Sound of Horror

 

Sound of Horror
Starring James Philbrook, Arturo Fernández, Soledad Miranda, José Bódalo, Ingrid Pitt, Francisco Piquer | Written by Sam X. Abarbanel, Gregg G. Tallas, José Antonio Nieves Conde, Gregorio Sacristán de Hoyos | Directed by José Antonio Nieves Conde | 91 minutes | 1966

Sound of Horror provides a novel, but stunningly obvious, answer to the perennial sticky question faced by low budget horror filmmakers everywhere, “How do we feature a convincing monster? 

[dramatic pause]

“Make it invisible!

A trio of post-war adventurers (James Philbrook, José Bódalo, Antonio Casas) track a cache of looted ancient treasure to its possible hiding place in a mountain cave in the remote Greek countryside. Using dynamite to blast away a rock section, the men discover what appears to be a prehistoric petrified egg. In the rush to finally uncover the mcguffin—er, fabulous plunder of their dreams—a second egg goes unnoticed, hatching and rapidly growing into an invisible monster.

Nevermind why the eggs are not invisible, or later, the creature’s blood when wounded.

Stravos (Francisco Piquer), the team’s Greek archeological assistance, is the first to meet his fate, flailing his arms and recoiling from the lacerations of unseen talons. The scene is less ridiculous than it sounds. With the camera not defining a tangible creature, it almost serves as a point-of-view shot from the monster’s perspective.

As indicated by its title, Sound of Horror fills in the spaces around its invisible monster with the dread of its approach, signaled by the onslaught of uncanny shrieking. Not knowing the location of the source, the human victims are left only with the growing fear of an unknown menace. Unfortunately, the shrieking more often resembles the hysterical screams of a final girl in a slasher movie than a threatening prehistoric predator.

Overall, the film benefits from its earnest approach to the material, and is surprisingly better than suggested by capsule summaries. Don’t let the dismissive “shrieking invisible dinosaur” tag fool you, this is a legitimate–if not entirely successful–horror movie, not camp or a spoof played for laughs.

The cast also benefits from two early appearances by future horror icons. Hammer favorite Ingrid Pitt (The Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula) and Jess Franco muse Soledad Miranda (Vampryros Lesbos, She Killed in Ecstasy) play the female companions, although they are not given much to work with here. Well, except for two oddly atonal, back-to-back musical interludes. While the men plan over their treasure maps, Pitt twists and shakes to a mod pop song on the radio, followed by Miranda’s clumsy attempt at a traditional Greek dance.

As an apropos-of-nothing bonus, the movie throws in a rope-bound mummy, also revealed after the dynamite blast—but no, it’s not invisible.

Eltonsbrody

Eltonsbrody
Edgar Mittelholzer | Secker & Warburg | 1960 | 191 pages

Initially establishing itself as a Caribbean-flavored variation on the “Old Dark House” mystery popularized during the twenties and thirties, Eltonsbrody upends the established genre conventions with a shocking, unexpectedly gory finale.

Or, perhaps, not so unexpectedly, as indicated by the warning in the first chapter:

It’s a shocking story—a story of real horror—and anyone that feels that he can’t stomach real horror had better go no further than here.

Mr. Woodsley, an English commercial artist on holiday in Barbados, takes up residence in Eltonsbrody, a hilltop mansion on the island’s sparsely populated, windswept Atlantic coast. Since the death of Dr. Scaife eight years previously, the estate has been run by his widow, Dahlia Scaife, a self-proclaimed eccentric who claims a form of psychic ability that allows her to see the mark of death written upon people’s faces. Eltonsbrody also serves as home to a small staff of servants, all of whom—according to Mrs. Scaife—share the same deadly, tell-tale mark upon them.

Soon after Woodsley’s arrival, Mrs. Scaife learns of the tragic death of her young nephew. Exhibiting a morbid fascination for death, Mrs. Scaife confides to Woodsley her puzzling emotional reaction—equal parts horror and inexplicable joy. While weighing the evidence of his proprietor’s sanity, Woodsley encounters a series of strange occurrences around the mansion.

For most of its page count, Eltonsbrody succeeds as an atmospherically rich, Gothic potboiler. The constant, swirling winds of the desolate landscape are almost a character themselves, sending stray leaves tapping against  windowpanes, circling drafts around Woodsley’s feet and up his trouser legs, and violently shaking the foundations of the house itself. Two locked rooms upstairs are off-limits, even to the servants, although Woodsley frequently hears the sound of a wardrobe creaking inside. The small bedroom established for Mrs. Scaife’s late nephew periodically is locked, and a rich odor of earth and–later–formaldehyde–permeates the hallways.

Although the Barbados setting, with its canefields and rugged coastline, is evocative, the West Indies vernacular dialogue of the household staff can be occasionally off-putting. “Sir, Oi ain’ loike how matters happening, sir. Oi ‘fraid. Dis house froighten me bad.” Malverne, the housemaid, also suffers from a distracting bit of exhibitionism. She repeatedly opens her bodice and reveals herself to Woodsley.

Events eventually take a deadly turn when Malverne, after claiming to witness the appearance of an evil visage peering over the landing (and after another episode of “peek-a-boo” with Woodsley), falls down the stairs and sustains a life-threatening injury. Joined by Ms. Linton, the nurse assigned to the stricken maid, Woodsley vows to determine whether Mrs. Scaife is indeed insane, or some other nebulous forces are at work in Eltonsbrody. Matters are purposely muddied by Mrs. Scaife’s insistence upon engaging in “practical jokes”, some involving coffins, finger bones, and pails of blood.

Amateur sleuthing aside, the small details are what define the mood, providing the spooky appeal of the mystery: the somehow sinister play of light over a glass centerpiece, the striped afternoon shadows falling upon the sideboard in the dining room, and the chipping sound of mortar being removed from a tomb in the graveyard. Below it all, however, stirs the restless tendrils of the wind, alternatively sneaky or blunt in its never-ending incursion into all corners of the mansion, sometimes carrying the scent of death.

A final reveal inserts a sharp sting into the proceedings, vividly etching all the previously unseen horrors into stark reality and transforming a potentially creaky haunted house tale into something entirely else, all accomplished through the simple act of opening a locked door and looking inside.

The Red Right Hand

The Red Right Hand
Joel Townsley Rogers | Pyramid Books | 1970 (first published 1945) | 191 pages

The solution of many traditional mysteries hinges upon unpacking the importance of a clue a character has witnessed, but does not immediately understand. The Red Right Hand devilishly turns this familiar genre mechanic inside out, placing critical importance on an obvious clue that went impossibly unseen by a witness.

Inis St. Erme and Elinor Darrie, a young couple driving from New York to Vermont, stop to pick up a tramp by the side of the road. This hitchhiker, later nicknamed “Corkscrew” by the police, provided a distinctive profile to later witnesses. A dwarf with pointed teeth and a ragged left ear, he wore a beaten-up blue hat over his unruly red hair, and pants that gathered in a twisted manner around his withered legs. By Elinor’s account, Corkscrew brutally attacked St. Erme when the couple stopped at an isolated picnic spot, driving off with the incapacited man and leaving her behind, hiding in the nearby woods for fear of her life.

Many witnesses along the small country road noted the passing of the couple’s distinctive car, an enormous gray Cadillac convertible with a striking red interior, driven by a laughing dwarf behind the wheel and a stricken St. Erme in the passenger seat. The car would be found later abandoned near the end of the road, with St. Erme’s mutilated body—missing his right hand—in the nearby marshes.

But the timeline of events has a vexing and inexplicable gap. Dr. Henry Riddle, a New York surgeon returning from an operation in Vermont, was stranded with a car breakdown in the middle of the narrow country road at the exact time and place the fugitive Cadillac should have passed. However, Riddle repeatedly insists to the police that the car never passed him on the road.

The book takes the form of Dr. Riddle’s written account, put down to sort out the events in his own mind and resolve the issue of the missing Cadillac. Told in a non-linear fashion with Riddle recounting his own observations,  interactions with several key witnesses, and interviews with the police inspector on the case, the story races along without chapter breaks. Filled with grotesque details and a growing body count, the horror elements weigh almost equally with the mysterious—with the ominous spectre of the still-at-large Corkscrew hanging over the telling.

But how reliable is Dr. Henry Riddle? Each newly unearthed detail in the case seemingly implicates him in the lives of the involved parties, with a growing series of coincidences eventually suggesting a role more than that of an innocent bystander. The denouement is almost unwelcome in its arrival, since immersion in the mysterious atmosphere is so compelling. 

When the puzzle pieces eventually come together, the resolution—however convoluted—satisfies all the critical details, from the passing car to the missing right hand. Even an exposed little wordplay clue, right under the nose of readers from the start, comes off as a tantalizing missed signpost to the killer, rather than a precious gimmick.

The Bedeviled

The Bedeviled
Thomas Cullinan | Avon Books | 1979 | 253 pages

The Bedeviled issues another pop-cultural warning to city folk about what they have long suspected regarding rural America—the mundane currents of small-town life mask an insidious underground network of occultism, diabolic ritual, and devil worship.

After her New York advertising executive husband, Jack, suffers a health crisis, Maggie Caine agrees to travel with him and their two children to his historic family farmhouse in rural Ohio, left to them by their late great-aunt Hannah, for a period of rest and recuperation. The house was originally built by Jack’s ancestor, Brigadier General Duffin Caine, a Union Civil War hero honored for his war service, but feared for the sadistic treatment given equally to enemy combatants and soldiers under his command. On their first night in Cainesville, Jack falls down the stairs and breaks his hip, precipitating a series of events that—much to Maggie’s consternation—transforms an intended brief stay into a prolonged residence.

Almost immediately upon their arrival, the house begins to affect Maggie’s teenage son, Duff, whose personality and behavior begins to exhibit troubling changes. Formerly a standout student, Duff starts skipping classes and engaging in violent behavior with his new classmates. However, he shows an unusual interest in learning about the local history, along with studying the vintage Caine family papers stored in the attic. Later, in a squirm-inducing account, Maggie’s ten-year-old daughter, Franny, tells of a possible attempted molestation by her brother. The reveal reduces an ugly incident to a chapter-ending shock line.

As a character, Maggie comes across as rather unlikable, never reticent about providing critical comments about her husband or marriage. Her frankness is unusually compelling, though, and offers a refreshing alternative to the more traditional role of hapless victim or traditional wife and mother. Some of her foibles lay the eventual groundwork for a case of the unreliable narrator, particularly when she becomes the focus for strange new occurrences. She does manage to elicit sympathy, as she struggles to convince a local priest that something supernatural is indeed occurring around the Caine farm.

Maggie herself experiences a series of inexplicable visions, witnessing an older, belligerent man physically replace Duff in a variety of settings around the farmhouse and in the car on the road to town. Due to Duff’s abrupt personality shift, and her own uncanny experiences, Maggie comes to believe the spirit of General Duffin Caine is trying to possess her son.

A general sense of paranoia surrounds Maggie’s personal struggle with the events at the farm. An older priest informs Maggie of the general’s rumored occultism, with several present-day residents suspected of carrying on the tradition of demonic ritual, including Mrs. Reddy, aunt Hannah’s former housekeeper and the Caine family’s closest neighbor. She later recognizes both the local doctor and lawyer as participants in a ceremony she observed at Mrs. Reddy’s house.

Questions regarding Maggie’s sanity grow, as she fears her own attempted possession by a woman she assumes was the general’s mistress. The dual possession of mother and son allows for the introduction of a potential new and entirely different horror, spelled out in tiles placed on the board by Maggie during her turn in a game of Scrabble:  “I-N-C-E-S-T”. Although never explicit, someone or something is sharing her bed at night other than her husband, who has been relegated to a downstairs bedroom.

As the focus shifts to Maggie’s declining mental health during the final third of the story, a few other potential horror elements are neglected. While recuperating, Jack remains physically and emotionally distant from Maggie, furiously scribbling what he claims is his own book on the Caine family history. When Maggie eventually reads the contents, written longhand in a series of yellow legal pads, the expected pay-off never materializes. Perhaps a case of unreasonable expectations, but certainly a missed opportunity for an early variation on “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

The specifics of the general’s occultism are often left vague, with Mrs. Reddy’s rituals defined by a few tropes, including robed acolytes and inverted crucifixes. The logistics surrounding the Caine family plot are nebulous, with several graves occasionally unearthed and later found refilled. Plots shift frequently and bodies seem in active rotation for such a small graveyard.

A final death remains shocking, even with the foretelling in an early chapter, and the downbeat ending fits neatly within the general pessimism of the era that gave us Harvest Home, The Wicker Man and Race with the Devil.

Wolf Tracks

Wolf Tracks
David Case | Belmont Tower Books | 1980 | 240 pages

A series of brutal murders in Toronto leaves a set of puzzling clues behind for the investigating detectives. The victims, young girls from the downtown runaway youth culture, show signs of being partially eaten, and their bodies possess traces of wolf hair and saliva. Various witnesses also report seeing a strange suspect, exhibiting physical traits more associated with an animal than a man.

Composed of sixty-plus short chapters that keep the action moving at a fast past, the story rotates through the point of view of the various victims, witnesses, and the police investigating the killings. A local bar at the nexus of the crime scene hosts a colorful collection of characters, including an ex-prize fighter and legless homeless man.

Also patronizing the bar, and witness to an animal-like man stalking his hotel, is Harland James, a father visiting his estranged son, Paul, who fled to Canada to avoid military service. Their relationship, along with that of Paul’s free-spirited girlfriend, provide a core character development firmly rooted in the immediate post-Vietnam era. Various perspectives of the time have not aged well, most strikingly a repeated supposition equating “liberated” women to prostitutes.

Other dated references to culture, gender, and race pepper the early chapters, as various characters weave in and out of the story. The short chapters and rapid pace keep the ruminations brief, and prevent too much lingering on some of the more objectionable considerations. There’s even a brief diatribe against the relatively new phenomenon of jogging on city streets—making the detective’s job of identifying fleeing suspects more difficult!

Although not exactly fitting into the template of a traditional murder mystery, the central tension derives from detectives LaRoche and Greene as they slowly come to terms with the true nature of their suspect. A visit to Cronski, a natural history museum curator and wolf expert, provides some context to the lycanthropy lore, placing it somewhere between mental affliction and supernatural curse.

Perhaps the most shocking sequence involves the murder of a prostitute in the bar’s restroom, and an undercover policewoman’s fateful response. The violence is sudden, brutally visceral, and escalates the carnage, speeding the investigation towards its conclusion.

More than circling them towards a specific suspect, the evidence eventually drives the two detectives towards a general acceptance of the suspect as a werewolf. Along the way, however, they briefly switch roles, with LaRoche–the skeptic—going behind the back of Greene–the believer–to fashion a home-made silver bullet from his wife’s earrings. 

The final reveal does not come as much of a surprise, but does provide an appropriately satisfying transmogrification. Perhaps not a fully realized werewolf police procedural, but Wolf Tracks sustains enough crossover genre appeal to deliver an entertaining paperback mash-up between McMillan & Wife and Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

The Case of the Velvet Claws

The Case of the Velvet Claws
Perry Mason #1 | Erle Stanley Gardner | Pocket Books | 1963 (Originally Published 1933) | 193 pages

For those readers only acquainted with Perry Mason through the long-running television series starring Raymond Burr, The Case of the Velvet Claws will be an easy introduction to the casework of the stalwart attorney.

It’s sort of an obsession with me to do the best I can for a client. My clients are entitled to the best I can do for them. It’s not my job to determine whether or not they are guilty. That’s for the jury to determine.

Although unquestioningly intelligent and resourceful, Mason frequently describes himself in the basest of pugilistic terms. As a defense attorney, he possesses the tenacious qualities of a boxer, fighting for his clients until the very last—the verdict of “Guilty” delivered by a jury. Somewhat more quick-tempered than his television counterpart [I don’t recall Raymond Burr ever throwing a punch], Mason nonetheless exhibits an unceasing deliberation of the problems at hand, always ready with a calculated (if potentially risky) course of action.

That woman,” she said, “spells trouble to me.

Secretary Della Street embodies an unceasing loyalty to her boss, taking his calls at home and reporting to the office in the middle of the night without complaint. Upon first glance at his potential new client, Eva Griffin, she warns Mason away from what she surmises as a dangerous woman. Although adhering to the qualities defining the noir femme fatale, Eva suffers from some dated gender stereotyping, with her gold-digging nature contrasting to Della’s hardworking good-girl ethic. Never explicitly leading to a catfight, the tension between the two is palpable. The text also suffers from a dated use of an offensive racial slur that is unnecessary and undoubtedly jarring by contemporary standards.

Paul Drake will also be familiar to fans of the television series, remaining a cool operator running a detective agency in Perry’s building. Along with Mason, he sharpens an unusually adamant focus on getting paid, particularly from those who benefit from their services, even if not directly a client. The economics of the era seemingly precluded the kind of general benevolence the television Perry possessed, sometimes tearing up the checks of clients. Mason also engages in some questionably oily tactics, acknowledging that the legal community at large generally considers his practice somewhat shady.

That’s my creed in life, Paul. I’m a lawyer. I take people who are in trouble, and I try to get them out of trouble.

The case at hand involves a married lover’s tryst, potential blackmail by a scandal magazine, and ultimately murder. Even when his client construes to implicate Mason himself, he forges ahead with her defense. The most unlikable and manipulative client imaginable still demands an unflagging effort on her behalf, according to Mason’s internal moral compass. After what appears to be a confession of guilt from Eva, he continues on in her counsel, setting in motion a few final twists to the story.

Not resulting in the expected courtroom denouement, this initial outing contains enough grifts, double-crosses, and tantalizing clues to satisfy the classic mystery buff. However, at the risk of stating the obvious, the core appeal remains with the Mason/Street/Drake relationship, a foundation that has endured over the course of eighty-plus novels.

Dune Messiah

Dune Messiah
Frank Herbert | New English Library | 1972 | 222 pages

There are problems in this universe for which there are no answers.

The first sequel to Frank Herbert’s classic, Dune, initially feels like a comedown, with the epic scope, world-building, and heroic mythology of the original replaced by a smaller scale tale of palace intrigue and philosophical navel-gazing.

Twelve years into the reign of Emperor Paul Muad’Dib, the Fremen messiah’s prescience has functionally crippled him. The vision of infinite branching timelines flowing through him to possible futures seemingly precludes a single path which stops the murderous jihad perpetrated in his name by religious zealots rampaging across the universe. The sequel’s diminished reputation with fans partly stems from Paul’s passive, almost fatalistic acceptance of his destiny, reducing him from the messianic hero of the original epic to a conflicted tyrant, undone by the total awareness of evils unleashed by his ascendancy.

Already established with its sandworms, desert dwellers, and mystical spice melange, the lore of the Dune universe expands with the Tleilaxu, a race of shapeshifting Face Dancers that are able to mimic the appearance of others. The Face Dancers also are creators of the ghola, a creature revived from the corpse of a human, but programmed as a distinctly new persona. Now known as Hayt, the ghola of Paul’s former teacher and expert swordsman, Duncan Idaho, figures as a clockwork piece of the conspiracy brewing on Arrakis.

The conspirators are established early on: Scytale, a Tleilaxu agent; the Reverend Mother Mohaim, a high Bene Gesserit priestess; Edric, a Spacing Guild navigator, floating in a tank of orange gas; and Princess Irulan, the daughter of the former emperor and Paul’s platonic wife of political convenience. Paul Muad’Dib often himself seems complicit in the machinations of this conspiracy, since he continually wrestles with the responsibility of the ever-expanding jihad of his followers, and suggests an awareness of the dangers around him. Whether internally weighing the arguments for the plot’s success, or simply resigning himself to a future that is already past, these ruminations calcify Paul to a nearly moribund state. However, he does ultimately exhibit a determination to prevail, if only to produce an heir to the throne with Chani, his native Fremen consort. His reluctance stems from visions of her health and well-being, which are clouded in uncertainty.

The question of identity surrounding Hayt runs parallel to Paul Muad’Dib, and emerges as the most interesting bit of new lore introduced in the sequel. As Hayt, the ghola, struggles to unlock the Tleilaxu programming and revive the latent persona of Duncan Idaho, Paul Muad’Dib, the Mahdi (“the one who will lead us to paradise”), struggles to disengage from his determined future and unburden himself of the role of godhead.

Other attempts to expand the canon are less successful. Placing the universe of Dune in Earth’s distant future (however brief the reference) by specifically naming other infamous authoritarian rulers–Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler included—that created large-scale death and destruction seems unnecessary and ill conceived.

Certainly far from a shameless fanservice sequel, Dune Messiah distinguishes itself from the epic space opera of its predecessor, delivering instead a brooding meditation saturated with a fatalistic weight of determinism. The characters all seem doomed to languish under the despair of their own unhappiness. The pervading sense of conflicted melancholy of a future already lived, along with the grotesque fate inflicted upon its principal character, makes for a compelling, expectations-be-damned experience, while–of course–establishing the groundwork for the next installment, Children of Dune.

Dune

Dune
Frank Herbert | Ace Books | 1965 | 544 pages

What more can really be said about Dune? Rereading Frank Herbert’s saga after a thirty-year break [gasp!] confirms its position as a cornerstone work of science fiction, a multi-layered classic of politics, religion, and epic world building.

Although a complex and rewarding work on a number of levels, it is not–as some critics may suggest–an overly difficult work, even in its initial chapter. The first chapter is a slow burn, introducing characters, settings, and concepts at a measured pace. Readers needn’t rush to the back-matter dictionary for unknown terms, however, since context eventually reveals the necessary meaning of Gom Jabbar, Lisan Al-Gaib, Kwisatz Haderach and other initially mysterious references.

A lengthy dinner party held by the Duke Leto Atreides, the Lady Jessica, and their son Paul, early in their new rule on Arrakis, illustrates the many machinations swirling under the surface etiquette of their society, Water peddlers, stillsuit manufactures, smugglers, and imperial bankers all compete for positions of power, positioning themselves—overtly as well as covertly—in the struggle evidently to come.

The fate of Duke Leto has been foretold, and an atmosphere of impending doom permeates the first chapter, instilling a deep sense of foreboding all the while readers are getting to know the characters and their world. Game of Thrones readers will probably even discover something of an empathetic link connecting Duke Leto to their own doomed Lord Eddard Stark. Heady ruminations on the nature of power ultimately give way to headlong action when the prophesied betrayal finally arrives, and Paul takes flight across the unforgiving sands of Arrakis.

Chapter two, Muad’Dib, details the Fremen world much like the first chapter established the world of the Atreides. Fleeing the evil Baron Harkonnen, Paul and his mother indoctrinate themselves into the systematic order of the natives of Arrakis. Even here, world building is carried along with action sequences, from knife-fight challenges to encounters with the giant sandworms roiling the surface of the planet. Themes of environmentalism, mysticism and religious fanaticism converge with the growing legend of Paul Muad’Dib.

Paul’s constant internal monologue warns him of the dangers of religious zealotry, and of a number of possible futures illustrating the Atreides family banners leading a murderous jihad across the universe. This potential savior turned tyrant transformation presages yet another George R.R. Martin character—Daenerys Targaryen.

Undeniably epic in scope, Dune still manages to remain focused on its characters. At the outset of Chapter three, The Prophet, the timeline jumps ahead past the entire war of resistance against the Harkonnens, starting at the precipice of the final battle. While delivering some tense battle sequences, the resolution returns the setting to the former Atreides mansion, and a final battle of wills with Emperor Shaddam IV and his surrogates that echoes the earlier intrigue of the ducal dinner party.

Don’t wait for Dennis Villeneuve’s upcoming movie reboot to immerse yourself in the universe of Dune. Fifty years after its original publication, Frank Herbert’s monumental work offers an unexpectedly accessible entrance into a fully realized world of mystical intrigue, yet rises above any perceived limitations of genre. Although other science fiction (or fantasy) properties have, arguably, become more entrenched in the collective pop culture imagination, Dune remains essential and ever relevant.

Jolene

“I don’t like country music, but I don’t mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means ‘put down’.” – Bob Newhart

Conventional wisdom suggests that Dolly Parton is the country music artist even non-country fans appreciate. I would describe myself as “country-resistant”, having been subjected to endless reruns of Hee Haw as a child, but even I saw Dolly perform in concert. My main recollection (beyond the in-between song banter about growing up poor in rural Tennessee) from her 2014 performance at the O2 Theater in Dublin, Ireland, centers on the vendors lining the street approaching the venue. Each stall overflowed with loads of pink cowboy hats and tiny American flags.

Feel free to argue among yourselves whether the song’s central plea, “I’m begging of you, please don’t take my man”, is hopelessly misdirected. Just understand and acknowledge that one element remains objectively above reproach—that seventies country-tastic wardrobe!

The Spirit

The Spirit
Thomas Page | Hamlyn Books | 1979 | 252 pages

Hill could not bring himself to say the word, so Jason did it, with a satisfied smile. “Bigfoot.”

Raymond Jason, owner of a successful pet food empire, suffers from the sort of ennui that seems to plague the idle wealthy classes. However, a fateful hunting trip to the Canadian Rockies provides an unexpected purpose that neatly fills the existential void at the center of his being. His hunting party falls victim to a violent Bigfoot attack, leaving Jason as the sole survivor, and instilling within him with an obsessive drive to track down and exact revenge upon the murderous creature.

Raymond Jason is not the only person on the trail of this Bigfoot. John Moon, a schizophrenic Vietnam veteran, encounters the doomed hunting party in Canada while engaged in his own pursuit. A native Salish, Moon believes the legendary creature to be his guardian spirit, and embarks upon a vision quest to help retrieve the personal identity lost by his psychologically shattering combat experiences in Vietnam. 

Moon’s relationship to the mystical extends to his dog, who talks to him (without moving his dog lips) and serves as a liaison to the Bigfoot creature. The canine companion drags off bags of small game and other foodstuffs gathered by Moon, supporting the cryptid’s increasingly brazen scavenging of the landscapes he traverses. A string of sightings leads Jason into proximity to this odd trio, inspiring him to set a string of apple-baited bear traps—and results in a severed Bigfoot toe!

Although occasionally indulging in speculation regarding the genetic disposition of the creature(s), this toe-lacerating kind of action more closely defines the overall tone. The purported genealogical history offers just enough twist to differentiate itself from the “It’s a missing link!” or “It’s an alien!” theories espoused in other Sasquatch fiction. As its pursuit grows closer, the Bigfoot throws rocks (and sometimes more unusual projectiles, such as rattlesnakes), uses basic tools, and finally even sabotages equipment. When the opportunity allows, it also displays a predilection for decapitation.

Jason and Moon finally cross paths at a remote ski lodge in eastern Washington, where the Bigfoot seems to have a permanent home in the twisting tunnels of a nearby abandoned gold mine. A shocking bit of violence serves as a critical turning point in the Bigfoot’s flight, causing the creature to stop running and strike back at the human intruders threatening its territory.

The two human pursuers are uniformly unlikable throughout, but illustrate the nature of their shared obsession. Jason consistently acts like a heel, drifting away from an introduced romantic interest which could have redefined his hardened character. Moon borders on cliche, both as the spiritual native and the shell-shocked vet, but his nearly symbiotic relationship with the monster succeeds somewhat in adding a deeper dimension.

From the talking dog to the power struggle over the decomposing toe, the odd details help propel interest through to the action-packed standoff at the ski lodge, where a raging blizzard strands a few survivors against the onslaught of equally raging beasts. Incidents of horror pepper the briskly unfolding story, as two singularly driven paths inevitably converge.

Although unquestionably containing horrific events, The Spirit reads more as a Melvillian study in obsession rather than an outright horror. The “white whale” happens to be a giant, foul-smelling man-ape roaming the North American woods.