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Grading the Cheese: The Spectrum of Sleaze

An Homage to Fromage

The Agony Column for November 13, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


"I love horror movies; and the cheaper they are, the better they are." Frank Zappa

"This is not a book of 'Big Thinks.'" -- Joe R. Lansdale in the dedication to 'Dead In The West'

"Perhaps you could pursuade the Great Grand Master of Pomposity Mr. Kleffel to grab a torch and slip down here into the cellar for a moment, if for nothing else than to explain his aversion to popular American horror." - "Matt" on Masters of Terror board 'The Cellar' in response to the first Agony Column, 'American Cheese'


Most books are not, in fact, matters of life and death. Some most certainly are, and the enjoyment of those books is enhanced by that knowledge. Weighty words on weighty matters can be tough sledding for a reader, but the effort is itself the reward. A bit of difficult reading can effectively stretch the brain in a very enjoyable fashion. But books that are simply fun to read and easy on the psyche need be no less well-written. Just as it is sometimes fun to climb a mountain in the rain, at other times it's fun to sit on a beach and bake. Either way, you're getting a full dose of mother nature.

I love cheesy novels. Make no mistake about it. If I call a novel 'cheesy' that's not an insult, not a dig. I first ventured into writing essays for Andy Fairclough's 'Masters of Terror', which has now become 'Horror World', a fantastic huge site for horror fiction, reviews and author interaction. Back in 1999 (how different was the world then?!), I wrote a column for Masters of Terror -- my first ever column -- titled 'American Cheese'. The negative response was overwhelming. Everyone wanted to know why I was bagging on American horror. So this time around, I intend to make myself clear. Let me say it again:

I love cheesy novels. Make no mistake about it. If I call a novel 'cheesy' that's not an insult, not a dig. A cheesy novel need not be terrible, just as a science fiction novel need not be terrible. A cheesy novel can be a gripping, well-written work of literature. But it's not likely to be a book of what Joe R. Lansdale calls "Big Thinks." The checkpoints for a great cheesy novel would be:

  • Easy to read prose.
  • A straightforward plot.
  • An excess of some genre element -- be it monsters, violence, gore, space battles, or that old battle-axe standby, sex.
  • Lurid art direction for the cover.
  • Memorably sleazy characters.
  • Low cost.
  • Available in grocery store, drug store or airport paperback racks.

Let's do the table; let's look at the Spectrum of Sleaze, shall we?

Graded Cheese

The Spectrum of Sleaze



Monterey Jack




Sharp Cheddar

Extra Sharp Cheddar



William Schoell

Greg Kihn

Stephen King

James Herbert

Kim Newman

Richard Laymon

Joe R. Lansdale

Neal Asher


Spawn of Hell1, The Dragon

The Horror Show, Big Rock Beat, Mojo Hand

The Tommyknockers

Domain, The Shrine, Once...2

Orgy of the Blood Parasites, Dark Futures

Flesh3, Resurrection Dreams, Funland

The Drive In, The Drive In 24, Dead In the West

Gridlinked, The Skinner5

Prose Level

Elementary, my Dear Watson

Cool and groovy daddy-o!

(un)Happy Meal

Letters to Penthouse

Brit lit quip deluxe

Camus with a bloody razor blade

Hollywood High

Deceptively simple

Plot Level

"..almost the stereotype of the kind of mad scientist.."1-P303

Ed Wood versus John Landis versus William Castle

ABC Movie of the Week

Fiction from Penthouse, buy it for the pictures!

Take notes, get the hypertext version if possible

He killed, she killed.

Too much acid, never enough zombies.

Lots of monsters add up to lots of plot


"Pregnant" men give birth to monsters that grow into enormous slugs.

Rated R for violence and some scary moments; suitable for teens, but not wives

Excess? How about there's not enough Traci Lords!

"Heaving with exertion and pleasure, her sleek thighs opening.."2-P81

Look, it's the 'Orgy of the Blood Parasites' -- do you have to ask?

"He scalped her, cracked open her skull with a tyre iron, and scooped out her warm, dripping brain. The best part."3 P120

"..madder than a badger with turpentined balls.."4 P1

"In no way could they eat all they killed, but their instinct was to kill as many as possible before feeding.."5 P122

Lurid Cover Art Level

Highest marks for the painted Iguana

Art director retro-chic

The usual corporate cover

Better than Vargas

RPG delight

High class Britporn

80's Horror excess

It's beautifully designed, zero cheese factor. :-(

Sleaze Factor

High enough to enjoy, not embarrass

Meet the director, then wash your hands

Not enough Traci Lords.

See Excess, Prose level, Plot level

Can barely conceal how damn smart it is.

Enough sex for males ages 15-25.

"..sitting around in pee-stained underwear.."4 P1

Fairly low -- it all adds up to a real, non-cheesy novel.


$1.50 to $100.00!









Suburban strip mall used bookstores

Suburban strip mall used bookstores, college campus used bookstores

You already own it, don't you?

The liquor store

Like most fine porn, you'll need to look for it on the internet.

Porn country, the liquor store and the internet

Now available as an omnibus edition from Carroll & Graf with an unfortunately normal cover

UK-only. coming next year from Tor.

Extra Cheese?

Published by Leisure

Famous rock star author

Famous rock star author

"Heaving with exertion..."

What, you want a heart attack or something?

"The best part."3 P120

"...waking up with a hard-on.."4 P1

"His wounds wept for a while, before slowly closing."5 P268

 Well, now that we've got that sorted, let's get on to the real specifics.....

William Schoell's first novel features a mad scientist and monsters in the sewers. Could you ask for more?

My first experience with William Schoell was this fantastic novel of giant slugs and pregnant men.

The model author for the American Cheese B-novel is William Schoell. His string of 8 novels in the 1980's sets an excellent standard for cheesy fun. Starting in 1984 with the classic monster-in-the-sewers novel 'Spawn of Hell', and wrapping up in 1990 with the demon-on-the-loose novel 'Bride of Satan', Schoell and partner Leisure Books put out a series of novels of the type that helped to give horror a bad name while giving readers a good time. My personal favorite is 'The Dragon', which offers up the wildest concoction of Mayan survivals, men giving birth 'Alien'-style, and giant slugs in the desert that a reader could hope to find. Schoell's writing is actually rather good, in a meat-and-potatoes fashion. His characters and plots are searchlight simple, and his ability to describe scenes of action, gore and terror is straightforward and no-frills, all-thrills. He's an expert at going overboard but never manages to drown himself in unsavory details. There's an almost innocent 'Oh my GAWD!' feel to his novels.

This poor little gargoyle looks mighty unhappy. Could he rip someone to shreds to cheer himself up? I think so.

The spine of my copy of Shivers reflects some heavy-duty reading.

Schoell covered a lot of ground in his time. 1988's 'Saurian' is an effective chiller about a reptilian monster with a rather clever secret. Schoell takes a rather well-known couple of monsters and combines them for a horrific and hilarious hybrid. Thanks to the special effects that your tiny brain will cook up, this is a butt-kicking romp with the right sprinkles of sex, gore and big-ass monster action. 'Late At Night' puts a horrific spin on the old 'Ten Little Indians' mystery tale that keeps the pages turning and the lights burning. And don't think that these will be universally easy to find. If you're actively out there purchasing paperbacks like me, it's a good idea to keep them well. 'Fatal Beauty', one of the two Schoell novels I don't have is listed at as going for from $65-$95.

Part of the charm of Schoell's output is the perfection of Leisure's execution in providing graphics, fonts and packaging that seem to have sprung directly from the brain of William Castle. The pouting statue of 'Shivers', and particularly the painted iguana of 'The Dragon' seem to be an apex of good bad taste. It probably helps to dig these books out of moldering piles in a suburban book store, as I did. I found three of my six at Book Exchange in Victorville, California. In the middle of the high desert, under the remorseless glare of the Socal sun, someone paved a seven-mile monstrosity and called it Bear Valley Road. They lined it with strip malls, and in the second strip mall from the I-15 freeway sits a tiny store crammed with semi-old , starting to mold paperbacks. Fortunately, they have a pretty extensive selection of horror novels, many from the boom times when authors actually admitted that they wrote horror. You know the good smell of a new book? These don't smell like that. The spines are so lined you could write a letter on them.

This is the way to experience a great cheesy novel. This is grade A prime American Cheese, the kind of novel your mother warned you would warp your mind and turn you into a pervert. You passed that point long ago. What have you got to lose? Well...

On the other hand, sometimes you need to avoid cheesy novels. R. Karl Largent suckered me once with 'The Lake', which I bought based on the similarity of the cover to 'Saurian'. It's not like there are lots and lots of reviews of cheesy novels out there. And while Largent's opus is clearly cheese, it's also 1)boring and 2)doesn't deliver the monsters. If the best you can do is come up with a big ol' sturgeon, my suggestion to the budding author is to submit your work as non-fiction to some turgid paranormal journal. Or save it as a 'one that got away' story for the grandkids. Look, I bought the book -- it's not as if I wanted it to be boring, is it?

Never, ever promise something and then don't deliver it. This book offered some fine cheese, but didn't deliver the forensic gouda.

The perfect example of that last sentiment for me was a book I found used in hardcover but had almost bought new, titled 'First Evidence'. It really looked like a can't-miss deal. Here's the setup: CSI investigators looking for trace evidence in a missing person case that bears a great resemblance to an alien abduction. The novel starts with an impressive crime scene list that looks really, really right on. But author Ken Goddard fumbles this setup by never actually delivering that crucial scene where the evidence is explicated in fascinating scientific detail. Instead we get sub-letters-to-Penthouse-alien-love-drug sex and a lecture that summarizes the findings itself summarized. I must admit that as I read this novel I was pretty crushed. I had hoped for something so much better. I probably should have been suspicious of the cover, which was distinctly non-cheesy. Still, you can't always judge a book by its cover, though I strive to do so practically daily over the internet.

A B movie director picks the wrong cadaver for 'Cadaver'.

The same director picks the wrong car for his rock and roll opus.

Greg Kihn's novels reflect an appreciation of all things cheesy.

'The Horror Show', by San Jose DJ and rock star Greg Kihn, is an example of a well-matched book and cover. It's the first of three connected novels that expertly re-create in prose the feel of B-movies. If you haven't read these wonderful novels, now is always a good time. Kihn's prose is easy to read and rather cleverly apes the feel of the 1950's horror movies that his characters are busily making. His plot also apes those movies, though it doesn't resort to apes. His characters are definitely memorably sleazy, particularly Landis Woodley, an amalgam of all the bad movie directors you suspect. In 'The Horror Show', a decision to film at the LA County Morgue becomes a bit of a problem when the crew uses real bodies instead of dummies. The sequel, 'Big Rock Beat', finds Landis making a surf movie and regretting the decision to use a 'death car'. The next novel, 'Mojo Hand' follows Beau Young, the star of the surf movie, and changes the background motif from movies to music. It's now 1977, and Beau is playing in a blues band in the midst of Disco Days. Voodoo and Robert Johnson's deal with the devil intrude on his musical career.

Kihn really hits the cheesy nail on the head with these novels. He provides lots of fun, some great memorable characters, an excess of sleaze (not in my list, but close enough for rock and roll), and a prose and plot right out of the movies he's describing being made. Tor provides low-cost editions with lurid covers, and you have three nice days of brain-blasting reading ready to serve from a grocery rack near you. And if you can't find them in the grocery rack, then order them from your favorite independent bookseller, the one who is so impressed with your difficult reading and Southern Gothic selections. Yes, you're probably scaring your independent bookseller, but trust me, they're already scared. Alas.

Perhaps my favorite Stephen King novel is this excellent B Sci-Fi movie.

While Stephen King sits untouchable in his heaven, smiling down upon us all, he has descended to earth on occasion to bless us with a spot of cheese. Certainly the best example of that is 'Tommyknockers', his entirely successful attempt to re-create a B science fiction movie in a novel. By limiting his horizons, King expands on his abilities to create lingering images of terror, and a tighter plot than might be found in some of his larger works. That it was turned into a TV movie, larded with advertisements so thickly you could barely recall what had happened and starring the once-too-young porn star Traci Lords can only add to the allure. Whether or not you're a King fan, if you like your cheese thick and SFnal, then you owe it to yourself to check out this novel.

These novels creeped me out when I saw them in the Monterey Park Bookstore.

We could get 'Slugs' and 'Crabs', but not 'Rats' or 'Ants'. Someone needs to address the vermin shortage!

Since this is a World Cheese Roundup, I'd be remiss not to mention the numerous UK authors who have blazed the path of bad taste leavened by occasional good to great writing. I'll confess that I could never actually bring myself to buy Guy N. Smith, Peter Tremayne or Shaun Hutson novels. (I did see the movie version of 'Slugs' however, which might have helped to cure me of any desire to read Hutson's books.) Like many, I have fond memories of seeing scads of 'Crabs' novels scattered in the bookracks of the Monterey Park bookstore I used to haunt during lunch hours when I worked at the blood factory. I found them rather disturbing, dirty, almost pornographic, and not in a way I could easily deal with. So I passed them by. One of my correspondents admits to having "about 38" of these wonders. The horror, the horror.

This novel created a sickening miasma of terror.

This novel was beautifully published and illsutrated, but didn't deliver the kind of quality cheese we expect from Mr. Herbert.

I did not however pass by James Herbert, something I usually though not always regret. His rats-after-the-apocalypse novel 'Domain' remains in mind, haunting, awful, grotesque. 'Domain' did deliver the monsters; the rats were particularly effectively described. 'The Shrine', a sort of evil-BVM-deal was one of those novels I read almost in one sitting, in a heady miasma of depression. 'Haunted', a mid-80's novel that made it to the states in hardcover, and was made into a better-than-you-expect movie with Adrian 'Highlander' Paul, was a little on the tame side, and probably doesn't even qualify as cheese. So it was with some small joy that I saw Tor's recent and beautiful publication of Herbert's 'Once...' Tor really deserves kudos for their fabulous work on this novel. I've published some of the graphics in an earlier column, and they're beautiful. But even the promised Penthouse-level sex can't save the rather incoherent narrative. Remember, not all cheesy novels are good!

Jack Yeovil's tastefully titled 'Orgy of the Blood Parasites' is really a gripping novel of SFnal horror by Kim Newman.

The inimitable Kim Newman had to put on a pseudonym to do it, but he's published some of the finest cheesy novels you could hope to read. As Jack Yeovil, he's responsible for 'Orgy of the Blood Parasites', an over-the-top re-imagination of themes developed in far more prestigious novels by Greg Bear and Stanislaw Lem. I quote from the back cover: "Why has a peaceful university campus turned into a hell of mutating flesh, bizarre sexual permutations and horrifying, random violence?" Because goddamned Jack Yeovil kicks ass and takes no prisoners, that's why. Newman is super-smart as himself, but wielding the Yeovil pen he's ruthless as well. This is class-act writing and meat-grinder conceptualizing. Bite into this cheese and you're likely to find something moist and red.


Kim Newman fans need to hunt down these novels, some of the best alternate history / Lovecraftian terror novels ever written. Read them in the order here from left to right.

If you're really lucky, there's a bookstore near you that carries Yeovil's other triumph, four volumes of Warhammer derived madness that come under the heading of 'Dark Future'. Well, we're already there so no fear, eh chaps? It's another alternate reality series not unlike his 'Anno Dracula' work (which also started as Warhammer books), but this is more along the lines of 'Anno Lovecraft'. There are four of them, and I'm going to give you the correct reading order, carefully maintained by yellow stickies on the inside covers. There's 'Route 666' (also the title of a related David Pringle-edited Warhammer anthology), 'Krokodil Tears', 'Demon Download' and 'Comeback Tour'. Thee books definitely have the looks, they've got the gore, and yes, perhaps they're a little big-brained and ambitious, but they needn't be read that way unless the reader insists. Set in a past, present and future when Lovecraftian monstrosities are as common as lethally-armed-by-the-US dictators are today, these 'Dark Future' books deliver laughs, lots of great cameos from integrated real-world characters (Poe and Presley both play a significant parts), and did I mention lots of monsters? Let me mention it -- lots of monsters.


This is the first Richard Laymon novel I ever read. I bought it at Aladdin Books in Fullerton, California. I later met Laymon at a signing there.

This novel is gripping and almost existential in its stripped down terror. Of course, it has more death and sex than the average existential novel.

This novel is set in a town called Bodega Bay and offers a look beneath the boardwalk.

Richard Laymon is an excellent example of the cheesy writer who finally earned the respect he deserved for writing exactly what he wrote -- high-tension novels of toe-curling terror, stripped down to an almost existential level. Three novels I managed to get as UK hardcovers in the 1980's really swung me into the joys of reading perfectly wrought cheesy horror. 'Flesh' promises and delivers a monster equal to the illustrated on its oh-so-garish cover. It also delivers a Scream-like commentary on the relationship between horror fiction and -- horror fiction, as its horror-obsessed Patient 2 cuts a swathe illuminated by his own reading of cheesy fiction. 'Resurrection Dreams' could easily be one of the books Roland had consumed. Setting up a simple dynamic between Melvin, the science-fair weirdo who tried to restart a girl he killed with a car battery and Vicki, one of those who witnessed his first experiment, Laymon once again strips everything down to essential experiences and stilted, realistic dialogue that borders on boredom, if uh, someone wasn't about to be eviscerated every other page. Finally there's 'Funland', a nasty little number set in a seaside California town with a boardwalk all too much like that in my current area of residence, Santa Cruz. As with both 'Flesh' and 'Resurrection Dreams', Laymon lays on not just the gore, but young hot love as well. His delivery is what takes him up notches above the other practitioners. His writing is the prose equivalent of the fleshless steel skeletal Terminator seen in the finale of the famous B movie.

The Headline package takes the Cheesy Novel concept into the perfect stratosphere. These are sturdy hardcovers with illustrations that belong hidden in a liquor store bookrack. Yet the cover art itself is finely realized, beautifully executed. You'd be embarrassed if the author hadn't won awards. For this reader, these novels are the evolutionary apexes of cheese.

Here's a book to make you laugh till you puke.

The classic opening of this novel should be engraved above all public buildings.

Back about the same time that Headline was printing up Laymon's novels, Kinnell in the UK, and Bantam in the US were publishing Joe R. Lansdale's classics 'The Drive In' and 'The Drive in 2'. Gordon Linzer's Space and Time Press published the true first edition of 'Dead In The West' and Kinnell published the UK version in 1990. These books comprise another pinnacle of high-quality deliberately cheesy writing. 'The Drive In' and 'The Drive In 2' aim for the B movie target and hit it in the bull's eye. The rant that begins the sequel shows this kind of writing at a fever pitch:

"Pay attention. When I'm through there will be a test.

One day suddenly you're out of high school, happy as a grub in shit, waking up with a hard-on and spending your days sitting around in pee-stained underwear with your feet propped up next to the air conditioning vent with cool air blowing on your nuts, and the next goddamned thing you know, you're crucified.

And I don't mean symbolically. I'm talking nails in the paws and wood splinters in the ass, sore hands and feet and screams and a wavering attitude about the human race. It's the kind of thing that when it happens to you, you have a hard time believing ol' Jesus could have been all that forgiving about it.

It hurts.

Had I been J. C., I'd have come back from the dead madder than a badger with turpentined balls, and there wouldn't have been any of this peace and love shit, and I would have forgotten how to do trivial crap like turn water to wine and multiply bread and fishes. I'd have made myself as big as the universe and made me two bricks just the right size, and I'd have gotten the world between the bricks and whammo, shit jelly.

It wouldn't do to make me a messiah. I've got a bad attitude."


Gordon Linzer's Space and Time Press published Lansdale's novel in 1986. It features a great cover and interior illustration by Allen Kozlowski.

Kinnell didn't get round to publishing this novel in the UK till 1990.

Words to live by if ever there were words to live by, no? Lansdale preceded them with the distressing Popcorn King, and followed them up Popalong Cassidy. Every cliché gets a fresh coat of blood in 'The Drive In' novels, and if you can keep your lunch down, you're certain to laugh. 'Dead In the West' also follows the B-movie imperative, this time re-creating the zombie western that Flannery O'Connor might have written for George Romero. It's a great book for kids to read as well, if you can get past the body count and gore. Miss any of them at your own peril.

These covers are far too classy to fully qualify the novels for cheesy; so is the writing. But cheese is used liberally in the creation!

If Asher weren't so gleefully fun, the simply laid out complexity of this novel would knock it out of the cheese category.

Neal Asher's novels are the perfect example of someone doing a balancing act on the edge of the cheese grater. You might not get it from the beautifully designed covers, but 'Gridlinked' and 'The Skinner' are both over-the-top slabs of science fiction that can be thoroughly enjoyed with the volume twisted all the way to eleven. They're also both a bit deceptively simple; easy to read, but complex in completion, they offer more sex and violence than the average hockey game, with a set of monsters so cleverly vicious their ecological rankings make Frank Herbert's 'Dune' look simple. Asher goes after his writing with the kind of glee and surreal feel that help him lock a reader to the page. In most ways, these novels are far beyond cheese, but the cheese-loving reader will devour them like a wheel from France. Those covers are far too nice to really fit into the spectrum, but in a cheesy online column, who cares if I stretch a point to reach some readers?

By the time we get to writers like Neal Asher, clearly one of the most promising talents out there, and remember that Philip K. Dick was published in sleazo-excelsis, readers can begin to realize that cheesy reading isn't just for fun. Any style of literature needs to be well-written to be truly enjoyable to read. Writing for the cheese vibe requires every bit as much skill as writing turgid, symbol-ridden fiction for doctoral candidates. Somewhere there's got to be a spark that starts the fire. No matter what the cover art, no matter what the subject matter, a good writer can't hide the spark.

And thus I've left out rafts of writers and whole genres that have produced quality cheese. Like horror, both the mystery genre and the science fiction genre were built on foundations of fromage. Pick your own favorite lurid cover, and name your own favorite cheesy author. Certainly readers know what that means. I could write more than a couple of sequels to this column. Who says that only fiction can be cheesy?




Rick Kleffel