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.

 

 

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

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

 

 

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.