Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Writer's Tale

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.


  1. Laymon spoiled me as a horror reader. He wrote nasty vicious villains who had no restraint. The term 'page turner' gets thrown around a lot but it is impossible to put a good Laymon book down sometimes.

    I read the restored 'Woods Are Dark' last year and I was in awe of how brilliant it was. I mean, the evil he writes about is almost a cliche but he embellishes it with such devious glee that it becomes the new standard that I judge similar stories by.

    Man, that first cover is just awful.

  2. I agree, Shon. The "glee" comes from his respect for the subject matter and his take-no-prisoners philosophy.

    I share your awe for him.

  3. Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but can anyone else say that they have literally read EVERY novel and short story Laymon wrote, some twice? Beasts, Blood, and (indeed) Breasts oh my!

    Also, isn't it strange that Leisure Books won't cop to the fact that he's dead? Check out all their bios. Strange...I wonder if Kelly and Anne are behind that.

  4. You should be proud to admit that, my friend.

    I have read several a number of times, but not all.

    It is odd that his passing is being "ignored".

    Probably a marketing reason.

  5. This was an interesting read. Laymon is one of my biggest influences. You probably figured that out. I have all those old editions with the cheesy covers.

  6. Me too, Bryan.

    Now I'm collecting all yours, too.

    What goes around.

    Just finished "Soultaker". The characterization was very strong.

  7. I am going out this evening to purchase Soultaker [as well as Brian Keene's Castaways] so I am glad to hear that you are enjoying it "immensely" :-)
    [Also, I am looking very forward to Depraved, as Smith claims that he feels it is his persoanl best!]

    As for Laymon, I only just discovered him, in December of '07 and I have been on a quest to find ALL of his books [I have about 15 or 16, so far]

    Where or where can a find 'A Writer's Tale'?!?

    Excellent Post Phantom - I am gald that I came across your Blog!

  8. Thanks for the feedback, thebonebreaker.

    I like Smith a lot. He's a sincere horror writer. Although I wrote a couple of negative comments about THE FREAKSHOW, it's just the personal view of one man. I still enjoyed it a lot. Anybody who writes about freaks is alright in my book.

    DEPRAVED sounds great.

    It is worth giving JF Gonzalez's SURVIVOR a read. It is terrific and extreme. Very sad, too.

    As for A WRITER'S TALE, it took me forever to find a copy. It ought to be reprinted. It is like a bible to me.

  9. Wow, you have a copy of A WRITER'S TALE? I'm beginning to think you're the coolest blogger ever :-) I almost stopped completely reading horror novels when Laymon died, but lately novels like Bentley Little's The University and Death Instinct have eased the pain a little. But still I doubt I'll ever find a writer I'll love as much Laymon.

  10. I understand your sentiments.

    I was living in Melbourne when he died. Steve Gerlach, a writer,friend, and creator of the LaymonKills website,led a service for Laymon in a well known Melbourne park. It was one of them most moving services I have ever attended.

    It wasn't just Laymon who had died; his literary "world" was gone.

    What I loved about Laymon was his unrepentant lust for the lurid. He embraced "The Lurid" without apologies or excuses.

    I get so tired of people making apologies for violence and sex and rape in literature. They require no apology. They are elements of life. Laymon's portrayal of horror was original and captivating because it was so raw.

    An artist's job is to provoke, excite, entice, and inspire. Laymon did all that, and always will through his novels.


    It was a shit tracking down A WRITER'S TALE, but it was worth the effort and cost.

    Thank you for reading, Jaako. If I can be a quarter as interesting as your wonderful Groovy Age blog, I'll be content.

  11. What I also loved about Laymon was that the twists and turns his novels took tended to be pretty damn unpredictable. I mean, most of his stuff wasn't even supernatural horror, but his imagination still seemed to always lead the reader into some red-light version of The Twilight Zone, where anything and everything was possible. Christ, how I miss that!

    And I do hope someone re-prints A WRITER'S TALE soon, because while it's available on eBay even now, I'm just not rich enough to pay 500 dollars for it...