Welcome to Freaky Fridays, that day of the week when you take off your business casual, put on some stonewashed jeans, a white blazer, an electric blue silk shirt, and a pair of Vuarnets. You pour yourself a big glass of tequila, put on “Smuggler’s Blues”, and do a lot of cocaine while reading an out-of-print paperback from the Eighties. Or, hey, even the Nineties. We’re not judging.
At the end of the Seventies and Eighties horror boom, Dell tasked editor Jeanne Cavelos with launching a paperback originals line. And so, in the early Nineties, Cavelos launched the Abyss line ,which set a high water mark for groundbreaking horror fiction from authors as diverse as Melanie Tem, Michael Blumlein, Kathe Koja, and Poppy Z. Brite. But for every experimental, avant garde novel like X,Y they published, they also published some jaw-dropping, head-scratching slabs of weirdness like The Orpheus Process—a book so weird and broken that you can only goggle at it in awe.
Nightlife is no Orpheus Process (what is?) because it’s actually a lot of fun and doesn’t make your eyeballs spin around in opposite directions when you try to read it. But still…
The first book from Abyss was Kathe Koja’s award-winning The Cipher, but published right afterwards in 1991 was Nightlife. And while The Cipher was a truly original take on horror conventions that saw a couple of bottom-feeder artsy kids discover an enigmatic void in their apartment building that swallowed anything, Nightlife was a cross between Crocodile Dundee and Miami Vice that asked the question, “What could make the adventures of Crocket and Tubbs better?” and came back with the answer, “A were-piranha and also a fish-out-of-water Yanomamö Indian nailing drug dealers to yachts with six-foot-long arrows.”
Because Abyss did things differently, there was no prologue. Instead, Nightlife began with a rumble in the jungle. The Yanomamö are portrayed as the Mötley Crüe of Southern Venezuela, enjoying nothing more than blasting bright green, hallucinogenic ebene powder up each other’s nostrils when they aren’t sawing off their wives’ ears for sleeping around or eating the corpses of their friends. “The Yanomamö believed that ferocity and avenging all trespasses was the key to living.” Just like Conan!
But now, a bunch of Colombian drug dealers have come to their jungle, stolen their ebene, and mutated it into a dangerous drug they’re exporting to America. It’s up to a feisty Irish priest named Angus Finnegan to lead the ferocious Yanomamö into battle against the drug-crazed Colombians in a threeway fight between ethnic stereotypes. The war of the six-foot-long Yanomamö arrows versus uzis seems to be going the Yanomamö’s way when a Colombian honks up a great, big green line of ebene and turns into a were-alligator that punctures Finnegan’s lungs and shreds his cheeks before a Yanomamö rubs its belly and puts it to sleep. Too late! The drug is in the air and on the way to America. Someone must go to the faraway land and dare to stop the madness!
Cut to, Justin Gray, a recreational dealer turned DEA-snitch who lost everything and is trying to start over again in Tampa, FL, staying with his best childhood buddy, Erik Webber, and his massive VHS collection. The two buddies watch Barfly while drinking Sol beers, then go to Apocalips, a fabulous nightclub with a wall of video monitors and INXS blasting on the sound system. Justin hits the john to score some coke from Tony Mendoza, the local dealer, but he gets cold feet when he sees what’s for sale: a gross green powder called Skullflush. Another customer isn’t so shy, and hoovers up a couple of big fat lines, turns into a were-jaguar, decapitates four people on the dance floor, then goes back to his office and hangs himself.
But the night wasn’t a total waste. Erik has recently opened a business taking boudoir photos of sexy ladies and one of his models catches Justin’s eye: April Kingston, whom he spots in one of Erik’s soft focus photos wearing an unbuttoned pair of jeans and a denim shirt. She’s the sexiest thing he’s ever seen in a Canadian tuxedo, and he’s equally smitten when he meets her in the flesh at Apocalips. Before the whole business with Trent the were-jaguar, that is.
April and Justin fall in love, even after Justin heads to the video rental store and finds the movie she starred in under the name April Rose, Corporate Head. Tagline: Hot Career Women Climb the Ladder of Suck-sess!!! With No Job Too BIG!!!” But even after transcending her porno past, their love is destined to travel a rocky road because Tony the drug dealer wants to get rid of all the witnesses to his Skullflush deal (don’t they always?) and he knows Justin saw what happened. He found out from Erik, but only after feeding Erik’s arm to his pet piranhas, who nibble it down to the bone while it’s still attached before Erik spills the beans. Good friendship! By the way, Erik is now dead. Tony hires a hitman named The Weatherman to take out Justin and April and the guy pretends to deliver a pizza to their apartment but it’s not a delicious pizza he’s dealing, it’s hot death. Suddenly a six-foot-long arrow is jutting out of The Weatherman’s chest! Arrow courtesy of Kerebawa, a member of the Yanomamö tribe sent to Tampa to get rid of all the Skullflush. Cue “Crockett’s Theme.”
From here on, Nightlife is a delirious early-Nineties action movie featuring car chases, AK-47 duels, and Kerebawa ninja-ing entire yachts full of drug dealers, taking down their guards with the old machete in the face trick (“It whacked dead center in the guard’s face with the sound of a melon being halved.”) before nailing their boss to his cabin door with arrows, then setting him on fire, so this scumbag can smell his own wiener being roasted. Rated TV-Mature. Come on, he deserved it. He was named Escobar, for God’s sake.
Tony rapidly realizes the transformative powers of Skullflush when he gives some to his girlfriend Sasha, who totters around in spike heels, wearing a leather miniskirt, fingerless black lace gloves, and an SS officer’s cap. He locates her in Masquerade:
“Masquerade was a dance rock club, part metal, part punk, all gloom. The predominant philosophy was nihilism, the predominant sartorial color black. Music at nuclear-holocaust sound levels. All these gothics and gloom rockers…[Sasha] had few reservations about professing to anybody who’d listen that death was just about the most romantically sensual thing she could conceive of.”
Then he gives her some Skullflush and locks her in a basement cell, which is the second most romantically sensual thing she could conceive of. She transforms into a blue-eyed, blond-furred Nordic she-wolf and Tony’s so impressed that he takes Skullflush and turns into his very own spirit animal, a were-piranha. Then he uses his fishy abilities to become king of the drug dealers. He’s so evil that it turns out he’s the one who tricked April into appearing in her porn film.
Coated in chrome and mirrors and black-and-white tile floors, where everyone’s blasting Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” on remote-control “ghetto blasters”, Nightlife is the kind of book where drug dealers lounge around totally nude except for their bikini undies, yelling at 12-year-old dealers to forget about their big math test and to get back to that junior high playground and sling some crack. Street lookouts carry butterfly knives and well-dressed gentlemen wear electric blue slacks with drawstrings. Tony himself is a pin-up of Nineties fashion with his slicked back ponytail, black mesh t-shirt, his “pants of many pockets”, and his shark tooth on a gold chain, traveling with a cadre of bodyguards in tight pastel muscle shirts.
In the Nineties, there was a direct-to-video production company called PM Entertainment. Specializing in high caliber, low budget, stuntastic, B-grade video fare, their movies were always full-blooded roars of macho mayhem, crammed with stunts, gunfights, blow dried hair, lots of squibs, and ridiculously hilarious plots. They only ever released movies, but if they had had a publishing arm, Nightlife would have fit right in. And I mean that as a completely sincere compliment.
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.