Monday, 20 July 2020

Old School Horror 8: Death Tour, by David J. Michael

The eighth, 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, I'm looking at a novel that not only appears to switch genres halfway through but is a classic example of exploitation artwork (ie, misdirection!)...
cover scan of my copy - NEL paperback edition, July 1980
It was crazy but it was a story.
The five students who specialised in weird features for the college paper needed a story badly when they heard about alligators infesting the city's sewers.

With a stolen map of the sewer system they climbed down a manhole into an underground world of fetid pools and sludge-filled tunnels.

In a dark territory that played host to black rats and hideous reptiles their reporting mission turned into a nightmare as death sprang from the evil-smelling gloom ...

HOW MANY OF THEM CAN SURVIVE THE DEATH TOUR?


To start with, I'll address the elephant in the room.  This is called Death Tour and an alligator features on every single cover version there is (see more below).  If you're looking at this thinking "yay, a creature feature!" then, seriously, I'd advise you to move along now.

Still here?  Well that's an excellent decision because I picked this up expecting a creature feature and, far from being disappointed, found a lot to like.

Tom Marsh is a journalism student and member of a campus production group called Five-Star, whose regular feature Touring has become a hit in the University paper.  His partners-in-crime are Mary Malgren (also his girlfriend), overweight (and over-bearing) Cherry, Krevitch who does the photography but seems scared of his own shadow and the mentally impared Hunk who, it later transpires, isn’t a student at all but offered once to help carry their equipment and is now a member of the team.  A stock-in-trade of the horror novel (see also The Losers Club in IT), this little gang of outcasts works well together and we get some nice bits of history, later in the book, fleshing out their back stories.

The group is trying to work out which feature to work on next as Tom walks Mary home.  Clearly in love with her, their relationship is hampered by her father, a misanthropic alcoholic who controls her life and hates intellectuals (and plenty more besides) since his wife left him for a French teacher five years before, who expects Mary to be at his beck and call.  Mr Malgren (who has the great quote "The world is fine, but people stink") is the supervisor at the local sewage plant and, according to Mary, has just been bitten on the leg by an alligator, though he wants to keep that very quiet.  Tom realises this is their next assignment, attempts to butter Malgren up to get enough information on the sewers layout - and Mary secretly photocopies the plans - and then Five-Star launch their expedition.

Of course, nothing goes right and that’s not even counting the stories of people going missing in the tunnels.  Frightened by a turtle and “oversized goldfish” (a carp) in one of the holding tanks (more pet shop crazes, flushed away by their owners), they then derail an underground train before discovering they’re not alone in the sewers, as a shambling, white-haired troll who eats roasted rats seems intent on killing them.

The first half of the book enjoys a leisurely pace, taking its time to introduce the characters and their situation and works really well, especially their interplay.  Once they move underground, the pace picks up and Michael uses the locations and atmosphere well, especially the “things” in the water and the first appearance of the troll.  As the body count starts to rise (it’s obvious who the survivors will be from fairly early on, but at least one of the deaths took me by surprise), there’s a neat little twist that shifts the emphasis of the book and then we head off into proper horror territory, the victims pursued by a mad killer.  Brisk and to the point (the edition I read is all of 156 pages), this is good fun (so long as you don’t expect it to be a creature feature), populated by characters you care about and gleefully gruesome in its set pieces, while never outstaying its welcome.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

* * *
Not much is known about David J. Michael, even from the usual reliable sources (such as Will Errickson’s excellent Too Much Horror Fiction), though he published at least one other book, A Blow To The Head, in 1970 (reviewed favourably, as his first novel, in volume 30 of Best Sellers: From the U.S. Government Printing Office).  The New York Times Book Review liked it (check out the cover blurb - "Sheer, shuddering horror!") and the San Francisco Examiner wrote "Terrifying, it's a spine chiller" (on the back cover) while Kirkus were less complimentary, though our views on the first half are very similar.

The book is mentioned (along with a full-page reproduction of the Don Ivan Punchatz cover) in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell and even makes an appearance in Stephen King’s excellent Danse Macabre (which I wrote about here) - when discussing Harlan Ellison’s excellent Croatoan, he calls Death Tour a “funny/horrible novel”.
Bobbs-Merill hardback, 1978
The novel appeared in hardback, from Bobbs-Merrill Co, in August 1978 and in Signet paperback (with the Punchatz artwork) in 1979.  New English Library, with cover art by Bob Martin, published the novel in July 1980.
Signet paperback, 1979
I wonder what Mr Michael did next...?

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).

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