The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 5: THE HOWLING by Gary Brandner

As anyone who has ever loaned me a book knows, I have a lousy habit of letting things I want to read pile up.  A long time ago, probably when I was in my early years of high school, a used copy this 1977 novel found its way into my house.  I honestly cannot remember who bought it or why.  Since I usually remember buying books, one of my parents probably did it, knowing of my interest in horror.  I had heard of Joe Dante’s 1981 film but I had no idea that it had a literary source.  In fact, since the copy of Brandner’s novel I had was a movie tie-in edition, I briefly thought it was a novelization of the film.  However, the cover clarified that the film was based on the novel and I became seriously interested.  Then my lousy habit kicked in and the book sat unread by me for well over a decade.

Let me clarify that my copy of The Howling went unread but certainly not forgotten.  Over those many years, despite my fondness for Gremlins and Innerspace, I deliberately avoided watching Dante’s film because of that battered, yellowing paperback.  I used to have an ironclad rule about reading the book a movie was based on before seeing the movie.  While I’ve relaxed somewhat, that is still my default position.  Now, if anyone ever wants me to WATCH The Howling, I can finally say yes.  At last, I have READ The Howling!

And it’s good!  The Howling is certainly no masterpiece but it’s a fast-paced, entertaining beach read sort of novel.  Apparently, the film is only a loose adaptation of Brandner’s work.  The film reportedly displays Joe Dante’s trademark quirky humor and there is precious little humor in the novel.  It is rather a completely straightforward, frequently savage chiller.  Brandner opens with a dark, disturbing prologue set in 1500s Bulgaria.  This is probably one of the best written parts of the novel and I was sorry it was so brief.  The primary plot begins with the brutal rape of a young, pregnant California woman named Karyn Beatty.  This section is appropriately harsh but Brandner admirably avoided gratuitousness.  Of grim historical interest is the description of the police’s sensitivity as “their new, more sympathetic procedures for rape victims.”  Karyn suffers a miscarriage and, after her physical recovery, she and her husband Roy decide to take an extended vacation.  They rent a house in the secluded village of Drago and…well, I don’t want to spoil anything but werewolves are involved!

I would classify The Howling as part of the “everything is normal till the creepy stuff starts” school of horror.  From my internet readings, I get the impression that some fans of the genre don’t like this school.  It is capable of being a bit pedestrian but it can also be quite effective in the right hands.  Ira Levin was able to turn this style into a deliciously dark comedy in his masterful novel Rosemary’s Baby.  Brandner doesn’t get anywhere near those heights but he was a capable wordsmith.  Karyn, the protagonist, is an excellently drawn heroine, neither damsel in distress nor superhero.  She is an intelligent, resourceful woman, but also someone dealing with events that would overwhelm almost anyone.  Her reactions to traumatic events, supernatural and otherwise, are completely identifiable.  She neither morphs into an avenging angel nor collapses into helplessness.  Considering the denigration/idealization female characters often suffer from male authors, all of this is very refreshing.  Otherwise, the characterizations are mostly minimal but believable.  While he spends most of the book as a fairly one-dimensional figure, Roy develops in some tantalizing directions near the end.  Another character, a surprisingly (for the late 70s) complex and positive lesbian, could have been the subject of her own story!  It was unfortunate Brandner didn’t spend more time on her.

Actually, Brandner would hardly have had time to dwell on even the most fascinating character.  One of the real virtues of this novel is its energy.  It drives you along with a rather breathtaking force.  Luckily, this helps one avoid noticing Brandner’s occasionally clunky prose and risible plot twists.  There’s nothing TOO ridiculous (California werewolves!) but, if you were really paying attention, you might start to sneer.  Brandner was a skillful enough writer to know his strengths and how to deflect attention from his weaknesses.  That skill made The Howling an exciting horror novel, modest and even quaint from a literary viewpoint, but great fun all the same.

 


 

The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 4: SLEEPEASY by T. M. Wright

Having been born in 1981, I was too young to indulge in the late 1970s to mid 1990s boom in paperback original horror novels.  That statement sounds odd, you think?  Well, while I’ve long passed myself off as a literary type, as a young person I was somewhat faux literary.  Oh, there were books I read and loved, to be sure.  And I’ve had a deep reverence for literature since I was a child that is completely genuine.  However, until I was in college, I eyed page counts with silent fear and shame.  Since a number of paperback original horror novels were, in my view, quite long, they remained largely out of my orbit.  I have memories of being entranced by their zany, often ridiculous covers.  I even bought a couple and plowed through one called Howl-O-Ween by Gary L. Holleman.  It was an ok werewolf story, but I was annoyed because it didn’t have much to do with Halloween.  Unfortunately, by that time the boom was ending and I was becoming progressively more pretentious.

Naturally, now that I’m (somewhat) less pretentious, I’m bitter and resentful that I missed this fun and schlocky period in horror fiction.  Luckily, a good number of horror novels from that time, paperback original and otherwise, are still easy to find at used bookstores.  I’ve acquired quite a few.  After dithering a bit about where to start, I chose this ghost story by T. M. Wright, who apparently made the ghost story something of a specialty.  I was drawn to Sleepeasy because the plot description on the back suggested a merger of the ghost story with the hard boiled detective novel, and because a blurb from legendary horror author Ramsey Campbell described Mr. Wright as practicing “quiet horror.”  I am a big film noir fan and, as anyone trapped with me during a discussion of cinema knows, I think my beloved horror genre too often abandons its artful gothic roots in favor of simplistic shocks and needless gore.  The brief synopsis of Sleepeasy and the comments about Wright’s style made this book sound right up my alley.

Well, I finished the book a week or so ago and…well…  What’s to be said?  Well…  Hmmm!  First off, the novel opens with the death of the protagonist.  That was very clever!  Then…well…  I’m seriously trying to avoid the old “nothing happens” complaint but, VERY little happens.  There!  I ALMOST avoided it!  While researching Wright, I came across a comment on a blog post about his work.  The commenter had read, or started reading, several of Wright’s novels and used the phrase “there’s no ‘there’ there,” or something very much like that.  Honestly, nothing I can say here will top that in describing this book.  There were several fascinating possibilities.  There were a number of potentially interesting characters.  There were some moments of tantalizing suggestion.  There were passages that started to become evocative.  Yet Wright seemed oddly determined to have none of it come together.  He sets several things in motion and just lets them trundle along.  If he was aiming for suggestions of the elliptical or the surreal, it didn’t take.  It didn’t even come close.

There are some positives.  Wright has a nice, dry sense of humor.  One character, a tough police detective, was very likable and I looked forward to his sections.  Those were also the only parts of the book to even approach delivering on the promise of a hard boiled atmosphere.  Sadly, even these good points are badly underused.  Would I give T. M. Wright another chance?  Sure.  Strange Seed and A Manhattan Ghost Story seem to have solid reputations.  Maybe this one just wasn’t his best work.  Truth be told, it wasn’t unpleasant or anything like that.  It even had its moments.  It just never really came together.  That’s hardly the worst thing one can say about a book.  So I’d try another Wright novel.  But I’m in no hurry.  None whatsoever.

THE LEPER OF SAINT GILES by Ellis Peters

At the start of my review of Peters’ The Virgin in the Ice, I wrote that it was my first Brother Cadfael mystery but I doubted that it would be my last.  The Leper of Saint Giles is my second Cadfael book and I can say for sure that it will not be my last.  Everything I praised in the last book is also present in this one so I don’t feel the need to go over those aspects again.  The differences are intriguing in a number of ways.

On the whole, I would say The Leper of Saint Giles is superior to The Virgin in the Ice.  It feels more focused and unified.  This is especially true when it comes to the mystery and detection aspects.  In this book, the puzzle is rock solid and carefully worked out.  While I admit I’m not too sharp when it comes to figuring out mysteries, I was genuinely startled by the big revelation.  The Virgin in the Ice switched genres after a certain point and became an adventure.  Peters threw in a grand conclusion to wrap up the mystery and it was all very well done, but she didn’t seem particularly interested in that part of her story, at least not by the end.  That didn’t really damage my enjoyment of the book.  Peters was clearly a virtuoso with prose and her style was more than capable of getting readers to ignore plot weaknesses.  Still, it is an extra pleasure to read Peters’ masterful prose anchored to a more carefully wrought story.

I notice that in my review of The Virgin in the Ice, I briefly wished Cadfael himself had been more present in the book since he was such an appealing character.  Well, I didn’t get my wish in this one!  However, I think that was actually a good thing.  I recall reading about some fictional detectives who were not really the protagonists in their own books.  That always confused me but I think I understand this aesthetic approach now.  Cadfael is really a supporting character in The Leper of Saint Giles.  He figures out the mystery but the story is not about him.  This allows him to function almost as a kind of audience surrogate and this successfully magnifies the human drama of the plot.  On the subject of likable characters, one of this book’s few flaws is the absence of the charming Hugh Beringar, Cadfael’s primary police contact.  In one short passage, Cadfael regrets that Beringar is unavailable.  He wasn’t the only one!

With a mystery, I’m especially reluctant to reveal plot details.  I’m going to hold to that but I want to mention certain aspects of the finale.  There are discoveries that, while no more unbelievable than something in your average summer blockbuster film, are squarely in the realm of melodrama.  Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.  If Ellis Peters had been an average author, the melodrama would have been entertaining and forgettable.  Peters was a remarkable author, however.  She skillfully used reticence and an incredible instinct for proper emphasis to turn effective melodrama into something approaching tragedy.  Instead of just enjoying a fun read, I found myself meditating on issues of pride, sacrifice, and waste.  This ability to combine entertaining plot hijinks with weighty themes, uniting them with stylish prose and easing readers just looking for a good time into something a bit more serious without alienating them, is a rare and valuable one.  Young writers would do well to try and learn it from Peters.