Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Manse by Lisa W. Cantrell (1987): The Mayberry "Horror"

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, I found it difficult to even skim the pages just to be done with the book and place it back on my shelf. How The Manse beat out Clive Barker's grim and 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.

This did not happen.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey Will! Wow, that seems like a plot right out of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps. Funny that it's set in NC. And that it won a Bram Stoker award.-JB

Will Errickson said...

Yes, I *did* think of Goosebumps, good call. I'd love to know just who the hell the Stoker judges were that year...

bluerosekiller said...

Wow. I'm impressed. You actually soldiered through this one. In doing so you really took one for the team, 'cause as I recall from back when I read it when it was released all those years ago, it was DEFINITELY a chore.
Frankly, I'm surprised it was even published, much less won a Stoker!
The only way I managed my way through to the end wa skimmy through the last half or so, something I very rarely did. Even in those masochistic days when I felt it was some sort of duty to finish every book I started. A trait that I've thankfully outgrown...
These days I sincerely doubt that THE MANSE would get published. At least not as a mass market PB. But, back then with Tor doing good business in genre novels & Zebra & others as well, they put out a LOT of fluff.
The awards it recieved? That's another story. Likely a mystery that'll never be solved.

Jim

Will Errickson said...

Bluerose, thanks for the compliment. You're right; no way would this get published today. It's not aggressively stupid like some of the other bad books I've read for this blog - *cough cough* Richard Laymon or Paul Dale Anderson or Shaun Hutson *cough cough* - so I held back from hating it. I felt sort of bad for the book, actually!

Anonymous said...

I really didn't know there was a sequel to this. I'm a little kinder to it than most and I'm curious to check that one out. It's been a good decade since I read it, and never got around to her other one, THE RIDGE, but I sometimes find I'm in the mood for some slow-build horror (and having hit the heights of the slow-build novel after just reading Kristine Kathryn Rushe's THE DEVIL'S CHURN, I guess I've become more tolerant over time). I recall a couple of elderly women characters who were quite enjoyable and very latter-day gothic (I think they owned the place?). And an attempt to keep the Shirley Jackson legacy alive with that whole a-house-is-as-easily-scarred-by-fear-as-a-person plot. I think there were some good intentions here, but it seems she may have been shooting too high for that Jackson territory while her feet were firmly planted on Fear Street.
Craig

Anonymous said...

I generally dig those Tor horror paperback covers. Even evil pumpkins and skeletal arms could somehow take on a slightly sinister and shadowy aspect when they graced a Tor book, it seems.

A. Louise said...

the fact that the evil pumpkin is *biting* the banister is a total deal-breaker for me. i can't believe you were able to get past that and actually READ this thing.

Rob Hamilton said...

I read this one back in the day. I'm guessing my copy of it currently is rotting away in some decrepit used book store at this very time. Or has been used for a fire. It had moments of creepiness, but nearly all of it was when stuff was REALLY going downhill in the final part. About the only cool part of the first couple hundred pages was the bit where two of the three delinquent kids get taken out of the picture. As I recall, didn't they basically get absorbed by darkness or something like that?

Will Errickson said...

Something like that, Rob, yeah. Already this book has faded into memory...

HemlockMan said...

All I recall about Lisa Cantrell is that I walked out on a panel she was giving. Not because I disliked her or anything, but because she was embarrassing herself to the point that it became uncomfortable to experience. So I quietly crept out. A couple of other writers followed me for the same reason.

Seems I also recall that someone related to her was in charge of HWA funds and that there were questions about how those funds were being handled. Not sure. Whenever I'd ask about that from official HWA folk back in the day the question would be politely side-stepped.

Will Errickson said...

Wow, Hemlock! How delicious. Any more details to share?!

HueyLewis said...

I have a pristine unread copy of this and I can't recall how I got it. Thank you for sparing me from having to read it.

As for the HWA, I also find its awards criteria puzzling.