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.

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, Slime and Squelch: John Halkin’s Slither Series

The titles and covers of the books in John Halkin’s Slither series are ridiculous, so ridiculous that I had to read them. I’ve seen people write these books off for seeming too silly, but I thought they were actually pretty entertaining. In truth, they’re not really a series. The events in these books make no reference to the events in the others. They’re more a trilogy of thematically, structurally and onomatopoeically similar books.

 

halkin slitherSlither – 1980

When I started reading Slither, I didn’t have high hopes. I presumed it was going to be an exercise in scraping the bottom of the barrel, one of those awful novels I can only bare to skim. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it. I mean, it didn’t win John Halkin the Nobel Prize for literature, but it kept me entertained for a few hours. This is the story of a TV cameraman during a killer worm attack on England.

Halkin doesn’t waste much time describing the origin of the worms or their motives. He spends more time describing the protagonist’s complicated relationship with his wife. The plot is ludicrous, but the characters are believable, and when I finished this one, I wasn’t dreading the other books in the series.

 

halkin slimeSlime – 1984

Although I had enjoyed Slither, I didn’t really feel any great desire to immediately pick up Slime, the next entry in the series. I’m off work at the moment though, so after about 2 weeks and 7 other novels, I got going on it.

There’s not much to say about this one.

It’s basically the same novel as Slither. Both are about English lads who work in television. Both protagonists are going through severe marital problems. Both books feature plagues of new breeds of water animals with a hunger for human flesh, and both books end with the protagonists having to put themselves in an extremely dangerous situation to save the person they love most.

For the first part of the book, I was rolling my eyes at the similarities with its predecessor, but by the end, I was reading along happily. I can’t say this book was clever, or even original, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.

 

halkin squelchSquelch – 1985

When I started on Squelch, the final book in the series, I wasn’t expecting any surprises. I didn’t get any either. A struggling TV director ends up as part of England’s first line of defense against a plague of killer caterpillars while also having an affair with her sister’s husband. The biggest difference with this one is that the ending is a little less dramatic than the other two books. It is, however, just as ludicrous. I reckon Squelch is my favourite title for a horror novel ever.  Every time the word squelch appeared in the book, I felt like cheering.

While these books, especially the latter two, are strikingly unoriginal, I got the sense that Halkin was probably capable of a lot more. The depth of characterization on display here is surprising, and although the plots are almost identical, if you space the books out, this doesn’t really make them any less enjoyable. Let’s just remember that these books are titled Slither, Slime and Squelch. If you were writing a series with those titles, would you try to reinvent the wheel? These are competent novels for what they are, and if you are the kind of person who would even consider reading a book called Squelch, you won’t be disappointed. There are a few grossout moments in each book that literally had me squirming.

While reading these books and noticing their similarities, I began to think about the author.  His protagonists are a cameraman, an actor and a director, so I assumed that Halkin himself must have worked in TV. In a comment on Too Much Horror Fiction’s post about these books, horror author Ramsey Campbell confirmed my suspicions, stating that “Halkin was the pseudonym of someone quite high up in BBC arts production in the early eighties.” Also, all three of Halkin’s protagonists are having serious relationship problems and a bunch of affairs. I wonder if Halkin was inspired by his personal experiences here too.

While the plot structure of all 3 novels is the essentially the same, the originality of each book stems from the author’s choice of flesh hungry animals. I was also impressed by his creative ways of getting rid of these slimy anatognists. For those of you who are too cowardly to actually read these books, I’ll just mention how they end for your amusement. Spoilers ahead, skip to the next paragraph if you’re planning on reading these books: The giant water worms are stopped when the queen worms (that may have come from outer space) are bombed to death after most of the worms have been turned into designer belts. The jellyfish are killed by scientists pumping the oceans full of the polio virus. The herds of genetically modified caterpillars are thinned when the government imports thousands of caterpillar-eating lizards from Africa and then dumps them into the English country side.

Halkin wrote another creepy-crawly book called Blood Worm. I don’t feel the need to read it immediately, but I’ll probably get around to it at some stage. These books are unadulterated trash, but when the city where I live is in lockdown because of a dangerously contagious virus, trashy horror novels are just what I need.

 

The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein and Other Gothic Tales – Thomas Ligotti

frankenstein ligottiThe Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein and Other Gothic Tales 
Thomas Ligotti
Subterranean Press – 2014 (Originally published 1994)

My daughter recently got a book called Little Red Reading Hood. It’s about a little girl who changes the endings of stories that she’s not quite satisfied with.

“You don’t like an ending?” Red Reading Hood said.
“Then change it, arrange it again in your head.
Just switch it and stitch it up some other way.”
The Wolf nodded slowly and whispered, “OK.”

It seems to me that Thomas Ligotti must have encountered this Little Red Reading Hood character in the early 90s and followed her directions when composing the pieces in The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein and Other Gothic Tales. This is basically a collection of alternate or extended endings to a bunch of classic horror stories.

The books getting the Ligotti treatment here are The Island or Dr. Moreau, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera, The Turn of the Screw, and The Mysteries of Udolpho, along with several tales by Poe and Lovecraft. Two movies are also revised, House of Wax and The Wolfman. There are another 4 stories in here that I was not able to source.

  • The Unnatural Persecution, by a Vampire, of Mr. Jacob J.
  • The Superb Companion of André de V., Anti-Pygmalion
  • The Ever-Vigilant Guardians of Secluded Estates
  • The Scream: from 1800 to the Present

Ligotti seems to refer to these as ‘once-told tales’ in his introduction, so I assume they are entirely of his own creation. If I’m wrong and anyone knows what stories/books/movies these tales originate from, please let me know.

The writing and tone here is pretty much what you’d expect. Ligotti makes these classics of horror more painful and horrifying. It’s quite a ghoulish undertaking when you think about it.

The first piece in this collection is an additional scene for The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. This was the only book that Ligotti uses that I hadn’t read, so right after finishing with Ligotti, I started on Moreau. Fucking Hell, it was awesome. I was aware of the general premise, but I thought it was going to be a quaint little science fiction novel. It’s pure horror, a nightmare of a book. After reading Wells’ book, I reread Ligotti’s, and I can confirm that the stories in the latter are better if you’ve read the source material. I quite enjoyed witnessing some of my favourite characters from my favourite books being revived by one of my favourite authors.

Physical copies of this book are extremely rare, and it’s a very short work, only about 50 pages. I read an ebook version in about half an hour, and while I enjoyed it, the experience certainly wasn’t worth the 600 dollars that a physical copy would cost. This is an interesting curiosity, and while entirely enjoyable in itself, it’s simply not long enough to stand up to Ligotti’s other collections. If you’re a fan of Ligotti and horror in general, buy the ebook and put on a pot of coffee. You’re in for a treat.

I’m still waiting for a special occasion to start reading Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, but I finally finished the last season of The X-Files recently, and I am planning on reading Ligotti’s screenplay for the episode that was never made in the hopes that it will temporarily fill the X shaped void in my now miserable life.

The First Wave of Valancourt’s Paperbacks from Hell

Last year, Valancourt books teamed up with Grady Hendrix and Will Errickson to reissue some of the better books featured in Paperbacks From Hell. After reading Paperbacks from Hell, I made a list of the books featured therein that I thought sounded cool and tried to hunt them down. Some of the books I read were amazing, but some were utter shit. In truth, I wasn’t super excited when the Valancourt reissues series was announced. My experience with “Paperbacks from Hell” had been pretty varied, and none of the books in Valancourt’s series had the Devil or a guitar on the cover. However, soon after the series was announced, I bought a cheap copy of The Tribe in a used bookstore. I read it soon thereafter and was so impressed that I knew I’d have to read the rest of these books.

 

 

the reaping bernard taylorThe Reaping – Bernard Taylor
Originally published 1980

This was a very entertaining novel. The writing is excellent, and I found it difficult to put down once I got a few chapters in. The sense of mystery that Taylor develops is awesome, and my only complaint about the book is that it’s too short. I reckon you’re better off not knowing anything about this one, so I won’t give any plot details. I will recommend that you pick it up if you get the chance. Valancourt have put out a few more books by Taylor, and I am looking forward to reading more of his stuff.

 

whendarknesslovesus valancourt

When Darkness Loves Us – Elizabeth Engstrom
Originally published 1985

Woah, I wasn’t expecting this. Don’t let the doll on the cover of this fool you. This is kick in the bollocks horror.

This is actually a collection of two novellas. The first one, When Darkness Loves Us, is about a woman who gets trapped in a cave. A few months ago, I read an utterly awful novel about a bunch of kids getting stuck in a cave, and this story puts that one to shame. This is twisted horror. Engstrom doesn’t rely on a spooky monster to frighten her reader; she uses the frailty and shortcomings of humanity.

The next story, Beauty is…, was a little harder to get into for me. The protagonist is a victim of brain damage, and I didn’t want to read about anything bad happening to her. Again, I don’t want to give away details here, but I will say that this turned out far darker than I had expected.

This was a good collection. Engstrom’s horror is unsettling, but I enjoyed the ride.

 

the nest douglas

The Nest – Gregory A. Douglas
Originally published 1980

The Nest was incredible. Excluding Cujo, the only ‘animal attacks’ horror novel I had read before this was the underwhelming yet ludicrous Fleshbait. My complaint with that novel was that it never went far enough, always shying away from a potentially gory good bit. I can only say the opposite of The Nest. There were a few scenes here where things probably went too far, gloriously grisly scenes of visceral carnage. This book had me squirming every time I sat down with it. Cockroaches are fucking gross at the best of times, and they are particularly frightening after developing a taste for human meat. I consumed this one in audiobook format, and each night I would sit up alone listening to it with all the lights off. This was an excellent way of making myself feel uncomfortable. I thoroughly recommend this book.

 

the spirit thomas page

The Spirit – Thomas Page
Originally Published 1977

I got around to The Spirit last, and this was a bit unfortunate. Of the series, this is the one I enjoyed least. It’s about a killer sasquatch, and unfortunately I had only finished reading Jack Kewaunee’s Psychic Sasquatch book a few days before picking this up. I was well and truly sick of Sasquatches before I even started this one. It’s nowhere near the worst horror novel I’ve ever read, but I just didn’t enjoy it as much as the others in this series.

 

the tribe bari wood valancourt

The Tribe – Bari Wood
Originally published 1981

I actually reviewed The Tribe for a different post last year. It was great. I loved it.

 

This post covers only the first wave of this series, but by now Valancourt have put out a second wave and a bonus title. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this awesome collection. You may have noticed that I’ve been reviewing a lot of books from Valancourt recently. This publisher specializes in underappreciated horror novels, and they have been doing some pretty spectacular promotional offers recently. If you’re reading this blog, you’ll probably be impressed with their catalogue. Go buy some books from them and support this awesome publisher.

The Tenant – Roland Topor

Topor The TenantThe Tenant – Roland Topor
First Published in 1964

The first thing that I read about this novel was that it was rare. The second thing that I read about this novel was that Roman Polanski had made a movie of it.

We all know that Polanskini is a repulsive paedophile, but he was a very successful film maker, and it puzzled me to think that the novel he based one of his movies on would be out of print and hard to find.

The third peculiar feature of this novel was that Thomas Ligotti, one of my favourite authors, had written an introduction for one of the most recent, yet long sold out, editions of this book. Ligotti’s work is bizarrely dark, and if he liked it enough to write an introduction for it, this novel might well suit my own personal tastes. All of this was deeply intriguing.

Prices for old paperback versions are ridiculous, and I quickly found a digital version on openlibrary.org, but by the time my hold came through, this version had been taken offline. I finally got my hands on a copy yesterday morning, but I had to perform unspeakable acts of degrading infamy in order to do so.

I’m glad I did though. This book was very interesting and seriously weird. I read the whole thing last night, and I feel like it hasn’t properly settled in my head yet. This isn’t a straightforward novel. I’m not academic enough to tell you which sub genre of literature it belongs to, but it’s definitely one of those -ism ones. (Absurdism? Modernism? Surrealism? Existentialism?) I’ve seen comparisons to Kafka and Beckett, and I might throw in Pinter too. That being said, while this book oozes literary merit, it is a horror novel. Topor skillfully evokes a real sense of nightmarish terror.

I don’t want to give away plot details, so I’ll just say that the book is about a lad who moves into a new apartment and finds his new neighbours rather peculiar. I’m already planning to reread this one. It’s very dark and truly strange. I reckon you should read it.