Sunday, October 4, 2009

TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad

The Running of Beasts by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg

I have recommended this title to people for decades. It was printed by Doubleday in 1976, released in mass market paperback by Fawcett shortly thereafter, and reissued by Black Lizard crime fiction in 1988.
Black Lizard was a relatively new brand, but it had a great list, focusing on out-of-print titles by Jim Thompson, David Goodis, James M. Cain and other classic crime writers. And then there were two by Bill Pronzini: a solo novel, Masques, and this collaboration with Barry N. Malzberg, one of the most prolific and thoughtful (if often bleak) writers of science fiction in the 1970s.
This is not a traditional crime novel any more than is Psycho or Silence of the Lambs. It is horror, without any supernatural element. The book focuses on a series of brutal slayings of women in a small town in upstate New York. A writer from a prominent national magazine convinces her editor to send her there for the story using a double hook: she grew up in the town, and she’s bringing a psychologist with an interesting theory about the murderer.
The theory provides the structure of the novel. The killer is committing the murders while in a disassociated state, likely in the structure of a blackout to his conscious mind. According to the psychiatrist, his steadily increasing aggression and recklessness are indications of a movement toward reconciliation between his conscious and fugue/blackout state.
We, as the reader, are provided with four reasonable prospects for the killer, and all of them are given fair treatment as they interact with secondary characters, the returning journalist, and each other. We watch as the characters reveal secrets, as fear and doubt riddle them, as their personalities fissure under pressure, and the reactions are note-perfect. This is partly a serial killer thriller, partly a character study, and partly a puzzle story, and it works on all levels.
Exceptional collaborations are rare. When they occur, it’s because both writers are able to imbue the story with their own style and expertise without detracting from their co-author’s efforts. This is an exceptional collaboration. Both writers have a superior grasp of language, and an eye for characterization. Pronzini had already earned a reputation as a creator of realistic mysteries and Malzberg was exploring the failings of the human mind under stress. The pair joined forces again for a few later novels, some anthology work, and some short fiction. They typically produced above-average work, and often brilliant stories. Their first, however, is probably their best.

Five stars out of five.

Tiger Rag by Kit Reed

I looked at the cover blurbs for the paperback edition of this novel: “A Stunning Tale of Psychological Horror… Intriguing, Absorbing, Skillfully Written.” - Washington Post Book World. “An Engrossing Tale of Contemporary Horror That Touches on the Depravity Lurking in Us All.” - The New Haven Register.
I considered the author: Kit Reed. Kit is an anomaly; she has written more contemporary literature than she has science fiction or horror, but she is known to most of the literary field as a science fiction or horror writer. To the casual horror or science fiction reader, she is virtually unknown.
I read the first few pages. When a partially-dissolved body is discovered by playing children, you can expect the story to be somewhat gruesome. I worked past the cover (a close-up of a tiger with a flower upon its muzzle, a ghostly silhouette of a woman rising from the pistil) and dug in for some horror from 1973.
Quickly, I warmed to Kit Reed’s carefully structured casual style; it is mildly jarring when she writes from the viewpoints of characters other than the main (Dorothea) because the reader is primarily identifying with her. That criticism aside, the language is easily accessible even when the sentiments are complex.
Fifty pages in, I was wondering if I was in for something along the lines of early Straub… a carefully laid foundation of characters and events which, when the terror started, would carry the reader along like a speeding roller coaster.
Eighty pages in, I finally “got it”. I’d like to think I’m not normally that obtuse, and that I had merely been spoiled by books like Julia and If You Could See Me Now. There was no gore in the book, no grue from the reader, and very little of what would be classified as horror under the contemporary definitions.
And once I stopped expecting it, I started reading the novel for what it was: a literate, complex examination of a woman who is slowly falling apart under the burden of unresolved issues from childhood. Kit Reed has often been described as a feminist writer, and this novel is a fine example. For a novel written in the early 1970s, at the height of the Feminist political movement, however, this book is starkly apolitical; it focuses on the female protagonist and displays both her failings and strengths, not as a philosophical vehicle but as a person.
In this, the book succeeds, and it is well written if not as engrossing as many of her later works. The psychological horror referenced in the blurbs is subtle and understated, however, and I expect many contemporary readers, particularly male readers, will fail to be affected by Dorothea’s attempt to quiet her inner turmoil and feelings of alienation while keeping her family together.

Three stars out of five.

Old House of Fear by Russell Kirk

The Gothic novel is the literary equivalent of Whist. At one time, most card-playing Americans played Whist, and most readers of thrillers read gothic literature. The game is mildly popular elsewhere, however, and so are gothic novels.
The joke goes that a gothic involves a woman inheriting a house, and to be fair that does happen in this novel. But the heart of the subgenre is more accurately about the conflict between the ancient and the modern (typically presented in the form of the setting… thus, why most of the books feature castles, mansions, and other large dwellings which can reasonably be presented as having existed from some level of antiquity), about isolation, and about confrontations with evil… usually subjugation by or deference to evil, followed by redemption.
Old House of Fear does not use the latter device, primarily because it would be antithetical to the subtext of the story. The author, Russell Kirk, wrote this novel both with the intent of telling an interesting story and also with an eye toward contextual political critique.
Russell Kirk was primarily a historian and a political theorist, and he let a little of that bleed over into this, his first novel. The result is something similar to G.K. Chesterson’s The Man Who Was Thursday, in that the villains of the piece are firmly grounded in the reality of the time of writing.
Here, the villains are Soviet agents, and Kirk uses his familiarity with historical events and the known methodology of such agents to add verisimilitude to his story. The result reads like a cross between a traditional gothic novel and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. This is, thankfully, not a negative. The combination works quite well, keeping the pace of the story moving and making the characters seem more realistic than they might be with slighter motivations.
The writing is denser than is currently fashionable, focusing more on long, descriptive paragraph structure than dialogue. Conversations are presented as if they are in plays, with first one character, then another speaking at length. This does not detract from the story, but rather adds to the dramatic effect of the novel.
The plot is simple. The main character is traveling to a small island off of the Scottish coast as an agent for a retiring industrialist, with the intent to purchase said island and the castle (the “Old House of Fear” of the title) upon it. Problems ensue. That’s the plot. Strangely, it works.
The primary criticism I have of this novel is of Kirk’s use of dialect. His protagonist has traveled from America to Scotland. We understand that, as readers; I’m not a fan of forcing the reader to mentally modify words into their properly-spelled form unless the accents being represented are particularly oppressive. In Kirk’s book, nearly every Scot is virtually incomprehensible. That complaint aside, it is an effective, fun Gothic which is constructed well, presented well, and entertaining.

Four stars out of five.

Stories From The Other Passenger by John Keir Cross

This is, at its core, only a partial review.
The original book The Other Passenger was published in 1946. In the early 1960s, Ballantine Books was producing an experimental horror line which consisted primarily of novels and collections which had not been readily available to the American public. This included three novels by Sarban (Runestones, The Sound of His Horn, and The Dollmaker) and abridged versions of some of the Arkham House collections. Betty and Ian Ballantine decided to combine their efforts at introducing European authors to the US readers of that time and their collection abridgements, and produced “Stories from the Other Passenger”. It contains nine of the eighteen stories which were present in the original volume, but from those nine, an impression of the author’s work can be derived. More to the point, the stories which comprise the book are those which the Ballantines felt were the most effective and/or most famous, and thus the smaller book may present a brighter image of the man’s overall efforts than the complete collection.
In any event, the book is subtitled “Terror in Needlepoint”. This is both a clue for and a warning to the potential reader.
The stories are effective, although diminished by time. With the sole exception of the final and eponymous story, there are no supernatural elements in these stories. They are merely reflections on the everyday evils at the edges of lives.
At the edges of lives… not at the edges of our lives. The bulk of the stories in the collection are related from the point of view of a first-person narrator who is somehow involved in the events of the story. The result is not stories which rely too heavily upon dialect, but stories which are very much attached to a particular locale at a specific point in time. A story told from the perspective of a Bohemian-inspired artist in a city in England is full of references to people who were famous at the time, and place names specific to the locale. It undoubtedly increased the believability of the tales at the time they were written, but the passage of time has left the stories feeling dated.
Worse, the events which were meant at the time to inspire dread are typically less disturbing than events regularly reported in the news. One example: a man discovers that the small bed he was only barely able to rent for the night became open because of the significant offer of money he was inspired to make… and that prior to his sleep, it was the resting place of the dying child of the proprietors of the rental cottage. In contemporary horror, the man would discover that the proprietors had killed their child to make room for the easy cash; in this story, it is revealed that the child had been sick and had died hours before the man arrived. The horror is meant to be that, rather than let the child’s body lay in repose for a short time, the parents hustled her out into a coffin mere hours after her death and rented the bed before it had fully warmed. This seems mild compared to a video of a beating death or a story of abduction and rape, which are the sorts of things that pepper our current news cycle.
The stories are interesting, and the writing is technically precise. The horror associated with them is tempered by time and distance, however.

Three stars out of five.

The King In Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

This is not a novel, but a collection of stories related either by common elements or general mood. It was written in 1895, and was Chambers’ first book. Some names were taken from Ambrose Bierce… Hastur, Carcosa… but for the most part this is merely a brilliant work by a new writer. The first story is set in the future (1920) and theorizes an America transformed by war and science, which adds rather than detracts from the plot. The reader is automatically confronted by a world which seems well-defined, but operates with a different history, and thus a different reality, than ours. That generates an air of disquiet which is maintained throughout the book.
This is one of the principal inspirations for Lovecraft, and I expect for many in the “Lovecraft Circle” as well; I find it difficult to believe that Clark Ashton Smith was not heavily influenced by the stories in The King in Yellow.
That said, the age of the book works against it. Not in readability; the book holds up surprisingly well for something more than a hundred years old. Rather, the book is in public domain, but not remarkably famous outside of a specific readership: horror fans, and in particular fans of Lovecraftean horror. Often, the only place a reader can find a copy is from a small press, at a price two to three times that of a standard mass-market paperback.
This is a shame. At his best, the prose is evocative yet concise, reminiscent of earlier writers like Poe and current writers like Thomas Ligotti. This is most clearly seen in the first story in the book, “The Repairer of Reputations.” While the remainder of the collection is somewhat uneven, I believe that is balanced by his choice of concepts, and the mixing of then-established story formats with a bleak mood. Chambers presented tales of madness and mixed them with failed romanticism, and in so doing created something which both deserves reading as a literary landmark (a point of direct inspiration for the Lovecraft mythos) and as a story collection.

Five stars out of five.

--Bill Lindblad