Reviewed by Chris Bolton
Revisiting your childhood is a dangerous business. You must approach it cautiously, for the things that tickled you in your youth sometimes sour as you reach adulthood.
If you wish to revisit the Choose Your Own Adventure series, go to 2. If you would rather investigate the strange haunted house on top of the craggy hill at the end of your cul-de-sac, where Bigfoot has been spotted roaming around, go to 3.
You remember the covers more than anything. The simple white background with the red band on top -- "Choose Your Own Adventure" -- and the sensational illustration depicting Abominable Snowpeople, dinosaurs attacking spaceships, children fleeing from exploding houses, and so much more.
Then there was the second-person narration, which told you what you were thinking and saying and even what you did for a living. Although it involved you immediately in the story, you always found that a little strange. And kind of presumptuous.
The premise was deliciously simple: as you read the story, you frequently encountered a narrative crossroads that let you decide which path to take. If you want to find out more about these books, go to 4. If you'd rather skip these childish monkeyshines and shenanigans, and read a more sophisticated review about a more important literary offering, click here.
Walking up the long, winding driveway with the treacherously steep, 200-foot cliffs dropping off to either side, you are attacked and eaten -- ironically, not by the fabled Bigfoot, but by a random wild dog. The End
The Choose Your Own Adventure books were first published in 1979 by Bantam Books and continued until 1998. The height of their popularity was in the early- to mid-1980s, in the dark days when even video games were either text-based or close to it, with the most elementary, sprite-based graphics imaginable. (Remember "Adventure" for the Atari 2600? Ooooh, courageous squares battling deadly squares -- exciting!)
Now the series is being republished (with additional new volumes) by a publisher called Chooseco. Curious, you have selected two promising entries -- one old, one new. To read about R. A. Montgomery's classic House of Danger, go to 6. To read about Ken McMurtry's brand-new Zombie Penpal, go to 5.
So, now, the tricky part: how to take an artifact from the previous century (called a "book") and make it relevant to today's internet-addicted youngsters? Actually, this one isn't so hard, since kids make up a far greater and more lucrative market for books than adults do. Sales of kid-lit are at an all-time high -- and while the crustiest amongst us may scoff at frivolous stories of wizardry and vampire romance, it can't be denied that those books are spawning a generation of enthusiastic readers.
It's only natural that the Choose Your Own Adventure books, in introducing new volumes to the series, would exploit the current zombie craze (or, wait -- has that already been replaced by werewolves? I've lost track) with a volume titled Zombie Penpal.
If you want to explore the labyrinthine plot of the book, go to 7. If you'd prefer to find out if it's any good, go to 8.
There were several writers working on the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books, but R. A. Montgomery was certainly the most prolific. In addition to writing far more of the books than anyone else, Montgomery's bio claims he has "hiked the Himalayas, climbed mountains in Europe, scuba-dived in Central America, and worked in Africa." All of which should make him the preeminent expert on exotic adventures and lend an air of total authenticity to a book like, say, House of Danger.
The story places the reader in the role of a young detective (is there any other kind?) who receives a mysterious late-night phone call warning of, well, danger. Luckily, you have a "telephone-tracing device" (standard-issue in the mid-1980s) that gives you an address -- and right away you're faced with your first choice: do you visit this address alone, or place a call to your neighborhood friends who have helped with previous cases?
If you're the sort of person who would stumble into danger all by yourself, go to 9. If you wouldn't take a single step without consulting your friends, go to 10.
The book is titled Zombie Penpal and you want a plot?! Just as your intrepid reviewer is about to type up a synopsis, the walls begin rattling around you. Pale, decomposing hands erupt through shattered glass and the undead horde pull themselves in through broken windows, their rotting teeth chattering with deadly force. In your final, shriek-filled moments on this Earth, you curse yourself for being so curious... The End
Zombie Penpal isn't going to win any fiction awards -- but 99% of all books published never do, anyway. On the other hand, if you're a young reader who is into zombies, there's a lot to appreciate here: voodoo priests, zombie classmates, midnight rendezvous in graveyards... The 10-year-old you would likely eat this up like a zombie being served a platter of chilled, spiced brains.
The adult you may squirm at some of the thin characterizations, cheesy (mostly exclamatory!) dialogue, and unbelievably random plot twists -- not to mention a character named Professor Gaga, who (near as I can tell) never actually breaks out into a hit pop song. But did you really care about any of these things when you were 10 years old? (If you did, go to 11.)
To find out the best parts of these books, go to 12.
A troubling facet of these books for adult minds may be the ability to change not only your fate with a simple choice, but the entire world. Depending on which path you take, the haunted Civil War prison that is at the center of House of Danger may involve something as innocuous as a counterfeiting ring, as nefarious as time travel and sinister aliens... or even as baffling as evil, sentient chimpanzees with a freeze ray (no, I'm not making that up).
Can we really change every aspect of our existence by making a simple choice? If you challenge this notion, go to 13. To find out the best parts of House of Danger, go to 12.
Some paths are obvious in the Choose Your Own Adventure books. But even seemingly wise choices can have fatal consequences. That randomness is part of the charm, and helps keep the better books from feeling too easy or predictable. In House of Danger, consulting your friends leads to a separate narrative path with many possible outcomes. In this review, it causes your computer to short out just as a tidal wave crashes down around you. The resulting sparks create a bright, beautifully intense light that is the last thing you see before The End.
As you start typing your comment complaining about the lack of depth in the writing of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, noting in a Harold Bloom-ish tone that children were much smarter and read far more sophisticated works in the days of your hallowed youth, you suddenly find your fingers have seized up on the keyboard. It seems the toxic gas that has been causing a mysterious zombie plague has seeped in through your windows (curse that cheap sealant!) and is transforming you into the very sub-literary cliche you so detest. You would scream, "Oh, tragic irony!" if only you could say anything more eloquent than, "Braaaaaaaaaains..." The End
In the Choose Your Own Adventure books, the wrong choice can lead to death, dismemberment, or worse. In fact, I would argue that the best part of reading these books, even as a kid, is flipping through and finding the various gruesome ends that await a wrong choice -- or even just an arbitrarily unlucky one.
A couple of my favorites from House of Danger (spoiler alerts!):
"Now I'll deal with you rebels," growls the man....As he says this, he lashes out with the whip. Sharp pain bites into your shoulder. You feel faint. As you lose consciousness and fall to the stone floor, you hear only the terrified screams of Ricardo and Lisa. The End
The violence of the conflict between you and this evil force is so great that it begins to destroy the fabric of time and space itself. Slowly you and the professor fade until you disappear into another dimension of the universe. The End
Of course, not all the endings are downbeat -- but where's the fun in a happy ending when you could wind up like this:
Then the man takes out a rubber stamp from his other pocket and stamps your forehead:
HUMAN MEAT -- GALACTIC PRIME
SOURCE -- PLANET EARTH
To find out the best parts of Zombie Penpal, go to 14. To wrap up this review, go to 15.
As you're thinking deeply on this philosophical quagmire, you fail to notice the extraterrestrial ninjas descending from the ceiling. You have just enough time to ponder whether a different choice would have turned them into cuddly, tap-dancing kitty cats before you spot a flash of steel in your peripheral vision and feel your own head spinning as you hear it thump-thump-thumping across the floor. Needless to say, you've reached The End.
Unfortunately, it seems that modern Choose Your Own Adventure installments are required to be much, much tamer than their decades-old counterparts. While the untimely demises of House of Danger are deliciously macabre and add to the fun, the worst fate you can expect in Zombie Penpal is the suggestion that you start over. It's a shame that Chooseco's editors seem to have gotten so squeamish. Perhaps something that was recently dead but decided not to stay that way devoured their braaaaaaaaaaaains. The End
Of course, revisiting the past is always tricky. I can't rightly say that even the best Choose Your Own Adventure books offer anything like the rewards of great modern kids' books, like the hilarity of Louis Sachar or the thrills of Suzanne Collins. Still, the books entertained me when I was little, and I suspect the classic ones still have quite a punch for modern young readers.
And, if I cheated now and again by marking a turning point with my thumb so I could go back if my tale ended badly... well, perhaps that's a valuable life skill I managed to bring with me into adulthood. If you agree, go to 16. If you disagree, go to 13.
Good choice. You have discovered a treasure trunk of riches and a deep, satisfying, lifelong love that will accompany you as you traverse the globe in your private luxury jet, enjoying many exotic adventures. The End
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Chris Bolton co-created the all-ages webcomic Smash, which will be published by Candlewick Press in 2011, and created the web-series Wage Slaves, now in its second season. His short story "The Red Room" was published in Portland Noir from Akashic Books.
Books mentioned in this post