Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lori by Robert Bloch

"I'm very fed up playing the passive female," she told him.

After eating the blandest food I've ever encountered in a restaurant (apparently this place caters to the septuagenarian crowd) I scouted out the thrift stores and libraries in an Iowan college town, and at one large thrift store purchased three paperbacks for thirty cents.  Among these was Lori, a 1990 Tor paperback of a 1989 novel by Robert Bloch.  The book is covered with extravagant praise from horror titans Stephen King (he read it in one sitting!), Ramsey Campbell ("spinechilling!") and F. Paul Wilson (who calls it an enthralling gem.)  Harlan Ellison also has a blurb--in his two dozen words he manages to work in a pun and a Poltergeist II joke.

The cover illustration by Jim Thiesen is obscured by all kinds of text, which is just as well because it doesn't look too hot.  Is this a story about the green ghost of a girl who has a man's hands?

(When I googled Thiesen I discovered that he has done some pretty exciting work, so I guess he did the cover for Lori on an off day.  I love the Bosch-style monster in Evolution and the image of Death and the bizarre sculpture in The Crossing.)    

I read Psycho in 2013 and thought it was alright, and more recently I liked his 1938 story "Eyes of the Mummy," but during the life of this blog the Bloch I have read has often been kind of disappointing.  But for ten cents I'm willing to give Bloch another shot!  

After reading it myself, I can see why Stevie King was able to finish Lori in a single sitting.  The style is brisk and straightforward, the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters (44 in 282 pages) mostly short.  I can also see why Harlan Ellison thought his pun and pop culture reference appropriate.  Just about every page of Lori is enlivened with some kind of wordplay.  We get puns innocuous:
The fees were outrageous but this was Beverly Hills, and nothing was inrageous here.
puns macabre:
Dead.  Mom and Dad are dead.  Everything's dead now, even the phone.   
They knew that once accused of arteriosclerosis, charged and convicted with cancer, the sentence was death and there'd be no appeal.
and etymologies of people's names, this being one of Lori's scholarly interests.  (She majored in etymology at college.)

The 1989 hardcover edition has no gravestones,
and Harlan Ellison's blurb gets top billing;
I am always curious about these marketing decisions
Bloch provides details that give the novel a strong sense of its place and time; there are passing mentions of Beverly Hills, Sepulveda Boulevard, George H. W. Bush, Sylvester Stallone and Madonna.  And there are tons of references to literary and TV detectives.  I guess this is supposed to make the novel feel real, to help the reader identify with the characters and locations described so the horror elements are all that more shocking.  I get the theory, that I'm a boring suburban 20th-century American, so I should be more scared or thrilled when a fellow boring suburban 20th-century American is in danger than when Frodo or John Carter in Middle Earth or on Barsoom are in danger, but for me it doesn't always work that way.

Themes, or motifs, of the novel include the perception of a decline in American life over the course of Lori's life, due to increases in computer use, crime, inflation, traffic, pollution, etc.  Alcohol and drugs are a related theme: many of the characters relieve stress by turning to a bottle secreted in their homes, offices or vehicles, and people are always pushing drinks and sleeping pills on poor distraught Lori.

The plot:  Lori Holmes comes home from college graduation with her fiance to find that her parents burned up along with their house just in the last hour--the place is still in flames.  A frumpy young Jewish woman, a psychic, contacts Lori out of the blue and uses her ESP powers to find a metal box hidden in the smoldering ruin.  In the box is a 1968 college yearbook; a senior in the book, Jessica Fairmount, looks just like Lori!  Lori's parents' lawyer steals the book and plans to kill Lori, but mysteriously gets killed himself.  A police detective who has Dirty Harry and Murder She Wrote on his mind investigates the case, as does Lori's psychiatrist, an amateur sleuth who loves Sherlock Holmes.  Lori's fiance is an investigative reporter, and in the last third of the book he also runs his own private investigation.

The big reveal:  Lori was adopted after her mother, Jessica Fairmount, died in childbirth.  Her real father is the shrink, a crook who fled the US after Jessica died.  In the Caribbean he learned voodoo, and returned to California a few years ago with the plan of shifting Jessica's soul into their daughter Lori's young body so he could continue their affair.  At the last minute the cop and the reporter foil this scheme, rescuing Lori.  

Lori isn't bad; the wordplay is entertaining, and the plot is well-constructed: in the last few pages Bloch neatly ties together all the disparate threads and clues.  But I can't say it generated much enthusiasm in this reader.  For one thing, despite the ghost on the cover and all the talk about trembling and chills in the blurbs, this book is not scary; only in the last few pages did I feel that Lori was in any danger.  Lori is more of a Los Angeles detective story than a horror story, with the supernatural stuff taking up few pages, and I'm personally not very keen on LA crime stories, though I know there are many people who are.  One reason I read speculative fiction is to explore strange new worlds, like the aforementioned Middle Earth and Barsoom, and the Los Angeles of police officers I can see on TV every day doesn't fit the bill.

Lori is not an interesting character, and even though the novel is named after her, she is largely a spectator, with four or five other characters taking the initiative and driving the plot.  The psychic, the lawyer, and the cop are actually more complex and interesting characters than the static Lori.  Bloch more or less admits this is the case; on page 238 Lori says she is fed up "playing the passive female," and she is manipulated by her friends and foes from the start to the finish of the text.  Feminist critics friendly to Bloch could probably interpret the novel as an attack on our society, in which women are preyed upon by high status men (lawyers, doctors, etc), while such critics hostile to Bloch could judge the novel a symptom of our society, in which the bodies of young women are a commodity, like fertile land or money, which ambitious men compete over.    

Lori is competent and I didn't find it irritating, so I feel free to recommend it, but I'm not really its core audience, and it wasn't what I was hoping for.

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