Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Dragon

The Dragon, by William Schoell
May, 1989  Leisure Books

William Schoell published a handful of horror paperbacks between 1984 and 1990, coming in and going out on the horror high tide. While he never achieved the popularity of Stephen King (or, uh, William W. Johnstone), his books are well regarded today and most of them command high prices on the used books market – The Dragon, one of his last published horror novels, was going for high prices a few years ago, but seems to be cheaply available now.

Actually, Schoell didn’t disappear; he moved on to nonfiction and other markets that likely paid better. This is a shame, as judging from this novel, he’s a perfectly fine pulp-horror novelist, one of the few such novelists of the era who seems quite aware that he’s writing disposable entertainment, the literary equivalent of a B-movie creature feature. Many of these writers had pretensions (or delusions) of literary greatness, but one can tell Schoell is having fun. However he does invest enough thoughtfulness into his book that his characters aren’t just cardboard cutouts going through the motions until their gory deaths.

In fact, the rampant characterization of The Dragon is one of its few detriments, at least in my opinion. Like every other horror paperback of the ‘80s, it’s much too long: 358 pages, a veritable doorstop of a book. However, it’s got some big print, and Schoell’s such a capable author that the narrative flows smoothly. It’s just that, as with most every horror novel, we must endure the interminable opening half in which the characters gradually become aware of the fact that they’re in a horror novel. We also must learn a bit too much about them until the good stuff starts.

The other year I started reading Schoell’s first novel, Spawn Of Hell, from 1984, but gave up on it a little over a quarter of a way through for this reason; the majority of those opening pages were given over to a practically endless budding romance between a comic book artist and a super-hot fashion model(!!). It just felt like way too many pages were burned away on this stuff; I encountered the same obstacles when I later tried to read Schoell’s Saurian, from 1986 – the first half was endless detail about the protagonist’s childhood, and I just wanted to get to the giant monster carnage.

But I was determined to read a Schoell novel in full, so I dove into The Dragon with iron resolve. As with the other books, the first 80 or so pages are given over to a little too much character-building, but it is all very well done – even though I still didn’t much care about any of the characters. Also, Schoell has a tendency to overdescribe his characters, like sometimes up to three paragraphs describing their faces and their clothes. Taking up most of the spotlight is our protagonist, Eddie Drake, a 42-year-old photographer of some fame who became a widow, six months ago, his wife of ten years killed by black thugs in a mugging in the NYC subways.

Eddie’s recent past indeed is almost identical to the origin story of The Vigilante, only Eddie lives in “the real world,” and thus doesn’t become a .38-wielding dispenser of bloody vengeance. Instead he is mostly a shell of himself, still hurt, still grieving, still consumed with thoughts of his deceased wife, though he has learned to cope with it. He finds weekly solace hanging out with a sort of widower’s club: a group of widowed men of various ages who hang out with Eddie and get drunk at a local Manhattan bar.

Enter Lawrence Foster, Eddie’s college pal, now a prominent archeologist. “Larry” has a proposal for Eddie: venture with him and a small team of specialists to a desolate area of southwestern New Mexico, where Larry’s certain they will find a heretofore-unkknown culture buried deep within a mesa. An older archeologist found the place, but was too sick to explore it, thus it has fallen upon Larry. He tells Eddie that he was able to make a preemptory inspection of the place – brushing over the little detail that his colleague on this inspection is now in the hospital, but for an unrelated issue, mind you – and now he’s about to head back down there and excavate it in full.

After brief internal questing – and Schoell to his credit doesn’t waste any time here – Eddie agrees. He figures the trip will help him move on and besides, he could use the photos for a book deal. Thus he sets off for the small town of Mightabeen, New Mexico, which rests beside the looming mesa, El Lobo – named after the wolfhead shape at its crown, or something. Larry’s team is the stuff B-movie creature features are made of, a motley crew that doesn’t have a chance in hell of working well together:

Ellen Foster: Larry’s wife, a hussy socialite with no interest in archeology, but who has insisted on coming along because she’s certain Larry is having an affair with his assistant, Leslie.

Thurston Beresford: A “fussy, elderly anthropologist” who is certain there was once a previously-unknown species of mankind but who harbors fears that he’s become old.

William Ringstone: A professor of archeology, as “hard and black as an obsidian sculpture,” still mentally trying to get over the beating he took as a child by white trash.

Roy Kennison: “stalwart” site supervisor who has as much personality as a rock.

Velma St. Clair: Basically, Velma from Scooby Doo; an ungainly, unattractive young woman who hates the world and herself. She serves as the coservationist of the team.

Leslie Saunders: Hotstuff assistance of Larry Foster, who is indeed in an affair with him, and has even begged Larry to leave his wife, Ellen – something which Larry, the dumbass, actually told Ellen!

In addition there are several veritable redshirts the team picks up in Mightabeen, nameless local laborers who will help in the actual digging of the site. The excacation gets off to a comically nightmarish start when, after venturing down into the antechamber which has been cleared at the top of the mesa, the group is promptly buried inside by a landslide of rubble! As usual though with horror novels, mundane explanations are tossed off – the departing helicopter loosened the soil, etc – and they go about digging themselves out into the daylight, laughing it off.

But from there it all just gets more and more nightmarish, which is to say more darkly comedic. That night Roy pokes his head in a crevice and is attacked by a swarm of mutant insects; he’s flown to a hospital in the town near Mightabeen the next morning. The bugs meanwhile disappear. Next the hired hands come down with debilitating stomach pains and they too have to be choppered off. This element is likely the most well-known about The Dragon, as in a complete Alien swipe it will soon be revealed that these guys have been impregnated with giant worms!!

As ever though, all this stuff is brushed off with “reasonable” excuses – the men smuggled up bad booze, Roy dislodged a swarm of rare bugs, etc. As they descend further into the mesa, new hired hands having been choppered in, the team each begin to experience different ailments, which they hide from the others. Jill has a rash on her arm, Velma finds herself drawn to the eyes of a painted dragon discovered in a temple area, Ringsford can’t make a fist or properly move his arms, Larry harbors feelings of jealous rage for Eddie, Beresford hears voices, and Eddie is consumed with grief over his late wife, grief such as he hasn’t felt since she was first dead. Ellen meanwhile has absconded to the ranchouse at the base of the mesa, unable to cope with the dig.

The pure pulp-horror doesn’t really get started until a hundred or so pages in. Those workers give “birth” to their slug-creatures in a gruesome sequence which sees the things ripping their way out of the mouths and rectums(!) of the men. Described both as slugs and as worms, only with teeth, they tear apart the unfortunate people in the emergency ward, including a child – proof that Schoell isn’t one of those horror authors who play it safe. Rapidly they grow to the size of bull elephants, before becoming as big as houses and running roughshod over Mightabeen. The novel is filled with longish sequences of one-off characters who are elaborately built up – description, background, hopes and dreams – before they are rapidly killed by the giant slugs.

Humorously, our heroes at the mesa dig have no idea of the horrors they have unleashed upon the world below. In fact they’re still in the denial stage, even when they all come to blows at the mesa’s top. Only Ringstone realizes that they are all being made to feel these various thoughts, and he only comes to this realization after being punched by Eddie. Also Ringsford has discovered that the walls of the middle part of the mesa are composed of living tissue. At this point the doctors from the hospital chopper in to inform them of those giant slugs, but Larry brushes off any part of the blame – they could be mutants left over from the atomic testing of the 1950s!!

Meanwhile Velma, compelled by the voices in her head, has run off the edge of the mesa and plummeted to her doom, 5,000 feet below. Humorously, no one even realizes she’s gone until the next day!

Schoell then is clearly having some wicked fun; he’s especially fond of presenting sorry-assed characters who have led miserable lives and who suffer even more miserable deaths. One unfortunately too-short sequence has a band of Mightabeen survivors, including an “amazon” woman warrior named Nordica, blasting at the worms with rifles; here we learn that, unsurprisingly, bullets aren’t very effective against the creatures, and also the worms have acidic blood which burns right through human skin. However despite the carnage The Dragon really isn’t all that gory, at least so far as copious detail of exploding heads and guts go. Only the part with the “birthing” of the worms from the bodies of the men does the book approach anything stomach-churning.

You’ll note though that one thing is missing – namely, the sex, or at least the sleaze. Other than an occasional f-bomb, there’s no funky business in The Dragon, with Larry and Leslie’s affair rendered to off-handed mentions by various characters. Eddie for his part is still struggling with grief (though he does sort of find Leslie kinda hot), and there isn’t even the usually-mandatory scene of any one-off characters meeting their grisly fates while humping. I thought that would be a given, but it never happens.

Eventually Beresford, reacting to the voices in his head, discovers ancient parchments and is able to psychically decipher them or somesuch. El Lobo was a world within a world, created by a race of beings much more powerful than humans, at least mentally. Physically they were deformed weaklings. Masters of the “dark arts,” they fled the world of man ten thousand years ago, creating their lair within El Lobo, where they kept for many generations a group of people whom they sacrificed to their god, Ka Kuna, the dragon. They placed “security devices” throughout their underworld kingdom as protection against invaders; Beresford is certain that the impregnated men, the voices he hears, the other ailments the party has experienced, are all caused by the magical forcefield inside El Lobo.

The final hundred pages up the ante as our heroes, plus some new Mightabeen residents, are trapped within El Lobo and must search through the innards desperately seeking an escape route. Comically they still have no idea of the destruction of Mightabeen. They break off into various groups, also looking for Leslie, who herself has gone off looking for Velma, whose death is still unknown by the others. Eventually the titular dragon appears, which is formed from those living wall tissues which Blob-like flow together and combine on the big statue of the creature. After killing some heroes the dragon flies around another nearby town, wreaking havoc as it kills off a slew of more one-off characters.

The final pages of The Dragon feature a desperate battle between Eddie and the dragon itself, which it turns out is mentally directed from a sort of ancient “control room” deep in the mesa. Having figured this out, Eddie must keep himself out of the room while he faces down the rapidly-dwindling dragon. By this point the thing has done so much damage that hundreds if not thousands of people are dead; indeed so many characters have died – and not just the one-off characters – that the reader doesn’t much empathize with Eddie during this desperate fight. At least for me it was more along the lines of, “What’s the damn point??”

As mentioned, The Dragon is very much in the creature feature mold, right down to the stereotypical characters who meet their stereotypical fates. But Schoell does it all with such relish that it’s fun despite the cliched nature of it all. Maybe that’s the secret to why Schoell is still so well-regarded by horror paperback aficianados today. Indeed he offers an afterword in which he confirms his intent to only deliver entertainment, mocking the “serious” pretensions of some horror authors, and claims that The Dragon was inspired by Lovecraft and various monster movies.

Schoell only published one more horror novel after this, Fatal Beauty, and then moved on to nonfiction. According to an interview Schoell did several years ago, before moving on from horror he wrote a Juraissic Park-type deal about dinosaurs running amok, but failed to secure a publisher for it; it looks like Schoell has recently e-published the novel, Monster World, as a Kindle eBook. I enjoyed The Dragon enough that I might check it out – but first I intend to go back and start in on those other books of his I tried to read earlier, as you can now definitely count me a fan of this author’s work.


Authorfan said...

Welcome aboard. :)

William said...

Thank you for this terrific analysis of my book THE DRAGON (it was almost as long as the book itself, LOL!). I think you make some excellent points in your criticism and I'm grateful for the compliments as well. I had fun writing those books and I'm glad there are readers who enjoyed reading them. I did one other book for St, Martin's after DRAGON and before FATAL BEAUTY called THE PACT.

Perfect timing! THE DRAGON is now available as an epub from Cemetery Dance, along with SHIVERS and THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT (the original title of SPAWN OF HELL). The others will be released shortly.

Thanks again for your write-up.

David Hanson said...

Wow, shit weasels many years before Dreamcatcher. I could really see this as a AIP-style cheapie, sort of Q, The Winged Swrpent-meets-Tremors. For that real old-school schlock appeal, they should use an actual iguana for the monster.

I believe I remember seeing that title font A LOT back in the late 80's/early 90's, especially on horror books.

Quick Question: are there a Beresford, a Ringstone, AND a Ringsford in the book?

Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

I remember reading a few of Schoell's books back in the day and enjoyed them. Several years ago Cemetery Dance Magazine did a article on his novels, in a "Where Are They Now" type of format.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone -- and Mr. Schoell, thanks so much for stopping by! Glad to hear your novels are coming out as eBooks, as some of the original paperbacks have become a little scarce on the second-hand market. I am looking forward to reading more of your novels. Oh and David, loved the Q: The Winged Serpent reference, but as for Ringstone/Ringsford, that was my goof -- there's only a Ringstone in the book, no Ringsford. I'll need to fix that!