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Book Reviews

Spotlight on: Richard Laymon

Books Reviewed:
After Midnight by Richard Laymon
Blood Games by Richard Laymon
The Cellar by Richard Laymon (Beast House #1)
Come Out Tonight by Richard Laymon
In the Dark by Richard Laymon
Island by Richard Laymon
The Lake by Richard Laymon
Quake by Richard Laymon
The Stake by Richard Laymon
To Wake the Dead by Richard Laymon

To arrange to have products considered for review, send an email to craigsbookclub@yahoo.com.

The Cellar by Richard Laymon Richard Laymon, The Cellar (Beast House #1)

Author Richard Laymon is best known for his doorstop-sized horror tomes. But in 1980, when his debut novel first appeared, he was not known for anything. This probably explains its trim physique. At just around 300 pages (printed in a large font), The Cellar is likely the shortest thing Laymon has written of novel length. But there's just as much going on in its pages as in any of his heftier books.

Donna Hayes and her young daughter Sandy are on the run from Sandy's pedophile father, Roy, who is in pursuit. They arrive at Malcasa Point, the hometown of the Beast House, a local tourist attraction and the site of nearly a dozen murder over the last century. A mythical beast is rumored to be the cause of the deaths, and a mercenary named Jud (short for "Judgment") Rucker has been hired by the only known survivor to dispatch the creature. Jud and Donna combine their efforts against their respective enemies while Roy takes other victims to fill the time until he can get back to his favorite.

The Cellar is a lean, mean frightening machine -- David Garnett recommends it highly in his essay from Horror: 100 Best Books. Every word counts in this slim novel, and Laymon's skill at narrative is shown here already in full swing (as is his penchant for gruesome violence and deviant sexuality). He may have written better books or scarier ones, but he never wrote one that reads as quickly. Also, the surprise conclusion will likely shock even the most jaded horror readers (who usually expect a different kind of ending). For readers who enjoy their first foray into the Beast House, three sequels await: The Beast House, The Midnight Tour, and Friday Night in Beast House.

After Midnight by Richard Laymon Richard Laymon, After Midnight

Alice has quite a story to tell. Only the names (including hers) and locations have been changed, but not to protect the innocent. It is to protect Alice herself, because a lot of people ended up dead. After Midnight is her story.

Richard Laymon's primary skills lie in making despicable characters engaging, and in stretching a thin plot over four hundred pages while keeping it interesting. After Midnight tests his abilities to their limits, and still comes out looking great. Alice's few days of debauchery and death, while sometimes repetitive, are never boring and will please any Laymon aficionado.

As a bonus, there is a secret (mentioned in the text) threaded throughout After Midnight. Just combine the first letter of each chapter into a couple of provocative sentences that add depth to at least one scene of dialogue.

The novel may share its name with an Eric Clapton hit composed by J.J. Cale, but this After Midnight is pure Laymon all the way.

Come Out Tonight by Richard Laymon Richard Laymon, Come Out Tonight

Sherry and Duane are about to consummate their love (or whatever it is they have together) when some poor planning sends Duane out to the all-night Speed-D-Mart two blocks away for the appropriate supplies. After waiting for over an hour, and hearing what sounds very much like a gunshot, Sherry gets concerned and goes out to look for Duane.

This simple summary is the set-up for a night of terror that will soon involve Sherry's family, her sister's friends, and a trio of strangers with somewhat questionable motives, all doing their best to avoid and defeat the crazed teenager with the unforgettable name of Toby Bones. Come Out Tonight is a perfect example of Laymon's inimitable skill, and an excellent introduction to his particular style of writing.

Before I read Come Out Tonight, my favorite Richard Laymon novel was In the Dark, but this one may soon displace it, or at least tie, depending on how long Sherry and Toby's stories stay lodged in my memory. Laymon piles on all of his usual deviant behaviors, but levies them with his dark humor and pure word skill, resulting in a novel that was one of my quickest ever reads (less than 24 hours for a 400+ page book).

But what makes Come Out Tonight more than just a zippy read is his ability to truly get inside his characters. The chapters where two teenage boys nurse back to health a naked, nearly-dead young woman found outside their house are some of the most realistically-played scenes (from the standpoint of character motivation and action) of any novel I've read. Laymon focuses on the conflicting emotions and thoughts that would occur in that situation, while never letting us know exactly what will happen next. And that is really his appeal for fans. The man was truly a wordsmith; the sex and violence is just icing.

Quake by Richard Laymon Richard Laymon, Quake

I think Quake is the longest novel I've yet read by Richard Laymon, an author known for his wordiness. It is also one of the better novels of his I've read. I am always fascinated by how Laymon can delve into the psyche of a purely despicable character and make him realistic and yet entirely unredeemable.

After a huge earthquake, Los Angeles is in ruins. The three members of the Banner family, separated by their usual daily routines, are all trying to make their ways back to each other. Cliff, the husband and father, gets caught in traffic on his way to work; daughter Barbara's driver-ed teacher goes nuts while she and her friends are in the car with him, leaving them stranded in the city; and wife and mother Sheila, about to take a bath, dives naked into the tub upon hearing the rumble. As Cliff and Barbara work their ways home and have their own frightening adventures, Sheila must deal with Stanley Banks, the perverted neighbor who has been spying on Sheila and now see his opportunity to make all his fantasies come true -- if he can stop listening to the voices in his head long enough to make it happen.

Even at 567 pages, Quake is a really quick read. I did think at some times that Laymon was stretching events out a little far, but his depth of characterization makes it all worthwhile. Stanley is very likely the most fully developed villain I have read about in some time; all his thoughts, motivations, and actions are right there for the reader to pick up on, even if we would probably be better off not knowing.

But Laymon also shows his tender side through the other stories, as Cliff joins forces with thirteen-year-old Em, who reminds him of Barbara, and Barbara herself finds time in the midst of the chaos for a blooming teenage romance. Laymon is especially adept at writing teenage characters (see Come Out Tonight), and these asides make the horror a bit easier to take (though Quake is pretty tame compared to some of Laymon's other novels, like The Cellar), as the author once again exercises his talent for showing humanity at its worst.

Island by Richard Laymon Richard Laymon, Island

Before the announcement of his forthcoming career-spanning short story collection entitled Madman Stan and Other Stories, I had never heard of the late author Richard Laymon. But the minimal research I did after that informed me that he was one to look out for, especially since he was so lauded by his peers: Bentley Little, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King -- just to name three -- couldn't say enough good things about him. So, on seeing Island on my next visit to the library, I picked it up. That's one decision I'll never regret.

Island is 500 pages of tropical terror. Rupert Conway tells the story through a journal kept on what was supposed to be a day-long picnic, but turned into a harrowing experience when the boat of the family who invited him exploded, killing one member and leaving the rest of them stranded on an uninhabited island.

Their main issues at first are keeping a fire going and getting enough to eat, but their troubles increase when they find out that the island isn't uninhabited as family members start being killed off one by one, the men first.

Rupert is one of the most realistic characters I have read in recent fiction: delightfully flawed in his obsession with the opposite sex. Eighteen years old, he spends an inordinate time in appreciation of how the female castaways look in their bikinis, with especially loving descriptions of the differences in their breasts. Not surprisingly, he has fantasies of the daughters (the youngest of which is his age and invited him on the trip), and their mother figure (who isn't much older than the eldest daughter).

But the main point of recommendation for me is that Island constantly surprised me. All through the five hundred pages, I never knew what was going to happen next. This is partially because Rupert often lets his libido rule his decision making and so makes stupid choices, but it is also due to Laymon's imagination. He kept me guessing all the way up until the final sentence and if there's one thing about a novel that will cause me to instantly recommend it, it is that it surprised me because, after all I have read through the years, that is increasingly difficult to accomplish. Combine that with the humorous way Laymon has of looking at even the most terrifying situations, and you've got yourself one cracker of a great read.

Despite its length, Island is also a quick read. It blazes by and Laymon's plotting kept me reading far later than I should have been. I can usually put a book down if it's time to sleep, but I had to know how Rupert's predicament was going to turn out. Although I lost a couple of hours of sleep, it was worth it and I was most definitely not disappointed. Richard Laymon is now on my "must read" list and Island is the cause of it.

In the Dark by Richard Laymon Richard Laymon, In the Dark

This is my kind of book. I had a hunch after reading the blurb on the back, and I knew it once I had gotten through the first thirty pages. I love games and In the Dark is about one long game, the Master of Games (MOG) who sets it up, and the librarian whose life it changes forever.

One night, while closing up the library, Jane Kerry finds an envelope with her name printed on it in bold, dark letters. Inside the envelope is a fifty-dollar bill and a typed instruction to "look homeward, angel." Locating the Thomas Wolfe novel upstairs, she looks inside to find one hundred dollars and another note. She also meets Brace, a patron who had lost track of time, whom she takes with her to the next rendezvous point.

Thus, as Sherlock Holmes would say, the game is afoot.

The great thing about Richard Laymon's novels lies in how much pure fun they are. I discovered this during the first book of his I read, Island, and in several of his short stories that I read subsequently. So, I was more than eager to read another novel. Seeing a promotional display for him at my local Borders, I picked up In the Dark and it more than lived up to my heightened expectations.

In the Dark is not only about the game, but also about how it affects Jane and her quickly-blossoming relationship with Brace. As the amount of money doubles each time, Jane becomes more obsessed with following the instructions in order to get to the next payoff, and more willing to do the increasingly strange things that are requested of her. At one point, about two-thirds in, the events in the story take an extremely disturbing turn really quickly, and things are never the same after.

Although, In the Dark is a real roller coaster ride, Laymon does leave us with an unsatisfying conclusion. However, the book is so freakishly cool that it is easy to forgive him. I'm not a fast reader, but I finished the majority of the 500 pages in just a few hours, and couldn't go to sleep the next night until I was finished. That alone assures that I will be dipping into more Laymon very soon.

(I'm also open to suggestions. Anyone who wants to recommend their favorite Richard Laymon work can reach me at craigsbookclub-at-yahoo-dot-com.)

Blood Games by Richard Laymon Richard Laymon, Blood Games

Different people read Richard Laymon for different reasons, but I read him because he combines those bastions of the horror genre, sex and violence, with a sense of fun that is infectious, making his novels more pleasurable than most other horror. Of the three novels I've read (the other two are Island and In the Dark), Blood Games is the least of the bunch, but it is also the one which seems to be the most typically Laymonesque, as if he had cranked up the output on all the things for which he is known.

One of the best known aspects of his work (whether it is appreciated depends upon the individual reader) is that his female characters have a tendency to disrobe early and often. After all, why else would Blood Games feature five lead female characters, if not to have them be comfortably nude with each other? (In fact, they first meet as a group in a dormitory shower, with one of them videotaping the rest.)

This is a major aspect of the novel, with many loving descriptions of exposed, swaying breasts, and wet, clingy clothing showing that Laymon is interested in raising more than just his reader's heart rate. It certainly stretches the suspension of disbelief, but I believe that Laymon is merely following a popular novelists' maxim of writing the book he would like to read. But there's also enough suspense to carry over those readers who have had their fill of vivid descriptions of feminine anatomy. Actually, Blood Games is mostly suspense, with very few nasty events occurring, but their potential everpresent.

Five college friends -- known for their rowdy escapades back in the day -- gather for annual reunions at one's choice of location, in order to continue their adventures. This year is Helen's turn and, being a horror fan, she has brought Finley, Cora, Vivian, and Abilene to the abandoned Totem Pole Lodge, the site of many grisly murders years ago. At first, the atmosphere is enough to shake up the group, but then someone starts messing with their stuff, they lose their car keys, and one of them turns up dead. Now they've got to use all the physical and mental talents at their disposal to survive while they continue to search for the keys.

To give us occasional breaks from the relentless suspense, their struggle is peppered with flashbacks of their college pranks and of their first two reunions. This gives us, along with a chance to take a breath, the opportunity to delve deeper into the five characters. At the beginning, it is difficult to tell a few of them apart, but continuing to read opens up their individual personalities and makes them more recognizable by their actions and dialogue.

Richard Laymon has taken a plot and characters that could have easily gotten out of hand and kept tight control over them, exhibiting his novelistic skill while providing a hell of a good time. I can't imagine what a cut version would have been like, as any piece missing detracts from the whole, but this restored version from Leisure is ideal in its completeness. Blood Games may not be as instantly stunning as Island or In the Dark, but it is still a phenomenal piece of work and one that will continue me in my pursuit of more Laymon titles.

The Stake by Richard Laymon Richard Laymon, The Stake

I am as tired as anyone of average, garden-variety vampire novels. But anyone who has read Richard Laymon knows that he never writes anything average. Whether each novel is below- or above-average is certainly up for debate (and there are glimpses of both in The Stake), but run-of-the-mill fiction is simply not Richard Laymon's way.

Horror author Larry Dunbar, his next-door neighbor Pete, and their wives Jean and Barbara, are driving home from an outing when they take a detour that leads them to Sagebrush Flat and what seems to be a ghost town. While they are exploring the remains of an old hotel, Barbara nearly falls through the rotten floor and inadvertently discovers the corpse of a woman with a stake through her chest. Someone must have thought she was a vampire, killed her in the traditional way, then left her here behind a door guarded with a crucifix.

But The Stake is less about actual vampires than it is about the idea of vampires and its effect on people. Larry and Pete are fascinated by the discovery and the discuss it later on. Pete especially thinks it's a great story for Larry to use in a book -- maybe his first non-fiction work. What would make it even better, Pete thinks, would be to go back and get the corpse and bring it home with them. Larry's wife and daughter are out of town, so it would be easy to store it in his garage's attic. Then, later, they'll pull out the stake and see if she really is a vampire and comes back to life.

Here's where The Stake leaves the realm of believability and dives head-first into ridiculousness: Larry agrees with Pete, though reluctantly, and they go get the body. Critics of Richard Laymon's work have cited stupid decisions on the part of his protagonists -- made purely to serve a weak plot -- as one of his major flaws, and it certainly applies here. This novel is full of questionable choices made by otherwise intelligent individuals seemingly made only to keep the plot moving in the direction the author wishes. That good husband and father Larry decides to keep secrets from his family and that goody-two-shoes Lane decides to subtly seduce her teacher are only two of the bigger flubs.

Other Laymon choices, however, are what made it so easy to keep reading The Stake. The characters may be often stupid, but the story was compelling and I could not wait to find out what was going to happen once Larry and Pete decided to pull out the stake. Larry's research into the victim's identity and his dreams of the outcome of the stake-pulling were just as interesting as his daughter Lane's troubles at school. Laymon combines these storylines so that they come together at the end seamlessly and are not in the least predictable. I had no idea what was going to happen, and I can usually predict these things, so surprising me is a sure way to get me to recommend your book.

A few aspects of this novel add a dose of reality to an otherwise unbelievable plot. There seem to be several references to Laymon's own life and writing. Plus, the idea that the book within this book is non-fiction is an intriguing one. The dedication to "Fellow explorers & Ghost town busters" leads one to think (if only for a moment) that there might possibly be more than fiction going on in the pages of The Stake. But, no, that couldn't be, could it?

Buy To Wake the Dead by Richard Laymon Richard Laymon, To Wake the Dead (unabridged audiobook read by Gene Engene)

First off, there's something bothering me that I have to get out of the way right off the bat. Amara, the main subject of Richard Laymon's To Wake the Dead, looks nothing at all like the figure on the cover. Laymon's Amara is a 4,000-year-old mummy, and she looks just like one, with beef-jerky skin, shriveled breasts (a fact that every character seems to notice), and no eyes in her empty sockets. There is one difference: her head is full of flowing flame-red hair. But if you're looking for a story that features the sexy vampiress depicted on the cover illustration, I'm afraid you're going to have to keep looking.

Now that subject has been covered, let's move on. To Wake the Dead is the most ambitious Richard Laymon novel I've read to date. In the other novels I've encountered (and you can see what those are by visiting my Richard Laymon page), the author has tended to focus on a relatively small cast of characters that we get to really know before he kills most of them.

In To Wake the Dead, however, there are several stories running parallel to each other, each with its own cast of characters, giving the novel a similar feel to a Robert Altman film. The focus is on Amara, an Egyptian mummy brought to a Los Angeles museum, but along the way, we meet a vast array of other individuals, each with their own struggles: Virgina, Ed, and Marco, a trio of caged captives, are held as sex slaves by a mysterious kidnapper who only moves around in the dark. April, a young blind woman, alone in her remote mansion, receives an unexpected, but not unwelcome, visitor. Susan, the woman in charge of the mummy exhibit, has to deal with unexplained murders surrounding her new acquisition. Her cop boyfriend, Tag, has his own problem in the form of Mabel, a hygienically challenged woman who wants Tag to be her lover. Teenaged Grace, along with her boyfriend and sister, makes her way to Hollywood to be a star. And Imad, a local womanizer, proves to be the source of some surprising information.

Laymon somehow manages to make all these varied plotlines skillfully come together at just the right moments. He doesn't make the obvious choices, and manages to breathe some new life into an idea whose time came and went long ago (and that includes the laughable series of recent movies). To Wake the Dead has the same flaws of most Richard Laymon novels: a overabundance of breast references, a reliance on implausible plot contrivances based on characters' stupid decisions, and villains that are really more disgusting than they need to be. But, at the same time, it also has that wonderful Laymon charm that keeps you going in spite of these drawbacks.

Reader Gene Engene (who has a vocal range very similar to his colleague Michael Taylor) has a facility with accents that more than makes up for his limited number of female voices; his males fare considerably better, and it seems the more despicable the character, the more fun he has with stretching his talent. But, other than the characters not sounding the same as they do in your head, there is just one main difference between reading and listening: the speed. Visual reading speed is variable, but with a CD, you can't listen any faster or slower than the pace of Engene's voice, which leaves space for dramatic pauses and the like.

In the case of this book, that means the squeamish will be unable to skim the nastier elements of Laymon's story (and they're not always where or when you think they'll be), and you can't peek ahead to see what's about to happen -- which results in at least one oh my god!–level surprise. The only drawback is that it makes To Wake the Dead seem just a bit longer than it would otherwise. Sometimes, when you just want the story to get going so you can find out what's going to happen next, that is frustrating. But more often, Engene's pacing leaves room for an appreciation for Laymon's inimitable way with words.

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