The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck

The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck
Alexander Laing | Collier Books | 1962 (first published 1934) | 250 pages

Told in the form of a written transcript of events by medical student David Saunders, The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck chronicles a series of bizarre occurrences swirling around a small university hospital following the disappearance of an ethically challenged doctor.

After brusquely dismissing a former amputation patient’s cries of pain issuing from a phantom limb, Dr. Gideon Wyck embarks on a strange nocturnal rendezvous with a nurse in the desolate farmlands outside of town. Trailed by the inquisitive Saunders, the doctor disappears in a car with an unknown driver, and is not seen again. For the first few days following the disappearance, the students and faculty are relieved by the temporary absence of a generally cruel and erratic personality. When his embalmed body eventually turns up in the freezer with the cadavers stored for anatomy class dissections, however, the small Maine medical college finds itself at the center of a baffling murder mystery.

Although the whodunnit question functions as the nominal core of the story, Saunders’ investigation unearths an increasingly macabre series of revelations stemming from Wyck’s secret program of experiments. Former patients complain of demonic possession, donors suffer from sympathetic pains with the recipients of their unauthorized blood transfusions, epileptics enter into bouts of murderous rage while suffering from seizure-induced blackouts, and a series of monstrously deformed babies are birthed by women who share some common connection with Gideon Wyck.

The grotesqueries are necessarily viewed at some distance due to the conceit of a transcript from a student’s perspective, but succeed in evoking a queasy atmosphere of morbidity. Considering the list of shocking discoveries, the middle section of the book plods along while Saunders shifts through and considers at length each of all the possible suspects and their alibis, including his classmates, hospital administrator, the county coroner,  and even his would-be girlfriend.Although some of the scientific content is pure nonsense, reading Gideon Wyck provides a comparable experience to browsing the formaldehyde-soaked specimens enclosed in glass jars on display in a museum of medical curiosities.

The denouement falls far too flat for Gideon Wyck to be included in the pantheon of great mysteries, but its reputation is justly earned as an early masher of genres—mystery, horror, science fiction, and medical thriller—that somehow congeals into an oddly original pulp concoction.

The Ghost Pirates

The Ghost Pirates
William Hope Hodgson | Sphere Books | 1975 | 159 pages

Told in the form of a deposition, The Ghost Pirates recounts a crew member’s increasingly terrifying encounters with the supernatural aboard a  doomed sailing ship. Originally published in 1909, this work and several others by William Hope Hodgson, who was killed in World War I, were influential to H.P. Lovecraft and other early writers of what we now refer to as weird fiction.

Setting out from San Francisco around Cape Horn on a homeward journey to England, the Mortezestus sails with the reputation of being a haunted ship. Jessop, a newly boarded sailor, discovers that the entire crew, save a young seaman named Williams, disembarked and was replaced prior to departure. Williams, although determined to stay on board and collect his full pay, tells Jessop his concerns over the vessel, which he characterizes as possessing “too many shadows.”

After a few uneventful days at sea, the Mortzestus begins to earn its haunted reputation. A series of inexplicable problems with the infrastructure leads to several accidents among the crew members. In an early, chill-inducing scene, Jessop witnesses a shadowy form with blazing eyes climb over the railing, only to later disappear back into the sea. Tammy, a young apprentice, also sees a dark, shifting figure while on watch, eventually leading Jessop to take him into his confidence.

A series of hard-to-explain encounters escalates into more overtly paranormal experiences, fueling the inherent tension of the claustrophobic setting aboard the isolated ship at sea. The specifics of the riggings and deck locations are detailed with a technical precision, as crew members climb and search the mastheads for the cause of their increasingly puzzling problems. Masts collapse in calm seas, strange lights wink on the horizon, and the ship becomes enshrouded by a strange mist. Jessop and Tammy withhold their observations, waiting for the Second Mate to accept the realization that supernatural forces are working against their beleaguered ship.

Suggesting something beyond a mere haunting, Jessop pontificates an intriguing cosmology to explain the Mortezestus’ encounters with the unknown. His theory of intersecting planes of existence would fit more closely with the early canon of science fiction and burgeoning cosmic horror than with simple ghost stories. However, the The Ghost Pirates ultimately benefits from the detached detailing of events rather than explicit explanations regarding the causes of the spectral encounters.

The spare prose, detailed ship locations, and use of cockney dialects for the crew’s dialogue all help to firmly bring the self-contained world of the Mortezestus to life. Each evening births a sickening sense of anticipation,  as the stricken seamen fear another onslaught of terror, along with the dreadful prospect of never reaching safe port again.

The appearance of several shadowy ships beneath the surface of the water surrounding the Mortezestus signals the arrival of the shocking final moments on board, as all the eerie tension built up over time culminates in a horrific conclusion. Although arguably hopeless, the inevitable nature of the resolution provides a logical and satisfying finish to the doomed voyage.

The Dead Riders

The Dead Riders
Elliot O’Donnell | Paperback Library | 1967 | 224 pages

“PREFATORY NOTE: According to reports that appeared in the Press from time to time prior to the Second World War, efforts were being made to resuscitate Black Magic, with all its attendant evils, in various Continental countries, and in England. The War would seem to have had a curbing effect, but, unhappily, there are grounds for believing those efforts are being renewed with undiminished vigor. – The Author”

Globetrotting fortune hunter Burke Blake runs afoul of an ancient mystery cult in this throwback men’s adventure novel. Although originally written in the early fifties, the tone more closely resembles the thirties pulp adventures of Doc Savage, or the even earlier villainous escapades of Fu Manchu.

Blake signs on with a small expedition to the Gobi desert led by archaeological dilettante, Herbert Newsam, but his true motivation is to discover the fabled lost treasure of Genghis Khan. More modern notions of cultural relativism would certainly differentiate between “adventurer” and “plunderer. Some half-baked murder, political intrigue, and romantic liaison subplots stew around the much-delayed launch of the exploration party from Hong Kong. Echoing some of the oriental stereotypes of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series, the women Blake encounters are beautiful seductresses (with delicate hands), while the men are merely inscrutable.

Once underway, the expedition quickly falls apart along the desolate trails of the Gobi Desert. Odd narrative pacing problems abound, with Blake falling in with another small band of adventurers before being taken captive by a band of occultists. The Lovonans, followers of the wizard Shadna Rana, are the hereditary guardians of Ghenghis Khan’s treasure. Insisting that Burke and his fellow prisoners accept allegiance to their god, Dakoalach. The Lovonans attempt various tactics of seduction and torture to bend the will of their captives. After a daring escape—and nearly half-way into the novel—Blake is back in London and introduced to a whole new cast of characters.

An accidental meeting in the street with old school chum, Garnet Deane, leads Blake into a paid position as an investigator of the occult. Deane, now a stuffy member of Parliament, is convinced that the practice of Black Magic is resurgent in contemporary England, and he hires Burke to sniff it out. The occasional odd footnote in the text seems to imply a dubious true-life connection to allegedly increasing events of occult ritual. Although the long-reaching tendrils of the Lovonan cult abound in London, Blake spends less time investigating and more time becoming infatuated with Garnet’s three sisters.

Bouncing around various night spots and the Green Eagle Club, Blake’s romantic eye wanders in its consideration of the Deane sisters: the beautiful but coolly aloof eldest, Jean, the vivacious redheaded charmer, Lana, and the youthful good girl, Pat. They are all eventually revealed to be somehow involved in the machinations of the Lovonan cult, leaving Blake to sort out the messy details—and perhaps more importantly, whom to marry.

Ultimately, Blake seems more a smitten schoolboy than an effective investigator, leaving other parties to eventually confront the villain and save the day for England. Even after breaking into a “mystery mansion” and dressing up as a wax mannequin to observe an occult ritual, Blake discovers that another wax mannequin is also an investigator in disguise!

The Dead Riders do make an appearance [full disclosure: two appearances], but this whole disjointed serial affair could have been alternately titled, “The Supper Club Girls.”

The Witches of Windlake

The Witches of Windlake
Miriam Lynch | Popular Library | 1971 | 287 pages

After impulsively accepting a position as governess to the Louvayne family, the reclusive new occupants of long-abandoned Windlake mansion, Jennie Maxwell finds herself embroiled in an infernal battle-of-the-wills for possession of her young ward.

Jennie immediately falls for the romantic charms of darkly brooding Victor Louvayne, newly arrived from some vaguely defined Eastern European country along with his mother, Ottalie, and young son, Julian. Victor and his mother are reluctant to speak of the tragic death of Victor’s wife, Franzi, and become visibly shaken after hearing Jennie recount her recent tarot card reading. Beyond foretelling her great turn of fortune at the hands of a “dark man and woman,” the cards promise “three women and an unexpected arrival.”

Indeed, a trio of women does arrive unexpectedly at Windlake–or perhaps to the Louvaynes, not as unexpectedly as foretold. Like some gothic romance variation on Macbeth’s three weird sisters, Franzi’s mother, Josepha Hanar, and two sisters, Lenya and Ilse, descend upon the manor after chasing the Louvaynes across the Atlantic. Of course, they are also witches, immediately emasculating Victor and sending Ottalie into a resigned compliance. The Hanar women barely contain their scorn for Jennie, and openly challenge her for control over Julian.

Julian, a treacly darling smitten with Jennie, is also something of a petulant child, subject to uncontrollable temper tantrums and in need of complicated story-telling games to coerce his actions. Jennie alternates between convincing him to role play in these games and violently yanking his collar when apoplexy strikes. Perhaps Julian’s aggressively childish behavior should be forgiven, however, because….Satan.

Jennie herself pauses on occasion to reflect upon the inherent creepiness of her latent romance with Victor. Objectively, he seduces an employee who bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife, dresses her in his late wife’s clothing, and sets her up in the role of replacement mother for his neglected child. Even after collapsing in the face of the Hanar danger and placing all hope in her to save Julian, he caressingly  refers to her as “little Jennie” and promises to take charge of the family after they are married.

A New England blizzard helps contain the suspense, trapping all the players in Windlake for the witches’ nightly cycle of occult ritual followed by attempts on Jennie’s life. Disappointingly, Jennie’s supernatural potential hinted at by the tarot cards turns out to be…the power of prayer? After functioning as something of a missionary to Julian, the anger of the Hanar women boils into a rage that turns against all in the household.

Still, the reductive tale of a plucky young heroine engaged in battle with a trio of smug witches–and their vermin-like familiars–in a frozen New England mansion may be enough for a little seasonal gothic comfort.

From Satan with Love

From Satan with Love
Virginia Coffman | Pinnacle Books | 1971 | 212 pages

The sixth book in the Lucifer Cover occult gothic series settles comfortably into a rote pattern established by the previous few outings: an attractive young newcomer arrives in the diabolical coastal-California spa town, falls under the sinister seductive charms of its enigmatic owner, battles to resist the the temptations of an easy hedonism, and finally struggles to escape with her very soul intact.

The newcomer in this volume is Maeva Wells, along with her young niece, Jenniver. The pair spend an enjoyable afternoon of family bonding hiking in the coastal foothills above Big Sur, until Jenniver falls down a cliff side and breaks her ankle. They end up in Lucifer Cove, a previously unknown spa town marked by sulfurous plumes and an inexplicably confusing tangle of local roads. While Jenniver recovers from her injuries in the town’s clinic, Maeva is welcomed into a luxurious suite in the resort, recently vacated by the tragic death of its former occupant.

An intended one-night stay turns into several, as Jenniver seems determined to isolate herself from Maeva and stay under the care of the clinic, watched over by the coolly detached Dr. Rossiter. Exposed to the decadent lifestyle offered by the spa, Maeva begins to indulge in her fantasies of attraction to its mysterious owner, Marc Meridon. Ultimately Maeva succumbs to the temptations, attending a Black Mass at Lucifer Cove’s temple and signing her name to an infernal pact, wishing “Let me be loved by Marc.”

Of course, all is not what it appears—or, to readers of the series, exactly what it appears. Familiar characters and locations feature in mostly empty call-backs from previous books. Nadine Janos, high-priestess of the temple (and the main focus of an earlier title), here simply wanders around the margins, stripped of any complexities or conflicts surrounding her role in Lucifer Cove. Although initially not much more than a brogue-speaking stereotype, Sean O’Flannery, her Irish boyfriend, occupies even less of a role now, serving as little more than a perfunctory helper for Maeva’s escape attempt. Even Kinkajou the cat, Marc’s shapeshifting alternate form, is reduced to watching Maeva through the window from her garden terrace. All of Lucifer Cove adds up to little more than a reflection of the main street’s false-Tudor store fronts.

If nothing else, Lucifer Cove stands as an artifact to a specific, bygone era of post-Summer of Love California history, when hippies, cults and communes crossed over into the popular culture, and celebrities dropped in to partake in the entertainment spectacle of an occult ritual. Or perhaps this historical recollection is an entirely false history, only appearing in the cultural imagination of the times—but still one never to be repeated.

A leisurely enjoyable–albeit incredibly slight–placeholder for the Lucifer Cove series (although a seventh book was never written), From Satan with Love fails to advance the ongoing battle between Marc Meridon and Dr. Rossiter, offering another throw-away outsider’s tale of her devilish encounter with the secretive, sulfur-shrouded California town.

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.

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.