We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson | Popular Library | 1963 | 173 pages

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

Sisters Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood, along with their invalid uncle Julian, live alone in the isolated Blackwood family estate. Ostracized by the local community, Mary Katherine only ventures into town twice a week for groceries, while her sister has withdrawn completely into the interior of the great house. The three are the only survivors of a notorious unsolved multiple murder, a poisoning that, six years earlier, claimed the lives of Mary Katherine and Constance’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother.

The details of the fateful day are not immediately forthcoming, as the daily routine at the Blackwood house takes shape. Mary Katherine exhibits a penchant for burying small tokens around the grounds of the estate, talismans to ward off bad luck, while her sister only leaves the house to tend to her vegetable garden. The only tenuous connection to life in the town is Helen Clarke, a self-purported friend of the family who visits for tea on Tuesdays.

The full realization of the community’s hostile attitude toward the Blackwood sisters comes home during the polite artifice of one of these visits. Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair and suffering mental confusion after surviving the arsenic poisoning at the family dinner, bluntly addresses Mrs. Wright, a quizzical old woman brought along by Mrs. Clarke, “My niece, after all, was acquitted of murder. There could be no possible danger in visiting here now.” While Mrs. Clarke’s tea and rum cake sit untouched, Julian recounts how Constance prepared the fatal meal with ingredients from her garden—and proceeded to immediately wash out the sugar bowl after serving.

The tea party is not, however, the greatest intrusion into the hermetically sealed world of the Blackwood sisters. The unexpected arrival of their cousin Charles, who shows great interest in the value of their possessions—and the contents of the safe in the family study—disrupts the internal workings of the house. Pressing Constance to forget her dark past, shake off her reclusive social withdrawal, and re-engage with the outside world, Charles threatens to destroy the fabric of life at Blackwood house. His growing animosity towards Mary Katherine–who lashes out with childish acts of destruction aimed at his growing influence–along with the burgeoning resentment of the townspeople, eventually lead towards a devastating, inevitable climax.

Merricat displays a brilliant insistence upon rituals, safe words, and place in the family lore, but nearly all that is important is left unspoken. Only uncle Julian, barely competent in his current state, comments on the details of the murders, collecting a rambling written rumination on the circumstances and existing evidence in a shamble of loose papers. Much later, Constance delivers a dramatic shock when she finally voices a simple truth about the crime.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, while arguably less well known than The Haunting of Hill House, is less an outright mystery or horror, but rather a compelling, melancholic character study of a blighted house and its occupants.

An origin story to a future urban myth, it dares neighborhood children to climb the porch (past the broken step) of the haunted house and invoke, “Merricat, would you like a cup of tea?”

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Pandora

Pandora
Pamela Kaufman | Avon Books | 1977 | 279 pages

Private house in the country
Available immediately
To qualified person
House is part-payment for
Research job
For application contact
Box 666, Malibu, CA

Responding to a peculiar want ad, recently widowed young mother, Pandora Perdita Von Wald, accepts a position in Paradise, an isolated closely-knit community of wealthy eccentrics in a remote valley above Los Angeles. Berdine and Lyle Gemini, the mystically-inclined proprietors of an occult shop, offer to give her Ohplodu, a miniature Gothic castle built by Berdine’s late brother, Horace, a well-known artist and medieval scholar. In exchange, Pandora agrees to conduct research on Horace’s life and untimely death—but the Geminis may also have another agenda at work.

At Berdine’s suggestion, Pandora joins a small discussion group composed of the women of Paradise, who gather together to share their experiences and discuss issues relating to the liberation movement. The gatherings soon take a dark turn, however, as details of abuse and oppression surface. Cherry Delight, backwoods child bride of down-at-heel country singer, Clyde Boon, is first to describe her dysfunctional marriage, based on abuse and acknowledged philandering. Later, a seemingly drunken Clyde turns up at Pandora’s door, leering and making clumsy advances–before suddenly dying of mysterious causes.

Other meetings follow the same fatal pattern, as the derided husbands or lovers discussed by the group come to mysterious fates following the weekly gatherings. When poison is determined to be the common cause-of-death, news leaks of a purported “feminist killer” at large in Paradise. Adding to the potential victim count, Berdine reveals her suspicion that Horace was also murdered. In this atmosphere of danger and gender unease, Pandora somehow finds herself romantically attracted to Blake Nevius, dashing psychiatrist and not-so-secret lover of Carlotta Monroe, the regal major landowner in Paradise. Ultimately, Pandora must find the link between Horace and the current murders, and may also need to face her own dark secret relating to the suspicious nature of her husband’s death.

Pandora stews a heady, seventies-California Gothic mix of strange portraits, secret passages, covert agendas, numerology, ravens quoting Poe, and household help who are not-what-they-appear together into murder mystery framework. However, the yin and yang of male/female relationships lies at its core, with impotent men and their wildly unfulfilled partners leading to a denouement reducing the motivations to a swirling mother-surrogate, mother-destroyer psychobabble.

You said the stone of happiness, remember—which would be a father-lover. I want to adopt Allegra; a mother-lover, I love her mother; a lover-lover, Pandora?”

Pandora struggles to expose the murderer as wildfires blaze down the Southern California landscape—littered with Thrifty drugstores, feminist retreats, and homemade religious cults—in a depicted time and place that perhaps never-was, but will certainly never be again.

Dark Shadows | Issue #17

Dark Shadows | Issue #17
The Bride of Barnabas Collins
Gold Key Comics | December 1972

After a momentary self-searching existential crisis regarding the nature of his curse, Barnabas Collins inadvertently wanders through the “fogs of time” into Limbo, a place trapped in the perpetual present beyond the reaches of time. He meets Hope Forsythe, another traveler stuck in this atemporal world, and within a few panels, WHAM-BAM-THANK-YOU-MA’AM they are declaring eternal love for each other! The few other characters Barnabas encounters seem to have wandered into Limbo from a discounted rate Renaissance Faire.

But Hope has another predicament beyond being stranded in this world, as a following exposition dump of arbitrary rules details. Her brother, Ward, has been captured and held hostage by Tibourne, the strongman who rules over Limbo. Tibourne, an evil man who is eternally trapped in Limbo, can only hope to escape his purgatory prison by marrying someone who still retains the ability to freely travel back to their own time—namely Hope. Unless she complies, Ward will be killed.

Delicately dancing around the ultimate “Oh, by the way, I’m a vampire” confessional, Barnabas learns that Hope may have a dark secret of her own. Hope disappears, pointy-hatted guards capture Barnabas, Ward somehow escapes on his own (rendering the whole affair rather pointless), and many fistfights ensue.

Barnabas, later reflecting back upon Limbo from the “fogs of time” doorway, decries, “Hope! Come! This fog … it is so thick!”

For a more accurate assessment, simply replace “fog” with “horseshit”.

Once Upon a Tombstone

Once Upon a Tombstone
Elizabeth Salter | Ace Books | 1965 | 191 pages

Cryptic flashbacks, mysterious deaths surrounding a beautiful protagonist, and dangerous former Nazi agents still at large in the scenic Austrian Alps all fail to elevate this prosaic tale of romance, lost inheritance, and murder.

Stricken by a vivid case of déjà vu in a castle room during a trip abroad to Austria, young Madeleine (Del) Fisher returns home to Australia, only to be plagued by recurring night terrors. Although her family and fiancé, David, fear she has suffered an emotional breakdown, she is convinced that nightmare images of a blood-red chair and flashing silver light are repressed memories indicating a current pressing danger. Uncertain of how to handle Del’s worsening condition, David recruits the help of his uncle Mike Hornsley, a local police inspector.

A strange man who has seemingly been following Del drops off a signet ring—with the family crest of the Schloss in Austria where she had her episode—along with a request for a meeting. Arriving at the prescribed rendezvous point later that night, Del finds that the man has been murdered. Convinced that the death is connected to her mysterious visions, Del and the inspector travel back to Austria in an effort to trigger her memories and uncover the source of the nightmares.

In Austria, Del finds herself under the magnetic spell of Paul Hapner, who took control of the castle following the murder of his estranged family at the hands of the Nazis. Inspector Hornsley has reason to believe that Paul is hiding something, resisting any opportunity to trigger Del’s memories. Meanwhile at home, David and Del’s old friend, Marj, conduct an investigation of their own, uncovering evidence of a secret adoption.

Although some gothic genre trappings are in place–the brooding castle location, a dark history which still may be influencing the present, romantic intrigue with a man who may be untrustworthy, and covert scheming for a possible inheritance—Once Upon a Tombstone never quite gels into a compelling story. Del’s vision ultimately points to knowledge already uncovered, as does the discovery of a hidden painting whose subject bears a remarkable likeness to Del. Rather than creating a tantalizing mystery in regard to their location, the prospect of lost family diamonds is finally resolved in exposition relating to the reveal of the murderer.

The resolution to the question of whether or not a doll was buried in place of a child in the family plot offers another missed opportunity at building an atmosphere of gloom and melancholy, which is strange given the reference in the book’s title. Even the artifice of having all the characters snowbound in the castle with the soon-to-be-revealed murderer does little toward raising the level of suspense.

Readers are educated in some antiquated mid-century cultural standards, however, such as the fact that women of twenty-five are dangerously past their marriage prime, and all secretaries are secretly in love with their bosses.

Mansion of Evil

Mansion of Evil
Caroline Farr | Signet Books | 1966 | 222 pages

Young private practice nurse Diane Montrose accepts a live-in caretaker position at Ravensnest, a rambling family estate on an isolated stretch of the Maine coast. Her charges are Robyn Warburton, a sickly child plagued by chronic illnesses following the mysterious drowning death of her mother, and Robyn’s grandmother, Martha, the cantankerous matriarch whose crippling arthritis confines her to a wheelchair. Robyn’s father, David, previously absent much of the time with the operation of the family business, seems genuinely concerned with his daughter’s care—and very interested in her new nurse.

However, Diane’s first order of business at Ravensnest does not pertain to the well-being of her clients. Mr. Prince, the Warburton family attorney who arranged the job for Diane, ushers her into the study to witness the signing of Martha’s new secret will. Following the conclusion of the legal matter, Diane finds herself being relentlessly questioned by Martha’s youngest son, Kerr, and step-brother, Clive, about what she read on the document, although the attorney carefully placed cover sheets over the passages of text to prevent her from discovering the identity of the new beneficiaries.

During her stay at Ravensnest, Diane becomes morbidly fascinated with the mansion’s secret room, a rough-hewn space cut out of the solid rock below the waterline. Used by the Warburton’s pirate ancestors, victims from scuttled ships were placed into the chamber at low tide, and drowned by the rising water. The bodies were subsequently flushed out to sea, where they were ultimately discovered as accidental drowning victims.

Diane wakes one night to the sound of violent spray on her window, as pressurized water forced out of the narrow shaft to the secret room vents against the side of the building. This nocturnal emission serves as a vivid reminder to the presence of the deadly negative space, while establishing the implication that someone or something is trapped within its confines.

Otherwise, strange bumps-in-the-night and prowlers precede the eventual murder and kidnapping in a rather prosaic inheritance mystery. Only the completely expected and virtually predestined confinement in the subterranean kill room adds a flash of claustrophobic terror to the proceedings, while the obligatory romance is undercut by the fundamental creepiness of an attraction based on the resemblance to a drowned spouse.

 

Chalet Diabolique | Lucifer Cove #5

Chalet Diabolique | Lucifer Cove #5
Virginia Coffman | Lancer Books | 1971 | 206 pages

The fifth book in the series reduces Lucifer Cove to a white-noise occult backdrop, a lost episode of an alternate television history Fantasy Island (featuring Mr. Roarke as the devil), with the arriving guests ultimately discovering the infernal mechanics under the surface.

Kay Aronson is the guest in this outing, arriving in Lucifer Cove following the mysterious death of her husband. Leo Aronson had set out alone to the secretive spa town on the coast of California south of San Francisco, only to be killed in a plane crash. Convinced that the fatal crash was not an accident, Kay investigates Leo’s connection to Lucifer Cove, determined to uncover the real reason behind his death.

Accompanied by her husband’s personal assistant, Arthur Dugald, Kay encounters characters from earlier entries in the series—High Priestess of the Devil’s Temple, Nadine Janos; beleaguered beauty, Caro Teague; the darkly magnetic spa owner, Marc Meridon; and his mistress, the empathetic Christine Deeth—mostly in incidental appearances. Unsure of whom to trust, Kay is surprised to discover her own romantic feelings developing toward both Arthur and Marc, forming the competing sides in an unlikely love triangle. She becomes more and more convinced that all is not as it seems behind the quiet Tudor facades of Lucifer Cove.

Since series readers are already aware of Marc Meridon’s diabolical nature, and his relationship to the seemingly omnipresent cat, Kinkajou, little opportunity exists to create much suspense, although there are some creepy shenanigans in the tunnels below Kay’s chalet house. After its initial underground discovery, the body of a former guest at the resort makes a second shocking appearance.

A brief, near fatal encounter with the power of hypnosis illustrates the ease at disposing with Kay and her investigation, and her general insignificance in the greater picture of Lucifer’s Cove makes the reluctance towards her disposal something of a question.

Also, a potentially eternal cosmic struggle boils down to a literal dog-and-cat fight.

The Flood | Blackwater #1

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?

The Brownstone

brownstone

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.

Terror Touches Me

terrortouchesme

Terror Touches Me
Stanton Forbes | Pyramid Books | 1967 | 150 pages

Hey! I didn’t even eat the [salmon] mousse.” — Debbie Katzenberg (Michael Palin), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

Following the death of her father, and her sister Connie’s recent marriage, Mary Owen reacts to the depressing thought of spending her life alone by impulsively marrying a man she briefly met at the wedding ceremony. Eamon Doyle, a roguish, gold-toothed Irishman and business acquaintance of Connie’s husband, sweeps Mary off her feet, and takes his new bride to live at his family’s ancestral home outside Dublin. However, other than the gray skies and peat fire in the hearth, little is made of the Irish setting.

Arriving unannounced with Eamon at Doylescourt, a ramshackle castle with sprawling grounds, Mary discovers an unexpected tension amongst the family members residing there. Eamon’s father, Sean Doyle, seems engaged in a much-repeated argument regarding the future direction of the family estate with his children: Brendan, the oldest and most somber, more interested in botany than the family business; Liam, straggly-bearded bohemian and musician in a pub band; and Angela, unreadable under her cool demeanor and blank expression.

Just the same, there is something—some kind of violent undercurrent that I feel, only feel. Even their quarreling is deeper—deadlier than the usual family disagreements even though is seems to be about nothing of importance.

Mary’s observations about the Doyles prove to be prescient. On her very first evening the entire family is stricken after a shared dinner of smoked salmon. Although Mary was unaffected, Eamon’s father collapses, and shortly thereafter dies from an unknown illness. The police ultimately trace the cause of death to a poisoned bottle of whiskey, and conclude that one member of the household is a murderer.

More murders quickly follow, as Eamon’s siblings succumb one by one to mysterious poisonings. The only commonality seems to be Mary, present with each of the victims at the various times and places of their deaths. A growing suspect in the eyes of the police, Mary nevertheless confronts an inescapable conclusion—her own husband is responsible for the shocking crimes. Although he is a man she barely knows, could he really be a cold-blooded killer?

A passable entry in the newlywed-trapped-with-her-sinister-new-family category of gothic fiction, Terror Touches Me fails to generate much suspense on two fronts. Although surrounded by death, Mary never seems to be in immediate jeopardy, since she doesn’t appear to be a primary target herself. Also, even though she becomes a person of interest to the police, the dragnet of wrongful accusation around Mary as a serious suspect never closes in too tightly.

About two-thirds of the way through the story, Mrs. Ryan, the cook, professes to have heard a banshee keening outside her kitchen window, indicating a foreboding spirit lurking on the grounds of the estate. Unfortunately, nothing comes of this possible encounter—supernatural or otherwise—just a failed opportunity to lift the proceedings above the expected inheritance drama.

Cat’s Prey

catsprey

Cat’s Prey
Dorothy Eden | Ace Books | 1970 | 191 pages

Following the death of her globetrotting aunt, Laura, Antonia Webb travels to New Zealand to visit her newly engaged cousin, Simon, and his fiancé, Iris, and to facilitate what she believes to be a small inheritance. Iris was formerly Laura’s nurse and companion, and with Simon, has opened a new tourist hotel with the money they received from the estate.

Before she even has a chance to meet Dougal Conroy, the mild-mannered lawyer handling the will, Antonia receives a mysterious phone call requesting a secret meeting to discuss an important matter involving her aunt’s death. Stood up at the rendezvous, Antonia later discovers that her room has been searched in her absence. Odd occurrences continue after Laura arrives at her cousin’s hotel, when she notices strange lights in an abandoned wing of the building that has yet to be renovated.

Antonia is plagued by further incidents, including an “accidental” fall on the stairs. None of her concerns are taken very seriously, however, and Iris patronizingly suggests that Antonia’s mental state has been compromised by her long travel from England. Antonia also becomes concerned for Simon, a simple man who she fears will suffer at the hands of, what she perceives to be, his shrewd and calculating fiancé.

Johnnie, Simon’s favorite yellow budgie–who was probably doomed after his first endearing chirp of “pretty boy”–reflects Antonia’s position in the household, particularly after the arrival of Iris’s new white cat, Ptolemy. All the building psychological tensions between the human occupants of the hotel are released once Ptolemy breaches the wire barriers of the birdcage. [Sorry Johnnie, I was rooting for you!]

A few deviations elevate Cat’s Prey from the traditional inheritance thriller, including the passive roles of the major male characters. Unsurprisingly, Antonia falls for Dougal Conroy, the milquetoast lawyer, but instead of this new romantic lead coming to the eventual rescue, an unlikely triad emerges; Dougal’s elderly, shotgun-toting mother, her giggling maid, and his investigative-minded secretary form an all-female posse to save the day.