Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Early '70s horror stories by Robert Bloch, T. K. Brown III, and Eddy C. Bertin

Only three stories remain in 1974's The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II; let's check them out!

Frontispiece by Jack Gaughan and title page 
"The Animal Fair" by Robert Bloch (1971)

This story, by the much beloved author of Psycho and a book I almost bought a few days ago at an antiques store in Catonsville, MD, first appeared in Playboy.  I wish I could like Bloch's work as much as so many people do, but generally I find him underwhelming.  "The Animal Fair" is apparently Joe R. Lansdale's favorite horror story, or at least Lansdale's favorite Bloch story (Lansdale wrote an essay introducing it that appeared in the collection Robert Bloch: Appreciations of the Master and the anthology My Favorite Horror Story) so perhaps we have here the prime slice of Bloch that is going to help me see in Bloch what everybody else sees.

Bloch loves puns and jokes and wordplay, and on the first page of "The Animal Fair" we get lines like "...Dave hit the main drag.  And it was a drag." and "Phil's Phill-Up Gas stood deserted."  This kind of stuff detracts from creating a mood of suspense or fear, in my opinion, foregrounding the third-person omniscient narrator and reminding you this is not real.  Fortunately, Bloch cuts it out after that first page, or at least I didn't notice it again.  (The actual title of the story may well be a subtle pun on the disparate meanings of "fair," referring to a place where animals are displayed before spectators, a beautiful creature, and a creature who is just.)

Dave is hitchhiking across Oklahoma, on his way to Hollywood.  Dave thinks Oklahoma and its people are disgusting! 
Dave could smell oil in the air; on hot summer nights in Oklahoma, you can always smell it.  And the crowd in here smelled worse.  Bad enough that he was thumbing his way through and couldn't take a bath, but what was their excuse?  
Dave goes to a travelling carnival to get a hamburger (all the local stores are closed) and finds himself in a tent full of "red-necks."  In a cage in the tent is a sick gorilla, forced to dance for Oklahomans!  Dave is so sickened by this crime he throws up!  He takes a nap on the side of the road, and when he wakes up he hitches a ride...on the trailer with the gorilla and its cruel master, "Captain" Ryder!

Ryder tells the sad story of his life as he drives with one hand and drinks a bottle of "fresh corn likker" with the other.  He was a trapper in Africa, then a Hollywood stuntman who handled big dangerous animals for jungle movies, and wore animal suits for closeups of fights between actors and beasts.  He got rich doing all this work!  But then tragedy struck!  Four drug-addled criminals he calls "hippies" broke into his house and drugged and raped his niece, the joy of his life, whom he had raised like his own daughter.  Ryder caught them in the act, and in the ensuing fight killed one of the rapists and seriously wounded two others, but his niece also died from an overdose of whatever the creeps had used on her.  The hippies' ring leader escaped.  Ryder went to prison for two years, and when he got out his career was ruined and he resorted to this carny business.

(The sensational crimes of Charles Manson, as well as the greatest movie of all time, King Kong, seem to have served as inspiration for much of this story.)

"The Animal Fair" appears in this Finnish
collection  
This blog is all about spoilers, so of course I am going to tell you what all the clues in Ryder's narrative add up to.  While in Africa, Ryder learned all kinds of crazy witch doctor stuff, like how a shaman can use drugs and psychological torture to make a person who has been sewn up inside a lion skin (!) think he is a lion.  Without coming out and saying it, Bloch is implying that Ryder used his jungle skills to track down the leader of the rapists, and then sewed this jerk up in his Hollywood gorilla suit and is achieving his revenge by (mis)treating the rapist like an animal!

(Remember how in the second Aubrey-Maturin novel the naval officer escapes from France by disguising himself as a bear?  I read a dozen or more of those books, but that was the most unbelievable passage, and ironically the most memorable, in all of them.)

This is a good story--Lansdale, Davis and Playboy didn't let readers down in promoting it.  Perhaps my favorite thing about it is how it took me by surprise--Dave's demeaning of the small-town Oklahomans, and the initial appearance of Captain Ryder, whom Dave hates, and his first few lines of dialogue, which consist of bitching about drugs, hippies and Hollywood, led me to expect that the story's point would be to mock retrograde country people from the point of view of a sophisticated liberal urbanite.  Instead, Hollywood, one of America's cutting-edge cultural capitals, is said to be in terminal decline, and we are given reason to hate and fear forward-thinking young people (as well as African medicine men) and lament their destructive and corrupting influence on healthy people like Ryder and his niece.  What I thought was going to be a smug animal rights piece morphed before my eyes into something like 1974's Death Wish!

("The Animal Fair" actually includes many of the themes I saw in Bloch's 1989 novel Lori, among them alcohol, an America in cultural and societal decline, and a young woman at the mercy of predatory men.) 

In addition to the way the story subverted my expectations, it is economically and smoothly written, and the central gimmick feels new and is surprising.  Thumbs up for "The Animal Fair."  Maybe I need to seek out more of Bloch's "greatest hits," guided by the horror cognoscenti like Lansdale.

"Haunts of the Very Rich" by T. K. Brown III (1971)

"Haunts of the Very Rich" first came under the eyes of the public in the very same issue of Playboy that printed Bloch's "The Animal Fair."  Was this a special horror issue of our most pretentious girlie rag?  (Actually, this issue is full of big names, like John Wayne, V. S. Pritchett, Jean Shepherd and Garry Wills, and there's an article about James Dickey, whose Deliverance I read just before moving out of New York State during my brief Westchester County period, and even an illustration by Gene Szafran, who did so many SF book covers.)

T. K. Brown III only has five credits at isfdb, but when you google his name you find that "Haunts of the Very Rich" was made into a TV movie in 1972 starring actors I don't like!  You can watch it on youtube!  (Having no desire to lay eyes on the  visages nor lend ear to the voices of Ed Asner, Donna Mills, Lloyd Bridges and Cloris Leachman, I'll stick to the printed word, myself.)

Six incredibly wealthy people pay an exorbitant fee to go on a mystery vacation--they are flown on a small jet whose windows are shuttered to a jungle resort by a lake surrounded by volcanoes.  Once there everything goes wrong--the power goes out so there is no air conditioning or refrigeration, natives raid their booze supply, the "exotic" prostitute turns out to be from Brooklyn.  Yes, this is a comedy, one which is not in the least bit funny.  When the characters, like the reader, realize nothing that is happening makes any sense, they theorize that they are dead and this is hell.

Lame.

"Like Two White Spiders" by Eddy C. Bertin (1971)

Bertin is a German-born Belgian, a prolific writer of genre stories and children's books.  As I said in the comments to the first installment of our look at DAW No. 109, when Mats Paulsson pointed out that the cover of this anthology is by Swiss-born resident of Sweden Hans Arnold, The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II is a real international production.  I mercilessly criticized a story by Bertin from this same time period, "Timestorm," back in 2016, but gave a moderate recommendation to a late '70s story by Bertin, "My Beautiful Darkling," a year before that.

"Like Two White Spiders" comes to us in the form of a transcript of a tape recorded statement from a guy in an insane asylum.  This guy describes how, several times over the course of his life, his hands acted with a mind of their own to kill small creatures and even people!  He has been imprisoned because of his crimes, but he claims he is in fact innocent, that his hands have been taken over by some alien from another dimension, or are separate alien entities with their own internal organs, or some such thing.  Of course, the story is full of clues that hint that this guy is just a murderer with mental problems who has consciously or subconsciously come up with this bizarre possession narrative as an excuse. 

Bertin's is one of the more viscerally gruesome stories in this anthology, with descriptions of how it feels to strangle an eight-year old girl and crush the skull of a canary--and then there are the narrator's efforts to deter or liberate his hands by holding them in a fire or chopping them off with a scythe!  Jeez!

I should note, for all you Yog-Sothery fans out there, that besides comparing his hands to spiders and scorpions, the narrator likens them to The Hounds of Tindalos; even though he usually disappoints me, I really have to read the story of that name by Frank Belknap Long someday.

This is a good horror story that exploits our fears of our bodies betraying or failing us as well as our willingness to blame others for or otherwise rationalize our misdeeds.  And our fears of chopping off our own hands--yikes!  It is well-written and well-structured, the length and pace just right.  Thumbs up!  "Like Two White Spiders" was first printed as "Als Twee Grote Witte Spinnen" in the 1971 Belgian collection De Achtjaarlijkse God; the author himself translated it into English and it first appeared in the tongue of William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and Dan Brown in the 1973 collection that is the source of much of the material in DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories Series II, Sphere's The Year's Best Horror Stories No. 3.

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DAW No, 109, The Year's Best Horror Stories Series II, is a good anthology; there is only one serious clunker, and several quite good stories.  Looking at Amazon, ebay and abebooks, I am getting the idea that it is sort of rare; maybe I shouldn't have bent the cover of mine scanning the title page and the page of ads in the back?

Ah, the ads.  Six DAW titles are pushed, including Brian Lumley's first Titus Crow novel, the eighth of John Norman's (in)famous Gor books, and the 1974 edition of Donald Wollheim's Annual World's Best anthologies that includes R. A. Lafferty and E. C. Tubb stories I don't own; I would probably grab this one if I saw it going for a buck or two.  Also promoted is D. G. Compton's The Unsleeping Eye; Joachim Boaz has gushed about this baby (5 of 5 stars!), which I own in a later Pocket Books edition, but I have yet to read it myself.  The Weathermonger, which I'd never heard of, is, apparently, some kind of "young adult" book about a future anti-technological England and was the basis for a TV series.

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