Hello, and welcome to the first installment of Dead Trees. I want to thank you for taking the time to check out my new column.
Most publishers and writers want to see reviews of current or recently released books. There is nothing wrong with that, and all fans should read the new stuff coming out. But in this column I intend to showcase older works. The past is a treasure trove of books that are important to the genre, and there are also simply fun novels that I believe deserve new readers. Some of these will be currently available today from living writers. The duel-edged miracle of electronic publishing makes it easy to bring old stuff back to life, and I will encourage you to purchase them in this way. Writers gotta eat and pay bills like the rest of us. Other times the items I talk about here will be long out of print and can be found at the secondary markets.
I plan to focus on titles that were published in or prior to the 1980s. These are the years I cut my horror-reading teeth in, and I read dozens and dozens of great, near great, and not-so-great horror and suspense books back then.
My first choice is Night Things by Thomas F. Monteleone. Anyone who knows anything is well aware that Tom has, as a writer, editor, publisher, and journalist, been a monument of quality. His standard is simply excellence. But way back in 1980 he was just getting his feet wet in the genre. Having already made a mark in the science fiction field, Monteleone set his sights on darker subject matter. Night Things is his debut horror novel.
I read Night Things a few years after its publication, and I was ready for it. I had piledriven through everything Stephen King had published up until that point. I was blown away by Peter Straub’s If You Could See Me Now, Ghost Story, Shadowland, and Floating Dragon. I was reading Charles L. Grant. James Herbert. Ramsey Campbell. I had been a fan of Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson since the early seventies.
I was head over heels in love with horror, and that passion was only going to increase for the next several years. I saw every movie I could manage to see. I was reading just about everything. It was, and continues to be, a very happy addiction.
I knew who Thomas F. Monteleone was. Oh yes. My memory was firm. I grew up a voracious science fiction reader, and I read Tom’s very first published novel at the ripe old age of fourteen. It was Seeds of Change, and the book was the first in an ill-conceived and short-lived series of non-related novels called Laser Books.
I liked Seeds of Change, even if I can’t remembered a damned thing about the book today. I’ve spoken to Tom about it, and he doesn’t appear to have what you’d call the fondest memories of it. Hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere.
So, yeah, I remembered the Thomas F. Monteleone byline, and whilst I was browsing through a wonderful used bookstore called The Bookworm sometime in nineteen eighty-four, I saw it on the spine of a paperback in the horror section. The book was, of course, Night Things. I bought it at the customary half cover price, and took it home with me. Or at least it was what I called home at the time.
An aside: God, how I miss The Bookworm. I spend nearly all my extra cash in that place. I did buy new books sometimes, but I was fairly poor in those days. The Bookworm appeared one day in my neighborhood, and it was a godsend to a reading fanatic such as myself.
I read Night Things, and a whole bunch of other horror novels, while I was living on a small boat that was docked at a marina near where I worked. It was a inglorious existence, but the rent was free, and I could take showers for a couple of bucks at the local bait shop.
I am hard-pressed today to think of a better place to read horror fiction than on a small craft on the water. It didn’t help matters that I was asked to stay there because thieves had been robbing boats in the area. Try reading Janes Herbert’s The Rats on a tiny deadrise workboat when seeing large, hungry rodents around the bulkhead was a common occurrence.
The night I read Night Things was very cold and very windy. Perfect conditions for a horror story. I wasn’t freezing, but I wasn’t exactly toasty either. I had a little propane stove that got it up to fifty degrees or so. I actually enjoy that temperature.
I reread Night Things for this article, and the conditions were slightly different. For one, I am somewhat more sophisticated as a reader. I’m not as easy to please, and I am not as easily swayed by a simple story. For another, while it was very cold again, this time I was between flannel sheets and beside the woman I love.
I am happy to say that I did enjoy Night Things this time around, and I do recommend those who love a good horror yarn to find a copy.
It was a simpler time. A time when evil children and Indian burial grounds ruled the roost. And a hell of a lot of horror was set in rural areas. There was a kind of loose formula to this sort of thing. A family leaves the big bad city and moves to a small town. This was usually after some sort of tragedy, or maybe just overall urban weariness and a misfortune. A miscarriage was not uncommon. The hapless family is trying to set root in the small town, but this plan gets waylaid by some form of ancient evil. Imagine Donald Pleasance dragging out the word…eeevilll.
Horror underwent some changes by the mid-eighties. It went downtown, and became heavily influenced by rock music, midnight/grindhouse/drive-in movies, and a lot of marijuana. It was the splatterpunk era and any of us welcomed it with open arms. I know that I did. Small town horror became too quaint. We wanted hip characters, blood, entrails, drugs. And we got ’em.
Horror became more intense as the nineties roared past. Transgressive fiction became the norm, and horror not only went to the city, but it also took readers to brothels, bathrooms, dens of subversion, torture chambers. I liked some of that stuff for a little while, but enough very quickly became enough.
It was enough to make me crave the good old comfortable small towns again.
Sure, horror should not be too comfortable, and I don’t want all the things I read and watch go too easily on my sensibilities, but damned if I don’t enjoy a good small town horror story now and again. I don’t even mind hoary old Indian Burial Grounds.
Which brings me back to Night Things. Yes, the formula is in full force in this novel. You got your broken family—widowed father and son—a small southeastern desert town, a new love life for the guy, and you won’t be too surprised that early on in the book a construction crew uncovers a spooky burial ground. And you know that mysterious deaths begin to occur in the town. Could the burial site be…gulp…cursed?
What do you think?
Night Things is a fun book, and it was written back when the clichés were, well, if not exactly fresh, then at least not too stale yet.
I don’t think anyone would call Night Things the best novel that Tom Monteleone has ever written. His later thrillers are masterfully constructed. But even back then, when he and I were still somewhat naive, he knew how to tell a story. Night Things moves along at a brisk pace, it has multiple third person viewpoints, and it delivers a nice amount of tension, suspense, and solid scares.
Sad to say, Night Things has never been released as a hardcover. Back then a writer could make a decent living doing paperback originals, and it was no shame to publish in that arena. Now every half-baked rush job horror novel seems to get a deluxe treatment. If I had my own imprint, I’d consider doing a nice edition of Night Things. It’s surely no classic, but it’s a genuine relic from the days when modern horror was being forged. And it was written by an acknowledged master of the genre.
I recently asked Tom a few questions about the conception of Night Things, and he told me that he decided to do the small town horror novel in bright sunlight and not dreary New England; he copied King’s formula of multiple POV; he took the Indian burial ground cliché and turned it inside out.
If this sounds like your kind of horror, a spooky, atmospheric trip back into the genre’s past, I urge you to locate a copy. It’s available as a trade paperback and an e-book, with an introduction by Bob Booth.
(A version of this column previously appeared in Deadlights #1)
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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.