Horror on Horror

HERE'S A curious tale of literary cross-fertilization. Last year, Washington aviation lawyer Douglas Winter published a short story called "Less Than Zombie" in an anthology, The Book of the Dead. A parody of Less Than Zero, the 1984 novel about alienated California teens that was Bret Easton Ellis's debut, the story begins like this: "People are afraid to live on the streets of Los Angeles." The characters watch a snuff film in which a woman is murdered on-screen, then try the same thing on one of their friends.

Though it's a grim little piece about becoming desensitized, "Less Than Zombie" does not seem especially misogynistic. Neither, for that matter, did Less Than Zero. But that's the charge being leveled against Ellis's forthcoming novel, the bloody American Psycho, both by those who have read it and those who haven't. What's been missing from discussions of the novel, however, is any sense of context -- that it doesn't exist in a vacuum. Whether Ellis knows it or not, he's part of a literary movement called splatterpunk.

As defined by editor Paul Sammon in his timely new anthology, Splatterpunks (St. Martin's): "First remove the limits society and so-called good taste impose on fiction. All the limits. Add a healthy dose of shock as well as the influence of schlock movies, late-night TV . . . a strong awareness of pop culture . . . And never, ever flinch."

Says Sammon, an L.A. filmmaker and writer: "This is a clear case of the underground erupting into the mainstream once again. The entire American Psycho controversy is really just a spillover of an overgoing controversy that's been going on in the horror community since 1986."

The most succinct version of the dispute: Is this stuff an effective plumbing of the deepest limits, or does it merely exploit what it pretends to condemn? The latter view is summed up by Roberta Lannes, a Splatterpunks writer who denies, like most of the other contributors, that she belongs to the movement: "Splatterpunk, with its inherent gratuitous blood, guts, gore and graphic sex intends to disgust and gratify a reader's lowest self-needs."

As it happens, not all the stories in the anthology can be dismissed so simply. Particularly upsetting is a seven-page post-holocaust story called "City of Angels." It would be impossible to describe this tale in a family newspaper -- the most you could say is that radiation sickness is making people's bodies rot -- much less quote from its contents. (Unsurprisingly, the story is pseudonymous.) Still, none of those who could stomach it will forget it. This is real fiction, not simply pathology.

As for "Less Than Zombie," which is also included in the anthology, author Winter explains its origins by saying he thought Less Than Zero "was the best zombie novel of the '80s. It was the most convincing depiction of the transformation of humans into not so much monsters as creatures that were devoid of the kinds of instincts and emotions that we tend to identify with humanity."

Consequently, Winter wasn't much surprised by the contents of American Psycho. "It struck me as being a natural extension -- that Ellis had sensed the horrific direction in which his writing was heading, and had embraced that impulse." So we move from jaded youths having sex and doing drugs in the former novel to the psychotic slaughter of women in the new one.

While Winter, without having read Psycho, is open-minded about its merits, his editor is less convinced. "Ellis has mirrored the worst conventions of the emotionally stunted, male-oriented horror writer, who not only perceives women as sex toy or victim, but essentially as a mystery to be feared -- and destroyed," Sammon says. In other words, it's bad splatterpunk.

Yet Sammon also gives Ellis a backhanded compliment. "I think he's doing women a favor. Ellis is using the damsel-in-distress myth -- underlying all this torture and mutilation is the idea of women as the weaker sex. But with the very politically aware and intellectually acute response he is getting from groups like the National Organization for Women, they're putting the lie to his central concept."

Johnny Acorn

IN 1953, the French novelist Jean Giono submitted a piece to Reader's Digest on the most unforgettable character he'd ever met. The man he wrote about was a French shepherd, Elzeard Bouffier, who for decades planted 100 acorns a day in a desolate part of Provence. Concluded Giono: "When I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the wasteland, I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable."

It was perfect Reader's Digest material. At least it was until the magazine's fact-checker discovered the tale was wholly fictitious. Giono, unfazed, published his story in Vogue, and it's lived on ever since. In 1985, a tiny Vermont publishing house, Chelsea Green, issued 5,000 copies of an edition illustrated with wood engravings by Michael McCurdy.

Now there are 120,000 in print, with the greatest percentage of sales in the past year. This season there's also a gift set, containing a hardcover copy of the book and an audiocassette. Robert Lurtsema proves to be a fine narrator, and the Paul Winter Consort supplies appropriate music.

The story works because it has the plainness and economy of a fable. "To have anything like a precise idea of this exceptional character," Giono writes in one typical passage, "one must not forget that he worked in total solitude: so total that, toward the end of his life, he lost the habit of speech. Or perhaps it was that he saw no need of it."

The only disappointing thing is that it's not true. However, in a case of life mirroring art, the first winner of the new $1,000 Jean Giono Award for an outstanding citizen tree planter (sponsored by Chelsea Green and the American Forestry Association) bears an uncanny resemblance to the writer's creation.

Paul Rokich, now 58, grew up near Utah's Oquirrh Mountains, then the victims of over-grazing, over-logging and pollution from a local copper smelter. As a youth, he could see only two trees on the mountains, and they were both dead. When Rokich started his self-appointed task of reforestation 32 years ago, he had to work at night to escape detection by the mining company that owned the land. Later, he was given permission to plant at his own expense; still later, in 1973, he was hired by the company.

Recently, according to the American Forestry Association, Rokich developed a hugely sophisticated tree planting project, and is at work both on and off the job. All of this nicely fulfills Giono's stated purpose: "To make people love the tree, or more precisely, to make them love planting trees."

Hard Cases

THERE'S SOMETHING special about a hardcover book. Paperbacks may have the edge in ease of transport, but their covers often insult, the paper frequently yellows, and the prices have soared in recent years. Once, hardcovers cost ten times as much as paperbacks. Now they're only two or three times as much. If it's a book you prize, by an author you admire, there's no contest.

Or so Otto Penzler hopes. The multi-faceted entrepreneur behind New York's Mysterious Bookshop and the Armchair Detective magazine, as well as the founder of the Mysterious Press, has a new venture: The Armchair Detective Library. The list consists of hardcover editions of early books by espionage, mystery, crime and detective writers, including Elizabeth Peters' Crocodile on the Sandbank and The Curse of the Pharaohs, Elmore Leonard's Hombre, Robert Ludlum's The Scarlatti Inheritance, and Ed McBain's Cop Hater and The Mugger.

Others have tried to reap in these fields before, with mixed success. Hill & Co., a small Boston publisher, failed to reach an audience, while the Book-of-the-Month Club found more of a market for its classics series than it had expected. The trick seems to be in targeting a specific market. Penzler is aiming first at libraries.

"The way this whole notion began was through my bookshop and the American Library Association," he says. "We're not talking brain surgery here. All you have to do is listen to readers and librarians: They want hardcover copies of their favorite writers' first books."

With writers who have only recently gained popularity, that isn't easy. Tony Hillerman's first novel with Lt. Joe Leaphorn, The Blessing Way, came out 20 years ago. A first edition will set you back upwards of $200. A copy that has been de-accessioned from a library would be much cheaper, but you can't count on running into those. It's true that the book has recently been reissued in an omnibus with two other Hillerman novels, but readers aren't always fond of these. Furthermore, some of the books Penzler is doing, like the McBains or the Leonard, have never had separate hardcover editions.

Each volume in the Armchair series comes in three versions. The largest chunk of the press run looks just like a regular book, and is mostly destined for libraries. Then there's a couple of hundred copies of the Collector edition, priced a little higher ($25 versus $18 or so) and bound with a foil-stamped cover design and an illustration of the author on the cover. Finally, there's another 126 copies of the Collector edition signed by the author and equipped with a slipcase ($75).

To give these volumes a bit of an extra edge, all but Dick Francis's Nerve have brief new introductions, most written by the author. Tony Hillerman explains why The Fly on the Wall "didn't turn out to be the Big Book I had hoped to make it." Robert Ludlum describes how The Scarlatti Inheritance arose out of his speculations that the Nazis rose to power because of secret funding by "an immensely wealthy catalyst." These are pleasant pieces, if sometimes perfunctory.

Twenty titles have been published so far. Penzler is confident enough of a market to have signed up another 50, which will appear at the rate of two a month. Bookstores will no doubt stock some of them, particularly specialist mystery shops; for a pamphlet describing the series, write The Armchair Detective Library, 129 West 56th St., New York, N.Y. 10019-3881.