2008: The Year in HORROR
Here it is: my third annual look back at the
year’s literary output. I was unable to be as thorough as I am with my Year in
Horror film overview, in which I endeavor to see and review as many of the
year’s horror movies as I possibly can. Here I’ve had to specialize, meaning
fans of David Wellington, Joe Lansdale, Bentley Little, Ray Garton and Dean
Koontz fans will be disappointed, as all had new books out in 2008 that I
So too the year’s Stephen King offerings
DUMA KEY and JUST AFTER SUNSET--sorry, but I believe those books will sell just
fine with or without my help. What I’ve endeavored to do below is point out
lesser-known titles like Ron Dakron’s MANTIDS and Jeani Rector’s OPEN GRAVE.
Never heard of those? Good! It’s my hope that the following will help acquaint
many of you with worthy books and authors you might not already be aware of.
That doesn’t mean I’ve neglected the big
names entirely. I couldn’t help but give old favorites like Jack Ketchum, J.G.
Ballard, Richard Matheson and Alejandro Jodorowsky a shout out, especially since
all put out work that’s well deserving of my praise.
As to the overall quality of 2008’s
literary offerings, I’ll have to say it was better than the previous year’s.
There were some disappointments (Blatty’s ELSEWHERE foremost among them) but for
the most part I was pleased with what I read. On the other hand, there was
nothing in ‘08 that got me jumping-up-and-down excited the way Norman
Partridge’s DARK HARVEST
and Joe Hill’s 20th
CENTURY GHOSTS did in previous years.
So let’s get started. First up are the
seasoned pros, who graced us with several must-reads, beginning with my favorite
book of last year.
New Books by Old Masters
I’m always up for a new book
from the incomparable J.G. BALLARD. His latest release,
MIRACLES OF LIFE (Fourth Estate), is an autobiography. It’s also
quite possibly the last book he’ll ever write, as in June 2006 Ballard learned
he had advanced prostate cancer. What emerged is the most kind-hearted work
this famously unsentimental author has ever written, a frank and straightforward
yet affectionate glance back at an unusually eventful life. The demons that
once drove J.G. Ballard seem to have been soundly put to rest, and nor does he
appear to bear any grudges for the misfortunes he’s suffered.
Those misfortunes began at age
twelve, when Ballard, living in Shanghai with his British expatriate parents,
was interned in a Japanese prison camp from March 1943 to June 1945. We get an
effective overview of Ballard’s years in the Lunghua camp, where despite
less-than-ideal living conditions the young Ballard “thrived,” finding life
there exciting and enjoyable: “Lunghua camp may have been a prison of a kind,
but it was a prison where I found freedom.” His teenage discovery of Freud and
surrealist art further impacted Ballard a great deal, as anyone who’s read his
fiction can readily attest.
Tragedy struck again in 1963, when Ballard’s wife Mary
developed severe pneumonia and died suddenly. Ballard was left with the not
inconsiderable chore of raising three rambunctious children on his own, although
he claims those years were “the richest and happiest I have ever known”.
Curiously, Ballard doesn’t discuss
his novels much outside CRASH and EMPIRE OF THE SUN. He does, however, give us
tidbits on Steven Spielberg’s big budget movie adaptation of EMPIRE, on which
Ballard is surprisingly positive, and David Cronenberg’s decidedly less
mainstream filming of CRASH,
which set off a veritable firestorm of controversy in England. Overall I feel
MIRACLES OF LIFE is as wise, witty and warm a memoir as just about any you’ll
find, an essential read for Ballard novices and superfans alike.
The Japanese KOJI
SUZUKI is another essential author, and Vertical put out a new Suzuki
novel in ’08, PROMENADE OF THE GODS. It’s something of a departure from
the author of THE RING and its sequels, being a
non-supernatural mystery. Still, this book, originally published in Japanese,
does contain many RING-esque themes, including an average joe becoming an
amateur sleuth to solve a bizarre mystery and a villainous personage who figured
briefly in the RING books.
That personage is a guru called Kageyama, who runs a
shadowy religious cult. It seems the seemingly mild-mannered Matsuoka has
joined the cult after abruptly vanishing one day--but that’s only a surmise on
the part of Matsuoka’s best friend Shirow, who does his best to puzzle out the
possible details of his friend’s disappearance, and romances Matsuoka’s
estranged wife in the process. Being the extremely meticulous writer he is
Suzuki gives us far more information on that romance than is probably necessary,
making for a somewhat lopsided account. But for the most part the book is a
grabber, with an ingeniously worked-out narrative that never takes an expected
turn, and a stunner of a climax.
The real problem is, like all Suzuki’s books in
English, with the translation, which is done in drawn-out kid book fashion. A
lot of the problem was clearly with the Japanese original, as is evident in the
way Suzuki constantly rehashes the details of his story as one might for a slow
or inattentive readership. Perhaps this is part and parcel for Eastern
literature, but this Western reader found the paint-by-numbers prose a mite
I wasn’t too enthusiastic about
Dance) by the great WILLIAM PETER BLATTY, of THE EXORCIST and
LEGION. Those books are all-time classics. This one is not.
ELSEWHERE isn’t the “new” book it was advertised as,
since it first saw print in the Al Sarrantonio edited 1999 anthology 999. For
the most part it’s a low-key haunted house tale that’s more interesting than
We meet Joan Freeboard, a NYC realtor trying to sell an
allegedly haunted house. There’s also Anna Trawley, a psychic, and Dr. Gabriel
Case, a world renowned authority on the paranormal. Freeboard arranges for the
three of them to spend a few nights in the haunted house, along with Terry Dare,
a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who will pen an article about their stay.
Freeboard’s presumption is that nothing out of the ordinary will occur, and
Dare’s article will reflect that. Yet upon settling in the four realize that
something is clearly going on within the place. Noteworthy happenings
include Freeboard’s frequent spells of Déjà vu, much noisy pounding and strange
voices, and a (seemingly) ghostly priest who has a tendency to abruptly appear
and then vanish. Throughout it all Case makes the others suspicious, as he has
a strange air about him, almost as if he’s withholding some pertinent
Clearly this is all leading up to something. The
problem is the third act twist so integral to the story is far from unique. It
might have been back 1999, but since then at least two popular movies have
utilized variants on ELSEWHERE’S surprise ending. This blunts the impact
considerably, and makes it far easier to spot the twist coming in advance.
gave us a new book in 2008 called OLD FLAMES, published as a mass market
paperback by the good folk at Leisure. It’s an unsparing peek into the
hopeless life of Dora, a tough and aggressive high society gal who’s had
terrible luck with men. After being dumped by yet another guy she decides to
track down the whereabouts of her first-ever love Jim, who she dated in high
school--and who broke her heart. Dora finds Jim living in Los Angeles with his
wife of 20 years and two children, an existence Dora always wanted for herself.
Jim’s wife Karen appears to be the only thing standing in the way of Dora’s
dreams...but not for long!
This novella represents Ketchum in prime form. Penned
in his usual pared-down style, it contains some strong and disturbing brutality,
but also an entirely convincing story bolstered by spot-on character
development. Dora is a pretty sympathetic character for the most part, and her
obsessive behavior initially seems harmless and even somewhat understandable.
Thus her inevitable descent into psychosis comes as something of a shock to us,
just as it does to Dora herself. The narrative arc is as grim as can be
imagined, culminating in a true shocker of a climax.
The Leisure edition of this book comes packaged with
Ketchum’s 1998 novella RIGHT TO LIFE, about a pregnant woman kidnapped by a pair
of anti-abortion loons and tortured in ways I won’t go into here. It’s about as
rough as anything Ketchum has written, and as riotously compelling. Together
these novellas make for a one-two punch of scalding horror of a type that only
Jack Ketchum can deliver.
Finally we have THE WORD
OF GOD by the late THOMAS M. DISCH (Tachyon). It was the first novel
in a decade by the brilliant, confounding Disch, who tragically committed
suicide shortly before its publication. Suicide is a theme that runs through
the text of THE WORD OF GOD, at once an eccentric autobiography, a sustained
religious argument and a bad joke. Much of it, I believe, is total nonsense,
but there are also passages of brilliance fully suited to a writer of Disch’s
The subject is Disch himself, and his ascent to literal
godhood. As such Disch expounds on the nature of faith and divinity, with
several short stories illustrating his claims. The point of view is sarcastic
and curmudgeonly, fully befitting Disch’s infamously cranky public persona.
Another subject is the late Philip K. Dick, who Disch
identifies as his nemesis. In the late 1960s PKD, during a period of
drug-induced mental illness, reported Disch to the FBI, an act Disch evidently
never forgave. Several interrelated chapters relate how PKD escapes from Hell
to assassinate Thomas Mann, apparently the illegitimate father of one Thomas M.
Disch--in this way PKD can ensure Disch will never be born. Not to worry,
though, as, being God, Disch has the power to thwart PKD’s dastardly plot.
I don’t know that I enjoyed THE WORD OF GOD all that
much, but I have to give it points for audacity. Thomas Disch was never an
especially commercial or prolific writer, but he was a vital talent who, as this
book testifies, could always be counted on for the unexpected.
Fun with Santa Claus
SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS
THE HOMOPHOBES, from Booklocker, was the long-in-coming
sequel to ROBERT DEVEREAUX’S Yuletide classic
SANTA STEPS OUT. In that perverse 1998
masterwork Santa Claus was seduced by the Tooth Fairy, setting in motion a
series of outrages that included Mrs. Claus offering herself to Santa’s elves,
the Easter Bunny turning into a horny bastard, and a woman named Rachel and her
young daughter Wendy becoming involved with Santa, just as he becomes aware of
his true identity as Pan, the God of debauchery. It all gets so out of hand
that eventually God, a.k.a. Zeus, steps in to straighten things out by turning
the Easter Bunny infertile, restricting the Tooth Fairy from Santa’s presence,
and encouraging Santa to enjoy a polygamous marriage with Mrs. Claus and Rachel,
with Wendy as their daughter.
SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE HOMOPHOBES picks up several
years later, with Santa and his extended family basking in the glow of the “best
Christmas ever.” But Wendy, who can see into the futures of the world’s
children, is upset; she’s foreseen the suicide of a gay child named Jamie
Stratton due to homophobia. In an effort to cheer Wendy up Santa gets in touch
with Zeus, who sends down an archangel to assist in making the Jamie Stratton’s
family and friends more tolerant. Opposing their efforts is the Tooth Fairy,
who dispatches a spy to keep watch on Santa in the hope that he’ll leave an
opening for her to thwart his do-gooding. Just as bad if not worse is Santa’s
own alter-ego Pan, who continues to torment him.
The X-rated content of SANTA STEPS OUT is largely
expunged from this sequel, which also contains a none-too-subtle message about
tolerance. It won me over, however, with its unfailingly imaginative narrative
and lively prose. This book may be preachy, but it’s also exciting and
unpredictable--and, in the manner of past Robert Devereaux novels like
DEADWEIGHT and DEADOLESCENCE,
utterly nuts form start to finish (did I mention nose-picking is another of the
book’s major themes?).
Is it just me or is every third
horror book published these days a George Romero-inspired zombie novel? Zombies
have long been a horror staple, certainly, but in recent years they’ve all-but
taken over the genre. You’ll understand if I shunned the zombie apocalypse
novels currently packing bookstore shelves, but I did read DYING TO LIVE:
LIFE SENTENCE (Permuted Press) by KIM PAFFENROTH.
The novel is in fact a sequel to 2007’s DYING TO LIVE. I haven’t read that
book but had no trouble getting into LIFE SENTENCE, as it’s a surprisingly
effective novel whose subject matter was familiar to me from the films that
inspired it. Yet the author has used his Romero-filched elements in thoughtful
and literate fashion; there is the requisite gore and flesh gnashing, but the
book’s true aims are of the philosophical variety.
The setting is a world where the living dead rule and a
band of non-zombified humans subside in an abandoned museum. The two main
characters are strong and compelling: there’s Zoey, an inquisitive pre-teen
coming to terms with life in this nightmare world, and an “evolved” zombie who
was once a university professor. In his current state the man’s memories are
all-but nonexistent, forcing him to relearn everything. As his curiosity about
himself and the world around him grows, this zombie finds himself rejecting the
anti-social activities of his fellow deaders. In the meantime Zoey is maturing
into a full-fledged zombie killer, and before long these two characters will
meet--and the results, as you might guess, aren’t pretty!
SUCCULENT PREY is by
WRATH JAMES WHITE, the current sultan of all things extreme. Initially
published in a small press edition back in 2005, it’s a profoundly sick, filthy,
disgusting and repellent novel--and it’s now available in mass market from
Leisure, who deserves credit for having the balls to unleash this suck fuck
of a book on an unsuspecting world.
True, SUCCULENT PREY is not an especially good
book, but as an unflinching dive into the basest depths of depravity it works.
Its “hero” is Joseph Miles, a college student who as a kid was held hostage by a
deranged serial killer and now worries the psycho might have passed along a
serial killer virus. Joseph becomes prone to all manner of violent compulsions,
most of them involving cannibalism. He inevitably begins to act those
compulsions out, devouring flesh from the ass of a gay man and then picking up
Alicia, a voluptuous young sex addict, for a chowdown. Joseph falls in love
with her, however, and so turns his compulsions on other less willing victims,
with predictably nauseating results.
In the midst of all this Joseph decides to track down
the individual who abused him all those years ago, and so takes Alicia bound and
gagged with him to the Seattle nuthouse where the freak is detained...leading to
more vile acts and a most unexpected revelation.
You have to admire Wrath’s knack for conjuring
perverted depictions of sex and violence far beyond anything the splatterpunks
of the eighties ever came up with, even if his prose is frequently trite and his
vocabulary somewhat limited. He kept me eagerly turning the pages and
consistently wanting to know what happened next--although rarely with any sort
of pleasurable anticipation!
Another for the Extreme category is
GOTH: A NOVEL OF HORROR
by OTSUICHI (TOKYOPOP). This roughie,
an award-winner in its native Japan, stands out because of its construction as a
collection of tenuously connected short stories, and because of its unnervingly
rational, unemotional glimpse into the ugliest depths of human psychosis. The
stories are connected by a creepy girl named Morino, who becomes involved in the
lives of a collection of criminal psychopaths, each harboring some deranged
In the title story Morino and a school chum find a
journal belonging to a serial killer, and use it to blackmail the psycho.
“Wrist-Cut” features a disturbed school teacher with a compulsion to amputate
peoples’ hands who happens to have Morino as a pupil. Morino has but a walk-on
in “Dog,” about an abused girl and her brother who kill dogs in preparation for
the girl’s anticipated showdown with her abuser. In “Memory/Twins” Morino
attempts to deal with her sister’s horrific death. “Grave” has Morino becoming
the latest victim of a freak who buries women alive, although this time the
crime doesn’t quite go as planned. Finally there’s “Voice,” about Morino’s
involvement with the murder of a girl and subsequent harassment of the victim’s
In an apologetic afterward the author relates how GOTH
came to be written and explains some of the more confusing elements. He admits
that “in the real world, it’s absolutely unthinkable that so many crazy people
could live in the same town,” and that his misleading moniker “was not a
is a novel by internet phenomenon SCOTT SIGLER (Crown) that, I must
confess, really got under my skin. It’s the first publication from
Sigler, who’s already put out several podcast-only audiobooks, this one
It’s a marvel of fast, inventive, up-to-the-minute pulp
fiction, and also one hell of a grue-fest, with a contagion of extraterrestrial
beings invading Earth through triangular infections on peoples’ bodies. The
contagion is discovered and analyzed by a determined CIA operative and a CDC
epidemiologist, characters who exist primarily to fill us in on the scientific
properties of the triangle-things.
What gives the book its punch is the ordeal of Perry
Dawsey, an ex-football star afflicted with the disease. Perry, being the
irredeemable tough guy he is, is determined not to let the infections get him
down, although this isn’t easy, seeing as how the things have access to their
Perry’s struggle with the triangle monsters makes for a
riotously compelling story that all-but takes over the bulk of the novel, with
the CIA and CDC plot threads (which aren’t nearly as interesting) pushed to the
side. I won’t give too much away, as a large part of INFECTED’S enjoyment is in
the unpredictability of its narrative, which branches out and mutates in a
manner not unlike the disease at its core. The open-ended finale leaves the
door wide open for a sequel that, FYI, appeared in late 2008: CONTAGION, which,
needless to add, I’m quite anxious to read.
Good Experimental Fiction
MANTIDS was a new novel by RON DAKRON
(Black Heron Press), a writer I’ve grown fond of over the years. Dakron
favors heavily self conscious, slip-streamy prose, yet his is among the very
small cadre of experimental fiction whose substance actually matches its style.
MANTIDS is the most user-friendly of Dakron’s books: it’s short and fast moving,
and contains a linear narrative with a beginning, middle and end.
It’s set in the scuzzier regions of Astoria, Oregon,
where a failed musician is afflicted with a permanent erection (having popped a
bunch of Viagra tablets at once) while contending with human-sized preying
mantises. Apparently there’s an alien invasion afoot that causes people to
morph into cannibalistic bugs, with the protagonist one of the few remaining
humans...although he’s not sure if he isn’t hallucinating the whole thing.
Neither are we.
I realize not everyone will have patience with lines
like “that skin husk next to the fridge, the split splattered body that her
new bug self popped out of--its ripped back still oozing gray biomuck, the limbs
tangled into a skin pretzel--whoa!” But the book is lively and funny, with
a spot-on portrayal of the Pacific Northwest punk subculture amid all the
insanity--and really: perverted sex, punk rock, Viagra, mutant insects,
cannibalism, perpetual erections...what more could you possibly want?
JEANI RECTOR wowed
me two years ago with her debut collection
AFTER DARK. In ’08 she was back with a new
collection, OPEN GRAVE: THE
BOOK OF HORROR (Publish America), and it’s even better than the
first, executed with much greater confidence and originality. Stories like
“Monday Night Dive” and “Cold Spot,” with their unpredictable narratives and
wildly off-kilter yet satisfying conclusions, really aren’t like anything else I
can think of. More traditional, but still quite memorable, are “A Case of
Lycanthropy,” about a woman who becomes afflicted with bloodlust after she’s
bitten by a dog, and “The Burial,” about the coming of age of a Native American
boy during a funeral ceremony.
As for standouts, I’ll have to go with “Under the
House” and “Ghoul.” The first is a short and pointed exercise in apprehension,
relating how an abused girl ventures into a dark area under her house and finds
something truly horrible. The text of “Ghoul” is an unabridged version of a
tale that appeared in truncated form in Rector’s previous book; this new “Ghoul”
is a sterling example of storytelling magic, being a twisty account of a voodoo
The final piece is “Open Grave,” a veritable
mini-novel. It’s an imaginative portrayal of a college student under the
influence of a devil-worshipping seductress named Raven. The tale is
interesting in the way it inverts the classical format of like-minded stories
told by a third-party observer; here we’re given an up-close-and-personal
account of the cursed individual’s sufferings. But it was penned by a woman
attempting to replicate a man’s point of view, and I found that quite a few
details didn’t ring true. “Open Grave” also suffers from an over-baked
narrative; with its relentless succession of twists within twists it’s a bit
like the abovementioned “Ghoul,” but that story was told quite successfully in a
fraction of the length of this one.
CONE ZERO (Megazanthus
Press) is the eighth installment of the NEMONYMOUS anthology series,
where we won’t learn who wrote what until the succeeding volume. Not having
read any of the other Nemonymous anthologies, I was unsure what to expect, and
it turns out that unexpected is the operative word: the stories range from
horror to sci fi to who-knows-what. All, however, were conceived around the
teasingly enigmatic term Cone Zero.
In “Cone Zero, Sphere Zero” we enter a futuristic
civilization structured as a giant cone, with sinister “Enforcers” ensuring that
nobody ventures beyond the cone’s summit. In “The Point of Oswald Masters” Cone
Zone refers to a series of pointy installations created by a cranky artist,
including one of zero height, zero diameters and zero volume--which is somehow
stolen! In “To Let” the concept is more obliquely addressed, via a suspicious
vase that appears to have disquieting supernatural properties.
“Always More than You Know” has a Hollywood stuntman
discovering that his latest job entails far more than merely standing in
onscreen for a popular action star. Another movie related tale is “Angel Zero,”
a powerfully compelling mystery involving an ancient piece of film depicting a
street scene in which a little girl abruptly vanishes. “The Cone Zero
Ultimatum” centers on a band of sentient household appliances leaving their
human master’s home in search of “Eden.” “Going Back for What Got Left Behind”
is a skin-crawler about two men, both widowers, whose lives are horrifically
altered after they happen upon a train platform labeled Cone Zero. “Cone Zero”
is a short but resonant account of a desperate search for a woman the
protagonist dreamed of years earlier. “An Oddly Quiet Street” is a wholly
unpredictable haunted house tale that effectively references ROSEMARY’S BABY.
Good anthology! I’d like to give the proper authors
credit for their achievements, particularly “Angel Zero” and “Going Back for
What Got Left Behind.” But that will have to wait until the next Nemonymous
anthology, set to appear in mid-2009.
SINS OF THE SIRENS,
edited by JOHN EVERSON, was the third release from Dark Arts Books,
who specialize in sampler anthologies of genre fiction. SINS OF THE SIRENS
contains stories by four women authors: Loren Rhoads, Maria Alexander, Mehitobel
Wilson and Christa Faust, all of whom contribute solid work of an adults-only
Loren Rhoads begins the book with four creepy tales
grounded in aberrant psychology. In “The Angel’s Lair” a woman picks up a
fallen angel in a bar--but the woman is actually a succubus looking to seduce
and devour the angel. Good story, done with an eye for gritty detail and sexual
explicitness. Speaking of which, “Still Life with Broken Glass”, Rhoads’s next
story, is a nasty account of art snobs flavored with X-rated levels of lesbian
erotica and grue. The most effective of Rhoads’ tales in my view is “Sound of
Impact,” a short, sharp shocker that proceeds in ominous fashion until an
underlying secret is disclosed that throws the preceding events into a new
Rhoads’ contributions are, it turns out, the most
subtle of the entire book. Maria Alexander is next, and has a more down and
dirty style. Alexander’s “Pinned” is a wild ride that mixes S&M and voodoo in
eye-opening fashion; it’s one of the book’s standout entries. So too “The last
Word”, in which phantom entries in a man’s diary instruct him on how to run his
life--and ultimately impart some really bad advice!
Mehitobel Wilson follows, contributing for me the
collection’s most powerful block of stories. “Heavy Hands” is about what
happens to a guy assailed by invisible hands that act according to the desires
of those around him. Creepy stuff. “Close” is even creepier: it has a
voyeuristic hotel worker finding a way to insert himself into the lovemaking of
a randy couple, resulting in a strong, graphic tale that concludes on just the
right note of lyrical abandonment. “The Wild” tackles lycanthropy in a wholly
individual manner that’s violent, sexual and poetic. Then there’s “Parting
Jane”, told in the form of a journal penned by a sickly girl, whose tale
represents virtually everything you’ve ever feared about doctors and/or
The final contributions are by Christa Faust, whose
three stories are grouped, appropriately enough, from good to very good to
great. “Love, La Llorona” features a woman, a DVD, a murder and a satisfying
twist ending. The novella-length “Firebird” centers on a deadly vampire-like
machine in a gritty future world--think BLADE RUNNER meets CRONOS. Finally
there’s “Tighter”, about a bondage-loving gal who finds total bliss when a guy
ties her up with live ropes; it’s not until the end that she discovers what
those ropes are made of. SINS OF THE SIRENS represents all that’s great about
femme fiction: bloodletting, psychosis, torture and perversion!
foremost pick here as far as I’m concerned is THE NIGHTMARE FACTORY VOLUME 2
by THOMAS LIGOTTI (et al). I really like this
Fox Atomic project, consisting of graphic adaptations of stories
by the inimitable Thomas Ligotti. No one else
writes like this guy, who comes off like H.P. Lovecraft
mixed with David Lynch. This second volume of
Ligotti comics is even stronger than the first, with a greater imaginative scope
and artistic range.
The four stories collected here commence with “Gas
Station Carnivals,” adapted by Joe Harris and illustrated by Vasilis Lolos.
It’s a dark tale centered on the corrosive power of memory, but with a macabre
twist involving an eerie, forbidding creature. “The Clown Puppet,” adapted by
Harris and illustrated in typically hallucinogenic fashion by the always
fascinating Bill Sienkiewicz, follows; it’s one
of Ligotti’s creepiest stories, about a spectral clown puppet with disquieting
powers. “The Chymist,” adapted by Stuart Moore
and visualized by Toby Cypress, is Ligotti’s darkly comedic take on the hoary
old mad scientist tale. Finally there’s “The Sect of the Idiot,” adapted by
Moore and illustrated by Nick Stakal, a unique
account of supernatural compulsion by a Lovecraftian Thing
beyond the Stars--it’s a stunner in both
conception and execution. So too the volume overall, which is a must-own, pure
LOCKE AND KEY: WELCOME TO
LOVECRAFT, written by
JOE HILL and illustrated by GABRIEL
RODRIGUEZ (IDW), is another stunner. It’s the first foray into
graphic novel scripting from Hill, and a success.
The narrative layout is quite complex, and initially a
mite puzzling, but the story is nonetheless a strong one: the three traumatized
Locke children--Tyler, Kinsey and Bode--are taken by their mother to a rural
town called Lovecraft(!). Their father, a university professor, was killed by a
psychotic pupil who’s now locked away in an insane asylum. As for the house the
Lockes have moved into, it’s a dark mansion filled with doors that, as
six-year-old Bode quickly discovers, open into all sorts of strange
alternate realities, including one that allows
Bode to become a ghost. But there’s also a malevolent presence afoot: it’s the
unquiet spirit of a woman looking to force her way back onto the mortal plane
via an “Anywhere Key,” and is using Bode and the crazy guy who started the
entire mess to affect that goal.
Hill succeeds in fully delineating the traumatic inner
worlds of his youthful protagonists while never compromising the story’s forward
momentum. The artwork of Gabriel Rodriguez is indispensable to LOCKE AND KEY’S
impact, but this is Joe Hill’s show all the way. His evocation of surreal
childhood terrors--and a few all-too-real grown-up ones--will resonate with
anyone familiar with 20th CENTURY GHOSTS.
RICHARD MATHESON’S HELL
HOUSE (IDW), by IAN
EDGINTON and SIMON FRASER, is a graphic novel adaptation of HELL
HOUSE by Richard Matheson, originally published in 1971. Matheson, in his 1950s
masterworks I AM LEGEND and THE SHRINKING MAN, laid the groundwork for the
modern horror novel, and HELL HOUSE was in its own way every bit as
The premise concerns a dying man who pays a team of
scientists and spiritualists to spend a week in a vast, forbidding abode known
as Hell House. The place is apparently the “Mount Everest of haunted houses,”
built by a depraved millionaire who created a literal Hell on Earth within.
Adaptor Ian Edginton fully retains the towering
ominousness of Matheson’s novel, and Simon Fraser’s black and white
illustrations likewise prove extremely memorable. Fraser has a knack for
capturing partially illuminated scenes wherein much of the image is shrouded in
darkness, and likes to depict his characters in the act of screaming or
grimacing. Then there’s the book’s sexual content, which was unprecedented for
1971 and is still quite strong. There are episodes of sadomasochism,
lesbianism, masturbation and, in the single most memorable sequence, necrophilia
(wherein a woman’s erotic fantasy becomes something else altogether).
Of course all this is thrown up in the air by a final
twist I’ve never been too enthusiastic about. Matheson was one of the key
writers for THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and was often twist-ending happy. I’m not sure
this particular story needs a twist, however, as it more than stands on its own
SPIRITUAL JOURNEY OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY,
published by Park Street Press, is an autobiographical volume by
the incomparable ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, focusing on his initiation into
Zen Buddhism. You can be sure the contents, incorporating hallucinations,
surrealism and perverse sexuality, are very Jodorowskyian.
It begins with Jodorowsky
meeting the Japanese master Ejo Taketa in Mexico during the late 1960s and
becoming his disciple. The relationship lasts for years, with Taketa teaching
Jodorowsky the importance of Koans, enigmatic questions posed by Zen masters for
their disciples to meditate on.
The book contains a chapter about Jodorowsky’s tutelage
under the surrealist painter/writer Leonora Carrington,
who speaks in (seemingly) nonsensical riddles. Another covers his brief
dalliance with a Mexican actress known as The Tigress,
who initially befriends but inevitably turns on him. Most memorable is his
recollection of his sexual courtship with the daughter of G.I. Gurdjieff, who’s
mastered the art of bringing men to orgasm by contracting her vaginal muscles,
and who claims Jodorowsky’s problems stem from “the pain of having a mother with
a mute vagina.”
The concluding chapter consists of various anecdotes
illustrating how Jodorowsky has used the teachings of his Zen masters in his
day-to-day life. They include accounts on the making of
and SANTA SANGRE, as
well as a brief summary of the decades-long conflict with producer
Allen Klein, who withheld Jodorowsky’s early
films from circulation until the two reconciled in 2004. The final page,
appropriately enough, is an advertisement for Jodorowsky’s films on DVD.
Everybody loves lists, it seems, which makes THE
BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR (HARPER), compiled by AMY WALLACE,
DEL HOWISON and SCOTT BRADLEY, perfect for the obsessive-compulsive
categorizer in all of us. It’s an anthology composed entirely of lists, all
relating to the horror field. It includes lists of the top six grossing horror
movies of all time, the top ten horror-themed rock ‘n roll songs, the 20 best
openings (and endings!) in horror fiction, and many more.
The heart of the book is the entries by writers and
filmmakers who make their living from the genre. Stephen King contributes his
list of the scariest horror novels and stories of all time, Jack Ketchum
provides his top ten horror novels that “Don’t Call Themselves Horror Novels,”
James Gunn gives us “13 Reasons God Made Humans so Squishy,” and FANGORIA editor
Tony Timpone reveals his least favorite FANGO covers. While this is not an
especially important or revelatory book, it does provide hours of enjoyment for
horror buffs, who could certainly find worse ways to spend their time.
Venturing a little off topic, I feel
compelled to discuss another film-related book,
HOLLYWOOD UNDER SIEGE by THOMAS R. LINDLOF (The University Press of
Kentucky). It’s the first truly comprehensive look at the production and
reception of a film I’ve long had a compelling interest in: Martin Scorsese’s
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, quite possibly the most controversial movie ever
released by Hollywood. I have vivid memories of attending the August 1988
opening in L.A., with hordes of protestors, police and media people in
attendance. This of course followed weeks of nationwide protests against the
film by Christians, fanned by an extremely accommodating media.
This book, appearing 20 years later, brought all those
memories back with a vengeance in its voluminously researched account of the
controversy and its primary movers and shakers (which included a disgruntled
religious leader initially hired by Universal to promote the film). Author
Thomas Lindlof also fills us in on Scorsese’s tumultuous 15-year struggle to get
THE LAST TEMPTATION made: it was initially set up at Paramount in 1983 and only
ended up going into production at Universal due (among other fortuitous factors)
to the wrangling of mega-agent Mike Ovitz.
Neither Scorsese nor anyone else could have possibly
foreseen the cultural firestorm that erupted over the film’s speculative take on
the life of one Jesus Christ (most of the admonishments were from people who--surprise!--hadn’t
seen the film). Even I, who paid close attention to the controversy back in
‘88, was unaware of just how insane it got until reading this book, which
includes revelations of mass death threats, numerous censorship attempts by
regional governments, and violent protests in European theaters screening the
film. Lindlof relates all this in admirably clear-eyed fashion, and includes an
epilogue on how the furor over THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST has continued to
resonate over the years.
The book may not be horror-related, but it’s essential
for anyone interested in controversy, censorship and how a single film can
irrevocably impact an entire culture.
The mind-blowing HIGH LIFE
by MATTHEW STOKOE was first published in 2002, and got surprisingly
little attention. Luckily it was brought back into print in ‘08 by Akashic
Books--let’s hope it now receives the exposure it deserves!
HIGH LIFE is quite simply the most corrosive portrayal of modern-day
Hollywood I’ve ever encountered, and without question the roughest. With a hero
that falls somewhere between Philip Marlowe and Rupert Pupkin, a stunningly
twisty narrative and some profoundly intense depictions of gore and madness,
it’s a one-of-a-kind excursion in splatter-noir.
In the first of several terrific
Leisure reprints, there was NIGHTWALKER by THOMAS TESSIER. In
this disturbing account of lycanthropy, a young American man staying in London
finds himself afflicted with a terrifying urge to kill. Originally published
back in 1979, this shocker has lost none of its power over the years--it’s lean,
mean and genuinely traumatizing, not to mention beautifully written by one of
the genre’s most vital talents.
Another notable Leisure reprint was the
2000 anthology TRIAGE, a three-parter featuring novellas by JACK
KETCHUM, EDWARD LEE and the late RICHARD LAYMON. Each author
was challenged to come up with a story based on the concept of a man who enters
a workplace with a gun and starts shooting. These being three of the most
unflinching writers on the scene, you can bet the results in each case are
Speaking of Laymon, Leisure also reissued
two of his novels: BEWARE and a new version of THE WOODS ARE DARK.
BEWARE, from 1992, features a maniac with the power of invisibility, and the
unspeakable havoc he wreaks. THE WOODS ARE DARK, from 1981, has long been one
of my favorite Laymon novels, although apparently the version I know and love
was not the author’s preferred one. The new Leisure edition is a new,
never-before-published authoritative text. Savage, streamlined and gory as
fuck, it’s about what happens to a bunch of city-bred hikers who run into a
family of forest-dwelling cannibals.
There was also
THE PINES by
ROBERT DUNBAR. This novel was initially published in heavily cut form by
Leisure back in 1989. A restored edition appeared in 2006, which is the version
now out in paperback--courtesy of the novel’s initial publisher Leisure. Now if
that’s not poetic justice I don’t know what is!
It’s a mighty good book: tough-minded, smart and even somewhat poetic. The
basis is the real-life legend of the Jersey Devil, an alleged subhuman living in
the New Jersey pines who preys on normal folk. Robert Dunbar tells his
wide-ranging story through the eyes of several characters, most notably those of
a woman whose weird son appears to have a strange connection with something in
THE OTHER by the late THOMAS
TRYON, originally published back in 1971, was one of the “Big Three” novels
that changed the genre (the others were ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE EXORCIST). It’s
become the most obscure of the three, although it finally saw print again in
2008, courtesy of Centipede. They put out a nifty trade paperback
edition with illustrations by Harry O. Morris and a newly written introduction
by Ramsey Campbell.
The story? It’s set in a rural area of Connecticut during the thirties and
is centered on a kid’s twin brother, whose influence is virulent and deadly.
Definitely a work of “quiet” horror, although there is a profoundly shocking
surprise about two thirds of the way through.
The POD outfit Ramble House can
always be counted on to dig up the wildest and most unexpected books from
obscurity. In 2008 they focused on, among other authors, the work of WALTER
S. MASTERMAN, a forgotten thirties-era mystery writer responsible for some
of the wildest whodunits ever. In THE FLYING BEAST Masterman spins a
crazed tale of a haunted house and a lost race, among other things. Action
packed and furiously inventive!
I’ve long been a fan of the Fantomas books
by MARCEL ALLAIN and PIERRE SOUVESTRIE, initially published in
France during the early 1900’s. If you’re unfamiliar with the series you’re in
luck, as in 2008 four of the Fantomas novels were reprinted, including THE
EXPLOITS OF JUVE, A NEST OF SPIES and A ROYAL PRISONER from
CreateSpace, and THE CORPSE THAT KILLS from Solar Books,
comprising the second, third, fourth and fifth entries in the series (the first,
FYI, can be found in both Penguin and Dover editions). There was also
FANTOMAS IN AMERICA, a newly written, extremely well received continuation
of the Fantomas mythos by DAVID WHITE, published by Black Coat Press.
Speaking of Black Coat Press, I should add
they also gave us an English language edition of THE VAMPIRES OF MARS by
GUSTAVE LE ROUGE. Le Rouge is one of those seminal authors I’ve been
hearing about for years but have never gotten a chance to actually experience,
as none of his books have been translated into English. This two-part novel
from 1909 is the first Le Rouge translation, and while I haven’t had a chance to
read it yet, you can bet I’m looking forward to doing so. It’s about a trip to
Mars that uncovers a race of vampiric creatures, and what happens when some of
those critters make their way to Earth.
The coming year promises much
in the way of good horror fiction. I’m particularly looking forward to THE
ADVENTURES OF MR. MAXIMILLIAN BACCHUS AND HIS TRAVELLING CIRCUS, a
previously unpublished 1975 book by CLIVE BARKER; GUNPOWDER, a new
novella by JOE HILL, and HORNS, a new novel; the first-ever
English version of EDOGAWA RAMPO’S classic MOJU THE BLIND BEAST,
the source for one of my
favorite movies; HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH DEMONS, by England’s
brilliant GRAHAM JOYCE;
JAKE’S WAKE, a new effort by the pioneering splatmeister
JOHN SKIPP (in
collaboration with CODY LONGFELLOW); and a new mass market edition of the
unforgettable 1987 kill fest COVER by JACK KETCHUM.
Hopefully I’ll be able to cover all those
books and several more this time next year, and--who knows?--maybe I’ll even be
able to write about Stephen King’s 2009 publications, of which there are sure to
be at least two. In short, ‘09 promises to be a jam-packed year.