04 April 2007

Choose Your Own Adventure: The House of Danger

The first great “game books,” the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) series, started appearing as I was reaching independent reading age. I loved this series as a kid, and read them voraciously until I outgrew them (first moving to the Time Machine series before abandoning game books completely for young adult novels). I’ve discovered that, after a few years hiatus, the CYOA series has returned to print. Here’s the website for the reprint series. Most of the reprinted volumes are by R. A. Montgomery, whose books I always felt are far weaker than Edward Packard’s. The reprints have made a number of changes to update the technology (such as the inclusion of cell phones). The purist in me objects to this, but I realize the purpose is to not alienate a new set of younger readers. I also don't like the new illustrations, but this comes from nostalgia, not an objection to the quality.

I picked up one of my old favorites from the series, carefully read through it, tracked the various pathways and endings, and thus can now present to you a (spoiler-filled) full review of . . .

House of Danger (1982; rev. 2005)
COYA #15 (original series); COYA #5 (revision series)
By R. A. Montgomery

A young detective (the role of the reader) who also does psychic investigation work receives a mysterious phone call from a man pleading for help. The detective traces the call and discovers that it originated from a house belonging to Robert Mescall. Who is Robert Mescall, and what is behind that strange call? Since this is an R. A. Montgomery book, there are no straight answers to these questions. Depending on the choice made, the young detective could learn that Civil War ghosts, counterfeiters, or super-chimpanzees are behind the odd quest. Consistency of storyline isn't the strongest aspect of Montgomery's CYOA writing style, but he does have a penchant for random weirdness, and the chimpanzees and the appearance of two completely different kinds of aliens rank high on the weirdness meter. You can also get turned into Chinggis Khan. The sheer bizarreness of the adventures keeps the book entertaining, and I enjoyed it immensely as a kid. Ultimately, however, the book lacks solidity.

The phone call, the modern house, and Mescall are the only common elements contained in the various storylines. The house is a modern glass structure built over the remains of a Union prison camp from the Civil War, although the ruin has a minimal effect on some of the storylines. The reason for the ultramodern glass construction is only revealed in a negative ending that shows the entire house is actually a "green house" and a giant Venus flytrap.

Branch 1: The "Civil War Ghost" plot, the most coherent section of the story, and probably the one that should have formed the background for the whole book. The detective's two friends Ricardo and Lisa always accompany him on this adventure. Mescall is a ghost who somehow found a way to call the detective. In different variants, the characters can accidentally travel in time to witness Mescall's death (where his cries of help in the burning prison are the same words heard over the phone), meet his ghost as a "teacher" in the house, free his cursed spirit through forgiveness, or get tortured by his wrathful revenant.

Although the most positive ending has the detective "exorcising" Mescall through forgiveness, the most interesting ending has the three heroes helping to put out the fire in the prison and witnessing Mescall's end, only to return to the present to at the dreamlike quality of what they experienced. This was the end that I obtained when I first re-read the book, and it remains the most memorable and effective. The ending where Mescall's spirit turns the detective into Chinggis Khan is ludicrous and doesn't make much sense (is the change permanent? and is it so rotten to turn into the conqueror of the known world?), and shows the kind of sloppy oddness that mars Montgomery's work. The death through old age is a pretty depressing one, but easily avoidable.

Branch 2: The science-fiction and espionage aspect of House of Danger, and all of it revolves around the "Chimps and the Chump" opening when the detective goes directly to the house after receiving the phone call. He sees large chimpanzees attacking a man outside the house, leading to a number of bizarre explanations.

Branch 2.1: The Super-Hero tale, and meeting Mescall as scientist trapped beneath his own house in the former cells of the Union prison. He helps the detective escape, and then turns him into the super-hero in his special chamber. (If the detective refuses, it leads to a quick death via vaporizer.)

Branch 2.1.1: The chimps have captured a powerful alien. Starting this book, you undoubtedly didn't expect a cosmic finale, but here it is, and it leads to two of the most positive endings.

Branch 2.2: The hero finds a positive conspiracy groups called "The World Council" has its headquarters in the house. This is a bizarre part of the book, and easily one of the least satisfying and random of conclusions. It leaves the character pondering an important choice—but doesn't let the reader make the choice, instead ending the tale. What a gyp!

Branch 2.3: The human counterfeiters. The chimps are revealed as holograms created by a counterfeiting operation. Why would counterfeiters want to draw so much attention to themselves by creating super-chimps as a cover?

Branch 2.4: The alien invaders. So, if the chimps aren't holding an alien captive, they're serving an alien conqueror, and generic one at that (a standard "gray"). The reader can't get out of this situation happily.

Branch 2.5: The old man in the basement is Mescall. Two of the more successful conclusions to the story come out of this branch, with only one abrupt choice where the chimps kill the protagonist.

House of Danger would have a sequel of sorts by a different author, #27: The Horror of High Ridge. Ricardo and Lisa return, so the protagonist is implicitly the detective here.

That was an enjoyable trip into nostalgia, not to mention an interesting exercise in examining book structure. I might do a few more of these reviews in the future, or dig up some used copies of the CYOA books that aren't in print anymore.