Horror with a distinct 1970s/1980s vibe is definitely having a resurgence, as recent novels such as John Darnielle’s Devil House and Simon Jacobs’ String Follow have shown. And who better to ride this wave than one of the luminaries of the scene himself, Graham Masterton, whose prolific, prize-winning career began in 1976 with The Manitou, a tale of body horror featuring his take on the Native American spirit of legend.
Fast forward nearly fifty years, and Mr Masterton has returned to his beginnings with The Soul Stealer, based this time on Tongva/Chumash mythology and beliefs. Set in present-day Los Angeles, the plot revolves around Trinity Fox, a 23 year-old house cleaner whose old high school friend Margo Shapiro calls her, desperate to meet. Trin agrees, but when she arrives at the agreed upon bar, finds that someone has followed Margo into the ladies’ room and lit her on fire.
The bar owner immediately calls his old friend, disgraced former police detective Nemo Frisby, to come in on standby just in case the bar might be considered at liability. Thus both Nemo and Trin are stunned when, far too quickly, Margo’s case is closed as a suicide. Nemo and Trin join forces to shake some trees in an effort to discover what really happened to Margo, only to have Internal Affairs show up to tell them to back off. The only real clue the duo has left is the fact that Margo attended some Hollywood parties that, after dazzling her at first, wound up really shaking her to the core.
Meanwhile, young Zuzana is a waitress with dreams of stardom and the reality of an abusive live-in boyfriend. When a Hollywood hot shot offers to take her to a party where she’ll get to mingle with some of the movie industry’s most powerful people, she doesn’t hesitate, despite Rod’s violent objections. But is she in for a whole lot more than she bargained for when her glittering dream of Hollywood turns into a nightmare of perversity?
Teeming with action, sex and violence painted in broad, vivid strokes, The Soul Stealer certainly feels like a throwback to reading the pulpy horror novels my Dad would pick up from the airport on his international business travels. At times, despite the references to #MeToo and COVID-19, it feels very much stuck in that era as well, but for the sly (and frankly well-deserved) digs at American healthcare and our treatment of our Indigenous peoples. More jarring was the fact that everyone spoke like a British person of the late 20th century. More than once did I mutter, ironically, “Stop trying to make fetch happen.” Americans just very rarely use that word outside of a pet command.
Which leads, ofc, to the more glaring flaw of the novel, that the characters just didn’t act like real people in the 21st century do. The sheer naivete of so many of the characters here, coupled with the cackling villainy of the bad guys, made the cast feel more out of Old Hollywood than 2022. I can believe that rich and powerful elites could get away with stuff like this even a handful of decades ago, but Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of young actresses has been the worst kept secret in Hollywood since, oh gosh, at least 2007. I mean, even I knew about it then, and I live on the East Coast and have no connections to Hollywood besides tabloids and gossip blogs. Granted, the fact that he kept getting away with it for over a decade after that speaks to the ability of the mighty to evade justice, even without supernatural help. And the supernatural was, honestly, the most compelling part of this book, not the relatively flimsy characterizations. If you want to enjoy some throwback horror without exercising your brain too, too much, then definitely snag a copy of this novel.
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The Soul Stealer by Graham Masterton was published March 3 2022 by Head Of Zeus and is available from all good booksellers, including