Many will disagree, but I say it’s a fact that my book reviews have in many cases helped inspire cults. I’m not saying I’m entirely responsible for the followings currently enjoyed by novels like JEANNE’S JOURNAL, THE LOST TRAVELLER and I WILL RISE, but I do contend that my write-ups had some bearing on their current popularity.
That’s something I feel pretty good about, although the effects of my shining light on little-known fiction aren’t always positive. I noticed, for instance, that after my review of JOKO’S ANNIVERSARY by Roland Topor appeared the prices for that novel skyrocketed on bookfinder sites. Also, it seems my 2006 review of Ken Greenhall’s HELL HOUND has had the unintended effect of forever linking that novel in the public mind with THE WASP FACTORY, and I’m not sure I know how I feel about that.
Not all my reviews, however, have had such an effect. What follows are ten novels that, for whatever reason, remain just as obscure now as they were when I first reviewed them. Here I’m going to try once again to get people excited about the following, which–goddammit!–are good books. Also, unlike many of my review choices (which include essential publications like THE BLACK CUPBOARD, SWEET EVIL, FORCIBLE ENTRY and THE BLIND GOD IS WATCHING, which you can be forgiven for passing over as they’re so obscure) these books are all quite easy, and inexpensive, to find online.
In alphabetical order they are…
Earlier this year I complained about how few foreign novels get translated into English. Based on the (mis)fortunes of this, the first and only novel by Quebec’s Patrick Senecal to appear in English, I’ll have to concede that the skittishness American publishers feel about translations isn’t entirely indefensible. AGAINST GOD appeared in 2012 to a collective yawn, which doesn’t reflect its contents at all. In fact, it’s one of the most powerful and disturbing novels I’ve read, a harsh, concentrated coiled wire of a book related in the second person—and in a single sentence. That form is in service to the narrative, pivoting on a man who abruptly loses his family and as a result becomes increasingly divorced from reality, committing many senseless acts of violence in an all-consuming rage against God. The good news? This novel is still in print (as of late 2017, at least), so it’s still readily available on Amazon.
The problem with this 1992 novel is that it doesn’t appear to have been published anywhere outside its native Canada. That’s unfortunate, as it’s one of the most audacious and inventive horror novels of the nineties. About a twin brother and sister, both of whom are afflicted with multiple personality disorder, this “Double Fugue” is marked by a fragmented, time-tripping narrative and nearly as many subplots as there are personalities residing within the protagonists. That author Tom Marshall was able to hold this such unruly material together, and craft such a spellbinding piece of work in the bargain, is an undeniable accomplishment.
THE COMPASS STONE by FERNANDO ARRABAL
This may not be the strangest novel I’ve ever read, but it’s definitely up there. Author Fernando Arrabal has crafted an astounding torrent of madness, perversion, hallucination and murder, and graced it with a probing intellectual edge. It concerns a young woman living in a vast mansion with her father, a.k.a. “The Maimed One,” and two gluttonous handmaidens. This gal spends her days relentlessly questioning the nature of existence, and her nights having sex with anonymous men whose throats she slits at the moment of orgasm. As one reviewer stated, “Is there no relief from this decadence?,” and I can’t quite escape the niggling suspicion that, as with all truly bizarre works of literature, THE COMPASS STONE may just be complete nonsense—but if so then Arrabal deserves credit for carrying it off with such skill and conviction.
Another book that should have gotten far more attention than it did. This is the first and only full-length translation of Maurice Lenard’s 1908 French classic LE DOCTEUR LERNE, which prior to 2010 was available to English speaking readers only in truncated form (as NEW BODIES FOR OLD). The reason people have turned their noses up at this new release, I’m guessing, is that it was translated, or rather “adapted,” by Brian Stableford. His Black Coat Press published adaptations have drawn widespread suspicion due to the fact that, simply, he puts out so damn many of them (around 10-20 a year!). Myself, I find Stableford’s translations valid, the present book especially–and anyway, since nobody else seems up to doing the job, I say this book deserves our attention (I also recommend the Stableford adaptations of Jacques Spitz’s EYE OF PURGATORY and Renard’s BLUE PERIL). DOCTOR LERNE, for the record, is a wild and perverse variant on THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU that also anticipates the work of David Cronenberg, with sexual content that was unprecedented for 1908 and a level of fecund invention that remains startling.
A novel so dark and strange its own author has wondered what he was thinking when he wrote it. FASTYNGANGE is certainly the only book I know that’s narrated by a sentient hole in the ground. Said hole’s odd relationship with an inquisitive young woman forms the core of a narrative that encompasses an old dark castle that provides the title, telepathy and bodily possession. All this makes for a curiously absorbing and satisfying read despite, or perhaps because of, its weirdness.
HAPPY NOW by CHARLES HIGSON
The British author Charles Higson is now a prolific children’s book scribe, but back in the nineties he was, in novels like FULL WHACK, KING OF THE ANTS and GETTING RID OF MR. KITCHEN, one of the quirkiest and most interesting thriller writers around. The psychologically astute, darkly comedic brand of fiction on display in those books reads like Patricia Highsmith crossed with Carl Hiaasen, with HAPPY NOW being the best of the lot. It’s the story of Tom, a maladjusted lunkhead who in the wake of a catastrophic break-in discovers a diary left by the culprit, who claims “I am happy now.” Does this fellow really know the secrets of true happiness? Tom becomes determined to find out in a demented odyssey marked by a cunningly wrought narrative, unerringly well drawn characters and a higher-than-average quotient of sheer nastiness.
RAIN by ROLF E. STARK, MARLENE STEVENS
I’ve already flogged this book twice (once via a standalone review and again in a multi-book survey), so let’s hope the third time’s the charm! An underground comic saga collected in a 1993 graphic novel, the bleak and kaleidoscopic RAIN is far from an easy read, with impressionistic storytelling that demands an unusual amount of concentration on the part of its readers and a narrative that encompasses Nazi Germany, tank warfare in Africa, black magic, Asian mysticism, gender confusion and underworld politics. Obviously RAIN isn’t for everyone, but it is a one of a kind work that will likely leave the reader feeling as deranged as its harried protagonist–which to my readership should be recommendation enough!
Author David J. Skal is best known for his nonfiction horror studies, but he began his career as a novelist. SCAVENGERS, Skal’s first novel, appeared in unassuming science fiction paperback format. Receptive readers—i.e. readers of this site—can be forgiven for passing it up (and also my 10 year old review of the book, which appeared as part of a longer piece about Skal’s fiction) but as of now you have no excuse! A mind blower in every sense of the term, SCAVENGERS is quite simply the ultimate book about psychic warfare, set in a future world in which “mind sharing” is all the rage. This process, accomplished via a serum that allows people to inhabit each other’s psyches, leads to a profoundly intense-three way psycho-fest involving a distraught young man looking to resurrect his deceased girlfriend by having a mind-sharer inhabit her body—but of course things don’t quite work out as planned…
THROUGH A LENS DARKLY by JAMES COHEN
To those who might find the preceding books too weird, here’s a more straightforward mystery-thriller. It’s an extremely well plotted book that would make an excellent movie; indeed, I’m surprised nobody’s tried to do so already. Combining social significance and unpretentious thrills, THROUGH A LENS DARKLY is set in the lower rungs of Hollywood, where a film school graduate is employed by a sleazy purveyor of death scene compilations. This launches the protagonist into a dark and sleazy environ in which everyone is monstrous to some degree, not unlike the denizens of the real-life moviemaking milieu that inspired this twisted tale.
What happened here? This shockingly little known sex and sleaze thriller from 1992 is easily one of the standout books of its type, yet not even my enthusiastic review has managed to work up much interest in it. Admittedly, it has a seriously lame cover with a blurb comparing it to BASIC INSTINCT, but in fact VIOLENT SILENCE goes far beyond that overrated spectacle, and just about everything else. Erotic, outrageous and overflowing with perverse invention, this novel contains X-rated charms that are evinced by the fact that one of its protagonists is named Pandora and another Wildman, monikers that turn out to be appropriate in every respect.