Rhoda Temple – A Heart for Santa (1945)

Review by Justin Tate

It’s February, 1945, a tumultuous month in WWII history. The USAAF drops more than 2,000 tons of bombs on Berlin. Ecuador declares war on Japan. German submarine U-989 is sunk by British warships. Among many other bombings, many other battles, new alliances, new declarations of war. It’ll all be over by the end of the year but at this moment it seems like it could go on forever.

This is the backdrop for Gay Love Stories, a love pulp magazine designed to give readers a monthly dose of fiction light on conflict and heavy on romance. Certainly A Heart for Santa fits that bill.

After returning from a stint in the South Pacific, Terry discovers that his girlfriend has taken his job as top editor for the local paper. Worse than that, she’s doing a better job than him! With a bruised ego, he lashes out. She’s devastated by his cruelty and returns his ring. It seems their love is doomed. Clearly the sexual tension is still there, though…

Read more “Rhoda Temple – A Heart for Santa (1945)”

Anonymous – He Took Me To A Frozen Hell (1955)

Review by Justin Tate

Personal Romances, and other “confession” magazines, were particularly popular in the 1940s and ’50s. They featured anonymously-authored fiction, non-fiction, and fiction posing as non-fiction. Usually the stories dealt with taboo subjects. Like going to a priest to confess sins, the idea of a “confession” story is to write about dark secrets that could never be shared openly. Common topics include sex out of wedlock, abortion, sexual affairs, kinky sexual desire, swinging, divorce…anything controversial, but especially anything to do with sex.

Long dismissed as trash, it’s easier to admire these publications now. In a highly suppressed world where women had few outlets to express their terror, rage and frustration with societal injustices, the confession mag became that secret place for women readers and writers to bare all. Honestly, I’m surprised they haven’t made a comeback yet.

He Took Me To A Frozen Hell, a “novel” from this January, 1955, issue is an anti-Christmas Christmas story about a young bride who’s miserable after her husband moved her from sunny Florida to treacherous Alaska. While he is away from home as the pilot for a puddle jumper, she faces the williwaw winds and subzero temperatures alone. Alone except for generous bottles of liquor…

Read more “Anonymous – He Took Me To A Frozen Hell (1955)”

Peggy Dern – Christmas Witch (1949)

Review by Justin Tate

From the depths of pulp romance fiction is Christmas Witch. It tells the charming story of Chloe, a spoiled brat who dismisses Christmas as a “racket” where you “spend a lot of money you can’t afford to buy a lot of crazy gadgets nobody wants.” And the spirit of the season? Well, “Where are you going to find men of goodwill nowadays?” But her worst insult is simply that Christmas “bores” her. She’d rather spend the holiday with her friends on a yacht to Rio.

Enter Scott Kelvin, the handsome young doctor who puts Chloe “Christmas witch” in her place. With a harsh word and a firm kiss on the mouth, Chloe is stunned into disbelief. She swears to never have anything to do with that abominable man again. That is until she runs him down the next morning in her roadster. Indebted by her near-fatal accident, she agrees to put on the Christmas presentation Dr. Kelvin had planned for the poor before being hospitalized. She even agrees to get whatever presents the children ask for—no matter how difficult to acquire: “Anything short of atom bombs and bowie-knives, they shall have.”

Read more “Peggy Dern – Christmas Witch (1949)”

Dean Marney – The Jack-O’-Lantern That Ate My Brother (1994)

Review by Justin Tate

Bizarre kid horror that I somehow missed in the ’90s. Love that there’s a whole series of books where holiday icons eat family members. Up next are titles like The Turkey That Ate My Father and The Christmas Tree That Ate My Mother.

One might expect a wacky story about a killer pumpkin on the loose, but in actuality it’s more bonkers than that.

Read more “Dean Marney – The Jack-O’-Lantern That Ate My Brother (1994)”

Elsa J. Radcliffe – Gothic Novels of the Twentieth Century (1979)

Review by Justin Tate

In the foreword, Radcliffe writes: “This bibliography may be of use some day in the distant future to scholars who, from my observations, appear to be interested in this type of literature only in retrospect, when it achieves the distinction of antiquity, if nothing more.”

These are prophetic words. At long last, we have reached that “distant future” where scholars are intrigued by the literary merit of paperback gothic fiction. Radcliffe’s bibliography catalogs pseudonyms, personal reviews and publishing information for nearly 2,000 gothic titles—a majority printed during the golden revival of the 1960s through mid-1970s. For those obsessed with reading, researching and writing about these novels, it is hard to imagine not having Radcliffe’s book on the shelf.

Read more “Elsa J. Radcliffe – Gothic Novels of the Twentieth Century (1979)”

Michael McDowell – Blackwater: The Complete Saga (1983)

Review by Justin Tate

Blackwater makes you utterly desperate to find out what happens next, as if your life depends upon it. When I was almost done, I considered calling in sick because I was afraid I might die in a car crash before finding out how the story ends. It’s that good.

Though categorized as a southern gothic and shelved in the horror section (when it’s not out-of-print) it often feels closer to Harper Lee or John Steinbeck than Stephen King. But other times, always when you least expect it, it is very much a horror novel. Not King, though, nor Lovecraft. This is a quiet, creeping horror that doesn’t exactly feel supernatural. After grounding the story so firmly in realistic, earthy characters, how can anything—even water monsters and vengeful apparitions—be unreal?

Read more “Michael McDowell – Blackwater: The Complete Saga (1983)”

Marilyn Ross – Dark Shadows (Books 1-10) (1966-1969)

Review by Justin Tate

Today we might laugh at Dark Shadows, a Gothic soap opera which ran for 1,225 episodes from 1966 to 1971. We might cry because the Tim Burton-directed film was so horrendous. But whatever we do, we can’t deny how influential Dark Shadows was in re-popularizing Gothic fiction. It’s true the show was largely cashing in on an already-developing craze during the 1960s, but it also gave the movement enough staying power for publishers to churn out thousands upon thousands of Gothic paperbacks over two decades.

Of course, Dark Shadows had its own tie-in paperback series. These books were authored by genre heavyweight Marilyn Ross, AKA William Ross (1912-1995). Sometimes they follow the corresponding TV plots, but mostly they do their own thing. Always they are campy, over-the-top, self-aware, and a jolly good time—even at their worst. We’re slowly reading through all thirty-two books and providing unfiltered reactions. This review focuses on the first ten.

Read more “Marilyn Ross – Dark Shadows (Books 1-10) (1966-1969)”

R.L. Stine – Goosebumps Haunted Library (1996)

Review by Justin Tate

Remember 1996? Let me help. “Macarena” is Billboard’s #1 song the past fourteen weeks, Space Jam is box office gold and Nanook, the Siberian husky Beanie Baby, is born. Meanwhile, Goosebumps is everywhere. The TV series is in its second season and the books are only halfway through an eventual 62-title run. If you’re reading each book as it comes out, you just finished The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and are eagerly awaiting How I Got My Shrunken Head. You are unaware, of course, that future classics like Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns and Calling All Creeps are already in the pipeline.

One day your mom buys a specially marked bag of Doritos. You find inside a teeny tiny Goosebumps book, individually wrapped so it doesn’t get covered in orange dust. You read the short story, love it, and discover that TWO more teeny stories can be obtained if you submit enough UPC codes. To sweeten the deal, the promotion includes a cardboard “library” for “shelving” your books.

Ring any bells?

Read more “R.L. Stine – Goosebumps Haunted Library (1996)”

Victoria Holt – The Devil on Horseback (1977)

Review by Justin Tate

Victoria Holt is a polarizing figure. Her Mistress of Mellyn (1960) created such a buzz that it was largely responsible for inspiring thousands of Gothic paperbacks during the 1960s and ’70s. Some (including me) consider this era a renaissance for the genre. Others, however, feel Holt and those like her cheapened Gothic literature by replacing the bombastic ingenuity of classics like Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights with plots that are, more or less, trifling romance.

I happen to believe Holt’s critics tend to be those who’ve never read her, but I also see their point. It would be disappointing if The Devil on Horseback was the first Gothic novel to appear in someone’s head over, say, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Just as it would be disappointing if Alex Cross was the first literary detective that came to mind over Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin. Even still, for pushers of Gothic like me, I’m okay with any gateway drug. Especially if it inspires someone to try the “hard” stuff, like Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis.

Read more “Victoria Holt – The Devil on Horseback (1977)”

Queer Theory: Edgar Allan Poe – The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

“The Fall of the House of Usher” is among the most scrutinized works in Edgar Allan Poe’s bibliography. Ripe with metaphorical descriptions and intentionally mysterious language, the story is an open invitation to varied interpretations. At the high school level, most students are taught that it is a tale about extreme isolation. In academia, scholars tend to be more interested in the bizarre brother-sister relationship and its incestuous possibilities.

Until recently, the idea that Poe could be in conversation with queer anxieties might sound absurd. Increasingly, however, critics have identified queer themes throughout his stories and poetry. In some cases, such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” it is nearly impossible to deny that Dupin and his male companion are in a romantic relationship (Novosat). So too does “The Fall of the House of Usher” benefit from a queer reading. Suddenly the curious language and enigmatic events make sense. Not vaguely or subconsciously, but in its entirety. It is my argument that “Usher” is, from beginning to end, about queer anxieties. Notably, the angst of sexual repression and an inability to reproduce.

Read more “Queer Theory: Edgar Allan Poe – The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)”