Grady Hendrix, author of Horrorstör, and Will Errickson of Too Much Horror Fiction are digging deep inside the Jack o’Lantern of Literature to discover the best (and worst) horror paperbacks. Are you strong enough to read THE BLOODY BOOKS OF HALLOWEEN???
By 1983, horror had started to eat itself. Stephen King had published almost all of his major early novels, and was a bonafide mainstream pop culture phenomena. E.T., Tootsie, Rocky III, and 48 Hrs. were huge at the box office, whereas the Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Amityville Horror franchises were already spitting out inferior sequels. The paperback horror boom was in full bloom, and books were coming out so quickly that they were showing the anxiety of their influences. Nowhere is that more obvious than in two 1983 books, both set in snowy upstate New York, one black and one white: Dead White and Black Christmas.
I’ve rarely been so excited to read a book as I was to crack open Dead White because, well let the back cover blurb take it away: “In the tiny Catskills town of Deacons Kill, the blizzard strikes without warning…As the drifts creep higher, a train appears out of the storm—an antique circus train bringing clowns…and death.”
Oh, dear god in heaven above, this book is about Killer Clowns on a Circus Train of Death attacking a snowbound community. It’s like Alan Ryan peered into the future, figured out exactly the kind of book I’d want to read, and wrote it 31 years earlier. Ryan loves him some horror—there’s a hotel called the Overlook (from The Shining) and a reference to Oxrun Station (Charles L. Grant’s fictional horror hamlet), but that’s exactly the problem. Ryan’s love for King isn’t perched on his shoulder, cooing in his ear. Instead, it’s squatting on Ryan’s back like a 10,000 pound gorilla, crushing all the life out of his book.
Reading like a Stephen King smoothie, Dead White lifts King mannerism after King mannerism, trying to deliver ‘Salem’s Lot, only without any of the interesting bits it becomes ’Salem’s Not. There’s an earnest young sheriff, right out of The Dead Zone, a sassy young woman, right out of ‘Salem’s Lot, a philandering prick of a husband who utters King-isms like “Funny how all of a sudden in the last few months Janice had gotten awfully goddamn chummy with that wisemouth sister of hers,” a simpleminded man-child right out of The Stand, and a cookie cutter gruff old-timer. There’s even a religious African-American maid who senses danger coming and utters lines like, “Oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord.”
When the killer clowns finally appear your heart races with anticipation. “The last things Evan Highland saw were the grinning, wide-eyed, red-lipped face of a clown and gigantic white hands that were reaching for his head.” “The clown’s grin broadened at once into a merry smile. It tightened its grip on Sally’s neck, and then it began to twist her head to the side.” More, please! But no, Alan Ryan keeps his death jesters offstage until the climax, which turns out to involve an exceptionally boring ancient curse (yawn!) and a circus fire (double yawn!).
Black Christmas shares a title with the original North American slasher movie, Black Christmas (1974), directed by Bob Clark (director of Porky’s and A Christmas Story) which had been novelized in 1976. However, this book by Thomas Altman (pseudonym of Campbell Armstrong, who wrote the novelizations of Dressed to Kill and Raiders of the Lost Ark) has nothing to do with the film besides a Christmas setting and a focus on young women getting murdered. Set in the upstate New York town of Murdock, a little burg of about 7,000 souls, this book is an icky but sweet little yuletide treat, that manages to read like an actual novel and not a novel-like object that is secretly a synopsis of a screenplay that some writer just pulled out of their bottom drawer.
It’s the night before Christmas and all through the town, someone is chopping up pregnant coeds with an axe, stabbing babysitters in the brain with a knife, and decapitating divorced ladies on broken windows. Sheriff Bud Dunsmore is dealing with a disintegrating marriage, falling in love with a much younger woman, and now he’s got to handle this growing body count. He hasn’t even bought his daughter a present yet! Less of a slasher, Black Christmas is actually an American giallo, featuring all the hallmarks of the Italian horror genre: a faceless black-gloved killer, a series of elaborate stalk-n-slash setpieces, and a twist ending where the killer is revealed to be the least likely candidate, driven by psychosexual yearnings.
It even features that most distinctive hallmark of the giallo, a gallery of grotesques, any one of whom could be the killer. Is it the mute man-child, Billy Cole? Is it the alcoholic ex-boxer who owns the local diner and chases underage girls? Is it the prissy, liberal college student? The bearded alcoholic ex-husband with one glass eye who is back in town to bounce his former spouse off the walls some more? Much better written than Dead White, with chapters bouncing between distinctive points of view (including the killer’s and Billy Cole’s e.e. cummings-esque ruminations) Black Christmas is, in the end, undermined by a tacked-on happy ending that really didn’t deliver much satisfaction.
Because ultimately, I’d been promised something wonderful, something that neither of these books delivered. I’d been promised clowns. But where are the clowns? Quick, send in the clowns. There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.