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You didn’t get between my grandmother and her stories. That was the first relationship I learned to respect as a child: when The Guiding Light came on, I could be on fire, floundering in a pool of my own boiling blood, screaming for someone to put a bullet in my head so the pain would stop, and she wouldn’t notice until her story was over. Soap Operas? Respect.
But today, even though soap operas are dying (with only 4 left on the air, as opposed to 15 in 1981), the idea of a slasher taking place in the world of daytime dramas is still a strange one. After all, despite Dark Shadows, horror really doesn’t have a place in the brightly-lit, soft focus fantasyland of the soap opera. The world of soaps is a place of weddings and baptisms, where long lost twins are reunited, and people are buried alive, where characters are possessed by demons, get abducted by UFOs, discover lost underground cities, take over the Earth with weather machines, get stalked by serial killers, murdered by carnation-dropping serial killers, turn into werewolves, mauled by tigers, get massacred at coronations… okay, okay, soap operas are basically horror movies. And all Judi Miller’s 1988 horror novel, Phantom of the Soap Opera does is take that very literally.
Judi Miller, author of Hush Little Baby, Save the Last Dance for Me, and A Vampire Named Murray, has delivered a slasher that follows all the rules of the soap opera, and sports the same made-for-television aesthetic. Set in a soap opera-fixated New York that feels like it’s been designed by someone who never left Kansas City, Phantom of the Soap Opera is dripping in late-Eighties daytime television glamour. People drink strawberry margaritas at business meetings and have power lunches at the Russian Tea Room. They order “the latest Thai delicacies” from the take-out shop, and television directors unbutton their shirts to their belly buttons and drape themselves in gold chains. Wedding cakes are six feet tall, the best goodbye gift you can give your ballet teacher is a dramatic black cape, and if you’ve made it to the top you probably have a heart shaped bed.
The cast of characters, sporting soap operatic names like Melanie Manners and Brian Forbes II (as one character observes, “They all have names like April, Melody, Dawn…they couldn’t have been born that way”), are getting slaughtered by a mysterious killer nicknamed The Phantom of the Soap Opera. Only instead of micromanaging their careers and poling them along underground rivers in his pleasure barge, this Phantom just stabs them to death with a screwdriver. Detective Theresa Morrison is on the case but, as the body count grows, she and her 100-detective-strong task force can’t seem to crack it. There just aren’t any clues except a security guard who saw the killer, a guest book bearing the killer’s signature, three handwritten notes left at the scenes of the crime by the killer offering acting advice from Boleslavsky (the great acting teacher), and four victims who all knew the killer intimately and let him/her into their homes. It’s a dead end! All they can do is place Det. Morrison undercover to go on shopping sprees with the next likely victim, Deirdra Miles and wait for the madman to strike again.
The killings all revolve around the character of Heather on All My Days who is slated to marry her sweetheart in a wedding that, we’re told every time it’s mentioned, “will be the biggest event in the history of daytime television.” The first actress murdered is Kristi Marlowe, who plays Heather. Then, every single actress up to replace her is killed until only Deirdra is left — thus, by process of elimination, Det. Morrison knows that Deirdra is probably the next victim. Detective Morrison remembers the Son of Sam and swears that “There wouldn’t be murder number four…not again. Not soap opera stars this time.” See, these killings are even worse than if the victims were normal people because this time the victims are soap stars. “God damn this killer,” Morrison rages. “There shouldn’t have been another young star murdered like this!” And yet, the detective is dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and a husband who doesn’t understand her even though he’s a cop, too (“You were the one who wanted a baby!” “And I’m going to have one!” “C’mon, listen to reason, it’s not natural.” “I have a job to do. I’m a detective.”) so her hands are full. So full that when Deirdra develops a valium addiction in six pages (“Who can blame you for wanting to gobble them up like M&Ms, dear?”), Morrison has to tough love her on the day of the live broadcast of the most historic wedding in the history of daytime television by shouting, “You’re on drugs, kiddo!”
Fortunately, Deirdra’s rampaging valium addiction is overshadowed by the appearance of the Phantom of the Soap Opera who turns up at the live broadcast with a gun and turns to be the editor of Soap Opera Digest who was abandoned by his mother in an orphanage as a young boy where he became a crossdresser. At the moment of his greatest trauma, he saw a handyman using a screwdriver, which is lucky, because with this kind of DIY psychopath he could have seen someone eating a bowl of chili and then that would have become his murder weapon of choice. There’s a hostage situation and a stand-off at the live broadcast that Det. Morrison can only resolve by accepting her impending motherhood, and then the Phantom of the Soap Opera is shot to death and everyone goes off and lives happily ever after.
Like a mid-Eighties soap, people repeat themselves over and over again in this book, and every time they appear in its pages their (often hideous) outfits are described in meticulous detail (“She was wearing loose, baggy pants and a longish tartan plaid skirt, belted, and bright orange socks and silver sneakers.”). There are multiple red herrings (you would think it unlikely that a popular soap opera cast includes two individuals abandoned by their mothers at orphanages who have long internal monologues about wanting to kill mommy, but you’d be wrong), and ultimately this feels like so much like a soap opera itself you’re surprised when the killer dies and his victims actually stay dead and aren’t revealed to have been whisked away on magic flying coffin rides from their graves and currently imprisoned on the island of Melaswen just waiting for the season finale’.
Grady 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, just came out this past Tuesday. It’s basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.