Happy Halloween Eve! Happy… Hallow-Eve? All Hallow’s Eve Eve? Well whatever, it’s the day before that one special occasion of the year where the ghouls, the ghosts and the goblins come out of the shadows - and depending on their age, be descending on your house demanding candy or puking up in the street after indulging in one too many ‘free shots if you wear a costume’ deals at the local dive. Whatever the horror that awaits you, you can be sure it will be a night of frights and plentiful mirth of the spooky variety. It’s also the perfect occasion to continue our ongoing serial dedicated to that most 80s of reading-based pastimes, and one that often ‘tried’ (key word there) to give you scares with every turn of the page you took - the choose-your-own-adventure novel!
With this second entry, we analyze and satirize one of the real gamebook classics - Fighting Fantasy and Steve Jackson’s terrifying mansion horror, House of Hell!
First, Some Background
We won’t go too much into detail about how these books work if you’re not familiar - simply put, you’re in charge of the narrative. The book constantly asks your in-person character to make choices and turn to different pages of the book to see where your decisions lead you in the story. Fighting Fantasy was one franchise that produced tons of these stories and they were very popular among the kids of the 80s too. If you wish to know more about how they work (particularly all the dice-rolling), we explained it in our article on The Warlock of Firetop Mountain - you can have a read there, and come back here if you like.
Otherwise, what you need to know here is House of Hell, being originally published in 1984, is a proper fine tribute to the horror B-movies of the time. It’s a romp through creepy old manors populated with creepy old men, who you’d definitely discover are up to something creepy, if not for the fact you were too busy being chased around by creepy zombies and vampires. It’s a fun celebration of all the tropes of the time, without the awesome John Carpenter soundtrack. Just check out the book’s original cover:
Some genuinely awesome eldritch weirdness going on here! There’s no bloody way I’d step into that house on a stormy night, even if I was with a group of teenagers on a camping trip daring me to do it. Unfortunately none of the stuff on the cover appears in the book itself - but it most definitely captures the mood for all the frights that follow.
The current-day cover for the book? Meh, not so good. It’s considerably less atmospheric, and also gives away a key part of the book’s climax for anyone who dares to play it. Given that the book lives on as a full on PC game, we’ll only hint at where this grisly adventure ultimately leads - but safe to say, it’s definitely a crazy ride.
So what is the story, anyway? Well, in typical horror-movie fashion, you’re alone in your car lost on a dark rural road, desperate to find some shelter from the raging thunderstorm above. The reason you’re doing this is because you have to fulfil some kind of ‘appointment’ with somebody the next day, although it’s never really explained what this appointment entails. I imagine not many dentists need to ply their trade out on backwater moors saturated in unknown malice when they can just carry their drills around with them and apply it wherever they go, but maybe that’s the most reasonable thing to go with. In any case, you have a schedule to keep, and spending the night in your car as rain and lightning dance above you simply won’t do.
Turns out though, that only the elements are attempting to halt your journey. Random dudes standing in the middle of your headlights are willing to do the same too. How ominous!
Naturally, you swerve to avoid the figure, and end up planting your car in a ditch. There’s no way you’re getting to Dr. Lives-In-A-Very-Awkward-Place-For-A-Dental-Surgery D.D.S now! You’ll have no choice but to continue the trek on foot - at least to a service station so you can get the help your car now needs.
Or, you can just see if you can get help from the residents of the really normal looking house on the hill that isn’t at all full of foreboding and fearful implications. I’m sure someone there will try to help you, and not entrap and try to kill you in some kind of terrifying, pants-wetting fashion.
And of course, they have no telephone line either. Spooooooky. Once you’re heading in, there ain’t no going out. At least alive anyway. But of course, you’re going to go in because fixing your cavities is worth the perils of crapping yourself and being eaten alive by some unknown creature.
How did I fare? Read on to find out...
How I Died
Yep, that’s right - in typical choose-your-own-adventure fashion, and in especially typical fashion for the Fighting Fantasy book series, I died. In fact, House of Hell provides many, many ways for you to die, more so than any other books of this kind, I think. But in traditional geeky fashion, the ways to die in this abode of hidden horrors are at least creative - and occasionally pretty funny - that you might be tempted to go back and start the book again. Or, you know, use your finger as bookmark for the previous page you came from so you can go back and make a different decision, like everyone else did.
The Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks also prided themselves on giving you a combat system, as well as the generation of vital statistics, to fend off all the monsters and other deadly situations you were guaranteed to encounter. We’ve already explained how the system works in the Warlock review, so check out that one out if you need to know more. But for this very escapade, my character got itself a Skill of 9, a Stamina of 18 and a Luck of 11. Similar to my adventure through Warlock, the guy I generated was pretty mediocre - but like all good horror movie protagonists, he definitely had the Luck to see him through, at least before going through the book and finding out just how bloody nasty it is regardless of fortune.
On top of all this numerical nerding, House of Hell also adds another stat - Fear! All through this occult romp, you’ll stumble upon all sorts of nasty experiences that will scare your character and force them to accumulate Fear Points. If the number of points exceed the original Fear stat you rolled for, then the book insists that you’ve been ‘frightened to death’, and your adventure immediately ends.
Generating this stat was the same as most of the others - roll one die (or in my case, use a random number webpage so nobody would know how dweeby I was being), and add 6 to that total. Naturally, I rolled a 1, giving me a 7 - the lowest possible Fear threshold. With that in place and my generous luck score, maybe my character would be the kind of protagonist who just gets through the movie by running around screaming a lot and flailing his arms while the monsters somehow fail to get their clutches on him. If that was true, I still feel he’d get through it all, by hook or by crook.
Except of course, the book has yet another quirk up its sleeve. You start the game without any kind of weapon, and apparently, unlike ANY of the other books in Fighting Fantasy’s whole series, this is a serious handicap. You start the game with a 3 point Skill deduction as a result, which knocked my character’s score down to a pitiful value of… 6. Forget being the main hero in a horror movie, my character was officially one of the scrubs they use as fodder early on in the film. It was only a matter of paragraphs before he’d meet an untimely end.
In any case, the adventure began, and I was eventually let into the house through the front door by some butler dude, who seemed a little too aware of my plight. Franklins was his name, and apparently he was the manservant of a certain Lord Kelnor, the Earl of Drumer, who I’m pretty sure is not the chill bloke he was trying to make himself out to be. After all, you don’t have a face and a haircut like that without at least having something pretty heinous to hide. Unless you’re the product of an artist who doesn’t know how to draw these things very well.
So anyways, the Earl is pretty keen to tell me about the house, and the fact that it rests as the centrepoint of his sprawling estate, which now goes largely abandoned thanks to a vicious rumour regarding the mysterious death of his sister. The myths surrounding this curious incident was enough to spook the farmers who once worked on the land away from it, believing that witchcraft and practices of a demonic nature were to blame for her murder. This is a very key piece of knowledge that somehow my character fails to heed. If even individuals who spend most of their time sticking hands up cows’ backsides and getting amorous with sheep are keen to keep away from the Earl, maybe he isn’t the kind of person I should be asking help for car trouble. But of course, we don’t pay any attention to this, because Horror Story™.
So yeah anyway, the Earl offers dinner and he poisons you with a sleeping drug in your coffee, forcing you to pass out. Gain 72 Fear points or whatever, and 92 Did-Not-See-That-Coming-At-All points.
Eventually though, my characters awakes tied up in one of the house’s many secluded backrooms, and freeing himself from his bindings, decides he’s going to figure out what the Earl’s game is and kick his coffee-tainting arse. We start this by doing the simple obvious thing - sneaking around and checking out all of the other rooms to see if we can find anything useful, particularly a weapon so that I don’t have to die really early. Poking around we go, shadowy chamber after shadowy chamber, until I eventually stumble upon a room with a curtained window. Naturally, useful items are always hiding behind curtains, so I pull one wide and ZOMG:
Literally: zombie, oh my god.
Awesomely macabre artwork aside, this zombie, who seemed to really have a thing for upholstery, ain’t going down without a fight. Using only his fists though, my character suddenly finds a modicum of manliness and pummels this ghastly rotter into submission. Unfortunately, this doesn’t come without the undead monstrosity inflicting Stamina damage on me as well, as well as giving me 2 Fear points. Mere pages in, I’m already near half-scared to death. This isn’t going to be a long adventure.
Indeed, after this encounter, I stumble into another room (which of course, immediately locks behind me) and come face-to-face with my eventual nemesis:
Nope, oddly enough, this isn’t the Earl of Drumer again. Nor is it even a relation. It’s just some vampire guy who’s just hanging out at the place. One can only imagine how exactly the Earl got onto good terms with Dracula incarnate - maybe they both met up at the annual meeting for the Society of Derelict Home-Owners and had a good laugh at how much they looked like each other. “Ha ha ha! Velly good, Mr. Earl. Perhaps we be friends, and I live at your house so we play visual prank on visitors, yes?“ That’s a Transylvanian accent, in case you didn’t know.
Anyway, once you bump into this bloodsucking lodger, you have one of two options - you can either approach him, or prepare to fight him. Even if I did just kick a zombie’s arse with my bare hands, I wasn’t about to go toe-to-toe with one of the true lords of the undead. But I did have a few cloves of garlic that I picked up previously in another room. If I ‘prepared’ to fight him, I thought, I would be drawn into a forced state of combat that I would definitely lose. But if I approached him, maybe I would have an opportunity to fling the garlic upon him by surprise. So I choose the approach option, thinking I was clever:
Oh riiiiiight, by ‘approach’, you mean just walk up to him and have him bite into me? Well thank you, writing mechanics.
Fuck It, Let’s Cheat
I wasn’t about to let semantics be the death of me, so I did what everyone else reading these books did - went back to the last page and chose a different direction, and also made sure to just ‘win’ any combat further along. By going and ‘preparing to fight’, I then had the option to throw the garlic at the vampire, which in my mind doesn’t really count as fighting, and more being a cowardly bugger. But hey, my character does suck after all! He probably even flailed his arm in fear when he threw the garlic too.
It turns out though, that even by cheating, House of Hell is still stupidly hard to complete. Just throwing garlic at the vampire opens up a decision tree for which there is only one path that avoids death, and that’s by running through one of the numerous other doors - cunningly marked as ‘door on the left’ or ‘door on the right’ - to escape him. Lots of page-flipping and back-and-forthing was in order to evade this guy, and when I did, even though I was now deceiving the book, I was pretty relieved.
Turns out I had no reason to be relieved.
By roaming around the house more, you then have the option to check out its kitchen. Hint of advice if you ever play this - DON’T DO IT. It might be all pots and pans but it is a black hole of death. There’s a set of keys sitting appealingly on its stove. “Those’ll be handy!” you think, “You can use those to open doors later!” Unfortunately what the book doesn’t tell you is that the stove is on at the time, and your idiot character picks up the keys while they’re red-hot. You wail and scream, loud enough for the house’s residents to hear you, where they then decide to tie you up again, no doubt to murder you later on. Adventure once again over, the fiendishness of this book - and its sense of humour - knowing no bounds.
So if you don’t pick up the keys, what then? You can go through the door at the back of the kitchen - only for a Ghoul to come through it at the same time! If you’ve read about our experiences with the Warlock of Firetop Mountain, you’ll know just how despicable - and butt-eaty - these flesh-munchers are. As we’re cheating now, defeating them is no problem and we skip the battle, but even if you do that, the following happens:
… and if you turn there, you find it’s loud enough for the house’s residents to hear you, and they then decide to tie you up again, no doubt to murder you later on. Adventure once again over, the fiendishness of this book etc. etc. etc.
Eventually, through the brute force of trial and error, I did manage to get to the end of the book and have the final showdown with the Earl, whose defeat again relies entirely upon you making the one lucky decision, and making sure you have the right items as well. I won’t spoil any of those, but the route I did take seemed awfully abrupt and I somehow managed to manoeuvre past a bunch of situations, all with some pretty great art-work, while I did so:
I really wish I had come across the skeletons - they seem genuinely angry about me stumbling in on them. Especially the one with the floppy hat. “Raaarrgh, get him Francis! He’s interrupting our fishing trip!”
I also really wish I had come across the underground chambers which were home to all the pagan ritualists. What’s a good horror story without some good old blood sacrifice?
Just ask this guy - he’ll tell you for sure.
If I’d only made the better choices, my own waltz through the House of Hell would have probably been a lot more entertaining than the one I actually got. Decrepid houses hiding secrets, skellies on nature expeditions, spooky girl ghosts and Satanic worshippers sporting goat heads - House of Hell most definitely captures all the best bits about horror in general (okay, except for the skeleton part) and has a lot of fun with it (okay yes, the skeleton part). That is, when it isn’t busy trying to kill you with a super-hard maze that puts the one from Warlock to shame. With its insistence on only offering the one true path to victory, it’s no joke that House of Hell is practically impossible to beat first time around if you were to play it for real. And even if you don’t, it’s still a bitch to complete regardless.
Nonetheless, it’s perfectly Hell-acious reading material for Halloween - see if you can hunt down a copy at your local Thrift store, or online. Or better yet - check out the digital version of the gamebook, which is available on Steam for $2.99:
YouTube: Tin Man Games
Media utilized in article is property of: Steve Jackson / Puffin Books / Wizard