Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King

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(1983) Cycle of the Werewolf is a brisk and atmospheric story of a werewolf descending upon a small town and its series of attacks and killings over the course of a year.

King writes in present tense here, in short chapters, one for each month, that serve as character studies, seasonal moods, and mostly gruesome killing scenes.

Berni Wrightson illustrates wonderfully throughout with a mixture of evocative landscapes scenes and brutal death scenes.

It takes about halfway through the book for our hero character to appear. Marty Coslaw is a boy in a wheelchair, and he proves to be tough and smart and brave and the only one who can figure out who the werewolf preying upon the town of Tarker’s Mills is.

I really enjoyed this story. Note that I call it a story and not a novel because it is in truth at best novelette sized, padded to length to illustrations (excellent), font and spacing.

The Rats by James Herbert

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The Rats, 1974. A pulp masterpiece. Good characters, fine prose, but built upon tremendous over-the-top set pieces of RATS EATING PEOPLE!!! As advertised. Herbert does not skimp on the details.

A plague of killer rats descend upon a poorer part of London. Harris, a teacher, gets a first-hand glimpse of the horror through both his geographic position and circumstance. He’s pretty much an everyman thrust into relative importance but it works here.

Disaster novel as much as horror novel. Half the book, and half the fun is seeing the city officials deal with the epidemic in fits and starts, half-heartedly at first, and without much true success.

Hebert is very good at getting into the heads of secondary characters just long enough so we feel bad for them when they’re eaten the fuck alive. It makes it so much more satisfying – the feasting – when we can feel and empathize with the victims.

This really is a vicious book. And fantastic. (The only real flaw is that it’s very much written from a hyper-masculine 70s perspective – the women here basically just scream and get eaten and do very little otherwise.)

My first James Herbert. Won’t be my last.

More Ghost Stories by M.R. James

More Ghost Stories (1911) is another excellent collection of quietly dreadful horror stories by M.R. James, run through with an undercurrent of wit and meta-awareness. James knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it about as well as anyone else ever did. I would dare say he has to be one of the finest writers of horror who ever lived, and maybe the best I’ve encountered before the more modern era.

James’ main gifts are two-fold: 1) a great sense of humor that never turns his stories into farce, but rather allows for some forgiveness for the hoary, sillier parts before the true fear begins, and 2) a grasp of the weird, the truly weird, as men stumble into a brush with the otherworldly through things (mostly objects) like books, mazes, etc.

More Ghost Stories has less heavy hitters than Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, for sure, but no bad tales.

The highlights include:

“A School Story” – an exploration of school folklore that turns very weird in an almost Fortean way.

“The Rose Garden” – a really fun story of a henpecked husband forced to deal with what turns out to be a cursed garden by his wife.

“Martin’s Close” – a fantastic story mostly in the form of a 1600s court document of the trial of a murder where most of the evidence is supernatural.

And, best of all – – –

“Casting the Runes”, where scholars run on the wrong side of a genuine alchemist with a strange and terrible method of revenge.

Apparently, James wrote most of his ghost stories for Christmas but I find that they get one in the mood for Halloween, as well.

The Mailman by Bentley Little

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The Mailman (1991) is a flawed but entertaining enough book of the seemingly mundane macabre in the grand Stephen King tradition.

Things in Willis, Arizona turn sinister after the friendly neighborhood mailman commits suicide and his odd replacement, known only as John Smith, shows up to take his place. At first, only good mail arrives with no bills or junk mail. But then comes the bad.

English teacher Doug Albin, his wife Tritia, and their son Billy are soon among the first to realize that the entire town is being drawn into an increasingly apocalyptic situation.

The first third of the book struck me as having potential but never grabbed me all the way. The second third grew into something really special and scary. But the last third lost me.

It’s not that it’s all too silly. Little very much so uses the half-comical exaggeration of the situation on purpose. It’s not even that it’s too much of a riff on a Stephen King novel: small town goes to hell when a strange monster comes by. It’s just one choice Little made late in the book that I won’t spoil that I can’t help but find extremely distasteful. It sat wrong with me for the rest of the novel.

On the plus side, the Mailman himself is a very interesting creation. He’s half-order, half-chaos, hung up and taking very seriously his job in the Postal Service, operating in his sadism and destruction without much of a rational goal in sight. But it works. There are several genuinely creepy set pieces, as well, and some well-drawn characters. It’s just that one choice plus a few logical lapses late in the book that dampened my enjoyment.

The Mailman is a work of much potential that drops the ball.

By Bizarre Hands by Joe R. Lansdale

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By Bizarre Hands (1989) is a somewhat uneven but very enjoyable and at times downright grueling collection of brutal and comic bizarro and horror tales.

Lansdale floats around several recurring themes: the brutality of human nature, racism in the South (even though I think he goes back to the well of characters casually using the n-word a bit too often), and misogyny. He likes his monsters human for the most part but throws several weird beasties in, too.

I expected to outright love this collection based on my reading history with Lansdale but found it didn’t turn my wheels like I thought it might. But it’s still an excellent collection of stories overall, and entertaining throughout. A good read but not as great as I hyped it up in my mind.

However, there are a few tales that rise to masterful:

“Fish Night” – The opening story is a nicely wrought character study of two traveling salesman crossing through a desert that takes a poetic bizarro turn.

“The Pit” – An absolutely brutal look at two slaves, one white and one black, captured by backwoods hillbilly maniacs and forced to fight to the death. There is some difficult imagery here but Lansdale keeps a steady hand and brings us to a vicious end.

“Duck Hunt” – A vivid portrait of a young man’s induction into hunting culture turns blacky absurd and horrific. Hell of a central image.

“By Bizarre Hands” – Darkly comic Southern Gothic tale of a preacher with an unhealthy interest in preaching to mentally handicapped girls. Reminds me of Flannery O’Connor a bit – horrible and funny and sad. And fucked up, very fucked up.

“The Fat Man and the Elephant” – Another traveling preacher story but this preacher is considerably less psychopathic – he just gets visions from hotboxing elephant shit. Didn’t say he wasn’t still crazy.

“Down By the Sea Near the Great Big Rock” – Perhaps my favorite. A short but fantastic story of a family vacationing by the sea where intrusive violent thoughts build in each of them. Very pulpy and strange turn at the end.

“Night They Missed the Horror Show” – A masterpiece of pitch-black horror. A pair of racist assholes save their black football captain from a beating only to run into some truly sick shit. Drenching with the darkness of real human evil – no one is good here – even racist assholes don’t deserve this.

“On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks” – Epic of fucked up bizarro zombie madness. Scumbag bounty hunter and psycho pedophile run into mad scientist messiah who’s controlling zombies and more than enough and maybe too much said. Weirdo wildness.

By Bizarre Hands starts well and ends very well but overall I do think it’s a little padded out for its own good. Yet the heights are truly tremendous. Reading Lansdale is like reading no one else in the world.

The Nightmare Chronicles by Douglas Clegg

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The Nightmare Chronicles is a fantastic, weird and transgressive collection of horror short stories.

Clegg is a master of characterization – there are no cardboard tropes here. Each setting is fully realized, seemingly authentic and feeling very lived in. He doesn’t bog his monsters down with much in the way of explanations and spares his readers clumsy exposition. A nightmare dream logic pervades throughout. Clegg reminds me of Clive Barker with his mixture of terror and sensuality and transformative otherness.

A frame story, about a group of far-left radicals who have kidnapped a child who, it turns out, is more of a monster than a normal child, bookends the collection and intrudes as interludes here and there, as well. The framing device is what I assume to be One Thousand and One Nights-inspired but unfortunately I haven’t actually read that. It’s decent but the stories themselves are much, much better.

Highlights among the collection include:

“O, Rare and Most Exquisite” – A fully realized period piece and character study of a cad of a gardener having an affair with his boss’ wife and his finding the perfect, and very strange, flowers to give her. The revelation of where the flowers come from will be revisited in some form or fashion throughout much of the rest of these stories. Clegg is fascinated with body transfiguration and sex.

“The Fruit of Her Womb” – An older couple move into a house that was once the site of a brutal mass family murder. The husband becomes more and more obsessed with the crime and the occultism that lead to that crime. A work of folk horror here, tied up heavily with Greek myth, and a finely tuned spin on a ghost story.

“The Ripening Sweetness of Late Afternoon” – A work of true bizarro. A faithless preacher returns to his hometown to atone for a horrible crime he committed in his youth. I won’t give away the weird element of this one but only say that it is superbly introduced and brilliant.

“Damned If You Do” – A truly fucked and excellent story that drops us right into the mind of an retired schoolteacher and serial killer. A disturbing tale. Probably the most horrific in the book.

“I Am Infinite; I Contain Multitudes” – In an asylum for the criminally insane, a new convict navigates his psychopathic lover and the old timer who claims he’s God and says he knows the way out. One part suspenseful crime story and one part sci-fi weirdness with an ending of mystic body horror madness.

There are seven more stories in the book and all of them are good. (Years ago I read Clegg’s The Hour Before the Dark and Red Angel and enjoyed them.) The Nightmare Chronicles has impressed me and entertained me and challenged me in a way that makes me want to seek out more of his work very soon.