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.
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.
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
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.”
The Witches of Windlake
Miriam Lynch | Popular Library | 1971 | 287 pages
After impulsively accepting a position as governess to the Louvayne family, the reclusive new occupants of long-abandoned Windlake mansion, Jennie Maxwell finds herself embroiled in an infernal battle-of-the-wills for possession of her young ward.
Jennie immediately falls for the romantic charms of darkly brooding Victor Louvayne, newly arrived from some vaguely defined Eastern European country along with his mother, Ottalie, and young son, Julian. Victor and his mother are reluctant to speak of the tragic death of Victor’s wife, Franzi, and become visibly shaken after hearing Jennie recount her recent tarot card reading. Beyond foretelling her great turn of fortune at the hands of a “dark man and woman,” the cards promise “three women and an unexpected arrival.”
Indeed, a trio of women does arrive unexpectedly at Windlake–or perhaps to the Louvaynes, not as unexpectedly as foretold. Like some gothic romance variation on Macbeth’s three weird sisters, Franzi’s mother, Josepha Hanar, and two sisters, Lenya and Ilse, descend upon the manor after chasing the Louvaynes across the Atlantic. Of course, they are also witches, immediately emasculating Victor and sending Ottalie into a resigned compliance. The Hanar women barely contain their scorn for Jennie, and openly challenge her for control over Julian.
Julian, a treacly darling smitten with Jennie, is also something of a petulant child, subject to uncontrollable temper tantrums and in need of complicated story-telling games to coerce his actions. Jennie alternates between convincing him to role play in these games and violently yanking his collar when apoplexy strikes. Perhaps Julian’s aggressively childish behavior should be forgiven, however, because….Satan.
Jennie herself pauses on occasion to reflect upon the inherent creepiness of her latent romance with Victor. Objectively, he seduces an employee who bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife, dresses her in his late wife’s clothing, and sets her up in the role of replacement mother for his neglected child. Even after collapsing in the face of the Hanar danger and placing all hope in her to save Julian, he caressingly refers to her as “little Jennie” and promises to take charge of the family after they are married.
A New England blizzard helps contain the suspense, trapping all the players in Windlake for the witches’ nightly cycle of occult ritual followed by attempts on Jennie’s life. Disappointingly, Jennie’s supernatural potential hinted at by the tarot cards turns out to be…the power of prayer? After functioning as something of a missionary to Julian, the anger of the Hanar women boils into a rage that turns against all in the household.
Still, the reductive tale of a plucky young heroine engaged in battle with a trio of smug witches–and their vermin-like familiars–in a frozen New England mansion may be enough for a little seasonal gothic comfort.
From Satan with Love
Virginia Coffman | Pinnacle Books | 1971 | 212 pages
The sixth book in the Lucifer Cover occult gothic series settles comfortably into a rote pattern established by the previous few outings: an attractive young newcomer arrives in the diabolical coastal-California spa town, falls under the sinister seductive charms of its enigmatic owner, battles to resist the the temptations of an easy hedonism, and finally struggles to escape with her very soul intact.
The newcomer in this volume is Maeva Wells, along with her young niece, Jenniver. The pair spend an enjoyable afternoon of family bonding hiking in the coastal foothills above Big Sur, until Jenniver falls down a cliff side and breaks her ankle. They end up in Lucifer Cove, a previously unknown spa town marked by sulfurous plumes and an inexplicably confusing tangle of local roads. While Jenniver recovers from her injuries in the town’s clinic, Maeva is welcomed into a luxurious suite in the resort, recently vacated by the tragic death of its former occupant.
An intended one-night stay turns into several, as Jenniver seems determined to isolate herself from Maeva and stay under the care of the clinic, watched over by the coolly detached Dr. Rossiter. Exposed to the decadent lifestyle offered by the spa, Maeva begins to indulge in her fantasies of attraction to its mysterious owner, Marc Meridon. Ultimately Maeva succumbs to the temptations, attending a Black Mass at Lucifer Cove’s temple and signing her name to an infernal pact, wishing “Let me be loved by Marc.”
Of course, all is not what it appears—or, to readers of the series, exactly what it appears. Familiar characters and locations feature in mostly empty call-backs from previous books. Nadine Janos, high-priestess of the temple (and the main focus of an earlier title), here simply wanders around the margins, stripped of any complexities or conflicts surrounding her role in Lucifer Cove. Although initially not much more than a brogue-speaking stereotype, Sean O’Flannery, her Irish boyfriend, occupies even less of a role now, serving as little more than a perfunctory helper for Maeva’s escape attempt. Even Kinkajou the cat, Marc’s shapeshifting alternate form, is reduced to watching Maeva through the window from her garden terrace. All of Lucifer Cove adds up to little more than a reflection of the main street’s false-Tudor store fronts.
If nothing else, Lucifer Cove stands as an artifact to a specific, bygone era of post-Summer of Love California history, when hippies, cults and communes crossed over into the popular culture, and celebrities dropped in to partake in the entertainment spectacle of an occult ritual. Or perhaps this historical recollection is an entirely false history, only appearing in the cultural imagination of the times—but still one never to be repeated.
A leisurely enjoyable–albeit incredibly slight–placeholder for the Lucifer Cove series (although a seventh book was never written), From Satan with Love fails to advance the ongoing battle between Marc Meridon and Dr. Rossiter, offering another throw-away outsider’s tale of her devilish encounter with the secretive, sulfur-shrouded California town.
Ghosts | Issue 41 | DC Comics | August 1975
The specters of a WWII-era ship, a jaguar/ancient god, and a coal-miner’s father inform this tepid trilogy of ghostly tales from the generically-titled DC series.
One of My Wives is Missing
ABC Made-for-Television Movie | Starring Jack Klugman, Elizabeth Ashley, James Franciscus | Written by Peter Stone | Directed by Glenn Jordan | Originally Aired on March 05, 1976
Daniel Corbin (James Franciscus; Beneath the Planet of the Apes) has a problem. His wife, Elizabeth, is missing, and the local small-town police seem uninterested in pursuing the case. Her sudden return, however, elicits an unexpected reaction: Corbin claims that the woman (Elizabeth Ashley; The Carpetbaggers) is not, in fact, his wife.
Inspector Murray Levine (Jack Klugman; The Odd Couple, Quincy), a former New York City detective, takes a break from eating his favorite pastrami sandwiches at the local deli to investigate the unusual claim. The new Mrs. Corbin insists that her husband suffers from a mental condition and has been receiving long-term treatment from a psychiatrist, including prescription drugs, and could potentially be on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Set almost exclusively in the interior rooms of a remote country resort, the moribund production clearly reflects the stage origins of its source material. Evidence shifts and suspicions turn as characters exit stage right, stage left, or step briefly outside or upstairs. The priest who reintroduces Mrs. Corbin after her disappearance hangs around long enough to eventually nap on the sofa.
James Franciscus brings a golden-boy smugness to his role, although perhaps shouting a few too many lines along the way. Elizabeth Ashley delivers a smoky allure as the femme fatale, changing through a series of nightdresses along the way. Meanwhile, Jack Klugman channels his inner-Quincy, madly gesticulating, chewing up the scenery, and tossing off some groan-worthy comic zingers with fearless aplomb.
One of My Wives is Missing attempts at least one too many puzzle-within-a-puzzle twists—and instances of blanks being fired—before spinning off into a convoluted silliness that defies any continued suspension of disbelief. [Hey, Quincy…er… Detective Levine, instead of neglecting a crime scene and spinning an elaborate charade, how about just collecting some forensic evidence?] Certainly not a lost classic awaiting rediscovery, but a modest curiosity for Quincy fans searching for a cheap YouTube distraction.
The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson | Popular Library | 1959 | 174 pages
Shirley Jackson’s monumental haunted house tale sets the standard for the genre, while delivering a poignant character study of a lonely and dispossessed woman searching for a place to call her own.
“HELP ELEANOR COME HOME”
Paranormal investigator Dr. John Montague assembles a small team to stay inside Hill House, a blighted mansion with a history of misfortunes, and record any instances of the supernatural. Joining him is Luke Sanderson, heir to the estate, Theodora, a young woman with exceptional psychic abilities, and Eleanor Vance, a longtime caregiver to her recently deceased mother.
Freed from the demands of her ailing mother and the pressures of a shared living space with her overbearing sister, Eleanor is the sole member of Dr. Montague’s team to actually embrace the prospect of living at Hill House. Eleanor Initially bonds with Theodora, perhaps the sister she always wanted, but their relationship is ultimately strained by Eleanor’s growing emotional neediness, and the increasing undercurrent of jealousy over Luke’s attention.
Then the nocturnal noises begin.
Although the history of Hill House is detailed, the nature of the haunting remains ambiguous. Rather than particular specters, the manifestations here are limited to an inexplicable cold spot, and a series of explosive poundings and door bangings that methodically travels down the hallways at night. The most deliciously creepy scene, involving holding hands in the dark, subtly underplays its shock, delivering a chill-inducing moment more effective in its absence than a more explicit depiction of horror.
Amid growing tensions with Theodora, Eleanor is further singled out of the group when a mysterious message is found scrawled on the wall, referring to her by name. The late arrival of Dr. Montague’s wife throws even more turmoil into the group dynamic of the house. Mrs. Montague serves as the vulgar counterpoint to Dr. Montague’s more thoughtful, if ineffectual, approach to the paranormal. With her planchette in hand, she quickly spins out an embellished and factually-challenged tale of nuns being sealed alive in the walls of the house.
Regardless of her proclivity toward showmanship and arguable charlatanism, Mrs. Montague does seem to sense the special importance Eleanor holds to Hill House, and touches on her eventual fate. Her pronouncement that contacted spirits “love to repeat themselves” during sessions eerily evokes an early scene with Eleanor. Defending her intent to drive to Hill House over the objections of her sister, Eleanor’s repeated protests (“It’s half my car…. It’s half my car…. It’s half my car….”), foreshadow the pattern of a failed communications from the spirit world.
Eleanor occupies the focal point and and serves as the catalyst of the haunting at Hill House. Existing as something of a ghost in her regular life, she is particularly vulnerable to the supernatural forces at play. Hill House never explicitly reveals the details of its malevolent entity, but this determined ambiguity helps vault its haunted house to a more universal level, and painfully exposes the personal failings of its intrepid research team.
Much more an evocative, character-driven mood piece than a straight-out shocker, The Haunting of Hill House remains required reading for well-seasoned horror fans, and genre newcomers seeking a quintessential ghost story.