Forgotten Novels of the 80’s Horror Boom (1) DEAD WHITE

Naked prose, Floating clowns

Written by Alan Ryan during the start of the Tor Horror line, which back in the beloved and crudely-neonized 1980s, covered the paperback shelves in the horror sections of so many stores (in my case, a Waldenbooks, where I’d stand as a young teen and ogle the lurid covers and those shimmering raised fonts that boldly highlighted the title as if borrowed from the Las Vegas strip), this novel is so minimally written, so restrained and tempered, that it makes the work of Charles Grant not only seem ‘quiet’ but downright mute. The prose is the equivalent of Weight Watchers, as Ryan seems to be aware that adding stylistic flourishes and deep ruminations of character will only fatten the page count, and not really accomplish much for the story. Even chapter size is stripped to a minimum, some merely a half a page long, and the longest being about five pages. But while it may appear that there is nothing to the novel, there is a growing sense of doom from page to page, a subtly menacing unease that grows as it moves ahead toward the climax. And don’t get me wrong, there actually is some outward terror – c’mon, floating clowns playing in the snow, looking at families through ice-caked windows, doubling over in laughter and walking on air through the blizzard. Yes it is a horror novel, and it isn’t a waste of time as some may believe.

Sans metaphor, time shifts and multiple narratives, Ryan creates a highly economical tale about a circus train invading a small upstate New York town during a freak blizzard which locks down the inhabitants and makes them easy prey for an evil presence, led by a ringmaster adorned in the black top hat and the cape. It’s all up to the young sheriff incapable of handling all the chaos, and the old doctor who senses something wrong right from the get-go, to put an end before the whole town disappears off the map in a white-wash of snow. Okay, I admit it sounds standard horror pulp fare, but stick with it. It’s all atmosphere with this one, but instead of relying on the tricks of the trade, Ryan really keeps things simple, and relies on the reader’s imagination (yes, the ‘I’ word) to paint the landscape and scope with creeping dread. Of course, he doesn’t leave us completely void of description, and when he does, it is in restrained doses, describing the wind, the starless sky, the snow changing direction as if sentient. Horror readers are not going to get overflowing grue and outright ‘in your face’ horrors, nor are they going to get the epic widespread panic that many 80’s novel strived for, and lesser times, achieved.

i know, pretty fucking creepy

While reading this, I was aching for more suspense, more descriptions of the invasion. I wanted more incidents of the villagers encountering glimpses of the clowns – I wanted to be chilled to the bone, fucked with (for example, checking out my window to see if a pale-faced clown was floating there), but I was simply teased with all the tension the book alludes to but really never fulfills to its potential. All in all, Ryan turns out a solid horror novel. And especially if you llike tales of seclusion by way of winter storms, then this is a future read for you. Perhaps as an appetizer to other works of ‘winter horror’, King’s ‘The Shining’, Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Midnight Sun’, and Peter Straub’s ‘Ghost Story’.



  1. Alan Ryan is an under-appreciated 80s horror writer. I felt the same as you about Dead White. His next novel, Cast a Cold Eye, is a very atmospheric Irish ghost story that I enjoyed very much. His short stories, published in various horror anthos of the day, are terrific. He also edited the indispensable Penguin Book of Vampire Stories. Anything with his name on it is worth buying!

    1. I have ‘Cast a Cold Eye’ on the queue, Will. And ‘Halloween Horrors’ which I’m currently looking out for. Cheers, Will. Your blog is one of my favorites, hands-down. Just when I think there isn’t a 80s horror paperback that slipped me by, you post it. Great, great stuff.

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