The Well

The Well
Jack Cady | Avon Books | 1982 | 208 pages

A twisty, kaleidoscopic haunted house pulsates at the center of The Well, shifting and reforming its demonic horrors around its human occupants, imprisoning them in a legacy of familial evil.

John Tracker, along with his secretary girlfriend, Amy Griffith, returns after a twenty-year absence to the hulking, decrepit Tracker family estate on the banks of the Ohio River. Originally built by his great-great grandfather, Johan, but continually added on by successive generations, the mansion reflects the religious fanaticism ingrained in the Tracker family through its uncanny layout. Maze-like rooms, secret staircases, disguised passageways, and mechanical traps—consisting of hidden, spring-loaded weapon—were conceived and installed to confuse and trap intrusions by Satan himself.

The Tracker House has an intriguing, real world precedent in San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House. Sarah Winchester, the widow of firearms manufacturer, William Winchester, spent nearly forty years of ceaseless construction on her rambling, seemingly improvised (with doors and windows leading nowhere) mansion that was allegedly haunted by the victims of the weapons her husband produced. The fictional Tracker House evokes a similarly appealing sense of strange history and mysterious atmosphere, with its correspondingly secret (and frequently deadly) constructions.

The Tracker House, however, lies in the path of a new freeway construction, and is slated for destruction following the legal death pronouncement of John’s father. Justice Tracker, missing for over seven years, had long become estranged from his wife and son. Intending only to survey the property, John and Amy are trapped inside for the duration of a furious snowstorm, and soon the couple fall victim to the insidious atmosphere of the house and the psychic weight of the Tracker family history.

Readers expecting much a story arc will most likely be disappointed, since The Well primarily delivers a minimal, atmosphere-laden psychological horror. Chapters consistently repeat a familiar pattern, starting with an anecdotal piece of Tracker family history, illustrating a macabre or tragic event in the lives of John Tracker’s ancestors. John and Amy then attempt to travel to some location within the house, negotiate a series of labyrinthine rooms and dodge deadly traps, while avoiding the roaming ghoul that was formerly John’s grandmother, Vera. Along the way, John reflects on his diabolical family history, his own feelings towards his father and grandfather, Theophilus, and his possible love towards Amy. Repeat.

The sense of menace, with its source in the heat-blasted well beneath the sub-cellars of the mansion, and the grotesque tableaus discovered along the way are enough to fuel a dense, diabolical atmosphere that soak the characters, rather than propelling them through a linear narrative.

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Devil in the Darkness

Devil in the Darkness
Archie Roy | Long (London) | 1978 | 184 pages

Lost on the remote back roads of rural Scotland during a ferocious snowstorm, newlyweds Paul and Carol Wilson take refuge in a neglected, decaying old mansion. Inside Ardvreck House, an infamous estate with a dark and disturbing history, they encounter a strange team of soldiers, film technicians, and paranormal investigators who have temporarily taken up residence to document any potential incidents of supernatural activity before the upcoming scheduled destruction of the mansion.

The storm destroys the only bridge out from Ardvreck House, effectively stranding the couple and motley group of investigators in the isolated estate. Startled awake during the night, Paul hears scraping and pacing sounds coming from the abandoned attic floor above him. Summoning the courage to investigate while his wife sleeps, Paul finds only the empty, undisturbed tower room. However, the inexplicable noises are only the beginning, as the house psychically “recharges” from the presence of its new occupants.

A regression therapy session with Ann Parish, a member of the research team with a successful history of recalling events before her birth, triggers a spiritual communication with a former servant of the estate. Mary Elizabeth Rolfe, a maid to the murdered mistress of the house, was herself the victim of a drowning under mysterious circumstances. Ann’s past-life recollection under hypnosis as Mary triggers an academic disagreement between Meredith and Bourne, the two psychic researchers on the team. Is Ann communicating directly with Mary’s spirit, or is she actually Mary’s reincarnated self, reliving memories of her previous life? Or, is she just adeptly improvising suppressed details of Mary’s life that she has previously learned? This debate arguably holds more potential interest than any incidents of moving furniture or spectral appearances at the windows.

A slim haunted house story recalling earlier classics such as Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson’s Hell House, Devil in the Darkness takes some time before the supernatural encounters seem threatening enough to place it characters in mortal danger. It channels the established notion of a physical place storing a psychic charge that can potentially influence generations to follow, with a paranormally receptive party triggering its release. The single most terrifying encounter—when Carol seems to feel Paul in bed behind her, only to discover him instead at the bedroom door—also harkens back to a similarly ghostly reveal in Hill House.

Devil in the Darkness also retreads a bit of Stephen King’s The Shining. Meredith and Bourne debate the advisability of simply leaving the estate, hunkering down against the inclement weather inside the collected cars of the assembled party. Their discussion on the potential harm posed by the apparitions evokes the “pictures in a book” conversation between Dick Hallorann and Danny Torrance at the Overlook Hotel.

Ardvreck House, like Hell House before it, was stained by the shocking and amoral behavior of its privileged residents. The vile act at the core of its haunting is ultimately revealed through a discovered letter. The reading of the brittle pages functions as a sort of epilogue, providing a firsthand account of the historical horrors. However short, this new narrative–with its previously unknown characters–stalls out whatever momentum the fiery climax had delivered, even while providing an explanation to all the ghostly bump-and-grind shenanigans.

Author Archie Roy, simultaneously an academic professor of astronomy and amateur investigator of the paranormal, seems to have been more engaged with the nature of the debate over mediums, psychic phenomenon, and the implications of the purported evidence of the supernatural-–expressed here through the opposing viewpoints of Merideth and Bourne—than delivering a new take on the haunted house. Still, genre fans who have exhausted the classics will find enough here to keep them interested.

Crawlspace

Crawlspace
Herbert Lieberman | Pocket Books | 1972 | 278 pages

Less a straightforward horror novel than a sad and creepy meditation on the nature of parenthood, Crawlspace drives its middle-aged protagonist couple through much torment over their stand-in “child”, while also exposing the latent poison in the judgmental attitudes of neighbors and community.

Shortly after inviting an emotionally needy young utilities worker to dinner, Albert and Alice Graves, a retired childless couple living alone in the countryside, make a startling discovery. Their one-time guest, Richard Atlee, has secretly returned to their cellar, and is now living in an impromptu human nest in their crawlspace. Rather than reacting with horror and revulsion at the filth and animal remains surrounding the makeshift sleeping quarters, Richard’s arrival triggers a nascent parental concern the couple thought lacking in their lives.

Feeling a strange sense of duty to help Richard, the couple allows this unusual habitation to continue. Primarily unseen during the day, Richard performs various household chores in exchange for his unusual residency. Eventually, they gain his trust enough to lure him up into the house proper, although his dirty appearance and demeanor still evoke the animal nature of his crawlspace existence.

Alice, and particularly Albert, view Richard as an almost angelic creature, frequently reflecting upon his beauty (even in his unkempt state). When squatting in the crawlspace, however, Richard is almost feral, spending his days in the woods and deep inside a nearby cave. After moving into the spare room, he seems more severely maladjusted than wild, unable to articulate beyond a basic level or follow any accepted social norms.

The local community, however, is alarmed at the prospect of the Graves couple sheltering—what they characterize as—a young drifter. When the small hardware store in town cheats Richard out of fifty dollars on an errand, a violent retaliation is set in motion that prefigures more tragedy to come.

The couple’s compassion for Richard slowly creeps into fear, as they experience a sinking realization that they have become virtual prisoners in their own home. Terrorized by a local juvenile gang and unable to rely on the corrupt local law enforcement for help, the Graves are unable to force their houseguest to leave.

Alternating between a maddening disbelief at the allowances Albert and Alice make for Richard and empathy for his withdrawal from human interaction, Crawlspace also depicts conventional society’s reaction against the sixties counterculture drop-out lifestyle. The narrative tension develops from the slow burn of the untenable relationship, rather than shocking horror, but once a certain line is crossed, the story plunges toward its violent conclusion.

An epilogue in the Florida Keys explaining Richard’s early history is mostly unnecessary.

To Walk the Night

To Walk the Night
William Sloane | Bantam Books | 1967 | 181 pages

Told primarily in a lengthy flashback, Berkeley (Bark) Jones recounts the strange story leading up to his best friend Jerry’s shocking suicide. Recapping the events of the last few months to Jerry’s father, Dr. Lister, Bark begins with the day of the “Big Game”.

Visiting their alma mater for a major football game with a rival team, Jerry convinces Bark to visit Professor LeNormand, Jerry’s mentor during his university days. LeNormand, an academic outcast who made many professional enemies with his controversial critique of Einstein’s Space-Time Continuum, lives an isolated existence in the university’s observatory. Upon their arrival, Bark and Jerry discover the still-smoldering remains of LeNormand, burned alive in his office chair.

The police are baffled by the circumstances of LeNormand’s death, but allow Bark and Jerry to return to New York City. Before they leave, however, they are shocked to learn that the stridently anti-social professor had married shortly before his death. Equally puzzling is Selena LeNormand herself, an alluringly beautiful, but strangely remote woman with seemingly no past life before her marriage.

Selena does not act like a grieving widow, and Bark is suspicious of her strange character and removed, out-of-sorts behavior. Jerry, however, immediately falls under Selena’s spell, and within a few weeks the couple become engaged.

With the compelling mystery of LeNormand’s death at its core, and the knowledge of Jerry’s suicide to come, To Walk the Night builds up the case for Selena’s implication through the accumulation of Bark’s small suspicions during his account to Dr. Lister. Although Bark’s tale ultimately leads to an expected conclusion, Selena’s role as a potential femme fatale leads to the examination of many individual clues as evidence of a greater, sinister purpose.

Beyond any potential cosmic or supernatural horror, however, Selena’s arrival succeeds as a drama describing the tension and insidious jealousy when a new romantic partner divides an existing male friendship. As roommates, Bark and Jerry behave like a married couple, cooking, traveling, and having picnics together. An exotic outsider changes a familiar dynamic, leaving one party resentful and full of recrimination.

Viewed as such, this disruptive template is recognizable in other stories of couple dynamics. For example, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and the Beatles—except for the:

***SPOILER***
breach in space/time and invasive, otherworldly presence

***END SPOILER***

Although, there are probably some who would still dubiously argue even those points.

Back on the Chain Gang

 

Back on the Chain Gang
The Pretenders | Learning to Crawl | Sire Records | 1984

I found a picture of you, oh oh oh oh
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We’ve been cast out of? Oh oh oh oh
Now we’re back in the fight
We’re back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

A circumstance beyond our control, oh oh oh oh
The phone, the TV and the news of the world
Got in the house like a pigeon from hell, oh oh oh oh
Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies
Put us back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they’ve done to you
But I’ll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They’ll fall to ruin one day
For making us part

Those were the happiest days of my life
Like a break in the battle was your part, oh oh oh oh
In the wretched life of a lonely heart
Now we’re back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

The Bog

The Bog
Michael Talbot | Jove Books | 1986 | 314 pages

Archeologist David Macauley packs up his wife and children and relocates to the isolated village of Fenchurch St. Jude in the west of England, following the discovery of a well-preserved body in the bog. Dating from the era of the Roman occupation, the naturally mummified remains of a young woman promise a wealth of historical information, but the forensic evidence suggests a ritual sacrifice, and a cause of death from the savage bites of an unknown animal.

The villagers are a standoffish and unhealthful lot, suspicious of the new arrivals. Renting the only available cottage from the enigmatic Marquis de L’Isle, the local gentry whose own rambling great house stands on the bog’s edge, David and his family feel even more estranged from the local community following the report of a shocking murder in a nearby village. When David discovers the mauled corpse of a missing tavern owner in a bone-riddled feeding ground, he realizes the villagers are also harboring a dark secret that reaches back in history to the mummified body in the bog.

David struggles to save his family against parallel circumstances to those experienced by the victims buried in the bog. However, the prologue and occasional short chapter dedicated to these characters from antiquity are plainly redundant, adding nothing to the context of their torments already provided by the present-day narrative.

What starts as a seemingly simple monster rumble in the boglands of rural England transforms into an unexpected tale of sorcery, necromancy, demonology, and the occult, as the nature of Fenchurch St. Jude’s secret emerges. The first half of the book is filled with a fetid menace, with the sights and smells of the bog providing an unwholesome atmosphere, rich with potential danger. Once David squares off against his rival, the tone shifts more towards mano-a-mano (or, more precisely, mano-a-magician) action.

The accumulated creepiness dissipates in a swirl of magical rubies and fireballs, as a newfound emphasis on wizardry threatens to engulf all in a vortex of campiness. The spirit of an ancient Sumerian sorcerer, who inhabits the body of a small child, essentially begins a plan of attack against the rival sorcerer by instructing David to synchronize their watches.

Although the magical content arguably takes The Bog into different territory altogether, enough horror elements remain to make an effective genre read. The nature of the persistent rotten odor infusing the family cottage delivers a nasty surprise. But couldn’t someone place a “Protect” spell on the family pet?

Dark Shadows | Issue #18

Dark Shadows | Issue #18
Guest in the House Gold Key Comics | December 1972

Gangsters on the run from turf wars in New York City infiltrate Collinwood in an attempt to establish a new front for their criminal activity. The flimsy premise potentially would have resulted in the shortest solution of the series—if not for the sticky question of Barnabas Collins’ morality.

Underworld kingpin Erik Mica, assuming the guise of a real estate agent named Erik Michaels, insinuates himself into the good graces of Elizabeth Collins. While maneuvering to take over Collinwood, he senses something unusual about Barnabas Collins. Exhibiting a mental acuity belied by his uninspired choice of an alias, Michaels quickly pieces together the scant evidence and deduces that Barnabas is a vampire.

Prior to this sudden conclusion, Barnabas inexplicably withholds evidence of Michaels’ true identity from Elizabeth. This lack of forthrightness is puzzling, since the revelation would have caused the entire criminal scheme to collapse. Barnabas grapples with his own sense of morality throughout the issue, although this particular crisis at Collinwood offers a sublimely simple solution—kill Michaels.

A rival gangster named Paul Robbors (with another deviously cryptic alias, Paul Robbins) appears at Collinwood and conveniently solves Barnabas’ dilemma for him. Barnabas engineers a passive, but fatal, attack on Robbors, that stops short of direct murder, but surely fails any basic morality test. Following a hypothetical moral code akin to Asimov’s Law of Robotics—as redefined to suit his particular cursed state of being—Barnabas still fails the First Law:

“A [moral vampire] may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

What would Julia Hoffman do?

Keeper of the Children

Keeper of the Children
William H. Hallahan | Avon Books | 1979 | 189 pages

Is that kid of yours worth it?”

Searching for his missing daughter, Renni, Eddie Benson discovers a cult of runaway children, lead by an insidious master of mind control. Tran Cao Kheim, a monk who fled Tibet following the Chinese takeover, exerts a powerful mental hold over Renni and the other lost children, directing them to panhandle on the streets of Philadelphia during the day, and return to his warehouse district compound at night.

Discouraged by the (inexplicable) failure of the police to return their children, Benson and a group of other parents take the matter into their own hands, devising a plan to have Kheim deported. Their actions, however, draw attention of the evil monk, who deploys his telekinetic powers to target them. Before he is able to deliver a briefcase of incriminating evidence to the Immigration Department, Kenneth Custis, the father of one of the captive boys, is brutally murdered on his farm—his neck broken by a scarecrow possessed and animated by Kheim’s astral-projected mind.

Kheim is something of a racist throwback to the early twentieth-century stereotypical villain, Fu Manchu, filled with the inscrutable menace of the Orient. Sax Rhomer’s character is even name-checked by Custis in explaining Kheim’s commune, but simply referring to a racist archetype does not provide free meta-text license to create it anew. The only difference is that this villain is gifted with the telekinetic powers so prevalent in seventies supernatural horror.

After nearly being killed by a telekinetically controlled marionette in his home, Benson becomes determined to fight Kheim using the monk’s own methods against him. He enlists the talents of Nullatumbi, a yogi who understands Kheim’s methods (an “oobie with PK”, or for the layperson, an out-of-body experience with psychokinesis). A long training sequence follows, with an appropriate level of hokum involved. Benson does much inner soul-searching, and cosmic wandering, over a two-week period, while mentally focusing on a blank white wall.

Kheim’s Pied Piper-like hold over the children is not fully explored, nor Renni’s seemingly singular ability to occasionally shake off his mental yoke and warn her father away. Since Kheim is capable of exerting control over a large group of children, why not their parents too?

The attacks are the absurdly appealing centerpieces, however, with a giant possessed teddy bear wielding an axe—a sequence the cover image teases, and the text actually delivers—being a highlight. An extended, literal cat fight, with the astral-projected combatants inhabiting feline bodies, serves as the ultimate showdown, with Benson and Kheim aiming at the tenuous psychic thread linking their respective minds back to their own corporeal bodies.

And that final battle is the second cat attack in the story.

Snowbeast

Snowbeast
Starring Bo Svenson | Yvette Mimieux | Robert Logan | Clint Walker
Directed by Herb Wallerstein
NBC | April 28, 1977 | 1 hour, 26 minutes

We’re going to need a bigger snowmobile.

Essentially Jaws on the ski slopes, Snowbeast cribs all the elements of Spielberg’s summer blockbuster.

Washed-up former Olympic star Gar Sebert (Bo Svenson), prompted by his wife Ellen (Yvette Mimeux), seeks out a job as a ski instructor from his old friend, Tony Rill (Robert Logan), whose family owns a Colorado resort. Gar’s arrival coincides with a fatal attack on a pair of skiers, leaving one dead and the other shaken by a vision of the killer—a monstrous, hairy beast.

From here, plug in variations on the standard details from the when-animals-attack boilerplate, only this time addressing the “Bigfoot controversy” that was the rage of the day; an attack occurs before the lucrative Winter Carnival, a bear is shot and killed that purportedly is responsible for the deaths (with resultant calls to cut it open to see what is inside), and an intrepid party that sets out (in a camper) to track the monster.

Point-of-view monster shots and an appealing winter landscape (including skiers and their primary-colored suits) help elevate the derivative nature of this made-for-television movie, with shots of the monster held back just enough to build suspense (or prevent over exposure of an actor in a fur suit). Given the nature of the television pedigree, attacks prompt a reaction shot from their victims, but fade to a red screen before becoming graphic.

A scene depicting a direct monster attack on the Winter Carnival, with the Snow Queen’s crown getting crushed in the human stampede to escape, briefly flirts with camp—but Snowbeast (fortunately) fails to go full into Nights with Sasquatch territory and have the beast take the beauty as his bride.

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