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

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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