The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson | Popular Library | 1959 | 174 pages

Shirley Jackson’s monumental haunted house tale sets the standard for the genre, while delivering a poignant character study of a lonely and dispossessed woman searching for a place to call her own.

HELP ELEANOR COME HOME

Paranormal investigator Dr. John Montague assembles a small team to stay inside Hill House, a blighted mansion with a history of misfortunes, and record any instances of the supernatural. Joining him is Luke Sanderson, heir to the estate, Theodora, a young woman with exceptional psychic abilities, and Eleanor Vance, a longtime caregiver to her recently deceased mother.

Freed from the demands of her ailing mother and the pressures of a shared living space with her overbearing sister, Eleanor is the sole member of Dr. Montague’s team to actually embrace the prospect of living at Hill House. Eleanor Initially bonds with Theodora, perhaps the sister she always wanted, but their relationship is ultimately strained by Eleanor’s growing emotional neediness, and the increasing undercurrent of jealousy over Luke’s attention.

Then the nocturnal noises begin.

Although the history of Hill House is detailed, the nature of the haunting remains ambiguous. Rather than particular specters, the manifestations here are limited to an inexplicable cold spot, and a series of explosive poundings and door bangings that methodically travels down the hallways at night. The most deliciously creepy scene, involving holding hands in the dark, subtly underplays its shock, delivering a chill-inducing moment more effective in its absence than a more explicit depiction of horror.

Amid growing tensions with Theodora, Eleanor is further singled out of the group when a mysterious message is found scrawled on the wall, referring to her by name. The late arrival of Dr. Montague’s wife throws even more turmoil into the group dynamic of the house. Mrs. Montague serves as the vulgar counterpoint to Dr. Montague’s more thoughtful, if ineffectual, approach to the paranormal. With her planchette in hand, she quickly spins out an embellished and factually-challenged tale of nuns being sealed alive in the walls of the house.

Regardless of her proclivity toward showmanship and arguable charlatanism, Mrs. Montague does seem to sense the special importance Eleanor holds to Hill House, and touches on her eventual fate. Her pronouncement that contacted spirits “love to repeat themselves” during sessions eerily evokes an early scene with Eleanor. Defending her intent to drive to Hill House over the objections of her sister, Eleanor’s repeated protests (“It’s half my car…. It’s half my car…. It’s half my car….”), foreshadow the pattern of a failed communications from the spirit world.

Eleanor occupies the focal point and and serves as the catalyst of the haunting at Hill House. Existing as something of a ghost in her regular life, she is particularly vulnerable to the supernatural forces at play. Hill House never explicitly reveals the details of its malevolent entity, but this determined ambiguity helps vault its haunted house to a more universal level, and painfully exposes the personal failings of its intrepid research team.

Much more an evocative, character-driven mood piece than a straight-out shocker, The Haunting of Hill House remains required reading for well-seasoned horror fans, and genre newcomers seeking a quintessential ghost story.

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Night Slaves

Night Slaves
Jerry Sohl | Fawcett Books | 1965 | 174 pages

Suffering from a mental breakdown that has reduced him to a near-catatonic state, Clay Howard slowly recuperates at a private psychiatric facility north of San Francisco. Under an intensive drug therapy program administered by Dr. Matthew Cassel, Clay recounts a strange tale that will challenge his prospects of recovery, and ultimately push him to the brink of insanity.

Clay and Marjorie’s marriage was already troubled at the time of the accident. Losing control of his vehicle, Clay crashed headlong into another car, killing the occupants. Only a heroic medical effort saved Clay’s life, leaving him with an implanted steel mesh in his shattered skull. Seeking solace from Clay’s guilt, and a chance to repair their relationship, the couple head north on a road trip. Setting by chance upon the town of Eldrid, Clay wonders why—given the stereotype of the sleepy small town—all the residents somehow seem sleep deprived.

Clay experiences a bizarre phenomenon on his first night in Eldrid. Just before midnight, he watches all the town’s citizens slowly gather in the town plaza, load up in trucks, and drive off into the night. Seemingly under a sort of hypnotic trance, they are not responsive to questions, and follow a prescribed program of actions. To his surprise and horror, Marjorie also falls under this mysterious spell, and disappears with the others toward their unknown purpose.

Author Jerry Sohl wrote several episodes for The Twilight Zone, and the core mystery of Night Slaves sets a familiar tone for viewers of Rod Serling’s anthology series. Returning the next morning, Marjorie awakes with no recollection of her nocturnal escapades. Attempting to convince her of her actions, Clay realizes that by persisting in discussing the events of the previous night, Marjorie will suspect his mental health of failing.

During another evening of night-time excursions by the townspeople and his wife, Clay meets an alluring young woman who seems unaffected by the hypnotic marching orders. Calling herself Naillil, she tantalizes Clay with her physical charms, and the possibility of providing the answers to Eldrid’s mysteries. Night Slaves actually offers the prospect of parallel romances; in addition to Clay’s infatuation with the pixyish Naillal (as recounted in the flashbacks), Dr. Cassel struggles to contain his growing attraction to Marjorie, who reluctantly acknowledges to herself that Clay is no longer the man she married. Both relationships pose some troubling questions; Dr. Cassel’s dubious medical ethics regarding involvement with a patient’s wife, and Clay’s doubtful maturity, fixated upon a young girl with whom he breaks into drugstores at night to make illicit milkshakes.

As Clay’s retelling grows more elaborate, his mental competence continues to be an open question. In a virtual validation of all the world’s tin-foil hat crazies, Clay’s resistance to mind control stems from the inherent electromagnetic-resistant properties of the metal plates in his head. He even fashions a chain-metal hat for his wife, out of a metal link purse purchased in the drugstore, in an attempt to block the signal that commands her to go out each evening. The elaborate evidence provided by the doctor supporting the delusional nature of Clay’s accounts feeds into his paranoid suspicions of vast, powerful conspiracies at work.

The nature of Eldrid’s affliction is revealed early, proving not to be the anticipated “Gotcha!” ending conditioned by so many Twilight Zone scripts. The real twist comes in response to the fundamental question, “Is Clay crazy?” Even the divisive ending remains ambiguous; is it a final act of shocking despair, or gateway to transcendental happiness?

Night Slaves was adapted into a 1970 made-for-television movie starring James Franciscus and Lee Grant.

The Beetle

The Beetle
Richard Marsh | Consul Books | 1967 | 253 pages

Originally published in 1897, The Beetle spins a tale of supernatural horrors over the course of four distinct sections, each featuring a narration of the often overlapping events from a different character’s point of view. It merges a few popular genres into a mash-up of mystery, serial pot-boiler, and detective fiction into a tale of revenge by an ancient cult.

The first section is the most moodily atmospheric, establishing the arrival of a strange, malicious presence through the eyes of a destitute man. Robert Holt, an unemployed clerk turned away from a public housing shelter, breaks into a run-down cottage seeking a temporary refuge for the night. Inside, he encounters a grotesque, but magnetic, creature who quickly places him under a kind of mind control. Unable to fight the mesmeric spell, Holt is directed to travel across the city and break into the house of Paul Lessingham, a young and quickly rising star in the House of Commons.

Holt is a broken man traversing the landscape of a squalid neighborhood, dirty, barefoot and dressed in rags. He is a tragic character whose plight already makes him invisible to polite society, but is further shielded by the unyielding drive of a remote mind. Confronted during his burglary, Holt escapes capture, strickening Lessingham simply by repeating the instructed words, “The Beetle!

With the story established, the middle sections of the book stall out the momentum, introducing Paul Lessingham’s fiance, Marjorie Lindon, and rival for her affections, Sydney Atherton. The Beetle’s shape-shifting villainy is revealed, but any evil machinations are temporarily tabled in favor of the chamber drama between these two characters. Lessingham is already understood to be the ultimate focus of the Beetle’s revenge, and the shift in perspective just seems to circle around the initial burglary and other shared incidents without adding much illumination. Many pages detail the latent love triangle, but the romantic angle just conflates the importance Marjorie holds to Atherton and Lessingham as an impending victim.

The attitudes of the era in which the book was originally written are not only reflected in Marjorie, but in Atherton as well. Twenty or so years before the horrors of World War I, Atherton good-naturedly works as an inventor of chemical weapons capable of killing entire armies—and nearly kills an associate with a clumsily broken capsule of poison gas!

Interestingly, Paul Lessingham occupies the core of the revenge story, but does not have a dedicated section expressing his character’s point of view. A cool and effective orator and politician, Lessingham falls victim to crippling hysterics at the sight of simple missives from the Beetle.

The final section switches the action to detective mode, as private investigator Augustus Champnell takes up the challenge to find the elusive Beetle and save Marjorie’s life. Precipitating the headlong chase is Lessingham’s story detailing his original encounter with the Beetle twenty years prior in Egypt. His capture and escape from the clutches of an ancient cult brought him first hand observations of a secret society engaging in ritual human sacrifice, underscoring the Victorian fascination with the exotic and deadly dangers of the orient.

The pursuit of the villain on the British rail system finally amounts to something of a glorified game of trainspotting, with a deus ex machina train crash offering a resolution to the proceedings the protagonists seem incapable of providing themselves.

The Search for Joseph Tully

The Search for Joseph Tully
William H. Hallahan | Avon Books | 1974 | 283 pages

He looked at his watch. Eleven-twenty. Incredible, He’d been to a seánce, fallen asleep, had an incredible nightmare, fled across the city, been given a violent shock…, had a conversation … about hypnosis, and now sat in his car. And it was only eleven-twenty.

As the wrecking ball of redevelopment draws inexorably closer to their Brooklyn row house, a dwindling group of neighbors help Peter Richardson face a terrifying premonition; someone is out to kill him.

Troubled by strange nightmares and suffering from “whooshing” auditory hallucinations, Peter’s paranoia is fed by the theories of his downstairs neighbor, Albert Clabber, a defrocked priest and self-described student of the occult. Clabber has cultivated another neighbor, Ozzie Goulart, into his fold, drawing out his latent psychic abilities—abilities that seem to confirm the growing danger surrounding Peter. As the building’s tenants slowly move out, and Goulart inexplicably disappears, Peter faces an increased sense of isolation, and a hysterical fatalism that his end is drawing near.

Melancholy permeates much of The Search for Joseph Tully, as the wrecking ball irreversibly brings change to Peter’s Brooklyn neighborhood. The snow-swept quadrangle created by the demolished buildings, the lonely vigil by the extant sign on the former Waite’s Grocery, and the ringing of the chain against the demolition arm, mourn the spirit of a lost community. The human landscape is destroyed alongside the physical, as a former community of odd neighbors—seniors, spiritualists, psychologists, ex-priests, and artists—are scattered by redevelopment.

Peter’s agonizing wait for his fate alternates with Matthew Willow’s parallel genealogical detective story. A mundane time-out from the occurrences at the Brevoort Apartments, Willow’s search for the descendants of Joseph Tully has limited appeal beyond History Detectives fans. Trudging between county courthouses and examining historical documents, Willow’s motivations remain unclear, but when an unexpected lead develops from a series of dead-ends, his search undoubtedly leads to a certain row house in Brooklyn.

Failing to receive a satisfactory diagnosis for his ailments through conventional medicine, Peter seeks out a more mystical approach. He attempts to sit for a tarot card reading, participates in a seánce, submits to an unorthodox hypnosis session, and entertains discussions regarding the transmigration of souls. The Search for Joseph Tully steeps itself in the paranormal and occult obsessions of its era, slowly driving its doomed protagonist–along with his building, community, and neighborhood–to his preordained fate.

Although possibly derived from a mad acid trip, the most direct words of warning, written on the wall of an abandoned building, ultimately go unheeded:

Richardson! Run for your life!

The Glory Hand

The Glory Hand
Paul & Sharon Boorstin | Berkley Books | 1983 | 289 pages

After her mother’s violent murder, thirteen-year-old Cassie Broyles enrolls in Casmaran, an exclusive summer camp in the wilds of rural Maine. Cassie soon discovers all is not as it appears at Casmaran, starting with her initial meeting with Miss Grace, the ancient, wheelchair-bound headmistress. The reclusive crone welcomes her with an inappropriately erotic kiss.

Cassie’s fellow campers are little more than one-dimensional cut outs, with a single defining trait describing their behavior. Chelsea is a Beverly Hills fashion plate; Jo is a poker-playing daughter of a Wall Street high roller; Melanie is a radio and television obsessed nerd who longs for Pac-Man and episodes of Dallas; and Iris is a Christian social outcast. All are tormented by a group of seniors led by Abigail, an overly developed beauty whose initial rounds of bullying lead to a series of strange hazing rituals.

An unnerving incident at the lakeside pavilion leads Cassie to wonder what strange powers the seniors possess, as several girls from Cassie’s circle—including her best friend Robin—seemingly fall under Abigail’s spell. The girls’ story is interrupted by the intrusion of another flatly developed, clichéd character. Jake Lazarus, a Jewish bohemian New Yorker (and deli-sandwich lover) renting a cabin from Camp Casmaran as an artistic retreat, spouts line after line of aching dialogue that attempts to pass as naturalistic.

While menstruation as a source of horror was arguably effective in Stephen King’s Carrie, here it is awkwardly detailed as a condition of ritual selection. Disappointingly, the elements of a coming-of-age horror set at camp never really gel into a successful story, but are still somehow inherently appealing. The main interest revolves around the adolescent protagonist, investigating weird clues and navigating the sinister landscape at Casmaran in an attempt to emotionally connect with her deceased mother. Jake’s story, however, and his wife’s attempt to intervene, seem like a distraction.

In an odd turn, the Curator of European Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art briefly plays the role of supernatural detective, consulting reference books and adroitly piecing together the hellish shenanigans at Casmaran—finally exclaiming, “You’ve got to get … out of there!”

Spoiler alerts are probably unnecessary, since following the rather obvious roadmap drawn by The Glory Hand eventually leads, of course, to a ***SATANIC COVEN*** debauching in the woods to celebrate the Grand Sabbath. A few final twists limply try to posit the is-she-or-isn’t-she-under-the-demonic-spell question, but fail to generate much suspense. Even the possible complicity of Cassie’s Senator father, circling back to the book’s prologue, ultimately lacks much impact considering his general absence from the story.

Also, points deducted [-1] for the obligatory killing of a kitten.

The Nightwalker

The Nightwalker | Thomas Tessier | Signet Books | 1979 | 183 pages

Bobby Ives, a disabled Vietnam veteran living in London, struggles with strange, seizure-like episodes, and is haunted by vivid memories of a previous life on a Caribbean island. Experiencing unusual sensations in his hands and feet, he succumbs to violent outbursts that he is unable to rationalize. Slowly opening up emotionally to his English girlfriend, Annie, Bobby is nonetheless frustrated that she continually rejects his offers to move in with him. However, an inexplicably shocking act on the streets of London begins a dark journey that is seemingly beyond his control.

After a series of impulsive attacks on unsuspecting victims in Hyde Park, Bobby fears that he cannot control the rising bloodlust inside himself. Rejecting a conventional diagnosis of migraines offered by his psychologist, Bobby turns to Miss Tanith, a psychic he discovered in the classified ads, in order to confirm his own suspicions regarding his affliction.

Lupus naturae. Loup-garou. You carry the sign of the wolf.”

The nature of Bobby’s lycanthropy mostly treads an ambiguous line between the physical and the psychological, with a few circumstantial bits of evidence suggesting an actual–if not complete–transformation. Beyond the supernatural, what remains is a dark exploration of a murderous mind, with enough self-awareness to attempt a measure of control over its violent impulses. As such, the standard genre tropes are refreshingly absent, with the exception of the introduction of a silver dagger—the ultimate magical weapon to fatally pierce the heart of the werewolf.

The introduction of Angel, a young punk girl Bobby meets panhandling in the park, adds a few seventies-era dated elements to story, particularly during their visits to the club scene. The conflicted protagonist and the psychic establish such a throwback vibe to the classic werewolf tale that the intrusion of a—however limited–punk aesthetic seems jarring, as do the rather explicit sex scenes. Ultimately, Angel just seems like an extra character added for Bobby to potentially victimize.

The Nightwalker is suffused with a weary fatalism, reflected in the older-than-her-years Miss Tanith, who reluctantly joins the effort to control Bobby’s disease while resigned to the nature of fate to take its predestined course.

Strange Seed

Strange Seed | T.M. Wright | Playboy Press | 1980 | 239 pages

Newlyweds Paul and Rachel Griffin relocate to Paul’s childhood home in rural New York, but the house and surrounding woods exert an uncanny spell over the couple, and hold a terrible secret that not only threatens their marriage, but their lives.

Strange Seed continues the post-Harvest Home trend in the nineteen-seventies featuring urban dwellers unwittingly falling into the trap of rural horror, but offers a satisfying variation. Rather than a secret network of occultists, the terror experienced by Paul and Rachel manifests from the forest itself, and takes the innocent shape of a small child. What follows is a (very) slow burn suspense tale; an initial act of vandalism and various echo-like voices from the forest set the stage for the most effective chill in the book, when Rachel discovers a naked and dirty child huddling in a small recess in her kitchen.

The mute child seemingly bewitches the couple with a strangely magnetic charm, as they take him into their protective care. Meanwhile, Paul becomes more distant as memories of his father’s death haunt his waking mind and lure him to incursions deeper within the woods. Rachel’s fascination with the beatific nature of the child’s features flirts with crossing over the boundary from an assumed parental pride into an almost erotic attraction.

The revelations surrounding the actions by the previous occupants of the house and their own experience with foundling children of the forest, plus a shocking act of violence by the reclusive caretaker, add some additional interest to the creepy atmosphere. Beyond the general climate of unease, however, Strange Seed has little to offer in overall shock value, as Paul and Rachel become virtually crippled with an overwhelming lethargy, unable to act or leave of their own free will.

Readers waiting for a final pay-off will likely be disappointed, as a final twist fails to surprise, and does not alter the already established dynamics of the story.

Since this title is only the first in a series of novels, whether or not the additional books successfully expand the initial foray into rural horror and establish a greater lore surrounding these enigmatic children of the forest is an open question.

Cast a Cold Eye

Cast a Cold Eye | Alan Ryan | Tor Books | 1984 | 350 pages

Small, isolated communities always seem to harbor terrible secrets, and the western Irish village of Doolin is no exception. American writer Jack Quinlan travels to Doolin for background research on the Irish Famine for an upcoming historical novel, but soon discovers the tragic victims of the past are hauntingly present in the lives of the villagers.

The barren, windswept coast of Ireland provides an evocative setting for a chilling ghost story, as Jack experiences visitations of mournful, skeletal figures on the roads and in the countryside around his cottage and the village. Grainne Clarkin, a bookstore clerk he met in a brief stopover in Dublin, occasionally comes to visit him for weekends in Doolin, providing a native Irish romantic interest for Jack that occasionally verges on fetishistic.

He studied her face, her dark eyes, her perfect white skin, her black hair, her fragile build combined with a full ripe body.”

The ongoing will-they-or-won’t-they subplot is finally consummated on a stone slab outdoors during a ferocious rainstorm in an overblown climax that would seem more in keeping with a lurid romance novel. Meanwhile, a group of village old-timers engage in cryptic blood rituals after suffering a few deaths from their ranks, the splattering of the bottled blood around their gravesites echoing the splashing of Grainne’s virginal blood on the rain-soaked ground.

Jack’s ghostly encounters are genuinely creepy; skeletal men by the side of the road, emaciated children crying out to their separated mothers, and ethereal tunes following him across the barrens. Cold to the touch, but seemingly corporeal, these spirits ultimately vanish, leaving Jack to question his own sanity. Protective of Grainne, he reaches out to the local priest for help, but to little avail.

Jack ruminates on the perception of Ireland through the lens of outsiders, particularly those like himself who reach back to their familial homeland in order to find some connection with their lost ancestry. The novel itself is steeped in an emphatic Irishness, although perhaps also filtered through the perspective of an outsider. The breadth of history is argued to be a constant, living presence in the lives of the Doolin villagers, but the Famine in particular serves mostly as a shallow context, a convenient reference point for a group of specters, however effective.

Doolin does, of course, harbor a dark secret, but Cast a Cold Eye refreshingly avoids sending its outsider protagonist down the fatal Wicker Man path. The villagers are just as terrified as Jack Quinlan, and although perhaps suspicious of his motives and Dublin girlfriend, ultimately accept him into their fold.

All events converge and resolve in a satisfactory way, generally avoiding easy genre pitfalls and potential clichés as the days reach toward the quintessential horror boilerplate–-the showdown on All Hallow’s Eve.

Dark Seeker

Dark Seeker | K.W. Jeter | Tor Books | 1987 | 317 Pages

The blue-tinged darkness flickering at the edges of Mike Tyler’s vision constantly threatens to expand and overwhelm his perception of reality, kept at bay only by a strictly regulated series of pills. His medicated state serves as a dark legacy of murders committed in an altered consciousness as part of a cult, directed by a Manson-like guru who dosed his followers into a raised, hive-mind level of awareness with an experimental drug. The capture of his wife, after years on the run from police, triggers a crisis that encourages him to stop his medication, and succumb to the seductive call of a psychotropic past.

Mike’s jailhouse visit with his wife provides the foundation for the core dramatic tension in Dark Seeker. Accepting her own fate, she pleads with him to rescue their son, who—she claims—was stolen away from her by another former cult member just prior to her capture. The story awakens powerful memories in Mike of their son—and of his tragic death just weeks after being born.

A rather convenient explanation involving a changeling sets Mike off to find his missing son. Disposing of his pills, he lapses back into his enhanced mindset, hoping to merge awareness with the other former cultists and discover the location of his son. But Mike knows that something else lives in that psychically enhanced darkness, a presence he remembers as The Host, whose murderous agenda seems to have only grown over the years.

Most of the horror derives from brief visitations from The Host, his liquid black eyes and long teeth swimmingly superimposed on the edge of vision. One sequence involving a corpse in a car could almost play as dark slapstick, with the physicality of an inert body thwarting the attempts at its manipulation and disposal.

A grim and gritty view of Los Angeles provides the backdrop, its geography-of-nowhere landscape of chain link fences and freeway underpasses defining encounters between former cult members, destitute homeless, and former abuse victims desperately attempting to build new lives.

The Host serves as something akin to a bogeyman, its mysterious nature and origins secondary to the shock value derived from fleeting glimpses and unexpected arrivals. Readers looking for some explanation of this enigmatic evil figure will probably be left disappointed. Instead, the dramatic quest for family drives Dark Seeker, through the mirrored domestic units of Mike’s tenuous present and tragic past.

Ratman’s Notebooks

Ratman’s Notebooks
Stephen Gilbert | Lancer Books | 1967 | 191 pages

The unnamed narrator of Ratman’s Notebooks lives at home in a rundown estate with his elderly, pestering mother, and is bullied at work by his manager, Jones, a pettily vindictive man who was once an underling to the narrator’s father, the former owner of the company. His only friends are the rats who live in the garden, spared from his mother’s extermination order with a last minute change of heart. Among the growing nest of rodents outside, the narrator builds a special bond with Socrates, a clever white rat with a remarkable aptitude for learning.

Quickly developing a system of communication, the narrator begins a training regime for his army of rats, with Socrates serving as his general. Frustrated and belittled at work and at home, he eventually experiences a moral epiphany, realizing that he no longer feels compelled to abide by the legal or ethical norms imposed by society. The initial foray into criminal action involves breaking into a supermarket to feed the swelling ranks of his rodent followers, followed by monetary heists to pay off his family debts. However, the ultimate target is Jones, whose shocking act of violence escalates the narrator’s desire for revenge.

The narrator’s genuine affection for Socrates occupies the core of Notebooks, but the introduction of a rival throws a potential internal conflict into the account of criminal exploits and revenge. A young, dark-haired rat named Ben shows the same affinity for learning as Socrates, but seems less inclined to accept the friendship of the narrator, who fears that his role as leader may someday possibly be usurped.

Ratman’s Notebooks was the basis for the cult 1971 film, Williard, and the character of Ben continued on as the “star” of Ben, its 1972 sequel. Interestingly, although the first film was faithful to the source material, the sequel transformed Ben from a dubiously loyal character to a die-hard companion to a chronically ill child.

The adventures of Ratman’s gang, documented by sensationalized newspaper accounts, are entertaining centerpieces here. From home invasion to strong-arm robbery on the street, they inevitably grow to a culminating act of bloody revenge that makes an ultimate redemption a fatal choice. It all adds up to a stunning portrait of a descent into madness—one that the protagonist eventually chooses to escape from—but avoids the common trap of explaining away everything as simply existing all in the deranged mind.

Tear him up,” I whispered softly.

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