Monday, January 4, 2010
TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad
NIGHTBLOOD by T. Chris Martindale
Exactly twenty years ago this month, an author had his first horror novel published. He’d written some published work before… some game books for TSR in the multiple-path fashion which was popular in the 1980s… but this was his entry into the leagues of the professional authors.
The month was January, 1990. The novel was Nightblood. It was nominated for a Stoker award for Superior Achievement in a first novel. It was reprinted in the UK. And…
When people talk about how tough the 1990s were on horror, I always think of Martindale. He’s not the only author hurt by the collapse of the market, but he’s a perfect case study. His first book, as mentioned, was nominated for a Stoker. The second, Where the Chill Waits, is considered one of the best Wendigo novels by many horror fans, but it is scarce; Warner shut down its horror line a few weeks after the book’s release, recalling all copies of the title and tanking Martindale’s sales figures. He got a new contract with Pocket, who quickly published his third novel Demon Dance but gave it one of the worst covers ever to grace a horror novel. His final book, The Voice in the Basement, was only on the stands for two weeks before Pocket closed down its horror line. Four novels, three in a row with abysmal sales, and a promising career was over almost as quickly as it started.
I say promising, because Nightblood is the weakest of his four books and it’s very good.
The premise could be summarized for a Hollywood pitch session this way: “Rambo in ‘Salems Lot.” There was a lot that could go wrong with that concept; in practice, Martindale delivers well, with a growing sense of distress for the community, a minimum of reliance on cliché (generally with the intent of standing convention on its ear,) occasional comic touches and good - not great - character development. The novel’s problems lie primarily in its format. The book’s opening seems to set the stage for it being the first in a series of novels; the denouement leaves that impression as well, but the condition of the character has changed enough to suggest that the author had intended it to be a stand-alone. Also, by focusing on specific scenes while being restricted to a general page count, the author left few pages devoted to non-primary characters and the result is a poor sense of transition from a quiet town to a nest of vampiric activity.
In later years, it was revealed that the author had planned for at least one more novel in the series, possibly multiples, but that he was very open to changes in the protagonist’s outlook unlike most other supernatural action or detective series. I wish the market would have cooperated; this might have become a staple of the bestseller shelves.
Four stars out of five.
INSPECTING THE VAULTS by Eric McCormack
This collection was released by Viking in 1987 and was reviewed positively in the New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, and The Toronto Star. Unfortunately, it was written by a Canadian.
Canadians often get short shrift from US publishers, reviewers, and particularly readers. Authors have found it difficult to have their novels issued in the States, although thankfully that is a generalization and not a rule (see: Charles de Lint, Tanya Huff, Kelly Armstrong, etc….) This is a collection which, between its Canadian release and its literary bent, was largely missed by the US readership. That was an injustice.
The collection includes twenty stories, most with a surrealistic bent. There are too many open-ended tales for my general taste, but the tone of the work varies greatly. The title story is a memorable literary grotesque, and other pieces are presented in the format of a detective story, as a first-person narration, as a series of short articles on a horrible event, and more; the author does not stay within a standardized form, and that makes the similarity of conclusion (inconclusion?) more palatable.
McCormack’s vocabulary choices are particularly notable. His wording is precise, adding to the enjoyment of the book rather than rendering it falsely dense with torturous constructions. It was reminiscent of Ligotti’s work, but without the pervasive sense of doom.
Five stars out of five.
THE LAIR OF ANCIENT DREAMS by Asa Drake
This novel from 1982 is difficult to review. It was written by Stoker nominee C. Dean Andersson and his wife Nina Romberg under their joint pen name, early in their writing careers. In later novels, Andersson would become known for being willing to push the boundaries of horror in titles like Raw Pain Max and Torture Tomb. In this early work, the descriptive excesses expected in such stories were not present, but the book was excessive in other ways. Specifically, in theme.
The plot is simple, and summarized on the rear cover: during the time of the Inquisition, an accused witch and a soldier have been branded by a demoness, and they travel toward the creature with the intent to destroy her.
The cover is problematic. The cover copy reveals too much of the plot, and the front cover art is poorly designed, making the scene look like an odd mix of bondage play and supernatural romance (the pair kneel in a burning ring of fire with trees in the background. Also in the background, but almost invisible save under direct light, are shadows of demon-spawn amidst the trunks of the trees. Worse, the shaved head of the woman and the heavy reliance on shadow create a weirdly asexual, androgynous look to the pair.) The final mistake is in the choice of color: the spine and rear cover are powder blue, setting it apart from other horror novels but not in a positive way.
The book spends nearly a hundred pages developing the characters, and makes the mistake of allowing the narrator to voice the thoughts of not one, but both main characters. This removes any significant dramatic tension from the romantic angle of the story and diminishes the tale as a whole. It also presents a solid argument for the book being intended as heroic fantasy rather than horror.
But the nagging problem I had with the book was the mutability of the theme. The book went from being a reincarnation novel to an Inquisition story to a fateful romance to a Lovecraftean novel to sword-and-sorcery to female empowerment…. Those were only a few of the twists.
I do have to commend the authors for incorporating the unusual notion of using Jesus Christ and God as active and participatory villains, albeit off-camera.
If you enter into this novel understanding that the novel will be as unfocused as life itself typically is, you stand a good chance of enjoying it on the strength of the story. It is pleasant and somewhat scarce; if you find a copy, it is worth picking up. That said, this is an early novel from both authors and it is a flawed work.
Three stars out of five.
THE HOUR OF THE OXRUN DEAD by Charles L. Grant
Okay, the credit is actually “C.L. Grant”, but only because it was 1977. Shortly after this book’s publication, he shifted it to Charles L. Grant, and eventually some titles dropped the middle initial entirely.
This novel was a nominee for the World Fantasy Award for best novel. It was also the first novel set in Oxrun Station, the fictitious New England town which the readers were later repeatedly informed, “takes care of its own.”
It was followed by The Sound of Midnight, which was a nominee for the World Fantasy Award for best novel, and The Last Call of Mourning, which was a nominee for the World Fantasy Award for best novel. The first collection of Oxrun stories, Nightmare Seasons, won the World Fantasy Award for best anthology/collection. There is a pattern here.
The Hour of the Oxrun Dead takes the traditional Gothic format into an alley and beats the hell out of it, leaving the pummeled body recognizable but dramatically altered. The widow is not a protagonist in need of rescuing, but a strong figure struggling to understand and overcome the problems aligned against her. The male lead is supportive and helpful, but not the driving force of the story. Innocents die. And the property the widow is trying to maintain isn’t in a remote area, but on a nice suburban street.
Grant’s poetic approach to horror fiction is in low key here, present but not aggressive. The result is a smoothly flowing book which is a joy to read.
The plot focuses on widow Natalie Windsor, a librarian who becomes the target of strange events… minor at first, steadily growing in magnitude until she becomes convinced her life is threatened. She digs into the reasons behind the attacks and in so doing uncovers a conspiracy which, once revealed, needs to decisively eliminate her.
One of the best aspects of the Oxrun series was the way the stories interlocked. Each novel, novella or short story stood on its own, but many would use or reference characters from other works. This is not unique, and that format has added cohesiveness to a number of authors’ stories. What was different about Oxrun was that additional information would sometimes be provided, shading the results of the previous work. In that way, the Station took on a life bigger than the stories alone. It is a place always worth visiting, including in this first appearance.
Five stars out of five.
QUIET HORROR (vt. MYSTERY STORIES) by Stanley Ellin
This collection was released in hardcover as Mystery Stories in 1959, and compiled a set of short stories originally published between 1948 and 1956. It was re-released in an affordable paperback edition by Dell later that year, under the title Quiet Horror.
It seemed particularly suitable for a month which included Charles L. Grant and Eric McCormack.
Neither title is entirely apt. One of the tales included in the collection is supernatural horror, not a mystery; a couple of the others are straight mystery, not horror. One constant, however, is the quality of the work.
Ellin burst onto the scene with a memorable story called “Specialty of the House”. The story has been reprinted many, many times, and was one of the first short stories adapted for Vincent Price on his BBC audio show “The Price of Fear”. Like Henry Kuttner and “The Graveyard Rats”, Ellin knocked the ball out of the park on his first attempt and proceeded to swing for the bleachers with each successive attempt.
The common feature to all of the stories is their lack of violence. In every instance, where the violence can be described the author cuts away, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill the holes. His story structure, however, is such that the reader cannot help but fill in the appropriate holes in precisely the method intended.
The stories are short trips through motive, through character, and through time, all guided by the hand of a master of his art.
Five stars out of five.
SEVEN SLAYERS by Paul Cain
Not everything from before the 1980s was quiet or subtle. Seven Slayers was originally published in 1950, gathering seven stories from the 1930s Black Mask pulp magazine. Various stories were reprinted in anthologies, and the original collection was reissued by Black Lizard in 1987.
These stories were hard-boiled fiction at its best, with violence around every corner and no shady deal what it seemed on the surface. Guns flare, knives fly, and good intentions are just another weakness that can get you killed.
What set these stories apart, and make them particularly notable for horror fans, is the bleak attitude which envelops the world in which these stories are told. There is no morality in any of the people, only an occasional and typically forced lapse into truth.
The author’s style is terse, as if each word was precious and reluctantly provided. Simple sentences and direct discussion are the rule of the day, with the result of creating a short book; all of the stories combine to less than a hundred and fifty pages. There is no supernatural element in any of them, not even suggested or possible. That said, the value here is in the devious and intricate plotting and the often brutal portrayal of humanity.
Five stars out of five.