She had killed Dennis, murdered Dennis, even if she hadn’t meant to. It was her breasts that did it — they had a life of their own, they did things she didn’t want them to do, she had no control….
— Fatal Beauty — William Schoell
At first I wanted to break this horror novel down with analysis from several schools of literary theory, and take the pulp horror novel and squeeze and strangle the text for meaning beyond the page. But looking through the deconstructive, post-structuralist, and Darwinian lenses yielded the same result – that this novel, Fatal Beauty, is a steaming pile of shit, shockingly full of inanities and jaw-dropping ridiculousness; the kind of book that is like a festering, ripe zit, an abnormality that beckons the reader to squeeze it until it bursts. And with that, I don’t mean to say this book is a waste of time. No, not at all. It is a memorable travesty and not to be taken seriously at any point. Because any book where a woman’s fake breasts swell to ridiculous proportions before mutating and sprouting tentacles is a glorious turd, a memorable purging of literary form, a steaming pile of head-shaking wonder.
I found this rotten little gem amidst stacks of paperbacks in the corner of the Harvard Bookstore warehouse in Somerville, Massachusetts. It would be blasphemy if this book was in the highbrow racks at the Harvard Square institution on Mass Ave, but amidst a graveyard of mildewed paperbacks in a warehouse full of discount literature, I pulled this one out and saw the shimmering mannequin face that graced the cover, the name William Schoell (a cult horror author known for churning out drive-in prose below the proper depths of pulp decency,) and with a fifty cent price tag, I quickly realized that in my hand I held a treasure.
Once I started reading, I could see an editor proposing the idea to the writer, William Schoell in 1989, “Make it horror that women can read. Something big, you know. Something stripped from today’s headlines that’ll grab readers by the throat, something controversial maybe. Something like plastic surgery. Yeah, I think that’s what you should do. You know, t’s 1989, everybody is getting tit jobs, fake lips, nips and tucks. Fuck with it and make it gruesome for those teenage boys, but add some female drama, lesbianism, jealousy, you know, so we get the ladies to read it too. C’mon, you got two weeks to write this puppy, so get on it.”
What Schoell turned in was a book whose plot is a weird hybrid of ‘Peyton Place’, Michael Crichton’s film ‘Looker‘ and biomorphic horrror translated with the comical grue of EC Comics and other pre-code horror comics. Perhaps, eschewing the ‘thriller’ label on the book’s spine, it should have read, ‘Biomorphic Melodrama – Grade D but edible.’
Plot. Those evil scientists are up to no good again. Splicing, dicing and reconfiguring a whole manner of animal DNA. After several failed attempts, they successfully create a slug-like creature that oozes a goop, which soon becomes the main ingredient to a drug called ‘Porodyne’, a cream applied to the skin that can restructure people’s faces to a Hollywood perfection. But what the patients don’t know is that this sentient goo is part of a greater organism, a genetic catastrophe that can control the patient/client/host using its psychic powers. No shit, psychic slugs. The cosmetic company, Barrows Industries, has fine-tuned this psychic, magical slug-sweat goo and is on the precipice of releasing it onto the global market. But one thing the scientists ignored is the effect of it on the world – will everybody look alike in the future? Will vanity consume the globe? Will the monster goo heal the scars left behind by botched plastic surgeries, or will it become its own enemy, igniting its own wick and starting an apocalypse.
Peggy is a naturally-busty journalist struggling to make it in New York City. She supports her douchebag actor boyfriend. Once good-looking, he’s now going bald and showing his true age, 40 years old. Disillusioned with love & life, Peggy meets up with her old college friend, Ronica Barrows, heir to the Barrows cosmetic empire. The dashing blonde asks Peggy to write a piece detailing the magical powers of their new cream, Porodyne, and how it affects their first five patients. It could change her life and make her the woman, the writer, she always wanted to be.
One patient is Yolanda Vasquez, a burn victim. Another, a wealthy ex-publisher, Emily Stuart, who is sleeping with her 17 year old nephew. And then there’s Ralph Tarramonte, an aging nymphomaniac who wants to keep his face as young as his unflagging libido. Our heroine, Peggy, takes on the job, but soon the reader is victimized with pages upon pages of how in college, Peggy, the ugly loner became obsessed the Barrows siblings, Ronica and Romeo (yes, Romeo is his name, and of course, he’s gorgeous, dashing, and shallow). Now a decade later, Peggy still desires the full attention of these two beautiful people. Can she appease the siblings and win their attention before the proverbial shit hits the fan and the sentient goo creates havoc? Can Peggy finally make it as a journalist? Can she hold back the secret of her past, the lesbian urges that are going to reveal her horrible secret?
Schoell bangs out this novel in the last third – questionable prose, gruesome deaths, and half-ass revelations on gender identity. The slug creatures finally break free from the laboratory, and once they do, their sentient goo that was applied to the patients quickly revolts from their hosts, turning them into melting, pestilent pus-sacks — creatures from a dermatologist’s worst nightmare. For instance, Emily Stuart, the ex-publisher, turns into something half Elephant-Man and half crustacean, and in one of the book’s most memorable killings, gets revenge on her nephew for screwing around behind her back: ‘one pincer went up his rectum as the other snapped shut on his penis‘. And then poor Yolando. After becoming a medical sensation — once a burn victim, now a beautiful woman — she is the honored guest at the NYC Mayor’s ballroom event, and amidst the Manhattan royalty, she can’t bear the horrible, sudden itching any longer, and in a Clive-Barkeresque moment, sheathes her second skin in a high point of Grand Guignol slapstick.
So in a nutshell, can a novel of questionable merit transition itself into sublime material? In the end, I must say no. But I enjoyed this for what it is — another forgotten novel from the 80’s horror boom.
Cheese quotient: through the roof. Poor writing: well, you’re not getting the literary stylings of a Peter Straub, or a well-plotted thriller of a Michael Crichton. Worth reading: well, if like me, you can eschew the literary standard and whore the horror boom’s most questionable entries, then please join in and hunt down a copy of Fatal Beauty. You’ve been warned.
Question is will I ever read a William Schoell novel again? You bet I will.