Monday, 17 October 2016

Old School Horrors 5: Incubus, by Ray Russell

The fifth, in an occasional thread, of blog posts celebrating those cheesy, sleazy old-school pulp paperbacks from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  Yes, we’re not talking great art here but these books have their place - for better or worse - in the genre and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time around, I'm looking at a novel with a bit of pedigree, though I would take exception to the cover comparisons...
cover scan of my copy - published in 1983 by Sphere
Galen is an ordinary, peaceful small town. Until horrendous terror strikes … and strikes again and again, each time claiming a female victim in a fashion too hideous to contemplate. 

Julian Trask, student of the occult, is used to thinking the unthinkable. As he works towards the solution of the soul-searing mystery, Galen trembles in mortal dread. For no woman is safe from the lethal lust of THE INCUBUS.  

This is unashamedly pulp and all the more fun for it.  Ray Russell is a genre writer with a great pedigree (amongst many other things, he wrote the screenplay for X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes) and this novel (first published in 1976) works a treat so long as you enjoy it for what it is, a quick and cheesy novel (though curiously coy when dealing with sex, which is ironic considering the subject matter).

Characterisation is brisk - Julian Trask, English, handsome and Porsche driving, is drawn back to the town where he once taught briefly; Laura Kincaid was a student he fancied back then, now she edits the paper he subscribes to, which is where he found out about the killings; Dr ‘Doc’ Jenkins is the town physician (I couldn’t tell how old he was supposed to be) who’s well respected and good at his job, even if his alcohol intake is prodigious (and he & Trask make for a fun double-act) and Hank Walden is the town Sheriff, a man at his wits end trying to figure out what’s going on.  There’s a big supporting cast too, with plenty of “it could be him” characters and the attack set pieces are well enough constructed that it could be anyone who turns into the monster - and what a monster the Incubus is, never really seen clearly but identifiable from his extremely large penis (which is what kills his victims - he wants to mate and rapes them to death).

With a decent small-town atmosphere, a great MacGuffin (The Artes Perditae spell book, covered in human skin so that the “i” is dotted by a navel), some great set pieces (though the section in the dormitories could have been better realised I think and the writer missed a big chance for a stalking sequence) and nicely used gore (making up for the coy sexual references), this does exactly as it’s supposed to.  As ever, your enjoyment will depend on your tolerance for (relatively well constructed) pulp, but I enjoyed it a lot and would recommend it for fans of the same.

* * *
Incubus one-sheet, art by Drew Struzan
The Incubus (1982) was directed by John Hough (who had a varied career, including making Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry which, for a long time, I only knew through the opening credits of The Fall Guy), produced by Marc Boyman ('presented by' Stephen J. Friedman, whose solid career started with The Last Picture Show) and written by George Franklin (who only has one other credit to his name according to the imdb, a 1990 telemovie called Personals).

The film was made in Canada on a budget of $5.1m, released by Multicom Entertainment Group Inc. and starred John Cassavetes as Sam (perhaps Julian was too English?), John Ireland as Hank and Kerrie Keane as Laura. It was never released theatrically in the UK (to this day, I’ve never seen it) but features a cameo from Bruce Dickinson (of Iron Maiden fame) performing with his previous band Samson.

As an aside, I like how the film poster goes in a different direction to the tone the book cover aims for (though the Drew Struzan artwork is typically wonderful).

I don't think that's really HD, do you?

As for the VHS version, they just had a field day with the artwork.  I can only assume it was never in a video shop during my teens because I would have snapped this up in moments!

* * *
Ray Russell was born in Chicago on 4th September 1924 and served in the South Pacific as part of the US Air Force from 1943 to 1946.  He married Ada Szczepanski in 1950, they had a son and daughter and he died in Los Angeles on 15th March 1999.

Ray Russell
A peer and close friend of Richard Matheson, he was a prolific short-story writer and an occasional novelist, though his preferred length was the novella.  He recognised the cultural significance of genre fiction and his best-known work, Sardonicus, was a novella that Stephen King called ‘perhaps the finest example of modern gothic ever written’.  It originally appeared in the January 1961 issue of Playboy and Russell subsequently adapted it into a screenplay for the William Castle film, which was called Mr Sardonicus (1961).

An executive editor for Playboy during its formative years in the 1950s, Russell kept a strong link with the company through to the 1970s, editing (anonymously) many of the magazines anthologies, including The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy (1966) and The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural (1967).  Through him, Playboy became a showcase for genre fiction (principally SF and horror) during the 1950s and 1960s, publishing stories by Ray Bradbury, Henry Slesar, Frederic Brown, Kurt Vonnegut, Frederik Pohl, Richard Matheson, Jack Finney, Robert Bloch and Charles Beaumont (with whom Russell co-wrote the screenplay for The Premature Burial in 1962).

His other screenplays were for Zotz! (1962), The Horror of It All (1963), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and Chamber Of Horrors (1966).  The superb “X”, which features a manic Ray Milland and one of the best last lines in cinema, won Russell (and his co-screenwriter Robert Dillon) a Silver Globe at the Trieste International Film Festival in 1963.

In 1991 he received the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

When asked why he wrote, he is quoted as saying; “I would say ... ego, guilt, boredom, the need for approval, a love of language, and the desire to entertain myself. I think it was William Saroyan who said he wrote so that he would have something good to read in his old age. That's not a bad reason.

For a few years now, I've been collecting old 70s and 80s paperbacks (mostly horror), picking them up cheaply in secondhand bookshops and at car boot sales and slowly building a collection.  My friend (and fellow collector) Johnny Mains once told me that charity shops sometimes pulp old books like this because the market for them is so small - I understand why but I think it's terrible.  We might not be talking great art here but on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis (too much cheese isn't good for anyone's diet), I'm going to review these "old-school" horrors (and perhaps include some bonus material, if I can find it).


  1. Look forward to your future reviews of these old school horrors Mark. Incidentally, have you ever come across Will Erickson's excellent 'Too Much Horror Fiction' Blog, which covers similar ground?

    1. Thanks Jasper! And yes, I'm a big fan of Will's site (we met when I posted about "The Happy Man" a couple of years back), there'll be a blog about it (old school paperback covers) next year! :)

  2. Mark, was this the book that opens with the death of a little girl in a bath? I remember being given a book called Incubus that opened like this when I was about 13, after a relative had a book clear out. Or rather my 9 year old brother was given it, and I thought it best not to let him keep that one on his shelf.