Monday, December 9, 2013

Behind The Door

Behind The Door, by Frank Lambirth
January, 1988  Popular Library

Like Firefight, this is another obscure novel I learned about via Michael Newton’s How To Write Action Adventure Novels. And also like Firefight, Newton discusses Behind The Door in a negative light; specifically, a “disgusting” scene where the female protagonist becomes sexually aroused while she watches someone getting raped.

Sadly, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that as soon as I read this, I made a note to self to get Behind The Door as soon as possible. Funnily enough, Newton failed to mention that the rape scene occurred between two female characters, and also that the aroused protagonist, Elizabeth Shea, was drugged out of her mind at the time. In other words, the scene was nowhere as lurid as Newton claimed it to be. Though don’t get me wrong, the novel is pretty lurid, however this aspect is a bit dilluted given author Frank Lambirth’s lofty tone and the deadbeat protagonist he gives us.

For me the biggest failing of this novel is Elizabeth Shea. Not that she’s necessarily a bad character, she’s just so blasé and boring. She’s like the heroine of a Gothic novel, forever gnashing her teeth in fear and confusion, but gullible and trusting to a fault. In other words, she’s too nice a person for the sadistic tale Lambirth has thrust her in, and maybe that’s the point, but after a while I wanted a character who would jump into the exploitative proceedings – and let me tell you, there’s some exploitative stuff here, from satanic black masses to drug-fueled orgies to murder on a mass scale. There’s even a psilocybin drug trip, like something out of a Terence McKenna lecture!

Then again, in a way Elizabeth is a welcome change from the now-mandatory “tough chick” you’ll encounter in books, movies, and tv. But still I feel a modern horror reader would get a little annoyed with Elizabeth, who spends the majority of Behind The Door cowering in her bedroom or running breathlessly from danger – that is, when she isn’t fondling herself and imagining what it would be like to be double-teamed by two men or to have sex with another woman. On second thought, Elizabeth Shea is awesome!

Anyway, we open with a random murder on a desolate Arkansas road, a sequence Lambirth will not refer back to until the very end of the novel. From there we are introduced to Elizabeth, who carries the brunt of the narrative. Long story short, Elizabeth is the admin for a somewhat-shady entreprenneur, and at this man’s behest Elizabeth is in a car speeding through the night roads of Arkansas on their way to square out a money-lending deal.

In addition to Elizabeth there’s Meredith, the entreprenneur’s coke-sniffing daughter, and Scott, the bodyguard. The group is rattled and exhausted, having endured a long plane ride here in bumpy weather. A thunderstorm rages as they barrel through the twisting mountain roads, and the car crashes; Elizabeth is the only uninjured passenger. The local cops arrive, including good-looking deputy Cobb Kendall, and get them an ambulance. But there’s no hospital nearby and due to the injuries of some of the passengers it’s decided to call local Skystone, which the cops describe to be a private clinic.

Skystone is more like a fortress, with massive gates (which are later revealed to be electrified) surrounding it. Elizabeth sits in shock in the emergency room as she watches the small group of doctors and nurses work over her injured companions. Here we meet Dr. Mainwaring, who comes off as the customary old and concerned doctor of tradition, as well as Mrs. Eddy, an older lady who wears lots of makeup and who apparently has a brick shithouse bod. Also there’s nurse Shane Covington, a gorgeous blonde with mesmerizing eyes.

Finally the fun begins, as Mainwaring insists on Elizabeth staying in a room to be monitored, in case she will suffer some post-crash trauma. Filled with drugs and left in a well-furnished room that doesn’t look like any hospital room she’s ever been in before, Elizabeth will spend the remainder of the novel in a perpetual state of drugged terror. Separated from her coworkers she’s left at the mercy of Mainwaring and staff, who don’t seem to be in a hurry to let her know what’s going on.

Mainwaring has her on some good shit, and Elizabeth wakes up on her first night completely out of it. She hears noises down the deserted hallway, no one will respond to her calls, and her phone doesn’t work. She stumbles down the hall, into another of the rooms…only to come across nurse Shane going down on another pretty young nurse! This is the scene Newton got so upset about; it ends with Elizabeth pawing herself as she stumbles back to her bedroom, wondering what it would be like to trade places with the pretty young nurse.

The first half of Behind The Door plays this slow game, of Elizabeth gradually realizing that something’s not right about Skystone, and then Mainwaring coming in to tell her everything’s fine before shooting her up with more drugs. Meanwhile we’re informed that Elizabeth’s boss has died, but still Elizabeth is kept from Scott and Meredith. It isn’t until the place almost burns down (due to a pyromaniac old lady) that things begin to kick into gear.

I mentioned how naïve Elizabeth is; even after waking up in another drugged stupor one night to discover her wing on fire and various psychos stumbling around and fighting each other, the next morning she still gives benefit the doubt as she wanders around the now-empty and trashed hospital, figuring some natural calamity or even a nuclear war might’ve happened. Then she finds Scott tied up and thrown in a corpse locker; he reveals he was thrown there by the inmates.

Previous to this the novel has been a quiet sort of horror, but now it plunges straight into terror. Scott and Elizabeth search the deserted hospital grounds, finding corpses everywhere. Trying to escape they discover that the fence is electrified and it fully surrounds Skystone. In another creepy sequence they come upon the old mansion on the grounds in which the hospital staff lives; Scott ventures in alone, finding about 30 or so corpses, the people murdered in their beds. There’s some unintentional humor though, for when they return to Skystone, all other avenues blocked, Scott and Meredith look through the files and discover that Skystone is really…an insane asylum!! Funnily enough, this gets more reaction from them than all of the hacked up corpses.

There’s a massive red door which is locked and splits off Elizabeth’s wing of Skystone to the other half; we learn that this is the violent ward. Lambirth runs a parallel storyline featuring Cobb Kendall, the local deputy, as he figures out that something’s wrong at Skystone. Despite pushback from his “stupid chief” sheriff, Cobb hooks up with Dr. Andy Witherspoon, a local doctor who worked at Skystone until quitting recently; the doctor informs Cobb that he quit because the head of Skystone decided to bring in more violent inmates, the last straw being Paul St. Denis, who apparently makes Ted Bundy look like Mr. Rogers. Denis is the one “behind the door,” and there’s an awesome reveal when Cobb tells Witherspoon that he spoke to a “Dr. Mainwaring” at Skystone, and Witherspoon tells Cobb that not only is Mainwaring not a doctor, he’s also an inmate!

Cobb now knows that the lunatics are truly running the asylum, but Lambirth stalls with lots of page-filler about the deputy trying to get into Skystone and eventually renting a helicopter. The more compelling stuff of course is in Skystone, but again the trash quotient is limited by Lambirth’s choice of a protagonist, as Elizabeth closes herself off in her room while Scott tries to find Meredith. In fact, most of the sordid stuff in Behind The Door happens “off screen,” relayed to Elizabeth through dialog or with her coming upon the aftermath.

The final quarter of the novel really ramps things up, and it’s a shame it didn’t happen sooner. Elizabeth is fully brought into the fold of Sykstone, and we see that Mainwaring has fought to keep her alive because he believes in his deluded mind that she’s his daughter. Nurse Eddy is revealed to be a wealthy matron named Tina Duchin, who was sent to Skystone due to her maddened descent into satanism – satanism of the sacrificing, bloodthirsty sort. She’s turned the hospital into her new temple, running black masses/orgies and sacrificing surviving nurses. The weird-eyed, lunatic lesbian Shane Covington is her henchwoman, notorious for slicing up any female who turns down her advances.

Lambirth works everything up to a feverish pitch with Cobb and his two-man team choppering in to Skystone for a daylight rescue, while Elizabeth meets up with a young man she assumes to be another survivor but who in reality is Paul St. Denis. For some reason though Lambirth keeps most of the violence and bloodshed in the background; even when Nurse Eddy/Tina comes after Paul, fresh from her latest black mass and armed with a knife, Lambirth denies us the outcome, having Elizabeth once again rush from the scene. Here we also get the psilocybin material, when one of the inmates forcibly injects Elizabeth with the drug and then delivers the unforgettable line, “I’m gonna fuck your stuff, baby.”

Have no fear, though, for Cobb and the good doctor finally arrive with guns blazing. At least here Lambirth gives us some action, though by this point most of the Skystone inmates have killed themselves off in various squabbles and disagreements gone bad. With one final reveal (well handled and foreshadowed at various points in the narrative), Lambirth brings the novel to a haunting close. Perhaps the craziest thing about the novel is that, for a girl driven to sexual madness via drugs and the wanton hedonism surrounding her, not to mention the crazed orderlies who chase after her in the denoument, not once does Elizabeth actually have sex in the novel!

In fact, Behind The Door somehow manages to walk the line between outright lurid material and prudish conservatism…there’s lots of weird stuff, creepy stuff, exploitative stuff, but the way Lambirth writes it, it comes off more like a “regular” novel instead of a total descent into depravity. And while I enjoyed his writing, I still think a crazier, more memorable novel could’ve been gleaned from the sensationalistic plot and characters he has given us. So wrapping up, I’d give the novel a recommendation, but one with reservations. Thanks again though to Michael Newton for letting us know about it!

Finally, this is one of those awesome paperback originals that has a fancy stepback cover; here’s the inner painting:


Grant said...

I don't know the story, but I know what you mean about a "welcome change" when it comes to the female character. You don't have to be anti-feminist in any way to get weary with all the "tough chick" characters in suspense stories. It's the SHEER NUMBER of them that's aggravating instead of anything else.

Griff said...

sounds somewhat similar to the recent video game Outlast, which is also about an insane asylum overrun with murderous maniacs

Will Errickson said...

Just discovered cover art by Lisa Falkenstern. She did a fair amount of '80s and '90s paperback covers; most "memorably" for Ketchum's 1989 GIRL NEXT DOOR from Warner. It has absolutely nothing to do with that story, but that's probably not her fault!

Felicity Walker said...

We never get tired of tough guys the way we do of tough chicks, which suggests that it’s not the toughness, and it shouldn’t be the gender (that would be sexist), so it must be the quality. Tough chicks are less well-written and more generic than tough guys. When we get tough chicks with well-developed, likeable personalities, we don’t get tired of them.

Joe Kenney said...

Felicity, well said! I think what irks me is more so the current lazy cliche of the "tough chick," which is so nauseatingly prevalent in modern action and horror. When it gets right down to it, women are tougher in their own way than men could ever be -- and "tough" doesn't necessarily just mean kicking ass and firing two guns at once while doing spinning backflips.