Haunted Castles, Ray Russell (1985)

Haunted Castles is a collection of short Gothic stories by little-known American author Ray Russell, published in 1985, the stories themselves dating from the 1960’s. The volume contains seven stories, of varying length, as follows:

  • Sardonicus, Sagittarius, and Sanguinarious (the ‘S’ trilogy)
  • Comet Wine, The Runaway Lovers, Vendetta, The Cage

First, my overall impression. There’s plenty of Gothic atmosphere to go around; remote locations, looming castles, sinister dungeons, and people behaving very badly. There are saints and sinners, possibly even the devil himself. There’s black humor. There are grotesques of mind, soul, and visage. There are the impassioned mad and the coldly calculating. All these things combine to make for a great reading experience of mid-20th century American horror fiction. Some of the horror can be of the supernatural or fantastical variety, but more often than not, it’s human born, which makes it all the more nightmarish. Two stories incorporate notorious historical figures to great effect.

Sardonicus is the story of Sir Robert Cargrave, physician, summoned to a remote village in Czechoslovakia to treat a bizarre and extreme case of rictus, the sufferer of which will stop at nothing to be cured. There’s plenty of Gothic atmosphere, with a castle, dungeon, and damsel in distress. Russell also wrote the adaptation for the William Castle movie, Mr. Sardonicus. Some changes were made for the screen, but they work for the medium. Rather than being detrimental to each other, the novelette and movie compliment one other.

Sagittarius is the story of an old man telling a younger one stories of his decadent times in Paris during the fin de siècle. It raises interesting questions about duality of personality by incorporating discussions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; my only quibble was the assertion that Stevenson’s two fictional characters were real people. Perhaps in Sagittarius‘ world, they are. More intriguing  is the notion that an infamous historical figure somehow managed to live through the centuries. Duality is also explored through scenes of ‘legitimate’ theater and the Grand Guignol. A solid story.

Sanguinarius is the story of Elizabeth Báthory, told from her perspective and presented almost as a defense against spurious accusations. I think knowledge of her and the crimes ascribed to her will influence a reader’s opinion on this one. At first, I saw it as far too apologetic, but Russell’s stories often give food for thought, revealing unexpected layers, and I grew to like it more after a bit of pondering. Russell employs the literary device of using archaic words and phrases to create a sense of the period, but it’s not necessarily bothersome. The story contains a scene or two of Gothic gruesomeness, at which Russell excels.

Comet Wine is a lighter tale, more fantasy than horror. Set in the sphere of Russian musicians of the late 19th century, it tells the story of two composers; one mediocre who suddenly becomes a genius talent, and the other whose remarkable creativity seems to have wasted away. I wouldn’t classify this as a Gothic story, but it’s still enjoyable.

The Runaway Lovers is a darkly humorous story set, appropriately, in a castle dungeon. There’s plenty of taunting by the jailer and sniping between the lovers, and the resolution, distilled down into a couple of short sentences of dialog, had me laughing out loud. A wonderfully twisted entry of black humor and one of my favorites in the collection.

Vendetta is just that; a story of revenge. Set in Italy, it concerns a brother with the odd habit of talking in cryptic rhymes, and his beautiful sister, of whom he’s incredibly protective, particularly of her virtue. Eventually, he allows a visiting painter from Spain to use her as a model. Model and artist become lovers and marry, expecting a child. Vengeance is a long time coming, but eventually arrives. This was my least favorite story in the collection, but that’s not to say I disliked it. It’s more medieval than Gothic.

The Cage is the shortest story, but makes up for it with its ending. It seems simple enough. An unfaithful noblewoman is cuckolding her husband with a young lover. She teasingly accuses her paramour of being the devil. He replies perhaps he is. This little scenario is repeated a few times, then the conclusion comes, chilling and horrific. Just how horrific, however, depends on whether or not you believe the lover really was the devil. Either way, the ending is grim, but one of the two possible scenarios presents a situation so ghastly it’s almost unfathomable. It gets in your head and under your skin.

Ray Russell was an author who wrote with intelligence without being pedantic or pretentious, and created vivid imagery with a modicum of well chosen words. His work is smart, but accessible, and often makes you think. He had a knack for insidiously planting seeds of ideas that unexpectedly bloom, sometimes immediately after finishing a story, other times, an hour, or day, later. He immediately became one of my favorite authors because of this book. The excellent Haunted Castles is highly recommended. ****1/2 out of 5.

 

Elizabeth, Ken Greenhall (1976)

Elizabeth is the story of fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Cuttner, a peculiar girl who observes the world and people around her through the eyes and mindset of one much older. She’s fourteen going on forty.

The novel begins with an accident befalling Elizabeth’s parents. Her uncle, James, with whom she has a very close relationship, survives. After the tragedy, she begins living with her grandmother in New York City in the house where her uncle, aunt, and younger cousin also live. A tutor, Anne Barton, is hired to teach Elizabeth until she’s ready to return to school. Elizabeth would prefer not to go back, partly to stay close to Frances, the woman she sees only in mirrors. Frances, an ancestor executed centuries ago for witchcraft, first appeared at the family’s lake house, shortly before Elizabeth’s parents died. Now, Elizabeth is learning about, and using, her own unique powers.

A darker tale told in the first person, Elizabeth has the feel of a VC Andrews novel told in a more mature style. At first, Greenhall does a decent job of pulling the reader in and leaving them to wonder what, exactly, is going on, but it soon becomes apparent that Elizabeth is an unreliable narrator. Every statement needs to be taken with a grain of salt. As a result, we never really come to know the other characters. They’re flimsy and lack depth, and because they’re presented through Elizabeth’s skewed perception, we never know what’s true. Some are given more attention, the uncle and tutor, but others are merely there as plot contrivances, cousin Keith most notably.

Upon finishing the book, I was ambivalent, but quickly realized how much I disliked this book. The author presents an ending with no definitive answer about what’s occurred throughout. Some may like the ambiguity and being left to draw their own conclusions, it works for some books, but for this one, I think it’s a cop-out.

**Spoilers**

The novel can be taken at face value, with the belief that Elizabeth, like some of her ancestors, is a witch, and coming into her own. She enjoys her newfound powers and uses them to remove those who threaten her happiness or who are no longer useful; her parents, grandmother, and uncle. As the story progresses, the less plausible the witchcraft claim becomes, requiring too much suspension of disbelief. Elizabeth’s sanity comes into question fairly quickly given her bold pronouncements, including her tutor casting no reflection in mirrors.

At the novel’s start, Elizabeth informs us her parents don’t love each other and her father is an alcoholic. She also claims her father’s brother, James, is her lover. One could posit the sexual abuse, alcoholism, and her parents’ inattentiveness allows Elizabeth to create a fantasy world in which to escape. In that world, she imagines she can see a caring mother-figure in Frances, who informs her of her gift and encourages her to use it for her gain (empowerment for the powerless).

Through coincidence, her parents drown, her grandmother disappears, and her uncle James dies of a snake bite (an awful plot contrivance; we’re expected to believe James is reckless enough to head into the woods to find a rattlesnake to bring back as a gift for his son. Talk about straining credulity). She believes the rituals she’s performed, or just the thoughts she’s had, have caused those deaths to occur, but also claims she didn’t want them dead, just out of the way. The deaths, by the way, can all be rationally explained, something Elizabeth scoffs at.

Eventually, Elizabeth ends up in a psychiatric hospital, but only briefly, the details deliberately muddled. Suddenly, Miss loves-to-talk-about-herself isn’t saying much, except that the doctor is witless and no match for her extraordinary cunning. Topping it off, she claims to be pregnant.

Everyone in the book comes off in a bad light, because they’re presented through a distorted lens and the skewed, unproven statements of a snotty fourteen-year-old with delusions of grandeur. Elizabeth has a pretentious, sneering arrogance regarding everyone and everything. Talk about a superiority complex. If she’s truly involved with her uncle, she’s emotionally and psychologically damaged, yet she still makes for an unsympathetic protagonist. I should care, but I don’t. The incestuous relationship may not even be fact, but only unstable Elizabeth’s fantasy. I’m not adverse to controversial topics, I have a shelf full of Sade. But when it comes to the alleged incestuous relationship between Elizabeth and her uncle, Greenhall fails to commit and provide concrete proof of it, part of why I question the assertion in the first place.

When I was younger I saw James, my father’s brother, look from our dog to me without changing his expression. I soon taught him to look at me in a way he looked at nothing else.

She contends that because she’s now fourteen, has breasts and has gotten her period, she’s a woman, a femme fatale capable of entrancing anyone and everyone, making them love her and want her (fourteen-year-old girls didn’t think that way in the ’70’s, trust me). Sorry, your profound witchy woman is just a teenager going through an identity crisis as she enters adolescence, starts crushing on and fantasizing about her uncle, and sees other women as threats. It’s almost as if puberty has driven Elizabeth mad.

Greenhall uses Elizabeth as a means to expound on his particular views, rendering the character inauthentic; Elizabeth’s voice is not that of a realistic fourteen-year old. Because of that, the novel reeks of disingenuousness. Elizabeth is imbued with the pessimism, cynicism, and misanthropy of her creator, a middle-aged man. She’s oh-so-special.

My name is Elizabeth Cuttner, and I am fourteen years old. I know you would be more interested in my story if I were a middle-aged person, but I ask you to remember what you were like when you were fourteen. Is there a chance that you were more perceptive then than you are now?

If perceptive means haughty, narcissistic, nihilistic, and sociopathic, then no. Her world view is that of a French Decadent at the turn of the 20th century. A fourteen-year-old girl by way of a fifty-year-old male author who misjudged his ability. Many male authors are adept at writing female characters, even teenagers. This one isn’t. At it’s core, this book is more about Greenhall than his protagonist. Her perceptions and beliefs are really his, transplanted; Elizabeth is his stand-in, his avatar, his self-insertion. Worse still, there’s nothing definitive in this tale told by an idiot, there’s no clarity, not one thing explained. Greenhall isn’t being clever, he’s being lazy, and fails to deliver any satisfactory conclusion. And if he can’t be bothered enough to care about the story, neither can I.

A quick read, Elizabeth‘s premise held promise, but didn’t deliver. ** out of 5.

All That Glitters, V.C. Andrews (1995)

The third book in the Landry series sees our heroine, dumb as a fence post Ruby, agreeing to marry her wealthy half-brother, Paul Tate. She does this merely for security, but also because she’s an idiot, apparently forgetting she’ll come into an inheritance in a year or so. In a hilariously bad scene that goes on far too long, they play dress-up make-believe one evening. Then they have sex, because Paul thinks it’s cool if they were pretending to be other people.

Beau, back from France, marries Gisselle because she looks like Ruby, and if he can’t have the real thing, boffing her twin will do. Beau and Ruby start sleeping together on the sly, but Paul immediately figures it out.

Both step-mother Daphne and Uncle Jean die off-page because the author’s a hack.

Gisselle contracts encephalitis, and in a plot too ludicrous to believe, Ruby switches places with her comatose sister. Gisselle ends up dying, and Paul, having convinced himself she was really Ruby, drowns in the swamp after going on an extended whiskey-fueled bender.

A big custody battle ensues when Paul’s parents want their ‘granddaughter’ Pearl. It’s really just Paul’s mother sticking it to Ruby, because she knows of the sister swap. All the deception is revealed in court, and only some eleventh hour testimony from Paul’s father saves the day. Pearl is reunited with Beau and Ruby and they get a happily ever after that they don’t fucking deserve, including twin boys a few years later. So happy! So infuriating.

All That Glitters oozes so much trashy tawdriness it almost leaves you speechless. This book was absolutely wretched. Ruby and Beau were self-centered and selfish, willing to stoop to anything to get what they wanted and not caring who they hurt because, true love! Destiny! Fate! Paul needed to pull his head out of his ass and get over his romantic love for his sister. He was selfish, too, so no real sympathy there. Towards the end, Paul’s mother exhibited some uncomfortable mother love, but it could have been the grief. That said, she’s not blameless in any of this either; she went along with the baby buying all those years ago, faked a pregnancy, and never told Paul the truth. Don’t get me started on the ridiculous, implausible plot.

There was one, one, good thing in this. Louis resurfaces, albeit briefly, but even that’s slightly tainted by the author de-aging him by about ten years. Pretty sad that a partial chapter involving a peripheral character is the only freaking bright spot and worthwhile thing in this whole mess.

This book was utter garbage, populated with reprehensible, self-serving people. * out of 5

 

Pearl in the Mist, V.C. Andrews (1994)

The second in the Landry series, Pearl in the Mist picks up pretty much right where Ruby left off. Ruby and her twin sister, Gisselle, are shipped off by their insufferable bitch of a step-mother to an elite private girl’s school in another part of the state for their last year of high school. A major event in the first book has made Gisselle even more of an obnoxious brat in need of a serious bitch-slapping. No comeuppance is cruelly fitting enough for step-mother-from-hell Daphne, and father Pierre is fated to never retrieve his testicles from wherever his wife stashed them when she lopped them off.

At the Greenwood school, Ruby becomes good friends with another new student who is fodder, so I won’t bother talking about her. The school is mostly funded by a filthy rich, southern aristocrat old biddy named Louella Clairborne (blink and you’ll miss her). Her hard-ass niece is the principal who delights in bullying Ruby. But of course. Or should I say, mais oui? Mrs. Clairborne lives in a plantation house mansion and has small groups of students visit for tea.

When Ruby is invited with her sister and friend, she just so happens to accidentally meet her hostess’ grandson Louis, thirty-one, blind, and something of a recluse. He’s a gifted pianist and immediately takes a liking to our resident Mary Sue. The story of his parents’ deaths is interesting, until more details leads us into the bizarre, disturbing, and downright skeevy, revealing Mama was messed up in the head, hence, Louis ain’t right either.

One thing Andrews’ books were known for was their Gothic vibe. It was definitely present in My Sweet Audrina, and, from what I remember, the Flowers in the Attic series (read about 25 years ago). Sure, there’s the messed-up family dynamics, but I get no real Gothic feel here, not even Southern Gothic, apart from the glimpse into the really twisted backstory of Louis (molested by his mother, who infantilized him, he witnessed his father commit murder-suicide when he caught her with a very young lover, having moved on from her son). Set Louis aside, and this just reads like a teen soap. Which it is. I was hoping Ruby would be out on her own by now, but instead, I’m stuck reading about teenage love, mean high school girls, and uptight, matriarchal harridans bullying and abusing kids.

Another big complaint I have about these books are the numerous characters. Many exist simply as plot contrivances. You either don’t get to know them well enough to care about them, or you do care, hope to see them again and learn more, but they’re written out, having served a minor purpose. I hate it. There’s not enough character development where it’s needed. Instead, the story focuses too much on unimportant and repetitive bullshit. I’m still not a fan of the first person POV.

Ruby suffers from Mary Sueitis. Half-brother Paul still pines for her. There’s her lets-get-it-on boyfriend, Beau, who used to be Gisselle’s paramour. Then there’s Louis, who’s so enamored of our seventeen-year-old heroine, he’s not only composing a symphony for her, but is slowly regaining his sight (I called it as hysterical, psychosomatic blindness the second I read how he became blind). She’s so special, she’s almost magical, don’t you think?

Ruby is well aware of how her madonna-whore, saintly but sinning mother came to bear three children by two different married men within a year or two (but Mama was like an entrancing, mythical swamp fairy to the men she slept with, so it’s okay). Rather than take the extra effort to avoid the same mistakes, she sleeps with her boyfriend a number of times with the inevitable outcome. Boyfriend Beau strikes me as a popular guy who has that I’m invincible mind-set. He thinks nothing unfortunate can happen to him, so he presses his luck. He pressures Ruby to sleep with him, but if he cared as much as he claims to, you’d think he’d either be making regular trips to the drugstore, or, ideally, respect her wanting to slow down or wait to become intimate.

SPOILERS: Ruby’s father, Pierre, dies off-page in the middle of the book without us really knowing him. Louis heads off to Switzerland to see a specialist and attend a music conservatory. Ruby ends up pregnant and her precious boyfriend is hustled off to a foreign school. Rather than go through with a back-alley abortion arranged by her step-mother, she goes back to the bayou. Arriving at her old house with her now very wealthy half-brother Paul, her DT’ing grandfather conveniently drowns minutes later. Paul’s still in love with her, and everybody thinks he’s the father of her child. Hilariously, after refusing to leave the shack ahead of a storm, she goes into labor in the middle of a hurricane, with Paul delivering the baby. He keeps asking her to marry him.

Ruby makes piss poor decisions, so I’ve become ambivalent towards her character. If possible, it seems she’s getting dumber as the series goes on. Frustratingly, we’re led to believe she’s a talented artist, but she doesn’t do much drawing or painting in the course of this book. If she loved her art as much as we’re led to believe, it would be a big part of her life, but she’s too busy tangling up the sheets with Beau the Magnificent.

I’m hoping for more Uncle Jean. He appears briefly, but not enough, and by the end of the book, I really felt for the poor guy. And where the hell is gallery owner Dominique LeGrand? You can’t dangle him in the second or third chapter of the first book like he’s important, then drop him. Initially, Louis seemed too much of a head case, but once he started acting normal (he did mention seeing a psychiatrist) I started liking his character. I’m not really invested in Ruby and her story anymore, unless, by extension, it involves Jean and Louis. I’ve given up on Dominique having any significance. Honestly, I was hoping for more effed up Gothic stuff like the Dollanganger series, but this isn’t delivering, except for Louis. ** out of 5

 

Ruby, V.C. Andrews (1994)

Fifteen-year-old Ruby Landry, whose mother died when she was born and with no clue as to who her father is, lives a simple life with her maternal grandmother in a house on the bayou in Louisiana. They make just enough to live selling handmade crafts to tourists. Grandmere Catherine is also a healing woman, called upon by Cajun neighbors to treat maladies and injuries with her folk medicine, usually paid for with food or other useful items. Ruby, a talented and aspiring artist, occasionally sells one of her nature-themed paintings.

Ruby has a boyfriend, Paul Tate, who hails from a moneyed family, but upon a revelation from her grandmother, Ruby ends the relationship. As her grandmother’s health begins to fade, Ruby learns some startling truths about her family. Her father, Pierre Dumas, is a rich Creole in New Orleans, and she has a twin sister who was sold to him by her no-good, drunk, swamp rat grandfather. Grandmere Catherine extracts a promise from Ruby that she’ll seek out her father after she dies. Not long after, Grandma shuffles off her mortal coil, and Ruby heads to the city, escaping her vile grandfather and his loathsome plan to marry her off to a man twice her age.

Once in New Orleans, Ruby easily finds her father, who just as easily welcomes her with open arms. Her step-mother, a snobby socialite cunt, and her sister, a raging spoiled bitch, go out of their way to make the prodigal daughter’s life miserable, including a prank in which Ruby is photographed naked by some boys from school, and being admitted to a psychiatric hospital as a nymphomaniac. There’s a not-right-in-the-head uncle, and daddy Pierre is not only manic depressive (or as wife Daphne puts it, ‘suffers from melancholia’), he allows himself to be browbeaten by his domineering wife. She’s got plans to commit hubby, too. What a gal. Where’s Vera from Audrina to push a bitch or two down the stairs?

Ruby is the first of five novels in what’s known as the Landry series, and despite bearing the V.C. Andrews name, none were written by her, but rather, hired ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman. Not expecting high literature, it’s not a bad read. The beginning is a bit slow moving and could have been shorter without sacrificing anything important. Ruby comes across as a smart, caring, likable girl who’s happy living her simple life with her loving grandmother. I admit to speed reading portions, usually overly long descriptive paragraphs of the bayou or things meant to build suspense that last two pages too long because what was about to happen was telegraphed ahead of time (mental hospital). I also skim over episodes of teenage lust, sexual stirrings, and teen hearts going pit-a-pat while other parts quiver and throb because it’s usually pretty silly and meant to titillate tweens and teens.

Unlike the previous Andrews book I read and hated (actually written by her, might I add), this one had characters I liked. The grandmother, and one-time boyfriend (and full-time half-brother), Paul. I like Edgar and Nina, two of the servants in the Dumas house, and my curiosity is piqued about both institutionalized Uncle Jean and the elusive gallery owner Dominique LeGrand, who made an appearance early in the book and who I’m sure will show up again. Ruby does need to toughen up though, if she wants to be the victorious mongoose in a pit of vipers. She does exhibit some gumption from time to time, but then she loses her resolve and becomes a gullible dolt again. It’s a bit frustrating.

V.C. Andrews books, written by her or not, are what they are; melodramatic soap-operas in print form, the better ones good for wintry nights, rainy days, and lazy summer weekends. This was one of the better ones, and I’ll be continuing the series. *** out of 5

My Sweet Audrina, V.C. Andrews (1982)

My Sweet Audrina is the saga of the Adare family, as told by daughter Audrina, spanning roughly two decades, from the time Audrina is seven, to a young woman in her twenties. The story revolves around Audrina, her parents, aunt, and cousin who live in the faded Victorian mansion, Whitefern, inherited by Audrina’s mother. It isn’t just the family who live in the gloomy house; secrets, deception, and betrayals are also in residence.

Audrina suffers from memory gaps. She’s never sure what day, month, or season it is. All the clocks are set to different times. There are no calendars or newspapers (except for the latter, when the plot requires them). Audrina doesn’t go to school, she’s taught by her mother and aunt. One other thing; Audrina has a dead older sister named Audrina, who was killed on her ninth birthday in the woods on their property. Audrina’s father tries to make Audrina the second take on all the wonderful qualities of Audrina the first by having her sit in her rocking chair in her shrine-like bedroom. This exercise has mixed results.

When a cottage on the property is rented to a family from town, Audrina is warned not to go there. She defies her father and goes anyway, befriending the boy who lives there, Arden, and his mother, Billie. Audrina thinks she’s seen Arden before, but that’s impossible, right?

The story goes along, with the characters aging and tragedy befalling some, until eventually, the truth comes out about both Audrinas.

I have a number of issues with this one. We’re never explicitly told where or when the story takes place. It’s left to us to glean that information from a random sentence or two. It’s told in first person by Audrina, who is an unreliable narrator by dint of her faulty memory and foggy perception of time. It’s never made clear whether the adult Audrina is relaying the story years later or we’re reading it as it happens.

There’s no solid anchor in this story, so it drifts. Plot points are dropped, resurface, then are dropped again. Some things are never explained, like the significance of the number nine, Audrina’s journal, and the wind chimes. There’s no clarity. Everything’s jumbled and unfocused, not due to the contrived memory issue but poor writing. The early chapters are stagnant, then years zip by. Do any of the characters grow in this time? Not a one. In fact, behavioral patterns repeat. Characters contradict themselves time and again. They flip-flop more than a gymnast during a floor routine.

You don’t know who you’re supposed to like or root for. The gimmick of the memory gap, meant to build mystery and suspense, wears thin, since almost everything is transparent. I wasn’t surprised by anything in this, having guessed the ‘secrets’ of every damn character from the first possible moment. This book reads like a soap opera story line meant to last three months that was extended to a year.  It exists on a skeletal plot as thin and brittle as cousin Vera’s bones (she suffers multiple fractures throughout) and fragile as Audrina’s mind. Speaking of Vera, despite being a vicious, spiteful, bitter bitch consumed with hatred, she comes across as the most real because she owns it. She’s like Veda Pierce, but on steroids.

Ridiculously, we’re supposed to believe that Audrina develops a psychic or telepathic connection, a ‘rapport’ she calls it, with her severely mentally challenged younger sister, Sylvia. Audrina can just think something and the child understands (I contend the entire story is the collected ravings of a lunatic in an asylum). In an already outrageously bad story, the last couple of chapters are so farcical they have to be read to be believed. They include such things as:

*MAJOR SPOILER WARNING*: Audrina revives from a three month coma, not dying when life support is turned off, even though she should. A mere three weeks of physical therapy and she’s home again. The day she returns to Whitefern, she has a fight with her estranged spouse and runs (get that runs) out to her dead sister’s grave in the middle of a hellacious thunderstorm and begins to dig it up with her bare hands. Her husband follows, she fights with him, then they have crazy, lust-filled, animalistic sex. Got that? A woman who just came out of a freaking three month coma is having physically demanding sex in the middle of a violent thunderstorm after dashing around like an Olympic sprinter and trying to dig up a grave. Careful, you may end up blind from such intense eye-rolling. I forgot to mention the miscarriage scene that takes place earlier in the book. That may elicit a ‘wtf did I just read?’ moment. To say it’s batshit insane would be an understatement.

My Sweet Audrina is a bland, exhausting read. Never have I read so many words that ended up saying nothing. You’ll expend a lot of energy reading it, but it has no value. It’s mental junk food. There’re so many preposterous, ludicrous, laughable events that occur outside the realm of possibility, you’ll end up wondering why you bothered to read it at all. 1-1/2 * out of 5

Burnt Offerings, Robert Marasco (1973)

With summer approaching, Ben and Marian Rolfe want to escape their stifling apartment in crowded Queens by renting a house in the country. Marian finds a listing, and they head out one Saturday to check it out. The rental turns out to be a sprawling, but faded, mansion on two hundred acres on the bay. The rent is suspiciously low, and the owners, elderly siblings Roz and Arnold Allardyce, are, as Ben puts it, weird. There’s a catch, however, to this too good to be true rental property; the Rolfe’s will have to provide meals to eighty-five-year-old Mother Allardyce, being left behind, who occupies two rooms on the uppermost floor and prefers to be left alone. Just leave a tray on her sitting room table, she’ll be fine. Marian, salivating over the house and its antiques, is more than willing to oblige. Ben, not so much.

Passive-aggressive Marian gets her way by means of the silent treatment on the drive back that extends into their evening at home. Manipulation is standard procedure for her; she employed a bit of a prick tease to get Ben to even consider a getaway in the first place. Marian is something of a neat-freak, by the way, as well as a fine antiques whore, decorating their apartment with things they don’t need, don’t have room for, and can’t afford on Ben’s schoolteacher salary. She pays for them by working temp jobs for a couple of weeks, rather than working part-time and putting money aside so they can finally move to the suburbs. For all these things and more, Marian is an unlikable bitch. But I digress.

The Rolfe’s, with eight-year-old son David and Ben’s seventy-four-year-old aunt Elizabeth in tow, take the house for two months. Marian is just enthralled, enamored of the place and all its antiques. Hepplewhite, Chippendale! Pier glass consoles and Persian rugs! Gold — gold  — serving trays! Marian practically orgasms over all the stuff, because she has pretentious airs, grand designs, and yearns to live above her station. She has taste, you see, and apparently thinks she’s a fucking Vanderbilt or Rockefeller and deserves to live this kind of life. She begins to clean and fix up the house. That’s right, a house they’re renting for two months, and she’s swanning around trying to return it to its showplace glory days, acting like they’re going to live there forever (that couldn’t be foreshadowing, could it?).

She redecorates the upstairs sitting room and starts spending an inordinate amount of time there, it’s her special, peaceful place. Needless to say, old biddy Mother Allardyce is never seen or heard from because she doesn’t exist. In fact, pretty much everything of any importance can be figured out by the book’s title and first three or four chapters. Way to not play it close to the vest or create suspense!

As for Ben, he has an incident in the pool in which he intentionally tries to hurt his son. This is verified after the fact, because it’s unclear from the writing if he got carried away playing or purposely became abusive. After that, Ben becomes remote and cold towards Marian, and begins suffering crushing, constant headaches, moments of blurred vision, and hallucinations of a black limousine, something from his childhood that he associates with death (real subtle on the symbolism).

He fears he’s having a nervous breakdown, and when he confides in Marian, she brushes it off. What’s frustrating about Ben’s character is that he knows the score. He knows the Allardyce’s are sketchy, that there’s something off about the house, that his wife is manipulative and ends up caring more about a stranger’s home than her immediate family. Problem is, he’s weak (whipped, one could argue) and always gives in. Marian always gets her way. Hell, the simple fact that they rent the house at all is preposterous, given all the strange circumstances. Had he put his foot down once in a while and forced her to sell her precious antiques, they’d never end up in this mess.

It seems the house, or whatever inhabits it, has an ability to tap into the darker, hidden desires and fears of people and bring them to the fore. Ben’s intentional harm to his son in the pool, for instance. Was he redirecting resentment and anger for his wife onto David? Then there’s the question of his sexual behavior with Marian. It’s vague. We’re not in Ben’s head, Marasco chooses to focus on Marian, but her thoughts and reactions have an air of an unreliability to them. Is she a closet prude, as Ben half-jokingly accuses? We know she gets skittish about skinny dipping and becoming intimate in the pool because — gasp! — the house is watching. Maybe he does try raping her, I can’t tell, it’s so murkily written. Maybe she perceives he does because her genitals have suddenly become as golden and revered as an Adrien Vachette snuff box.

This book is more psychological than anything, and I suppose it could be read as an allegory about the disintegration of a marriage. Marian is obsessed with things and living a life she can’t have. She’s petulant and selfish. In one maddening scene, having donned a blue hostess gown, she sets out caviar for cocktail hour on the terrace like she’s in Newport or the Hamptons. That drives home that she’s a childish adult playing dress-up in someone else’s house. She becomes proprietary of the house and everything in it, at the expense of her family. I get it, her obsession is self-destructive and the insufferable, highfalutin bitch she is deep down is surfacing, egged on by the house. That still doesn’t make me care about her, I had her pegged from the get-go.

The best chapter was the first. It felt very ’70’s, and Marasco conveyed the stifling heat, noise, claustrophobia, and tension of summer in a crowded apartment complex. However, he doesn’t commit when he needs to or when it counts, in character or plot development. He was probably too busy patting himself on the back for another five paragraphs describing a stunning, late 18th-century gold inlaid rosewood Spanish escritoire, and Marian pulling out the lemon oil to polish it (there’s no such scene, I threw that in for illustrative purposes). The author has a penchant for name dropping antique furniture makers as if we care. We don’t, we’re not Marian.

Marasco has a strange writing style. In mid-paragraph, hell, sometimes mid-sentence, he switches from showing to telling. This happens in the middle of conversations, like he couldn’t be bothered to continue them because he bored himself with what was being discussed and wanted instead to palaver for a few paragraphs about a Steuben candy dish (see, I can be pedantic, too). He also broke the rules of his world when Ben left the estate for several days without incident (overgrown sentinel shrubbery usually blocks his path). His uneventful departure wasn’t even described.

The son, David, often comes across as an afterthought. Marasco needed him for a few plot developments, but other than that, he serves no purpose and kind of disappears from the narrative. Aunt Elizabeth was initially presented as an active and spry senior, but she’s just cannon, or to be more precise, house fodder.

Let’s talk about dropped plot points, shall we? The rusted old tricycle found by David when they first went to look at the house. The boarded up, ramshackle cottage on the edge of the woods. The broken old-fashioned spectacles at the bottom of the pool found by Ben, thrown away by Marian the next morning. How ’bout it, Bob? You had great stuff to explore and incorporate and instead you focused on Marian getting her jollies playing with antiques. Screw you. Some unanswered questions:

  1. Who are the Allardyces?
  2. What’s the history of the house?
  3. What/who is Mother and what’s the hum in the bedroom?
  4. How could Ben leave so easily for the funeral and why did he return?
  5. What did Ben see in the greenhouse that made him try to flee so suddenly?
  6. Why did the house affect Ben differently?
  7. Why didn’t David age or show ill effects?

Some may say this a potboiler, a slow burn. It’s not. It’s tedious, far too long, and suffers from a languorous pace in which not a whole hell of a lot happens plot-wise. Chapters could be half the length. There’s paragraph after paragraph of descriptions about the junk in the house that gets Marian’s panties wet. Conversations between characters crawl due to numbing, half-baked dialog and repetition. This is a short story dragged out to novel length that could have worked as a one hour Twilight Zone episode if written by Serling, Beaumont, or Matheson.

SPOILER: The house rejuvenates itself by killing people. A good idea, execrably executed.

A grudging ** out of 5 because I actually finished it in spite of myself, liked the first few chapters, and the premise was interesting. A tedious and overrated psychological domestic drama masquerading as a haunted house story. I’d rather take my chances spending a weekend in the Belasco house.

 

Ada, the Betrayed, James Malcolm Rymer (ca.1845)

A penny dreadful circa 1845, Ada, the Betrayed or The Murder at the Old Smithy is the story of a young woman cheated out of her inheritance and used as a bargaining chip in a blackmail scheme. The story is set in the mid-18th century, and begins with a fire in a smithy in the village of Learmont. A bloodied man runs from the conflagration and hands a small child to a woman in the crowd watching the fire. The next day, however, both the woman and child have disappeared. Moving forward a number of years, the child, Ada, now a young woman, is living disguised as a boy named Harry, by order of Jacob Gray, who purports to be her uncle. Staying in a lodging house in London, Ada has befriended a young man named Albert Seyton. She reveals her true identity to him, what she knows of it, before being whisked away to another location by Gray. Ada is essentially held prisoner, the promise of riches and reward dangled in front of her for her compliance.

Jacob Gray and Andrew Britton, the smith from Learmont who’s also moved to London, are blackmailing each other over their involvement in a murder at the smithy years before. In addition, they’re separately blackmailing the third accomplice, the Squire of Learmont, who’s also moved to London and is seeking a baronetcy. Albert, meanwhile, desperate to find his beloved Ada, appeals to Sir Francis Hartleton, a magistrate who originally hails from Learmont and has long suspected foul play was afoot the night of the fire. In a side story, a woman referred to as Mad Maud (who is, indeed, mad) is dogging Britton, declaring she won’t die until she sees him dead for his evil deeds.

This is one of Rymer’s lengthy penny dreadfuls and in novel form, it could have been reduced by half and been a better story. Concessions, however, have to be made, as it originally appeared in serialized form, and by its length, Ada, the Betrayed was a popular one, they just kept milking it. There aren’t many surprises here. Ada is as virtuous as she is beautiful. Pure of heart, imbued with kindness, she’s perfection personified. She’s not, however, a completely helpless damsel in distress. She does what she can to stand up against her captor, Jacob Gray. The more firm and steadfast she is, the more it bothers him.

Although he’s supposed to be, Albert isn’t exactly hero material. He’s often a whiny drama queen, especially when pining after his lost love. After his father dies, his angst intensifies, and when Hartleton questions his intentions (Albert’s begun working for the squire), Seyton’s snotty attitude and impudence tells me Ada could do better. Hartleton, of course, is a rare breed, an honest magistrate.

As for the villains, Jacob Gray is patently loathsome. Sleazy, greedy, and black-souled, I wanted him to die a miserable, gruesome death, the sooner, the better. Andrew Britton is a loud, rude, violent brute of a man, referred to as the savage smith, especially by poor, crazy Maud. A drunken lout keen on physically abusing people, he’s only slightly more palatable than Gray. Britton’s a crude thug, but Gray’s avarice, cowardice, and weasel-like behavior makes him more revolting. Learmont is the easiest to take of the unholy trinity, perhaps because he’s focused on the least. Prone to inner monologues and musings, it seems his conscience plays upon him quite a bit, but he’s still a bastard.

Everything plays out satisfactorily in the end, even if takes a while to get there. Most of the characters in this don’t seem as richly developed as some other penny dreads, but they fit the necessary tropes well enough. This isn’t one of Rymer’s best works, the intriguing The String of Pearls and the rollicking epic Varney the Vampyre hold that distinction, but it’s still a decent read if you’re willing to invest the time. *** out of 5 stars.

Hell House, Richard Matheson (1971)

Physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett, who researches parapsychology, is hired by the old, wealthy, and dying Rudolph Deutsch to determine if there is life after death. He can conduct his research at the Belasco House, aka Hell House, which Deutsch has purchased. It’s a place with a dark and violent history, with two previous investigations ending in tragedy. Barrett will receive $100,000 for completing the task. The catch is, he has only a week to deliver his findings. Barrett bristles when told two mediums have also been hired to accompany him, Florence Tanner, a mental medium and Spiritualist, and Ben Fischer, the only participant of the last investigation to make it out alive and sane, and barely at that.

Several days later, Barrett, his wife, Edith, and the psychics arrive at the Belasco house. The mansion is located in Maine, in an isolated valley perpetually filled with fog. The forbidding property includes a tarn, Bastard’s Bog, that reeks of decay. Every window of the house has been bricked up. The four settle in, and, over dinner, Fischer provides information on the owner, Emeric Belasco, and the tragedy that occurred in the house.

An illegitimate child, Belasco was a bad seed from the start, displaying psychopathic tendencies at an early age. As an adult, he was a charismatic, but intimidating, man, his imposing height earning him the nickname the Roaring Giant. He inherited his father’s millions and built the house, populating it with guests whom he slowly corrupted. Introducing them to libertinism, he encouraged them to engage in any and every debauch and perversity they could conceive of, while he retreated to the shadows to observe the chaos he wrought. Everyone died, in horrific fashion, but Belasco was never found. It’s believed those who died haunt the premises.

The investigation soon gets underway, with phenomena occurring almost immediately. The longer the group remains in the house, the more frequent and intense the phenomena becomes. Their personalities also begin to change. Eventually a confrontation ensues, and the riddle of the haunting is revealed.

Hell House is a good entry in the sub-genre of haunted house horror novels. There are some general similarities to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but those similarities are soon forgotten, and Hell House comes into its own. The novel can be taken at face value; a book about a haunted house, but it’s more than that, delving into the psychological. It’s not quite a full character study, but it’s close to it. The single location and limited characters (including the house and whatever resides in it) make for a more intimate novel, and Matheson spools out information on the characters  little by little, even as late as the last quarter of the book. All the characters, the flesh-and-blood ones at least, mirror, or are representative of, a physical characteristic or personality trait of Belasco’s, or an event from his life.

Belasco, in part, was inspired by Aleister Crowley, but I perceived a much stronger connection to de Sade. No doubt Matheson’s research for the 1969 avant-garde movie he penned, De Sade, influenced the novel, and the more conversant you are with Sade, the more of that influence you see, (the Belasco house becomes, essentially, the Château de Silling from The 120 Days of Sodom). Sex is a big part of the story, which seems only fitting with the Crowley and Sade influences at work.

I’ve read this book roughly half a dozen times, so I can’t say it scared me, although I recall a feeling of creepiness in several moments during my first read; the description of ectoplasm emerging and enveloping the medium, and whatever inhabited the steam room. Matheson’s style is very much a product of its time; straightforward, with no ornamental, florid prose, and although I don’t advocate the abuse of a thesaurus, there were a few words, short phrases, or combination of words that were repeated a bit too much (hiss/hissed/hissing, octagonal table).

The last 40 — 60 pages have the weakest moments. A few of the things meant to frighten came across as silly, and an incident of deus ex machina was a let-down. The finale, unfortunately,  is somewhat anti-climactic. Although I understand what Matheson was trying to convey, I felt it was too simply worded, resulting in it feeling flat and unsatisfying. Different phrasing, and perhaps the realization by one of the characters how parts of their lives mirrored Belasco’s, could have provided an ending with more impact.

Even with the few disappointments, I still recommend Hell House for those wanting to spend some time on a haunted house readAs Ben Fischer says, “Hell House doesn’t mind a guest or two. Anyone can stay here if they don’t mind fun and games.”

Nightmare Alley, William Lindsay Gresham (1946)

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, is a 1946 novel that revolves around carny-turned-charlatan Stanton Carlisle and his rise in the ‘spook’ racket, that is to say, spiritualism. The story starts well; the first chapter begins by painting an indelible image of a sideshow geek in a traveling carnival. This is followed by the thoughts of the other acts in the ‘ten-in-one,’ the strongman, a dwarf, the tattooed man, etc., as a crowd shuffles by. One of these sideshow acts is Stan Carlisle, a young man who does magic tricks, but longs for something bigger and better. By cozying up to slightly older carny Zeena, who does a mentalist act, Stan learns the tricks of her trade, including the use of codes and how to cold read.

Eventually, Stan leaves the carnival and performs his own mentalist act with assistant Molly, who left the sideshow with him. He soon segues into spiritualism, targeting wealthier marks, even getting ordained as a minister to enhance his ‘legitimacy.’ Stan starts to fall apart, however, and he seeks the help of psychiatrist Lilith Ritter. And that’s where I gave up, about two-thirds in.

I liked the beginning of the book, set in the carnival with its interesting cast of characters. For some reason, I especially liked Joe Plasky and wanted to know more about him. It was obvious that Tod Browning’s Freaks had some influence on the book. If you’ve seen the movie, you can’t get it out of your mind as you read the early chapters. That’s a bit of a detriment, but at the time the book was published, I don’t think many people were familiar with the film. The slang terms used by the characters, and their dialogue in general, had a good authentic feel. Regrettably, though, the deeper I got into the book, the less interested I became.

Part of the problem was that I didn’t have a clear sense of when the story was taking place, sometime between 1920 and 1940? The story would jump ahead or go back in the past, but not having any kind of anchor to know when the present day events are taking place left me a bit adrift, time-wise. Just mention a year, for some kind of reference. I felt the flashbacks to Stan’s childhood tended to run too long, but that was probably because I figured out his main issue right off the bat during the first trip down memory lane, when he sneaked into his mother’s room and buried his face in her pillow while she was splish-splash takin’ a bath. The domestic drama of Stan’s parents was more involving than his Oedipus complex. Oops, did I spoil that? Too bad. I pegged it right off the bat on page 96, I didn’t need to see Stan lose his shit at a manipulative shrink’s office on page 169 when she confronted him about wanting to bed Mommy.

The backstory for Molly was also a bit strange, somewhat disjointed and with an odd vibe. I think the author just didn’t quite know how to convey the memories of a young woman about facing the world alone with her showbiz father.  Stan’s first cold read, of an old southern sheriff threatening to shut down the sideshow and arrest Molly for indecency (she wears a sparkly leotard for her Electric Girl act) is too long by half. And repetitive. In fact, Stan himself thinks, I need to end this, before I lose him. Yet he keeps talking. And talking…and talking, and it’s the same thing over and over. Again, maybe the purpose was to educate the reader on how cold reading and codes worked in mind reading acts. I’m aware of all that already, so the longer it went on, the more aggravating it became, and I had a hard time believing the ‘mark’ didn’t wise up. I had a similar complaint once Stan stepped it up to spiritualism and the tricks mediums use in séances was revealed. In great detail. It was the forays into details that bogged down the book’s pacing for me.

Freaks came to mind during the carnival chapters. Houdini did when Stan began his mind reading and séance schtick. After Stan became a phony minister, horrible, repressed memories of Elmer Gantry surfaced (satire my ass), a book and character I loathe so intensely, no words exist to describe my ire and hatred, may the gods rot Sinclair Lewis’ talent deficient soul (the Burt Lancaster movie is pretty good though). By the time shrink Lilith Ritter shows up, who, quite frankly, seems more than a tad unbelievable, I gave up. Not to mention, every time I saw her name, I thought of the great character actress from back in the day, Thelma Ritter. And another fictional psychiatrist, Lilith Sternin (possibly inspired by the novel).

I wanted to like this book and I wish I had, but Stan Carlisle is unlikable, boring, irritating, and selfish, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I couldn’t connect with him. It’s not a good thing when you lose a reader with a wholly unsympathetic main character. It wasn’t because I need to have rainbows and roses; I like darker stories and characters. I kept slogging longer than I wanted to in the hopes of seeing the carny folk again, they were far more interesting. They showed up, briefly, in a later chapter, but nothing came of it. They do reappear later on, but Gresham had lost me by then. As for Stan, I didn’t give a good goddamn what his childhood issues were or what happened to him. I will say that what eventually befalls him is fitting, couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy. If you’re the schadenfreude type, you’ll love it. I know the ending from the movie and, honestly, I thought it would be better in the book; it’s not (I jumped to the end and it was anti-climactic).

You may want to give Nightmare Alley a shot. There are good moments and some interesting supporting characters, but that wasn’t enough to draw me across the finish line. I’ll keep it on my shelf, though, and may try reading it again someday.