Finding Comfort in Ruby Jean Jensen’s (Almost) Forgotten Horror Books
I have to admit, it was the alluring skeleton on the cover that got me. A skeleton with startling green eyes and perfect bed hair. She was wearing a cherry-colored dress and an expression that sat somewhere between cheeriness and terror. She clutched her own chains — and a glinting knife.
All that, and above her head, the book’s blood red title: WAIT AND SEE.
Who could resist?
Not moi, that’s for sure.
I first discovered Ruby Jean Jensen’s novels while reading Paperbacks from Hell (2017). This absurdly entertaining non-fiction book, put together by Grady Hendrix and Will Erickson, explores the world of 70s and 80s horror paperbacks (and their cover art). Hendrix doesn’t dwell a lot on Jensen as a novelist in Paperbacks from Hell, but as soon as I saw Wait and See’s creepy/hilarious/glamorous cover, I knew I had to find out more.
While Jensen’s creepy novels, which often feature dolls and unnerving children, are now out of print, she published numerous books throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. She’s not a household name, yet, her books have become highly prized among collectors of vintage horror fiction. They often pop up online selling for a pretty hefty price.
Unable to track down any copies of her fiction in Australia, I took the plunge and ordered two Jensen novels from an American site: Wait and See and Jump Rope. I’m slightly afraid of clowns; Jump Rope’s cover prominently displays a clown painted onto a bloody crib, so it seemed like an obvious choice.
I started reading Wait and See as soon as it arrived, about a month later. While I fully expected to enjoy reading both books, what I didn’t anticipate was the comfort I would find in them.
One of the unpleasant parts of managing your mental illness/es is that it’s usually a process that brings bubbling up to the surface all the ‘lovely’ Rasputin-like emotional and physical sensations you’ve been trying so hard to kill. My approach to working on my mental wellbeing has included adding hobbies and activities into my daily routine that I can actively focus on when the Rasputin-y forces try to take charge.
As a horror fan, one of these activities has been dedicating myself to regularly reading horror fiction. When I started reading Wait and See and Jump Rope, I was delighted to discover stories that captured my attention from the first faded, 80s teen-annotated page of my second hand copies to the last. But the comfort didn’t lie just in the surprising and strange nature of these books. Although, they are wonderfully strange and melodramatic (not an insult).
Part of what I find so comforting about them is the genuine empathy and tenderness Jensen has for her characters. Her depiction of lonely, isolated children is particularly touching. I was moved by how she expresses the self-doubt children experience when their relationships with family members bring disappointment. For example, in Jump Rope, young Cassie, the oldest of her siblings, reflects on her younger sister’s Haley’s similarity to their father Alex, thinking:
“They all knew Haley was Mama’s favorite, and they were all a little jealous. They supposed, when they talked about it, that Mama loved Haley so much because she looked like Alex, only she was as beautiful as an angel, while Alex was a man. Haley was all that the rest of them were not, maybe.”
A similar example occurs in Wait and See, when young Kevin observes his mother as she struggles to deal with their increasingly dire situation:
“She looked funny, odd, like a stranger….Her eyes were smoky dark, shadowed, and looking faraway even as she took care of the baby in his high chair. The baby picked up his little bowl, leaned over and deliberately dropped it on the floor. Garden peas rolled everywhere, but their mother only bent down and began to pick it all up without every really coming back, as if her spirit were gone.” (p.236).
The thoughtfulness Jensen brings to rendering her characters only makes it more surprising when she kills them off. And she does this a lot, even with children. In her literary world, death isn’t something that only touches the deserving. No, sweet, kind characters of all ages suffer too. This ratchets up the suspense. Somehow, Jensen’s brand of colourful horror manages to never feel mean-spirited — which is quite an achievement, given the extravagance of some of her death scenes. Maybe this is because she takes the time to add dimension to even the most villainous of characters, such as the cold as ice Aunt Winifred in Wait and See.
While I find it disappointing Jensen’s work is currently out of print as it makes it difficult for horror lovers to enjoy her fiction, maybe there’s consolation to be found in the fact that despite the obstacles her novels continue to find new loving homes. Books like Paperbacks from Hell and Instagram bookstagrammers who are Jensen fans are certainly helping to get the word out about this (almost) forgotten horror maestro. I, for one, am thankful for the surprising sense of solace and connection these stories have brought me.
Even if horror’s not your cup of tea, I hope you’ll have just as much luck in finding novels that make you feel even just a little less isolated. Because sometimes even a little bit can make all the difference.