Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Near where I’m living at the moment in temporary digs, across the expanse of motorway, there’s Osterley Bookshop - a cool old second-hand place, the kind that you don’t often get in London anymore. There’s the kind of musty old smell in this place that you don’t get in Waterstone's. Paperback novels are piled up to the ceiling, often haphazardly on the floor; to get to the counter, you have to go through a maze of bookshelves reaching to the ceiling, all crammed with frequently crumbling books and esoterica. Everything’s slightly badly organised (but in a good way). To call the attention of whoever’s running the shop that day (it always seems to change), you have to ring a bell, and while s/he takes your money, they sell various kitchen tea sets and jumble sale stuff in an adjacent room. In the fantasy section, I couldn’t help but notice some Fighting Fantasy titles – and straight away they brought back lots of memories.

For those who are either too young or never read them, these enormously successful books, which probably reached their pinnacle in the mid to late 80s, were single-player role-play gamebooks created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (who I think run Games Workshop now), loosely based around a Lord Of The Rings-style fantasy theme (although it cast its net wide, embracing sci-fi, horror stories, pirates, vampires, and Mad Max-style Scorched Earth apocalyptic post-disaster themes). Each book would have 300-400 numbered ‘Sections’, through which the reader would progress, starting at Section 1. The reader’s protagonist would be given a choice of which subsequent Section to turn to at each one (“turn to Section 140 to fight the orc with your Sword of Gravalan, or turn to Section 320 to run away!”). To ‘win’ each book, you needed to get to Section 400. Along the way, you would know that your protagonist had lost, and needed to start the whole thing again, if you got to a Section where there was no subsequent Section to turn to (with your protagonist’s death usually described in melodramatic language: “Your will snaps. You scream in anguish and despair…You cease to exist. You are a Slave Warrior, a mindless minion of the Warlord of the Portal”. Or: “Dwarven Slave Warriors meet you as you run for the doors. Your adventure ends here”). Of course, you could always just cheat, but that’s sort of beside the point. Skill, Stamina, and Luck would also be a big component of the protagonist’s make-up, dictated by much dice rolling (in a similar manner to Dungeons & Dragons), and would be particularly important when fighting foes, whose Skill and Stamina would be pitted against yours. The most famous was undoubtedly the first in the series: The Warlock of the Firetop Mountain (pictured above). However, my personal favourite was Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series, which was essentially one long adventure spread out over four books, with the whole thing a bit Lord of the Rings, right down to the climax taking part in an evil castle in a bleak, treeless Mordor-style environment. In between, the reader navigated cities, deserts, forests and Lord know what else. I discovered this site recently, which lists every single one of them (so someone was even more obsessive than me), original 80s edition Puffin covers and all, and those front covers brought back so many memories. These books were my lifeblood when I was about ten, when I would go down to WH Smith in Wood Green (the highlight of glamour, I know), and head straight to the fantasy bit of the book section. These are the ones I’m pretty sure I played, but there were probably others in the collection I tried out, too (including the Island of the Lizard King, which definitely wasn't about Jim Morrison). Who else remembers them?


And, of course, the afore-mentioned Sorcery series:

Images: jammajup.co.uk/fantasy-books.html

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