House of Scorpions (Chill #6)

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House of Scorpions (Chill #6)
Jory Sherman | Pinnacle Books | 1980 | 176 pages

Things get personal for supernatural investigator Russell V. “Chill” Childers in this sixth outing of the occult series, when his psychic sidekick, Laura Littlefawn, comes under attack by a Navajo scorpion cult.

The cult actually consists of only Dan Crooked Creek, a disgruntled tribal outcast, and Rowena Carter, an impressionable young runaway who has fallen under his spell. Dan’s drive to destroy Laura springs from an exceptionally mundane source–not from some personal grievance or perceived injustice, but from her success selling Native American artisan crafts. Experiencing a series of threatening visions involving scorpions, Laura turns to Chill for help in battling her psychic attackers (or more correctly, she places a psychic phone call to his housekeeper).

House of Scorpions offers very little mystery for Chill to investigate, since alternating chapters completely reveal Dan’s obsession with the scorpion’s symbolism, his related messianic complex, and his plans against Laura. His own telepathic abilities are rather nebulously explained, since his main method of attack involves enticing his collected group of scorpions to attack. Rather than simply confronting Laura, Dan somehow telepathically projects his location–in a cave outside Rowena’s family house–to Laura in a dream, luring her and Chill into a rather dubiously conceived trap [Modest Spoiler Alert: he hits Chill over the head with a rock].

Passages involving scorpion handling, mating rituals of a captive breeding pair, attempted cult indoctrination involving stinging, and eventually an attack on Chill’s hippie handyman, evoke a kind of nature-run-amok horror, as the series trademark telepathic content takes a backseat to more naturalistic shocks. Epic struggles on the astral plane are conspicuously absent in this entry, replaced by more intimate corporeal encounters involving scorpions crawling out from under beds and down nightshirts. Rowena takes the mating dance of the scorpions to a logical conclusion in a grotesque scene late in the story, one of its few horrific highlights.

Readers with arachnophobia, rather than insectophobia (“Scorpions are not insects,” as Chill reminds us), will possibly discover something here to trigger a modest case of the creepy-crawlies.

The Phoenix Man (Chill #5)

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The Phoenix Man (Chill #5)
Jory Sherman | Pinnacle Books | 1980 | 175 pages

Psychic investigator Dr. Russel V. “Chill” Chillders returns in the fifth installment of the supernatural series.

Chill responds to a request for help from Wilbur Hornsby, who along with his twin scientist brother, Malcolm, has succeeded in creating a method for human cloning. Upon their test subject’s death, the soul of the recently deceased seeks out and inhabits the next in a series of fully grown cloned bodies, which wait indefinitely suspended in a row of fluid-filled bubbles in the pair’s laboratory. However, Wilbur suspects that his brother intends to use the clone—who in a glaring example of scientific oversight, happens to be violent drifter with a criminal history—to kill him and take the credit for their discoveries.

Unfortunately, The Phoenix Man plays out as more of a men’s action-adventure tale than an occult mystery, complete with descriptions of weapons and their impact on the human anatomy that flirt with becoming gun-porn.

“The Speer bullet slammed a hole in Samson’s forehead at the speed of 1625 feet per second. The soft lead core flattened against the frontal bone, crumpling the inner fluted jacket of the bullet, creating, in effect, a tiny lethal hammer. A spray of blood blew out with the brains, bone, and gristle of Samson’s head, leaving a gaping hole in the rear of his skull.”

Chill himself is cast in the role of action hero, with his burgeoning telepathic powers kept fallow. Laura Littlefawn, Chill’s half-Sioux psychic associate, only briefly enters a trance-state to elicit the location of a subject; otherwise, she tags along to provide the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic tension [they won’t], and falls into the hands of the villains—becoming another victim in need of rescuing by Chill. Hal Strong, the occult-minded professor who rounds out Chill’s usual team, literally waits out the entire story in an RV.

By this fifth book in the series, the characters have all become extremely reductive; Chill reflects by munching on sesame sticks, Laura wears turquoise and silver jewelry to accentuate her dark hair and eyes, and Hal wonders where he can pick-up road-loving ladies to accompany him in his recreational vehicle isolation. Even Malcolm Hornsby is defined by a distinctive facial tic, which conveniently proves quite useful later to differentiate him from his good brother.

The Hornsby brothers’ clone is driven by a rage from a single factor, not the greater existential quandary of his predicament, but rather his newfound impotence.

Psychic Detective: The Unicorn

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Psychic Detective: The Unicorn
Hans Holzer | Manor Books | 1976 | 192 pages

Tiring of his luxurious, yet mundane, daily existence, shipping magnate Adam Pitt invents a secret life for himself as “The Unicorn”, kingpin of a drug smuggling operation. Although not lacking in wealth since inheriting a fortune from his wife’s tragic, and possibly suspicious, death, Pitt nonetheless yearns for the excitement that his illegal operation provides. Also fancying himself as an amateur treasure-hunter, Pitt sets off to find a lost fortune in sunken Spanish gold after discovering a map in a local antique shop that points to a shipwreck off the coast of Corley Hall, his East Anglican estate.

Frustrated in the attempt to find the Spanish treasure on his own, Pitt seeks out the help of Randy Knowles, internationally renowned psychic detective, and specialist in solving unusual and extraordinary cases. Accompanying Pitt back to Corley Hall, Knowles makes an early psychic connection—not with the location of the treasure, but with Pitt’s ingénue, Rowan Dorset. A young actress whose career has been constructed with Pitt’s money and connections, Rowan has been unknowingly used as a mule for information exchanges in his drug trade.

Discovering his client’s smuggling operation, Knowles becomes determined to destroy the secret drug trade and bring Pitt to justice. Rowan, sensing a special link with Knowles, volunteers to assist the effort, after he shows her—through a coached session of astral projection— an earlier incarnation of herself, a centuries-earlier brothel madam.

By the time of Knowles’ introduction some sixty-plus pages into the story, Pitt has almost become the default anti-hero, giving readers a mostly charming sociopath to root for in his battle against the moralist detective—who steals his love interest and upsets his villainous schemes. Further complicating the moral divide are the local villagers, who should be sympathetic characters against Pitt’s efforts, but instead show their own murderous impulses. Knowles also brings little of his supernatural mental gifts to his case-cracking repertoire, using his psychic skills seemingly for seduction, and poorly timing his trance-state-derived astral projections—when also not using them for seduction.

Through the Dark Curtain (The Guardians)

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Through the Dark Curtain (The Guardians)
Peter Saxon | Lancer Books | 1968 | 190 pages

The Guardians, a London-based group dedicated to fighting the forces of supernatural evil in the world, return to investigate the case of a young wife frightened into a vegetative state by an unknown encounter on a deserted Suffolk country road.

Wealthy industrialist Sir Giles Offord contacts Steven Kane—anthropologist, expert in all matters of the occult, and operational leader of the Guardians—for assistance in investigating the strange fate of his daughter-in-law. Stranded in their broken-down car by the side of the road while her husband walked to the nearest village for gasoline, Mavis Offord experienced a terror so profound that she collapsed into a state of catatonic madness. Later discovered curled in the fetal position in a roadside ditch, Mavis was removed shrieking to the local physician, eventually being admitted to a psychiatric hospital—where she is yet to recover or even talk about her ordeal. Answering Steven Kane regarding why he requests the special services of the Guardians, Sir Giles explains, “I think she saw the devil.”

Accompanying Steven Kane to Frenton, the small village where Mavis was found, is Father John Dyball—Guardians member and Anglo-Catholic priest with an expert knowledge in the dark side of Faith. After questioning some of the villagers, Kane and Dyball come to suspect the activities of a mysterious local organization, the Sons of Anglia, and its founder Lawrence Stow. An elderly and reclusive man, Stow is rarely seen in the village, but Kane does meet his daughter Barbara, who although a beautiful blonde of nearly Amazonian proportions, exhibits little signs of life behind her strangely dull blue eyes.

Breaking into Stow’s estate after dark, Kane and Dyball interrupt a strange ritual attended by figures in white robes. At its center, a nearly nude Barbara Stow is held in bondage and whipped by unseen forces. Left behind by the fleeing cult members, both Barbara and her father lapse into catatonic states. Anne Ashby, the Guardians’ voluptuously beautiful occult expert and telepath, arrives to provide assistance with Barbara, but immediately slips into a vivid trance-like state—experiencing a vision of Barbara as a Queen of ancient Britain, facing off against the oppressive rule of Roman occupation.

Following the timeworn tradition of depicting small English villages as insular worlds filled with dark histories of superstition, witchcraft and secret rites, Through the Dark Curtain benefits most from evoking this familiar atmosphere of malevolence. Although standard fare, the most enjoyable passages have Kane and Dyball acting as detectives, asking around the hotels, garages and pubs for information. They turn up tantalizing possibilities, such the “Black Dog” (who local myth claims is the devil’s companion, hunting for souls on certain nights of the year), and receive tips leading to the secret society—never knowing who may be part of the shadowy network. Once Kane and Dyball interrupt the secret ceremony, and Anne Ashby takes the story back in time to ancient Britain, everything becomes muddled. The flashbacks to ancient battles are not compelling, and the resolution never really clarifies whether the Guardians experience these scenes as reincarnation, actually travel back in time, or simply have a shared hallucination.

The conclusion stands out as being most arbitrary; rather than the bunk explanation of formulating Druid and Christian spells into some mystical concoction, Dyball could have just as easily cried out, “Shazam!” and sent the rescuing bolts of lighting down from the sky.

 

The Bamboo Demons (Chill #3)

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The Bamboo Demons (Chill #3)
Jory Sherman | Pinnacle Books | 1979 | 182 pages

Occult investigator Dr. Russell “Chill” Childers returns in a new adventure that takes him and his assistant, half-Sioux psychic Laura Littlefawn, to the Philippines to battle an aswang—a mythological shape-shifting demon from Filipino folklore.

Felix Bulatao, a Manila scholar well-versed in local mythology, witnesses his young friend Paco’s girlfriend Caridad being violated and torn to pieces by a creature they believe to be an aswang. This fiendish beast shares similar traits with the werewolf and vampire in Western culture, feeding on human blood (and entrails) and having the ability to change form, often to that of a large dog. Felix reaches out to Chill, author of Modern Occultism and renowned investigator of the supernatural, for help in tracking down and destroying the monster. Chill and Laura Littlefawn fly to the Philippines to meet Felix and travel to Caridad’s village, looking for clues to put them on the aswang’s trail.

During a psychic session, Laura sees a vision of a man wearing military clothes, and produces a cryptic clue in the form of a single word, “Yesterday”. While driving around the countryside, the investigative team of Chill, Laura, Felix and Paco encounter sporadic fighting amongst armed rebel groups. However, violence of a more supernatural kind descends upon the home of Paco’s parents, as the aswang attacks during the night, brutally killing—and partially eating—Paco’s father. Even while examining scenes of gory carnage, Chill takes timeout to munch on his trademark sesame sticks. [Other series checkboxes ticked off: Chill is a vegetarian who likes to make salads, Check! Chill shows great interest in vintage firearms, Check! Chill and Laura have unexpressed feelings for each other, Check!]

Since the identity of the primary aswang villain is revealed almost immediately, the story slogs along as Chill tries to catch up to the reader’s knowledge. Perhaps as a nod to the Marcos-era Philippine setting and the aswang’s role as a guerrilla leader, the play of various insurgent and governmental groups becomes important, but these passages bore when compared with less frequent encounters directly between our team members and their supernatural opponents—such as when a hypnotically beautiful female aswang visits a vulnerable Laura (during a psychic vision in the bathtub). From the initial click of the radio turning off in the next room, to Laura following her unexpected visitor outside, to her finally fainting at the site of the aswang’s physical transformation (and in the process losing her hastily-wrapped bath towel), this sequence delivers in way disappointingly absent in the rest of the story.

Occasionally, The Bamboo Demons does inspire a certain kind of monster-fighting giddiness, as the group prepares to go aswang hunting with Chill’s modified Spanish dueling pistols—loaded with his homemade bamboo-tipped ammunition. Then it’s time to pass the sesame sticks and wait for the next installment.

The Witching Hour

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The Witching Hour
Florence Stevenson | Award Books | 1971 | 155 pages

At the latest performance by opera star Gilda Gianiani, whose fifty-year career and seemingly ageless voice has astounded critics, young psychic Kitty Telefair is approached by an anxious man. Ted Rutledge, having seen Kitty’s guest appearances on her fiancé’s midnight television show, The Witching Hour, wants to employ her telepathic powers to investigate the mysterious influence Madame Gianini holds over his girlfriend, Peggy Ozanne.

Peggy has been accepted into the “Gianini Method”, a year long, one-on-one intensive study program with Madame Gianini at her rural estate. During that that time, Peggy will be unable to communicate with anyone in the outside world, presumably freed from distraction to develop her latent operatic skills. However, Ted has already noticed disturbing personality changes in Peggy as the date of the study program draws near, and suspects that Madame Gianini is exerting some sort of strange, possibly supernatural, spell on her.

At a cocktail party hosted by Madame Gianini, the singer’s long-time vocal coach lets slip to Kitty that an earlier protégé, Melody Blair, disappeared without a trace following her year-long study with the opera star. After their conversation, Kitty experiences a cold, ghostly sensation, and surmises that Melody’s spirit is attempting to contact her. Later, when the vocal coach is found brutally murdered, Kitty realizes the extent of the danger facing Peggy.

Kitty is an engaging heroine, cheerfully investigating the strange events revolving around Madame Gianini and her circle. Her perky demeanor never slips into the trap of precious obnoxiousness, even when she and her boyfriend “Colly” pause for a chaste romantic interlude (represented by the imagination-taxing placeholder “* * *” in the text). She also finds emotional—and telepathic—support from her eccentric family of “hereditary occultists”, including her aunts Astarte (clairvoyant concert pianist) and Drusilla (culinary expert and trance medium), and her mysteriously powerful father Rupert. Her cheeky good humor is only briefly compromised after an attempt on her life, when her psychic defenses are breached during an astral projection. Although her spirit guide helps Kitty reach the rather expected conclusion, the details revealed about the “Method” unexpectedly evoke the grim horrors of the all-too-real material world.

Raga Six

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Raga Six
Frank Lauria | Bantam Books | 1972 | 277 pages

After saving the Vice President’s daughter from occult forces in the first book of the series (Doctor Orient), paranormal investigator Dr. Owen Orient returns in Raga Six. Exhausted and feeling out of touch with the people he intended to help with his psychic research, Dr. Orient sells his mansion on Riverside Drive and gives up all his worldly possessions to follow the simpler life path his mind intuitively reveals. Encountering a telepathic potential in cowboy garb named Joker, Orient returns with him to his Lower-East Side squat, where he meets fellow wanderers Sun Girl and her young son Julian. Orient quickly settles into a new life with this countercultural family, meditating and honing his psychic skills—and assisting Joker in his low-level gambling business—until a request from Sun Girl pulls him back into the occult sphere.

Sun Girl’s friend Betsy has fallen under the spell of a strange commune, and she recruits Orient to investigate. He discovers that Gregory and Isis, the two young mediums who founded “The Circle”, are not just flirting with the trappings of occultism, but are actually possessed by the demon Astaroth. They intend to follow the left-hand path to unlock the demon’s power by ultimately sacrificing one of their order, lost girls like Betsy who have run away or dropped out of society. With the help of a sympathetic clairvoyant, Orient lures Gregory and Isis into a trap, and performs an exorcism to drive the demon out.

Astaroth is purged and Orient returns to his meditations. Against his better judgment, he breaks from his routine book-making chores to deliver a mysterious special package for Joker. Pola Gleason, the recipient of the black bag Orient drops off, dies from an uncontrollably pleasurable orgasm. Joker immediately disappears, advising Orient to leave the country by leaving him a ticket for a berth on a ship sailing to Morocco. On board, Orient encounters another telepathic potential, Pia, with whom he shares an instant psychic attraction. Pia and her friend Janice are being treated for a rare anemia by Dr. Alistar Six, an intimidating heavy-set man with a strange bearing. Accompanying Dr. Six on the voyage is his wife Raga, a magnetically attractive beauty with smooth, marble-like skin and unusual silver hair.

The base of his brain stimulated by telepathic messages of desire, Orient slips into a ménage-a-trois with Pia and Raga, but it is Raga who ultimately consumes his thoughts. After Janice’s unexpected death, Pia flees the ship with Presto Wallace, a photographer she met on board, pursued by Dr. Six, who seems to have developed a strong attraction to his patient. Orient and Raga disembark in Tangiers, where Raga expresses her fears and pleads with him to help her leave her husband. Pia and Dr. Six eventually return, and Orient discovers Presto hovering near death in an inexplicable coma-like state. A telepathic fogs surrounds Presto, and Orient senses the hand of a malignant paranormal force at work; a force similar to the one responsible for the deaths of Janice on board the ship, and Pola back in New York. Fearing that Raga and Pia are in grave danger, Orient is determined to track down and eradicate the source of the evil threatening them all.

Similar to Dr. Orient searching for new direction in his life, Raga Six meanders in a convoluted telepathic stew of characters and situations, waiting over one hundred pages before even introducing its title character. However disjointed, many of the moments along the way are compelling, such as the unexpected guilt and remorse Orient experiences at a character’s death—even a villainous one—in the physical world, particularly since he routinely engages in telepathic life and death struggles in the spiritual plane. Even an expected betrayal results in a poignant loss for Orient. The final reveal hinges on a what-important-thing-did-I-see-but-can’t-remember moment, teasing a clue that could potentially emerge on a telepathically exposed roll of film. When all the various strands are finally pulled together, a simple say-the-secret-all-powerful-magic-word conclusion undercuts the confrontation between Orient and his supernatural nemesis.

Dreaming Witness

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Dreaming Witness
Jean Davison | Berkley Books | 1978 | 218 pages

Chris Maguire has received psychic impressions since she was a child, frequently hearing the voices of strangers speaking in her head. Unable to turn-off the snatches of conversations or disturbing images that flood into her mind, she has long struggled with the anxiety caused by these unwanted telepathic intrusions. Postponing her impending marriage and honeymoon with her fiancé Brad, Chris volunteers to be a test subject for a psychic research study, hoping to discover a way to exert control over her “gift” and lead a normal life.

Professor Martin Lambert, Director of the Wellington Institute, engages Chris in a series of tests in his ESP dream lab. Waking her after periods of deep REM sleep, lab assistants question Chris on the details of her dreams to ascertain whether she has received the prearranged psychic signals that have been telepathically sent to her while sleeping. During the course of a routine test, Chris instead experiences the horrific vision of a murder—the brutal stabbing death of a young woman.

To her horror, the next day’s newspaper details a local murder with striking similarities to the one Chris witnessed during her ESP test session. Initially unwilling to contact the police, she ultimately has no choice when a transcript of her dream session—containing all the accurate specifics of the murder—is leaked to the press. The Chief of Police convinces Chris to ride along with Lieutenant Stephen Maravich, the detective assigned to the case, hoping that she receives another psychic impression that she will recognize as being from the killer.

Dreaming Witness exists in the sweet spot for the acceptance of psychic phenomenon, a time when pop culture (surrounding television shows such as Leonard Nimoy’s In Search of…) seemed to make ESP and telepathy almost a “scientific” certainty. Although Lieutenant Maravich has some initial reservations about her motivations, few other characters hesitate in accepting her extrasensory skills as genuine. However, other than occasionally nudging the investigation, Chris’ telepathic readings are hardly vital to the proceedings. In fact, by thoroughly checking the suspects’ alibis, the police should have found the critical piece of evidence without her extrasensory help.

Ultimately Dreaming Witness reads as a by-the-numbers entry in the I-saw-a-murder-in-a-psychic-vision genre, with its tepid central mystery failing to deliver much suspense. Although her cottage is broken into as a warning, Chris never seems to be in much personal jeopardy, with little sense of a tightening pressure to solve the case. The killer is eventually revealed after a series of interrogations, but his identity could easily be interchangeable with that of any other suspect without much impact. The final twist comes as expected, leaving Chris free to pursue Lieutenant Maravich as her new romantic interest—another happy ending for a psychic-meets-detective love story.

Doctor Orient

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Doctor Orient: A Mind Adventure into the Occult
Frank Lauria | Bantam Books | 1970 | 214 pages

Master of telepathy Doctor Orient responds to a psychic emergency call from Hap Prentice, a promising former student now reduced to performing cheap carnival tricks to survive. During their performance, Hap’s assistant Malta slipped into a deep trance from which she could not recover. Projecting his own consciousness into Malta’s, Orient discovers a powerful negative vortex possessing her mind, suggesting a sinister influence with implications beyond Malta’s life.

Doctor Orient and his team of former telepathic acolytes–a washed-up baseball player, a bearded dentist with unrivaled chess acumen, and a B-movie actor—join forces with an occult-minded priest to release Malta and defeat the infernal powers responsible. A cryptic utterance during a séance leads the group to Susej, leader of the Clear One cult. By exploiting the potential of mass-media—insidious pop music recorded by his disciples at his discotheque, and faith-healing performances on television talk-shows—Susej plans to unleash the power of Ose, demon of insanity, gaining control of unsuspecting minds on a global level.

Outside of a few preliminary strikes into the psychic space of his adversary, Doctor Orient takes a rather passive approach to his task. He meditates, practices breathing techniques, performs yoga and teaches the value of a well-executed move during games of chess. Although Orient defers to a greater karmic code of magic that restricts his use of excessive negative energy, readers may grow impatient with the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and implore him to fight back (telepathically explode some heads, perhaps?) before waiting for the counter-moves to reveal themselves. A hinted relationship between Orient and Malta, in a previous life, is also never fully explored.