Thursday, July 27, 2017

I said medium well, not half baked....

So, at one of the used books sales I've been frequenting, I stumbled across Richard Laymon's The Stake. Having read a few of his other novels, I thought, "Hey, I know they're the literary equivalent of a bag of chips, why not?", and then firmly got the regrets upon reading it.

Laymon, back in the days I was still reading Fangoria magazine every month was famous/notorious in their pages for writing stuff that was a step above the Zebra imprint supermarket horror, but not quite good enough to be considered a classic writer. (Let me add here, that while most of the horror available at Krogers was indeed forgettable and pulpy, there were a few that I still own and occasionally re-read. Lisa W. Cantrell being one of them.) Indeed, the first book I read by him, Out Are the Lights, held my attention fairly well until the horrendously silly ending, that revolved around a deaf character being able to read lips perfectly on a movie screen. But, we're not discussing that one at the moment, even as much as I want to get another copy of that travesty.

The Stake's cover claims it to be "A novel of the supernatural" and even has a Stephen King blurb on it. The former is a misnomer, and the latter is proof that King was willing to blurb for anyone in the 80's.A reviewer on goodreads refers to this one as the novel where Laymon learned to pad out the length. This is also pretty true, particularly given the subplot that gets introduced in the last third and gets wrapped up with a Deus ex machina at the very end.

Anyway.

The book starts with our hero, a midlist splatterpunk author named Lawrence Dunbar and his wife Jean, out exploring ghost towns on the California/Nevada border with friends and neighbors Peter and Barbara. They wind up in a real one, Sagebrush Flat, which dried up in the late 1960's. The town is in disrepair, although the hotel has a new padlocked hasp on the front door. Being drunk and needing to advance the plot, the couples break in to the hotel to explore. Climbing the stairs, Barbara falls through, and Peter, getting under them in the basement, finds a coffin with a teenage girl. Said Girl has a stake through her heart, is surrounded by garlic cloves, and has a crucifix standing watch over her rest.

The couples leave in a hurry. Pete and Larry, though, later on decide to go back and get the body.

That comes later. First, we meet Larry and Jean's daughter, Lane. Lane, who's in High School, has what passed for typical teen issues in the era. Her boyfriend is interested in one thing, and she has a crush on her English teacher, Hal Kramer.

Before Larry and Pete return to Sagebrush Flats, we get a brief glimpse of Mr. Kramer, and his "friend", who happens to be Lane's classmate Jessica. That he's made her his friend through the use of razors and threats of murder isn't important until later.

The boys go get the body while the wives are out of town. While exploring the desert around the town, they find a skinned coyote that someone was obviously eating for dinner.

The corpse winds up in Larry's garage attic, as Larry and Pete decide to make a Amityville Horror style true story book out of the vampire in the desert. Larry starts dreaming about the corpse, seeing her as if she was alive. She keeps making him promises if he'll take the stake out.

Oh yeah, in case I forgot to mention it, Larry spends most of the book obsessing about the women in his life who aren't his wife.

Eventually, Larry finds out the girl's name was Bonnie, and she'd been Homecoming Spirit Queen in 1968. Kramer, in the meantime kills Jessica and her parents, sets their house on fire, and then prepares to make Lane his next "friend". Lane, oblivious to most of this, is doing things to intentionally draw his attention to herself.

And finally, late in the book, we meet Uriah, the one who staked Bonnie and her friends in 1968 and buried most of them under the hotel basement floor. He feels he's on a mission from God to eliminate Satan's vampiric spawn, although we're mostly left to wonder is he's insane or not.

All of this comes to a head in the literary equivalent of Prom in a teen movie. Everyone winds up coming over for dinner.

It's not a particularly badly written book, it just feels as if there's a better book just waiting to be chiseled out of the slab of words as presented. It would have also helped on my end, as a reader in 2017, if any of the characters had been better developed. I mean, we get to know Larry, and we get to know Lane, but everyone else seems like a paper doll, standing there waiting to be interacted with. And, much like Stephen King's early work, the plot doesn't actually do much until the last 50 pages or so.

If you're wanting something that will hold your attention but not really require much thought, give Laymon a try.