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.

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Caly

Caly
Sharon Combes | Zebra Books | 1980 | 282 pages

Caly St. John and her ex-boyfriend, Ian Donovan, flee the late-summer environs of New York City for the peace of rural Maine, only to have their lives threatened by a supernatural menace.

My suggestion to you is that you leave.”

Staying with Ian at the cottage of his childhood friends, Caly becomes increasingly fascinated with the dark history of the Simpson house, an abandoned local home and infamous scene of dual shocking murder sprees. In the seventeenth century, Captain John Jacob Simpson killed and dismembered his family and gathered guests at a dinner party with an ax, before disappearing without a trace. Then again, in 1949, the captain’s descendant, Michael Simpson, returns home from abroad in England to restore the family home, only to murder his family and gathered friends with an ax, before mysteriously dying himself.

Frustrated by the reticence of the townspeople to discuss the cursed house, Caly succumbs to her growing curiosity and breaks into the Simpson house. She is startled by the arrival of Patrick Simpson, the last heir to the family, who has returned to investigate the circumstances of his father’s death, and lift the curse before it condemns him to his family fate. Empathizing with Patrick, a social pariah in the eyes of the villagers, Caly and Ian move into the Simpson house, where the unsettled spirits of those victims of the tragic past events seek an outlet for their lost voices.

The natural attraction Caly feels for Patrick becomes corrupted, as the spiritual entities in the house possess them and use their bodies to act out past violent encounters. Apart from sudden violent behavior, historical affectations in speech provide a reliable method of indicating a ghost is present.

Thou shan’t turn me away this night, lady.”

Good-tempered dogs attack, furniture flies of its own accord, and spirit voices haunt the trio of ghost hunters as they stumble around the house and town looking for answers to the Simpson family curse. The intrepid investigators uncover very few clues of their own accord, relying mostly on following the direction provided by ghostly finger pointing. Ultimately, little detection is needed to unearth a standard trope behind generations of violent deaths: wrongly accused of witchcraft, a young woman is burned at the stake after vowing to take revenge upon the descendants of those responsible.

“Such vengeance I shall reap upon you and your seed to follow.”

 A latent love triangle, which is somewhat unsettling already because one member is possessed by the spirit of a murdering rapist, comes to a surprising resolution—evoking a children’s song about forty whacks—but otherwise everything here feels inert and overly familiar.

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.

Burning

burning

Burning
Jane Chambers | Jove HBJ Books | 1978 | 157 pages

Lurid cover art replete with the obligatory marketing call-outs to The Omen and Salem’s Lot (so prevalent to the time of publication) disguises a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on love and acceptance, with an intrinsic horror rising from societal fear and ignorance—in past centuries, and our own.

Burning essentially tells the story of four women, two in the past and two in the present, who struggle to free themselves from the restrictive roles that confine them. Nominally a story of possession, the empathy for both pairs of women easily elevates the proceedings from the standard “evil ghost” template.

Cynthia, a wife and mother who abandoned her dreams of an art career to have a family, yearns for time away from Dave, the passive husband that she manipulates, but seems unable to mold into a successful businessman. Angela, a young woman hired as nanny for Cynthia’s two children, lives a lonely life, driven by occasional, unrealized crushes on older women.

Acquiescing to Cynthia’s need for a break from the summer heat in the city, Dave arranges for a vacation for her, the children, and Angela in a Massachusetts farmhouse. Soon after their arrival, Cynthia feels a strange attraction to an addition to the house, an older, rough-hewn room off the kitchen. With the room as a focal point, Cynthia and Angela begin to channel the words and actions of two women who lived there two hundred years ago.

Through Cynthia, Martha speaks, an abandoned love child now grown up and alone after the death of her mother. She lives isolated from the village in the farmhouse, cast out and viewed as untouchable by the community. Through Angela, Abigail speaks, a young itinerant woman living on the property of a wealthy landowner. Eventually she joins Martha, and both women, ostracized by the community, are drawn together in a romantic tryst that dangerously defies the values of their witch-hunting times.

Aware of the forces working through them, Cynthia and Angela also begin a romantic affair, unsure whether or not their actions are truly their own. A spurned romantic overture from a young squire towards Abigail triggers the past narrative forward to the conclusion predestined by the book’s title. A similar action in the present involving Angela drives the suspense, with the growing prospect of Cynthia and Angela’s fate mirroring that of their predecessors.

Drawing on the parallels fueling ignorance, hatred and oppression across the centuries, Burning succeeds as something more than a simple horror tale. After a group of drunken young men in a bar are overheard relating their story of a recent weekend’s debauchery–buying prostitutes and beating up a suspected gay man–this exchange, woefully echoing the current state of mind as society launches into a new political era of bigotry, prejudice, and scapegoating:

“That’s the future of America,” Red declared to the bartender.

“Dear God,” the old man muttered, “I hope not.”

The Possession of Elizabeth Calder

elizabethcalder

The Possession of Elizabeth Calder
Melissa Napier | Pocket Books | 1973 | 174 pages

After her fiancé runs off with her best friend, fashion photographer Elizabeth Calder travels cross-country to recuperate with her aunt and uncle in the solitude of their remote Randall’s Island home. Uncle Frank is a ranger in the Park Service, stationed in a rambling old mansion with a veranda overlooking the sea. On the ferry ride from the mainland, Elizabeth experiences a strange familiarity with her new surroundings, echoed by surreptitious looks of recognition from the old seaman piloting the ship.

On her first night, Elizabeth hears sobbing coming from somewhere inside her room, and then glimpses a ghostly figure repeating a strange series of movements. A profound feeling of sadness overcomes her, compelling her to the window, out onto the ledge and over—falling, she awakens on the floor of her room. Relating her experience to her aunt and uncle the next morning over breakfast, she discovers that fifty years earlier, a young girl named Elizabeth Conway jumped to her death from the same window to the stone patio below. The disappearance of this earlier Elizabeth’s lover, who jilted her for another woman, fueled town gossip back in the day about possible foul play.

On a walk into the village, Elizabeth is accosted by a group of townspeople led by Emma Acker, a seventy-year old woman who accuses her of being the reincarnation of Elizabeth Conway. With a cry of  “You killed the man I loved,” the old woman quickly incites the crowd to a nervous fury. The mob drags her to the water’s edge, attempting to hold her head under in the surf. Only the appearance of Ron Holden, Uncle Frank’s second-in-command, saves her from drowning. Feeling that the spirit of Elizabeth Conway is indeed working through her, Elizabeth decides to stay on Randall’s Island and uncover the true nature of the events surrounding the fifty-year old suicide.

For all her determination to stay, Elizabeth is a passive protagonist, since she simply channels the spirit of her namesake whenever she needs to decide on a course of action. [If that cackling hag grabs your wrist one more time and harangues you with her talk of “You’re Elizabeth Conway and I’m going to kill you,” SMACK HER DOWN. Do you even need the help of a possessing spirit to beat up an old lady?]

The scenes featuring Elizabeth exploring the cellar and following mysterious persons around the mansion grounds are entertaining enough, but the narrative stalls when it diverts from the focus on ghostly revenge. The covert, but decidedly non-supernatural, activities on the island would be of little interest to the vengeful spirit, even if involving the target of her wrath; the main tension being whether or not Elizabeth’s potential love interest is involved, and he’s such an obvious jerk that the resolution comes as little surprise.