Elsewhere (2020) by Dean Koontz

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A single dad and his 11-year old daughter go hopping from one dimension to the next with the help of a gizmo invented by Ed the bum that’s also being sought by a psychopathic federal agent. Cue Benny Hill title music as the good guys try to stay one step ahead of the government in a scifi/fantasy novel that mostly takes place in kitchens, bedrooms and hallways.

The idea here is solid, and for part of the novel it holds well. The main characters first hop into a parallel dimension where everyone is a bit fascist and there are mass executions in public parks. Another dimension features killer insect-shaped robots, but that’s about it, and the characters mostly hang around their small seaside town with no news or interest in the outside world. Koontz soon resorts to his familiar running away from a serial killer mode, as the dad and the daughter are chased by Falkirk the evil government agent. Sadly that plotline is nowhere near as interesting as exploring the different dimensions.

There’s also a moral dilemma, as the dad and the daughter go looking for Michelle the mom, who walked away years ago in this dimension but is presumably alive and present in the others. As luck would have it, there’s a Michelle in another dimension who lost his husband and daughter, and of course they are reunited. I’m hoping one of Koontz’s parallel dimensions has psychotherapists because they’re going to need them.

Koontz has been a Californian millionaire for a good while now, probably living in something of a parallel dimension of his own, and it shows. The locations are mostly detached homes, with the usual rooms, always suspiciously clean, as if everyone has hired Mexican help doing the chores while the white middle-class goes about their business of repairing Art Deco radios or whatever niche project they have going.

There’s a fun little aside in the end as Koontz mentions a parallel universe where WW2 never happened and the Art Deco period continued much longer because Bauhaus never happened. That would’ve been a cool place to visit, but instead we get a stock psychopath and a lot of running and waiting for the gizmo to come online and so on. A failed opportunity.

** (2/5)

Maynard’s House (1981) by Herman Raucher

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Don’t look a gift house in the mouth, except maybe you should if the house in question is a cursed witch-house. Maynard of the title gives his house to a Vietnam army buddy Austin and promptly dies. Back in the good old US of A, Austin has nowhere to go so he travels through snow and cold and Maine dialects to his inherited house and settles in, despite the creepy witch’s tree outside and a guestbook of sorts on the wall spelling out that the house is no good. Soon a rocking chair’s rocking all by itself, a bear attacks, some kids start messing with him and to top it off he gets chased by a witch’s conical hat.

It’s a lonely, eloquent journey through northern Maine we enjoy with Austin, a very recalcitrant, rootless hero with a lot of people issues. He’s constantly losing his temper with the laid-back railyway workers, so Maine they’re sort of Jud Crandalls on steroids, all slightly amused by the temperamental stranger. Jack Meeker, the local mailman, leads Austin to his new house and briefs him on some essentials of survival in the wild, as well as hinting about witches. The beginning of the novel is perfectly written, with a lot of humour as Austin begins to find his way around his new snowy surroundings, as well as growing unease as the new homeowner begins to discover bothersome details about the house.

Alas, the third part of the book is overwhelmed by the appearance of Ara and Froom, a girl and a boy, who apparently live nearby and like to hassle with Austin, pretending to be some kind of woodland spirits called Minnawickies. Austin banters with the teenage girl for ages while the boy mostly growls and throws snowballs. It’s amusing for a spell, like any conversation with a bored, wise-ass teen might be, but it goes on for pages and pages, turning an atmospheric novel into something like a discount Lolita, which is probably in line with Raucher’s heavily mainstream output. Sure, there are nuggets of gold even here, but overall the drastic shift in tone doesn’t fit and whatever hallucinations Austin experiences during this stretch begin to repeat themselves.

The sudden ending is again something else, a turn towards blissfully surreal horror, and the way the novel loops back and begins repeating itself is something similar to Flann O’Brien’s classic The Third Policeman. It’s a bittersweet ending in that Austin has found a home after all, but it’s a very unsettling kind of home.

*** (3/5)

Heads (1985) by David Osborn

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It begins with a car accident where most of John the doctor’s body is severely burned, but conveniently not his head. Michael the other doctor tells Dr. John’s fiance Dr. Susan that the prognosis isn’t too good, and soon enough Susan is told that John succumbed to his injuries. Michael starts up some hanky panky with Susan and eventually recruits her to his super secret government-sponsored project. She’s a valuable member of the team, but under no circumstances is she to go to the third floor. She eventually goes to the third floor.

John’s there, and he’s not dead, he’s just a head. The experimental project involves keeping the heads and the brains alive, even if the rest of the body is past its sell-by date. There are several heads, ostensibly volunteers although nobody ever remembers volunteering, and neither does John. Part of the mission is to expand human brain capacity, so they’re learning languages and running programs on the mainframe. A big problem for the project, however, is that the heads keep going insane. If someone, figuratively speaking, loses their head, they become useless and they’re sent to disposal.

It’s a medical thriller with a bit of body horror. After the inital shock the heads become rather dull, at some point even organising a strike for better work conditions. There are, however, some fresh scenes of power such as when Susan stumbles on the insane but still live heads in a storage room. Most of the novel is confined to the hospital as Susan goes on a clandestine quest to find out more about the project in order to bring it down. The other staff is involved in power games of their own, so nobody really notices anything until very late, and the orderlies probably aren’t paid enough. It’s entertaining, but not very exciting.

The super secret project is a strange operation, with workers leaving crucial key cards lying around and guards always playing cards in the cafeteria, thus allowing Susan to run freely around the place. The ending becomes a race against time as first John and then Susan try to hack a password with which information about the project could be sent and revealed to the outside world. The password is, of course, in all caps and doesn’t include numbers or special characters. Maybe the government should’ve spent a little more on security?

** (2/5)

Gwen, in Green (1974) by Hugh Zachary

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There’s something in the pond and it’s making the sexually repressed good girl Gwen go all horny and homicidal. Having built their dream home in a remote corner of an island, Gwen and her husband George live a happy and carefree life until workmen for a new nuclear plant and their bulldozers start tearing down trees in the area. Somehow reacting to the pain of the dying trees and plants, Gwen becomes possessed. Soon she’s a siren of the woods, enticing workmen to their gruesome deaths and local teenage boys to her loins.

It begins suddenly with a romp with the meter reader, a scene straight out of classic porn. Poor Gwen is initially shocked by her completely out of character actions, having been sexually traumatised by her mother’s promiscuity at an early age. Even her husband had to work hard like only a 1970s male could to get her to respond to sexual stimulus, but here she was, happily going at it full tilt with a random stranger. She spirals down to the brink of suicide, which prompts George to send her to see a local octogenarian shrink, Dr. King, a discount Freud who begins to investigate what’s going on.

It’s the plants, of course, screaming out in pain, and the sex is just to suppress their suffering. The other option is to stop the bulldozers and she does, several times, by killing their operators. Somehow Gwen has become a receiver for the vegetable kingdom’s feelings. Her own will and conscience are slowly eroded, until the woods are filled with corpses and pretty much every local boy has lost their virginity. When Dr. King finally remembers that there was a similar case years and years before, it’s already too late.

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Original US cover by George Ziel

There’s a lot of sex here, but not a whole lot of sleaze. It’s perhaps slightly exploitative, but hey, it was the 70s! The writing in general is excellent, with just the right balance of ponderous drama and self-deprecating humour, and a keen attention to detail. Most of the story is set in the house and its surrounding woods, giving the novel a nice contained atmosphere which it uses to good effect. Gwen is the serious focus of the novel, with the male characters often clueless, especially the know-it-all George, who hilariously only becomes aware that something is seriously wrong the moment he gets an axe to the shin. Although by the end Gwen has become a shotgun-toting, axe-wielding sex maniac, it’s not because she wants to, it’s because she’s made to act by something greater and whatever resistance she had is long gone. But at the same time, it’s also perhaps a sort of an emancipation from male dominance, a liberation of the female? In the end it’s not the trees, not the Venus fly-traps she feeds hamburger meat to, not even the radioactivity from the nuclear plant, rather it’s a twist out of time and space and Lovecraft.

The ending, with the real estate agent desperately trying to sell the now vacant property to yet another hapless buyer, is a lovely little coda to good old greed, an actual force of evil, perhaps greater than any telepathic killer plants from outer space who really just want to be left alone in their shallow pond.

***** (5/5)

The Strangers (1984) by Mort Castle

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Michael is the perfect husband and father, always saying the right things, maybe sometimes too right, as in it’s all an act and beneath the surface he’s a psychopathic serial killer. Michael is a Stranger, part of a secret subset of humanity hiding in plain sight around the world, only recognisable by their blood-red auras, psychotic killers who patiently wait for the Time of the Strangers, an event when they can all come out of hiding and start butchering everyone.

It doesn’t mean that they don’t indulge in their passions in the meantime, with Michael dispatching Brad the drunken neighbour by smashing his head against the toilet bowl and pushing his psychic mother-in-law down the stairs. The Strangers stick together, with Vern as Michael’s boss at work and Jan the psychologist (who introduced Michael to the pleasures of killing at a young age) later appearing as a family friend and therapist to Beth, Michael’s loving wife.

It’s Beth who begins to suspect Michael’s happy-go-lucky attitude, his unwavering good humour in the face of everything. Her doubts become certainty when Michael kills Beth’s lover, but the cabal of Strangers quickly shuffles her off to an insane asylum and electro-shock therapy. And then, finally, the moment Michael has been waiting for is upon him and the Time of the Strangers begins.

The Strangers is full of pitch-black humour, with Michael’s murderous inner monologues contrasting with his cheerful, extroverted outer self. The twist here is that his murderous inner voice is also always happy and delighted at the prospect of some glorious bloodshed. There’s no remorse, no humanity in Michael, he’s completely inhuman, almost an alien killing machine disguised as a man. Violence and murder are for him the only things in life, and he’s only barely keeping his urges in check.

For most of the novel we follow Michael, but as Beth begins to suspect his husband the perspetive shifts slightly over to her point of view. Ending with a series of vignettes featuring different Strangers going to work on their victims as the Time of the Strangers gets underway, the novel never lags or loses steam. By the last phrase the killing has merely started. There’s not as much brutal violence as one might expect, instead of cheap gore the novel goes for psychological horror and humour. The Strangers is a fantastically unique take on psychopaths, often hilarious, always deadly.

***** (5/5)

Ceremonies (1982) by Josh Webster

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So your wife is originally from an ultra-religious rural community and she hasn’t been back there since the day she left. Suddenly she commits suicide, and before you know it, the same community offers you a teaching job. So of course Sam the widower packs up his things including his daughter Aurelia and they move to the remote town they know nothing about. The townsfolk are initially reticient but when they notice that Aurelia is an albino like her mother they become much friendlier.

The community is an amish-like setup, with horses and pitchforks instead of cars and machines and seemingly run by an obviously evil iron lady called the Blessed Mother, who is always dressed in black with a veil before her face and guarded by a giant mute. She also runs the town orphanage, which is of course full of orphans, but Sam and Aurelia don’t really bother to ask why so many kids, including Aurelia’s new sweetheart Joey the good country bumpkin, have lost their parents. Later Aurelia hears whispers of certain clandestine ceremonies in a nearby cave system, which seems to have supplanted the town church as the place of worship.

There’s a light supernatural element at play here, with a lengthy backstory describing the town’s history, but it’s left a little vague and overshadowed by happenings in real life as the fish out of water, Sam and Aurelia, adjust to their new surroundings and discover new and disconcerting aspects of their pastoral paradise. Corporal punishments are taken to the extremes, with kids dragged to a shed by the giant mute and apparently lashed into submission. It soon becomes apparent that everyone is living in mortal terror of the Blessed Mother, who seemingly has Sith powers to throttle someone from a distance.

However, the novel begins to fall apart towards the end, with several unnecessary side plots involving lambs and teens as well as increasingly confusing developments where Aurelia and the villanous Blessed Mother exchange barbs and test their mettle. The introduction of superpowers is an unnecessary addition, as is the whole concept of the vengeful spirits called the Children of the Cave. An inbred albino community out of Laymon would’ve been much more interesting. Despite its failings, Ceremonies is a surprisingly memorable novel. It manages to hold the reader’s attention with its ominous atmosphere, and there’s enough realistic horror to offset the nonsense.

*** (3/5)

The Cartoonist (1990) by Sean Costello

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Tales from the Crypt meets a medical thriller in this story of revenge best served cold. Back in the seventies, Scott Bowman and his friends accidentally ran over a little girl and then ran away. 16 years later Scott is a medical professional when an unknown geriatric patient nicknamed the Cartoonist appears at the hospital. The Cartoonist keeps drawing fast, detailed, professional quality cartoons despite being otherwise unresponsive. Cartoons that seem to foretell the future! And soon the cartoons are predicting dire things for Scott’s family.

It’s a horror story mostly set in Canada (Scott Bowman is probably a nod to Scotty Bowman, the legendary ice hockey coach), which explains why someone without insurance gets access to quality healthcare. The author is also a medical professional himself, which is probably why a lot of the story takes place inside hospitals. Maybe too much, turning an otherwise intriguing horror novel into something of a medical drama.

So much of the novel is spent on phones or waiting for the phone to ring that it becomes distracting. There’s also a dark undercurrent to Scott’s character, with his short asides about someone possibly being gay, being amused by prostitutes or just being generally uncaring about old people. Not to forget his hit-and-run accident, for which he and his friends were never held accountable, until now. It’s a tale of revenge, you see, but that much is obvious after the prologue.

The cover by Jim Warren, which is repeated in most older versions, is slightly misleading, since the basically catatonic Cartoonist is confined to a hospital as a patient for the whole novel. His drawings are described as something out of EC Comics, with ghouls and graves and full moons, so possibly something along the lines of Jack Davis. There’s a supernatural element at play, but some of the choices the Cartoonist makes are baffling and nothing explains why he waited 16 years to get his vengeance. Neither is his background filled in any way other than to say that he was a deeply unpleasant man, leaving his special skill as a bit of a mystery. It’s likely the author didn’t know about the comics industry very much, since a style like the one described in the novel should’ve been very easy to recognize. I kept hoping for at least a know-it-all comic shop guy to show up, but no, we just get more and more of medical thrills.

The Cartoonist isn’t bad, but it’s not entirely succesful either. It’s uneven, with some parts having great detail and style, while others feel drawn out and cumbersome, especially the scenes with Scott’s family. Most horror comes from Scott’s helplessness as the Cartoonist wreaks his revenge, but it’s a very Canadian sort of horror, bordering on despair.

*** (3/5)

The Voice of the Night (1980) by Dean Koontz

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There’s often a serial killer in Koontz novels, and this one is no exception. The only difference is that here Roy the psychopath is a 14-year-old boy. Boasting about a couple of kills (one cat, two boys) already under his belt, his friend Colin the scifi/horror nerd initially disbelieves him but sees the light when Roy plans to derail a passenger train. What’s a boy to do, lose his only friend or give him up to the adults?

Told from Colin’s perspective, most of the book is told in delightful banter between two teenage boys. The things they initially discuss are entirely realistic for boys their age, with Colin calling bullshit on Roy’s claims until Roy’s actions make him doubt. Koontz handles the escalation perfectly, balancing between Colin’s overactive imagination and the slow accumulation of facts.

The adults of the story are useless, with Colin’s divorced mom constantly working long hours and apparently on dates every night. When Colin asks for help, his mother believes it’s all Colin’s fault and that drugs are probably involved. Roy’s parents on the other hand are shell-shocked into submission by Roy’s actions regarding his sister. It’s a popper! As Roy likes to say when something interesting might happen, and the history of the expression is pretty nasty, but that was our Koontz back in his golden period.

Before things get bloody with Roy, there’s a lovely gruesome fishing scene with Colin and his gregarious dad and his dad’s friends. They catch sharks and disembowel them just to see what’s inside them, not unlike Roy wants to do. Colin, being the voice of reason and sanity, is horrified, as anyone in their right mind should be. He’s no killer like Roy or his dad, and he’s the better man for it.

The third part of the novel does go slightly over the top, with Colin setting a trap for Roy with the help of his new girlfriend Heather and Roy being slightly too gullible to fall for it. But until then, this is very solid stuff. Colin is a precocious boy but entirely believable, especially in the post-Stranger Things era. This is a coming-of-age tale, and Colin walks the walk and talks the talk admirably, ending up eventually as a brand new Colin, stronger, independent, and wise to the ways of the world. That kid will go far.

**** (4/5)

Demon Night (1988) by J. Michael Straczynski

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Something wicked in a nearby cave lurks while the citizens of a Maine town go about their sordid little lives. Eric the kid who lost his parents returns to the town as a grown man and with Jedi powers, while a local scientist discovers some eerie cave paintings. A local lout then stumbles into the cave, discovers an ancient evil of some kind and mayhem ensues.

It’s smalltown Maine again, with its quaint little vignettes of local life. The sad part is that none of the lives are as interesting as the writer thinks, and there are far too many of them. There are a lot of loose puzzle pieces but they form no discernible image. Storylines are dropped, new ones spring up all the time, characters bleed into one another and so on.

The writing is alright, with attention to small and interesting details, and a good visual atmosphere. But by the middle the structure begins to fall apart, with nothing much happening, just a lot of repetition, with the ending being a remarkably mediocre experience. Although truth be told my interest at that point was already long gone, but I guess so was the author’s.

Apparently J. Michael Straczynski, later of Babylon 5 and comics fame, wanted to write a horror novel that he’d like to read. Somehow the end result reads a lot like a discount version of a Stephen King novel, which means basically it’s like a Rick Hautala novel. The idea of a chosen saviour fighting an ancient evil, on the other hand, is familiar from F. Paul Wilson’s novels. But unlike its influences, Demon Night ends up being a confusing affair which never cashes in on its promise.

** (2/5)

The Kindness of Strangers (1985) by Bernard Taylor

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Shenna is an up-and-coming Hollywood actress who decides to chuck it all in and attend art school in good old Britain of all places. Little does she know, her biggest fan happens to reside in London and is already waiting for her and their future life together as a happy couple. But who is he?

A thriller more than a horror novel, the main mystery is the identity of the would-be lover, who only communicates with Shenna through letters. Shenna is a fish out of water in London and soon meets a lot of young single men, many of who raise a lot of red flags. There’s Kevin the neighbour, Alan the cafeteria worker, Caspar the artist, Wesley the other student and so on and on. The superfan sends Shenna gifts, and when she does things he doesn’t approve of, it sends him over the edge and into murder and mayhem.

It’s a straightforward plot, but there’s enough suspense to keep things interesting. Occasionally one might even forget the fan, as Shenna’s relationship troubles with her new beau Ian the much older man steal the show. He lied to her! He’s rekindled his relationship with his old flame! What a creep! But then almost all of the men (including Shenna’s revered late dad, it’s revealed) in the novel seem slightly creepy or perhaps just way too English.

The novel never raises above its setup, but read as a thriller that’s alright. Shenna doesn’t really progress as a character, she’s the nice outgoing American in the beginning and continues to be so in the end, perhaps with an ounce of independence bestowed upon her by her experiences. The superfan is driven by one idea alone, that of being with Shenna, but somehow manages to hide it so well she never sees it coming, and neither does the reader. Psychologically the novel feels slightly too cinematic, with the characters acting out their assigned scenes but never really rising above their stature as plot devices. The gothic ending might also be suitable for a Dracula film, but here, in a novel about ostensibly normal people, feels just a little bit too spectacular.

** (2/5)

Rapture (1987) by Thomas Tessier

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Meet Jeff. Jeff is an ordinary man, a man who owns his own computer consulting business and is good at it. Visiting home after years of absence to bury his father, Jeff passes by the former home of a high school friend Georgianne, never his sweetheart, but somehow never far from his thoughts. From there, things escalate, with Jeff in full stalker mode by page 50.

There’s obviously something wrong with Jeff, but told mostly from his perspective, the logic of his actions becomes creepily understandable. The object of Jeff’s affections, Georgianne, is now married to Sean the runner with a grown child, Bonnie the student, but to Jeff they are mere problems to be solved. And one by one he begins removing these obstacles, until Georgianne will be his and his alone.

Looking into the mind of a psychopath is a common enough angle in horror fiction, but in Rapture Thomas Tessier makes it a lot of fun. Jeff’s not an out-and-out evil guy, he’s a man on a mission, and his mission is to win Georgianne’s heart. In his view, he’s a romantic suitor on the noblest of quests. Whenever he interacts with people and reality invades his sphere of thoughts, it also reminds the reader how twisted things have become. He’s obsessed by his romantic fantasy, which mostly involves long Sunday drives visiting antique shops, not just the usual sleaziness. Tessier makes the reader root for the poor guy, at least until things turn irreversably nasty, but even then there’s a note of humour between the lines, with Jeff’s increasingly desperate attempts to impress poor Georgianne and to achieve his goal.

It also helps that Jeff doesn’t start out as a stock model psychopath, rather he slowly slides down the slippery slope to become an interesting custom version of one. There are hints early on, when he playacts with a hooker, that things might have been simmering under the surface for a long time. There are also several mentions of him having worked very long hours, which might have been the trigger for the sudden shift from thoughts into action.

The apocalyptic ending with the wildfires creeping towards the now injured Jeff is poetic and even romantic, although not in the way Jeff imagined. In general the story is a simple one, but psychologically it’s very perceptive, filled with a very dark sense of humour, and Tessier plays all the right notes to keep the reader entertained and curious about the turns the story will take.

**** (4/5)

Death Trance (1986) by Graham Masterton

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Come for the oriental mysticism, stay for a Southern business thriller involving cottonseed, the stuff they use to make margarine and salad dressings and whatnot. Who knew the cooking oil business was so competitive? Our hero, Randolph, is constantly butting heads with the price-fixing Cottonseed Association, until the association sabotages handy Randy’s factory and sends former Vietnam vets to brutally rape-murder his entire family. You didn’t see this on Dallas or Dynasty.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, we’re introduced to Michael the adept, who is able to walk and talk with the dead while in something called a death trance. The only problem are the leyaks, sort of dementors or ring-wraiths of the spirit world, who roam the dimension of the dead trying to find sacrifices for their unholy goddess, Rangda. Who also appears as a long-toothed papier-mache mask that occasionally comes alive, see cover. Having learned of the possibility to see his family one more time, Randy looks up Michael and the two set to work, while the Memphis cottonseed barons plot their demise.

Death Trance is basically a soap opera, complete with hidden family secrets and surprise sons, but with some brutal violence and supernatural deities thrown in for good measure. Masterton’s pacing is good, but there’s a bit of bloat at over 400 pages, and ultimately there’s no escaping the fact that this is mostly a novel about cottonseed. Will Randy manage to fulfill his contract to Sun Taste or will he lose the deal? Will his company go bankrupt?

Fortunately there’s violence and demons to distract the reader from all that excitement. The terrible rape-murder of Randy’s family is superbly nasty, but the rest is mostly your supernatural scares biting off a head or two. The Indonesian mysticism comes off as authentic enough, and the scenes in the spirit dimension are creepy enough to keep one entertained. But what about those all-important cottonseed deals, will the association accept Randy’s fair proposition or are they just playing for time? These are the questions that quickly begin to overwhelm the narrative.

Death Trance may not be Masterton at the peak of his powers, but it’s entertaining enough. There’s never a dull moment, even if some moments seem slightly silly and by the end the novel feels like it’s rapidly running out of steam. There may not be quite enough horror as one might like, but at least one learns a lot about cottonseed.

*** (3/5)

Black Cat (1982) by John Russo

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An African panther cult comes to America, mauling and killing and rhyming bad poetry (“Panther and I/Never to die”). It begins in Africa, where Simon the witch doctor bonds with a panther, mixing blood and getting matching brands, and goes on a murderous campaign of rampage against the local whites. Meanwhile stateside, the Martin family is travelling in New Mexico, where some hippies are quickly killed and Tom the suffering Vietnam vet is blamed. Scared and injured, the Martins encounter a local family whose pater familias was the late great Jungle Dan the Panther Man. Only he’s not dead, he’s alive, and the whole family is more or less nuts. Cue Benny Hill theme music.

The separate timelines eventually converge, with the revelation that Jungle Dan the wannabe Panther King brought Simon’s homicidal panther from Africa 10 years ago in the vain hope of turning it into a circus spectacle and some juicy profits. But the jungle cat bit back, which is what you deserve when you mess with wild animals. There isn’t much obvious social or ecological comment here, this is after all a paperback novel from 1982, but in horror it’s always best not to mess with things that might mess with you.

At a meagre 223 pages the novel doesn’t outstay its welcome or get bogged down in sidequests, it’s all very straigthforward once the African and the New Mexico plotlines find their places. There’s a fantastic, quick-paced and very cinematic B-movie quality to John “Night of the Living Dead” Russo’s writing, which is not at all surprising considering his screenwriter credits, with smart visual descriptions, such as the mauled Jungle Dan or the mistaken identities of his sons. There’s also a nice clarity to the characters and their motivations, again something that is probably one of the first rules of screenwriting. Tom the Vietnam vet gets the most complete character arc, going from slightly suicidal to finding something of a purpose and turning into a complicated hero in the process. The violence and sex are visceral, blunt and suitably gruesome, the novel punching perhaps even slightly above its own weight, since the plot never really requires it to go to such lengths. But again, it’s all something that might look really good on the big screen.

**** (4/5)

The Moonchild (1979) by Kenneth McKenney

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Moonchild, hear the mandrake scream! Sadly no relation to the Iron Maiden song of the same title, this novel set in the late 1800s is the story of Edmund and Anna Blackstone, whose young son Simon dies of fever during the family’s Christmas vacation in Bavaria. Soon a helpful native tells the parents their now deceased son is a Moonchild, an undead creature that lusts for murder and will turn more bestial with each kill. Born simply because someone in a toga messed up the calendar back in ancient times, the only solution is to keep him locked in the coffin and bury him in the English town where he was born before he turns seven years old.

And so the chase is on across continental Europe, as the bereaving parents race against the clock and capture as hapless railwaymen and other inquisitive minds try to pry open the Moonchild’s coffin, only to be murdered by the undead child and his incredible growing monster arm.

There’s a distinctive Dracula vibe here, with the dark central European milieu and all its superstitions coming crashing down on the civilized English couple. Sherlock Holmes is another clear inspiration, with the role of the clever investigator played by an inspector Fuchs (German for ‘Fox’) from Munich, who quickly figures out there’s more to the case than meets the eye.

As a monster, the Moonchild is a particularly tame one, completely docile while out of light and never even getting out of the coffin, just lying there, smiling and shining while throttling its victims. The novel isn’t at all concerned about horror and gore, instead it’s all about the atmosphere. The snowy Bavarian alps, the steam trains racing through the night, all the accoutrements of fin-de-si├Ęcle Europe. It’s a lovely setting, and the novel makes a good use of it. The writing in this late-1970s novel is also engaging and above par for the genre, with a little humour, suitably interesting characters (wait for the mysterious watchman in the finale) and some good heft to all the ponderous supernatural shenanigans.

**** (4/5)

The Walking (2000) by Bentley Little

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First things first: The Walking is not really a zombie novel, it’s only a handful of people who won’t stay down like they’re supposed to and none of them hunger after anyone’s brain. Miles the private detective is hired to investigate a man who thinks he’s been tracked, while his dad has a stroke and eventually dies. But he keeps walking nevertheless, eventually towards a town that was washed away ages ago. A town, as it is slowly revealed, founded and inhabited by witches.

In the American southwest, you may ask? Yes, for some reason The Walking is set in a parallel universe where witches were a thing in the old west, persecuted like Mormons until they, too, escaped into the wild vastness of the desert. The setup is perhaps a leap of faith too far, on top of many other leaps. It might have made more sense if the witches originated in historical Salem, because now the plot just slips headlong into the realm of fantasy. Spell-slinging warlocks and witches in the old west are silly, no matter how many ways they disembowel and slice hapless cowboys in the course of the novel.

Bentley Little seems to have two styles, the first one where he takes something ordinary like mailmen or a home owners association and turns the ingredients into clever weird fiction, something like a heavily diluted Thomas Ligotti. The second, far lesser style is a more traditional one and sadly altogether less remarkable, with your usual elements such as ghosts or the walking dead. Unlike, say, The Mailman, The Walking also suffers from overexplanation, where the mystery is neatly explained and resolved and is exactly what you thought it would be, with no surprises.

Generally speaking The Walking is an entirely readable novel, the plot flows well and within its small universe everything makes sense, even if the characters are perhaps a little too gullible when faced with all the crazy happenings. The reader, however, might choose to question a little bit more and that’s where it all begins to fall apart.

** (2/5)

The Wells of Hell (1981) by Graham Masterton

Crab people, crab people, taste like crab, talk like people. It’s all quiet and quaint in the small Connecticut town until the water in one of the wells turns yellow with microscopic creatures emitting an enzyme that begins turning people into giant crabs. Mason the smartass plumber along with Shelley the scene-stealing cat (he survives unscathed, of course) and Dan the resident scientist begin to figure out what’s happening, while an elder god slumbers uneasily deep beneath the town, waiting for his new reign of glory.

It’s clearly a mishmash of Lovecraftian tropes, with elements from The Colour Out of Space (something taints the well and a family comes to a cruel end) and anything to do with Cthulhu (everything fishy), but surprisingly, it all works. Another clear influence comes from old 50s monster movies, with smalltown cops chasing alien monsters. Some of these references are, of course, also referred to by the characters, who are all written as smart and logical characters who easily transcend the usual genre fodder.

The plot is mostly serious stuff, but Masterton has his tongue firmly in cheek, bringing in healthy heaps of humour especially through Mason, who is an easygoing slacker and easy to sympathize with as he pragmatically navigates the new, crazy situation. To Masterton’s credit, even Mason’s romantic subplot is not exactly as one would expect in genre fiction, with the writer throwing a sudden spanner in the works the moment things begin to escalate.

The Wells of Hell might feel a little too conscious of itself, skirting the border between horror and parody. But Masterton’s skills as a writer shine through, with the horror elements being true to the genre and the humour feeling effortless and natural. Horror fiction often feels nasty for the sake of nastiness, but there’s no sign of anything like that here. If anything, The Wells of Hell is a distinctly nice, quick-paced novel with smart characters engaged in an honestly pulpy adventure.

***** (5/5)

Darkfall (1992) by Stephen Laws

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It’s Christmas and a bunch of office workers are having a party when a storm rises outside. Down below in the cellar, a drunk caretaker of the 14-story office building drinks and dreams of better times, when he hears strange sounds. Going upstairs to investigate he discovers everyone has disappeared, except for one human hand.

The police arrive to investigate, led by Cardiff the DI, but so do some shady government folks led by the clearly evil Rohmer who are in on what’s going on. Soon some of the people who disappeared are reappearing elsewhere, but transformed, with one old lady having turned mostly into plaster and concrete and hungry for some human meat. And then some of the policemen and a hapless reporter are sucked into the walls of the building.

It’s a classic scifi horror mystery that would make Nigel Kneale proud, reminiscent of many 70s and 80s horror series from British TV. The pseudo-scientific explanations for ghosts, for example, feel like something out of Kneale’s excellent The Stone Tape. Most of the action even takes place inside the office building, something TV series often did back in the day because of budget restrictions. The limitations of the style and format were a strength then and Laws uses them to a great effect.

The plot, mostly happening in real time, has a quick pace and the characters fill their roles well enough. The mystery sustains the novel for the first half and the rest is mostly survival, as Laws comes up with ways to keep the people inside the building for the gruesome finale, which manages to conjure up associations with the scifi horror classic The Fly.

Darkfall wears its scifi horror influences proudly and makes them into something new. The horrors themselves may be fairly conventional, basically literary equivalents of people in rubber suits, but the implications – of people being sucked into walls and still retaining some resemblence of consciousness – are fantastically nasty.

**** (4/5)

The Immaculate (1992) by Mark Morris

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Jack’s mother dies at childbirth and on that cue his father succumbs to drink and hatred, beating and berating Jack for simply existing. With all the emotional baggage it’s no wonder Jack years later becomes Jack the successful horror author (with such novels as Bleeding Hearts and Splinter Kiss), living a life of luxury in London with his new girlfriend Gail. Having run away from his childhood the minute he was old enough, he returns to the village to sort out his late father’s estate, only to run into ghosts of the past.

There’s very little anything overtly supernatural in Mark Morris’ third novel. Jack’s late father appears like Hamlet’s dad’s ghost, having unfinished business with his son who he so badly mistreated. Footsteps are heard from upstairs, a voice on the phone whispers Jack’s name. These lost souls aren’t there to exact revenge, they’re there because they are sad for the opportunities they missed when they were alive.

The horror comes from the living, as it often does. When he wasn’t out killing cats, Patty Bates used to beat up Jack mercilessly, and he hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. Now a pub landlord with a similarly unhinged teenage daughter, Patty is out to get Jack, with Tracy the daughter and a biker gang providing assistance. A car chase with Jack in a Mini with bikers on his heels in the narrow village lanes is probably an overload of Britishness.

The Immaculate isn’t out and out horror, it’s subtle and quiet, with just a hint of the supernatural as a pleasant seasoning. Instead of death, the novel is about life. Jack slowly begins to understand his father and as a result forgives him, giving both of them peace. The storyline with Patty, however, doesn’t have any sort of payoff, leaving things as-is, a disctinctly odd choice considering how much of an incurable asshole Patty is for the whole novel. And there’s a twist ending, which somehow feels very dodgy if you stop to consider it, so don’t.

**** (4/5)

Childgrave (1982) by Ken Greenhall

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As placenames go, Childgrave is a pretty ominous one. That however doesn’t deter Jonathan the single-parent photographer as he tracks down Sara the honestly a bit dull harpist in his quest to win her heart. The price of passion, oh, just your daughter for the town’s annual cannibalistic sacrifice.

Ken Greenhall, occasionally writing as Jessica Hamilton, cornered the smart narrator market pretty well between this and his novel Elizabeth, the one about the unhinged witch-child in training. Here, the narrator is a smartass newyorker, something like a less nebbish seventies’ Woody Allen (and without the accusations). Yes, there’s humour in a horror novel, although the horror side of things is pretty mild for the first two thirds of the novel.

This is a slow burn, with things beginning to get out of whack only when photographs of Sara and Jonathan’s daughter Joanne reveal spectral apparitions of people who Joanne has been talking to since meeting Sara for the first time. The pace quickens more when Jonathan travels to the titular town and reaches its peak when the history behind the town’s naming is revealed. It’s good stuff, although Jonathan’s jocular manner does begin to grate just a little bit before it fades away in favour of some old-timey horrors.

Some of the character motivations are also a bit dodgy, with Jonathan’s quest for love feeling just a little bit silly for a supposedly adult character. And curiously Sara, the object of his desire, is barely elevated above just that, an object. The tiny cast is rounded up by Jonathan’s agent, a lifelong bachelor who finds love in Sara’s female agent. Yes, it’s a lot like a Woody Allen film, with birds of a feather flocking together in old New York and so on.

Greenhall’s writing is entertaining and above par for sure, but it does become a little much. Occasionally, he seems more interested in showing off rather than telling the story. For Elizabeth, a more contained and effective one-two punch, it worked. Here, it begins to feel inauthentic. Whatever Childgrave’s flaws may be, there is enough suspense here to last the whole novel, and the payoff is as nice as a cupful of child’s blood served with slices of tender meat.

**** (4/5)

The Survivor (1977) James Herbert

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A 747 crashes down near Eton and all passengers and crew are lost. All, except for Keller the co-pilot, who miraculously walks away from the crash site unharmed with no recollection of what caused the crash. In his quest to remember he turns to priests and psychics while the ghosts of the dead roam the village green. Soon enough the townspeople are caught in James Herbert’s familiar episodic format where every death scene is a minor biography of the victim.

The Survivor was Herbert’s third offering and he was clearly trying to extricate himself from the effective but limited format that made his first two novels a success. Does he manage it? Not entirely, since he keeps slipping into the old habit every other chapter. The chapters with Keller trying to find out what happened work very well until the very end, but the episodic death scenes feel forced, with the spirits of the dead lashing out at random people who have nothing to do with anything. There’s some undeniably neat horror there, such as a wife slowly poisoning her gay husband, but the scenes are so disparate with all the fat school kids and the vicars that they barely stick together.

But whenever Herbert breaks free of the format, he’s doing a good job. The crash, the introduction of Keller and some of the horror, such as when Hobbs the psychic mauls himself, are a long way from The Rats. The Survivor isn’t quite the departure Herbert probably hoped it would be; his next one, Fluke, about a man reincarnated as a dog, on the other hand, would probably be a step too far.

Generally speaking The Survivor is vintage 70s Herbert, quick-paced, well-written horror that introduces supernatural elements to his oeuvre (The Rats and The Fog having derived from science fiction). That transition is seamless, with Herbert getting the mood and the atmosphere spot on. It’s also still a slim volume, the bloat would come later. The resolution of the story, the mundane reason for the crash, is, however, a major letdown, a dull explanation that shouldn’t possibly have taken so long for the investigators to figure out.

The Survivor is a noble attempt, but whereas The Rats and The Fog were direct, merciless double punches on the reader’s nose, The Survivor is confused about itself, what it wants to be and where it wants to go, much like Keller the titular protagonist. There is progress, however, and the novel does loudly declare that Herbert would later be much more than just a one-trick-pony.

*** (3/5)