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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.”