Terror Touches Me


Terror Touches Me
Stanton Forbes | Pyramid Books | 1967 | 150 pages

Hey! I didn’t even eat the [salmon] mousse.” — Debbie Katzenberg (Michael Palin), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

Following the death of her father, and her sister Connie’s recent marriage, Mary Owen reacts to the depressing thought of spending her life alone by impulsively marrying a man she briefly met at the wedding ceremony. Eamon Doyle, a roguish, gold-toothed Irishman and business acquaintance of Connie’s husband, sweeps Mary off her feet, and takes his new bride to live at his family’s ancestral home outside Dublin. However, other than the gray skies and peat fire in the hearth, little is made of the Irish setting.

Arriving unannounced with Eamon at Doylescourt, a ramshackle castle with sprawling grounds, Mary discovers an unexpected tension amongst the family members residing there. Eamon’s father, Sean Doyle, seems engaged in a much-repeated argument regarding the future direction of the family estate with his children: Brendan, the oldest and most somber, more interested in botany than the family business; Liam, straggly-bearded bohemian and musician in a pub band; and Angela, unreadable under her cool demeanor and blank expression.

Just the same, there is something—some kind of violent undercurrent that I feel, only feel. Even their quarreling is deeper—deadlier than the usual family disagreements even though is seems to be about nothing of importance.

Mary’s observations about the Doyles prove to be prescient. On her very first evening the entire family is stricken after a shared dinner of smoked salmon. Although Mary was unaffected, Eamon’s father collapses, and shortly thereafter dies from an unknown illness. The police ultimately trace the cause of death to a poisoned bottle of whiskey, and conclude that one member of the household is a murderer.

More murders quickly follow, as Eamon’s siblings succumb one by one to mysterious poisonings. The only commonality seems to be Mary, present with each of the victims at the various times and places of their deaths. A growing suspect in the eyes of the police, Mary nevertheless confronts an inescapable conclusion—her own husband is responsible for the shocking crimes. Although he is a man she barely knows, could he really be a cold-blooded killer?

A passable entry in the newlywed-trapped-with-her-sinister-new-family category of gothic fiction, Terror Touches Me fails to generate much suspense on two fronts. Although surrounded by death, Mary never seems to be in immediate jeopardy, since she doesn’t appear to be a primary target herself. Also, even though she becomes a person of interest to the police, the dragnet of wrongful accusation around Mary as a serious suspect never closes in too tightly.

About two-thirds of the way through the story, Mrs. Ryan, the cook, professes to have heard a banshee keening outside her kitchen window, indicating a foreboding spirit lurking on the grounds of the estate. Unfortunately, nothing comes of this possible encounter—supernatural or otherwise—just a failed opportunity to lift the proceedings above the expected inheritance drama.


The Third Child


The Third Child
Aeleta Nichols | Pyramid Books | 1971 | 188 pages

After the death of her mother, Lynn Alva discovers a strange letter along with her few possessions. The letter, written to her late mother by Mrs. Rachel Payne, thanks her for her friendship and laments their treatment of a mysterious “third child”. Driven by a curiosity to uncover new details of her mother’s life, Lynn travels from California to the Ironwood Estate in New York to meet its governess, Mrs. Payne, and question her about the letter.

The wheelchair-bound Mrs. Payne explains that Lynn’s mother Martha was not only her personal nurse, but also a dedicated friend who saved her life. But before elaborating any further, Mrs. Payne changes the subject, explaining to Lynn that she needs the services of a secretary-companion to write light correspondence and perform other small tasks. Even without a real direction in her life, Lynn nonetheless surprises herself by accepting the position. Leaving the estate, she wonders why Mrs. Payne showed such reluctance to discuss her mother—and discovers that the letter was not returned.

Settling into Ironwood, Lynn is introduced to a long line of relatives, all with barely concealed hostility towards other members of the family. She notes that several branches of the family tree seem to have candidates for the identity of the “third child” referred to in her mother’s letter. All seem to be on edge for the imminent arrival of Mrs. Payne’ daughter Grace, who is being released from a ten-year stay in a mental hospital after a family tragedy resulting in the death of Grace’s sister, Rosemary. The Payne family believed that Grace’s husband, Matthew Sperry, was complicit in the death of their neighbor, Kyle Frazer, who was the object of childhood crushes by both Payne girls, leading to Rosemary’s suicide and Grace’s nervous breakdown.

The hostility Lynn notices at Ironwood climaxes in an attempted murder, when the brake lines in the car she is driving are cut, nearly leading to a fatal crash. Mrs. Payne would have normally been riding in the car, and an accident would have been a repeat of a previous crash that years ago put her in a wheelchair. Lynn realizes that she is living in the midst of a power struggle for the future of the considerable wealth of the family business, with the life of Mrs. Payne and the future mental health of her daughter Grace determining the outcome.

The Third Child pushes Lynn through a tepid inheritance drama, before culminating in a brief murder mystery. Although numerous red herrings arise surrounding the central question of the “third child”, the true identity is a foregone conclusion—even if the ending makes a coy attempt at not providing a final reveal. Ultimately, the unanswered question contained in the letter should not have been compelling enough for Lynn to navigate the murderous maze at Ironwood, and for her to learn its purported lesson on the nature of family.

Private Duty for Nurse Peggy


Private Duty for Nurse Peggy
Madeleine Sault | Pyramid Books | 1965 | 157 pages

“You can come out now, little mountain flower, and bloom in your own right.”

Peggy Merritt—the little mountain flower—leaves her position as an operating room nurse In Chicago, returning to her small hometown In Colorado to care for the aging grandmother of her recently deceased childhood friend. Even from the confines of her wheelchair, the once beautiful high-society matriarch, Mrs. Leila Reinley, retains enough of her former mental acuity following a series of strokes to orchestrate a romantic match for Peggy. Mrs. Reinley suspects that Peggy has never moved past her childhood crush on Charles Whittaker, who is now Mrs. Reinley’s doctor (and widower of her late granddaughter), and hopes to bring her into the extended family through marriage.

However, Charles is engaged to Nadia, a stunning European beauty with a regal manner, and together they slip effortlessly through the local high society scene of luncheons and cocktail parties. Charles initiates a plan with the local gentry to open a for-profit clinic for wealthy patients. Peggy is an outsider to this fairytale world, raised in modest quarters by her mother in Downriver, a depressed and squalid part of town far from the stately mansion in which she works. Charles does seem to harbor feelings for Peggy, and soon takes her into his embrace.

“As she always dreamed, his lips were full and devastating on hers, capturing her mouth completely, irretrievably—and sending warm shocks of delicious feeling from her head to her toes and back again.”

Although Charles explains that his pending marriage was arranged solely to keep Nadia in the country legally, Peggy still senses a reluctance coming from him. Strangely unsatisfied at vanquishing her intimidating rival and securing the man of her dreams, she instead finds herself thinking about another man, Leila’s grandson Hank. The brash and impertinent Dr. Henry “Hank” Reinley provides a striking counterpart to Dr. Charles Whittaker. Hank founded a local public health clinic, and tirelessly provides medical care to the impoverished citizens of the town. Peggy wonders if Hank, the once obnoxious stand-in for an older brother who irritatingly calls her “Piggy”, could be her true love.

“There was a strange, abstracted look on his face as he slowly bent his head once more, bringing his mouth close to her. “No,” she said. But she didn’t try to stop him. And he didn’t stop. Their lips met. And clung.”

Private Duty for Nurse Peggy teases out a few possible mysteries while Peggy agonizes over which doctor to love, but never commits to pursuing them as storylines. Both Charles and Hank have designs on properties owned by Mrs. Reinley for their opposing visions of medical clinics for the town. A dramatic turn in her health suggests a suspicious origin, with the possibility of an impending inheritance drama, but that potential never develops. And although the cover blurb suggests that the Reinley estate is a “dark old house…haunted by the memory of Mrs. Reinley’s lovely granddaughter,” [what was her name again, oh yes…] Sandra’s spirit does not play a role at all.

Peggy dreams of being with Charles, helps to deliver a baby in Downriver, swoons over kissing Hank, diagnoses a more severe case of botulism among a widespread outbreak of food-poisoning at a church picnic, then continues to waffle over the right man for her affection, both of whom use her for their own ends. Anticipating Peggy’s ultimate choice provides the only real tension to propel the story along. Perhaps Peggy should have considered getting together with Nadia, moving back to Chicago together, and living on the sale of her extravagant engagement ring.