Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Necrophiles

The Necrophiles, by David Gurney
January, 1971 Pyramid Books
(Original New English Library publication, 1969)

Orgies, incest, drugs, homosexuality, necrophilia, murder, satanism, and living sacrifice...

My god, what more could you ask for?? Usually cover blurbs oversell a novel's more sordid aspects, but in the case of The Necrophiles, the cover blurb for once tells the whole truth -- this is one twisted little novel, one that fully lives up to the publisher's hyperbole.

The necrophiles in question are a group of teens living in the countryside outside of London. A mix of four boys and two girls, they enjoy meeting weekly in a secluded area of the woods and getting drunk and stoned and engaging in group sex. Theo is the de facto leader of the group, one of those Dionysian types with looks that appeal to both men and women. Then there's Johnny, Theo's second in command, a slow-witted sort who sets everything in motion when he comes upon some grisly crime-scene photos which he shares with the group.

These gory photos excite and arouse the group, which leads to lots of weird shenanigans in which Theo will tell one of the girls something like "I'd like to do that to you," showing her a photo of an eviscerated, decapitated body, and the girl gets all weak in the knees. Did I mention this is a twisted book? Eventually the photos no longer do the trick, and Theo announces that the group must move on to the real thing -- they need themselves some real corpses.

The group breaks into a morgue and gets their hands on three fresh corpses. A madness descends upon them and they begin hacking apart the bodies, taking away grisly trophies in the aftermath. (By the way, these are our protagonists.) Unbeknownst to the others, Theo actually sells his collected viscera to a group of posh London homosexuals. Later, Theo reveals to Johnny that he's a sort of kept man; in exchange for money he travels about Europe and the US with wealthy and gay businessmen, and on a recent trip to New York (Woodstock, no less!), Theo participated in an actual Satanic ritual with his latest paramour.

Theo describes the scene: a mass of robed and masked Satanists in the misty woods, each of them "jabbed" with a psychedelic drug; they come to a clearing in which a nude woman is chained to a rock, a figure above her with a raised dagger; the figure seems to become a horned demon before Theo's eyes, though it must be the drugs; but then Theo looks down at himself and sees that he too is just as shaggy-haired as the horned demon. Theo comes out of the trip confused, reeling, and inspired with a sure-fire way to make some cash: these freaks would pay mucho dinero for the viscera of fresh corpses. Hence Theo's selling of those fresh guts in that first morgue-raid. Now Theo proposes a business deal with Johnny: together they can raid morgues and sell the goods to those homosexual London Satanists.

It all spirals out of control, with in-fighting and treachery, and an incredibly grisly and disturbing finale in which our "necrophiles" discover they're nothing to match the real thing. Gurney writes with the usual emotionless reserve I find in most British genre fiction, yet his narrative also reminds me a bit of Stephen King, in that he trades off on pages and pages of unnecessary detail about country-bumpkin characters with moments of chilling horror. But this would be Stephen King at his most coked-out, as Gurney pulls no punches. There's graphic sex here and there, but it's delivered just as gruesomely as the horror scenes.

The Pyramid Books edition is shown above; the novel was originally published by New English Library. Here's the cover:

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Lovomaniacs

The Lovomaniacs, by Rona Barrett
August, 1973 Bantam Books

Okay, I really did judge this book by it's cover -- I mean, look at it! The cover of this mass market paperback taps right into the early '70s occult revivalism, complete with naked chick worshipfully sitting before an astrology chart. It's a cover NEL Books would've been proud of. (High praise indeed.) Even the original hardcover printing from 1972 retained this theme, featuring a drawing of a nude woman kneeling with arms upraised. So it all had me hoping for something like "Harold Robbins meets Kenneth Anger." Sadly, it's nowhere close...hell, it's not even close to Harold Robbins.

I don't get much enjoyment bringing these forgotten books to light and then bashing them, but sometimes the job must be done. Rona Barrett is mostly forgotten today (I only discovered her via this book, which itself is forgotten), but at one time she was quite famous. One of the original "gossip queens" who it seems godmothered our current "celebrity worship" culture of Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition...hell, even the regular news is nothing but celebrity gossip these days. Barrett was one of the first of these types of TV hosts, also publishing a monthly magazine all about celeb gossip. She then branched out with her first (and I think only) novel, The Lovomaniacs, which of course was duly hyped as a roman a clef from a woman who knew "the true story" of what went on behind the scenes.

Only, Barrett forgot to give the novel any sort of drama or excitement or depth. It's all as bland as bread, with a storyline that would be considered too dull for a TV movie, let alone the "torrid blockbuster" of the cover blurb. This is one of those novels where you read over a quarter of it and wonder why the hell you're wasting your time...but you perservere. But when you're over halfway through and you're still wondering, then you know you're in trouble. Especially when the novel runs to nearly 500 pages.

One thing the novel has going for it is that Barrett tells the tale in an unusual style: rather than a basic third-person narrative, she instead hops from the minds of one character to another, getting us right into their heads. This almost gives the novel the feel of an oral biography, sort of what James Robert Baker did in his 1989 opus Boy Wonder (to this day the greatest work of trash fiction I've ever read, and a novel I need to re-read again and review here). But here's the big problem: each and every one of the characters in The Lovomaniacs sounds exactly the same. All of the characters have the exact same Mommy or Daddy-issues; all of them have the exact same fears and hopes and opinions.

There's no tonal variety as we hop from the thoughts of Johnny Valentine, a Frank Sinatra-type singer-cum-movie mogul, to the thoughts of Irving Dahlberg, Johnny's nemesis and himself an old- school movie mogul. The sons of these two men, Buddy Valentine (a wanna-be singer with a talent for flying airplanes and engineering studio recordings) and Jack Dahlberg (the presumed new president of his dad's movie studio, but a little dweeb consumed with self doubt), also sound identical. Then there's David Strauss, by far the most wearying narrator in the book...a washed-up drunk of an actor with homosexual tendencies who spends his sections whining about his life. You'll learn to hate him quick.

The two female characters, thankfully, are a bit better. First there's Sandy Hallowell, an astrology-practicing stewardess (I assume that's supposed to be her on the cover) who falls in love with Buddy Valentine and is really the only likeable character in the novel. And second there's Dolly Diamond, a rail-thin singing sensation who carries on an affair with Johnny Valentine. Dolly's scenes are the only in the novel that come close to what we expect from trash fiction, as she tokes dope, performs autosex with "The Lover" (aka her vibrator), and drops acid with her in-crowd friends. If there'd been more of Dolly and her escapades, the novel might've been more enjoyable. As it is, though, this is just a tiresome trawl in banality.

The dramatic thrust is nonexistent, but here's the plot in a nutshell: Johnny Valentine wants to own a movie studio and he's currently locked in a deal with Irving Dahlberg, who himself wants to make an old-time epic about WWII, and tasks his son with getting it together. Jack Dahlberg however wants the studio to make big budget X-rated films (hey, it was the '70s). There's a lot of scheming between all parties concerned, and Buddy Valentine, the perpetual loser, comes up with a harebrained scheme to get his mom and dad back together. But it's all so boringly presented.

One of the main rules of fiction is "show, don't tell," but Barrett "tells" us in each and every case. The opening of the novel is a data-dump of hellish proportions, as each character tells us right off the bat their history, their thoughts, what they hope to do. And this follows throughout the novel -- so many interminable scenes of characters telling us their plans. The novel is so "tell"-crazy that even when Buddy and Sandy fall in love, their romance is glossed over; we get the sequence where they spend time together on Christmas Day...but then in their next sections they're suddenly in love, reminiscing about their new sex life, etc. Why couldn't we have seen it happen? But this is the problem throughout The Lovomaniacs. The old saw is that nonfiction writers can't do fiction, and I have to say that Barrett proves the theory true here. It's like we're reading a overlong gossip column throughout, but one that's not very enticing or torrid.

The astrological basis promised by the cover is delivered mostly through Sandy Hallowell, who knows from her charts that she'll die before 30 on, possibly, an overseas flight. Also the novel itself is relayed in astrological "houses" rather than chapters -- ie "The First House," "The Second House," and so on that the characters experience, complete with bolded "predictions" courtesy Ms. Barrett on the outcome each character will face. In a preface and postcript, Barret, speaking as herself, further informs us how these characters are all caught up in the same astrological tapestry. The way she handles this throughout is incredibly contrived. Each section begins and ends with a hyphenated sentence, the character's thoughts beginning and ending en media res, with the next character picking up the thread; each of course thinking about something different but using the same word or phrase as the previous character. This goes on throughout this endless novel and it gets to be laughable fast.

Finally, for a "sensational blockbuster" about the jetsetting Hollywood elite, The Lovomaniacs is quite pedestrian. No glamorous parties or lavish villas or any of the other expected tropes of the trash fiction genre. Instead pretty much everything takes place in nondescript houses or hotel rooms, with characters sitting around and talking to one another. So much for the escapism one would expect from a novel like this. Even the mandatory sex scenes are tepid, again killed by Barrett's "tell, don't show" style -- we never read anything as it happens; we only get a character's thoughts after the acts have occurred.

The learning here I guess is that sometimes you really shouldn't judge a book by its cover. It's a shame, though. Makes me want to write my own novel based on that cover. "Harold Robbins meets Kenneth Anger"...

A note on the title: The book is titled The Lovomaniacs, no hyphen. However it's displayed as "The Lovo-Maniacs" on the cover, which means that online booksellers have the novel listed under either title. I've also seen it listed as "The Love Maniacs" by one seller who totally didn't get it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Blue Dreams

Blue Dreams, by William Hanley
April, 1972 Dell Books

I first read about William Hanley's bestselling novel Blue Dreams via The Sensuous Man, another bestselling Dell book of the early '70s, one written by the anonymous "M" which informed guys on how to pick up and please women (it's a book I really need to review on here one of these days); The Sensuous Man contained an ad for Blue Dreams, insinuating that it was along the same lines. And it is, even though it's fiction -- and in a way, Blue Dreams shows the chaos and sorrow that might ensue if one were to completely follow the philosophy of books like The Sensuous Man. It also perfectly captures the sexadelic, swinging late 1960s. And it's funny to boot!

Walter Hartman is a 38 year-old television executive who lives in New York City. He's been married for several years to a stunning woman (Walter's own description) named Miriam; they have a ten year-old daughter and live in a nice apartment in the city. Walter still burns with the desires of a teenager; he wants to get Miriam involved in the Sexual Revolution currently afoot, but Miriam is disinterested...she says their sex life is just fine as it is, thank you very much. In fact she can't understand why Walter acts like he's still a horny teenager. But Walter is a man obsessed.

To wit, the novel opens with Walter buying an erotic paperback for Miriam, one of those Sensuous Man-type of books so fashionable at the time. It's Christmas, 1968, and Walter wants to further surprise Miriam with another Xmas gift: a massive, canted mirror which he wants to hang over their bed, one which will allow them to watch themselves do all sorts of sordid things. Miriam knows Walter wants this mirror but she's deadset against it. So the stage is set for an Xmas morning confrontation when Faith arrives, Miriam's equally-stunning sister, an up-and-coming movie starlet who has her own problems: namely, an over-the-hill actor just elected to congress named George Brady. Brady is another man obsessed; with Faith, who is the only woman in decades to spurn Brady's sexual advances.

The first 200 or so pages of Blue Dreams are given over to the dynamic between the above characters; too much time, in fact, is wasted on the Faith-Brady battle. But the perservering reader will be rewarded. Amid all of the drama there's lots of good stuff: Walter is a confirmed Golden Age Hollywood movie fan (like myself), and looks forward to watching them on late-night TV. (Here we get an interesting peek into the past, as we see that It's A Wonderful Life has not yet reached the Christmas Classic standing it has today; when seeing it listed in the TV Guide, Walter opts against watching it, even though he hasn't seen it "in several years.") And Walter is an enjoyable guide through these opening chapters; he's a likeable sort with a sharp wit and a gift for puns.

Around page 200 the novel picks up. In a big way. And from there it just gets better and better. As mentioned, Walter's sister-in-law Faith is visiting for the holidays, and Walter gradually realizes that he harbors some quite lustful thoughts for her. And what's strange is...Faith seems to reciprocate. Once she makes her intentions clear Walter backpedals; hundreds of pages he's spent obsessing over the New Sex era, over these mini-skirted women who sleep around without care, so different from the puritan women he grew up with, and now when he's faced with an actual opportunity he gets cold feet. But fate intervenes and he gets another chance, and Faith leads Walter by the short hairs straight into the Sexual Revolution.

Incredible, exquisitely-written graphic sex ensues. A lot of it. "The sex scenes are explicit enough to give the reader a blue dream or two," wrote Publisher's Weekly, and they weren't kidding. For, unlike generic sex-filled books like Flowers and Flesh, the characters in Blue Dreams are real enough to matter; the sex scenes mean something, in other words. And Faith is one hell of a character, a perfectly-realized seductress that any man would pray to meet. As their affair escalates Faith keeps upping the ante, from introducing Walter to marijuana to having him inhale amyl nitrate as he orgasms. There's also a memorable sequence involving a lime wedge. It's all pretty insane, given the preceeding 200 pages of unfulfilled wishes, but Hanley is a gifted writer and he knows what he is doing. This unraveling of reality, these living "blue dreams," begin to gradually take over Walter's life.

For, once he's taken the first step into infidelity, it's as if Walter has become a walking babe-magnet. He sleeps with a handful of women in a matter of days, each of whom approach him and make advances. From a troubled TV actress to a pot-smoking American Indian friend of Faith's (White man lick with forked tongue, muses Walter), even the desperate housewife who lives in the apartment above his own, Walter has them all -- and more. And soon even his wife Miriam is involved; for some reason she is now open to hanging that mirror above their bed. Not only that, but she takes to dope with abandon, toking it all the time, and she's up for any sexual kink Walter might suggest, even the bit with the amyl nitrate.

Walter's life spirals into further surreality. All of his longings fulfilled, he has nowhere to go but more extreme depths. Soon he's attending orgies, where in a masterful sequence he has sex with two women at once, thereby taking "his rightful place on the throne of the country of blue dreams." After some prodding he even gets Miriam to go along, telling her that he's been to a few orgies already -- by now Miriam is such a pothead that she cares about little, and she takes this news of Walter's adultery with surprising ease. But then, Miriam has her own confessions to make on that regard.

As the pages elapse you realize that Walter is not headed for a happy end. For once all of your fantasies become real, there's nowhere left to go. But he does achieve a sort of fairytale sendoff on the last page, one that brings a smile to both his and the reader's face.

William Hanley is a definite craftsman. This was his first novel but he was a successful playwright and screenwriter before moving into prose, and his skill with dialog and character is evident. The novel is in third person and, thank the gods, there isn't one single instance of POV-hopping. I guess my only complaint would be that we are so much inside Walter's head that he clouds the action at times, particularly in those first 200 pages -- we get his thoughts on pretty much every line of dialog uttered by the other characters. But then, for instances like that we'll have another pun, or another of Walter's off-the-wall book ideas (my favorite being Every Tom's Dick and Harry's: A Study in Nymphomania).

Surprise, surprise: Blue Dreams has completely been forgotten. Trawl the web and you won't find any reviews for it; at least I didn't. It's saddening (and maddening), but it's typical. In today's watered-down world, something like Blue Dreams has no place. A modern-day reader would take a look at the cast of characters and condemn them all as degenerates. It's funny, though. Porn is more widespread than ever -- a simple click of a button and you can go to sites that feature things that would shock even the characters in this novel. And yet for all that, there's this bicameral nature to our modern reality, where in popular entertainment fidelity is the name of the game and it's all about True Love and etc.

Anyway. For an explicit peek into the long-gone world of the Sexual Revolution, those pre-AIDS days when casual sex was something new and exciting -- the world escaping from the puritan shackles which even now are closing back in upon us -- then you are directed posthaste to William Hanley's forgotten masterpiece Blue Dreams.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Happening At San Remo

The Happening At San Remo, by Bruce Cassiday
August, 1967 Pyramid Books

Published smack in the middle of the Summer of Love, The Happening At San Remo seems designed to cash in on the burgeoning psychedelic movement. The front and back cover promise a sexual romp through the turned-on underground, filled with drugs and rock and even mystic rites. And the book does deliver on this promise, to a certain degree; only we're burdened with a buzzkill of a narrator.

Brendan Tom is said narrator, one of those too-perfect main characters: the leader of a surfadelic trio, Tom is a "swordsman" who is known for getting all the girls. He's cynical, flippant, too smart for his own good, and known as a "genius" in the underground to boot. And, of course, we are told (by Tom and the girls he's with) how "big" the guy is. Yes, just a generic idealized character...but one who doesn't partake of LSD and in fact seems to look down upon those who do. For that is the hidden thing in The Happening At San Remo -- dope and LSD are seen as tools of oppression and control, only used by idiots or those who want to exploit them.

In a way, then, the book is a bit prescient in that it looks at the negative side of the turned-on generation. But come on! If I wanted to read that kind of a book, I'd pick up any number of books published in more recent years, books written by "I wasn't there but I'm gonna judge them anyway" idiots who get their kicks mocking the hippies and their now-laughable views on life. This novel was published while the movement was just starting, and so I wanted something by a person into the whole thing, something like Ed Sanders's Shards Of God, only with a more cohesive narrative.

Anyway. Brendan Tom and his surfer bandmates come to San Remo, California, where they are to play a concert at a fictional university. The locals don't want "their kind" playing around here, and so Tom is accosted by a variety of thugs and cops. More importantly he encounters Evita Navarra, a chopper-riding beauty of Mexican ancestry who leads a gang of Hell's Angel-type chicks; Evita drops acid and smokes dope with abandon and seduces Tom in the graveyard of her ancestors. Evita lives with a wheelchair-bound psychologist who is patterened after Timothy Leary; the guy even has the same sort of psychedelic outhouse as Leary did in his Millbrook estate.

Brendan Tom soon understands that Evita has a special hold on her followers; the town is comprised of Evita's gang of drugged-out rockers and "the elegants," ie square-cut college kids who nonetheless enjoy toking dope. Evita wants to unite the two groups against the locals and force a riot so that Tom and his bandmates can have their concert. Gradually the novel takes on the more mystical aspects of LSD, as Evita, holding congress to the combined groups on the San Remo beach, leads them through a rites ceremony which is outright stolen from the ancient Eleusian Mysteries. Evita and all of her followers are of course strung out on LSD during this; everyone save our buzzkill narrator Brendan Tom, of course, who leads us through the proceedings with a jaundiced eye.

It turns out though that this rites sequence has significant bearing on the novel's denouement. After much page-filling nonsense with Brendan Tom's vain attempts to deflower a local rich girl, Evita and her Leary-clone engender a campus sit-in. Here Tom learns their true goal; Evita and the good doctor could care less about Brendan Tom's concert. They instead have only wanted to create a diversion so they could steal documents from the university's administration office. Tom catches Evita in the act of this and she seduces him again, the best way to cloud any guy's mind. Then she spikes his coffee with LSD.

The novel's only psychedelic sequence ensues as Brendan Tom staggers about the woodside talking to Jesus and Satan. The sequence ends with Tom, still under the influence, setting fire to the administration building. Once he comes back to himself he's in jail and he realizes he's been a dupe all along: just another LSD-brainwashed soldier in Evita's army. But Tom manages to get out of jail in a scene that seems to have come out of Rodney Dangerfield's Back To School.

I wish I could say that The Happening At San Remo is a brain-busting trip into the psychedelic sixties, but unfortunately it's a slow-moving affair, overfilled with banal passages in which Brendan Tom graces us with egotistical stories of his background, his opinions on the Vietnam war, his theories on life. Which is funny, because it's that sort of drek which is so rightfully scorned by the hippie-haters of today, whereas the sex-and-drugs stuff Brendan Tom himself scorns will always guarantee a readership. Right?