Mansion of Evil

Mansion of Evil
Caroline Farr | Signet Books | 1966 | 222 pages

Young private practice nurse Diane Montrose accepts a live-in caretaker position at Ravensnest, a rambling family estate on an isolated stretch of the Maine coast. Her charges are Robyn Warburton, a sickly child plagued by chronic illnesses following the mysterious drowning death of her mother, and Robyn’s grandmother, Martha, the cantankerous matriarch whose crippling arthritis confines her to a wheelchair. Robyn’s father, David, previously absent much of the time with the operation of the family business, seems genuinely concerned with his daughter’s care—and very interested in her new nurse.

However, Diane’s first order of business at Ravensnest does not pertain to the well-being of her clients. Mr. Prince, the Warburton family attorney who arranged the job for Diane, ushers her into the study to witness the signing of Martha’s new secret will. Following the conclusion of the legal matter, Diane finds herself being relentlessly questioned by Martha’s youngest son, Kerr, and step-brother, Clive, about what she read on the document, although the attorney carefully placed cover sheets over the passages of text to prevent her from discovering the identity of the new beneficiaries.

During her stay at Ravensnest, Diane becomes morbidly fascinated with the mansion’s secret room, a rough-hewn space cut out of the solid rock below the waterline. Used by the Warburton’s pirate ancestors, victims from scuttled ships were placed into the chamber at low tide, and drowned by the rising water. The bodies were subsequently flushed out to sea, where they were ultimately discovered as accidental drowning victims.

Diane wakes one night to the sound of violent spray on her window, as pressurized water forced out of the narrow shaft to the secret room vents against the side of the building. This nocturnal emission serves as a vivid reminder to the presence of the deadly negative space, while establishing the implication that someone or something is trapped within its confines.

Otherwise, strange bumps-in-the-night and prowlers precede the eventual murder and kidnapping in a rather prosaic inheritance mystery. Only the completely expected and virtually predestined confinement in the subterranean kill room adds a flash of claustrophobic terror to the proceedings, while the obligatory romance is undercut by the fundamental creepiness of an attraction based on the resemblance to a drowned spouse.

 

Whisper of Darkness

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Whisper of Darkness
Margaret Lynn | Paperback Library | 1966 | 187 pages

I see signs that our Landon’s patience is wearing very thin. Personally, if I were in his shoes I should have taken retaliatory steps before this. A dozen of the best delivered with a stern hand on your bottom is the best disciplinary corrective I can think of, my girl, and I have strong suspicions that our Landon’s mind is working on the same lines.”

Bending to the demands of her cantankerous old grandfather—a dying patriarch making a final effort to secure his considerable estate and legacy—young naïf Judith Craig accepts an arranged marriage with her cousin Landon. Although the old man dies soon after the hastily performed nuptials, final stipulations in his will prevent Judith from gaining the freedom she desires. Judith and her new husband are required to remain living together as man and wife in the Craigmore estate for a period of ten years, or forfeit all their inheritance.

Complicating the arrangement is the arrival of Judith’s other cousin, Jeff, the object of a burning childhood crush since their brief summer meeting years ago. Previously, Jeff declined the same offer put to Landon, but ultimately ended up receiving a third of the estate anyway. Further, if Judith and Landon fail to meet their terms of the will, the entire bulk of their inheritance will instead be awarded to Jeff.

Desperate to leave Craigmore but unable to see a way out of her situation, Judith is nonetheless surprised when a series of malicious attacks begin against Landon. Suspicion naturally falls on her, reinforcing her general perception as little more than a petulant child. She gradually discovers that others may be motivated to break her marriage and gain a portion of the estate, including her grandfather’s illegitimate daughter, her former beau, and members of the neglected household staff.

Even given her status as a sheltered child under the iron grasp of her domineering grandfather, Judith suffers from such a crippling passivity that fully sympathizing with her proves difficult. Stammering and continually breaking into bouts of crying, she allows herself to be dominated not only by her new husband, but by her doctor, her lawyer, and her servants. Agonizingly slow in piecing together the true source of the malignancy at Craigmore, sheer impatience with Judith’s latent role as a sniffling and stuttering heroine makes rebuking the prescription of a dozen stern slaps to the bottom a hard proposition.

Night of the Moonrose

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Night of the Moonrose
Miriam Lynch | Paperback Library | 1966 | 158 pages

On the night of the moonrose, Beth Sherwood was to be married—and murdered.

Although the back cover blurb gives everything away, Night of the Moonrose delivers enough expected genre thrills to justify following its heroine through to her appointed sacrificial vows. She arrives in a threatening new house [check], and is greeted with hostility from a host of suspicious relatives [check]. An early attempt is made on her life [check]. She discovers her remarkable resemblance to a woman who died two hundred years previously [check], and stumbles upon a library full of books on witchcraft and the occult [check]. A love interest is introduced who may or may not be trustworthy [check], as a countdown winds towards the anniversary of a dark historical event filled with ominous portent [check].

After her mother remarries, Beth Sherwood takes a position as live-in caretaker to Honora Buxton, a distant relative on her late father’s side of the family. However, she finds the reception at Devil’s Walk as suffocating as the overpowering aroma of the wildly abundant moonroses growing all over the grounds the estate. Carl and Ruth, the deaf-mute servants, are simply distant, but the cook Jesse exhibits overt hostility. Honora’s sister Lily is a doll-like beauty, but displays unusual ferocity towards Beth, particularly in the presence of her beau, Will Mansfield. Nathan Buxton, the master of the estate, exudes a powerful magnetism, but also seems to possess a dark side— melodramatically reflected in the swirling, malevolent music he produces late each night on the house’s grand old organ.

Beth is further unsettled when she discovers her uncanny resemblance to a family portrait of Elizabeth Buxton, Nathan’s ancestor who was hanged for being a witch in 1692. Stumbling upon what she concludes to be a secret ceremony in the cellar beneath the kitchen, she begins to understand the cause of the oppressive atmosphere at Devil’s Walk. As the anniversary of Elizabeth’s execution draws near, Beth fears that her own fate is inexorably linked to that of the accused witch, and that she also is destined to die on the night the moonroses bloom.

While certainly failing to add anything new to the Gothic suspense canon, Night of the Moonrose nonetheless revels in the familiar pleasures of a plucky young heroine poaching the fiancé of a rival while trapped in a house of ritualistic cultists.

Vampirella #2 (On Alien Wings)

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Vampirella #2 (On Alien Wings)
Ron Goulart | Warner Books | 1975 | 138 pages

More a series of vignettes than a single coherent story, On Alien Wings pinballs its scantily clad vampire heroine from the Hollywood Hills to a doomed cruise ship to a remote island in the Caribbean where human subjects suffer otherworldly fates. While attempting to smash the far-reaching demonic operations of the Cult of Chaos, Vampirella is relentlessly pursued by blind vampire-hunter Conrad Van Helsing, seeking vengeance for the death of his brother.

Attempting to cheat the Cult of Chaos on a Faustian bargain, aging Hollywood movie producer Nathan Horner kidnaps Vampirella in order acquire her powers of immortality. If he can force her to turn him into a vampire, he will technically never die, infinitely postponing the date when his bargain comes due. Unfortunately for Horner, Vampirella’s unique status as a blood-drinking alien, rather than a traditional vampire of folklore, causes an unexpected result. The laconic demon Nergal steals the spotlight with his curt dismissal of a final fight with Vampirella, “I have no quarrel with you.”

Working as an assistant to small-time magician Pendragon (and transforming into a bat onstage as the culmination of his act), Vampirella books passage to work on a cruise line. But the owner of the cruise ship is beholden to the Cult of Chaos, and along with his crew of zombie minions, intends to sacrifice the entire passenger list to the demon Demogorgon. Unfortunately, this segment races to its climax without fully steeping in the potential trapped-on-a-cruise-ship-with-zombies-from-the-deep atmosphere.

Following the fateful demise of the SS Triton, Vampirella and Pendragon wash ashore on a remote island, only to become victims of Jeanne Pierre Dargaud, a deranged scientist experimenting on human subjects to find a cure for his wife Monique’s strange affliction—again caused by the nefarious workings of the Cult of Chaos. Vampirella becomes the hunted in a most dangerous game, with Monique transformed by her disease into a ravenous beast.

Although Van Helsing’s son Adam finds himself falling under Vampirella’s seductive spell, her character remains mostly a charmless blank-slate in this second novelization of her comic book adventures. Without the visual benefit of the comic’s distinctive attire, Vampirella is again reduced to repetitive descriptions of being “long-legged”, her character shaded only by the occasional lament on her condition—usually relating to her lack of available synthetic blood. The other characters also tend to be defined by a single trait—the elder Van Helsing has psychic visions, Pendragon provides comic relief by revealing the thoughts in his head (in parentheses).

Shallowly entertaining but derivative, On Alien Wings apes a number of familiar tropes across its short page count, with a few thinly developed individual story lines leading to an ultimately forgettable whole.

Chill #4 (Vegas Vampire)

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Chill #4 (Vegas Vampire)
Jory Sherman | Pinnacle Books | 1980 | 173 pages

An enjoyable, but completely disposable entry in the “Chill” Chillders supernatural investigation series, with tacky Vegas fashions—ranging from pink polo shirt ensembles to a variety of dazzling pantsuits—stealing interest away from its tale of a vampire manipulated into serving its human benefactor’s interests.

Following his keynote speech at the First Annual Psychic Seminar in Las Vegas (greeted with a round of thunderous applause), psychic investigator Dr. Russell V. “Chill” Chillders is approached by Captain Loomis of the Las Vegas Police Department. Under the advice of pathologist Dr. Bill Patterson, Loomis enlists Chill’s aid in solving the mysterious death of a local showgirl, whose blood-drained body was found in the dry creek bed beyond the Gold Dust Queen Casino where she worked. But it was the puncture wounds on the victim’s throat that led Patterson to believe that the perpetrator was of supernatural origin—a conclusion Chill never doubts.

Chill and his team—Laura Littlefawn, his half-Sioux clairvoyant assistant, and Hal Strong, literature professor and expert in the occult—discover that this death is only the latest in a string of killings targeting the showgirls at the Gold Dust Queen. The casino’s owner Ramsey Bullock, a prancing, pink-clad caricature sporting an effeminate watch and gold slippers, suspects the involvement of his rival Amelia Robinson, owner of the neighboring Silver Foxxe Casino. After a brief meeting with Amelia, Chill quickly deduces her role in the affair, and in no time is exploring the underground tunnels beneath the casinos to uncover the vampire’s lair.

Vegas Vampire holds very little mystery, since Amelia’s role in controlling the vampire is revealed in the early pages of the story. Chill’s team is also severely underutilized in this outing, with Laura Littlefawn in particular reduced to a glorified clothes horse, existing solely to make dramatic entrances wearing her butter-yellow pantsuit and turquoise jewelry, rather than engaging in any feats of psychic detection. Speaking of pantsuits, Amelia sports her own tight-fitting model splashed with silver glitter, enhanced by her complete look consisting of false eyelashes, patent leather shoes, and long cigarette holder. Chill himself is in cool form, sipping his orange juice and munching on sesame sticks in his polo shirt and crisply pressed slacks, while doing very little actual detective work—psychic or otherwise.

Disappointingly, the text hints at, but never develops, the idea that monsters of myth such as vampires exist as projections into reality from our own primordial dream state. Following this conceptual strand could have taken Vegas Vampire to a much more original and satisfying place than its silver-staking and burning-in-the-sun finale.

Fool’s Proof

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Fool’s Proof
Alberta Simpson Carter | Popular Library | 1975 | 256 pages

Following a whirlwind courtship, young New York editor Haila Gorham marries David Roche, a charmingly self-assured, blue-eyed man she met at a party on Riverside Drive. David insists upon taking Haila to meet his family at Wildemont, their estate on remote Rock Island, a popular tourist destination in the summer months, but now a deserted group of boarded up houses and deserted storefronts. During the trip, Haila is unable to shake a persistent feeling of dread, and senses an undiscovered cruelty hiding beneath David’s perfectly sunny disposition.

To her barely-concealed horror, Haila discovers that Wildemont Estate is an architectural monstrosity, a jumbled abomination whose malevolence has seeped into the lives of its residents. David’s parents are cold and distant from their children, lost in an alcoholic fog, semi-oblivious to the verbal assaults from their daughter Gillian, who simmers with repressed anger. David’s brother Jack, although polite and well mannered, projects a dark magnetism that Haila finds disturbing, but also strangely attractive. Jack’s wife Lenore is a voluptuous beauty, whose movie-star glamour seems impossibly outsized for such a small resort town and its handful of year-round residents.

Haila is shocked when David coyly reveals that they will be leaving New York to reside with his family at Wildemont. But that shock is eclipsed by a story playing on the local news. Anton Freund, a local resident—and former friend of Gillian—convicted of murder in the bludgeoning deaths of several women, has escaped from custody and is thought to have returned home to Rock Island. The police’s theory is seemingly confirmed when a local girl is found murdered outside the bar where she worked, her head crushed in by a rock.

Fool’s Proof succeeds in generating suspense from its simple formula: trap a young heroine on a remote island estate with a husband she barely knows, mix with a family she fears cannot be trusted, then add an escaped murderer. Given its dark history, the accumulation of past (and present) tragic events at Wildemont advance an interesting theory of the power of architecture to influence and even drive human actions, without resorting to a literal haunting.

Although the identity of the “fool” and the nature of the “proof” in Fool’s Proof are enigmatic, the sudden romantic resolution at the finale suggests a clear life lesson—don’t let a pile of fresh corpses stand in the way of finding true love.

House on the Beach

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House on the Beach
Eleanor Elford Cameron | Pocket Books | 1972 | 191 pages

Bearing no relation to the moonlit castle scene on the cover, House on the Beach instead may be generously classified as a California Gothic, with its young heroine potentially trapped in a dangerous web of murderous intrigue.

Walking back to her aunt Maggie’s home along the beach, young heiress Ivy McCall witnesses a suspicious scene at a neighbor’s beach house. Outlined by the light coming from the patio door, she sees a figure emerge from the house carrying what appears to be a heavy bundle of blankets. Seeming to scan the beachfront for observers, the man surreptitiously takes his misshapen cargo around the side of the house and disappears. Moments later, Ivy sees a white sports car drive off down the oceanfront highway. However, although she failed to see him clearly, she is convinced that the man turned his head in her direction and spotted her watching from behind a pile of driftwood.

Reflecting back upon the scene she just observed, Ivy considers the terrifying possibility that the blankets concealed a body—making the man she saw a possible murderer! As she continues her walk home along the highway, a white sports car suddenly appears from around a curve and accelerates, nearly hitting her and forcing her to jump from the roadside into a ditch full of brambles. The driver pulls her back up to the road to check on her condition, but unsure whether this is the same man from earlier on the beach, Ivy runs away in a panic.

Discussing the incident with Aunt Maggie, Ivy learns that—coincidentally—the beach house belongs to her college roommate Karen Kendall’s boyfriend David Rogers, and his older brother Curt. Karen, David, and Ivy’s beau from school Bill Gruber are coming to town to celebrate their upcoming graduation, and have plans to get together at the very beach house that Ivy fears may have been the scene of a recent murder. As Ivy struggles with what she has witnessed, and the related notion that someone in her close circle of friends may be involved, other events unfold that make her fear that her own life may be in danger.

Although key failures, such as Ivy not immediately reporting to the police when an attempt is made on her life, scuttle the overall suspension of disbelief, ultimately they are of little matter. The plot exists only to place Ivy in a position of romantic peril, with her attraction to Curt growing along with the evidence against him. The biggest question may not be “Who done it?” but whether or not Ivy leaves her marginally dull, Shakespeare-quoting boyfriend for the dangerously magnetic murder suspect.

Through the Dark Curtain (The Guardians)

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Through the Dark Curtain (The Guardians)
Peter Saxon | Lancer Books | 1968 | 190 pages

The Guardians, a London-based group dedicated to fighting the forces of supernatural evil in the world, return to investigate the case of a young wife frightened into a vegetative state by an unknown encounter on a deserted Suffolk country road.

Wealthy industrialist Sir Giles Offord contacts Steven Kane—anthropologist, expert in all matters of the occult, and operational leader of the Guardians—for assistance in investigating the strange fate of his daughter-in-law. Stranded in their broken-down car by the side of the road while her husband walked to the nearest village for gasoline, Mavis Offord experienced a terror so profound that she collapsed into a state of catatonic madness. Later discovered curled in the fetal position in a roadside ditch, Mavis was removed shrieking to the local physician, eventually being admitted to a psychiatric hospital—where she is yet to recover or even talk about her ordeal. Answering Steven Kane regarding why he requests the special services of the Guardians, Sir Giles explains, “I think she saw the devil.”

Accompanying Steven Kane to Frenton, the small village where Mavis was found, is Father John Dyball—Guardians member and Anglo-Catholic priest with an expert knowledge in the dark side of Faith. After questioning some of the villagers, Kane and Dyball come to suspect the activities of a mysterious local organization, the Sons of Anglia, and its founder Lawrence Stow. An elderly and reclusive man, Stow is rarely seen in the village, but Kane does meet his daughter Barbara, who although a beautiful blonde of nearly Amazonian proportions, exhibits little signs of life behind her strangely dull blue eyes.

Breaking into Stow’s estate after dark, Kane and Dyball interrupt a strange ritual attended by figures in white robes. At its center, a nearly nude Barbara Stow is held in bondage and whipped by unseen forces. Left behind by the fleeing cult members, both Barbara and her father lapse into catatonic states. Anne Ashby, the Guardians’ voluptuously beautiful occult expert and telepath, arrives to provide assistance with Barbara, but immediately slips into a vivid trance-like state—experiencing a vision of Barbara as a Queen of ancient Britain, facing off against the oppressive rule of Roman occupation.

Following the timeworn tradition of depicting small English villages as insular worlds filled with dark histories of superstition, witchcraft and secret rites, Through the Dark Curtain benefits most from evoking this familiar atmosphere of malevolence. Although standard fare, the most enjoyable passages have Kane and Dyball acting as detectives, asking around the hotels, garages and pubs for information. They turn up tantalizing possibilities, such the “Black Dog” (who local myth claims is the devil’s companion, hunting for souls on certain nights of the year), and receive tips leading to the secret society—never knowing who may be part of the shadowy network. Once Kane and Dyball interrupt the secret ceremony, and Anne Ashby takes the story back in time to ancient Britain, everything becomes muddled. The flashbacks to ancient battles are not compelling, and the resolution never really clarifies whether the Guardians experience these scenes as reincarnation, actually travel back in time, or simply have a shared hallucination.

The conclusion stands out as being most arbitrary; rather than the bunk explanation of formulating Druid and Christian spells into some mystical concoction, Dyball could have just as easily cried out, “Shazam!” and sent the rescuing bolts of lighting down from the sky.

 

Vampirella #1 (Bloodstalk)

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Vampirella #1 (Bloodstalk)
Ron Goulart | Warner Books | 1975 | 141 pages

First book in a series of novelizations of the Warren Publishing horror-comic series, featuring the interstellar blood-sucking heroine.

After surviving a plane crash, Vampirella succumbs to her growing vampiric hunger and feeds on the only other survivor. Driven by guilt over her action, she stumbles across an old sanitarium and is captured by Adam Westron, a doctor who immediately recognizes her true nature. Dr. Westron offers Vampirella a proposal. He has developed a serum that will substitute for human blood, freeing her from her dependence upon human victims. However, this freedom comes with a price—in exchange for his continued supply of the serum, Vampirella must become Dr. Westron’s mistress!

Fighting back against her captor, Vampirella discovers that Dr. Weston is part of a larger network of evil, The Companions of Chaos. Following the instructions in an arcane book of magic called The Crimson Chronicles, the Companions aim to raise demons from the void of another dimension through human sacrifice. Vampirella vows to smash this organization, which seems to have cells beyond the immediate confines of the sanitarium.

Unfortunately for Vampirella, the victim she killed at the crash site was the brother of noted vampire-hunter, Kurt Van Helsing. The blind and elderly Kurt, grandson of the Van Helsing that fought the legendary Count Dracula, possesses the gift of E.S.P, and along with his son Adam, has vowed to track down and destroy the predator responsible for the killing. Reading much like a comic book, the story zips along from sanitarium to demon cult ritual to dark carnival, with Vampirella’s pursuers propelled by a lazy reliance on E.S.P. visions.

Van Helsing brought one hand up to press against his pale forehead. “I…see her,“ he said. “I…see her…at…yes, at a carnival.”

Lacking the immediate voluptuousness of the original comic art illustration, the novel’s Vampirella reads as a rather bland heroine, reduced to repeated descriptions of being “long-legged” or “dark-haired.” A brief flashback providing our heroine’s origin story—essentially, she escapes in a rocket ship from a doomed planet formed with rivers of blood—does little to, ahem, flesh out her character. However, titillation-seekers could simply close the book and stare into the cleavage of the José González cover art.

The Reimann Curse

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The Reimann Curse
Jean DeWeese | Ballantine Books | 1975 | 182 pages

A young schoolteacher is menaced by an ancient evil, her obsession with the ruins of an old estate fueling her nightmares, and ultimately unlocking a haunted past.

Following the tragic deaths of her husband and young daughter, Helen Warden accepts a teaching position in a small New England town. Driving cross-country for two days from Wisconsin, Helen takes a wrong turn off the highway a few miles from her destination. She comes across a ruined old estate, a three-story gothic hulk partially destroyed by fire, that she finds strangely compelling—as if someone or something inside is insistently whispering her name.

Turning around and heading back toward the highway, Helen stops at an inn that appears to be a smaller version of the looming mansion she just encountered. Run by Martha and George Groves, Helen learns that the Groves Lodge occupies the former guesthouse of the Reimann estate, its mansion destroyed by fire seventy years previously. Developing a strange fascination with old estate, Helen is troubled by nightmares. Her dreams are filled with the ominous black shape of the Reimann mansion, of distorted faces circling menacingly around her, and of a strange metallic object shifting in her hands. Upon waking, Helen is aware that she was screaming words in some unfamiliar language.

Initially intending only to stay the night, Helen seems unable to leave Groves Lodge, whose only other semi-permanent guests are the elderly Amanda Lund and her son Mark. Helen is fascinated to learn that Amanda was a resident of the Reimann Estate as a small child, leaving upon the death of her parents after the fire seventy years ago. Amanda has returned in an attempt to recover her memory of these early childhood years, lost since the tragedy but haunting her with the promise of some unknown revelation. As Helen’s nightmares continue, she finds her behavior changing, becoming more violent and obsessive about the estate and its dark history.

The evil influence at the core of The Reimann Curse reveals itself to be less traditional curse than the action of an ill-explained Great-Slippery-Silver-Whatsit. Helen’s selection as a victim for this non-titular object’s malevolent touch seems arbitrary [seventy-six year old Amanda would have been the logical one], and her nightmares steadily become little more than passive visions pointing the way to an expected conclusion. However, the brooding atmosphere of the ruined house lurking just beyond the bare tree line, and its insidious pull on Helen’s imagination, deliver enough genre thrills to satisfy.