Soda Pop for Thirsty Pigs

A bunch of reviews by some rambling, near-alcoholic horror fan:

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Pleasant Dreams: Nightmares by Robert Bloch

Now there's a contender for awkwardest title in anthology publishing history. At least The Opener of the Way, while taken from a story, had some thematic significance as a title because it was Bloch's first anthology and thus, the "Opener" to his career(Bloch evidently thought along similar lines, as he would use the title for a semi-autobiographical story called The Closer of the Way). And dig that cover, is this a horror anthology or an encyclopedia for young intellectuals?

 Well, don't judge a book by it's cover, because this is yet another superb Bloch anthology. While he'd still do some good stuff later on, it's my opinion that the 40s- early 50s was his peak. Ironically, this seemed to end with the success of Psycho, which is what catapulted him to superstardom. Did success spoil Robert Bloch? Maybe, because only heavy pruning would keep his future anthologies from being mixed bags. Enough complaining though, this is still a superb collection. While Opener was fun for seeing Bloch experiment with different writing styles and developing his own voice("A portrait of the artist as a young Monster" he once said in an interview), with Pleasant Dreams, you have the pleasure of reading the master's work in it's fully realized form.

 The volume gets off to a strong start with Sweets to the Sweet, the Weird Tales classic about a lawyer who reluctantly investigates his brother's treatment of his daughter at the behest of her nanny, only to realize that the insults his brother has hurled at his daughter, calling her a witch, have proven to be a formative experience for her...

 It's not perfect, and the adaption in 1971's The House that Dripped Blood improves upon it indefinitely by humanizing the characters(Christopher Lee & Chloe Franks star as father and daughter), but the sheer visceral punch of the ending makes it work, and you have to love a story that begins "Irma didn't look like a witch."

 Next is one of Bloch's many stories about Hollywood, The Dream Makers, about what really happens to those old movie stars who dropped out of sight with their entire careers ahead of them. Some wickedly funny satirical bits as well as a truly jaw-dropping visual pun the story offers up for the twist ending helps knock this one into semi-masterpiece territory. The highlight, however, is the opening, where Bloch recreates the fateful trip to the movies to see The Phantom of the Opera when he was a kid that started it all. I'd rather read this as an excerpt any day than the waste of space "memories" in Cemetery Dance's bloated October Dreams anthology(god I hate that book).

 The next story, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, is an awesome chiller told from the point of view of a mentally handicapped young man named Hugo, who becomes the pawn of a scheming magician's wife. The definitive Bloch story, not in that it's great mind you(though it certainly is a compelling page-turner that easily deserves 4 out of 5 stars), but because it boasts all the fiendishly clever logic and gruesome twists you could want from a story, and it's the kind of stuff which made ravenous fans out of people like me. It was memorably adapted with Diana Dors for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock presents, maybe a bit too memorably for some people, as it was banned for being too intense for television. 

 I Kiss your Shadow is a bit more problematic, it starts off as a strong supernatural thriller similar to Bloch's earliest stuff, takes a twist into Psycho territory, and then ends with a what the hell?-inducing ending that seems like a precursor to the sexually charged horror of later writers like Clive Barker. Oh yeah, and Bloch apparently has no idea about what a "succubus" is for a guy who prided himself on his knowledge of horror motifs. Shadow's plot is fairly standard stuff involving a murdered spouse's ghost taking revenge, but the stylistic mishmash of the story makes it unsatisfying, like it's several stories woven together. It does explore a concept(that of a living shadow) that Bloch mined previously(and more effectively) in Black Bargain, but sometimes stuff doesn't need to be rehashed. Then again, maybe he was just ahead of his time again; "shadow people" have recently experienced a resurgence in popularity thanks to internet memes like the Slender Man.

 Much more ambitious, and much more outrageous, is the infamous story Mr. Steinway. A hilariously bitchy woman(the narrator) latches onto a meek pianist and soon finds herself competing for him against...a piano. Once more, the Bloch motif of the oppressive mother appears, and in the 1967 film adaption of this story in Torture Garden, that's apparently the driving force for the piano to come to life and try to kill the narrator. Yeah, you read that right.
 In the original though, we instead get a truly bizzare, rambling ''scientific'' explanation(based off of someone's truly screwed up understanding of quantum physics, metaphysics, the tree-hugger mentality that everything is alive, and just plain old fashioned bullshit) for why the piano comes to life. Bloch's characterization is a hoot, and the attempt to ground the story in scientific explanations needs to be read to be believed, but really, it's hard to be deep and metaphysical when you have a friggin' killer piano as the central point of a story. Very entertaining though, just for it's sheer illogic. Why this was adapted to film I'll never know. It just had to have been chosen as some kind of joke.

Fear Me!

 Much better than Steinway because it's intentionally funny, but also touches on pop occultism in a similar way, is The Proper Spirit, a bawdy comedy story about a loveable old miser named Ronald Cavendish whose even greedier family tries to do him in by using his obsession with seances to get him committed. This being a horror story(albeit a comedic one), how much do you want to bet who's right? With some great dialogue, hilariously eccentric characters, and a genuinely clever twist which gives multiple meanings to the title, this is one of Bloch's best comedic efforts, very similar to Thorne Smith's Topper stories, but much better, as well as a whole lot darker. I would not have minded seeing a series based around Mr. Cavendish just like Bloch did with Lefty Feep.

 While the next story, Catnip, is also chock full of black humor(as well as the single most jaw droppingly silly ending line I've ever read), it's much, much more sinister. A ruthless middle school bully with his eyes on becoming a gangster(he runs his school's class president campaign like a mafia don manipulating an election, and has people do his homework for him as a kind of protection racket) runs afoul of an old lady and her black cat, and ends up accidentally killing her. Slowly, this asshole of assholes is reduced to a blubbering sissy as the cat seeks retribution. Inspite of our thoroughly vile protagonist being the cat's target, Bloch generates some moments of genuine terror as the cat closes in for the kill. While the black cat acting as an agent of vengeance originates with Poe and Stoker, elements from this particular story seem to have also worked their way into other works. Shadow of the Cat(1961) is an obscure early Hammer film with a similar idea, as is Eye of the Cat(1969) and a segment of the anthology The Uncanny(1977). It also has a connection to another Bloch film adaption...but that would be telling. 

 Next comes The Cheaters, a story with a marvelously circular structure about a pair of glasses that allow it's users to see the truth about those around them, or do they? It ends badly for all involved. Of all people, Dave Chapelle actually seemed to have drawn inspiration from this story for a sketch on his show. Cheaters is followed by Hungarian Rhapsody, which, well guess, just guess what this is about. Nevertheless, the well-defined characters and yet another outrageously silly pun at the end keep this story fresh when it should come off as cliche.

 You can't fault Bloch with originality though for his next tale, then again, maybe you can, because he's finishing another author's story which only had four pages finished(and in this book, that equals up to one and a half pages). This story is called The Light House, and is a fine tale about a misanthropic man who takes a job operating a lighthouse, and slowly  starts going mad from lonelines, then discovers a special talent of his that ends his loneliness. Like I said it's Bloch finishing another writer's work. No biggy, told in extremely brief journal entries, all the original author did was just establish the setting and that's it.

 Thing is, the author in question died before he could get the plot going, even more shocking is that this author was no less an icon than Edgar Allan Poe! Anyone trying to complete a Poe story has to be admired for their guts alone. Bloch is more than up to the task, in fact, the brief, concise and straight to the point opening lines by Poe read like work by a modern author, and not Poe's usual word salad prose. In contrast, Bloch's story(a good 97% of the story is his) actually reads more like Poe than the actual Poe bits! No one has ever done a better stylistic imitation than this.

 Other stories include the unnerving haunted house/study in vanity stopry The Hungry House, and the atmospheric Sleeping Beauty, which manages to be both romantic and sleazy in it's story about a tourist searching for "the real New Orleans" who ends up experiencing a supernatural blast from the past courtesy of an old pimp(Hmm, that sounds awkward). These stories are followed up by Sweet Sixteen, a story that attempts to give an explanation for juvenille delinquency, and lands on a supernatural scapegoat which would sadly be picked up by real life fundies decades later and result in the late 1980's Satanism scare. It's a good story, but the real fun lies in Bloch's condemnation of other then-popular explanations for delinquency at the time. Particularly interesting is his mention of Dr. Wertham. Several of Bloch's other stories showed a rather contemptuous attitude towards comic books, and Bloch's lone contribution to the medium, a meanderingly simplistic, awful Flash story(that still somehow wound up in a collection of the greatest Flash stories ever told, solely because of Bloch's name) showed how much credibility he gave the average comics reader: None. So it's refreshing to see Bloch to offer up a comparatively sympathetic view towards comics considering his track record.

 The book saves the best for last with the short stories That Hell-Bound Train and Enoch. Hell Bound Train is a whimsically dark story about a bum who makes a deal with the devil, and the result is one of the most complex, moving, and brilliantly plotted stories I've ever read. Easily my favorite deal-with-the-devil story. Along with The Scarf, it ranks as Bloch's very best work. It has been rightfully honored as the masterpiece it is, winning a Hugo award and continually being anthologized ever since. I'm not saying anymore about it except that it's a masterpiece, and my favorite short-story of all time.
 Following Train is Enoch, which is much trashier, but so much fun it easily holds up following such a masterpiece. In many ways, it's the true precursor to Psycho, as it features a simple-minded man who kills travellers and disposes of them in the bog, and wrestles with a split personality which comes courtesy of his mother. But ah, this has a twist. Our protagonist, Seth, is fully aware of his crimes, it's just that, you see, he thinks he committs the murders at the behest of his invisible pet demon Enoch, which lives in his hair and rewards and punishes him depending on how well he complies with it's murderous needs(Enoch was a birthday present from his mother, a witch). Or does it? When it comes to stories dealing with whether the supernatural is involved or whether it is psychological, few remain as successfully ambiguous as Enoch does. Every time you get settled on another interpretation, another plot point pops up to lend credence to the other.

  Barring that, it's such a well-told tale that you can't help but like Seth, and view the sinister ending as a happy one. Kids love seeing this story told on camping trips for some reason, with or without the "and it happened in these very woods" twist ending that every campfire storyteller adds. I dunno, maybe kids just relate to the good-natured, befuddled Seth. One online review said it was a story "that will delight children but horrify their parents". Good call. In fact, in his anthology The Early Fears, Bloch mentions in the introduction a case where Enoch was banned from a classroom in Pennsylvania. I would love to hear more about that, but can find no info anywhere. 

 Oddly enough, in the film Torture Garden, the plot of this story is altered considerably despite the original being so beloved. The Seth character is changed to a scheming heir who murders his uncle, whose servant was Enoch, who rather than being invisible, is a cat, and several scenes come right from Catnip. This combination of stories leads me to believe Pleasant Dreams was on producer Milton Subotsky's shelf and he felt that the stories should be fused together to make a more satisfying whole.

 Speaking of the Early Fears anthology, it reprints the full, original edition of Opener of the Way as well as all of Pleasant Dreams: Nightmares as well as 3 other stories. It's tragically out of print, but easier to find than the original Opener and Dreams, and since not everyone can be a rare book collector like me, I'd suggest finding it. Despite it's hefty original price tag, I've seen it sold online fairly cheaply. It's worth every penny, despite having a bunch of typos and rather confusing cover art. Anyway, it's worth it to get your hands on this stuff somehow.


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