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.”

The Naked Witch

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The Naked Witch
Starring Jo Maryman | Robert Short | Libby Hall | Directed by Larry Buchanan | 1961 | 59 minutes

After a patience-testing voiceover on the history of witchcraft, with accompanying images of Hieronymus Bosch paintings, the story finally begins with an unnamed college student (Robert Short) arriving in a small Texas town. Immediately launching into another pseudo-historical voiceover narration, the student details the history of the isolated German immigrant community he has come to study. Interested in the folklore of witchcraft and the occult in the town, the student discovers that local residents are unwilling to talk about their superstitious beliefs.

Breaking the communal silence, Kirska (Joy Maryman), the coquettish innkeeper’s daughter, gives the student a one-hundred-year-old book about the Luckenbach Witch, a local widow who was accused of witchcraft by an adulterous husband. Before being staked to death for her alleged crimes, the widow places a curse on all the descendants of her accusers. Drawn to the (remarkably shallow) grave of the witch in the story, the student removes the fatal stake and inadvertently resurrects the slumbering witch (Libby Hall).

Taking time out for the occasional skinny dip in the vegetation-laden local pond, the witch pursues her century-old revenge against the townspeople. Splashing about in the water, hair and make-up continuity errors arguably outnumber the awkward teases of nude flesh. Guilty about his role in the witch’s return, the student pursues her (with the help of the local librarian), to a nearby series of caves. Falling under the witch’s seductive spell, the student must struggle to save her final victim—Kirska!

A low-budget titillation for its time, The Naked Witch possesses a certain charm with its artless framing, sporadic organ score, and poorly synced dialogue. However, today’s viewers may want to save the full 59-minute running time (which seems much longer), and derive a greater and more immediate reward by simply Googling “naked+witch”.

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Prince of Darkness

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Prince of Darkness
Barbara Michaels | Fawcett Books | 1969 | 224 pages

An outsider discovers yet another small village steeped in a secret history of black magic and occult rituals. Only in Prince of Darkness, the outsider’s intentions are far from pure.

Peter Stewart, a small-time con man recently released from an English prison, travels to Middleburg, Maryland, to pursue a new target. Through a disreputable old investigator, Peter gathers information on Dr. Katherine (Kate) More, a folklore professor in Middleburg who has recently been driven into a state of nervous exhaustion following the mysterious suicide of her English fiancé. Her grief, or perhaps her guilt, has triggered her descent into the world of spiritualism, transforming her into a true believer in the mysticism of her academic studies.

After the death of her uncle Stephan, Kate inherited his rambling estate in the Maryland countryside. Sharing the old house is her cousin, Tiphaine, an enchanting young girl with a talent for folk music. The quaint exterior of charming village life in Middleburg hides a dark history, with the remnants of an old religion—including its cyclical rites of ritual sacrifice—holding a firm grasp on the local population.

Stealthily surveying Kate’s house one night shortly after his arrival, Peter witnesses a ritualistic séance. Along with Kate and Tiphaine, Peter recognizes a few of the town’s citizens, including the proprietress of Peter’s boardinghouse, Mrs. Adams, who seems to be leading the ceremony. Assuming that Kate is trying to raise the spirit of her dead lover, Peter formulates a plan to insinuate himself into her life, and to further her mental breakdown to the point of collapse.

Prince of Darkness delivers many familiar genre trappings, including voodoo dolls, suspicious townsfolk, black magic, sacrificial altars, and animal-masked ritual attendees, but its shift in perspective helps set it apart from the standard fare. The typical viewpoint into this realm of occult danger is through Kate, as mysterious events push her to the brink of madness. Instead, here readers look into her world from the outside through Peter, as he puts his shady plan into motion. However, Peter’s anti-heroic nature fails to maintain through to the end, as other sinister forces emerge to threaten Kate. She moves to the center for the final third of the story, allowing for a return to more normal genre standards, along with the expected romance.

A final twist regarding Kate’s dead lover, accompanied by some pseudo-contemplative prattle reflecting upon the meaning of the title, wrap things up at (of course) a witches’ Sabbat on Halloween night.

As a total aside, Tiphaine’s enchanting musical interlude–if a book can be said to truly have one–at the Folklore Society of Middleburg conjures up the insidious, seductive Willow’s Song, the musical interlude from Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). So here it is:

Priestess of the Damned

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Priestess of the Damned
Virginia Coffman | Lancer Books | 1970 | 222 pages

A time capsule of the occult-drenched California of the early seventies (perhaps existing only in the geography of the imagination), Book Two of the Lucifer Cove gothic occult series, features a sympathetic satanic priestess as protagonist. That alone makes the book hard to imagine existing at any other time—particularly after the “satanic panic” of the eighties, which seemingly sought to unearth a conspiracy of devil-worshippers behind every conceivable societal ill.

Nadine Janos, High Priestess of the Devil’s Coven, holds periodic rituals in the Grecian-like temple above Lucifer Cove, an exclusive spa and resort on the remote coast south of San Francisco. A returning character from the first book in the series, The Devil’s Mistress, she is revealed to be something of an outsider in this outing, trying to maintain an aloof status as conduit to Satan among the residents of the small seaside community. Not truly a believer in the package of goods she peddles to her favor-seeking flock, Nadine employs a series of visual tricks and acid-laced ritual drinks to inspire a sense of awe in her powers—and solicit greater donations.

Along with her Irish handyman (and sometime romantic interest) assistant, Sean O’Flannery, Nadine caters to lumpy businessman Buddy Hemplemeier’s wish for stock market success, Edna Schallert’s lonely middle-aged plea for attention, and Sergei Illich’s need to be desirable to his young lover’s eyes with staged spectacles. However, alone one night at the temple, she feels a strange presence and witnesses an otherworldly manifestation, making her wonder about the authenticity of her powers.

Nadine, for the head of a coven of Satan worshippers, seems strangely out of step with the rampant hedonism at Lucifer Cove, where drugs and sex define the treatment as much as time spent in the spa or hot springs. She makes a point in not partaking in the frequent opportunities for personal pleasures, which includes ignoring (except for the aspirin) the engraved silver box filled with a variety of designer drugs issued to the residents. Lost in the labyrinthine corridors during a visit to the spa, she actually turns and runs away from the lascivious advances of two of the resort’s masseuses.

An underlying fear for her independence as High Priestess marks Nadine’s wariness surrounding the intentions of the mysterious resort owner, Marc Meridon, who approaches her with a favor regarding his mistress, Christine Deeth. Nadine also suspects a vague threat in the form of Dr. Erich Haupt, the German doctor (and Hitler look alike) from the spa’s clinic, who doubles as master of ceremonies for many of the resort’s Bacchanalian celebrations.

Although Nadine experiences some unexplained phenomenon in her temple, watches the club’s greasy gigolo die in mysterious circumstances, and discovers some evidence pointing to a celebrity body-snatching ring, Priestess of the Damned succeeds mainly as a character study. The threads of an overarching story are as elusive as the club’s resident cat, Kinkajou, and mainly serve to further the lingering question for future installments, “Who exactly is Marc Meridon and what really is going on at Lucifer Cove?

The Little Wax Doll

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The Little Wax Doll
Norah Lofts | Fawcett Crest Books | 1960 | 224 pages

Returning to England after twenty years of missionary work in Africa, Deborah Mayfield accepts a position as headmistress at a private school in the small village of Walwyk. A forty-four year old spinster, Deborah relishes the prospect of the simple life in the English countryside, teaching the village children and enjoying the amenities of her private cottage. However, a dark local history hangs over Walwyk, with seventeenth century stories telling of Oliver Cromwell’s forces entering the village, but all succumbing to a mysterious fatal illness.

After visiting the cemetery plots of Cromwell’s men, Deborah suspects that happiness may elude her in her bucolic new life. Later, her intangible fears manifest themselves in a troubling note left on her desk at school, written in an exaggeratedly childish script.

Ethel Rigby’s granny treat her something crool.”

Deborah identifies her student Sydney Baines, son of the village handyman, as the author of the note, and ultimately questions Granny Rigby about Ethel. However, Sydney’s mother seems determined to make Deborah ignore his warning about his young school friend. Previous allegations of abuse in the Rigby house—also lodged by Sydney—precipitated a mysterious illness, an affliction Sydney’s mother attributed to black magic directed against her son.

As before, Sydney again falls stricken with a sudden malady, lapsing into a coma and needing immediate hospitalization. The discovery of a small wax figure in Ethel’s desk, along with the constant presence of Granny Rigby’s black cat in her cottage, leads Deborah to a startling realization.

Granny R. is a witch and the cat is her familiar.

That conclusion comes as no great surprise in this tale of suspicion and murder in a small English village, but the ramifications are delayed as the story takes a step back. Threatening the school’s founder and patron, Canon Thorby, with reporting her allegations of witchcraft to the local authorities, Deborah receives a near-fatal blow to the head. She awakens with a complete loss of memory from since the time of her return from Africa. Although the wait for Deborah to trigger her memories–and return to the reader’s level of knowledge–is relatively brief, the delay slows down the storytelling momentum.

They’re all in it and there’s nobody you can trust, so be warned by me and mind your own business, or better still get out of the place.

Once recovered with her memories intact, Deborah’s determination to save Ethel from the occult designs placed upon her by her grandmother remains unwavering. A sympathetic merchant in a neighboring village, who possesses childhood memories of being witness to a Walwyk coven, is introduced as a possible source of assistance in Deborah’s mission, but she remains a refreshingly self-reliant heroine. Partly due to a justifiably paranoid outlook towards her fellow villagers, she proceeds on her own with a plan to rescue Ethel–not necessarily a good plan, but her own, without the help of outside aid.

Deborah even resists the common trap among Gothic romance heroines of falling in love with her employer. This romantic resistance could be attributed to the long years accrued past her impressionable ingénue prime, or perhaps, to Canon Thorby’s pathological sister fixation.

The Mark of Satan

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The Mark of Satan
Ann Loring | Award Books | 1968 | 155 pages

Unable to escape the considerable shadow cast by Rosemary’s Baby, The Mark of Satan casts a web of diabolical intrigue around its innocent young heroine, but fails to provide the least bit of surprise in delivering its occult chills.

After a bitter divorce, Julie Wallace returns to New York with her young son in an attempt to restart her acting career. While examining the job board at the local actor’s union, a stranger approaches with apparent solutions to her two most pressing problems. Lou Davilla, a man of magnetic, but also disquieting, charm, identifies himself as a stage producer, and offers Julie the lead role in a new play he is developing for his recently renovated theatre. He also offers Julie the rental of his small cottage—just perfect for a single mother and her son–located directly behind the theatre, isolated from the busy streets of Greenwich Village in its own private garden.

While moving in to her new cottage, Julie makes a strange discovery. Hidden in a pillowcase, she finds what appears to be a wedding dress—with a blood-red stain over a slash in the material. Tucked inside the dress is a hurriedly scribbled note for help. Initially dismissing it as a practical joke or a prop from a previous production at the theatre, Julie is nonetheless troubled by her find. She begins to suffer nightmares in which she is the sacrificial victim in some kind of unholy ritual, bound and carried along by a line of black-cowled figures.

Coincidentally, Julie’s new role in Davilla’s play, The Thirteen, is that of a naïve young woman who is sacrificed by a witches’ coven during a Black Mass. Mike Abel, Julie’s old friend and former suitor, grows suspicious at the complete lack of publicity surrounding the play as the opening night draws near. In fact, he is unable to find any mention of the play at all. Julie is further rattled when she learns that the previous occupant of her cottage was a former actress in one of Davilla’s plays—before accidentally falling down the cottage stairs to her death.

The Mark of Satan does manage to wring some paranoid atmosphere from its post-Rosemary’s Baby tale of a medieval coven in the heart of a modern metropolis (including a served food item with a suspicious “under taste”), but unfolds in such a predictable, by-the-numbers way that most of the suspense is leeched away. Inevitably, the story leads to its prescribed finish, with all the characters revealed precisely as expected:

***(Not much of a) SPOILER ALERT*** Neighborhood grocer? Satanist. School Principal? Satanist. Costume Designer? Satanist. Lou Davilla? El Diablo. ***END SPOILER***

But the nadir of conformity to hoary genre tropes arrives during one of Julie’s nightmares, when a cowled member of the assembled coven literally chants, “One of us! ONE OF US!”

The Claws of the Crow

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The Claws of the Crow
Ruth Wissman | Warner Books | 1974 | 158 pages

Essentially a three-person character study in a single location, The Claws of the Crow builds suspense by asking how well we know those close to us, although there is little little doubt where the early suspicion leads—two black-clad, cemetery-visiting, gray-haired old spinsters? W-I-T-C-H-E-S!

Raised alone by her two elderly aunts, sixteen-year-old Althea Ingram yearns to be free of the suffocating confines of the only home she has ever known, a decaying old mansion in an overgrown lot formerly surrounded by orange groves. Since the sudden departure of the family’s young housekeeper, the only person with whom Althea shared an emotional affinity, Althea grows to resent the domineering presence of her aunt Veda, and scorns the passivity of her sickly aunt Lydia, who seemingly cowers under her sister’s intimidating presence. A series of strange discoveries leads Althea to fear for Veda’s sanity, and for her own safety.

Furtively returning from a rare late night out, Althea overhears Veda chanting behind the door of a room on the second floor of the house, a room that has always been locked.  Accompanied by the aroma of a strange incense, Veda seems be reciting some sort of secret incantation, performing what must be a kind of occult ritual. Determined to investigate further, Althea later searches the house for a key to the locked room. In the cellar, she discovers a loose brick in the masonry, revealing a secret hiding place with a curious object inside—a waxen figure with gray hair, with a women’s handkerchief tightly wrapped around its chest. Curiosity leads to horror as Althea discovers a second hidden figure—a wet and moldy male doll, battered and beaten, that immediately recalls her late father, who was killed when his automobile crashed into a river.

Slowly becoming convinced that her aunt is not delusional, but actually wields occult powers, Althea resolves to escape from the growing web of Veda’s sinister plans, but not before uncovering the dark secrets hidden in her family’s past, as well as those buried in the back yard. Disappointingly, Althea’s ultimate confrontation with Veda doesn’t reflect the growing realization of her own innate abilities, and Althea must rely on the support of her neighbor’s friend, Bruce, to come to her rescue—confirming the bewitching nature of dreamy college good looks and a motorcycle.

The Devil on Lammas Night

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The Devil on Lammas Night
Susan Howatch | Fawcett Crest Books | 1974 | 224 pages

Nicola Morrison learns to always heed the warnings of Hungarian gypsy fortune tellers, as she ultimately falls under the deadly spell of a new man foreseen to enter her life, a “man with dark hair and dark eyes”.

The man is Tristan Poole, the leader of the Society for the Propagation of Nature Foods, an organization that has insinuated itself into residence at Colwyn Court, the down-at-heel estate belonging to Walter Colywn, father of Nicola’s ex-fiance, Evan. Tristan has moved his retinue of twelve female followers into the manor house, ostensibly in exchange for treating Walter’s psychosomatically ill daughter, Gwyneth. But from the very beginning, it is clear that Tristan is not simply the head of a natural food group, as he makes a familiar of the family cat and works occult spells with his minions, positioning himself to take over the estate for his own nefarious purposes.

The Devil on Lammas Night suffers a great deal of time establishing several sets of characters , mostly extended family to Nichola—our expected heroine—before its narrative reaches the point of introducing the danger that readers already know. Walter’s cousin, Benedict Shaw, and his wife, Jane, move into the cottage on the estate grounds to further Benedict’s academic research. Nicola’s father, Matthew, and his young second wife, Lisa, also arrive for an extended stay, along with Lisa’s young children, Lucy and Timothy. They all slowly rotate around Tristan, with varying degrees of suspicion—or attraction.

Only after a character’s death, one-hundred plus pages into the story, does Tristan finally set his sights on seducing Nicola (and securing her fortune), setting into motion Evan’s attempt at uncovering Tristan’s secret and freeing Nicola from his grasp. All will converge on Lammas Night, ritual date of a pagan harvest festival and time of special meaning for Tristan’s Society. However, little suspense is generated along the way, with the cat’s welfare being about as compelling as that of any other character. Break free, Marble, break free!

Cheerfully, at the conclusion, the unexpected source of some deadly counter black magic, along with the revelation of the existence of multiple free-roaming covens across the English countryside, seem not to trouble the prospects of a happy wedding.

A Touch of the Witch

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A Touch of the Witch
June Wetherell | Lancer Books | 1969 | 189 pages

Enticed by the prospect of inheriting an old house from a recently deceased relative she never knew existed, Melanie Clauseven is lured out to the New England countryside by a handwritten letter with no return address. Arriving at the appointed destination with her bohemian love-interest Gabriel, Melanie discovers that her potential inheritance is not much more than a ramshackle cabin. Further, the writer of the letter, Whip Benedict, reveals himself to be a distant relative of Melanie’s deceased father, rather than a solicitor handling the estate. Whip seems surprised to find the cabin occupied by Ursula, a feral young girl who speaks in an archaic manner and reacts with surprise to the trappings of modern life.

Deciding to stay the night following a sudden downpour, Melanie is awakened by the sound of people gathering in one of the unused rooms in the original part of the house. Creeping downstairs, she stumbles upon the performance of some occult ritual at a makeshift altar, with Ursula at the center of the proceedings. The next morning, Whip tries to dismiss Melanie’s discovery as a nightmare, but Ursula has suspiciously vanished, and the car has been vandalized—leaving Melanie stranded. Although still denying the ritual in the cabin, Whip confesses a shared family history of witchcraft, and pleads for Melanie’s assistance in a matter he is reluctant to explain further.

A Touch of the Witch, at only 189 large-type pages, unfolds more like a stage play than a fully realized novel, with four characters interacting in a single location over the course of one rain-soaked weekend. With Whip being the last surviving member of two family lines in a small village that actually drowned his great-grandmother for being a witch, it’s hard to imagine who exactly is making up this modern coven meeting secretly in his cabin. The introduction of a possible lost treasure, akin to a leprechaun’s pot of gold, only adds a groan-worthy cliche to the story.

The reveal of Ursula’s true identity comes with little surprise, and a tantalizing possibility teased by Whip while discussing his family origins—namely the “Claus” in Clauseven—disappointingly fails to materialize into Krampus, partner to Santa and seasonal punisher of mischievous children from paganistic folklore.