Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Horror Show

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.

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