Love from beyond the grave - it's a common theme in horror fiction. Emotional bonds made during life, our superstitious forefathers thought, surely cannot simply disappear when one of the lovers dies; that powerful and undeniable connection with another must carry on even into eternity, right? Well, yes; the person living still carries that torch - we all love people who've passed on - but what about the lover who dies? Do their emotions continue on? Well, I seriously doubt it myself, but Bernard Taylor's second novel, Sweetheart, Sweetheart, utilizes this aspect of the genre to pretty decent effect, creating a female ghost who likes her menfolk... a lot.
Ghosts often seem to be made not of ectoplasm and smoke and the like but of actual human emotions like love, like hate, like jealousy and possessiveness. The places they haunt are redolent of their strongest passions. Most of the horror fiction I've read has actually not been in this area, just as I haven't read a lot of satanic possession stories. I find it - them - quite old-fashioned. They are, but they can still be effectively creepy. Sweetheart, Sweetheart is that. I don't know if I agree with Charles L. Grant, who chose it as his selection for the 100 greatest horror novels, but with his love of subtle moods and shadows I can see why he so admired it.
There are a few sad, touching moments as David grieves for his brother, with whom in recent years he'd not been close, and especially when he sees the remains of the car he'd been driving in the crash that killed him. As he learns more about Colin and Helen's lives at the cottage, he also seems ambivalent about his girlfriend Shelagh back in New York as well as his emotionally-stunted elderly father, who resents Colin's final attempt at reaching out to David. The mystery deepens as David learns more about the cottage's previous tenants and their unfortunate demises. Then there's the body he finds buried in the garden. And the spirit that so obviously stalks the halls... and David's bedroom.
Sweetheart takes its own sweet time getting to the good stuff, as it were, trying to build suspense and discomfort - although honestly even that stuff doesn't get going until nearly the halfway mark. But once it does it doesn't let up. Read carefully in the first half; I didn't - I almost didn't finish the book, it has such a leisurely build-up - and so when everything is falling into place near the climax I had to flip back to figure out some characters' relevance. I really did like the horrifying culmination, sad and bloody and shocking as it was.
When I first saw Sweetheart's hardcover art I knew I had to read it - a '70s dude nuzzling a skull-headed woman, awesome! The Ballantine paperback from '79 is the edition I read, which at first glance seems a romance but then you realize the letters are stylized blood; the glaring eye of the madwoman is pretty wicked too (thanks to artist George Ziel). I don't get why both depict mansions; it's definitely a cottage that the ghost-lady is haunting. And that is one dirty ghost-lady, David finds out, who knows just how to keep the men in the cottage from ever leaving...
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