The Bog

The Bog
Michael Talbot | Jove Books | 1986 | 314 pages

Archeologist David Macauley packs up his wife and children and relocates to the isolated village of Fenchurch St. Jude in the west of England, following the discovery of a well-preserved body in the bog. Dating from the era of the Roman occupation, the naturally mummified remains of a young woman promise a wealth of historical information, but the forensic evidence suggests a ritual sacrifice, and a cause of death from the savage bites of an unknown animal.

The villagers are a standoffish and unhealthful lot, suspicious of the new arrivals. Renting the only available cottage from the enigmatic Marquis de L’Isle, the local gentry whose own rambling great house stands on the bog’s edge, David and his family feel even more estranged from the local community following the report of a shocking murder in a nearby village. When David discovers the mauled corpse of a missing tavern owner in a bone-riddled feeding ground, he realizes the villagers are also harboring a dark secret that reaches back in history to the mummified body in the bog.

David struggles to save his family against parallel circumstances to those experienced by the victims buried in the bog. However, the prologue and occasional short chapter dedicated to these characters from antiquity are plainly redundant, adding nothing to the context of their torments already provided by the present-day narrative.

What starts as a seemingly simple monster rumble in the boglands of rural England transforms into an unexpected tale of sorcery, necromancy, demonology, and the occult, as the nature of Fenchurch St. Jude’s secret emerges. The first half of the book is filled with a fetid menace, with the sights and smells of the bog providing an unwholesome atmosphere, rich with potential danger. Once David squares off against his rival, the tone shifts more towards mano-a-mano (or, more precisely, mano-a-magician) action.

The accumulated creepiness dissipates in a swirl of magical rubies and fireballs, as a newfound emphasis on wizardry threatens to engulf all in a vortex of campiness. The spirit of an ancient Sumerian sorcerer, who inhabits the body of a small child, essentially begins a plan of attack against the rival sorcerer by instructing David to synchronize their watches.

Although the magical content arguably takes The Bog into different territory altogether, enough horror elements remain to make an effective genre read. The nature of the persistent rotten odor infusing the family cottage delivers a nasty surprise. But couldn’t someone place a “Protect” spell on the family pet?

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Keeper of the Children

Keeper of the Children
William H. Hallahan | Avon Books | 1979 | 189 pages

Is that kid of yours worth it?”

Searching for his missing daughter, Renni, Eddie Benson discovers a cult of runaway children, lead by an insidious master of mind control. Tran Cao Kheim, a monk who fled Tibet following the Chinese takeover, exerts a powerful mental hold over Renni and the other lost children, directing them to panhandle on the streets of Philadelphia during the day, and return to his warehouse district compound at night.

Discouraged by the (inexplicable) failure of the police to return their children, Benson and a group of other parents take the matter into their own hands, devising a plan to have Kheim deported. Their actions, however, draw attention of the evil monk, who deploys his telekinetic powers to target them. Before he is able to deliver a briefcase of incriminating evidence to the Immigration Department, Kenneth Custis, the father of one of the captive boys, is brutally murdered on his farm—his neck broken by a scarecrow possessed and animated by Kheim’s astral-projected mind.

Kheim is something of a racist throwback to the early twentieth-century stereotypical villain, Fu Manchu, filled with the inscrutable menace of the Orient. Sax Rhomer’s character is even name-checked by Custis in explaining Kheim’s commune, but simply referring to a racist archetype does not provide free meta-text license to create it anew. The only difference is that this villain is gifted with the telekinetic powers so prevalent in seventies supernatural horror.

After nearly being killed by a telekinetically controlled marionette in his home, Benson becomes determined to fight Kheim using the monk’s own methods against him. He enlists the talents of Nullatumbi, a yogi who understands Kheim’s methods (an “oobie with PK”, or for the layperson, an out-of-body experience with psychokinesis). A long training sequence follows, with an appropriate level of hokum involved. Benson does much inner soul-searching, and cosmic wandering, over a two-week period, while mentally focusing on a blank white wall.

Kheim’s Pied Piper-like hold over the children is not fully explored, nor Renni’s seemingly singular ability to occasionally shake off his mental yoke and warn her father away. Since Kheim is capable of exerting control over a large group of children, why not their parents too?

The attacks are the absurdly appealing centerpieces, however, with a giant possessed teddy bear wielding an axe—a sequence the cover image teases, and the text actually delivers—being a highlight. An extended, literal cat fight, with the astral-projected combatants inhabiting feline bodies, serves as the ultimate showdown, with Benson and Kheim aiming at the tenuous psychic thread linking their respective minds back to their own corporeal bodies.

And that final battle is the second cat attack in the story.

Charnel House

Charnel House
Graham Masterton | TOR Books | 1978 | 241 pages

John Hyatt, an inspector for the San Francisco Department of Sanitation, investigates a strange breathing noise in the walls of an old Mission district house, but instead of routine blocked pipes discovers the imminent return to this world of a Native American demon.

Hyatt’s investigation quickly escalates into horror beyond the scope of his department. A researcher from the sanitation lab is stricken by a similar breathing phenomenon experienced in the house, and soon lapses into an asthmatic coma. Responding to a new sonic manifestation in the house, that of a slowly beating heart, another colleague suffers a bizarre and violent attack. Craning his head up a chimney to check the flue, the flesh of his head is completely stripped away, but leaving him (and his slowly beating heart) still alive.

These early episodes are the strongest, creating an eerie atmosphere surrounding the biomorphic house attacks. The terror spills over to the local hospital, when the survivors rise from their beds and attempt to physically merge their stricken bodies. As the investigation takes Hyatt to George Thousand Names, a medicine man who reveals the folklore surrounding the legendary Navajo trickster, Coyote, the proceedings take a more action-oriented tone, with Hyatt engaging in monster battles against the nascent demon in the streets of San Francisco. However, any sense of mystery in Coyote’s return to earth is sapped from the start by the author’s prologue, which essentially introduces the demon before the story even begins.

Perhaps only a stickler to those readers versed in San Francisco geography, occasional gaffes are noticeable: the misspelling of landmarks (“Delores” Park), the existence of a topography-be-damned line of sight from the Mission district house to the Golden Gate Bridge, and repeated references to the “hot” and “humid” nights (unsolicited travel tip for visitors: always bring a jacket, even in the summer).

Charnel House also suffers from some dated cultural and social perspectives. George Thousand Names, and some of the myth surrounding Coyote, are indiscriminately referred to as “Red Indian.” Even though most likely intended as joking dialogue, references to “paleface” and “firewater” are groan-inducing rather than self-referential nods to stereotypes. Also, Hyatt seems to require noting the tightness or form-fitting nature of the clothing of all the women he meets, even in situations that would call for a more somber attitude. Author Graham Masterton wrote some sex-instruction titles in the seventies, so perhaps some unrealized crossover potential exists here — How to Drive Your Nurse Wild in Bed While the World is Ending.

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.

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.