Monday, March 30, 2015
Madonna, by Ed Kelleher and Harriette Vidal
No month stated, 1985 Leisure Books
As should be apparent, the only horror novels I’ll read these days are the super-fat, embossed-cover paperbacks of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Madonna is a title I spotted in a used bookstore a few years ago but have only just now gotten around to reading (my interest in horror fiction occurs in random bursts). While it wasn’t nearly as exploitative or lurid as I’d hoped it would be (or as the back cover implies), it was still a somewhat-entertaining story about an evil female being who attempts to seduce and destroy several men.
The titular character is a raven-haired beauty with an awesome bod who is generally referred to as “The Woman” throughout, rather than “Madonna.” She is an immortal being who we eventually learn is thought to be “the anti-Blessed Virgin, the antithesis of Christ’s mother,” and even “the mother of Satan.” But at any rate she’s so friggin’ hot that one look at her and any man (or woman) instantly falls in lust with her – a consuming lust which drives the person to murderous acts of madness.
But here’s the ultimate problem with Madonna: The Woman is hardly in it, her appearances in the narrative amounting to perhaps several pages of text, at most. Instead, more focus is placed on the humdrum protagonists we have been saddled with.
Also, as that “Christ’s mother” would imply, Madonna is yet another horror novel heavy on the Christian bias, with The Woman a harbinger of the devil and only good strong Christians able to defeat her – indeed, we eventually learn that she can only be killed by a sharpened crucifix to the heart! (Though on the plus side, she has to be staked while she’s orgasming for it to really kill her…!) But like William W. Johnstone’s almighty The Nursery, this is another horror novel where the reader must be prepared to accept a definite Christian leaning to the affairs; though to be sure, it certainly isn’t Christian fiction. (Nor is it as XXX-rated as Johnstone’s masterwork, unfortunately.)
This is also another horror novel that opens with a prologue in a past age: 1825, to be exact, where in a brief sequence a group of Germans storm a Satanic altar, where the worshippers are engaged in an orgy. The Woman is at the bottom of the pile, and the attackers, Christians all, pull people off her and stake her in the heart! (Jeez, how unlike a bunch of puritan prudes to ruin everyone’s fun.) Flash forward a hundred-plus years to the “modern day” of the 1980s and we read as some dude in New Orleans goes nuts and starts gunning down coworkers in his office. Meanwhile a raven-haired beauty leaves town, boarding a plane for New York City…
Here we meet who we initially assume will be the protagonist of the tale: Richard Bloch (Robert’s cousin, perhaps), a 30-something teacher of blind children who lives in a fashionable apartment in Greenwich Village with his girlfriend, Annie. Richard’s a caring sort, and he and Annie have a close relationship. Of the two, Annie is more interesting to me, given her job at the Forbidden Lore Bookshop, which specializes in rare manuscripts and is owned by an old guy named Mr. Clark. The authors spend the occasional scene in the musty bookstore, which I found particularly enjoyable…I don’t know why, but I’ve always like reading about bookstores in books themselves.
In addition to Richard and Annie there’s also Leslie, Richard’s sister, an up-and-coming actress who stars in an off-Broadway play that sounds pretty terrible. There’s also Jill, Leslie’s friend and also an actress. Kelleher and Vidal let it simmer for a good long while; true to Leisure Books form, Madonna is way too long, coming in at 384 whopping pages. Other than the Forgotten Lore Bookshop material, I found a lot of it to be deadening in this opening half of the novel; only when The Woman arrives in New York does the novel get a jolt, if albeit a slight one.
For that’s the other big problem with this novel: it’s pretty tepid. We have to endure lots of sequences where the characters discuss things we’ve already seen happen, gradually rewarded for our patience with too-brief sketches of violence or sex. But anyway, Richard gets a gander at The Woman, and from there he spirals into madness. Only Annie notices it at first, the way Richard insists on keeping dead roses in the apartment, how he’ll snap at her, how he has just started acting plain weird.
So Annie will discuss with Leslie, who will poo-poo the girl’s worries. On and on it goes. Sadly, the authors begin to shift focus away from Richard, so that we don’t get a good understanding of his personal feelings. Instead, Annie and Leslie become the stars, and eventually they figure out that this black-haired beauty, who lives in an apartment across from Richard and Annie’s, is the culprit. Meanwhile Annie comes across these old Satanic books in a new shipment to the Forgotten Lore shop, including some ancient-looking medallions which have a beautiful woman on them, complete with a serpent slithering up her thigh and right toward her crotch.
The violence of the opening pages takes its time to return, but it at least must be said that these authors don’t play favorites when it comes to the carnage. For example, the first person to go is Annie herself, who dies quite memorably – chopped to death by a food processor! This is after she’s run afoul of The Woman. Meanwhile Leslie begins receiving strange messages on her answering machine, nothing but the eerie cries of what sounds like a baby. (This by the way is a recurring plot thread that the authors never bother to explain – what exactly this thing is supposed to be is never stated.)
The sleaze element is lacking; the few sex scenes are vaguely described, such as when Richard has his first conjugal visit with The Woman, who appears naked in his apartment after Annie has met her unfortunate end. We do get the detail that she is in control during these times with Richard; despite how forcefully he wants to take her, Richard always finds that The Woman controls him. Later we see that the lady only gets off when she’s with her followers, apparently, as old Mr. Clark gives it to her good and proper – unsurprisingly, the old goat turns out to be one of The Woman’s worshippers, though his cult is yet another plot thread the authors do precious little to elaborate on.
Nope, this is yet another Leisure/Zebra/whatever other lowjack publisher type of horror novel, where the authors seem to know what they want to write but not how to write it. For once again we have a “horror novel” that not only doesn’t have much horror but also focuses on the wrong things, over and over again. If you have an eternal force of evil which is masked in total sensuality, an orgy-crazed cult that worships her, and the plot payoff that said eternal force can only be killed by a crucifix to the heart while she’s orgasming, then why in the hell would you instead choose to focus on mundane conversations where the bland protagonists sit around and discuss the possible reasons for these recent strange events in their lives?
Worse yet, on page 143(!!) the authors introduce us to the true hero of the tale: young Father Jimmy Hamilton, cousin of Richard and Leslie and the character who will (quite gradually) deduce that The Woman is a supernatural force of evil. But yep, our hero’s a true-blue Catholic, just like those German dudes in the opening section…how great would it be if one of these novels featured something unexpected, like an atheist hero, huh? But a cliché is a cliché, so I shouldn’t complain. And anyway, I don’t read these ‘80s horror paperbacks looking for high literature or something unexpected. I do however read them for twisted, lurid fun, something which Madonna only provides in infrequent and brief doses.
But yeah, “Fr. Jimmy” is now our hero (apparently “Fr.” is how one shortens “Father”), and so we have to start back at square one, over a quarter of the way into the novel, as now Jimmy has to figure out who The Woman is and what dire, evil effect she is having on his friends. This entails lots more discussions with the various characters, as well as trips to the local seminary, where Jimmy researches old Church manuscripts. Seeing one of those medallions (which Annie accidentally lifted from the Forbidden Lore, with Leslie eventually winding up with it), Jimmy can’t get over how the woman depicted on it is a dead ringer for this raven-haired fox Richard is now obsessed with.
Gradually Jimmy comes upon mentions of “The Madonna” in those old Church texts; apparently she’s the mother of Satan, and comes to the earth every few centuries to raise hell. But in each case where Jimmy is about to discover how she can be stopped, the pages are torn from the manuscript. This is a surefire way for the authors to fill more pages in their own book…making the hero uncertain how this unstoppable creature can actually be stopped. But at the very least, they do liven up the proceedings with the occasional murders The Woman causes – all of them, we slowly learn, vengeance upon the descendants of those men who killed her in the opening 1825 section of the novel.
So we get brief parts where The Woman will show up on the streets of New York and kill off some random dude. In one case she even lures a young boy to his death, but this happens off-page. In each case, even for the 8 year-old, the guy is instantly besotted with her beauty, and will kill for her. The authors don’t really elaborate on how The Woman works, though we do know that, in the case of a few of the dudes, she has sex with them in a sort of outside-of-time element; for example, she blows one guy in a punk bar, yet afterwards everything flickers and he’s not sure if it really happened.
But afterwards these guys will go nuts and start killing, and here the authors deliver sporadic bloody scenes. Meanwhile Jimmy learns that the goal of the worshippers is to make The Woman fully “walk among us,” to quote the Misfits, though this too isn’t satisfactorily explained. I mean, she’s already here on Earth! But whatever, just go with it. What I got from it was that The Woman, while powerful, isn’t yet at full capacity, something Jimmy appears to understand once he’s researched more. He also finds that The Woman, under various names, has recently been appearing around the country, leaving catatonic men in her wake – men who have murdered for her.
Well anyway, Jimmy finally meets with Cardinal Madori, who has the unedited Church texts Jimmy’s been seeking. Here Jimmy learns about the whole “crucifix stab while orgasming” deal. And hell, Jimmy’s such a sport he offers to do the job himself! But the Cardinal says that the head Church honchos back in Rome will want to clear this first…so the Cardinal has to go check on that…I mean, a guy can’t just go and save the world, you know, first he has to deal with all that Catholic red tape to ensure everything’s hunky dory!! So Jimmy begs the Cardinal to be allowed to do the job alone, even if it took six guys to kill The Woman back in the 1800s. Of course, if Jimmy were to fail, the Church will deny all knowledge of his actions…!?
Finally here in the homestretch shit starts to happen. Skip this paragraph please if you want to avoid spoilers. First, Leslie is seduced by The Woman (but it happens off-page, dammit!!); after this Leslie pulls a gun on a subway platform and starts blowing people away before turning the gun on herself. (Her gun by the way is a .357 Magnum that somehow has a safety on it.) Jimmy meanwhile storms Richard’s apartment, to slay The Woman as she’s screwing Richard, but instead he manages to stab Richard, and The Woman laughs at our priestly hero’s misguided efforts, telling him that Richard could never make her orgasm!
So, just as the novel’s heating up, it ends! Even worse, it ends on a cliffhanger, with all of our heroes out of the picture and The Woman apparently triumphant. What this means for the human race is something the authors don’t bother explaining. Meanwhile Cardinal Madori boards a plane for Rome, and I guess we’re to assume he’s about to call in the heavy hitters to take on the forces of Satan.
All told, Madonna is a passable, sometimes-entertaining example of ‘80s horror fiction, with a good plot idea that’s too little explored (or exploited) and too many characters. It’s also filled with a lot of incidental, mundane dialog, and the writers tend to POV-hop, changing character perspectives between paragraphs, which always makes for a bumpy read. Saddest of all, the most interesting character in the novel, The Woman, is barely featured, and as with many of these ‘80s horror paperbacks you can’t help but feel that a much better story was lost in the mundanity the text.
In 1990 the book was actually turned into a film: Madonna: A Case Of Blood Ambition, which was filmed in Canada and is now paired on a two-fer DVD with Voodoo Dolls, another low-budget, filmed-in-Canada movie based on The School, a later Kelleher/Vidal novel. I haven’t seen either film, but judging from online reviews the Madonna movie bears little resemblance to its source material, and indeed sounds to be generally terrible and unwatchable. It also apparently removes the entire supernatural element, turning the story into a Fatal Attraction knock-off.