Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Nurse Jean’s Strange Case

By Arlene Hale, ©1970
Cover illustration by Charles Gehm

Nurse Jean Reese took her new job at Webb House with some misgivings. The somber old mansion at Shadow Lake was a house of menace. Each of its occupants seemed to have a secret life—a private, closely hidden world not to be shared. In Jean’s life, too, there was a secret: a lost love which had left her sick at heart. For a time, things seemed as hopeless as they were frightening—until, one day, an exciting stranger appeared at Webb House. And Jean once again knew the brightness and warmth of love.


“To be needed was important to anyone. But it had become especially important to her. Because of Michael Blaine.”

Jean Reese has been working at a hospital in the city when she gets a call from Dr. Paul Hartford, the kindly old GP in her hometown. He’s the latest in a string of physicians to care for recluse Leoma Webb, who tumbled down the stairs at her family mansion and is now confined to a wheelchair. Leoma used to live a happy life in Chicago, maybe even with a boyfriend (this point, among many small other mysteries, is never made clear to us), but she was called home by her father when her mother died a year ago, and then the unfortunate accident kept her there. Now Leoma lives with her father, Nathaniel; her evil cousin Quentin, who torments everyone in the house yet is allowed to continue living there; and Chad, Leoma’s “youngest” brother, who is about 20 years younger than she is. (If there’s another brother, we never hear about him, for which we can probably be grateful.) It’s a nutty cast of characters: Chad wanders the estate grounds tootling on a flute, and Leoma is a neurotic who, we are repeatedly told, is minutes from collapsing into mental illness, up multiple times during the night despite repeated doses of sleeping pills—this woman manages to shake off enough barbiturates to kill a horse.

Jean has taken this job, though she’s heard stories since childhood about the spooky Webb mansion and the weirdoes who live there, because her old beau, Michael Blaine, still lives in town. She broke up with him a year ago because he refused to get serious (read: pop the question), and she’s been pining for him ever since. It’s hard to understand why, though, because he’s an arrogant, self-centered ass. He’s working on a deal to buy the Webb estate and sell it to a group of developers, but Nathaniel Webb is so difficult to get a meeting with, how will he ever get his foot in the door? Then the gas station attendant clues him in that his old girlfriend is working at the house, so he calls up Jean to ask her out. But when Nathaniel refuses to allow any visitors inside the gates, Michael tells Jean he will not go out with her unless he can pick her up at the front door “like any civilized man would do”—never mind that a civilized man doesn’t use his old girlfriend to pull off a business deal.

The irritating part is that Jean, the dope, falls for it, and tells Nathaniel that she’ll quit her job if Michael isn’t allowed to come to the house. Nathaniel, of course, acquiesces, but Michael isn’t satisfied with just getting inside the house—now he’s pushing Jean to get him a meeting with Nathaniel, and she still doesn’t get it. “If she refused him, he would be angry and she didn’t want that,” so off she trots, but this time Nathaniel puts his foot down. For the rest of their date, Michael is cold and distant, but he couldn’t be using her, no, “she wouldn’t think that!”

Then Dr. Hartford is abruptly fired from Leoma’s case for suggesting to Nathaniel that Leoma needs to be institutionalized for round-the-clock psychiatric care, and Dr. David Williams enters the scene. He’s not one to be impetuous, “except for right now, this moment—” and he’s kissing Jean. “Could a man fall in love with a girl he had seen only a few times? He laughed at himself. The answer was so obvious. Yes, he could. Because he had!” Ugh.

Meanwhile, Leoma is becoming increasingly unhinged, spending most of her time crying and moaning, while Chad spends his days diving in the nearby pond, searching for some evidence that Nathaniel killed his wife; could this be what Quentin is blackmailing Nathaniel with?

As if this “mystery” isn’t enough, the book desperately wants to be a gothic tale, with references on virtually every other page about how “eerie” and “oppressive” “that evil place” is, “a giant black spider” with “a shadow over it,” “crouching there on the lake’s edge like a huge brown animal ready to pounce,” where “hate lurked in every corner.” Jean “felt chilled to the bone after a few days in the Webb house”; “she was beginning to feel like a prisoner in some kind of a bewitched house.” OK, OK, we’re all really scared now! But no, we’re not getting off that easy, we’re going to have to overdose on fear as well: “her bright eyes were frightened,” “her eyes still filled with terror,” “she couldn’t find any basis for the kind of fear she felt. It was a cold little gnawing inside. A little shiver along her nerves.” I guess the reason you have to be beaten over the head with all this tedious description is because otherwise, you wouldn’t see it at all. But would that have been a bad thing? If nothing else, it would have made for a shorter book.


  1. The author must have been a fan of DARK SHADOWS. The name "Quentin" suggests that to me, at least.

    I have to admit it sounds like something I would read! :)

  2. Either that or "The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner.