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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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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Brenda Brown Canary – The Voice of the Clown (1982)

Review by Justin Tate

A rare title sought highly by horror lovers. Most copies are listed for $100+. Its notoriety, it seems, can be sourced to an active cult fandom and Grady Hendrix’s sweeping praise.

In Paperbacks From Hell, which chronicles the publishing history of horror literature during the 1970s and 80s, Hendrix lists this book as a standout among the “creepy kids” subgenre. He goes on to say that it’s one of the few books to ever make his “jaw drop.”

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Rohan O’Grady – Bleak November (1970)

Review by Justin Tate

If there’s ever a time to read a spooky novel entitled Bleak November, this November, in the year 2020 A.D., seems fitting. For historical reference, the world’s been hunkered down over eight months thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve skipped birthdays, weddings, funerals, seated dining and blockbuster movies to social distance. For many, Thanksgiving is going to be a Zoom affair because airports are germy and we don’t want to kill Grandma. In the United States, confirmed virus cases have reached a record-shattering 125k+ per day. At the time of this writing, our death toll is 243,768.

Part of me did worry that reading a bleak novel during a bleak time would be overwhelming. My decision to pick up Stephen King’s The Stand right at the beginning of the outbreak led to some chilling nightmares and panic attacks. Still, I thought, you can only live through 2020 once. Why not make the most of it?

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Alan Ryan (ed.) – Halloween Horrors (1986)

Review by Justin Tate

Like most ’80s short story collections, this one is a mixed bag. Less mixed than most, however. The majority of stories are quite good, some borderline exceptional. “Miss Mack” by Michael McDowell is the most alluring entry, and this is the only publication where you can find it. Here’s a mini review of each story:

Introduction / “Halloween Night” by Alan Ryan

In lieu of a dull prosaic introduction, Ryan wisely opens this anthology with a short poem that celebrates the mischief and merriment of Halloween—specifically Halloween night when all the heavy hitters come out. Cute!

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Dorothy Daniels – The House on Circus Hill (1972)

Review by Justin Tate

Coach rides through thunderstorms, falling chandeliers, inexplicable music in a spooky mansion, multiple love interests—one of whom may be a murderer—what’s not to love? Daniels cooks up a classic mystery recipe and adds carnival atmosphere for extra spice. Exotic animals, attractive acrobats, romantic little people, and other Cirque du Gothic elements are present in nearly every scene. Oh, and clowns. Lots of clowns! Consider, for example, this gem:

My pale pink tights were easy to see in the gloom. There’d be some time before the forest would be jet black and I realized I didn’t have that much time to get away from this clown with a knife.

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Mildred Nelson – The Island (1973)

Review by Justin Tate

A bizarre, 1970’s marriage melodrama set on a tropical island off the coast of Florida. Delivers a kaleidoscope of emotions, from funny to WTF to sexy to super-serious. In the end I’m left reeling, completely unsure how to react.

The set-up is fairly ordinary. After a brief romance, Isabel finds herself married to a hunky botanist who promptly ships them off to an island where he’s employed to conduct plant experiments. The botanist is a typical man, however, who thinks his wife should tend to the kitchen and not pester him unless it’s time for sex. Naturally she’s not happy with this arrangement. “You’ve never shown that you care for me with anything like the devotion you show your plants!” Isabel finally snaps.

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Marvin Werlin – Shadow Play (1976)

Review by Justin Tate

Absolute perfection. Though it’s now out-of-print and difficult to find, Shadow Play by Marvin Werlin is exemplary of the finest gothic romance has to offer. It interacts with a long history of classical and contemporary gothic plots, playfully poking fun at overdone tropes and—as a premise—showcasing full-on gothic obsession.

Here’s the setup: a damsel is assigned to help Max Deveraux, a famous movie producer, pen his memoirs. When she arrives, she discovers the producer’s mansion is a glorious ode to old movies, with a façade carefully crafted to look identical to Manderley. Inside is no different, with every room arranged in the likeness of iconic film set design.

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