Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Lisa W. Cantrell's The Manse (1987) and Torments (1990)

The Manse (1987) by Lisa W. Cantrell: After a somewhat surprising Bram Stoker Award win for Best First Novel of 1987 for The Manse (it beat out the superior Slob by Rex Miller and Damnation Game by Clive Barker, and those are just the two novels on the nomination list I've read), Lisa Cantrell published three more novels over the next ten years and then seemingly vanished from history during the Great Horror Collapse of the early 1990's. So this is an award-winning novel, The Manse.

I've certainly read worse. I've definitely read better. The novel at points seems to have been assembled using a Stephen King Plot-and-Character Generator. An ancient house of secrets looms over a small town. Something evil is coming. An old African-American woman with vaguely defined psychic powers knows that Something evil is coming. Newspaper clippings fill the reader in. People, children especially, go missing or get killed. A lawyer, a reporter, and a black dude nicknamed Dood walk into a bar. A monster eats fear! Small-town intrigues and politics occupy many while Something evil comes.

There are a few well-imagined scenes sprinkled throughout The Manse. I like a bit in which a character gets pulled into a fireplace by tendrils of ghost-fire, for instance. And there's a nicely described eye-monster. These things suggest either a couple of lucky strikes or, more charitably, real talent left mostly undeveloped.

However, there's also a sense of either a novel that's been cut down from something longer and more detailed or a novella not quite expanded to the right length. One of the places the stitching shows comes in the first long section of the novel, a countdown that takes us from one October to the next. Except that Cantrell's narrative suddenly jumps from March to October. I guess The Manse sleeps through the Spring, Summer, and early Fall.

Other problems include a nebulously defined evil that does whatever the plot requires of it, from creating illusions to sucking people into another dimension. And Cantrell's major characters, realistically skeptical while the horrors approach, for the most part have become passive idiots by the time the story climaxes. This is a horror novel in which people are acted upon to such an extent that only the Manse's incredible stupidity allows anyone to survive the climax.

(But there will be a sequel.)

Oh, yes. Very lightly recommended.

*****

Torments (1990) by Lisa W. Cantrell: 

"It was like an erection, slick and hard and deadly."

So muses Vince Colletti in Torments. Colletti is one of the few minor characters to survive the events of Cantrell's The Manse

He's thinking about his handgun. What kind of erections did Cantrell deal with in her personal life in the 1980's, one wonders. And who the hell puts the claim that "she [Cantrell] is a tireless self-promoter" in the Torments author bio on the back inside cover? As Torments doesn't seem to have been republished since it first came out in 1990, somehow not tireless enough.

The stunning ineptitude of Torments makes The Manse look like The Haunting of Hill House by comparison. The most interesting thing about the novel, other than that erection quote, is the stylistic debt it owes to a combination of Stephen King and A Need to Pad a Too-Short Novel.

From Stephen King comes...

(Things inside brackets)

(Brackets! Brackets!)

(Parantheses!)

From the world of Padding the Novel comes...

A lot of

Short paragraphs.

(There's also...)

(Italics....)

(And even baffling "quotation marks" around "things".)

Boy, it's a mess. The high point plot-wise comes with about fifty pages to go as Cantrell suddenly throws a snuff film into one character's back-story, I'm assuming because she'd heard of them and wanted to have one in the novel. This allows for several pages of back-story for a character rather than, I don't know, maybe developing the central horror of the Manse. Oh well.

Luckily, there's an African-American with magical powers to take on the now-ghostly Manse. Unluckily, people immediately started building a condo on the site of the Manse, which burned down and killed 37 people in the process at the conclusion of The Manse but which has returned in ghostly form more powerful than before after only a two-year hiatus. Sort of like Obi-Wan Kenobi in evil mansion form. It's the ghost of a house.

The nominal hero of things gains mental strength by thinking of a line from The Empire Strikes Back right after he's mused on his prostitute mother's death in a snuff film when he was ten.

He sought vengeance on the man who set his mother up, training and preparing...

... until he was 12-years-old. Yes, 12. It's Death Wish: The Home Alone edition.

Jesus, what an awful novel. Not recommended. (Except for "hilarity".)

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