Thursday, 8 December 2016

Horror Classic Gamebooks

The year is 1986, and adventure gamebooks are hugely popular in Britain. (You might also know them as ‘interactive fiction’ or ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’.) The genre was popularised in Britain by the Fighting Fantasy series, which launched in 1982 and inspired dozens upon dozens of similar series. Some of these were great; some of them were The Cretan Chronicles. One gamebook author whose work definitely lands in the first category is J.H. Brennan.

Mr Brennan wrote three different series of gamebooks between 1984 and 1986. (He also wrote hundreds of other non-interactive books, mostly about the occult, and continues to write to this day, but we’ll stick to his gamebooks or this post could end up a bit too long.) First up was GrailQuest, which tried something few other series of the time did: being funny. Specifically, they were a Pythonesque parody of the legends of King Arthur. I revisited the eight-volume series for the writing of this post (collected via a mixture of second-hand bookshops and used Amazon purchases), and I was delighted to find they’d lost none of their charm from when I read them as a child. Although they were fairly short compared to Fighting Fantasy (the first volume had just over 150 sections, the later ones just over 200), Brennan managed to pack a lot into each one, came up with a lot of interesting innovations, and also devised what is possibly the best combat system for any role-playing game I’ve ever seen. But the surreal humour was undoubtedly the biggest selling point of the GrailQuest.

I’ve tried to find some short passages to represent the books’ comedy well. The problem is that my two absolute favourite examples (an encounter with a man-eating plant in Gateway of Doom and some instructions on building a boat in Voyage of Terror) both go on for several pages/sections and can’t really be reproduced in full as they’d be nearly as long as the whole of the rest of this post. So to substitute for them, here’s what happens if you attempt to fight a group of guards entering a corridor in Voyage of Terror:

This must be about the dumbest decision you’ve ever made in any adventure. There are now so many guards in the corridor that you’ve hardly room to use a weapon. There are guards swinging from the chandeliers and guards swarming up from trapdoors in the floor and guards dropping down from trapdoors in the ceiling. Outside, the countryside reverberates with the sound of guard armies moving. Overhead, huge flocks of birds are carrying in more guards. Beyond the island, navies of guards are in full sail. All converging on you!

Alright, so it’s a slight exaggeration. But there are still an awful lot of guards.

I cannot recommend these books highly enough to any gamebook fan. Most of them can still be found reasonably cheap online, although the last one seems to be a bit hard to find. There were plans to re-release them digitally a few years ago, but sadly these seem to have fallen through (if you have a correction on this, please let me know).

Brennan’s second series was the four-volume Sagas of the Demonspawn, which were aimed at a slightly older audience and played absolutely straight, and consequently I have much less to say about them. They weren’t bad (although the combat system was a bit convoluted), but they didn’t really capture my juvenile imagination in the way GrailQuest did. These were re-released digitally a few years ago, under the name The Sagas of Fire*Wolf.

The title of the third and final series, made up of just two titles, may not come as a surprise to anyone who has read the title of this post. The Horror Classic Gamebooks were (as far as I can tell) released simultaneously in 1986; the first was Dracula’s Castle, the second was The Curse of Frankenstein.

During my gamebook collecting, I only managed to find Dracula’s Castle. The gamebook is, as you might expect, loosely based on Bram Stoker’s novel, and it describes itself as thus:

By means of this technique, which has been exclusively developed for the Horror Classic gamebook series, a more varied and interesting adventure may be compressed into the available space. This has allowed a unique twin adventure format for the present book.

What this means in practice: the even-numbered sections of the book are all part of one adventure, and the odd-numbered sections form a second adventure. In the first adventure you play Jonathan Harker, and in the second you play the Count himself. Both adventures are set within Castle Dracula, which makes for some neat continuity between them (a secret priest hole that can be found in the same place in both adventures will completely heal Harker, but instantly kill Dracula). There are only 230 sections in total, so each individual adventure is probably among the shorter interactive fictions written, but as with GrailQuest Brennan manages to make them feel bigger than that.

In terms of writing, I’d say it falls somewhere between the other two series. It’s not as openly surreal or parodying as GrailQuest, but it’s not quite as dry as Demonspawn. It also contained some fairly traumatising moments for a young child:

There was certainly some humour to be found, though, and absolutely nothing can demonstrate it better than this line:

“What now?” you ask suspiciously, this being the only time you have managed to join a political party comprising mainly corpses by failing the entrance exam.

Although I was aware of the Frankenstein volume, I never owned it, although I knew it was similar in setup to the Dracula one: you played as either the eponymous creator or his monster. (The format so obviously lends itself to a Jekyll & Hyde one you have to wonder if there was some kind of copyright problem that stopped it from happening.) Earlier this month, though, I saw Andrew Ellard asking on Twitter about a gamebook he’d owned as a child but couldn’t remember the title/author of that I instantly recognised as being The Curse of Frankenstein. I also let him know of the existence of the Dracula one, and asked him if the Frankenstein one was quite as terrifying to small children.

His reply was no: that it was “funnier”, as he recalled. And I also noticed that in his initial description, he recalled it being a sequel to the original novel. Although I’d never read it, I had assumed that it was cut from much the same cloth as Dracula’s Castle (being released simultaneously and having the same internal illustrator), but this sounded much closer to GrailQuest. I was intrigued, and if there was another comedy gamebook from Brennan, I definitely wanted to read it. A quick check of Amazon informed me that a second-hand copy of The Curse of Frankenstein could be mine for £7 including postage.

(A quick note on the illustrations: Both books were internally illustrated by Tim Sell, who also provided the artwork for the infamous Fighting Fantasy book House of Hell and various other horror-based works. Mr Sell also provided the Christopher Lee-a-like Dracula for the cover of Dracula’s Castle, but for some reason it seems the cover of The Curse of Frankenstein was done by somebody else, credited only as “Prieto”.)

 A few days later, The Curse of Frankenstein arrived. And what was it like? The answer was… interesting. It was different, but not radically so, from Dracula’s Castle.

The first thing to note is that Andrew was absolutely right: the illustrations are far less extreme than the ones seen in Dracula’s Castle. (It also seemed like there might be fewer of them, but I haven’t counted.) If I hadn’t known, I’d be hard pressed to tell that the two books were illustrated by the same person. (Unfortunately my camera packed in during this part of the review, so I’m afraid you’ll have to take my word for it.) Perhaps this is a response to the text, as on the sliding scale of JH Brennan Gamebook Humour, Frankenstein is probably a step closer to GrailQuest than Dracula. Some of this takes the form of a rather appealing black, sardonic sense of humour. The monster’s possessions include a series of spare parts, including “large intestine (30 ft. coil)”, and a spare head, “which will save you from having to wash your face” if you use it; later in the novel, a running joke regarding Frankenstein’s continued paternal nature towards his creature, and the Creature’s mixed feelings towards “Papa”, is an undoubted highlight. There are also some… decidedly more surreal encounters.

It would be fair to say that both books are very loosely based on the original works. Dracula’s Castle features Harker and Dracula as the player characters, and Van Helsing as Dracula’s arch-enemy. There’s a brief appearance from the Brides of Dracula, but they’re the only other content from the original novel to make it in; not so much as a mention of Lucy Westenra, Mina, Seward, Morris or anyone else. Everything else is jettisoned; Harker arrives at Castle Dracula with not a sniff of his backstory, he’s just a solicitor who’s come to kill Dracula, and on the other side of the story, Van Helsing is Dracula’s arch-enemy of many years standing.

The Curse of Frankenstein takes a similar approach; it is apparently a sequel to a version where the Baron did not die at the end, and now both Creature and creator are lost in the Arctic, one seeking the other. (Unfortunately, both adventures begin with a lengthy, featureless maze in the Arctic wastelands, which makes them both feel very samey.) The ship Baron Frankenstein arrived at the North Pole on is a plot point, but there’s no Elizabeth, Justine, Captain Walton or anyone. However, Dracula managed to retain a flavour of the original text throughout, whereas Frankenstein features a number of surreal encounters which… don’t.

Case in point: a scenario where the Creature manages to accidentally dissolve all his clothes and has to find some more, but fortunately there’s a gnome who’s also a tailor who can make him an invisible suit. And Frankenstein finds a genie in a lamp. And there’s a death sequence in the Creature’s side of the adventure that is so utterly random and bizarre that I struggle to find how to put it into words whilst doing it justice, but to say that Charon shows up somehow and takes the Creature to the afterlife. All three of these encounters feel like something that didn’t make it into one of the last GrailQuest novels; they’re undoubtedly funny, but they’re totally divorced from the novel the gamebook is meant to be based on. The book also leans on the fourth wall at times (which GrailQuest did a hell of a lot), describing a coded message as “about as plain English as you are ever going to get in an adventure of this type”. Oh, and there’s also some ghosts at one point. And dinosaurs. Did I mention the polar trolls?

(There’s also a trap designed to catch out cheaters by asking the player if they have an item it is impossible to obtain – a fairly regular feature of some other gamebooks, especially Fighting Fantasy, but the only time it appears in a Brennan book to my knowledge.)

Apart from all that, The Curse of Frankenstein definitely feels like it belongs in the same series as Dracula’s Castle. If I had to guess, though, I would imagine that Frankenstein was written in a bit more of a rush – both adventures in that one seem to end a little abruptly in a way the Dracula ones don’t, and it would account for the more surreal or GrailQuest-ish moments (as well as a minor error where it breaks the rule that all the odd-numbered sections are one adventure and the even-numbered sections another). The Frankenstein one also has one feature imported from the GrailQuest – using a map to get around rather than making a choice from one of several numbered sections, something that appeared in every GrailQuest but the first. (Here are two examples from the excellent Demian’s Gamebook Webpage so you get the idea.)

Conclusion: Both recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review of Frankenstein. I’ve owned the Dracula novel since the 80s and always wondered what the other book in the series was like.