The Dark Shore

Did the ghost of evil still hover over Clougy House?

Soon after Sarah Hamilton stepped into her new home as the bride of charming, enigmatic Jon Towers, a cold shock of instinct warned her to run for her life – too many ‘accidents’ were beginning to plague her.

Clougy had seen violence when Sophia, Jon’s first wife, mysteriously fell to her death from a cliff. Now someone was trying to kill Sarah, to keep a ghastly secret.

Was it Jon’s beautiful, tormented cousin, Marijohn who had sought refuge in a convent after Sophia died? Or his son Justin who was out on the cliff the night his mother fell? Or his old friend Max, who seemed to be confusing the two Mrs Towers?

Or was it Jon himself, panicking because Sarah was getting too close to what really happened that terrible night…?

THE DARK SHORE is filled with the ingredients that made a bestseller out of Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Written by Susan Howatch. Copyright 1965 Ace Books.

A story with echoes of Rebecca, based on the love triangle between a rich, successful man with a past, his newly wed, innocent bride and the spectre of his first, much sexier wife – who may or may not have been murdered by him.

Jon Towers, a Canadian property millionaire, has returned to Britain to patch things up with his son Justin. Recently married to Sarah, he has not set foot in the UK since the untimely death of his first wife Sophia, who fell (or rather was pushed) over a cliff at their Cornwall Home, Clougy, some ten years ago.

Told from multiple viewpoints, the first part of Dark Shore brings together the same six characters who were present at Clougy that fateful weekend Sophia died. Each has a secret and a reason for wanting her dead. One by one they are reunited at the same isolated farmhouse where Sophia was killed – much to the increasing alarm of Jon’s new wife Sarah. She is already feeling trapped under the shadow cast by the violent death of her husband’s first wife and the more she learns about what happened to Sophia, the more she fears she could be heading for the same fate. But why would anyone want to kill her?

For a short book, Dark Shore packs in a fair amount of gothic suspense, with hidden motives, dark secrets and all sorts of skeletons falling out all kinds of closets (though not literally unfortunately). I particularly liked the mysterious relationship between Jon and his ‘cousin’  – the beautiful telepath Marijohn.

Susan Howatch has enjoyed considerable success with her gothics. She began writing from an early age and submitting work for publication as a teenager. The Dark Shore is her first novel, published when she was in her mid- twenties. I have quite a few of her books and I think her writing works best in the longer novels, where she has room to explore the development of her characters and the impact of their actions on those around them. The Dark Shore is a cracking first novel but, like many gothics written during this period, the ‘shocking’ secret when revealed isn’t all that scandalous to the modern reader, so the drama built up in the first part of the book fizzles out with a bit of whimper towards the end.

On the plus side, Susan Howatch isn’t afraid to explore the darker side of her character’s natures and she achieves a high degree of depth and complexity within this concise and well-paced murder mystery. Three out of five stars.

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The Vampyre of Moura

A TIMELESS EVIL WILL NOT REST UNTIL ANNE WICKLOW AND ALL SHE LOVES ARE DESTROYED.

When Anne Wicklow returns to Moura, the home she had shared with her late husband, it is as housekeeper for the mysterious Maitre Stavko and his daughter, Tyra. They have turned Moura into an academy for young ladies, girls innocent of the strange and terrifying events going on about them.

Despite her constant battle with the memory of her love, Anne soon realizes what the school girls do not: that Moura is pervaded by an evil so powerful, so dedicated to destruction that survival seems impossible. At the heart of this terror Anne suspects Stavko, a man she is drawn to and repulsed by; a man she fears and yet is intrigued by. And she knows she must decide which feelings are right… or risk being claimed by the deadly danger which relentlessly pursues her.

A spellbinding story of romantic suspense in the thrilling MOURA series.

An Ace Book. Copyright 1970 by Virginia Coffman.

Born 1914 in San Francisco, Virginia Coffman worked as a secretary in fan mail and publicity departments for a variety of Hollywood studios during the 40’s and 50’s before becoming a full time writer in 1965.

Her first novel, Moura, was published in 1959 and features Ann Wicklow, a feisty Irish housekeeper at a girls school who journeys to France to see what has become of one of the former students. Her destination is Chateau Moura – an isolated, wolf infested estate run by the tall, dark and brooding Master Edmond.  

On arriving at Moura, Anne soon finds herself immersed within a nightmarish adventure where all sorts of spookiness threatens to drive her to the brink of madness and beyond. Thankfully she’s tough enough to solve the curse of the Combing Lady and though there is a certain Radcliffean rationality behind all the ghostliness, the back-story is chilling enough not to leave you disappointed.

 In The Vampire of Moura we revisit the creepy mansion, now owned by the mysterious Maitre Stavko. He has converted Moura’s ruinous rooms and dark cellars into an Academy for Young Females of Quality. And not only are these young ladies rich, they are also all orphaned – conveniently unencumbered by overtly prying, curious family members. The curriculum does not seem to be agreeing with them however and it’s not long before a strange wasting disease starts afflicting Moura’s innocent young tenants.

So Anne Wicklow, now six years older and a widow living in Ireland, decides to return to her old home after receiving some disturbing letters about these strange goings on from her cousin Kate.  Keeping her past connection to Moura a secret, Anne arrives pretending to be the new housekeeper and once again finds herself pitting her wits against an unidentified evil, more than ready to claim her as its next victim….

Those who like their vampires spelt with a ‘y’ and dripping in menace as well as blood, could do a lot worse than Vampyre of Moura. Virginia Coffman can turn on the creepy and really understands how to weave a gothic web of suspense from out of the strange and the sinister. For myself, Chateaux Moura’s  dank, dripping walls and snow-shrouded woods are so vividly depicted in this series that it’s like a second homecoming reading these books  – and what a fantastically evocative place to get lost in once in a while. Four out of five stars.


The Bridge of Strange Music

Three

Women

Loved

John Hardacre….

Prudence – Who felt the evil of Pen Farm embrace her – yet remained bound to a man who could never return her love…

Laura – Beautiful and wilful – whose desire for John Hardacre made her leave the glitter of London for the isolation and lonely terror of Pen Farm…

Violet – Sensuous and provocative who offered first her body and then her soul to possess the master of Pen Farm…

In the ominous silence of the house lay a hidden horror that would soon erupt – which one of the three women would survive the emotional holocaust?

Prudence? Laura? Violet?

An Ace Star Book. Written by Jane Blackmore. Copyright  1952.

Three women. One man. Sowing the seeds of sexual frustration on an isolated farmhouse where there is not much else to do but count chickens and watch the corn grow.

Welcome to Pen Farm,  a hormonal hot-bed of lust and jealousy, home to a pregnant wife who hates her life, a governess desperate to get pregnant and a slatternly milkmaid who is just, well, desperate.  Poor John Hardacre. I was feeling genuinely sorry for the bloke by page 15. Of course,  I soon figured he would end up happy ever after with the goody two-shoes governess, but it was enjoyable reading how he got there.

This book’s blend of witchy mysticism and earthy, farmyard fecundity reminded me a bit of the Nick Roeg film Puffball (based on the book by Fay Wheldon).  I wouldn’t describe the setting nor the story as a gothic romance but I did like the otherworldy, trippy quality threaded throughout Jane Blackmore’s prose – Pen Farm is a place where even something as mundane as frying an egg becomes an exercise in mind-altering metaphysicality:

“The egg fell sizzling, into the fat. She watched the transparency coagulate and tried to think what she should say to him but there seemed to be a heaviness inside her head. She could neither think nor feel. It was as if she were halfway under anaesthetic in that twilight stage where objects take an unexpected vividness, where the whole of existence focuses into a single point.

It was like that now with the egg. The golden globule was huge and magnetic. She knew that the room was around her. That ahead of her waited – decision. But no, in this fateful moment, everything was drawing together, rushing in headlong suction down into the heart of an egg. Perhaps this was how the unborn infant felt in the moment of birth. This aching plunging into space – this unbearable feeling of change.”

Three stars out of five stars with bonus points for use of the word empurpled.

The Cup of Thanatos

Dr Paul Holton could no longer ignore the facts: the mystery-shrouded Thanatos Society had sprung up from the smouldering ashes of the evil ‘Circle of Ra’ he had once helped to destroy. The name of the Satanic leader was different but Paul recognized the familiar Machiavellian techniques. Once again the insidious Dr. Blackton was pandering to his all-consuming lust for power and world domination.

Suddenly Paul found himself deeply involved for Sarah Wellington, a young and gentle friend, showed signs of drug addiction – and Sarah wore around her neck the distinctive symbol of the Society, named in honor of Thanatos – the ancient God of Death.

Paul had always known he and Dr Blackton would meet again. He knew, too, that one mistake could plunge them all into the Kingdom of Darkness…

Written by Charlotte Hunt (aka  Doris Marjorie Hodges). An Ace Gothic 1968.

The Cup of Thanatos is the second in Charlotte Hunt’s Dr Holton series, where our eponymous hero is once again fighting for freedom and the soul of a beautiful young girl against the villainous Dr Manfred Blackton and his mistress of ceremonies, the gorgeous I-am-so-evil-I-get-my-green-nail-varnish-specially-made-for-me-by-slaves-in-Cairo Madame Zerena.

Having narrowly escaped the clutches of Scotland Yard in the Gilded Sarcophagus, Manfred Blackton and Zerena are lying low in some North American desert, running a ‘nature cure’ sanatorium under the assumed names of Madame Olga and Dr Julius Grafton.

But it’s not long before they find bigger fish to fry when they are visited by Dr Mefferhossen, the leader of a secret satanic cult known as the Thanatos Society. By utilising mass-hypnosis techniques while channelling the ‘Lucifer Force’, they plan to create a new world order. To do this, Dr Mefferhossen needs our two mystic mercenaries to help him beg, borrow or steal the secrets of some of the greatest scientists in the world.

He sends Manfred and Zerena to England – to ‘soften up’ the famous English inventor Algernon Mannering and his psychically gifted daughter, Sarah. Algernon Mannering has invented an apparatus that, when combined with Sarah’s visionary powers, has the potential to pierce the ‘Barrier of the Cosmos’. The Thanatos Society believes this apparatus, combined with the right drugs, holds the key to taking control of the world.

But they have picked on the wrong victims as Sarah is an old friend of Dr Holton. When she gets drawn into the world of shady séances and drug taking rituals, Dr Holton becomes increasingly concerned for her safety. His worse suspicions are confirmed when she disappears and is presumed dead. He makes it his mission to find out what’s happened to her and what follows is an adventure that takes Paul Holton across Europe, culminating in him gate-crashing a Satanic Mass in a devil haunted monastery in the Austrian Alps.

The Cup of Thanatos is another enjoyable occult thriller in the Dr Holton series. Moving away from the first person viewpoint in The Gilded Sarcophagus, I enjoyed it better as more time is given to following the exploits of Dr Manfred Blackton and Zerena – the globe trotting pseudo-Satanists who are more than happy to lend their support to whichever world dominating, fanatical cults come their way.

There’s not much more to ask for if drug-addled, devil worshipping neo-nazis exploring the outer reaches of time-space consciousness is your thing, though I was a little disappointed by the Thanatos Society – for when one of their rituals successfully conjured a genuine supernatural spectre, most of the members ran off in terror! Hmm, not very hard these Satanists. It did however make it a lot easier for Dr Paul Holton to step in and save the day.

The cover art shares the same signature as my previously reviewed Beauty That Must Die but I’ve yet to find out anything about the artist. Four out of five stars.


The Casebook of Dr Holton

Like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Dr Paul Holton and Manfred Blackton enjoy a deadly rivalry. Time and again they meet, on different battlegrounds, but the victor’s prize is always the same: a human soul.

In The Gilded Sarcophagus, their first adventure, the life at stake is very precious to Holton. His fiancée, Julie Font, has become a pawn in a dangerous game of mystic power… and the forces of evil are on Blackton’s side.

The struggle resumes in The Cup of Thanatos, the story of Holton’s clash with a society dedicated to worshipping the ancient God of Death. The gripping climax takes place in the most unholy of monasteries, where the sacred and the profane vie for the possession of an innocent young girl.

Written by Charlotte Hunt (aka Doris Marjorie Hodges). The Gilded Sarcophagus copyright Ace Books 1967. The Cup of Thanatos copyright Ace Books 1968.

These are the first two books in Charlotte Hunt’s Dr Holton series. Dr Holton is an eminent English psychiatrist who finds himself pitted against the evil occultist Manfred Blackton and his exotic sidekick, Zerena.

The Gilded Sarcophagus opens with Dr. Paul Holton’s fiancée, Julie, turning to him for help to find her missing twin brother Simon. A suicide note and a large quantity of drugs has been found at his flat but no body. Julie claims a telepathic connection to her twin and is convinced he is still alive. She suspects his disappearance has something to do with a sinister group of people who call themselves the ‘Circle of Ra.’ Their leader, the enigmatic Manfred Blackton, has been spending a lot of time befriending Julie and Simon’s Uncle Rupert and Julie believes his motives are far from innocent.

For Uncle Rupert is a keen occultist and archaeologist recently back  from Egypt and in possession of a priceless ancient artefact known as the Roth Parchment – an Atlantean papyrus with talismanic powers containing references to a secret mine of Uranium, which, if it fell into the wrong hands, could bring destruction to the world. Devastated over the recent death of his wife, Rupert has been attending séances held by the Circle of Ra to try to make contact with her spirit.

Julie is certain Manfred Blackton is merely exploiting her Uncle’s recent bereavement in order to gain access to the secrets of the Roth Parchment  and since Simon had been transcribing this parchment for his uncle when he disappeared, she is sure Manfred Blackton holds the key to her brother’s disappearance. According to Julie, there had been a terrible row during which Simon threatened to expose Dr Blackton for the philandering fake he really is.

So, with the help of his commando-trained cockney manservant and an old school friend at Scotland Yard, Dr Paul Holton attempts to uncover the truth behind Simon’s disappearance. Little by little he is drawn into the shady world of the occult. And when his beloved Julie is kidnapped and held in a trance-like spell only an evil magician can undo, Paul’s powers of self control are tested to breaking point…

Sarcophagus has plenty to please if occult thrillers are your thing. There are  spooky seances, strange rituals, ancient legends, mysterious talismans and a daredevil plot to bring about world domination, contrived by villains as cold and calculating as they come.

What makes this atypical to most gothic romances is that the protagonist, Paul Holton, is… well, a man. Furthermore, he’s a man who starts and ends the novel completely devoted to his fiancée  Julie so there is absolutely no ‘romantic suspense’ involved at all. However he is a very nice man and I will be reviewing his next run-in with the evil Manfred Blackton in the Cup of Thanatos soon.

The cover art is by Raymond Kursar and matches the  flavour of the story perfectly. A more evil looking mage I’ve not seen for a long time…. Four out of five stars.


The Hounds of Carvello

Did the Marchessa Carvello guess what might be going on under the palazzo roofs, or the evil which threatened to descend on the ancient family whose roots lay in blood long dried, whose future now lacked permanence?

Longing to escape the dull familiarity of her father’s home in England, Harriet agrees to go to the great Carvello palace in Italy to take her cousin Ann’s place as governess to the Carvello children. But how could Harriet know she would be thrown into the midst of strange and frightening events, and herself be involved in the tragedy that haunts the Carvello family….

Written by Frances Cowen. First Ace printing 1973.

Ann Mannering is in Italy working as a governess for the Marchesa Carvello. The Carvello family are incredibly rich and live on a huge estate, built on the site of an ancient castle, a few kilometres from Milan.

Ann is not happy; she has spotted trespassers lurking within the Pallazo grounds and feels threatened. She wants to leave – the sooner the better – so she makes a few calls, throws herself at the mercy of the Marchesa and in no time has arranged for her cousin, the recently widowed Harriet, to come over from England to take her place.

Enter our heroine, Harriet. Everyone tells her she is very pretty and the children adore her. But soon tragedy strikes when her cousin Ann is found dead, killed by a blow to the head and it is left to Harriet to uncover the deadly secret  surrounding the Carvello family.

Hounds of Carvello started out quite promising and reads very well as an adventure/romance, since most of the story is taken up by Harriet’s blossoming love affair with the tall, dark and deadly Niccolo. Unfortunately –  apart from some uncanny howling early on in the story and the odd murder or two –  there is nothing much gothic about this title. Lovely cover though. Two out five stars.


Beauty That Must Die

Rosaleen Day could not feel sorry when she learned that Crystal Hugo was dead. The young actress had bewitched Rosaleen’s husband, Rory, and their marriage was in jeopardy. Yet it was a shock to Rosaleen when the police disclosed Crystal hadn’t committed suicide, as they all assumed, but had been murdered.

So many people could benefit from Crystal’s death – so many people wanted her out of the way. She was wrecking Rosaleen’s marriage, harming Rory’s career, and tormenting a rejected lover.

Rosaleen knew that until the cloud of suspicion over them all was erased, she and Rory would never trust one another again – even in death Crystal stood between them. Desperate to discover the murderer before the police did, Rosaleen would prove to be her own worst enemy…

Written by Barbara James, published by Ace Books 1961.

I found this gothic in the lovely Rainbow Books, Brighton, over the weekend. I am intrigued by the cover art, the way the ghostly figure of the woman seems to be metamorphosing into a house herself. When I first picked this up I assumed the effect was due to external damage or damp –  the imprint of another book left on top of this one transposing itself onto the cover perhaps –  but on closer inspection I am not so sure. No matter. Whether by accident or design it is still a great cover, though I am not so sure what it has to do with the story.


The Deadly Rose and Amber Twilight

THE DEADLY ROSE

A desperate impulse to escape an unhappy romance sent Paula Stanhope fleeing down an unfamiliar road. She instictively recoiled from the monstrous, evil looking old house at its end, but she needed help.

She could not know that her innocent request to use the telephone would imprison her in a nightmare world of terror, at the mercy of madwomen who had no intention of letting her leave – alive…..

AMBER TWILIGHT

Blackhall had slept undisturbed among its wild and desolate surroundings since tragedy claimed its inhabitants twenty years ago – or so Susan Leyton had thought. With mounting horror she discovered that the ominous-looking castle housed a disembodied voice that demanded the young girl’s death – and a cast of characters from a distorted fairy tale who obeyed its every word.

Written by Miriam Lynch. First Ace printing March 1976.

Two gothics for the price of one in this edition of two novella’s written by Miriam Lynch. Both feature unlucky but plucky young women imprisoned against their will, battling to escape from gloomy, dark houses.

In The Deadly Rose, Paula Stanhope’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. She wanders up to the nearest (only) big, gloomy mansion at the end of the road, in the hope of finding a telephone to summon help. Instead she is poisoned and held prisoner by a couple of evil old ladies who will do anything, even commit murder, in order to protect the secret stash of hallucinogenic herbs growing in their hothouse.

Amber Twilight has a similar theme – Susan Leyton ventures out one wintry afternoon, to take some photographs of the seemingly empty ‘gloom-shrouded house’ that is Blackhall. Mistaken for a member of the press, and therefore considered a threat, she gets hit on the head by a misshapen dwarf, dragged into the house and  held captive by the odd assortment of characters living there. To add to her troubles, a disembodied voice from behind the drapery keeps urging them to kill her.

Out of the two, Amber Twilight was my favourite as the plot in Deadly Rose relied just that little too much on coincidence, especially toward the end – when chimneys started  falling onto the bad guys, conveniently aiding and abetting our heroine’s escape. Both stories contain some great descriptive passages and I did quite like the quirky weirdness of the plots.

Four out of five stars – With extra marks given for the fact the cover art could actually relate to the stories!

 

Shadow of Theale

A three week working vacation at Theale House seemed a pleasant way to spend a holiday. Shortly after her arrival, however, Ruth Hilton realized that beneath the facade of quiet elegance, the peaceful seaside estate pulsed with a malignant evil…

What was the secret of the mute, half-witted retainer who tried desperately to communicate by means of pictures drawn on the family crypt? Why did fourteen-year-old Theo wake screaming in the night? Slowly but surely the events surrounding the disappearance of Lady Theale reached out to cast a pall of darkness about Ruth as she struggled to save her young charge – and herself – from the SHADOW OF THEALE.

Written by Frances Cowen. First Ace printing January 1974.

An ancient curse, a hidden treasure and murder to boot, this Ace Gothic has it all in abundance.

Ruth has spent the whole year saving for a dream holiday abroad, but  her brother has  just lost his job so she gives all her money to him and decides to take a working holiday in sunny Cornwall instead.

Answering an ad in the local paper she finds herself a paid companion to teenage Theadora – daughter of Lord and Lady Theale.

But Theale House has its secrets; the previous year, Lady Theale disappeared within the estate in mysterious circumstances. Ruth suspects some members of the household know a lot more than they are letting on and she soon finds her own life in peril when she uncovers an illegal smuggling ring operating from the cliffs at the bottom of the garden.

Shadow of Theale was an enjoyable read, though some of the writing was a little clunky, particularly early on in the book, and I found myself  having to re-read bits to make sure I understood them properly. I think a little more time editing would have fixed this and overall I liked Frances Cowen’s prose and gothic touches. Portents, premonitions and pitiful halfwits abound in this remote part of the Cornish coastline and it came as no surprise to learn those hippies camped out in the bottom of the garden were up to no good.

Three out of four stars.

There is a signature to the bottom right for the cover artist, but I can’t be sure I have the name right; I think it might be H Barton. I have another cover by this artist, A Touch of Myrrh written by Charlotte Hunt (detail  posted below). I love the artist’s use of colour and brushstrokes – you can almost smell those oil paints dripping off the canvas! If anyone has any idea who the artist is, please let me know!

**Stop Press!** I have been told the artist is Harry Barton. I can’t find much about him on the web but here’s some more of his work HERE.

Leap in the Dark

Doctor Antoine’s voice penetrated Nurse Jeanne’s shock like a distant echo, recalling her to reality. For of course, she thought numbly, this was nothing but a dream. It couldn’t be happening. This handsome man who had appeared from nowhere couldn’t be ushering in a beautiful stranger and introducing her as herself! This was a moment of madness, a nightmare from which she would awaken.

But even when she took a deep breath and forced her startled glance toward the Doctor she couldn’t focus her senses sufficiently to grasp the reality of it all. In a remote part of her consciousness, she felt as if she had leaped so far into the dark that she found herself in a world where nothing made sense; where the impossible happened, where strangers bore her own name and she was in the guise of someone else.

Written by Rona Randall. Published by Ace Books 1956.

An interesting take on the mistaken identity plot twist. Jeanne Cleary is on her way to nursing college in London and on a whim hops off the train in a remote village in France. The station’s deserted so she follows a dusty path through the countryside leading her to the local chateau.

By a strange (very strange) coincidence, nurse-to-be Jeanne finds herself mistaken as an actual nurse (due to arrive that very day) who had recently been hired to look after the lady of the manor, Comtesse de Clementeaux.

Our pretend nurse and the aristocratic old lady get on like a house on fire and Jeanne finds herself very much at home in her new role. But that’s no surprise to Jeanne for she has recognised the family crest on display in the chateau as the very same one engraved on a gold ring given to her by her deceased mother. Jeanne has stumbled into her long lost ancestral home, she is the Comtesse’s long lost granddaughter and rightful heir to the Clementeaux  inheritance.

Just as Jeanne decides to find a convenient time to break the news to her new found granny, another girl turns up – declaring herself to be Jeanne Cleary, the Comtesse’s granddaughter! The real Jeanne knows this new interloper is just a gold digging impostor but how  can she reveal her true identity without breaking her own cover? So a sticky situation turns into a quagmire of confusion as our heroine battles to assert her rightful position within her new found family and win the heart of the handsome Dr Paul Antoine.

Though the plot is completely and utterly too far fetched for comfort, Rona Randall’s writing does just about make things work and I found this a rather absorbing read. There’s not too much gothic going on – the castle is far too well maintained and sunny for starters – but there is enough intrigue and romance to keep things interesting.

The cover art is credited to Lou Marchetti and is a treat – extra points given for this cover as it’s refreshing to see a heroine dressed in something other than a floaty nightie. Three out of five stars.