Monday, April 27, 2015


Carvings, by John Snellings
No month stated, 1987  Leisure Books

Now here’s an ‘80s horror paperback that, at least sometimes, delivers on the lurid thrills. Carvings is exactly what I wanted, just a straight-up creature featured filled with gore and zero pretension. Unfortunately the cumulative effect is a bit lost in the 400 pages of text, most of which features humdrum characters going about humdrum things. But when the gore kicks in, the author really delivers.

No clue who John Snellings is/was, but this appears to be his only novel, and given that it’s copyright him I’m assuming he was a real person and not a house name. Whoever he was, he delivers a novel firmly in the Leisure mode, very pulpy and bloody, and too long for its own good. Not to mention riddled with spelling and grammatical errors – but then, this is consistent throughout Leisure’s line, going back even to their ‘70s publications. So I’ll give the guy the benefit of the doubt; it was probably the editors.

But the plot – the plot is pure ‘80s pulp horror. Similar in a way to the long-running Puppet Master franchise, Carvings is about little wooden statues that live for nothing more than to kill, kill, kill. And they do so in quite inventive ways, from using their claws to their razor-sharp teeth to employing everyday items like scissors. A construction worker digs up a metal box on a site one day, opens it in his study that night, and finds the four “Carvings” in it…and they promptly come to life and begin their massacre. Here’s how they’re described:

Each was a foot tall, with a plump body and oblong head with long, pointed ears. Their faces were identical, and hidious[sp]. They had huge oval eyes, long flat noses and ugly rectangular mouths. The mouths were filled with gleaming saw-like teeth. Looking at them, he couldn’t help but visualize a shark’s mouth. Their bodies were covered with wooden barbs, about a half-inch in length, like thorns on a rose bush. Their hands and feet were large, unproportional to the rest of their bodies and each toe and finger held a long curved nail, like an animal’s claw.

These little bastards are sadistic. When they show up, you can be assured of a bloody good time. In my review of As Evil Does, I opined that John Tigges was “too nice” of an author for the horror genre. The same cannot be said of John Snellings. This dude will kill any of his characters, and boy he makes it count. From innocent little kids to women who just discovered they are pregnant, from heavyset veteran cops to a pair of teenagers having sex for the first time, they all meet their uber-violent, gory red deaths at the hands of the Carvings.

Anyway, Snellings informs us from the outset where all this is going down: the tiny town of Trenton, North Carolina, in September 1986. So, true to most other ‘80s pulp horror, we are in a small town, and the author introduces us to the huge cast of characters, most of whom will meet their bloody ends posthaste. It would be a waste of time to go over them all, especially when many are introduced only long enough to meet them before they die (such as the case with the married woman who has just discovered she’s pregnant with her second child…seconds before her little daughter opens the door to the Carvings, thinking they’re little toys come to life to play with her…).

As mentioned, a goodly portion of the book is, unfortunately, given over to detailing the boring travails of these small town characters. Skimming is advised. Also true to many other ‘80s horror novels, most of the main characters are police officers, or in this case the sheriff and his deputies: Warren is the sheriff, a chain-smoking tough guy of sorts, and Wade is his top deputy (Snellings does himself no favors with so many similar names throughout the novel – I mean, there’s even a Lisa and a Linda). There’s also Charlie, a veteran cop from “the city” who has come here to nowherseville to be a deputy and take it easy.

There are also teenagers (like Linda and Gary, the doomed would-be lovers), a young woman driving home from visiting her brother, a bus of retirment-age folks heading to a church convention, and a group of little kids who ultimately find out where the Carvings have been hiding. This last point is one of the most intriguing but unfortunately least-developed parts of the novel; the only person the Carvings don’t try to kill is an old freak named Jarvis Taylor who lives alone with a house of cats left him by his deceased wife. This guy is himself a monster; when we meet him he’s in the act of capturing a neighborhood dog to take back to his place, where he’ll cook it and feed it to the cats!!

But when Taylor goes home, all his cats are dead, slaughtered in horrific fashion. It was of course the Carvings who did it, and Snellings ends the scene with old man Taylor seeing the little statues, who come into the kitchen and surround him, and we’re to assume he’s next on their list. But later we see that the Carvings live with Taylor, coming home each night after their latest round of murdering. But strangely enough, Snellings doesn’t flesh this out…how interesting it would’ve been to read parts where Taylor sat around and tried to talk to the Carvings; we do learn that gradually be begins to think of the things as “his.”

Instead, more focus is placed on go-nowhere subplots about the small town protagonists. Even Warren the sheriff, ostensibly the major protagonist, disappears for long stretches of time, and we’ll read incidental bits about doomed Linda chit-chatting in a diner with her whorish best friend, or about how a heavyset deputy lives at home with his overbearing mother, or how former city cop Charlie has a wife suffering from depression. True to the era of the ‘80s horror paperback, Carvings focuses on the wrong stuff again and again and again, and rather than becoming a memorable piece of horror fiction it’s instead a tiresome trawl.

But then the Carvings show up and kill someone and everything is right again. John Snellings comes off as a quite sadistic author, always a good thing so far as a horror paperback writer is concerned. No doubt the tiresome stuff with all the various minor characters is there to make us feel sympathy or perhaps empathy for them as they’re mutilated and eviscerated and slaughtered by the titular creatures, but instead I found myself skimming over all the useless stuff and just getting to the juciy gore.

Unfortunately this twisted stuff doesn’t occur near as frequently as it should. The novel is 400 pages, people. Most of it’s about rednecks shooting the shit about nothing that has to do with anything. Oh, and if you’re keeping track on your Trash Fiction Scorecard, while there’s plentiful gore, there’s zero sex. Lots of talk about it, though, from Linda and Gary working up the nerve to go all the way, to a photographer named Steve who scores quite often with the ladies. But Snellings’s exploitation sticks for the most part just to the violence, which usually intercedes when the adult shenanigans are about to ensue – proven most mercilessly when the Carvings attack Linda and Gary just as they’re beginning to have sex!

Also true to the spirit of the cheap horror paperback, the “climax” of Carvings is hilarliously, uh, anticlimactic; some kids happen to see the Carvings walk into old man Taylor’s house, then hurry back to tell the sheriff; this is after the creatures have run particularly rampant, including a bit where they sliced up the above-mentioned gal who was visiting her brother (she turns out to be the only person who lives to escape them, though). Warren rounds up his deputies, goes to the house, douses it with gasoline, and sets it on fire!

Given that we’ve only got 8 or so pages to go, it’s safe to say this isn’t the most elaborate of climaxes, though it is spiced up with Warren finally seeing one of the Carvings (he spends the entire novel wondering if they really exist, per the usual horror novel cliché)…right before they run amok on the deputies. I was hoping for something grander, like maybe cops wielding flamethrowers, but Snellings’s imagination is a little more “grounded,” you could say. Instead Warren and the deputies hurl the Carvings into the burning house and wait for it to all be over.

And speaking of over, the novel just…ends. Warren waits until the house burns down, then tells one of his deputies to call a fire truck, so the conflagration won’t spread to the surrounding houses. “Sure thing, Warren,” says the deputy, and turns to run off – the end!! I actually went back to read to see if I’d missed anything, but nope…that’s the end of the novel. No wrapup, no “morning after,” no “so this is why the Carvings were created and why they lived only to kill.” The creatures are dead and that’s that.

So what were the Carvings? Another under-explored subplot has Warren visiting “the oldest man in town,” who recalls that back in the ‘40s there was a mysterious dude who had a place right where that construction site now is. This dude was into voodoo and the like, and so the story goes he killed some people, stole their souls, and put them into these wooden carvings he created. But that’s about all we find out. Who exactly these people were, what exactly drives the Carvings to kill, who the voodoo man was…none of it is explained.

In a way, this is kind of refreshing – the Carvings are murderous little creatures. Who needs a lot of backstory? But still, I would’ve preferred to read more about them and less about the slackjawed yokels John Snellings populates his tale with. In the end, though, you get exactly what you expect from Carvings: some good stuff, some boring stuff, and the certainty that the novel could’ve been a whole lot better – not that it was terrible or anything. It just could’ve been better.


Ron Clinton said...

Great review. Whenever I wax fondly and nostalgic about those glorious '80s horror pbos, I have to remind myself that a couple of decades has put a rose-colored tint on most of them. Your description of this novel having "some good stuff, some boring stuff, and the certainty that the novel could’ve been a whole lot better – not that it was terrible or anything" pretty much describes ninety percent of that era of glorious trash horror, if judged objectively without those rose-colored glasses.

This was one novel that seems to have escaped my voracious horror-pbo reading back in the day, as it doesn't look at all familiar -- so it was fun to read your review.

Joe Kenney said...

Ron, thanks a lot for the comment, glad you enjoyed the review!