We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson | Popular Library | 1963 | 173 pages

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

Sisters Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood, along with their invalid uncle Julian, live alone in the isolated Blackwood family estate. Ostracized by the local community, Mary Katherine only ventures into town twice a week for groceries, while her sister has withdrawn completely into the interior of the great house. The three are the only survivors of a notorious unsolved multiple murder, a poisoning that, six years earlier, claimed the lives of Mary Katherine and Constance’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother.

The details of the fateful day are not immediately forthcoming, as the daily routine at the Blackwood house takes shape. Mary Katherine exhibits a penchant for burying small tokens around the grounds of the estate, talismans to ward off bad luck, while her sister only leaves the house to tend to her vegetable garden. The only tenuous connection to life in the town is Helen Clarke, a self-purported friend of the family who visits for tea on Tuesdays.

The full realization of the community’s hostile attitude toward the Blackwood sisters comes home during the polite artifice of one of these visits. Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair and suffering mental confusion after surviving the arsenic poisoning at the family dinner, bluntly addresses Mrs. Wright, a quizzical old woman brought along by Mrs. Clarke, “My niece, after all, was acquitted of murder. There could be no possible danger in visiting here now.” While Mrs. Clarke’s tea and rum cake sit untouched, Julian recounts how Constance prepared the fatal meal with ingredients from her garden—and proceeded to immediately wash out the sugar bowl after serving.

The tea party is not, however, the greatest intrusion into the hermetically sealed world of the Blackwood sisters. The unexpected arrival of their cousin Charles, who shows great interest in the value of their possessions—and the contents of the safe in the family study—disrupts the internal workings of the house. Pressing Constance to forget her dark past, shake off her reclusive social withdrawal, and re-engage with the outside world, Charles threatens to destroy the fabric of life at Blackwood house. His growing animosity towards Mary Katherine–who lashes out with childish acts of destruction aimed at his growing influence–along with the burgeoning resentment of the townspeople, eventually lead towards a devastating, inevitable climax.

Merricat displays a brilliant insistence upon rituals, safe words, and place in the family lore, but nearly all that is important is left unspoken. Only uncle Julian, barely competent in his current state, comments on the details of the murders, collecting a rambling written rumination on the circumstances and existing evidence in a shamble of loose papers. Much later, Constance delivers a dramatic shock when she finally voices a simple truth about the crime.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, while arguably less well known than The Haunting of Hill House, is less an outright mystery or horror, but rather a compelling, melancholic character study of a blighted house and its occupants.

An origin story to a future urban myth, it dares neighborhood children to climb the porch (past the broken step) of the haunted house and invoke, “Merricat, would you like a cup of tea?”

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Pandora

Pandora
Pamela Kaufman | Avon Books | 1977 | 279 pages

Private house in the country
Available immediately
To qualified person
House is part-payment for
Research job
For application contact
Box 666, Malibu, CA

Responding to a peculiar want ad, recently widowed young mother, Pandora Perdita Von Wald, accepts a position in Paradise, an isolated closely-knit community of wealthy eccentrics in a remote valley above Los Angeles. Berdine and Lyle Gemini, the mystically-inclined proprietors of an occult shop, offer to give her Ohplodu, a miniature Gothic castle built by Berdine’s late brother, Horace, a well-known artist and medieval scholar. In exchange, Pandora agrees to conduct research on Horace’s life and untimely death—but the Geminis may also have another agenda at work.

At Berdine’s suggestion, Pandora joins a small discussion group composed of the women of Paradise, who gather together to share their experiences and discuss issues relating to the liberation movement. The gatherings soon take a dark turn, however, as details of abuse and oppression surface. Cherry Delight, backwoods child bride of down-at-heel country singer, Clyde Boon, is first to describe her dysfunctional marriage, based on abuse and acknowledged philandering. Later, a seemingly drunken Clyde turns up at Pandora’s door, leering and making clumsy advances–before suddenly dying of mysterious causes.

Other meetings follow the same fatal pattern, as the derided husbands or lovers discussed by the group come to mysterious fates following the weekly gatherings. When poison is determined to be the common cause-of-death, news leaks of a purported “feminist killer” at large in Paradise. Adding to the potential victim count, Berdine reveals her suspicion that Horace was also murdered. In this atmosphere of danger and gender unease, Pandora somehow finds herself romantically attracted to Blake Nevius, dashing psychiatrist and not-so-secret lover of Carlotta Monroe, the regal major landowner in Paradise. Ultimately, Pandora must find the link between Horace and the current murders, and may also need to face her own dark secret relating to the suspicious nature of her husband’s death.

Pandora stews a heady, seventies-California Gothic mix of strange portraits, secret passages, covert agendas, numerology, ravens quoting Poe, and household help who are not-what-they-appear together into murder mystery framework. However, the yin and yang of male/female relationships lies at its core, with impotent men and their wildly unfulfilled partners leading to a denouement reducing the motivations to a swirling mother-surrogate, mother-destroyer psychobabble.

You said the stone of happiness, remember—which would be a father-lover. I want to adopt Allegra; a mother-lover, I love her mother; a lover-lover, Pandora?”

Pandora struggles to expose the murderer as wildfires blaze down the Southern California landscape—littered with Thrifty drugstores, feminist retreats, and homemade religious cults—in a depicted time and place that perhaps never-was, but will certainly never be again.

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).

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.

 

Terror Touches Me

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Terror Touches Me
Stanton Forbes | Pyramid Books | 1967 | 150 pages

Hey! I didn’t even eat the [salmon] mousse.” — Debbie Katzenberg (Michael Palin), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

Following the death of her father, and her sister Connie’s recent marriage, Mary Owen reacts to the depressing thought of spending her life alone by impulsively marrying a man she briefly met at the wedding ceremony. Eamon Doyle, a roguish, gold-toothed Irishman and business acquaintance of Connie’s husband, sweeps Mary off her feet, and takes his new bride to live at his family’s ancestral home outside Dublin. However, other than the gray skies and peat fire in the hearth, little is made of the Irish setting.

Arriving unannounced with Eamon at Doylescourt, a ramshackle castle with sprawling grounds, Mary discovers an unexpected tension amongst the family members residing there. Eamon’s father, Sean Doyle, seems engaged in a much-repeated argument regarding the future direction of the family estate with his children: Brendan, the oldest and most somber, more interested in botany than the family business; Liam, straggly-bearded bohemian and musician in a pub band; and Angela, unreadable under her cool demeanor and blank expression.

Just the same, there is something—some kind of violent undercurrent that I feel, only feel. Even their quarreling is deeper—deadlier than the usual family disagreements even though is seems to be about nothing of importance.

Mary’s observations about the Doyles prove to be prescient. On her very first evening the entire family is stricken after a shared dinner of smoked salmon. Although Mary was unaffected, Eamon’s father collapses, and shortly thereafter dies from an unknown illness. The police ultimately trace the cause of death to a poisoned bottle of whiskey, and conclude that one member of the household is a murderer.

More murders quickly follow, as Eamon’s siblings succumb one by one to mysterious poisonings. The only commonality seems to be Mary, present with each of the victims at the various times and places of their deaths. A growing suspect in the eyes of the police, Mary nevertheless confronts an inescapable conclusion—her own husband is responsible for the shocking crimes. Although he is a man she barely knows, could he really be a cold-blooded killer?

A passable entry in the newlywed-trapped-with-her-sinister-new-family category of gothic fiction, Terror Touches Me fails to generate much suspense on two fronts. Although surrounded by death, Mary never seems to be in immediate jeopardy, since she doesn’t appear to be a primary target herself. Also, even though she becomes a person of interest to the police, the dragnet of wrongful accusation around Mary as a serious suspect never closes in too tightly.

About two-thirds of the way through the story, Mrs. Ryan, the cook, professes to have heard a banshee keening outside her kitchen window, indicating a foreboding spirit lurking on the grounds of the estate. Unfortunately, nothing comes of this possible encounter—supernatural or otherwise—just a failed opportunity to lift the proceedings above the expected inheritance drama.

Night Gallery | Season 1, Episode 5

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Night Gallery | Season One | Episode 5 | January 13, 1971

Segment One | Pamela’s Voice

Jonathan (John Astin) discovers that hell is certain other people, when the spirit of his murdered wife, Pamela (Phyllis Diller), returns from the dead to torment him. Continuing to suffer from the specter’s ceaseless nagging at the funeral home, his only hope of relief seems to be in finally burying her corpse. Although playing into the stereotype of the carping wife, Diller’s shrewish cackle—and arched, painted eyebrows–almost conjures a sense of sympathy for Astin’s homicidal husband, who discovers an unexpected difficulty in finding a moment of peace and quiet.

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Segment Two | Lone Survivor

Picking up what they believe to be a single woman alone in a lifeboat, a ship’s crew discovers a man in women’s clothing, and a boat mysteriously emblazoned with the logo of the RMS Titanic. An effective early twist regarding the perceived time of the rescue is ultimately squandered in service to a familiar story of cyclical retribution. John Colicos plays the role of the survivor with sweaty desperation–and a powdered-blue nightdress.

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Segment Three | The Doll

A British Colonel (John Williams) returning from service in India is confronted with a creepily malevolent (or maybe just grubby) doll, received via post by his young niece. Recognizing the doll as an agent of evil directed at him, the Colonel tries to convince the young girl to relinquish it–arguably, she should also have been persuaded to relinquish that satin blue ribbon in her hair. Pandit Chola (Henry Silva), the Indian mystic who devised the curse in retaliation for his brother’s execution as a resistance fighter, ultimately learns a lesson about karma from the doddering old imperialist.

Aside from a few more-silly-than-scary grimaces, the doll’s supernatural movements are left mostly to the imagination, helping to maintain the episode’s overall mood, and also proving the age-old axiom, “Never go full Chucky.”

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Cat’s Prey

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Cat’s Prey
Dorothy Eden | Ace Books | 1970 | 191 pages

Following the death of her globetrotting aunt, Laura, Antonia Webb travels to New Zealand to visit her newly engaged cousin, Simon, and his fiancé, Iris, and to facilitate what she believes to be a small inheritance. Iris was formerly Laura’s nurse and companion, and with Simon, has opened a new tourist hotel with the money they received from the estate.

Before she even has a chance to meet Dougal Conroy, the mild-mannered lawyer handling the will, Antonia receives a mysterious phone call requesting a secret meeting to discuss an important matter involving her aunt’s death. Stood up at the rendezvous, Antonia later discovers that her room has been searched in her absence. Odd occurrences continue after Laura arrives at her cousin’s hotel, when she notices strange lights in an abandoned wing of the building that has yet to be renovated.

Antonia is plagued by further incidents, including an “accidental” fall on the stairs. None of her concerns are taken very seriously, however, and Iris patronizingly suggests that Antonia’s mental state has been compromised by her long travel from England. Antonia also becomes concerned for Simon, a simple man who she fears will suffer at the hands of, what she perceives to be, his shrewd and calculating fiancé.

Johnnie, Simon’s favorite yellow budgie–who was probably doomed after his first endearing chirp of “pretty boy”–reflects Antonia’s position in the household, particularly after the arrival of Iris’s new white cat, Ptolemy. All the building psychological tensions between the human occupants of the hotel are released once Ptolemy breaches the wire barriers of the birdcage. [Sorry Johnnie, I was rooting for you!]

A few deviations elevate Cat’s Prey from the traditional inheritance thriller, including the passive roles of the major male characters. Unsurprisingly, Antonia falls for Dougal Conroy, the milquetoast lawyer, but instead of this new romantic lead coming to the eventual rescue, an unlikely triad emerges; Dougal’s elderly, shotgun-toting mother, her giggling maid, and his investigative-minded secretary form an all-female posse to save the day.

Oxenfree

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Oxenfree
Night School Studio | PC & Mac Versions | Download Available via Steam

A drinking party on a desolate beach turns into a battle against supernatural forces for a group of teens in this choose-your-own-dialogue adventure game.

Alex and her stepbrother, Josh, join fellow high school students Ren, Nona, and Clarissa for a party on isolated Edwards Island. Emotional tensions between the ostensibly light-hearted revelers are exposed in a game of “Truth-or-Slap” around the campfire. Players assume the role of Alex, choosing dialogue responses from a series of pop-up speech bubbles. Clarissa reveals an early antagonism towards Alex, stemming from the drowning death of her boyfriend—Alex’s older brother Michael. Exploring a nearby cave, Alex unwittingly opens a mysterious portal, unleashing a ghostly intrusion that threatens to possess them all.

Game play is mostly limited to navigating Alex around the island to various locations, selecting appropriate dialogue options as they appear in conversation with her friends. Forests, beach caves, a deserted town, and an abandoned military base are a few of the atmospheric locations traversed over the course of the five-to-six hour game. The puzzle elements are light, with players advancing the story simply by reaching the next location. Alex carries a portable radio that tunes in various broadcasts relating to the island’s history, and unlocks the occasional sonic padlock with a twist of the dial.

For a game with constant dialogue choices, the conversations play out in a convincingly naturalistic manner. Beyond directing their investigation of the island, the interaction also reveals further emotional connections between the characters, allowing players the opportunity to advance (or worsen) their relationships. Although Ren is arguably less charming than the developers intended, the overall writing compares favorably against any current teen horror film. There were only a few moments (while fiddling with locked gates) that I thought, “Will you shut up, already!”— a remarkable achievement in a game of nearly constant teen banter.

Collectibles, primarily in the form of letters relating to the history of the island and its residents, are scattered around various locations for the completionist to extend the experience, but I was satisfied just immersing myself in the eerie atmosphere, following the escape-first-fully-investigate-the-mystery-second strategy along the branching storyline to its conclusion.

But I still didn’t know what “Oxenfree” meant [thanks, Wikipedia!].

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Masque of Satan

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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?

Wax

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Wax
Ethel Lina White | Paperback Library | 1967 | 223 pages

Freshly graduated from journalism school, Sonia Thompson accepts a position at the Riverpool Chronicle, a small-town paper with a few reporters and an advice column that, to her great disappointment, becomes her primary assignment. Although a rash of petty thefts and purse snatchings are the biggest news in town, Sonia is more fascinated by the local Waxwork Gallery, and its chequered history of unusual deaths. The museum features well-worn wax representations of historical figures, plus a macabre Chamber of Horrors displaying a rogue’s gallery of infamous poisoners.

It seems to Sonia that everyone in town has a doppelgänger in the museum gallery, including prominent citizen, Alderman Cuttle, whose boisterous manner and intimidating physical build resemble that of Henry VIII. A retinue of female hangers-on trails behind in Cuttle’s wake, including his employee, Miss Yates, and doctor’s assistant, Nurse Davis. Sonia begins to fear for Cuttle’s neglected wife, whose poor health—coupled with Cuttle’s unusual interest in various poisons–leads Sonia to suspect foul play.

Sonia frequently returns to the wax gallery, where seemingly all the threads from local criminal activities or adulterous assignations converge. The atmosphere of danger intensifies when Sir Julian Gough, goaded into a reckless dare by his lover’s husband, mysteriously dies during a challenge to stay overnight in the gallery. As more deaths follow, Sonia discovers the existence of a secret drug ring operating underground, and becomes convinced that she knows the identity of the kingpin responsible for it all.

Hubert Lobb, lead reporter at the newspaper, offers a contrary proposition to Sonia–that a woman could be their culprit–with his assessment of feminine qualities, “A woman has tact, finesse, and no moral sense or conscience.”

Ultimately, Sonia’s investigation drives her to her own overnight vigil in the murderous museum. However, the crimes and adulteries of Riverpool are as much at the center of the mysterious happenings as the wax gallery itself, with any traditional house of wax horrors mostly left aside.

Wax features as many purse or dress thefts as actual frights, with the only hint at supernatural terror occurring when Sonia briefly envisions a wax figure—Mary, Queen of Scots, somehow escaped from the museum—in the place of a missing woman. Otherwise, the sense of mystery surrounding the waxworks feels as dusty and anachronistic as that faded relic from a bygone age.