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.”

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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.

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).

House Above Hollywood

HouseAboveHollywood

House Above Hollywood
Velda Johnston | Dell Books | 1968 | 191 pages

After the death of her aunt Georgia, Carol Marshall leaves Denver for a Southern California boarding house. Although superficially interested in breaking into the greeting card business, her true motivation for moving is to be near the Paloma Beach hotel room where her estranged father killed himself ten years earlier. A former Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Kevin Marshall fell into an alcoholic despair after the accidental death of his wife, leaving his young daughter and moving to California to write Hollywood screenplays. However, Carol has never accepted the fact that her father committed suicide, and is determined to find the true party responsible for his death.

To stretch the modest inheritance from her aunt, Carol accepts a position as a live-in secretary to former silent movie star Tara Mornette, living in relative isolation in her Hollywood Hills home. Once the setting for infamous parties attended by industry stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino, the sprawling Mediterranean-style villa now houses only Tara, her cousin Paul Haynes, and the service staff, Peggy and Howard Wong. Tara also seems to have a permanent houseguest, the enigmatic leader of the Circle of the Enlightened cult—and her personal psychic adviser—Malon Thorne. Even upon her arrival at the estate, Carol realizes that Tara is living in fear of some unknown presence.

Aside from some pre-dinner conversation about other planes of existence and a briefly overheard spiritualist session, the presence of the strange occultist living with Tara leads to surprisingly few supernatural thrills. Although the house has a storied history, the location itself lacks an atmosphere steeped in menace or potential danger.

Playing the part of amateur detective during her off-hours, Carol discovers that a woman in oddly dated garb was seen leaving the scene of her father’s suicide, further cementing her conviction of foul play. Her seemingly separate worlds collide when Tara divulges a shocking secret—she not only knew Kevin Marshall, but after initially hiring him to ghostwrite her autobiography, she fired him on the morning of his death. Now guilt-ridden at the though of contributing to the despondency that may have cost him his life, Tara purports to have experienced visitations from his ghost.

The world of faded Hollywood glamour, and its hangers-on, makes for an appealing backdrop to the mystery surrounding Kevin Marshall’s death. Carol is never in too much direct danger while tracking down the woman who may have been his killer, although her employer suffers a hit-and-run attack. Her claustrophobia, while firmly established in a practical joke at the hands of Howard, doesn’t figure into the finale, as perhaps anticipated.

Even the romantic subplot lacks a certain amount of tension. Of course, the broken-nosed ruffian who initially meets Carol with hostility will eventually win her affections. Larry, the former tennis star turned housecleaner and initial love interest, must overcome his own terror in the face of the question, “Can’t we just be friends?”