Our Lady of the Inferno is a gripping story of redemption and revenge set against the backdrop of New York’s 42nd Street and its sleazy underbelly. There is much in this novel to please the horror aficionado and the average reader alike.
“Spring, 1983. Sally Ride is about to go into space. Flashdance is a cultural phenomenon. And in Times Square, two very deadly women are on a collision course with destiny– and each other.
At twenty-one, Ginny Kurva is already legendary on 42nd Street. To the pimp for whom she works, she’s the perfect weapon– a martial artist capable of taking down men twice her size. To the girls she works with, she’s mother, teacher, and protector. To the little sister she cares for, she’s a hero. Yet Ginny’s bravado and icy confidence hides a mind at the breaking point, her sanity slowly slipping away as both her addictions and the sins of her past catch up with her…
At thirty-seven, Nicolette Aster is the most respected woman at the landfill where she works. Quiet and competent, she’s admired by the secretaries and trusted by her supervisors. Yet those around her have no idea how Nicolette spends her nights– when the hateful madness she keeps repressed by day finally emerges, and she turns the dump into her own personal hunting ground to engage in a nightmarish bloodsport…”
The irony in the title, Our Lady of the Inferno, with its reference to the biblical Virgin Mary, one tainted, corrupted, existing in an infernal hell, alerts the reader to the sort of novel talented author Preston Fassel has produced. The story has an urban feel, gritty, noir, providing the reader with a unique window into an American subculture of which prostitution forms a part, a world littered with 1980s pop culture references to comics, television and film. References to cinematic horror, often oblique, foreshadow the horror emerging in the lived reality of the narrative.
The story is the union of two portraits. A young woman prostitute and her disabled sister, and a psychopath with a vendetta.
Meet protagonist Ginny, a troubled young prostitute with a taste for the obliterating altered state of consciousness alcohol affords, and a commitment to education as the key to redemption for those in her charge, a small group of pornai at the Misanthrope Motel. She’s ruthless yet compassionate, obeys the rules that have been imposed upon her, and craves and strives for escape. Her younger sister, Tricia, is confined to a wheelchair. Ginny regards Tricia a burden she’s resigned to carry, shouldering the responsibility with long-suffering love. Their banter is funny, lighthearted. They bicker and squabble, tease and goad, and yet there’s an undertow of bitterness and regret, and overwhelming frustration, each of them craving the unobtainable, a better life. While Ginny drowns her anguish in the bottle, Tricia escapes into film and comics.
Through the sisters, Fassel explores an important moral theme, recognising that it is society that places young women like Ginny and her small group of pornai in such vulnerable situations and then ignores their existence. Further, that while prostitutes exist in a reality where almost all the predators are men, it’s a dangerous assumption because, sometimes, one of those predators will be a woman.
Antagonist Nicolette, at once disturbed and disturbing, slices into the main narrative, at first offering puzzling intrigue and menace. Fassel paints her portrait with texture and depth. She’s a troubled soul shut off from the world, obsessive compulsive, living her life through a set of complex rituals. Her mind is racked as much by fear and paranoia as it is loathing and rage. Hers is a quest for retribution. She blames, but as is often the case with childhood abuse and neglect, the target of her blame is misdirected. She’s a repulsive character yet the reader is drawn into sympathy even while revolted by her acts.
In Our Lady of the Inferno, Fassel weaves together the two narratives, building the suspense, the dread, leading the reader towards the inevitable, all the while inviting them to look at that which confronts, to ponder, to penetrate beneath the surface of taken for granted attitudes and norms.
The carnal aspects of the novel are juxtaposed with a theme of transcendence, embodied both literally and metaphorically in Sally Ride: cosmic, spiritual, aspirational and social transcendence, all are sought after by protagonist Ginny, for herself, her sister, and the pornai in her care, as she struggles to find liberation from her pimp and motel owner, the outright misanthropic Colonel.
Written with grace, restraint and poise, the prose is evocative, at times almost poetic; edgy when it needs to be, sometimes suggestive; insinuating rather than descending into gratuitous portrayals of gruesome acts. And when the horror does take place, its detail is measured and carefully crafted.
Fassel is a visual, visceral writer, one in full command of the craft. Capable of conjuring a charged atmosphere one moment, a poignant scene the next, the author’s descriptive powers are enviable, especially in his depictions of character: “His intellect perhaps enough to make up for his lack of physicality but his social manners too crippled to cement the relationships he is always reaching out towards.”
Our Lady of the Inferno is as much a page turner as a novel to inhabit and thoroughly absorb. The story is well-paced, unfolding petal by petal until its awful truth lies splayed. Fassel handles his subject well, demonstrating sensitivity and insight, the result of considerable research and a natural empathy. The result is a novel that is finely tuned, ironic and hard hitting in equal measure, rounded out with a touch of comedy and a penchant for the absurd.
You can purchase a copy of Our Lady of the Inferno here.