Sharon Combes | Zebra Books | 1980 | 282 pages
Caly St. John and her ex-boyfriend, Ian Donovan, flee the late-summer environs of New York City for the peace of rural Maine, only to have their lives threatened by a supernatural menace.
“My suggestion to you is that you leave.”
Staying with Ian at the cottage of his childhood friends, Caly becomes increasingly fascinated with the dark history of the Simpson house, an abandoned local home and infamous scene of dual shocking murder sprees. In the seventeenth century, Captain John Jacob Simpson killed and dismembered his family and gathered guests at a dinner party with an ax, before disappearing without a trace. Then again, in 1949, the captain’s descendant, Michael Simpson, returns home from abroad in England to restore the family home, only to murder his family and gathered friends with an ax, before mysteriously dying himself.
Frustrated by the reticence of the townspeople to discuss the cursed house, Caly succumbs to her growing curiosity and breaks into the Simpson house. She is startled by the arrival of Patrick Simpson, the last heir to the family, who has returned to investigate the circumstances of his father’s death, and lift the curse before it condemns him to his family fate. Empathizing with Patrick, a social pariah in the eyes of the villagers, Caly and Ian move into the Simpson house, where the unsettled spirits of those victims of the tragic past events seek an outlet for their lost voices.
The natural attraction Caly feels for Patrick becomes corrupted, as the spiritual entities in the house possess them and use their bodies to act out past violent encounters. Apart from sudden violent behavior, historical affectations in speech provide a reliable method of indicating a ghost is present.
“Thou shan’t turn me away this night, lady.”
Good-tempered dogs attack, furniture flies of its own accord, and spirit voices haunt the trio of ghost hunters as they stumble around the house and town looking for answers to the Simpson family curse. The intrepid investigators uncover very few clues of their own accord, relying mostly on following the direction provided by ghostly finger pointing. Ultimately, little detection is needed to unearth a standard trope behind generations of violent deaths: wrongly accused of witchcraft, a young woman is burned at the stake after vowing to take revenge upon the descendants of those responsible.
“Such vengeance I shall reap upon you and your seed to follow.”
A latent love triangle, which is somewhat unsettling already because one member is possessed by the spirit of a murdering rapist, comes to a surprising resolution—evoking a children’s song about forty whacks—but otherwise everything here feels inert and overly familiar.
Wait and See
Ruby Jean Jensen | Zebra Books | 1986 | 350 pages
Charlene Childress, pregnant with the child of her cousin Daniel after a summer romance on the family’s central California estate, devises an otherworldly escape from their troubles. Seducing him with one last intimate tryst, she tries to coax him into a double-suicide pact, placing his hand on the hilt of a knife she drives into her own chest. Shocked at Charlene’s plan and by her horrible death, Daniel hides her body in the river, chaining it to the underwater roots of an overhanging tree on the bank.
Twenty-six years later, Daniel’s life is in disarray. Seeking to escape from the reaches of his terrible past, he spends most of his time working on the road, becoming estranged from his new family; wife Ronna, step-daughter Kim, young son Kevin, daughter Sara, and infant son Ivan. Sending them to live with his Aunt Winifred on the family estate he has not visited since that tragic summer of 1959, he seeks to provide them with some vestige of stability, not knowing what evil waits for them at the Childress house.
Although Charlene’s body was never found, Winifred blames Daniel for her disappearance, suspecting him of murder. Playing the role of caring aunt, Winifred puts into place her long-gestating scheme to kill all of Daniel’s children as vengeance for his role in Charlene’s death. But a greater threat beyond a murderous family member stalks the estate, when Kevin and young neighbor boy go swimming in the river and discover Charlene’s body. Cutting the skeleton free from the chains that hold it under the submerged tree roots, it comes to life, embarking on its own crusade of vengeance against the Childress family.
Things get very stabby as the red-haired skeleton stalks and slashes from the cover of darkness around the farm. A few evocative locations help set the mood, including the murky waters surrounding the skeleton’s underwater prison, and an occult altar room discovered in the barn. The point of view periodically switches between Kim and Kevin, with a child’s perspective on the horrors helping to turn the potential absurdity of a walking skeleton into a creeping dread of something evil lurking in the shadows of the big house.
The story does stretch out considerable mileage from its child-in-danger themes, and does not shy away from terminating its young characters. Any empathy for Charlene’s supernatural rampage against those who have wronged her wanes considerably as the origin of her transformation becomes clear, and her pure evil heart is exposed.
A final lesson to parents and librarians alike—keep those copies of The Necronomicon under lock and key.
Stephen Gregory | St. Martin’s Press | 1986 | 213 pages
A rumination on the nature of obsession, The Cormorant instills the specter of its titular bird–squawking, snapping its curved beak, or releasing sprays of liquid excrement—across nearly every page, building a malignant foreboding that culminates in inevitable tragedy.
“The cormorant was a lout, a glutton, an ignorant tyrant.”
The unnamed narrator inherits a cottage in the Welsh countryside from his bachelor uncle, who he recalls only meeting at family funerals, but with an unusual stipulation. In order to keep the cottage, he must care for his late uncle’s cormorant, a seabird that was rescued from a muddy death in the estuary of the River Ouse, and raised to fill the void of avuncular loneliness.
“Snaking its neck, it hissed a long malodorous hiss and brought up a pellet of half-digested matter which lay steaming in the weak sunshine.”
An unhappy teacher like his uncle, the narrator longs to escape his mundane existence in the suburbs of the English Midlands. Downplaying the role of caretaker to the cormorant, he and his wife, Ann, and their young son, Harry, accept the seemingly miraculous opportunity provided by the inheritance, and flee to the cottage in Wales to begin their new life. Their complacent attitude towards the cormorant is shattered immediately upon its arrival, their unlikely new ward exploding out of its box in a combative fit of hissing, spitting, and virulent shitting.
“It came from its box as ugly and as poisonous as a vampire bat.”
Relating to the bird as an agent of destruction against the normalcy of life and the hypocrisy of societal good behavior he left behind, the narrator slowly develops a relationship with the cormorant, whom he names Archie, eventually taking it out on fishing excursions. Ann does not share the growing affection towards Archie, fearing for the safety of Harry, who seems to exhibit a strange fascination of his own towards the seabird. And, of course, the family cat doesn’t stand a chance.
“The bird stalked around on its webbed feet, putting them down with a slap in the water and in its own many-coloured squirts of shit.”
The narrator’s obsession with Archie, whose presence informs the entire narrative, grows along with the palpable sense that all will not end well in the cozy Welsh cottage. Although arguably not an inherently evil creature, Archie drives a wedge in the family, the constant unease foreshadowing certain horror to come. Even the family’s behavior away from the bird creates discomfort, in particular a soapy, romantic encounter between husband and wife in the bathtub, with the infant son playing a squirm-inducing role. A Christmas-day dinner with neighbors becomes the perfect stage for everything to unravel, with the obligation to put on a polite face becoming increasingly difficult against the mounting terrors.
“Its jabbing bill came through, it hung for a second, scrabbling with its fleshy feet, it wings outstretched on the wire, like some gas-crazed soldier on a French battlefield.”
Not all the threads of the story are adequately explored, however. A shadowy figure seen observing from a distance and the inexplicable aroma of cigars in the cottage suggest a ghostly visit from the late uncle, but are not fully developed. His ghostly hand possibly helps the drunken narrator home from the pub, only to set up the fatal circumstances for the book’s conclusion.
“The bird came at me in to leaps, brandishing the heavy beak, punishing the night shadows with the power of its wing beats.”
Ultimately, the simultaneous empathy for Archie and the shocking nature of the finale, unexpected in its horror even though presaged, fuse to deliver a minor masterpiece of macabre terror.
The Flood | Blackwater #1
Michael McDowell | Avon Books | 1983 | 189 pages
The wet and mud-caked opening book in a serial Southern Gothic, the waters of The Flood recede and leave a singular presence, Elinor Dammert.
Surveying the flooded town of Perdido, Alabama, from the vantage point of a rowboat, mill owner Oscar Caskey discovers Elinor through the second-story window (now at water level) of the town’s deserted hotel, calmly sitting on the bed as if waiting for his arrival. Much to the consternation of family matriarch, Mary-Love Caskey, Elinor quickly takes a room with Oscar’s uncle, establishing herself his caretaker and de-facto guardian of his small child.
With a coldly calculating detachment, Elinor uses all resources to further her advantage, and soon becomes engaged to Oscar. A manipulator of people rivaling Mary-Love herself, Elinor engages in a battle of wills to gain entry into the family. The physical manifestation of that contest is the marriage house that Mary-Love promises, but stalls in its construction. Even the assumed bond between mother and child is challenged in the struggle to achieve the upper hand.
Meanwhile, a young boy glimpses Elinor in an unguarded moment, soaking in a pond of river water, and for a moment sees something not-entirely human. She exhibits a natural affinity for water, and displays fearlessness around hazards such as the naturally occurring whirlpool where two branches of the river meet. A shocking act of violence suggests that Elinor is capable of manipulation on a level beyond simple social influence, and other tragedies swirl about the plagued community.
From the dirty high-water mark in the hotel to the sandy lifeless soil (except for the strangely flourishing trees that Elinor plants) left behind by the receding waters, book one of the Blackwater saga is a triumph of place and mood.
Something is clearly wrong, or otherworldly, with Elinor, but as she insinuates herself into the Caskey family, the ultimate question emerges, “What does she want?”