Inexplicably the winner of the 1987 Bram Stoker Award for best first novel, The Manse is that kind of maddening, meandering, monotonous horror fiction that isn't outright terrible but just middling, sitting there politely and inoffensively without a truly horrific moment to make it memorable. Hell, any kind of fiction that is this simplistic, colorless, and obvious is grating to one's critical faculties. I can't hate it yet I can't love or really even like it. Lisa W. Cantrell writes in a style that can at best be called "young adult lite" and the tepid plot abounds with by-the-numbers characters and dialogue in which everyone refers to each other constantly by their first names and says the most obvious thing possible. With that large text and margin size I hate that bloats a passable 275-page novel up to nearly 350, I really sense that Cantrell had a novella that her editor at Tor Books wanted to publish as a novel.
The manse itself is an imposing and creepy old house in which the local Jaycees hold their yearly Halloween haunted house fundraisers, in the small town of Merrillville, North Carolina. The very fact that I'm typing "Jaycees" in a horror-fiction review is setting my back teeth on edge and boring me out of my skull all at once. But apparently the "vibe" of all the people scared in that house by the props and costumes and lights and smoke set up by the... Jaycees has somehow awakened an old evil and now the manse is actually haunted, like, for real. And people are disappearing, for Chrissake! Won't anyone listen?! Dammit!
Cue small-town folk à la King who all know each other, as well as an attempt to build an atmosphere of quiet, whispering horror that is really more like a description of a haunted house on a Halloween greeting card. The story doesn't get up and running till a hundred pages in. There's a fiery climax during one of the haunted house tours, children get pulled into funhouse mirrors - that wasn't bad - but then comes the half-hearted "twist" ending; oh, God, how lame those are, so expected and unimaginative. The cover art, by Bob Eggleton, is in the malevolent-yet-ridiculous Halloween style, although that title font that Tor loved to use is kind of all right. But the artist should have simply depicted this terribly scary manse itself on the cover - so people would know what the fuck a "manse" is.
Thinly written and indifferently paced especially in the opening chapters when an author should want to hook readers, The Manse is a trite, tiresome flop. I found it difficult to even skim the pages just to be done with the book and place it back on my shelf. How this novel beat out Clive Barker's grim, inventive The Damnation Game or a Steve Rasnic Tem novel for the Stoker Award is a real puzzler.
I don't know if Cantrell got any better as a horror author - I could find out if I wanted, as I've also got a copy of the sequel, Torments - but she hasn't published anything since the mid-1990s and I could find nothing about her on all the internets. I supposed The Manse would make an okay book for a young and/or inexperienced horror reader, but for an adult man who's been reading horror fiction much of his life? Yeah, no; The Manse is a miss.