Tag Archives: Clive Barker

Hey, Hollywood, Take a Cue from the Success of ‘It’ and Make These Books Into Movies Already

So, the film version of one of Stephen King’s best novels (in my humble opinion), It, just became the highest grossing horror film ever, surpassing The Exorcist. Why is that? It might be easy to chalk it up to King’s popularity, but given how badly The Dark Tower, another film based on a successful King book (actually a series of books), fared over the summer, it’s clearly more than that. Of course, there’s unarguably a phenomenal difference in quality between those two films, and that certainly made a difference. But I think it’s more than that. I think the concept of coming-of-age stories combined with horror often work so well because there is just something innately horrific about blossoming adolescence, this strange transformation from child to adult, all the weird new feelings and awkwardness, and the sense of horrible unfairness that comes from a growing awareness of oneself and one’s place in the world while you are still legally powerless to do much of anything about it. It capitalized on that perfectly by pitting 12-year-old kids who don’t fit in at school and who are dealing with their own problems at home against a shape-shifting monster that only they can see.

If you think about the film that It replaced in the top spot, The Exorcist, you should quickly realize that it actually dealt with the same theme of budding pubescence being that time of life when we are most susceptible to evil. But there was only one child in that story. Here you have seven, each of them a sort of archetype of uncouth adolescence. Bill Denbrough is the quiet kid still processing the tragic loss of his beloved younger sibling; Ben Hanscomb is the sensitive fat kid; Richie Tozier is the smart-ass who covers his insecurity with constant jokes; Mike Hanlon is the rare black kid in a predominantly white town; Eddie Kaspbrak is the kid whose Smother has made him neurotic; Stanley Uris is the brilliant Jewish nerd; and Bevery Marsh, the sole female in the group, is the abused kid. Most of us can find ourselves in there somewhere, if not in just one character then in a combination of them. (I think I’m equal parts Stan, Ben and Mike, with a wee smidge of Bev.)

Anyway, the formula of tweens and young teen(s) confronting the supernatural clearly speaks to all of us on some level. When done well, these tend to be among the strongest horror cinema: The Sixth Sense, Let the Right One In (and its American remake Let Me In), The Lost Boys. When done superbly, they are unforgettable. It has now attained that status. Will the sequel live up to the first film? With the same director and production team behind it, I suspect it’ll be pretty good but will ultimately not achieve the same degree of critical acclaim. Not unless it uses plenty of flashbacks. While the scariness of Pennywise was certainly important,¬† what ultimately made It so successful was the kids. They were well-written characters, and the young actors playing them had real chemistry.

And that’s why Hollywood needs to strike while the iron is hot and put these other properties that use basically the same formula into production. And which properties are those, you’re wondering? I mean the ones I wrote about in this article from 2013, which has never been more timely. To varying degrees, they all pretty well fit this theme:

Five Horror & Dark Fantasy Novels That Need to Be Movies Now

In addition, I will add one more.

Neverland – Douglas Clegg

The kids here are a bit younger than It‘s protagonists, but they still are left largely to themselves to deal with the growing evil on the island where their extended family vacations every summer. This is my all-time favorite of Clegg’s novels. The Southern Gothic elements combined with kids confronting a Lovecraftian horror is a match made in heaven. Or hell. Either one. The monster, largely unseen in the book, allows more for the imagination than Pennywise (and therefore will save on special effects budget), meaning there’s a lot more focus on the kids and the growing unease we experience as we watch them become slowly corrupted by whatever cosmic entity resides on Gull Island. Oh, and there are ghosts too.

With its beautiful coastal island setting and quirky Southern characters, this is a horror novel begging to be put onto film. Besides, it’s high time Hollywood showed some love for one of the best American horror writers around, a man just as hardworking and prolific as King, and for my money anyway, often a stronger writer. Even with his less successful works, Clegg knows how to sell his characters. But this is definitely one of Clegg’s best books, and it really ought to be a movie.

So, come on, Hollywood. Get on these pronto, but only if you want to make money. ūüėČ

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‘Between Time and Terror’ – A Review

Not long ago my local library had a major book sale, and I went hog-wild, picking up a metric crap-ton of mostly old sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks (a quarter for paperbacks, fifty cents for trades, a dollar for hardbacks—you can’t go wrong with prices like that), including a few anthologies. This one, Between Time and Terror, edited by Robert Weinberg, et al, got the honor of being my first read from that glorious haul.

Granted, many of these stories were already familiar to me,¬† but all-in-all it was a worthwhile trip through memory lane and nice introduction to some other stories I’d not yet read. The theme of the book was science fiction meets horror, and boy were there some doozies in here. The stories were mostly arranged in the chronological order of their writing, so it was no surprise that the first entry was from the man who practically invented this sub-genre, H. P. Lovecraft, represented here by one of his best pieces, The Colour Out of Space.¬† Decades after it was written, this story still contains one of the single most chilling lines ever put on paper:

Questioning tactfully, Ammi could get no clear data at all about the missing Zenas. “In the well—he lives in the well—” was all that the clouded father would say.

Even out of context, the line makes me shiver. Second up was Frank Belknap Long’s The Man with a Thousands Legs, which, following such a timeless masterpiece as the Lovecraft story, came across as quaint and a little too smirk-worthy for this anthology. In another anthology—say, Old-Timey Science Gone Wrong or some such—this would’ve been a fine entry, but while it technically fit the theme of the book, I just felt there were better choices that could’ve been made from this author (The Hounds of Tindalos anyone?) Then we had Clark Ashton Smith’s atmospheric extra-planetary tale The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, which really should’ve been the follow-up to Lovecraft.

For my money, however, the star of this collection was the fourth entry, John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Who Goes There?, the novella on which several film adaptations, including most notably John Carpenter’s The Thing, have been based. I’d heard of this story but never read it before, figuring it was probably something akin to the mediocre 1950s film. Boy, was I ever wrong. Of the three films based on the story (so far), Carpenter’s comes the closest to capturing the tension and paranoia of a story that was remarkably first published in 1937 and that still holds up to this day. Indeed, if I hadn’t known the date of its initial publication, I would swear this story had actually been written within the last thirty years. This alone was worth the quarter I paid for the book.

After this, the short if effective Robert Heinlein piece They felt almost like an afterthought. In fact, overall this book could’ve done with some more thoughtful editing. With three editors running the show, I suspect it was a bit of the too-many-cooks problem, but there you go. Heinlein’s short is followed by Robert Bloch’s It Happened Tomorrow, a story that, although not badly written, definitely shows its age in a number of ways. Asleep in Armageddon by Ray Bradbury was an original and nicely creepy if not all that scary tale of an astronaut biding his time on a strange world as the alien voices in his head attempt to drive him mad.

Arthur C. Clarke can always be counted on to give an entertaining story, and A Walk in the Dark, while fairly simple and straightforward, delivers with excellent timing and atmosphere to spare. Philip K. Dick’s The Father-Thing was probably my¬† second favorite entry in this collection, after Who Goes There? A young suburban boy has good reason to believe his dad has been replaced by some kind of body-snatcher and decides to investigate. Richard Matheson’s Born of Man and Woman, about an abused mutant child,¬† was more sad than frightening, and Isaac Asimov’s Hell-Fire, a two page short-short, recasts the beginning of the Nuclear Age in very sinister terms.

A couple of the stories in this collection really felt like a stretch as far as the science fiction aspect went. Dean Koontz’s Nightmare Gang answers the question, what would happen if a sadistic psychopath with horrible mental powers became leader of an outlaw biker gang? Not a bad story (I’m generally not a fan of Koontz’s novels, but he’s more successful in short form); it just felt out of place here. But the real head-scratcher here was David Morrell’s Orange Is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity. First, I have to point out that this is one of my all-time favorite horror stories, and it’s always a pleasure to read. In this piece, a Vincent van Gogh analog named Van Dorn who went insane and took his own life provides the backdrop for the tale of a college art student who watches helplessly as his best friend, an aspiring Van Dorn scholar, inexplicably falls into the exact same patterns the Victorian painter did, and begins to repeat the path that led him to insanity. It’s a complex story with a hell of a payoff, but nothing about it suggests science fiction, and it really didn’t belong in this anthology.

But I’m getting out of order now. After the Koontz piece came the truly disturbing Soft by F. Paul Wilson, about a new disease that’s picking off humanity by dissolving their bones and turning them into immobile blobs. Meanwhile, John Shirley’s Ticket to Heaven, an early cyberpunk offering, wonders what would happen if we developed the tech to vacation in Heaven while our bodies remain safe and alive back on Earth. (The short answer: it’s not as great for humanity as you might think.) Dan Simmons Metastasis, which is also found in his excellent Prayers to Broken Stones collection that I recommend highly, deals with invisible cancer vampires—invisible, that is, to all but the story’s protagonist. And last but not least is Clive Barker’s The Age of Desire, a modern day take on mad science where the subject of an experiment develops uncontrollable sexual desires for . . . everyone and everything.

Overall, not a terrible collection. Some bona fide classics offset the lesser entries, and a couple of baffling inclusions with respect to the book’s theme could easily have been replaced with, say, Stephen King’s The Jaunt, Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream or even Connie Willis’s haunting All My Darling Daughters. At any rate, all of these stories can be found elsewhere, but what really appeals about collections like these is seeing where the editors’ heads are at and comparing the stories to see how the theme has progressed. Between Time and Terror was released in 1995, and I’d be curious to see which pieces would be collected by the same editors in 2017.

Grade: B+

‘Cutting Edge’ – A Review

IX-cutting-edgeIn the late eighties and early nineties, horror anthologies were being released (or re-released, as the case may be) right and left, and having only recently discovered my love of the genre, I picked up several of them.¬† One of my acquisitions of this period was Cutting Edge, edited by Dennis Etchison, who went on a few years after this was published to become president of the Horror Writers Association.¬† Well, I have decided to re-read these anthologies—at least the ones I’ve kept—and review them for the blog, beginning with this one.

As is customary with these anthologies, Etchison offers an introduction, wherein he laments the sorry state of the genre during the seventies and early eighties.  But horror fiction was definitely beginning to mature by this period, and volumes such as this one are the proof.  Specialty markets like Cemetery Dance were still largely on the horizon, but the new wave of horror had arrived, ushered in by the advent of splatterpunk and by the phenomenal success of Stephen King, who would drop his atom bomb of a novel It the same year that Cutting Edge was published: 1986.

This book is broken into four loosely-connected sections: Bringing It All Back Home, They’re Coming for You, Walking the Headlights and Dying All the Time.¬† The first section opens with Peter Straub’s Blue Rose, the first piece in what would ultimately become an intricately connected universe spanning several novels, novellas and short stories, anchored by the Blue Rose Trilogy of novels—Koko, Mystery and The Throat.¬† One of the themes that runs through the Blue Rose stuff is child abuse, and that is true in this story as well, though here it’s about the assorted cruelties siblings can inflict on each other when left with little parental guidance.¬† Harry Beevers is a nine-year-old child who enjoys tormenting his younger brother, but it’s clear that it’s cyclical, as Harry’s older brother abuses him, and¬† on up the line.¬† When Harry discovers a book on hypnotic suggestion and finds his little brother to be the perfect guinea pig, his experiments become more and more sinister and send him on a path that will culminate in the vile acts he commits during the Vietnam War, well-documented in the novel Koko.¬† This is unquestionably one of the best pieces in the anthology, and a great choice to set the tone for the rest of the book.

Unfortunately, the other two stories under this heading, Joe Haldeman’s The Monster and Karl Edward Wagner’s Lacunae, are among the weakest entries in Cutting Edge.¬† The Monster is another comment on the atrocities of Vietnam wherein the author plays with the concept of split personality, and it not only doesn’t work as horror but feels dated and borderline racist, while Wagner’s Lacunae offers an interesting premise but ultimately fails to deliver on it.

They’re Coming for You begins with W. H. Pugmire and Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Pale Trembling Youth, a punk ghost story that’s moderately better than the two stories preceding it, though it could’ve done with some fleshing out.¬† Marc Laidlaw’s Muzak for Torso Murders steps it up a couple of notches with a darkly funny tale of a serial killer outdone by dear old mom.¬† Roberta Lannes’s Goodbye, Dark Love is one of those stories where the twist at the end inspires you to read it again with the new knowledge in mind (like how you search for all the clues with a second viewing of The Sixth Sense) though the subject matter may put some readers off from another reading.¬† Definitely one of the more disturbing stories, and quite graphic, but all-in-all a solid entry.¬† Charles L. Grant’s Out There is a quietly metaphorical tale of body horror, while Steve Rasnic Tem gives us one the book’s best offerings in Little Cruelties, in which the narrator notes how the city inflicts its little cruelties on him . . . with a heavy dose of irony.¬† In George Clayton Johnson’s beautifully written piece The Man with the Hoe, the narrator justifies his brutality against the neighborhood cats by meditating on Charles Markham’s titular poem.¬† They’re Coming for You is rounded out by Les Daniels’ story of the same name, another piece of black humor in which a man who fears vengeance from the spirits of his murdered wife and her lover gets something far worse instead.

The opening piece of the third section (Walking the Headlights) is Richard Christian Matheson’s Vampire, and it can be classified as either a poem or a story, though in the end it has little to recommend it beyond that novelty.¬† At least it’s brief; I’m not sure I could’ve taken more than a couple of pages of it.¬† Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Lapses is also structurally innovative—not to the extent of Matheson’s piece, but it’s far more successful with what it does.¬† Yarbro explores the terror of memory lapses that grow ever more pronounced, drawing them out to their inevitable conclusion.¬† William F. Nolan’s The Final Stone is a modern-incarnation-of-Jack-the-Ripper story that starts off with a good dose of humor but quickly veers off into standard territory.

Irrelativity by Nicholas Royle (whose work I’ve never encountered outside of this collection) is the winner here for sheer suspense, as it follows a teen boy who trails after his girlfriend into her creepy old school building one night in the hopes of losing his virginity and encounters something quite disturbing there.¬† But it’s the next piece, Ramsey Campbell’s The Hands, that wound up being my favorite story in the book.¬† A man decides to take refuge from the rain in an unassuming city church one day, but things immediately take a turn for the surreal, and it only gets weirder . . . and darker . . . from there.¬† This is how you handle religious-themed horror,¬† folks.¬† Campbell is a true master of the genre, arguably the best living horror author produced by Britain, and that’s saying a lot.¬† This story is one of his masterpieces. ¬†He makes this stuff look effortless.¬† I recently picked up a collection of Campbell’s short stories called Dark Companions, which just got bumped to the front of my reading pile thanks to this story.

The Bell, Ray Russell’s take on ye olde pact-with-the-devil tale, is modest and mostly forgettable, while Lost Souls gives us an all-too-short episode in the ongoing saga of Clive Barker’s supernatural detective Harry D’Amour.¬† It feels pleasantly anti-Hollywood and down-to-earth, or as down-to-earth as a story about a demon-hunting detective can be.¬† I really wish the author would give us more Harry D’Amour stories like this one; this awesome character is criminally underused.

The last section of the book, Dying All the Time, like the first section, consists of only three stories, of which Robert Bloch’s Reaper is the best of the three.¬† Bloch manages to capture just the right balance of humor and horror in this tragicomic parable of an old man who strikes a deal with the Grim Reaper to postpone his own demise with predictably horrible results; the twist at the end is note-perfect.¬† However, Edward Bryant’s The Transfer—about a woman with an unusual power (I think)—has an alluring premise but ultimately was confusing and unsatisfying.¬† Which brings me to the final story, Whitley Strieber’s Pain.¬† Strieber claims this was the last thing he wrote before he became aware of his repressed memories of alien encounters.¬† Okay.¬† Starting off like the darker side of your uncle’s wacko conspiracy theories (the Vril Society gets a shout-out), it then shifts 180 degrees and becomes a lesson in just how relative pleasure and pain can be, as a beautiful young woman who may or may not be an incarnation of Death introduces the protagonist to an experiment that teaches him to see his dreary life in a whole new light.¬† It’s a surprisingly emotional story that, against all odds, somehow succeeds in landing its message.

Overall, this collection was not as strong as I remembered.¬† Funny how one can experience the same stories very differently twenty-five years later.¬† I did recall the Campbell story being one of the better ones in the book, and that turned out to be the standout here.¬† Straub’s story too had an impact on me when I read it as a teen; indeed, it was this piece, along with the novel Ghost Story, that made me a lifelong fan of this author, and it’s easily my second favorite story in Cutting Age, followed by Nicholas Royle’s Irrelativity, for me the scariest story of the bunch if not necessarily the most disturbing.¬† Beyond that, there are about six or seven really good stories, most of which can probably be found in better anthologies or collections.¬† Several of them can also be found online now.¬† Etchison’s intro is interesting but not particularly enlightening, and it comes off a little whiny.¬† Unless you’re a completist, I would pass over this in favor of better anthologies of the same era, like Kirby McCauley’s Dark Forces or David G. Hartwell’s The Color of Evil, as well as the collected works of the authors themselves.

Grade: C+     

‘I Shudder at Your Touch’ – A Review

IX-i-shudder-at-your-touchI picked this hardcover anthology up at my local Goodwill store for a song, and what a fantastic bargain!¬† The twenty-two stories in editor Michele Slung’s compendium are, as the cover suggests, thematically linked by the broad concepts of sex and horror, which so often go hand-in-hand anyway.¬† As she points out in the book’s preface, pretty much every horror story is ultimately about sex in one sense or another, and I think she’s spot on there.¬† But in the case of these tales, the relationship between the two is made mostly overt.

Generally these anthologies tend to be full of contemporary work, but Slung draws from every era of horror and suspense fiction from the late Victorian on, a rich well indeed, and with casting such a wide temporal net, she could easily have filled a hundred such volumes with quality fiction.¬† What a job it must’ve been to boil her choices down to a little over twenty stories (though ultimately there was a sequel, I believe).¬† But nearly every piece here is a gratifying read.

The earliest story in the collection, R. Murray Gilchrist’s The Basilisk, is not so much horror as dark Symbolist myth, so drenched in the poetic language of the era that it feels more like a somber dream than a cohesive story, but it works nonetheless.¬† A more traditional piece from roughly the same era is Robert Hichens’ How Love Came to Professor Guildea, wherein a dispassionate man of science finds himself the object of a lascivious spirit’s attentions.¬†¬†The most disturbing story for me was Christopher Fowler’s The Master Builder, which reads like Peter Straub at his best and takes the concept of stalking to a whole new level.¬† Robert Aickman, one of my favorite short story authors, can always be relied on to creep me the hell out, and his contribution, The Swords, is certainly no exception.¬† Another highlight, Hugh B. Cave’s Ladies in Waiting, starts out as a haunted house tale but becomes something far worse by the end.

Some pieces (Michael Blumlein’s Keeping House especially) are morbidly melancholy. Others, like Thomas M. Disch’s Death and the Single Girl, are humorously cynical.¬† A few are uncomfortably erotic (T.L. Parkinson’s The Tiger Returns to the Mountain; Harriet Zinnes’s Wings; Carolyn Banks’s Salon Satin).¬† The rest of the collection is sandwiched between stories by two of horror fiction’s living legends, Stephen King and Clive Barker.¬† Of the two, it is Barker’s story, Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament, that I most enjoyed.¬† Longtime fans of Barker will almost certainly have read this already in his Books of Blood, as I did, but I was quite young when I first read it and remember it being one of my least favorite stories of his.¬† With time I have come to appreciate its true horror, seeing it essentially as the story of a female supervillain with the ability to manipulate human flesh with her mind, a power she utilizes in some creatively awful ways.¬† King’s story too is about a woman with psychic powers, though hers is the more traditional (less interesting) power of telepathy; it’s still a wonderfully entertaining story though, accessible and funny.

Not every piece is wildly successful though.¬† Valerie Martin’s Sea Lovers, her dark answer to the Little Mermaid, doesn’t quite feel fleshed out, May Sinclair’s The Villa D√©sir√©√© feels as dated as it is, and Ruth Rendell’s A¬† Glowing Future feels like a rejected Robert Bloch story.¬† Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Conqueror Worm divides its loyalties between humor and horror but ultimately achieves neither, and Angela Carter’s Master, while conceptually intriguing, offers us a cliched and unnuanced antagonist.¬† Still, none of the stories are outright awful, and all but a couple are at least decent enough that you won’t feel like you’ve completely wasted your time.¬† A solid majority of these stories are real gems.¬† All in all, a dynamite anthology that any horror aficionado should be pleased with.

Grade: B+

The Nightbreed’s Peloquin

I just finished this drawing today.¬† It was created for a friend and was done with pen and ink on a 14 x 17 piece of Bristol board.¬† The image features two major characters from Clive Barker’s Nightbreed/Cabal universe.¬† The shadowy black figure holding up the circle is the Nightbreed’s god Baphomet.¬† I imagine him as more feminized than he appeared in the film, almost androgynous, so I tried to draw him that way.¬† But the main figure of this image is the tentacle-headed Peloquin, kind of the mascot of the Nightbreed.¬† The image isn’t perfect; but, as I have been out of practice on my drawing, not having picked up a pencil or pen since early last year, I think it turned out pretty decent.¬† What do you think?

Peloquin (2014)
Peloquin (2014)

Dispatches from Kowtown (12-27-13)

Greetings!¬† I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Festivus, Yule or whatever holiday you celebrate this time of year.¬† Not to be a downer but it’s been a tough one for some people.¬† A good friend of mine, for example, lost his home and most of his belongings to a fire a couple of weeks back, including all of the Christmas presents he’d already bought.¬† Luckily he made it out of the house unscathed.¬† To make matters worse though, his 13-year-old granddaughter was staying with him at the time, though she was out of the house (next door) at the time it happened.¬† She called me–upset and in tears–to tell me her grandpa’s house was in flames.¬† I live less than a mile away from him so I rushed right over to comfort her and see if I could be of any assistance.¬† By the time I arrived the house was already engulfed and the fire trucks were arriving; about all I could do by then was stay out of everyone’s way and offer moral support to the family.¬† When all was said and done there was almost nothing left but the charred house frame.

Things like this, even when they don’t affect one directly, serve to remind him or her that the universe can be capricious and that life and livelihood are sometimes fragile things, so take that how you will.¬† Sure, there have been setbacks for me this year too, some pretty big ones in fact, but nothing like losing my home and everything I own and for that I am ever grateful.¬† Also, I am cherishing my friends and family just a bit more than usual these days because you never know when you might lose them forever.¬† People do perish even on or near holidays.¬† Which reminds me, my heart goes out to the family of little Delaney Brown–I can’t even imagine what it must be like to lose a child on Christmas day.¬† Wow.¬† But I am glad that her suffering is over at least.

In less depressing news, I’ve been drawing again.¬† I’m currently working on a piece for a good friend based on Clive Barker’s Nightbreed/Cabal mythos, and I am taking inspiration from Art Nouveau, Jugenstil, Secessionism, or whichever of its dozens of names you choose to call it by, as I have been perusing the issues of Gustav Klimt’s Ver Sacrum magazine at Heidelberg University’s online library.¬† They have most of the run of Jugendstil magazine as well if you’re interested.¬† Even though the piece I’m doing isn’t strictly Art Nouveau, it has a definite Art Nouveau flavor and I am quite excited about the way it is turning out.¬† I’m currently in the pencil stage, which is the most time consuming of the drawing process for these kinds of pieces; the inking stage generally goes a bit quicker because the lines are already laid down and it’s mostly a matter of tracing over them at that point.¬† When the piece is finished I will scan it and post it here for everyone to see.

Speaking of Nightbreed, I am quite thrilled about the news that the legendary Cabal Cut of Barker’s film is finally being released to the public.¬† I was moderately obsessed with the Cabal novel as a teenager; its story of the persecution of those who are different really resonated with me.¬† Actually, Nightbreed was the first prerecorded VHS film I ever bought for myself, way back in the early nineties.¬† Hard to believe it’s been over twenty years since I purchased that film, or since Kurt Cobain died by self-inflicted gunshot wound, or since the first Addams Family film hit theaters, or . . .

Sheesh, I’m getting old.

Five Horror and Dark Fantasy Novels That Need to Be Movies Now!

With the movie industry apparently stuck in remake/reboot mode and desperately cannibalizing itself, there’s probably little chance that studios will take risks on books that either nobody in that myopic little world has ever heard of or won’t touch because they don’t understand the books or how to market them (witness what happened with Clive Barker’s Nightbreed), but the following novels should be relatively easy sells, and if I was King of Hollywood, here are some books I would fast-track for films.¬† Failing that, this is how I would pitch them to studios.¬† And really, given how abysmal Hollywood’s trajectory seems to be lately, I think I could do pretty well by them.¬† These are offered in no particular order.

horror-mccammon-stinger

Robert R. McCammon – Stinger: McCammon is one of those writers you really get enthusiastic about in your youth but find mostly amateurish with a few years of healthy cynicism under your belt.¬† Still, there is a certain vibrant appeal to his best work that is difficult to summarize, and even moments of sheer brilliance on occasion.¬† McCammon really hit his stride in the late eighties and early nineties with the novels Swan Song, Stinger, Wolf’s Hour, Mine and Boy’s Life, as well as the short story collection Blue World, all of which garnered him several award nominations and a few wins.¬† Although Swan Song, his first New York Times bestseller and arguably his masterpiece, is really much too sprawling and visually complex to translate well to film, Stinger is tailor-made for the big screen.¬† It’s action-packed from start to finish, the story is simple and straightforward, and the finale is a real humdinger.

When Daufin, an innocent alien being on the run from a monstrous interstellar bounty hunter known only as the Stinger, crash-lands in a little town on Earth that’s seen better days, horror is unleashed both on and below the streets of Inferno, Texas.¬† Here a group of assorted misfits and miscreants once written off by society will at last have their chance at redemption when they are forced to band together and face off against Stinger to save their town.

I would pitch this to studios as Tremors meets The Thing, with a tasty dollop of The Outsiders tossed in.¬† There’s an adorable little girl who spends most of the story housing the consciousness of Daufin, a subterranean alien with a penchant for making creepily imperfect copies of whatever lifeforms it devours (including humans), rival street gangs battling it out, a nicely drawn smattering of colorful Texas characters, and just the right amount of violence and terror so that studios could keep their precious PG-13 rating.¬† The story has topnotch B-movie appeal written all over it, and half of its charm is in the author’s enduring faith in humanity to conquer its own prejudices and problems and come together in a time of need in the face of the unknown, a message that we could all desperately use right about now.

Moreover, since most of the story takes place in an economically depressed and isolated Texas town in the 1980s (and yes, the movie makers really must keep the era intact for full impact), negating the need for elaborate set decoration, much of the film’s budget could go towards the alien horror that is Stinger itself and its oddly deformed clones of humans and animals that serve as its agents.¬† I envision old-fashioned makeup effects √† la John Carpenter here–for which this movie could certainly be a fitting tribute–to further enhance the built-in nostalgic appeal of this pre-CGI sci-fi horror story.¬† There are even some obvious nods to actors of the era; the two gang leaders, for example, are clearly modeled on the teenaged Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Philips.¬† Really, given all it has going for it, it almost beggars belief that¬†Stinger hasn’t yet become a movie.¬† So, seriously, someone make that happen, please.

horror-mccammon-boys'-life

Robert R. McCammon – Boy’s Life: Yet another McCammon work perfectly suitable to the big screen, Boy’s Life (a play on the title of the scouting-affiliated magazine Boys’ Life popular throughout the 20th century) is McCammon’s vivid and wistful tribute to his childhood years in Alabama. Every horror writer seems to have at least one of these (with supernatural/horror elements added, of course): Douglas Clegg has Neverland, Dan Simmons has Summer of Night, and the perpetually nostalgic Stephen King has several, most prominently It, Hearts in Atlantis and The Body, the novella on which the film Stand by Me is based.¬† Being a fan of both dark fantasy and the bildungsroman, I really adore these kinds of stories.¬† This is McCammon’s contribution to that subgenre, and a masterful one it is.

The plot centers on the adventures of Cory Mackenson, a 12-year-old native of mid-sixties Alabama and a blossoming writer, and his best friends Davy Ray, Ben and Johnny.¬† McCammon throws in everything but the kitchen sink here–an enigmatic murder case, a terrible flood, a pair of bullying brothers who target Cory and his buddies, a wise and spiritually gifted matriarch of a segregated black community, a Boo Radley-esque space case with a taste for streaking, the KKK, a family of sinister moonshiners, an ex-Nazi in hiding, and not one but two legendary local creatures, the supposedly unkillable white stag Snowdown and a frightful river monster affectionately known to the locals as Ol’ Moses–and somehow makes it all work.

Again, one of the great appeals of this novel is its ardent hopefulness and belief in the basic decency of most people, and McCammon really knows how to sell it, as we see it all through the eyes of a bright, sensitive young boy on the cusp of adulthood in the Civil Rights-era South.¬† Of course, being a child with an overactive imagination (and then some), Cory is the quintessential unreliable narrator, but that only adds to the story’s magic and mystery.¬† Despite his flawed perspective, if everyone saw the world the way Cory Mackenson does, it would be a much better place to live in.¬† But there is genuine hardship, sorrow and tragedy here too to leaven all of the flights of fancy and keep the book grounded just when it threatens to take off into parts unknown and never return, a balancing act McCammon pulls off with aplomb.

A personal selling point for me: with the exception of Davy Ray, the group of boys that drive the novel reminds me so much of myself and my own misfit pals during my childhood years in the Deep South it’s scary, particularly Johnny (I too had a half-Native American friend who was astonishingly like this character; his name was Matthew); and of course, like Cory, I was a highly imaginative and creative kid, though not nearly as adventurous as the young hero of Boy’s Life.

In approaching the studios with this one, I would frame it as Stand by Me meets To Kill a Mockingbird meets Big Fish, with a dash of E.T. and The Boys from Brazil for seasoning.¬† I would also point out that the book has been endorsed by no less than Peter Straub and, as noted in a review on Amazon, has been offered as part of a middle school teacher’s curriculum–who found it to consistently be his students’ favorite assigned reading–for years.¬† Really, what else do you need for a blockbuster movie?

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Peter Straub – Shadowland: This one just made My Top Six Haunted House Novels of All Time list as well, and it was really Shadowland that prompted me to write this article.¬† I’ve already given details of the plot of this novel in that article, so if you haven’t already, you may want to read it first.¬† At one time this book pretty much fell into the unfilmable category, or at least it would’ve been much too expensive to make properly, but with the costs of special effects falling steadily, including CGI, this novel is certainly doable these days.¬† There are some wonderfully eery daydream sequences that could really elevate this one above the horror film crowd, not to mention some scenes that are sure to make even the steeliest of fans cringe.¬† The scenes in the bathroom with the Collector . . . holy crap.

The cast consists primarily of five¬† important characters: teen buddies Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale, Del’s magician uncle Coleman Collins, psychopathic school menace Steve “Skeleton” Ridpath, and Rose Armstrong, a mysterious girl who seems to live on or near Collins’s estate and becomes the boys’ companion at Shadowland.¬† Okay, I’m not up on the current batch of teen stars, but it’s not too tough to picture the waifish Elle Fanning in the role of Rose Armstrong.¬† Rose, apparently mature beyond her years, is a complex character, but Fanning certainly has both the ideal look and the acting chops to pull off the role.¬† The boys are a little tougher.¬† Del, who is small for his age, olive-complected and dark haired, could go to Cameron Ocasio, and for the all-American Tom Flanagan I can easily imagine Chandler Canterbury.¬† Skeleton Ridpath should be toothy and super-thin, perhaps requiring some strict pre-production fasting on the order of what Jared Leto underwent for his Dallas Buyers Club role.¬† Although long past his teen years, with his boyish (but oddly proportioned) face and his scrawny build, DJ Qualls could add something interesting to this role that maybe a younger actor would struggle with, although whoever made this film had better get a jump on it if they want Qualls in the role, as he is fast approaching a point when even he will look too old!¬† By and far the most important casting decision, however, would rest on who is given the role of Coleman Collins.¬† My choice would be Jeremy Irons, Alan Rickman or John Malkovich, all of whom have played highly memorable villains and possess the dark gravitas the part would require of its main antagonist.

The most difficult part of filming Shadowland would be simplifying its many-threaded Gordian Knot of subplots and sub-subplots into a cohesive storyline without losing the essence of what makes it such a fantastic book: it’s bewitching sense of discomfiture and the growing unease that comes with the realization that time and space are beginning to unravel around Coleman Collins.¬† In the right directorial hands this could be a brooding, slow-burn horror masterpiece on par with Kubrick’s The Shining or William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.¬† Yes, it’s that good.

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Clive Barker – The Thief of Always: Long before Neil Gaiman’s Coraline there was Barker’s The Thief of Always, a book that’s been unfairly ignored by Hollywood for far too long.¬†¬† In fact, Barker’s story, published a full decade before Gaiman’s book hit the shelves, bears a¬† remarkable amount of similarity to it–a lonely, bored child looking for adventure; a strange house hidden away in an alternate reality of sorts and fashioned to appeal to children; the house’s devious owner who uses sorcery to trap children there; and a wise feline that helps the children escape.¬† Sound familiar?¬† Don’t get me wrong: I love Gaiman’s book too, as well as the film based on it (both are in my library), but it’s pretty clear that he ripped off the basic concept of Coraline from this much earlier work.

Harvey Swick is your average preteen who finds himself increasingly jaded and bored with his own mundane world, and so when the enigmatic Mr. Hood sends an agent to tempt the boy into visiting Holiday House, where every day is Halloween and Christmas rolled into one and children can have all the treats and toys they could ever want, Harvey finds himself drawn to that mysterious house perpetually clouded in mists, where things are a bit topsy-turvy but never boring.¬† Of course, Mr. Hood, like Gaiman’s Other Mother, is not nearly as benevolent as he presents himself to be, and he has plans for young Harvey. Plans that involve his soul . . .

Make no mistake, Barker’s book is darker and grittier than Gaiman’s.¬† In some ways it is the perfect compliment to Straub’s Shadowland, only aimed at younger readers.¬† Although both books carry an implicit warning about chasing after greener pastures, where Gaiman’s story is about the dangers of loved ones neglecting each other, The Thief of Always comes across almost as a meditation on solipsism and losing one’s sense of wonder to the corrupting forces of the media and other flash-in-the-pan realities of the modern world.¬† Heady stuff for a kids’ book.

Well, perhaps I’m reading too much into it, yet I can’t help but feel Barker’s novel has some context lacking in the other work.¬† Of course, Coraline likewise addresses some things that are absent in The Thief of Always, namely the magic and beauty that can hide behind the withered, shabby facades of those we think of as past their prime.¬† In the end both works are worthwhile, but I think this novel may appeal more to boys and older children than Coraline does, as well as kids with a taste for darker tales, and pitching it as a film would be easy: a scarier Coraline for older kids.¬† As it turns out, no less than two films based on the novel had been planned at one time, a Disneyesque animated musical in the nineties (I’m pretty happy that one fell through) and a live-action film that was intended for release in 2010 but never materialized.¬† So, um, what’s the hold-up, guys?¬† Somebody make this movie already!

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Dean Koontz – The Door to December: I confess I’m not a huge Dean Koontz fan.¬† Oh, I read my fair share of Koontz back in the early nineties, when King and Koontz pretty much monopolized the supermarket paperback aisle and before the internet allowed me to bypass the more mediocre stuff.¬† But even then, as desperate as I was for interesting reading material, I quickly discovered that Koontz was hopelessly formulaic and most of his novels were nigh interchangeable; they generally involve someone being abused, children and animals in peril, and/or people on the run from horrible villains.¬† The characters tend to be one-dimensional, the heroes way too good to be real people and the villains almost laughably clich√©d.¬† That said, in sifting through the metric ton of material Koontz has written over the decades, one is bound to find a few gems in there.¬† This novel, first published in the mid-eighties under one of Koontz’s gazillion pseudonyms, is one of them.

The story is a supernatural murder mystery focusing on a little girl named Melanie who, after being found wandering alone and frightened in the street, leads investigators to the discovery of a heinous experiment.¬† As a dark metaphysical force pursues and destroys everyone involved in the experiment, the protagonists race against time to stop the murderous entity as it heads inexorably towards its final intended victim, the last piece of the puzzle . . . Melanie herself.¬† Koontz is generally one of the worst offenders when it comes to portraying kids as less than fully-rounded characters, but here the child is believable enough as kid characters go.¬† The real star of this novel isn’t the characters anyway but the nicely paced plotting, which keeps the suspense front-and-center all the way through.¬† And the twist ending is both original and quite believable in the context of the story. (Hint, hint, Shyamalan!)

To make the case for this one: perhaps, say . . . Stephen King’s¬†Firestarter as conceived by Alfred Hitchcock?¬† Yeah, I guess that would about do it.

My Top Six Haunted House Novels of All Time

To quote a song from my elementary school music class days, Halloween is coming, and that means it’s the perfect time to delve into a spooky book, and what better than a good haunted house tale?¬† So here are my six favorite books for when you’re in the mood to be haunted, spine-tingled or just plain terrified by creepy domiciles. Bear in mind that my whims are subject to change, and if you asked me tomorrow my answers might be slightly different. And by this time next year? Fuggedaboudit. But as of today these are my choices for the best haunted house (or, more accurately, haunted building) stories . . .

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6. Stephen King – The Shining: Yeah, maybe this one is overplayed, but it’s still one of King’s best in my opinion, to the point where many of its more effective moments have become positively iconic.¬† But I feel it fair to warn you in advance that, while many consider King to be the undisputed modern master of this genre, I disagree.¬† He may be the most recognized name in the genre, and is certainly one of the most prolific, but in terms of straight-up scariness I think he kind of peaked early.¬† As a writer I find he is rather mediocre–not that he doesn’t have his moments of beauty and power.¬† Where King excels, however, is as a storyteller (and yes, they are very different things–more on that later).¬† Nevertheless, since his work is so ubiquitous, and because I’ve read a ton of it, he is well represented on this list.¬† In fact, as you will soon discover, I tend to gravitate to the same authors over and over again because, well, I find that by and large writers either have it or they don’t.

Anyway, back to The Shining.¬† Although it’s actually about a hotel, this story is at heart a haunted house novel, a subgenre that every career horror author eventually gets round to, and as haunted house novels go, this is one of the best.¬† Since most horror fans know the story well enough, I’m not going to spend time discussing¬† the plot.¬† What I will say is, there are certain qualities that have long been established as paradigmatic to the haunted house subgenre, mainly that the house has to be big, old, abandoned or mostly so, isolated and creepy, and in this case the “haunted house” has all of these qualities in spades.¬† More importantly, the characters have to be believable.¬† King was a young writer at the time he produced this, with only two other published novels under his belt, both of which, although pretty good in their own right, had yet to launch him into the pop culture stratosphere like The Shining did.¬† The character of Jack Torrance, an aspiring and troubled writer who drags his young family up to the Overlook Hotel with him while he serves as its winter caretaker, is thus rooted in what King knew best and is highly believable, and that makes all the difference here.

Another factor that gives the story an edge is that it was in a sense a transitional novel for the ghost story itself.  Born of the Gothic genre, traditionally these works have been about the upper classes, for who else would occupy the old decrepit manses and castles that most frequently served as settings for the earliest ghost stories?  In The Shining, the Gothic setting remains (albeit slightly updated), but the victimized family are undeniably working class folks, rendering the story much more accessible to the average reader.  Stephen King is thus largely responsible for bringing the supernatural out of the bleak, moldy towers of the moneyed and noble Old World and into the New, almost quite literally, and I think this fact largely accounts for his ongoing popularity with the masses.

Even so, I still follow his work and still enjoy it, even if I feel that its creator–as the wealthiest genre writer on the planet and one still clearly nostalgic for the days of his youth–has somewhat lost touch with what made his early horror work so effective in the first place.¬† Not to worry: Mr. King has traded in his working class street cred for an increasingly rich and thoughtful imagination, and that’s not a bad trade-off at all.¬† For me his outstanding strength remains his sheer creativity, and because of that I find his most compelling work isn’t his horror fiction but his dark fantasy, crowned by the epic masterpiece series The Dark Tower.¬†¬† Which brings me to my next choice . . .

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5.  Stephen King & Peter Straub РBlack House: This second collaboration between King and Straub and a sequel to their first collaboration The Talisman I think can be read and enjoyed on its own, but it is highly recommended that you at least read The Talisman and a few of the Dark Tower books (as it uses terminology, characters and themes from these), and preferably Hearts in Atlantis before tackling this one.

As I said earlier, the haunted house is a mainstay of the horror genre, so they need to have a strong and original hook for me; this one has it in that the Black House is not so much a traditional haunted house as a horrific way station between worlds that has been polluted by the ectoplasmic grime left behind by certain dark travelers who have used it.  The central villain of the story is the Fisherman, who styles himself after one of the most disturbing real-life serial killers in history, Albert Fish, hence the nickname, but the Fisherman is merely a pawn of a much greater evil, a recurring demonic being who goes by many names throughout the King canon but is here known as Abbalah.

The main protagonist, as in The Talisman, is Jack Sawyer,¬† who was a 13-year-old boy in the earlier novel but is now a retired policeman still haunted by his experiences in the Territories of The Talisman.¬† He is drawn to the town of French Landing, Wisconsin, where the Fisherman does his grisly business and near where the title house is located, to investigate the crimes of the Fisherman after the killer himself sends Jack a macabre memento of his twisted deeds.¬† As one might expect, this new adventure opens up old wounds for Jack.¬† But that’s where all predictability ends.

As an avid devourer of classic lit as well as genre stuff, for me one of the novel’s highlights is its several clever allusions to certain works of well known authors like Poe and Dickens (I mean, in case you didn’t notice, the reference to the latter’s Bleak House is right in the title), and Straub and King seem to compliment each other very well.¬† Straub is, for my money, easily the better writer of the two, and it is hugely entertaining to see what he does, albeit tangentially, with the apocalyptic carnival that is the Dark Tower saga; even with King himself prominently along for the ride it is clearly Straub’s voice that guides this work and makes it so compelling.¬† This book is much darker than the Dark Tower series as a whole, and that’s a plus because it more than justifies the intrusion of Straub into King’s universe.

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4. Clive Barker – Coldheart Canyon: I’ve been a fan of Barker’s writing since high school, when I discovered Cabal, a novella that spoke to me for a variety of reasons, and Weaveworld, a novel that, along with the later Imajica, probably informs the style and spirit of my own work more than any other.

Being the nervous kid that I was, I came to horror pretty late by the standards of most hardcore fans of the genre I know, who seem to have been reading King and Koontz in preschool.¬† While I had been reading sci-fi for awhile, I didn’t pick up my first adult horror novel until age 15.¬† I don’t even remember what it was called or who wrote it; it was an atrociously written book about evil plants or something and I don’t think I even managed to finish it.¬† Then I read Stephen King’s The Stand (still my all-time favorite standalone . . . sort of . . . King novel) and the rest was history.

Anyway, what really impressed me then, and still does, about Mr. Barker’s prose was how incredibly and consistently beautiful it was.¬† He could write about the ugliest concepts–a man raping a wall, pigs eating people, a young girl’s nether regions served on a plate–and make them sound almost elegant, but in a dark (very dark) way.¬† And then there was the sheer crazy inventiveness of it all, which certain other writers may have, but very few have the skill to serve it up with Barker’s trademark classiness and dazzling way with words.¬† In addition to this, being an illustrator and painter and being involved in his youth with the theater, Barker understands how to render his horror in a visual way even in text, and that’s why he remains my favorite horror author to this day.

Coldheart Canyon may not be his best work, but that isn’t saying much.¬† Everything he’s written has been at least readable, and most of it is of high enough quality to appeal to the most discerning of literary tastes while still remaining true to its genre roots, and a good deal of it, especially the above-mentioned dark fantasy novels Weaveworld and Imajica, I would say transcends genre ghettos altogether.¬† While this novel doesn’t necessarily do that, it is still one of the better haunted house stories out there and is not to be missed if you’re a fan of Barker’s work at all.

It’s set predominantly in turn-of-the-21st-century Hollywood, in a long-abandoned Art Deco-era mansion that once belonged to notorious silent film star Katya Lupi.¬† As Todd Pickett, an aging actor recovering from a botched facelift, retires to the out-of-the-way Coldheart Canyon to avoid the prying paparazzi while he heals, he finds himself to be less than alone there as the ghosts of roaring twenties Hollywood have come out to play, and they very much want him to join them.

Once more this isn’t your standard haunted house fare, as the source of the house’s power lies in something much older, a lovely wall mosaic imported from Romania which opens onto a realm called the Devil’s Country.¬† Even by the standards of the age Lupi’s parties were decadent, and anybody who was anybody was there, but the real draw for them was the secret room and its portal to the Devil’s Country, where all of their deepest–and darkest–desires could be fulfilled.¬† Unfortunately, there was a price, for once you’ve been to the Devil’s Country, it will never let you go.

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3. Bentley Little – The Resort: I’m a relative newcomer to Little’s work, but I am fast becoming a fan.¬† I’ve read only a handful of his novels thus far, three of which I would heartily recommend to real fans of the horror genre (and by ‘real fans’ I mean those who are up for the kind of jaw-dropping mindfuck that Little so excels at).¬† Like Richard Laymon’s stories, nothing is off limits in Little’s world, but unlike Laymon, Little keeps getting better and better with time.

Although I’ve only read a fraction of his output so far, I’ve read enough to get a pretty good sense of Little’s strengths and weaknesses.¬† The main weakness first.¬† As with Stephen King, Little is one of those authors who always writes in pared down everyday language, and perhaps it’s only a matter of taste but that for me is a weakness.¬† Far too many readers (and critics) these days believe that good writing is all about story alone and any writing that doesn’t serve this in the plainest, most straightforward way is just purple prose.¬† I beg to differ.¬† Besides, I’m a fan of that particular color, as you might’ve guessed from the title of the blog.

At any rate, for the same reason that not every film would work as a pseudo-documentary, style is contextual and is therefore just as important for suspension of disbelief as a logical plot and believable characters.¬† Not every piece of literature is best served by a bluntly functionalist¬† writing style.¬† It largely depends on the kind of story you’re trying to tell, and I think Little could stand to take a cue from Straub and spruce up his writing a bit.¬† So could Stephen King for that matter.¬† And every modern writer should read William Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (a novel which I’ll give a proper review for in due time) to understand how important characters’ voices are and how these are enhanced by the writing style that best compliments POV characters.

Now for Little’s strengths.¬† First, the author has the ability to take the most absurd ideas and turn them into something enduringly creepy if not outright disturbing.¬† Read any one of his novels and you’ll see what I mean, but I’ll throw out a few examples: a toilet that floods a bathroom with fruit cocktail (The House), an open septic tank in a restroom just off the interstate and a banker who creates suits out of underwear for his employees (The Summoning), a group of famous letter writers confined to the tenth floor of a run-down office building (Dispatch).¬† This novel was no exception, and so far, in my admittedly limited exposure to Little, it’s the mother of them all.¬† There are so many crazy and disturbing ideas presented here that it makes the reader’s head spin, and most of them are tossed out as background noise rather than major plot elements, which gives one a sense that the horror isn’t character-centric and thus helps to reinforce its verisimilitude.

Little’s second great strength is his mastery of pacing.¬† He knows how to build horror slowly, starting with odd but seemingly unmenacing little details and scaling them up until by the end all hell is unleashed, and that is The Resort in a nutshell.¬† A side note: my gripe with most modern horror, at least on film, is the cheap thrills quality its creators too often mistake for real dread, in all its jump scare-filled, red herring-abundant, suspense music-drenched (non)glory.¬† Moreover, Bentley Little’s world is darker than that of Stephen King and certainly darker than that of someone like Dean Koontz.¬† Little’s horror is gritty, messy and organic, and the finales of his novels are more often than not completely devastating to the reader.¬† This isn’t your grandpa’s horror fiction.¬† Give it a try.

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2. Peter Straub – Shadowland: Yep, like his Talisman coauthor, Straub has contributed to the haunted house tradition all on his own too, and it’s a doozy.¬† This is an early Straub novel and one of his most powerful.¬† The hook here is that the haunted house isn’t really haunted by ghosts but rather by the workings of its owner, a world-famous magician whose tricks and illusions turn out to be rooted in real sorcery.¬† After tragedy strikes at a preparatory school attended by¬† teenaged pals Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale, necessitating an early summer break for the unfortunate school, the boys pack off to the titular Shadowland, the sprawling, secluded Vermont estate of Del’s uncle Coleman Collins, at one time the most famous magician in the world but now gone to seed and plagued by the consequences of his own dark deeds and his reliance on alcohol to cope with his disturbing powers.

For Del this is an annual pilgrimage; on some level he’s always been aware of his uncle’s abilities and dreams of being his successor, but the shady Collins feels a more worthy successor is to be found in Tom, a boy who, unlike his more introverted companion, has guts and charisma and is therefore more like Collins himself.¬† Thus begins the magician’s grooming of the boy in an intricate dance of manipulation, family intrigues and revelations of his darkest, most intimate secrets, among them the atrocities he committed to get where he is.¬† In all of the best haunted house stories the house itself is a character, and that’s no less true here.¬† Shadowland is a place of shadows both literal and imagined, an ever-changing domain full of the creepy accoutrements of a magician, and not one but two performance theaters built into the house, one more garish and sinister than the next.¬† The estate is also populated with bizarre but rarely seen characters, some of whom may or may not be real, including a teenage girl–much more than she appears to be–who has befriended the boys.

As more of the magician’s backstory is revealed and Tom becomes increasingly embroiled in the seductive world of Coleman Collins, and as the scope of the danger to Tom and Del and all those connected to them and the true stakes of Collins’s games are revealed, the reader’s investment in the characters grows and with it their tension and dread.

One more thing here: Shadowland is the perfect example of what I mean about the style complimenting the story.¬† Straub’s prose twists and writhes like a cobra about to strike–beautiful, mesmerizing and sinister.¬† Like a good magic trick, it twists back on itself, hiding more than it reveals right to the end, and you are astounded by it and wonder how the writer pulled it off.¬† This is literary horror in the truest and finest sense and not to be missed by anyone out for more than just gross-outs and gore or your run-of-the-mill spookhouse fiction.

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1. Douglas Clegg – Neverland: As with Barker, I had the massive good fortune of stumbling upon Clegg’s work early.¬† When I was 17 or 18 I picked up his debut novel Goat Dance while on vacation with my parents for the long, boring return trip and read it in its entirety in the back of the van on the way home.¬† It captured me fully and haunted me for days after I finished it, yet it was merely a lead-up to what was arguably Clegg’s best novel, Neverland.

Neverland is not so much a physical place (although it does have an actual location in the form of a deteriorating shack in the middle of a forest on Gull Island, just off the coast of Georgia) as it is the state-of-mind of the principle characters, children of the Lee clan who come to stay on the island in the family matriarch’s rambling old Victorian home, rooting the story firmly in the Southern Gothic tradition, which is spot on here.¬† But it also borrows much of its power from the cosmic horror of Lovecraft and Machen.

As Beau, his twin sisters Missy and Nonie and their thoroughly icky cousin Sumpter are drawn to the mysterious shack, with their activities centered around Sumpter’s increasingly cruel and twisted games, they invite something ancient and sinister onto the island.¬† Along with a backwoods brother and sister who are not all there . . . in more ways than one . . . the children unwittingly perform rituals that pave the way for a monstrous force set to rip apart the island and doom the world to a new monstrous Dark Age unlike anything seen before.

While the cosmic horror aspect is delineated well enough, the real drawing card here is Clegg’s keen understanding of his child protagonists, who have every bit of the iconic resonance of the kids from To Kill a Mockingbird.¬† One of my big pet peeves with genre fiction in which children are important or central characters is the kids’ resounding lack of authenticity.¬† They are often there merely to serve as foils for other characters, as one-dimensional victims (kiddies are the modern day damsels in distress, it seems) or as little more than scenery to reinforce the idea that the story’s heroes are good family men and women.¬† Even when they are major characters, whether good or evil they tend to lack dimensionality or any real sense of an inner life.¬† None of that is true here.¬† These children are neither perfect angels nor bad seeds in themselves, and though they are certainly playing with something beyond their ken, they never come across as mere innocent victims or spectators.

Unfortunately, Clegg is another writer whom I think peaked early, or at least he had a pretty saggy middle period, which includes a series of more traditional haunted house books set in Harrow Academy, a haunted ex-boarding school.¬† I haven’t read much of his new work, I’m afraid, as I was put off by the mediocre Harrow series and I only have so much money to spend on books these days.¬† Perhaps it’s time I picked up a couple of his newer works to see how he’s progressed as an author.¬† Nevertheless, his early novels are outstanding, and this is without a doubt one of the modern classics of horror fiction.¬† If you read just one novel on this list, make it Neverland.¬† I dare say you won’t regret it.