The Sentinel: Near-classic horror thriller

The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz horror book reviewsThe Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz

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.

Movie based on the novel.

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.

Sequel

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.

Published in 1974. Jeffrey Konvitz’s New York Times–bestselling horror novel about a young woman descending into demonic madness who discovers it’s not simply in her mind. Aspiring model Allison Parker finally moves into her dream apartment: a brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But her perfect home quickly turns hellish. The building is filled with a cast of sinister tenants, including a reclusive blind priest, who seems to watch her day and night through an upstairs window. Eventually, Allison starts hearing strange noises from the empty apartment above hers. Before long, she uncovers the building’s demonic secret and is plunged into a nightmare of sinful misdeeds and boundless evil. In the tradition of Rosemary’s Baby, this gripping novel was adapted into a feature film starring Ava Gardner, Cristina Raines, and Chris Sarandon. The Sentinel is classic horror at its best.

SHARE:  Facebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail  FOLLOW:  Facebooktwitterrsstumblr
If you plan to buy this book, you can support FanLit by clicking on the book cover above and buying it (and anything else) at Amazon. It costs you nothing extra, but Amazon pays us a small referral fee. Click any book cover or this link. We use this income to keep the site running. It pays for website hosting, postage for giveaways, and bookmarks and t-shirts. Thank you!

JASON GOLOMB, on our staff from September 2015 to November 2018, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

View all posts by

8 comments

  1. sandy ferber /

    Wow, Jason! I loved the movie “The Sentinel,” but didn’t remember that it was actually based on an earlier book. Your review surely does make me want to check out this Konvitz original. Many thanks! As I said, I found the film to be pretty darn effective; as I once wrote:

    Boasting an all-star cast so impressive that it almost seems like the “Mad Mad Mad Mad World” of horror pictures, “The Sentinel” (1977) is nevertheless an effectively creepy film centering on the relatively unknown actress Cristina Raines. In this one, she plays a fashion model, Alison Parker, who moves into a Brooklyn Heights brownstone that is (and I don’t think I’m giving away too much at this late date) very close to the gateway of Hell. And as a tenant in this building, she suffers far worse conditions than leaky plumbing and the occasional water bug, to put it mildly! Indeed, the scene in which Alison encounters her noisy upstairs neighbor is truly terrifying, and should certainly send the ice water coursing down the spines of most viewers. Despite many critics’ complaints regarding Raines’ acting ability, I thought she was just fine, more than ably holding her own in scenes with Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith, Arthur Kennedy, Chris Sarandon and Eli Wallach. The picture builds to an effectively eerie conclusion, and although some plot points go unexplained, I was left feeling more than satisfied. As the book “DVD Delirium” puts it, “any movie with Beverly D’Angelo and Sylvia Miles as topless cannibal lesbians in leotards can’t be all bad”! On a side note, yesterday I walked over to 10 Montague Terrace in Brooklyn Heights to take a look at the Sentinel House. Yes, it’s still there, and although shorn of its heavy coat of ivy and lacking a blind priest/nun at the top-floor window, looks much the same as it did in this picture. If this house really does sit atop the entrance to Hell, I take it that Hell is…the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. But we New Yorkers have known THAT for some time!

    • Sandy – great background. Thank you. I love that the building is there and you went to check it out.

      I need to see the movie. I didn’t realize the cast was quite that strong. And Burgess Meredith seems like a solid Charles Chazen…though I can’t get Truman Capote’s ‘2 2 Twain’ out of my head…

      • sandy ferber /

        Just wondering: Were those “topless cannibal lesbians in leotards” taken from the original source novel? :)

        • Ah…I’m dense. Now I get the reference. There were, in fact, topless lesbians. There was blood, but I don’t think it was cannibal-related. So no, it was TOTALLY different. :-)

  2. I was thinking about the movie as I read the review. This is *exactly* the kind of book I would have been reading in the late 70s (probably not the year it came out, though) and I wonder how I missed it. Thanks for introducing it to me!

  3. sandy ferber /

    Hey, this is a family website, right?

Review this book and/or Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *