Wednesday, October 31, 2018

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: The Hands of Orlac - Maurice Renard

Horror enthusiasts, whether of the written word or the cinematic variety, may recognize the title I'm about to discuss.  Unless you've read the novel, however, you have no idea what Maurice Renard was getting at when he wrote The Hands of Orlac (1920).  Those who may have seen one of its many filmed adaptations have never seen the real vision of the novel which is more than the nightmare of two hand grafts gone terribly wrong.  Though populated with ghosts and occultists, several seances and necromancy and all sorts of supernatural trappings, The Hands of Orlac, in fact, is not a horror novel at all. Rather it is a brilliantly fashioned detective novel wherein a series of impossible crimes are made to appear to be the work of supernatural agencies and a spectral being.

Stephen Orlac is a concert pianist who is travelling back to Paris for a long awaited reunion with his devoted wife, Rosine.  En route to the City of Lights the train crashes and there are multiple casualties. Rosine rushes to the scene of the accident and finds her husband under the body of a man clad entirely in white.  The man in white later appears at various spots throughout the wreckage leading Rosine to dub him Spectropheles.  This ghastly figure will continue to haunt her throughout the novel appearing and disappearing at the most unexpected places.

Unlike the man in white, Stephen has survived but has also sustained terrible injuries and must be rushed to a hospital for immediate surgery. He is operated on by Professor Cerral, a celebrity surgeon specializing in neurology and transplants.  Stephen receives two hand transplants and his torturous recovery and attempt to regain his musical skills are the basis of the plot. Those who know the many movie versions know the secret of those hands and I'll not reveal it here. A fairly overused horror movie trope by now this gimmick of the hands seems to be an original idea of Renard's and he may be the first writer to use it in sensationalized genre fiction. The truth of Stephen's new hands is not revealed until the second half of the novel long after a variety of outrageous events occur ranging from ghostly manifestations, "externalized nightmares", an impossible jewel theft and the equally impossible return of the jewels to a safe in a locked rom, necromancy via a painted portrait as well as a seance complete with table tapping.

Original French edition 1920
The first half of the novel is told through Rosine's viewpoint. Though the novel is named for Stephen Orlac he is almost a minor character in this entire section. Everything we see is through Rosine's eyes and we read only of her perceptions. She is distraught that her husband is haunted by a grueling and painful recovery yet she is also terrorized by Spectropheles who she feels is responsible for a series of break-ins and crimes in their home. When the violence leads to murder the police are called in and the novel takes a sharp turn into the land of French detective novels.

It is here that the influences of French pulp writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, creators of master criminal Fantomas, can clearly be seen. The first half of the novel subtitled "The Portents" has faint whiffs of the popular Fantomas serials so popular only five years prior to the publication of Renard's book.  With its constant reiteration and recap of previous action and incidents the story bears obvious structural similarities to a serial and most likely did appear as one in a French newspaper or magazine. Central plot motifs like the ghost of a murderer being responsible for two deaths and the bizarre idea of a rubber glove bearing fingerprints of another person are two ideas that appear prominently in the third Fantomas serial published in book format in English as The Messengers of Evil (1911).  Renard must have been familiar with that serial. He even includes a mythical gang supposedly behind all the criminal activity. His dangerous group, La Bande Infra-Rouge (The Infra Red Gang), is pure French pulp fiction. Apaches and murderous gypsies roamed the pages of French crime stories as much as Italian thugs and Irish gangs would appear in US pulp magazines. When Inspector Cointre, the egotistical policeman who seems entirely fashioned after Eugene Valmont, begins to fasten onto the idea of faked fingerprints all hope of the supernatural has pretty much been thrown out the window.  Cointre has some of the best dialogue in the novel, too. After ripping apart a sofa and finding puppets and props that were used by the fake medium he expounds: "When dealing with mediums, never get you furniture re-covered, or at least keep an eye on your upholsterer."  

At this point it is almost certain that the crimes, especially the murders, will appear to be the work of human hands and not spectral ones. Renard does what the French do so well in the earliest forms of detective fiction. He adds twist after twist. Stephen meets with the murderer who confesses his crimes. Then Renard dares to reveal that this being is in fact a walking dead man!  But Renard is not finished with his twists until the final paragraphs when Cointre reveals the final solution to all the mysteries with an unexpected announcement.

Second English translation, the better one!
(Souvenir Press/Nightowl Books, 1980)
The Hands of Orlac is one of the finest examples of French sensationalist fiction that one can find.  The English translation by Iain White (Nightowl Books/Souvenir Press, 1980) is the second and better version for (unlike the expurgated previous English translation of 1929) it retains the full lurid details, the relentless melodrama heightened with lightning strikes of exclamation marks on nearly every page, and the nearly hysterical voice of Rosine Renard describing in grisly and horrible detail the living nightmare she is experiencing in her home. Dream imagery floods the novel. Omens are inevitable, practically inescapable. Rosine's dreams are prophetic; much of what she sees while asleep later comes true. The words "portent" and "phantasm" occur with such frequency that one often expects for the ghosts to waft off the pages.

The most surprising element in the novel not seen in any adaptation I've watched is that Stephen's father, Edouard Orlac has become obsessed with spiritism. He and his friend Monsieur de Crochans have been dabbling in communicating with the dead.  Though they are suspected of collaborating with fraudulent mediums and police are investigating their activities. In the climax of the first section one of the necromancy sequences seems to be genuine with a shocking surprise for Stephen when he spells out the name of the spirit they have contacted. And yet for all Renard's fascination with the macabre, the abundance of weird and paranormal activity, he is compelled to rationalize everything that occurred in the first half when he relates the second half entitled "The Crimes."

In the last chapters Rosine and Stephen face the inevitable and horrible truth, something the reader has most likely guessed at even if he has never seen nor heard of the several movie Orlacs. But a French detective novel has never been French without the ultimate surprise saved for nearly the final paragraph. When that gasper comes in The Hand of Orlac it is both satisfying for the reader and a godsend for Stephen and Rosine.

Friday, October 26, 2018

FFB: Thirteen Stannergate - G. M. Wilson

THE STORY:  Someone asks Kate Wheeler for directions to 13 Stannergate and though Kate has never been in this town before she somehow knows exactly where the house is and what it will look like. She can even describe the way house looked decades ago, long before she was born -- from the ivy on the outer walls to the wallpaper in the previously locked and shuttered attic. It's that attic that Kate is drawn to, it's been renovated and waiting for a new lodger. She is compelled to rent the room for her new home. But Kate seems to remember something about the window that she dare not go near, let alone touch. And who was Miss Joanna she seems to think was in the room? Is Kate the reincarnation of a former occupant of the room -- a maidservant from the 19th century who committed suicide by throwing herself out the window?

THE CHARACTERS: Thirteen Stannergate (1958) is the third book in a series of supernaturally tinged detective novels featuring G.M. Wilson's pair of policemen -- John Crawford (a prototype of Fox Mulder) and Inspector Lovick (the skeptical Dana Scully of the duo) -- who have an uncanny knack of uncovering weird crimes with seemingly paranormal events surrounding them. "More spooks!" Lovick scoffs yet again. Not at all what he needs ever since he dealt with a haunted mansion and a cursed fireplace poker that killed without any human agency (Bury That Poker, 1957). Lovick is not at all convinced that Kate has some psychic connection with the past occupants of the house and is sure she has seen photographs of the place or visited it before despite all her protestations to the contrary. When Kate has a near fatal accident falling out the same window in the attic she dare not go near. A mere fall or was she pushed? Richard Clare, who bears a striking resemblance to his ancestor Charles, was in the room with Kate when she fell. Witnesses claim he pushed her while he says he was trying to pull her away from the window. The story enters the realm of the eerie when we slowly learn the story of Charles, the maid Alice, and Miss Joanna and the love triangle that led to Alice's death. Charles apparently was responsible. Kate is not only convinced she is the reincarnation of Alice but that Richard is the new form of Charles and that they are doomed to repeat the past.

The house at Stannergate is packed to the roof with oddballs and suspicious types. There's Mr. Geddes the self professed "pedigree hunter" whose obsession with genealogical leads to his uncovering the complicated past of the Clare clan. Ancient Mrs. Clare, the invalid owner of the house has developed a maternal liking to Kate and may be changing her will in Kate's favor, but is wary of the girl's eerie powers and knowledge of the past.  Lee and Lucille Burney are a caustic married couple. He's a portrait painter and she's a direct descendant of the Clare family with an interest in keeping the house in her name. Kindly Miss Doveland is a spinsterish ex-schoolteacher who becomes Kate's guardian and confidante in her time of trouble. Lil Webster is the manager of the house who along with the usual cadre of gossipy servants provide all sorts of juicy tales about the boarders at 13 Stannergate. One of these people is a would be murderer who is determined to end Kate's life. Greed, jealousy or revenge - which of these is the murderer's motive? Will the police uncover the killer and prevent a second and fatal attempt on Kate's life?

INNOVATIONS: Wilson is masterful at creating tension and developing a creepy atmosphere in her detective novels. This has a very Gothic feel in the true sense of the word, absent of any HIBK trappings that could ruin the tone. Kate is only 19 years old but never comes across vapid like most of the ninny heroines one finds in neo-Gothic suspense novels. John Crawford is aware that Kate is unusual, that she may indeed have a sensitivity to the house's history, an extraordinary way of picking up cues from the past if not possessing an actual paranormal ability. He says anyone would be stupid not to admit that aspect of Kate's fragile mindset and her ability to drift in and out of the past and present so easily. Some of the characters, however, exploit this fact by managing to slyly manipulate the truth in order to make it appear that Kate is mentally ill. Lucille Burney, in particular, comes across as the most sinister of the boarders. For many chapters Wilson builds up a good case of Lucile being the guilty party. But it could never be that obvious ...or could it?

Unlike her previous two books (Bury the Hatchet and I Was Murdered) the element of supernatural in Thirteen Stannergate is not overt. The ambiguity surrounding Kate's apparently psychic powers and knowledge of events from the long past are always open to rational explanation. Until, that is, two uncanny events happen unexpectedly.

Unfortunately, Wilson has a tendency to have her detectives talk about the conventions of mystery novels in her books. I wish she didn't have Lovick say one sentence in this novel. Had he not uttered those words I would never have suspected one character. Because of that one stupid line the ending is fairly ruined. It's an act of self-sabotage that Wilson was probably unaware of. Or maybe she thought she was being clever with a double bluff. It didn't work with me, if that was her intent.

QUOTES:  "...one never knows what may be of use till one has uncovered it. That's one of the fascinations of [genealogical] research, the most enthralling by-ways to be explored at every turn with who can tell what treasure lying at the end of them."

Lucille Burney was a dangerous woman. Jealousy and spite lay very near that over-painted, over-powdered surface...

If Alice Dobson had committed suicide, then the impulse, the "badness" remaining in this room, had been directed towards self-destruction, and it was more than possible that Kate had been driven to attempt death in the same way. But if Alice had been murdered--

Murder waiting here in the hours of darkness... Murder perhaps not by a human hand, not even by a dead hand, but by an influence so powerful that it had created the physical sensations as well as the emotions of that [previous] tragedy. Once the borderline of normality was crossed, anything was possible.

EASY TO FIND? Sometimes I feel I should just skip this section. That's right. Another extremely scarce book. Apparently I bought one of only two copies available in the past two years. That second copy -- the one with the DJ shown above-- is now gone. Someone shelled out a lot of cash for that book, if I recall the listing properly. So sadly there are zero copies for sale from the usual online bookselling sites as of this writing. I suggest hitting up Worldcat.org and checking out library holdings.  Most of Wilson's books are not only difficult to find in used bookstores they seem to have vanished off the face of the Earth. I'd like to see all of them reprinted and would like to get a word out to Dean Street Press. Are you reading this, DSP?

Thursday, October 25, 2018

IN BRIEF: Pattern of Murder - John Russell Fearn

Any fans of Columbo out there? Of course there are. Well, let me point you to your next required read:  Pattern of Murder (1957) by the ambitious and prolific John Russell Fearn. Decades before Link and Levinson dreamed up their wily, cigar chomping police lieutenant who matched wits with egotistical murderers foolishly content with their supposed perfect crimes Fearn wrote this masterful example of the inverted crime novel. Like the best Columbo episodes Fearn's novel is chockful of specialized background info.  In fact, while reading Fearn's book I could not help but remember an episode featuring Trish Van Devere (George C. Scott's one time actress wife) as the killer whose supposed alibi is tied to her knowledge of how movie reels are changed in a projection room.  For that's exactly what is featured in all its mechanical marvel in Pattern of Murder. The two main characters Sid and Terry work in a movie theater and run the movie projectors.  A minor character who provides some key info is their assistant who tends to do nothing more than cracks jokes and rewind all the spools of film in the rear of their projector rooms.

What makes this book even more remarkable is that it is both an inverted detective novel AND a traditional detective novel.  As with the inverted form we are privy to a killer's murder plan. Here it is gambling addict Terry who plots a gruesome and fiendishly designed deathtrap for an usherette who knows he is a thief and is threatening to expose him.  We have little sympathy for the victim Vera, however, because she too is a thief!  She stole two hundred pounds from Terry the day he lost a bet at the race track and that loss drives him to steal from his employer. He threatens Vera with exposure too. They seem to be at a sort of Mexican standoff, each waiting for the other to make their move.  Terry decides he must carry out his murder plan and yet as we watch him plan it and rehearse it (!) there is much that occurs that he never anticipated.

Sid was Vera's boyfriend and he can't understand Terry's callous attitude after her death. Terry, after all, was friendly with Vera and the two went off to the horse races a few weeks before her death. But then the theft occurred. Was Terry responsible for that?

Assisted by his movie theater co-workers Sid comes across oddities that make him question what the coroner and police seem to think was a bizarre accident. What happened to the glass tumbler in the bathroom Sid and Terry use? Why did Terry claim the film broke just prior to the accident? Why did he also jam his hand into the projector claiming he was fixing the film? Why did the short travel film go back to the movie distributor with a ruined soundtrack when the main feature that followed the travel short was perfectly fine? Sid becomes the amateur sleuth and puts it all together. Then it's a game of cat and mouse as Sid tries to prove Terry a killer while Terry tries to outwit Sid.

This is a fascinating book on so many levels -- the mix of traditional and inverted detective novel plot techniques, the eye-opening world of a 1950s movie theater business, and the ingenious murder method employed -- all of it adds up to a truly engrossing, page-turner. If you must choose to read only one mystery novel by John Russell Fearn, then this is it. It's quintessential Fearn - some of his best plotting, his love of scientific detection, arcane background info and an exciting, fast paced story.

Pattern of Murder is available as a digital download or paperback book from Wildside Press as well as paperback copy (albeit a large print edition) from Linford Mystery. There are many used copies all priced cheaply of the Linford edition, almost all of them ex-library editions, for sale on multiple bookselling outlets in this vast digital shopping mall we call the internet.

In a bit of a role reversal I have chosen to be very bare bones about this book. If you want more detail about the story and Fearn's life as both a cinéaste and a movie projectionist then read TomCat's meaty post on Pattern of Murder.  He is the vintage mystery blogosphere's #1 JRF fan and like me he found this to be one of Fearn's best mystery novels.

Friday, October 19, 2018

FFB: Two Cases for Inspector Knollis

The contrast between Francis Vivian's early detective novels and his final two is rather striking. While the early novel show Gordon Knollis tirelessly uncovering evidence, delegating orders to his police team, and restraining his impatience with less than honest suspects, in the final two novels Knollis is relegated to the background and his keen detective skills seem to have lost their sharpness. In fact, he fails to find the correct culprit in one case. The introduction of Brother Ignatius, a Nestorian priest, in The Ladies of Locksley (1953) allows Vivian to explore his personal interests and his belief in mystical philosophy and psychic connections. This is further developed in the final Knollis detective novel Darkling Death (1956) in which the priest becomes the accidental sleuth of the novel.

First, take a look at how Vivian initially approached the detective novel in The Laughing Dog (1949), the fifth book in the series and about the exact midpoint of his crime writing career. It's as traditional as it comes. It may, in fact, be one of the better examples of a finely plotted detective novel with an extremely limited number of suspects along the lines of Cards of the Table, for we are only given four possible suspects in the bizarre strangling murder of Dr. Hugh Challoner.

The plot has a taint of an impossible crime about it without being a locked room mystery for the scene of the crime has several entrances and exits and there were multiple witnesses watching those doors before and after the murder took place. These eyewitness accounts reminded me of similar scenes in Carr's The Emperor's Snuffbox and The Ten Teacups. But rather than being a case of no one exiting or entering it is the opposite -- too many people were seen coming and going from the room, sometimes within minutes of having left. Knollis finds himself with a confounding case, one in which time and opportunity are all important in finding out exactly who among the many people who went into Challoner's consulting room to meet with the doctor was the person who also killed him.

Vivian also has a field day with the title of the book which turns out to be not only the prominent feature in Dr. Challoner's caricature, but also a doodle that turns up repeatedly on pieces of paper and in the doctor's diary. The term recurs throughout the novel until Knollis and his team finally realize what it truly refers to. By then secrets from the doctor's past come exploding into the present further complicating the case and providing ample fodder for motives for his murder.

The detection in The Laughing Dog is some of the best in the few books I've sampled in this brief series. Knollis does an excellent job of sharing information and doling out terse orders to the many police who make up the investigative team. Often the novel succeeds as an excellent police procedural in its depiction of police work and the way Vivian tells it all give the book a very contemporary flavor. There are some well done scenes between Knollis and Sgt. Ellis that elaborate on their friendship which only enhances the way the two work together. Ellis is forever being chided about his meerschaum pipe and the obnoxious tobacco he prefers which Knollis jokingly disparages as a blend of "Devil's Brew, Copper Beech and Senna Pods." Ellis is also an avid cinema-goer and will often suggest they take in a show with Disney cartoons to free up their mind on the case. He tells one cop that Mickey Mouse was responsible for Knollis coming up with the solution to one case. Finally, Knollis is often cajoled into stepping into a cafe where Ellis can indulge in his addiction to tea cakes and pastries along with a nicely brewed cup of tea. They make for an affable team and their discussion of the cases --a mixture of friendly banter, fraternal teasing and hardcore logic -- is a lively meeting of the minds.

While The Laughing Dog may be one of Vivian's better forays into pure detection following the fair play technique rather well and sometimes with the use of ingeniously planted clues, the same cannot be said of Darkling Death, a more somber affair as is suggested by the grim title. Here detection fades into the background as Vivian explores the psychological ramifications of a suspect who has lost his memory on the day of the crime. Brandeth Grayson, a writer of crime stories, was last seen entering the study where his odious brother-in-law Herby was found shot to death. But apart from recalling leaving for a walk he cannot remember exactly what he did and begins to doubt himself and more and more comes to believe he is responsible for the death.

The novel is dominated by Grayson's attempt to clear his name but also is teeming with tangential discussions. Vivian covers a wide range of topics including Peter Damian Ouspensky's theory of eternal recurrence, Lahsen's beliefs in reincarnation, Nestorian Christology, the merits of popular fiction vs. highbrow poetry, and numerous theological and philosophical debates between Grayson and Brother Ignatius. Detection often steps aside to make room for much domestic melodrama between Grayson, his wife and his pre-teen daughter Natalie. In addition to having been evicted from Herby's home the Grayson marriage is on the rocks. Corinne has made up her mind to be a wife to her husband in name only for the sake of their daughter, the intimacy shared by husband and wife she has forsaken. Bran Grayson, however, is determined to regain her heart as well as clearing his name of the murder charge.

And where is Knollis in all of this? He appears very late in the novel, featured in only a few sections with his most prominent scenes in the last two chapters. But rest assured he is dutifully digging through the numerous stories and veiled confessions of the many suspects. It seems as if everyone Knollis meets believes Grayson to be guilty of the murder, but none of them want the writer arrested and tried. Knollis must weed through a handful of implied confessions and dexterously told half-truths to find out who is lying and uncover the true criminal. But his rigid pursuit of the truth in this case may cost him his reputation. A near fatal assumption is averted in the  final scenes when Brother Ignatius proves to have the solution of the crime. And the priest must reluctantly break the seal of a confession in order to spare wrongful arrest and prevent besmirching Knollis' career.

Francis Vivian is an intriguing writer of crime fiction often finding clever ways to intersperse his personal philosophies with interesting commentary that surprisingly rarely detracts from the storyline. His belief in psychic connection is playfully hinted at (albeit as a red herring) in The Laughing Dog with the "prediction" of Dr. Challoner's past life when Aubrey Highton draws the caricature of the dog. But by the publication of Darkling Death Vivian has found a way in which his novels can be stories that exemplify his philosophy of recurrence of existence, psychic connection and the laws of karma. For real invigoration of the traditional detective novel Vivian's later novels provide challenging fodder for crime fiction devotees while his earlier novels will satisfy those readers who prefer the daunting task of matching wits with the author and fictional detective in trying to figure out whodunit.

As mentioned previously in my review of The Threefold Cord all ten of the Inspector Knollis detective novels have been reissued by Dean Street Press.  Each book is available in paperback or as a digital download.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

FFB: Voices in an Empty Room - Philip Loraine

THE STORY: Psychic experiments, decades old family secrets, ghostly possession, a forgotten crime... Something strange is happening in the house at 337 Gilman Street in San Francisco. Ellie Owen Spencer and her brother Richie have rented the main house to two women who every night conduct psychic experiments with the spirits of Ellie's ancestors. She and her brother know nothing of what's going on in the house ever since the took up residence in the adjunct coachouse. But then Ellie starts calling her brother and fiance John Lamb by the name Michael. When one night Ellie will not stop writhing on her bed in an apparently paranormally induced sexual ecstasy repeating the name Michael in a dark reverie John and Richie turn to Dr. Hillier for help. The mysteries are only beginning. What exactly happened in the house so long ago? What are those women up to? Are they responsible for what appears to be a case of spiritual possession?

THE CHARACTERS: Voices in an Empty Room (1973) is told from multiple viewpoints. John Lamb is the primary story teller, but Loraine has divided his book into four cleverly constructed sections that allow him to shift viewpoints and alternate plot lines among the cast of characters. The main plot seems to be about the mystery surrounding Ellie's sudden personality transformation and how this affects the burgeoning romance between John and his fiancee. But Loraine adds more to his labyrinthine story.

A second storyline follows the weird ghostly communications manifested by Lulu Jenkins at the behest of Amelia Guardi. Lulu is a bona fide medium with clairvoyant powers, she can see and hear then vocally recreate scenes from the past by channeling various spirits, and yet also predicts the future. She had these uncanny abilities since she was a child. But she is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier and has been easily manipulated by keener, more intelligent people like her former husband who was eager to make a quick buck off of her supernatural ability. Mrs. Guardi, a wealthy woman from Boston who has come to San Francisco to write a book about spiritualism, takes advantage of Lulu's acute powers in an effort to collect proof of life beyond death and that communication with the dead can indeed benefit the living. She is planning to write a book on the subject and gain fame, if not notoriety, in peeling back the veil that separates the living from the dead.

The strong contrast between the two women is handled masterfully and not without a sardonic wit and frequent ironic jabs. It is clear that each will pay dearly for their experiments in the paranormal and mucking about with concepts and events they have no control over. Lulu, a pathetic portrait of wasted talent who is victimized and exploited by corrupt individuals, is not without one fine moment of heroism. In one of her best scenes Lulu's transformation from mouse to lion is brought on by her memory and occurs when Mrs. Guardi repeats a line that Lulu first heard years before uttered by her con artist husband just before he robbed her of her savings and abandoned her. It's a perfect moment, but is ultimately one tinged with irony and failure.

Richie, Ellie's brother, seems initially to appear as a comic character. He's a typical caustically witty queen who turns up in 1970s pop fiction from writers who wanted to appear hip by tossing into their books a token gay character. That Loraine insists on referring to him as a homosexual throughout lessens the intended humor and yet Richie really does have most of the best lines. Luckily, Richie proves to be a firebrand in a couple of key scenes. Hell hath no fury like an angry gay guy. Don't mess with Richie, especially when he's doing his damnedest to save his sister from a hellish malady.

Dr. Hillier, the family physician guarding too many family secrets, and Godfrey Bellfort, the brother of the deeply troubled Stella Bellfort Spencer whose spirit is living again through Lulu round out the cast. Each of these men is as finely drawn as the lead characters and each have striking moments of importance related to the multi-layered story.

INNOVATIONS: Loraine has divided the book into four separate sections: The Living, The Psi, The Dead, The Coming Together.  As each title suggests the story progresses from an expository first section introducing us to the main players, then adding in the supernatural elements in the second section (psi is a term used both by the parapsychology world and pop culture to collectively refer to psychic phenomenon). The third section further develops the plot when the book turns into a literary detective story as John and Richie delve into the archives of the Lilienthal library and we are given a richly detailed history of the Harold Spencer and Owen Spencer families and the incidents that led to a covered up crime. Finally, in the last section both plotlines meet up and culminate in a unexpected twist followed by the resolution in a suitably Grand Guignol style grisly and bloody finale.

Voices in an Empty Room is one of the better supernatural novels to come out of the 1970s when books featuring psychic powers and demonic or ghostly possession exploded in popular fiction and dominated the shelves of the newly created Horror sections in bookstores. Drawing on the motifs and conventions of Victorian sensation and Gothic fiction Loraine has written a tale of madness, ghosts, and corporeal possession that seems less a story of 1973 than one more suited to the era of its influences. He contemporizes these motifs with an ample amount of sex (example: Ellie's possession by the ghostly Micheal is triggered by a lovemaking session with John) and topical references, but the emphasis on family honor, closely guarded secrets, and the preservation of the fabricated story of a troubled relative's life is far removed from the hipper themes of most 1970s novels.

Nevertheless, Loraine's masterful talent in storytelling and his often incisive writing hold sway over the reader. He has structured the novel in such a way with his alternating storylines and slow revelation of multiple secrets that the reader is compelled to move on anxious to get to the end. This page turning frenzy is coupled with the delivery of a truly surprising eleventh hour shock.

QUOTES:  Lamb had always believed that any city worth loving must not only be beautiful but full of interesting looking people, with a dash of eccentricity; San Francisco was well endowed with these virtues. He liked a city to be capable of instant generosity, as well as of reserving more secret and more intimate pleasures for those who will love her more deeply...

...the whole persona of this sibylline apparition scared the hell out of [Ellie]; and at the same time she was sure that unlike other people who used the expression "Believe me, I know," Mrs. Jenkins was speaking the exact truth. There was no doubt in Ellie's mind that she did know--but what? It seemed that this question was going to remain forever unanswered...

Mrs. Guardi was a woman who made careful plans and carried them out to the letter and to their conclusion. That there was something almost manic in her determination did not worry her; in this flabby and directionless world, it was the only way to get things done; it was true that occasionally other people had to suffer, but then people had always had to suffer for any great cause.

EASY TO FIND? I found several copies for sale of both US and UK editions,  hardcover and paperback. Most of them are affordably priced. Only a few of Loraine's books have been released in digital editions, but not Voices in an Empty Room.