Monday 10 June 2019

Old School Horrors 7: Dark Summer, by Mark Upton

The seventh, 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 that appears to switch genres halfway through...
cover scan of my copy - published in 1980 by Corgi
The Fiery Novel Of Infernal Carnal Trysts!

It was a summer just like any other in ritzy Penlow Park.  Until the beautiful Diane Cheney arrived - the mysterious raven-haired widow who radiated sexuality...  She spread her dark sexual spell on them all - and on their marriages.

On Paul Fayette, the contented, suburban banker and on his happy tomboy wife Laura.  On the philandering Clint Stahl and his discontented, wanton wife Margaret.  Mrs Cheney played all things to all lovers.  Victim to the master.  Aunt to the small boy.  Taskmaster to the wanton.  Romantic love to the girl-child.  And she corrupted goodness wherever she found it.  Her time at Pentlow Park became the DARK SUMMER that changed their lives forever...

Life in Penlow Park, a luxury enclave in upstate New York, is enjoying the late 70s with a mixture of money, sex and good living.  Paul and Laura Fayette are middle-aged, empty-nesters - he works in a bank in Manhattan, she is a housewife - who love each other dearly, share everything and enjoy the physicality of their relationship.  Their friends, Clint and Margaret Stahl, are not quite so lucky however - he works for Paul and chases anything in a skirt, not bothering to hide it from his wife who is seemingly resigned to this life.  Into this - and the Penlow Park Country Club - come widowed Diane Cheney and her father, Colonel Benjamin Coulter.  The widow Cheney turns everyone’s heads and, with Coulter’s seemingly unlimited funds and penchant for magic tricks, they soon have the town under their spell.  As one of the blurbs reads, “[widow Cheney] materialises again and again, further enticing and ensaring Paul, Laura, Clint and Margaret, setting them forever outside the bounds of society as they once knew it. Dark Summer is a novel of ordinary, comfortable life going suddenly, fatally askew...”  And I wouldn’t argue with that.

A book of two halves, the first is a fairly intimate portrayal of long-term marriage and a couple still in love (though the description of Laura is brutally honest, even if it does embrace her age) that works well - Paul worries about work, they both worry about their children (away at college) and their place in the world and I liked it a lot.  Clint and Margaret are the opposite to this, narked and narky with each other, their relationship doomed from the moment we meet them.  The introduction of Widow Cheney and the Colonel shifts the book into something else altogether, pushing the book into thriller and then supernatural territory in ways that are sometimes laboured, sometimes wonderfully subtle.  Sex oozes through the pages, between the couples and their outside conquests, through fantasies and fears that aren’t expressed to loving partners but still acted out by others and Upton seems to relish this though it’s not explicit - there are lots of mentions of moistness and thatches, but nothing graphic.  The pacing in the first half is good, as is the writing - a lot of short, clipped sentences (Lawrence Sanders - Upton was his pseudonym - is famous for writing crime novels) including a whole paragraph opening Chapter Two with no full stops - but it seems to lose its way in the centre (as if it’s struggling with the switch from reality to supernatural).  It picks up again, especially after three people are vividly killed in a house fire and rattles towards the ending, which is abrupt and unexpected and ever-so-slightly odd.  The main characters work, even if their thinking processes feel a bit alien to a modern reader and the elusiveness of Cheney and the Colonel (we never really find out who or what they are) is well done.

I enjoyed this, it’s not great art and doesn’t pretend to be, but it’s competently put together and entertaining and if you like sleazy late 70s thrillers, you’ll probably enjoy this.

* * *
author photo from a hardcover dust jacket
Lawrence Sanders was born in Brooklyn, New York City, on 15th March 1920 and after attending Wabash College he served in the United States Marine Corps from 1943 to 1946.  He was a journalist for over twenty years and also contributed a series of short stories, featuring an insurance investigator called Wolf Lannihan, to Swank magazine.

His first novel, The Anderson Tapes, was published in 1970 and made into a film the following year, starring Sean Connery.  The book won the Edgar Award, from the Mystery Writers Of America, for Best First Novel.  A minor character from the novel, Edward X. Delaney, appeared in another four novels and the next one published, The First Deadly Sin (1973), was made into a film in 1980 with Frank Sinatra playing the character.

According to the Thrilling Detective website, he was once a “newsstand rack superstar” with his “frothy, padded paperbacks of technology, sex and the peccadilloes of the rich and famous” and “the sex was sleazy and frequent, more kink than think”.  He went on to write at least 36 more novels in the crime and mystery field, publishing from 1970 to 1998.  His Archy McNally series was continued by Vincent Lardo.

He died in Florida on 7th February 1998.


The Edward X. Delaney series
The Anderson Tapes (1970)
The First Deadly Sin (1973)
The Second Deadly Sin (1977)
The Third Deadly Sin (1981)
The Fourth Deadly Sin (1985)

The Peter Tangent series
The Tangent Objective (1976)
The Tangent Factor (1976)

The Commandment series
The Sixth Commandment (1978)
The Tenth Commandment (1980)
The Eighth Commandment (1986)
The Seventh Commandment (1991)

The Timothy Cone series (short stories)
The Timothy Files (1987)
Timothy's Game (1988)

The Archy McNally series
McNally's Secret (1991)
McNally's Luck (1992)
McNally's Risk (1993)
McNally's Caper (1994)
McNally's Trial (1995)
McNally's Puzzle (1996)
McNally's Gamble (1997)

Stand-alone titles
The Pleasures of Helen (1971)
Love Songs (1972)
The Tomorrow File (1975)
The Marlow Chronicles (1977)
Caper (1980) (written as Lesley Andress)
Dark Summer (1980) (written as Mark Upton)
The Case of Lucy Bending (1982)
The Seduction of Peter S (1983)
The Passion of Molly T (1984)
The Loves of Harry Dancer (1985)
Tales of the Wolf (1986) - a collection of 13 stories originally published in Swank magazine from 1968-69
The Dream Lover (1986)
Capital Crimes (1989)
Stolen Blessings (1990)
Sullivan's Sting (1990)
Private Pleasures (1993)
Guilty Pleasures (1998)

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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