(Be sure to read to the end of this post for a fun, not-so-spooky, time-sensitive surprise, okay?)
It’s October. Let’s talk scary.
There are so many late-20th century horror novels I count as influences on my work, I could spend all day nattering on about them. When I was a young teen, horror novels put over-the-top tension into my comfy, white bread life. They were seductive and clever. They pushed and tested the limits of my uncertain spirituality as well as my imagination.
King (Carrie, et al), Straub (Ghost Story), Koontz (Watchers), Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, Stepford Wives), William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist)…I’m referencing straight horror here, of a particular time period that didn’t see many women in the genre besides V.C. Andrews (Flowers in the Attic was really mystery-ish, twisted, but not supernatural. Can you think of others? Shirley Jackson and Du Maurier were earlier). Because I grew up Roman Catholic, I found myself shamelessly drawn to stories that had explicit connections to the Roman Church. Blatty opened the gates (of hell?) with his 1971 novel, The Exorcist. I never got to see the film in a theater because I was too young, and anyone who snuck in to see it or got taken to it by their parents was an immediate hero to me. But I did get to read the novel because my parents were very tolerant of such things. Books were All Good. After The Exorcist, there was The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz.
One of the huge draws of The Sentinel for the teenage me was its setting: a glorious, perfect NYC brownstone that had been broken into apartments. It was everything a modern girl could want–particularly a girl who was a big fan of Peggy Plays Off Broadway and watched a lot of Mary Tyler Moore (Minneapolis, I know). The brownstone is old and vaguely historic, and practically free to live in. Our heroine is a chic, independent young thing named Alison Parker, who has a mysterious boyfriend suspected of killing his wife. But Alison has her own baggage–a recently dead father, mental stability issues, moral issues (it was the 1970s, and sleeping around was not quite the blameless act that it is now). Her morality and spirituality become big issues when we learn that there’s a reclusive, blind priest installed on the building’s top floor.
Alison makes lots of strange new friends in the building. Creepy friends. Touchy-feely friends who do weird things. She starts getting nasty headaches, and her skin starts to get icky. She wants to be friends with the priest, but he’s a very disturbing presence. The cops are interested in both Alison and her boyfriend–and not in a good way. The boyfriend tries to help her, but bad things happen when he gets too curious. In the end…well, let’s just say the priest is important and Alison might (just might) be seeing dead people. Things do not go well for poor Alison.
What’s not to love about this story? It’s really a haunted house novel, and I can’t resist a haunted house novel. Particularly one about a romantic brownstone filled with bizarre characters. Alison is brave but kind of annoying and melodramatic, just like the teenage me. I liked the bad boys, too. I wanted to be a good Catholic, but I was pretty terrible at it. I practically was Alison. Sort of.
I also highly recommend the 1977 film version of The Sentinel. The cast is astonishing: Martin Balsam, Jeff Goldblum, Chris Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Christopher Walken, Ava Gardner, John Carradine, Sylvia Miles, Burgess Meredith. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll recognize Cristina Raines from a lot of ’70s and ’80s television and films.
Plus, there’s a cat in a hat, which is always good viewing:
It’s hard to believe that someone hasn’t put The Sentinel out as an ebook. (Mr. Konvitz, it’s not hard to do. I can hook you up…) I’d love for you to read it. I’d like to read it again. So I guess I’m off to the used books sites.
3) I’ll do the drawing Monday evening, October 28, 2013. Check back here for results.
Good Luck! xo