#30 – After Midnight – edited by Charles L. Grant (Tor, 1986)
#26 – Dead White – Alan Ryan (Tor, 1983)
An underrated novel that seeps under the skin with its deceptively simple prose. Evil, floating clowns arrive in a ghost caravan to get revenge on a small upstate town.
Check review here.
#13: Incarnate – Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 1984 – cover art by Jill Bauman)
Incarnate by Ramsey Campbell is an absolute treasure of the uncanny, a labyrinthian journey into surreal horror where the everyday common bends sinister within the blink of an eye. This represents the top tier of the horror literature, one of the best.
Teenage angst sure was a bitch in the 1980s.
#7: The Fury – John Farris (Tor Horror, 1986)
The novel was originally released in the mid-1970s, and then made into a great film by Brian DePalma (featuring one of the most magnificent body explosions in all of cinema – yes, click here). Above, we see the Tor Horror re-release of The Fury, which has been given a more 1980s cashmere-sweater YA vibe.
And as a bonus cover, we have the following from John Saul’s Comes the Blind Fury. At first it looks like this could be a sequel to The Fury, but this edition of Saul’s novel came out earlier in the decade. The similarities are striking: the purple background, the whitened eyes, the otherworldly ‘I’ll swallow your soul’ glow.
God I miss the days when all children were evil.
#2: Doom City – edited by Charles L. Grant (Tor Horror, 1987)
Today’s cover image could be viewed in many ways. Is it an advertisement for a single’s resort: throw your heart to the wind and we’ll find you that absolute love? Or could it be a promo for vacationing at a seaside commune for those hoping to mend a broken heart, a drug addiction, or something far worse: yes, here the sunsets have the smoldering impression of a leering skull, so enjoy our quaint shoreline as we help you find yourself?
‘Doom City’ was part two of an anthology quartet edited by the late Charles L. Grant (a damn good editor but an even better short story writer). Every tale takes place in a fictitious coastal town along the Northeast, Greystone Bay, penned by some genre’s finest: Steve Rasnic Tem, Al Sarrantonio, Robert McCammon, Kathryn Ptacek, and many others. While this cover may not fully strike the horror chord, it sure does nail the mid-1980s contemplative, air-brushed vibe. Doom City doesn’t look all that bad, does it?
I can’t help to pair up this image with the following score from Brian DePalma’s ‘Body Double’. I think, goes so well with the high heels, sun-kissed ocean spray, and sweeping synths of glossy embossed loneliness.
Los Angeles. 1986. Mike Tyler has forgot to bring his pills with him. The night feels dangerous, and one wrong turn will unravel his life into a never-ending nightmare. He must get home. Streetlights blaze a nocturnal blue. From a neon-lit street corner, a prostitute lingers and catches Mike’s attention, her eyes turning to obsidian stone, and sharp teeth forming within the tear of her mouth. ‘The Host’ is always with Mike Tyler. And not only is it coming back for him. It’s coming back for all his old friends, who back in college were all part of the Wyle Group — a research lab that tried to discover the hive-mind through a drug connecting their inner visions as one. But in the end, only turned them in savage killers that opened the door to an unseen force beyond the darkness. The Manson Clan meets Philip K. Dick’s ‘ A Scanner Darkly’. Okay, folks. Sounds like it has potential. C’mon, a late-eighties horror paperback that touches on the Manson murders, military-tested hallucinogenics, broken families with broken dreams, drug addiction and the Los Angeles homeless. Especially paired with the lurid cover – eyeball in a mouth full of razor fangs; a crooked dream-stretched window in the back; and the fat emerald green font raised from the surface in proper Tor Horror fashion. After reading the first chapter, I could hear a synth-drenched score, like one from Tangerine Dream, playing along with each page. I was hooked and had no idea where this book would go. But as I got halfway through, I realized there was a problem with Dark Seeker. That it achieved its paramount buzz with its set-up, but fell short in the actual execution. Not was much happening – there were teases of things on the edge of sanity bleeding through, there was drama, as well as a comedic episode with a talking corpse, but horror? —not much of it. I asked myself where was the novel’s Charles Manson conjuring up demons from a fractured, drug-induced generation of drop-outs, burn-outs and wilted flower children? Where are the monsters? The psychological twists that should have my jaw hanging in dismay?
Author K.W. Jeter was friends with Philip K. Dick, and I thought this novel may touch upon the madness of the universe, complete with the cosmic twists and turns, reality un-stitched and turned on its ass. Unfortunately, the main problem is that the mold is more ‘thriller’ than mind-fuck horror. I think the focus goes on the the supporting cast instead of the main players. I wanted to be knee-deep in the muck with the Wyle Group, wanted to see what they saw during the murders, and what they saw as the drug crept back into their seemingly normal lives years later. That’s where I wanted to be. By no means a bad book, just not really horrific. What I did come away with from this book was the use of ‘reflections in a dark eye’. For example, Jeter writes of people seeing themselves reflected in the eyes of others. Once or twice is okay, but as I encountered more of these, I felt I was reading the equivalent of a Lucio Fulci film – extraordinary close-ups of eyeballs. It got too much.
The ending? Well, it’s memorable. Some may find it refreshing, others may find it the equivalent of a cheap shot. There are strengths to the book, and the main one is Los Angeles itself. Fully realized, Jeter describes the endless roadways, the underpasses, the street corners and movie theaters with much color, much dread. There’s a scene where the orange sun breaks dusk and illuminates a commune of homeless taking shelter in a highway underpass. It is absolutely gorgeous. Otherwise, for West Coast horror of the eighties, perhaps the work of David Schow would be a better, more gruesome fit. And if you seek a story of ‘experiments gone wrong’ (in the mind-hive manner), I’d recommend Ramsey Campbell’s Incarnate, a hallucinatory masterpiece that touches on many of the threads that Jeter brings into this novel.
So I’m rather predictable with my reading habits. Winter knocks on the door, and I answer it with a horror novel in hand. Not a horror novel about possessed children tearing apart the All-American family; or of genetic mutations running rampant in the NYC sewer system; or about a serial killer stalking the summer night, and the reluctant detective on his blood-soaked trail. Instead, in hand is a novel set in the winter where a brutal snowstorm cloaks a small town, permeates the collective mindset of the town’s inhabitants with a subtle dread, one in which builds towards the climax with masterful strokes of nuance and suspense. Yes, a rather quiet horror novel, not a loud one with its fangs constantly bared.
However, what one desires in a book can be illusory at best, and what actually happens in the pages can be like a puzzle without gain – words, motivations, characters all lost on the reader. Suspense becomes secondary. Nuance loses its aim and the ambiguities turn the text towards a head-scratching detour where the narrative encounters a brick wall. T.M. Wright’s ‘The Island’ is one of these books. Everything element is present – a gold mine of horror trademarks. We have a house in the lake, one in which broke free from its hold on a small island shore, and is now a haunted relic submerged below the dark waters. We have characters from the big city trying to lose themselves in nature; and with hopes to find some inner peace, only encounter something alien, something cold and distant, something hungry. We have the widow waking at midnight, and who finds herself chipping away at the ice with a pick-axe, as if to free something from its seclusion. We have a new mother holding her child and wondering why it always so cold to the touch.
T.M. Wright does well conjuring up some great images.
‘The ice around the hole heaved upward; first the woman’s shoulders, then a long, naked arm appeared above the surface of the ice. Her mouth opened still wider, the way the mouth of a snake opens wide to accept its prey.’
However, the main problem comes in the characters, and the dialogue, both internal and external, that really hinders the novel. Take for instance a character staring into the mirror, contemplating her eyes and how they look.
‘And then her eyes caught her. They were soft blue, like his, she thought. They were like his. They were his. But what were the reflections of eyes? They were like photographs of eyes. They were no one’s eyes. They were everyone’s eyes. They were what they were. Eyes collected the light, if there was any. If there was any. There was none here.’
Perhaps, in some strange way, Wright has created a novel about indirectness, a failure to communicate. Especially with the main character, Arnaut Burge, the owner of the hotel, who no matter how hard he tries, can’t really express himself directly. We don’t know what country he’s from, yet we question why his English is so bad after decades of living here in the States. And why does he talk in extravagant riddles? Why can he create countless palindromes yet can’t manage to speak the most simple sentence? I can see Wright is having some fun with Arnaut, however, after a few pages the humor was lost, and he ended up sounding like a brain-damaged cousin to Inspector Clouseau.
Maybe Wright is intentional in showing his characters talk in obtuse angles – marbles in the mouth. Maybe it is the cold permeating from the lake that makes everything vague, indistinct – marbles in the mind. There is something buried under this book, something that makes it completely unique from other horror books at the time. But while it tries to rewrite the ghost story in a dream-like, unclear state, the result in the end is a bit sloppy. Do I recommend the book? Yes. Do I hold it high in the horror canon? Not necessarily. I’ll remember some of the vivid images Wright has painted here, as well as the promise I felt reading the first few chapters. But by the end, there are no clear lines, and while what can’t be explained – the supernatural unknown to the minds of the living – the tension falls wayside and the book becomes a muddled array of promising horrors. Last year’s winter read, ‘Dead White’ by Alan Ryan may be a better selection to fulfill your desire for a ghost story set in a blizzard, or perhaps, a more recent work by Christopher Golden. But give ‘The Island’ a chance, and maybe you as a reader can figure out some of the riddles that went over my head and into oblivion.
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.
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’.