Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Surviving Modern Horror Fiction

1: An Introductory Digression

Leisure Books, an imprint of Dorchester Press, once published mass-market horror fiction in these compact, affordable, endearing little paperbacks. They introduced great writers like Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, and Richard Laymon to the average Barnes & Noble shopper. At Simon’s Rock, the college where I never fit, I would always be carrying one of these pocket-sized volumes, ditching Psychology studies to bask in the ruthlessness of Laymon’s operatic home invasion epic Endless Night or one of gross-out Sultan Lee’s more watered down stories. Leisure, in it’s prime, was a great outlet for horror fans, not only reprinting quality genre fiction (Laymon died in 2001 with most of his back catalogue only in print in the U.K., and almost all of those books were given a major American push by Leisure) but also making it widely available in pharmacies and grocery stores, commonly a James Patterson/Harlequin Penny Dreadful swamp.

Fond memory: a droll, tired me accompanying my father to Price Chopper as a reprieve from the dullness of Simon’s Rock homework, only to find the reissue of Come Out Tonight, Laymon’s visionary Los Angeles Hellscape. I gobbled it up that night, performing ocular cunnilingus on the book and feeling very Fuck Tomorrow.

While I was distracted by the pursuit of other interests, it all went to the Circle Of Shit. I’m hardly a company historian-check out author Brian Keene’s website for a thorough post-mortem-but here’s what I gather: Dorchester Press, suffering from the desiccated economy, chose to focus on E-book publication and limit production of print books. Fair enough, March Of Time, R.I.P Borders…except there was a problem. Contracted writers began complaining about unpaid royalties. Some even bought back the rights to all their novels, only to find that Leisure was republishing them anyway in illegal Kindle editions. Any clout they used to have was gone. In a few short, unhappy years, Leisure had gone from one of Horror’s saving graces to a cabal of sleazy charlatans in the eyes of many. This has been sad to watch, even as a casual fan of the company, but a silver lining did come in the rebirth of a proud horror tradition: pennyless upstarts beating against the maw of relegation. Small press horror was now the best-really, the only-way for fans to get our fix. And with Leisure’s fade out, the Iris opened on the erstwhile Deadite Press.

Deadite is a complete inspiration. The imprint has ties to the Portland-based Bizarro fiction community, and they have a passion for the Book Object itself, producing editions that are vastly superior to Leisure’s in design, zest, and cover art. Go to their webpage and scroll: the covers are by and large frame-worthy, macabre gems (my favorite is Suzzab Blac's barbed wire mutant that graces Wrath James White’s collection of atheist horror stories The Book Of A Thousand Sins), and the copy doesn’t recognize politeness in the least. (“This may be the most fucked up book ever written.”)

Barnes & Noble doesn’t stock Deadite books, no duh, and purchasing them online reminds me of the days when Leisure was still around yet I had to reach my clammy hands into the web to buy editions of The Bighead and Right To Life, X-rated Lee and Ketchum novels that would make Dorchester blush.* Deadite resurrects the forbidden thrill of getting something from Overlook Connection or Necro Press in 2005, true sickness materializing right there on the doormat. I own about a dozen Deadite titles, and whenever I read one or even handle it I’m so grateful they don’t adhere to the marketplace tragedy of exclusive E-book sales, which would be an entirely understandable and sane choice for a new company in a niche field to make. I’ve read a few things on Kindle, but it isn’t a book, simply a slideshow of magnified words. Deadite’s gamble pulls horror and horror writers back from the Dorchester tar pits.

Caveats exist, though, like the results of an imperfect embalming.

2: Survivor

Deadite’s edition of J.F. Gonzalez’s 2006 novel Survivor is representative of everything Deadite is doing right and everything Deadite is doing wrong. It was originally a Leisure release in ’06, and before that it was a 2002 limited edition novella entitled “Maternal Instinct” that now makes up the first 130 pages of the novel proper. The cover typically pops (though without a correlative event in the text), and the edition is touted as the “Author’s Preferred Version, ” bringing to mind the gloriously unexpurgated Off Season that Overlook unrolled in ’04.

Gonzalez’s novel is about a group of decent, hard-working upper classers who find themselves peering into a feared and debated pocket of Urban Legend crimelore: The Snuff Film. Lisa and Brad are successful attorneys on a romantic getaway to San Simeon. Lisa cannot wait to unveil the news of her pregnancy to Brad. Things get bad very soon however, when the driver of a suspicious, tailgating red van places Brad under citizen’s arrest. Lisa goes back to their hotel, is promptly kidnapped by the van’s driver and taken to a rented cabin in the Californian outskirts. Chained and stripped nude, Lisa is told that she will be murdered on camera to appease a high paying client who wants more than the usual street rat “star.” The only hope is her maternal instinct. She’ll do anything to save her life and the life of her unborn child.

This is all rendered in crisp, restrained prose, marred by the lazy copy editing that is Deadite’s cross to bear. Typos and gaffes frequently took me out of Brain Cheese Buffet, their reprint of several classic Ed Lee stories, but with Lee that is somewhat forgivable, as we’re lost in the mind of a brilliant, semi-literate mountain man. A sobering effort like this should have as much care put into the text as J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. There are repetitions (“You should be ok for awhile…I’ll be gone for awhile”) in dialogue, mistakes in continuity. (An important character named “Debbie” becomes “Suzie” in the final pages.) As handsome as the edition is, it surely cannot be the “Author’s Preferred Version” if the author actually read it line-by-line.

It’s testament to Gonzalez’s chops that Survivor still grips and lingers. Truthfully, he didn’t have to expand the initial novella: taken by itself, “Maternal Instinct” is a classic of hardcore horror writing, edging at the near unbearable marriage of horror and sadness that infused Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. (There aren’t many works of horror with true melancholy and tragic weight. I don’t think we as a species could handle them.)  

The characterizations of these night workers are sharp and believable, from “Mr. Smith,”-aka Tim- the man in the van, a stalwart porno vet who is only in the snuff racket for money, to the terrifying “Animal,” an affluent yuppie who makes extra cash donning a bondage mask and eviscerating women to meat. Previous thrillers imagining a real snuff industry, specifically films like Paul Schrader’s Hardcore and Joel Schumacher’s undervalued 8mm, have kept their villains at arm’s length, offering dastardly cartoon slimes. This is appropriate, two movies made respectively by a disturbed lapsed Calvinist and an amused journeyman, both humane enough to keep their hands clean. 

Gonzalez is adamant about getting under the hoods of Smith and especially Animal, who is given a lengthy monologue about his growing urge to inflict harm to others, nurtured in the extreme BDSM community. This is the book’s finest writing, as Animal is measured, focused, and articulate, and we bear witness to the sticky slow motion bloom of a killer. Describing the consensual murder of his dominatrix girlfriend to a captive Lisa, Animal coos, “I take the tape out every once in awhile and watch Susan and I play out our scene. And the more her screams of pain echo in my ears, the more I realize that she was responsible for my breakthrough. Without her I would have lived in torment. Now? I live for nothing else but fulfilling my desires.”

Nothing here is more disturbing than the snuff dreams in Dennis Cooper’s novels, which are sometimes narrated by Animal if not a writer who wants to be Animal himself through a screen of words. I’ve always been a supporter of authors who draw immersive, three-dimensional portraits of sociopaths, pedophiles and murderers in fiction (if they exist in our world, it is fiction’s duty to replicate them objectively) and though Gonzalez’s attempt to humanize Mr. Smith through flashbacks of his traumatic childhood are less successful than Animal’s monologue, he should be commended for allowing him some empathetic lifeblood. This kind of fiction is scarier, and more troubling, if the novelist introduces us to human beings. What if, by the nature of getting to know them and following their actions, we get a little attached, as we are when Tim starts questioning his loyalties after a particularly heinous filmed murder? What are we as readers to make of the disquieting challenge?

To escape, Lisa does a terrible thing. In the interest of anyone who is intrigued enough to grab this, I won’t spoil, but her choice, and the effect it has on innocent lives, smarted even as jaded a reader as myself. She flees, but the threat lingers, the men responsible are angry and alive, and the final page phlegm-lobs a truly downbeat gutpunch motherfucker.

Frankly, you don’t have to read past “Maternal Instinct,” but the expanded story, continued in the section “Down With The Sickness,” is almost a documentary of the mixed efforts a writer can employ to stretch his creation's fabric to the temptress of longevity. It becomes a crime novel really, as Brad and an increasingly guilty and distraught Lisa are placed under police protection to escape the criminals, and the network of evildoers is defined and detailed. Survivor treads the grounds of wild gonzo camp when a knife-happy 80-year-old-woman with a taste for human eyeball is dispatched to handle the escapee. What follows is diverting-a showdown in the Los Vegas desert; a shocking revelation about a major character-but the queasy, intimate rawness of the novella is totally compromised.

The best moments of “Sickness” are the quietest. Gonzalez describes a bland industrial front which hides the Snuff HQ: “The Seagram’s Business District in the City of Industry was comprised of rows of industrial buildings that circled the perimeter of a large lot in a U shape. Twin rows of identical buildings flanked this structure….The office Al Pressman was visiting this evening bore the legend Mark and Son’s, Printers, and it was at the end of the lot. He pulled in front of the sliding door of the garage into what would have been the print shop but which had since been turned into a makeshift film studio.” Who doesn’t know these bleached-out places? The cold, clinical landscaping of a drive-by development takes a grim turn with the casualness of that “makeshift film studio.” Anything can hide within lazy-Sunday mundane.

Later Brad goes online to research the history, or non-history, of Snuff Films. Its a perfect little sketch of the mainstream standing at the gate of culture’s most subterranean crypt. While the community of cult film freaks and enlightened weirdoes are greatly amused by the controversy sparked by Roberta Findlay’s Snuff-a third-tier piece of Mansonsploitation with an entirely crude and staged murder of a woman stitched on as a meaningless coda-Brad is only “depressed by the subject matter.”  Faced with this netherworld, his intellect is made roont, a lifetime of compassion and learning is reduced to simple numbness. “He sipped his coffee as the computer booted up, thinking. He hadn’t been able to sleep at all last night. All he could think about was the story Lisa told him, and the men who worked in the snuff film business. And the questions that kept popping into his head were how could people do this kind of thing?”

Snuff films are campfire stories for adults. Incubated through Manson lore, fed the nutrients of press by modern Feminism, “they” are the nadir of civilization, pornography’s logical, dreaded dénouement. In writing about them, one is inevitably beating a dead horse while filming it, but Gonzalez’s focus and commitment makes Survivor an uneven but valuable addition to this strange canon of works about the Dark Work. 

3: “Viva Deadite!”

The rest of the small press industry outside of horror is a personal blind spot. Yet the survival of these companies and the existence of many hand-crafted and imperfectly edited fantasy, romance and noir potboilers is very moving to me. A produced book is a tribute to faith. A book produced by Deadite is a triumph of long journeys and beaten odds. I recently finished a terrific Wrath James White novel called Pure Hate, published by “Dullahan Press, an imprint of Dark Quest Books.” Dullahan takes a rendering of Icarus as the company logo. This is the obscure collective’s Knopf Borzoi. Both Deadite and Dullahan are guilty of not paying enough attention to close line editing, but I’m inclined to submit leniency. Publishing is a wounding, wounded business, unfortunate for objects that are so companionable and magic. Orders need to be shipped, rent is due, sweat pours to limited returns. Leisure as we know it is gone, but the flame will never hiss out.

*Leisure did eventually release Right To Life in an omnibus edition with the Ketchum novella Old Flames, which I do own. I was recalling a time when I had to get the small press edition online only. I was stunned when it saw a mass-market release.

No comments:

Post a Comment