Following the death and subsequent resurrection of horror film magazine Fangoria by the Dallas-based entertainment firm Cinestate, it was announced that not only was the magazine returning to print as a quarterly publication, but that Fangoria was to become a media franchise all its own. Under new ownership, the brand is to branch out into podcasts, film production (it's first film in this new role, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich premiered recently on VOD and with a limited theatrical run), and book publishing. The first book to see print under the Fangoria Presents banner is Preston Fassel's Our Lady of the Inferno, a 1983 New York serial killer thriller.
A Houston-based author, Fassel has written for Scream Magazine, Rue Morgue, and will be a staff writer for Fangoria when the magazine relaunches in October. Although he is a Texas native, Fassel convincingly brings to life the grime and squalor of early-80s Manhattan and the red light district of 42nd Street, an area known as The Deuce. Our Lady of the Inferno captures the seediness of Time Square prior to the area's revitalization and rehabilitation as a tourist-friendly destination, giving readers front-row seats in run-down theaters playing second-rate horror flicks where prostitutes trade blowjobs for quick cash, to the graffiti tagged hallways of the Motel Misanthrope where heroine junkies shoot up in the stairwells and the daytime streetwalkers of 42nd live, breathe, and work.
Damn never every single page of Our Lady of the Inferno radiates a seedy grittiness of the era, so much so one might be inclined to check for an STD on the off-chance you've caught something simply from reading this book. This sucker bleeds atmosphere, but it also has a surprising bit of heart at its dark core.
In a book involving prostitutes and a psychotic, religiously-motivated serial killer, it would have been all too easy to write a story that was all sex and violence, with various bodily fluids soaking these pages from one deviant act after another. And while there's a fair amount of dirtiness herein, much of that comes from how realistically Fassel has written this by-gone period of New York history. Rather than focusing primarily on the titillating, Fassel instead leans hard into the characters, sparing readers the violence and carnage for the vast majority of this title's page count (but make no mistake, when the story does take a turn for the violent, it does so with remarkable brutality).
Our Lady of the Inferno is a slow-burn, ultra-methodical study of its lead women. Ginny Kurva is a prostitute, yes, but that's hardly the be-all, end-all to her existence. Nicolette Aster is a vicious and insane killer, but the degrees of her mental instability are striking. Fassel presents each of these women and then slowly, piece by piece, deconstructs them to show us what makes them tick, revealing all their various facets, their virtues and their flaws, and most certainly their sins.
Ginny trades her body for money, but she's far from the stereotypical portrayal of a New York whore. She's got smarts from both the streets and her years in college. She loves movies and books, and prizes education in both herself and others. She's hardly the Hollywood-standard hooker with a heart of gold, though; she's manipulative, and when angry her rage burns with a red-hot intensity. Prepared for any potential violence that may flare up without warning, she is both victim and victimizer, but through it all there runs a strong undercurrent of empowerment for both herself and for the other women in her life.
A similar vein of empowerment is at the core of Nicolette, as well, and it's striking the ways in which she acts as a mirror image to Ginny. If Ginny owns the day, then the night belongs to Nicolette. And while Ginny attempts to improve the lives of her fellow prostitutes, Nicolette is hellbent on destroying them, hunting them down and carving them apart, limb from limb, joint by joint. That these two women are on a collision course is a no-brainer, but Fassel spends so much time studying each of them, building them up, that by the time they meet head-on you fully understand how much is at stake and what each of them has to live, or die, for.
I will admit, I was fairly surprised by Our Lady of the Inferno; Fassel delivered a story that was a great deal different than I had expected, particularly given the Fangoria branding. I was expecting something much more rapid-fire, chock full of gore and violence and sex, and while each of those do appear in fair doses throughout, I was initially caught a bit off-guard by the focus and commitment to characters. Our Lady of the Inferno is not a piece of disposable slasher horror, or a check-your-brain-at-the-door riff on B-movie pulps. Possessing an intriguing amount of literary depth, it's far smarter than that, and far more astute in its capturing and subsequent rendering of a specific time and place and the characters that inhabit it. Fassel presents several moments of fascinating horror, but its the long and extended moments of quietude, the moments of heart and fellowship and the struggles of daily living, and the amount of research that clearly went into giving this labor of love its necessary and invaluable credibility, that truly make it something special and unique. Our Lady of the Inferno is not simply about the horrors of a meeting a deranged killer in a dark alley, but about the horrors of life itself, the horrors of personal inner-demons, the horrors of the day to day that each of us burn alive in.
[Note: I received an advance reading copy of this title from the publisher, Fangoria.]
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