First things first: this might be the most soused horror novel I've ever read. Everybody's always topping off their drink, or sneaking one, or suggesting they grab one together and talk, or exclaiming they need one. They're drinking while they're frantic with worry and dread over the horrible things happening to their town of Holland County and to their family members. One guy's drinking during a seance! It's like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf up in here. This is all okay with me. Effigies (Dell Books, November 1980), with its cover of a leering visage and its lurid stepback, looks like just another creepy satanic kid paperback original of its day, with a no-name author (sorry, William K. Wells!) and lacking even the most rudimentary of relevant blurbs (what, no "Scarier than The Exorcist!", no "More shocking than The Other!", no "Makes Rosemary's Baby look like Love Story!"?). Seems like a real, well, loser. Yet I totes dug it and I did not expect to totes dig it.
The story proper: a young suburban mother, Nicole Bannister, a children's book author and illustrator, receives a terrible shock when she finds a package delivered to her contains a child's amputated finger. While police chief Frank Liscomb and medical examiner Thomas Blauvelt begin their investigation looking for a dead body, rumors start to fly in this upscale artist community that there's witchy satanic coven up in the woods, a spot called Job's Camp, occupied by young itinerants who a few years before would've been called hippies. Now they're seen—well, one of them, a crude, abusive yet charismatic 20-something named Freddie Loftus, is seen as a Charles Manson follower, perhaps eager to start his own murderous cult...
Lots of characters, get ready: Nicole's husband Jonathan, a commercial artist working in the (dangerous) city; his colleague Henry Dixon, a bitter drunk whose tipple is Boodles gin (crime readers may note this was Travis McGee's drink as well); Dixon's wife Estelle, who feels intellectually inferior in this environments of creatives, has been digging pseudoscience as of late and has discovered the Ouija board; Father Daniel Conant, a darkly handsome yet friendly, thoughtful young priest who wishes to help Nicole deal with her shock; Maria Braithwaite, a worldly European sophisticate who eyes Americans as shallow and impulsive; Judge Oliver Marquith, expansive and greedy, eager to purchase the plot of land called Job's Camp; and more. Also: little Leslie Bannister, the girl on the cover, whose invisible playmates bode unwell for her and well everyone; babysitter Susan Dixon, who straddles the line between dutiful daughter and drug and sex experimenter up in the woods; Ken Brady, maybe her boyfriend, maybe not, he hangs around too much with that creep Freddie Loftus.
Also, weird natural stuff is happening in town: the oppressive heat, the appearance of giant beetles and rattlesnakes, darkening skies, your general gloom and doom ("There seemed to be a giant pall over Holland County, like a tarpaulin covering an open grave"). To get Nicole's mind off all the unpleasantness, Jonathan throws her a birthday party and everybody's there having a high old time. One guy talks about the book he's gonna write, another declares Wertmuller can't compare to Herzog, another simply must get this recipe, and what about the "sex orgies" and LSD up in Job's Camp? Estelle and Maria and Father Conant talk about seances. Dixon gets drunk. Presents for Nicole are opened: lots of booze to ensure the party continues. And then one present in particular that no one recognizes and you can probably guess what's coming.
Meanwhile Freddie is holding his stoned gang up in the woods spellbound with his "sermons" on the illusory constructs of good and evil. Soon they're gonna have a special night where all boundaries are crossed (wait till you get a load of "the pentagon"!). This night of Rites ends in a climax of sacrifice, violent sex, and whatnot. But of course! It sends Blauvelt and Liscomb into more frantic efforts to find out who Freddie Loftus really is, and if he's behind the gruesome packages sent to Nicole Bannister. Wells takes his time drawing it all together—Effigies is not quite 500 pages—and there are ugly, guilty revelations a-plenty about Freddie, about Nicole, about Father Conant to come. The title too will become clear. Disgustingly, bizarrely, satanically so.
While it's not a great horror novel by any means, Effigies provided me with some solid hours of reading enjoyment, probably because I was expecting so little. I never once went "Oh come on!" or "Are you kidding me?" or rolled my eyes at a clunky descriptive phrase, an amateur analogy, or a wooden exclamation like one too often finds in horror paperbacks—Wells, whoever he is, is a serviceable writer. The death and degradation of the '60s revolutionary spirit is part of the novel's setup, and Wells does a nice background sketch of the era, how the '70s came on and slowly laid waste to those ideals. I did not get a sense of "You kids get off my lawn!" from the author's stance; seemed fairly judgment-free to me. Everybody felt this way after Manson, no? Maybe the author was saying something about how those lofty ideals, once corrupted by time and age and carnal pleasures and the lure of society at large, opened up a place for evil to slip in. But the Church also has its faultlines ripe for exploitation. What difference is there between Freddie Loftus and Father Conant?
As jaded Maria Braithwaite muses perceptively:
How little Americans know about spiritualism, mystery, the inexplicable, the unforeseen... Astrology, yoga, Buddhism, meditation, all become fads, something to "do"... to show off like a new possession. Psychiatry had been twisted, warped, torn asunder and completely reshaped into a meaningless mass of pseudoscience... And now the American masses had lately discovered the occult. As though it had never been there in the first place!
Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub were new characters in the American drama...
What will these Americans do with their new fad?