Monday, July 4, 2011
TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by William Lindblad
Creep, Shadow! by A. Merritt (1934)
This book, sometimes retitled Creep, Shadow, Creep! to better indicate its status as a sequel to Burn, Witch, Burn! was written in 1934 by Abraham Merritt. Merritt was to fantasy what Asimov was to science fiction or Stephen King is to horror: simultaneously the best seller and the popular face of the field.
This book carries all of the hallmarks of Merritt's work: the dialogue can be simplistic or unrealistically purple, the writing leans too heavily upon adverbs and the first-person protagonist telling the story often bogs down into strange levels of detail. The impressive thing it that it works; the story which was written more than three quarters of a century ago feels like a remnant of another time but it is a welcome one. The style is one that encouraged dozens of pulp imitators, but few did as well with the form.
The main character begins the story with the discovery of a dear friend's suicide, and through the action of another mutual friend (whose sister quickly develops into a love interest and the requisite "good girl") is drawn into a situation in which his expertise is needed. Dr. Alan Caranac is an ethnologist, which for the requirements of the story allows him to be an occult detective. Where the story excels is in its characters and plotting; rather than follow the traditional format, Merritt allowed the villains of the piece to become apparent early on, because the true meat of the story lies in Caranac's response to his unique situation: he has had a past life awakened to him and thus is able to garner needed information about his foe, but in that past life he was a king to her queen, and she is tempting him with that position again. By focusing as much on Caranac's inner conflict as the external one, Merritt produced a story which stands out among the adventure horror fiction of the early 20th century.
Five stars out of five.
The Torturer by Peter Saxon (1967)
In 1966, Peter Saxon wrote The Torturer, and it was published in the United Kingdom. In 1967, it was published in the United States by Paperback Library. This is definitive proof that publishers were willing to release any horror they could find in the 1960s, no matter how pedestrian it might have been.
The plot is simple enough: a movie crew is filming at a deserted castle. The beings haunting it prey upon them. The haunters are effectively pain vampires, receiving vitality through the torture of others.
That's the only mild surprise in the book, and I wouldn't give it away were it not telegraphed pages ahead of the reveal, or if that revelation had anything to do with the story's resolution. As it is, the rest of the story doesn't have much to recommend it. While there are a few deaths in the story, they are all what have been described to me as horror movie "needed killings". All of the unsavory characters die, and all of the others are completely virtuous and survive. The spirits who have managed to survive centuries are shown to be vulnerable to both simple physical assault and sunlight... making them among the most pitiful monsters in literary history.
The book isn't terrible, it just isn't very good. It's competently written with a complete lack of inspiration. The cover copy promises "A Black Magic novel of Terror" and "A terrifying supernatural of undying evil." The cover copy lies.
Two stars out of five.
DEAD LINES by John Skipp and Craig Spector (1988)
I love this book.
It's a 1989 work by Skipp & Spector, the overlords of the then-burgeoning splatterpunk genre, and it was their take on a familiar format: the frame story novel. These are books, like Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man or Douglas Clegg's The Nightmare Chronicles, which use a framing story to introduce a series of short stories, often stories which have previously seen publication in magazines.
The story follows a woman who discovers a cache of stories written by an author who had previously committed suicide in what was to become her apartment. As she reads them, she becomes steadily more obsessed with him, and his spirit reaches from beyond death to her first in dreams, then reality.
The book includes a handful of previously published stories by Skipp & Spector, and that's part of what made it work so well: it was only a handful. Typically even the best of these novels (see the two mentioned above for great examples) cram as many of the short fiction pieces in as possible, leaving the frame story, no matter how good, as a literary contrivance. It makes sense; these are usually a way for the author to lure novel readers into trying some of their shorter work, and with more short fiction included less new material needs to be written.
In this one, however, the balance is tilted oddly; the framing story takes up a good half of the book, and the reader is left with the feeling they've actually read a novel, not merely a wonderfully framed collection.
Five stars out of five.