I was really looking forward to doing this review. Somehow I managed to miss Tony Koltz’s Vampire Express when it first came out in 1984, and I always regretted that. Its numerous reprints and staying power over the years have marked it as one of the true classics of the Choose Your Own Adventure saga. For years I searched for an original copy to add to my collection, but the stars were aligned against me and I could never find one until just last month. At last! I was eager to delve into this book, certain of discovering a guaranteed hit and an old classic that I’d been missing out on for nearly 30 years.
Boy, was I in for a big disappointment.
Vampire Express by Tony Koltz (illustrated by Doug Jamieson)
Published: April 1984
Number in the CYOA Series: 31
Everything about this book screams “WIN!” at first glance. Set on a steam train chugging through the Carpathian Mountains, it’s got a darkly romantic locale that’s really hard to screw up. You can tell from the cover illustration that there’s going to be a lot of exciting action and probably homages to the old Universal horror films of the 1930s, which I love. The author, Tony Koltz, has not written for the CYOA series before this book, and it’s nice to have some fresh blood (no pun intended) in the series. Fighting vampires on a train–how can you go wrong with that setting?
The book opens with a great premise and a terrific illustration. You’re on the train, and you’re going to join your Adventurous Relative–of which there is an inexhaustible supply in these books–on a quest to prove that vampires exist. You’re riding with a girl named Nina and her aunt, Mrs. West. Aboard the train are a jewel with supernatural powers and a painting that has something (not well explained) to do with vampires. Mrs. West gets up from her seat on the train to go visit her painting in the baggage car, and vanishes. The first choice is where to look for her: the baggage car, or should you question the other passengers?
This is a pretty decent set-up. Unfortunately I kept waiting for the book to deliver on its promise of chills, thrills and exotic adventures. I thought the plot was going to be about the search for Mrs. West, who (I assumed) had been abducted by vampires. That’s not the plot. Sometimes Mrs. West remains missing, and other times she pops right up without much explanation. Okay–so the plot is about keeping the blood-red jewel and the painting out of the hands of vampires, right? Well, not really; a few of the decision trees involve these MacGuffins, but many don’t. All right–so the plot has to be about proving scientifically that vampires exist, right? No; only one plot I found even deals with that premise. It’s just a lot of random events, one following another, punctuated by generally low-stakes choices.
Vampire Express suffers from the defect endemic to a lot of these CYOA books: complete lack of focus. You don’t really have a project, a goal or a finish line to reach, at least not one that remains static for more than a few pages. The jewel and the painting don’t fit into a broader picture that unifies the book’s plot threads and directs its action. The jewel and the painting are there to provide potential plot mechanics, as are all the characters, from Nina to Mrs. West to the gypsies you meet on the train, or even the vampires themselves, Count Zoltan and Countess Carmilla. They’re essentially cards in a random deck that is shuffled and dealt out to you in no particular order.
The book also suffers from a basic writing defect: too much happens, too fast, with too little explanation, and no clear understanding of the stakes, of why anything matters. For example, on page 66 you meet a magician named Phaino, completely apropos of nothing, who is holding some sort of gold disk that has some significance that is never explained. Phaino starts to hypnotize you with the disk.
You find yourself growing sleepy. You give Nina a little shove, but she is fast asleep. Phaino has hypnotized her, and you feel you are in danger of falling into a trance, too. With your last bit of strength, you could wake Nina and try to escape from Phaino. Or you could grab his gold disk, break the spell, and find out what he’s up to.
That’s your choice, but everything leading up to it is so poorly explained that you simply have no idea what’s happening. You’re not even sure who Phaino is; his introduction on page 12-13 is so thin on information that all you know is he’s a magician. Okay, so why is he trying to hypnotize you on page 66? That is never explained. What sort of danger are you in if you allow the hypnosis? Never explained. What are the risks if you grab the disk? No idea. What the hell is the disk? We’re never told, beyond what it looks like. What its function is or how it fits into the plot is never made clear. Indeed, in the book it has no function at all, except to hypnotize you. Therefore, without understanding what this situation is about, the choice you face on the bottom of page 66 is essentially arbitrary. You have no personal stake in it. You might as well throw a dart at the page.
Then, once you make your choice, what happens to the hypnotic disk and Phaino the magician? Nothing. It’s not like these are major plot points or significant developments. They just go by and fade into the distance, never to be mentioned again.
This would be disappointing enough, but in addition Vampire Express, or at least this first printing, is plagued with technical errors–something I’ve never seen before in a CYOA book. There are misprints in the directions at the bottom of pages; for instance, the instruction on the bottom of page 61, to turn to page 80, leads you into a part of the story that has no relation whatsoever to the story you were just reading. Misprints in page directions can be quickly fatal to a CYOA book, because the reader has no frame of reference for what should happen next. It’s almost even worse in a book like this, whose plot is naturally full of random events that happen in no logical sequence; even for pages that are correctly rendered, once you encounter one directional error you wonder if perhaps there are others that you just aren’t noticing because the plot you’re reading is so disjointed.
In short, this book is a mess. It’s a technical mess due to the directional errors and an artistic mess due to the shallow writing, poor plotting and lack of any logical consistency or sense of danger or stakes for the reader. There are pretty locales, a few interesting situations and yes, vampires, but these strengths are neither consistent nor sustained enough to make Vampire Express a success as a whole.
This is just an incredible bummer. I mean, Vampire Freaking Express! How can you screw up an idea like this? Tony Koltz seems to have found a way.
Grade: C minus
Next up: R.A. Montgomery goes to War with the Evil Power Master.