Ghost Hunter, one of the most popular classics of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, is a bit slow to get started and has some clunky bits that could have been done better. It’s definitely a book to spend some time with, and you may find as I did that it gets better upon repeated readings, ultimately turning into a solid and enjoyable–if flawed–paranormal adventure story. It’s also an intriguing throwback to the early days of the series, and thus a must for any CYOA collector.
Ghost Hunter by Edward Packard (illustrated by Ted Enik)
Published: January 1986
Number in the CYOA Series: 52
It became a very interesting phenomena when the Choose Your Own Adventure books began to reference each other. The earliest sequel pairing in the series came with book 14, The Forbidden Castle, which used the Cave of Time trope and thus is technically a sequel to the series’s first book, The Cave of Time; only two books later, Survival at Sea became a sort of self-contained sequel to The Third Planet From Altair. After that astute readers could find all sorts of references to other books. As opposed to using a plot element or recurring character from a previous book, Ghost Hunter is about as direct and unequivocal a sequel as you can get: it’s directly based on the 1981 book Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?, also by Edward Packard, which was in my opinion not a success. Sequels can be better than the originals, though, and Ghost Hunter is far and away the better of the two.
In this book “you” are a private investigator who is thinking about getting into the ghost hunting business–what we today call paranormal investigations. Years ago you solved the murder of plastics tycoon Harlowe Thrombey. Thrombey’s widow Jane has now died of natural causes and the Thrombey mansion has passed into the hands of a shady character named Howard Grimstone. It’s rumored to be haunted by Thrombey’s ghost. You think about investigating the Thrombey mansion as your first ghost hunting case. It’s unclear how you intend to earn a living from this, but whatever. Your first choice is whether to start the Harlowe ghost hunt right away, or talk to a Professor Zieback who is a purported expert on hauntings.
In addition to being a direct sequel, I think Ghost Hunter contains another subtle homage to earlier books: “you” are portrayed similar to the red-headed, private investigator “you” first depicted in House of Danger (detail of that cover on the right).
This is a decent first choice, but it turns out to be a red herring. Visiting Zieback does provide you with a piece of information about ghosts that can come in handy later on–Packard loves to do this sort of thing–but ultimately it loops right back into the same storyline. Your real first choice comes after you get a call from Jenny Mudge, also a character from book #9, who is (surprise, surprise) also thinking about going into the ghost hunting business and wants you to come with her to the Gray mansion, another purported haunted house. (How many haunted houses are there in your city? You must live in High Ridge!) Do you join here to case the Gray crib, or go ahead and hunt for Harlowe’s immortal remains?
The bad news is that the early choices and storylines of Ghost Hunter are pretty frustrating, most of them quickly leading to unsatisfying endings in short order. Thus it takes a while for the plot to really get going. The good news is that it does eventually get going. The real plot doesn’t so much involve Harlowe Thrombey’s ghost, but a cache of diamonds hidden in the house by Sylvia Ruston, Jane Thrombey’s niece and heir. In one plot she wants to hire you to find the diamonds. In another, Howard Grimstone, owner of the house, wants to hire you to exorcise Thrombey’s spirit–but you can’t get to this plot without first learning about the diamonds, which means you have the choice to take Grimstone’s case as a ruse in order to get your hands on them. This surprisingly noir-ish plot is done pretty well and has a lot of twists and turns. Of course once you get into the house you have to contend with Harlowe Thrombey’s ghost, and you can’t exactly trust Grimstone. I found the various branches of this plot grouping to be quite absorbing.
If the basic premise–diamonds hidden in a supposedly haunted house–sounds like every episode of Scooby Doo, that’s because it is, though in only one storyline does it turn out that Grimstone is faking the Thrombey haunting to scare people away from the loot. I watched Scooby Doo in the 80s of course, but even as a kid I never understood the supposed logic of this scenario. Especially given the number of people out there who fancy themselves as “paranormal investigators,” spreading word of a haunting is likely to attract people to a property, not repel them. If you want people to stay away from a house you’re searching endlessly for hidden jewels, why not disguise it as a meth lab? I suppose you can’t do that in a children’s book. Ah well. I digress.
Villains in Scooby-Doo were constantly trying to use ghosts to scare people away from discovering their criminal enterprises. It must have worked; there was an endless series of these villains.
Ghost Hunter is generally fun despite its clunky opening and a few clangers in the plots and endings. It’s also fun to revisit elements of the old Thrombey story, which makes longtime readers feel like they’re in on an inside joke. This is not the best CYOA book, but it’s an enjoyable good time, if you can stick with it long enough.
Next up: Another series classic, The Case of the Silk King.