The Dark (1980) by James Herbert

Herbert_The_DarkThe Dark is a 1980 horror novel by James Herbert, where a sentient darkness is making people violently insane. By 1980 Herbert was starting to turn away from the fast-paced style of The Rats and The Fog that made his career. His following works would display a more experienced writer, and while The Dark is a step out of the past, it also still contains all those trademark vignettes where a character is introduced only to be killed a paragraph or two later. 

One night strange killings are taking place on Willow Road. A girl sets her house on fire, a nurse strangles a patient with her hair, a dirty old man kills a couple of taunting teenagers. Enter Chris Bishop, a professional debunker of hauntings, who is asked to look again at the Beechwood House, an abandoned building in the area where a mass suicide took place less than a year earlier, with victims including a notable occultist. Joining forces with a blind psychic and her daughter they soon discover that there’s something in the house, something dark, that’s affecting people who come into contact with it. This piece of real estate isn’t gonna sell, so the owner orders it torn down. And then the Dark begins to spread all over town. The spectators at a football match are the first to be touched by the Dark, turning against each other even more so than opposing supporters usually do. Then all London follows suit. 

The Dark is basically a retread of the same terrain that The Fog already dealt with in a much better fashion. In one it’s a fog that turns people murderously insane, in the other it’s darkness. The Dark has some added backstory, but it comes across as contrived and tired. The mass suicide is worked out to have been a major event, but somehow it’s almost an afterthought to most characters, including Chris the psychic investigator, who was the first to discover the bodies. Chris doesn’t seem to be the brightest bulb in the story: in another scene he has barely escaped certain death after having been lured to a remote house, but a chapter or two later he’s suddenly called to come see his wife at the mental asylum, where the nurses are now all new and speak in terms real nurses don’t. Aww gee, Chris, you don’t think it might be another trap? Spoiler: it is. 

Herbert’s a good enough writer to get through most of it, the kills being especially effective. The escalating violence at the football stadium is an excellent display of Herbert’s strengths, as are many of the other killings. There’s quite a bit of sexual violence here as well, which feels rather nasty, but in a perfectly good way. Sadly the plot and the rest of it feel cumbersome and only more so towards the end when things are supposed to escalate to the point that the government gets involved. The good vs. evil ending itself seems silly, with the obvious opposing force entering the stage to take care of the dark. Even a shape of the cross is apparently glimpsed for a moment, just to underline the obvious. The Dark seems to spell the end of vintage Herbert, but it’s worrisome that it’s the old elements that work here and the rest is just so much nonsense. 

** (2/5)

Erebus (1984) by Shaun Hutson

shaunhutson_erebus1Erebus is a 1984 horror novel by Shaun Hutson, set in the bucolic English countryside. The green and pleasant land is soon dripping with blood as a mare kills its own newborn foal, while at the abattoir it’s the bulls that get to do the slaughtering for a change. Unsurprisingly, the people who have eaten the meat of the tainted animals also start exhibiting bestial behaviour, sporting new canine teeth, their skin turning pale, hair growing from their palms… which I think traditionally means that they masturbate excessively? Anyway, it’s up to Jo the journalist and Tyler the farmer to solve the case and have a couple of explicit sex scenes, while dodging zombie vampires and a hitman, among other threats. Heads will explode, spines will be severed. 

Hutson is at home with action and gore, so there’s a lot of both. A crazy lot. Everything is done in excess, stretching creduility not to mention simple basics of anatomy and physics, but Hutson is clearly having fun, so the reader goes with it. The first half with its inexplicable and escalating animal behaviour is entertaining stuff in a Rats turned to 11 kind of way, but once the infection spreads to humans and there’s a plot to consider, Erebus becomes idiotic and repetitive. A sub-plot involving Jo the journalist and her New York mafia past is extremely dumb and contrived, not to mention completely unnecessary. 

The second half loses both its punch and its rhythm, with the characters running around aimlessly between a hotel and an evil chemical corporation (ran by an American, so you know it’s evil) for what seems like an eternity. Random characters pop up to help out. The bestial horror of the beginning is replaced by a watered-down version of ‘Salem’s Lot, with the good English country folks now turned into vampiric zombies, while Jo and Tyler are chased by a hitman for some silly reason. There’s a denouement, perhaps intended to strike fear, but all I could muster was a tired groan. Ranking somewhere between James Herbert and Guy N. Smith, Hutson clearly has the chops for a quick, fun, simple horror, but anything beyond that and we’re off into a B-grade thriller territory. Without the thrills.

** (2/5)

Adventureland (1990) by Steve Harris

Adventureland is a 1990 debut horror novel by British author Steve Harris (1954-2016) who would go on to publish 7 hefty novels during the decade. It starts as young Tommy Cousins goes missing without a trace at a funfair. He’s never found, and eventually the fair continues on to the next town, real-life Basingstoke, where 19-year-old Dave Carter is hanging out with his girlfriend Sally and his mates while dodging Roddy the violent bully and his cronies. 

Dave witnesses several strange and unsettling events, in retrospect heralding the arrival of the carnival in town. The group visits the AdventureLand funfair, where a ride on the Ghost Train becomes an impossibly long underground nightmare journey, at the end of which Dave’s friends Phil and Judy go missing. Dave and Sal go full Scooby Doo on the fair, discovering there’s far more to the funfair than just the mystery of a few missing persons.  

Adventureland is a nineties’ novel, and as was popular in the wake of Clive Barker it begins as horror but takes a hard turn to dark fantasy. While the first half is firmly rooted in realism — it’s set in Harris’ home town of Basingstoke, and all the mentioned street names and car parks are accurate, I checked — the second half takes a deep dive into imaginative otherworlds with their own strange laws of nature, the Ghost Train being an entry point into these secret dimensions. The big bad is trying to upend the delicate balance that holds the other worlds and our real world in a delicate balance. It’s all a bit cosmic, with Dave and Sal receiving magical crucifixes and other assistance from mysterious folks who want to keep things steady.

As an idea it’s a hard sell, but Harris pulls through, going for broke with his ideas no matter how loony they might seem. There’s a lot to digest here, from hellish landscapes to a shadowy limbo version of Basingstoke, a precursor to the Stranger Things’ UpsideDown, if you will. But every strand is accounted for, somehow building up into a fun, fast and hugely imaginative narrative. It may be a case of a little too much of the good stuff in the last couple hundred pages, but for the most part Harris’ own enduring enthusiasm for the material shines through. He’s not slacking, every fight is visceral, with Dave barely escaping with his life numerous times, constantly taking more damage than seems humanly possible. The characters are far from heroes, often failing at their attempts, a scenario that repeats perhaps one or two times too many, although I assume it might be an essentially British trait for the characters. Dave and Sal are, however, very well written, with Dave as the reluctant hero and Sal as the sassy go-getter, somehow pulling themselves up by their bootstraps even in the most dire circumstances. The monsters, led by the ghastly impresario Fred Purdue are deliciously nasty. Eating the skin of a victim while keeping them alive? Or how about a giant grubby moth under the bed, anyone? The arch of one of the bullies, Roddy, is also noteworthy and deeply tragical, with Harris turning a one-dimensional bully into something fairly complex, with even a shot at redemption at the very end. 

There are lovely references to 90s Britain, with Dave fiddling with his Amstrad CPC and the gang stopping for a kebab after the pub. Adventureland was published by Tor in the US with the alternate title The Eyes of the Beast. Presumably the supremely English setting and nature of the characters was a bit too alien for the folks on the other side of the Atlantic, but on this side it feels very familiar. Harris wrote what he knew, but didn’t stop there, he just went for the crazy at full tilt. While more related to Barker than King, Harris doesn’t exactly own a debt to any of the major authors, instead striking a fairly unique path all his own. Adventureland is a delightful and inventive novel, which perhaps came several years too late, with the horror boom already waning into oblivion in the course of the nineties. Harris was dropped by his publisher after Straker’s Island in 1998, and apparently that spelled the end of his short but productive writing career. According to an interview there were a couple of completed novels after that (an extract from The Switch, deemed too violent, can be found on his website through the Wayback Machine), but nothing has yet appeared, nor are any of his published novels available in print or as ebooks. The sheer energy of Adventureland makes me want to read more Harris, with a feeble wish that others might some day be able to do so too.    

**** (4/5)

The Stand (1978) by Stephen King

Back in 1978 Stephen King was an author with a couple of bestsellers under his belt and things were seemingly getting bigger with each book. So for his fifth act, he chose to wrote about the Patty Hearst kidnapping. That didn’t pan out, so after a while he switched gears and started writing The Stand.

Things got bigger alright, with the original manuscript clocking in at 1200 pages. The publishers requested that a third should be culled, and so it was. Until 1990, when the full uncut (and slightly updated) version saw the light of day. 

The Stand is a good vs. evil epic against an apocalyptic background, with America and the world succumbing to a deadly man-made virus nicknamed Captain Trips. However, some people are immune, and begin having strange dreams, either of a black woman or a dark man (they are of no relation to each other). Following their dreams, the survivors traverse the ravaged landscape and make their way to Mother Abagail the ancient black woman and establish a Christian colony of survivors called the Free Zone in Boulder, Colorado. Meanwhile the dark man, Randall Flagg, establishes another colony of survivors in Las Vegas following another set of values. Inevitably confrontations ensue between the two factions. It’s a simple story but it takes a whole lot of pages to tell it. 

The length is initially a strength, with King languidly introducing the main players, beginning with Stu from East Texas, who is there at the beginning when the virus hits and is the white hat of the story. Larry the musician has a hit song just as the apocalypse hits, while Nick the deaf-mute drifter gives the looming apocalypse an extra dimension due to his inability to hear or speak. Nick eventually pairs up with Tom the mentally handicapped man who cannot read (oh the irony) and for whom everything spells M-O-O-N. Fran the pregnant girl is the only survivor of her town in addition to Harold the fat kid, who has an unrequited crush on her. Lloyd the convict gets a job as Randall Flagg’s lieutenant and Nadine becomes Flagg’s secret bride. And so on, the first half of the novel recounts their lives before and immediately after the end of the world as they knew it, and how they eventually find their places in the new world. King takes his time to set his pieces on the board, pays minute attention to some of them, giving them small adventures that do not really progress the plot, but contribute to its solid foundation. The first half is all about a build-up to something epic. 

Unfortunately, that’s where The Stand collapses. The second half of The Stand is dull as dishwater. It doesn’t help that most of it consists of meetings and other bureaucratic endeavours of the new settlement. If something breaks the tedium, it happens suddenly and without reason, like a bomb that suddenly goes off. King has gone on record that the bomb was a way to get the characters moving again, but similar things happen again and again in the second half, culminating in the detonation of a nuclear bomb by the infamous hand of god. It’s as if King literally lost the plot in the second half and made something up on the fly, slouching towards the end because he’d made it that far, there was a book to deliver and that Patty Hearst idea wasn’t going to resurrect itself.  

There are problems with some of the characters as well. Stu as the leading man is another Ben Mears of ‘Salem’s Lot fame, a bland white male hero, annoying to a fault because there is barely anything there. Fran the pregnant girl is the leading lady, who comes off as a grounded figure in the beginning but then degenerates into a shrill new mother archetype. These two milquetoast characters are going to be the Adam and Eve of the new world? Please. Mother Abagail the ancient magical black woman is problematic to say the least, and that’s all I’m going to say about her. Glen the professor has Kojak the smart dog and Ralph the man with the pick-up has a pick-up. Some of the characters, however, do grow up in the course of the novel, most importantly the cowardly Larry who does become something of a righteous man, as per the lyrics of his song. The tragedy of Harold the incel is also noteworthy. He tries to become a better man and even does, but is eventually undone by his inability to let go of the mocking rejection by Fran. And Randall Flagg as the cool, calculating counterpart to the goody-good God-worshipping Mother Abagail lights up every scene he’s in. 

However, the biggest character in The Stand is God. He’s pushing Mother Abagail to make a stand, he’s assembling the heroes, and it’s literally his hand that ends the book. The world after the superflu is divided into two camps of good and evil, black and white, with no shades in between. There are no gray areas in The Stand, no characters that would just go thanks but no thanks, we’re good, when nutcases come calling them to join their silly quests. Whatever sense of realism King’s prose had accumulated in his career by this point goes out the window and is replaced by simplistic superstitions. And it’s all the more painful because there’s nothing original or inventive in these choices. Going biblical may help make your book more epic just because the Bible is the original epic, but it feels lazy and uninspired. 

The uncut version of 1990 returns the previously cut third back into the fold, and also updates some of the dates and pop culture references to account for the 12 year gap. While the longer version gives the novel more breathing room, the changes are surprisingly minute. Anything that didn’t work in the original edition still doesn’t work. It’s just more. King’s notoriety as the writer of long books was probably spawned here, even if his following books were quite condensed and effective and the bloat would only return much later. Of the previous books, The Stand perhaps best resembles ‘Salem’s Lot with its large cast, but whereas the vampire saga was set in a single town, The Stand spreads it out to all of North America. The contrast is even more striking in comparison to The Shining, which was confined into one hotel. A boundless sandbox isn’t perhaps the best match for King, or for horror in general. 

There’s a lot of good in The Stand. All of the first half is excellent, with the characters journeying through the apocalypse seeking safety. The dying world is perfectly captured, with survivors of the superflu still facing many other deadly situations, not to mention mental problems. There are excellent small nuggets, such as the chapter where King rapidly goes through a series of quick snapshots of ordinary people suffering a variety of fates. But once the main cast arrive in Colorado and make their stand, it all stumbles into a standstill. One of the points of this re-read is to remind myself what the books were actually like, and everything in the first half was just as good as I remembered it from several decades ago. But I had no recollection of the second half at all, other than from the two TV miniseries, and getting through it felt like a boring chore, not an enjoyment. There’s no denying that The Stand is a classic story of an apocalypse, and some of it is great, but half of it isn’t. 

** (2/5)

This was book 6 in my Stephen King re-read. Next up: The Long Walk by Richard Bachman

Cold Whisper (1991) by Rick Hautala

coldwhisperSarah is a teenager with a guardian angel, a personal ghost whose modus operandi is to kill anyone who displeases Sarah. Having accidentally gotten her cat and her little brother killed this way, Sarah is understandably beginning to feel some remorse. Then her mother gets brutally raped and killed by a stranger, which Sarah witnesses from a distance. In this situation the ghost, Tully, proves mostly useless, although he does later dispatch her new (pregnant) stepmother, establishing that he only attacks those who are easy prey.

The mechanisms behind this old world ghost are decidedly murky. Apparently he can only go after people Sarah knows, although that doesn’t stop him from killing the rapist’s later accomplice in an unrelated crime. Sarah’s ancient grandmother fills in some of the blanks, supplying Finnish words such as “haamu” and “tonttu”, meaning a ghost and a pixie, to describe the capricious Tully. Meanwhile, Alan the mother-rapist is looking for the now university freshman Sarah, having become obsessed with getting the daughter as well. Halfway through the novel, just after Sarah has conveniently managed to banish Tully for good, Alan abducts and rapes her and then rapes her some more. 

It’s a tale of two halves here, with the beginning concentrating on Sarah’s struggle with figuring out Tully and trying not to kill anyone accidentally. The second half is all about the abduction, with Sarah’s new boyfriend Michael and a boozed-up former cop Elliot trying to locate her with the help of Tully’s slightly cryptic tips. It all starts to feel a bit Dean Koontz with Alan the psychopathic mother-daughter-rapist slash occasional killer, while Tully the main attraction is relegated to a supernatural GPS navigator. 

Finnish edition with cover art by Jukka Murtosaari

The setting is Maine, from the woods to the university, and I’m sure Hautala is at his most familiar element here. However, most of Hautala’s characters sound implausible, with lines that make one cringe. Many of the characters are very highly strung, emotionally explosive, with dialogue often taking sudden turns that have no relation to human behaviour in the real world. Sarah as the angsty teenager is one of the few to actually benefit from Hautala’s edgy lines, but from others it sounds as if they have some unresolved psychological issues. Hautala also seems to revert to type with Elliot the former cop, somehow thinking an alcohol addiction might make him seem more real. But it doesn’t really fit the character. 

Cold Whisper is a mediocre novel. Somewhere inside it is a neat idea, about a guardian spirit gone berserk, but Hautala doesn’t quite manage to pull it together. The Finnish elements don’t really add anything of any substance to the mix, which is unfortunate, since boosting them might’ve elevated some of the novel above the generic. As it stands, it all feels slightly disposable. The holographic cover, however, is spot-on after some of Zebra’s earlier attempts. 

*** (3/5)

The Brownstone (1980) by Ken Eulo

brownstoneChandal and Justin are a young couple living in Manhattan when they receive an irresistible offer to move into one of New York’s elegant and desirable apartment buildings. Grabbing the deal of a lifetime they move in, but soon Chandal begins seeing ghosts while Justin becomes increasingly strange and secretive. Turns out the two elderly sisters who own the brownstone are actually demon-worshipping cultists who want the couple for their own nefarious ends. 

The story goes that Ken Eulo read the Amityville Horror and thought he could do something similar in his sleep. So he apparently took bits and pieces from earlier bestsellers, put them in a blender and produced a limp, lifeless copy of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967), The Sentinel (1974) and The Amityville Horror (1977). The Brownstone is the end of a long line, an embarrassing money grab, a novel without purpose, without inspiration, without soul. 

The plot is a tedious sleepwalk where events take place in locations until the required page quota is filled. There’s no continuity, no sense of a build-up. The sinister true nature of the sisters as discount satanists is revealed by the end of chapter 1. The psychology of the main characters is nonexistent, their behaviour doesn’t resemble that of real humans. Chandal sees a ghost or two or a dozen, but isn’t affected in any way. It’s just something that happens, and is completely forgotten by the next paragraph. Nothing connects, nothing resonates. Even Mintz the fucking cat doesn’t behave like a real cat! Justin the theatre director gives up his theatre job at one point to take up photography, until he reverts back to the theatre for, I guess, no reason. His main role in the novel is to lust obsessively after Magdalen the older sister for a good length of the novel (I’m making no judgments here, but it’s a bit weird) and to behave badly at casting calls. After Justin asks one of the aspiring actresses to undress at a casting call her angry husband the construction worker and his friends begin accosting Justin with their unlikely working class accents which probably counts as horror for some New Yorkers. 

Even thinking about this book gives me a headache. Eulo acknowledges his editor at Pocket Books, which kind of feels like the publisher wanted a horror novel set in New York and asked Ken the struggling writer to do the job. In many places on the internet Eulo is referred to as an Eugene O’Neill award winning author, but I was unable to find any reliable official source. It sure wasn’t for this novel. 

The only reason I kept turning the pages was to see how low the quality would go. And it goes pretty low before the end, which at least tries to salvage some of the plot points (it’s something to do with the old witch wanting Chandal’s young body for her spirit to inhabit and Justin somehow being her devoted husband who she murdered and who the hell really cares). As a whole there’s nothing to redeem The Brownstone, it may very well be one of the worst books I’ve read for this blog. It’s rambling, it’s boring, it makes absolutely no sense. There’s almost a feeling that the author is underestimating his readers, as if this sort of material is just a bunch of simple scares for the masses. For some reason, many readers remember The Brownstone fondly, after all it did sell profusely in the wake of its predecessors and nostalgia is a bitch. The Brownstone even spawned two sequels of its own, The Bloodstone and The Deathstone. I will not be reading them any time soon.  

* (1/5)

Such Nice People (1980) by Sandra Scoppettone

Tom is the all-American golden-haired blue-eyed boy, the class president, the captain of the baseball team, loved by everyone. But lately the 17-year-old has seemed to be a little off, as if he’s been preoccupied with something. Girl trouble? No, it turns out he’s been contacted by a purple-haired alien god called SOLA, who has commanded Tom to kill his family on December 22nd. It is now December 18th.

The countdown begins, and we meet the Nash family: Cole the forty-something father, who is a closed-up bundle of problems, a sort of a Mr. Darcy in the Pennsylvania suburbs. Anne the mom is having an affair, while Kit the eldest is a sensible young woman who has already left home and is studying psychology at the university. Tom is the 17-year-old conduit of SOLA, among other things, followed up by Sara, who has an eating disorder, Steven, who at 12 just loves to toke it up every chance he gets, and Max the youngest, after which the parents stopped having sex. Ostensibly they are all very nice people, well-established, relatively successful in their endeavours… but underneath there’s a bit of Patrick Bateman in each one.

Every member of the family as well as some of the adjoining characters get their turn in the spotlight, as layers are peeled off one by one. We get a peek behind the illusion of the perfect family and find out they are anything but. Tom might be the nuttiest of the bunch, but Cole the father isn’t far behind, with long-running problems dealing with people including his own children. Anne the mother on the other hand is ready to throw his children under the bus to avoid getting into trouble with Cole. There were emotional and psychological problems in the family way before SOLA came on the scene, implying that mental illness might be hereditary. Even young Max blacks out at one point and does something for no reason.

This Christmas novel is a very slow burn, but Scoppettone paces it perfectly. I read the novel in two sittings, completely enthralled by the drama that was being unveiled. Tom’s increasingly psychopathic plans about how he will go about it and where he will acquire guns are sprinkled throughout, constantly increasing the tension that is pretty tightly wound from the beginning. It’s also refreshing that none of the characters, despite their other failings, are idiots. Anne, Sara and even stoned Steven (in a rare misstep, his drug habit seems a little over the top for a 12-year-old) figure out pretty soon that there is something strange about how their son and brother has been acting lately. Tom’s girlfriend Jennifer also realizes something is seriously off and plans to break up with him. Neither is Tom able to hide his enthusiasm for his upcoming transformation into the Grandduke of SOLA (for some reason, he is planning to spare his elder sister Kit, who in the new world order will become the Grandduchess), he’s spilling the beans well in advance. But any attempts to intervene are too little and too late, sometimes because the family keeps their secrets. And even without Tom’s SOLA-induced massacre the family unit would be irreparably dismantled, with Cole the father scheming to disappear entirely and Anne planning to divorce him for another man. All the big changes in their lives are, however, scheduled for after December 22nd.

There’s relatively little actual violence in the story until the main event, but it’s felt on every goddamn page. The Nash household is a powder keg and the fuse is lit. There’s a sarcastic viciousness in the way Scoppettone dissects each family member, clinically, impassionately, with precision, touching just the right nerves that will hurt the most. The contrast between Tom’s otherworldly visions and the mundane family drama strikes just the right chord. And the novel is very nasty at times, a true paperback from hell. There is a fantastically demented scene depicted from two angles involving a shed and a plunger that will be permanently etched in the reader’s memory. But none of this nastiness takes anything away from the quality of the writing. This is a very well crafted book, with detailed characters and a nicely constructed structure. It’s sad that the book has been out of print since its paperback edition. Such Nice People is a masterful novel and well worth its reputation — but maybe not the skyrocketing secondhand price. 

***** (5/5)

The Scar (1981) by Gerald Suster

thescarHelen is the new raven-haired student at a prestigious private college for rich kids and everyone has the hots for her. Soon she attends a Satanic ritual the other students are having for, you know, shits and giggles. The ritual fails, Satan doesn’t appear, but Helen suddenly goes berserk and tries to bite a fellow student. She soon recovers, but begins exhibiting strange behaviour, being even more promiscious than before. Nothing like an occult ritual to make you lust for sex. Later, one by one, she seduces and copulates with every man who was present at the ritual, all of whom end up dead in a variety of ways soon after the deed is done. She also makes fast friends with a solitary crow and a horny on-the-dole voyeur. Or familiars, as one might call such bestial servants. She also has a small scar below her breast, which gives the novel its title. 

There’s a pattern at play here, which her meek history teacher Laurence discovers after Helen sets him up as a scapegoat and a rapist. Having been caught with his dick hanging out, Laurence does what any historian would do in the situation and goes into research mode, poring over old books for clues. He uncovers a tale which none of the other characters really believe: it’s witchcraft, of course, as is hinted from the very beginning.

The rest of the tale behind Helen’s killing spree is slightly stranger, but it has to do with some actual historical figures and their bloodlines. There’s no holding back here, Suster goes all-out on cheese and gravy with the story. The plot stretches creduility to a breaking point but somehow still holds up, thanks to the characters and a fine sense of time and place. 

There’s a lovely quality to the gallery of characters, from the rich Oxbridge brats to loser punks. Geoffrey the Satanist is a drug-fiend who spouts out an Enochian incantation by page 33 with “Coraxo chis cormp Od Blans Lucal Aziazor Paeb Sobol Ilonon Chis Op Virq Eophan Od Raclir Maasi Bagle Caosgi” and so on. Henry is from a poor family, who sacrifice their own well-being just so their precious son can play at being a rich kid. Mick is a violent punk who is entranced by Helen and soon escalates to voyeurism and murder. Laurence the teacher is a piece of work as well, seemingly placid but seething underneath with barely held-back insanity, who at one point gets so horny that he entertains visiting a prostitute, but ends up buying a Victorian-style sex fantasy book at a porn store (The Taming of Julia (Illustrated), which seems to be an actual book, perhaps something written by Suster under a pseudonym?). One does suspect that Suster had his tongue firmly in cheek when he came up with this scene. 

Gerald Suster wrote a handful of horror novels under his own name, as well as a bunch of history books, with subjects such as Hitler as a black magician, Aleister Crowley and the Tarot. With a strong interest in the occult, he was apparently quite a figure in the British scene before his untimely death in 2001. Suster’s writing in the modern-era The Scar is breezy and fun, with a suitable sense of irony, signalling that the writer was very well aware that he was churning out cheap thrills for a paycheck (some of Suster’s novels seem to be Victorian-era pastiches of Arthur Machen, which may or may not be heavier going), with nice contemporary pop culture references. The punk venue is very eighties believable, down to its toilets. Someone puts on Pink Floyd’s Meddle, Sex Pistols gets referenced, as well as The Velvet Underground. Mick dreams of driving a Jensen, one of the characters discovered Satanism by reading Dennis Wheatley, Helen has a paperback of The Exorcist and so on. The novel slips a bit with its far-fetched plot, but the trappings around it are constantly entertaining. 

(The gray thing on the cover is an embossed image of a dagger that gets referenced in the novel. I’m thinking it didn’t quite turn out as planned.) 

**** (4/5)

Entombed (1981) by Guy N. Smith

entombedSimon the Exorcist has failed at his job, his faith has deserted him, and his wife has left him for someone wealthier and taken the kids, who now call their mom’s new man their “daddy”. It’s also raining, because this is Britain. A short trip to rural Wales seems just the ticket to get his life on track.

Together with Andrea the new female companion Simon makes his way to Cwmgilla, where an old mine has been turned into an underground tourist attraction. During a guided tour Simon hears an ill wind and senses an evil presence deep in the caverns. Is it ghosts? Satan? Maggie Thatcher? In any case, Simon quickly regains his faith and is again a man with a mission.

It gets murkier from here. A kid wanders away from his tour group and gets lost in the dark, a rescue party is decimated by a cave-in, another group is stranded below ground when the funicular stops working. Meanwhile Andrea the female, having been placed inside a protective pentagram by Simon, gets inexplicably horny and receives a mysterious male guest who proceeds to impregnate her. And in the decrepit village around the mine a group of satanists engage in orgies and sacrifices. As you do.

How does it all tie in? It doesn’t really. The plot is lost somewhere in the caverns, with ghostly child labour making an appearance in the latter half. Apparently there was a tyrannical foreman called Jethro who made kids work in the mines. He also happened to be an evil cultist who made the mines his “black church” (with a lot of gospel music, I guess), but somehow he’s in opposition to the current satanists, who just want to have a lot of sex. One of the groups even abducts Simon’s kids and cuts their throats in a rather vicious scene, but in all honesty I was having very hard time figuring out what was going on where and who was doing what to whom (several scenes are observed as visions, not really helping matters). By the time a satanic goat appears in the woods and hoofs their leader in the head it’s all over.

Smith can weave an interesting tale, but Entombed feels like it’s evil on top of evil with some evil thrown in as seasoning, boiled in a vat of evil, served with a side of evil. In other words there is simply too much evil going on (in a mere 190 pages) to make this a coherent story, with ghosts and demonic apparitions and romping satanists running around the quaint Welsh countryside. Simon the sorcerer doesn’t help things much, being a pious pain in the ass with a tendency to use cursive text and exclamation marks! when things get serious. The setting is fun enough, as dark caves always are, but like some of the characters, the story gets lost in the tunnels.

** (2/5)

Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King


Night Shift is Stephen King’s first short story collection, with stories originally published between 1968 and 1977. Spanning such a long length of time during a period when King was growing up as an author in leaps and bounds, it’s not a surprise that the collection is a hodgepodge of ideas and approaches, with King trying out different styles, both borrowing heavily from classics as well as starting to discover his own path. 

Some of the twenty stories share similarities, most notably several stories feature inanimate objects coming to life and many contain occult things, as in grimoires or spells. The town of Salem’s Lot also appears in two stories, both stand-outs: “Jerusalem’s Lot” is an epistolary story set in the 19th century, with King proudly displaying his influences with references to Lovecraftian grimoires and creatures. The other story, “One for the Road”, serves as a coda to the novel, with events set some years after Ben Mears torched the damn place. Some of the evil still lingers, as people in the neighbouring towns well know.

The stories with machines coming to murderous life are led by “The Mangler”, where an industrial laundry press machine is accidentally possessed by a demon. It’s supremely silly, of course, but there’s some undeniable horror as the unfeeling metal machine rips itself loose from its moorings and goes out on the streets to hunt for fresh meat. In “The Lawnmower Man” another machine, a lawnmower, chases a man who just wanted to get his garden into shape but accidentally got a company ran by Pan the ancient Greek god to do it. “Battleground” is about a professional assassin receiving a package of toy soldiers who attack him, with a heavy seasoning of black humour from the Tales from the Crypt school of horror.

Surprisingly it’s “Trucks” of Maximum Overdrive infamy that is one of the best offerings in the collection. A group of people get stuck at a diner when trucks and other large vehicles suddenly come to life and start killing people. The sentient trucks outwit the humans at every step. There’s hope that the vehicles might eventually run out of gas, but using morse code they command the humans to fuel them. The narrator imagines a future where the machines will begin producing new vehicles by themselves, destroying nature so that everything will be paved over with smooth asphalt. It’s the beginning of an apocalypse, but seen through a handful of people and their experiences, which makes the slow escalation of events supremely effective. The premise is ludicrous, but King pulls it off spectacularly, making these ordinary metal monsters actually scary. “Trucks” is also the first instance of King’s love affair with cars gone wild.

There’s plenty of conventional black magic in the stories, such as the kid who has a copy of the Necronomicon in his closet in “I Know What You Need” and an English teacher sacrificing his finger to cast a spell to get rid of undead bullies in “Sometimes They Come Back”. It’s fun, it’s quaint, it’s King as a bit of a fanboy, like a heavy metal band throwing in a couple of tracks about Cthulhu on their first album.

King doesn’t really need Cthulhu as a crutch. “Children of the Corn” conjures up a Nebraska town ran by children in thrall to something called He Who Walks Behind the Rows, while “Graveyard Shift” is a creature feature about workers cleaning up an old factory and discovering a long-forgotten basement populated with monstrous rats. Tales from the Crypt style meets Twilight Zone in “The Ledge”, about a man forced to walk around a skyscraper on a ledge, and “Quitters, Inc” about a company offering an unorthodox but efficient way to quit smoking. Body horror can be found in “I Am the Doorway” about an astronaut infected with something alien and “Gray Matter” about a man turning into a fungoid creature after drinking tainted beer. And so on, with some stories being more memorable than others.

It’s not a terribly serious collection, with most stories being fun, fast horror with things that go bump in the night. You can imagine King grinning behind his typewriter as he churned out these stories for a quick paycheck. In this context, some of the stories fall flat despite their literary and personal quality. The subtle but far too serious “The Woman in the Room” and “The Last Rung on the Ladder” feel out of place next to the animated manglers and occult rituals.

One thing that makes the stories resonate are the characters. Many of them are blue-collar men, ordinary, contemporary people who come face to face with something strange. There are the detectives of “The Mangler”, the clean-up crew of “Graveyard Shift”, the men who just happen to be there in “Trucks”, “One for the Road” and “Gray Matter” and are called upon to act when something happens. They’re not always the heroes, they lack faith, they can be cowards, some are vengeful and some are downright bastards. Such everyman characters with simple failings are immediately relatable, and that small crucial thing gives the stories a solid foundation. Whatever weird shit King throws at them, it’s believable, because the characters are.

Night Shift is a collection written by an author who wasn’t yet entirely mature, whose tongue is mostly in cheek, with stories mostly published in the 1970s in men’s magazines, but if you squint, you can see that King’s characters ring true, his narrative approaches are solid, and his imagination is boundless.

**** (4/5)

This is book 5 in my Stephen King re-read. Next up: The Stand

Rage (1977) by Richard Bachman


The first of the Bachman books, Rage was written way back in 1966 when Stephen King was clearly an angry young man. Charlie Decker is a high school kid who one day sets his locker on fire, shoots a teacher or two and takes a classroom of fellow students hostage. This is what Charlie calls “getting it on”. The phrase, also the novel’s original title, is repeated ad nauseam. 

The classroom then becomes Charlie’s rapt audience as he tells of his parents and childhood, and allows others to share as well. It develops into something of a therapy session where everything including stories of sexual experiences is aired. Meanwhile, outside the school the authorities are trying to coax Charlie into surrendering himself. 

Rage is not a mature novel. The psychological aspects of the novel are twisted, but not in a believable way. Charlie as a protagonist is basically what in the early 21st century would be called an incel: an insufferable, priviliged white twat and a bully to boot. And his stories don’t justify any of his actions, anybody has got beat up, anybody has had embarrassing experiences, but they don’t shoot up schools. Charlie’s status as a major asshole is magnified by the hapless, bumbling adults of the story, the school authorities and the police, who are mostly interchangeable and forgettable. All of their exchanges with Charlie are very unlikely, with Charlie always getting the upper hand and embarrassing these people who are supposedly trained professionals. 

Charlie is reminiscent of Salinger’s anti-hero Holden Caulfield, but as a heavily discounted version. King’s later skills as a writer are very much absent. In less than a decade King would become a master at drawing up a gallery of characters (see ‘Salem’s Lot), each believable and realistic. Here, not only the adults are poorly crafted, so is the whole classroom of students. They are a bunch of names, who somehow succumb to Stockholm syndrome at the drop of a hat (or in this case, a teacher). They have some stories that fit the narrative, but other than that they could be lifeless cardboard figures. Their actions, or rather their inaction is deeply strange and unnerving. A black kid just laughs when Charlie displays some racist tendencies, and ugly Irma goes to the bathroom… only to return a little while later. Hindsight is 20/20, but if we’ve learned anything from real life school shooting in years following the novel’s 1977 publication, is that panic and fear would be the human reaction to a threat of violence. In Rage, the kids simply sit and talk about sex and stuff, it’s all very mellow and nice, and some even begin to admire and defend Charlie. Meanwhile, the teacher lies lifeless on the floor in front of them. 

There’s a notable exception among the students, Ted Jones, who seems to be the only one who doesn’t lose his moral bearings. Strangely, his backstory also feels much more realistic and touching than anything Charlie spouts about his childhood, perhaps resulting in something of a penis envy (latent homosexuality pops up several times, especially with Charlie and his more outgoing friend Joe). Ted realizes Charlie as what he is, a maniac with a gun, which of course turns Charlie and ultimately the whole classroom against him. In the end everyone except Charlie attack Ted, in a sequence of events that makes very little psychological or medical sense. There’s a meanness to the events here that echoes Mendal W. Johnson’s 1974 novel Let’s Go Play at the Adams’, where kids torture a babysitter to death. Did King perhaps rewrite the ending before Rage’s 1977 publication to inject some horror into a fairly lifeless story? Whatever the case, it feels like a callous ending to a sordid story. There’s a theory that Ted, a popular student and a gifted athlete, represents the establishment, against which the kids are rebelling. Perhaps all this would’ve read very differently in the late sixties. 

King famously withdrew Rage from publication after its appearances in some real life school shootings. The reaction is understandable, but other than the subject matter, Rage isn’t exactly a book that deserves to be reprinted. It’s an early work, and although as a whole it doesn’t work, it does have some nuggets, some small snippets of dialogue that hint at good things to come. Writers learn by writing and Rage was a stepping stone to later glories, but by itself it’s a book that can and should be forgotten as a juvenile folly.

* (1/5)

This is book 4 in my Stephen King re-read. Next up: Night Shift 

The Shining (1977) by Stephen King

A winter’s tale, The Shining is the story of the Torrance family. After getting fired from his teaching post, Jack the recovering alcoholic takes a job as the winter caretaker of the remote Overlook hotel in the mountains of Colorado. Along with his wife Wendy and young son Danny, they are the only three people in the enormous hotel during the long winter. The only living people, anyway. 

The Overlook has a long history of colorful characters and violence. A previous winter caretaker, one Grady, chopped his family to pieces. Jack’s reasoning is that Grady was uneducated and since Jack himself is a man of letters, he’ll never succumb to cabin fever. Yeah, right. Little by little the spirit of the Overlook with all its old ghosts take Jack over, bringing the simmering things beneath the surface to a glorious boil, and it’s redrum all over the halls of the Overlook once more. 

The Shining is primarily an account of Jack’s descent into madness. More than a simple ghost story it is a novel of psychological terror. Jack tries to make amends to his past deeds, get back on track after serious anger issues (beating a student and breaking Danny’s arm in a fit of rage). Escaping to the seclusion of the Overlook offers him a chance at redemption, a time out to write his long-gestating play, an opportunity to restore his family unit. It’s a reasonable hope, but it does have the air of desperation about it, and whatever evil holds sway in the hotel can taste it. The Overlook soon turns this dream upside down into a nightmare. 

Jack’s son Danny has supernatural abilities, as referred to by the title, but they seem secondary to everything else going on. Getting a quick primer course from the hotel cook, Hallorann, Danny is warned that the hotel isn’t the best place for someone who can shine, especially as bright as Danny. Most definitely he shouldn’t go anywhere room number 217. Which is exactly where any kid would be tempted to go. He also has visions of the future with the word redrum, and someone dark chasing him. These visions don’t always come true, but sometimes they do. Wendy the mom has the least glamorous role of the three, she doesn’t go mad or see things (at least not until the hotel lets her see). Wendy’s role in the novel is perhaps to serve as the voice of reason, as the one who realises they should just get out of the hotel. 

Most of the novel is populated just by the three characters, with Hallorann and other staff quickly departing at the beginning. This is a marked change from the large gallery of characters in ‘Salem’s Lot, with King clearly trying something entirely different. Mood is the king here, with action reserved for the very end. The closed (literally, once it begins to snow) surroundings of the vast empty hotel offer a magnificent setting for the novel, just like Jerusalem’s Lot, a fantastic background to Jack’s crumbling mind. And the Overlook isn’t just bricks and mortar, it seems to be alive, a malevolent entity fed by years of dark emotions and darker deeds to become something like an accumulation of ghosts, of Grady the caretaker, of Derwent the owner, of the woman in room 217 and so on, something like an entity in its own right. Its influence is everywhere in the hotel. Hell, even the animal-shaped bushes in the yard are somehow haunted. It’s Marsten House on steroids, an evil house that attracts evil and brings out the worst in vulnerable people. Such as Jack. 

The Shining is a masterpiece, a fantastic clockwork that inexorably winds its way to its doom-laden conclusion. Everything is in its right place; if The Shining was a hotel, it would be ran by someone like Ullman the manager in the novel. The characters are drawn with psychological insight in such detail that whatever they have to go through resonates. Jack’s journey is the most affecting, with all his best intentions quashed, reducing him from a caring father into a verocious monster rambling and screaming along the empty halls.  

No review of The Shining the novel can be made without referencing the Kubrick film. King himself has never been a fan, and it’s easy to understand why. Jack of the movie isn’t Jack Torrance of the novel, and it’s as if the beating heart of the novel has been carved out and left to freeze in the snow. Most of everything else is still there, even snippets of dialogue and the lurking indians on the canned goods, and visually the movie is sublime. The ending is different, and the animal-shaped bushes were exhanged for a maze. But Jack is missing, and with that change the movie becomes an entirely different beast.

***** (5/5)

This is book 3 in my Stephen King re-read. Next up: Rage by Richard Bachman

‘Salem’s Lot (1975) by Stephen King


The vampires are due on Main Street! It’s the second coming of Stephen King in a novel that set many of the thematic and stylistic choices for the rest of his long bibliography. A brief prologue finds us in South America, where a man and a boy are haunted by something that happened up north. After a quick rewind, the actual story begins as a writer slash Stephen King stand-in haunted by a childhood trauma returns to Jerusalem’s Lot, a quaint town somewhere in the mental vicinity of Peyton Place. Ben wants to rent the local haunted house, the Marsten House, but finds out it’s been sold to a pair of antique dealers, Straker and Barlow, also newcomers to the town. Settling for a bed and breakfast Ben soon familiarises himself with the town and its residents, including Susan the eager love interest. The new masters of the Marsten House also begin meeting the townspeople, with Straker opening their store in the city center and Barlow sucking the good folks’ blood. 

He is a vampire, and Straker the busybody is his Renfield. At first it’s the Glick kid, then another Glick kid, then the gravedigger and so on and on, until Ben and his new associates put the puzzle together. Their brave, misfit troupe begins a desperate fight against time and their adversaries. As could be guessed from the South American prologue, it isn’t all fun and games, there are a lot of bodies along the way and it all takes a toll on the survivors. 

‘Salem’s Lot is the first instance of King’s trademark setting, a somewhat rural New England town populated by realistic types with realistic lives. The viewpoints change fast and often, providing quick glimpses into different mundane lives. There are the affairs, the petty grievances, the gossip, the alcohol and some more alcohol. This isn’t Transylvania in the 19th century, this is 1970s America. King takes the classic vampire story and throws it right in the middle of a contemporary society and gleefully watches what happens. The model works well, and he has returned to it time and again. 

The anticipation of events to come keeps the first half of the novel wound tight. The first signs of something strange happening, the fleeting glimpses of something in the shadows, the victims suddenly finding themselves tired and allergic to sunlight without realising they’ve been fed on by a vampire. And finally the dawning comprehension that there can be no other explanation. Ben along with Matt the local teacher and Mark the nerdy horror kid are quick on the uptake, with others showing healthy skepticism before inevitably agreeing. A high point is the scene made famous by the TV miniseries, where a newly made child vampire knocks on Mark’s second-floor window, the stuff childhood traumas are made of. 

It’s when the novel turns full steam into the vampire hunter mode that it loses some of its energy. Many of the characters become true believers very quickly after a pitch that is repeated multiple times, arming themselves with crucifixes and carving out stakes as if they’re in a role playing scenario, although there are some, such as Henry, Mark’s uptight dad, who thinks it’s all bullshit until Barlow bashes his skull in. It’s pitch-black humour, but admittedly fun when Mark muses that his dad would’ve made an excellent vampire. Another brief standout is Father Callahan, the local priest, who is game to the idea of vampires but alas, not that strong in his faith. Some, like the town sheriff, sense that something bad is brewing but don’t really want to find out what, they just simply pick up their stuff and leave. The variety of characters, with their minor and major foibles is refreshing.

The old vampire himself is a pompous Bela Lugosi type, suffering from advanced monologueitis. He’s far more effective in the first half, where he’s still lounging unseen in his coffin. Later, his role becomes more cartoonish to the detriment of overall horror, although there’s a scene later on where Barlow isn’t seen, only heard, which again works better than his actual visual appearances. The first TV miniseries vastly improved Barlow’s character by taking away all of his monologues and making him into a ratlike Nosferatu. 

Finnish edition (1987)

King has said that the political uncertainty of the mid-70s with the Pentagon Papers and Watergate played into the fears in the novel. There’s certainly a kernel of truth, and the book has a strong Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe to it. Anybody can be turned, some may have already been turned without them even realising it. And the future is bleak, if there even is a future. The horror of ‘Salem’s Lot isn’t all invested in the vampires, there’s also the existential horror, the death of society, of that everyday fabric everyone is a part of. It isn’t just lives that are lost, it’s the death of home and hearth and everything you know. A flood, a fire, such disasters may be devastating, but their damage can be repaired and life will survive. But there’s no coming back from this calamity. 

The main character of the story is of course the town of the title. As the man and the boy, you guessed it, Ben and Mark, finish their task and leave the once picturesque town behind it has become a desolate wasteland where newly made, confused vampires hide in cellars by day. Although people have disappeared at an alarming rate since the vampirism phenomenon started, some are in denial and still try to go about their lives, opening shops and cafés nobody visits until eventually even they must fold. Many a town has died a similar death even when vampires weren’t involved. 

***** (5/5)

Fairy Tale (2022) by Stephen King


It’s a long way from a motherless son of an alcoholic to the hero of a fantasy land in Stephen King’s latest novel. Charlie is a mostly good kid who loses his mom at an early age and then has to watch his mourning dad’s descent into alcoholism. After a while things take a better turn thanks to AA, and a stranger turn thanks to a reclusive Mr. Bowditch. Rescuing the elderly gent, Charlie meets Radar the dog and ends up on a path towards Empis, the strange land which is accessed through a garden shed in Mr. Bowditch’s backyard.

It takes a few hundred pages to get there, and it’s all good stuff. Charlie is a good guy, an athlete but not a jock, someone who tends to do the right thing instinctively. The stuff heroes are made of! He also has an uncanny sense of popular culture, with everything triggering one reference or another. As a kid he makes a promise to himself and the gods to pay it back if his dad sobers up, and that’s what he does for Mr. Bowditch and Radar.

Fast forward a bit, and Mr. Bowditch dies, leaving everything to Charlie, the house, the dog, the gold in a bucket, the shed and a recorder tape which suggests the existence of something unbelievable. Radar is an old dog with health issues, but apparently there’s a way to turn back his years (in a bradburyish way) somewhere in the land beneath the shed. A noble quest for a hero, then.

It’s a full-blown fantasy land down there, with princesses and peasants and all that other stuff, including an usurper and a curse on the land which has made everyone gray and deformed. The secret of youth is in a haunted city in the middle of all this. Needless to say, Charlie and Radar make it, but after that the quest becomes more complicated. Cue a long sequence reminiscent of Gladiator, a prophecy of a saviour coming true, a lovecraftian monster and some Succession-style family hijinks.

And it’s somewhere in the dungeons of the haunted city that the novel began to lose me. As the title says, this is a Fairy Tale, and everything goes accordingly, following the set path and structure of such stories. It’s not that there aren’t inventive things in the land of Empis, there are, plenty, it’s filled with interesting characters, even if it does stretch the imagination slightly when a teenage kid from Illinois becomes a champion fighter. Not to mention the Snab. But it all tastes like paper, like a storybook. Fantasy can be written so that it feels realistic, but this one doesn’t seem to escape the confines of the page.

King’s fantasy novels, like the Dark Tower series, haven’t really made an impression on me. Fairy Tale is not an exception, the beginning is as good as gold and the writing is enjoyable, but it’s very hard to wrap my head around a somewhat childish fantasy novel filled with one or two tropes too many. It’s just too much of a fairy tale. But I guess that was the idea.

*** (3/5)

Necroscope (1986) by Brian Lumley


Brian Lumley is best known for his lacklustre Lovecraftian pastiches, where he managed to take out everything that made Lovecraft great and replaced the nihilistic cosmic horror with generic pulp adventures. If August Derleth messed it up, Lumley was worse, far, far worse. So the expectations for his best known original series, Necroscope, were very low, with the great George Underwood covers (second UK edition) being the main attraction. So many freaky skulls!

Incredibly, with Necroscope Lumley hits it out of the park. It’s the seventies, the good old cold war is at its peak, and all the world powers are engaged in ESPionage, using psychics and their varied supernatural skills to discover the other side’s secrets. The Soviet Union is leading the race, thanks to their necromancer, Dragosani, whose gory modus operandi is to read the information he needs from the subject’s entrails. As it happens, Dragosani is also friends with an ancient vampire, Tibor Ferenczy, who is trapped in a cave in Romania and uses Dragosani to fill its own nefarious needs.

In the UK, young Harry Keogh is learning a more elegant form of necromancy. As a nerdy boy at school he discovers he’s able to channel the dead, accessing their knowledge (of languages, mathematics, fighting, sex and so on) in order to turn himself into a necromantic superman. In the world of Necroscope, dead scientists and writers and others keep thinking about what they were doing in their daily professions (apparently they had no other preoccupations, they’re all about work work work), thus making incredible discoveries and inventions, which Harry can readily access. Initially using his skills to fight off bullies, he slowly graduates to hatching a plot to avenge the death of his mother and later to defend the British way of life, a 007 with a license to speak to the dead.

The first edition cover by Alun Hood

The novel follows Harry and Dragosani on their separate paths through the early seventies, with equal attention paid to both. Harry is a fairly typical hero, but it’s Dragosani who steals the show. He comes off as a somewhat complicated character, a predatory character who himself becomes a reluctant victim of the vampire (in Lumley’s version they are occasionally liquid parasites, a nice, gruesome touch). In a prescient real-life parallel, Dragosani (along with a Mongol who has the evil eye) is even sent on a mission to the UK to assassinate a defector (Harry’s stepdad, as it happens) and the chief of the British ESP project. In general, the Brits are polite and nice and probably wear cosy tweed jackets, while the Soviets are ruthless schemers. In death, they are all very human.

Lumley’s prose is well suited to an espionage novel with touches of horror. The first parts of the story, where Harry’s budding abilities are still only hinted at, are subtle and restrained and easily the best. Later, when Harry is fully revealed as an all-powerful necromancer the novel descends into a maelstrom of Lumley-ness, with Harry talking to the spirit of the long-dead German mathematician Möbius to come up with a method of space/time travel and other nonsense. There’s so much happening at the end that it all feels very rushed. Neither does this sudden nuttiness bode well for the sequels, which are a legion, but for now it’s easy to overlook. The first Necroscope novel isn’t perfect by any measure, but it’s got spies, necromancy and vampires, which is as entertaining a cocktail as anything.

**** (4/5)

Toady (1989) by Mark Morris


A group of 80s teenage freaks and geeks suffer the daily torments of bullies and parents, until one of them decides to summon a demon from beyond. As is often the case, the amateur occultist soon finds that the entity is impossible to control, leaving bodies in its wake, sometimes headless, sometimes in smaller pieces. Instead of schoolyard bullies the kids now have to deal with a homicidal otherwordly monster as well. Ain’t middle school a bitch.

Set in a drowsy seaside resort town that’s seen its glory days pass by long ago, Mark Morris’ debut novel is a distinctly British affair with a large cast of lifelike characters. The kids of the Horror Club, a group of four kids who are all into horror movies, take the center stage, with Richard the bespectacled nerd leading the way, with shy Nigel and zit-faced Robin forming the core of the team. The newcomer is Adrian, also known as Toady, a Cartmanesque character who displays a similar lack of morals in summoning the evil entity. It’s notable he manages to do this with books loaned from the local library, so hooray for the library system!

The second-tier characters, the parents, the neighbours, a local pensioner psychic, the local bullies and the surprisingly understanding policemen aren’t discount versions of their archetypes, instead they all come across as well rounded individuals with desires and ambitions and lives beyond their purpose in the novel. Many of them, of course, end up as entertainment for the creature, whose motivations are harder to pinpoint due to its limited understanding of human concepts.

It’s awfully interested in gore though, manifesting itself in a variety of monstrous forms. Here Morris displays an affinity well beyond the confines of classic horror favoured by the Horror Club and closer to the modern, bloodier style of Clive Barker, a frequent comparison. It’s an interesting match that works well, bridging the tone of classic horror with the edgier contemporary flair. The more everyday human horror also works well, with the bullies and their switchblades perhaps proving even more disconcerting than the deeply alien horror.

Alas, Toady does drone on for 700 pages, which is about a third longer than is necessary. The final section, with a comatose dreamworld dilutes the tension and squanders the ingredients. The events get murkier while the plot starts to repeat itself and there is no real buildup to the ending, the novel simply seems to run out of fuel. It should be mentioned that Toady was the young author’s first novel, so some uneven quality is expected. However, the good outweighs the negative, with the first half of the novel delivering a well-developed world populated with believable characters facing interesting monsters both human and inhuman.

*** (3/5)

Black Prism (1980) by David Lippincott

It’s like an old joke: A space scientist, a Roman centurion and a medieval nun went to Yale. Newly appointed Chad the hot shot scientist is dreaming about the other two, the soldier is getting crucified for being a Christian and the nun is just generally being a bitch. Curiously, the nun begins appearing around Yale in flesh as well, driving around in a car and attacking babysitters and kids.

The novel twists itself in a knot trying to explain why Chad’s dreaming about these two characters, but apparently it has something to do with black holes and resurrection. Or maybe the old ruins of a monastery on his backyard are haunted. What the novel lacks in a sensible plot, it makes up in atmosphere, at least for a spell in the beginning. It’s all about Yale, with the family’s arrival turning into a proper sightseeing tour with stops at famous belltowers and secret societies.

However, it soon gets a bit repetitive, with Chad being helped in turn by doctors, psychiatrists and finally a fellow scientist who isn’t afraid to go there with his loony theories. There’s some light violence with the emphasis on light, and essentially nothing important happens until the inexplicable ending. By that point the reader is beyond caring, since Chad the super clever scientist constantly comes across as a completely useless twat who somehow doesn’t realize he also moonlights as the homicidal nun (surprise!). His oblivious wife is barely better, with the couple constantly bickering in surprisingly nasty tones. It’s not really a surprise that their kid has exactly one character trait, that of being a moron.

The only likable character in the novel is Nils the crackpot scientist, but unfortunately he comes along too late to salvage anything from this steaming mess of Yale and nuns.

** (2/5)

Elsewhere (2020) by Dean Koontz


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

Maynard's House - Herman Raucher - Berkley - Sept 1981

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


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)