Saturday, August 29, 2020

Ghosts Never Die

Not too long ago I read and reviewed the book Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix. It was a look at the horror boom in pocket paperbacks from the 1970s through to the early '90s and illustrated just how badly OldPub screwed the pooch on an entire genre that was as wild as it was weird. Inside the book, Mr. Hendrix highlighted some of the more obscure works to come of the era and managed to illustrate, if not fully by intention, just how much a pulp mindset influenced these works and allowed them to do whatever they wanted.

It was a fascinating read and something I am sure to return to in the future. I highly recommended Paperbacks from Hell back then, and I still do now. Should you have any interest in genre fiction them it is a blast.

A funny thing happened not long after the publication of that book. There became a craving for these forgotten novels lost to time and due to poor curation of OldPub's back catalog. Valancourt Books then created a whole line centered around this era, based on Grady Hendrix's work, highlighting the classic covers (and even creating whole new ones in the old style when applicable!) and the shorter, punchier, pulp lengths showed just how different an era this was from today. Currently, the line is at 13 releases, and appears to be very successful as when the second wave came out they claimed it was the most popular thing they ever did. Here's hoping to its continued success.

I even reviewed one of the books in the line, Nightblood by T. Chris Martindale, and thought it was an absolute blast. If you have any love for the horror genre, or of vampires, then you absolutely should seek it out. It is a crime that this was allowed to fall out of print for so long. It also makes me hopeful that the rest of his works will be made available again, but this is definitely a step in the right direction. If nothing else, this line of re-releases should be commended for digging up forgotten gems like Nightblood and allowing those of us who missed it back at its initial release a chance to rectify that mistake, and those who weren't even alive an opportunity to visit a completely different world. And I don't just mean a fictional world.

But Valancourt Books can't release everything from back then, nor should they be expected to. That is simply an impossible task, not to mention that some of those works can actually still be found for a good price in used shops and online. Unlike the pulp works from before the 1960s, these are relatively newer and can still be acquired in decent shape and in plentiful number. I myself have found a few and I didn't have to go nearly as far out of my way as I had to do to find certain pulp works. So at least they have an ease of availability to them.

Today, I wanted to talk about one book in particular that struck my fancy that contains some of the strengths and weaknesses of the horror genre from that time period. I wanted to do this to highlight the difference, not only from the pulp era that preceded it but also from where the genre would eventually end up to where it today. There is quite a gap, and we can bridge it right here. So without further ado, let us jump into this mass market paperback from hell.

Back in 1985, author Stephen Laws wrote his very first novel, Ghost Train which came out during peak popularity of the genre. I chose to read this one after I found a description of it in Paperbacks in Hell, and the cover looked so striking that I just had to give it a chance. There isn't much information about this book online, for whatever reason, so I was more or less going in blind. In other words, it was very much like finding the book on a spinner rack back in the day and picking it up with little more than a recommendation and being intrigued by the description. This made it a pretty good sample of what it would be like to read it back then.

So what is Ghost Train like? Let us finally get to it.

The original cover

The description is as follows:

Something monstrous is riding on the King's Cross train.

Something is stalking the corridors, preying on the passengers. And very soon, when it has fed on enough souls, it will embark... on the world.

Mark Davies knows that horror. It attacked and threw him from the train. Ex-policeman Les Chadderton is obsessed with the murders and suicides on the East Coast mainline. His wife had been among the victims.

Together they must board the Ghost Train and face their own fears made real, travelling on a one-way ticket on the Nightmare Express...

The book is around 375 pages and is divided into three parts with the middle one being the longest, and the last containing the final climax. It's very tightly structured for what it wants to get across, which makes sense because the story is straightforward. It was Laws' first book in a career that spanned many more well known works to come such as Spectre, The Wyrm, and The Frighteners. He would go on to be quite the successful horror author not long after his debut during the peak popularity of the horror boom. However, I haven't read those ones, and this is my first experience with the author, so let us continue with Ghost Train.

First, the strengths. Ghost Train's horrors are suitably spooky and disturbing, and when there is action it is very fast-paced, clear, and sharp. Laws, even for his first book, already knew what people were here for: they wanted good people to overcome evil threats and they wanted the tale to be told as clear cut as possible. There is much of that pulp flair in this book, with each part escalating in threats until the final face-off on the titular train which ends in a supernatural battle of wills on the living demon train. That isn't a spoiler since it's basically in the title of the book. This is what you're signing up for when you open it up. Nonetheless, the setup is simple and obvious, but the execution is what makes it work. It's a testament to Laws' budding skills at the time that it kept me returning to the book to see just where this would all end up.

For a horror novel from the 1980s it is not quite in the Stephen King mold of "well-detailed and described evil against flat, doomed protagonist" that the era was known for, even if it is undeserved. There were plenty of works that didn't fall into that niche. Instead this is a tale of good against evil where good deserves to win, and evil deserves to lose. It's straightforward, but it works as it should. And it succeeds. Mostly.

What Laws has that King doesn't, at least in this book, is a clear moral vision. The heroes are normal people attempting to battle their own demons as well as the one before them, but they are not despicable bastards you want to see die, or couldn't care less if they did. You don't hate them, in fact you want them to succeed. This is the way it should be.

The evil in Ghost Train is presented as primal, a force brought about by pre-Christian ignorance of spirits brought to today and doing battle with a post-modern ignorance of Christianity. The evil could easily be defeated if anyone really believed it existed, and used the tools they were given to fight it, but we'd gotten too lazy to really even understand that evil exists. This is the crux of the book--that evil is allowed to flourish due to the slothful nature of modern man. It's only by getting past that barricade can we even hope to stand a chance. 

There is a typical modernist Anglican priest in the book that represents this idea quite well, much better than the one King used in 'Salem's Lot, because his faith is irrelevant to the problem at hand. Good isn't a faucet that can be turned off in the face of evil, it's still there and it still works whether you understand it or not. As it should be. It's something I wish more horror books still did, especially from that time period where concepts were so wild and weird. The greater the horror in your story, the great the good should be to combat it, thereby raising the stakes and the entire story in the process. It's just a win/win for everyone involved.

Laws gets a lot right for his first book, which makes it doubly annoying when he gets something wrong. And there are some notable flaws that I just can't overlook.

As mentioned before, there are three parts to the book, each escalating in threat to the finale. This promises good pacing, and there is good pacing . . . at times. The fact of the matter is that for a 375 page book there are around 100 pages that could be excised entirely to make this a better, almost all of which are contained in the first two parts. Were it trimmed to 275 pages and closer to a pulp length work it would jump up an entire level. The book, unfortunately, dilutes itself because of a length it just shouldn't have and can't sustain.

Even worse, the most egregious examples of fluff all take place very early in the book which can turn off a lot of readers. There was far too much that should have been culled in the editing process. I know I was getting tired of slogging through repetitive and slow material and, if it wasn't for the general concept and choppy build up, might have put the book away. Considering what it takes to make me shelve a book that's saying something.

The first part is titled Mark and is mainly about the first protagonist. We start with our reveal of Mark Davies as he awakens from bad dreams that have come to him ever since he was thrown from a train not so long ago. The story starts by telling us everything about him as he is recovering and seeing his therapist. At the same time the plot is interspersed with small stories of bizarre happenings around the same train where people are both attacked by odd shadows or suffering from bouts of unexplained insanity. The very beginning actually isn't a bad start, and it gets to the action quick while setting up stakes before you've barely begun to breathe.

But then it keeps going and repeating itself.

After the opening there are long, interminable stretches of the same thing happening over and over. For 100+ pages. Mark has a bad dream, sees his therapist, sulks with his wife and daughter, some random person might be killed by the train, and repeat. The only real important diversion in this slog being a small story as a child when he was with his friend Robbie and they discovered an evil person. This event comes into play at different points later on. If you take that tiny story, make it the prologue, and cut most of the repetition that came after the beginning, it would go a long way to making the story more powerful and less choppy.

This problem is highlighted further with the second part entitled Chadderton, named after the second protagonist just introduced. His backstory is revealed instantly and quickly and is only ever touched on afterwards when necessary to the plot later on. Compared to Mark it is a drop in the bucket, and yet somehow he still attains the same level of depth as the man we were with for over 100 pages. It almost makes you wonder why the second part is even called Chadderton since he barely has, or needs, the focus that Mark had in the first section.

This just makes what happens in the first part seem even more pointless since so much of it just wasn't necessary, especially when only Mark and Chadderton are integral to the second and third parts and no one else that was introduced earlier aside from some villains. If Chadderton can get by with a quick backstory, and he does, there is no reason Mark needed so much space for himself along with so many characters that just simply didn't matter. Aside from the first victims that establish the tone and the threat, the rest were just needless filler. And that's the biggest problem with Ghost Train--it needed a harder edit and a pulpier focus to match its stronger parts.

The second section's problem is more cosmetic compared to the first. Those earlier chapters with random one-off characters killed by the train? They still keep happening, even long after we've already established the threat. Not to mention they come after long stretches in part one where we randomly stopped seeing them, thereby making it feel like padding to make the book longer. There are several unnecessary cutaways to one-off characters that feel superfluous in the second part that dilute from the urgency of the main characters' discovering this unfolding threat and learning to trust each other. It's a shame because when the story focuses on the two of them it is some of the strongest material in the book. We already know the threat is bad, we do not need to be shown it every second chapter, especially when there are a group of villains already demonstrating it.

The third part is practically flawless in how it allows everything to come to a head, though the characters that aren't Mark and Chadderton have a problem of not feeling necessary to the plot. Some are unceremoniously killed almost as if it didn't matter that they were even there in the first place. If you have a character in the story they should exist for a reason. There are at least two that might as well not even have been there since they add nothing to the plot.

The only other fault I can offer is that the story doesn't end so much as it stops. The climax of the plot is riveting and intense, but then the story keeps going a bit longer before a realization is made before an unnecessary hint is given that perhaps everything isn't settled, even though there's no reason it shouldn't be. It's an attempt at an "Is it really over?" ending that has no purpose being there when it should instead be about the character making up for a past mistake and winning in the end. We don't learn about what happens to a couple of characters that weren't on the train, nor the fate of a ghostly being that pops up briefly for a few scenes, or just what ends up happening to the train itself after the chaos subsides. The story just stops in an unsatisfying manner as if the editor decided it was finally long enough to let the writer end it.

Again, however, it is difficult to be too hard on a first novel when you know the author went on to do much more that people loved afterwards. I'm also not sure how much of this was simply not caught by an editor because they wanted fat books to sell for higher prices instead of letting pulpy works be what they are meant to be. It's a mystery.

I say this because when Ghost Train works it works very well. With a more ruthless editor the book would have been slimmer, punchier, tougher, and a lot more memorable and possibly more popular. But as we all know, pulp was a bad word in OldPub at the time and continues to be one up to the modern day. And now they are feeling the result of abandoning an entire style of writing. Stories should just be what they are, pulp or not.

As a result, Ghost Train is just good, but could have been more. It has a clear moral vision, accurately depicts horror, and knows that action is important. That is more than you can say for NewPub books released these days. When it works, it works very well.

You just have to know what you're getting into.

The most recent cover

Despite the downs in my experience reading Ghost Train, the ups were enough to make me want to read more from Stephen Laws, especially since I know he will improve as an author. But warts or not, I still had a good time with the book and would like to read more. That is the mark of a good story, even when flawed.

I also am interested in continuing my journey through the paperback fountain that is 1970s/80s horror, since both this and Nightblood have raised the bar from what I had been constantly told the genre was at during the time period. The experience is very much in line with the lies I had been told about the pulps, and so far they seem to be maliciously libeled and unfairly slandered, just as the greats were. The only question is in how many more times am I going to have to make this discovery of overlooked gems? It's getting a bit old learning that all the past things you were taught were garbage turn out to be better than the modern slop you are told is good.

Thankfully, these books are a lot easier to find than most of the pulps were, and I've already found a few for myself to read in the future. There is more than enough to go around. Now I just need to find myself an old fashioned spinner rack to put them on in order to make the entire strange experience complete!

Ghost Train is a good read, but not a great one. Nonetheless, I still recommend finding these types of '70s/'80s horror books when the opportunity arrives, especially if you are an avid writer or reader of pulp style fiction. They have a lot more to offer than you've been told they have, and they contain much the genre does not offer now, especially in the mainstream where they have been diluted to little more than thrillers with a ghost killing morally grey people instead of the human stabbing morally grey people mainstream thriller material offers. The old works are an entirely different universe from what you get today.

You'd be surprised at what these paperbacks from hell offer, and it is more than you'd been told. My recommendation is to give them a shot when you can. You never know what gem you might find hidden out in the minefield of old horror. It's a treasure trove.

But that's part of the fun, isn't it? It's a wonderful and weird world out there with surprises at every turn. Maybe what is out there going bump in the night isn't a monster at all, but something far more? Who knows? It's possible.

There's only one way to find out.


  1. Very good review! Thank you so much! I'm continuously finding that I prefer old books to new books, and I want to write books like the old pulps. :-D

    1. Thanks for reading! I'm also enjoying my read through these older books. They have a lot of what I'm looking for in fiction that modern OldPub stuff just doesn't have.