Hellfire, John Saul (1986)

Urban legends surround a long-abandoned mill, but despite knowing something bad happened there decades before, an unnamed boy breaks into the empty building. Inside, he senses a presence, and though scared, he doesn’t run. Instead, he’s compelled to go down into the basement. He doesn’t make it out. At least, not alive.

The story moves ahead roughly forty-five years, and we’re introduced to the Sturgess family. Matriarch Abigail, her son, Phillip, and his thirteen-year-old daughter Tracy, whose mother died in childbirth. There’s also Carolyn, Phillip’s second wife, whom he recently wed, and her daughter from a previous marriage, eleven-year-old Beth. The Sturgesses are an old and wealthy family, not to mention haughty and elitist snobs, save for Phillip, lording it over the town from their mansion atop a hill. They also happen to be the owners of the shuttered factory, closed for a century, with the nasty taint of child labor in its history.

There’s a schism in the town, class divisions running deep, with the wealthy and working-class equal only in their mistrust and hatred of the other. The divide makes things doubly difficult for Carolyn and Beth, who came from a blue-collar background. The Sturgesses and their ilk regard them with disdain, as they’re not ‘one of them,’ while their old friends have turned their backs on them, believing they’ve probably adopted uppity airs. Abigail drips derision at Carolyn, and pretty much ignores Beth, while Tracy vehemently declares her hatred of both every chance she gets, and makes a full-time hobby of harassing and tormenting her step-sister.

The family has just buried Abigail’s husband, Conrad, who, for the past forty-five years, was adamant that the mill should be avoided and left to rot, convinced something evil lurked there. Now that he’s dead, Phillip, with his mother’s blessing, plans on renovating the place into a shopping mall, and has hired Carolyn’s ex-husband, Alan Rogers, as the contractor. Carolyn secretly agrees that the mill should stay as it is. She also discovers she’s pregnant.

After being bullied by Tracy one afternoon, Beth heads to the mill to see her father. While looking for him, she hears someone calling her name, then hears another name spoken, Amy. Sensing a presence, Beth is convinced Amy was a girl who worked and died in the mill, her spirit remaining there. Tracy finds out about Beth’s belief in the ghost and, with the help of some of her snotty rich friends, taunt and embarrass Beth about it. Not long after, one of the boys involved in the ragging ends up dead in the mill. The police deem it an accident, Beth believes it was Amy, and Tracy is convinced it was her crazy step-sister. More people die, family secrets are revealed, and the hidden history of the mill is explained.

Hellfire is written competently enough, I suppose, but it’s nothing more than an average book. Characters are either good or bad, hitting all the necessary clichéd tropes. Everything, in fact, is black and white; there are no complexities or gray areas in the plot or characters. While reading, it feels like there’s a lot to the story, but it’s all surface, merely padding out the word count. There isn’t much mystery to the proceedings, because most of the reveals are telegraphed, usually from the first moment they’re mentioned. Anyone with a modicum of reading comprehension or critical thinking skills can figure out the twists.

The story is formulaic, with needless deaths thrown in just to up the body count and perhaps elicit a ‘shock.’ Phillip is a flop in the parenting department, and when he finally makes a stand, I scoffed, “too little, too late.” At times, Carolyn, and her pregnancy, seem like an afterthought. The last chapter provokes exasperation, complete with eye-rolling, the epilogue is laughable, and the last sentence is ridiculous.

Of the positives, I liked the housekeeper, Hannah, (woefully underused), and Carolyn’s ex-husband, Alan. The Sturgess mausoleum created an intriguing visual, and the backstory of the mill, and what happened there, was well told.

Given the age of the characters with the most page time, it’s clear this is another book aimed at a young demographic. For adults, this only works as a time waster; a beach, plane ride, or dreary weekend read. **-1/2 out of 5.

 

 

Comes the Blind Fury, John Saul (1980)

In the late nineteenth century, a twelve-year-old blind girl is taunted by four schoolmates as she makes her way home. Losing her bearings, she falls from the cliffs into the sea, filled with sudden hatred and rage moments before her death. Her body is never recovered.

A century later, Dr. Cal Pendleton, along with his pregnant wife June and twelve-year-old adopted daughter Michelle, begin a new life outside of Boston in the small coastal town of Paradise Point. Cal will be taking over as the town physician from Josiah Carson, even going so far to purchase not only his practice, but Carson’s house as well, complete with its own family cemetery. The Carsons have a long history with the village, but Josiah wants to retire, far away from his ancestral home. He and Cal have a strange bond, built over a twelve-year-old boy who died. The boy fell from the roof of Josiah’s home and was transferred to the Boston hospital where Cal worked. Cal misdiagnosed and the boy died. Since then, Cal is a hot mess, doubting himself, especially when it comes to treating children.

Apart from Cal’s anxiety over treating kids, the family seems to settle in fairly well, until Michelle, during a picnic on the beach with schoolmates, falls from the path going up the bluff when trying to escape the teasing of the popular rich-girl bully in town. Michelle suffers a baffling hip injury that shouldn’t be, and black-outs. It’s during those black-outs that bad things happen; namely, kids start dying.

I’m not entirely sure what this book was supposed to be. It has elements of ghost, possession, and evil child stories, with vague hints of a haunted house tale, but because of its lack of focus, or perhaps attempts to shoe-horn in too much, the book fails to deliver anything remotely close to chills, scares, or atmosphere. It’s all very bland and one dimensional, generating as much interest as a piece of cardboard. There aren’t any surprises either. I figured out what was going to happen by the end of the prologue. That’s pretty bad. Throughout the story, there’s a barrel full of red herrings, and a side order of pointless MacGuffins. A few examples:

Cal’s crippling fear of treating children is never fully explained. More importantly, neither is his sudden aversion to his adopted daughter, once his biological daughter is born.

June going into labor while standing at a particular grave (no significance whatsoever).

Who the hell killed Josiah’s ancestor Louise Carson? Don’t make a mystery of it if you’re not going to solve it.

There’re implausibilities galore in this mess. The kids taunting Michelle for being adopted? Maybe, but them taunting her as a cripple for using a cane after falling from a cliff? In 1980? No. From personal experience, it rings incredibly hollow. What’s the ulterior motive of Josiah Carson? For that matter, why is wrathful ghost-child Amanda targeting random kids? How about explaining the potting shed that wasn’t really a potting shed, and what happened there a hundred years ago?

Characterizations are terrible. At the very beginning of the book, twelve-year-old Michelle reads older, more like eighteen, especially in her conversations with her father, and feels inauthentic. Suddenly, once she meets some other kids, she reads the appropriate age. Unsympathetic Cal’s doubt, anxiety, and denial grew old quick. June was the only character who showed a little spark (not to mention sanity), but too often she backed off just when she was about to lay into her husband for his rude and obnoxious behavior. Basically, I didn’t care about anyone.

What really struck me is how derivative this whole story felt, like Saul watched re-runs of Dark Shadows during the day, then Little House on The Prairie during prime time, cobbling together plot points and characters from both. Hell, several character names are right out of Dark Shadows (Peterson, Hanley, Evans, Amanda). The fact that bonnet wearing Amanda is blind gives a real Little House vibe, it’s Mary Ingalls gone bad! Oh, and rich-girl bully Susan Peterson is Nellie Olesen. I was going to give specific examples of similarities, but why waste more time?

There are far too many loose ends by the end of this, which makes for an unsatisfying read. By tightening up the plot, it could have been moderately entertaining.

  1. Ditch the bullshit about Cal questioning himself. Just have him and Carson develop a friendship as a result of the patient, and Carson suggesting Cal take over his practice so he can retire.
  2. Make Michelle a Carson, with Amanda welcoming her ‘home’ and using her to facilitate her revenge. (Josiah can discover through old records that Michelle is a relation)
  3. Make the four kids who die in the present descendants of the four kids who tormented Amanda right before she died.
  4. Dump the superfluous. The only reason June was pregnant was for the “you’re adopted!” teasing, Cal suddenly and inexplicably ignoring Michelle, and a moronic epilogue.

When all the fat is trimmed, Comes the Blind Fury would be a better story, albeit a short one, but sometimes, brief and concise is better. With paper-thin characters, tepid moodiness, and lack of anything truly macabre, this book will bore adults, but probably resonate with middle-graders. * out of 5

 

 

 

Pin, Andrew Neiderman (1981)

Living in a small town in the Catskills, siblings Leon and Ursula have an unusual home life. Their mother is obsessed with cleaning. Their father, the town doctor, is aloof to them most of the time, but when necessary, explains things in a very straightforward, clinical manner. Even his facts of life talk describes sex as merely a biological need, like thirst or hunger. Then there’s Pin, the transparent anatomical manikin in his office, which, through the use of ventriloquism, the doctor uses with child patients to explain things or ease anxiety. Leon enjoys visiting his father’s office and talking to Pin while his father manages paperwork or tidies up.

Because of their father’s emotional remoteness and mother’s obsessive compulsive behavior, the siblings don’t have many friends, if any, during their younger years. Their social lives pick up when they’re in their teens and begin to date, but Leon and Ursula still turn to each other as confidants, always relaying the events of their evenings out, no matter how intimate. When their parents are involved in an accident, the siblings lives take a dramatic turn. Their bond being so close, they refuse to live with relatives, preferring to remain in the house they were raised. They do, however, gain a new housemate, Pin. Why not? He’s already like one of the family.

The synopsis may not sound very exciting, but Pin is an intriguing psychological horror/thriller that is wonderfully bizarre. Perverse, even. Told in first person by Leon, the book begins with a prologue steeped in weirdness. The first three or four chapters are a little bumpy, comprised of quick vignettes of various events over a number of years, but once the accident occurs, the book settles into a nice, smooth groove. Those early chapters contain some important information that ties into later events, and when I read one seemingly simple, innocuous sentence, I suspected, at least in part, how the novel would end. It didn’t detract from my enjoyment, the ride getting there was great, in a fantastically twisted way. In fact, events in those early chapters are so skillfully woven in, when I reread the prologue, I discovered another layer to the epilogue.

The characters are few, only focusing on three or four, which creates an intimacy, allowing the reader to become immersed in their world and lives. Neiderman lulls us into accepting the eccentricities of the characters through the use of dark humor, affability, and even charm, yet all the while the reader rationally knows that what’s going on isn’t quite right. The action, for the most part, is limited to the house where Leon and Ursula live, a mansion backed by woods. Isolation, cold, and loss are prevalent themes. The house is physically isolated, and Leon and Ursula are socially, and at times, emotionally, secluded. Some of the most important events take place in the winter, which I believe was a conscious decision on the part of the author. The cold doesn’t just apply to the season or weather; occasionally, when Leon is agitated or upset, he experiences temporary numbing and coldness in his hands. Remember, too, the emotional coldness of the parents.

Loss is another theme running through the book. Loss of innocence, childhood, loved ones. Loss of will, identity, self, and sanity. It’s also a story of extremes; Mother is an extreme clean freak, Father is extremely clinical, Leon and Ursula share an extreme intimacy. Distance and closeness; too much of either can be a detrimental, even dangerous, thing.

With shades of early, authentic VC Andrews, perhaps some Shirley Jackson, and one particular work by William Goldman, Pin is a good entry in late-20th century American Gothic. Don’t be misled into thinking this is a low-tier knock-off of the above mentioned authors. Pin is unique and holds its own as an engrossing look at a strange family dynamic steeped in both disengagement and preoccupation. A detached mother focused on her cleaning obsession, a cool, unemotional, non-demonstrative father focused on his medicine, and a sibling relationship so familiar, it hints of pseudo-incestuousness. And, at the heart of it all, is Pin. It’s so easy to like Pin. I guarantee you’ll never forget Pin.

This book is an excellent read, and one I highly recommend. Deserving more attention than it gets, Pin is a novel that can, and should, be read more than once. Complex, layered, and nuanced, it’s a story that gets in your head, stays with you, and makes you think. One of my new all-time favorites, it earns my highest rating, ***** out of 5.

 

The Sentinel, Jeffrey Konvitz (1974)

The ’70’s, when Satan was doing his thing. Possessing kids, siring offspring, and making plans to take over the world. Good times. Or were they? The more I read 1970’s horror, the more I realize that a lot of those books aren’t really very good. They’re short on horror, or aren’t horror in the way the ’80’s redefined it. Don’t get me wrong, some books get it right, but I tend to like those written by authors who had a decade or two of writing under their belt. Richard Matheson’s Hell House for instance, and I’m an unabashed fan of the now obscure author Ray Russell. For the most part though, these ’70’s horror novels seem to be on the bland side. Case in point, The Sentinel. I remember the creepy cover of the paperback when I was a kid, but never read it until now. I didn’t miss anything. Some spoilers near the end, because I don’t care.

The story begins with model Allison Parker returning to New York after several months back home to visit her dying (and now deceased) father. Not knowing how long she’d be gone, she gave up her apartment and is temporarily staying at her boyfriend’s, lawyer Michael Farmer, who’s out of town when she returns. Allison is peeved that her lover isn’t there to greet her after her long absence. She starts looking for a new place and finds a dream apartment in a brownstone, for a reasonable rate.

Once she moves in, Allison meets a few of her neighbors, who are all incredibly strange; Chas Chazen, along with his cat and canary, from upstairs, the two (scary!) lesbians on the floor below her, two fat siblings, and an old lady who looks exactly like a long dead convicted ax murderer, who happens to have an effigy at a wax museum (this crazy menagerie is obviously a rip-off from Rosemary’s Baby). One tenant she doesn’t meet is the old, blind priest on the fifth floor, who does nothing but sit at the window, day and night.

Allison is soon plagued with headaches, numbness, blurred vision, fainting spells, and a really severe case of dry eye. When she’s told there are no other occupants in the building apart from herself and the priest, boyfriend Michael thinks she’s losing her mind. Is Allison going crazy, or is something more going on in that brownstone?

This is a book that’s hard to like, for so many reasons. There’s a lot of backstory for both Allison and Michael that’s intended to create mystery and suspense, but it’s handled so clumsily I couldn’t be bothered to care. The characters. There’s no one to like, except for the minor character Jack Tucci, a fashion photographer, and he’s barely in it. There’s no warmth or affection between the couple, and frankly, Michael is a prick. They don’t have conversations really, he just badgers her like she’s a witness on the stand. She’s frigid (backstory!) because as a girl, she caught her cheating father in bed with two women. She lost her religion at the same time when he started choking her with the crucifix she wore.

Married Michael was cheating on his wife with Allison (was he technically cheating if she’s frigid? Plot hole!). When she found out, his spouse committed suicide. The detective who worked the case, however, was convinced Michael killed her. Det. Gatz is a recycle of Det. Kinderman from The Exorcist (another lousy book), and the two butt heads again after Allison is found screaming hysterically in the street outside her building one night, claiming to have killed her already dead father in one of the units. For plot convenience, she doesn’t end up in Bellevue for psychiatric observation.

The story plods along, with all these uninteresting people, and when things finally start to wrap up, you realize just how much of your time you wasted. Too many things are unexplained. Sorry, but if the Catholic Church has some super-secret office to find new sentinels to guard the gates of hell, that needs to be more fully explained (yep, out of all the places on earth, the entrance to hell is in a New York brownstone).

Here’s a doozy of a question: if the priest is the sentinel guarding the entrance, why does Allison see the damned (the other tenants) in the building? Doesn’t that mean it’s too late, that he’s failed in his mission? I’m about to give a huge spoiler:

The Church assigns sentinels out of Catholic laypeople who attempted suicide. They shrivel into a blind old person and are given the identity of a priest or nun. Their penance is to sit and guard the portal to hell. That’s one heck of a convoluted (not to mention nonsensical) conspiracy if you ask me. So, it’s perfectly okay for Allison to kill two people (and one of those murders is covered up by a priest operative), but because she was depressed and attempted suicide in the past, she has to suffer a really bizarre form of contrition. What utter horseshit.

Surprisingly, I sailed through this dreck in about two and a half days, experiencing no chills, wows, or feelings of creepiness. I did feel annoyed, in abundance, especially when I remembered I bought the sequel, The Guardian, at the same time. May God have mercy on my soul. *1/2 out of 5.

The Unloved, John Saul (1988)

After a nightmare about his mother, Kevin Devereaux has a bad feeling. His foreboding is proven correct when his sister, Marguerite, phones and informs him their mother is dying. He announces to his family they’re heading down to South Carolina to visit the mother and sister he’s never spoken of, the family he divorced himself from years ago when he moved north.

Kevin, his wife Anne, and two children, Julie, fifteen, and Jeff, eight, arrive in the small, run-down town of Devereaux, founded by his ancestors. The family mansion, Sea Oaks, an old plantation house, is set on an island reached by causeway. The family is greeted warmly by Kevin’s sister, whose promising dancing career was thwarted by a hip injury after falling down the stairs years before. Matriarch Helena Devereaux, despite knocking on death’s door, is a vicious, spiteful, domineering, demanding harridan who treats her daughter like a slave. Housekeeper/cook Ruby, who’s been with the family for decades, fares better, seemingly impervious to the vitriol slung her way.

Eventually, Helena dies, and Kevin is stunned to learn he’s inherited everything, which is basically Sea Oaks, and all the property in the town of Devereaux. There’s a stipulation, however; in order to keep his inheritance, he has to live at Sea Oaks for ten years. Then, he can do what he wants. If he chooses not to stay, everything goes to the military school he was forced to attend, and Marguerite would be left to fend for herself. Kevin almost immediately decides to turn the mansion into a hotel and develop the property, essentially turning the island into a resort. Anne thinks it’s a bad idea. Not long after Helena’s funeral, a lot of strange things start happening, including a specter roaming the family graveyard, and a number of unexpected and shocking deaths.

John Saul novels were ubiquitous back in the day, the covers a form of branding not unlike the step-backs used for V.C. Andrews titles. They were everywhere; grocery, drug, book, and discount department store chains. And yet, oddly, I never read one of them before this, even though I read a lot of horror in the ’80’s, when the genre was in its heyday. I don’t think The Unloved was a bad book to start with, but I do have a love-hate relationship with it.

I will say that Saul kept my interest, even after rolling my eyes when certain deaths occurred with what I’ll call convenient ease. I can’t reveal details without spoiling, but they run something like: “I refuse to believe A overrides B,” along with “X makes a moronic decision no sane person would,” and “Y and Z conveniently freeze in terror.” A couple of times I veered into “what about/isn’t there?” and the last chapter had me asking some major questions, which can all be categorized under “how/why in the hell is that allowed to happen?”

Yes, those plot holes and contrivances had me ranting in exasperation — but I still kept reading, because Saul has a way of keeping you intrigued. His writing is like potato chips, M&Ms, or crack; addicting. He doesn’t skimp on gruesome detail, and paints some pretty vivid images of the grotesque which infuses the story with an effective creepiness. Bodies stack up like the end of a Shakespeare tragedy, and his ability to create a character so loathsome you hate her immediately (Helena), and another you like just as instantaneously (Ruby) is impressive. Nothing surprised me in this book, it’s predictable and obvious, but that’s true of most genre fiction.

As I read, I envisioned this as a 1980’s made-for-TV movie, until things started getting a bit grisly. It would have been a bit too much for prime time, but it would have made for some crazy television. There are soupçons in this story from familiar works, among them; Now, Voyager, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Psycho, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, and from the book world, Flowers in the Attic and My Sweet Audrina. Not so much blatant rip-offs, but more pinches of spice to enhance the macabre stew, the pastiche helps makes for a disturbing, entertaining, read. ***1/2 out of 5

 

 

 

Child’s Play, Andrew Neiderman (1985)

Alex and Sharon Gold live in a small Catskills resort town in the former tourist house Alex’s parents used to operate. He makes his money through investing, and Sharon, something of an introvert, is content to live in the big house with little interaction with the outside world. One day, Alex suggests they take in a foster child. This takes Sharon by surprise, since over a decade ago their only child was stillborn, and Alex has grown impotent due to sexual hang-ups.

Rather than taking in a young child, Alex insists on a troubled young teen, Richard, who takes to Alex within the first five seconds of meeting him. Things go so well, in such a brief amount of time, that within a few months, Alex and Sharon have taken in three additional kids, two more boys and a girl, all having suffered abuse in the past. Miraculously, the kids all fall into line; they get good grades at school and do chores around the house and grounds without complaint. They eagerly look forward to their nightly private meetings with Alex in Pa’s room, a room in the oldest part of the house that’s something like a root cellar.

Sharon is mystified as to what’s going on, because she’s completely out of the loop. The kids mainly ignore her. She begins to feel a stranger in her own home. When she investigates and discovers a terrifying secret in Pa’s room, she knows something is seriously wrong, but having no living relatives or close friends, she has no one to turn to for help. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse.

In a previous review of a Neiderman novel, Sister, Sister, I mentioned it suffered from lightning quick plot developments and pacing. The problem with Child’s Play is the opposite. It drags, with something of a lather-rinse-repeat approach. Some say this is a slow burning, disquieting story. It’s slow, I’ll grant that.

In a brief prologue, we learn that Alex was abused as a child by his father, and abuse is pretty much the theme of the story. Sharon is subtly and insidiously abused, both emotionally and psychologically, by Alex and, later, the kids. The kids, too, are psychologically and emotionally abused through Alex’s cult leader style of manipulation. I should have cared about them, but we don’t learn enough about the children before Alex gets his hands on them, and after he does, they’re one-dimensional. They don’t have any real story or development. If only one would have broken free from Alex’s thrall, it would have made for a more interesting dynamic.

Another problem is that there’s no one to like in this. Sharon is a dishrag. Alex is an obvious nutter, just like his dear ‘ole dad. How is he able to bond, have an instant rapport, with each of these kids at their first meeting? He’s like Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh rolled into one. If there was some kind of supernatural process involved, it needed to be explained (and would have made for a better story, frankly). If not, it’s absurd, and I don’t buy it.  That’s the problem, the reader is asked to suspend their disbelief far too much for this story to be plausible. The only two characters I really liked were Stacy Knots and Tillie, both periphery characters.

We find out little to nothing of Alex’s abusive childhood, his off-his-rocker father, his (probably weak-willed) mother, and courtship with Sharon. Due to intense fear of sex and the female body, instilled in him by his batshit father, Alex believes a lack of a sex life is his “goodness” winning. I laughed out loud when I read how his impotency came to be. It was unexpected and hilarious. A sampling:

He had nightmares about her vagina, seeing it as a great and powerful vise, gripping his penis within its lips and squeezing and pulling until one night he imagined it snapping off and being swallowed within.

There’s a little more to it, but you get the gist. You can almost hear the lunatic conversations between Pa Gold and Margaret White.

Much is made of Pa’s room and, to a lesser extent, his journals, which Alex is always reading while listening to O Fortuna from Carmina Burana. Problem is, we don’t get to know anything of Pa, his damn room and what goes on in there, or anything in his journals. Is there a supernatural element at play? If so, please elaborate. My guess is, there isn’t, so it all seems rather pointless. This was a disappointing read, with frustrating characters. Alex is smoothly domineering, Sharon is a passive victim, and the kids move from delinquents with attitude problems to mindless, yes-Alex drones.

In Child’s Play, the reader is subjected to too much of the mundane, and either not enough or none of what’s important; Pa’s room and journals, and how Alex manages to change all the kids’ personalities and win their unquestioning loyalty. There are a few things that are somewhat creepy, but sadly, they’re never fully explored.  I did like some of the events in the last chapter, but didn’t much care for the epilogue. **1/2 out of 5

Blood Secrets, Craig Jones (1978)

Irene Rutledge is a bold, knows-what-she-wants young woman studying for her doctorate in 1958. During the summer, she moves in with her best friend, Gloria, and for some inexplicable reason, is drawn to another post-grad living in the building, Frank Mattison, who almost everyone describes as weird. Gloria doesn’t like him much, telling Irene he has a number of very young, mousy girls in and out of his apartment all the time. Irene and Frank have a few awkward and terse exchanges, but eventually warm to each other after coming to the aid of a student on campus after a minor mishap.

Irene and Frank begin seeing each other, with Irene’s friends and parents disapproving of her new boyfriend. Why they disapprove is never exactly explained, other than that Frank is weird. He eventually confides a few details about his childhood to Irene, but for the most part, his past is dead to him, and he has no contact with his family. It’s the way he wants it, no exceptions. Eventually, the two become engaged, and Frank is apoplectic when one of his sisters, Vivien, crashes the wedding rehearsal and Irene invites her and her husband to the rehearsal dinner.

A few years later, Vivien is also at the hospital when Frank and Irene’s daughter is born. Despite Frank’s feelings, Irene does have contact now and then with Vivien, growing ever confused about the conflicting stories she’s hearing about his family. Who’s telling the truth? Irene has problems rearing her daughter, Regina, who’s doted on by her father, perhaps doted on too much. When Regina becomes a teen, she distances herself from her father, Frank becomes obsessively overprotective, and Irene fears the worst. Eventually, all that’s been hidden comes out into the open.

The story is told in first person, through Irene, and it’s fairly well done. Other characters don’t shy away from telling her their opinion of her, and she candidly relays their comments. I didn’t care for Irene’s passivity when it came to raising her daughter, though. She defers to Frank, which I find more than a little unbelievable, especially since she saw that her husband’s misguided coddling eventually led to a spoiled hellion in need of discipline. It was good to see Irene not back down after Regina does something unconscionable to a smaller child (this occurs while Frank is out of town).

The first third of this novel was intriguing, with a number of tantalizing questions. I was thoroughly engrossed in the mystery surrounding Frank and his past, and I vacillated on whether or not to like Irene; she started off as a smug, self-centered, attention seeking bitch, then mellowed, only occasionally slipping back into unlikable mode. Then, just over a third of the way in, after Frank and Irene marry, the story slumps into a narrative of their domestic and work lives. After their daughter is born, it becomes an unending treatise on martial strife, conflicting approaches to child rearing, Frank’s sudden, but fleeting, political activism, and Irene’s work woes as a high school teacher during the turbulent sixties and seventies. And let’s not forget Regina, who at six, makes Damien Thorn on his tricycle look like an angel.

It’s during this middle portion of the book that all the intriguing mystery of the beginning dissipates to be replaced by red herrings and situations that strain your willingness to suspend disbelief. Things finally pick up again in the last quarter, but the domestic trials and tribulations in the middle are taxing, with too much seesawing on Frank’s possible ulterior motives.

The shocking revelations weren’t all that shocking, I suspected a few things early on, and the primary antagonist, during the big confrontation, engaged in some silly mustache-twirling. I’ve read other books with a similar theme or revelation, but they were handled with much more finesse, even pathos. I won’t spoil the very end, something of an epilogue, but will say that I liked it, even though it has a sadder-but-wiser quality to it. It makes perfect sense, given all the dramatic upheavals.

The book’s structure suffers from not having chapters, and the narrative jumping years ahead from one paragraph to the next, which leaves the reader with no good stopping points and the novel no chance to breathe. Early on there were some scene breaks, but those are quickly dispensed with.

A quick read that starts strong but slides into mediocrity in the middle, Blood Secrets manages to rebound, even with the far-fetched climactic scene, saved, in part, by a thoughtful, and for me, satisfying ending. When all is said and done, it’s not a bad read. *** out of 5

Sister, Sister, Andrew Neiderman (1992)

Special ed teacher Neil Richards is offered an unusual, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To teach twelve-year-old twin sisters, Alpha and Beta, who reside in the research annex of a hospital. The twins have been at Mandicott all their lives, never stepping outside their living quarters because they’re conjoined near the waist, sharing one set of legs, which Beta has control of.

The team involved with the twins includes Dr. Endermo, who heads up the facility, Dr. Henderson, a geneticist, and Dr. Weber, a psychologist. Despite a couple of moments of bad vibes during his interview, Neil accepts the job and asks to start right away. He finds Beta to be a fairly typical twelve-year-old. Alpha, though, has a higher IQ, a harder edge, and is the dominant personality. After his first lesson with them, he suspects the girls, or at least Alpha, have psychic abilities. When the woman who cooks for the twins dies in a freak accident, Neil’s suspicions grow, believing the girls killed her, as well as their former psychologist. After both Neil and Dr. Weber suffer strange experiences, they start digging for more information, convinced more is going on at the institute than pure medical research. As a result, they grow increasingly mistrustful of the other team members and even the twins themselves.

Something of a medical thriller, this is a very quick read that isn’t bogged down by long descriptive passages or clinical terminology. The sparse use of medical jargon makes sense, since Neil isn’t a doctor and it’s his story we’re following. However, things happen awfully fast, almost too abruptly. Neil is instantly attracted to the psychologist, Tania Weber, who initially tries to keep things professional, but succumbs to her attraction to him soon enough. Another example is his suspicion after one teaching session. A slow build-up would have been better, but since a lot of things were telegraphed in the first chapter, it doesn’t matter. I also have issues with the lax security in the facility, both inside and out. Exterior side and back doors are left unlocked at all hours, which seems strange, and don’t get me started on rooms within the annex.

This book was originally published in 1992, but the edition I read was more recent, with slight revisions that were frankly distracting. In early chapters, there were mentions of technology that either didn’t exist in 1992 (iPods, iPads, iPhones) or were relatively new, expensive, or not yet ubiquitous (laptops, internet, cellphones). The inclusion of these items was unnecessary, since they’re forgotten later on and don’t play into the story. A minor complaint, but I suppose it doesn’t matter if you’re unaware of the original publication date. Personally, I don’t care for updates to existing works, they lose something, a feeling of authenticity to the time they were written. More annoying is that technology that was available at the time isn’t utilized at all in the story, such as access badges or swipe cards for the research facility, and security cameras. By casually shoehorning in 21st century tech, it makes the absence of what existed and should be there pretty glaring.

With shades of Firestarter and The Fury, Sister, Sister is a quick, easy read with one disturbing scene. Neither spectacular, nor awful, it’s okay, but reads more like a novelization of a movie. If you think of it in that way, as a movie with the story playing out in 90 or 105 minutes, the lighting quick pacing of events/plot developments is a little easier to accept. There’s worse out there. *** out of 5

(Note: The e-book (Kindle) edition of this book is riddled with formatting and typographical errors that make it a less than enjoyable reading experience. It’s atrocious, the worst I’ve seen.)

Rockinghorse, Wm W. Johnstone (1986)

Rockinghorse is a perfect example of the phrase batshit insane. I began reading this book about two months ago, and it started off pretty well. A married New York couple with two kids head to a small town in Georgia for the summer to vacation in the mansion the husband, Lucas, had inherited from his rich grandmother. Owing to the grandmother’s wealth, the estate has been in perpetual care with an on-site caretaker, the will stipulating the house can never be sold. As a child, Lucas was always afraid of the place, as well as his grandmother, and had a better relationship with his grandfather. His insane brother, Ira, has been institutionalized for life.

The family settles in and soon enough, weird things start happening. A lot of weird things. There’s Lige, the white trash caretaker who’s done no caretaking but banked all the money he’s been sent, who turns out to be Lucas’ insane brother — or not. There’s an old wooden rockinghorse that moves on its own. Funky smelling prehistoric wood creatures, we’re later told, are just harmless Bigfoots. There’s wood dwelling magical spirit children, and witchcraft practicing college professors on sabbatical who live down the road. And we can’t forget the enclave of Satanists, who are part of a worldwide conspiracy, but for some reason are headquartered in some jerkwater southern town. The family is befriended by one of the local deputies, whose wife happens to be psychic. This story doesn’t just throw in the kitchen sink, but the stove, fridge, and drywall as well.

The rockinghorse is alive, and pure, satanic evil. Even when it’s seemingly destroyed, whether shot, burned or beaten, it comes back, good as new. Eventually, it even starts talking. Somehow, I don’t think I’m supposed to break out in hysterics when reading a horror novel, especially during a supposedly tense and terrifying scene. Yet I did, and it was so absurd, I had to stop mid-scene. I couldn’t stop laughing.

Even more characters are thrown into the mix when several friends from New York come to visit, kids in tow. I gave up trying to remember who was who at this point, to say this book is overpopulated is an understatement. Some gruesome deaths and after-effects of torture are graphically described, but what’s more disturbing is at least three female characters, including a thirteen-year-old girl, are raped, but they shake it off like they merely suffered a paper cut. Fortunately, those assaults are barely described, and one happens off-page.

The book goes even more off the rails, with the house starting to breathe, moan, and read people’s minds. Dismembered and preserved body parts in the basement start coming to life, and the two main kids suddenly develop telepathic powers and can communicate with the semi-psychic professors. We also find out it wasn’t crazy brother Ira masquerading as Lige the caretaker, Ira was really friendly Jim from the gas station — surprise! — especially since there was a scene showing Jim dying a slow, agonizing death. It was really a hapless hitchhiker, but hey, wasn’t that a cool fake-out? No, no it wasn’t, you hack, and it wasn’t the first time you pulled this kind of thing.

With 83% left, I skimmed, quickly, then eventually jumped to the end, because I couldn’t take anymore. For some reason the state police show up and are drawn into the apocalyptic God vs. Satan, good vs. evil death match in Podunk, GA. Who wins? Who cares.

Despite being a fast read, it was a lengthy and exhausting one, I had to take breaks because there was too much to keep straight. It would have been much better had the author stuck to a few basic ideas; the house, the possessed toy, the crazy brother. Johnstone cranked these things out pretty regularly for Zebra books back in the ’80’s and ’90’s; assembly line, gonzo fiction, probably geared to the tween and teen crowd, say 10 to 15 year olds.

Started off decently, but collapsed under its own weight and unfocused absurdity. A risible *1/2 out of 5.

 

 

 

The Feast of Bacchus, Ernest Henham (1907)

In the small English village of Thorlund lies an abandoned estate called the Strath. It has a violent history, and no one has lived in the house for a century,  yet the villagers don’t believe the place is haunted. In fact, the parson, whose rectory neighbors the Strath, finds the gardens delightful, having been granted access by the lawyer overseeing the property. Every day, for decades, Dr. Berry has taken his constitutional in the Strath’s gardens. He focuses, not on his parish, but on what he believes to be his true calling, translating ancient Greek poetry, bettered by his walks in the garden. He is none too pleased when the rightful owner, Henry Reed, arrives, relieves him of the key to the gate, and denies the parson access to the grounds. Strange things begin to happen to Reed, and Berry shrugs when the owner is found dead. Enter the next heir, Reed’s nephew, Charles Conway.

Conway, a dissolute sort, arrives, joined a short time later by his friend and sponge, playwright Drayton. Suffice it to say, the house is indeed, strange, exerting its influence on those who inhabit the house or set foot on the grounds. In a neighboring village, another parson, Mr. Price, his young niece, Flora, and her friend, Maude Juxson also fall under the Strath’s influence, culminating in a bizarre and dangerous masquerade within the house.

The Feast of Bacchus is a novel of big and academic ideas. Unfortunately, so many of those ideas are crammed in, they often eclipse the plot. The elements that could have made this a tidy, enjoyable story are reduced to supporting players. In addition, what should have been subtext or theme, ancient Greek theater, became the focus, overbearingly so, with too much of the story coming across as a dry lecture, not engaging fiction. The drama angle, poetry, and philosophy are detrimental, dampening the enjoyment and detracting from the core of the story. It often reads more like an essay than a work of fiction, and that’s what makes it so frustrating. A little goes a long way.

The basic idea of a house, or entities within it, influencing or possessing people is a good one. The history of the Strath and its past inhabitants was interesting when simply told, not sandwiched between lengthy rococo passages in a diary. In the last quarter of the book, a latecomer to the story provides more intriguing information regarding an old set of comedy/tragedy masks that are connected to the house. The history of the masks is fantastic, unsettling stuff. The masquerade was a great idea, but it, too, eventually suffers by switching to telling rather than showing, especially at a key moment.

There was a lot I disliked about this book. Transitions are jarring and abrupt. It’s difficult to connect with most of the characters because they feel just like that; stock characters, not people to become invested in. We know so little about them, or are simply told something in a sentence here or there, that they’re distanced from the reader. Let’s not forget the stupor inducing philosophy, history, and dissertations on ancient Greek theater. At one point, we’re subjected to a mind-numbing sermon of Dr. Berry’s where he pontificates on the subject at length. I was rendered exhausted and nonplussed by it all.

The presentation of the story as a whole is uneven, with the best parts buried under overwrought, ornamental paragraphs that are merely pretty words and ideas that don’t drive the story forward. When the plot actually takes center stage (why not use theatrical terms?) it’s compelling. It also seemed that, at times, the author broke the rules of his own universe. The influence only works when someone is on the grounds or in the house. No, wait, people bring it with them into the village. No, it wears off. Now it calls to someone who isn’t even in the vicinity to take part in the madness. This person is immune without an explanation. That’s an issue for me.

In many ways, this book is unrewarding. The somnolence descends like a gauzy veil, obscuring, or at least, clouding, the most intriguing aspects of the story. The prose is often unnecessarily rapturous and florid, and much like an overgrown, fallow garden, the reader has to weed through it all to find anything of interest. If you’re a fan of the purple prose of Lovecraft or Shirley Jackson, where much is said about nothing, you’ll probably enjoy The Feast of Bacchus. If, however, you prefer straightforward brevity, this either isn’t for you, or will prove a challenge. Excising the unnecessary, and thereby shortening its length, would have turned this into a great, eerie short story of weird fiction.

As heavy as my criticism is on this one, I was drawn in from time to time and saw glimmers of what could have been. The broken down and decaying house of Strath, the history of the masks and their influence, and the character of Biron were all to my liking. *** out of 5