The Well

The Well
Jack Cady | Avon Books | 1982 | 208 pages

A twisty, kaleidoscopic haunted house pulsates at the center of The Well, shifting and reforming its demonic horrors around its human occupants, imprisoning them in a legacy of familial evil.

John Tracker, along with his secretary girlfriend, Amy Griffith, returns after a twenty-year absence to the hulking, decrepit Tracker family estate on the banks of the Ohio River. Originally built by his great-great grandfather, Johan, but continually added on by successive generations, the mansion reflects the religious fanaticism ingrained in the Tracker family through its uncanny layout. Maze-like rooms, secret staircases, disguised passageways, and mechanical traps—consisting of hidden, spring-loaded weapon—were conceived and installed to confuse and trap intrusions by Satan himself.

The Tracker House has an intriguing, real world precedent in San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House. Sarah Winchester, the widow of firearms manufacturer, William Winchester, spent nearly forty years of ceaseless construction on her rambling, seemingly improvised (with doors and windows leading nowhere) mansion that was allegedly haunted by the victims of the weapons her husband produced. The fictional Tracker House evokes a similarly appealing sense of strange history and mysterious atmosphere, with its correspondingly secret (and frequently deadly) constructions.

The Tracker House, however, lies in the path of a new freeway construction, and is slated for destruction following the legal death pronouncement of John’s father. Justice Tracker, missing for over seven years, had long become estranged from his wife and son. Intending only to survey the property, John and Amy are trapped inside for the duration of a furious snowstorm, and soon the couple fall victim to the insidious atmosphere of the house and the psychic weight of the Tracker family history.

Readers expecting much a story arc will most likely be disappointed, since The Well primarily delivers a minimal, atmosphere-laden psychological horror. Chapters consistently repeat a familiar pattern, starting with an anecdotal piece of Tracker family history, illustrating a macabre or tragic event in the lives of John Tracker’s ancestors. John and Amy then attempt to travel to some location within the house, negotiate a series of labyrinthine rooms and dodge deadly traps, while avoiding the roaming ghoul that was formerly John’s grandmother, Vera. Along the way, John reflects on his diabolical family history, his own feelings towards his father and grandfather, Theophilus, and his possible love towards Amy. Repeat.

The sense of menace, with its source in the heat-blasted well beneath the sub-cellars of the mansion, and the grotesque tableaus discovered along the way are enough to fuel a dense, diabolical atmosphere that soak the characters, rather than propelling them through a linear narrative.

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Devil in the Darkness

Devil in the Darkness
Archie Roy | Long (London) | 1978 | 184 pages

Lost on the remote back roads of rural Scotland during a ferocious snowstorm, newlyweds Paul and Carol Wilson take refuge in a neglected, decaying old mansion. Inside Ardvreck House, an infamous estate with a dark and disturbing history, they encounter a strange team of soldiers, film technicians, and paranormal investigators who have temporarily taken up residence to document any potential incidents of supernatural activity before the upcoming scheduled destruction of the mansion.

The storm destroys the only bridge out from Ardvreck House, effectively stranding the couple and motley group of investigators in the isolated estate. Startled awake during the night, Paul hears scraping and pacing sounds coming from the abandoned attic floor above him. Summoning the courage to investigate while his wife sleeps, Paul finds only the empty, undisturbed tower room. However, the inexplicable noises are only the beginning, as the house psychically “recharges” from the presence of its new occupants.

A regression therapy session with Ann Parish, a member of the research team with a successful history of recalling events before her birth, triggers a spiritual communication with a former servant of the estate. Mary Elizabeth Rolfe, a maid to the murdered mistress of the house, was herself the victim of a drowning under mysterious circumstances. Ann’s past-life recollection under hypnosis as Mary triggers an academic disagreement between Meredith and Bourne, the two psychic researchers on the team. Is Ann communicating directly with Mary’s spirit, or is she actually Mary’s reincarnated self, reliving memories of her previous life? Or, is she just adeptly improvising suppressed details of Mary’s life that she has previously learned? This debate arguably holds more potential interest than any incidents of moving furniture or spectral appearances at the windows.

A slim haunted house story recalling earlier classics such as Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson’s Hell House, Devil in the Darkness takes some time before the supernatural encounters seem threatening enough to place it characters in mortal danger. It channels the established notion of a physical place storing a psychic charge that can potentially influence generations to follow, with a paranormally receptive party triggering its release. The single most terrifying encounter—when Carol seems to feel Paul in bed behind her, only to discover him instead at the bedroom door—also harkens back to a similarly ghostly reveal in Hill House.

Devil in the Darkness also retreads a bit of Stephen King’s The Shining. Meredith and Bourne debate the advisability of simply leaving the estate, hunkering down against the inclement weather inside the collected cars of the assembled party. Their discussion on the potential harm posed by the apparitions evokes the “pictures in a book” conversation between Dick Hallorann and Danny Torrance at the Overlook Hotel.

Ardvreck House, like Hell House before it, was stained by the shocking and amoral behavior of its privileged residents. The vile act at the core of its haunting is ultimately revealed through a discovered letter. The reading of the brittle pages functions as a sort of epilogue, providing a firsthand account of the historical horrors. However short, this new narrative–with its previously unknown characters–stalls out whatever momentum the fiery climax had delivered, even while providing an explanation to all the ghostly bump-and-grind shenanigans.

Author Archie Roy, simultaneously an academic professor of astronomy and amateur investigator of the paranormal, seems to have been more engaged with the nature of the debate over mediums, psychic phenomenon, and the implications of the purported evidence of the supernatural-–expressed here through the opposing viewpoints of Merideth and Bourne—than delivering a new take on the haunted house. Still, genre fans who have exhausted the classics will find enough here to keep them interested.

Crawlspace

Crawlspace
Herbert Lieberman | Pocket Books | 1972 | 278 pages

Less a straightforward horror novel than a sad and creepy meditation on the nature of parenthood, Crawlspace drives its middle-aged protagonist couple through much torment over their stand-in “child”, while also exposing the latent poison in the judgmental attitudes of neighbors and community.

Shortly after inviting an emotionally needy young utilities worker to dinner, Albert and Alice Graves, a retired childless couple living alone in the countryside, make a startling discovery. Their one-time guest, Richard Atlee, has secretly returned to their cellar, and is now living in an impromptu human nest in their crawlspace. Rather than reacting with horror and revulsion at the filth and animal remains surrounding the makeshift sleeping quarters, Richard’s arrival triggers a nascent parental concern the couple thought lacking in their lives.

Feeling a strange sense of duty to help Richard, the couple allows this unusual habitation to continue. Primarily unseen during the day, Richard performs various household chores in exchange for his unusual residency. Eventually, they gain his trust enough to lure him up into the house proper, although his dirty appearance and demeanor still evoke the animal nature of his crawlspace existence.

Alice, and particularly Albert, view Richard as an almost angelic creature, frequently reflecting upon his beauty (even in his unkempt state). When squatting in the crawlspace, however, Richard is almost feral, spending his days in the woods and deep inside a nearby cave. After moving into the spare room, he seems more severely maladjusted than wild, unable to articulate beyond a basic level or follow any accepted social norms.

The local community, however, is alarmed at the prospect of the Graves couple sheltering—what they characterize as—a young drifter. When the small hardware store in town cheats Richard out of fifty dollars on an errand, a violent retaliation is set in motion that prefigures more tragedy to come.

The couple’s compassion for Richard slowly creeps into fear, as they experience a sinking realization that they have become virtual prisoners in their own home. Terrorized by a local juvenile gang and unable to rely on the corrupt local law enforcement for help, the Graves are unable to force their houseguest to leave.

Alternating between a maddening disbelief at the allowances Albert and Alice make for Richard and empathy for his withdrawal from human interaction, Crawlspace also depicts conventional society’s reaction against the sixties counterculture drop-out lifestyle. The narrative tension develops from the slow burn of the untenable relationship, rather than shocking horror, but once a certain line is crossed, the story plunges toward its violent conclusion.

An epilogue in the Florida Keys explaining Richard’s early history is mostly unnecessary.

To Walk the Night

To Walk the Night
William Sloane | Bantam Books | 1967 | 181 pages

Told primarily in a lengthy flashback, Berkeley (Bark) Jones recounts the strange story leading up to his best friend Jerry’s shocking suicide. Recapping the events of the last few months to Jerry’s father, Dr. Lister, Bark begins with the day of the “Big Game”.

Visiting their alma mater for a major football game with a rival team, Jerry convinces Bark to visit Professor LeNormand, Jerry’s mentor during his university days. LeNormand, an academic outcast who made many professional enemies with his controversial critique of Einstein’s Space-Time Continuum, lives an isolated existence in the university’s observatory. Upon their arrival, Bark and Jerry discover the still-smoldering remains of LeNormand, burned alive in his office chair.

The police are baffled by the circumstances of LeNormand’s death, but allow Bark and Jerry to return to New York City. Before they leave, however, they are shocked to learn that the stridently anti-social professor had married shortly before his death. Equally puzzling is Selena LeNormand herself, an alluringly beautiful, but strangely remote woman with seemingly no past life before her marriage.

Selena does not act like a grieving widow, and Bark is suspicious of her strange character and removed, out-of-sorts behavior. Jerry, however, immediately falls under Selena’s spell, and within a few weeks the couple become engaged.

With the compelling mystery of LeNormand’s death at its core, and the knowledge of Jerry’s suicide to come, To Walk the Night builds up the case for Selena’s implication through the accumulation of Bark’s small suspicions during his account to Dr. Lister. Although Bark’s tale ultimately leads to an expected conclusion, Selena’s role as a potential femme fatale leads to the examination of many individual clues as evidence of a greater, sinister purpose.

Beyond any potential cosmic or supernatural horror, however, Selena’s arrival succeeds as a drama describing the tension and insidious jealousy when a new romantic partner divides an existing male friendship. As roommates, Bark and Jerry behave like a married couple, cooking, traveling, and having picnics together. An exotic outsider changes a familiar dynamic, leaving one party resentful and full of recrimination.

Viewed as such, this disruptive template is recognizable in other stories of couple dynamics. For example, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and the Beatles—except for the:

***SPOILER***
breach in space/time and invasive, otherworldly presence

***END SPOILER***

Although, there are probably some who would still dubiously argue even those points.

The Bog

The Bog
Michael Talbot | Jove Books | 1986 | 314 pages

Archeologist David Macauley packs up his wife and children and relocates to the isolated village of Fenchurch St. Jude in the west of England, following the discovery of a well-preserved body in the bog. Dating from the era of the Roman occupation, the naturally mummified remains of a young woman promise a wealth of historical information, but the forensic evidence suggests a ritual sacrifice, and a cause of death from the savage bites of an unknown animal.

The villagers are a standoffish and unhealthful lot, suspicious of the new arrivals. Renting the only available cottage from the enigmatic Marquis de L’Isle, the local gentry whose own rambling great house stands on the bog’s edge, David and his family feel even more estranged from the local community following the report of a shocking murder in a nearby village. When David discovers the mauled corpse of a missing tavern owner in a bone-riddled feeding ground, he realizes the villagers are also harboring a dark secret that reaches back in history to the mummified body in the bog.

David struggles to save his family against parallel circumstances to those experienced by the victims buried in the bog. However, the prologue and occasional short chapter dedicated to these characters from antiquity are plainly redundant, adding nothing to the context of their torments already provided by the present-day narrative.

What starts as a seemingly simple monster rumble in the boglands of rural England transforms into an unexpected tale of sorcery, necromancy, demonology, and the occult, as the nature of Fenchurch St. Jude’s secret emerges. The first half of the book is filled with a fetid menace, with the sights and smells of the bog providing an unwholesome atmosphere, rich with potential danger. Once David squares off against his rival, the tone shifts more towards mano-a-mano (or, more precisely, mano-a-magician) action.

The accumulated creepiness dissipates in a swirl of magical rubies and fireballs, as a newfound emphasis on wizardry threatens to engulf all in a vortex of campiness. The spirit of an ancient Sumerian sorcerer, who inhabits the body of a small child, essentially begins a plan of attack against the rival sorcerer by instructing David to synchronize their watches.

Although the magical content arguably takes The Bog into different territory altogether, enough horror elements remain to make an effective genre read. The nature of the persistent rotten odor infusing the family cottage delivers a nasty surprise. But couldn’t someone place a “Protect” spell on the family pet?

Keeper of the Children

Keeper of the Children
William H. Hallahan | Avon Books | 1979 | 189 pages

Is that kid of yours worth it?”

Searching for his missing daughter, Renni, Eddie Benson discovers a cult of runaway children, lead by an insidious master of mind control. Tran Cao Kheim, a monk who fled Tibet following the Chinese takeover, exerts a powerful mental hold over Renni and the other lost children, directing them to panhandle on the streets of Philadelphia during the day, and return to his warehouse district compound at night.

Discouraged by the (inexplicable) failure of the police to return their children, Benson and a group of other parents take the matter into their own hands, devising a plan to have Kheim deported. Their actions, however, draw attention of the evil monk, who deploys his telekinetic powers to target them. Before he is able to deliver a briefcase of incriminating evidence to the Immigration Department, Kenneth Custis, the father of one of the captive boys, is brutally murdered on his farm—his neck broken by a scarecrow possessed and animated by Kheim’s astral-projected mind.

Kheim is something of a racist throwback to the early twentieth-century stereotypical villain, Fu Manchu, filled with the inscrutable menace of the Orient. Sax Rhomer’s character is even name-checked by Custis in explaining Kheim’s commune, but simply referring to a racist archetype does not provide free meta-text license to create it anew. The only difference is that this villain is gifted with the telekinetic powers so prevalent in seventies supernatural horror.

After nearly being killed by a telekinetically controlled marionette in his home, Benson becomes determined to fight Kheim using the monk’s own methods against him. He enlists the talents of Nullatumbi, a yogi who understands Kheim’s methods (an “oobie with PK”, or for the layperson, an out-of-body experience with psychokinesis). A long training sequence follows, with an appropriate level of hokum involved. Benson does much inner soul-searching, and cosmic wandering, over a two-week period, while mentally focusing on a blank white wall.

Kheim’s Pied Piper-like hold over the children is not fully explored, nor Renni’s seemingly singular ability to occasionally shake off his mental yoke and warn her father away. Since Kheim is capable of exerting control over a large group of children, why not their parents too?

The attacks are the absurdly appealing centerpieces, however, with a giant possessed teddy bear wielding an axe—a sequence the cover image teases, and the text actually delivers—being a highlight. An extended, literal cat fight, with the astral-projected combatants inhabiting feline bodies, serves as the ultimate showdown, with Benson and Kheim aiming at the tenuous psychic thread linking their respective minds back to their own corporeal bodies.

And that final battle is the second cat attack in the story.

The Rats

The Rats
James Herbert| New English Library | 1974 | 181 pages

Mr. Harris, an East End schoolteacher who witnesses an early attack by flesh-eating rats, is drawn into an alliance with beleaguered health officials against a large-scale infestation of mutated rodents.

Surfacing from the canals in East London, a new strain of deadly black rats emerges with a taste for human flesh. Mobilized by the Health Department for his early insights and his knowledge of the local area, Harris chases his rodent prey through the city streets, searching for the source of the outbreak and the solution to stopping the deadly attacks.

Structured as a series of ever-escalating violent set pieces, the story progresses through attacks on individuals, homeless encampments, train stations, and an extended siege and assault of a primary school. Showing little fear of their human targets, the swarming black rats inflict much squirm-inducing brutality to the flesh of their victims. No one is safe from the ruthless carnage, from pets (a given) to small children and babies.

Short background stories, ranging from a few paragraphs to a few pages, sketch out the victims, before they ultimately are shredded and eaten by the hordes of hungry rats. Although this attention to detail humanizes characters that could have simply been cookie-cutter fodder, their ultimate fate is predetermined.

The blighted neighborhood most impacted by the infestation is reflected in many of the character sketches. Suffering from abuse, abandonment, or economic inequality, the soon-to-be victims are all case studies in the castoff social strata of society. However, any potential emotional investment in their survival is scuttled by their typically quick demises—by tiny claws and curving yellow teeth.

A quick and gruesome Man-versus-Nature tale, The Rats lacks the atomic radiation boogeyman employed by so many monster-run-amok tales that came before it, but the climax does lead Harris to a twitchy, repulsive discovery at its core.

Charnel House

Charnel House
Graham Masterton | TOR Books | 1978 | 241 pages

John Hyatt, an inspector for the San Francisco Department of Sanitation, investigates a strange breathing noise in the walls of an old Mission district house, but instead of routine blocked pipes discovers the imminent return to this world of a Native American demon.

Hyatt’s investigation quickly escalates into horror beyond the scope of his department. A researcher from the sanitation lab is stricken by a similar breathing phenomenon experienced in the house, and soon lapses into an asthmatic coma. Responding to a new sonic manifestation in the house, that of a slowly beating heart, another colleague suffers a bizarre and violent attack. Craning his head up a chimney to check the flue, the flesh of his head is completely stripped away, but leaving him (and his slowly beating heart) still alive.

These early episodes are the strongest, creating an eerie atmosphere surrounding the biomorphic house attacks. The terror spills over to the local hospital, when the survivors rise from their beds and attempt to physically merge their stricken bodies. As the investigation takes Hyatt to George Thousand Names, a medicine man who reveals the folklore surrounding the legendary Navajo trickster, Coyote, the proceedings take a more action-oriented tone, with Hyatt engaging in monster battles against the nascent demon in the streets of San Francisco. However, any sense of mystery in Coyote’s return to earth is sapped from the start by the author’s prologue, which essentially introduces the demon before the story even begins.

Perhaps only a stickler to those readers versed in San Francisco geography, occasional gaffes are noticeable: the misspelling of landmarks (“Delores” Park), the existence of a topography-be-damned line of sight from the Mission district house to the Golden Gate Bridge, and repeated references to the “hot” and “humid” nights (unsolicited travel tip for visitors: always bring a jacket, even in the summer).

Charnel House also suffers from some dated cultural and social perspectives. George Thousand Names, and some of the myth surrounding Coyote, are indiscriminately referred to as “Red Indian.” Even though most likely intended as joking dialogue, references to “paleface” and “firewater” are groan-inducing rather than self-referential nods to stereotypes. Also, Hyatt seems to require noting the tightness or form-fitting nature of the clothing of all the women he meets, even in situations that would call for a more somber attitude. Author Graham Masterton wrote some sex-instruction titles in the seventies, so perhaps some unrealized crossover potential exists here — How to Drive Your Nurse Wild in Bed While the World is Ending.

Sixth Sense

Sixth Sense
Ramona Stewart | Dell Books | 1978 | 211 pages

Following a blow to the head received in a skiing accident, Nancy Parsons experiences psychic visions of murder in this tepid supernatural thriller.

Returning to New York City from a visit with her ski-bum father in New England, Nancy receives vivid mental images of murders, committed by a serial killer plaguing Greenwich Village, as they happen. Although not convinced of her psychic abilities, NYPD Inspector Doyle acknowledges the specific details she provides regarding the crimes, and the killer. When a gossip columnist inadvertently mentions her abilities in an article, Nancy potentially becomes the next target of “The Slasher”.

Nancy, however, is not an appealing protagonist, but rather seems somewhat insufferable. Whether living in her actress mother’s Greenwich Village brownstone, hanging out after cutting graphic design classes, casually passing around an occasional “j” with her boyfriend (the son of coal mine owners), or receiving a three-day hospital stay (and comprehensive battery of tests) following a fainting spell, she fails to muster much empathy.

Other characters exhibit a few oddly defining traits—Inspector Doyle loves animals and reads National Geographic, boyfriend Teddy imports tropical fish, friend Davie is a directionless layabout—but the details are ultimately of little consequence. Even the New York City locations are uninspiring. Beyond her mother’s obligatory theatre party at Sardi’s and a passing reference to the Fourth Street Subway station, the events could have occurred anywhere.

“The Slasher” also exhibits few traits beyond a cheap misogyny, and an interest in telepathy. The possibility of him experiencing reverse psychic visions of Nancy is teased, but shortly dismissed, closing any opportunity for some kind of psychic showdown.

Once the killer becomes fixated upon Nancy, her psychic powers almost become a secondary concern, with the climax playing out like a straight hostage thriller. Her visions of the killer ultimately lead Doyle to the rescue, but Sixth Sense lacks any real twists or surprises along the way. The epilogue even sets up a prospective sequel (or series foundation) that, presumably, did not happen.

However, Nancy and her psychic “Scooby gang” of friends are not a team whose adventures would merit much interest.

The best curmudgeonly advice for Nancy: “Go back to design school.”

Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby
Ira Levin | Dell Books | 1967 | 218 pages

“You look great. It’s that haircut that looks awful, if you want the truth, honey.”

Readers familiar with Roman Polanski’s remarkably faithful 1968 screen adaptation will no doubt recall some of the indelible images—and performances—from the film while turning the pages, but Ira Levin’s novel remains a singular classic that defines modern horror.

Struggling actor Guy Woodhouse and his wife Rosemary seem to be a sympathetic young couple, but from the start Guy exhibits a shallow narcissism. Following the simple vanity of “Christ, a pimple” upon viewing his reflection, Guy lies about a sudden job opportunity in order to break a newly signed lease. His deceit allows for a move into the Bramford, a gothic apartment building that, unbeknownst to them, harbors a dark history of murder, cannibalism, and devil worship.

Rosemary is complicit with Guy’s actions, determined to have her dream apartment that will provide a foundation for her future family, with “three children two years apart.” Even after a short retreat to a cabin (in one of the few scenes not included in the screenplay), Rosemary acknowledges Guy’s shortcomings as a husband and potential father, yet is determined to conceive a child.

Small indicators of the diabolical horrors to come are sprinkled throughout, from the black candles provided by neighbors, Roman and Minne Castavet, to the sounds of ritual music through the common walls of the apartment. A few current events also help define the general mood of the time. The Pope’s visit to New York City triggers a discussion with the Castavets on the hypocrisy of religion, and Rosemary reflects upon the infamous Time magazine cover, “Is God Dead?”

When Guy receives a new role due to the mysterious blinding of a rival actor, he is unfazed by the horrific circumstances, concerned only with his own good fortune. Rosemary also receives some shocking news about her friend, Hutch, when he slips into a coma. Yet, she acknowledges to herself that her concern lies more with not having anyone in her life to depend upon if he dies, rather than with Hutch’s health itself.

After receiving the news of her conception, events turn more overtly horrific. Rosemary’s sallow, wasted appearance contradicts her expectations of a happy, healthy pregnancy. Her constant abdominal pain leads to a reflection that “the baby kicked like a demon.” And above all, the suffocating helpfulness of the Castavets, with Minnie’s insistent schedule of herbal vitamin drinks.

Ira Levin’s lean and direct prose provides his occult apartment horror story a wealth of contextual readings, ranging from the isolation of modern life, to an exercise in paranoia, or to a study of the interpersonal dynamics of a marriage. But driving it all is the sinking feeling of despair that something sinister, and beyond all control, lies just beyond the cusp of understanding.

Yet, under the blanket of pessimism resulting from the ultimate triumph of evil, Rosemary reaches the perversely happy ending she so desires; her apartment, husband, and new family—with the single, however significant, caveat regarding the nature her baby.