Monday, January 6, 2014

The Nursery

The Nursery, by William W. Johnstone
No month stated, 1983  Zebra Books

As a men's adventure-reading kid, I was familiar with William W. Johnstone’s post-nuke pulp Ashes series, but there seemed to be like a hundred volumes and I could never find the first one, and once when I tried to start reading anyway with the earliest volume I could find, I was like, “Man, this writer sucks!", and mind you I was around 11 years old at the time.

But Johnstone was one prolific writer and turned out way too many novels before his death in 2004. His earliest ones (starting in 1980, with his first published novel The Devil’s Kiss), were mostly horror, published by the always-entertaining Zebra Books. After seeing Will Erickson’s post on some Johnstone paperbacks on Too Much Horror Fiction, I looked into the man’s work…only to discover that this guy put the “glorious” in “trash” (or vice versa). For here was an author who enjoyed going as far out as possible. The only unfortunate thing is that Johnstone’s horror novels are incredibly overpriced on the used books market.

In particular I saw some good things about The Nursery, how despite being a retread of practically ever other Johnstone horror novel (basically, Satan takes over some hamlet in the midwest and it’s up to some Right Wing former soldier to kill ‘em all in Jesus’s name) it was also brimming with all of the salacious stuff the man’s earliest novels were notorious for. Make no mistake, this is one profane novel, so lurid and exploitative as to be hilarious, filled with terms and phrases straight out of Penthouse Letters. There’s no way in hell a novel like this could be published in today’s Twilight world.

Anyway 43 year-old Mike Folsom is returning to the tiny town of Butler, Lousiana when we meet him; Mike has just retired from over 20 years in the army, where he kicked ass in 'Nam and later all over the world. He’s one of those types who could kill you with a newspaper or something. He hasn’t been home for a decade, coming here ten years before to handle his parents’s estate, as they’d both died rather suddenly. Mike is also wealthy, thanks to his dad’s various business efforts, and he’s pretty damn right-leaning in his views. However, as Johnstone reminds us again and again, Mike isn’t a redneck (or a Cajun) and also isn’t a hardcore Christian, rarely if ever going to church.

But something’s up in Butler, as Mike soon discovers. All of the main roads are closed off and people in town are just acting plain different. A few of them still seem normal, though, in particular Rana Drew, a super-hot 33 year-old blonde with a “sensational derriere” and “great breasts;” Rana has been in love with Mike since she was a little girl, and just happens to run into him shortly after he’s returned to Butler. She makes her interests immediately known, inviting Mike over for dinner. Meanwhile Rana’s daughter, 15 year-old Lisa (Rana’s ex-husband long out of the picture), is a wild child, as are all of the teens in Butler, and most of Rana and Mike’s initial conversations are given over to Rana explaining why she lets Lisa get away with how she acts and etc.

Johnstone is not the most competent of authors, and in fact you could even say he’s a lousy writer. He POV-hops, his characters are walking cliches, and at hardly any point does he show instead of tell. Indeed the majority of the novel is relayed through dialog, with Mike almost like some TV reporter as he goes around asking question after question. But then, when the dialog in this book contains lines like, “What is this preoccupation with anal sex?” the reader can hardly complain. But the Mike/Rana conversation goes on throughout the entire novel, with Mike barraging her with questions and Rana doling out huge blocks of expository background.

But anyway it develops that ol’ Satan himself has taken over Butler, in the personage of the reclusive and wealthy Becker, whose power and minions have firmly shut off the hamlet from the rest of the world. Through the front of a supposed church (run by the depraved satanic Reverend Ron Egan) Becker has taken over the children as well, with kids Lisa’s age and younger going there to engage in group sex and the like. The titular nursery, also known as “the womb room,” is where fetuses are kept in like storage containers in which they are fed 24/7 diatribes about Satan and etc; this element is really underdeveloped and in fact the nursery has hardly anything to do with the novel, maybe taking up 5% of the narrative.

Johnstone throws in so many characters and subplots that eventually he loses track of many of them. Central though is Mike and Rana, and Johnstone doesn’t hold back when it comes to their eventual sex scene – I’m talking full-on porn, here. But in addition we have Becker, who is apparently using Butler as the new resting place for The Old One, an ancient sort of demon which needs a few decades or so of sleep every once in a while, or something like that. To achieve this Becker has turned the town into Satansville, USA, and in addition to the brainwashed satanists we’ve got vampires and zombies running around.

There are also roving packs of teenagers, and here Johnstone really gets to unleash on the generation gap, serving up the greatest fears of the conservative middle class by making the teens literally soulless automatons of sadism and death. “Something to do, man,” is Johnstone’s hilarious recurring phrase to sum up the aimless yet merciless whims of these kids, who as the narrative ramps up go off on rape and killing sprees. In fact there’s so much rape in The Nursery that the reader soon becomes desensitized to it. But we get it in spades, complete with even fathers raping their daughters and sons raping their mothers – this last bit in an unforgettable scene where Mike, armed with a shotgun, watches in horror as his next door neighbors go at one another…Mike in shock, but Johnstone doling out the details, of course.

Mike, you see, gradually learns that he is “God’s Warrior,” divinely chosen to carry out the battle against Satan. One of the funniest things about The Nursery and most other “Christian paranoia” tales about the devil and the occult is that God rarely if ever speaks directly to his followers – and yet the followers of Satan are always directly in communion with their master. There are scenes where Becker will call up Ol’ Scratch, and other parts where Satan will send out telepathic messages to his servants. Yet God remains perennially silent. And on top of that, Satanism as presented here basically involves lots of sex and power…whereas the Christians are reduced to ramshackle packs. But then, this has been part and parcel of Christian fiction since the era of the Roman Empire – my own personal belief (as evidenced by the success of Left Behind et al) is that some Christians sort of get off on being persecuted.

But anyway, Mike has to discover for himself that he’s been chosen – and Johnstone really kills time until he goes into kill mode for God. The Nursery, like every other Zebra publication, is too long for its own good, coming in at nearly 400 pages. But it’s big print, and Johnstone’s writing is so simple yet fluid that you barrel right along…plus there’s all the dirty stuff. And Johnstone doesn’t shirk on the violence, either, with Mike either blowing mind-washed satanists away with his .41 mag revolver, a shotgun, or an AK-47, given to him by a mysterious and possibly divine intermediary who calls himself Ted Bernard.

The novel takes place over one harried weekend, and is jam-packed with lurid shenanigans. For one there’s teenager Lisa, who comes on to Mike with a mouth that would embarras a truck driver. One of the novel’s many highlights is when Mike pulls Lisa out of the satanic church and attempts to whip the devil out of the girl, only to find that Lisa royally gets off on it (easily the most outrageous scene in the entire novel). But God wins out and soon Lisa is renouncing her evil ways, though this doesn’t stop her from talking dirty or telling Mike that he’ll have to “fuck” her if Satan comes for her again, as that will be the only way to save her soul – though this is one of many subplots Johnstone completely forgets about.

There are so many jawdropping scenes that one doesn’t know where to start. From the corny to the depraved, Johnstone covers all the bases. I mean, how about when the Christians in Mike’s home feel the “thought-pushings” of Satan, which sounds as some unspecified music in their minds (I imagined it as something cool like Slayer’s “Hell Awaits”), calling them back to “The Master,” and Mike gets everyone to hold hands and sing Christian sermons to fight back? Or…how about when Mike feels a “dark presence,” and he reaches out for the Bible, and as soon as he touches it the presence fades away? There are many such scenes which, to me at least, are just plain laughable, but what’s awesome is you can tell Johnstone’s a True Believer…which makes his lurid stuff all the more impressive.

Everything finally builds to a thrilling climax, with Mike blitzing the town of Butler in a commandeered truck, blowing away teenagers and satanists with his AK-47. But Johnstone wraps up the Old One storyline very anticlimatically, with Satan realizing that God, acting through Mike, has won again, and thus pulls his forces out of Butler. You know how in most horror movies the credits roll after the villain has been killed? Johnstone proves why this is a smart idea, as for whatever reason he wastes our time with several pages of aftermath, where Mike, finally able to communicate with the outside world now that Becker’s forces have been defeated, calls in his old Army friends and they look over the destruction and try to make sense of it.

Back in my Phoenix reviews I wrote that the main thing I loved about David Alexander's style was how he came off like a sex and violence-obsessed 15 year-old with no conscience; well, Johnstone is in the same league, my friends. In fact, one could argue that he goes even further. This is a case where only quotes will give a full idea of what the reader is in for. From the bizarre to the just plain dirty, here are a few excerpts from The Nursery. Brace yourself!

Lisa put her head back and curled her toes, jerking in climax. Her sleek tanned legs were spread wide, trembling as the good doctor pulled out of her and reached for a towel. He cleaned himself and tossed another towel to Lisa, pointing toward the small bathroom.

“Go wipe your pussy,” he told her. “Get the smell of cum off you. And don’t forget your birth control pills.” -- pg. 31

“Lisa –” Mike managed to say, lips on hers.

“If she did come in – which she won’t – she’d probably ask you for some.”

Mike pulled back, shocked. “That’s a terrible thing to say about your daughter!”

“But true. Want to see the vibrator and King Dong dildo she thinks she keeps hidden from me?”

“Not particularly.”

“Good. Then shut up and make love to me.”

Mike could not imagine his own daughter shoving a rubber cock up in her. He hoped she didn’t, at least. -- pg. 74

Ava screamed hoarsely as pain lanced through her slender body. The crowd of men and women, all naked or clad in the barest of clothing, laughed at the girl’s wailings.

“Hurry up, Al,” a woman urged. “This has got me all sexed up. Let’s go to the barracks and fuck. I want you to fuck my ass.” -- pg. 87

"What is this preoccupation with anal sex?” Mike asked.

“Tight,” Lisa answered bluntly. She looked up at him. “I mean,” she shrugged, “so they tell me.”

Mike had grown accustomed to the teenager’s frankness. Familiarized to it, but not comfortable with it.

She said, “You mean, Mike, as worldly as you are, you’ve never gone in the back door of a woman?”

Her mother sighed and shook her head.

“No,” Mike replied, his face red.

“That’s really wild, man.” -- pg. 222

Nickie stood in confusion in the moonlight. She could not understand what had happened. Had she been screwed or was it all a dream? Yes, she thought, dipping her fingers into the fur between her legs, she had been well-screwed. But where did the men go?

So she had not been dreaming. Her asshole was sticky. No dream there, either. -- pg. 275


Zwolf said...

Excellent review!

I've read a whooooolllle lot of stuff, and a lot of it really trashy, bad pulp... and William W. Johnstone has always had my vote for the absolute WORST WRITER EVER!

But, taken in the spirit of an Al Adamson or Andy Milligan film, he can be a hilarious read. The Nursery is one I've read, and all I remember is a little set-up and then a lot of scenes with the guy just shooting everybody. That's the solution to everything - automatic weapons fire. No consequences or anything, no threat to the guy doing the shooting, just blam blam blam blam. Clever!

My review of Night Mask was removed by Amazon, presumably for being too uncomplimentary. I seem to remember beseeching the god of all universes and dimensions to send forth a demon to crush Johnstone's hands with a ball-peen hammer or something, to prevent him from writing any more such books. Did I go too far? Perhaps, but don't say yes until you read Night Mask! Half that book is ranting that Rush Limbaugh would find a little excessive, and the rest is sick depravity that Johnstone morally excuses himself for writing because he's saying, "Isn't this behavior terrible? This is not a good thing, here! Look how repugnant my upright hero finds this behavior to be!" It's hilarious.

One thing I always liked about Johnstone, though, is that he's encouraging. He's one of the most prolific and widely-published authors in the biz... and if he could publish THAT incompetent, awful stuff, then anything I or any other amateur writer could come up with is, ehhhhh, pretty dang viable! That was helpful to know back in the days when things actually had to go through a publisher to see print. In these days of Kindle and vanity presses, where there are no gatekeepers and even the most talentless of morons can easily get in "print" it's not as comforting. And if you count e-book-only and vanity-press titles as legitimate published works (I don't), then I can't really say Johnstone is the world's worst writer anymore, because I've read some independently published things that make him look like Steinbeck.

But, for his day, he was easily the worst thing going, even worse than Rosenberger. And it was kind of wonderful how terrible he was. The dude just didn't care. I don't believe anything he wrote saw a second draft. And toward the end of his life the silly bastard was publishing huge chunks of previous books as "new" books. Supposedly the later "Mountain Man" series books are like 80% chunks out of the previous books.

If you can track down the first "Ashes" book (Out of the Ashes), it's pretty hilarious -- it's a right-wing fantasy, but the society the right-wingers put together sounds an awful lot like Communism! Johnstone had lots of opinions, but had no clue what he was talking about... which makes him even funnier. And the only way he knows to move a story forward is to get somebody shot on every page.

Griff said...

"my own personal belief (as evidenced by the success of Left Behind et al) is that some Christians sort of get off on being persecuted."

buddy, as the son of Christian parents you have NO idea, a persecution complex is as integral to Christian identity as the crucifixion itself

and they absolutely do get off on it, they're not happy unless they believe the world is run by Devil worshipers and Satan is to blame for every personal woe, I've had my father flat out tell me that bad things happen rarely to atheists because "the Devil leaves them alone"

Will Errickson said...

Love this post! I gotta say, personally, it never occurred to me to actually *read* one of Johnstone's books. Wow.

Oh, and Zwolf, I checked out Amazon reviews for NIGHT MASK, and found this gem: "I have a collection of over 8000 books and by far this is one of my favorite."

Tim Mayer said...

I'm glad you read it because now I don't have to. :)

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for the comments, I enjoyed reading all of them. Zwolf, Night Mask sounds like it might be worth investigating. I'd actually rate Johnstone higher than Rosenberger, but then I've only read this one Johnstone book so far. The guy comes off like a more perverted Harold Robbins, which is quite a feat. I was going to quote from the mentioned scene where Mike attempts to whip Lisa, but figured it might be going to far, what with it's "KY Jelly" line.

Flixer1957 said...

Johnstone's best horror novel might well be THE UNINVITED. Swarms of carnivorous cockroaches overrun a Louisiana parish. It reads like an R-rated version of those killer bug movies from the 1950s.

His best non-horror effort is arguably THE SANCTION, about a former killer-for-the-government whose past starts catching up with him. I'm not saying either of these are literary masterpieces, I'm just saying they're pretty enjoyable.
For Johnstone...

Griff said...

Today, William W. Johnstone's name is being used to peddle right wing paranoia novels about Muslims taking over the US and all American dudes fighting back.

Felicity Walker said...

“You know how in most horror movies the credits roll after the villain has been killed? Johnstone proves why this is a smart idea, as for whatever reason he wastes our time with several pages of aftermath [...]”

I find there’s not enough aftermath in most things. A common saying my room-mates and I have when we’re watching a movie and it ends the nanosecond the villain dies is “Villain dead, movie over.” It’s like the movie had sex with you, shot its load, and went right to sleep without asking how it was for you! This is taken to hilarious extremes with Godfrey Ho ninja movies, where the hero delivers the killing blow and it freeze-frames and credits roll before the villain’s body even hits the ground.

The more stressful the conflict in the story is, the more reward I want at the end, in the form of things being OK, questions being answered, and setups being paid off. Trapped-in-a-place stories are especially bad for this--we spend the whole story stressed out about trapped, and then right when they escape, the thing just ends, before we even get to enjoy the freedom.

Joe Kenney said...

Felicity, thanks for the comment as well as the others you've recently left on the blog. Believe it or not, I'm familiar with Godfrey Ho's ninja movies. I still even have them on VHS. I think he was tapping into the Asian view on action's my understanding most of the audience would leave the theater as soon as the villain was killed.

Oh, and Griffin, in case you see this response -- I know exactly what you're talking about. A few months ago I was in a Wal-Mart and saw a new "William W. Johnstone" book on the racks. I thought I was seeing things! It was titled "Stand Your Ground." And you are correct, it was this right-wing fantasy about Isis taking over smalltown America or something, just total reactionary stuff catering to the Johnstone demographic.

Of course, I definitely intend to read it someday...!

peter said...

Prices for a used copy on Amazon are between $568. - $978.
Sup with that?