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.