Like Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, Emily Schultz's latest novel takes an absurd epidemic and transforms it from a potentially campy joke into acute, stylized and, well, still-slightly campy terror. As implied by the title, The Blondes is first and foremost about hair color -- with rabid blonde women replacing Hitchcock's bloodthirsty seagulls -- but only after it's been sifted through a feminist, satiric, horror story sieve.
At the center of The Blondes lies Hazel Hayes, a twentysomething working-class Canadian grad student and recent arrival to Manhattan, ostensibly there to finish her thesis. Hazel's fictional academic specialty is Aesthetology, or the study of looking. Her murky thesis, Through a Screen Darkly: Vamps, Tramps and False Consciousness in Female-Marketed Culture, has something to do with the reality of what women look like and what they think they look like. Hazel is caught up in a sad affair with her graduate adviser, Karl Mann, a 46-year-old Communications Studies professor with a propensity for sob fests and cheating on his wife Grace. To complicate matters, Hazel finds out she's pregnant soon after arriving in New York, where she's gone to get away from Mann under the guise of consulting with another one of his possible paramours, the icy blonde and brilliant Dr. Wanda Kovacs.
All goes according to plan until Hazel witnesses a terrible event in a subway station: a lumbering, rabid blonde businesswoman randomly attacks a young female high school student, pushing her onto the tracks, where they both end up crushed under an approaching train. Soon, the attacks increase in frequency to turn rampant and global, with hundreds of thousands of new cases every day -- all carried out by blondes, natural and artificial. (Hazel, as a redhead, is viewed as a potential threat.) The epidemic is dubbed "The Blonde Fury," and the cause is unknown and never disclosed; some blame flea bites, others blame a lack of melanin. What's certain is that the epidemic places the U.S., along with blonde-heavy countries like Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, on constant terror alert.
While on her book tour, by phone from a hotel room in Chicago, Schultz says that the seed for The Blondes came to her as she sat on an airplane reading a magazine.
"I was reading Vanity Fair and I came across this Gucci advertisement filled with blondes," she tells me. "They looked rabid. I showed my husband the ad and said The Blondes in this deep voice, as if they were vampires."
Instead of leaving it at that, Schultz turned the premise into a novel. "The idea of making hair into a horror was kind of fun for me," she adds. "You have to take your writing really seriously, but there has to be a playful element too."
The Blondes may have originated as a laugh between spouses, but the resulting work is a fast-paced thriller, with all the best elements of horror doused in feminist critique, sociocultural commentary, and political and social satire. Schultz says she was inspired not only by The Birds, but also Don Delillo's White Noise and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. And still the book remains wholly original, tackling broad themes: female anger, violence against women, para-military policing, women's kindness (and lack thereof) towards one another, female friendship, mother/daughter relationships, and crass commercialism.
So, why blondes?
"Blonde because it stands out," says Shultz. "Hitchcock used blondes in his movies because he felt that it photographed better. We have a cultural association with blonde as being pure and good. I wanted to take that and make these women ragey and angry; not good. Of course, at the airport, they're sending the blondes out of the security line for extra examinations, and that would obviously never happen in our culture."
Schultz also wanted to challenge the assumptions and stereotypes surrounding hair color and hair identity. "I made sure that the blondes in the book that aren't rabid are full people, and intelligent," she says.
Motherhood also plays an integral role in the story. The entire tale is narrated by Hazel to her unborn daughter, from a cabin in the woods where she's holed up alone in her eighth month of pregnancy, waiting for the return of Mann's cruel yet helpful wife Grace.
"At the time I was writing the novel, I was thinking a lot about motherhood, and whether or not I wanted to be a mother," Schultz says. "Part of the very feminine and feminist element of the book came from that." Schultz now has a three-year-old son, whose existence, she says, partially came about because of the book.
For the Canadian-born writer, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son, the publication of The Blondes is a classic case of third-time's-the-charm. It's her third novel, but it's the first to be published by a major U.S. publishing house, and the first to get serious promotion, netting generally positive reviews in the Washington Post and other publications.
The attention is an added bonus after a 2013 brouhaha that saw Stephen King fans buying Schultz's first novel Joyland, thinking it was the e-book version of a King book by the same name. The resulting royalty checks were a nice surprise (check out Schultz's tumblr Spending the Stephen King Money), but the same can't be said for the bad reviews left by confused readers. The whole incident led to friendly emails between Schultz and King, and "he was awesome about the blog," says Schultz.
So does she think King would like The Blondes?
"I want to think that he would like it," she says with good humor. "I grew up on Stephen King books!"