Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Missing Spirit

As I've mentioned before, horror in the 1980s was a tricky thing. The movies might have been on a upswing, but the books were a more mixed affair. It isn't that they were bad (though one was), but more that they didn't quite know what they should be. I've covered about three different horror books from this period on the blog, all with oddly different results from authors who clearly had different view of what true horror entails. 

Today, I am going to cover a book that is also horror of a sort slightly different than you might expect from the time period. This novel is called The Spirit by Thomas Page, and it's not very typical. This one is a bit of an odd duck.

For one, it's not an '80s horror novel: it came out in 1978. Yet, it feels a lot more like a 1980s horror story than it does 1970s. Unlike The Keep which felt like a 1970s novel released too late, The Spirit feels like a novel released before its time. It's much more pulp influenced than eve the 1980s horror I have read.

The Spirit is a story about bigfoot, and two men who are hunting this one specific creature for very different reasons. That's about it. You might see that description and scratch your head as it what it has to do with the title, or even how that can carry a whole book. It turns out to be quite a lot. In fact, of the three horror novels from this era I've talked about so far, it might be the best one. If not then it is close. There are several reasons for this, but the most important is that of all the horror I've covered here on Wasteland & Sky recently, this one gets the horror, and the threat that spins out from it, the most right. It truly understands the horror of its own concept.

So, what are other things that make it unlike those other books that I've covered? Let us review.

Nightblood by T. Chris Martindale is a book that got a much more affordable reprint in the Paperbacks from Hell line which was focused on 1970s and '80s horror reprints. The summary to that one is "Salem's Lot with an active protagonist and an actual ending" which was a joy to read. It's action-packed, horrifying, and contains a battle between good and evil that works. This is the sort of book that was hurt by coming out in 1990 after OldPub had begun to ditch horror. I recommended in the review, and I still recommend it now.

I then looked at Ghost Train by Stephen Laws, a novel about a Ghost Train (natch) and a man's quest to face his demons and put an end to them. It was the author's first book which meant a lot of first book issues, none of which were helped by the poor editing that should have cut the length down by a good 100 pages. However, the strengths of the story were enough to get it by and make me interested enough to read future books by the author.

Finally, I discussed The Keep by F. Paul Wilson, which was the worst horror novel I've yet read in this excursion into the era. It might be the worst horror novel I've ever read. The problems were plentiful, from wasted setup, characters, and plot elements, to hackneyed plot and worldbuilding decisions that destroy any atmosphere or tension, all to be hip with the then-current 1970s zeitgeist. How this became a giant hit, to the point that it even got a movie adaption, is far beyond me, especially when none of the other books I have reviewed have. It was terrible.

So how does The Spirit by Thomas Page differentiate itself from all of these? Surely it must have something to help it stand out. And it does.

First we should cover what similarities it has. Just like Nightblood it has plenty of action and peril, and the enemy is well defined without every truly taking away from its mystique. Just like Ghost Train it stars dual protagonists facing down a roadblock preventing them from moving forward with their lives, all of which is tied in with the horror. And just like The Keep it was written in the 1970s. That's about all it has in common with that one, thankfully.

I've said before that the one issue with most 1970s storytelling, regardless of what genre or medium, is the preponderance of nihilism and celebrated defeatism that poisons the proceedings. The Keep was exactly that, though masked in a fog of New Age emptiness that slowly choked the air of the art world before turning lethal in the 1990s. As well made as many things from that era are, they are more difficult to go back to because of the poison baked into the crust. Watch Chinatown for craft: don't watch it for the narrative or moral guidance. Whichever of these is more important to you is what is going to make the difference as to how well this era holds up. For me, this is why I have much difficulty enjoying anything from this period.

So it says something that I really like The Spirit. It doesn't feel like it is part of the era it was written in.

We must now discuss the work itself. The Spirit follows two men: Raymond Jason and an Indian (known as "Moon" legally, but not in the narration, for many reasons) who are both hunting a creature that does not seem to be of this world. They need to catch it, and not for fame or glory. Those that do don't tend to have a pleasant time in this book. The pair of protagonists are opposites but the same, and their journey in the story is to help find what the other is missing. Bigfoot has what they both need more than life itself.

Jason is businessman, a rich materialist, who wants for nothing yet finds something missing inside of him. It is a whole that can't be filled no matter what he does, and this gives him anger he cannot quite control and a rage that overwhelms him. This is exacerbated when on a camping trip his friends are ambushed and killed by a creature that shouldn't exist. He is the only survivor, and the only thing he remembers beyond his prey is a strange Indian who knocked him out with a rifle butt before he could catch the beast. Jason then goes on a quest, stopping at nothing to get this bigfoot. At first what begins as mere revenge turns into something more. No longer is it a prize, but far more personal. By the end he might find what he seeks, but does he really understand what he's searching for? This is Jason's journey through the story.

Moon is a Vietnam veteran who is Jason's opposite. Having nothing and no one throughout his life and then getting thrown into a war he didn't quite understand, caused him to abandon the physical world that his never offered him anything beyond pain and despair. Moon doesn't live in the material world, he has both feet in the spiritual world, and that's what guides him forward. This gives him a material blindness and an inability to see things the way Jason does. Because of this he sees the bigfoot as his Spirit, the one that will give him his name and lead him into completeness, finally filling the hole in him. He is very superstitious, carrying charms and trinkets, even rosaries, despite not really understanding the purpose or use to any of them. Moon is unanchored to the world, and he is very nearly ready to fall away from it entirely. He needs the Spirit to give him that purpose.

As you can tell, the title doesn't actually refer to the monster, but what both protagonists are actually seeking. They aren't hunting for a monster, though that is what they are going after in the plot. And what the monster actually is might tie into the title better than you would think. Especially by the ending.

Normally this is about as far as it goes with these sorts of stories. There is the obvious symbolism and then there is the slightly related plot to theme. But not in this case. What has the story work is that the bigfoot in this novel is a complete enigma, all the way to the end.

For one, there are many theories floated in the story as to what this creature actually is. "Bigfoot" is a vague term, especially for those who have looked up anything about these odd things. This story plays with that by offering much speculation and many hints wrapped in some scraps of truth. There might even be more than one kind of them! Naturally, Jason jumps on any material explanation, while Moon assumes every spiritual one. Neither can really reconcile with the other. However, by the end of the story they are both right and wrong, in ways neither of them expected. The entire thing comes full circle.

What you have is a quest about becoming whole in the midst of this story about a killer monster hiding in the shadows. It is all extremely effective at setting mood, tone, and atmosphere. By the end, it all comes together.

The Original (and wildly inaccurate) Cover

Of course, none of this would matter if the book didn't work where it counted: the execution. This is where I have to say that The Spirit is easily the best of the four horror novels I've reviewed so far (with Nightblood coming close) and it is stunning that it isn't more well known. Though perhaps the above cover didn't help.

This is a sharp book. It is under 250 pages, which is a miracle for the time period. Its pulp-pacing keeps it moving. We follow our two main characters and watch as tension builds, threats appear, tragedies stop them, and yet they are pushed onward again to reach their goal. It doesn't stop moving. The pacing is phenomenal. Even when we see some more of the side characters through the climax the story never lulls for a moment.

The only real fault with the book is the original cover (pictured above) which might have irreparably damaged its chances of success. There is no romance or sex in this book: it's not that kind of story. Its a book about spiritual dryness: neither would make much thematic sense. Thankfully, the Paperbacks from Hell line completely revamped the presentation and gave the work a phenomenal cover the book deserved to begin with. You can see it at the top of the post.

This is the second book I've covered in the Paperbacks from Hell line, and it is yet another homerun. I'm not sure if they are that good at picking them or the ones I choose just so happen to be the best ones, but much credit should go to Valancourt Books for bringing stories like this and Nightblood back into print, because they never should have left it to begin with.

I do not know why The Spirit never got a big movie adaption or more acclaim than it has, because it is definitely worth the attention. Especially when turkeys like The Keep received so much attention and baffling acclaim, it is a mystery as to how this work got ignored and nearly forgotten over the decades. One is clearly better than the other.

What makes The Spirit much better than The Keep is how seriously it treats its worldbuilding and its threat. There are no edge-lord nihilist theological bombshells in The Spirit to undercut tension. Instead we are given various different legends and myths from different cultures and religions centered around the bigfoot, or similar giant creatures, and how they might apply to the monster. By the end of the story it remains unclear just what it actually is (spoiler: the specific creature Jason and Moon are hunting might not even be one by the end) and yet that helps retain the mystery all the way to the exciting conclusion. It succeeds where it counts the most.

Speaking of the ending, I really do want to talk about it, but that requires summing up the rest of the book and our character's journeys to really explain properly. Needless to say that the final chapter is intensely rewarding for those who can wrap their head around what this book is actually about. It satisfies even on the thematic level.

But if you want to see monster-related carnage, this book doesn't disappoint there either. It's still a horror novel, which means an unflinching level of violence, blood, and death. However, it is the drive the protagonists have to push through this horror and come out the other side that makes the story what it is. It's very much a male horror story for guys, about men who need to win for more reasons than their surface level goal permits.

The best horror requires the threat to be more than just physical for the story to work. It's one of the reasons something like American Psycho succeeds in such a powerful way. You need a piece to connect to a more transcendent theme beyond the events in the plot. In American Psycho, it is the dehumanizing grind of modernism; in The Spirit, it is the hunt for purpose. There is no good horror story that doesn't have something like that on some level. It is what a disappointment such as The Keep is entirely missing, for instance.

I've said before that horror is all about rules, and that is true. Whether it is someone going against the natural order to destroy, or a monster that shouldn't be unleashing havoc on the normal, or an unexplainable event that defies explanation, horror is about the unnatural intruding on the natural in an attempt to subvert it replace what should be with what should never be. It isn't mindless carnage, gore, or profane sights and sounds, but how the absence of the good is a terrifying prospect that will lead to nothing but ruin.

This is what The Spirit succeeds at getting across. Is the material world enough? If it isn't, then what do we need to fill it, and what will we do when we get the opportunity to do so? How far will you go to fill a whole inside your soul? By the end of the story you will have your answer.

So, is The Spirit worth your time? I would definitely say it is. Pulp action, stomach churning horror, and a strange poignancy, all in a book about a bigfoot monster might seem odd, but it comes together to make it an experience I won't soon forget.

Keep in mind that this really a guy book. It's grimy, harsh, and fierce, but it's also one where doing the right thing is rewarded in the end, and where doing the wrong thing will not have things end well for you. Should you enjoy horror I would definitely give this a read.

With this book we are now back at a healthy ratio of recommends for this era of paperback pulp horror. I'm not sure if I'm just really good at picking them or they really are this good as a whole, but it has been fun. This is the sort of weirdness we could always use more of, especially in the horror genre. I've got a few more in my backlog to go through, but I still don't know which one to choose next. But at least my confidence has been restored.

I know this post was a bit out of season to talk about a horror novel near Christmas, though I do think it was worth mentioning for those into this sort of thing. 

As for a more seasonal title with a similar name, I do have another book to bring up.

Find it Here!

Check out The Christmas Spirit by Lou Aguilar. This is a paranormal romance with a season appropriate Christmas theme, unlike the book I just talked about! The description is as follows:

"A jaded women’s magazine writer becomes obsessed with the dynamic lighthouse keeper who rescued her at sea just before Christmas then mysteriously vanished. She sets out to write a story on him, much to her rich fiancĂ©’s displeasure and the Coast Guard’s discouragement. The deeper she delves into the mystery, the more she uncovers a romantic Christmas magic she never imagined but will take all her courage to embrace."

Once again, you can find it here!

That's about it for this week. Christmas is on the way, as is 2021. This long year is almost at an end, and I for one will be glad to see it go.

We've got better things waiting ahead of us.

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