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Terror Tales of the City: Prince of the Perverse

by Joseph Covino Jr

(New Humanity Press, 319 pages, paperback, $22.99; April 2002)

In San Francisco, around now, mad hypnotist cover scanDr Valdemar is obsessed with the tidal wave of "Abnormals" (i.e., homosexuals) that seems to be engulfing and irremediably corrupting the city and, indeed, Civilization As We Know It. He hits on the cunning plan of ensnaring drifting wannabe writer Peter Lyon and conditioning him into being a sadistic serial slayer of overt homosexual men. However, Peter's plucky girlfriend Jonna Park, allied with scholarly gay liberationist Kerwin Usher, does the appropriate thwarting.

Those names -- "Usher", "Valdemar" -- may stir some recognition, and this is no coincidence. For Prince of the Perverse, apparently the first in a series of like novels, is an extended homage to and pastiche of the prose writings of Edgar Allan Poe. As such, it serves its purpose well.

Unfortunately, precisely because it is so lovingly and faithfully done, it has problems in terms of actual readability. Poe himself was of course a pioneer of both the macabre mystery and horror tale, but he succeeded best at short -- really quite short -- length. Further, he was no great plotter and certainly no great stylist; he compensated for both by his brilliance at the sudden effect, at intense, almost visual imagery, and at what is in terms of the modern horror story called the gross-out. Prince of the Perverse reproduces all those virtues but, alas, all of Poe's shortcomings -- and it does so at novel length.

A longish novel, at that.

Thus we're treated to acres of overwriting and to unbelievably long didactic passages, many rendered in the form of Platonic dialogues. One of the philosophical extravaganzas is really quite interesting -- it compares the hypnotic state with romantic love -- but most are expositions on the theme of hypnosis that seem to go round and round in circles without ever showing much sign of getting anywhere. Two are dialogues between Peter and Jonna debating whether or not he is right to be terminally peeved that she still enjoys the company (and no more than that) of her ex-lover; after about two paragraphs of Peter's spoilt-brat whinings on the subject one's incredulous that Jonna hasn't long ago hurled him off the Golden Gate Bridge ... indeed, one's eager to volunteer to do it for her.

All of this extra Poe-esque material means there's not very much room left for plot, and indeed the summary in the first paragraph above just about covers it, less a couple of not-so-startling twists. Covino enjoys his Grand Guignol effects, again reminiscent of Poe, but these fall late in the book; for many readers perhaps too late, because by then they'll have picked up a different book in preference to this one.

Prince of the Perverse is, then, by no means a literary exercise without merit; Covino is to be admired for having sustained his homage so well and for so long. The most dedicated of Poe devotees will surely wallow happily in this book; to the rest of us, however, it must remain as little more than that: a worthy exercise to be respected rather than actually read.

Review by John Grant.

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