by Richard Laymon
436 pages, Headline Feature
Review by Pat Black
You know how I got all sniffy about Richard Laymon a while ago? “He’s a bit much, pervy sex, dodgy about women, blah blah”?
Remember how I said I wouldn’t go back to him?
Dreadful Tales was released in 2000, a year before Laymon’s death. It’s a collection of his short stories, and offers a flavour of his work from the earliest point of his career in the mid-seventies, right up until the end.
It’s mainly horror, with a sprinkling of crime (the genre the author tried out first before taking a bath in the red stuff).
For reasons that will become clear, Richard Laymon’s detractors tend to really, really hate him, but by and large he is widely admired within his genre.
When I was a teenager I could not get enough of his books. Readability is key; his prose is easy to get into, and slips down as smoothly and as pleasantly as a glass of wine after work… Albeit, with a bit of a coppery aftertaste.
This book is a fair representation of what you can expect from Laymon’s work - the good, the bad and the ugly - and marks an effective testing ground for his novels.
Which can be incredibly nasty.
We start with the knowing set-up of “An Invitation To Murder”. It follows a writer drumming their fingertips in a sticky apartment on a summer’s night. The author has to pen a tale about a 22-year-old woman being murdered. There just happens to be a 22-year-old girl next door, and her stereo is awfully loud. The author cannot concentrate on the story... What happens next, d’you reckon?
“The Grab” is classic Laymon, and was widely anthologised before appearing here. It sees two college boys check into a roadside bar, where patrons are invited to take part in a unique competition.
Behind the bar, sunk into a fish tank, is a severed head. It has a diamond ring in its mouth. All you have to do is reach into the tank and take the ring out its mouth, and the jewelry belongs to you.
Most participants bottle out, but one of the guys in this story has had work experience in a mortuary, and isn’t bothered by the seemingly simple matter of dead meat. He pays his ten dollars to the man behind the bar, and rolls up his sleeve.
With “Saving Grace”, we encounter Laymon in unsavoury mode, and it’s probably best to address that early on. Two teenagers out on their push-bikes in the middle of the forest happen upon a man who is doing something unpleasant to a girl he has trussed up in a tree. The lads charge to the rescue, and render the attacker unconscious before tying him up and freeing the girl.
She’s naked, which does not escape the boys’ notice.
Things take on a moral dimension of sorts when the girl reveals she intends to halt her tormentor’s apparent career in capturing, torturing and murdering women by killing him, right there and then, with his own hunting knife. The boys, appalled, try to talk her out of it.
And then she offers something in return for their complicity.
This one has a climax you will see a lot of in Richard Laymon. Shocking endings are part of the horror writer’s stock-in-trade, but it’s the plain, unexpected, unadorned nastiness that really grabs you here.
“Saving Grace” also features some of the stuff that makes me squeamish about Laymon – not the blood and violence, but the sex. This is genre fiction, buried to the hilt in the pulp milieu, and sexual content is to be expected. But its representation here makes me uneasy. A woman who is having her nipples tortured with a pair of pliers one minute (without her consent, I should add) probably wouldn’t be inviting two teenage boys to kiss her breasts as some kind of kinky bribe moments later.
Whether you find that scenario titillating or not is entirely up to you, of course, but such material is the province of sillier self-published fiction these days.
I often wonder why it is that sexual content sometimes seems more shocking than violence. It’s mainly down to cultural conservativism, something most of us suffer from to some degree. But this “selective veiling” instinct makes little sense, as in most modern civilised societies violent behaviour is aberrant and abnormal, while sex isn’t.
My theory is that because stabbings, flayings and decapitations are, I should hope, unfamiliar experiences to us, they seem more cartoonish, and therefore easier to digest in our entertainment. More outré sexual content has an edge, because sexual pleasure is a familiar experience, even if it’s something you experience alone. But when both sex and violence are presented simultaneously, well… that isn’t normality for most people. Problems are known to occur.
However, let there be no lectures here.
“Barney’s Bigfoot Museum” looks at other classic Laymon preoccupations – adventures in the US woodland, and the monsters, human or otherwise, who live there. I’m still sort of traumatised by The Woods Are Dark’s Hills Have Eyes-style rapists and cannibals, but here we face a more familiar foe – Bigfoot. This story sees a man recount a hunting trip gone wrong in which a baby Sasquatch has been bagged by one of the gunmen.
Mommy, it turns out, isn’t very happy about this.
Fantasy violence with monsters I was happy with, but in “Herman” we’re back on dodgier ground. The central premise of the story – that a teenage girl has an invisible guardian angel who takes brutal revenge on two would-be rapists – is a good one, and the final flourish is especially memorable. But the content and the way it’s delivered is pornography, pure and simple, and I was not comfortable with its sexual sadism. If I was editing this volume, I would not have accepted “Herman”.
“The Champion” puts us back in the zone of good old-fashioned, culturally acceptable violence. We’re back at another roadside bar, where a big man pulls in, aiming to grab a beer and a steak. Unfortunately he’s picked the wrong night to head out, and he is forced to take part in a life-or-death, knives-and-knuckles struggle with the person in the title. This monthly event is a form of sport and leisure for the roadhouse’s clientele. The main character is a tough guy, and handy with his fists, but he has sworn off violence owing to bitter experience. He refuses to fight – which makes the outcome doubly gut-wrenching.
This story also makes me thankful the concept of “roadhouses” hasn’t quite caught on in the UK. At best, we have country pubs, where people will head with their families for a spot of roast beef and bickering on a Sunday, while the main rowdiness happens on the roads later when rural drunk-drivers charge home with almost complete impunity. On the rare occasions I’ve heard of out-of-town pubs and nightclubs in this country, they have without fail been total and utter bloodbaths which make “The Champion” seem like less of a cheap thrill and more of a realistic concept.
“The Maiden” re-establishes Laymon’s favourite writing subject: randy teenagers. Here, the main character, a bit of a dork with a less-than-winning-way with the ladies, is taken on a road trip by two other boys from his high school after he has insulted one of their girlfriends. Most of us would sniff out some trouble, here, but the boy, on the promise of a hot date at the other end, goes along. He is then invited to swim across a lake supposedly haunted by the ghost of a girl who was raped and murdered on her prom night fifty years previously. The boy must reach an island in the middle of the lake where his “date” is waiting for him.
You wouldn’t in a million years, of course, but this boy does. By that point, you’ll be so sold on the atmosphere that you’ll happily pitch plausibility across the surface of the water and watch it skip.
“A Good Cigar is a Smoke” has more of a crime feel to it as an abused wife decides to take action against her horrid husband and his loathed cigar habit. It’s surprisingly more in step with feminism than much else you’ll read in Dreadful Tales, and as a result is not your typical Laymon tale.
“I Am Not A Criminal”, however, is so Laymon it hurts. A husband and wife take a drive into the forest (tick). They pass a hitchhiker holding a strange sign (see title). They decide to pick up the hitchhiker, but not before the wife takes her clothes off, utterly gratuitously (tick). The hitchhiker, it turns out, was not being truthful with his signage, and soon the husband and wife’s lives are in danger (tick) while their unwelcome guest helps himself to handfuls of the wife (tick). I won’t spoil the rest, but your expectations will be challenged before the end. It is absolutely classic Richard Laymon, in every respect. Much of its impact, both in terms of sex and violence, comes from the fact that Laymon is brilliant at portraying normal middle class American lives, and then wrenching them out of their comfort zones.
“Oscar’s Audition” was another crime tale. An ex-con fresh out of jail is offered an opportunity to make some easy money by robbing a convenience store. It seems as easy as stealing sweeties from a baby… and, when the twist comes, you realise that it was.
“Into The Pit” was a brand new story written for Dreadful Tales, and takes us back to the era of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. We follow the son of a similar tomb raider as he befriends an Egyptian boy, who introduces him to the pleasures of the local ladies of the night. One pair of twins in particular hold our attention… before their angry father catches the main character in the act, and hurls him into a pit, where several other fellows appear to have suffered the same fate. The boy tries to find a way out, but the mind can play tricks even in the dark of your own bedroom, never mind in a pit stacked high with desiccated corpses.
“Spooked”, I adored - a quick, nasty tale where a girl is menaced by an unseen presence hiding under her bed.
“The Good Deed”, I did not. Reminiscent of “Saving Grace”, it featured another pair of randy teenagers happening upon a naked girl held captive out in the forest. I wondered if Laymon shifted gear halfway through this story, realising that he’d gone too far with it, before trying to add something slightly more wholesome. The concept is a good, simple one. A girl is left locked in a cage. Whoever imprisoned her could come back at any moment. Can the boys rescue her before the culprit returns to do whatever they had planned?
But that isn’t how this story pans out. When the girl in the cage is released, the only thing I could reasonably predict her doing is banging these two creeps’ heads together, before getting in touch with the police… And not doing what she does. But that’s just me.
Maybe it would turn you on. I don’t know. It isn’t real, I guess. All made up. Not to be taken seriously.
“The Direct Approach” was more crime-oriented, but I enjoyed its turning tables as a woman is accosted by a salesman peddling assassination services.
“Good Vibrations” is more porny in atmosphere, but it is unusual for Laymon – and slightly more palatable as a result – because it follows the focal point of a young woman who decides to go sunbathing at the beach. She is ogled by a young guy in a pair of strange sunglasses, who offers to put suntan oil on her back. Things proceed as you might expect, until… they do not. “Good Vibrations” is one of the better stories in the anthology featuring more overt sexual content.
“Phil the Vampire” was a cracker, where a private eye is contacted by a fretting wife jealous over her husband’s contact with other women. This isn’t an unusual scenario for the gumshoe, until the wife tells him her husband, Phil, isn’t sleeping with the women. He’s feeding on them - or rather, what’s in their veins. Phil is a vampire, she says. And what she wants from the private eye is not a stakeout, but a stake in.
“Paying Joe Back” was another outright crime story, but with a devious twist in the tale as a vengeful woman visits the bar her quarry frequents. There’s a loaded gun in her purse.
“The Fur Coat” was plain nasty, and the most horrifying story in the book. Thirty-six-year-old Janet has barely left the house since her husband died unexpectedly – so when she takes herself to see Cats, which they had both loved, she feels she owes it to herself to dress for the occasion.
It’s a tough night for Janet, but she gets through it, mainly through the memories kindled by her luxurious fur coat, a treasured gift from her late spouse. However, Janet has reckoned without two animal rights protesters stationed outside the theatre. They are armed with cans of spray paint. And worse.
“Blarney” follows a criminal couple on the run to a castle in the Los Angeles hills (don’t ask). A strange Irishman stationed there attends a tourist attraction called O’Herlihy’s Stone, right next to a two hundred-foot drop onto sea-swaddled rocks. Kissing the stone will confer eternal youth upon the kisser, the Irishman tells the couple. The man in the double-act isn’t so sure about this, but the woman is game.
Ah, to be sure now, there’s a catch.
“Dracuson’s Driver” starts off quite pervy, then gets worse. The night desk clerk at a motel has a long-established habit of spying on his female guests when he places them in one particular room, allowing the discerning voyeur to peek through their bathroom window. When a gamine chauffeur shows up at the wheel of a hearse, looking for a room for both herself and her coffin, it seems like a slam dunk for this sad, seedy, doomed wanker.
This one takes you where you expected it to from the moment you read the title, but it’s the journey that disturbs, rather than the destination.
“Roadside Pickup” was another belting tale, looking at the plight of a woman whose car has broken down along the same lonely stretch of moonlit road where her younger sister was murdered in exactly the same scenario, years before. They never caught the killer.
When a sports car pulls up alongside her, the woman wonders: it couldn’t be… him… could it?
“Wishbone” takes us back out into the woods (tick), where a couple are hiking their way through their honeymoon. Near where they pitch their tent, the woman discovers a skeleton hanging from the branches of a tree. It’s clearly been there a while, but even so, she’s a little discomfited, especially when her jerk of a husband decides to throw rocks at it, to prove that there’s little to be gained from superstition.
“First Date” sees a boy and a girl coming home from seeing a movie (look, you can probably do the ticking yourselves from here on in). The girl guesses that the boy has dark tastes, like her. So she suggests they go to a graveyard.
Clothes get removed. Blood gets spilled. But against all the odds, “First Date” was actually kind of sweet.
“Stickman” was not sweet, but thankfully it isn’t seedy, either. It sketches another carload of teenagers heading out somewhere rural and getting themselves in trouble. In this case, they’re out in the cornfields, where the local urban myth figure of the “stickman” scarecrow is said to roam.
A bet is made, and the mouthy girl in the foursome strikes out through the swaying corn towards a scrawny, hat-wearing figure in the middle of the field. Things don’t end well.
And finally we have “Mop Up”, a novella that follows a small squad of soldiers on clear-up duties in a plague-ravaged US city. The virus – released from Iraq, take note – turns people into sex-and-violence-crazed lunatics, or “droolers”. The virus is transmitted by bites, or through the saliva. A widespread cull takes place, with soldiers shooting the droolers before burning the bodies.
While “Mop Up” owes an obvious debt to George A Romero, the most striking thing about it is how germane this story – penned in 1989 – seems in comparison with modern-day zombie/crazies narratives such as The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later, or survival horror video games like the Resident Evil series, even though it predates them by at least a decade.
The story hints at scenes of sexual depravity, but at least when they occur in this instance they are intrinsic to the plot – or at the least, they get a free pass thanks to the disease’s symptoms. It was a blistering finish to the collection, packed with action, and it depicted a world – and a plague – I wanted to know more about.
So much for Dreadful Tales. Although this might seem as much of an advert as the testimonials on the inside and back cover – from such sources as Stephen King, Dean R Koontz, The Times and The Telegraph – I have to warn you, quite sincerely, that Richard Laymon’s work features some disturbing material over and above the traditional dark fiction themes of horror, death, madness and dread.
Several stories feature a perverse sexuality which will cross a line for many. Taboos are broken. It’s for the thick-skinned and the broad-minded. Some subject matter is not easy to stomach, nor is it easy to justify.
And yet, I must admit that I enjoy Laymon’s work, and have done for more than 20 years. He is quite brilliant when it comes to atmosphere, suspense and shock. He is at his best – taut as a drum – with situations like:
The babysitter puts the child to bed… The child is scared of the “bogey man” out in the garden and takes ages to fall sleep… Back downstairs, the babysitter watches a scary film, but switches it over, creeped out. Then the security light goes on in the garden. The babysitter looks out. But no-one’s there. She checks the doors are locked. Then there’s a power cut. The phones go dead. She peers out into the garden, frosted with moonlight… And sees a man climbing over the back fence.
He nails that stuff. Absolutely kills it.
When Uncle Dick’s in gear, it’s a smooth ride. However, when he writes about pervy and occasionally criminal sexual situations, I want to be dropped off at the next service station. I guess I could just be a prude.
This dissonance is hard for me to reconcile. “The Grab”, “The Fur Coat”, “Roadside Pickup”, “Spooked”, “The Champion”, “Phil the Vampire”, “I Am Not A Criminal”, “Stickman” and “Mop Up” are first-rate genre fiction.
He just can’t stay away from unusual sexual scenarios and deviant behaviour, though. If you imagine Stephen King had a maladjusted, permanently sweaty younger brother who also liked to write, but was the sort of guy you avoided at parties, that fits the bill for Laymon’s work.
He has another short story collection, Fiends. But I definitely won’t be reading that. Nope.