House of Illusions by Ruby Jean Jensen

Rating: 4 of 5

Justification for why I always hesitated at the door of the “Fun House” and, ultimately, never entered. No justification needed for avoiding clowns, though; they’re scary, period.

Here’s the skinny:

Amy, eleven years old, and her sister, eight-year-old Jodi, are sent to spend the summer with their father, Russel. No big deal except they haven’t seen or talked to him in eight years; neither girl knows what Russel will be like. And Amy is pretty sure their mother doesn’t want them anymore. After all, their mom has a new husband, a new baby, and a step-son to love.

But once Russel picks them up and tells them about his job – he owns a “grab joint” (aka hot dog stand) that travels with the carnival – Amy and Jodi begin to feel better about their summer. That is, until strange things start to happen around the carnival. Jodi finds a necklace that was missing for over six decades when its owner also disappeared. Next, Jody and Amy see someone – or something – moving in the shadows outside their trailer at night. Then the carnival’s owner, India, hears someone sneaking into her trailer at night even though her door and windows were locked.

And then there’s a murder … one so vicious and shocking no one can believe their eyes. Except India. She’s seen a body like that before. An identical murder happened sixty years before in the same carnival — a murder rumored to involve the owner of that special necklace. So the police get involved, the carnival workers are scared, and all the while the killer is out there, waiting.

Here are my two cents:

This was my first time reading anything by Ruby Jean Jensen. I discovered Jensen after I’d researched stories with haunted dolls (and similar themes) on Goodreads; there were several people who recommended her books. Sadly, since most of her work was published in the 80s, it’s been difficult to obtain copies.

House of Illusions was a frightening, fun experience! But then, just the image of a “happy” clown gives me nightmares, so this book was pretty much guaranteed to give me the willies. Plus, Jensen knew how to work the shadows and show just enough to kick imagination into overdrive.

Then, with her face in the opened window, she at last felt the first stirrings of sleep.

The sound of a tiny bell brought her awake with a jolt and she stared out of the window into the darkness, where only the shapes of the trailers and the peaks of tents caught the light from the carnival midway. She stared. Something had moved in the alley making a faint sound, a tiny jingle, like the bells she had worn on her shoelaces when she was still little. Like the bells she had seen on some toy clowns’ suits.

Then, slowly, as she stared, she began to make out a face in the dark. It seemed to have a white mouth, a blur that was ghostly and unformed, with a suggestion of a head and the body invisible. Like a head suspended in the darkness at the side of the tent… (p. 39).

All carnival creepiness aside, the dialogue was iffy in a few places – stiff at first, and in the first few chapters the girls sounded more like adults than eight and eleven years old – as was some of the characterization, but the majority was believable and engaging. Blane, for instance, jumped off the page and made me laugh out loud with some of his antics. Also, the plot held my attention while the main characters developed. There were a few times when Jensen repeated information which felt a bit like stalling. That could just be my impatience; I really wanted to find out what was going to happen next!

Here’s what you might not like:

  • Profanity
  • Sexual situations
  • Violence involving children
  • Graphic violence and murder
  • The ending doesn’t explain what “it” is, not exactly

Final thoughts

Jensen explores a world with which most of us are familiar – a carnival – using characters with whom we can all identify, and knows which “fear” button she wants to push and just when to push it. If clowns don’t frighten you, then 90% of this book will fall flat. However, if the mere description of a clown sends chills down your spine, then you should read this … during the day.

2 Replies to “House of Illusions by Ruby Jean Jensen

  1. Hm, sounds interesting. I might have to check this one out. This reminds me of another novel I once read about kids at carnivals called “The Traveling Vampire Show” by Richard Laymon. I highly recommend that one if you’ve never read it. I think you’d like it.

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