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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Monday, September 14, 2015

Trailer Trash Femme Fatale: A Dame to Die From

By Greg Barth
452 pages
( All Due Respect Books; June 12, 2015)
Language: English

Selena is the type of woman who wakes up naked in a stranger’s bed, her skin as sticky and sour smelling as a porn theater’s floor. She’s a thief, a junkie, a titty bar waitress who sells drugs on the side, and a hooker who will go all the way for two measly Franklins.

And those are just her good points.

She also has a variety of flaws. Selena lacks self esteem, for one thing: she is such a cheap date that if she light-fingers $480 from a sleeping John’s billfold, she isn’t sure she deserves it.

In addition, she picks the wrong partners: guys who like to have a woman pull the train, one car at a time  – and leave her looking like she was run over by one.

Greg Barth
In Serena’s case, the train wreck is the result of a commercial sexual liaison gone horribly wrong.
Barth sets the scene with marvelous brevity in the beginning of the first chapter, leaving it to the reader to fill in the blanks:

“I awoke to pain,” he writes, setting up the narrative from Selena’s point of view. “It was the typical hangover headache, a dull throb at the base of my skull accompanied by an icepick through the left temple.


“My mouth was dry and tasted like a sewer.  Bourbon, cigarettes, and something else.   Something organic.

“I squinted an eye open.  Not my bed.   Not my room.

“Okay, I thought.   I opened my other eye, and I gave a minute for my blurred vision to focus.

“I didn’t recognize the guy lying next to me.   His back was to me, but I could see well enough to realize that I did not know him.   He looked like he was deep asleep.   Good.”

Selena rips her sleeping John off for his loose bills, cigarette lighter, a partially consumed bottle of  bourbon and a T-shirt, and then steals one of his CDs on her way out.

Big mistake. When she tries the disk on her player at home, all she gets is hiss. She leaves it in the machine and goes to work.

It turns out the disk actually contains information skimmed from tens of thousands of credit cards. It’s worth way more than $480, and a gang of hard guys that uses the data in scams wants it back enough to kill for it.

A crew from the gang shows up at the bar where Selena works and intercepts her trying to slip out the rear. They beat her to a pulp but fail to recover the data.

That is just the beginning of her nightmare: a savage beating that leaves her crippled and unrecognizable and a brutish rape that tears her open so badly it takes months for her to heal.

Here is Selena as the leader of the gang prepares to screw her half to death for taking the CD:

“He dropped his pants and readied himself with his hand. I had seen bigger dicks before. Mostly at the zoo. Things got bad after that.   I don’t want to tell you all that happened, but it was bad.”
Here’s Selena undergoing rehabilitation for her injuries:

“Then they put me on the walker.   Oh god, that torturous little therapy bitch named Heather.  Hashtag fucking-sadist.   I wanted to stay in bed.   Hell, wouldn’t you?   But Noooooo.   You gotta waaaaalk Selena, you gotta get beeeeeetter Selena, you gotta take more steps Selena, you don’t wanna stay in bed forever do you Selena.

“I wanted to fashion a shank out of my toothbrush and stab her in her kidney.”

Here is Selena convalescing in the trailer where her father had sex with her  when she was a teenager:

“How do you like your eggs,” he said.

 “Fertilized, full grown, breaded, and fried.  Then puked up in a nice slimy puddle.  How do you like yours?”

“Okay.   No eggs.”

Selena is so tough she could drive a ten penny nail through a four-by-four with a glance, then use her teeth to pull it back out again.

She eventually recovers from her injuries, totally unrecognizable, an expert in using a pair of sawed-off shotguns, and consumed by only one desire: revenge.

She goes back to the man she originally stole the CD from. Taking advantage of the fact that he doesn’t recognize her, she hooks up with him and slips him roofies to make him docile and submissive. While he is helpless, she winnows out what was on the CD and why the gang wants it. 

Serena is like something from Argosy . . .
Afterward she gives him the most pleasant death of anyone in the book: she injects him with a narcotic that simply puts him to sleep forever.

You’d think that killing the man who turned you over to torturers would be enough, but not for Serena. She returns to her apartment and can’t kick the stress and anxiety she feels. And then she realizes what it is that has her so keyed up:

“The hunger I felt was the overwhelming urge to kill the rest of them. That was it. Only their deaths would satisfy my deepest-felt need.”

Selena manages this breakneck pace for all but a handful of its 400-plus pages. The pages of the novel practically tear themselves out of your fingers and turn themselves for you. It is a little like watching the Coast Starlighter derail, scattering mutilated bodies along the rail bed: the spectacle is hideous, but you cannot look away.

Barth’s novel is a barn-burner – an old-fashioned tale suitable for Black Mask or Argosy, the premier mags of the pulp era. The only difference? Selena is tougher and leaner than most of the stuff that appeared in those rags. It is better written, too.

. . .Or Black Mask, only tougher. . .
Barth intends this to be the first volume in a trilogy. The remaining two volumes will also be published by All Due Respect, a small independent imprint that advertises itself as a purveyor of “Low Life Literature.”

Life doesn’t get much lower than it does in Serena.

It also rarely gets as nasty, brutish and short.

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