Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Choose Your Own Adventure 31: Vampire Express

While many books in the Choose Your Own Adventure series utilised horror elements, only a few of the books were explicitly horror-themed.

Vampire Express is one of the more obvious horror entries, but it's also one of my favorite books in the series. The atmosphere, artwork, and plot are well executed, and there are a lot of memorable moments, no matter which path you take.

The book begins with you taking a train into the Carpathian mountains (an area with historic connections to vampires) to meet your uncle, the world's most knowledgeable expert on vampires.  He's planning an expedition that will scientifically prove that vampires actually exist.

The book never bothers to explain what your parents think of sending their kid on a potentially lethal mission like this, but that's par for the course in the CYOA universe.  The artwork depicts a kid that looks maybe 15 or so, so it's reasonable to speculate on the fitness of the parents.

But I digress...

Your uncle has gathered together a group of people to help him on his adventure.  Nina (who is conveniently about your age) is your partner throughout most of the book.  She is accompanying her elderly aunt who has a magic painting and necklace that are thought to be connected to vampires in some way.

The plot kicks off when Nina's aunt goes missing with the pendant. From that point, you've got to find her, keep the painting and necklace safe, and hopefully find a way to kill the vampires.

On your journey you might also encounter Phaino (a flamboyant magician), Professor Hartz, (a skeptic), or friendly gypsies. They're all associates of your uncle, but they're not accessible on every readthrough.

Count Zoltan and his wife Carmilla serve as the primary antagonists, and they're a creepily effective pair.  There are a lot of creatively grisly ways they can kill you, so they come off as credible opponents, especially for a book aimed at kids. 

As far as the adventure paths go, this book avoids any boring paths while still allowing the reader to experience different approaches to solving the problems.  Professor Hartz's path reads more like a mystery, Phaino prefers to try to trap the vampires, while the gypsies employ magic.

My favorite path is the one with your uncle, however.  That one features the party being chased by wolves while trying to find their way through a snowy forest.  And then one of your party is lost in the chase when a heavy fog rolls in... 

This sets up a memorable confrontation at the vampire's castle that leads to some of the best endings in the book (which include some particularly nasty deaths).

The interior artwork by Doug Jaimeson also helps add to the atmosphere (Paul Granger did the cover). While the art is occasionally too dark and sketchy for it's own good, there area lot of great pieces that really capture the mood beautifully.  The most horrifying is probably the one that shows you being swarmed by poisonous spiders while trying to climb the castle walls.

Needless to say, it doesn't go well for you...

Which brings me to the subject of endings.

The earlier books sometimes suffered from having too many endings and not enough story in between, but this book hits the sweet spot at 21 endings which is just about optimal. There are a lot of ways to win, and there are a lot of really horrible things that can happen to you, but on the whole, I feel that this book has some of the best ones in the series.

The necklace and painting figure prominently in most of the stories, and using them effectively is important in defeating the vampires. While the painting can kill the vampires, the necklace protects them from it. Needless to say, the vampires want both items and you've got to keep them from getting them.

While it's possible to defeat the vampires in many different ways, there's only one way to do it without the painting (by using fire).  The traditional methods of beheading and pounding a stake through the heart are not mentioned, perhaps because they were considered too violent for a kids series.  Then again, given the horrible things that happen to the reader in the average CYOA book, it seems a little hypocritical to worry about cruelty to vampires.

Of course, in a book like this, the bad endings are as just as fun as the good endings (and often much more fun!).  In addition to the spider ending posted above, you can be turned into a vampire, crushed in a trap in the vampires castle, drive the train off of a cliff, or abandoned in a village full of hungry zombies. 

There are also a couple of mediocre endings where you survive, but fail to defeat the vampires, and even one where you wake up and it was all a dream (lame).  There are even two gonzo endings that end up with you teleported out of the adventure (in one case to an alien slave planet).

As a gamebook, some might be annoyed by the fact that there is no way to achieve the goal set out in the first page; to scientifically prove that vampires exist. Although one ending implies that such proof might be found, it never gives it to you outright.  

One could also fault it for having too many was to succeed, but I've always viewed the CYOA books as as a story series rather than a game, so that's a minor niggle.  The goal is to have some good spooky fun, and this book does that well.

One of the things I like most about this book is how consistent the plot elements are.  While a lot of CYOA book have plots that change radically depending on which choices you make, the plot in Vampire Express builds up additional layers on each readthrough.

For example, when Professor Hartz tells you that Phaino is useless, it actually turns out to be true.  While Phaino is friendly, he's also dangerously incompetent. If you do actually succeed, it won't be because he did anything useful. 

All of this serves to give Vampire Express a much richer reading experience than the typical CYOA book.  Because the story is better than average, and because of the dark nature of the story, it feels a lot more "adult" than most entries in the series.  While kids should eat this up, adults that didn't grow up with CYOA books may find it a bit thin and unsatisfying without the nostalgia factor to cushion their expectations.

On the other hand, I know a lot of parents that enjoy these as much as their kids do, so your mileage may vary.

Personally, I still get a kick out of it, and I find a lot of inspiration in it as a DM.  This book really gets my creative juices flowing and I have borrowed a lot of great ideas from it.  It could even be modified for use as an actual module for Call of Cthulhu or the Masque of the Red Death setting for Ravenloft.

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