Clara Coleman – Nightmare in July (1965)

Review by Justin Tate

Circa 1965 and written by the mysterious (and possibly pseudonymous) Clara Coleman. Archival resources and Gothic bibliographies delivered no information on the author except that they are responsible for at least two additional novels, The Scent of Sandalwood (1966) and Timbalier (1969).

Timbalier was published under the name “Clayton Coleman” and while it is not 100% clear that Clara and Clayton are the same person, it seems likely. There are no copyright listings for the Clara Coleman novels in the Library of Congress, but Timbalier is credited to Clayton W. Coleman. Perhaps the “W” will be helpful if future researchers become interested in this author.

Unfortunately Nightmare in July doesn’t offer much to tantalize the literary world and is likely to remain out-of-print. This isn’t to say it’s a bad novel by any means, but the simple and singular premise does struggle to sustain its length—which is barely over 150 pages.

Ultimately we are dealing with an unusual domestic situation combined with the threat of murder. Mandy and Paul are happily married, so it seems. He works for a big publisher and she—well, she mostly stays home, dabbles with painting, and looks pretty. One day Paul announces that he has made the discovery of the century. A novel-in-progress reached his desk that is destined to win all the awards and become a mega bestseller. The only problem is that the author hasn’t finished it yet.

Thinking it will help, Paul invites Jordan (the author) to stay at his remote personal residence where he can have free roam of the house to feel inspired and get that masterpiece finished. Being the dutiful wife, Mandy supports her husband’s methods of wooing the author and, since he is attractive, doesn’t mind having him around.

Soon, however, she begins to fear Jordan. He has violent mood swings, hates kittens, chain smokes and has a secret “graveyard” of mangled paperclips. She almost never hears his typewriter, leading her to wonder if he’s even working on the book. To make it all the more bizarre, Paul brushes off her concerns and even encourages her to spend alone time with the author while he’s out of town. Is her husband trying to coerce her into being unfaithful so there can be grounds for divorce?

Things escalate from there as Jordan confesses his love for her. He naturally becomes threatening after being denied and downright terrifying after he discovers that she snooped through his room. Will Mandy ever discover what’s really going on in her home? And if she does, will she be murdered for knowing too much?

From a technical perspective, the prose is efficient at provoking suspense and intrigue. The characters may not be complex, but they serve their purpose and provide the reader with a lens in which to experience the chilling uncertainty. Diminishing this, however, are some major plot holes and general absurdity about the entire situation. The ending reveal also lacks the kind of surprise that could be a jaw-dropper. Instead, it’s more-or-less exactly as one would expect.

back cover

Elsa J. Radcliffe, a superfan of paperback Gothic fiction, wrote one of the only contemporary reviews of the novel that I could find. She offers little to say except that the plot was so overdone that she “recognized it by Chapter2”. She also reviewed Coleman’s Timbalier and gave it an “F” rating for similar reasons.

Part of the problem for us Gothic enthusiasts may be that the book isn’t really Gothic. The chilling moments have similar beats found in Gothic fiction, but the urban setting lacks the kind of thick atmosphere needed to be anything more than a standard thriller. The story would serve better as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents perhaps than try to masquerade as Gothic fiction. It doesn’t even satisfy as “July fiction” really, since there’s not much summertime action going on except one trip to the beach and the events take place during that titular month of the year.

In the end, though, the book’s well-crafted enough to keep the pages turning and provide moments of genuine thrills. Given its brief length, this is the kind of novel that you enjoy while it’s happening and don’t regret when it’s over. Of course you’ll also forget everything about it within a day—but hey, sometimes that’s exactly the kind of book I’m looking for.

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