Paul Féval, père – Vampire City (1867)

Review by Justin Tate

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies wasn’t the first book to remix classic literature with horror. Way back in 1867 came this totally bonkers French novel which imagines Ann Radcliffe as a vampire hunter. The young novelist, along with several ragtag companions, scout across Europe to root out blood suckers and save Ann’s sister before the upcoming double wedding. Along the way, Radcliffe’s macabre adventures inspire her to write her masterpiece, The Mysteries of Udolpho.

If the plot sounds ridiculous, it’s supposed to be. Féval, who was quite popular in his day, tells his tale with all the self-aware hilarity one might expect from a skilled satirist. The tone is meant to be zany, and zany it is. I wouldn’t call it a fine novel by any stretch of the imagination. That said, according to Goodreads, I highlighted over 200 sentences. It’s rare for a book to have me so glued that I’m highlighting on every page.

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Edwina Noone – The Craghold Legacy (Complete Series) (1972-73)

Review by Justin Tate

The Craghold quartet is highlighted primarily by its first volume, The Craghold Legacy, which delivers an unwavering deluge of bizarre. Undeterred by the novella format, Edwina Noone (aka Michael Avallone) manages to incorporate every Gothic item imaginable in a single narrative. Somehow, miraculously, he succeeds. The follow-up entries are less mesmerizing because the world is already so richly established. Lacking initiative to expand its potential is disappointing, and yet there is also a familiar pleasure with having the same events reoccur over changed seasons, and with fresh victims at the mercy of the same haunted hotel.

Connections between the four books are minimal at best. They can be read in any order without missing critical information. The series should begin with the first, however, only to best lose one’s virginity to all the uncanny characters and otherworldly happenings. Here are my reviews of each individual novel:

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Sebastian Lamb – The Slasher (1977)

Review by Justin Tate

This rare 1977 horror novel occasionally pops up in academic discussions around gay representation in literature. Drewey Wayne Gunn, a leading academic on such topics, describes The Slasher as a “credible attempt to explain a killer’s mentality” and praises its “touching portrait of a relationship between two police officers and their friendship with the medical examiner.” He goes on to lament that the author’s actual identity remains a mystery, since Sebastian Lamb, like most headliners of pulp fiction, is a pseudonym.

Gunn’s praise is generous, but he’s not wrong. If you glaze over the overindulgent sex and generally poor writing, it’s possible to enjoy a story of semi-closeted detectives attempting to bring a killer to justice. Both victims and murderer are also gay, making this a story 100% by, for, and about gay men. A few lines of social commentary imply these grisly murders might go unchecked if the detectives were straight. The media, at least, aren’t interested in reporting on “faggot deaths” until one of the victims turns out to be a young, emerging actor.

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Ann Radcliffe – The Italian (1797)

Review by Justin Tate

The Italian appeared in 1797 during peak Ann Radcliffe pandemonium. Fueled by the success of her uber bestsellers The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), this new release was destined to be popular, no matter what. Fans were anxious for another Gothic thriller by their favorite author, particularly since the genre had become so fashionable. Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796), for example, had recently scandalized readers in all the right ways. When rumor got out that The Italian was Radcliffe’s literary response to Lewis, anticipation whirred like a steam engine.

Certainly the publisher had big expectations. Radcliffe was already the highest paid author in the world after receiving a record-breaking £500 for Udolpho. For the The Italian she was paid £800, or about three times the annual salary of her successful, journalist husband.

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Kym Allyson – Gay Circus (1970)

Review by Justin Tate

If you’ve ever checked out Pennywise and thought “I’d hit that,” you might be like Terry Adams, the nineteen year-old farm boy from St. Paul and newest recruit at the Gay Circus.

Terry’s life ambition is to become a clown himself. With his big ears “like sugar bowl handles” and theatrical eyes that spontaneously “alternate between happiness and sadness,” it’s like he was made for it. Everyone says he has the face of a clown, “even without makeup.” Being double-jointed is just the cream pie on top.

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William J. Lambert, III – Demon’s Stalk (1970) + Interview

Review by Justin Tate

“Going to Hell” has always been a part of my existence. I’ve been told it constantly. From the pulpit, from family, from strangers on the street. I suspect every religious gay person decides at some point to either embrace their inevitable damnation, or believe that organized religion is a lie. Friends and allies are forced into a similar conundrum, fearing their soul will turn to salt should they dare sympathize with such “deviants.”

But I was born in 1989 and have it lucky. In 1970, when Demon’s Stalk was published, you didn’t just have the church to worry about. You could be sent to jail. You were thought to suffer from a “mental disorder.” You were an assumed pedophile. You were beaten—maybe killed—in the street. Rarely would anyone care. They saw your death as a public service. It wasn’t just God against you, it was everyone.

It’s within this historical context that I read Demon’s Stalk in awe. It remains edgy and unnerving these fifty years later, arguably deserving of classic status within the horror genre, but also revolutionary for its handling of queer characters within a religious storyline. Which is to say that none of these things matter.

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Horace Walpole – The Castle of Otranto (1764)

Review by Justin Tate

The Castle of Otranto was the Blair Witch Project of 1764. Both were game-changers which popularized a new genre. Blair Witch launched the “found footage” horror trope and Otranto inaugurated the “Gothic.”

Interestingly enough, Otranto also employs a “found footage” gimmick with its first edition, pretending that the original manuscript was hundreds of years old, unearthed from the dusty library of an “ancient Catholic family” and had to be translated from Italian. There’s a lengthy introduction written by the “translator” explaining all his theories about how much of the story might be true and what the author intended to achieve. This charade isn’t part of the game-changing nature of the novel, however, because such a tactic was in vogue at the time.

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Ann Radcliffe – The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)

Review by Justin Tate

The Mysteries of Udolpho is considered Radcliffe’s most enduring literary achievement. At nearly 700 pages it’s certainly her longest. As such, and because I’m usually juggling several books, I decided to blog my review over time. This way I can capture a range of emotion experienced in the duration of such a sprawling epic.

Here’s how it all went down…

11/16/2020 Update – Seventy pages in and I can tell Radcliffe is doing something different this time. The mystery element mulls more beneath the surface than usual and pacing is far more luxuriant. Gorgeous scenery is crucial to the Radcliffe formula, but she really stops to smell the roses. Not a bad thing, as her travel writing skills have improved from her earlier novels. Here’s one lovely example:

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Shelley Katz – Alligator (1977)

Review by Justin Tate

Published in 1977, sometimes attributed to Shelley and Paul Katz, but more often just Shelley, now thoroughly out of print, Alligator is one of the bazillion killer creature novels to emerge after the success of Jaws (1974). Unlike other rip-offs, however, this one is actually good. Unexpectedly, almost shockingly good.

The first chapter is ablaze with rich characterization, ominous Everglades atmosphere, and the chomps we paid for. Then there’s about 75 pages of rubbish. But then, holy shit, the excess characters thin out and we’re left with two guys battling the elements, an evil alligator, and their own hyper masculinity.

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Russell O’Neil – Venom (1979)

Review by Justin Tate

Snakes are my favorite beast to go berserk and here we have a satisfying nest of Indian cobras terrorizing New York City apartment buildings. It’s a good set-up that’s just as zany as one would expect and hope for. Only slightly marred by a long list of characters who are probably given more attention than necessary.

That said, characters are also what makes this a good time. Our lead is a creepy vagabond type fellow who’s gone to the dark side because of his overbearing mother. He breaks a girl’s heart after using her to smuggle snakes into the States. His intended purpose with the snakes remains a mystery, but we do know that he has wet dreams whenever he hears them slithering about.

The girl definitely dodged a bullet.

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