13 November 2017

Twenty-three Centuries of Freaky Fridays

Grandma's Little Darling
Stephen R. George
New York: Zebra, 1990
320 pages

Horror hasn't much figured here, yet the genre dominated my adolescent reading. James Herbert was my favourite author; there was something in the rhythm to his work – one chapter focusing on horror, the next on sex, then back to horror, then sex – that appealed. One particular passage from his second novel, The Fog, was read over and over. I would blush in revealing which one.

Other novelists of those awkward teenage years included Max Ehrlich (The Reincarnation of Peter Proud), Frank De Felitta (Audrey Rose), Stephen King (Carrie), Colin Wilson (The Space Vampires), Christopher Isherwood (Frankenstein: The True Story), Peter Benchley (Jaws), Richard Woodley (It's Alive), Arthur Herzog (The Swarm), Jeffrey Konvitz (The Sentinel), John Farris (The Fury), John  Russo (Night of the Living Dead), David Seltzer (The Omen), and Joseph Howard (Damien: Omen II). I'm tempted to include The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson... but, you know, it's a true story.

The only Canadian horror novel I read, Satan's Bell, was written by  Joy Carroll, a woman better known as the co-author of a pink-coloured book of etiquette entitled Mind Your Manners. It was published in 1954 by Harlequin.

We Canadians were slow to capitalize on the horror paperback craze. The first to make repeated stabs was Michael Slade with Headhunter and Ghoul, but these were published in the mid-eighties, by which the market had begun to wane and my interest had vanished. The decade was almost over when Stephen R. George, appeared on the scene. His debut novel, Brain Child, was published in 1989, as were his second (Beasts) and third (Dark Miracle). The following  year saw Dark Reunion and Grandma's Little Darling, a novel I bought for its cover illustration. A riff on Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Whister's Mother), it had me thinking that the novel might be set in nineteenth-century New England or Victorian London.

I was wrong.

Grandma's Little Darling begins twenty-three centuries ago in the Egyptian boudoir of Lamena, trophy wife of wealthy merchant Fasim Konar. Once "the most beautiful woman in Sandakla," she's been overtaken by her daughter Maline. Such is the girl's beauty that it has attracted the eyes of Riamon, a prince from neighbouring Zhima. Lamena cannot deny the signs of aging reflected in her polished silver looking glass.

Deepening lines calling for desperate measures, she visits the wizard Yashim. "I want to become young again," says she. "I want the life my daughter is about to have."

On the condition that he be granted access to Prince Riamon's court – "I long for the company of men." – Yashid casts a spell that will make it so mother and daughter switch bodies. On what would have been her wedding day, Maline awakens in horror to find herself in her mother's body, being caressed by her father.

Prince Riamon is pleased because his new wife, though clearly a virgin, exhibits "expertise in the bedchamber." True, every once in awhile he wonders about his young wife's mature ways... but, you know, "expertise in the bedchamber." Besides, the prince is exhausted.

Lamena’s downfall comes when she betrays Yashim. Concerned that the wizard will blab, she has him banished from the court. As might be predicted, this causes Yashim to do the very thing she sought to prevent. The wizard tells Riamon that his bride’s body is occupied by his mother-in-law, adding that Lamena is now able to leap from body to body.

The two search the palace, ending up in the common room of all the prince’s wives. There they find Maline – or the body of Maline – foaming at the mouth. Lamena has moved on!

“Wizard, you have brought evil to this place, and you shall pay for it,” says the prince. To be safe, he has his other wives taken to the courtyard, where they are soaked in pitch and set alight. Having fled to the body of a newborn girl, Lamena hears their screams.

This is all part of a prologue lasting less than six pages. It’s a lot to take in, though readers are afforded more than enough chance to catch their breaths in the sluggish pages that follow.

The first chapter skips to fin du millénaire – the last one – and the Minneapolis Children’s Home, where we’re introduced to twelve-year-old Nora Harris, the girl depicted on the cover in Ruth Bader Ginsburg garb. Four years earlier, her parents and only sibling were killed. She’s had a rough go of it ever since. Social worker Cheryl Gibson has been doing her best to place the girl with couples interested in adoption, but nothing has quite worked out. Nora is about to begin her seventh placement in suburban Minneapolis. She’s told this is her last chance, so the pressure is on. Prospective parents the Johnsons are okay, and their son, Buddy, proves a pal, but Grandma – everyone calls her Grandma – looks to be a challenge.

Recently widowed, Grandma has suffered a stroke or something that has left her not quite right. What really happened is that Lamena has taken over her body… and now has her sights set on Nora!


Because I no longer read horror novels, and don’t remember much of those tackled in my teens, my criticisms may be unfair:

  • Prologue aside, the first half of the novel is slow and repetitious; the horrific is pretty much limited to old lady smells;
  • Lemena aside, the characters – Nora Harris, Dr Gibson, the Millers, and the Johnsons – are as unique as their surnames;
  • Cheryl’s live-in boyfriend just happens to be the editor of Unnatural Journal, a newsletter devoted to the paranormal.

Because I'm all about being fair, credit is due the author in setting the climax in the shopping court of  Minneapolis’s IDS Centre (which looks to be a special kind of hell).

There's also a bit of a twist ending. George gives a few too many hints in advance, but it is interesting. The most intriguing part of the novel comes mid-point with the revelation that Lemena had been found out a century earlier – resulting in the murders attributed to Jack the Ripper.

Seems a brilliant idea for a novel. Has it been written?

As I say, I no longer read horror novels.

Favourite passage:
She kept thinking of Nora. Of the girl, trapped inside that old woman’s body. Of the thing inside Nora’s body.
     Oh, God, what a story.
     Even if others did not believe her, she could not leave the situation as it was. She owed it to Nora to do something.
     The question was what?

Object and Access: A cheap mass market paperback with raised gold foil. Sadly, the cover illustration is uncredited.

Library and Archives Canada has a copy, but that's it as far as our libraries are concerned. Those looking to purchase a copy will find five listed for sale online beginning at US$7.50. The second cheapest is listed at US$11.52. The remaining three copies range in price from US$52.43 to US$134.45. Needless to say, condition is not a factor.

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  1. Yes. I know THE AMITYVILLE HORROR is **cough, cough** a "true story."

    1. Every bit as true as the Cottingley fairies.

  2. I assume you were being sarcastic about "The Amityville Horror" but, if not:


    1. Yes, 'twas sarcasm. Even as a kid, it didn't pass the smell test.