The Unreprinted: Mama by Ruby Jean Jensen
by Zakary McGaha
In today’s installment of Ben Arzate’s The Unreprinted, author Zakary McGaha takes a look at a buried treasure from the mind that gave us Baby Doll and Chain Letter.
A lot of die hard pulp fiction aficionados are okay with the fact that a large percentage of the trashy stories aren’t worth the paper (the cheap paper) they’re printed on. No one publisher exemplifies this more than Zebra Books. In the 80s, as almost everyone already knows, they were a staple of the horror boom. Now…they do romance and shit.
Ruby Jean Jensen is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence in popularity these days, along with the books of her publisher. Or, perhaps it’s better said that the covers of these books are becoming more popular. After all, if you ask anyone what their favorite 80s skeleton covers are, there’s a 90% chance Zebra will be mentioned and an equally good chance that at least one of Ruby’s books will be on the list.
Ruby is also remembered for her killer doll books. Annabelle is, perhaps, her most well-known doll book and the best one, as far as I’ve read, but she put out quite a few novels in this category. The focus of today’s Unreprinted column is 1983’s Mama, a killer doll book not as shitty as Victoria but nowhere near as awesome as Annabelle.
Mama follows the exact same topic all of Ruby’s books that I’ve read and, possibly, all of the other ones follow: children in peril. This time, there’s a girl named Dorrie. Her father just died, so her family has moved to an old, Victorian house in the middle of nowhere.
If that premise sounds gothic-y, you’d be onto something—before writing for Zebra, Ruby wrote for the Gothic genre (or “romantic suspense,” as it’s sometimes called). I’m a die hard fan of the Gothics.
As far as modern-ish times go, they comprise the first wave of the paperback horror boom; their covers all featured women running from mansions, and their plots all featured women inheriting mansions that have ominous pasts.
There may have been something predating them, but I’m fairly certain I’m right. Regardless, Gothics are like Zak-nip for me. I’ve not read as many of them as I would like (once you’ve read one, you’ve read 95% of them (even more so than westerns), but the ones I have read all ruled. Subtlety and atmosphere are two of the biggest draws to Gothics.
After they died out and “horror” became a thing, along with covers with dancing skeletons and super-violent plots, many Gothic writers made the transition quite easily. Florence Stevenson is another one off the top of my head, although there are many others.
Since Ruby ended up writing for Zebra, I think it’s safe to say she was given the green-light to stay within her Gothic roots. The editor was probably like, “Okay, you can keep up the Victorian mansion stuff. Just make a lot of people die and add in some monsters.”
Mama is pretty much that, nothing more and nothing less. It’s within the subset of Ruby’s novels that follow a frigid formula. I’ve never understood why writers would write the same story over and over again, but if you’re making a living as a pulp writer and the same shit keeps selling, I can sort of sympathize…but c’mon!
Mama is exactly like Jump Rope which is exactly like Lost and Found which is very similar in structure to Wait and See. On certain technicalities these novels are different—they don’t all involve family members dying—but they’re all lame in the same ways.
The “kid’s in peril” shtick can only work for so many novels before faithful readers are saying, “Okay, which kid’s gonna become obsessed with keeping the family safe from the supernatural bogey only to end up dying, and which family member is gonna act like they don’t give a shit?”
The cheesiness of Mama isn’t a good thing, in my opinion. While its cover may promise spookiness, its words deliver boredom. Nothing particularly interesting from a character study perspective takes place at any point, despite the fact that the entire family has been uprooted and placed in an old house full of toys that suck people’s breath away for sustenance.
No one cared. No one did anything. Nothing happened. The body count in this one was slim to none, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but by page 50 the reader knows that violence is the only thing that could possibly make the novel interesting.
It probably sounds like I’m dogging on ole RJJ, but I’m not. There simply isn’t a lot to say about this book. It’s for that reason that I’m ending the review here. Mama gets two stars for readability and an extra star for not being as bad as Victoria. Calling it a bonafide three-star book feels weird, but in relation to some of her other stuff, it’s decent.
Now, why exactly do I keep reading Ruby’s books if I hate them so much? Answer: I don’t hate them. She’s fairly dependable, but if you’re unlucky enough to get one of her more formulaic works, you’re certainly not in for a treat.
Home Sweet Home, Celia, and Annabelle are three of my favorite novels. They’re proof that Ruby was a fantastic writer. But, like many pulp maestros in the 80s, she was pressured to keep up with the market.
Zebra was the perfect vehicle for her to be able to have a ton of books littering drugstore racks across the nation, but, sadly, it was a short-term interest sort of thing. If only she would have focused on producing more novels like the three I just mentioned, and less like Mama, her awful work wouldn’t have drowned out her fantastic work, and, thus, she wouldn’t find herself in such an obscure, niche-like section of readers’ consciousnesses these days.
One can only hope. I, for one, wish Valancourt would bring back her good stuff. Readers don’t deserve collector’s prices for good books…and they certainly don’t deserve them for platitudinous pieces of putrescence like Mama.