I like a lot of new horror fiction. I just recently read one of the best, if not the best, novel in years: The Last House on Needless Street.
I never want to stop reading current writers, but I spend a lot of time back in my roots. I’m talking about the early 1980s. Post Stephen King, but pre-Splatterpunk. A time of small towns, ancient evil, diabolical children, delightfully garish paperback covers, and bookstores everywhere that still had horror sections.
It didn’t take a lot to please me. I trusted blurbs from other writers! That alone shows how different a time it was.
There’s a lot to praise in the new horror realm, but my heart still pines for old fears. And speaking of that, one novel I never got around to reading back then is Old Fears by John Wooley and Ron Wolfe.
These two writers aren’t as well known as others in the field, but pikers they are not. Wooley was a writer for Fangoria, and he also wrote a damned good book about Wes Craven. Wolfe wrote comics, including stories for a Hellraiser series. The two writing partners also did a well-received Dell/Abyss horror novel called Death’s Door.
Old Fears was published in 1982. A good year for horror. This novel has many of the ingredients fans loved so well. Professional man returns to home town for personal reasons involving a tragedy? Check. He meets a beautiful, competent, professional, single woman? Check. Townspeople begin to die in mysterious ways after the man arrives? Check. The incompetent sheriff considers our hero a suspect? Check. The returning man, along with the new love of his life, must discover the means to eradicate the evil that threatens them all? Check and mate.
Familiar tropes, but Old Fears has more going on in its mind than much of the competition of the time. See, in this story, the fears people had when they were children begin to take corporeal form. Fears that never really go away. This idea has been explored since then, but it was a fairly radical idea at the time.
It got me thinking: Old fears. We all have them. They stay with us. Maybe their names have changed. Instead of abandonment, as adults we might be afraid of losing our jobs and our homes. Instead of a monster lying in wait, a common fear today is facing an active shooter. We fear getting our hearts broken, losing the ones we love, having our reputations ruined.
Most people bury these fears as deeply as they can. Horror fans, especially horror readers, confront them on a regular basis. It’s not merely cathartic, it’s our idea of fun. That’s why we go back again and again and again, reading these crazy books.
Old Fears isn’t as eloquent as something Charles L. Grant had written. It isn’t as literate as a great Peter Straub story. This novel isn’t as gut-wrenching as a nice, juicy James Herbert book. It isn’t as comfortable and irresistible as a classic Stephen King opus. It does not reach the heights of cosmic horror that Ramsey Campbell excelled at.
But Old Fears is a good one. Well worth tracking down. Reading these old horror novels is a nostalgic experience, and Old Fears deals in nostalgia for an even earlier era. A big part of the story deals with the agonizing necessity of growing up. The things we gain by doing so, and also the things we lose.
That’s the good thing about horror fans like us. We deal with responsibility as best we can, but our heart of hearts never really do grow up.
Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover, The 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. Cemetery Dance recently released his collection He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.