The Sentinel, Jeffrey Konvitz (1974)

The ’70’s, when Satan was doing his thing. Possessing kids, siring offspring, and making plans to take over the world. Good times. Or were they? The more I read 1970’s horror, the more I realize that a lot of those books aren’t really very good. They’re short on horror, or aren’t horror in the way the ’80’s redefined it. Don’t get me wrong, some books get it right, but I tend to like those written by authors who had a decade or two of writing under their belt. Richard Matheson’s Hell House for instance, and I’m an unabashed fan of the now obscure author Ray Russell. For the most part though, these ’70’s horror novels seem to be on the bland side. Case in point, The Sentinel. I remember the creepy cover of the paperback when I was a kid, but never read it until now. I didn’t miss anything. Some spoilers near the end, because I don’t care.

The story begins with model Allison Parker returning to New York after several months back home to visit her dying (and now deceased) father. Not knowing how long she’d be gone, she gave up her apartment and is temporarily staying at her boyfriend’s, lawyer Michael Farmer, who’s out of town when she returns. Allison is peeved that her lover isn’t there to greet her after her long absence. She starts looking for a new place and finds a dream apartment in a brownstone, for a reasonable rate.

Once she moves in, Allison meets a few of her neighbors, who are all incredibly strange; Chas Chazen, along with his cat and canary, from upstairs, the two (scary!) lesbians on the floor below her, two fat siblings, and an old lady who looks exactly like a long dead convicted ax murderer, who happens to have an effigy at a wax museum (this crazy menagerie is obviously a rip-off from Rosemary’s Baby). One tenant she doesn’t meet is the old, blind priest on the fifth floor, who does nothing but sit at the window, day and night.

Allison is soon plagued with headaches, numbness, blurred vision, fainting spells, and a really severe case of dry eye. When she’s told there are no other occupants in the building apart from herself and the priest, boyfriend Michael thinks she’s losing her mind. Is Allison going crazy, or is something more going on in that brownstone?

This is a book that’s hard to like, for so many reasons. There’s a lot of backstory for both Allison and Michael that’s intended to create mystery and suspense, but it’s handled so clumsily I couldn’t be bothered to care. The characters. There’s no one to like, except for the minor character Jack Tucci, a fashion photographer, and he’s barely in it. There’s no warmth or affection between the couple, and frankly, Michael is a prick. They don’t have conversations really, he just badgers her like she’s a witness on the stand. She’s frigid (backstory!) because as a girl, she caught her cheating father in bed with two women. She lost her religion at the same time when he started choking her with the crucifix she wore.

Married Michael was cheating on his wife with Allison (was he technically cheating if she’s frigid? Plot hole!). When she found out, his spouse committed suicide. The detective who worked the case, however, was convinced Michael killed her. Det. Gatz is a recycle of Det. Kinderman from The Exorcist (another lousy book), and the two butt heads again after Allison is found screaming hysterically in the street outside her building one night, claiming to have killed her already dead father in one of the units. For plot convenience, she doesn’t end up in Bellevue for psychiatric observation.

The story plods along, with all these uninteresting people, and when things finally start to wrap up, you realize just how much of your time you wasted. Too many things are unexplained. Sorry, but if the Catholic Church has some super-secret office to find new sentinels to guard the gates of hell, that needs to be more fully explained (yep, out of all the places on earth, the entrance to hell is in a New York brownstone).

Here’s a doozy of a question: if the priest is the sentinel guarding the entrance, why does Allison see the damned (the other tenants) in the building? Doesn’t that mean it’s too late, that he’s failed in his mission? I’m about to give a huge spoiler:

The Church assigns sentinels out of Catholic laypeople who attempted suicide. They shrivel into a blind old person and are given the identity of a priest or nun. Their penance is to sit and guard the portal to hell. That’s one heck of a convoluted (not to mention nonsensical) conspiracy if you ask me. So, it’s perfectly okay for Allison to kill two people (and one of those murders is covered up by a priest operative), but because she was depressed and attempted suicide in the past, she has to suffer a really bizarre form of contrition. What utter horseshit.

Surprisingly, I sailed through this dreck in about two and a half days, experiencing no chills, wows, or feelings of creepiness. I did feel annoyed, in abundance, especially when I remembered I bought the sequel, The Guardian, at the same time. May God have mercy on my soul. *1/2 out of 5.

The Unloved, John Saul (1988)

After a nightmare about his mother, Kevin Devereaux has a bad feeling. His foreboding is proven correct when his sister, Marguerite, phones and informs him their mother is dying. He announces to his family they’re heading down to South Carolina to visit the mother and sister he’s never spoken of, the family he divorced himself from years ago when he moved north.

Kevin, his wife Anne, and two children, Julie, fifteen, and Jeff, eight, arrive in the small, run-down town of Devereaux, founded by his ancestors. The family mansion, Sea Oaks, an old plantation house, is set on an island reached by causeway. The family is greeted warmly by Kevin’s sister, whose promising dancing career was thwarted by a hip injury after falling down the stairs years before. Matriarch Helena Devereaux, despite knocking on death’s door, is a vicious, spiteful, domineering, demanding harridan who treats her daughter like a slave. Housekeeper/cook Ruby, who’s been with the family for decades, fares better, seemingly impervious to the vitriol slung her way.

Eventually, Helena dies, and Kevin is stunned to learn he’s inherited everything, which is basically Sea Oaks, and all the property in the town of Devereaux. There’s a stipulation, however; in order to keep his inheritance, he has to live at Sea Oaks for ten years. Then, he can do what he wants. If he chooses not to stay, everything goes to the military school he was forced to attend, and Marguerite would be left to fend for herself. Kevin almost immediately decides to turn the mansion into a hotel and develop the property, essentially turning the island into a resort. Anne thinks it’s a bad idea. Not long after Helena’s funeral, a lot of strange things start happening, including a specter roaming the family graveyard, and a number of unexpected and shocking deaths.

John Saul novels were ubiquitous back in the day, the covers a form of branding not unlike the step-backs used for V.C. Andrews titles. They were everywhere; grocery, drug, book, and discount department store chains. And yet, oddly, I never read one of them before this, even though I read a lot of horror in the ’80’s, when the genre was in its heyday. I don’t think The Unloved was a bad book to start with, but I do have a love-hate relationship with it.

I will say that Saul kept my interest, even after rolling my eyes when certain deaths occurred with what I’ll call convenient ease. I can’t reveal details without spoiling, but they run something like: “I refuse to believe A overrides B,” along with “X makes a moronic decision no sane person would,” and “Y and Z conveniently freeze in terror.” A couple of times I veered into “what about/isn’t there?” and the last chapter had me asking some major questions, which can all be categorized under “how/why in the hell is that allowed to happen?”

Yes, those plot holes and contrivances had me ranting in exasperation — but I still kept reading, because Saul has a way of keeping you intrigued. His writing is like potato chips, M&Ms, or crack; addicting. He doesn’t skimp on gruesome detail, and paints some pretty vivid images of the grotesque which infuses the story with an effective creepiness. Bodies stack up like the end of a Shakespeare tragedy, and his ability to create a character so loathsome you hate her immediately (Helena), and another you like just as instantaneously (Ruby) is impressive. Nothing surprised me in this book, it’s predictable and obvious, but that’s true of most genre fiction.

As I read, I envisioned this as a 1980’s made-for-TV movie, until things started getting a bit grisly. It would have been a bit too much for prime time, but it would have made for some crazy television. There are soupçons in this story from familiar works, among them; Now, Voyager, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Psycho, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, and from the book world, Flowers in the Attic and My Sweet Audrina. Not so much blatant rip-offs, but more pinches of spice to enhance the macabre stew, the pastiche helps makes for a disturbing, entertaining, read. ***1/2 out of 5

 

 

 

Child’s Play, Andrew Neiderman (1985)

Alex and Sharon Gold live in a small Catskills resort town in the former tourist house Alex’s parents used to operate. He makes his money through investing, and Sharon, something of an introvert, is content to live in the big house with little interaction with the outside world. One day, Alex suggests they take in a foster child. This takes Sharon by surprise, since over a decade ago their only child was stillborn, and Alex has grown impotent due to sexual hang-ups.

Rather than taking in a young child, Alex insists on a troubled young teen, Richard, who takes to Alex within the first five seconds of meeting him. Things go so well, in such a brief amount of time, that within a few months, Alex and Sharon have taken in three additional kids, two more boys and a girl, all having suffered abuse in the past. Miraculously, the kids all fall into line; they get good grades at school and do chores around the house and grounds without complaint. They eagerly look forward to their nightly private meetings with Alex in Pa’s room, a room in the oldest part of the house that’s something like a root cellar.

Sharon is mystified as to what’s going on, because she’s completely out of the loop. The kids mainly ignore her. She begins to feel a stranger in her own home. When she investigates and discovers a terrifying secret in Pa’s room, she knows something is seriously wrong, but having no living relatives or close friends, she has no one to turn to for help. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse.

In a previous review of a Neiderman novel, Sister, Sister, I mentioned it suffered from lightning quick plot developments and pacing. The problem with Child’s Play is the opposite. It drags, with something of a lather-rinse-repeat approach. Some say this is a slow burning, disquieting story. It’s slow, I’ll grant that.

In a brief prologue, we learn that Alex was abused as a child by his father, and abuse is pretty much the theme of the story. Sharon is subtly and insidiously abused, both emotionally and psychologically, by Alex and, later, the kids. The kids, too, are psychologically and emotionally abused through Alex’s cult leader style of manipulation. I should have cared about them, but we don’t learn enough about the children before Alex gets his hands on them, and after he does, they’re one-dimensional. They don’t have any real story or development. If only one would have broken free from Alex’s thrall, it would have made for a more interesting dynamic.

Another problem is that there’s no one to like in this. Sharon is a dishrag. Alex is an obvious nutter, just like his dear ‘ole dad. How is he able to bond, have an instant rapport, with each of these kids at their first meeting? He’s like Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh rolled into one. If there was some kind of supernatural process involved, it needed to be explained (and would have made for a better story, frankly). If not, it’s absurd, and I don’t buy it.  That’s the problem, the reader is asked to suspend their disbelief far too much for this story to be plausible. The only two characters I really liked were Stacy Knots and Tillie, both periphery characters.

We find out little to nothing of Alex’s abusive childhood, his off-his-rocker father, his (probably weak-willed) mother, and courtship with Sharon. Due to intense fear of sex and the female body, instilled in him by his batshit father, Alex believes a lack of a sex life is his “goodness” winning. I laughed out loud when I read how his impotency came to be. It was unexpected and hilarious. A sampling:

He had nightmares about her vagina, seeing it as a great and powerful vise, gripping his penis within its lips and squeezing and pulling until one night he imagined it snapping off and being swallowed within.

There’s a little more to it, but you get the gist. You can almost hear the lunatic conversations between Pa Gold and Margaret White.

Much is made of Pa’s room and, to a lesser extent, his journals, which Alex is always reading while listening to O Fortuna from Carmina Burana. Problem is, we don’t get to know anything of Pa, his damn room and what goes on in there, or anything in his journals. Is there a supernatural element at play? If so, please elaborate. My guess is, there isn’t, so it all seems rather pointless. This was a disappointing read, with frustrating characters. Alex is smoothly domineering, Sharon is a passive victim, and the kids move from delinquents with attitude problems to mindless, yes-Alex drones.

In Child’s Play, the reader is subjected to too much of the mundane, and either not enough or none of what’s important; Pa’s room and journals, and how Alex manages to change all the kids’ personalities and win their unquestioning loyalty. There are a few things that are somewhat creepy, but sadly, they’re never fully explored.  I did like some of the events in the last chapter, but didn’t much care for the epilogue. **1/2 out of 5

Blood Secrets, Craig Jones (1978)

Irene Rutledge is a bold, knows-what-she-wants young woman studying for her doctorate in 1958. During the summer, she moves in with her best friend, Gloria, and for some inexplicable reason, is drawn to another post-grad living in the building, Frank Mattison, who almost everyone describes as weird. Gloria doesn’t like him much, telling Irene he has a number of very young, mousy girls in and out of his apartment all the time. Irene and Frank have a few awkward and terse exchanges, but eventually warm to each other after coming to the aid of a student on campus after a minor mishap.

Irene and Frank begin seeing each other, with Irene’s friends and parents disapproving of her new boyfriend. Why they disapprove is never exactly explained, other than that Frank is weird. He eventually confides a few details about his childhood to Irene, but for the most part, his past is dead to him, and he has no contact with his family. It’s the way he wants it, no exceptions. Eventually, the two become engaged, and Frank is apoplectic when one of his sisters, Vivien, crashes the wedding rehearsal and Irene invites her and her husband to the rehearsal dinner.

A few years later, Vivien is also at the hospital when Frank and Irene’s daughter is born. Despite Frank’s feelings, Irene does have contact now and then with Vivien, growing ever confused about the conflicting stories she’s hearing about his family. Who’s telling the truth? Irene has problems rearing her daughter, Regina, who’s doted on by her father, perhaps doted on too much. When Regina becomes a teen, she distances herself from her father, Frank becomes obsessively overprotective, and Irene fears the worst. Eventually, all that’s been hidden comes out into the open.

The story is told in first person, through Irene, and it’s fairly well done. Other characters don’t shy away from telling her their opinion of her, and she candidly relays their comments. I didn’t care for Irene’s passivity when it came to raising her daughter, though. She defers to Frank, which I find more than a little unbelievable, especially since she saw that her husband’s misguided coddling eventually led to a spoiled hellion in need of discipline. It was good to see Irene not back down after Regina does something unconscionable to a smaller child (this occurs while Frank is out of town).

The first third of this novel was intriguing, with a number of tantalizing questions. I was thoroughly engrossed in the mystery surrounding Frank and his past, and I vacillated on whether or not to like Irene; she started off as a smug, self-centered, attention seeking bitch, then mellowed, only occasionally slipping back into unlikable mode. Then, just over a third of the way in, after Frank and Irene marry, the story slumps into a narrative of their domestic and work lives. After their daughter is born, it becomes an unending treatise on martial strife, conflicting approaches to child rearing, Frank’s sudden, but fleeting, political activism, and Irene’s work woes as a high school teacher during the turbulent sixties and seventies. And let’s not forget Regina, who at six, makes Damien Thorn on his tricycle look like an angel.

It’s during this middle portion of the book that all the intriguing mystery of the beginning dissipates to be replaced by red herrings and situations that strain your willingness to suspend disbelief. Things finally pick up again in the last quarter, but the domestic trials and tribulations in the middle are taxing, with too much seesawing on Frank’s possible ulterior motives.

The shocking revelations weren’t all that shocking, I suspected a few things early on, and the primary antagonist, during the big confrontation, engaged in some silly mustache-twirling. I’ve read other books with a similar theme or revelation, but they were handled with much more finesse, even pathos. I won’t spoil the very end, something of an epilogue, but will say that I liked it, even though it has a sadder-but-wiser quality to it. It makes perfect sense, given all the dramatic upheavals.

The book’s structure suffers from not having chapters, and the narrative jumping years ahead from one paragraph to the next, which leaves the reader with no good stopping points and the novel no chance to breathe. Early on there were some scene breaks, but those are quickly dispensed with.

A quick read that starts strong but slides into mediocrity in the middle, Blood Secrets manages to rebound, even with the far-fetched climactic scene, saved, in part, by a thoughtful, and for me, satisfying ending. When all is said and done, it’s not a bad read. *** out of 5

Sister, Sister, Andrew Neiderman (1992)

Special ed teacher Neil Richards is offered an unusual, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To teach twelve-year-old twin sisters, Alpha and Beta, who reside in the research annex of a hospital. The twins have been at Mandicott all their lives, never stepping outside their living quarters because they’re conjoined near the waist, sharing one set of legs, which Beta has control of.

The team involved with the twins includes Dr. Endermo, who heads up the facility, Dr. Henderson, a geneticist, and Dr. Weber, a psychologist. Despite a couple of moments of bad vibes during his interview, Neil accepts the job and asks to start right away. He finds Beta to be a fairly typical twelve-year-old. Alpha, though, has a higher IQ, a harder edge, and is the dominant personality. After his first lesson with them, he suspects the girls, or at least Alpha, have psychic abilities. When the woman who cooks for the twins dies in a freak accident, Neil’s suspicions grow, believing the girls killed her, as well as their former psychologist. After both Neil and Dr. Weber suffer strange experiences, they start digging for more information, convinced more is going on at the institute than pure medical research. As a result, they grow increasingly mistrustful of the other team members and even the twins themselves.

Something of a medical thriller, this is a very quick read that isn’t bogged down by long descriptive passages or clinical terminology. The sparse use of medical jargon makes sense, since Neil isn’t a doctor and it’s his story we’re following. However, things happen awfully fast, almost too abruptly. Neil is instantly attracted to the psychologist, Tania Weber, who initially tries to keep things professional, but succumbs to her attraction to him soon enough. Another example is his suspicion after one teaching session. A slow build-up would have been better, but since a lot of things were telegraphed in the first chapter, it doesn’t matter. I also have issues with the lax security in the facility, both inside and out. Exterior side and back doors are left unlocked at all hours, which seems strange, and don’t get me started on rooms within the annex.

This book was originally published in 1992, but the edition I read was more recent, with slight revisions that were frankly distracting. In early chapters, there were mentions of technology that either didn’t exist in 1992 (iPods, iPads, iPhones) or were relatively new, expensive, or not yet ubiquitous (laptops, internet, cellphones). The inclusion of these items was unnecessary, since they’re forgotten later on and don’t play into the story. A minor complaint, but I suppose it doesn’t matter if you’re unaware of the original publication date. Personally, I don’t care for updates to existing works, they lose something, a feeling of authenticity to the time they were written. More annoying is that technology that was available at the time isn’t utilized at all in the story, such as access badges or swipe cards for the research facility, and security cameras. By casually shoehorning in 21st century tech, it makes the absence of what existed and should be there pretty glaring.

With shades of Firestarter and The Fury, Sister, Sister is a quick, easy read with one disturbing scene. Neither spectacular, nor awful, it’s okay, but reads more like a novelization of a movie. If you think of it in that way, as a movie with the story playing out in 90 or 105 minutes, the lighting quick pacing of events/plot developments is a little easier to accept. There’s worse out there. *** out of 5

(Note: The e-book (Kindle) edition of this book is riddled with formatting and typographical errors that make it a less than enjoyable reading experience. It’s atrocious, the worst I’ve seen.)

Rockinghorse, Wm W. Johnstone (1986)

Rockinghorse is a perfect example of the phrase batshit insane. I began reading this book about two months ago, and it started off pretty well. A married New York couple with two kids head to a small town in Georgia for the summer to vacation in the mansion the husband, Lucas, had inherited from his rich grandmother. Owing to the grandmother’s wealth, the estate has been in perpetual care with an on-site caretaker, the will stipulating the house can never be sold. As a child, Lucas was always afraid of the place, as well as his grandmother, and had a better relationship with his grandfather. His insane brother, Ira, has been institutionalized for life.

The family settles in and soon enough, weird things start happening. A lot of weird things. There’s Lige, the white trash caretaker who’s done no caretaking but banked all the money he’s been sent, who turns out to be Lucas’ insane brother — or not. There’s an old wooden rockinghorse that moves on its own. Funky smelling prehistoric wood creatures, we’re later told, are just harmless Bigfoots. There’s wood dwelling magical spirit children, and witchcraft practicing college professors on sabbatical who live down the road. And we can’t forget the enclave of Satanists, who are part of a worldwide conspiracy, but for some reason are headquartered in some jerkwater southern town. The family is befriended by one of the local deputies, whose wife happens to be psychic. This story doesn’t just throw in the kitchen sink, but the stove, fridge, and drywall as well.

The rockinghorse is alive, and pure, satanic evil. Even when it’s seemingly destroyed, whether shot, burned or beaten, it comes back, good as new. Eventually, it even starts talking. Somehow, I don’t think I’m supposed to break out in hysterics when reading a horror novel, especially during a supposedly tense and terrifying scene. Yet I did, and it was so absurd, I had to stop mid-scene. I couldn’t stop laughing.

Even more characters are thrown into the mix when several friends from New York come to visit, kids in tow. I gave up trying to remember who was who at this point, to say this book is overpopulated is an understatement. Some gruesome deaths and after-effects of torture are graphically described, but what’s more disturbing is at least three female characters, including a thirteen-year-old girl, are raped, but they shake it off like they merely suffered a paper cut. Fortunately, those assaults are barely described, and one happens off-page.

The book goes even more off the rails, with the house starting to breathe, moan, and read people’s minds. Dismembered and preserved body parts in the basement start coming to life, and the two main kids suddenly develop telepathic powers and can communicate with the semi-psychic professors. We also find out it wasn’t crazy brother Ira masquerading as Lige the caretaker, Ira was really friendly Jim from the gas station — surprise! — especially since there was a scene showing Jim dying a slow, agonizing death. It was really a hapless hitchhiker, but hey, wasn’t that a cool fake-out? No, no it wasn’t, you hack, and it wasn’t the first time you pulled this kind of thing.

With 83% left, I skimmed, quickly, then eventually jumped to the end, because I couldn’t take anymore. For some reason the state police show up and are drawn into the apocalyptic God vs. Satan, good vs. evil death match in Podunk, GA. Who wins? Who cares.

Despite being a fast read, it was a lengthy and exhausting one, I had to take breaks because there was too much to keep straight. It would have been much better had the author stuck to a few basic ideas; the house, the possessed toy, the crazy brother. Johnstone cranked these things out pretty regularly for Zebra books back in the ’80’s and ’90’s; assembly line, gonzo fiction, probably geared to the tween and teen crowd, say 10 to 15 year olds.

Started off decently, but collapsed under its own weight and unfocused absurdity. A risible *1/2 out of 5.

 

 

 

The Feast of Bacchus, Ernest Henham (1907)

In the small English village of Thorlund lies an abandoned estate called the Strath. It has a violent history, and no one has lived in the house for a century,  yet the villagers don’t believe the place is haunted. In fact, the parson, whose rectory neighbors the Strath, finds the gardens delightful, having been granted access by the lawyer overseeing the property. Every day, for decades, Dr. Berry has taken his constitutional in the Strath’s gardens. He focuses, not on his parish, but on what he believes to be his true calling, translating ancient Greek poetry, bettered by his walks in the garden. He is none too pleased when the rightful owner, Henry Reed, arrives, relieves him of the key to the gate, and denies the parson access to the grounds. Strange things begin to happen to Reed, and Berry shrugs when the owner is found dead. Enter the next heir, Reed’s nephew, Charles Conway.

Conway, a dissolute sort, arrives, joined a short time later by his friend and sponge, playwright Drayton. Suffice it to say, the house is indeed, strange, exerting its influence on those who inhabit the house or set foot on the grounds. In a neighboring village, another parson, Mr. Price, his young niece, Flora, and her friend, Maude Juxson also fall under the Strath’s influence, culminating in a bizarre and dangerous masquerade within the house.

The Feast of Bacchus is a novel of big and academic ideas. Unfortunately, so many of those ideas are crammed in, they often eclipse the plot. The elements that could have made this a tidy, enjoyable story are reduced to supporting players. In addition, what should have been subtext or theme, ancient Greek theater, became the focus, overbearingly so, with too much of the story coming across as a dry lecture, not engaging fiction. The drama angle, poetry, and philosophy are detrimental, dampening the enjoyment and detracting from the core of the story. It often reads more like an essay than a work of fiction, and that’s what makes it so frustrating. A little goes a long way.

The basic idea of a house, or entities within it, influencing or possessing people is a good one. The history of the Strath and its past inhabitants was interesting when simply told, not sandwiched between lengthy rococo passages in a diary. In the last quarter of the book, a latecomer to the story provides more intriguing information regarding an old set of comedy/tragedy masks that are connected to the house. The history of the masks is fantastic, unsettling stuff. The masquerade was a great idea, but it, too, eventually suffers by switching to telling rather than showing, especially at a key moment.

There was a lot I disliked about this book. Transitions are jarring and abrupt. It’s difficult to connect with most of the characters because they feel just like that; stock characters, not people to become invested in. We know so little about them, or are simply told something in a sentence here or there, that they’re distanced from the reader. Let’s not forget the stupor inducing philosophy, history, and dissertations on ancient Greek theater. At one point, we’re subjected to a mind-numbing sermon of Dr. Berry’s where he pontificates on the subject at length. I was rendered exhausted and nonplussed by it all.

The presentation of the story as a whole is uneven, with the best parts buried under overwrought, ornamental paragraphs that are merely pretty words and ideas that don’t drive the story forward. When the plot actually takes center stage (why not use theatrical terms?) it’s compelling. It also seemed that, at times, the author broke the rules of his own universe. The influence only works when someone is on the grounds or in the house. No, wait, people bring it with them into the village. No, it wears off. Now it calls to someone who isn’t even in the vicinity to take part in the madness. This person is immune without an explanation. That’s an issue for me.

In many ways, this book is unrewarding. The somnolence descends like a gauzy veil, obscuring, or at least, clouding, the most intriguing aspects of the story. The prose is often unnecessarily rapturous and florid, and much like an overgrown, fallow garden, the reader has to weed through it all to find anything of interest. If you’re a fan of the purple prose of Lovecraft or Shirley Jackson, where much is said about nothing, you’ll probably enjoy The Feast of Bacchus. If, however, you prefer straightforward brevity, this either isn’t for you, or will prove a challenge. Excising the unnecessary, and thereby shortening its length, would have turned this into a great, eerie short story of weird fiction.

As heavy as my criticism is on this one, I was drawn in from time to time and saw glimmers of what could have been. The broken down and decaying house of Strath, the history of the masks and their influence, and the character of Biron were all to my liking. *** out of 5

 

 

Haunted Castles, Ray Russell (1985)

Haunted Castles is a collection of short Gothic stories by little-known American author Ray Russell, published in 1985, the stories themselves dating from the 1960’s. The volume contains seven stories, of varying length, as follows:

  • Sardonicus, Sagittarius, and Sanguinarious (the ‘S’ trilogy)
  • Comet Wine, The Runaway Lovers, Vendetta, The Cage

First, my overall impression. There’s plenty of Gothic atmosphere to go around; remote locations, looming castles, sinister dungeons, and people behaving very badly. There are saints and sinners, possibly even the devil himself. There’s black humor. There are grotesques of mind, soul, and visage. There are the impassioned mad and the coldly calculating. All these things combine to make for a great reading experience of mid-20th century American horror fiction. Some of the horror can be of the supernatural or fantastical variety, but more often than not, it’s human born, which makes it all the more nightmarish. Two stories incorporate notorious historical figures to great effect.

Sardonicus is the story of Sir Robert Cargrave, physician, summoned to a remote village in Czechoslovakia to treat a bizarre and extreme case of rictus, the sufferer of which will stop at nothing to be cured. There’s plenty of Gothic atmosphere, with a castle, dungeon, and damsel in distress. Russell also wrote the adaptation for the William Castle movie, Mr. Sardonicus. Some changes were made for the screen, but they work for the medium. Rather than being detrimental to each other, the novelette and movie compliment one other.

Sagittarius is the story of an old man telling a younger one stories of his decadent times in Paris during the fin de siècle. It raises interesting questions about duality of personality by incorporating discussions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; my only quibble was the assertion that Stevenson’s two fictional characters were real people. Perhaps in Sagittarius‘ world, they are. More intriguing  is the notion that an infamous historical figure somehow managed to live through the centuries. Duality is also explored through scenes of ‘legitimate’ theater and the Grand Guignol. A solid story.

Sanguinarius is the story of Elizabeth Báthory, told from her perspective and presented almost as a defense against spurious accusations. I think knowledge of her and the crimes ascribed to her will influence a reader’s opinion on this one. At first, I saw it as far too apologetic, but Russell’s stories often give food for thought, revealing unexpected layers, and I grew to like it more after a bit of pondering. Russell employs the literary device of using archaic words and phrases to create a sense of the period, but it’s not necessarily bothersome. The story contains a scene or two of Gothic gruesomeness, at which Russell excels.

Comet Wine is a lighter tale, more fantasy than horror. Set in the sphere of Russian musicians of the late 19th century, it tells the story of two composers; one mediocre who suddenly becomes a genius talent, and the other whose remarkable creativity seems to have wasted away. I wouldn’t classify this as a Gothic story, but it’s still enjoyable.

The Runaway Lovers is a darkly humorous story set, appropriately, in a castle dungeon. There’s plenty of taunting by the jailer and sniping between the lovers, and the resolution, distilled down into a couple of short sentences of dialog, had me laughing out loud. A wonderfully twisted entry of black humor and one of my favorites in the collection.

Vendetta is just that; a story of revenge. Set in Italy, it concerns a brother with the odd habit of talking in cryptic rhymes, and his beautiful sister, of whom he’s incredibly protective, particularly of her virtue. Eventually, he allows a visiting painter from Spain to use her as a model. Model and artist become lovers and marry, expecting a child. Vengeance is a long time coming, but eventually arrives. This was my least favorite story in the collection, but that’s not to say I disliked it. It’s more medieval than Gothic.

The Cage is the shortest story, but makes up for it with its ending. It seems simple enough. An unfaithful noblewoman is cuckolding her husband with a young lover. She teasingly accuses her paramour of being the devil. He replies perhaps he is. This little scenario is repeated a few times, then the conclusion comes, chilling and horrific. Just how horrific, however, depends on whether or not you believe the lover really was the devil. Either way, the ending is grim, but one of the two possible scenarios presents a situation so ghastly it’s almost unfathomable. It gets in your head and under your skin.

Ray Russell was an author who wrote with intelligence without being pedantic or pretentious, and created vivid imagery with a modicum of well chosen words. His work is smart, but accessible, and often makes you think. He had a knack for insidiously planting seeds of ideas that unexpectedly bloom, sometimes immediately after finishing a story, other times, an hour, or day, later. He immediately became one of my favorite authors because of this book. The excellent Haunted Castles is highly recommended. ****1/2 out of 5.

 

Elizabeth, Ken Greenhall (1976)

Elizabeth is the story of fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Cuttner, a peculiar girl who observes the world and people around her through the eyes and mindset of one much older. She’s fourteen going on forty.

The novel begins with an accident befalling Elizabeth’s parents. Her uncle, James, with whom she has a very close relationship, survives. After the tragedy, she begins living with her grandmother in New York City in the house where her uncle, aunt, and younger cousin also live. A tutor, Anne Barton, is hired to teach Elizabeth until she’s ready to return to school. Elizabeth would prefer not to go back, partly to stay close to Frances, the woman she sees only in mirrors. Frances, an ancestor executed centuries ago for witchcraft, first appeared at the family’s lake house, shortly before Elizabeth’s parents died. Now, Elizabeth is learning about, and using, her own unique powers.

A darker tale told in the first person, Elizabeth has the feel of a VC Andrews novel told in a more mature style. At first, Greenhall does a decent job of pulling the reader in and leaving them to wonder what, exactly, is going on, but it soon becomes apparent that Elizabeth is an unreliable narrator. Every statement needs to be taken with a grain of salt. As a result, we never really come to know the other characters. They’re flimsy and lack depth, and because they’re presented through Elizabeth’s skewed perception, we never know what’s true. Some are given more attention, the uncle and tutor, but others are merely there as plot contrivances, cousin Keith most notably.

Upon finishing the book, I was ambivalent, but quickly realized how much I disliked this book. The author presents an ending with no definitive answer about what’s occurred throughout. Some may like the ambiguity and being left to draw their own conclusions, it works for some books, but for this one, I think it’s a cop-out.

**Spoilers**

The novel can be taken at face value, with the belief that Elizabeth, like some of her ancestors, is a witch, and coming into her own. She enjoys her newfound powers and uses them to remove those who threaten her happiness or who are no longer useful; her parents, grandmother, and uncle. As the story progresses, the less plausible the witchcraft claim becomes, requiring too much suspension of disbelief. Elizabeth’s sanity comes into question fairly quickly given her bold pronouncements, including her tutor casting no reflection in mirrors.

At the novel’s start, Elizabeth informs us her parents don’t love each other and her father is an alcoholic. She also claims her father’s brother, James, is her lover. One could posit the sexual abuse, alcoholism, and her parents’ inattentiveness allows Elizabeth to create a fantasy world in which to escape. In that world, she imagines she can see a caring mother-figure in Frances, who informs her of her gift and encourages her to use it for her gain (empowerment for the powerless).

Through coincidence, her parents drown, her grandmother disappears, and her uncle James dies of a snake bite (an awful plot contrivance; we’re expected to believe James is reckless enough to head into the woods to find a rattlesnake to bring back as a gift for his son. Talk about straining credulity). She believes the rituals she’s performed, or just the thoughts she’s had, have caused those deaths to occur, but also claims she didn’t want them dead, just out of the way. The deaths, by the way, can all be rationally explained, something Elizabeth scoffs at.

Eventually, Elizabeth ends up in a psychiatric hospital, but only briefly, the details deliberately muddled. Suddenly, Miss loves-to-talk-about-herself isn’t saying much, except that the doctor is witless and no match for her extraordinary cunning. Topping it off, she claims to be pregnant.

Everyone in the book comes off in a bad light, because they’re presented through a distorted lens and the skewed, unproven statements of a snotty fourteen-year-old with delusions of grandeur. Elizabeth has a pretentious, sneering arrogance regarding everyone and everything. Talk about a superiority complex. If she’s truly involved with her uncle, she’s emotionally and psychologically damaged, yet she still makes for an unsympathetic protagonist. I should care, but I don’t. The incestuous relationship may not even be fact, but only unstable Elizabeth’s fantasy. I’m not adverse to controversial topics, I have a shelf full of Sade. But when it comes to the alleged incestuous relationship between Elizabeth and her uncle, Greenhall fails to commit and provide concrete proof of it, part of why I question the assertion in the first place.

When I was younger I saw James, my father’s brother, look from our dog to me without changing his expression. I soon taught him to look at me in a way he looked at nothing else.

She contends that because she’s now fourteen, has breasts and has gotten her period, she’s a woman, a femme fatale capable of entrancing anyone and everyone, making them love her and want her (fourteen-year-old girls didn’t think that way in the ’70’s, trust me). Sorry, your profound witchy woman is just a teenager going through an identity crisis as she enters adolescence, starts crushing on and fantasizing about her uncle, and sees other women as threats. It’s almost as if puberty has driven Elizabeth mad.

Greenhall uses Elizabeth as a means to expound on his particular views, rendering the character inauthentic; Elizabeth’s voice is not that of a realistic fourteen-year old. Because of that, the novel reeks of disingenuousness. Elizabeth is imbued with the pessimism, cynicism, and misanthropy of her creator, a middle-aged man. She’s oh-so-special.

My name is Elizabeth Cuttner, and I am fourteen years old. I know you would be more interested in my story if I were a middle-aged person, but I ask you to remember what you were like when you were fourteen. Is there a chance that you were more perceptive then than you are now?

If perceptive means haughty, narcissistic, nihilistic, and sociopathic, then no. Her world view is that of a French Decadent at the turn of the 20th century. A fourteen-year-old girl by way of a fifty-year-old male author who misjudged his ability. Many male authors are adept at writing female characters, even teenagers. This one isn’t. At it’s core, this book is more about Greenhall than his protagonist. Her perceptions and beliefs are really his, transplanted; Elizabeth is his stand-in, his avatar, his self-insertion. Worse still, there’s nothing definitive in this tale told by an idiot, there’s no clarity, not one thing explained. Greenhall isn’t being clever, he’s being lazy, and fails to deliver any satisfactory conclusion. And if he can’t be bothered enough to care about the story, neither can I.

A quick read, Elizabeth‘s premise held promise, but didn’t deliver. ** out of 5.

All That Glitters, V.C. Andrews (1995)

The third book in the Landry series sees our heroine, dumb as a fence post Ruby, agreeing to marry her wealthy half-brother, Paul Tate. She does this merely for security, but also because she’s an idiot, apparently forgetting she’ll come into an inheritance in a year or so. In a hilariously bad scene that goes on far too long, they play dress-up make-believe one evening. Then they have sex, because Paul thinks it’s cool if they were pretending to be other people.

Beau, back from France, marries Gisselle because she looks like Ruby, and if he can’t have the real thing, boffing her twin will do. Beau and Ruby start sleeping together on the sly, but Paul immediately figures it out.

Both step-mother Daphne and Uncle Jean die off-page because the author’s a hack.

Gisselle contracts encephalitis, and in a plot too ludicrous to believe, Ruby switches places with her comatose sister. Gisselle ends up dying, and Paul, having convinced himself she was really Ruby, drowns in the swamp after going on an extended whiskey-fueled bender.

A big custody battle ensues when Paul’s parents want their ‘granddaughter’ Pearl. It’s really just Paul’s mother sticking it to Ruby, because she knows of the sister swap. All the deception is revealed in court, and only some eleventh hour testimony from Paul’s father saves the day. Pearl is reunited with Beau and Ruby and they get a happily ever after that they don’t fucking deserve, including twin boys a few years later. So happy! So infuriating.

All That Glitters oozes so much trashy tawdriness it almost leaves you speechless. This book was absolutely wretched. Ruby and Beau were self-centered and selfish, willing to stoop to anything to get what they wanted and not caring who they hurt because, true love! Destiny! Fate! Paul needed to pull his head out of his ass and get over his romantic love for his sister. He was selfish, too, so no real sympathy there. Towards the end, Paul’s mother exhibited some uncomfortable mother love, but it could have been the grief. That said, she’s not blameless in any of this either; she went along with the baby buying all those years ago, faked a pregnancy, and never told Paul the truth. Don’t get me started on the ridiculous, implausible plot.

There was one, one, good thing in this. Louis resurfaces, albeit briefly, but even that’s slightly tainted by the author de-aging him by about ten years. Pretty sad that a partial chapter involving a peripheral character is the only freaking bright spot and worthwhile thing in this whole mess.

This book was utter garbage, populated with reprehensible, self-serving people. * out of 5