A bizarre misfire from horror guru Matheson (Earthbound, p. 727, etc.). The telling is sprightly, although at times its overbearing wordplay (not as witty as the author thinks) reads like an immature, uncontrolled Nabokov effort. Set almost entirely in a single room rigged for elaborate trickery, the story features a cast straight out of a revenge tragedy: the narrator, Emil Delacorte, a former magician crippled by a stroke; Maximilian, Emil's son and successor in the arts of legerdemain; Max's saucy, nefarious wife, Cassandra; her idiot brother, Brian; and Harry Kendal, Max's agent, who has a thing for Cassandra. Brian and Cassandra, it seems, have conspired to do in Max and pirate his act, which has lately lost some of its edge due to the poison that Cassandra has been sprinkling over her husband's food. When Harry shows up, at Max's behest, the plot accelerates through a series of false-bottom murders, starting with Harry's ``death,'' and employing such diverse props as blowguns and dueling pistols. A bumpkin sheriff materializes, only to be goaded by Max into a futile search for Harry's vanished corpse. Bookcases open to reveal hidden shrines, severed heads talk, blood drips, Max rants like an arch Svengali, and Matheson fumbles toward the revelation that Harry wasn't killed, only drugged, trussed, and stashed in an Egyptian burial case. From there, it doesn't take long before the novel develops a no-holds-barred stance toward phony identities, but it's a pity it has to happen via a tiresome parade of characters being unmasked (literally) as each other. Dead Harry becomes resurrected Harry. Cassandra becomes Brian, who becomes Cassandra again. Eventually, Max seems to surrender the mastery over events he has held for the bulk of the plot, but the last laugh is his, even if it echoes from beyond the grave. Unfortunately for Matheson, the reader may be laughing, too.