Bryan Smith's "Soultaker" (Leisure; 2009) has just hit the shelves and I'm enjoying it immensely; the opening chapter gets so much right about the birds and the bees. The author's "Depraved" will follow later in the year. I'm hanging out for that.
While reading "The Freakshow" (Leisure; 2007), also from Mr. Smith, my mind kept drifting back to a disturbing sequence from Richard Laymon's "The Woods Are Dark" (Warner Books; 1981). "Woods" was the late, great writer's second novel and it was butchered by its publisher.
Still, it had a strong impact on me.
From the first page:
Neala saw it, too. She hit the brakes. Her friend thrust a hand against the windshield as the car jerked to a stop. In front of them, the legless thing dragged itself over the road with powerful, hairy arms. "What the fuck is it?" Sherri muttered. Neala shook her head. Then it faced them.
It fumbled at an opening in its furry vest. A pocket? It pulled out a severed human hand, kissed its palm, and tossed it. The hand flipped toward Neala. She ducked her head, felt it in her hair, and knocked it aside. It fell into the gap between the bucket seats. The legless thing scuffled off the road and disappeared into the forest.
Isn't that great? The "legless thing"? The imagery that conjures! It's beautiful. The feelings it stirs! Ah, what delicious terror this is. What is it about a legless, misshapen sack of flesh and bone that spears us in the pleasure center? Why does the tossing of a severed hand at another human being seem so...right?
Laymon really nails it. He loved the freaky, the malformed, and the misunderstood. He shed tears for the denizens of the dark. When I read "The Wood Are Dark" for the first time, I felt like I was in the company of family.
The two books are very different, but they share a deep love for the grotesque and they're big on unspeakable monstrosities.
Clearly inspired by Todd Browning's "Freaks", Smith delights in imagining his freak-infested milieu, and his creations invite sympathy as much as horror. But they are driven by a force that distinguishes the story from others.
The cover art for Smith's book is slick and inviting. The size of Smith's name suggests that he's becoming a brand. His "Deathbringer" and "House of Blood" earn a byline, too.
Brian Keene, another writer from the Leisure stable, and one more established than Smith, has a quote on the cover.
It is not uncommon for authors from the same publishing stable to promote each others books.
As much as I enjoyed the subject matter of "The Freakshow", I felt it lacked contrast. It was "All Freaks, All The Time", and some of the weirdness just got overwhelming and repetitive. Still, I like Smith very much, and it's clear that he writes from a dark, bloody heart.
Contrast the reverential cover treatment Leisure gave Mr. Smith with the appalling presentation given Mr. Laymon.
It's important to note that Warner had recently made a killing with Laymon's "The Cellar", one amazing debut novel, so the author was deserving of some respect, right?
Laymon's name is much smaller than the title and you have to squint to read "author of The Cellar", which was a best seller. There's nothing there to grab your attention. The green foil doesn't help, either.
Just as unforgivable is the nonsensical, grammatically ridiculous blurb:
"Only fools stay in Barlow, the town the Devil built, when night falls and...The Woods Are Dark".
What clown wrote that?
Clearly, Warner had no idea how to sell this novel. They hired some hack to come up with a phrase that incorporated the title. It didn't have to make a jot of fuckin' sense.
And what the hell is that illustration buried between tree branches supposed to be?
Well, you have to flip the book over to find the answer to that.
Then there's this quote...
In Laymon's out-of-print autobiography, "A Writer's Tale" (Deadline Press; 1998), easily one of the most honest books on writing and publishing you will ever read, the author admits that the Hirschfeld quote didn't come from Hirschfeld at all; he'd never even read a Laymon novel.
Regarding the importance of cover art, Laymon had this to say:
Read this closely:
Well, the Warner Books cover of "The Woods Are Dark" did destroy the author's career (in America) for a very long time. Although publishers did release some of his books, the runs were short and publicity was minimal.
Luckily, he was embraced and treated with enormous respect and affection by British publishers in the decades to follow.
Recently, Leisure Books has been releasing US editions of the late author's extraordinary work, including a brand new edition of "The Woods Are Dark" that restores it to its original state.
It's nice to see that while Mr. Laymon is resting (or is that restless?) in pulp purgatory, the printing presses are not.