If a book has been out of print for 35 years, there’s usually a reason. As you’ve probably figured out, I’m a sucker for all things nostalgic, and I was drawn to Jan Bartell’s Spindrift: Spray From a Psychic Sea by unexplained forces. Some weird psychic demon lured me into reading this old book, and by the time I was done, I could hear that demonic spirit laughing at me. The prince of darkness can be a real comedian.
The story begins without any dynamic whatsoever. Jan Bartell and her husband move into 14 West 10th Street, and right away they get noises, shadows, trips and falls. But there’s nothing frightening about the story, nor is the any suspense. What’s frightening about I got up for a drink of water and I heard the creeping noise again? There’s no buildup of suspense, no sense of foreboding, no great discovery. It’s got nothing on The Sentinel or The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, where the story gets scarier as it progresses. Spindrift seems more like a bored housewife than a ghost story.
The author’s writing style is annoying. Take this line for instance: returning home, I was chilled less by the flaying winds of winter than by the cold facts of contemporary life. Well I doubt that very much, because if she were truly “chilled” by contemporary life, then she would’ve wised up and not written this rag. She’s trying to “wax poetic” which doesn’t work in a horror story. And for goodness sake, did she have to include every word from her high school vocabulary workbook? In the part at the end when they finally move out, she says it struck me as incredible that I was being dispossessed from my home by an unseen entity, who on a material plane had long since ceased to be. That’s not the way you describe something you fear. Is this a horror story or is she writing about a science experiment? Either way, She’s trying to write about a scary experience in a poetic way, and it doesn’t work.
I first heard of Spindrift in a 1998, in a Time Out NY article about “haunted Manhattan.” Other than that, the only source is Ghosts I Have Known by Hans Holzer, the exorcist they hired to “cleans” the house. No, the exorcism didn’t work and the demonic spirits followed them when they moved after 20 years. Regardless, the house at #14 West 10th Street has a long and dynamic history of its own. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a residence of Mark Twain, and throughout the 19th century, the area was home to the city’s elite wasp families. It’s also the house where Joel Steinberg beat his daughter to death and left his wife with a mangled face. There’s a horror story for you right there.
New York City is a great place to stage a thriller. Rosemary’s Baby and The Sentinel were supernatural horror stories set in New York City, and they work perfectly, with lots of suspense building up to a creepy climax. But Spindrift isn’t scary, nor is it interesting. Worst of all, Bartell passed up a great opportunity to write about her neighborhood. She’s only a few blocks from Washington Square Park and the Beat scene. There had to be a million interesting things going on there. Why waste the effort on a horror story?
Maybe this story is fictional. Was the author desperate to get at least one book published? Was it an exercise in self-indulgence? We’ll never know because the author died in 1973, right before it came out. There isn’t much information about Bartell on the web, except that she had a few minor acting roles, her neighbors knew her as spoiled, neurotic, and possibly bipolar, and her husband died in 1990. Some say she killed herself, others say she died of a heart attack. I suspect that regardless, the “ghosts” were probably hallucinations.
When I go to bed at night, I bet I’ll hear a mysterious, creepy voice say “I suckered you into reading this rag, and you will keep on reading trash like this for the rest of your life!”