Friday, April 26, 2019

30. The Nursery by David Lippincott [Part 2 of the Maternal Anxiety Horror trio]

Now this is more what I expected when I started this mini-reading series of mass market horror paperbacks with a maternal anxiety theme.  It is lurid, silly and kind of nasty, definitely targeted at the "babysitters and housewives" market.  However, like The Crib, this one also does not actually provoke much maternal anxiety.  It is much more aligned with the social critiques of young women's independence and sexuality of the time.

We start with 17-year old Jennifer Delafield of Park Avenue, with a controlling, envious mom and an easily manipulated dad.  She is finishing up at Mrs. Chambers School for Girls and soon to be at Smith, when she decides in angry rebellion to elope with her 20-year old boyfriend.  They drive to Chiver, Maryland a town whose industry is built on marriage due to laxer laws. Hidden off the main strip of tacky neon marriage establishments with cheap promotions, they find a beautiful old Victorian named Blossom House with an amazing orchard and an elegant little sign indicating Justice of the Peace.  The couple that greets them, Henry and Harriet Griggs, is odd, but friendly.  He is a charming round man with white hair while his sister is gigantic.  After the brief ceremony among the blossoming apple trees, the couple invites them to share a celebratory drink.  Things go downhill.

So first of all, this book is not subtle at all.  The basic narrative I shared with you above is actually way more spoiler-free than the actual first few chapters of the book.  The author straight up tells you stuff.  So we know already that Harriet Griggs was brutally fatshamed in school and treated like shit by her dad and thus hates all men and pretty girls.  [You can't totally blame her with lines like "To Jennifer it was remarkable that so large a woman could move so softly, but she remembered hearing once that fat people could be incredibly light on their feet and therefore made good dance partners—as long as you remembered to judge them by their dancing and not their appearance."  Where in the early 80s did she learn that?!] Each chapter starts with an excerpt from Harriet's diary.  It is really simplistic and obvious stuff.  Also, the point of view jumps around quite a lot, revealing perspectives and diffusing any intrigue.  You will have a scene with Jennifer worrying about something and then dismissing it in her mind and in the next paragraph Harriet's thoughts which reveal that Jennifer should be worried (and then some!) and often even a line from the author saying basically the same thing.  It is almost like a bad voiceover in a low-budget horror movie from the 60s.

I spend a lot of time on it because this approach is very different from what I am used to reading and I suspect more in line with this sub-genre.  It does not detract much because the real pleasure here is in the bonkers set up.  Basically, the old couple drugs the drinks, separates the newlyweds and put Jennifer in an upstairs cell that is gussied up to look like a little girls bedroom.  Harriet sits on her and shaves her pubes (because she refuses to do it herself) and then forces her into this contraption that flattens her breasts.  After a few days of isolation, she is introduced to the rest of the third floor, 11 other young women all forced to pretend like they are 12-year olds.  It's creepy and gets creepier when cuddly Henry comes around. Yikes!

The rest of the narrative is Jennifer trying to deal with her situation, while we slowly learn about the backstory and some of the other girls.  The pacing of the suspense is inconsistent, but the upstairs scene is like a crazy jail narrative, with alliances and power struggles between the girls while they also try to deal with their captors.  Quite entertaining.  The ending is absolutely bonkers.  Like really so preposterous and crazy that I had to exclaim out loud.  [So bonkers that I am going to share it with you at the end of this post.]

This is really not my jam.  I am into action, not cruelty; fighting not torture and I like a happy ending.  I'm simple.  This book is not extreme, but the money shots here are all around cruelty and torture done to the main character (and her husband).  Aside from the shaving, she gets starved, beaten and dentisted (this is the perfect moment for a Joe Bob Briggs-like roll call of shit that happened) as well as having to deal with creepy Henry.  And of course there is psychological torture.  Gaslighting is Harriet's M.O. as she tries to break each girl down and especially Jennifer.

I am also not sure what the message is here.  There is clearly an emphasis on the parrallels between Jennifer's complaining that her parents kept her in a prison compared the real prison she ends up in.  Her sexuality and independence seem to be set up for some of punishment, but she is also quite strong-willed and demonstrates some virtue and character development in befriending one of the other girls who used to be a prostitute. 

Oddly, there is an empty link floating out there in some bookseller databases for a The Nursery 2: Jennifer's Revenge.  There is so little actual data and the date is the same as this one, that I suspect it is just wishful thinking.  Anybody know if there really was a sequel?

The Ending
So Jennifer starts to win over the other girls and together they work to disrupt the Griggs' control over them, with the ultimate goal of her escaping and freeing the rest of them.  The visit of lowlife Cousin Larry (who renovated the third-floor prison for Harriet and Henry) almost disrupts their plans, but Jennifer improvises and manages to make it out of the third floor.  There is hiding and chasing and then she gets out.  Stunned and stumbling in daylight, she sees a rental car parked along the road with the door open and still running.  Desperate, she jumps in and starts to drive.  She's free, finally free!  But wait, from the backseat, Cousin Larry pops up. He'd been hiding there (and we knew something was up because the author keeps having Harriet tell us how the escape is all actually a part of her plan to finally get Jennifer) and has a can of gas and his zippo.  I told you it was crazy.  So as Jennifer is driving, he pours the gas on her and lights her on fire.  She can't get out because the inner door handles had already been loosened and they fall off, but guess what neither can Cousin Larry!   That's right, Harriet's master plan kills two birds with one stone, by eliminating hateful Jennifer and Cousin Larry who knew too much.  The car, burning from the inside, goes screaming into town and gets plowed by a semi.

Already my jaw was on the floor, but wait, there's an epilogue.  The scene begins at a plastic surgeon's office, peeling away the layers of bandage from the face of a young girl.  Jennifer did not die in the crash!  She ran burning and stumbled into a kindly young doctor's office.  The doctor for reasons that make zero sense, did not tell anybody and instead healed her and then found the best doctors to reconstruct her face.  She has totally lost her memory and falls in love with her saviour.  She doesn't want to know about her past because even thinking about it starts to make her panic.  They decide to get married and find a lovely old house.  As she approaches the door, she starts to freak out, but then the door opens and it is some other couple.  Phew.  The nice doctor (who lived minutes away from Blossom House) and the amnesiac reconstructed girl live happily ever after.

There is a final epilogue after that which is the Griggs, who have now moved to Big Sur, changed their last name and still do the marriage business.  It was not directly implied nor contradicted whether or not they were still also doing the kidnapping business.  Very weird final moment, though:

Certainly impossible for me to know.  Is this some horror trope?

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