A lot of publishers were quick to embrace the new concept of paperback originals in the 1940s and 1950s. Houses like Pocket Book, Dell, Ace, Popular Library and our cherished Fawcett Gold Medal were all competing as the leader of this new publishing trend. They all created an identifiable marketing niche. Ace did doubles (for a dime more), Avon tried appealing art and Fawcett attracted authors with up front cash. It resulted in a massive catalog of titles. But in the midst of this publishing competition came a multitude of smaller publishers that just didn't make it. Zenith, Hillman, Quick Reader, etc. One of those publishers, Lion Books, only lasted nine years, 1949 to 1957, but released an abundance of noir fiction in their 223 offerings. In fact, some of the genre's leading pioneers contributed books to Lion. Stalwarts like Jim Thompson, Day Keene, Robert Bloch, David Goodis and Richard Matheson. Regardless of the short life span, that's an incredible offering.
Lion Books would later fold, due in large part to it's founder, Martin Goodman, owning Timely Comics, which by 1960 would be a little 'ole comic company called Marvel. Needless to say, Goodman made bank, sold it and retired. All of this information, and detailed backstory on Lion Books' development and demise, is culled from Stark House's 2016 reprinting of three “sleeper” noir titles released by Lion - “Hero's Lust” (1953) by Kermit Jaediker, “The Man I Killed” (1952) by Shel Walker and the subject of this review, “HOUSE OF EVIL” (1954) by Clayre and Michael Lipman. Included as a bonus is an introduction and “skim” review of these books by Gary Lovisi, the author/collector behind genre zine the Paperback Parade.
To say that “House of Evil” is bleak is an understatement. It's as dark as a mortuary drape and profoundly lives up to its name. The opening sentence ushers us into a world of depravity, grime and ultimately...death: “The girl at The Red Parrot was a slut”. And we quickly learn about her.
Nina Valjean is a prostitute, peddling her washed up goods at the Red Parrot, where Bennie the bartender is pimping and Vernie is flashing a different kind of shot in the corner. Nina's arms prove she's a prisoner of Hell, and she's over 24-hours removed from her last fix. She doubles her asking price for “Smith”, a rough customer she's rode before. Hesitantly, she takes the cash, gets her fix and then gets in another fix a few hours later – strangled to death in an empty apartment.
Our protagonist Roman is then introduced. He's a swell town guy, working as an engineer and climbing the ranks at a local firm. His girl, Joyce, is out of town for a reason. They have reached the crossroads and Joyce is ready to move on. Roman doesn't want her to, and it's that gloomy depression that envelopes Roman, the book and the reader. After Roman stops by Joyce's empty apartment for a suitcase, he finds the strangled stranger (which we know is Nina) and becomes paranoid that the authorities will suspect him as the killer. Refusing to report the crime, Roman heads out as a solo gumshoe, converting the book from thriller to whodunit and back to thriller when the killer strikes again.
As the mystery thickens, the authors present a weird dreamlike delivery of the killer's thoughts. It's an abysmal, terrifying portrait of dead babies, bodies on meat-hooks and books of blood. It's Lovecraft on absinthe. We know the killer's thoughts and eventually who the next target is. While we wrestle with the killer's true identity, Roman and a stripper named Cecille team up to stop the killer before Joyce becomes the next victim.
“House of Evil” presents everything we love about noir fiction. It's the dark suspense that Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Richard Laymon and even today's masters like Dean Koontz feed on. At about 150-pages, it's a short read that utilizes a slow reveal to the end. I read it in one fell swoop and was thoroughly invested. Oddly, these married authors never wrote another book. The two did write a 1943 play and six shorts that appeared in various zines like 'Ellery Queen'. It's a shame because the strength of the story-telling would have warranted a potentially good career. But, as they always say, everyone has at least one book in them. It's that second effort that's so allusive.
You can obtain a copy of the Stark House book here.