Thursday, March 4, 2010

TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad


Spoiler alert: this book stinks. That’s not much of a spoiler, but just in case anyone might only be reading the first line of these reviews I wanted to get that warning out.

There will be actual spoilers in the review, which is something I normally strive to avoid. I know this can be frustrating, because many people want to know plot elements before they can make the determination of whether or not a book sounds interesting. In this case, if the book sounds like an interesting horror novel I haven’t done my job.

Publishers’ Weekly failed in this regard. The cover prose to the paperback edition reads: As shattering as The Andromeda Strain. As terrifying as Rosemary’s Baby. Then comes the PW blurb: “Impossible to put down. When you do, it’s with a shiver.” The Cleveland Press failed, too; on the back, it blurbs: “So eerie the cover opens with a squeak.” I no longer trust Publishers’ Weekly or the Cleveland Press.

When I was younger, I heard this book being discussed favorably at a science fiction convention by a group of people. I therefore decided that it might serve as a good representative of horror from the 1970s for this month’s column. What I didn’t take into account was that the Gor novels are very popular among a certain segment of the sf/fantasy readership, and that perhaps some of them wanted Gorean fiction written in a somewhat less complex and nuanced fashion.

If you know what Gor is, then, yes, you read that correctly. If you don’t, just be glad and pretend I never brought it up.

The back cover copy of the book gave me warning. “A single injection - and Jack Freeman cheated death. He was to be the world’s first test-tube mutant; the DNA solution that scrambled his chromosomes would also halt a fatal malignancy. Jack Freeman - about to undergo the most terrifying metamorphosis ever experienced by man. His mission to play stud to a master race of man-hungry females, the League of Grey-Eyed Women.”

From that, I was expecting something along the line of Philip Jose Farmer - a Robert Ludlum plot crossed with Wonder Woman’s Amazons.

Instead, what I got was a journalist with a fatal cancer. He is given superpowers by a few women who like him, but he uses the powers arbitrarily and temporarily loses his sense of self. They want him back so they can all live together in a communal house, have lots of sex and figure out how to bring the world into a new age of peace and prosperity in which all violence will be abated. The only tension in the book is generated when the man’s only friend is hunted by the women, so that he can’t warn Freeman away from this horrible, horrible fate. However, as the women deplore violence, being chased by them lacks much dramatic punch.

The ending is among the dumbest I’ve encountered in the field of popular fiction, but that’s okay; this is superhero comics and men’s adventure for people who would never dream of despoiling themselves by reading superhero comics and men’s adventure. Like most such efforts, even the “new ground” is stuff people familiar with the genres had seen for decades.

There is no horror here, not even with the realization that you might have wasted money purchasing the title and time reading the book. There is competent writing of an inane story. That’s it.

Read it if you must, but I warned you.

One star out of five.

THE DREAMERS by Roger Manvell

This book was written in 1958 by an extremely prolific author who specialized in horror, but is virtually unknown in today’s horror field. That is because his work was almost exclusively nonfiction, focusing on the horrors of Nazi Germany. This was undoubtedly fostered by his efforts during World War II, where he worked in the British Ministry of Information, creating propaganda films. Film work was his other great interest, and he served as the first director of the British Film Academy.

Roger Manvell’s credentials are impressive. The Dreamers, less so.

His writing suffers in a way common to many screenwriters and many historians; he tends toward simple, explanatory sentences and a minimum of characterization. His style is noticeable and it detracts from rather than adds to the story.

Worse is the interesting plot device: an unusually vivid nightmare which haunts the dreamer until they describe the dream to someone else, at which point the dream is passed on to any who have heard it described. In the hands of John Wyndham, this would have been fodder for a gripping horror novel. In the hands of Manvell, the plot device quickly cedes center stage, becoming a MacGuffin in a book which is instead about the need to eliminate racial prejudices.

What was very nearly a forty-year antecedent to Ringu instead became one of a number of novels from that era encouraging respect between different groups of people. The difference between this book and the novel previously reviewed is that this one succeeds in its primary purpose. Were it not for the facts that the book was promoted as a horror novel, the writing is intrusively structured and it wasted a wonderful concept for a horror story, I would not hesitate to recommend it.

Three stars out of five.

ALL HALLOW’S EVE by Charles Williams

How many horror novels get an introduction by T.S. Eliot? To the best of my knowledge, the answer to that question is “one”, and this is that novel.

I enjoyed this book very much, and found the novel both thoughtful and believable. This is a remarkable achievement, considering how repetitive much of the descriptions are and the nature of some of the main characters.

Which is to say, they’re ghosts.

The book begins from the point of view of a young woman walking toward a meeting with her husband, only to have her experience things which convince her, correctly, that she is dead - a pedestrian, crushed to death in the crash of a small plane over London. Her best friend, with whom she was walking, is also dead, and soon enough the two meet. The remainder of the novel is about the choices one makes, both in life and death, which direct a person on the paths of integrity or corruption.

The author strives to describe London as it is for the deceased, and constantly reminds the reader that the descriptions are not accurate; instead, the newly dead are only able to perceive a small part of the ultimate nature of the afterlife, and sometimes they are able to recognize even that only in relation to what they knew in life. Meanwhile, the living who encounter ghosts or have glimpses into the beyond are permitted only muddled views of what the deceased can see.

This, in the hands of a poet, results in a book which spends about a fifth of its time telling the reader about things which aren’t truly things, about places that aren’t truly places, etc…. It’s a strong indication of the writer’s skill that this does not grow fatally annoying and instead retains the reader’s attention.

The plot concerns a magician, reminiscent of various charismatic world leaders who amassed armies for conquest, who has effectively spread his dominion over China, the U.S., and Russia. In order to enact this he has created two dopplegangers, and the three of them are due to meet in London and, in a prearranged ceremony, claim dominion over all. In order to do this, he needs to first extend his influence into the afterlife, using his daughter as a tool. The dead woman from the beginning of the novel is one of a clutch of people who find themselves working against his purposes.

The prose is thick, often allowing only one or two paragraphs per page. As mentioned before, it can be somewhat repetitive. It is also rich and illuminating, with a story that shines from pleasant, sometimes disturbing subtlety.

Five stars out of five.

LATE AT NIGHT by William Schoell
(Sorry, no book cover image available)

I’ve done a lot of subtle and moody horror recently. I was in the mood for something visceral. Late at Night, written in 1986 by William Schoell, delivered.

I imagine the book started with the author deciding to write a variation on Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” (a.k.a. Ten Little Indians) using a supernatural horror theme. From there, he had fun.

There are axes to the head, of course, but there are also supernatural effects like zombies, killer insect swarms, telekinetic crushing and much more. Ghosts abound. And amidst it all, there is a mystery.

No, there are two mysteries.

Three? Maybe four.

This book has multiple layers of twists and mysteries, all of which are worked adeptly into a novel which features, at one point, a head rolling around on the floor and trying to bite people. The story is constructed, not merely with an ear toward dialogue and a mind for entertaining gore and chills, but also with a careful eye toward clues and revelations.

Fourteen people go to an island which has a long history of horrific violence. It’s been years since anything untoward happened there, and they all have valid reasons for attending. Most will not make it out alive.

The first third of the book is spend setting up the premise, introducing and fleshing out the characters, and developing the plot threads which will be addressed later in the story. The latter two thirds are spent paying off all of the work of the first third. The structure is tight, and the story is fun.

My only complaint about the book is that there’s no underlying substance to it. This is not a book to make you consider the nature of inheritance, or the sad decline and extinction of the Caspian tiger. As I don’t demand that all of my reading mean something, this is a very minor complaint.

Five stars out of five.