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.




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.


Burnt Offerings, Robert Marasco (1973)

With summer approaching, Ben and Marian Rolfe want to escape their stifling apartment in crowded Queens by renting a house in the country. Marian finds a listing, and they head out one Saturday to check it out. The rental turns out to be a sprawling, but faded, mansion on two hundred acres on the bay. The rent is suspiciously low, and the owners, elderly siblings Roz and Arnold Allardyce, are, as Ben puts it, weird. There’s a catch, however, to this too good to be true rental property; the Rolfe’s will have to provide meals to eighty-five-year-old Mother Allardyce, being left behind, who occupies two rooms on the uppermost floor and prefers to be left alone. Just leave a tray on her sitting room table, she’ll be fine. Marian, salivating over the house and its antiques, is more than willing to oblige. Ben, not so much.

Passive-aggressive Marian gets her way by means of the silent treatment on the drive back that extends into their evening at home. Manipulation is standard procedure for her; she employed a bit of a prick tease to get Ben to even consider a getaway in the first place. Marian is something of a neat-freak, by the way, as well as a fine antiques whore, decorating their apartment with things they don’t need, don’t have room for, and can’t afford on Ben’s schoolteacher salary. She pays for them by working temp jobs for a couple of weeks, rather than working part-time and putting money aside so they can finally move to the suburbs. For all these things and more, Marian is an unlikable bitch. But I digress.

The Rolfe’s, with eight-year-old son David and Ben’s seventy-four-year-old aunt Elizabeth in tow, take the house for two months. Marian is just enthralled, enamored of the place and all its antiques. Hepplewhite, Chippendale! Pier glass consoles and Persian rugs! Gold — gold  — serving trays! Marian practically orgasms over all the stuff, because she has pretentious airs, grand designs, and yearns to live above her station. She has taste, you see, and apparently thinks she’s a fucking Vanderbilt or Rockefeller and deserves to live this kind of life. She begins to clean and fix up the house. That’s right, a house they’re renting for two months, and she’s swanning around trying to return it to its showplace glory days, acting like they’re going to live there forever (that couldn’t be foreshadowing, could it?).

She redecorates the upstairs sitting room and starts spending an inordinate amount of time there, it’s her special, peaceful place. Needless to say, old biddy Mother Allardyce is never seen or heard from because she doesn’t exist. In fact, pretty much everything of any importance can be figured out by the book’s title and first three or four chapters. Way to not play it close to the vest or create suspense!

As for Ben, he has an incident in the pool in which he intentionally tries to hurt his son. This is verified after the fact, because it’s unclear from the writing if he got carried away playing or purposely became abusive. After that, Ben becomes remote and cold towards Marian, and begins suffering crushing, constant headaches, moments of blurred vision, and hallucinations of a black limousine, something from his childhood that he associates with death (real subtle on the symbolism).

He fears he’s having a nervous breakdown, and when he confides in Marian, she brushes it off. What’s frustrating about Ben’s character is that he knows the score. He knows the Allardyce’s are sketchy, that there’s something off about the house, that his wife is manipulative and ends up caring more about a stranger’s home than her immediate family. Problem is, he’s weak (whipped, one could argue) and always gives in. Marian always gets her way. Hell, the simple fact that they rent the house at all is preposterous, given all the strange circumstances. Had he put his foot down once in a while and forced her to sell her precious antiques, they’d never end up in this mess.

It seems the house, or whatever inhabits it, has an ability to tap into the darker, hidden desires and fears of people and bring them to the fore. Ben’s intentional harm to his son in the pool, for instance. Was he redirecting resentment and anger for his wife onto David? Then there’s the question of his sexual behavior with Marian. It’s vague. We’re not in Ben’s head, Marasco chooses to focus on Marian, but her thoughts and reactions have an air of an unreliability to them. Is she a closet prude, as Ben half-jokingly accuses? We know she gets skittish about skinny dipping and becoming intimate in the pool because — gasp! — the house is watching. Maybe he does try raping her, I can’t tell, it’s so murkily written. Maybe she perceives he does because her genitals have suddenly become as golden and revered as an Adrien Vachette snuff box.

This book is more psychological than anything, and I suppose it could be read as an allegory about the disintegration of a marriage. Marian is obsessed with things and living a life she can’t have. She’s petulant and selfish. In one maddening scene, having donned a blue hostess gown, she sets out caviar for cocktail hour on the terrace like she’s in Newport or the Hamptons. That drives home that she’s a childish adult playing dress-up in someone else’s house. She becomes proprietary of the house and everything in it, at the expense of her family. I get it, her obsession is self-destructive and the insufferable, highfalutin bitch she is deep down is surfacing, egged on by the house. That still doesn’t make me care about her, I had her pegged from the get-go.

The best chapter was the first. It felt very ’70’s, and Marasco conveyed the stifling heat, noise, claustrophobia, and tension of summer in a crowded apartment complex. However, he doesn’t commit when he needs to or when it counts, in character or plot development. He was probably too busy patting himself on the back for another five paragraphs describing a stunning, late 18th-century gold inlaid rosewood Spanish escritoire, and Marian pulling out the lemon oil to polish it (there’s no such scene, I threw that in for illustrative purposes). The author has a penchant for name dropping antique furniture makers as if we care. We don’t, we’re not Marian.

Marasco has a strange writing style. In mid-paragraph, hell, sometimes mid-sentence, he switches from showing to telling. This happens in the middle of conversations, like he couldn’t be bothered to continue them because he bored himself with what was being discussed and wanted instead to palaver for a few paragraphs about a Steuben candy dish (see, I can be pedantic, too). He also broke the rules of his world when Ben left the estate for several days without incident (overgrown sentinel shrubbery usually blocks his path). His uneventful departure wasn’t even described.

The son, David, often comes across as an afterthought. Marasco needed him for a few plot developments, but other than that, he serves no purpose and kind of disappears from the narrative. Aunt Elizabeth was initially presented as an active and spry senior, but she’s just cannon, or to be more precise, house fodder.

Let’s talk about dropped plot points, shall we? The rusted old tricycle found by David when they first went to look at the house. The boarded up, ramshackle cottage on the edge of the woods. The broken old-fashioned spectacles at the bottom of the pool found by Ben, thrown away by Marian the next morning. How ’bout it, Bob? You had great stuff to explore and incorporate and instead you focused on Marian getting her jollies playing with antiques. Screw you. Some unanswered questions:

  1. Who are the Allardyces?
  2. What’s the history of the house?
  3. What/who is Mother and what’s the hum in the bedroom?
  4. How could Ben leave so easily for the funeral and why did he return?
  5. What did Ben see in the greenhouse that made him try to flee so suddenly?
  6. Why did the house affect Ben differently?
  7. Why didn’t David age or show ill effects?

Some may say this a potboiler, a slow burn. It’s not. It’s tedious, far too long, and suffers from a languorous pace in which not a whole hell of a lot happens plot-wise. Chapters could be half the length. There’s paragraph after paragraph of descriptions about the junk in the house that gets Marian’s panties wet. Conversations between characters crawl due to numbing, half-baked dialog and repetition. This is a short story dragged out to novel length that could have worked as a one hour Twilight Zone episode if written by Serling, Beaumont, or Matheson.

SPOILER: The house rejuvenates itself by killing people. A good idea, execrably executed.

A grudging ** out of 5 because I actually finished it in spite of myself, liked the first few chapters, and the premise was interesting. A tedious and overrated psychological domestic drama masquerading as a haunted house story. I’d rather take my chances spending a weekend in the Belasco house.


Hell House, Richard Matheson (1971)

Physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett, who researches parapsychology, is hired by the old, wealthy, and dying Rudolph Deutsch to determine if there is life after death. He can conduct his research at the Belasco House, aka Hell House, which Deutsch has purchased. It’s a place with a dark and violent history, with two previous investigations ending in tragedy. Barrett will receive $100,000 for completing the task. The catch is, he has only a week to deliver his findings. Barrett bristles when told two mediums have also been hired to accompany him, Florence Tanner, a mental medium and Spiritualist, and Ben Fischer, the only participant of the last investigation to make it out alive and sane, and barely at that.

Several days later, Barrett, his wife, Edith, and the psychics arrive at the Belasco house. The mansion is located in Maine, in an isolated valley perpetually filled with fog. The forbidding property includes a tarn, Bastard’s Bog, that reeks of decay. Every window of the house has been bricked up. The four settle in, and, over dinner, Fischer provides information on the owner, Emeric Belasco, and the tragedy that occurred in the house.

An illegitimate child, Belasco was a bad seed from the start, displaying psychopathic tendencies at an early age. As an adult, he was a charismatic, but intimidating, man, his imposing height earning him the nickname the Roaring Giant. He inherited his father’s millions and built the house, populating it with guests whom he slowly corrupted. Introducing them to libertinism, he encouraged them to engage in any and every debauch and perversity they could conceive of, while he retreated to the shadows to observe the chaos he wrought. Everyone died, in horrific fashion, but Belasco was never found. It’s believed those who died haunt the premises.

The investigation soon gets underway, with phenomena occurring almost immediately. The longer the group remains in the house, the more frequent and intense the phenomena becomes. Their personalities also begin to change. Eventually a confrontation ensues, and the riddle of the haunting is revealed.

Hell House is a good entry in the sub-genre of haunted house horror novels. There are some general similarities to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but those similarities are soon forgotten, and Hell House comes into its own. The novel can be taken at face value; a book about a haunted house, but it’s more than that, delving into the psychological. It’s not quite a full character study, but it’s close to it. The single location and limited characters (including the house and whatever resides in it) make for a more intimate novel, and Matheson spools out information on the characters  little by little, even as late as the last quarter of the book. All the characters, the flesh-and-blood ones at least, mirror, or are representative of, a physical characteristic or personality trait of Belasco’s, or an event from his life.

Belasco, in part, was inspired by Aleister Crowley, but I perceived a much stronger connection to de Sade. No doubt Matheson’s research for the 1969 avant-garde movie he penned, De Sade, influenced the novel, and the more conversant you are with Sade, the more of that influence you see, (the Belasco house becomes, essentially, the Château de Silling from The 120 Days of Sodom). Sex is a big part of the story, which seems only fitting with the Crowley and Sade influences at work.

I’ve read this book roughly half a dozen times, so I can’t say it scared me, although I recall a feeling of creepiness in several moments during my first read; the description of ectoplasm emerging and enveloping the medium, and whatever inhabited the steam room. Matheson’s style is very much a product of its time; straightforward, with no ornamental, florid prose, and although I don’t advocate the abuse of a thesaurus, there were a few words, short phrases, or combination of words that were repeated a bit too much (hiss/hissed/hissing, octagonal table).

The last 40 — 60 pages have the weakest moments. A few of the things meant to frighten came across as silly, and an incident of deus ex machina was a let-down. The finale, unfortunately,  is somewhat anti-climactic. Although I understand what Matheson was trying to convey, I felt it was too simply worded, resulting in it feeling flat and unsatisfying. Different phrasing, and perhaps the realization by one of the characters how parts of their lives mirrored Belasco’s, could have provided an ending with more impact.

Even with the few disappointments, I still recommend Hell House for those wanting to spend some time on a haunted house readAs Ben Fischer says, “Hell House doesn’t mind a guest or two. Anyone can stay here if they don’t mind fun and games.”