Welcome to your only source for the real news about the latest inventions and innovations in Science, the only field of study that destroys mankind on a regular basis. Broadcasting live from a collapsing tower constructed entirely of out-of-print paperbacks, this is Freaky Fridays.
Abyss was the hottest imprint in horror. Founded in the late Eighties, lasting into the early Nineties, Dell inexplicably decided to get into the horror paperback game even as the market tanked around them. Editor Jeanne Cavelos was given virtually free reign and she used Abyss to publish some of the most innovative horror fiction of those decades, issuing mind-melting, genre-redefining novels from Michael Blumlein, Poppy Z. Brite, Melanie Tem, and Kathe Koja. She also published The Orpheus Process.
Queen Elizabeth II called 1992 her “annus horribilis” which I’ve always interpreted to mean that she somehow read The Orpheus Process. The OP, is one of those books so over-the-top, so completely mental, so totally out to lunch that it never quite comes back from lunch even though you gave it $11 to bring you a soup and some breadsticks. It is the novelistic equivalent of going to the videostore to rent Gremlins and getting Boxer’s Omen instead.
The Orpheus Process is from 1992, which means that no matter what happens every single character is fully decked out in Zubaz, LA Gear, and wearing their clothes backwards like Kris Kross. To further get you into the Nineties mindset, here’s the edgy author bio from the inside back cover:
Daniel H. Gower lives on the outermost fringes of Cleveland, birthplace of rock n’roll. He has two black cats, Morphia and Morbius, and he has the same birthday as H.P. Lovecraft. The Orpheus Process is his first novel.
Immediately after opening the book, we learn what makes those who live on the outermost fringes of Cleveland different from those who live comfortably within the innermost fringes of Cleveland, because The OP begins with a page-long quote from Rimbaud. Still reeling, the reader is introduced to Dr. Orville Leonard Helmond, a family man who enjoys swatting his second wife, Janice, on the butt, loves his seven-year-old daughter, Eunice, without reservation because she’s so precocious, loves his son, Andy, sort of okay, and who is constantly navigating the tensions between his wife and Ally, his teenaged daughter from his first marriage. It doesn’t help that Ally is a total goth who wears ripped jeans, bright orange tube tops, listens to industrial music by Sisters of Mercy, has black velvet curtains in her bedroom, burns black candles, and strings chains all over her room, which is dominated by a crucified demon on a cross hanging over the bed. She sculpted it herself. Like I said, this jam is from the outermost fringes of Cleveland.
After breakfast, Dr. Orville Helmond heads to the lab, where we learn that (a) Sharon Bishop, his lab assistant, has “a borderline pretty face…though her figure was excellent”, (b) she also has a crush on Dr. Helmond (which seems to be par for the course, “He’d managed to love and lay quite a number of pretty women…Just lucky, he guessed.”), and (c) Dr. Helmond is terrible at science. He is, like almost every single scientist in horror novels, researching ways to bring the dead back to life. His secret recipe involves stabbing rhesus monkeys to death (or shooting them in the heart with a .22), then dunking them in purple glowing primordial soup. Today’s experimental subject is Lazarus the monkey who gets murdered, then resurrected, and seems fine. Lazarus seems so fine that Dr. Orville Helmond brings the zombie monkey home for his kids to have as a pet. Not content with being a terrible scientist, he’s also a terrible parent.
Just how terrible is revealed when Lazarus freaks out at Thanksgiving, eats the raw heart of the turkey and throws poop everywhere. Instead of disciplining him, Dr. Helmond figures that’s just what zombie monkeys do, and begs for more understanding. That leads to the pissy primate shedding its skin and becoming a flayed, skeletal mummy monster with a giant boner that attacks Janice with a hatchet. Fortunately, she has an electric carving knife and manages to set it on fire then run it over with her Camaro. This does not bode well because Dr. Helmond has also recently (and secretly) brought little cute Eunice back to life after a crazed Vietnam vet in McDonald’s (called Cream King here) machine gunned the place to rubble Halloween night and busted the adorable tot full of caps.
We march forward through chapters bearing the track titles of a lost black metal concept album — “The Loophole of God” “Breakfast of Crucifixions” “Child of Nightflowers” “Solution of Finality” — as Eunice undergoes necromorphosis and evolves into “hyper-alive supra-undead” which is just the 90’s X-treme version of “undead.” This involves the once-chubby-cheeked angel becoming disgusting and raising her very own army of reanimated “skinless death-formed creatures.” Meanwhile, Dr. Helmond is focusing on the important things, like having an affair with Sharon, his lab assistant:
“He knew it was wrong, but he also knew it was right. She wanted him, and he needed her, all of her, in every way, at that moment… Feverish animals they were, she starved for love, he famished for escape and distraction and absolution… Hell had thrown them together, so the least they could do was enjoy the heaven of each other’s body…”
Just in case you thought Dr. Helmond is starting to sound almost romantic, he also has some thoughts he’d like to share with you the next morning:
“What struck him most was how hungry her opening had been, so very warm and active and devouring… He wondered if she was one of those women who did exercises to build up her vaginal muscles? He hated to admit it, but his assistant was a better lover than his wife. Well, she was number two so she tried harder.”
At least he hated to admit it. Fortunately, supra-undead creepy hyper-alive Eunice is there to balance the scales in the most disgusting manner possible. First, she sends her reanimants to crawl up Sharon’s vagina and eat her from the inside out. Then she steals her own father’s semen, impregnates herself with it, and murders her brother, at which point, her mother, Janice, goes insane, gets put in a straitjacket, and sent off to a padded cell. There, she promptly gives birth to three slug creatures, touchingly referred to as “these misshapen refugees from a diseased womb.”
At this point, The OP becomes the touching father-daughter story it’s been yearning to be since page one, as Eunice keeps birthing reanimants that leap directly from her vagina onto her father’s face, and he keeps calling her “a fucking inhuman bitch”, while Ally, who has had two bad acid trips and is thus psychologically prepared for this new world of vagina monsters, saves the day when her hippie friends calling themselves “The Geek Patrol” show up in their van loaded down with guns and blow away the zombies laying siege to her house. And finally we arrive at the final chapter of the book, entitled “Deathwomb” which seems to sum up all the novel’s feelings about the miracle of birth and the existence of vaginas in one handy compound word.
While Ally and the Geek Patrol blast away at the squamous monsters birthed by her little sister, Dr. Helmond uses a ray projector to destroy not only Eunice’s soul (or, as he calls it, her “mortaplasm”) but he also destroys the baby monster version of himself that she gives birth to out of her “hungry sphincter” as she dies. The townspeople show up, angry that he’s unleashed all this murder, death, and general grossness on their town. “Look, folks,” he says. “It was an accident. You can’t have technological advancement without some measure of peril. That’s just the way things are.” They show their disagreement with his argument by descending on him in a mob and hacking him to pieces. Ally changes her name and goes into biology, hoping to one day rehabilitate her father’s name and vindicate his research.
Janice recovers her sanity and remarries a haberdasher.
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.