Night Slaves

Night Slaves
Jerry Sohl | Fawcett Books | 1965 | 174 pages

Suffering from a mental breakdown that has reduced him to a near-catatonic state, Clay Howard slowly recuperates at a private psychiatric facility north of San Francisco. Under an intensive drug therapy program administered by Dr. Matthew Cassel, Clay recounts a strange tale that will challenge his prospects of recovery, and ultimately push him to the brink of insanity.

Clay and Marjorie’s marriage was already troubled at the time of the accident. Losing control of his vehicle, Clay crashed headlong into another car, killing the occupants. Only a heroic medical effort saved Clay’s life, leaving him with an implanted steel mesh in his shattered skull. Seeking solace from Clay’s guilt, and a chance to repair their relationship, the couple head north on a road trip. Setting by chance upon the town of Eldrid, Clay wonders why—given the stereotype of the sleepy small town—all the residents somehow seem sleep deprived.

Clay experiences a bizarre phenomenon on his first night in Eldrid. Just before midnight, he watches all the town’s citizens slowly gather in the town plaza, load up in trucks, and drive off into the night. Seemingly under a sort of hypnotic trance, they are not responsive to questions, and follow a prescribed program of actions. To his surprise and horror, Marjorie also falls under this mysterious spell, and disappears with the others toward their unknown purpose.

Author Jerry Sohl wrote several episodes for The Twilight Zone, and the core mystery of Night Slaves sets a familiar tone for viewers of Rod Serling’s anthology series. Returning the next morning, Marjorie awakes with no recollection of her nocturnal escapades. Attempting to convince her of her actions, Clay realizes that by persisting in discussing the events of the previous night, Marjorie will suspect his mental health of failing.

During another evening of night-time excursions by the townspeople and his wife, Clay meets an alluring young woman who seems unaffected by the hypnotic marching orders. Calling herself Naillil, she tantalizes Clay with her physical charms, and the possibility of providing the answers to Eldrid’s mysteries. Night Slaves actually offers the prospect of parallel romances; in addition to Clay’s infatuation with the pixyish Naillal (as recounted in the flashbacks), Dr. Cassel struggles to contain his growing attraction to Marjorie, who reluctantly acknowledges to herself that Clay is no longer the man she married. Both relationships pose some troubling questions; Dr. Cassel’s dubious medical ethics regarding involvement with a patient’s wife, and Clay’s doubtful maturity, fixated upon a young girl with whom he breaks into drugstores at night to make illicit milkshakes.

As Clay’s retelling grows more elaborate, his mental competence continues to be an open question. In a virtual validation of all the world’s tin-foil hat crazies, Clay’s resistance to mind control stems from the inherent electromagnetic-resistant properties of the metal plates in his head. He even fashions a chain-metal hat for his wife, out of a metal link purse purchased in the drugstore, in an attempt to block the signal that commands her to go out each evening. The elaborate evidence provided by the doctor supporting the delusional nature of Clay’s accounts feeds into his paranoid suspicions of vast, powerful conspiracies at work.

The nature of Eldrid’s affliction is revealed early, proving not to be the anticipated “Gotcha!” ending conditioned by so many Twilight Zone scripts. The real twist comes in response to the fundamental question, “Is Clay crazy?” Even the divisive ending remains ambiguous; is it a final act of shocking despair, or gateway to transcendental happiness?

Night Slaves was adapted into a 1970 made-for-television movie starring James Franciscus and Lee Grant.

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Prince of Darkness

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Prince of Darkness
Barbara Michaels | Fawcett Books | 1969 | 224 pages

An outsider discovers yet another small village steeped in a secret history of black magic and occult rituals. Only in Prince of Darkness, the outsider’s intentions are far from pure.

Peter Stewart, a small-time con man recently released from an English prison, travels to Middleburg, Maryland, to pursue a new target. Through a disreputable old investigator, Peter gathers information on Dr. Katherine (Kate) More, a folklore professor in Middleburg who has recently been driven into a state of nervous exhaustion following the mysterious suicide of her English fiancé. Her grief, or perhaps her guilt, has triggered her descent into the world of spiritualism, transforming her into a true believer in the mysticism of her academic studies.

After the death of her uncle Stephan, Kate inherited his rambling estate in the Maryland countryside. Sharing the old house is her cousin, Tiphaine, an enchanting young girl with a talent for folk music. The quaint exterior of charming village life in Middleburg hides a dark history, with the remnants of an old religion—including its cyclical rites of ritual sacrifice—holding a firm grasp on the local population.

Stealthily surveying Kate’s house one night shortly after his arrival, Peter witnesses a ritualistic séance. Along with Kate and Tiphaine, Peter recognizes a few of the town’s citizens, including the proprietress of Peter’s boardinghouse, Mrs. Adams, who seems to be leading the ceremony. Assuming that Kate is trying to raise the spirit of her dead lover, Peter formulates a plan to insinuate himself into her life, and to further her mental breakdown to the point of collapse.

Prince of Darkness delivers many familiar genre trappings, including voodoo dolls, suspicious townsfolk, black magic, sacrificial altars, and animal-masked ritual attendees, but its shift in perspective helps set it apart from the standard fare. The typical viewpoint into this realm of occult danger is through Kate, as mysterious events push her to the brink of madness. Instead, here readers look into her world from the outside through Peter, as he puts his shady plan into motion. However, Peter’s anti-heroic nature fails to maintain through to the end, as other sinister forces emerge to threaten Kate. She moves to the center for the final third of the story, allowing for a return to more normal genre standards, along with the expected romance.

A final twist regarding Kate’s dead lover, accompanied by some pseudo-contemplative prattle reflecting upon the meaning of the title, wrap things up at (of course) a witches’ Sabbat on Halloween night.

As a total aside, Tiphaine’s enchanting musical interlude–if a book can be said to truly have one–at the Folklore Society of Middleburg conjures up the insidious, seductive Willow’s Song, the musical interlude from Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). So here it is:

The Devil on Lammas Night

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The Devil on Lammas Night
Susan Howatch | Fawcett Crest Books | 1974 | 224 pages

Nicola Morrison learns to always heed the warnings of Hungarian gypsy fortune tellers, as she ultimately falls under the deadly spell of a new man foreseen to enter her life, a “man with dark hair and dark eyes”.

The man is Tristan Poole, the leader of the Society for the Propagation of Nature Foods, an organization that has insinuated itself into residence at Colwyn Court, the down-at-heel estate belonging to Walter Colywn, father of Nicola’s ex-fiance, Evan. Tristan has moved his retinue of twelve female followers into the manor house, ostensibly in exchange for treating Walter’s psychosomatically ill daughter, Gwyneth. But from the very beginning, it is clear that Tristan is not simply the head of a natural food group, as he makes a familiar of the family cat and works occult spells with his minions, positioning himself to take over the estate for his own nefarious purposes.

The Devil on Lammas Night suffers a great deal of time establishing several sets of characters , mostly extended family to Nichola—our expected heroine—before its narrative reaches the point of introducing the danger that readers already know. Walter’s cousin, Benedict Shaw, and his wife, Jane, move into the cottage on the estate grounds to further Benedict’s academic research. Nicola’s father, Matthew, and his young second wife, Lisa, also arrive for an extended stay, along with Lisa’s young children, Lucy and Timothy. They all slowly rotate around Tristan, with varying degrees of suspicion—or attraction.

Only after a character’s death, one-hundred plus pages into the story, does Tristan finally set his sights on seducing Nicola (and securing her fortune), setting into motion Evan’s attempt at uncovering Tristan’s secret and freeing Nicola from his grasp. All will converge on Lammas Night, ritual date of a pagan harvest festival and time of special meaning for Tristan’s Society. However, little suspense is generated along the way, with the cat’s welfare being about as compelling as that of any other character. Break free, Marble, break free!

Cheerfully, at the conclusion, the unexpected source of some deadly counter black magic, along with the revelation of the existence of multiple free-roaming covens across the English countryside, seem not to trouble the prospects of a happy wedding.

The Night Creature

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The Night Creature
Brian Ball | Fawcett Books | 1974 | 159 pages

Andy and Sally, two young art school dropouts, run a roadside crafts gallery out of an old barn in the English countryside. Returning from a trip to gather new materials, Sally brings back a pencil rubbing from a brass relief she discovered in the tomb of a decayed church in a nearby village. Although Andy acknowledges the commercial prospects of selling copies of the rubbing, depicting a medieval couple, to day-tripping tourists, he finds the figures strangely unsettling. The woman’s portrait in particular, although magnetically attractive, suffers from an apparent act of vandalism to the original brass—her face has been entirely scratched out.

That night, as moonlight streams into the barn and falls onto the rubbing, Andy awakens to a sense of movement. Closely examining the paper, he becomes convinced that the lapdog portrayed at the woman’s feet has moved. Shaking it off as a dream, the experience nonetheless repeats itself the next night, with horrible consequences. Again awakening from a troubled sleep, Andy discovers one of the couple’s fluffy young kittens has been brutally mauled to death—and a fresh bloody streak has appeared on the maw of the dog in the rubbing. [Sorry kitten, cute animal companions always seem unable to escape their fate as early fodder.] Sally’s obsession with the history behind the rubbing grows as the nights progress, and Andy fears that the increasingly strange materializations he witnesses signal the corporeal return of the faceless woman.

The Night Creature benefits from its evocative setting in the rural English landscape. From drafty old barns to decrepit churches, the dark history of place manifests itself in the miasma visiting Andy at night. The local villagers, populating the inhospitable pubs and unsympathetic constabulary, hint at a shared secret history that forms a barrier to outsiders like Andy and Sally, who seem perpetually doomed to live behind the veil of mystery that threatens them. However familiar the bucolic terrors ultimately may be, the dark mood is sufficiently compelling to pull the brief story through to its purposely ambiguous ending.