The Flood | Blackwater #1

The Flood | Blackwater #1
Michael McDowell | Avon Books | 1983 | 189 pages

The wet and mud-caked opening book in a serial Southern Gothic, the waters of The Flood recede and leave a singular presence, Elinor Dammert.

Surveying the flooded town of Perdido, Alabama, from the vantage point of a rowboat, mill owner Oscar Caskey discovers Elinor through the second-story window (now at water level) of the town’s deserted hotel, calmly sitting on the bed as if waiting for his arrival. Much to the consternation of family matriarch, Mary-Love Caskey, Elinor quickly takes a room with Oscar’s uncle, establishing herself his caretaker and de-facto guardian of his small child.

With a coldly calculating detachment, Elinor uses all resources to further her advantage, and soon becomes engaged to Oscar. A manipulator of people rivaling Mary-Love herself, Elinor engages in a battle of wills to gain entry into the family. The physical manifestation of that contest is the marriage house that Mary-Love promises, but stalls in its construction. Even the assumed bond between mother and child is challenged in the struggle to achieve the upper hand.

Meanwhile, a young boy glimpses Elinor in an unguarded moment, soaking in a pond of river water, and for a moment sees something not-entirely human. She exhibits a natural affinity for water, and displays fearlessness around hazards such as the naturally occurring whirlpool where two branches of the river meet. A shocking act of violence suggests that Elinor is capable of manipulation on a level beyond simple social influence, and other tragedies swirl about the plagued community.

From the dirty high-water mark in the hotel to the sandy lifeless soil (except for the strangely flourishing trees that Elinor plants) left behind by the receding waters, book one of the Blackwater saga is a triumph of place and mood.

Something is clearly wrong, or otherworldly, with Elinor, but as she insinuates herself into the Caskey family, the ultimate question emerges, “What does she want?

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Dark Shadows | Issue #15

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Dark Shadows | Issue #15
The Night Children
Gold Key Comics | August 1972

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Creepy kids drive Barnabas Collins to Hell in this issue, along with the requisite curses, strange monsters, and otherworldly transformations characterized by the series.

Angelique, the witch, conjures two Night Children, demonic creatures in the form of innocent youths, to seek out and destroy Barnabas Collins. Any potential victim with goodness in their heart will be trapped in their gaze, locked under their malevolent control. They show up at Collinwood under the pretense of looking for their lost dog, only to lure Barnabas out into a clearing in the woods.

Of all the children’s dark powers, the ability to lie seems strangely lacking. When Barnabas calls them out as Night Children (due to their lack of shadows), they immediately cry out in unison, “Yessssssss!” However, Barnabas is soon debilitated and laid out in repose for the morning sunrise, the rays of light fatal to his vampiric form.

The evil cherubs return to Collinwood, breaking up a dinner party where Professor Stokes, ever the pedant, bores everyone with his incessant small talk of the Black Arts. Placing the guests under their control, the Night Children attempt to create a ritual that will destroy the great estate. Suffering the effects of the full moon while locked safely away in the cellar, only Quentin escapes falling into the hands of the children. His cursed heart the only one at Collinwood that holds enough darkness to keep their powers at bay.

To its detriment, this issue seems to improvise (or, more critically, just plain make up) a significant number of consequential rules over the course of its brief page count: five victims are needed to complete a double pentagram ritual, since the supernatural fire the Night Children seek to create cannot be generated from a figure of four (four being a symbol of good); only those who “linger in both worlds” are able to see the entrance to the Black Pit, which is fortunate for Barnabas after the Night Children escape into it; unless saved by an (undisclosed) act of kindness, Barnabas will be trapped forever in the Black Pit if Angelique catches him in his human form, or if he is killed there; and, finally, there are creatures who carry fallen spirits down into the Black Pit called Zozos, that are essentially flying monkeys.

On the plus side, Barnabas fights flying monkeys.

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The Mind Masters #2 | Shamballah

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The Mind Masters #2 | Shamballah
John F. Rossman | Signet Books | 1975 | 220 pages

“Braaaaaaam! Braaaaaaam! Braaaaaaam!”

Britt St. Vincent, a former Vietnam veteran whose traumatic wartime experience awakened his latent psychic powers, returns to service for another supernatural escapade in Shamballah. Working undercover for the Mero Institute, a top-secret organization dedicated to researching and exposing supernatural occurrences, St. Vincent travels the globe as a grand prix race driver, while covertly investigating paranormal phenomenon.

“Braap!…Ap!…Ap!…Ap!”

Benefitting from a fortuitous overlap of international racecourses and haunted sites, St. Vincent travels to the Rabenblut Castle in the Black Forest of Germany. His mission: to determine if the ghost of General Heinrich Weissmann, a leading scientist in Hitler’s occult services during World War II, is responsible for numerous inexplicable events surrounding the cursed ruin.

The racing cover also offers many opportunities for the injection of onomatopoeic exclamations into the text.

“Crack! Clumph! Crack!”

Upon arrival in Germany, St. Vincent immediately plunges into danger, when he discovers an exploded body in the lobby at the Black Cross Inn. Shortly afterward, he is seduced in his hotel room–with passages featuring overripe descriptions of the female anatomy–by Gretchen, a voluptuous racing groupie who knocks at his door. Eventually, she introduces him to an orgy and Black Mass at the castle, presided over by Dr. Neumann, the medical examiner working with the police on the murder case. St. Vincent employs some high tech gadgetry after the ghostly spectre of Weissman appears in the castle tower, including a machine that displays the residue of human auras, and a fax hidden in his briefcase (that takes several minutes to print a page of copy).

“…rrrrowwWWWwwwwwrrrrowwwWWWwwwwwrr…”

The initial rush of pure exploitation comes to a grinding halt at about the half-way mark, when in typical Bond fashion, the villain explains all to St. Vincent, the doomed hero. However, the exposition unfolds over the course of an agonizingly boring fifty-plus pages. All the long-winded explanations could have been easily summed up in a single statement, suggesting a much more interesting story than the one actually realized:

***MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT***

I am a mummified, eternal ex-Nazi–sustained by alien pyramid power–in command of an army of psychically controlled women who are powered by the invisible cosmic rays of the universe, channeled through implanted crystals that exert their deadly power upon the sexual release of their host.”

***END OF MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT***

As St. Vincent drolly remarks, “It’s hard to believe, but it’s completely possible.”

“Kawhump!”

Oxenfree

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Oxenfree
Night School Studio | PC & Mac Versions | Download Available via Steam

A drinking party on a desolate beach turns into a battle against supernatural forces for a group of teens in this choose-your-own-dialogue adventure game.

Alex and her stepbrother, Josh, join fellow high school students Ren, Nona, and Clarissa for a party on isolated Edwards Island. Emotional tensions between the ostensibly light-hearted revelers are exposed in a game of “Truth-or-Slap” around the campfire. Players assume the role of Alex, choosing dialogue responses from a series of pop-up speech bubbles. Clarissa reveals an early antagonism towards Alex, stemming from the drowning death of her boyfriend—Alex’s older brother Michael. Exploring a nearby cave, Alex unwittingly opens a mysterious portal, unleashing a ghostly intrusion that threatens to possess them all.

Game play is mostly limited to navigating Alex around the island to various locations, selecting appropriate dialogue options as they appear in conversation with her friends. Forests, beach caves, a deserted town, and an abandoned military base are a few of the atmospheric locations traversed over the course of the five-to-six hour game. The puzzle elements are light, with players advancing the story simply by reaching the next location. Alex carries a portable radio that tunes in various broadcasts relating to the island’s history, and unlocks the occasional sonic padlock with a twist of the dial.

For a game with constant dialogue choices, the conversations play out in a convincingly naturalistic manner. Beyond directing their investigation of the island, the interaction also reveals further emotional connections between the characters, allowing players the opportunity to advance (or worsen) their relationships. Although Ren is arguably less charming than the developers intended, the overall writing compares favorably against any current teen horror film. There were only a few moments (while fiddling with locked gates) that I thought, “Will you shut up, already!”— a remarkable achievement in a game of nearly constant teen banter.

Collectibles, primarily in the form of letters relating to the history of the island and its residents, are scattered around various locations for the completionist to extend the experience, but I was satisfied just immersing myself in the eerie atmosphere, following the escape-first-fully-investigate-the-mystery-second strategy along the branching storyline to its conclusion.

But I still didn’t know what “Oxenfree” meant [thanks, Wikipedia!].

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The Fury

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The Fury
John Farris | Fawcett Popular Library | 1976 | 349 pages

The Fury burns as an epic beacon, warning readers away from a story that features potentially delirious elements—(birthed apart) psychic twins, a former psychic research subject struggling to reunite with his estranged son, and a vengeful one-armed villain leading a shadowy psychokinetic research organization operating secretly within the U.S. government—yet somehow never rises much beyond a dull slog.

Peter Sandza, a down-at-heel, one-time potential psychic who burned out after a series of secret governmental tests, searches for his lost son Robin, a young man gifted with telekinetic powers of his own. Robin has fallen into the hands (or in this case, hand) of a covert agency-within-an-agency that specializes in grooming psychic talents, ultimately for military use against potential Cold War targets. Childermass, the agency’s director, is on the trail to neutralize Sandza, preventing him from liberating Robin, and seeking retribution for the arm that was blown off in a previous encounter. Robin has been sending psychic messages via the astral plane to his psychic twin, Gillian Bellaver, the young daughter of a wealthy New York family. Gillian experiences these messages in a dream state that, unfortunately, causes those people in close personal contact to violently bleed out.

The story alternates between the group of main characters, and the others whose lives they intersect, without building up much interest or momentum. A few brief action passages when their individual stories come together—particularly when Peter encounters Gillian after she has been hospitalized following an traumatic experience, with Childermass and his Black-Ops team following close behind—help liven the pace, but only momentarily. The character arcs only come together again after about page three hundred, setting the stage for the final resolution, but the lack of a single central protagonist dampens interest along the way.

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John Farris also wrote the screenplay for the 1978 film adaptation of his novel, directed by Brian De Palma. The film version varies much of the specific details of the story, but maintains the development and prescribed fates of the major characters. De Palma energizes the proceedings by pumping up the violence to near-histrionic levels, creating gory set pieces with splatter and spinning bodies. Even the campy depiction of glowing blue psychic eyes is forgiven with the riotously explosive comeuppance to the Childress character (changed from Childermass in the book), played with a smug malice by John Cassavetes.

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However, the book does reflect the zeitgeist of the time in which it was written, with its preoccupation with psychic phenomenon and the occult, offering some sage advice regarding the dangers of witchcraft in Seventies California:

You don’t understand. Along with dope, it’s the number one fact of life out there. If you’re a girl and good-looking they come up to you on the street or beaches, for God’s sake, warlocks looking for recruits. The covens will fuck you over fast if you don’t know how to protect yourself. Oh, it’s creepy in Southern Cal.”

To Kill a Witch

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To Kill a Witch
Alice Brennan | Lancer Books | 1972 | 253 pages

Featuring a cover image that evokes Tippi Hedren, To Kill a Witch actually does name-check The Birds early in its text to establish an ominous sense of dread from something as ordinary as a flock of gulls.

Young journalist Laurie Brooks and her photographer husband Ted travel to isolated Gull Island to fulfill the stipulations of late horror author Agatha Gray’s will. Although previously only briefly meeting Agatha during a professional assignment, Laurie stands to inherit the writer’s entire estate by staying on the island for three months. If Laurie fails, the will directs that Agatha’s ex-husband Francis Mercer becomes the sole beneficiary.

On the ferry ride to the island, Laurie discovers that the local villagers suspected Agatha Gray, writer of such occult stories as “The Birth and Lifetime of Elisia, the Witch”, of being a witch herself. The ferry captain tells Laurie the story of a curious intruder who swam to the island following Agatha’s death, only to be found later dead on the beach, picked clean of flesh by the island’s large gull population. Upon arriving at the estate, Laurie meets the superstitious old housekeeper, Mrs. Kane, who warns her about the “Dance of the Gulls”, an ominous occurrence that foretells an upcoming death.

Shortly after arriving, Ted saves a young man from drowning in the lake. The grateful near-fatality, Giles Reed, vows to return the favor by keeping watch over Laurie during the duration of her stay, after Ted leaves her alone to return to his work. But she isn’t quite convinced of the sincerity of the scene she just watched unfold, and wonders if Giles has an agenda of his own. Laurie quickly becomes convinced that she does need protection, however, after she witnesses the bizarre “Dance of the Gulls” herself on the moonlit beach below the great estate, afterward finding a jeweled pin from her room in the sand at the center of the avian ritual.

After addressing the natural question of “Why doesn’t she just leave the island?” with a rather flimsy push-pull battle of wills with her husband, To Kill a Witch settles into a familiar but comfortable atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust, with the ever-circulating gulls a reminder of the danger facing Laurie. She is unsure if the local townspeople are trustworthy, after she learns they performed a witch-killing ritual—burning a glass bottle filled with personal artifacts—before Agatha’s death, and who now seem to also suspect Laurie of witchcraft. A small creepy touch occurs when Laurie, struggling with writer’s block on her own first novel, looks down at her typewritten page to discover only one word, “Murder”.

The story works in equal parts as an inheritance drama, with the specter of Agatha Gray’s ex-husband roaming somewhere undetected on the island, and as an occult thriller, with the gulls themselves protecting the estate—or as local legend dictates, being directed by a dead witch from beyond the grave to avenge her murder.

The Unearthly

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The Unearthly
Dorothy Daniels | Magnum Books | 1970 | 189 pages

After the sudden death of her mother, Hope Owen returns home from finishing school to the family’s estate, Alleys of Oak. She has come to grieve, but also to uncover the mysterious circumstances that lead to her mother being crushed to death by a falling tree during a lightning storm. Her Aunt Vera Frazer, Hope’s father’s sister and mistress of the house, greets her coolly with the news that Hope’s school days are now over—there will be no more money for her boarding-school, and she will be required to work for her keep as a family servant.

Also living in the estate are Hope’s two cousins, Samuel and Elizabeth. Samuel is a lazy gambler, frequently away in town indulging his addictions in the local taverns. Elizabeth is a haughty daughter of privilege, with a blunt sense of tact. The only sympathetic member of the family seems to be Aunt Mary, a plump spinster living alone in the guest cottage on the estate grounds.

Visiting her mother’s grave, Hope encounters a seemingly feral child in the woods outside the cemetery, and is entranced by her otherworldly charm. The pixie-like girl leads Hope to the neighboring plantation, where she meets its owner, Adam Camden. The strange girl is Adam’s mute sister, Fern, who perhaps had some connection with Hope’s mother.

But another member of the family has influence over the household, Vera’s deceased mother, Althea. Using Elizabeth as a medium, Vera has been conducting séances to contact the spirit of her mother, in order to solicit advice regarding the running of the household. In one such séance, Vera attempts to contact Hope’s mother, but during the proceedings a vase is violently hurled across the room, narrowly missing Hope. The number of voices competing to speak through Elizabeth during her trance suggests turmoil in the spirit world, and warns of more violence to come.

The spirits of Alleys of Oak are not just communicating through séances. Hope is terrified by the sounds of a woman sobbing at night, seemingly coming from the hallway outside her door. After walking Aunt Mary back to her cottage one night, Hope is attacked by a dark figure with a club, and pursued until she meets Samuel on the grounds of the estate. Hope wonders if the attacker is a manifestation of the spirit(s) of the house, or if she needs to fear corporeal enemies as well.

The resolution of the mystery ultimately comes as expected, with the culprit breaking down and confessing under the flimsiest of evidence. Refreshingly, the supernatural phenomena experienced at the séances prove to be genuine, not smoke-and-mirror parlour tricks engineered by the villain to terrorize the household. The overall tension of the story is reduced somewhat by the presence of Hope’s love-interest, Adam, the good-natured farmer next door, who provides her with an opportunity for escape with his early offer of marriage. Although Hope justifies her decision not to leave Alleys of Oak, having her continually trapped as a servant in the house would have intensified the unrelenting atmosphere of terror.

<SPOILER> And what self-respecting Gothic Romance fails to end with the heroine’s marriage? Perhaps revealing my own deep-seated character flaws, I was somehow cheering for the shiftless, gambling cousin, Samuel—but he never had a chance.

Her Demon Lover

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Her Demon Lover
Louisa Bronte | Avon Books | 1973 | 156 pages

Young cosmetics heiress Sophia travels to a small town in the Balkans with her new husband Gregory Holden in an attempt to uncover her family history. Adopted at a young age from an orphanage in Boston, all Sophia remembers of her birth parents are the tales told by a nun who briefly knew her mother from the old country—tales of seeing the future and controlling the winds. Upon arriving at their hotel, the newlyweds meet the strangely magnetic Count Derek Vlahos and his alluring companion Madame Lillian Montevan, a former singer in the Paris cabarets. Sophia is delighted to learn that Derek knows the lineage of her family, and that she may be his distant cousin.

The Count invites Sophia and Greg to his castle, the Eagle’s Nest, to examine the historical books in his library and research the family genealogy at her leisure. A full day’s journey by carriage, the Eagle’s Nest rises dramatically from its mountaintop location, surrounded by sheer cliffs. At the castle, Sophia finds herself drawn to the charismatic powers of Count Vlahos, with every incidental touch sending shock waves of desire through Sophia’s receptive body. Although newly married, she has discovered her husband to be a clumsy and inattentive lover, and she longs for the dominating embrace of a more powerful man. The Count boldly flirts with Sophia, and dismisses her weak husband with contempt, driving his voluptuous companion Lillian to distract Greg’s attention.

Derek eventually reveals his true nature to Sophia during a visit to the castle’s tower room. Looking out over the dramatic mountain views, Derek demonstrates his ability to command the flights of the swirling eagles, to raise the winds and generate the gathering electrical storm. He tells her that she also shares their family’s powers, and that together—as husband and wife—they could rule the countryside. Resisting him for the present, Sophia is nevertheless intrigued by the prospect of fully developing her own latent powers. Conflicted about her feelings for her own cousin, she is reminded again of his terrifying presence, when during the course of an evening’s entertainment he conjures a demon to do his bidding—a trick Sophia knows to be more than a mild amusement for party guests.

More a florid romance than a supernatural thriller, Her Demon Lover plays out as a seductive battle of wills between Sophia and Derek. Does she surrender to the dominating force of the powerful man of her imagination, or is she able to muster some previously undiscovered inner-strength from her milquetoast husband and resist the siren call of her supernatural birthright? An unexpectedly ferocious romantic encounter with her husband midway through the novel ultimately telegraphs the twist ending.

The story also provides valuable life lessons about accepting invitations for mountain climbing from the rival to your wife’s affections.