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

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

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Four stories by John Farris

Scare Tactics by John Farris (1988, Tor) collects four stories and a short novel. I have skipped the novel.

This is the first time I have read Farris. His Tor paperbacks were always plentiful at flea markets and on the shelves at Half Price Books twenty-five years ago. I was never tempted by his subject matter: psychic kids, Southern Gothic family romances, and homicidal maniacs. Yesterday, however, reading on another topic, I saw a review from Kirkus praising the story "Horrorshow" in the collection Scare Tactics.

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"The Odor of Violets" (1988) 

Jack Mayo, washed-up writer, tangles with the muse of a better man, now dead, whose novel he is peddling as his own.

The story is pitched at the level of an old episode of Twilight Zone where a conniver, portrayed by someone like Jack Weston, commits an ethical outrage and faces dire but ironic comeuppance.

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"I Scream. You Scream. We All Scream for Ice Cream." (1989)

"I Scream...." has a climax too contrary and perfunctory to succeed. 

Which is unfortunate. The story begins with promise: adult friends known as The West End Bunch as kids are disappearing without a trace. Ultimately the last survivor, professional and family man Layne Bannixter, figures out a deadly prank they orchestrated in childhood is the cause of the disappearances.

How the force or entity seeking revenge is  thwarted by Layne's use of small explosive charges, weighted nets of electrified chicken wire, and tanks of acetylene and propane gas, beggars all readerly credulity. To be generous, it smacks of either incompetence or slick and calculating cynicism.

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"Scare Tactics" (1989)

Formulaic shortcomings of "The Odor of Violets" and "I Scream. You Scream. We All Scream for Ice Cream" pale in comparison to the misbegotten "Scare Tactics".

The tale might have been intended as a farcical shaggy dog story. If so, mishandled tone of voice and point of view sabotaged the plans. To send-up James M. Cain with a talking parrot in the John Garfield role clearly requires more wit than Farris can muster.

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"Horrorshow" (1988) by John Farris

"Horrorshow" is the strongest and most satisfying story in Scare Tactics. It is an outstanding supernatural thriller, and testament to the skills Farris has developed over decades as a writer of popular fiction. (Akin, in this, to pros Michael Avallone and John D. MacDonald).

Like the drive-in popcon of Charles B. Pierce and Max Baer, "Horrorshow" has its horny small-town teens and adults who put themselves in harm's way. It has a sheriff, his deputies, and assorted police dogs.

And it has a stranger in town, a UK drifter who may be our hero. Or our red herring.

     He awoke at dawn with a headache, muscles cramping in his calves and wrists. He had the familiar sense of undefined anxiety that told him there had been an Occurrence.

     Hieronymus "Hero" Flynn attended to his discomfort by concentrating on the rays of the unseen sun, the God Belus whom he worshiped, keystar of the Sabian religion. He had far to journey before he became a master; but his will was strong. He had made good progress in the treatment of his affliction during his three weeks' sojourn in this cosmically significant point of the Western Hemisphere, not far from a place called Carverstown, in Georgia.

....Hero took the path uphill through the pines to the Indian burial mounds, grass-covered hillocks approximately twenty-five feet high and scattered irregularly over a few acres. The site was several thousand years old but had never been more alive, cosmically speaking, due to certain conjunctions of benefic lights and planets and the energy these conjunctions discharged upon this particular plot of ground. It had been foretold by a Mayan priest he had discovered on the Belize-Honduran border that this site would be of vital concern to Hero if he desired to correct himself in this lifetime, to once and for all be free of the physical encumbrance that had persisted from a past life misspent in Babylon, some 3,500 years ago.

     But today he found it difficult, perhaps because of the most recent Occurrence, to align himself properly with emanations from the unexcavated burial site, so rich in harmonics which enhanced his own earthly vibrations. He was saturated with the knowledge of another's death.

"Horrorshow"  has a spectacular climax in a cemetery adjacent to an abandoned drive-in movie theater. The effects Farris achieves here are gripping and eloquent.

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5 October 2021

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