The Brooding House

broodinghouse

The Brooding House
Alice Brennan | Prestige Books | 1965 | 254 pages

Young, red-haired nurse Larcy Ryan accepts a position as live-in caretaker for David Magnam, a terminal patient living in a rambling house on the shores of Lake Huron. Larcy finds David to be a disagreeable man, always mocking and insulting, referring to her as “Miss Bedpan”. He also exists in a constant state of paranoia regarding the possible malevolent actions of his own family. Sharing the estate is David’s daughter Bena, whose navy husband is out to sea, and her niece, Lyn, whose mother died in a mental institution. Lyn, a badly behaved adolescent, does justify David’s paranoia by confiding with Larcy about Bena,

She needs his money, and she isn’t going to get it until dear David is dead.”

From that foundation, The Brooding House builds itself into an inheritance melodrama, with Larcy fearing that a plot is afoot to kill David for his money. She overhears incriminating snatches of conversations between Bena and a strange man on the beach, and spots her meeting with another suspicious character in the town diner. When the body of Bena’s former brother-in-law turns up at the beach, Larcy becomes convinced that evil machinations are actually underway.

Strange coming-and-goings from David’s room, incriminating newspaper clippings, and the aloof housekeeper’s use of poison, ostensibly for rat traps outside the kitchen, all add to the general atmosphere of menace at the lake house. When Larcy witnesses a strange scene at the pier one night, her own safety becomes directly involved in the events.

As much a nascent romance as a thriller, Larcy finds time to reflect on the nature of love throughout all the mysterious unfolding of events. Although suspicious of Bena’s actions, Larcy admires the relationship between her and her husband, Johnson, whose portrait commands attention in the house while its subject is out to sea. Larcy envies the apparent “fireworks” between the couple, evident in Bena’s emotional longing, but absent with her own prospective fiancée, Pete Crimmins.

Pete, the boy-next-door type, comes off as something of a heel later in the story, when Larcy turns to him for help. However, for all his alleged romantic charms, Johnson doesn’t rate much better. Bena, assessing her own slenderness, remarks,

Johnson abhors fat women. It’s a phobia with him. He actually gets nauseous.”

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The Devil’s Dreamer

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The Devil’s Dreamer
Alice Brennan | Prestige Books | 1971 | 253 pages

New York editorial assistant Carsa Winters suffers from a vivid recurring nightmare that threatens her sense of identity and upsets her perception of reality. In her dream world, she is Mincy Lessard, a nineteenth-century wife and mother suffering from a nervous disorder. As Mincy’s condition worsens, her cruel husband Philippe threatens her with institutionalization, while she struggles to convince him (and herself) that she is actually Carsa Winters, a young unmarried twentieth-century girl.

Seemingly unable to play her dream “role”, Mincy’s diagnosis of madness is only reinforced by Carsa’s continued screaming, “I am not Mincy Lessard! I am not married! I do not have a child! I am Carsa Winters! I am Carsa Winters! I am CARSA WINTERS!

Carsa’s own present condition suffers as she tries to remain awake, drinking endless pots of coffee and refusing to sleep at night in an attempt to prevent her dream from returning. However, she begins to slip into her alternate dream world even while awake, resulting in mysterious time lapses. People in her life begin to transpose their identities with the people in her dream—her roommate Liz becomes Mincy’s nursemaid in 1870, and Victor Harris, a man she meets at a cocktail party, shifts into the role of Mincy’s abusive husband Philippe—increasing the frequency of the bleed-overs between the parallel worlds.

Am I dreaming? Is my dream actually my reality, and my present life only a dream?  Am I really Carsa, or am I Mincy? Am I both? Are you really who I think you are? Am I schizophrenic? Am I hallucinating because someone slipped me LSD at a party?

Although admittedly central to the mystery, the continual repetition, page-in and page-out, of the same set of questions works against the narrative tension, holding the story to a one-note feeling until its conclusion. Carsa’s experiences illustrate the nature of her condition without the constant, literal self-questioning. Forwarding the notion of precognition (or retro-cognition) ultimately fails to account for some of the people Carsa meets, who seem to be creations of an alternate timeline rather than instances of repeated lives.

The Devil’s Dreamer does unexpectedly veer into a melancholy acceptance of fate, refreshingly precluding Carsa’s love interest from simply coming to her rescue, finally bending its characters into its deterministic view of the universe.

To Kill a Witch

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To Kill a Witch
Alice Brennan | Lancer Books | 1972 | 253 pages

Featuring a cover image that evokes Tippi Hedren, To Kill a Witch actually does name-check The Birds early in its text to establish an ominous sense of dread from something as ordinary as a flock of gulls.

Young journalist Laurie Brooks and her photographer husband Ted travel to isolated Gull Island to fulfill the stipulations of late horror author Agatha Gray’s will. Although previously only briefly meeting Agatha during a professional assignment, Laurie stands to inherit the writer’s entire estate by staying on the island for three months. If Laurie fails, the will directs that Agatha’s ex-husband Francis Mercer becomes the sole beneficiary.

On the ferry ride to the island, Laurie discovers that the local villagers suspected Agatha Gray, writer of such occult stories as “The Birth and Lifetime of Elisia, the Witch”, of being a witch herself. The ferry captain tells Laurie the story of a curious intruder who swam to the island following Agatha’s death, only to be found later dead on the beach, picked clean of flesh by the island’s large gull population. Upon arriving at the estate, Laurie meets the superstitious old housekeeper, Mrs. Kane, who warns her about the “Dance of the Gulls”, an ominous occurrence that foretells an upcoming death.

Shortly after arriving, Ted saves a young man from drowning in the lake. The grateful near-fatality, Giles Reed, vows to return the favor by keeping watch over Laurie during the duration of her stay, after Ted leaves her alone to return to his work. But she isn’t quite convinced of the sincerity of the scene she just watched unfold, and wonders if Giles has an agenda of his own. Laurie quickly becomes convinced that she does need protection, however, after she witnesses the bizarre “Dance of the Gulls” herself on the moonlit beach below the great estate, afterward finding a jeweled pin from her room in the sand at the center of the avian ritual.

After addressing the natural question of “Why doesn’t she just leave the island?” with a rather flimsy push-pull battle of wills with her husband, To Kill a Witch settles into a familiar but comfortable atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust, with the ever-circulating gulls a reminder of the danger facing Laurie. She is unsure if the local townspeople are trustworthy, after she learns they performed a witch-killing ritual—burning a glass bottle filled with personal artifacts—before Agatha’s death, and who now seem to also suspect Laurie of witchcraft. A small creepy touch occurs when Laurie, struggling with writer’s block on her own first novel, looks down at her typewritten page to discover only one word, “Murder”.

The story works in equal parts as an inheritance drama, with the specter of Agatha Gray’s ex-husband roaming somewhere undetected on the island, and as an occult thriller, with the gulls themselves protecting the estate—or as local legend dictates, being directed by a dead witch from beyond the grave to avenge her murder.

Fear No Evil

fear_no_evil

Fear No Evil
Alice Brennan | Prestige Books | 1970 | 256 pages

Young English teacher Margaret Blyeth, blaming herself for the suicide of a prospective suitor whom she rejected, retreats to a resort on the shores of Upper Michigan’s Lake Superior. But Kaley House is no longer the cheerful manor by the lake she remembers from her childhood visits; the neglected grounds, overrun with weeds and debris, hide the now-decrepit main house. Seemingly to discourage her stay, a fallen tree blocks the remote lane to the resort from the main highway, and only a disused shortcut allows Margaret to continue ahead.

Tragedy also marks the lives of the few remaining staff members Margaret meets at Kaley House. Clemmy Hart, the proprietress of the resort, recently lost her husband in a fatal car accident. Clemmy’s mother, Petrolia (Mom Pet), was struck by a drunk driver three years before, and is now confined to a wheelchair. Mom Pet possesses a psychic gift, and was taught to read the future by her gypsy grandmother. Clemmy’s husband failed to heed the ominous warnings Mom Pet saw in the cards before his own violent death.

Also staying at Kaley house are three vacationing secretaries from Detroit. Mom Pet reads their future as a kind of parlour entertainment, predicting their upcoming potential loves. But for Margaret, Mom Pet sees an evil omen attached to a “dark young man”, leading to grief and perhaps, to death. When pressed for more details, Mom Pet only repeats in a kind of cryptic mantra, “The blind don’t see, the deaf don’t hear, the crippled don’t walk.”

Mom Pet’s warning is soon validated when shots are fired over Margaret’s head as she walks on the beach. She quickly dismisses the event as an accident, convincing herself that no one at the lake would want to harm her. But Margaret’s vacation isn’t all about recuperation; Carson Danville, her late suitor, killed himself less than twenty miles from Kaley House, and to clear her conscience in his suicide, she intends to investigate the circumstances of his death. She meets two local lake residents, David Miles and his controlling sister Verna, but they are seemingly unable to provide any information. Although initially attracted to David, Margaret is troubled when he unexpectedly reveals a short-tempered dark side, and his relationship with his sister may not be what it appears.

Margaret also becomes enamored with a new resident at the lakeshore: Julian Marsh, a Chicago lawyer summering at a cabin in the woods. He bears a striking resemblance to the “dark young man” that Mom Pet warned Margaret about during her reading. His cabin was the site of a grisly homicide the year before; the drunk driver that paralyzed Mom Pet, along with his entire family, was murdered there and the killer was never caught. The theme of rejected love continues with the arrival of Kelsey Hirsh, fashion model and Julian’s former girlfriend, who cannot accept his refusal and plans on winning back his attentions.

Fear No Evil swings the suspicion back and forth between Margaret’s two love interests, David and Julian*, as she moves ever closer to the reveal about Carson’s “suicide”. Mom Pet initially seems to be a controlling villain, but as the full roster of characters and their histories are revealed, she becomes something of a warning signal instead, repeating her admonitions from under the blanket in her wheelchair while evil actions spin all around her and her guests. The narrative ultimately contains many murderous loose ends to wrap up, but follows the basic recipe:

1. Clemmy worries while serving endless rounds of coffee

2. Mom Pet makes ominous pronouncements

3. More explicit attempts are made on Margaret’s life

4. Repeat

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*Possible Freudian Alert: both characters are introduced after they fire projectiles (or are suspected of firing) at Margaret—both, instead shooting over her head