I was out at the bookstore yesterday with my 11 year-old daughter, looking for interesting new book series for her to take up. As I scanned the shelves, looking at series after series of Tolkien and Rowling wannabes (and quite a few vampire-themed books as well), my eyes nearly popped out of my head. What I saw was the cover to the right, whose image was completely unknown to me, but whose authors and, more importantly, whose title were not. Needless to say, I picked up the book immediately and flipped through its pages, worried that I might find completely new -- and completely inappropriate -- art. No need to worry: Russ Nicholson's moody, occasionally surreal art was still there, just as it had been back in 1983 when I first encountered The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and fell in mad love with it.
I doubt I need to explain what the Fighting Fantasy books are, but, on the off-chance that someone out there doesn't remember these books, I'll briefly explain. Fighting Fantasy was a series of choose-your-own-adventure books conceived by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, the founders of the British game company Games Workshop. Back in ancient times, before computers were on every desktop in the Western world, choose-your-own-adventure books were a big deal and there were lots of knock-offs of Edward Packard's original concept. But what made the Fighting Fantasy books so remarkable -- besides that they directly tapped into RPG-style fantasy -- was that, in addition to providing the reader with a narrative based on his choices, there were also elements reminiscent of tabletop gaming. Your character had stats, for example, and you had to use dice to adjudicate combat and certain other actions. Thus, it was perfectly possible to die not just to bad decisions as in other choose-your-own-adventure books but also due to bad dice rolls in combat or in trying to avoid some nasty surprise. This addition made the books perfect for RPG-enthralled kids like me who were in the car or on vacation away from his usual gaming buddies.
It's also hard to stress the importance of the Fighting Fantasy books were in introducing me to what nowadays we simply call "British fantasy." Back then, especially to someone living on the other side of the Atlantic, there was no such blanket term for the dark, moody, sometimes grubby, often surreal lovechild of Moorcock and Tolkien by way of 2000 A.D. comics that I first encountered through the pages of Fighting Fantasy. My encounter with it came at just the right time too, providing a much-needed antidote to the antiseptic, mass market-friendly art of Larry Elmore and his imitators that was increasingly coming to be the face of American fantasy gaming. I fell both in love and in fear with artists like Nicholson, Ian Miller, John Blanche, and others who presented me with a totally different take on fantasy than the bland, family-friendly stuff that TSR was serving up. Theirs was a decidedly dangerous world; it was gloomy and monster-filled and venturing too far off any road was a sure way to get yourself killed. There was a creepy, "dark fairy tale" quality to the art -- perhaps "dreamlike" or "nightmarish" might be better terms. You were quite clearly in a world of fantasy, not just the Real World-with-Elves, and that had a powerful effect on me as a teenager.
I was an avid reader of Fighting Fantasy books for the next few years, culminating in my time as an exchange student in England in 1987, when I spent a significant portion of my meager funds on picking up not only volumes of the series that never made it to the US but also UK editions of some of those I already owned. The covers of the American editions, though quite good in many cases -- how could they not be, since Richard Corben did some of them? -- lacked that surreal, hallucinogenic quality that so enthralled me and so I sought out the British originals. I still have them somewhere, along with all my other Fighting Fantasy books. One day, maybe I'll bring them out of storage and venture back into the world they describe. I had a great deal of fun with them throughout the 80s and they've been a huge, if often subconscious influence, on the way I imagine fantasy worlds and their inhabitants. I'm not an uncritical devotee of British Fantasy like many North Americans I've known, but there's no question in my mind that my imagination is the better for having had an alternative to the clean, blandified artwork TSR gave us throughout too much of the 1980s and I have Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone to thank for having introduced me to it.