I didn’t pick up my first Stephen King—The Shining—until 2016, but boy did he buy up a ton of early real estate in my young mind. An eight-year-old screening of the edited-for-TV Kubrick film was basically my intro to horror as a concept, and my favorite aunt and uncle were King superfans. I still remember poring over their near-comprehensive library every time we went to visit them, begging my parents to let me crack one of those ensorcelling spines littered with shadows and skulls, only to be rebuffed again and again with replies of “Not until you’re older.” And, like so many other satanic panic-era bugaboos—Dungeons and Dragons, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Metallica—Mr. King fell through the cracks, relegated to that tweener territory of taboos that, by the time I was deemed “old enough” for them, I’d already largely lost interest. I took what I have to believe was a fairly unlikely path to adult horror fandom, having skipped directly from Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to House of Leaves and American Psycho, with nary a YA or mass market genre title in between.
Preston Fassel has weathered no such gap. He was born on Elm Street. Had Pennywise at his first birthday. His horror dedication is total. His knowledge, encyclopedic. He can speak with authority on most any era, subgenre, or franchise you care to mention, but his truest love—as evidenced by both the heartsleeved homage of his first novel Our Lady of the Inferno and his meticulously researched nonfiction work on the subject—is reserved for grindhouse cinema; the kind of cigarette-singed, drive-in opuscula that, in the age of a thousand microblogs and infinite streaming, still requires a restive, word-of-mouth champion to find its victim audience, one by one. Fassel, who runs the horror site DailyGrindhouse.com (to which, full disclosure, I am a sporadic contributor) has, to a degree few can claim, damn near seen it all. And it is that particular strain of compounding, scotophilic fandom—that compulsive itch to see more, and darker, and worse—that undergirds his dizzying new novel Beasts of 42nd Street, a deep dive into the XXX cesspool of the Deuce circa 1977, and one man’s fateful quest to first touch bottom, and then rise again.
Beasts of 42nd Street revolves around Andy Lew—a kind of husked out omni-junkie—a hopeless necromantic, a heroin addict who can barely move his own needle anymore, and a fanatical acolyte of all things splatter and gore. Consumed by his impossible love for a woman he knows only through the decaying reels of a snuff film (his most prized possession, and in many ways his sole remaining tether to his own humanity) Andy shuffles daily between his dingy rathole apartment, his projectionist gig at the Colossus Theater, and a sordid, strung out rolodex of acquaintances and establishments through which he feeds his various habits, his story unfolding through a series of increasingly shocking reveals and reversals of fortune as the razor-thin margins between his screen-addicted inner life and his dangerous reality begin to collapse around him. This is a guy who’s made far too many high-interest deals with “fuck you, pay me” people—the Devil not even the worst among them—forever robbing Peter to pay Paul without really quite understanding that no one in his world is operating in good faith. And Andy’s no Christ figure himself. There’s no guarantee his harrowing of Hell will end in salvation.
Through all this mythic grime, the book functions as masterful pastiche—both an homage to, and fresh entrant in the grindhouse horror tradition. From the talky interiors and the degenerate characters to the stage directional scene-setting and the faux filmic intertitles (not to mention the gnarly, B-movie cover art), Fassel has built Andy’s world in his own image, and we experience it through his image-obsessed eyes. There comes a passage early on—for my money, among the best Fassel’s ever written—where Andy, while screening the notoriously brutal Last House on Dead End Street, rages via inner monologue against the world’s lack of appreciation for this kind of filmmaking as legitimate art, seething that “it will never hang in a museum; never be discussed by a bunch of ghoulish, doughy-faced eggheads on a panel for needy closet case coeds.” Almost acting as a thesis statement, this moment both highlights the almost militant alienation that was part and parcel to outré outsider fandom in the days before the internet, while also giving a wink and a nod to our uber-commodified (and often toxic) fan culture of today (wherein Fassel himself has sat on many such panels discussing the very films Andy regards like Gollum with “his precious,” as his alone to defend and adore).
Likewise, there runs throughout Beasts of 42nd Street a scathing undercurrent of American apocalypticism—from hippies to nukes to ’nam and back again—that also plays for some dark, corollary laughs at our present climate of ever-cresting catastrophe. Drawing on his extensive, and hyperspecific knowledge of this time and place in cinema history (the book is littered with fascinating tidbits about both 42nd Street lore and real grindhouse films like the one mentioned above), Fassel makes a strong case that the United States has always been a nation on the brink—or at least one whose leaders have always profited from maintaining some version of that mass-produced perception. And through Andy’s struggle to grapple with the evils of the world around him, we see how the horror genre has, concurrently, always been our truest, and most reliable filter through which to confront our existential dreads—be they enormous and National-scale, or as small and intimate as a birthmark captured in a single celluloid frame. Everything Andy still dares to hope for may already be dead and gone, but it’s up to him to decide if the hoping alone is enough.
If there is any light to be found at the arrhythmic, black-tar heart of Beasts of 42nd Street, it manifests as a kind of grotesque, zombie chivalry—that antiquated notion whose death we’ve been loudly and repeatedly declaring since the early 19th century, reanimated Pet Sematary-style and unleashed upon the ugliest, and most desperately disenchanted inhabitants of the 20th. In Andy Lew, Fassel offers us his most profoundly personal monster yet—a burnout forced to reignite, lest he lose everything in the grips of a grindhouse Faustian nightmare—as certain of the horrendous love he bargains for as he is that he never had a soul to lose in the first place. Through his quixotic knight’s journey of addiction and abuse, ritual violence and abject despair, all the way to the end of New York City’s longest, darkest night, Andy takes his rightful place among both the great chivalric heroes of yore, and the great horror antiheroes of today, and in so doing finds a measure of perverse redemption which recalls, with regards to both his late beloved and chivalry in general the words of the genre master himself: “sometimes dead is better.”
Beasts of 42nd Street, by Preston Fassel. Forest Hill, Maryland: Cemetery Dance Publications, March 2023. 248 pages. $17.99, paper.
Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, was published in May 2023 by Whiskey Tit Books. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.
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