Welcome to Freaky Fridays, where out-of-print paperback horror from the Seventies and Eighties straps on its M-16, scrawls “Born to Kill” on its helmet, and slogs out into the jungles of ‘Nam to get possessed by demons from hell before coming back home and stirring up trouble in Cleveland.
Every single horror paperback of the Seventies and Eighties is a special snowflake, each one a unique arrangement of Nazi leprechauns, arm-eating whales, jogging cults, and extraterrestrial orgasms. But one thing many of them have in common is their hero: the Vietnam vet. Tim O’Brien’s moving and accomplished memoir about his tour of duty in ‘Nam, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, came out in 1973 the same year the US was withdrawing from Saigon. But horror had been there first. Bob Clark’s Deathdream, about a young soldier coming home from Vietnam to reunite with his family who do their best to overlook the fact that he’s now a flesh-eating zombie, came out the year before in 1972, as did Stanley about a Vietnam Vet killing people with snakes, and Targets had a deranged Vet turned drive-in sniper all the way back in 1968. Since then, Vietnam vets have become motion picture shorthand for damaged goods. Whether it’s Invasion of the Flesh Hunters (1980), Don’t Answer the Phone! (1980), Fleshburn (1984), House (1986), Combat Shock (1986), Fear (1988), or Jacob’s Ladder (1990) the traumatized and often violent or deranged Vietnam Vet has become an eye-rolling cliche.
Horror fiction, on the other hand, turned Vietnam vets into heroes.
In fiction, returned Vietnam vets were occasionally traumatized figures (Maynard’s House, 1980) but more often than not they were badasses. Whether they’re teaming up with Korean War vets to machine gun a rampaging army of homicidal children dressed in Halloween costumes (Piper, 1987), using astral projection to rescue their kids from a cult (Keeper of the Children, 1978), fighting deadly dolls (Toy Cemetery, 1987), or murdering members of a heavy metal band they hold responsible for their daughter’s death (Kill Riff, 1988), Vietnam vets weren’t fragile bundles of neuroses that were liable to explode into violence because of what they saw in the war, but bundles of awesome skills who were liable to explode into violence because someone threatened their family and totally deserved to have a Claymore planted in their guitar amp.
Occasionally they were both basket case and badass, most notably in Peter Straub’s gorgeous Koko (1988), and Alex Kane’s The Shinglo (1989). A more downmarket, pulp fiction version of Straub’s high-minded Vietnam novel, Shinglo is not to be dismissed. As the book’s central vet shouts at one point, “I tear things apart… bit by bit I’m going to tear this whole fucking country right down to the ground.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but Oliver Stone won an Oscar for directing a movie with pretty much that exact same premise.
Scott Pillar’s wife has walked out on him, taking their two kids because she’s sick and tired of her husband blaming everything on Vietnam, from his lack of a job to his night sweats and anger. She’s gone to Kentucky with the kids, leaving him in grimy, roach-infested Cleveland. Scott’s Vietnam mostly consisted of him getting drunk and shooting his rifle in the air during combat because he didn’t want to kill anyone, but he had one horrifying encounter in a spooky cave that left him with a hole in his memory. He and his buddy, Jimmy Benedict, may or may not have murdered some civilians in that cave, but after wandering for a week in the jungle they mostly blocked it out. The only survivor is a spectral yellow dog from the cave that follows Scott around to this day.
Scott’s ‘Nam nightmares are getting worse thanks to news of a booby trap death at a building site downtown where demolitions guys are tearing down the Barlow, an abandoned hotel. A grenade on a tripwire takes out a few workers, and then the site foreman goes to turn on the light in his garage and is bitten by a five-foot long black mamba nailed to the wall by its tail. Things get worse for Scott when the alleged killer starts leaving long rambling messages for the cops about his buddy Scott, which causes them to grab the twitchy vet and his wife and kids and stick them in protective custody out in the middle of nowhere. Because Scott claims to hear poetry on the recordings sent by the killer that no one else can hear, they send Dr. Felix Kleeze, a psychiatrist, along with them, just to be safe.
Out in the woods, Scott’s son starts seeing the ghost dog, too, and when the cop guarding them gets garotted, Scott, his family, and Kleeze go on the run. Jimmy Benedict may still be alive, and he may be possessed by an evil demon let loose in Vietnam, and since he’s been living in the Barlow Hotel, working on a magic ritual that will cause a “Blood Sea” to drown the world, he takes exception to attempts to tear it down. Exceptions that involve blood magic, punji sticks, and urban warfare.
The metaphor of the Vietnam vet bringing something back from the war that puts his wife, kids, and community in danger is pretty obvious, and being a mass market paperback original, there’s plenty of obvious to go around. There’s even a pesky “lady reporter” who keeps misunderstanding Vietnam vets. But there are also a lot of nice touches that elevates Shinglo above mere paperback fare. Kleeze is one of the few psychiatrists in horror fiction who are actually sympathetic, and the book’s cops are as likely to quibble over who gets to use the awesome nightvision scope as they are to solve crimes. Pillar may be a standard issues traumatized vet, but he has more depth to him than that, as in the moment when he tells his wife he was repulsed that she named their newborn son after him while he was fighting in ‘Nam because it felt like he was being replaced and would now never be “allowed” to return home.
It’s in the book’s middle that things take a huge turn. Acting more like a mad scientist than a caring psychiatrist, Kleeze gets Scott to agree to hypnosis while hooked up to a lie detector and injected with sodium pentothal. Maybe now he will finally remember what happened in that cave, and any clues he dredges up from his subconscious might help them defeat the drippy, oily, demonic octopus that’s riding Jimmy Benedict like an pony. But the primal trauma they unearth turns the book into an Eighties action movie, much to its benefit. The “truth serum” lowers Scott’s guard and the Shinglo almost gets its slimy black tentacles on his mind, leading to a lecture on the how a lack of self-discipline can be dangerous and therapy can often lead to this loss of self-control, letting in bad spirits and evil thoughts. Sometimes denial and drinking until you pass out is better.
But the near-possession lights a fire in Scott’s belly and he decides to stop running away and instead stands up and fights. On the one hand, it’s a bummer that a book this sympathetic to veterans equates PTSD with “running away”, on the other hand, now things kick into high gear as Scott takes charge and sends his family shopping for the Coke bottles and pillow cases he’ll transform into the deadly, makeshift weapons he needs to destroy Jimmy Benedict. Ending with a firefight in the old abandoned Barlow, Benedict and Scott taking each other on with bandanas tied around their heads while “Eye of the Tiger” plays inside the reader’s head, The Shinglo gives its third act action movie emotional heft because Scott wants to stop Benedict without killing him. He says it’s because killing him will make the Shinglo even more dangerous, but we all know it’s because the two vets understand each other. They both came home bearing demons, one literal, one metaphorical. Neither of them deserves to die for that.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.