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.

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Our Lady of Darkness

Our Lady of Darkness
Fritz Leiber | Berkley Books | 1977 | 183 pages

After a hike to the barren, hilly summit of Corona Heights, Franz Weston, writer of weird tales and a recovering alcoholic, turns his binoculars back towards his downtown San Francisco apartment building. Finding what he believes to be his own window through the glasses, Franz sees a strange figure lean out—and wave.

Referencing a copy of Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities, an antiquarian book purchased secondhand sometime earlier during an alcoholic bender, Franz becomes convinced that he has witnessed an occurrence of a paranormal being. The book’s author, Thibaut de Castries, an obscure turn-of-the-century practitioner of the occult, theorized that the massive concrete, steel, and electrical congregation of modern cities generates a network of supernatural energy. This energy manifestation, he posits in his pseudo-scientific tome, can be manipulated with careful deliberation in a methodology described as “Neo-Pythagorean Metageometry,” and may potentially result in the generation of paranormal entities.

Franz’s growing obsession with the work of de Castries, along with the investigation into his otherworldly vision, tantalizes the prospect of a great hidden world just beyond the reach of understanding. Even his apartment building at 811 Geary Street, with its blacked-out airshaft windows and broom closets without door handles, has a role in creating an atmosphere of an inexplicable truth on the cusp of being revealed.

Franz nodded impatiently, restraining his impulse to say, “Get on with it!”

However, the pacing suffers with a few instances of expository info-dump and from an off-putting writing style. Franz’s friend Byers, who reveals a deeper-than-expected knowledge of Megapolisomancy, recounts de Castries’ history over the course of several monotonous chapters. Along with the endless prattle about Metageometries, the desire to skim passages grows stronger than the drive to uncover the mysteries swirling around Corona Heights, the Geary Street apartment, and the newly constructed skyscrapers that serve as the modern equivalent of Neolithic standing stones.

Repeated references to other fantastic works and authors—H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Clark Ashton Smith, and even Fritz Leiber himself—are meant to suggest the depth of influence and universality lurking beneath the surface of Megapolisomancy theory, but simply serve as a constant distraction. Lieber’s use of parenthetical injections (like this one) in his text (every few paragraphs) perhaps evokes the three-dot styling (sometimes every few sentences) of Herb Caen’s San Francisco Chronicle columns (also referenced), but (really) disrupt the flow of his prose (something akin to constant footnotes).

“He had been listening with a mixture of fascination, irritation, and wry amusement, with at least half of his attention clearly elsewhere.”

Those familiar with San Francisco geography will probably be rewarded more than others, since painstakingly detailed accounts of places and character movements naturally accompany a meditation on the paranormal energies of place. From such well-known icons as the Transamerica Pyramid, Sutro Tower, and Lotta Crabtree’s fountain on Market Street, to more neighborhood-oriented landmarks like the Randall Museum, readers are well prepared to join Franz as he unfolds a city map and plots the cursed ley lines exploited by Thibaut de Castries.

The existence of a Neo-Pythagorean, paranormal curse line even explains the N-Judah not running.

Hell House

Hell House
Richard Matheson | Bantam Books | 1971 | 247 pages

Richard Matheson’s classic novel sends a group of intrepid psychic investigators, each with their own individual agendas and psychological baggage, to conquer the “The Mount Everest of haunted houses.”

A dying millionaire offers to pay Dr. Lionel Barrett one hundred thousand dollars to answer the eternal question, “Is there life after death?” Given only a single week to accomplish this task, the focus of the investigation is revealed to be the Belasco House in Maine, a notorious haunted house with a fatal history of failed parapsychological investigations. Along with his wife, Edith, Lionel’s team includes Florence Tanner, a spiritual medium, and Benjamin Franklin Fischer, a former psychic wunderkind—and only survivor of an attempt at unearthing the mysteries of Hell House thirty years prior.

Manifestations of the supernatural appear almost immediately after the team sequesters themselves in Hell House. Cold spots appear, furniture moves of its own accord, and Florence senses a deadly presence in the chapel. Later, she channels an unknown spirit during a séance with a more direct warning, “Get out of this house before I kill you all.”

Wringing a maximum of tension from what is essentially a four-character chamber piece, the incidents grow in frequency and intensity as the week’s deadline approaches. Although the group seemingly all acknowledge the source of the haunting as Belasco’s history of dark rituals and murderous debauchery at his mansion, they differ profoundly in their interpretation. Florence is convinced the ultimate source of the paranormal events is a spiritual haunting, with the ghost of Belasco himself perhaps commanding a group of other spirits trapped in the house. Lionel, a skeptic of mediums, seeks to prove a scientific basis for all supernatural events. He argues for the existence of a residual electromagnetic energy source, built up from a history of human actions, as the wellspring for paranormal occurrences, and aims to drain this energy field with a machine of his own creation.

Hell House itself serves as something of a fifth character. A brooding, oppressive atmosphere oozes from the gothic hulk, its rooms and corridors setting the stage for potential horrors. Pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo abounds, mixed along with ectoplasmic extrusions and spiritual possession, but the overall sense of dread is palpable. The arrival of Lionel’s machine telegraphs a final showdown with the controlling powers of the house.

However, Hell House provides a visceral ride, not just a malicious atmosphere. The characters are all beaten and abused over the course of the week, bruised and bloodied by the malicious forces at play. Glasses shatter, cutlery attacks, and sleepwalkers are directed to drown in the stagnant pond on the estate grounds. A violation from a wooden phallus protruding from an unholy, life-size crucifix in the chapel takes the abuse to a nearly absurd degree.

The constant attacks ultimately threaten to reduce the characters to broken dolls, tossed around inside a shaking, malevolent dollhouse.

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.

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

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 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.