Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Deadly Spring

The Deadly Spring, by J.C. Conaway
No month stated, 1976  Leisure Books

J.C. Conaway, the man who as “Jake Quinn” gave the world the Shannon series, returns to Leisure Books under his own name and delivers a trashy horror-mystery hybrid that comes off like a proto-version of William W. Johnstone’s The Nursery. Unlike the Shannon books, stuff actually happens here, and it’s all pretty wild and sleazy.

Taking place right after the Bicentennial weekend of July 4th, 1976, The Deadly Spring is set in Cheat Holler, West Virginia, not far from Morgantown. I found this pretty interesting, given that I grew up maybe an hour or so from this area, and one of my earliest memories is of the Bicentennial; I guess I was about a year and a half old at the time. The West Virginia town I grew up in sure as hell was smaller than Cheat Holler, which despite being described as nowhereseville has a lot of people living in it, doing a lot of interesting things. The place I grew up in was lucky to have an ice cream stand.

Conaway fills the 219 pages of the book with big print, and the story moves quickly. He juggles a large amount of characters with ease. Again, it’s all a definite step above the Shannon novels, which for the most part were lethargic. Missing though from those novels is the ultra-sleaze factor, with as we’ll recall Shannon getting it on in explicit detail in his mirror-lined bedroom. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of ultra-sleaze in The Deadly Spring, but for the most part Conaway goes for more of a kinky, macabre sort of approach. The novel is also filled with capably-handled dark humor.

There are a lot of characters on display, but the the main protagonists would be Ben Tyler, a hunky surveyor who contracts for the military base in town, and Amy Forrester, his hotbod girlfriend, who supports herself and her toddler son Buddy by writing trashy novels (her latest being a “sexy historical” in the vein of The Savage Sands). They’re shacking up in Amy’s house, which is right across from the Starlight Motel (owned by white trash Fred and Leona Pilzer) and the town gas station (owned by Ketchy Davis and his man-hungry wife, JoAnne).

The day after the July 4th celeberation, Cheat Holler is hit by a series of increasingly-destructive earthquakes. The first 100+ pages of the novel are moreso about the quakes and the chaos they create, rather than what the back cover claims the novel is about: namely, a psychoactive drug getting into the town water supply and making everyone go nuts. This element doesn’t appear until the final quarter, and it arises from the military base in town, which is overseen by Colonel Alexander Templeton, a stickler for duty who happens to be in lust with half of the men under his command.

The base is more of a research center, most of it housed underground, where army chemists are concocting various nerve agents. One of them is HT-105, which acts like LSD but unleashes a person’s id. Due to the damage of the earthquakes (and Templeton’s mismanagement of affairs) the vault that holds HT-105 suffers a large crack, with the liquid agent slowly filtering down into the soil and into the river channel that runs beneath the base, eventually ending up in the town’s water supply.

Before all this happens, though, Conaway spends more time setting up his various characters, showing how each and every one of them is a ticking time bomb. There’s a sergeant who has night guard duty at the base (posted there because Templeton resents that the good-looking guy is married), who is certain his wife is having an affair; a young woman named Willadene who suppresses her lustful thoughts due to her overbearing, abusively Christian mother; a funeral home director who is currently tasked with perparing the body of a once-notorious prostitute, whose high-falutin daughter has married into wealth and standing; a theater producer who suffers with a headstrong actress from out of town; a spinster who runs the town’s summer school program; and a pair of old high school friends who run The Joint, a bar out on Cheat Lake. 

There’s also Martin Forrester, Amy’s obsessed ex-husband, who manages the local Mountain Creek beer factory and can’t let his ex-wife go. This leads to a few confrontations between Ben and Martin, before the HT-105 even gets out, in particular their first meeting, which sees the two men getting into a protracted brawl outside of Amy’s house. Conaway really lights the fuse on this situation, with the reader anticipating a huge blowup once the drug gets out. Luckily, this is one of the few subplots Conaway bothers to wrap up at the very end of the novel.

Instead, once the drug gets out Conaway goes into an obvious riffing mode, just whittling down his large cast of characters in one crazy situation after another. Here the novel comes off a lot like Johnstone’s The Nursery, though only slightly less perverted. Like Johnstone, the suppressions unleashed among the populace via the drug are mostly sexual in nature, though not all of them. He even goes one better than Johnstone with the spinster’s class of kids going nuts during a tea party, a darkly comedic sequence which first has them tearing up the teacher’s valued first edition of Alice in Wonderland and then turning the spinster into a human pinata.

The drug’s first victim is the cuckolded guard; another darkly humorous scene that has him going home on a whim to find his wife in bed with a fellow guard from the base. The subplot with the funeral home is also grotesquely humorous, with the funeral director making up the old lady’s corpse to look like the hooker she once was. Willadene also gets her share of the lurid fun, first taking bloody vengeance on her domineering mother and then satiating her decades-suppressed lust with various men. Meanwhile, Col. Templeton goes nuts and sodomizes one of his men at gunpoint, blowing the guy’s head off at the, uh, climactic moment.

But here’s the thing: as the novel seems to be moving toward an insane finale, with practically every character converging on The Joint, to skinny dip in the drug-laced Cheat Lake…the novel just ends!! We have no idea what the outcome is of the HT-105 contamination, or indeed what becomes of the many surviving characters. Instead, Conaway focuses more on Ben coming upon the ruins of the base and helping the soldiers free the lead chemist, who was locked in the vault by Col. Templeton.

After this, Ben goes home to find a drug-crazed Martin Forrester again trying to attack his wife. Ben subdues him and ties him up, then calls the sheriff to come get him. This taken care of, Ben proposes to Amy, cracks open a beer, and chuckles that the Mountain Creek beer factory will probably have to shut down for a while, given that its water comes from drug-laced Cheat Lake! The End!! Obviously Conaway, in true pulp hack fashion, hit his word count and said “fuck it.” I checked to see if maybe pages were stuck together or missing, but no – the novel just ends at this arbitrary point, with even a few pages afterwards of advertisements for other Leisure books.

Despite the awkward and abrupt end, The Deadly Spring is still an enjoyable read, with a large cast of messed-up characters, and Conaway proves himself a master at setting up and paying off darkly humorous incidents. There are a lot of twisted happenings afoot, particularly of a perverse nature, but Conaway doesn’t really play up on the graphic details, as Johnstone did in his similar (but superior) novel. Also, the novel is riddled with typos, as is customary for a Leisure publication, the funniest being when, instead of “Amy gathered the child into her arms,” it says “Amy fathered the child into her arms.”


Marty McKee said...

You should try Dean Koontz's NIGHT CHILLS, which your review of this novel reminded me of. I really haven't read much Koontz (maybe I should), but NIGHT CHILLS is one of his first novels and, I think, not much like the horror books that made him famous. It's also about a small town and a government experiment and it's lurid and sleazy and really really freaky. I think it would be right up your alley.

John Nail said...

Like someone hopped up on HT-105 I was inflamed by the crazed desire to read this book, abrupt ending be damned, after I finished reading your review. Then I saw the inflated price tags on eBay (almost all copies were over $20)--something else The Deadly Spring shares with The Nursery -- and that sobered me up. I may still get it if I can find a cheap copy. By the way, I looked up some other J.C. Conaway books and it appears that he also wrote some "sexy historical" novels in the '80s (The River of Time; A Pale Moon Rising).

Joe Kenney said...

Marty, thanks for the info on Night Chills. I've never actually read a Koontz novel, but that one sounds like it would be up my alley for sure.

John, really sorry to hear The Deadly Spring is now going for such inflated prices. That really drives me nuts. But I've found these prices fluctuate. For example I wanted that "Jackboot Girls" novel for years, but it was always listed at absurd prices. Then one day last year on a whim I looked it up again, only to find a copy listed for $1.50! Thanks for the info on those other Conaway novels; in a few weeks I'll have a review of another of his '70s books posting, the first book in his two-volume "Jana Blake" series.