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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The Search for Joseph Tully

The Search for Joseph Tully
William H. Hallahan | Avon Books | 1974 | 283 pages

He looked at his watch. Eleven-twenty. Incredible, He’d been to a seánce, fallen asleep, had an incredible nightmare, fled across the city, been given a violent shock…, had a conversation … about hypnosis, and now sat in his car. And it was only eleven-twenty.

As the wrecking ball of redevelopment draws inexorably closer to their Brooklyn row house, a dwindling group of neighbors help Peter Richardson face a terrifying premonition; someone is out to kill him.

Troubled by strange nightmares and suffering from “whooshing” auditory hallucinations, Peter’s paranoia is fed by the theories of his downstairs neighbor, Albert Clabber, a defrocked priest and self-described student of the occult. Clabber has cultivated another neighbor, Ozzie Goulart, into his fold, drawing out his latent psychic abilities—abilities that seem to confirm the growing danger surrounding Peter. As the building’s tenants slowly move out, and Goulart inexplicably disappears, Peter faces an increased sense of isolation, and a hysterical fatalism that his end is drawing near.

Melancholy permeates much of The Search for Joseph Tully, as the wrecking ball irreversibly brings change to Peter’s Brooklyn neighborhood. The snow-swept quadrangle created by the demolished buildings, the lonely vigil by the extant sign on the former Waite’s Grocery, and the ringing of the chain against the demolition arm, mourn the spirit of a lost community. The human landscape is destroyed alongside the physical, as a former community of odd neighbors—seniors, spiritualists, psychologists, ex-priests, and artists—are scattered by redevelopment.

Peter’s agonizing wait for his fate alternates with Matthew Willow’s parallel genealogical detective story. A mundane time-out from the occurrences at the Brevoort Apartments, Willow’s search for the descendants of Joseph Tully has limited appeal beyond History Detectives fans. Trudging between county courthouses and examining historical documents, Willow’s motivations remain unclear, but when an unexpected lead develops from a series of dead-ends, his search undoubtedly leads to a certain row house in Brooklyn.

Failing to receive a satisfactory diagnosis for his ailments through conventional medicine, Peter seeks out a more mystical approach. He attempts to sit for a tarot card reading, participates in a seánce, submits to an unorthodox hypnosis session, and entertains discussions regarding the transmigration of souls. The Search for Joseph Tully steeps itself in the paranormal and occult obsessions of its era, slowly driving its doomed protagonist–along with his building, community, and neighborhood–to his preordained fate.

Although possibly derived from a mad acid trip, the most direct words of warning, written on the wall of an abandoned building, ultimately go unheeded:

Richardson! Run for your life!

The Glory Hand

The Glory Hand
Paul & Sharon Boorstin | Berkley Books | 1983 | 289 pages

After her mother’s violent murder, thirteen-year-old Cassie Broyles enrolls in Casmaran, an exclusive summer camp in the wilds of rural Maine. Cassie soon discovers all is not as it appears at Casmaran, starting with her initial meeting with Miss Grace, the ancient, wheelchair-bound headmistress. The reclusive crone welcomes her with an inappropriately erotic kiss.

Cassie’s fellow campers are little more than one-dimensional cut outs, with a single defining trait describing their behavior. Chelsea is a Beverly Hills fashion plate; Jo is a poker-playing daughter of a Wall Street high roller; Melanie is a radio and television obsessed nerd who longs for Pac-Man and episodes of Dallas; and Iris is a Christian social outcast. All are tormented by a group of seniors led by Abigail, an overly developed beauty whose initial rounds of bullying lead to a series of strange hazing rituals.

An unnerving incident at the lakeside pavilion leads Cassie to wonder what strange powers the seniors possess, as several girls from Cassie’s circle—including her best friend Robin—seemingly fall under Abigail’s spell. The girls’ story is interrupted by the intrusion of another flatly developed, clichéd character. Jake Lazarus, a Jewish bohemian New Yorker (and deli-sandwich lover) renting a cabin from Camp Casmaran as an artistic retreat, spouts line after line of aching dialogue that attempts to pass as naturalistic.

While menstruation as a source of horror was arguably effective in Stephen King’s Carrie, here it is awkwardly detailed as a condition of ritual selection. Disappointingly, the elements of a coming-of-age horror set at camp never really gel into a successful story, but are still somehow inherently appealing. The main interest revolves around the adolescent protagonist, investigating weird clues and navigating the sinister landscape at Casmaran in an attempt to emotionally connect with her deceased mother. Jake’s story, however, and his wife’s attempt to intervene, seem like a distraction.

In an odd turn, the Curator of European Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art briefly plays the role of supernatural detective, consulting reference books and adroitly piecing together the hellish shenanigans at Casmaran—finally exclaiming, “You’ve got to get … out of there!”

Spoiler alerts are probably unnecessary, since following the rather obvious roadmap drawn by The Glory Hand eventually leads, of course, to a ***SATANIC COVEN*** debauching in the woods to celebrate the Grand Sabbath. A few final twists limply try to posit the is-she-or-isn’t-she-under-the-demonic-spell question, but fail to generate much suspense. Even the possible complicity of Cassie’s Senator father, circling back to the book’s prologue, ultimately lacks much impact considering his general absence from the story.

Also, points deducted [-1] for the obligatory killing of a kitten.

The Nightwalker

The Nightwalker | Thomas Tessier | Signet Books | 1979 | 183 pages

Bobby Ives, a disabled Vietnam veteran living in London, struggles with strange, seizure-like episodes, and is haunted by vivid memories of a previous life on a Caribbean island. Experiencing unusual sensations in his hands and feet, he succumbs to violent outbursts that he is unable to rationalize. Slowly opening up emotionally to his English girlfriend, Annie, Bobby is nonetheless frustrated that she continually rejects his offers to move in with him. However, an inexplicably shocking act on the streets of London begins a dark journey that is seemingly beyond his control.

After a series of impulsive attacks on unsuspecting victims in Hyde Park, Bobby fears that he cannot control the rising bloodlust inside himself. Rejecting a conventional diagnosis of migraines offered by his psychologist, Bobby turns to Miss Tanith, a psychic he discovered in the classified ads, in order to confirm his own suspicions regarding his affliction.

Lupus naturae. Loup-garou. You carry the sign of the wolf.”

The nature of Bobby’s lycanthropy mostly treads an ambiguous line between the physical and the psychological, with a few circumstantial bits of evidence suggesting an actual–if not complete–transformation. Beyond the supernatural, what remains is a dark exploration of a murderous mind, with enough self-awareness to attempt a measure of control over its violent impulses. As such, the standard genre tropes are refreshingly absent, with the exception of the introduction of a silver dagger—the ultimate magical weapon to fatally pierce the heart of the werewolf.

The introduction of Angel, a young punk girl Bobby meets panhandling in the park, adds a few seventies-era dated elements to story, particularly during their visits to the club scene. The conflicted protagonist and the psychic establish such a throwback vibe to the classic werewolf tale that the intrusion of a—however limited–punk aesthetic seems jarring, as do the rather explicit sex scenes. Ultimately, Angel just seems like an extra character added for Bobby to potentially victimize.

The Nightwalker is suffused with a weary fatalism, reflected in the older-than-her-years Miss Tanith, who reluctantly joins the effort to control Bobby’s disease while resigned to the nature of fate to take its predestined course.

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.

Cast a Cold Eye

Cast a Cold Eye | Alan Ryan | Tor Books | 1984 | 350 pages

Small, isolated communities always seem to harbor terrible secrets, and the western Irish village of Doolin is no exception. American writer Jack Quinlan travels to Doolin for background research on the Irish Famine for an upcoming historical novel, but soon discovers the tragic victims of the past are hauntingly present in the lives of the villagers.

The barren, windswept coast of Ireland provides an evocative setting for a chilling ghost story, as Jack experiences visitations of mournful, skeletal figures on the roads and in the countryside around his cottage and the village. Grainne Clarkin, a bookstore clerk he met in a brief stopover in Dublin, occasionally comes to visit him for weekends in Doolin, providing a native Irish romantic interest for Jack that occasionally verges on fetishistic.

He studied her face, her dark eyes, her perfect white skin, her black hair, her fragile build combined with a full ripe body.”

The ongoing will-they-or-won’t-they subplot is finally consummated on a stone slab outdoors during a ferocious rainstorm in an overblown climax that would seem more in keeping with a lurid romance novel. Meanwhile, a group of village old-timers engage in cryptic blood rituals after suffering a few deaths from their ranks, the splattering of the bottled blood around their gravesites echoing the splashing of Grainne’s virginal blood on the rain-soaked ground.

Jack’s ghostly encounters are genuinely creepy; skeletal men by the side of the road, emaciated children crying out to their separated mothers, and ethereal tunes following him across the barrens. Cold to the touch, but seemingly corporeal, these spirits ultimately vanish, leaving Jack to question his own sanity. Protective of Grainne, he reaches out to the local priest for help, but to little avail.

Jack ruminates on the perception of Ireland through the lens of outsiders, particularly those like himself who reach back to their familial homeland in order to find some connection with their lost ancestry. The novel itself is steeped in an emphatic Irishness, although perhaps also filtered through the perspective of an outsider. The breadth of history is argued to be a constant, living presence in the lives of the Doolin villagers, but the Famine in particular serves mostly as a shallow context, a convenient reference point for a group of specters, however effective.

Doolin does, of course, harbor a dark secret, but Cast a Cold Eye refreshingly avoids sending its outsider protagonist down the fatal Wicker Man path. The villagers are just as terrified as Jack Quinlan, and although perhaps suspicious of his motives and Dublin girlfriend, ultimately accept him into their fold.

All events converge and resolve in a satisfactory way, generally avoiding easy genre pitfalls and potential clichés as the days reach toward the quintessential horror boilerplate–-the showdown on All Hallow’s Eve.

The Moorstone Sickness

The Moorstone Sickness
Bernard Taylor | St. Martin’s Press | 1982 | 161 pages

The latent evil lurking below the veneer of peaceful, English village life ensnares a young London couple seeking escape from a recent family tragedy.

After the accidental death of their young son, Hal and Rowan Graham decide to leave the painful memories of their London flat behind, and start over in Moorstone, a remote village in the English countryside. Their new life journey has an inauspicious start, when Hal witnesses the shocking suicide of an elderly village resident while the couple is on route to their new home.

While the slow pace of life in Moorstone instantly enchants Rowan, Hal grows increasingly troubled by a strange undercurrent he perceives in the village. Many of the newcomers exhibit a startling change in character after arriving, seemingly as a result of the attention of influential patrons. These same patrons have an alarming propensity to end up in the local madhouse, which has an intake rate that far exceeds that expected of the tiny populace.

And then there is the well-worn altar stone on top of the hill.

Taking cues from The Wicker Man and The Stepford Wives, Bernard Taylor’s foray into rural horror mines the paranoia and mistrust towards country-folk, whose proximity to the land and tradition precludes their ability to fully escape from the heavy pull of ancient practices and beliefs. Of course, the Graham’s fear is fully justifiable, although Rowan’s late realization drives a wedge into their marriage—and threatens their survival.

The deliciously creepy atmosphere and corresponding anticipation of the inevitable terror to come, however familiar, sustain the entire breadth of the narrative, which comes to a rapid close once the village secrets are revealed. Hal and Rowan’s gardener and housekeeper—collecting nail clippings and leftover hair from the barbershop—are plotting something, but the question of trust lingers around the others in the village. Although the Graham’s marital strife takes center stage, the encroaching question of the villager’s motives builds an atmosphere of suspicion akin to a rural version of Rosemary’s Baby.

The housekeeper’s prepared lunches even evoke Minnie Castevet’s chocolate mousse, only lacking the under-taste.

The slow-burn suspense grows as the Grahams attempt to pull their new life together, with the nearly certain prospect of a sinister agenda at work against them. Is Rowan’s new best friend, Allison, a young woman waiting for her fiancé to return and take her away from the village, trustworthy? Or, how about the friendly doctor, whose chance encounter brought the couple to Moorstone in the first place?

The resultant downbeat ending keeps in tune with the overall mood, perfectly reflecting Hal and Rowan’s passive bewilderment to their mortally dangerous circumstances.

The Surrogate

The Surrogate
Nick Sharman | Signet Books | 1980 | 249 pages

Following the death of his estranged, abusive father, Frank Tillson fights for the soul of his own son, Simon, in a battle of wills against the old man’s malevolent spirit.

Frank, a modestly successful radio talk show host, wants to shield his son from the corruption that taints his family’s considerable fortune, accumulated through a lifetime of unethical business practices. Determined to reject his father’s inheritance at all costs, Frank dodges all attempts from the family attorney to execute the will and name Simon the beneficiary of the entire estate. Soon after his father’s death, however, Frank begins to experience strange, unsettling phenomenon.

Sella Masters, a psychic guest on the radio show, experiences a clear telepathic vision of the tragic death of Frank’s wife, reliving the events of the previous year with uncanny detail. She later flees the studio after a ghostly encounter that she refuses to describe to Frank and the show’s producer. After developing some photos taken in the park with his son, Frank notices an ominous black smudge, vaguely human in shape, lurking over Simon in most of the images.

As incidents of garbled radio noise, strange phone calls, and ghostly presences continue, Frank ponders the possibly that his late father orchestrated everything before his death, in an attempt to exert his influence over his family from beyond the grave. Although his reluctance to acquiesce to his bullying father’s demands is understandable, Frank seems to ignore an easy out from all the supernatural shenanigans unfolding around him—take the money now, and figure out how to dispose of it later.

Ignoring this obvious solution, a sense of menace grows around Frank, who stubbornly clings to the theory that his friends are setting him up, even as more and more inexplicable manifestations haunt him and Simon. A creepy highlight occurs when Angela, a radio production assistant, recounts her confrontation in Frank’s bathroom with the spectral visage of his father manifesting from the oily bathwater.

Less effective are the telepathically charged encounters with the Tattered Terry doll, a sentimental leftover possession from Frank’s late wife that occasionally serves as the vessel for the old man’s rampaging spirit. Softly padding around the apartment on cloth feet and attempting to strangle people, the possessed Tattered Terry unnecessarily sends the story into unintentional campy, killer doll territory.

Taking possession into a whole other realm, Sella Masters returns later in the story, acting as an alluring succubus and seducing Frank—while controlled by his father’s spirit—making for an awkwardly incestuous coupling.

The Surrogate resolves in a mostly unsatisfying fashion, part supernatural horror and part everything-explained, Scooby-Doo mystery, although the downbeat ending accurately reflects Frank’s serious shortcomings as a ghost hunter.

The Case Against Satan

The Case Against Satan
Ray Russell | Paperback Library | 1962 | 160 pages

I hope you rot in Hell for eternity, you lousy son of a bitch.”

Written nearly a decade before William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist shocked readers with its depiction of demonic possession, The Case Against Satan details two Catholic priests in their struggle to free a young girl from—what seems to be—a diabolical influence.

Following a succession of strange episodes, Robert Garth brings his daughter, Susan, to the attention of Father Gregory Sargent, a new parish priest struggling with a history of alcoholism and doubt about his own faith. Susan suffers from a series of violent physical reactions against attending Mass, and exhibits an uncharacteristic display of vulgar behavior for such a previously sweet sixteen-year-old girl. Gregory learns that Garth also brought his daughter to seek the counsel of his predecessor, Father Halloran—towards whom she made carnal advances and violently attacked with her bare hands.

The arrival of Bishop Conrad Crimmings to the parish precipitates an impromptu experiment with Susan, involving the rosary blindly applied to her skin. Seeing the burn left on Susan’s arm after contact with the holy article, Bishop Crimmings concludes that her condition stems from demonic possession, and sets in motion the plans for her exorcism.

“Why, of course. I am human, am I not? A little girl. A little girl with filthy desires.” And she yelled, “DUNG!”

Perhaps shocking and controversial in the era of its first publication, the potentially blasphemous content in The Case Against Satan seems almost mild by comparison to more graphic, post-Exorcist horrors. Some of the language issuing from Susan during her exorcism is suggested rather than explicit, although disturbing revelations regarding incest and murder surface over the course of the sessions.

“Mankind is dung,” she said. “The Church is a dungheap, a congregation of dung. Dung in the wind! Father of dung! Son of filthy dung!”

Attempting to be more than a straightforward horror novel, The Case Against Satan functions as a dialectic between Crimmings and Gregory over the nature of possession. They argue whether psychologists are actually purging demons with their clinical methodology, or that church-appointed exorcists are relieving psychological problems through their benedictions. Believing in the literal presence of Satan in the young girl, Bishop Crimmings struggles to solidify the faith of Father Gregory, whose own interest in the field of psychoanalysis logically leads him to a less supernatural origin for Susan’s affliction.

The ambiguity of Susan’s illness is preserved throughout the story, with apparent psychological causes to her symptoms, although Gregory ultimately overcomes his own doubts to embrace his faith. Suspension of disbelief is a key artistic tenet, but since the novel invites the question, the application of existing rules of logic cannot be helped. How can any rational argument compete against the warped, self-affirming rationale—the lack of evidence against Satan is itself evidence that Satan is withholding evidence of his own existence—of true believers? Father Gregory ultimately offers his reductive version of the whole affair, “She was possessed of the Devil. They cast him out. She’s fine now.”

A few references to real-life exorcism cases and figures of Catholic psychoanalysis inform the details of Susan’s possession, intentionally blurring the line between fiction and reality. However, the author seems to finally side with the protagonist, descending into pure, unrepentant hokum in his epilogue, with an anecdote involving an inferred visit from the “Lord of the Flies” while writing the novel—ending with his typing the words, “Begone, Satan!

The Well

The Well
Jack Cady | Avon Books | 1982 | 208 pages

A twisty, kaleidoscopic haunted house pulsates at the center of The Well, shifting and reforming its demonic horrors around its human occupants, imprisoning them in a legacy of familial evil.

John Tracker, along with his secretary girlfriend, Amy Griffith, returns after a twenty-year absence to the hulking, decrepit Tracker family estate on the banks of the Ohio River. Originally built by his great-great grandfather, Johan, but continually added on by successive generations, the mansion reflects the religious fanaticism ingrained in the Tracker family through its uncanny layout. Maze-like rooms, secret staircases, disguised passageways, and mechanical traps—consisting of hidden, spring-loaded weapon—were conceived and installed to confuse and trap intrusions by Satan himself.

The Tracker House has an intriguing, real world precedent in San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House. Sarah Winchester, the widow of firearms manufacturer, William Winchester, spent nearly forty years of ceaseless construction on her rambling, seemingly improvised (with doors and windows leading nowhere) mansion that was allegedly haunted by the victims of the weapons her husband produced. The fictional Tracker House evokes a similarly appealing sense of strange history and mysterious atmosphere, with its correspondingly secret (and frequently deadly) constructions.

The Tracker House, however, lies in the path of a new freeway construction, and is slated for destruction following the legal death pronouncement of John’s father. Justice Tracker, missing for over seven years, had long become estranged from his wife and son. Intending only to survey the property, John and Amy are trapped inside for the duration of a furious snowstorm, and soon the couple fall victim to the insidious atmosphere of the house and the psychic weight of the Tracker family history.

Readers expecting much a story arc will most likely be disappointed, since The Well primarily delivers a minimal, atmosphere-laden psychological horror. Chapters consistently repeat a familiar pattern, starting with an anecdotal piece of Tracker family history, illustrating a macabre or tragic event in the lives of John Tracker’s ancestors. John and Amy then attempt to travel to some location within the house, negotiate a series of labyrinthine rooms and dodge deadly traps, while avoiding the roaming ghoul that was formerly John’s grandmother, Vera. Along the way, John reflects on his diabolical family history, his own feelings towards his father and grandfather, Theophilus, and his possible love towards Amy. Repeat.

The sense of menace, with its source in the heat-blasted well beneath the sub-cellars of the mansion, and the grotesque tableaus discovered along the way are enough to fuel a dense, diabolical atmosphere that soak the characters, rather than propelling them through a linear narrative.