Monday, October 24, 2011

Texarkana Moonlight Murders

Texarkana, 1946: the Phantom Killer strikes. He hunts the lovers' lanes. He may visit your farm late at night. Before his reign of terror ends, this hooded ghost will kill five victims. The good people of Texarkana will live in fear. Law enforcement will come up empty-handed time after time. And, in 1976, the pseudo-documentary The Town That Dreaded Sundown tells their story. First off, great title. I rented this movie years ago on VHS. The sound quality was horrible. But the scratchy yellow print only added to the grittiness of the story. There are lots of reasons to seek it out. Ben Johnson as a Texas Ranger, for one. See Gilligan's Island's Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) get attacked. The killer is scary and raw. It's more Dragnet than Halloween. The vibe of the pic is lurid, tabloid, and rural at its core. A few comic sequences don't work at all. But the trashy, drive-in, fun-o-meter dives into the red most of the time. Chilling. That mask! That breathing! That trombone! By the way, the Phantom Killer was never caught.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Andromeda Strain

Early Michael Crichton is the best, and none come better than 1969's The Andromeda Strain. Taut, chilling, and totally believable -- Crichton's breakout science fiction/techno/medical thriller holds up over forty years after it was written. Crichton presents the story as a false document, which is one reason it doesn't feel dated despite revolutions in biology and medicine. It reads like a bio-nightmare from another time, yet its horrors are just as scary and relevant today. Robert Wise's excellent film adaptation holds up equally well (forget about the TV remake, trust me). I once watched the Wise film in a bar in Grinnell, IA with a couple of townies after I had finished my final exams early. A great way to unwind. I haven't seen Soderbergh's Contagion yet. But, as far as bio-terror fiction goes, it will be hard to top the Crichton/Wise efforts for style, tension, and pure entertainment.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

All Aboard! the Horror Express

Horror Express (1972) is one crazy-ass movie that scared the pee out of me when I was a kid. I remember staying up late, eating Polish sausage, onion, and Open Pit sandwiches, while sucking Schweppes ginger ale from a can and watching this bad boy between burps. Now I can't really explain the plot, but it's unlike anything you've seen before. It's horror/sci-fi on a train with a Spaghetti Western vibe. Packed inside you'll find missing links, mad monks, aliens, Satan, spies, trepanning, evil eyes, the trans-Siberian railroad, pseudoscience, secret formulas, zombies, and did I mention Telly Savalas as a hotheaded Cossack? Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing anchor the picture as a pair of British scientists defending the train from Eee-vil. The music is great, creepy, and wonderfully overdone. It all goes down like a Polish sausage, onion, and Open Pit sandwich. Make mine a double. And don't forget the Schweppes!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Used & Abused: Our Lady Of Darkness

Fritz Leiber wrote two of my favorite horror stories ("Smoke Ghost" and "The Terror from the Depths") and one of my favorite Lovecraftian novels (Our Lady of Darkness). I first read him when I was in grade school, and I bought a used paperback of Swords and Ice Magic, a late entry in his famous Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser swords-and-sorcery series. Leiber was a disciple of Lovecraft, and he's at his best when working the Lovecraftian terrain. He mines the connection between modern architecture and the occult like no other, whether he's talking about Simon Rodia's bizarre and beautiful Watts Towers in "The Terror from the Depths" or the haunting cityscape of San Francisco in Our Lady of Darkness.

Leiber is a writer's writer, with a supple and subtle prose style, an eye for spooky detail, and a pervasive sense of humanity amid the strangeness. The semi-autobiographical hero of Our Lady of Darkness is a horror writer, an alcoholic widower coming off a three-year bender, who starts seeing an otherworldly entity ("the Noseless One") through his binoculars while looking out his window one day. Leiber studs the novel with arcane ciphered texts, pseudoscientific concepts like "paramentals" and "megapolisomancy," and real-life literary adventurers including Clark Ashton Smith, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, and George Sterling. Leiber is able to take the mundane and imbue it with weirdness, making us reevaluate what we accept daily as "reality." I have never looked at San Francisco the same after reading this book. You won't either.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


What if you stole something from the most dangerous cult in the world? Where would you go? How could you hide? And what would happen if they found you? My new supernatural thriller, PITCH DARK, is now on sale! Buy it from your favorite bookstore, or download it on Kindle. Get ready to be afraid of the dark.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Amityville Horror: Why It Works

Is Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House the most famous tale of a haunted house in fiction? Perhaps. Richard Matheson's Hell House, clearly inspired by Jackson, is more visceral and, in my opinion, scarier. I would also recommend Edward Lee's Flesh Gothic, an excellent updating of the Jackson psychic-haunting-investigation template. But the haunted house that scared me the most as a kid is the Dutch Colonial located at 112 Ocean Ave. in Amityville, NY. I nominate it as the most famous haunted house in fiction. But wasn't The Amityville Horror non-fiction? Sorta. Was it debunked as a hoax? Kinda. But I honestly don't care about the truth of it. I care about the story. And the story is good. It has legs. It has endured and grown, as all good legends do.

Let's start with the ghastly origins. In the early hours of November 13th, 1974, a heroin abusing 23 year-old, Ronnie DeFeo, murdered six members of his family. He shot them with a Marlin rifle while they lay on their stomachs in bed. He killed his parents and four younger siblings. Later, he went to a local bar and talked about the killings. He was arrested, convicted, and he rots in prison to this day. Some have disputed that Ronnie acted alone. How exactly do you shoot six people with a rifle and no neighbors hear the shots? Why were the victims still in their beds after the attack began and ALL sleeping on their stomachs? I don't know. But let's say Ronnie did it. The cops got the right guy. Justice was served. Okay, good.

In December 1975, newlyweds George and Kathy Lutz moved their family (Kathy had three kids from a previous marriage) into the former DeFeo home, which they purchased at a bargain price because of its notoriety. They even bought some of the old furniture, including two bedroom sets. Creepy or cheap, I can't decide.

Now stop.

Everything after this point makes my bullshit detector go haywire. But it doesn't matter unless you want to believe that what the Lutz family reported is true.

Isn't that how every good campfire ghost story begins?

"This really happened . . ."

Well, I don't think it did. Or not the way we've been told. See, a lot of different people contributed to the Amityville legend, and they all had motives, and telling the truth wasn't high on their list. First off, the Lutzes met with DeFeo's defense attorney who was mounting an insanity defense. Over bottles of wine, they discussed weird occurrences in the house. They brainstormed. The lawyer got the idea of writing a book. Then he was surprised to discover later that the Lutzes had connected with a writer on their own in an attempt to sell their story. Cut out of the deal, he's been debunking their "hoax" even since. Jay Anson, who wrote the bestselling book, NEVER met the Lutzes, and the Lutzes admitted he exaggerated, changed events around, and even made up stuff. Anson defended himself by saying he was a writer and he wanted to make money. He lifted his title from Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror. Anson's book is reportorial, spare, and frightening -- I can see why it made big bucks. A media circus followed. Less-than-credible demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren got involved. Ghost investigator Hans Holzer brought in a trance medium who channeled a Shinnecock Indian chief angered because the house was built on burial grounds. Great stuff. But true? Mmm . . . I don't think so. The movie poster gave us the spooky, iconic, round quarter windows glaring out like jack o' lantern eyes. Cinematics turned up the volume and explosive evil forces, capturing the momentum of a previous demonic big hit, The Exorcist. Now we've had sequels and remakes and books about the book . . . see why it's hard to swallow? But the story works. Why? Details. How many do I remember after years?

-the secret "red room" in the basement
-Jodie the Pig with the red eyes who left footprints in the snow
-Father Mancuso/Pecoraro getting slapped and told, "Get out!"
-the Lutzes moving out after 28 days
-flies on the wall
-blisters on the priest's hands
-blackened toilet bowls
-oozing slime on the walls
-waking up every night at the time of the DeFeo murders
-George chopping wood because he can't get warm
-Kathy levitating in bed
-the crucifix on the wall turning upside-down

Whew! I've got a good memory, but I'm sure you recall some of those same details. That's how we remember stories -- we string together strong details. I think this particular cloud of details is so potent it has lasted, and will last for years to come. You see, the devil is in the details. No residents of 112 Ocean Ave. have reported anything unusual since the Lutzes left. But they have changed the windows into rectangles. And the address has been altered to keep away curious tourists.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Here's the cover we're using for the bonus prequel to my upcoming novel, PITCH DARK. The story is a pulp weird tale written by one of the characters. It triggers all the events in the book. I had a great time writing it. Makes me wish I lived in the old Pulp Era. But, hey, maybe I'm living in the new one? Soon I'll have links where people can download "A Chunk of Hell" for free. Free! Free!