The Rats

The Rats
James Herbert| New English Library | 1974 | 181 pages

Mr. Harris, an East End schoolteacher who witnesses an early attack by flesh-eating rats, is drawn into an alliance with beleaguered health officials against a large-scale infestation of mutated rodents.

Surfacing from the canals in East London, a new strain of deadly black rats emerges with a taste for human flesh. Mobilized by the Health Department for his early insights and his knowledge of the local area, Harris chases his rodent prey through the city streets, searching for the source of the outbreak and the solution to stopping the deadly attacks.

Structured as a series of ever-escalating violent set pieces, the story progresses through attacks on individuals, homeless encampments, train stations, and an extended siege and assault of a primary school. Showing little fear of their human targets, the swarming black rats inflict much squirm-inducing brutality to the flesh of their victims. No one is safe from the ruthless carnage, from pets (a given) to small children and babies.

Short background stories, ranging from a few paragraphs to a few pages, sketch out the victims, before they ultimately are shredded and eaten by the hordes of hungry rats. Although this attention to detail humanizes characters that could have simply been cookie-cutter fodder, their ultimate fate is predetermined.

The blighted neighborhood most impacted by the infestation is reflected in many of the character sketches. Suffering from abuse, abandonment, or economic inequality, the soon-to-be victims are all case studies in the castoff social strata of society. However, any potential emotional investment in their survival is scuttled by their typically quick demises—by tiny claws and curving yellow teeth.

A quick and gruesome Man-versus-Nature tale, The Rats lacks the atomic radiation boogeyman employed by so many monster-run-amok tales that came before it, but the climax does lead Harris to a twitchy, repulsive discovery at its core.

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Charnel House

Charnel House
Graham Masterton | TOR Books | 1978 | 241 pages

John Hyatt, an inspector for the San Francisco Department of Sanitation, investigates a strange breathing noise in the walls of an old Mission district house, but instead of routine blocked pipes discovers the imminent return to this world of a Native American demon.

Hyatt’s investigation quickly escalates into horror beyond the scope of his department. A researcher from the sanitation lab is stricken by a similar breathing phenomenon experienced in the house, and soon lapses into an asthmatic coma. Responding to a new sonic manifestation in the house, that of a slowly beating heart, another colleague suffers a bizarre and violent attack. Craning his head up a chimney to check the flue, the flesh of his head is completely stripped away, but leaving him (and his slowly beating heart) still alive.

These early episodes are the strongest, creating an eerie atmosphere surrounding the biomorphic house attacks. The terror spills over to the local hospital, when the survivors rise from their beds and attempt to physically merge their stricken bodies. As the investigation takes Hyatt to George Thousand Names, a medicine man who reveals the folklore surrounding the legendary Navajo trickster, Coyote, the proceedings take a more action-oriented tone, with Hyatt engaging in monster battles against the nascent demon in the streets of San Francisco. However, any sense of mystery in Coyote’s return to earth is sapped from the start by the author’s prologue, which essentially introduces the demon before the story even begins.

Perhaps only a stickler to those readers versed in San Francisco geography, occasional gaffes are noticeable: the misspelling of landmarks (“Delores” Park), the existence of a topography-be-damned line of sight from the Mission district house to the Golden Gate Bridge, and repeated references to the “hot” and “humid” nights (unsolicited travel tip for visitors: always bring a jacket, even in the summer).

Charnel House also suffers from some dated cultural and social perspectives. George Thousand Names, and some of the myth surrounding Coyote, are indiscriminately referred to as “Red Indian.” Even though most likely intended as joking dialogue, references to “paleface” and “firewater” are groan-inducing rather than self-referential nods to stereotypes. Also, Hyatt seems to require noting the tightness or form-fitting nature of the clothing of all the women he meets, even in situations that would call for a more somber attitude. Author Graham Masterton wrote some sex-instruction titles in the seventies, so perhaps some unrealized crossover potential exists here — How to Drive Your Nurse Wild in Bed While the World is Ending.

Iron Man

Iron Man
Black Sabbath | Paranoid | Warner Brothers | 1970

I am iron man

Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?
Can he walk at all
Or if he moves will he fall?

Is he alive or dead?
Has he thoughts within his head?
We’ll just pass him there
Why should we even care?

He was turned to steel
In the great magnetic field
Where he traveled time
For the future of mankind

Nobody wants him
He just stares at the world
Planning his vengeance
That he will soon unfold

Now the time is here
For iron man to spread fear
Vengeance from the grave
Kills the people he once saved

Nobody wants him
They just turn their heads
Nobody helps him
Now he has his revenge

Heavy boots of lead
Fills his victims full of dread
Running as fast as they can
Iron man lives again

Curse of the Black Widow

Curse of the Black Widow
Starring Anthony Franciosa | Donna Mills | Patty Duke
Directed by Dan Curtis
ABC | September 16, 1977 | 1 hour, 40 minutes

Anthony Franciosa plays a private detective on the trail of a supernatural killer in a television movie that feels like a lost episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, with its outsider hero pursuing the clues and ultimately revealing the monster-of-the-week.

Following a murder outside a bar, Mark Higbie (Anthony Franciosa) glimpses an inexplicable dark shape fleeing up a cliff side. Although the victim was last seen accompanying a strange woman, the body exhibits an almost animal-like pair of puncture wounds in the chest cavity. The dead man’s fiancé, Leigh Lockwood (Donna Mills), whose first husband died in a mysterious boating accident, fears the scrutiny of the police, and employs Higbie to investigate.

Higbie uncovers a series of other murders, with victims exhibiting similar puncture wounds and complete loss of blood, along with a common link to Leigh and her twin sister Laura (Patty Duke). After the discovery of spider venom at the scene of a new killing, Higbie begins to accept a previously unthinkable theory based on native folklore—the killer is a woman who transforms by light of the full moon into a giant spider.

With compound-eye point-of-view shots depicting pincer attacks and squirting spider silk, little doubt exists from the opening scenes regarding the supernatural origins of the murders. A backstory involving a childhood plane crash in the wilderness, with one twin suffering a traumatic series of spider bites, serves to scatter suspicion of the mystery woman’s identity between Leigh and Laura. Could either one be Valerie Steffan, the mysterious femme fatale picking up and killing men?

Franciosa and Vic Morrow (as the gruff detective Gully Conti) play straight through what could be arguably high-camp material in the wrong hands, with only a few instances of fending off fake spiders and pushing through Silly String webbing. The POV perspective on the murders also allows for withholding the big spider reveal until the conclusion, reducing the need for too many mood-breaking rubber creature shots along the way. Some attempts at light comedic banter between Higbie and his assistant, (somehow disturbingly) referred to only as “Flaps” (Roz Kelly), fall a little flat.

Several familiar faces (June Allyson, June Lockhart) have small, slumming turns here, including Sid Caesar, who wanders onto the set as Laszlo Cozart, the investigative team’s heater-obsessed landlord. Popeye (H.B. Haggerty), a mustachioed Mr. Clean type questioned by Higbee as a potential witness, is somehow both a “wino” and a gymnastics coach. Finally, the unnamed morgue attendant (Robert Nadder) adds an unexpected undercurrent to his scene after emptying a vial of embalming fluid into a sink, and awkwardly declaring to Higbie, “Mark, you know how I feel about you.”

Ostensibly a monster movie, Curse of the Black Widow also throws in an undercooked schizophrenia plotline. A repressed female sexuality, all buttoned up and wearing glasses, triggers a secret murderous personality, decked out in a black wig and faltering German(ish?) accent, equal in murderous force to the spider’s supernatural curse.

It’s all hokum, of course, but unadulterated seventies TV-movie arachnid hokum – in heels.

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Our Lady of Darkness

Our Lady of Darkness
Fritz Leiber | Berkley Books | 1977 | 183 pages

After a hike to the barren, hilly summit of Corona Heights, Franz Weston, writer of weird tales and a recovering alcoholic, turns his binoculars back towards his downtown San Francisco apartment building. Finding what he believes to be his own window through the glasses, Franz sees a strange figure lean out—and wave.

Referencing a copy of Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities, an antiquarian book purchased secondhand sometime earlier during an alcoholic bender, Franz becomes convinced that he has witnessed an occurrence of a paranormal being. The book’s author, Thibaut de Castries, an obscure turn-of-the-century practitioner of the occult, theorized that the massive concrete, steel, and electrical congregation of modern cities generates a network of supernatural energy. This energy manifestation, he posits in his pseudo-scientific tome, can be manipulated with careful deliberation in a methodology described as “Neo-Pythagorean Metageometry,” and may potentially result in the generation of paranormal entities.

Franz’s growing obsession with the work of de Castries, along with the investigation into his otherworldly vision, tantalizes the prospect of a great hidden world just beyond the reach of understanding. Even his apartment building at 811 Geary Street, with its blacked-out airshaft windows and broom closets without door handles, has a role in creating an atmosphere of an inexplicable truth on the cusp of being revealed.

Franz nodded impatiently, restraining his impulse to say, “Get on with it!”

However, the pacing suffers with a few instances of expository info-dump and from an off-putting writing style. Franz’s friend Byers, who reveals a deeper-than-expected knowledge of Megapolisomancy, recounts de Castries’ history over the course of several monotonous chapters. Along with the endless prattle about Metageometries, the desire to skim passages grows stronger than the drive to uncover the mysteries swirling around Corona Heights, the Geary Street apartment, and the newly constructed skyscrapers that serve as the modern equivalent of Neolithic standing stones.

Repeated references to other fantastic works and authors—H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Clark Ashton Smith, and even Fritz Leiber himself—are meant to suggest the depth of influence and universality lurking beneath the surface of Megapolisomancy theory, but simply serve as a constant distraction. Lieber’s use of parenthetical injections (like this one) in his text (every few paragraphs) perhaps evokes the three-dot styling (sometimes every few sentences) of Herb Caen’s San Francisco Chronicle columns (also referenced), but (really) disrupt the flow of his prose (something akin to constant footnotes).

“He had been listening with a mixture of fascination, irritation, and wry amusement, with at least half of his attention clearly elsewhere.”

Those familiar with San Francisco geography will probably be rewarded more than others, since painstakingly detailed accounts of places and character movements naturally accompany a meditation on the paranormal energies of place. From such well-known icons as the Transamerica Pyramid, Sutro Tower, and Lotta Crabtree’s fountain on Market Street, to more neighborhood-oriented landmarks like the Randall Museum, readers are well prepared to join Franz as he unfolds a city map and plots the cursed ley lines exploited by Thibaut de Castries.

The existence of a Neo-Pythagorean, paranormal curse line even explains the N-Judah not running.

Alien Lover

Alien Lover | The Wide World of Mystery 
Starring Kate Mulgrew | Pernell Roberts | Susan Brown
Directed by Lela Swift
Aired on ABC, November 25, 1975

Failing to live up to its salacious title, Alien Lover instead delivers a pedestrian take on inter-dimensional contact that today’s audiences would probably consider as Alien Skype.

Institutionalized since the accidental death of her parents, Susan (Kate Mulgrew, Orange is the New Black) is released from the asylum to the custody of her only living relatives, aunt Marian and uncle Mike (Susan Brown, Pernell Roberts). Soon after her arrival, she begins to hear voices calling her name, eventually leading her up to the disused attic storeroom. Sorting through the detritus left behind by her electronics whiz-kid cousin Jude (Steven Earl Tanner), Kate discovers an old television set that harbors an unusual secret.

The set flickers to life with an alien presence: Marc (John Ventantonio), a self-described visitor from another dimension (vaguely resembling Slim Goodbody in Star Trek garb) who can see and hear Susan through the television screen. Equating the existence in his reality to human death, Marc quickly establishes a bond with the lonely Susan. After a scant few sessions, they are professing their love for each other, a feeling tempered by Marc’s somewhat sinister invitation to Susan to touch him through the screen.

Quickly declared emotions are about the only aspect of this production that run hot, with Susan also declaring hatred towards her new guardians. Otherwise, most of the just-over-an-hour running time feels downright languorous. Pernell Roberts seems bored and passively angry (Trapper John, M.D. still being a few years off), and Steven Tanner’s Jude character reduces to a shrill nerd.

Although a few trivial hints point to an alternate explanation—a relapse of Susan’s mental illness, a prank by her cousin, or an attempt by her relatives to wrest control of her inheritance—there becomes little doubt that Marc actually exists. Marian hears Marc while eavesdropping at the attic door, and ultimately Jude confesses that he has been receiving visits from Marc since he was five years old. Without this dramatic tension, the only real question becomes Marc’s intent.

Susan is sympathetic in her isolation, but Alien Lover falls short in delivering the treatise on loneliness in the television age that it perhaps intended. Directed by Lela Swift, longtime Dark Shadows veteran, this made-for-television project exhibits all the static flair of a quickly shot, low-budget daytime serial. The only thing missing is a flubbed line or an overhead microphone dropping into the frame.

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Pandora

Pandora
Pamela Kaufman | Avon Books | 1977 | 279 pages

Private house in the country
Available immediately
To qualified person
House is part-payment for
Research job
For application contact
Box 666, Malibu, CA

Responding to a peculiar want ad, recently widowed young mother, Pandora Perdita Von Wald, accepts a position in Paradise, an isolated closely-knit community of wealthy eccentrics in a remote valley above Los Angeles. Berdine and Lyle Gemini, the mystically-inclined proprietors of an occult shop, offer to give her Ohplodu, a miniature Gothic castle built by Berdine’s late brother, Horace, a well-known artist and medieval scholar. In exchange, Pandora agrees to conduct research on Horace’s life and untimely death—but the Geminis may also have another agenda at work.

At Berdine’s suggestion, Pandora joins a small discussion group composed of the women of Paradise, who gather together to share their experiences and discuss issues relating to the liberation movement. The gatherings soon take a dark turn, however, as details of abuse and oppression surface. Cherry Delight, backwoods child bride of down-at-heel country singer, Clyde Boon, is first to describe her dysfunctional marriage, based on abuse and acknowledged philandering. Later, a seemingly drunken Clyde turns up at Pandora’s door, leering and making clumsy advances–before suddenly dying of mysterious causes.

Other meetings follow the same fatal pattern, as the derided husbands or lovers discussed by the group come to mysterious fates following the weekly gatherings. When poison is determined to be the common cause-of-death, news leaks of a purported “feminist killer” at large in Paradise. Adding to the potential victim count, Berdine reveals her suspicion that Horace was also murdered. In this atmosphere of danger and gender unease, Pandora somehow finds herself romantically attracted to Blake Nevius, dashing psychiatrist and not-so-secret lover of Carlotta Monroe, the regal major landowner in Paradise. Ultimately, Pandora must find the link between Horace and the current murders, and may also need to face her own dark secret relating to the suspicious nature of her husband’s death.

Pandora stews a heady, seventies-California Gothic mix of strange portraits, secret passages, covert agendas, numerology, ravens quoting Poe, and household help who are not-what-they-appear together into murder mystery framework. However, the yin and yang of male/female relationships lies at its core, with impotent men and their wildly unfulfilled partners leading to a denouement reducing the motivations to a swirling mother-surrogate, mother-destroyer psychobabble.

You said the stone of happiness, remember—which would be a father-lover. I want to adopt Allegra; a mother-lover, I love her mother; a lover-lover, Pandora?”

Pandora struggles to expose the murderer as wildfires blaze down the Southern California landscape—littered with Thrifty drugstores, feminist retreats, and homemade religious cults—in a depicted time and place that perhaps never-was, but will certainly never be again.

The Priestess

thepriestess

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?