Andrew Shaffer’s Secret Santa takes us to a bygone era: 1980s publishing, when thick horror paperbacks bulged in supermarket checkout aisles, and their authors lurked in the back of Waldenbooks, waiting to sign your copy between bumps of coke. Shaffer is the author of the Obama Biden mystery series and humor books like How to Survive a Sharknado, and with Secret Santa he gives us a Christmas horror comedy that becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Despite editing a series of bestselling horror novels, Lussi Meyer lost her job at Broken Angel Publishing during a recent merger. After working her way down the list of every publishing house in Midtown Manhattan, she finds herself at her last option: Blackwood-Patterson, a venerable publisher of literary fiction across the street from Tompkins Square Park. Blackwood’s list runs from “snooty” to “only the Pulitzer committee has read it,” so Lussi has little hope. But she doesn’t expect to end up in a near-screaming match with Xavier Blackwood, the ancient publisher of the ancient house. He sneers at her track record despite all her hits, and scoffs at the idea of horror as a worthy use of one’s time. As she attempts to storm out, Lussi trips, falls against a bookcase, and dislodges a small, demonic doll nestled among the books.
It’s a Percht. In Lussi’s experience, and in the stories of her Oma’s that she can only dimly remember, it’s an ugly-cute talisman meant to ward off evil. But it soon becomes clear that “Perky,” as she comes to call him, has a diabolical mind of his own. Traditionally, Percht serve “Frau Perchta,” a pagan goddess of the Alps, and she’s possibly related to Frau Holle, who appears in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The Perchten are supposed to visit during the Twelve Nights of Christmas, either bestowing gifts or driving evil spirits away… but Perky seems to have gotten his wires crossed a bit, and wants to encourage as much evil as possible.
The novel’s opening is a little slow, but once the plot kicks into gear, the action hops through enough gruesome scenes of “accidents,” eerie foreshadowing, and creepy Perchten encounters to make this a festive horror read. But where it really excels is in a subgenre I never expected to see: publishing humor.
To be clear, I think anyone who’s ever dealt with true horror—office politics—will enjoy this book. But if you’re an editor, a writer, or, especially, a former intern, you will revel in this sucker. It’s all here: the eccentric art director constantly frazzled by last-minute cover updates, the copyeditors who seem to have crawled out of bomb shelters, mumbling about that time they missed a typo in a Muriel Spark novel back in the ‘60s, the junior editorial team with perfect hair and perfect clothes, working in lockstep and terrified to say anything the Senior Editor doesn’t like, and, again, the poor interns. So eager. So expendable.
Shaffer adds extra publishing-centric twists to his humor, for instance when a person is “accidentally” flattened by falling manuscripts: “Cal had no memory of the accident, but he’d been lying there in pain for hours, unable to move under the weight of the slush pile.” And every social event (including funerals) is seen as an excuse for an open bar. In order to prove herself, Lussi has to conquer the impossible task of getting agents to work during the second half of December. It’s all note-perfect.
Shaffer balances the humor with the horror beautifully throughout. He’s especially adept at placing a talented, pop culture-aware book editor in a horror story, because Lussi notices ridiculous clichés when they happen—but that doesn’t make the monsters any less real—and she realizes it when she’s walking into a trap—but sometimes she still has to walk into that trap and hope for the best. So you get moments like:
“She’d come across a fair number of occult texts in her day. They were a staple of horror fiction. Real-life occult books always disappointed, though. They were less repositories of forbidden knowledge and more repositories for bad writing.”
“’How much do you know about the Nazis and the occult?’ Agnes said calmly as she used the bowie knife to slice the fruitcake.”
Shaffer also has a great way of checking in with each element of the story in a way that never feels labored, but pulls all the threads together neatly. For instance, when a group of cultists attempt to sacrifice a helpless victim? They tie her up with a string of Christmas lights, because this is, after all, a Christmas story—colored lights would be readier to hand than rope or twine. (It just makes sense.) But to build on the fun class/’80s yuppie element, Shaffer makes sure that the cruelest moment of the sacrifice comes when the head cultist makes a point of telling everyone the victim’s Coach bag is imitation.
It’s moments like those that make the book more than just a pastiche of gimmicks or Stranger Things-style references. Not to short the ‘80s setting, which is built through offhand details like attending a book signing in the aforementioned Waldenbooks—but not just any Waldenbooks, it’s the one in the mall under the World Trade Center building. When people drink coffee, it’s either regular, black, pre-Starbucks coffee, or it’s General Foods International Suisse Mocha. Lussi herself is a resident of Staten Island, taking the ferry to work every day in an ongoing homage to Working Girl. And then there’s this: “She combed her bangs down instead of fluffing them. A man was dead—this was not the time nor place for Aqua Net.”
Anyone who has worked in publishing or likes a little Christmas cheer with their scares—or misses the days when “horror” meant a chunky black paperback and “gothic” meant V.C. Andrews had once again written from beyond the veil—will enjoy Andrew Shaffer’s latest. I recommend pairing it with a mug of cocoa and a healthy respect for Austrian hobgoblins.