It’s time for another Thrift Store Finds filled with angry dudes, worried women, and completely well adjusted priests. So basically real life with a dash of “OK Boomer” energy baked at 400 degrees and then left on a tombstone to cool. Tasty!
Horror has never been concerned with being high brow.
While literary writers strive to be seen as creating great art, horror writers have alway been comfortable down in the muck, producing entertaining stories about everything from mutant worms to serial killers. No topic is too strange, no plot too straight forward. The point of horror is to entertain, anything beyond that is just gravy.
It’s safe to say Ed Kelleher wasn’t concerned with where he fell on the high-to-low-brow level. As a writer, he churned out everything from 42nd street flicks and horror novels to music reviews and plays praised in the Village Voice. But while he was clearly comfortable working in a wide range of styles (he worked as critic for both the early rock music scene and as an associate editor of Film Journal International), the man was undoubtedly happiest among drive-in mutants and grindhouse ghouls.
Born in New York City in 1944, Kelleher graduated from Fordham University and served a stint in the army before becoming a part of the New York music and film scene. He wrote for music magazines like Billboard and even had his own drive-in movie review column in Creem magazine under the delightfully cheesy pen name Edouard Dauphin.
But while he clearly enjoyed analyzing other’s work (he kept a scrapbook of movie reviews when he was 10), Kelleher was also hungry to make his own. As a screenwriter, he penned some deeply weird exploitation scripts that are reviled or adored depending on who you ask. One of his better known films, Invasion of the Blood Farmers, follows a bunch of cannibals as they plant humans on their farm to harvest their blood. It’s the type of grimy low-budget fare that played regularly on the Great White Way back when it was more of a Seedy Gray Road, but it also predicted the content of more than a few 80s slashers.
Kelleher’s movies were wild affairs complete with incomprehensible plots, whacky physical hijinks, and bizarre camera and editing choices. Critics called his films everything from “barely coherent, but rarely dull” to “deliriously insane.” So it’s kind of surprising that his novel Madonna is pretty tame.
Madonna comes out of the gate hot with a prologue that treats us to an axe murder, a 19th century satanic orgy, and an office shooting in quick sucession. It’s taut, raw, and fast, blasting the senses in a way that’s clearly intentional and very good. And while things settle down in the first chapter, Kelleher and Vidal never lose the thread as they make their way through the next 380 pages.
The story proper follows Richard, a thirtysomething teacher whose fate is sealed one night when he catches a glimpse of a beautiful woman standing in the rain. At first he’s just curious about her, but after just a couple of weeks his new obsession has him yelling at his sister and tossing his girlfriend across the room. Something is making him change, but not even Richard knows what.
It doesn’t take long for things to escalate, and soon people around good old Richard are dying from the type of freak accidents only seen in 80s media. Probably the best example of this type of death comes when Richard’s health food-loving girlfriend gets her fingers chopped off in her food processor before the blade dislodges and slices her throat. That’s what you get for being a yuppie foodie, I guess.
The big issue with the book is Kelleher and Vidal’s commitment to realism. Once Richard’s girlfriend dies, there is a natural urge for events to start speeding up, compounding on each other until the story slams into its climax. Instead, the book veers in a more realistic direction, with the characters trying to find logical explanations for Richard’s behavior while simultaneously learning more about an ancient cult that maybe isn’t so ancient.
You can almost feel the book straining against its constraints. With a big supernatural mystery at play, the story wants so badly to take a few logic leaps and get to the good stuff. Richard’s Jesuit priest cousin is introduced, but instead of arming him with satanic cult knowledge, Kelleher and Vidal send him on a methodical research mission that lasts for most of the book. The Woman finally appears at RIchard’s house, but the story cuts away when they finally consummate their flirtation.
It’s a supply and demand issue, really. Even with multiple deaths, there’s a lot more promised than is actually delivered.
Despite its shortcomings, Kelleher and Vidal still make sure to deliver some disturbing imagery just in the nick of time. There’s a particularly chilling moment at Richard’s workplace, a school for the blind. At this point, he’s thoroughly under the spell of The Woman and is compelled to bring a gun with him to work where he aims it at the head of one of his students.
“They have no idea of my power. All I have to do is aim this little baby at any one of them, squeeze off a round, and I can splatter a head all over the wall.”
It’s good, disturbing stuff, and each instance is so perfectly timed that the book flies by despite it’s slower scene pace.
So why is Madonna such a slow burn compared to Kelleher’s screenplays? I’m not sure we’ll ever know. Perhaps his writing partner, Hariette Vidal, prefered the approach—although she’s partially responsible for some bonkers screenplays of her own, so *emoji shrug*. Maybe they thought fiction deserved a more grounded approach. Perhaps they knew they’d sell to a wider audience if they balanced the gore with mystery. Or maybe, this was just the story they wanted to tell.
No matter the reason, Madonna turned out to be a fun little journey that acts as a good gateway drug for readers new to sexy satanic horror. But just make sure you properly vet whomever you give it to. When they stab that sharpened crucifix through the breast of an orgasming she-demon, Grandma might just drop her dentures.
Haven’t gotten your fill of sex demons? Edward Lee’s got you covered with Incubi.