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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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!

Short Story Review: Richard Matheson’s The Funeral

Best of Richard Matheson

Please note that this review contains SPOILERS. Also: if anyone is interested in reading more of Richard Matheson’s fiction, a short story collection called The Best of Richard Matheson (pictured above) came out a few months ago.

Richard Matheson’s short story The Funeral tells the tale of a greedy funeral director who receives a visit from a man who wants to hold a funeral – for himself. This man hates mirrors and can transform into a bat. His friends include a hunchback, a witch, a group of pointy-toothed gentlemen and a man with hairy palms, er, hands. Mayhem ensues.

I don’t have a lot to say about this short story, a 2,499-word horror/humor mash-up that hasn’t aged well. However, in the interests of thoroughness and five hundred words here is my take. I found The Funeral’s humor to be dated, its use of alliteration distracting and its word choices irritating. I am sure the elevated vocabulary is intentional, a way to poke fun at the pomposity of the funeral business, but making your reader refer to a dictionary while perusing a story is never a good idea. I didn’t know the meaning of two of the words in the first sentence, but can take comfort in the fact that Ygor and old Jenny of Boston had trouble understanding what the hell people in this story were talking about, also. They are salt of the earth types, just like me.

The Funeral is interesting in that it is a horror/humor hybrid, which brings up the question of influences. Matheson is by no means the first person to combine horror and humor. I can think of two possible contemporary influences. The first is Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, which I loved as a kid. Indeed, The Funeral’s slapstick humor reminded me of this movie.

The second influence is EC Comics, publisher of fine horror comics in the late 40’s and early 50’s. The title I am thinking of is Tales from the Crypt, immortalized by the HBO series. I was struck by the fact that The Funeral could be an episode of Tales from the Crypt, except it wouldn’t be a very good episode. If this was an EC comic the funeral director wouldn’t know they were all vampires until the end, when they turned around and ate him, and then he would rise from the grave and cater exclusively to the undead. Matheson’s twist has the deceased recommending the funeral director’s business to all his monster friends.

Final point: cats don’t sit on people’s shoulders. I suppose it’s possible to train a cat to do so, but it would take serious bribes and I’d suggest wearing shoulder pads and a hockey mask. Ask any cat owner if you don’t believe me. Okay…that final point is a total nitpick, but I didn’t like this story.

Humor is subjective, and my review came down to whether or not this short story tickled my funny bone. As it happens, it did not. The biggest reason I didn’t like The Funeral is that I didn’t think it was very funny. To me, the veneer of sophistication shellacked onto this short story backfires, big-time, and The Funeral reads as phony and forced as the funeral business it is mocking.

Book Review: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend

Legend

Please note that this review contains SPOILERS.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is a groundbreaking novel for its time (1954). It is the granddaddy of at least three different popular fiction (sub-) genres, zombie, post-apocalyptic and medical/science thriller. Mr. Matheson’s description of the ‘vampire bacillus’ echoes modern thinking on the complex behavior of parasites, as illustrated in books such as Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex (2000). The scientific explanation of vampirism means that I Am Legend can be read as science fiction, and such a reading would be perfectly legitimate. What makes this book horror is the protagonist’s utter helplessness, self-loathing and psychic ennui.

Mr. Matheson does many things well in I Am Legend, which is a fast read. I have mixed feelings about his writing style. He uses a lot of action verbs but is a bit sparse on description for my personal tastes. This book had more than enough material to engage me, but I recall reading his novel Stir of Echoes (1958) in about a half-hour and thinking it was written for a sixth grader.

I am assuming leaving brand names off everything was a conscious choice on the author’s part, since the action takes place in the far-flung year of 1978. This was a good choice, since one of the things that makes old science fiction so dated is its use of awful futuristic jargon (the vidscreen!). Mr. Matheson does make a reference to Oliver Hardy, a comedian many people today have probably never heard of.

The other thing Matheson does well as a writer is anticipate questions that might arise in his reader’s mind and ask them. Such as: why doesn’t Robert kill himself? Why are Robert’s ‘experiments’ always on women? Why don’t the vampires burn his house down? Note that Matheson never answers these questions, but in a way raising them is enough to satisfy the reader. It’s a great writers’ trick.

The other trick Matheson pulls off involves his protagonist. Robert Neville is not a likable man. Robert Neville is an unpleasant man. It’s a good thing I Am Legend is a short novel, because it would be tough spending a long novel in Mr. Neville’s company. Yes, he’s been through hell. Yes, the trauma of his wife rising from the dead might have unhinged him.

Still: I was struck by the fact that everything Robert touches dies, his wife (twice), his daughter, the dog. He has violent, misogynistic thoughts and impulses towards women which he acts out, at one point dragging a woman around by her hair. Many of his actions make no sense. He kills an infected woman by leaving her in the sun, and then decides to get his car and go back for her to see if she reanimates, seemingly unaware that he can replicate his experiment at any time without risking the sun setting.

Most tellingly, Mr. Neville is a murderer. Many of the vampires he kills are still alive. They are infected, but they are still living beings. Mr. Neville knows but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t wonder how they can still be alive, because he goes through life in a state of ignorance. Yes, he discovers the source of the vampire plague – which anyone with access to a microscope could do – but he doesn’t come close to discovering a cure. The society that arises post-humanity is brutal, but it is a society that he helped create. Mr. Neville did it unknowingly, but since he spends the entire book unaware of the consequences of his own actions that comes as no surprise. The fact that I read and enjoyed a book with such an unlikable protagonist is testimony to Mr. Matheson’s skills as a writer.

You may ask, could I do any better in Robert Neville’s situation? I would have killed myself, and to me the question as to why the protagonist doesn’t end his own life is one of the biggest mysteries of I Am Legend. Mr. Neville has nothing left to live for, clinging to alcohol, ancient records and his enmity with Ben Cortman, whom he seems to view as an old friend by the book’s end.

Did I enjoy Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend? Yes, I admired this book, but must confess to enjoying the author’s short stories more than his novels. To me, Mr. Matheson’s style seems better suited to short fiction. Still, while reading I Am Legend I saw echoes of Richard Matheson in genre greats Stephen King, Michael Crichton and George Romero. He is legend, indeed!

 

Book Review: The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders

I learned about the Phantom serial killings after watching Killer Legends, a horror-documentary that examines the origins of various urban legends. The director, Joshua Zeman, also directed Cropsey, a documentary well-worth seeing. The book came to my attention when James Presley, the author of The Phantom Killer, was interviewed in the documentary about the murders.

Here are the basic facts: a person or persons unknown attacked eight young people in the Texarkana area, targeting couples necking in cars in lover’s lanes. He killed five people; three escaped. This was in 1946, decades before Robert Ressler coined the term serial killer. The author does a fine job detailing the investigation, which by today’s standards was shoddy. The lawmakers in question had never dealt with serial killings and focused on motives like robbery or revenge, trying to locate enemies of the couples. This was the wrong approach, as most serial killers do not know their victims.

A man named Youell Swinney was picked up by the police and immediately became the Number One Suspect, for reasons I still don’t quite understand. It seems that one of the investigators came up with the theory that the killer might be using stolen cars, and Swinney was a known car thief who operated in the area. Investigators placed Swinney near the crime scenes on the nights of the murders. However, they had nothing more than circumstantial evidence on him.

Peggy, Swinney’s wife, gave a statement to the effect that her husband was the Phantom, claiming that she witnessed two of the murders, but as his wife Texas law forbade her from testifying against him. From the author’s account, it’s doubtful she would have made a good witness. Eventually, Swinney was convicted as a habitual offender – he had a long list of crimes, ranging from petty theft, burglary and counterfeiting and escalating to assault and car theft – and given a life sentence (Texas had a three strikes and you’re out law). He was released in 1973 and spent the rest of his life in and out of jail.

The first half of The Phantom Killer is by far more interesting. Mr. Presley paints a vivid picture of Texarkana in 1946 and gives us a detailed description of the crime and subsequent investigation, conducted by a number of colorful lawmen. The second half of the book lagged, focusing on Swinney and how investigators attempted and ultimately failed to build a case against him.

The obvious question is whether Swinney was indeed the Phantom. The author is convinced he was. Please note that Mr. Presley’s uncle was a sheriff deeply involved in the Phantom case, so he can hardly be called unbiased. After reading this book, I wasn’t convinced. Lawmakers never had anything more than circumstantial evidence against Swinney, and it seems doubtful a jury would have sent him to the electric chair on that basis. The other question that comes up is whether Swinney had adequate legal representation, which is perhaps of greater interest to legal scholars.

I drew three conclusions from reading The Phantom Killer: 1. Swinney could have been the Phantom; 2. Lawmakers couldn’t prove Swinney was the Phantom; 3. Swinney was sent to prison – fairly or unfairly – for a number of lesser crimes using laws then on the books.

I’m still unsure why Swinney suddenly became the main suspect. To me, it looks like lawmen decided that the killer was also a car thief, which automatically made Swinney – a known car thief – their number one suspect. Strangely, they never had two of the survivors try to pick Swinney out of a lineup, even though one of them said her assailant had a voice she’d never forget.

And then there’s Peggy Swinney’s statement. Actually, statements would be more accurate. Her first account of the night of the double murder is full of inconsistencies. Her revised statement, made months later, is much more coherent, mentioning a number of crucial details she’d omitted in her first account. Amazingly, Ms. Swinney’s memory of the events of that night seemed to become clearer with the passage of time; either that, or she was coached, picking up salient details over the course of multiple interrogations.

The Phantom Killer contains a fair bit of psychobabble about why Swinney was such an unpleasant character. It is undeniable that Swinney was a sociopath, displaying violent and antisocial tendencies. He could have been The Phantom, and the murders ceased after his imprisonment. It is also undeniable that lots of people in Texarkana –by the author’s own admission, a hotbed of crime – had similar psychological profiles and could have been the Phantom also.

So did the Phantom Killer escape justice? It’s hard for me to believe that he just stopped killing, although apparently sometimes serial killers do. My feeling is that he either killed himself or was jailed for another crime. Was the Phantom Killer Youell Swinney? He fits the profile, but we’ll never know.