Friday, 14 February 2014

Failure to Respond to the Conventional External Stimuli

A slight departure from the usual pattern today, because it's that time of year again. Thus, my next Fighting Fantasy playthrough will be delayed so I can have a go at the second of the Starlight Adventures books I own today.

At the end of a visit to friends in Swansea back in 1999, I was heading for the bus station, and had enough time before my coach was due to leave that I could pop into a few charity shops for a browse along the way. In one that had opened since my previous visit, on College Street if I remember rightly, I found a copy of the sixth of the SA books, Trance, by Pat Hewitt. As I was going through one of my gamebook-acquiring phases, I decided to give it a shot. I played it on the first leg of the journey, discovering a puzzling but not gameplay-wrecking bug along the way, and reached one of the successful endings.

Winning isn't actually all that difficult, as I recall. There's a point early on where the outcome of a coin-flip might result in a bad ending (I'm not certain), but for the most part, passivity is the only way to get into trouble. As I recall, persistent refusal to follow up leads, take opportunities and generally get involved with the adventure eventually leads to a slightly contrived fatal car accident. In effect, you swerve so hard to avoid the plot, you wind up hitting a tree.

My character is a recently qualified nurse who lives in an unspecified English cathedral town (doesn't having a cathedral make it a city rather than a town?). A couple of months back, my brother Jimmy, a reporter for the local paper, went missing for a couple of days. He was subsequently found in a strange condition (mentally similar to catatonia, but without the physical symptoms) in his car, not far from the Burslow Clinic, a private medical facility. The unusual nature of his condition has led to his being given a bed in the Clinic for free. I was offered a temporary job there, though I turned it down because finals were looming and, well, life has to go on, even at times of bizarre family tragedy.

Having completed my training, I have a few weeks' break before I take up my first post as a fully qualified nurse. When I get home, an anonymous, hand-delivered note is waiting for me. Its writer claims to know how to help Jimmy, and wants to meet me. Regrettably, as a result of my having stopped off to do some shopping on the way home, I probably won't be able to get to Ponderosa Café (the specified location) by the specified time. Nevertheless, I decide to give it a shot.

On my way out of the flats where I live, I encounter the janitor, a slightly sleazy and shifty character who asks me to help me with some heavy rubbish bags. I can't afford the time it would take, so I shout out an apology as I dash past. Though I speed to the Ponderosa in my hatchback, it's already closed by the time I get there.

Across the street is a smartly-dressed man with a moustache, a cap pulled down low, and tinted glasses. When he sees that I've noticed him, the man unconvincingly takes an interest in the window display of a computer shop. I start to walk away and, after twenty paces, glance back the way I came. The man is 'casually' moving the same way, looking intently at the windows of the shops he passes. I duck into an alleyway and quicken my pace, resolving not to look back again until I reach the end, but prepared to make a run for it if he really is following me.

When I look again, there's no sign of him. But as I'm catching my breath, I sense somebody close by. It's Gerald Peterson. Whoever that is. He might have been introduced earlier if I'd made a different choice at some point, but here the book gives no explanation of who he is or how I know him. That's the bug to which I alluded earlier - the book's failure to give him an adequate introduction on at least one viable route.

Observing that I'm in a bit of a state, Gerald accompanies me home, and I explain what's been happening. It appears that he's some kind of private investigator, so I ask for his assistance. He wants to start by looking into what Jimmy was doing just before his disappearance, and leaves to commence his investigation. Unwilling to just leave everything to him, I decide to see if any of my neighbours caught sight of whoever delivered the note.

I start with Mrs O'Connor, who lives in the flat directly above mine. After ringing her doorbell, I overhear a bit of ominous dialogue: a woman comments that, 'She doesn't know a thing yet,' and an aggressive-sounding man speaks of the need to shut up whoever they're talking about 'before she does find out.' They could be talking about me, but that is by no means certain, so I risk ringing the doorbell again. The continuing argument stops mid-sentence, but in a 'Mrs O'Connor just turned off the TV'-sounding manner, rather than a 'Hang on, there's someone out there who might be eavesdropping' kind of way.

Mrs O'Connor opens the door and invites me in, and I accept. She fetches a jiffy bag that was left with her for me this afternoon. It was brought by someone in her mid-to-late teens, with very long brown hair. Not somebody I know. The sound of a phone ringing drifts up from my flat, but I probably won't be able to get down there before the caller rings off anyway, so I take the time to ask if Mrs O'Connor knows anything else. She says that the teenager specified that I should be given the bag in person and open it myself.

The phone is still ringing when I get back to the flat. It's Gerald, who says he's coming over straight away, and will be here in a quarter of an hour. Once twice that length of time has passed with no sign of him, I start on the displacement activity, tidying up, dusting Jimmy's books and computer, and so on. The doorbell rings.

It's a biker with a note from Gerald, apologising for having been delayed, and giving a number on which I might be able to contact him if he's around when I try. Mobile phones weren't really a thing when this book was written, so such communication problems are not unreasonable.

The next bit is, I suspect, one of the more clever anti-cheat mechanisms employed in gamebooks. There's a list of things I might have done by this stage of the adventure, with points values for each one. I add up my score for these incidents, receive a rating, and get directed to a section based on that rating. But I'm pretty sure that one of the items on the list doesn't happen in the book, so anyone who falsely claims to have had all the encounters listed will end up sent to a section that probably says something along the lines of, 'Either you've miscounted or you're a dirty cheat. Go back and recheck your figures or answer the questions honestly.'

Anyway, I have seen the suspicious-looking man with the moustache and received the package from Mrs O'Connor, so I'm rated X. Which has slightly awkward implications - maybe Ms. Hewitt shouldn't have gone for the tail end of the alphabet. Avoiding A-E makes some sense, as those letters evoke exam grades, and could be erroneously interpreted as some sort of meritocratic scale, but there are plenty of ranges of letters that don't have obvious (at least at the time of publication) associations of a potentially dubious nature.

The package looks as if it might contain an audio cassette. Another detail that rather dates the narrative. In fact, the bag's contents seem a bit too large to just be a tape, prompting a moment's paranoid speculation that this could be a bomb. I tell myself I'm being silly and open the package. Mildly amusingly, the book states, 'There is no searing blast, your hands and head are still where they should be.' Inside is a cassette tape, with extra padding in the form of rubber bands.

I play the tape, which just makes noises too weird even for mid-eighties electronic music. It's a short tape, too, and the other side is blank. This isn't the dead end it may seem, though. In the real world, my first home computer was one of the sort that could save files on audio tape (or would have if I'd had the right cable for hooking it up to a compatible recorder), so I am well aware of the use of such cassettes for purposes other than audio piracy or preserving atrocious amateur dramatics.

After booting up Jimmy's computer (and, this being the eighties, probably waiting long enough to prepare, eat, and wash up after a three-course meal), I load the tape, and find an incomplete article that Jimmy was writing for the paper. It concerns a health farm that is apparently making a fortune by turning its wealthy clients into drug addicts. However, what text there is names no names. Still, now there's an obvious reason why some individuals would want Jimmy silenced, so I'm making progress.

I still have a copy of the most recent issue of the local paper to print anything by Jimmy, so I dig that out to look for any hints about where he might have been researching. He was doing a series on health-related self-help, and the last published article mentions that the following instalment would concern 'one of Europe's top health farms'. Still no name, but there is a clue in a passing reference to interrelatedness in the world of alternative health. Apparently the clinic in question employs the same aromatherapist as the sunbed centre on which Jimmy had reported earlier in the series. That's obviously the place to go next.

The sunbed centre turns out to be a pretty miserable place. There's nobody on the reception desk when I go in, so I ring the bell. Getting caught snooping around could lead to trouble. A woman emerges from an adjoining room, and I make a bland enquiry, but before this can spark a conversation that I could steer in an aromatherapy-related direction, the phone rings. The call may be about something above-board (or at least unrelated to my investigation), but I'm a little suspicious at the way the woman fobs me off with a brochure and shoos me away so she can talk to 'Mr Willoughby'.

Not that it matters, anyway, as the brochure could be all I need from the sunbed centre. On the back is an ad for Dower House, 'More than just a health farm,' which is located in the grounds of Burslow Hall. In other words, not far from the clinic where Jimmy is being looked after. And close to where he was found.

I'm on my way home to plan my next course of action when an odious colleague of Jimmy's takes advantage of my having to stop at a pedestrian crossing to cadge a lift back to his office, where he has something he thinks will be of interest to me. Note to self: lock the passenger seat door in future. And invest in one of those personal defence sprays, if they exist in this era.

There's another bit of gamebook path dissonance here, as the section covering what happens at the newspaper office carries the authorial assumption that I went there as part of my investigations rather than having been forced to by a sexist twit in desperate need of a smack with a harassment suit. Once I'm at the creep's desk, he reveals that he has Jimmy's diary, which he 'accidentally' picked up the last time Jimmy was in the office. Having scented a story in what Jimmy was researching before his brief disappearance, the scumbag wants to go through the list of places Jimmy contemplated profiling in his article in the hope that I can help him to steal my brother's scoop. Dower House is at the top of the list.

As, I recognise the name there's a rather abrupt scene jump here. I'd like to imagine that I feigned ignorance of Dower House, let the lecherous so-and-so go through the rest of the list, and sent him off on a massively inconveniencing red herring, but the book just skips to the following morning. I call Dr MacWilliam, the man who offered me the job at Burslow Hall, and... hang on, the book's contradicting itself. Now it says I was invited to stay at the Clinic, as Jimmy might benefit from having someone familiar around. But the Introduction definitely says it was a job offer.

Regardless, I call to ask if the offer is still open. It is, and arrangements are made for me to head out there. Before ringing off, Dr MacWilliam mentions the potential therapeutic effect of familiar music, and suggests that I bring Jimmy's collection with me. Only the tapes, as they don't have the facilities for playing vinyl (and CDs were still too niche to merit a mention back then). I take a big box of cassettes with me, but if I (the reader) have any say in the matter, all non-musical tapes will have been left back at the flat.

When I arrive, I get told that I've been given quarters in Dower House. Once I've dropped my stuff off, I go to see Jimmy and, just in case the music recommendation was sincere, play him some of the tapes I brought. Based on the details given, either these are unusually short albums, or I only play one side of each before switching to something else. In my experience, average album duration was around 45 minutes, and there's no way to fit half a dozen of them into just two hours. Except when using high-speed dubbing, but I wouldn't have been doing that under the circumstances. I'm pretty sure there are no incidents of coma patients being revived as a result of hearing Spandau Ballet sped up until Tony Hadley sounded like he was on helium.

Eventually the lack of improvement in Jimmy's condition becomes too much to bear, and I go out for some fresh air. A girl (that's the term the book uses) near a shrubbery appears to be beckoning to me, so I approach, but there's no sign of her when I get there (what was I doing that I didn't see where she went?). Entering the shrubbery, I feel a disconcerting sense of loneliness and find a tall privet hedge, which turns out to be part of the outside of a maze. I go in and, trying to follow a rustling sound I hear, fail to adopt a consistent system of turns taken at junctions. So when the sound stops, I have to hope that I've successfully memorised my somewhat haphazard route - otherwise I might have trouble finding my way out again. When I decide to leave, that is. Having come this far, I might as well press on.

Well, the memorisation was futile, as I soon hit a dead end, get flustered, and blunder around choosing directions at random for a while. Eventually I come across a stone seat, and sit down for a rest, just before a conversation starts on the other side of the hedge. One of the participants is called Alan, and the other turns out to be the girl I was trying to follow. She was trying to get my attention, but ducked out of sight to avoid being noticed by MacWilliam when he drove past. They seem to be in a relationship, and to know something about the dodginess that's afoot here. She wants to tell me, but Alan insists that she let him handle it, as the risks he's taken will be for nothing if I give the game away too soon. I get the impression that he's something of a ladies' man, so there may be more unwelcome advances to fend off before long.

The two of them move away, still talking, and the last thing I hear before they move out of earshot is the girl asking if they should warn me about 'MacWilliam's special cocktails'. After that I spend half an hour finding the way out, and return to my room. Someone has left a 'Nightcap' for me - a glass of orange liquid, with a card on top identifying it as part of the health farm's regimen. While I don't know what I need warning about with regard to this concoction, the fact that a warning is considered appropriate is sufficient grounds to convince me to tip it down the plughole.

Looking out of the window, I spot that 'girl' again, and this time I can see how long her hair is, identifying her as the source of that tape. Interior illustrator Gareth Jones appears to have missed out on some significant details, as the picture of her shows just shoulder-length hair, hanging down in such a way that I couldn't have failed to see how long it was the first time I saw her.

I head out to talk to her, and she introduces herself as Jenny Peace. She sometimes helps out in the Clinic, and is distressed at Jimmy's condition, so she arranged for me to get the tape she found in his pocket when he was originally brought in. Yes, she knows what's on it, and she asks me not to let Alan Willoughby know that she didn't destroy it like he said she should. Jenny also lets slip that she's actually a mental patient here, as well as being MacWilliam's niece. That's as much as she's prepared to tell me, and I'm not sure that putting any pressure on her will achieve anything worthwhile. To protect her secret, I decide to wait for Alan to contact me.

At breakfast the next day he makes his approach. According to the text, I recognise his voice even before he speaks - not sure how that works. In any case, he invites me to join his aerobics class, and I accept. After he's gone, I ask the waitress about him and learn that he owns the clinic. Not bad for someone who appears to be in his early twenties. But there's obvious potential for a conflict of interest: even if he has no involvement in the wrongdoing that's being perpetrated here, he's not going to want it implicated in a scandal.

At the end of the aerobics class, Alan more or less insists that I come to his self-defence class in the afternoon, too. I attend, and find that I'm the only student. And while he does genuinely teach me a variety of techniques for fighting off attackers, the practical demonstrations involve a degree of physical contact that would be considered inappropriate these days. At the end he asks me to go with him for a drink. In the interests of trying to find out if he ever plans to tell me anything about his suspicions, I do so.

Out on the terrace, Alan points out a couple of celebrity clients, then tells me who he is, in case I didn't already know. He stresses that he knows nothing about the medical side of things - that's MacWilliam's business - and says I'm free to use the facilities here as long as Jimmy is a patient. For Jenny's sake, I say nothing about Jimmy's article, and Alan's conversation takes an autobiographical turn. He inherited Dower House and Burslow Hall, but the family was virtually bankrupt, and the estate would have been broken up but for MacWilliam's needing somewhere for his research clinic and health farm combo. It's clear that the welfare of his ancestral home is enough of an obsession that I'm going to have to tread very carefully in my investigations. Consequently, I decline when he invites me to dinner.

The next day I skip the aerobics class in order to avoid awkward confrontations, instead going to the sauna. There are five other women there, gossiping about MacWilliam and his Nightcap. The formula is a closely guarded secret, the drink is only available to Dower House patients, and there are strict limits on how much anyone can take away with them. Most of the crowd disperses, leaving just me and a woman named Daphne, whom I ask about the Nightcap. She says that it affects different people differently, but helps her sleep well. In fact, if she misses a dose, her insomnia is even worse than it used to be before she started taking the stuff. But she doesn't like it when the others joke about addiction.

Afterwards I go to see Jimmy again, along the way passing a door with a nameplate reading 'LORD FORSYTH'. It means nothing to me, so I guess I missed a lead somewhere. Jimmy's bed isn't in the most suitable position, so I crouch down beside it to crank it into a better one, and hear voices. MacWilliam and the Duty Sister are doing the rounds of the clinic. For show's sake, the beds all have floor-length valances, so I could hide under Jimmy's bed and, so long as no contrived sneeze-based incidents occur, be in no risk of getting noticed.

The nurse seems concerned about the possibility of bad publicity about 'this trance thing'. MacWilliam claims that he and Dr Quigley are close to a cure, but still need to check for potential side-effects. He then expresses a desire to check up on 'his' Lord Forsyth, and the two of them leave.

Back in my room, I discover that all of Jimmy's tapes have gone missing. I ask the Duty Sister if she knows what's happened to them, and she says that MacWilliam ordered them removed, as they could do more harm than good. I point out that he had me bring them in the first place, and she points out that Doctors often change their minds.

After that I go back to Jimmy, and when I've run out of things to say to him, I take his hand. It's not limp, which suggests that on some level he's still in control of his body, but not doing anything with it.

Jenny invites me to eat with her in the dining-room, and as I have no prior commitments, I accept. She tells me her life story - orphaned two years ago, money tied up in a Trust Fund, can't stand her guardian, MacWilliam (who doesn't seem that keen on the position either), assorted emotional crises, possibly a suicide attempt, and now engagement to Alan. Who would be ruined if any scandal were to hit the clinic. But she wants me to get MacWilliam, claiming that Jimmy's not the only person he's put into that condition. She alleges that MacWilliam is drugging everyone, tells me to keep off the Nightcap, and says she can help me cure Jimmy if I promise not to do anything to harm Alan. Then someone coughs on the other side of the partition behind me and, suddenly paranoid, Jenny dashes off.

While it's possible that some of Jenny's claims are delusional in nature, I consider it worth checking to see how much truth there is to her story. I seek her out the next day, but she's still alarmed at the possibility of having been overheard, and tells me to stay away from her. I insist that she does something to substantiate her claims, and she demands that I promise I won't do anything to damage Alan. I'm pretty sure he's guilty of nothing worse than keeping silent (legally, at least, though in view of his engagement to Jenny, the way he's been carrying on with me is pretty despicable), so I agree. Jenny hands me a piece of paper she took from her uncle's waste-paper basket, which she thinks should incriminate him.

Back in my room, I take a look at the paper, which has a list of the Nightcap's ingredients on it, plus notes on the more 'interesting' ones: Guaranine, a substance 'similar to caffeine and cocaine' and Pellotine, a constituent of the hallucinogenic Mescal Button. A little research in Dower House's library establishes that the Nightcap is far from innocuous.

The next day I'm invited to a talk by MacWilliam. He goes on at length about stress reduction, claiming that the Nightcap is a 'natural stress-relief remedy', and says that its effectiveness is enhanced when used in conjunction with his relaxation video. He asks for a volunteer to help demonstrate and, when nobody offers, picks me. I decline, but the rest of the audience, keen for someone other than themselves to be the subject, join him in insisting, and as the door has been locked to prevent interruptions, there's nothing I can do about it.

I am seated away from the others, in front of a TV set hooked up to a VCR. At 10:17 MacWilliam starts the tape, and swirling shapes form on the screen, accompanied by 'a cool, lazy sound'. Not having sampled the Nightcap, I don't get the full effect, but I still wind up in a semi-trance, only vaguely aware of MacWilliam going on about suggestibility and relaxation. And then the tape ends, and I become lucid again, finding to my surprise that it's now 10:24. MacWilliam provides everyone with their own personal copy of the video, stating that they can hire copies when they leave, in order to continue experiencing the benefits of the course.

Back in my room, I look through a copy of Pharmacology and Hypnotism by Murdo MacWilliam. It's not an easy read, but I do find an informative paragraph about the use of psychotropic drugs to break down patients' involuntary resistance to hypnosis.

I catch sight of MacWilliam heading for Burslow Hall, and follow him. Once inside, I head for the 'secure ward', purported to contain violently disturbed patients under the care of specially trained male nurses. Surprisingly, it's not locked. Each patient turns out to have their own room, and it soon becomes apparent that they're all in the same state as Jimmy. This discovery shocks me enough that I don't hear MacWilliam approaching the room I'm in until it's too late.

He tells me that I've become too dangerous to remain at liberty, and points out that my lack of close family other than Jimmy means my disappearance is unlikely to attract attention. He leaves me locked in while he attends to something involving a video.

Something from MacWilliam's book pops into my head - speculation about the creation of hypnotic video programmes that could put people into trances from which they could only be revived with the appropriate 'antidote' programme. If that's no longer just theory, there may be an antidote video somewhere here.

Craig the ward nurse unlocks the door, stating that it's time for my treatment. I ask if he's a real nurse and, when he confirms it, appeal to his medical ethics. He admits to having doubts, but says MacWilliam claims the lengthy trances are necessary to get the patients through their crises. I ask about an antidote video, and when he says he has a copy, I urge him to fetch it and get proof that there's nothing wrong with the patients beyond what MacWilliam has done to them.

Random choice between two section numbers determines Craig's response to my appeal. I choose well: Craig walks out of the room without relocking the door. I follow him, and he fetches a tape from a locked cupboard, explaining that it was left with him in case of fire or similar emergencies. While he's still not certain that he's doing the right thing, I've convinced him to act on his doubts, so he lets me have the video. The patients are manhandled into wheelchairs and brought in front of the TV-and-VCR set-up that had been prepared for my 'treatment', and I play them the antidote video.

Nothing happens. Depressed, I turn away from the patients' vacant stares and see MacWilliam by his car. He seems about to get in, but then changes his mind and goes around the side of the building. Then I hear noises behind me, and turn to see that the patients are starting to move. The tape does work. Now I just have to get it (and the VCR) down to Jimmy's ward. There's a small service lift, which I load with the VCR, and I'm about to send it down when I hear someone coming up the stairs. I could just fit myself into the lift with a bit of creative squeezing, if I'm prepared to risk it. Or I could confront whoever's on the stairs.

I choose the stairs and, slightly jarringly, also get to choose who is on them. It's definitely someone I'm pleased to meet, and there's a list of four options. One is someone I've never met, the others are Alan, Gerald and a police officer. Okay, time to find out what Gerald has been up to all this time.

Following me, as it turns out. He could see that I was doing all right on my own, and opted not to stick his nose in, hanging around as an 'insurance policy'. Now it's time to finish things off, and he'd like my help in ensuring that MacWilliam is brought to justice. As I know that Jimmy's condition is reversible, I choose to delay 'curing' him for as long as it takes to ensure that the man responsible doesn't get away with it.

We head down to MacWilliam's office, which shows signs of having been emptied of potentially incriminating documentation in a hurry. Gerald tells me he's already called the police, and speculates that they might be able to catch MacWilliam before he flees the country. So much for bringing the bad doctor to justice.

I play Jimmy the tape, and after a moment he scratches his ear. Gerald proposes to me. Right now I don't think my character has any feelings for him beyond gratitude, so the response is 'No'. He accepts that, but indicates that he's going to give me as much time as I need, and then try again. As often as it takes. Which is probably supposed to be romantic, but, depending on how things turn out, could constitute grounds for a restraining order. At least the book didn't force me to accept.

Well, that was quite enjoyable. As I've indicated, the book does have the odd flaw here and there, but nothing catastrophic. Overall it's a decent enough thriller, and gets quite tense in places. I like that it encourages proactiveness and independence - some gamebooks I've read that were targeted at a female audience could quite harshly penalise attempting to get things done without a man's help. The closing focus on Gerald's romantic intentions was a bit regrettable, though. I'd have preferred to find out whether or not MacWilliam got caught, and how the exposure of his crimes affected Alan and Jenny. Still, the fact that I'm interested in such details shows that Ms. Hewitt did a decent job of drawing me into the story. If I didn't care what happened to any of the characters, that would be a sign of a pretty poor book.

Based on what I've heard or experienced of the rest of the series, I have no interest in tracking down any further Starlight Adventures. Nevertheless, I'm glad to have this and Island of Secrets in my collection. Any gamebook fans who avoided them because of the target audience have missed out: they're a lot better than a number of non-'girly' gamebooks I could name.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps when you chose Gerald as the person you were "pleased to meet" on the stairs, the book assumed that the reason you wanted it to be him was because of romantic feelings rather than practicality.

    These books sound surprisingly interesting. I'm sorry I missed them.