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Literature / A Deadly Game of Magic

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Joan Lowery Nixon, a young adults' suspense/horror writer perhaps better known for The Seance and The Kidnapping of Christina Lattimore (both of which won the Edgar Award), penned this tale of Bo, Teena, Lisa, and Julian, four high school students in Texas returning from a dramatics competition in the middle of a terrible thunderstorm. When the weather, flooding, and their car breaking down forces them to take shelter in a nearby isolated house, things immediately take a turn for the strange, with a very nervous man and his wife who don't seem to belong to the house giving them permission to stay and wait for a towtruck while they "go to a party". Things then proceed to become darker and creepier as the power goes out, the narrator Lisa begins getting the feeling they are not alone in the house, and some mysterious killer begins stalking them...a killer who seems to be a twisted and deadly magician.

This book provides examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: The next-door neighbor exists only to give Backstory and call the police, who of course can't get there till morning thanks to the storm. The AAA man ends up fleeing after seeing what is in the room at the end of the hallway.
  • Backstory: Lonnie Whitt stops in to check on "Miz Gracie Ella" and is kind enough to not only explain to the kids whose house they're in, what happened to her deceased husband, and a great deal about her past, but also describes the layout of the house. Even more detail is revealed later when Lisa finds a whole pile of newspaper clippings, photos, and letters in a sideboard drawer—convenient, but also justified since Gracie Ella was both a pack rat and terrified to get rid of anything connected to her Manipulative Bastard husband. The backstories of the kids, on the other hand, are revealed gradually along the way.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: When the kids first arrive at the house, the TV set in the living room is turned up unnaturally loud, despite the strange couple being young and not hard-of-hearing. While the woman who lives in the house is older and, according to Lonnie Whitt, her "hearing's not what it could be", the protagonists eventually deduce Chamberlain did this so that no one passing by the house would hear anything untoward. Like Mrs. Gracie Ella screaming as the guillotine cuts her head off.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A huge number, ranging from the offhanded mention of there being a car in the garage almost hidden by boxes, to the ornate chair later used to make it appear Bo's head has been cut off, to almost everything the strange couple at the beginning says about their mysterious hitchhiker, to the loud TV when they first come into the house, to the kids' mime costumes in their luggage, to all the continued references to heads. The biggest one of all, though, has to be the very early notice of the toy guillotine on the sideboard which is part of a set. That gun isn't fired until the book's very last sentence...though by that point it is most likely obvious to most readers. Still rather chilling, though.
  • Closed Circle: The kids cannot leave the house, thanks to the storm, the flood, and the stalled car. This is not changed by the arrival of Mrs. Whitt or Sam, since the former merely goes to call the police and the latter flees without taking any of them with him.
  • Creepy Doll: One of Chamberlain's first tricks involves the head of a ventriloquist dummy propped up on pillows in the living room chair. This same dummy is later seen in a rather disturbing 'family portrait' photo with Chamberlain and his wife.
  • Curiosity Killed the Cast: Played with but ultimately averted. Lisa's curiosity does drive her to explore the house—but in the end this merely gives all of them the knowledge of its layout so they can later find places to hole up for safety. Her curiosity also enables her to discover the magic room and all its props, as well as the clippings and letters in the sideboard that lets them piece together who is with them in the house. The one major thing to be curious about, what lies in the room at the end of the hallway, is what they all resist going to find out...which probably does save their lives.
  • Darkness Equals Death: Though none of the kids die, it's not for lack of trying on Chamberlain's part, and the darkness of the house (and especially the black-painted magic room) definitely adds to the disquiet of the book.
  • Don't Explain the Joke: When the kids are trying to pass the time, and keep from being scared, by telling jokes, Bo's cluelessness unfortunately leads to this trope.
  • Epiphany Therapy: Through the process of banding together for safety and courageously standing up to Chamberlain, the kids all gain a new perspective on their lives, and how they will live them for themselves now instead of for their parents—except Bo, whose Ignored Epiphany is quite welcomingly Played for Laughs.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The entire book takes place in the space of a single night.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: On any plans to get out of the house before morning, and also anyone's plans to combat Chamberlain beside Lisa's. This last is actually justified in that thanks to her magic training, she's the only one who can really think like him.
  • Faking the Dead: What Chamberlain did, after he and the stagehand were mistaken for each other after the fire.
  • Feminine Women Can Cook: Unsurprisingly, when they make sandwiches in the kitchen and Teena complains about cooking (because she has to do it at home, since her cafe-running father has to do it all day at work), Bo comments that it's "good practice for you...girls are supposed to be good cooks." When Teena then retorts this must be because he thinks women are "all supposed to grow up to be good wives and mothers", Bo responds in confusion, "What's wrong with being a good wife and mother?" The fact just a page or so later the conversation turns to how Bo and his family kill deer (albeit for food) just underscores the Double Standard.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Sanguine—Teena, choleric—Bo, melancholic—Lisa (with elements of supine), phlegmatic—Julian.
  • Hostile Hitchhiker: Played with; while the hitchhiker in question (Chamberlain) is very much hostile, it isn't toward the people who pick him up but instead toward the owner of the house he has them drop him off at. That said, Black Beard is clearly quite distressed by being in the house, both he and Tight Pants are worried by what they find when they bring him his jacket (the broken back door in the kitchen, the unnaturally-loud TV), and they're very eager to get out of there. Considering everything, it's likely he would have killed them if they gave him reason to, so it was wise to flee.
  • Insurance Fraud: Technically, because Chamberlain didn't die in the fire and Gladys was well aware he didn't, her lying so as to escape his abuse (and then claiming the insurance money afterward) counts as this. But anyone who knew Chamberlain would not blame her in the least; the only reason she takes the money is so she can change her identity and build a new life away from him; and when he pursues her for revenge the money doesn't even enter into it.
  • Jerk Jock: Bo. There is perhaps some gleam of gold in his heart, but overall he's just a jerk.
  • Jump Scare: Not as many as you might think, but the dog's sudden appearance banging on the back door, as well as its later discovery locked in the car, certainly count. The power going out would be another.
  • Kick the Dog: Literal example, when the dog that also takes shelter from the storm goes running down the hall to attack Chamberlain.
  • Let's Split Up, Gang!: A few times the kids accidentally fall into this trope early on in the book, such as when Lisa goes to the bathroom with Teena, then Julian goes to the kitchen to make some food, leaving Bo alone in the living room. Once they realize they aren't alone and they're in danger, they're actually very good about avoiding it, save for when Teena goes to get a skewer to jimmy the garage door, and when Bo goes chasing after the dog.
  • Magicians Are Wizards: Played with but averted. Aside from many of Chamberlain's tricks being carried out in such a disturbing, sinister fashion as to seem like real magic, Chamberlain himself comes across as almost an Eldritch Abomination thanks to the way he moves around the house, how his burn injuries have disfigured his voice, and the genuine evil in his personality and presence. In the end, however, once he is stopped and unmasked, he is proven to just be an insane criminal with some awful scars who will be going straight to prison.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Chamberlain was always this, it seemed, from the way he exerted his will over his wife to make her beholden to him, to how he treated an aspiring apprentice, leading him on when he had no intention of accepting him, to how he encouraged a stagehand to ask for a raise while lying about him to the stage manager so that he would end up fired. The true depth of his manipulations weren't revealed until his wife tried to leave him, particularly in how no matter how abusive he was to her, Gladys found she just couldn't leave. He also pulls a nasty trick on the kids at one point, posing as the police to get them to leave a locked bathroom so that he can break the lock, leaving them once more at his mercy.
  • Mood Whiplash: Various points in the book shift in tone from comedic and heartwarming to suspenseful and scary, ranging from their toweling the dog dry, telling jokes, and actually becoming friends (or more) to the dog suddenly disappearing, a mechanical hand moving on the mantelpiece, and Sam's reaction to what he sees in the back room. A more obvious example occurs early on when Lisa first tells the others she feels like they're not alone, that someone is in the house with them who may no longer be alive—and the TV, which is turned to the Johnny Carson show, bursts out in a very loud, inappropriate explosion of laughter.
  • Narm: Invoked in-story—both Teena's idea to give Chamberlain an audience and much of Lisa's patter during her magic act come across as very awkward and stilted, but that would be because the audience bit is just stalling for time and an idea not all of them believe in, while the magic act is using equipment Lisa isn't completely familiar with while she is scared out of her mind.
    Lisa: I might even end up being a magician.
  • Never Split the Party: Once they're all aware someone very dangerous and terrifying is trapped in the house with them, this becomes the watchword. And the few times it isn't adhered to immediately proves to them why they need to stick together.
  • Nobody Poops: Averted three times, and with plot-relevance per usual.
    • The first time is a simple Potty Emergency after Sam flees the house, leaving the kids trapped with whoever/whatever is in the back room, but the author uses it to a) impart knowledge of the house's layout as Teena and Lisa go looking to find the bathroom b) Character Development as the girls have something of a heart-to-heart and c) setting up for the first Let's Split Up, Gang! moment.
    • The second time is a Played for Laughs moment when, after Julian reminds Bo that they had all agreed to stay together for safety, Bo comments, "Then y'all better stick with me while I find the john" (Teena: "In that case, togetherness isn't the answer.")...except when he goes there with Julian, he ends up ditching the latter to go find the missing dog, which ends up leading him to being captured and knocked out by Chamberlain.
    • The final time is a slight subversion, as after being forced to flee the kitchen, the kids hole up for safety in the room with the attached bathroom, but all they do there is put on their mime outfits and try to wait until morning.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: What drives the narrative and gives the book its haunting power and suspense. The constant quiet, and later darkness, of the house. The inability to see Chamberlain because he is dressed in black. The uncertainty and dread which fills the characters, especially early on when they have no idea what's really going on or who they're up against. And of course, that one dark hallway with the single door standing open at the far end... Shiver.
  • Offscreen Teleportation: What seems to be a case of this trope ends up being both averted and justified—thanks to an odd quirk of the house's architecture, the magic room which straddles its two wings has a number of unseen doors hidden under the black paint which connect it to both the kitchen and the bedroom hallway. Combine this with the power being out and Chamberlain wearing black, and it's quite easy to see how he could move around the house rapidly without being detected (and it's lampshaded by Lisa). He even had plenty of time to accustom himself to the house's layout, since he had the place to himself for quite a while before anyone else arrived.
  • Off with His Head!: Poor Gracie Ella's fate, as all of Chamberlain's twisted clues point to.
  • Ominously Open Door: What drives a great deal of the fear and tension in the plot, wondering just what lies behind it... And true to the trope, what lies behind it ends up being Gracie Ella's decapitated body.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The couple who gave Chamberlain a ride to the house are never named, resulting in Lisa and the others only referring to them by the epithets "Black Beard" and "Tight Pants".
  • Paranoia Fuel: As if the very premise of the story weren't enough (a killer who knows stage magic and can slip up on you in a dark house without you knowing it), there is this moment invoked in-story when the kids are trying to cheer themselves up.
    Lisa: Knock, knock!
    A ghostly whisper: Who's there...?
  • Point of View: Lisa. Watching her grow from a timid, shy girl overwhelmed by her high-grade-earning siblings to a much more confident young woman is a surprisingly satisfying process, her observations are usually quite keen and spot-on, and the fact she almost seems to have a Psychic Link with Chamberlain is both a little frightening and very useful. Her knowledge of stage magic is also imparted quite well.
  • The Quiet One: Julian, in backstory and for the early part of the book.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: Julian, who not only is in drama like the rest of them but secretly wants to be a ballet dancer instead of a doctor. Bo, of course, rebels against this trope to embrace classic manliness, which is why they lost the competition.
  • Red Herring: At one point, prompted by Lisa doing a magic trick and talking about how dangerous stage magic can be, Julian brings up the Truth in Television detail that before he died, Houdini had promised to contact his wife from the Other Side. Combined with the knowledge that Gracie Ella had been a medium and held seances in the house, and the implication is that it is Chamberlain's ghost stalking them. The truth isn't revealed until looking through the scrapbook of clippings and the letters lets them figure out about the Mistaken Identity, Faking the Dead switch.
  • Removed from the Picture: Near the end of the book, just before the magic show climax, Lisa discovers that the photo of Chamberlain and his wife which she had propped up on the sideboard earlier has now been torn in half, leaving only Chamberlain. Then they find the other half on the floor with Gladys missing her head. And then Teena sees Gladys's face speared on a rose stem in place of the bloom. Just in case it wasn't clear how much he hated his wife.
  • The Reveal: The identity of the killer, but also how he killed his wife, which isn't revealed until the book's last sentence. Though if the reader is paying attention it should be easily figured out long before then.
  • Sassy Black Woman: Teena.
  • Spoiler Cover: One of the newer editions of the book shows a woman's lower half inside a traditional box for sawing a woman in half. While this is not precisely what happened to Gracie Ella, there's enough connection between the two that today's readers will probably guess her fate much earlier than those when the book was first printed.
  • Spooky Séance: How Gracie Ella made a living with her husband's old props, after she moved and changed her name.
  • Spotting the Thread: Early on, a number of clues are noticed to help the kids reach the conclusion that the couple who let them into the house are strangers who don't belong there—Lisa observes the woman wasn't wearing a wedding ring and that the antique furnishings don't fit them at all, while Teena notices the woman wasn't carrying a purse or handbag which she would have been if they lived there and had truly been going out to a party.
  • Stage Mom: The motivations of all four of the kids' families. Bo's dad expects him to become a college football player, then run the family business. Julian's family wants him to become a doctor, like his father and grandfather before him. Teena is being pushed into law because "let's just say we need a black woman on the Supreme Court". And Lisa's family expects her to get top grades and go to a prestigious school just like her brother and sister. Comes across as a bit overdone, not to mention a coincidence, but it does serve to humanize and unite the characters, something they sorely need in their situation. Also, in an amusing but effective bit of linking the characters to the book's theme and the villain's backstory, Lisa at one point decides that they are all "illusionists" pretending their lives—i.e., they're all metaphorically on stage for their parents.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: When Sam comes to tow the car, but before he discovers the house's secret and flees, Bo and Julian try to get the girls to go with him into the city, since the cab of his truck is only big enough for three and they want Teena and Lisa to be safe. Amusingly, the trope becomes literal for a while later, when the four of them hole up in the kitchen because it feels safest to them and is also the farthest place in the house from that room with the open door.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Gracie Ella. If you're going to hide from your crazy, manipulative, abusive husband, you don't a) keep all his magic props and b) change your name to one that has the same initials as your real name, and even sounds somewhat like it (Gracie Ella Porter, Gladys Polowski).
  • Twenty Minutes with Jerks: Averted. Other than Bo, none of the kids are Asshole Victims, and in fact all are quite likable, intelligent, and worth spending time with. Even Bo gets fleshed out some in the course of the story, complete with a literal Pet the Dog moment. Some might consider them a bit flat or uninteresting, or might be annoyed by their filling cliche roles, but their interactions are still believable and even funny at times, and in the end they do seem to deserve to make it out alive.
  • Villains Act, Heroes React: For most of the book, Chamberlain is holding all the cards, with the kids either not knowing who is with them and what's going on, or being unable to do anything but be terrorized by his tricks and wonder what's next. This finally starts to change when Lisa's research helps them figure out who they're up against, and they begin strategizing on how to defeat him.
  • Wham Line: The very last line of the book, as it finally reveals Gracie Ella's fate.
    Teena, (regarding the toy guillotine): Lisa, you told us this was part of a set. Where is the big one?
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Most things do end up being explained in the end, or easily inferred (for example, Chamberlain obviously took his jacket back which had been left in the kitchen, and we learn what happened to Gracie Ella by implication). But a few points stand out: the couple who picked Chamberlain up are never seen again, so we never find out what happened to them, if they tried to notify the authorities, or anything. It is also strongly implied that before coming to the house, Chamberlain stalked and then killed Gracie Ella's sister, but this is never confirmed. And lastly, it is never made clear exactly how or why the large guillotine is in the room at the end of the hallway—were there so many magic props that there was some overflow into it from the magic room? Did Chamberlain move it down there precisely to isolate and kill Gracie Ella?
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: Some of this comes through in Chamberlain, particularly in how he was once (supposedly) a great and respected magician who fell on hard times and lost popularity due to younger, fresher acts. The show for which he was preparing when the theater fire nearly claimed his life was in fact intended to restore him to fame, which surely contributed to his resentment, insanity, and murderous tendencies afterward. The fact all the reviews seem to be carbon copies made by bored reporters suggests the idea of him having any Glory Days in the first place is doubtful. Though he must have made some money at it, judging by his fine clothes and equipment and the size of the life insurance policy he took out.
  • Wizard Duel: Sort of. At the climax of the book, Lisa challenges Chamberlain to a duel of magic using his own equipment, as a delaying tactic. Despite the banality inherent in this, it actually turns out quite suspensefully and awesomely, particularly because even with Teena getting trapped in the chest, they succeed in capturing the magician.
  • You All Meet At A Drama Competition: None of the four kids really knew each other prior to the competition, so them taking part in it and then driving back from it counts as the author finding a way to randomly bring characters together for a plot.