Keys of Hell
Louise Osborne | Popular Library | 1975 | 254 pages
Gathering with a group of psychic-phenomenon students at a reputedly haunted house, journalist Gwen Carroll experiences a ghostly warning from her deceased godmother. At the same time as Gwen’s spectral encounter, another member of the group, Nonnie Richards, blacks out and channels the spirit of a murder victim from the house’s dark history. Later, Professor Robert Wildfield, the leader of the seminar and expert in the study of the occult, informs Gwen that she and Nonnie are quite possibly latent psychics, who could grow and develop their natural powers with the right training.
After establishing its supernatural premise, the ghostly narrative dissipates into a more mundane family melodrama. Gwen discovers that Nonnie and her young daughter, Laura, live in her building, and are on the run from Nonnie’s estranged husband and domineering mother-in-law. After an attempt is made to grab Laura, Gwen invites the mother and daughter to move into her apartment. The pair hide out with Gwen until Nonnie receives an unexpected letter from her uncle, Ben Potter, a writer of supernatural fiction living in France. Ben plans on returning to Canada to live at Lion’s Head, a remote old estate on the lake shore. He ultimately invites Nonnie and Laura to move in with him—along with Gwen, hired as his live-in secretary.
But Lion’s Head does not provide the sanctuary that it promises. Nonnie suffers from a recurring nightmare of being sacrificed on a marble altar, while Ben discovers a strange old chapel on the grounds of the estate, seemingly abandoned but in a state of current repair. Researching the history of Lion’s Head, he learns that the wife of the estate’s former owner committed suicide in the chapel, hanging herself from the rafters. When the body of an apparent victim of an occult ritual washes up on the beach, Professor Wildfield warns Gwen that a satanic cult may be performing black arts in the area. And what possible hold does Nicolas Dessaix, a darkly magnetic stranger living in the nearby motel, have over Nonnie?
A mishmash of genre ingredients, Keys of Hell suffers from a lack of vision regarding its own identity. Does it want to be a ghost story (or stories), psychic tale, child-in-danger family drama, occult thriller, or a hippie horror with a cult of murderous followers? The discovery of tunnels under the house leading to the beach even alludes to (without ever developing) a standard smuggling operation subplot. Gwen’s own distance from the danger saps much of the tension, since she is really only proxy to the jeopardy faced by Nonnie and Laura. Gwen even keeps the lease on her old apartment, providing her a possible escape route from the deadly confines of Lion’s Head.
The spirit of Gwen’s godmother, Maude Jessop, provides a consistent thread from the haunted house opening to the inevitable wedding epilogue, offering dubious advice at times of crisis—unsurprisingly, perhaps, given her own personal history as a failed missionary mutilated by the natives she was attempting to convert.