Congratulations! You’ve survived seven more days on this planet and you deserve a Freaky Friday. So settle down with a cocktail and let me tell you about the latest book I read that smells like thrift stores and sadness.
Scared of growing old? Who isn’t! After all, aging marches implacably on, day after day, transforming us from sexy young things with skin like the buttery leather on a Michael Kors bag to angry werewolves with hair coming out our ears who clip coupons and vote Republican. Like death or taxes, or smug quotes by Benjamin Franklin, getting old is inevitable and it makes you want to kill someone. There’s even an entire industry pumping out anti-aging products, but deep down we all know that no matter how many ceramic crystals we inject into our faces, how many sheep placentas we rub onto our skin, how many times we collect our own blood and get it smeared all over ourselves by a trained professional, we’re all finally just going to be tipped into our coffins by our grandchildren who are sick of hearing us read “interesting articles” out loud.
But there’s one anti-aging plan that’s never been tried before, and I think it’s bound to work. It can’t be any harder than collecting bull semen for a facial, and you can read all about it in Al Dempsey’s Miss Finney Kills Now and Then.
Dateline, New Orleans. The Finney Mansion. Here, Miss Finney lives with her two nieces, Willa and Brook. Trapped in a wheelchair, older than dirt, Miss Finney is infinitely wealthy and infinitely cheap. She likes to regale her two young nieces with fun family stories about children who burned to death when their hair caught on fire or the distant uncle who was barbecued alive by his slaves. Fun! Willa is desperate to carve herself off a slice of her Auntie’s vast wealth. Right now, she and Brook live in poverty, entirely at the mercy of the old lady, and, as she moans, if Miss Finney died, “I’d have to go to Canada, there would be no money, it would be ended.”
Brook, on the other hand, only grew to adulthood because her mother’s “abortionist would not work on credit even for a steady customer.” She “fell in love and got married” but “she had no family guidance…she lived alone and was an easy mark for any disreputable man.” Well, as Miss Finney says, “She found one. The night they were married the vile man forced her to have sex with three of his friends.” Brook went insane, took a hunting knife and stabbed him to death. They put her in the “state nuthouse” where one of the guards raped her for years. When she was released, Miss Finney took her in despite the fact that “they thought you might also be some kind of sex maniac.”
In case you can’t tell, this book is coo-coo.
Willa has a plan. She and Brook take Auntie Finney to see a dwarf in a white suit named Carlos Ives who face is “full of malevolent power,” a tip-off in this kind of book that he’s probably a devil worshiper. His office is wallpapered in dark brown suede with a glass minimalist desk and wall-to-wall carpeting, making it either the most 80s sanctum sanctorum ever conceived or, as Miss Finney puts it, “a den of evil.” But Carlos Ives has a plan. The best youth-rejuvenating plan ever in contemporary fiction.
Carlos has come up with a scheme to steal old people’s money and he’s done years of research on this in Europe, India, Egypt, and the Orient so it pretty much has to be true. There’s this Zoroastrian sect that worships an evil force named Angra Mainyu that promises if you murder people you get the remaining years of their lives added to yours. But it’s a hoax, see? So Willa and Brook will pretend to murder people and then Auntie Finney will feel younger because Ives researched a psychological effect where if old people think someone committed murder “just the thought of doing such an evil thing tends to make them feel younger.” She’ll pay Brook and Willa, and they can run away and start new lives somewhere far away from nuthouses, wedding night rapists, and Canada.
Willa is all in, and when Brook expresses some doubts, Willa screams:
“Who do you think you are? Just who in the hell do you think you are, Miss Brook-Big-Shot? You better start thinking about that money. Without that money you get shipped back up to the state nuthouse. You want that?”
So Brook’s all in, too.
Unfortunately, like drinking your own urine to restore your skin to a healthier, younger look, this plan is terrible. Characters go off the rails, homeless people are hunted with bows and arrows, ghosts are humped, demons from Hell get their groove on, and a man pops over the garden wall to say, “Losing a friend or a pet is a bad thing. Let’s drop it. I don’t really care. I just wanted to say hi. My name is Raymond Oxford Brown the Third.”
Written in 1982 by Al Dempsey (who also co-wrote a series of spy novels — sample review, “This is undoubtedly the WORST book I’ve ever read. The author writes about Africa but obviously knows absolutely nothing about it. The plot, characters, and dialog are all incredibly STUPID.”) I would believe it if you told me Al Dempsey was actually John Waters. Pitched at a drag queen’s shriek, full of howled insults (“He was not a human being; he was filth, garbage, the feces of society!”), bizarre descriptors (“Brook could not answer. She had never received such an oral lashing”), and weird sex (“No others were emotionally equipped for the riotous fornication bestowed upon us”) the prose here is not just purple, it’s ultraviolet.
Dempsey seems to have only a passing familiarity with the way the world works (chauffeurs drive carriages, jazz clubs charge $50 covers) but that doesn’t keep him from wallowing in the most delicious kind of filth. Hobos sit in limousines and promptly pee the seats, women can taste the pus gathering in the abscessed teeth of the men who kiss them, and dried spittle is constantly flaking off chins. Then there are strange interludes where investigating detectives ponder the beauty and the wonder of American literary culture:
“He walked to one wall where shelves had been built and he noticed stacks — hundreds — of National Geographic magazines. He knew that the collection had to have considerable financial value; copies went back to the 1890’s. As a friendly gesture, he wiped some cobwebs away from the magazines. It made him feel as if he were helping preserve the treasure.”
Is Al Dempsey putting us all on? Scenes like the one where Brook wakes up from a near-rape to find her face covered in a thick, sticky substance that goes up her nose and gets in her eyes, only to discover it’s aged brandy, indicate yes. Then again, this is a book written by Al Dempsey, assisted by co-author Sidney Levine, and based on a screenplay by Joe Van Winkle and maybe they’d recently scored some really good cocaine?
Adding to the lunacy is the quality of the paperback which is full of misspellings (“irrevokable”) and wavering lines of typeset that occasionally print one word on top of the other, giving it the air of a book printed by hand in a basement on a press made of old tin cans and bits of dead cat, rather than coming from a respectable publisher like Tor.
All I can do when I encounter a book this wonderful is quote Brook:
“Oh, Willa. It is so…” sobbing interrupted her. “It is ssoooo…horrid.”
You said it, kid. Now get your butt back to the nuthouse.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his most recent novel is Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism (which is like Beaches meets The Exorcist) will be out from Quirk Books on May 17th.