The Horror of Fitness Fads: The Glow

Welcome to Freaky Fridays, that magical day of the week when we put on our light blue Adidas track suits and go jogging! Then we come back home, pour a big glass of grapefruit juice and read a crunky old paperback from the Eighties.

In 1963, a small pamphlet was published in Oregon called The Jogger’s Manual. Sponsored by the National Bank of Portland and the Oregon Heart Foundation it told readers how to give this crazy new sport a whirl:

“Start with a short distance then increase as you improve. Jog until you are puffing, then walk until your breathing is normal again. Repeat until you have covered a mile or two, or three. Jogging…can be done ‘anywhere’ and by ‘anyone’ — male or female.”

With those words, a boom was born. In the Seventies, everyone jogged. Jim Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running sold over a million copies. Magazines like Runner’s World, Running, The Runner, and Running Times appeared. President Jimmy Carter put on unflattering workout shorts and jogged, even though he wasn’t very good at it. During the Seventies, 25 million Americans took up jogging. Did you really think no one would write a horror novel about it?

The Glow starts with a quote from Shakespeare and instead of having a prologue called “Prologue”, it’s called “Before.” So it’s not like this book is totally pretentious or anything. Main character, Jackie Lawrence, is just your typical buyer for “less expensive” dresses at Henri Bendel’s, who can cook a spaghetti sauce “as feisty as her temper”, and who was “the envy of her friends at school as soon as they were old enough to realize that some girls are prettier than others.” She’s married to a fabulous editor who believes in the power of literature to move the human soul, named Pete Lawrence. He’s got rugged good looks and they enjoy making love and saying things like “you nut” and “Ssh, you nut,” and “I love you, you nut.”

Pete decides to take up jogging in Central Park and Jackie goes with him and instantly my heart raced because Central Park is full of squirrels who would love to get their greedy little deathpaws on these nuts, but unfortunately they just do jogging until Pete gets his wallet stolen (by a black person, of course) and immediately is befriended by some old people who wear matching powder blue jogging suits and are jogging fanatics and invite him back to their pad to use the telephone and cancel his Diner’s Club card. It turns out that they live in a fabulous apartment on the Upper East Side and they are always looking for “young people” to move in and they have a vacancy because their last young people “moved to Tacoma” which is a convenient euphemism for “we ate their souls.”

Their building at 12 East 83rd Street is beautiful, with an indoor pool on the roof and a garden out back where we meet these middle-aged rich people grilling hormone-free organic steaks that are raised specially for them. One of them is a nutritionist who says things like “Gin is poison to the system” and another one wears a snood and they even have a black slave – er, I mean superintendent – named “Buddy” whose wife, Lil, cleans apartments and reports back on who has a secret liquor stash, and Buddy and Lil are “very much part of our family” which basically means these white people are creepy old racists. But the apartment is fabulous! High ceilings! Great view!

Jackie and Pete move in and things go Rosemary’s Baby only with more alfalfa casserole. Pete stops drinking, starts doing sit-ups before guests come over, and he gets angry when backsliding Jackie serves salmon mousse at a dinner. “All that cream,” he shouts. “What are you trying to do, sabotage me?” He uses the Nautilus machine on the roof and when Jackie drops out of group jogging for the third time in a row to make a beeline for Baskin-Robbins, the olds get their sexy niece, Allison, to come over. She wears a loose-fitting royal blue and gold warm-up suit all the time (“Actually, it’s become my uniform for any time of day.”) and she keeps asking Pete to feel how smooth her skin is. That only has to happen twice before Jackie has a good cry and commits to jogging.

Everything is fab, even though the building residents are constantly judging their restaurant choices. After they have Chinese, they get a note “Spicy is good. But MSG is not. Please eat wisely. We care for you.” and after going out for Italian they’re told, “Eating heavy Italian food is good for no one. Not even Italians.” Things come to a head when they decide to go on an eating tour of France with their old friends who just got pregnant. Within minutes, the husband of this couple has been beaten so badly he’s got brain damage. Then Jackie gets pregnant and within minutes she’s been pushed off her bike and the baby is dead. These people don’t want their baby! They want Jackie to run a six-minute mile! And they want to judge their groceries (“That meat is just packed full of destructive steroids and coloring agents”).

But these people are not just your average annoying New Yorkers. It turns out that the building residents who seem to be in their mid-50s are actually in their late 80s but they have learned a blood-swapping ritual from an Indian tribe in Belize. Now they lure young people to their house and wait until they have that “glow” from good exercise and healthy eating, then they swap their blood. Never ends well for the donor. Then again, everyone in this book is so smug and oblivious that even if these nuts were eaten alive by a swarm of rabid squirrels it would still feel like they got off too easy.

Speaking of smug, The Glow was written by one Brooks Stanwood, who is actually the pseudonym for Howard Kaminsky and Susan Stanwood Kaminsky. Susan was fiction editor for the Saturday Evening Post before becoming a senior editor at E.P. Dutton and Howard (who is Mel Brooks’s cousin) is the president and publisher of Warner Books. Before they wrote The Glow they lived in an Upper West Side apartment so large that the foyer contained their custom-built pool table: it was covered in orange felt instead of green. Those nuts. Avid joggers (they prefer to do their two miles each day in Riverside Park rather than common old Central Park), they wrote The Glow for fun while weekending at their 190-year-old country house in the Berkshires. They never fought once during its writing, although, as Mr. Kaminsky said in an interview, “Oh, there were a couple of fights after the book was done and we were in the flush of success…We didn’t know what to do with all the money.”

All what money? Well, supporting the theory that rich people with connections get all the good stuff, The Glow was serialized in Ladies Home Journal, became a selection of the Literary Guild and the Doubleday Book Club, was bought by McGraw-Hill for $140,000, the paperback rights were sold to Fawcett for $506,000, and the movie rights went for $150,000. “We’re thinking of buying another. house closer to the city,” Mr. Kaminsky said. “And some clothes, and some art.”

The golden couple went on to write The Seventh Child in 1981, a horror novel that managed to be even more tepid than The Glow despite its fabulous stepback cover art. But after that…nothing in the horror department, until The Glow reached its logical level as a made for TV movie in 2002, starring Portia de Rossi and shot in Toronto. Directed by Craig R. Baxley, the great exploitation director of the Nineties (Stone ColdI Come in PeaceAction Jackson) you can catch its truly bizarre trailer on YouTube.

One of the most blatant of the Rosemary’s Baby rip-offs, The Glow also makes its plot plagiarism personal. Apparently annoyed that she’d passed on picking up the serial rights for Rosemary’s Baby when she was editor at the Saturday Evening Post, Susan Stanwood Kaminsky fills her lukewarm book with little jabs at Ira Levin’s bestselling novel. There’s a great horror novel out there about the health and fitness fad of the Seventies and Eighties, but for now you’ll have to make do with Aerobicide, because The Glow isn’t it.

best-friends-exorcism-thumbnailGrady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.

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