Jul 112014
 
Jean Deslines is worried about losing her identity.  Her father keeps talking about putting her away in a mental institution for her own safety. Jean has been bragging about her flirty seduction of the local clergyman in her Australian home of Katoomba. She's also been reading up on psychology books at the suggestion of her cousin Myrtle who knows a psychosexual aberration when she sees one. Now Jean's head is overloaded with Freudian psychoanalytical jargon and discussions of female hormones, the lack of which she believes is at the root of her troubles. She's also starting to have surreal dreams in which she envisions a female gladiator who takes the form of the goddess Minerva slaughtering her enemies. And every now and then she hears the sounds of bells and an ethereal voice giving her private instructions on carrying out the murderous events in her dreams. Is it any wonder her father is worried about her? Oh, I forgot to mention Jean is only fifteen years old.

To preserve her identity and prevent any tinkering with her mind and soul at the hands of interfering psychiatrists Jean is advised by that Voice to murder her father. And she does so in a lovingly savage way. It's the beginning of her descent into a surreal world of hallucinations, indulgent sexuality and violent murderous attacks. Imagine if you will a most bizarre mix of the selfish child murderess Rhoda Penmark, vindictive pathological liar Mary Tilford, and seductive teen age vixen Lolita and you have only a smidgen of an idea of what Frank Walford has created in Jean Deslines. It's difficult to believe that a fifteen year old girl is narrating this lurid tale of madness, pansexuality and brutal murder. Jean may very well be crime fiction's first bisexual serial killer.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Twisted Clay was published in 1933.

Frank Walford
This week Patti Abbot Asked us to read a book about a femme fatale. Though typically we don't find a femme fatale this young until the pulp writers of the 1950s in books by writers like Gil Brewer, Day Keene and Jonathan Craig and most of them aren't clinically insane Jean Deslines is about as fatal a femme as you can find in the genre fiction of the 1930s. So horrific are the events described in Walford's book it was banned almost immediately upon publication and remained out of print for decades. Modern readers will find so many of what is now considered formulaic in serial killer literature and yet no one was writing about such things in Walford's time. Even Lawrence Block didn't write about a serial killer prostitute until 2012's Getting Off and even then he used his lesbian erotica pseudonym Jill Emerson. Walford was way ahead of his time in creating his surreally intellectual, linguistically gifted and very dangerous teenager. Way, way ahead.

Twisted Clay has been reissued by Australian British indie press Salt Publishing under their horror imprint Remains Classics in a handsomely designed facsimile of the original first edition complete with replication of the original dust jacket. The book comes with a foreward by Remain's editor Johnny Mains as well as a biographical and literary introduction to Frank Walford by critic and supernatural fiction maven Jim Doigs. It's a fine reissue of a landmark book in the genre. Highly recommended for literary connoisseurs, genre fiction addicts and anyone curious about those obscure books that sometimes reach legendary status due to their unavailability. This is one instance when the legend cannot even approach the actual content of the book.

For more wicked women, amoral temptresses, and literary femme fatales in forgotten books of the past visit Patti Abbot's blog.
 Posted by at 5:00 am
Jun 272014
 
Today marks the centenary celebration of "strange story" writer Robert Aickman who was born June 27, 1914.  As part of the celebration of what would have been Aickman's 100th birthday Faber & Faber has reprinted several of his story collections including the two featured in the post today. Dark Entries (1964) was Aickman's second collection and his first book of stories written solely by him. Cold Hand in Mine (1975) is his fifth collection and is well known to book collectors for the US first edition (Scribner, 1975) has a DJ illustrated by Edward Gorey.

I've written previously about the strange stories (his preferred term) of Aickman in my post on Powers of Darkness. But re-reading these tales in their new editions brought forth some interesting recurrent themes in his writing. Aickman doesn't really write traditional supernatural stories though some of them incorporate tropes of ghost story fiction and horror fiction. There is always an ambiguity pervading the stories, a ghost may not be a ghost at all but the fervent imagining of a disturbed mind. There are some instances of outright horror as in his chilling tale of the walking dead in "Ringing the Changes" found in Dark Entries or the thing that lives in the lake in "Niemandswasser" or the grisly and nightmarish true purpose of "The Hospice" both in Cold Hand in Mine. But more often than not the odd and bizarre events tend to be shrouded in a haze of the characters' twisted perceptions of reality and enhanced by their personal quirks and eccentricities.

In my current reading of the stories I discovered something else. The men in Aickman's stories are often the victims of glamour. Contemporary connotations include glamor as a synonym for stunning beauty but it original connotation hinted at a supernatural power, mostly of the fairy world, to bewitch and hypnotize and control a human. Whether this inclusion of glamor and spell casting is intentional or not on Aickman's part I cannot say, but in at least five of the stories I read the male protagonists make mention of the captivating beauty of a woman they encounter and they almost immediately fall under her spell. Take for example Carfax, the renaissance man and traveler in "The View." His attraction to the bewitching woman he dubs Ariel leads to him to friendship, romance and an unfortunate fate. He finds himself not only under her glamorous spell, but the spell of the home in which she lives. His room affords him a view that is ever changing in its scenery and by the end of the story he realizes that he has spent not a few days with Ariel but several years.

There are six long stories in Dark Entries and eight in Cold Hand in Mine. Most of them run between 30 and 50 pages. Aickman takes his time telling his tale, like a patient artist at work on a canvas he paints landscapes with carefully chosen words that evoke a sublime atmosphere blending dread and anticipation of the characters' inevitable doom. No one really escapes unscathed in an Aickman story. If they are lucky enough to survive their encounters they will carry with them a haunting memory of the world of the macabre and the weird. Many of Aickman's characters are forever changed and scarred by their inexplicable adventures. And the reader taking in Aickman's narratives cannot help but be affected as well.

For more about Faber & Faber's paperback reprints of Robert Aickman's books visit this page at their website. They plan to release a total of six of his books. It is also worth noting that Tartarus Press, an independent UK publisher of supernatural fiction, has reprinted all of Aickman's books in hardcover editions. All of them are still available. As part of the centenary of Aickman's birth Tartarus has also published this month The River Runs Uphill, an autobiographical volume originally published in 1967. Read more at the Tarturus Press website.
 Posted by at 2:06 pm
Jun 132014
 
In honor of tonight's "honey moon" and its rare occurrence on Friday the 13th I dug into the archives for this brief overview of a fitting book. Leslie Whitten's book makes a modern use of the phrase "when the wolfsbane blooms/And the moon and is full and bright.".

Whitten wrote one of the most interesting takes on the werewolf legend with his Southern Gothic novel Moon of the Wolf (1967). In it we get a combination of a murder mystery and an exploration of lycanthropy from a psychologist's perspective. A series of murders seem to be the work of a savage animal. Whitten sets his novel in the 1930s so when the first murder victim also turns out to be a black woman we get the additional layer of social criticism of racism in the south. The police sheriff's investigation leads him to a wealthy white family of plantation owners and whispers of illicit sexual relations.

Angry locals insist the girl was attacked by a pack of wild dogs and set out like a posse of Transylvanian villagers to kill them all. But the skeptical sheriff is not convinced. Medical evidence points to violence by a human hand even amid the signs of an animal attack. His questioning of the locals uncovers their superstitious beliefs, the curious practice of hoodoo with its bottle tree and other witchcraft-like talismans, and an odd reference to "Loup Garou." A psychologist enters the picture and begins to explain the legend of the werewolf and lycanthropy as a legitimate mental illness.

Guy Endore treated the werewolf legend as a mental illness in Werewolf of Paris decades earlier, but Whitten makes his approach more accessible and tells the story in such a way that one never really knows if the werewolf is real or imagined. The finale, of course, will settle all that ambiguity with a somewhat startling revelation.

Moon of the Wolf was made into a TV movie (almost faithful to the book) in the 1970s with David Janssen as the sheriff and Bradford Dillman as the primary murder suspect. You can find several versions of the full movie at YouTube. The best quality version I found is here.

 Posted by at 2:30 pm
May 142014
 
SCREAM QUEEN AND OTHER TALES OF MENACE is the latest collection of Ed Gorman's short fiction from the great Perfect Crime Books. As you'd expect, this is a fine bunch of stories that cross over into a number of genres, although given the title of the collection there's a thread of fear that runs through all of them. "Cages", "Duty", and "The Brasher Girl" (a novella that served as the
Apr 302014
 
Syndrome E
by Franck Thilliez
translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-147-50971-0
370 pp. $16.00
April 29, 2014

There is a certain type of crime novel that wants to be everything. It wants to comment on the nature of evil and the predilection for violence, criticize government abuse with satiric jibes, entertain with quirky characters, and scare the pants off of you with scenes of grisly crimes that outdo anything in the latest torture porn flick. Syndrome E is one of those books. I should’ve hated it, but I found it to be one of the most guilty pleasures I’ve read in a long time.

Franck Thilliez has written a contemporary horror novel with elements of the detective novel that entertains as much as it repulses and disgusts. Any attempt to make the book a cautionary tale about the abuse of corrupt governments or a stab at educating people about such past disgraces like the Duplessis orphan tragedy and the experiments of the CIA on unsuspecting citizens is lost in his sea of information. Syndrome E is a potboiler thriller with all the usual ingredients in abundant display -- labyrinthine plot, globe trotting scenery, forgotten historical tidbits, arcane lore and legends, and a Pandora’s trunkful of bizarre murders and body mutilations. It does exactly what it should do –- jolt you with a few shocking surprises, terrify you with its indulgent and grotesquely executed murders, and in the intervening scenes calm and assuage you with a perfunctory romance between the two lead characters.

Film lovers more than anyone will find much to enjoy. Thilliez is clearly a movie fan. The cause of all the mass slaughter (there are a lot of bodies) and paranoia found in Syndrome E is a 16mm movie so disturbing it leads one man to suffer hysterical blindness and haunts the memory banks of everyone else who is foolish enough to watch the movie. From it’s jarring opening scene –- that any true cineaste will instantly recognize from Dali’s Un Chien Andalou -- to its ostensibly innocuous images of a little girl cuddling a kitten the movie leaves each viewer with feelings of unease and disquiet without really understanding why. That’s because the movie made in 1955 is an early and very perverse example of subliminal filmmaking. Examination of the film uncovers a second film buried beneath all the primary images the viewer takes in. And that second film rivals any horror movie ever made.

Investigating the many murders linked to the ownership and eventual theft of the 16mm movie are two policeman. Appearing as solo lead characters in Thilliez’ other books (still untranslated into English) they meet for the first time in Syndrome E. Lucie Henebelle is a single mother doing her best to raise her twin daughters. Lucie lives for her job as police officer often abandoning her family and leaving her admonishing mother Marie to take on the role of primary caretaker.

Franck Thilliez, bestselling crime writer throughout Europe.
Syndrome E is his first book translated into English
In direct contrast to Lucie, the go-getter law enforcer addicted to the thrill of the chase, is the intense and morose Franck Sharko, probably the most original character in the book. He's a throwback to the eccentric amateur sleuth of the Golden Age, too. What makes him so eccentric? Franck is suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations after suffering a mental breakdown following the death of his wife and daughter. Even though he regularly medicates himself with Zyprexa he is enslaved to a phantom girl named Eugenie with whom he has frequent arguments. Eugenie goads and taunts him, hampering his decision making while also blackmailing him into buying her jars of cocktail sauce and candied chestnuts. If he gives her the foods she craves, she'll leave him alone...for a while. Of course she’s not real so she can’t eat any of it leaving Sharko with a stockpile of jars in his home and at work that make for raised eyebrows and prying questions from his friends and co-workers.

Lucie and Shark (“No first name, no titles, please.”) become partners through a combination of chance and Lucie’s desire to work with the man. Shark is a world class criminal profiler and has been called upon to use his skills on a case that appears to be the work of a serial killer. Five bodies have been unearthed in rural France, most of them now nothing but skeletons, but all of them with the tops of their skulls sawed off with surgical precision.

As the mystery of the film’s creation and meaning plays out it eventually intersects with the story of the killer responsible for the five murders and many other deaths throughout the world. Is it the movie itself that has created this monster of serial killer? Or is the killer only trying to recover the film for some private purpose? The trail will take Lucie and Shark from France to Egypt to Canada and back to France again. As the bodies pile up the two police discover that the terrible subliminal messages are part of a much larger global conspiracy involving the CIA, the Foreign Legion and the disgraceful past of 1950s era Quebec.

The novel's structure of finding an expert, interviewing the expert, having the expert "info dump" loads of technological or historical data gets to be very predictable. Among the varied topics lectured on are the latest trends in neuroscience, the use of neuromarketing in advertising, the recruitment process of the Foreign Legion, the methods of hiding subliminal images on film, how to splice and edit 16mm celluloid, and the shameful nightmare undergone by the Duplessis orphans in Canada. But at nearly 400 pages you do get your money’s worth in arcane educational moments.

Nicolas Cage can't believe what he sees in 8mm
Like Seven and 8mm (a movie that shares many ideas with Thilliez' novel) the images of violence perpetrated on film and in life are relentless and gut wrenching. A sex scene between Shark and Lucie that basically cures Shark of his schizoid hallucination is absurdly unbelievable. And often the language and sentence structure is inappropriate or awkward. I have no idea if this is the fault of the translator or Thilliez’ original French or a combination of both. But given all these caveats I still found myself turning the pages with abandon. No matter how much I wanted to find fault with this book I will concede that Thilliez sure knows how to tell a good story. He does a fairly good job, too, of creating suspenseful scenes that make the reader want to know what happens next. Plain and simple: a thriller is meant to thrill. Syndrome E lives up to that promise and then some. It may not be for the faint of heart, but any reader daring enough to take on its horrors and thrills will get way more than they expect.

According to Deadline.com Syndrome E has been purchased for the movies. As of February 2013 the screenwriter adapting the novel is Mark Heyman who wrote the very disturbing, surrealistic nightmare movie Black Swan about a ballet dancer losing her mind which won an Oscar for actress Natalie Portman. It’s a daunting project and I wish the entire production team a lot of luck transferring an imagined horror film into a real film. Often the real horror that goes on in the reader’s imagination is completely lost in the adaptation process.
 Posted by at 7:34 pm
Apr 232014
 
Ira Levin, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer all must be doing gymnastics in their graves.

A few nights ago I saw a trailer for the upcoming TV movie remake of one of my all time favorite novels and horror movies -- Rosemary's Baby. I screamed, "What? Are you kidding me?" at my television once again upsetting Joe who dislikes it intensely when I talk to the TV.

Jason Isaacs, so compelling as Jackson Brodie in the recent UK TV series based on Kate Atkinson's crime novels, has been cast as Roman Castevet. Way too young for the role. Minnie has been renamed Margaux and is played by French actress Carole Bouquet. Minnie is gone! Now I know this is going to suck. Clearly, the producers have decided to rejuvenate another classic and market it to a younger TV viewing audience with no memory of the original film.

Zoe Saldana, an actress I am not impressed with, is Rosemary. Mia Farrow IS Rosemary Woodhouse! To my mind only an immensely talented actress could surpass Farrow's performance. Certainly not someone as mediocre as Zoe Saldana.

Canadian actor Patrick J Adams is playing Rosemary's husband. He appeared on a cable TV series called Suits most recently. Never seen him in anything. Beats me if he has the stuff to even match Cassavetes' portrayal of the overly ambitious actor Guy Woodhouse who makes a diabolical pact in exchange for success on the Broadway stage. Looks like so many baby-faced young actors these days. He's got that trendy scruff to make him look older for this part.

I'm not impressed by the TV script adaptors credits either: Final Destination 3, Queen of the Damned, and that train wreck of a TV series American Horror Story. The only saving grace might be director Agnieszka Holland who made such memorable movies as Europa, Europa and The Secret Garden (w/ Maggie Smith) and who most recently has been making a career of directing cable TV shows like Treme, The Killing, and The Wire.

The movie -- a four hour, two parter -- will be broadcast in May on NBC. For more info see this webpage at NBC.com.

Anyone else think this is a horrid idea? Anyone planning to watch this? I'm not sure I'm even mildly curious about what they've done to update it. Some movies should never be remade. This, I think, is one of them.
 Posted by at 4:19 pm
Mar 202014
 
The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone
by Will Storr
Marble Arch Press/Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-4767-3043-1
367 pp. $16 (trade paperback)
Publication date: March 11, 2014

Killian Lone had a childhood that even a Dickens orphan would find nightmarish. Punished cruelly with burning cigarettes and beatings by his man–hating mother who taught him to withstand pain and not cry out in order to toughen up, subjected to a humiliating attack by a teenage thug that nearly blinds him, it’s no wonder he finds it necessary to escape to his Aunt Dorothy’s Gothic retreat in the Sussex countryside. There, with his Aunt as teacher and mentor, he learns to cook mouthwatering meals filled with tantalizing exotic ingredients Under his aunt’s patient instruction coupled with the only kindness he ever receives Killian blossoms into a chef of enviable skill and invention. He decides to pursue his love of cooking at a culinary school where his talent does not go unnoticed by the headmaster. Soon Killian finds himself apprenticed to his hero, the brilliant celebrity chef Max Mann whose restaurant “King” is one of the best in London. But the world of the professional chef is no better than a military boot camp with its grueling exercises and initiation rituals for the grunts. Killian once again finds himself the target of sadism and cruelty on the scale of a Grand Guignol production.

When Aunt Dorothy dies she promises Killian will be rewarded. To his parent’s horror that reward is the family estate. His mother is enraged, his ineffectual father merely disappointed, when Killian refuses to sign over the property so that his parents can sell the place and use the money to start their lives afresh. He leaves his parents and takes up residence in Dor Cottage. In his exploration of the foreboding house he comes across a library of cook books in a locked attic. Among those books he finds a few apparently written by his ancestors who were known to indulge in witchcraft. One of the books, an eerily illustrated volume of herbs, discusses strange plants he has never heard of and their culinary and medicinal properties. He later discovers these very same mysterious plants are growing wild on the estate in a forbidden garden that has been walled up for centuries. And just like those curious characters in fairy tales temptation gets the better of him. Killian breaks down the walls and gathers some of those herbs for his own cooking experiments with some surprising results.

Will Storr, an award winning investigative journalist, has crafted a modern tale of horror that capitalizes on the popularity of celebrity chefs, gourmet cooking and the egos at war in the professional kitchens of Michelin rated restaurants. Storr has a gift for unusual metaphor, evocative descriptions, and well thought turns of phrase ("It was a flavour that took ordinary beauty and violently challenged it; that took perfection and humiliated it.") His obvious love for Gothic settings are both homages to traditional supernatural tales of the past and excitingly contemporary with original details and imaginative spins. Dor Cottage and its creepy gardens might well be at home in the stories of Lefanu, Machen and Blackwood, yet the plants Storr invents are monstrous things with horrifying traits; so life-like they seem like supporting characters not just leaves and stems. The book is most effective when Killian is alone at his aunt's home cooking, exploring the house and grounds, and experimenting with the plants. When confined to the brilliantly realized Dor Cottage where Killian is under the influence of century old powers he cannot comprehend the story is genuinely thrilling and filled with mystery.

The bulk of the story takes place in the restaurant world, however, where Storr indulges in the modern trend in horror to repulse and nauseate with gore and torture. The intensity of the cruelty, the relentless troment and humiliation of Killian and his co-workers at the hands of the sadistic head chefs had this reader longing for a scene of violent revenge and role reversal in victims and tormenters. Yet when it comes there is no true catharsis for either reader or victimized characters.

Killian begins as a figure of pity but in his hunger to become London’s – if not the world’s – best chef we see him metamorphose from anguished victim to ambition crazed, loyalty obsessed madman. Though Killian begins to show his natural talent in food preparation and a desire to transcend the tired nouvelle cuisine of his icon Max Mann the reader soon discovers that Killian’s dependence on the powerful herbs and their near magical properties are the true cause of his success. It is therefore difficult to side with Killian as he skyrockets from apprentice to master chef eclipsing the fame of Max Mann to become the new darling of the restaurant scene.

Hunger and ambition, interestingly, are used interchangeably throughout the book. The howling is done both in pain and in longing. Killian refers to himself as a "turnspit dog", he constantly talks of the loyalty dogs have for their masters, and is obsessed with the idea of loyalty. The title's metaphors recur and morph as the story inexorably makes its way to a tragedy hinted at in the opening pages. Storr's novel in the end is a cautionary tale of blind ambition and an unquenchable thirst for stardom. But Killian doesn’t ever seem to learn anything. Beaten, burned, scarred both physically and emotionally, one hopes for an epiphany that will redeem Killian in his quest for love and acceptance.

Further frustrating the reader is the knowledge that Killian is a fraud. All his declamatory talk of loyalty is just so much hot air. He traps himself and becomes enslaved to a success based on lies, lies that he continues to tell his friends, co-workers and even himself. His ultimate sacrifice in the final pages seems more like a writer’s cop out than a real deserved catharsis for a character who seemed paradoxically to live and long for pain and not the love and attention he so fervently craved.
 Posted by at 5:38 pm
Feb 272014
 
“It never occurred to me that there were elements of horror in my work until a review pointed it out. Most of my work is, at its heart, police procedural, which means that the narrative is bound by certain rules and measures—a body is found, police show up, science is collected, witnesses are interviewed, investigations begin. Perhaps it is because I am drawn to basements, catacombs, abandoned psychiatric hospitals, and crawlspaces—fertile landscapes all for horror stories—that components of my work are considered horror. That said, some of the greatest writers of all time (certainly my favorites) have written horror. I don’t mind the label at all. For some reason, my short fiction is more mainstream horror, and my screenwriting is fantasy. I think form often determines genre for me.”

- Richard Montanari discusses his writing with fellow Mulholland author Michael Marshall. Both of these great writers have new novels on sale this week: The Stolen Ones (Montanari) and We Are Here (Marshall).
Feb 102014
 
The Immortal, by John Tigges No month stated, 1986  Leisure Books John Tigges published several horror paperbacks through Leisure Books in the ‘80s; I’ve picked up a few over the years, but this is the first I’ve read. Like most other Leisure horror novels The Immortal runs to a fat 400 pages, but it’s got super-big print and Tigges’s writing is so pulpy and melodramatic that you’ll finish
Jan 272014
 
Fear Itself, by Ric Meyers June, 1991  Dell Books About a decade after writing Ninja Master, Ric Meyers turned out this now-forgotten trilogy that seems very much inspired by Sam Raimi’s film Darkman. But whereas Raimi was sure to keep his story action-packed and darkly comedic, Meyers unfortunately delivers what is for the most part a padded, tepid, and uninvolving story – a definite