The Beetle

The Beetle
Richard Marsh | Consul Books | 1967 | 253 pages

Originally published in 1897, The Beetle spins a tale of supernatural horrors over the course of four distinct sections, each featuring a narration of the often overlapping events from a different character’s point of view. It merges a few popular genres into a mash-up of mystery, serial pot-boiler, and detective fiction into a tale of revenge by an ancient cult.

The first section is the most moodily atmospheric, establishing the arrival of a strange, malicious presence through the eyes of a destitute man. Robert Holt, an unemployed clerk turned away from a public housing shelter, breaks into a run-down cottage seeking a temporary refuge for the night. Inside, he encounters a grotesque, but magnetic, creature who quickly places him under a kind of mind control. Unable to fight the mesmeric spell, Holt is directed to travel across the city and break into the house of Paul Lessingham, a young and quickly rising star in the House of Commons.

Holt is a broken man traversing the landscape of a squalid neighborhood, dirty, barefoot and dressed in rags. He is a tragic character whose plight already makes him invisible to polite society, but is further shielded by the unyielding drive of a remote mind. Confronted during his burglary, Holt escapes capture, strickening Lessingham simply by repeating the instructed words, “The Beetle!

With the story established, the middle sections of the book stall out the momentum, introducing Paul Lessingham’s fiance, Marjorie Lindon, and rival for her affections, Sydney Atherton. The Beetle’s shape-shifting villainy is revealed, but any evil machinations are temporarily tabled in favor of the chamber drama between these two characters. Lessingham is already understood to be the ultimate focus of the Beetle’s revenge, and the shift in perspective just seems to circle around the initial burglary and other shared incidents without adding much illumination. Many pages detail the latent love triangle, but the romantic angle just conflates the importance Marjorie holds to Atherton and Lessingham as an impending victim.

The attitudes of the era in which the book was originally written are not only reflected in Marjorie, but in Atherton as well. Twenty or so years before the horrors of World War I, Atherton good-naturedly works as an inventor of chemical weapons capable of killing entire armies—and nearly kills an associate with a clumsily broken capsule of poison gas!

Interestingly, Paul Lessingham occupies the core of the revenge story, but does not have a dedicated section expressing his character’s point of view. A cool and effective orator and politician, Lessingham falls victim to crippling hysterics at the sight of simple missives from the Beetle.

The final section switches the action to detective mode, as private investigator Augustus Champnell takes up the challenge to find the elusive Beetle and save Marjorie’s life. Precipitating the headlong chase is Lessingham’s story detailing his original encounter with the Beetle twenty years prior in Egypt. His capture and escape from the clutches of an ancient cult brought him first hand observations of a secret society engaging in ritual human sacrifice, underscoring the Victorian fascination with the exotic and deadly dangers of the orient.

The pursuit of the villain on the British rail system finally amounts to something of a glorified game of trainspotting, with a deus ex machina train crash offering a resolution to the proceedings the protagonists seem incapable of providing themselves.

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Strange Seed

Strange Seed | T.M. Wright | Playboy Press | 1980 | 239 pages

Newlyweds Paul and Rachel Griffin relocate to Paul’s childhood home in rural New York, but the house and surrounding woods exert an uncanny spell over the couple, and hold a terrible secret that not only threatens their marriage, but their lives.

Strange Seed continues the post-Harvest Home trend in the nineteen-seventies featuring urban dwellers unwittingly falling into the trap of rural horror, but offers a satisfying variation. Rather than a secret network of occultists, the terror experienced by Paul and Rachel manifests from the forest itself, and takes the innocent shape of a small child. What follows is a (very) slow burn suspense tale; an initial act of vandalism and various echo-like voices from the forest set the stage for the most effective chill in the book, when Rachel discovers a naked and dirty child huddling in a small recess in her kitchen.

The mute child seemingly bewitches the couple with a strangely magnetic charm, as they take him into their protective care. Meanwhile, Paul becomes more distant as memories of his father’s death haunt his waking mind and lure him to incursions deeper within the woods. Rachel’s fascination with the beatific nature of the child’s features flirts with crossing over the boundary from an assumed parental pride into an almost erotic attraction.

The revelations surrounding the actions by the previous occupants of the house and their own experience with foundling children of the forest, plus a shocking act of violence by the reclusive caretaker, add some additional interest to the creepy atmosphere. Beyond the general climate of unease, however, Strange Seed has little to offer in overall shock value, as Paul and Rachel become virtually crippled with an overwhelming lethargy, unable to act or leave of their own free will.

Readers waiting for a final pay-off will likely be disappointed, as a final twist fails to surprise, and does not alter the already established dynamics of the story.

Since this title is only the first in a series of novels, whether or not the additional books successfully expand the initial foray into rural horror and establish a greater lore surrounding these enigmatic children of the forest is an open question.

A Stranger in My Grave

A Stranger in My Grave
Margaret Millar | International Polygonics | 1960 | 311 pages

Well, I’m not a good little girl anymore, and I no longer trust my husband or my mother to decide what’s best for me.”

A recurring nightmare of her own grave, with a date of death four years past, leads young housewife Daisy Harker to investigate her own repressed memory, and ultimately discover a shocking family history.

Daisy’s chance encounter with Stevens Pinata, a private investigator who bonded her estranged father out of jail, triggers an impulsive hire to recount the events of December 02, 1955 – the date of her dream “death”. Sure that the details will unlock the buried secrets of her nightmare, Daisy pursues her investigation over the insistent objections of her career-oriented husband and domineering mother. The case amounts to more than an exercise for Daisy, since her barren marriage and unhappy family life already seem to represent something akin to a waking death.

Daisy and Pinata are hardly traditional genre sleuths, however, and the mystery here first hinted in Daisy’s dream slowly unravels to expose a dysfunctional family drama rather than a hard-boiled noir or a parlor whodunit—although a murder is eventually involved. The inherent racism directed at the Hispanic residents of the fictional Southern California city of San Felice, a thinly veiled Santa Barbara, also informs the heart of secret dealings to obfuscate the wellspring of the mystery fueling Daisy’s subconscious.

Daisy allows herself to drop the forced smile she is always required to wear, revealing her true personal feelings underneath, the dark reality in a sunny place—so perhaps A Stranger in My Grave is more noir than observed at first glance.

Daisy’s conveniently repressed memory withholds much critical information, essentially creating a fog that allows the entire mystery to exist, but the conceit is compelling enough to drive interest in the resolution. Many of the individual scenes vividly illustrate the lives of the characters trapped in their own unhappy lives, including a young mother of six banging and breaking through her religious zealot mother’s locked bedroom door with a crucifix.

A rather awkwardly derived romance suddenly blooms late in the proceedings, creating an arbitrary happy ending for characters that have little contextual chance for one.

The Woman Hunter

The Woman Hunter
Starring Barbara Eden | Robert Vaughn | Stuart Whitman
Written by Brian Clemens | Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski
Made for Television | 1972 | 1 hour, 14 minutes

A luminous Barbara Eden, with the support of a handful of glamorous outfits, shines in this otherwise tepid made-for-television thriller.

Recovering in Mexico from the trauma of an auto accident, Dina Hunter (Barbara Eden) feels herself slowly becoming estranged from her cold, business-oriented husband, Paul (Robert Vaughn). Overcoming her early resistance, she falls for the masculine charms of her neighbor on the beach, Paul Carter (Stuart Whitman). Seemingly tracking Dina from afar, Carter could actually be an international jewel thief and murderer intent on stealing her valuable necklace.

Lumpy and hairy in a middle-aged, seventies leading man sort of way, Stuart Whitman provides easily the most terrifying moment in the film—the prospect of emerging from the surf without his swimming trunks.

Barbara Eden carries the low-grade, woman-in-peril story with her screen presence alone—including an unintentionally funny, weirdly jerky dance number that predates Elaine’s awkward dance on Seinfeld by about twenty years.

Unfolding without much suspense over most of its running time, The Woman Hunter crawls along at a slow pace until delivering a predictable, yet unlikely, twist ending. However, the modest locations and era fashions make for a pleasantly inessential, wallpaper viewing.

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Sixth Sense

Sixth Sense
Ramona Stewart | Dell Books | 1978 | 211 pages

Following a blow to the head received in a skiing accident, Nancy Parsons experiences psychic visions of murder in this tepid supernatural thriller.

Returning to New York City from a visit with her ski-bum father in New England, Nancy receives vivid mental images of murders, committed by a serial killer plaguing Greenwich Village, as they happen. Although not convinced of her psychic abilities, NYPD Inspector Doyle acknowledges the specific details she provides regarding the crimes, and the killer. When a gossip columnist inadvertently mentions her abilities in an article, Nancy potentially becomes the next target of “The Slasher”.

Nancy, however, is not an appealing protagonist, but rather seems somewhat insufferable. Whether living in her actress mother’s Greenwich Village brownstone, hanging out after cutting graphic design classes, casually passing around an occasional “j” with her boyfriend (the son of coal mine owners), or receiving a three-day hospital stay (and comprehensive battery of tests) following a fainting spell, she fails to muster much empathy.

Other characters exhibit a few oddly defining traits—Inspector Doyle loves animals and reads National Geographic, boyfriend Teddy imports tropical fish, friend Davie is a directionless layabout—but the details are ultimately of little consequence. Even the New York City locations are uninspiring. Beyond her mother’s obligatory theatre party at Sardi’s and a passing reference to the Fourth Street Subway station, the events could have occurred anywhere.

“The Slasher” also exhibits few traits beyond a cheap misogyny, and an interest in telepathy. The possibility of him experiencing reverse psychic visions of Nancy is teased, but shortly dismissed, closing any opportunity for some kind of psychic showdown.

Once the killer becomes fixated upon Nancy, her psychic powers almost become a secondary concern, with the climax playing out like a straight hostage thriller. Her visions of the killer ultimately lead Doyle to the rescue, but Sixth Sense lacks any real twists or surprises along the way. The epilogue even sets up a prospective sequel (or series foundation) that, presumably, did not happen.

However, Nancy and her psychic “Scooby gang” of friends are not a team whose adventures would merit much interest.

The best curmudgeonly advice for Nancy: “Go back to design school.”

Curse of the Black Widow

Curse of the Black Widow
Starring Anthony Franciosa | Donna Mills | Patty Duke
Directed by Dan Curtis
ABC | September 16, 1977 | 1 hour, 40 minutes

Anthony Franciosa plays a private detective on the trail of a supernatural killer in a television movie that feels like a lost episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, with its outsider hero pursuing the clues and ultimately revealing the monster-of-the-week.

Following a murder outside a bar, Mark Higbie (Anthony Franciosa) glimpses an inexplicable dark shape fleeing up a cliff side. Although the victim was last seen accompanying a strange woman, the body exhibits an almost animal-like pair of puncture wounds in the chest cavity. The dead man’s fiancé, Leigh Lockwood (Donna Mills), whose first husband died in a mysterious boating accident, fears the scrutiny of the police, and employs Higbie to investigate.

Higbie uncovers a series of other murders, with victims exhibiting similar puncture wounds and complete loss of blood, along with a common link to Leigh and her twin sister Laura (Patty Duke). After the discovery of spider venom at the scene of a new killing, Higbie begins to accept a previously unthinkable theory based on native folklore—the killer is a woman who transforms by light of the full moon into a giant spider.

With compound-eye point-of-view shots depicting pincer attacks and squirting spider silk, little doubt exists from the opening scenes regarding the supernatural origins of the murders. A backstory involving a childhood plane crash in the wilderness, with one twin suffering a traumatic series of spider bites, serves to scatter suspicion of the mystery woman’s identity between Leigh and Laura. Could either one be Valerie Steffan, the mysterious femme fatale picking up and killing men?

Franciosa and Vic Morrow (as the gruff detective Gully Conti) play straight through what could be arguably high-camp material in the wrong hands, with only a few instances of fending off fake spiders and pushing through Silly String webbing. The POV perspective on the murders also allows for withholding the big spider reveal until the conclusion, reducing the need for too many mood-breaking rubber creature shots along the way. Some attempts at light comedic banter between Higbie and his assistant, (somehow disturbingly) referred to only as “Flaps” (Roz Kelly), fall a little flat.

Several familiar faces (June Allyson, June Lockhart) have small, slumming turns here, including Sid Caesar, who wanders onto the set as Laszlo Cozart, the investigative team’s heater-obsessed landlord. Popeye (H.B. Haggerty), a mustachioed Mr. Clean type questioned by Higbee as a potential witness, is somehow both a “wino” and a gymnastics coach. Finally, the unnamed morgue attendant (Robert Nadder) adds an unexpected undercurrent to his scene after emptying a vial of embalming fluid into a sink, and awkwardly declaring to Higbie, “Mark, you know how I feel about you.”

Ostensibly a monster movie, Curse of the Black Widow also throws in an undercooked schizophrenia plotline. A repressed female sexuality, all buttoned up and wearing glasses, triggers a secret murderous personality, decked out in a black wig and faltering German(ish?) accent, equal in murderous force to the spider’s supernatural curse.

It’s all hokum, of course, but unadulterated seventies TV-movie arachnid hokum – in heels.

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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?”

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.