The Dark Tunnel, the steam tunnels below the university play a role in the book. The tunnels that he was writing about are the ones that run under the University of Michigan. I have been in those tunnels, as a new hire at U of M DPS back in the late 90s I had an afternoon orientation to the steam tunnels. I can tell you first hand that they are dirty, dark and really not fun to crawl though. Steam Tunnels run under the grounds of a lot of Universities in this country and I am sure that most of them have a legend about a kid playing Dungeon’s and Dragons in them, going crazy and dying. It’s the stuff of urban legends, and there is a real history to the legend.
Most of us know of the legend because of the 1981 book Mazes and Monsters by Rona Jaffe, and the Made for TV Film staring a young Tom Hanks, which arrived a year later.
The book was based largely on the new paper reports of a missing student at Michigan State University in 1979. Raffe reportedly wrote the book very quickly to prevent someone else from grabbing the story and making it to print before her.
The plot is revolves around a group college students who play a role playing game, Mazes and Monsters, one of the group has never recovered from the disappearance of his brother. He has an episode while playing in a local cave with his group and believes that he is now his character and sets off on a quest to find his missing brother. The characters are pretty cardboard, little more than names with the right off center quirks to attract them to their group and the game.
I first encountered Mazes and Monsters as the TV Movie, which I enjoyed and recall to this day (in part because of having seen it on VHS in the late 80s). The story is perfect for the TV film format, where the actors could fill out the emotional dimension missing from the book. I later did read the book, and found it to be little more than an exercise in plot more than anything else.
The newspaper reports that Rona Jaffe had drawn from were about a missing college student James Dallas Egbert. PI William Dear had speculated that maybe James had gone into the steam tunnels to play D&D and the press ran with it. D&D was one of those boogey men, like Heavy Metal Music, that parents in the late 70s and into the 80s blamed for their kids issue. There were various calls from mainly wing nut types for regulation of the game, and a lot of fear by patents about what playing these games was doing to their kids.
The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III (1984) by William Dear recounted the facts of the case and largely dispelled the notion that D&D had anything to do with the Egbert case. Dear recounts the story of Egbert a child prodigy who was sent off to Michigan State by his parents when he was 16 years old and left largely unsupervised by the school. Egbert apparently buckled under the academic pressure, drug problems and other issues; he entered the steam tunnels to commit suicide and vanished. After several weeks he was found and the case was closed. It’s been a decade since I read the book, but of the two it’s the most interesting, not only because of the portrait of the James Dallas Egbert that it paints, but also it is a snap shot of a time and a place this is no longer. It’s also of note because it at least attempted to set the record straight on a story that took on a life of it’s own and passed into urban myth.
I would say that of the two books it’s the better read, and I highly recommend it. I would also recommend the film Mazes and Monsters, and I think I might just have to revisit it myself.
More Friday Forgotten Books can be found at Patti Abbott's blog here.