Thrift Store Finds: Black Christmas

Close up shot of an illustrated bloody ax covered in wrapping paper.

I’m back to ruin your yuletide cheer with another installment of Thrift Store Finds! That’s the thing where I pour paperback horror right into my eyes to see if I go blind. I still have my sight, but I have been growing some hair on my palms. Coincidence? 

It’s December 23rd and the good people of Murdoch no longer need to dream of a white Christmas after a massive snow storm rolls in and turns their town into a greeting card. But unfortunately for Murdoch, this Christmas card isn’t filled with good tidings, it’s filled with blood.

Someone has butchered a young woman out in Kelly’s Wood. And we’re not just talking about one good whack to the noggin, oh no. We’re looking at full-on, ax-wielding berserker mode. It’s a blessing the coroner could get her to the ambulance without a snow shovel.

Now it’s up to middle aged, depressed, chief of police Bud Dunsmore to bring the killer to justice.

Thus begins Thomas Altman’s holiday horror novel Black Christmas.

Paperback front cover of Thomas Altman's Black Christmas, with a red Christmas ornament reflecting a woman screaming running from an ax.
Actually spooky.

Before we go any further we better clear something up. This story is not that Black Christmas. That Black Christmas is the 1974 slasher film by Bob Clark featuring the mother of Christ and Lois Lane. That Black Christmas is about a bunch of college sorority sisters who are stalked by a creep who likes to make obscene phone calls and play with plastic wrap. This Black Christmas is about a bunch of young women who are stalked by a creep who likes to hack up women with sharp objects to the tune of thirteen whacks. 

Everybody got it? Good. Now back to the story.

The problem is that Dunsmore has no leads. Oh sure, the deceased’s boyfriend, Rick, who was meeting her in the woods to break up with her might have had cause. And it’s a bit suspicious that he was found hiding in the back seat of his mom’s car when the police came and picked him up. But after interrogating the kid for a while, Dunsmore is sure it wasn’t him because reasons. 

“Too obvious. Put yourself in the kid’s shoes. Do you go off the wall and into such an insane frenzy even if you want to kill your pregnant girlfriend?” 

Well, I mean, I would say most people don’t, but some people might, which would be reason enough to keep an eye on the kid, right? Guess not.

With the mayor breathing down his neck to find the killer, Dunsmore is going to be spending his eve of Christmas eve digging for leads out in the punishing cold. But first, a quick trip home to his daughter and loveless marriage wife.

You see, things aren’t great at home right now. Sure, Dunsmore’s daughter Nancy is the bee’s knees, but his wife Eleanor is another story. Cold and mocking, it’s almost as if she hates him. I’m sure the rumors that he’s been cheating on her for years have nothing to do with it.

And make no mistake he is cheating on her. His mistress is a divorcee named Alice who is just a few years older than Dunsmore’s daughter. He loves her because she has sex with him is nice to him, and she loves him because he’s dependable (?).

But there’s no time to think about Alice right now because Nancy’s friend Maryjo is missing.

Alternate cover for the horror novel Black Christmas. An ax wrapped in cheerful Santa-patterned wrapping paper drips with blood.
I don’t feel comfortable having the word “daddy” so close to Santa’s face.

Of course she’s not really missing, she’s dead. Stabbed thirteen times with a sharp blade in a gruesome little scene. “Again and again and again, making flaps of the skin, peeling it back from gristle making wide incisions form which her life just flowed out.”

Things aren’t looking too good for Dunsmore, that is until pervy former boxer Frank Tucker shows up with an ax. Apparently a mentally handicapped boy named Billy left it in his shed (hmmm). Why would Billy be carrying around a bloody ax? Is Tucker even telling the truth? Looks like the good ol’ police chief might have some leads after all.

But don’t get too excited everybody. Just when Dunsmore’s metaphorical stocking couldn’t be any more full of coal, Alice’s sadistic ex-husband appears in town, and he’s not happy about his former wife’s private activities. 

With three suspicious characters and a growing body count, can Dunsmore discover who is slashing their way through Murdoch’s female youth?

If you’ve been reading this series in its various forms over the years, you know I’ve encountered my fair share of weird stuff. So, you can imagine my surprise when I got to the end of this book and I hadn’t run into a single naked sex witch, unhinged ballet fan, or ancient god

Instead I found a rather sane little mystery/horror story. 

One of the biggest drags in paperback horror is the lengthy, unnecessary subplots that bloat what would be otherwise fine novels. There is none of that here. Sure, you get several POV characters, but every single scene advances the plot to the next phase, revealing new information with the regularity of an IV drip. It’s impressive, and says a lot about Altman as a writer. This is a man that plots and edits ruthlessly.

But it’s not just his sense of pacing, Altman descriptive voice well honed too, showing us the people, places, and events in Murdoch with clear and clever detail. Dunsmore’s secretary isn’t uptight, she has a face that “reminded him of a zipped up purse.” The nervous photographer who finds the first body doesn’t have buck teeth, instead his “strange, chinless face and protruding front teeth” give the man “the odd impression that he was somehow trying to bite into his own neck.”

This descriptive talent really sings when we get to the killing scenes. It’s suprising how many horror novels murder their victims off screen, cutting away just as the knife reaches its highest point. Not so with Altman. His scenes are graphic and methodical, with a sense of rhythm that places you directly into the victim’s experience. 

“The snow filled her mouth. It had a cold bitter taste. Blood. She was tasting her own blood. Jennifer’s blood.”

While I’ve given this book high praise, there is one little thing that kept me from truly falling in love. Black Christmas isn’t a lot of fun. Altman treats his story of yuletide terror with the gravity of a real-life event. Even so, I don’t fault him for this. In fact, I’d like to thank him.

I’ve had my ups and downs in my time reading and reviewing horror paperbacks, and in my weaker moments, I’ve even grown tired of basement-dwelling monsters, scarecrow-less scarecrow stories, and a never ending parade of psychics. But reading Black Christmas reminded me that for all the insanity, for all the bad writing, and for all the questionable plot holes, I really do love the weird, wild, and wacky in this oddball time in horror history.

So if you’re looking for something a little bit more grisly than Bing Crosby carols this holiday season, pick up a copy of Black Christmas and settle in for a long winter’s fright.

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