The Majorettes by John Russo – Horror Novel Review

Format: Musty old mass market paperback
Publisher: Pocket Books
Publication Year: 1979The Majorettes by John Russo

I tackled John Russo’s 1979 slasher novel The Majorettes as an experiment. I had first read and enjoyed the book around 1980 or so and I wanted to see how well it had held up. I was initially attracted back in the day by the author’s horror cred since Russo was, along with George Romero, co-screenwriter of Night of the Living Dead. The Majorettes was originally intended to be a film, but when Russo was unable to secure funding he rewrote the story as a novel. A film version of The Majorettes, directed by Bill Hinzman, another Night of the Living Dead alumnus, eventually saw the light of day in 1987.

Russo’s novel was released in 1979, just a year after John Carpenter’s Halloween created the template for the American slasher film (although the less high profile slasher Black Christmas was released in 1974). In fact, The Majorettes came so early in the stalk and slash cycle that many of the sub-genres stereotypes had yet to be established. The body count is relatively modest, with only three majorettes and a few bystanders (some innocent, others less so) buying the farm. The “sex equals death” pattern is absent, with both the virginal and the promiscuous falling victim to the killer, but Russo also goes darker than most slashers by having many of the victims sexually assaulted, something that rarely if every happened in the golden age of the slasher film. In fact, this book seems to have more in common with the giallo genre than the slasher.

High school nerd and photography enthusiast Tommy Harvack has a serious crush on majorette Nicole Hendricks. She’s several notches above him in the social hierarchy, so when Nicole invites Tommy for some alone time in a secluded area of the woods he should realize something is up, but his teenage hormones refuse to listen. Nicole is pregnant by a scummy biker named Mace who wants her to have an abortion. She figures she can blame the pregnancy on Tommy, but the two teens are suddenly attacked and brutally murdered.

Two constantly bickering police detectives, Braden and Martell, are called in but don’t really accomplish much. Jeff Halloway, the quarterback for the high school football team informs the police about Nicole’s relationship with Mace, which makes Jeff a target for Mace and his biker pals. Meanwhile, Nicole’s fellow baton-twillers start biting the dust. The killer, whose identity is not revealed until late in the book, has some pretty twisted views on morality and sex, but there’s also a conspiracy behind the killings.

Sadly, this novel did not hold up well for me after three decades. When I first read The Majorettes I was closer in age to a lot of the characters, so I guess I could better identify with the teenage mindset. Probably the biggest problem is that the book has no clear protagonist and it suffers from the lack of consistent perspective. It seems that Detective Roland Martell and his girlfriend Marie Morgan who is also the majorette coach are being set up as the central characters, but we don’t end up seeing a whole lot of them. There’s even an extended scene in which Marie finds that her home has been broken into, implying that she too is a target, but this is immediately forgotten.

Apparently I was also more forgiving of bad writing when I was younger. Often it seems like Russo is a student of the tell rather than show school of fiction writing, which is the first thing they tell you not to do in creative writing class. Exposition is delivered clumsily, often via stilted dialogue. The scene in which Vicky explains to her friends that the guy she calls Dad is really her stepfather is cringe-inducingly unnatural sounding.  It seems like the author put a lot of thought into the Tommy Harvack character, which makes sense since he is the first victim and having his character well fleshed out gives his death a real kick. Aside from Tommy, though, it’s hard to care about anything that happens to anyone in the book.

There are also some pretty unforgivable lapses in logic. Detective Braden says at one point “These killings may not be totally random.” Well, we have two murder scenes, each with a dead majorette, so no, Detective, they aren’t random. There’s also a seen in which Mace and his goons are interrupted while beating up Jeff, but the police don’t pursue them because it would be unsafe to do so in a residential neighborhood. Again, I call bullshit.

Russo had a few other novels I was fond of, specifically Midnight and The Awakening. After this disappointing trip down memory lane, though, I don’t think I’ll be revisiting them any time soon.

Here’s a TV promo for the 1987 film version:


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  1. Will E. says:

    Back when I worked in a used bookstore – hmm, lots of my book blog comments start this way – we had Russo’s titles but I never read any; the “co-author of NOTLD” credit always seemed to me a desperate bit of pandering rather than an establishing legit horror street-cred. Not surprised to find he’s of the “tell-don’t-show” school, either. The silvery skeleton covers have come round to charm me today, however. Great post!

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for commenting, Will. Russo’s books were good trashy fun for me back in the day, but I guess my tastes have changed since then. I was fascinated with the idea of Night of the Living Dead long before I actually had a chance to see the movie, so Russo’s novelization really captured my imagination. His other novels followed soon after. Pandering? Maybe. I suspect his other books might not have seen print if it weren’t for the success of Night of the Living Dead.

  1. Rediscovering Horror Fiction » Saga of the Swamp Thing, Volume 2: Horror Comic Review says:

    […] I recently re-read John Russo’s The Majorettes for the first time in decades, I realized that memory lane can be lined with broken glass, used […]

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