[man stuffing dismembered body under floorboards]
Fiona's Recent Horror Reading

"True!--nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! but why will you say that I am mad? ... Hearken! and observe how healthily--how calmly I can tell you the whole story."
-- Edgar A. Poe

Brian A. Hopkins  /  Cold at Heart

Cold at Heart is a fast-paced yarn about a wildlife photographer and a biologist who studies wolves (two manly men), and the biologist's Nordic beauty of a daughter, who encounter a fierce, intelligent, shapeshifting monster in the wilds of the Arctic circle. Brian Hopkins's writing is a welcome throwback to the best tradition of the horror/fantasy/adventure tales that used to appear in American pulp magazines in the '30s-'50s: he adheres to the same storytelling principles of sharp-edged economical characterization, vivid descriptions, lots of action, and a bang-up ending. Even the sexist bit when the blonde babe gets naked right off the bat is forgiveable in the context of good-hearted, retro fun. Praises are due to Starlance Publications for having the cojones to publish a novella--that satisfying length for a supernatural tale--as a stand-alone paperback.     INFO

James Herbert  /  The Ghosts of Sleath

Veteran horror writer James Herbert brings back the protagonist of Haunted to investigate psychic disturbances in a picturesque village in the Lake District of England. It's an interesting mishmash of a novel--not entirely successful, but enjoyable all the same. Herbert's penchant for gorgeously visceral carnage clashes with his equally skilled ability to create a subtle mood of supernatural terror. And he throws way too many ingredients into the stew: family secrets, rape, infanticide, necrophilia, the "Black Arts," a moldering mansion, a sinister yellow fog, drowning children, poltergeist pranks, a haunted painting, a tormented vicar, a neglectful doctor, even an evil knight.

Yet, as Necrofile: The Review of Horror Fiction writes, "None of these flaws are fatal. These days, making a classic ghost story work at all--let alone on the scale of The Ghosts of Sleath--requires a daunting level of craft, control, and consistency. ... Many of the novel's supernatural elements--a mysterious whirlwind in a nearby forest in which a terrifying figure forms, a deserted primary school from which eerie voices emerge, an antique whipping post near the village green that drips blood--evoke the requisite chills. And, perhaps best of all, Herbert has taken pains to enrich this novel with a wealth of finely observed descriptive passages..."     INFO

Paul Bowles  /  The Delicate Prey

Paul Bowles once said that a story should remain taut throughout, like a piece of string. That tense, stretched tone is the key to this collection of 17 eerie tales by the author best known for The Sheltering Sky. This book is dedicated, "For my mother, who first read me the stories of Poe." If Poe had lived in Mexico, and he'd had ice-water running in his veins to counteract his feverish romanticism, he might have crafted something like these odd vignettes about human frailty and cruelty.

As Tobias Wolff writes in Esquire, "The Delicate Prey is in fact one of the most profound, beautifully wrought, and haunting collections in our literature ... Bowles's tales are at once austere, witty, violent, and sensuous. They move with the inevitability of myth. His language has a purity of line, a poise and authority entirely its own, capable of instantly modulating from farce to horror without a ruffle..." These stories are set in a night world, where palm trees are like "shiny green spiders," where bats reel silently overhead in a jet-black sky, where a hot relentless wind blows across deserted plazas.     INFO

Brian McNaughton  /  The Throne of Bones

Imagine earthy Tolkienesque characters in a setting full of cemeteries, graverobbers, necromancers, corpse-eaters--even a huge labyrinthine necropolis. Imagine mephitic gardens where the sarcophage, selenotrope, and necrophilium bloom. Then throw in star-crossed lovers, crazed zealots, stalwart heroes, bloodthirsty renegade armies, hideous monsters, and likeable misfits. You've got just a hint of the wondrous and original visions in the dark fantasy world of Brian McNaughton.

Horror scholar S. T. Joshi, in the afterword to this collection of stories, notes the strong influence of Clark Ashton Smith--and also Lord Dunsany, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Greco-Roman decadent works such as Petronius's Satyricon. "McNaughton seems to have mastered one of the most difficult of literary arts: to draw upon the classics of the field without losing his own voice. ... The world that McNaughton has created in this book is the world of the ghoul; and who knows but that The Throne of Bones will become the standard textbook for the care and feeding of ghouls just as Dracula has become that for vampires?"     INFO

John Clute, John Grant, et al.  /  The Encyclopedia of Fantasy

This masterful follow-up to the 1993 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (ed. by John Clute and Peter Nicholls) is an essential purchase for anyone who's serious about fantasy. Those who are serious about horror will also find it an excellent reference. The works of prolific and confusing authors such as Michael Moorock, and authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien who have many posthumously published fragments, are explained with admirable clarity. Especially fascinating are the numerous terms for motifs and themes, comprising what the editors call a map of the many "fuzzy sets" in the universe of fantasy fiction--terms such as "crosshatch," "polder," and "water margin." The entries include many on horror writers (only writers who write no fantasy, such as Richard Laymon, are excluded) and horror movies, and carefully written definitions of terms such as horror, dark fantasy, supernatural fiction, gothic fiction, psychological thrillers, and weird fiction. Locus calls the Encyclopedia of Fantasy "massive and welcome," and writes, "This will be the standard reference for years to come."     INFO

H. Rider Haggard  /  She

Ayesha is She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, a 2000-year-old queen who rules over the fabled lost city of Kôr, deep in a maze of African caverns. She has the occult wisdom of Isis, the never-aging beauty of Aphrodite, and the violent appetite of a lamia. Like A. Conan Doyle's Lost World, She is one of those magnificent Victorian yarns about an expedition to a far-off locale shadowed by magic, mystery, and death.

Tim Stout writes, in Horror: 100 Best Books, "As the plot takes hold one has the fancy that [Ayesha] had always existed, in some dark dimension of the imagination, and that [H. Rider] Haggard was the fortunate author to whom she chose to reveal herself." Haggard did in fact write this book in a six-week burst of feverish inspiration: "It came faster than my poor aching hand could set it down," he later said. This edition of the 1887 classic features an introductory essay by literary critic Regina Barreca, who likens Ayesha to Flaubert's Madame Bovary or Tolstoy's Anna Karenina--"literally fantastic female figures who must be stopped before they love again."     INFO

T. M. Wright  /  Manhattan Ghost Story

Welcome Reprint #1 -- In the late '70s to early '80s, T. M. Wright earned praise from critics for a series of ghost novels about isolated houses in upstate New York. This 1984 novel moved the action to New York City--for a tale not about a single building, but about an all-pervasive layer of reality in which the shades of the living mark their days in a listless state until finally, they fall apart. A commercial photographer gets slowly pulled, while still living, into that Other Side--a plight that leads to a profoundly unsettling and surreal chain of events. "And if you get stuck in that other city, that other Manhattan, you find yourself getting awfully desperate and mean-spirited, the way some people are affected by too much heat or the crying of small children." Wright's ghosts are evocatively described, with their awkward movements and stares of "quiet, studied indifference." (Be forewarned that A Manhattan Ghost Story, while justly celebrated, has a couple of minor flaws: a unfortunately weak love story, and slipshod editing that didn't catch place names changing partway through.)     INFO

John Steakley  /  Vampire$

Welcome Reprint #2 -- Vampire$ is about a tightly knit group of professional vampire killers. They may say they're in it for the money, but their death-defying bravado and warm male-male friendships are as intense as those in any soldier-hero epic. The irrepressible, foul-mouthed, hard-drinkin' Jack Crow--decked out in high-tech chain mail and wielding a fearsome crossbow--is the leader of the bunch. He's the sort of man who screams obscenities at the Pope, and then (after a lot of alcohol) weeps in the pontiff's lap over the horrors he's witnessed.

Author John Steakley is the son of a Chevrolet dealer from Cleburne, Texas, and he uses his roots to good effect: Not only does much of the action take place in the Lone Star state, but when we first meet the major character named Felix, he's an apparition out of the Old West--living in an abandoned box car on the Rio Grande with a Mexican whore, an endless supply of tequila, and a tacky bleeding Jesus on the wall.

Vampyre$ is one gaudy, action-packed, kick-ass novel. The men are men, the women are pretty and vulnerable, and the vampires are mean, ugly monsters. If you like that sort of thing, you'll love it.     INFO

[All reviews copyright © Amazon.com, Inc. 1998]

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