The Well

The Well
Jack Cady | Avon Books | 1982 | 208 pages

A twisty, kaleidoscopic haunted house pulsates at the center of The Well, shifting and reforming its demonic horrors around its human occupants, imprisoning them in a legacy of familial evil.

John Tracker, along with his secretary girlfriend, Amy Griffith, returns after a twenty-year absence to the hulking, decrepit Tracker family estate on the banks of the Ohio River. Originally built by his great-great grandfather, Johan, but continually added on by successive generations, the mansion reflects the religious fanaticism ingrained in the Tracker family through its uncanny layout. Maze-like rooms, secret staircases, disguised passageways, and mechanical traps—consisting of hidden, spring-loaded weapon—were conceived and installed to confuse and trap intrusions by Satan himself.

The Tracker House has an intriguing, real world precedent in San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House. Sarah Winchester, the widow of firearms manufacturer, William Winchester, spent nearly forty years of ceaseless construction on her rambling, seemingly improvised (with doors and windows leading nowhere) mansion that was allegedly haunted by the victims of the weapons her husband produced. The fictional Tracker House evokes a similarly appealing sense of strange history and mysterious atmosphere, with its correspondingly secret (and frequently deadly) constructions.

The Tracker House, however, lies in the path of a new freeway construction, and is slated for destruction following the legal death pronouncement of John’s father. Justice Tracker, missing for over seven years, had long become estranged from his wife and son. Intending only to survey the property, John and Amy are trapped inside for the duration of a furious snowstorm, and soon the couple fall victim to the insidious atmosphere of the house and the psychic weight of the Tracker family history.

Readers expecting much a story arc will most likely be disappointed, since The Well primarily delivers a minimal, atmosphere-laden psychological horror. Chapters consistently repeat a familiar pattern, starting with an anecdotal piece of Tracker family history, illustrating a macabre or tragic event in the lives of John Tracker’s ancestors. John and Amy then attempt to travel to some location within the house, negotiate a series of labyrinthine rooms and dodge deadly traps, while avoiding the roaming ghoul that was formerly John’s grandmother, Vera. Along the way, John reflects on his diabolical family history, his own feelings towards his father and grandfather, Theophilus, and his possible love towards Amy. Repeat.

The sense of menace, with its source in the heat-blasted well beneath the sub-cellars of the mansion, and the grotesque tableaus discovered along the way are enough to fuel a dense, diabolical atmosphere that soak the characters, rather than propelling them through a linear narrative.

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Devil in the Darkness

Devil in the Darkness
Archie Roy | Long (London) | 1978 | 184 pages

Lost on the remote back roads of rural Scotland during a ferocious snowstorm, newlyweds Paul and Carol Wilson take refuge in a neglected, decaying old mansion. Inside Ardvreck House, an infamous estate with a dark and disturbing history, they encounter a strange team of soldiers, film technicians, and paranormal investigators who have temporarily taken up residence to document any potential incidents of supernatural activity before the upcoming scheduled destruction of the mansion.

The storm destroys the only bridge out from Ardvreck House, effectively stranding the couple and motley group of investigators in the isolated estate. Startled awake during the night, Paul hears scraping and pacing sounds coming from the abandoned attic floor above him. Summoning the courage to investigate while his wife sleeps, Paul finds only the empty, undisturbed tower room. However, the inexplicable noises are only the beginning, as the house psychically “recharges” from the presence of its new occupants.

A regression therapy session with Ann Parish, a member of the research team with a successful history of recalling events before her birth, triggers a spiritual communication with a former servant of the estate. Mary Elizabeth Rolfe, a maid to the murdered mistress of the house, was herself the victim of a drowning under mysterious circumstances. Ann’s past-life recollection under hypnosis as Mary triggers an academic disagreement between Meredith and Bourne, the two psychic researchers on the team. Is Ann communicating directly with Mary’s spirit, or is she actually Mary’s reincarnated self, reliving memories of her previous life? Or, is she just adeptly improvising suppressed details of Mary’s life that she has previously learned? This debate arguably holds more potential interest than any incidents of moving furniture or spectral appearances at the windows.

A slim haunted house story recalling earlier classics such as Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson’s Hell House, Devil in the Darkness takes some time before the supernatural encounters seem threatening enough to place it characters in mortal danger. It channels the established notion of a physical place storing a psychic charge that can potentially influence generations to follow, with a paranormally receptive party triggering its release. The single most terrifying encounter—when Carol seems to feel Paul in bed behind her, only to discover him instead at the bedroom door—also harkens back to a similarly ghostly reveal in Hill House.

Devil in the Darkness also retreads a bit of Stephen King’s The Shining. Meredith and Bourne debate the advisability of simply leaving the estate, hunkering down against the inclement weather inside the collected cars of the assembled party. Their discussion on the potential harm posed by the apparitions evokes the “pictures in a book” conversation between Dick Hallorann and Danny Torrance at the Overlook Hotel.

Ardvreck House, like Hell House before it, was stained by the shocking and amoral behavior of its privileged residents. The vile act at the core of its haunting is ultimately revealed through a discovered letter. The reading of the brittle pages functions as a sort of epilogue, providing a firsthand account of the historical horrors. However short, this new narrative–with its previously unknown characters–stalls out whatever momentum the fiery climax had delivered, even while providing an explanation to all the ghostly bump-and-grind shenanigans.

Author Archie Roy, simultaneously an academic professor of astronomy and amateur investigator of the paranormal, seems to have been more engaged with the nature of the debate over mediums, psychic phenomenon, and the implications of the purported evidence of the supernatural-–expressed here through the opposing viewpoints of Merideth and Bourne—than delivering a new take on the haunted house. Still, genre fans who have exhausted the classics will find enough here to keep them interested.

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.