Tag Archives: Vintage Paperbacks

Wait and See

Wait and See
Ruby Jean Jensen | Zebra Books | 1986 | 350 pages

Charlene Childress, pregnant with the child of her cousin Daniel after a summer romance on the family’s central California estate, devises an otherworldly escape from their troubles. Seducing him with one last intimate tryst, she tries to coax him into a double-suicide pact, placing his hand on the hilt of a knife she drives into her own chest. Shocked at Charlene’s plan and by her horrible death, Daniel hides her body in the river, chaining it to the underwater roots of an overhanging tree on the bank.

Twenty-six years later, Daniel’s life is in disarray. Seeking to escape from the reaches of his terrible past, he spends most of his time working on the road, becoming estranged from his new family; wife Ronna, step-daughter Kim, young son Kevin, daughter Sara, and infant son Ivan. Sending them to live with his Aunt Winifred on the family estate he has not visited since that tragic summer of 1959, he seeks to provide them with some vestige of stability, not knowing what evil waits for them at the Childress house.

Although Charlene’s body was never found, Winifred blames Daniel for her disappearance, suspecting him of murder. Playing the role of caring aunt, Winifred puts into place her long-gestating scheme to kill all of Daniel’s children as vengeance for his role in Charlene’s death. But a greater threat beyond a murderous family member stalks the estate, when Kevin and young neighbor boy go swimming in the river and discover Charlene’s body. Cutting the skeleton free from the chains that hold it under the submerged tree roots, it comes to life, embarking on its own crusade of vengeance against the Childress family.

Things get very stabby as the red-haired skeleton stalks and slashes from the cover of darkness around the farm. A few evocative locations help set the mood, including the murky waters surrounding the skeleton’s underwater prison, and an occult altar room discovered in the barn. The point of view periodically switches between Kim and Kevin, with a child’s perspective on the horrors helping to turn the potential absurdity of a walking skeleton into a creeping dread of something evil lurking in the shadows of the big house.

The story does stretch out considerable mileage from its child-in-danger themes, and does not shy away from terminating its young characters. Any empathy for Charlene’s supernatural rampage against those who have wronged her wanes considerably as the origin of her transformation becomes clear, and her pure evil heart is exposed.

A final lesson to parents and librarians alike—keep those copies of The Necronomicon under lock and key.

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The Cormorant

The Cormorant
Stephen Gregory | St. Martin’s Press | 1986 | 213 pages

A rumination on the nature of obsession, The Cormorant instills the specter of its titular bird–squawking, snapping its curved beak, or releasing sprays of liquid excrement—across nearly every page, building a malignant foreboding that culminates in inevitable tragedy.

The cormorant was a lout, a glutton, an ignorant tyrant.”

The unnamed narrator inherits a cottage in the Welsh countryside from his bachelor uncle, who he recalls only meeting at family funerals, but with an unusual stipulation. In order to keep the cottage, he must care for his late uncle’s cormorant, a seabird that was rescued from a muddy death in the estuary of the River Ouse, and raised to fill the void of avuncular loneliness.

Snaking its neck, it hissed a long malodorous hiss and brought up a pellet of half-digested matter which lay steaming in the weak sunshine.”

An unhappy teacher like his uncle, the narrator longs to escape his mundane existence in the suburbs of the English Midlands. Downplaying the role of caretaker to the cormorant, he and his wife, Ann, and their young son, Harry, accept the seemingly miraculous opportunity provided by the inheritance, and flee to the cottage in Wales to begin their new life. Their complacent attitude towards the cormorant is shattered immediately upon its arrival, their unlikely new ward exploding out of its box in a combative fit of hissing, spitting, and virulent shitting.

It came from its box as ugly and as poisonous as a vampire bat.”

Relating to the bird as an agent of destruction against the normalcy of life and the hypocrisy of societal good behavior he left behind, the narrator slowly develops a relationship with the cormorant, whom he names Archie, eventually taking it out on fishing excursions. Ann does not share the growing affection towards Archie, fearing for the safety of Harry, who seems to exhibit a strange fascination of his own towards the seabird. And, of course, the family cat doesn’t stand a chance.

The bird stalked around on its webbed feet, putting them down with a slap in the water and in its own many-coloured squirts of shit.”

The narrator’s obsession with Archie, whose presence informs the entire narrative, grows along with the palpable sense that all will not end well in the cozy Welsh cottage. Although arguably not an inherently evil creature, Archie drives a wedge in the family, the constant unease foreshadowing certain horror to come. Even the family’s behavior away from the bird creates discomfort, in particular a soapy, romantic encounter between husband and wife in the bathtub, with the infant son playing a squirm-inducing role. A Christmas-day dinner with neighbors becomes the perfect stage for everything to unravel, with the obligation to put on a polite face becoming increasingly difficult against the mounting terrors.

Its jabbing bill came through, it hung for a second, scrabbling with its fleshy feet, it wings outstretched on the wire, like some gas-crazed soldier on a French battlefield.”

Not all the threads of the story are adequately explored, however. A shadowy figure seen observing from a distance and the inexplicable aroma of cigars in the cottage suggest a ghostly visit from the late uncle, but are not fully developed.  His ghostly hand possibly helps the drunken narrator home from the pub, only to set up the fatal circumstances for the book’s conclusion.

The bird came at me in to leaps, brandishing the heavy beak, punishing the night shadows with the power of its wing beats.”

Ultimately, the simultaneous empathy for Archie and the shocking nature of the finale, unexpected in its horror even though presaged, fuse to deliver a minor masterpiece of macabre terror.

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Chalet Diabolique | Lucifer Cove #5

Chalet Diabolique | Lucifer Cove #5
Virginia Coffman | Lancer Books | 1971 | 206 pages

The fifth book in the series reduces Lucifer Cove to a white-noise occult backdrop, a lost episode of an alternate television history Fantasy Island (featuring Mr. Roarke as the devil), with the arriving guests ultimately discovering the infernal mechanics under the surface.

Kay Aronson is the guest in this outing, arriving in Lucifer Cove following the mysterious death of her husband. Leo Aronson had set out alone to the secretive spa town on the coast of California south of San Francisco, only to be killed in a plane crash. Convinced that the fatal crash was not an accident, Kay investigates Leo’s connection to Lucifer Cove, determined to uncover the real reason behind his death.

Accompanied by her husband’s personal assistant, Arthur Dugald, Kay encounters characters from earlier entries in the series—High Priestess of the Devil’s Temple, Nadine Janos; beleaguered beauty, Caro Teague; the darkly magnetic spa owner, Marc Meridon; and his mistress, the empathetic Christine Deeth—mostly in incidental appearances. Unsure of whom to trust, Kay is surprised to discover her own romantic feelings developing toward both Arthur and Marc, forming the competing sides in an unlikely love triangle. She becomes more and more convinced that all is not as it seems behind the quiet Tudor facades of Lucifer Cove.

Since series readers are already aware of Marc Meridon’s diabolical nature, and his relationship to the seemingly omnipresent cat, Kinkajou, little opportunity exists to create much suspense, although there are some creepy shenanigans in the tunnels below Kay’s chalet house. After its initial underground discovery, the body of a former guest at the resort makes a second shocking appearance.

A brief, near fatal encounter with the power of hypnosis illustrates the ease at disposing with Kay and her investigation, and her general insignificance in the greater picture of Lucifer’s Cove makes the reluctance towards her disposal something of a question.

Also, a potentially eternal cosmic struggle boils down to a literal dog-and-cat fight.

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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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The Brownstone

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The Brownstone
Ken Eulo | Pocket Books | 1980 | 332 pages

“What do you want from me?” she screamed. “What!”

Tepid genre thrills, maybe? Faded gothic horrors, copies—one generation removed–of other supernatural apartment terrors, such as Rosemary’s Baby or The Sentinel?

After being evicted from their building, Chandal and Justin Knight move into a too-good-to-be-true apartment in an old brownstone on the Upper West Side. Owned by elderly sisters, Magdalen and Elizabeth, the brownstone provides one last opportunity for Justin to stay in New York and pursue his theatre career. Just below the sisters, the spacious first floor apartment also provides growing room for the newly expectant Chandal.

Justin’s behavior begins to change soon after their arrival. Showing an unusual fascination for the sickly Magdalen, he exhibits violent mood swings. Displaying a new interest in photography, he converts the basement into a darkroom, and disappears for days at a time. Taking a job at the Natural History Museum, Chandal’s contact with her husband diminishes to viewing the red darkroom light above the locked basement door.

Alone for much of the time in the brownstone, Chandal experiences the sensation of being watched. In addition, she begins to see evidence—and ultimately visions—of a young couple in her new nursery. Fearing that the stress of a deteriorating marriage is impacting her sanity, she nonetheless wonders if her specters are actually living people, somehow connected to the sisters upstairs.

Interspersed with short passages of a patient’s file at a mental institution, The Brownstone delivers few surprises. Diverging from her similarity to Rosemary after she loses her baby, Chandal nonetheless continues to play the familiar role of heroine immersed in a threatening environment. The atmosphere of dread and paranoia are lessened from the early pages, however, since an occult ritual informs the reasons behind all the actions. Even an unexpected, late betrayal by a friend, with the resultant potential of a larger conspiracy, becomes a throwaway moment, since any fateful repercussions fail to arise.

The saga of the accursed brownstone continues with The Bloodstone. Hopefully, that book will not reveal Chandal as a blind nun keeping vigil at the attic window.

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Horrorscope #3 | The Curse of Leo

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Horrorscope #3 | The Curse of Leo
Robert Lory | Pinnacle Books | 1974 | 176 pages

“If you can have a werewolf, why not a werelion?”

Calder Heath, heir to a large mining company, returns to South Africa from years of living abroad in England following the suicide of his father. However, all is not well at the mines. Two violent mauling deaths among the black laborers have renewed gossip about a curse on the Heath family, and Calder awakens following the full moon covered in blood, with no memory of his recent actions.

Granley, a long-time clerk at Heath Mines, recounts the story of the curse to Calder. After an illicit affair with his housekeeper, the elder Heath abandoned the young girl from the black township when he discovered she was about to give birth to his illegitimate child. When the child died from a tragic, but preventable, illness, the grieving mother channeled her anger at Heath through a curse, twisting his naturally leonine features against him. The light of the full moon would transform him–and all his male descendants–into a bloodthirsty man-lion!

If you can have a werelion, why not a wereaardvark or even a weresloth?

Calder desperately tries to shield his delicate wife, Eunice, from his bloody escapades at night, while deflecting suspicion from his gruff American mine manager, Sam York, and the slovenly, but deceptively astute detective assigned to investigate the deaths. Struggling against the growing realization that he is responsible for the grisly killings plaguing the mines, Calder calls upon the old witch in the township for aid.

A straightforward revenge curse and monster-run-amok tale, with the resulting character anguish, for most of its page count, The Curse of Leo eventually throws a twist worthy of the Scooby Doo playbook—before turning back again at the conclusion. Although multigenerational curses always seem inherently misguided (afflicting innocent descendants), Calder does prove himself to be violent and despicable enough to (arguably) warrant his curse. The very real horrors of the South African mining industry, with its history of forced labor and oppression, remain completely unaddressed, providing only convenient decoration for the werelion to roam.

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Shadows | Chill #7

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Shadows | Chill #7
Jory Sherman | Pinnacle Books | 1980 | 181 pages

Against the advice of his physician, wealthy industrialist and toymaker, Adolph Zehring-Rand, moves to Mexico to receive an experimental treatment for his recently diagnosed terminal illness. Shortly after his arrival at the hacienda near the Mexican clinic, Zehring-Rand begins experiencing visions of shadows, amorphous shapes that seem to move and attempt to communicate with him. Convinced that these encounters are occult in nature, and not the hallucinatory side effects of his new medical regime, Zehring-Rand reaches out for assistance to famed psychic investigator, Russell V. “Chill” Chillders.

Although little doubt exists of the supernatural nature of the situation, several characters establish motivation for undermining, or even eliminating, Zehring-Rand. Dr. Spinoza, chief researcher at the Clinica Medica de Ensenada, is clearly a quack, with a sham facility in place to provide the illusion of research. Hattie McBain, Zehring-Rand’s personal assistant, has a personal history of chasing wealthy and powerful men. Several rival executives at Z-R Industries have open contempt for the way Zehring-Rand runs the company, and are impatient for his ouster. Meanwhile, young girls around Ensenada have been disappearing, including the daughter of the former owner of Zehring-Rand’s hacienda.

At book seven in the series, all the reductive traits for the Chill and his associates are obligatorily noted, with little variation or growth from book one: Chill is a vegetarian, but also a vintage gun enthusiast who will eat the game he kills (check); he munches on sesame sticks to concentrate (check); he has a platonic relationship with his psychic assistant, Laura Littlefawn, but both acknowledge a latent, deeper attraction (check); Laura, a native Sioux, displays a fondness for silver and turquoise jewelry (check); and Hal Strong, a New England professor and Chill’s occasional sidekick, is driven by the need to communicate with his dead son on some other plane of existence (check).

The industrial espionage subplot provides an opportunity for a private eye to discover, first hand, how capable ghosts are of murder. Another character ultimately changes allegiances, although even this twist—seemingly driven by a newly found heart of gold–is telegraphed earlier.

The dark shapes plaguing Zehring-Rand eventually congeal into the ghostly form of a little girl, and he rushes to manufacture a new toy, an articulated doll constructed to the specifications given to him by the spirit. Tapping into the inherent horror of dolls and laughing children, Shadows delivers a few suspenseful moments, some pseudo-science bunk, and a touch of psychic mumbo-jumbo, all the while deviating very little from the expected course.

But what psychic detective worth his weight in sesame sticks thinks giving a non-corporeal entity, with unknown and possibly murderous intentions, a fully functional doll’s body to inhabit is a good idea?

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Burning

burning

Burning
Jane Chambers | Jove HBJ Books | 1978 | 157 pages

Lurid cover art replete with the obligatory marketing call-outs to The Omen and Salem’s Lot (so prevalent to the time of publication) disguises a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on love and acceptance, with an intrinsic horror rising from societal fear and ignorance—in past centuries, and our own.

Burning essentially tells the story of four women, two in the past and two in the present, who struggle to free themselves from the restrictive roles that confine them. Nominally a story of possession, the empathy for both pairs of women easily elevates the proceedings from the standard “evil ghost” template.

Cynthia, a wife and mother who abandoned her dreams of an art career to have a family, yearns for time away from Dave, the passive husband that she manipulates, but seems unable to mold into a successful businessman. Angela, a young woman hired as nanny for Cynthia’s two children, lives a lonely life, driven by occasional, unrealized crushes on older women.

Acquiescing to Cynthia’s need for a break from the summer heat in the city, Dave arranges for a vacation for her, the children, and Angela in a Massachusetts farmhouse. Soon after their arrival, Cynthia feels a strange attraction to an addition to the house, an older, rough-hewn room off the kitchen. With the room as a focal point, Cynthia and Angela begin to channel the words and actions of two women who lived there two hundred years ago.

Through Cynthia, Martha speaks, an abandoned love child now grown up and alone after the death of her mother. She lives isolated from the village in the farmhouse, cast out and viewed as untouchable by the community. Through Angela, Abigail speaks, a young itinerant woman living on the property of a wealthy landowner. Eventually she joins Martha, and both women, ostracized by the community, are drawn together in a romantic tryst that dangerously defies the values of their witch-hunting times.

Aware of the forces working through them, Cynthia and Angela also begin a romantic affair, unsure whether or not their actions are truly their own. A spurned romantic overture from a young squire towards Abigail triggers the past narrative forward to the conclusion predestined by the book’s title. A similar action in the present involving Angela drives the suspense, with the growing prospect of Cynthia and Angela’s fate mirroring that of their predecessors.

Drawing on the parallels fueling ignorance, hatred and oppression across the centuries, Burning succeeds as something more than a simple horror tale. After a group of drunken young men in a bar are overheard relating their story of a recent weekend’s debauchery–buying prostitutes and beating up a suspected gay man–this exchange, woefully echoing the current state of mind as society launches into a new political era of bigotry, prejudice, and scapegoating:

“That’s the future of America,” Red declared to the bartender.

“Dear God,” the old man muttered, “I hope not.”

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The Pyx

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The Pyx
John Buell | Crest Books | 1959 | 128 pages

Warning! The last few pages of this book are entitled: The Secret of the Pyx. DO NOT—DO NOT READ THIS SECTION UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED THE BOOK. – from the back cover

After a cab driver witnesses a young woman in a white evening gown fatally plummet to the ground from the penthouse balcony of an eleven story apartment building, Detective Henderson works to uncover the details of her death. The ethereal white trail tracing the path of Elizabeth Lucy’s death is the central haunting image in this slim novel, told in alternating point-of-view chapters. In the present, Henderson tracks the clues leading back to the possible murder, as Elizabeth, in the past, lives out her fateful last few days.

Elizabeth, a small-town runaway working as a call girl out of a rundown boarding house, falls under the eye of a powerful, mysterious client. As her sense of fatalism surrounding their upcoming “date” grows, she seeks solace in whatever private moments she can afford, sharing a small space away from her trade with her only real friend, Jimmy, a troubled—and through implication, closeted gay–youth seeking his own sense of escape. Elizabeth also bears a burden of responsibility toward her former roommate, another call girl who suffered a complete mental breakdown, and now lives in a near-catatonic state in an asylum.

Back in the present, Henderson begins to exhibit a fascination with the deceased that echoes that of Dana Andrews’ detective in Otto Preminger’s Laura. Small details in the case cause his suspicions of murder to grow, with more deaths soon occurring in Elizabeth’s circle of acquaintances. Through all, Elizabeth emerges as a melancholy and expressly empathetic character. Minus the dictionary definition preface pointing to the supernatural, The Pyx could function simply as a melodrama on the dangers of juvenile delinquency, right up to the occult-tinged conclusion.

Since readers are aware of Elizabeth’s fate from the first few pages, the only suspense derives from uncovering the circumstances ultimately leading her to the penthouse. Her arrival is unexpectedly anticlimactic in its brevity, with her trip over the balcony railing coming at a surprising speed. Only a few final details, suggesting the monstrous undercurrent of the proceedings, reveal the true nature of her death.

However, a howlingly bad postscript, The Secret of the Pyx, explains everything in a pseudo-educational report—which could easily be imagined unspooling on grainy film stock in a fifties-era classroom–on the history of demonic possession and the black masses.

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Terror Touches Me

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Terror Touches Me
Stanton Forbes | Pyramid Books | 1967 | 150 pages

Hey! I didn’t even eat the [salmon] mousse.” — Debbie Katzenberg (Michael Palin), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

Following the death of her father, and her sister Connie’s recent marriage, Mary Owen reacts to the depressing thought of spending her life alone by impulsively marrying a man she briefly met at the wedding ceremony. Eamon Doyle, a roguish, gold-toothed Irishman and business acquaintance of Connie’s husband, sweeps Mary off her feet, and takes his new bride to live at his family’s ancestral home outside Dublin. However, other than the gray skies and peat fire in the hearth, little is made of the Irish setting.

Arriving unannounced with Eamon at Doylescourt, a ramshackle castle with sprawling grounds, Mary discovers an unexpected tension amongst the family members residing there. Eamon’s father, Sean Doyle, seems engaged in a much-repeated argument regarding the future direction of the family estate with his children: Brendan, the oldest and most somber, more interested in botany than the family business; Liam, straggly-bearded bohemian and musician in a pub band; and Angela, unreadable under her cool demeanor and blank expression.

Just the same, there is something—some kind of violent undercurrent that I feel, only feel. Even their quarreling is deeper—deadlier than the usual family disagreements even though is seems to be about nothing of importance.

Mary’s observations about the Doyles prove to be prescient. On her very first evening the entire family is stricken after a shared dinner of smoked salmon. Although Mary was unaffected, Eamon’s father collapses, and shortly thereafter dies from an unknown illness. The police ultimately trace the cause of death to a poisoned bottle of whiskey, and conclude that one member of the household is a murderer.

More murders quickly follow, as Eamon’s siblings succumb one by one to mysterious poisonings. The only commonality seems to be Mary, present with each of the victims at the various times and places of their deaths. A growing suspect in the eyes of the police, Mary nevertheless confronts an inescapable conclusion—her own husband is responsible for the shocking crimes. Although he is a man she barely knows, could he really be a cold-blooded killer?

A passable entry in the newlywed-trapped-with-her-sinister-new-family category of gothic fiction, Terror Touches Me fails to generate much suspense on two fronts. Although surrounded by death, Mary never seems to be in immediate jeopardy, since she doesn’t appear to be a primary target herself. Also, even though she becomes a person of interest to the police, the dragnet of wrongful accusation around Mary as a serious suspect never closes in too tightly.

About two-thirds of the way through the story, Mrs. Ryan, the cook, professes to have heard a banshee keening outside her kitchen window, indicating a foreboding spirit lurking on the grounds of the estate. Unfortunately, nothing comes of this possible encounter—supernatural or otherwise—just a failed opportunity to lift the proceedings above the expected inheritance drama.

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