I sometimes look at what I enjoy (and create) now, and think about the various things that inspired me back when I was a child.
Whether it’s creepy Call of Cthulhu scenarios, mythic roleplaying in Runequest, writing magical realist dark fantasy fiction, or just enjoying the likes of Rings of Power and Sandman … all these things that make me happy now can be directly traced back to the books (and movies and comics) I devoured as a kid.
Here are five books from my pre-teen years that I am still almost able to recite or see when I close my eyes. It’s not an exhaustive list, of course, but these five always linger in my memory and very much made me what I am today.
Let’s start with the obvious. Back in the late 70s / early 80s, Tolkien’s tale of hirsute creatures standing up to big bad evil dragons was marketed as a children’s book. With its self-contained hero’s journey structure and its superb evocation of an exciting mythic world-that-never-was, it was ideally suited for my love of mythology and fascination with the fantastical.
I naturally graduated to The Lord of the Rings soon after, but never dived deep into the likes of The Silmarillion, preferring instead the slightly deranged fantasy of Michael Moorcock and Stephen R Donaldson.
But The Hobbit was my introduction into ‘traditional’ / high fantasy, and for that it will always have a precious place in my heart.
Kit William’s beautifully cryptic and obtuse picture puzzle book was a national phenomenon when it was released in 1979. Hidden within the gloriously prog-rock style artwork were — promised Williams — clues to discover a jewel-encrusted golden hare that he had buried somewhere in Britain.
My young mind was blown. Here was a book full of secrets and riddles that led to actual real buried treasure. I pored over every detail, made notes, dreamed about it … obviously without any success whatsoever.
But the imagery and romanticism that Williams conjured with his concept and artwork made a huge impression on me, giving me the same love of art and intricacy that saw me pore for hours over Marillion and Toyah LP covers, and introduce me at an early age to some of the concepts of game design.
The golden hare may no longer be hidden in the ground, but Masquerade is most certainly still buried in my psyche.
Ludo and the Star Horse
I think I was already a fan of Greek mythology before reading this beautifully moving, evocative and poignant children’s book by Mary Stewart.
Telling the tale of a Bavarian farm-boy and his faithful horse Rentl who fall foul of an avalanche one day, it takes Ludo, Rentl and the reader on a beautifully-told journey through the houses of the Zodiac, with imagery and emotion that significantly affected me when I read it for the first time.
It evoked myth, legend and fairytale in a way that still inspires me to this day. It is the book I always mention when someone asks me to name my favourite.
For it is the first book that ever made me cry.
The Faeries Pop-Up Book
Before the age of videogames, young me had a deep-held fascination with pop-up books. I loved the intricacy and the cleverness of the design of them, particularly those where you opened a spread and a whole other world of paper and card rose from the page.
This one, part illustrated by the incomparable Allan Lee, was my favourite. Partly due to its design, but also because of the imagery, magic and sense of wonder its scenes evoked.
These were the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and of Scottish folklore. Part benign, part mischievous. Sometimes malevolent. And all represented in some beautiful dioramas and feats of paper engineering that set my imagination running.
I went on to collect others, and to mourn their passing when such pop-up books undoubtedly became too expensive to produce. It made me track down the work of Lee, and be delighted to see his takes on Tolkein and Arthurian legend.
And I can still see the bowers, rings and mounds rising from The Faeries’ pages, and still remember the sense of wonder they conjured.
The Illustrated Man
It was an age of Tales of the Unexpected and Tharg’s Future Shocks. It was also an age where I discovered the wonder of the science fiction short story.
Ultimately, there are too many authors and collections to choose from, but Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man stuck with me for two reasons.
First, the stories themselves were expertly-realised. Often maudlin and slightly eerie, they told of humanity’s fragile relationship with the universe, through planets near and far and the strange things that inhabited them.
Second – and more affecting for me – was the framing device of the illustrated man himself. A meta-story, featuring a tattooed carnival performer, the living embodiment of the tales themselves.
My young mind was boggled on all fronts. The framing element was unlike anything I’d encountered before, beyond perhaps One Thousand And One Nights. I loved it, and I think it had a profound impact on the plotting and narrative arc muscles of my brain that I still find myself flexing today.
In fact, reminiscing about it and some of the other books above, I think it may be time to resurrect my ’Zodiac Tales’ collection of as-yet unwritten short stories, framed by an ancient Greek storyteller who is ushering an unwitting soul on their final journey …
Next time: Part 2 – Horror, Occult and Books of Magic