Dark Seeker

Dark Seeker | K.W. Jeter | Tor Books | 1987 | 317 Pages

The blue-tinged darkness flickering at the edges of Mike Tyler’s vision constantly threatens to expand and overwhelm his perception of reality, kept at bay only by a strictly regulated series of pills. His medicated state serves as a dark legacy of murders committed in an altered consciousness as part of a cult, directed by a Manson-like guru who dosed his followers into a raised, hive-mind level of awareness with an experimental drug. The capture of his wife, after years on the run from police, triggers a crisis that encourages him to stop his medication, and succumb to the seductive call of a psychotropic past.

Mike’s jailhouse visit with his wife provides the foundation for the core dramatic tension in Dark Seeker. Accepting her own fate, she pleads with him to rescue their son, who—she claims—was stolen away from her by another former cult member just prior to her capture. The story awakens powerful memories in Mike of their son—and of his tragic death just weeks after being born.

A rather convenient explanation involving a changeling sets Mike off to find his missing son. Disposing of his pills, he lapses back into his enhanced mindset, hoping to merge awareness with the other former cultists and discover the location of his son. But Mike knows that something else lives in that psychically enhanced darkness, a presence he remembers as The Host, whose murderous agenda seems to have only grown over the years.

Most of the horror derives from brief visitations from The Host, his liquid black eyes and long teeth swimmingly superimposed on the edge of vision. One sequence involving a corpse in a car could almost play as dark slapstick, with the physicality of an inert body thwarting the attempts at its manipulation and disposal.

A grim and gritty view of Los Angeles provides the backdrop, its geography-of-nowhere landscape of chain link fences and freeway underpasses defining encounters between former cult members, destitute homeless, and former abuse victims desperately attempting to build new lives.

The Host serves as something akin to a bogeyman, its mysterious nature and origins secondary to the shock value derived from fleeting glimpses and unexpected arrivals. Readers looking for some explanation of this enigmatic evil figure will probably be left disappointed. Instead, the dramatic quest for family drives Dark Seeker, through the mirrored domestic units of Mike’s tenuous present and tragic past.

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Ratman’s Notebooks

Ratman’s Notebooks
Stephen Gilbert | Lancer Books | 1967 | 191 pages

The unnamed narrator of Ratman’s Notebooks lives at home in a rundown estate with his elderly, pestering mother, and is bullied at work by his manager, Jones, a pettily vindictive man who was once an underling to the narrator’s father, the former owner of the company. His only friends are the rats who live in the garden, spared from his mother’s extermination order with a last minute change of heart. Among the growing nest of rodents outside, the narrator builds a special bond with Socrates, a clever white rat with a remarkable aptitude for learning.

Quickly developing a system of communication, the narrator begins a training regime for his army of rats, with Socrates serving as his general. Frustrated and belittled at work and at home, he eventually experiences a moral epiphany, realizing that he no longer feels compelled to abide by the legal or ethical norms imposed by society. The initial foray into criminal action involves breaking into a supermarket to feed the swelling ranks of his rodent followers, followed by monetary heists to pay off his family debts. However, the ultimate target is Jones, whose shocking act of violence escalates the narrator’s desire for revenge.

The narrator’s genuine affection for Socrates occupies the core of Notebooks, but the introduction of a rival throws a potential internal conflict into the account of criminal exploits and revenge. A young, dark-haired rat named Ben shows the same affinity for learning as Socrates, but seems less inclined to accept the friendship of the narrator, who fears that his role as leader may someday possibly be usurped.

Ratman’s Notebooks was the basis for the cult 1971 film, Williard, and the character of Ben continued on as the “star” of Ben, its 1972 sequel. Interestingly, although the first film was faithful to the source material, the sequel transformed Ben from a dubiously loyal character to a die-hard companion to a chronically ill child.

The adventures of Ratman’s gang, documented by sensationalized newspaper accounts, are entertaining centerpieces here. From home invasion to strong-arm robbery on the street, they inevitably grow to a culminating act of bloody revenge that makes an ultimate redemption a fatal choice. It all adds up to a stunning portrait of a descent into madness—one that the protagonist eventually chooses to escape from—but avoids the common trap of explaining away everything as simply existing all in the deranged mind.

Tear him up,” I whispered softly.

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The Visitor

The Visitor
Chauncey G. Parker III | Signet Books | 1981 | 244 pages

“…uh…it was more like maybe you should be talking with one of them psychological guys instead of me, know what I mean?”

With his wife and children away in Maine for summer holiday, bank executive Bart Hughes engages in an ever-escalating battle of wills against a vengeful rat in his Upper Eastside New York brownstone.

A quickly observed blur from the open garden door into the kitchen drives Bart to fear that a vermin has entered into his apartment. The intruder is crafty, however, stealing the bait while avoiding Bart’s strategically placed traps. After consulting with handyman and old-time neighborhood sage, Clete Washington, Bart shifts the method of attack to poisons, deployed various deadly concoctions designed for a gruesome chemical kill.

The fight isn’t one sided. The rat chews through the water hose leading to the washing machine, flooding Bart’s kitchen. Telephone and other utility wires are also fair game, triggering the apartment’s security alarms. When Bart discovers a nest in his cellar under the water heater and kills all the young rats within, the fight between man and rat becomes more ever more violent—and personal.

The epic contest shrinks Bart’s world down to his barricaded bedroom, although that defended space reveals itself to be unsecure. Even with the seemingly intelligent counterattacks, demanding an absurd level of sophistication from a rodent, the proceedings never fall entirely into camp, since the corresponding impact on Bart’s life has measurable consequences.

Essentially a successful two-character chamber piece (one character happening to be a rat), The Visitor effectively distills the action down to Bart’s growing mania. Every violated cupboard or compromised food item drives him to another level of intense desire for retribution, while further removing him from his wife, already at a distance via her phone calls from Maine. Deriving from more than a simple, inherent fear of rats, Bart’s growing horror stems from his lack of control and sense of violation.

Bart’s fixation on eliminating the rat grows into an obsession, jeopardizing his job and family. A previous history battling mice suggests his unreliable quality as a narrator, with his entire struggle perhaps simply a descent into mental illness. The resolution ultimately clarifies any lingering doubt regarding psychological ambiguity, perhaps even hinting at a greater menace.

Beware the discovery of those telltale black pellets resembling large grains of rice.

Dark Shadows | Issue #19

Dark Shadows | Issue #19
Island of Eternal Life
Gold Key Comics | April 1973

Stumbling upon a corpse—invisible to mortal eyes—washed up on the beach, Barnabas Collins encounters a murderous band of pirates living an eternal life beyond the conventional limits of time.

Why pirates? Why not pirates?

A voodoo priest, serving the pirates and exhibiting an uncanny resemblance to a living Troll Doll, places an “Umba—Umba—Umba” curse on Barnabas, stripping him of his free will and leaving him at the mercy of the captain’s commands. His will imprisoned in a small vial, Barnabas’ reduced state echoes the fear expressed by General Jack D. Ripper (from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) of a “conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” Unable to resist, Barnabas is forced to pillage a luxury yacht with the rest of the brigand, in the only sequence of the story that remotely approaches swashbuckling—a strange shortcoming for a pirate adventure.

Later, Barnabas meets Lani, a beautiful native girl also trapped beyond time with the pirates on their island hideaway. Unlike Gauguin in Tahiti, Barnabas does not debauch himself, but plans their escape by summoning the powers of his vampire curse to fight off the voodoo spell imprisoning him. Challenged to be more than mere window-dressing in this issue, Lani muses philosophically, “Who are we to question the fates?” before rowing away in a hidden canoe.

A quick and rather convenient resolution presents itself, when the pirates considerately allow their only weakness to be exposed. The final showdown crashes another voodoo ceremony recycling the same  “Umba—Umba—Umba” chant, cutting short Barnabas Collins’ tropical sojourn.

The Moorstone Sickness

The Moorstone Sickness
Bernard Taylor | St. Martin’s Press | 1982 | 161 pages

The latent evil lurking below the veneer of peaceful, English village life ensnares a young London couple seeking escape from a recent family tragedy.

After the accidental death of their young son, Hal and Rowan Graham decide to leave the painful memories of their London flat behind, and start over in Moorstone, a remote village in the English countryside. Their new life journey has an inauspicious start, when Hal witnesses the shocking suicide of an elderly village resident while the couple is on route to their new home.

While the slow pace of life in Moorstone instantly enchants Rowan, Hal grows increasingly troubled by a strange undercurrent he perceives in the village. Many of the newcomers exhibit a startling change in character after arriving, seemingly as a result of the attention of influential patrons. These same patrons have an alarming propensity to end up in the local madhouse, which has an intake rate that far exceeds that expected of the tiny populace.

And then there is the well-worn altar stone on top of the hill.

Taking cues from The Wicker Man and The Stepford Wives, Bernard Taylor’s foray into rural horror mines the paranoia and mistrust towards country-folk, whose proximity to the land and tradition precludes their ability to fully escape from the heavy pull of ancient practices and beliefs. Of course, the Graham’s fear is fully justifiable, although Rowan’s late realization drives a wedge into their marriage—and threatens their survival.

The deliciously creepy atmosphere and corresponding anticipation of the inevitable terror to come, however familiar, sustain the entire breadth of the narrative, which comes to a rapid close once the village secrets are revealed. Hal and Rowan’s gardener and housekeeper—collecting nail clippings and leftover hair from the barbershop—are plotting something, but the question of trust lingers around the others in the village. Although the Graham’s marital strife takes center stage, the encroaching question of the villager’s motives builds an atmosphere of suspicion akin to a rural version of Rosemary’s Baby.

The housekeeper’s prepared lunches even evoke Minnie Castevet’s chocolate mousse, only lacking the under-taste.

The slow-burn suspense grows as the Grahams attempt to pull their new life together, with the nearly certain prospect of a sinister agenda at work against them. Is Rowan’s new best friend, Allison, a young woman waiting for her fiancé to return and take her away from the village, trustworthy? Or, how about the friendly doctor, whose chance encounter brought the couple to Moorstone in the first place?

The resultant downbeat ending keeps in tune with the overall mood, perfectly reflecting Hal and Rowan’s passive bewilderment to their mortally dangerous circumstances.

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.

Orgy of the Dead

Orgy of the Dead
Starring Criswell | Fawn Silver | Pat Barrington | William Bates
Written by Edward D. Wood, Jr. | Directed by Stephen C. Apostolof
1965 | 1 hour, 32 minutes

“No one wishes to see a man dance.”

A burlesque review thinly masquerading as a horror film, Orgy of the Dead bumps and grinds through a series of topless, loosely horror-themed routines, before the sun eventually rises on its denizens of the night.

Driving at night in search of inspiration, horror writer Bob (William Bates) and his girlfriend Shirley (Pat Barrington) crash their car, inadvertently stumbling upon a strange ritual underway in a remote cemetery. An evil Master of Ceremonies (Criswell, Plan 9 From Outer Space) and Vampira look-alike Black Ghoul (Fawn Silver) conduct a series of performances under the full moon designed not only for their own macabre viewing pleasure, but also to test the very souls of the damned performers. Captured by the evil pair’s inexplicable Mummy and Wolfman minions, Bob and Shirley are forced to watch the proceedings, while waiting for their ultimate fate to be decided.

Enhanced by garish colors and an inherently appealing mid-sixties style, a full dance card of nudie performances by Zombie Girl, Cat Girl, Streetwalker Girl, Slave Girl, Indian Girl, Gold Girl, and more (equally stereotyped) follows, all accompanied by groovy instrumental scores. The two hosts leer and nod, with Criswell appearing to read his lines from cue cards, while the classic monster minions spout some corny shtick from the sidelines. Bob and Shirley wiggle against their bonds while more performers gyrate through a dry-ice fog, hanging low over a cemetery setting that appears to have been leftover from a late-night horror television show.

This jiggly curiosity delivers a delirious mid-century visual treat—to the right audience—for a short while, but becomes something of an endurance test at feature film length.

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The Case Against Satan

The Case Against Satan
Ray Russell | Paperback Library | 1962 | 160 pages

I hope you rot in Hell for eternity, you lousy son of a bitch.”

Written nearly a decade before William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist shocked readers with its depiction of demonic possession, The Case Against Satan details two Catholic priests in their struggle to free a young girl from—what seems to be—a diabolical influence.

Following a succession of strange episodes, Robert Garth brings his daughter, Susan, to the attention of Father Gregory Sargent, a new parish priest struggling with a history of alcoholism and doubt about his own faith. Susan suffers from a series of violent physical reactions against attending Mass, and exhibits an uncharacteristic display of vulgar behavior for such a previously sweet sixteen-year-old girl. Gregory learns that Garth also brought his daughter to seek the counsel of his predecessor, Father Halloran—towards whom she made carnal advances and violently attacked with her bare hands.

The arrival of Bishop Conrad Crimmings to the parish precipitates an impromptu experiment with Susan, involving the rosary blindly applied to her skin. Seeing the burn left on Susan’s arm after contact with the holy article, Bishop Crimmings concludes that her condition stems from demonic possession, and sets in motion the plans for her exorcism.

“Why, of course. I am human, am I not? A little girl. A little girl with filthy desires.” And she yelled, “DUNG!”

Perhaps shocking and controversial in the era of its first publication, the potentially blasphemous content in The Case Against Satan seems almost mild by comparison to more graphic, post-Exorcist horrors. Some of the language issuing from Susan during her exorcism is suggested rather than explicit, although disturbing revelations regarding incest and murder surface over the course of the sessions.

“Mankind is dung,” she said. “The Church is a dungheap, a congregation of dung. Dung in the wind! Father of dung! Son of filthy dung!”

Attempting to be more than a straightforward horror novel, The Case Against Satan functions as a dialectic between Crimmings and Gregory over the nature of possession. They argue whether psychologists are actually purging demons with their clinical methodology, or that church-appointed exorcists are relieving psychological problems through their benedictions. Believing in the literal presence of Satan in the young girl, Bishop Crimmings struggles to solidify the faith of Father Gregory, whose own interest in the field of psychoanalysis logically leads him to a less supernatural origin for Susan’s affliction.

The ambiguity of Susan’s illness is preserved throughout the story, with apparent psychological causes to her symptoms, although Gregory ultimately overcomes his own doubts to embrace his faith. Suspension of disbelief is a key artistic tenet, but since the novel invites the question, the application of existing rules of logic cannot be helped. How can any rational argument compete against the warped, self-affirming rationale—the lack of evidence against Satan is itself evidence that Satan is withholding evidence of his own existence—of true believers? Father Gregory ultimately offers his reductive version of the whole affair, “She was possessed of the Devil. They cast him out. She’s fine now.”

A few references to real-life exorcism cases and figures of Catholic psychoanalysis inform the details of Susan’s possession, intentionally blurring the line between fiction and reality. However, the author seems to finally side with the protagonist, descending into pure, unrepentant hokum in his epilogue, with an anecdote involving an inferred visit from the “Lord of the Flies” while writing the novel—ending with his typing the words, “Begone, Satan!

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.