Horrorscope #3 | The Curse of Leo

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Horrorscope #3 | The Curse of Leo
Robert Lory | Pinnacle Books | 1974 | 176 pages

“If you can have a werewolf, why not a werelion?”

Calder Heath, heir to a large mining company, returns to South Africa from years of living abroad in England following the suicide of his father. However, all is not well at the mines. Two violent mauling deaths among the black laborers have renewed gossip about a curse on the Heath family, and Calder awakens following the full moon covered in blood, with no memory of his recent actions.

Granley, a long-time clerk at Heath Mines, recounts the story of the curse to Calder. After an illicit affair with his housekeeper, the elder Heath abandoned the young girl from the black township when he discovered she was about to give birth to his illegitimate child. When the child died from a tragic, but preventable, illness, the grieving mother channeled her anger at Heath through a curse, twisting his naturally leonine features against him. The light of the full moon would transform him–and all his male descendants–into a bloodthirsty man-lion!

If you can have a werelion, why not a wereaardvark or even a weresloth?

Calder desperately tries to shield his delicate wife, Eunice, from his bloody escapades at night, while deflecting suspicion from his gruff American mine manager, Sam York, and the slovenly, but deceptively astute detective assigned to investigate the deaths. Struggling against the growing realization that he is responsible for the grisly killings plaguing the mines, Calder calls upon the old witch in the township for aid.

A straightforward revenge curse and monster-run-amok tale, with the resulting character anguish, for most of its page count, The Curse of Leo eventually throws a twist worthy of the Scooby Doo playbook—before turning back again at the conclusion. Although multigenerational curses always seem inherently misguided (afflicting innocent descendants), Calder does prove himself to be violent and despicable enough to (arguably) warrant his curse. The very real horrors of the South African mining industry, with its history of forced labor and oppression, remain completely unaddressed, providing only convenient decoration for the werelion to roam.

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Revolution

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Shadows | Chill #7

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Shadows | Chill #7
Jory Sherman | Pinnacle Books | 1980 | 181 pages

Against the advice of his physician, wealthy industrialist and toymaker, Adolph Zehring-Rand, moves to Mexico to receive an experimental treatment for his recently diagnosed terminal illness. Shortly after his arrival at the hacienda near the Mexican clinic, Zehring-Rand begins experiencing visions of shadows, amorphous shapes that seem to move and attempt to communicate with him. Convinced that these encounters are occult in nature, and not the hallucinatory side effects of his new medical regime, Zehring-Rand reaches out for assistance to famed psychic investigator, Russell V. “Chill” Chillders.

Although little doubt exists of the supernatural nature of the situation, several characters establish motivation for undermining, or even eliminating, Zehring-Rand. Dr. Spinoza, chief researcher at the Clinica Medica de Ensenada, is clearly a quack, with a sham facility in place to provide the illusion of research. Hattie McBain, Zehring-Rand’s personal assistant, has a personal history of chasing wealthy and powerful men. Several rival executives at Z-R Industries have open contempt for the way Zehring-Rand runs the company, and are impatient for his ouster. Meanwhile, young girls around Ensenada have been disappearing, including the daughter of the former owner of Zehring-Rand’s hacienda.

At book seven in the series, all the reductive traits for the Chill and his associates are obligatorily noted, with little variation or growth from book one: Chill is a vegetarian, but also a vintage gun enthusiast who will eat the game he kills (check); he munches on sesame sticks to concentrate (check); he has a platonic relationship with his psychic assistant, Laura Littlefawn, but both acknowledge a latent, deeper attraction (check); Laura, a native Sioux, displays a fondness for silver and turquoise jewelry (check); and Hal Strong, a New England professor and Chill’s occasional sidekick, is driven by the need to communicate with his dead son on some other plane of existence (check).

The industrial espionage subplot provides an opportunity for a private eye to discover, first hand, how capable ghosts are of murder. Another character ultimately changes allegiances, although even this twist—seemingly driven by a newly found heart of gold–is telegraphed earlier.

The dark shapes plaguing Zehring-Rand eventually congeal into the ghostly form of a little girl, and he rushes to manufacture a new toy, an articulated doll constructed to the specifications given to him by the spirit. Tapping into the inherent horror of dolls and laughing children, Shadows delivers a few suspenseful moments, some pseudo-science bunk, and a touch of psychic mumbo-jumbo, all the while deviating very little from the expected course.

But what psychic detective worth his weight in sesame sticks thinks giving a non-corporeal entity, with unknown and possibly murderous intentions, a fully functional doll’s body to inhabit is a good idea?

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The Wall

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Night Gallery | Season 1 – Episode 6

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Night Gallery | Season One | Episode 6 | January 20, 1971

Segment One | They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar
William Windom | Diane Baker | Bert Convey | Written by Rod Serling | Directed by Don Taylor

Down-at-heel sales director Randy Lane (William Windom) reflects back upon twenty-five lost years at a plastics company, as the world around him crumbles. His sympathetic secretary Lynn Alcott (Diane Baker) tries to save him from his failing work performance, reliance upon the bottle, and up-and-coming rival executive, Harvey Doane (Bert Convey). Lane’s most cherished memories, including those of his late wife, all seem to be inexorably tied to Tim Riley’s Bar, now closed and slated for destruction, yet another erased link to a past that can never be recovered.

Windom’s empathetic portrait of a man disconnected from the modern world drives a surprisingly sentimental episode, lacking the traditional “gotcha” punch at the end. In the face of everything Lane cares about being lost to time, comes the most frightening question of all, “Who will remember?”

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Burning

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Burning
Jane Chambers | Jove HBJ Books | 1978 | 157 pages

Lurid cover art replete with the obligatory marketing call-outs to The Omen and Salem’s Lot (so prevalent to the time of publication) disguises a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on love and acceptance, with an intrinsic horror rising from societal fear and ignorance—in past centuries, and our own.

Burning essentially tells the story of four women, two in the past and two in the present, who struggle to free themselves from the restrictive roles that confine them. Nominally a story of possession, the empathy for both pairs of women easily elevates the proceedings from the standard “evil ghost” template.

Cynthia, a wife and mother who abandoned her dreams of an art career to have a family, yearns for time away from Dave, the passive husband that she manipulates, but seems unable to mold into a successful businessman. Angela, a young woman hired as nanny for Cynthia’s two children, lives a lonely life, driven by occasional, unrealized crushes on older women.

Acquiescing to Cynthia’s need for a break from the summer heat in the city, Dave arranges for a vacation for her, the children, and Angela in a Massachusetts farmhouse. Soon after their arrival, Cynthia feels a strange attraction to an addition to the house, an older, rough-hewn room off the kitchen. With the room as a focal point, Cynthia and Angela begin to channel the words and actions of two women who lived there two hundred years ago.

Through Cynthia, Martha speaks, an abandoned love child now grown up and alone after the death of her mother. She lives isolated from the village in the farmhouse, cast out and viewed as untouchable by the community. Through Angela, Abigail speaks, a young itinerant woman living on the property of a wealthy landowner. Eventually she joins Martha, and both women, ostracized by the community, are drawn together in a romantic tryst that dangerously defies the values of their witch-hunting times.

Aware of the forces working through them, Cynthia and Angela also begin a romantic affair, unsure whether or not their actions are truly their own. A spurned romantic overture from a young squire towards Abigail triggers the past narrative forward to the conclusion predestined by the book’s title. A similar action in the present involving Angela drives the suspense, with the growing prospect of Cynthia and Angela’s fate mirroring that of their predecessors.

Drawing on the parallels fueling ignorance, hatred and oppression across the centuries, Burning succeeds as something more than a simple horror tale. After a group of drunken young men in a bar are overheard relating their story of a recent weekend’s debauchery–buying prostitutes and beating up a suspected gay man–this exchange, woefully echoing the current state of mind as society launches into a new political era of bigotry, prejudice, and scapegoating:

“That’s the future of America,” Red declared to the bartender.

“Dear God,” the old man muttered, “I hope not.”

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Sweet Dreams

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Dark Shadows | Issue #16

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Dark Shadows | Issue #16
The Scarab
Gold Key Comics | October 1972

An ancient Egyptian mystic of the black arts recruits Barnabas Collins into his undead army in this issue of the ongoing comic series.

The unholy priest, Potiphar, possesses a strange power enabling him to control those spirits trapped between worlds, such as the cursed Barnabas. Potiphar’s army, assembled over the last four thousand years, seeks to reunite the lost treasure of the First Kingdom, a mythic cache of legendary objects that will grant its owner total dominion over the Earth.

Barnabas’ first directive under Potiphar’s control is stealing one such item, the improbably named Golden Girdle of Ibex. Aside from his ability to fly away with the stolen cloth in his bat talons, Barnabas’ specially chosen role as “First Minister” to Potiphar amounts to little more than smash-and-grab robber among confused museum guards.

Meanwhile at a Collinwood cocktail party, Professor Stokes deduces the entire plan—and Potiphar’s responsibility, in particular—from the gathered small talk surrounding the simple news of a museum robbery.

Professor Stokes is rarely wrong…but, no! The whole thing is too preposterous!

After discovering that Barnabas’ coffin is missing, Julia Hoffman convenes an emergency séance to send a message to him through the spirit plane, thus breaking Potiphar’s spell.

Ultimately, Barnabas faces off against the other creatures of darkness, and Potiphar learns the dangers of transmutation—particularly surrounding the inherent vulnerability in taking the form of a beetle.

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The Pyx

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The Pyx
John Buell | Crest Books | 1959 | 128 pages

Warning! The last few pages of this book are entitled: The Secret of the Pyx. DO NOT—DO NOT READ THIS SECTION UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED THE BOOK. – from the back cover

After a cab driver witnesses a young woman in a white evening gown fatally plummet to the ground from the penthouse balcony of an eleven story apartment building, Detective Henderson works to uncover the details of her death. The ethereal white trail tracing the path of Elizabeth Lucy’s death is the central haunting image in this slim novel, told in alternating point-of-view chapters. In the present, Henderson tracks the clues leading back to the possible murder, as Elizabeth, in the past, lives out her fateful last few days.

Elizabeth, a small-town runaway working as a call girl out of a rundown boarding house, falls under the eye of a powerful, mysterious client. As her sense of fatalism surrounding their upcoming “date” grows, she seeks solace in whatever private moments she can afford, sharing a small space away from her trade with her only real friend, Jimmy, a troubled—and through implication, closeted gay–youth seeking his own sense of escape. Elizabeth also bears a burden of responsibility toward her former roommate, another call girl who suffered a complete mental breakdown, and now lives in a near-catatonic state in an asylum.

Back in the present, Henderson begins to exhibit a fascination with the deceased that echoes that of Dana Andrews’ detective in Otto Preminger’s Laura. Small details in the case cause his suspicions of murder to grow, with more deaths soon occurring in Elizabeth’s circle of acquaintances. Through all, Elizabeth emerges as a melancholy and expressly empathetic character. Minus the dictionary definition preface pointing to the supernatural, The Pyx could function simply as a melodrama on the dangers of juvenile delinquency, right up to the occult-tinged conclusion.

Since readers are aware of Elizabeth’s fate from the first few pages, the only suspense derives from uncovering the circumstances ultimately leading her to the penthouse. Her arrival is unexpectedly anticlimactic in its brevity, with her trip over the balcony railing coming at a surprising speed. Only a few final details, suggesting the monstrous undercurrent of the proceedings, reveal the true nature of her death.

However, a howlingly bad postscript, The Secret of the Pyx, explains everything in a pseudo-educational report—which could easily be imagined unspooling on grainy film stock in a fifties-era classroom–on the history of demonic possession and the black masses.

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Hammer Horror Icons | Ingrid Pitt

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“Ingrid Pitt was offered the starring role in The Vampire Lovers soon after meeting [film producer] James Carreras at the premiere party for Alfred the Great in 1969. The full-frontal nudity demanded by the script bothered her little. ‘I remember my first nude scene with Maddy Smith was coming up and, although neither of us particularly minded, at that time it wasn’t an everyday event. Jimmy Carreras was okay about it, but I was told the other producers, Harry Fine and Michael Style, were a bit po-faced. I was walking to the stage when I met Fine and Style, looking very dejected, walking in the opposite direction. I felt so sorry for them. As I drew near, I stopped and ripped open my dressing gown with all the brio of an experienced flasher on Hampstead Heath.’” – The Hammer Story: The Authorized History of Hammer Films, Marcus Hearns & Alan Barnes, Titan Books, 2007.

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