Jeffrey Konvitz | Ballantine Books | 1976 | 278 pages
Billed as yet another successor to the modern horrors of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, The Sentinel fails to achieve their classic status, but still delivers enough seventies occult pleasure to satisfy genre fans.
Returning to New York after her father’s funeral in Indiana, fashion model Allison Parker rents an apartment in a crumbling brownstone on West 89th Street. Slightly unnerved by the presence of an old blind priest living on the fifth floor, who always seems to be gazing unseeingly out his window, she nevertheless takes the apartment to get some space from her narcissistic lawyer boyfriend, Michael Farmer. Allison previously suffered a nervous breakdown, and tried to kill herself by overdosing with pills after Michael’s wife Karen discovered their affair and committed suicide.
The Sentinel is most creepily effective as Allison settles into the spooky atmosphere of her new apartment building, encountering her strangely sinister new neighbors. Charles Chazen (5B), along with his black-and-white cat, Jezebel, and parakeet, Mortimer, superficially seems to be a kindly old man in a fraying, old-fashioned suit, but Allison perceives a dangerous aspect to his personality. Gerde and Sandra (2A), an aggressive pair of ballet-slipper-clad lesbians, are more covertly threatening; Sandra masturbates in front of Allison during a somewhat forced introductory visit for coffee.
The narrative hits a suspenseful peak at the midway point, after Allison climbs the stairs to investigate the noises emanating from the allegedly empty apartment directly above her own. Her encounter with the ever-pacing occupant in 4A leads to another emotional breakdown, resulting in a shift of focus to Michael. He leads the investigation into the brownstone’s role in her deteriorating condition for the second half of the novel, but makes for a much less engaging protagonist, as Allison withers away in his care.
Detective Gantz, who always seems to carry a mousetrap in his pocket, suspects that Michael actually killed his wife, but this police subplot serves only a superfluous role (and Gantz never actually confronts him with his trap, missing the opportunity to quip, “Snap! Now you are the mouse caught in my trap!”). Michael never fully develops into enough of a suspect to create a suspicion that he is also involved in an attempt to drive Allison insane.
Although the conclusion comes as no great surprise, with its downbeat tone and circular plotting, The Sentinel still succeeds as an enjoyable “apartment terror”– even at the “not excessive in New York” rate of three-hundred and seventy-five dollars a month.