Our Lady of Darkness

Our Lady of Darkness
Fritz Leiber | Berkley Books | 1977 | 183 pages

After a hike to the barren, hilly summit of Corona Heights, Franz Weston, writer of weird tales and a recovering alcoholic, turns his binoculars back towards his downtown San Francisco apartment building. Finding what he believes to be his own window through the glasses, Franz sees a strange figure lean out—and wave.

Referencing a copy of Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities, an antiquarian book purchased secondhand sometime earlier during an alcoholic bender, Franz becomes convinced that he has witnessed an occurrence of a paranormal being. The book’s author, Thibaut de Castries, an obscure turn-of-the-century practitioner of the occult, theorized that the massive concrete, steel, and electrical congregation of modern cities generates a network of supernatural energy. This energy manifestation, he posits in his pseudo-scientific tome, can be manipulated with careful deliberation in a methodology described as “Neo-Pythagorean Metageometry,” and may potentially result in the generation of paranormal entities.

Franz’s growing obsession with the work of de Castries, along with the investigation into his otherworldly vision, tantalizes the prospect of a great hidden world just beyond the reach of understanding. Even his apartment building at 811 Geary Street, with its blacked-out airshaft windows and broom closets without door handles, has a role in creating an atmosphere of an inexplicable truth on the cusp of being revealed.

Franz nodded impatiently, restraining his impulse to say, “Get on with it!”

However, the pacing suffers with a few instances of expository info-dump and from an off-putting writing style. Franz’s friend Byers, who reveals a deeper-than-expected knowledge of Megapolisomancy, recounts de Castries’ history over the course of several monotonous chapters. Along with the endless prattle about Metageometries, the desire to skim passages grows stronger than the drive to uncover the mysteries swirling around Corona Heights, the Geary Street apartment, and the newly constructed skyscrapers that serve as the modern equivalent of Neolithic standing stones.

Repeated references to other fantastic works and authors—H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Clark Ashton Smith, and even Fritz Leiber himself—are meant to suggest the depth of influence and universality lurking beneath the surface of Megapolisomancy theory, but simply serve as a constant distraction. Lieber’s use of parenthetical injections (like this one) in his text (every few paragraphs) perhaps evokes the three-dot styling (sometimes every few sentences) of Herb Caen’s San Francisco Chronicle columns (also referenced), but (really) disrupt the flow of his prose (something akin to constant footnotes).

“He had been listening with a mixture of fascination, irritation, and wry amusement, with at least half of his attention clearly elsewhere.”

Those familiar with San Francisco geography will probably be rewarded more than others, since painstakingly detailed accounts of places and character movements naturally accompany a meditation on the paranormal energies of place. From such well-known icons as the Transamerica Pyramid, Sutro Tower, and Lotta Crabtree’s fountain on Market Street, to more neighborhood-oriented landmarks like the Randall Museum, readers are well prepared to join Franz as he unfolds a city map and plots the cursed ley lines exploited by Thibaut de Castries.

The existence of a Neo-Pythagorean, paranormal curse line even explains the N-Judah not running.

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Hell House

Hell House
Richard Matheson | Bantam Books | 1971 | 247 pages

Richard Matheson’s classic novel sends a group of intrepid psychic investigators, each with their own individual agendas and psychological baggage, to conquer the “The Mount Everest of haunted houses.”

A dying millionaire offers to pay Dr. Lionel Barrett one hundred thousand dollars to answer the eternal question, “Is there life after death?” Given only a single week to accomplish this task, the focus of the investigation is revealed to be the Belasco House in Maine, a notorious haunted house with a fatal history of failed parapsychological investigations. Along with his wife, Edith, Lionel’s team includes Florence Tanner, a spiritual medium, and Benjamin Franklin Fischer, a former psychic wunderkind—and only survivor of an attempt at unearthing the mysteries of Hell House thirty years prior.

Manifestations of the supernatural appear almost immediately after the team sequesters themselves in Hell House. Cold spots appear, furniture moves of its own accord, and Florence senses a deadly presence in the chapel. Later, she channels an unknown spirit during a séance with a more direct warning, “Get out of this house before I kill you all.”

Wringing a maximum of tension from what is essentially a four-character chamber piece, the incidents grow in frequency and intensity as the week’s deadline approaches. Although the group seemingly all acknowledge the source of the haunting as Belasco’s history of dark rituals and murderous debauchery at his mansion, they differ profoundly in their interpretation. Florence is convinced the ultimate source of the paranormal events is a spiritual haunting, with the ghost of Belasco himself perhaps commanding a group of other spirits trapped in the house. Lionel, a skeptic of mediums, seeks to prove a scientific basis for all supernatural events. He argues for the existence of a residual electromagnetic energy source, built up from a history of human actions, as the wellspring for paranormal occurrences, and aims to drain this energy field with a machine of his own creation.

Hell House itself serves as something of a fifth character. A brooding, oppressive atmosphere oozes from the gothic hulk, its rooms and corridors setting the stage for potential horrors. Pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo abounds, mixed along with ectoplasmic extrusions and spiritual possession, but the overall sense of dread is palpable. The arrival of Lionel’s machine telegraphs a final showdown with the controlling powers of the house.

However, Hell House provides a visceral ride, not just a malicious atmosphere. The characters are all beaten and abused over the course of the week, bruised and bloodied by the malicious forces at play. Glasses shatter, cutlery attacks, and sleepwalkers are directed to drown in the stagnant pond on the estate grounds. A violation from a wooden phallus protruding from an unholy, life-size crucifix in the chapel takes the abuse to a nearly absurd degree.

The constant attacks ultimately threaten to reduce the characters to broken dolls, tossed around inside a shaking, malevolent dollhouse.

I Was a Teenage Werewolf

 

I Was a Teenage Werewolf
The Cramps | Songs the Lord Taught Us | I.R.S. Records | 1980

I was a teenage werewolf
Braces on my fangs
I was a teenage werewolf
And no one even said thanks
And no one made me stop

I had a teen-land mind
I had to blow my top
And under teen full moon
No one could make me stop
No one could make me stop

A teenage werewolf
Parallel bars
A teenage girlfriend
Got a lot of scars
Somebody please make me stop
Ohhh please…

You know, I have puberty rights
And I have puberty wrongs
No one understood me
All my teeth were so long
And no one made me stop

A Midwest monster
Of the highest grade
All my teachers thought
It was growing pains, oh no no
Somebody stop this pain, ohhh…

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson | Popular Library | 1963 | 173 pages

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

Sisters Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood, along with their invalid uncle Julian, live alone in the isolated Blackwood family estate. Ostracized by the local community, Mary Katherine only ventures into town twice a week for groceries, while her sister has withdrawn completely into the interior of the great house. The three are the only survivors of a notorious unsolved multiple murder, a poisoning that, six years earlier, claimed the lives of Mary Katherine and Constance’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother.

The details of the fateful day are not immediately forthcoming, as the daily routine at the Blackwood house takes shape. Mary Katherine exhibits a penchant for burying small tokens around the grounds of the estate, talismans to ward off bad luck, while her sister only leaves the house to tend to her vegetable garden. The only tenuous connection to life in the town is Helen Clarke, a self-purported friend of the family who visits for tea on Tuesdays.

The full realization of the community’s hostile attitude toward the Blackwood sisters comes home during the polite artifice of one of these visits. Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair and suffering mental confusion after surviving the arsenic poisoning at the family dinner, bluntly addresses Mrs. Wright, a quizzical old woman brought along by Mrs. Clarke, “My niece, after all, was acquitted of murder. There could be no possible danger in visiting here now.” While Mrs. Clarke’s tea and rum cake sit untouched, Julian recounts how Constance prepared the fatal meal with ingredients from her garden—and proceeded to immediately wash out the sugar bowl after serving.

The tea party is not, however, the greatest intrusion into the hermetically sealed world of the Blackwood sisters. The unexpected arrival of their cousin Charles, who shows great interest in the value of their possessions—and the contents of the safe in the family study—disrupts the internal workings of the house. Pressing Constance to forget her dark past, shake off her reclusive social withdrawal, and re-engage with the outside world, Charles threatens to destroy the fabric of life at Blackwood house. His growing animosity towards Mary Katherine–who lashes out with childish acts of destruction aimed at his growing influence–along with the burgeoning resentment of the townspeople, eventually lead towards a devastating, inevitable climax.

Merricat displays a brilliant insistence upon rituals, safe words, and place in the family lore, but nearly all that is important is left unspoken. Only uncle Julian, barely competent in his current state, comments on the details of the murders, collecting a rambling written rumination on the circumstances and existing evidence in a shamble of loose papers. Much later, Constance delivers a dramatic shock when she finally voices a simple truth about the crime.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, while arguably less well known than The Haunting of Hill House, is less an outright mystery or horror, but rather a compelling, melancholic character study of a blighted house and its occupants.

An origin story to a future urban myth, it dares neighborhood children to climb the porch (past the broken step) of the haunted house and invoke, “Merricat, would you like a cup of tea?”

Alien Lover

Alien Lover | The Wide World of Mystery 
Starring Kate Mulgrew | Pernell Roberts | Susan Brown
Directed by Lela Swift
Aired on ABC, November 25, 1975

Failing to live up to its salacious title, Alien Lover instead delivers a pedestrian take on inter-dimensional contact that today’s audiences would probably consider as Alien Skype.

Institutionalized since the accidental death of her parents, Susan (Kate Mulgrew, Orange is the New Black) is released from the asylum to the custody of her only living relatives, aunt Marian and uncle Mike (Susan Brown, Pernell Roberts). Soon after her arrival, she begins to hear voices calling her name, eventually leading her up to the disused attic storeroom. Sorting through the detritus left behind by her electronics whiz-kid cousin Jude (Steven Earl Tanner), Kate discovers an old television set that harbors an unusual secret.

The set flickers to life with an alien presence: Marc (John Ventantonio), a self-described visitor from another dimension (vaguely resembling Slim Goodbody in Star Trek garb) who can see and hear Susan through the television screen. Equating the existence in his reality to human death, Marc quickly establishes a bond with the lonely Susan. After a scant few sessions, they are professing their love for each other, a feeling tempered by Marc’s somewhat sinister invitation to Susan to touch him through the screen.

Quickly declared emotions are about the only aspect of this production that run hot, with Susan also declaring hatred towards her new guardians. Otherwise, most of the just-over-an-hour running time feels downright languorous. Pernell Roberts seems bored and passively angry (Trapper John, M.D. still being a few years off), and Steven Tanner’s Jude character reduces to a shrill nerd.

Although a few trivial hints point to an alternate explanation—a relapse of Susan’s mental illness, a prank by her cousin, or an attempt by her relatives to wrest control of her inheritance—there becomes little doubt that Marc actually exists. Marian hears Marc while eavesdropping at the attic door, and ultimately Jude confesses that he has been receiving visits from Marc since he was five years old. Without this dramatic tension, the only real question becomes Marc’s intent.

Susan is sympathetic in her isolation, but Alien Lover falls short in delivering the treatise on loneliness in the television age that it perhaps intended. Directed by Lela Swift, longtime Dark Shadows veteran, this made-for-television project exhibits all the static flair of a quickly shot, low-budget daytime serial. The only thing missing is a flubbed line or an overhead microphone dropping into the frame.

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Wolfsbane

Wolfsbane
William W. Johnstone | Zebra Books | 1982 | 268 pages

“Yes—what is the point of all this?”

After a strange attack from a wild, wolf-like creature in her French chateau, Janette Bauterre follows her grandmother, Victoria, back to their family estate in Ducros Parish, Louisiana. Janette uncovers a shocking history of lycanthropy, which includes a 40-year-old family murder at the hands of the local townspeople—a killing that Victoria seems intent on avenging.

Following the return of the Bauterres, a string of shocking murders stuns the local police. The victims each exhibit strange bite wounds and a complete lack of blood. The source of the carnage presents little mystery, since the Bauterre family curse and Victoria’s drive for revenge are open secrets in the town.

Not completely trusting her mother, Janette hires Pat Strange, an ex-mercenary friend of her late husband, to protect her and track down the creatures that she views lurking around the grounds of the mansion. However, instead of a forthcoming moody monster rumble across the bayous of Louisiana, Wolfsbane reaches for a meta-textual battle of good versus evil, with Victoria and Pat the proxies for the duality of God and Satan.

God and devil fight all de time, boy. I ain’t sayin’ God lak it, but what He gonna do – jes sit back and not play? Devil win all de time if He do dat.”

Pat’s arrival completely shifts the overall tone from nascent gothic horror to full-blown men’s adventure tale, with the tough hero taking the lead as protagonist. The emphasis on Pat introduces a rough-and-tumble masculinity, with its corresponding light gun-porn details (checking and resupplying the ammunition his pistol, shotgun, and .41 magnum), into the story. There are also a few accompanying sex scenes, with a blunt, clinical descriptions and wooden dialogue that would probably fail to titillate most adolescents.

“Lady, that’d be a mouthful. But I suppose that would be one way to shut you up.”

Particularly jarring in terms of mood is Pat’s repartees with Satan. Their back-and-forth banter, perhaps intended to be lightly comical, comes off as crushingly inane, with repeated references to sports and specifically, Casey at the Bat. Is the author just having a piss? Taking the entire book seriously becomes difficult when this interaction reduces to something akin to a failed comic stand-up routine on the differences between baseball and football.

The waters bubble and boiled. There will be no joy in Mudville.”

The noxious bubbling surrounding the appearances of evil incarnate also inspires Pat to periodically unleash an insipid stream of nicknames, all variations on “bubbles.” Meant to be comically derisive, they only succeeding in being constantly cringe inducing.

I won bubble breath.”

All boils down to a climatic shoot-out with a host of undead creatures, not Bauterre family members suffering from lycanthropy as the internal logic of the story suggests, but corpses raised from the grave. They exist simply to provide Pat ample targets to unload his arsenal of weapons before the ultimate showdown. Finally pumping silver-laced shotgun rounds into Victoria—while dropping the full action-hero line, “Sorry, you ugly bitch, you lose the game!”—reads as an arbitrary and insignificant nod to werewolf lore.

“If we had a decent umpire, that would be disallowed.”

“Oh, shut up,” Pat muttered.

Sasquatch in Six Words

Six Word Micro-Fictions

Proving yet again that I’m years behind all the happening internet memes (this one purportedly based on a Hemingway creation), I submit this STORY IN SIX WORDS.

Bigfoot kissed me on the mouth.

BONUS EDITION: A Southern Gothic version of the same story.

I laid with the skunk ape.

Night Stone

Night Stone
Rick Hautala | Zebra Books | 1986 | 592 pages

The fiery brilliance of the Zebra Horror Hologram which you see on the cover is created by “laser holography.” This is the revolutionary process in which a powerful laser beam records light waves in diamond-like facets so tiny that 9,000,000 fit in a square inch. No print or photograph can match the vibrant colors and radiant glow of a hologram.

So look for the Zebra Hologram whenever you buy a horror novel. It is a shimmering reflection of our guarantee that you’ll find consistent quality between the covers!

Don and Jan Inman, along with their young daughter, Beth, move to an old family house in the Maine countryside, seeking to escape the pressures of city living. However, the house harbors a dark history–-the young son of Don’s great-grandfather bled to death outside the family-run quarry after a granite stone crushed his hand. Immediately upon their arrival, Beth has an epileptic-like seizure as the family car passes the stone marking the drive to the house.

With an inauthentic-sounding, distracting colloquialism typifying the writing style to follow, Don describes the family car after the incident as a “Barf Mobile.”

Beth’s sudden illness is only the beginning of strange events at the house. She finds an old wooden doll in her room that seems to share secret conversations. Don suffers from vivid nighttime hallucinations of stone monoliths rising in the fields beyond the house. Reaching out to touch the electrically charged standing stones, Don finds his hands covered in blood.

Preparing the ground for his wife’s garden, Don unearths a mummified hand in the yard that anthropology experts at the local university estimate to be possibly thousands of years old. Returning from a swim in the flooded quarry, Beth is injured when a horrific, withered hand grabs her ankle from under a pile of discarded granite stones. On the site of his vision of the otherworldly standing stones, Don discovers a tomb-like construction with strange glyphs, leading to a series of tunnels under the house and barn.

The anthropology department academic’s crackpot theory that the tomb may be a relic from Ancient Egyptian explorers in North America never really gels, although he strangely disappears to work on other projects even with the miraculous opportunity to prove his pet theory. Warned not to pursue the excavation of the site alone, Don is left with much time to explore the tunnel network, which never really leads anywhere.

Although containing a laundry list of familiar elements–creepy dolls, strange noises in the night, possessed animals, sinister visions, ritualistic altars—Night Stone’s source of horror ultimately folds down to one reductive cause that is never fully realized. Dream journals, warnings in Finnish, and even the prospect of Beth’s first menstruation additionally take up space on the page, and yet, the final answer to the family’s terror never progresses beyond INDIAN BURIAL GROUND!

Mundane details are in abundance, however, including an entire subplot revolving around Jan’s waitress job at the Rusty Anchor bar, and the subsequent affair with her sleazy lothario (and arguably, sexual-harasser) boss. The writing further suffers from an incessant name-dropping of commercial brands—Pabst, Pepsi, Wonder Bread, Cheerios, Campbell’s Chunky Soup, Handi-Wipes—serving as an unnecessary, near constant distraction. Perhaps even the pop culture references, from Monty Hall to Tears for Fears, would serve some purpose if used in an attempt to define another era, but the book is firmly set in the present.

Yet somehow most irritating* is Don’s repeated, purportedly endearing variations on his daughter’s nickname, “Pun’kin”, which ring false and become simply, if somewhat inexplicably, insufferable.

“Nightstone, my third published novel, should have made me a world-wide best-selling author and a household name like-you know, that “other horror writer” from Maine. Seriously. When the book was first published in October, 1986, it was everywhere, at least in the United States. It was in bookstores, on newsstands, at airports, grocery stores, and pharmacies all around the country. And why was that? Sad to say, I don’t think it was because of the contents. It was because of the book’s cover. If you bought an early printing of the book, you’ve seen it: the one with the hologram on the cover. Flip it from side to side, and the three-dimensional girl’s face turns into something hideous and back again.” – Rick Hautala

*Narrowly defeating the Native American character’s (Billy Blackshoe) use of the term “paleface”.

Pandora

Pandora
Pamela Kaufman | Avon Books | 1977 | 279 pages

Private house in the country
Available immediately
To qualified person
House is part-payment for
Research job
For application contact
Box 666, Malibu, CA

Responding to a peculiar want ad, recently widowed young mother, Pandora Perdita Von Wald, accepts a position in Paradise, an isolated closely-knit community of wealthy eccentrics in a remote valley above Los Angeles. Berdine and Lyle Gemini, the mystically-inclined proprietors of an occult shop, offer to give her Ohplodu, a miniature Gothic castle built by Berdine’s late brother, Horace, a well-known artist and medieval scholar. In exchange, Pandora agrees to conduct research on Horace’s life and untimely death—but the Geminis may also have another agenda at work.

At Berdine’s suggestion, Pandora joins a small discussion group composed of the women of Paradise, who gather together to share their experiences and discuss issues relating to the liberation movement. The gatherings soon take a dark turn, however, as details of abuse and oppression surface. Cherry Delight, backwoods child bride of down-at-heel country singer, Clyde Boon, is first to describe her dysfunctional marriage, based on abuse and acknowledged philandering. Later, a seemingly drunken Clyde turns up at Pandora’s door, leering and making clumsy advances–before suddenly dying of mysterious causes.

Other meetings follow the same fatal pattern, as the derided husbands or lovers discussed by the group come to mysterious fates following the weekly gatherings. When poison is determined to be the common cause-of-death, news leaks of a purported “feminist killer” at large in Paradise. Adding to the potential victim count, Berdine reveals her suspicion that Horace was also murdered. In this atmosphere of danger and gender unease, Pandora somehow finds herself romantically attracted to Blake Nevius, dashing psychiatrist and not-so-secret lover of Carlotta Monroe, the regal major landowner in Paradise. Ultimately, Pandora must find the link between Horace and the current murders, and may also need to face her own dark secret relating to the suspicious nature of her husband’s death.

Pandora stews a heady, seventies-California Gothic mix of strange portraits, secret passages, covert agendas, numerology, ravens quoting Poe, and household help who are not-what-they-appear together into murder mystery framework. However, the yin and yang of male/female relationships lies at its core, with impotent men and their wildly unfulfilled partners leading to a denouement reducing the motivations to a swirling mother-surrogate, mother-destroyer psychobabble.

You said the stone of happiness, remember—which would be a father-lover. I want to adopt Allegra; a mother-lover, I love her mother; a lover-lover, Pandora?”

Pandora struggles to expose the murderer as wildfires blaze down the Southern California landscape—littered with Thrifty drugstores, feminist retreats, and homemade religious cults—in a depicted time and place that perhaps never-was, but will certainly never be again.