Monday, October 31, 2016

The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz

Title: The Sentinel
Author: Jeffrey Konvitz
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (1974) 

It's that spooky time of year again when the pick of the month is a creepy title to stick with the mood of ghosts, goblins, and the like. Funny, these never feature candy...

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Sentinel 
at It Rains... You Get Wet

Allison Parker has returned to New York after spending 4 months at her family's home. She left 7 years ago due to traumatic events within the family and her father's funeral has brought all those memories to the forefront. As she tries to settle back in with work and friends, her over-bearing and prickly boyfriend turns out to be the least of her daily annoyances. The neighbors in her new apartment building take quirky to an entirely different level.

Allison's physical health also seems to have deteriorated. She suffers from acute, blinding migraines; sporadic paralysis; and blackouts. Along with the visit to her childhood home, the mental and physical stress she is experiencing have inspired her to re-explore her Catholic faith. Her desire to rekindle this, and the conflict that arises with her boyfriend (Michael) because of it, was an interesting angle that wasn't really pursued beyond what was convenient for the plot. I found that a disappointing hole in the book in light of what is slowly revealed about Allison.

Speaking of slow reveals, that was probably my favorite thing about this title. There is a very pleasing blur between horror and mystery in the plot. In fact, the horror comes rather later and it's the mystery that hooks from the beginning. Not only do events start to unravel for Allison (and the reader) but the possibly ominous backgrounds of Allison's friends and neighbors become known as Allison's poor health lands her in the hospital.

Konvitz sets up a mystery within a mystery when the reader learns that Michael has a history with a local detective. When the homicide detective hears that Michael is connected with Allison (and as such with the strange happenings around her) he takes the case and becomes a thorn in almost everyone's side. The fun part is, as a reader, you're never quite sure if it's the detective or Michael you should be suspicious of. 

It's slightly aggravating that Allison's story slowly gets taken over by Michael. As a character, Allison is presented sometimes very pro-active in investigating what is happening to her and sometimes as Michael's puppet. I found it annoying as a reader but also it just didn't seem to fit with Allison. The plus side of Michael taking over is, again, you're pretty sure you should be suspicious of him but he's also the only one finding any kind of satisfying answers as to who might be orchestrating a very bizarre series of events designed to undermine Allison's mental and physical well-being. 

For all that I enjoyed the mystery and character reveals there are a lot of really annoying tropes found in this book. I'm pretty limited in my horror genre reading but it seems like any horror title I peruse from the 60s and 70s relies heavily on sexual deviation* and sexual violence, women as victims, and caricatures. Obviously there is nothing wrong, in and of itself, with any of that (though I don't really care for the writing shortcut of caricatures) but a pattern seems to have been popular in those decades for horror novels that really doesn't speak to me as a reader. (I'd love to know if current horror readers feel the genre retains these tropes and patterns or if new ones have come into fashion.)

*I have to take a moment here to say that the sexual deviation is, way more often than not, simply sex against prevailing convention. For instance, the homophobia on display in this particular book is rampant and, while the two women in question were quite rude, their defining characterization was Lesbian and, for this book, lesbian = sexual deviant. Pretty terrible.

I also didn't find the prose to be particularly smooth. I was often distracted by over-long sentences and weird strings of adjectives. I suppose, in the end, we're here for the mystery and the horror but I could have done with a little more polish to the text.

For those looking for an intriguing mystery and a bit of horror (with what can only be described as a balls-out audacious ending) you'll certainly find a lot to enjoy in The Sentinel. However, be prepared that the prose and prejudices can be quite distracting.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
The Finale


  1. Yeah, this had the pervasive attitudes of the time when it came to sex and sexual deviation. Konwitz spoke to this some in his movie commentary track putting this to how the Catholic church certainly viewed it back then. The lesbian couple seemingly the damned twofold, being murderers AND deviant to that of church practices. I think the mystery aspect, along with its small bit of police procedural, added to the storyline.

    I'd also agree that this came off a little rough language and prose-wise. But as a debut novel whose basis was a screenplay that didn't attract much attention from Hollywood, at first, I can forgive it better these days. I hear that its '79 book sequel, The Guardian, fans think it better written.

    Anyway, it's that horror payoff at the end that matters. As I said in my film review, it's more sinister, especially when you frame it both against the Devil's scheme and the cruel purgation by God to hold it back. Anyway, look forward to your thoughts on the "balls out" screen adaptation. Thanks, Rachel. :-)

  2. Hi there, I was so interested to learn all the details regarding the film and its original reception. I'm not a huge fan of horror camp so I'm a little intimidated by that but I still want to see how they do the ending. Holy shit! That was wild. I still haven't been able to find the Sentinel. Because I have given up iTunes and Amazon renting for that sort of thing my options are limited (Netflix needs a more extensive catalog:). I'm thinking it's time to check out what Hulu can do for me. Getting tired and missing these films or having to catch up with them so late.