The Landlady

The Landlady
Constance Rauch | Popular Library | 1976 | 253 pages

Leaving behind a series of failed jobs in the city, Sam Porter moves his wife, Jessica, and young daughter, Patience, into a charming old apartment in Wimbledon-on-Hudson. However, the family’s dream of a new life in the suburbs meets an unexpected obstacle in the form of Mrs. Falconer, the intrusive crone of a landlady living upstairs.

On the night of the family’s arrival, the small village is stunned by the shocking murder of Nora Kelly, a nearly retired accounting clerk at the offices of a company partially owned by Sam’s new employer. After his first day on the job, Sam returns to some of his bad habits, losing several hours over drinks at the local pub. Meanwhile, Jessica meets another young mother who warns her of the psychological games Mrs. Falconer has played on previous tenants.

Jessica herself finds that doting Mrs. Falconer’s superficial politeness occasionally gives way to apoplectic anger. Popping down to check on the young mother, the old woman rages at discovering nails pounded in the wall, and tears down one of the child’s drawings. The simple awareness of the landlady’s constant presence upstairs becomes a nagging source of unease for Jessica.

Already alarmed at discovering a previously unknown connecting stairway between the apartments, Jessica is horrified when Patience claims that a strange man entered her room at night and stole her doll. The formerly talkative and precocious two-year-old begins to exhibit signs of emotional regression, lapsing into a nearly complete silence. Fearing that Mrs. Falconer is behind the intrusion into her home, Jessica listens for the constant tap-tap-tap of the old woman’s cane on the floorboards upstairs.

Touted as “the greatest terror turn-on since Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist” on the cover, The Landlady delivers a treatise on Sam and Jessica’s failing marriage rather than terror. Jessica’s battles with Mrs. Falconer along with Sam’s seeming inability to hold a job (and sobriety) create an emotional strain that threatens to tear their family apart. Sam begins to spend more hours, and occasionally entire nights, at the office, shaking the foundation of their marriage—and leaving Jessica alone to face a series of strange events, culminating in a trip up the connecting staircase.

The creeping sense of intrusion into personal space, coupled with the background details surrounding the local murder, builds an atmosphere of dread around Jessica. However, the introduction of the evidence of child abuse completely sours the enjoyment of the mystery, adding an unnecessary and distasteful subtext to the horrors at Wimbledon-on-Hudson.

Although compromised by the implications of real-world abuses, the fundamentally terrifying question remains, “What’s going on next door?”

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Sixth Sense

Sixth Sense
Ramona Stewart | Dell Books | 1978 | 211 pages

Following a blow to the head received in a skiing accident, Nancy Parsons experiences psychic visions of murder in this tepid supernatural thriller.

Returning to New York City from a visit with her ski-bum father in New England, Nancy receives vivid mental images of murders, committed by a serial killer plaguing Greenwich Village, as they happen. Although not convinced of her psychic abilities, NYPD Inspector Doyle acknowledges the specific details she provides regarding the crimes, and the killer. When a gossip columnist inadvertently mentions her abilities in an article, Nancy potentially becomes the next target of “The Slasher”.

Nancy, however, is not an appealing protagonist, but rather seems somewhat insufferable. Whether living in her actress mother’s Greenwich Village brownstone, hanging out after cutting graphic design classes, casually passing around an occasional “j” with her boyfriend (the son of coal mine owners), or receiving a three-day hospital stay (and comprehensive battery of tests) following a fainting spell, she fails to muster much empathy.

Other characters exhibit a few oddly defining traits—Inspector Doyle loves animals and reads National Geographic, boyfriend Teddy imports tropical fish, friend Davie is a directionless layabout—but the details are ultimately of little consequence. Even the New York City locations are uninspiring. Beyond her mother’s obligatory theatre party at Sardi’s and a passing reference to the Fourth Street Subway station, the events could have occurred anywhere.

“The Slasher” also exhibits few traits beyond a cheap misogyny, and an interest in telepathy. The possibility of him experiencing reverse psychic visions of Nancy is teased, but shortly dismissed, closing any opportunity for some kind of psychic showdown.

Once the killer becomes fixated upon Nancy, her psychic powers almost become a secondary concern, with the climax playing out like a straight hostage thriller. Her visions of the killer ultimately lead Doyle to the rescue, but Sixth Sense lacks any real twists or surprises along the way. The epilogue even sets up a prospective sequel (or series foundation) that, presumably, did not happen.

However, Nancy and her psychic “Scooby gang” of friends are not a team whose adventures would merit much interest.

The best curmudgeonly advice for Nancy: “Go back to design school.”

Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby
Ira Levin | Dell Books | 1967 | 218 pages

“You look great. It’s that haircut that looks awful, if you want the truth, honey.”

Readers familiar with Roman Polanski’s remarkably faithful 1968 screen adaptation will no doubt recall some of the indelible images—and performances—from the film while turning the pages, but Ira Levin’s novel remains a singular classic that defines modern horror.

Struggling actor Guy Woodhouse and his wife Rosemary seem to be a sympathetic young couple, but from the start Guy exhibits a shallow narcissism. Following the simple vanity of “Christ, a pimple” upon viewing his reflection, Guy lies about a sudden job opportunity in order to break a newly signed lease. His deceit allows for a move into the Bramford, a gothic apartment building that, unbeknownst to them, harbors a dark history of murder, cannibalism, and devil worship.

Rosemary is complicit with Guy’s actions, determined to have her dream apartment that will provide a foundation for her future family, with “three children two years apart.” Even after a short retreat to a cabin (in one of the few scenes not included in the screenplay), Rosemary acknowledges Guy’s shortcomings as a husband and potential father, yet is determined to conceive a child.

Small indicators of the diabolical horrors to come are sprinkled throughout, from the black candles provided by neighbors, Roman and Minne Castavet, to the sounds of ritual music through the common walls of the apartment. A few current events also help define the general mood of the time. The Pope’s visit to New York City triggers a discussion with the Castavets on the hypocrisy of religion, and Rosemary reflects upon the infamous Time magazine cover, “Is God Dead?”

When Guy receives a new role due to the mysterious blinding of a rival actor, he is unfazed by the horrific circumstances, concerned only with his own good fortune. Rosemary also receives some shocking news about her friend, Hutch, when he slips into a coma. Yet, she acknowledges to herself that her concern lies more with not having anyone in her life to depend upon if he dies, rather than with Hutch’s health itself.

After receiving the news of her conception, events turn more overtly horrific. Rosemary’s sallow, wasted appearance contradicts her expectations of a happy, healthy pregnancy. Her constant abdominal pain leads to a reflection that “the baby kicked like a demon.” And above all, the suffocating helpfulness of the Castavets, with Minnie’s insistent schedule of herbal vitamin drinks.

Ira Levin’s lean and direct prose provides his occult apartment horror story a wealth of contextual readings, ranging from the isolation of modern life, to an exercise in paranoia, or to a study of the interpersonal dynamics of a marriage. But driving it all is the sinking feeling of despair that something sinister, and beyond all control, lies just beyond the cusp of understanding.

Yet, under the blanket of pessimism resulting from the ultimate triumph of evil, Rosemary reaches the perversely happy ending she so desires; her apartment, husband, and new family—with the single, however significant, caveat regarding the nature her baby.

Our Lady of Darkness

Our Lady of Darkness
Fritz Leiber | Berkley Books | 1977 | 183 pages

After a hike to the barren, hilly summit of Corona Heights, Franz Weston, writer of weird tales and a recovering alcoholic, turns his binoculars back towards his downtown San Francisco apartment building. Finding what he believes to be his own window through the glasses, Franz sees a strange figure lean out—and wave.

Referencing a copy of Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities, an antiquarian book purchased secondhand sometime earlier during an alcoholic bender, Franz becomes convinced that he has witnessed an occurrence of a paranormal being. The book’s author, Thibaut de Castries, an obscure turn-of-the-century practitioner of the occult, theorized that the massive concrete, steel, and electrical congregation of modern cities generates a network of supernatural energy. This energy manifestation, he posits in his pseudo-scientific tome, can be manipulated with careful deliberation in a methodology described as “Neo-Pythagorean Metageometry,” and may potentially result in the generation of paranormal entities.

Franz’s growing obsession with the work of de Castries, along with the investigation into his otherworldly vision, tantalizes the prospect of a great hidden world just beyond the reach of understanding. Even his apartment building at 811 Geary Street, with its blacked-out airshaft windows and broom closets without door handles, has a role in creating an atmosphere of an inexplicable truth on the cusp of being revealed.

Franz nodded impatiently, restraining his impulse to say, “Get on with it!”

However, the pacing suffers with a few instances of expository info-dump and from an off-putting writing style. Franz’s friend Byers, who reveals a deeper-than-expected knowledge of Megapolisomancy, recounts de Castries’ history over the course of several monotonous chapters. Along with the endless prattle about Metageometries, the desire to skim passages grows stronger than the drive to uncover the mysteries swirling around Corona Heights, the Geary Street apartment, and the newly constructed skyscrapers that serve as the modern equivalent of Neolithic standing stones.

Repeated references to other fantastic works and authors—H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Clark Ashton Smith, and even Fritz Leiber himself—are meant to suggest the depth of influence and universality lurking beneath the surface of Megapolisomancy theory, but simply serve as a constant distraction. Lieber’s use of parenthetical injections (like this one) in his text (every few paragraphs) perhaps evokes the three-dot styling (sometimes every few sentences) of Herb Caen’s San Francisco Chronicle columns (also referenced), but (really) disrupt the flow of his prose (something akin to constant footnotes).

“He had been listening with a mixture of fascination, irritation, and wry amusement, with at least half of his attention clearly elsewhere.”

Those familiar with San Francisco geography will probably be rewarded more than others, since painstakingly detailed accounts of places and character movements naturally accompany a meditation on the paranormal energies of place. From such well-known icons as the Transamerica Pyramid, Sutro Tower, and Lotta Crabtree’s fountain on Market Street, to more neighborhood-oriented landmarks like the Randall Museum, readers are well prepared to join Franz as he unfolds a city map and plots the cursed ley lines exploited by Thibaut de Castries.

The existence of a Neo-Pythagorean, paranormal curse line even explains the N-Judah not running.

Hell House

Hell House
Richard Matheson | Bantam Books | 1971 | 247 pages

Richard Matheson’s classic novel sends a group of intrepid psychic investigators, each with their own individual agendas and psychological baggage, to conquer the “The Mount Everest of haunted houses.”

A dying millionaire offers to pay Dr. Lionel Barrett one hundred thousand dollars to answer the eternal question, “Is there life after death?” Given only a single week to accomplish this task, the focus of the investigation is revealed to be the Belasco House in Maine, a notorious haunted house with a fatal history of failed parapsychological investigations. Along with his wife, Edith, Lionel’s team includes Florence Tanner, a spiritual medium, and Benjamin Franklin Fischer, a former psychic wunderkind—and only survivor of an attempt at unearthing the mysteries of Hell House thirty years prior.

Manifestations of the supernatural appear almost immediately after the team sequesters themselves in Hell House. Cold spots appear, furniture moves of its own accord, and Florence senses a deadly presence in the chapel. Later, she channels an unknown spirit during a séance with a more direct warning, “Get out of this house before I kill you all.”

Wringing a maximum of tension from what is essentially a four-character chamber piece, the incidents grow in frequency and intensity as the week’s deadline approaches. Although the group seemingly all acknowledge the source of the haunting as Belasco’s history of dark rituals and murderous debauchery at his mansion, they differ profoundly in their interpretation. Florence is convinced the ultimate source of the paranormal events is a spiritual haunting, with the ghost of Belasco himself perhaps commanding a group of other spirits trapped in the house. Lionel, a skeptic of mediums, seeks to prove a scientific basis for all supernatural events. He argues for the existence of a residual electromagnetic energy source, built up from a history of human actions, as the wellspring for paranormal occurrences, and aims to drain this energy field with a machine of his own creation.

Hell House itself serves as something of a fifth character. A brooding, oppressive atmosphere oozes from the gothic hulk, its rooms and corridors setting the stage for potential horrors. Pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo abounds, mixed along with ectoplasmic extrusions and spiritual possession, but the overall sense of dread is palpable. The arrival of Lionel’s machine telegraphs a final showdown with the controlling powers of the house.

However, Hell House provides a visceral ride, not just a malicious atmosphere. The characters are all beaten and abused over the course of the week, bruised and bloodied by the malicious forces at play. Glasses shatter, cutlery attacks, and sleepwalkers are directed to drown in the stagnant pond on the estate grounds. A violation from a wooden phallus protruding from an unholy, life-size crucifix in the chapel takes the abuse to a nearly absurd degree.

The constant attacks ultimately threaten to reduce the characters to broken dolls, tossed around inside a shaking, malevolent dollhouse.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson | Popular Library | 1963 | 173 pages

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

Sisters Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood, along with their invalid uncle Julian, live alone in the isolated Blackwood family estate. Ostracized by the local community, Mary Katherine only ventures into town twice a week for groceries, while her sister has withdrawn completely into the interior of the great house. The three are the only survivors of a notorious unsolved multiple murder, a poisoning that, six years earlier, claimed the lives of Mary Katherine and Constance’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother.

The details of the fateful day are not immediately forthcoming, as the daily routine at the Blackwood house takes shape. Mary Katherine exhibits a penchant for burying small tokens around the grounds of the estate, talismans to ward off bad luck, while her sister only leaves the house to tend to her vegetable garden. The only tenuous connection to life in the town is Helen Clarke, a self-purported friend of the family who visits for tea on Tuesdays.

The full realization of the community’s hostile attitude toward the Blackwood sisters comes home during the polite artifice of one of these visits. Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair and suffering mental confusion after surviving the arsenic poisoning at the family dinner, bluntly addresses Mrs. Wright, a quizzical old woman brought along by Mrs. Clarke, “My niece, after all, was acquitted of murder. There could be no possible danger in visiting here now.” While Mrs. Clarke’s tea and rum cake sit untouched, Julian recounts how Constance prepared the fatal meal with ingredients from her garden—and proceeded to immediately wash out the sugar bowl after serving.

The tea party is not, however, the greatest intrusion into the hermetically sealed world of the Blackwood sisters. The unexpected arrival of their cousin Charles, who shows great interest in the value of their possessions—and the contents of the safe in the family study—disrupts the internal workings of the house. Pressing Constance to forget her dark past, shake off her reclusive social withdrawal, and re-engage with the outside world, Charles threatens to destroy the fabric of life at Blackwood house. His growing animosity towards Mary Katherine–who lashes out with childish acts of destruction aimed at his growing influence–along with the burgeoning resentment of the townspeople, eventually lead towards a devastating, inevitable climax.

Merricat displays a brilliant insistence upon rituals, safe words, and place in the family lore, but nearly all that is important is left unspoken. Only uncle Julian, barely competent in his current state, comments on the details of the murders, collecting a rambling written rumination on the circumstances and existing evidence in a shamble of loose papers. Much later, Constance delivers a dramatic shock when she finally voices a simple truth about the crime.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, while arguably less well known than The Haunting of Hill House, is less an outright mystery or horror, but rather a compelling, melancholic character study of a blighted house and its occupants.

An origin story to a future urban myth, it dares neighborhood children to climb the porch (past the broken step) of the haunted house and invoke, “Merricat, would you like a cup of tea?”

Wolfsbane

Wolfsbane
William W. Johnstone | Zebra Books | 1982 | 268 pages

“Yes—what is the point of all this?”

After a strange attack from a wild, wolf-like creature in her French chateau, Janette Bauterre follows her grandmother, Victoria, back to their family estate in Ducros Parish, Louisiana. Janette uncovers a shocking history of lycanthropy, which includes a 40-year-old family murder at the hands of the local townspeople—a killing that Victoria seems intent on avenging.

Following the return of the Bauterres, a string of shocking murders stuns the local police. The victims each exhibit strange bite wounds and a complete lack of blood. The source of the carnage presents little mystery, since the Bauterre family curse and Victoria’s drive for revenge are open secrets in the town.

Not completely trusting her mother, Janette hires Pat Strange, an ex-mercenary friend of her late husband, to protect her and track down the creatures that she views lurking around the grounds of the mansion. However, instead of a forthcoming moody monster rumble across the bayous of Louisiana, Wolfsbane reaches for a meta-textual battle of good versus evil, with Victoria and Pat the proxies for the duality of God and Satan.

God and devil fight all de time, boy. I ain’t sayin’ God lak it, but what He gonna do – jes sit back and not play? Devil win all de time if He do dat.”

Pat’s arrival completely shifts the overall tone from nascent gothic horror to full-blown men’s adventure tale, with the tough hero taking the lead as protagonist. The emphasis on Pat introduces a rough-and-tumble masculinity, with its corresponding light gun-porn details (checking and resupplying the ammunition his pistol, shotgun, and .41 magnum), into the story. There are also a few accompanying sex scenes, with a blunt, clinical descriptions and wooden dialogue that would probably fail to titillate most adolescents.

“Lady, that’d be a mouthful. But I suppose that would be one way to shut you up.”

Particularly jarring in terms of mood is Pat’s repartees with Satan. Their back-and-forth banter, perhaps intended to be lightly comical, comes off as crushingly inane, with repeated references to sports and specifically, Casey at the Bat. Is the author just having a piss? Taking the entire book seriously becomes difficult when this interaction reduces to something akin to a failed comic stand-up routine on the differences between baseball and football.

The waters bubble and boiled. There will be no joy in Mudville.”

The noxious bubbling surrounding the appearances of evil incarnate also inspires Pat to periodically unleash an insipid stream of nicknames, all variations on “bubbles.” Meant to be comically derisive, they only succeeding in being constantly cringe inducing.

I won bubble breath.”

All boils down to a climatic shoot-out with a host of undead creatures, not Bauterre family members suffering from lycanthropy as the internal logic of the story suggests, but corpses raised from the grave. They exist simply to provide Pat ample targets to unload his arsenal of weapons before the ultimate showdown. Finally pumping silver-laced shotgun rounds into Victoria—while dropping the full action-hero line, “Sorry, you ugly bitch, you lose the game!”—reads as an arbitrary and insignificant nod to werewolf lore.

“If we had a decent umpire, that would be disallowed.”

“Oh, shut up,” Pat muttered.

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.

A Howling in the Woods

A Howling in the Woods
Velda Johnston | Dell Books | 1968 | 157 pages

Dear Eddy, I shall file for divorce very shortly. Since I don’t imagine you’ll contest, I shall make the grounds as mild as possible. Incompatibility, perhaps, or mental cruelty.”

Lisa Stanhope, a young model tiring of the Manhattan fashion scene, flees work and a failing marriage to the refuge of a shuttered hotel in rural Jericho, Nevada, an inheritance from an uncle she hardly knew. Mark Healy, her uncle’s hotel manager, seems surprised and dismissive when Lisa informs him of her decision to stay and run the business. She also receives a less-than-welcome reception from May Thornton, the edgy housekeeper, and her mentally challenged husband, Luke. But their lack of friendliness pales in comparison to the overtly hostile reaction Lisa’s appearance receives from the local townspeople.

Further deepening the atmosphere of dread, Lisa hears a mournful howling coming from the woods at night. Following a path outside the grounds of the hotel the next day, she discovers what appears to be a shallow grave in the underbrush. Seemingly uninterested in Lisa’s report, the local Justice of the Peace eventually investigates, reporting back later that only a deer carcass was found buried in the indicated plot. Walking in the woods that night, Lisa suffers–what appears to be–an animal attack. Still feeling ostracized by the community, Lisa learns from a young girl that the town has been inflicted with an unspoken tragedy, the recent unsolved murder of a child.

The eventual arrival of Lisa’s estranged husband, Eddie, completes the third leg of the obligatory love triangle, since she has developed feelings for the darkly handsome Mark—whose proposal to the not-yet-divorced Lisa comes out of nowhere. However, Eddy’s presence also undermines Lisa’s strength as a protagonist, as he assumes the lead into their investigation of the murky goings-on in Jericho. A key character ultimately breaks a little too easily from Eddy’s pressure, spilling all the incriminating details, and setting up a final claustrophobic showdown in the town’s abandoned mine.

As a variation on the town-harboring-a-dark-secret theme, A Howling in the Woods is modestly effective. The mystery surrounding the titular howling is revealed much too soon, and, sadly, there isn’t some kind of monster roaming the woods at night. However, its relevance to the murder(s) works out in due course. The ultimate source of Jericho’s troubles comes off as rather arbitrary and somewhat outlandish, but there is just enough of the who-can-you-trust-in-this town type of paranoia (although who NOT to trust should be readily apparent) to pull readers through to the end of the book’s relatively short page count.

A Howling in the Woods was adapted for television in 1971, starring Barbara Eden (and her exquisite fashion sense).

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.