cover image The House That Jack Built

The House That Jack Built

Graham Masterton / Author Carroll & Graf Publishers $24 (0p) I

Lacing an atmospheric tale of haunting and possession with heavy doses of gore and sex, Masterton (Burial) screams out a story better told in a whisper. High-powered Manhattan lawyer Craig Bellman and his eager-to-please wife, Effie, are touring the Hudson River Valley when they chance upon Valhalla, a decrepit mansion that broods on the bluffs north of Cold Spring. A monument to the towering ego of textile mogul Jack Belias, who vanished mysteriously in 1937, the edifice has understandable psychological appeal for Craig, who is recuperating from his near emasculation during a recent mugging. At first, Effie is happy that Craig's obsessive interest in rebuilding Valhalla has restored his confidence and potence. But when he becomes sexually insatiable and a suspect in the deaths of several colleagues and acquaintances, she probes the house's history for an explanation and discovers that Belias--an occultist who excelled in ruining his gambling companions and who ""used his virility to dominate people too""--is engineering his return from a dimension beyond time through her vulnerable husband. The spooky events climax spectacularly during a thunderstorm atop the Hudson Highlands, but not before the author has numbed the reader with countless scenes of sexual humiliation and offended sensibilities with the suggestion that physical abuse is titillating to its victims. Masterton's evocation of Hudson Valley history and his re-creation of the era of the pre-Depression robber barons is outstanding. Hopefully he will exploit this rich material, rather than his characters, in the sequel telegraphed in the novel's closing paragraphs. (Oct.)