Weird and creepy and so very '80s, the Magic Mystery series is strictly for gamebook collectors looking for closure.
Publisher/date: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1985
Format: American-style, large format, full colour paperback
Date entered collection: 1 November 2016
I came across the first three entries of the Magic Mystery series in Fully Booked, a small but well-stocked secondhand bookstore at the top end of High Street, Thornbury. This is pretty much right at the high-water mark of gentrification in inner Melbourne. Go further north and you head into Preston and Reservoir, where the rising tide of gentrification has reached only mperfectly, leaving in its wake a changeable intertidal zone of shallow rock pools teeming with newly arrived hipsters and young families separated by great tracts of exposed reef and sand where old-school Aussie battlers and more recently arrived migrants hang on to their unrenovated and increasingly valuable Edwardians and California bungalows with the grim tenacity of limpets. It must mean something that a secondhand bookstore specialising in philosophy and politics marks the boundary between these two social worlds
Fully Booked is one of those secondhand bookstores where there’s a cat dozing in the front window among the Brechts and Chekovs. Next door is Umberto’s Espresso Bar, an old Italian café that in recent years been revamped to suit the changing demographics of the area. One of my favourite things to do when I have a rare, free Saturday afternoon has been to pop down to the bookstore, buy something interesting, and then sit outside in the sun next door at Umberto’s for a flat white or two.
There were only four books published in the Magic Mystery series, all released by Macmillan in 1985. The first three volumes all follow the same basic premise, so it’s a pretty safe bet the fourth book does too. In Magic Mystery “You” are a youngish teenager who stumbles across some kind of fiendish criminal plot while holidaying in the English countryside. For example, in Secret of White Monks Abbey it’s an evil spymaster attempting to make robotic replicas of world leaders, while in The Mind Master a hypnotist is brainwashing guests at a luxury health to commit all manners of crimes. You know, exactly the kind of things that used to happen during the Cold War, like, all the time.
This is real 1980s children’s adventure storytelling. As a kid of approximately middle school age, “You” are plucky and resourceful but nevertheless remain vulnerable at the hands of the evil antagonists. As a result there’s no combat in these books – instead you’ll find yourself sneaking around darkened corridors and peering through windows in an attempt to solve the mystery. There’s also lots of running away and trying to get help from your uncle/parents/local police officer.
The stories themselves are fairly disposable. It’s hard to feel overly involved in a narrative where so many seemingly random events happen to your character (see gameplay below for more on this). Also, there’s no actual magic in the stories despite it being mentioned in the series’ title. Disappointing! [Editor’s note – in the same year as Magic Mystery came out Macmillan released another large format gamebook series with full colour illustrations called Magic Voyage, which featured science fiction stories set in the future. It’s possible that the publishers planned for the two lines of books to be companion series under the “Magic” headline to denote their gamebook status.]
However, one thing the books do achieve quite well is to maintain a surprisingly creepy atmosphere, which comes across most strongly in the weirdly static and threatening illustrations (which I’ll also get to in a moment). Think of The Famous Five meets Tales of the Unexpected, and you’ll get a sense of how these books read.
This is probably the weakest aspect of the Magic Mystery series. If you were feeling generous you could say that the books offer a kind of sandboxy, exploration-focussed gameplay, where your choices lead to unexpected and surprising situations. But if you were being honest you might also conclude that the decision tree structures of the books are hopelessly incoherent and random, not to mention rife with circular pathways and narrative inconsistencies. Aside from poor plotting, some of these problems come down to the short length of the books. Each volume is only 46 pages long, which means there’s simply not enough space to build a satisfyingly complex and connected branching narrative.
In contrast to the gameplay, the look of the books and in particular the illustrations are their strongest selling point. Each page features eye-catching illustrations done in full colour, a fairly rare format used by gamebooks publishers. The style is strongly reminiscent of 1980s comic books, with lots of detailed line drawings coloured with pastel pinks, blues and greens.
Whereas the prose is fairly straightforward and descriptive the illustrations are surprisingly atmospheric, not to mention downright creepy at times. To give my favourite example, check out the close-up from Secret of White Monks Abbey (shown right). This is exactly what it looks like: a picture of a fly crawling across the unblinking eye of a Margaret Thatcher android. As if the Iron Lady wasn’t scary enough in real life already ..
The Magic Mystery series suffer from poor storytelling and too few pages to sustain a particularly enjoyable or memorable gamebook experience. However, their nicely executed illustrations and creepily atmospheric feel give them a unique place in any gamebook collection. Just look out for any sinister activity in the local abbey/abandoned factory/luxury health farm next time you go on holiday.
All images owned by Martin Plowman. To find out more about the latest reviews, stories and other cool things in the world of games, like us on Facebook. And remember – if you’re game, we’ll play!