Saturday, October 31, 2009

Psycho by Robert Bloch (1959)

From Karl Edward Wagner's 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels:

#2 Psycho by Robert Bloch
Can you ever feel safe in a shower again? I think there may have been a film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock.

As you can see from KEW's quote, it's not easy to review a cultural icon. Especially one that most people mostly know from a popular film version. Everyone is familiar with the plot! It might be a little bit easier to do the job if the movie adaptation was a bomb (and some were), but the 1960 version with Jamie's mom is a classic.
To make matters worse, I actually finished the last chapter of the novel while watching said movie (courtesy Ted Turner).
Well. It is Halloween.
The novel begins with Norman Bates sitting at his desk in the motel owned by him and his mother. It's out in the middle of Texas. He's contemplating how the pounding of the rain on the window panes remind him of a book he read on Inca victory dances where the body of dead foe served as the drum section. Then his mother enters the room and gives him a load of grief. Bates is described here as a fat, bald man, not at all like the Anthony Perkins character. Finally, he notices someone has driven up to the motel.
The next scene flashes back to the day before. Mary Crane is a 27-year-old secretary who's having to endure the leers of a big-bucks land speculator in the real estate office where she works. The speculator, Tommy Cassidy, casually slaps down 40K in front of her to pay for a house for his daughter- a wedding present. She's told by her boss to take the money to the bank.
But it's Friday and Mary has some other ideas. She met Sam Loomis on a cruise (she won the trip in a contest) some years before and they're planning on getting married. Sam owns a hardware store in another part of the state, but he's forced to live in the back room of it. When he inherited the store from his father, he also inherited the debts. Sam is determined to pay off the bills and save up for the future, but it will take time. And Mary is tired of waiting.
Knowing she'll have a weekend head start, Mary takes the cash and flees town. She manages to exchange cars along the way until she decides it's time to take a rest. And where better to chill than an isolated motel off the main highway? It just so happens to be Norman Bates' Motel.
Much of the novel is written from Norman Bates' point-of-view. Not in first person mode, but in third, as if Bloch was starring over Bates' shoulder as he went about his daily routine. Bloch would later claim the book was inspired by the Ed Gein case. The writing is crisp, showing Bloch's skill as a professional writer.
For a sample, here is one of the most chilling accounts of child abuse I've ever encountered:

Maybe the real trouble was that his eyes were bad. Yes, that was it, because he remembered how he used to enjoy looking in the mirror as a boy. He like to stand in front of the glass without any clothes on. One time Mother caught him at it and hit him on the head with the big silver-handled hairbrush. She hit him hard, and it hurt. Mother said that was a nasty thing to do, to look at yourself that way.

Bloch would also write two sequels to the book, which were never filmed. I haven't read either one, but I'm told he takes a chainsaw to Hollywood in at least one. He also claimed in his autobiography that Psycho didn't "make" him as a writer; he had a successful writing career long before the book was optioned for a film. Bloch passed away in 1994.
For an excellent introduction to the whole "crazed killer living next door" genre, you couldn't find a better book. It's also brisk: my copy runs 153 pages.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dr. Death Vs. The Secret Twelve, Vol. 2 (Altus Press, 2009)

This second volume of Dr. Death novels is significant because none of them were ever published at the time they were written (in 1935). Although Waves of Madness, the first novel included in this collection, was promised in the third and final issue of Doctor Death magazine, it would be 45 years before it was discovered among the papers of the late writer Harold Ward. The introduction to this collection, by Matthew Moring, describes how pulp collector Jack Irwin ran an ad looking for old pulp magazines and was contacted by Gladys Ward, the widow of writer Harold Ward. After Harold Ward passed away in 1950, she kept his old manuscripts, which have been a godsend for literary research. The other unpublished Doctor Death novel, The Red Mists of Death is also included in Vol 2. The collection is rounded out with a brief interview of Ms. Gladys Ward and some reproductions of artwork used in the Doctor Death magazine.
Waves of Madness has mad scientist Rance Mandrain (AKA Dr. Death) robbing a bank by using a sonic generator which can unleash madness on anyone unlucky enough to be in hearing range. With his undead zombie assistants, it's a cinch for him to drive away with the deposits while people are killing each other. Next we get to see Dr. Death interviewing a rich industrialist who wishes to finance the old horror's latest bid to destroy civilization. Dr. Death wants to unleash world war to restore humanity to a state of nature. The industrialist and his cabal wants the riches war will bring, so it's a good working relationship for them both.
Out to stop Dr. Death is dashing police detective Jimmy Holm. He's helped by his fiance Nina (when she isn't getting nabbed by Death's minions) and hard-boiled Inspector Ricks. Death is aided by the Egyptian princess Charmion and whoever he can rope into service. Of course, Death has the ability to project his will onto ordinary mortals and to move his soul around from one host body to the next.
Once the original deep ecologist is foiled, he returns with The Red Mist of Death. Presenting himself as Yama, the god of death, the old fiend steals a valuable jewel from a Tibetan monastery. He teams up with a "half Russian half Mongolian" mercenary named Kham. Together they invade China from Tibet using the weapon featured in the novel's title: a blister-inducing chemical which condemns anyone coming into contact with it to a slow and agonizing death. But again, Jimmy Holm stops Death before the lunatic's plans can become manifest. And Death escapes in the last few pages, of course, to terrorize the world once more.
The Red Mists of Death is the better of the two novels. Although Ward writes about China in the most stereotypical way imaginable, he does take care to portray individual Chinese in a positive light. He even seems to have done his research on contemporary China. I just wish he'd have been able to do something with Charmion, Death's sidekick. You can only take so much of her "Now we weel keel" dialogue. But you also get some insight into Death's vendetta against civilization: he believes both God and Satan have urged him to bring humanity back to the stone age (making him the original processean).
A good wrap-up to a pulp magazine remembered mostly for it's lurid covers and outlandish plots.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

THE SCREAMING MIMI by Frederic Brown

#4 of KEW's list of 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels:

Brown at his terrifying best, and again with a psychotic killer.This was filmed twice; once as The Screaming Mimi and more recently as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (a/k/a The Phantom of Terror).

One thing I'm starting to notice about Karl Wagner's list: psychology pops up on a regular basis. Given Wagner's training as a psychiatrist, this isn't too surprising. I do have to wonder if these themes inspired him to go into the the psychiatric profession, or was he attracted to the books on this list after he'd made the decision to go into the mental field. The answer may never be known.
Substance abuse shows up a lot in this list, but I'll talk about that at a later date.
Screaming Mimi was first published in 1949, at the height of Brown's writing career. Although the pulp magazine publishing industry was winding down at this point, Brown still managed to knock out a lot of fiction for the market. Noir fiction was popular at the time; returning GI's were discovering the bad guys didn't necessarily wear domino masks. Hailing from the midwest, Brown's mean streets werelocated in Chicago for this book.
Mimi opens with a reporter named Sweeny recovering from a week-long drunk. What shakes him out of his alcoholic stupor is the sight of a beautiful women bleeding from a knife wound. The ripper, a psycho killer who preys on young blond women, is on the prowl and Yolanda Lang, a dancer at a cheap tavern, was almost the next victim. Yolanda survives the attack, but the ripper is still on the prowl.
Sweeny's vision of Yolanda is enough to sober him up and get him back to his job at The Blade, a big city newspaper. He convinces the editor to put him on the ripper story, which allows him the chance to look into Yolanda's background. He soon meets Yolanda's manager, "Doc" Greene, who resents Sweeny's interest in her, but understands their mutual need to keep Yolanda alive.
Ace reporter Sweeny quickly discovers one of the ripper's previous victims worked only one day at a gift shop. She sold a small statue of a nude, screaming woman to an unknown customer. Since she was murdered within a few hours of the sale, Sweeny deduces the statue triggered something in the killer which would initiate the string of murders. He buys the only remaining copy of the statue from the same gift shop.
Sweeny manages to track down both the manufacturer and sculptor of the statue. What he discovers unlocks Yolanda's past and the identity of the ripper. To tell more would be to give away the conclusion of the novel. Let me say, it's a surprise ending which came from behind. Brown was in top form when he wrote the last chapter to Mimi.
If you're interested in tight, witty crime novels, this is an excellent read. Brown gives a portrait of post-WW2 Chicago where rooming houses, cheap booze, and homeless people are the daily background.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Sold at 1700 pounds or 2786.81 dollars.
Guess I'll just have to wait that much longer to read this one.
And it's the other R R Ryan book on the KEW list. Dammit.
Go here to read more about the sale.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Deadly Percheron (1946) by John Bardin

#1 on KEW's 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels:

"The opening chapter defies description. Imagine one of those 1930s screwball comedies with the crazy situations, but substitute malevolence for humor."

Dr. George Matthews is an established psychiatrist in New York City. He's in his 30's, happily married, and has much to be proud about in his life. One day a young man, nicely dressed, walks into his office wearing a flower in his hair. This is not something that happens on a regular basis in 1943. The young man, named Jacob Blunt, tells the good doctor that he is going insane. Little men keep paying him money to do ridiculous things. Sometimes it's wearing flowers in his hair, sometimes it's giving away quarters. The money he's paid is good, but the little men keep wanting him to do stranger and stranger things. He's sought Dr. Matthews out because Blunt isn't sure if the little men are real or not.
To help Blunt, Dr. Matthews accompanies him to a bar one night to meet one of the little men. And in the midst of the bar emerges an actual dwarf who introduces himself as an American Leprechaun. Next, he tells Blunt about the next job: delivering Percherons (draft horses) to select people in New York. There's even one in a van outside the bar; all he has to do is tie it up at a given location. Sure Blunt is the brunt of a hoax, Dr. Matthews leaves the bar and takes a train home.
The following morning, Dr. Matthews learns that a famous Broadway actress has been murdered and there is a Percheron tethered in front of her townhouse. Jacob Blunt has been found drunk at the location. But he swears he isn't the killer. When Matthews comes to see Blunt at the police station, they release him into Matthews' care. However, the man they produce as Jacob Blunt isn't the same man who came to see the psychiatrist. Deciding to find out what the hell is going on, Matthews accepts Blunt into his care. But on the way to the subway, he is struck from behind and passes out.
Matthews wakes up in a hospital to find his face disfigured and the staff calling him John Brown. He's in a mental ward, having been found wondering the streets in a delirium with a social security card in the name of John Brown. When he insists he's the psychiatrist Matthews, the hospital checks up on his claims. To his horror, they inform him Dr. George Matthews was found dead ten months ago.
The only way he's able to get out of the mental ward is by pretending to be the derelict John Brown and concocting a story the hospital staff will believe. Eventually, he's released and gets a job working in a cafeteria in Coney Island. "John Brown" settles into his new life and tries to fit in with the other carnival workers. But one day he encounters the leprechaun he'd met with Jacob Blunt....
Perecheron can be a confusing book to read. After Matthews meets the "leprechaun"the second time, he begins to unravel the mystery of what happened to him in the intervening months between his blow to the head and waking up in the mental hospital. The reader is given the sequence of events almost in reverse order. You only find out what happened after the doctor remembers something. In some ways it reminded me of Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) film.
Highly recommended for fans of hard-boiled crime fiction.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Here Comes A Candle by Fredric Brown

From KEW's 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels list:

#3 "Brown, Like Bloch, could be extremely funny when he chose, or extremely frightening. This time he wasn't kidding."

Frederic Brown isn't well-known today, but his short stories and novels were widely published when he was in his prime. After he passed on in 1972, he was mostly remembered for the novel Martians Go Home, a hilarious SF satire. He wrote for both the science fiction and mystery market, earning countless awards in each.
Here Comes A Candle was first published in 1950.
The hero of Candle is Joe Bailey, a 19-year-old numbers runner for a local Milwaukee gangster named Mitch. Mitch has been feeling the heat lately, so he's had to curtail his lucrative sports lottery games and look for other opportunities. While he's cooking up the next scheme, he keeps Joe on a small retainer, allowing Joe the time to think about the past.
And Joe's past isn't pretty: he grew up in poverty after seeing his father gunned down in a bungled movie theater robbery. It gets worse: Joe has a pathological fear of candles and hatchets. His uncle had taught him a poem which ended with the rhyme:

"Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head."

As a young child, Joe suffered from horrid nightmares, until a psychologist was able to help him. Still, he feels guilty over his father's death and still abhors those candles and axes.
Now Joe has met two women who will forever change his life. One is the pretty and sensible Elle, who works as a waitress at the local diner owned by her uncle. The other is the seductive Francy, Mitch's gun moll girlfriend. Elle is the sensible choice, but how many men make sensible choices when their hormones are raging?
Brown did an unusual thing when he wrote Candle: he told the flashbacks and dream sequences in other writing formats than the standard novel: radio script, movie script, sports cast, etc. Such literary experiments are not unusual today, but were quite visionary for 1950.
Ultimately, the novel is one depressing trip. You just know Joe is going to do the wrong thing and there is no one around to give him sound advice. His best friend and fellow science fiction magazine fan is a communist. The bartender who warns Joe of Mitch's plans keeps howling about nuclear doom. The only father figure who appears in the book is Dixie, a sadistic hold-up man.
Candle is an excellent psychological horror novel from the same stream that produced Nightmare Alley.