Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Haunting of Helen Wren, by Jan Alexander [1975]

Finished reading this Gothic last evening. It's unusual and original, and on that basis I give it 5 out of 5 stars. It's also a negative Gothic, in that it has no happy ending. The storytelling is done in a measured and progressive semi-"crazy quilt" fashion. It opens with Helen and her troubles. Helen is a sympathetic but somewhat unlikeable character. Her deceased father was a domineering religionist, and at age 27 Helen is meek and undecided...and a boyfriendless virgin. Upon her release from Ville de Valle, a luxury psychiatric hospital, Helen returns home: Where a year prior her parents were brutally slain by unknown assailants. She is nearly raped (and presumably later to be murdered), but is spared by the approach of police sirens (neighbor heard the screams/commotion and phoned the cops). Helen suffers a nervous breakdown as a result.

It's a year later and she decides to return to the unhappy (always) home alone. Her sister, Robie, arrives to usher Helen home; Robie is a free-spirited rebel who resides in NYC and doesn't spend the night. She stays the afternoon with Helen and returns home. Robie has offered to stay awhile, but Helen insists she'll be fine. Mrs. Halvorsen, the cook/maid, is part-time help who refuses to stay overnight. So we have the very unlikely scenario of a mental patient having suffered a catastrophic breakdown returning to the house wherein the savage butchery of her parents occurred, spending the very first night alone. :-\ I doubt it.

It turns out, no surprise, that the house is haunted. On nights of the full moon Helen hears the cries and crashes of her parents' vicious murders "replayed." She also experiences sudden extremely cold drafts and the sensation of someone in bed beside her.

Helen, usually timid and indecisive, decides to seek Robie's help and goes to NYC. Robie had challenged their father, had defiantly told him she'd go on her own even if it meant being disinherited from a fortune. Their father agreed. Robie works, keeps a small apartment, is a party girl with a string of lovers. She's also devoted to Helen, and is stunned but curious when Helen arrives to proclaim their family home haunted.

Two doctors subsequently check into Helen's story. The first, Dr. Brewer, was known to Robie during her days at Columbia University; Dr. Brewer is an M.D. whose hobby is ghost hunting/paranormal. Dr. Wallace steps into the picture at the end; he is a psychiatrist. Both men, while empirically trained and claiming to be skeptical, are actually rather open to the supernatural in ways genuinely empirically trained professionals wouldn't be.

It turns out the house is indeed haunted.

This is the first Gothic I've read wherein the heroine doesn't have a love interest. No man seeks her romantically nor sexually. But considering Helen's overall "gray" personality, I suppose that's without saying.

Trixie gave this story Zero Paws for no mention of a cat. She felt sorry for the little dog who died of fright, but a bit disdainfully so; Trixie pointed out that a cat would never die of fright. :-p


Karswell said...

>a cat would never die of fright.

My fraidy cat would!

Argh! The cover of this book is driving me crazy because I know I've seen that chick somewhere else, possibly lifted from a film still from a 60's movie lobby card or something...

Cindy M said...

Oh really? That reminds me that I forgot {geez!} to mention the model looks *exactly* like a woman I knew two years ago. Her name was Suzanne, probably 38 y/o.

Not my favorite cover art ever (not because of the model), but it's actually fitting for the story. I just don't like the blend of sepia and soft raspberry tones. :-(