The Lady of Arlac

“FROM THIS DAY FORTH,” THE ELDEST BERTRAN SAID, “OUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE CURSED FOR TONIGHT’S DEED.”

The legend of the theft of a great church treasure by the Bertrans and its resulting curse – on the Bertrans and the village – persisted through the centuries.

No-one ever discovered the stolen treasure. As the fortunes of the village declined, the Castle of Arlac stood as a grim reminder to the country folk, whose loathing for anyone bearing the name of Bertran seethed like a rumbling volcano.

In 1892 this hatred hung like a sword over the innocent head of Maxine Bertran. She came from England to Arlac as its new mistress, ignorant of her ancestors’ deeds and unaware of the terrible fate awaiting her….

Written by Sandra Shulman. This Paperback Library Edition, first printing April 1969.

I picked this up in a local charity shop the other day and wanted to show-off the wonderful cover by Jerome Podwil.

Maxine Bertran has been living in England with her mother and has not seen her father in years. Now her mother has died she is returning to Silver Ladies – a local nickname given to the ancient, tumbledown Castle Arlac in France, her father’s ancestral home.  

We have learnt from the prologue that the Bertrans are a cruel lot with a bloodthirsty history; that the Chateaux of Arlac was the site of an atrocity which has cursed its soil for centuries. There are rumours of buried treasure from their ill-gotten gains but it remains undiscovered and so the castle, as well as the land surrounding it, has long since fallen victim to misery and misfortune.

In time, the treasure became but a dim legend. Yet the loathing and fear of the country folk for all bearing the name Bertran smouldered threateningly, like the core of a volcano. The chateau of Arlac was a grim reminder of the past; its curse was blamed for every tribulation.

Lady of Arlac backcover scan

Initially, Maxine is puzzled by the hostile reception she receives from the local peasants. And things don’t get any easier. When she arrives at the castle, she learns her father has died by that most gothic of deaths – slow, deliberate poisoning – leaving her his sole heir. This of course does not go down well with the various ingrates and hangers-on living at the castle, and it’s not long before Maxine is receiving death threats herself.

Surrounded by enemies as cold and unfeeling as the decayed castle walls that immure her, Maxine’s first instinct is to run. But where? With who? So she stays, determined to do right by her father and make amends for her family’s sordid past. If the first fifty pages are anything to go by, it won’t be easy and for now, her only friends are a rather eccentric speleologist (I love a book that teaches me new words) called Alan and a wolfhound called Cesare.

Black shadows silently crossed the moon. Two huge bats swooped above the castle, looking like messengers of evil. She understood that the intense loveliness of Arlac had a grim, sombre side. This was no mere picture-book prettiness. It was a complex of beauty, mystery and even terror. Like a person, there were many facets to the castle’s character…

I wasn’t intending to review this just yet, as I have a pile of other stuff to get through, but I started reading and so far I’m enjoying The Lady of Arlac’s gothic setting and seductive prose. (Though too many sentences… just trail off… with ellipses…). Three out of four stars.

And there’s a (not very complimentary) review of Lady of Arlac with an alternate cover at: The Groovy Age Of Horror.

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The Ledge

Young Catherine Beauchamp had defied her father and ignored all warnings when she took the job at High View. There were whispers about the brilliant ex-senator who lived at the remote mountain estate; ugly rumors about his strange behaviour and the mysterious death of his first wife. But Catherine did not want to hear them. She too had secrets in her past.

Yet from the moment she entered the decaying mansion she was filled with foreboding. With each passing day the ledge from which the senator’s wife had plunged grew more ominous. And sudenly she realized she had trespassed on a nightmare…

… JOURNEY TO TERROR.

Written by Gertrude Schweitzer. First Dell printing January 1973.

I picked this one up at a local used bookshop a couple of weeks ago and though it’s a bit tattered and torn, I just love the cover. There might not be an obligatory light shining from the mansion’s top window, but the colours are gorgeous and the title font has a real seventies look to it.

The Ledge opens with our heroine, the bereaved and vulnerable Catherine Beauchamp, winding her way to a new job as secretary for ex-senator Amos Kent. Early on we learn Catherine has recently recovered from a serious mental breakdown; this job is the start of her new life and an important step towards regaining her sense of self worth and confidence.  

But from the offset the omens aren’t good. Nearing Garretston, the town where the senator lives,  she runs over a squirrel and is forced to pull over, shaking like a leaf, waiting until the ‘old horror loosened its claws.’ And the welcome when she finally arrives at her new home isn’t much better – Amos Kent is a guarded, embittered man suspected of killing his last wife. His West Indian housekeeper, Mrs Willymore or Willy for short, has secrets of her own and looks after her boss with a strange kind of quiet over-possessiveness. And she may or may not be drugging Catherine’s drinks and rifling through her drawers at night, but if she is, then why?

1973 Hardcover

Story-wise I really wasn’t expecting much more than your average ‘guess who wants you dead for your money, honey’ kind of gothic but I must say The Ledge is turning out to be a rather engrossing read. There aren’t any ghosts in this house but plenty of disturbing dreams and damaged psyches, all colliding to create a taut, suspenseful read. Here’s a taster from the inside cover:

“Something rustled. There was the sound of breathing close by. Catherine held her own breath. The sound of breathing continued. This time there was no mistaking it. Someone was in her room.

She sat up, her heart pounding, and called out, “Who’s there?” But she saw who it was before the words were out.

Mrs. Willymore stood beside the bed in her peignoir. Silent. Then slowly she moved a cloth toward Catherine’s face. Catherine shrank back.

“Don’t be frightened.” The housekeeper whispered.

Like the sinister Mrs Willymore, this book whispers rather than screams and if understated, well written psychological thrillers are your thing, I would definitely recommend it. Four out of five stars.

There is a signature to the bottom left of the cover but unfortunately I can’t make head nor tale of it. Any ideas?

Candace

A DEAD MAN’S EVIL SPIRIT HELD HER PRISONER IN A HOUSE OF MENACE.

When George Haight was alive, Candace Loring disliked and mistrusted him. When he dies, he leaves her his house. She plans to refuse the legacy, but as the executor of the estate swings the key slowly before her eyes, she finds herself hypnotically agreeing to look at it before making a decision.

As she steps inside, she recognizes the house from the nightmares that have haunted her sleep. But she can’t leave. George’s evil spirit holds her there, controlling her, bringing her closer to death night by night.

Pitted against his satanic strength is the young doctor who loves Candace. But is the power of his love strong enough to save her life?

Paperback Library edition. First printing August 1970.

Alice Brennan sounds like a gas. Born in St Louis in 1913 she worked as a hat-check girl, dancer and secretary before turning her hand to writing gothics in her mid-fifties. From the titles of her published novels it seems her books lean heavily toward the witchy / satanic side of things and Candace is no exception.

Candace Loring is a perfectly happy and normal 23 year old. Then she meets George Haight, a ‘particularly unimpressive’ man obsessed with spiritualism and the occult, who has ‘queer blazing eyes’. Candace dates him casually for a while but soon dumps him, not least because all his chit chat about the spirit world bores her. To spare his feelings she pretends she is marrying someone else and randomly picks the name of a nice, quiet young man called Roger who works in the same office she does.

Roger mysteriously dies of carbon monoxide poisoning and George Haight just as mysteriously slips out of Candace’s life.  But not for long. Before the year is up he pops up out of nowhere in the local car park, telling Candace he has been trying to contact her via mental telepathy.

Candace is appalled. And confused – as George Haight goes on to explain he is going to die any day now and he is bequeathing Candace his house. Then he mysteriously disappears again.

A few days and some weird dreams later, Candace receives a letter from a George’s lawyer. George is dead and she has become the new owner of a big old house in Lewisville. Of course, Candace has absolutely no intention of accepting this strange inheritance but the lawyer persuades her to at least take a look.

When she visits the house a strange voice invades her mind, enticing her into giving up her job so she can move in and live with George’s spirit. Candace is powerless to resist but the longer she stays in the house, the more it becomes obvious that something or someone is exerting a powerful hold over her, corrupting her personality and draining her of energy. Friends and family are worried but anyone getting too close to Candace soon ends up ill, dead or stalked by a big black dog. And as Candace falls deeper and deeper under this mysterious spell, it is left to the handsome young Doctor Clemmins to step in and save the day….

This book was ok for a bit of light reading but not much more. I loved the lead character Candace – she was so flirtatious yet so witheringly offhand and dismissive toward the infatuated George it was hilarious. And I couldn’t help warming to her as she floated and flittered around the story, completely oblivious to the threat she was under.

Fourth printing September 1973. Cover photo by Hank Dunning.

Overall though, Candace lacked the creeping aura of menace necessary for this kind of subject to work properly, with the writing almost as frothy as the heroine. And for all the promising blurb, nothing very much happened. Once she was safely ensconced within the creepy dead guy’s house, Candace spent about three quarters of the book making coffee, feeling grumpy, building log fires and falling asleep – with not much more than the ocasional narky phonecall from her mother to add to the excitement. True, there were a few spooky dream sequences, during which the spirit of our dearly-departed George made fresh attempts to woo his captive Candace. But his powers of seduction were even less successful in the afterlife as, apart from a lingering headache and vague feeling of nausea, they left little impression on her or the reader.

I kept turning the pages, waiting for the story to kick in – for a life and death struggle with the forces of evil, for a sinister seance at midnight or a last minute exorcism. At the very least there could have been a blind gypsy woman fortelling bad things about to happen. But no. Just pages and pages of Candace drinking coffee, feeling grumpy, building log fires and falling asleep...zzzzzzz….

Two out of five stars – one for each version of this book I have. I don’t have many gothics with photo covers but I really like this one.

Strangers In The Night

STRANGE SOUNDS

SINISTER STRANGERS

SECRET PLOTS

These nightmares haunt lovely Lesley Larkin at Medwick Manor!

Lesley, a young lawyer, arrives at the old mansion with her client, Elsa Medwick, to handle the sale of the family home. Expecting to stay only a few days, she is suddenly trapped in a murderous web of sinister greed. Terror makes Medwick an accursed place. Surrounded by hostile strangers plotting her death, Lesley learns she can trust no one – not even her own client.

Risking her life, Lesley struggles desperately to unravel the mystery of Medwick Manor before her own murder adds to its growing legend of evil.

Written by Genevieve St. John. Paperback Library Edition first printing January 1967.

Another fab Paperback Library cover to drool over. This has got to be one of the  most  fantastical houses ever conceived and makes non-Euclidean geometry look positively Bauhausian. Her lipstick is kind of gorgeous too. There is no signature for the artist unfortunately.

I started reading this in the bath this morning. Our heroine, the young and lovely Lesley Larkin, has been working with a firm of fusty lawyers for over a year now and is getting a bit fed up of being stuck in their huge reference library, researching boring bits of legal minutiae for the senior partners. So when she is given the opportunity to help an important client sell their home she jumps at the chance. Her client is the glamorous Elsa Medwick and Lesley is to accompany her to the isolated Medwick Manor in order to assist with the negotiations.

However, what starts off as a week out of the office, enjoying the luxury of a grand old mansion on the seacoast, is very quickly  turning out to be the job from hell for Lesley. Her client, Elsa, is a spoilt risk-taker who is ‘not without some disturbing elements’. Then there is Medwick Manor itself – charmless, rundown and currently tenanted by Elsa’s childhood governess, a sinister woman with a strange hold over Elsa. And there is something very peculiar about Alan Crandall, the over-enthusiastic buyer who has just arrived with some unfeasibly heavy handbaggage.

Ho Hum. Such are the perils of  mixing business with pleasure and I have the feeling Lesley is in for an eventful week or two.

So far Strangers in the Night is ticking all the right boxes – we have an isolated ‘architectural monstrosity’ of a setting peopled with characters all ready, willing and able to kill each other at the slightest provocation.  I don’t know much about Genevieve St John but I have enjoyed her books before. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if she has worked in the legal profession herself. Three out of five stars.

The Love of Lucifer

The Letters

Ghosts of the Past

The Mysterious Stranger

Murder…

These were what Nan Sue Carollton found when she returned to the old manor house to find out why her sister Joanne had stopped writing. But Joanne was dead now – the victim of a madman, or a calculating killer? And then, as if history were repeating itself, Nan Sue realized that whatever evil had destroyed Joanne was waiting around the next corner – for her…

Written by Daoma Winston, Lancer books 1970. This edition, first Ace printing April 1976.

Born 1922 Daoma Winston is a prolific writer of gothic romances with strong occult themes and I have previously reviewed one of her books, The Devil’s Daughter HERE.

The Love of Lucifer opens with the heroine, Nan Sue, returning to her family home, the haunted Carollton Manor, after two months away working as a teacher. As she makes her journey through the twilight shrouded Maryland countryside we learn there is very little tying her to this cursed place – both her parents are dead and Carollton Manor has been taken over by Greta James, the dark haired, bony faced lover of Nan Sue’s father, who moved into the Manor soon after Nan Sue’s father had died.

Far from being put off by the rumours of the Carollton Curse, Greta and her family are delighted. Avid believers in the occult and trained as mediums, they soon throw themselves into all sorts of demonic dilly-dallying, making Nan Sue increasingly uncomfortable in her own home and eventually driving her out to find a new life for herself somewhere else.

The only reason Nan Sue is making this journey back is because she is worried about her little sister Joanne – Nan Sue’s only relative who is still being looked after by Greta James. Nan Sue has received some frightening letters from  Joanne, hinting at sinister goings on and she is afraid for her little sister’s safety.

Arriving at Carollton Manor the house seems deserted, the front door open. Following a flicker of light seen under a door at the end of the gloom-ridden hall, Nan Sue finds herself smack bang in the middle of a terrifying séance, her sister Joanne slumped at the table in a trance.

It’s a bad beginning for Nan Sue and it doesn’t get any better. A horrible murder follows which tests Nan Sue’s emotional endurance to the limits. Plagued by nightmares, she finds herself waking up in the local graveyard not knowing how she got there and witnessing all manner of awful apparitions in the middle of the night. It’s not long before she is questioning her sanity, believing herself possessed of evil spirits. Unfortunately, the one person who wants to help her is also the prime suspect for murder…

The Love of Lucifer started out really well, with some great gothic descriptions of creepy séances. The murder, occurring early on in the book, is quite shocking and well written and so sets the scene for an intriguing read. My attention did seem to wander off about half way through – not sure why, but I found it difficult to keep track of the bad guys and they didn’t seem scary enough to me, which made me question why it took so long for them to get their come-uppance.

The cover art is lovely – with a gorgeously detailed wrap around illustration – I haven’t found a name for the artist but I did find a picture of the original artwork HERE.


Rebecca

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”

One of the most appealing heroines in all of fiction weaves a special magic to enthral every reader.

Known to millions through the outstandingly successful versions on stage and screen, the characters in this timeless romance become hauntingly real  – to be treasured in the memory.

Brilliantly conceived, masterfully executed, Daphne du Maurier’s unforgettable tale of love and suspense is a storytelling triumph that will be read and re-read.

Written by Daphne du Maurier. First published 1938 by Victor Gollancz Ltd. This edition published by Pan Books 1976.

Daphne  du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is one of my favourite all-time gothics and since there’s a new anthology of her stories due out this week (more on that later) and the Daphne du Maurier Festival taking place later this month, I thought it was  about time I posted a review of what must be her most remembered book, Rebecca

With one of the best known opening lines in literary history and widely believed to be the book that kick-started the revival for Gothic Romance in the 20th Century, Rebecca is Daphne du Maurier’s fifth novel and for many considered to be the quintessential modern Gothic.

Told in flashback, this is story of an unnamed women’s struggle as she adjusts to a new life married to the wealthy owner of a West Country estate and her fight to come out from under the shadow cast by her husband’s first wife Rebecca.

Rebecca was everything the new Mrs de Winter is not – beautiful, charming, self confident and dead. She drowned in a boating accident in the bay, and it was her husband Maxim de Winter who identified the body when it was supposedly washed up from the sea a couple of months later. 

1992 Arrow Edition

Feeling inadequate and unfamiliar with her grand new lifestyle, the new Mrs de Winter finds it very difficult to adjust, becoming less and less confident with each new faux pas, failing to live up to the standard she thinks is expected of her. And then there is Mrs Danvers – the sly, secretive, skull-faced housekeeper who loved Rebecca more than anyone and who just can’t hide her dislike for her new mistress.

The best gothic romances brim with unspoken secrets and emotions. This book is full of such things and more, as the withered claw of Rebecca’s unburied past  reaches out from its watery grave, maintaining its strange stranglehold over the living occupants of Manderley.

Dare I say it however, Rebecca is not my favourite gothic romance – it is not even my favourite du Maurier novel. Though it is beautifully written, I find the voice of the new Mrs de Winter a little too insipid for my tastes and difficult to listen to for long. I’ve picked this book up and put it down again so many times the story has always been a bit of a disjointed blur for me. In my defence though,  I have seen the play and I did watch the Alfred Hitchcock movie last night specially for this review.

Movie poster 1956

And what a fab movie it is too!

Joan Fontaine is brilliant. When reading Rebecca I never developed much sympathy for the new Mrs de Winter – I could never understand what all the fuss was about over the costume ball for example – but watching the film made me cringe in sympathy for her. Laurence Olivier really brings the character Maxim alive too, maintaining an undeniable charm on the surface but with an added aura of menace and control over his new bride. And if gloom-ridden, gothic mansions are your thing – well, the opening shots of Manderley are a treat!

Four out of five stars.

Fans of Daphne Du Maurier will be interested to know that Virago press are publishing a new anthology of her short stories this week. Called The Doll, this collection features 13 ‘forgotten’ short stories written by du Maurier early on in her career. The titular story – lost for more than 70 years – is a macabre tale about a man who discovers that the girl he’s smitten with is besotted with a mechanical sex doll. 

Here’s a description taken from the Virago website:

 ‘I want to know if men realise when they are insane. Sometimes I think that my brain cannot hold together, it is filled with too much horror – too much despair …I cannot sleep, I cannot close my eyes without seeing his damned face. If only it had been a dream.’

 In ‘The Doll’, a waterlogged notebook is washed ashore. Its pages tell a dark story of obsession and jealousy. But the fate of its narrator is a mystery. Many of the stories in this haunting collection have only recently been discovered. Most were written early in Daphne du Maurier’s career, yet they display her mastery of atmosphere, tension and intrigue and reveal a cynicism far beyond her years.

More information can be found at the Virago press website HERE.

Virago 2003

And to celebrate all things splendiferously Daphne, I have not one but two copies of Rebecca to give away free to anyone with a UK postal address.

The first is an Arrow edition, published 1992 with a short biography and photograph of the author on the inside cover (pictured above). The second, shown left, is the very nice Virago Modern Classic edition.

Just email me via the contacts page with your preference. First come first served. Enjoy!

My Pan copy - love the colour of that sky!