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.

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.

The Priestess

thepriestess

The Priestess

Frank Lauria | Bantam Books | 1978 | 246 pages

Orient was sitting by the window, chin cupped in his hands, trying to synchronize his consciousness with the dim pulses of energy emanating from a plastic bottle cap.”

After an attempt on his life by a secret agency operating covertly within the CIA, Dr. Owen Orient sets aside his telekinetic research—and daily program of yoga and self-hypnosis—to flee from New York City to Miami. Taking a delivery position at a local mom-and-pop pharmacy under the name of David Clay, Orient settles into a mundane routine far removed from his previous life. However, when his new employer, Sam Fein, falls victim to a murderous voodoo cult, Orient becomes determined to finally stop running and stand up against evil.

Following a trail of clues back through a small-time beauty salon, Orient eventually identifies the criminal ringleader as Mojo Pay, a former NFL star and charismatic brujo, sorcerer priest of an organized crime syndicate practicing voodoo. Leveraging his own telepathic skills to win in Mojo’s casino, he captures Mojo’s attention and infiltrates his organization. Searching for any sign of weakness that could be exploited to topple the criminal empire, Orient finds his resolve weakening under the seductive charms of Mojo’s wife, and bruja, Cara O’Riley.

Orient always seems to fall for women in peril, making it his personal mission to save them, while brushing aside the ramifications of a shadowy network of psychic adepts—one of whom he encounters working as a restroom attendant in a Miami Beach hotel—controlling world events. Ultimately, The Priestess is an enjoyable mishmash of pseudoscience and mystic babble, propelling its protagonist through a landscape peppered with voodoo mumbo jumbo, lascivious zombies, sparkly piles of cocaine, and a sexual stamina battle-of-the-wills contest with a voodoo-practicing drug lord.

And for a true, era-appropriate exploitation coda, why not wrap up the overarching story with a Bermuda Triangle flavored deus ex machina?

To the Dark Tower

tothedarktower

To the Dark Tower
Lyda Belknap Long | Prestige Books | 1969 | 191 pages

Young archeologist Joan Lambert returns home after encountering a strange supernatural force during a dig in Spain. While documenting the pictorial representations of witchcraft on the walls of a cave in the southern Pyrenees, a shadowy presence—which she vaguely perceives as a hawk-faced figure with talons—attaches itself to her. Even after fleeing the archeological site, Joan is visited several more times by the ominous force, usually accompanied by oppressive physical symptoms. Driving to meet her mentor, Dr. Wilfred Allen, at his Kentucky home, the dark intrusion manifests itself again in her car. She is able to shake off the attack, but a strange hooded figure in the roadway causes her to swerve and crash into an embankment.

Fleeing the crash scene, Joan runs into the town sheriff, who escorts her to safety. Dr. Allen has assembled a small team of psychologists and experts on occult phenomena at his home to assist Joan in battling her demonic affliction. However, the danger threatening Joan reveals itself to be greater than just the monstrous passenger accompanying her back from Spain. Looking out her guest room window the night of her arrival, Joan sees a dozen writhing figures in torchlight, engaged in some kind of horrific ritual dance, all circling around—what appears to her as—a giant, impaled toad.

Joan’s vision through the window blinds is interrupted by the news that the sheriff has returned to question her. A dim-witted local boy was found murdered by a curare-tipped poison dart at the scene of her car crash, with a voodoo doll bearing a striking resemblance to her resting near his body. Joan fears that the sheriff will discover her supernatural experiences in Spain, and somehow implicate her in the boy’s death by connecting them to the occult evidence found at the crime scene.

With only a few asides to follow the fates of other victims, (the tower-less) To the Dark Tower quickly unfolds over the course of a single night. Although the mastermind operating behind the witch cult is eventually revealed, the individual witches remain as rough sketches creeping in the night. Correspondingly, Dr. Allen seems remarkably oblivious to—what must have been—an amazingly high concentration of practitioners of the occult arts in his small Kentucky town. The sheriff wraps things up in a patchy denouement, revealing an arbitrary inheritance motivation that fails to adequately address Joan’s experiences in Spain—and oh, ESP.