Prince of Darkness

princeofdarkness

Prince of Darkness
Barbara Michaels | Fawcett Books | 1969 | 224 pages

An outsider discovers yet another small village steeped in a secret history of black magic and occult rituals. Only in Prince of Darkness, the outsider’s intentions are far from pure.

Peter Stewart, a small-time con man recently released from an English prison, travels to Middleburg, Maryland, to pursue a new target. Through a disreputable old investigator, Peter gathers information on Dr. Katherine (Kate) More, a folklore professor in Middleburg who has recently been driven into a state of nervous exhaustion following the mysterious suicide of her English fiancé. Her grief, or perhaps her guilt, has triggered her descent into the world of spiritualism, transforming her into a true believer in the mysticism of her academic studies.

After the death of her uncle Stephan, Kate inherited his rambling estate in the Maryland countryside. Sharing the old house is her cousin, Tiphaine, an enchanting young girl with a talent for folk music. The quaint exterior of charming village life in Middleburg hides a dark history, with the remnants of an old religion—including its cyclical rites of ritual sacrifice—holding a firm grasp on the local population.

Stealthily surveying Kate’s house one night shortly after his arrival, Peter witnesses a ritualistic séance. Along with Kate and Tiphaine, Peter recognizes a few of the town’s citizens, including the proprietress of Peter’s boardinghouse, Mrs. Adams, who seems to be leading the ceremony. Assuming that Kate is trying to raise the spirit of her dead lover, Peter formulates a plan to insinuate himself into her life, and to further her mental breakdown to the point of collapse.

Prince of Darkness delivers many familiar genre trappings, including voodoo dolls, suspicious townsfolk, black magic, sacrificial altars, and animal-masked ritual attendees, but its shift in perspective helps set it apart from the standard fare. The typical viewpoint into this realm of occult danger is through Kate, as mysterious events push her to the brink of madness. Instead, here readers look into her world from the outside through Peter, as he puts his shady plan into motion. However, Peter’s anti-heroic nature fails to maintain through to the end, as other sinister forces emerge to threaten Kate. She moves to the center for the final third of the story, allowing for a return to more normal genre standards, along with the expected romance.

A final twist regarding Kate’s dead lover, accompanied by some pseudo-contemplative prattle reflecting upon the meaning of the title, wrap things up at (of course) a witches’ Sabbat on Halloween night.

As a total aside, Tiphaine’s enchanting musical interlude–if a book can be said to truly have one–at the Folklore Society of Middleburg conjures up the insidious, seductive Willow’s Song, the musical interlude from Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). So here it is:

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The Devil on Lammas Night

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The Devil on Lammas Night
Susan Howatch | Fawcett Crest Books | 1974 | 224 pages

Nicola Morrison learns to always heed the warnings of Hungarian gypsy fortune tellers, as she ultimately falls under the deadly spell of a new man foreseen to enter her life, a “man with dark hair and dark eyes”.

The man is Tristan Poole, the leader of the Society for the Propagation of Nature Foods, an organization that has insinuated itself into residence at Colwyn Court, the down-at-heel estate belonging to Walter Colywn, father of Nicola’s ex-fiance, Evan. Tristan has moved his retinue of twelve female followers into the manor house, ostensibly in exchange for treating Walter’s psychosomatically ill daughter, Gwyneth. But from the very beginning, it is clear that Tristan is not simply the head of a natural food group, as he makes a familiar of the family cat and works occult spells with his minions, positioning himself to take over the estate for his own nefarious purposes.

The Devil on Lammas Night suffers a great deal of time establishing several sets of characters , mostly extended family to Nichola—our expected heroine—before its narrative reaches the point of introducing the danger that readers already know. Walter’s cousin, Benedict Shaw, and his wife, Jane, move into the cottage on the estate grounds to further Benedict’s academic research. Nicola’s father, Matthew, and his young second wife, Lisa, also arrive for an extended stay, along with Lisa’s young children, Lucy and Timothy. They all slowly rotate around Tristan, with varying degrees of suspicion—or attraction.

Only after a character’s death, one-hundred plus pages into the story, does Tristan finally set his sights on seducing Nicola (and securing her fortune), setting into motion Evan’s attempt at uncovering Tristan’s secret and freeing Nicola from his grasp. All will converge on Lammas Night, ritual date of a pagan harvest festival and time of special meaning for Tristan’s Society. However, little suspense is generated along the way, with the cat’s welfare being about as compelling as that of any other character. Break free, Marble, break free!

Cheerfully, at the conclusion, the unexpected source of some deadly counter black magic, along with the revelation of the existence of multiple free-roaming covens across the English countryside, seem not to trouble the prospects of a happy wedding.

The Killing Bone

theguardians

The Killing Bone
The Guardians #1
Peter Saxon | Berkley Medallion Books | 1968 | 159 Pages

Former priest John Dyball is called to St. Botolph’s Hospital to review a troubling case. An unknown patient was delivered in a strange catatonic state approaching rigor mortis, still alive, but seemingly frozen in a rictus of silent terror. Reverend Dyball, who has honed his own parapsychological skills through years of training, senses a malicious presence behind the patient’s staring but unseeing eyes, an unknown entity internally tormenting the man to death.

Reverend Dyball is not just an ordinary ex-priest; he is an active member of the elite team known as The Guardians, an agency established to push back against the advances of evil. The group’s founder is Gideon Cross, a sinister recluse and expert in arcane knowledge of the occult, suspected by Dyball as having advanced powers of the black arts. Anthropologist Stephen Kane acts as the group’s leader, providing guidance to Dyball and the group’s other two members. Lionel Marks, a cynical private eye, assists in gathering intelligence on cases, and Anne Ashby, a finely-tuned “sensitive,” contributes with her gift of advanced psychic abilities.

Following the lead of an eyewitness who saw a boomerang logo on the truck that dropped off the mysterious patient at the hospital, Dyball meets with an Australian journalist at an art opening featuring a new Aboriginal artist. Disregarding his own internal warnings, he is lured away by a young woman with promises of information to a nearby club, where he experiences an alarming blackout. While unconscious, he has bleary visions of his own sun-baked body burning on hot white sands, a compelling but indecipherable voice boring directly into his skull. Upon awakening, he returns to the Guardians’ headquarters in a partially amnesiac state, as if his recent memory had been scrubbed. With Dyball retaining little knowledge of the strange case at St. Botolph’s Hospital, it is up to Kane and the rest of the Guardians to solve the mystery and ultimately save the former priest from the malignant force at its center.

Lionel Marks and Anne Ashby are given virtually no roles in this outing of the series, with Steven Kane eventually pursuing the leads—and a psychically-controlled Dyball himself—to the Australian outback. Although Ashby does sense the evil in their opponent through a telepathic impression, the resolution acknowledges an unexpected gray-area, with the motivation of the initial attack revealing a certain level of understanding. This evil does not set out to destroy the world, but instead to punish a wrong inflicted against it.

Plus, Gideon Cross and his witch-doctor nemesis engage in an amusing final smack-down using their astrally-projected bodies, a battle only lacking in Wonder Twins-like cries of “Form of a dingo!” or “Form of a crocodile!”