Long, long ago in a world simpler by far—and before I became (relatively speaking) the seasoned giddy gadabout you see in Convention bookrooms and on panels etc—I began making occasional trips to London there to drool over the metal comicbook spinners in Dark They Were And Golden-Eyed (“a pound for just one comic? Geddouda heyar!”) and browse Forbidden Planet’s and Murder One’s stuffed-full shelves of imported American paperbacks. Oh, the pure joy!
It was here, particularly in FPthat I repeatedly discovered rare and unknown gems loosely collected within our own much-loved World of the Fantastical . . . brightly coloured paperbacks that promised fun, excitement and even the occasional scare. Lin Carter’s Adult Fantasy series for Ballantine and Del Rey (where I discovered Clark Ashton Smith had written far more than the half-dozen tales with which I was familiar), which included in their line-up the likes of Hope Mirlees’s LUD IN THE MIST, David Lindsay’s A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, Hannes Bok, James Branch Cabell and many many more. They were truly magical times. On one such visit—on several, actually, but this one I just knew was extra special—a single cover leapt right out at me. I loved the picture, a young woman knelt on a grassy sward with a big tent in the distance and above which a flying man with angelic blond hair floated, his right arm extended silently asking her to visit. ‘It’s summer,’ the back cover proclaimed . . .
The circus is coming to town. And in the shadows of the gaily painted wagons lurks an ancient and evil creature whose inhuman lusts will shatter forever the peace of a small Kansas community.
Sure, a neato neato cover if only for the brightness and colour if for nothing else. But here was the first time I discovered the power of The Blurb, those little sound-bites devised and constructed to make us throw caution (and penury) to the winds and slap our coins on the counter in smiley-faced abandon. “Here,” we trill, “I shall have this. Nay, storekeeper, I need this. The kids can starve, the bank can foreclose and we’ll forego petrol in the car but this. Simply. Can. Not. Be. Passed. By.” And here was just such an example of the veritas of that last little outburst (for which, alas, I make no apology). For not only did the back go on to announce from no less a luminary than Harlan Ellison How good is this book? It is breathtakingly good, but, courtesy of Gregory Benford, the front cheered volubly Not since Bradbury has a fantasy author so captured the dark heart of Midwestern America. Heh, that was it folks. I was stumped, Driven dumbstruck. Breathless.
That book was the late great Tom Reamy’s BLIND VOICES
Tom struck down by a heart attack in 1977, aged 42—I have shirts older than that (you’ve seen me wearing ‘em, right?)—with just this one superb novel and a blistering collection to his credit. For, yessir, BLIND VOICES really is superb. Sure, it has the almost indefinable poetically purple prose that we forever link with Ray B., but there’s a strange darkness to it that’ll haunt you right from the first sentence in the first paragraph on the first page.
And now we’ve got the book here at PS, with totally off-the-wall splendid artwork from the one-of-a-kind Chris Roberts. Folks, it just don’t get any better’n this one and we’ve got another one just as good to soak up those few coppers you threw back into your pants pocket amidst the trouser-lint—but we’ll get to that in just a moment. No, first things first.
We may have more to tell you about regarding Tom but for now, read—or re-read—this celebration of words and language and the magic of friends and summertime. Go sit out in the garden with a nice cold beer and turn the page. Here now:
It was a time of pause, a time between planting and harvest when the air was heavy, humming with its own slow, warm music. Amber fields of ripe wheat, level as skating rinks, stretched to the flat horizon and waited for the combines that crawled like painted-metal insects from Texas to the Dakotas. Dusty roads lined with telephone poles made, with ruled precision, right-angle turns at section lines separating the wheat from green fields of young maize.
Farmers stood at the edges of the fields, broke off fat heads of wheat and rolled the kernels between their fingers, squinting at the flat blue sky. The farmers’ wives, finished with the dinner dishes, paused before going back into the hot kitchens to begin a long afternoon of cooking, doing it all again for supper. They sat on the front porches in the shade, trying to catch a nonexistent movement of air. They spread apart the collars of their dresses and fanned their necks with cardboard fans printed with a color picture of the bleeding heart of Jesus on one side and an advertisement for the Redwine Funeral Home on the other.
Then the farmers turned their attention from the sky to the road. Their wives stopped fanning and leaned forward in their chairs. Children paused in their chores and their play and shaded eyes with hands. They looked at each other and grinned, feeling excitement tightening in their chests like clock springs.
In that long-ago summer afternoon in southern Kansas, when the warm air lay like a weight, unmoving and stifling, six horse-drawn circus wagons moved ponderously on the dusty road.
A two-horse team pulled each wagon, their heads drooping slightly, their shod hoofs dragging a bit before lifting to take another plodding step. The six drivers dozed in the heavy dusty air, holding the reins lightly, letting the horses choose their own pace. The wagons creaked and groaned as they swayed; rattled and jolted when the wooden, iron-rimmed wheels bounced in chugholes.
The wagons were a little shabby, their once-bright paint doubly dimmed from sun and dust. The sides of the wagons promised miracles with gilt curlicues and wonders with gingerbread flourishes. Shaking and rattling and squeaking, the wagons were a gallery of marvels, a panorama of astonishments.
The drivers reined in the horses and the line of caravans creaked to a halt when they met the black Model-T Ford arriving in a billow of dust from the opposite direction. The car pulled off the road into the shallow ditch filled with the red, yellow, orange, brown, black, and purple of Indian paintbrush, black-eyed Susan, and Russian thistle.
The man who stepped from the car was nattily dressed in a dark gray pin-striped double-breasted suit and a pearl-gray fedora. Louis Ortiz was thirty-two, handsome in a swarthy way, carefully cultivating his more imagined than real resemblance to Rudolph Valentino. A smile hovered over his full lips, ready to alight, but his eyes were as cold as steel balls.
Louis looked into the glowing eyes painted on the lead wagon, and they looked back at him, fiercely, beneath a brow cleft almost in two by a widow’s peak spearing down from varnished black hair. The mouth was thin and stern and uncompromising. Louis shifted his eyes to the second wagon, to the portrait painted there; the portrait of a pale and beautiful young boy, a gilt corona painted around his white curls, his white-robed arms uplifted, his face beatific and rapturous.
The smile almost alighted on his lips.
He walked to the rear of the first wagon and propped his foot on the step, wiping the dust from his black patent leather shoe with a white handkerchief. The caravan door opened and a man stepped out. He was an older version of his portrait. His hair was not so sleek nor so black, his face not so smooth nor firm, but his lips were just as uncompromising. He wore a black satin robe and carpet slippers, like some Oriental alchemist. He waved his hand petulantly before his face to clear away the floating dust and looked inquiringly at Louis.
Louis flipped the dust from his handkerchief and folded it into his breast pocket. “We’re all set,” he said with no trace of the Latin accent his appearance would suggest. “The posters are up with the merchants. I rented the vacant lot and got a permit from the sheriff.”
He looked up at the older man, squinting in the sun, and the smile settled softly. “There’s only one thing that might be a problem.”
The other man raised an eyebrow.
“The movie house,” Louis continued, “will be showing their first talking picture tonight. It’s the main topic of conversation in town.”
The older man grimaced. “There’s always one petty annoyance after another. It would be very pleasant if this movie palace were to burn to the ground.”
“It needn’t be that drastic.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” he sighed. “The unpleasant bumpkins might blame us. This trip has been extremely wearisome. We should head back east where the towns are closer together.”
Louis’s mouth twitched slightly and the other man frowned. “I’m sure you will think of something, Louis. You’re a very clever man.“
Louis grinned and made a slight bow with his head.
“How much further to this prairie metropolis?”
“Hawley,” Louis answered. “About ten miles. There’s a little place two miles ahead called Miller’s Corners. You can rest and water the horses there. Hawley’s eight miles beyond that.”
The man shrugged with massive indifference. Louis returned to the car, still smiling slightly. The man stood in the doorway of the caravan watching the car turn around to chug and rattle back the way it came. He grimaced at the fresh cloud of dust and went back inside, closing the door. The wagons began to move.
He opened a door in the partition dividing the wagon in half and stopped, leaning against the door frame. He looked for a moment at the pale, naked boy lying on the bunk, and then sat on the edge beside him. The boy looked much like his portrait, though he was older and perspiration wet his strained face. His white curls were matted and the pillow under them was damp. His eyes moved nervously behind his closed lids.
The man put his hand on the boy’s stomach and leaned over him. “Angel,” he said softly. “My own beautiful angel.” His hand moved up the boy’s body until it lay lightly on his cheek. “Shall we begin again? There is still so much to do.”
The boy’s ruby eyes opened, but they did not focus.
Now come on now—you gotta buy it, right?
Just like I had to, all those years—almost forty of ’em—ago, when I had a lighter spring in my step: you, too, looks to me like. And that wasn’t the only time I done got snared. This next time I want to talk about wasn’t so much both blurb and cover art (the latter of which I like to think figures high on the agenda here at PS Towers—and it’s all down to Nicky who works feverishly in that area) as pretty much just blurb by its-own-self.
This book appeared in 1984 as a hardcover (which I missed), and then as a paperback the following year from the old and much-loved Pan Books, home for Herbert Van Thal’s PAN BOOK OF HORROR SERIES and the marvellous GHOST BOOKs edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith. So it was the paperback I saw.
It was a rather curious affair insomuch as the blurb I referred to occupied almost two thirds of the front cover. And the rest of that cover merely pictured a girl with her eyes closed in a prayer of some kind, her face painted and her hair on fire.
On the back of the book was a fulsome breakdown of the actual story (kicked off with: The tree was dead. But crouched amid its branches something lived; something old far [sic] than humankind. Something that breathed, schemed, felt itself dying and, dying, lived on. It was outside nature, and alone. Its time would come . . .), rounded off with a nice quote from Publishers Weekly who had this to say: Impossible to put down. Klein has put himself in the first rank of fantasy-horror writers.
Absolutely true, in every regard.
But the clincher was a lyrical waxing from Stephen King that reads thus: Wonderful, exciting and suspenseful, full of tension and a sense of deep brooding mystery . . . the most exciting novel in my field to come along since Straub’s GHOST STORY.
And you know what, he may even have undersold it.
And in this instance, not only did Steve secure a sale of the book for Ted—royalties are royalties, folks, so scoff ye not (look after the pennies and the pounds—or dollars look after themselves)—but he secured that sale despite what can only be considered pedestrian and lackluster art. So I bought it and, that night, I started reading.
The forest was ablaze. From horizon to horizon stretched a wall of smoke and flame, staining the night sky red and blotting out the stars. Vegetation shriveled and was instantly consumed; great trees toppled shrieking toward the earth, dying gods before an angry gale, and the sound of their destruction was like the roaring of a thousand winds.
For seven days the fire raged, unimpeded and unquenchable. No one was there to stop it; no one had seen it start, save the scattered tribes of Mengos and Unamis who had fled in terror from their homes. Among them there were some who said that, on the evening of the blaze, they’d seen a star fall from the sky and crash amid the woods. Others claimed that lightning was the cause, or a queer red liquid bubbling from the ground.
Perhaps none of them were right.
Let it, therefore, rest at this: the events recorded here began as one day they would end—
And, sure enough, they do.
I’m not going to extract any more from the novel’s 500-plus pages but here’s Ted’s up-to-the-minute Foreword specially written for this edition.
It has often been said . . .
But why am I resorting, in the very first line, to a voice so vague and passive? Because the observation that follows seems to have been credited, if the web is any guide, to nearly a dozen distinguished names, from Da Vinci to Auden.
Well, then, to repeat: It has often been said that a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned. And while I’m not sure I’d proclaim this book a work of art, it was most definitely abandoned—in fact, a little sooner than I’d have liked. I was late—characteristically late, some might say—in delivering the manuscript; and weeks or months after that, I missed the publisher’s deadline for turning in the proofs. I remember literally scribbling last-minute changes to the final pages as I rode the elevator up to the Viking offices. (Still, when I recall that I was also editing Twilight Zone magazine at the time, I’m a bit amazed I ever managed to complete the book at all.)
On top of other problems, likely as a result of the delays I caused, the hardcover edition was never properly proofread. So in sending the book out into the world a second time, after more than 30 years, I’ve tried to correct what strikes me now as some clumsy writing here and there, as well as a few mistakes and inconsistencies. Though I doubt anyone but me would notice the changes, I’m a lot happier with the present version.
One thing I haven’t attempted to do, however, is to update it. The Ceremonies was first published in 1984, but the story it grew from was written at the start of the ’70s. The book is set, therefore, in a pre-cell-phone, pre-Internet world, and the places it describes are considerably different today, if certainly no better. Attitudes have changed about what’s dangerous (cigarettes, suntans); so have salaries, food prices, and rent. You might even say that the past is a foreign country . . . although I believe that, too, has been said before. Imagine, no laptops! No e-books! I invite you to return to that strange, vanished world.
I’ve bought many books on Steve King’s recommendation, his voice whispering determinedly in my ear as I stand in the bookstore thinking should I or shouldn’t I? And, inevitably, he whispers give it a try, Pete. Don’t be scared. Just give it a try. And I think, with surely no more than one or maybe two occasions—though I couldn’t actually name them (and wouldn’t even if I could)—I have not regretted them. Indeed, more—much more—to the point, I’ve purchased many books that it’s fair to say I would not have purchased otherwise.
THE CEREMONIES is a gloriously intense book, and reading it is akin to breathlessly searching for some sign of something familiar—something not hostile. Well, you’re not going to find it so you just might as well get started. It’s getting dark out there and you got a long way to go before morning.