Zagor, in case you're wondering, is the eponymous villainous warlock from Steve Jackson's and Ian Livingstone's seminal gamebook The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, that unleashed the world of Fighting Fantasy upon - well - the world!
The origins of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain itself have been well documented elsewhere, not least in the 25th anniversary edition of the book that came out in 2007. It's been published all over the world, in numerous different editions and a plethora of languages. (It's even available as a Kindle edition now and a Nintendo DS game.) But for one eleven year-old boy, back in 1982, that one simple paperback changed the direction of his life forever.
I remember the day quite clearly. It was bright and sunny, and I had been dragged into town shopping with my mum. The usual round of shoe shops, food shops and kitchen shops was made all the more bearable by the promise of a visit to a bookshop at the end. Finally, I walked through the doors and was hit by the smell of dusty carpets and freshly-printed books – a smell I still savour today, along with the crack of a new hardback’s spine being broken for the first time. And there it was, on a small display in the middle of the shop – The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
The image on the cover, of the mysterious wizard summoning a dragon from his crystal ball, had me gripped. Then I opened the book.
Inside it was like nothing I had ever seen. It soon became apparent that this was not a book you simply read from cover to cover; you made decisions and turned to different paragraphs, and so directly influenced the course of the story yourself. Then there were the monsters, fabulous creatures of legend or the unfamiliar denizens of a new and terrible fantasy world. Not only that, but you fought them as well, rolling dice to determine the outcome of your battles with these horrors. And then there were Russ Nicholson’s magical illustrations.
I had read books with pen and ink illustrations before, but nothing like this! Having been brought up on a diet of the late Pauline Baynes’ Narnia pictures or those contained within the pages of an Enid Blyton adventure, images of horrific beasts, partially-eaten human remains and sinister sorcerers were a revelation!
I bought the book there and then – or rather, persuaded my mum to buy the book – took it home and devoured it. The reading experience would never be the same again. To say that I became obsessed with Fighting Fantasy would be an understatement. I collected the books religiously. I started writing my own. In time I was forced to stop buying every new publication because it was a craze I ‘should grow out of’. Throughout my school years my obsession with FF would come back to haunt me. ‘If only you put as much effort into your school work as you do into those adventures you’re always writing.’ But, in due course, I earned myself a fistful of qualifications and started thinking about what I wanted to do after I left school.
I got a place at university on a teacher training course, because received wisdom had it that writing was something you couldn’t make a living at. However, in between finishing school and starting Uni, rather than get a job for the summer like most of my friends, I started writing a pitch for my own Fighting Fantasy gamebook. It was rejected. I tried again. It was rejected again. I tried a different idea...
After my second year at university my job for the summer was to write a 40,000 word adventure entitled Spellbreaker, which was to be the fifty-third gamebook in the Fighting Fantasy range, and I’ve been published every year since.
This autumn I reach the milestone age of forty (hopefully!) and next year Fighting Fantasy will be celebrating its thirtieth birthday? Will it be a big event, with cake and party hats, or will it be a solitary affair, with a lone figure in a bar raising a nostalgic glass to a fondly remembered phenomenon? Who knows, but I, for one, like the elephant, will never forget. After all, I owe Zagor my career.