When a mysterious benefactor offers to make her his ward, a destitute Sabrina Wilder journeys south to New Orleans, suspicious as she is of this unexplained generosity. She is, at first, delighted with the sensual climate of the city, with its spice-laden trade winds and with the beautiful antebellum mansion at Beelfontaine.

But an ominous thread soon emerges. Why does Abijah Bailey, the handsome family lawyer, accuse her of being an adventuress? And what of the eerie rites of Delzinde, the High Voodoo Priestess? Moreover why are the elegant halls of Beelfontaine hung with corpses that only Sabrina can see? The horror becomes rampant at Mardi Gras, as frenzied mummers drop their masks to reveal themselves as the Devil’s helpers sent to sacrifice Sabrina in a ghastly Satanic ritual!

Written by Saliee O’Brien. This Berkley Medallion Edition, August 1974. Cover art John Duillo.

Oh, I couldn’t resist the back blurb on this one. Either our heroine has found herself enmeshed in an orgiastic quagmire of voodoo and black magic, or someone’s slipped a little something into her Mint Julep and she’s woken up in the middle of a particularly bad acid trip. Whatever her fate, I had to find out and so Beelfontaine went straight to the top of my weekend reading pile.

The story opens on a rain-lashed night in March 1872. Sabrina, accompanied by her little brother Frankie and elderly cousin Massie, are fresh off the steamboat from Salem and standing outside their new home in New Orleans. The last few months have not been kind to this unfortunate trio but help is at hand in the guise of a mysterious benefactor – Pierre Beelfontaine.

Monsieur Beelfontaine has a son but he wants a daughter. Since his wife has died, he needs to find one from someone else’s family, preferably someone descended from witches. He has studied Sabrina’s family tree and is well aware her parents have died, leaving her destitute with a sickly brother desperately in need of medical care. Having apprised himself of Sabrina’s breeding, not to mention her sound mind and beauty, he has decided to offer his home to her as well as a sizeable allowance.

However, on arrival at Beelfontaine Manor, Sabrina is greeted by an unwelcome hulk of a house inhabited by a resentful, vengeful mob – and that’s just the servants. The family all hate her too, in fact no-one, apart from Pierre Beelfontaine and his son Antoine, wants her there and it’s not long before Sabrina finds herself victim to all manor of unfortunate ‘accidents’.

She knows someone is out to kill her but who and why? Curiosity overrides self preservation and so she decides to stay to find out, resignedly putting up with all the voodoo dolls left swinging from her bedroom ceiling, the drugged nightcaps and hateful glances at her fiery red hair. Sooner or later, she tells herself, her unknown enemy will give themselves away.

In the meantime, Pierre Beelfontaine finally reveals the real reason why she is here. He wants her to marry his son and give him a grand-son. His son, Antoine with the mesmerising golden eyes, promptly declares his love for Sabrina before presenting her with a beautiful diamond and pearl necklace – a precious family heirloom known as the Pearls of Beelzebub.

Sabrina is rendered speechless – by both the sudden proposal and the stunning gift. Being a pragmatic lass, she maintains her diplomatic silence while she retires to her room (still wearing the necklace) to weigh up her options.

On the one hand, we have learnt the necklace is cursed – by the blood of the women slain for the beautiful pearls and diamonds that adorn it. But… it is a beautiful necklace. And though marriage to Antoine seems a little hasty, what other prospects has she got? 

Sabrina’s mind is soon made up for her, when she awakes in the dead of night to the sounds of drums and chanting, her little brother Frankie gone from his bed. In desperation (and still wearing the necklace) she runs from the house in the direction of this barbarous cacophony to find herself in the midst of a horrifying Voodoo ritual. Even more terrifying, it looks as if her little brother is next in line to be sacrificed.

Oo-er. It seems our heroine really has found herself enmeshed in an orgiastic quagmire of voodoo and black magic. Before she can scream for Dixie, she is stripped by a congregation of frenzied slaves desperate to spill her pure virgin blood in order to appease their angry gods. Sabrina only just manages to escape, running naked (though still wearing the pearls) and terrified straight into the arms of her husband-to-be Antoine. His response to her dilemma is to insist she marries him right away – marriage into the Beelfontaine family being the only way to guarantee her safety.

By now Sabrina’s had enough of her amber-eyed suitor and his family’s shenanigans. She wants to go home. Now. Back in her bedroom, pretending to be getting dressed for the wedding, she unclasps the necklace and flees, taking her aunt and brother with her. What she doesn’t realise however is that she is running from Beelzebub himself (the necklace was a clue) and that in order for him to return to his rightful place in paradise, he needs to inject his ‘satanic soul’ into a newly sparked embryo through dis-immaculate conception. So with this much at stake, Sabrina’s chances of escape seem less than likely…

Though it sagged a bit in the middle, I rather enjoyed Beelfontaine.  The prose was suitably dramatic, which I loved, adding drive and energy to the story. Beelfontaine is a place where pulses hammer, where ice-hot glowers of hatred smoulder across jalousie-shuttered rooms draped in crimson and black. I particularly liked the passages about the house:

“She could feel the house drawing itself around her, rich as the necklace about her neck, could feel it clasping her bodily. From within itself, from its lowest rooms, through its black heart on the third floor, to the flaming- brain room in which she stood, the house squeezed ever closer, its fiery maw ready to pick from her mind, body and soul her very essence.”

Typical of gothics from this time, the religion of Voodoo gets used and confused alongside Satanism, which doesn’t always work for me, but I can more than forgive Beelfontaine this for its amazing ‘Satan Soul’ plot line and the author’s liberal use of  twisted lusts and demonic pacts. To say just about every character in this book had a complicated love life with a strange tale to tell would be putting things very mildly.

Blood Slave

I couldn’t find out much about Saliee O’Brien, though she is listed on Fantastic Fiction as having written quite a few novels – mostly lust-laden Southern plantation sagas by the looks of things. Her real name was Frankie Lee Janas and  I did find another review of one of her books, with some enlightening comments about her, over at the lovely Bodice Rippers blog HERE

I’m not sure if Saliee O’Brien wrote any more gothics – though The Bride of Gaylord Hall looks and sounds promising – but I hope so as I’d certainly like to read more! Four out of five stars.

Harlequin House

Harlequin HouseHARLEQUIN HOUSE – where the ghosts of a violent past intruded on a honeymoon…..

It was a marriage of convenience – Breckenridge needed a fortune to rebuild his ravaged plantation, and Tamson, deserted by the man she loved, needed someone to salvage her pride.

To escape the gossiping tongues and pitying glances, Tamson accepted the absurd offer of this strange man – to become his wife, and the mistress of his isolated, eerie ancestral home.

In an atmosphere of superstition and intangible evil, Tamson slowly learned to care for the stranger she had married; learned too, that her real husband’s real love was Harlequin House, and that he was determined to save it from ruin – at any cost…..

Written by Leal Hayes and published by Ace Gothics 1967.

The story gets off to a  slightly implausible start as our heroine, Tamsoncloseuphouse Yorke, reluctantly agrees to marry the  moody and mysterious gent, Mr Breckenridge Rawlins. This is strictly a union of convenience – he needs her money and she needs to escape from a scandal caused by  the sudden breakdown of the engagement to her true love, John Markham. After a quick and loveless honeymoon, Tamson soon finds herself mistress of a grand but beaten up old southern mansion; a place as dark, secretive and brooding as her pretend husband.

With big lonely houses come big scary curses and Harlequin House is no exception. Soon Tamson is caught up in a web of spooky happenings and doom laden omens. The discovery of the  hidden Harlequin room and its secrets do nothing to allay her fears and events escalate until a disastrous fire, that rips through the plantation leaving her husband for dead, coupled with  an attempt on her own life, eventually forces a resolution to the story and the mystery enshrouding this mansion is revealed.

tamsonWritten in the first person narrative, this is a very nicely done,  spine tingling,  good ol’ boy southern gothic, with plenty of intrigue and ghostly goings on. There are cursed bloodstains and doomed love triangles to contend with and I particularly liked some of the descriptive passages  centred around Tamson’s initial reactions to her new abode and it’s inhabitants. Though the start was a bit shaky, I quickly found myself engrossed in the story and its characters. The cover art ticks all the right boxes and there is an added lovely little  pen and ink sketch on the inside cover.  A bit of a page turner and recommended. Four out of five stars.