Welcome to Freaky Fridays, that time when you can relax after a hard week of keeping America moving forward into the future, and read about killer babies, flying eyeballs, and black time travelers.
1962. America. Land of the free, home of the brave. A college football game on a crisp Autumn day in a small town in the heartland. Lincoln Hosler (“Linc” to his friends) is enjoying this wholesome display of good sportsmanship with his best pal, Wes, and the girl they both have a shine for, Kelly, when something swoops out of the sun. Is it a flock of birds? Some kind of high-tech jet plane? No, it’s…oh, god, it’s eyes. Giant, flying eyes. “The skin of the lids was a monstrous rubbery mass, the pores visible holes, and the lashhairs were as big around as matchsticks at the roots.” What sicko thinks up this kind of thing?
This book’s Norman Rockwell Americana is revealed to be but a thin crust masking an oozing core of tarry depravity, like Blue Velvet, only instead of a disembodied ear at the heart of horror it’s a disembodied eye. That flies. And talks. And batters people to death with its long, curly lashes. Did you just throw up in your mouth a little? Well, turn up the Paul Harvey, pour yourself a Budweiser, and pull up a pew. There’s more where that came from.
Written by J. Hunter Holly, the pseudonym of Joan Carol Holly, The Flying Eyes is a science fiction novel from 1962 that feels like a prequel to Mad Men only without the self-awareness. Holly was from Lansing, MI and she’s a literalist. Her eyes aren’t abstractions, but literal eyes that fly, with lashes and eyelids, tear ducts that ooze tears when blasted with tear gas, and, when seen from behind, well, “The back of it was horror enough to make him clutch his stomach in an effort to hold it down. It was the back of an eye: bloody membrane and nerves—skinless, unprotected horror.” Her other book, Encounter is about an alien that absorbs human personalities by jamming its tongue into skulls and sucking out the brains like a milkshake. Like I said, metaphors aren’t really her thing.
Even before the eyes show up, there are already indications that shadows are gathering. Linc starts the book waiting in line (like a Communist) to buy hotdogs and coffee for his best pal and gal, but when he takes the snacks back to his buddies, Kelly discriminates against him for ordering onions on his wiener, making him move seats, and reminding us that the 1960’s were a cruel time for onion lovers, who often had to sit separately. Linc stuffs his frankfurter into his mouth while staring daggers at Kelly, who is clearly keen on Wes. You suspect someone is about to get socked when, suddenly, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, I mean, The Football Game??? Flying eyes!
Linc and Wes work at the well-named Space Research Lab, where they research space, and after stashing Kelly at home they race off to see what Science has to say about these “oval obscenities.” Because they’re invading Anytown, USA, the eyes have laid siege to that fortress of small town American values, the Recreation Center, which is exactly what you’d expect in a book written by someone whose short bio mentions their membership in no less than three Greek campus societies (Phi Kappa Phi, Psi Chi, and Tau Sigma). But even the nuclear reactor at the Space Research Lab can’t tell the fellas what’s happening, only that some people are fighting back by poking the eyes with umbrellas, causing them to dump gallons of blood-streaked aqueous humour over them like giant, floating, gunk pinatas.
“You haven’t seen those Eyes up close,” one character gibbers. “You don’t understand what they do to a man. You don’t have any inclination to fight—you either want to vomit or run.” Another man, a Good Man, confronts the eyes only to be reduced to gibbering be-bop jazz poetry, “They heal themselves. They congeal and heal, repeal the hole, and make it whole.” The eyes are “ominous,” they “look out of it, weird and foreign.” One minute, Wes is saying to Linc “You should have stayed to watch the half-time show and relax a bit…it was quite the spectacle,” with no irony whatsoever. The next minute: EYES! “Revulsion and disbelief rocked through Linc and he got to his feet, swallowing back sudden nausea…it revolted him until fear was a taste in his mouth.”
Beneath the book’s all-American trappings is an unease with the world. The Eyes hypnotize good Americans into following them into a deep, dark pit in the woods from which they never return. “Lines of people following the naked, flying Eyes down the road, into the trees; and something big and black, and perhaps pitlike, was waiting there for them.” Deep, and dark, and perhaps pitlike? You mean…like a vagina? The eyes may be so disgusting that the mere thought of touching them causes strong men to throw up in their mouths, they may drench bystanders in their “seepings and weepings,” but at least they aren’t Kelly.
Before the book even begins, Kelly has been using her tricky vagina to sow discord between Wes and Linc, who were best buddies before she showed up. When they race off to the Space Research Lab to consult the nuclear reactor they stash her in Linc’s house, and when they return, she’s been “doing her best to make the rooms cheerful. She had the drapes drawn and the lights on, creating a cozy world of cushions and carpets.” Hussy! As humanity breaks down and people start to loot houses, Kelly demands that Linc protect her because, “You have a big freezer. You’re loaded with meat.”
At first, Linc resists her hormonal hypnosis. Wasn’t she always flirting with Wes? But Kelly is all, “Wes who?” Linc and Wes capture an eye and train themselves to resist its hypno-stare, vowing that one of them will enter that bottomless hole in the woods and find out what lies at its bottom. Like all manly men, they battle over who will go, each desperate to make the ultimate sacrifice. But when Linc returns home to his “cozy world of cushions and carpets” Kelly begs him to send Wes instead. He resists her female babble, but then he realizes, “She was turning on the sex!” My god! “She had never used it on him before.” The next morning, he sends Wes.
A few days later, Wes stumbles out of the hungry hole, brain dead. Even his faithful dog, Ichabod, doesn’t recognize him anymore. Linc puts Wes to bed and gives him innumerable sponge baths, but nothing can save his pal. Now, it’s not just the sight of the eyes that make Linc throw up. “He wanted nothing to do with Kelly. Since he had found Wes, he hadn’t touched her. He hadn’t wanted her touch. It was somehow unclean. It had led to treachery before, and he wouldn’t give it the chance again.”
Finally, Kelly admits that she has a lot of growing up to do, then she and Linc use sex one last time before Linc discovers how to communicate with the eyes and learns that the aliens behind them can make anything fly off their bodies, a realization that fills him with revulsion as he contemplates a world of flying alien buttocks, swooping through the sky like starlings. That isn’t a world any sane American wants to inhabit.
Men of Science discuss eliminating the aliens with “A nuclear bomb. A bomb dropped right on that stinking hole while the Eyes are inside it, and in one explosion we rid ourselves of them forever…but Linc was silent. There was something wrong with Collins’ scheme, but he couldn’t quite chase it down.” Someone points out that thousands of good Americans are in the hole, too, and they will die in the nuclear holocaust, so that might be it, but maybe not, because those people are later dismissed as acceptable collateral damage.
Linc eventually kills the aliens using good, clean, wholesome nuclear energy. After slaughtering them he walks out into the parking lot, where Kelly is waiting for him with Ichabod, who now says “Wes who?” when his dead owner’s name comes up.
“Linc liked the hard, sure sound of his footsteps on the cement. He was whole again, confident again—more than he had ever been before. He had gone into hell alone, and come out three: a man, a wife, and a dog. It was the basis of many a life, and he clasped the goodness of it close.”
By all accounts, Holly was a cat person.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his most recent novel is Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism (which is like Beaches meets The Exorcist) will be out from Quirk Books on May 17th.