Tag Archives: Mystery

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Dark Shadows (Issue #13)

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Dark Shadows, Issue #13
Hellfire
Gold Key Comics | April 1972

Constance Collins, yet another in a long line of previously unknown Collins family members, returns to Collinwood to announce her upcoming engagement. Barnabas Collins, again suffering from the vampire curse inflicted upon him by the witch, Angelique, nearly makes her a victim of his insatiable hunger before recognizing a family heirloom worn around her neck. Avoiding an early death at the hands (or more correctly, fangs) of a vampire, Constance’s life is further threatened by another supernatural menace at the family estate, a deadly manifestation of hellfire.

A coldly burning explosive fire that does not consume surrounding fuel in the natural manner, hellfire—as immediately recognized by Professor Stokes—occurs in places of great evil, transporting the innocents who unwittingly gaze into its cold flames directly to hell itself. Passing off an inexplicable fireball in the halls of Collinwood as a mere candle reflection, Barnabas sends Constance to bed, wondering if his cursed presence has summoned the hellfire. Naturally, Constance awakens in the night to a fiery glow, and cannot help but to stare into the hypnotizing flames. Seeing his cousin vanish into the pyre, Barnabas jumps in himself, vowing to pull her back from the black pits into which she has disappeared.

Given the epic nature of his task—journeying to hell and battling Satan for Constance’s soul—Barnabas has a rather easy time in this outing. It seems the devil is running a crooked three-card monte hustle in hell, and Barnabas need only break up his grift to release their souls. Never has defeating great Evil been as simple as knocking over a card table.

A half-expected twist, that Constance’s fiancée is the true source of evil calling up the hellfire, never develops. Disappointingly, he just turns out to be something of a mute Ken doll—a Ken doll with blank, malevolent eyes.

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The Brooding House

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The Brooding House
Alice Brennan | Prestige Books | 1965 | 254 pages

Young, red-haired nurse Larcy Ryan accepts a position as live-in caretaker for David Magnam, a terminal patient living in a rambling house on the shores of Lake Huron. Larcy finds David to be a disagreeable man, always mocking and insulting, referring to her as “Miss Bedpan”. He also exists in a constant state of paranoia regarding the possible malevolent actions of his own family. Sharing the estate is David’s daughter Bena, whose navy husband is out to sea, and her niece, Lyn, whose mother died in a mental institution. Lyn, a badly behaved adolescent, does justify David’s paranoia by confiding with Larcy about Bena,

She needs his money, and she isn’t going to get it until dear David is dead.”

From that foundation, The Brooding House builds itself into an inheritance melodrama, with Larcy fearing that a plot is afoot to kill David for his money. She overhears incriminating snatches of conversations between Bena and a strange man on the beach, and spots her meeting with another suspicious character in the town diner. When the body of Bena’s former brother-in-law turns up at the beach, Larcy becomes convinced that evil machinations are actually underway.

Strange coming-and-goings from David’s room, incriminating newspaper clippings, and the aloof housekeeper’s use of poison, ostensibly for rat traps outside the kitchen, all add to the general atmosphere of menace at the lake house. When Larcy witnesses a strange scene at the pier one night, her own safety becomes directly involved in the events.

As much a nascent romance as a thriller, Larcy finds time to reflect on the nature of love throughout all the mysterious unfolding of events. Although suspicious of Bena’s actions, Larcy admires the relationship between her and her husband, Johnson, whose portrait commands attention in the house while its subject is out to sea. Larcy envies the apparent “fireworks” between the couple, evident in Bena’s emotional longing, but absent with her own prospective fiancée, Pete Crimmins.

Pete, the boy-next-door type, comes off as something of a heel later in the story, when Larcy turns to him for help. However, for all his alleged romantic charms, Johnson doesn’t rate much better. Bena, assessing her own slenderness, remarks,

Johnson abhors fat women. It’s a phobia with him. He actually gets nauseous.”

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The Torture Trust

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The Torture Trust (Secret Agent X #1)
Brant House | Corinth Books | 1966 | 160 pages

Originally written in the thirties for a pulp magazine, several of the initial Secret Agent X series titles were reprinted by Corinth Books in the sixties. The never-named crime-fighting agent is a master of disguise, infiltrating and destroying criminal operations with his exceptional skills and ingenious gadgetry. Agent X is driven by a personal moral code, and is reviled by the police force as well as the criminal world. Intrepid newspaper reporter, Betty Dale, occasionally assists him in his campaign against evil, but she remains unaware of his true identity.

Investigating a string of acid-attack murders attributed to a cabal of villains known collectively as the Torture Trust, Secret Agent X assumes the identity of a low-level criminal to make contact with the group. Shadowing one of the black-robed members of the evil triad following an arranged secret meeting, X trails him back to an unremarkable house in the suburbs. Breaking into the man’s study, X discovers him to be Ronald Morvay, professor of psychology. Determined to uncover the motives of the Torture Trust and bring its remaining members to justice, X pursues a dangerous course of impersonations to infiltrate its inner core.

The biggest thrills in The Torture Trust derive from repeatedly placing its hero in impossible situations, trapped without hope of escape, that require use of his genius for quick-change disguise, or implementation of his unique arsenal of gadgetry. Whether caught in a police lock-down following a nightclub murder, or trapped in the secret headquarters of a criminal organization, Secret Agent X must utilize all the skills of his trade to free himself and keep his identity from being revealed. Conforming to serial adventure genre tropes, X must also rescue his colleague, Betty Dale, who is (naturally) kidnapped during the course of his investigation.

Although a certain suspension of disbelief is required regarding the equipment X must hide on his person to facilitate some of his high-wire persona changes (even Batman’s utility belt must surely pale in comparison), the pulpy fun of the escape scenarios more than compensates for the narrative convenience of having “just the right item” at hand.

Occasional footnotes by the author provide an almost exposé-like context for some of the agent’s exploits. We learn that X rarely eats regular food, but rather synthetic meals in pill form. He utilizes a radium-based paint to taunt his enemies (and the police), with the graphic letter “X” appearing on walls and phony business cards in his wake. Further, he possesses a moral code to never kill, equipping a gas gun and paralysis dart (in his shoe) that debilitates, rather than kills, his targets.

Establishing the groundwork for the series to come, The Torture Trust mixes elements from the adventure, spy, horror, and science fiction genres into a highly entertaining romp.

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Satan’s Coast

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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.

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