The Landlady

The Landlady
Constance Rauch | Popular Library | 1976 | 253 pages

Leaving behind a series of failed jobs in the city, Sam Porter moves his wife, Jessica, and young daughter, Patience, into a charming old apartment in Wimbledon-on-Hudson. However, the family’s dream of a new life in the suburbs meets an unexpected obstacle in the form of Mrs. Falconer, the intrusive crone of a landlady living upstairs.

On the night of the family’s arrival, the small village is stunned by the shocking murder of Nora Kelly, a nearly retired accounting clerk at the offices of a company partially owned by Sam’s new employer. After his first day on the job, Sam returns to some of his bad habits, losing several hours over drinks at the local pub. Meanwhile, Jessica meets another young mother who warns her of the psychological games Mrs. Falconer has played on previous tenants.

Jessica herself finds that doting Mrs. Falconer’s superficial politeness occasionally gives way to apoplectic anger. Popping down to check on the young mother, the old woman rages at discovering nails pounded in the wall, and tears down one of the child’s drawings. The simple awareness of the landlady’s constant presence upstairs becomes a nagging source of unease for Jessica.

Already alarmed at discovering a previously unknown connecting stairway between the apartments, Jessica is horrified when Patience claims that a strange man entered her room at night and stole her doll. The formerly talkative and precocious two-year-old begins to exhibit signs of emotional regression, lapsing into a nearly complete silence. Fearing that Mrs. Falconer is behind the intrusion into her home, Jessica listens for the constant tap-tap-tap of the old woman’s cane on the floorboards upstairs.

Touted as “the greatest terror turn-on since Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist” on the cover, The Landlady delivers a treatise on Sam and Jessica’s failing marriage rather than terror. Jessica’s battles with Mrs. Falconer along with Sam’s seeming inability to hold a job (and sobriety) create an emotional strain that threatens to tear their family apart. Sam begins to spend more hours, and occasionally entire nights, at the office, shaking the foundation of their marriage—and leaving Jessica alone to face a series of strange events, culminating in a trip up the connecting staircase.

The creeping sense of intrusion into personal space, coupled with the background details surrounding the local murder, builds an atmosphere of dread around Jessica. However, the introduction of the evidence of child abuse completely sours the enjoyment of the mystery, adding an unnecessary and distasteful subtext to the horrors at Wimbledon-on-Hudson.

Although compromised by the implications of real-world abuses, the fundamentally terrifying question remains, “What’s going on next door?”

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson | Popular Library | 1963 | 173 pages

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

Sisters Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood, along with their invalid uncle Julian, live alone in the isolated Blackwood family estate. Ostracized by the local community, Mary Katherine only ventures into town twice a week for groceries, while her sister has withdrawn completely into the interior of the great house. The three are the only survivors of a notorious unsolved multiple murder, a poisoning that, six years earlier, claimed the lives of Mary Katherine and Constance’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother.

The details of the fateful day are not immediately forthcoming, as the daily routine at the Blackwood house takes shape. Mary Katherine exhibits a penchant for burying small tokens around the grounds of the estate, talismans to ward off bad luck, while her sister only leaves the house to tend to her vegetable garden. The only tenuous connection to life in the town is Helen Clarke, a self-purported friend of the family who visits for tea on Tuesdays.

The full realization of the community’s hostile attitude toward the Blackwood sisters comes home during the polite artifice of one of these visits. Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair and suffering mental confusion after surviving the arsenic poisoning at the family dinner, bluntly addresses Mrs. Wright, a quizzical old woman brought along by Mrs. Clarke, “My niece, after all, was acquitted of murder. There could be no possible danger in visiting here now.” While Mrs. Clarke’s tea and rum cake sit untouched, Julian recounts how Constance prepared the fatal meal with ingredients from her garden—and proceeded to immediately wash out the sugar bowl after serving.

The tea party is not, however, the greatest intrusion into the hermetically sealed world of the Blackwood sisters. The unexpected arrival of their cousin Charles, who shows great interest in the value of their possessions—and the contents of the safe in the family study—disrupts the internal workings of the house. Pressing Constance to forget her dark past, shake off her reclusive social withdrawal, and re-engage with the outside world, Charles threatens to destroy the fabric of life at Blackwood house. His growing animosity towards Mary Katherine–who lashes out with childish acts of destruction aimed at his growing influence–along with the burgeoning resentment of the townspeople, eventually lead towards a devastating, inevitable climax.

Merricat displays a brilliant insistence upon rituals, safe words, and place in the family lore, but nearly all that is important is left unspoken. Only uncle Julian, barely competent in his current state, comments on the details of the murders, collecting a rambling written rumination on the circumstances and existing evidence in a shamble of loose papers. Much later, Constance delivers a dramatic shock when she finally voices a simple truth about the crime.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, while arguably less well known than The Haunting of Hill House, is less an outright mystery or horror, but rather a compelling, melancholic character study of a blighted house and its occupants.

An origin story to a future urban myth, it dares neighborhood children to climb the porch (past the broken step) of the haunted house and invoke, “Merricat, would you like a cup of tea?”

The Sound of Midnight

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The Sound of Midnight
Charles L. Grant | Popular Library | 1978 | 221 pages

Following the shocking drowning death of one of her young customers, toy-store owner Dale Bartlett plunges into a supernatural conspiracy in her small town of Oxrun Station.

Happening upon a horrific scene during her lunch break at the town pond, Dale discovers a ring of children standing around the drowned corpse of Willy Campbell. The police seem strangely suspicious of her account, and seem to hint at something other than an accidental drowning. Returning to her store, Dale finds a strange note, possibly left earlier that morning, “Please be in the park today so I can see you and tell you something.

Dale later witnesses another horrible tragedy involving the Campbell family. After dropping off a hand-carved chess set for Dale to sell in her store, Willy’s father, Dave, is killed in an unusually explosive, singe-car crash across the street from her shop window. Following the accident, Dale discovers another note left for her on the counter, “Miss Bartlett, we missed you at the park.”

Dale and her fiancé Vic, responding to a strange remark made from Dave Campbell just before his death concerning the mythology of the chess figures he carved, begin an investigation to uncover the cause of the growing number of deadly incidents plaguing their small town. An amusing reflection on the (now seemingly unthinkable) days before the Internet, their investigation begins in the card catalogue at the local library–probably under “O” for “Occult”. Paging through piles of mythological tomes on the library tables, they begin to grasp the supernatural forces at work.

Flirting with some familiar themes involving sinister children and pagan rituals, The Sound of Midnight delivers enough evil-lurking-in-the-small-town genre thrills to sustain an atmosphere of dread. Dale’s paranoia is fueled by children’s misbehavior towards her elderly shop assistant, unusually harried and subservient parents in town, and repeated visits from, what should have been, grieving family members. Ultimately, a fear of newcomers underlines the story, with the (relatively) new arrivals in town interrupting the staid atmosphere of the established townspeople, their old beliefs providing the source of terror in an otherwise homogeneous New England community.

A weak attempt at a “Gotcha!” ending invokes the specter of Carrie White referenced in the cover’s blurb (“A pack of children more horrifying than CARRIE!”). Instead of a dead hand thrusting free from beneath the grave, a small hand reveals a hidden chess piece, but the standard give-them-one-last-shock message remains the same—Dear God, no, it’s not over!

Keys of Hell

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Keys of Hell
Louise Osborne | Popular Library | 1975 | 254 pages

Gathering with a group of psychic-phenomenon students at a reputedly haunted house, journalist Gwen Carroll experiences a ghostly warning from her deceased godmother.  At the same time as Gwen’s spectral encounter, another member of the group, Nonnie Richards, blacks out and channels the spirit of a murder victim from the house’s dark history. Later, Professor Robert Wildfield, the leader of the seminar and expert in the study of the occult, informs Gwen that she and Nonnie are quite possibly latent psychics, who could grow and develop their natural powers with the right training.

After establishing its supernatural premise, the ghostly narrative dissipates into a more mundane family melodrama. Gwen discovers that Nonnie and her young daughter, Laura, live in her building, and are on the run from Nonnie’s estranged husband and domineering mother-in-law. After an attempt is made to grab Laura, Gwen invites the mother and daughter to move into her apartment. The pair hide out with Gwen until Nonnie receives an unexpected letter from her uncle, Ben Potter, a writer of supernatural fiction living in France. Ben plans on returning to Canada to live at Lion’s Head, a remote old estate on the lake shore. He ultimately invites Nonnie and Laura to move in with him—along with Gwen, hired as his live-in secretary.

But Lion’s Head does not provide the sanctuary that it promises. Nonnie suffers from a recurring nightmare of being sacrificed on a marble altar, while Ben discovers a strange old chapel on the grounds of the estate, seemingly abandoned but in a state of current repair. Researching the history of Lion’s Head, he learns that the wife of the estate’s former owner committed suicide in the chapel, hanging herself from the rafters. When the body of an apparent victim of an occult ritual washes up on the beach, Professor Wildfield warns Gwen that a satanic cult may be performing black arts in the area. And what possible hold does Nicolas Dessaix, a darkly magnetic stranger living in the nearby motel, have over Nonnie?

A mishmash of genre ingredients, Keys of Hell suffers from a lack of vision regarding its own identity. Does it want to be a ghost story (or stories), psychic tale, child-in-danger family drama, occult thriller, or a hippie horror with a cult of murderous followers? The discovery of tunnels under the house leading to the beach even alludes to (without ever developing) a standard smuggling operation subplot. Gwen’s own distance from the danger saps much of the tension, since she is really only proxy to the jeopardy faced by Nonnie and Laura. Gwen even keeps the lease on her old apartment, providing her a possible escape route from the deadly confines of Lion’s Head.

The spirit of Gwen’s godmother, Maude Jessop, provides a consistent thread from the haunted house opening to the inevitable wedding epilogue, offering dubious advice at times of crisis—unsurprisingly, perhaps, given her own personal history as a failed missionary mutilated by the natives she was attempting to convert.

Fool’s Proof

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Fool’s Proof
Alberta Simpson Carter | Popular Library | 1975 | 256 pages

Following a whirlwind courtship, young New York editor Haila Gorham marries David Roche, a charmingly self-assured, blue-eyed man she met at a party on Riverside Drive. David insists upon taking Haila to meet his family at Wildemont, their estate on remote Rock Island, a popular tourist destination in the summer months, but now a deserted group of boarded up houses and deserted storefronts. During the trip, Haila is unable to shake a persistent feeling of dread, and senses an undiscovered cruelty hiding beneath David’s perfectly sunny disposition.

To her barely-concealed horror, Haila discovers that Wildemont Estate is an architectural monstrosity, a jumbled abomination whose malevolence has seeped into the lives of its residents. David’s parents are cold and distant from their children, lost in an alcoholic fog, semi-oblivious to the verbal assaults from their daughter Gillian, who simmers with repressed anger. David’s brother Jack, although polite and well mannered, projects a dark magnetism that Haila finds disturbing, but also strangely attractive. Jack’s wife Lenore is a voluptuous beauty, whose movie-star glamour seems impossibly outsized for such a small resort town and its handful of year-round residents.

Haila is shocked when David coyly reveals that they will be leaving New York to reside with his family at Wildemont. But that shock is eclipsed by a story playing on the local news. Anton Freund, a local resident—and former friend of Gillian—convicted of murder in the bludgeoning deaths of several women, has escaped from custody and is thought to have returned home to Rock Island. The police’s theory is seemingly confirmed when a local girl is found murdered outside the bar where she worked, her head crushed in by a rock.

Fool’s Proof succeeds in generating suspense from its simple formula: trap a young heroine on a remote island estate with a husband she barely knows, mix with a family she fears cannot be trusted, then add an escaped murderer. Given its dark history, the accumulation of past (and present) tragic events at Wildemont advance an interesting theory of the power of architecture to influence and even drive human actions, without resorting to a literal haunting.

Although the identity of the “fool” and the nature of the “proof” in Fool’s Proof are enigmatic, the sudden romantic resolution at the finale suggests a clear life lesson—don’t let a pile of fresh corpses stand in the way of finding true love.