Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Horror Fiction Help XVI

1. Comics series in mid to late '80s, one issue was a about a woman whose husband was a giant wasp-man creature. Cover featured nude woman carried through the air by a giant wasp. Found! It's

2. Three people stuck on an evil, malevolent train that tries to eat the passengers

3. Story about a man who followed people that were abusive to their pets around in I think New York and exacted revenge on them in a typical fashion (he sees a guy kicking his dog in Central Park and breaks into his house or accosts him on the street and wails on him with steel-toed boots). In the end he goes a little over the edge on someone who is using flypaper, breaks into their apartment while they're on vacation and glues the entire floor. Can't remember for sure but I think the plan backfires and he ends up either painting himself into a corner, as it were, or gluing himself to the floor and starving to death. Found! It's "How Would You Like It?" by Lawrence Block from Monsters in Our Midst.

4. Novel about a couple who hired a maid or possibly an au pair, I think there's a baby but not sure, the maid immediately starts trying to psychologically control and also seduce both of them. Husband figures out something is up, one of the key points is him hunting down her references and finding out that her previous employer is horribly burned to invalidism, afraid of the maid, who faked her own reference. Turns out the maid was a witch centuries ago, I think, cursed to something-something till someone loves her. Husband burns down house trying to kill her, is arrested/thrown into an asylum. Novel ends with the maid, reincarnated into a new body, having an interview for another job... Found! It's:

5. Story in which Harry Houdini dies (as the reader understands; he just wonders why he has suddenly woken up back in his childhood home with his beloved "Mutti" [mother]). As the story progresses, it becomes obvious to both Houdini and the reader that "Mutti" is not his mother and that he maybe trapped for all eternity in his own special hell with a thing that looks like his mother but isn't, giving (against his will) fallacious words from the afterworld to people at seances.

6. A vampire novel very much like 'Salem's Lot except set in the '60s after Kennedy was assassinated. I think a reporter comes to the town and finds it overrun with vampires. Head vampire is very handsome and sleeps in a coffin in the basement of a dilapidated old house. He has the power to enter people's dreams in order to control them. Found! It's:

7. Maybe the book came out in 1999 or so. Mostly white cover, close up of a pale white vampire face with mouth wide open showing fangs and blood around lips. Eyes red and yellow I think. Face filled the whole cover, framing the face so that just above the eyes down to just below the mouth were visible. Maybe a Pinnacle book. Found! It's:

Gah, some of these sound so familiar, but are just maddeningly out of reach! All help appreciated.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Women of Darkness, edited by Kathryn Ptacek (1988): Fear of a Female Planet

Featuring the usual distinctive orange typeface against a black background, Tor's Women of Darkness (October 1989) showed a refreshing self-awareness about the genre's tendency to overlook female writers when compiling horror anthologies. In her quiet and unobtrusive introduction, author and editor Kathryn Ptacek notes that she realized women were not being included in large or notable numbers in horror anthologies, for whatever reason, and decided to amend this. Odd that this was long an oversight, considering the genre was in large part begun by women—Mary Shelley and Ann Radcliffe—and continued through the century with Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. Of course Anne Rice and V.C. Andrews were two of the most recognizable names on the horror shelves of the decade. Women of Darkness is a corrective which (I think, I hope) was and should still be embraced. While not every story could be to my taste, almost every one is very, very good, and deserves (re)reading.

Kathryn Ptacek w her husband Charles L. Grant
c. late '70s

To be honest, I remember little of reading Women of Darkness back then, which is a shame because a handful I would have loved. I bought it because I'd heard of two stories it contained that were splatterpunky efforts well worth a horror fan's time. These were Elizabeth's Massie's "Hooked on Buzzer" and Nancy Holder's "Cannibal Cats Come Out Tonight." Both are solidly of their time: the former features a young woman who'd been abused by a fundamentalist cult; the latter presents a young man abused by his father who befriends a rebel dude and together they meet a crazy-hot rocker chick. Massie's story seems inspired by Roberta Lannes's notorious "Goodbye, Dark Love" from Cutting Edge (1986), while Holder's resembles a little the edgy outsider world that Poppy Z. Brite would become praised for. This is not to say the two tales are lacking; I quite liked both, real exemplars of short '80s horror. Happily both women continue as successful writers today.

The late British fantasist Tanith Lee (pictured) is the most well-known author included; she provides one of her impeccably mannered historical tales, "The Devil's Rose," a darkly sensual (it is Lee, of course) work of a woman "obsessed by dark fancies, bad things. Unrequited love had sent her to perdition." Yes thank you. You all know how much I love Lisa Tuttle's short horror fiction, and "The Spirit Cabinet" is no exception. No time wasted in setup, first sentence: Frank and Katy Matson had no sooner moved to London than they found a haunted house. Katy begins seeing a seance from the dim past, but she finds the ghost charming, not frightening. She realizes she's the ghost, a future ghost for the 19th century seances she glimpses. As Tuttle often does, this clever, light-hearted setup is just a distraction from the horror to come. Wonderful, wonderful horror!

Many writers included are utterly unknown to me, but for the most part they contributed respectable stories. Nancy Varian Berberick's (pictured above) "Ransom Cowl Walks the Road" is a sort of horror-cozy about a serial killer in a small Jersey town. A little gruesome and little creepy, however I felt the first-person narration didn't quite work with the twist ending. Still, not bad. "True Love," by Patricia Russo, with its utter cliche of a title, is the kind of thing I'd have passed up back in the day; it's a short historical tale of a stranger stopping by a country inn, tales told by a fire, a feisty old lady as bartender, and a nasty finale straight out of EC Comics. Kinda cool still. I loved "In the Shadow of My Fear," Joan Vander Putten's effective poetic-noir that mixes murder and spooky oceanic imagery with a real bite of a climax. My Felicia floats, slave to the whim of the tides, ever straining at her anchor.

A handful of stories venture far from familiar shores. Her first published story, "The Baku" from Lucy Taylor (above) benefits from its exotic locale and mythology. In a tiny cold seaside Japanese farm community, living with her husband who's working in Tokyo, Sarah drinks and frets over losing him. Noting her distress, a local gives her a "baku," a tiny ivory figurine that "eats bad dreams" when you place it beneath your pillow at night. Man I loved this little shocker. In Karen Haber's "Samba Sentado" a humiliated wife flees to Rio after her husband takes up with another woman. She is haunted by him: Over the next three days, I learned to stay calm, not to betray my horror and disbelief each time Jim's body washed up in the surf. The title means "Dance of the Initiates," the narrator visits a medium, a ritual voodoo dance and trance is involved, and a new power embraced, with chilling implication. Well done. "When Thunder Walks" by Conda V. Douglas has its white protagonist meet a fate reserved for those who use Navajo culture for their own monetary gain. These cultures depicted felt lived and authentic; Ptacek's mini-bios of each writer reveal this to be the case.

Women are most likely to bear the emotional (and physical) burdens of family life; Women of Darkness proves this in both text and subtext. The antho begins with "Baby" by long-time speculative fiction author Kit Reed, you can guess the scenario: a woman is reluctant to visit her sister and her newborn, babies were revolting; love must make mothers blind. Elva is the modern woman in the city, glamorous, "a collector of men." But when sister Rilla promises to introduce Elva to eligible bachelors if she visits, Elva cannot resist. What she finds and learns in that home has her rethinking everything. Good stuff, generic end but hey when it works it works.

"Aspen Graffiti" is Melanie Tem's sensitive story of a marriage crumbling, a husband leaving a family and its effect on the couple's sons. Filled with tiny details that ring true (an argument in the K-mart shoe department), it's a sad, quiet, melancholy bit of domestic horror, which Tem has done so well so many times. A mother's boyfriend visits the ultimate violation on her daughters in "Sister," from someone named Wennicke Eide Cox. What could have been distasteful and unseemly is here delicate and sympathetic, yet with a grotesque climax that speaks of horror's everlasting torment.

You can just tell by its title that "Nobody Lives There Now. Nothing Happens," is going to be "literary," can't you? Creative writing professor Carol Orlock's (above) story was Bram Stoker-nominated for best short fiction in 1988; it lost to "Night They Missed the Horror Show." No matter; its intelligence and attention to the life of a neighborhood are reminiscent of Jackson, its spooky, matter-of-fact cadence recalls Anne Rivers Siddons, its mood of domestic mystery perhaps vis-à-vis Alice Hoffman. No one ever sees the Marquettes, who move into a monstrous Victorian home tinged by Gothic tragedy, but everyone wonders about them, especially the children that venture to their front door on Halloween. Orlock avoids generic convention but the story lingers still: The house still stands. It is empty now, but I remember the afternoon the Marquettes arrived. I remember it as more remarkable than it probably was.

"Slide Number Seven" by Sharon Epperson (pictured) invokes modern (or then-modern) fears of intimate disease, a very common theme in horror in those days. One need not use vampires to literalize the metaphor either, and Epperson's somewhat oblique telling gets right under your skin, natch, trapped in dirty, sweating, traitorous flesh. And a horror anthology by and about women could not be complete without a tale of twin sisters and the man who unwisely comes between them. This is Melissa Mia Hall's "The Unloved," and its final screech to a halt is a powerhouse.

Ptacek really did the genre a terrific service with Women of Darkness. What the anthology lacks is refreshing: there's no smart-aleck tone, no blas√© attitude, no dick-swinging, no sniggering moments of sexualized violence, no one-upmanship. Nor is there much, if any, literary pretension; the styles on display are ones which evince maturity, not just in prose but in life: understanding—from experience—disappointment and heartbreak, longing, desperation, betrayal, unconscious notions of vengeance, not just the traumatic acrobatics of horror-loving, ham-fisted goons trying to replicate the latest slasher movie. You can feel these women's lives, the emotions are real, and the supernatural horrors that spring from them insidious and subtle. The stories are also utterly human. There is much to be feared from these women's darknesses, but also much to be learned.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Artist Murray Tinkelman Born on This Date, 1933

Murray Tinkelman, who died last year, produced covers for the mid-'70s Ballantine reprints of Lovecraft which are almost as iconic as the Michael Whelan ones in the early '80s. This is my small collection, as I don't often see his editions in used bookstores. See a more comprehensive collection of his Lovecraft paperback covers here (which also includes a great interview with the artist) and more Matheson here.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Sky is a Poisonous Garden: Vampire Paperbacks of the 1990s

As the 1990s rolled on, so did the evolution of horror paperback covers. They became more photo-realistic, thuddingly square and obvious, with cheapie fangs pasted onto models ready for their "90210" walk-ons. Most of these books seem precursors to the paranormal romance subgenre that has today taken over bookstore horror shelves, absolute ugh. My appreciation of these covers is mostly nil, although I do kinda dig Vampire Apprentice's neatly tucked-in look and Vampire Beat's legit badge and gun, while the teasing-tongue vamp of Celebrity Vampires (kudos to artist Harvey Parker) has some subtle incisors which you'll discover after it's too late. I've not read a single one of these, don't ever plan on it, but I'd be interested in knowing if any of y'all have.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Woodwitch by Stephen Gregory (1988): There's Fever in the Funkhouse Now

Well, there's nothing for it: another vintage horror novel read in 2017 that promised much but delivered little. Despite the endless reservoir of talent that Stephen Gregory shows with his ability to craft a tasty line of prose or pinpoint an indelicate bit of human psychology, The Woodwitch (St Martin's Press paperback/Nov 1989) is a frustratingly narrow story, insular to the point of absolute zero, and disagreeably disgusting. Gregory's first novel, 1986's The Cormorant, was a doom-laden, penetrating work of deep obsession. Woodwitch is that too, but less as well. Sure, there are lots of quoted encomiums printed front and back, accurate, sure, but what they leave out is that the book is mostly a grimy slog of a read. 

Our protagonist is uber-clueless buffoon Andrew Pinkney, guilty of the worst kind of turd-human behavior: smacking his date in the head for laughing at his limp penis. And that's it: that's the impetus for this shortish novel about a man's spiraling descent into madness (and where it stops, nobody know—er I mean you can probably guess). I suppose for many men that would be plenty enough reason, penile humiliation is the worst thing ever of course, but reading a whole book about it? Whew. I mean there's no room to breathe, and every breath one can draw is poisoned by enough rot and maggoty decay as to test any reader's tolerance.

The tale begins in a Welsh forest with Andrew traipsing about with his dog, a small collie called Phoebe. Phoebe is his only companion, an eager, bright, sometimes willful dog (but I just described a dog, didn't I, any dog); together they discover a badger corpse in the woods. Of course Andrew picks it up and takes it back to the cottage they're staying in and hangs it in the work shed. "You're perfect," he says to it as it drips maggots. Of course. Next, a jog back to the beginning so we can get a full dose of the square courtship between Andrew and his solicitor colleague Jennifer, a severe older woman, an amateur artist and naturalist who, on their romantic walks together, likes to point out various flora and fauna in their Latin scientific names. Hot stuff! No, it's rather charming.

Finally they get down to it, miserably, and Andrew fails at being a man, because that's what a man is of course ("Was that it?" the woman asked. That was it. "Heavens! What a lot of fuss about nothing!") and she sees his failure and begins to laugh. And Andrew simply punches her right in the mouth. Horrified at what he's done, Andrew calls cops and an ambulance; Jennifer is whisked away (no damage which a little dentistry could not repair), while their boss vouches for Andrew's good name and behavior so he is not charged. Boss suggests time off for both, which angers Jennifer, but Andrew takes him up on the offer of using the boss's holiday cottage so "then he could come back whenever he liked, refreshed and wholly recovered from the shock he had had." Well I am certainly glad of that, imagine how awful and oppressive and traumatizing it must be to have to punch a woman in the mouth, you totally need a vacay after that shit.

1989 UK paperback

As for Jennifer, who knows, she disappears from this madness. She will only continue to exist as a fantasy in Andrew's mind... because he's got this great idea about how to win her back. Her fascination with flora and fauna has subtly influenced his own behavior. How about a little joke at his expense, to show her he's not such a bad guy? He'll give her the gift of fungus! He'll grow it himself out of a blooming animal carcass. And not just any fungus, but the stinkhorn, or Phallus impudicus, a wretched-smelling thing sticking six inches up out of the earth, oozing oil-green and viscous black... the forest's unashamed caricature of the human phallus, at which the ancient peoples of the mountains had marveled for century after century... the object of their wonder and witchcraft, a totem, a thing to be prized and loathed and feared... What a great idea! Send her one of those, ha-ha, see I'm a fella can laugh at himself!

You won't believe how much mileage Gregory gets from describing the lewd, dripping stinkhorn fungus, the busy little maggots burrowing inside the badger and (later, after a trip to the grim seaside) the swan corpses, the damp, suffocating weather. It's overwhelming, it's disgusting (not in any moral sense, but literally so) and ultimately: boring. As. Hell. Even when Gregory turns an apt phrase about one of these aspects, the reaction is "Oh, well done," not "Holy shit, the implications of this for the character's mental state is now clearer and scarier!" Just page after page of this obsession, All there was in the world, in the entire universe, was the man and his dog, enveloped by the night. Sure, there are creepy sheep about, staring at them through the dense overgrowth, sheep that haunt Andrew's dreams like marauding women...

1989 US hardcover

Things get more interesting when Andrews meets a teenage brother and sister who live on a nearby farm caring for the sheep and kennel with hounds for fox-hunting. They mock him to his face in Welsh, but the girl, Shan, calls him "Pinkie" and seems amenable to conversation. They have a few pints in a woodsy lodge bar, something seems off. The novel's best sequence takes place on Halloween night, a party at this hotel bar, and the drunken, hallucinatory chaos which ensues. Told prior by Shan that folks would be in costume, Andrew bedecks himself in the weakest, lamest excuse for a vampire outfit ever, then with Phoebe at his side he trods in his wellies through the woods to the bar. Shan is flirty, her brother moody, the crowd oddly desultory. Phoebe becomes pathetically sick, distressing and angering the other drinkers and the barkeep asks them to leave. This leads to a bizarre attempt at a tryst with young Shan back at Pinkie's cabin, encrusted in dirt and soot, enticing Andrew on; there's wine, drunkeness, mockery, humiliation, even animal cruelty, I mean really. You can imagine the outcome of this seduction.

In the firelight, it looked as though some disgusting torture had been practised on the girl and was about to be resumed, for her body, skeletal and black, appeared to have been burned, branded and charred by the naked man who once again loomed over her

2015 Valancourt Books trade paperback

This whole sequence is very unsettling, I mean even the fungus gets a voice: In its effortlessness, its arrogance, its brazen lewdness, the stinkhorn sneered at him and said, "Look at me, Andrew Pinkney, and compare your flaccid maggot of a cock with mine!" The story continues on, I put the book down for weeks, ugh, same thing, then when it all wraps up there's hardly a surprise. Sure, with novels of obsession (Campbell's Face That Must Die, Tessier's Rapture, McDowell's Toplin, Koja's Cipher) that's often the case. I guess this time I was just exhausted by the literalness.

Once I read a rock critic who said something like the double-entendre lyrics of AC/DC were so obvious they were single entendres. That's the issue here too: Gregory is so on-the-nose with the symbolism of the fungus it's not even symbolism any longer; his conceit takes away any work on the reader's part: In Wales, Andrew Pinkney, having failed dismally in his last attempt to rear a home-grown erection, could sit back and enjoy these surrogates as he relaxed beside the fire. The sexual psychology here is all too obvious. This book isn't truly terrible, it has its moments like many horror novels I've overall disliked, but wow is it a bleak, dismal, dreary read with little payoff. I still recommend The Cormorant, but The Woodwitch left me unsatisfied. Traipse this dank darkness at your own peril.

Somewhere in the gloom, it seemed that something had crawled away to die and now was being dismantled by the silently working teeth of the maggots. The smell arose like a vapour exhaled by the earth itself, and then it was gone again, as if Andrew had imagined it, as though the stink were conjured in the darkest recesses of his own mind, to appear and disappear like a memory.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

RIP Berni Wrightson (1948-2017)

The horror world mourns as it learns of the passing of unsurpassable artist Berni(e) Wrightson, who died Saturday after a long battle with brain cancer.

I first became aware of his work in 1983, when Cycle of the Werewolf was published in hardcover. A very short Stephen King "novel" with astonishing illustrations by Wrightson, my 12-year-old self was obsessed with it from the first time I saw a copy on that bookstore shelf. I saved up my paper route money and bought a copy ($28.95!) and pored over those great and gory images. Even smuggled the book into school to astonish my classmates. I'm virtually positive it was my first King story as well.

A few years later, junior high, I met a guy my age who was a true comic book aficionado. Although a novice myself, I went along with him to comics shops and that's where I learned more about Wrightson (and comics in general; this is precisely when The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were being published): his hand in Swamp Thing, Creepshow, "Jenifer" (!!!), and what I think of his masterpiece: his 1983 adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

I can still recall how Wrightson's delicate yet detailed art made me feel dizzy with delight. This was how the Frankenstein story was supposed to look! My god. It was perfect. Unfortunately my copy has been lost to the ages, victim of a wild North Carolina storm that flooded the basement of the house I was living in back in the late '90s (which destroyed a nice chunk of other awesome books as well). I've never replaced it, and I'm not sure why.

The horror world is pouring out condolences and memories of Mr. Wrightson, and it seems by all accounts he was a terrific human in addition to being a master genre artist... and a dashing '70s fellow.

Rest well, Mr. Wrightson