Tuesday, October 30, 2018
Sunday, October 28, 2018
Blood of the Impaler by Jeffrey Sackett (1989).
Still the same exciting and challenging novel I first read 29 Octobers ago.
Sackett is a fine writer, solid plotter, and a deft hand at character building: a truly fecund and confident aesthetic is at work here. Some may kvetch at multiple character p.o.v.'s within chapters late in the book, but I chalk it up to authorial exuberance.
This is the best continuation of Stoker's novel I have read, and deserves more popularity than it has received.
(Now available in an edition with a godawful cover art.)
I read Blood of the Impaler ten years before I finally read Stoker's cover-to-cover.
Both Dracula and Blood of the Impaler would have been emotionally incomprehensible to me at a younger age. Themes of responsibility, maturity, and social solidarity might be intellectually understood, but are not felt until the reader gets a little adulthood under their belt.
The dramatic impact of Sackett's novel, its central conceit: that Dracula is the anti-Christ, the reverse of the medal of the redeemer. Sackett is unafraid of Christianity, and of taking it seriously. Indeed, the great splattery climax of the novel would be meaningless (and impossible) without taking it all seriously.
Blood of the Impaler should not be forgotten. Or dismissed.
28 October 2018
"This is the one. Quick, take my picture in front of it."
My sister was clocking the gallery.
"Where the hell did Cooper and Francesca get to?"
I gestured to her with my phone.
She said, "I don't think photos are allowed in here."
"Fine," I said.
I activated the phone camera. It was hard to get myself and Ray's portrait into frame. Two globular faces.
When the phone was repocketed, I found Anthea had gone the way of her kids.
I spent another hour in the galleries. In the basement, after kitchens and furnaces, was a room of stacked with dusty sculptures by Epstein and his epigones. The gift shop was just a room of pallets heaped with musty reams of drawing paper.
They were locking the doors when I left.
The sun was down, the western sky cadmium yellow deep.
I stood by the empty car in the empty parking lot.
A good lesson for me: drive yourself, don't depend upon others for a ride.
My sister and her kids: nowhere in sight.
Fiery red brick in the gloaming, the museum filled the sky.
28 October 2018
Saturday, October 27, 2018
I am loathe to dismiss so much industry by any writer. Some must enjoy, notwithstanding the negative and venomous reviews of these books on Goodreads.
The Dracula Tape by Fred Saberhagen (1975).
Saberhagen's great idea was to have Dracula tell his own story. But because Saberhagen was an writer whose great ideas typically collapsed into ashes, the utter banality of The Dracula Tapes is a heartbreaker.
This is not the Faustian or Nietzschean Dracula. Rather, it is a misunderstood and victimized Dracula. Stoker's fearful vampire hunters completely misunderstood him. He loved Mina, you see, and she loved him.
Saberhagen takes us step by step through Stoker's novel, at each turn rationalizing the villain as sufferer and lover, rather than avatar of pestilence.
Predating Rice's interview with Lestat, The Dracula Tapes gives us the vampire as lame Byronic mope, endlessly self-justifying.
The Holmes-Dracula File by Fred Saberhagen (1978).
A step sideways from The Dracula Tape.
When in doubt, bring in Sherlock and two or more ape-long arms of coincidence.
Saberhagen makes the aesthetic mistake here of alternating chapters presented in first-person by two different characters: Drac and Watson. The effect is soporific.
Saberhagen wants to conquer the great un-written Giant Rat of Sumatra. Does he succeed? No, but his plot is a solid beginning. The climax, considering the stakes for the British Empire suggested in the first half of the book, is deflating. We need at least a climax to equal "The Sign of Four," but this dramatic opportunity is thrown-away offstage.
An Old Friend of the Family (1979).
This is more like it: kidnapping and murder, an assault on the Sutherland clan of Chicago, who happen to be under the multi-generational protection of Dracula.
Add internecine vampire civil war and we have the elements of a fine supernatural thriller. The first half of the novel is deftly plotted and executed in an effortless style, suggesting Saberhagen missed his calling as a crime novelist.
This little interview between a Chicago PD lieutenant and "Dr. Corday" is more than a little hair-raising:
"....If he had the gun like you say, why was he running? And who chased him?"
A glint of something other than coolness came into the old man's eyes. Amusement, it looked like. "I would surmise that he ran to get to running water. A forlorn hope, of course. It would not have saved him. But still he was a more knowledgeable young man than some. About some things, at least."
"Running water, save him? What does that mean?" Joe knew he was losing his own coolness, his own control. The knowledge didn't help....
Saberhagen is a modest writer in these three novels. Style and plotting are at best perfunctory. Intermixing revisionist Dracula with contemporary genre characters like Holmes and Watson or with present-day U.S. urban crime suggests the potential for such unions, but does not scratch the surfaces later exploited by Kim Newman.
27 October 2018
Saturday, October 20, 2018
The Nightrunners by Joe R. Lansdale
The Nightrunners (1987) is a suspenseful and ambitious novel. It features a dozen major characters, multiple viewpoints, and an unflinching aesthetic.
The story begins with the spree of four young thrill-killers along the highways and back roads of East Texas. When they are thwarted in their plan to rape and murder/sacrifice a former high school teacher of the gang's leader, remaining members decide to finish the job.
Their mission of evil has strong supernatural overtones. When gang leader Clyde dies after the failed initial assault, his second in command Brian takes over. But as other gang members observe, Clyde still seems to be controlling Brian.
The Nightrunners treats its victims with humanity. The moments of torture and violence are not delivered salaciously: they are driven by the heartbreaking confluence of characters on a collision course.
20 October 2018
Joe R. Lansdale has written dozens of powerful and compelling stories. I have made no secret of my preferences in previous posts this week.
Today I want to single out one story in particular: "The Companion" (1995). Lansdale wrote the story in collaboration for an anthology of stories by writers and their kids.
"The Companion" begins with a typical Lansdale situation: a young man on his own, fishing in an East Texas river. When he runs out of bait, he crosses the river to find more.
....After walking through the trees and out into the huge field, he noticed a large and odd-looking scarecrow on a post. Beyond the scarecrow, some stretch away, surrounded by saplings and weeds, he saw what had once been a fine two-story farmhouse. Now it was not much more than an abandoned shell of broken glass and aging lumber.
At this point my hair started rising in anticipation. An abandoned house in a rural landscape? Bierce. A scarecrow? Take your pick of writers; mine would be James' masterful story "Rats."
The story carries forward at breakneck speed from there. The secret of the abandoned house is unravelled, and with it the poignant and macabre history of the scarecrow.
"The Companion" is traditional rural horror at its best.
Don't miss this story!
20 October 2018
High Cotton: Selected Stories of Joe R. Lansdale
A career-spanning best-of collection. Some hits and misses, but more hits than misses.
Two men, one Black and one Caucasian, fight for their lives in the titular pit. For the delectation of a racist community. Solidarity goes by the board. File under "To do well that which should not be done at all," which is probably a Lansdale mantra.
Not from Detroit
Superb story about Grim Reapers and the bargains they strike with we mortals.
Booty and the Beast
Pulpish noir with some turning-of-the-tables. To be honest, noir narratives after approximately 1970 aspire to an unearned hipness and gravitas.
Steppin' Out, Summer '68
Magnificent. Ghoulishly funny.
Incident On and Off a Mountain Road
A perfectly organized tale. Who is the victim, who the predator? A plot like
The Worm Ouroboros.
My Dead Dog, Bobby
A genuine weeper? I passed on it.
Trains Not Taken
Alternate history of the wild, wild west. A lot of thinking went into it.
Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back
A canonical apocalyptic story. Not to be missed.
Dog, Cat and Baby
A clever animal story. Ernest Thompson Seton it is not.
A perfect story of menace and social anxiety. Not to be missed.
By Bizarre Hands
Deeply unsettling southern gothic story about a travelling preacher and a mentally retarded teenage woman on Halloween.
The Fat Man and the Elephant
A truly strange story about religion, mysticism, and self-deception.
The Phone Woman
Like "Mister Weed-Eater" and "The Fat Man and the Elephant," part of a series of tense, annihilating stories where protagonists confront twilight zones destroying their deeply-invested pelf and place.
Letter from the South, Two Moons West of Nacogdoches
More alt Western history.
By the Hair of the Head
A discontinued lighthouse and "a ventriloquist's dummy."
More noirish nonsense.
Godzilla's Twelve Step Program
A fine fantasy. Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
One of the best stories in the collection. Simply ghastly levels of alienation and sociopathology sweetened with more than a twist of black humor.
Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland
Mirthful tale of a husband and wife sending their inflatable dinosaur child to The Theme Park.
The Steel Valentine
More sub-par noir.
Night They Missed The Horror Show
Canonical. This will be the story mentioned in the first paragraph of every Lansdale obituary. Raw power and shocking artistic authority.
21 October 2018
Wednesday, October 17, 2018
THE BEST OF JOE R. LANSDALE
In the early 90s I read Lansdale and other splatterpunks. The subgenre was proudly adolescent. Fearless, in fact, as adolescents always like to describe themselves.
(It was a New Wave, and in my 20s I was always chasing waves.)
After the Horror Boom was driven into the ground by publishers' marketing departments, Splatterpunk authors had to promote themselves. (Today we see this ghastly self-promotion everywhere on social media: a canon of chums.)
Eventually, in late 1994, I had a choice to make: packing for a move, I had room for M.R. James or a Paul M. Sammon anthology. I chose to take the James collection. As Frost intoned, "And that has made all the difference."
Lansdale is still standing, has bestsellers, a TV show, and a series of short fiction collections. Reading "The Folding Man" last night, stunned and in awe, I decided to read one of his collections.
GODZILLA'S TWELVE-STEP PROGRAM
A droll story. Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
Are there ever enough works of fiction that really address poop in all its physical manifestations and roles in human life? The scatalogical has a key place in Lansdale's fiction. A recurring trope. Is it simply a sign of the adolescent's dream of scandalizing the bourgeois mother and father?
"Bubba Ho-Tep," when the adult diaper vicissitudes and late-in-life poignancy are set aside, is a rollicking tale of two old gents going out in a blaze of glory for the sake of their community, and their own dignity.
MAD DOG SUMMER
What if "To Kill a Mockingbird" was about a Faulknerian serial killer in 1930s Jim Crow South? I'm not sure Lansdale isn't squeezing too hard on the coming-of-age theme; King's "The Body" is light-minded in comparison.
Still, it contains this fine sentence: "There's no way to explain how bad it hurts to hear your father cry."
A perfect and perfectly ghastly comedy. Any description would dull it.
THE BIG BLOW
Another big Southern novella. The Galveston Hurricane.
Black as the pit. Another coming-of-age tale, brief and shocking.
INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD
I began by hating this story and ended giving author and woman protagonist a round of applause.
The prurience and ugliness of woman-stalking slasher films, but with tables turned once, then twice.
Still, the story to the reader asks: How much can you take? After three pages I was ready to skip it. Glad I did not.
THE EVENTS CONCERNING A NUDE FOLD-OUT FOUND IN A HARLEQUIN ROMANCE
Wonderful x-ray of how a team of amateur working class crime-fighters come together for their first case.
WHITE MULE, SPOTTED PIG
Tall tale of a mule race in East Texas. Joyfully funny in its narrative rascality.
ON THE FAR SIDE OF THE CADILLAC DESERT WITH DEAD FOLKS
A Romero-style zombie Western. Lawman and prisoner versus living dead religious cult. Meh.
NOT FROM DETROIT
"Because I could not stop for death.."
The car came even of the house just as lightning flashed, and in that instant, Alex got a good look at the driver, or at least the shape of the driver outlined in the flash, and he saw that it was a man with a cigar in his mouth and a bowler hat on his head. And the head was turning toward the house.
Just an old fashion slice of life.
STEPPIN' OUT, SUMMER, '68
A stunner. Brilliant, deadpan gallows humor. A coming-of-age story about two teens who - God, I hope - learn better. The third lad sure doesn't:
....Buddy poured some hooch into his palm and rubbed it into his hair, fanning his struggling squirrel-do into greater disarray. He gave the jar to Jake, got out his comb and sculptured his hair with it. Hooch ran down from his hairline and along his nose and cheeks. "See that," he said, holding out his arms as if he were styling. "Shit holds like glue."
Buddy seemed an incredible wit suddenly. They all laughed. Buddy got his cigarettes and shook one out for each of them. They lipped them. They smiled at one another. They were great friends. This was a magnificent and important moment in their lives. This night would live in memory forever.
Buddy produced a match, held it close to his cheek like always, smiled and flicked it with his thumb. The flaming head of the match jumped into his hair and lit the alcohol Buddy had combed into it. His hair flared up, and a circle of fire, like a halo for the Devil, wound its way around his scalp and licked at his face and caught the hooch there on fire. Buddy screamed and bolted berserkly into a pew, tumbled over it and came up running. He looked like the Human Torch on a mission.
Wilson and Jake were stunned. They watched him run a goodly distance, circle, run back, hit the turned over pew again and go down.
Wilson yelled, "Put his head out."
Jake reflexively tossed the contents of the fruit jar at Buddy's head, realizing his mistake a moment too late. But it was like when he waved at Sally's pa. He couldn't help himself.
Buddy did a short tumble, came up still burning; in fact, he appeared to be more on fire than before. He ran straight at Wilson and Jake, his tongue out and flapping flames.
Wilson and Jake stepped aside and Buddy went between them, sprinted across the church yard toward the street.
"Throw dirt on his head!" Wilson said. Jake threw down the jar and they went after him, watching for dirt they could toss.
Buddy was fast for someone on fire. He reached the street well ahead of Wilson and Jake and any discovery of available dirt. But he didn't cross the street fast enough to beat the dump truck. Its headlights hit him first, then the left side of the bumper chopped him on the leg and he did a high complete flip, his blazing head resembling some sort of wheeled fireworks display. He landed on the bridge railing on the far side of the street with a crack of bone and a barking noise. With a burst of flames around his head, he fell off the bridge and into the water below....
HELL THROUGH A WINDSHIELD
Drive-In movie nostalgia.
NIGHT THEY MISSED THE HORROR SHOW
Lansdale's masterpiece. Unforgettably visceral, like the ache of a broken bone. The best expression since James M. Cain of the noir ethos: do what you will, you can't win.
17 October 2018