Hell Manor by Lisa Morton
Reviewed by Anthony Servante
Summary of book:"Jack Lichtner is the genius behind Hell Manor, America's most successful Halloween haunted house. Mazes, scare zones, live actors, special effects, crazy gore...Hell Manor's got it all. But Jack gets in over his head when he hires Maeve, a mysterious woman with a penchant for bloody magic and murderous kin who want her back. This Halloween, Jack must use all his powers of illusion to fight off the real magic of the ancient tricksters who have invaded Hell Manor." Lisa Morton is a multiple Bram Stoker Award winner and one of the world's leading Halloween experts. Her last book for Bad Moon Books, MONSTERS OF L.A., earned her a seventh Bram Stoker Award nomination, and the American Library Association's READERS ADVISORY GUIDE TO HORROR recently named her one of the top five female horror writers. She has also written THE HALLOWEEN ENCYCLOPEDIA. She lives in North Hollywood, California, and can be found online at www.lisamorton.com .
Review of book:
The choice of first person narrator got my attention right away, for as you know the story will revolve around the narrator. So he better be good. Well, he is. Jack Lichtner loves Halloween and he loves scaring people. With his partner Greg, he has put together the Halloween Haunt, Hell Manor, a series of mazes, props, and actors in disguise whose sole purpose is to frighten the annual attendees to the dark holiday attraction. The Manor has become so popular in fact that the local news is covering its creative spin on the haunted hotel theme.
Lisa introduces us to the locals, mainly young folk from the college, who are trying out for a part as an actor in the creep show. Her gift for simple descriptions of her characters for optimal effect shines right through as she paints each applicant: “A Goth girl had mumbled through the lines, and then asked if she could just stand in a corner and scream.” Lovely the way she captures characters by pointing out simple foibles. We get a big picture with a minimalist description—a sign of a writer who trusts her readers’ intelligence and doesn’t write down to them.
The arrival of Maeve MacCumhail creates mixed signals for Jack, who is both attracted to the pale, white-haired girl and distressed. You see, she kills a participant in her magic routine on her first day. Well, the college jock isn’t really dead, or was he? The line between supernatural and natural is blurred for the attendees of the act, and so, too, for the readers of Morton’s story. It’s a neat trick.
Let me digress a moment to discuss this dichotomy in the story by citing a parallel example. Harry Anderson, a magician/illusionist, best known as the judge on TV’s Night Court, had a trick in which he drove a long hat pin through his arm; the audience gasped. But Harry reminded us it was all a trick, that he was a magician, an illusionist. Then he tugged the needle in his flesh from side to side to assure the audience that it was just a trick. Blood poured from the wound. Harry feigned concern, then tasted the blood. Karo Syrup, he assured the audience, and removed the needle from his arm. The trick has become known as the Anderson Needle in Illusionist circles. He wasn’t tricking us with an illusion; he was toying with our suspension of disbelief.
So, too, does Morton toy with us readers with Hell Manor. It is a story of the illusions/tricks of Hell Manor until we are made to believe it is real magic when real magicians show up and we learn the truth about Maeve. That’s the best kind of horror, where the twists and turns mess with your head as well as your intellect. Jack describes this feeling of being toyed with: “It just felt wrong; it was like being in a hurricane where you could hear the wind roaring and see things whirling around you, but the air felt perfectly still. Or like standing at the bottom of the sea and being able to breathe.” Later, he adds: “I had no doubt that every single one of us watching [Maeve’s “illusion] knew, in some instinctive, irrational way, that we weren’t watching a mere trick. This was no sleight-of-hand, no clever stage illusion.”
In the final battle between Jack and the three “magicians” seeking Maeve, it is a contest between the dark art and Jack’s trickery, the same creativity that built Hell Manor. Jack senses the same dread for these three deadly visitors that he first felt when Maeve’s illusion seemed too real: “Looking at them, I felt the same sense of everything being tilted, being wrong.” Even the three albinos who’ve come for Maeve admire Jack’s work at creating illusion. It’s only fitting that their talents for scaring people be tested against one another. But Jack has a secret weapon. You see, he has read The Halloween Encyclopedia, lucky devil. I wish I had, but the file was too big for my poor little laptop.
There are many references to the book (no doubt). Maeve means she who intoxicates. That’s true: Jack does fall for her quite suddenly. MacCumhail is derived from the landless warrior/bandits, led by Fionn, meaning white or blond. Finn (Fionn) is the leader of the three magic folk sent to capture Maeve. Then there’s the Samhain, the pagan holiday that became Halloween: “Samhain (like Beltane) was seen as a time when the "door" to the Otherworld opened enough for the souls of the dead, and other beings, to come into our world” (Wiki); it’s a more sinister version of our trick or treat and explains the magic of our three villains.
When Jack explains his use of illusion, after seeing the murderous use of magic by our three unwelcome pursuers: “It’s just play. People like to be scared when they know they won’t be hurt; they pay for it. We provide a safe environment, and that’s why they like it.” Although his three opponents admire his work, their opinion of illusion has a deeper, scarier purpose: “Oh, we like to scare as well. But we’re a bit more truthful than you; we know that our tricks can give bad dreams, anxious feelings. We can make someone fearful for the rest of their life.” Jack’s belief stands in the way of their mission, and so the battle begins.
The result of the battle is anticlimactic. In other words, it’s a trick ending. Quite apropos, I thought. I pictured a young Bruce Campbell in the role of Jack. This entertaining novella spends most of its time on the killing spree of the three albinos, the battle between Jack and our three Good Neighbors, and the story never lags. Hell Manor treats us to the ultimate tale of Halloween, and lucky for us readers, we get both a trick and a treat.