Ho, ho, ho! I’m here to bring havoc to the holidays with my most recent foray into fearsomely frightening fiction. Spoilers are a plenty; you’ve been warned!
I was recently over on Will Errickson’s blog, Too Much Horror Fiction, where he was writing about trying to read Miss Finny Kills Now and Then. Reading it inspired a moment of self reflection that was eerily familiar:
“In all honesty Miss Finney is one of the special handful of pitiful horror novels I’ve attempted to read that make me despair: why am I, an adult grown-ass middle-aged man, reading, or trying to read, such shallow shitty pandering carelessly-produced garbage? Why do I do this to myself?”
The thing about Will that I respect is he has the good sense to stop when a book is just not worth continuing. After all, as horror novels will remind you, we have finite time on this planet. That time shouldn’t be wasted on I enjoyed books.
So then why did I power through this 204 page YA novel written in a similar style as a middle school book report that frequently threatened to induce mania?
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m addicted to literary pain.
Any book collector will tell you, some books are not for reading, and I knew that going into this, dear readers, and I did it anyway. And you want to know something else? I’m glad I did.
Slay Bells by Jo Gibson opens with a nameless POV character on his lunch break at the new mall, scheduled to open the next day. He’s upset because the land the mall was built on used to belong to his family. The mysterious POV character believes the developers swindled his grandparents out of the land, which lead to their heartbreak and death. Now he wants revenge. It’s time to punish the naughty who dared to wrong his sweet grandparents. He’ll make the mall look so bad no one will ever want to come there again!
Turns out he immediately gets his wish, as a massive snow storm rolls in, stranding a handful of college students in the mall. These students include our hero Diana, her best friend Cindy, Cindy’s brother Jay, and a handful of
fodder other students. As the students wait out the storm, the killer picks off his prey one by one.
So we have punishing wrong doers and we have a mall. It’s almost like this novel came out in the wake of such film classics as Silent Night, Deadly Night (where the baddie wanders around with zero facial expression grunting out “punish” before killing people) and Chopping Mall (where a bunch of teens get messed up by robots that look like evil K9).
From right off the bat Gibson sets up some interesting ideas that she doesn’t pay off. For example, while Diana and Jay are flirting under the mall’s giant Christmas tree, Jay wraps a piece of tinsel around his finger. Later in the scene, Diana is able to identify Jay inside a Santa suit because of the tinsel. This is a simple concept I figured would come back at the end of the book. Diana would be confronted by the killer, and she’d figure out who he is thanks to something identifiable on the killer’s hand/wrist/etc.
But no. Gibson is too busy writing scenes where her characters overreact to things like a soda machine working (the character squeals with delight while filling a cup with orange soda) and under-react to the deaths happening every six hours or so (just terrible accidents, of course).
The whole book felt like watching a bunch of people on too many mushrooms try to do things. At one point, Diana and Jay rule out the real killer as a suspect because he’s “nice” and he did a good job when filming a commercial for the mall.
The real killer is finally revealed, and he turns out to be one of the students who has been given zero character development in the main story. He wasn’t central in a single scene aside from his POV scenes.
Gibson’s characters are prone to behavior that would seem out of place in an insane asylum. If I had played a drinking game to every time male characters slipped their arms around female character’s shoulders to show their affection, I would have died before chapter 5.
So how do I know I’m addicted to pain? I still kinda liked it.
Sure, there’s a scene where a victim inexplicably believes the Santa suit-clad killer is a harmless animatronic robot that can stand, walk, and carry a conversation. But there are also a few lovely holiday horror images I enjoyed. For example, the victim first approaches the Santa after observing it waving at him from a storefront window in the distance — creepy.
While this reading experience was fraught with painful prose and irrational interactions, I can’t completely write it off. Gibson is really more of a cozy mystery writer (under her real name Joanne Fluke), so Slay Bells falls outside her field. She also has been known to make chocolate chip cookies for her readers, which is adorable.
I’ll also make an allowance knowing that this book was intended for young adults in the 90s, and it seems was possibly focused on female teen readers. This makes the over-the-top reactions and hyper focus on boy/girl interactions make sense even if they are painful.
Generosity is the spirit of the season, and I kept that in mind while reading this. After all, no matter the final quality of the book, Gibson did devote the time to writing a whole book — no small feat.
Slay Bells is a little book stuffed to the brim with nonsensical story, but if you’re in desperate need of holiday horror give it a shot.
But, you better not cry! I gave you fair warning.