Thursday, 10 January 2013

#10: House Of Hell




HOUSE OF HELL

Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Following hot on the heels of the extended Caverns Of The Snow Witch (FF 9) came another expanded adventure that had also first appeared in Warlock magazine in shorter form. However, whereas COTSW was stretching the point in a bid to get 400 paragraphs-worth of material, FF 10 House Of Hell still remains taut and exciting when doubled to full-length FF format, without any of the pointless longeurs that made the final third of COTSW such hard work to motivate yourself to bother finishing. In fact, the more House Of Hell the better as this is one of the best of the early books and probably Steve Jackson’s second best effort ever after Creature Of Havoc.

Interestingly, if HOH was the first FF you ever played it would give you totally the wrong impression of what FF is. It’s set in the real world (you even have a car), you are a normal person, you have no weapons (and no prodigious fighting talents of any kind), dialogue plays a huge part in this book, and there is no actual mission to speak of. Similarly, combat is not a key part of this book (granted there are combats, but they are rarely particularly difficult) and this book actually keeps the normally meaningless FF promise that anyone, no matter how low their stats, can win. HOH is a refreshing change to the normal FF formula rather than a benchmark to measure the bulk of the series against and the key to making this a successful and welcome addition to the series rather than a diverting or deranged anomaly is how brilliantly this book handles all the non-FF elements it contains to the point where you genuinely believe you are playing a conventional FF.

The real world setting is made acceptable by there being very few blatant references to this. Granted you start in your car, crash it and then need to find a phone you can use. Beyond this opening premise, the bulk of the book could be set at any post-17th Century time – indeed, the dress-code is very late-18th/early-19th Century if the illustrations are anything to go by. The encounters could also be from any era and, whilst largely restricted to various undeads or ghosts, this really makes it feel like FF. Plus, the undead specials (eg the vampire) behave like any other FF vampire which helps HOH feel in keeping with the series.

Normally in FF YOU are able to remain steadfast and unflustered even when faced with the most terrifyingly-huge salivating death-beast that no normal human could ever possibly want to stand still and confront. This is not the case in HOH as it is possible to literally be frightened to death. This makes perfect sense as you wouldn’t expect to witness any of the things you have to deal with in this book in the real world that you are used to without feeling a bit scared. Your character has a Fear attribute and, once this is reached, you drop dead on the spot. This adds to your feeling of immersion in this book as you really dread any moments where your Fear may rise, especially when you are told to add 2 or 3 Fear points!

Your lack of weapons is a brilliant conceit. There is often a logic problem in FF where, no matter how big or small the weapon, it rarely has an impact beyond a +1 or -1 damage adjustor. In HOH you start weaponless (which makes sense) and have to find potential weapons as you go along, to the extent that you start with an automatic Skill penalty to reflect your defenceless state when faced with something massive that has claws, etc. The potential impact of these weapons depends on the Skill boosters they are worth. In other words, HOH is actually very logical and doesn’t leave you having to suspend disbelief as you play.

There is probably more dialogue in this book than in any other in the series and you cannot make many discoveries without talking to people, be they ghosts, devil-worshippers, potential sacrifice victims, an actually quite smug hunchback, or the Earl Of Drumer (an anagram of "Murder" incidentally) and Franklins themselves. It’s great fun getting to converse with your enemies and it makes the sense of unease all the more evident. Likewise, when you find someone (or something) that is actually benevolent you also get a feeling of genuine relief.

This brings us to the other excellently-handled aspect of this book that helps to draw you into the proceedings: the mission. Frankly, there isn’t one. But there is a plot and it is the most logical approach you could take to this book and its opening premise. Basically, having established that this house is probably not a good place to spend the night (you have already narrowly avoided one attempt at poisoning by the time you make it to bed, which is about half a dozen paragraphs into the proceedings), your only goal is to escape and destroy whatever unpleasantness is contained in this house. The emphasis on discovery (largely through dialogue) is the body of the book’s plot and the true extent of just how evil this house is gradually dawns on you as you experience genuine chill after genuine chill.

So, here we have a FF with no mission, you are not some sort of superhuman, and you are expected to spend more time talking to people than killing them. Yes, there are some disgusting undead abominations that you can despatch along the way, but that is not the point, as creatures/monsters are not needed here. The way the NPCs are handled and used to add depth to the plot and atmosphere replaces any need for the usual FF slash-and-steal motives. Your own desire to escape is the real key, created by the vivid and frightening text, the really chilling art (bar the comedy skeletons in panama hats, and the rather fey-looking Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing clones that are the opening and closing baddies of the piece), and the non-standard FF character elements (the Fear stat, the Skill-building as you find weapons, etc.)
On first appearing, this book may have seemed baffling to many readers due to the method needed to beat it. It is not simply a question of tracing a true path, finding the items you need, and then killing the end baddie and/or finding the treasure. This book is in fact one big puzzle that takes many plays to even begin to try to piece together. SJ was always fond of secret passageways and of knocking you out and dumping you somewhere random where you could no longer trace an understandable route, but HOH would be the first of SJ’s two FFs that require you to use info from previous attempts to gradually unravel the mystery of how the environment is laid-out. There are secret passages and doors that you can only find when your intuition tells you you are in the right place to use the special reference you wrote down earlier when a ghost or something told you about it. There are mathematical versions of this as well (eg: deduct 20 from where you are now and hope it makes sense.) SJ even throws duplicate paragraphs at us to disorientate and trick us even more. All this adds up to a very complicated adventure that can leave many people believing cannot be mapped-out, but there are some playthroughs online. HOWEVER, don’t go near these – the fun and the adventure element is in unravelling the puzzle. SJ would later take this approach to the nth degree in what most people regard as the series’ best entry (Creature Of Havoc.)
Another unusual aspect of this FF is the handling of the difficulty level. HOH is incredibly hard (probably one of the hardest FFs), but not in the usual one true path + massive shopping list + really high stats + loads of Luck = still only 50% chance of winning way. As FFs go, the small number of combats are not difficult (bar the end Hell Demon who has Sk 14 St 12, but the essential Kris Knife that you cannot win without will reduce his Skill anyway), and there are not too many instant deaths (certainly not the 40 or 50-plus that some FFs throw at you.) The difficulty is in the complexity of solving the puzzle and that’s what makes this such a rewarding experience to play and what ends up being one of the best FFs in spite of it going off at such a tangent from the FF norm.
Bizarrely, dying is actually quite rewarding in this book as the instant deaths are very imaginative and fun, as well as being very well written (as is all of this book.) My favourite is the death by getting sucked into an evil genie’s bottle!
If there is a bad point, it is that you can grow frustrated by this book, due to numerous plays that only ever yield the same discoveries and outcomes along with the general feeling of disorientation as you try to logically work out where you are going. There is also a feeling that there might be a bug in this book somewhere (until you start to crack the puzzle.) You could argue that there is too much of the cellar where the devil-worshippers are (although if you end up that far along you have lost anyway) and that there are far too many secret passageways, but this wouldn’t be much of a house of hell if it was simply a couple of landings with nice rooms on them. It is also fairly easy to keep dying of fright, but after several plays it becomes evident that a lot of the rooms are red herrings and you don’t even need to bother going in them as they will just lethally increase your Fear scores well before you come up against anything really horrific that you genuinely need to face to win through. Plus, I have to say that the twist where Manvers/Peter Cushing turns out to be the Hell Demon is fairly obvious. Also, as is often the case, the Wizard Books re-issue cover is totally devoid of atmosphere, relevance, or any real artistic merit.
Of note is that this book is the only FF ever really to be censored and it did cause quite a stir when first released. It was re-titled House Of Hades in America as “hell” was evidently blasphemous and/or a bit too strong a word for the youth of America to be allowed to see on a book cover. WHSmith initially refused to stock it in the UK due to its fairly adult tone, its graphically chilling art (even the cover is pretty eerie), and its portrayal of devil worship which was a big media bugbear in the early 80s due to cases of alleged satanic child abuse. It has to be said that this book and the next (FF11 Talisman Of Death) are notably more adult in tone and are definitely not aimed at the usual FF readership. As an 8-year-old first reading this book it really did scare me! The furore over its content never really died-down in the FF world to the extent that the Wizard Books re-issues do not contain the picture on reference 264 of a naked girl being sacrificed. This is actually quite bizarre as a) her modesty is covered-up by a conveniently draped bit of devil-worshipper outfit, and b) some of the other pictures are far nastier (eg: the decapitated ghost thats severed head drips blood, the hanged old man swinging in the rain, the hell demon, and the ghost woman being torn apart by ghost dogs, to name but a few...) Some may also have been uncomfortable with the (actually quite clever) fact that all the upstairs rooms are names associated with Satanism and Demons.
Overall, HOH is a gem in the series. It is original, totally unique, succeeds in bending the accepted expectations of FF without becoming either overly-bizarre (eg: Spectral Stalkers) or just awful (eg: Starship Traveller), and, in spite of its seemingly over-convoluted construction, is challenging and makes you want to try to beat it as it really rewards your patience. It has atmosphere to spare and is one of the most immersive FFs ever, although it really pushes the boundaries of taste and is genuinely frightening in places. Plus, whilst within the FF output it is very original, within popular culture it is fairly run-of-the-mill horror fare: think The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets The Old Dark House meets The Devil Rides Out and you’ve pretty much got the idea!

4 comments:

  1. Never mind the sacrifice picture, the zombie illustration made me jump the first time I saw it! Utter terrifying, especially when playing after midnight for the first time! Had to put it aside after that like a big jessie.

    Great review for a great book. You make a good point about the Wizard re-issue, which actually kind of gives away the ending if you think about it. I actually wasn't expecting the butler to be the demon in disguise. Also, the butler's name is Franklins, not Manvers, unless that's a reference I'm not getting (which I suspect it is, knowing me).

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  2. Well spotted. I've changed it to Franklins. Manvers was a place near where I once lived. Must have been at cross-purposes!

    And, yes, I agree, the zombie that is literally clambering out of the frame is pretty damn terrifying

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  3. First book I ever read - was a loaner and I was freaked out...my mom found it and ordered me to return it immediately but the damage was done...I was hooked on the stuff.

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  4. I must say I found it disappointing going back to this book as an adult. I had just revisited Spectral Stalkers which I think is brilliant and very imaginative and this didn't compare well. I find the artwork a bit crude and the layout of the adventure not very inspired, ooh a zombie behind a curtain! Although I suppose I should consider it did come out 7 years before Stalkers.

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