Vintage Horror Paperbacks: Killer Bats & Cockroaches!

I mentioned in my Christmas post a new book called Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix and how it inspired me to start reading and collecting horror novels from my teen years. I also sited one of my favorite authors from that era, William W. Johnstone,  and how his book, The Uninvited (1982) was my first bookstore find once I got started. After reading it, I debated writing a review and recapping the book since I figured it’d be hard for readers to track down themselves and, in some cases, rather pricey. There’s also a great blog called Too Much Horror Fiction by Will Errickson that’s been covering these books for over a decade. Errickson even assisted Hendrix with his book which proves he’s an authority; something, admittedly, I’m not. I’ve come to be a fan of his site myself and it prompted me to track down Ray Russell’s Incubus (1976) which was a lot more entertaining than the ‘80s film it was adapted from. What eventually convinced me to move forward with discussing them here was learning that The Uninvited and many other old “classics” are readily available to modern readers via Kindle. So for those looking for a quick and cheap read, or possibly scoping out the original like I did, I’ll go ahead and discuss. That being said, William W. Johnstone (1938-2004) is as good a place to start as any.

Johnstone, the son of a minister, was an animal lover who often featured them as both protagonists and antagonists in his work. He was likely influenced by ‘50s science fiction as the more vicious ones were usually a direct result of human tampering. The Uninvited is a prime example of this and opens with a chemical spill that transforms cockroaches in two Louisiana Parishes into mutant maneaters. If you’re stuck in a doctor’s waiting room, this book’s steady pace makes it an ideal way to pass the time. Despite being a quick read, it features likable characters that are relatively fleshed out before getting de-fleshed by the insects. The two communities are conveniently located on an island and the contrast between their law enforcement is striking. Considering Johnstone was once a sheriff himself, one has to wonder if the lack of cooperation between the two wasn’t the voice of experience.

These savage insects aren’t only larger than your garden variety roach but voracious and with a taste for human flesh. They’re also highly intelligent and those that may somehow survive their bite can look forward to becoming violently ill before morphing into a cockroach monster themselves.

The Federal government inevitably gets involved adding another dimension of suspense as our heroes must not only survive the onslaught but somehow get the hell off the island before Uncle Sam wipes it off the map.  There’s a bit of sex and a whole bunch of violence which makes this page-turner lots of fun!

Much less succinct is another Johnstone man vs nature story, BATS (1993). Other than some of his familiar tenets, I honestly wouldn’t have known this was written by the same guy as the story is choppy with noticeably bad grammar. The story deals with another Louisiana parish dealing with animals running amok, this time (you guessed it) bats. Like the cockroaches in The Uninvited, these bats are also atypical due to human meddling along with hints of good ole fashioned Satan worshiping for good measure. 

Despite being longer than The Uninvited, this story initially seems rushed. You barely graze the first few pages before the book’s main character (who also happens to be an ex-military guy that was likely modeled after Chuck Norris) finds a dead cow and immediately surmises it was killed by large bats that aren’t indigenous to the area. The town sheriff arrives and ten minutes after meeting our hero completely accepts his explanation and immediately gets the government involved. Though I appreciate getting to the good stuff as fast as anyone, a little lead-in goes a long way.

Modern readers concerned with political correctness may want to pass on this one as Johnstone’s narrative can be a bit over the top; not as prevalent in The Uninvited. Take this excerpt, for example, as he describes the local cultists…  

The coven had a membership of sixteen. Their leader was an eccentric man named Clyde Dingle. Everybody in the parish felt that Clyde was about one brick shy of a load. But he had inherited a fortune from his parents and when you’re as rich as Clyde, folks tend to overlook a few minor eccentricities. Clyde’s live-in lover was a nut who called herself Dark Moon. Her best friend was another whacko who called herself Royal Crown. When Dark Moon wasn’t available for sex, Clyde poked Royal Crown. Also in the coven were two fags, Percy and Rene.’ Sometimes Percy and Rene’ joined Clyde and Dark Moon and Royal Crown in Clyde’s huge special made bed. When that happened nobody knew who was sticking what into whom.

It’s flawed and outrageous but certainly entertaining as these tales are apt to be. I’ve collected several more William W. Johnstone horror novels that are on standby and will discuss them in a future post. If anyone has any recommendations regarding their favorite horror paperbacks shoot me a message. I’ll track it down faster than a mutant cockroach!

~Dave Fuentes

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