I’d never heard of Jeffrey Konvitz’s superb horror/thriller, The Sentinel (1974), until I saw it promoted on a couple of discount ebook newsletters I receive. The cover, while lacking any subtlety, sold me on the whole horror-wrapped-up-with religion angle. And while the image may be a bit over the top, The Sentinel slow boils its simple premise and bubbles with persistent and pounding tension.
The Sentinel is reminiscent of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, and to a lesser extent William Hjortberg‘s Falling Angel, upon which the underrated movie Angel Heart was based. The Sentinel may not be quite on par with those big names in the horror/thriller space, but it’s only a short step away. Konvitz maximizes his 278 pages to portray realistic relationships and a credible plot that drives towards a furious and satisfying conclusion.
Allison Parker returns to New York City after caring for her father before he passed away. Allison took ill herself, and it’s clear that the illness, of which we learn nothing specific initially, has taken its toll both physically and emotionally. Her boyfriend Michael is a high-powered attorney who can’t seem to turn off “attorney mode” in dealing with Allison’s somewhat vague symptoms. Also, Allison and Michael had been carrying on an affair shortly before Michael’s wife died.
Konvitz creates his sketch of the characters slowly, with sips rather than gulps, and nibbles rather than bites. The full flavors of the characters are initially mere hints. Something strong flows just beneath the surface of each individual, but its full depth is unclear.
The need for independence is a clear objective of Allison’s. She’s needy, but wants to live on her own, so seeks her own apartment, insisting she doesn’t want to move in with Michael. A real estate agent guides her to an imposing building. Aside from the patchwork repairs in the lobby and the retired priest who endlessly peers out of the window of his room, the place seems perfect.
Her neighbors are a mixed bunch. The endlessly peering priest does just that: he peers. Endlessly. The real star of her building, though, is Mr. Charles Chazen:
…five foot six … slight of build and substance, with an elongated head and comically unmatched features emphasized by thinning gray hair that curled over his ears, an enormous pair of warped bifocals, which sat precariously on the bridge of his sharply-pointed nose, an sunken, but ruddy cheek that smacked of Irish background or an extreme and constant state of embarrassment. The rest of his face was a composite of lines, crags, and crevices, all appropriately aged and asymmetric. But though it much resembled a prune, the immediate smile was ingratiating.
Mr. Chazen has a pet cat, Jezebel, who can speak English, though is suspiciously shy throughout its encounters with Allison, and a pet parrot, Mortimer, who’s a “most sagacious bird.” He’s flamboyant, antiquated and endearingly bizarre. I couldn’t help but picture Mr. Chazen as a cross between Paul Lynde and Truman Capote in his fantastic turn in the film, Murder by Death.
The rest of her building is populated by a menagerie of colorful characters who make all too brief, but impactful, appearances in The Sentinel.
Throughout the book, Konvitz exposes the reader to the unfulfilled mystery surrounding the death of Michael’s wife. There’s a disappointingly clichéd NYC cop who was never able to pin the wife’s death on Michael.
Allison has repeated nervous breakdowns: during a turn on a catwalk, and at a photo shoot, and following a few rather intense introductions with her new neighbors.
Konvitz’s plot builds steadily, and its purposeful pace is steeped in meaningful scenes and interactions. He introduces a real ‘wow’ surprise about midway through the novel that makes you reconsider what’s real in what you’ve read to date, but only towards the very end of The Sentinel do we understand where Konvitz has led us. His themes all feed the greater tone of his tale: honesty, sin, the meaning of religion in the modern world, the persistent weight of personal accountability. He implies his themes, though, rather than crams them down your throat.
Konvitz does such a wonderful job creating parallel mysteries that I wondered whether there would exist any true supernatural horror until the very end. But don’t worry … there is.
I’ve found some real duds in the daily series of ebook discount newsletters I receive. The Sentinel is not one of them. This is legit 1970’s-era horror/thriller. Maybe you could even term this “urban-horror.” It has its moments of fright, but it succeeds most as a tense, page-turning thriller.