Zodiac Chillers #3: “In Leo’s Lair” by Carol Ellis

Finally I get around to it.

This is the absolute clearest picture of the cover that I could find. I’m sorry it’s so small:

An ’80s-looking girl is holding her equally ’80s-looking friend, who has apparently collapsed, and for some reason is wearing a panther-print skirt. They clearly haven’t been buried alive, despite the tagline saying they have. Why do these covers always lie?

But who are these girls, and how did they get here? Is the book as homoerotic as the cover? Click the read more link. You know you want to.

There’s a creepy prologue from the perspective of an unknown guy, who’s preparing a secret hiding place for a woman he’s planning to kidnap. He believes that by holding her prisoner she will realise that they were meant to be together, etc. It’s cliché, but it works. Props for starting off with something resembling a scare.

BFFs Nina and Jess are both Gemini, the sign of the twins. They consider themselves actual twins because they were born on the same day. They’re reading their horoscope, which predicts “dark clouds” ahead for Geminis. But Nina doesn’t care. She’s met a BOY, golly gee willickers! His name is Stephen Doyle, and he’s perfect. Jess doesn’t take this seriously, because Nina falls for a different guy every week – and they’re always Leos, which is bad apparently. Jess lectures Nina about not going out with Leos, and they argue for several tedious pages. Finally, Nina says Stephen’s taking her to some club, and she wants Jess to come and meet him.

There’s just one problem: Nina already has a boyfriend. His name is Eric. For some reason Nina doesn’t want to dump him, even though she’s met someone else. So she keeps making excuses not to see him. Because she lied to Eric that she’s ill, he comes over with medicine for her. Nina basically tells Eric to fuck off, and it should be obvious she’s not that into him. But a few days later, Eric shows up at the deli where Jess works. He badgers her to try and convince Nina to take him back. Jess says that their spooky Gemini twin-bond tells her Nina doesn’t have feelings for him any more. Eric won’t listen, and screams at her until she gives in. He says he’ll be at a club tonight: the same club where Nina will be meeting Stephen.

The girls go to the club. Stephen’s not there yet, but Nina doesn’t care – she’s already dancing with another guy, Mark. Stephen arrives and is a rude jerk to Jess, because apparently all Leos are possessive around their girlfriends. Eric shows up, and starts a fight with Stephen, during which Jess gets injured. Nina tells the boys she’s through with both of them; then they get kicked out of the club for fighting. She’s glad to be shot of them, because now she wants Mark. Jess is convinced Mark’s a Leo, and yells at Nina for dating another Leo – even though Nina clearly states that she hasn’t asked him his sign. In the world of Zodiac Chillers, this is a cardinal sin.

Jess decides to go home, but Stephen approaches her, and tries to talk about Nina. Jess is rolling her eyes, because Leos just don’t understand that Gemini girls need space!! She tells him to leave Nina to cool down. Stephen asks her to talk to Nina, but Jess isn’t getting involved; she’s had enough. As she walks home, it becomes clear that someone is following her. Then Eric jumps out at her. He wants her to talk to Nina too. Jess ends up yelling at him to get a life and forget about Nina, which is the first sensible thing anyone’s said in this book so far.

There follows another interlude from the unknown stalker, who is lurking outside of Nina’s house. She comes home, and the stalker climbs up to spy on her through the window. So, the curtains must be open, and yet she never looked around and saw him? He wonders whether to kill Mark, but decides he won’t bother; he’ll just kidnap Nina, and then she will magically fall in love with him!  All of this is actually pretty well done. We’re only a few chapters in, and this book is already head and shoulders above the other two in the scary stakes.

Jess has a nightmare about the three boys turning into lions. You know Carol Ellis is writing when you get a spoooooky prescient dream. Jess calls Nina, who invites her to watch something called Feast of Death at the cinema. Nina’s upset that she was supposed to watch it with Mark, but he stood her up. Remind me again why she can’t just watch the movie by herself …? Jess goes to have a shower, but while she’s in the bathroom, she feels a crushing sensation around her chest and ribs. She thinks that an intruder has grabbed her from behind, so she tries to fight them off. Eventually it stops, but a shelf got knocked over in the struggle – proving that Jess didn’t imagine it.

Here’s a little quiz. In this situation, where would you go next?

a) Hospital. Sudden chest pain? Trouble breathing? You could be having a heart attack!

b) The police station. If someone really did attack you, you need to report it – and what if the intruder comes back to your house?

c) The cinema. Feast of Death ain’t gonna watch itself!

If you said a) or b), you have some sense of self-preservation. If you said c), you are in a Zodiac Chillers book.

Jess waits outside the cinema, but Nina doesn’t show up. Jess assumes Nina went somewhere with Mark and was too selfish to tell her about the change of plan. So Jess goes to watch the movie alone, but Eric’s there. He seems much more relaxed and happy, and doesn’t even mention Nina. Jess clearly has a crush on him, and they hold hands during the scary bits. Jess figures him being a Leo doesn’t matter, because she knows how to handle him, unlike Nina. Hypocrisy some?

Nina wakes up to find that she’s been blindfolded, tied up, and gagged. She feels like she’s been asleep for days, but then she hears the date on the radio. It’s only the next day, and she was kidnapped on her way to the cinema last night. A guy comes in and tells her that she’s his now. He takes off the gag so he can kiss her. Nina struggles and panics some more, and hey! We’re doing a good job of keeping this in the horror genre. Her parents are away, and she worries  that no one other than Jess will notice she’s missing. So … doesn’t Nina go to school, or work? Why hasn’t the book answered that question already?

Jess goes to her job at the deli, where she somehow goes into a trance and cuts her hand on the meat slicer. Meanwhile, Nina’s kidnapper comes in to see her again. She begs him to take off her blindfold and let her go, but he’s upset that she doesn’t recognise him, her true love. He goes to get her stuff from her house. Nina realises that she’s in a storm cellar, and takes off her blindfold. If she could reach it, why didn’t she just take it off before? She goes to the door and screams, but no one can hear her. Never fear! Her Gemini senses alert her that Jess is nearby! Nina sends a telepathic message to Jess to come and save her. I’m not making this shit up.

Jess drives home, thinking about all the weird stuff that’s been happening to her. Then she hears Nina’s voice calling to her, and almost crashes the car. She understands that Nina’s in trouble, so she goes over to Nina’s house. And the stalker is … Stephen! He’s looting Nina’s room. Stephen says he’s definitely not robbing the place, honest guv, it’s just that Nina suddenly decided to move in with him! Without telling anybody! Oh, that wacky Nina. Jess thinks that Nina might actually do this, so she helps Stephen pack. But something’s not quite right, and Jess says she needs to speak to Nina. So Stephen hits her in the head and kidnaps her too. After all, she’s Nina’s favourite toy!

Stephen ties up Jess and tosses her into the cellar, where she lands right on top of Nina. Somehow Jess frees herself, and panics, thinking she’s killed Nina. No fat jokes please. But Nina’s alive, so Jess unties her – just as Stephen gets back. Nina initially thinks he’s come to save her from the stalker, until she realises he is the stalker. Nina struggles with him, but he’s too strong for her. He locks the girls in.

Jess explains that Stephen kidnapped her, but before she can say any more, Stephen comes back. He has forged a letter to Jess’s mother, announcing that the girls have taken off on a spontaneous Gemini road trip, the way you do. Stephen forces Jess to sign the note, which makes no sense. First of all, signatures are usually for formal letters, not a casual note left at home for your family. Second, by making Jess sign it herself instead of forging her signature,  he’s clearly expecting someone to check it – possibly even the police. If Jess’s mother believes her daughter wrote the note, then she won’t check the signature or go to the cops, will she? Anyway, Jess deliberately makes her signature look different so her mother will notice something’s wrong. Somehow Stephen misses this, despite being a master forger.

Stephen takes the girls upstairs, ties them up, and puts on a movie for them to watch. But then the doorbell rings, so Stephen stashes the girls in a wardrobe. He answers the door to Eric, who’s obsessing over Nina and Jess, and wants to know where they are. Stephen lies that he hasn’t seen them. Meanwhile, Jess manages to free herself and Nina. Stephen’s not very good at tying them up, huh? They try to attract Eric’s attention, but Stephen makes excuses for the noise. When Eric finally leaves, Stephen’s furious. He threatens the girls with a knife, puts them back in the storm cellar, and says they’ve lost their “house privileges.” I’m sure Nina and Jess are devastated. Who wouldn’t want to be shut up in an armed kidnapper’s house with him?

The next day, Eric goes over to Nina’s house to see if she’s come home. He checks her treehouse, but finds police in it. Jess’s mother didn’t believe that Jess would just run away, so she … wait for it … actually called the police! What’s this? A competent parent?! She has already told the police about Eric’s obsession with Nina, so the cops question him. Back in Stephen’s storm cellar, Jess and Nina wake up and realise it’s already mid-afternoon. They start plotting to escape, but Eric bursts in, having broken the lock. Jess asked how he knew where they were. There’s no time to explain, because suddenly … Stephen!

Stephen and Eric fight, and Stephen gets knocked out. The girls think Eric is going to save them. They help him tie Stephen up, but surprise! Eric has decided he’s in love with both Jess and Nina, and that they should be his prisoners. He shuts them both in the cellar.

The ending is so convoluted, I’ll try to make it as brief as possible. It’s best envisioned with a little background music:

When Eric comes back, Jess sets him on fire using a lighter and some hairspray. She escapes and calls the police, who won’t help her, because a tornado is approaching. After a chase scene with Eric, she knocks him out with a frying pan. Jess runs down to the storm cellar and sees that it’s empty – Stephen has got free and taken Nina. Jess plans to rescue her, but then Stephen shows up. After yet another chase scene, he falls down the stairs and is impaled on some hedge shears he was carrying. Exit Stephen, hedge shears stage left.

Jess finds Nina locked in Stephen’s car. They run for the cellar, but Eric arrives. As the tornado approaches, the three of them fight to get into the cellar. The girls make it, and shut Eric out, listening as his screams die away. When the tornado passes, they find that he was crushed to death by an uprooted tree. Twister ex machina saves the day! Jess and Nina have a giggle about not dating any more Leos, and the story ends there.

I know I’ve complained about the first two books having people passionately make out next to someone’s corpse, but this is the one time it would actually improve the story. Jess and Nina both show far more romantic interest in each other than in either of the guys.

This book started out so well and deteriorated into a morass of crap. It’s lazy, it’s repetitive, and it’s just plain silly. The moral of the story is … that Leos are deranged stalkers who will kidnap their girlfriends given half a chance? Having both Stephen and Eric “conveniently” die in sudden accidents is a huge ass-pull and completely kills any tension that the ending might have had. It’s also irritating that so much of the story focuses on Nina, when she barely counts as a character. OK, we know a few things about her (she’s flighty, dates a lot of guys, likes horoscopes and old B-movies) but she has basically no personality. She exists to get tied to the proverbial train tracks for Jess to save. All the other characters love her so much that they are prepared to kill and/or die for her, yet there is nothing to indicate why anyone would care about her.

Mark serves absolutely no purpose. He isn’t involved in the fight at the club. Stephen doesn’t see him as a real threat, and Eric never ever knows about him. Mark is not necessary to establish that Nina goes through boyfriends quickly (we knew that already) or to get Jess to the cinema. And the whole second half hinges on a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through: it’s never explained how Eric knew the girls would be locked in Stephen’s storm cellar. Jess asks him, but then says “never mind that, time to escape!” so we don’t find out. He couldn’t have heard anything, because we’re told the cellar is soundproof. Was he alerted by Nina’s 1337 telepathic skillz?

Body Count: Stephen – impaled on hedge shears

Eric – crushed by a tree

That’s it, just two. Mark may also have been killed; he wasn’t there to meet Nina at the cinema, so it’s very likely that Stephen got to him. But the book never mention this.

Most Disturbing Death: Eric’s. It would be pretty terrifying to be shut out of a storm cellar and trapped in a hurricane, knowing you’re going to die!

Less Questionable Parenting Than Usual: Jess’s mother is not only sharp enough to realise that her daughter has been kidnapped but actually bothers to call the police, and even tells them about the obvious suspect. By the standards of ’80s-’90s YA horror, this is amazing.

Made-Up Movie Titles: Nina’s favourite films include Feast of Death and Alien Inferno, both of which sound more exciting than this book.

You Fail at Kidnapping: After the first or second time Jess was tied up by Stephen and managed to escape, the reader might be expecting that he’d find some way to restrain her more securely. You would be wrong.

The Cover Lies: The panther-print skirt never makes an appearance.

Best Comeback: “So far tonight I’ve been knocked down, smeared with blood, and just now I nearly had a heart attack. Excuse me if I’m not in the mood to talk about Nina.”

Most Nonchalant Description of the Aftermath of a Hurricane: Stephen’s car lay on its roof in the next yard, its wheels spinning. Every window was smashed. Eric’s body was pinned under the huge trunk of a fallen tree at the end of the yard. He wasn’t moving. Jess heard a bird chirping somewhere. Then another one joined in.

Up next: Probably Zodiac Chillers #4, “Twisted Taurus”


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