George Lanning, The Pedestal (Avon, 1966)
I first discovered Avon’s series of red-spined quasi-horror tales in the very early eighties; I can remember where I was (North Carolina), and why (we were there with friends of my parents for Thanksgiving break), but the year eludes me. 1983? In any case, one of my obsessions in high school was used bookstores, and I found every one in the small seaside town where we stayed the week. In one of them, I found Helen McCloy’s Mister Splitfoot, a 1969 gothic that was my first red-spine, and to this day is my favorite of the bunch. I have spent many years since going to used bookstores to hunt for more red-spines, among many other things. My most recent find was this little number, which has a great deal more in common with the trip I was on when I bought that copy of Mister Splitfoot than it does with Helen McCloy’s estimable novel.
Johnny Bayden and his wife Eleanor, formerly city dwellers, have repaired to the backwoods while Johnny recovers from a stay in the hospital. They are wealthy folk; they have a large house on the right side of the tracks, the only person not of their social stratus they interact with is their gossipy housekeeper, they tend to avoid going out where other people will be unless it’s to the country club or church. You know the type. All seems well until they attend a local dispersal auction and, on impulse, buy a large, dark, hardwood pedestal. Johnny believes that the most pressing thing he will have to consider where it is concerned is what decorative item to put atop it, to best catch the light from the French doors in the conservatory. (Actually, I don’t remember if he uses the word “conservatory”, but the description pretty much screamed it.) He quickly finds that he is wrong. The first night it is in the house, he hears a scratching noise, but finds no one in the house. The next morning, he finds faint scratches around the base of the pedestal. As time goes on (and tensions between Johnny and Eleanor mount, exacerbated by an affair Johnny is convinced Eleanor is having), Johnny gathers evidence that points to the conclusion that the pedestal is in some way possessed, and is capable of moving about the house on its own. Gradually, through the housekeeper, rumors start filtering into the house of murders happening over on the other side of the tracks. And it doesn’t take Johnny long to realize that every time one occurs, he’s heard the pedestal scratching its way around the house…
I stumbled upon Kirkus’ (surprisingly effusive) review of this novel, which mentions that Lanning was, at the time, an editor at The Kenyon Review. I guarantee you I would never have pegged him as such. Not that the novel doesn’t have literary pretensions; it does indeed, though Lanning had yet to master the art of the literature-with-a-capital-L ambiguous ending. (I did not appreciate this book enough to go see if he wrote any others/whether he eventually did master it). Given the timeframe and this new bit of information, however, a comparison I never would have thought about making suddenly crashes through the wall as if it were the Kool-Aid guy as played by Cthulhu himself: suddenly I can’t see anything but Fred Chappell’s 1968 southern gothic/horror novel Dagon. (Chappell—who disowned Dagon for many years, keeping it out of print until Boson Books was allowed to publish a new edition in 2002—was a professor at UNC-Greensboro when Dagon was published.) Dagon is the work of a young writer, and one who was at the time primarily a poet, and it shows; it’s ham-handed and cheesy, and I wish I could find a way to work in a pumpernickel reference there, but above all it’s fun. I have long considered it the direct spiritual ancestor of what is, in my opinion, the best southern gothic novel of all time, Tom Piccirilli’s A Choir of Ill Children. I can’t imagine Lanning’s novel being the spiritual ancestor of anything, save possibly the need for an extra-strong dose of bromo-seltzer. Dagon, while touching on deadly serious themes that may be a bit too big for its britches, never loses touch with the idea that southern gothic is as much about vamp and glam as it is about darkness and despair. The Pedestal is consistently as serious as Parkinson’s, and roughly as curable. By the time you get to the end, which makes Dagon seem a masterpiece of subtlety, you may find yourself wondering why you’ve spent the last hundred fifty pages with these sad sacks only to get to a Big Reveal so transparent you had it figured out by the end of chapter three. **