Friday, August 9, 2013

Book Review: The Flesh Mask by Jack Vance

Most readers know Jack Vance, who died just this past May, as a science fiction writer. He’s certainly worth remembering as one, racking up a pile of Nebula, World Fantasy, and Hugo awards (including a Hugo for his autobiography This Is Me, Jack Vance!).

Lesser known are Vance’s mystery works, though he wrote several, three of them under the Ellery Queen name for the popular series. He nabbed an Edgar award for Best First Mystery Novel in 1961 for The Man in the Cage, a suspense novel about an American smuggler in the North African desert.

Splatterlight's Lindle edition of The Flesh Mask.
The Man in the Cage may have been considered Vance’s first mystery novel by the Edgar committee, but it wasn’t his first thriller. That distinction belongs to The Flesh Mask. Originally published as Take My Face in 1957, the classic revenge story is the only one of Vance’s novels to have been published under the name Peter Held. It was re-released in a limited edition in 1988 under Vance’s real name, though it’s easiest to find today in the Kindle version, bearing Vance's preferred title, released by Splatterlight Press. 

The Flesh Mask decidedly qualifies as a forgotten book -- neither of its two names have a single Amazon review. (Let’s fix that, shall we?) That could be because it was a good few years ahead of its time, a slasher novel that predates the slasher genre. If Vance had waited five or six more years, it’s easy to imagine a film version on a double bill with Dementia 13.

Robert Struve is introduced in the book as a typical kid of thirteen, a comic book-reading, denim-clad paper delivery boy, differing from his friends “only in detail.” After he’s hit by a car and disfigured in a gasoline fire, he remains a star athlete through high school, but overhears the words of a gang of pretty sorority girls one night as they express their disgust with his looks. A hazing ritual gone awry sends Robert to a detention facility, and after his release, the girls start turning up dead, their faces slashed, in a gruesome series of sex murders. Robert is the obvious suspect, but he’s now had plastic surgery -- and there’s no record of his new face.

Classic slasher, right?
Original hardback with the title Take My Face.


Not entirely. The Flesh Mask may not be the brilliant stuff most discerning pulp readers know is out there (see Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson, David Goodis), but it’s a solid piece of writing. The plot propels itself forward, the writing is crisp and lively, and Vance has bothered to flesh out even the most minor of characters. While the stereotypical characters are all in place for a B movie-style thriller (among the girls there’s a slutty one and a prude), he gives us more than he even has to. 

A perfect example is Robert’s father. Though he’s dead and gone from the family picture as soon as page two, we get a clear picture of the thwarted salesman who knew “a hundred smutty stories.” In just a few well-chosen lines, we know that guy. One of my favorite descriptions is of Julie Hovard (the main object of Robert’s teen desires) when she’s still a spoiled little girl at the book’s beginning:

Her skin shone from expensive foods, pure milk, the finest soaps; her clothes were as crisp and fresh as new popcorn.

All but one of the hacking scenes take place offstage, but Vance makes sure we know how brutal they are. They’re almost no match for the simple descriptions of Robert’s face in repugnance, though. Having to stifle gasps, his own mother assesses his burnt-off eyebrows, the holes where his nose once was, and his left cheek that’s now “like a dish of brains.” The plastic surgeon, recalling his work to a cop, calls Robert’s face “as nasty a wad of tissue as I’ve ever seen.”

It’s no wonder this guy has some issues.

A last observation about The Flesh Mask is that, though clean enough for 1950s audiences, there’s an undercurrent of eroticism that Vance manages to maintain even while keeping sex out of the book. It establishes itself firmly during an evening of sorority initiation, to which Robert and a few other semi-drunken athletes are invited: 

The idea fascinated Robert. He had visions of girl-rites -- fair young bodies -- madness -- abandon … Julie Hovard … Something clenched in his stomach.


Paperback edition of Take My Face
While the event is tame by today’s standards, the girls’ shyness when made to do “whatever the boys want” seems to come off as more erotic than the debauchery that we know would ensue in a present-day version.

Vance was interviewed by Locus about a year before his death, and managed to be both self-deprecating and revelatory about his writing skill:

I wrote to make money, not for any other purpose. I just wrote the stuff because I was pretty good at it, and I wrote as fast as I could. I don’t glorify my writing at all. For some reason I have the knack. I can’t take any credit for it, any more than you can take credit for being a beautiful girl.

I think that sums it all up pretty nicely.

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This is my first time joining in on the Friday’s Forgotten Books posts begun by Patti Abbott. See her blog for a full list of reviews, and marvel at the names when you see who’s participating -- a bunch of mystery writers are in on the shenanigans.

14 comments:

  1. I didn't know about this alternate title. I reprinted my review of this one today.

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    1. I remember reading your review, then came across it again while looking for publishing info for the book. Supposedly Vance preferred the title The Flesh Mask -- I suppose it was too gruesome for 1957 sensibilities?

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    2. In a world of paperbacks sold in drugstores that had only recently seen their comic-book racks gone over by neighborhood censors, probably was too "strong" a title.

      Of course, Jim Thompson and David Goodis weren't really pulp writers, as far as I recall, and McCoy's best work was post-pulp, but Vance was one of the last of the major writers to come in from the pulps, starting in the latter 1940s with some of the more sophisticated pulps...and beginning his fantasy work shortly thereafter, which tends to be better than his sf (and he was the soul of "science fantasy" writing as much as anyone, blurring the porous border between them like no one's business), so that you might find his more engaged work in that focus...

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    3. (THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY being his major non-pulp production, after all...)

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    4. You're right -- I was confusing my pulp with my noir, though there's often some crossover. I'm more of a newcomer when it comes to this stuff, so forgive my error.

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    5. Oh, there is no end of people (Tarantino not the first) who want "pulp" to mean anything Kewl and stylized...I'm at the prescriptive end of this debate...if it was published in a pulp magazine, it's to that extent pulp, and no other definition really makes the grade. Very annoying to consistently read "pulp paperbacks" when the author means paperback originals or other items not reprinted from the pulps...a bit like saying LP CDs or cupcake muffins. You know, dog cats. Actually, all of those could be similarly respun to make sense, but they still wouldn't be used as sloppily as many hipsters hope to with "pulp"...

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  2. Replies
    1. Thanks! I'm in good company, it seems.

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    2. You are (even if they let the disreputable Mason sorts in)...is this really your first dance in FFB? Surprising...

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    3. Given your interest in the postings and the related literature generally...I would've thought you'd at least jumped in infrequently in the past, though I knew you hadn't been FFBing regularly...

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  3. Like Bill, I didn't know about the alternate title of TAKE MY FACE...interesting. I prefer Jack Vance's science fiction to his mysteries, but the quality of his work in either genre is almost always above average.

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    1. I don't think I would have encountered the alternate title if I hadn't been searching for a Kindle edition. I'd love to have one of the old paperbacks, but I was anxious to read it in time for the round-up.

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  4. The bare bones plot reminds me of an old TV movie called The Girl Most Likely to... about a plastic surgery enhanced outcast who gets her revenge on people from her high school days. Written by Joan Rivers it was done mostly for laughs, but don't waste your time looking for it. Even with a young Stockard Channing in the lead role as the 70s extreme makeover Nemesis the movie has not aged well. [Ooh, unintentional pun there.]

    I like how plastic surgery became a favorite trope for crime writers who wanted to play around with themes of identity, loss of self, authenticity and the old sin of vanity. Brutal and cruel revenge almost always found its way into the mix. I'll have to keep my eye out for a copy of this one.

    Hope to see more of your FFB posts from now on. The more the merrier!

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