Sunday, November 25, 2012

Once Upon a Halloween, by Richard Laymon

Richard Laymon is someone I just don't know what to make of. Figuring out where he's coming from is difficult; does he take this all seriously, or is his tongue planted firmly in his cheek? It's almost impossible for me to figure out.

In Once Upon a Halloween, we meet Shannon and Laura, two housemates waiting for their dates for a costume party on Halloween night. Trick-or-treaters are coming by, and everything seems as usual...until a teenaged boy runs in, claiming to be hiding from some sort of cult that had snatched his girlfriend as they were necking in a nearby cemetery. The two young women aren't sure if they believe him but then said cultists show up, looking for more victims. So then we kick off a story full of action and violence, and it also throws in a homicidal ghost haunting Shannon and Laura's house!

Laymon isn't for all tastes; some find his penchant for sexual violence to be off-putting, if not totally offensive and vile. I've read a number of his books and there's a rape or some other form of sexual violence in just about all of them. Plus his characters seem to always be thinking about sex, and everything is sexually charged. In this book the cultists are all impressive physical specimens, male and female, and run around naked under their robes. (Oddly, they use their real names, unless their idea of proper occult names includes "Royce" and "Eleanor." And there's no mention of them worshiping anything in particular; toward the end, it even goes so far as to have two surviving members speculate that it's all bunk and an excuse for an orgy.) Characters are constantly checking each other out and wondering about hooking up, even when in dire mortal danger. In this particular book Laymon even has an 11-year-old girl having sexual thoughts, and a teenager checks her out. Yuck.

The homicidal ghost in the house exists primarily as a side plot that is never truly resolved. While it's clear it's never harmed Laura or Shannon, it does make one attempt at murder and does succeed in killing two more people. Why? How do they deal with it? It's all abandoned at the end.

This book IS enjoyable on a certain level if it's taken as a tongue-in-cheek salute to Halloween, a sort of literary B-movie. And I've seen Laymon defended on those grounds, that his books are just B-movies on the page, if not just direct-to-DVD movies. Sometimes they seem homophobic, like a few that have featured villainous and vile gay characters, and oddly often Laymon attempts to establish his characters as fans of Rush Limbaugh, and I can't make out if that's meant to be satirical or a serious endorsement. And sometimes his books seem like macho wish-fulfillment. One of his last novels, Night in the Lonesome October, features a lonely protagonist who's bereft after his girlfriend ditches him, only to have multiple women and men throwing themselves at him. (To be fair, that book also features a gay character who's the real hero of the story, and some genuine atmosphere as the narrator has some surreal encounters while wandering the streets of his college town by night. However, it all ends up in a rather standard and uninteresting serial-killer plot, as if Laymon had set up a fascinating milieu but then had no idea of what to do with it.)

Once Upon a Halloween is an OK read for the Halloween season if you can handle the sexual violence and just feel like something trashy and disposable. If you want to check out further Laymon, I would suggest The Traveling Vampire Show, which some say is probably his best work. Night in the Lonesome October, as previously noted, is atmospheric but badly flawed. Come Out Tonight is very bad, full of stupid characters whose motivations can't be fathomed, and some say it's his worst work. I've read another book of his that I can't remember the title of (I think it may have been Among the Missing but am not sure) that wasn't even horror, it was just a police procedural with a bisexual killer and his sniveling gay lover.

Laymon (1947-2001) was never big in the US; one of his early books had a disastrous editing job and horrible cover art that he was never able to overcome. However, he was popular in the UK and after his death some of his work that never saw print the US was released. His works are thick but not very substantial; you can whip through one of his books in an afternoon. He's not someone I'm going to be reading often, as I've either had bad luck choosing titles to read or else he's just not to my taste. I may try some others but don't hold your breath.

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