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”.

A Howling in the Woods

A Howling in the Woods
Velda Johnston | Dell Books | 1968 | 157 pages

Dear Eddy, I shall file for divorce very shortly. Since I don’t imagine you’ll contest, I shall make the grounds as mild as possible. Incompatibility, perhaps, or mental cruelty.”

Lisa Stanhope, a young model tiring of the Manhattan fashion scene, flees work and a failing marriage to the refuge of a shuttered hotel in rural Jericho, Nevada, an inheritance from an uncle she hardly knew. Mark Healy, her uncle’s hotel manager, seems surprised and dismissive when Lisa informs him of her decision to stay and run the business. She also receives a less-than-welcome reception from May Thornton, the edgy housekeeper, and her mentally challenged husband, Luke. But their lack of friendliness pales in comparison to the overtly hostile reaction Lisa’s appearance receives from the local townspeople.

Further deepening the atmosphere of dread, Lisa hears a mournful howling coming from the woods at night. Following a path outside the grounds of the hotel the next day, she discovers what appears to be a shallow grave in the underbrush. Seemingly uninterested in Lisa’s report, the local Justice of the Peace eventually investigates, reporting back later that only a deer carcass was found buried in the indicated plot. Walking in the woods that night, Lisa suffers–what appears to be–an animal attack. Still feeling ostracized by the community, Lisa learns from a young girl that the town has been inflicted with an unspoken tragedy, the recent unsolved murder of a child.

The eventual arrival of Lisa’s estranged husband, Eddie, completes the third leg of the obligatory love triangle, since she has developed feelings for the darkly handsome Mark—whose proposal to the not-yet-divorced Lisa comes out of nowhere. However, Eddy’s presence also undermines Lisa’s strength as a protagonist, as he assumes the lead into their investigation of the murky goings-on in Jericho. A key character ultimately breaks a little too easily from Eddy’s pressure, spilling all the incriminating details, and setting up a final claustrophobic showdown in the town’s abandoned mine.

As a variation on the town-harboring-a-dark-secret theme, A Howling in the Woods is modestly effective. The mystery surrounding the titular howling is revealed much too soon, and, sadly, there isn’t some kind of monster roaming the woods at night. However, its relevance to the murder(s) works out in due course. The ultimate source of Jericho’s troubles comes off as rather arbitrary and somewhat outlandish, but there is just enough of the who-can-you-trust-in-this town type of paranoia (although who NOT to trust should be readily apparent) to pull readers through to the end of the book’s relatively short page count.

A Howling in the Woods was adapted for television in 1971, starring Barbara Eden (and her exquisite fashion sense).

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.

 

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.

Wait and See

Wait and See
Ruby Jean Jensen | Zebra Books | 1986 | 350 pages

Charlene Childress, pregnant with the child of her cousin Daniel after a summer romance on the family’s central California estate, devises an otherworldly escape from their troubles. Seducing him with one last intimate tryst, she tries to coax him into a double-suicide pact, placing his hand on the hilt of a knife she drives into her own chest. Shocked at Charlene’s plan and by her horrible death, Daniel hides her body in the river, chaining it to the underwater roots of an overhanging tree on the bank.

Twenty-six years later, Daniel’s life is in disarray. Seeking to escape from the reaches of his terrible past, he spends most of his time working on the road, becoming estranged from his new family; wife Ronna, step-daughter Kim, young son Kevin, daughter Sara, and infant son Ivan. Sending them to live with his Aunt Winifred on the family estate he has not visited since that tragic summer of 1959, he seeks to provide them with some vestige of stability, not knowing what evil waits for them at the Childress house.

Although Charlene’s body was never found, Winifred blames Daniel for her disappearance, suspecting him of murder. Playing the role of caring aunt, Winifred puts into place her long-gestating scheme to kill all of Daniel’s children as vengeance for his role in Charlene’s death. But a greater threat beyond a murderous family member stalks the estate, when Kevin and young neighbor boy go swimming in the river and discover Charlene’s body. Cutting the skeleton free from the chains that hold it under the submerged tree roots, it comes to life, embarking on its own crusade of vengeance against the Childress family.

Things get very stabby as the red-haired skeleton stalks and slashes from the cover of darkness around the farm. A few evocative locations help set the mood, including the murky waters surrounding the skeleton’s underwater prison, and an occult altar room discovered in the barn. The point of view periodically switches between Kim and Kevin, with a child’s perspective on the horrors helping to turn the potential absurdity of a walking skeleton into a creeping dread of something evil lurking in the shadows of the big house.

The story does stretch out considerable mileage from its child-in-danger themes, and does not shy away from terminating its young characters. Any empathy for Charlene’s supernatural rampage against those who have wronged her wanes considerably as the origin of her transformation becomes clear, and her pure evil heart is exposed.

A final lesson to parents and librarians alike—keep those copies of The Necronomicon under lock and key.

The Cormorant

The Cormorant
Stephen Gregory | St. Martin’s Press | 1986 | 213 pages

A rumination on the nature of obsession, The Cormorant instills the specter of its titular bird–squawking, snapping its curved beak, or releasing sprays of liquid excrement—across nearly every page, building a malignant foreboding that culminates in inevitable tragedy.

The cormorant was a lout, a glutton, an ignorant tyrant.”

The unnamed narrator inherits a cottage in the Welsh countryside from his bachelor uncle, who he recalls only meeting at family funerals, but with an unusual stipulation. In order to keep the cottage, he must care for his late uncle’s cormorant, a seabird that was rescued from a muddy death in the estuary of the River Ouse, and raised to fill the void of avuncular loneliness.

Snaking its neck, it hissed a long malodorous hiss and brought up a pellet of half-digested matter which lay steaming in the weak sunshine.”

An unhappy teacher like his uncle, the narrator longs to escape his mundane existence in the suburbs of the English Midlands. Downplaying the role of caretaker to the cormorant, he and his wife, Ann, and their young son, Harry, accept the seemingly miraculous opportunity provided by the inheritance, and flee to the cottage in Wales to begin their new life. Their complacent attitude towards the cormorant is shattered immediately upon its arrival, their unlikely new ward exploding out of its box in a combative fit of hissing, spitting, and virulent shitting.

It came from its box as ugly and as poisonous as a vampire bat.”

Relating to the bird as an agent of destruction against the normalcy of life and the hypocrisy of societal good behavior he left behind, the narrator slowly develops a relationship with the cormorant, whom he names Archie, eventually taking it out on fishing excursions. Ann does not share the growing affection towards Archie, fearing for the safety of Harry, who seems to exhibit a strange fascination of his own towards the seabird. And, of course, the family cat doesn’t stand a chance.

The bird stalked around on its webbed feet, putting them down with a slap in the water and in its own many-coloured squirts of shit.”

The narrator’s obsession with Archie, whose presence informs the entire narrative, grows along with the palpable sense that all will not end well in the cozy Welsh cottage. Although arguably not an inherently evil creature, Archie drives a wedge in the family, the constant unease foreshadowing certain horror to come. Even the family’s behavior away from the bird creates discomfort, in particular a soapy, romantic encounter between husband and wife in the bathtub, with the infant son playing a squirm-inducing role. A Christmas-day dinner with neighbors becomes the perfect stage for everything to unravel, with the obligation to put on a polite face becoming increasingly difficult against the mounting terrors.

Its jabbing bill came through, it hung for a second, scrabbling with its fleshy feet, it wings outstretched on the wire, like some gas-crazed soldier on a French battlefield.”

Not all the threads of the story are adequately explored, however. A shadowy figure seen observing from a distance and the inexplicable aroma of cigars in the cottage suggest a ghostly visit from the late uncle, but are not fully developed.  His ghostly hand possibly helps the drunken narrator home from the pub, only to set up the fatal circumstances for the book’s conclusion.

The bird came at me in to leaps, brandishing the heavy beak, punishing the night shadows with the power of its wing beats.”

Ultimately, the simultaneous empathy for Archie and the shocking nature of the finale, unexpected in its horror even though presaged, fuse to deliver a minor masterpiece of macabre terror.

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.