The Visitor

The Visitor
Chauncey G. Parker III | Signet Books | 1981 | 244 pages

“…uh…it was more like maybe you should be talking with one of them psychological guys instead of me, know what I mean?”

With his wife and children away in Maine for summer holiday, bank executive Bart Hughes engages in an ever-escalating battle of wills against a vengeful rat in his Upper Eastside New York brownstone.

A quickly observed blur from the open garden door into the kitchen drives Bart to fear that a vermin has entered into his apartment. The intruder is crafty, however, stealing the bait while avoiding Bart’s strategically placed traps. After consulting with handyman and old-time neighborhood sage, Clete Washington, Bart shifts the method of attack to poisons, deployed various deadly concoctions designed for a gruesome chemical kill.

The fight isn’t one sided. The rat chews through the water hose leading to the washing machine, flooding Bart’s kitchen. Telephone and other utility wires are also fair game, triggering the apartment’s security alarms. When Bart discovers a nest in his cellar under the water heater and kills all the young rats within, the fight between man and rat becomes more ever more violent—and personal.

The epic contest shrinks Bart’s world down to his barricaded bedroom, although that defended space reveals itself to be unsecure. Even with the seemingly intelligent counterattacks, demanding an absurd level of sophistication from a rodent, the proceedings never fall entirely into camp, since the corresponding impact on Bart’s life has measurable consequences.

Essentially a successful two-character chamber piece (one character happening to be a rat), The Visitor effectively distills the action down to Bart’s growing mania. Every violated cupboard or compromised food item drives him to another level of intense desire for retribution, while further removing him from his wife, already at a distance via her phone calls from Maine. Deriving from more than a simple, inherent fear of rats, Bart’s growing horror stems from his lack of control and sense of violation.

Bart’s fixation on eliminating the rat grows into an obsession, jeopardizing his job and family. A previous history battling mice suggests his unreliable quality as a narrator, with his entire struggle perhaps simply a descent into mental illness. The resolution ultimately clarifies any lingering doubt regarding psychological ambiguity, perhaps even hinting at a greater menace.

Beware the discovery of those telltale black pellets resembling large grains of rice.

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.”

Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby
Ira Levin | Dell Books | 1967 | 218 pages

“You look great. It’s that haircut that looks awful, if you want the truth, honey.”

Readers familiar with Roman Polanski’s remarkably faithful 1968 screen adaptation will no doubt recall some of the indelible images—and performances—from the film while turning the pages, but Ira Levin’s novel remains a singular classic that defines modern horror.

Struggling actor Guy Woodhouse and his wife Rosemary seem to be a sympathetic young couple, but from the start Guy exhibits a shallow narcissism. Following the simple vanity of “Christ, a pimple” upon viewing his reflection, Guy lies about a sudden job opportunity in order to break a newly signed lease. His deceit allows for a move into the Bramford, a gothic apartment building that, unbeknownst to them, harbors a dark history of murder, cannibalism, and devil worship.

Rosemary is complicit with Guy’s actions, determined to have her dream apartment that will provide a foundation for her future family, with “three children two years apart.” Even after a short retreat to a cabin (in one of the few scenes not included in the screenplay), Rosemary acknowledges Guy’s shortcomings as a husband and potential father, yet is determined to conceive a child.

Small indicators of the diabolical horrors to come are sprinkled throughout, from the black candles provided by neighbors, Roman and Minne Castavet, to the sounds of ritual music through the common walls of the apartment. A few current events also help define the general mood of the time. The Pope’s visit to New York City triggers a discussion with the Castavets on the hypocrisy of religion, and Rosemary reflects upon the infamous Time magazine cover, “Is God Dead?”

When Guy receives a new role due to the mysterious blinding of a rival actor, he is unfazed by the horrific circumstances, concerned only with his own good fortune. Rosemary also receives some shocking news about her friend, Hutch, when he slips into a coma. Yet, she acknowledges to herself that her concern lies more with not having anyone in her life to depend upon if he dies, rather than with Hutch’s health itself.

After receiving the news of her conception, events turn more overtly horrific. Rosemary’s sallow, wasted appearance contradicts her expectations of a happy, healthy pregnancy. Her constant abdominal pain leads to a reflection that “the baby kicked like a demon.” And above all, the suffocating helpfulness of the Castavets, with Minnie’s insistent schedule of herbal vitamin drinks.

Ira Levin’s lean and direct prose provides his occult apartment horror story a wealth of contextual readings, ranging from the isolation of modern life, to an exercise in paranoia, or to a study of the interpersonal dynamics of a marriage. But driving it all is the sinking feeling of despair that something sinister, and beyond all control, lies just beyond the cusp of understanding.

Yet, under the blanket of pessimism resulting from the ultimate triumph of evil, Rosemary reaches the perversely happy ending she so desires; her apartment, husband, and new family—with the single, however significant, caveat regarding the nature her baby.

The Brownstone


The Brownstone
Ken Eulo | Pocket Books | 1980 | 332 pages

“What do you want from me?” she screamed. “What!”

Tepid genre thrills, maybe? Faded gothic horrors, copies—one generation removed–of other supernatural apartment terrors, such as Rosemary’s Baby or The Sentinel?

After being evicted from their building, Chandal and Justin Knight move into a too-good-to-be-true apartment in an old brownstone on the Upper West Side. Owned by elderly sisters, Magdalen and Elizabeth, the brownstone provides one last opportunity for Justin to stay in New York and pursue his theatre career. Just below the sisters, the spacious first floor apartment also provides growing room for the newly expectant Chandal.

Justin’s behavior begins to change soon after their arrival. Showing an unusual fascination for the sickly Magdalen, he exhibits violent mood swings. Displaying a new interest in photography, he converts the basement into a darkroom, and disappears for days at a time. Taking a job at the Natural History Museum, Chandal’s contact with her husband diminishes to viewing the red darkroom light above the locked basement door.

Alone for much of the time in the brownstone, Chandal experiences the sensation of being watched. In addition, she begins to see evidence—and ultimately visions—of a young couple in her new nursery. Fearing that the stress of a deteriorating marriage is impacting her sanity, she nonetheless wonders if her specters are actually living people, somehow connected to the sisters upstairs.

Interspersed with short passages of a patient’s file at a mental institution, The Brownstone delivers few surprises. Diverging from her similarity to Rosemary after she loses her baby, Chandal nonetheless continues to play the familiar role of heroine immersed in a threatening environment. The atmosphere of dread and paranoia are lessened from the early pages, however, since an occult ritual informs the reasons behind all the actions. Even an unexpected, late betrayal by a friend, with the resultant potential of a larger conspiracy, becomes a throwaway moment, since any fateful repercussions fail to arise.

The saga of the accursed brownstone continues with The Bloodstone. Hopefully, that book will not reveal Chandal as a blind nun keeping vigil at the attic window.

The Mark of Satan


The Mark of Satan
Ann Loring | Award Books | 1968 | 155 pages

Unable to escape the considerable shadow cast by Rosemary’s Baby, The Mark of Satan casts a web of diabolical intrigue around its innocent young heroine, but fails to provide the least bit of surprise in delivering its occult chills.

After a bitter divorce, Julie Wallace returns to New York with her young son in an attempt to restart her acting career. While examining the job board at the local actor’s union, a stranger approaches with apparent solutions to her two most pressing problems. Lou Davilla, a man of magnetic, but also disquieting, charm, identifies himself as a stage producer, and offers Julie the lead role in a new play he is developing for his recently renovated theatre. He also offers Julie the rental of his small cottage—just perfect for a single mother and her son–located directly behind the theatre, isolated from the busy streets of Greenwich Village in its own private garden.

While moving in to her new cottage, Julie makes a strange discovery. Hidden in a pillowcase, she finds what appears to be a wedding dress—with a blood-red stain over a slash in the material. Tucked inside the dress is a hurriedly scribbled note for help. Initially dismissing it as a practical joke or a prop from a previous production at the theatre, Julie is nonetheless troubled by her find. She begins to suffer nightmares in which she is the sacrificial victim in some kind of unholy ritual, bound and carried along by a line of black-cowled figures.

Coincidentally, Julie’s new role in Davilla’s play, The Thirteen, is that of a naïve young woman who is sacrificed by a witches’ coven during a Black Mass. Mike Abel, Julie’s old friend and former suitor, grows suspicious at the complete lack of publicity surrounding the play as the opening night draws near. In fact, he is unable to find any mention of the play at all. Julie is further rattled when she learns that the previous occupant of her cottage was a former actress in one of Davilla’s plays—before accidentally falling down the cottage stairs to her death.

The Mark of Satan does manage to wring some paranoid atmosphere from its post-Rosemary’s Baby tale of a medieval coven in the heart of a modern metropolis (including a served food item with a suspicious “under taste”), but unfolds in such a predictable, by-the-numbers way that most of the suspense is leeched away. Inevitably, the story leads to its prescribed finish, with all the characters revealed precisely as expected:

***(Not much of a) SPOILER ALERT*** Neighborhood grocer? Satanist. School Principal? Satanist. Costume Designer? Satanist. Lou Davilla? El Diablo. ***END SPOILER***

But the nadir of conformity to hoary genre tropes arrives during one of Julie’s nightmares, when a cowled member of the assembled coven literally chants, “One of us! ONE OF US!”

The Guardian


The Guardian
Jeffrey Konvitz | Bantam Books | 1979 | 293 pages

More supernatural shenanigans ensue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, as clueless residents and Vatican agents battle against Satan for control of the entrance to hell, in this sequel to Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel.

Ben and Faye Burdett seem to be happy in their new high-rise apartment on West 89th Street, with a close-knit group of neighbors on the twentieth floor to provide them with the necessary support to raise their infant son. Their only cause for concern is the blind nun next door who never leaves her apartment, and never ceases her perpetual vigil at the window. Their complacent lives are turned upside down, however, when Faye discovers a burned and disfigured body in the building’s trash compactor.

Due to similarities to the unsolved murders and disappearance of Allison Parker years earlier at the site of the former brownstone, the police consult with the now-retired Inspector Gatz, lead detective on the previous case. Gatz, who has somehow figured out that Allison Parker has been transformed into a Sentinel who guards the Gates of Hell, meets with Ben Burdett to warn him about the coming danger to his wife, who Gatz now believes may have been targeted by the Vatican as the next Sentinel. A series of shocking murders, along with Faye’s perplexing slide into catatonic shock, convinces Ben that Gatz’ theory is true. Ben steps into the role of detective, following the trail of bodies back to the secret organization pulling all the strings, in an attempt to save his wife from her forced destiny.

Since the central mystery of the location (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”), and its Sentinel has been stripped away at the start, The Guardian replaces the slow-burn suspense of the first novel with supernatural bluster. Rat attacks on nuns, invisible choking hands, in-door windstorms that propel their victims out of upper-story windows, and runaway subway trains characterize the near camp of this outing.

Charles Chazen, the kindly old man with his pet cat and bird (and embodiment of Satan), transforms here from the creepy figure in the first book into an occult bogeyman. Materializing in fields, underground tunnels, and lightning storms, he sends members of the Vatican team running scared with proclamations of Chazen is here! Chazen is coming! Chazen is in the building!

The only thread of mystery is the identity of the building resident that Chazen has assumed in order to get close to, and kill, the new Sentinel. As the bodies pile up around Ben Burdett, everyone seems to be someone else, but a paranoid sense of dread never materializes. The reveal of Chazen’s new identity emerges from a groan-worthy character reversal, in the form of a plot-twisting gender-swap, calling back to the opening series of prologues. Another related twist regarding the appointed Sentinel attempts to keep the interest in the story inflated as it lumbers toward the climax.

A largely unnecessary affair, The Guardian saves one final twist for the coda, resulting in a tease of a hell-loosed-on-earth that could have provided a more compelling starting point for a sequel.


The Sentinel


The Sentinel
Jeffrey Konvitz | Ballantine Books | 1976 | 278 pages

Billed as yet another successor to the modern horrors of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, The Sentinel fails to achieve their classic status, but still delivers enough seventies occult pleasure to satisfy genre fans.

Returning to New York after her father’s funeral in Indiana, fashion model Allison Parker rents an apartment in a crumbling brownstone on West 89th Street. Slightly unnerved by the presence of an old blind priest living on the fifth floor, who always seems to be gazing unseeingly out his window, she nevertheless takes the apartment to get some space from her narcissistic lawyer boyfriend, Michael Farmer. Allison previously suffered a nervous breakdown, and tried to kill herself by overdosing with pills after Michael’s wife Karen discovered their affair and committed suicide.

The Sentinel is most creepily effective as Allison settles into the spooky atmosphere of her new apartment building, encountering her strangely sinister new neighbors. Charles Chazen (5B), along with his black-and-white cat, Jezebel, and parakeet, Mortimer, superficially seems to be a kindly old man in a fraying, old-fashioned suit, but Allison perceives a dangerous aspect to his personality. Gerde and Sandra (2A), an aggressive pair of ballet-slipper-clad lesbians, are more covertly threatening; Sandra masturbates in front of Allison during a somewhat forced introductory visit for coffee.

The narrative hits a suspenseful peak at the midway point, after Allison climbs the stairs to investigate the noises emanating from the allegedly empty apartment directly above her own. Her encounter with the ever-pacing occupant in 4A leads to another emotional breakdown, resulting in a shift of focus to Michael. He leads the investigation into the brownstone’s role in her deteriorating condition for the second half of the novel, but makes for a much less engaging protagonist, as Allison withers away in his care.

Detective Gantz, who always seems to carry a mousetrap in his pocket, suspects that Michael actually killed his wife, but this police subplot serves only a superfluous role (and Gantz never actually confronts him with his trap, missing the opportunity to quip, “Snap! Now you are the mouse caught in my trap!”). Michael never fully develops into enough of a suspect to create a suspicion that he is also involved in an attempt to drive Allison insane.

Although the conclusion comes as no great surprise, with its downbeat tone and circular plotting, The Sentinel still succeeds as an enjoyable “apartment terror”– even at the “not excessive in New York” rate of three-hundred and seventy-five dollars a month.


The Tomb


The Tomb
F. Paul Wilson | Berkley Books | 1984 | 404 pages

First in a series of books featuring Repairman Jack, an identity-less investigator who “fixes” unusual problems, The Tomb could be a superhero adventure, complete with origin story, if only its hero possessed any of the requisite skills—aside from those cultivated by performing a few sweaty workouts between meals of Lite Beer and Cocoa Puffs.

Hired by Kusum Bahkti, a one-armed Indian delegate to the United Nations, Jack searches for an assailant who robbed and beat Kusum’s grandmother on the street, leaving her near death. Kusum insists that Jack must find the family heirloom necklace that was stolen, and return it to his grandmother before she dies. Donning the garb of an old lady, Jack hits the streets of New York in drag in an attempt to ensnare the culprit.

Meanwhile, Jack agrees to help his estranged girlfriend, Gia, search for her missing aunt. Grace Westphalen, an English society matron, who seemingly disappeared without a trace from the second story of her fashionable East Side townhouse. Searching her living quarters for clues, Jack discovers nothing out of the ordinary, except for a vial of odd smelling ointment, unlabeled and out of place among her belongings. An analysis of the contents reveals the presence of durba grass, an alkaloid native to India.

Of course, the two narratives ultimately converge, with a horde of demons from Indian mythology threatening the descendants of a murderous tomb robber. Even at 400-plus pages, the story speeds along through evocative New York City neighborhoods, back to nineteenth-century India, and finishing with an action-packed finale on the waters of New York Harbor. Jack even has time for a tennis match with his father in New Jersey, who perhaps unwittingly validates Jack’s unconventional workout regime by noting, “You move fast. Damn fast. Faster than any appliance repairman I’ve ever known.”

Although some of the supporting characters tend toward one-note caricatures (Abe Grossman—gross man—a corpulent sporting goods store owner and illegal arms merchant, simply loves Entemann’s cakes), Jack is an appealing enough everyman, however armed and dangerous. He not only works through the case, but also grapples with his life choice to be a “repairman”, and attempts to rebuild his troubled relationship with Gia—with a brief timeout for wild, tantric sex with an immortal Indian demon watcher.

To Seek Where Shadows Are


To Seek Where Shadows Are
Miriam Benedict | Avon Books | 1973 | 158 pages

Laurie, I know you’ll think me a damn fool. But the minute I walked into this place, I felt a—what can I call it?—an enveloping horror.”

Laurie moves into a newly rented apartment in an old Gothic apartment building on Riverside Drive. Watched over by stone gargoyles from the parapet, the building is a lone throwback to an earlier age, now entirely surrounded by new high rises. Her bohemian painter friend Alex, who has a studio in the building, recommended the apartment to Laurie and her fiancé Steve, who plans on joining her from his student housing at Columbia. However, immediately after crossing the threshold, Steve is overcome with an overpowering dread that causes him not only to back out of moving in with Laurie, but prompts him to break off their engagement entirely.

Having surrendered her old apartment, Laurie has little choice but move in to her new digs. Although previously unoccupied for many years, she discovers old paints and a portrait of a woman in the old cupboards off the living room. Intending to donate the paints to Alex, Laurie is puzzled to learn that the tubes are dry and brittle to him, but for her the pigments flow fresh and smoothly in her hands. Unable to sleep in her new space, she is troubled by eerie visions of a painter and his model, while another figure beckons to her from beside her own sleeping form.

More of a moody character piece that an outright Gothic horror, the specter of the past looms darkly for Laurie, as she lives out the tragic lives of past occupants through her ever increasing visions. The house on Riverside Drive seemingly traps its current residents in a dance of prescribed events, releasing its pent-up psychic energies in a form of karmic purging. Laurie never reaches much beyond a passive state, watching and waiting for her creepy carnival ride to end.