To Wake the Dead by Richard Laymon (Leisure Books, 2004)
To Wake the Dead is the first novel I have ever read by cult horror writer Richard Laymon. It will, in all probability, be the last one. I’ve been meaning to read one of his novels ever since I ran into his name linked to controversy. Now, one way to get me to read an author is to list him or her as being “beyond the pale”. And from what I could gather, Laymon’s subject matter had been covered extensively by such progressive paragons of horror as Clive Barker and Jack Ketchum. So he’s been on my “to read list”.
Until last week when I finally found one of his novels in a used bookstore (we still have them where I live). I almost bought it, but the store tried to jack the price up on me (“Uh, that one retails for $7, so I’ll have to charge you $5”). Note to future bookstore clerks: don’t screw with a price when the customer can download the sucker off Amazon.
Which is exactly what I did.
To Wake the Dead (AKA Amara) is one long exercise in how far you can drag the reader through grime and expect them to keep on reading. To the author’s credit, I finished the book. But it left a bad taste in my mouth.
But putting down David Gordon and picking up Richard Laymon? How do I compare the experience? Well, let’s say you just left a swank repertory cinema from seeing Citizen Kane and drove across down to watch Blood Feast at the Swamp Drive-in. You follow me?
The plot: an ancient curse is unleashed in the form of a mummy named Amara when thieves break into the house of the man who owns it. The bumbling burglars crack the seal which keeps the mummy entombed and the fiend is unleashed on the modern city of Los Angeles. There are several parallel stories in the novel: 1) mummy on the rampage, 2) some high school kids from South Carolina who’ve decided to leave their abusive situation and try to survive in the city of angels, 3) Imad, the assistant and ward of the original owner of the mummy who’s trying to figure out what happened to it, 3) a police officer and news reporter who constantly get called out to cover the rampage, and 4) a group of people imprisoned in an underground bunker who are being sexually abused by their unseen captors. It’s to Laymon’s credit as a writer he’s able to weave all these loose ends together at the conclusion of the novel.
The book was published after Laymon died from a massive heart attack in 2001. He’d never been very well-known in the USA, but had a large following in England.
If you remove the gratuitous sex and violence scenes it’s a very short book. The problem with these encounters are the way they are written: Laymon is explicit in his writing, but not very talented. For instance, it’s not enough one of the antagonists in a street-walker. Oh, no, we have to get countless descriptions of how disgusting she looks and smells. And the only sympathy she receives is at the conclusion. There’s also a rape sequence which is just too titillating for my stomach (and this is from someone who’s read 12 Gor novels).
A true artist can take any medium and make something special out of it. Jack Ketchum managed to do this in The Girl Next Door: a brutal series of rapes and torture slams home the realization that these things can happen down the road. I suppose you could make a found footage movie about the Knoxville Massacre, but I wouldn’t be watching. Or even want to know it existed .
In conclusion, if To Wake the Dead is typical for Laymon, I have no interest in reading anything else by him.