Kate’s Review: “Secret Santa”

Book: “Secret Santa” by Andrew Shaffer

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, November 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Description: The Office meets Stephen King, dressed up in holiday tinsel, in this fun, festive, and frightening horror-comedy set during the horror publishing boom of the ’80s, by New York Times best-selling satirist Andrew Shaffer.

Out of work for months, Lussi Meyer is desperate to work anywhere in publishing. Prestigious Blackwood-Patterson isn’t the perfect fit, but a bizarre set of circumstances leads to her hire and a firm mandate: Lussi must find the next horror superstar to compete with Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Peter Straub. It’s the ’80s, after all, and horror is the hottest genre.

But as soon as she arrives, Lussi finds herself the target of her co-workers’ mean-spirited pranks. The hazing reaches its peak during the company’s annual Secret Santa gift exchange, when Lussi receives a demonic-looking object that she recognizes but doesn’t understand. Suddenly, her coworkers begin falling victim to a series of horrific accidents akin to a George Romero movie, and Lussi suspects that her gift is involved. With the help of her former author, the flamboyant Fabien Nightingale, Lussi must track down her anonymous Secret Santa and figure out the true meaning of the cursed object in her possession before it destroys the company—and her soul.

Review: Thank you to Quirk Books and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Happy Holidays, everyone! I know that it’s kind of a weird holiday season for SO MANY reasons, but I hope that everyone is making do with the circumstances and being safe as well as finding joy and togetherness. Even if that means doing it via FaceTime. In our house we’re wrapping up Hanukkah and getting ready to have a solitary Christmas, which means I’m digging into books when I’m not eating all the latkes. If you’re like me and like it when the horror genre and Yuletide combine, enjoying movies like “Gremlins”, or “Black Christmas” (more the old one. The new one was cathartic, but also SUPER hamfisted), then “Secret Santa” by Andrew Shaffer may be the kind of book you want with your holiday cheer.

Is this a scene from “Gremlins”, or is this me stuffing my face with Christmas cookies? (source)

Shaffer is known for his satire and cheeky humor, so it’s safe to say that “Secret Santa” isn’t the scariest book you could read this time of year. Luckily, I wasn’t expecting it to be terrifying, so that worked for me, for the most part. I liked Lussi, our ambitious protagonist, as she fits the ‘ambitious woman in a man’s world’ mold in a way that adds to the story. You understand her wants and her determination to succeed in the publishing industry, especially as a young woman in the 1980s. I liked her sarcasm and her wit, and I felt that her characterization fit into the story as a whole, reflecting a snide and cutthroat time and place. The mystery as to what is going on at Blackwood-Patterson when things start to go awry is a slow build, and it reads less like a horror novel building up the dread and more like a strange whodunnit. By the time we circle back to the actual origin on what is going on (I don’t want to spoil TOO much, but do know that occultism and Nazis do enter into it. Take that as you will), the lack of scares was a little frustrating. That isn’t to say that there aren’t creepy elements involved with this tale. Let’s just say that if you don’t like dolls, you will find a lot to be scared about. But overall, the scary elements are very obviously harkening to a very specific time in horror publishing, when pulp paperbacks were the rage and strange concepts weren’t hard to come by (I seriously suggest looking into “Paperbacks from Hell” by Grady Hendrix if you want more information on this). This will work for some people, but it may leave others in the cold.

But what worked the most was that this book is clearly a love letter to 1980s horror fiction, be it paperback pulp horror novels or films that involve tiny beings that wreak havoc and gaslight those around them into thinking they are losing their minds. You can tell that Shaffer really loves the horror of this era, and the winks and nods to the genre are fun for someone like me who has an affection for it. Sometimes the 80s references in general got a little heavy handed, but you feel like you’re in on the joke, so I was able to deal with it with minimal eye rolling. This book is very clearly a love letter to a very specific kind of fiction, and I, for one, really loved seeing it all unfold. You can just feel the fun he was having writing this book, and frankly, that’s charming as hell.

“Secret Santa” is a tongue in cheek ode to horror paperbacks with a festive holiday bow placed right on top. If you’re looking for some holiday creeps, it could be the right book to have by the fire with a glass of eggnog.

Rating 7: Entertaining and sardonic, “Secret Santa” has some Christmas fun as well as some creepy moments if you don’t like dolls. It’s not terribly scary, but it has more than enough 80s horror nostalgia to make up for it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Secret Santa” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “Creepy Christmas” to be sure!

Find “Secret Santa” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

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