"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Re-reading: Blood of the Impaler (1989).

Blood of the Impaler by Jeffrey Sackett (1989).


Still the same exciting and challenging novel I first read 29 Octobers ago.

Sackett is a fine writer, solid plotter, and a deft hand at character building: a truly fecund and confident aesthetic is at work here. Some may kvetch at multiple character p.o.v.'s within chapters late in the book, but I chalk it up to authorial exuberance.

This is the best continuation of Stoker's novel I have read, and deserves more popularity than it has received.

(Now available in a new edition with godawful cover art.)


I read Blood of the Impaler ten years before I finally read Stoker's cover-to-cover.

Both Dracula and Blood of the Impaler would have been emotionally incomprehensible to me at a younger age. Themes of responsibility, maturity, and social solidarity might be intellectually understood, but are not felt until the reader gets a little adulthood under their belt.


The dramatic impact of Sackett's novel, its central conceit: that Dracula is the anti-Christ, the reverse of the medal of the redeemer. Sackett is unafraid of Christianity, and of taking it seriously. Indeed, the great splattery climax of the novel would be meaningless (and impossible) without taking it all seriously.

Blood of the Impaler should not be forgotten. Or dismissed.

28 October 2018

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Alucarding with Saberhagen

I am loathe to dismiss so much industry by any writer. Some must enjoy, notwithstanding the negative and venomous reviews of these books on Goodreads.

The Dracula Tape by Fred Saberhagen (1975).

Saberhagen's great idea was to have Dracula tell his own story. But because Saberhagen was an writer whose great ideas typically collapsed into ashes, the utter banality of The Dracula Tapes is a heartbreaker.

This is not the Faustian or Nietzschean Dracula. Rather, it is a misunderstood and victimized Dracula. Stoker's fearful vampire hunters completely misunderstood him. He loved Mina, you see, and she loved him.

Saberhagen takes us step by step through Stoker's novel, at each turn rationalizing the villain as sufferer and lover, rather than avatar of pestilence.

Predating Rice's interview with Lestat, The Dracula Tapes gives us the vampire as lame Byronic mope, endlessly self-justifying.


The Holmes-Dracula File by Fred Saberhagen (1978).

A step sideways from The Dracula Tape.

When in doubt, bring in Sherlock and two or more ape-long arms of coincidence.

Saberhagen makes the aesthetic mistake here of alternating chapters presented in first-person by two different characters: Drac and Watson. The effect is soporific.

Saberhagen wants to conquer the great un-written Giant Rat of Sumatra. Does he succeed? No, but his plot is a solid beginning. The climax, considering the stakes for the British Empire suggested in the first half of the book, is deflating. We need at least a climax to equal "The Sign of Four," but this dramatic opportunity is thrown-away offstage.


An Old Friend of the Family (1979).

This is more like it: kidnapping and murder, an assault on the Sutherland clan of Chicago, who happen to be under the multi-generational protection of Dracula.

Add internecine vampire civil war and we have the elements of a fine supernatural thriller. The first half of the novel is deftly plotted and executed in an effortless style, suggesting Saberhagen missed his calling as a crime novelist.

This little interview between a Chicago PD lieutenant and "Dr. Corday" is more than a little hair-raising:

"....If he had the gun like you say, why was he running? And who chased him?"

A glint of something other than coolness came into the old man's eyes. Amusement, it looked like. "I would surmise that he ran to get to running water. A forlorn hope, of course. It would not have saved him. But still he was a more knowledgeable young man than some. About some things, at least."

"Running water, save him? What does that mean?" Joe knew he was losing his own coolness, his own control. The knowledge didn't help....


Saberhagen is a modest writer in these three novels. Style and plotting are at best perfunctory. Intermixing revisionist Dracula with contemporary genre characters like Holmes and Watson or with present-day U.S. urban crime suggests the potential for such unions, but does not scratch the surfaces later exploited by Kim Newman.

27 October 2018

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Reading Joe R. Lansdale: Days 2-3


In the early 90s I read Lansdale and other splatterpunks. The subgenre was proudly adolescent. Fearless, in fact, as adolescents always like to describe themselves.

(It was a New Wave, and in my 20s I was always chasing waves.)

After the Horror Boom was driven into the ground by publishers' marketing departments,  Splatterpunk authors had to promote themselves. (Today we see this ghastly self-promotion everywhere on social media: a canon of chums.)

Eventually, in late 1994, I had a choice to make: packing for a move, I had room for M.R. James or a Paul M. Sammon anthology. I chose to take the James collection. As Frost intoned, "And that has made all the difference."

Lansdale is still standing, has bestsellers, a TV show, and a series of short fiction collections. Reading "The Folding Man" last night, stunned and in awe, I decided to read one of his collections.

A droll story. Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.

Are there ever enough works of fiction that really address poop in all its physical manifestations and roles in human life? The scatalogical has a key place in Lansdale's fiction. A recurring trope. Is it simply a sign of the adolescent's dream of scandalizing the bourgeois mother and father?
    "Bubba Ho-Tep," when the adult diaper vicissitudes and late-in-life poignancy are set aside, is a rollicking tale of two old gents going out in a blaze of glory for the sake of their community, and their own dignity.

What if "To Kill a Mockingbird" was about a Faulknerian serial killer in 1930s Jim Crow South? I'm not sure Lansdale isn't squeezing too hard on the coming-of-age theme; King's "The Body" is light-minded in comparison.
    Still, it contains this fine sentence: "There's no way to explain how bad it hurts to hear your father cry."

A perfect and perfectly ghastly comedy. Any description would dull it.

Another big Southern novella. The Galveston Hurricane.

Black as the pit. Another coming-of-age tale, brief and shocking.

I began by hating this story and ended giving author and woman protagonist a round of applause.
    The prurience and ugliness of woman-stalking slasher films, but with tables turned once, then twice.
    Still, the story to the reader asks:   How much can you take? After three pages I was ready to skip it. Glad I did not.

Wonderful x-ray of how a team of amateur working class crime-fighters come together for their first case.

Tall tale of a mule race in East Texas. Joyfully funny in its narrative rascality.

A Romero-style zombie Western. Lawman and prisoner versus living dead religious cult. Meh.

"Because I could not stop for death.."
    The car came even of the house just as lightning flashed, and in that instant, Alex got a good look at the driver, or at least the shape of the driver outlined in the flash, and he saw that it was a man with a cigar in his mouth and a bowler hat on his head. And the head was turning toward the house.

Just an old fashion slice of life.

A stunner. Brilliant, deadpan gallows humor. A coming-of-age story about two teens who - God, I hope - learn better. The third lad sure doesn't:

    ....Buddy poured some hooch into his palm and rubbed it into his hair, fanning his struggling squirrel-do into greater disarray. He gave the jar to Jake, got out his comb and sculptured his hair with it. Hooch ran down from his hairline and along his nose and cheeks. "See that," he said, holding out his arms as if he were styling. "Shit holds like glue."

Buddy seemed an incredible wit suddenly. They all laughed. Buddy got his cigarettes and shook one out for each of them. They lipped them. They smiled at one another. They were great friends. This was a magnificent and important moment in their lives. This night would live in memory forever.

Buddy produced a match, held it close to his cheek like always, smiled and flicked it with his thumb. The flaming head of the match jumped into his hair and lit the alcohol Buddy had combed into it. His hair flared up, and a circle of fire, like a halo for the Devil, wound its way around his scalp and licked at his face and caught the hooch there on fire. Buddy screamed and bolted berserkly into a pew, tumbled over it and came up running. He looked like the Human Torch on a mission.

Wilson and Jake were stunned. They watched him run a goodly distance, circle, run back, hit the turned over pew again and go down.

Wilson yelled, "Put his head out."

Jake reflexively tossed the contents of the fruit jar at Buddy's head, realizing his mistake a moment too late. But it was like when he waved at Sally's pa. He couldn't help himself.

Buddy did a short tumble, came up still burning; in fact, he appeared to be more on fire than before. He ran straight at Wilson and Jake, his tongue out and flapping flames.

Wilson and Jake stepped aside and Buddy went between them, sprinted across the church yard toward the street.

"Throw dirt on his head!" Wilson said. Jake threw down the jar and they went after him, watching for dirt they could toss.

Buddy was fast for someone on fire. He reached the street well ahead of Wilson and Jake and any discovery of available dirt. But he didn't cross the street fast enough to beat the dump truck. Its headlights hit him first, then the left side of the bumper chopped him on the leg and he did a high complete flip, his blazing head resembling some sort of wheeled fireworks display. He landed on the bridge railing on the far side of the street with a crack of bone and a barking noise. With a burst of flames around his head, he fell off the bridge and into the water below....

Prehistoric ghosts.

Drive-In movie nostalgia.

Lansdale's masterpiece. Unforgettably visceral, like the ache of a broken bone. The best expression since James M. Cain of the noir ethos: do what you will, you can't win.


17 October 2018

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Only matriarchy can save us: Island Life by William Meikle (2001).

....Rawhead growled in his chest. His burned face pained him; he wanted to be away from here, away in the cool of a birch-thicket, moon-washed.

His dimmed eyes found the stone; the homosapien was nursing it like a baby. It was difficult for Rawhead to see clearly, but he knew. It ached in his mind, that image. It pricked him, it teased him.

It was just a symbol of course, a sign of the power, not the power itself, but his mind made no such distinction. To him the stone was the thing he feared most: the bleeding woman, her gaping hole eating seed and spitting children. It was life, that hole, that woman, it was endless fecundity. It terrified him.

Rawhead stepped back, his own shit running freely down his leg. The fear on his face gave Ron strength. He pressed home his advantage, closing in after the retreating beast, dimly aware that Ivanhoe was rallying allies around him, armed figures waiting at the corners of his vision, eager to bring the fire-raiser down.

His own strength was failing him. The stone, lifted high above his head so Rawhead could see it plainly, seemed heavier by the moment.

"Go on," he said quietly to the gathering Zealots. "Go on, take him. Take him."

--"Rawhead Rex" by Clive Barker
Books of Blood III (1984).


Island Life by William Meikle (2001).

Island Life is an ambitious novel.

Set on an isolated Hebridean island dominated by a lighthouse, it features a handful of characters whose everyday lives intersect with disaster.

Meikle tells the story from multiple viewpoints that encompass the island community. He alternates two timelines.

As I said, this is an ambitious novel.

Trouble begins when an assortment of archaeologists open an ancient burial site. This strengthens the male entity trapped within: Calent.

Calent and his minions make themselves felt in no uncertain terms: our islanders meet merciless and cruel ends.


Like Rawhead Rex, Calent reeks of maleness. The matriarchal clans of prehistory were his negation. The first five hundred years of Christianity were still sufficiently infused with a pagan Earth-Mother material basis of social life to thwart Calent. But since then, with the thinning of old folk faith, his power has grown. In his tomb he has accumulated sufficient power to sway minds of those nearby.

Calent commands, "Dig here!" and the archeologists dig, freeing him.

Barker's Rawhead is not a denizen of a Scottish island. And he does not lay asleep and dreaming like Calent. (Or Cthulhu). He is buried beneath Three Acre Field, beside "orchards and hop-fields of the Kentish Weald."

However, Meikle's Calent, like Rawhead, wreaks bloody havoc. (Rawhead never had Calent's monstrous minions, and Zeal can be thankful for that.)

But the everyday social order is saved in both tales by a deeply encoded historical reverence for the Female/Mother principle. In the shape of a small football-sized stone sculpture of the prehistoric Venus.


....For a second Meg and Anne had seemed to merge and grow, taller, then taller still, an impossible, eight-foot personification of woman, like a Neolithic sculpture, legs like tree trunks, hanging pendulous breasts and a massive, stretched belly, a belly in which an unborn child writhed with life.

It had raised itself high over Calent, and he saw the fear in the old creature's eyes, just as the stone came down.

He watched as Calent was killed, then he blinked, and when he looked back there was only Anne and Meg again, but there was something different about them, something in their eyes.

Anne lifted the stone again, and Duncan wondered how she was managing it - there was no strain in her arms, no change in her expression. The remaining creatures fell back from her, cowering in the blue aura from the stone....

(End of spoilers)

The horror genre has been, since the end of World War Two, infused with a sense of historical belatedness. All things of importance in the broader bourgeois world have already taken place. Horrific events and experiences are restricted to a suffocatingly narrow horizon of the individual. (The revolutionary impact of Romero's early films can be seen as a strong counter-thesis to this trend, though "Romeroism" has today been reduced to the "Walking Dead" cliche.)

Ambitious horror has attempted the large social scale. Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot and The Stand are clear examples. So are novels by Dan Simmons. (This does not make them aesthetically superior to bijou social
x-rays by Shirley Jackson or family romances by Ramsey Campbell.) But one must acknowledge the scope of the author's ambitions.

Island Life is an anxious and determined novel with a dozen or more characters, a traversable landscape, and a deep historical context for its tragedy and triumph.

And best of all, it has a lighthouse!

14 October 2018

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Pearls on black velvet: Looking for Something to Suck: The Vampire Stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes With a foreword by Stephen Jones Valancourt 2014

Looking for Something to Suck: The Vampire Stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes

One of the perils of finding a new author is over-indulging.

Chetwynd-Hayes is a case in point for me. After being delighted by "Don't Go Up Them Stairs" in The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories Volume Three and further encouraged by Matt Cowan's own enthusiasm I purchased Looking for Something to Suck: The Vampire Stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes.

(These tales are best read one-per-day. I knew better than to read more than that - but I did it anyway.)

Chetwynd-Hayes is an inventive writer: stories on traditional themes begin with an extra half-spin of perspective that renews subject-matter long sunk in cliche.

(Vampires as a subject are buried under 200 years of cliches. And in the last four decades they have been accumulating at a furious pace. Each time a cliche is shattered, it is quickly metastasized into a new cliche.)

Chetwynd-Hayes is an uneven stylist. Anyone who writes 200 short stories in a career is not cutting flawless diamonds. But his style is generous: setting and atmosphere are always meticulously conveyed. Brevity of character sketches, the way social class is delineated through piquant dialogue, are gracefully and economically handled.

(Foreword by Stephen Jones)
'The Count was apparently very versatile too. He was obviously a cook – those three women didn't do it! He could also make beds, because Harker saw him doing it. So when you think of him doing little jobs like that, he loses some of his terror.'

'Your father is really a count,' she said proudly, 'which means of course that I am a countess and you – well – you must be a viscount.'

Naturally I couldn't keep information like this to myself and passed it on to a crowd of my contemporaries on the way home from school.

'I'm a viscount,' I said.

They chucked me in the local canal and most of them were for leaving me there, maintaining that such a white-faced, bulging-eyed little brat was of no account and should have been drowned at birth. Fortunately a passing clergyman grabbed my hair as I was going down for the third time, then did the necessary arm-pumping-belly-pushing business, which brought me back to gasping life.

A wonderful Upstairs-Downstairs Victorian vampire story. At the reception after the funeral the host goes so far as to tell the undertaker  ''Fraid we can't offer you a drink. We have no beer.'

'My wants are simple. Breakfast – black pudding on toast. Lunch – pig's blood mixed with lightly done mince. Dinner – the same. Nightcap – a glass of pig's blood.' He looked at me intently. 'How does that strike you?'
    I spoke boldly – it always pays in the long run: 'Well, sir, it wouldn't suit me, but if that's what you want – I'll try to make it as tasty as possible.'

'I would certainly like to meet the builder,' Brian said caustically. 'He must have been a remarkable chap'
    'Builder!' Mrs Brown chuckled. 'When did I mention a builder? My dear young man, the house was not built. It grew.'

'You aren't going to wave a cross at me?'
    John shook his head. 'No. I haven't got a cross.'
    The vampire seemed a little happier, for he ceased to tremble, though he continued to watch John with a wary eye.     
    'You're sure? Everyone I've met in the past hundred and fifty years has either waved a cross at me, or smothered me with garlic flowers, or – worst of all – tried to drive a stake through my heart. Everyone is rotten and mean – all because I have the misfortune to be a vampire.'

To be seated beside her was an exciting, and – for some inexplicable reason – a rather fearsome experience. Her hand which slid so naturally into his, was soft and warm, but she gave out – Anthony struggled for the right definition – a subtle suggestion of perpetual coldness. Rather as though she were nothing more than an animated doll, heated by a faulty mechanism, that might at any time break down.

A powerful horror story: loneliness, social isolation, a personality and its body both collapsing under the onslaught of phantoms and weird atmosphere.  Chetwynd-Hayes does women characters with a great sense of solidarity: admiring their hopes, depicting their shortcomings, the way the patriarchal world pushes them around and rationalizes its bullying with names like duty, family, and motherhood.

A wonderful example of ellipses, indirection, and the narrator being stingy with clues. It begins with a young male vampire's temptations to dally with a young female "meat-eater" and then turns to something much stranger and more intriguing.

Simply magnificent. Chetwynd-Hayes takes a plot Susan Hill would turn into a novel and does it in 20 pages. The characters live and breathe, fully rounded and moving to the brittle last extremity of their encounter with a retributive horror.

Like a newly-born colt he quickly learnt how to move from one place to another. He thought 'bedroom' and was there, poised over the large double bed, peering into the long wardrobe mirror that denied his existence.
A journalist for the Ghoul Gazette comes for an interview with Count Dracula. Hilarious.
    ....'Fortunately, the world is full of long-nosed idiots who can't mind their own business. There's always someone who will pull a stake out of a grinning skeleton; pour virgin blood over my ashes; hold midnight orgies and gabble unpronounceable words, then scream
their fool heads off when I put in an appearance. On one occasion I was revived by a priest's blood. Can you beat that?'
     ....'I was encased in ice at the time. You know, the usual thing – some rotten swine had lured me over a frozen river – thin ice – running water beneath – in I go – become as stiff as a fish finger – and that was that. Then along comes this knee-basher waving a wooden unmentionable – slips on the ice – cuts his text-croaking throat – and I get a mouthful of the red stuff. I was up and about in no time at all.'

Simply wonderful. The self-assurance of Chetwynd-Hayes: to give the reader an epistolary short story. Two superb women characters. Read this tale first.

'No, don't interrupt. Please. Some people have a gift for music, others have an aptitude for acting. I have a gift, a curse, call it what you like for psychic phenomena.'

....No, me mind's made up, I won't have him buried in no churchyard. I want him where I can see him, where he's been these ninety years.' She banged her stick on the floor. Right here in this house. So if you wants what yer thinks should come to you after I'm gone, put yer thinking caps on.'

A "psychic detective" story. Happily Chetwynd-Hayes did not waste too much time and typewriter ribbon on this misbegotten subgenre.

I read this one in the collection Monster Club. Funny? I should cocoa!

13 October 2018