Wolfsbane

Wolfsbane
William W. Johnstone | Zebra Books | 1982 | 268 pages

“Yes—what is the point of all this?”

After a strange attack from a wild, wolf-like creature in her French chateau, Janette Bauterre follows her grandmother, Victoria, back to their family estate in Ducros Parish, Louisiana. Janette uncovers a shocking history of lycanthropy, which includes a 40-year-old family murder at the hands of the local townspeople—a killing that Victoria seems intent on avenging.

Following the return of the Bauterres, a string of shocking murders stuns the local police. The victims each exhibit strange bite wounds and a complete lack of blood. The source of the carnage presents little mystery, since the Bauterre family curse and Victoria’s drive for revenge are open secrets in the town.

Not completely trusting her mother, Janette hires Pat Strange, an ex-mercenary friend of her late husband, to protect her and track down the creatures that she views lurking around the grounds of the mansion. However, instead of a forthcoming moody monster rumble across the bayous of Louisiana, Wolfsbane reaches for a meta-textual battle of good versus evil, with Victoria and Pat the proxies for the duality of God and Satan.

God and devil fight all de time, boy. I ain’t sayin’ God lak it, but what He gonna do – jes sit back and not play? Devil win all de time if He do dat.”

Pat’s arrival completely shifts the overall tone from nascent gothic horror to full-blown men’s adventure tale, with the tough hero taking the lead as protagonist. The emphasis on Pat introduces a rough-and-tumble masculinity, with its corresponding light gun-porn details (checking and resupplying the ammunition his pistol, shotgun, and .41 magnum), into the story. There are also a few accompanying sex scenes, with a blunt, clinical descriptions and wooden dialogue that would probably fail to titillate most adolescents.

“Lady, that’d be a mouthful. But I suppose that would be one way to shut you up.”

Particularly jarring in terms of mood is Pat’s repartees with Satan. Their back-and-forth banter, perhaps intended to be lightly comical, comes off as crushingly inane, with repeated references to sports and specifically, Casey at the Bat. Is the author just having a piss? Taking the entire book seriously becomes difficult when this interaction reduces to something akin to a failed comic stand-up routine on the differences between baseball and football.

The waters bubble and boiled. There will be no joy in Mudville.”

The noxious bubbling surrounding the appearances of evil incarnate also inspires Pat to periodically unleash an insipid stream of nicknames, all variations on “bubbles.” Meant to be comically derisive, they only succeeding in being constantly cringe inducing.

I won bubble breath.”

All boils down to a climatic shoot-out with a host of undead creatures, not Bauterre family members suffering from lycanthropy as the internal logic of the story suggests, but corpses raised from the grave. They exist simply to provide Pat ample targets to unload his arsenal of weapons before the ultimate showdown. Finally pumping silver-laced shotgun rounds into Victoria—while dropping the full action-hero line, “Sorry, you ugly bitch, you lose the game!”—reads as an arbitrary and insignificant nod to werewolf lore.

“If we had a decent umpire, that would be disallowed.”

“Oh, shut up,” Pat muttered.

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Night Stone

Night Stone
Rick Hautala | Zebra Books | 1986 | 592 pages

The fiery brilliance of the Zebra Horror Hologram which you see on the cover is created by “laser holography.” This is the revolutionary process in which a powerful laser beam records light waves in diamond-like facets so tiny that 9,000,000 fit in a square inch. No print or photograph can match the vibrant colors and radiant glow of a hologram.

So look for the Zebra Hologram whenever you buy a horror novel. It is a shimmering reflection of our guarantee that you’ll find consistent quality between the covers!

Don and Jan Inman, along with their young daughter, Beth, move to an old family house in the Maine countryside, seeking to escape the pressures of city living. However, the house harbors a dark history–-the young son of Don’s great-grandfather bled to death outside the family-run quarry after a granite stone crushed his hand. Immediately upon their arrival, Beth has an epileptic-like seizure as the family car passes the stone marking the drive to the house.

With an inauthentic-sounding, distracting colloquialism typifying the writing style to follow, Don describes the family car after the incident as a “Barf Mobile.”

Beth’s sudden illness is only the beginning of strange events at the house. She finds an old wooden doll in her room that seems to share secret conversations. Don suffers from vivid nighttime hallucinations of stone monoliths rising in the fields beyond the house. Reaching out to touch the electrically charged standing stones, Don finds his hands covered in blood.

Preparing the ground for his wife’s garden, Don unearths a mummified hand in the yard that anthropology experts at the local university estimate to be possibly thousands of years old. Returning from a swim in the flooded quarry, Beth is injured when a horrific, withered hand grabs her ankle from under a pile of discarded granite stones. On the site of his vision of the otherworldly standing stones, Don discovers a tomb-like construction with strange glyphs, leading to a series of tunnels under the house and barn.

The anthropology department academic’s crackpot theory that the tomb may be a relic from Ancient Egyptian explorers in North America never really gels, although he strangely disappears to work on other projects even with the miraculous opportunity to prove his pet theory. Warned not to pursue the excavation of the site alone, Don is left with much time to explore the tunnel network, which never really leads anywhere.

Although containing a laundry list of familiar elements–creepy dolls, strange noises in the night, possessed animals, sinister visions, ritualistic altars—Night Stone’s source of horror ultimately folds down to one reductive cause that is never fully realized. Dream journals, warnings in Finnish, and even the prospect of Beth’s first menstruation additionally take up space on the page, and yet, the final answer to the family’s terror never progresses beyond INDIAN BURIAL GROUND!

Mundane details are in abundance, however, including an entire subplot revolving around Jan’s waitress job at the Rusty Anchor bar, and the subsequent affair with her sleazy lothario (and arguably, sexual-harasser) boss. The writing further suffers from an incessant name-dropping of commercial brands—Pabst, Pepsi, Wonder Bread, Cheerios, Campbell’s Chunky Soup, Handi-Wipes—serving as an unnecessary, near constant distraction. Perhaps even the pop culture references, from Monty Hall to Tears for Fears, would serve some purpose if used in an attempt to define another era, but the book is firmly set in the present.

Yet somehow most irritating* is Don’s repeated, purportedly endearing variations on his daughter’s nickname, “Pun’kin”, which ring false and become simply, if somewhat inexplicably, insufferable.

“Nightstone, my third published novel, should have made me a world-wide best-selling author and a household name like-you know, that “other horror writer” from Maine. Seriously. When the book was first published in October, 1986, it was everywhere, at least in the United States. It was in bookstores, on newsstands, at airports, grocery stores, and pharmacies all around the country. And why was that? Sad to say, I don’t think it was because of the contents. It was because of the book’s cover. If you bought an early printing of the book, you’ve seen it: the one with the hologram on the cover. Flip it from side to side, and the three-dimensional girl’s face turns into something hideous and back again.” – Rick Hautala

*Narrowly defeating the Native American character’s (Billy Blackshoe) use of the term “paleface”.

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.

Chalet Diabolique | Lucifer Cove #5

Chalet Diabolique | Lucifer Cove #5
Virginia Coffman | Lancer Books | 1971 | 206 pages

The fifth book in the series reduces Lucifer Cove to a white-noise occult backdrop, a lost episode of an alternate television history Fantasy Island (featuring Mr. Roarke as the devil), with the arriving guests ultimately discovering the infernal mechanics under the surface.

Kay Aronson is the guest in this outing, arriving in Lucifer Cove following the mysterious death of her husband. Leo Aronson had set out alone to the secretive spa town on the coast of California south of San Francisco, only to be killed in a plane crash. Convinced that the fatal crash was not an accident, Kay investigates Leo’s connection to Lucifer Cove, determined to uncover the real reason behind his death.

Accompanied by her husband’s personal assistant, Arthur Dugald, Kay encounters characters from earlier entries in the series—High Priestess of the Devil’s Temple, Nadine Janos; beleaguered beauty, Caro Teague; the darkly magnetic spa owner, Marc Meridon; and his mistress, the empathetic Christine Deeth—mostly in incidental appearances. Unsure of whom to trust, Kay is surprised to discover her own romantic feelings developing toward both Arthur and Marc, forming the competing sides in an unlikely love triangle. She becomes more and more convinced that all is not as it seems behind the quiet Tudor facades of Lucifer Cove.

Since series readers are already aware of Marc Meridon’s diabolical nature, and his relationship to the seemingly omnipresent cat, Kinkajou, little opportunity exists to create much suspense, although there are some creepy shenanigans in the tunnels below Kay’s chalet house. After its initial underground discovery, the body of a former guest at the resort makes a second shocking appearance.

A brief, near fatal encounter with the power of hypnosis illustrates the ease at disposing with Kay and her investigation, and her general insignificance in the greater picture of Lucifer’s Cove makes the reluctance towards her disposal something of a question.

Also, a potentially eternal cosmic struggle boils down to a literal dog-and-cat fight.

The Brownstone

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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 Pyx

thepyx

The Pyx
John Buell | Crest Books | 1959 | 128 pages

Warning! The last few pages of this book are entitled: The Secret of the Pyx. DO NOT—DO NOT READ THIS SECTION UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED THE BOOK. – from the back cover

After a cab driver witnesses a young woman in a white evening gown fatally plummet to the ground from the penthouse balcony of an eleven story apartment building, Detective Henderson works to uncover the details of her death. The ethereal white trail tracing the path of Elizabeth Lucy’s death is the central haunting image in this slim novel, told in alternating point-of-view chapters. In the present, Henderson tracks the clues leading back to the possible murder, as Elizabeth, in the past, lives out her fateful last few days.

Elizabeth, a small-town runaway working as a call girl out of a rundown boarding house, falls under the eye of a powerful, mysterious client. As her sense of fatalism surrounding their upcoming “date” grows, she seeks solace in whatever private moments she can afford, sharing a small space away from her trade with her only real friend, Jimmy, a troubled—and through implication, closeted gay–youth seeking his own sense of escape. Elizabeth also bears a burden of responsibility toward her former roommate, another call girl who suffered a complete mental breakdown, and now lives in a near-catatonic state in an asylum.

Back in the present, Henderson begins to exhibit a fascination with the deceased that echoes that of Dana Andrews’ detective in Otto Preminger’s Laura. Small details in the case cause his suspicions of murder to grow, with more deaths soon occurring in Elizabeth’s circle of acquaintances. Through all, Elizabeth emerges as a melancholy and expressly empathetic character. Minus the dictionary definition preface pointing to the supernatural, The Pyx could function simply as a melodrama on the dangers of juvenile delinquency, right up to the occult-tinged conclusion.

Since readers are aware of Elizabeth’s fate from the first few pages, the only suspense derives from uncovering the circumstances ultimately leading her to the penthouse. Her arrival is unexpectedly anticlimactic in its brevity, with her trip over the balcony railing coming at a surprising speed. Only a few final details, suggesting the monstrous undercurrent of the proceedings, reveal the true nature of her death.

However, a howlingly bad postscript, The Secret of the Pyx, explains everything in a pseudo-educational report—which could easily be imagined unspooling on grainy film stock in a fifties-era classroom–on the history of demonic possession and the black masses.

Doctor Strange | Issue #7

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Doctor Strange | Issue #7
The Demon Fever
Marvel Comics | April 1975

By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!”

With more colorful linguistic ejaculations than an episode of the original Batman television series, this issue features Doctor Strange battling Umar, sister of the imprisoned demon, Dormammu. Regenerating his powers in the fiery center of the earth, Dormammu plots nothing short of world domination, and enlists his diabolical allies to crush the only obstacle in his path–Doctor Strange.

Vipers of Valtorr!”

Engaging Umar in a psychic battle on the astral plane, Strange feels “…the tri-dimensional spoor of a trans-dimensional war” before succumbing to “a confederate, some accursed anti-psychic toady lying in wait for my more potent thrust!” Failing in his Freudian advance against Umar, Strange must rely on the assistance of Clea, a former disciple who previously battled Dormammu, and barely survived by escaping through a volcanic vent. Pointedly avoiding Strange as a potential ally (and dragging down the pace of the story), she approaches a dubious laundry list of other mystic masters—Wong, Rama Kaliph, Genghis, and the Junkie–before turning to Strange. However, Clea harbors a dark secret that may ultimately betray him.

“Demons of Denak!”

For a novice to the Doctor Strange universe, the names, places, and references have the clinging aroma of the “made-up” about them, even with the occasional footnote (to past issues or series) to verify their accuracy. Even Strange himself shares a moment of existential crisis regarding his world, confessing to a “mental nausea.” Perhaps issue eight will provide some relief.

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The Naked Witch

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The Naked Witch
Starring Jo Maryman | Robert Short | Libby Hall | Directed by Larry Buchanan | 1961 | 59 minutes

After a patience-testing voiceover on the history of witchcraft, with accompanying images of Hieronymus Bosch paintings, the story finally begins with an unnamed college student (Robert Short) arriving in a small Texas town. Immediately launching into another pseudo-historical voiceover narration, the student details the history of the isolated German immigrant community he has come to study. Interested in the folklore of witchcraft and the occult in the town, the student discovers that local residents are unwilling to talk about their superstitious beliefs.

Breaking the communal silence, Kirska (Joy Maryman), the coquettish innkeeper’s daughter, gives the student a one-hundred-year-old book about the Luckenbach Witch, a local widow who was accused of witchcraft by an adulterous husband. Before being staked to death for her alleged crimes, the widow places a curse on all the descendants of her accusers. Drawn to the (remarkably shallow) grave of the witch in the story, the student removes the fatal stake and inadvertently resurrects the slumbering witch (Libby Hall).

Taking time out for the occasional skinny dip in the vegetation-laden local pond, the witch pursues her century-old revenge against the townspeople. Splashing about in the water, hair and make-up continuity errors arguably outnumber the awkward teases of nude flesh. Guilty about his role in the witch’s return, the student pursues her (with the help of the local librarian), to a nearby series of caves. Falling under the witch’s seductive spell, the student must struggle to save her final victim—Kirska!

A low-budget titillation for its time, The Naked Witch possesses a certain charm with its artless framing, sporadic organ score, and poorly synced dialogue. However, today’s viewers may want to save the full 59-minute running time (which seems much longer), and derive a greater and more immediate reward by simply Googling “naked+witch”.

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