Monday, May 8, 2017

Review: Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon

Buoyed by the wild success of my post on Burnt Offerings, I thought I might use this space to write the occasional book or movie review. These will range in length and depth. Most will, I imagine, be somewhat short, but will hopefully give a flavor of the book or movie. Today's selection: Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon.

Told through letters and transcripts of therapy sessions, Some of Your Blood reads, in many ways, like Dracula. There are also italicized sections directed at the reader, by an unnamed narrator, presumably the author. These sections address the reader directly (second person) and talk about the book as a book. Very oddball. It took some getting used to, and it is a little slow at first, but stick with it; it's worth it.

Some of Your Blood (what a great title!) is the story of a disturbed young man, called George Smith--though the nature of his malady is not revealed until much later--growing into adulthood in horrible conditions: a drunk, abusive father, a stint in a correctional facility. The book builds up to a quite disturbing and nightmarish final third, when George's psychosis is revealed. I don't want to say much more about the book than that. It's very much a novel of revelation, and to write too much about it takes much of the fun away.

As many horror novels as I've read and horror movies as I've seen, I shouldn't have been as shocked and disturbed by the ending as I was. There's not much violence "on the page" as everything is reported second- or third-hand, in a rather detached clinical style. And yet, it really creeped me out. I'll confess that several times in the first fifty pages or so, I thought of putting the book aside. It doesn't read like a modern novel--it doesn't even read like a novel from 1961, which it is--and, as I said, it starts rather slow. But I'm glad I pushed on to the horrifying conclusion. It really is unsettling. Aside from the creepy thrills, the book is also very well-crafted. The psychology of George is explored subtly and realistically. (I should note, I have no idea if George's mental illness is plausible, but Sturgeon makes it feel plausible, which, I think, is enough.)

Highlight this area to reveal a discussion that includes some pretty big spoilers: So, Some of Your Blood is absolutely a modern take on the vampire novel. The structure is, as I said, reminiscent of Dracula, and George's real name isn't George. It's Bela. As in Lugosi. In many ways, the novel feels like a companion piece to Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. Both are modern updates on the vampire myth that utilized the science of the time. Matheson used biology to give his vampires a plausible explanation, Sturgeon used psychology. 

Would I recommend Some of Your Blood? Absolutely, though I'd warn folks used to modern horror that this reads differently than what they're likely familiar with. But readers who stick with it will be rewarded. Or maybe that's not the right word. "Rewarded" implies something far more cheery than the feeling you'll be left with when you finish Some of Your Blood. This one sticks with you, folks!

Sadly, the book appears to be out of print (I picked up a paperback at FenCon last year), though second-hand copies look to be widely available, and there is an ebook available on Amazon. (I imagine this might be one of those cheap-y ebooks rife with spelling errors caused when the paperback was scanned, but perhaps I'm wrong, or perhaps that won't bother some.)

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Review: Burnt Offerings

Disclaimer: I have read Robert Marasco's 1973 horror novel Burnt Offerings and have watched the 1976 Dan Curtis film that was based on it, but have done neither recently. I was just thinking of both the book and movie today and also thinking I hadn't posted anything of length here in a while, so . . .

Burnt Offerings has a pretty decent pedigree. It stars horror icons Oliver Reed and Karen Black, and features the legendary Burgess Meredith and Bette Davis in smaller, supporting roles. It was directed by Dan Curtis, from a screenplay written by Curtis and William F. Nolan. Curtis is best known for his television work, especially Dark Shadows. He and Nolan worked together on dozens of made-for-TV movies in the 1970s, including the scariest made-for-TV-movie of all time, Trilogy of Terror, which also starred Karen Black. Burnt Offerings was Curtis' only theatrically released film, and truth be told, it does sort of feel like a TV movie--but a good one!

The plot centers on the Rolf family, who rent an old, run-down house in the woods for the summer, in order to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Davis and Meredith play the creepy old folks who own the house. Spoiler alert: things get weird. Turns out, the house is sort of a vampire, feeding off the pain and suffering of those who live in it.

Burnt Offerings is suitably creepy, and the tension builds throughout the film to an appropriate climax. Reed and Black give stellar performances and Davis and Meredith knock their few scenes out of the park. However, this isn't exactly a must-see film. I might call it a minor classic of its kind. If you like pre-slasher horror like The Wicker Man, Don't be Afraid of the Dark, Night Gallery, Trilogy of Terror and The Night Stalker (also directed by Curtis), then I'd say give it a go; it's highly likely you'll enjoy it. It's available on DVD and BluRay.

One last thing about the movie before I move onto the book. I read a funny anecdote, though I confess I forgot where. I mentioned William F. Nolan above. Nolan is perhaps most famous for co-authoring, with George Clayton Johnson, the novel Logan's Run, though he's had a very prolific career, spanning several genres and media. Nolan was also life-long friends with Ray Bradbury. Anyway, the story goes that Nolan was visiting the Bradbury house one day in 1976. He was talking to one of Ray's four daughters, who happened to mention she'd just seen a terrible movie called Burnt Offerings, not realizing she was talking to its screenwriter. Oops.

I read the novel Burnt Offerings after seeing the film. I'd never heard of it before, nor had I heard of its author Robert Marasco. Fortunately Valancourt Books recently brought out a re-issue of Burnt Offerings, with a new introduction by horror author Stephen Graham Jones. (If you are a fan of forgotten genre novels, check out Valancourt; they've got lots of cool obscure stuff.) The novel is set in New York rather than L.A., but the premise is the same. As with most adaptations, I think the book is better. It is, however, definitely a slow burn. Not a lot of whiz-bang action and little to no blood and guts. But if you're into what the great horror anthologist Charles L. Grant called "quiet horror," then it'll satisfy. The ending is different than in the movie and is very suitably creepy.

In conclusion, I wouldn't say that either the novel or movie Burnt Offerings are solid-gold classics, but both have much to recommend them to fans of old-school horror.