Dark Seeker

Dark Seeker | K.W. Jeter | Tor Books | 1987 | 317 Pages

The blue-tinged darkness flickering at the edges of Mike Tyler’s vision constantly threatens to expand and overwhelm his perception of reality, kept at bay only by a strictly regulated series of pills. His medicated state serves as a dark legacy of murders committed in an altered consciousness as part of a cult, directed by a Manson-like guru who dosed his followers into a raised, hive-mind level of awareness with an experimental drug. The capture of his wife, after years on the run from police, triggers a crisis that encourages him to stop his medication, and succumb to the seductive call of a psychotropic past.

Mike’s jailhouse visit with his wife provides the foundation for the core dramatic tension in Dark Seeker. Accepting her own fate, she pleads with him to rescue their son, who—she claims—was stolen away from her by another former cult member just prior to her capture. The story awakens powerful memories in Mike of their son—and of his tragic death just weeks after being born.

A rather convenient explanation involving a changeling sets Mike off to find his missing son. Disposing of his pills, he lapses back into his enhanced mindset, hoping to merge awareness with the other former cultists and discover the location of his son. But Mike knows that something else lives in that psychically enhanced darkness, a presence he remembers as The Host, whose murderous agenda seems to have only grown over the years.

Most of the horror derives from brief visitations from The Host, his liquid black eyes and long teeth swimmingly superimposed on the edge of vision. One sequence involving a corpse in a car could almost play as dark slapstick, with the physicality of an inert body thwarting the attempts at its manipulation and disposal.

A grim and gritty view of Los Angeles provides the backdrop, its geography-of-nowhere landscape of chain link fences and freeway underpasses defining encounters between former cult members, destitute homeless, and former abuse victims desperately attempting to build new lives.

The Host serves as something akin to a bogeyman, its mysterious nature and origins secondary to the shock value derived from fleeting glimpses and unexpected arrivals. Readers looking for some explanation of this enigmatic evil figure will probably be left disappointed. Instead, the dramatic quest for family drives Dark Seeker, through the mirrored domestic units of Mike’s tenuous present and tragic past.

Advertisements

Ratman’s Notebooks

Ratman’s Notebooks
Stephen Gilbert | Lancer Books | 1967 | 191 pages

The unnamed narrator of Ratman’s Notebooks lives at home in a rundown estate with his elderly, pestering mother, and is bullied at work by his manager, Jones, a pettily vindictive man who was once an underling to the narrator’s father, the former owner of the company. His only friends are the rats who live in the garden, spared from his mother’s extermination order with a last minute change of heart. Among the growing nest of rodents outside, the narrator builds a special bond with Socrates, a clever white rat with a remarkable aptitude for learning.

Quickly developing a system of communication, the narrator begins a training regime for his army of rats, with Socrates serving as his general. Frustrated and belittled at work and at home, he eventually experiences a moral epiphany, realizing that he no longer feels compelled to abide by the legal or ethical norms imposed by society. The initial foray into criminal action involves breaking into a supermarket to feed the swelling ranks of his rodent followers, followed by monetary heists to pay off his family debts. However, the ultimate target is Jones, whose shocking act of violence escalates the narrator’s desire for revenge.

The narrator’s genuine affection for Socrates occupies the core of Notebooks, but the introduction of a rival throws a potential internal conflict into the account of criminal exploits and revenge. A young, dark-haired rat named Ben shows the same affinity for learning as Socrates, but seems less inclined to accept the friendship of the narrator, who fears that his role as leader may someday possibly be usurped.

Ratman’s Notebooks was the basis for the cult 1971 film, Williard, and the character of Ben continued on as the “star” of Ben, its 1972 sequel. Interestingly, although the first film was faithful to the source material, the sequel transformed Ben from a dubiously loyal character to a die-hard companion to a chronically ill child.

The adventures of Ratman’s gang, documented by sensationalized newspaper accounts, are entertaining centerpieces here. From home invasion to strong-arm robbery on the street, they inevitably grow to a culminating act of bloody revenge that makes an ultimate redemption a fatal choice. It all adds up to a stunning portrait of a descent into madness—one that the protagonist eventually chooses to escape from—but avoids the common trap of explaining away everything as simply existing all in the deranged mind.

Tear him up,” I whispered softly.

Continue reading

Fingers of Fear

Fingers of Fear
John U. Nicolson | Paperback Library | 1966 | 224 pages

Werewolf or vampire? Perhaps the distinction is ultimately meaningless for members of the Ormes family, who may suffer from an incurable blood lust when the moon is full.

Under the auspices of organizing an inherited library for his old college chum (Ormand Ormes), a down-on-his-luck writer (Seldon Seaverns) quickly becomes enmeshed in a whirlpool of supernatural horrors. Seaverns is visited by a phantom presence on his first night at the Ormes estate, waking in the morning with a violent bruise on his neck.

And it seemed to have been drawn there by the sucking action of a woman’s young and evil mouth!”

Although tantalized by Ormand’s sister, Gray, an enigmatic beauty exhibiting wild mood swings, Seldon nonetheless suspects that she is responsible for his nocturnal intrusion. But there are other potential suspects housed under the roof the family estate: Ormand’s aunt Barbara, a recluse haunted by some undefined emotional trauma, and Agnes Ormes, Ormand’s disaffected wife, a self-indulgent woman longing for a less-isolated life.

A series of violent murders jolts the household, potentially exposing a secret family history of lycanthropy. The throats of the victims show evidence of being ripped out with human teeth, with great accompanying blood loss. This naturalistic—and ambiguously supernatural—approach foreshadows similar genre treatment in later vampire stories, such as George Romero’s Martin.

However, Fingers of Fear does not simply limit its horrors to lycanthropy and vampirism. Ghostly apparitions, secret family murders, inheritance intrigue and unfolding plans of criminal extortion all trail in the wake of the werewolf/vampire attacks. Already set in an old, dark house riddled with secret passages, these additional elements teeter the story on the verge of campiness.

Originally written in the thirties and steeped in the failure of depression economics, Fingers of Fear is repackaged in this sixties edition under the Paperback Library Gothic banner, replete with the “woman-running-in-fear-from-the-castle” cover art [along with an incorrect character name]. However melodramatic, with its male point of view and oddly supernatural flourishes, it still emerges as a much weirder concoction than the comparable gothic romances of the era.

The Visitor

The Visitor
Chauncey G. Parker III | Signet Books | 1981 | 244 pages

“…uh…it was more like maybe you should be talking with one of them psychological guys instead of me, know what I mean?”

With his wife and children away in Maine for summer holiday, bank executive Bart Hughes engages in an ever-escalating battle of wills against a vengeful rat in his Upper Eastside New York brownstone.

A quickly observed blur from the open garden door into the kitchen drives Bart to fear that a vermin has entered into his apartment. The intruder is crafty, however, stealing the bait while avoiding Bart’s strategically placed traps. After consulting with handyman and old-time neighborhood sage, Clete Washington, Bart shifts the method of attack to poisons, deployed various deadly concoctions designed for a gruesome chemical kill.

The fight isn’t one sided. The rat chews through the water hose leading to the washing machine, flooding Bart’s kitchen. Telephone and other utility wires are also fair game, triggering the apartment’s security alarms. When Bart discovers a nest in his cellar under the water heater and kills all the young rats within, the fight between man and rat becomes more ever more violent—and personal.

The epic contest shrinks Bart’s world down to his barricaded bedroom, although that defended space reveals itself to be unsecure. Even with the seemingly intelligent counterattacks, demanding an absurd level of sophistication from a rodent, the proceedings never fall entirely into camp, since the corresponding impact on Bart’s life has measurable consequences.

Essentially a successful two-character chamber piece (one character happening to be a rat), The Visitor effectively distills the action down to Bart’s growing mania. Every violated cupboard or compromised food item drives him to another level of intense desire for retribution, while further removing him from his wife, already at a distance via her phone calls from Maine. Deriving from more than a simple, inherent fear of rats, Bart’s growing horror stems from his lack of control and sense of violation.

Bart’s fixation on eliminating the rat grows into an obsession, jeopardizing his job and family. A previous history battling mice suggests his unreliable quality as a narrator, with his entire struggle perhaps simply a descent into mental illness. The resolution ultimately clarifies any lingering doubt regarding psychological ambiguity, perhaps even hinting at a greater menace.

Beware the discovery of those telltale black pellets resembling large grains of rice.

Bigfoot

Bigfoot
B. Ann Slate & Alan Berry | Bantam Books | 1976 | 171 pages

Jane Goodall said the Bigfoot subject was fascinating and wished us all good luck.”

Comparable to a contemporary embedded journalist in a war zone, co-author Alan Berry joins Warren and Lewis Johnson, brothers and seasonal hunters, in their Sierra Nevada cabin to record their recurring encounters with a group of communicative, if ultimately camera-shy, sasquatch.

The resulting accounts, recorded over a period of several stays in the cabin, are the most traditional Bigfoot tales in this purportedly non-fiction compendium of facts regarding the “Bigfoot Mystery.” The creatures skirt the perimeter of the brothers’ camp, vocalize in what seems to be an attempt at communication, bang sticks against nearby trees, and leave behind astonishingly large, quasi-human footprints. Other than a fleeting glimpse of a dark shape entering the woods, however, the beasts remain elusive to actually being sighted by the men in camp.

The scope quickly expands to other obsessions of seventies pop-culture, first with the contributions of two persons “gifted with extrasensory perception (ESP)”. The psychics claimed to find a telepathic link with the Bigfoot group, revealing the interpersonal [inter-bestial?] dynamics of what amounts to an extended family unit of the creatures visiting the Johnsons’ cabin and surrounding area.

Other anecdotes follow, detailing the various close encounters unsuspecting people have experienced with the foul-smelling, rock-throwing, upright-standing hairy beasts who vanish as quickly as they appear, leaving behind only a pattern of gigantic footprints (with a variously documented number of toes). Psychic phenomenon resurfaces later, with a teenager in Southern California claiming a telepathic-hypnotic link (or “mind-grab”) with the creatures, seemingly intent on summoning him away from his fellow campers for unknown purposes. Even more reports of the occurrence of hypnotic suggestion surrounding Bigfoot sightings lead the authors to speculate on the nature of Bigfoot’s ability to telepathically camouflage his appearance, even to the degree of rendering himself invisible.

What’s wrong with Jim? Is he on something?”

Conspiracy theories also begin to swirl around Bigfoot’s appearances. A potentially proto-human skull found near the Johnson cabin suspiciously disappears into the netherworlds of academic bureaucracy, after it is submitted to the anthropology department at UCLA for analysis. A number of sightings in remote forested areas are accompanied by reports of inexplicable underground mechanical noises, suggesting some sort of subterranean conspiracy on a grand scale.

But the ultimate expression of the supernatural fascinations of the era is the alleged link between Bigfoot and Unidentified Flying Objects. Various episodes of strange sightings, from lights in the sky to saucers or cigar-shaped metallic objects, correspond with confrontations with gigantic, hairy creatures. During one such Bigfoot-UFO encounter, a key witness to the events seemingly became possessed, issuing warnings of mankind’s imminent destruction of the planet.

“If they have been seen near UFOs, I would prefer to assume that the occupants of the UFO were just looking at the Sasquatch, or vice versa.”

The confluence of all the individual wacky elements propels this straight-laced, footnoted and annotated reportage into hyper-absurd overdrive. A telepathic, oft-invisible anthropological throwback working in conjunction with visitors from outer space (or another dimension) who may gain benefit by a conspiratorial league of underground facilities—perhaps the only element missing is a sighting in the Bermuda Triangle.

[Full Disclosure: The Loch Ness Monster is also briefly referenced.]

A Stranger in My Grave

A Stranger in My Grave
Margaret Millar | International Polygonics | 1960 | 311 pages

Well, I’m not a good little girl anymore, and I no longer trust my husband or my mother to decide what’s best for me.”

A recurring nightmare of her own grave, with a date of death four years past, leads young housewife Daisy Harker to investigate her own repressed memory, and ultimately discover a shocking family history.

Daisy’s chance encounter with Stevens Pinata, a private investigator who bonded her estranged father out of jail, triggers an impulsive hire to recount the events of December 02, 1955 – the date of her dream “death”. Sure that the details will unlock the buried secrets of her nightmare, Daisy pursues her investigation over the insistent objections of her career-oriented husband and domineering mother. The case amounts to more than an exercise for Daisy, since her barren marriage and unhappy family life already seem to represent something akin to a waking death.

Daisy and Pinata are hardly traditional genre sleuths, however, and the mystery here first hinted in Daisy’s dream slowly unravels to expose a dysfunctional family drama rather than a hard-boiled noir or a parlor whodunit—although a murder is eventually involved. The inherent racism directed at the Hispanic residents of the fictional Southern California city of San Felice, a thinly veiled Santa Barbara, also informs the heart of secret dealings to obfuscate the wellspring of the mystery fueling Daisy’s subconscious.

Daisy allows herself to drop the forced smile she is always required to wear, revealing her true personal feelings underneath, the dark reality in a sunny place—so perhaps A Stranger in My Grave is more noir than observed at first glance.

Daisy’s conveniently repressed memory withholds much critical information, essentially creating a fog that allows the entire mystery to exist, but the conceit is compelling enough to drive interest in the resolution. Many of the individual scenes vividly illustrate the lives of the characters trapped in their own unhappy lives, including a young mother of six banging and breaking through her religious zealot mother’s locked bedroom door with a crucifix.

A rather awkwardly derived romance suddenly blooms late in the proceedings, creating an arbitrary happy ending for characters that have little contextual chance for one.

Dark Shadows | Issue #19

Dark Shadows | Issue #19
Island of Eternal Life
Gold Key Comics | April 1973

Stumbling upon a corpse—invisible to mortal eyes—washed up on the beach, Barnabas Collins encounters a murderous band of pirates living an eternal life beyond the conventional limits of time.

Why pirates? Why not pirates?

A voodoo priest, serving the pirates and exhibiting an uncanny resemblance to a living Troll Doll, places an “Umba—Umba—Umba” curse on Barnabas, stripping him of his free will and leaving him at the mercy of the captain’s commands. His will imprisoned in a small vial, Barnabas’ reduced state echoes the fear expressed by General Jack D. Ripper (from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) of a “conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” Unable to resist, Barnabas is forced to pillage a luxury yacht with the rest of the brigand, in the only sequence of the story that remotely approaches swashbuckling—a strange shortcoming for a pirate adventure.

Later, Barnabas meets Lani, a beautiful native girl also trapped beyond time with the pirates on their island hideaway. Unlike Gauguin in Tahiti, Barnabas does not debauch himself, but plans their escape by summoning the powers of his vampire curse to fight off the voodoo spell imprisoning him. Challenged to be more than mere window-dressing in this issue, Lani muses philosophically, “Who are we to question the fates?” before rowing away in a hidden canoe.

A quick and rather convenient resolution presents itself, when the pirates considerately allow their only weakness to be exposed. The final showdown crashes another voodoo ceremony recycling the same  “Umba—Umba—Umba” chant, cutting short Barnabas Collins’ tropical sojourn.