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.

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The Flood | Blackwater #1

The Flood | Blackwater #1
Michael McDowell | Avon Books | 1983 | 189 pages

The wet and mud-caked opening book in a serial Southern Gothic, the waters of The Flood recede and leave a singular presence, Elinor Dammert.

Surveying the flooded town of Perdido, Alabama, from the vantage point of a rowboat, mill owner Oscar Caskey discovers Elinor through the second-story window (now at water level) of the town’s deserted hotel, calmly sitting on the bed as if waiting for his arrival. Much to the consternation of family matriarch, Mary-Love Caskey, Elinor quickly takes a room with Oscar’s uncle, establishing herself his caretaker and de-facto guardian of his small child.

With a coldly calculating detachment, Elinor uses all resources to further her advantage, and soon becomes engaged to Oscar. A manipulator of people rivaling Mary-Love herself, Elinor engages in a battle of wills to gain entry into the family. The physical manifestation of that contest is the marriage house that Mary-Love promises, but stalls in its construction. Even the assumed bond between mother and child is challenged in the struggle to achieve the upper hand.

Meanwhile, a young boy glimpses Elinor in an unguarded moment, soaking in a pond of river water, and for a moment sees something not-entirely human. She exhibits a natural affinity for water, and displays fearlessness around hazards such as the naturally occurring whirlpool where two branches of the river meet. A shocking act of violence suggests that Elinor is capable of manipulation on a level beyond simple social influence, and other tragedies swirl about the plagued community.

From the dirty high-water mark in the hotel to the sandy lifeless soil (except for the strangely flourishing trees that Elinor plants) left behind by the receding waters, book one of the Blackwater saga is a triumph of place and mood.

Something is clearly wrong, or otherworldly, with Elinor, but as she insinuates herself into the Caskey family, the ultimate question emerges, “What does she want?

Montana Gothic

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Montana Gothic
Dirk Van Sickle | Avon Books | 1979 | 254 pages

More a brooding rumination on death and the western landscape than a traditional horror story, Montana Gothic establishes an overall mood of loneliness and despair through a fractured series of vignettes, featuring an interrelated group of characters from the Old to the New West.

In the opening segment, Deke Morgan, a young medical school drop out, arrives in the backwater town of Citadel, Montana, to take over a run-down mortuary business. Unable to rise beyond a social pariah in the eyes of the local townspeople, Deke eventually discovers the grotesque history of his predecessor that seems to forever hold him in the role of outsider. Only the affections of Mary Lynn Crandall, daughter of a wealthy land-owning family to whom he offers piano lessons, provides Deke with an optimism that his fate could change. The resulting tragedy arrives not through any villainous actions, but from the fatal touch of a deadly, indifferent landscape.

Fifty years later, Boss James, former fiancée of Mary Lynn Crandall, is now an old man reduced to tending a small winter herd of cattle. Tasked with overseeing a late-season calf birth, Boss James is assisted by Anthony, a young man from the East Coast who drifted out west, unsuccessfully looking for a job fighting forest fires. Things go horrifically wrong as Boss James heads out alone in the sub-zero temperatures to help birth the calf, leading him to reflect back upon Mary Lynn and the events that have driven his life to this seemingly predestined point.

In perhaps the most traditionally gothic segment, Edward Rochester attempts to preserve the faded family legacy set down by his father, Ellery, through the manipulation of his son. Ellery the younger, resentful of his role in the mausoleum-like family estate, exhibits a casual cruelty to his younger sister Melinda, a mentally deficient innocent who seems incapable of escaping childhood. All circumstances change when Melinda meets an attractive stranger—Anthony, having left the frozen cattle shack and now trying to find a purpose in life following his heartbreaking failures—in the meadow near the river. Her grandfather’s hand-me-down Navy Colt revolver ultimately determines the family’s future destiny.

The final segment introduces Mavis Herman, an antiquated throwback to the gun-slinging days of the Old West. With his leather vest, chaps studded with silver coins, and Navy Colt revolver holstered at his side, he rides into the modern town like an outlaw from a former age, tying his horse to the parking meter in front of the local saloon. Relying on his firearm and moral compass to guide him, Mavis suffers the mockery of a new generation of Westerners who view him as little more than a costumed clown. Running afoul of the law, he attempts to clear his name with a gesture derived from a code of honor that probably didn’t exist in the past, and as he learns, definitely doesn’t exist in the present.

Some of the passages that serve as bridges between main story segments tend towards florid poetry, such as Deke’s time nursing an injured eagle. However, the macabre storytelling and doomed protagonists, who are seemingly locked in their deterministic landscapes, elevate these downbeat and occasionally ghoulish series of linked tales. Just know that Montana Gothic is a slow and meditative affair, a far cry from the chilling haunts promised in the blurb pages—but with such great cover art, who really cares?

The Girl from Yesterday

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The Girl From Yesterday
Sarah Hughart | Avon Books | 1970 | 190 pages

During an impulsive visit to a psychic in New York City’s Upper West Side, young actress Gillian North learns that she has lived six previous lives—and the first five lives all ended with her murder! The sixth and latest incarnation, precisely detailed by the psychic, was in the person of Caresse LeClair, daughter of notorious nineteenth-century New Orleans voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau. Although Caresse’s ultimate fate remains a mystery, her unexplained disappearance suggests a sixth case of foul play.

As her Broadway show nears the end of its run, Gillian’s performances are plagued by an increasing lack of focus. Becoming distracted to the point of forgetting her lines, she suffers from a recurring drumming sound in her head. Convinced the pounding is the insistent call of voodoo drums calling her forth to discover the secret fate of her last reincarnated life, Gillian packs a few old suitcases and travels to New Orleans.

Upon her arrival, Gillian rents a room in a former carriage house that was once occupied by Caresse LeClair. With the help of her new neighbor, Ashley Talbot, a history teacher and local historian, she learns more about her former self. Although raised by Hobert Breaux, a prominent plantation owner, Caresse was of a mixed-race heritage and occupied a low position in the social stratum, elevated only by her association with the Breaux family. According to local tradition, she was involved in a love triangle with Hobert’s two sons, Beau and Lance, which eventually ended with her murder at the hands of the jealous Beau.

On her first night in the old carriage house room that belonged to Caresse, Gillian is attacked and nearly strangled by a scarred, phantom attacker. Convinced that discovering Caresse’s fate will prevent the fatal history from repeating itself, Gillian sets out to investigate. She meets Andre Breaux and his aunt Claudine, the last living members of the crumbling Breaux family dynasty. Andre is immediately charmed by Gillian, and invites her stay at the family’s plantation house, the grounds of which reputedly hold Caresse’s remains, vowing to assist her in her quest to uncover the family’s dark history.

After the initial attack on Gillian, not much else happens until the voodoo ceremony reveals all at the conclusion. The southern Louisiana setting provides a modicum of atmosphere, filled with ritual and superstition, with voodoo practitioners casting spells and (all too briefly) creating zombies. The “pretties” that aunt Claudine keeps in the attic also provide a brief, but creepily gothic distraction.

The Girl From Yesterday derives nearly all of its suspense from a game of (reincarnated) musical chairs, dancing its characters around before ultimately allowing them to settle into their assigned roles. Virtually everyone Gillian meets has a counterpart in her past life as Caresse, and the central tension in the story revolves around who will be revealed as the reincarnation of the killer.

Fortunately for Gillian, identifying the attacker becomes less problematic due to the convenient, distinguishing burn that scars his face.

The Pedestal

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The Pedestal
George Lanning | Avon Books | 1966 | 158 pages

Trust me this far only, then; beyond, you must settle matters for yourself.

Retreating to a rural, hillside family estate following an unspecified illness, John Bayden and his wife Eleanor must acclimate to the gossips of small town life, while trying to repair their damaged relationship. Visiting an estate sale in a nearby village in an attempt to find items to decorate the rambling old house John’s grandfather built, the couple buy a gleaming, blood-brown pedestal with three tiny clawed feet. During an evening of unsettled sleep, John awakens to the sound of scratching downstairs. Examining the house for evidence of an intruder, he notices a set of shallow scratches around the base of the pedestal, as if it had been moved around the room before being returned to its original position.

The next morning John awakens to the news of the brutal murder of a local hill girl during the night. With increasing thoughts of a darkness descending upon the town, and of a marriage deteriorating into a quarrelsome stalemate, John becomes convinced that the pedestal is moving around the house at night, a vessel for the evils plaguing him and the town. Turning to his friends Ray and Alma Gravatt, the village pastor and his wife, for some relief to his fears, he finds them unusually distracted by the murder, and begins to realize that his growing attraction to Alma is mirrored by his suspicion of a corresponding connection between Ray and Eleanor.

Neither the local gentry, or the backwoods locals, are sympathetic enough to carry the imbedded indictment of the small town class system, with the two central couples being just unlikeable enough to prevent much worry over John’s brush with the supernatural—or his descent into madness. Readers expecting the “demonic terror” promised by the cover blurb will surely be disappointed, as the titular pedestal serves only as a harbinger of marital unhappiness, the scratching sound of claws on wooden floors only audible past the background noise of awkward cocktail parties and whispered rumors in the aisles of the village market. The mundane events ultimately coalescence into a shocking, although fittingly foreshadowed, climax that provides a macabre use for the pedestal itself.

Night of the Vampire

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Night of the Vampire
Raymond Giles | Avon Books | 1969 | 176 pages

Come back! Come back to Sanscoeur! Come back, come back, come back!”

An insidious telepathic call compels a group of childhood friends to return to the their hometown after many years of absence. Before drifting off on their separate paths, the children impetuously formed a coven, performing a satanic ritual committing themselves to the dark arts—with fatal repercussions for breaking up the group. Duffy Johnson, now a psychiatrist treating his wife Roxanne for her self-diagnosed case of lycanthropy, fears that their long-ago game of the occult has unleashed a terrible present danger.

As the gathered friends begin dying violent deaths, suspicious townspeople begin to blame Duffy’s wife, believing her lycanthropy to be genuine. Although not part of the original coven, Roxanne also spent her childhood in Sanscouerville, only fleeing after a violent murder under the full moon indicated the return of her reputed family curse. Much of the story tension derives from the question of whether or not she is an actual werewolf, while more fundamental questions (“How did the original coven morph into a group of shape-shifting vampires?”) go without answer.

Surprisingly slow and dry for a book containing occult rituals, vampire covens, and werewolf attacks, the generically titled Night of the Vampire contains somewhere within its text a more exciting, pulpier story (Wolf-Girl Versus the Vampire Cult, perhaps) struggling to claw its way out.

To Seek Where Shadows Are

toseek

To Seek Where Shadows Are
Miriam Benedict | Avon Books | 1973 | 158 pages

Laurie, I know you’ll think me a damn fool. But the minute I walked into this place, I felt a—what can I call it?—an enveloping horror.”

Laurie moves into a newly rented apartment in an old Gothic apartment building on Riverside Drive. Watched over by stone gargoyles from the parapet, the building is a lone throwback to an earlier age, now entirely surrounded by new high rises. Her bohemian painter friend Alex, who has a studio in the building, recommended the apartment to Laurie and her fiancé Steve, who plans on joining her from his student housing at Columbia. However, immediately after crossing the threshold, Steve is overcome with an overpowering dread that causes him not only to back out of moving in with Laurie, but prompts him to break off their engagement entirely.

Having surrendered her old apartment, Laurie has little choice but move in to her new digs. Although previously unoccupied for many years, she discovers old paints and a portrait of a woman in the old cupboards off the living room. Intending to donate the paints to Alex, Laurie is puzzled to learn that the tubes are dry and brittle to him, but for her the pigments flow fresh and smoothly in her hands. Unable to sleep in her new space, she is troubled by eerie visions of a painter and his model, while another figure beckons to her from beside her own sleeping form.

More of a moody character piece that an outright Gothic horror, the specter of the past looms darkly for Laurie, as she lives out the tragic lives of past occupants through her ever increasing visions. The house on Riverside Drive seemingly traps its current residents in a dance of prescribed events, releasing its pent-up psychic energies in a form of karmic purging. Laurie never reaches much beyond a passive state, watching and waiting for her creepy carnival ride to end.

Tule Witch

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Tule Witch
Jane Toombs | Avon Books | 1973 | 158 pages

Mixing witchcraft, medical mystery and nurse romance, Tule Witch immerses it young R.N. protagonist in a fog of deadly suspicion, which when cleared, reveals one of the doctors in her life to be her true love, and the other possibly a killer.

Bebe Thomasen, a young registered nurse working the nightshift at a small central Valley hospital, “senses” something outside in the fog beyond the emergency room doors. She discovers a bleeding and battered man on the ground, who whispers “witch doctor” before slipping into unconsciousness. After the death of her mother when she was eleven, Bebe’s father abandoned her to be raised by her grandmother, a woman steeped in the practice of witchcraft. Since her early childhood, Bebe has experienced similar episodes of prescience, receiving strong feelings that are sometimes forceful, but often ambiguous.

The mysterious man dies as a result of his injuries, leaving Bebe to explain to the local police the reason she left her post to look around outside the hospital grounds. Bebe develops some suspicions regarding two doctors, and rivals for her affections, Dr. Jed Edgington and Dr. Harold Davies. Jed, a powerfully attractive African-American with a bouffant hairstyle, and Harold, his more passive but compassionate green-eyed colleague, were both scheduled to be away in San Francisco at a medical conference, yet both were somehow present at the time the patient was admitted. The mystery deepens when the man’s body disappears from the morgue, although the attendant on duty failed to see anyone either enter or leave the facility.

Bebe also harbors a deep family secret, a developmentally disabled child now institutionalized in the state hospital. Bebe’s grandmother arranged for an occult ritual coupling under the moonlight on her isolated cabin’s grounds with Gill Saginaw, a wild, red-haired warlock hand-chosen by Grandma Thomasen to conceive a child for Bebe, and to produce an heir to the family’s cabalistic tradition. Bebe later delivered a son, a misshapen deformity with a gargoyle face and a pointed head, but who triggers psychic visions in his mother. Before (apparently) dying in a second attempt at conceiving a child, Gill curses Bebe, invoking a death spell on her if she ever is with another man.

With the persistent valley fog setting the stage, Tule Witch establishes an intriguing atmosphere of mystery, with the missing dead man driving open the deep secrets in Bebe’s occult family history. Bebe’s multi-racial background triggers a slight, but ugly touch of bigotry in the familiar love-triangle set-up that fails to be fully explored, and Jed’s family only serves to provide misdirection towards other possible sources of occult influence. The introduction of the possible viral outbreak drives the focus away from the supernatural, and the inevitable showdown with Bebe’s baby-daddy fails to establish his character as anything other than an arbitrary bogeyman.

The Devil’s Dance

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The Devil’s Dance
Jan Alexander | Avon Books | 1972 | 158 pages

Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” – Joker (Batman, 1989)

Branded under the Avon Books “Satanic Gothic” series banner, The Devil’s Dance fails to deliver on its supernatural promise, instead substituting superstition-driven rural family drama for occult thrills.

Christine Collins abandons her planned Florida vacation to come to the aid of her half-sister Pam, a recently engaged transplant to the hills of rural Tennessee. Pam plans on marrying Peter Andrews, heir to an aristocratic family’s down-at-the-heel estate, Home Acres, but Christine receives a letter from Pam expressing nervousness surrounding her soon-to-be new family. Peter’s mother, a polite but old-fashioned matriarch, nearly passes out with shock upon meeting Christine—and hearing her surname, “Collins”. The name is one of many shared with the local Melungeons, a group of old families living in the Tennessee valley since prior to European settlement, long feared and derided for their alleged practices of witchcraft and devil-worship.

Christine also receives a cold reception from Mrs. Maywood, the estate’s antagonistic servant, and her mentally challenged household-helper, Annie. The only sympathetic person she meets is Gabe Goins, the handsome blue-eyed son of Mrs. Andrew’s neighbor—and Melungeon rival—Ned Goins. Christine learns that a series of small accidents has been plaguing Home Acres, misfortunes that Mrs. Andrews attributes to the nefarious doings of Melungeons. After a luncheon served with mushrooms freshly picked one morning with Christine, Mrs. Andrews and two neighbors, Mrs. Hollis and her daughter Nellie, fall violently ill. Long-standing local prejudice fuels the suspicion that instead of accidental food poisoning, the women were victims of foul play at the hands of Melungeons.

Later, when Nellie is found murdered under mysterious circumstances, even Christine begins to consider the possibility that the man she now loves, Gabe Goins, is somehow implicated—along with his Melungeon kin—in the crime. But even the appearance of the “Devil’s Dance”, a circular spot of barren earth on the lawn of Home Acres that popular folklore attributes to being the footprint of ceremonial rites, falls short in teasing out the possible existence of a wider occult network operating among the local families. All that remains without that greater sense of paranoia is a Hatfields-and-McCoys type feud, with generations of family animosity resolved far too easily with the inevitable matrimonial conclusion—an animosity that ultimately proves to have some merit.

Her Demon Lover

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Her Demon Lover
Louisa Bronte | Avon Books | 1973 | 156 pages

Young cosmetics heiress Sophia travels to a small town in the Balkans with her new husband Gregory Holden in an attempt to uncover her family history. Adopted at a young age from an orphanage in Boston, all Sophia remembers of her birth parents are the tales told by a nun who briefly knew her mother from the old country—tales of seeing the future and controlling the winds. Upon arriving at their hotel, the newlyweds meet the strangely magnetic Count Derek Vlahos and his alluring companion Madame Lillian Montevan, a former singer in the Paris cabarets. Sophia is delighted to learn that Derek knows the lineage of her family, and that she may be his distant cousin.

The Count invites Sophia and Greg to his castle, the Eagle’s Nest, to examine the historical books in his library and research the family genealogy at her leisure. A full day’s journey by carriage, the Eagle’s Nest rises dramatically from its mountaintop location, surrounded by sheer cliffs. At the castle, Sophia finds herself drawn to the charismatic powers of Count Vlahos, with every incidental touch sending shock waves of desire through Sophia’s receptive body. Although newly married, she has discovered her husband to be a clumsy and inattentive lover, and she longs for the dominating embrace of a more powerful man. The Count boldly flirts with Sophia, and dismisses her weak husband with contempt, driving his voluptuous companion Lillian to distract Greg’s attention.

Derek eventually reveals his true nature to Sophia during a visit to the castle’s tower room. Looking out over the dramatic mountain views, Derek demonstrates his ability to command the flights of the swirling eagles, to raise the winds and generate the gathering electrical storm. He tells her that she also shares their family’s powers, and that together—as husband and wife—they could rule the countryside. Resisting him for the present, Sophia is nevertheless intrigued by the prospect of fully developing her own latent powers. Conflicted about her feelings for her own cousin, she is reminded again of his terrifying presence, when during the course of an evening’s entertainment he conjures a demon to do his bidding—a trick Sophia knows to be more than a mild amusement for party guests.

More a florid romance than a supernatural thriller, Her Demon Lover plays out as a seductive battle of wills between Sophia and Derek. Does she surrender to the dominating force of the powerful man of her imagination, or is she able to muster some previously undiscovered inner-strength from her milquetoast husband and resist the siren call of her supernatural birthright? An unexpectedly ferocious romantic encounter with her husband midway through the novel ultimately telegraphs the twist ending.

The story also provides valuable life lessons about accepting invitations for mountain climbing from the rival to your wife’s affections.