Back on the Chain Gang

 

Back on the Chain Gang
The Pretenders | Learning to Crawl | Sire Records | 1984

I found a picture of you, oh oh oh oh
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We’ve been cast out of? Oh oh oh oh
Now we’re back in the fight
We’re back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

A circumstance beyond our control, oh oh oh oh
The phone, the TV and the news of the world
Got in the house like a pigeon from hell, oh oh oh oh
Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies
Put us back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they’ve done to you
But I’ll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They’ll fall to ruin one day
For making us part

Those were the happiest days of my life
Like a break in the battle was your part, oh oh oh oh
In the wretched life of a lonely heart
Now we’re back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

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The Bog

The Bog
Michael Talbot | Jove Books | 1986 | 314 pages

Archeologist David Macauley packs up his wife and children and relocates to the isolated village of Fenchurch St. Jude in the west of England, following the discovery of a well-preserved body in the bog. Dating from the era of the Roman occupation, the naturally mummified remains of a young woman promise a wealth of historical information, but the forensic evidence suggests a ritual sacrifice, and a cause of death from the savage bites of an unknown animal.

The villagers are a standoffish and unhealthful lot, suspicious of the new arrivals. Renting the only available cottage from the enigmatic Marquis de L’Isle, the local gentry whose own rambling great house stands on the bog’s edge, David and his family feel even more estranged from the local community following the report of a shocking murder in a nearby village. When David discovers the mauled corpse of a missing tavern owner in a bone-riddled feeding ground, he realizes the villagers are also harboring a dark secret that reaches back in history to the mummified body in the bog.

David struggles to save his family against parallel circumstances to those experienced by the victims buried in the bog. However, the prologue and occasional short chapter dedicated to these characters from antiquity are plainly redundant, adding nothing to the context of their torments already provided by the present-day narrative.

What starts as a seemingly simple monster rumble in the boglands of rural England transforms into an unexpected tale of sorcery, necromancy, demonology, and the occult, as the nature of Fenchurch St. Jude’s secret emerges. The first half of the book is filled with a fetid menace, with the sights and smells of the bog providing an unwholesome atmosphere, rich with potential danger. Once David squares off against his rival, the tone shifts more towards mano-a-mano (or, more precisely, mano-a-magician) action.

The accumulated creepiness dissipates in a swirl of magical rubies and fireballs, as a newfound emphasis on wizardry threatens to engulf all in a vortex of campiness. The spirit of an ancient Sumerian sorcerer, who inhabits the body of a small child, essentially begins a plan of attack against the rival sorcerer by instructing David to synchronize their watches.

Although the magical content arguably takes The Bog into different territory altogether, enough horror elements remain to make an effective genre read. The nature of the persistent rotten odor infusing the family cottage delivers a nasty surprise. But couldn’t someone place a “Protect” spell on the family pet?

Dark Shadows | Issue #18

Dark Shadows | Issue #18
Guest in the House Gold Key Comics | December 1972

Gangsters on the run from turf wars in New York City infiltrate Collinwood in an attempt to establish a new front for their criminal activity. The flimsy premise potentially would have resulted in the shortest solution of the series—if not for the sticky question of Barnabas Collins’ morality.

Underworld kingpin Erik Mica, assuming the guise of a real estate agent named Erik Michaels, insinuates himself into the good graces of Elizabeth Collins. While maneuvering to take over Collinwood, he senses something unusual about Barnabas Collins. Exhibiting a mental acuity belied by his uninspired choice of an alias, Michaels quickly pieces together the scant evidence and deduces that Barnabas is a vampire.

Prior to this sudden conclusion, Barnabas inexplicably withholds evidence of Michaels’ true identity from Elizabeth. This lack of forthrightness is puzzling, since the revelation would have caused the entire criminal scheme to collapse. Barnabas grapples with his own sense of morality throughout the issue, although this particular crisis at Collinwood offers a sublimely simple solution—kill Michaels.

A rival gangster named Paul Robbors (with another deviously cryptic alias, Paul Robbins) appears at Collinwood and conveniently solves Barnabas’ dilemma for him. Barnabas engineers a passive, but fatal, attack on Robbors, that stops short of direct murder, but surely fails any basic morality test. Following a hypothetical moral code akin to Asimov’s Law of Robotics—as redefined to suit his particular cursed state of being—Barnabas still fails the First Law:

“A [moral vampire] may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

What would Julia Hoffman do?

Keeper of the Children

Keeper of the Children
William H. Hallahan | Avon Books | 1979 | 189 pages

Is that kid of yours worth it?”

Searching for his missing daughter, Renni, Eddie Benson discovers a cult of runaway children, lead by an insidious master of mind control. Tran Cao Kheim, a monk who fled Tibet following the Chinese takeover, exerts a powerful mental hold over Renni and the other lost children, directing them to panhandle on the streets of Philadelphia during the day, and return to his warehouse district compound at night.

Discouraged by the (inexplicable) failure of the police to return their children, Benson and a group of other parents take the matter into their own hands, devising a plan to have Kheim deported. Their actions, however, draw attention of the evil monk, who deploys his telekinetic powers to target them. Before he is able to deliver a briefcase of incriminating evidence to the Immigration Department, Kenneth Custis, the father of one of the captive boys, is brutally murdered on his farm—his neck broken by a scarecrow possessed and animated by Kheim’s astral-projected mind.

Kheim is something of a racist throwback to the early twentieth-century stereotypical villain, Fu Manchu, filled with the inscrutable menace of the Orient. Sax Rhomer’s character is even name-checked by Custis in explaining Kheim’s commune, but simply referring to a racist archetype does not provide free meta-text license to create it anew. The only difference is that this villain is gifted with the telekinetic powers so prevalent in seventies supernatural horror.

After nearly being killed by a telekinetically controlled marionette in his home, Benson becomes determined to fight Kheim using the monk’s own methods against him. He enlists the talents of Nullatumbi, a yogi who understands Kheim’s methods (an “oobie with PK”, or for the layperson, an out-of-body experience with psychokinesis). A long training sequence follows, with an appropriate level of hokum involved. Benson does much inner soul-searching, and cosmic wandering, over a two-week period, while mentally focusing on a blank white wall.

Kheim’s Pied Piper-like hold over the children is not fully explored, nor Renni’s seemingly singular ability to occasionally shake off his mental yoke and warn her father away. Since Kheim is capable of exerting control over a large group of children, why not their parents too?

The attacks are the absurdly appealing centerpieces, however, with a giant possessed teddy bear wielding an axe—a sequence the cover image teases, and the text actually delivers—being a highlight. An extended, literal cat fight, with the astral-projected combatants inhabiting feline bodies, serves as the ultimate showdown, with Benson and Kheim aiming at the tenuous psychic thread linking their respective minds back to their own corporeal bodies.

And that final battle is the second cat attack in the story.

Snowbeast

Snowbeast
Starring Bo Svenson | Yvette Mimieux | Robert Logan | Clint Walker
Directed by Herb Wallerstein
NBC | April 28, 1977 | 1 hour, 26 minutes

We’re going to need a bigger snowmobile.

Essentially Jaws on the ski slopes, Snowbeast cribs all the elements of Spielberg’s summer blockbuster.

Washed-up former Olympic star Gar Sebert (Bo Svenson), prompted by his wife Ellen (Yvette Mimeux), seeks out a job as a ski instructor from his old friend, Tony Rill (Robert Logan), whose family owns a Colorado resort. Gar’s arrival coincides with a fatal attack on a pair of skiers, leaving one dead and the other shaken by a vision of the killer—a monstrous, hairy beast.

From here, plug in variations on the standard details from the when-animals-attack boilerplate, only this time addressing the “Bigfoot controversy” that was the rage of the day; an attack occurs before the lucrative Winter Carnival, a bear is shot and killed that purportedly is responsible for the deaths (with resultant calls to cut it open to see what is inside), and an intrepid party that sets out (in a camper) to track the monster.

Point-of-view monster shots and an appealing winter landscape (including skiers and their primary-colored suits) help elevate the derivative nature of this made-for-television movie, with shots of the monster held back just enough to build suspense (or prevent over exposure of an actor in a fur suit). Given the nature of the television pedigree, attacks prompt a reaction shot from their victims, but fade to a red screen before becoming graphic.

A scene depicting a direct monster attack on the Winter Carnival, with the Snow Queen’s crown getting crushed in the human stampede to escape, briefly flirts with camp—but Snowbeast (fortunately) fails to go full into Nights with Sasquatch territory and have the beast take the beauty as his bride.

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The Rats

The Rats
James Herbert| New English Library | 1974 | 181 pages

Mr. Harris, an East End schoolteacher who witnesses an early attack by flesh-eating rats, is drawn into an alliance with beleaguered health officials against a large-scale infestation of mutated rodents.

Surfacing from the canals in East London, a new strain of deadly black rats emerges with a taste for human flesh. Mobilized by the Health Department for his early insights and his knowledge of the local area, Harris chases his rodent prey through the city streets, searching for the source of the outbreak and the solution to stopping the deadly attacks.

Structured as a series of ever-escalating violent set pieces, the story progresses through attacks on individuals, homeless encampments, train stations, and an extended siege and assault of a primary school. Showing little fear of their human targets, the swarming black rats inflict much squirm-inducing brutality to the flesh of their victims. No one is safe from the ruthless carnage, from pets (a given) to small children and babies.

Short background stories, ranging from a few paragraphs to a few pages, sketch out the victims, before they ultimately are shredded and eaten by the hordes of hungry rats. Although this attention to detail humanizes characters that could have simply been cookie-cutter fodder, their ultimate fate is predetermined.

The blighted neighborhood most impacted by the infestation is reflected in many of the character sketches. Suffering from abuse, abandonment, or economic inequality, the soon-to-be victims are all case studies in the castoff social strata of society. However, any potential emotional investment in their survival is scuttled by their typically quick demises—by tiny claws and curving yellow teeth.

A quick and gruesome Man-versus-Nature tale, The Rats lacks the atomic radiation boogeyman employed by so many monster-run-amok tales that came before it, but the climax does lead Harris to a twitchy, repulsive discovery at its core.

Drive-In Saturday

 

Drive-In Saturday
David Bowie | Aladdin Sane | RCA Records | 1973

Let me put my arms
around your head
Gee, it’s hot, let’s go to bed
Don’t forget to turn on the light
Don’t laugh babe, it’ll be alright
Pour me out another phone
I’ll ring and see
if your friends are home
Perhaps the strange ones in the dome
Can lend us a book we can read up alone

And try to get it on like once before
When people stared in Jagger’s eyes
and scored
Like the video films we saw

[CHORUS]
His name was always Buddy
And he’d shrug and ask to stay
She’d sigh like Twig the Wonder Kid
And turn her face away
She’s uncertain if she likes him
But she knows she really loves him
It’s a crash course for the ravers
It’s a Drive-in Saturday

Jung the foreman prayed at work
That neither hands nor limbs would burst
It’s hard enough to keep formation
amid this fall out saturation

Cursing at the Astronette 8
Who stands in steel
by his cabinet
He’s crashing out with Sylvian
The Bureau Supply
for ageing men

With snorting head he gazes to the shore
Which once had raised a sea
that raged no more
Like the video films we saw

[CHORUS]
It’s a Drive-in Saturday [repeat]

Charnel House

Charnel House
Graham Masterton | TOR Books | 1978 | 241 pages

John Hyatt, an inspector for the San Francisco Department of Sanitation, investigates a strange breathing noise in the walls of an old Mission district house, but instead of routine blocked pipes discovers the imminent return to this world of a Native American demon.

Hyatt’s investigation quickly escalates into horror beyond the scope of his department. A researcher from the sanitation lab is stricken by a similar breathing phenomenon experienced in the house, and soon lapses into an asthmatic coma. Responding to a new sonic manifestation in the house, that of a slowly beating heart, another colleague suffers a bizarre and violent attack. Craning his head up a chimney to check the flue, the flesh of his head is completely stripped away, but leaving him (and his slowly beating heart) still alive.

These early episodes are the strongest, creating an eerie atmosphere surrounding the biomorphic house attacks. The terror spills over to the local hospital, when the survivors rise from their beds and attempt to physically merge their stricken bodies. As the investigation takes Hyatt to George Thousand Names, a medicine man who reveals the folklore surrounding the legendary Navajo trickster, Coyote, the proceedings take a more action-oriented tone, with Hyatt engaging in monster battles against the nascent demon in the streets of San Francisco. However, any sense of mystery in Coyote’s return to earth is sapped from the start by the author’s prologue, which essentially introduces the demon before the story even begins.

Perhaps only a stickler to those readers versed in San Francisco geography, occasional gaffes are noticeable: the misspelling of landmarks (“Delores” Park), the existence of a topography-be-damned line of sight from the Mission district house to the Golden Gate Bridge, and repeated references to the “hot” and “humid” nights (unsolicited travel tip for visitors: always bring a jacket, even in the summer).

Charnel House also suffers from some dated cultural and social perspectives. George Thousand Names, and some of the myth surrounding Coyote, are indiscriminately referred to as “Red Indian.” Even though most likely intended as joking dialogue, references to “paleface” and “firewater” are groan-inducing rather than self-referential nods to stereotypes. Also, Hyatt seems to require noting the tightness or form-fitting nature of the clothing of all the women he meets, even in situations that would call for a more somber attitude. Author Graham Masterton wrote some sex-instruction titles in the seventies, so perhaps some unrealized crossover potential exists here — How to Drive Your Nurse Wild in Bed While the World is Ending.

The Landlady

The Landlady
Constance Rauch | Popular Library | 1976 | 253 pages

Leaving behind a series of failed jobs in the city, Sam Porter moves his wife, Jessica, and young daughter, Patience, into a charming old apartment in Wimbledon-on-Hudson. However, the family’s dream of a new life in the suburbs meets an unexpected obstacle in the form of Mrs. Falconer, the intrusive crone of a landlady living upstairs.

On the night of the family’s arrival, the small village is stunned by the shocking murder of Nora Kelly, a nearly retired accounting clerk at the offices of a company partially owned by Sam’s new employer. After his first day on the job, Sam returns to some of his bad habits, losing several hours over drinks at the local pub. Meanwhile, Jessica meets another young mother who warns her of the psychological games Mrs. Falconer has played on previous tenants.

Jessica herself finds that doting Mrs. Falconer’s superficial politeness occasionally gives way to apoplectic anger. Popping down to check on the young mother, the old woman rages at discovering nails pounded in the wall, and tears down one of the child’s drawings. The simple awareness of the landlady’s constant presence upstairs becomes a nagging source of unease for Jessica.

Already alarmed at discovering a previously unknown connecting stairway between the apartments, Jessica is horrified when Patience claims that a strange man entered her room at night and stole her doll. The formerly talkative and precocious two-year-old begins to exhibit signs of emotional regression, lapsing into a nearly complete silence. Fearing that Mrs. Falconer is behind the intrusion into her home, Jessica listens for the constant tap-tap-tap of the old woman’s cane on the floorboards upstairs.

Touted as “the greatest terror turn-on since Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist” on the cover, The Landlady delivers a treatise on Sam and Jessica’s failing marriage rather than terror. Jessica’s battles with Mrs. Falconer along with Sam’s seeming inability to hold a job (and sobriety) create an emotional strain that threatens to tear their family apart. Sam begins to spend more hours, and occasionally entire nights, at the office, shaking the foundation of their marriage—and leaving Jessica alone to face a series of strange events, culminating in a trip up the connecting staircase.

The creeping sense of intrusion into personal space, coupled with the background details surrounding the local murder, builds an atmosphere of dread around Jessica. However, the introduction of the evidence of child abuse completely sours the enjoyment of the mystery, adding an unnecessary and distasteful subtext to the horrors at Wimbledon-on-Hudson.

Although compromised by the implications of real-world abuses, the fundamentally terrifying question remains, “What’s going on next door?”

Sixth Sense

Sixth Sense
Ramona Stewart | Dell Books | 1978 | 211 pages

Following a blow to the head received in a skiing accident, Nancy Parsons experiences psychic visions of murder in this tepid supernatural thriller.

Returning to New York City from a visit with her ski-bum father in New England, Nancy receives vivid mental images of murders, committed by a serial killer plaguing Greenwich Village, as they happen. Although not convinced of her psychic abilities, NYPD Inspector Doyle acknowledges the specific details she provides regarding the crimes, and the killer. When a gossip columnist inadvertently mentions her abilities in an article, Nancy potentially becomes the next target of “The Slasher”.

Nancy, however, is not an appealing protagonist, but rather seems somewhat insufferable. Whether living in her actress mother’s Greenwich Village brownstone, hanging out after cutting graphic design classes, casually passing around an occasional “j” with her boyfriend (the son of coal mine owners), or receiving a three-day hospital stay (and comprehensive battery of tests) following a fainting spell, she fails to muster much empathy.

Other characters exhibit a few oddly defining traits—Inspector Doyle loves animals and reads National Geographic, boyfriend Teddy imports tropical fish, friend Davie is a directionless layabout—but the details are ultimately of little consequence. Even the New York City locations are uninspiring. Beyond her mother’s obligatory theatre party at Sardi’s and a passing reference to the Fourth Street Subway station, the events could have occurred anywhere.

“The Slasher” also exhibits few traits beyond a cheap misogyny, and an interest in telepathy. The possibility of him experiencing reverse psychic visions of Nancy is teased, but shortly dismissed, closing any opportunity for some kind of psychic showdown.

Once the killer becomes fixated upon Nancy, her psychic powers almost become a secondary concern, with the climax playing out like a straight hostage thriller. Her visions of the killer ultimately lead Doyle to the rescue, but Sixth Sense lacks any real twists or surprises along the way. The epilogue even sets up a prospective sequel (or series foundation) that, presumably, did not happen.

However, Nancy and her psychic “Scooby gang” of friends are not a team whose adventures would merit much interest.

The best curmudgeonly advice for Nancy: “Go back to design school.”