Sunday, December 10, 2017

Fangoria Nightmare Library Reviews, February 1988

Another installment of Fangoria mag's vintage book reviews, thanks to TMHF reader Patrick B. Authors should be familiar to horror fans: Joe Lansdale, Whitley Strieber, Michael Talbot, Rex Miller, and Thomas Monteleone. And I myself have reviewed three of these titles: Lansdale's Nightrunners, Talbot's Bog, and Miller's Slob.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Fangoria Nightmare Library Reviews, March 1987

The Fangoria vaults have been opened once again, this time thanks to reader Patrick B., who sent me a treasure trove of Nightmare Library review scans from the golden era of '80s horror fiction. Behold this particular cache, as it features reviews of some of our favorites... 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

John Farris Fangoria Interview, 1987

And one more terrific Fangoria magazine interview with a prominent 1980s horror writer, this time John Farris (issue 67, Sept 1987). Thanks again to TMHF reader Peter F. for sharing these scans with me. Hope you've enjoyed them, I know I did!


Friday, December 1, 2017

Ramsey Campbell Fangoria Interview, 1986

Continuing this little excavation of old Fangoria mags by TMHF reader Peter F., here is an interview with horror giant Ramsey Campbell, from the June 1986 issue of the magazine.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

James Herbert Fangoria Interview, Jan 1984

From the Fangoria vaults courtesy of TMHF reader Peter F., another vintage interview with an '80s horror legend, James Herbert (1943-2013). Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Michael McDowell Fangoria Interview, 1984

Thanks to TMHF reader Peter F. for sending me this terrific interview with Michael McDowell (1950-1999), published in Fangoria #40, December 1984. Peter graciously emailed me several other Fango interviews with other '80s horror greats, and I will be posting them in days to come. Hope you dig these behind-the-pages looks into some of our fave writers of the era....

Friday, November 17, 2017

Unholy Mourning by David Lippincott (1982): Ain't It Time We Say Goodbye

Oh that smirk on the face of blow-dried '80s-'do dude, it's the worst. He's even lifting an eyebrow like burying you alive is just some kind of joke. Folks in the know might be reminded of a classic Vault of Horror cover, or even a vintage punk t-shirt. Alas, in David Lippincott's wholly unremarkable Unholy Mourning (Dell Books, Nov 1982), only a few moments achieve this kind of horror goodness. A dorky mortician with the disturbing name of Jorbie Tenniel is besieged by a homicidal "Voice" which tells him to bury various townspeople alive to avenge the death of his twin brother. Or something. It's been over a week since I finishing reading this and it took me around three weeks to trudge through this all 366 pages, so forgive me if I'm a little iffy on the nitty-gritty.

 Lippincott (1924 - 1984)

To begin with, I couldn't even with the name "Jorbie." Oh god it's just the worst, a mish-mash of consonants in the diminutive (I know I'm risking a Joey Jo-Jo moment here). His brother, dead by Jorbie's own sociopathic indifferent as the tale begins, has the far more normal name of Kenneth. Like many horror novel siblings, They neither needed nor wanted other children; they lived in a private world of their own. No surprise that Jorbie particularly resented intruders into this world. They didn't always listen to him or do what he commanded the way Kenneth did. A-ha! The prologue was promising, I'll give it that, when Kenneth drowns in Lake Michigan due to Jorbie's daring him to swim too far. Later Jorbie finds Kenneth's water-logged rotting corpse when it washes into some rocks he visits on the shore. It's a life-changing moment: There was no wonderful, happy life after you died at all. You just rotted and fell apart... He would never trust anyone again.

You can see Unholy Mourning gets off to a halfway decent start. Now it's present day, we're introduced to 20-something Angie Psalter, who's cut from the Talia Shire-as-Adrian cloth. A young lay teacher at a parochial school, she lives with her drunkard dad who, we learn a few chapters later, attempted to rape one of Angie's little schoolfriends years before during Angie's birthday party (everyone knows and is cool with that, though, Lippincott points out. And not ironically. Too bad for that little friend, oh well, these things happen). Angie spies Jorbie at a dinner/dance she's working at the school, and thinks he's kinda swell, despite being an outsider as he's a mortician (does that really make one an outsider? Lippincott implies yes). Jorbie had had a promisingly brilliant but short-lived stint in medical school, which he left and went back to the family mortuary business after his father's death. Of course these two lonely misfits start courting, I guess is the term.

Corgi Books UK, 1981

This courtship is nonsensical and abusive. Not even borderline abusive. Of course I'm looking at this 1982 novel through today's lenses, but that only means that victim/abuser relationships have never changed. Her relationship with Jorbie is practically a checklist of abuse: when he goes into one of his brooding moods, gets caught in a pathetic lie, or even brandishes a chair at Angie, she always tries to figure out what she said or did to set him off. He even gives her a black eye! It happens over and over, a tiresome refrain. Twice more a bewildered and hurt Angie tried to apologize for doing something she wasn't even sure she had done.

Repeatedly Lippincott makes awkward authorial observations out of nowhere that Angie would have been better off if she'd just gotten away from Jorbie as fast as possible, but Angie is so put-upon she believes it's all her fault and promises to do better "next time." At one part early in their affair, Jorbie shows Angie his crematorium and other work areas, and he's left out dead bodies of people she knows for her to see, "Oops, I forgot you knew her!" and makes horrible dumb jokes—posing a dead Jewish man so he's making a Nazi salute—while she mildly rebukes him. Mildly. Angie, DTMFA!

Corgi Books UK, 1983

Lippincott makes no attempt to evoke sympathy for any character. Angie is a dishrag/doormat, while Jorbie is the worst kind of arrogant person even discounting his penchant for burying people alive. He verbally abuses his assistant, Pasteur (a pathetic lumbering giant on loan from horror cheapie central casting). The police chief, Hardy Remarque, is okay I guess, but standard cop stuff in stories like this, two steps behind what's really going on (personally I'm rarely into cops in my horror fiction). Some religious characters, nuns and priests, yawn, to help people through their grief after Jorbie's through with his victims. Jorbie's crippled father Caleb is interesting, sad, hiding family secrets, that kind of guy. The only truly likable character, Edith Pardee, a sweet thoughtful older woman, is around only to tell the dysfunctional lovebirds how they truly belong together and the whole town—it's always "the whole town" in these books—thinks the two belong together. It's utterly depressing.

Turns out, Jorbie is going after people who were at the lake the day his brother drowned, they or their now-grown children, injecting them with curare, which he'd stolen from his old school lab, with a tiny hypodermic needle he has specially made hidden in a ring on his finger. It knocks out people's nervous systems, so they can't move or feel, like living death—suspended animation. Yep. The person gets ill, then "dies," basically, and Jorbie pretends to embalm them but he doesn't: he puts them in a coffin and they're buried that way. Then they wake up, six feet under. Shivery indeed... but Lippincott's handling of this gruesome endeavor pretty much saps the scenario of real horror. In the hands of a committed writer, the experience of waking up in a buried coffin is about as ripe as it gets for full-blown fear and madness. The stepback cover artist for the UK edition, Terry Oakes, got it right:

This dud is an excellent example of how the popularity of horror was considered a cash-in for publishers and writers who knew nothing about the genre and cared even less. Lippincott's style is square, dull, obvious, and belabored. Can't imagine what his other mainstream thrillers are like. Horror content was needed and writers were needed to provide it no matter what. I imagined him hunched over his typewriter with a publishing agent behind him, Lippincott looking back over his shoulder and saying "Is this what you want? Horror? Am I doing it right? Horror is scary and violent, right? Huh, right? Booooo!"

I grinded through pages of blocky conversations, banal insights, psycho first-person ramblings, turgid plot mechanisms, and general unpleasantness that offered not a whisper of the weird or eerie. There's an autopsy scene on one of those poor folks, that kinda works, I'll give the author that, but his central idea of revenge and the manner in which Jorbie goes about it—which anyone should be able to guess, as there is nothing supernatural going on in the novel—is unbelievable, even for a horror novel.

Dell Books, 1984

The climax is rendered with professional precision, sure, and its horribleness is notable, but it is all cliche and tired trope and predictable jump scare, with a denouement you know is coming. "This is horror, right? Is this how you do it? It is, right? Boo, argh, aaah!" I wish there'd be a scene of the exhumation of Jorbie's helpless victims: god, I can scarcely imagine! Nope, this is not how it's done. At all. Dedicated reader of horror do yourself a favor: buy a copy of the book for its cover, maybe, but be sure to avoid actually reading it.

Am I finished with this review? Is this it? Okay, good, I can't wait to get back to the actual good horror novel I'm reading now...

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Possession of Joel Delaney by Ramona Stewart (1970): Supernatural City

Published a year prior to epoch-making The Exorcist, this slim 1970 novel by Ramona Stewart (1922 - 2006) features a young man in thrall not to a demonic power of the netherworld but to a dead serial killer. I don't think The Possession of Joel Delaney (Bantam paperback/Oct 1971) is much talked-about these days in the small subset of people who talk about vintage horror novels; I can find little about Stewart herself online. She seems like a mainstream novelist who produced some other derivative minor thrillers (The Sixth Sense; The Nightmare Candidate; see below) that got some middling reviews and more middling cover art. None sound all that interesting to me.

1980 Dell reprint, Paul Caras cover art?

Happily for me, Possession is interesting: it's set in the Manhattan of the late '60s and early '70s, and is quite convincing at what it does. Stewart's depiction of the city, from the Upper West Side enclave in which our narrator Norah Benson lives to the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods of immigrants, is vivid, lived-in, and sympathetic but not overwrought or sanitized. Akin to Blatty's iconic novel, Stewart lays down a bedrock of normalcy and realism as Norah describes her life in plain terms in the opening pages:  It's when I'm skating along on smooth ice that the dark crack splits open at my feet.

Back cover gives you the low-down, 
good so I don't have to waste time rehashing it

The voice she provides for the story is refreshingly confident. Norah is self-aware, intelligent, and self-possessed, without an ounce of self-pity for her past. Our family hadn't been the cheery thing of children's books: her youth was made difficult by her wayward, somewhat grifter of a father and a mother who committed suicide leaving Norah to mostly raise her decade-younger brother Joel. She married a professor and left for the University of California, and feels lingering guilt about abandoning her brother. Now divorced, she maintains a civil relationship with her ex, raising two citified children with the help of Veronica, her Puerto Rican maid (this detail will become important).

 Dell Books 1980; Kirkus review here

Certainly, the night the trouble began with Joel, I had no prickling sense of the extraordinary. When Joel doesn't show up for dinner, she calls him but when the phone is answered no one is there, just music and a stranger's strangled voice. Concerned, she rushes to his downtown apartment, in an unsavory neighborhood ("Sure this is the place you want?" inquires the cabbie) and finds Joel on the floor, his face contorted like a man in a nightmare. He's off to the hospital, then Bellevue, you know it's the late '60s, maybe he's taking LSD. Norah speaks to the building manager, glimpses into his apartment: she recognizes an Espiritismo shrine, a religion invoking water and air spirits.

This will play a large part in the "possession" angle of the novel, as Norah investigates Joel's increasingly bizarre behavior with the help of a psychiatrist friend and a couple of professors. Together she and the reader learn about Tonio Perez, who lived in Joel's apartment before him, an immigrant teenager with a terrible childhood and a murderous hand, who suffers a ruthless death and who has struggled back from the other side... "There's a supernatural city all around you," Dr. Reichman said. "Belief working on thousands of psyches."

Okay: I have to note the ethnic tensions in the book. This is an indelicate matter. Thing is, Norah is the one who notices them; she is well aware of being an interloper into the minority community and its esoteric belief system (which may or may not be a sham/scam). Is Stewart/Norah evincing a fear of ethnic taint, of "white American culture" being far too influenced by a dangerous foreign one (literally possessed by it here)? If so, author/narrator seem ambivalent about their feelings, knowing that that's a secret fear one should keep bottled up; an irrational, unwarranted fear with no place in polite society. This could be taken the other way: that's what oblivious white people get for moving unwelcome into minority neighborhoods: taken possession of by murderers. The fear of the other, so often invoked in cultural horror criticism, isn't so high-minded or abstract: to each individual, everything is other/foreign/potentially dangerous, no? Anyway.

Dell Books 1981; Kirkus review here

There are several comparative religion lectures as a couple scholars talk about the long history of religion, possession, exorcism, and the occult in general dating back to ancient days. I'm always up for that!

Dr. Reichman seemed embarrassed. "My dear Mrs. Benson, it is not so simple. The history of exorcism is largely one of failure. Not only does it often increase the state of possession but the exorcising priests risk falling victims to the state themselves.... Even the spectators are liable to it. All over the world, in every culture, this is considered dangerous."

Stewart's narrative pace is snappy and her characters, intelligent and modern, believably drawn, although at times her descriptions of domestic detail borders on boring readers when they should be tingling with suspense. At its core its a novel of its era, showing the incursion of the supernatural into the everyday that broke from the ghetto genres onto the bestseller lists. The film version a few years later, with a perfectly-cast Shirley MacLaine as Norah, amps up the Fire Island climax to an unbelievable, uncomfortable degree but also offers some authentic scares. As a novel, Possession of Joel Delaney is an enjoyable minor work of mild occult thrills and a lovely window into vintage NYC city life. It is in no way better than Rosemary's Baby, nor The Exorcist, but as I said, Stewart's writing is clear and captivating and the backstory of the serial killer is heartbreakingly horrifying. Those readers who appreciate the quieter vibe of pre-Stephen King horror might dig it.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Meet Grady Hendrix and Me Tonight at Powell's Books in Beaverton, OR!

This is it everyone! Grady and I will meet for the first time face-to-face and discuss our book Paperbacks from Hell, out now from Quirk Books. Starts at 7:00pm at Powell's at Cedar Hills just outside Portland. We'll be talking about all those great vintage paperbacks you know and love and signing copies of ours. If you're in the area it'd be great to meet you!

Meanwhile I am working on a new review of a '70s occult paperback and reading an '80s novel about an insane undertaker. But of course.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Deathchain by Ken Greenhall (1991): My Baby Just Wrote Me a Letter

Reading Ken Greenhall is unlike reading anyone else in paperback horror. Never a glimpse of a cliche or tired phrasing, an ill-chosen word or jejune observation, his precision prose is whisper-quiet but razor-sharp and deceptively deep. You'd never know it from the dire cover art of Deathchain (Pocket Books/Dec 1991), which evokes '80s YA computer lab intrigue and little else. Boy, if anyone deserved a King-sized blurb extolling the virtues therein, it was Greenhall. Long a TMHF favorite thanks to his quiet paperback original masterpieces Elizabeth (1976) and Hellhound (1977), Greenhall died in 2014 after a career of being unappreciated for his fine, fine talent. It's disheartening and I'd rather not dwell on it. To the task at hand:

Chain letters have long poked and prodded at the deep superstitions seeded deep in even the most rational minds; even while one is tossing them in the trash it's a creepy thought that someone out there thinks so little of their fellow humans that they will compose a missive of vague threat and malice intended to motivate behavior for selfish gain. Kinda gross, actually, as it implies the letter-writer knows something about you that you yourself do not. Which is what's behind Deathchain: the Chainmaster, as the letter-writer refers to itself, knows There is someone you wish were dead. And so begins the novel, with youngish clock-repairer Dwight Bailey murdering an old indigent woman as instructed by a letter he's received. Rather than creeping Dwight out, the letter pleases him, flatters him, inspires him. He will do what it says because  there is indeed someone he wishes were dead, someone who never pleases or flatters him or notes how careful and perceptive and resourceful he is: that person is his hateful mother. And so the chain, though its beginning to us is clear, will not be unbroken.

Ken Greenhall (1928-2014)

Paul Monay is a divorced father, a New York portrait painter who makes most of his living working for his family's business as a producer of fine, and not-so-fine, French cognacs. His 11-year-old son Luke is smart in a budding engineer way, while his ex-wife remains if not a friend than an ally in raising the boy. Dalliances with women are not uncommon but his life is perhaps too footloose and fancy-free (He seldom asked himself questions of any kind—primarily because he thought self-analysis would probably just add to the vague dissatisfaction he felt with his life).

When Paul almost inadvertently notices people in town are dying off and sees their connection to one another, he idly begins to look into it and eventually enlists a detective. All this while starting up a romance with a hot-to-trot NYC theater actress named Phyllis Arno. Since he meets Phyllis through his current casual lover, psychiatrist Hillary Brock, and dumps her for Phyllis, this causes some conflict, duh, which is well-described by Greenhall: "What I want you to realize is that I'm losing both of you," Hillary tells him, and the reader can feel the heartbreak. It's good, grown-up stuff, and as such will lead to problems later on.

A novel about a deadly chain letter would be worthless without some good murder-by-chain-letter sequences. The men and women who receive the letter and then become casual murderers involved all have a tenuous connection to Paul: aforementioned Dwight, who enters Paul's orbit when his son wants to build clocks as a hobby; auto mechanic Lamb Johnson, who works on Paul's car and has grievances against his wealthy father (he believed death should be sought only over matters of family honor, as in an ancient tragedy); Connie Nickens, the shrewd sultry hostess at a good restaurant Paul frequents upon whom Paul has a minor crush (he liked looking at Connie and that wasn't because there was a great beauty or character in her features; it was because there was the implication that intimacy was a possibility) who is mixed up with a shady business partner. And last is Sarah Hopkins, an editor and researcher who hates her former boss (hey, that was one of Greenhall's jobs!). Last because Sarah is now shadowing Paul, and surely after what he's noticed about recent mysterious deaths this can't be an innocent coincidence...

They all hear the icy madness commanding them to kill: You must not break the chain, you must not become anxious or confused... You are a person who goes not the way of the crowd but the way that you have chosen and that has been chosen for you. It appeals to their narcissism and ego, that deadly, deadly psychological combo.

Aw man read this scene the day after Harry Dean died!

We get those scenes, but, unfortunately, they are after the first one somewhat strangely muted. It's like Greenhall didn't want to let his hair down and give us the gory details of "accidents" and "mishaps." His pen is spent more in describing the characters' interior lives and motivations than in the final outcomes of such. Which I enjoy, as Greenhall is an astute chronicler of the impolite notions most people have about others. He's also very good at depicting healthy sex lives, an appreciation for good food and drink, art and its creation, parenting, and other adult activities that so many horror writers find bewildering to contemplate and impossible to convey. It's just that Deathchain is ostensibly a horror novel—it says so on the spine! It has a bloody knife on the cover! It has the word "death" in its very title!—there is very little real horror to be found. It rather feels like a missed opportunity, despite the high caliber of prose.

I had a sense that Greenhall may have felt he was somewhat above the material, that much of what he was writing could have been in a book not about or entitled Deathchain. The lead-in to and the climax itself feature some grody stuff, but too little and too late. I would have loved a gruesome scene or three in Greenhall's inimitable style. I kept waiting and waiting but it didn't happen. There isn't much suspense and there's nothing really scary going on, not on the surface anyway. There's an intellectualization of pain and death that's akin to Thomas Tessier, but not as satisfying. It is simply Greenhall's skill at observing truths about human nature that make Deathchain readable. It is not a must-read like Hellhound or Elizabeth, and his other novels are still on my to-read list, but if you dig his style like I do and don't mind a novel that isn't trying to terrify you constantly if at all, Deathchain could be for you.