The Devil All the Time (Book Review)

In anticipation of this week’s premiere (September 16th) of the film adaptation on Netflix, here’s a review of the Donald Ray Pollock novel that I first posted on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2011.

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock (Doubleday, 2011)

Willard Russell, a haunted World War II veteran who pours sacrificial animal (and then human) blood over a backwoods “prayer log” in hopes of curing his wife’s cancer. Roy Lafferty, a darkly carnivalesque preacher who spills a jar full of spiders over his head while sermonizing, and who kills his own wife when mistakenly believing he possesses the power to raise her from the dead. Carl and Sandy Henderson, a married couple whose summer vacations consist of driving cross country, picking up drifters, photographing them having sex with Sandy and then murdering them and arranging even more graphic poses. These are just some of the ignoble figures parading through the pages of Donald Ray Pollock’s audacious debut novel (following his 2009 short story collection Knockemstiff).

As might be guessed from the book’s title, The Devil All the Time is relentless in its presentation of macabre incident and employment of mordant wit. Not since Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust has a novel been so thoroughly populated with grotesques. Practically every character the reader meets seems to be some form of sexual deviant or blasphemous believer. But Pollock does not present depravity just for the hell of it; with his main characters, at least, he takes the time to round them out, to develop their backstories and delve into their present mindsets. To cite one exemplary passage, here are Carl’s ruminations following the Henderson’s most recent photo “shoot”:

When the fire died out, Carl kicked the ashes around in the gravel, then took a dirty bandanna from his back pocket and picked up the hot belt buckle and the smoking remains of the army boots. He flung them out into the middle of the gravel pit and heard a faint splash. As he stood at the edge of the deep hole, Carl thought about the way that Sandy had wrapped her arms around the army boy when she saw him set the camera down and pull the pistol out, like that was going to save him. She always tried that shit with the pretty ones, and though he couldn’t really blame her for wanting it to last a while longer, this wasn’t just some damn fuck party. To his way of thinking, it was the one true religion, the thing he’d been searching for all his life. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God. He looked up, saw dark clouds beginning to gather in the sky. He wiped some sweat out of his eyes and started back to the car. If they were lucky, maybe it would rain tonight and wash some of the scum out of the air, cool things off a bit.

Pollock splashes his paint on a broad canvas, cutting back and forth between West Virginia and central Ohio and tracing the lives of his characters over a two-decade span. The ultimately dovetailing plotlines might at first seem over-reliant on coincidence, until one realizes that such outcomes are in perfect keeping with the author’s naturalism. For Pollock, grim fate perennially plays a hand, and his characters have been molded (“warped” might be the better word) by the forces of biological and environmental determinism. Yet despite all this bleakness, the narrative still manages to strike a redemptive note in its final pages.

Honestly, this novel is not for the weak of stomach or the easily offended (some readers will be hard-pressed to get past the scene where maggots rain down from rotting carcasses). William Faulkner reads like Little Lord Fauntleroy compared to Pollack’s unflinching depiction of grotesquerie. The Devil All the Time is as Gothic as American literature can get, which is perhaps the loftiest praise I could ever give a book. Highly, highly recommended.

 

Clown Citing

When an established horror writer turns to the Young Adult version of fearmongering, trepidation naturally arises. One worries that the language (not to mention the characters) could end up dumbed down, that the plot might end up simplified, and the horror rendered…well, less horrifying. Thankfully, none of those concerns are warranted in regards to Adam Cesare’s new novel (and YA debut), Clown in a Cornfield.

Cesare does present readers with predominantly teenage characters (high school students–including newcomer Quinn, the book’s protagonist–in the blighted town of Kettle Springs, Missouri). But these are not stock players from Central Casting, merely embodying tired stereotypes: the attractive bad boy, the bitchy hot girl, the dumb jock, etc. Cesare’s teen are not just cardboard props set up to be knocked off; they are three-dimensional figures with complex motivations. Just as refreshingly, they are not sardonically self-aware of all the conventions of the horror genre.

After taking the time to establish the characters and situation (the town’s uncanny mascot, the pork-pie-hatted Frendo the Clown, brought to life as a homicidal menace), the book kicks into full gear about a third of the way through and never lets up. Any expectations of a formulaic slasher plot– where a costumed, weapon-brandishing psycho methodically preys on his young victims, picking them off one at a time–are trampled like cornstalks beneath a runaway tractor. A carnival of widespread carnage erupts, featuring some shockingly graphic kills that earn this cinematic narrative a hard-R rating.

Cesare’s latest effort (following such works as Zero Lives Remaining and The Con Season) has been heralded as hearkening back to the classic slasher narrative, and the elements of that paradigm are readily apparent, right down to some rousing Final Girl feistiness. The horror icons of the title also instantly invoke a distinct Stephen King vibe (besides echoing the communal corruption of Derry in IT, the book offers a clever riff on “Children of the Corn”). Nevertheless, with its Midwestern/cornfield setting, its small-town secrets and conspiracies, its generational conflict and bullying cop figure (the hardcase Sheriff Dunne), the novel perhaps compares best with Norman Partridge’s Dark HarvestClown in a Cornfield might not be destined to become a timeless classic like Partridge’s novel, but it is a very enjoyable read and highly recommended to anyone looking for a few quick hours of frightful fun this fall season.

 

 

The Only Good Indians (Book Review)

The title of Native American horror writer Stephen Graham Jones’s latest novel is an appropriate one. It alludes to the notorious quote by General Philip Sheridan back in 1869 that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” So right from the get-go, Jones raises the specter of historical injustice, but does so without being too on-the-nose. Such approach sets the stage for the subsequent narrative. The Only Good Indians tackles all the salient issues, addresses the various exigencies of Native American existence in the modern-day United States–racial discrimination, police profiling, poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse–but always in a manner that is organic to the story being told. Jones’s narrative never devolves into bitter lament; the author’s barbs are often delivered with wry humor. An influx of cash, for example, causes the character Cass to ponder: “In the old days, which means up until last month, forty dollars extra would have turned itself into a cooler of beer. Just, poof, Indian magic, don’t even need any eagle feather fans or a hawk screeching, just look away long enough for it to happen.” A few paragraphs later, Cash considers his own virility: “What he figures is that he’s shooting blanks, just like all the Indians when they’re fighting John Wayne.” Later, when told mid-ritual that a sweat lodge is the safest place in the Indian world, thee teenager Nate snickers and sardonically retorts, “Safest place in the Indian world? That means we’re only 80 percent probably going to die here, not ninety percent?”

This being a horror novel, many members of the predominantly Native American cast of characters do end up dying (the story centers on a group of young men who engage in an illegal and ill-fated elk hunt on tribal ground, and who are forced to face the consequences of their transgression a decade later). Jones is careful, though, to first build a sense of creeping unease–glimpses of a shadowy menace, disquieting creaks on a staircase–that makes the subsequent eruptions of graphic violence all the more stunning. The author is unflinching in his depiction of gruesome demise, painting mayhem in vivid imagery marked by precise yet unique detail. For instance, let’s just say that Jones is the hands-down winner of the award for Most Harrowingly Original Death-on-a-Motorcycle Scene, and leave it at splat.

The Only Good Indians is masterfully structured, with minor, seemingly throw-away items ultimately proving integral to the overall plot (this is definitely a novel that will be appreciated even more upon a second read). If I had one complaint, however, it’s that Jones’s chapter titles sometimes are a bit spoiler-ish.

Throughout his career as a fiction and nonfiction writer, Jones has established himself as an unabashed fan of slasher cinema. Such love, as many reviewers have noted, is also evident here, as Jones applies many elements of the slasher-film formula (one basketball-star character is even nicknamed, quite suggestively, “Finals Girl”). But at the same time, reviewers have universally overlooked The Only Good Indians‘ engagement with Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Both novels involve a devious female shapeshifter hellbent on vengeance against a group of males (each, hardly coincidentally, including characters named Lewis and Ricky) who wronged her years earlier. While Straub utilizes (less euphemistically: “culturally appropriates”) the mythological figure of the manitou as antagonist, Jones offers more of an insider’s perspective onto a frightful (yet not merely demonized) creature from Native American lore, Elk Head Woman.

The Only Good Indians is a haunting novel, one that stays with the reader not just because of the horrific events transpiring within, but also due to the beautiful language employed throughout. It might not be Jones’s best book (for me, that remains the ingenious Demon Theory), but it is a strongly representative work by an important Native American voice, and a damn fine writer, period.

 

999: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

Back in 1999, Al Sarrantonio edited the stellar anthology 999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense. Here on the eve of a new year, with another 9 about to roll over, I thought it would be a perfect time to take a look back at the Stoker-Award-winning book.

Two decades later, 999 still impresses with its size and scope. My Perennial paperback copy of the anthology clocks in (not coincidentally, I’d like to believe) at 666 text-packed pages. Between the covers of this thick-spined volume, the full range of dark fiction is represented: from quiet horror (T.E.D. Klein’s subtly sinister “Growing Things”) to brash splatter (Edward Lee’s unblinkingly graphic “ICU”); from Northeastern gothic (“The Ruins of Contracoeur” by the masterful Joyce Carol Oates) to the Southern folk tale (Nancy A. Collins’s local-colorful and captivating “Catfish Gal Blues”); from psychological horror (Rick Hautala’s creepily resonant “Knocking”) to noir crime (Ed Groman’s sexy and sinful “Angie”); and the weird tale of varieties both raucous (“The Entertainment,” provided with wicked wit by the incomparable Ramsey Campbell) and the somber (Thomas Ligotti’s brilliantly hypnotic, yet undeniable bummer of a cosmic-horror story, “The Shadow, The Darkness”).

The standard genre tropes show up here at Sarrantonio’s celebration, but prove most welcome in their fresh attire. Kim Newman’s lead-off piece “Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue” takes the zombie tale to new places, not just via the story’s Communist Russia setting but also its bizarre twists (involving a revenant Rasputin!). In the bad-blooded “Good Friday,” F. Paul Wilson develops the traditional plot of vampiric incursion to chillingly apocalyptic extremes. The hoary haunted-portrait story gets updated and turbo-charged in Stephen King’s nightmare-fueling “The Road Virus Heads North” (one of King’s earliest post-IT returns to the town of Derry). Last but not least effective, William Peter Blatty’s volume-closing novel Elsewhere slyly reworks the classic elements of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and gives an incredible twist to the haunted-house formula (one that predates a certain Nicole Kidman film by two years).

I won’t pretend that every tale Sarrantonio selected is a narrative gem, but only a few pieces fail to sparkle in this treasure trove of terror. Shining brightest of all here is a pair of novellas that alone makes 999 a precious possession. Joe R. Lansdale’s “Mad Dog Summer” (which the author subsequently expanded into the Edgar-Award-winning novel The Bottoms) is a terrific East Texas riff on To Kill a Mockingbird. David Morrell’s “Rio Grande Gothic” starts with an unsettling premise–empty shoes repeatedly found set on the yellow median line of a Sante Fe road–and deftly crosses over into downright eerie territory.

In retrospect, the high hopes outlined by Sarrantonio in his Introduction (that “this book turns out to be revolutionary, helps to revive the field, kills the ghetto, and starts a third Golden Age”) might not have been quite fulfilled, but there is no arguing against the success of this effort. The book is a strong contender for the title (again, in Sarrantonio’s words) of “the finest collection of brand new horror and suspense stories ever published,” and warrants a permanent space on the genre-lover’s bookshelf alongside such original anthologies as Dark Forces and Prime Evil. 999 has aged finely over past twenty years, and its dark contents prove well-deserving of a “vintage” label.

 

Dare Me Book Review Re-Post

In anticipation of the tv-series adaptation (which begins airing Sunday night on the USA network), here is a re-post of my review of Megan Abbott’s novel back on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2012.

Dare Me by Megan Abbott (Reagan Arthur Books)

Don’t be fooled by the cover image, or the fact that Abbott’s sixth novel is set in the world of high school cheerleading. Dare Me isn’t some saccharine teen romance but rather a dark and sophisticated roman noir. To start with, the cast of high school girls here engage in some decidedly adult behavior (Sex, Drugs, and Alcohol! seems to be their decadent mantra). As cheerleaders they are not vapid, bubble-blowing gym-bimbos; more like “gladiators” who train gruelingly and perform extraordinary physical feats. This is bloodsport, both in terms of the terrible injuries suffered (bones snap and tendons pop “like a New Year’s champagne cork”) and all the infighting/backbiting as the girls vie to be Top Girl on the squad and in the eyes of the coach they idolize.

The novel traces the tremendous, transformative effect new young coach Colette French has on her squad, and the trouble this brings to the long-standing friendship between sixteen-year-old narrator Addy Hanlon and alpha-female Beth Cassidy (a jealous Beth resents Addy’s closeness with the coach). Addy’s problems, though, are far from typical high-school fare. When a character is found dead under suspicious circumstances, Addy finds herself enmeshed in a dangerous web of secrets and deceptions–to the point where she doesn’t know whether she can trust either her old friend or her new mentor. With its dire plot complications, and its concerns with the limits/complexities of narrative viewpoint, Dare Me reads like a masterful mix of James M. Cain and Henry James.

Abbot’s prose has the precision and resonance of poetry (“Watching the swirl at your feet, the glitter spinning [down the shower drain]. Like a mermaid shedding her scales.”). The writing is highly sensuous, yet never descends into luridness, as seen, for instance, in the following description of a deep-tissue massage administered by Beth: “Her thumb slides up the diamond shaped middle of the calf, and notches there, working slowly, achingly, pressing down to the hardest place then sliding her thumb up, the two muscle heads forking. It’s like her thumb is a hot wand, that’s how I always used to think of it.”

Again, though, this is ultimately a dark and gritty story that Abbott’s narrator Addy is telling. There are strong overtones of American Gothic, with the novel’s central death taking place in a sparsely-occupied apartment complex called the The Towers (“it’s like a castle”). Drawn to the scene of possible crime (suicide or homicide? is the question at the heart of the mystery), Addy is forced to navigate the “gloomy dark” corridors, stepping along the way on the victim’s shotgun-scattered teeth.

Yet scariest of all in Dare Me is “witchy” and “vampiric” Beth, a pint-sized tyrant who seems to harbor more mean spirit than team spirit (“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls,” Addy warns us early on, anticipating the menace Beth will exude). She’s devious, manipulative, vindictive, but can hardly be reduced to a bitchy-it-girl stereotype. For all her brashness and razor wit, she is also a sad and wounded figure. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Beth stands as Abbott’s most memorable character creation to date.

Dare Me is an engrossing novel that will transport readers back to their own teenage years while simultaneously reminding them just how different the high school scene is for kids today, with all the fresh temptations and modern technologies at hand (the illicit sexual content of teens’ cell phones is integral to the novel’s plot). Abbott continues to break new ground, boldly setting her noir storylines in original milieus, and for those willing to dare the unfamiliar (rather than settle for the safely formulaic), an immensely rewarding reading experience awaits.

 

Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood (Macabre Republic Imports)

My previous post inspired me to import this 2012 book review from my old blog, Macabre Republic…

Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood by Kathryn Leigh Scott and Jim Pierson (Pomegranate Press, 2012)

Published in anticipation of this weekend’s release of the Tim-Burton-directed film, Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood is a glossy, oversized paperback collecting topical essays, anecdote-rich reminiscences by former cast members, a chronology of the 45-year history of the beloved Gothic romance, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the latest cinematic Shadows, and even a postscript poem by David Selby.

The book brims with insider information (which is to be expected, considering that Kathryn Leigh Scott played Maggie Evans/Josette DuPres on the series). Some of the intriguing insight offered: the genesis of the idea for Dark Shadows in series creator Dan Curtis’s mind; how those involved managed to shoot a feature film and a daily soap simultaneously; the reason Jonathan Frid refused to reprise his role as Barnabas Collins in the second film, Night of Dark Shadows; the impact of the Gulf War on the 90’s primetime version of the series; what it was like when Johnny Depp met Jonathan Frid on the Burton set.

The actors’ enduring love for Dark Shadows shines through the pages. Despite the grueling five-episodes-per-week production schedule, players such as Scott, Frid, and Lara Parker (Angelique) admittedly found it a joy to go to work each day. This remarkably positive attitude in turn makes Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood a pleasure to read.

Long-time fans will treasure the insider’s perspective here, while newcomers will appreciate the opportunity to learn all about Dark Shadows before seeing the film. Lovely as it is timely, the volume is lavishly illustrated with color and black-and-white photos. It makes for the perfect coffee table book for Gothic-aficionados throughout our Macabre Republic.

 

Hard (Case) Candy: A Review of Blood Sugar

When I learned that Hard Case Crime was publishing a new, Halloween-themed novel (one written by the co-author of The Shape of Water), I was immediately sold. I rushed to buy a copy of Daniel Kraus’s Blood Sugar and plunged into the book, which turned out to be quite an unexpected reading experience.

Blood Sugar surprises on several levels. First, it counters the immediate assumptions about the Halloween candy-tainting scheme that forms its central plot. Such mistreatment of costumed beggars is not being planned by some elderly neighborhood crank but by a young man and the group of kids who form his small circle of friends/surrogate family. Secondly, the narrative catches the reader (particularly the one anticipating typical genre fare) off-guard with its saturation by grotesque and outré detail. A perfect, squirm-inducing example: one quirky character here willingly mummifies herself with used flypaper teeming with still-wriggling insects.

Kraus’s eccentric October-set novel reads like the wild literary child of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (the anti-hero Robbie’s trashed house on Yellow Street makes Tyler Durden’s abode on Paper Street seem like the Taj Mahal). And while encountering a first-person narrator is no great shock in a Hard Case novel, the slang-heavy, streetwise-young-thug-affecting storytelling by the adolescent Jody certainly furnishes a unique take on the conventional perspective. Here’s a taste of Jody’s sic[k] verbiage:

We arent even off the stoop before Midge kneels down and investigates our jackolantern like shes from CSI Miami. Must be some beetles or worms up inside that big orange bitch. Moms bough tit from some banger with a shopping cart full a pumpkins and even though it was fungused I was psyched cuz Moms hardly ever gets out of bed and when she does its only to cross the street to reup her cigs cuz the dude that works there wont let me buy any for her. Last time moms acquired me something special like that was once upon a time and a galaxy far away.

I lugged that big orange bastard all the way down Yellow Street cuz Robbies got ten Ginsu knives hes super proud of and I knew theyd be perfect for doing pumpkins. Robbie warned me it was too early for carving and dang, yo, turns out fat boy was correct. Here its Halloween day and the jackolanterns mouth is sucked in like No Teeth Mike, this dude that shoots up from across the school. Its all withered and rotten and a gross poop color. Every time I look at it I think about Moms cuz shes the one that bough tit special for me and also cuz shes up in her room getting all withered and rotten too. Maybe moms has bugs in her head like the jackolantern does? That would explain a lot.

The many short chapters built with block paragraphs do give the book an episodic feel, and Blood Sugar lacks the hard-charging narrative drive of a typical caper novel. There’s not much suspense, either, because the intended crime is so heinous it couldn’t possibly be pulled off as planned (which isn’t to say there’s no poisonous candy dispersed during the disturbingly violent climax). Also, much ado is made throughout the book about dressing up in costume, but the overarching emphasis on grotesquerie tends to prevent the establishment of a true, autumnal-holiday atmosphere. Where Kraus’s version of a Halloween crime novel shines is in the dark brilliance of its narrative voice. This book is often laugh-out-loud funny, and beneath its vulgar exterior, surprisingly sweet. An unprecedented feat for Hard Case Crime (I doubt there will be anything like it put out by this publisher ever again), Blood Sugar proves to be a quite-satisfying seasonal treat.

This Dark Chest of Wonders (book review)

Commemorating the ruby anniversary of the disaster epic’s first publication, Andy Burns’s This Dark Chest of Wonders: 40 Years of Stephen King’s The Stand was released by Cemetery Dance back in 2018. My recent re-watch of the ABC miniseries adaptation of The Stand inspired me to catch up and dig down into this dark chest (whose title echoes King’s own dedication-page epithet for the 1978 novel).

Burns’s book is clearly a labor of love, which is not to say that it is marked by amateurish admiration. The author provides a wealth of information about King’s novel; his opening chapter details everything from King’s various sources of inspiration and the cultural context for The Stand‘s composition, to King’s struggles with Doubleday (who sought to abridge the hefty manuscript) and the subsequent reception of the novel (it was interesting to learn, considering the revered status of King’s novel amongst Constant Readers, that the 1978 edition’s “shelf life on the hardcover bestsellers list was relatively brief”). Burns incorporates copious quotes from King himself, drawn from previously-published interviews as well as from discussion of The Stand in nonfiction King books like Danse Macabre and On Writing. One quote I found particularly interesting was King’s revelation of the character in The Stand that he identifies most closely with (someone I never would have suspected).

This Dark Chest of Wonders is no mere monograph; Burns includes a panoply of commentators. Many chapters come in the form of interviews with pertinent personages. King experts such as Bev Vincent and Robin Furth make welcome appearances in these pages, and help shine a light on the character of the Dark Man, Randall Flagg.

A significant portion of the book covers the miniseries version of The Stand. There’s a lengthy (and proportionately enjoyable) interview with Mick Garris, in which the director takes the audience behind the scenes via extensive discussion of the casting and filming of the miniseries. Along the way, Garris gives us a precious anecdote–about how King himself was scared off the set during the filming of the climactic mob scene (Flagg’s staging of the public execution of Larry Underwood and Ralph Brentner).

In his introduction to the book, Burns promises to “unearth all that is contained within this dark chest of wonders that is Stephen King’s The Stand,” and this completist certainly isn’t kidding. By the time Burns turns to interviewing the narrator of the audiobook version and the illustrator of the comic book version, one starts to wonder if this dark chest is going to transform into a trove of the trivial. In retrospect, the book is best enjoyed in small (even random) samples rather than a straight binge. There is a noticeable repetition of information, and the same quotes get used in different chapters. Burns poses similar questions to his various interview subjects–most prominently, why they think King’s novel resonates four decades after its initial printing. The diverse responses to this prompt, though, leave little doubt that The Stand is still terribly relevant, and thus reinforce the reason for a book like Burns’s.

The hardcover edition of This Dark Chest of Wonders is arguably a worthwhile purchase only for hardcore collectors, but the more moderately priced Kindle e-book makes for a valuable addition to the library of any fan of King’s classic post-apocalyptic tale of the superflu and the supernatural.

 

Prime Evil: Thirtieth Anniversary Review

1988 was a banner year for horror anthologies, delivering not only Silver Scream (which did include several reprints in its table of contents), but also Prime Evil: New Stories of Modern Horror. I recently reread the latter, Douglas-E.-Winter-edited anthology, curious to see how it holds up three decades later. The short answer is “amazingly well”; allow me to elaborate, though, on the individual selections.

“The Night Flier” by Stephen King. “Count Dracula with a private pilot’s license” (as the story’s Kolchakian investigator quips) doesn’t do justice to this atmospheric and allusive tale that forms a clever riff on The Night Stalker. Perfectly paced, the piece builds to a terrifying climax (the urinal scene furnished an image that has stayed with me for thirty years). One of King’s more underrated works of short fiction.

“Having a Woman at Lunch” by Paul Hazel. Hazel’s was (and ostensibly remains) the least recognizable name in the book, and his entry the least satisfying. The punchline of this brief, pedestrian bit of black comedy is captured by the story title, removing any real need to read further.

“The Blood Kiss” by Dennis Etchinson. Etchinson’s intricately structured story cuts back and forth between the script of a zombie-themed TV episode and the narrative of an accidental encounter with a psycho on Valentine’s Day. This one must have seemed very meta- and postmodern when it was first published, and doesn’t pale when looked back upon from a post-Scream vantage point.

“Coming to Grief” by Clive Barker. The immensity–not to mention the diversity–of the author’s talent is on full display in this understated meditation on mortality and mourning. Barker proves that his horror extends beyond graphic splashes across the page, while depicting a quarry-haunting Bogey that represents one of his most frightening creations.

“Food” by Thomas Tessier. The veteran horror reader can anticipate where this story (of awful apotheosis) is headed, but that doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the journey. Tessier strikes a fine balance here between urbanity and grotesquerie.

“The Great God Pan” by M. John Harrison. Disclosure: as a teenager back in 1988, I didn’t know Arthur Machen from Arthur Treacher’s (and actually thought going in that the last word of Harrison’s title signified a frying pan!). Thirty years on, I’ve grown much more genre-aware, enough to know that Harrison’s tale, while rich in uncanny imagery, fails to stack up against its totemic namesake.

“Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell. What if David Morrell turned to writing a more Lovecraftian type of cosmic horror? One need not wonder anymore after reading this unforgettable tale of weirdly-caused artistic madness. One of Morrell’s most fantastic efforts, in every sense of the word.

“The Juniper Tree” by Peter Straub. Straub focuses here on the mundane horrors of parental neglect and sexual abuse (by a predator in a movie theater). I can remember being underwhelmed by this long, downbeat story when it was first published, and, unfortunately, it still falls flat for me in 2018.

“Spinning Tales with the Dead” by Charles L. Grant. This tale of a ghost-haunted fishing trip reads like a more horrific version of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” For me, Grant’s trademark brand of quiet horror often straddles a fine line between obliquity and obscurity, but there’s no misunderstanding the shadows darkening this particular narrative.

“Alice’s Last Adventure” by Thomas Ligotti. The master of the eerie short story is in top form in this unnerving first-person account of an author haunted by the macabre and mischievous protagonist of her series of children’s books. Ligotti’s 1989 story “Conversations in a Dead Language” might be better known today, but his entry in Prime Evil is another terrific foray into Halloween horror.

“Next Time You’ll Know Me” by Ramsey Campbell. Campbell’s penchant for penning darkly witty and dreadfully realistic scenarios is evident in this monologue by a dangerous, deluded plagiarist. In retrospect, this succinct story also anticipates Campbell’s similarly deranged-author-themed novel, Secret Story.

“The Pool” by Whitley Strieber. A backyard swimming pool is transformed into a site of abysmal creepiness, and the horror of losing one’s child is given an otherworldly twist. Powerful in and of itself, Strieber’s story also intrigues because it is the first fiction the author produced following his controversial claims of alien abduction in Communion: A True Story.

“By Reason of Darkness” by Jack Cady. Cady draws readers into a Conradian heart of darkness inhabited by the literal–and decidedly unfriendly–ghosts of war. Exquisitely envisioned, and building toward a harrowing climax, Cady’s masterpiece of a novella should have long since been developed into a feature film.

With classic works by Morrell and Cady, and strong offerings by King, Barker, and Ligotti, Prime Evil bears out its titular hint at supremacy. The most important piece in the entire volume, though, might be Winter’s introduction. Tracing the nature (Winter famously defines horror as an emotion rather than a genre) and modern history of horror, the essay shines with insight. This nonfiction document alone made the anthology a must-read when first published, and makes it a must-find now for any fan or aspiring writer who wasn’t around back in the Eighties.

 

Lofty Status: A Review of Stephen King’s Elevation

“Really weird shit” is happening once again in Castle Rock, Maine, but Elevation isn’t the typical Stephen King return to that oft-horrified town.

In one sense, King is up to some (not so) old tricks: just as his previous revisiting of Castle Rock, 2017’s Gwendy’s Button Box, hearkens back to Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button,” Elevation (which cites Matheson on its dedication page) invokes The Shrinking Man. Like the homonymous protagonist of Matheson’s novel, Scott Carey is subjected to a strange case of reducing. King’s Carey is steadily losing weight but somehow his size and muscle mass remain unaltered. His scale gives the same readout whether he is naked or clothed, barehanded or holding a pair of dumbbells.

The narrative is deliberately vague as to the origin of Carey’s condition: is it medical, metaphysical, or even extra-terrestrial in nature? And while Carey presumes his situation is terminal (as he anticipates the approach of “Zero Day”) his story does not unfold as a desperate quest to discover the cause or effects-reducing cure for his weightlessness. This isn’t a redux of Thinner–Carey hasn’t been cursed by a vengeful gypsy, but instead considers himself singled out by “antic providence.” Yes, he is dropping pounds, yet gravity’s inexplicably lessening hold on him is also raising his spirits. His predicament becomes oddly exhilarating, something even better than what a long-distance runner experiences: “Not a wind, not even a high, exactly, but an elevation. A sense that you had gone beyond yourself and could go farther still.”

King is less interested in the outre here: Carey’s curious condition is used as a means to getting at the true heart of the narrative, the developing (initially unfriendly) relationship between the divorced, isolated Carey and his neighbors, Deirdre McComb and Missy Donaldson. These partners in a same-sex marriage have recently moved into town, but haven’t been welcomed with open arms by most of the populace. Whereas the Castle Rock setting of Gwendy’s Button Box felt extraneous (less charitably: like a cheap marketing ploy), here it makes for an appropriate choice of story place. Conservatively Republican in its politics, King’s fictional small town is given to provincial thought and prejudicial verbiage, and Deirdre and Missy struggle to keep their new restaurant afloat financially amidst such cold-shouldering by the locals. It’s up to Carey, then, to help the couple carry on in this town, and to help Castle Rock rise above its discriminatory attitudes.

A quick word on Elevation‘s packaging: Scribner has published a fine 5×7 hardcover, complete with cosmic cover art (whose significance becomes clear by novel’s end) and interior illustrations. The physical book feels good to hold; still, the $19.95 price tag could be a hold-up for some. Buyers will have to decide if the Kindle edition is the more sensible option.

While its page count doesn’t weigh in anywhere near that of the hefty tomes King usually produces, Elevation proves anything but slight. This thematically-resonant narrative is heavy on human decency, exploring the various ways we extend a (literal and figurative) helping hand to each other. A pick-me-up is also what King offers his Constant Readers here, as Elevation represents the most uplifting, downright transcendent effort in the author’s illustrious career.