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

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.