Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Devil's Kiss (Devil's series #1)

The Devil's Kiss, by William W. Johnstone
No month stated, 1980  Zebra Books

Apparently William W. Johnstone devoted himself to writing for ten years before he finally got published, but reading The Devil’s Kiss you’d think it was more like ten minutes, and that’s with frequent breaks. But what do I know, because this, Johnstone’s first published novel, initiated a stream of a few hundred books published over the next twenty-plus years, with Johnstone still getting published today, even though he’s been dead for over a decade.

This was also the start of an untitled, unnumbered series which apparently has the same plot over and over again: Satan comes to Smalltown, USA, and God’s chosen Warrior blows a bunch of his followers away after debating about it for a few hundred pages. This was of course the exact same plot of The Nursery, which wasn’t part of this “Devil’s series.” But then, it would appear that the majority of Johnstone’s horror novels feature this same plot. If the formula works, why change it? At least, I guess that was Johnstone’s feeling. Either that or he just didn’t give a damn.

Running to 448 pages, The Devil’s Kiss is mostly comprised of exposition-laden dialog exchanges, brief detailings of the sordid shenanigans of a group of Satanists, and out-of-nowhere flashes of sex and/or sadism. Unlike The Nursery it takes a good long time to get going, and it isn’t nearly as over-the-top or trashy as that later masterpiece. But like The Nursery it’s heavier on telling than showing, with a gruff protagonist who acts almost like a reporter, going around his podunk town and basically interviewing every character he meets, with the reader treated to huge dollops of Christian Right sermonizing.

One difference is that The Devil’s Kiss takes place in 1958, but other than occasional mentions of the Korean War or “that new rock and roll music,” the novel could just as easily take place in 1980. What I mean to say is, there’s not really any attempt at capturing the styles of the period; our hero, Reverend Sam Balon, even sports “longish” hair, has tattoos, and acts in every way like the protagonist of a ‘70s or ‘80s novel. But he is a preacher, and here is the biggest drawback so far as The Devil’s Kiss is concerned, when compared to The Nursery; we must read as our reverend of a hero constantly berates himself for his “unChristianly thoughts” and the like. At times it’s almost like a burlier Ned Flanders with a gun.

But Sam, whose last name sounds a whole lot like “Bolan,” was part of the experimental UNPIK detachment in Korea, which we’re informed eventually became the Special Forces. In a vaguely-described backstory we learn that he came here to smalltown Whitfield, Nebraska at the behest of his super-hot wife, Michelle, who eagerly demanded that Sam take this particular parsonage from the list that was offered to him. But over the past few months Sam has noticed a darkness seeping into the little hamlet of Whitfield; in particular church attendance has been dropping across the full Judeo-Christian spectrum (there’s even a synagogue in this supposedly-small town!).

Yes friends, the rapid decline of church attendance is a huge concern of The Devil’s Kiss. In fact it gets even more narrative space and character concern than the murder of the two teens which opens the novel. There’s a fenced-off, notorious woodlands area of the town called Tyson’s Lake, and these kids cross over it one spring night to screw and whatnot, only to find themselves attacked by these sub-werewolves which are referred to as Beasts. They make a gory mess of the boy and intend to use the girl as a “breeder,” but she escapes, finds Sheriff Walter Addison, and tells him what happened…only for the sheriff and his deputies to take turns raping her before throwing her back over the fence to the Beasts!

A few months later and the disappearance of the kids has been brushed under the carpet. Sam begins the first of his reporter-like methods by asking the local police chief about it. Sam will spend the first 300 or so pages of the book driving around Whitfield and engaging various characters in incredibly long, drawn-out conversations. I thought Johnstone told more than he showed in The Nursery, but that was nothing compared to this! Honestly, the reader must be prepared to endure back-to-back sequences where Sam will sit down with some other preacher or priest or gun store owner and engage him in about twenty pages of deep conversation. Repetition is rife.

Another difference with this volume is that Johnstone doesn’t dwell as much on the local Satanists, who were much more to the fore in The Nursery. We only get a few brief cutover scenes to them; they’re lead by Black Wilder, ostensibly the chief professor behind “The Digging,” in which an ancient sculpture is being dug up near Tyson’s Lake. But Wilder is in reality the devil’s agent and is thousands of years old. He has brought with him his minions, and has turned basically the entire town over to the devil, save for a handful – we later learn that there are only 14 Christians left in the population of 2,500. The horror!!

One of Wilder’s top accomplices is none other than Michelle Balon, yet here Johnstone, who is so overly-detailed about trivial stuff, mysteriously drops the ball. I mean, he informs us halfway through the book that Michelle too is ancient, hundreds of years old…yet by this point Sam has learned of “the Mark of the Devil,” which states that if one is touched by the devil or one of the devil’s followers, that person is forever lost. Hence Sam keeps his wife from kissing him or touching him, etc. But, uh, if she’s a few hundred years old, and married Sam because she knew he’d one day be God’s Chosen Warrior (an actual Johnstone title), then hasn’t she already touched him?? Like many times?

Another thing I didn’t like about the Satanists in this one is that Johnstone stresses how dirty and smelly they are; we’re informed over and over again of the stench of Michelle’s room (she long ago moved out of the master bedroom), and when the Satanists get together for a Black Mass Johnstone writes of the “unHoly” smell of their unwashed bodies. I don’t seem to recall any of this in The Nursery; maybe Johnstone wisely realized that overhyping the stench of his otherwise super-hot Satanic chicks sort of ruined the escapist nature of it all. And besides, wasn’t it the pious Christians of the Dark Ages who thought bathing was a sin and thus gloried in their own funk?

But Sam’s sure that Michelle has gone over to the other side, which makes his growing feelings for hotstuff local blonde Jane Ann Burke all the easier to “endure.” For here’s all the “Sam berated himself for his thoughts” stuff I mentioned above; Jane Ann is good and horny for the preacher, and Sam increasingly feels the same for her, but keeps chastizing himself for this due to his being married and being a preacher and all. He’s the first person Jane Ann calls when some deputies try to smash in her door and rape her, though. Sam insists she move in with gun store owner Chester and his wife, and then returns to his impromptu interviews with the other Christians in Whitfield.

Two of the elder preachers in town, Reverend Lucas and Father Dubois, actually fought the devil years before, and they impart their wisdom to Sam and his reporter friend Wade (as well as Miles the Jew, whom Johnstone assures us is okay even though he isn’t Christian) in one of the longer conversation sequences. Here’s where Sam learns, about 200 pages in, that he’s likely been chosen to be God’s Warrior, and his mission will be to KILL EVERYONE. This in itself is hilarious, as Sam instinctively knows that he should not try to save any of the Satanists, that death is the only option for them. Kind of flies in the face of the entire concept of Christianity – wouldn’t a true Christian try to save their souls?

But nope, the only thing to do is load up on guns and ammo. (Actually, if history’s any indication, that is in fact a valid Christian response!) There’s a goofily maudlin scene where Sam and the others exchange crosses with Dubois and Lucas (they even give one to Miles the Jew!!); you can almost hear the saccharine choir on the soundtrack. Now it’s killin’ time! Oh wait, no it isn’t…we still have another 250 or so pages to go. No, it’s actually time for more discussion and impromptu interviews. Oh, and Sam trades in his car for a pickup truck. Humorously enough the used car salesman is also one of the last Christians in Whitfield.

All too infrequently Johnstone will cut over to Black Wilder and his fellow devil worshippers. We get a Black Mass sort of deal where they have a big ceremony in the fields at night, orgying and whatnot, culminating in a teenaged virgin (who refused to join them) being trussed up on a cross and gutted by Nydia, the raven-haired beauty who serves as Wilder’s chief aide. But again the unholy eroticism is ruined by the focus on the unwashed, smelly bodies of the Satanists. Also this time Johnstone doesn’t dwell on graphic sexual description, as in The Nursery. We’re just informed that lots of screwin’ occurs, including, gasp, homosexual stuff, which is the biggest sin so far as the still-Christian locals are concerned.

The hypocrisy of Johnstone’s vision is laughable; throughout the novel Sam condemns the devil-worshippers, or “Them,” as he soon calls them, because “[their] god says hate Christians.” And yet, Sam himself hates the devil worshippers so much that he relishes the opportunity to murder them: man, woman, and child. There is no attempt at mercy or salvation; even though he learns that the residents of Whitfield are under mind control, and perhaps not fully responsible for the evil beings they are becoming, Sam has no interest in saving them. Indeed, God basically tells him through his subconscious to forget about it. And even in death they won’t be saved; they’re going straight to hell.

Also of note is Johnstone’s view of women.  I don’t want to be the cliched modern reviewer who whines about “misogyny” and the like in old pulp fiction. Actually I think these now-outdated sentiments are part of the charm of these old books. But good grief Johnstone goes way beyond that and into a sort of Cro-Magnon realm; I lost track of the number of times Jane Ann or one of the other Christian women would sit quietly while Sam and the men were talking, only to finally get up and say, “I’ll go make us some sandwiches.”

Interesting then that the women are much more visible and important in the world of the devil worshippers. Nydia as mentioned is Black Wilder’s chief aide and takes central stage in the midnight ceremonies, sacrificing victims and lusting after new male (or female) conquests. Johnstone doesn’t outright state it, but it’s obvious that, per his skewed reasoning, this female empowerment is also part of what makes the Satanists so evil and so against God’s will. To prove this there comes a scene midway through where Sam finally attempts to do something about Michelle; finding her masturbating in her foul-smelling room, he pulls her into the shower and then calls over Father Dubois for an excorcism.

Bringing to mind the much superior (and much trashier) scene in The Nursery where the sodomy-lovin’ teenaged gal was called back to Jesus, here we have a similar sequence where a nude Michelle, tied down to Sam’s bed, curses God and spits at Sam and Dubois as they try to save her. But forget it – she’s too far gone, practically a vampire. Or something. Johnstone is vague, but Father Dubois, who has suddenly become Sam’s spiritual warfare advisor, states that the only option is a stake to the heart! After which they dump her corpse over the fence at Tyson’s Lake for the Beasts to eat.

This of course leads to more talking. Even when Sam, Chester, and Wade take up guns and make a sortie over the Tyson Lake fence, even there they engage in a long conversation. Here Johnstone just pulls out any idle thought from his head; we’re informed, for example, that there’s a nearby asylum which is filled with mutants, the radiation-twisted freaks of some nuclear test ten years ago. Sam and his buddies then shoot a few Beasts and talk about it. Then they go home and talk about it with the rest of their companions.

Then Sam finally decides to screw Jane Ann, right out in “the cheap showiness of nature,” to quote Rev. Lovejoy, and then what the hell, he officiates their own impromptu marriage. Around about this time Sam has suddenly started to realize he will die in the conflict, but his child will continue the war against the devil(?!). This seemingly spur-of-the-moment decision on Johnstone’s part comes increasingly to the fore in the narrative. But anyway he and Jane Ann have to be married as part of this last-moment prophecy, or something.

The final 200+ pages are given over to a days-long battle Sam and his followers wage against the devil worshippers of Fork County, which has been magically segregated from the rest of the world. There are many and frequent scenes of Sam gunning down Beasts and human worshippers with his Thompson submachine gun, Chester blasting away at his side with a Greaser. Johnstone doesn’t get very outrageous with the gore, though, and these “action” scenes get boring after a while, as there’s no variety to them. The Beasts and Satanists just rush pell-mell at Sam and his followers, who gun them down, and then mop up the survivors.

Johnstone loses track of all the stuff he’s spent a few hundred pages setting up…those asylum mutants, for example, show up and are anticlimactically blown away within a single paragraph! Long-time Whitfield residents are summarily killed by Sam and his cronies, and though Sam et all are shocked we readers have no idea who these characters are in the first place. Much better are the close-quarters moments where Sam will take a sharpened stake and go in some dark area to kill off one of the Undead, which are basically vampires. Johnstone has the glimmerings of some actual eerie stuff with murdered companions returning as zombie/vampires, but does nothing to capitalize on it.

As mentioned the “certainity” that Sam will die in the climax is further brought the fore, as well as a last-second development where hotstuff witch Nydia vows that she will sire a son through him. Johnstone, certain that he’ll get a contract for a sequel, introduces this concept that Sam will have a “good” son through Jane Ann and a “bad” son through Nydia, and they will fight each other thirty twenty-some years in the future. God unsurprisingly isn’t much help (he’s mysteriously absent whereas Satan is constantly beaming messages to his loyal followers), so Sam basically gives Jane Ann a goodbye kiss and goes off to meet his fate.

Johnstone doesn’t get as graphic in the infrequent sex scenes as he did in The Nursery, and for the Nydia/Sam encounter he doesn’t elaborate at all, yet ironically enough it features the best writing in the entire damn book. In fact Sam’s final moment has all the emotional power Johnstone has been trying to build over the entire endurance test of a novel, as Sam goes off to meet his God knowing somehow that he will have a son, a son that God will look over (which, judging at least from how the Christians are treated in this particular book, doesn’t really mean much).

In the end, Whitfield is in ruins, Sam and his companions having blasted most of it using handmade napalm (gasoline mixed with flour) and dynamite. Practically everyone is gunned down, the dozen Christians having killed a few thousand people. As for Black Wilder, he blithely gives in to his doom, having been ordered by Satan to give up, but Johnstone implies that the demon may return. Another potential return in the next volume would be a teenager named Jean, the only Satan worshipper who escapes Sam’s bloodbath; we’re informed that she eventually gets a job as a Government-sponsored psychiatrist (surely there’s yet another Johnstone-worldview message there).

Three years later Johnstone returned to the storyline with The Devil’s Heart, which brought events to the then-modern day, and apparently started off a series of four more books featuring Sam Jr. and his ceaseless battles against Satan. Once I have recovered sufficiently I will read it.

Finally, here’s a funny story Stephen Mertz told me, and with his permission I’d like to share it with the rest of you:

I met [William W. Johnstone] once. A biker buddy who enthusiastically collected his work once dragged me down to a book signing. Johnstone was on tour, promoting his Ashes series and he actually had two uniformed, armed off-duty cops with him, hired to stand in the background at the Hastings store as "security." (!?)

We chatted briefly and traded signed copies. I couldn't help myself. I nodded toward the cops. "What's this, Bill? You expecting the critics to show up?"

This brought a semblance of acknowledgement from a generally dour, guarded countenance.


Zwolf said...

Beautiful (and hilarious) review! Gotta love Johnstone. SOMEBODY had to be the worst actually-for-real-published writer in history. There are many, many vanity press and e-book authors who are worse, but Johnstone was "legit" - somebody *paid* to have this guy's work printed up and distributed! It's amazing to think of that.

He was the best at being bad, like the Manos - Hands of Fate of writers. He really rolled up his sleeves and took one for the team, being so awful just to make sure there was still plenty of room for everyone else to be terrible and yet still-not-as-bad. Even death itself cannot stop him from defiling the world of literature! Of all the names to hang a "™" after. For real, somebody looked at his work after he died and said, "No, we cannot let this dynasty end, we must turn him into a brand name so that others may carry on his great works!" It's all so V.C. Andrews... except (A) V.C. Andrews was like Hemingway in comparison, and (B) Johnstone would never stand for that comparison 'cuz almost all his characters killed anything with the intials "V.C."

I need to dig out some of my old Johnstone books and read 'em, just for encouragement that, yes, that terrible what-if-cats-were-vampires? plot I scribbled on a Denny's napkin actually IS a viable idea...

His books always read like the transcript of some kid playing with army men in a sandbox. After a certain point it's just "pew! pew! pew!" - hundreds of bad guys dying while the one good-guy dude doesn't get a scratch.

Kurt said...

Great review. I've seen one of his horror novels on used shelves but that was it. I guess his fans out their have decided his horror novels are keepers.

I have a very similar story about a hugely popular (right-wing!) espionage writer, his "security" team and his scary fans and their run in with a friend of mine at at a book signing in Scottsdale a couple years ago.

RJR said...

Bill was a nice man. I enjoyed talking and drinking with him. But you could hardly believe a word he said--or "didn't" say.

Ron Clinton said...

Hey, Zwolf, r.e. "SOMEBODY had to be the worst actually-for-real-published writer in history. There are many, many vanity press and e-book authors who are worse, but Johnstone was "legit" - somebody *paid* to have this guy's work printed up and distributed! It's amazing to think of that." -- don't forget about Guy N. Smith. In my mind, he doesn't just rival Johnstone for "worst actually-for-real-published writer" but often surpasses him in that regard.

Great review, as always -- informative and entertaining!

russell1200 said...

Johnstone was amazing.

And what is more amazing is how many people just LOVE! him. The Ashes series is noted by many surivalists as being one of their favorite series. IMOP, not exactly a good sign for the chances of their actual survival in times of duress.