Evil Eighties: The Paperback Horrors of Lisa Tuttle

Starting last Friday the 13th, Grady Hendrix, author of Horrorstör, and Will Errickson of Too Much Horror Fiction are back to uncover the best (and worst) horror paperbacks from the 1980s.

Who is Lisa Tuttle and why is she such a pervert? We may never find an answer to that second question. After all, what drives an author to write some of the most psychologically harrowing, squick-inducing, “find your soft places and dig in with my fingernails” mass market paperbacks of the 1980s? Why does she seem to delight in our discomfort? But maybe the answer is easy.

Why is Lisa Tuttle so perverse? It might be because her books taste better that way.

A 1971 graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, Tuttle was a Texan who came to prominence when she won the Joseph W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1974. Her first novel, Windhaven (1981), was co-authored with George R.R. Martin, and she declined the Nebula Award in 1982 for her short story “The Bone Flute” because she was offended by George Guthridge’s naked politiking for the award. The politiking in question? He mailed copies of his story to SFWA members, something that is, today regarded as pretty mild, if not necessary.

In 1983, Tuttle wrote her first solo novel, Familiar Spirit, for Tor, and since then she’s written everything from fantasy, to horror, to YA, to tie-in fiction (Megan’s Story for BBC One medical series, Casualty), won the the BSFA Award for Short Fiction in 1989 for her story “In Translation,” written tons of short stories, and been guest of honor at the 2015 World Horror Convention. But it’s two novels she wrote for Tor that I’m most concerned with here, because they are both deeply concerning: Familiar Spirit (1983) and Gabriel (1987).

Reading mass market paperbacks from the ’80s can cause clinical depression. There are only so many sentences you can read that sound like a pile of logs falling down the stairs before you want to get into bed and stop talking to people for the rest of your life. Tuttle is a sweet relief. She’s capable of putting sentences together in such a manner that they elicit the desired effect—fear, disgust, humor—without visible strain. If that sounds like faint praise, then you haven’t read enough paperback horror.

Familiar Spirit latches onto your face with an opening scene of demonic possession, wrist slashing, dead cats, and the blood-suckling toad, Lunch. By the time it was over I was so thoroughly violated that I needed to scrub my brain with steel wool. From there, things only got better (worse?). Set in Austin, where the hipsters dwell, Familiar Spirit follows Sarah, a grad student, who lucks into an amazing rental that turns out to have a previous occupant who hasn’t moved out yet: Jade. This yellow-eyed demon from Hell is one of the worst housemates ever. He smells, he refuses to clean, and he wants to swallow Sarah’s soul.

The deal he offers actually isn’t so bad, as far as these things go. Jade demands either Sarah’s body, or another person’s body, then she can leave and he’ll give her everything she ever wanted: men, money, Lamborghinis. Or she can run away, since Jade’s influence doesn’t extend past the front porch. Sarah doesn’t HAVE to stay and fight Jade, yet she chooses to do so because she’s responsible. If she walks away, Jade will only wind up being another person’s problem and she can’t live with that. Maybe people in Austin really are better?

Tuttle is full of nasty tricks, and they’re not the ones you’d expect. Sarah is level-headed and calm, her friends are quick to believe her story, and she actually comes up with a viable plan to fight the demon. But Jade (and Tuttle) torment Sarah in ways you don’t see coming. Jade gets inside her head and controls her actions in a complicated series of moves and counter-moves until Sarah is so tangled up that she doesn’t know if her plans to fight Jade are actually Jade’s plans, or if they’re plans she came up with on her own. Are her actions controlled by Jade and doomed to failure, or does Jade just want her to think he’s controlling her actions so she’ll abandon her plans? Adding to the confusion, Jade weaves a spell that causes Sarah to forget about him whenever she’s outside the house, which leads to a great setpiece in which she flees her house from one horror after another, only to wonder what the hell she’s doing in her back yard every time.

Lisa Tuttle GabrielSarah has a lot in common with Dinah, the main character of Tuttle’s next book for Tor, Gabriel. Both women have recently ended a relationship (Sarah’s ex is Brian, a strapping hunk whose idea of a good time involves whipped cream and massage oil) and both are lost, trapped in the post-college, pre-career doldrums where you’re not sure what you want to do or where you want to go, and all your friends seem to be passing you by in life’s great big party bus.

Dinah solves her blahs by taking the very ’80s step of becoming manager of a health club in New Orleans, a town she left ten years ago when her smoking hot husband, Gabriel, dropped groovy acid, had a threeway with her, then jumped out a window and killed himself. Now, back in New Orleans, Dinah discovers that the third leg in that threesome, Sallie, got pregnant that night, and now she has a 10 year old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her husband, and he wants to sleep with her again. This is disturbing to the 10 year old boy in question, to Dinah, and to the reader.

To cut to the chase: yes, they do; and yes, it is every bit as ick as you’d imagine. But Tuttle gets there the hard way, giving us characters whose lives are so banal that the sudden intrusion of the supernatural is as tempting as it is terrorizing. Running away to live with a 10-year-old boy may be horrible, it may be unsavory, it may almost kill Dinah, but at least it’s real and vital and alive, not the long sleepwalk to nowhere that seems to be the rest of her life. Running away from the reincarnated Gabriel is a good thing, but it also dooms her to a diminished life.

Lisa Tuttle’s characters crawl into places that many genre authors avoid. They face up to the hard reality that not everyone is the star of Life’s Big Movie, and that some people are destined to be the bit players. As sexually uncomfortable as her books can be, it’s the emotional discomfort that clings to you like a bad smell. One of the toughest parts of Gabriel is seeing Sallie and Dinah square off over Sallie’s ten-year-old son whom Dinah feels should be hers. Tuttle’s books are messy and chaotic. They feel desperate. They feel human. They feel like real life. And that means they are, in short, perverse.

Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today and his latest novel is Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea.


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