The Hephaestus Plague

The Hephaestus Plague
Thomas Page | Bantam Books | 1975 | 217 pages

Once you crack the chitinous shell of disbelief, the Hephaestus Plague delivers a skittering, insectile variation on the animals-run-amok theme so prevalent in seventies ecological horror.

Following an anomalous earthquake in a small North Carolina town, a previously unknown type of beetle issues forth from a newly-created fissure in the earth. Completely blind and equipped with an impenetrable shell, this throwback species living underground since prehistoric times also possesses a unique anatomical feature — two flint-like back legs capable of sparking fire. As a series of fatal fires spreads along the east coast, reclusive entomologist James Parmiter leads the academic drive to find a way of stopping the insects and their apocalyptic threat to society.

The details of the beetle’s cross-country march (via the tailpipes of cars) and their fiery reign of destruction are delivered in an almost clinical, detached state of observation. This sense of removal from affairs starkly contrasts Parmiter’s growing obsession with the beetles and the mystery surrounding their reproductive process. Withdrawing into the dingy confines of his basement laboratory, Parmiter arguably descends into madness as he conducts breeding experiments, first to unlock any potential vulnerabilities, but later to unknown ends.

After Parmiter successfully cross breeds the fire beetles with a common domestic species, events unmoor from any pretense of clinical foundations and take a firm detour into the realm of weird science. Swarming over his experimental notes and listening to his voice, the beetles develop an understanding of language, communicating with Parmiter by assembling words through formations on the wall: “Parmiter”, “No”, and eventually, “Kill”.

Parminter’s relationship with his experimental beetle Goldback recalls the special animal bonding formed with the rat from Willard, with Goldback following Parmiter from his bowl and listening attentively from his perch on the windowsill. Parmiter’s fog of madness obscures his motivations to the degree that his goal is uncertain. Is he attempting to stop the plague of beetles, or facilitating it?

A brief flirtation with body horror, after Parmiter’s lab assistant develops odd symptoms following a bite on the hand, ultimately leads nowhere, although another transformation akin to an interspecies amalgamation is later hinted. The expected heebie-jeebies in a purported insect horror are also mostly absent until the finale, when a character pushes knee-deep through a swarm of beetles.

Dreadful Hollow

Dreadful Hollow
Irina Karlova | Paperback Library | 1968 | 221 pages

Young Jillian Dare accepts a position as a companion to the aging Countess Ana Czerner in her hulking Grange manor estate, only to discover herself trapped in a mysterious, secluded world of burgeoning horror. Obvious clues will dampen the mystery, however, as early descriptions of Eastern European heritage, blood-red lips, sharp teeth, and an aversion to garlic all but scream “VAMPIRE!” to Jillian, who seems stubbornly resistant to hearing it.

Chapters periodically alternate between those from Jillian’s perspective and journal entries from Larry Clyde, a young village doctor who becomes enamoured with Jillian and fixated on her continued well-being at Grange manor. “Miss Muffett”, Clyde’s arguably belittling and infuriatingly repeated pet name for Jillian, actually proves well chosen, since Jillian behaves as a total naif throughout the course of many sinister developments. Although she senses a general presence of enveloping danger, she remains nearly oblivious to the threat from the “spider who sat down beside her”.

Dreadful Hollow mostly succeeds in delivering a rich mood of decay and despair, heightened by a grotesque cast of supporting characters. Grange manor is initially populated by a withered household servant and a mentally defective gardener, but they are soon joined by a sinister Romanian doctor along with the voluptuous Vera Czerner, Ana’s young and magnetic niece. Her lips, like those of her aunt, are luxuriously red and reveal the occasional glimpse of stunning white teeth, posing two questions:

Why are they never in the same room together?

How does Jillian not know the answer?

Dr. Clyde makes a nominal effort to uncover whether or not Jillian is simply crazy, traveling to London to question her family in regard to her mental history. His attention is momentarily piqued by Jillian’s younger sister—who appears to have mental issues—until she is revealed to only having been dropped on her head as a child!

When a village boy goes missing and the evidence ultimately points to the occupants of Grange manor, the combined pressure of the village constable and Dr. Clyde finally elevates the long-simmering suspicions about the countess(es) to a boiling point. Interestingly, the resolution to the child’s whereabouts and to Countess Czerner’s strange condition all unfold at a distance, with little explicit first-hand detail. Instead, a general hot-house environment of evil intentions permeates Grange manor, providing enough anticipation to overcome any inherent final lack of surprise.

Death at Love House

Death at Love House | Made-for-Television Movie | Starring Robert Wagner, Kate Jackson, Sylvia Sidney, Marianna Hill, John Carradine | Written by James Barnett | Directed by E.W. Swackhamer | Originally Aired on September 03, 1976

This house has been the scene of too many strong emotions. Too many tragedies and too many secrets. It’s like the way the scent of flowers stays in a room after they’re gone. Only these flowers have been dead a long time, and they don’t smell so sweet.

Husband and wife writing team Joel (Robert Wagner) and Donna Gregory (Kate Jackson) move into the long-abandoned mansion of late Hollywood starlet Lorna Love (Marianna Hill), planning to research and write a tell-all biography of the actress. The project also has a very personal meaning for Joel, whose own late father was involved in an obsessional love affair with Lorna.

The estate serves as a post-mortem tribute to Lorna Love, whose glass-walled mausoleum showcases her body in repose. Joel immediately falls under the spell of Lorna’s portrait, painted by his father and said to have given a soul to an actress otherwise despised by many of her colleagues. Commencing with the research, Joel and Donna discover a library full of books on witchcraft, and view clips of a mysterious occult figure associated with Lorna in newsreels of her death.

For a man consumed by a growing obsession and madness, Robert Wagner mostly sleepwalks through the role, slightly more tormented (and throwing less punches) than in a regular episode of Hart to Hart. Kate Jackson responds accordingly with the occasional wrinkled brow. John Carradine, as Lorna’s early film director, barnstorms his way through his single scene, taking the pair of TV actors to school on how to hambone through a B-movie role (before ending up face down in an estate pool). 

Several golden-age Hollywood actresses, including Joan Blondell and Dorothy Lamour, make brief appearances, bolstering the film’s atmosphere of a gone era fading from memory, if not from imagination. Lorna Love herself mostly breaks the illusion, since her styling and composure seem jarringly out of place with her supposed time.

Black cats (both alive and stuffed), references to the occult and black magic, an attempt on Donna’s life by a gloved and black-robed assailant, and a grotesque finale that sends everything up in flames help make Death at Love House an enjoyable, if ultimately minor, gothic-lite thriller.

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Nightmare on the 13th Floor

Nightmare on the 13th Floor

Made-for-Television Movie | Starring Michele Greene, John Karlen, Louise Fletcher, James Brolin, Terry Treas | Written by J.D. Feigelson & Dan DiStefano | Directed by Walter Grauman| Originally Aired on October 31, 1990

A Los Angeles hotel hides a deadly secret in this lesser entry in what could be described as the “apartment horror” subgenre. Falling well short of such films as Rosemary’s Baby, The Sentinel, or even Dario Argento’s Inferno, Nightmare On the 13th Floor offers a hint of appealing mystery, but slowly devolves into a mundane slasher with a nonsensical resolution.

Travel writer Elaine Kalisher (Michele Greene) checks into the Wessex Hotel intending to write an article on the building’s history, but instead witnesses a shocking murder from inside a stalled service elevator. After failing to convince the staff or local police (John Karlen) that the murder actually occured, she delves deep into her own investigation, which leads to the hotel’s dark past. Meanwhile, other guests begin disappearing, stalked on the secret thirteenth floor by an unknown assailant with an axe.

The ingredients are all here for some cheap seasonal thrills—the witness investigating the crime no one believes happened, the architectural secret waiting to be discovered, a historical crime that may have modern consequences, the sense of paranoia surrounding the motives of the people who may or may not be involved in some greater conspiracy—but Nightmare on the 13th Floor mainly just sleepwalks through most of its running time. While Elaine chases down leads, a new victim is occasionally pushed off the elevator, stuck between the 12th and 14th floor, to face the swinging blade.

James Brolin (The Amityville Horror) plays the house doctor with an insistent, bug-eyed friendliness that telegraphs a later role reversal, while the other actors are forced to work within their limitations. Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)  is reduced to her character props, a pair of chained reading glasses and lipstick-stained cigarette, while John Karlen (Dark Shadows) furiously chews up a box of Tic-Tacs in his few scenes, no doubt an attempt at covering his dyspepsia generated from the role.

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The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck

The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck
Alexander Laing | Collier Books | 1962 (first published 1934) | 250 pages

Told in the form of a written transcript of events by medical student David Saunders, The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck chronicles a series of bizarre occurrences swirling around a small university hospital following the disappearance of an ethically challenged doctor.

After brusquely dismissing a former amputation patient’s cries of pain issuing from a phantom limb, Dr. Gideon Wyck embarks on a strange nocturnal rendezvous with a nurse in the desolate farmlands outside of town. Trailed by the inquisitive Saunders, the doctor disappears in a car with an unknown driver, and is not seen again. For the first few days following the disappearance, the students and faculty are relieved by the temporary absence of a generally cruel and erratic personality. When his embalmed body eventually turns up in the freezer with the cadavers stored for anatomy class dissections, however, the small Maine medical college finds itself at the center of a baffling murder mystery.

Although the whodunnit question functions as the nominal core of the story, Saunders’ investigation unearths an increasingly macabre series of revelations stemming from Wyck’s secret program of experiments. Former patients complain of demonic possession, donors suffer from sympathetic pains with the recipients of their unauthorized blood transfusions, epileptics enter into bouts of murderous rage while suffering from seizure-induced blackouts, and a series of monstrously deformed babies are birthed by women who share some common connection with Gideon Wyck.

The grotesqueries are necessarily viewed at some distance due to the conceit of a transcript from a student’s perspective, but succeed in evoking a queasy atmosphere of morbidity. Considering the list of shocking discoveries, the middle section of the book plods along while Saunders shifts through and considers at length each of all the possible suspects and their alibis, including his classmates, hospital administrator, the county coroner,  and even his would-be girlfriend.Although some of the scientific content is pure nonsense, reading Gideon Wyck provides a comparable experience to browsing the formaldehyde-soaked specimens enclosed in glass jars on display in a museum of medical curiosities.

The denouement falls far too flat for Gideon Wyck to be included in the pantheon of great mysteries, but its reputation is justly earned as an early masher of genres—mystery, horror, science fiction, and medical thriller—that somehow congeals into an oddly original pulp concoction.

Quentin the Vampire | Dark Shadows Issue #20

Dark Shadows | Issue #20
Quentin the Vampire
Gold Key Comics | June, 1973

Dispensing with the monster-of-the-week format so prevalent over the last few issues, Quentin the Vampire returns the focus back to the respective curses afflicting the Collins family. After accidentally taking an experimental vampire cure intended for Barnabas, Quentin finds some relief from his lycanthropy—but suffers a new malady resembling a mutation of vampirism. Numerous serums, sedatives, and treatments are injected as Julia Hoffman rapidly plunges syringes back and forth between the two cursed cousins.

With the light of the moon now triggering an insatiable hunger for blood, Quentin blacks out and attacks Elizabeth Collins at Collinwood. Although he is eventually restrained by Julia Hoffman, Quentin’s uncontrollable hysteria is noted by an overtly hostile Roger Collins, who—thinking him insane—sends him for psychiatric treatment in New York. This sudden change of location provides Barnabas with the opportunity to chase Quentin through the streets of Chinatown, although he ultimately relies upon the mystic guidance of a conveniently-placed soothsayer, fronting a mysterious temple.

Nevermind the brief glimpse at a possible subterranean network of mysticism beyond the temple facade, the page count is running low and the confrontation between Barnabas and Quentin cannot be postponed any longer.

Various scuffles ensue, the existential weight of the respective curses pondered, and the reverse ailment reset with a syringe administered (this time) by Barnabas, before he returns to his coffin back at Collinwood—undoubtedly awaiting the next issue cycle.

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The Ghost Pirates

The Ghost Pirates
William Hope Hodgson | Sphere Books | 1975 | 159 pages

Told in the form of a deposition, The Ghost Pirates recounts a crew member’s increasingly terrifying encounters with the supernatural aboard a  doomed sailing ship. Originally published in 1909, this work and several others by William Hope Hodgson, who was killed in World War I, were influential to H.P. Lovecraft and other early writers of what we now refer to as weird fiction.

Setting out from San Francisco around Cape Horn on a homeward journey to England, the Mortezestus sails with the reputation of being a haunted ship. Jessop, a newly boarded sailor, discovers that the entire crew, save a young seaman named Williams, disembarked and was replaced prior to departure. Williams, although determined to stay on board and collect his full pay, tells Jessop his concerns over the vessel, which he characterizes as possessing “too many shadows.”

After a few uneventful days at sea, the Mortzestus begins to earn its haunted reputation. A series of inexplicable problems with the infrastructure leads to several accidents among the crew members. In an early, chill-inducing scene, Jessop witnesses a shadowy form with blazing eyes climb over the railing, only to later disappear back into the sea. Tammy, a young apprentice, also sees a dark, shifting figure while on watch, eventually leading Jessop to take him into his confidence.

A series of hard-to-explain encounters escalates into more overtly paranormal experiences, fueling the inherent tension of the claustrophobic setting aboard the isolated ship at sea. The specifics of the riggings and deck locations are detailed with a technical precision, as crew members climb and search the mastheads for the cause of their increasingly puzzling problems. Masts collapse in calm seas, strange lights wink on the horizon, and the ship becomes enshrouded by a strange mist. Jessop and Tammy withhold their observations, waiting for the Second Mate to accept the realization that supernatural forces are working against their beleaguered ship.

Suggesting something beyond a mere haunting, Jessop pontificates an intriguing cosmology to explain the Mortezestus’ encounters with the unknown. His theory of intersecting planes of existence would fit more closely with the early canon of science fiction and burgeoning cosmic horror than with simple ghost stories. However, the The Ghost Pirates ultimately benefits from the detached detailing of events rather than explicit explanations regarding the causes of the spectral encounters.

The spare prose, detailed ship locations, and use of cockney dialects for the crew’s dialogue all help to firmly bring the self-contained world of the Mortezestus to life. Each evening births a sickening sense of anticipation,  as the stricken seamen fear another onslaught of terror, along with the dreadful prospect of never reaching safe port again.

The appearance of several shadowy ships beneath the surface of the water surrounding the Mortezestus signals the arrival of the shocking final moments on board, as all the eerie tension built up over time culminates in a horrific conclusion. Although arguably hopeless, the inevitable nature of the resolution provides a logical and satisfying finish to the doomed voyage.

From Satan with Love

From Satan with Love
Virginia Coffman | Pinnacle Books | 1971 | 212 pages

The sixth book in the Lucifer Cover occult gothic series settles comfortably into a rote pattern established by the previous few outings: an attractive young newcomer arrives in the diabolical coastal-California spa town, falls under the sinister seductive charms of its enigmatic owner, battles to resist the the temptations of an easy hedonism, and finally struggles to escape with her very soul intact.

The newcomer in this volume is Maeva Wells, along with her young niece, Jenniver. The pair spend an enjoyable afternoon of family bonding hiking in the coastal foothills above Big Sur, until Jenniver falls down a cliff side and breaks her ankle. They end up in Lucifer Cove, a previously unknown spa town marked by sulfurous plumes and an inexplicably confusing tangle of local roads. While Jenniver recovers from her injuries in the town’s clinic, Maeva is welcomed into a luxurious suite in the resort, recently vacated by the tragic death of its former occupant.

An intended one-night stay turns into several, as Jenniver seems determined to isolate herself from Maeva and stay under the care of the clinic, watched over by the coolly detached Dr. Rossiter. Exposed to the decadent lifestyle offered by the spa, Maeva begins to indulge in her fantasies of attraction to its mysterious owner, Marc Meridon. Ultimately Maeva succumbs to the temptations, attending a Black Mass at Lucifer Cove’s temple and signing her name to an infernal pact, wishing “Let me be loved by Marc.”

Of course, all is not what it appears—or, to readers of the series, exactly what it appears. Familiar characters and locations feature in mostly empty call-backs from previous books. Nadine Janos, high-priestess of the temple (and the main focus of an earlier title), here simply wanders around the margins, stripped of any complexities or conflicts surrounding her role in Lucifer Cove. Although initially not much more than a brogue-speaking stereotype, Sean O’Flannery, her Irish boyfriend, occupies even less of a role now, serving as little more than a perfunctory helper for Maeva’s escape attempt. Even Kinkajou the cat, Marc’s shapeshifting alternate form, is reduced to watching Maeva through the window from her garden terrace. All of Lucifer Cove adds up to little more than a reflection of the main street’s false-Tudor store fronts.

If nothing else, Lucifer Cove stands as an artifact to a specific, bygone era of post-Summer of Love California history, when hippies, cults and communes crossed over into the popular culture, and celebrities dropped in to partake in the entertainment spectacle of an occult ritual. Or perhaps this historical recollection is an entirely false history, only appearing in the cultural imagination of the times—but still one never to be repeated.

A leisurely enjoyable–albeit incredibly slight–placeholder for the Lucifer Cove series (although a seventh book was never written), From Satan with Love fails to advance the ongoing battle between Marc Meridon and Dr. Rossiter, offering another throw-away outsider’s tale of her devilish encounter with the secretive, sulfur-shrouded California town.

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.