Ghosts | Issue #41

Ghosts | Issue 41 | DC Comics | August 1975

The specters of a WWII-era ship, a jaguar/ancient god, and a coal-miner’s father inform this tepid trilogy of ghostly tales from the generically-titled DC series.

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The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson | Popular Library | 1959 | 174 pages

Shirley Jackson’s monumental haunted house tale sets the standard for the genre, while delivering a poignant character study of a lonely and dispossessed woman searching for a place to call her own.

HELP ELEANOR COME HOME

Paranormal investigator Dr. John Montague assembles a small team to stay inside Hill House, a blighted mansion with a history of misfortunes, and record any instances of the supernatural. Joining him is Luke Sanderson, heir to the estate, Theodora, a young woman with exceptional psychic abilities, and Eleanor Vance, a longtime caregiver to her recently deceased mother.

Freed from the demands of her ailing mother and the pressures of a shared living space with her overbearing sister, Eleanor is the sole member of Dr. Montague’s team to actually embrace the prospect of living at Hill House. Eleanor Initially bonds with Theodora, perhaps the sister she always wanted, but their relationship is ultimately strained by Eleanor’s growing emotional neediness, and the increasing undercurrent of jealousy over Luke’s attention.

Then the nocturnal noises begin.

Although the history of Hill House is detailed, the nature of the haunting remains ambiguous. Rather than particular specters, the manifestations here are limited to an inexplicable cold spot, and a series of explosive poundings and door bangings that methodically travels down the hallways at night. The most deliciously creepy scene, involving holding hands in the dark, subtly underplays its shock, delivering a chill-inducing moment more effective in its absence than a more explicit depiction of horror.

Amid growing tensions with Theodora, Eleanor is further singled out of the group when a mysterious message is found scrawled on the wall, referring to her by name. The late arrival of Dr. Montague’s wife throws even more turmoil into the group dynamic of the house. Mrs. Montague serves as the vulgar counterpoint to Dr. Montague’s more thoughtful, if ineffectual, approach to the paranormal. With her planchette in hand, she quickly spins out an embellished and factually-challenged tale of nuns being sealed alive in the walls of the house.

Regardless of her proclivity toward showmanship and arguable charlatanism, Mrs. Montague does seem to sense the special importance Eleanor holds to Hill House, and touches on her eventual fate. Her pronouncement that contacted spirits “love to repeat themselves” during sessions eerily evokes an early scene with Eleanor. Defending her intent to drive to Hill House over the objections of her sister, Eleanor’s repeated protests (“It’s half my car…. It’s half my car…. It’s half my car….”), foreshadow the pattern of a failed communications from the spirit world.

Eleanor occupies the focal point and and serves as the catalyst of the haunting at Hill House. Existing as something of a ghost in her regular life, she is particularly vulnerable to the supernatural forces at play. Hill House never explicitly reveals the details of its malevolent entity, but this determined ambiguity helps vault its haunted house to a more universal level, and painfully exposes the personal failings of its intrepid research team.

Much more an evocative, character-driven mood piece than a straight-out shocker, The Haunting of Hill House remains required reading for well-seasoned horror fans, and genre newcomers seeking a quintessential ghost story.

Cast a Cold Eye

Cast a Cold Eye | Alan Ryan | Tor Books | 1984 | 350 pages

Small, isolated communities always seem to harbor terrible secrets, and the western Irish village of Doolin is no exception. American writer Jack Quinlan travels to Doolin for background research on the Irish Famine for an upcoming historical novel, but soon discovers the tragic victims of the past are hauntingly present in the lives of the villagers.

The barren, windswept coast of Ireland provides an evocative setting for a chilling ghost story, as Jack experiences visitations of mournful, skeletal figures on the roads and in the countryside around his cottage and the village. Grainne Clarkin, a bookstore clerk he met in a brief stopover in Dublin, occasionally comes to visit him for weekends in Doolin, providing a native Irish romantic interest for Jack that occasionally verges on fetishistic.

He studied her face, her dark eyes, her perfect white skin, her black hair, her fragile build combined with a full ripe body.”

The ongoing will-they-or-won’t-they subplot is finally consummated on a stone slab outdoors during a ferocious rainstorm in an overblown climax that would seem more in keeping with a lurid romance novel. Meanwhile, a group of village old-timers engage in cryptic blood rituals after suffering a few deaths from their ranks, the splattering of the bottled blood around their gravesites echoing the splashing of Grainne’s virginal blood on the rain-soaked ground.

Jack’s ghostly encounters are genuinely creepy; skeletal men by the side of the road, emaciated children crying out to their separated mothers, and ethereal tunes following him across the barrens. Cold to the touch, but seemingly corporeal, these spirits ultimately vanish, leaving Jack to question his own sanity. Protective of Grainne, he reaches out to the local priest for help, but to little avail.

Jack ruminates on the perception of Ireland through the lens of outsiders, particularly those like himself who reach back to their familial homeland in order to find some connection with their lost ancestry. The novel itself is steeped in an emphatic Irishness, although perhaps also filtered through the perspective of an outsider. The breadth of history is argued to be a constant, living presence in the lives of the Doolin villagers, but the Famine in particular serves mostly as a shallow context, a convenient reference point for a group of specters, however effective.

Doolin does, of course, harbor a dark secret, but Cast a Cold Eye refreshingly avoids sending its outsider protagonist down the fatal Wicker Man path. The villagers are just as terrified as Jack Quinlan, and although perhaps suspicious of his motives and Dublin girlfriend, ultimately accept him into their fold.

All events converge and resolve in a satisfactory way, generally avoiding easy genre pitfalls and potential clichés as the days reach toward the quintessential horror boilerplate–-the showdown on All Hallow’s Eve.

Fingers of Fear

Fingers of Fear
John U. Nicolson | Paperback Library | 1966 | 224 pages

Werewolf or vampire? Perhaps the distinction is ultimately meaningless for members of the Ormes family, who may suffer from an incurable blood lust when the moon is full.

Under the auspices of organizing an inherited library for his old college chum (Ormand Ormes), a down-on-his-luck writer (Seldon Seaverns) quickly becomes enmeshed in a whirlpool of supernatural horrors. Seaverns is visited by a phantom presence on his first night at the Ormes estate, waking in the morning with a violent bruise on his neck.

And it seemed to have been drawn there by the sucking action of a woman’s young and evil mouth!”

Although tantalized by Ormand’s sister, Gray, an enigmatic beauty exhibiting wild mood swings, Seldon nonetheless suspects that she is responsible for his nocturnal intrusion. But there are other potential suspects housed under the roof the family estate: Ormand’s aunt Barbara, a recluse haunted by some undefined emotional trauma, and Agnes Ormes, Ormand’s disaffected wife, a self-indulgent woman longing for a less-isolated life.

A series of violent murders jolts the household, potentially exposing a secret family history of lycanthropy. The throats of the victims show evidence of being ripped out with human teeth, with great accompanying blood loss. This naturalistic—and ambiguously supernatural—approach foreshadows similar genre treatment in later vampire stories, such as George Romero’s Martin.

However, Fingers of Fear does not simply limit its horrors to lycanthropy and vampirism. Ghostly apparitions, secret family murders, inheritance intrigue and unfolding plans of criminal extortion all trail in the wake of the werewolf/vampire attacks. Already set in an old, dark house riddled with secret passages, these additional elements teeter the story on the verge of campiness.

Originally written in the thirties and steeped in the failure of depression economics, Fingers of Fear is repackaged in this sixties edition under the Paperback Library Gothic banner, replete with the “woman-running-in-fear-from-the-castle” cover art [along with an incorrect character name]. However melodramatic, with its male point of view and oddly supernatural flourishes, it still emerges as a much weirder concoction than the comparable gothic romances of the era.

The Surrogate

The Surrogate
Nick Sharman | Signet Books | 1980 | 249 pages

Following the death of his estranged, abusive father, Frank Tillson fights for the soul of his own son, Simon, in a battle of wills against the old man’s malevolent spirit.

Frank, a modestly successful radio talk show host, wants to shield his son from the corruption that taints his family’s considerable fortune, accumulated through a lifetime of unethical business practices. Determined to reject his father’s inheritance at all costs, Frank dodges all attempts from the family attorney to execute the will and name Simon the beneficiary of the entire estate. Soon after his father’s death, however, Frank begins to experience strange, unsettling phenomenon.

Sella Masters, a psychic guest on the radio show, experiences a clear telepathic vision of the tragic death of Frank’s wife, reliving the events of the previous year with uncanny detail. She later flees the studio after a ghostly encounter that she refuses to describe to Frank and the show’s producer. After developing some photos taken in the park with his son, Frank notices an ominous black smudge, vaguely human in shape, lurking over Simon in most of the images.

As incidents of garbled radio noise, strange phone calls, and ghostly presences continue, Frank ponders the possibly that his late father orchestrated everything before his death, in an attempt to exert his influence over his family from beyond the grave. Although his reluctance to acquiesce to his bullying father’s demands is understandable, Frank seems to ignore an easy out from all the supernatural shenanigans unfolding around him—take the money now, and figure out how to dispose of it later.

Ignoring this obvious solution, a sense of menace grows around Frank, who stubbornly clings to the theory that his friends are setting him up, even as more and more inexplicable manifestations haunt him and Simon. A creepy highlight occurs when Angela, a radio production assistant, recounts her confrontation in Frank’s bathroom with the spectral visage of his father manifesting from the oily bathwater.

Less effective are the telepathically charged encounters with the Tattered Terry doll, a sentimental leftover possession from Frank’s late wife that occasionally serves as the vessel for the old man’s rampaging spirit. Softly padding around the apartment on cloth feet and attempting to strangle people, the possessed Tattered Terry unnecessarily sends the story into unintentional campy, killer doll territory.

Taking possession into a whole other realm, Sella Masters returns later in the story, acting as an alluring succubus and seducing Frank—while controlled by his father’s spirit—making for an awkwardly incestuous coupling.

The Surrogate resolves in a mostly unsatisfying fashion, part supernatural horror and part everything-explained, Scooby-Doo mystery, although the downbeat ending accurately reflects Frank’s serious shortcomings as a ghost hunter.

Caly

Caly
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.

Shadows | Chill #7

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Shadows | Chill #7
Jory Sherman | Pinnacle Books | 1980 | 181 pages

Against the advice of his physician, wealthy industrialist and toymaker, Adolph Zehring-Rand, moves to Mexico to receive an experimental treatment for his recently diagnosed terminal illness. Shortly after his arrival at the hacienda near the Mexican clinic, Zehring-Rand begins experiencing visions of shadows, amorphous shapes that seem to move and attempt to communicate with him. Convinced that these encounters are occult in nature, and not the hallucinatory side effects of his new medical regime, Zehring-Rand reaches out for assistance to famed psychic investigator, Russell V. “Chill” Chillders.

Although little doubt exists of the supernatural nature of the situation, several characters establish motivation for undermining, or even eliminating, Zehring-Rand. Dr. Spinoza, chief researcher at the Clinica Medica de Ensenada, is clearly a quack, with a sham facility in place to provide the illusion of research. Hattie McBain, Zehring-Rand’s personal assistant, has a personal history of chasing wealthy and powerful men. Several rival executives at Z-R Industries have open contempt for the way Zehring-Rand runs the company, and are impatient for his ouster. Meanwhile, young girls around Ensenada have been disappearing, including the daughter of the former owner of Zehring-Rand’s hacienda.

At book seven in the series, all the reductive traits for the Chill and his associates are obligatorily noted, with little variation or growth from book one: Chill is a vegetarian, but also a vintage gun enthusiast who will eat the game he kills (check); he munches on sesame sticks to concentrate (check); he has a platonic relationship with his psychic assistant, Laura Littlefawn, but both acknowledge a latent, deeper attraction (check); Laura, a native Sioux, displays a fondness for silver and turquoise jewelry (check); and Hal Strong, a New England professor and Chill’s occasional sidekick, is driven by the need to communicate with his dead son on some other plane of existence (check).

The industrial espionage subplot provides an opportunity for a private eye to discover, first hand, how capable ghosts are of murder. Another character ultimately changes allegiances, although even this twist—seemingly driven by a newly found heart of gold–is telegraphed earlier.

The dark shapes plaguing Zehring-Rand eventually congeal into the ghostly form of a little girl, and he rushes to manufacture a new toy, an articulated doll constructed to the specifications given to him by the spirit. Tapping into the inherent horror of dolls and laughing children, Shadows delivers a few suspenseful moments, some pseudo-science bunk, and a touch of psychic mumbo-jumbo, all the while deviating very little from the expected course.

But what psychic detective worth his weight in sesame sticks thinks giving a non-corporeal entity, with unknown and possibly murderous intentions, a fully functional doll’s body to inhabit is a good idea?

Night Gallery | Season 1, Episode 5

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Night Gallery | Season One | Episode 5 | January 13, 1971

Segment One | Pamela’s Voice

Jonathan (John Astin) discovers that hell is certain other people, when the spirit of his murdered wife, Pamela (Phyllis Diller), returns from the dead to torment him. Continuing to suffer from the specter’s ceaseless nagging at the funeral home, his only hope of relief seems to be in finally burying her corpse. Although playing into the stereotype of the carping wife, Diller’s shrewish cackle—and arched, painted eyebrows–almost conjures a sense of sympathy for Astin’s homicidal husband, who discovers an unexpected difficulty in finding a moment of peace and quiet.

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Segment Two | Lone Survivor

Picking up what they believe to be a single woman alone in a lifeboat, a ship’s crew discovers a man in women’s clothing, and a boat mysteriously emblazoned with the logo of the RMS Titanic. An effective early twist regarding the perceived time of the rescue is ultimately squandered in service to a familiar story of cyclical retribution. John Colicos plays the role of the survivor with sweaty desperation–and a powdered-blue nightdress.

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Segment Three | The Doll

A British Colonel (John Williams) returning from service in India is confronted with a creepily malevolent (or maybe just grubby) doll, received via post by his young niece. Recognizing the doll as an agent of evil directed at him, the Colonel tries to convince the young girl to relinquish it–arguably, she should also have been persuaded to relinquish that satin blue ribbon in her hair. Pandit Chola (Henry Silva), the Indian mystic who devised the curse in retaliation for his brother’s execution as a resistance fighter, ultimately learns a lesson about karma from the doddering old imperialist.

Aside from a few more-silly-than-scary grimaces, the doll’s supernatural movements are left mostly to the imagination, helping to maintain the episode’s overall mood, and also proving the age-old axiom, “Never go full Chucky.”

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Dark Shadows (Issue #14)

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Dark Shadows, Issue #14
The Mystic Painting
Gold Key Comics | June 1972

While cleaning out the attic at Collinwood, Elizabeth and Barnabas discover an old family portrait. They uncover another painting hidden underneath, a landscape treatment of Collingreen, an extended family estate outside London. The painting seemingly calls out to Barnabas, issuing psychic vibrations and triggering an actual memory of a visit to his uncle, Lord Balsham, at the great house in 1743.

During his visit, Barnabas meets young painter, Owen Roberts, who hides a not-so-secret attraction to Barnabas’ cousin, Sara. Tragedy soon ensues when Sara is killed, and Owen takes the blame, and corporal punishment, for the crime from a vengeful Lord Balsham. However, Barnabas fears his own culpability since the violent attack occurred during a resurgent episode of his own vampiric curse.

The Mystic Painting fails to offer much new to the series, as Barnabas travels in time, faces a confrontational ghost, and—of course—attends a seance to end the suffering represented by the cursed painting. He ultimately discovers the true identity of the culprit behind Sara’s death, to little surprise. Continuing to make up new rules from one episode to the next (vampires cannot have their portraits painted; bat transformations are initiated by the full moon), this issue at least sends Barnabas traveling through time via the mechanics, however dubious, of a haunted painting, rather than by simply closing his eyes and magically wishing it to happen.

Ruminating on the conflicting details rising from the failed seance, Professor Stokes could have instead been reflecting upon the series canon by declaring, “Hmm…er, yes, it may have been! But then, who knows about these things?

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Oxenfree

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Oxenfree
Night School Studio | PC & Mac Versions | Download Available via Steam

A drinking party on a desolate beach turns into a battle against supernatural forces for a group of teens in this choose-your-own-dialogue adventure game.

Alex and her stepbrother, Josh, join fellow high school students Ren, Nona, and Clarissa for a party on isolated Edwards Island. Emotional tensions between the ostensibly light-hearted revelers are exposed in a game of “Truth-or-Slap” around the campfire. Players assume the role of Alex, choosing dialogue responses from a series of pop-up speech bubbles. Clarissa reveals an early antagonism towards Alex, stemming from the drowning death of her boyfriend—Alex’s older brother Michael. Exploring a nearby cave, Alex unwittingly opens a mysterious portal, unleashing a ghostly intrusion that threatens to possess them all.

Game play is mostly limited to navigating Alex around the island to various locations, selecting appropriate dialogue options as they appear in conversation with her friends. Forests, beach caves, a deserted town, and an abandoned military base are a few of the atmospheric locations traversed over the course of the five-to-six hour game. The puzzle elements are light, with players advancing the story simply by reaching the next location. Alex carries a portable radio that tunes in various broadcasts relating to the island’s history, and unlocks the occasional sonic padlock with a twist of the dial.

For a game with constant dialogue choices, the conversations play out in a convincingly naturalistic manner. Beyond directing their investigation of the island, the interaction also reveals further emotional connections between the characters, allowing players the opportunity to advance (or worsen) their relationships. Although Ren is arguably less charming than the developers intended, the overall writing compares favorably against any current teen horror film. There were only a few moments (while fiddling with locked gates) that I thought, “Will you shut up, already!”— a remarkable achievement in a game of nearly constant teen banter.

Collectibles, primarily in the form of letters relating to the history of the island and its residents, are scattered around various locations for the completionist to extend the experience, but I was satisfied just immersing myself in the eerie atmosphere, following the escape-first-fully-investigate-the-mystery-second strategy along the branching storyline to its conclusion.

But I still didn’t know what “Oxenfree” meant [thanks, Wikipedia!].

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