The Golem, by Edward Lee

Going back to when I was a little kid, I loved horror movies. I was raised on a regular Saturday night fix of Chiller Theater and Creature Features. Back in those prehistoric days before DVD or even VHS, when seven channels was all you got (in New York it was CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, WOR, WPIX, and whatever channel 5 used to be), you had to scour the TV Guide’s movie listing in the hope that a really good horror movie would be on.

But like most kids, I wasn’t all that discriminating. Sure, I knew that Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man were better movies than House On Haunted Hill or I Was A Teenage Frankenstein but hey, any port in a storm, as they say. So while I hoped for the original Invisible Man, I contented myself with Attack Of The Crab Monsters.

I never lost the enjoyment I got when watching a good horror movie, but I did become more discriminating. Not long ago I rented Attack Of The Crab Monsters and enjoyed it for the nostalgic dumb fun it was, but it’s not going to replace Rosemary’s Baby in my list of the great horror films.

This love of horror movies transferred to books, as well. I discovered Stephen King just before the movie version of The Shining came out, and spent the 1980s reading a lot of horror novels in my spare time. I enjoyed the best writers in that genre (King, Peter Straub, Thomas Tessier, Ramsey Campbell, James Herbert, and even, for awhile, Dean R. Koontz before he started pushing outright horror aside in favor of suspense). I also got into the so-called “splatterpunk” scene of the 1980s: Clive Barker, John Skipp and Craig Spector, David J. Schow, and others.

I like my horror readable, gritty, realistic in characterization, and fantastic in plot. Evil should be evil, good should be good, and good should triumph in the end.

The single best summation of my view of horror fiction was in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, when Samwise Gamgee says:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have put it any better. Which brings me to The Golem, by Edward Lee.

I’m not a prude in these matters by any stretch. I loved reading the splatterpunks, so violence and gore doesn’t make me faint or blush. I don’t have any problems with sex, either, though explicit sex scenes are almost 100% unnecessary. So what’s my problem with The Golem?

The key ingredient of any horror fiction is the evil that provides the antagonism. For horror fiction to be successful, the villain or villains of the piece must be believable.

I can hear the protests now…”What’s believable about a killer clown that lives in the sewer (Stephen King’s IT)? What’s believable about a fog that turns people into homicidal maniacs (James Herbert’s The Fog)? What’s believable about a hipster vampire in the New York subway system (Skipp and Spector’s The Light At The End)?” The answer is that elements that are outside of humanity can be accepted by the willing suspension of disbelief. The killer clown is believable because I’m willing to accept it.

When dealing with human beings, however, the suspension of disbelief is much harder. Human characters need to be well-constructed. Sure they can be evil, but they must be believable because they are human. I can buy the killer clown because I don’t know any killer clowns. I can also buy Hannibal Lecter because I’ve read about real-life serial killers and cannibals.

What I have a really hard time accepting are human characters that are so over-the-top in their evil that they become cartoons. In the portrayal of real, human, evil, Edward Lee’s The Golem is closer in spirit to Sleepaway Camp, Mother’s Day, and Motel Hell than it is to The Silence Of The Lambs or Psycho. There is a sliding scale of quality for horror fiction with The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Psycho at the top. Somewhere in the middle are movies like the original Halloween. Below that are the Halloween knockoffs like Friday The 13th. Mired in the dreck at the bottom are the Friday the 13th knockoffs and the cheap grade-Z movies like the immortal Monster A-Go-Go.

By the quality of the prose, Lee’s book belongs in that middle sphere. It’s a fast-paced, easy-to-read thriller with plenty of action. But in the characterizations, The Golem belongs with the grade-Z stories.

The two main characters are likable enough, but the villains are so overwrought in their evil that they remind me of the perpetually laughing, borderline hysterical, crazy man with the leering eyes that populated exploitation films like Reefer Madness.

What made Hannibal Lecter one of the greatest villains of all time? Was it the fact that he was a cannibal? No. In both the book and the film, it was because Hannibal Lecter could easily have been the man next door. He could have been the psychiatrist you went to for marriage counseling. Until he invited you to dinner.

The villains of The Golem are multiple: the first is a bunch of rabbis who practice a heretical form of Kabbalah that worships Satan. Okay? The second are the enforcers who work for the rabbis. They’re mean, stupid, rapists and drug dealers who look and sound like they stepped out of a parody of Deliverance. The third group of villains are two cops who are also drug dealers and rapists. One of the cops is also a necrophiliac. You still with me? ‘Cause it gets stupider.

The cops are prone to talking to each other in public places about their nefarious deeds, and always spell out just how evil they are for the reading public by guffawing over the crackheads who they’ve had killed, or what attractive female witness they might just rape. The enforcers engage in the same type of subtle dialogue. It’s as if every thing they say should be followed with, “Do you see how evil I am?” The rabbis come straight out of The Master’s lodge from Manos: Hands Of Fate. There’s also an ax murder in the prologue I still don’t understand.

As if the dialogue was not enough to alert the suspicious reader that they are reading about VERY BAD MEN, there are multiple scenes of rape that really made me want to take a shower to get the sleaze off.

Now none of this is beyond the realm of good horror fiction. All of these elements have been touched upon in better, more serious novels and films. But the reason those novels and films are better is because the characters were believable despite their actions. It is this combination that sends chills down the spine. What is really scarier? The idea that Jeffrey Dahmer was considered the guy next door even though he had human body parts in his refrigerator? Or Jack Nicholson hamming it up with rolling eyes and “Heeeeeeerrrrreee’s Johnny!” dialogue in the movie version of The Shining. Personally, I prefer the former. Clearly, Edward Lee prefers the latter…so much so that his book is filled with such characterizations.

It’s a shame because Lee isn’t a bad writer at all, but the book is so over-the-top that it nearly becomes a parody of horror fiction.

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Dracula, by Bram Stoker

For many years, I avoided reading Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel, Dracula. This is because many years ago I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Perhaps it’s because I spent my childhood watching the old Universal horror films, perhaps because I was at an impressionable age when Count Chocula and Frankenberry were released, perhaps because I know that the origins of both books can be traced back to one seriously wasted night in Switzerland during the Year Without A Summer, but Dracula and Frankenstein have always been linked in my mind.

Frankenstein is not a fun book to read. It’s the product of an extremely clever 19-year-old mind. The prose is as dry as kindling, and there are scenes that are just laugh-out-loud bad. (The monster teaches himself to read when he finds a copy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther? There’s that too clever 19-year-old again.) Not a lot happens in the book. Far from Boris Karloff’s hulking brute with the plugs in his neck, Shelley’s “monster” is a good-looking guy who wants to have lengthy philosophical debates with his creator. Dr. Frankenstein spends much of the book saying things like, “I am a wretched man for having created such a wretched creature and I am all the more wretched for wretchedly abandoning the wretched thing! Wretched!” Whenever I was asked if the book was any good, my reply was usually a simple, “Wretched!” Only H.P. Lovecraft’s incessant use of the non-descriptive cheating word “indescribable” matches Shelley’s use of this wonderful, but antiquated, word.

But Frankenstein is also a fascinating book. Whether she knew she was doing it or not (and I doubt she did), Mary Shelley created a myth that still resonates today. She was certainly aware that she was borrowing from mythology. Her subtitle, after all, is “The Modern Prometheus.” But instead of fire, Victor Frankenstein uses electricity to create life. At the time the book was written, the concept of electricity was fairly new and imbued with all sorts of possibilities, both positive and negative.

Shelley was writing a cautionary tale for the Enlightenment (this I strongly doubt she knew). Mary and her husband, the brilliant poet Percy, were champions of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, among the first generation to be raised in the aftermath. But even while they praised the Enlightenment ideals of reason and science, Mary Shelley was writing a tale warning against the idea of men taking on the powers of God. Frankenstein is among the first novels of the Enlightenment, and it is a tale of horror.

If you fast forward to the end of the 19th century, you will find that the Enlightenment fascination with electricity and science and reason no longer carries the same weight. In the years between Frankenstein and Dracula, Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, which turned him into a literary and scientific rock star. Electricity had been replaced with genetics and blood. Clearly, a new horror was required for a new time.

Vampire myths are probably as old as mankind, and Dracula was not the first vampire novel. Dr. John Polidori’s The Vampyr (concocted that same wasted night in Switzerland, and inspired by Lord Byron), the novel Varney the Vampyr, and even a lesbian vampire novella called Carmilla by Sheridan LeFanu, all preceded Dracula. But it was left to Abraham Stoker to write the classic vampire novel, Dracula. The name itself is now synonymous with vampirism.

Unlike Frankenstein, the writing in Dracula is almost breathless. The story hurtles along briskly and, even though the actual character of the Count disappears from the book about four or five chapters in and, for the duration of the novel, makes only slightly more appearances than Boo Radley for the rest of the book, the spirit of the vampire hovers over everything. It’s no small accomplishment to make a minor character the entire focus of a lengthy tale and make no mistake; Count Dracula is a minor character in his own book. The major characters are those hunting the elusive Count: the stalwart Jonathan Harker who unintentionally sets the events of the novel into motion; Harker’s wife, the pure of heart Mina; the grieving Lord Holmwood; the rogue Texan Quincey Morris; the psychologist Dr. Seward; and most of all Dr. Van Helsing, who is both a brilliant psychologist and a little cracked himself. Also figuring here is Lucy Westenra, the fiancé of Lord Holmwood who becomes the first victim of the Count on his arrival in England.

The story is well known. Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to work out a real estate deal with Count Dracula. While there, he becomes a prisoner and all too aware that something really bad is going on at the good Count’s castle. He is eventually freed and, by this time, quite mad. While Mina diligently searches for her missing betrothed, Dracula is on his way to England, courtesy of the real estate deal worked out for him by Harker. Once there, he attacks Lucy and eventually kills her. Lucy then rises from her grave to become the “bloofer lady” who kidnaps and kills small children. Van Helsing figures out what’s going on and, with help from his friends, kills Lucy once and for all by driving a stake through her heart, cutting off her head, and stuffing her mouth with garlic. The intrepid band of vampire killers then go in search of the Count who, unbeknownst to them, has turned his attentions to Mina. They eventually track down the Count, who flees back to Transylvania. Van Helsing and company follows him and eventually kills him in a very anti-climactic ending.

But it is what’s between the lines that is so fascinating here. Written in 1897 in Victorian England, there are scenes in this book that, with a word change or two, could have emerged from a letter to Penthouse. Jonathan Harker trembles with “dreadful anticipation” as three beautiful women go down on their knees in front of him. The passage that follows is a seduction scene, though because Harker is powerless to stop the women, it is also a rape scene. Jonathan Harker is about to be orally raped by the brides of Dracula, and he’s both terrified and cool with the whole idea. It is only the last second appearance of the Count, bearing strong words for his wives, and a half-smothered baby for them to snack on, that prevents the rape.

Similarly, when Lucy is having her blood drawn by the Count the description is that of a woman who is…well, orgasmic. It is not until the next day that Lucy appears weak and ill.

Harker’s guilt over the close encounter provides the thrust of the storyline. He writes of the incident, but prays Mina never sees it. Even though he was powerless to stop it, he seems to feel guilty of committing a sin of a sexual nature. He may not have been able to do anything to stop it, but the sin may be that he didn’t want to do anything to stop it. A foursome with three beautiful women was going to be the highlight of his trip to the Old Country. Realizing that he has sinned in spirit, if not in the flesh, his response is to go mad and get lost in the Transylvania countryside.

But the ramifications of his sin spread. Dracula goes to London. Mina’s cousin, the virginal, sweet Lucy is killed. Her Undead corpse then kills innocent children. Eventually, after Harker makes his way back to England and sanity, and marries Mina, the sin follows. Mina, too, becomes “infected” using Van Helsing’s word. It is the innocent women and children who must pay for Harker’s sin.

A quick look at the author shows a man who was very much a night owl, who slept during the day, who knew how to have a good time in the nightlife of 19th century London. In fact, that nightlife gave him the syphilis that later took his life. Was Dracula a metaphor for the disease that infected the author? Possibly. There is certainly little doubt that if Jonathan Harker had been sensible and stayed to himself within the castle walls as he was instructed to do, that many of the events that occurred would never have happened. Is it coincidence that Dracula chose to go after Harker’s friends and relatives? Surely not. London was a big city even then. Harker’s loved ones are paying the price for his dalliance with Dracula’s brides. The sin follows him, and infects those he cares about.

There is a question in “lit-crit” circles about whether or not Dracula is a romance of sorts. Certainly the popularity of the current Twilight saga is based on the notion of tween girls falling for dreamy vampire hunks. But whether the reaction of Dracula’s female victims, or Harker’s reaction to the brides, can be classified as erotic or, at least, sexual in nature, is something of a distraction to the larger point. Erotic, perhaps. Romantic, absolutely not. Dracula was a vampire and vampires are vicious, cruel, blood-thirsty monsters who seek death and turn the innocent into the demonic. If they happen to use time-honored seduction techniques (staring into the eyes, caressing the neck, etc), that really just makes them more evil. "I can love," Dracula says, but the love of a vampire is based on violence and death, consummated by a penetrative act that is a sick parody of affection and that leaves the recipient weaker and, eventually, either dead or monstrous.

Let the tweens reading Twilight suck on that.

The Terror, by Dan Simmons

A horror novel disguised as historical fiction, or vice versa. In The Terror, Dan Simmons, a brilliant writer of many different genres, tells the true story of the HMS Erebus, commanded by Sir John Franklin, and the HMS Terror, commanded by Francis Crozier. The facts are all there: both ships were ordered to find the Northwest Passage through the Arctic. Both ships became icebound. The canned food supplies on both ships were tainted with food poisoning. Both ships were abandoned and all hands perished on a long, brutal walk through an Arctic nightmare. There is some evidence of cannibalism.

But the story of what actually happened to the expedition can never be fully known. The ships were found, as were some remains. But what went on will remain forever a mystery. What Simmons has done here is fill in the mystery with fantastical fiction.

Simmons sticks to the facts in the broadest terms, but drops in heavy dollops of Inuit mythology and some of the trappings of horror fiction including a huge white creature that hunts and kills the men of the ships like a cat playing with a box full of mice. At first it is thought to be a polar bear, but it soon becomes clear that this is a monster on a whole other level.

The only problem is that this is a bridge too far. The fictionalized story of the expedition was harrowing. The monster on the ice seemed like it came from a different book (a potentially good book, but a different book nonetheless). The book is extremely long (almost 800 pages of a large bound paperback) and crammed with details about life on the ships, the horrific effects of scurvy, a full chapter on delerium tremens, etc. It’s not unlike Moby Dick in its attention to detail, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The last 100 pages or so of the book ties up the one remaining loose end from the previous 700 pages…the fate of Captain Crozier. It’s 100 pages of hallucinatory prose, mixed with poetry, blended with Inuit creationist mythology (at least the monster is explained…I was beginning to think it wouldn’t be), and standard expository prose. Nearly all of it could have been cut or condensed.

Simmons is a great writer and always worth reading. However, this book is nearly 300 pages too long. Edited down to a more than reasonable 450 pages, this book may have been classic Dan Simmons. As is, it’s a lot of work to put in for a relatively small payoff.

The Good Guy, by Dean Koontz

Just thinking, I can remember when he was Dean R. Koontz. I wonder whatever happened to that.

At this point, having read every Dean Koontz book except the two most recent (still in hardcover) and the eleven or twelve he has ready to release in the next six months, I’m not even sure how to review it. I guess I’ll start with the simplest statement.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable book, a quick read (about 450 pages in a couple of days), and by tomorrow I will have forgotten what it was about, just like I can’t for the life of me remember what the plot was to Dark Rivers Of The Heart, Mr. Murder, The Face, or The House Of Thunder.

Dean Koontz books are the literary equivalent of James Bond movies. Some are excellent (Casino Royale), some are good (Diamonds Are Forever), some are wretched (Moonraker). Almost all of them have the same basic set up.

So let’s create a recipe for a Dean Koontz book:

  • Average guy/girl, bruised and saddened by life, gets involved in dangerous situation
  • Average guy meets plucky girl who is somehow caught up in the situation
  • Very, very bad guy with delusions of being somehow above all humanity pursues average guy and plucky girl
  • Add one cute canine at some point
  • Stir government conspiracy into the mix (optional)
  • Chase scene across many miles
  • Final confrontation; average guy and plucky girl emerge victorious
  • Average guy and plucky girl get married

The above description fits about 85% of Dean Koontz’s books. It’s a formula. The downside of this is that his most of his characters are essentially interchangeable, and most of the set pieces of the plot can be swapped from novel to novel. Is there any difference whatsoever in the chase scenes between The Good Guy and, say, Dark Rivers Of The Heart? Nope, not really.

However, it’s a good formula. It works and provides for a nice, easy read. Mom’s apple pie is made the same way every time, with the same ingredients. But damn, it’s tasty every single time.

This is a mid-level Dean Koontz book. It’s far superior to his lazy efforts like The House Of Thunder or The Voice in the Night, but not up to the level of the books where his formula includes honest-to-God inspiration (Dark Rivers Of The Heart, Hideaway, Phantoms, Whispers, Darkfall, Strangers, the “Odd Thomas” books) or where he breaks from the formula (Intensity, The Taking).

Looking for a nice light read for the beach? The Good Guy satisfies nicely. Looking for something challenging that will make you think and reassess the nature of God, man, and nature? Stick with Tolstoy.