Jack Shackleford – The House of the Magus (NEL, 1979)
Jack Shackleford - House Of The Magus
Review by Andreas Decker
This novel from 1979 was I gather the next to last novel Shackleford published. Plotwise it is a continuitation of his former works, only longer. With 237 pages we leave the realm of the slim and fast NEL novels and are halfway to the big and bloated horrornovel which succeded them.
Juliet is an actress. After the flop of her last play and the suicide of her friend Rachel she fled to the isolation of her house, where she lives with her husband Mark. When Mark is there; as a businessman he often is away. Juliet is kept company by her housekeeper. It is the beginning of the summer. Her agent is badgering her to return to the stage, Juliet drinks like a fish and is lonely.
Enter the new neighbors which rented the cottage on the ground. William Lister is a more or less successful writer of horror trash – his own words – , which pays the rent. His daughter Susanne is 18 and beautiful and dearly devoted to Dad. His wife though has suffered an accident while moving and is in the hospital.
Now charismatic William is very interested in Juliets home. Because it was the home of Simon Ansell, a magician. His library is still there, and William would love to browse through the books.
Juliet doesn´t like him. Strange things happen. A hitchhiker is found dead. Why has Susanne these scars on her back? One night Juliet sees the ghost of her dead friend in the garden. Why has Lister´s wife seemingly vanished? Her husband just shrugs it off, even after Lister candidly reveals that he is a witch like the great Ansell and practises magic, his daughter does it also.
A day later Mark and the housekeeper die in a traffic accident and Juliet is truly alone. She tries to evict the Listers, but the writer puts a curse on her and makes Juliet a prisoner in her own house. All part of a long plan, as it is revealed, as Lister was a member of Ansell´s coven and wants to do a ritual in his library to rise in the ranks. And Susanne isn´t his daughter, but an old witch in the body of a young girl. Juliet has to play the role of the Scarlet Woman in the ritual, if she likes it or not. Lister denies killing the husband, but Susanne says he has.
So Juliet is groomed for the role, robbed of her will she becomes a sexual plaything of Susanne and Lister. And to her horror she discovers she likes it. But not all is as it seems, Susanne has her own plans, and on the night of the ritual after lots of sex with the arriving coven all hell breaks lose.
Like I said, the plot is rather similar to Shacklefords earlier novels. The magic is the Crowley kind of satanism – or paganismen, as the villian insists -, rather skillfully intervoven in the mundane. The beginning is slow and a bit too long compared with the last third where we get lots of scary magic, lots of graphic sex, pentagrams in the library, the goat of Mendes, vengeful ghosts and a surpise ending, which hasn´t aged well (which is not the fault of the writer, but of the times). But for all the occult stuff, there is a strange lack of drama. You can´t shake the feeling that you read this already, that there is nothing really new. Or maybe it is the conscious effort to present the magic stuff in a serious way, without the hysterics of say, a Dennis Wheatley for instance.
Regardless it is mostly a fun read. Juliet seems to have a more than passing resemblance with Mia Farrow in Rosemary´s Baby. She is not very likable. Lister´s opinion concerning his work is fun. “The Place of the Dhols” is a novel I would like to read. “Good books don´t make money”, he says. “Britain has not been good to me”, he continues, “my work is more succesful in France and the scandinavian countries.” It would be interesting who is speaking there, the character or the writer. Or if this was a dig at his former publishers.