Successors to the King - The Boom: The Blockbusters - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Successors to the King
The Boom: The Blockbusters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

In the wake of the popular success of Blatty, Tryon, and especially King, a host of other writers—wannabes, opportunists, and a few of some actual (if minimal) literary talent—joined the ranks of the bestsellers, although none of them achieved anything approaching King’s commercial success or Tryon’s aesthetic triumphs. First on the agenda is American writer Jeffrey Konvitz (b. 1944), whose potboiler The Sentinel (1974) was turned into a 1977 film, which the author resourcefully produced and wrote the screenplay for. The Sentinel harks back to Rosemary’s Baby in its New York City setting (an old apartment building on the Upper West Side), its contemporary setting and characters (the chief focus is on Allison Parker, a model, who moves into the building), and its highly conventional supernatural manifestation. We are asked to believe that this building is in fact the gateway to Hell, and that the Catholic church has for decades or centuries been stationing a “sentinel” there (currently a blind priest) to guard against the emergence of devils from this baleful terrain. The curious thing about this premise is that it is obviously undermined by the very events of the novel; for Allison sees all manner of curious tenants in the building, and we later learn that these are the very imps of Hell whom the priest is presumably seeking to keep in their infernal domain. Possibly the idea is that these imps can never stray beyond the precincts of the building, but Konvitz never spells out this idea. The whole novel is crippled by its own absurdity and confusion; predictably, Konvitz produced an even worse sequel, The Guardian (1979), in which Allison has now become a blind nun and taken the place of the blind priest. Konvitz mercifully decided at this point to abandon writing for the most part (aside from one further lacklustre horror novel, Monster [1982], about the Loch Ness monster) and stuck to being a film producer.

John Farris (b. 1936) joined the ranks of horror bestsellers with The Fury (1976), although he had been publishing books since 1956. Farris is one of those rare popular writers who can actually write a coherent sentence—indeed, at times his prose ascends to modest heights of lyricism, and his ability at character portrayal is not entirely to be despised—but who have been so seduced by bestsellerism that they have corrupted whatever literary merits they possess. The Fury is prototypical. A “horror-thriller” whose convoluted plot needs no recycling here—suffice it to say that it deals with the efforts of Peter Sandza to rescue his psychically gifted son, Robin, from the clutches of a shadowy government agency called MORG (Multipsychic Operations and Research Group), in which task he teams up with teenager Gillian Bellaver, who is Robin’s “psychic twin”—The Fury fails as a supernatural novel precisely because Farris is so keen on shoot-’em-up action that he neglects to specify exactly what powers Robin and Gillian have and, even more pertinently, why the government is seeking to harness these powers. Gillian appears to be able to make certain susceptible people bleed to death, and she is also clairvoyant; Robin seems to have some of these qualities and perhaps others, but their nature is never clarified, and the whole novel is merely a long-drawn-out adventure story. Decades later Farris produced three interminable sequels to The Fury, while writing bushels of other novels dealing with vampires, Mayan deities, and similarly hackneyed subjects. It may be worth noting that Stephen King appears to have pilfered elements of The Fury for not one but two of his novels—The Dead Zone and Firestarter.

Such novels as Audrey Rose (1975) by Frank De Felitta (b. 1921) and The Omen (1976) by David Seltzer (b. 1940) are scarcely worth discussing aside from noting their mere existence and the film adaptations of them (in 1977 and 1976, respectively) and, again, their conventional supernaturalism (the latter postulates the birth of the Antichrist)—the only novelty in these cases, if indeed it is a novelty, is that children are the focus of the terror, in one case as a victim (Audrey Rose is possessed by the soul of a girl previously killed) and in the other as villain. The drearily prolific V. C. Andrews (1923—1986) also milked this vein in Flowers in the Attic (1979) and many other works that fuse Gothic horror and family saga; but as her work is non-supernatural, it can mercifully be bypassed here.

It is this schtick that John Saul (b. 1942) has made the focus of an appalling array of shoddily written and manipulative novels. Saul has discovered the obvious fact that average readers have a built-in sympathy with and concern for children, since they usually have children of their own, and so he strives to maximise the horrors—supernatural and natural—to which children can be exposed in order to engender reader empathy. All these qualities are on display in his first novel, the bestseller Suffer the Children (1977). After a brief but striking “prologue,” set a hundred years ago, in which a man rapes and kills a little girl (who, it is later ascertained, is his own daughter), we move up to a period fifteen years ago, where the focus is on Jack and Rose Conger, a troubled married couple whose two daughters are the focus of the tale. The younger, Sarah, was brutally beaten by her father, for no reason that he can determine, and is now unable to speak; her older sister, Elizabeth, seems a model girl in tending to Sarah and dealing with her affliction with understanding and concern. But Elizabeth turns out to be the villain, because she ultimately kidnaps several children and leads them down into a pit near where the hundred-year-old killing occurred, ultimately killing her captives and managing to cast the blame on to her sister, who is unable to refute the charge. As the novel at last moves into the present day, the bodies of the murdered children are found on the very day that Sarah, now roughly rehabilitated, is released from an institution. She suddenly remembers that her sister is in reality a murderer and thereby lapses into speechlessness once more.

The novel dodges more questions than it answers. Was Jack Conger himself possessed by some spirit or other when he initially brutalised Sarah? Was Elizabeth possessed by the spirit of the dead girl (named Beth) to undertake her own killings? But overriding these ambiguities is the fact that the novel is largely a melodrama, with much space devoted to the Congers’ marital troubles, and with the supernatural almost entirely absent except, perhaps, at the very end.

In any event, Saul used this formula in a dreary plethora of novels that numbers thirty-six down to 2009. I am not entirely sure that a single one of them is worth reading, for their supernatural manifestations are all routine and mundane—psychic possession, ghosts, Native American myth, and so forth—and all are crafted with the calculated purpose of eliciting transparent reader response by their focus on children or teenagers.

But Saul comes off as a veritable Melville when compared to Richard Laymon (1947—2001), an American writer who somehow managed to establish a greater reputation in England than in the United States—which will no doubt destroy forever the myth that English readers are more literate and sophisticated than American ones. Laymon’s first novel, The Cellar (1980), pretty much tells the whole story. We are here concerned with a house in a small town in California where several murders have been committed over a period of seventy or more years, and which has therefore gained the soubriquet of The Beast House. Is some actual supernatural creature lurking there, or are these killings merely the work of a succession of crazed human beings? The focus of the novel is on Donna Hayes, a beautiful woman who flees Los Angeles with her teenage daughter, Sandy, when she learns that her husband, Roy, has been let out of jail. Roy is a singularly unpleasant fellow who at once kills several individuals upon his release, including Donna’s own sister, Karen, in an effort to locate her. It transpires that Roy was put in prison for raping his own daughter.

Implausibly, Donna strikes up an acquaintance with one Judgment [sic] Rucker, who for some reason is seeking to probe the mystery of Beast House. It rapidly becomes clear that Jud will end up with Donna and Roy will be dispatched. In the end, the “beast” dispatches Roy bloodily; but it turns out that there is not one beast but several, and they appear to be the mutant offspring of some of the inhabitants of Beast House. In a preposterous ending, both Donna and Sandy are captured by the current owners of the house and are impregnated by the beasts.

What distinguishes Laymon is a prose style of almost moronic inanity. Consider the following luminous passage:

He washed up. After he dressed in clean clothes, his suitcase was nearly empty. He tossed the few remaining contents into the bed, and took the suitcase into the bathroom. There, he piled his torn, bloody clothes into it. He dropped the old bandage in and latched the suitcase. Then he carried it outside. (167)

This is, quite literally, a passage that anyone could have written. (Dean Koontz, incredibly, has stated: “No one writes like Laymon, and you’re going to have a good time with anything he writes”—but Koontz’s credentials as a literary critic are in some doubt.) The truth is that Laymon was only marginally more intelligent and aesthetically attuned than the majority of his brainless audience, and it is this simple fact that allowed him to publish more than thirty novels in a twenty-year span. Laymon also wrote his share of short stories, but the title of one of his collections—Dreadful Tales (2000)—unwittingly sums up their overall quality. Laymon’s simple-minded prose and tendency toward blood and gore may make him some kind of antecedent of the splatterpunks, assuming there is anything impressive in that fact.

At the very opposite pole from Laymon is Charles L. Grant (1942—2006), who gained some kind of distinction as a proponent of “quiet” horror—horror that purportedly implied more than it stated. In principle, this methodology is unexceptionable, but Grant himself was sadly incapable of executing it effectively; for his besetting sin was both a frustrating vagueness and an excessive restraint in the depiction of supernatural phenomena, with the result that much of his work is vitiated by diffuseness and tameness.

Grant achieved celebrity with his second novel, The Hour of the Oxrun Dead (1977), set in an imaginary Connecticut town called Oxrun Station. His idea was evidently to fashion a kind of updated and upscale version of Lovecraft’s Arkham; but he handicaps himself at the start by noting the town’s “gentle isolation, insulation and nearly intangible aura of unassuming wealth” (13)—meaning that this is a relatively ordinary town where an unusual number of odd things happen. There is very little that is distinctive about Oxrun Station or its inhabitants, and this novel itself is merely a melodramatic tale of a woman, Natalie Windsor, whose husband was brutally murdered and who finds herself being pursued by the same forces—human and otherwise—that apparently dispatched her husband. In the end, the villain is one of the town’s leading citizens, who hopes to gain immortality. Much of the tale inevitably focuses on a romance between Natalie and a newspaper reporter—an issue that leads her to remark all too truly, “She wondered if perhaps she wasn’t reading too many of the library’s romances lately” (23). The weird phenomena in this novel, and in most of other of Grant’s works, are simply too imprecisely conceived and described to be effective. Grant rarely extended his imagination beyond the usual array of hackneyed monsters: Indian myth in The Nestling (1982), zombies in Night Songs (1984), a ghostly horse in The Pet (1986), and so on throughout his more than two dozen novels.

Grant also worked extensively in the short story, but equally ineffectively. The Arkham House volume Tales from the Nightside (1981) contains almost nothing of note. “Home” is prototypical: here a man is found feeding both animals and human beings to some sort of creatures in a sandbox, but we are never given even the remotest hint as to what these creatures are or how they got there. Nightmare Seasons (1982) seems suspiciously similar to King’s Different Seasons, but it appears that Grant’s book came out just before King’s. Here we have four tales, each taking place in Oxrun Station about ten years apart, beginning in 1940, and in different seasons; but this schema is uninspiring, as Grant is unable to summon up the literary skill to depict these different eras with any perspicacity. The four novellas are all boring and prolix, and the supernatural phenomena as unadventurous as in the rest of his work (a young man who can turn into a snake; a femme fatale; supernatural bikers; and so forth). Grant in fact wrote a number of women’s Gothics under pseudonyms, and his penchant for cloying melodrama and romance is all too evident throughout his work.

Grant was a considerably better editor than a writer, and his eleven-volume Shadows series (1978—91) did in fact exemplify his ideal of “quiet horror” far better than he could do himself—chiefly on the basis of contributions by such genuine artists as Ramsey Campbell, T. E. D. Klein, Dennis Etchison, and Steve Rasnic Tem.

A writer of occasional merit is F. Paul Wilson (b. 1946). He began publishing science fiction novels in the 1970s but switched to horror in the 1980s; such novels as The Keep (1981) and The Tomb (1984) made the bestseller lists. The former, filmed in 1983, takes place in an obscure region of Romania in 1941, where some mysterious entity is killing the Nazis stationed at a small castle or keep that guards a critical pass to the mountains. It turns out that the entity in question, one Viscount Radu Molasar, is apparently a vampire; but a shadowy figure who calls himself Glenn, who has providentially arrived on the scene, informs us that he is of much older ancestry: he is actually a creature called Rasalom (Molasar backwards) deriving from a prehuman era called the “First Age,” and he wants more than just blood: “He draws strength from human pain, misery, and madness” (359). Glenn is himself a member of an ancient species called the Glaeken, who has vowed to stop Rasalom’s depredations. At the end he predictably does so, getting the girl in true bestseller fashion.

The Keep is nothing more than a popular potboiler, with stereotypical characters, liberal doses of grisly murder and sex, and all the other elements that caused the horror “boom” to die of inanition and mediocrity. It is the first of a succession of novels in the so-called Adversary Cycle, in which the noble Repairman Jack (introduced in The Tomb) and the evil Rasalom wage cosmic battle in various corners of the world. This tiresome good-vs.-evil scenario is unenlivened by anything approaching subtlety of character portrayal, and Wilson seems to think that an excess of bloodletting and an emphasis on political libertarianism will paper over his deficiency in moral adventurousness.

And now we come to Dean R. Koontz (b. 1945). As I have mentioned earlier, Koontz has been outselling Stephen King of late, although that may have more to do with King’s own paucity of fresh ideas and his irredeemable logorrhea than to any merits Koontz may possess; indeed, the only genuine virtue to Koontz’s existence is to prove that an even worse writer than Stephen King can become popular. Like Wilson, Koontz began his career writing science fiction (generally under pseudonyms), but evidently switched to horror when he saw what a profitable commodity it was. Many of his novels are accordingly uneasy fusions of supernatural and science fiction motifs.

The hallmark of Koontz’s work is an even more elementary good-vs.-evil dichotomy than is usually found in popular writers, along with a heavy dose of religious moralising (he converted to Catholicism in college) and a “love-conquers-all” optimism straight out of the women’s romance school of writing. Combine this with incredibly stereotyped characters, inevitable prolixity and verbosity, and a prose that borders on the illiterate, and you have the makings of a writer destined for popularity among the herd.

Consider Phantoms (1983), a bestseller that was not, oddly enough, filmed until 1998, even though earlier novels such as Demon Seed (1973) had been filmed as early as 1977. Here we find that a nameless entity has killed nearly all the inhabitants of a small town in Colorado by some mysterious means. The focus of the novel is Jennifer Page and her much younger sister Lisa, who return from a vacation to find all the townspeople of Snowfield, Colorado, either dead or missing. Eventually, one Timothy Flyte, author of a book called The Ancient Enemy, is brought in, because he has studied mass disappearances throughout history; various other policemen and government officials are also summoned, although a regrettable number of them perish in their seemingly futile attempts to track down the entity.

The villain reveals himself—by somehow managing to commandeer a computer and writing cryptic messages on it—as Satan, but it turns out that it is not Satan himself but a creature millions of years old who gave rise to the myth of Satan and other such entities in the religions of the world. Conveniently enough, the creature has a clever skill at shape-changing, thereby allowing him to appear in all manner of guises, from human to animal, in the course of the novel. Flyte states at one point, “I’m not arguing that this thing is a supernatural being. It isn’t. It’s real, a creature of flesh—although not flesh like ours” (345), and so it is easily dispatched by a bacterium devised by one of the scientists on the scene.

The religious moralising in the novel is so inept as to seem a parody of itself, were it not that Koontz is so earnest about it. First he makes the extraordinary assertion that “There’s evil in nature,” referring to “the blind maliciousness of earthquakes” and “the uncaring evil of cancer” (271)—as if “evil” could somehow be manifested by entities other than human beings, who are the only creatures within our purview who have a (socially constructed) sense of right and wrong. Then, after various maunderings about whether the creature is actually the Devil or merely the source of the legend of the Devil, a character learnedly opines: “If the shape-changer was the Satan of mythology, perhaps the evil in human beings isn’t a reflection of the Devil; perhaps the Devil is only a reflection of the savagery and brutality of our own kind. Maybe what we’ve done is … create the Devil in our own image” (413). If Koontz expects this epitome of the obvious to pass as profound philosophical disquisition, then perhaps he is underestimating even the admittedly low intelligence of his chosen audience.