Sunday, April 14, 2013

Oh, Who's Calling Me Now?

Pocket Books, August 1975
When Michael Calls is the third novel I've read now by John Farris. After finishing it, I'm asking myself what the hell took me so long to get around to reading any of his books. I've been a horror fan for years and have been seeing his books in the horror racks for a long time now, but for some reason have never read one until a few years ago, starting with the terrific All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By. Now, whenever I go to a bookstore I'll make it a point to see which John Farris books are in stock.

When Michael Calls is an old-fashioned creepy novel about a family haunted by phone calls from Michael Young, a 10 year old boy who is supposed to be dead. At least that's the official word. Fourteen years in the past, Michael ran away from a broken home and went missing. His body is found weeks later, after a snowstorm. Since then, his troubled, alcoholic mother has passed on, and his brother Craig has grown up to become a counselor at The Greenleaf School, a school for "troubled" boys. Craig's girlfriend, Amy Lawlor also works at the school. Michael's aunt, Helen Connelly, is the first recipient of Michael's calls from beyond this mortal realm. At first the phone calls are disturbing; Michael asking for his aunt to come pick him up, he's lost, it's dark, where's his mother, that sort of thing. His brother Craig is convinced that someone is up to a sick joke. Amy, fresh from a less-than-successful career as a starlet in Hollywood, believes that it really is Michael's ghost. Helen isn't sure either way. Quickly though, the calls become more menacing, threatening. The gang starts unraveling, blaming each other for past events. Guilt corrupts the once idyllic community known as The Shades. Then, sure enough, people start dying, seemingly just as Michael promises.

By indicating the novel is old fashioned, I'm wondering if your average horror reader used to today's gorier, "faster" novels will have patience with a book like this. Horror wasn't exactly a huge chunk of the market in 1969, so books then in the genre weren't pumped out with by-the-number expectations that is more evident in recent years (vampires and zombies, anyone?). Or maybe I'm wrong. I like to believe there's always an audience for the "old" stuff.

Anyway, Farris has a firm control on the story here, dropping suspects, clues, victims, and just enough weirdness to keep the reader wondering if Michael really is a ghost who has managed to find a phone, or if someone in the bunch is up to nasty shenanigans in The Shades. It's the sort of novel I believe writers would appreciate. A lot has come after it since its publication, and readers are a pretty savvy lot, so maybe they'll not be too surprised at the outcome. Regardless, I think there is a lot to admire here.

I understand that there was a 1972 made-for-TV film based on this 1969 novel. I've never seen it and couldn't speak about its worth. Maybe someday it will pop up on a cable channel somewhere and I'll catch it.

Oh, and yes, I sort of dig that psychedelic 70s cover shown above. And you don't see phones like that anymore.

1 comment:

  1. Check Fox Movie Channel it used to air there occasionally, but I haven't checked in awhile.