The Unreprinted: Mama by Ruby Jean Jensen

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.

Trigger Warning and the Rig Warrior Series – Book Review

By Zakary McGaha

The Rig Warrior series by William W. Johnstone is one of my favorite things in the world. As of now, I’ve read the first two of the original trilogy as well as the 2018 ghostwritten release, Trigger Warning.

I’d been a fan of Johnstone for a while when I read the first installment in the series, simply titled Rig Warrior. His old Zebra horror titles had won me over as a collector and reader, and I’d been slowly getting into his westerns and men’s adventure books.

What I liked about Rig Warrior was that it mixed pulpiness with right wing politics. This is something Johnstone is notorious for, and I can’t say I think it’s a bad thing. While I’m typically against “preachiness” when it comes to fiction, Johnstone’s books break the mold because of how off-the-wall crazy they are!

In other words, it’s hard to call them out for being “preachy,” because they’re not really toting themselves as super-important, super-serious works that will change the landscape of modern thinking. Sure, the fact that I share a lot of the same views probably has something to do with my love of the author’s work, but I’d be willing to bet that just about anyone could read him and find enjoyment.

The Rig Warrior series focuses on…the Rig Warrior! His uncool name is Barry Rivera, but everyone just calls him Dog. He’s basically a trucker who fights crime. Dog is everything you’d want in an action hero: tough, morally righteous and predisposed to being a loner. Plus, he says a bunch of cheesy shit.

Both Rig Warrior and Wheels of Death, the second novel in the series, are simple, action-packed reads that scream 80s. They, along with the third one (Eighteen-Wheel Avenger), were written by Johnstone alone (as opposed to being ghostwritten) and are all favorites among his fans…which is saying something, because, damn! He wrote a lot of series and many of them have numerous entries. Rig Warrior sticks out because it only has three…

…Until you get to Trigger Warning, which was written by a ghostwriter as are, obviously, all of Johnstone’s numerous releases each year, given that he’s no longer with us. It’s got a kind of V.C. Andrews thing going on: the Johnstone “feel” is easily identifiable among pulp books, so a lot of the newer stuff has all the elements heavily in place. Trigger Warning is no exception—the politics assault you right when you see the book on the shelf!

The plot follows a veteran, Jake, who’s going back for a master’s degree at a super-liberal, private college. Needless to say, an Antifa-like group is stirring stuff up, along with politically-motivated terrorists, and it’s up to Jake to save the day. As mentioned above, there are connections to the Rig Warrior series that pop up later on in the book, but I won’t spoil those.

What Trigger Warning ends up being is a pulpy, action-packed thriller flavored with politics…like most of Johnstone’s work. Despite agreeing with said politics, I felt that they took me out of the story because they were so “modern day.” The first two entries in the series took place in the 80s, so there was a fair amount of distance. It was far easier to get into the swing of the escapism.

The depiction of college life is exaggerated, of course…well, maybe not for U.C. Berkeley…but so is everything else in the book. The action, however, was a bit tamer than what I was already used to with the original works. This was probably due to the fact that most of the novel is a set-up for larger events, which, again, I don’t want to spoil.

In short, I didn’t enjoy Trigger Warning as much as the older Rig Warrior books, but hey, it’s like a soft reboot, so hopefully it’s the first of many new books.

What really boggles my mind is the reception this book got BEFORE IT WAS EVEN RELEASED. One article that was brought to my attention did a piss-poor job of convincing me to be triggered by it as the article’s author obviously was.

Trigger Warning goes after “snowflake” culture and provides a jest-filled alternative to mainstream, left wing ideals. If that gets under your skin so much you have to write an article slamming Kensington Books for publishing it and asserting that Johnstone’s niece is riding the coattails of her beloved uncle, then the book has obviously done its job.

Not all fiction is meant to cater to any one person’s ideology. I’ve read, and enjoyed, a ton of left-leaning fiction, and I don’t plan on tailoring my reading list to fit my politics. If you’re going to shame publishers for putting out stuff that doesn’t adhere to what you deem acceptable, you’re only going to succeed in making yourself look narrow-minded and reactionary.

The William W. Johnstone brand is doing exactly what it’s been doing for decades. It’s not going to stop when it still sells millions of copies and draws internet attention. But, let us not forget, internet attention is a fleeting sort of thing while great books can live forever.

People are still finding old Johnstone books in used bookstores. I can’t tell you how many “booktube” videos I’ve seen devoted to him. His legacy lives on because the fiction under his brand has a fun, action-packed quality that is perfect for endless hours of being glued to the pages. It’s that type of magic that transcends politics.

Despite Trigger Warning being my least favorite book in the series, I still think it deserves a solid 3.5/5.

Zakary McGaha is a writer living in Tennessee. Books, movies, and dogs are his favorite things. His horror-comedy novella Locker Arms is available from Kensington Gore Publishing.