Felt Trips: “Horror Swamp” by Paul Gorman

If you want to go north, turn to 356. If you want to go south, turn to 197. If you want to spend fifteen minutes discovering how two eleven-year-olds from Fife spent their final year at primary school trying to forge a Fighting Fantasy gamebook empire at the expense of their local education authority, read on…

By the mid-1980s, the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were providing a vital childhood escape route from the humdrum of the everyday. Their relentless invasion of grey-painted classrooms, musty school libraries and cluttered adolescent bedrooms helped transport a generation of kids from the torpor of dreary geography homework to the perilous swamps, forests and deserts of Allansia; where goblins, warlocks and green-eyed skeletons were swiftly dispatched with the swish of a sword and the roll of a die. The Forest of Doom was my personal favourite, and – for the first few months of 1984 – it was rare that my ten-minute bus journey to Levendale Primary School didn’t take a swift detour past Yaztromo’s Tower.

Many of us tried to create our own Fighting Fantasy books from scratch, spending our weekends and school holidays swearing softly at over-complicated flowcharts or – more likely – just drawing the pictures and the cover, and wishing the accompanying 40,000 words of rip-roaring swords ‘n’ sorcery adventure would somehow just magic themselves into existence. Possibly with the help of Yaztromo. Among them was Paul Gorman, who had quite clearly read this…

…. and was keen to have a crack at creating his own, suspiciously similar-looking alternative. Over to you, Paul:

“1986, and our final year of Primary School. While the rest of the class were tumbling and stretching their way to BAGA Gymnastic qualifications, four of us – myself, Will, Rick and David – spent our afternoons designing, drawing and (sometimes) writing our own ‘Swords & Sorcery’ adventure gamebooks.

In the same way that rip-offs are diplomatically advertised as ‘being in the tradition of’ an original work, so our felt-tip, biro and Tipp-Ex efforts were ‘in the tradition of’ Fighting Fantasy

We began with plans for four books: one each. Rick’s Volcano of Terror led the way. Mine, with a cover directly copied from the Fighting Fantasy book Scorpion Swamp, was the second in the series and was called Horror Swamp. Then came David’s Key to Freedom and Will’s Caves of Time.

Will devised the battle mechanism: toss a coin, twice. If both times it turns up heads, you win! One of each? ‘Keep trying!’ Brutally hard as far as gameplay goes, but brilliantly simple to remember.

And we knew how to promote them, too. My Robin Hood series (inspired, of course, by Robin of Sherwood) promised an ‘epic new adventure’, and the strapline for Caves of Time was ‘Get the treasure, not easy!’

These weren’t mine and Will’s first attempts at writing a book. A few years earlier, we had (no doubt like many other kids our age) shamelessly ripped off Star Wars with a joint effort at a story – illustrated, and which we fully intended to make into a movie – called Star Battle. The heroes were called Luke and Wedge, the robot sidekicks looked strangely familiar (but it wasn’t a complete copy because look! One of them hovers!) and the baddy was called CyclaVader.

But back to the gamebooks…

It quickly became clear that conceptualising (as we would never have called it) was the fun part. We must have planned over thirty books between us. Some existed only as placeholder numbers in the series; some had titles; some had covers. Very few were written to completion: the breadth of our imagination was, alas, matched only by the narrowness of our talents.

Among many others, I planned (or at least drew the cover for) a pirate adventure whose title was supposed to suggest the illicit thrills of high seas gambling, but Dealing with Death unfortunately sounded more like a self-help guide.

Ambition met reality when I sellotaped two jotters together for a sci-fi epic called Starship Disaster. I was particularly proud of the cover, but my enthusiasm died once I realised I could never hope to fill the 800 paragraphs that the two jotters demanded.

I have to add a quick, belated word of acknowledgement for the authority that unwittingly funded our creativity: North-East Fife District Council Education Department. Apart from the first four, for which we were given encouragement by our teacher Mrs. Birrell, every jotter we used thereafter was filched from the school’s stationery cupboard.

David lost interest early on and Rick a little later. I assumed for a long time that mine and Will’s interest in gamebooks petered out by the end of primary school, but a deeper dig in the attic has shown a more advanced cover by Will (always the best artist among us) for a proposed omnibus edition of my Golden Sword series, under the new ‘imprint’ of ‘Gamebook Developments’. It’s dated 1987, by which time we were in high school, and I have no memory of it at all.

Soon afterwards we discovered what we assumed was more grown-up fantasy (Tolkien, Terry Brooks), and then the 1980s horror boom. This, almost predictably, led to me and Will writing short stories ‘in the tradition of’ Stephen King and James Herbert with our series of ‘Uncanny Tales’. But that’s another story…”

Thanks Paul! His excellent ‘Into The Gyre’ blog is here…

https://intothegyre.wordpress.com/

And here’s Will…

http://williampinfold.com/


Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

Felt Trips: “The Glade of the Willowmen” by Bob Fischer

In dusty cardboard boxes, shoved to the back of cobweb-strewn attics; so many of us seem to have held on proudly to the artwork of our childhoods. Completely unfettered by either ambition or inhibition, drawn or painted purely for pleasure, these crumpled sheets and exercise books almost comprise a record of the national childhood psyche of the era. Favourite books, comics, films and TV shows were enthusiastically aped, and brand new creations were pulled straight from our teeming imaginations.

I’ve decided to expand the blog a little with a collaborative gallery of childhood artwork from the era, and would love to receive submissions. But I’ll start off with one of my own:

Drawn towards the end of 1984, this was my attempt to create the cover of a Fighting Fantasy role-playing book, and one that I full intended to write. Except, of course, I never any got further than the illustration that you see above. I was approaching my twelfth birthday, and the influence of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s best-selling books had seeped into my creative pores. In addition, there was the seismic impact that The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, Alan Garner’s barnstorming brace of folklore-influenced childrens’ books, had made on me: I’d read both books earlier in the year, following a priceless, life-changing school library tip-off from the softly-spoken and impressively moustachioed Mr Millward.

So I’d become entranced by the imagery and the atmosphere of British folklore; of wraith-like spirits darting between trees, and horned (pronounced, obviously, as two syllables) Old Gods rising from the mists. The illustration above clearly owes a lot to the depiction of Herne the Hunter in HTV’s Robin of Sherwood, also broadcast earlier in 1984:

But, oddly enough, I’d also been captivated by this TV advertisement for “Shell Grip” road surfacing, with a silent role for North-Eastern legend Tim Healy, and a typically chilling voiceover from John Hurt:

So the idea of terrifying folkloric figures teeming from the woodland glades of 1984, on a wet country lane potentially somewhere near my house, was too much to resist. I distinctly remember sitting in my bedroom one autumnal evening, filled with a sensation that there was “magic in the air” (I actually had this phrase in my head) and fired with a burning determination that the book simply had to be written.

Which, obviously, it never was. Not a word of it. But drawing the cover with felt-tip pens is further progress than I’ve made on virtually any other book since.

I would love Felt Trips to become a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.