Dennis Fowler – The Ladies of Holderness (1976)

Review by Justin Tate

Carol wanted to cry, but couldn’t. She was going to be slaughtered like a helpless animal, butchered and drained for their demonic rites, and then cremated and scattered over the potatoes.

Indeed, Carol gets herself into quite the pickle (or potato) when she takes up a housekeeping job at the mysterious Holderness Farm. Orphaned and penniless after escaping a manipulative relationship, she doesn’t question the peculiarity of being hired by a household of thirteen elderly women. They don’t ask for references or prior experience. It’s as if they’re only interested in her youthful vitality…

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Marjorie Bowen – The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories (1949)

Review by Justin Tate

A “major influence” to Graham Greene and described as a “superb writer” by the New Yorker, Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952) might be one of the most popular authors you’ve never heard of. Her extensive bibliography is an endless list of novels and short stories, mostly within the romance and horror genres, but also includes history and biography.

In 1949, near the end of her life, she gathered a humble collection of her favorite eerie tales and had them published as The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories. Now newly reprinted under the “Monster She Wrote” banner, celebrating women writers of the macabre, Bowen’s words find a new generation of enthralled readers. Here’s my review of each story:

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Dean Marney – The Christmas Tree That Ate My Mother (1992)

Review by Justin Tate

After a Jack-O’-Lantern ate Lizzie’s brother and a Turkey gobbled up Dad, I was ready for Mom to get her turn. Mom is clearly the most antagonistic character in this series. She’s constantly on Lizzie’s case and siding with the brother nearly 100% of the time. More clinically, she may even be a source of mental abuse for the way she belittles her daughter and seemingly makes up mistakes for the pleasure of punishing her. Of course, we are reading the story from Lizzie’s point of view, which is almost certainly skewed to portray her as the victim.

In any case, I wondered if this book would go darker than the others. Might Mom get roughed up a bit? Symbolically taught a lesson for all the unfair groundings? (These desires probably stem from the troubled relationship I have with my own mother).

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John Harrison – Hip Pocket Sleaze (2011)

Review by Justin Tate

Pulp paperbacks were the wild wild west of publishing. I’ll never tire of learning about these books, authors, cover artists, and the barrage of taboo subjects explored during this time of sexual awakening in American history. It was a time that tested the limits of free speech, with many publishers having to defend their books all the way up to the Supreme Court. These books also became an outlet of self-expression to marginalized communities. For better and for worse, admittedly.

I believe the literary quality of pulp fiction is higher than most would expect, but that’s not to say there aren’t clunkers in the mix. For every pretty good book, you have to sift through ten that are terrible. There’s something visceral, deeply subconscious, and a little terrifying about even the worst-written pulps though.

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Dean Marney – The Turkey That Ate My Father (1995)

Review by Justin Tate

This Thanksgiving the turkey bites back! In the same universe as  The Jack-O’-Lantern That Ate My Brother, Elizabeth is once again faced with a holiday foe. She doesn’t remember her prior supernatural adventures, but something tells her these strange events are linked to a mysterious man named Ralph.

It all starts with a bizarre advertisement for a giant paper turkey. The cost is free and the delivery is free. Just call this number and speak to Ralph. Of course the kids place an order! What could go wrong?

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Sarah Nichols – The Very Dead of Winter (1974)

Review by Justin Tate

When an orphaned heiress suffers a difficult breakup with an older man, she checks herself into a remote group therapy lodge near a mountainous ski resort. The lodge is peopled with psychologists and fellow patients. Rather than feel better about her distress, however, Hallie is thrust into a series of fearful encounters.

Nocturnal visitors enter her bedroom unannounced and strange sounds are heard among the wintry wilderness. She feels perpetually drowsy, faint and forgetful. Have drugs been mixed into her wine? Did someone swap her aspirin with hard sedatives? Is she just paranoid, or is everyone out to get her? After several near-death experiences which are far too calculated to be mere accidents, Hallie pieces together the sinister plot unfurling around her. But can she escape before it’s too late?

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Rhoda Temple – A Heart for Santa (1945)

Review by Justin Tate

It’s February, 1945, a tumultuous month in WWII history. The USAAF drops more than 2,000 tons of bombs on Berlin. Ecuador declares war on Japan. German submarine U-989 is sunk by British warships. Among many other bombings, many other battles, new alliances, new declarations of war. It’ll all be over by the end of the year but at this moment it seems like it could go on forever.

This is the backdrop for Gay Love Stories, a love pulp magazine designed to give readers a monthly dose of fiction light on conflict and heavy on romance. Certainly A Heart for Santa fits that bill.

After returning from a stint in the South Pacific, Terry discovers that his girlfriend has taken his job as top editor for the local paper. Worse than that, she’s doing a better job than him! With a bruised ego, he lashes out. She’s devastated by his cruelty and returns his ring. It seems their love is doomed. Clearly the sexual tension is still there, though…

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Anonymous – He Took Me To A Frozen Hell (1955)

Review by Justin Tate

Personal Romances, and other “confession” magazines, were particularly popular in the 1940s and ’50s. They featured anonymously-authored fiction, non-fiction, and fiction posing as non-fiction. Usually the stories dealt with taboo subjects. Like going to a priest to confess sins, the idea of a “confession” story is to write about dark secrets that could never be shared openly. Common topics include sex out of wedlock, abortion, sexual affairs, kinky sexual desire, swinging, divorce…anything controversial, but especially anything to do with sex.

Long dismissed as trash, it’s easier to admire these publications now. In a highly suppressed world where women had few outlets to express their terror, rage and frustration with societal injustices, the confession mag became that secret place for women readers and writers to bare all. Honestly, I’m surprised they haven’t made a comeback yet.

He Took Me To A Frozen Hell, a “novel” from this January, 1955, issue is an anti-Christmas Christmas story about a young bride who’s miserable after her husband moved her from sunny Florida to treacherous Alaska. While he is away from home as the pilot for a puddle jumper, she faces the williwaw winds and subzero temperatures alone. Alone except for generous bottles of liquor…

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Peggy Dern – Christmas Witch (1949)

Review by Justin Tate

From the depths of pulp romance fiction is Christmas Witch. It tells the charming story of Chloe, a spoiled brat who dismisses Christmas as a “racket” where you “spend a lot of money you can’t afford to buy a lot of crazy gadgets nobody wants.” And the spirit of the season? Well, “Where are you going to find men of goodwill nowadays?” But her worst insult is simply that Christmas “bores” her. She’d rather spend the holiday with her friends on a yacht to Rio.

Enter Scott Kelvin, the handsome young doctor who puts Chloe “Christmas witch” in her place. With a harsh word and a firm kiss on the mouth, Chloe is stunned into disbelief. She swears to never have anything to do with that abominable man again. That is until she runs him down the next morning in her roadster. Indebted by her near-fatal accident, she agrees to put on the Christmas presentation Dr. Kelvin had planned for the poor before being hospitalized. She even agrees to get whatever presents the children ask for—no matter how difficult to acquire: “Anything short of atom bombs and bowie-knives, they shall have.”

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Dean Marney – The Jack-O’-Lantern That Ate My Brother (1994)

Review by Justin Tate

Bizarre kid horror that I somehow missed in the ’90s. Love that there’s a whole series of books where holiday icons eat family members. Up next are titles like The Turkey That Ate My Father and The Christmas Tree That Ate My Mother.

One might expect a wacky story about a killer pumpkin on the loose, but in actuality it’s more bonkers than that.

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