The Brownstone

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The Brownstone
Ken Eulo | Pocket Books | 1980 | 332 pages

“What do you want from me?” she screamed. “What!”

Tepid genre thrills, maybe? Faded gothic horrors, copies—one generation removed–of other supernatural apartment terrors, such as Rosemary’s Baby or The Sentinel?

After being evicted from their building, Chandal and Justin Knight move into a too-good-to-be-true apartment in an old brownstone on the Upper West Side. Owned by elderly sisters, Magdalen and Elizabeth, the brownstone provides one last opportunity for Justin to stay in New York and pursue his theatre career. Just below the sisters, the spacious first floor apartment also provides growing room for the newly expectant Chandal.

Justin’s behavior begins to change soon after their arrival. Showing an unusual fascination for the sickly Magdalen, he exhibits violent mood swings. Displaying a new interest in photography, he converts the basement into a darkroom, and disappears for days at a time. Taking a job at the Natural History Museum, Chandal’s contact with her husband diminishes to viewing the red darkroom light above the locked basement door.

Alone for much of the time in the brownstone, Chandal experiences the sensation of being watched. In addition, she begins to see evidence—and ultimately visions—of a young couple in her new nursery. Fearing that the stress of a deteriorating marriage is impacting her sanity, she nonetheless wonders if her specters are actually living people, somehow connected to the sisters upstairs.

Interspersed with short passages of a patient’s file at a mental institution, The Brownstone delivers few surprises. Diverging from her similarity to Rosemary after she loses her baby, Chandal nonetheless continues to play the familiar role of heroine immersed in a threatening environment. The atmosphere of dread and paranoia are lessened from the early pages, however, since an occult ritual informs the reasons behind all the actions. Even an unexpected, late betrayal by a friend, with the resultant potential of a larger conspiracy, becomes a throwaway moment, since any fateful repercussions fail to arise.

The saga of the accursed brownstone continues with The Bloodstone. Hopefully, that book will not reveal Chandal as a blind nun keeping vigil at the attic window.

Doctor Strange | Issue #7

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Doctor Strange | Issue #7
The Demon Fever
Marvel Comics | April 1975

By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!”

With more colorful linguistic ejaculations than an episode of the original Batman television series, this issue features Doctor Strange battling Umar, sister of the imprisoned demon, Dormammu. Regenerating his powers in the fiery center of the earth, Dormammu plots nothing short of world domination, and enlists his diabolical allies to crush the only obstacle in his path–Doctor Strange.

Vipers of Valtorr!”

Engaging Umar in a psychic battle on the astral plane, Strange feels “…the tri-dimensional spoor of a trans-dimensional war” before succumbing to “a confederate, some accursed anti-psychic toady lying in wait for my more potent thrust!” Failing in his Freudian advance against Umar, Strange must rely on the assistance of Clea, a former disciple who previously battled Dormammu, and barely survived by escaping through a volcanic vent. Pointedly avoiding Strange as a potential ally (and dragging down the pace of the story), she approaches a dubious laundry list of other mystic masters—Wong, Rama Kaliph, Genghis, and the Junkie–before turning to Strange. However, Clea harbors a dark secret that may ultimately betray him.

“Demons of Denak!”

For a novice to the Doctor Strange universe, the names, places, and references have the clinging aroma of the “made-up” about them, even with the occasional footnote (to past issues or series) to verify their accuracy. Even Strange himself shares a moment of existential crisis regarding his world, confessing to a “mental nausea.” Perhaps issue eight will provide some relief.

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Dark Shadows | Issue #15

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Dark Shadows | Issue #15
The Night Children
Gold Key Comics | August 1972

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Creepy kids drive Barnabas Collins to Hell in this issue, along with the requisite curses, strange monsters, and otherworldly transformations characterized by the series.

Angelique, the witch, conjures two Night Children, demonic creatures in the form of innocent youths, to seek out and destroy Barnabas Collins. Any potential victim with goodness in their heart will be trapped in their gaze, locked under their malevolent control. They show up at Collinwood under the pretense of looking for their lost dog, only to lure Barnabas out into a clearing in the woods.

Of all the children’s dark powers, the ability to lie seems strangely lacking. When Barnabas calls them out as Night Children (due to their lack of shadows), they immediately cry out in unison, “Yessssssss!” However, Barnabas is soon debilitated and laid out in repose for the morning sunrise, the rays of light fatal to his vampiric form.

The evil cherubs return to Collinwood, breaking up a dinner party where Professor Stokes, ever the pedant, bores everyone with his incessant small talk of the Black Arts. Placing the guests under their control, the Night Children attempt to create a ritual that will destroy the great estate. Suffering the effects of the full moon while locked safely away in the cellar, only Quentin escapes falling into the hands of the children. His cursed heart the only one at Collinwood that holds enough darkness to keep their powers at bay.

To its detriment, this issue seems to improvise (or, more critically, just plain make up) a significant number of consequential rules over the course of its brief page count: five victims are needed to complete a double pentagram ritual, since the supernatural fire the Night Children seek to create cannot be generated from a figure of four (four being a symbol of good); only those who “linger in both worlds” are able to see the entrance to the Black Pit, which is fortunate for Barnabas after the Night Children escape into it; unless saved by an (undisclosed) act of kindness, Barnabas will be trapped forever in the Black Pit if Angelique catches him in his human form, or if he is killed there; and, finally, there are creatures who carry fallen spirits down into the Black Pit called Zozos, that are essentially flying monkeys.

On the plus side, Barnabas fights flying monkeys.

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The Demon Samurai

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The Demon Samurai
Clay Grant | Belmont Tower Books | 1978 | 158 pages

Michael Kirk is something of a heel. An American B-movie producer who has come to Japan to shoot his latest horror film, Monster Valley, Kirk spurns the true feelings of his production assistant, Mari Yanagawa, while making amorous passes towards other women at Yokoya Studios—“passes” that could better be described as sexual harassment:

“You’re new around here, aren’t you?” he asked…placing  a finger on her left breast and tracing a circle around the outline of the nipple on her sweater.”

Unfortunately for Kirk, Mari inadvertently awakens the spirit of an evil samurai trapped in a wood carving that she discovers in an antique shop while searching for movie props. Something in the nature of Mari’s relationship with Kirk triggers the memory of the trapped spirit, whose previous earthly incarnation was responsible for the violation and death of a young girl. The spirit follows Mari back to Kirk, who he views as a foreign devil that must be destroyed.

Kirk, seeing a psychiatrist in Tokyo to combat his nervous exhaustion, undergoes an experimental treatment involving the injection of an LSD-derivative drug. The psychedelic dose transports his mind to a stylized landscape reminiscent of an ancient Japanese scroll, where he glimpses the threatening figure of the samurai. Meanwhile at the studio, a screen test of Monster Valley unleashes the spirit-samurai, who physically erupts into the corporeal world from the spools of film.

Quickly growing to an immense size, the newly created monster (samurai? lizard? hybrid?) destroys much of the movie studio and rampages across the city, leaving the Tokyo police and American military powerless to stop it. Taking Mari captive, the creature’s motivations are unclear, until a second demon bursts forth, leading to a battle of the giant monsters in the streets below the Tokyo Tower.

The entire last half of the book describes the monstrous carnage, running much like one of the low-budget monster rumbles Yokoya Studios could have produced. The demon spirit’s early possession and control of various figures in the movie studio could have provided some sinister chills, but once the action reaches gigantic proportions, all subtlety is lost as the story veers into cartoon territory. The reveal of Kirk’s connection to the monsters comes as absolutely no surprise, due to his complete disappearance from the narrative around the time of their arrival.

Kirk’s literal exorcism of his personal demons creates a city-wide swath of destruction, finally allowing him to pledge his love for Mari. Perhaps, a few more bottles of scotch ordered from hotel room service could have instead helped him reach his inner sensitive male—and save hundreds of casualties. Or better yet, Mari could have just taken Kirk’s own advice to heart:

“Mari, baby…I’m not worth it. Believe me.”

The Tomb

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The Tomb
F. Paul Wilson | Berkley Books | 1984 | 404 pages

First in a series of books featuring Repairman Jack, an identity-less investigator who “fixes” unusual problems, The Tomb could be a superhero adventure, complete with origin story, if only its hero possessed any of the requisite skills—aside from those cultivated by performing a few sweaty workouts between meals of Lite Beer and Cocoa Puffs.

Hired by Kusum Bahkti, a one-armed Indian delegate to the United Nations, Jack searches for an assailant who robbed and beat Kusum’s grandmother on the street, leaving her near death. Kusum insists that Jack must find the family heirloom necklace that was stolen, and return it to his grandmother before she dies. Donning the garb of an old lady, Jack hits the streets of New York in drag in an attempt to ensnare the culprit.

Meanwhile, Jack agrees to help his estranged girlfriend, Gia, search for her missing aunt. Grace Westphalen, an English society matron, who seemingly disappeared without a trace from the second story of her fashionable East Side townhouse. Searching her living quarters for clues, Jack discovers nothing out of the ordinary, except for a vial of odd smelling ointment, unlabeled and out of place among her belongings. An analysis of the contents reveals the presence of durba grass, an alkaloid native to India.

Of course, the two narratives ultimately converge, with a horde of demons from Indian mythology threatening the descendants of a murderous tomb robber. Even at 400-plus pages, the story speeds along through evocative New York City neighborhoods, back to nineteenth-century India, and finishing with an action-packed finale on the waters of New York Harbor. Jack even has time for a tennis match with his father in New Jersey, who perhaps unwittingly validates Jack’s unconventional workout regime by noting, “You move fast. Damn fast. Faster than any appliance repairman I’ve ever known.”

Although some of the supporting characters tend toward one-note caricatures (Abe Grossman—gross man—a corpulent sporting goods store owner and illegal arms merchant, simply loves Entemann’s cakes), Jack is an appealing enough everyman, however armed and dangerous. He not only works through the case, but also grapples with his life choice to be a “repairman”, and attempts to rebuild his troubled relationship with Gia—with a brief timeout for wild, tantric sex with an immortal Indian demon watcher.

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.

Chamber of Chills #3

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Chamber of Chills, Issue #3
Marvel Comics | March 1973

An anthology of horrors from Marvel Comic’s early-seventies series:

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The Thing on the Roof
A treasure-seeking adventurer returns from plundering an ancient temple in Central America with an unexpected pursuer on his trail. Advanced civilizations, even ones from prehistory, should know better than hiding their abominations behind the attractive nuisance of a fantastic temple—of course some native-abusing jackass will come along and drop that shiny jewel into place in the matching recessed slot in the treasure room’s stone door, revealing the secret chamber within.

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All the Shapes of Fear
A man’s nightmare of a giant grasping hand proves to be prophetic, leading to a circular loop of cause-and-effect for a tragic accident. A driver’s education simulation comes to life, as a child’s ball rolls into the street.

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The Girl Who Cast No Shadow
Another tale stemming from an archeologist’s hubris, and the resulting evil released from a violated temple. Even the curators at the British Museum knew enough to wall up the demonic statue in a basement room (how did they explain that decision to museum administrators?). The lack of a shadow seems to be a strange lure for a successful succubus—imagine all the leering men and their catcalls of “Hey baby, I got your shadow right here!” Hanging around a dive bar at closing time would pull in more unwitting victims, even with the burden of a shadow.