A long time ago, in a continent far far away, I inadvertently generated some fake news. It was the late nineties and there was very little online about cheap horror novels, which I'd been researching, albeit with the level of skill befitting the teenager that I was at the time. This was long before the nostalgia point allowed a book such as 'Paperbacks from Hell' to find an audience, so my little page at dawtrina.com detailing who was behind the pseudonyms of a number of horror authors apparently reached a lot of people, given that AltaVista or Dogpile or Lycos didn't have much else to show them instead.
And, because a well-known horror author I won't name had told me so, I listed an author by the name of Scott Grønmark as the man behind the presumed pseudonym of Pierce Nace, author of the infamous 'Eat Them Alive'. The problem was that, while Grønmark did indeed write horror novels pseudonymouslyat least seven of them as Nick Sharmanhe wasn't Pierce Nace and he said so in an e-mail to a friend of mine, Jim McLennan of the 'Trash City' fanzine, who had also written about the novel. So, please accept my apologies, sir!
Of course, if Grønmark isn't Nace, then who is? It's the only horror novel to carry that byline, after all.
Well, since then, quite a few people have done some research but the only viable candidate unearthed so far is a lady from Texas called Evelyn Louise Nace, who would have been over sixty years of age at the time 'Eat Them Alive' saw print in 1977. Given its contents, which I'll get to shortly, she seems unlikely and the one article that claims to prove it, written by Scottish author Johnny Mains, is no longer online and had never been captured by the Wayback Machine.
However, one researcher writing on the Vault of Evil forum talked with Dr. Betty Weisepape, who had written a book about Texan literary clubs. One such club, the Panhandle Pen Women, founded in 1919, almost ceased to be in the mid-sixties, embroiled as it became in an argument about standards of "good literature" when applied to new membership applications. The applicant at the heart of this dispute was... you guessed it, Evelyn Louise Nace, who had been earning quite a living as a prolific writer of true confession stories. She also wrote at least fifty novels, over three hundred articles on true crime and/or detective stories. Some of this work was certainly under the name of Pierce Nace, but I'd truly love to see a bibliography.
Given that my research skills are a lot better now that I'm, you know, all growed up and writing my own books, I felt the urge to try to figure this one out again. The first step, of course, is to re-read 'Eat Them Alive' with the question floating in my head: could a sixty-something lady from Texas, who incidentally taught Sunday School and sang in her Methodist church choir, have written this? The answer is that I clearly need to do that research. I'm far from convinced that Pierce Nace is Evelyn Louise Nace, but I'm much closer to buying into that theory now than I ever have been, as unlikely as it seems.
So what's in this legendary trash novel? Well, at its heart, it's a rather gory tragedy, a set of outrageous fetishes ahead of the splatterpunk generation, a gruesome tale of revenge by a man who has little justification in getting any and who goes notably far to achieve it. It's no character study, not least because we can't care about anyone. Nobody is sympathetic, except for the innocents who are little more than fodder. It's an exercise in inevitability, with a karmic twist that helps the Evelyn Louise Nace theory because this doesn't feel at all like a horror novel written by a horror author. It feels like the work of an older pulp author used to churning out words without any need to stand up to literary criticism.
It's the story of Dyke Mellis, a pissant young hood who gets together with four other pissant young hoods in the town of Brownsville, TX, and promptly causes trouble with them across the border in Matamoros, Mexico and a variety of other Texan towns like Laredo, San Antonio and Dallas. It makes sense to list these hoods here by name as that's their entire purpose in this story, to simply be a list, for revenge. They're an agreeably multi-racial bunch: a couple of white boys, Zeb Hillburn and Kane Garrister; a halfbreed Navajo named Ryan Gaut; and Pete Stuart, an African American, though he'd hurt you if you didn't call him black.
Pete is the nascent psychopath of the band, as Nace suggests with some eagerness. 'His best leisure activity was chopping small animals to bits or maiming children who came close enough to him to get their arms twisted in the sockets or their leg bones broken.' He's also the one who lands them their big score, having overheard a plan in prison. There's a ranch up north, where an old man lives alone with a couple of million bucks in his safe. It'll be easy to take care of an eighty-year-old, blow his safe and take all that money, they think, and off they go.
They succeed too, slicing the old man up nastily before killing him, but they camp out in the desert, planning to split the take in the morning. Young Dyke decides to take it all for himself, waiting for the others to fall asleep before leaping into their car and driving off into the darkness. Sadly for him, he'd forgotten that the old car took three tries to start up and, by that point, his partners in crime had realised what he was trying to do and stopped him, pulling him out of the car. With fair justification, they decide to kill him, but they slice him up first too, in brutal fashion, castrating him for a start. If it wasn't for a couple of passing local vaqueros, Dyke would be dead.
Instead, he's rescued and nursed back to health, albeit as a notably scarred eunuch who aches for revenge. Fast forward many years, during which time he illegally moved to Mexico and gradually worked his way down into South America, where he eventually settled on Malpelo Island off the coast of Colombia, we can start the main thrust of the story. Are you ready for this? I'm not sure I am and I've read the book.
OK, here goes. Dyke is out on his boat when an earthquake strikes Malpelo and a tidal wave threatens to drown him. He survives to watch the island crack open and issue forth vast numbers of gigantic praying mantises. You know, that old chestnut. I should add that there's no reason given for this and Nace never attempts to even try to figure it out. It just happens and it plays immediately into Dyke's revenge fantasy. He sees his neighbour, eighty-year-old Kello Wanni, eaten alive and it thrills him. As Dyke spends most of his time alone, we hear his thoughts in soliloquys, like: 'I love watching a man being eaten by a monster! Maybe it's a substitute for my lost virility, I don't know. But I know it's a joy I thought I'd never feel again!'
And so, if you're following, he naturally decides to figure out how to a) get back onto this island turned surreal nightmare, b) figure out how to cover himself in some sort of ointment to stop the mantises eating him, c) tame the largest of the mantises then train it to do his bidding and d) track down the four men who took his manhood and turn them and their families over to his giant pet mantis. And, of course, because this is a truly outrageous work of fiction"A new peak in horror" states the cover of my New English Library paperback, appropriately written on a splatter of bloodall four of these steps are completely viable.
There's much to mention here and a good deal of it backs up the suggestion that this is the work of a pulp writer who's new to the horror genre. It's better written than I remember, though only in the use of language; Nace has a good, if workmanlike, vocabulary and turn of phrase and (s)he knows how to conjure up background. Unfortunately, it's also badly written in many other ways.
Plot is a lot more important than character. There's a huge amount of repetition and not a small amount of coincidence. A telegraphing moment in the flashback scene explains why one man is probably in Colombia, for instance, but it does beggar belief that the other three followed suit, all of them living in different towns but within a fair drive. Much of the novel follows one man, so exposition is everywhere and the dialogue is mostly either overblown soliloquy or one-sided conversation, as Dyke talks to his giant mantis, that he dubs Slayer.
Yeah, this was 1977, so Tom Araya was only sixteen; the fact that his band shares its name with a giant praying mantis used as an instrument of revenge in a pulp horror novel ought to make his day!
So, with little characterisation, terrible dialogue and unexplained killer mantises, what does 'Eat Them Alive' do that has so many people talking about it four decades on? Well, it goes there. It really goes there. And there is a deeply pessimistic world, not just because Dyke Mellis is willing to go to ridiculous lengths to achieve revenge on the hoods from whom he attempted to steal, but because nobody is there to stop him.
They don't just try and fail, they don't exist. When Dyke collects local men, women and children and transports them over to Malpelo in his boat to be eaten alive by its new masters, they don't try to attack their betrayer, they just scream, die and become tasty snacks. When he traps the families of his nemeses, they don't fight him, they just succumb. When he drives through Colombia, leaving bloody chaos in his wake, nobody investigates. As far as we can tell, he's a ghost in the wind, merely one driving a big truck with Slayer in the front seat and a bevy of other killer mantises in the back. Remember all the fighting back that happens in fifties monster movies and even eighties horror novels, down to army tanks failing to dent the shells of the giant crustaceans in 'Night of the Crabs'? Yeah, there's precisely none of that here.
The gore is truly outrageous. The first batch of villagers Dyke takes to Malpelo include babies, one of which is fought over by two mantises before it's split in half like a Christmas cracker. Slayer develops a notable taste for female breasts, slicing them off with his claws, devouring them and drinking the blood from the holes they left in women's chests, all with the victims alive and aware. They scream, of course, but they rarely faint. These are two of the reasons why it's sometimes hard to imagine a respectable old lady writing this material. It feels like a misogynistic and sadistic man must have wielded the pen that wrote this.
I should add that these mantises are happy to be cannibals because, if there's nothing else to eat, they'll eat each other. And they are hungry creatures, as we discover when Dyke starts to achieve his revenge. He'll feed them a whole family, so they go from ravenous to sated, only to be ravenous again not long afterwards when he drives to the next victim and we rinse and repeat. Ravenous, sated, ravenous, sated... there's no middle ground for the mantises in this book.
I won't spoil the ending, but it won't surprise you in the slightest. The only surprises here are in just how far the author will go to meet the needs of the pulp horror paperback audience of 1977. And, of course, the suggestion that the author isn't remotely who we might expect, which brings me back to the next step in this saga, which is to figure out once and for all who actually sits behind the now legendary name of Pierce Nace. ~~ Hal C F Astell