Monday, October 10, 2016

Toy Cemetery

Toy Cemetery, by William W. Johnstone
December, 1987  Zebra Books

I couldn’t help myself – I just had to read another horror novel by William W. Johnstone. I had several of them to choose from, but I went with Toy Cemetery because it seemed to offer up a variation on Johnstone’s normal horror theme – Satan comes to Smalltown, USA – thanks to the presence of evil, Puppet Master-esque toys. Ultimately though Toy Cemetery was just like the other Johnstone horror novels I’ve read…only, once again, lacking the sleazy, lurid mastery of The Nursery.

And like those other books it is way too goddam long…412 whopping pages. But it does have some big ol’ print. All the usual Johnstone tricks are in play: rampant exposition, pedestrian prose, Christian sermonizing, go-nowhere digressions and padding, cardboard cutout characters, an “all women are evil” theme, and occasional bursts of violent action. Two things missing from the usual Johnstone oeuvre are the Right Wing pontificating and the sleazy hardcore sex. While I didn’t miss the former I defintely missed the latter; even though Toy Cemetery initially has you thinking it might approach The Nursery levels of sleaze, the sole sex scene is mostly vague and the book instead comes off more like a vain attempt at capturing the “kids meet horror” vibe of vintage Stephen King. 

Yes, kids play a central part in Toy Cemetery, Johnstone apparently having read Stephen King’s It and figuring he could rip it off somehow. Unfortunately this denies us the twisted shit typical of most other Johnstone horror novels, as in the long sections from the perspectives of the child characters Johnstone goes for a “naïve” sort of approach. However our main character is per the usual Johnstone template: 38-year-old Jay Chute, a ‘Nam veteran who runs an accounting firm in NYC. The novel opens as Jay and his 9-year-old daughter Kelly arrive in Victory, Missouri, the small town in which Jay grew up. But per the Johnstone horror template he hasn’t been here in over twenty years or so, and boy has the town changed (again per the template); what Jay doesn’t realize is that, of course, friggin’ Satan himself has taken over. He first notices something is up when an apparently-living toy runs in front of his car.

Johnstone is not the best when it comes to description, and sadly the toys themselves are vague and forgettable. Mostly because people throughout the first half of the novel keep seeing them, then blinking in surprise, and then wondering if they imagined it. Indeed, Toy Cemetery sets a precedent for muleheaded characters in a horror novel; literally, the first 150 pages or so are composed of characters seeing outright supernatural shit – ghosts, living toys and dolls, even mutant monsters – and still doubting what they saw. Hell, they’re still up to it within the final fifty pages, after they’ve had conversations with ghosts, watched a toy funeral(!), and even killed a few of those mutants. It’s all laughable, which again is standard for Johnstone’s work.

The novel moves at a glacial pace. Actually that’s an insult to glaciers. Let it just be said that Toy Cemetery is not jam-packed with action. Jay Chute is more mulheaded than even the Johnstone norm, and his daughter Kelly comes off as the stronger character. There’s a subplot (which eventually disappears) that Kelly and the other kids are hipper to what’s going on in Victory than the stupid adults, and in fact Kelly gets more shit done, including even braining a Satan-possessed teen boy midway through. (Her trauma over killing another human is quickly brought up and even more quickly set aside.) Kelly soon runs afoul of a gang of kids her own age, led by a slightly-older girl named Jenny; the two will eventually become friends, of sorts.

Johnstone does himself no favors with such similar character names. I spent the entire novel confusing Jenny with Kelly. It doesn’t help that all the characters are such cardboard cutouts. Later we’ll meet resident hotstuff Deva, who is Jenny’s mom as well as being Jay’s old girlfriend, and later there’s Piper, Jay’s ex-wife and occasional bedmate, who by the way happens to be a famous fashion model. There’s also a bunch of kids in Jenny’s group, and all of them run together, but eventually one of them named Ange will bubble to the top. Johnstone works in this “Satanic child porn” thread that he ultimately does nothing with, but many of the kids in the town have been victims of it…we know that Jenny has united her band against Satan, wearing crosses, and Johnstone initially has us thinking that they’ll be the heroes of the tale, but he ignores all of it and the porn ring element is quickly reintroduced and jettisoned in the final half.

The sleaze element as mentioned is nowhere on the level of The Nursery; when Jay first arrives in Victory, to pick up the deed to the house his recently-dead Aunt Cary left him, he runs into sexy twentysomething Amy Fletcher. She comes over to his house later that day and proceeds to seduce him, but surprisingly Johnstone leaves the sex scene – the only sex scene in the book – vague. And in fact Jay can’t even remember the details, and Amy is shocked that she was so brazen…as if something came over her, don’t you know. But this is all brushed off; the first of many such incidents in which our dense-brained protagonists explain away the strange happenings.

Gradually Jay will learn of the utter depravity of the place. Even though everyone acts friendly as can be during the day, at night they become ghoulish freaks; Jay is even shocked to learn that some of his old school friends have grandchildren – even though their own children are barely in their teens. Deva becomes Jay’s main companion here; she too distrusts the town residents, telling Jay how all the weirdness started when the big toy factory opened up. Oh, and Jay’s Aunt Cary was apparently the source of all evil, and had a bunch of toys and dolls in her various houses, and soon after moving into the house Aunt Cary left him Jay is attacked by one of the toys, which slices at both him and a friendly cop named Jim Klein – and sure as hell both of ‘em just basically shrug it off and figure they imagined it or something!!

With the presence of Deva, and later Piper, who comes to Victory to be with her ex-husband and her daughter, I thought for once Johnstone was gonna give us some strong female characters. Not to mention Jenny and Kelly, who take more action than Jay does until the very end. But midway through the novel Johnstone remembers “hey, waitaminute – them womenfolk are all evil!”, and suddenly previously-strong female characters are hinted at being secretly evil. It’s so mind-numbingly stupid – not to mention brazen – that I almost gave up on the book. I mean it’s one thing to start off this way with all sorts of secret evil, but to have various characters clearly be good and then suddenly – I mean within the span of a page – to be “shockingly revealed” as evil all along is something else. To be clear, I was more annoyed by the rampant stupidity than anything “sexist” or whatnot. I mean, bad writing is fine, but stupid writing is where I draw the line.

Throughout it all the toys come and go…there turns out to be two factions, one good and one bad. As mentioned though Johnstone rarely describes them. While I hoped for a tale of GI Joe-type action figures ripping people to shreds, instead Johnstone has old-fashioned dolls and toy soldiers, and usually just describes them as “a tiny man” or “a little doll.” None of them even have any cool gimmicks like in the second Puppet Master movie; the closest we get is a “Viking” toy who goes at people with his tiny axe. But these aren’t the sole creatures in the novel. We also have these mutant-type things that have hulking bodies and tiny heads; the one memorable horror-esque scene has Jay and Jim (again with the similar names, you see) escaping from them in a car, blasting away with their shotguns.

The outright sleaze is gone but there are some lurid moments, most notably when Satan’s minions go for the “dark love” treatment and mind-control Jenny and Kelly into trying to have sex with their parents(!). This is weird stuff for sure, with an also-aroused Jay tossing his prepubescent daughter out of bed and locking her in a room, all of it similar – but nowhere as over-the-top – as the part in The Nursery where the Satan-possessed teen gal begged the hero to whip and sodomize her. Later Jay and Deva, visiting Aunt Cary’s haunted house in the woods (yes, Johnstone even throws in a friggin’ haunted house), are nearly overcome by the same supernatural lust, straining against the Satanic impulse to screw (“Fight it, Deva! Pray!”).

And boy are there some dumb moments, like a part where our characters hear ghosts having sex. The highlight of them all is an unforgettable, so-dumb-it’s-genius bit where our heroes witness a regular toy funeral, some of those good toys carrying the corpse of a “dead” comrade and giving it full burial honors, complete with Taps being played and rifles being fired in tribute. What makes it all the more laughable is that Johnstone strives to convey emotion, trying to invest all sorts of import; the scene plods on and on for several pages. More humor is added in how he keeps cutting over to our human characters, who watch on in growing sadness, all of them crying. Except for “some of the women,” though, Johnstone at this point remembering that all women are horrible creatures and thus not prone to loving emotions.

Another thing missing this time out is the action climax. Jay and comrades are limited to hunting rifles, pistols, and shotguns. As per the Johnstone template, the few Christians have banded together in Aunt Cary’s house, whose ghost sporadically appears, by the way, accusing and taunting Jay – who still wonders if he’s imagining it, of course – even after she appears to all of them, Jay says, “It was a dream.” But the band of Christians, including Jay, Jim, Father Pat (a blind priest dedicated to fighting Satan), and General Douglas (an old war vet who served in the OSS), vow to stop the Satanic forces taking over Victory. All the women at this point are vaguely hinted at being evil – even the kids!! – and Johnstone shows his usual vile brand of “Christianity” when Jay later says “to hell with them,” speaking of both ex-wife Piper and his daughter Kelly. As usual with Johnstone, once it is revealed that someone is with Satan, whether willingly or not, there’s no hope at all for them – they must be killed.

There are occasional patches of gore, but too little, too late, in particular an attack by those mutant-type monsters, one of which rips the jaw off a night guard. Jay himself is captured, knocked out – by one of those women, naturally, though we don’t find out which until later – and along with Amy he’s tossed in the town hospital/prison. Oh and speaking of whom Amy is suddenly with the group, now; humorously, Johnstone doesn’t even reintroduce her or anything. She’s just suddenly in a scene with our heroes and stays there for the duration. But even the big action finale typical of Johnstone is gone. After torching Aunt Cary’s house in the woods (another ludicrous scene Johnstone tries to weigh with emotion), our heroes pack some rifles and pistols and start firing away.

By this point, very late in the game, Johnstone has figured out what is going on. Turns out the humans in town aren’t really human, or something; they’re like porcelain dolls, or something, and those living toys are possessed with the souls of townfolk. Or something. And the “good” toys are made up of souls who tried to fight against the Satanists, or something. It’s all super convoluted and confusing. But it does cap off with the memorable bit of an incensed Jay smashing Victory residents and watching as they disintigrate into showers of porcelain dust. Johnstone kills off the majority of his characters here – Amy by the way we are informed was raped repeatedly while in captivity, even at one point by her own father – and also he finally makes up his mind which of the other female characters are really evil: All of them!!

Even the little girls are suddenly revealed as sadistic murderers, with Kelly offing one important character and Ange another. Oh and by the way Johnstone finally recalls that “child porn ring” subplot, with a bizarre scene where Jay discovers all the child porn tapes and watches them…even taking them back to his house so the other adults can watch them!! I mean did they order a pizza, too??

It’s all so off-putting and unsettling, mostly because it’s so pedestrian in the writing department. As ever Johnstone writes everything with a modicum of description or depth, a sort of “see Spot run” vibe that only makes the weird shit all the weirder. But anyway Jenny and Ange both feature in these porn videos, even though absolutely zilch is made of it, and despite the fact that this would make clear that both girls are victims of the cult, it ultimately matters little in Johnstone’s fucked-up rationale: both kids are consumed by Satan and thus must die.

Oh and also a recurring Johnstone deal is “the Old One;” not Satan himself, but a slightly-less-powerful demon who resides in the town and soaks up the evil powers and whatnot. This creature doesn’t get much screen time but is described as looking like an old man; the finale, which sees Jay leading a cop squad through Victory and killing off townspeople willy-nilly, has Jay looking to finalize the score with the monster.

By this point Jay’s picked up another babe, a hot blonde news reporter who is the biggest victim of all in Johnstone’s “all women are evil” agenda. Seriously, this lady goes through hell with Jay, even saving his life – and then in the last page Johnstone pulls another of his half-assed “twists.” By this point the reader is so fatigued that he or she could honestly care less what happens to Jay, however he gets another twist ending of his own…injured and to be nursed back to health by daughter Kelly, revealed to be fully evil now…indeed the book ends with Kelly figuring she’ll soon start having sex with dear ol’ dad!!

Anyway, I asked for it, I guess. And the helluva it is, I’ll probably read another of Johnstone’s horror novels…by the time I start thinking of reading another one I’ve forgotten what a painful experience it can truly be.


Stephen Mertz said...

Wonderful review. Whatever you do, please never stop reading or writing about Mr. Johnstone!

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Stephen! Glad you enjoyed the review. I will likely read many more Johnstone horror novels...mostly in the vain hope that at least one of them is like The Nursery.

Will Errickson said...

I read my first Johnstone, THE DEVIL'S CAT, earlier this year. Worthless garbage "horror" offering not even cheap ironic yucks. Good luck reading more of him... you're gonna need it.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Will! I have the Devil's Cat, but could never get past the cover to actually start reading it. You'll be surprised to know it follows the exact template of all Johnstone's other horror novels! I still say The Nursery was an awesome slab of sleazy horror. He did another one early on that's supposedly as sleazy, "A Crying Shame," which is about bigfoot-type creatures stealing away gorgeous women for all sorts of hardcore shenanigans. The original paperback is WAY overpriced, but it came out on Kindle the other year.