Leisure Horror's November 2008 selections: Richard Laymon's BEWARE and Robert Dunbar's THE PINES.


November 08's selection are two reprints from horror novels out of the 80s. I'm a horror fan, but not an expert, so take this with a grain of salt, but it seems like the 80s were a half-aborted explosion of new horror (half-aborted because several prominent novels were censored heavily, or shipped overseas, or overlooked). To what degree King's writings of the 70s are responsible, I don't know, but it does seem to be a interesting line between King's "everyday America horror" and the next decade, with writers like Skipp and Lansdale and Schow and Laymon and Ketchum, who stirred up the dirt and made it quite bloody. A term "splatterpunk" was coined in the mid-80s to cover this new field, a genre shift away from haunts and devils and more towards everyday and the gruesomely biological, and a mood shift from creeping horror to gory, pain-induced panic. Something of a novelization of the themes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust, and the original Friday the 13th. A certain delight in all the ingenius ways to die. Sort of. No genre description is completely accurate. Clive Barker often has a certain sense of fluidity and near-Lovecraftian concepts on top of the deep gashes. Joe R. Lansdale weaves in weird brushes of Southern mythos into his stories. Zombies showed up from time to time. But, in general, a good number of stories relied on madmen and crazy women and the damage that knifes can make.

Neither of these novels fit inside the "actually possible" realm of horror, but both show a look at small town life and it's inner workings, studies in dysfunctional personalities, and concepts of facing horror head-on. In this sense, they are, especially The Pines, a descendant of "The Dunwich Horror", that rare Lovecraftian tale in which regular folk fight back and do so without instant death and insanity (though eventual death and insanity are always a risk). Both justify comments I heard once that said that horror became the new punk for a country tired of overwhelming political issues, a new look at the dissolution of American dreams, a new in-your-face genre that was angry at the world. This idea that things have went wrong, very wrong, in the way family works and in the measure of success and what really matters and to what degree we can feel safe in our own homes and schools. And then monsters show up one day to nail this concept home.

Beware's cover text makes it sound like a more classic ghost story, albeit one that ends with the butcher on the block and with her chops for sale (pun intended, I think)—like something out of an E.C. Comics' story. This is not correct, and another of the bits of the synopsis is either outright wrong, or never mentioned in the novel. I have no clue if the person who wrote it was trying to give away as little of the story as possible, or if they were writing from someone else's description and got it wrong.

What it does involve is evil cults and gun fights and chases through hotel rooms and innocent people getting mowed down for no reason (the concept of no justice is a debatable one in horror, some characters die without reason, some die for definite reason). Traps are laid and overcome and people are carved up in quite painful ways. No ghosts, though, at least not the kind the book cover implies. There are supernatural elements, though they often feel like convenient story telling more than a full part of the novel.

The characters in Beware are ok, but are fairly standard Laymonians. You have an ex-soldier type, a writer type, and strong willed female who isn't that strong willed and falls in love with one of the men. The two men are nominally more interesting than the female, but mostly because they are (or become) action heroes and have a certain b-movie bravado about them. The woman has some depth of character, but it only bubbles up occasionally and most of the time the things she does and has done to her feel like plot points instead of actual parts of the psychology.

The two baddies are both fairly bad, though the weaker of the two, who is kind of ironically the main focus, is clearly bad while the other one is mostly hinted at as being bad. Both have that same b-movie bravado going, making this novel something of a low budget horror movie that would be fodder for friends drinking and having a good time being smartasses if it ever came out on DVD.

Most of the strong violence happens off camera, and the essentially bored way it is related to the reader at times through internal anecdotes is part of the horror. The novel is a list of sins, with the ones happening in it's time frame being only the final build up. Most violence happens in brief patches, with the rape scenes (of which there seems more than the usual Laymon number) getting generally higher word counts than, say, dismemberment. The gore scenes work, especially since you see the after-effect and don't have to spend pages reading about endless, wet, details. The cult gathering in the woods, with it's single cut, and the victims staked in the desert have only faint description but work for it, the sudden but calculated brutality. The rape scenes don't really work. They don't feel like horror, at least not the three to five central rape scenes. Some of the off camera ones sound scary, and hints of, say, a highschool student becoming a timewaster for an hour are the kind of thing that disturbs the reader, while most of the on camera ones are plodding thrusts and the victim feeling upset. It is impolite to be bored by a rape scene, so the reader is left with no choice but to try and feel something for the poor woman, but when she herself then ignores it right afterwards it just makes you wonder what the point is. Only the last one, which is described in media res, feels like an element of horror.

The Pines, in contrast, focuses more on the sheer brutality of the attacks. It has a rape scene, with a rather disturbing anatomically correct detail, and hints of buggery and ejaculate, but more of the horror is descriptions of skip flaps hanging down from torn guts and from blood pooling and dripping down. Dunbar does not delight in the intricate ways a human can die, but focuses on a singular concept of trauma in all it's forms, the overwhelming of the life force versus those that stay and fight.

There is also a lot more substance to the non-violence here, or maybe a different sort of genetic violence. While Beware is a b-movie of a book, The Pines is a lot more of a slow burn drama with horrific elements in the background. When it came out in 89, apparently several scenes were cut. These were restored in a 2006 edition and this is the massmarket paperback of the uncut version. I'm not sure which scenes were cut, but since the violence is often brutal and confusing, I'm going to wager it was storyline and character buildup. The final product has such a fine balance, with the scale threatening to tip towards boring overdetail or towards shallow underjustification in places, that I cannot see the original product working that well after the cuts.

The Pines is set in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, a mostly overlooked wilderness that is home to a good number of genetically deficient (I think that's the word they use) inbreds, rednecks, alcoholics, and other savory types. The story mostly focuses on Athena (usually called Thena)—the novel's focus and distinct outsider to the region, her mentally troubled son Matty, her sister-in-law—and mostly native—Pamela, Doris the old ambulance chief, and Steve, the troubled by mostly good cop. You also get a spattering of campers, outsiders, insiders, and girls with no eyes. And a dog, who seems pretty badass. Over half the novel is more concerned with the people who make a hard living in the woods rather than any monster that might live deep in them, with Thena's trying to come to terms as to how her college educated self ended up barely afloat and living in a collapsing house surrounded by people that hate her for her mixed heritage and outsider status, and why she is having a mostly unsatisfying affair with Barry, Steve's deputy partner.

As evil gets closer and closer, the locals deal more and more with their fear of the beast versus the fear of outside interference, the fear of having to change. Dunbar weaves in real life considerations, with poverty drenched people rewriting moral code or making bad assumptions to work somewhere between self-forgiveness and a reason to live: rampant pregnancy in people too poor to have theconcept of birth control, who take a stoic pleasure in having children they cannot care for or love, deformities caused by inbreeding which seems inescapable in a place where outsiders are untrusted, alcoholism as a coping mechanism, and feral dogs terrorizing people. As the evil picks up towards the end, it feels almost unnecessary. The story has picked up on it's own. This seems to be the point, that it doesn't matter what shape evil takes here because those conditions can do little more than eventually inspire evil to take some shape.

While Laymon's novel is kind of quick to get into, and keeps up a steady action throughout, Dunbar's novel starts off fairly slow and the action surges in places and fades out in others. The characters are deeper, but flawed in a way where it takes a bit to get to know them. You will probably find yourself still trying to get into the rhythm of the novel around page 100, if you are still with it. Once you do this, it becomes a much quicker read and builds up well upon itself, but there are several places, some of them are critical characterization moments focusing on interpersonal conflict, where the action and dialogue becomes confused and disjointed, occasionally degrading into something almost nonsensical. Laymon's novel can be ingested almost all at once, but Dunbar's novel will probably take a couple of sessions to really get into. Of course, Beware is largely forgettable, a string of cheap thrills, possibly the weakest of the recent Laymon reprints, while The Pines has more bang for it's buck by the end, a veritable regional mythos that suggests deeper going ons barely hinted at. The larger picture of Beware seems to crash out by the end, while The Pines leaves you with a hint of only a few surface issues being well and scratched, a mere footnote, no matter how the main characters fair.

Beware is Eh at most, and seems like the sort of book you might want to borrow or buy at a discount. The Pines, though, is Good and worth it's roughly eight dollars in cost.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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