Come to Castlemoor

Come to Castlemoor
Beatrice Parker | Dell Books | 1970 | 205 pages

A dubious historical assertion on the purpose of neolithic stone circles underpins this gothic tale of a city girl stumbling towards uncovering a deadly secret in a small English village.

After the accidental death of her brother, Kathy Hunt packs up her belongings and moves from London to the evocatively named village of Darkmead to continue his research on the Stonehenge-like circle of standing stones dominating the moors outside of town. Accompanied by her maid Stella, a sassy girl with a seemingly singular fixation on strapping young farm lads, Kathy occupies her brother’s former house, a small cottage not far from the stone circles and under the malevolent watch of the village’s medieval castle.

Although Kathy considers herself a forward-thinking young woman, the character of Darkmead’s stone circle initially tests her Victorian-era sensibilities. The standing stones she encounters at Darkmead, unlike the purely architectural post-and-lintel forms at Stonehenge, overtly resemble phalluses. While searching for her brother’s missing manuscript, Kathy also discovers a similarly-shaped small stone necklace in his study.

Against the background mystery of her brother’s death, a familiar romantic melodrama unfolds, with Kathy at one corner of a potential love triangle. Cousins and Castlemoor residents Burton Rodd and Edward Clark both jockey for Kathy’s attention in their own fashion. The brooding Burton masks his attraction with a seemingly antagonistic attitude toward Kathy, whom he insists leave Darkmead at once. The ingratiating Edward charms on the surface, but perhaps hides a less sincere motivation. Meanwhile, Bella’s beribboned and corseted seduction of a hunky farm hand plays almost as a bickering comic relief.

Glimpses of figures in white drifting across the moors, possible sightings of lost loves in the gloom of the castle dungeons, and hints of a secret network at work in Darkmead all permeate the romantic shenanigans with some atmosphere of mystery and foreboding—although one character’s attempt at a secret handshake with Kathy comes off as unintentionally humorous.

The lessons learned: small towns harbor dark secrets, and misplaced trust ultimately leads to an unholy ritual on a sacrificial altar.

Shadow of Evil

Shadow of Evil
Greye La Spina | Paperback Library | 1966 | 160 pages

Framing the narrative as a lost manuscript delivered to a supernatural-aware author for publication, Shadow of Evil (originally published in 1925 as Invaders from the Dark) delves into a world of occultism and magic, but its second-hand structural perspective ultimately  instills a curious sense of detachment from the series of strange events detailed in the story.

Sophie Delorme recounts how her young niece, Portia, traveled to a small town in upstate New York to accept a position as a live-in assistant to Howard Differdale, a reclusive man who is engaged in some secretive experiments behind the high walls of his estate. Over the course of many letters from Portia, Sophie learns of Portia’s surprising marriage to Howard Differdale, and of his sudden death. Accepting Portia’s invitation to come live with her in the Differdale mansion, Sophie ultimately plays chaperone in an unexpected, and quite unusual, love triangle.

Portia’s marriage was simply a sham to allow her to live and work with Howard Differdale, whose secretive research into the occult and magic Portia has vowed to continue. She longs for romance with Owen Edwardes, a cheerful young real estate broker, but feels too constricted by her status as mourning widow in the small community to act upon her feelings. Complicating matters is the arrival of Irma Andreyevna Tchernova, a strangely magnetic Russian princess who seems determined to capture the romantic attention of her “Ow-een”.

Since we share Aunt Sophie’s perspective in this documented manuscript format, we never come to understand just what weird occult science Portia devotes all her waking hours studying. The remains of some strange cabalistic markings on the ground in the courtyard offer the only first-hand evidence of magic rituals being performed. Even an episode of astral projection plays as an anecdote told to Sophie.

Still, uncanny occurrences are afoot in the small town. Owen is mesmerized by the evil olfactory influences of flowers pinned to his lapel, children are abducted on the street, and policeman are attacked by wild animals.

Beyond some general pontificating on the nature of incarnate good and evil, Portia’s internal process largely remains a mystery, leading to some whiplash-inducing conclusions. The unusual length of a third finger, a large meat  order from the town butcher, and an overheard word (“volkodlak”) result in a rapid pronouncement of lycanthropy. Not that Portia is wrong, but lacking her first hand viewpoint makes the story seem to be unfolding at some distance, with Aunt Sophie just having to take her word for everything.

The final confrontation actually occurs at a double remove, with Portia recounting the Princess Tchernova’s mute assistant Agathya’s observation of events while peeking through a window.

House of Dark Laughter

House of Dark Laughter
Melissa Napier | Avon Books | 1972 | 176 pages

“There were what was called a woman’s wiles, and she was prepared to use them as much as necessary in order to get the man that she knew she wanted.”

Young art appraiser Betsy Vaughn accepts a position in opulent Dalton Manor to assess a dying man’s estate, and following the well-worn traditions of the inheritance thriller, finds mystery, intrigue, and a possible romance. She is also knocked unconscious several more times than the average heroine.

Employed by Carter Willard, the ailing Mr. Dalton’s personal secretary, Betsy finds herself among a host of antagonistic and scheming relatives, each positioning themselves for an anticipated piece of the estate. The young and beautiful Alice Dalton has assumed the role of caretaker for her stricken older husband, and immediately treats Betsy as an unwelcome outsider. Derek and Lorna, Dalton’s feckless niece and nephew, are less overtly hostile, but clearly impatient to begin spending the family fortune.

Mildly diverting but lacking any distinctive elements to elevate it from a multitude of similar genre entries, House of Dark Laughter delivers enough modest thrills to sustain its short page count: thumping noises from the closed-off wing of the mansion, hazy spectres in the night, the mysterious disappearance of the first Mrs. Dalton and her young infant daughter, and a rash of threats and actual attacks against Betsy.

Even with a slight twist in the final act, after a semi-incapacitated Betsy is dragged through the grounds to a waiting shallow grave, the identity of her antagonists comes without much surprise. Apart from placing herself in enough perilous situations to receive an inordinate number of blows to the back of her head during a few weeks at Dalton Manor, Betsy mostly lacks the crippling meekness and poor decision making so often characterized by the heroines in these women-in-danger tales.

House of Dark Laughter* occupies an easily familiar and comfortable space, while somehow allowing a certain curmudgeonly resistance to rise against its preordained conclusion of hard life lessons learned, the importance of biological family, and the need of a young woman to land her dream man.

*Editor’s Note: No trace of “dark laughter” exists in the entire text.

The Witches of Windlake

The Witches of Windlake
Miriam Lynch | Popular Library | 1971 | 287 pages

After impulsively accepting a position as governess to the Louvayne family, the reclusive new occupants of long-abandoned Windlake mansion, Jennie Maxwell finds herself embroiled in an infernal battle-of-the-wills for possession of her young ward.

Jennie immediately falls for the romantic charms of darkly brooding Victor Louvayne, newly arrived from some vaguely defined Eastern European country along with his mother, Ottalie, and young son, Julian. Victor and his mother are reluctant to speak of the tragic death of Victor’s wife, Franzi, and become visibly shaken after hearing Jennie recount her recent tarot card reading. Beyond foretelling her great turn of fortune at the hands of a “dark man and woman,” the cards promise “three women and an unexpected arrival.”

Indeed, a trio of women does arrive unexpectedly at Windlake–or perhaps to the Louvaynes, not as unexpectedly as foretold. Like some gothic romance variation on Macbeth’s three weird sisters, Franzi’s mother, Josepha Hanar, and two sisters, Lenya and Ilse, descend upon the manor after chasing the Louvaynes across the Atlantic. Of course, they are also witches, immediately emasculating Victor and sending Ottalie into a resigned compliance. The Hanar women barely contain their scorn for Jennie, and openly challenge her for control over Julian.

Julian, a treacly darling smitten with Jennie, is also something of a petulant child, subject to uncontrollable temper tantrums and in need of complicated story-telling games to coerce his actions. Jennie alternates between convincing him to role play in these games and violently yanking his collar when apoplexy strikes. Perhaps Julian’s aggressively childish behavior should be forgiven, however, because….Satan.

Jennie herself pauses on occasion to reflect upon the inherent creepiness of her latent romance with Victor. Objectively, he seduces an employee who bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife, dresses her in his late wife’s clothing, and sets her up in the role of replacement mother for his neglected child. Even after collapsing in the face of the Hanar danger and placing all hope in her to save Julian, he caressingly  refers to her as “little Jennie” and promises to take charge of the family after they are married.

A New England blizzard helps contain the suspense, trapping all the players in Windlake for the witches’ nightly cycle of occult ritual followed by attempts on Jennie’s life. Disappointingly, Jennie’s supernatural potential hinted at by the tarot cards turns out to be…the power of prayer? After functioning as something of a missionary to Julian, the anger of the Hanar women boils into a rage that turns against all in the household.

Still, the reductive tale of a plucky young heroine engaged in battle with a trio of smug witches–and their vermin-like familiars–in a frozen New England mansion may be enough for a little seasonal gothic comfort.

From Satan with Love

From Satan with Love
Virginia Coffman | Pinnacle Books | 1971 | 212 pages

The sixth book in the Lucifer Cover occult gothic series settles comfortably into a rote pattern established by the previous few outings: an attractive young newcomer arrives in the diabolical coastal-California spa town, falls under the sinister seductive charms of its enigmatic owner, battles to resist the the temptations of an easy hedonism, and finally struggles to escape with her very soul intact.

The newcomer in this volume is Maeva Wells, along with her young niece, Jenniver. The pair spend an enjoyable afternoon of family bonding hiking in the coastal foothills above Big Sur, until Jenniver falls down a cliff side and breaks her ankle. They end up in Lucifer Cove, a previously unknown spa town marked by sulfurous plumes and an inexplicably confusing tangle of local roads. While Jenniver recovers from her injuries in the town’s clinic, Maeva is welcomed into a luxurious suite in the resort, recently vacated by the tragic death of its former occupant.

An intended one-night stay turns into several, as Jenniver seems determined to isolate herself from Maeva and stay under the care of the clinic, watched over by the coolly detached Dr. Rossiter. Exposed to the decadent lifestyle offered by the spa, Maeva begins to indulge in her fantasies of attraction to its mysterious owner, Marc Meridon. Ultimately Maeva succumbs to the temptations, attending a Black Mass at Lucifer Cove’s temple and signing her name to an infernal pact, wishing “Let me be loved by Marc.”

Of course, all is not what it appears—or, to readers of the series, exactly what it appears. Familiar characters and locations feature in mostly empty call-backs from previous books. Nadine Janos, high-priestess of the temple (and the main focus of an earlier title), here simply wanders around the margins, stripped of any complexities or conflicts surrounding her role in Lucifer Cove. Although initially not much more than a brogue-speaking stereotype, Sean O’Flannery, her Irish boyfriend, occupies even less of a role now, serving as little more than a perfunctory helper for Maeva’s escape attempt. Even Kinkajou the cat, Marc’s shapeshifting alternate form, is reduced to watching Maeva through the window from her garden terrace. All of Lucifer Cove adds up to little more than a reflection of the main street’s false-Tudor store fronts.

If nothing else, Lucifer Cove stands as an artifact to a specific, bygone era of post-Summer of Love California history, when hippies, cults and communes crossed over into the popular culture, and celebrities dropped in to partake in the entertainment spectacle of an occult ritual. Or perhaps this historical recollection is an entirely false history, only appearing in the cultural imagination of the times—but still one never to be repeated.

A leisurely enjoyable–albeit incredibly slight–placeholder for the Lucifer Cove series (although a seventh book was never written), From Satan with Love fails to advance the ongoing battle between Marc Meridon and Dr. Rossiter, offering another throw-away outsider’s tale of her devilish encounter with the secretive, sulfur-shrouded California town.

Fingers of Fear

Fingers of Fear
John U. Nicolson | Paperback Library | 1966 | 224 pages

Werewolf or vampire? Perhaps the distinction is ultimately meaningless for members of the Ormes family, who may suffer from an incurable blood lust when the moon is full.

Under the auspices of organizing an inherited library for his old college chum (Ormand Ormes), a down-on-his-luck writer (Seldon Seaverns) quickly becomes enmeshed in a whirlpool of supernatural horrors. Seaverns is visited by a phantom presence on his first night at the Ormes estate, waking in the morning with a violent bruise on his neck.

And it seemed to have been drawn there by the sucking action of a woman’s young and evil mouth!”

Although tantalized by Ormand’s sister, Gray, an enigmatic beauty exhibiting wild mood swings, Seldon nonetheless suspects that she is responsible for his nocturnal intrusion. But there are other potential suspects housed under the roof the family estate: Ormand’s aunt Barbara, a recluse haunted by some undefined emotional trauma, and Agnes Ormes, Ormand’s disaffected wife, a self-indulgent woman longing for a less-isolated life.

A series of violent murders jolts the household, potentially exposing a secret family history of lycanthropy. The throats of the victims show evidence of being ripped out with human teeth, with great accompanying blood loss. This naturalistic—and ambiguously supernatural—approach foreshadows similar genre treatment in later vampire stories, such as George Romero’s Martin.

However, Fingers of Fear does not simply limit its horrors to lycanthropy and vampirism. Ghostly apparitions, secret family murders, inheritance intrigue and unfolding plans of criminal extortion all trail in the wake of the werewolf/vampire attacks. Already set in an old, dark house riddled with secret passages, these additional elements teeter the story on the verge of campiness.

Originally written in the thirties and steeped in the failure of depression economics, Fingers of Fear is repackaged in this sixties edition under the Paperback Library Gothic banner, replete with the “woman-running-in-fear-from-the-castle” cover art [along with an incorrect character name]. However melodramatic, with its male point of view and oddly supernatural flourishes, it still emerges as a much weirder concoction than the comparable gothic romances of the era.

A Howling in the Woods

A Howling in the Woods
Velda Johnston | Dell Books | 1968 | 157 pages

Dear Eddy, I shall file for divorce very shortly. Since I don’t imagine you’ll contest, I shall make the grounds as mild as possible. Incompatibility, perhaps, or mental cruelty.”

Lisa Stanhope, a young model tiring of the Manhattan fashion scene, flees work and a failing marriage to the refuge of a shuttered hotel in rural Jericho, Nevada, an inheritance from an uncle she hardly knew. Mark Healy, her uncle’s hotel manager, seems surprised and dismissive when Lisa informs him of her decision to stay and run the business. She also receives a less-than-welcome reception from May Thornton, the edgy housekeeper, and her mentally challenged husband, Luke. But their lack of friendliness pales in comparison to the overtly hostile reaction Lisa’s appearance receives from the local townspeople.

Further deepening the atmosphere of dread, Lisa hears a mournful howling coming from the woods at night. Following a path outside the grounds of the hotel the next day, she discovers what appears to be a shallow grave in the underbrush. Seemingly uninterested in Lisa’s report, the local Justice of the Peace eventually investigates, reporting back later that only a deer carcass was found buried in the indicated plot. Walking in the woods that night, Lisa suffers–what appears to be–an animal attack. Still feeling ostracized by the community, Lisa learns from a young girl that the town has been inflicted with an unspoken tragedy, the recent unsolved murder of a child.

The eventual arrival of Lisa’s estranged husband, Eddie, completes the third leg of the obligatory love triangle, since she has developed feelings for the darkly handsome Mark—whose proposal to the not-yet-divorced Lisa comes out of nowhere. However, Eddy’s presence also undermines Lisa’s strength as a protagonist, as he assumes the lead into their investigation of the murky goings-on in Jericho. A key character ultimately breaks a little too easily from Eddy’s pressure, spilling all the incriminating details, and setting up a final claustrophobic showdown in the town’s abandoned mine.

As a variation on the town-harboring-a-dark-secret theme, A Howling in the Woods is modestly effective. The mystery surrounding the titular howling is revealed much too soon, and, sadly, there isn’t some kind of monster roaming the woods at night. However, its relevance to the murder(s) works out in due course. The ultimate source of Jericho’s troubles comes off as rather arbitrary and somewhat outlandish, but there is just enough of the who-can-you-trust-in-this town type of paranoia (although who NOT to trust should be readily apparent) to pull readers through to the end of the book’s relatively short page count.

A Howling in the Woods was adapted for television in 1971, starring Barbara Eden (and her exquisite fashion sense).

Once Upon a Tombstone

Once Upon a Tombstone
Elizabeth Salter | Ace Books | 1965 | 191 pages

Cryptic flashbacks, mysterious deaths surrounding a beautiful protagonist, and dangerous former Nazi agents still at large in the scenic Austrian Alps all fail to elevate this prosaic tale of romance, lost inheritance, and murder.

Stricken by a vivid case of déjà vu in a castle room during a trip abroad to Austria, young Madeleine (Del) Fisher returns home to Australia, only to be plagued by recurring night terrors. Although her family and fiancé, David, fear she has suffered an emotional breakdown, she is convinced that nightmare images of a blood-red chair and flashing silver light are repressed memories indicating a current pressing danger. Uncertain of how to handle Del’s worsening condition, David recruits the help of his uncle Mike Hornsley, a local police inspector.

A strange man who has seemingly been following Del drops off a signet ring—with the family crest of the Schloss in Austria where she had her episode—along with a request for a meeting. Arriving at the prescribed rendezvous point later that night, Del finds that the man has been murdered. Convinced that the death is connected to her mysterious visions, Del and the inspector travel back to Austria in an effort to trigger her memories and uncover the source of the nightmares.

In Austria, Del finds herself under the magnetic spell of Paul Hapner, who took control of the castle following the murder of his estranged family at the hands of the Nazis. Inspector Hornsley has reason to believe that Paul is hiding something, resisting any opportunity to trigger Del’s memories. Meanwhile at home, David and Del’s old friend, Marj, conduct an investigation of their own, uncovering evidence of a secret adoption.

Although some gothic genre trappings are in place–the brooding castle location, a dark history which still may be influencing the present, romantic intrigue with a man who may be untrustworthy, and covert scheming for a possible inheritance—Once Upon a Tombstone never quite gels into a compelling story. Del’s vision ultimately points to knowledge already uncovered, as does the discovery of a hidden painting whose subject bears a remarkable likeness to Del. Rather than creating a tantalizing mystery in regard to their location, the prospect of lost family diamonds is finally resolved in exposition relating to the reveal of the murderer.

The resolution to the question of whether or not a doll was buried in place of a child in the family plot offers another missed opportunity at building an atmosphere of gloom and melancholy, which is strange given the reference in the book’s title. Even the artifice of having all the characters snowbound in the castle with the soon-to-be-revealed murderer does little toward raising the level of suspense.

Readers are educated in some antiquated mid-century cultural standards, however, such as the fact that women of twenty-five are dangerously past their marriage prime, and all secretaries are secretly in love with their bosses.

Mansion of Evil

Mansion of Evil
Caroline Farr | Signet Books | 1966 | 222 pages

Young private practice nurse Diane Montrose accepts a live-in caretaker position at Ravensnest, a rambling family estate on an isolated stretch of the Maine coast. Her charges are Robyn Warburton, a sickly child plagued by chronic illnesses following the mysterious drowning death of her mother, and Robyn’s grandmother, Martha, the cantankerous matriarch whose crippling arthritis confines her to a wheelchair. Robyn’s father, David, previously absent much of the time with the operation of the family business, seems genuinely concerned with his daughter’s care—and very interested in her new nurse.

However, Diane’s first order of business at Ravensnest does not pertain to the well-being of her clients. Mr. Prince, the Warburton family attorney who arranged the job for Diane, ushers her into the study to witness the signing of Martha’s new secret will. Following the conclusion of the legal matter, Diane finds herself being relentlessly questioned by Martha’s youngest son, Kerr, and step-brother, Clive, about what she read on the document, although the attorney carefully placed cover sheets over the passages of text to prevent her from discovering the identity of the new beneficiaries.

During her stay at Ravensnest, Diane becomes morbidly fascinated with the mansion’s secret room, a rough-hewn space cut out of the solid rock below the waterline. Used by the Warburton’s pirate ancestors, victims from scuttled ships were placed into the chamber at low tide, and drowned by the rising water. The bodies were subsequently flushed out to sea, where they were ultimately discovered as accidental drowning victims.

Diane wakes one night to the sound of violent spray on her window, as pressurized water forced out of the narrow shaft to the secret room vents against the side of the building. This nocturnal emission serves as a vivid reminder to the presence of the deadly negative space, while establishing the implication that someone or something is trapped within its confines.

Otherwise, strange bumps-in-the-night and prowlers precede the eventual murder and kidnapping in a rather prosaic inheritance mystery. Only the completely expected and virtually predestined confinement in the subterranean kill room adds a flash of claustrophobic terror to the proceedings, while the obligatory romance is undercut by the fundamental creepiness of an attraction based on the resemblance to a drowned spouse.

 

Terror Touches Me

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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.