It’s time for more Thrift Store Finds! Today we’ve finally shaken off the stink of the neverending sex demons that were stalking us and landed in a pile of giant, slimy worms. It was kind of like looking under a big rock in the garden—horrifying but mesmerizing. 

One of the reasons people are drawn to horror is its versatility. Dramas and comedies have their own internal rules, but when it comes to horror, all bets are off. Since horror thrives in subverting expectations and breaking rules, anything goes.

But while the YOLO approach is what makes horror so awesome, it’s not without its drawbacks. During the 70s and 80s horror boom, the genre’s malleability became a monkey’s paw, leaving a trail of literary abominations in its wake. Poorly written, unedited books were churned out factory-style and what started as a genre revolution died an unceremonious death when readers tired of digging for diamonds in the rough.

Time heals all wounds, of course, and now those same discarded tales have found new life in the collections of horror-lovers around the world. Everybody comes to paperback collecting for different reasons, but at least a few of us have a strange addition to those aforementioned abominations. We just can’t help ourselves, they hurt so good.

Front cover of Al Sarrantonio's "The Worms," featuring a hand shooting up from the earth, a worm slithering over the palm.
I will pass on the worm handling, thank you.

The human mind can only take so much torture, however, and there is nothing as satisfying as picking up a novel only to discover it’s actually good. When I picked up Al Sarrantonio’s first novel, The Worms, I knew I was in for a competently written book at the very least. Sarrantonio started his career as an editor at Doubleday in the 70s before turning to writing full time. He worked with Issac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and published short stories in Issac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and Heavy Metal. So while some established author’s first books are iffy compared to later offerings, it’s clear Sarrantonio had an understanding of what books are supposed to be before he ever published a novel.

But The Worms wasn’t just a good first go for the lauded author, it was an awesome one.

In The Worms Felicity Cramer and her fiance Paul are headed to Felicity’s hometown of Province for a good old meet the family. Felicity has been more or less estranged from her parents, but now that she’s getting married, she’s decided to bite the bullet and introduce Paul to the distant, uncaring assholes who raised her.

But all is not right at the homestead. It turns out that Felicity’s younger brother has been taken to the hospital after being attacked by an animal out at the town dump. While the elder Cramers sit around indifferently, Felicity and Paul race to the hospital to learn more. Unfortunately for, well, everyone, the killer creature in question is a group of giant, white worms with massive red stingers for tails. And when you’re wounded by something as horrifying as that, the prognosis is definitely not going to be good. Felicity and Paul find out soon enough when they reach Jeremy’s room. “The sheet fell to the floor, revealing something that barely, if at all, resembled her brother. A long, white, amorphous thing pulsed feebly. At the bottom end there was a white sticky mass covering and absorbing the legs that had been there.”

Yummy.

Illustrated cover of "The Worms," with a pattern of small, white worms moving vertically up the paperback cover.
Here, wormy, wormy, wormy.

Turns out that a sting from one of these gross grubs transforms its victim into another stinger-happy worm. And the transformation is fast. As Felicity and Paul leave the room, they find themselves surrounded by a whole bunch of hospital staff-turned-worm and are forced to flee out the window to look for help. Sadly, the worms have already gotten to most of the town, leaving Felicity and Paul to team up with elderly neighbor Gable.

From there, the lean, but expertly executed, plot unfolds, getting all the more dire at every turn. First the trio try to take out the worm nest at the dump. Then they discover an impenetrable purple haze has descended on the town, blocking their escape. But as if that wasn’t bad enough, our heroes are soon forced underground when their freaky foes light the entire town on fire. 

What could have caused this tragedy? How exactly did mutant worms find their way to New England? The answer may just lie in the town’s sordid history of persecution, suspicion, and greed.

I think this book is about worms, guys.

It doesn’t take long for new horror novel collectors to run into writer Al Sarrantonio. The New York City native has been responsible for more literary nightmares than most other horror storytellers combined. As a writer, Sarrantonio has penned fifty novels and ninety short stories. Yes, ninety. But those hundreds of thousands of words aren’t his only contribution. He’s also a skilled editor and publisher who has edited dozens of genre anthologies of sci-fi and horror short fiction. 

The guy put in the hours. But even at this first stage of his novel writing career, you could tell he had what it would take to go the distance. Sure, you could point out that he had been working as an editor way before he took on a novel of his own. But acquiring good stories and helping improve them is a very different skill than creating your own.

Prose and plot are the central pieces to telling a good story, and Sarrantonio nails both with the perfect level of efficiency for the material. The plot elements and dialogue are kept simple and move forward swifty. This keeps the reader from getting bogged down and overthinking what really amounts to the literary version of a monster movie.

It’s all good stuff, and very entertaining. But what really makes The Worms sing is Sarrantonio’s ability to really paint a scene with words. Like a Hollywood director, Sarrantonio points his word camera at just the right details to fully immerse you in the scene. “At the far end of the hallway someone was screaming. Bodies and blood were everywhere. In front of them, at the doors of the elevator, a cop and a young woman doctor were sprawled on their backs breathing slowly. The woman had a ugly red gash in one arm and was trying feebly to press off the bleeding with her other hand. The cop looked as if he had been stabbed in the neck; there was a slow, steady gush of crimson through his fingers. Another officer, who looked dead, lay at an odd angle about halfway down the hall, his head buried under his arms.”

In just a few lines Sarrantonio has created pure chaos, and you can feel it. And that’s exactly what monster-loving horror fans are looking for: a little fiction insanity to break up the all-too-real mess of everyday life. With The Worms, Sarrantonio took me on a journey, let me forget my surroundings, and gave me the chance to root for the underdogs. What more could you ask for?

Need more horror from the animal kingdom? Send Fluffy to the litter box, and then check out Feral.

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