Tag Archives: 1970s

Thelma and Louise are Hot, Sexy and Dead in Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Child

Does the world really need another vampire novel?  Or, to quote the cover copy from Glen Hirshberg‘s new novel, Motherless Child, “”Another vampire novel? Really?”  Well, my initial thought was, “no, probably not.” But if there were any authors out there who  could change my mind, it’s likely that Hirshberg — frequent occupant of Year’s Best compilations and a long-time favorite of mine — would be near the top of the list.

Motherless Child, Earthling Publications’ Halloween title for 2012, is indeed a fresh take, mixing road novel with buddy story (and female buddies, at that) and adding a healthy dollop of good old-fashioned horror.

Natalie and Sophie are small-town, low-income, twenty-something single moms who mostly manage to maintain smiles as they roll with the punches.  One night at a club, they encounter the Whistler, whose much-rumored underground performances had previously seemed purely mythical. Once the Whistler has the club’s patrons under his sway, his true vampiric nature comes out to play.  And even hough he has been trolling humans for a very long time, the Whistler falls for Natalie like a starstruck teenager, quickly becoming intent on making her his personal possession.

“God, but he loved her already.  Would show her the wonders of the nightworld as they fled forever down its face, leaving their ghostprints for the water of the world to swallow. Leaving no trace but melody.”

After the Whistler has started the gradual process of converting Natalie and Sophie to the vampire life, Natalie realizes that the hunger pangs they’re feeling, and the dark nature of what they’re becoming, will force them to leave their babies behind for good, for the children’s own safety.  It’s an awareness  that brings with it infinite sadness, as expressed in one of the novel’s many well-crafted passages:

What was she crying about? So many things: the trailer; her son’s bassinet wedged between the fold-down table and the sink; her mother the lawn gnome; these people moored in this nowhere place on the outskirts of this 200-year-old void of a city like lost boats at a buoy in the middle of the ocean; that sawing in her ears; her best and oldest friend’s face, so bright, so familiar, hovering over her son, smiling and aggravating and beautiful as ever. She let the tears come, put a hand to her heart.”

When Sophie and Natalie hit the road, it’s hard not to think of Thelma and Louise — but it’s to the author’s credit that no sooner did I draw the parallel in my head than he pointed out and made light of the similarities himself.

The Whistler’s plan to make Natalie his undead mate (or, as he calls her, “his Destiny”) necessitates driving a wedge between her and Sophie, a manipulation that he expects will bring him satisfaction, but ultimately disappoints, as related in the following, another of Hirshberg’s finer exercises in phrasing:

“What stunned him most of all…was the lack of pleasure he felt, as his Destiny twitched on her feet and her mouth opened and real loneliness, the kind people dread and dream of all their sorry, scrabbling lives, rushed into her for the first time.”

The two friends’ attempts to leave their old life, and the Whistler, behind are foiled when their children are threatened, pulling them back into conflict with the Whistler, as well as  a former cohort of his.  The resulting finale is carefully-orchestrated yet unquestionably moving.  This is largely a story about a mother’s love — but quite likely not the particular mother that you were expecting.

For the most part, Hirshberg hews to traditional vampire mythology, although there are a few exceptions, most notably a scene of Sophie serenely skinnydipping with obsequious alligators that is both unique and creepy.  Minor quibbles?  Only a couple. The Whistler’s obsession with Sophie is never really explained in any satisfactory way.  And the book almost feels too brief, wrapping up too quickly, a rare complaint in these days of doorstop-sized treekillers, but a feeling that’s nonetheless hard to shake.

As implied, Motherless Child is a brisk novel, clocking in at just 236 pages, and moving at a crackling pace.  From its striking cover art to its somber last page, it’s a vampire novel that deserves your attention.  Really.

Examining The Fairer Sex in Richard Davis’ The Female of the Species

Shadow Publishing’s collection of Richard Davis’ short fiction, The Female of the Species And Other Terror Tales, is the type of book that I love to see from small presses — a gathering of never-before-collected tales by an overlooked writer from decades past.  Davis is perhaps best known for his editing work, and most notably for editing volumes 1-3 of The Year’s Best Horror Fiction (the series later edited by Gerald Page and Karl Edward Wagner), but he was a writer as well, and quite a good one.  Shadow Publishing’s owner, David Sutton is the perfect person to resurrect the author’s work, as he knew Davis back in the day, and in fact purchased a story from him for publication in the 1971 anthology New Writings in Horror and the Supernatural.

That 1971 date falls smack in the middle of Davis’ fiction-writing career: all 11 stories he published are gathered here, and they originally appeared between 1963 and 1978. Also included is an interview Sutton conducted with Davis in 1969; the text of a speech Davis gave on horror fiction at a 1971 convention; an article that Davis wrote about Late Night Horror, a short-lived BBC for which he was Story Editor; and a bibliography.

Despite all the wonderful ancillary material, the main draw is obviously the fiction, and there’s a lot to like in that department, starting with the title story, which is related via the narrator Jim’s journal entries, a series he’s started while his beloved wife Viola is traveling to visit her brother.  Unfortunately, Viola’s plane crashes, leaving Jim devastated and lonely…until he adopts a kitten, who quickly bonds with him.  What ensues is perhaps a tad predictable, but it’s effectively told, resulting in both suspense and chills.

Jim was a loner even before Viola’s death, and a similar social outcast, although female in this case, features in “The Lady by the Stream,” the story of a middle-aged spinster’s growing obsession with a young boy in her neighborhood.  There’s nothing supernatural to be found in this story, but it’s probably the most disturbing tale in the collection.  The following story, “The Inmate,” also documents a disturbing relationship, this time between the wife of a wealthy man who’s created his own private animal preserve and one of her husband’s animals…namely a gorilla.  Unlike its predecessor, though, “The Inmate” is a bit too sensationalistic — likely a result of the fact it was tailored for its appearance in the often over-the-top Pan Book of Horror series — to ultimately be successful.

The other three tales I want to mention all prominently feature young boys and their fathers.  In “The Clump,” a cheating husband is on holiday with his family, visiting a small Caribbean island.  The husband is so busy scheming to kill his wife that he pays no attention as his son wanders into a forested area of the island that’s the subject of local superstition…for good reason.  The father in “The Nondescript” is much more attentive, and helps his son Bob to identify just what it is that he’s found in the attic of the old home they’ve just moved into.  The attic find is an eponymous nondescript — a fake creature, created by attaching the shaved torso of a monkey cadaver to a fish tail, employed during the 18th and 19th centuries by hucksters to extract money from the gullible.  Unfortunately for Bob and his father, there may be a real-life inspiration for their taxidermic terror.  The father in “Guy Fawkes Night” is selfish and overbearing, and after his actions lead to the death of his son’s beloved dog, the son is determined to exact revenge, which he does in frightening fashion.

There are one or two subpar stories, most notably “A Nice Cut off the Joint,” which has logic holes you could drive a truck through, and I don’t care for the cover art by Caroline O’Neal, but every other aspect of The Female of the Speciesis top-notch.  It’s a shame Davis, who died in 2005, didn’t live to see the appearance of this collection, but readers who appreciate 1960s- and ’70s -era horror should rejoice, for there’s much to like here.

Breathing New Life Into Zombie Fiction — Mason James Cole’s Pray To Stay Dead and Bryon Morrigan’s Acheron

The zombie fiction onslaught shows no signs of abating as of yet, and there are only so many times that one can read a slight (if that) variation on the same theme before it starts to feel tired, if not outright…dead. Fortunately, not every author who’s penning a zombie novel these days is dragging out the mouldering approach. Two cases in point are Mason James Cole’s Pray To Stay Dead and Bryon Morrigan’s Acheron, each of which offer something fresh in the realm of the rotting dead.

On the surface, Cole’s novel, which comes courtesy of Creeping Hemlock’s Print is Dead imprint, might sound pretty run-of-the-mill, as a variety of characters suddenly find themselves living in a post–zombie-apocalypse world: five friends on a road trip to Lake Tahoe, a feuding older couple running a small store on the road to Tahoe, a war veteran and long-haul trucker seeking to make his way back to his daughter in New Mexico, and a backwoods clan/cult led by a patriarch whose religious fervor is outweighed only by his hypocrisy.

Three things, however, make Pray To Stay Dead stand out:

  • The 1974 setting, which adds interest, especially the references to the Cold War, Watergate, President NIxon and other touchstones that serve to capture the zeitgeist of that era.
  • The inhumanity displayed by several characters to their fellow man, which at times makes the zombies’ empty-headed hunger seem tame by comparison.
  • The characters, who are sufficiently well-drawn to generate reader empathy.

Among those characters, the characters seeking survive the zombie siege in the small store are particularly interesting, as wife Misty, her estranged husband Crate (who’s been living as an exile in a shack behind the store), and her adopted lover Charles form three points of an odd triangle, with emotions and positions shifting significantly during the course of the story, as the stress of the situation naturally brings out the worst in some.

Along the way, Cole makes some interesting observations, such as comparing the naked, morbid curiosity of many onlookers during the Vietnam era with the hunger of the living dead:

“…it was pretty damned obvious: she wanted to know if he’d killed anyone, and if, how many; and what did it look like, feel like, smell like? He saw here eyes crawl over his body, scavenging for overlooked scars. Everyone was a ghoul, eager to rip the bones from the dirt and see if there was anything wet left to suck out. Everyone wanted to hear about the bad stuff, about the brains popping and the blood flying. This had once surprised and disappointed him.”

The above passage may be the first time in P2SD that Cole contrasts the living with the dead, but it’s far from the last. Combine such trenchant observations with engaging characters and an offbeat setting, and you’ve got a recipe for a zombie revival. Cole is apparently the pseudonym of a conservative Utah resident who’d like to keep his authoring alter ego under wraps. Here’s hoping he allows his dark writer side to emerge again soon.

Bryon Morrigan’s Acheron, which is published by zombie specialist Permuted Press, employs an equally offbeat milieu — it’s set in Iraq and literally starts with a bang when Captain Nathan Leathers’ small convoy is hit by an IED that leaves several members of the convoy dead and Leathers captured by apparent insurgents. When a series of earth-shaking tremors and explosions, punctuated by some strange, unidentifiable noises, serve to open an escape route for Leathers, he emerges from his subterranean cell to find a city enshrouded in green mist… and when he explores the mist, he finds it hides not only the walking dead but an assortment of other strange creatures as well.

A chance meeting with an Iraqui who Leathers nicknames Muhammad ends up saving the Captain’s life and leading to his meeting several other survivors, both Iraqui and American, holed up in the new Iraqui Police headquarters. Included among those survivors are some archeologists, who describe what they believe to be the source of the supernatural events, and a small group of American private security/mercanaries, who provide the man vs. man tension and subplot, similar to the encounters seen in Cole’s novel.

Acheron is related via eighty-six short, punchy chapters, a staccato style that matches well with the action-driven plot. This novel is loosely connected to Morrigan’s earlier book The Desert, and it’s apparent that the author has improved his craft fairly considerably since the first book. The occasional awkward passages and stilted dialog that detracted from The Desert are almost non-existent here, and character development is noticably stronger. Morrigan’s style is fairly vanilla, so it’s plotting, and pacing that have to carry the day and fortunately they manage to do just that. The tale closes with an indication that a true sequel will follow, a development that I look forward to, given Morrigan’s ability to combine war and horror into an action-packed thriller.