The first part of a feature on American publisher Leisure that originally appeared in Black Static #7 (and with hindsight, I seem to have been unduly optimistic and gung ho for this outfit):-
HORROR, TWICE MONTHLY: A LEISURE FEATURETTE
In the UK, despite such promising signs of regeneration as the new Virgin line, horror is still pretty much persona non grata, the genre that dare not speak its name, except in the cloistered confines of the small and indie press, where nobody is listening anyway except the already converted. Yeah, there are King and Koontz, Herbert and Hutson, and a few others, but they are bestselling authors, not horror authors, right? And if a new writer happens to come along with a talent too big to ignore, then the marketing department can be relied on to shoehorn them into one genre pigeon-hole or another, anything as long as it’s not the dreaded H word.
Okay, I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect (and my apologies to all the marketing people, as without them we’ll have a very sparse Case Notes next issue), but it’s all by way of introducing you to Leisure Books, an imprint of the American firm Dorchester Publishing, who have not only recognised the Horror label but embraced it, under the watchful eye of editor Don D’Auria delivering to the poor and huddled genre masses a regular diet of two paperback packages of fright per month.
We thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some of their recent output.
Coffin County (Leisure paperback, 334pp, $7.99) is not a book that’s easily reducible for purposes of plot synopsis. The latest in author Gary Braunbeck’s cycle of Cedar Hill novels and stories, it ties in to its predecessors and flips back and forth through time so that the end result is almost a collage style novel. The opening section details events that led to a part of the town becoming renamed as the eponymous Coffin County, an explosion that left caskets scattered far and wide. Elsewhere we go right back to the foundation of the town and the bloody crimes that attended its birth. Intercut with this are asides on chaos theory and the suggestion of other dimensions overlapping with our own, hints of archetypal and mythic figures, and all of it part of some great cosmic balance. The main strand of the story though, the one in the present day, concerns a massacre at a coffee shop, the latest atrocity in the town’s history, but far from being the last, as more horrific deeds are performed. Central character Ben Littlejohn, a detective investigating the massacre and not believing each impossible turn the case takes, is a man who has lost his wife in a previous shootout and so must deal with bad memories. All trails lead back to a mysterious graveyard, where the future victims are already buried, and Ben Littlejohn is presented with a terrible choice.
And that’s about the best I can do, as regards the story, without breaking it down into a blow by blow account.
What plot synopsis doesn’t reflect is the sheer artistry of Braunbeck’s prose, how he can put down on the page an exquisitely phrased sentence, one that can leave the reader lost for words until the other shoe drops and you register that what is being described is a mutilated body, a loop of intestine, a disaster that rips the still beating heart out of a community, all of those things and much worse. Nor does plot synopsis capture the masterly way in which Braunbeck delineates character, how he brings people to life with only a few carefully chosen words, capturing all their vices and virtues, the foibles and failings that make them uniquely who they are. And finally, plot synopsis only touches on the concepts with which Braunbeck infuses the work, the way in which he can reify small town tragedy on a metaphysical and cosmic plane, so that in some ways what we get is reminiscent of the ideological depth found in Barker’s later work, but rendered in the language and imagery of the earlier Books of Blood.
Braunbeck is, quite simply, one of the best authors working in the horror field, a fully mature writer using the tropes of genre to tackle serious philosophical and scientific themes, to pose questions about the nature of good and evil that challenge accepted wisdom. There is gore in nearly all of his work, but there’s compassion too, only it comes at a high cost. He is not afraid to look in the face of hell and report back on what he sees, to force others to see it with him in the hope of leaving them changed by the experience.
Yes, this book has flaws. The style will not be to everybody’s taste, may be a tad too lacking in cohesion for comfort, while some of the info-dumps are a bit unwieldy, the pseudo-religious subtext may offend others and the final twist, while undeniably apt in one sense, is nonetheless hard to swallow, but being challenged, stepping outside of our comfort zone, is all part and parcel of what this thing called horror is about. Gary Braunbeck knows this and his work revels in it, warts and all, and such is his skill as a writer, the grandeur of his bloodstained vision, that invariably the good outweighs the bad.
Two stories close out the book. I’ll Play the Blues For You is pretty much duelling banjos revisited with angelic competitors while the protagonist of Union Dues finds out rather more than he wants to know about the blue collar life. They’re good solid stories and worth reading, but all the same, only icing on the cake that is Coffin County.
From Cedar Hill to Tower Hill (Leisure paperback, 320pp, $7.99), and once again small town America finds itself in peril, only this time it’s the turn of British writer Sarah Pinborough to set ‘em up and knock ‘em down.
The New England community of Tower Hill is an idyllic backwater, distinguished only by its university, which has one of the best religious studies programmes in the US. New students Liz, Steve and Angela expect to do well there, but the town starts to change, and not for the better. A new, charismatic priest, Father O’Brien, galvanises the local church, while at the university Dr Kenyon casts a spell over students who attend his paranormal studies group, including Angela. Then one student hacks herself apart with a knife, and the sheriff pronounces it a drug related suicide with an unseemly haste and lack of procedure. Liz and Steve find themselves isolated as the town’s population becomes increasingly zombie-like and people who had previously befriended them are now hostile, with no explanation for the transformation. But if the unholy relics that have lain hidden in Tower Hill for centuries are unearthed then something far worse will befall the town, and perhaps the entire world.
There are a lot of familiar elements here – small town in danger, ancient artefacts of power, with scripture and biblical beings co-opted into the mix, the poisoning of the town’s population and their reduction to zombies, a sense of paranoia growing in the students as they come to feel isolated, and of course only the town drunk, a holy fool, knows what is really going on. Pinborough deftly stage manages all of these favourite things, putting her own spin on the material and weaving a convincing back story that knits together scripture and mythology. She makes both the situation and the characters seem painfully real, with that sense of paranoia growing all the time as they confront behaviour that seems inexplicable. Liz, who has run away from a repressive religious upbringing only to find herself in a far worse situation and one where her faith is the thing that will save her, is particularly impressive, a character whose doubts, confusion and feelings of inadequacy many readers will be able to identify with.
An especial treat is the relationship between Jack and Gray, the two adventurers whose arrival has set this chain of events in motion. At times they seem like characters out of a Tarantino film, bristling with attitude and amorality, their personal peccadilloes adding another dimension to the story and, in parenthesis, it’s refreshing this once to have bad guys who actually get along, are not waiting for the first opportunity to shaft each other. Also compelling is the way in which the town is changed, every aspect of Tower Hill’s management becoming ‘church business’, a coup accomplished by supernatural means, but all the same with an uncomfortable subtext about how easy it is for a charismatic to turn people away from civilised behaviour, to encourage them to give in to xenophobia and fear of those who don’t toe the party line. You can, should you wish, see this side of the book as striking a warning note about the dangers of Fundamentalism, though it is far from being anti-faith, with an act of self-sacrifice and redemptive love at the book’s finale.
Pinborough’s story is engrossing, packed with familiar elements certainly, but with enough tension and changes rung to stand on its own two feet.
Gord Rollo’s The Jigsaw Man (Leisure paperback, 299pp, $7.99) is a delicious slice of hokum, almost retro-horror in the fun it has with one of the genre’s favourite archetypes.
Michael Fox, the first person narrator, is a man way down on his luck, having lost everything after a car accident in which his wife and son were killed, and for which he blamed himself. He’s decided on suicide, as at least that way some money from an insurance policy will go to his surviving daughter, but then he is approached by Alexander Drake, who works for the fabulously wealthy Dr Marshall. Drake offers him $2m to allow Marshall to amputate his arm and Fox agrees. He and three other ‘bums’ are taken to Marshall’s castle lair where the good doctor shares with them details of his experiments and the purpose behind them. At this point the reader might be inclined to mimic the Dr Pepper ad and ask, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ Be sure that whatever you come up with by way of an answer, Gord Rollo has something much nastier in store for his characters.
Bottom line, this is old style pulp horror, with a touch of the Rob Zombies thrown in for good measure and more than a hint of Stuart Gordon’s gory cult classic Reanimator. It’s the paradigm tale of a mad scientist, with the vile Marshall putting Mengele to shame. The writing is unsophisticated, with the occasionally breathless first person narration sounding slightly off key and most of the characters using the same voice, while the plot is borderline absurd. And yet for all of that it works on the simplest visceral level, with a fast paced story in which things keep getting worse until there’s no place left to go but up. The bad guys are irredeemably nasty, with both Drake and Marshall monsters in their own way, the former a bully and sexual abuser who relentlessly victimises Michael for fighting back, and the latter a merciless and obsessed madman, who thinks his end justifies any means, and the reader can’t help but root for Fox to pull the rug out from under them. And there are moments of tenderness too, in Fox’s guilt over his past and the scenes in which he mercy kills the ‘bleeders’.
Gord Rollo’s tale is full of chutzpah. It’s a book which you read to see what gruesome delight the author will have the audacity to pull out of his carpet bag of goodies next, where you cheer the heroes and hiss at the villains, and screw up your eyes just in case that really is a detached head giving somebody a blow job. In many ways it’s the antithesis of the Braunbeck novel, its opposite in sophistication and seriousness. More succinctly, The Jigsaw Man is bloody good fun, with emphasis on the bloody.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
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