Gila! – Les Simons

Gila! – Les Simons (Kathryn Ptacek)

Signet – 1981

To be honest, I chose to read this book because it’s only 166 pages long. It’s not good.

Some lizards on a nuclear testing site get big and start rampaging through New Mexico, eating everybody in their path. A reptile-expert from the local college is brought out to assess the situation. She falls in love with an ex-colleague, and they have a lot of sex. The lizards really go nuts at a fair, and the authorities’ first attempts to kill them fail. Eventually the scientist comes up with a way to kill them, and everything looks like it’s going to work out until the last page of the novel.

There are some gory scenes, but nothing memorable. Two of the characters are frequently banging eachother, but the reader is never invited to share the experience. One of the shaggers is a Native American, and although the inclusion of a mixed race couple might have seemed progressive in 1981, the interactions between this couple would not fly today. I think at one point the woman tells the man to go back to his wigwam.

This was one of the most predictable, unimaginative books I have ever read. It felt like reading a practice run for a novel, like it was written just so the author could get a feel for sticking 150+ pages of words together. This was Kathryn Ptacek’s first novel, so maybe her others are better. It’s not surprising she used a pseudonym for this one. The plot here is on autopilot, and the only surprising thing about this book is that it found a publisher. It really seems like anyone with enough time to type out a manuscript could have had a book published in the 80s

I’m not a huge fan of animal horror, and this book did nothing to change my opinion. It was pretty shit, but I didn’t absolutely hate it.

The Slime Beast – Guy N. Smith

Guy N. Smith – The Slime Beast

Harper Collins – 1989 (Originally published 1974)

I read The Festering, my first Guy N. Smith novel, a few weeks ago, and I greatly enjoyed it. I picked it because of its cover, and I decided that the next of Smith’s books I would read would be one of his more esteemed works. I chose The Slime Beast as I knew that the illustrious Centipede Press had reissued this one in a fine hardback edition.

A cranky professor takes his assistant and niece out to a muddy beach to look for treasure. During an excavation, they uncover a sleeping monster that smells so vile that they puke all over each other. Later that night, the monster comes alive and starts to kill people.

The plot doesn’t really make sense. The characters don’t act like people at all. They decide to sleep in an abandoned shack for several nights in a row when there is a bloodthirsty monster on the prowl. There’s reasons given for their behaviour, but none of them hold up. Mr. Smith clearly didn’t give much of a shit for plotting. He just wanted to get to the slimy bits. This was a relief to be honest.

This is not a good book, but I found it very entertaining. I liked the emphasis on the monster’s stink. Every time he shows up, his rotten stench makes people throw up. There’s not much else to say about this book. It’s 144 pages of pure garbage. It’s pretty great though. I wholeheartedly recommend that you find a copy and read it immediately.

The Damnation Game – Clive Barker

The Damnation Game

Putnam – 1987 (Originally published 1985)
I had been meaning to read The Damnation Game for years, but I kept putting it off. While some of Clive Barker’s books are extremely long, the ones I had read were fairly unpleasant affairs (in the best way possible), and I didn’t feel ready for 370 pages of Barker’s nightmares.

While this novel is lengthy, it took me less than 4 days to finish. I couldn’t put the thing down. It was really, really good.

I’m not entirely convinced the plot made a whole lot of sense, but the writing and characters were so intriguing that it works as a novel. The basic premise is that Marty Strauss, a prisoner gets let out of jail early so he can work as a security guard for a reclusive millionaire. It seems too good to be true, but then Strauss finds out that the millionaire is being hunted by a lad who can resurrect the dead and bring peoples’ nightmares to life. I won’t give out any more plot details, but I will say that I don’t think the mysteries at work in the story are ever fully solved. Maybe they are and I’m too stupid to have figured them out.

The violence is as grisly as anything in The Books of Blood, and the tone of the book is pitch fucking black. You know that part in 1984 where O’Brien describes the vision of the future as a boot stomping on a human face forever? It’s surely one of the most profoundly bleak statements in all of literature. Well, at one point in The Damnation Game, Barker defines the “definitive human portrait” in a manner equally as bleak and slightly more disgusting. I was going to quote it here, but I think it’s better that you read the book for yourself.

I’ve been told that this is the only straight horror novel Barker has written. I don’t know if I’ll enjoy his later fantasy stuff as much, but I’ll probably give it a go. (I wasn’t super impressed with Cabal a few years ago.) I feel like this novel, The Books of Blood and The Hellbound Heart are all thematically and stylistically similar, but the formula and execution is so good that each one should be mandatory reading. Clive Barker is fucking cool.

Tom Piccirilli’s Horror Novels: A Choir of Ill Children, Hexes and The Night Class

I read a few of Tom Piccirilli’s noir novellas (The Nobody, All You Despise, You’d Better Watch Out and Loss) and I absolutely loved them. These dark, nasty books were superbly written. Unfortunately, Piccirilli died a few years ago, and maybe I’m wrong about this, but it almost seems like he’s being forgotten already. His books are not forgettable, but there’s not a huge amount of discussion of his work online. His personal website has been down for a few years now too. Maybe there’s a hidden Piccirilli cult somewhere, and I haven’t been looking in the right places, but my point here is that I think that Piccirilli’s writing should be better known than it is. I loved his crime fiction, so I thought that I had better check out some of his horror too. I read 3 novels for this post.

A Choir of Ill Children

Bantam Spectra – 2006 (Originally published 2003)
This was quite good. It’s about a psychic weirdo who lives in a mansion in a small town with his conjoined triplet brothers and their partner. There’s a bunch of witches and other freaks living in their town too. It was quite literate for a horror novel. There’s narrative shifts and symbolism and lots of that kind of thing. Piccirilli seems to have been a writer’s writer. The inside cover is absolutely full of quotes from other horror authors saying how great this book is. Even Thomas Ligotti sings its praise. I had a very bad cold when I read it though, and it was heavier than what I needed at the time.

Hexes

Leisure Books – 1999
I like Piccirilli, and I sometimes enjoy occult horror, but this one didn’t really do it for me. A black magician returns to his hometown because his best friend has been locked up in a mental asylum for digging up a corpse and showing it to a kid. Lots of people are going missing, and everyone in town is scared. Demons show up, and things get worse and worse. It sounds like a good story, and parts of it were quite creepy, but it didn’t really work. Piccirilli doesn’t really go in for much exposition, and the reader is left with a lot to figure out for themselves. This is fine in a crime novel, but when goetia, telekinesis and a potentially unreliable narrator are involved, it gets quite confusing. Also, I felt a bit like some of the occultism parts were a bit gratuitous. There’s one scene in which the protagonist beats up the naked ghost of Aleister Crowley. I’m all for fiction about Aleister Crowley being abused, but aside from that ridiculous scene, this book is dark, slow-burning atmospheric horror. Again, this is clearly well written. Piccirilli is good at what he’s good at, but I felt that the plot here just didn’t come together as neatly as I had hoped.

The Night Class

Leisure Books – 2002 (Originally published 2001)
I wasn’t super impressed by either of the above novels, but I wanted to give Piccirilli another go. I chose this book because it won a Bram Stoker award for Best Novel in 2002, so I assumed it would be pretty good.

It starts off with a college student sitting through an uncomfortable philosophy lecture. I spent 4 years sitting through philosophy lectures, so I was immediately able to empathise. This kid gets pissed off by his lecturer, so he goes home. When he gets there, he answers his ringing telephone to be greeted by silence. We then find out that a girl was brutally murdered in his bed while he was on Christmas vacation.

Ok, at this point, I was very much enjoying the book. We’re set up for a murder-mystery. Unfortunately, Piccirilli throws in the following elements, for no discernible reason, and things getting very confusing.

  • Caleb suffers from stigmata.
  • Caleb’s older sister killed herself and Caleb is haunted by her ghost.
  • Caleb’s girlfriend comes from an incest family, and her nephews and nieces are hydrocephalic.
  • There’s a mysterious love interest that goes nowhere and adds little to the story.
  • Nobody pays any attention to the bloodstains on Caleb’s bedroom wall.
  • Caleb’s friend Fruggy Fred is a hippy radio host who sleeps a lot. There are several brief allusions to this guy, but he never actually shows up, and Piccirilli doesn’t give the reader any reason to care about him. Unfortunately, he becomes an important character at the end.
  • The faculty of the unversity have sex with the students and kill them (and/or fail them) if they refuse. Are they demons or vampires or just jerks?

Honestly, I really wanted to like this one, but it was a mess. Maybe I’m really stupid and didn’t understand it.

Of the three novels I read, A Choir of Ill Children was the best. It was a good novel, but can’t honestly say I enjoyed it a whole bunch. I far prefer Piccirilli’s writing when it’s concrete and clear. I don’t need my horror to be tidy and entirely cohesive, but the tropes that he uses in these novels (inbred freaks, demons, stigmata…) don’t mix well with the literary, existential horror he’s pushing. These books were more confusing than scary. I’ll very likely read more Piccirilli in the future, but I might stick to his crime stuff for a while.

Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon

Some of Your Blood – Theodore Sturgeon

Ballantine – 1966 (Originally published 1961)

I can’t remember why I tracked down a copy of this book, but I did.

Some of Your Blood starts off with a soldier named George Smith being sent to a mental hospital for attacking one of his superiors who read his mail. It is not immediately clear what the letter said, but George’s background is recounted, and it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. The rest of the book is about George’s doctors trying to decide what to do about him.

This is generally classified as a horror novel, but there are no supernatural elements to it. I was expecting somebody to get bitten by a Dracula for the first third of the book, but things didn’t seem to be heading that way. I would have gotten impatient if the story wasn’t set up the way it is. Sturgeon does a really good job of dropping just enough loose ends to keep things exciting. Also, I quite enjoyed the references to Psychopathia Sexualis.

I’m not going to be able to say much more about the story without giving away the (already kind of obvious) ending. I knew nothing about the book when I read it, and I reckon it will be more enjoyable for people in this situation. While this is not a supernatural horror novel, it is a dark, violent and probably disturbing book. It’s pretty short too. I liked it. Give it a go.

Robert Bloch’s Contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos

A few years ago, I decided to read all of the Cthulhu Mythos fiction written by the Lovecraft Circle. I did posts on August Derleth, Henry Kuttner, Donald Wandrei, Frank Belknap Long and Clark Ashton Smith. The plan was to move on to Robert Bloch and then to finish with Robert E. Howard.

Before starting on Robert Bloch’s mythos tales, I decided that I should first read his best known work and its sequels. I enjoyed the first Psycho book, but I hated its sequels so much that I decided to hold off on reading Bloch again. I waited about a year and then started on Mysteries of the Worm, a collection of Bloch’s Cthulhu Mythos stories.

The Mysteries of the Worm

Chaosium – 2000 (First, shorter, version published in 1981)

The first two stories were run of the mill Lovecraftian pastiches, nothing special. The next story, The Shambler from the Stars was deadly. This is the story in which Bloch bases the protagonist on Lovecraft and then kills him off, a favour Lovecraft repaid in his The Haunter of the Dark. I really liked this one. It reminded me of that Frank Belknap Long story where he kills off a fictional Lovecraft. Murder seems to have been the highest form of flattery with these guys.

The standard of most of the stories is pretty decent. There’s a bunch towards the middle of the book that incorporate Bloch’s fascination with Ancient Egypt. I found these a bit tedious, but that was probably because I read all of them in one sitting.

I really liked the longer stories towards the end of the collection. Black Bargain, Notebook Found in a Deserted House, Terror in Cut-Throat Cove, and The Shadow from the Steeple, a sequel to Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark, were all great. These were written more recently than the others, and they feel a lot less like somebody simply trying to write like Lovecraft. Based on the quality of these stories, I would be willing to read more Bloch in the future.

I’ve long known that Lovecraft and Bloch were penpals, but I didn’t realise Bloch was only a teenager at the time of their correspondence. It’s pretty cool that Lovecraft was so encouraging to some pesky kid that kept writing to him.

Strange Eons

Pinnacle Books – 1979 (Originally published 1978)

The premise of this novel is that Lovecraft’s stories were true, and the Old Ones are about to destroy the world. This book will be an absolute waste of time for anyone who isn’t familiar with Lovecraft’s best known stories. It’s pretty silly, but I enjoyed it in a mindless way. There are entities and characters who reappear in Lovecraft’s work, but Lovecraft never tried to codify his mythos. Bloch does. Strange Eons features elements from The Call of Cthulhu, The Rats in the Walls, the Shadow over Innsmouth, Cold Air, Pickman’s Model and several more. I read through it, enjoying the references but deliberately not spending too much time thinking if they worked to create a cohesive whole. This is clearly a homage to Bloch’s old mentor, and I don’t think he meant for anyone to take it too seriously. At one point it discusses the history of the Haunter of the Dark, the story in which Lovecraft kills off a fictionalized version of the author.

This is mastubatory, fanboy trash, but it was entertaining enough. I liked it just fine.

Ok. I guess I’ll start on Robert E. Howard soon.

William H. Hallahan’s Occult Thrillers: The Search for Joseph Tully, Keeper of the Children and The Monk

William H. Hallahan was a popular writer during the 70s and 80s. He mainly wrote spy and mystery novels, but he also wrote 3 occult thrillers, one of which, The Search for Joseph Tully, is considered a classic of horror fiction. I had to give him a read.

The Monk
Avon Books – 1983

I enjoyed reading The Monk, but it always felt a bit silly.

This novel starts off with the fall of Satan. It’s pretty much the Paradise Lost version of events, but here the angel Timothy helps Satan at the beginning of his rebellion. Timmy backs out when he realises what he’s doing, but God is seriously pissed with him. As punishment, God sends Tim down to Earth to end the suffering mankind. To do so, he must find a baby with a purple aura and prevent Satan from killing it. He wanders for millennia as a Salathiel or Melmoth type figure, but Satan always beats him to the babies.

It’s a quite a buy-in. You wouldn’t have to be religious to understand what’s doing on, but it might make more sense if you are. Also, this is heavy stuff to use as the backdrop for a thriller novel. Readers want an entertaining page-turner to read on the train to work, but this book opens up with the ultimate battle between good and evil. I was totally fine with this, but it did strike me that setting the book up this way made for an inevitable ending. Satan can’t win. He can score a victory here and there, but it’s not going to work if all Hell breaks loose. Sure, some writers would do that, but I had read The Search Joseph Tully before this, and I knew that Hallahan’s writing would be too subtle for that kind of thing.

Ok, so the basic premise is a bit silly, but I really enjoyed the rest of the book. It starts off in Country Clare in Ireland, and the main character is called Brendan Davitt. He has a purple aura, but a magic monk disguised him when he was a baby. Now he lives in New York, but the disguise on his aura is wearing off. Satan and Timothy are racing to find him. Satan is aided by his hawk and some weird golem, demon things. Timothy has a big dog to help him.

The story is exciting, and the characters are fun. The Monk isn’t a great book, but it’s entertaining.

Keeper of the Children
Avon Books – 1979 (Originally published 1978)

This was another flawed yet enjoyable read.

A 14 year old girl runs away from home and joins a cult run by an Tibetan monk. Her father tries to get her back, but the monk seems to exerting some kind of mind control over the kids in his gang. He doesn’t molest them or anything. He just gets them to beg on the streets and then takes the money. They are given food, clean clothes and a safe place to sleep at night.

The dad gets pretty annoyed by this, and he meets up with some of the parents of the other kids in the group. Before they can do anything, a scarecrow comes to life and kills one of them. Then some cats kill another. Then a shop mannequin kills another.

Dad realises that the monk is possessing these inanimate objects and getting them to kill for him, so dad goes to a yoga retreat centre to learn how to do the same. The difficulty is that it normally takes a lifetime of meditation to achieve this kind of power, but dad only has 2 weeks.

I won’t reveal anything else because I don’t want to spoil the book for those of you who want to read it, but I will confirm that this book does indeed contain an axe-wielding teddy bear.

My first problem with the book is the premise. The girl is 14 years old when she runs away from home to join the cult. This book was written in the late 70s, but surely it would have been illegal then for a man to live with a bunch of children without their parents’ permission.

The monk has the power to animate objects and move them around, but he decides to use his powers to get a gang of kids to beg for coins for him. Surely a man with his skills would find a more convenient way to make money.

When the Dad finds out that his girl has been kidnapped, he goes to work before trying to fix the problem. He never once approaches the monk or tries to talk to him. He goes to a yoga guru and learns to meditate while his little girl is living with a creep. If somebody kidnapped my child and I had no recourse to legal action, I would immediately try to physically assault that person. I’m not saying that to sound tough. It’s not a good idea, but I can’t imagine acting otherwise. There’s just no way any loving parent would have the patience of the father in this book.

Ok, so the set up is fairly silly. The next part that sucks is when he is learning to meditate. I have read so much crap on astral projection and telekinesis that I balk whenever I come across this kind of nonsense. In this book the protagonist learns how to master these powers in just a few days. It’s lame and unbelievable.

This book would have been far more satisfying and realistic if the dad won a fight against the evil teddy and then used the teddy’s axe to brutally dismember the evil monk.

Reading back on what I’ve written here, I realise that it sounds like I didn’t like this book. I did enjoy reading it though. It is a stupid book, but it was easy to read, and it’s less than 200 pages.

The Search for Joseph Tully
Avon Books – 1977 (First published 1974)

I have to be honest. I read this book in September, and I didn’t bother to write about it after finishing it. I’ve since forgotten most of what happens in here. I remember a death near the beginning, a weird monk lad and a lot of bad weather. It was obviously good though. I gave it 5 out of 5 on goodreads, and I enjoyed it enough to convince me to read Hallahan’s other books. I’m pretty sure this is considered to be Hallahan’s best horror (or occult) novel, and it is definitely where I would recommend starting if you haven’t read him already. Maybe I’ll come back to this one in the future.

Wiliam H. Hallahan was a talented writer. I might even read his non-horror fiction when I grow up.

The Feminists’ Revenge – Shelley Hyde’s Blood Fever

Blood Fever – Shelley Hyde

Pocket Books – 1982

This book starts off with a man smashing his wife’s face in with a fire poker after he gets home from work. In fairness, he only does so in self defense, and a local police officer lets him out of jail after the cop’s daughter turns up dead at the site of another brutal murder. The first half of the book deals with these lads slowly figuring out that the town of Broughton is plagued with a virus that is turning its women into crazed savages with an insatiable lust for men’s blood.

It was the second book in a row that I read that featured a woman name Arlene suddenly going mad and trying to murder her husband. When I started it, I wasn’t expecting it to be any good, but I ended up really liking it. My biggest complaint was that it feels as if the author was going for that Stephen King thing of making the town itself the protagonist. The problem is that Blood Fever is only 188 pages, less than half the length of Salem’s Lot. There’s too many characters and not enough character development to make them distinguishable. Aside from that, the writing is decent. I mean, this is trash, but its fast paced and interesting enough. I was a bit surprised to see on goodreads that this is Shelley Hyde’s only novel. I was not surprised when some further research showed that Shelley Hyde was actually a pseudonym of Kit Reed, an award winning author of some 30 novels.

Really, it’s baffling that this book doesn’t have more of a cult following. It features a group of feminists who lose their minds, take over a ranch and brutally murder any men who come within sniffing distance. Seriously. How has this masterpiece remained in obscurity for so long? Blood Fever should be mandatory reading for all university students taking gender studies classes.

I liked this book a lot. You should track a copy down and read it.

Throwback by Mark Manley

Throwback – Mark Manley

Popular Library – 1987

I’m sure menopause is uncomfortable for a lot of women, but Arlene has it worse than most. There’s a lump growing on her spine, and it’s making life very uncomfortable. When it’s x-rayed, her doctors are horrified to see a bone structure developing inside it.

Written in 1987, Mark Manley’s Throwback is a hugely enjoyable work of trashy horror. It’s fast paced, competently written, and it features a gang of dog-fucking punk-rockers attempting to rape a woman with a giant bloodthirsty rat growing out of her back. Seriously, what else could you ask for?

Yes, when Arlene’s hideous boil finally pops, the head, arms and torso of a giant carniverous rodent emerge and begin to subsume Arlene’s body and soul. Arlene is what her backwoods ancestors called a ‘Throwback’. Her DNA contains patterns from a far earlier form of life, and those strains are becoming dominant. Arlene somehow maintains a psychic link with her daughter, Sharon, and Sharon has to do her best to end her mom’s killing spree.

I don’t know what else to say about this one. That’s the beauty of this kind of book though. You’re not supposed to have much to say. It makes promise on the cover and delivers in the text. It was a lot of fun. If you’re not already looking for a copy after reading this review, I doubt we have much in common. This is pure trash, but it’s exactly the kind of book that I want to read right now. Short, weird and gross. Perfect.

A.N.L. Munby’s The Alabaster Hand

The Alabaster Hand – A.N.L. Munby

Four Square – 1963 (Originally published 1949)

The protagonist in T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies mentions that this book is on his shelf. I promised myself I would read all of the horror fiction referenced in The Ceremonies, but after attempting to read the truly atrocious Ingoldsby Legends, I had to wait a while before going any further with Klein’s recommendations.

The Alabaster Hand is the only work of fiction by Alan Noel Latimer Munby that was ever published. It’s a collection of ghost stories that were written while the author was being detained in a prisoner of war camp in Nazi Germany. The collection is dedicated to M.R. James, and James’s influence can be felt in every one of these tales.

Munby was a serious book nerd. He was an antiquarian book dealer, a librarian at Cambridge and the President of the Bibliographical Society. His characters, like those of James, share his interests, and his passion for old books creeps into several of the stories here. There’s mysterious diaries, terrifying grimoires and an antiquarian bookshop run by a pervert. The book nerd in me couldn’t help but enjoy these tales. I spend a good deal of my free time researching quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, but Munby took these pursuits to another level. I get the sense that Munby was romanticising the life of an antiquarian though. Michael Cox, in his 1995 introduction to this collection notes, “The stories in The Alabaster Hand are deliberately retrospective in their evocation of a world that, by 1949, had largely vanished.” It’s hard to imagine anyone other than a carefree Victorian Lord having the necessary time and money to pull off a life truly dedicated to the pursuit and study of antiquarian books.

There’s one story in here called ‘The Negro’s Head’ that is liable to cause offence to modern readers. It’s about a black lad who is murdered for being black. Although the narrator does not condone this murder, he does end the story with regrets for the “savage who was so grievously wronged at the hands of one of my own countrymen.” I know words were used differently back then, but describing a murder victim as a savage seems pretty silly by any standard. I’m quite sure Munby actually meant well here, but I’d still skip to the next story if I was reading this one on the bus.

My favourites in the collection were ‘Herodes Redivivus’, ‘The Book of Hours’, ‘Number Seventy Nine’ and ‘The Devil’s Autograph’. As fun as some of these stories were, none of them were remotely scary. I recall feeling a bit creeped out when I read some of James’ stories, but nothing in this book had that effect. They’re decently entertaining though, and if you like M.R. James, this may be the next best thing. It’s quite short too. You might as well read it.