Fabulous fables of fright: five classic horror-themed books reviewed

Nick Vidal-Hall

By Jason Kron

There’s something magical about horror novels written from around 1960 until around 1990. At their worst, these books often still make for the kind of fun that’s the literary equivalent of the campy B-movie. At their best, they’re as beautifully written and as touching as the best of literature but made even more interesting because entities like ghosts or zombies are involved. Also, the horror paperback cover art from that time period embodies gloriously gruesome kitsch, and the books are worth your money even just for that.

Sadly, much of these works have been forgotten, and the most popular horror today is often mindless and violently misogynistic, which is why I would like to draw attention to some overlooked novels that I’ve read in the last couple months. There are plenty of used bookstores in the Valley that have more than their share of these paperbacks, the best resource being the store Books, located in Sunnyslope. I hope that some of you get the same geeky glee out of these stories as I do and that you feel inspired to seek any of these out.

Voice of the Clown By Brenda Brown Canary

Children are terrifying, clowns are terrifying, dolls are terrifying, and stepparents are often deserving targets of revenge. So when you pick up a book about a sinister little girl who is being told by her clown doll to commit acts of violence against her stepmother, you will not be getting a light-hearted romp. Brenda Brown Canary’s well-written 1982 novel The Voice of the Clown (which was released six years before the kinda similar movie Child’s Play)is the kind of story in which it may take a while for something truly bloody to happen, but every word is creepy. Its mood can even take something as commonplace as a 1st grader influencing her classmates to piss off their teacher and turn it into a true moment of terror. And when it does get violent … Jesus.

The Vampire Tapestry By Suzy McKee Charnas

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when the archetype of the mysterious, intellectual, achingly sensual male vampire wasn’t so overdone in pop culture. Suzy McKee Charnas’s 1980 book The Vampire Tapestry was released four years after Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, but before the latter became a phenomenon with a swarm of imitators. So though it may be unfair to judge this book as cliché since it was released before society became obsessed with vampires, exposure to the clichés was still difficult for me to overlook. But if you do like stories about brooding bloodsuckers, this is worth your time.

Miss Finney Kills Now and Then By Al Dempsey

The theory that the act of killing will make you younger has not been proven by science, but Al Dempsey makes an interesting argument for this practice through his cast of campy characters in this gloriously trashy novel. This is not a literary masterpiece by any means, but its absurdity makes it a very fun read. Cousins Brook and Willa live with their elderly Aunt Finney, who is very wealthy and isn’t planning on leaving her fortune to either of them. So of course, they plan to trick her into leaving money to them by taking her to a fake mystic who scams people by making them believe that he can give them powers to become younger by killing people. No one was actually supposed to die, nor was Miss Finney actually supposed to become younger by committing murder. But of course, things go horribly wrong!

Black Ambrosia By Elizabeth Engstrom

The heroes at Valencourt Books are reissuing rare vintage horror novels that are referenced in Grady Hendrix’s amazing book Paperbacks from Hell, Elizabeth Engstrom’s Black Ambrosia being one of them. In some ways, it reads a lot like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, in that a discontent young protagonist undergoes an existential crisis, travels in order to experience all that life has to offer, is skeptical of the monotony of the middle-class family life, but is also intrigued by the comfort that it has to offer. Black Ambrosia is also obviously much better than On the Road because the narrator is a vampire on a killing spree. Though the lead character Angelina embodies plenty of bloodsucker clichés, this book is written so well that it never becomes bothersome. It’s an excellent piece of work. 

Cold Moon Over Babylon By Michael McDowell

 I bought a used copy of Cold Moon Over Babylon after seeing it on some “Best Horror Novels of All Time” lists, but when I realized that the author Michael McDowell also co-wrote the screenplays to Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, this got bumped up to the top of my reading list. And I became especially interested in reading this when I found out that before dying of AIDS in 1999, McDowell had a death collection that included seventy-six boxes of memorabilia. So in other words, he was no poser; he actually lived the Beetlejuice life.

Cold Moon Over Babylon doesn’t have the most original concept — a quirky, maybe haunted small town’s search for a teenage girl’s mystery killer (which is pretty damn similar to Twin Peaks, though this came out a decade earlier), and a quest for revenge from beyond the grave. But it doesn’t need extreme originality when written with such mystical, elegant detail. This book is a masterpiece.