What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower by Margaret Killjoy

(7.0/10)

It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to review this book while thinking of it as a novel.

It is not a novel. It is more an experimental game of sorts, and I have little or no experience reviewing such things.

I am, however, a fan of inventiveness, as well as a once and former and future Dungeon Master. I therefore, to some degree, understand what the author of What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower is trying to do, and understand further that such a thing should be reviewed not in terms of what it is not, but rather what it is trying to be.

Mr. Margaret Killjoy leads his writer through various numbered segments according to choices the reader himself makes. This is perhaps akin to dinner theater murder mystery. Fun, but only if you necessarily surrender to the scope of the choices offered. If you find that scope too restrictive or out of character (for you, not for the character Gregory), the reality of the piece might not ensnare you so readily.

Curious, I surrendered to the scope and found myself being killed or otherwise “ended” often and easily. Choices that seemed to make sense led one down dead-end paths replete with opium prisons, horrific bird cages, and grisly deaths. And I had no problem with any of that; some of the paths, however unproductive, were quite inventive and entertaining… but then, I’m a sucker for the ironic and the macabre (Bemis’ glasses breaking at the end of the classic TZ episode “Time Enough At Last”, for example). Or, you know, “it’s a cookbook.”

What bothered me here was, when I did die and wanted to give the labyrinth another go, I had a hard time backtracking to the point where I might have made the wrong turn. I like a bit of sleuthing, but after the tenth time of this happening, frustration started to get the best of me.

I suggest, humbly, that such a book have a reference number at the start of each segment that allows for easier backtracking. You know, you’re at section 61 and you die, so you check to see what led you to section 61 and just jump back to that page or section…

As a novel, this isn’t a novel. The story with its suppressed minions and tricksy rebellion is at once somewhat banal and odd, and Gregory’s a little bit of a spineless nutter. There are some interesting descriptions, some flat ones, and some that read like Jules Verne hurled his e-coli salad on his manuscript. There are also some very cool illustrations; I wish there’d been far more, but really, this work is an experiment in plot, so the particulars of the situation and the specificity of the descriptions aren’t all that germane. As for plot, well, it moves, it pulls, it teases, it delivers. The world isn’t saved, but one never believes the main wormwoodian is going to accomplish much, so the world here never needed to be.

Years ago, the film version of “Clue” turned me off to this kind of reader-response gimmick, and I’ve stayed away from all such devices – including dinner theatre murder mysteries – since then. But in the case of the goblins, gnomes, and snotties under the tower, I have to admit I was intrigued. Sad at my character’s incompetence and my having been hitched blindly to it, but nonetheless, entertained.

I think Mr. Killjoy has run into the same problem that plagued this DM (and many others) years ago: how does one incorporate free will into a written finite gaming system? He hasn’t solved it, neither did I way back when. Heck, I don’t believe most character based video games have solved it, either (Dragon Age turns your character, oftentimes, into a conversational moron). So I guess the question is: does the problem need to be solved for the reader to spend a few fine hours?

No, I don’t suppose it does. And with What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower, I spent a few enjoyable hours, snot, birdcages, and zoos for the pacifist notwithstanding. I look forward to Killjoy’s next work of this kind. I was, as time passed, getting better at figuring out his tendencies, or so I thought until I flew away in a balloon to resume my addicted and empty British life. Give it a try.

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