The Yattering and Jack: Monty Pythonesque Satire or Thatcherism Parody?

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Hell or New Jersey?

((WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS))

True story: I once participated in a writing group where one of the members wrote a story set in a space station. Once every twenty-four hours or so the remaining family members would gather at a window and wave at the family patriarch, who died in space and now orbits the station like a small moon. It was at this point that a critique mate quite spontaneously uttered one of the best critiques I’ve ever heard or will hear, capturing the essence of this story in five words.

Here they are: what a fucked up family.

Reading Clive Barker’s short story The Yattering and Jack brought back these words of wisdom. The unspoken point of this story is that the Yattering doesn’t need to claim Jack’s soul for Hell, because Jack’s life sucks so much Hell would be a relief. I’m assuming that Barker is going for Monty Pythonesqe satire or perhaps a parody of Thatcherism here. Unfortunately, my knowledge of British culture isn’t broad enough to know what he’s satirizing.

The Yattering is a minor demon given the task of driving a human crazy and thus claiming his soul for Hell. Jack Polo, the human in question, is a gherkin importer who holds the distinction of being THE MOST BORING MAN ON EARTH. That’s what the Yattering – who’s not exactly Screwtape material – thinks, anyway. The demon, who is invisible, must abide by two rules: it cannot leave Jack’s house and it cannot lay hands on Jack’s person with malicious intent.

Jack has one trick, but it’s a good one. He doesn’t show his emotions. Jack’s wife has an affair and confesses. When he doesn’t react she kills herself, which makes no sense, but whatever. Jack’s daughter comes out as a lesbian and Jack doesn’t react, happily or angrily. The Yattering murders three of Jack’s cats; it kills the last feline by making it explode like a kitty-bomb. Jack doesn’t react.

During the Christmas season the Yattering possesses the turkey while its baking in the oven, makes the Christmas tree spin like a crazy top and drives one of Jack’s daughters insane. Jack doesn’t – well, you get the idea. Turns out that crafty ole’ Jack knew the whole time. Instead of the Yattering driving Jack crazy, Jack drives the Yattering crazy. He wins. Or does he? Barker tells us what Jack wants –  he was essentially a man of simple tastes: all he asked for in life was the love of his children, a pleasant home, and a good trading price for gherkins. Jack’s daughter is insane and his home is in shambles, but he has his soul. Since Jack is portrayed as a total asshole, I’m not sure how much that’s worth.

The Yattering and Jack is an entertaining short story. The scenes where the Yattering possesses the turkey and sets the Christmas tree spinning are the highlights of this tale. Reading about the bacon fat bubbling down the crazed bird’s back, I felt impressed and more than a little jealous. Barker excels at description; his weakness is character development. Or maybe that’s unfair, as I am assuming these characters are meant to be parodies.

Like Jack himself, The Yattering and Jack has a single trick.  The Yattering is the story’s protagonist and Jack is the villain. And it works. I was rooting for the Yattering.

 

 

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Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewoof, er Werewolf

WEREWOOF

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY FROM STEPHEN KING!

((THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS))

Deciding what image to use for this week’s blog post was rough. I dimly recall seeing Silver Bullet, the movie adaptation of Cycle of the Werewolf, years ago. When I viewed the trailer for Silver Bullet, I was thrilled to see that Gary Busey plays Uncle Al, young Marty has a rocket-powered wheelchair and the werewolf is played by a guy in a rubber suit. However, in honor of Valentine’s Day I decided to use an image from my vintage 1983 copy of Cycle of the Werewolf.

A publishing experiment/gimmick set in Tarker’s Mills, Maine, Cycle of the Werewolf is an illustrated novella consisting of twelve vignettes, one for each month of the year. Every month we learn about the weather in Tarker’s Mills, because what else do people in small towns have to talk about? We also learn who – if anyone – the Beast will kill. Yes, there’s a werewolf loose in Maine!

The deaths are vintage horror dreck, Stephen King style. Young Brady flies his kite too high, and is found headless and disemboweled. Constable Neary dies in his cruiser with a bottle of Busch beer nestled against his crotch. King tells us that Constable Neary is a Busch Man because such details make or break a story. Also, the Reverend Lowe has a nightmare/wet dream wherein he and everyone in his congregation transform into a werewolf. Gosh, I wonder who the werewolf could be?

Our hero is Marty Coslaw, a ten-year old in a wheelchair. Marty’s father says things like rootie-patootie and diddly-damn, which is a great way of identifying a person through dialogue. I myself don’t know any human being who speaks that way, but I’ve lived a sheltered life in New Jersey, so who knows? Marty’s Uncle Al should be locked up. Marty himself is a stone-cold killer.

Marty meets the werewolf on the Fourth of July, when he’s out shooting fireworks. Marty has fireworks because his Uncle Al gives them to him, telling his nephew to go ahead and set them off during the night of the full moon, when the killer has been rampaging. Marty shoots one of the werewolf’s eyes out with a firecracker, which proves those things are dangerous. Boy and Wolf Man meet again on New Year’s Eve, and this time Marty blows the werewolf’s brains out with a pair of silver bullets. Gee, I wonder who gave him the bullets?

Cycle of the Werewolf is pedestrian Stephen King. It’s not rock-bottom Stephen King, but it’s not good either. The art is one of the novella’s high points; comic book veteran Berni Wrightson draws a great werewolf. Mr. King and Mr. Wrightson also collaborated on the comic adaptation of Creepshow. I mention this because I believe Cycle of the Werewolf would have made a great graphic novel, but the publishing industry hadn’t perfected the format yet.

King addresses the biggest inconsistency of Cycle of the Werewolf in the afterword. Yes, the Master of Horror tells us, I know the moon cycles don’t match up. Deal with it. To be fair, this novella contains about a million other inconsistencies. My favorite is the werewolf’s eyes, which start out yellow and then turn green. Interestingly, Mr. Wrightson always draws the werewolf’s eyes as green. Logic and consistency aren’t this novella’s strong point. Neither is character development. Neither is the prose. Mr. King did his life-in-a-small-town shtick better in Salem’s Lot, and if you want to read about a monster terrorizing a small town try IT.

My favorite part of Cycle of the Werewolf is the art. I also liked the descriptive sequence of Marty hauling himself out of bed. That scene was well-done, because it required actual research on King’s part. One could view King’s werewolf as a metaphor for drug addiction; the Reverend sounds suspiciously like an addict as this novella lurches to a close, and at the time Mr. King was struggling with drug addiction. Who knows? Bottom line: if you want cheesy Z-budget horror, watch Silver Bullet. It’s way more entertaining.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex

WARNING: Do not read this story while eating lunch, like I did. Also: spoiler alert!

This is a review of the Clive Barker novelette Rawhead Rex, not the movie of the same name. All I’ve seen of the movie is the above trailer; my favorite part is when Rawhead leaps into the air like he’s doing the wave! I have combed the Internet for an animated gif of this wondrous moment to no avail.

Rawhead Rex appears in the third volume of Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood, a six-volume story collection released in the U.S. in the early 80’s. Technically it is a novelette, but I am going to refer to it as a story. The Books of Blood propelled Mr. Barker to celebrity status in horror circles. I read Rawhead Rex for the first time over thirty years ago, and still remember parts of it. To be honest, this isn’t the sort of story one forgets.

According to the online version of the OED, the meaning of raw-head is bogeyman; I already knew that Rex is King in Latin. Thus, Rawhead Rex means King of Bogeymen, and he lives up to that title here. The story opens with a man trying to move a rock that turns out to be the gravestone of Rawhead, who thanks his savior by killing him and spiking his body head-first in the earth.

Not having eaten for a few hundred years, Rawhead has a hearty appetite. He eats a child’s pony, and then the child. Pretty horrifying, but Rawhead is just getting started. Next he attacks a policeman’s car, baptizes his first follower by pissing in his face and devours another child, dragging him through a car window in a nightmarish sequence. Soon afterwards he burns a village to the ground, but is undone by the statue of a Venus figurine underneath the church’s altar. The story ends with Rawhead’s piss draining into the earth.

Rawhead Rex is visceral horror and thus isn’t for everyone. That said, this story is a ghoulish masterpiece, featuring a breakneck pace, gobloads of freaky energy and lots and lots of wonderful imagery. Barker’s description of Rawhead’s face is one of the high points of the story:

It was huge, like the harvest moon, huge and amber. But this moon had eyes that burned in its pallid, pitted face. They were for all the world like wounds, those eyes, as though somebody had gouged them in the flesh of Rawhead’s face then set two candles to flicker in the holes.

Garrow was entranced by the vastness of this moon. He looked from eye to eye, and then to the wet slits that were its nose, and finally, in a childish terror, to the mouth. God, that mouth. It was so wide, so cavernous, it seemed to split the head in two as it opened. That was Thomas Garrow’s last thought. That the moon was splitting in two, and falling out of the sky on top of him.

More happens in Rawhead Rex than in many novels I’ve read, and Barker still makes time to open with an extended introduction. Technically, starting a story with exposition is a big no-no, but there are exceptions to every rule. The start-with-action rule has more to do with our current society’s collective short attention span, anyway.

Character development in Rawhead Rex is bare-bones basic. Barker often leads with the worst traits of his human characters. Reverend Coot lives up to his surname, Detective Sergeant Gissing is a pedophile, Declan Ewan enjoys murder and monster golden showers. The humans tend to do stupid, inexplicable things. Why does Denny Nicholson charge the barn instead of calling the police? Why do Ron Milton and his family decide to take a Sunday morning drive when there’s a bloodthirsty beast on the loose? Who knows? Logic isn’t this story’s strong point. Description is, and Barker pours it on.

That said, Rawhead Rex has its own form of logic. Bullets don’t kill Rawhead, because Rawhead doesn’t know that bullets can kill him, but a small rock is enough to bring him to his knees. Barker’s vivid description of Rawhead makes it believable that there are those who would worship him as a God. He also seems to be able to dominate certain human beings with his will, an ability that is never explained.

Rawhead Rex doesn’t have a protagonist, unless you count Rawhead himself. The point-of-view of this story bounces around like a ping-pong ball. Alternating point-of-view has fallen out of style in writing circles – another writing rule – but make a list of the authors who use this technique and then tell me if it’s a stupid rule.

<Rant> I once had a short story rejected because it was written in alternating points-of-view; I had another rejected because it was told in first person present, and genre fiction isn’t written in first person present. I eventually sold both stories. From my time reading slush I have learned that markets who are extreme sticklers for such rules are often less than professional, and you don’t want to be published there anyway. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t follow the writers’ guidelines. Because you should! </End Rant>.

Clive Barker has had a long and successful writing career, but I’ve never read anything of his that matched the freakish energy of The Books of Blood. It’s a shame this collection is out-of-print, but short stories aren’t considered to be commercially viable anymore. Thus, Rawhead is gone but not forgotten. The King is dead; long live the King.

 

Bring on the Spiderpocalypse: Sarah Pinborough’s Breeding Ground!

The first time I heard about Sarah Pinborough’s Breeding Ground was through the Seton Hill Writers’ Facebook page. Reading the torrent of vituperation and OMGS whenever this book was mentioned, I formed the impression that many people seemed to think this was THE WORST HORROR NOVEL IN THE UNIVERSE. I must confess, the prospect of reading and experiencing such a book with others energized me. However, Breeding Ground is not THE WORST HORROR NOVEL IN THE UNIVERSE. It’s not even the worst book published by Leisure. I have read three novels published by Leisure Books, and this was by far the best.

In fact, I enjoyed Breeding Ground and thought it was a pretty solid horror novel, especially the second half. If you like creature-feature horror, you should definitely read this. I will note that Breeding Ground has decent reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, including a five-star rating from horrormeister Brian Keene! Ms. Pinborough managed to break into a tough market back when the horror field was in tatters (it’s still in tatters, but never mind). She wrote six novels for Leisure Books, including a sequel to Breeding Ground, and has gone on to have a career that most of us can only envy, writing horror novels, TV spin-offs and YA fantasy series. Her latest novel, Behind Her Eyes, was a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller.

Breeding Ground is a direct descendant of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, a novel about a small village where a group of women give birth to a bunch of creepy blonde-haired children with telepathic powers and a group-mind. The Midwich Cuckoos was made into The Village of the Damned, a fine movie. Ms. Pinborough mentions Mr. Wyndham and his works twice during the course of Breeding Ground. Another possible inspiration is James Herbert’s The Rats, although this book lacks The Rats manic energy.

Please note that I am not saying that Breeding Ground is a perfect novel. To me, it reads like a book written in the early stages of a novelist’s career. At points the writing is rough, and there are a few unintentionally hilarious sentences, such as when a character throws his butt onto the ground. Ms. Pinborough does a good job of building suspense but has trouble with the pay-off, especially action scenes. I had trouble visualizing the spiders, although she does a fine job of conveying the fear and dread they cause in human beings.

Ms. Pinborough does a lot of things very well in Breeding Ground, also. The pacing of this book is very good, and she does a fine job building suspense. We don’t see a lot of the widows, which makes them more threatening. The second half of this book has a creepy claustrophobic energy that I admired. The way the widows’ bite rots people from the inside is great. The build-up to the amputation of Dave’s arm is truly horrific; the actual amputation itself is a let-down, but you can’t have everything.

Breeding Ground‘s biggest flaw is its inability to create realistic characters, encapsulated by the book’s protagonist. The kindest way to describe Matthew Edge is that he’s not a very bright man saddled with an extremely rudimentary understanding of women. I took what I thought to be irrational dislike of Matt in the first chapter, and then discovered I was spot on.

When Matt’s pregnant wife Chloe gets sick, he doesn’t even notice until she starts telling him to go fuck himself and eating raw meat. Matt takes pains to tell us that he doesn’t care about his wife’s appearance, and then goes on to describe the flaws in his wife’s appearance in minute detail. This leads me to believe that he does, in face, care about his wife’s appearance. Chloe responds by paralyzing Matt with her newfound mental powers whilst simultaneously planning a night out with a girlfriend in Birmingham. At that moment I felt good for Chloe, because I’m sure taking care of Matt is a full-time job.

The happy times come to an end when Chloe gives birth to a widow, a bloodthirsty mutant spider. Matt runs away with piss dripping down his leg, one of the book’s many high points for our hero. He soon makes a quick recovery, finding a change of clothes and a quick bite to eat. If the barber shop was open, he’d probably get a haircut also, because you have to look good for those fellow survivors. Note that there is another character in Breeding Ground that shares the same philosophy.

Sure enough, when Matt meets other survivors, he’s immediately attracted to twenty-year old Katie, somehow managing to shove all thoughts of his beloved Chloe aside. The spiderpocalypse might snuff out most people’s sex drives, but Matt is made of sterner stuff. He spends a lot of time wondering if the new object of his affection likes him too, but soon Katie starts acting funny, sort of like Matt’s ex-wife before she gave birth to one of the mutant spiders that have, you know, taken over the earth. Matt doesn’t make that connection, but he does sulk when she stops paying attention to him.

Will Matt and Chloe/Kate/Rebecca/??? live happily ever after? Will Nigel win the Best-Dressed Man of the Spiderpocalypse Award? Will the widows eat everyone on earth? Read Breeding Ground to find out!

Bring on the sequel!