Welcome to Freaky Fridays, that magical day of the week when we turn to dusty old out-of-print paperbacks of the Seventies and Eighties to learn about the world around us.
Last week, we confronted the question “What’s the matter with the Midwest?” and learned that mostly it was an issue of both immortal, blood-drinking serial killers cruising around in stretch limos with their psychotic lesbian henchwomen, and constipation. But to be scientific about it, that told us what was the matter with Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and as we all know, unfortunately there’s more to the Midwest than a single town in a single state.
Believe it or not, that ominous region known as the Midwest covers twelve states, and all of them are problematic. Wisconsin was home to cannibals Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein; Illinois is where you can find the Seven Gates to Hell; Indiana hosted the murder of Sylvia Likens which spawned numerous books and movies; Iowa is infested with dragons; Minnesota is home to the infamous wood chipper murders; Ohio contained the haunted big box furniture store Orsk; North Dakota is stalked by pterodactyls; Charlie Starkweather hails from Nebraska; a Michigan crime inspired the horror movie Jeepers Creepers; Kansas hosted its own personal war; and Oklahoma? As you can see by the cover of Blood Sisters, it has an unusually high graduation rate for skeletons.
Starting with a prologue set in Baxter, Oklahoma, circa 1957, Blood Sisters introduces its sanguinary sibs at a funeral for their friend, Kathi. Attractive young ladies with too many i’s in their names (Vali, Liz, Margie, Francine) they are the Loreleis, their very own secret sorority at John Ross High School, whose colors are crimson and (ugh) lavender. Something terrible has happened to Kathi but even in the midst of all this pain “their grief did not mask their collective good looks. They had the appearance, each and every one of them, of young girls brought up in good, solid homes, of being accustomed to wearing good clothes, and eating substantial, well-rounded meals.” They’re so attractive that the dead girl’s father even asks to take a selfie with them before burying his daughter.
Cut to: 30 years later. The Loreleis have drifted apart but now it’s their high school’s 30th reunion and they reunite to perform their signature musical number at the talent show, “Singin’ in the Rain.” Ah, yes, high school reunions. A time when we want to show our former classmates how far we’ve come and how good we look. A time to reconnect. To celebrate. Yes, to even gloat a little. 30th reunions are when we mark our progress, rue our failures, and get murdered by our dead classmates whose ghosts are out for revenge.
But as we read the backstory of each Lorelei, we learn what the real problem with the Midwest is: everyone’s a dirty sex pig. Barbara Jean is a secret drinker trapped on a cow farm, moaning that she should have had an abortion instead of children. Even her 13 year old daughter encourages her to have an affair on her trip to Baxter. Liz is an American spy living in Moscow who has sex with tourists for the thrills, charging them $10 a pop. It’s the only way she can orgasm ever since she was 17 and started screwing anonymous college guys at a rib shack back in Baxter for $28 a trick to annoy her mom. Francine has married an elderly rich man who thinks that the bastard child she had with his son is actually his own offspring. Vali ditched her first husband in Baxter because she was so sexless and exhausted all the time when they were young and poor that he had an affair with a radio station receptionist. Now she’s a pilot. Anne is a struggling actress who lost her virginity to her drunk dad when she was 13. And Margie is haunted by the abortion she had in high school.
Once back in town, this assortment of middle-aged refugees from General Hospital move into the Lancelot Hotel, a fake castle featuring a bar where the barmaids dress in “wench” outfits, and two things happen. The first is that they immediately revert to their filthiest behavior. Anne pathetically pretends to be her own publicist and calls the local paper to announce that her plane has landed. Liz picks up a pharmaceutical salesman and hauls his ashes for $50 (he haggled her down from $100), and gets arrested by a cop whose idea of kinky sex is a woman wearing underwear with red hearts on them. He then forces her to have sex with him in order to stay out of jail. Barbara Jean gets drunk and sloppy with a guy she meets in the Lancelot Lounge because he remembers she used to be a Lorelei. Everything is so overheated that even a handgun mentioned in passing gets its own panting backstory (“She’d purchased it for self-protection when a pathological sex murderer had been terrorizing Baxter”).
The other thing that happens is everyone starts to see the ghost of Kathi all over the place: at the burger stand, in their living rooms, outside a church. Blood Sisters is a sleazy sandwich, with Lorelei buns on either end and Kathi’s meaty backstory in the middle. After being busted for shoplifting in 1957 the Dean of Girls forced the Loreleis to allow Kathi into their sorority or they’d be expelled. Problem is, the Loreleis spend their free time getting drunk and having abortions while Kathi thinks kissing is something only married people are legally allowed to do. To solve a problem like Kathi, the Loreleis decide to get her laid because it will “do her good” and “clear her complexion up” so they pay their buddy Butch $20 to get her drunk and hump her. “I always wanted to get paid for doing it,” he leers, proving that even the men of Baxter are dirty whores. But Kathi wants to be a nun and work in a home for crippled children when she grows up and her virtue allows her to totally avoid Butch’s sweaty man-trap.
Then Margie has a brainstorm while watching Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and, to be honest, I was mostly just surprised she was sober enough to make it through a theatrical performance without throwing up all over everybody. Margie wants them to break into the Catholic church and stage a black mass initiation with Kathi as the guest of honor (“I’ve got some ideas that are really gross,” she says), thinking that this occult orgy will scare Kathi straight out of the Loreleis. No one has a better idea, so on Halloween they break into the church, strip Kathi naked, surround her with candles, and start to chant. Then Kathi dies. The Loreleis feel bad about this and as a token of their grief they vow to never talk about her again.
Only now Kathi is back! Not only that, but Margie has lost her mind — again — and is wandering around town in her nightgown declaring that she is actually Kathi. Sorry to seem callous, but this is the second time she’s done this and the good people of Baxter are bored by her antics. Things come to an underwhelming climax that involves a church burning, a performance of “Singin’ in the Rain”, and love children coming back from the past—but it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, and this journey teaches us that Oklahoma is a dirty, dirty place. In Blood Sisters, the Midwest turns out to be the part of the country where you get married, then immediately catch your husband in bed with another man. Where you visit a grave, and someone inevitably throws herself across it sobbing for forgiveness. Go grab a drink alone and get arrested for prostitution. Midwesterners can’t even go to their 30th high school reunion without going crazy and burning down a church.
As Margie sighs, “It’s all so complicated. I still don’t understand.” You and me both, Margie. The Midwest will always be a great big melodramatic mystery to everyone. We should just leave it to the Midwesterners.
By the way, that skeleton cover is by the inimitable William Teason. A widely respected painter, he’s considered one of the great American illustrators alongside Normal Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth. Largely forgotten today, he’s considered a giant in the field. You can read more about him at his website.
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.