Richard Laymon is my favorite Bad Writer. He ladles out tasty helping after tasty helping of fast-paced horror, amusing & ridiculous banter, inexplicable character motivation, bloody mayhem, sexual torture, horny juveniles, and eye-rolling coincidence. His rich stews are chock-full of laugh-out-loud (or gasp-out-loud) moments that are berserk, bizarre, and often hilarious. He is also insanely repetitious, incredibly sleazy, and his mono-focus on BOOBS BOOBS BOOBS (and the teenage boys who love them) is positively mono-maniacal. Why do i keep returning to his novels? They must be like crack to me. He is a terrible writer in so many ways, but a person cannot fault his expert ability with pacing or the overripe fecundity of his imagination. He's one of a kind.
TO WAKE THE DEAD is a surprisingly ambitious novel in some ways, mainly in its structure. It juggles multiple narratives that of course come together in the end - but those narrative strands are absorbingly different from each other. And there are a heck of a lot of them! A curator and her cop boyfriend deal with break-ins and murders at a museum while indulging themselves in romance and margaritas. A semi-mindless mummy snarls her way across various neighborhoods, ripping throats out and searching for babies. A mopey, rich blind girl sighs on the rooftop of her mansion, constantly dreaming of lovers appearing to comfort her. A horny high school teen is kidnapped and wakes to find himself in a room of cages, cages full of captives who must yield to complicated physical torture and sexual abuse each time the lights go off. Three teen runaways flee to California and must deal with a range of predators, bickering the entire way. A repulsively-depicted drug addict and combo sexual predator/prey forms a crush on a gentleman who was kind to her. An egyptian emigre tries to figure out the mystery of the mummy while engaging in a series of sexual hijinks, one of which goes terribly awry. All of that, and then right in the middle of the book we get an old-fashioned, multiple-chapter flashback delivered quaintly through the journal of a young archaelogist finding a mummy's tomb. Of course the journal graphically depicts a bit of wish fulfillment sex-with-twins, but hey that's Laymon for you.
THE CELLAR is Laymon’s first novel and it certainly reads as a first novel in its combination of breathless pacing, graphic gross-outs, awkward dialogue, and a narrative that lurches all over the place. It also features highly unnecessary descriptions of child molestation in an odd subplot that is completely inessential to the narrative... and that sort of made me question the author's motives. Overall, I thought this was an incredibly overrated piece of crap. However, taken on its own, "giant human/rat monsters who are obsessed with sex" is sort of an amusing concept. The description of a pair of these fellows earnestly double-teaming their landlady was certainly a first for me.
ALLHALLOW’S EVE is surprisingly underrated. A conspicuously slim and trim novel that details various events leading up to a carnage-filled Halloween party. There’s a killer on the loose, a bad house with a bad history, a lovelorn cop, two pathetic teen bullies, and our ostensible hero – the bullies’ victim and the son of the cop’s love interest. I enjoyed this one. It is full of Laymon’s typical flaws but the pacing here is particularly fine, there are several scenes that go in surpassingly surprising directions, and the Halloween party itself is enjoyably brief – which makes its various atrocities all the more vivid. And in its distinctly repellent teen protagonist – cringing, creepy, and cunning – it looks ahead to his later novel ISLAND in its use of an audience identification point with whom no sane audience would like to identify.
ISLAND is incredibly offensive, bizarrely interesting, and often a lot of frenetic, fast-paced fun. Sleazy, escapist enjoyment; I felt guilty. A bunch of survivors of a suspicious explosion on a private yacht run around a tropical island, getting picked off or captured & abused by unknown assailants. Fortunately, a relentlessly horny teenage boy is on hand to be our fearless hero, audience identification point, and cataloger of all things he deems attractive or unattractive in women.
This novel made me wonder: is Laymon a banal and vapid writer or is this all deliberate - could there be intent behind it? Who knows. Sometimes i can't help but get the impression that everything he knows about human conversation, emotion, and motivation is what he learned from bad tv and 80s slasher movies. Well in this novel that debit actually works well because of the hilariously banal and vapid protagonist. The cataloguing of various cute physical attributes of his fellow castaways gets so repetitious and out-of-place and obsessive that the novel almost becomes an absurdist farce. No matter how dangerous or grueling the situation may be, no matter how often everyone is running for their lives or trying to stake out their tormentors... our hero still pops a boner at the slightest hint of T&A and his inner monologue remains ludicrously obsessed with the most puerile, laughable details. I'm not sure I've read anything remotely like this. Outside of Laymon.
The protagonist awkwardly getting in touch with his dark side a couple times was a nifty touch, although it also meant having to get through some repulsive, drooling depictions of abuse (par for the course for Laymon readers, unfortunately). But "nifty" is definitely not the right word for the very ending, one where our boy-hero decides to bring his exploration of that dark side to the next level. “Genuinely disturbing" is probably a more appropriate phrase.
Witness this finale – BIG, BIG SPOILER AHEAD IN THIS PARAGRAPH – in which our horny young idiot of a protagonist finally gets some of his sexual fantasies fulfilled: after many struggles, a lot of quick thinking, and a bit of luck, he manages to heroically save the day by violently dispatching both of the heinous, monstrous villains... and then simply decides to keep his fellow survivors imprisoned ("uh oh, I can't find the key to your cages!")... and so is able to take those villains' place, living in their island mansion, a bunch of naked women he's been salivating over throughout the novel now full of gratitude towards him... and now also available for his every whim - that is, if they ever want to get out of those cages. Golly gee, I guess it really IS a happy ending for our brave lad!
That ending is diabolically clever. To make matters even more unnerving, the tone of the novel's first person narrative, one that is in a journal format, is both angsty Young Adult and gee whiz, what a crazy adventure I'm having! That tone remains consistent from the zippy opening to the upsetting final decision. The reader is positively not let off the hook and I was left with that lingering, sickening, dread-filled feeling in my stomach that so many horror authors aspire but often fail to create. Maybe Laymon isn't such a bad writer after all. Having a hero who gradually, increasingly exhibits villainous attributes is nothing new - but it was genuinely startling to see it happen in Island. And I suppose it can also be said that crudity can sometimes get more visceral results than ambiguity and literariness.
NIGHT IN LONESOME OCTOBER: One late night, heartbroken college student Ed decides to soothe his troubled soul by taking a long nighttime stroll to Dandi Donuts. And so begins an addiction. With each subsequent evening walk he learns more about the eerie, threatening, hypnotic underside of the sleepy small town of Wilmington. What lurks in Wilmington? Well, let's see... a vindictive cycling senior, predators in a van with alluring bait, a sad and scary shut-in clown, cannibalistic homeless people lurking under bridges, a sociopath with the looks of a male model who fixates on Ed and his new lady, and an enticing young miss who makes a practice of sneaking into homes to make herself at home.
What a happy relief it was to finally find the book to justify my increasingly inexcusable desire to return to his trashy, sleazy worlds again and again. Night in Lonesome October is appealing and didn't inspire the usual guilt or feelings of squirmy dirtiness. Ed is a likeable and feckless hero who tries to do the right thing, nurses petty feelings of anger towards the lass who dumped him, is realistically horny (as opposed to the over-the-top uber-horniness of most Laymon teen protagonists), and his increasingly addictive behavior in exploring the disturbing underworld of the town around him is portrayed with interesting, often frustrating realism. And the ongoing motifs of nudity and voyeurism in Laymon's novels are handled with a lot more intelligence here - and in a way that rather expertly places the protagonist and the reader in the same shoes. Very Hitchcock! Very Blue Velvet!
The novel delivers genuine chills in set-piece after set-piece, from the creepy exploration of various silent homes to the image of a silent lumbering figure climbing over a fence on the edge of a ballpark at midnight to an increasingly threatening conversation with a lunatic to an ill-judged decision to have a little moonlit sex under a bridge. This was a genuinely tense novel.
It is also, per standard Laymon, a microscopic narrative. Although it takes place over the course of several days, we are often in Ed's head on a minute-by-minute basis. At times this can get a bit tedious but it mainly works. It is all so you are there now.
I was also pleased at how Laymon handles his gay character. At first the hero's frenemy Kirkus was straight-up stereotype and I was annoyed. He's swishy and he speaks in some kind of affected Noel Coward voice and he is constantly predatory towards our hero's apparently hot little bod. But then we get Kirkus' horrifying back-story and I was rather blown away by just how tough Laymon decided to be when depicting how bad it can get for young queers. Kudos! No punches pulled, and even better, the punches thrown land in surprisingly ambiguous and troubling places. And after this revelation... Kirkus is still the same pretentious, pathetic, and rather creepy guy, one who acts in an even more predatory style. It doesn't matter - Kirkus became real, to me and to Ed, and his move from asshole to assholish friend felt well-earned. Oh and spoiler: he also saves the day, so there's that.
If you are a Laymon fan and if any of the above makes you think that this atypical Laymon offering lacks the typical Laymon excesses of torture, rape, sadism, and excessive blood-is-everywhere type violence... well, I guess don't worry. The climax has all of that, sicko.
It is often impossible to defend the author or his books. I usually feel like showering after reading one of his novels. An unclean sort of fun. But still, well, fun. Lots of fun!