The Brooding House


The Brooding House
Alice Brennan | Prestige Books | 1965 | 254 pages

Young, red-haired nurse Larcy Ryan accepts a position as live-in caretaker for David Magnam, a terminal patient living in a rambling house on the shores of Lake Huron. Larcy finds David to be a disagreeable man, always mocking and insulting, referring to her as “Miss Bedpan”. He also exists in a constant state of paranoia regarding the possible malevolent actions of his own family. Sharing the estate is David’s daughter Bena, whose navy husband is out to sea, and her niece, Lyn, whose mother died in a mental institution. Lyn, a badly behaved adolescent, does justify David’s paranoia by confiding with Larcy about Bena,

She needs his money, and she isn’t going to get it until dear David is dead.”

From that foundation, The Brooding House builds itself into an inheritance melodrama, with Larcy fearing that a plot is afoot to kill David for his money. She overhears incriminating snatches of conversations between Bena and a strange man on the beach, and spots her meeting with another suspicious character in the town diner. When the body of Bena’s former brother-in-law turns up at the beach, Larcy becomes convinced that evil machinations are actually underway.

Strange coming-and-goings from David’s room, incriminating newspaper clippings, and the aloof housekeeper’s use of poison, ostensibly for rat traps outside the kitchen, all add to the general atmosphere of menace at the lake house. When Larcy witnesses a strange scene at the pier one night, her own safety becomes directly involved in the events.

As much a nascent romance as a thriller, Larcy finds time to reflect on the nature of love throughout all the mysterious unfolding of events. Although suspicious of Bena’s actions, Larcy admires the relationship between her and her husband, Johnson, whose portrait commands attention in the house while its subject is out to sea. Larcy envies the apparent “fireworks” between the couple, evident in Bena’s emotional longing, but absent with her own prospective fiancée, Pete Crimmins.

Pete, the boy-next-door type, comes off as something of a heel later in the story, when Larcy turns to him for help. However, for all his alleged romantic charms, Johnson doesn’t rate much better. Bena, assessing her own slenderness, remarks,

Johnson abhors fat women. It’s a phobia with him. He actually gets nauseous.”

The Devil’s Dreamer


The Devil’s Dreamer
Alice Brennan | Prestige Books | 1971 | 253 pages

New York editorial assistant Carsa Winters suffers from a vivid recurring nightmare that threatens her sense of identity and upsets her perception of reality. In her dream world, she is Mincy Lessard, a nineteenth-century wife and mother suffering from a nervous disorder. As Mincy’s condition worsens, her cruel husband Philippe threatens her with institutionalization, while she struggles to convince him (and herself) that she is actually Carsa Winters, a young unmarried twentieth-century girl.

Seemingly unable to play her dream “role”, Mincy’s diagnosis of madness is only reinforced by Carsa’s continued screaming, “I am not Mincy Lessard! I am not married! I do not have a child! I am Carsa Winters! I am Carsa Winters! I am CARSA WINTERS!

Carsa’s own present condition suffers as she tries to remain awake, drinking endless pots of coffee and refusing to sleep at night in an attempt to prevent her dream from returning. However, she begins to slip into her alternate dream world even while awake, resulting in mysterious time lapses. People in her life begin to transpose their identities with the people in her dream—her roommate Liz becomes Mincy’s nursemaid in 1870, and Victor Harris, a man she meets at a cocktail party, shifts into the role of Mincy’s abusive husband Philippe—increasing the frequency of the bleed-overs between the parallel worlds.

Am I dreaming? Is my dream actually my reality, and my present life only a dream?  Am I really Carsa, or am I Mincy? Am I both? Are you really who I think you are? Am I schizophrenic? Am I hallucinating because someone slipped me LSD at a party?

Although admittedly central to the mystery, the continual repetition, page-in and page-out, of the same set of questions works against the narrative tension, holding the story to a one-note feeling until its conclusion. Carsa’s experiences illustrate the nature of her condition without the constant, literal self-questioning. Forwarding the notion of precognition (or retro-cognition) ultimately fails to account for some of the people Carsa meets, who seem to be creations of an alternate timeline rather than instances of repeated lives.

The Devil’s Dreamer does unexpectedly veer into a melancholy acceptance of fate, refreshingly precluding Carsa’s love interest from simply coming to her rescue, finally bending its characters into its deterministic view of the universe.

Angel Among Witches


Angel Among Witches
Adela Gale | Prestige Books | 1969 | 175 pages

A tormented musical genius, a young nurse and her vulnerable, wheelchair-bound charge, and an isolated Austrian castle with a dark history of witchcraft make for an engaging, if not genre-defying, gothic mystery.

Seeking a chance to leave New York for a fairytale European adventure, Joyce Miller accepts a position as private duty nurse for Myra Daniels, a successful gothic mystery writer. Myra’s husband is August Froelich, a failed master of classical piano, now struggling to put his career back together following a nervous breakdown. Myra was paralyzed in a skiing accident at her husband’s ancestral castle home in Austria, where the couple plans on returning, with Joyce caring for Myra’s modest needs as she rests after completing her latest novel.

Froelichsburg, Joyce discovers, is not the romantic castle of her dreams, but rather a cold imposing structure isolated from the surrounding town. August suffers from violent outbreaks, driven by a jealousy of his wife’s success when his own talent seems to be bankrupt. August’s mother, Althe, is an aristocratic relic from another age, barely suppressing her contempt for her American daughter-in-law (and accompanying medical underling), even though she depends upon Myra’s money to keep the castle running. Her servant Berta is a tiny-eyed battleship of a woman, always pausing in doorways to overhear private conversations.

Accompanying Joyce to Froelichsburg is Willis Compton, Myra’s unctuous personal secretary, who seems to have an intense hatred for August. Joyce initially suspects that Willis harbors a secret affection for Myra, but discovers that he openly loathes the pulpy material she produces, considering himself to be a writer of great taste and refinement. The tension at Froelichsburg is further exacerbated by the arrival of Myra’s ex-husband and his new young trophy wife. Barney Daniels is a Hollywood producer seeking to finalize the film rights to one of Myra’s books, a fact that only further drives August’s jealousy and resentment.

Only Jim Durban, Myra’s American doctor visiting from Vienna, offers Joyce any source of comfort, but it is short-lived. Against Jim’s advice, Myra immediately launches into writing her next book, focusing her research on the dark history of Froelichburg. Several hundred years previously, the castle was the center of witch-hunting hysteria, with hundreds of innocents being tortured within its walls, accused of practicing the black arts. Joyce fears that Myra is developing an unhealthy obsession with the grim details regarding the instruments of torture—and both Althe and August seem to know more of the family history than they admit.

Probably as appealing as one of Myra’s pulpy mysteries, Angel Among Witches establishes its cast of characters and their underlying hostilities before releasing their pent-up tensions in a violent murder, with all the guests trapped in the castle during a violent snowstorm. Exhibiting the clichéd traits of other genre fiction nurses, Joyce stereotypically dispenses aspirins and falls for the handsome doctor, although the resolution does offer an explanation for her superfluous role. When she stumbles upon the clue explaining why all the occupants of the castle are in grave danger, she races to expose the murderer before the grim history of Froelichsburg repeats itself. Appropriately enough, all is revealed in the castle’s dungeon, when Joyce happens upon its entrance—if only she had thought sooner to press “D” on the elevator panel.


To the Dark Tower


To the Dark Tower
Lyda Belknap Long | Prestige Books | 1969 | 191 pages

Young archeologist Joan Lambert returns home after encountering a strange supernatural force during a dig in Spain. While documenting the pictorial representations of witchcraft on the walls of a cave in the southern Pyrenees, a shadowy presence—which she vaguely perceives as a hawk-faced figure with talons—attaches itself to her. Even after fleeing the archeological site, Joan is visited several more times by the ominous force, usually accompanied by oppressive physical symptoms. Driving to meet her mentor, Dr. Wilfred Allen, at his Kentucky home, the dark intrusion manifests itself again in her car. She is able to shake off the attack, but a strange hooded figure in the roadway causes her to swerve and crash into an embankment.

Fleeing the crash scene, Joan runs into the town sheriff, who escorts her to safety. Dr. Allen has assembled a small team of psychologists and experts on occult phenomena at his home to assist Joan in battling her demonic affliction. However, the danger threatening Joan reveals itself to be greater than just the monstrous passenger accompanying her back from Spain. Looking out her guest room window the night of her arrival, Joan sees a dozen writhing figures in torchlight, engaged in some kind of horrific ritual dance, all circling around—what appears to her as—a giant, impaled toad.

Joan’s vision through the window blinds is interrupted by the news that the sheriff has returned to question her. A dim-witted local boy was found murdered by a curare-tipped poison dart at the scene of her car crash, with a voodoo doll bearing a striking resemblance to her resting near his body. Joan fears that the sheriff will discover her supernatural experiences in Spain, and somehow implicate her in the boy’s death by connecting them to the occult evidence found at the crime scene.

With only a few asides to follow the fates of other victims, (the tower-less) To the Dark Tower quickly unfolds over the course of a single night. Although the mastermind operating behind the witch cult is eventually revealed, the individual witches remain as rough sketches creeping in the night. Correspondingly, Dr. Allen seems remarkably oblivious to—what must have been—an amazingly high concentration of practitioners of the occult arts in his small Kentucky town. The sheriff wraps things up in a patchy denouement, revealing an arbitrary inheritance motivation that fails to adequately address Joan’s experiences in Spain—and oh, ESP.

Fear No Evil


Fear No Evil
Alice Brennan | Prestige Books | 1970 | 256 pages

Young English teacher Margaret Blyeth, blaming herself for the suicide of a prospective suitor whom she rejected, retreats to a resort on the shores of Upper Michigan’s Lake Superior. But Kaley House is no longer the cheerful manor by the lake she remembers from her childhood visits; the neglected grounds, overrun with weeds and debris, hide the now-decrepit main house. Seemingly to discourage her stay, a fallen tree blocks the remote lane to the resort from the main highway, and only a disused shortcut allows Margaret to continue ahead.

Tragedy also marks the lives of the few remaining staff members Margaret meets at Kaley House. Clemmy Hart, the proprietress of the resort, recently lost her husband in a fatal car accident. Clemmy’s mother, Petrolia (Mom Pet), was struck by a drunk driver three years before, and is now confined to a wheelchair. Mom Pet possesses a psychic gift, and was taught to read the future by her gypsy grandmother. Clemmy’s husband failed to heed the ominous warnings Mom Pet saw in the cards before his own violent death.

Also staying at Kaley house are three vacationing secretaries from Detroit. Mom Pet reads their future as a kind of parlour entertainment, predicting their upcoming potential loves. But for Margaret, Mom Pet sees an evil omen attached to a “dark young man”, leading to grief and perhaps, to death. When pressed for more details, Mom Pet only repeats in a kind of cryptic mantra, “The blind don’t see, the deaf don’t hear, the crippled don’t walk.”

Mom Pet’s warning is soon validated when shots are fired over Margaret’s head as she walks on the beach. She quickly dismisses the event as an accident, convincing herself that no one at the lake would want to harm her. But Margaret’s vacation isn’t all about recuperation; Carson Danville, her late suitor, killed himself less than twenty miles from Kaley House, and to clear her conscience in his suicide, she intends to investigate the circumstances of his death. She meets two local lake residents, David Miles and his controlling sister Verna, but they are seemingly unable to provide any information. Although initially attracted to David, Margaret is troubled when he unexpectedly reveals a short-tempered dark side, and his relationship with his sister may not be what it appears.

Margaret also becomes enamored with a new resident at the lakeshore: Julian Marsh, a Chicago lawyer summering at a cabin in the woods. He bears a striking resemblance to the “dark young man” that Mom Pet warned Margaret about during her reading. His cabin was the site of a grisly homicide the year before; the drunk driver that paralyzed Mom Pet, along with his entire family, was murdered there and the killer was never caught. The theme of rejected love continues with the arrival of Kelsey Hirsh, fashion model and Julian’s former girlfriend, who cannot accept his refusal and plans on winning back his attentions.

Fear No Evil swings the suspicion back and forth between Margaret’s two love interests, David and Julian*, as she moves ever closer to the reveal about Carson’s “suicide”. Mom Pet initially seems to be a controlling villain, but as the full roster of characters and their histories are revealed, she becomes something of a warning signal instead, repeating her admonitions from under the blanket in her wheelchair while evil actions spin all around her and her guests. The narrative ultimately contains many murderous loose ends to wrap up, but follows the basic recipe:

1. Clemmy worries while serving endless rounds of coffee

2. Mom Pet makes ominous pronouncements

3. More explicit attempts are made on Margaret’s life

4. Repeat


*Possible Freudian Alert: both characters are introduced after they fire projectiles (or are suspected of firing) at Margaret—both, instead shooting over her head

Climb the Dark Mountain


Climb the Dark Mountain
Julie Wellsley | Prestige Books | 1970 | 190 pages

English art student Anita Morris travels to Paris to follow her dreams of becoming a successful artist. After renting a small room in an apartment house in Montmarte, she begins talking classes with well-known commercial artist Alexis Binaud at his art school. Still grieving over the recent death of his sister and business partner Blanche, Alexis is equal parts harsh teacher and charming bon vivant, and Anita finds herself growing attracted to her moody instructor. When his erratic behavior jeopardizes the completion of an important project, Anita steps in to finish the artwork, assuming the role Blanche played in her creative partnership with Alexis.

Following a mysterious fire in the studio, Alexis invites Anita to stay at his family estate to continue work on a new magazine project. The old chateau—home now to Alexis’ mother, Madame Victorine Dubois, and his young niece Nichole—was occupied by the Gestapo in World War II and used as a detention center for captured members of the Resistance, whose spirits still purportedly haunt the estate. Anita receives more than just a chilly reception from Madame Dubois; while exploring the grounds of the estate, she is nearly struck by a falling bell from the tower in the ruined chapel.

Anita worries about the increasingly frequent mood swings plaguing Alexis, who begins calling her “Suzanne”. As he retreats more and more into his own internal world, Anita is left to suffer the suspicious interrogations of Madame Dubois and the curtly dismissive encounters from Alexis’s haughty friend—and Anita’s possible romantic rival—Marcia Dalesime. The jungle mural painted on the walls of Anita’s room intimates a dangerous presence hiding in the lush foliage. Is there a corresponding danger to Anita hiding in the chateau (or behind the eyes of the mural’s tiger)?

A subplot involving Jean, the nephew of Anita’s Montmarte landlady, infiltrating the chateau as Madame Dubois’ chauffeur, remains mostly underdeveloped, eschewing any supernatural aspects of the house’s infamous past history. His investigation of the suspicious activities at the estate, in order to keep a watchful eye on Anita, serves mainly as diversion from the central mystery; just how crazy and dangerous is Alexis? Internal monologues deflate most of the tension, answering the question early in the story. A grotesque reveal clarifies the “sister issues” at the center of his madness.