Saturday, October 21, 2017

Book Review: Blood Snarl

Book Review: 'Blood Snarl' by Ivor Watkins

3 / 5 Stars

‘Blood Snarl’ first was published in the UK in 1980 as The Bloodsnarl. In the US, this Signet paperback (345 pp), retitled ‘Blood Snarl’, was released in January, 1982; the cover artist is uncredited.

‘Blood Snarl’ was UK author Ivor Watkins’s first novel; according to his bio, he had worked as a journalist on Fleet Street before changing careers to public relations. He published a second horror novel, ‘Demon’, in 1983.

‘Blood Snarl’ is set in the near-future (i.e., ca. 2000). The advent of Global Cooling means that the British Isles are seized by one of the coldest winters in living memory. England is economically depleted; snow and ice have reduced travel, emptied the government budget, fomented outbreaks of influenza, and reduced the standard of living to a point reminiscent of the days of postwar Austerity.

As bad as things are in England, they are worse in Northern Scotland, where ‘Blood’ takes place. The village of Elphin is the novel’s central location, and Elphin and the surrounding highlands are covered in waist-deep snow and freezing temperatures. Roads and railways are barely passable, and the government - preoccupied with events in England - is quite indifferent about the troubles afflicting Scotland.

The severe weather has led the red deer population to migrate from the country down to the village, where they search for edible vegetation. With their prey moving to areas of human habitation, the wolves of the highlands must follow. But one pack is led by an extraordinary wolf……….a wolf named Darkmind. Weighing two hundred pounds, intelligent, and cunning, Darkmind sees no reason why two-legged prey cannot be taken.

As Winter settles its hold on Elphin, the howling of wolves in the night brings with it a realization that northern Scotland has reverted to an earlier, less assured, era when primitive man vied with Canis lupus for the apex of the food chain. If wildlife ecologist Richard Unthank cannot find a way to deter the advance of the predators, the citizens of Elphin soon will find themselves caught in a desperate struggle for survival…………..

‘Blood Snarl’ is a readable novel, and one of the better entries in the ‘When Animals Attack’ sub-genre of horror novels of the 70s and 80s. Watkins wisely uses a straightforward prose style, leavened here and there with the occasional metaphor or simile (‘The weather was as fickle as a jealous woman’). He also takes care to involve the snowbound landscape of the Scottish highlands – and its real-life isolated farms, villages, forests, lochs, and parklands - as a quasi-character in and of itself, giving the novel an atmosphere conducive to its depiction of a senescent civilization beset with the forces of a resurgent Mother Nature.

Where ‘Blood’ shows strains is in its length; at 345 pages, it would 
greatly have benefited from being reduced in length by 75 – 100 pages. By the book’s halfway point the narrative grows increasingly reliant on generating suspense via having its Scottish villagers, and arrogant Americans, ever more willing to venture out into the snow alone and unarmed. Sub-plots involving romantic entanglements among the lead characters, the self-serving escapades of UK politicians, and the low morals of Fleet Street publishers also begin to wear. The novel’s last-chapter climax seems perfunctory and unconvincing.

The verdict ? ‘Blood Snarl’ is best described as The Wolfen Visit Scotland. I can’t say it’s a must-have, but if you see a copy on the shelf while wandering the aisles of your favorite used bookstore, it may be worth picking up.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Cast of Alien

The Cast of Alien

Monday, October 16, 2017

Book Review: Next, After Lucifer

Book Review: 'Next, After Lucifer' by Daniel Rhodes

4 / 5 Stars

‘Next, After Lucifer’ (258 pp) was published by Tor Books in July, 1988.

‘Next’ is one of those horror novels in which Ancient Evil arises from a tomb / Native American burial ground / ruined castle / haunted house and wreaks havoc among the unsuspecting citizens of whatever town, or village, or otherwise wretched habitation has the misfortune to lie in close proximity. But it is certainly a cut above the standard-issue novels in this genre.

The story is set in the late 80s in Provence, France. John McTell, an American professor of medieval history, has rented a villa in the countryside not far from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the villa’s idyllic character, the restaurants and churches of the charming little village located a short drive away, and the warm Summer air, McTell finds himself inexplicably drawn to the unsettling ruins of the nearby medieval fortress of Montservrain.

McTell learns from the village priest that in the early 13th century, Montservrain was a fortress held by a group of Knights Templars, led by a one-eyed giant named Guilhem de Courdeval. De Courdeval, according to local legend, was a figure of immense evil, given to offering blood sacrifices to demons in exchange for arcane knowledge. Only after the peasant population of the area surrounding the fortress was depleted from de Courdeval’s machinations did the Church dispatch a contingent of Inquisitors to overwhelm the castle, and burn de Courdeval at the stake.

McTell explores the ruins of Montservrain and finds – or perhaps is led to find  ? - a long-buried artifact that likely belonged to de Courdeval. Soon McTell’s studies of the artifact become more than scholarly in nature, as evil influences start to take hold not just of him, but of the village………

‘Next, After Lucifer’ benefits first and foremost from author Rhodes’s writing, which flows smoothly and is devoid of the contrivances and artifice that tend to blight many horror novels of the 80s. For example, 'Next' has its obligatory hallucination / nightmare sequences, but these are restrained and do not overwhelm the narrative. 

The cast of characters and locales are small and circumscribed, but Rhodes keeps his plot from becoming tedious by adroitly shifting the narrative from one incident to another; he also offers some blackly humorous insights into village life, and the perils of having relatives with too much money and time on their hands come to visit your summer villa.

The ‘evil spirit’ aspect of the novel avoids being trite by virtue of representing all manner of medieval atrocities, these being depicted with sufficient gruesomeness to make the reader wince.

The verdict ? ‘Next, After Lucifer’ is an effective novel of the occult. I would have given it five stars but for the ending, which pulls its punches in order to set up a sequel (‘Adversary’, 1988). But this is a solid four star read, and well worth picking up.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Gothic Tale Part Two

A Gothic Tale
Part Two
by Richard Corben
from Skull No. 6, 1972

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Gothic Tale Part One

A Gothic Tale
Part One
by Greg Irons
from Skull No. 6, 1972

'A Gothic Tale' ran as a two-part story taking up the entire contents of issue 6 of Skull comics. Featuring great artwork by Greg Irons and Richard Corben, 'A Gothic Tale' matched the best of any story then appearing in the Warren magazines of the early 70s, and went one better in terms of graphic, 'adults only' content.

I'm posting Part One here; Part Two will be posted shortly.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Book Review: 'Crucifax'

Book Review: 'Crucifax' by Ray Garton

2 / 5 Stars

Garton’s novel ‘Cruxifax Autumn’ was published in 1988 by Dark Harvest, a small press publisher. When Pocket Books released the novel as a mass market paperback titled ‘Crucifax’ (387 pp) in June, 1988, they obliged Garton to remove a scene featuring some particularly ‘gooshy’ action. 

[ I picked up the Pocket Books edition of 'Crucifax' at McKay's Used Books in Manassass, Virginia, for $3.25. According to Will Errickson at the Too Much Horror blog, finding an affordable copy of this book in good condition is not easy. ]

The missing segment later was included in Paul M. Sammons’ 1991 compilation Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror. From what I remember of reading that ‘missing’ segment over 25 years ago, its absence from ‘Crucifax’ doesn’t harm the novel.

‘Crucifax’ is set in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles county in the mid- to late- 80s. Think of the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and you get the necessary sense of place.

The lead character is teenager Jeff Carr, who lives with his Mom, and younger sister Mallory, in a modest apartment. As the novel opens, a Mysterious Storm rolls into the Valley just as Summer is coming to an end. This 
obviously is a Portent of Doom. 

Soon afterwards, a man named Mace becomes a regular fixture at the Mall and the other teen hangouts in the Valley. Mace looks like Billy Idol on steroids: tall, thin, with his long white hair in a mullet. He comes equipped with a long overcoat. Gold-flecked eyes, and an easy sarcasm. And mirrorshades ! 

No one knows where Mace comes from, or what he does for a living……….but he has a unique rapport with Troubled Youth, and soon kids are hanging out at the abandoned health club that Mace has turned into an illicit clubhouse.

As Mace lures more and more of the Valley’s teens into his sinister circle, Jeff becomes increasingly alarmed that Mallory may become a Mace convert. But confronting Mace is fraught with danger, because Mace knows and exploits a lot of deep, dark secrets, like Jeff’s well-hidden infatuation with Mallory. And anyone who crosses Mace must deal with his demon familiars………nasty little creatures straight out of the movie Gremlins.

As Mace’s influence grows, his talk of taking everyone to a ‘better place’ takes on an ominous meaning. Can Jeff, and caring high school counselor J. R. Haskell, intervene in time to prevent a Teen Holocaust........... ? !

‘Crucifax’ is really not a horror novel, but rather, a Teen Melodrama sprinkled with splatterpunk segments here and there. The plot is set up in the first 75 pages, after which the narrative lumbers along with interminable dialogue passages dealing with teens conflicting with their parent, teens conflicting with authority figures, teens conflicting with Society.....

Slowing the narrative up even further are the musings of the adults; for example, a monologue of self-recrimination delivered by an evangelical pastor takes up over three pages. 

By the time ‘Crucifax’ finally reaches its denouement, the continuous vignettes of teen angst had become so tiresome I was rooting for Mace.

It doesn’t help matters that author Garton tries to imbue his novel with Social Relevance, by regularly reminding the reader that Mace is able to corrupt the kids because the kids have been neglected by parents who are too consumed with self-interest, and lust for material possessions, to Really Care.

One thing 'Crucifax' does very well is recall the pop culture atmosphere of the mid 80s. The jukeboxes play Robert Palmer, there is reference to Twisted Sister, and malls are 'in' places to hang out, not the crumbling retail wastelands they are nowadays.

The verdict ? Those pursuing a copy of ‘Crucifax’ in the hopes of obtaining a splatterpunk classic are likely to be disappointed. It may offer some reward as a snapshot of 80s teen drama, for those so inclined. For anyone else, well, this book is for Garton completists only.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Autumn acquisitions

Autumn Acquisitions

Grady Hendrix's newly published celebration of 70s and 80s horror paperbacks, Paperbacks from Hell, certainly is an entertaining read.

However, every one of those schlock paperbacks appearing in the book is going to be snapped up soon by fans and speculators. Even the most cheeseball of the titles published by Zebra, Leisure, Signet, and Pocket during that era are going to see their asking prices double.......or triple. Or quadruple.

So, over the past two weeks, I've been making my own forays to grab those schlock horror stories while they still are other words, no more than $5.00 each or so.

I've done reasonably well (pictures below). My advice ? Now is as good a time as any to decide which books from Paperbacks from Hell deserve your attention, and act accordingly.....before the speculators start elbowing their way in...........

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Paperbacks from Hell

Paperbacks from Hell
The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction
by Grady Hendrix

When - last Summer - Will Errickson at the Too Much Horror Fiction blog announced he was a contributing author to a coffee table - style book celebrating 70s and 80s horror paperbacks, I assigned it to my Wish List. Having received the book just a few days after its September 19 release date, I've since been poring over it, and here's my take on the book.

Paperbacks from Hell is a thick, chunky, very well-made book. It's a trade paperback with glossy, thick-stock paper pages, and high-res reproductions of the covers of its collected paperbacks.

Author Hendrix's narrative is informed by his readings of over 200 of the horror paperbacks published during the two-decade interval covered in the book. His chapters are roughly chronological in order, starting with an overview of the paperback industry in the late 60s, when the publication of Rosemary's Baby kicked off what would come to be the 'horror boom'.

Hendrix's narrative then covers the 70s and 80s, and closes with the dying of the paperback horror genre with the coming of The Silence of the Lambs, and the transitioning of the publishing industry to the 'serial killer' fad of the early 90s.

Succeeding chapters cover the themes of 'Creepy Kids', 'When Animals Attack', 'Weird Science', and 'Inhumanoids', among others. Hendrix enlivens his discourses with frequently humorous observations on the social and pop culture phenomena underlying these topics. 

If you're at all acquainted with the subject matter, you're sure to see some of your favorites and even some long-lost forgotten treasures among the pages of Paperbacks from Hell........and thus get charged with nostalgia.

You're also sure to see more than a few paperbacks that you'd like to add to your collection. I did !
The closing pages of Paperbacks from Hell present a short Appendix of prominent artists and authors of the era. For his part, Errickson contributes an Afterward focusing on Recommended Reading.

Paperbacks from Hell does have one major problem: too often, Hendrix DISCLOSES SPOILERS. For example, he reveals the fate of the protagonist of Pierce Nace's gorehound abomination, Eat Them Alive. This is not right !

Author Hendrix doesn't hide the fact that many of the books profiled in Paperbacks from Hell are an acquired taste, and reading them likely will be unrewarding for all but the most ardent fans of the genre. But he also takes pains to point out that there are a good share of gems to be found amidst the dross. 

Summing up, if you're a Bay Boomer like me, then this book is going to bring back some great memories of a genre in its full flower and it's recommended reading. 

If you're not a Baby Boomer, but a younger reader who finds that the stuff from the 70s and 80s has the kind of uniquely warped character that appeals to you, then Paperbacks from Hell also is just the ticket to satisfy your need for an informative catalog of what was done, and who did it.

So there you have it. Paperbacks from Hell..........out just in time for Halloween !