Horror Book Review: Monster by Christopher Pike

“They were no longer human…” the cover of 1992 first edition of Christopher Pike’s Monster announces and indeed, they’re not!  That cover, I should add, makes the book look a lot more light-hearted than it is.  It makes it look like it’s some sort of sci-fi comedy about a demonically possessed football player when there’s actually very little about this book that could be considered light-hearted.

This book is dark.  Like, seriously, dark.

It opens with popular high school student Mary Carlson walking into a party while carrying a shotgun.  She blows away a football player named Todd and then a cheerleader named Kathy and then she points the gun at her own boyfriend, Jim.  Fortunately, the new girl at school, Angela, manages to distract Kathy just long enough for Jim to take off running into the woods.  Mary goes chasing after him but she gets arrested before she guns him down as well.  It’s probably a good thing that Jim survived because, without him, how would the football team ever win another game?  After all, the team sucked just last season before all of the players and the cheerleaders suddenly got super strong!

Anyway, Mary says that she was shooting her friends because they were no longer human and, according to her, the three of them have been picking up people and killing them in a warehouse.  Police Lt. Nguyen doesn’t believe her but Angela feels a bit of an obligation to investigate Mary’s story.  And really, it’s the least she can do considering that she promptly starts flirting with Jim right after Mary’s arrested.

It quickly becomes obvious that something strange has happened to all of the school’s athletes and cheerleaders.  Maybe it has something to do with the mysterious crater from which the town gets its drinking water.  Angela notices that Jim tends to eat everything in sight, including a raw hamburger.  After she and Jim make out and she ends up getting some of his blood on her, she soon finds that she’s eating everything in sight.  Is it possible that some sort of monster has not only taken over Jim but is now taking over Angela as well!?

Yes, it is.  That’s bad news for Kevin, who is Angela’s BFF and who is totally in love with her even though she only views him as being a very good friend.  Oh, poor Kevin!  Kevin is one of the few wholly sympathetic characters in the book and he still ends up with a broken neck.  Like I said, this book is dark!

It all ends on an appropriately dark note and I guess that’s the important thing.  This book was written in 1992 and, at the time it was written, it was probably meant to be a metaphor about the dangers of having unsafe sex, as Angela is infected after fooling around with Jim.  Reading it today, though, it feels more like a commentary on just unsafe school has become over the past decade.  Mary Carlson, blowing away her friends because they’re “not human,” brings to mind so many recent gun-related tragedies.  It’s a bit difficult to read.

Anyway, Monster is a seriously dark book but still an effectively macabre story.  Nobody was as skilled at traumatizing young readers as Christopher Pike!

Horror Book Review: Psycho II by Robert Bloch

So, first things first.

This 1982 novel by Robert Bloch is indeed a sequel to the novel that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary horror film.  Yes, Norman Bates does return.  For that matter, so do Lila and Sam Loomis.  However, this novel should not be mistaken for Richard Franklin’s film, Psycho II, which came out a year later.  In fact, according to a later interview with Robert Bloch, Universal actually pressured him not to release this novel because they disliked the story Bloch had come up with and they also felt it would harm the financial prospects of their sequel.  Bloch, of course, did what he wanted to and was subsequently not invited to any screenings of Franklin’s film.

As for Bloch’s novel, it’s easy to see why Universal wasn’t enthusiastic about it.  It’s perhaps one of the most anti-Hollywood books ever written.  When Norman Bates escapes from a mental asylum and goes on another rampage, his doctor, Adam Claiborne, is convinced that Norman is heading to Hollywood to try to stop production of a movie called Crazy Lady, a movie that’s based on Norman’s crimes.  Even though everyone else is convinced that Norman’s been killed, Claiborne remains convinced that Norman faked his own death and is still out there.

Needless to say, the book’s Norman is considerably different from the vulnerable manchild that Anthony Perkins played in the films.  However, Norman is off-stage for the majority of Bloch’s sequel, the better to keep you wondering whether or not he actually is dead.  The majority of the book is dedicated to Claiborne getting to know the cast and crew of Crazy Lady, the majority of whom turn out to be sleazy Hollywood stereotypes.  Reading the book, it’s easy to see why Universal didn’t care much for it but, at times, Bloch occasionally comes across as if he think he’s the first person to ever be critical of Hollywood.

Another reason why Universal may have balked at adapting Bloch’s novel was because of a surreal chapter in which Paul Morgan, the actor who has been cast to play Norman, goes undercover at a brothel where all of the escorts look like then-Hollywood stars.  Since each escort is referred to by his star’s name, the entire chapter is basically Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, and John Travolta making bitchy comments about Hollywood and religion.  It’s an odd chapter that doesn’t advance the story but, at the same time, it’s also Bloch at his most subversive.

Though the book’s take on Hollywood was hardly revolutionary, Bloch was a born storyteller and the story moves at a good pace.  It all ends with an effective twist, one that provides a proper ending to Bloch’s version of the Norman Bates story.  For Psycho and Bloch fans, it’s a must read.

Horror Book Review: The Mall by Richie Tankersley Cusick

The Mall was first published in 1992 and really, it’s a story that could only have taken place in the early 90s.  Why is that?  Well, there’s a couple of reasons:

First off, it not only takes place in a mall but it also takes place during a time when everyone’s life revolved around the mall.  You can’t just order stuff online in this book.  Nope, you have to physically walk from store to store.  Sometimes, you even have to ride an elevator.  If you suggested to anyone in this book that they should just order something off of Amazon, they’d probably complain about having the pay the international shipping.

Secondly, this is a book in which characters regularly find themselves in situations where 1) there’s no escape and 2) there’s no one around to call for help.  Today, of course, anyone who gets stuck on an elevator can just call the cops on their phone.  By that some token, if you’ve got some weird stalker constantly calling you, you can just block him.  But, in the world of The Mall, there’s no way to block (or trace) a caller who uses a pay phone.  And, if you’re stuck on an elevator …. well, you’re just stuck there until your stalker decides to toss a dead body in there with you.

Anyway, this is one of those books that opens with a prologue in which a stalker stares at the object of his lust and spends a lot of time thinking about how she will eventually be his, though only when the circumstances are just right.  Apparently, because he’s obsessed with a teenage girl who works at the mall, the stalker spends a lot of time pretending to be a mannequin which …. agck!  I mean, c’mon, that is definitely a creepy image.

Trish Somerfeld works at the mall, with her best friend Nita.  Trish is employed at …. I kid you not, Muffin Madness.  Nita works at a clothing store called The Latest Trend (no seriously).  Nita is a little bit creeped out by the fact that another girl who worked at the mall recently disappeared.  The rumor is that the girl was murdered though it’s possible that she might just be out of town.  Trish, on the other hand, is disturbed by the fact that she keeps getting calls from someone who has a “womanish voice” and who says things like, “I’m eating your muffin right now.”  The stalker soon becomes known as the — *ahem* — Muffin Man.

Who is the Muffin Man?  Could he possibly be the cute guy who is always hanging out the mall and seems to be particularly interested in Trish?  (I mean, he winked at her!)  His name is Storm Reynolds and …. what?  THAT IS TOO HIS NAME!  DO YOU THINK I’D MAKE UP A NAME LIKE THAT!?

Where was I?  Oh yeah.  So anyway, Trish is totally being stalked and she knows it but, at the same time, she doesn’t really do much about it.  Even when she comes across a dead body with an ice pick in its head, she declines to let anyone know because she doesn’t want to get one of the mall security guards in trouble.  Anyway, Trish eventually is forced to deal with her stalker and the revelation of his identity is not really that much of a surprise.

It’s a dumb book but it’s also a fun book, largely because Richie Tankersley Cusick takes so much delight in describing life in the mall.  Because it’s a book that was written for 90s teenagers, the lead character can get away with doing a lot of dumb stuff and, as dense as Trish might be, at least she has two good friends, Nita and her twin sister, Imogene, who have always got her back.  Storm Reynolds is a bit of a jerk and you cringe when he’s set up as a love interest but, at the same time, his name is Storm so I always giggled whenever anyone talked about him.

Plus, how can you not enjoy a book where the main villain is known as the Muffin Man?  Seriously….

As far I know, Lifetime never did a film version of The Mall.  That’s a missed opportunity on their part, if you ask me.

Horror Book Review: Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin

First published in 1982, George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream is a novel that centers on two men.  Captain Abner Marsh may be considered physically unattractive and lacking in certain social graces but he’s also known as one of the best steamboat captains in pre-Civil War Mississippi.  Joshua York may be wealthy and charming (if a bit pale and fond of a strange-tasting red liquor) but he knows little about how to actually run a steamboat.  That said, as York explains it to Marsh, he wants to build the fastest and most luxurious steamboat ever made.  Marsh may initially be weary of the seemingly eccentric York but he needs the money.

When the steamboat (which is christened the Fevre Dream) is eventually constructed, it turns out to be everything that York said it would be.  Soon, Marsh is sailing the boat up and down the Mississippi River.  The command of the boat and its passengers is largely left in Marsh’s hands.  York requests is that he and his friends be left alone in their cabins.  York doesn’t particularly enjoy coming out during the day….

Could York be a vampire?  Of course, he is!  But he’s not the type of vampire that everyone’s read about.  Instead, York is a visionary vampire.  His dream is to set his people free from their compulsive blood-drinking.  However, there’s another vampire moving up and down the river.  His name is Damon Julian and he has plans of his own for the Fevre Dream….

A vampire novel by George R. R. Martin!?  Indeed, it is!  Of course, since this is a Martin book, the vampires of Fevre Dream aren’t like the traditional vampires that we all know and love.  These vampires are a totally different species of being and one of the key points of the book is that humans cannot be transformed into vampires.  Indeed, the vampires view human as being mere “cattle,” being bred for their hunger.  York’s concern is that, if the vampires continue to feed on humans, the humans will eventually rise up and destroy them.  Damon, of course, is far less concerned about that.  Just as how the white slave owners arrogantly assume that their slaves have no desire to free, Damon and his followers arrogantly assume that the humans will always stay in their place.  Damon even has a human servant, Billy Tipton, who has been fooled into thinking that he might someday become a vampire as long as he does everything that Damon orders him to do.

It’s an interesting novel, one that does a good job of incorporating it’s paranormal story into an authentic, historical background.  If you’re really into vampires and steamboats, there’s a lot of both to be found in this book.  Unfortunately, I get the feeling that the people reading for the vampires will probably get bored with all pages devoted to steamboats while steamboat enthusiasts might not care much for the vampires.  Myself, I’m a history nerd and a lover of all things vampiric so there’s no way I wouldn’t appreciate a novel about vampires in 19th century Mississippi.

It may not be for everyone but Fevre Dream is a well-written and compulsively readable historical vampire epic.

Horror Book Review: Book of the Dead by Jamie Russell

If you’re still making out your Halloween movie list, might I suggest that you pick up a copy of Jamie Russell’s Book of the Dead?  Because, seriously — what’s a Halloween movie night without a few zombies thrown into the mix?

Book of the Dead is comprehensive study of the history of zombie cinema, starting with a look at how the legend of the zombie first began and then progressing through White Zombie, the dead films of George Romero, the great Italian zombie films of Lucio Fulci, and finally moving all the way to the modern era.  Scary zombies, funny zombies, porno zombies, political zombies, underwater zombies, French zombies; they’re all here!  It’s a well-written book, one that was clearly written by somebody who not only loves the movies in general but zombie films in specific.  Russell seems to be having so much fun writing about these films that it’s impossible not to share his enthusiasm.

Even better, the book contains a comprehensive appendix that lists and reviews basically every zombie film ever made!  Seriously, there all here — from the obscure to famous.  When I first started to seriously study the history of horror cinema, Book of the Dead was one of the first resources that I purchased and I used to obsessively study that appendix.  It’s thanks to this book that I discovered films like I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain.  It was thanks to this book that I discovered that there was more to zombie cinema than just corpses eating brains.

This book was originally published in 2005 and, at that time, basically went up to the Resident Evil-era of zombie films.  Subsequent editions have been updated with even more zombie films and even more zombie reviews!  This is the perfect book for all of your undead needs!


Book Review: The Hell Candidate by Graham Masterton

First off, ignore the fact that the cover for the 1981 first edition of The Hell Candidate credits Thomas Luke as being the author.  This book was written by Graham Masterton and, with its combination of sex, violence, and transgressive political commentary, it’s easily identifiable as being a Masterton novel.  Why was it published under the name Thomas Luke?  Perhaps, at the time it was published, it was felt that the British Graham Masterton wasn’t a well-enough known name in the United States.  Or maybe it was felt that the book would prove to be so controversial that it had to be published under a pseudonym.  Who knows?  All subsequent editions of the book have credited Graham Masterton as being the author so, obviously, it’s no longer controversial (or even outlandish) to suggest that an American politician might be in league with the devil.

The Hell Candidate is told from the point of view of Jack Russo, a PR man who has been hired to work on the presidential campaign of Hunter Peal.  At the start of his campaign, Peal is a calm and rather even-handed candidate, advocating common sense solutions for America’s problems.  Everyone acknowledges that he’s a good man but no one gives him a chance of actually winning his party’s nomination.  That all changes when Peal’s personality suddenly changes, seemingly overnight.  Suddenly, Peal is loud, profane, and angry, a candidate who promises to destroy America’s enemies and make everyone at home rich.  His managers worry that Peal has gone insane and prepare themselves for a disaster on the campaign trail.

Instead, it turns out that the voters really like this new, profane and insane Hunter Peal.  No matter what Peal says or does, the crowds love him and soon, Hunter Peal is moving into the White House.  Is it because the people truly love this aspiring dictator or is it because Hunter Peal made a deal with the devil?

The Hell Candidate is an effective novel, precisely because we know that most politicians would gladly make a deal with the devil if it meant a chance to set up residence in the White House.  Indeed, what was presumably meant to be shocking when this novel was written is rather common place now.  I mean, seriously — profanity on the campaign trail?  Oh my!  Bragging about your ability to destroy your enemies?  Horror!  Cynically abusing the power of the office of the presidency?  OH MY GOD!  What makes the book memorable, though, is its suggestion that the voters don’t necessarily need to be influenced by the devil to vote for a candidate like Hunter Peal.  Instead, the book suggests that a dictator is secretly what most voters desire.

In the end, the book suggests that the Vatican might be able to help us deal with a Satanically-possessed president but who can save the American people from themselves?

Book Review: Haunted Heartland by Beth Scott and Michael Norman

Today’s review comes straight from my Aunt Kate’s paperback book collection.  It’s Haunted Heartland by Beth Scott and Michael Norman!

First published in 1985, Haunted Heartland is a collection of supposedly true stories about ghosts and other supernatural things.  The catch is that all of the stories take place in “American’s heartland.”

Where is the heartland?  Well, according to this book, the heartland is made up of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  So, sorry, Arkansas!  Too bad, Oklahoma!  Your ghosts do not qualify for inclusion in this book that’s a shame because both Arkansas and Oklahoma are home to some pretty interesting ghosts.  That said, the ten states that are profiled in Haunted Heartland are apparently home to some fascinating stories of their own.

For instance, did you know that Egypt, Illinois is nearly as haunted as Chicago?  Of course, I guess when you’re the home state of Al Capone and the Chicago Outfit, you’ll end up collecting a number of restless spirits.  Since President Lincoln was from Illinois, the authors also take the time to recount Lincoln’s numerous supernatural encounters.  The ghosts and the dream weavers loved Abe Lincoln.

Did you know that La Llorona has actually been spotted in Gary, Indiana?

Did you know about the poltergeist of Gutenberg, Iowa?

Or how about the mad woman of Topeka, Kansas?

Did you know that Michigan is haunted by phantom ships?

Ever heard of the phantom miner of Minnesota?

Did you know that Missouri’s own Mark Twain was psychic?

Have you ever been curious about the grinning skeletons of Nebraska?

Have you ever searched for the headless biker of Ohio?

Could you survive meeting the wandering dead of Wisconsin?

All these stories and more are detailed in Haunted Heartland!  It’s a pretty enjoyable book.  Norman and Scott narrate their tales of the paranormal in a breezy and fun manner, with the stated goal being more to entertain as opposed to terrify.  Even with that in mind, though, Haunted Heartland is a treasure trove from aspiring horror writers searching for inspiration.