Saturday, January 30, 2016

Hubert Selby Jr. - The Demon

But Harry was not going to kill for profit--at least not in the usual accepted sense of the word. There would be no monetary gain. No gain of power or influence. No fulfilling of a vendetta. No wounded pride or broken personal connection. So there was no danger. No fear of exposure. He would not have to taunt the police and court apprehension as he had with the burglaries (strange how foreign that word sounded, as if it had nothing to do with him). There just wouldn't be any way he could be connected with the killing. It was that simple.

Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, 2005
The Demon by Hubert Selby Jr came along more than 25 years ahead of American Psycho and I wonder if it was an inspiration for Ellis's novel. We have a similar set up, that is a rising young executive with a high paying "job" (it's never made clear what he does at work) who spends many of his hours nurturing depraved obsessions. Ellis's novel took things to the extreme, while in The Demon, our hero Harry dives into his psychosis with a methodical, deliberate approach.

We first meet Harry as an arrogant young man with a promising future, and a yen for married women. When they're married, you see, you get none of the commitments, no virginal hangups, no baggage that gets in the way of a young stud having a good time. You score and move on. No tearful goodbyes or messy breakups. You hit it and quit it, and Harry is a master at this game of hunt and conquest. Harry works in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn with his parents. Between his job, his commute and his home turf there is no shortage of young married women whom Harry can work his charms on. Finding a broad without cashing in on his freedom is Harry's chief goal in life. But, if you've ever read anything by Hubert Selby before, you know that shit is going to go south for our Harry in a bad and ugly way. No one survives Selby's world unscathed.

The first part of the novel follows Harry as he pursues his hobby. Except for his job at the firm, Harry is free to pursue his game without worry of commitment. And things are first. He spends his lunch hours watching the women in the city, flirting, chatting them up, sharing lunches with them, always on the prowl for his next score while playing the confidant for them, nurturing their lonely desires. But inside, the pressure builds. The game has a way of encroaching on his limited time that he must devote to his job. His boss and coworkers are noticing his long absences from his desk. His secretary covers for him best she can but eventually his boss has the "come-to-Jesus" lecture about Harry's responsibility to his job. After all, Harry is one of the brightest young men in the firm, a rising star, a guy who's going places, as long as he puts his nose to the grindstone and puts in the time demanded of him at the office. Yeah, Harry knows this...but inside, that desire for the game of conquest is boiling...burning him up inside. He needs that release that only random sex with a woman can satisfy.

Eventually, Harry's seemingly careless attitude at work loses him a promotion. One hour too many in a hourly motel during lunch costs him an advance in his career. He's got to get his life under control, put his ass to work, get his mind right with his job and earn back the respect of his bosses...but there is still the women in the park and in the cafeterias and at the department stores, and the desire for release won't go away.

Then, a turn of events occur for Harry. He meets another young woman, Linda, at his firm during a management picnic at the country club. He feels something for Linda unlike anything he's ever felt for a broad before. Could it be an actual desire to get to know her? To date her? To build a relationship with her? He asks to drive her home and a budding romance between them begins. His desire for strange is pushed aside. His relationship with Linda has brought his wayward desires back onto the straight and narrow. His work returns to to the promise that his bosses once held for him. More responsibility and promotions follow. He and Linda get engaged. He is once again a man in control. Until one night after celebrating a successful deal with a client, drinks and hookers are called for. And the need for conquest returns. Guilt and remorse haunt Harry. Fear of losing Linda hangs over him daily. For a while, marriage with Linda was it's something to be sheltered from his inner demon. This demon who haunts the wild side of the street, who sates his need on skanks and prostitutes, junkies and addicts, diseased and wasted, scabbed holes to be pounded in self-loathing and disgust. And it's still not enough. Harry begins to skip out on paying restaurant tabs, a new thrill is developed in the wake of his desires. Petty thievery, raiding office desks after hours for change, jewelry, whatever he could find and throw away. But the addiction wants more...and thoughts of murder begin to surface. Only who to murder?

This is one of those novels that I couldn't put down. I tried reading American Psycho once, somewhere back in the mid-nineties, but just couldn't get  into it. The Demon works on a level that many readers may find uncomfortable, which is clearly the point. Stylistically, it's similar to Selby's other novels I've read in it's relentless, unforgiving narrative. You want to look away, but it's hard to. You care about the characters, yet you're kept at a distance from them by their abandon and betrayals. You close the book and thank the fates that you're not like hope.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Joseph Wambaugh - The Glitter Dome

And the exotica: jodhpurs, knickers, and gold, gold, gold. Twenty-four-karat dresses glittered like mother lode. Headdresses reflected most of the subcontinent of Asia and the entire continent of Africa, twenty-four karats from the top of the head to the tip of the toe. There were enchanting girls in gold brocade culottes and gold-encrusted jerseys. All in all, it made Al Mackey think of munchkins and monkeys and rainbows. Fabulous!

Bantam Books June 1982
So that's what a Hollywood party is all about! Gold and babes draped in the stuff. Dang. My kind of party in 1981 was swinging as long as a keg of Budweiser was in it. And no girls dripping with gold in sight.

I was in the mood for a Hollywood crime novel and remembered this one by Joseph Wambaugh. He wrote this novel decades before returning to Hollywood with his Hollywood Series published in the past few years. The Glitter Dome is vintage Wambaugh, with its large cast of bizarre characters, its loopy and meandering plot and cops just a badge removed from psychotic.

The main plot concerns the murder of a bigshot film producer, Nigel St. Claire, whose body was found in a bowling alley's parking lot off Hollywood Blvd. Said parking lot is a hangout for skaters and hustlers and punks and assorted weirdos that populated Hollywood in the day. Just why St. Claire ended up there and who put two bullets into his face is what homicide detectives Al Mackey and Marty Welborn have to figure out. Both detectives are old, both are tired, cynical, and both are on the edge of breakdowns thanks to too much booze, too many cases, and too many nightmares. They take solace, when they can, at The Glitter Dome, a bar where cops and groupies hang out between shifts. Mackey's had a tough year. He's facing eviction from his apartment, his health is falling apart, he can't get it up and he's having alarming thoughts about chewing on the barrel of his gun. His partner Marty Welborn seems to have his shit more together, at least on the surface. He's good-looking, dresses well, a few months short of his pension and in reasonably good health, except for the nightmares of past victims still crying out for help. They both get handed the St. Claire case after its first team of detectives have reached a dead end with it.

But that's just part of the novel. The majority of the novel is made up of cop stories featuring a multitude of sleazy and bizarre crimes. We have Buckmore Phipps and Gibson Hand, a black and white team of street cops described as monsters. There is also Ferret and Weasel, a pair of hardcore undercover narcotic officers, And old-timer Cal Greenberg who hums Glenn Miller tunes while doing time at the station. Capt (Whipdick) Woofer who wants to retire intact while keeping some semblance of order among the animals and criminals. You have a perv named Tuna Can Tommy, who likes to leave Polaroids of his privates on women's cars. Hookers like Jackin Jill, who manages to become a key to the murder of St. Claire. There is also a layer of prostitution and porn to wade through, right up to a possible snuff film in Tijuana. All manner of dirt and crimes go down, some of which connect, however remotely, to the murder of Nigel St. Claire.

I would think that readers picking up this book might get frustrated by the many diversions that Wambaugh takes from the murder mystery at hand. Yes, eventually we'll find out who killed St. Claire in the parking lot of a Hollywood bowling alley, but that's not the point of the novel so much as a window to climb through into this world of Tinseltown misfits. No one is innocent, and justice isn't guaranteed. If you take the novel on its own terms, it's all a really cool trip into a world some thirty-plus years removed from now. Is it an escape? I don't know. I'll let you be the judge.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Rats - James Herbert

Stephen pulled a rat from Vikki's hair and hurled it away from him, his hands torn by the creature's gnashing teeth. He grabbed her arm and pulled her along the row, pushing at the people ahead of him. Inexplicably, the house-lights dimmed and finally faded leaving the confused scene lit only the light reflected from the huge screen. Something was biting into the boy's leg and he tried to kick it against the back of a seat, but because of lack of space the rat was able to hang on. He bent down to pull it away and his hands were nipped at by another rat. In desperation, he sat on top of a seat and painfully raised his leg onto the back of the seat in front, lifting the great black rat with it. Vikki ran from him and stumbled over a man in his last death struggles with three rats. She fell heavily, and was immediately engulfed in bristling bodies, her screams unheard amongst the screams of others. 

Signet, First Printing May 1975
So...not really a date you want to share with your favorite sweetheart. The scene above, from James Herbert's classic horror novel The Rats, takes place in a crowded movie theater, and pandemonium has busted loose all up in there. Does Stephen and his girl Vikki get out alive? Well, you'll have to take a guess. But considering James Herbert's early novels from this period were known for their gore and take-no-prisoners attitude you can probably figure there ain't no goodnight kiss gonna happen with our lovebirds.

Being in the middle of the throes of Year-End reporting at work, I was in the mood for a fast and nasty horror novel. This one fit the bill perfectly. Getting it all said and done in just under 200 pages is just about the perfect example of what a horror novel should be. Nothing bloated and heavy, no long passages of internal angst, no wasted dialog about extraneous bullshit, Just giant rats eating people. That's it. Giant rats eating people. Giant, intelligent, blood-thirsty rats invading homes, churches, subway trains, theaters and schools to eat people. It's like a perfect late-night horror film. You have a large cast of characters, a few of which are given a backstory before they meet their demise under the fang. You have a hero, school teacher Harris, who is pulled into various battles with the Rats throughout the novel, You also have ineffective government types scrambling to quell rising panic while covering their asses. But mostly you have the Rats bringing it to the citizens in seemingly concentrated attacks.

When this novel was first published it wasn't received kindly by critics. But a few discerning horror fans out there took note and realized that something cool was coming back to horror fiction out of Herbert's typewriter, and that was full on glorious unapologetic pulp. The kind of pulp one didn't see at least since the horror comics of the early fifties.

Coming from postwar Liverpool, I would imagine that James Herbert didn't get much exposure to the gentler side of things, and it's reflected in the politics of the novel with the Labour Party and Conservatives blaming each other for the wasted conditions affecting the underclass of society. Things haven't really changed much since the novel's printing when it comes to political parties pointing fingers while solving nothing. I think that attitude is what appeals to horror fans, or heavy metal fans, or punk rock fans, whatever. You know you're ultimately on your own, and no one in "power" gives fuck-all about you. You sink or swim with the rats.

But all that philosophizing aside, ultimately The Rats is just a kick-ass horror novel for those old-school fans out there who enjoy a little grue now and then.