Once Upon a Tombstone

Once Upon a Tombstone
Elizabeth Salter | Ace Books | 1965 | 191 pages

Cryptic flashbacks, mysterious deaths surrounding a beautiful protagonist, and dangerous former Nazi agents still at large in the scenic Austrian Alps all fail to elevate this prosaic tale of romance, lost inheritance, and murder.

Stricken by a vivid case of déjà vu in a castle room during a trip abroad to Austria, young Madeleine (Del) Fisher returns home to Australia, only to be plagued by recurring night terrors. Although her family and fiancé, David, fear she has suffered an emotional breakdown, she is convinced that nightmare images of a blood-red chair and flashing silver light are repressed memories indicating a current pressing danger. Uncertain of how to handle Del’s worsening condition, David recruits the help of his uncle Mike Hornsley, a local police inspector.

A strange man who has seemingly been following Del drops off a signet ring—with the family crest of the Schloss in Austria where she had her episode—along with a request for a meeting. Arriving at the prescribed rendezvous point later that night, Del finds that the man has been murdered. Convinced that the death is connected to her mysterious visions, Del and the inspector travel back to Austria in an effort to trigger her memories and uncover the source of the nightmares.

In Austria, Del finds herself under the magnetic spell of Paul Hapner, who took control of the castle following the murder of his estranged family at the hands of the Nazis. Inspector Hornsley has reason to believe that Paul is hiding something, resisting any opportunity to trigger Del’s memories. Meanwhile at home, David and Del’s old friend, Marj, conduct an investigation of their own, uncovering evidence of a secret adoption.

Although some gothic genre trappings are in place–the brooding castle location, a dark history which still may be influencing the present, romantic intrigue with a man who may be untrustworthy, and covert scheming for a possible inheritance—Once Upon a Tombstone never quite gels into a compelling story. Del’s vision ultimately points to knowledge already uncovered, as does the discovery of a hidden painting whose subject bears a remarkable likeness to Del. Rather than creating a tantalizing mystery in regard to their location, the prospect of lost family diamonds is finally resolved in exposition relating to the reveal of the murderer.

The resolution to the question of whether or not a doll was buried in place of a child in the family plot offers another missed opportunity at building an atmosphere of gloom and melancholy, which is strange given the reference in the book’s title. Even the artifice of having all the characters snowbound in the castle with the soon-to-be-revealed murderer does little toward raising the level of suspense.

Readers are educated in some antiquated mid-century cultural standards, however, such as the fact that women of twenty-five are dangerously past their marriage prime, and all secretaries are secretly in love with their bosses.

Cat’s Prey

catsprey

Cat’s Prey
Dorothy Eden | Ace Books | 1970 | 191 pages

Following the death of her globetrotting aunt, Laura, Antonia Webb travels to New Zealand to visit her newly engaged cousin, Simon, and his fiancé, Iris, and to facilitate what she believes to be a small inheritance. Iris was formerly Laura’s nurse and companion, and with Simon, has opened a new tourist hotel with the money they received from the estate.

Before she even has a chance to meet Dougal Conroy, the mild-mannered lawyer handling the will, Antonia receives a mysterious phone call requesting a secret meeting to discuss an important matter involving her aunt’s death. Stood up at the rendezvous, Antonia later discovers that her room has been searched in her absence. Odd occurrences continue after Laura arrives at her cousin’s hotel, when she notices strange lights in an abandoned wing of the building that has yet to be renovated.

Antonia is plagued by further incidents, including an “accidental” fall on the stairs. None of her concerns are taken very seriously, however, and Iris patronizingly suggests that Antonia’s mental state has been compromised by her long travel from England. Antonia also becomes concerned for Simon, a simple man who she fears will suffer at the hands of, what she perceives to be, his shrewd and calculating fiancé.

Johnnie, Simon’s favorite yellow budgie–who was probably doomed after his first endearing chirp of “pretty boy”–reflects Antonia’s position in the household, particularly after the arrival of Iris’s new white cat, Ptolemy. All the building psychological tensions between the human occupants of the hotel are released once Ptolemy breaches the wire barriers of the birdcage. [Sorry Johnnie, I was rooting for you!]

A few deviations elevate Cat’s Prey from the traditional inheritance thriller, including the passive roles of the major male characters. Unsurprisingly, Antonia falls for Dougal Conroy, the milquetoast lawyer, but instead of this new romantic lead coming to the eventual rescue, an unlikely triad emerges; Dougal’s elderly, shotgun-toting mother, her giggling maid, and his investigative-minded secretary form an all-female posse to save the day.

Devilday

devilday

Devilday
Angus Hall | Ace Books | 1969 | 156 pages

Vying for a promotion to a major London station, Barry Lambert, an ambitious young television journalist, agrees to “babysit” a difficult charge, fallen former horror star, Paul Harvard Toombs. Traveling to England to resuscitate his crashed career for British TV, Toombs stars in a new series based on his famous character, Dr. Dis, a gothic horror villain clad in a black opera cloak who chases after the magical secrets of immortal life. Toombs’ own life was nearly destroyed by a scandal involving black magic in the United States, when a young actress was killed following a ritualistic orgy that he attended.

The vulgar, hirsute Toombs quickly falls into the company of Lady Magda, reputed witch and mistress of Golgotha Abbey. Philippa Ewell, a young sculptor living at the Abbey, tips off Barry that Toombs plans to attend a Black Mass with Magda, and offers to smuggle him into the ceremony to observe. Hiding in a recessed compartment in a cave behind the Abbey grounds, Barry witnesses a satanic ritual and orgy, with Philippa herself playing the role of mock sacrifice. Barry dismisses the occult rite as sexual shenanigans—until Philippa’s decapitated corpse is found on the altar of a local church.

Although driven by the central mystery of the ritual murder, Devilday is not the “high-tension thriller” teased on the book’s cover. Barry’s fiancée, Julia Wilson, even remarks that Toombs is the obvious suspect, so he is probably not guilty. A license plate of a car leaving the scene of the ritual points to a possible greater conspiracy, but the story never reaches for a Wicker Man scenario, with the entire village being implicated in the crime.

Told from Barry’s perspective, the book functions best as a character study, with Toombs’ bombastic presence looming over the entire proceedings. His sinister persona and dubious philosophy–providing a guilt-free pass for all behavior to a chosen few—are watched over by Barry, whose own sense of morality is limited by his drive for success in the television industry. Toombs’ ex-wife and the young president of the Dr. Dis fan club are other characters that fall into orbit around the former horror star, motivated by their own personal desires.

Allowing time for meditations on celebrity, the judicial system, drug law, morality, and reincarnation, Toombs’ detached sense of impunity is eventually shattered by the arrival of Anders Sthen, a Danish psychic detective following the case. Sthen possesses a physical trait arguably more remarkable than his psychic ability, and on par with Toombs’ own oversized presence—a blubbery, hypertrophied head of an infant. This baby-headed man in a suit zeroes in on Barry, and through him to Toombs, ending all the philosophical musings and driving the story to its conclusion.

The novel was the source material for Jim Clark’s 1974 film, Madhouse, starring Vincent Price. However, other than a series of murders that are seemingly perpetrated by Price’s horror icon alter ego, Dr. Death, the film has little in common with the book, stripping away all the occult and philosophical content.

Broomstick in the Hall

broomstick

Broomstick in the Hall
Jane Blackmore | Ace Books | 1970 | 157 pages

Young writer Camilla Greene returns home to her family’s English estate from New York to attend the marriage of her sister Julie to longtime family friend Adrian Massey. Camilla ran away six years previously when she overheard Adrian visiting Julie’s room one night, shattering her childhood crush on him and instilling a jealous hatred for her sister. Although her mother Veronica seems to welcome her return, her stepfather Fabian displays the same icy detachment she remembers from her childhood.

As the ceremony draws nearer, Camilla senses that Adrian lacks any overt interest in the wedding, and wonders if he somehow harbors a secret affection for her. Jake Gurney, son of the town vicar, hints at a past relationship with Julie, leading Camilla to puzzle over the circumstances of the hastily prepared wedding. Julie herself hints at a wild adolescence, without much obvious interest in Adrian, growing Camilla’s own impossible hope of a future with him.

Visiting the graves of her ancestors in the family cemetery, Camilla finds two strange dolls on the tombstone of her great-grandfather. Bearing an eerie resemblance to Julie and Adrian, the figures are wrapped together with a thin black thread. Hannah Gurney, Jake’s mother, comes upon Camilla at the gravesite and notices her with the dolls. With an accusatory demeanor, she begins quoting scriptures about “not suffering witches to live.” Further evidence of an occult intention surfaces when the farm’s chickens are discovered killed in their enclosure, their bodies neatly arranged on the ground.

The childish games end when Fabian is found dead, apparently the victim of a fall from a ladder placed under the old oak tree on the grounds of the estate. But was it really an accident? Suspicion falls upon Camilla when Jake intimates that he left the ladder there under her instructions. Some of the more superstitious villagers begin talking behind her back, attributing the recent ills in the community to her arrival and blaming her for Fabian’s death. Residents of the town view Camilla’s first book—dealing with the subject of witchcraft—as further validation that she is a practitioner of the occult.

Broomstick in the Hall establishes a modicum of atmosphere, as the young heroine returns home to face the people and places she thought she knew. Rather than a slow boil of suspicion, however, the townspeople turn quickly into an angry, burn-the-witch mob, with Hannah Gurney guilty of being the most one-dimensional. Better realized are the smaller scenes of mistrust, such as Camilla interrupting some of the villagers at the market gossiping about her, stiffening upon her arrival and transforming the local-girl-come-home into an outsider. Ultimately all the witchcraft details are just trappings in an unlikely inheritance thriller, with Camilla fighting for her life against the scheming plans of her thinly veiled enemy.