Initial Thoughts: This is the fifth Dark Forces book, and by now you already know that everything is a portal to demonic possession. But even without the benefit of previous books you’d have probably heard of this, the most 80s demon trap imaginable. Of all the things the 80s Satanic Panic subculture assured us were gateways to hell, rock music was probably top of the list. So it’s strange that this series waded through dolls, stage magic, Ouija boards, and penny whistles before fetching up here.
So call Tipper Gore and slap a sticker on it: we’re going in.
Characters: If you can keep any of the teenagers straight you’re doing better than I am. Off the top of my head, Penny is the good girl and Mike experienced pain. (I don’t know what it says about me that that’s how my memory chose to file them).
Looking at the actual book, we have Kip Monroe on keyboard; Roy Henderson (technically the leader of the band even though Kip seems to make most of the decisions) on guitar; Penny Padgett, who wears a gold cross, on guitar; Sue Gallagher on bass; and Mike Levin on drums. Wait, there are five of them? Also: the girls play instruments? I guess due to how much time is spent describing the improvements to their voices, I’d kind of forgotten that. Anyway, together they’re The Coastals, a cover band.
We also have the teens’ parents, the only one of whom stands out being Mike’s mom, Mrs. Levin, and that only because she’s a single parent who gets a lewd suggestion made to/about her by a demon.
We have Father Ahern and Father Ryan, but not until page 115 onwards.
And we have, importantly, Chort, who dresses like a Russian mobster from the 90s, all gold chains and open-necked silk shirts. No one in this entire book (until Father Ahern) questions the oddity of that name, or even whether it’s a surname or given name or nickname or what.
Recap: The Coastals are playing at Club Neptune when the tackiest man alive shows up.
He was “cool” all right, the way he sat there calmly sipping his drink and smoking through that gold cigarette holder. And the casual yet expensive way he was dressed–black silk sport jacket over a bright red golf shirt open at the neck to reveal a thick gold chain.pp. 1-2
That they think this is “cool” tells you everything you will ever need to know about why The Coastals are an unsuccessful cover band playing lunch-hour gigs in Maine.
Oh, wait, they’re in high school. I feel bad for criticizing them now. A lunchtime gig in an actual nightclub is not terrible by high school band standards.
The man negs Kip in an “you’re almost good” way and gives him a business card. He’s named Chort.
Stay away from horribly dressed men in gold chains, but particularly far away if they’re named Chort.
They have a gig somewhere else and end up owing more for food than they’re getting paid. Ouch. The club’s manager agrees to take the loss, which is kind considering he’s kicking them out early due to losing regulars during their gig. The band hit the kitchen one last time to ease their pain, which feels unsporting. They actually order enough to fill the fridge of their van. Little assholes. No wonder dark forces are eyeing them.
So now they have no job, forty dollars, and a loose plan to head into the Catskills and either pick up a gig or just some jobs waiting tables, either of which sounds better to them than giving up and going home. But first they’re spending the weekend taking a side trip to Woodstock, because it’s right there. And then Kip remembers that Chort (“Chort Vozmee,” to be precise) had a club called Woodstock; he pulls out Chort’s business card, and they all abruptly decide to go to Watertown, Connecticut and find Chort instead.
“It’s not the same Woodstock, but it’s still a Woodstock.”p. 17
My head hurts.
“Woodstock” turns out to be a former roadhouse that Chort now uses for meetings and rehearsals and as a sound studio. Chort invites the kids to “pile into the kitchen and help yourselves,” and he’ll send someone to bring them to the ritual. Wait, what?
I’d leave at that point, but they’re more hungry than cautious, so they don’t. This is starting to feel like a version of Scooby Doo where everyone is Shaggy. Okay, sure, things feel a littly demony, but there are free sandwiches.
The Coastals get to sit in a sound booth and watch the lamest ritual ever. My children routinely did spookier stuff than this when they were toddlers.
There were several men and women dressed in black. They were standing in a circle linked together holding hands. They began to move slowly clockwise, then turned and began to move more rapidly counterclockwise. Again they shifted directions, increasing the speed with which they moved.p. 20
That’s not creepy, not even when Chort explains they’re a coven of witches. Points to him for being honest, though. He tries to upsell the coven by telling The Coastals that Sarah, the “pretty blonde girl” in the coven, used to be homely and had acne. Mike, who has acne, seems interested. Penny shows a shred of situational awareness.
“I don’t know if coming here was a very good idea,” Penny said, touching the small gold cross that hung on the chain around her neck.p. 22
But by page 37 she’s overcome her reluctance and The Coastals are learning how to hold hands and rotate. This is apparently step one on the path to becoming “America’s number one rock group,” a phrase I hear in Casey Kasem‘s voice. That is one hell of a boomer-tier ambition. Maybe they should change their name to The Coastal Grandmothers.
Step two is marginally more ominous. To speed things up (don’t get excited: their lives may speed up but this book does not), rather than have them learn every tedious ritual, Chort wants to share his knowledge and power with them directly.
This involves yet more tedious thirteen-step circling, but this time they have to chant NOW TAKE MY WILL over and over. So they do, and gain instant musical ability. Chort dicks around with them for a while, taking the power away and giving it back and taking it away and we get it already.
The next morning the group debate whether or not they want to accept Chort’s bargain, the terms of which have yet to be stated. A thing that kept happening to me while I read this book is that I kept thinking they had already made the bargain, and then it turned out to not be really really agreed upon yet. This happened, like, five times.
“What happens if he wants fifty percent of our earnings?”p. 53
Imagine living in an era where that was the worst thing you could think of a record producer doing. Amazing.
Penny speaks up to say that Chort scares her, but Roy pressures her until she decides it’s easier to go along with the group than go home and explain what’s been happening.
Chort’s intended use of the group is genuinely a little creepy, though:
“Through you, I shall prove these powers,” Chort said. “Through your success, we shall attract others to an understanding of the supernatural.”
“If you can do what you say–make us into a great rock group–I’ll go out and drag kids in kicking and screaming,” Kip said.p.57
Well, that got dark fast. I know Kip is supposed to be joking, but post-Gary Glitter it isn’t entirely funny.
The author quickly distracts us by having us die of secondhand embarrassment.
Then she sat straight up. “Penny, they’ve grown! They’re…big!”
Penny didn’t have the slightest idea what Sue was talking about.
“Penny, you aren’t…you’re not flat anymore.”
Penny looked down. She had long been teased about her boyish figure and it had been somewhat embarrassing to her. She pulled up her shortie nightgown and looked in the mirror on the wall of the small compartment.
“I’ve got a bust!”
Penny jumped up and down, repeating her words. “I’ve got a bust, I’m not flat, I’m…womanly.”pp. 60-61
Is…is this how “Rex Sparger,” bless his soul, thinks women talk or act? “I’m womanly”? Seriously?
The girls go outside and find the boys absorbed in their new equipment (by which I mean drums and keyboards and whatever). Everyone looks marginally better in a way that adds up to being “a group with decided sex appeal,” a phrase so dry it’s put me off sex entirely.
BUT. They each develop a painful red mark, sort of like a boil or an insect bite, every time they play. It goes away when they aren’t playing, but they’re going to have to wear stage makeup to hide it. That explains the KISS-knockoff look on the cover. (Also this sounds really familiar–the Satanic raised red insect mark, I mean–but I can’t place it).
Chort shows up and trades his huge gold chain for Penny’s tiny gold cross, but he won’t accept it from her hand, instead urging her to destroy it. This is really hitting all the tropes.
Their new sound doesn’t go with the name “The Coastals,” so they decide to call themselves Sabbat.
Next up: New York. On their way a cop tries to pull them over for speeding, but Roy stares at him with glowing eyes and the cop clutches his head in pain and pulls over. Sue and Penny are horrified, and Mike feels afraid for the first time.
In New York Chort provides a suite at the Plaza, with cash and credit cards and designer clothes and abundant food. Penny and Sue get calls from their mothers, who are concerned enough about the strange turn of events to come to New York.
They show up the next morning, and are completely and understandably un-reassured to find their daughters look physically different and have enough money to pay for their mothers’ rooms at the Plaza. Penny and Sue tell a lot of lies about diet and exercise and push-up bras, and claim their new manager is out of town and can’t meet them.
No parent on earth, not even in the 80s, would believe a word of this. Even Point Horror parents would be suspicious by now, assuming they came back to town and heard about it.
Meanwhile, Chort arranges for Sabbat to be the replacement opening act at a benefit concert:
Chort hung up the telephone. “It seems they were involved in an accident,” he said quietly.
“Was it a bad accident?” Sue inquired.
“I would call it a very good accident,” Chort said.p. 87
This is a lot like how Rosemary’s husband Guy got his big acting break in Rosemary’s Baby.
During their performance at the benefit, Sabbat do some odd things: grow to gigantic size, levitate, bleed out their mouths and fingers. For some reason the audience accept this as “special effects.” Okay then.
Chort asks if the kids are satisfied with their bargain, and presents them with heavy gold chains bearing medallions with strange symbols. Outside record executives are pounding on the door (and phoning incessantly), eager to sign the kids to a recording contract. Once again I am tricked into thinking this is it, they have a deal with Chort, the bargain is done etc. but no: they’re still not done done.
“When you finish your concert,” Chort continued, “there shall be a presentation. The record will not be gold, it will be platinum.”
Kip grinned. “One million albums! Now that’s fame.”
There was instant agreement. Chort would have kept his promise. His contract would be fulfilled.p. 102
Mike has a sleepless night, bothered by the insect-bite mark on his cheek and burning pain throughout his body. When the pain subsides he cackles, is shocked by the sound coming from his own lips, and realizes “something” is inside of him.
The four groups of parents plan to come to New York. The kids decide to let them sit in on a rehearsal–which will also be attended by a bunch of music executives–to sort of ease them in to Sabbat’s new image. Roy’s father hopes they had a lawyer look over their contract with Chort, and is left feeling uneasy about Roy’s weird evasive answers.
The group are all over the radio, and their upcoming concert and newly pressed album (made from their practice spellcasting sessions at “Woodstock”) are a media sensation.
Chort tortures them a little to keep them in line. Mike wakes up the next morning writhing in pain and vomiting green bile. They begin to suspect this bargain may not be the sweet deal they thought it was.
Penny and Sue’s parents arrive, so the girls take them shopping. When Penny’s mother wants to go inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the girls start screaming. They have to be literally dragged in, cursing and spitting at the sight of a priest. The priest, Father Ahern, hands the fathers his card and tells them to call him, because he’s recognized a glaringly obvious case of demonic possession.
He discusses it with the girls’ parents the next day. He’s horrified to learn the girls are part of “Sabbat”–he’s heard their music on the radio–and have made a deal with “Chort,” which he recognizes as the Russian word for the devil.
There are several pages’ worth of discussion about the stages of possession, the worsening prognosis as the stages progress, and the steps involved in authorizing an exorcism. I half expected Ed Warren to pop up and offer to help, but no. Instead he’ll have someone called Father Ryan assist him in making a diagnosis.
They’re cool priests, by which I mean desperately uncool but still cooler than Chort:
“Oh, I shouldn’t worry too much. I shall wear what we call “street clothes,” and Father Ryan might have been called a “hippie” in the youth of your generation.” Father Ahern laughed. “Father Ryan looks more out of place with the collar than without it.”p. 124
The boys’ parents arrive and are updated. Fathers Ahern and Ryan attend the rehearsal as guests of the family. Between what they observe there (giantism, bleeding, the lamest lyrics ever recorded) and further discussions with the parents, they gather enough information to convince themselves and the bishop that an exorcism is required.
Father Ryan finally appeared. “Everything has been arranged,” he announced. “There’s nothing more we can do right now except wait and try to enjoy the concert.”p. 134
Wow. That is one stone cold priest.
There’s another fortuitous accident, this time a plane crash involving the main act, so Sabbat will be the only ones performing. This would be a more striking plot point if it hadn’t already happened.
They perform songs with songs like “Souls on Fire” and “Porn Shop” and the audience start cutting themselves with pocket knives out of…I don’t know, enthusiasm? Contagious Satanism?
Then the group step off stage and are immediately grabbed and dragged to the dressing room (this seems superfluous: surely they were already headed to the dressing room?), where they’re exorcised for an entire chapter. It’s exactly like every exorcism scene you’ve ever read, except the part where the demon blasphemes is a touch more graphic than I’d have expected from 80s YA:
“These priests,” the voice continued, “they have talked about you, Mrs. Levin. They are going to take you, Mrs. Levin. They have already planned it.”
The priest stuttered. “That’s a damned lie.”
“Don’t you think Mrs. Levin is pretty?” the voice boomed at Father Ahern.
Father Ahern’s jaw tensed, but he held his tongue.
The demon would not let it rest. “He lusts for you, Mrs. Levin. He will trick you, Mrs. Levin. The priest will have you, Mrs. Levin.”p. 142
Well, that was uncomfortable to read.
The exorcism is a success, so the world will forevermore be spared any more of Sabbat’s awful lyrics. They go back to being The Coastals, like immediately: they step back out on the stage, explain they used to be Sabbat, and perform A Hard Day’s Night for their probably bewildered audience. The end.
Well, there’s an epilogue, which is a letter from Penny to Father Ahern, to catch him up on how well they’re all doing. I’d be nervous about writing to a priest who might or might not have been planning to have sex with a friend’s mother, but maybe I’m just prudish.
Final Thoughts: This is a solid, hits-every-beat possession story. It’s a little slow moving, but if you love creeping but obvious hints of evil you’ll probably like it. I enjoyed it.
Also, Chort’s plan to use rock music to lead teenagers everywhere to evil by convincing them “you’re damned if you don’t and you’re damned if you do, and it really doesn’t matter by the time you’re through, ’cause the world ain’t square and neither are you” is, uh…look, I get that popular culture can alter society for the worse, but those lyrics would probably cause teens to convert to classical music and church attendance immediately.