(2020) Andrew Shaffer, Quirk, £9.99 / Can$20.99 / US$18.99, 213pp, ISBN 978-1-683-69205-8
Comedy horror. Out of work Lussi is desperate for employment. She ends up working for a publisher and though not a good fit she is tasked with finding the next horror superstar to rival Stephen King and Anne Rice. But she is targeted by mean-spirited pranks by her co-workers who don't want her there. Then she receives a strange gift from a secret Santa. Suddenly her co-workers start falling victim to a series of bizarre accidents…
Does anyone remember the 1980s? If you do you’ll remember that horror fiction was huge. There were the big hitters of King, Straub, McCammon, and Rice, with maybe Koontz thrown into the mix, as well as Anne Rice dominating the vampire scene. Careers were made, careers didn’t last, and in Secret Santa, horror editor Lussi Meyer desperately needs to kickstart her own career after being paid off from her last job. Her colleagues have all found work, but she hasn’t and after several failed job applications she has an interview at dusty old publishers, Blackwood-Patterson, who don’t do horror, and horrible old Mr. Blackwood makes it clear from the off that he has no intention of hiring her, until he has a heart attack and pleads with Lussi not to be left alone with…what? The old man is clearly terrified of something in his office. What is it? Could it be anything to do with the opening prologue set in (just) post war Germany, when 2 military policemen get drunk and leave their post to get a Christmas tree for the camp and go off wandering into the woods? But all they find is the body of an SS soldier without a face, and a box, which one of them opens and then…
Aha, that would be telling, but suffice to say that Lussi is given an editorial job at Blackwood-Patterson by the new owner, and a time limit to find the next big, best-selling horror novel. Except some of the staff are downright weird, while the other editors are hostile of this newcomer in their midst. Lussi seems to be the target for some nasty practical jokes, and things get a whole lot darker when she, surprisingly, gets included in the firm’s Secret Santa, but she doesn’t really want what is in the box. And then things start to get a whole lot darker.
Billed as comedy horror, part of the fun (and maybe the only fun) of reading Secret Santa is seeing the references to horror writers of the 1980s who are selling by the shedload for other publishers. Stephen King obviously gets a mention as do several other major horror writers of the time as well as those two young hotshots John Skipp and Craig Spector, or Rip and Spectre, as I used to call them. At not much over 200 pages and with a prologue and an epilogue and 39 chapters in between, the plot fairly rattles along. Yet, while it is engaging and amusing, it just isn’t that funny, or very horrific. It almost reads like a pastiche of 1980s horror novels, particularly of the witchcraft/haunted house variety, except by substituting a publishing house for a haunted one. Having said that, the epilogue is a killer, and very clever and did make me smile. If you want laughs and chills this probably isn’t the book for you, but if you want to read something from the days when horror was king then this just might fit the bill.
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