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
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
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.
Susan Denberg | Frankenstein Created Woman | Hammer Studios | 1967
“Born Dietlinde Ortrun Zechner on 02 August 1944, model/actress Denberg was brought up in the Austrian resort of Klagenfurt. At eighteen, she left for London, where she worked briefly as an au pair before auditioning for the renowned Bluebell Girls troupe. Touring in America, she signed with Warner Bros. to play a randy German chambermaid in the film An American Dream, and featured in an early Star Trek episode, Mudd’s Women. Playboy magazine selected her as its centrefold of August 1966 and soon after she was chosen as Hammer’s Christina [Frankenstein Created Woman]. Post-Frankenstein, however, she became plagued by mental health problems elicited by drug abuse. Recovered, she sold her story to the News of the World in November 1969, apparently in anticipation of a comeback that wasn’t to be.” — The Hammer Story, Marcus Hearn & Alan Barnes, Titan Books, 1997