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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Masque of Satan


Masque of Satan (Lucifer Cove Book Four)
Virginia Coffman | Lancer Books | 1971 | 192 pages

The one-sentence tag line for this fourth outing in the occult series perfectly boils down the story to such a degree that reading its entire page count seems entirely optional.

The story of MISS JEAN BENEDICT, who came to the Cove to save a soul—until the lure of its evil threatened her own…”

Young missionary Jean Benedict arrives at Lucifer Cover, the hedonistic spa and resort on the isolated California coast, at the request of Edna Shallert, a former member of Jean’s Disciples Revival. Jean’s determination to uncover the “inconceivable menace” mentioned in Edna’s letter for help is fortified when she discovers that Edna now belongs to the Devil’s Coven, a satanic temple high on the hillside above the resort. But before she has the opportunity to meet Edna, or confront Nadine Janos, the High Priestess of the coven, Jean discovers the body of Edna’s paramour hanging in her hotel room.

Comforted by Marc Meridon, the darkly attractive and mysterious spa owner, Jean finds herself more and more drawn to the many luxuries offered to the residents of Lucifer Cove. Justifying her extended stay at the spa as just another mission to convert lost souls, she begins to image herself as a possible romantic rival to Christine Deeth, Marc’s current love interest. Unusual noises outside her window at night, along with the scent of freshly turned earth, hint to Jean that greater mysteries are unfolding in Lucifer Cove.

Book Four of the Lucifer Cove series offers a rather straightforward tale of a naïve young girl coming to covert those tempted by the seductive offers of evil, but instead becoming the object of conversion herself. Previous readers of the series will already know what activities are taking place behind the false fronts of the Tudor-style houses lining the main street of Lucifer Cove, so any true sense of mystery is leeched from the proceedings. Returning characters, such as Nadine Janos and her Irish handyman, O’Flannery, aren’t given much of a role, and perceived villain Dr. Rossiter remains something of an enigma.

Interestingly, Jean’s ultimate battle against evil hinges not on her own unwavering goodness, or a careful plan of attack against any inherent weakness in her devilish adversary, but instead on a technicality in a seemingly binding legal document—begging the question, doesn’t Satan surely have better attorneys at his disposal?

Priestess of the Damned


Priestess of the Damned
Virginia Coffman | Lancer Books | 1970 | 222 pages

A time capsule of the occult-drenched California of the early seventies (perhaps existing only in the geography of the imagination), Book Two of the Lucifer Cove gothic occult series, features a sympathetic satanic priestess as protagonist. That alone makes the book hard to imagine existing at any other time—particularly after the “satanic panic” of the eighties, which seemingly sought to unearth a conspiracy of devil-worshippers behind every conceivable societal ill.

Nadine Janos, High Priestess of the Devil’s Coven, holds periodic rituals in the Grecian-like temple above Lucifer Cove, an exclusive spa and resort on the remote coast south of San Francisco. A returning character from the first book in the series, The Devil’s Mistress, she is revealed to be something of an outsider in this outing, trying to maintain an aloof status as conduit to Satan among the residents of the small seaside community. Not truly a believer in the package of goods she peddles to her favor-seeking flock, Nadine employs a series of visual tricks and acid-laced ritual drinks to inspire a sense of awe in her powers—and solicit greater donations.

Along with her Irish handyman (and sometime romantic interest) assistant, Sean O’Flannery, Nadine caters to lumpy businessman Buddy Hemplemeier’s wish for stock market success, Edna Schallert’s lonely middle-aged plea for attention, and Sergei Illich’s need to be desirable to his young lover’s eyes with staged spectacles. However, alone one night at the temple, she feels a strange presence and witnesses an otherworldly manifestation, making her wonder about the authenticity of her powers.

Nadine, for the head of a coven of Satan worshippers, seems strangely out of step with the rampant hedonism at Lucifer Cove, where drugs and sex define the treatment as much as time spent in the spa or hot springs. She makes a point in not partaking in the frequent opportunities for personal pleasures, which includes ignoring (except for the aspirin) the engraved silver box filled with a variety of designer drugs issued to the residents. Lost in the labyrinthine corridors during a visit to the spa, she actually turns and runs away from the lascivious advances of two of the resort’s masseuses.

An underlying fear for her independence as High Priestess marks Nadine’s wariness surrounding the intentions of the mysterious resort owner, Marc Meridon, who approaches her with a favor regarding his mistress, Christine Deeth. Nadine also suspects a vague threat in the form of Dr. Erich Haupt, the German doctor (and Hitler look alike) from the spa’s clinic, who doubles as master of ceremonies for many of the resort’s Bacchanalian celebrations.

Although Nadine experiences some unexplained phenomenon in her temple, watches the club’s greasy gigolo die in mysterious circumstances, and discovers some evidence pointing to a celebrity body-snatching ring, Priestess of the Damned succeeds mainly as a character study. The threads of an overarching story are as elusive as the club’s resident cat, Kinkajou, and mainly serve to further the lingering question for future installments, “Who exactly is Marc Meridon and what really is going on at Lucifer Cove?

Satan’s Coast


Satan’s Coast
Elsie Lee | Lancer Books | 1969 | 254 pages

After the sudden death of her husband, Bartolomeu, Nell Valentim takes her fifteen-year old stepson, Chris, to live in her newly inherited family estate on the Portuguese coast. A ramshackle series of additions to the original castle built up over the last few hundred years, the run-down estate named Costa Demonio was seemingly the only item of value possessed by her late husband. Leaving New York to live rent-free in Portugal, the now strapped-for-cash Nell wonders if Bart’s great-uncle Sansao—from whom he inherited Costa Demonio—hid a secret stash of valuables somewhere on the grounds of the estate, since during his lifetime he had the reputation of possessing a great personal wealth.

Upon arrival at Costa Demonio, Nell is greeted with a less-than-expected courtesy toward its new owner. Damon Lord, an English tenant living in a farmhouse on the property, tries to convince Nell that the castle is uninhabitable, and that she must leave at once. A previously unknown cousin, Alexi Valentim, comes forward to warn Nell away from exploring any of the original structures, citing a concern for her personal safety. Even Huberto, the old caretaker, seems to treat her with disdain, reserving any respect for her stepson, whom he considers to be the true dom of the estate. The family’s local agent and lawyer not only seems to be unaware of Nell’s visit, but of her very existence.

During one of her first nights at Costa Demonio, Nell sees flashing lights on the estate grounds, and a mysterious boat braving the jagged coastal outcroppings to enter the small harbor during a storm. Because of the region’s history of piracy, Nell immediately assumes that a smuggling operation is being conducted through the property, and that the behavior of her new acquaintances implicates them in the suspected crimes. Determined to expose the operation, she ignores all her previous warnings and begins a search for secret tunnels and hidden storehouses in the old castle.

A tepid thriller, Satan’s Coast distinguishes itself from other genre entries through its heroine’s self-awareness of conventions [or maybe she’s just a good detective rather than an avid reader of romance paperbacks]. After witnessing a few mysterious lights and a boat offshore, Nell immediately deduces what, in other Gothic romances, is often revealed in the denouement as the source of mysterious doings in similar old castle locations—namely, a smuggling operation. However, Satan’s Coast doesn’t have much left to offer, with few twists along the way other than the disclosure of who exactly will be implicated when Interpol finally arrives [at least hide something in one character’s artificial foot, if nothing more than as a red herring!].

Other than a blow to the head during an investigation of possible secret tunnel locations, Nell is never really is much imminent danger. Although the villagers fear that the castle is haunted, there aren’t even any ghostly specters to liven up another day of gardening and assembling one-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles. The fate of Bart’s first wife, Cecily, could have provided a foundation for an ongoing undercurrent of tension, with Nell fearing that history will repeat itself, but even that potential remains mostly undeveloped.

Perhaps the greatest loss comes in the anticlimactic photo-shoot that Nell, a former fashion model, organizes on the grounds of Costa Demonio to thwart the suspected smuggling operation. A classic case of all dressed up and nowhere to go, the long-weekend event at the castle, filled with a roster of supermodels, ends with a square dance and a round of polite goodbyes.

To Kill a House


To Kill a House
Suzanne Roberts | Lancer Books | 1973 | 285 pages

Leaving her estranged husband behind in New York, Marra Manning travels to Ireland to inspect Kerrington Keep, an ancestral castle willed to her in an inheritance from her recently deceased grandfather. Perplexed by the cool reception she receives from the townspeople, she discovers that she bears an uncanny resemblance to her historical namesake, Marra Kerrington, mistress of the castle centuries earlier. The previous Marra was responsible for the murder of dozens of members of a rival clan, an infamous act that reputedly drives the spirits of the victims to haunt the estate’s Great Hall today.

But historical deaths are not the only ones plaguing Kerrington Keep. Prior to Marra’s arrival, a watchman fell to his death through a secret trap door off the Great Hall, leading some superstitious types in the village to fear that Marra’s “return”—through the presence of her descendant—will lead to a new cycle of death and mayhem at the castle. Further, some of the estate’s current tenants have claimed to hear moaning emanating from the Great Stones, the cellar brickwork beneath the castle, and to have viewed ghostly figures walking the halls. Marra also faces a threat from the human realm, when she receives a threatening letter demanding that she abandon Kerrington Keep and return to America at once—or face the consequences of an imminent death.

After her only real friend in town mysteriously vanishes, Marra begins to question the trustworthiness of her motley group of residents: the overly protective grandmother and her “amnesiac” granddaughter, the socially withdrawn professor (and former mental patient), the housekeeping couple who lost a child, and the roguishly handsome actor, whom she fears will test the limits of her failed marriage—if she allows herself to fall under his romantic spell. Rejecting the notion of a ghostly cause for her troubles, Marra draws upon the strength of her notorious ancestor to uncover the motivations driving one, or more, of them to seek her removal from Kerrington Keep.

The appeal of To Kill a House lies not so much in the scares the story delivers, which are few, but the atmosphere of growing suspicion and mistrust surrounding Marra. The characters all seem to be harboring secrets; an overheard snatch of phone conversation, some newspapers left in a tenant’s room, and unexplained lights in a basement window all, in turn, point an accusatory finger towards one or another. Marra’s appeal as a heroine grows as she finds the resolve to stay at Kerrington and face the growing danger herself—until she exasperatingly squanders all her newfound mettle by writing to her husband in New York, asking him to come to Ireland and become head of the estate in an effort to make their marriage work.

A Touch of the Witch


A Touch of the Witch
June Wetherell | Lancer Books | 1969 | 189 pages

Enticed by the prospect of inheriting an old house from a recently deceased relative she never knew existed, Melanie Clauseven is lured out to the New England countryside by a handwritten letter with no return address. Arriving at the appointed destination with her bohemian love-interest Gabriel, Melanie discovers that her potential inheritance is not much more than a ramshackle cabin. Further, the writer of the letter, Whip Benedict, reveals himself to be a distant relative of Melanie’s deceased father, rather than a solicitor handling the estate. Whip seems surprised to find the cabin occupied by Ursula, a feral young girl who speaks in an archaic manner and reacts with surprise to the trappings of modern life.

Deciding to stay the night following a sudden downpour, Melanie is awakened by the sound of people gathering in one of the unused rooms in the original part of the house. Creeping downstairs, she stumbles upon the performance of some occult ritual at a makeshift altar, with Ursula at the center of the proceedings. The next morning, Whip tries to dismiss Melanie’s discovery as a nightmare, but Ursula has suspiciously vanished, and the car has been vandalized—leaving Melanie stranded. Although still denying the ritual in the cabin, Whip confesses a shared family history of witchcraft, and pleads for Melanie’s assistance in a matter he is reluctant to explain further.

A Touch of the Witch, at only 189 large-type pages, unfolds more like a stage play than a fully realized novel, with four characters interacting in a single location over the course of one rain-soaked weekend. With Whip being the last surviving member of two family lines in a small village that actually drowned his great-grandmother for being a witch, it’s hard to imagine who exactly is making up this modern coven meeting secretly in his cabin. The introduction of a possible lost treasure, akin to a leprechaun’s pot of gold, only adds a groan-worthy cliche to the story.

The reveal of Ursula’s true identity comes with little surprise, and a tantalizing possibility teased by Whip while discussing his family origins—namely the “Claus” in Clauseven—disappointingly fails to materialize into Krampus, partner to Santa and seasonal punisher of mischievous children from paganistic folklore.

Through the Dark Curtain (The Guardians)


Through the Dark Curtain (The Guardians)
Peter Saxon | Lancer Books | 1968 | 190 pages

The Guardians, a London-based group dedicated to fighting the forces of supernatural evil in the world, return to investigate the case of a young wife frightened into a vegetative state by an unknown encounter on a deserted Suffolk country road.

Wealthy industrialist Sir Giles Offord contacts Steven Kane—anthropologist, expert in all matters of the occult, and operational leader of the Guardians—for assistance in investigating the strange fate of his daughter-in-law. Stranded in their broken-down car by the side of the road while her husband walked to the nearest village for gasoline, Mavis Offord experienced a terror so profound that she collapsed into a state of catatonic madness. Later discovered curled in the fetal position in a roadside ditch, Mavis was removed shrieking to the local physician, eventually being admitted to a psychiatric hospital—where she is yet to recover or even talk about her ordeal. Answering Steven Kane regarding why he requests the special services of the Guardians, Sir Giles explains, “I think she saw the devil.”

Accompanying Steven Kane to Frenton, the small village where Mavis was found, is Father John Dyball—Guardians member and Anglo-Catholic priest with an expert knowledge in the dark side of Faith. After questioning some of the villagers, Kane and Dyball come to suspect the activities of a mysterious local organization, the Sons of Anglia, and its founder Lawrence Stow. An elderly and reclusive man, Stow is rarely seen in the village, but Kane does meet his daughter Barbara, who although a beautiful blonde of nearly Amazonian proportions, exhibits little signs of life behind her strangely dull blue eyes.

Breaking into Stow’s estate after dark, Kane and Dyball interrupt a strange ritual attended by figures in white robes. At its center, a nearly nude Barbara Stow is held in bondage and whipped by unseen forces. Left behind by the fleeing cult members, both Barbara and her father lapse into catatonic states. Anne Ashby, the Guardians’ voluptuously beautiful occult expert and telepath, arrives to provide assistance with Barbara, but immediately slips into a vivid trance-like state—experiencing a vision of Barbara as a Queen of ancient Britain, facing off against the oppressive rule of Roman occupation.

Following the timeworn tradition of depicting small English villages as insular worlds filled with dark histories of superstition, witchcraft and secret rites, Through the Dark Curtain benefits most from evoking this familiar atmosphere of malevolence. Although standard fare, the most enjoyable passages have Kane and Dyball acting as detectives, asking around the hotels, garages and pubs for information. They turn up tantalizing possibilities, such the “Black Dog” (who local myth claims is the devil’s companion, hunting for souls on certain nights of the year), and receive tips leading to the secret society—never knowing who may be part of the shadowy network. Once Kane and Dyball interrupt the secret ceremony, and Anne Ashby takes the story back in time to ancient Britain, everything becomes muddled. The flashbacks to ancient battles are not compelling, and the resolution never really clarifies whether the Guardians experience these scenes as reincarnation, actually travel back in time, or simply have a shared hallucination.

The conclusion stands out as being most arbitrary; rather than the bunk explanation of formulating Druid and Christian spells into some mystical concoction, Dyball could have just as easily cried out, “Shazam!” and sent the rescuing bolts of lighting down from the sky.


House of Hate


House of Hate
Dorothy Fletcher | Lancer Books | 1967 | 223 pages

A young nurse is pulled into a family drama that may conceal an undercurrent of deadly malice, in a story that takes far too long in establishing the danger lurking in her midst.

Twenty-six year old year nurse Norma Theale accepts a position as live-in companion to Madame Victoire Thibault, a cultured but aristocratic matriarch living in her family’s Gilded Age mansion on Central Park. Heavily made-up and perfumed, the elderly patient’s needs are primarily social rather than medical (the biggest requirement seems to be sessions of reading aloud), helping her to compensate for the family rift between her and her son. Norma finds herself drawn to the eccentric and withdrawn Nicolas Thibault, a musical genius at the violin, but derided by his mother for not having an acceptable profession.

Henri Longeray, married to Victoire’s coldly distant daughter Michelle, occupies the position of de-facto head of the family, since he manages the Thibault’s successful art gallery operation, originally started in Paris a generation ago. Simone, Victoire’s orphaned grandniece, also lives in the estate, and due to the proximity in age with her mother’s new nurse, becomes Norma’s close friend and confidante. As Norma’s feelings for Nicolas deepen, she is shocked at his uncharacteristically violent reaction when an art theft at the gallery turns the family’s suspicions towards him.

Learning that Madame Thibault holds a tight grasp on the finances of all the family members, leaving them completely dependent upon her goodwill, Norma begins to fear that someone in the mansion may not be completely invested in Victoire’s continued good health. Entering Madame’s room late one evening, Norma startles an intruder looming over Victoire’s bed, scaring him off before she is able to get a close look at his face—but she fears she recognizes Nicolas’ lanky profile. Later, after coming across a trunk full of old family photos, Norma finds pictures of Victoire scribbled over with Nicolas’ childhood scrawl, “Je te détèste, ma mère.” She is forced to consider how deep the hatred runs in the man she now professes to love.

Far more weighted toward romance than gothic mystery, House of Hate shades Nicolas with growing layers of suspicion until Norma finally interrupts an attempted murder, revealing the true secrets at Thibault mansion. Occasional incidents—an overheard financial argument or a sudden turn in Madame Thibault’s condition–fail to fully paint a picture of malicious intention operating under the surface of family relations. The epilogue does deliver an unexpected retribution—or more correctly, lack of retribution—for the criminal, and an acrophobic character’s fate is served up as a strange, postscript punch line.

Night of the Black Tower


Night of the Black Tower
Olga Sinclair | Lancer Books | 1968 | 207 Pages

Young school teacher Beth Rushbrook agrees to come live at Black Tower Farms as the new governess for the owner’s daughter. Duff MacBrae has been troubled by the erratic behavior of his daughter Effie since his wife’s mysterious falling death from the farm’s historic tower the year before. In the days leading up to Sybilla MacBrae’s death, the door to the Black Tower was covered in ritualistic signs and totems, including a misshapen wax figure and a sheep’s heart nailed to the wood.

Researching the local community as part of her tutoring duties for Effie, Beth learns of a grim history for the farm. Some hundred years prior, a young girl was branded as a witch by superstitious villagers and hung from the tower parapet. Beth finds that Duff is quick to anger at the mention of even the most casual superstitions, but admits that his wife was a firm believer in the occult.

Visiting the Black Tower to satisfy her curiosity about the hanging of the alleged witch, Beth finds a fresh set of occult items nailed to the door of the tower. She fears that the same forces that drove Mrs. MacBrae off the tower balcony are again at work, targeting a new victim at Black Tower Farms.

Night of the Black Tower plays out as a rather rote mystery, with the only slight tension coming from the questions: 1. Who will go over the tower next? and 2. Will Beth find true romance beneath Duff MacBrae’s gruff exterior? The answers to both play out rather as expected. Beth never seems to be in any imminent danger (she does have a dead kitten thrown at her), and the occult trappings never suggest a deeper conspiracy at work among the other residents of the town.

Reading through contemporary eyes, the nascent romance could easily be described as Night of the Sexual Harassment Tower, a creepy tale of an employer kissing his young charge, flirting with her at the barn dance, and gifting her inappropriate sleepwear for Christmas.



Rest in Agony


Rest in Agony
Paul W. Fairman | Lancer Books | 1967 | 223 pages

After the death of his uncle Ambrose, Hal Brent reflects upon the role his late relative played in his life—and tries to come to terms with the unusual relationship he is developing with his own sister Lisa. Hal’s parents are on the verge of revealing a dark secret involving Ambrose, but at the last moment seem to reconsider. While reminiscing about some of his uncle’s odd behavior during past family events, Hal receives a strange, static-laden phone call. “This is your Uncle Amby, Hal. You must help me, boy.”

Stopping by the Brent household to pay his respects, local reporter Hugh Payson asks Hal about a book Ambrose may have left behind in his belongings. The grey-fedora-and-rubber-heel-wearing newspaperman shows an unusual interest is this volume, simply titled “The Book of Ambrose,” and makes a point of warning Hal not to show it to his mother or sister, if found. Although initially disinterested, Hal’s curiosity eventually compels him to search Ambrose’s room for the book, which he finds easily enough in his uncle’s suitcase. However, as Hal reads, he is unprepared for the vile blast of demonic descriptions and satanic invocations released from between the covers. That night the infernal dreams begin, rivers of dark desire winding through a half-familiar landscape.

A piercing scream wakes Hal from one such dream, and he discovers that his sister Lisa is missing. The telephone rings again, but this time his late uncle is not the caller. Margo Dillon, a mysterious beauty Hal remembers from the funeral, demands an exchange—“The Book of Ambrose” for Lisa’s life.

Rest in Agony tells its slender story over a few scant days, and its characters are only sketchily developed. Uncle Ambrose remains a disembodied voice, making his ultimate fate a less-than-compelling concern. Any potential to develop a sense of paranoia about who to trust is squandered, since so few other townspeople are introduced as characters, making their reveal as members of the demonic cult irrelevant. Even the Prince of Darkness makes only a cameo appearance—as a puff of smoke. If the members of Satan’s Children would have just broken into the Brent house and stolen Ambrose’s book after his death, then Rest in Agony could have been reduced to a short story about a boy kissing his sister.