The Pale Brown Thing – Fritz Leiber

Fritz Leiber – The Pale Brown Thing
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction January/February 1977

Late last year, I read Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness. While writing about that book, I discovered that an earlier version of the story had been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Leiber later claimed that this version, titled The Pale Brown Thing, could be read as an alternative telling of the same story rather than just a draft version of Our Lady of Darkness. I was intrigued. A few days after I published my post on Our Lady of Darkness, a kind soul emailed me scans of the two editions of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that featured Leiber. I had really enjoyed Our Lady of Darkness, but I didn’t feel the need to read another version of it straight away.

I waited 6 months. I felt like that would be enough time to put myself in the frame of mind that would allow me to both enjoy the story for a second time without it being too repetitive and to be able to remember enough of one version to compare it to the other. It was certainly long enough to allow me to enjoy the story again. I remembered enough to stay a few pages ahead of the plot, but I had forgotten enough to stay interested. Unfortunately, I had forgotten far too much to make any kind of interesting comparison between the two versions of this story. I can’t remember a single thing from Our Lady of Darkness, the longer of the two versions, that does not take place in The Pale Brown Thing. In fact, I am quite unsure as to how the second version is longer. How is it different? What did Leiber add? Is the longer version better?

I guess this is a pretty pathetic post. I’ve ended up just repeating the questions I set out to answer. Maybe I’ll reread Our Lady of Darkness in another 4 months and try again. I can conclude that reading both versions of this story is probably unnecessary if you’re not a huge Leiber fan.

I know I haven’t said much about the actual story here, but I will remind you that I wrote a post on that less than a year ago. Check that one out if you’re curious. In sincerity, I don’t plan on another reread any time soon, but I am still intrigued by Thibault De Castries and his science of megapolisomancy. Wouldn’t it be so cool if a copy of that mysterious book actually turned up?

Canadian Psycho – Kelley Wilde’s The Suiting

the suiting - kelley wilde
The Suiting – Kelley Wilde
Tor – 1989 (First published 1988)

A few months ago, I was looking through the paperback horror section in my favourite thrift store and saw this book. I think my initial response was to roll my eyes. “A horror novel about a suit? Jesus, they must have been running out ideas by the end of the 80s.” I left the store empty handed, but by the time I was home, I was obsessed. “A book about a haunted suit? Yeah, that’d be different. It might be good. It couldn’t be worse than that book about evil trout that I read last year. I’ll give it a go. I want to read it. I need that book.” I went back the next day and bought it.

The book starts off with some lad getting fitted for a suit. Then he leaves the tailors in a hurry, puts his suit in a locker, and bumps into a gay lad who he has been avoiding. After a long, violent fight, the gay lad kills him. I don’t know why the gay lad’s sexuality is ever mentioned. It has nothing to do with anything else in the book. 

Another fellow finds the suit in the locker. He nicks it and then goes home to try it on. It doesn’t fit him. This chap is a dork. He collects coins and spends his Friday night’s with another loser talking about poetry. He’s in love with a girl from his office, but he’s too scared to do anything about it.

The suit possesses him. It teaches him how to speak French and convinces him to go to the gym. He hits the gym so hard that his body changes to fit the suit. He convinces his alcoholic boss to relapse so that he can take his job. This works. This part of the book was fairly interesting. The character’s sudden narcissism and preoccupation with fitness and luxury items reminded me of Patrick Bateman.  

Then he goes to Montreal on vacation. He takes some pictures and has some confusing hallucinations about dying and a woman. When he gets home he shows his loser friend the pictures. There follows a lengthy, confusing section where the friend tries to figure out the relationship between the different pictures. It turns out that the buildings in the pictures are from different eras. This part was not at all interesting or exciting, but it drags on for ages.

There’s some kind of mention of a curse, but it’s never really explained.

Then the protagonist starts meeting girls in bars. One of them fingers his arse. He likes it. The girl from his office that he fancied is murdered by her old boyfriend. Our hero later finds this boyfriend and stabs him in the face.

With 50 pages to go, I was starting to get worried that this book wasn’t going to tie up its loose ends. The protagonist seemed to be having some kind of breakdown that was interfering with the narrative. He throws the suit in a river but keeps part of it. Then he gets a new suit. Then he rapes and kills a small child and starts seeing ghosts in his apartment. Then he goes out and finds the gay lad who murdered the suit’s original owner and kills him. Then he jumps in front of a train.

At first, I thought the omission of explanatory details was intentional and that they’d be given by the end and the mystery would be wrapped up. By the end of the book, I realised that the lack of clarity and cohesion was just bad writing. A lot of the horror I read gets by without ever explaining the mystery, but this book is about an evil suit. It needs to be explained. I get the sense that the author was trying to walk the line between pulp horror and surrealism (I read an interview with him in which he compared this book to Roland Topor’s The Tenant, ha!), but The Suiting is too complicated for the former and too stupid for the latter. This is unfortunate, as I enjoyed big chunks of it, and it could have been much, much better. Kelly Wilde actually rewrote this book for a special 25th anniversary edition. I think it only came out as an e-book, but it has since been removed from Amazon. I won’t be reading the new version.

Kelley Wilde lived in Canada, but he is an American. Aside from the street names and the appendix of translations of French Canadian phrases at the end of the book, there’s nothing inherently Canadian about The Suiting.

There’s quite a few comparisons that can be made between this novel and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. They were written within a few years of eachother, and both deal with similarly unstable protagonists who are drawn to fancy suits. The reason that you’ve probably heard of American Psycho and not The Suiting is becase the latter is a heap of crap.

The next time I find a horror novel about something that sounds really stupid, I’ll know better and leave it on the shelf.

 

 

Haha. No, I won’t.

 

Hugh Walpole’s All Souls’ Night

all souls' night walpole
All Souls’ Night – Hugh Walpole

Valancourt Books – 2016 (Originally published 1933)

Hugh Walpole was a very popular author of fiction about 90 years ago, but he’s not very well remembered anymore. This book was published during the author’s lifetime, and unlike many of the short story collections by old dead guys that I write about, this is not a ‘best of’ or ‘collected supernatural works of’ collection. It’s just a bunch of stories that the author wrote at around the same time (assumedly between 1928, when his previous collection of stories was published, and 1933). All Souls’ Night was recently reissued by Valancourt books, so it is likely one of the author’s better works.

Valancourt market this as a collection of macabre tales, and while I suppose there are enough spooks in here to warrant doing so, quite a few of these stories have nothing of the macabre or supernatural in them. The non-creepy stories are well written, and I enjoyed a few of them, but in honesty, they left me with no desire to seek out more of Walpole’s work. 

The creepy stories are quite good. There is a different collection of Walpole’s collected supernatural stories that was published posthumously, and I think I probably would have enjoyed that collection a little more than this one. However, the fact that All Souls’ Night was selected for republication over Walpole’s other short story collections suggests that it contains the author’s best ghost stories. These were well-written, enjoyable tales, but if they are the author’s best works, I don’t feel any great need to seek out his lesser stuff.

I feel a bit mean writing this review. This is an interesting collection. Walpole was gay, and while his work doesn’t describe explicitly homosexual acts, it is quite gay at times. (I mean that with total respect. Read the book and I’m sure you’ll agree.) This collection was published in the 30s too, so it’s likely very interesting to historians of queer fiction. (That’s not to say that it won’t be interesting/enjoyable for others too.) I wasn’t blown away by All Souls’ Night, but reading it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. It just wasn’t really my thing.

One of the reasons I decided to check this out was the author’s name. I assumed that he was some relation of Horace Walpole, the author of The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel. Hugh’s wikipedia page confirmed that the two were related, but it didn’t give the precise details. After a bit of sleuthing, I figured out that Horace’s Great Grandfather was Hugh’s great great great great grandfather. I’m not sure if that makes Horace Hugh’s great great great uncle, second cousin thrice removed or something else.

Cabal – Clive Barker

Although this is a post about a book by Clive Barker, I could start it off the exact same way I started my 2016 post on the books of Stephen King, discussing my weekly trips to the local video shop with my parents when I was a kid. The box of one video in the horror section fascinated me. It was called Nightbreed, and there was a picture on the side of the box of a fat, gross goblin-like creature with his face in his chest. Anything featuring this guy had to be a repulsive work of obscene horror. 

nightbreed fat monsterI wanted to see this movie so much.

After getting broadband internet when I was 17, I spent a few years downloading and watching all of those horror movies that had disturbed me in the video shop. I think I was mildly underwhelmed when I got around to Nightbreed. It’s so long ago now, that if you had asked me last week, I wouldn’t have had a clue as to what the movie was about, but I read Cabal, the novel it was based on, at the weekend, and I think some of it came back to me.

cabal clive barker
Cabal – Clive Barker
Harper Collins – 1989 (First published 1988)

I couldn’t remember the plot of the movie, but I was able to figure out who the bad guy was in the book almost instantly. I can’t be sure that this was my memories of the movie coming back or the fact that it’s kind of obvious. I looked back at the movie poster and trailer there to see if I might want to watch it again, but at 33, it seems considerably less appealing. I know the director’s cut has been released, but I doubt it’s much better. One of the characters still looks like he has the moon for a head. Still though, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack as I write this post, and Danny Elfman’s score is convincing me that the movie might be worth another look.

How about the book though? Well, I want to mention something else before talking about that. I moved apartment recently, and before handing over the keys to my old place, I had to scrub it clean and make it presentable. We had been there for 6 years, so you can imagine how much work that was. I decided to make the work a little easier by distracting my mind with an audiobook. I chose Cabal. I’ve been doing a lot of books on Audible recently, and I have been using the app’s speed-up feature to get through the books quickly.

I did not enjoy this book from the comfort of my armchair. I did not have a pillow against which to rest my weary head as I turned these pages. I did not sip gingerly from a hot cup of peppermint tea as this tale reached its climax. No, no, no. While I was listening to this book being narrated at almost double speed, I was huffing oven-cleaner fumes and shoveling half a decade’s worth of dust and grime from behind a fridge.  

Ok, enough of that. You didn’t come here for the banal horror of my life. I included that information to give you some context that might explain my opinions or lack thereof on this book.

Cabal was enjoyable enough. I’ve forgotten a lot of it already. It was pretty violent in parts. I’ve only ever read the Books of Blood before this, and Cabal definitely felt like the same author. There was some religious symbolism or analogy at the end that went over my head. I can’t recommend that you rush out and read this book, but if you’re looking for a weird adventure story to pass the time, you could probably do a lot worse. I bought a paper copy at a library book sale for a quarter years ago. I don’t regret my purchase at all. 

My post about The Books of Blood was very short too. I assure you, this is not because I don’t like Clive Barker’s writing. I do. Everything I’ve read by him has been enjoyable. I watched Hellraiser for the first time in years just last week, and I’m already planning another post on the Hellbound Heart and few of Barker’s shorter works in the near future.

Crampton – Thomas Ligotti and Brandon Trenz

the x filesThe X-Files is probably my favourite television show of all time. I was a kid when it started, and only ever saw a few episodes during its original run, but in early 2015, my wife and I started watching it on Netflix. Since then I’ve watched all 218 episodes, both movies and even listened to the audiodramas with Anderson and Duchovny. I acknowledge that the first 5 seasons are infinitely better than the later ones, but even bad X-Files is still pretty good (mostly).

When I discovered that Thomas Ligotti, one of my favourite horror writers, had written an unproduced screenplay for an episode of my favourite tv show, I was intrigued. The screenplay is actually credited to Ligotti and Brandon Trenz. Trenz was a friend of Ligotti’s. I don’t know how much input he had on Crampton, but his name appears after Ligotti’s on the cover. Maybe this is just because Ligotti is the bigger name. Thankfully, this screenplay is easily found online.

crampton ligotti trenz

I won’t give away plot details for those who want to read this, but I will say that it’s similar to standard X-files fare in that it involves seemingly paranoid characters that believe in a cabal of shady yet powerful antagonists. It’s not an agent centered episode, but Mulder, Scully and their relationship all come across as genuine. Although the story is very Ligotti-y (Ligottiesque? Ligotti-ish?), it was very easy to imagine this as an X-Files episode.

That being said, this might have been a bit much for 1998 X-Files. By that stage, the series was heading into its “funny era”, and this episode would have been one of its darkest. I’ve seen articles about Crampton that refer to it as “the X-Files episode that was too bleak to air”, but realistically, it wouldn’t have aired even with a happier ending. (The show didn’t accept submissions from authors unless their names were Stephen King or William Gibson.) The difference between Ligotti’s story and most X-Files episodes is the nature and scope of the conspiracy. In the X-Files, the conspiracy is palatable because it’s orchestrated by the government or a government agency. The show has the decency to provide a target for the sense of paranoia that it induces. Ligotti and Trenz offer their audience no such comfort. Things are scary, dangerous and out of control, but that’s because of the nature of reality, not the failings of a government agency.

If this had been made an episode, I think it might have jarred audiences (the show was the most popular on television at that stage and had a huge viewership), but if it was filmed right, I reckon it could be remembered as one of the show’s best episodes. It feels cohesive and unsettling, and would have fit right into the series as a standalone episode.

When Ligotti and Trenz realised that their screenplay wasn’t going to be used, they reworked it into a screenplay for a movie. Durtro Press, David Tibet’s Publishing House, put out a copy of the movie version’s screenplay in 2002 alongside a collection of songs inspired by the screenplay and recorded by Ligotti himself.

The movie version is longer, and it allows parts of the story to go into more detail, but aside from the addition of two informant characters, the plot is essentially the same up until the ending. Even the ending isn’t all that different from the original. I read the extended version only a few days after reading the X-Files version, and I enjoyed it just as much the second time. The unanswered questions are more niggling the second time around, and while that may sound like a bad thing, it really isn’t. Ligotti is a philosopher as well as a writer of fiction, and he clearly understands the potency of horror that stems from unanswered questions. 

The music is quite interesting. The collection of songs is titled The Unholy City. Ligotti has collaborated with Tibet a bunch of times, and he seems to be into artier music than me. I probably wouldn’t listen to it again, but the lyrics are enjoyably bleak and bizarre.

Both versions of Crampton are great. This is unsettling, weird horror. If you like Ligotti or the X-Files, you need to check this out.

The Nursery and Toy Cemetery – William W. Johnstone’s Insane Horror Novels

the nursery william wThe Nursery – William W. Johnstone
Zebra Books – 1983

“a Satan who is obsessed by anal sex” – this is part of the description of The Nursery given in Paperbacks from Hell. Well, after reading that, there was no way in Hell that I wasn’t going to track down this book. Fortunately, it completely lived up to the hype. This is perhaps the most insane horror novel I’ve ever read. The cover and title are fairly misleading. There is a nursery in the story, but it’s not super important to the plot. This book is more about violence, sex and Satanism… oh and vampires.

The Nursery is a tricky one to find though. At this stage, nearly all of William W. Johnstone’s horror novels have been released as e-books, but The Nursery has not yet been given this treatment. (I’ve ended up with two copies. If you wanna trade me something good, message me.) This shit is truly mental, but it’s damn entertaining. There’s another, more thorough, review of this book on Glorious Trash if you want more details before reading it

I wrote the above paragraphs about The Nursery roughly a year ago. After finishing that book, I had a hard time picking up another novel by Johnstone. While I did actually enjoy The Nursery, it’s a very intense novel, and reading it was a hectic experience.

Looking back at those paragraphs, I am amused to see that I described The Nursery as “perhaps the most insane horror novel I’ve ever read”. I finished reading Toy Cemetery a few weeks back, and I can say with certainty that it is definitely the most insane horror novel I’ve ever read.

toy cemetery - william wToy Cemetery – William W. Johnstone
Zebra Books – 1987

Toy Cemetery is essentially the same novel as The Nursery except this one has the added attraction of two armies of living toys. Yes, this is another novel about a Vietnam veteran returning to his home town only to find it overrun by Satanists. There’s more incest in this one, but it’s also extremely violent. There was one scene that starts off with a man taking his new girlfriend on vacation; after a few paragraphs, he is crushing her skull with the heel of his boot. Another noteworthy feature of this one is the fact that every single female character is evil. Honestly, there’s so many insane parts of this novel that I don’t feel capable of properly explaining how mental it is. By the end of the book, the honest,  honorable, Christian protagonist is stabbing his family to death in garbage dump. Grady Hendrix wrote an excellent review of this one a few years ago. I read his review right after finishing the novel, and actually being forced to think about what had happened in this novel after reading it was a very funny experience. Any attempt to summarize the events in this book will fall short of expressing how truly bizarre it is. It’s ridiculously flawed, misogynistic, and non-nonsensical, but I absolutely loved it.

 

It might take me a while, but I intend to read all of Johnstone’s horror novels. The phrase “Paperbacks from Hell” is now used to describe horror novels from the 70s, 80s and 90s, but I don’t think I’ve read any books that live up to that title as well as Johnstone’s. These are x-rated Goosebump books for weirdos. They’re brilliant (in an awful way). You need to check them out.

August Derleth’s Cthulhu Mythos Fiction

After finishing up my recent series of posts on Lovecraft, I started to feel a giant shoggoth shaped hole in my life. I’ve read and then reread Lovecraft’s stories twice within the last few years, and as much I enjoy them, I reckon I should wait a while before going over them again. Fortunately, the Cthulhu Mythos did not die with Lovecraft, and there’s lots of Yog-Sothothery left to be read. Many, many horror writers have done their best to emulate Lovecraft’s style and expand the mythos he created. I’m planning to do a few posts on this stuff to see how it measures up to Lovecraft’s own writing.

From what I have read, August Derleth seems to have had more of an influence on Lovecraft’s mythos than anyone other than H.P. himself. After Lovecraft died in poverty and obscurity, two of his friends, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, became determined to get a collection of their pal’s tales published. When they failed to find a publisher, they made their own, Arkham House. If it wasn’t for Derleth, it’s possible that Lovecraft would be practically unheard of today.

On top of being a publisher, Derleth was also prolific writer. He wrote many stories that borrowed characters, places and books from the works of Lovecraft. Lovecraft did this himself. His tales often referenced monsters and books from his other stories, but there was never any real attempt to make these things fit together. (Nyarlathotep, for example, pops up everywhere but often in different roles/guises.) Derleth set about to work these different elements into a cohesive framework. He is credited with creating the term “Cthulhu Mythos”.

With this in mind, I decided that Derleth would be the first of Cthulhu’s Disciples to be featured in this series of posts. Here are 4 of his books of Lovecraftian fiction.

 

lovecraft derleth watchers timeThe Watchers out of Time
Carroll and Graf – 1996 (Originally published in 1974)

Wait, you said this post was about Derleth! That book looks like it’s by Lovecraft himself! Well, yeah, that cover is a disgrace. It’s common knowledge that Derleth wrote 99% of these stories, occasionally borrowing a phrase from the notes that Lovecraft left when he died. Other publishers were cheeky enough to list Lovecraft with Derleth on their covers of this collection, but this one brazenly lies. This contains the following tales:

  • The Ancestor
  • The Dark Brotherhood 
  • The Fisherman of Falcon Point 
  • The Gable Window 
  • The Horror from the Middle Span  
  • Innsmouth Clay
  • The Lamp of Alhazred
  • The Peabody Heritage
  • The Shadow in the Attic
  • The Shadow Out of Space
  • The Shuttered Room
  • The Survivor
  • The Watchers Out of Time
  • Wentworth’s Day
  • Witches’ Hollow

In truth, this isn’t great. Half of the stories in here are about descendants of the Whately family who inherit houses in Dunwich, only to find that their grandfathers were evil wizards. The houses all bear terrible secrets. Some of the other tales are very obvious Lovecraft rip offs. Every time I’d sit down and read one, I’d think, “Oh yeah, I remember this bit.” Some of it’s blatant too; ‘The Watchers out of Time’ is only a variation on Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow out of Time’.

These are Lovecraft knock-offs, and none of them reach the quality of Lovecraft’s best work. That being said, I personally enjoy Lovecraft’s middle tier stuff, and some of these tales aren’t far from that. ‘The Dark Brotherhood’, perhaps the most original tale in the collection, was pretty good. I liked ‘Witches Hollow’ and ‘The Horror from Middle Span’ too. This collection is not essential reading, but if you read it over a few weeks it’s not a horrible experience.

 

derleth lurker threshold

The Lurker on the Threshold
Arkham House – 1945

(The original Arkham House editions of The Watchers out of Time included this novel, but later publishers omitted it and printed it separately.)

See my complaint in the above review of The Watchers out of Time? The part where I said that a bunch of these stories were about lads inheriting houses in Dunwich and then moving in and discovering their grandfather was a wizard? I swear, I wrote that before starting this novel. This is basically the exact same as those stories except it’s far longer and more repetitive. There’s a part at the end where an anthropologist reels out a huge explanation of the relationships between the of the different Elder Gods and Great Old Ones that is kind of interesting, but otherwise this was horribly dull. There’s sections in here that were actually written by Lovecraft, but again, this is Derleth’s story. It’s dumb to have Lovecraft’s name above his on the cover. I was looking forward to finishing this pretty soon after getting started. It made me not want to read anything else by Derleth.

Also, the name of this tale and the entity in it are very similar to Lytton’s ‘Dweller of the Threshold’ from Zanoni. I wonder if that was intentional.

 

derleth mask of cthulhu
The Mask of Cthulhu

Arkham House 1958

At least half of the stories in this collection are about lads who inherit houses in Dunwich/Arkham/Innsmouth and then discover that the previous owner (usually one of their distant relatives) was a devotee of the Cthulhu cult.

  • The Return of Hastur
  • The Whippoorwills in the Hills
  • Something in the Wood
  • The Sandwin Compact
  • The House in the Valley
  • The Seal of R’lyeh

I honestly don’t know if this collection is any worse than The Watchers out of Time, but the stories in here are so similar to the ones in that already remarkably repetitive collection that I gained little to no enjoyment from reading this book. These tales are so dull that I actually started to wonder if I any longer had an interest in Lovecraftian horror.

In these stories Derleth pushes to organise different entities and elements of Lovecraft’s tales into his cohesive mythos. He distinguishes between the benevolent Elder Gods and the malevolent Great Old Ones like Cthulhu, Shub-Niggurath and Nyarlehotep. Derleth is reverting to pre-Lovecraftian good vs. evil horror. For me, a huge part of the appeal of Lovecraft’s monsters is their utter disinterest in morality, and the the binary structure of Derleth’s system makes his villains here a little too similar to Dennis Wheatleyesque black magicians, doers of evil for evil’s sake. There’s a time and a place for that kind of thing, but it isn’t in Lovecraftian horror.  Derleth also classifies the great Old Ones by their elemental force. (The three I mentioned above are linked with water, earth and air respectively.) This is dumb. I want crawling fucking chaos, not a god damned overgrown pokemon.

 

derleth trail of cthulhu
The Trail of Cthulhu

Arkham House – 1962

After finishing The Mask of Cthulhu, I was loath to begin another book by Derleth, especially one with a similar title to that piece of crap. Fortunately, The Trail of Cthulhu turned out to be a significantly more enjoyable book.

This is a collection of 5 short stories that combine to form a novel. They’re about a collection of men who come into contact with Laban Shrewsbury, an eyeless academic who needs their skills in hunting down the mighty Cthulhu. These stories were written over the course of 8 years, and they weren’t compiled until almost 20 years after the first one was published. In each tale, Derleth has to lay out the background information for his readers. All of these stories contain very similar passages explaining the conflict between the Elder gods and the Great Old Ones, the separate Lovecraftian deities, and the forbidden books. While I have already complained about repetition in Derleth’s other books, it was far easier to stomach here. Remember that these stories were originally published years apart. A bit of a reminder would have been necessary for the original readers, and I’m glad the stories weren’t edited or abridged for this collection. Also, these 5 tales have almost identical plot structures, but this isn’t as annoying as the similar plots in Derleth’s other books.  The tales in The Trail of Cthulhu form a cohesive whole. They are part of a series. A certain amount of repetition in a series makes sense. The repetition in the other books is annoying because it makes it seem like Derleth only had one idea.

These are the stories:

  • The House on Curwen Street 
  • The Watcher from the Sky
  • The Gorge Beyond Salapunco
  • The Keeper of the Key
  • The Black Island

This is not a great book. I wouldn’t even say it’s a good book. It’s horribly overwritten, and I had to force myself to get through it. All that being said, this is Derleth’s best book of Lovecraftian fiction.

 

Throughout this post, I tried to refer to Derleth’s work as Lovecraftian fiction rather than Lovecraftian horror because at no point during the 1000 or so pages I read by him was I afraid or even remotely creeped out. These stories have none of what made Lovecraft great. When I was slogging through these books, I kept wishing I was reading ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ or ‘The Whisperer in the Darkness’ instead. Honestly, even the best of Derleth was pretty boring. Derleth wrote a lot, and he might have written other books of Lovecraftian fiction. If he did, I don’t want to read them, but I probably would if they weren’t too hard to track down.

 

August DerlethThe man himself

I have been very critical of Derleth’s writing, but I want to acknowledge that I have been comparing him to one of the most important horror authors of all time. (It’s hard not to do so when you’re looking at work that Derleth tried to pass off as having come from Lovecraft.) While his fiction may have been second rate, fans of modern horror owe a lot to this man for bringing Lovecraft’s work to a far bigger audience. August Derleth, I salute you.

I’m hoping that the other authors of Lovecraftian horror are going to be better than this crap. I’m considering looking at either Robert E. Howard or Robert Bloch next. I was going to do Clark Ashton Smith, but I realised as I was writing this post that I actually did a post on his Cthulhu mythos stories a few years back. I seemed to have a real bee in my bonnet about the poor quality of the physical book when I was writing that post though, so maybe I’ll do a more level headed post on Klarkash-ton’s Cthulhu mythos tales soon.

Paperback Horror Classics by Ken Greenhall

Right now, paperback horror is all I can stomach reading, so I decided to check out Ken Greenhall’s stuff as I had heard he was one of the best. All three of these books were originally published under Greenhall’s ‘Jessica Hamilton’ pseudonym, and Valancourt reissued all three under the author’s real name in 2017.

 

hell hound - greenhall

Hell Hound – Originally published 1977

This is the story of an evil dog. The dog is bad by himself, but halfway through the book, he gets adopted by a teenage Nazi.  I had read some glowing reviews of Greenhall’s work before reading this book, and I had pretty high expectations. It was certainly well written and entertaining, but large chunks of the narration are presented from the dog’s perspective. I know it’s stupid, but there was a little part of my brain that had a problem accepting this, even for the sake of a horror story. Whenever the dog would start to speak, I started to think of the scene in Derek Jarman’s movie about Wittgenstein where the philosopher explains the linguistic limitations of dogs. This was a fine horror novel though. It kept me entertained for an afternoon in quarantine.

 

ken greenhall elizabeth

Elizabeth – Originally published 1976

This one was quite creepy. Elizabeth is the story of a teenage girl who starts to see a woman in the mirrors around her house. The woman starts telling her what to do, and pretty soon, her family members start dying. The general consensus on Ken Greenhall is that he is a terribly underrated and forgotten writer, and this book convinced me of that. This is an extremely well written novel. The characters are super interesting, and there’s an impressive amount of atmosphere. There are also quite a few paragraphs throughout that require rereading, not because they’re complicated, but because they’re brilliant. I started this one afternoon and stayed up late that night to finish it. After reading it, I felt uncomfortable walking around my apartment with the lights off. This is a great horror novel, and I reckon it’s the best of Greenhall’s books.

 

ken greenhall childgrave

Childgrave – Originally published 1982

The title of this book put me off. Call me a wuss, but I don’t want to read about dead or dying children. When I started reading about a father and his 4 year old daughter, I felt uncomfortable and anxious. (I have a little girl, and it was hard to read this without picturing us as the characters.) This anxiety faded as I got further into the novel; the narrative voice is very self aware and quite funny, and this makes it seem unlikely that the protagonist will allow anything truly awful to happen. By the halfway point of the book, Childgrave feels like a comic, well-written, paranormal love story.

It’s not though. It gets very, very dark at the end. Grady Hendrix claims that stylistically Greenhall “was a direct heir to Shirley Jackson”. I don’t think Jackson’s influence on Greenhall was limited to style. Without giving too much away, I can say that the ending of Childgrave is only a few steps removed from one of Jackson’s most famous tales.

I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but I found the last few chapters of the book hard to stomach. They didn’t feel believable. The narrator makes a choice that seems completely unrealistic and out of character. He comes across as mildly unhinged throughout the book, but the choice he makes near the end violates human nature. It’s not believable. The whole book leads up to this choice too, and I found it hard to enjoy the rest of the story after that point.

Childgrave is the longest of the three novels by Greenhall that I read, and I can say that I probably enjoyed reading the first 5/6ths of this one more than the others. The characters are good, the plot is interesting and the writing is great. Unfortunately, I thought the ending made the whole book feel a bit dumb. I’m sure lots of Greenhall fans will disagree, but I’d bet the ones that do don’t have kids of their own. Come on, he wouldn’t do that! No way.

 

Greenhall wrote a few other books, but these were the ones that Valancourt chose to reissue, so I assume they’re the best. I enjoyed them, and I agree that Greenhall deserves more recognition as a writer. These are objectively better books than some of the tripe I’ve been reviewing recently.

The Hazards of Genetic Experimentation: Harry Adam Knight’s Slimer, Carnosaur and The Fungus

Since the start of the lockdown, I have been ripping through thrashy horror novels. Here are three by Harry Adam Knight. Harry Adam Knight was a pseudonym used by a pair of authors, John Brosnan and Leroy Kettle. These three books were written within 3 years of each other, and each one of them is about a genetic experiment gone wrong. I’ve been really into this kind of stuff recently. Maybe I’m subconsciously trying to teach myself how to cope in situations where an inhuman force is decimating a completely unprepared civilization. I don’t know.

 

slimer harry adam knightSlimer
Star Books – 1983

6 young adventurers get stuck on an abandoned oil rig turned science laboratory with a genetically modified nightmare.

I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel. The premise is ludicrous and the characters are dumb, but the setting is so effective that it makes this a really enjoyable read. The idea of an abandoned oil rig, hundreds of miles from civilization is perfect for a horror novel. There’s a real sense of mystery that creeps out of the emptiness. (I was reading over this paragraph before publishing this post, and I remembered an episode of the X-Files that was set on an oil-rig. I’m just reading over the plot synopsis of that episode now and I’m surprised by the similarities with this book. It was Vienen, the 18th episode of season 8 (2001), if anyone is interested in writing a compare and contrast essay.)

Once things get going in Slimer, they head in the direction you’d expect, but by that stage I was enjoying the atmosphere and the drama between the characters. I read this book over two days, and I spent the entire first half of the second of those days looking forward to sitting down and finishing it. There’s no denying that this is trashy horror, but I had a good time with it.

 

carnosaur harry adam knight
Carnosaur
Tor – 1993 (Originally published 1984)

Usually I wait a while between books by one author. I waited 3 days after finishing Slimer to begin Carnosaur. (Although technically, this is a different Harry Adam Knight to the author of the other two books in this post as this one was actually written by John Brosnan by himself.) I don’t regret rushing into Carnosaur. It was lots of fun too.

A rich lad genetically engineers dinosaurs into existence. Sounds familiar? Well, this was actually written 6 years before Jurassic Park, and Carnosaur is set in a rural village in England rather than a remote island. Oh, and this has a lot more people getting eaten.

This was not a particularly clever or subtle book, but it had a shit-ton of dinosaurs and shotguns. If that doesn’t sound good to you, you’re probably a wimp.

 

the fungus harry adam knight
The Fungus
Valancourt Books – 2018 (Orginally published 1985)

Genetically modified fungus destroys Great Britain. Hell yes.

One of the main characters in this novel is a violent English soldier who was stationed in Belfast in the early 1980s. This created an uncomfortable tension for me. I really, really wanted him to die horribly.

This is another book that delivers what it promises, lots and lots of minging fungus. Enough said.

 

At one stage, these books were fairly difficult to track down for a reasonable price, but both Slimer and The Fungus were reissued by Valancourt Books a couple of years ago. Carnosaur was made into a movie in the early 90s, and I assume the movie company has the rights to the novel or something as it hasn’t been republished. I read the movie tie-in rerelease on openlibrary. The cover of this version is wretched, but it beats paying $60+ for an original copy.

I don’t know how much my current living conditions had to do with it, but I really enjoyed all three of these books. They’re not groundbreaking high-literature, but they were a lot of fun to read. Brosnan and Kettle collaborated on some other books under a different name, and I’ll read those if I ever find cheap copies.

 

 

Slither – Edward Lee

edward lee slitherSlither – Edward Lee
Leisure Books – 2006

I recently finished John Halkin’s Slither, and it instilled me with a ravenous hunger for books called Slither about killer worms. One simply wasn’t enough. Luckily for me, I’ve had another Slither waiting on my shelf for the past few years. I remember buying this and thinking it looked pretty gross. I knew of Lee’s reputation, and the blurb on the back sounds sickening.

Yep. This was a nasty one. Since the coronavirus lockdown started a little over a month ago, this is the 8th novel I’ve read about mutant infestations. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but I don’t think it was a coincidence either. I’m sure a psychoanalyst would be able to explain my current fascination with genetically modified insects and why reading about them commiting acts of repulsive violence seems preferable to monitoring the rising death rate of the pandemic. While I’ve enjoyed these books, I think I’m going to give this kind of stuff a break for a while. Lee’s book seems to be a good one to end with. This was by far the most disgusting out of all of them, and it was also a lot of fun to read.

The only other book I’ve read by Lee is The Bighead, an infamously disgusting work of splattergore. That book has such a reputation that I expected Slither to be less gross. Surely Edward Lee isn’t that gross all the time? Well, here he is. In John Halkin’s Slither books, a creepy crawly will occasionally chew through an eyeball. In Lee’s Slither, masses of worms are constantly spilling into and out of every human orifice. Oh, and Lee’s worms don’t just eat humans. These worms also mutate humans, lay their eggs in humans, and secrete a chemical that turns humans’ insides to liquid.

This book was fucking gross.

I did really enjoy it though. The characters are fun, and there’s a great plot twist. I had a lot of fun reading this. It’s definitely not for the squeamish though. Seriously. Blech!