Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Midnight Hour


The Midnight Hour, by Donald Bacon
November, 1988  Pinnacle/Zebra Books

I’d never heard of this obscure horror paperback original until I saw a post on its spectacular cover art on Will Erickson’s Too Much Horror Fiction. And the cover really is something else – a cool foil mask, with the inner cover showing a busty but terrified blonde standing in front of some severed heads! Will didn’t review the novel, but Mark Louis Baumgart did, over on Amazon, and he enjoyed it – he also uploaded scans of the inner and outer covers, which I’ve stolen for this post.

The Midnight Hour bears the Pinnacle imprint, but technically it’s a publication of Zebra and thus should be considered among that publisher’s notorious horror novels, Zebra having bought Pinnacle shortly after it went bankrupt. In fact The Midnight Hour is graced with ads for other Zebra publications, among them William W. Johnstone’s jawdropping The Nursery. And true to Zebra form The Midnight Hour is much too long, running to almost 400 pages. It’s got fairly large print, but as usual with Zebra publications a lot of needless material could’ve easily been cut.

This isn’t the crazed and pulpy horror novel I prefer, instead playing things straight, sort of like Frank Lambirth’s Behind The Door. Unlike that novel though this one’s squarely in the “supernatural horror” genre, and it’s about an ancient Celtic menace called “the messenger” that was awakened in 1946 and is slowly trying to take over the world. One thing that annoys me about horror novels is when the author takes forever to get the ball rolling, with the gradual dawning upon the characters that they’re dealing with the supernatural or whatever, and though Bacon (like most other horror authors) is somewhat guilty of this, at least he gets things moving early on with the sadistic butchery of a stern old librarian in New York City.

Our hero is 23 year-old Caroline Enders, a pretty blonde who lives in NYC and is moving out of the apartment she shares with a friend named Beth and LA transplant Harry Hawkins, a 30 year-old lab scientist who also happens to be good-looking and popular with the ladies. Caroline gets word that an apartment in a ritzy area has just went on the market, and she jumps on it, despite the fact that the previous owner, an old guy named Mondrian de Kuyperdahl, killed himself there, hanging himself from a beam in the living room.

Shown around by lecherous old janitor Jesse, Caroline is introduced to “The Relic,” a Hieronymus Bosch-esque painting on stone hidden behind a panel in the bedroom; it graphically depicts a hellish landscape of people with terrified expressions interlocked in various sexual positions. Beside this painting is another, one of beauty, a portrait of an auburn-haired lady, who we eventually learn is Audrey, the wife of Mondrian. Caroline, despite her revulsion, is drawn to the horrifying painting. Eventually we learn that the Relic is a talisman which keeps at bay the ancient menace that is the messenger.

Bacon spends a goodly portion of the opening narrative getting to know Caroline and her few friends, in particular Harry, who of course will become her eventual love interest – glaringly telegraphed in their first scene together with Caroline simpering over how Harry goes out with a different woman every night and etc, though they don’t become a couple until the final page of the novel. Harry takes up a good bit of the novel himself, as after Caroline comes upon Mondrian’s effects Harry begins to read the guy’s journals from 1946.

This serves up the novel’s embedded text, with Mondrian’s (rather too comprehensive) journal providing the details on how the messenger was loosed into our world. Bacon capably adopts the tone of a British adventurer here – strange though when you consider that Mondrian is a transplant from Holland, having moved to England after WWII. But anyway in these 1946 sections we learn how Mondrian and his wife Audrey were part of an archeological dig in Sussex, one in which a Druid burial ground was uncovered. Little did they realize that this ground had been magically sealed off by Druid priests, who were attempting to imprison the messenger.

Ironically, Mondrian’s journal is so in-depth – providing his verbose thoughts on the countryside and the people he meets – that it also features the novel’s only sex scenes! Humorously enough Bacon provides somewhat explicit detail on the times Mondrian and Audrey bump uglies…even more humorously, Bacon never once breaks back to Harry, who is reading this stuff in 1988, chuckling to himself over the unexpectedly-hardcore stuff in the old diary. Anyway things in ‘46 go bad once the messenger’s out, of course, presaged by the apperance of a creep named Evone Dragosi, who turns out to be the earthly harbinger/representative of the messenger – and is also the guy who hacked up that poor librarian in the opening pages.

Mondrian’s journal ends shortly before the man hangs himself in New York, in 1988; apparently he hasn’t aged physically despite the decades, but spiritually he’s ravaged, tortured every night in his sleep by the demonic visions of the messenger. For Dragosi also killed Audrey back in the ‘40s, and now she’s stuck in the messenger’s hell. Cut to the present, and Dragosi is still around…and since the Relic is the only thing which prevents the messenger from taking over the world, he now sets his sights upon its new owner: Caroline. (According to the murky backstory neither the messenger nor its representative can enter the home of whoever owns the Relic, or something like that.)

The book has many problems, mostly due to how Bacon has chosen to tell his tale. For example near the midway point Caroline is sucked into the hellish landscape of the Relic. Bacon ends the chapter there, and when next we see Caroline she wakes up on her bed, naked and lacerated from multiple cuts. Her father just happens to arrive, concerned about her – turns out Caroline has been missing for 11 days. We gradually learn that Caroline spent these 11 days in the world of the Relic, where Mondrian helped her flee from the messenger and etc. So the big question is, why the hell didn’t Bacon write this sequence?? It’s not only central to the plot, but also it’s here in this hell that Caroline falls in love with Mondrian and learns that they are together against the messenger, etc, etc, but Bacon doesn’t even bother to write what exactly happened there.

Another big problem is the whole “Journal of Mondrian de Kuyperdahl” business. Guess what? Harry never once mentions to Caroline that he’s reading it! There’s never a single point where Harry thinks to himself, “Holy shit, maybe all this stuff’s real! I’d better warn Caroline!” I mean, it’s such a HUGE MISS…Harry just happens to read the journal and doesn’t discuss it with anyone or really even reflect on its contents. In short, the whole “Harry reads the journal” bit is just a narrative cheat, because Bacon wants to serve up the story of how the messenger got out, so he just has some random character read about it. But the hugest miss of all? Why didn’t Bacon have CAROLINE read the journal??? Not only would this have given more background to the “Caroline suddenly loves Mondrian” element, but it would’ve rendered the journal sections more integral to the plot.

The last half of the novel ramps things up with Caroline, a few weeks after she’s recovered from her trip into hell (and also humorously, Bacon doesn’t explain what’s happened to her job plans or why her parents are no longer concerned about her after, you know, disappearing for 11 days and showing up with cuts all over her), deciding that she must capture Dragosi to get his knowledge on how to stop the messenger and free the souls trapped in its hell. Again, Caroline here is relying on all of the knowledge she received from Mondrian during her 11 days in hell, and the reader feels left out because we have no idea what happened there. 

But the Caroline/Dragosi confrontation is unintentionally funny, mostly because it just keeps going and going. Stalking her prey in the New York City library, Caroline follows after Dragosi, thinking he doesn’t know she’s there. Dragosi just keeps walking and walking, all finally leading to a confrontation in his apartment, which itself goes on and on, Caroline shooting the murderer with a .22 magnum but still managing to get herself captured. Here the cover art comes into play, as in a creepy sequence Caroline discovers a cabinet filled with severed heads in Dragosi’s bedroom, heads which still seem to be alive. Also there is a grisly mask which seems to be guarding them. Anyway Caroline grabs Mondrian’s head and escapes, Dragosi crushed beneath the falling cabinet.

After this though Bacon just decides to, I don’t know, take a break or something, because he jumps ahead a few months and now Caroline’s living in a shack by a lighthouse on Long Island, and, uh, she’s real concerned with painting her new house! Seriously it all just stalls out as we learn about Caroline’s “cute” relationship with an annoying 11 year-old local named Marcie and etc. Harry, Beth, the whole friggin’ plot, all of it just sort of disappears for a while.

The finale at least is pretty over the top, with Dragosi, who of course tracks Caroline down, practically punching the shit out of little Marcie and kicking her around and stuff (though of course not killing her; nothing so extreme here) and, despite the last-second heroic appearance of Harry, still managing to get the Relic and unleash the messenger…before Caroline saves the day with a last-second message from Mondrian’s head (or something), shoving that damn mask (whatever it is) over Dragosi’s head…after which the messenger is apparently defeated…and then Dragosi, head embedded in the mask, falls out of the lighthouse tower and is impaled on the fence below, and Caroline, who has been beaten and stalked by this insane murderer, starts to feel sorry for him….!!!!!

Honestly, this book is a hot mess! Bacon just shuffles characters around, forgets about them, and then remembers them at the last second, thrusting them back into the narrative. Another huge miss is the lack of explanation. I mean, what exactly was so important about the Relic? Where did the messenger come from? Why did the heads in Dragosi’s cabinet only sometimes appear to be alive? Why had Dragosi seemingly not aged in the past 40 years? (Something the reader only infers; Bacon never describes him as looking old.) Was Dragosi also superhuman? (Despite being shot a few times by a .22 mag, he seemingly just walks it off…!) What was the purpose of the mask? How was Mondrian able to elude eternal confinement in the messenger’s hell? And on and on…

You know, given its many problems I suspect that The Midnight Hour was maybe a trunk novel the author couldn’t get published…at least until the horror boom of the late ‘80s, when all sorts of stuff was being published to satiate the insatiable horror audience. Not that there’s any particular detail that makes me suspect the novel was written well before 1988, but it does include references to shows like Fantasy Island and the records of Stevie Wonder, all of which had fallen out of the pop culture mainstream by 1988. (But then, I myself have several Stevie Wonder LPs that I occasionally play.) Not that this means those references couldn’t be made in 1988, it’s just that both of them (and other references in the book) were part of the pop culture mainstream in, say, the late ‘70s or early ‘80s.

I also wonder if Bacon was British. The writing in the journal section comes off as very British, and also the protagonists in the main ‘80s plotline, despite all being Americans, say things like “bloody hell” and “rubbish,” and like to use the words “rather” and “quite” a lot. They also talk much too politely for New York inhabitants; Caroline and Beth both sound like they just got out of finishing school. In fact a sort of “safe” air envelopes everything, nothing too crazy or drastic; even Dragosi hardly curses, save for some weird, seemingly tacked-on stuff in the climax where he starts calling Caroline and Marcie all sorts of names.

Anyway, summing up, it’s the same story with The Midnight Hour as it is with most other Zebra horror novels: Great cover, lousy book.

And speaking of which, here’s that nifty inner cover:

2 comments:

Will Errickson said...

I'm glad you noted how British writers often have their American characters speaking in "British English" - Clive Barker and Graham Masterton are definitely guilty of this!

Not surprised this one was a turkey.

Griffin Calhoun said...

Will Errickson commenting on a blog post by Joe Kenney? two worlds have collapsed into one!