Welcome to Freaky Fridays, that day of the week when we turn to out-of-print paperbacks to remind us that it is good to be sensitive to other cultures and how they handle their GTL. Also, this is the last Freaky Friday for the summer, because next week I’ll be starting the final leg of my epic Great Stephen King Reread.
Mama mia! It’s spaghetti night at Freaky Fridays! Sit down inna chair and mangia, mangia, mangia! Eat some pasta! Have a nice cannelloni! Maybe a little red wine? And we end with a nice cappuccino an’ a little zeppole. You eat! Thatsa good boy! Gotta grow up big n’strong like Uncle Gino! And maybe so you don’t get the agita you can read a nice book after?
I’d suggest you pick up Fantasma by Thomas F. Monteleone because he knows what he’s talking about. He’s written a book about la famiglia fighting la H.P. Lovecraft, and I don’t mean your cousin Tracy’s famiglia, I mean LA FAMIGLIA, as in the Cosa nostra, as in the mafia, capeesh? There you go, I knew you were a smart boy who’d understand.
We’ve hung out with Thomas F. Monteleone before, back when Freaky Fridays hit his Night Train, which was not Monteleone’s private brand of discount fortified wine but instead a horror paperback original about monstrous gods living in the New York City subway system, going from train to train singing “Lean on Me” a capella, and selling candy bars. Monteleone was one of the go-to guys for horror paperbacks in the Eighties, turning out six of them before moving on to thrillers (and bestselling success) in 1992. He also achieved renown as the editor of his Borderlands anthologies (now on their sixth installment). A master of turning out dependable pulp entertainment, if authors were directors, Monteleone was Jack Hill: talented, self-aware, but never acting superior to his material. His books don’t transcend genre, they just dose it with performance-enhancing steroids. You may read a better urban panic book than Night Train, but you won’t read a better one that includes a hidden temple beneath Manhattan’s Lower East Side packed to the gills with evil dwarf sorcerers. Similarly, you might read better mafia novels than Fantasma, but you won’t read a better mafia novel where they fight Hellmonsters.
But first, I have to warn sensitive readers before they proceed further. If you have delicate sensibilities, if you aren’t prepared for descriptions of depravity, if you believe the world is essentially a sane and good place, then please stop reading this review now. Because the main character of Fantasma is…
…a jazz guitarist. You probably just screamed and threw your computer across the room and now you’re smashing it into shards with a baseball bat. In a previous life I clipped an old gypsy woman with my car and she cursed me so that every time I walk into a bar for a nice quiet drink a jazz trio enters immediately after and starts to play. In my personal hell it’s always FREE JAZZ NIGHT. So when I learned that the hero of Fantasma, Vincent Manzara, is a jazz guitarist in 1989 Manhattan I almost put the book back on the shelf, got some gasoline, and set myself on fire. But for you, I persevered and what I wound up with was worth the pain. Almost.
Despite a propensity to describe rain-slicked streets as looking either like wet eels or snakeskins (leading to the famous saying among immigrants, “The streets of America are paved with eels.”) Monteleone delivers a fun DTV book that revolves around the Italian baker, Gaetano Manzana. He came to America in 1919 and became the city’s most successful Italian baker and now his children and grandchildren work for the family bakery in Little Italy, all except for one grandson, Vincent, who hates the world so much he took up the jazz guitar.
Gaetano isn’t in the mafia, but he’s near it, and when he isn’t playing gioco with his buddies from the old neighborhood he’s hiring a strega to cast a spell on a mafiusi goon who’s trying to shake him down for cash. (As you can tell, this is one of those libros thick with parole italiche so that some paragraphs read like menu italianos at a tourist trap.) A botched heist at JFK puts Gaetano’s other grandson in the payback crosshairs of the Candelotto family, who are one of those evil mafia families who hijack trucks in other families’s turf without paying their “trib” and they don’t show the proper rispetto to their elders and they try to convince the other families to deal drugs. Before too long, wiseguys are saying things like “It had been a long time since an all-out war between the Five Families had busted out,” and Chef Boyardee has taken over the writing duties, scattering “youse” across the pages like Parmesan on a big plate of pasta and meatballs.
Vincent and his guitar get sent to hide out in a villa in Sicily where they’ll be safe from the vendetta, along with Vincent’s pregnant girlfriend, Kimberly, who really puts up with a lot in this book, not the least of which is Vincent’s guitar. Because Fantasma is basically following the plot of The Godfather any half-awake reader will quickly realize that Vincent’s going to have to join the family business and avenge his grandfather. Fortunately, he doesn’t do it with a gun. Instead, he meets a strega in Sicily who looks like “an aging Joan Baez” and she comes back to America with him, promising to whip up some fast-growing phantom fetuses that mature into monsters with massive wings and six-hinged jaws who will do all the avenging for him. The first one he meets is known as the Hound of Tindalosi, which is basically a pizza parlor version of Frank Belknap Long’s Hound of Tindalos. We never meet Nyarlathotepino or Shub-Niggurathaccio.
Before long, Lovecraftian monsters are crawling all over Little Italy and Long Island, draping the guts of disemboweled mobsters over trees like fairy lights, bathing foot soldiers in acidic yellow slobber, and impaling mafia Dons on their own crystal chandeliers. All those Eighties chrome kitchens with their black and white tiled floors are perfect backdrops for wildly violent bloodbaths, which only get even more over-the-top when the monsters, like the mafia, run amuck. Now it’s Shoggothettos versus 7-11 owners with .357 Magnums under the register, and failed artists jumping off the 59th Street bridge, right into the jaws of flying spaghetti monsters.
With its broad-shouldered mafia goons in overcoats and fedoras, its old men sitting around Little Italy sipping sambuca, and its endless lectures about respect, this is basically a direct-to-video monster movie starring Joe Pesci and Chazz Palminteri. And Monteleone, bless him, doesn’t skimp on the red sauce. It’s slow to get started, and it never breaks new ground, but Monteleone has no illusions about the kind of book he’s writing, and he delivers, with extra garlic knots. Just check out this passage as one of his Italian-American monsters takes on the MTA:
“In that same instant the thing on the tracks paused, pinned by the light like a bug on a needle. It stood up to its full height and Jolly could see how damned huge it was. What had appeared to be a shiny slick surface revealed itself to be a thick coat of silvery-white fur mirroring back the light. Straddling the tracks the creature seemed to be glaring right at Jolly. He felt the muscles in his rear flinch up, squeezing his asshole shut. The thing’s head was wolfish, but its eyes were as big as a Lincoln’s hubcaps and as red as a set of taillights. It had a horn sticking up out of its skull and a mouth full of teeth like a shark’s. Its chest and arms were as wide as Jolly’s subway car, and it looked as solid as a bank vault. Dangling between its legs was a glistening, semiturgid dick the size of a man’s arm.”
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.