Riding the wave of cheesy horror in the mid-to-late 80s, Thomas F. Monteleone pushed out his mobster novel, Fantasma, on the tail end of the hullabaloo in 1989. Something of a cross between The Godfather (which I will be reading again and writing up in this column eventually) and Poltergeist (one of the few movies ever made that gave me nightmares), Fantasma is predictable and bland with a stack of cardboard cutouts for characters complete with bad dialogue and personality faults plainly visible on their sleeves.
The basis of the novel is nothing new. Sicilian mob families, the original mafia, utilized the skills of witch-women, called stregas, to wrench power through supernatural guidance. Pretty standard stuff here. If something really hairy goes down, these stregas can, at the Don's request, conjure up monsters that will go out and slice up whatever opponents the family has. Which begs the question, how can there still be so many families left in the novel? You'd figure that in old towns of Sicily the people would be regularly cleaning up monster turds off their sidewalk because of the regular appearance these things would make to gut each other's enemies.
The novel however is set in modern New York. A mob war breaks out, which is typically what happens in these sorts of things, and grandson of the mafia boss from the Gaetano family is packed up and shipped to an isolated estate in Sicily where he is to remain until the gunshots are over. At the estate there is a woman who is the fourth generation servant to the original family that owned the estate and, quite obviously, she is a strega. Suddenly, Vincenzo, our grandson and prime character, trades in his original personality somewhere and gets a new one based on vengeance and bloodlust, much like they do on soap operas. And off goes the fantasma, making nightly runs into enemy territory to tear tendrils of innards from the enemy family members. If only Corleone had this kind of thing, the wars would have been much quicker.
I did enjoy the scenes of massacre. These were quite well explained and very detailed. The graphic nature of them should satisfy most diehard blood lovers. The descriptions of the beast itself left much to be desired. Thomas couldn't decide on what the thing should look like, so he changed it at his whim using the old explanation that it matches the nightmare(s) of the victim. The ending was also very good, throwing one final nasty twist into the story that I quite liked before abruptly ending.
Overall, it kind of sucked. But it passed a boring day at a 4th of July picnic at least.
"Fantasma" by Thomas F.
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.
Copyright © 1989 by Thomas F. Monteleone