House of Danger is the apotheosis of the Choose Your Own Adventure book. It’s got the CYOA style and formula down to a T, it’s packed with every trope the series would eventually come to be known for, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. In an earlier review (I forget which one) I compared the CYOA series to the James Bond film series. If they’re comparable, House of Danger is to CYOA what Goldfinger is to James Bond. Let’s dive right in!
House of Danger by R.A. Montgomery (illustrated by Ralph Reese)
Number in the series: 15
In House of Danger, “you” are described as an “aspiring detective and psychic investigator.” One day in late June (remember, all CYOA books occur during summer vacation) the phone rings in the lab you have in your parents’ basement. A desperate voice stammers “Help, I need help!” and then the line is cut. However, you have a nifty-galifty phone tracer which operates in seconds and evidently doesn’t need a warrant–I bet the NSA would like one of those!–and your device traces the call to one Henry Marsden who lives at 1100 Hedge Brook. Bam! We’re off and running.
The first choice is whether you go immediately to Marsden’s pad, or whether you wait around for two of your friends, Ricardo and Lisa (sounds like the title of an 80s sitcom), to come in on the case with you. The choice doesn’t really matter, because however you play it, of course you wind up at 1100 Hedge Brook, which is of course the address of the…wait for it…HOUSE of DANGER! *cue timpani*
The House of Danger is one of the most unforgettable locales in the entire CYOA series. It’s described as simply a “large, modern house,” but the over-the-top illustrations of Ralph Reese, on his first run as a CYOA illustrator, push it over the top. Basically the place looks like half of a flying saucer embedded in a suburban lot, sort of Ken Adam meets Martha Stewart. It’s built next to a tangle of twisted ruins and masonry which you learn quickly are the ruins of Hedge Brook Prison, an antique hoosegow notorious for its inhumane conditions, which burned down during a prisoner riot in 1887. Surprisingly, you don’t get a chance to go inside the House of Danger until later, with most of the early choices centering around the wild stuff that comes out of the house and tries to attack you. Such as huge, snarling, man-eating, sentient holographic chimpanzees.
Yes. You read that right. Huge, snarling, man-eating, sentient holographic chimpanzees.
Your encounters with these creatures, and with various other ne’er-do-wells, spins the book off into so many directions it’s hard to keep track of them. Depending on which choices you make, the House of Danger houses a counterfeiting ring, a secret organization for international peace, a paranormal hotbed of ghosts left over from the 1887 prison riot, or a spearhead of an alien invasion. Whatever happens, there’s never a dull moment.
One of the things that makes House of Danger successful is that R.A. Montgomery, the author, is not afraid to mix genres. We’ve got crime, thriller, supernatural and science fiction all rolled together. There was a hint of genre-bending in his previous The Abominable Snowman, but somehow House of Danger is much more successful at it, probably because it pretends from the get-go to have no allegiance to any particular genre. This is a hallmark of the very best CYOA books, unlike the sometimes droll “demo” volumes we’ve seen before like Deadwood City or Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? R.A. also capitalizes on a strength he displayed in The Lost Jewels of Nabooti, that being a very fast-paced, breakneck pace that never lets up.
Here are some highlights:
- Ralph Reese’s illustrations are perfectly matched to the wild, outlandish antics in the text. He draws “you” as a lanky, red-headed boy with freckles. Ricardo and Lisa are depicted as somewhat dunderheaded sidekicks, but they’re at least endearing. Reese does particularly well with the action drawings, such as the picture on p. 40-41 of you throwing boxes via telekinesis at a sentient chimpanzee in the flying saucer hangar.
- Wait, look what I just wrote. “Throwing boxes via telekinesis at a sentient chimpanzee in the flying saucer hangar.” Is that freaking awesome or what?
- The ending where you slip back in time to witness the 1887 prison riot–time-slips like this would become another trope of the CYOA style–is done very well.
- The subplot where you gain psychic powers is pretty epic.
- So too is the bit where the ghost lets you experience (your choice) either being a baby again, or being old at the very end of your life. (p. 102-03)
- I love how there is more than one incarnation of Henry Marsden. The multiple characters that he can be finally makes use of the hypertext nature of these books. That’s a lesson that Edward Packard didn’t seem to learn.
My praise is not unequivocal. There are some less than stellar moments:
- The plot where you break up the counterfeiting operation is another Scooby Doo scenario: yet another case of criminals pretending their hideout is haunted in order to keep people away. Strange, this never seems to work outside of Scooby Doo or these books.
- Montgomery makes several attempts to explain the phone call you receive at the beginning of the story. None make any sense. What, ghosts use the phone now?
- “HUMAN MEAT–GALACTIC PRIME SOURCE–PLANET EARTH–GRADE A.” Incredibly lame ending. (p. 90)
Nevertheless, despite its flaws, overall House of Danger is one of the best books in the whole series. Its success lies in its remarkable ability to go completely off the rails with the bizarre, the outlandish, and the far-fetched and yet actually make it work. The result is a book that isn’t going to win any literary awards, but it’s a tremendous amount of fun. When I go back to reread my CYOA books, I’ll often pick up House of Danger. It’s held up pretty damn well even after almost 30 years.
This book was one of the more successful ones of the series. Not only did it spawn a direct sequel–The Horror of High Ridge, which features “you” as a paranormal investigator together with Ricardo and Lisa from this book–but it clearly influenced other books in the series. For instance, Ghost Hunter, which has a similar scenario (you’re a paranormal investigator), is supposedly a sequel to Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?, yet the “you” portrayed in the illustrations is a lanky red-headed boy with freckles, probably deliberately intended to evoke the “you” of House of Danger.
More reviews coming!