Ho, ho, ho! Don’t be sad, it’s that most wonderful time of the week when we delve into Santa’s bulging sack (of old paperbacks, you pervert) and pull out something ripe and delicious to stick our noses into together (that one was on purpose). It’s time for Freaky Fridays!
“You’d better watch out / You’d better not cry / You’d better not pout / I’m telling you why / Santa Claus is stabbing you in the face over and over and over again until you’re dead!” That’s the beautiful traditional Christmas carol my family sang when I was a child, and I sing it to my children today. And it’s also the wonderful song that runs through Jo Gibson’s Slay Bells, a 1994 Yuletide YA slasher written by Jo Gibson, a pen name for Joanne Fluke, beloved author of the Hannah Swensen baking mystery books—she’s whipped up 21 of these little beauties since 2001 with such scrumptious titles as Fudge Cupcake Murder, Red Velvet Cupcake Murder, and Christmas Caramel Murder. The Winston Salem Journal says, “Mm, mm, Fluke’s fans can’t wait for the next confection in the series to be served up.” Well, since she’s republishing her YA work written as Jo Gibson, there’s no need to wait. Just pick up Slay Bells for some Mm, mm, mmurder, along with mm, mmm, mmmmayhemmmm, and mm, mmm, mmmmmorons. All set in mm, mm, MMMmmmminesota.
Is there a more wonderful place to be than the Crossroads Mall just a few days before Christmas? The biggest shopping center in central Minnesota, conveniently located at the intersection of Highways Twelve and Fourteen, it’s giving away 300 cheap, Made in China stuffed frogs to the kiddies at its grand opening, and there’s a raffle where some lucky Lake Wobegon-lover can win matching his and her snowmobiles. With a beautiful restaurant on the upper level that “would become the place to go and be seen. There was no way the mall could fail.”
Not so fast, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. There’s a disgruntled employee working in the stock room and according to his fevered internal monologue, “The mall had ruined everything.” After grandma died, the evil Crossroads Corporation got beloved Gramps, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s, to sign over his farm and the Mall was built on the ashes of his ruined dreams. This employee transitions from disgruntled to homicidal when he hears “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” on the muzak and really listens to the lyrics for the first time. Why, he can simply murder everyone in the store and make it look like accidents, then people will stop shopping there, and all the big chains will move, and the mall will go bankrupt, and he can have his farm back. Thanks, Santa!
It’s a crazy plan, but apparently Minnesota is full of crazy people. As the only employer in the state, absolutely everyone who attends Prairie College works at the Crossroads Mall and they’re all out of their minds. There’s Sue Langer, head cheerleader, who makes all the students dress as elves and skip around the mall until they’re limping. There’s Cindy Swanson, who “had a personality that made all of her friends treat her like a live hand-grenade.” And her roommate, Diana, who skips around all day and “often laughed at herself” which sounds like the kind of nightmare that would make you scream if it skipped up behind you.
Diana is also obsessed with Hollywood celebrity Shane Winter who grew up next door to her and is back to sing at the mall’s grand opening. Diana has never gone on a date because “she hadn’t found one single date who even came close to measuring up to her memory of Shane,” which is pretty intense. Adding to the madness is Jay, the football quarterback, and his ex, Heather, who’s a terrible person because her dad owns the mall and she gets to be the Christmas Angel which means she sits on a gold velvet throne next to Santa. Shane Winters arrives to rehearse and Diana and Cindy quickly discover that (a) he lip syncs all his songs, (b) he gives his hotel room number to the local TV reporter, and (c) he has a brunette floozie with him in a floor-length mink. Diana’s dream is DEAD.
The cops show up to warn everyone about an approaching blizzard, but no one had time to put on their snow tires, so the kids give their cars to the people who really need to get home, leaving our eight main characters trapped at the mall for the duration. Shane Winter turns out to be “selfish and irresponsible” because he won’t give anyone a ride in his stretch limo, but this doesn’t surprise Diana who now hates him the way Kathy Bates hates James Caan’s ankles.
The kids eat bratwurst and get drunk at the Crossroads Pub, they watch terribly named fake movies at the multiplex (Show-Off starring Tom Cruise, Guts the new war flick starring Mel Gibson, and horror movie Fatal Vacation—no, not that Fatal Vacation), they steal clothes from Elaine’s Boutique and dress up to have fancy dinner at the Crossroads Bistro, even shooting a fashion show so they can use it as an ad for Elaine’s and keep the clothes. After Diana explains how a coffeemaker works to Jay (“There was an expression of awe on Jay’s face.”) he begins to pay her all kinds of compliments. Thank god she recently read an article on what to do when someone pays you a compliment, she reminds herself continuously.
Meanwhile, there are two big problems besides the blizzard. The psycho has put on a Santa suit, cut the phones and started leaving boxes under the big Christmas tree. When you open your box and find the lyrics to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” it’s mere hours before you die in an “accident.” Sue Langer is first to go, lured outside into the snow, her skull crushed by a heavy planter tipped off the second floor by Psycho Santa so that her brains “stained the pristine white snow with bright red poinsettia-colored splotches.” No one seems too bothered, though. In fact, within ten pages of Sue being wrapped up in blankets and ditched in the meat case of the grocery store, her pals are laughing and the TV station intern, Paul, who joined them, is filming their antics with his video camera to sell to his station. “We can call it The Snowbound Seven” he chuckles, forgetting that if it wasn’t for the planter “accident” it would have to be called The Easily Crushed Eight.
The other problem is Diana’s blushing. She blushes at compliments, she blushes at Jay’s warm smile, she blushes when she’s caught fantasizing about Shane Winter, she blushes when she’s discovered hugging Jay under the tree, she blushes when she’s called superstitious, she blushes when she has “intimate thoughts” in a public setting. She’s a volcanic fountain of blood, barely capped by her human face that keeps flashing from red to white like some kind of emotional ambulance siren.
On Day 2, Dave gets a wrapped box in his name, and when they all pile into the movie theater to make out, he gets electrocuted by the popcorn machine, wielded by Psycho Santa. “Get more blankets,” Jay tells the surviving boys and no sooner have they dumped the smoking corpse of their friend in the meat case with Sue, than Heather is making a play for Jay. Fortunately, Diana’s knowledge of voltage and kitchen wiring impresses Jay and soon he’s paying her compliments again. Thank god she read that article!
Day 3 arrives, and now it’s Larry who gets a wrapped package but he laughs it off, “It was pure coincidence that the other two people who’d opened similar packages had been killed.” Of course it was, you lunatic. At least they show the decency to avoid the movies since less than 24 hours earlier they found the charred corpse of their friend in the theater lobby. They opt for mournful bowling instead, where Heather reveals she’s a natural on the lanes and becomes everyone’s best friend. This time, after Santa stabs Larry to death with a shard of broken glass, the kids think it might not be an accident.
Hal can’t be the killer, Diana reasons, because “he was great when he described my outfit for the fashion tape.” Then again, he smiles “in that quiet way of his,” so my money is on Hal. By this point, the same Christmas tape has been looping on the muzak for three days and they have no way to shut it off. They’ve heard all the same songs day and night for 72 hours straight, so it’s no surprise when it turns out that Hal has snapped. Jay suggests one solution, “We’ll go round up some weapons. And then we’ll find everybody and pass them out.” The virtue of that plan is its simplicity. But Paul, the intern, waits for Hal to strike, then asks him questions and underneath the gaze of the video camera Hal airs his grievances and takes his eye off the ball, allowing his surviving friends to escape via matching his and her snowmobiles. At the last minute, Hal forgets one of his own booby traps and falls to his death.
Fortunately, Paul edits the footage into a 2-hour TV documentary about their ordeal called Slay Bells. The gang get together to watch, and hear Hal talk about why they all must die. Larry cheated in a fly fishing competition, Heather didn’t appreciate his Grandma’s strawberry jam enough, Diana stole apples from Gramps’s orchard, and David wasn’t very nice once to Grandma when he was on a date. That’s why he had to kill them all.
“Only a crazy person would do something like that,” Diana gasps, probably blushing furiously. Don’t be so quick to throw the c-word around, Diana. Because as we’ve learned from Slay Bells everyone in Minnesota is crazy and we need to nuke the entire state from orbit. After all, it’s the only way to be sure.
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, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.