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
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
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
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
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.