THE MARK OF THE ROPE
Written by Miriam Lynch
Copyright 1972 by Miriam Lynch
Published by Avon Books
First Avon Printing: November, 1972
COVER ART: ?
SETTING: 1970s, New England, USA
THE STORY: Andrea Stanton has taken some much-needed vacation time from her New York job, planning to drive up to Canada for a week and relax. But, as usual, her overbearing, needy friend Charlene imposes on the plans and persuades Andrea to bring her and her five-year-old daughter Catha along, claiming it will be just a quick detour through Massachussetts to drop them off at the ancestral home of Charlene’s ex-husband, where she plans on asking his family for money. Charlene is always having money troubles, relationship troubles, all kinds of trouble. Even her child was born out of rape, which oddly seems to have had no effect on her.
In a small town just outside of Salem called Shadduck, the mansion they visit is called Fauncroft. It causes Andrea to think of the people she’s known who would travel the miles she has just to gaze upon such a beautiful relic, but to her it is like something out of a nightmare. Ugly and horrific. And the two women inside – a mother and twenty-something daughter named Sarah and Laurice Metiver – match it with their hostility and aloofness, behaving as though the family itself has deteriorated with their home.
There is also a strange fear on the Metivers part, beginning with the big dog that appears upon their arrival and befriends Catha before they even get to the door. Just one look at it and Laurice is distressed and calling to her mother that “the dog” is back, like something must be done about it. And then, when they all sit down inside for tea and Andrea loosens the ribbon from around her neck, the two women stare at her in horror, gasp and drop their cups before rushing out of the room.
While Andrea was eager to get away fast, she’s having second thoughts about leaving Charlene and Catha alone with people who could be mentally unbalanced. She decides to at least stay for dinner, but then young Catha begins complaining of stomach pains and running a fever. When she sees the child’s face turn a ghastly green, she knows she cannot leave.
Laurice offers to call a Doctor Wendell to the house, who happens to be a young, handsome, unmarried man she’s dying to flirt with, constantly stepping in front of him to obstruct his work with her own selfish priorities. Charlene, already feeling hard up for a man, does exactly the same thing – despite her child’s health concerns – and the two get into pathetic competition while Dr. Wendell does his best to ignore them and speak directly to Andrea, the only person in the house he can see is caring and competent enough to care for the child through the night.
But night at Fauncroft will be far from the vacation Andrea wanted, for this night will bring the awakening of an ancient curse long in waiting. While she may at first find it unsettling to deal with the pacing footsteps of an old woman who is dying in the room above her, unnerving to see the figure of a man repeatedly watching the house from the trees, and quite alarming for the mysterious dog to keep finding its way into Catha’s room no matter how many times they lock it outside, Andrea will be forced to do something once she realizes someone is stalking the secret passages of the house trying to kill her.
There is a horrifying legend at Fauncroft. The legend of the witch who was hanged in Salem centuries ago at the testimony of a Metiver, which spawned a curse that would follow the family down every generation to come, and with its every coming will be a sign – the mark of the rope – which the present Metivers have already known Andrea to carry… but that doesn’t necessarily mean she is the one to fear.
REVIEW: This one’s not easy to explain. If you read this and think it’s too slow and needed more to happen, I totally get that, but the atmosphere and feeling are so alive in the undercurrent here, and so perfectly blended into the story that I actually admire its minimal, slower-burn-than-usual approach, and find it very justifiable.
For starters, this is morbid and downbeat like I’ve noticed in the previous Satanic Gothics. Death, decay, disease, and insanity seem to be mainstay themes in this series, and I’m always all for that. This one even accomplishes an unusual trick in making an inhabited house feel long abandoned. There are people in it and they’ve lived there for quite some time, but the level of neglect and stagnation could rival that of Castle Dracula, and the consistent reminders of the dust and grime and haunting emptiness of Fauncroft really hits its mark every time in carrying the atmosphere.
While the story is slow, its progression with the ambiance comes out so natural that the mundane things can still take on meaning and substance with the right awareness and mindset. Mark of the Rope’s goal might not be what you’re used to, and it doesn’t reach levels that would impress the mainstream. Its horror is hidden within seemingly tame things, within the lives of the characters, and the supernatural climax – as ugly as it is – occurs with a strange indifference. You won’t find the value reading this in public or discussing it with anyone. It’s more like an oppressive nightmare you need to have alone in your bedroom.
One criticism I could have with the story is the relationship between Andrea and Charlene and how it’s never resolved. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to smack the shit out of Charlene, who basically bosses Andrea around and guilts her into doing huge favors for her, and will also sell her out in a heartbeat for the most petty things. At the same time, it sort of makes me want to smack Andrea too. She’s smart, observant, brave, good at decisions, and can even spell out what Charlene’s always up to in detail, but still chooses to put up with it. And this is somewhat justified by her love and concern for young Catha, so I kind of get it when you consider the trauma and abandonment issues the poor girl would one day have to deal with if she had to count on her real mother, who seriously will not do a goddamn thing for her daughter.
Which brings me to the rape that brought Catha into the world. I know you might theorize she psychologically rejects her daughter because of the way she was conceived, but this could just not apply to the shallow, self-serving narcissism of Charlene. It was actually a little shocking for them to include a rape victim as one of the main characters – especially one who’s so unlikable and who victimizes her friend and daughter so blatantly – but the revelation of how the supernatural ties in with the rape and the birth of Catha made this eccentric detail a real winner for me.
And when I consider it all, I really have no criticism over the character relationships, because they reflect real life in a way that no fiction ever does without having to make a statement about it. In a way I can respect that Andrea and Charlene have an abusive friendship and nothing gets resolved about it. All the characters here really have twisted relationships, but it’s just part of who they are and they don’t have to transition to the ideal ways we like to imagine people. There are so many in this world with more personal issues and twisted relationships than we like to think about, and always have been. There’s no reason some genre fiction characters can’t be a little fucked up without resolution too.
While the previous Satanic Gothics I’ve read don’t deal directly with Satan much, this one concerns him a little more as the supernatural powers in action do come from the evil of Hell, but much more focus is put on the witch and family curse aspect. For its premise, however, there’s not as much New England or historical witch trial details as you’d expect, which is always the big draw for me in this type of story, but the madness of Fauncroft and its inhabitants was an unexpected treat I welcome just the same. It was also pretty original and had an impressive edge for a vintage Gothic romance, which has me looking forward to trying more books by Miriam Lynch.