House of Illusion by Nicola Devon
Riding high on the unexpected success of Suffer a Witch to Die, I decided to dive right back into mid-century-ish pulp-horror with House of Illusion. At first, it seemed like a good decision.
Jackie, an intrepid young librarian desperate to get away from her mother’s meddling, receives a kind birthday letter from her eccentric aunt and decides to go spend a week with her. This, naturally, only horrifies her mother more. Uncle Merlin was a stage magician, and frittered away his life on strange passions and pursuits. And Aunt Elma hasn’t been right since Merlin was killed by Cameron—his own assistant!—right in their home. Worse, Cameron and his wife vanished as if into thin air. Even if that was 21 years ago, Aunt Elma has turned the estate into a guest house for indigent actors. No reputable person would ever go to The Retreat!
Though The Retreat is definitely the sort of name given to an insane asylum in a horror movie, Jackie is undisturbed. When she arrives in the small town closest to The Retreat, she finds no proper taxi-service and must call on the good-natured and good-looking auto-mechanic—David Stanmore—for a ride.
While he finishes up work on the engine of his truck he, strongly but without theatrics, tries to dissuade Jackie from going to The Retreat.
Naturally, Jackie is still determined.
With a shrug, he finishes up the engine.
“This is the most beautiful thing on earth, a perfectly functioning engine. It’s clean, quiet, efficient, and faultless.”
Jackie could almost understand him, but felt irritated at his smugness. “Most beautiful! You exaggerate, Mr. Stanmore. Even among man-made things,. What about paintings, poetry, sculture?”
He screwed the engine cover on, reached for some waste and wiped his hands. “Next in order comes a windy hill on a sunny day, then a cheetah, then a symphony.”
At this point, I wanted Jackie to forget about The Retreat and run off with David Stanmore. She doesn’t, and he soon drops her off at the gates of The Retreat where a female servant is waiting to show her through the maze to the house.
“The dark, mannish face with its high, prominent cheekbones—Slav peasant, beast of burden?—turned toward her, almost expressionless.”
Jackie, up until now, has seemed a kind, generous woman. This dehumanizing aside seemed so strange I had to pause and consider if I’d somehow misread her. Up until this point, though, she’d only encountered other British folk’, and I was suddenly reminded that bigotry presents itself very differently across countries and decades.
With that bad taste lingering in my mouth, Jackie enters The Retreat and the whole damn book falls apart.
The actors are bland and boring, and most of them don’t matter in the slightest.
The attempts at horror and suspense—the parts of the book trying to make the house feel “haunted”—are so ham-fisted, so pointed, that even I found them laughable. Like, at one point something ‘scary’ happened and I literally laughed out loud.
And the plot, dear cod, the plot. I desperately wish I could somehow convey its sheer stupidity, but in addition to being predictable and unnecessarily convoluted, it’s surprisingly large. Especially since most of it comes to life in the last 50 pages. It goes from “Spooky, I hear unaccounted-for music” to “Well, you see, Aunt Elma is trying to murder everyone and burn down the house because she was jilted by Merlin’s assistant Cameron and desperately wanted to have a baby—which she couldn’t—and Merlin knocked up Cameron’s wife creating an heir that Elma didn’t want to compete with and oh my god Cameron and his family live in the walls as fugitives, that’s why the house feels haunted! Btw, Cameron only killed Merlin in self-defense but he did kidnap a boy who snuck into The Retreat so his daughter could marry and bear children literally in the walls because he wanted his family line to endure because … sure.”
That’s all stupid, sure. But my brain had a completely different issue at this point. Elma has been—for years—a horrible, obsessive, punitive, murderous old bat singularly focused on retribution. Yet she remembered to write her distant niece who she’s not seen for over a decade to wish her a happy birthday? And in that cordial gesture she went so far as to invite Jackie to visit?
Sure. That checks out.
Okay, but when Jackie replies and says “I’d love to!” why did Aunt Elma go along with it? She’s clearly busy planning murder—it’s not a great time for visits from largely-unknown distant relatives. She could easily put it off.
The answer? Well, Aunt Elma initially does try to put off Jackie’s visit, but when Jackie mentions that she’s a librarian, Aunt Elma warms up suddenly. Within a few days of arriving, Jackie is put to work cataloging the expansive library and, the second she’s done, Elma shops the list around and sells off the books.
Literally listing books requires no special training, and Elma has five indigent actors relying on her goodwill. Just being like “Hey guys, you pay no rent, can you please catalog the books?” should do the trick.
To be clear: Elma didn’t invite Jackie over because she knew Jackie was a librarian and she knew she needed the library cataloged. She invited Jackie over … just because? And then it happened to work out that Jackie could do a thing that Elma knew needed doing.
Just fucking awful plotting. If it weren’t for that line about wind on a mountain, a cheetah, and a symphony, this would have been a 1-star book.
Anyway, my take away from House of Illusion is that when people you don’t really know or haven’t seen or talked to in ages invite you to come visit, don’t. Which, luckily for me, is my automatic response anyway.
P.S. Apparently House of Illusion is FauxFemFan and actually written by a man named Rex Dolphin. Nicola Devon was a pen-name of his. Interestingly enough, Jackie is rather convincingly written. She’s not dull or over-done. If I hadn’t stumbled across the fact that Nicola Devon is a pen-name, I’d have easily believed that this were a work written by a woman.
Cover art by Unknown: