Saturday, 17 February 2007

A Bite of Laymon


When I was about, oh, fourteen, I made a shift from science-fiction to horror literature. I was on holiday somewhere by the English coast, and in the creaky rotating wire rack in the beach-balls-and-postcards shop, there was a book with the most surprisingly graphic cover: A decapitated head at the bottom of a flight of stairs, a shadowy figure with an axe at the top. At least, I am sure that is what that particular edition of Richard Laymon’s “Night Show” showed – I remember the head the most. No one stopped me buying such an obviously repellent book. It was certainly as nasty as I wanted. I read a few of his books but wasn’t a grand fan. But a year ago, on the long dark search for good, bloody hell, just some decent horror writing, I started reading Laymon again. And now I am a fan.

What I always liked about Laymon (1947-01) is that he is a writer who seems to know his limitations and just gets on with all the mayhem and ugliness. This, I want to stress, is rare. The writing is stripped down and straight-forward, the dialogue believable and full of hooks. He'll start right in the middle of the horror, but then spend ages drawing out the suspense of one scenario. Or he'll kill of the characters you think you're rooting for and move on to other hapless victims. Laymon is nihilistic, cynical, brutal and uncompromising and happily beats genre motifs down into his own preferred ugliness. And then you find there is often more happening than you suspected. For example, you will read "The Woods Are Dark", but it is only when you reach the end that you discover you were reading H.P. Lovecraft homage all along, rather than just a "The Hills Have Eyes" variation. And he shocks too.

"Bite" seems like it will be an average vampire novel, and we start right in. Cat knocks on Sam's door; they haven't seen each other in a long, long time, but he still pines for her. She needs his help to kill a vampire who is feeding off of her at night, she says. Sam says, well, okay. Is Elliot a vampire? He sure behaves weirdly and brutally, and he comes donned with a cape and metal fangs. But... is he really a vampire? They kill him and set off to dispose of the body, and that's when the couple's troubles really begin.

Every minor dilemma gets a couple of chapters at least: Laymon draws out the problems and twists of disposing of this body on a skeletal narrative, but it drags you in. And then suddenly "Double Indemnity" gets mentioned, and you realise that you are reading Laymon's version of film noir. Cat is a severely victimised woman with all the credentials of a prime femme fatale, but is she? Are we being lulled into believing her incredible history of abuse? We are stuck with Sam's perspective, and suddenly we can't trust anyone or anything. Bad luck - or is it? - has them meeting up with bully biker Snow White (or is he a biker?), who proves to be their true nemesis. Do we believe Snow White's hostage Peggy when she says he is torturing and threatening her young brother? Is there a boy at all? Sam and Cat are taking on the American road, but we know it's filled with dangerous eccentrics and victims-in-waiting. Sometimes this couple are smart; sometimes they are dumb. They negotiate every plan of action. Suddenly the novel's immediate opening proves a false lead: Laymon isn't interested in fast and furious horrors, but in the drawing out of an improbable scenario, keeping it the right side of plausible and turning the screws and throwing in a number of surprises. "Duel" and "Detour" come to mind. If Hitchcock liked monster horror, and made a vampire the McGuffin... Vampire noir, anyone?

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