House of Hell, like Caverns, was first published as a shortened version in Warlock magazine - I have never in my life seen a copy of Warlock magazine, and I find myself greatly intrigued as to the content. Plainly it featured mini-adventures, and I also know of the bloodless bestiary entries that were later compiled into Out of the Pit - but that's not yet enough for a whole magazine. What else was in there? No doubt I'm wide of the mark, but I like to imagine it something like an activity book, with Fighting Fantasy themed word searches, colouring pages, letters to the editor requesting more barbarians with smaller loincloths, and so on.
|Can you spot six differences in these two pictures?|
Has it really taken me two years to drop a reference to He-Man in this blog?
What kind of thirty-something man-baby am I?
What our correspondent would have made of House of Hell I can only speculate. Assuming they survived the initial paroxysms of outrage, they would've had to go out and find a magazine that was about books instead of TV so they could write a letter to it. Books Guide, I guess? The Book of Books? Books' Book? What a crazy idea! Let's forget it.
Meanwhile it seems that the publishers of the U.S. release of House didn't want an fundamentalist book-burning backlash to generate huge free publicity and drive their sales up to record levels, so they re-titled the book as House of Hades, "Hades" of course being a ersatz underworld that the Ancient Greeks imagined contained the souls of those who, in life, had been poor conversationalists. Still a watered-down version of Hell, but it was a safe bet that the average book-burner wouldn't have heard of it.
|Then, to make them seem even less threatening, they put all the Satanic cultists |
in a Citadel of Chaos style conga line on the staircase.
The set-up is pretty concise. You're driving your car down a back-woods lane through torrential rain at night, desperate to make "an appointment" somewhere the next day (this appointment is mentioned several times throughout the book but never specified - so let us say that you're getting your thighs lipo-suctioned by a disgraced, toothless old surgeon who lives in a shack). You end up lost on a side road after taking directions from a leering, white-haired old man - then suddenly you hit a pedestrian and swerve off the road! But where's the body?!?!? And then OMG you realise it was the same guy who gave you directions!?!?!?! You get really scared/confused. And later on he shows up again, this time hanging from a tree branch (but only if you happen to glance out of a particular window of the house).
|What a day!|
|Kind of a fixer-upper I suppose. The area looks better than it did on the cover mind you.|
Not trying to be racist, but that green guy, with the horns? In MY neighborhood?
|Elfstar takes a prestige class.|
That's easy to say now, but at the time there were large sections of the population who genuinely believed that hidden cults were among us, their members would sneak out in the woods to sacrifice babies and such, telling their wives that it was poker night or whatever, and discreetly run their blood-stained cassocks through the washing machine in some private moment afterwards. If I recall correctly, I kind of believed this myself, or at least feared it. (Like many thoughtful children, I reached the conclusion that the Satanists were all in America and tentatively allowed myself to relax - after all, I had UFO abductions to worry about, and I had to stay focused).
Rolling Up My Dude
SKILL -12 (yay!)
STAMINA - 17
LUCK - 7 (yah boo sucks)
FEAR - 8
FEAR is a new mechanic introduced to this game in order to measure how A-FEARED you are. It represents the maximum amount of spooky surprises your poor watering eyes can behold before you declare "ooh-er" and collapse to the floor with your plucky little blood-pump burst asunder. (Apparently this can really happen by the way - I checked).
Let's talk about that SKILL 12 though. That is perfection in combat. Being a law-abiding citizen of 1980s society I am probably unaware that I have natural fighting abilities equivalent to a PIT FRIEND (i.e. a Tyrannosaurus with gladiator training) - I have no idea that I am a festering boil of fluid violence merely waiting for the right crisis to erupt into action. For this reason, I have neglected to bring a broadsword with me, and must start with a -3 penalty to SKILL until I am able to arm myself.
|Gimme a letter-opener and I'm a put this clown in the ground.|
No PROVISIONS either, by the way - not so much as a stale muesli bar in the glove-box of my car.
You begin on the doorstep of the house, with separate options for knocking on the door vs. ringing the door-bell, or alternatively you can creep around the side of the house and peep through the window like a goddamn pervert. I used my incredible role-playing abilities to rule that last one out, since it only really makes sense if you already know you're going into a House of Hell and not just a normal house. Choosing between knocking on the door or ringing the bell makes no difference whatsoever (much as in life), you just get an extra paragraph to read. This is the first of many "non-choices" that crop up in the book, where you are given options that have no material impact on play. I have mixed feelings about them, they sometimes feel like craftily devised red herrings, and sometimes they add character, but looking at it cynically, they might well be there to bulk out the book-length version. As I recall, non-choices are found much more commonly in the inferior Choose Your Own Adventure series.
You are also given the option of searching for a telephone, despite the fact that the book already told you that you didn't notice that there was no wire running to the house. While it's true that I'm an amazingly skilled role-player, I couldn't just un-know that I hadn't noticed the lack of a wire, so how could I ever bring myself to search for a phone that I wasn't yet aware could never be there? Instead I dashed over the to exit in a sudden panic and got joy-buzzed by the door handle for 2 STAMINA damage. At last Peter Cushing showed up to interrupt my whimpering.
|You CANNOT shake a man's hand while keeping your left hand in your pocket, Peter Cushing.|
That's officially a Dudes' Mutiny right there.
|Even better, skip all the bullshit and just start wrestling me|
The "boss battle" of the dinner scene is the dessert, where you are given the following options:
- Fruit, coffee, and brandy?
- Cheese, coffee, and brandy?
- Just cheese and coffee?
On the other hand, if you somehow manage to consume both the white wine and the cheese you end will end up at the book's strangest ending, paragraph 172 (actually this is only possible if you raid a larder later in the book). I will quote it verbatim here, but I have altered the punctuation to give a sense as to how I would have an actor read this in my stage adaptation of House of Hell:
Caution... should have over-ruled, your appetite.
FOR IN THE House of Drumer... cheese, and white wine... are-not-recommended...?
...for the simple reason...?
...that anyone who eats: CHEESE
- or drinks...
...SHALL PAY, (the penalty).
???...they are poisoned...???
(This is right next to paragraph 171, another ending in which you are killed by a haunted bed. The competition was fairly stiff.)
Busting out of the bedroom was a simple matter of smashing the glass window to cut the ropes that bound me and then waltzing out the unlocked door. I found myself alone on the second storey landing - but what next?
Context was soon delivered by the apparition of a young woman in a ragged wedding dress. She appeared before me on the landing and, although kind of a hottie, her uncanny materialisation was sufficient to garner a FEAR point nevertheless.
Fortunately for my FEAR score, she didn't follow up by saying "woooooo" or "u gunna die" or anything like that, in fact her manner was more consistent with a stressed out supermarket worker who's finally managed to find her supervisor and report that somebody laid a turd in the cosmetics aisle and she can't find the emergency procedures manual (I've seen this happen).
'Oh thank God I have found you in time!' she says. 'I must talk to you immediately! Come, let us go into this room.'
She leads you into a well-appointed bedroom and demonstrates that when it comes to plot exposition, the dead can give the dying a run for their money. She explains that Peter Cushing is in fact a "Black Priest of the Night" and that she "would guess that you are to be sacrificed to the Demons of Hellfire". Without any pause to allow this to sink in, she continues. She tells you that the district nurse has been captured by the Master's cult and is due to be sacrificed tonight, and yesterday it was a guy who knocked on the door to see if Franklins wanted to switch power company.
"I cannot allow this devilry to continue!" she exclaims (yeah she actually says this, italics and all) "except for when it happens to real estate agents like on last Thursday".
"But you're just a GHOST," I point out. She ignores me and continues ranting. Incorporeal flecks of spittle fly from her lip and pass harmlessly through my skin.
She explains further that I need to find the Kris knife - a souvenir that the infernal Lord of the Manor bought while holidaying in Bali, but which ironically is also his only weakness. Like the Lizard King, he keeps the one weapon capable of harming him lying around at home somewhere.
|Franklins: "Woah, sweet Kris knife! How the shit did you get this back through Customs bro?"|
Peter Cushing: "I USED MY EVIL HELL MAGIC YOU DUMMY"
|Ree hee hee hee hee!|
|AKA "The Prince of the Humanists"|
The Balthus room contains little save a small box on a mantlepiece, and a window with drawn curtains and a suspicious humanoid bulge behind them - I gave it a poke and oh nooooooooooooooooooooo...
|"Shock lines" are used throughout House of Hell's illustrations to represent HOLY SHIT ARGH FUCK.|
In this case I gained 2 FEAR points.
On the basis of this experience, I concluded that plainly the room names were not going to be helpful and besides, all the rooms would most likely be full of penalties and doom. I was in Steve Jackson's world, and his is a world of pain. It's a world where the casual player is punished - as usual, I wasn't troubling to make a map - I mean it's just a HOUSE, right, who needs a map? - and between maplessness and the vanilla descriptions of landings and corridors, rather rapidly I lost my bearings and found myself outside a room called Shaitan when I expected to be back at Azazel.
Shaitan turned out to be pretty fancy room that at first appeared deserted, however upon entering, it transpired there was a dude sitting in a high-backed chair facing away from the door. The door clicked shut behind me and he announced himself in an eerie voice:
"So! Our visitor is inquisitive, eh? Or are you trying to leave the house? Perhaps our hospitality is not to your liking. Maybe you would like to see some more - shall we say - amusements?"
|"Good evening, dear boy! Or perhaps I should say BAD evening... for YOU! |
Oh tee hee hee hee hee!"
But yes anyway, finding garlic in a Fighting Fantasy gamebook is sort of like finding a Chekhov's Gun in a Chekhov play - you know that before the end of the story, someone will be waving it hysterically at a VAMPIRE. That someone was me, and just as well, since your only other option is to be psychically dominated and have your blood munched. I edged around the room to one of the other exits while the VAMPIRE went through the motions of thrashing about and hissing and peeping at me from under the crook of his arm. Born unlucky, I first opened a door that had two ZOMBIES eagerly listening at the keyhole, they tumbled into the room like unruly schoolboys and I was forced to contend with them, even as I continued to waggle my string of garlic towards Mr. VAMPIRE any time he appeared to be gaining some self-respect. Thanks to my recently found carving knife, my SKILL was pumped to its Tyrannosaurus apogee of 12, thus disassembling the ZOMBIES was not a matter of any great complexity. At last I flung the garlic at my foe and dove through the other door, a matronly "oooooh!" of dismay resounding behind me.
That second door led into a cupboard, but happily there was a secret exit at the back, already standing wide open. I paused to consider that perhaps I had previous been through other cupboards with wide open secret doors at the back, and merely mistaken them for normal corridors? I couldn't know. No time for further hesitation though, I had found my way into a hidden section of the mansion, and its foul secrets would no doubt soon roll over and expose their bellies to me like an affectionate but loathsomely diseased house-cat. Unfortunately I almost immediately blundered through a false mirror and back into the main section of the house. Soon afterwards I found myself before a locked door, which needed a numbered key to open. I had no such key, and I know an end-game door when I see one. I had no doubt that, having failed to open this door, my fate would soon follow.
Failure, and Death
Across the hall from that locked door is the kitchen. If you get to the kitchen, you are doomed. Here I list all the possible outcomes once you enter that accursed yet surprisingly tidy place.
1) You grab a ring of keys lying on the cooktop, realise belatedly that the cooktop was switched on, drop the red-hot keys with a shriek and a clatter, four cultists wearing goat heads rush into the room and take you to the dungeon. Presumably you are later sacrificed in some awful rite. Which dickhead was cooking their keys though.
2) You go into the crockery cupboard and see a GHOUL, it's so scary that you just immediately die. (FEAR maximum exceeded)
|The GHOUL ostentatiously displays her diamond engagement ring.|
3) You enter the cupboard and see a GHOUL, you put a dot in your pants but otherwise survive the big spooky surprise. The GHOUL then punches you so hard that you die. (GHOUL defeats you in a straight fight).
4) You and the GHOUL tussle, you take a few slaps but you're tougher than that, you can take some knocks. But next thing, your arms and legs start to feel so heavy, and: oops, I got paralysed. The GHOUL devours you at her leisure as you hiss your last few breaths through clenched teeth, eyeballs rolling frantically, a prisoner in your own delicious body. (Get hit by the GHOUL four times.)
5) You effortlessly defeat the GHOUL because you have SKILL 12, and the world of martial arts knows no equal with a rolling pin, chair leg or ornamental letter-opener. The deactivated GHOUL collapses into a stack of pots and pans, creating an almighty crash of metal on metal. Four burly cultists, wearing goat-heads, burst in to investigate. Despite the fact that you are a veritable god of combat, you stay your deadly arm and allow them to take you to hell-jail. For some reason. Later on they kill you I guess.
And that last one - the most drawn out and frustrating of the smorgasbord of failures - is what happened to me. The unwinnable kitchen is almost intolerable to my sensibilities, so I'll add one more option, this one is more of a philosophical possibility:
The Sixth Option
6) You refuse to make a decision, and so remain in the kitchen indefinitely. You wait until morning, watching good, clean, daylight pour through the windows. At length, a man wearing a goat-head arrives, bearing a stack of dirty breakfast dishes. He looks to you. You cannot interpret the slack, idiot expression of a decapitated goat. Tentatively, you reach for the tap, and run some water in the kitchen sink. The man places his stack of dishes on the counter beside you and steps back. You squeeze some detergent into the sink, then pause. You meet his gaze, and begin, slowly, to wash the dishes, brush scraping against the dregs of porridge which some fuckin' genius has allowed to dry solid against the bowl. That shit is like cement now. You look down at your work, but the touch of the man's goaty dead regard still pimples your skin. He waits, and watches as you dry each bowl and lay them in a neat stack on the floor next to the cupboard that has a GHOUL in it. At last, the man nods his goat-head once, and leaves.
This arrangement continues as it has begun; three meals a day, plus Devonshire tea on Sunday afternoons. You survive on the food-scraps - for Lord Peter Cushing does not eat his crusts - and the mistaken idea that you're supposed to be there. Between meals, you lean against the table and try to remember the lyrics to Nik Kershaw songs. They are maddeningly cryptic. Sometimes you watch the keys glowing dull red on the stove. Will someone come and fetch their ring of keys? No-one does. Weeks pass this way, and after a short and awkward courtship, you find yourself in an abusive relationship with Franklins. It drags on, jagged with passion and hurt - for months, years. Decades. You keep going back to him, even though he treats you wrong. Also because you are unable to leave the kitchen.
One day - and it seems no special day - the goat-headed man comes in carrying dirty dishes, just as he always does. He is stooped with age, and moves gingerly, his feet now scuff the ground when he walks. He lays the dishes on the counter, looks down. A human form is crumpled on the kitchen floor, hair grey, skin tinged to blue. The goat-headed man will be doing his own dishes this day. Your adventure ends here.
|401 You cannot interpret the slack, idiot expression of a decapitated goat.|
The SKELETON Report
These two fun-lovers are playing dress-ups inside a cupboard, in one of the House of Hell's interminable sequence of "well-appointed bedrooms". Sure enough, should you open the cupboard door they will spring out and excitedly demand your autograph. Both have STAMINA 6, but while one has SKILL 7, the guy with the hat has just SKILL 6. I suggest that he is subject to a -1 penalty because his pants will be looped around his bony ankles in approximately one second. If a SKELETON simply must wear pants, suspenders are indeed the way to go.
|One of the finest and most accurate depictions of SKELETONS in the wild.|
A few things struck me as notable about House. The horror theme is fresh for the series, though not particular fresh for, you know, "horror" - it's mainly well-worn and semi-fruity Hammer Horror tropes, a grab-bag of chain-clanking revenants, Elizabethan gentlemen with they heads tucked under they arms and whatnot - but scary enough if you're a kid I guess (perhaps even traumatic?) The prose could do a better job of selling the shocks, it's kind of like "you see a ZOMBIE coming to get you, he got a SKILL 6" most of the time.
The FEAR system is a fun innovation, though it has its anomalies. For instance, finding unexpected corpses seems to consistently give you 3 FEAR points, whereas blasphemously re-animated corpses that shamble towards you with murderous intent will net you just 2 (and sometimes not even that).
|Discovering the remains of this unfortunate goof will elicit a|
whopping 3 FEAR points, as opposed to e.g. gales of laughter.
House also contains a surprising amount of dialogue and character interaction - far, far more than any other book thus far - though I didn't experience that much of it in my play-through. But apart from meeting the lord and his butler, there are many denizens of the house you can converse with - cultists, ghosts, prisoners, torturers, a HUNCHBACK, some old lady in a bed. There seem to be many cases where you have to decide whether you can bluff your way through an encounter, or conversely whether you can trust a stranger. I usually enjoy these angles in game-books (this is Steve, so, you now how it runs - plenty of false-faced betrayals). Another point, compared to the other books it seems to have very few items, I only picked up the garlic, a knife and a "joke" key in my play through.
It is super hard - but for good reasons, it seems to be a well-crafted challenge, rather than being peppered with arbitrarily tough combats. I could imagine myself trying another couple of play-throughs to puzzle it out some more - but then again... I still have fifty more books to go.