The Big Adios

Because we all go a little crazy sometimes… meditations on all things noir and hard-boiled.

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I’ve been meditating on the great paperback horror boom in the ’70s and ’80s lately, having just listened to Jim Moon’s wonderful run-down of Grady Hendrix’s new book Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. If you haven’t yet discovered Moon’s podcast Hypnogoria at http://hypnogoria.libsyn.com, do so immediately. Jim is a wonderful podcaster with a sense of humor that matches his encyclopedic knowledge of everything from folklore to 19thcentury Gothic novels to comics to film.

Listening to Hypnogoria podcasts always puts me in a nostalgic mood, and his discussion of Hendrix’s book got me pulling through my bookshelves searching for some of my favorite horror novels, books that I first discovered because of their glossy, wonderfully-conceived paperback covers. Setting aside some of the more famous titles, I selected a few lesser known novels (well-known to devoted horror readers, less so to dabblers in fright fiction).  These novels still have the power to stand up today in our world of internet connectivity, virtual reality, kindle readers, and hypertextuality. They harken back to the days when the musty smell of an old paperback could provoke the same nostalgic response as Proust’s madeleines.

So settle back in a comfy chair, put on your favorite nostalgic guilty-pleasure ’70s album (mine would be Al Stewart’s The Year of the Cat… yes, mock me if you will), and take a trip back to the golden age of the horror paperback.

Off Season -Jack Ketchum

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Jack Ketchum writes as though he somehow channeled the ghost of Ernest Hemingway by way of Jim Thompson while polishing off a fifth of Jack Daniels. His landmark (and highly controversial) novel Off Season caught me totally by surprise. I had heard Stephen King reference Ketchum in a speech and tracked down a paperback copy with qualified high hopes, but nothing could have prepared me for the stark horrors to follow.

This slender novel begins at a breakneck pace and never lets its foot off the throttle. From the opening, in which an up-and-coming book editor from the Big Apple enters an isolated cabin on the coast of Maine, waiting for family and friends to arrive, this novel pulls you in with the artful precision of a sniper. Before the bloody horror show begins, Ketchum draws sympathetic, finely-drawn characters with an economy of prose that is remarkable. And that only serves to make the atrocities to follow all the more devastating. When a feral family who has been prowling the rocky Maine coast for years invades, the violence and terror to follow are difficult to describe.

In Ketchum’s hands, the slaughter that occurs on the fateful night in this book reaches a level of art. And, yet again, it’s the quality of the prose, the assurance that as a reader, you are in the hands of a master–although perhaps a demented one– that keeps you turning page after blood soaked page. There isn’t an unnecessary word, a half-handed turn of phrase, or a single cliche in the book (hence the Hemingway similarity), and the extreme violence in the book is justified by the characters and their motivations.

This is not a novel for the faint of heart… or stomach. After reading one particularly grisly section, I knew I’d never be able to look at a fish hook the same way again. But Ketchum explores the heady question of what different people will do to survive with an acid wit. His novel slices like a scalpel through questions of what it truly means to be human, and to what length humans will go to survive given their respective environments. And besides that, it’s one hell of a horror novel.

The Hyde Effect -Steve Vance

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I have to admit… I like my werewolves on the traditional side.  I can enjoy a well-written werewolf-romance novel, and although I have found exceptions, I don’t particularly care for my werewolves to be heroic (although I have to tip my hat to Clive Barker and Nicholas Pekearo for creating superb heroic werewolves). I grew up in the shadow of the Lon Chaney Jr Wolfman, and I shall likely forever remain in that shadow. For me, the tragedy of the werewolf story is the helpless human who, due to a curse, is forced to change into a monstrous beast under the full moon, a beast who commits acts of savagery that are beyond unspeakable. Steve Vance has written one doozy of a novel in that vein.
Vance’s story, remarkably original for its time, is of a savage werewolf terrorizing a rural community outside of Los Angeles. In this sense, it is the perfect werewolf novel… horrific murders committed every full moon, a disbelieving police force, a determined, rag-tag group of people imaginative enough to see what is really happening, and the pandemonium that ensues once the monster is captured in human form and placed in lock-down to study. But the capture of the beast is undercut by the hubris of the scientists studying it, and to say that all hell breaks loose would be a remarkable understatement. It’s a grand epic, full of grisly details of lycanthropic mayhem and supernatural sleuthing.

Vance’ gift for narrative tension and power is considerable and more than makes up for dialogue that occasionally lapses into stilted exchanges. As much as I found myself staying up far later into the night that I had planned devouring the pages, I often found myself cringing at the awkward dialogue. But it is to Vance’s credit that I found myself not caring, captured by an old-fashioned werewolf novel of nostalgic power. This novel novel, quite simply, turned me into a kid again, feverishly reading pulpy neo-Gothic writing and finding myself scared silly, just as I was when I read the Marvel Comics “Werewolf by Night” series under the covers with a flashlight when I was 10. As a reader, I treasure such moments, moments that transport me back to the joys of childhood. And despite my previous grievances regarding Vance’s prose abilities, I truly thank him for that.

If you, like me, are a reader who grew up watching Hammer horror films and Vincent Price thrillers or read Manly Wade Wellman and R. Chetwynd-Hayes under the covers, you will likely enjoy this novel and forgive Vance for his faults. And you just might find yourself sleeping with the light on.

The Night Boat -Robert McCammon

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McCammon’s earlier fiction can be a bit hit and miss, but this novel is as gripping as anything he has written and shows the tight plotting and breakneck narrative pace that marked his later, more mature writing. This is a zombie novel of old… no fast-moving hoards of zombies in a post-apocalyptic world here. The undead of this novel are the zombies of old: staggering, shambling, and relentless. From the harrowing opening scene in which a Nazi U-boat sinks a ship in Caribbean waters through to the white-hot, page-turning conclusion, this novel begs to be read from cover to cover in one sitting.

Jumping to the present day, the sunken U-boat resurfaces and represents not only a return of the repressed in terms of the evils of Nazism, but a very real return of the undead U-boat crew, who set about devouring the island inhabitants with relentless abandon.

For readers like me, who grew up in the 1970s, this novel was a refreshing break from the end of the world zombie-plague novels being published today (not that I dislike those … Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and M.R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts are among my favorites … but there was a special, nostalgic flair in this book that warmed my heart). Set on a forgotten Caribbean island, the blend of an undead U-Boat crew, voodoo, and a claustrophobic sense of island isolation brought me back to the old days of exotic horror settings and the trope of the war dead who won’t stay dead.  Although I’m sure many would argue the point, this is my favorite of McCammon’s early books.

The Nightwalker -Thomas Tessier

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I’ve saved what may be my favorite for last. Tessier’s The Nightwalker is a classic of its kind. While most of the famous movie monsters had their start as 19th century novels (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), the werewolf was largely a pop-culture product of Hollywood. Although earlier werewolf novels existed (most notably Guy Endore’s Werewolf of Paris), there was never a truly classic werewolf novel until Tessier published this book.

And what, perhaps, makes this novel so unique was how Tessier altered the cinematic genre conventions to draw a starkly realist portrait of lycanthropy. By the year of this novel’s publication, the werewolf had been so overdone by Hollywood that nothing but cheaply made B-movies existed. Tessier reinvented the genre with The Nightwalker, creating a character who is simultaneously sympathetic and appalling.

Bobby Ives, a very troubled young man in London, has either fallen under a werewolf curse or is slowly and inexorably going psychotically insane. His shadowy movements through the seedy London underbelly are as gripping as they are bleak, and he is haunted by dreams of a past life in which he lived on a Caribbean plantation, haunted by a voodoo curse. These dream sequences, drenched in the humid summer nights of the Caribbean, are some of the high points of the novel.

The shockingly realistic violence of the book is underscored by the sense of tragedy in which Ives desperately reaches out for help from a professional… with horrifying results.  The novel’s horror is underscored by the pathos through which we witness Ives’s slow retrograde evolution into something between beast and human. Tessier’s novel stands today as perhaps, perhaps mind you, the best werewolf novel ever written.

Lord knows, I read many eBooks on my trusty iPad, but if you’ve never given in to the pleasure of holding a tattered copy of a paperback horror novel, felt the satisfying crispness of turning a paper page, or inhaled the intoxicating aroma of wood pulp and that odd hint of vanilla unique to the printed page, then give an old paperback a try. Trust me … you’ll thank me for it.

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What do you get when you cross a hard-boiled private eye story with a paranormal horror tale? Well, you certainly get me as one of your readers. Having just finished Stephen King’s latest paranormal mystery, The Outsider, I’ve found myself musing on the weird and wonderful world of occult private eye fiction.

The explosion of paranormal mysteries over the past fifteen years has created a literary boom for all readers looking for a tough-talking, hard-hitting private eye who finds him or herself battling forces far more sinister than the most wicked crime boss or earthly psychopath.

While the genre has been around for quite a long time (William Hope Hodgson’s occult detective Thomas Carnacki dates back to the early twentieth century, followed by Manly Wade Wellman’s John Thunstone and others), the formal blending of the existential hard-boiled PI and the otherworldly menace of occult fiction is a more recent trend.

Rather than scan the much larger genre of paranormal mysteries, I’ve selected a few of my favorite novels that have one foot planted in the gritty urban world of the smart but tough private eye – characters who shoot as fast from the lip as they do from the hip—and the dark and terrifying otherworld of the occult.

Falling Angel -William Hjortsberg

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I was a latecomer to Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel, Falling Angel, having only tracked down a novel in a used bookstore in Missoula, Montana many years after seeing Alan Parker’s 1987 film version, Angel Heart.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began reading, but was sucked in from the opening lines as Hjortsberg’s meticulous ear for dialogue and driving plot took me on a tour of the seedier side of New York as private eye Harry Angel found himself becoming more and more engrossed in his latest job: tracking down flash-in-the-pan singer Johnny Favorite for a mysterious client with a contract to enforce. No one in the novel, from the mysterious client Louis Cyphere to Johnny Favorite to Harry Angel himself is who he seems, and the conclusion is as devastating as it is satisfying. Tough, gritty, and utterly terrifying, Falling Angelwas a novel years ahead of its time, and remains my favorite occult mystery to this day.

Down Solo -Earl Javorsky

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Serendipity brought me to Earl Javorsky’s smart and quirky hard-boiled paranormal novel, Down Solo.  I ran into Javorsky, who lives in my neck of the woods, in a local coffee house. We got to talking mystery and horror novels and films and the craft of writing, and he was kind enough to lend me a copy of his first novel. I was unfamiliar with his work, but when I saw the blurbs on the back from best-selling heavies like T. Jefferson Parker and James Frey, I was more than intrigued.  What I found was a tight, smart hard-boiled novel with a wicked paranormal twist: Charlie Miner, a down-on-his-luck gumshoe with a nasty heroin habit finds himself embroiled in the ultimate existential mystery… his own murder.  From the opening lines in which Miner wakes in a morgue with a rather large bullet hole in his head, Down Solo grabbed my attention and turned my expectations upside down.  A wonderful blend of dark humor and classic detective work, the novel has Miner digging back through his latest, unsolved case while trying to figure out the new rules for living as the undead.  Fresh, funny, and full of double-crosses, red-herrings, and some wonderful banter, Down Solo is an acid-trip through the hard-boiled crime of the past and the paranormal horrors of today.

Every Dead Thing -John Connoly

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The first in Connolly’s series centering on former NYPD detective turned private investigator Charlie “Bird” Parker, Every Dead Thing remains my favorite. Parker, heavily on the skids following the ritualistic murder of his wife and daughter by a hideous serial killer named the Traveling Man, wrestles with his own guilt and devastating sense of loss as he struggles to make it as a PI in the Big Apple.  His latest case brings the haunted past fully into the present as he slowly becomes convinced that supernatural forces are at play and the Traveling Man is still up to his savage tricks.  Connolly’s prose balances hard-boiled banter with gorgeously poetic turns of phrase as the novel takes several mind-bending turns deeper and deeper into the terrifying occult. Ranging from the brutal mean streets of New York to the Gothic, deeply-haunted South, Every Dead Thing is as thoughtful and emotional as it is gripping.

Greywalker -Kat Richardson

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Kat Richardson’s tough-as-nails and witty PI Harper Blaine finds herself thrust into a world she never knew existed in Greywalker, the first in a terrific series featuring the character. Having technically died for two minutes after a beating from one of the suspects in a case, she is revived, but comes back with part of the land beyond life with her.  Now able to see things she wishes she couldn’t—odd shapes and creatures enshrouded in a creepy fog—Blaine at first resists accepting that her life has inexorably changed. Now a “Greywalker,” one who inhabits the liminal space between the world of the living and what lies beyond, Blaine slowly begins to learn how to use this terrifying new ability as her new cases take her deeper into the shadowy underworld inhabited by revenants who prey upon the living. Hard-hitting and at times truly unnerving, Greywalker is a breakout novel not to be missed.

So many great books in this genre, so little time.  These are only a few of my favorites, and I am well aware that I have left so many worthy others out of this blog.  What are some of your favorites? What have I overlooked?

 

 

Having been laid low for several days with a nasty case of the flu, I took the opportunity to get caught up on my shuddery reading, looking back on some standout novels from the past few years that delve into two tried and true figures of the horror genre: the vampire and the werewolf.   If you haven’t had the chance to check out these horrifying and literate chillers, do yourself a favor and dive in now.

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Enter, Night is a novel that I found to be both refreshing and nostalgic… no easy feat for an author. The novel is refreshing in its treatment of the vampire legend, one that eschews the more modern vampire romance/Byronic hero trope as well as the “tween-fiction” Twilighty approach. The vampires in this book are evil, vapid, soulless… and very thirsty.

It’s also nostalgic in its return to the great vampire heyday of the 1970’s, similar in many ways to King’s ‘salem’s Lot, but also The Night Stalker and the vampires of the great Marvel comics (in fact, one of the central characters is a young boy who eagerly awaits each new edition of a vampire comic at the local drugstore). Even the setting, an isolated town far up in remote Northern Ontario in 1972, adds to the nostalgic atmosphere of a simpler time before cell phones, the internet, and global communities.

As for the plot, recently-widowed Christina Parr and her teenage daughter Morgan return, with her exiled gay brother-in-law Jeremy, to the mining town of Parr’s Landing. Left penniless due to her husband’s death, Christina has no choice but to throw herself at the mercy of her stern and unforgiving mother-in-law, who is also the town matriarch. But another traveler is heading to Parr’s Landing– a psychotic killer drawn to the town by an ancient evil that lies buried, but not truly dead, deep within the abandoned mines. And when that evil is released, a vampire plague roars through the town like a wildfire, leaving only Christina, Morgan, Jeremy, and a resourceful young boy to stand in its way.

For me, what makes a horror novel stand out is in how it develops its characters, to what degree I believe in them and care about them… and Rowe excels here. The deeply sympathetic portraits of Christina, Morgan, and Jeremy Parr–and the emotional traumas they faced in the small-minded town of Parr’s Landing–would make for a compelling enough story alone. But how Rowe interweaves their own suffering into a much larger tale of an ancient evil lurking in the town’s history and under its very soil is page-turningly brilliant.

I also appreciated the way Rowe blended so much of the colonial history of Northern Canada into the tale, bringing the history of Jesuit missionaries, the myths of the Wendigo and Manitou, the very real horrors of Indian Boarding Schools, into a dark secret that stretches all the way to the Vatican… and works very nicely as a metaphor for the historical horror of European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere.

Smart, historical, nostalgic… and very damned scary. That makes for a winner in my opinion!

 

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And for another fresh twist on the vampire tale, Susanne Leist’s The Dead Game offers a new take on an old horror trope.  The novel is set in a world of fascinating polarities represented by the idyllic-sounding Florida beach community ironically named Oasis and the aptly named End House. While very quickly in the novel, readers find that the hopes connoted by the name Oasis prove to be a shimmering mirage obscuring the hideous forces at work, End House couldn’t have a more apt name.

The town’s pristine beaches become stained by corpses that have a disturbing habit of washing up on shore. People disappear on the town’s dark streets. An abandoned haunted house looks down on the town, holding untold horrors within its walls. A plethora of vampires (a combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly) find themselves locked in a chilling game of strategy, vying for survival and control.

Leist combines so many fascinating elements of the horror genre in this novel that the end result is an all-out assault on the nerves: vampires, a haunted house, betrayal, romance amidst the paranormal chaos, a sleepy beach community that hides a terrible secret, creatures out of your worst nightmare.  Those are the ingredients for a cracking good horror tale, and Leist serves up a deliciously chilling and thrilling meal with this one.

Leist’s strong, intelligent female characters add much to this chilling breakout novel, and her wonderful attention to detail and uncanny description add much depth to the compelling narrative.  As I’ve said above, I’m a reader who is willing to follow authors damned near anywhere as long as they give me characters that I can believe in, who are well-developed and engaging.  Leist scores high marks on all points in this regard.  I took in this novel in one great gulp, not setting it down until the heart-stopping conclusion.

Read, if you dare, and enjoy the nightmares that follow!

 

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I was about to write that if William Faulkner ever wrote a horror novel, it would be very similar to Those Across the River… then I remember that Faulkner did write horror novels, of sorts: Sanctuary certainly qualifies, as potentially does Absalom, Absalom. So perhaps easy, pretentious comparisons aren’t fair to Buehlman, who has written a Southern Gothic of tremendous quality and originality.

I really can’t convey how fully engaged I was while reading this book. Buehlman’s prose is exquisite, his character development astounding, and his ability to convey a perfect sense of time and place is to be envied.

The book’s narrator, a WWI veteran haunted by his experiences in the trenches, has inherited a plantation estate in rural Georgia in 1935. A former history professor who found himself unemployed and unemployable in his field for an adulterous affair with the wife of a colleague, Frank Nichols moves in with the idea of writing a history of his ancestor who owned the plantation, a murderous slave holder so vile that he refused to free his slaves after the Civil War and was killed by them in retaliation. But writing this history requires him to journey to the plantain ruins, located in a dark stretch of woods across the river… a journey he is advised not to take by the town folk who offer a monthly ritual sacrifice of livestock to whoever–or whatever–lives there.

I hemmed and hawed about whether to write about what lies across the river, as the book has no true twist, but rather gradually builds to the answer to the mystery, and the more well-versed in classic monster lore the reader is, the quicker she or he will figure out what lies in wait there.

Perhaps what most impressed me about this book is the vivid representation of a small Georgia town in the Great Depression, small details in characterization and landscape that bring the book whole and breathing to life. This is no simple pulp horror tale… it is a work of profound insight into the nature of trauma, the hold the land has on those who make their living off of it, and the power of history to haunt the present in powerful and tragic ways. And, above all, it is a story of duty and relationship. The final lines of this wonderful novel have haunted me more than any in recent memory. I just can’t recommend this book highly enough. For God’s sake, read it!

 

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Nicholas Pekearo’s The Wolfman stands alongside Thomas Tessier’s The Nightwalker and Christopher Buehlman’s Those Across the River as one of the finest werewolf novels ever penned.

The novel read like a strange mash-up of the hard-boiled detective fiction of Jim Thomson, the serial killer as avenger show Dexter, and the gritty back-woods Gothic of Joe R. Lansdale. It’s a mash-up straight from heaven… or from the fires of Hell, if you prefer. The novel’s narrator, aVietnam veteran with a troubled past, serves as a rather unique amateur private eye… for he also just happens to be a werewolf. Haunted by a family curse, Marlowe Higgins has drifted across the country for years, trying to reign in his monthly lycanthropic violence and limit the damage done to the innocent. He is a character haunted deeply by the grisly deeds in his past, determined to harm no innocent souls if he can manage, keeping as much to himself as he can. But then after landing a job at a diner in a small Tennessee town and finding a reasonable peace, he becomes embroiled in the horrific legacy left by a savage serial killer… the perfect target for his inner beast.

Higgins is a wonderfully drawn character, a man trying to live with an abominable curse as best he can in a world that would never believe in his malady. He is imperfect, deeply flawed in fact, but his heartbreaking history of suffering through the monthly transformations without hope for an end while he struggles desperately to kill only the worst, most predatory members of society is heartbreaking. In a genre far too often populated by cardboard cut-out characters, Higgins stands out as a character to be feared, pitied, and rooted for.

As a detective novel alone, the book sings loudly. It’s a breathtaking mystery with enough twists and turns to satisfy any mystery fan. And the full moon horror of the protagonist werewolf is counterbalanced by the atrocities committed of the man known only as The Rose Killer, a serial killer who intentionally preys on the weak and innocent. I just can’t praise the stunning virtuosity of Pekearo’s writing enough… and all I can say is buy this book and read it as soon as you can.

As a sad end note, author Pekearo was killed in the line of duty shortly before the book’s publication in his role as an NYPD Auxiliary Officer. The savage act of a real-life criminal monster cut short his life at so young an age. Who knows what more fine contributions Pekearo could have made to the horror genre if he had lived?

 

Pay tribute to these fine authors by paying for their books… you’ll thank me for the sleepless nights and chills up your spine.

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“While we scream and perish, History licks a finger and turns the page.”

-Thomas Ligotti

 

While the name Thomas Ligotti may be unfamiliar to the occasional dabbler in horror fiction, he is a legendary figure to readers and writers devoted to all things weird and worrisome.  Ligotti’s tales fall under the category of Weird Fiction, that specialized genre that combines elements of the outright horror story and the mythical realm of the occult and otherworldly.  Notoriously difficult to define, Weird Fiction usually combines a sense of aesthetics derived from realms of consciousness that stand outside of what Jonathan Letham termed “consensual reality.”  The artist in Lovercraft’s “Pickman’s Model,” and Clarke and Raymond in Machen’s The Great God Pan find that both artistic inspiration and scientific inquiry can open holes in the walls separating consensual reality and other realms of the occult and supernatural.

Flowering in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the tradition moved from the pulps closer to the mainstream though the works of Clive Barker, Angela Carter, and Stephen King before experiencing a revival in the new works of Kathe Koja and Adam Nevill, as well as the smash first-season hit of HBO’s True Detective.

But largely absent from mainstream readers’ discussions of the weird in literature and film is the name Thomas Ligotti.  Listed by numerous horror authors and screenwriters as a seminal figure in the development of horror fiction in general in the 1980s, he remains as much a figure of the shadows as the reclusive and isolated characters he created.

The connection between Mathew McConaughy’s character in True Detective and Ligotti’s pessimism and gorgeously worded horror tales brought a brief flame of interest to his writing a few years ago, introducing him to readers previously unfamiliar with his work. That flame of interest began to wane, sadly, after the frustratingly disappointing (and unrelated) second season of True Detective.  Ligotti is too influential a writer to let return to obscurity, so now let’s return to his landmark collection of weird tales, rituals, madness, and murder.

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I first discovered Ligotti in high school, coming across a copy his then recently published Songs of a Dead Dreamer one winter afternoon while haunting my local library.  Having already read my way through Lovecraft, Machen, and Algernon Blackwood, I thought I was prepared for what Ligotti had to offer.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Ligotti’s tales started off down familiar dark paths: unreliable (and unhinged) narrators, inexplicable events, dabbling in secret societies and arcane rituals.  But the contemporary settings and frequent turns to metafiction brought a new level of slowly-creeping dread along with brilliant mini-treatises on the history of horror literature and the art of the short story.

The stories “Vastarian” and “Les Fleurs” offer Lovecraftian dream journeys into terrifying realms of existence only discoverable to souls insane or curious enough to attempt lucid dream traveling, both ending in madness and murder. “Dreams of a Manikin” offers a fresh take on the uncanny, where dolls represent humans and humans represent dolls.   The anthropologist at the heart of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” finds himself setting off on an academic exercise only to be trapped in an archaeology of the mind as thorough and many-layered as sediments on a research dig. “The Frolic,” which opens the collection, presents one of the most chilling and disturbing serial killer story I’ve ever read, blending the vicious and perverse crimes of a killer of children with a poetic, opium-dream language that I couldn’t shake off.  For Ligotti, it’s not the gory details that make for horror, but the blend of the poetic and esoteric language and nasty subject matter that produce the kind of creeping horror that gets under the skin and stay there.

In all of these stories, Ligotti takes the nightmare landscape of nightmare worlds and turns them inward, representing a dark and terrifying inner landscape of the self. But my favorite story in the lot is the stunning “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story.”

What begins as what seem to be notes by a horror author on how to approach a horror story from different perspectives (the realist, the Gothic, and the experimental) is like a master class on the craft of writing. The narrator brings the reader through the application of each approach on a single idea: a man preparing for a first date buys an exquisite pair of pants that, unknown to him, were last worn by a man who died in them.      As he leaves for his date, his car breaks down in a nasty neighborhood and he finds that not only can he no longer move his legs, but that his legs are, in fact, rotting away beneath the pants.

Each approach brings out different aspects of the story, the multi-layered symbolism of the pants, a wristwatch, and an overcoat; the eccentricities of the main character, who becomes more or less sympathetic under different treatment; the body horror and  psychological violence; the doubling and redoubling of identities.  At the conclusion, readers discover that this has been much more than an academic exercise, as the narrative voice shifts fully into the world of the waking nightmare.

Reading (and rereading) the story taught me much of the art of writing an effective horror story, and also provided a blood-chilling story in its own.  Read it and learn… and try not to have nightmares after.

 

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I have to admit,I’m a sucker for a good ghost story.  Ever since stumbling across a tattered paperback copy of Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings one summer in my youth, I’ve been hooked on all things ghostly.  Give me an isolated location, some restless and malevolent spirits, and a dash of grief and guilt, and call me a happy reader.  That said, April A. Taylor’s The Haunting of Cabin Green sucked me in from the first page.

Opening with a near-accident on a fog enshrouded road in the woods, the novel moves from the literal landscape fog to plumb the depths of the metaphorical fog of memory, history, and grief. What impressed me with this novel is both its attention to Gothic atmosphere and its examination of grief, loss, and depression.

I enjoyed the non-linear narrative, the way Taylor sutures events from the past with the ongoing story of Ben, the central character, as he visits a remote cabin in the woods hoping to find time to reflect on the death of his fiancee. But, as with all great Gothic tales, that inward turn to self examination leads to a slow invasion of the paranormal into the “real” world.

And the “real” world isn’t so real after all.  I won’t reveal the twist that occur over the course of the novel, but suffice to say that once lulled into complacency by the standard Gothic trappings of the opening, Taylor pulls the rug out from under her readers as reality becomes more of an illusion mutually agreed upon rather than an objective fact. As the sense of claustrophobia steadily increases to an almost unbearable degree, the seemingly random temporal digressions begin to point to a well-structured and integrated climax.

I read this book in one sitting, staying up late into the dark night and frequently pausing to listen for sounds in my home and fighting the urge to turn on all the lights. If you’re a fan of ghost novels like Matheson’s  Hell House, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Simmons’ A Winter Haunting,  or Siddon’s The House Next Door you will love this one!

Horror films always rely on manipulation of the senses. As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.”  And the keys of that cinematic piano often revolve around the senses.

Who could forget the infamously slow eyeball impalement in Fulci’s Zombi, the ear-jarring screeches of Hitchcock’s The Birds, or the ghostly clapping hands in Wan’s The Conjuring?

While horror films rely on both tactile body horror and the psychological terror of the mind, a few films work the manipulation of the five senses into the themes of the films themselves. Here is a brief list of some of the “sense horror” standouts and the senses they manipulate:

SIGHT:

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Terence Young’s 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark is a masterful film that not only highlights the terror of a young blind woman being tormented by a psychotic killer and two crooked cops, but places the audience in her position by staging the terrifying climax in her darkened apartment. Trapped inside by the evil Harry Roat Jr. (a chilling performance by Alan Arkin), she breaks every light in the place, trying to put them on even terms.  The chilling moments of darkness throw audience members into a very dark place, indeed.  Young also plays brilliantly upon two forms of blindness: physical blindness and cognitive blindness stemming from assumptions and misapprehensions of character and ability.

 

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2016’s Don’t Breathe puts a new spin on Wait Until Dark by reversing gears mid-movie, with the would-be home invaders becoming the hunted as their mark, an aging blind recluse, emerges as a very capable and hideously monstrous villain with a dark secret locked away in his basement. Director Fede Alvarez plays masterfully with audience identification with protagonist and antagonist, leaving viewers lost in the dark as to who, if any, of the characters they could identify with.

 

 

SOUND:

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This year’s standout thriller A Quiet Place plays heavily on sound, not just for effect, but as an integral component of the story.  In a world that has been invaded by an unknown and likely extraterrestrial hoard of creatures who hunt solely by sound, silence is not only preferred; it is the only means of survival.  The opening ten minutes of the film are eerily devoid of sound, resulting in a slow build of tension and dread that finally explode when the first noise shatters the silence.  Actor/director John Krasinski transforms the much-used conceit of using a scene of silence to place the audience firmly on the edge of their seats before a jump scare into a template for the entire film.  Unnerving and often poignant, the resulting film is both eccentric and terrifying.

 

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Hush, a 2016 independent film that premiered at the SXSW Film Conference before being picked up by Netfilx, uses a similar restriction and manipulation of sound in its tale of a young woman who can neither hear nor speak who is terrorized by a masked stalker in her secluded home.  Director Mike Flannagan makes great use of ambient sound and striking visuals, especially when the stalker realizes that he doesn’t need to hide from his intended victim.  His assumptions about what he perceives as her disability ultimately lead to his downfall, as Kate Flanagan’s character proves to be anything but helpless.

 

 

SMELL:

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2016 was a great year for smaller, offbeat horror films, to which Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts stands as testimony.  A fascinating and subversive twist on the zombie story, the film is set in the British countryside after a bizarre strain of pathogenising fungal infection has turned most of the world’s population into ravaging cannibal crazies.  The twist is that the fungal infection crosses the placental barrier, and has resulted in a second generation of “hungries.”  Several of the children are kept in a secure (or, as it turns out, not-so-secure) military facility, where they become test subjects for a possible cure.  The children are capable of rational behavior unless they smell the human scent, which is masked by the soldiers and researchers with a chemical perfume.  Upon detecting the true human scent, they dissolve into rabid cannibals.  With smart commentary on evolution, ethics in medical research, and the militarized policing of refugee populations, The Girl is both smart and scary.

 

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And on the subject of scent and perfume, 2006’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer take the obsession with scent to a new level of horror and revulsion.  Set in 18thcentury France, the film concerns the life and crimes of an odd and disturbing man named Grenouille.  Born and instantly abandoned among the filthy fish stalls in the equally filthy and stinking city of Paris, Greouille grows up in an orphanage before realizing that one of his monstrous qualities is that he has a superhuman sense of smell.  This discovery leads him into apprenticeship among the perfumers of the city, where he becomes obsessed with procuring and possessing the ultimate human scent … a distillation that requires murder to complete.  Along the way, he realizes that while possessing the finest sense of smell in the world, he himself has no natural odor.  This witty twist on the Cartesian dictum, I think; therefore I am (I smell; therefore I am, for Grenouille) precipitates an ontological crisis that turns him into a serial killer as he goes to further and further extremes to extract the scent of humanity from his victims.  Based on Patrick Susskind’s international best-seller, this is a very overlooked gem.

 

TASTE:

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Yet another entry from the great year of 2016 deals squarely with taste, and the attendant associations with cravings, physical desires, and transformation was the international hit RawRaw is not your typical cannibal-gross out film.  While shocking and revolting, the film has an intelligence and philosophical dimension that lifts it to a lofty position.  The story of a young veterinary student who is a vegetarian turns into a hazing-gone very wrong parable as she is forced to eat raw meat at school, eventually releasing a craving for animal –and ultimately human—flesh.  Horrifying, oddly beautiful, erotic, and disturbing, Raw made many “Best of” lists for horror films that year.

 

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Antonia Bird’s 1999 horror/suspense film Ravenous is similar to Raw, this time moving the setting to the mid-19thcentury Sierra Nevadas.  A film that draws on the 19thcentury histories of the Donner Party and of cannibal prospector Alferd  (no, NOT Alfred) Packer, the legend of the Windigo, and sly comparisons of cannibalism and U.S. Imperialism, Ravenous is a blackly comic horror film involving an outbreak of mystical cannibalism in a remote Federal outpost in the high Sierras.  The film’s tagline: You Are Who You Eat, sets the tone for a smart, violent, and irresistibly humorous critique of the Frontier Myth in the U.S. cultural imaginary. A cast that includes Guy Pierce, Neil McDonough, Robert Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones, and David Arquette brings considerable talent to this often overlooked and quite savagely funny film.

 

TOUCH:

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Clark Gregg’s 2008 very black comedy Choke may not technically be a horror film, but there is certainly enough trauma, hopelessness, and alienation to qualify it for this list.  Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Choke tells the story of a deeply alienated sex addict who cons people into giving him money by pretending to choke in restaurants and allowing them to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him.  After believing they saved his life, he tells them of his dire financial situation caused by the need to pay for his deathly ill mother’s medical bills.  As he drifts into a relationship with another sex addict pretending she is someone else, the moments of physical contact when being given the Heimlich become the only true moments of physical contact for him, substituting hugs and touches of affection.  Weaving addiction, impotence, and the illusions of identity into a strange and provocative film, Gregg turns Choke into a bizarre film worth watching.

 

 

And for a second entry in this category, I leave it to you.  What horror films can you think of that work touch (or its absence) into their themes? Which of your favorites have I overlooked?

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Aside from the classic mirepoix of Chandler/Cain/Hammett in the stew pot of literary influences on film noir, plenty of other writers were stirred into the heady filmic mix.  Some, of course, wrote hard-boiled detective fiction, but philosophers, American Modernists, and others found themselves added for spice and depth. Moving from the more to less obvious, here are a few who found themselves, intentionally or otherwise, influencing the genre.

 

Ernest Hemingway

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No discussion of film noir would be complete without bringing up “The Killers,” both the Hemingway short story and the Robert Siodmak film.  Hemingway’s brutal, minimalist dialogue is like a Master Class on tough-guy banter and mounting tension.  The entire short story is interpolated practically word-for-word into the opening scene of the film, which stands as a monumental example of characters bantering around the edges of a topic without making direct threats.  Later scenes in films such as the chilling coin flip in No Country for Old Men owe a debt to Hemingway’s penchant for creating exchanges of dialogue in which the true meaning is buried beneath the absurdity of small talk and misdirection.

 

Willian Faulkner

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Faulkner is best known to film noir as being a screenwriter for MGM, contributing to the noir classics To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep.  But in his novels and stories prior to his signing on as a $500 a week gun-for-hire studio writer had a deep influence on the dialogue and underlying fatalistic philosophy of film noir.  1931’s Sanctuary, perhaps his most directly influential novel, is the story of Popeye, one of the most terrifying villains in the literature of the time and tragic femme fatale Temple Drake as they consort with moonshiners, sex-slave traders, privileged college kids, prostitutes, gangsters, and Old South gentry.

The themes of debauchery, sexual violence and perversion, and revenge masquerading as justice are played out in a jarring stream of consciousness that underscores the existential crisis of searching for meaning and unity in a world that is fractured, indifferent, and absurd.  As Albert Camus wrote of the world inhabited by Faulkner’s characters, they came from “a land empty of men who rode out of it not to engage a mortal enemy as they believed but to batter themselves to pieces against a force with which they were unequipped by both heredity and inclination to cope and of which those whom they charged and counter-charged were not champions as much as victims too.”

 

Dorothy Parker

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Not a name that generally pops up in discussions of film noir. Parker’s penchant for sharp rejoinders delivered with an acid tongue influenced the development of the femme fatale character as it evolved in the films. The femme fatale, in the best of the noir films, was far more complex than may appear at first glance.  She negotiated a violent and uncaring world of petty and desperate violent men, balancing the unstable power dynamics of violence, sex relations, and class, creating a fast-talking and shrewd counterpoint to the masculine world of petty crime and possessiveness.

Some of Parker’s best quips could have been delivered by femmes fatales in any number of films:

“It’s a small apartment; I’ve barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.”

“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think”

“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

“I like to have a martini, Two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.”

“I require three things in a man: he must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.”

“Look at him. A rhinestone in the rough.”

 

Chester Himes

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Himes had more of an influence on the neo and race noir films that emerged in the decades that followed the era of classic noir, but his tough-talking and uncompromisingly violent novels in the decade following WW II sent out tendrils that spread over time. 1945’s If He Hollers Let Him Go brought a gritty and grisly realism to the protest novels of the day, blending the rage of living in a perversely racist society with the existential vacuum of a seemingly meaningless existence in an absurd social system. The novel’s main character, Bob Jones, sees his idealistic dreams of a new life free from racial and class oppression systematically demolsihed by the pervasive racism of the post-war U.S, leaving him only with impotent desires for violence and rageful destruction.

His later crime novels, filmed in the early neo-noir period included Cotton Comes to Harlem, Come Back, Charleston Blue, and A Rage in Harlem helped develop detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones as well as criminals Goldy, Big Kathy, and Easy Money into icons in African American noir films.

 

Sigmund Freud

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Any discussion of noir without reference to Freud would be incomplete … in a very Freudian way. Film noir’s undercurrents of repressed sexuality (think Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death), impotence (Edward G. Robinson wearing his domineering wife’s apron in Scarlett Street), mother and father complexes (Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep), and the uncanny backdrop of urban decay and crumbling social foundations are firmly rooted in Freud’s writing.

Perhaps his long essay “The Uncanny” had the most profound influence on noir, with its explanation of repetition compulsion, the return of the repressed, and hopeless faith in the omnipotence of thought.  Everything in noir is uncanny, the familiar, yet hauntingly unfamiliar: Dutch angles and plays of shadow and light that alter landscapes, con men and psychopathic killers, childish faith in the gun, the elusive big score, and crosses and double crosses that leave viewers with a vision of the world as a space devoid of governing rules and master narratives.

 

Albert Camus

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…and speaking of the absurdity of existence and the absence of master narratives leads us back to Camus, one of the most influential existential philosophers of the noir and post-noir era.  And yes, you knew we would have to circle back to the French, eventually, right? After all, French critics were the first to observe that coherent movement emerging in cinema that Nino Frank first named film noir back in 1946, long before American critics took up the term.

Perhaps the existential absurdism Camus lays out in his 1942 essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” is the best starting point for the philosophical underpinnings of film noir, from its visual look to its substantive narrative. The question of suicide as a reaction to the dizzying meaningless of life provides the starting point from which Camus asserts that, “When he rebels, a man identifies himself with other men and so surpasses himself, and from this point of view human solidarity is metaphysical. But for the moment we are only talking of the kind of solidarity that is born in chains.”

Solidarity born in chains could well be a good summation of the predicament in which film noir characters most often find themselves.  Rebelling against social codes, against a rigged system, against gender, class, and racial oppression gives protagonists a code by which they can function in attempting to live a life without compromise, even if that code only offers death as an alternative to submission.

There’s something so distinctly British about the horror films produced in late 60’s and 70’s England. And no, that first sentence wasn’t brought to you by the Department of Redundancy Department. What I mean is that the films from this period were moving away from mainstream Gothic (with its castles and horse-drawn carriages) towards the modern Urban (and Rural) Gothic. Even films set in the historical past carried with them either contemporary concerns about British society or new aesthetic visual styles.  Horror in this era was more heavily influenced by twentieth century war, the sexual revolution, rising drug abuse, and sociopolitical unrest. Yet a distinctively quirky sense of British humor and irony rose to the forefront, counterposing  new levels of graphic violence with stiff-upper-lip sensibilities.  Below is a  list of the lesser known horror films produced by British studios during a time when horror was shifting gears from Gothic period pieces to the more contemporary grindhouse-style films,ost of the films came from outside the Hammer/Tyburn/Amicus trifecta of British horror studios. This is by no mens a complete list; just some of my favorites. What are yours?

RAW MEAT

A wonderfully grisly film regarding the last surviving descendent of a group of 19th century miners trapped in the tunnels of the London Underground who has to venture out to find more victims. Cannibalism, gruesome effects, a wonderful musical score with throbbing electro-jazz, and an impeccable performance by the great Donald Pleasance. This film was released a year before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and features a scene revealing the cannibal lair that more than equals Chainsaw’s gruesomeness. also known as Death Line.  A truly under appreciated gem!

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THE NANNY

Disturbing and frightening Hammer Films chiller directed by the great Jimmy Sangster. Bette Davis stars as the seemingly-sinister nanny hired by a couple to help with their 10 year-old son, who has just been released from an asylum for disturbed children. Did young Joey really kill his sister? Is the Nanny out to kill Joey and his family? The questions mount as the film ratchets up the suspense as well as a Hitchcock film. One of Bette Davis’ most chilling performances, she infuses every scene with tension and dread. A strong departure from the “Catsup and Cleavage” line of Hammer period horror films, this one still has the power to keep you on the edge of your seat until the conclusion.

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THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR

I have to admit, this is a pure nostalgia entry for me. I first saw this film on television as a child, and it gave me nightmares for weeks. Having just seen it again, I was impressed by the themes brought up by the film. A series of savage murders committed against British soldiers in uniform has galvanized the soldiers in a remote English garrison to full alert. Two aging sisters (Flora Robson and Beryl Reed) fear that their brother, kept locked in the basement of their farmhouse for the past 30 years, has escaped and is responsible for the gruesome killings. To say more would ruin your viewing experience, although it must be mentioned that this film uses the Gothic conceit of the madman locked in the basement to explore powerful themes of war and madness, PTSD, and the Freudian return of the repressed.

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WITCHFINDER GENERAL

Probably one of the better-known films on this list, The Conqueror Worm (originally titled Witchfinder General) presents one of Vincent Price’s most menacing performances as Matthew Hopkins, a lawyer dispensed to prosecute witches in England during the English Civil War. Set against the backdrop of Cromwell’s pursuit of loyalist to Charles I, this film is absolutely drenched with 17th century history set against the wonderfully atmospheric backdrop of the English countryside in autumn. Hopkins’ methods of torturing witches into confession are brutally displayed here, as he employs ritual after horrendous ritual with the assistance of his brutal henchman (played by Robert Russell). A fascinating and horrifying depiction of mass-hysteria, the corrupting influence of power, and religious mania, this film still has the power to make you squirm… but is also intelligent enough to make you think.

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THE ASPHYX

A strange, but oddly entertaining chiller in which a scientist with a fascination for the paranormal discovers that he can capture a ghostly image on film when photographing those about to die. This image, he later learns, is the Aspynx, a spirit from Greek mythology who appears at the moment of death to capture the dying soul. Fascinated, he begins to conduct a number of experiments… drawing the Asphynx ever closer to him. A wonderfully produced film with glorious elements of Steampunk aesthetics, this is a film very much ahead of its time.

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FRIGHTMARE

Also known as Cover Up, Frightmare is a cannibal-family film that deserves far more respect and viewing that it’s been given. An aging couple, having recently been released for an asylum where they were sentenced for murder and cannibalism, return to their old habits in a remote home in the Suffolk countryside. But their daughter is coming home with a new man, and she may just not have escaped the odd “tastes” of her family. Grisly gore, biker gangs, and a memorable scene with a power drill make this a seminal film for fans of 80’s horror (which drew heavily from this under appreciated film).

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THE SHOUT

An odd, atmospheric, and eerie adaptation of a short story by Robert Graves, The Shout is a film to be seen by all fans of cinema. A visitor at an insane asylum watches a cricket match between inmates when he is befriended by a rather bored-looking man officiating the match. The man tells the visitor a story of a man named Crossley, a drifter who glides into the life of a musician interested in experimental sound and his wife. The drifter has studied for years to learn aboriginal magic, and has gained the ability to kill merely by emitting a loud shout. After a devastating demonstration of his power at a lonely beach, he insinuates himself into the lives of the terrified couple. Is the tale true? Is the teller of the tale an insane inmate himself? Is he the man in his own story? Watch to find out! And look for an early role by Tim Curry as the visitor.

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DEEP END

A strange, absorbing film about a 15 year old boy’s descent into sexual madness. The plot may sound as simple as can be: a teenaged boy working in a London bathhouse becomes obsessed with a co-worker 10 years his senior, and soon turns from a distant adorer to a stalker. But this film is so much more. A strange combination of gritty Marxist realism and surrealism (owing, no doubt, to its being a British/West German co-production), Deep End emerges as a terrifying exploration of sexual awakening in a setting of sexual exploitation. John Moulder Brown brings true pathos as a young man who first learns of sexuality at an exploitative bath house, and his physcosis-induced stalking of Jane Asher is light years ahead of better-known films along this line that would appear a decade later. A perfect combination of the Euro-Art House film and the psycho-stalker film, Deep End will leave you gasping.

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NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT

This may be the least known of the many film pairings of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Out of print for many years, it is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime. Members of a British trust are being found dead, either by apparent suicide or accident. When a bus with the final surviving trust members goes off a cliff along with three dozen young orphans, police inspector Lee suspects something more sinister. A film full of red herrings and plot twists, Nothing But the Night begins as a police mystery but veers into the occult towards the end. Worth watching to see Lee and Cushing together again.

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PREY

Perhaps the strangest film on this list, Prey is a film you’ll never forget. The lowest of low budgets and a 10 day shooting schedule didn’t prevent director Norman J Warren from directing a horror/sci-fi exploitation film that is both disturbing and engrossing. An alien descends to Earth to see if humans will provide an adequate food supply for his alien cohorts. After killing and assuming the appearance of a man making out with his girlfriend, he befriends a lesbian couple and soon becomes a threat to their relationship. Bloody, erotic, intelligent, and deeply troubling, Prey is a sexploitation film that conjures deep questions about the politics of sexuality, the cultural connections between sex and violence, and gives you nightmares in the process!

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Walter Hill’s 1984 cult classic Streets of Fire might seem like an odd fit for a blog on film noir, but bear with me on this one. It’s a decidedly strange but deliriously frenetic neo-noir mash-up that blends iconic elements of film noir, rock and roll movies, motorcycle pictures, westerns, and teen action flicks. Long before Sin City, Se7en, Fight Club, and The Matrix, Hill combined genres and fashion from multiple decades to create the fictional Gotham-like city in which the film is set.  Desperately underappreciated upon its initial release, the film has not only found a devoted audience, but also influenced films to follow both in terms of its visual look as well as its hyper-aggressive editing.

The look of the film is clearly that of an urban hell. Rain perpetually drenches the city, yet fails to wash away any of the grime. Random gangs of young punks straight out of Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Ones rule the streets, only marginally kept at bay by the police, and the elevated trains overhead lend a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in both place and time. The cars and fashion are straight out of the 1950s, but the music and editing are pure 1980s, with some nineteenth century dime novel plotting thrown in for good measure. The hyper-aware,cliche-ridden dialogue alone could serve as a master class in noir tough guy banter, and is delivered with deadly earnestness by the cast.

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Out of this vertiginous sense of temporal displacement emerges a plot as standard as they come: restless mercenary Tom Cody is called back to the nightmare city by his sister to rescue ex-girlfriend Ellen Aim, a rising rock star kidnapped by a motorcycle gang led by sneering villain Raven. But Hill’s film is so much more about style over substance. What sets the film apart from a long list of other B pictures is its self-conscious and self-referential sense of irony. Rather than play the lines for laughs, the film allows the humor to arise out of the aggregate of genre pastiche. No double-takes or asides to the camera here. Hill, as he did in other classics like The Warriors and Southern Comfort treats the genres he blends with a respect that shows his deep knowledge of why genre films work by their own, internal logic, and by extension shows a filmmaker’s respect for his audience.

Other than the constant stream of banter, perhaps the most striking feature of the film are its visuals. The concrete and steel support columns of the elevated train bisect the rain-soaked streets, creating complex networks of vertical lines and crossed angles that are fully imbedded in the outdoor scenes, rather than marking the background. Drawing from the inner-city film noir tradition, the columns and Escher-like networks of pipes and steel-grate catwalks and stairs create a look that is as sharp and severe as the film’s characters.

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The cast of relative newcomers at the time includes Michael Pare, Diane Lane (playing the film’s femme fatale when she was only eighteen), Amy Madigan, Rick Moranis, Bill Paxton, and a young Willem Dafoe as the evil Raven. Deborah Van Valkenberg, from Hill’s earlier The Warriors, stars as Pare’s sister.

The film’s disappointing box-office was no real surprise, as Hill was working far ahead of his time here. Later films that blended graphic novel aesthetics and a vision of the city as a rain-soaked, post-industrial Hell of grays and greens would gradually find much better success with audiences, but Hill was there at the forefront, slugging away at a new visual and auditory style of filmmaking. Pity that his destiny, much like that of most film noir protagonists, was to crash and burn with this film… but he went down swinging, by God. He went down swinging.

 

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Burke’s existentially driven former New Orleans homicide cop and current Iberia Parish deputy Dave Robicheaux is one of the most compelling lost souls in American fiction.  An alcoholic suffering from PTSD from both his experiences in Vietnam and his penchant for violence as a police officer in and around New Orleans, Robicheaux is the quintessential self-made Job for modern times.

 

In this latest novel, Dave Robicheaux finds himself once again lost in a land of ghosts, recently widowed as a man with a history of drunk driving had caused his third wife’s death at a lonely intersection in New Iberia.  Coming out of an alcoholic blackout after a relapse, Robicheaux learns that he may have beaten the man to death with his bare hands, but has no memory of what happened. He finds himself it the Kafkaesque position of assisting in the investigating a murder that he honestly doesn’t know if he, in fact, committed. At one point in the novel, Robicheaux projects his own alcoholic self-loathing onto the New Orleans area as a whole:

 

“If anyone tells you he’s from New Orleans and doesn’t drink, he’s probably not from         New Orleans. Louisiana is not a state; it’s an outdoor mental asylum in which millions of people stay bombed most of their lives. That’s not an exaggeration. Cirrhosis is a family heirloom.”

 

The mystery that follows, blending old-school drug running, charismatic Southern figures, and the bloody legacy of the American South is a corker, but what reigns supreme in the novel is the twisted ways in which the historical become one with the personal.

 

Burke populates the novel with characters familiar to Robicheaux’s world: the beaten down and abused, the local mobster, the drunks, the corrupt cops, the rising politician with skeletons in his closet, the itinerant psychopathic killer, and those who just want to scratch out a living without arousing the interest of the predators who wait, like hungry sharks, to clamp their jaws around those who speak out of turn. Familiar characters Helen Soileau and Clete Purcell reveal new depths to their humanity as they fret over their friend’s potential crack-up while struggling with their own demons.

 

Perhaps out of this collection of the damned, the most rapacious villain to emerge in the novel is the past itself. It plays such a central role in the novel, that perhaps I should write it as The Past, granting it the fully-realized personification that it attains in the narrative. The Past, for Burke, is both the personal and the social, and following how he intertwines the two into a New Southern Gothic sensibility is one of the most rewarding features of his writing. Burke goes beyond the Christ-haunted South to blend it with the racial Gothic, political noir, and a Nightmare Alley-like vision of alcoholism and descents into madness.

 

But, as with all great novels that eclipse their genre, this book goes far deeper than the mundane treatment of plot and resolution to meditate deeply on the fleeting possibility of redemption, the strength of true friendship, and in the possibility…  a daily possibility if so chosen… of redemption for all seemingly lost souls.  Consider the two following quotes that highlight the novel’s ironic tension between violence and redemption as embodied by Robicheaux:

 

 

“How do you handle it when your anger brims over the edge of the pot? You use the shortened version of the Serenity Prayer, which is “Fuck it.” Like Voltaire’s Candide tending his own garden or the British infantry going up the Khyber Pass one bloody foot at a time, you do your job, and you grin and walk through the cannon smoke, and you just keep saying fuck it. You also have faith in your own convictions and never let the naysayers and those who are masters at inculcating self-doubt hold sway in your life. “Fuck it” is not profanity. “Fuck it” is a sonnet.”

. . .

“Mortality is not kind, and do not let anyone tell you it is. If there is such a thing as wisdom, and I have serious doubts about its presence in my own life, it lies in the acceptance of the human condition and perhaps the knowledge that those who have passed on are still with us, out there in the mist, showing us the way, sometimes uttering a word of caution from the shadows, sometimes visiting us in our sleep, as bright as a candle burning inside a basement that has no windows.”

 

Burke’s vision of America in the twenty-first century is as accurate and uncompromising as it could be.  We are a nation who has never learned Faulkner’s dictum that the problem with the past is that it even isn’t the past yet.  We continue to pay for our sins because we have never come to terms with them.

 

Dave Robicheaux stands as a character who doesn’t always deserve our sympathy, but because so, he represents a truly American figure… one who understands his function in an already-scripted role, yet rebels against that role when it counts. By far the most existentially deep of the twenty-one novels through which Burke has developed the Robicheaux character, this book reaches an apotheosis to which few authors can wish to ascend.  The best way I could describe the book is to ask you to imagine a word-processing cocktail shaker into which has been poured All the King’s Men, The Lost WeekendIntruder in the Dust, and a liberal sprinkling of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. Shake well, pour over ice, add simple syrup and a mint sprig, and enjoy.