It’s that time again! You made it through another week in your productivity cube. Time to relax and read about a book that wants to crawl into your ear and lay its eggs inside your brain.
Babies. Are they, as Whitney Houston suggested, the future? Or are they, as I’m suggesting, self-propelled puke machines out to destroy your sanity with their constant demands for food, boobs, dry diapers, and attention? Are they adorable little moppets who teach you a kind of love you never thought possible before you held them in your arms for the first time? Or are they Facebook-clogging monsters whose carefully-designed faces are engineered to render us incapable of dropping them down the well? Future doctors who shine a ray of light into the darkness of the world, or future YouTube commenters dragging their poopy butts over our nice furniture, new outfits, and white rugs?
For Ruby Jean Jensen, author of Such a Good Baby, the answer is easy.
Ruby Jean was born in Missouri and spent her life in Arkansas and she never saw something small and cute that didn’t scare the crap out of her. Vampire Child is about a vampire…who’s a child! Child of Satan House speaks for itself. Hear the Children Cry, Satan’s Sister, and Best Friends all feature children out to destroy their elders. Eventually, Ruby Jean’s perspective shifted and she became numb to small children committing heinous acts so she shifted her attention to their toys. Annabelle, Mama, Baby Doll, and Victoria all feature dolls bent on murder which, if you’ve ever spent any time around small dolls, feels about right. Her career follows a certain logic as her killers become smaller, cuter, and more helpless, until she finally arrives at the terminus with Such a Good Baby (1982) in which fear walks on chubby legs.
Most people remember Jensen as a kindly grandmotherly type, which seems to indicate that she’d like to pinch babies cheeks and tickle their tummies rather than write about them flying around and gouging out eyeballs, but who knows what lurks in the hearts of grandmothers? Jensen wrote compulsively, churning out gothics in the Seventies, then horror novels about children and their toys in the Eighties. Most of her horror novels were originally published by Zebra Books, a down market horror imprint best known for their lurid covers that got wackier and wackier until they inevitably went holographic (Ruby Jean was the proud recipient of their first all-hologram cover) but Such a Good Baby was her first horror novel and it came out from Tor.
A gothic farrago that constantly shivers beneath ominous skies, trembling under the onslaught of violent storms, Baby begins with…VIOLATION! Felicia Marchant, of the Jonesboro Marchants of Virginia, is a perky, bike-riding child of 14, headed home to the ancestral manse of Tanglewood one evening when she takes a shortcut through the woods. She’s been told and told and told by adults not to take the shortcut through the woods, and so she is instantly attacked by something horrid and inhuman that leaves her pregnant and asking herself hysterical questions that I imagine come in a rising shriek:
“She’s only a baby herself! How can this be happening to her? Where did she get this—this thing—this pregnancy, when she hasn’t even dated a boy. My God in heaven, she’s only fourteen years old! Where did this pregnancy come from?”
Reacting as any mother who lives in a remote mansion named Tanglewood would, Mildred Marchant isolates her daughter in the West Wing for nine months. Then, after two days and two nights of labor, Felicia delivers a lifeless sack of yuck that the local doctor informs them is “subnormal.” Nevertheless, this subnormal creep is a Marchant and that’s enough for Mildred to claim the child as her own and prepare for a lifetime of locking young Jeremy in the attic. But nobody locks baby in the attic! At first, Jeremy doesn’t open his eyes or move, then he simply stares at people silently like a moody teenager, unnerving their Irish maid, Celta to the point where she declares him evil. “Nonsense,” Mildred says. “He’s simply a lazy baby. Don’t let it worry you.”
It should worry them because this lazy baby has a secret…he’s going to kill them all! Q: How does a helpless baby who can barely hold his head up kill people? A: Puking.
“Suddenly copious vomit was there, spewing out onto her neck, running down the front of her dress, a slimy, reeking rotted liquid such as she had never seen. ‘My God,’ she cried softly under her breath’…”
Is this vomit natural? No: “She felt vague unease. His vomit had been too voluminous, and too putrid.”
And that first nurse is not the only one to bear the full force of Jeremy’s raging regurgitation.
“Her hair was hanging in wet strings around her face, with bits of white clinging like maggots. Her face was slimy horrible. This was the second time he had spit up on her…spit up? What an ineffectual expression for such a revolting mess.”
This book is knee-deep in barf, giving The Exorcist a run for its money in the puke department. Jeremy’s vomit (and occasionally his urine, but he’s really more of a barfy baby) is everywhere, dripping from the pages of this paperback, eventually becoming what the Germans would call a motif, “As she passed the cradle there was soft deep guttural laughter, as evil as a forbidden act, as vile as his vomit.”
Jeremy is also given to gouging out people’s eyes, clawing off their cheeks with his little sharp fingernails, and tearing out their hair. Why is this baby so evil? Possibly because he’s the spawn of Satan, but maybe because no one’s breastfeeding him. Felicia is forbidden by her mother from breastfeeding her baby, and nurses are constantly leaving bottles of warm formula propped against his face which seems to have been an accepted mothering technique circa 1982. Lethargic, only lurching into action whenever a rogue female breast swings within reach, reaching for it with puckering lips, Jeremy is dismissed as “probably mentally retarded” and “evil.” But maybe he just needs better mothering?
But it takes more than hot puke and sharp fingernails to destroy a family and so, at six months, when many babies develop the ability to roll over onto their stomachs and sleep for eight hours, Jeremy develops the ability to send a glowing, blue astral projection of himself flying around the state of Virginia. With a snake’s tail and clawed hands, this glowing blue baby eats the faces off a bunch of people, makes others drive off the road, and when Felicia is sent to boarding school he flies through the window of her dorm room and sexually molests her roommate until Felicia is expelled for being…*gasp*…a lesbian.
Every mother thinks her baby is perfect, but faced with a house full of dead people and a glowing, blue, flying, face-eating baby, Felicia must finally accept that maybe Jeremy has special needs. Unfortunately, her mother dealt with every single childcare challenge by locking her children in the attic, and that kind of “one size fits all” solution hasn’t exactly prepared Felicia to deal with the complexities of child rearing. But she’s a smart girl and so, even without the internet, she gets the idea of taking Jeremy and jumping into the river, killing them both. But not before a final puke-down.
“It came suddenly and unexpectedly, full in her face, spraying with such force that it stung and pierced her skin, covering her eyes and hair and running down between her breasts to wet her nightgown, curds and whey of milk so rotten they could have been centuries old…When she straightened the horror ran into her mouth, bitter and revolting…”
Ruby Jean Jensen never wrote a sequel to Such a Good Baby which seems a shame. If ever a book was designed to repeat on you, it’s this one.
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.