to escape the carnage and get back to her son teams up with a big, good-natured trucker named Knock-Out.  They survive to set up a community, and the son eventually becomes its leader because he’s smart at finding ways to deal with the undead.  They herd them into pens and bash their heads in, as sort of a slaughterhouse operation.  While sent on a mission to herd zombies away from the settlement by slowly riding motorcycles and having them chase the sound, our protagonists run into a group of well-equipped slavers who are capturing women to rape and forcing men into doing very nasty work.   The slavers are extremely cruel and ruthless and equipped with military vehicles, so it’s not good at all that they’ve become aware of our heroes’ settlement...   Well-written and fast-moving zombie horror that doesn’t break new ground (seriously, the deja-vu you’ll feel if you’ve read those Walking Dead comics will be almost overwhelming), but leads the pack as far as the quality of storytelling goes.

Elizabeth - Jessica Hamilton (pen name for Ken Greenhall)  (Popular Library, 1977)
Our narrator, Elizabeth, is a very unusual 14-year-old girl.  Wise beyond her years and emotionally-dead beyond life itself, she’s learning -- through the instruction of Frances, a woman who appears in her mirror -- that she’s a witch.  Elizabeth first uses her powers to kill off her parents, then goes to live with her grandmother and uncle, with whom she has an incestuous relationship.  When her grandmother proves bothersome, Elizabeth has her vanish.  She manipulates her tutor, Miss Barton, and pretty much everyone else around her.  This book is remarkable not so much for its plot (which is pretty standard witchcraft stuff) but for the power of the writing; Elizabeth’s narrative voice is like sociopathic poetry, wise and cold and matter-of-fact about darkness.  The writing’s so great I immediately went out and ordered used copies of the author’s other horror novels, knowing I’d spotted a heavyweight who’s somehow gone overlooked.  (Thanks to the great horror-fiction blog, Too Much Horror Fiction, for pointing this out -- I’d had a copy I bought at a library sale sitting around my house for years and hadn’t gotten the impetus to read it until I read Will’s excellent review).

The Hippy Cult Murders - Ray Stanley (Macfadden-Bartell, 1970)
Pure Manson-sploitation in which a charismatic hippie named Waco gets a vision that fear is the greatest power, and the god of fear is Zember.  Along with his friend Whitey he plans to gather a family of hippies and impregnate a “pure” girl with the son of Zember.  They head off to L.A. where Waco brains a couple of girls with a meat-tenderizing hammer that Zember compelled him to buy, then he carves Z’s on their bodies (for Zember -- I had nothing to do with it, I swear).   Waco slowly starts gathering a group together, targeting homeless teens (mostly girls, who all become group sex objects) and it gets too large to keep living in his bus and tent, so he decides he needs to rent some land.  He finances this by murdering some wealthy couples during a wife-swapping orgy, raping and terrorizing them before stabbing them all to death.  It all gets to be too much for Whitey, who also resents playing second fiddle to Waco all the time and thinks the “Zember” business is bullshit, so he starts causing trouble.  Whitey’s disposition only gets worse when Waco cuts one of his fingers off and gangrene sets in.  As cops follow the really-sloppy trail Waco’s leaving (he’s too crazy to have much sense about covering his tracks and even does his crimes in a VW bus with flowers painted all over it), Waco’s planning an orgy where he’ll marry a young girl who’s “pure” enough... but Whitey’s fed up and planning to spoil things.  There’s plenty of sex, violence, drugs, and weirdness, and it’s lurid enough not to be disappointing even though  it’s still pretty restrained and not nearly as graphic as it could have been.  The writing is solid, matter-of-fact stuff without a lot of flash to the style but plenty of detail, and it keeps the story compelling.  It’s a very hard-to-find book (I got lucky and snagged a copy for 35 cents off the bargain wall-o’-trash at Hawsey’s Book Index in Pensacola back in the 80’s, before that store went from being one of the best used book stores ever to the total useless shit it turned it into around 2000 or so - the change-over of that store made me sadder than any bookstore-experience has ever made me I'd gladly fist-fight whoever came up with that "business plan").  I wouldn’t say it’s worth the crazy prices people are asking for it now (nothing is), but if you find an affordable copy then it’s well-worth the read.

Baxter (aka Hell Hound)  - Jessica Hamilton (pen name for Ken Greenhall)   (Sphere, 1977)
Very strange (and brilliant) tale of a sociopathic pit bull (who narrates some of the chapters in first person).  Baxter the pit bull seeks to find an owner worthy of him; most people are too foolish and weak and their ways make little sense to him.  His search for the proper owner requires him to eliminate a few people, not by dog attacks that would implicate him as dangerous -- Baxter causes “accidents.”  He pushes the old lady who owns him down stairs so he can go live with the neighbors.  But then they have a baby, which takes their attention from him, so he has to make other arrangements.  He ends up with a troubled 12-year-old boy named Carl, who has sexual hang-ups about Hitler, among other dangerous perversions, and he recognizes a kindred spirit in Baxter.  But this boy may be too sick for even Baxter to deal with.   Very well-written, obscure little masterpiece that’s fetching insane money used now and, like this writer’s Elizabeth, deserves to be put back into print.  I was going to hold this review off 'til the next time I did a "critter book" set, (did you miss those?  Shame on you - here and here and here ) but who knows when that'll be - I figured I better put the review up while you can still maybe find a copy that won't break your bank (I got this one for 'bout $10 but I was damn lucky).

There are a million covers for this book (I re-read it in the Barnes & Noble Robert Louis Stevenson hardback collection - love those) but this is my favorite 'cuz it's the one my mom read to me when I was four years old.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson 
One of the ultimate classic (short) horror novels, I re-read this one every few years because it’s almost perfectly constructed.  I don’t think I need to describe the plot because it’s so ingrained into the human consciousness by now that it’s one of those stories you’re familiar with even if you never read it or saw any of the movies.  But if you haven’t, you should change that.

Labyrinth - Eric Mackenzie-Lamb (Signet, 1979)
A college professor leads a group of students into the Okefenokee swamp to study nature.  While taking a soil sample one of the students digs up a couple of old coins, and when the professor takes them to an expert he learns they’re probably part of a lost treasure worth a hell of a lot of money.  Unfortunately the coin expert’s also a crook and soon some violent (and homosexual, I guess to remind you of Deliverance) killers are also looking for it.  Things get busy but also confusing... possibly because the book’s not all that enthralling after a point.  The writing’s not bad or anything, and some subplots (such as the teacher getting framed for seducing a student) are interesting, but it doesn’t really add up to much, and when the action really kicked in I didn’t care much anymore.  Not really a horror novel,  more of an adventure-thing, but since they kind of tried to market it as one I’ll include it with the horror book reviews.

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