Gamebook store

Friday 30 August 2013

A great black bird, Apollyon's bosom-friend...

What makes Oliver Johnson's The Lord of Shadow Keep so memorable? It's a question I've been asking myself for nearly thirty years. After all that time, the only answer I have, while not  particularly satisfying, is that it's talent. It's artistry. It's a dash of what we call genius.That's what makes the difference between a simple solo dungeon and an imaginative journey you can believe in.

You see - being honest now - Oliver is not great on rules. Unlike me, he won't do a detailed map and intricate flowcharts. Having a background in English literature, he doesn't share my scientist's delight at probabilities, patterns and problem-solving. And he doesn't write as fast, while I can churn this stuff out by the yard.

I'm not saying my writing is bad, mind you. People have been complimentary about lines like this:
By day you sail on lavender waves under a vault of azure and gold. By night the sails gleam dazzlingly white in the rays of the moon, and each star finds its twin in the dark ocean depths.
So there's some poetry in my soul too. It's not all equations and graphs. But literary talent has never been about pretty writing - it's about that and much more. It's the ability to convey a palpable atmosphere, a resonance of theme, to vividly evoke character, and to give the sense of the author's personal presence through the voice of their writing.

So if I had written Shadow Keep - or co-written it, as originally intended - you would have got an adventure with some clever puzzles, a map that made sense, encounters that were balanced according to the statistics of 2d6 rolls. Even nice writing. But you wouldn't have got that strange, Gothic-drenched, opiated dream quality that Oliver does as naturally as breathing, because it's something he absorbed into his pores while studying Byron and Shelley and those other poetical fellows. The only recent example of such exquisite pre-Victorian Gothic Romanticism to match it is in Fumito Ueda's Ico and Shadow of the Colossus games. Watch for that same flavour in Oliver's forthcoming fantasy series The Knight of the Fields.

The Shadow Keep cover painting by Bruno Elletori (or Elettori, or Ellitori, depending on how long the cover designer spent at lunch that day) is not really ideal. The illustrations should have been by a Victorian artist thoroughly steeped in Gothic. For the interiors on this new edition, we've used Irish artist Harry Clarke, best known for his Edgar Allan Poe illustrations. I know purists will grumble. We'll get some withering reviews on Amazon for changing things around. But you can still get the original version for a penny, so no harm done.

If you want to see the Gothic design for the new edition, it's out now from Fabled Lands Publishing. At a cost of more than a penny, I'm afraid, but we'll be sure to spend the profits on laudanum, quills and parchment for the next great Johnson opus.


  1. I have this book (of course) but haven't read it in well...i don't know, over 25 years probably (which yes, means i was a child when i last read it...i've been working my way through my 200+ gamebooks but it takes a while though all the other Golden Dragon i've reread in the past two years). Now I want to go and reread it.

    I always thought the Elletori covers were pretty amazing in the style. But it is true this cover isn't very gothic. My favorite cover of the original series is probably Castle of Lost souls. I found it genuinely scary as a kid. And the colors are great. It's very atmospheric. Crypt of the Vampire would come in second, also scary for a child. And also, why i liked them (something which americans never understood with their lame covers with children on them..look, if it looked like a children's book, i didn't want it!)

    It's too bad that in the original version these pretty covers were all a little ruined by that awful logo (which i know you complained about many times before) and sometimes too the font of the titles. I also have the french ones and the covers are easier to appreciate on those.

    Anyway, they might not cost a penny but 6$ or so is a damn good price for a new book! Wouldn't that have been about what they cost way back in the day? It's like i'm back in 1986 except we have the internet! I think the low price + new illustrations means you have me convinced. I think i'm gonna be getting all of them now. You know what this means right? Having to conceal those purchases from my gf lest i want to face the uncomfortable "but...don't you already have those?" question to which i can only lamely answer something like "Yeah but see these are a different edition and and..." followed by mumbling while gf raises an uncomprehending and somewhat disapproving eyebrow. Sometimes people they just DON'T understand.

    1. Bruno had a kind of Frazetta-lite style that makes me realize now I was very lucky to get him. The US covers of the Golden Dragon books, though... what were they thinking?

      I've just bought the Creepy Presents Steve Ditko book despite having all Ditko's Creepy and Eerie stories in magazine form. And I had to give in and buy the new Gollancz hardcover of Lyonesse despite having both UK and US paperbacks of the entire series. On top of which, I have proof copies of the new GD books but I wrote notes in those, so I just had to order an additional set to sit pristine on my bookshelves... Women don't seem to have this gene :-)

  2. Well no, my friends. They just don't have it! :)

    In my house I'm very close to the point where it's the books or me, so I can't really afford to buy these new editions. But the originals (and the Italian edition) will always have their place on my shelf :)

    1. Well, Efrem, it's with that bookshelf problem in mind that we are releasing Kindle editions of the four Virtual Reality books :)