Now is the onset of a delicious annual malady that might be called the Halloween syndrome, particular to Southern California. Why Halloween seems to be so thoroughly milked in this part of the world is probably not difficult to explain: things are far too relentlessly cheery and wholesome here for most of the year.
I recently referred to my friend Bill Richardson. He is two years younger than me, and we share not only the same birthday but an abiding interest in the macabre. His supersedes mine only in that he collects enough paraphernalia from old horror films (including movie tie-in paperbacks, etc.) to rival the famous collector Forrest Ackerman. My collection, of necessity, is a matter of memory and books in storage.
Bill has said more than once that he lives, or tries to, in a perpetual state of Halloween. Something to that effect anyway. This is evidenced by his alter ego/performing persona, Jose Sinatra. In his column for the Troubadour, “Hosing Down,” written under the Sinatra name, you won’t find consistent evidence of this, but it is there. Another reason I mention the paper is that for unusually good music listings, the Troubadour rivals the paper you are holding. If you turn to “T.G.I.F.” for music listings, I can only shrug and suggest you turn pages backward or pick up the Troub, as I’ve decided to call it.
As for other friends I can promote — no. Just kidding. I really don’t know how blatant that appears, but I did want to say a bit more about Richardson. Bill is one of the very few guys I know outside of longtime book sellers who will know whom I am referring to if I mention that great old British hack Dennis Wheatley, for example. Among Wheatley’s too many titles are The Satanist and The Devil Rides Out. I expect to be corrected here, but I believe at least one was made into a Hammer film in the 1960s with Christopher Lee.
My own fascination with the dark side or any number of clichés you care for is probably more common than I would like to think. Oddly enough, I suppose, I have no interest in vampires beyond Bram Stoker’s original story, which fascinates me primarily by its lack of resemblance to any preceding novel, including The Monk by Matthew Lewis. Dracula interested me in its structure: letters, exposition from changing points of view, that sort of thing, and, of course, atmosphere. When it comes to being frightened, conventional monsters do little for me. What I need is something that resembles the unholy thing in that Aleister Crowley story I quoted recently, something along the lines of the homunculus my mother nurtured and created in that fungi-dank recess of my unconscious. I mean that in the best possible way. She was a genius.
Among my favorite bits of horror, recommended in these days just before Halloween, are the following: The Philosopher’s Stone and The Mind Parasites, by Colin Wilson. The latter, with its awful title, is very slim. Together with the preceding novel they form an exhilarating and terrifying story of intellectual discovery. I’ve read them twice. The first I picked up because in 1975 I was on a Joyce Carol Oates jag and saw her name on The Philosopher’s Stone, for which she had written a fine introduction. I was 24, and the book changed my life in the same sense that The Catcher in the Rye (which I read four times at the age of 14) changed it. Very few others, but some.
More horror: Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch. More science fiction, really, and about syphilis. Chilling. Also, The Priest, same author. Beats The Exorcist silly, though I will still stick up for that one as far as visceral fright goes; but The Priest is not about exorcism at all. One more by Disch: The Businessman: A Tale of Terror.
Then we have The Dwarf by Pär Lagerkvist. Good luck finding that one. I would include The Sheep Look Up — science fiction again and by John Brunner, but it has already become fact. You’re living it. The Descent by Jeff Long is still available, very good, and has only tangential similarities to the recent movie (not bad), with all women characters. Long’s novel is, say, Jules Verne meets Stephen King. Very effective and literarily noninsulting. Lord of the Flies still works for me, and I have an enduring fondness for the quiet horror of A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. Try All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, written by John Farris. Probably out of print, but I don’t know for sure. Both the black-and-white Tyrone Power movie and novel (author’s name escapes me for now) Nightmare Alley has proven repeatedly dependable for me.
The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers. High Rise, Concrete Island, and The Crystal World, by J.G. Ballard (author of Empire of the Sun) are scary, each for different reasons. The Feral Cell, by Richard Bowes (good luck: Questar Paper, late 1980s), and Minions of the Moon. The Women of Whitechapel, by Paul West. The Hungry Moon and almost any short story by Ramsey Campbell. Find the short story “The Innocents” by Graham Greene. It’s not what you expect. You can thank me later.