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“If the Rabbi could only see you and hear you, I’d never be able to show my face in public again.”
“Screw the Rabbi. Isn’t there someone in this goddamned family who’ll listen to me. Screw it, old lady,” Angela spit viciously, grinding out her cigarette into the powder blue carpeting.
“When was the last time you had a bath, young lady? You positively reek from those drugs you smoke.”
“Pot, Mother. Weed! If you’re going to say it, say it right.”

Happy New Year, everybody! And if that high camp screaming match between mother and daughter doesn’t have you feeling the spirit of the season, try the internal monologue of a shopping mall Santa from 1981’s Without Warning:

“Christmas should be outlawed. Everything was too commercialized. And those vicious little brats who tried to poke his fat stomach and make him say “HO! HO! HO!” Dirty, snot-nosed little brats. Gimme this, gimme that, and never a please or thank you.”

Filed under “C” for “Christmas” and for “Crazypants”, Without Warning's a Christmas thriller that starts at a hysteria level of 5 million DQs (drag queens) and finishes by dumping readers into a flaming pit of despair.

With every line of dialogue delivered in an ear-splitting screech, it comes from the pen of Fern Michaels, aka Mary Ruth Kuczkir, a great old dame who started writing, according to her bio, the minute her youngest child toddled off to kindergarten and her husband leaned over and sweetly said, “Get off your ass and get a job.” The two lovebirds are no longer married, her bio informs us helpfully a few lines later.

Kuczkir has one of those improbably old school author bios that tell of the 431 books she’s written, 782 of which are New York Times bestsellers, and then it mentions she’s fired her agent, moved to South Carolina, and is basically self-publishing her back catalogue these days. Is this living the dream or falling off the map? I can’t tell, but if you’d like to see photos of her dogs, her website has got you covered.

But back to Drag Night at Barracuda Bar, where the people shrieking in that opening passage are spoiled rich kid, Angela Steinhardt (17), who has visions that cause seizures and reveal the future. This is so stressful it's turned her into a pothead whose only solace is driving her Porsche to Timberwoods Mall, parking under the “No Parking” sign, then, when the guard tells her to move her vehicle or it'll be towed, flipping him off and snarling, “So tow it away. Who gives a good rat’s ass what you do?”

Before you judge, Angela's dad owns the Timberwoods Shopping Mall and if I was heir to a shopping mall fortune in 1981 I’d be hunting the employees Most Dangerous Game-style, so I actually think Angela is showing remarkable restraint.

The other person shrieking in that opening passage is her mother, Sylvia, and she’s my favorite character of 2018. Angela’s been having visions that the mall is going to explode around Christmas when it’s packed with shoppers, but no one believes her because, as she says, “My mother should have drowned me when I was a baby.”

Sylvia is the kind of high-maintenance Monster Mom who always made me sad I was born a man and remain childless. I’d love to terrorize my kid, Mommie Dearest-style, the way Sylvia has tormented poor Angela, transforming her into a buffet of self-loathing: her brown eyes are too close together, her face is too narrow, her teeth are too big, and she needs a nose job. And that's according to Angela. Even her orthodontist tells her she could use work.

Before you protest, Without Warning takes place in Sylvia’s universe where looks are destiny. If you’re good-looking you’ll sleep with other good-looking people and be happy, but if you’re ugly or your nose is too wide, or your legs are too short, or your eyes are a little bit too close together...forget about it. You’re a mutant freak doomed to lifetime of loneliness.

That would be the fate of Charlie Roman, the world’s angriest department store Santa. He hates kids, he hates Christmas, and to him, “plants are just leaves for bugs to hide in.” He’s so angry he's going to blow up Timberwoods Mall! Why? Because he’s fat. He’s so fat that his community college teacher warned him that his dream of being an HVAC technician was too crazy, too impossible, too unrealistic. How could a fat person crawl around inside all those ducts? But Charlie followed his dreams, and he joined the Refrigeration Department at Timberwoods Mall, and then...he got stuck in the ducts. JUST LIKE HIS TEACHER WARNED HIM. Stop dreaming about HVAC repair, Charlie!!! After he's brought back down to earth, by being removed from the vent by the maintenance crew, Charlie is immediately demoted to Mall Santa because that’s the highest aspiration a big boned person can have in Sylvia's World.

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Meanwhile, Angela's getting stoned and running around blabbing about the Mall blowing up and kicking cops in the nards when they try to help her. Fortunately, it’s 1981 and everyone believes in ESP and so a rogue team of mall employees band together to prevent the Mall from exploding because they believe in Angie.

Sylvia stays true to herself, however, and begs her husband to lock Angela up in a mental asylum. And while she’s there, maybe they can give her a nose job to “fix her appearance”? And do her eyes, too? In a twist, Angela meets Charlie. As one of the beautiful characters whose eyes are appropriately spaced says, "Charlie Roman and Angela Steinhardt together? Those two misfits?”

No wonder they want to blow up the mall.

Angela reaches out to Charlie because she feels he might be her psychic friend and she moves into his house, becoming his sexless, underaged housewife, waxing his floors fetishistically, and making him enormous meals all day long, along with endless pots of really hot black coffee (and yes, we get an entire inner monologue from Charlie about how loathsome lukewarm coffee is). But a misunderstanding sees Angela stand Charlie up on a tree trimming date, and Charlie instantly remembers the savage rules of Sylvia's World: no one loves anyone with even the slightest physical imperfection. Time to blow up the mall!

So Charlie hauls his bomb to the mall the night before Christmas and...well...he blows it up. After all the running around, and concerned employees making plans to save the mall, and Charlie falling in love with Angela’s floor waxing, it’s more than a little shocking when he sets off his bomb and the last 12 pages of this book becomes a gallery of horrors as shellshocked employees stumble through piles of charred bodies and screaming children. Toddlers watch their parents burn to death, and shoppers have their limbs blasted to bits. Even colder, Charlie gets trapped beneath a collapsed roof beam, but when the cops realize who he is they leave him to suffocate as his lungs are slowly crushed and he babbles for mercy. If Sylvia was here she'd make some kind of cold-hearted comment about how that's one way to trim your waistline. But she's not! So I won't!

On the last page, Sylvia finds her husband in the middle of the charred wreckage, surrounded by screaming bomb victims, and begs him to put their daughter in a lunatic asylum, get her plastic surgery, and have her charged with homicide, in any order he feels most appropriate (probably nose job first?). Instead, he stiff-arms her to one side, and wraps Angela in a hug.

“Get out of my way,” he says as the music swells on the soundtrack, “I’m taking my daughter home.”

It’s not quite as snazzy an exit line as he wants it to be because he actually then has to stumble to his car over a carpet of freshly blown off human limbs. But it’s still a big turnaround for a guy who, in the first chapter, when his sobbing daughter calls him to say she's having psychic visions told her, “Why don’t you make yourself a drink and take a nap?”

Although, that’s some parenting advice even Sylvia would endorse.

(This originally appeared in the Paperbacks from Hell newsletter, which you can subscribe to here!)