The Seth Papers

The Seth Papers
Frank Lauria | Ballantine Books | 1979 | 168 pages

It seems onions change color when exposed to hostile energy.

Fleeing from the pursuit of a governmental agency that would corrupt his scientific research into the occult for use in developing military projects, psychic investigator Dr. Owen Orient goes into hiding in Morocco. However, he soon becomes embroiled in an international conspiracy to harness the supernatural powers of the Hand of Seth, an Egyptian artifact that offers a nearly unlimited pool of occult energy to those who possess it.

Broken into two distinct stylistic halves, The Seth Papers begins with Orient’s account of being recruited by Dr. Maya Rand to assist in the opening of a previously unknown tomb outside Marrakech. Duplicity and double-crosses abound after Orient discovers the mystical Hand of Seth, a mummified hand that functions as a talisman of enormous psychic energy, with bureaucrats, secret police, ambassadors, and the clergy scrambling for control. Infatuated by Maya’s alluring beauty, Orient suffers a tragedy and loses possession of the hand. He ultimately follows her trail to Rome, vowing to recover the occult artifact and settle their personal score.

Once in Rome, the story implements a jarring shift in point of view. Switching to a format of field reports from secret agent Jody Hensen to Control, Orient and his activities become the subject of her ongoing operation to extract and debrief him. Initially intending to capture the results of his psychic experiments for the government, Jody’s motivations change after becoming personally involved with Orient. As she slowly becomes aware of the growing danger posed by the Hand of Seth, and the scheme to elevate an elite occultist cabal to the highest levels of international power, she takes psychic training from Orient to develop her own latent abilities, preparing herself for the true battle to come.

Jody’s undercover work draws her into a subterranean world of drug-fueled orgies, ritual sacrifice, and right-wing military coups, while Orient prepares a psychic defense composed of pentagrams within circles drawn on the floor in chalk, glasses of saltwater for telepathic defense, and pieces of energy absorbing onions placed at the cardinal points of the compass. The arbitrary structure ultimately doesn’t advance the story in any meaningful way, and the Jody-as-Watson to Orient-as-Holmes relationship seemingly set up a potential sequel that never materialized.

It all amounts to enjoyable hokum up to a point, but instead of delivering a finale composed of astral projection and telepathic mind battles, the action disappointingly devolves into car chases and gun play.

Shadow of Evil

Shadow of Evil
Greye La Spina | Paperback Library | 1966 | 160 pages

Framing the narrative as a lost manuscript delivered to a supernatural-aware author for publication, Shadow of Evil (originally published in 1925 as Invaders from the Dark) delves into a world of occultism and magic, but its second-hand structural perspective ultimately  instills a curious sense of detachment from the series of strange events detailed in the story.

Sophie Delorme recounts how her young niece, Portia, traveled to a small town in upstate New York to accept a position as a live-in assistant to Howard Differdale, a reclusive man who is engaged in some secretive experiments behind the high walls of his estate. Over the course of many letters from Portia, Sophie learns of Portia’s surprising marriage to Howard Differdale, and of his sudden death. Accepting Portia’s invitation to come live with her in the Differdale mansion, Sophie ultimately plays chaperone in an unexpected, and quite unusual, love triangle.

Portia’s marriage was simply a sham to allow her to live and work with Howard Differdale, whose secretive research into the occult and magic Portia has vowed to continue. She longs for romance with Owen Edwardes, a cheerful young real estate broker, but feels too constricted by her status as mourning widow in the small community to act upon her feelings. Complicating matters is the arrival of Irma Andreyevna Tchernova, a strangely magnetic Russian princess who seems determined to capture the romantic attention of her “Ow-een”.

Since we share Aunt Sophie’s perspective in this documented manuscript format, we never come to understand just what weird occult science Portia devotes all her waking hours studying. The remains of some strange cabalistic markings on the ground in the courtyard offer the only first-hand evidence of magic rituals being performed. Even an episode of astral projection plays as an anecdote told to Sophie.

Still, uncanny occurrences are afoot in the small town. Owen is mesmerized by the evil olfactory influences of flowers pinned to his lapel, children are abducted on the street, and policeman are attacked by wild animals.

Beyond some general pontificating on the nature of incarnate good and evil, Portia’s internal process largely remains a mystery, leading to some whiplash-inducing conclusions. The unusual length of a third finger, a large meat  order from the town butcher, and an overheard word (“volkodlak”) result in a rapid pronouncement of lycanthropy. Not that Portia is wrong, but lacking her first hand viewpoint makes the story seem to be unfolding at some distance, with Aunt Sophie just having to take her word for everything.

The final confrontation actually occurs at a double remove, with Portia recounting the Princess Tchernova’s mute assistant Agathya’s observation of events while peeking through a window.

House of Dark Laughter

House of Dark Laughter
Melissa Napier | Avon Books | 1972 | 176 pages

“There were what was called a woman’s wiles, and she was prepared to use them as much as necessary in order to get the man that she knew she wanted.”

Young art appraiser Betsy Vaughn accepts a position in opulent Dalton Manor to assess a dying man’s estate, and following the well-worn traditions of the inheritance thriller, finds mystery, intrigue, and a possible romance. She is also knocked unconscious several more times than the average heroine.

Employed by Carter Willard, the ailing Mr. Dalton’s personal secretary, Betsy finds herself among a host of antagonistic and scheming relatives, each positioning themselves for an anticipated piece of the estate. The young and beautiful Alice Dalton has assumed the role of caretaker for her stricken older husband, and immediately treats Betsy as an unwelcome outsider. Derek and Lorna, Dalton’s feckless niece and nephew, are less overtly hostile, but clearly impatient to begin spending the family fortune.

Mildly diverting but lacking any distinctive elements to elevate it from a multitude of similar genre entries, House of Dark Laughter delivers enough modest thrills to sustain its short page count: thumping noises from the closed-off wing of the mansion, hazy spectres in the night, the mysterious disappearance of the first Mrs. Dalton and her young infant daughter, and a rash of threats and actual attacks against Betsy.

Even with a slight twist in the final act, after a semi-incapacitated Betsy is dragged through the grounds to a waiting shallow grave, the identity of her antagonists comes without much surprise. Apart from placing herself in enough perilous situations to receive an inordinate number of blows to the back of her head during a few weeks at Dalton Manor, Betsy mostly lacks the crippling meekness and poor decision making so often characterized by the heroines in these women-in-danger tales.

House of Dark Laughter* occupies an easily familiar and comfortable space, while somehow allowing a certain curmudgeonly resistance to rise against its preordained conclusion of hard life lessons learned, the importance of biological family, and the need of a young woman to land her dream man.

*Editor’s Note: No trace of “dark laughter” exists in the entire text.

The Edge of Running Water

The Edge of Running Water
William Sloane | Del Ray Books | 1980 | 250 pages

Originally published in 1939, The Edge of Running Water blends mystery, madness and weird science into a cautionary tale that peers into the black abyss beyond human understanding of the universe.

After receiving an unexpected missive requesting his assistance, psychology professor Richard Sayles travels to the remote coast of Maine to reunite with his estranged former mentor. Julian Blair, a brilliant electrophysicist, dropped out of academic life ten years previously, following the untimely death of his wife, Helen. Ostracizing himself from his peers, and eventually all of society, Blair settled into obscurity in Barsham Harbor, Maine, dedicating himself to an experimental project that has grown into an all-encompassing obsession—constructing a machine will enable him to communicate with the dead.

Richard discovers that Julian has become a frail shell of his former self, neglecting his deteriorating health to focus all his waking hours on the secret project locked behind the steel-plated doors of his workroom. Richard is surprised to meet Mrs. Walters, a stout woman seemingly in charge of the household, and facilitating Julian’s experiment in some undefined way. Also living in the house is Anne Connors, Julian’s lovely young sister-in-law, whose developing maturity pushes the boundaries of her former avuncular relationship with Richard.

Richard’s drive to help his old friend takes an unexpected detour after the strange death of Julian’s housekeeper, Mrs. Marcy. Returning from a swim in the river, Richard and Anne find Julian and Mrs. Walters standing above the prone form of Mrs. Marcy, crumpled and motionless at the bottom of the stairs. When the frantic pair return with a doctor, Mrs. Walters informs them that Mrs. Marcy recovered enough to walk home. Later that night, the housekeeper’s body is discovered in the river.

The entire middle section of the novel details the police investigation and coroner’s inquest into the death of Mrs. Marcy. Developing into not so much a who-dunnit as a why-and-how-did-they-do-it, Richard’s suspicions surrounding Mrs. Walter’s story yield to the seemingly corroborative evidence of Mrs. Marcy’s footprints leading away from the Blair house and down to the riverbank. Meanwhile, the relationship between Richard and Mrs. Walters takes on a more overtly belligerent tone as Julian increasingly isolates himself to his project.

The isolated house with its strange humming and crackling coming from everywhere and nowhere, the storms sweeping in off the bay mirroring the electrical discharges possibly emanating from the experimental machine locked behind a laboratory door, along with the occasional foreshadowing of death or disappearance establish and maintain an uncanny atmosphere of mystery and a portent of future misfortune. Haunted by inexplicable occurrences and fearful of his friend’s sanity, Richard keeps returning to thoughts of a doomed track of footprints in the mud.

Ultimately a bystander’s account of the strange events in the house on the point, The Edge of Running Water may prove too elliptical for some readers, leaving the fate of major characters—and the true nature of the otherworldly machine—mostly unresolved.

The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck

The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck
Alexander Laing | Collier Books | 1962 (first published 1934) | 250 pages

Told in the form of a written transcript of events by medical student David Saunders, The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck chronicles a series of bizarre occurrences swirling around a small university hospital following the disappearance of an ethically challenged doctor.

After brusquely dismissing a former amputation patient’s cries of pain issuing from a phantom limb, Dr. Gideon Wyck embarks on a strange nocturnal rendezvous with a nurse in the desolate farmlands outside of town. Trailed by the inquisitive Saunders, the doctor disappears in a car with an unknown driver, and is not seen again. For the first few days following the disappearance, the students and faculty are relieved by the temporary absence of a generally cruel and erratic personality. When his embalmed body eventually turns up in the freezer with the cadavers stored for anatomy class dissections, however, the small Maine medical college finds itself at the center of a baffling murder mystery.

Although the whodunnit question functions as the nominal core of the story, Saunders’ investigation unearths an increasingly macabre series of revelations stemming from Wyck’s secret program of experiments. Former patients complain of demonic possession, donors suffer from sympathetic pains with the recipients of their unauthorized blood transfusions, epileptics enter into bouts of murderous rage while suffering from seizure-induced blackouts, and a series of monstrously deformed babies are birthed by women who share some common connection with Gideon Wyck.

The grotesqueries are necessarily viewed at some distance due to the conceit of a transcript from a student’s perspective, but succeed in evoking a queasy atmosphere of morbidity. Considering the list of shocking discoveries, the middle section of the book plods along while Saunders shifts through and considers at length each of all the possible suspects and their alibis, including his classmates, hospital administrator, the county coroner,  and even his would-be girlfriend.Although some of the scientific content is pure nonsense, reading Gideon Wyck provides a comparable experience to browsing the formaldehyde-soaked specimens enclosed in glass jars on display in a museum of medical curiosities.

The denouement falls far too flat for Gideon Wyck to be included in the pantheon of great mysteries, but its reputation is justly earned as an early masher of genres—mystery, horror, science fiction, and medical thriller—that somehow congeals into an oddly original pulp concoction.

Quentin the Vampire | Dark Shadows Issue #20

Dark Shadows | Issue #20
Quentin the Vampire
Gold Key Comics | June, 1973

Dispensing with the monster-of-the-week format so prevalent over the last few issues, Quentin the Vampire returns the focus back to the respective curses afflicting the Collins family. After accidentally taking an experimental vampire cure intended for Barnabas, Quentin finds some relief from his lycanthropy—but suffers a new malady resembling a mutation of vampirism. Numerous serums, sedatives, and treatments are injected as Julia Hoffman rapidly plunges syringes back and forth between the two cursed cousins.

With the light of the moon now triggering an insatiable hunger for blood, Quentin blacks out and attacks Elizabeth Collins at Collinwood. Although he is eventually restrained by Julia Hoffman, Quentin’s uncontrollable hysteria is noted by an overtly hostile Roger Collins, who—thinking him insane—sends him for psychiatric treatment in New York. This sudden change of location provides Barnabas with the opportunity to chase Quentin through the streets of Chinatown, although he ultimately relies upon the mystic guidance of a conveniently-placed soothsayer, fronting a mysterious temple.

Nevermind the brief glimpse at a possible subterranean network of mysticism beyond the temple facade, the page count is running low and the confrontation between Barnabas and Quentin cannot be postponed any longer.

Various scuffles ensue, the existential weight of the respective curses pondered, and the reverse ailment reset with a syringe administered (this time) by Barnabas, before he returns to his coffin back at Collinwood—undoubtedly awaiting the next issue cycle.

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The Ghost Pirates

The Ghost Pirates
William Hope Hodgson | Sphere Books | 1975 | 159 pages

Told in the form of a deposition, The Ghost Pirates recounts a crew member’s increasingly terrifying encounters with the supernatural aboard a  doomed sailing ship. Originally published in 1909, this work and several others by William Hope Hodgson, who was killed in World War I, were influential to H.P. Lovecraft and other early writers of what we now refer to as weird fiction.

Setting out from San Francisco around Cape Horn on a homeward journey to England, the Mortezestus sails with the reputation of being a haunted ship. Jessop, a newly boarded sailor, discovers that the entire crew, save a young seaman named Williams, disembarked and was replaced prior to departure. Williams, although determined to stay on board and collect his full pay, tells Jessop his concerns over the vessel, which he characterizes as possessing “too many shadows.”

After a few uneventful days at sea, the Mortzestus begins to earn its haunted reputation. A series of inexplicable problems with the infrastructure leads to several accidents among the crew members. In an early, chill-inducing scene, Jessop witnesses a shadowy form with blazing eyes climb over the railing, only to later disappear back into the sea. Tammy, a young apprentice, also sees a dark, shifting figure while on watch, eventually leading Jessop to take him into his confidence.

A series of hard-to-explain encounters escalates into more overtly paranormal experiences, fueling the inherent tension of the claustrophobic setting aboard the isolated ship at sea. The specifics of the riggings and deck locations are detailed with a technical precision, as crew members climb and search the mastheads for the cause of their increasingly puzzling problems. Masts collapse in calm seas, strange lights wink on the horizon, and the ship becomes enshrouded by a strange mist. Jessop and Tammy withhold their observations, waiting for the Second Mate to accept the realization that supernatural forces are working against their beleaguered ship.

Suggesting something beyond a mere haunting, Jessop pontificates an intriguing cosmology to explain the Mortezestus’ encounters with the unknown. His theory of intersecting planes of existence would fit more closely with the early canon of science fiction and burgeoning cosmic horror than with simple ghost stories. However, the The Ghost Pirates ultimately benefits from the detached detailing of events rather than explicit explanations regarding the causes of the spectral encounters.

The spare prose, detailed ship locations, and use of cockney dialects for the crew’s dialogue all help to firmly bring the self-contained world of the Mortezestus to life. Each evening births a sickening sense of anticipation,  as the stricken seamen fear another onslaught of terror, along with the dreadful prospect of never reaching safe port again.

The appearance of several shadowy ships beneath the surface of the water surrounding the Mortezestus signals the arrival of the shocking final moments on board, as all the eerie tension built up over time culminates in a horrific conclusion. Although arguably hopeless, the inevitable nature of the resolution provides a logical and satisfying finish to the doomed voyage.

The Dead Riders

The Dead Riders
Elliot O’Donnell | Paperback Library | 1967 | 224 pages

“PREFATORY NOTE: According to reports that appeared in the Press from time to time prior to the Second World War, efforts were being made to resuscitate Black Magic, with all its attendant evils, in various Continental countries, and in England. The War would seem to have had a curbing effect, but, unhappily, there are grounds for believing those efforts are being renewed with undiminished vigor. – The Author”

Globetrotting fortune hunter Burke Blake runs afoul of an ancient mystery cult in this throwback men’s adventure novel. Although originally written in the early fifties, the tone more closely resembles the thirties pulp adventures of Doc Savage, or the even earlier villainous escapades of Fu Manchu.

Blake signs on with a small expedition to the Gobi desert led by archaeological dilettante, Herbert Newsam, but his true motivation is to discover the fabled lost treasure of Genghis Khan. More modern notions of cultural relativism would certainly differentiate between “adventurer” and “plunderer. Some half-baked murder, political intrigue, and romantic liaison subplots stew around the much-delayed launch of the exploration party from Hong Kong. Echoing some of the oriental stereotypes of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series, the women Blake encounters are beautiful seductresses (with delicate hands), while the men are merely inscrutable.

Once underway, the expedition quickly falls apart along the desolate trails of the Gobi Desert. Odd narrative pacing problems abound, with Blake falling in with another small band of adventurers before being taken captive by a band of occultists. The Lovonans, followers of the wizard Shadna Rana, are the hereditary guardians of Ghenghis Khan’s treasure. Insisting that Burke and his fellow prisoners accept allegiance to their god, Dakoalach. The Lovonans attempt various tactics of seduction and torture to bend the will of their captives. After a daring escape—and nearly half-way into the novel—Blake is back in London and introduced to a whole new cast of characters.

An accidental meeting in the street with old school chum, Garnet Deane, leads Blake into a paid position as an investigator of the occult. Deane, now a stuffy member of Parliament, is convinced that the practice of Black Magic is resurgent in contemporary England, and he hires Burke to sniff it out. The occasional odd footnote in the text seems to imply a dubious true-life connection to allegedly increasing events of occult ritual. Although the long-reaching tendrils of the Lovonan cult abound in London, Blake spends less time investigating and more time becoming infatuated with Garnet’s three sisters.

Bouncing around various night spots and the Green Eagle Club, Blake’s romantic eye wanders in its consideration of the Deane sisters: the beautiful but coolly aloof eldest, Jean, the vivacious redheaded charmer, Lana, and the youthful good girl, Pat. They are all eventually revealed to be somehow involved in the machinations of the Lovonan cult, leaving Blake to sort out the messy details—and perhaps more importantly, whom to marry.

Ultimately, Blake seems more a smitten schoolboy than an effective investigator, leaving other parties to eventually confront the villain and save the day for England. Even after breaking into a “mystery mansion” and dressing up as a wax mannequin to observe an occult ritual, Blake discovers that another wax mannequin is also an investigator in disguise!

The Dead Riders do make an appearance [full disclosure: two appearances], but this whole disjointed serial affair could have been alternately titled, “The Supper Club Girls.”