Snow

Let’s begin with a Q&A: you are driving in a blizzard in the middle of the night when someone steps in front of your vehicle. You avoid hitting him but damage your car’s radiator. The person you almost ran down is injured and incoherent and claims his child is lost in the snow. To make matters worse, he is acting suspiciously and you suspect he may not be telling the truth. It is the 21stcentury and you have a cell phone. What’s the first thing you do?

  1. Try to call the cops.
  2. Try to call the cops.
  3. Try to call the cops.
  4. Turn to the senior citizen you met a few hours ago at the airport and say – Just help me keep an eye on this guy, all right?

Over 90% of the population would answer A through C (it doesn’t matter which). If you answered D, you are a character in a horror novel and will die horribly.

Wait a second! Aren’t I being harsh here? Isn’t this a nitpick? Well, that depends on your tolerance level for horror tropes vs. normal human behavior. I will note that the Scooby Gang pull their vehicle out of a snowbank before one of the characters reaches for a cell phone (p. 41). Every minute they delay is time the police – who have the resources necessary to muster a manhunt – could be looking for the missing child, who turns out to be quite real.

Before I proceed any further with this review let me say that I think Mr. Malfi is a talented writer. I admire his writing style. He uses a lot of action verbs, he is a decent word painter, his pacing is good and his dialogue sounds realistic. I enjoyed his horror novel Little Girls, a homage to J-horror cinema with a smidgen of Peter Straub’s Julia mixed in. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy Snow. What didn’t work for me about this book? A lot of little things, but they added up.

My biggest issue is the fact that the plot and character arcs never merge. What am I talking about? I’ll use The Shining as an example. Danny Torrance has two problems in The Shining– his first problem is the fact that his family is falling apart (personal), the second is that they’ve moved into a haunted house (plot). At the end of The Shining, the plot and character arcs merge when Danny’s father becomes the haunted house’s monster.

This doesn’t occur in Snow. Todd Curry is a gambling addict, but what happens to him is the equivalent of a supernatural hit-and-run. Yes, he rolls the dice by renting that car, but he wants to see his son. I thought it was a stupid decision myself, but he made a promise to his child that he wanted to keep. Totally understandable.

I didn’t think Todd’s gambling problem was realistic. Let’s put aside the question of how it affects the plot. You’re telling me he put himself through law school by betting the horses? Really? I have bet on the ponies perhaps a half-dozen times in my life, and the best system I’ve ever seen comes courtesy of my great aunt. She would bet two dollars on the favorite to show, and invariably won her money back. She’d leave the track about five bucks richer. Somehow I doubt Todd used this system.

The logistics of Todd’s gambling problem are more troubling. If he lives in New York City, the nearest racetrack is in Yonkers (along with a casino). There is also a racetrack in Monticello, New York and East Rutherford, New Jersey. All three of these racetracks are closer than Atlantic City. Is this a nitpick? I live in this area, so no it’s not. Max Brooks hauled his ass to Yonkers to get the details right.

I’d argue that Todd’s gambling addiction is unnecessary to the plot. You could replace it with a thousand other character flaws and it would make no difference. The fact that Todd is a screw-up isn’t even reflected in the plot. He just wants to  visit his son, who isn’t mad at all about not seeing his dad for a year. Todd’s wife is a little angrier, but she gives him a leg massage at the book’s end so I’m guessing all is forgiven.

I didn’t buy Todd at all as a character. Usually male authors struggle writing women, but I thought Kate was much more realistic than Todd. She has boundary and intimacy issues because of her parents’ divorce, and they are the type of issues that don’t magically go away.

Todd’s phone call to his ex-wife is another one of those little things. Brianna lives in Iowa, so she knows about driving in the snow. Driving in that type of weather is stupid and dangerous, but all she says is that a good idea? It’s an awful idea and she knows it. If she cares at all about him they should argue about him venturing out into the snow.

Here’s another one: Todd gets hit in the head and wakes up. Twice. What normally happens if you get hit in the head is that you go into a coma and die. He also blacks out when they blow up the gas station and (assumedly) when he gets shot. He’s a tough guy.

Okay, I’ve made my point. Snow did not work for me. I will say that this book is chockful of examples of bad parenting, and you can view Molly shooting Todd at the end as karmic retribution for being a shitty parent. To me this doesn’t work, because Todd  wakes up (again!) and is greeted by his adoring wife and son.

 

Advertisements

I Hate Zombies, So Why Did I Like This Book? Max Brooks’ World War Z

World War Z

Besides being the best zombie book I’ve ever read, World War Z is also a great horror novel. Please note that this comes from a person who doesn’t like zombies (more on that later). I read World War Z for the first time over a decade ago. I bought the book at my local B&N because I liked the cover. Yes, sometimes I buy books because I like the cover, and the results are often surprisingly good. When I recommended World War Z to a friend he loved it, and asked me where I’d heard of it. When I told him how much I liked the cover he gave me a strange look.

Anyway: I reread World War Z last week. I realized I was reading a great book when Mr. Brooks informed me that those who transformed into zombies while driving have no idea how to unbuckle their seatbelts, and are thus stuck in their cars for all eternity. Great detail. I have relatives who live in Yonkers, and the author’s description of that city is dead-on, down to the A&P (which is now an ACME). What can you do but tip your hat to such attention to detail?

I won’t even go into Mr. Brooks’ masterful description of other cultures, the way he puts the zombie apocalypse into a socioeconopolitical (is that a word?) perspective and his successful use of over twenty different voices, all of which sounded distinct. After all, this is an oral history of the zombie wars, and the survivors interviewed all have riveting stories to tell.

Speaking of telling stories, I have no idea why Max Brooks (who is filmmaker Mel Brooks’ son) hasn’t written another horror novel. Besides his zombie material (three books), he wrote a graphic novel called The Harlem Hellfighters, a comic series titled The Extinction Parade and a Minecraft novel. It’s a damn shame Mr. Brooks hasn’t followed up, because World War Z puts him in the pantheon of great horror writers of my generation.

I was surprised by how much I liked this book, because as a rule I don’t like zombie novels. I can tolerate zombie movies if they are funny (Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead) or have an interesting twist (28 Days Later, Pontypool), but I don’t like reading about them.

Actually, I don’t like zombies period. I have trouble taking a monster that combines the speed of a grandpa on his walker with the motor skills of an overstimulated toddler seriously. Here’s an idea: why not wear a winter jacket and three pairs of snow pants if you’re scared of being bitten?

Yes, you may say, but there’s millions of the undead! True, but there are billions of the living. Many of my fellow humans have been stockpiling baked beans and guns for years, eagerly awaiting the day civilization collapses so that they can declare themselves the Lords of Weehawken, N.J. That’s truly terrifying. And I’m supposed to be scared of a smelly corpse?

How did there get to be millions of zombies anyway? I’m going to guess it went something like this:

  1. The first zombie searches for a hearty meal of brains.
  2. ???
  3. Earth is overrun by zombies!

Another reason I don’t like zombies is because they are so unhealthy. Zombies crave brains, which are high in cholesterol and can also cause you to contract kuru, the human version of Mad Cow Disease. Yes, I know zombies are dead and thus don’t care about their cholesterol levels, but that just proves another point. Zombies are dead but they don’t rot, because don’t think about it. If zombies were subject to the Law of Conservation of Energy, they would not even have the strength to shamble, unless the zombie in question was getting three square meals of brains per day. It would probably take more calories than that, but whatever.

Anyway… apologies to any of my classmates who love zombies. I’m sorry for hating on your favorite monster; I know my favorite monsters are just as unrealistic. I’m guessing my dislike stems from working retail for years. Give me a horde of bloodthirsty zombies over a mob of last-minute shoppers on Christmas Eve any day!

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

IMG_3534

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.

 

 

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.