Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Two Novels of Horror and Suspense from the 1970s

William Hallahan's The Search for Joseph Tully is one of a number of supernatural thrillers dating from the late 60’s-early 70’s that include Rosemary’s Baby, The Other (see below), and the best of the lot, The Exorcist. This particular story centers on a dual narrative involving Peter Richardson, a Brooklynite having horrible, maddening premonitions of death, and Matthew Willow, a British genealogist searching for the descendants of one Joseph Tully, a resident of London in the year of Our Lord 1779. The book is a decent page turner, even though one figures out pretty quickly just how the narratives are likely to intersect in the latest iteration of the eternal recurrence of a revenge narrative necessitated by events in the gruesome prologue, set in a Roman catacomb in 1498, in which two bound men are sickeningly pierced, sliced and decapitated by a red hot sword. The dramatis personae are mainly the residents of Brevoort House, a decrepit building awaiting the wrecking ball and include the obligatory clairvoyant; an artist who dies trying to warn Richardson of his impending doom by means of a creepy mural; and a defrocked priest with a deep interest in the teachings of Giordano Bruno regarding the transmigration of souls. The story attempts to make genealogical research sexy - with limited success – although this angle does underline the perspective that we are attending to a story that spans centuries and the lives of numerous individuals. Mr. Hallahan apparently had an abiding interest in Pre-Revolutionary American, having written a couple of nonfiction works set in this time frame, and he fleshes out this book with descriptive passages on life in the wilds of colonial New Jersey.

This book is nicely atmospheric, with the backdrop of a suitably bleak winter with the wind cutting through the pages like a steel blade (hint, hint). Still, I found the ending unsatisfyingly abrupt for my taste. It seems Millipede Press brought out a nice new edition of this book a few years ago, but Hollywood apparently resisted the temptation to add it to the list of supernatural horror flicks that deluged theaters in the wake of the film adaptations of the aforementioned works.

A subgenre of the thriller/horror film trend of the early 1970’s was the gruesome “evil child” melodrama, one of which was derived from Thomas Tryon's novel The Other. Tryon’s novel is indeed gruesome and melodramatic, as well as gratingly pretentious in places. But it has not aged too badly, despite having been subsequently swamped by the Stephen King tidal wave of popular horror fiction. It has all the hallmarks of latter-day gothic – a creaky and labyrinthine old New England house, strange children with strange powers, insanity, a family seemingly under a dark curse, comfortingly predicable plot twists, and a satisfyingly sufficient number of creepy deaths. There are those who hail The Other as a significant work of modern horror, and, not having read widely in modern horror, I won’t argue the point. A quick and passably entertaining read.