The Drive In: A B-Movie with Blood and Popcorn, Made in Texas Bantam Spectra Books – 1988
This book was on my to-read list for years, but it’s been in print the whole time, and I kept putting it off. I recently finished an extremely awful horror novel, and I needed something quick and enjoyable to cleanse my palate. Having read Lansdale’s God of the Razor stuff earlier this year, I knew that The Drive In was just what I needed.
A few thousand unfortunates get trapped in a drive in movie theatre. People putrefy into puddles, others melt into each other and things rapidly descend into a maelstrom of cannibalism. Oh, and there’s weird alien gods too. A few years ago, I read a couple of bizarro fiction novels. This is very much that kind of thing. I suppose it’s violent enough to be classified as horror, but it’s also very mental. Nothing is explained, and the novel is better for that.
Honestly, I breezed through this one so quickly that I have nothing else to say. It was enjoyable. I liked it. I am happy to read the other books in the series.
The Drive In 2: Not just one of them Sequels Spectra – 1989
Honestly, I didn’t like this one. It takes up the story where the last book left it off. The gang go on a road trip through Drive In country. I lost interest about halfway through, but it was short enough so that it didn’t seem like a chore to finish. The writing is entertaining (Lansdale loves a simile.), but the story gets so ridiculous that I found it hard to care about what was going to happen next. It left me with very little enthusiasm to read part three.
The Drive in 3: The Bus Tour Subterranean Press – 2005
My expectations for this book were pretty low, and I ended up enjoying it more than its predecessor. The second novel took the story so far from the original Drive In that the third novel in the series had no choice but to go further afield again. While the first novel found its cast of characters trapped at a drive in movie theatre, the third novel sees them trapped in a giant, semi-robotic catfish. This is a silly book, but it’s also very easy to read.
Personally, I thought The Drive In was pretty good, but I found its sequels a bit too zany for my tastes. There’s an omnibus edition available if you’re interested. I reckon I’ll wait a while and then give Lansdale’s short stories a go.
I remember coming across these in Paperbacks from Hell and immediately writing them off because 7 books seemed like a big commitment and an initial search showed them to be fairly scarce. I took a closer look a few months later and realised I’d have to read them.
Like many of the books featured in Paperbacks from Hell, these titles are very tricky to track down, but these particular books were already scarce when PFH came out. These are erotic novels, and they feature a specific kink. I found a link on Will Errickson’s blog, and it might have something to do with why these books are so hard to find. This webpage is a list of JR Parz’s favourite erotic mind control novels, and it has been online for well over 20 years. The Martin books have been listed at the top of it since it was first posted. Erotic mind control seems like a fairly specific kink, and I’d imagine that the erotic mind control online community is pretty closely knit. Yep, I would be willing to bet that more of the copies of Martin’s books still in existence are sitting shelves of mind control perverts than on the shelves of regular horror fans.
There’s a paragraph on these books in Paperbacks From Hell and an essay inSatanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s about how Martin’s novels reflect the early 1980’s fear of Satanism, but neither of these sources offer any information on Russell W. Martin, the mysterious pervert who wrote these strange books. The internet isn’t much better. The only online source on Martin I could find was his ISFDB page. That page says he was born in 1933 and that his full name is Russell White Martin, but it also says he cowrote a book about space and drew some pictures for a 1992 science fiction novel called A Fire Upon the Deep. I got hold of both of these books, and I can confirm that the space book was written by a different Russ Martin, and the art in A Fire Upon the Deep was created by Elissa Mitchell. I don’t know if we can believe the other information from ISFDB either.
The only reliable information I could find on Martin is on the inside cover of my copy of Chains. Chains is the UK version of Rhea. This information is not included in the Playboy edition of Rhea, published one year later.
In Paperbacks from Hell, Grady Hendrix claims that Martin wrote 7 novels about the Satanic Organization, but that’s not true, and anyone who has read these books will understand why (details below). Also, Alison Natasi omits Rhea and Candy Sterling from the bibliography to her essay. This might be because one was written in the 70s and the other doesn’t quite fit in with the theme of the essay, but it might also be because Candy Sterling is almost impossible to get hold of. Apart from JR Parz, I am not convinced that I know of anyone who has actually read all 7 of these books.
Hard to find, rarely read, trashy novels about horny Satanists? Hell yes.
Due to the relative scarcity of these books, I am providing summaries of each. If you’re actually planning on reading these, maybe skip to the last 2 paragraphs and then come back once you’re done. (I wrote these reviews as I was reading the books, so I end up answering some of the questions I ask later on in the post.)
A girl born in the 1700s spends her birthday money on a mysterious old book called Liber de Malo from the back of a merchant’s van. She is a gifted child, and at 5 years of age uses her schooling in Latin to summon a demon. Once she hits puberty, she starts using demons to help her gain complete sexual subordination from anyone she fancies. She does this for about 200 years and then meets Phillip Stafford, a wealthy movie executive.
She gains control over this Phillip guy, but things start to get really nasty once his wife finds out. Philip hires a private detective to figure out Rhea’s game, and it’s through his sleuthing that many of the details of Rhea’s past lives are revealed. The chapters are not in chronological order, and each one offers the perspective of a different character. I was very impressed with how well the plot was crafted. This is sexy, satanic horror fiction, but Russ Martin put some serious work into organising this story.
This isn’t porn though, even if it was published by Playboy. The characters have lots of sex, but there’s barely any graphic sex scenes. The most lurid scene appears towards the end of the novel, and it is anything but sexy.
Parts of the book are scary too. Rhea is proper bad. She’s not just mean and selfish. She’s evil.
Honestly, I was really surprised by how much I liked this one. I don’t know why it hasn’t been reissued since 1980. It felt like a proper gothic novel.
The Desecration of Susan Browning Playboy Paperbacks – 1981
An up-and-coming film maker rescues a woman named Wanda Carmichael from getting raped. Turns out that Wanda’s in league with the devil, and she decides she wants the lad who saved her, so she puts a mind control spell on him. Susan, his wife, isn’t too pleased, so one of Wanda’s associates puts a love spell on her too. Both Susan and her husband are drawn towards people they absolutely hate by an insurmountable force of evil. Susan finds some reprieve when she meets Al Crabbe, a handsome priest who stows her away in a convent, but even he can’t stop the Devil’s powers. The novel ends with a mass gathering of Devil worshippers gathering for a Satanic baptism. Instead of being anointed with holy water, the baby, and probably Antichrist, is anointed with blood from a fresh castration wound. Fr. Crabbe sneaks into this ritual, and although he doesn’t manage to save Susan, he does wreck the party and make off with the baby. The novel ends with Fr. Crabbe looking at the baby and questioning his faith.
The Desecration of Susan Browning wasn’t as impressive a novel as Rhea in terms of plotting but it was still an enjoyable read. There’s less exposition here. While Rhea told the story of how the titular character fell in league with the devil, there’s not as much backstory to Wanda Carmichael. We don’t find out exactly how she has gotten to where she is today. While Rhea felt like a gothic mystery, The Desecration of Susan Browning is more of a thriller.
One of the few things we do find out about the novel’s antagonist is that she is a trans woman. This trashy horror novel was written in 1981, so this isn’t dealt with in particularly a sensitive manner.
There’s also a scene where a Satanist refers to Jesus as a “suckass”. LOL.
The Devil and Lisa Black Playboy Press – 1982
I’ve seen this described as both a sequel and prequel to Susan Browning, but I think the more appropriate way to describe this book would be as an appendix to its predecessor. Lisa Black is a minor character in The Desecration of Susan Browning. She’s an informant who has had a curse put on her that makes her think she’s hideously ugly. She’s an intriguing character, and if I hadn’t known she that she was going to show up again in a different book, I would have wondered why Martin introduced her.
About half of The Devil and Lisa Black is taken up with Lisa’s backstory. It’s pretty much what I’ve come to expect at this point. A beautiful young girl is bewitched and drawn into a circle of horny Satanists.
The other half of this book deals with Al Crabbe (the priest from the last book). He has abandoned the priesthood and is still looking after the baby he kidnapped from the Satanists (the baby whose high ranking Satanist mom was designated male at birth). Al’s luck takes a turn for the better, and he very quickly ends up with a high paying job, a nice house and several attractive sex slaves, one of whom is Lisa Black. Things get a bit weird for him after he starts seeing the ghosts of Susan Browning. I didn’t expect a happy ending from this one, and I didn’t get one.
It’s a bit of an odd book. The two strands share one character, but Lisa doesn’t really do much in the Al Crabbe part of the story. I mentioned above that I was impressed with how Martin strung the different threads of Rhea together into a cohesive whole and that I thought The Desecration of Susan Browning fell a little short of its predecessor. After reading The Devil and Lisa Black, I think that Russ Martin may have originally intended the the Lisa Black parts of this novel to be part of The Desecration of Susan Browning. They all take place before the events in that book, and they would make her inclusion there more understandable. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Martin’s publisher had convinced him to cut that stuff out and put it into another novel. I reckon the Al Crabbe stuff here was added on to fill up space.
While this is definitely the worst novel so far, it might also have been the sexiest. I’m pretty sure there’s more boobs in this one anyways. It also contains the greatest line in sleaze fiction history:
This is the first of Martin’s books to be published by Tor.
While the 3 previous books featured relatively small cabals of Satanists, the Satanists in The Possession of Jessica Young are part of an international network referred to as The Organization. The Organization aims to bring about the reign of Satan on Earth. One of the highest ranking members in the Organization is a guy called Stephen Abbott. Part of his job is seeking out psychics who may somehow obstruct the Organization. The exact nature of how these psychics will do this is never really addressed.
Jessica Young is young and beautiful. She’s also the most powerful psychic the Organization have ever come across. She can kill people without touching them. At first Stephen Abbott does the ol’ mind control spell on her and gets her to kill her own family. Unfortunately for Abbott, her powers are so strong that she breaks the spell herself. Abbott is left with little choice but to lobotomise her. The lobotomy scene is pretty degrading and gross.
This book felt distinctly more mean spirited than its predecessors. This is less a novel about dashed hopes. It’s more a novel about suffering. Jessica has already killed her family by the time the book begins, and we’ve already come to understand that Martin’s books end in a worse place than where they began. Sure, the bad guys are Satanists and Jessica is psychic, but the occultism that kept Rhea exciting is entirely gone. This felt more like a book written for dudes who like the idea of having complete control over a woman. There’s a slight reprieve of misery at the very end of the book, but it doesn’t make up for what’s happened.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just reading through these too quickly and I’m getting a bit tired of them, but I didn’t really enjoy this one very much.
The Obsession of Sally Wing Tor – 1983/1988*
This is a direct sequel to The Possession of Jessica Young. Half the book won’t make sense unless you’ve read that book beforehand.
The plot is a bit of a mess at this stage.
Jessica Young was lobotomised at the end of the last novel, but her soul fled into her sisters body and took over. Her sister is obsessed by Stephen Abbott (the main man from the Organization), so this is tricky business. If Jessica gives her sister any control over her own body, she will turn themself in for a chance to see her loverboy. Half the novel tells the story of Jessica trying to gain access to Stephen Abbott, but when she gets close enough to kill him, she changes her mind and has a brief affair with him.
The other half of the novel is about a former child prostitute named Sally Wing. The Organization turns her into a vampire, and she kills a bunch of children. After she kills a child that the Organization had turned into an adult, the Organization loses its patience and has Sally raped and murdered. The Sally Wing part of the story has absolutely no overlap with the Jessica young part.
Sally feeds on fear rather than blood, and there’s one part where she does a really good job at scaring a little girl that I did not enjoy reading.
I was pretty surprised with how this one ended. There’s no revenge, but Jessica Young is not dead or evil yet.
*(I’m not sure about the publication date of the second version pictured above. Will Errickson and ISFDB say it’s from 1988, but my copy says first edition on the inside cover. This is extra confusing as it also lists The Education of Jennifer Parrish in the “Other titles by this author” section. That book wasn’t published until 1984 though… Probably just an error.)
The Education of Jennifer Parrish Tor – 1984*
*(This cover is from 1988. I don’t know if there was ever a different cover for this one. There were alternate covers for the other 2 Tor novels.)
Like The Obsession of Sally Wing, this book has two almost entirely separate storylines. This is the third book dealing with the saga of Jessica Young and Stephen Abbott. It also introduces a brand new scenario and cast of characters.
Jennifer Parrish, a teenager, tries to kill a rapist, so she’s forced into a military-style boarding school that’s owned by the Satanic Organization. Why would Satanists run a school? Well, when a high ranking Satanist gets old, they visit the school, pick out an attractive student and then forcibly trade bodies with them. The procedure doesn’t initially work on Jennifer because she’s a virgin, but the Organization figures out a way to remedy this.
Stephen Abbott’s failure to subdue Jessica Young by the end of the previous book has got him in big trouble with the Organization. He is told that if he doesn’t get her under his control, he will be obsessed by a sadistic woman that he hates. He manages to have sex with Jessica at least once more, but despite his pleas, she runs away and allows him to become obsessed.
Jennifer Parrish dies, but she only took up half a book. Jessica Young escapes, and her tormentor from the first book in this trilogy is in a far worse position than her. Martin doesn’t tell us where Jessica is going to go or what she’s going to do next, and Abbott is obsessed, but Jessica has the power to cancel an obsession, so although the ending to this book is tidier than its predecessors, it does not rule out a continuation of the story. Unfortunately, no further books in this series were ever published.
The Resurrection of Candy Sterling Playboy Press – 1982
This is by far the hardest Russ Martin novel to find. Some of the others go for ridiculous prices, but I have never even seen a copy of this for sale online. I left it till last because I taught it was written last, but it turns out that this was actually published 2 months after The Devil and Lisa Black. This was Martin’s last novel on Playboy Press, and this publisher shut down shortly after it was released, so there were probably fewer copies of this printed than the others.
If you are reading Martin’ books due to an interest in Satanism in literature, you can skip this one. This deals with a cult, but nothing Satanic. Let me tell you, it’s easier to stomach sadism if the perpetrator is supposed to be a worshipper of evil. Having normal people perform acts of brutal sexual violence makes it much nastier.
Candy Sterling is a stupid prostitute. I don’t mean to imply that prostitutes are stupid. Candy is both a prostitute and an imbecile. She joins a cult led by a mysterious figure known as “The Prophet”. This Prophet guy convinces rich people to give him all their money and then spend the rest of their lives working on his farm or, if they are beautiful teenage girls, working in his mansion.
This is where the commonality with Martin’s other books shines through. The Prophet has absolute control over his followers. They will do anything he tells them to. Candy is mugged while in his service, but she refuses to give his money to the mugger even after he brutally assaults her. The mugger is so impressed with her fortitude that he joins the cult himself. (His reasoning here is never fully explained.)
Soon enough, Candy and her mugger are married and given the special job of murdering apostates of the cult. It quickly becomes apparent that Candy is the more unstable of the two when she tortures a family of rape victims to death. She later leads her husband back to the the scene of this murder and then shoots him in the head while he is performing cunnilingus on her.
Honestly, if sexual violence isn’t your thing, avoid this book. It was surprisingly extreme.
Having read Martin’s other novels, there’s something disquieting about the focus on brainwashing and power relations in here. You don’t write 7 erotic novels heavily featuring the same kind of kink if you’re not into that kink yourself. But Candy Sterling is not the kind of story you should be wanking too. This is a grim read, and the sincerity of the eroticism made me feel a bit dirty. Even JR Parz gave this one a negative review.
Ok, so if you haven’t been paying attention, let me sum up the sequence of these books. Rhea and The Resurrection of Candy Sterling are standalone texts. The Desecration of Susan Browning and The Devil and Lisa Black are a pair. The Possession of Jessica Young, The Obsession of Sandy Wing, and The Education of Jennifer Parrish are the first three books in an unfinished series.
These are novels about Satanists and black magicians, but most of the occult rituals occur behind closed doors. The Satanism on display is of the trashy horror novel variety. The essay in Satanic Panic about these novels is probably a better place to look if you want some commentary on how they reflect the social values of when they were written. I read them for enjoyment, and they got the job done. Rhea was definitely the best; if you’re going to read any of them, make it that one. The others are varying degrees of ok, definitely not worth the prices that some sellers are asking for them.
Phew, I think this might be the longest post I’ve written. I hope it was entertaining/elucidating. If anyone has any information about Russ Martin, please leave a comment or email me.
I read Chainsaw Terror last year, and I knew that Shaun Hutson isn’t really known for writing hi-brow literature, but I have to admit, I was appalled at this book.
I generally like to know as little as possible about a book before I read it, and so aside from knowing that this book would probably include a mean baby, I had no idea what it was actually about. I’m going to provide a summary next, so if you’re like me, you might want to read the novel before continuing with this post. If, however, you have a sense of decency, you might be better off with my brief synopsis.
Harold Pierce, a badly traumatised and developmentally challenged burn victim gets a job in a hospital. He is assigned the role of loading the hospital’s aborted fetuses into a furnace. The fetuses remind Harold of his baby brother who died in a fire that he started, and so instead of burning them he sneaks them out of the hospital and buries them. This is gross-out horror, but so far the story is merely tragic. The whole aborted fetuses motif is immediately repugnant, but there’s no malice at play so far. Harold is damaged; he’s not evil.
Then there’s a big storm. A bolt of lightning knocks down a powerline right beside where the fetuses are buried, and the electricity from the lightning and the power cables is sent directly into the shallow grave. The electricity burns the earth and grass around the grave, but it somehow manages to bring the fetuses back to life. It also gives them psychic powers and a thirst for blood.
Honestly, I was actually impressed with the plot. Hutson clearly did not give a shit. “Hmmmm, I need some way to reanimate these rotten abortions so they can kill a bunch of people… Voodoo? Nah, too ethnic… Scientific experiment gone wrong? Far too complicated… Fuck it. A bolt of lightning. That’ll do.”
Oh, and there’s a serial killer on the loose too. You spend the whole novel wondering how he’s going to fit in with the vampire abortions, but they barely interact. I reckon the murderer bit was only included so that Hutson could have some gory scenes at the beginning of the book. The killer is also a victim of neglect and child abuse.
I’ve read plenty of repugnant splatterpunk horror fiction, but this one is distasteful in a special way. Some gross-out horror is tough to get through because the authors seem like they’re trying hard to be super offensive, but Spawn is such a puerile mess that at times I got the sense that Hutson might not have even realised he was being offensive. Writing fiction about abortions seems like a hazardous venture for any writer, and I can’t imagine any sensible adult with any kind of stance on the abortion debate actually wanting to read a novel about aborted fetuses. Couple this with the fact that the two main characters are disfigured, developmentally challenged, traumatized victims of abuse. The whole thing is in very poor taste. The saving grace of the book is that there is clearly no message to it. Hutson is not trying to force his views on anyone.
Unfortunately though, the book is actually pretty fuckin’ shit. I found myself skimming large chunks of it. The characters are so flat that I wasn’t able to give a damn about them, and the suspenseful scenes were formulaic and uninteresting. The book is 288 pages long, and I reckon a good third of it could have been edited out
All that being said, I was entertained by this piece of deplorable, degenerate trash, and I am entirely certain that I will read more of Shaun Hutson’s work in the future. I know he wrote a sequel to this just a few years ago, but I probably won’t bother with that one.
When it comes to paperback horror, I am a sucker for silly covers and titles. This leads me to reading some utter garbage. Left to my own devices, I have chosen to read books about evil fish, an evil suit and an evil spring. Fortunately, there are lots of people out there who know the horror genre far better than I do, and 2 years ago, a bunch of them got together to put out a series of then out-of-print horror classics. The first wave of Valancourt’s Paperbacks from Hell series convinced me that there are gems out there waiting to be discovered, and I was delighted to allow that prestigious publisher curate my reading with their second wave from Hell.
The Pack – David Fisher Originally published – 1976
Of the 13 Paperbacks from Hell that Valancourt has put out, only two of them fall into the ‘Animals Attack’ subgenre. (Maybe 2 and a half if you count sasquatches as animals.) I’m not hugely interested in this particular brand of horror, and when I started reading The Pack, I was a bit surprised to discover that like The Nest, the series’ other bad animal book, this book is also about a group of animals that don’t usually attack people attacking people on a small island off the coast of the Northeastern United States. This time it’s abandoned dogs rather than mutant cockroaches, but the results are pretty similar. It was a bit harder to dislike the antagonists in this one. What kind of piece of shit would abandon their puppy? I thought The Pack was a pretty good read overall.
Black Ambrosia – Elizabeth Engstrom Originally published – 1988
I really liked Elizabeth Engstrom’s When Darkness Loves Us and I was looking forward to reading Black Ambrosia. I absolutely loved the first half of the book, but I was getting kinda bored by the end. It’s about a girl who realises she’s a vampire. Not a bad book, but a little drawn out. From what little I have read, Engstrom’s writing seems better suited to novellas, but I’m probably wrong, and I would gladly read more of her if anyone has recommendations.
Nest of Nightmares – Lisa Tuttle Originally published – 1986
This is the series’ only short stories collection. My immediate response to finishing the first story was to utter to myself, “That’s fucked up.”… always a good sign. One story, ‘The Memory of Wood’, really creeped me out. It’s about a family who buys a haunted box at a yard sale. The family is pretty similar to my own, and I couldn’t help but imagine it happening it to us. CREEPY.
Nightblood – T. Chris Martindale Originally published – 1990
When I first read Paperbacks from Hell, I made a list of all the books in it that I absolutely needed to read. This was the only one on that list that was also reissued by Valancourt. I’ve seen this described as Rambo meets Salem’s Lot, but I thought it has a certain amount of Home Alone in it too. A heavily armed, mentally unstable Vietnam veteran arrives in a town with a serious vampire problem. This was a bit like reading a William Johnstone horror novel only it was more focused and better written. It felt drawn out towards the end, but it was good fun overall.
Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ – Mendal W. Johnson Originally published – 1974
I felt so strongly about this book that I did a separate post on it here. More of a Paperback like Hell really. Truly horrid.
The above novels made up the second wave of Valancourt’s series. I was originally going to do the third wave in a separate post, but there’s only 3 more, so I decided to throw them in here.
The Auctioneer – Joan Samson Originally published – 1975
A lad moves into a small country town and starts holding auctions. He gets the stuff he sells from the local townspeople. They quickly lose their say in what he takes from them. This was quite a strange book, and I still feel like I haven’t made up my mind about it a few weeks after reading it. It’s an extremely tense and suspenseful read. I’ve seen people describing it as the greatest book about “groupthink” ever written, but while I have no illusions about the frailty of human beings’ abilities to think and act for themselves, I felt that there was something else going on here. It’s not just that the townspeople are too weak and afraid to stand up for themselves; there’s also something diabolic about the auctioneer. He’s a real bad dude.
Stage Fright – Garrett Boatman Originally published – 1988
I have written about this book extensively. Here is my original review, and here is my interview with its author. The fact that my interview is mentioned in the introduction to the new edition brought a tear of pride to my beady little eye.
Familiar Spirit – Lisa Tuttle Originally published – 1983
This might be my favourite book in the series. It starts off with a girl being attacked by a demon that she has summoned. The first chapter is exactly what I was afraid of happening to me when I started reading and collecting occult books. This is an occult horror novel, but as with the other Lisa Tuttle book in this series, it also features good writing and characterization. It’s as much a story of the end of a relationship as it is a ghost story. This one was really good, and I am already planning to read more of Lisa Tuttle’s books in the future.
I probably could have milked this for 6 separate posts, but these books are hot stuff at the moment, and you’ll find them discussed on lots of other sites. They’re really great. I recommend them to anyone who likes reading. The only downside is that this series might make people think that all “Paperbacks from Hell” are of this quality. Not true. These are forgotten masterpieces that should never have been out of print. This publisher has put out plenty of other great horror too, and I’ve enjoyed all 30+ of the Valancourt books that I’ve read in the past year. Go to their site and buy some books so they can keep republishing books that I want to read.
Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ – Mendal W. Johnson Golden Apple Books – 1984 (Originally published 1974)
I read Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ because I wanted to write a post on the Valancourt Paperbacks From Hell reissues. I knew full well what this book was about, and other than a morbid curiosity, I had no desire to read it. I got through half of it in one evening and then decided that I wasn’t going to finish it. I read the second half when I woke up the next morning. I wasn’t surprised by anything, but I was disturbed. None of the seedy literature I’ve read compares to the pain of this book. It’s 290 pages of anguish.
The story of Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ publication, scarcity, author, reputation and its effects on its readers are all part and parcel of its infamy. Bloggers were pouring their souls out about this one long before I got the internet. The level of research and detail that has gone into some of the posts about this book puts my blog to shame. Some of those posts contain spoilers, but the plot of this novel is hardly complicated, and if you don’t already know what the book is about, I would actually suggest you read a plot summary before starting it. This book is definitely not for everyone.
I certainly didn’t enjoy Let’s Go Play at the Adams’, but I can’t deny that it was well written, and despite how utterly horrible it is, I wasn’t able to bring myself to not finish it. I don’t know how Mendal W. Johnson was able to maintain his focus on suffering for however long it took him to finish this novel. With all due respect, I can’t say I was surprised to find out that he drank himself to death within 2 years of finishing it.
Reader beware: you’re in for a horribly pessimistic journey of agonizing misery and abject bleakness.
The 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 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.
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.
Slither – 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.
Slime – 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.
Squelch – 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. (Edit: I waited 7 months to read it.)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.
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 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.
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 – 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 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 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 Happy Man Eric C. Higgs St. Martin’s Press – 1985
Here’s a snappy little horror novel that took me all of an evening to finish. I enjoyed every page.
The plot centers around a man in his early 30s who’s beginning to wonder if there’s any more to life than his marriage, his nice house and his comfortable job. When a new family move in next door, he makes friends with the husband, and things start to get messy pretty quickly. This new guy is a very, very, very bad influence. The plot is a little bit underdeveloped, but the telling of the tale makes this shortcoming pretty easy to forgive. In fact, I really didn’t notice it until I was finished and started thinking about what I had just read.
I won’t say anything else about the story because you should really just read the book for yourself. The writing is excellent. It reminded me of Bret Easton Ellis’s early novels – The Happy Man set in the 80s and the characters are affluent professional Californians who are apathetic to the suffering of others. This is definitely more of a horror novel than any of Ellis’s work though.
This is a short review, but The Happy Man is a short book. I strongly suggest that you pick up a copy. It’s funny, exciting and rather dark. It was recently reissued by Valancourt Books, and as you probably know, Valancourt specialise in reprinting books that really deserve to be reprinted. This one is no exception.
The Voice of the Clown – Brenda Brown Canary Avon Books – 1982
After Paperbacks from Hellcame out, quite a few of the books featured therein became hard to find. I made a list of the ones that I needed to read (most of which included the word Satan in the title) and tried to forget about the rest. After a bit of hunting, I managed to get my hands on copies of all of my first picks. I ordered some online, found others in thrift stores, and downloaded pdfs of others. Now, two years later, I have read and reviewed 20 of the books featured in Paperbacks in Hell. Some were really good (The Cipher, The Tribe), and others were truly terrible (Brotherkind, The Manse).
At this stage, the demand for many of these novels has diminished slightly, and books that were 300 hundred dollars are now available for 50 or 60. I check other blogs and discuss books with other nerds on twitter, and I noticed that the ‘paperback from Hell’ that is most frequently mentioned because of its scarcity is Brenda Brown Canary’s The Voice of the Clown.
This title had escaped my notice when I first read Paperbacks from Hell, but I googled it after seeing it mentioned a few times and discovered the reason for its scarcity. Grady Hendrix has apparently claimed that this is the one book that actually lived up to the ‘from Hell’ title and that it is the only book to ever make his jaw drop. I was enticed, but after seeing the prices that it goes for online, I decided not to get too interested as I would never pay that much for a book.
A few weeks ago, I went to one of my favourite local bookshops. It’s super cheap, and has the biggest selection of paperbacks in my city, but it’s entirely disorganized, and over the course of several visits, I’ve cleaned out most of the horror novels. This time, I spent a good half hour without finding anything, but I didn’t want to walk by the owner of the shop without buying anything, so I continued my search. Then I discovered a copy of T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies, a book I’ve wanted to read for a while, and with renewed vigour I turned to a bookcase that I hadn’t yet searched through. There are three rows of paperbacks on every shelf, and it was at the back row of the bottom shelf that I found a copy of The Voice of the Clown with 2.00 written on the cover.
I started to shake. This was the Holy Grail of collectible horror paperbacks. I grabbed another horror novel and sandwiched the Clown between that and The Ceremonies to make it less conspicuous. I had to get out of there before another collector saw what I had and a fight broke out. Like a thief in the night, I tiptoed to the counter, put my books down and smiled at the old lady. I assumed that she was going to recognise what I had in my hand, but she just smiled back and charged me 9 dollars for the three novels. I got out of there as quickly as I could, expecting to hear sirens behind me once somebody realised the daylight robbery I had just committed.
When I got home, I was elated. I tried to convey my excitement to my wife, but she didn’t seem to care. My reading list is fairly lengthy, but it was only a few weeks before I gave in to temptation and bumped this novel to the front of my list.
Then I sat down and read it.
Jesus Christ. This was an unrelenting nightmare.
T.J. unknowingly gets his girlfriend Molly pregnant and then moves away. Then he knocks up a different girl, Kate, and marries her even though he only loves Molly. After giving birth, Molly kills herself. A few years later, T.J. and Kate have another kid. Unfortunately for them, Laura, the new baby, is the reincarnation of Molly, T.J.’s old girlfriend.
Laura really, really, really hates her mom, but she doesn’t fully understand why yet. She REALLY loves her dad though, in a way that seems weird right from the beginning. When her dad gets her mom pregnant again, she becomes very unhappy.
For the most part, the reincarnation business is the only supernatural element in this book. This is not what I was expecting from the cheesy cover. The horror is not of evil spirits or of psychic powers. It is the horror of trauma, suicide, domestic abuse, and misery.
Laura is not only jealous; she is also a manipulative, sadistic psychopath. The story is also told from her point of view, a fact that makes this book all the more disturbing. The reader starts off on her side, but I started to sympathise with her mother pretty quickly. Laura does everything she can to upset Kate, a woman who may not be the best mother in the world but who hasn’t actually done anything unforgivable. I don’t want to give away details, but some of Laura’s actions were so upsetting that they caused me to put the book down and consider whether or not I actually wanted to finish it.
I’ve seen other reviews of this book where people said that The Voice of the Clown isn’t as scary as it’s made out to be and that it gets bogged down with character development, but I found the build up to be really effective. Also, I honestly doubt that those naysaying reviewers have kids of their own. I have a little girl, and my wife and I have another kid on the way, and reading about a child’s mission to destroy her family by any means was deeply upsetting for me. I can read gore all day and won’t be bothered, but reading about a jealous child’s well thought out plans to torment a helpless baby and its mother was utterly horrendous. This novel struck a nerve.
This is a miserable, bleak, unpleasant book to read. While there are some supernatural elements, it’s really more horrible than horror. That being said, I reckon that was the point. Brenda Brown Canary must have sat down and really thought hard on to how write the most horrible book ever. I don’t think something as unpleasant as this could happen by accident. I know that Valancourt Books have tried to get in touch with her to reprint this as part of their Paperbacks from Hell reissues line, but that she has yet to respond. I wonder how she feels about this book now. Was it written during a dark time in her life that she would rather forget? I hope I’m wrong, but I find it difficult to imagine a person who loves their life writing a book like this. It’s relentlessly unpleasant, and it gets worse and worse as it goes on.
All that being said, I think it is a good book. This is a methodically written novel of terror, real, unpleasant terror. I’ve written before of times when books have obsessed me. In all other cases, the obsession reached its peak before reading the book. I would get fixated on a rare horror novel and spend hours seeking out information about it before finding/ordering a copy. Reading it would be the climax. In this case, my interest was really sparked after finishing the novel. I’ve found myself picking it up since finishing it, staring at the cover and feeling an unpleasant discomfort. Part of me wants to get rid of my copy to have it out of my house, but the masochist in me wants to keep it in case I want to punish myself again in a few years. If you can get a copy of this thing and you’re not faint of heart, pick it up and jump into the nightmare.