Zebra Summer—Item #1: Runaway by Stephen Gresham

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In Zebra Summer, Zakary McGaha (author of Locker Arms and Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast) chronicles a very specific portion of his summer reading schedule: horror novels published by Zebra Books.

Most people don’t need to be introduced to Zebra Books as they’ve already been familiarized with them through Paperbacks From Hell, Will Erickson’s blog, etc. Zebra is the publisher with all the skeletons on their covers; Zebra is the 80s horror boom all rolled up into one publisher: a ton of so-so books with GREAT covers, mixed in with a few literary treasures. If you’re looking to be dazzled by importance, don’t read Zebra novels. Only read them if you want: a) a trashy horror fix, b) an authentic 80s or early 90s fix, and/or c) both.

I’ve been collecting Zebra novels since high school, so it was slightly before everyone jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon. Therefore, I bought most of them before they became expensive collector’s items.

Without a doubt, I have more Zebra-specific books in my library than books from any other publisher, however I haven’t read most of them. The fact of the matter is, I can’t read too many at one time. They just aren’t good: they’re uniformly written at a level that can only be described as in between adult and YA. My theory is that most Zebra authors were either pressured to write for kids just as much as adults, or Zebra’s editors had multiple field days.

Despite what I just said, Zebra novels are very charming when they’re read in the right light…preferably a soft orange or yellow (none of that harsh, white fluorescent shit). They’re also charming if you read them while in a sentimental frame of mind. Cozy small towns? Check. Old cars? Check. Antiques? On more than one occasion. Think of the Thorn trilogy in the Halloween franchise. That’s what Zebra books mean to me.

This summer, I happen to be in a very sentimental frame of mind, so I’m gonna read a ton of these forgotten, oftentimes bastardized (written for moolah) books.

First up is Runaway by Stephen Gresham.

Gresham is an author I’ve always enjoyed; I also think he’s been unfairly shat on, although, like every writer, some of his books are better than others. Runaway, to my delight, was one of his better ones.

This one centers on a young, rich lad who runs away from his upscale, beach town life because his parents are career-obsessed, money-grubbing scoundrels…which is how most people in the 80s were, if I’m to believe everything I’ve read.

In ‘Texas Chainsaw’ fashion, he winds up with a family…of sorts…that is comprised entirely of whackos, save for all the other runaways like him.

Said family is actually a shelter for homeless kids, and it’s run by religious nutjobs who are somewhat, and this isn’t a spoiler, manipulated by dark, supernatural forces as well as the usual human vice of power-lust.

Pretty much every character in this book was compelling; I wanted to keep reading about all of them…especially the runaways who are put in some pretty dire situations.

Runaway takes your typical “child in peril” Zebra plot and amps it up quite a bit. Usually, Ruby Jean Jensen is the one putting kids through the wringer, but damn! Gresham gives her a run for her money with this ‘un.

In most cases, I finish Zebra novels at a sluggish pace, because that’s how they’re written. But I finished this one in good time, despite its above average length for a Zebra book.

Do yourself a favor and pick this novel up. Sadly, there’s never a knife-wielding skeleton emerging for a gingerbread house between the covers of Runaway, but that hardly matters because what is between the covers is pretty awesome.

I would also like to take a second to recommend my favorite book by Stephen Gresham, Rockabye Baby. It, along with several of Gresham’s novels, has been re-released in ebook form.

For my next installment of Zebra Summer, I will review Deadly Nature by V.M. Thompson.

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