Back on the Chain Gang
The Pretenders | Learning to Crawl | Sire Records | 1984
I found a picture of you, oh oh oh oh
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We’ve been cast out of? Oh oh oh oh
Now we’re back in the fight
We’re back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang
A circumstance beyond our control, oh oh oh oh
The phone, the TV and the news of the world
Got in the house like a pigeon from hell, oh oh oh oh
Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies
Put us back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang
The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they’ve done to you
But I’ll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They’ll fall to ruin one day
For making us part
Those were the happiest days of my life
Like a break in the battle was your part, oh oh oh oh
In the wretched life of a lonely heart
Now we’re back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang
William W. Johnstone | Zebra Books | 1982 | 268 pages
“Yes—what is the point of all this?”
After a strange attack from a wild, wolf-like creature in her French chateau, Janette Bauterre follows her grandmother, Victoria, back to their family estate in Ducros Parish, Louisiana. Janette uncovers a shocking history of lycanthropy, which includes a 40-year-old family murder at the hands of the local townspeople—a killing that Victoria seems intent on avenging.
Following the return of the Bauterres, a string of shocking murders stuns the local police. The victims each exhibit strange bite wounds and a complete lack of blood. The source of the carnage presents little mystery, since the Bauterre family curse and Victoria’s drive for revenge are open secrets in the town.
Not completely trusting her mother, Janette hires Pat Strange, an ex-mercenary friend of her late husband, to protect her and track down the creatures that she views lurking around the grounds of the mansion. However, instead of a forthcoming moody monster rumble across the bayous of Louisiana, Wolfsbane reaches for a meta-textual battle of good versus evil, with Victoria and Pat the proxies for the duality of God and Satan.
“God and devil fight all de time, boy. I ain’t sayin’ God lak it, but what He gonna do – jes sit back and not play? Devil win all de time if He do dat.”
Pat’s arrival completely shifts the overall tone from nascent gothic horror to full-blown men’s adventure tale, with the tough hero taking the lead as protagonist. The emphasis on Pat introduces a rough-and-tumble masculinity, with its corresponding light gun-porn details (checking and resupplying the ammunition his pistol, shotgun, and .41 magnum), into the story. There are also a few accompanying sex scenes, with a blunt, clinical descriptions and wooden dialogue that would probably fail to titillate most adolescents.
“Lady, that’d be a mouthful. But I suppose that would be one way to shut you up.”
Particularly jarring in terms of mood is Pat’s repartees with Satan. Their back-and-forth banter, perhaps intended to be lightly comical, comes off as crushingly inane, with repeated references to sports and specifically, Casey at the Bat. Is the author just having a piss? Taking the entire book seriously becomes difficult when this interaction reduces to something akin to a failed comic stand-up routine on the differences between baseball and football.
“The waters bubble and boiled. There will be no joy in Mudville.”
The noxious bubbling surrounding the appearances of evil incarnate also inspires Pat to periodically unleash an insipid stream of nicknames, all variations on “bubbles.” Meant to be comically derisive, they only succeeding in being constantly cringe inducing.
“I won bubble breath.”
All boils down to a climatic shoot-out with a host of undead creatures, not Bauterre family members suffering from lycanthropy as the internal logic of the story suggests, but corpses raised from the grave. They exist simply to provide Pat ample targets to unload his arsenal of weapons before the ultimate showdown. Finally pumping silver-laced shotgun rounds into Victoria—while dropping the full action-hero line, “Sorry, you ugly bitch, you lose the game!”—reads as an arbitrary and insignificant nod to werewolf lore.
“If we had a decent umpire, that would be disallowed.”
“Oh, shut up,” Pat muttered.
Rick Hautala | Zebra Books | 1986 | 592 pages
The fiery brilliance of the Zebra Horror Hologram which you see on the cover is created by “laser holography.” This is the revolutionary process in which a powerful laser beam records light waves in diamond-like facets so tiny that 9,000,000 fit in a square inch. No print or photograph can match the vibrant colors and radiant glow of a hologram.
So look for the Zebra Hologram whenever you buy a horror novel. It is a shimmering reflection of our guarantee that you’ll find consistent quality between the covers!
Don and Jan Inman, along with their young daughter, Beth, move to an old family house in the Maine countryside, seeking to escape the pressures of city living. However, the house harbors a dark history–-the young son of Don’s great-grandfather bled to death outside the family-run quarry after a granite stone crushed his hand. Immediately upon their arrival, Beth has an epileptic-like seizure as the family car passes the stone marking the drive to the house.
With an inauthentic-sounding, distracting colloquialism typifying the writing style to follow, Don describes the family car after the incident as a “Barf Mobile.”
Beth’s sudden illness is only the beginning of strange events at the house. She finds an old wooden doll in her room that seems to share secret conversations. Don suffers from vivid nighttime hallucinations of stone monoliths rising in the fields beyond the house. Reaching out to touch the electrically charged standing stones, Don finds his hands covered in blood.
Preparing the ground for his wife’s garden, Don unearths a mummified hand in the yard that anthropology experts at the local university estimate to be possibly thousands of years old. Returning from a swim in the flooded quarry, Beth is injured when a horrific, withered hand grabs her ankle from under a pile of discarded granite stones. On the site of his vision of the otherworldly standing stones, Don discovers a tomb-like construction with strange glyphs, leading to a series of tunnels under the house and barn.
The anthropology department academic’s crackpot theory that the tomb may be a relic from Ancient Egyptian explorers in North America never really gels, although he strangely disappears to work on other projects even with the miraculous opportunity to prove his pet theory. Warned not to pursue the excavation of the site alone, Don is left with much time to explore the tunnel network, which never really leads anywhere.
Although containing a laundry list of familiar elements–creepy dolls, strange noises in the night, possessed animals, sinister visions, ritualistic altars—Night Stone’s source of horror ultimately folds down to one reductive cause that is never fully realized. Dream journals, warnings in Finnish, and even the prospect of Beth’s first menstruation additionally take up space on the page, and yet, the final answer to the family’s terror never progresses beyond INDIAN BURIAL GROUND!
Mundane details are in abundance, however, including an entire subplot revolving around Jan’s waitress job at the Rusty Anchor bar, and the subsequent affair with her sleazy lothario (and arguably, sexual-harasser) boss. The writing further suffers from an incessant name-dropping of commercial brands—Pabst, Pepsi, Wonder Bread, Cheerios, Campbell’s Chunky Soup, Handi-Wipes—serving as an unnecessary, near constant distraction. Perhaps even the pop culture references, from Monty Hall to Tears for Fears, would serve some purpose if used in an attempt to define another era, but the book is firmly set in the present.
Yet somehow most irritating* is Don’s repeated, purportedly endearing variations on his daughter’s nickname, “Pun’kin”, which ring false and become simply, if somewhat inexplicably, insufferable.
“Nightstone, my third published novel, should have made me a world-wide best-selling author and a household name like-you know, that “other horror writer” from Maine. Seriously. When the book was first published in October, 1986, it was everywhere, at least in the United States. It was in bookstores, on newsstands, at airports, grocery stores, and pharmacies all around the country. And why was that? Sad to say, I don’t think it was because of the contents. It was because of the book’s cover. If you bought an early printing of the book, you’ve seen it: the one with the hologram on the cover. Flip it from side to side, and the three-dimensional girl’s face turns into something hideous and back again.” – Rick Hautala
*Narrowly defeating the Native American character’s (Billy Blackshoe) use of the term “paleface”.
Sharon Combes | Zebra Books | 1980 | 282 pages
Caly St. John and her ex-boyfriend, Ian Donovan, flee the late-summer environs of New York City for the peace of rural Maine, only to have their lives threatened by a supernatural menace.
“My suggestion to you is that you leave.”
Staying with Ian at the cottage of his childhood friends, Caly becomes increasingly fascinated with the dark history of the Simpson house, an abandoned local home and infamous scene of dual shocking murder sprees. In the seventeenth century, Captain John Jacob Simpson killed and dismembered his family and gathered guests at a dinner party with an ax, before disappearing without a trace. Then again, in 1949, the captain’s descendant, Michael Simpson, returns home from abroad in England to restore the family home, only to murder his family and gathered friends with an ax, before mysteriously dying himself.
Frustrated by the reticence of the townspeople to discuss the cursed house, Caly succumbs to her growing curiosity and breaks into the Simpson house. She is startled by the arrival of Patrick Simpson, the last heir to the family, who has returned to investigate the circumstances of his father’s death, and lift the curse before it condemns him to his family fate. Empathizing with Patrick, a social pariah in the eyes of the villagers, Caly and Ian move into the Simpson house, where the unsettled spirits of those victims of the tragic past events seek an outlet for their lost voices.
The natural attraction Caly feels for Patrick becomes corrupted, as the spiritual entities in the house possess them and use their bodies to act out past violent encounters. Apart from sudden violent behavior, historical affectations in speech provide a reliable method of indicating a ghost is present.
“Thou shan’t turn me away this night, lady.”
Good-tempered dogs attack, furniture flies of its own accord, and spirit voices haunt the trio of ghost hunters as they stumble around the house and town looking for answers to the Simpson family curse. The intrepid investigators uncover very few clues of their own accord, relying mostly on following the direction provided by ghostly finger pointing. Ultimately, little detection is needed to unearth a standard trope behind generations of violent deaths: wrongly accused of witchcraft, a young woman is burned at the stake after vowing to take revenge upon the descendants of those responsible.
“Such vengeance I shall reap upon you and your seed to follow.”
A latent love triangle, which is somewhat unsettling already because one member is possessed by the spirit of a murdering rapist, comes to a surprising resolution—evoking a children’s song about forty whacks—but otherwise everything here feels inert and overly familiar.
Wait and See
Ruby Jean Jensen | Zebra Books | 1986 | 350 pages
Charlene Childress, pregnant with the child of her cousin Daniel after a summer romance on the family’s central California estate, devises an otherworldly escape from their troubles. Seducing him with one last intimate tryst, she tries to coax him into a double-suicide pact, placing his hand on the hilt of a knife she drives into her own chest. Shocked at Charlene’s plan and by her horrible death, Daniel hides her body in the river, chaining it to the underwater roots of an overhanging tree on the bank.
Twenty-six years later, Daniel’s life is in disarray. Seeking to escape from the reaches of his terrible past, he spends most of his time working on the road, becoming estranged from his new family; wife Ronna, step-daughter Kim, young son Kevin, daughter Sara, and infant son Ivan. Sending them to live with his Aunt Winifred on the family estate he has not visited since that tragic summer of 1959, he seeks to provide them with some vestige of stability, not knowing what evil waits for them at the Childress house.
Although Charlene’s body was never found, Winifred blames Daniel for her disappearance, suspecting him of murder. Playing the role of caring aunt, Winifred puts into place her long-gestating scheme to kill all of Daniel’s children as vengeance for his role in Charlene’s death. But a greater threat beyond a murderous family member stalks the estate, when Kevin and young neighbor boy go swimming in the river and discover Charlene’s body. Cutting the skeleton free from the chains that hold it under the submerged tree roots, it comes to life, embarking on its own crusade of vengeance against the Childress family.
Things get very stabby as the red-haired skeleton stalks and slashes from the cover of darkness around the farm. A few evocative locations help set the mood, including the murky waters surrounding the skeleton’s underwater prison, and an occult altar room discovered in the barn. The point of view periodically switches between Kim and Kevin, with a child’s perspective on the horrors helping to turn the potential absurdity of a walking skeleton into a creeping dread of something evil lurking in the shadows of the big house.
The story does stretch out considerable mileage from its child-in-danger themes, and does not shy away from terminating its young characters. Any empathy for Charlene’s supernatural rampage against those who have wronged her wanes considerably as the origin of her transformation becomes clear, and her pure evil heart is exposed.
A final lesson to parents and librarians alike—keep those copies of The Necronomicon under lock and key.