Wednesday, February 2, 2011

80's Horror: Ruby Jean Jensen, Mistress Of Dolls

A Selection Of Ruby Jean Jensen Books I Have Been Reading Since Last Summer
Once upon a time, there was this magical time, from the late 1980's through the early 1990's, when it seemed horror novels were everywhere, and horror movies were king, whether Stephen King had a hand in making them or not.  In those glory days of pre-CGI horror films the movies were full of  latex monsters and excessive violence that was always brutal and never implied.  The books on the market for the most part, from authors like William W. Johnstone, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, Andrew Neiderman, Joe R. Lansdale and Rick Hautala....well, most of them would not meet the guidelines to be posted on "respectable" story sites today; Horror, Erotic or otherwise.

In the midst of all these hardcore horror authors was one who stands out in My memory fondly, despite the fact that a majority of her works were barely movie of the week worthy, she still had a way of presenting the disturbing, the uncomfortable and sometimes even the gross to the page with a home grown flair all her own.  That author is Ruby Jean Jensen, one of the unsung heroines of 80's horror, a cornerstone of the old Zebra Horror line from the Kensington Publishing Corporation, and pretty much all but forgotten today.  Her stories almost always centered around young children to pre-teens, and she was putting them in some of the most horrible situations you could imagine long before J.K. Rowling picked up her pen and her first napkin to begin writing of Harry Potter's magic and fantasy adventure life.  Sometimes her books were cookie cutter, and the characters were so unlikeable you couldn't wait for them to meet horrible deaths, and her writing from novel to novel and sometimes chapter to chapter was uneven. but yet it was all that delicious 1980's garbage you just couldn't put down once you started reading it.  Half her books always seemed to revolve around cursed dolls, and the other half seemed to revolve around cursed artifacts, so I have given her the affectionate title of The Mistress of Dolls.

Ruby Jean Jensen, Mistress Of Dolls & Friend
So who was Ruby Jean Jensen, and where is she now?

Well I hate to say it but it seems nobody knows, or even cares.  She does not have a single decent fan site that I can find, nor does she have a Wikipedia page.  My favorite radio personality (M.J.) Todd Shcnitt, says that once you've made it to Wikipedia you're somebody, and unfortunately that makes the Mistress of Dolls an apparent nobody in the information age of the 21st Century.  I only found one biography on her, posted to multiple websites, and that was apparently copied verbatim from one of her later books.  What I do know of her personal life is that she spent most of it in southeastern Missouri and northern Arkansas.  Her much pasted bio states that she was a pet lover (dogs one assumes from the only picture I have ever seen from her, posted above).  She was born in 1930, but as yet I have seen not date of death (though one assumes it was in the later mid to late 1990's as that is the time her books ceased to be published.).  She began having her novels published in the mid to late 1970's, Gothic novels which I have yet to have ever obtained or read any copies of.  Then in the 80's she switched to more Horror oriented stories.

I think the first Ruby Jean Jensen book I ever bought was one of her longest, Baby Dolly, which I bought at the old used book store in downtown Winter Haven I used to frequent at least every other week when I was in high school and until around the time that I Myself moved to Missouri, in the opposite corner from where she lived.  Like many books I, and later on My first wife, bought it joined a continually growing "To Read" selection on an overstuffed bookshelf.  It was in My junior or senior year of high school before I got around to actually reading any of the Jensen books I had bought.  I ended up reading Chain Letter and then Smoke back-to-back.  And from there I was a hooked, though perhaps not a diligent reader.  Over the years from bookstores and book traders I amassed quite a collection, probably a majority, of Jensen's horror novels.  My ex read them while we were together, and somehow I ended up getting them all after the divorce, and for years after that they were shifted around in 15 to 20 year old banana boxes from one storage area to another, for the past five years sitting in the corner of the storage shed attached to the house I now share with the lady vyle.

Bad Girls Don't Die, The First Novel From Katie Alender (Pretender To The Throne?)
So what made me pick up old Ruby Jean after so many years and begin reading her again?  Well it happened kind of out of the blue.  The lady vyle and Myself were on vacation in Connecticut when I decided to look and see what books they had at the local Stop-N-Shop.  We were staying with her family for their annual reunion at a beach house on Fairfield Beach, and I needed something other to do than to take notes and make a slight outline for a story the location seemed to be inspiring Me to write, It Beacons (yes one of the many projects I hope to devote some more time to this year).  Anyway, I went to the aisle and the only book which caught My attention was one by a new author by the name of Katie Alender.  The name of the book was Bad Girls Don't Die, and despite the fact that it was a photo cover and not one of those old glossy black Zebra Horror covers from the 80's with a spooky skeleton or toy motif  it vaguely reminded Me of all those Jensen covers.

Needless to say I bought the book and it was horrible.  It was so horrible in fact that I decided to make mention of it in It Beacons, with one of the main characters trashing the book and basically saying that ..."Katie Alender ain't no Ruby Jean"... before putting the book away and then digging a worn copy of Chain Letter to read instead.

So once we returned from vacation, and before I became bogged down with stories I wanted to get done for posting during Halloween season, I went to the shed and dug out the stored books, pulling out most of My Jensen collection and bringing them into the house.  Unfortunately I found that the two I loved from the beginning, Chain Letter and Smoke were not there.  I ended up finding them online, along with a couple of others I did not have anymore, and one, Jump Rope, that I had never heard of.  From September on I rotated Ruby Jean into My reading, partly for research for It Beacons and partly out of nostalgia.

The first of the Jensen books I read once My interest was revived in her was Mama.  It is the story of a little girl who discovers cursed toys in the attic of the house she moves into with her mother and older siblings after the death of her father.  The toys in the attic come to life after she gives them her breath, and soon her cursed little friends are taking more and more.  Not much happens other than the toys prowling around the attic and growing sharp little teeth.  It's a slim book with a wan body count of two, but I couldn't put it down.  My favorite line from this book is, "Live dolly, live!", that the little girl utters whenever she brings her favorite doll to life, and I damn sure hope to reference that line somewhere and someday.  In the end the girl who brings the toys to life destroys the cursed toys after they kill her older brother, however she does not get them all and the survivors await the next family to move into the house.

Best Friends
The second book I read was Best Friends, which I had read at some point when I lived in Missouri.  I remember when I first saw the book when it first came out.  At the time I was not into reading, but I still thought the picture of the purple cat creature on the cover was totally cool.

The story revolves a young boy named Barry and his imaginary friends Reid and Juno (the cat monster).  In the beginning it seems that Barry is the victim of day care center sexual abuse, but later we learn that the nature of the abuse was Satanic in origin, and in the process two evil creatures were created it seems alternately do his bidding and to take on a life of their own as they gain more power.  Barry and his two older siblings go to stay at a summer house in the care of a recently hired nanny while their father works in the city, their mother has passed away sometime prior to the beginning of the story.  (Yes, you see a common theme already). 

In the end it seems that Barry and his family escape from his demonic "friends", until his brother realizes they are in the car with them as they are driving back home.

Notable in this story is the subtext of puppy love and adolescent lust and thoughts of incest between two underage characters, Barry's sister, Becky, and their cousin.  (Told you some of these tales wouldn't fly on a "respectable" erotic site).

Chain Letter
Chain Letter is probably My favorite out of all of Jensen's books.  It is perhaps the best written out of all the ones that I have read so far.  It of course revolves around the titular chain letter, or at least a part of it.  It falls into the hands of a trio of children who enter an abandoned insane asylum in search of a wayward dog.  Once they have the letter bad things happen and they are persued by a dark figure who stalked them through the asylum.  In order to prevent further misfortune they decide to perpetuate the chain, filling in a good fortune for passing on the letter.  However the curse is much stronger than their good intentions.

Jump Rope
On the other side of the coin Jump Rope is perhaps the worst Jensen novel I have ever read.  It has death and gore galore, but it makes Dark Night Of The Scarecrow look like James Cameron's Avatar.  It has to be some of the most uneven story telling I ever saw, storyline development at TNA Wrestling has nothing on this one.  Each time the story seems to have a focal character they get killed off.  The nanny character is introduced, runs for the hills and then just comes back when she thinks the mother of the children in the story really needs her help.  The story had the highest body count out of all her stories, and mainly composed of young children.  This novel is truly in the category of you have to read it to understand how truly terrible it is.

Home Sweet Home
Yes, I'll admit that My first though every time I look at the title on the book cover is of Motley Crue, and the song was actually pretty big at the time that Home Sweet Home was published.  This book has the distinction of not having any cursed dolls/toys or artifacts.  The premise of course is laughably ridiculous in the modern world of the 21st Century.  When his wife has major surgery a man sends his son to stay with Uncle Dan, a man who he knows from work but barely knows anything about, to go camping in the woods in the middle of nowhere for three weeks.  Of course it does not come as much of a shock that Uncle Dan is a little bit crazy, and when Timmy arrives at Uncle Dan's cabin he finds he is not the only child there.

There's so much subtext in this one.  The early going is uncomfortable and the reader feels they're getting into pedophile territory.  However it turns out that Uncle Dan has no sexual interest in the children.  He just wants to make them into the perfect family, along with the corpse of his wife that he calls Little Mother and keeps in the bedroom a'la Normon Bates,  If you don't fit in to the family?  Well there are always unwanted orphans, and any ingrates must die.

House Of Illusions
House Of Illusions could have easily been titled House Of Dumbasses.  The story revolves around two sisters who are sent to live with their father for the summer.  The father ran out on the family when the oldest girl was three, and their mother just wants them out of her hair.  Yeah, I wished deadbeat dad and unseen mom would die through the whole thing and they didn't.  The youngest girl finds, and is made to throw away, a talisman that she finds in the House Of Mirrors which is part of the traveling carnival their "father" works for.  Then the older sister retrieves the artifact because it is too pretty to be thrown away, evoking the curse of demonic killer clowns who are searching for the talisman to revive their creator, a demented magician trapped within the House Of Mirrors.  Younger sister Jodi and carnival co-owner Zulu are the only likable characters in the story, and the rest you hope will just die.  Unfortunately though Jodi meets her death at the end of the story.

One unique thing about House Of Illusions is it had a 3/4 3-D hologram cover, which I now understand was an attempt to disguise the novel's shitty contents.

I did take a month off of reading Jensen after reading House Of Illusions.  I think it pretty much gave Me a needed break and prepared Me to read Pendulum with an open mind.  Indeed it is another of Jensen's superior works, yet it relies on ideas she has used in the past.  In the beginning Heather is given a fortune telling pendulum by an old gypsy man.  The fortunes it tells are almost all bad, so Heather's cousin rewrites new and good fortunes a'la Chain Letter before Heather uses it for her fortune telling booth at the Halloween Carnival.  Unfortunately it is the old gypsy's wish that the pendulum predict horrific fortunes of Death and Unspeakable Horrors for the group of kids who walked away and did not try and get help after watching his grandson drown,

Perhaps the thing this novel does suffer from are barely explored and contrived subplots.  When it comes to movie of the week material Pendulum is definitely it.  It has at least one unique death, bitten by hundreds of rattlesnakes, and one character is inexplicably turned into a werewolf so he can stalk several other characters.  Plus the demonic ghost of an aborted fetus out to kill its mother is perhaps one of the most unique, if not gross out and 80's timely, plot devices ever.

As with House Of Illusions the parents in the story are so unlikeable and selfish you're just hoping that they're going to die, and unlike House Of Illusions you get the reward of seeing them get theirs by the conclusion of the novel.

Death Stone
The other day I began Death Stone.  I have not gotten into the story very far, but so far so good.  It seems that this is one of Jensen's better novels, if it does not turn out to be the best in the end.  It is full of rich characters and already has enough twist to keep Me guessing at what is really going on.  So far a cursed ring has been fished out of an old well, and also in the well is the dead body of a girl murdered 35 years before, a Jane Doe no one in the area claims to know of.  I will keep on reading and let you know how it turns out.  However, so far, aside from the girl in the well, the body count only includes one canary.

Although still missing from My collection I just have to mention Smoke again.  Even though it has been over 20 years since I read it I have to say it made an impression on Me enough to be remembered as one of My favorite Ruby Jean Jensen books.  It falls in the cursed artifact category: Prepubescent girl buys Middle Eastern lamp at a garage sale and unleashes the precursor to the Smoke Monster from Lost.  One of the things that stands out in My mind is the Smoke Demon on human woman rape scene, which at that time I found pretty shocking considering the author was female and born in the 30's.

Of course I am far from done as I still have a stack of Ruby Jean Jensen books waiting to be read in the spare bedroom, and this time I am determined to get through them instead of letting them sit for 15 or 20 years.  I do hope to hear back from at least someone else who has heard of Ruby Jean, because I get "huhs" when I mention her to people I know and zero response on forums about writing and inquiring tweets.  So if you're some die hard Jensen fan wanting to share the love please comment or send Me an e-mail.

Master Vyle

1 comment:

  1. Just had to comment - another fellow Ruby Jean Jensen fan here. I read most of her books as a teen. I liked that they were a bit more "innocent" compared to the slasher/splatter horror that was popular in the 80s. Plus, my mom collects antique dolls so I was completely freaked out by all the horrifying covers with blank, staring doll eyes - just like my home! Interesting that you single out "Jump Rope" as her worst book. That was the book I remember kind of 'divorcing' myself from RJJ. I had started college by that time and thought I was too cool to be reading such pulp novels. Plus that one just never really held my interest. I actually wonder if she started using ghost-writers for her later novels. They didn't seem to have quite the same spark as her earlier work. Maybe it was just both of us getting older...

    There used to be a really detailed website dedicated to Ruby Jean by a guy named Aaron Thompson. He had written to her and maintained a personal correspondence with her for a number of years. It hasn't been updated in years but you can check it out to see all her titles, including a number of pre-Zebra books.