Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Smoke by Ruby Jean Jensen (1988): When the Smoke is Going Down

It may surprise you to learn that on my used bookstore searches I very rarely see any of the dozen or so titles Ruby Jean Jensen (1927 - 2010) had published by Zebra Books throughout the 1980s and '90s. Guess they've become collectibles going by the inflated prices being asked for used copies on Amazon. Then on my recent trip to the Iliad Bookshop I happened upon a copy of Smoke (Zebra, Jan 1988) that was in acceptable condition, for $1.50.

I should have paid less. They should have paid me to take it off their shelves.

If you read Smoke on the sly as a curious pre-teen you might have fond memories of it, but for a 45-year-old adult man with some experience reading horror, the novel offers about as much substance as its title. While not unutterably wretched as that other Zebra perennial William W. Johnstone, nothing in Smoke offered any surprise or delight, nor even any tacky thrills. Jensen's prose is workmanlike, serviceable, obvious; if you were a creative writing teacher you wouldn't fail her, because the grammar and punctuation seem to be mostly correct and there are neither sentence fragments nor run-ons. However metaphor, analogy, insight, wit, humor: such tools seem to be missing from Ms. Jensen's creative toolbox. My god it's all dull dull dull and dry as mummy dust. But maybe not to a 12-year-old, or a person who was not really a reader, as the story is told in a straightforward manner and the characters seem to have motivation, I guess. It was an enormous uphill trudge for me to even skim through the book.

You can guess the ending too of course. Books like Smoke and writers like Jensen simply are not, nor ever have been, my kind of horror whatsoever. I avoided these skull-adorned novels back in the day because... well, because my impression was, going by the ones I've read, precisely correct. I feel kinda bad criticizing Smoke for what it's not—a novel for an adult—and yet I have to be honest: it's not good or fun or interesting, and every book should be at least one of those things. Smoke alas is none.

Though I still think some of her covers are fun


Padded Cell said...

If I remember right, the genie rapes people, so it's not *literally* a kids' book.

It is true that the book isn't much fun, but the artwork of most '80s horror paperbacks, particularly the Zebra ones, set my expectations so low that I was pleasantly surprised the author is fairly literate.

CrabbyCrib said...

I'm reading one of hers now...funny you post a Ruby Jean Jensen the day I start one. So far, it's not great.

bluerosekiller said...

While I freely admit to finding a fair amount of guilty pleasure from Zebra stalwart William W. Johnstone's genre efforts of the early '80s, even I wouldn't dare to go near any of Ms Jensen's offerings.
OK, so I may have fibbed a bit about not going near her books, because I do recall picking up a couple of her early novels at the store, just long enough to read the descriptions of what each was about & none of the plots appealed to me at all. So, I never had the (dis)pleasure of experiencing any of her prose.
So, I count myself quite fortunate & I'm sorry that you got so brutally mugged of your buck & a half. Though, if anyone out there is actually paying those grossly inflated prices for her old dogs, er, dog eared paperbacks, then maybe you can turn a hefty profit by listing it on Amazon. LOL.
- Jim

Zwolf said...

At the time I remember liking Home Sweet Home a lot. Not necessarily for the writing style, but it was a good story. O' course, that's when I was a teen, and if I read it now it might be different. I've read another book or two by her, and remember them maybe being a bit clumsy, but not un-entertaining in a trashy kind of way. I still have my copy somewhere, so I should probably dig it out. But, good or bad, yeah, I'm kicking myself for not buying these up when they were cheap. They go for crazy prices now.

William W. Johnstone was just flat-out awful. His books are good for nothing except laughing at. Until the advent of kindle and print-on-demand allowed for ANYbody to get around literature's virus-protection firewall and be "published," no matter how utterly untalented, I considered Johnstone to be the worst writer in the world. He still may be the worst-legitimately-published-writer-in-the-world.

Thalia the Muse said...

I read one of hers, years ago, because they were ubiquitous in used bookstores at the time. It was pretty awful, and yes, awful in a not-fun way. At least it sounds like Smoke doesn't have little kids getting ritually disemboweled.

Mark Louis Baumgart said...

I actually have most of her stuff, and got them brand-new, but the only one that I read was The Lake and I found it to be a lot of "B" movie fun. On the other hand I found Johntsone to be f(deleted)ing awful. After about three horrible novels I found a true sense of sadism and misogyny to his works. Rape popped up in two of the three novels that I read, a concept that evidently carried over to his westerns from the reviews on Amazon that I've read. He rates right down there with Ron Dee as the pits of horror writing of the eighties/nineties. - Mark Louis Baumgart