The Visitor

The Visitor
Chauncey G. Parker III | Signet Books | 1981 | 244 pages

“…uh…it was more like maybe you should be talking with one of them psychological guys instead of me, know what I mean?”

With his wife and children away in Maine for summer holiday, bank executive Bart Hughes engages in an ever-escalating battle of wills against a vengeful rat in his Upper Eastside New York brownstone.

A quickly observed blur from the open garden door into the kitchen drives Bart to fear that a vermin has entered into his apartment. The intruder is crafty, however, stealing the bait while avoiding Bart’s strategically placed traps. After consulting with handyman and old-time neighborhood sage, Clete Washington, Bart shifts the method of attack to poisons, deployed various deadly concoctions designed for a gruesome chemical kill.

The fight isn’t one sided. The rat chews through the water hose leading to the washing machine, flooding Bart’s kitchen. Telephone and other utility wires are also fair game, triggering the apartment’s security alarms. When Bart discovers a nest in his cellar under the water heater and kills all the young rats within, the fight between man and rat becomes more ever more violent—and personal.

The epic contest shrinks Bart’s world down to his barricaded bedroom, although that defended space reveals itself to be unsecure. Even with the seemingly intelligent counterattacks, demanding an absurd level of sophistication from a rodent, the proceedings never fall entirely into camp, since the corresponding impact on Bart’s life has measurable consequences.

Essentially a successful two-character chamber piece (one character happening to be a rat), The Visitor effectively distills the action down to Bart’s growing mania. Every violated cupboard or compromised food item drives him to another level of intense desire for retribution, while further removing him from his wife, already at a distance via her phone calls from Maine. Deriving from more than a simple, inherent fear of rats, Bart’s growing horror stems from his lack of control and sense of violation.

Bart’s fixation on eliminating the rat grows into an obsession, jeopardizing his job and family. A previous history battling mice suggests his unreliable quality as a narrator, with his entire struggle perhaps simply a descent into mental illness. The resolution ultimately clarifies any lingering doubt regarding psychological ambiguity, perhaps even hinting at a greater menace.

Beware the discovery of those telltale black pellets resembling large grains of rice.

Advertisements

The Surrogate

The Surrogate
Nick Sharman | Signet Books | 1980 | 249 pages

Following the death of his estranged, abusive father, Frank Tillson fights for the soul of his own son, Simon, in a battle of wills against the old man’s malevolent spirit.

Frank, a modestly successful radio talk show host, wants to shield his son from the corruption that taints his family’s considerable fortune, accumulated through a lifetime of unethical business practices. Determined to reject his father’s inheritance at all costs, Frank dodges all attempts from the family attorney to execute the will and name Simon the beneficiary of the entire estate. Soon after his father’s death, however, Frank begins to experience strange, unsettling phenomenon.

Sella Masters, a psychic guest on the radio show, experiences a clear telepathic vision of the tragic death of Frank’s wife, reliving the events of the previous year with uncanny detail. She later flees the studio after a ghostly encounter that she refuses to describe to Frank and the show’s producer. After developing some photos taken in the park with his son, Frank notices an ominous black smudge, vaguely human in shape, lurking over Simon in most of the images.

As incidents of garbled radio noise, strange phone calls, and ghostly presences continue, Frank ponders the possibly that his late father orchestrated everything before his death, in an attempt to exert his influence over his family from beyond the grave. Although his reluctance to acquiesce to his bullying father’s demands is understandable, Frank seems to ignore an easy out from all the supernatural shenanigans unfolding around him—take the money now, and figure out how to dispose of it later.

Ignoring this obvious solution, a sense of menace grows around Frank, who stubbornly clings to the theory that his friends are setting him up, even as more and more inexplicable manifestations haunt him and Simon. A creepy highlight occurs when Angela, a radio production assistant, recounts her confrontation in Frank’s bathroom with the spectral visage of his father manifesting from the oily bathwater.

Less effective are the telepathically charged encounters with the Tattered Terry doll, a sentimental leftover possession from Frank’s late wife that occasionally serves as the vessel for the old man’s rampaging spirit. Softly padding around the apartment on cloth feet and attempting to strangle people, the possessed Tattered Terry unnecessarily sends the story into unintentional campy, killer doll territory.

Taking possession into a whole other realm, Sella Masters returns later in the story, acting as an alluring succubus and seducing Frank—while controlled by his father’s spirit—making for an awkwardly incestuous coupling.

The Surrogate resolves in a mostly unsatisfying fashion, part supernatural horror and part everything-explained, Scooby-Doo mystery, although the downbeat ending accurately reflects Frank’s serious shortcomings as a ghost hunter.

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.

 

The Secret of the Chateau

secretchateau

The Secret of the Chateau
Caroline Farr | Signet Books | 1967 | 128 pages

“You!” I ejaculated in English, “are the most . . . !”

“You,” I managed, “are the most insufferable . . . !”

When our young heroine, Denise Gérard, sputters out these words to Etienne Métier, a roguishly good-looking man she meets after a near-deadly encounter on lands owned by her uncle, little doubt exists that they will soon kiss, and within a hundred or so pages, be married. This overt telegraphing of direction characterizes all aspects of The Secret of the Chateau, a perfectly serviceable gothic thriller that holds virtually no surprises from start to finish.

Denise leaves her home in New Orleans following the death of her grandfather, traveling to the Châtaigneraie region of France at the bequest of Maurice Gérard, an uncle she has never met. The reclusive Maurice, a former war hero from the time of the French Resistance, desires to re-establish contact with his last surviving family member. He advances her a large sum of money to visit him at his manor, the Château-Les-Vautours, a massive bulk that reminds Denise of a prison.

Denise discovers Maurice to be a moody figure, wearing a black velvet mask to cover the extensive burns on his face received during the war, and a metal prosthetic in place of his missing right hand. She is shocked by his casual cruelty when she witness him shooting pigeons, slowed after consuming a scattering of drugged seeds on the grounds of the estate, their remains ostensibly left to feed the manor’s namesake vultures. His surly, masculine housekeeper, Gabrielle, and heavy-set chauffeur, Albert, display a barely concealed contempt for Denise, and exert an unusual hold over Maurice, seemingly out of place for their role as servants.

Warned not to travel to the village alone, Denise learns of a series of strange disappearances involving young women. The countryside takes on an additional sense of menace after Denise encounters Etienne, one of Maurice’s tenants on the estate’s farmland. Etienne immediately confides his true identity to her by declaring outright, “I am an agent of the French government,” and expressing his theory that an infamous German war criminal is currently hiding in the region.

All the story elements fall exactly into their prescribed places, but The [Not-So] Secret of the Chateau harbors enough of the requisite baroque trappings—a gloomy estate, a disfigured lord in a velvet mask, a group of suspicious servants, vultures ominously circling around a spot inside the forest, and a brooding mystery involving the young women of the village—to potentially provide some gothic comfort food for the inclined reader.

***Spoiler Alert*** The only real surprise came when Gabrielle was NOT ultimately revealed to be a man in disguise—just big hands, apparently. ***End Spoiler***

House of Tombs

houseoftombs

House of Tombs
Caroline Farr | Signet Books | 1966 | 128 pages

Young archaeology student Denise Stanton leaves her home in California for the rugged coast of Maine, to study with the internationally known, but notoriously eccentric, archaeologist Professor Scot Weigand. The professor maintains his own museum of antiquities in Werewold, the old pre-Revolutionary War estate on Weregild Island. [Weigand’s Werewold on Weregild, for the alliterative minded] Traveling to Weregild aboard the ferry, Denise displays a surprising revulsion to the artifacts of her trade, shuddering at the sarcophagus and other artifacts in the boat’s hold, and their attendant musty smell. Many of the archeology-related passages read as false as Denise’s alleged expertise in the field.

While considering the appallingly stale contents of the ship’s hold, Denise hears the details of Professor Weigand’s recent nervous breakdown from the ferry’s pilot. Professor Weigand had suddenly returned to Weregild from a Middle-Eastern dig in some sort of psychotic state, and attempted suicide by leaping from the dramatic cliffs on the edge of the estate. Only the efforts of his son John and family friend Lloyd Meredith prevented him from taking his own life. However, Lloyd Meredith plunged to his death in the struggle to save the professor—his sacrifice noted by the town gossips who had spread rumors that he was having an affair with the archaeologist’s wife.

Upon arriving at Werewold, Denise finds Professor Weigand to be an intimidating figure, but not someone she would suspect of suffering from mental illness. His young second wife Karen seems bored and unhappily trapped on the island, away from the entertainments available on the mainland. Although both the professor’s sons assist him in the family archaeology business, only John displays a real interest in the work; Ruldoph Weigand shares his step-mother’s interests in the distractions found mainly in the clubs and bars in town. Professor Weigand shocks Denise with an intimate secret; she is not just a random hire to support his scholarly work, but is in fact a lost member of the family, the daughter of his estranged cousin.

Denise becomes unsettled upon learning more of the house’s history as a smuggler’s hideout for Royalist forces during the Revolutionary War, and worries about the existence of several hidden passageways and tunnels connecting the house and outbuildings on the grounds. She becomes convinced that someone is traveling through these neglected passageways, and perhaps even entering her room at night. While searching a ruined farmhouse reputedly at the entrance to one such tunnel connecting to the house, a clumsy attempt is made on Denise’s life. While examining what appears to be a golden beech leaf from the museum’s collection lying on the ground, a beam from the ruined roof comes crashing down, nearly crushing her. Fleeing in a panic, she sees a ghostly figure in a white gown disappear from the scene into the farmhouse.

Scrambling back to Werewold, Denise meets Dean Maynard, a young painter—and convenient romantic interest—living on the island. Although she finds his manner ingratiating, she takes him into her confidence. Together, they attempt to uncover the mystery surrounding her attack, and expose all the secrets at Werewold, including the true nature of Lloyd Meredith’s death.

House of Tombs fails to deliver much beyond the basic trappings of gothic romance genre fiction. The revelation of Denise’s family connection to the Weigands never develops into anything resembling a suspenseful inheritance drama, and the ghostly attacker at the farmhouse is quickly linked to the smuggler’s tunnels rather than to Werewold’s haunted past. As soon as Denise discovers a body in the museum’s sarcophagus, the villain comes forward, and the slight story races to its conclusion.

Would it even be a spoiler to disclose the epilogue, with a newly betrothed Denise looking back on the affair from a newfound comfort? Her infuriating beau has become a veritable prince, with Denise noting, “I am putting on weight so quickly that I’m afraid [he] might change his mind, even though he laughs and tells me that he likes plump girls.”

 

Witch’s Hammer

witcheshammer

Witch’s Hammer
Caroline Farr | Signet Books | 1967 | 127 pages

Samantha Crawford, a young writer for Secrets magazine, gets her big break when she draws an assignment to interview former stage legend Peter Castellano. A Valentino-like figure from the theatre world, Castellano ended his career after the mysterious death of his wife and retreated to Witch’s Hammer, a Kremlin-like reproduction of his family’s Russian castle built on the rugged coast of Maine. Arriving at the estate, Samantha is greeted by Peter’s daughter Cheryl, who exhibits strangely possessive qualities towards her still-dashing father.

Samantha finds that Witch’s Hammer operates by Old World traditions, with second-generation Russian servants living separately from the local townspeople. Along with the household staff, the estate is home to the darkly magnetic Sascha, reputedly a former student of the mad Russian monk, Rasputin. Although Peter is reserved when discussing his family history, Samantha discovers that his late-wife Theresa committed suicide after attempting to kill Peter’s secretary during a fit of jealous rage. Theresa’s efforts to modernize the way of life on the estate drew much resistance from the servants, clinging to their social traditions from pre-revolutionary Russia.

Although retired from acting, Peter seems to be playing the part of retired actor and host, concealing his true personality from Samantha, who nonetheless recognizes his still-considerable charms. As Samantha spends more time interviewing him, Cheryl begins to respond more like a romantic rival than a daughter. Samantha becomes increasingly curious about Theresa’s death, and delves deeper into the details surrounding the fateful leap from the ocean-side cliffs—but Samantha’s questions may ultimately place her own life in danger.

At only 127 pages, little happens beyond establishing the atmosphere at Witch’s Hammer, with the motivations of its residents casting light on the greater mystery of Theresa’s death. No sooner than Samantha grasps the underlying truth, an attempt is mode on her life, leading to the ultimate showdown. Rather than acting alone (or under the protection of a love interest), Samantha unexpectedly serves as a catalyst for a group of village women, together taking up makeshift arms and confronting their common enemy in a Witch’s Hammer version of civil disobedience.

Unlike Rasputin, the villain doesn’t require poisoning, stabbing, shooting and drowning to eventually succumb, but the story would have benefited from a few extra roadblocks to increase tension before ultimately delivering Samantha safely into the waiting arms of her future husband.

 

Harvest of Terror

HarvestOfTerror

Harvest of Terror
Adela Dale | Signet Books | 1969 | 125 pages

After helping Dr. Craig Addison save young patient Denise Westlake from a deadly heart infection, private-duty nurse Terry Reed is assigned to her case, and charged with supervising her recovery. Denise is the daughter of advertising mogul Walter Westlake, and plans on recuperating at the family estate on Majorca with her Uncle Durward and Aunt Ilse. Although the Castillo de los Tres Gatos has a sordid history, including a murdered ancestor who was bricked up in the castle walls with her cats, Dr. Addison feels it will be the perfect setting for his patient’s restful path back to full health—and something of a reward for the young nurse with whom he shared a chaste kiss.

However, the Castle of the Three Cats doesn’t turn out to be the sunny Mediterranean vacation setting Terry was expecting. Denise’s uncle Durward is a withdrawn scholar writing an esoteric book, “Aspects of Herbology and Mycology in Relation to Medieval Witchcraft Practices in Central and Southern Europe”. His neglected wife Ilse yearns for a life among the society class on the island, but is frustrated by her husband’s anti-social tendencies. The couple have two seemingly permanent houseguests: Anita Alma, a faded beauty and bitter hanger-on who is desperately searching for a wealthy husband, and the sharp-tongued Steve Galvez, a dapper party-boy living on his rich aunt’s allowance. Investigating a strange scratching noise at her door one night, Terry discovers another hidden resident of the castle, Ilse’s deformed brother Rudi, who is prone to violent outbursts.

In an attempt to escape the backbiting atmosphere among the castle’s occupants, Terry accompanies Denise to an annual fiesta held in honor of the island’s patron saint. Unexpectedly, Denise has an apparent relapse of her heart affliction and is examined by the local doctor, who appears somewhat puzzled by her condition. Steve approaches Terry, intimating that he knows the cause of Denise’s illness, and warns Terry to keep a watchful eye on the preparations of all her meals. Later, when Steve falls victim to a similarly mysterious illness, Terry fears that Denise’s life is truly in danger.

Although the central mystery of Harvest of Terror is predictably shallow, the grotesque residents at the Castillo de los Tres Gatos create enough of a fungal hothouse, appropriate to Durward’s mycology text, to propel interest in Terry’s efforts to save Denise. The arrival of Terry’s love-interest, Dr. Addison, somewhat diminishes her role as the strong central heroine, and reduces the sense of her own personal peril in the already brisk 125-page story. The final “gotcha” moment plays out like the standard mystery denouement, with Terry and Dr. Addison together playing the detective’s role, gathering the suspects together to reveal the culprit.

SPOILER ALERT—Don’t become too attached to the cute Siamese kitten.

The Woman Without a Name

womanwithout

The Woman Without a Name
Laurence M. Janifer | Signet Books | 1966 | 124 pages

Poor Penelope Gorden; on her first day as the new governess at Holyoak Manor, her employer, the youthful Sir Jeffrey Wilstoun, begins a campaign of amorous advances. Yet, in some English household variation on the Stockholm syndrome, the “prim-and-proper” young girl from London finds herself smitten with the master of the house.

While taking a walk in the woods and contemplating a possible “bridge between two worlds”, Penelope is confronted by a wild-haired woman standing under the spreading branches of a tree. Although the woman seems to suffer from mental anguish and is unable to even remember her own name, she expresses a fear of Jeffrey and delivers a warning, “Leave Holyoak.” When Penelope presses the crazed woman about her employer, she receives the cryptic reply, “He murdered me.”

Although Penelope attempts to dismiss any suspicions that Jeffrey harbors a dark secret, other events at Holyoak challenge her resolve. While attending to her charges, Jeffrey’s half-sisters Caroline and Harriet, Penelope is disturbed by the children’s ominous drawings of the attic room of the great house. The blackened space in one of the compositions seems to contain a shifting figure, and after Harriet alludes to “The Upstairs” as a source of terror, both children fall stubbornly silent on the subject.

During a visit to town, Penelope has a conversation with a local woman and a barmaid regarding the service staff at Holyoak Manor. The townswomen are convinced that Sir Jeffrey has six servants at his disposal, but Penelope is only able to list five names. She wonders, who is the mysterious sixth servant? And what about the seemingly accidental deaths of Jeffrey’s father and the girls’ mother, caused by a falling branch striking their carriage?

The slender narrative contained in The Woman Without a Name turns entirely around one question: What will Penelope discover when she ultimately climbs the stairs to the attic? She postpones her action to a degree because she fears it will expose Jeffrey as a monster, shattering her romantic aspirations, but the narrative pushes briskly to the final reveal without allowing much time for an atmosphere of dread to build.  More breathing room in the story to ponder the children’s knowledge of the secret, the fate of Jeffrey’s father, or the unusual interest of the townspeople in Holyoak Manor may have helped to offset the quick and somewhat disappointing conclusion—Penelope faces the answer she fears, blacks out, and all is explained by the doctor.