12 July 2011

Ontario Gothic Romance (with the scent of Brut)

Satan's Bell
Joy Carroll
Markham, ON: Pocket, 1976

Summer reading from my fourteenth year, a time when the black spines of mass market horror paperbacks ran across my bookcase. They're all gone now, sold long ago for pennies on the dollar. I know I enjoyed these books, but can't remember much about them. The only thing that stayed with me about Satan's Bell was its setting: Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. Somehow this seemed much more interesting than, say, Amityville, New York.

Narrated by its heroine, 22-year-old secretary Polly Harris, it opens with the funeral of a murdered teenage runaway. The dead girl was found by a lost fisherman on a secluded private island where the lake and bay meet. Its owner, mysterious billionaire Justin Cavell, is charged with the murder.

Polly's pragmatic boss, small town lawyer Matthew Mackay, is hired as a consultant by Justin's high-powered Toronto legal team, which in turn brings her into contact with the accused. From the beginning, she's convinced of his innocence:
Why would a man like Justin Cavell kill a young girl and leave her lying around on his property? In the first place, he was young, handsome, and rich. He would have been able to find dozens of beautiful women in his world, and he was not a stupid man. One would have expected something cleverer than this awkward plot.
Yes, why murder a missing juvenile delinquent when you could bump off the daughter of Princess Grace?

The billionaire is acquitted and begins dating pretty Polly. Three weeks into the relationship, she's invited to spend the weekend with Justin and his twin sister Theodora at their Cavell Island castle. Polly has only just arrived when the supernatural intrudes on what to this point has been a rather conventional romance novel:
It was while climbing the staircase that first time that I became aware of the spirit... What some people would call a "ghost," I suppose, although I have never thought that an adequate word.
I must explain here that I have a peculiar talent that for the most part I keep secret from my friends. I discovered when I was a child that I could "see" things that other people could not. Evidently, I was born a sensitive or psychic.
Polly's "peculiar talent" allows her to witness past events in the castle's history, all of which centre on what she believes are an earlier Justin and Theodora and their quest for eternal youth. A bit thick is our Polly; everything is spelled out for her – and the reader – yet she can't quite figure out that her Justin and the Victorian Justin are one and the same.

Justin is handsome and charismatic, Theodora is beautiful and cold, and Matthew is Atticus Finch. Only Polly simple, virginal Polly appears as something other than a cardboard cut-out. Given the premise, the most curious aspect of Satan's Bell is that its heroine seems much older than her 22 years; indeed she appears to come from an earlier time. There's her name, of course I've yet to meet a baby boomer named Polly but also her prim and proper behaviour and speech. The small town secretary comes off a bit like Ruth Wilcox in Howard's End.

It's hard to think of Polly as anything but an odd bird, yet I don't think this is the author's intention. Or is it? You see, it's important that Polly continues to love Justin even after she realizes that he's a 125-year-old serial killer. The teenage runaway was killed in an attempt to prolong his youth, but Justin now knows that he can only achieve this goal by murdering someone who is in love with him.

I'll spoil things here by revealing surprise – that this never happens. With a sword poised over Polly's neck, Matthew shows up revolver in hand. Justin dies, Theodora dies and Cavell Island sinks into Lake Huron.

The supernatural elements out of the way, Satan's Bell returns to being a conventional romance novel for one final, rushed chapter. How rushed? In the third to last page, Matthew turns up unexpectedly at Polly's door with news that he has inherited a vast estate in Nova Scotia:
"I probably didn't tell you, but my mother married again a few years ago, and the man had money. My mother died and now her second husband has died. He's left me with the estate."
On the second to last page, he proposes. Polly is set to turn him down, but then, on the last page, he takes her in his arms:
When Mattew kissed me, I felt the rising of that same passion I'd had for Justin. A fantastic gush of feeling, an excitement I'd never expected to feel again. And with Matthew, of all people. It was the most astonishing thing!
"Matthew, I love you!" I cried.
And we both laughed and cried at the same time, standing there by the lake.

You're mistaking lust for love, Polly. My thirteen-year-old self could've told you that.

Favourite sentence: "His handsome face was very close to mine, I could feel the warmth of his breath, smell the faint scent of Brut that he always wore, and see the tender concern in his blue, blue eyes."

Object: Published as part of a series edited by husband Jock Carroll, Satan's Bell is typical 'seventies mass market paperback, complete with two-pages of adverts tacked onto the end.

I'm not so sure that Sheila Hervey and Eileen Sonin rank amongst "THE BEST CANADIAN AUTHORS", but then I haven't read their work. Certainly, John G. Neihardt can't be considered; he was as American as his subject.

Couldn't anyone have come up with a stronger pitch line for Some Canadian Ghosts?

Access: Held by only five libraries, Satan's Bell is surprisingly difficult to find. There are currently just three copies listed online: good+ (US$4.99), signed (US$9.50) and fair (US$61.78). The last is offered by Motor City Books of Riverview, Michigan, which bills itself as "THE BEST PLACE FOR CHEAP USED BOOKS".


  1. We had a woman who worked in our hospital cafe named Polly. And when I was an actor in Connecticut I did a show with a girl about five years younger than me who was named Polly. Her brother was named Buddy. These were not nicknames either. I think their parents were old time movie fanatics. So two Polly encounters in a half a century of living. Not a popular name at all, I'd say.

    $61.78 for an obscure paperback potboiler in only FAIR condition. Wow. I'll bet the cheap price does not include free shipping either.

  2. Brian:

    Thank you for the stolen hour of laughter I've just had reading your blog instead of writing my Atwood essay for school. It was utterly refreshing, not to mention heartening to see that you're still exploring such -- er -- fascinating material. I foresee many more hooky sessions spent at The Dusty Bookcase! I also look forward to reading your Glassco biography.

    Warmest wishes to your family. (Our youngest daughter turns two today; her sister is three.) I'm relieved to learn that you've departed V. and found a town worth living in.


    Wendy (Phillips) Wright
    Denman Island, BC

  3. John, add another US$6.50 shipping... for a 190-page mass market paperback.

    Wendy, nice to hear from you. I'm honoured to have hooked you. Cheers!

  4. I do appreciate the stark simplicity of the cover art and the tagline; something often missing from horror paperbacks.

    1. Very restrained, is it not. The title font never fails to remind me of the Avon Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks of the 'sixties.