Like his comrade Livingstone, Fighting Fantasy co-creator Steve Jackson expanded a mini adventure previously published in their Warlock magazine into a full length standalone book. Though where Livingstone wrote a completely new episode and tacked it on the former ending of his Caverns of the Snow Witch, Jackson took a different approach. Essentially, he padded out the existing adventure here and there without fundamentally changing it.
The theme, at least, is a fresh one. Well, “fresh” within the constraints of this book series. Instead of the D&D-like world of Titan, this book is set in ours, even in contemporary times. Only to then dive into gothic horror tropes as the protagonist enters the eponymous house where a satanic cult apparently plans a human sacrifice.
This sort of plot can go two ways. Either, the cultists are a bunch of loonies believing in something fatuously, but turning highly dangerous in the process anyway., on the other hand, leaves no doubt, almost right from the start, that all they believe in is real. In this world, there are demons, magic weapons, ghosts, strange powers… injecting the book with a heavy dose of fantasy again.
Unfortunately, as far as theme is concerned, the book is all over the place. Paintings coming alive, ghosts of previous sacrificial females haunting the hallways restlessly and whispering hints to the protagonist and a cultured lord of the manor pretending to be a perfect host all work effectively within the context. Not exactly original, but coherent. Though why are there zombies behind every other curtain? Why is a vampire inhabiting one room?
The answer may be that those encounters increase the fear score. It is a newly introduced game mechanic which is probably meant to bring some balance to the genre inherent conflict between wanting to encourage the reader to explore, but still having the option to punish him for being too nosy. Most older books in the series would either throw readers into ultra-tough fights in such cases, or, even worse, simply declare instant death.
instead introduces a threshold which allows for some unsuccessful snooping, but not too much. Certainly an improvement, but implementation is highly unbalanced. Fear increase for fairly unspectacular events are sometimes being absurdly high. Running into some very real monstrosities, on the other hand, the protagonist apparently hardly blinks. Livingstone would later re-visit this basic idea in Temple of Terror to better effect.
Speaking of fights, as typical in a Jackson book, there aren't all that many. Instead, it is all about finding the “one true path” which will avoid the no-win situations and find the items necessary to win. Which, in essence, is actually only a single item. The book lacks complexity, but camouflages it by requiring a completely unintuitive path to be taken, defying all logic or attempts at systematic exploration. Even more than in other books of its kind, it is a prime example of the frustration when going back to that previous door is just not allowed for no reason at all.
And then, of course, there are those parts where the padding strategy becomes all too apparent. The torture chamber and the kitchen. Sections which are just fillers, consisting of numerous paragraphs, but finally serving no purpose. Close inspection reveals that as soon as players set foot in those rooms, they are already dead. In spite of a large number of pseudo decisions and branches still to be taken. Truly a lazy, poor way of padding.
Unlike Jackson's last attempt to introduce a new theme into the line, he at least hits a good note in imitating the highly expressive writing style of genre classics. In a twisted way, the unmappable, madness inducing layout of the house and the concept of a book with all too many ways to die may be even considered appropriate to the theme. In spite of following the basic gameplay formula pretty closely, particularly for a Jackson book,feels different. In a series containing a number of quite samey titles, this could be applauded. Could be, if it weren't different also in so many bad ways.