The Old Gods Waken

The Old Gods Waken
Manly Wade Wellman | Berkley Books | 1984 (first published 1979) | 186 pages

Appalachian farmer Creed Forshay is drawn into conflict with his mysterious new neighbors after they attempt to build a fence across his property line. He enlists the help of John, a wandering minstrel with a silver-stringed guitar, who has befriended his son, Luke.

Forshay’s easy embrace of John runs contrary to the expected real-world reaction towards a transient balladeer, which would arguably be summarized as, “Get the **** off my property, BARD!” (followed by the pump of a shotgun).

At Forshay’s request, John climbs the mountain path to the property owned by the Voth brothers. He immediately senses something wrong with the brothers, noting a large wicker figure they have constructed. In addition, he glimpses something watching from the large oak tree in front of their farmhouse. Returning to the Forshay house, John feels a dark, watchful presence just out of sight.

John takes his suspicions to Reuben Manco, an old friend and Cherokee medicine man. Before you have time to yell, “DRUIDS!”, the pair have figured out that the Voth brothers are Druid cultists attempting to apply Old World magick in order to raise ancient New World gods from their slumber.

The set-up unfolds very quickly, and after Luke and a female companion are kidnapped, John and Reuben set out to rescue the pair from probable human sacrifice and defeat the Voth brothers. The narrative is structured around seven challenges the pair must face, ranging from a giant boar to magical boundaries of water and fire.

Overcoming each challenge leads to Manco explaining the history and lore of druidism, and the related mysticism of indigenous American peoples. These convenient information dumps are primarily static, interrupting other passages that could have easily been lifted from action-adventure serials. A lengthy climb up a sheer mountain cliff provides thrills unrelated to any gods, spirits or magic spells.

For all his hinted experience, John seems, at first, to bring little to the fight against the Voths, relying on the expertise of those he enlists to aid him. As the seven challenges progress, however, he comes into his own and proves to be an unflappable adventurer. Both he and Reuben show remarkable calm when confronted with their ultimate adversaries, mythical creatures with the vague shape of a human form, but with fleshy wings stretching from hand to foot.

The Appalachian setting provides an atmospheric background, although the text’s repeated use of regional colloquialisms, both in speech and description,occasionally threatens to descend into cloying. But Old Gods also takes a few steps to subvert the expected stereotypes. Luke is not just another hick local boy, but has graduated from college, valuably adding to the group’s discussion of the history of global folklore. Reuben employs the monosyllabic grunt of a racist’s conception of “Indian” language to the Voths, hiding his advanced knowledge and tricking the brothers into dismissing him as a threat.

Old Gods Waken is a quick and engaging read, filled with a regional atmosphere. Perhaps the mystical revelations are too front-loaded to build much suspense, and the folkloric information comes as an occasional block of exposition, but readers will ultimately be invested in seeing John’s (albeit brief) journey to the end.

Fortunately, the pace provides John with little time to plunk his guitar and unleash too many folksy ballads.

The Night Strangler

The Night Strangler
Jeff Rice | Pocket Books | 1974 | 160 pages

If you have come here seeking something to lend credence to the lunatic blatherings of that incompetent lout Kolchak, Mr. Rice, you are a bigger idiot than he, sir….

A pale carbon-copy of The Night Stalker, Jeff Rice’s follow-up novel exhibits a loss in quality resulting from duplication, but still manages to deliver an appealing vehicle for its iconic main character, Carl Kolchak.

Unlike the first novel, The Night Strangler is not an original work, but is instead adapted from the Richard Matheson screenplay of the second made-for-television Kolchak film. Filled with less gritty detail than its predecessor, the story echoes similar themes of police cover-ups and press collusion. The structural concept also remains the same, with an introduction by the author framing the first-person case files from Kolchak’s own notes.

After relocating to Seattle and landing a newspaper job with his old boss, Tony Vincenzo, Kolchak immediately encounters a rash of vicious murders echoing the killings that eventually drove him out of Las Vegas. The bodies of several young dancers are found around Pioneer Square with their throats brutally crushed, and small samples of blood extracted from the base of their brains with a needle-like instrument.

Just like in Vegas, the Seattle police want to avoid releasing the details of the crimes, and Kolchak’s publisher at the Daily Chronicle is hostile to printing the true story. However, it all feels a little watered down from the earlier book, with a less intense narrative driving Kolchak forward. Kolchak’s outbursts begin to feel like a shorthand for his character, rather than an organic response to the unwavering self-interests of those in power blocking his attempts at unraveling the mystery.

Vincenzo fares even worse, being reduced to a single-note character. Although making more appearances, his personal encounters are more shallow, restricted to bellowing his discomfort with Kolchak while popping handfuls of Maalox to combat his flaring ulcers. Better to not even discuss Kolchak’s wince-inducing Humphrey Bogart impression, or his pants-wetting episode in a moment of terror.

Kolchak’s developing relationship with Louise Harper, a belly dancer from the scene of an early murder, seems out of place here. Although a welcome reprieve from his relentlessly downbeat luck, the personal details of their coupling are out-of-step with the conceit of the narrative as Kolchak’s direct account of the murders. Better is Kolchak’s new friend, and perhaps kindred spirit, newspaper morgue manager Mr. Berry, who shares the reporter’s desire to unpack the supernatural history of the crimes—from the safety of his basement office.

The book suffers because the alchemy storyline is just less interesting than the vampire story from The Night Stalker. Kolchak’s final confrontation with the killer, as he reveals his evil plans, reads like a tete-a-tete with a Bond villain in his lair. The text itself contains something of an admission of propagating lazy coincidences for the sake of plot, as it transfers Dr. Kirsten Helms from Las Vegas to Seattle to help Kolchak research the supernatural trappings of the murders.

The Seattle location is a clear step down from Las Vegas. Although underground Seattle possesses some undeniably spooky charm, it feels a bit predictable, and not as intimately documented as the true-crime Vegas streets of The Night Stalker. Perhaps the lesser impact is due to the lost Victorian streetscape under Seattle flirting with cliche as a horror setting. The same underground in which Kolchak confronts his immortal alchemist served as the backdrop for an episode of Scooby Doo (Scooby and the Mystery Machine gang of meddling kids fought demons).

Still, it’s hard not to root for Kolchak as the underdog, predictably driven out of yet another city in disgrace, and lament the fact that Jeff Rice did not continue the series with any additional installments. My nine-year-old self taped episodes of The Night Stalker from broadcast television using a cheap portable cassette recorder, playing the audio back to relive the stories later. I would have been beyond thrilled to find paperback novelizations of Kolchak’s monstrous encounters (The Spanish Moss Murders, I’m looking at you).

The Night Stalker

The Night Stalker
Jeff Rice | Pocket Books | 1973 | 192 pages

[Kolchak] was seedy, gross, aggressive, slightly drunk, and a general hindrance to all of us.

The Karl Kolchak that inhabits Jeff Rice’s novel is perhaps more down-at-the-heels than the character portrayed by Darren McGavin in the Night Stalker made-for-television movies, and the subsequent ABC series. Overweight and borderline alcoholic, Kolchak spends his intermittent free time and occasional holiday with his only friend, Sam, a Vegas-strip hooker. Slipping into a boozy, late middle-age, he recognizes the downward spiral of his career, realizing he will never join the ranks of top-tier journalists in the newsroom of a major city. However, he does possess a tenacious reporter’s drive for a story, and an unwavering commitment to printing the truth, even with his own self-awareness regarding his limitations.

When the bodies of several young women are found in Las Vegas, Kolchak discovers the police are withholding key elements from the public, protecting their own self interests rather than the city they are obliged to serve. Exhibiting strange puncture wounds on their throats, the victims share a complete loss of blood, even though no traces of blood are found at the crime scenes. Outraged at the corruption of the police department, and the collusion of his own newspaper to squash the details of the story, Kolchak is driven to piece together his own investigation, and pursue the truth even if it leads to an unbelievable conclusion. 

The character of Tony Vincenzo also deviates from its familiar television counterpart, played by Simon Oakland. The Daily News city editor is described here as a “small, dried-out, Brooklyn-born Sicilian”, and much to Kolchak’s dismay, fails to fully support him in his investigation. Not necessarily a full-blown foil to Kolchak, Vincenzo lacks the basic curiosity that serves as a foundation for investigating the news.

Written in a first-person account from Kolchak’s own extensive notes on the case, The Night Stalker reads more like a gritty true crime tale than a traditional horror story. It even namechecks several infamous real-life murder sprees, including the then-recent Manson case. Filled with vivid details on the victims, crime scenes, and subsequent police briefings, Kolchak’s breathless reportage of the increasingly bizarre series of crimes eventually runs him afoul of the local law enforcement bureaucracy. Bracketed by notes from the author, the book exists as an extensive case file, a box of lost or neglected evidence from an unusually beguiling episode of Unsolved Mysteries

In an interesting precursor to the “we can’t close the beaches for the Fourth of July holiday” storyline from Peter Benchley’s Jaws, the nepotistic commerce and police communities of Las Vegas fear the impact of a sensational serial killer upon the casinos and tourist businesses of the Strip, particularly in light of the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. As Kolchak advances his own vampire killer theory, powerful forces align to marginalize and silence him.

Whether or not the killer is an actual vampire is an open question for most of the narrative. Since we read from Kolchak’s point of view, the killer is mostly offpage, existing only as the sum of his brutal crimes. When he does make an appearance, however, the results are truly horrifying. While ransacking the blood supply at local hospitals, the killer throws off all challengers with a supernatural ease. An extended police chase is a suspenseful highlight of the late chapters, with a squad of police failing to take their suspect down, even after pumping him with a barrage of gunfire.

In an unusual focus in the existing body of vampire lore, a number of witnesses call out the strikingly bad breath of the suspect. When the police eventually raid his lair,  they find (along with a coffin in the living room) a number of halitosis-fighting products stored in his medicine cabinet.

The final confrontation between Kolchak and the vampire provides a nail-biting climax. In an appropriately downbeat turn for the character, the denouement perversely twists what could have been Kolchak’s redemption into a deadly bargaining chip for the police, snatching away any hard-earned exaltation and instead hastening his downfall.

Burn, Witch, Burn!

Burn, Witch, Burn!
Abraham Merritt | Corgi Books | 1963 (first published 1932) | 161 pages

Dr. Lowell, a self-proclaimed “orthodox man of medicine” struggles to find rational explanations in a mysterious case that places him in direct conflict with an ancient, “dark flame of evil wisdom”. Presented in a breathless, first-person account, Lowell details the experiences he admits would be mercilessly dismissed by his own medical community, in a story that could have alternately been named with the doctor’s own casebook title, The Dolls of Madame Mandilip.

Entering his New York City hospital late one night, Dr. Lowell is confronted by Julian Ricori, an infamous local gangster. Ricori and a group of his henchmen are delivering Peters, Ricori’s right-hand man in the organization, to the emergency room. Peters has been stricken with a mysterious malady, rendering him in a catatonic state. He was suddenly and unexpectedly crippled, debilitated with a frozen expression of horror locked on his face, unseeing eyes locked on terrors seemingly both internal and external. Recognizing Lowell as a distinguished brain specialist, Ricoli enlists his aid in treating his strangely afflicted associate, whom he suspects is the victim of foul play.

After Peters dies, his corpse exhibits a nearly supernatural onset and release of rigor mortis. In addition, his blood work shows an unusual, luminous presence in the corpuscles. Lowell reaches out to some of his distinguished colleagues in the medical profession, and discovers a rash of similar deaths throughout New York. Prompted by the vengeful Ricori, Lowell pursues a commonality among the victims, eventually discovering shared encounters with a strange downtown dollmaker.

The early chapters establish an appealingly creepy atmosphere, primarily due to Lowell’s first-person account. His inner-monologue, as he grapples with the strange agency of the assorted deaths, reads something like the voice-over narration in a bleak film noir, only with an occult tinge. Interestingly, Ricori and his gunsel, McCann, are portrayed in an unexpectedly positive light. Originally written in the thirties, the text’s empathy towards these mafiosi perhaps stems from the inherently flawed prohibition against alcohol that presumably drove their criminal enterprise.

In the subsequent decades following the book’s publication, the notion of killer dolls has descended into outrageous camp [Bride of Chucky, I’m looking at you], but here the concept is presented in all seriousness. The little details supporting the curses, from the sinister balms to the “witches ladder” of braided hair placed in the possession of the victims, serve to enhance the overall mood of malignancy.

If Madame Mandilip ultimately remains a cipher as the villain, at least she is an imposing character. A giant woman, with a huge bust and pronounced mustache, her motivations are never clearly identified beyond evil-for-the-sake-of-evil. Her mousy niece elicits some sympathy, trapped in a cycle of witchcraft that she cannot herself escape.

A final chapter avoids the pitfall of an easy, rational explanation explaining away all the horrors. This connect-all-the-dots type of conclusion arguably tarnishes such otherwise notable classics as Psycho (or, ahem, any of a dozen Scooby Doo mysteries).Lowell feigns a potential, post-hypnotic solution, but when ultimately asked if he believes in the scientific over the supernatural in this case, he responds simply, “No.”

Jaws

Jaws
Peter Benchley | Bantam | 1974 | 309 pages

Too young to dream that my parents would ever take me to the screening of Jaws when it opened in theaters in the summer of 1975, I nevertheless managed to persuade my mother to buy me the Peter Benchley novel. Presented in a wire-mesh basket at the supermarket (possibly a Piggly Wiggly) check-out next to the impulse tabloids that shoppers browse while waiting in line, the Bantam paperback drove itself into my consciousness like the apex predator surging upward on the book’s cover. Since I couldn’t see the movie, I simply refused to be denied the book, which I consumed greedily (and somewhat haltingly, since it was clearly above my recommended reading level, if for content and subject matter rather than vocabulary) in a few sittings over the weekend.

How does the book hold up upon rereading after forty-plus years?

First, an obvious but critical disclaimer: This is not Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. However you feel about the director, his lack of subtlety or ham-fisted sentimentality, Spielberg’s consummate skill as a filmmaker and mastery of the techniques of the medium are fully on display in the film, even though he was only in his mid-twenties at the time of production. Jaws, the movie, not only established the foundation (for better, or for worse) for the summer blockbuster, but detonated a full-blown pop-cultural phenomenon.

Benchley’s novel lacks the bullet-proof construction and expert pacing of the film, allowing ample time to wallow in the melodrama of resort town life, with its perpetual tug-of-war between the tourists and the townies. The strained marriage between Chief Martin Brody, an Amity local, and his bored wife, Ellen, a former summers-only tourist who now longs for her lost lifestyle, occupies the emotional core of the novel. Even Matt Hooper, the ichthyologist from Wood’s hole, serves more as a catalyst for rekindling Ellen’s past life than as an agent for the study and capture of the shark plaguing the waters off Amity. 

Not that the book lacks suspense. The early chapters involving the fateful skinny dipper, Christine Watkins, and a doomed young boy on an inflatable raft deliver thrilling, visceral sequences. Lean, economical prose details the movements of the shark, signalling the fateful outcome of the encounters long before the victim becomes aware of the threat. Another attack, in shallow water barely at wading depth, is described via a third-person account, but still resonates with a primal horror, as the victim is repeatedly hit while onlookers attempt to pull him from the surf.

In contrast to the contemporary environment of “Mega”, “Super”, or “Ultra” prefix marketing hyperbole, it’s interesting to note that the monster shark terrorizing the swimmers of Amity is referred to simply as “the fish”.

The middle chapters tend to drag, including a long dinner party that underscores the tension between the Brody, his wife, and Hooper, but at the expense of further stalling the narrative. The overall pacing suffers another blow with the subsequent chapter, detailing Ellen Brody’s affair with Hooper. Awkward at best, their illicit encounter degenerates into wince-inducing territory as Ellen reveals some regressively outdated and offensive (by today’s standards) erotic fantasies to Hooper during their seductive tête-à-tête. The specifics surrounding the application of spray-on deodorant and the logistics of Ellen’s panties are probably not the best subjects for rumination while waiting for the great fish to resurface.

The story is completely transformed in part three, however, after Brody hires Quint, a laconic local fisherman, to catch and kill the shark. Although the melodrama from the mainland continues in the onboard tension between Brody and Hooper, the focus intensifies as the intrepid shark-hunters set out in Quint’s boat, the Orca, setting the stage for an epic struggle for the bragging rights atop the food chain. Quint is a compelling character, although his seemingly sudden obsession with the shark becomes a shorthand substitute for Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, a reduction that culminates in a haunting, even if overly familiar, image of his final demise.

Incidentally, I would return to that supermarket a few years later, age 11, and beg for the purchase of yet another impulse checkout display: Alan Dean Foster’s movie tie-in novelization of Star Wars. That one I took home and immediately read cover to cover, twice.

Darker Than You Think

Darker Than You Think
Jack Williamson | Berkley Medallion  | 1969 (first published 1940) | 282 pages

How dark can a novel really pretend to be, when it features a naked, red-haired witch riding on the back of a sabre-tooth tiger?

After attending an airport press conference held by his estranged former professor, small-town reporter Will Barbee is plunged into a nightmare world of murderously vivid dreams. Dr. Mondrick, along with a few of Barbee’s former university colleagues, has just returned from a scientific exhibition in the Gobi Desert, and intimates the discovery of a major finding in human evolution. Before making his announcement to the press, Dr. Mondrick is mysteriously killed, and his research team flees from the scene.

At the airport, Barbee meets fellow reporter April Bell, a vivacious young woman who immediately captivates his imagination. Barbee is puzzled by her strange behaviour during the event, however, and ultimately elicits a strange confession. April Bell is a witch, and she killed Dr. Mondrick to protect her fellow witch-folk from the dangers inherent in Mondrick’s undisclosed discovery.

While Barbee ponders the meaning of April’s uncanny revelation, he begins to suffer from chronic nightmares. In his dream state, he takes the form of a huge gray wolf, and along with a similarly transformed April Bell, begins to stalk and murder the remaining members Dr. Mondrick’s research party. When he awakens, Barbee is horrified to learn that the fates of his dream victims have also manifested in the waking world.

The dream-wolf April Bell feeds Barbee a load of pseudo-scientific babble, covering the emergence of ancient races of witches, eugenics, telepathy, ESP, and astral projection. She desires to recruit him into protecting the emergent “Child of Night”, a messiah-like witch who will revitalize their ancestral line. This unloading of information feels inorganic, with April Bell serving as a convenient mouthpiece for all the supernatural context.

There is a slight sense of rinse-and-repeat to Barbee’s dreams, in which he murders another of his friends, awakens to discover they have actually been killed, and then begins to question his own sanity. The dreams themselves are entertaining, with Barbee and April Bell shifting into various forms beyond just wolves. Snakes, sabre-tooth tigers, and even pterosaurs become his astral plane killing vessels. As Barbee reluctantly takes the necessary action to kill, April goads him forward with her reading of the probabilities of the situation, like a demented dungeon master deciphering the roll of a twenty-sided die.

Barbee’s reactions also become repetitive, always ineffectually questioning his dream kills. After much agonizing, he invariably follows April’s instructions. Even the language of the book frequently repeats, with multiple descriptions of various creatures as “tawny” and April’s astral state as a “white wolf bitch.”

Limitations notwithstanding, the book possesses an appealing noirish atmosphere, with its hapless, alcoholic protagonist driven into near-madness by a dangerous femme-fatale—who (in a break from noir tradition) sometimes rides naked astride his transmogrified bestial back.

Some of Your Blood

Some of Your Blood
Theodore Sturgeon | Ballantine | 1966 (first published 1961) | 143 pages

When did you start drinking blood?

Three-quarters of the way through the book, this question lands with the sudden impact of a heavy punch, spinning and reframing the narrative with a new perspective. Hardly a spoiler, however, since the subject of vampirism was introduced earlier in the text, although in a less direct fashion. Plus, the title itself (and the cover of the 1966 Ballantine edition) prepares the reader for this eventuality.

Starting with an odd, second-person call for the reader to remember that the subsequent account is indeed fictional, the book takes the form of a series of letters between Dr. Philip Outerbridge, an army psychologist, and Colonel Williams, his old friend and commanding officer. Williams advances the case of enlisted man, George Smith, who has been left in the brig and forgotten for three months after assaulting an officer. Williams tasks Dr. Outerbridge to investigate the source of the assault, and discharge Smith as soon as possible to avoid any undue scrutiny regarding the handling of his imprisonment.

In addition to the various missives between Outerbridge and Williams, the bulk of the central part of the novel contains Smith’s third-person account of his own life, detailing his childhood up through his time in the army. The horrors contained in his account are undeniable, but firmly of the human realm. Born in a small mining town in rural Kentucky, his mother suffered from a variety of illnesses that she attributed to George. His father, a belligerent and abusive drunk, transferred the rage at his boss and frequent lay-offs from the mine onto his family, who feared his late-night arrivals after another drinking binge.

Throughout his difficult home life, George found solace in his time alone in the woods. Laying traps and hunting small game occupied much of his thoughts, and although he confessed to no pleasure in killing, his account contains some explicit lists of the traps and methods for bringing down various small animals. 

Patience for George’s autobiographical tale, which continues through juvenile detention, life at his aunt’s farm, and his enlisted army life, is ultimately rewarded, however, after his secret is revealed. Dr. Outerbridge, in a few long question-and-answer sessions, documents the results of placing George under hypnosis. These transcripts provide shocking new twists in the details of his account, adding a disturbing new depth to the already established, but more mundane, horrors of George’s life.

Although Outerbridge retains empathy for his stricken patient, there is a remarkable shift in sympathy away from George over time. Slowly and perhaps haltingly at first, overcoming the difficult circumstances of his early life, then dramatically as horrific revelations fill in the gaps of his autobiography.

A letter from a nurse investigating some of the details of George’s story serves as a mostly unnecessary coda, providing some lengthy psychobabble rationale for his actions.

A Stir of Echoes

A Stir of Echoes
Richard Matheson | Avon Books | 1969 (originally published 1958) | 160 pages

After his psychology student brother-in-law hypnotizes him as a challenge at a party, Tom Wallace begins to see things. Waking in the middle of the night, Tom encounters the ghostly presence of a woman in a black dress and pearls, who appears to be trying to communicate with him.

Stricken with this spectral vision and unable to sleep, Tom also begins to register impressions of the private thoughts of his neighbors. Peeling away the superficial banalities of his suburban southern California home, he gains insight into the true thoughts and feelings of those around him, people he previously thought he understood. 

The early chapters serve as much a critical peek under the surface of post-war American life as a ghost story, hammering home the book’s theme of “We are all monsters underneath.

Neighborhood gossip Elsie projects an innocent facade, while controlling her weak husband, Ron. Tom’s co-worker, Frank Wanamaker, and his wife, Elizabeth, are expecting their first child, but the happiness at a prospective new family is overshadowed by Frank’s cruelty and exposed adultery. Tom’s belligerent landlord, Harry Santas, lives across the street with his rich wife, whose sister disappeared under somewhat mysterious circumstances..

Somehow, what terrifies Tom the most are the lascivious thoughts emanating from his “plump” neighbor, Elsie, who always seems to greet him in a clingy blouse, revealing bikini, or peek-a-boo housecoat. The latent wantonness of the woman next door is apparently more fundamentally frightening to the mid-century suburban man than the poltergeist in his living room.

The first-person perspective effectively describes Tom’s internal struggle to deal with the series of inexplicable events that have upended his quiet family life. His continuous mental dialogue comes to resemble that of a protagonist’s voice-over narration in a film noir.

As Tom’s torment grows, his own marriage suffers, as his wife Anne tries to come to grips with his growing malady. She doubts his visions are real, and fears that he is experiencing a mental breakdown, or a possible descent into madness. Anne eventually comes to believe in Tom’s experiences, but only after his newfound psychic abilities predicts her mother’s death, saves their child from an attempted kidnapping by a babysitter, and describes a fatal train accident in fantastic detail before it actually happens. He still ultimately visits a psychologist, who proceeds to validate the whole concept of latent telepathy in humans!

Anne’s resistance to Tom’s psychic powers allows for a minor rumination on the inherent value of the mental masks people wear to function in society. Although acknowledging some of the positive results of his post-hypnotic state, Anne nonetheless argues against embracing the potential use of his visions. With nothing definitive to hide from her husband, the concept of standing mentally “naked” before him still fills her with a personal sense of dread.

The story steers firmly into ghost story territory after Tom, embracing his newly accepted role as medium, hosts a makeshift seance with a card table and folding chairs. There are a few more twists before everything is wrapped up at the end, but the overall mood and atmosphere getting there delivers more satisfaction than any obligatory plot turns.

Piecing together all the pieces of Tom’s various disturbing visions makes the proceedings feel like a supernatural detective story, with Tom acting as an intrepid inspector unraveling the puzzle of a locked-door mystery. At this particular denouement, however, the fact that people are the monsters comes as no great revelation.

Ghost Train

Ghost Train
Stephen Laws | Tor | 1986 | 314 pages

Recovering from a near-fatal fall from the speeding King’s Cross train, Mark Davies is plagued by a series of mysterious nightmares, and a strange compulsion to return to the station and the transit line that nearly killed him.

As Mark sits in the station cafe compulsively watching the ticket entrance, a group of other characters from the greater environment of King’s Cross—from fellow commuters to bag ladies—are introduced, only to be killed in a variety of grisly manners. Night after night, Mark dreams of ancient rites and ritual murders, while during the day trying to remember the details of his accident. The early chapters, while somewhat disjointed due to the independent strands of temporary characters, establish a mood of mystery, and the prospect of a folk horror stalking the path of the British railway.

The introduction of Les Chadderton, a former detective whose own wife was a victim of self-immolation after riding the King’s Cross train, widens the scope of the mysterious attacks, and validates Mark’s affliction as something other than simple mental illness. The ex-policeman and stricken commuter serve as a duo of metaphysical investigators, with more overtly supernatural attacks leading them to the diabolic presence running along the King’s Cross rails.

By the time the pair recruit the assistance of a Catholic priest, any subtle folkloric-based creepiness gives way to an over-the-top, rock-em-sock-em horror more akin to The Evil Dead than to The Wicker Man. Passages meant to deliver breathless action begin to fatigue and become monotonous in their execution. Mark’s repeating dreams of purple-fogged pagan rites become repetitive, while the whole primal evil surrounding the ruins of ancient stone circles becomes suspiciously vulnerable to Christian rites of exorcism. A chapter literally listing the stone circle sites of Britain is a particular bore.

Once the final train-bound exorcism begins, the action ramps up even more. A trio of demon-touched passengers infect a range of others, leading to a wild onboard killing spree. More characters, including a soldier and his girlfriend are introduced, only to become fodder for the murderous rampage. The girlfriend is also an egregiously stereotypical histrionic female character—standing out even more due to the lack of other women in the primary cast of characters—existing only to passively watch the carnage, and let loose frequent rounds of screaming.

Weird ectoplasmic fluid coats the interior of the passenger cars, reanimated corpses wield axes, and Mark attains odd psychic powers as the runaway King’s Cross train hurls toward its final destination. It all feels a bit unwieldy and overblown, although peppered with several convenient shortcuts regarding associated powers and abilities designed to bring characters together and streamline the action. Mark’s latent telepathy and mental power to shift the rails are sketchily explained, but without much context in a story that otherwise has ample time to provide backstories on several minor characters.

I’m sure enthusiastic readers of baroque eighties horror will find plenty to like here, but I was left mostly bored, yet simultaneously exhausted, wishing perhaps that Ghost Train was in possession of more subtle terrors.

The Grave

The Grave
Charles L. Grant | Fawcett Popular Library | 1981 | 223 pages

Joshua Miller finds things. Not missing persons, or stolen jewels, or anything of particular value or notoriety, but items of interest desired for some personal reason by a group of select clients in the small Connecticut town of Oxrun Station. The search for a seemingly innocuous 18th-century hand plow, The Grave’s version of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, leads Miller to uncover a secret that someone wants to remain hidden, and sets off a series of uncanny events that leaves him questioning his own sanity.

The aftermath of a strange accident introduces an early mystery, although Miller is not directly involved in the proceedings. A violent car crash on a lonely stretch of road outside the town claims the lives of four passengers. However, among the four corpses alongside the wreckage, police find an extraneous severed arm, the only remains of a purported fifth victim whose body is never found. Although this curious puzzle fires Miller’s imagination, he continues on with his own caseload, searching for a historic plow, a sheaf of vintage sheet music, and other more mundane items.

Although the writing is full of descriptive details—the overstuffed decor of a wealthy woman’s library, the components of a finely prepared dinner, or the simple pleasures of a warm bath—mundane proves to be the key word. A full ten more chapters unfold, with the crash receding in the background, until a new mysterious element is introduced. Mrs. Thames, Miller’s primary client, eventually confides in him her own fears regarding a strange series of disappearances. 

Several women in her circle of friends have all gone missing. The individual circumstances vary, but the missing persons share a similar characteristic—they all vanished on their birthday. Although she does not understand the forces at play, with her own birthday fast approaching, she is terrified she may be next on the list.

Miller humors Mrs. Thames, but several distractions keep him from investigating the rash of birthday disappearances. In fact, nearly the entire first half of the novel reads more like the foundation of a romance than a horror story, with Miller at one corner of a latent love triangle. The main problem with this focus is the fact Miller is something of a jerk.

He harbors a deep attraction to Andrea Murdoch, the sheltered yet voluptuous daughter of a local writer, living in isolation with her father in a remote farmhouse outside of town. Her breathy interchanges with Miller leave him stricken with desire, but crippled with an impotence to act upon his feelings. At the same time, his flirtatious banter and intimate behaviour with Felicity Lancaster, his employee at the detective agency, easily crosses contemporary boundaries of inappropriate workplace behaviour. His attitude towards her ranges from a patronizing creepiness to blatant harassment.

It all serves to fuel a slow burn suspense, but there is a qualitative difference between slow burn and no burn. A few eerie incidents hint at the supernatural, with the atmosphere of the town suggesting a building storm, whether electrical or psychological. Miller overhears an argument between Andrea’s father and a strange old woman inside the farmhouse, a wasp-induced panic attack fuels a resurgence of a childhood trauma, and Miller almost drowns in the bath during a visionary experience as the curved sides of the tub recede upwards and out of reach.

The pace doesn’t really pick up until near the end, after Miller is nearly killed in an hallucination-fueled accident. The attempt on his life arguably proves itself unnecessary during the events of the climax. Even while the villain explains the motives behind his actions, Miller clearly does not possess all the answers that would have made him a threat. Another character, who is unceremoniously killed off-page, actually posits the initial theory that ties all the pieces of the mystery together. 

The underlying lore also remains sketchy, as if deemed unnecessary in the rush to a conclusion. This final omission is particularly glaring, given the wealth of incidental details on other matters along the way. Yet the final rituals and source of related powers remain vague.

Author Charles L. Grant was a notable proponent of “quiet horror”, and set nearly a dozen novels and a host of short stories in the extended Oxrun Station universe. Although possessing a modestly enjoyable overall atmosphere of suspense, the place-specific charms of Oxrun Station in The Grave fail to inspire much enthusiasm for a return visit.

[On a technical (and somewhat petulant) note, the title should more accurately read The Graves, since there are at least nine in the story.]