Shadows | Chill #7

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Shadows | Chill #7
Jory Sherman | Pinnacle Books | 1980 | 181 pages

Against the advice of his physician, wealthy industrialist and toymaker, Adolph Zehring-Rand, moves to Mexico to receive an experimental treatment for his recently diagnosed terminal illness. Shortly after his arrival at the hacienda near the Mexican clinic, Zehring-Rand begins experiencing visions of shadows, amorphous shapes that seem to move and attempt to communicate with him. Convinced that these encounters are occult in nature, and not the hallucinatory side effects of his new medical regime, Zehring-Rand reaches out for assistance to famed psychic investigator, Russell V. “Chill” Chillders.

Although little doubt exists of the supernatural nature of the situation, several characters establish motivation for undermining, or even eliminating, Zehring-Rand. Dr. Spinoza, chief researcher at the Clinica Medica de Ensenada, is clearly a quack, with a sham facility in place to provide the illusion of research. Hattie McBain, Zehring-Rand’s personal assistant, has a personal history of chasing wealthy and powerful men. Several rival executives at Z-R Industries have open contempt for the way Zehring-Rand runs the company, and are impatient for his ouster. Meanwhile, young girls around Ensenada have been disappearing, including the daughter of the former owner of Zehring-Rand’s hacienda.

At book seven in the series, all the reductive traits for the Chill and his associates are obligatorily noted, with little variation or growth from book one: Chill is a vegetarian, but also a vintage gun enthusiast who will eat the game he kills (check); he munches on sesame sticks to concentrate (check); he has a platonic relationship with his psychic assistant, Laura Littlefawn, but both acknowledge a latent, deeper attraction (check); Laura, a native Sioux, displays a fondness for silver and turquoise jewelry (check); and Hal Strong, a New England professor and Chill’s occasional sidekick, is driven by the need to communicate with his dead son on some other plane of existence (check).

The industrial espionage subplot provides an opportunity for a private eye to discover, first hand, how capable ghosts are of murder. Another character ultimately changes allegiances, although even this twist—seemingly driven by a newly found heart of gold–is telegraphed earlier.

The dark shapes plaguing Zehring-Rand eventually congeal into the ghostly form of a little girl, and he rushes to manufacture a new toy, an articulated doll constructed to the specifications given to him by the spirit. Tapping into the inherent horror of dolls and laughing children, Shadows delivers a few suspenseful moments, some pseudo-science bunk, and a touch of psychic mumbo-jumbo, all the while deviating very little from the expected course.

But what psychic detective worth his weight in sesame sticks thinks giving a non-corporeal entity, with unknown and possibly murderous intentions, a fully functional doll’s body to inhabit is a good idea?

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The Mind Masters #2 | Shamballah

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The Mind Masters #2 | Shamballah
John F. Rossman | Signet Books | 1975 | 220 pages

“Braaaaaaam! Braaaaaaam! Braaaaaaam!”

Britt St. Vincent, a former Vietnam veteran whose traumatic wartime experience awakened his latent psychic powers, returns to service for another supernatural escapade in Shamballah. Working undercover for the Mero Institute, a top-secret organization dedicated to researching and exposing supernatural occurrences, St. Vincent travels the globe as a grand prix race driver, while covertly investigating paranormal phenomenon.

“Braap!…Ap!…Ap!…Ap!”

Benefitting from a fortuitous overlap of international racecourses and haunted sites, St. Vincent travels to the Rabenblut Castle in the Black Forest of Germany. His mission: to determine if the ghost of General Heinrich Weissmann, a leading scientist in Hitler’s occult services during World War II, is responsible for numerous inexplicable events surrounding the cursed ruin.

The racing cover also offers many opportunities for the injection of onomatopoeic exclamations into the text.

“Crack! Clumph! Crack!”

Upon arrival in Germany, St. Vincent immediately plunges into danger, when he discovers an exploded body in the lobby at the Black Cross Inn. Shortly afterward, he is seduced in his hotel room–with passages featuring overripe descriptions of the female anatomy–by Gretchen, a voluptuous racing groupie who knocks at his door. Eventually, she introduces him to an orgy and Black Mass at the castle, presided over by Dr. Neumann, the medical examiner working with the police on the murder case. St. Vincent employs some high tech gadgetry after the ghostly spectre of Weissman appears in the castle tower, including a machine that displays the residue of human auras, and a fax hidden in his briefcase (that takes several minutes to print a page of copy).

“…rrrrowwWWWwwwwwrrrrowwwWWWwwwwwrr…”

The initial rush of pure exploitation comes to a grinding halt at about the half-way mark, when in typical Bond fashion, the villain explains all to St. Vincent, the doomed hero. However, the exposition unfolds over the course of an agonizingly boring fifty-plus pages. All the long-winded explanations could have been easily summed up in a single statement, suggesting a much more interesting story than the one actually realized:

***MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT***

I am a mummified, eternal ex-Nazi–sustained by alien pyramid power–in command of an army of psychically controlled women who are powered by the invisible cosmic rays of the universe, channeled through implanted crystals that exert their deadly power upon the sexual release of their host.”

***END OF MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT***

As St. Vincent drolly remarks, “It’s hard to believe, but it’s completely possible.”

“Kawhump!”

The Priestess

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The Priestess

Frank Lauria | Bantam Books | 1978 | 246 pages

Orient was sitting by the window, chin cupped in his hands, trying to synchronize his consciousness with the dim pulses of energy emanating from a plastic bottle cap.”

After an attempt on his life by a secret agency operating covertly within the CIA, Dr. Owen Orient sets aside his telekinetic research—and daily program of yoga and self-hypnosis—to flee from New York City to Miami. Taking a delivery position at a local mom-and-pop pharmacy under the name of David Clay, Orient settles into a mundane routine far removed from his previous life. However, when his new employer, Sam Fein, falls victim to a murderous voodoo cult, Orient becomes determined to finally stop running and stand up against evil.

Following a trail of clues back through a small-time beauty salon, Orient eventually identifies the criminal ringleader as Mojo Pay, a former NFL star and charismatic brujo, sorcerer priest of an organized crime syndicate practicing voodoo. Leveraging his own telepathic skills to win in Mojo’s casino, he captures Mojo’s attention and infiltrates his organization. Searching for any sign of weakness that could be exploited to topple the criminal empire, Orient finds his resolve weakening under the seductive charms of Mojo’s wife, and bruja, Cara O’Riley.

Orient always seems to fall for women in peril, making it his personal mission to save them, while brushing aside the ramifications of a shadowy network of psychic adepts—one of whom he encounters working as a restroom attendant in a Miami Beach hotel—controlling world events. Ultimately, The Priestess is an enjoyable mishmash of pseudoscience and mystic babble, propelling its protagonist through a landscape peppered with voodoo mumbo jumbo, lascivious zombies, sparkly piles of cocaine, and a sexual stamina battle-of-the-wills contest with a voodoo-practicing drug lord.

And for a true, era-appropriate exploitation coda, why not wrap up the overarching story with a Bermuda Triangle flavored deus ex machina?

House of Scorpions (Chill #6)

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House of Scorpions (Chill #6)
Jory Sherman | Pinnacle Books | 1980 | 176 pages

Things get personal for supernatural investigator Russell V. “Chill” Childers in this sixth outing of the occult series, when his psychic sidekick, Laura Littlefawn, comes under attack by a Navajo scorpion cult.

The cult actually consists of only Dan Crooked Creek, a disgruntled tribal outcast, and Rowena Carter, an impressionable young runaway who has fallen under his spell. Dan’s drive to destroy Laura springs from an exceptionally mundane source–not from some personal grievance or perceived injustice, but from her success selling Native American artisan crafts. Experiencing a series of threatening visions involving scorpions, Laura turns to Chill for help in battling her psychic attackers (or more correctly, she places a psychic phone call to his housekeeper).

House of Scorpions offers very little mystery for Chill to investigate, since alternating chapters completely reveal Dan’s obsession with the scorpion’s symbolism, his related messianic complex, and his plans against Laura. His own telepathic abilities are rather nebulously explained, since his main method of attack involves enticing his collected group of scorpions to attack. Rather than simply confronting Laura, Dan somehow telepathically projects his location–in a cave outside Rowena’s family house–to Laura in a dream, luring her and Chill into a rather dubiously conceived trap [Modest Spoiler Alert: he hits Chill over the head with a rock].

Passages involving scorpion handling, mating rituals of a captive breeding pair, attempted cult indoctrination involving stinging, and eventually an attack on Chill’s hippie handyman, evoke a kind of nature-run-amok horror, as the series trademark telepathic content takes a backseat to more naturalistic shocks. Epic struggles on the astral plane are conspicuously absent in this entry, replaced by more intimate corporeal encounters involving scorpions crawling out from under beds and down nightshirts. Rowena takes the mating dance of the scorpions to a logical conclusion in a grotesque scene late in the story, one of its few horrific highlights.

Readers with arachnophobia, rather than insectophobia (“Scorpions are not insects,” as Chill reminds us), will possibly discover something here to trigger a modest case of the creepy-crawlies.

The Fury

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The Fury
John Farris | Fawcett Popular Library | 1976 | 349 pages

The Fury burns as an epic beacon, warning readers away from a story that features potentially delirious elements—(birthed apart) psychic twins, a former psychic research subject struggling to reunite with his estranged son, and a vengeful one-armed villain leading a shadowy psychokinetic research organization operating secretly within the U.S. government—yet somehow never rises much beyond a dull slog.

Peter Sandza, a down-at-heel, one-time potential psychic who burned out after a series of secret governmental tests, searches for his lost son Robin, a young man gifted with telekinetic powers of his own. Robin has fallen into the hands (or in this case, hand) of a covert agency-within-an-agency that specializes in grooming psychic talents, ultimately for military use against potential Cold War targets. Childermass, the agency’s director, is on the trail to neutralize Sandza, preventing him from liberating Robin, and seeking retribution for the arm that was blown off in a previous encounter. Robin has been sending psychic messages via the astral plane to his psychic twin, Gillian Bellaver, the young daughter of a wealthy New York family. Gillian experiences these messages in a dream state that, unfortunately, causes those people in close personal contact to violently bleed out.

The story alternates between the group of main characters, and the others whose lives they intersect, without building up much interest or momentum. A few brief action passages when their individual stories come together—particularly when Peter encounters Gillian after she has been hospitalized following an traumatic experience, with Childermass and his Black-Ops team following close behind—help liven the pace, but only momentarily. The character arcs only come together again after about page three hundred, setting the stage for the final resolution, but the lack of a single central protagonist dampens interest along the way.

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John Farris also wrote the screenplay for the 1978 film adaptation of his novel, directed by Brian De Palma. The film version varies much of the specific details of the story, but maintains the development and prescribed fates of the major characters. De Palma energizes the proceedings by pumping up the violence to near-histrionic levels, creating gory set pieces with splatter and spinning bodies. Even the campy depiction of glowing blue psychic eyes is forgiven with the riotously explosive comeuppance to the Childress character (changed from Childermass in the book), played with a smug malice by John Cassavetes.

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However, the book does reflect the zeitgeist of the time in which it was written, with its preoccupation with psychic phenomenon and the occult, offering some sage advice regarding the dangers of witchcraft in Seventies California:

You don’t understand. Along with dope, it’s the number one fact of life out there. If you’re a girl and good-looking they come up to you on the street or beaches, for God’s sake, warlocks looking for recruits. The covens will fuck you over fast if you don’t know how to protect yourself. Oh, it’s creepy in Southern Cal.”

The Phoenix Man (Chill #5)

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The Phoenix Man (Chill #5)
Jory Sherman | Pinnacle Books | 1980 | 175 pages

Psychic investigator Dr. Russel V. “Chill” Chillders returns in the fifth installment of the supernatural series.

Chill responds to a request for help from Wilbur Hornsby, who along with his twin scientist brother, Malcolm, has succeeded in creating a method for human cloning. Upon their test subject’s death, the soul of the recently deceased seeks out and inhabits the next in a series of fully grown cloned bodies, which wait indefinitely suspended in a row of fluid-filled bubbles in the pair’s laboratory. However, Wilbur suspects that his brother intends to use the clone—who in a glaring example of scientific oversight, happens to be violent drifter with a criminal history—to kill him and take the credit for their discoveries.

Unfortunately, The Phoenix Man plays out as more of a men’s action-adventure tale than an occult mystery, complete with descriptions of weapons and their impact on the human anatomy that flirt with becoming gun-porn.

“The Speer bullet slammed a hole in Samson’s forehead at the speed of 1625 feet per second. The soft lead core flattened against the frontal bone, crumpling the inner fluted jacket of the bullet, creating, in effect, a tiny lethal hammer. A spray of blood blew out with the brains, bone, and gristle of Samson’s head, leaving a gaping hole in the rear of his skull.”

Chill himself is cast in the role of action hero, with his burgeoning telepathic powers kept fallow. Laura Littlefawn, Chill’s half-Sioux psychic associate, only briefly enters a trance-state to elicit the location of a subject; otherwise, she tags along to provide the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic tension [they won’t], and falls into the hands of the villains—becoming another victim in need of rescuing by Chill. Hal Strong, the occult-minded professor who rounds out Chill’s usual team, literally waits out the entire story in an RV.

By this fifth book in the series, the characters have all become extremely reductive; Chill reflects by munching on sesame sticks, Laura wears turquoise and silver jewelry to accentuate her dark hair and eyes, and Hal wonders where he can pick-up road-loving ladies to accompany him in his recreational vehicle isolation. Even Malcolm Hornsby is defined by a distinctive facial tic, which conveniently proves quite useful later to differentiate him from his good brother.

The Hornsby brothers’ clone is driven by a rage from a single factor, not the greater existential quandary of his predicament, but rather his newfound impotence.

The Horror From the Tombs

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The Horror from the Tombs
Florence Stevenson | Charter Books | 1977 | 170 pages

Kitty Telefair, a young psychic member of a family of occultists and occasional guest star on a supernatural television talk show, is recruited by her aunt Penelope to decipher an ancient Egyptian papyrus. With a terse urgency, Penelope explains that she received a batch of artifacts from the tomb of Princess Khefra for her witchcraft museum, and that she
needs Kitty’s expertise in reading the hieroglyphics. Against the wishes of her fiance, Colly (whose protests seem to end in implied sex scenes, the buttons ripped off Kitty’s pant suit), Kitty agrees to help her aunt, but immediately experiences a sort of empathetic link with Princess Khefra.

Hearing screams as she arrives at her aunt’s estate, Kitty discovers a local kindergarten teacher unresponsive in the passenger seat of a car—apparently scared into shock—with the driver missing. Kitty’s aunt informs her that museum has been vandalized and the papyrus stolen. Aunt Penelope also introduces her to the estate’s unexpected houseguests, Professor Gridley and his wife Beryl. Gridley, an anthropologist studying the museum’s collection of occult objects, and his magnetically attractive young wife, cause Kitty to feel a strange—yet instantly familiar—sense of animosity, but she agrees to stay and help her aunt find the stolen artifact.

From the first few pages, any sense of mystery is deflated by Kitty’s visions through the eyes of Princess Khefra (“Why did they violate my—er—her tomb?”). Aside from a mild twist, the desires and motivations of the ancient characters mirror their counterparts in the present day, resulting in the flashback passages becoming something of a bore. The Gridleys, Kitty’s friend Ellen, and Ellen’s fiance Austin, all fall neatly into place, usually telegraphed by the first meeting:

You said—other name.” He frowned. “Did you have another name for me, Kitty?”
“I—I thought I knew you under another name,” I said.
“That’s odd—damned odd. I had another name for you, too.” He stared at me. “What is this?”

Kitty emerges as an engaging heroine, but the light and frothy tone sinks under the weight of the philosophical implications of the story. What appears to be just another throwaway entry in a series of adventures actually reveals all actions and relationships to be not really our own, but rather the endless replay of those already experienced in previous lives. How will Kitty ever look at Colly the same way again?

[sound of pant suit ripping]

Dark Ways to Death (Guardians #2)

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Dark Ways to Death (Guardians #2)
Peter Saxon | Berkley Books | 1968 | 143 pages

The Guardians, a group dedicated to combating the forces of supernatural evil in the modern world, return to battle a Voodoo cult in the subterranean world below London.

Steven Kane – a former Professor of Anthropology, expert in the field of Black Magic and de facto leader of the group.
Gideon Cross – the enigmatic founder of the Guardians and master of astral projection.
Anne Ashby – a raven-haired psychic beauty with an aversion to fire, who may have a connection to a namesake who was burned at the stake for witchcraft in the seventeenth century.
Father John Dyball – a former Catholic priest and specialist in Black Magic.
Lionel Marks – a private investigator handling the group’s problems on a purely physical plane.

Sir Bartley Squires, a successful shipping magnate, seeks out the counsel of Steven Kane for the assistance of the Guardians in saving his daughter Caroline from an occult threat. Members of a Voodoo cult have targeted Caroline’s West Indian boyfriend, Jack Johnson, as a human sacrifice for Dambalawedo, an ancient spirit taking the form of a feathered serpent. Two other members of the Guardians, Father John Dyball and Lionel Marks, have been independently alerted to the workings of the cult, following the trail back to its leader, Dr. Obadiah Duval.

Duval operates a chemist’s shop as a front for his Dambalawedo cult in London, and has thrown down a challenge to Steven Kane and his team; he has kidnapped Anne Ashby’s black cat—and possible familiar—Bubastis, to use as a sacrifice in an upcoming ritual, and as a lure to draw out and destroy the Guardians. Their destruction will clear the path Duval has set for invoking his Old God, unleashing its great evil into the world. Venturing into Duval’s shop alone, Anne indeed falls victim to his plot, escaping only with the help of Gideon Cross—and his psychic powers traveling across the astral plane to save her.

Although many lives are in peril, the Guardians spend much of their energies focusing on the return of Bubastis—probably a sore point for the potential human victims, even considering Bubastis’ special nature as a specimen of direct lineage from the cats of Ancient Egypt. The introduction of a group of slumming socialites, seeking cheap thrills at Duval’s ceremony, makes for an irritating distraction from the characters in real jeopardy. The Guardians completely fail to operate as a team in this outing, with each member fumbling around on their own—without any real coordinated plan, except to gather for a protective magic circle—towards their inevitable showdown with Duval in the abandoned subway tunnels beneath London.

A creepily effective high point of the final battles comes as Dambalawedo re-animates the corpse of his fallen follower, who becomes a zombie-puppet in the control of his master. However, the conclusion cheapens whatever tension has built up, since the power to confront the Serpent God arises from an unexpected source, with little groundwork for its establishment. This newfound power reads more simply as a hastily written device to wrap up the story, rather than an enigmatic character shading to be developed in future installments of the series.

Her Demon Lover

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Her Demon Lover
Louisa Bronte | Avon Books | 1973 | 156 pages

Young cosmetics heiress Sophia travels to a small town in the Balkans with her new husband Gregory Holden in an attempt to uncover her family history. Adopted at a young age from an orphanage in Boston, all Sophia remembers of her birth parents are the tales told by a nun who briefly knew her mother from the old country—tales of seeing the future and controlling the winds. Upon arriving at their hotel, the newlyweds meet the strangely magnetic Count Derek Vlahos and his alluring companion Madame Lillian Montevan, a former singer in the Paris cabarets. Sophia is delighted to learn that Derek knows the lineage of her family, and that she may be his distant cousin.

The Count invites Sophia and Greg to his castle, the Eagle’s Nest, to examine the historical books in his library and research the family genealogy at her leisure. A full day’s journey by carriage, the Eagle’s Nest rises dramatically from its mountaintop location, surrounded by sheer cliffs. At the castle, Sophia finds herself drawn to the charismatic powers of Count Vlahos, with every incidental touch sending shock waves of desire through Sophia’s receptive body. Although newly married, she has discovered her husband to be a clumsy and inattentive lover, and she longs for the dominating embrace of a more powerful man. The Count boldly flirts with Sophia, and dismisses her weak husband with contempt, driving his voluptuous companion Lillian to distract Greg’s attention.

Derek eventually reveals his true nature to Sophia during a visit to the castle’s tower room. Looking out over the dramatic mountain views, Derek demonstrates his ability to command the flights of the swirling eagles, to raise the winds and generate the gathering electrical storm. He tells her that she also shares their family’s powers, and that together—as husband and wife—they could rule the countryside. Resisting him for the present, Sophia is nevertheless intrigued by the prospect of fully developing her own latent powers. Conflicted about her feelings for her own cousin, she is reminded again of his terrifying presence, when during the course of an evening’s entertainment he conjures a demon to do his bidding—a trick Sophia knows to be more than a mild amusement for party guests.

More a florid romance than a supernatural thriller, Her Demon Lover plays out as a seductive battle of wills between Sophia and Derek. Does she surrender to the dominating force of the powerful man of her imagination, or is she able to muster some previously undiscovered inner-strength from her milquetoast husband and resist the siren call of her supernatural birthright? An unexpectedly ferocious romantic encounter with her husband midway through the novel ultimately telegraphs the twist ending.

The story also provides valuable life lessons about accepting invitations for mountain climbing from the rival to your wife’s affections.

Lady Sativa

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Lady Sativa
Frank Lauria | Ballantine Books | 1973 | 234 pages

Dr. Owen Orient returns in the third installment of the psychic detective series.

With funds for his telepathic research dwindling, Dr. Orient enlists the aid of his plump psychic friend Sybelle, a colleague in his experiments and a member of the Society for Extranormal Exploration (SEE). At SEE’s upcoming annual conference in Stockholm, board president Carl Bestman will award a sizeable grant to the best-qualified candidate in the field of paranormal science, and Sybelle offers to nominate Orient for the award. After a rigorous series of Yin & Yang breathing exercises, Orient prepares his materials for presentation, and together with Sybelle, travels to Sweden.

A shock awaits them at the Bestman estate; Carl Bestman has apparently committed suicide with a hunting rifle. His brother, Anthony, a loutish big-game hunter with little regard for the psychic arts, greets Orient and the other guests arriving for the conference with scorn. Although Carl’s widow Hannah is distraught and suspects foul play in the death of her husband, the meeting of SEE continues as planned. Orient’s competition for the grant award is Lily Sativa, a golden-skinned beauty with amber eyes and the gift of premonition. Sativa travels with her sponsor, the elegant Count Germaine, and headstrong British chess champion Maxwell Anderson—who develops and instant antagonism towards Orient and his telepathic methods.

But further tragedy ensures for the assembled guests of SEE. Nels Neilson, Carl Bestman’s attorney, is found savagely killed, torn to pieces outside on the grounds of the estate. Hannah Bestman becomes the chief suspect, since she was the last to be seen with Neilson—they were looking for Carl’s suspiciously missing treatise on Lycanthropic Schizophrenia. Although the police have the house in lockdown, Hannah slips a note under Orient’s door, requesting that he meet her later that night in the churchyard.

At their nocturnal rendezvous, Hannah makes an attempt to warn Orient, but an unknown assailant attacks him, leaving a vicious scratch—or perhaps bite—wound on his arm. The police, trailing Orient’s movements, shoot and kill Hannah, who they suspect of attempting another murder. Orient returns home to New York, where the golden moon seems to bring out unexpected violent urges, and other members of SEE meet gruesome deaths.

Lady Sativa introduces a few modest twists on werewolf mythology, with a stricken Orient ingesting a concoction of curative ingredients (mold of wheat and yeast, mandrake, wolfbane and poppy pitch) to hold off his impending symptoms. The transformation itself manifests primarily in the personality of the afflicted, although hair does grows on palms, and his face distorts enough for fellow subway passengers to move a few seats away. Although psychic adventures take a backseat to lycanthropy in this outing, the final reveal of the true culprit takes the story firmly back into Orient’s telepathic realm, as Orient and his team battle the werewolf’s astral projection.