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SUNDAY BRUNCH | BOOKSHELF

Audio Books

October 25, 1998|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | Special To The Times

Feeling a little foolish in that Elvira outfit? Had it with sticky spray-on spider webs? Fret not: You still can conjure up a substantial scare for your loved ones on All Hallows' Eve. After sampling several frightening audios, the one that had me checking behind the closet doors was "The Greatest Horror Stories of the 20th Century," edited by Martin Greenberg (Dove Audio, unabridged fiction; four cassettes, six hours; $25; read by Michael Gross, Juliet Mills, Patrick Macnee, Roscoe Lee Brown and others). These really are a cut above the musty old ghost yarns usually tossed into an anthology. The collection includes a dozen creepy tales by such writers as Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury and Ramsey Campbell; their topics range from giant corpse-eating rats and ancient sacrificial sites in New England to those pesky ghouls that go "boo" in the night.

There are as many narrators as writers, and not one of them is a disappointment. A few (Macnee, Gross) prove stronger than the others, but all remind us that hair-raising stories really are best when read aloud.

*

Get out your garlic and wooden stakes. Fill those squirt guns with Holy Water and take aim. No, not at her creatures of the night, but at author Anne Rice herself. The doyenne of darkness has committed a serious literary offense with "The Vampire Armand" (Random House Audiobooks, abridged fiction; four cassettes, four hours; $24; read by Alfred Molina).

More gothic than gory, more bosom-ripper than bloodletter, this is, one hopes, the death rattle of Rice's "Vampire Chronicles." They began 20 years ago with her imaginative "Interview With a Vampire," the book that introduced us to the handsome Armand. This sequel is an account of his choice between a moral and an immoral lifestyle, which may have been agonizing for him but is even more so for the listener. You can't blame the abridgment for the choppy story line; the original material is hampered severely by uneven narrative shifts. Even the more horrifying passages of carnivorous escapades are so archly written that all intended eeriness is lost.

Still, the most frustrating aspect of this audio is not the dreary content, but the waste of Molina's vocal talents. He has a rich, mellifluous style that seduces us with its almost musical cadence. Furthermore, the audio is very well-produced, using music well and wisely. A new style of sturdy packaging is decorated handsomely with a detail from Botticelli's "La Primavera." Again, what a waste.

*

"Vespers" by John Rovin (Random House Audiobooks, abridged fiction; two cassettes, three hours; $18; read by Boyd Gaines) is middling and derivative. Giant bats--suffering from that good ol' 1950s sci-fi glandular growth condition created by radioactive waste--are trying to take over Manhattan. The plot is so well-worn that it's like listening to a comfortable urban legend: Though not exactly boring, it ain't gonna scare you either. And there is little tension between the stereotypical macho police detective and the stereotypical overworked female scientist.

The tale is read ably by Gaines, who hits his stride as the detective, a native New Yorker. Slightly clipped mannerisms and a tough attitude set the character apart from others on the tape.

*

Frank Macchia and Tracy London are a team of independent writer-producer-narrators who have created a horror series, "Little Evil Things," that can compete with the big names (Little Evil Things, original audio material; one cassette or CD per volume; $12.98 each. Available in stores or by calling [800] 748-5804).

In the latest volume, No. II (70 minutes), four stories unfold like old-fashioned radio plays, complete with music and spirited performances. The writing is a tad vulgar in spots, but the whole thing is so energetic and fast-paced that you can't help having fun. The tales--of angry Siamese twins, a cursed bell jar, a man's fear of water, and the Fat That Ate Beverly Hills--should appeal to anyone 13 and older.

Meanwhile, Volume I (56 minutes) is still available. The writing is tighter and it's less adult-oriented, making it a better choice for family listening.

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