Robert Devereaux – Santa Steps Out (1998)

Review by Justin Tate

The most salacious story ever told. Easily one of my favorite horror novels of all time—holiday themed or otherwise. Just as fascinating, the backstory on how such delightful filth finally got published…

It’s spring, 1998. The world is obsessed with Titanic, discovering the Internet through AOL, rocking out to bubblegum boy bands, enjoying newly-FDA approved Viagra, and learning a lot about sex in the oral office—I mean, oval office. It also happens to be the year that fledgling writer Robert Devereaux finally publishes his landmark novel Santa Steps Out.

Since penning the first draft ten years earlier many industry experts claimed to love it, but never to the extreme of publication. Pat LoBrutto, a highly successful agent, went so far as to say he wanted to tell his grandchildren he edited the “odd little Santa novel.” Pat pushed the book at Tor, where it seemed like a Christmas miracle was finally going to happen. Devereaux made thousands of revisions per their request. But once again, when it came down to it, nobody dared print a festive novel filled with North Pole orgies and holiday horror.

Then, at last, someone does. It’s Dark Highway Press. A small, low-key publisher, but by now Devereaux is willing to take anything. There’s not much for publicity. Peter Straub digs the premise, but is “too busy” to write a blurb. The publication is limited to 1,000 copies, each numbered, beautifully illustrated and hand signed by the author. An exciting day for Devereaux, no doubt, but far from the big career break he hoped for.

And yet—it’s enough. An underground fanbase forms. “Have you read this?!” horror hounds said. “It’s hella fucked up, but also like, really good.”

The enthusiasm eventually leads to a paperback deal. And with the new millennium, Devereaux’s nymphomaniac Santa book is scattered across our nation’s grocery stores.

1st edition

It doesn’t take long for someone to be offended. An Ohio man who bought his copy from Kroger is so scandalized he takes his rage to television. The local news runs a whole segment on the man’s uproar. Half the perverted things he accuses the book of featuring aren’t even true. Which is weird, because there’s plenty of actual perverted things to mention.

Surprisingly, it’s an isolated incident. It seems only Ohioans are up in arms. Still, the bad press is enough for Kroger to pull the title from all stores. It’s a sad day for Santa, and Devereaux is pissed by the mis-characterization of his book. There’s some solace, however. Approximately 70% of inventory sold before the great censorship and the mass market release brings a new swell of urban legend.

“Have you read Santa Steps Out? I heard Santa screws the Tooth Fairy.”
“What? No way.”
“Yeah, dude. I know someone who read it.”

Sadly, no longer welcome on store shelves, the book goes out of print. At this point it might have disappeared completely except readers keep talking about it and finding copies through third party sales on fancy new websites like eBay and Amazon.

As for me, I first hear about it in 2003. I want to read it then because a freaky Santa book sounds awesome. I’m 14, though, and even $1 used copies are expensive when you add shipping.

In retrospect, I’m very, very, very glad I waited. Even by today’s desensitized standards, this book will make your eyes bug out and question the purity of everyone you hold dear. I can’t imagine what teenage me might have thought.

Around 2015, I finally find a copy. It’s gently used and smells faintly of cigarettes. I don’t read it right away, though. Like an Elf on the Shelf, it sits. Year after year, beckoning. I don’t put it off intentionally. There’s just too much to read and too little time.

This year, though, I find time. And oh-ho-ho, what a time it is. Whatever rumor you’ve heard, if you’ve heard anything at all, know that this book is juicier than you can ever imagine. Never have I been so obsessed so quickly. Halfway through Chapter 1, it’s clear this is something visionary. Something utterly unique, totally bizarre, and also, better written than most classics.

Devereaux’s mastery is largely due to characterization. Though we’re dealing with holiday figures of lore, he breathes life into them so real it’s startling. They are Hallmark depictions intermingled with fully-explored dark sides. Despite my dwindling faith, this book actually made me believe in Santa Claus.

You will know people—real people—who remind you of this half-pagan Santa and his vengeful Mrs. Claus. You’ll recognize the turbulent Tooth Fairy from the real world, and, to a certain extent, even the abundantly grotesque Easter Bunny.

The plot, too, is noteworthy. It seems impossible that such absurdity can sustain itself for hundreds of pages, but instead of going flat it just gets better and better. And—dare I say—more artistic.

After many bizarre sexcapades, Santa becomes a political figure and important topics emerge. The novel draws back the curtain, for example, on the perversions that arise with power, the complexities of navigating public image, and the earthly challenge of monogamy. It’s the only schlock novel I can think of that also makes you feel wiser. For better or for worse is to be determined.

If I ever become important enough as an author that people ask me “What’s the one book you wish you wrote?” I can’t imagine answering anything other than Santa Steps Out.

Purely from a prose perspective, Devereaux’s language is a height of talent that any writer should aspire to be. But I most admire his undiluted commitment to premise. Less determined authors would have withered by the endless challenges this story creates. He must have known how difficult it would be to publish, how outlandish the plot comes across, how non-mainstream, and yet he stuck with it; devoted who-knows-how-many hours to revision, and didn’t give up. He believed it was worth it, and he was exceedingly correct.

If you aren’t easily offended and don’t mind having your wholesome image of holiday characters ruined, whatever you do, don’t miss Santa Steps Out.

Sources + Interesting History

Devereaux’s response to Ohio man’s outrage
Devereaux Interview (2014)
Article about Publication History

Also, in the new kindle edition, there’s an afterword by Robert Devereaux which discusses his publishing struggles and the variety of reactions to the novel.

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