Immediately after finding my way to the excellent Valancourt Books while reading Paperbacks From Hell, I became enamored with the publisher and their PFH label. I’d missed the first ten entries (though I’m going back and picking them up as I make my way through the series), but I didn’t want to miss out on future installments, so I jumped at the chance to pre-order the next one they announced: the 1988 horror-sci-fi-action-thriller Stage Fright by Garrett Boattman. I mean, just look at that cover!
So here’s the thing about this cover, which you learn in Will Errickson‘s excellent intro, it has nothing to do with the book. Stage Fright does not, unfortunately, have a fringe-loving skeleton rocking a keytar in mid-air…but that’s okay because it has plenty of other weird, wild and incredibly creepy moments.
This book is actually about a guy by the name of Izzy Stark who is the king of the dreamies. No, this is not a Morpheus deal. Dreamies are movies that are transmitted directly into the “viewers” minds. Izzy makes horror experiences that you not only watch, but also feel a part of. He’s already a big deal when he decides to start taking a drug made from the blood of schizophrenics. Though he first takes this substance under the supervision of a doctor, Stark soon comes to realize that his dreamies are coming to life and having repercussions in the real world. It becomes more of a problem when he starts harnessing this newfound power and going down some dark paths.
But, Stage Fright isn’t all about Izzy. His old school chum Quentin is writing a book about this mysterious, yet famous figure. He just so happens to be there as Stark’s drug-fueled outbursts begin and ultimately end. There’s also Izzy’s girlfriend Helen who struggles with how she feels about this man she loves as he takes several turns for the worse. Finally, a group of less-than-woke Izzy fans find themselves sucked into his world as his huge Halloween night concert looms.
At its heart, Stage Fright is probably more of a sci-fi adventure fueled by drugs and addiction. It’s also about how one person with power and fame can turn into a downward spiral for everyone around them. I noted above that Izzy’s not the only character, but he’s the one everyone else knows and talks about and all of their problems — or at least most of them — stem from him. In that way it’s an interesting examination of how famous people can create ripples that capsize those closest to them, old friends and even complete strangers in concentric circles of craziness.
All that being said, Boatman crafts some fantastic horror sequences both in and out of the dreamies which act as a great device because they allow for more types of scare scenes than you might normally get. The book opens with a killer zombie story that had my skin crawling. I may have lost track of exactly what some of the monsters looked like, but I think that was sort of the point. And then you’ve got that one on the street and the one with the doctor and…well, you get the idea. Plus, the whole thing ends with this crazy epic hellscape with all the characters coming together to, well, fully fight demons! That one even gets into fantasy territory if that’s your bag!
In the end, while I was bummed that the cover sold me one book, I still really enjoyed the wild ride that Boatman took me on. It had a little bit of everything and that’s exactly what I was looking for…except for the keytar skeleton of course, but that wasn’t his fault, it was a publisher trying to get someone exactly like me to buy this book. Mission accomplished!