Dead Trees: The Eighth Square by Herbert Lieberman

I’m going to ask you to bear with me here. Indulge your willing suspension of disbelief for a bit, please.

There was once a time when I thought that a novel about flesh-eating zombies was a great idea.

I know, I know. This was long, long before the glut of Romero clones came along to ruin the reputation of horror fiction. Casual observers might think that the genre is little more than gut munching zombies. It’s downright embarrassing.

But back in the early eighties—before Skipp and Spector’s Books of the Dead, before Philip Nutman’s Wet Work, before Keene’s The Rising, before 28 Days Later, before the Dawn of the Dead remake, before World War Z (you get the picture)—I would have loved to find a zombie book.

So when I was browsing at the paperbacks in a used bookstore and I saw one called City of the Dead, I was intrigued. I had never heard of the author, Herbert Lieberman, but the book seemed to be well received by critics.  The title and c over art suggested that it was a book inspired by Night and Dawn of the Dead. It was a quick and easy decision to take a chance on it.

But City of the Dead was not about zombies. No. It was scarier than that. A hell of a lot scarier.

City of the Dead deals with a week in the life of a New York City medical examiner. His life and work are described in grisly, explicit detail. It’s almost unbelievably grim and I was riveted to the page as I raced through the book. As always in a case like this, I knew that I had a new favorite writer, and a lot more reading ahead of me.

I wasted little time in reading all of Lieberman’s books, and I liked them all. I found his style rather similar to that of Ira Levin, but without Levin’s sly satiric eye. In fact, I favorably compared Lieberman’s work to that of Levin’s. No, I have not forgotten the brilliance of Rosemary’s Baby, A Kiss Before Dying, and The Boys From Brazil. And yes, I am still trying to forget the crushing disappointment of Sliver and Son of Rosemary.

Herbert Lieberman is that good. He’s relatively unknown to today’s horror readers, and that is a crying shame. Perhaps it’s because Lieberman’s books are all over the map. He did a thriller about Nazis living in South America (The Climate of Hell), a serial killer novel that came out well before The Silence of the Lambs (Nightbloom), a fantasy (Sandman, Sleep), a financial thriller (Night Call From a Distant Time Zone), and an odd character study suspense novel that was made into an ABC Movie of the Week (Crawlspace).

My favorite Herbert Lieberman novel, however, is a chilling puzzle box of a story called The Eighth Square. The Eighth Square is also the one that reminds me most of Ira Levin’s writing.

The plot of The Eighth Square is fairly simple, at least on the surface. A group of old acquaintances (I can’t quite call them friends) are on a walking trip through the woods to locate the boundaries of a new owner’s property. A well-respected and beloved surveyor-guide, a nice day, a brisk walk, a new neighbor, what’s to be afraid of?

Things are not as they seem in those woods. Petty resentments surface. Old hostilities are rekindled. And when the surveyor collapses in what appears to be a stroke, all hell breaks loose.

The group is lost and they seem to be going in circles. The guide sputters nonsensical phrases that begin to sound like occult incantations. Night comes and goes, and hunger sets in. Men attempt to dominate the group, and all the while hopelessness consumes them.

How can a group of sensible, intelligent people get lost so close to their homes? The story and the secrets of The Eighth Square become metaphoric, and as they wander aimlessly, their plight begins to resemble the way we all futilely stumble through life, with only certain death waiting at the end.

The Eighth Square is subtitled “A Diabolical Novel,” and it lives up to that description. It’s currently available as an e-book and in audio form. I hope that you take a chance on something new and give it a try.

If you do try it, and wish to read on to more of Mr. Lieberman’s work, I urge you to try City of the Dead or The Climate of Hell. But be forewarned: You’ll need a strong stomach for these two books. They aren’t the cartoonish grossout junk you’ll find from a lot of so-called hardcore horror writers. No, these books contain extreme realism in their depictions of the worst of humanity.

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of TerrorSir Graves Ghastly PresentsThe Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon LoverThe Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at horrordrivein@yandex.com, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

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