I was introduced to horror at an early age and fell face first into some of the darkest corners of horror entertainment at far too early an age. But, it’s gotten me to where I am today as a writer and horror fan, so I save the money I’d spend on therapy bills and just fill my life with more horror as often as I can!
While it wasn’t the first scary book I ever read, The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz was the first to have a lasting effect on me. The book was released in 1974 and I got my hands on a faded hardcover copy at a second hand bookstore (run by Catholic Charities, ironically enough!) when I was a young teen. I remember it was the first reading experience I had that really put me into the paranoia and subconscious terror of the book’s lead character, a young model named Alison.
I struggled to keep everything in order, just like Alison, especially after her fainting spells and delirious nightmares. I found myself quickly developing trust issues with the neighbors and I wasn’t sure Michael was keeping things straight with me, either.
Where the book succeeds on a masterful level is the religious undertones that are so prominent throughout. A few years back, I was reminiscing about this book and thought that maybe it really freaked me out because I was at an age where I was kind of coming into my own- I had my own questions about religion and the forces that be in this universe. Perhaps in my mid-twenties, with my faith clearly defined and my nerves hardened by years of spook stories and hundreds of horror films, I would be able to read the book and at least be able to do so without keeping a light on afterward. No dice. In fact, the book got even more unsettling as I grew older and it’s because of the religious undertones that it still really strikes a nerve in me.
Another thing that makes this book so deliciously terrifying is that there is so much “wrong” to it. Nothing is as it seems and all of the tenants that poor Alison meets in the building are just the next face in the waiting line to eternal terror. Then there’s the big pay off at the end of the novel. I believe this was also the first book I ever read that made me exclaim a profanity at the big climax.
The characters are perfectly fleshed out, whether we quickly sympathize with Alison as she struggles with her broken relationship with her recently deceased father or whether we are trying to figure out the cat and mouse game between Alison’s lover, Michael, and a New York detective named Gatz, who believes Michael killed his ex-wife. Don’t even get me started on the neighbors from Hell… ahem… Agh, I’m saying too much!
I don’t want to divulge too much of the plot or the religiously saturated subplots of the book, which was adapted into one of my all-time favorite horror films three years after its release. But rest assured- the book is creepy as all shit.
The movie is equally as unnerving.
The film could fit right into Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant) of films that turn just about every creaking brownstone apartment building into a portal to Hell.
Looking to ruin a few nights of sleep? Watch this movie in the dark and I promise not to judge if you shriek like a banshee when truly one of the scariest scenes in horror film history occurs during a dark jaunt through an apartment from Hell.
It doesn’t matter if you love your horror books quick and to the point or more like a slow burn- any horror aficionado can find something to love about this classic novel. As for the film, well, make sure to keep a light on and don’t say I didn’t warn you about those damn neighbors…
The book receives higher praise than the film, and rightfully so because we all knows books are always better than the film. There are a lot of naysayers out there regarding the silver screen adaptation, but don’t let anyone else’s opinion sway you. The cast is top notch, with everyone from Chris Sarandon, Beverly D’Angelo, Christopher Walken, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, Martin Balsam, Ava Gardner, John Carradine and Jerry Orbach living in poor Alison’s haunted world.
The book ends with a great reveal that stuck with me for days and the film has arguably the most upsetting pay-off since the shocking scenes of real-life deformities in Freaks.
My copy of The Sentinel sits proudly on the top shelf of my book shelf and while the movie eludes my collection at the moment, it is not one to miss in this writer’s humble opinion.