The Christmas Killer
by Patricia Windsor
© 1991 by Patricia Windsor. Cover Art not credited.
The Christmas Killer was a pleasant surprise for me. A Christmas miracle, if you will. Praise Saturn. Patrica Windsor delivered some of the best-written prose I’ve seen in a Point Horror book. It’s really a shame this wasn’t a more popular title. She managed to contrast the dark and depressing aspects of winter with the bright and merry elements of Christmas to maximum effect. The use of a foreboding atmosphere with its slow-burn plot really hit all of my horror sweet spots. The story features a large cast of characters but manages to make each of them feel real in their own unique way. I had some idea of where the story was going but it kept me guessing on all of the specifics. It was odd that this was set in suburban Connecticut in the nineties and everyone is really into drinking tea as though it were set in England. I’ve never encountered a group of Americans who drink tea like that, and I’m a tea drinker. That point aside, I really enjoyed this book. It was easily my favorite Point Horror read so far. The Christmas Killer is the perfect little book for those of us who are looking for ways to make the holiday season creepier.
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It might not seem like much, but it has a big impact!
Observations & Spoilers:
I’ll kick this off by saying: this is a book I’d recommend reading yourself. If you like slow-burn thrillers and atmospheric horror, this is a good one. My recap and observations will only beagle to do it so much justice.
The Christmas Killer is organized into eight parts and is told primarily through Rose’s point of view. Roseclear is an average high school student who loves her dance classes and is close with her twin brother, Jerram. Starting with Part Two, each new section opens with a single chapter written by Him, the unnamed killer.
Nancy goes missing. Rose remembers a brief encounter that they had a year earlier. Nancy had been crying, and Rose had felt empathy toward her. She invited Nancy over to her place for tea so they could talk it out, but Nancy declined. Then the ghost of Nancy visits Rose in her dream that night and takes her flying over town to some secluded woods. Nancy is wearing a white dress with a large red flower over her heart. She indicates to Rose that she’s been buried there, under the pine needles. Rose tells her brother Jerram and her friend Grace about the dream. They convince her to go to the police with it, but the police just write her off. This is equal parts unsurprising and understandable.
Meanwhile, Rose tries to keep her focus on practicing for her big upcoming dance recital. She feels close to her instructor, Muriel. Muriel thinks she can get one of her old dance school connections to come and see Rose. Wallace, the town vagrant, is hanging around outside the dance studio. Rose knows Wallace is harmless, but Muriel is creeped out by him. She complains he’s been hanging around outside the studio a lot lately. The police had already looked into Wallace as a suspect when Nancy first disappeared, but he had a solid alibi. But not everyone is convinced. Then Nancy’s body is found. She was buried in the woods, among pine trees. Just like Rose had dreamed.
The Killer talks about his killings. He’s the brooding poetic type before the times of emo music. He mentions having a sister who never understood him.
Rose and her twin brother Jerram talk about how they used to share dreams when they were younger. It had freaked out their parents at the time, but they haven’t done it for a long time. The police are now suddenly very interested in Rose’s dreams, even though they still don’t quite believe her. Rose’s mother gets really defensive and shuts down the police questioning, but then is equally cold toward Rose. Mom’s clearly scared but can’t just come out and say it. Then Rose has another dream where Nancy comes to visit. This time, Rose tries to get Nancy to go away, but Nancy is persistent. She takes Rose to the Danville junkyard and points to something. She begs Rose to do something. Rose wakes up feeling sick.
As if the dreams weren’t bad enough, Rose starts seeing Nancy during her waking hours. Then another girl goes missing. It’s one of Nancy’s friends; Cynthia. The whole town is on edge. Rose decides to finally take her brother’s advice and goes to talk to the former police chief Old Mackey. Old Mackey is a bit of a recluse now, living alone up on a hill. Rose asks him to tell the police about her junkyard dream but to leave her name out of it. She also finds out that Jerram goes to visit Old Mackey all the time. She realizes that Jerram has his own life that she seems to know very little of. She begins to grow suspicious. On her bike ride home in the rain, a blue sedan rides up alongside her for a while and makes her uncomfortable. Then the car drives off. The next day she wakes up with the flu.
The killer talks about missing an opportunity that night. He had come close to taking another girl. This one had a power of sorts. He muses that he will have to watch out for her.
Rose spends the next few days in a series of fever dreams. When she comes out of it she finds out from her friend Grace that a skeleton had been found in the Danville junkyard. They don’t know who it is. Rose begins to wonder why Nancy is reaching out to her. Because she was nice to her that one time? Rose also wants to know why Nancy is only showing her dead bodies. What good does that do anyone? Jerram gives Rose a hard time about Daniel, the boy at school whom she has a crush on. Apparently, he had called the house a bunch of times while she was sick. Rose really likes Daniel and is confused by Jerram’s negative reaction. She wonders if Jerram is having dreams about Nancy, too, but isn’t telling anyone about it.
Rose decides to try and go to school even though she is clearly still sick. She and Grace have a fight about Grace’s pending date with the meathead Greg. Rose flees to the bathroom. She’s overwhelmed by the smell of death before she has her most vivid encounter with Nancy yet. This time Nancy interposes her face on Grace’s and tells Rose to “look in the Ladyvale Caves.” Rose’s mom comes to pick her up, scolding her for insisting on going back to school too soon. Hate to say I told you so. As Mom and Rose drive off, Nancy’s ghost stands by Jerram and Grace and waves to her.
The killer talks about how he had to kill the latest one, even though he’d planned to save her for a Christmas treat. His sister is still among the living and he must change that.
Cynthia’s body is found in the Ladyvale Caves, right where Nancy told her she should look. Rose had told Jerram about her waking dream and asked him to tell Mackey since she was so sick. The police start taking her seriously. Rose’s mom is very anxious about her working with the police. It’s a small town and people talk. If Rose’s name gets out, the killer could come after her next. The killer gets officially named The Christmas Killer in the local paper. He starts writing letters to them in Zodiac style.
Rose has a strange encounter with Wallace outside of Muriel’s studio. He speaks cryptically about bad things going on inside the dance studio. Bad people going in or coming out, he can’t be sure. Rose walks in on Muriel having an intense conversation on the phone. Turns out the dance teacher won’t be able to come after all. They have a heart-to-heart. Rose talks about the dreams and the space growing between her and Jerram. Muriel reveals a painful family past that makes the holidays hard. She doesn’t say she has a brother, but it’s hinted. On her way home, a man in a blue sedan asks Rose for directions. She doesn’t get alarmed until he asks her to get in and show him the road. He claims to be her dad’s friend from work. He knows Rose’s name and knew she’d be at Murial’s studio. He’s basically throwing red flags at her.
Daniel calls out to Rose and scares the driver off. Daniel notes the guy was driving a Dodge Shadow. They have a nice talk on the walk home, then they kiss. Jerram lets Rose know that they IDed the skeleton from the junkyard. It was a girl who was believed to be a runaway from five years earlier. She had written a note and had been known for hitching rides. She was never reported missing. Rose becomes apathetic about the whole thing, claiming she doesn’t care anymore. News has also gotten out that Rose is helping the police, and she’s feeling the weight of public scrutiny. She just wants it all to end.
The killer writes about finding a “strong one,” clearly implying Rose. He thinks she’s clever and is curious about her powers, but doesn’t fear her. He thinks he’ll have fun playing with her.
A third girl goes missing from a nearby town. Her name is Carla. Rose and her family go to church and try to pretend everything is normal. Nancy and Cynthia’s families are there. Nancy’s mother screams accusations at Rose as she is leaving, accusing Rose of being a witch and exploiting her daughter’s death. Rose’s Dad suggests they go get their Christmas tree from a new place to cheer things up. They have to go to a new place because Ladyvale Farms are now too close to the murders they are all trying not to think of. As they are leaving, Rose sees the guy in the blue car and asks if her Dad knows him from work. He doesn’t.
Jerram berates Rose for being ditzy enough to give directions to a stranger. Mackey calls and tells Rose he would like her to meet with his sister. His sister, the lone friend of Wallace, is also a clairvoyant of sorts. He thinks she can help. Rose has another vision of Nancy asking her to listen, but then she doesn’t tell her anything new. She notices Jerram sneaking around late at night and wonders what he is up to. At school, she finds out that Grace’s mom didn’t want them to spend time together. She gets some minor teasing from kids at school but Daniel tells her to ignore it.
Rose gets called to the principal’s office where Detective O’Hara is waiting. They go out in the snow to a diner and talk. Carla had been found; looks like it was the same killer. The time of death would have been right around the time Nancy showed up. Rose finally tells the detective about the guy with the blue car and O’Hara does a U-turn. The good cop persona disappears. She scolds Rose for not telling her sooner. When Rose gets home, she gets a prank call. Then she and Jerram have a heart-to-heart. He reveals that he knew Carla, the latest victim. He’d had a crush on her. That’s why he’s been sneaking around. They go back over their dream journals from when they shared dreams as kids. There are definitely a few entries that sound like visitations from the dead. That’s when Jerram realizes that Rose was always the one with the ability. She had just invited him into her dreams. They decide they need to go see Mackey’s sister.
The Killer writes another note to the paper and it can be read as nothing less than a veiled threat against Rose; she is the one who knows that walks among them.
Martha Mackey lives on the other side of town. She does some hypnosis with Rose, and the experience is way more intense than any of them expected. Martha tells Rose she needs to find out more about herself; she has a really strong connection to the dead and needs to find out what and why. Rose and Jerram have a blowout fight with their mom, who is worried sick about Rose. When they finally have a talk, Mom tells Rose that when she was pregnant, one of the twin’s heartbeats had stopped while in the womb. Then it started again. It had to have been Rose. That’s her connection. She had been dead before.
On their return trip to Martha’s, Rose and Jerram run into Wallace. Martha Mackey is known for being a friend of his. He tells Rose some cryptic messages about “One” being “the shadow of the other.” Rose doesn’t know what he means but recognizes that he is talking about twins. Inside, Martha helps Rose cross over where she is able to speak with Nancy. Nancy gets Carla and Cyn but the two ghosts don’t want to be there. It’s hard for them to talk now; their words are leaving them. Their lives are small, trivial things they have left behind. Nancy coerces them to help in whatever way they can.
They call the killer a dark dancer, that Rose has seen his face and showed no fear. None of the girls knew him before they were taken. Rose wants to know what Nancy had been upset about that year ago, but Nancy tells her that it was something little and unimportant. What mattered was that Rose had opened up her heart at that moment. Rose wants to stay in Death but Nancy tells her she needs to leave. Martha and Jerram welcome her back. Rose is no longer afraid of death, but there is something she should be afraid of. She can’t remember what.
The Killer tells a story about his childhood. He tried to peek at a Christmas present and was punished for it. It had been a puppy, so their mother killed it. His sister blamed him.
Rose gets a call from the killer claiming that he has Grace. But then Grace shows up safe and sound at her house. He’s fucking with her. Mom drives Rose to dance class. They see Wallace outside. Muriel is on the phone, so Rose goes to get changed. Murial’s shadow appears in the frosted-glass window of the door then disappears again. When it reappears Rose realizes something is off. The music from her dance number plays and she goes searching for a hiding place. She opens up the one place she knows and finds Muriel’s body. She looks like she’s smiling. She’s been cut from ear to ear. The description gave me Batman 1989 vibes.
The Killer reveals himself to be Muriel’s twin brother. They bare a striking resemblance. Enough so that Rose hadn’t recognized him when she came in. He was the dance person from New York that was supposed to come and see Rose dance. And now they’re going to dance to death! Well, not exactly. Rose manages to through him off because she had seen his mind and knows details no one else possibly could. He recovers quickly, wields a knife, and promises Rose that he will kill her quickly. Then Wallace bursts into the room and saves the day. All his cryptic messages about shadow dancers turned out to have merit. He tells Rose that a girl in a white dress had told him she was in trouble. It was Nancy.
From prison, the killer fantasizes from his prison cell about sending Rose a letter, of escaping so that he might see her again.
And so concludes my 2022 Christmas horror review, posted two days late because it’s been that kind of year. I have a soft spot for contrasting the merriment of Christmas with the cold and morose aspects of winter. This book did a fine job doing just that. I hope to keep this little tradition alive for several Christmases to come.
For the scoring of each book, I decided to rate them based on five criteria worth 2 points each.
I then split that in two to give it a rating out of 5 stars. Those criteria are:
Concept: the strength of the overall idea
Execution: the mechanics of storytelling
Character: the protagonists, antagonists, and villains
Intent: does it succeed in being the kind of book it wants to be?
Originality: subversion and reliance on genre tropes
Overall it was pretty simple but it used its setting and characters to maximum effect. It felt close to home to any suburban reader.
Solidly plotted. It was a slow burn but it knew where it was going, and it gave me enough breadcrumbs to trust it along the way. I never felt like it was just buying time.
Every character in this very large cast felt real, with their own ambitions and identities. Even the basic ones felt like people I knew. It’s what made this whole book work.
I love the way Windsor created a genuine sense of unease, rooted in a real sense of terror for the main character and her family. It wasn’t outright terrifying, but it had a way of getting under your skin.
This didn’t subvert the genre in any sort of revolutionary way, but it made use of strong characters to give it a unique feel. It was original in its well-executed plot for a younger audience.
Don’t miss the next post in the Pulp Horror blog series:
Christopher Pike’s The Eternal Enemy
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #27: Wrong Number 2