Welcome to Freaky Friday, that day of the week when the great political issues of our day are solved by out-of-print paperbacks from the Seventies and Eighties.
In his famous 2005 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank examined what are derisively called the “fly-over states” to see how they’ve changed America’s political calculus over the last 20 years. I’m no political scientist, but judging by what I’ve read in horror novels set in the Midwest, what’s changed is that everyone’s a depraved whore. I was born and live on the East Coast and my hair turns white at what people get up to in the Midwest, and before you start writing sharply-worded letters to Tor telling them I’m being judgmental, I’d like to direct your attention to Exhibit A in this Gallery of Shame: John Tigges’s Vessel—in which immortal witches kidnap young women, lock them in dark rooms, and make them constipated by feeding them “food you probably never ate too much of at home.”
What kind of food is served by these sadists? “Spinach, beans, cabbage, broccoli, peas…Oatmeal, almonds…and different tasting breads. Not the good old fashioned white stuff you get in a supermarket either.” As one of the girls says, “Sounds like this might be the room in Hell to punish people who never ate stuff that was good for them while they were on Earth.”
SOUNDS LIKE SOUTH DAKOTA MIGHT BE THE STATE IN HELL TO PUNISH PEOPLE WHO’VE NEVER BEEN WEST OF THE MISSISSIPPI!!!!! Welcome to this edition of Freaky Friday where we ask: What the hell is the matter with the Midwest???
The most obvious thing that’s wrong with Sioux Falls, South Dakota is that it’s home to the ridiculously named Elizabeth Browne Nargella, the modern identity of famous 17th century serial killer, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who cruises the highways and byways of South Dakota in her stretch limo with tinted windows, abducting young female hitchhikers, imprisoning them in her cellar, and slowly draining them of their blood which she bathes in to keep young. She’s responsible for the disappearances of 600 girls in 11 years, so also maybe lax law enforcement is part of the problem, too.
Thorko, an ancient sorcerer, taught Countess Bathory the secret of blood-bathing back in ye olde tymes, and she’s shared it not because she’s nice but to staff up with immortal servants also from ye olde tymes: Aleigha Moraine, in charge of blood-draining, Aleigha’s lesbian lover, Ida Chewell (whose “function in the household was to furnish as much erotic pleasure for her mistress as she was able to produce”), and Edward, the chauffeur, a psychotic heroin junkie. Sort of like the Bad News Bears of immortal blood drainers — hardly the A team, but they’ve got a lot of heart. The Countess takes long hot showers, bathes in fresh blood, and laughs her head off at late night infomercials for anti-aging cream, but staffing is definitely her Achilles heel. Especially after Ida subs in on blood draining duty one day when Aleigha is indisposed. The three hundred year old horndog engages in a little lesbian horseplay with her bound victim who gags at another woman’s touch, like a good American should, causing Ida to bite the girl’s nose and breast off, then masturbate herself into unconsciousness. She also accidentally leaves a knife in the prison cells but figures the captive girls won’t find it because it’s really dark down there, so like I said, staffing is a real weakness here.
Thorko also has a weakness. He shows up mid-book to rant about how “I, Thorko, am master of his planet” and how he’s so wonderful because he’s got a plan to take over the world one day. When Countess Bathory asks him if he could take it over today he gets all bashful, “Of course I could,” he hems and haws. “But I need a bit more time.” He’s not going to get it because there’s one thing Thorko fears that the Midwest is full of and I don’t mean white bread or constipated hitchhikers: electric lights. Whenever they’re turned on he jumps like someone just shoved a hot poker up his butt. “Electricity is the one thing I have been unable to control,” he explains, blushing and patting down his hair. “The lights were unexpected.”
You would think that with their mutual interest in immortality, blood draining, and vague Satanic plans to take over the world, Thorko and Countess Bathory would be an item but “She worshipped Thorko’s power — not his penis.” So add “Lack of Penis Worship” to the list of the Midwest’s ills. While you’re at it, add women. As Thorko muses, “Could I but change your natures, I would, but not unlike electricity, no one understands woman and her moods or her different natures.” Which manages to be amusing, awkwardly phrased, and sexist simultaneously. Who says Thorko isn’t the master our planet deserves?
Yet there is a tiny flaw in his planning: lesbians! Thorko is so disgusted by the love that Ida (called Ilona Joo back in the 1600’s) and Aleigha (unfortunately named Szentes way back when) have for each other that he loses his temper and the commotion makes everyone forget that Ida and Aleigha not only left that knife down in the cells, they also forgot to lock the cages. For want of a nail, etc. Suddenly, everyone’s flattened by a stampede of 12 naked girls, ranging in age from 12 to 19, who come storming out of the basement and into the front yard, right into the arms of some tough cops on a stake-out who exclaim, “Girls! Naked girls! Coming out of the mansion!” The cops deliver a sharply worded reprimand to the captives (“What’s the idea of running around like the day you were born?”) because this is South Dakota after all, but they’re no dummies. When Ida and Aleigha claim this gaggle of naked teenagers are escapees from their totally legit institution for disturbed girls the cops proclaim that NO ONE runs home for naked girls in Sioux Falls, and they clap the immortal lesbian troublemakers in cuffs.
Countess Bathory and Thorko are made of tougher stuff, however, and they lead the police on a high speed chase in their limo, driven by Edward, who is so addled on heroin that he gets the brake and the accelerator mixed up and drives them into a high voltage pylon which collapses and drapes the limo in live wires sparking electricity, the one thing (besides women) that Thorko cannot control. “Electricity. I…I don’t know it. I…I can’t control it,” he screams and he and Countess Bathory fry to charcoal. The girls are free but at what cost? South Dakota has lost nine minutes of time! Of course, being South Dakota, nothing much happened during those nine minutes so it all turned out okay.
When you look at the challenges South Dakota and the entire Midwest face, it’s hard not to admire the courage of its people. Immortal serial killers hungry for blood. Naked girls running out of mansions. Nose-biting, thin-skinned lesbians. Abducted hitchhikers. Constipation. Thorko. What’s wrong with the Midwest? Sorry, they’re a little busy fighting off immortal serial killers abducting their children in stretch limos with tinted windows and bathing in their blood. They’ll get back to you once this ancient curse from beyond the grave is finished. It’s not even funny. As the author, John Tigges, writes in his afterword, “My books are more frightening because they’re based on true events and real people…” And that’s the most chilling fact of all.
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.