Thursday, September 15, 2016

Satan's Chance

Satan's Chance, by Alan Ross Shrader
March, 1982  Ace Books

Picked this one up a few years ago on my last horror fiction binge and I’m just now getting to it. Satan’s Chance appears to have been the one and only novel by Alan Ross Shrader, and it’s clear that this is the work of a first-time novelist: it’s a too-busy doorstop of a book (385 pages of small print) with too much melodrama and soap opera, and it takes much too long to get interesting.

Published in early 1982, the novel takes place in late ’85, during the next visit of Halley’s Comet (which I remember quite well, though damned if I was able to see it! As I recall it was too foggy or something…). Our hero is Ted Witherspoon, a young history teacher who very recently married the lovely Jill Banner, a physical therapist. The story is set in San Francisco, and Shrader peppers the novel with enough details for the reader to assume he was familiar with the place. He also invests Ted and Jill with enough personality and background that they aren’t just cardboard cutouts, but boy does he spend a little too much print in this effort.

For as it is, the first 60 or so pages of Satan’s Chance are a slooow-moving, soap operatic affair. Ted we’ll eventually learn spent his formative years in an insane asylum, sent there against his will by his aunt and uncle. When Ted was a child he had visions of his parents dying in a plane crash, but no one believed him. When they did in fact die in a crash into the Pacific, he was consumed with grief – there’s a helluva lot of teeth-gnashing courtesy Ted throughout the novel – and it got worse when, years later, he had another vision, this one of his sister being run over by a car while riding her bicycle.

The same scenario played out; no one believed Ted, but this time his aunt and uncle even took him to a shrink. Humorously enough, while everyone was at the shrink’s, Ted’s sister hopped on a bike – and was promptly run over by a car. This time a grieving Ted was locked up in the local loony bin, as still no one believes he predicted anything and thus must be nuts. But anyway all that was a long time ago and he’s kept this hidden from Jill. Lots of stuff here about their new marriage and their small circle of friends. But then one night in November 1985 Ted’s visions begin again.

Here the melodrama gets thick. Ted becomes a veritable bed-wetting simp, reduced to catatonic frenzy after a late-night vision of a fiendish Jill with glowing eyes, followed by a mysterious voice intoning “She is in danger.” Again keeping this from Jill, Ted acts like a nail-biting new parent, pacing the floor and watching the clock anytime Jill leaves their apartment. Oh, and Jill has troubles of her own, tending to a game-legged roughian who harbors impulses of sexual violence. It just goes on and on, more so a turgid melodrama than a horror novel.

In fact it’s laughable at times, particulary when it comes to Ted’s escalating paranoia and his attempts to keep his fears from Jill. At one point Ted’s pal, whom Ted has confided in, tries to tell Jill about Ted’s fears, but can’t bring himself to do it – this goes on for pages and pages – and eventually it culminates with Ted screaming at him and promising to kill him if he ever talks to Jill again. There are lots of scenes of Ted screaming like a ninny when he walks into their empty apartment, screaming for Jill – who shows up, wondering what the hell is going on. In true soap opera style, Ted even resorts to booze, causing another fight, as Jill tries to upend a bottle into the sink:

“It has got to stop, Ted! It has got to stop!” 

Ted ran over to her. “What are you doing? Stop it!” 

“NO!” she shouted, emptying the bottle and throwing it in the trash. “I’ve had enough, Ted! I can’t let you destroy yourself!” 

“Stop it!” he hissed, grabbing her arm. 

“Let go!” she screamed. She knew she was getting hysterical but the momentum of her emotions was too strong to stop. Ted was destroying himself! He was destroying them both!

And so it goes, friends, sad to say. The entire friggin’ novel is like this, like some really bad After School Special.

Finally, stuff starts to happen – like over a hundred pages in. Reports filter around SanFran of a glowing-eyed woman who tossed some muscle-bound dude, or so the dude claims. Another interminable sequence follows as Ted listens slackjawed to the man’s story, of how a woman with demonic, glowing eyes just tossed the man like he was a ragdoll, and Ted can’t get over how it’s so like his vision. But Ted’s vision was of Jill! (The narrative is like this, by the way, with many sentences ending with exclamation points, further lending the book an unintentionally-humorous melodramatic tone.)

Here in the gaggle of people Ted runs into an old man, and much later he’ll realize – he was the old man in his vision! Now Ted continues to run around San Francisco like a screaming ninny, looking desperately for this old man; somehow he manages to hook up with a grizzled cop named Bates, who for whatever reason lets Ted tag along with him when he goes to murder scenes(!). Comically enough, all Bates does is ridicule Ted, calling him “Mr. Concerned Citizen” and mocking his concerns over these “monstrous” deeds going on in the city, which of course begs the question why Bates would even bring Ted along with him in the first place, but I digress.

Anyhoo, glowing-eyed women are killing people and animals and then dying themselves. Ted is certain all this has to do with his vision and that Jill will somehow be endangered herself. Every scene though is played out past the breaking point, like when Ted rides along with Bates to a murder scene where an obese woman with glowing eyes was reportedly sighted and also apparently ripped apart an old woman’s dog. The novel’s first sex scene occurs here, and it’s quite graphic, only marred by the fact that it’s Bates conjugating with the, er, obese woman – he’s found her hiding in the woods, and is instantly mesmerized by her glowing eyes.

Shrader finally delivers the twisted stuff I want, well over a hundred pages in, as the woman traps Bates’s member in her with her demonically-superpowered nether-region muscles and then he stares into her demonic eyes and falls into them, and is reborn as a demon embodied in a human’s skin. But nothing much is made of this, and indeed we’ll later learn that Bates’s own body has been found. Also there’s some business about these demon-people scrawling a Halley’s Comet-like symbol in blood at scenes of their crimes. 

The old man meanwhile gets his own overlong subplot; he’s an ex-priest named Simon who, back in 1938, came across an ancient parchment which claimed to give a rundown on the truth of good and evil. FYI, Satan’s Chance is one of those horror novels squarely in the Catholic or at least Christian mold; Satan is a real presence and only belief in Christ (or at least, wearing a cross) will save you. I can take or leave these types of books – unless that is they’re filled with sleazy sex, as was the case with The Nursery – and sadly there isn’t enough of “the good stuff.”

It gets even more unintentionally humorous when Simon reveals that the ancient parchment contained prophecies of various events which happened after the time of its writing, including the fall of the Roman empire and WWII. And guess what – Ted himself is mentioned in it, prophecized as “the Orphan” who will one day decide who wins the battle between God and Satan! Ted’s reaction to this? He throws yet another hissy fit that his “entire life has been a lie” and tears up Simon’s ancient parchment! I tell you,this guy is a loser, but we’re stuck with him.

Ted continues throwing hissy fits, paranoid that Jill will be consumed by the Satanic forces. And unsurprisingly, it’s Ted himself who causes her to be possessed, regardless – during one of the novel’s few action scenes, a demon-possessed man attacks Jill, Ted, and Simon, and Ted kills him. Thinking he’s victorious, Ted is shocked when Simon berates him. For now “the demon is free” to posses any of them – and sure as shit it possesses Jill. Now Jill becomes a smokin’ hot she-devil bitch from hell, but you won’t be shocked to learn that Shrader doesn’t exploit this development very much. No, we have to endure more of Ted’s self-pity and hissy-fitting.

Simon gets killed, by the way, and eventually Ted finds himself the new leader of the motley crew of believers who have congregated around the old ex-priest. It’s full on Christian Fiction as Ted, now a firm believer, wields a cross and goes about casting out demons and whatnot, a skill learned from Simon, who gave his life saving Ted from one of those she-demon hell-bitches who tried to bang Ted in the novel’s only other slightly sleazy sequence. The crux of Satan’s Chance is that Halley’s Comet is the “effigy” of Satan, and initiates his potential conquest of the world – it is up to “the Orphan” to decide who the victor will be, as “God needs the help of man to defeat Satan.”

Given that the novel opened after the events of the story, with a dazed Ted being carted off to the hospital, we already know that he survies – the question which is supposed to keep us turning the pages is whether Jill did. No one will be surprised to discover that she has, in fact, lived, and also her demon was cast out by Ted, who in an act of mercy (ie, not blowing away the demon-possessed Jill) threw the balance on the side of the “Loving God,” and thus Satan was defeated.

The end – and if ever there was an opportunity to thank God, this would be it, for we are finally done with this overwritten slog of a novel.


Zwolf said...

Oi. That sounds like it totally sucks as a horror novel, but could get kind of entertaining as a "something really weird is happening on Mary Hartman Mary Hartman" soap-opera parody. But then Soap already did that with a demonic possession/Rosemary's Baby storyline...

It's far worse with the floodgates wide open now, but I'm still amazed at some of the silly shit that got past actual bona-fide editors back in the day...

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Zwolf, sorry to take so long to get to it. My personal life has been going through some major changes lately (good ones, though), so the blog has sorta been on autopilot -- I basically just write these reviews and schedule them to post (I write them about 3 weeks out or so).

Yes, I would say that "Satan's Chance" totally sucks as a horror novel. I was really looking forward to reading it, too. My horror fiction interests build up and evaporate quickly, but for what it's worth I'm currently in the middle of one; I have a review of William Schoell's "The Dragon" coming up (I enjoyed that one).

And because I couldn't resist, I'm now reading yet another William Johnstone horror novel, "Toy Cemetery." This one is quite unique so far as Johnstone's horror work goes: it's about this guy, a former soldier, who goes back to his old hometown in Smallville, USA, only to find that the place is in the dark grip of Satan! Oh wait -- that's practically every damn horror novel Johnstone ever wrote!!

I've been re-reading your horror reviews, and you have really inspired me to read "Gila," by Les Simons, but I might have to go the dreaded eBook route; for whatever reason the original paperback is overpriced online, however the author epublished the book under her own name (Kathryn Ptacek) for $2.99 on Amazon. She includes a foreword in which she makes clear her intent to capture the OTT vibe of '50s sci-fi/giant monster movies.