Monday, September 26, 2016

Prelude to the Spooky Season - a review and some of my favorite horror novels

I've seen the name Michael McDowell kicking around the horror stacks of used book stores forever, but until the other day had never read anything by him. Based on its very cool cover and how good several persuasive reviews made it sound, I bought The Elementals. It's very good and I heartily recommend it.

The Savages are one of the oldest and richest families in Mobile. Each year they summer at Beldame, a Victorian home they built on a nearly inaccessible beach at the bottom of Mobile Bay. There are two other identical houses there: one owned by the family of Dauphin Savage's wife, and a third, seemingly empty and abandoned for years. This being a Southern Gothic haunted house story, it's not abandoned. Not at all.

The nature of the evil is elusive and chimerical. Those most familiar with it are unsure of its true nature. What they are know, though, is it is vicious and able to draw on its victims greatest fears and desires in shaping its attacks. McDowell introduces this element with such subtlety it's easy to wonder if it's even there at all. Only slowly does it creep into the real world, which itself is very oppressive and disturbing. So much so it doesn't seem like there's room for the supernatural, but the evil in the third house is real.

The first sign that something isn't right with the house is that it is slowly being subsumed by sand. While the other two houses remain clear, sand has started to pile up against the third house, rising in places as high as the windows. What starts as a simple sense of uneasiness grows slowly into an understanding that things are very wrong to outright terror.

McDowell said, "I am a commercial writer and I'm proud of that. I am writing things to be put in the bookstore next month. I think it is a mistake to try to write for the ages." That may be true, and I've only read a single book of his, but he writes with far more skill than the average spinner-rack horror novel I grew up in the eighties.

The Savage and McCray families pulse with life, even as they suffocate under the murderous heat of summer at Beldame. There are disturbing family mysteries and pitiable human failings scattered all over the The Elementals. As the heat beats down the characters, sapping them of all energy, their conversations become languid, thick with fear and dark memories. All this feels so painfully real, it's startling how well McDowell introduces and weaves in the taint from the third house.

This is one of those books people say is written better than it needs to be. I said that myself on Facebook the other, but really, that's condescending - both to the genre and to McDowell. For me, if horror is to really work, if it's to unsettle, even scare me, not just by relying on Grand Guignol gore, it needs a setting and characters that seem real. McDowell does very well in The Elementals. If you have a taste for haunted house stories, this is one of the best I've read in a long time.

Finishing off The Elementals, I started thinking about my favorite horror novels. Here's some of my favorites. While I know in this deplorably secular age, it's common to see thrillers like Red Dragon or Psycho on best horror novel lists, you won't see them on mine. I appreciate the frisson from those works as much as anyone else, but for me, horror must include at least he possibility of the supernatural and create an atmosphere of wrongess in the Universe. Serial killers are too common, unfortunately, to do that for me.

Favorite Horror Novels

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The best haunted house story of them all. Is Eleanor being haunted or is she simply an unreliable, mentally disturbed narrator spiraling toward a breakdown? I won't tell.

Ghost Story by Peter Straub
It's been a while since I've read this and it's probably due a reread. It was inspired in part by Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan and it's filled with nods to classic ghost tales. It's a big eighties horror that doesn't disappoint. What is the worst thing the members of the Chowder Society did and who was Eva Galli?

The Other by Thomas Tryon
I saw the very creepy movie based on it first, late at night, by myself, and without the slightest clue of what I was in for. It's one of my favorite movies, any genre. Good twin, evil twin, summer in rural Connecticut, circa 1930, but so much more as well. I won't say much more about the plot. It's the work of a master magician, always distracting you with one hand, pulling off the trick with the other. It was a huge seller in its time, and if it hadn't gotten a snazzy reprint from The New York Review of Books, I would have said it's been forgotten.

'Salem's Lot by Stephen King
Early King is where it's at for me. Some of his later books are more polished (and tell good stories), but I've found that polish sands away too much of the grit and horror. I think I read this after the equally good The Shining, but this was the first horror novel I read where things happened on a big scale and effected scores of people. Each time I've reread it, I've been expecting to find some great flaws in it, and instead I'm just wowed again by the whole thing.

The Shining by Stephen King
As I wrote in the previous post, I first heard about this book from a radio ad. Two actors played Jack and Danny Torrance and it creeped the heck out of me. When I saw my aunt had a it, I asked her to borrow it and she didn't bat an eye. I was probably 12, but I'd already read the novelization of The Omen, and had started reading Lovecraft. That doesn't mean it didn't scare me, it definitely did, but I was prepared for it. Nonetheless, it sure did work my youthful little fear centers over. When I've reread it as an adult, I still appreciate the fright aspects of the book, but I also zero in on the tragedy of Jack's fall.

In many ways, it's the perfect King book. Whether by his hands or an editor's, The Shining is stripped down to its bare bones. For most of the book, there's only the Overlook Hotel and the Torrances. There are no real side plots (except Dick Halloran's rescue mission), just the hotel versus the family. It's lean storytelling with a sharp eye for human failings.


There's plenty more spooky novels I like, but it's the ones above that I've gone back to several times apiece over the years. Still, here're a few more spooktastic (there, I said it!) books for the season.

Jumping first to mind is T.E.D. Klein's The Ceremonies, like Ghost Story, is spun from the threads of a Arthur Machen story - this time, "The White People." Basically, an academic rents a cabin from some Mennonite types and gets a front row seat for the end of the world. The book came out in 1984 and that's pretty much it from Klein.

Proving I'm not always gore-shy, I really like Richard Laymon's early novel, The Woods Are Dark. It is about as disturbing a bloodfeast as imaginable. It's got all of its creator's touchstones: hyperviolence, freaky mutnat monsters, sexual creepiness, and a kickass girl. Because he worked those things to death, his books bored me after a while, but this and a few others are real monsters.

If I scoured my brain longer, I might come up with more, but this is what I got right now. As I said, it's in short stories that horror best flourishes. So next time, folks, it'll be the anthologies and collections that I keep dipping into time and time again when I need a good frightmare (rimshot!).

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Shiny Horror Covers From My Youth

The mid-seventies saw the birth of the big horror novel. There had always been novels, - see Conjure Wife, The Haunting of Hill House, and Rosemary's Baby - but short stories seem to have been the heart of horror.

Stephen King changed all that. His first published book, Carrie, sold a million paperback copies. After that, publishing being publishing, looked to replicate that success. Anne Rice, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz all spring from that era.

What brings me here today are the covers. These are the books that I loved when I first read them thirty-odd years ago and have held up to repeated rereadings. And they're shiny.

I first learned of this from a radio ad, probably on WNBC AM. It spooked the heck out of me, but when I saw my aunt's copy I grabbed it. And it grabbed me. The book, I'd argue, is perfect, without a wasted word. Whether King or an editor did it, this book has had every useless bit pared away, leaving a tragic story of a man broken and descending into madness.  I loathe the movie, not because of its lack of allegiance to the text, but because, like most of Kubrick's films, I find it static. Nicholson's Torrance holds no nuance or mystery. He's nuts from the start. It's not a question of will he hurt his family but when. 

In ninth grade, my friends Gordon R. and Danny F. both told me to read this. I read it the first time listening to Black Sabbath and it scared the crap out of me. It's still my favorite vampire story. Later, the same year, my friends told me to read The Stand - which, after the plague's outbreak, bored me to tears. NOTE: Not only is the cover shiny, it's 3-D. Do they still make embossed covers? 

This is another case of hating the movie. CBS made a two-part miniseries starring David Soul, James Mason, Bonnie Bedelia, and Lance Kerwin. I hated the way they made Barlow, the vampire, look and I hated that they left a few of my favorite bits out. Rewatching it, it's not so bad.

My friend Alex R. turned me on to this book, freshman year too. His English teacher had recommended it to him. I thank them both to this day. Having just read a pretty dismissive old review in the AV Club, I think it's time for a reread. 

A movie was made of it, starring Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.. It stinks to high heaven.

I grabbed this at the late Barrett Book Trader because I had just finished Ghost Story and wanted more. It's not really a horror novel, but a fantasy novel. It was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1981. Two boys spend the summer with a magician and come to realize they're learning real magic. Another book to reread, I think.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sci-fi Covers From My Youth

There were certain books in the boxes my dad kept in the attic that always caught my eye. These covers still hold places of honor burned deeply in to my hippocampus. Some are realistic, others impressionistic. Whichever they are, they helped form my vision of what sci-fi should look like. The aliens, spaceships, and heroes of my imagination had their roots in cover art as much as in the words behind the covers. Here are some of my favorite.

With barely a hint of what's inside other than something weird and mysterious, these three covers by Don Punchatz for the original Foundation trilogy were more than enough to entice me to pick them up. More than now, as a kid I picked up books based on cover art. The stark two-color schemes and cartoonish characters made these books look strange and alien - exactly what 12-year old me wanted in science fiction. I haven't read these in nearly twenty years, but I remember the clunky dialogue and outdated science did nothing to detract from their appeal. Asimov's idea - history as manipulatable math problems - is still big and just ridiculous enough to be cool. One reason I read so little modern sci-fi is that it just seems small.

Kelly Freas was one of the greatest sci-fi artists of all time. Just follow this link and look at his work to see what I mean. Lots of my dad's books had wilder Freas covers, but these are the ones I remember most.

The austere looking on Soldier, Ask Not with star and starship behind his shoulder still strikes me as the perfect mil-sci-fi picture. Dressed in utilitarian black uniform, dark circles under his eyes, and a brooding look on his face, he seems resigned to whatever calamitous event he's about to suffer. I didn't read the book for ages even though I'd read Dorsai! and Tactics of Mistake years earlier. It's been ages, which I suspect haven't been overly kind to the series, but Soldier was the best volume.

There's no doubt the man on the cover of Tactics is a hero, a man of destiny. Dickson's character, Cletus Grahame, is exactly that. A military genius, he lays the groundwork for the mercenaries of the planet Dorsai to become something other than just dedicated fighters, but instead galactic super soldiers, bred from the womb to combat perfection. Even thirty-five years ago, I thought the book was a too pat and Grahame's ideas worked way too well too often. Man, though, Freas' painting is awe-inspiring, like some New Soviet man or Fascist hero from the thirties, daring the future to thwart him. Probably exactly NOT what Dickson wanted you to think.

Dune and Dune Messiah came out in the sixties, so they were already in the attic by the time at eight or nine when I started rooting around for books to read. Children of Dune came out when I was ten and it must have been huge, because I even saw it in the spinners at the A&P. Three different artists, three different styles, all amazing, all etched in my brain.

John Schoenherr's cover of Dune imprinted itself on me only after I read the book. Which I did in a single, long day when I fourteen or so, the first time I'd ever done something like that. From practically the first page, Herbert's eco-themed space opera and its teenaged hero, grabbed and shook me hard. I still hold that it's one of the greatest works of sci-fi and that it didn't need any sequels.

I probably reread it three or four times before reading Dune Messiah and Children of Dune in my thirties. Once I read the book, that's the cover stuck with me. Under a huge outcrop, a small string of Fremen cross the endless desert of Arrakis. There are other covers, even one to by Vincent Di Fate to match Children, but whenever I think of the Arrakis, it looks like that.

Dune Messiah's  cover by Jack Gaughan is just freaky. I think it's supposed to be the tomb where Paul Atreides buried the skull of his father, Duke Leto,  but there was no way for me to know that before reading it. Instead, it was just some bizarre, giant head rising out of the sands for no apparent reason. I guess I just assumed it was some sort of spooky memorial to Paul. It's a tremendously striking cover that would never pass muster with these days.

Taking a much more realistic approach, Vincent Di Fate applied his sharp-edged style for the cover of Children of Dune. Pretty much mimicking the orange tones of Gaughan's art, Di Fate's Arrakis looks even harsher than Shoenherr's vision of Dune. Thinking back, probably because of its ubiquity, this is one of the first sci-fi covers I can really remember seeing. Di Fate's spaceships decorate tons of books I've read over the decades and I love their long, clean lines. While there isn't one of his iconic rockets here, on Children,  the red sky and skyline, composed of razor-sharp lines, feels pure sci-fi to me, and I love it. As much as I like wild cover art like on the Foundation books, I also like sleek realism.

Not only do I not like many modern covers, but reading mostly e-book, I don't even really see covers much anymore. Just for a second after I open the kindle app and before I click open the book file, and then it's gone. New books don't sit on my desk, cover face up burning its artist's impression of them on me. Since I don't have space for more physical books, I guess it's okay. As someone raised on the work of artists like Kelly Freas and Richard Powers it's just one more part of my past lost.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

To Tie-In or Not Tie-In

I've been ambivalent about tie-in novels for a very long time.  I say this as someone who grew up reading movie novelizations (particularly Alan Dean Foster's) and has really liked the pair of Warhammer 40K books I read. Andre Norton's Quag's Keep was good fun. I also admit my main reason lies with my terrible experience with the first of TSR's Dragonlance books: Dragons of Autumn Twilight and Dragons of Winter Night. It's hard to remember what I disliked specifically about them, but I know by the time I made it to the middle of the second book, I wasn't going to even open the third, Dragons of Spring Dawning, even though I'd already bought it. 

What worked for me as a gamer - classes, alignment, definite rules of magic, etc. - became wooden on the page. Characters had defined roles to play that weren't interesting or intriguing. I would like to think I saw the coming flattening of fantasy fiction into generic mush, but I think I just found the books boring. Their "epic" stylings were old hat to me, having read hundred of fantasy books by that time, from Tolkien to Karl Edward Wagner to Ursula K. LeGuin. It didn't help that I also detested Larry Elmore's cover art, with its dull-eyed, moody characters and silly-looking faux-barbarians.

From that point in 1984, I watched the shelves of the Waldenbooks in the Staten Island mall fill up with more and more TSR novels and fewer and fewer ones non-TSR novels. When the Forgotten Realms books came along it got even worse. 

I looked at the FR books, but there was nothing there that looked appealing or caught my eye. I know there are loads of people who grew up on R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt books, but I'd already read the adventures of a moody, racial turncoat in the Elric books a decade earlier. 

And then the FR books just kept coming and coming. ISFDB lists nearly 250 books written in the setting. There's a point of overproduction and diminishing returns. Again, I didn't read those books, so my inclination to avoid them was based on prejudice, but acknowledging that doesn't mean I'm going to change my mind. There's way too much original fantasy with weird or cool ideas to choose from to make me. Watching what DL and FR did to D&D and gaming in general, rejecting its wide open nature for a highly delineated setting, didn't endear them to me either.

So why did I read and review Matthew Hughes' Pathfinders Tales book, Song of the Serpent, and why did I buy Howard Andrew Jones' Plague of Shadows and Stalking the Beast? Simply, I already know really like the authors' work. Hughes' Vancian Raffalon stories are a hoot and Jones Dabir and Asim are classic historical S&S.

I also like what I've seen of Pathfinder's Golarion setting. It's got the feel of an up-to-date version of TSR's old World of Grayhawk with room for any sort of campaign or adventure and is generic enough for the ref to mold it to his own vision. Its roots look more in keeping with D&D's pulpier roots than the mass-market epic ones of Dragonlance. Which strikes me as the perfect game setting to write stories for. I know I just complained about the generic qualities of DL, but by offering writers a generic one to play in it can be like the sandbox settings of early gaming, and therefore anything and everything goes. Which is a good thing.

My review of the Hughes book, Song of the Serpent is up over at Black Gate. It's a mixed review. The book's first half is just what I wanted in a Vance-pastiche, the second half, not so much. It mutates into a "big quest" story too different in tone and style from what came before. Hughes is a very good writer, so he's able to make the quest appealing and knows the material so he knows how to draw you in, but it wasn't what I wanted at that point. 

It didn't turn me against Golarion, though. The world, as interpreted by Hughes is a good one, with room for oddball Vance-style societies alongside a classic dwarf citadel and a sorta Old West boom town. Scanning the rest of the Pathfinder titles, they don't look like they're dominated by any single storyline or character (see Elminster or Drizzt). They're also fairly short, looking more in keeping with seventies era fantasy than the bloated tomes and endless series of the last thirty years. It's not that I don't have time to waste on those sorts of book, I just mostly don't want to. Then I found this quote by Pathfinder author Tim Pratt made me smile.

“It’s a strange and sprawling world where you can tell any kind of fantasy  story you want,” said Tim Pratt. “From weird Westerns with gunslingers,  to Gothic horror, to supernatural heist novels, to barbarian tales, to lost-world adventures, to archaeological expeditions with mystical monsters, and more. I’ve written Pathfinder books featuring killer robots from beyond the stars. It’s an amazingly wide-open world.”

How can you not be snagged by that quote? Still, I probably won't be rushing out to buy lots of of Pathfinder books, unless by an author I already like or recommended by someone whose tastes I respect. What I will say is, I'm not going to reject these sorts of books simply out of hand ever again.

So what do people think? Do you read these sorts of books? If so why, and if not, why not?