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?

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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.

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.

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.”

Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby
Ira Levin | Dell Books | 1967 | 218 pages

“You look great. It’s that haircut that looks awful, if you want the truth, honey.”

Readers familiar with Roman Polanski’s remarkably faithful 1968 screen adaptation will no doubt recall some of the indelible images—and performances—from the film while turning the pages, but Ira Levin’s novel remains a singular classic that defines modern horror.

Struggling actor Guy Woodhouse and his wife Rosemary seem to be a sympathetic young couple, but from the start Guy exhibits a shallow narcissism. Following the simple vanity of “Christ, a pimple” upon viewing his reflection, Guy lies about a sudden job opportunity in order to break a newly signed lease. His deceit allows for a move into the Bramford, a gothic apartment building that, unbeknownst to them, harbors a dark history of murder, cannibalism, and devil worship.

Rosemary is complicit with Guy’s actions, determined to have her dream apartment that will provide a foundation for her future family, with “three children two years apart.” Even after a short retreat to a cabin (in one of the few scenes not included in the screenplay), Rosemary acknowledges Guy’s shortcomings as a husband and potential father, yet is determined to conceive a child.

Small indicators of the diabolical horrors to come are sprinkled throughout, from the black candles provided by neighbors, Roman and Minne Castavet, to the sounds of ritual music through the common walls of the apartment. A few current events also help define the general mood of the time. The Pope’s visit to New York City triggers a discussion with the Castavets on the hypocrisy of religion, and Rosemary reflects upon the infamous Time magazine cover, “Is God Dead?”

When Guy receives a new role due to the mysterious blinding of a rival actor, he is unfazed by the horrific circumstances, concerned only with his own good fortune. Rosemary also receives some shocking news about her friend, Hutch, when he slips into a coma. Yet, she acknowledges to herself that her concern lies more with not having anyone in her life to depend upon if he dies, rather than with Hutch’s health itself.

After receiving the news of her conception, events turn more overtly horrific. Rosemary’s sallow, wasted appearance contradicts her expectations of a happy, healthy pregnancy. Her constant abdominal pain leads to a reflection that “the baby kicked like a demon.” And above all, the suffocating helpfulness of the Castavets, with Minnie’s insistent schedule of herbal vitamin drinks.

Ira Levin’s lean and direct prose provides his occult apartment horror story a wealth of contextual readings, ranging from the isolation of modern life, to an exercise in paranoia, or to a study of the interpersonal dynamics of a marriage. But driving it all is the sinking feeling of despair that something sinister, and beyond all control, lies just beyond the cusp of understanding.

Yet, under the blanket of pessimism resulting from the ultimate triumph of evil, Rosemary reaches the perversely happy ending she so desires; her apartment, husband, and new family—with the single, however significant, caveat regarding the nature her baby.

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.

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.

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?”