Phantom (1982) by Thomas Tessier

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US paperback (Berkley)

Tessier’s 1982 novel is all tease and little else; young Ned moves with his parents to a new town on the seaside, hangs out with some old geezers and has a fever dream. Somewhere along the way there are ominous hints about vague horrors… but they never really manifest themselves. Phantom isn’t just quiet horror; it’s mute as fuck.

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UK paperback (Pan Macmillan) opens…

It starts well, though, with a real-life health scare. But that’s all. A ridiculously long dungeon crawl in the middle of the slim novel brings an already glacial pace to a standstill; and to really batter the reader into a coma, the novel soon presents the reader with another dungeon crawl with very little variation.

Now the quality of writing here is excellent, there’s no question about that; but after a while it gets increasingly difficult to enjoy a novel that constantly keeps baiting the reader, yet never goes anywhere.

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…to reveal a second cover.

My disappointment is possibly multiplied by high expectations: Tessier has a great rep, the coming-of-age genre rarely fails, and the US paperback cover has a vague folk horror feel that is utterly absent in the novel itself. On the other hand, quiet horror is an acquired taste, and if it doesn’t tickle your fancy, it just comes across as so much pointless noodling. And Phantom is a stellar case in point.

Ned’s fever dream at the end, with all its surrealism, is slightly reminiscent of H.C. Andersen‘s fable The Story of a Mother. A fine piece of horror, that one. Phantom, well…

** (2/5)

Originally published in 1982. Available in multiple editions.

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Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

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UK paperback (Sphere)

Here we go ’round the mulberry bush in post-apocalyptic America, the salvation of which depends on one little girl called Swan. Possessing a supernatural affinity towards plantlife (including mulberry bushes, I assume), she has the power to bring a world devastated by nuclear war back to life.

But it’s almost one thousand pages to get there, and there’s a nuclear wasteland in between. Luckily she has a little help from her friends; there’s the former wrestler Josh (aka. Black Frankenstein), as well as the traumatized woman known only as Sister Creep, plus a few others. In addition to general devastation, radiation and other ills of the war, the good guys are opposed at every turn by the devilish Man with the Scarlet Eye, whose sole purpose seems to be to destroy all life and hope, with glee, while humming the old song.

The structure is familiar; the protagonists and the antagonists (including a ragtag Army of Excellence led by a crazed colonel and a psychopathic teenager) start out separately and are then brought together by the plot. Beginning with an epic Tom Clancy opening, the novel soon settles into a comfortable groove, with closeups on the handful of survivors and their travails. The episodic quality keeps the stories going, with some fits and jumps; there are the chapters with the sad and the chapters with the mad, familiar tropes all from such later shows as Walking Dead.

Towards the end, some of the plot strands are railroaded rather forcefully towards the conclusion; the neat and tidy ending is perhaps slightly too neat and tidy. Some of the ideas, such as Job’s Mask (a growth/cocoon around the face that later bursts to reveal the character’s true inner self), provide altogether obvious and unnecessary emphasis. The many Christian references late in the novel are also somewhat surprising; perhaps in the eighties religion didn’t quite have the same stigma it carries in these latter days.

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US paperback (Pocket Books)

There’s a healthy helping of the supernatural and the fantastic in the mix; Sister Creep is led to Swan and Josh by a glass ring (glass and jewels from Manhattan shops fused together in a nuclear blast) that gives her visions. The Man with the Scarlet Eye wants it, and it’s his short forays to the center stage – watching a movie at an undamaged movie theater in otherwise levelled Manhattan is a particular high point – that give the novel that extra kick, especially when the gloomy realism of the post-apocalyptic world starts to become too much to bear.

The writing is familiar McCammon, with a kind of electric charge humming throughout the novel. Due to the massive length, the current sometimes sags and surges, but that’s only natural. McCammon weaves his saga expertly, with seemingly disparate elements (the glass ring, tarot cards, phrases from T.S. Eliot) being fused one by one together at later points. The characters are likeable, with Swan growing up into her Fisher Queen role, and Sister Creep coming out of her personal haze to save the world. Of the evildoers, the teenage army captain Roland Croninger, who loses himself in his own strange game, stands out. It’s a long journey, but the company’s great and the scenery will blow your mind.

**** (4/5)

Published by Pocket Books in 1987. Available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site! And remember McCammon’s new novel The Border (out in May)!

Dark Silence by Rick Hautala

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US paperback (Zebra)

The name’s a dead giveaway – it’s quiet horror in this 1992 novel by Maine’s foremost Finnish-American author. In the 17th century, a witch heading for the gallows curses the land around her. Later, a mill is built on the grounds, but by the 1960s it has long been abandoned. Two young brothers, Eddie and Mikie, enter the mill with a group of boys, only for one of them to get seriously injured in a fall. In the present day, Eddie’s son Brian and new wife Dianne discover what haunts the old mill.

Witches and ghostly voices abound, but the story’s about the living; the characters are haunted more by their fears and past actions than anything supernatural. Eddie himself carries guilt about the accident at the old mill, which saw one of his friends paralysed and Mikie sent to a mental asylum. Dianne has a near-fatal accident that echoes the fall at the old mill, and undergoes a painful recovery. Brian has difficulties with Dianne, probably simply because she’s his new stepmother and he’s a moody adolescent.

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Current eBook cover (Crossroad Press)

The mentally unbalanced brother, Mikie, appears later in the novel as a minor threat, but Hautala manages to make his portrait a complex one, with shades of sympathy. This is the novel’s greatness; nobody in it is simply good or evil, even the witch and the spirits are mostly victims of bad circumstances. Surely this sort of depth and understanding is far above and beyond an average Zebra horror author’s paygrade.

Hautala’s mannerisms – the overuse of italics and exclamation! marks – are present, but unlike in Little Brothers they seem moderate, and don’t draw attention to themselves. Subtlety has clearly triumphed over cheap cheesiness.

However, one cannot escape the sense that Hautala had a quota to fill – most Zebra paperbacks are suspiciously uniform in size, about 400 pages. There’s some bloat in Dark Silence, especially in the latter half. But in the midst of this mass market excess there are the bones of a decent novel, with subtle characterisations and a vividly dark atmosphere.

**** (4/5)

Published in 1992 by Zebra Books. Currently available as an ebook from Crossroad Press. Visit the author’s site!

1986

1986

This blog has been on pause for a while, mostly because I was working on my comic book (you can see the cover above). The book is now out and available! (and therefore I will also resume this blog)

Not surprisingly, “1986” is a horror story – it begins as a ghost story, then becomes a decidedly Stephen King style coming-of-age story. The year in the title is no coincidence, it’s the year of IT and Stand by Me, among others. Other than eighties horror, the story pays tribute to the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. The game’s sanity loss mechanism plays a big role.

You can see samples of the book in my Twitter, as well as on the publisher’s page (click the numbers after “Näytesivut“).

If you wish to support the blog, or if you’re just curious about the book, you can buy it directly from me (contact me and I’ll give you the instructions). The cost is a mere £8 (or $10) and the price includes shipping worldwide.

I Am the New God by Nicole Cushing

I_AM_THE_NEW_GODA divinely (or diabolically) gleeful novella, I Am the New God follows a young man named Greg as he receives a letter telling him he’s going to be the new God. Sent by “a hierophant”, the correspondence culminates in a list of tasks Greg needs to follow on his path to godhood. It’s all a bit of a lark until the reader realizes Greg was a bit unhinged to begin with. Soon he’s all aboard with the idea of becoming the new God; he sets off on a search for the hierophant, making converts along the way by gouging out their eyes, their vision having long been poisoned by the reality of the old God.

Loonies always make the best characters, and the pair here are no exception; Greg’s descent from an ordinary, very identifiable cynic to a psychopath serial killer happens gradually, throwing the reader into a nice loop of surprises. The hierophant, a defrocked priest, is also insane, but more subtly so, almost as a parody of blind faith; his attempt to explain away how Greg is unable to walk on water is hilarious, and it’s his faulty logic which eventually pushes Greg over the edge. Greg’s crazy because he’s off his meds, but the hierophant really has no excuse.

There’s a lot of brutal, sudden violence in the novella; it works well with the spiky, dark humour. The theological aspects of the story are conveyed smoothly, none of it getting too theoretical or in the way of a good story.

The novella shares some similarities with T.E.D. Klein‘s brilliant short story Nadelman’s God; both stories are about the nature of god(s), and feature letters going back and forth between a skeptic and a believer. The rest is different, but the results are equally impressive.

***** (5/5)

An ebook novella, available on April 8, 2014 and published by the consistently excellent DarkFuse. Visit the author’s blog!

Son of the Endless Night by John Farris

Endlessnight1What a lovely slab of eighties horror! John Farris deftly combines two genres, horror and courtroom drama in this 1985 novel, and coats it all with some lovely, inch-thick demonic cheese. And man, the result is tasty. It’s tasty as hell!

The story gets off to a slow start; there’s Richard Devon and his girlfriend Karyn, a missing girl and a coven apparently led by an apparently long-dead woman. Rich goes on a search for the missing girl and finds her, as well as the demon who possesses her. Promptly the demon possesses him instead, and soon he’s bludgeoning Karyn to death with a tire iron.

The authorities lock him up, and send for his brother Conor, a former priest who has become a professional wrestler (as you do) with the brilliant nom de plume Irish Bob O’Hooligan. Along with a pair of eager lawyers Conor soon figures out that Rich done the deed while possessed. So, they go for a plea of not guilty by reason of demonic possession.

It’s a sweet premise, and Farris executes it with writing to match, with the occasional epic phrase here and there that might make even longtime horror readers swoon a little. The action is constant; even from behind the bars, the demon and his accomplices manage to stir up a lot of trouble. The main storyline is excellent, constantly pedal to the metal, with a hearty helping of all things satanic, almost over the top but not quite.

Endlessnight2But there may be a question of too much of a good thing; the long sideplot late in the novel about Conor’s wife Gina and her adventures with a pair of broadly caricatured Southern bible thumpers (in their amazingly pimped Christian truck) does go wildly over the top. It’s ridiculously fun, of course, but it’s also just ridiculous. Neither does the novel’s whimper of an ending quite pack the punch one has begun to expect.

But those a minor complaints. Son of the Endless Night is a juicy one, full of tickly good moments. It doesn’t necessarily contain any great wisdom, nor is not the subtlest of novels – but it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and despite its 500-page length it’s a breeze of a read. Classic eighties horror.

**** (4/5)

First published in 1985 by St. Martin’s Press. Available in multiple formats.

The Orchard by Charles L. Grant

orchThe first story I read by Charles L. Grant was “The Gentle Passing of a Hand” from Tales from the Nightside (1981), an exquisite story of a child who accidentally learns a magic trick that can both kill and resurrect. Admittedly a fable of the “be careful what you wish for” variety, it was Grant’s style that made the biggest impression, communicating by hints and suggestion a story that felt both exhilaratingly fantastic and deeply tragic.

The same sublime style is used in The Orchard (1986), a collection of four novellas set in Grant’s fictional town of Oxrun Station. The orchard of the title is an abandoned tract of land just outside the town, a place for teenage gatherings and surreptitious meetings. There’s bad juju about the place, and it’s suggested that it somehow causes the events that follow.

The first story, “My Mary’s Asleep” tells the story of Herb and his crush on a girl called Mary, who’s already in a relationship with one of Herb’s friends. The crush is slightly disturbing, as Herb has chosen to carve a tomb effigy in the likeness of Mary for a school project. One night, as all the friends hang out at the orchard, Mary’s boyfriend is run over by a car. And then Herb’s other friends start dying as well, in different ways. It’s a haunting story that builds beautifully to a strange, unexplained ending that can only disappoint.

The second story, “I See Her Sweet and Fair”, is a story of a single-parent cop whose son is suspected of being a serial killer. Vacillating between two women, the policeman is finally forced to choose in a finale that apparently features a unicorn. No, it makes no sense.

The third story, “The Last and Dreadful Hour”, ups the ante again. A group of spectators take shelter in a movie theater during a storm and a blackout. The doors are locked, but one by one people start disappearing, until only the main character is left. Again the set-up is brilliant, and again the story just trickles away at the end.

The fourth story, “Screaming, in the Dark” features an investigative journalist convalescing at a hospital after breaking his leg. A scared young kid is brought to the same room, and being an investigative type, the reporter starts to investigate the source of the scare. Blacker than black shadows are glimpsed, nurses change shape, and a girl who committed suicide comes for a visit. There’s an almost cosmic crescendo to the events, but again… it all seems to amount to very little indeed. The collection is then topped off with an epilogue that references the cast of the novellas, a sort of where are they now section that attempts to give the characters some existence beyond their own stories.

Grant’s writing is excellent throughout. There’s a poetic quality to his prose, as exemplified by this passage from “Screaming, in the Dark”:

Evening comes rapidly when the year begins to die - when the leaves have all turned and the grass bows against the wind and there's no memory of spring despite the gold left behind by the sun in its setting. 

Evening comes, not with shadows but a slow killing of the light... and when the light has gone, the trees grow larger and streets become tunnels and porches on old houses no longer hold the swings and the rockers and the warm summer calls to come away, come and sit, and watch for a while.

And when the sidewalks are empty and the cars have all been parked and the only sign of movement is a leaf scratching at the curb, there are the sounds, the nightsounds, the last sounds before the end – of wings dark over rooftops, of footsteps soft around the corner, of something clearing its throat behind the hedge near the streetlamp where white becomes a cage and the shadows seldom move.

There are stars.
There is a moon.

There are late August wishes and early June dreams that slip out of time and float into the cold that turns dew to frost and hardens the pavement, gives echoes blade edges and makes children's laughter seem too close to screams.

In the evening; never morning.
When the year begins to die.

The repetition of certain phrases, the changes in rhythm, the imagery. That’s some serious writing right there. Grant is brilliant at evoking an ominous atmosphere in ordinary places and situations. But what does all that atmosphere amount to? Not much. The mood is set, the plot is put in gear, situations unfold – and then? Grant doesn’t elaborate, he merely hints. The trouble is that the reader is left grasping at straws, trying to draw conclusions out of half-glimpsed shadows.

Now I dont’t need a great payoff, there doesn’t need to be a monster or anything like that at the end of the book. But I do wish for something that would help with an interpretation. “The Gentle Passing of a Hand”, I think, worked because it was, at its heart, a very basic story, something that the reader could deduce from the hints and suggestions. The stories of The Orchard are more complicated, there are no reference points, not much familiarity with the scenarios. In addition, the overarching theme of the orchard forces the reader to think that there should be something tangible to figure out in all this. And there isn’t, not easily anyway. It’s mostly just mood and mood alone.

Reading Grant can be frustrating. I simply adore his writing, in small doses anyway. No problem with the settings or the situations either. Plotting also works, up to a point. But after finishing a story I’m at a loss about what I just read. Nothing is explained, nothing revealed. Everything remains as opaque as in the beginning. And all I’ve witnessed is some really, really impressive shadowplay.

*** (3/5)