INTERVIEW: David Lowrie of “Straight to Hell”

Following on from GBN’s gamebook release feature on Straight to Hell, it is our pleasure to present some Q & As with the author and artist of the book, David Lowrie.

1) What influenced you to write a gamebook about a devout crusader journeying into the Hellscape in defence of the Cosmos?

Since rediscovering gamebooks a couple of years ago, I thought about writing my own. My first attempt was a sequel set straight after one of my Fighting Fantasy favourites, Midnight Rogue. Due to the intellectual property belonging to someone else, I wasn’t able to publish it and so it ended up more as a trial run. But more of that later!

After this, I started to muse about my own book and the whole concept of Straight to Hell came from the title of a song by one of my favourite bands, The Clash. The idea of a mortal being sent to Hell is a relatively simple concept and has been well used – if I can remember anything from trying to read Dante’s Inferno years ago – but something about it continued to compel me.

I became interested in the idea of a soldier of God who is trapped in Hell – surrounded by beings that he has spent his career fighting and opposing – and what would happen to a devout man in such a place (the main character in Straight to Hell was originally a villain in my first book). There’s also a bit of Michael Moorcock in there, as the main character is similar and partially named after Ulrich Vok Bek from one of my favourites of that author’s books, The Warhound and the World’s Pain, where the Devil persuades a damned Von Bek to find the Holy Grail. There’s also another character in the book that is loosely based on another of my favourite Moorcock characters. 

Part of it is that I did a degree in Criminology. One of my first year subjects was Social Control, which looked at how people in power control the masses. The emphasis was on the Middle Ages, during which time the church had a lot of power in Europe, but it was also the time when science was starting to develop and challenge church doctrine. That’s always fascinated me – the secular world versus the ecclesiastical world – and where and when the balance of power shifted. Though I must confess, I am a very lapsed Catholic and slightly biased!

There’s also the thought of what is good and evil. If you do something horrendous for a good reason, are you still implicitly good, or have you crossed over the line? My character is a true believer who has done a lot of horrific things, but he has done so in the interests of the ‘greater good.’ The fact that he can hold these contradictory ideas in his head is almost cognitively dissonant, but it is also the ethical concept of utilitarianism, a set of ideas that I find fascinating.

My final reason for writing Straight to Hell is the idea of whether a person can truly change. One of my favourite comics, Sandman by Neil Gaiman, dealt with that concept. As such, the main character in my series is going to be faced with tough choices. Can De-Villiers compromise his beliefs, or will he find himself incapable of change? We will have to see!

2) For Straight to Hell (and your Shadow Thief gamebook, Jailbreak), you are both the author and the artist! Can you tell us more about how you came to be interested in both writing and illustrating?

As I started writing Straight to Hell, I realised that I wanted to have full page art. I initially thought about using some images from the Middle Ages – as you see in films like The Ninth Gate – and which could be used for free. But then I started doodling. Anyone who has ever worked with me will know that if you put me in a meeting room with a pen and paper, at some stage I will start doodling. Normally Batman. Sometimes Judge Dredd. Occasionally Wolverine. Very infrequently Marshall Law. But mostly Batman!

So there’s always been a frustrated artist in me, as well as the frustrated writer. Both of my daughters are very talented artists, and seeing their work has definitely influenced me to pick up a pen(cil) and try again. When I realised the importance of art in gamebooks, and not having the money to pay for professional art, I decided to give it a go myself. 

I’ve had attempts at artistic projects before, illustrating a (very pretentious) comic about 25 years ago which thankfully never saw light of day, as well as writing and illustrating a kids’ book about a dog (yes it’s a black dog! – our beloved Labrador Jake) which I may go back to and try to self-publish.

The illustrations for Straight to Hell started out with sketches, normally drawn while I was on the sofa, watching trashy telly and drinking beer. That’s when I had the thought ‘I can do this.’ Despite my lack of training, I felt that I was learning, and that’s the most gratifying part for me. I know that my art is never going to be at the level of a Russ Nicholson or a Martin McKenna, but I love the process of improvement.

I have spent a lot of time revisiting and redrawing the pages I drew first. Initially I thought my illustrations were fine, but after one of my play-testers (James Spearing of My Gamebook Adventures), convinced me that the book deserved better, I reworked many of them, although I have kept some as original art as I just loved the basic style. I’ve always had a theory that you don’t have to be the best artist in the world, but what you do need is your own style. If you can find that, then that’s half the battle.

One of the first things I doodled was a little imp – and he is in Straight to Hell as filler art. I feel that I’ve improved greatly since then, but I didn’t want to lose him. I’m very fond of that little critter! The same is true for a few of the full page illustrations, especially the one of souls in the Hellscape. I started off drawing them very basically, intending to go back and make each face unique. Then it occurred to me that losing your identity would be a far more horrific fate, well suited to being cast into Hell. Another great point about illustrating is that when you are sick of typing, writing, plotting and staring at a monitor, it’s liberating to be able to pick up a pencil and start to draw.

As for writing, I’ve always had a vivid imagination. I remember writing an essay based on the poem ‘The Listeners’ by Walter De La Mare when I was in my first year of secondary school. My English teacher was equally enamoured and mortified by what was, in effect, a psychological horror story! After that, I used to take great delight in making sure that any story I wrote for English class had a horror theme, mainly to annoy my teacher who loved/hated them (sorry Mrs M!). For my English recital – where I had to read a passage from a novel – I chose a particularly nasty child sacrifice from the Stephen King book Salem’s Lot (one of my favourite books of all time).

A lot of my time these days is spent writing reports on very serious subjects, and so getting the chance to let loose and just write about what I want is amazing. I’ve always felt I could craft a good turn of phrase, and I love the idiosyncrasies of the English language.

Gamebooks seem to be the ideal medium for me, providing a perfect balance and challenge between left and right brain thought. Part of it is purely creative – the characters, the locations, the situations, the descriptions and so on. The other part is very logical, involving planning and attention to detail. These two sides to gamebook writing are appealing to me. When you are tired of writing, you can plan, and vice versa. It is a varied challenge that plays to both my logical and creative sides. 

For me, it helps to have several books on the go at once. If I get stuck on one book, I can take a break from it and find inspiration in another. That’s also part of the benefit of being the Denis Waterman (write the theme tune, sing the theme tune, etc – apologies to those who don’t know who Denis is!) as when I am bored of writing for one book, I can mess around for a couple of hours creating a cover for another. 

3) Straight to Hell is described as being part of a trilogy of gamebooks, in which items from earlier books may prove useful as the series progresses. How did you decide on this feature of continuity across multiple titles?

Initially, Straight to Hell was going to be self-contained, made up of 666 sections (for obvious reasons), in which I was going to have about 50 references in each level of the Hellscape. I borrowed (OK stole, I am sure it’s out of copyright) Dante’s basic structure of Hell based on the 7 deadly sins, then added a few more myself to make it 13 levels (again, no surprises there). I thought this would be manageable, and everything started out fine. There was an intro section, and then the first ‘entry’ level of Hell, which both came in at about the right number of sections. But then I got into the first level proper, and ended up having far too much fun with it. I realised that there was more than just one aspect to this specific sin, had great fun finding inventive and nasty ways to kill my character, and was forced to revise my thinking on the scope of the story. After all, this was only the first full circle of the Hellscape! There is so much you can do in Hell (so to speak) that you can really let your imagination run wild. Its infinite. Hell that is, not my imagination!

At this stage I should say thank you to Rob Hatton and Victoria Hancox for the amount of horrid death sections I would send them – normally on a Friday afternoon for some reason! And I have been known to send people lovely death sections on their birthdays – something that I will happily do for my readers. I may have to start that as a free subscription service! I even sent one as a birthday gift to the Dark Lord himself Jamie Thomson, which I think he fully appreciated. 

So the continuity came from the fact that Straight to Hell was pretty much made up as I went along. I started off as a ‘pantser’ – flying by the seat of my pants – and used the Douglas Adams approach from when he was writing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, basically putting your character in an impossible position, then working out how to resolve it later. So some of the stuff you find in Straight to Hell wasn’t really planned for, but a plan has since taken shape. As the story has expanded, I’ve got a very good idea of where things will come into play. 

I’ve certainly become more of a plotter. Another book that I’ve written, Psycho Killer, which I hope to have released on 31st October (yes, I like significant dates) is a contemporary story about trying to evade – yes you’ve guessed it – a psycho killer! It’s basically Die Hard on Halloween. But as that book takes place in a confined space, I had to plot it from the start, which I am starting to do so more and more with my other books. I’ve already plotted out the sequel (oh, c’mon, it’s an 80’s horror film, there’s bound to be a sequel! Well, only if the first instalment proves popular).

4) Writing a trilogy of full length gamebooks must require a lot of world-building! Do you have a master plan for the direction of your work, or do you allow them to unfold as the stories progress?

Initially, no! Straight to Hell was a vague concept hung on the title of a song by a British punk band. That was it. But as time went on, I started to think more about how the story would end. How readers get there, however, is a different story.

Obviously, I have a structure for the Hellscape series, and know what’s coming up in each section. My aim is to try to make each level as unique as possible. I have started the next level in the next instalment, The Devil’s Right Hand, and it will be very different to anything else in Straight to Hell. It’s already been a lot of fun writing it. 

But going back to the circles of Hell, while I know the theme of each level, I don’t yet know the content. As the story grows, readers find out more about the politics of the Hellscape, that there are rival factions, but not whether these facts may be advantageous or not. This uncertainty is part of the enjoyment, allowing your imagination to run free and think of where you could take the story and the experience. I do fear that one day I may hit a brick wall – but so far, so good!

5) The description for Straight to Hell mentions the fact that the Hellscape series shares the same world as your Shadow Thief series. Just how much overlap between these titles can readers expect?

It’s true that both series are set in the same world. As I mentioned earlier, Shadow Thief started off as a sequel to Midnight Rogue. I was part way through writing Straight to Hell when I decided to revisit it. A lot of that was due to the 100 series books from Adam Pestridge. Initially I was skeptical that a 100 section book could be worthwhile, but when I played Adam’s books I loved them. Plus, Adam linked it to a larger series. So I decided to look back at the time I had put into Twilight Rogue (that was the working title, but I did worry that Twilight was irrevocably linked to sparkly vampires). I liked a lot of what I did in writing that book – especially some of the mechanics and ideas – and so I decided to try to break the book down into shorter stories. Hence Jailbreak was born. This is great because with a bit of work the sequel is pretty much written – and the third book is not far off either. 

In Twilight Rogue, there was a typical overarching threat to life, the universe and everything (sorry – a bit more Douglas there – I’m quite a fan!) but obviously relating to Blacksand and Titan. But then I decided it would be fun to link it into the Hellscape series. It wasn’t difficult to change the ‘big bad’ behind the storyline into one linked to the Hellscape. 

I have a good idea of this story arc and the end for the Shadow Thief books (although if they prove popular I would love to carry on in the Lone Wolf way – and have different story arcs such as the Magnakai and the Grand Master). With regards Straight to Hell, Shadow Thief’s role is peripheral – and it’s also a prequel – but there will be implications for the Hellscape series. You won’t need to read both, but I am hoping that doing so will give you a much richer experience. 

Here’s a bit of a spoiler. A minor character in Jailbreak (Shadow Thief Book One) will be a significant player in Book Two of the Hellscape – The Devil’s Right Hand. You may or may not have encountered this character in Jailbreak (if you do you will probably die). To quote the great Stan Lee – ‘Nuff said.’

So I see the Shadow Thief series as building the mortal world, whereas obviously the Hellscape series focuses on the afterlife. There will be a number of crossovers, but again, you won’t need to have read one series to enjoy the other (although there will be Easter Eggs for people who do).  

6) You first came to the attention of GBN as a skilled and avid creator of maps that were based on the gamebooks you were playing! Has this practice helped you to become a gamebook author and, if so, is there any series in particular that has inspired you?

Wow thanks! I think being a fairly logical person (most of the time – others may disagree) means that when I re-engaged with Fighting Fantasy adventures, I saw the progression through the books as a flow chart. The flow chart then started to grow into doodles and eventually I started to map the books out. Well, map is not the right word, as they weren’t geographically correct (it’s a nightmare to try to do that!), but as a route through the book. 

But yes, I think that by visually mapping out the way through gave me a good idea of the structure of good interactive fiction, which is really useful when you are trying to create a world in a gamebook. I think that seeing as my books will be set within series – more like Lone Wolf rather than stand-alones like the Fighting Fantasy collection – then the challenge will be to get the reader to the same point at the end of Book One, so that they have enough info to start Book Two.

I did use tools such as Visio to try to map the route, as you can get stuck in a rut as you try to engineer your way around an issue. I’ve been pretty old-fashioned on the whole, mainly using Excel and Word and lots of scrap paper (always use A3!). Next time I might try Twine or Jason Archer’s excellent tool in mapping out my books.

An open world section of Straight to Hell – where you can wander around and revisit locations from different directions – was a particular challenge to get right. Trying to map fairly fiendish sections in books such as Dane Barrett’s The Mystery of Dracula really helped me out, as I was convinced whilst playing one part of that book that there wasn’t a way out (but mapping it showed there was – damn you, Barrett, you are so tricksy!). So yes, my map-making has most definitely helped me create my own work. I am also really pleased that I have been asked to provide a couple of maps for Sam Isaacson’s books – it’s been a pleasure to draw them.

As for series that inspired me, then obviously Fighting Fantasy is the main one. I read them when the books first came out, and spent hours trying to memorise all the spells in the Sorcery spell book! Then I rediscovered them after 35 years (thanks to an article in The Guardian about Gates of Death – and so we see that some good, at least, has come out of that book!). This was at a time when I was having a few problems, and so escaping into another world really helped. 

As a kid I only knew about Fighting Fantasy books, so finding out about all the other series available has been amazing. I love the episodic nature of Lone Wolf, as well as the character building – the fact that you can stick with a character and see them grow. Lone Wolf is a particular influence on the Shadow Thief books – they very much have a Fighting Fantasy feel, but allow you to choose skills and develop your character as the story moves on.

We seem to be living in a time when there are some extraordinary gamebook writers out there. To mention but a few: Jonathan Green, Martin Noutch, Sam Isaacson, Victoria Hancox, Dane Barrett, Dave Lewis, Mark Lain, Adam Mitchell, James Schannep, Troy Schermer and Dave Sharrock. Apologies if I have missed anyone out!

The other thing is that it is a very supportive culture. We read each other’s work, play-test, proof-read, advise, talk and exchange ideas. Social media pages such as the Gamebook Authors Guild have been amazing for me as a first time writer. To get constructive feedback and support is everything when you are struggling with self-doubt. 

Going back to mapping, geography can also a bit of a pain! When writing Hunted (the sequel to Jailbreak), one day I decided that it was time to draw a map of the Amaldi city where the books are set, and I got a bit creative. This means I will have to go back and re-work some sections to fit in with the new geography of my world (especially as the geography was initially based on Blacksand). As both series move on, I will be expanding my world and revealing more. I hope to get an online compendium/atlas detailing the wider world, which will be free and updated as I progress!

7) Without revealing too much, could you tell us more about the basic and advanced combat game systems of Straight to Hell

Everyone plays gamebooks differently. It’s a personal thing, and there is no approach that is right or wrong. Some people want to read for the story, whereas others will want the challenge of defeating the book and winning through to the end against all odds. Any approach is fine with me – all I want is for people to enjoy themselves.

With this in mind, Straight to Hell is not an out and out combat book. There are fights, but if you are careful you can often avoid them (and probably should). But if you relish fighting, then there are two options. You can go for an approach that is pretty similar to Fighting Fantasy – just role a dice, add it to your fighting skill, and see who wins. I am sure that for a lot of people, this will suffice. 

But for those who want a challenge, I wanted to add in a more realistic approach. Let’s face it, if you start off at 20 endurance points, and end up at 2, then you are at death’s door (and the door to the Hellscape in this book). In this instance, you can be pretty sure that your fighting skill of 12 will not remain at this level. If you are like Wesley at the end of Princess Bride, then forget about further fighting –  you are practically helpless! So I wanted to try a system that addressed this by taking into account your other attributes, and also added levels of damage, so that one wrong move can end very badly. It’s pretty experimental and I would love some feedback as it’s the first time I have tried anything like this.

8) Straight to Hell is described as a gamebook for more mature readers. Just how frightening or gory is it going to be, and is it really unsuitable for younger readers?!

Hah! That’s the question isn’t it? Well first of all, it’s set in Hell – which is by definition not going to be a very nice place. Not a nice place at all. There are a lot of ways to die – around 70 – (although I haven’t actually counted), and none of them are very pleasant. 

The book contains very little in the way of bad language or sexual content. But there are plenty of quite gruesome and visceral descriptions of how you die, as well as in-depth descriptions of the actions of the Daemons in the Hellscape. So if you don’t mind blood, pus, and other bodily fluids you will probably be alright! 

The illustrations aren’t particularly gory for two reasons. First, I think imagination is far more effective than any image, so I would rather describe something to you in detail and let it form in your mind’s eye. Second, my artist isn’t good enough to fully represent all these horrid deaths (I may get better in time).

As a father, I would have no problem letting my daughters (13 and 17) read it, but it should really be at the discretion of parents. If I had got this book aged 11 or 12, I would have loved it – and revelled in all the gore and horror as I did with Talisman of Death and House of Hell. But I would just rather warn readers beforehand.

GBN would like to thank David Lowrie for his thoughts on his upcoming gamebook release Straight to Hell, available on Amazon from June 6th. 

Jailbreak is currently available at Amazon.

Interview and editorial support by KJ Shadmand.

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