Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Weekend '33, by Bob Thomas
May, 1973 Dell Books
(Original hardcover publication, 1972)
I love Golden Age Hollywood movies, especially what's now known as Pre-Code cinema; ie films made between 1929 and 1934 which became progressively more "adult" in nature. I was certain some novel had to have been written about this era of Tinseltown; I knew of course about Harold Robbins's The Carpetbaggers, but I wanted to find something else, something more obscure. And the way these things happen, I eventually found what I sought -- Bob Thomas's novel Weekend '33, published in hardcover in 1972, then again in 1973 in the mass market edition shown here, and then promptly forgotten.
In the '60s and early '70s Thomas had scored a trio of best-sellers with his bios of three movie moguls: Thalberg, Selznick, and King Cohn. So it's safe to say he's in his element here, in a novel about Hollywood personalities converging on a palatial residence in Central California during Labor Day weekend, 1933. Other than a puzzling gaffe -- Thomas mentions Joseph Breen and his Nazi brethren in the Hays Office a few times, stating that they would not give approval to various "saucy" scenes, when the Production Code in fact wasn't enforced until June, 1934, nearly a year after the events of this novel -- Weekend '33 is a perfectly-rendered trip back into a long-lost era of Hollywood glamour.
This is a long-simmer novel very much in the vein of Burt Hirschfeld -- and in fact, Hirschfeld's novel Acapulco is given a full-page advertisement in the back of the book (another full-page ad is given to The Millionaires, by my man Herbert Kastle). Thomas employs the same method as used by Hirschfeld: he takes a large cast of fabulous people with fabulous wealth, places them in a fabulous setting, and lets them simmer for a few hundred pages. And just as in Hirschfeld there isn't much "trashy" material here; the novel is mostly dialog and thick blocks of narrative.
Weekend '33 in fact could've been published a decade or two earlier and wouldn't have caused a stir. It's almost chaste in a way, which is surprising given the era it was published -- what I wanted was a trashy novel of Hollywood personalities sitting around in their art deco apartments and sipping High Balls while scheming against one another, with the occasional coke-fueled orgy to spice things up. Instead this is a slow-brewing tale that's more focused on character; and one could argue that there are too many characters here. That's not to say however that it is an uninvolving tale. I was actually quite caught up in it, and it worked the same magic on me that Hirschfeld's own novels have.
Rather than use real figures from the era, Thomas instead delivers analogues of them. This is a bit underwhelming, as the novel therefore lacks the impact it otherwise might have: Thomas recreates '30s Hollywood, creating a variety of studios that didn't exist, stating that they are the top of the heap, and only gives real studios like MGM and Paramount minor mention. And the only real actor I recall being namedropped was Kay Francis. But I guess the idea then is a roman a clef sort of aproach, a la Robbins; only whereas Robbins would've created one or two "new" characters and placed them in the "real" world, Thomas instead recreates Hollywood itself.
As mentioned, there are a damn bunch of characters. Here they are, with who I think they're supposed to be in paranthesis: Harrison Stembridge (William Randolph Hearst) and his mistress Anita Farrell (Marion Davies) invite a host of Hollywood personalities to their castle-like domain Excalibur (basically Citizen Kane's Xanadu) in Central California. Stembridge has ulterior motives in who he has invited; the money-makers of the industry, basically, and he refuses to tell Anita his intentions. Anita however convinces the old man to allow her to invite some of her own Hollywood friends to spice things up -- her fear is all of these fuddy-duddy "business types" will spoil Labor Day weekend.
Among the guests are Arthur J. Bryant (Louis B. Mayer), head of the biggest studio in Hollywood; Sam Green (Harry Cohn, on the way up), straight-shooting owner of a struggling, nascent studio; Kay Caldwell (Gloria Swanson), silent era screen queen now determined to keep her (aging) star from fading; Roger Carlisle (Herman Mankiewicz), a screenwriter with flashes of genius who despite it all is too busy getting drunk and pissing people off; Melody Lee (Jean Harlow), a street-smart but innocent bombshell who's the next big thing; and Curt Zimmer (Erich von Stroheim), hulking German director who cares only for his art. In addition there is a husband-and-wife producing team; the wife, Laura Mason, is a former silent star and good friends with Kay Caldwell; the husband, Bobby Redmon, is a comedian in the vein of Buster Keaton. There's also Henry Stockton (Joseph Kennedy), another studio owner, but one who has just entered the business; an industry leader, Stockton figures that a film studio can be as easily run as say a steel factory -- and like Kennedy, who was in love with Gloria Swanson, Stockton is in love with Kay Caldwell. Finally there's Don Howell, another fading star who is looking to Sam Green for his next film; I'm not sure who he's supposed to be.
Thomas takes his time with the narrative. We meet each of our characters just before Labor Day weekend, as they go about their business in Hollywood. And by the way, for a novel about Hollywood there's very little movie-making action. Instead we see our characters in between projects, and so get little insight into the movie-making machine. Stembridge sends out his invitations and the panoply of characters descend en masse to Excalibur. This is another well-rendered scene as some of the guests converge in rented limosines, others in private planes, and others in trains, riding in Stembridge's own luxuriously-appointed private cars. Along the way various characters meet and talk and talk. No one understands why Stembridge has called them to Excalibur.
Another sequence which seems to acknowledge Citizen Kane is when the guests first arrive; part of the ritual of Excalibur is Stembridge escorts his guests on horseback down into the valley and there they have dinner. It's all just like the outdoor party sequence in the latter half of Citizen Kane, when Kane is entertaining guests in that awesome backlot of a forest (complete with what looks to be Prehistoric birds flashing by in the skyline -- keep your eyes open for them, next time you watch the film). After dinner Stembridge talks privately with the men he invited to Excalibur, and we finally learn his intentions: he wants to buy their studios.
Of them all, Sam Green emerges as the hero of the piece, as he's steadfastly against it, even though he's not a moneymaker and indeed is behind on a note he owes...to a bank owned by Stembridge. The old man claims he's merely buying the studios as a plaything for his mistress Anita Farrell, but Green puts the pieces together: Stembridge is an anti-Semite -- indeed he seems very interested in the doings of Adolf Hitler over in Europe -- and his goal is to take Hollywood away from the Jewish moguls and recreate it in his own Aryan image.
This has the makings of a helluva plot, but it all boils over in lots of dialog and argument. And what's worse is the anti-Semite insinuations are clouded over. Green works as a cog in Stembridge's plan, but not enough to foil him; after various melodramatic incidents (for example, Bobby has a quick fling with Melody Lee before being discovered by his wife Laura), several of the characters decide to sell their interests to Stembridge and therefore be done with the whole damned Hollywood business.
Bu then -- and this paragraph is a spoiler, so skip it if you want -- Thomas undercuts all of the drama. After learning that his plan is a success and that all of the owners (except for Green) will sell him their studios, Stembridge is informed that he doesn't even have the money to buy them! Due to the newly-inflated cost of paper (like Hearst, Stembridge's fortunes have been created by his many newspapers), Stembridge's resources are now too swamped to even go forward with his plan. To say it's an underwhelming finale would be, well, an understatement.
Just as frustratingly, Thomas then skips forward to a few months after Labor Day weekend, with the opening of Green's new film, which was written by Carlile. We get a glimmering of what's happened to each of the characters as they converge on their way into Mann's Chinese Theater, being interviewed on-air by a radio personality. And with that Weekend '33 comes to an end.
It appears that Thomas wrote only one other novel, the impressively-titled The Flesh Merchants, from 1959. Before that though I think I'll check out some of his mogul bios. And I should discover more Golden Age-era novels posthaste: I have the comprehensive sourcebook The Hollywood Novel by A. Slide on the way via Interlibrary Loan.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Live Girls, by Ray Garton
August, 2006 Leisure Books
(Original publication 1987)
I learned about this novel over on Will Errickson's awesomely-named blog Too Much Horror Fiction. Luckily I found a copy of the 2006 reprint during a recent horror-buying binge at a local used bookstore emporium, and it went to the top of the reading pile. I'm not really into vampire tales, I mean I think we as a people are in vampire overload these days, with a glut of novels, movies, tv series, and etc all focusing on the damn things. Happily though Live Girls is much better than the average vampire dreck we're currently being inundated with.
For one, the vampires here are vampires, not punk teenagers in goth clothing. The novel is also a nice reminder of when horror fiction was for and about adults, with sex and a dangerous vibe -- in other words, before the genre, like everything else in today's miserable world, began to pander to the all-so-important tweener market. Instead of coming off like a teenager-oriented soap opera, Live Girls is about normal adults facing the fact that vampires live among them. It is (intentionally) funny at times and for the most part plays it straight and non-campy. Plus it has vampire strippers!!
The book features a small core of characters, but the main one is a writer named Davey Owen who works as an editor for a line of men's adventure magazines (not the cool '50s-'60s type, but the Soldier of Fortune-'80s type). He's known for letting women walk all over him, much to the dismay of Casey, a coworker who has feelings for him. Also Davey is constantly informed that he has no backbone, something which is drilled into him via dialog and narrative a bit too much for my tastes -- foreshadowing overkill. Depressed over his latest girlfriend leaving him (for her former boyfriend, no less, an abusive drugdealer), Davey heads into Time Square on his lunch break and finds himself outside the many stripclubs.
"Live Girls" is the name of one of the clubs, so unostentatious (not a real word, btw) that even the sign hanging outside of it is broken. The casual flair of the place appeals to Davey so he goes inside, pays for his tokens, and chooses a booth; this is his first time for such shenanigans, and he's shocked to discover that the nude woman dancing behind the glass window inside the booth is actually beautiful. He's further surprised when she reaches through the hole beneath the glass and begins fondling him. Eventually she does a whole bunch more to him, and Davey's mind is blown, among other things (what a comedian).
This visit has two major effects on Davey: he finds himself obsessed with the raven-haired beauty in the booth, and he also finds himself distracted and distanced from the real world. Indeed he finally confronts his disgusting, despicable boss over a raise he believed he was entitled. She insinuates that perhaps if Davey slept with her, he might eventually get that raise. (The sexual harassement is just the tip of the pre-PC working world iceberg, here; I kept laughing at the many scenes where Casey and other coworkers would light up cigarettes in the breakrooms.) Davey quits, leaves happily, and finds himself back at Live Girls.
In another plot Walter Benedek, a New York Times reporter, is himself staking out Live Girls. Benedek's brother-in-law Vernon started frequenting the place shortly before he began acting strange and disappearing for long stretches of time. Benedek's first appearance in the novel is his discovery of his sister's and niece's mauled and mutilated remains, and the signs are quite clear that Vernon was their murderer. Benedek has a gut feeling that something is strange about Live Girls, that it played a factor in Vernon's behavior. He's now watching the place in an attempt to find Vernon, whom even the police can't find. During one such stakeout Benedek notices Davey Own visiting the place twice in one day; Benedek notices him because Davey looks nothing like the establishment's typical clientele.
Davey meanwhile begins to stalk Live Girls himself, so consumed with thoughts over the stripper. He runs into her as she's leaving the cub; her name is Anya and she appears amused with Davey's obsession. She reveals that she also works at another place, a classier establisment called The Midnight Club. On her way their now, she not only offers Davey to ride along in her cab but also gets him in for free. The place is mostly for members and has a long waiting list for nonmembers. People here are nicely dressed and it's several steps above Live Girls, however only members can drink the House Special, a chilled glass of very dark crimson liquid.
Given that this is a horror novel, we readers already understand what's going on. These people, including Anya, are vampires, and Anya has been taking blood from Davey during his visits to Live Girls -- taking his blood in a way you'd never see on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that's for sure. Davey however is in "the real world" so doesn't realize what's going on; meaning he's even moreso shocked when, after dancing naughtily with a cross on the Midnight Club stage, Anya takes Davey back to her apartment and proceeds to have sex with him.
The scene is both erotic and graphic and certainly packs a punch. We also realize that Anya is making Davey into a vampire, in a process that involves a lot of return neck-biting and blood-swallowing and such. Why exactly Anya makes Davey a vampire instead of just killing him is something Garton leaves vague. The implication is that Anya, a true vampire, actually likes Davey and wants him to be with her, but Garton doesn't get into this.
Indeed it was here that the novel began to unravel, just a little, for me. Anya is such a developed character, and I expected to find out more about her, who she is, but as soon as Davey becomes a vampire Garton basically drops Anya from the narrative. Davey gradually realizes what has happened to him, why he now hungers for blood. More lurid stuff ensues as Casey visits him. Then funny stuff ensues as Benedek visits Casey, putting him through an "are you a vampire?" test that is humorous for both the reader and the characters. It's to Garton's credit that the word "vampire" isn't even mentioned until 200 pages in.
There's more creepy stuff afoot: besides the "regular" vampires there's the head vampire, an ancient woman who takes a shine to Casey; there's a former pimp who now works as the top henchman for the vampires; there's Vernon, Benedek's brother-in-law and now a full-fledged vampire himself; and finally there is a basement full of vampire rejects, misshapen creatures who fed on drug-riddled prey and suffered the consequences. They feast on human scraps, leading to an eerie scene in which Davey infiltrates their lair beneath Live Girls.
At any rate the novel is for the most part an excellent read, but I felt that it tapered off after the midpoint. After all of the build-up about Anya and the vampires, Garton suddenly changes focus to Davey's vampirehood and his eventual plans for revenge upon those who did this to him. We're left with all sorts of questions about these vampires. And the climax itself is a bit rushed, with hardly any solid answers. And again for me the biggest miss was Anya, a greeter into the unlife that any guy would welcome, but sadly she's given short shrift and basically swept under the narrative carpet. I for one couldn't understand why Davey was so pissed at her -- call me crazy, but if a beautiful vampire stripper wanted to make me her immortal consort, I'd at least hear the lady out.
Garton followed up Live Girls in 2005 with Night Life, a novel which appears to have been received poorly by both critic and fan alike. Nevertheless I'll probably read it one of these days, if only to catch up with the (surviving) characters to see how they've progressed over the years.
Monday, September 19, 2011
Goodbye, Janette, by Harold Robbins
August, 1981 Pocket Books
I read this Harold Robbins novel in the manner of my forefathers: I took it with me on vacation. I think I've discovered at least one secret behind Robbins's success, as his "no thinking required" style of writing is perfect for those who just want to unwind after a long day of laying on the beach or visiting the tourist traps. Dean Koontz had already figured this out, stating in his 1972 book Writing Popular Fiction that "Big Sexy Novels" like Robbins's shouldn't contain big words or in-depth plots, not because their readers aren't intelligent, but because they're looking for no-frills "beach reading" entertainment.
Goodbye, Janette was in fact Robbins's last bestseller. And it was a sad way for him to go, as the novel is truly the work of a bored, burned-out writer. It's just as bad as the earlier Dreams Die First, but whereas that novel at least had a bizzaro sort of charm, Goodbye, Janette instead limps along to its anticlimatic end. Actually, that's only partly true; another of the many frustrations about this novel is that it occasionally shows true flashes of vintage OTT Harold Robbins. The cover proclaims it "More Daring, More Shocking" than his previous books, and that's not mere hyperbole -- at least for the first quarter of the novel.
This time, to save himself from having to come up with a plotline for an entire novel (which as we saw in Dreams Die First resulted in utter chaos), Robbins instead splits the book into four sections. We start off in WWII-era Paris, our protagonist the lovely Tanya, a young Polish widow who escapes the concentration camps due to her command of various languages. Tanya is also able to keep her infant daughter Janette with her, working as a translator for a non-Nazi German businessman named Wolfgang who has been placed in charge of various companies in occupied Paris.
We're lulled into the narrative as Robbins jumps back and forth from immediate post-WWII Paris to a few years prior, as Tanya falls in love with the German businessman. Due to various reasons however she marries Maurice, an entitled Frenchman who marries Tanya merely so she can have French nationality and thereby retain ownership of the companies for Wolfgang; it wouldn't do for a German to retain ownership so soon after the war.
Then Robbins blows our minds with some of the most warped stuff he's ever written. Tanya has already gotten a glimpse of Maurice's oversized "phallus;" she prepares herself for her wedding night, wondering if she can "accomodate" him, if you catch my meaning. But good gravy. What follows is an OTT scene of depredation that would make De Sade envious, as Maurice breaks out his cat o'nine tails and proceeds to whip the living hell out of Tanya. It goes on and on, with sadistic sex added to the mix. As if that isn't enough, Maurice eventually moves on to young Janette, now a preteen, paying her visits over the years and stripping her down before he whips her -- and she enjoys it! Indeed she gets off on it, so unable to control herself that she orgasms every time Maurice takes hold of her.
Tanya of course hates Maurice and doesn't even live with him, not realizing his abuse of her daughter -- nor the fact that her daughter enjoys the abuse. Talk about a messed-up family. Tanya waits for over a decade for Wolfgang to return, only finding out too late that the man is dead, murdered immediately after the war. Janette turns sixteen and Maurice takes her out of her private school and puts her through his own 120 days of sodomy (it occurs to me that the first quarter of the novel is in fact Robbins's take on De Sade), and again Janette enjoys it. She comes out mauled and brainwashed, and so abused that she must undergo surgery. Tanya finds out, goes to Maurice to murder him, but accidentally murders his lover instead (Maurice is bisexual as well) and ends up getting killed for her efforts.
No surprise that the rest of the novel can't keep up the pace. Janette becomes the focus and unsurprisingly she grows into a callous woman. Before her death Tanya had another daughter, Lauren, her father an American businessman Tanya had a passing fling with. Janette, after using Lauren as bait to get what she wants, finally passes the girl off to Johan, Wolfgang's old partner and the only "good" presence in the novel. Johan takes Lauren off to raise her in America. Janette meanwhile undergoes plastic surgery to lose weight so that she may attain a classic model's body. As expected the novel's all over the damn place; somehow Janette decides she will become a cosmetics and fashion entrepreneur, first becoming a famous model and then launching her own line. Meanwhile she abuses men and women alike, occasionally finding time to visit Maurice, hating herself for it.
But then that's one of the novel's many problems. Maurice disappears from the novel and we're left wanting to see the bastard get his comeuppance. Robbins apparently forgets after another coke-snort and instead focuses on the uninvolving Janette. It goes without saying that characterization suffers here; Janette in particular changes every other page, sometimes a loving big sister, sometimes a wicked debutante, sometimes a no-nonsense businesswoman. And sadly it's all very boring.
Then there's Lauren, who meanwhile grows up into a beauty herself, but a California girl through and through, smoking homegrown dope with her hippie friend Harvey. She eventually returns to Paris, where she herself becomes an overnight celebrity after appearing in a fashion show Janette puts together. This sequence is one of the few in the book that matches the opening, not due to the OTT nature but because Robbins actually writes here; the show is inspired by Dante's Inferno and features a sequence of crimson-hued clothing, culminating in Lauren's appearance in a blood-red wedding gown.
At length Robbins remembers Maurice, but it's too little, too late. After a few hundred pages of petty squabbling and page-wasting business meetings, with hardly any of the insanity we expect of him, Robbins limps toward his conclusion, as Janette -- not Maurice -- gets her comeuppance. The title was a mystery to me, but it appears that Robbins lazily came up with it at the very end, as at least three or four characters tell Janette "Goodbye" before storming out of her miserable life. Finally she's beaten to a pulp by a jilted Greek lover (no doubt based on Onassis), but survives, determined to go on living.
Anyway, it was all pretty bad. I still say the best Robbins I've yet read is Descent From Xanadu -- written after he'd lost his bestseller status but a hell of a lot better than this.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Tracker #2: Green Lightning, by Ron Stillman
December, 1990 Charter Books
Tracker #1 was one of the worst novels I've ever read. Luckily this second volume is a bit better, but to quote John Lennon, "It couldn't get much worse." It still has the same juvenile mindset and writing, with a too-perfect hero who manages to instill hatred in the reader, but gussies it up this time out with sadism, sex, and a bunch of dirty words. So in other words this one reads like the work of a 15 year-old instead of a 12 year-old.
To recap, our hero is Natty Tracker, an Air Force hotshot who was rendered blind in the first installment. But Tracker, a martial arts expert who gets all the gals, is also a genius, and soon devised a sort of SONAR for his eyes. By now however he's developed his own high-tech eyeballs which allow him to see not only normally, but Six Million Dollar Man-style, able to zoom in and out. Which means he's only become more perfect. You see, nothing fazes Tracker, no one can stop him or beat him, and he's capable of godlike acts. The novel, like its predecessor, has all of the insight and plot development of a coloring book, as Tracker finds out who the bad guys are and proceeds to beat them soundly, again and again.
Green Lightning attempts to go over the top, which is fine and would work, if only the book wasn't so goddamn stupid. We open with a scene in which a cross-dressing assassin attempts to kill the president of the US during a basketball game. However Tracker is on the court, impersonating a player (yep, he can contend with professional athletes as well), and manages to take out the killer, who turns out to be the same guy who killed Tracker's girlfriend in volume #1. Soon Tracker learns that a Japanese conglomerate wants to kill him: The Green Lightning, a COBRA-type army who send wave after wave of ninjas after him.
The head of this organization is a gorgeous Japanese gal named Jaki Kurakawa, a doctor who has sapphic tendencies; she employs an American sociopath named Henrietta "Hank" James to kill Tracker. This is the most sadistic section of the novel as we see Hank in action. A gorgeous lady herself, Hank likes to seduce men, take them back to her place, and then dismember them, even keeping their severed part in display cases. She then murders the poor sap, who nevertheless lives on in Hank's mind as part of a cheering throng, a throng which urges Hank on before each of her next kills. Hank was raped and tortured by her father as a child, which we are told is the cause of her insanity. Because, you know, everything can be blamed on our childhoods. To up the lurid quotient, we not only get to see snippets of Hank's childhood (during which she eventually murdered her father) but also see her as she dismembers and kills a guy.
You might remember the PC overtones of the previous novel; they're still here, if a bit subdued. However they come to the fore with the character of Hank, whom Tracker promptly begins to pity. Yes, this bloodlusting murder who tries to kill Tracker himself is a target of pity for our politically-correct protagonist, who arranges the woman's capture. He then sees that Hank is sent to a mental care facility, all the long regretting her fate and feeling sorry for the monster. (I wonder how Johnny Rock would've handled her?)
Undaunted, the Green Lightning sends teams of ninjas after Tracker. During a carchase Tracker, nude, hops in the car of an innocent passerby while trying to escape. The driver of course turns out to be a hot-as-hell lady named Dee, who despite being shot at and chased begins to flirt with this nude stranger who just jumped into her car. Pretty soon she's shacked up with Tracker in his home, for her "safety" of course. Here follows another OTT scene where a team of ninjas attack Tracker's house; at one point Tracker, again naked, dodges a sword-thrust by hopping up onto his chin-up bar and, since he's weaponless, pisses on the ninja's face. This is something I hope to never see in a kung-fu film.
But man, it just gets dumber and dumber. Tracker keeps pulling raids on the Green Lightning, taking on legions of ninjas and even their best fighter, hopping back and forth from Japan to Colorado as if they were next door to each other. Sometimes Dee is with him, sometimes she isn't. When she is they exchange incredibly horrible banter and dialog. In fact the dialog in this novel is some of the worst I've ever read, with exposition balder than Kojak. Check out this gem from Dee, as she informs Tracker toward the end that he doesn't have to worry about her falling in love with him:
"Tracker, I know what you're saying. Let me explain myself, though. I don't want kids or a white picket fence. I love my job and I make good money with it. I also enjoy spending the money on vacations and excitement. You bring excitement into my life, Natty Tracker. I know you meet beautiful women all over the world, and I know what your life is like, but your life is so exciting, I can only take it in small doses. I enjoy that and can still enjoy my work as well. I don't want to own you, brand you, or bear your children. I want to share some quiet times, exciting times, and romantic times with you, and that's it."
I mean, this shit makes Harold Robbins seem like Proust. There are better (by which I mean worse) examples I could've shown, but that one will have to do. It's all just so bad and so stupid that it makes me shake my head in regret. Again, this series could've been something, an OTT goof on the genre, but intead it's the worst of the genre, a men's adventure novel as neutered as one of Hank's victims, and what gets me the most is I'll have to soldier my way through the rest of the series, as I bought the entire run and don't want to have fully wasted my money.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Horror Show, by Greg Kihn
October, 1997 Tor Books
(Original hardcover publication October, 1996)
Greg Kihn is a musician most remembered for his early '80s hit "Jeopardy;" who knew that in the mid-'90s he turned his hand to fiction? Horror Show was his first novel, and what's interesting about it is that it mines the same material Tim Burton employed for his unsung 1994 classic Ed Wood. Only whereas Burton remained in the "real world" for his biopic, Kihn is free to delve into the outer limits of horror fiction.
However all of the people from Ed Wood's life are here, only with different names. Wood is Landis Woodley, Vampira is Devila, Bela Lugosi is Jonathon Luboff, Bunny Breckinridge is Neil Bugmier, and etc. Kihn even brings in an analogue of Anton LeVay in Albert Beaumond, head priest of his own satanic church. Woodley, just like his real-life counterpart, is a 1950s director known for making quickie, zero-budgeted horror movies for the drive-in market. One movie in particular, Cadaver, has become legendary since its 1956 release; it reportedly features real corpses.
The novel opens in 1996 as a young reporter attempts to interview the notoriously-reclusive Landis Woodley, now a bitter old man living in the Hollywood Hills, long retired from the movie biz. Woodley's place is a genuine haunted house, complete with odd moans coming from the basement and Woodley's pet bats who flap around the heads of his guests. The 1996 opening takes us right back to 1956, where the meat of the novel occurs, as Landis recalls the making of Cadaver. (The novel by the way is in third-person; it's not the first-person recounts of Landis himself.)
Like Ed Wood, Woodley has surrounded himself with a band of outcasts and misfits, never-weres and has-beens. Foremost is Jonathon Luboff, aka "The Great Luboff," an obvious riff on Bela Lugosi. But Kihn skirts over the Wood-Lugosi bond which Burton captured so greatly in Ed Wood; Luboff here is less dependent on Woodley than Lugosi was on Wood in Burton's film, and there's none of the father-son implications. Instead Luboff is a professional well past his prime, marveling at Woodley's ability to shoot a staggering twenty takes per day and willing to go along with any of his ideas. However like Lugosi he's a heroin addict, shooting up when he can. But again the main relationship in Horror Show isn't the Woodley-Luboff one, but the friendship between Woodley and his special effect wiz and best fried, Buzzy Haller.
Haller is a bitter bastard who of all of them could've been something, but due to his drinking and other reasons is relegated to making quickie horror crap with Woodley. After hosting Woodley's famous annual Halloween party (in which they blow the minds of the guests by faking Woodley's decapitation), Woodley and Haller are able to talk to the LA County morgue into allowing them to film Cadaver on the premises during the off hours. Haller takes ghoulish delight in looking at the corpses and succeeds in even creeping out the otherwise-creepy coroner.
Meanwhile an initially-unconnected plot features Albert Beaumond, middle-aged satanist who has returned from South America with a pair of metal rods which, when banged together, actually summon a demon. Beaumond himself witnessed the ritual there in the jungle; a demon appeared and possessed one of the natives, turning the man's head into a snake before disappearing, leaving the native a basketcase in need of a mercy killing. Beaumond stole the rods and plans to use them to prove the existence of the devil. He returns just in time for Woodley's aforementioned Halloween bash; Beaumond has no ties with Woodley but is called by Devila (aka Vampira), a local horror host who calls up Beaumond and asks him to be her date to the party.
In an effort to impress Devila, Beaumond breaks out the tongs and summons the demon, only to be possessed himself. This renders him insane and obviously freaks out Devila, who nonetheless sees some money-making potential here. In a plot development a bit hard to buy, Devila contacts Woodley and offers him a huge cash-making opportunity; she will bring the tongs and summon the demon on film and Woodley can make a blockbuster movie out of the incredible footage. Woodley, not believing her story, nevertheless goes ahead and films it, and Devila is promptly possessed by the demon herself. It leaves her, jumping back to Beaumond who meanwhile is attempting to kill himself in a last gasp of sanity (once you have hosted the demon it can return to you at its leisure)...and Woodley promptly moves on to Cadaver.
This was a stumbling block for me. I mean, Woodley witnessed an actual demonic possession and even filmed it, but sort of brushes it off and moves on with his quickie horror film. He even just sort of shrugs when Devila blows her brains out during her live TV broadcast the next day, figuring he'll lock away the footage until the day it becomes a more lucrative property, guessing it would be too soon to capitalize on her brief fame. The narrative focuses more on the filming of Cadaver, in which Buzzy eventually comes upon a corpse in the LA morgue that really captures his interest, a bloated and disgusting John Doe of a thing that was rendered unrecognizeable due to electrocution and a few nights at the bottom of a lake. Guess whose corpse it is? That's right, Albert Beaumond's. And it still contains the spirit of the demon, which was trapped inside Beaumond as he died.
From here the novel gets weirder as Buzzy gets drunker and drunker, soon becoming obsessed with the corpse. No one knows it's Beaumond's corpse -- even his daughter is unaware the man is dead -- and Buzzy dubs the cadaver "Johnny Death," determined to make it a star. He talks Woodley into filming the actual corpse in the film, saying it would become a legendary scene and make them all stars. Which doesn't make sense, because at the same time the entire cast and crew swears itself to secrecy. At any rate they film scenes of Luboff wrestling with the bloated corpse as a hidden Buzzy Haller maneuvers the corpse with wires, like a puppet. There follows another soon-to-be-famous scene where they feature a close-up of the corpse's face; when Haller, hidden behind it, opens the thing's eyes, a clump of worms pop out, freaking out everyone and soon becoming the legendary shot from the film.
And then we're back in 1996, with none of the '56 stuff really coming to a close. This is because nothing's been resolved. Our young reporter, Clint, wonders over the fact that everyone involved with the filming of Cadaver is now dead, most of them under unusual circumstances. Clint is the only one to figure out that Beaumond was the corpse in Cadaver, thereby solving a 40 year-old mystery -- one which the police brush off.
Only Landis Woodley himself is still alive, and Clint wonders if the old man is a murderer, killing off all those who could prove that he actually used a real corpse in his film. However the truth turns out to be much worse, as Johnny D is still around, yearly returning to kill off the crewmembers. Most recently was Buzzy Haller (who returns undead fashion to warn Woodley), and Woodley knows he's next. Then Woodley finds out that Haller, decades ago, hid Johnny D in the crawlspace beneath the basement in Woodley's house.
Horror Show is for the most part an entertaining trip back to the 1950s, capturing the styles and the times of the period. Everyone smokes and eats burgers and listens to newfangled rock music on their car radios. The novel's only failing in my mind is the actual horror content, which doesn't make much sense. The demonic possession angle is poorly fleshed out and doesn't hold up under scrutiny. To make it worse, characters act out of character in the latter half to justify the plot demands of the horror angle. Kihn otherwise is a good writer, though some of his narrative repeats itself, and the dialog for all of the female characters rings hollow. He also tends to POV-hop.
It almost makes me wish that Kihn had just written a straight-up novel about Woodley and his filming of Cadaver, and dropped the entire horror element. And this appears to be exactly what Kihn did in his 1998 followup, Big Rock Beat, which concerns Woodley's filming of a beach-party rock movie in the 1960s. I plan on reading that one soon.