Elsewhere by William Peter Blatty first appeared in Al Sarrantonio's fin de siecle anthology 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense (1999). Alas, I never took the time to read it there. But I've always appreciated Blatty's skill and assurance as a popular writer, similar in slick clear tone to Ira Levin.
Unlike poor old S.T. Joshi, who suggests Blatty has a hidden agenda to turn his readers into Roman Catholics robots, I find Blatty's interest in and employment of religion in The Exorcist and Legion to be part of his authorial legerdemain aimed at suspending reader disbelief. In those two novels he does it beautifully.
The novella Elsewhere is a full-bore haunted house psychic investigation thriller. Realtor Joan Freeboard is desperate to sell a mansion on an island in the Hudson River called Elsewhere. She hires writer Terence Dare, psychic Anna Trawley, and parapsychologist Gabriel Case to join her on a debunking mission to the property.
Strange knockings and manifestations begin and quickly snowball.
Dare spends most of his time looking for his dogs, whom he is sure he brought on the trip but now cannot find.
He was suddenly electrified by a sound. Muted and distant. The yapping of a dog. Dare beamed and then frowned as he realized that the bark was of a larger animal. Yet he called again, "Boys? Men?" The yapping continued. Dare began to move toward the sound apprehensively. At the end of the hall he saw a door and as he neared it the yapping grew louder, more excited, then elided into threatening growls and barks interlaced with piercing whines, as of fright. Near the door, Dare stopped as the voice of a man came through from behind it: "What is it, boy? What?"
So there was someone here, thought Dare. There was staff.
He grasped the doorknob and opened the door.
Dare gaped. He was looking at what seemed to be a kitchen. Trembling, teeth bared, a collie dog was confronting him, alternately whining and growling and barking. At a table sat a man and a woman in their fifties and what looked to be a husky young Catholic priest dressed in cassock and surplice and purple stole, while by a window stood a taller old redheaded priest who gripped a book that was bound in a soft red leather. The man and the woman and the younger priest were staring toward Dare as if in numb apprehension, but the redheaded priest by the window seemed calm as he walked to the table routinely, unhurriedly, to pick up a vial filled with colorless liquid. A woman in a housekeeper's uniform entered the room. She was carrying a steaming pot of coffee. As she moved toward the table she glanced toward the door, dropped the pot and emitted a piercing shriek, and as she did the old priest uncapped the vial, flicked his wrist and shot a sprinkle of its contents at the dumbfounded author, whereupon the people in the kitchen vanished.
Shaken, Dare whirled about and ran for his life....
....She frowned. "You seeing things, Terry?" she asked him.
"Joan, I swear to you, I haven't dropped acid in years!"
He raised his right hand as if taking an oath.
"It's got residual effects, remember? Remember the giant squids with the ray guns and the letter of reference from Cheech and Chong?"
Dare pushed up the sleeve of his shirt, disclosing a red and vivid welt running up from his inner wrist to his forearm. "Does this look as if I'm seeing things, Joanie? Take a look at this! Look at my arm!"
Freeboard stared mutely at the welt for a moment. She looked up at him quizzically and said, "How'd you do that?"
"I saw a group of people in the back of the house," explained Dare. "Two of them were priests."
"They were what?"
"I said priests!"
"Oh, for chrissakes, Terry!"
"I mean it! One of them threw something at me! This happened!" Freeboard reached out her hand as if about to touch the welt. Dare flinched. "No, don't touch it!" he exclaimed.
"Looks like a burn," she said quietly.
Freeboard looked up at him. She looked dubious.
"You weren't ironing your scrapbook or anything, were you? I mean, where are these priests?"
"I don't know," answered Dare. "They disappeared."
"They ran away?"
"They simply vanished."
Freeboard turned and rolled her eyes. "Yeah, they vanished."
Dare thrust out his arm and showed the welt. "This didn't!"
She stared at it soberly. "It could have happened when Morna spilled the coffee on you, Terry."
"Yes, but wouldn't I have known that?"
"I've tried to call the boatman to see about getting off the island, but—"
"You turdhead! What happened to 'I am Doubt'?"
"It got mugged in the alley by 'I am burned!' Look, the boatman didn't answer."
Elsewhere is filled with fine frights carefully compressed. About the ending I will only say that Blatty nearly pulls it off, but the dramatic diffusion into a sub-Thorne Smith la-la land was an error.
Still, it's a wonderfully ambitious haunted house tale, and not to be missed.
19 May 2020