My first introduction to Steve Stred was his novella The Girl Who Hid In The Trees. That novella was one that took me completely by surprise. It depicted a group of children, troubled by disappearances, who end up spending a night in the woods to disprove a local legend. What follows is a series of horrific encounters that flay the mind of the reader. The most impressive thing about the novella was the way it developed its characters, and the relationships between them, in such a short space; an all-too-convincing portrayal of adolescent anxiety, love, and friendship. The other thing that impressed me was Stred’s ability to ‘go there’. We see some pretty horrifying things happen to these people we come to care about. I greatly admired Stred’s fearlessness.
I knew that Stred was a major talent working in the field of horror from that moment. So, when I saw he had released another novel, titled ominously The Stranger, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.
The Stranger sees us returning to the woods, which seem to be a source of anxiety or perhaps intrigue for the author. This time, we follow a family: Malcom, a hard-working but racist son-of-a-bitch, his wife Sam, and his two children, Britney and Tom. The family spends every year at the same nature resort. It’s almost as if Malcom is drawn to this place, though he isn’t sure why. He assumes it’s just because of the hiking, nature trails, and bike paths.
This year, however, things are different. The camp is being run by a strange man in an expensive suit and a necklace of what looks like (surely it can’t be) human teeth. And, even more to Malcom’s annoyance, they have a new neighbour, a native American man called Wandering River that Malcolm instantly dislikes. Steve deftly portrays the inherent racism at play without laying it on too thick. He drops us subtle clues throughout about Malcom’s attitudes and motivations which explain his actions and behaviours later on.
We sense Malcolm’s distain not only towards Native Americans, but also towards his environment. In other hands, Steve’s two big themes: our environmental footprint and the lack of equality in modern society, could be clunky or even preachy, but he ensures that we are invested in the characters and that the story itself remains king. Throughout, we alternate between sympathy and loathing, between understanding and repulsion. These undertones build along with the horror-tension, until one explosive scene where all hell breaks loose, and Malcolm and his family will never be the same again.
You see, Malcolm’s family take something from one of the ancient structures lying in the depths of the park. Now, the spirit that presides over the forest, the being known only as The Stranger, must take something from them…
Steve Stred’s handling of the supernatural elements in The Stranger is so potent it’s alarming, genuinely making me want to turn the light on at night. He shifts genre effortlessly: from family drama with racial undertones, to explosive Evil Dead-style splatterpunk, to a dark quest into an almost fantastical landscape. His explosive storytelling feels a little like the pacy prose of the great Carlton Mellick III, but with an added mix of bleak Japanese horror (Stred’s horror is similarly all-powerful and inescapable, which makes it all the more terrifying). The Stranger is even more effective than The Girl Who Hid In The Trees because he holds back for the first third or so of the book, building our expectation to excruciating levels. There are so many memorable moments in this story, both of the horrifying and emotive kind. His unflinching portrayal of loss and human suffering sets him apart from many other writers.
Alongside asking us to care more about our environment and our fellow man and woman, Stred asks some other big and bold questions. He asks whether its really is possible to redeem ourselves, and whether any apology is sufficient make up for catastrophic wrongs. He asks the question of what a creator of a universe might look like once they realise how screwed up human beings have become. And, he asks us to look at ourselves, because as we discover in The Stranger, can we really be sure who we are anyway?
In a way, I guess, the real stranger is the one we are to ourselves.
Time to kick Monday’s ass! It’s here! It’s finally here! A year in the making: THE EPIC BOOTCAMP. How to get your story from ‘eh’ to ‘epic’ with a little help from me and my friends!
Phew. That was a little bit dramatic! Let’s take a step back! So, what is the Epic Bootcamp and how did it come about?
As many of you know, I am an editor and ghost-writer, as well as a novelist and fiction-author. I help writers get their novels polished, identify structural weaknesses, and sharpen their prose. My aim is always to teach writers techniques so that they can, in the future, go forward without my help.
However, editing manuscripts is VERY time-consuming. Especially 90-120,000 word epics (which are the kind of books I like to read). Because of how long it takes to fully master-edit a book like this, it therefore becomes really expensive for the writer to invest in editing (and I’m on the cheap side!). As I said, I try to teach them techniques so that they don’t need me in the future – to add as much value as possible. With each edit, I try to impart a few more of my tricks and techniques to help them reach a level where they have their own voice, and they feel they can handle narratives without that guidance.
However, many people, and especially us creatives it seems, don’t have access to financial resources for master-edits on their novel. As someone who knows what it’s like for the energy company to turn off the power, I knew I had to address this imbalance and help out the millions of low-income creatives out there, who have just as much of a right to upgrade their writing. So, I wracked my brains as to how I could best address this. How could I explain some of my techniques and narrative strategies, but not bankrupt myself in the process?
The answer is the Epic Bootcamp.
The Epic Bootcamp is my attempt to create something affordable for writers who want to improve their craft but can’t afford to work with me one-to-one. Although I would also highly recommend it for anyone looking to level-up their storytelling, even those who have worked with me before. It is an online training course divided intoseven modules. Each module covers a different aspect of storytelling from creating epic protagonists, learning from the past to help us write our stories now, to structure, endings, and more. Not only does each module have a 30-60 minute audio file of pre-scripted content, but also another 70 – 120 minute audio with a special guest interview (transcripts are available on request too for those who are hard of hearing). These include interviews with indie filmmakers, novelists, poets, psychologists, and more!
Specifically, the Epic Bootcamp is designed to help you tell “epic” stories. Not just your run-of-the-mill tale, but something that shakes your reader to the core and leaves your indelible mark on their soul forever. Am I qualified to help you do that? Well, I’ve studied epics for more than 14 years, but not only that, I’ve written 20+ books, many of which are considered epic in scale, scope, and feeling.
That reminds me, you’ll also get a FREE digital copy of my epic novel Nekyia as a proof-of-concept for the principles I teach!
Furthermore, anyone who signs up to my Epic Bootcamp will also get a free 1-month trial membership to Let’s Get Published, a writer’s mastermind group run by the awesome Christa Wojciechowski.
So, if you want to take your stories for ‘eh’ to ‘epic’, head on over to the Epic Bootcamp!
Fantasy, and in particular the sword & sorcery genre, has had a rough patch. I think Neil Gaiman illustrated it perfectly when he said in his introduction to The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany(1999): ‘it is an irony, and not entirely a pleasant one, that what should be, by definition, the most imaginative of all types of literature has become so staid, and too often, downright unimaginative’. As much as I adore the works of Tolkien, they have become almost too pervasive in their influence. It is always the way that when one book or story is successful, it spawns imitations and, in the case of Hollywood, sometimes outright clones. It can be exceedingly difficult to break the creative influence of the our literary forbearers, but we must try to tread new ground (or at least, re-examine old ideas in a new way).
This brings me to Alistair Rennie’s BleakWarrior, published by Blood Bound Books in 2016. This is like no other sword & sorcery story I have ever read. BleakWarrior is equal parts Warhammer 40,000 and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. Equal parts philosophical exploration and Tarantino’s House of Blue Leaves. It is violent to the extent it could make George R. R. Martin blush, and yet the murder and sex orgies are juxtaposed with dialogue that is unequivocally Shakespearean and emotionally rich. Take this sentiment from the eponymous BleakWarrior himself: “But surely a strain of consequence must bind our absent purpose to some singular aim.” He is questioning whether fate has brought himself and another character together, but the labyrinthine nature of his syntax gives us a measure of the madness that eats away at his soul. The book is full of rich (and sometimes hilarious) exchanges such as this that circuitously hint at deeper meaning.
BleakWarrior is set in a secondary fantasy world with maddening logic. It is most similar to the magical sci-fi, baroque universe of Jack Vance and his Dying Earth series. It also follows Vance’s suit in the sense that many chapters from this book feel like they could be stand-alone short stories (and I believe the first part of the book to be published was a chapter called “The Gutter Sees The Light That Never Shines” in an anthology of Weird Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer). These episodic instalments, however, add up to create a greater whole. Seemingly innocuous threads become critical components later on, and characters that seem disconnected from the whole tapestry suddenly prove integral. Given the nature of so many threads, there is certainly massive potential to expand this universe and take the story even further in subsequent volumes. BleakWarrior is assuredly standalone, but I could certainly stand to have more!
BleakWarrior also has shades of Haruki Murakami. In Murakami’s most recent book Killing Commendatore, metaphorical concepts come to life. Alistair Rennie creates the “Meta-Warriors”, a cadre of assassins that embody strange concepts. The Gutter, for example, is a murderous psychopath who stinks like his namesake. But also, a play on words, because his preferred method of killing is gutting his opponents. Or Whorefrost (a pun on hoarfrost), whose semen is a lethal dose of sub-zero that freezes you from the inside (yes, you read that sentence correctly). Needless to say, this book is not for the faint of heart. It is as far from Tolkien’s world of innocent heroism as you can imagine. Here, bloody fights devolve into sexual orgies, scientists conduct experiments so immoral you have to laugh or else cry, and pussy-juice may or may not be magical.
I felt kinship reading BleakWarrior because in many ways it bears similarities with my own attempt to reinvent the sword & sorcery genre: Beyond The Black Gate. Beyond fuses a high-fantasy secondary world with ultra-violence and horror. Both BleakWarrior and Beyond The Black Gate feature insane killers that are steadily humanised by an agonising process of self-awareness. But what sets BleakWarrior apart from so many books, including my own, is the unique language Alistair Rennie has created to tell his story. It is at once parodic of traditional high falutin medieval fantasy lingo, but also an outstanding example of it. When the character Nailer of Souls, who as his name suggests consumes the souls of those he defeats in combats, tastes the spirit of BleakWarrior and announces: “Your soul to me is poison, BleakWarrior” – I could not help but shiver with the poetry of it.
Alistair Rennie is someone who understands that language gives meaning as much by its rhythm and sound than through signification. He feels the pulse of linguistic intercourse (and sometimes marries this with literal intercourse). In addition, the Meta-Warriors are literal embodiments of concepts, which means they are at once living breathing characters but also commentaries upon their own tropes. This means BleakWarrior creates a clever kind of loop, whereby it relentlessly satires itself but in doing so displays enough self awareness to then bypass cliché and achieve real epic grandeur.
Similarly, Rennie aligns the reader’s reason for reading with the reason for BleakWarrior’s actions: he does not know what or who he is and must find answers. There is a mystery at the heart of this book. What are Meta-Warriors? Why do they exist? And why do they run so counter to all the laws of the natural world? This mystery keeps us turning pages, just as it keeps BleakWarrior propelled into acts of dizzying violence. We feel sympathy for BleakWarrior because we, too, are in the dark: lost in a miasmal world we do not understand but are fascinated and sickened by.
I will not spoil how BleakWarrior ends, but suffice to say it does not disappoint. If you have been longing to read some high-quality sword & sorcery, then please look no further than BleakWarrior. It will repulse, titillate, raise hairs, and move you in unexpected ways.
Long live the Bastard Sons of Brawl!
Thank you for reading! If your appetite has been whetted, to purchase a copy of BleakWarrior, go to Amazon UK or Amazon US. To purchase a copy of my own Beyond The Black Gate(which will indebt me forever to you, dark scribe),go to Amazon UK or Amazon US.
Yes, you read the blog title correctly! I am bringing out a new novel, Save Game, in November of this year (just in time for Christmas… nudge nudge!). I’m excited about this book for so many reasons. It has had a long gestation period and it is unlike anything I have previously published, but I think should appeal to anyone who loves epic fantasy novels, video-games, RPGs, or underdog stories (or all of the above)! So, let me share the blurb!
Levi Jensen is, by all accounts, a loser. He failed sixth-form, never got to university, and works at a no-future fast-food restaurant. The only thing he’s good at is gaming. When his father starts dying of a new type of cancer, only treatable privately and at impossible expense, Levi’s one hope of saving him becomes the million-dollar cash-prize for winning the dark-fantasy video-game Fate of Ellaria. But Levi isn’t the only one with motivations beyond money for winning. And the price of success in Fate of Ellaria might mean the destruction of what little he has left in the real world.
Save Game is a heart-breaking story of an underdog against all odds, as well as a love-letter to the beauty of video-games. Inspired by the amazing and eclectic everyday people who inhabit the gaming world, and the pain of their real-world lives, Save Game aims to show the courage of those who feel they’ve got no place in reality.
In some ways, this book is my answer to Ready Player One. Many of you following me will know I’m not much of a fan of Ernest Cline’s work. I liked the intention behind it, but felt the execution amounted to references over substance – and a limited framework of ‘canon’ at that. Save Game for me is an attempt to tell a story with real emotion, that keeps the most important aspect of gaming at its heart: the players.
Many elements of the story are based on personal experience. I did live and work in Birmingham for a number of years, and while I did, my father was diagnosed with an aggressive sarcoma, which put him in critical condition in hospital for three months. Thankfully, after an incredible journey, he recovered and is still kicking ass today. I also spent years immersed in an epic, virtual fantasy world with two of my closest friends, and was a “games journalist” with GameSpew (and still contribute occasionally).
But if none of that persuades you, perhaps the cover will!
Look at that beauty!
So, look out for this novel early November. Please let me know if you’re excited for this release in the comments below! I love to hear from people!
Currently, I am actively looking for Book Reviewers to do preliminary reviews. If you are a reviewer and are interested in looking at Save Game, please get in touch via Twitter or the Contact Form of this website!
Until next time, denizens of the deep!
P.S. Don’t forget that if you’re curious about my work, but not sure yet, you can get a FREE science fiction novel from me (plus loads of other giveaways and goodies) at my mailing list The Mind-Palace.
This is for Philippa Semper: an inspirational teacher whose lessons will never be confined to time’s oblivion, but will resonate on and on.
Shakespeare’s power partly resides in his ubiquity. He is a living embodiment of ‘all things to all people’. It is very difficult to ascertain Shakespeare’s own views from his plays because for every philosophical position put forward in dramatic monologue, another character, or even the same one, will often produce a position to counter it. As a result, Shakespeare has been interpreted and re-interpreted throughout history in a variety of different lenses, from Marxism to Fascism, from religious to anti-religious, from optimist to nihilist. This kind of ubiquity has at times worked against him, especially when we consider the phenomenon of what popular literary criticism refer to as his “problem plays”; plays that allegedly lack cohesion, or an ultimate “point”. However, we are increasingly coming to understand, with the scholarship of William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity being a case in point, that the ambiguity is, perhaps, precisely Shakespeare’s point.
Arguably Shakespeare’s most problematic play is Troilus & Cressida. Set during the Trojan war, and following events parallel in timeline to those of Homer’s Iliad, it cannot truly be called a History, as the events transpire in an age of ‘mythology’. Though the play is wrought with tragic and bleak overtones, neither Troilus nor Cressida actually die at the end of the play, which makes it hard to pin as tragedy. Lastly, though the play is full of comedy, mostly in the form of vicious satire, cynicism, and irony, it lacks the uplifting quality that defines Shakespeare’s other comedies such as Twelfth Night.
Troilus & Cressida has never been regarded as one of Shakespeare’s great plays. At least, certainly not by public audiences. But I think I am coming to the conclusion it is my favourite of all his work, precisely because it might be regarded as an “anti-play”, a deconstruction of his own dramatic tropes and heroic narrative. It is Shakespeare’s riposte to Homer, to Virgil, to Dante, to Marlowe, and what a riposte it is. As a writing coach, I believe there is an extraordinary amount we can learn from this confusing and ambiguous masterpiece. My analysis will, hopefully, shed some insight into why this play might be accounted among Shakespeare’s best work, and how we can learn to shape our own narratives using his techniques.
The title of this “essay”, if it can be called that, is Time, Empire, & Feminism. I intend to address these three core themes and how they interrelate.
Perhaps the most explicit theme of Troilus & Cressida is time. Not only are there three key speeches pertaining to the nature of time, but the play is full to the brim of foreshadowing and anxieties about the future, from Cassandra’s baleful prophesying, to Ulysses’ taunts to Hector about the future of Troy.
The first key speech comes from Agamemnon (Leader of the Greek Armies, King of Kings, as it were). He bemoans the current state of military affairs in the Greek camp, saying that despite all they have done, and all the lives that have been lost: “after seven years’ siege yet Troy walls stand” (1.3.462). Seven years have gone by and nothing has really been achieved. In addition, the Greek camp is rotting from the inside. The soldiers are mutinous. Morale is low. There is little hope of progress. It is Ulysses that proposes a solution to shake things up and get their best men on the front lines again. He outlines that the problem is the disruption of the traditional hierarchy. In the past, this has been interpreted as Shakespeare advocating for “degree” and hierarchy, but given Ulysses is a proven-liar, and as deceitful as they come, rather it seems he is saying what he believes Agamemnon wants to hear. This is also a theme of Troilus & Cressida.
Nestor, the ancient advisor to Agamemnon, says that: “Most wisely hath Ulysses here discover’d / The fever whereof all our power is sick.” (1.3.591-592). However, I think this is incorrect, a lack of insight on Nestor’s part. The real problem is not the lack of respect for hierarchy, but rather time itself. Too much time has passed for anyone to care very much about Menelaus’ marriage to Helen (her betrayal being the cause of the whole war to begin with). Time naturally disintegrates and corrupts.
We see this confirmed in the second speech of the play, which comes from Ulysses in reply to Achilles. Achilles is upset that Agamemnon and the other commanders are no longer showing his respect. Ironically, Ulysses moves in to comfort Achilles, a premeditated tactic; Ulysses is the one to instigate the demotion of Achilles in the first place. Ulysses wants to get Achilles fighting again, and so he deploys a hearty dose of reverse psychology, inviting the commanders to send the message that we don’t need you.. Achilles laments, asking: “Are my deeds forgot?” (3.3.2020). Ulysses replies: “Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, / wherein he puts alms for oblivion, / a great-sized monster of ingratitudes;” (3.3.2021-2023).
In other words, time causes us to forget good deeds. None of our important actions matter, because in the long run, time will cause them to be forgotten. This commentary operates on a multitude of levels. Shakespeare is, in some ways, beginning to deconstruct the classical heroic literature. Ulysses is saying that Achilles’ good deeds will be forgotten. But the reverse is surely also true. We forget the bad deeds, and end up mythologising and deifying people who actually were not “good” or appropriate role models in any sense. The ending of Troilus & Cressida features a shocking twist, in which Achilles turns out not the be the warrior portrayed in Homer’s Iliad. In fact, at the end of the play, Achilles doesn’t defeat Hector in glorious single combat. Rather, whilst Hector is unarmed and without his armour, Achilles ambushes him, and gets his squad of thuggish Myrmidons to brutally murder him while he is weaponless and defenceless. There is no honour or glory in the act. Ulysses’ speech on time prepares us for this, because he invites us to consider what has been lost to time, and to question our heroes and whether we misremember them.
There is certainly a dialogue here with Shakespeare’s contemporary and role-model Marlowe going on. Marlowe’s most famous line of poetry was: “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burned the topless towers of Ilium” (Dr Faustus). It is a description of Helen of Troy, allegedly the most beautiful woman in the world. Marlowe also was made famous in his day for his two-part epic Tamburlaine The Great, a heroic narrative of a conqueror. Shakespeare’s own interpretation of war is very different. It is ugly, the province of liars and thugs. Here, he challenges Marlowe’s version of the heroic narrative and Trojan story. But it is not merely contemporaneous commentary. Shakespeare’s deconstruction of war was modernistic before modernism had even been dreamt of. In a strange way, like Cassandra, he foresaw the horrors and dishonour of modern warfare before it’d become a reality.
Ulysses’ speech also serves to foreshadow the fate of Cressida and Troilus, our central protagonists (or are they? Even this seems to be challenged to an extent). Troilus and Cressida have admired each other from afar for quite some time before the play even begins (again, we play with time in unusual ways, flaunting the “unity” of the Ancient Greeks). However, after some back and forth using the quixotic Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle, as a messenger, they arrange a meet-up. If you are expecting a romantic encounter in the vein of Romeo & Juliet, you are in for a surprise. Cressida and Troilus’ encounter is overtly sexual. And while Troilus professes truth and beauty, it’s clear that the two intend to spend less time talking and more time in the bedroom. The language between the two is alive with sexual punnery, to the extent that the characters even remark upon their own euphemisms. Cressida asks Troilus to “Come you again into my chamber”. (4.2.2329) then realises what she has said: “You smile and mock me, as if I meant naughtily.” (4.2.2330). Apart from showing us that some things really do never change, Shakespeare is subtly beginning to challenge the idea of true romantic love.
It is a final irony that Cressida foreshadows her own infidelity by saying that if she is unfaithful, it will be remembered until “When time is old and hath forgot itself,” (3.2.1836). This is an oxymoronical paradox that frighteningly goes one step further than Ulysses’ speech, saying that not only can time make all things forget, but can forget itself. Does one sense that perhaps Cressida wants to be remembered? It seems to me that she experiences a kind of existential terror contemplating forgetfulness, and therefore seeks to immortalise herself through the despicable nature of her actions.
It’s intriguing that Cressida, after their first sexual liaison, is the one to ask: “Are you a-weary of me?” (4.2.2295), which Troilus firmly denies. However, this might well have been psychological projection on Cressida’s part. Troilus and Cressida are, tragically parted. The Greeks trade back a Trojan prisoner, and Cressida, who was born Greek, must be exchanged. No sooner have the lovers finally consummated their feelings, than they must be pulled apart. The timing is off, once again. They wasted time eyeing each other from afar, and now they have run out of time.
It’s here we get the third significant speech on time, by Troilus. It is, to my mind, perhaps one of the most agonising speeches ever rendered in the English language: “injurious time now with a robber’s haste/ Crams his rich thievery up, he knows not how: / As many farewells as be stars in heaven, /With distinct breath and consign’d kisses to them, / He fumbles up into a lose adieu, / And scants us with a single famish’d kiss, / Distasted with the salt of broken tears” (4.4.2472-2478). Here, time is portrayed as unjust (injurious) and a thief (a robber’s haste). Time is literally stealing from them: love, life, happiness. Shakespeare then, in true self-style, takes the simile one step further. The robber also steals their “farewells”. In other words, they do not even have time to say a proper goodbye. In exchange, he offers them a “famish’d kiss / distasted with the salt of broken tears”. By creating the neologism “distasted”, Shakespeare makes us taste the salty bitterness of the tears. This is also a classic example of one of Shakespeare’s mixed metaphors that a modern editor wouldn’t tolerate, but it is the mixed nature of the metaphor that grants it its power. Tears cannot be broken, of course, because they’re liquid. But, the fact the tears are “broken” suggests on a deeper spiritual level that they are not working. They are in some way dishonest or non-operational, meaning the grief is insincere and meaningless. Not only is the kiss “famished”, deficient and not fully satisfying, but it tastes bitter because of false tears. This is echoed by Pandarus’ comment: “Where are my tears?” (4.4.2483). He wonders why he cannot cry that the lovers are parted and that his own niece is going to be taken the Greek camp. The entire scene is cynical. Nothing is truly felt. Shakespeare may indeed be commenting on the nature of performance and acting in general, too.
Cressida has many extended monologues in this scene (Act IV Scene 4) that connote her grief at parting from Troilus. She also blames him repeatedly for not loving her by allowing them to part. Troilus is in a very difficult position, because the order has come directly from his own father, Priam, and his brothers, so to go against it would be to fight against his own blood. As I said before, Cressida seems to be projecting here, because no sooner is she out of Troilus’ sight, than she finds herself enjoying the sexual attentions of Patroclus (taking not one, not two, but three kisses from him) and then later Diomedes. She makes the same sexual pun to Diomedes as she did to Troilus: “Prithee, come” (5.2.3174). Cressida is inconstant. Troilus believes that it is time that has made her so: “never did young man fancy / With so eternal and so fix’d a soul” (5.2.3239-3240). In other words, Troilus regards himself as a constant and fixed point, therefore Cressida must have changed over time. However, it has been barely a day since they last saw each other. It is more likely that Cressida has always been superficial. She even warns him of it herself upon their first meeting. Troilus fails to listen to her. The theme of men not listening to women in Troilus & Cressida is something we’ll return to in Feminism.
Interestingly, it is Ulysses that reveals Cressida’s unfaithfulness to Troilus, and upon witnessing her unfaithfulness, Troilus proclaims that they must stay so that he can: “make a recordation to my soul / Of every syllable that here was spoke” (5.2.3188-3189). He wants to remember everything that Diomedes and Cressida said to one another. This is in direct contrast to Ulysses’ statement that time obliterates all memory.
Time is the great enemy in Troilus & Cressida. Or is it? Agamemnon blames time for the corruption of his men. Ulysses blames time for the forgetfulness of the generals. Troilus blames time for corrupting his Cressida. But ultimately, time doesn’t cause any of this. In fact, it is human frailty that causes all of these. Time is constant. Humans are inconstant. Time is the touchstone that equivocates and brings all of the dark deeds and secrets to light. Time, ironically, is not injurious at all. It is the fairest agent in the play.
End of Empires
Upon re-watching Troilus & Cressida I couldn’t help but think how startlingly it pertains to our own times. Most significantly, the political state of Britain. It is not my intention to turn this into a political monologue, but merely to observe how our times are not unprecedented, and in many ways, Shakespeare foresaw them in his own time.
Troilus & Cressida is, on the surface, about a war between two factions. One of the factions, the Greeks, have been stolen from. We shall return to this idea of “stealing” and “property” in the segment on Feminism, as I do believe that it is not Shakespeare’s intention to imply that women are property, but actually to challenge this abhorrent traditionally held notion in several striking ways. But on a basic level, Helen and Cressida have been stolen from the Greeks. Therefore, the Greeks have gone to war with Troy to win them back.
The Greeks are internally divided. They are in the midst of a crisis of leadership. Achilles will not fight, so who will rally their men? One is reminded, by the scheming of Agamemnon, Nestor, and Ulysses, of our own political machinations and smear-campaigns; the fragile leadership of the last few years seems exemplified in the posing Greeks. Achilles, essentially, is a diva. He isn’t getting enough attention, so he won’t fight. Agamemnon is incompetent and unimaginative, eager to abdicate responsibility to the bigger brain on the playground. Nestor is obsessed with the priority of his age. Menelaus is a loser, and no one cares what he thinks. They spend more time thinking about ways to snub each other than they do to solve the problem introduced by Agamemnon at the start of the play: that Troy’s walls still stand.
What is the central quandary of the Trojan generals? In Act II, Scene 2, Priam, Hector, Aeneas, Paris, Troilus, Cassandra and Helen are all gathered, debating whether to return Helen or continue to defend her. The room is split, with Troilus and Paris vote to continue to defend Helen, for the sake of honour. Whereas Hector and Priam are of the opinion that too much has been lost already, and that she should leave. Now, you can probably already see where I’m going with this. Their debate is strikingly reminiscent of the Remain / Leave narratives of modern times. The Leavers view the past seven years as a terribly heavy investment and that they should cut their losses by returning her. The Remainers are convinced that they should stand upon principle, whatever the cost and whatever the future might hold. What was the point in taking Helen in the first place if not to keep her? So, the room is divided, and the debate wages pointlessly on, until finally Hector is persuaded, using the honour argument, that they should keep Helen. His decision sways everyone else.
Of course, it is the wrong decision (I make no inference here about Brexit, merely within the context of Shakespeare’s play, it is clearly the wrong decision for Hector personally, and for the nation of Troy). As a result of this decision, Hector is killed, and, though this is not covered within the scope of the play, Troy is ransacked and burned to the ground. We know Troy’s fate because of numerous portrayals in classical literature (pretty much everyone in the West knows of the Trojan Horse, even today). The most famous portrayal of this fall might well be Virgil’s in his epic, The Aeneid; the opening chapters depict the heroic Aeneas saving the last survivors of Troy in order to flee and found a new country: Rome. It is worth me mentioning at this point that Aeneas is possibly the only person in the entirety of Troilus & Cressida whom Shakespeare portrays in a good light. Aeneas seems to be the only person who is authentically who he is. He deals with people fairly, and even covers for Troilus when he discovers Troilus and Cressida in bed together, despite the fact that the two are on opposite sides of the war, and he has no reason to defend Troilus’ reputation and honour. He stays away from politics, and focuses on making the best of a bad situation: defending his people.
This favourable portrayal is possibly due to the fact that Aeneas, as mythologically the “first Roman”, is someone whom Shakespeare feels indebted to, given that his chief inspirations were the writings of Ovid and the Roman playwrights such as Plautus and Terence. Shakespeare may well be paying a literary debt here by sparing Aeneas from his otherwise ubiquitous character-assassinations (Ulysses is a liar and cheat, Ajax is an imbecile, Achilles is a diva and coward, Menelaus is a cuck, Troilus is naive, Pandarus is a pander, Priam is doddery and senile, Hector is arrogant).
But to return to Troy’s fall, we see this foreshadowed numerous times. Ulysses taunts Hector, saying that:
“Sir, I foretold you then what would ensue:
My prophecy is but half his journey yet;
For yonder walls, that pertly front your town,
Yond towers, whose wanton tops do buss the clouds,
Must kiss their own feet.” (4.5.2841-2845)
Ulysses says that he has prophesied the towers will fall. There is a ghost of Marlowe’s mighty line here: the “topless towers” are echoed in “Yond towers, who wanton tops do buss the clouds”. There are several meanings to unpack. Shakespeare here rebukes Marlowe. His towers are described as “wanton”. In other words, they are phallic. They represent male arrogance, and imply Troy is a seat of sexual deviancy, which, from what we’ve seen, it is. They are not “topless” but “buss the clouds”. Like Babel, they attack the seat of the gods, which is in classical literature represented symbolically by the sky above us. If the towers are like Babel, it is inevitable they will fall. And here, I think we reach Shakespeare’s true insight. He understood that all empires must end. All towers, no matter how tall, must one day be brought down. In the West we believe that our empire will somehow remain eternally, but four-hundred years ago Shakespeare understood the truth that we deny: that one day even the greatest civilisations must end. All that’s required is time.
If you have any doubt about this, simply consider the image of the towers falling. The towers of our empire have already literally fallen, just as Ulysses predicted they would. The image he uses of “kissing their own feet” is a kind of profane act. To kiss someone’s feet is to honour and humble yourself before them. But to kiss your own feet is to humble yourself before yourself. It is a self-reflective act of collapsing inward. And, it must be observed, that all empires collapse from within before they collapse from without. Shakespeare’s Troy is a perfect example of this. Pandarus sleeps with young boys. Cressida and Troilus engage in extra-marital sexual liaisons, as do Helen and Paris. There is an air of corruption and iniquity that pervades every scene of the play.
We are left with a haunting image at the end of Troilus & Cressida that encapsulates this moral collapse: Pandarus wandering through the streets, dying of venereal disease. Rather than try to find a way to die nobly and in peace, Pandarus instead proclaims he will “bequeath” his “diseases” to find “eases”. In other words, he will sleep with as many people as possible to feel better and ease the pain, regardless of whether it passes on his STD. It is a repulsive and bleak image to end on. So, we see, collapse of empire is inevitable. Troy preceded Rome. Rome preceded Britain. Britain preceded America. The empire ends, something is salvaged from the ruins, and the cycle repeats.
It’s worth me noting at the start of this section that I am aware that, as a man, it is perhaps not my place to make statements about what feminism is or isn’t, nor is that my intention. However, it is impossible when viewing Troilus & Cressida not to see a pretty overt commentary on the nature of gender roles, and this commentary forms a core part of the play’s meaning and power. I’m sure that many other female scholars can take (or may have already taken) an even deeper look into what is really going on in this play. I’d invite any female writers to critique or counter my work, but I hope this will form a useful starting point in terms of broad strokes.
Throughout Troilus & Cressida there is a narrative of ownership. During the scene in Act II, Scene 2, Helen is spoken about as though she is property. Though she is present in the room, she utters not one word. The men do the talking for her, deciding what to do with her. Return her, or keep her. Throughout the play, the idea of women as property is returned to. It is returned to so often that it almost seems to be like the men have a kind of obsession or deeper anxiety about the issue. In fact, were Shakespeare an out and out misogynist, which some scholars have claimed he is, I’m not sure he would have mentioned the idea of women as property as often as he does – it would instead be implicit. Clearly, then, it is intentional and thematic. He is drawing our attention to something important.
Cressida “belongs” to Troilus, but no sooner does he “possess” her, than she is returned to the Greek camp. When Troilus witnesses her infidelity, he says: “This she? no, this is Diomed’s Cressida” (5.2.3211). In other words, this isn’t her, this is the version of her that belongs to Diomedes. The reality is, however, that Cressida doesn’t belong to anyone. When Cressida wishes to give Diomedes her scarf, she then decides to take it back. He then insists and takes it from her by force (she says he “snatches” it from her). She then says: “Well, well, ’tis done, ’tis past: and yet it is not; / I will not keep my word.” (5.2.3163-3164). In other words, he can have the scarf, but he doesn’t have her. Diomedes is obsessed with the origin of the scarf. He wants to know “whose it was” (5.2.3153). Like a man purchasing a car, he wants to know its sales history. Her sales history. Who owned you before?
When the men realise that they don’t own the women in this play, they quite literally go insane. Troilus suffers a complete psychological break with reality. First, he denies that he ever saw Cressida. This is psychosis 101. “Was Cressid here?” (5.2.3197). Even though Ulysses assures him she was, Troilus won’t believe him: “She was not, sure” (5.2.3199). Next, he enters a state of complete doubt and paralysis. Like Schroedinger, he proposes that: “this is, and is not, Cressid” (5.2.3220). He cannot resolve the dichotomy in his head. He believed her to be one person, to belong to him, so when she acts counter to that, it shatters his worldview. Finally, Troilus transfers blame to Diomedes: “as much as I do Cressid love, / So much by weight hate I her Diomed” (5.2.3241-3242). This is preposterous, but all-too-believable. He cannot deal with the fact that Cressida has chosen another over him, cannot give her agency in the matter, so he blames the man / rival lover. In short, Shakespeare shows the fragility of male ego. Four hundreds years before #maleegosofragile, Shakespeare portrayed the instability of male psyche.
We see a deeper exploration of gender roles in the character of Pandarus. Pandarus describes Cressida as “such a woman!” (1.2.407). Yet, this is deeply ironic, as he embodies far more of the stereotypical negative traits of women that Cressida. I should say, for the record, that I do not believe women innately possess these traits nor wish to encourage negative stereotypes. I merely mean to observe that negative stereotypes about women exist, and Shakespeare, in a stroke of irony, transfers these traits to Pandarus, a man, in order to deconstruct our traditional views of gender roles. Pandarus likes to sleep with young men, for a start. He is a gossip. In the scene where Cressida and himself watch the Trojan procession, he defames the character of virtually every member of the royal household, including Paris (he describes him as “dirt”) and even Hector himself. The only two he spares are Aeneas (again, spared the satire) and Troilus, which is for the specific reason that he is trying to set up a match between the two. Pandarus is a gossip, and a match-maker, two traits often associated with women.
He is also two-faced. We derive the verb to pander from Pandarus’ name. He is synonymous with the art of telling people what they want to hear. Men are always accusing women of being two-faced, yet Pandarus is worst for this. In Act III, Scene 1, he calls Helen “Sweet Queen” when he has spent the majority of the play dissing her in front of anyone who will listen, including her own servants. It is interesting that we learn later that Cressida already “loves” Troilus, or at least is attracted to him, though she affects disinterest in front of Pandarus. Yet, Pandarus seems to have her sussed, as he sings Troilus’ praises to the heavens: again, exactly what she wants to hear. Later, however, in a private aside to the audience when observing the infatuation of Paris and Helen, Pandarus vituperously remarks: “Is this the generation of love? hot blood, hot / thoughts, and hot deeds? Why, they are vipers” (3.1.1617-1618). He compares the lovers to vipers, quite in contrast to his unctuous praises of a few moments ago. We can also read more deeply in this. When he says “generation”, the term seems to refer to a broader selection of people than just Paris and Helen. He is also referring to Troilus and Cressida, then. Despite all his affections, he regards them as snakes. Ironically, it is Pandarus who is the snake, whispering in Cressida’s ear about Troilus’ glory in order to set the two up.
For what purpose does he set them up? This is a classic example of Shakespeare’s missing motives. Or rather, not missing, but not emphatically stated. Perhaps the most famous example of this would be Iago’s motivations in Othello, which remain mysterious even after he is subjected to torture. Pandarus, similarly, seems to have very little personal motivation for securing a liaison between the lovers. I would argue it is possibly his own vicarious sexual gratification. He earlier remarks that: “I could live and die i’ the / eyes of Troilus” (1.2.392). The eyes are repeatedly used in Troilus & Cressida as a signifier of sexual desire. After Cressida betrays Troilus, she says: “Minds sway’d by eyes are full of turpitude” (5.2.3181). Turpitude is a synonym for transgression, suggesting sexual perversion. There is strong evidence of Pandarus’ homosexual leanings toward Troilus, then. But also, possibly, toward his own niece. Earlier, he watches their foreplay and observes Troilus’ kissing technique (with disdain). Following Troilus and Cressida’ first sexual hook-up, he enters their bedroom asking: “hast not slept to-night? would he not, a naughty / man, let it sleep?” (4.2.2324-2325). He wants to know the juicy details of their liaison. In fact, his dialogue seems more fitting for a pimp than an uncle.
Pandarus asks Cressida: “Do you know a man if you see him?” (1.2.217). He is questioning her judgement of a “real man”, and trying to infer she is expressing the wrong preference. However, this is also Shakespeare making us question gender. Do we truly “know a man” from sight alone? Pandarus seems a man, but in fact he is more typically feminine than any other character in the play (again, I do not believe that these stereotypes are true, merely than Shakespeare chooses to transfer what were believed as feminine traits onto a man). Cressida seems a woman, but in fact not only is she being played by a male actor on stage (at least in Shakespeare’s day), but she is also typically masculine in her sexual aggression, her conquest of multiple sexual partners, and her lack of remorse for betraying her lover. Cressida really is more of a “man”, in the ugly stereotypical sense, than Troilus. We see this in the fact of her original unwillingness to show her affection to Troilus or Pandarus. Men are notorious for feigning a lack of interest in women in order to appear more attractive by virtue of inaccessibility; playing hard to get, as it were. Cressida does the same: “Then though my heart’s content firm love doth bear, / Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear.” (1.2.446-447).
In fact, Cressida “wish’d myself a man, Or that we women had men’s privilege” (3.2.1777-1778). Cressida recognises the gender inequality and wishes it were rectified. But it also hints that she herself identifies in some way as male. The example of such “privilege” she gives is the fact that men have the right of “speaking first” (3.2.1779). It is interesting, then, that up until this point in the play, the women have all spoken second. Except one: Cassandra. Cassandra is, in the classical sources Shakespeare draws from, a prophet. However, due to her relationship with Apollo, she is cursed to never be believed. Cassandra is the only woman to speak first in a scene before the reversal takes place. Where Helen remains silent throughout the Trojan debate in Act II Scene 2, Cassandra speaks and declares that if Helen is not returned, disaster will befall Troy. We, as an audience, know she is right, because we know the story of Troy. However, Cassandra is dismissed by the men and described as “mad” by Troilus. I do not think that these are a series of coincidences. Shakespeare is highlighting the problem of men refusing to let women take control, and refusing to listen to them when they speak.
An even more powerful example of this is in the fate of Hector. In Act 5 Scene 3, Hector is warned by two women that if he goes out to fight, he will certainly die. Andromache, his wife, is the first to warn him. Interestingly, she does speak first in this scene – with the first line of dialogue. The tables of gender priority have turned by the end of the play. She says: “Unarm, unarm, and do not fight to-day” (5.3.3279). The next to warn Hector is Cassandra. Cassandra is Hector’s sister, so there is even a blood-tie here. At one moment, it seems he might be swayed, but then Troilus enters, hot for battle because of his humiliation at the hands of Diomedes and Cressida. Hector listens to Troilus, even though it’s clear Troilus is not in his right mind. Troilus even threatens to kill Hector if he should stand in his way of going to battle. But Hector prioritises the male judgement over the female.
This taps into another stereotype that I believe Shakespeare is challenging: that women are irrational. Troilus, here, is the irrational one, acting purely on emotion without logic. It is Cassandra and Andromache who argue from a perspective of logic: Hector is a rallying point for Trojans, a tactical genius, as well as an inspirational leader and figurehead (Cassandra calls him the “crutch” of Troy). If he dies, too much is lost. They shouldn’t risk him, even if honour is at stake. Hector doesn’t care. He goes out anyway. He dies and Troy is doomed.
Troilus & Cressida is in many ways a study in the consequences of what happens when men do not listen to women, and when men try to objectify and “possess” women. The answer is: total collapse and calamity, both physical and psychological.
Troilus & Cressida is perhaps Shakespeare’s least admired play, after Titus Andronicus. It is rarely performed. However, I would argue that if it is not his best play, it is certainly his most modern. He deconstructs heroism, romantic love, gender roles, and notions of empire. He gives voice to women, and then shows us the harrowing consequences of ignoring them. He puts lies in the mouths of oligarchs, and then shows their empires crashing down around them. He shows us that regardless of human capacity for self-deceit, time will be the great arbiter of all our sins. Troilus claims that his name will become synonymous with truth. Cressida, with falsity. The play should not then be called Troilus & Cressida, but rather, Truth & Deception. It is tragic – and perhaps a little Shakespearean – that the import and power of these themes has, as Ulysses predicted, been forgotten within the oblivion of time.
Something I get asked a lot is ‘does the five act structure for storytelling also apply to non-fiction books or even business books?’. The answer is emphatically yes!
ACT I: Inciting Incident
The event that becomes a catalyst for everything that follows, the thing which sets the story in motion.
So, in the case of a non-fiction book, this is what has sparked you to write the book. This could be the current state of your particular field of research or study. For example, if you were writing a book on HR principles, you need to set the scene with what the current problems are confronting people in HR and where the gap in research, knowledge, or practice is. If you were writing a book on technology, you would need to outline what the latest innovations are and how they correspond and fit in with your research and understanding.
In the case of auto-biography or biography, you need to establish what the catalyst is for that person’s journey. Tristine Rainer’s book Your Life As Story offers fascinating insights into how to establish what this catalyst is, and the benefits of non-chronology. AKA: your story doesn’t necessarily start when you’re born, bizarrely. It starts with a meeting, an encounter. For example, my journey as a writer perhaps began when I first read Macbeth with my father. That is a more powerful catalyst than my birth.
Simon Sinek said “Start with why’” but personally I think he’s wrong. He makes the classic mistake of understanding narrative from a corporate and pseudo-scientific perspective. “We need to state why we’re doing X, in order to justify Y”. This appeals to logic, but not to emotion. The ways humans process and understand story is deeper than factual cognition.
All stories start with a catalyst, as do all thought processes. We start with something external that sets us in motion. The internal “why” comes later. Heroes do not just decide one day “I want to go on an adventure”. A wizard shows up at their door and asks them to come along.
ACT II: Development/Turn the screw
We go deeper into the story here and learn more about why the event happened, possibly learn some new insights about the event and the people involved in it that may cast them in new light or confirm what we initially thought. The tension is amped. I use the phrase “Turn the Screw” in reference to Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw, a masterpiece of taut psychological and supernatural horror that continues, each chapter, to “turn the screw”, making things worse, with more at stake, and more horror.
From a non-fiction perspective, this is where we apply a sense of urgency. Why is it important that this book be written? (There you go, Simon). You might approach this section by asking: What is at stake? You have to make it clear just how bad things will be if we don’t address the problems outlined in ACTs I & II. The answer to the question of what’s at stake might surprise you in its severity. The strange reality of life is that most things really are life and death. Even writing about internal conceptual theories to do with personal development, psychology, or motivation, there is a very real human cost in failing to address these issues.
ACT III: Peripitea
This is the moment where our protagonist starts to turn the tables and gain the upper hand in some way, whether that be by realising what they need to do, acquiring an object or ally, or just trying harder. This is a moment where the “good guys” strike back.
In non-fiction: This is where a solution is proposed. This is where you introduce the maps, tools, or the specialist knowledge that is going to help the person to get through their trouble and overcome their difficulties.
This is the ACT where you get to talk most about you. Not you as a person, necessarily, but your company, your product, your philosophy or ideas. This is where you show people how you have navigated the perils and difficulties outlined in ACT II.
ACT IV: Anagnorisis
A revelation, some new information comes to light that changes everything. This would be the “I am your father” moment in Empire Strikes Back, or the “I am your mother” moment in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex.
In non-fiction, this is where you surprise your reader with an epiphany. In other words, you share a piece of insight, drawing conclusions from what you have discussed across the previous three ACTs, that they could not have otherwise reached. This is where you ‘blow their mind’. One way to do this is to use case-studies, data, or examples in order to illustrate your point and the sheer difference your ACT III solution can make.
ACT V: Catharsis
The story reaches its climax and denouement. Something is lost, so that something can be gained. We experience the negative emotions, the suffering, of the protagonist as our own and then are freed from this negative emotion in a moment of sublimity. If this all sounds a bit technical, just think of an ending to a film, book, story, that really moved you at a deep level. This is the catharsis.
This final act is the most important. It is where you reach your readers on an emotional level, and give them a healing experience. This applies to non-fiction too. How will their sorrows and suffering be alleviated by learning? What is the hope of healing and reconciliation? Can we actually change the world? Hopefully, the answer to all three is “yes”. Remember, in the words of Christopher Nolan: “Positive emotion trumps negative every time”. The hope, the salvation, the redemption, always offers more powerful catharsis than despair. To redeem beauty from darkness is the fundamental yearning of the human spirit.
A particularly fine example of this is Chin Ning Chu’s Thick Face, Black Heart in which she ends on a moment of her spiritual awakening. In a sense, she ends at the beginning, the first moment that she realised there was a Dharma, and that her life was in God’s hands. She saves the emotional and spiritual reasoning behind her learning this philosophy of Thick Face, Black Heart right to the end, where it will have greatest impact. It also causes us to re-contextualise what we have read with deeper understanding. In essence, it is transcendental, which all good literature, whether fictional or otherwise, should aim to be.
Back in April I ran a little mini-giveaway of a hardback copy of Beyond the Black Gate. Through July (until July 31st) I am going to be running a second give-away, because YAY to free stuff! The prize is a signed copy of my 700 page monolith Nekyia! It’s a hefty tome and produced to insane quality, so it’s normally £21 for the paperback on Amazon; you could have it for £0! Here it is below…
Author presented for size comparison! Look at that unit (meaning the book, of course)! Apologies for the bad hair day!
Here’s a little teaser of what Nekyia is about:
Across time, across worlds, the dark prophets are surfacing. And above the rabble of maniacs and heretics are four supreme lords. A weaver of illusions. A life-drinking mastermind. A psychotic scientist breaking with reality. And, highest of all, The Prince with his hypnogogic eye. Where the horsemen go, hunger, death, terror and sickness follow. As their dark plots unfold, their paths will converge, centering on a city only spoken of in dreams. There are also those who resist the end times. A wolf-woman. A desert seer. A cripple. A fortune-teller. And the Last Knight. From the slums and shadows come these defenders of the old ways of life, but how can they face the dark when it is unified and they are disparate, lost, broken? Lines will blur in the darkening city. Secrets kept beneath its black stone will unspell the rule of tyrants and reveal the hidden fate of all wayward souls. Light will meet dark. Dark will meet deeper dark. And all will perish; all will rise.
Here’s what the great Christa Wojciechowski said about this book:
“Nekyia is a long book, but it’s broken up into sections, each one with their own unique texture and flavor. It’s a fine five-course meal rather than one overwhelming feast, peppered with Sale’s beautiful and lurid imagery. Nekyia is more of an experience than a book.”
So, this experience could be yours! All you have to do is sign up to my mailing list the “Mind-Palace” BEFORE July 31st and you’ll be in with a chance to win the book (it will be decided randomized)! You’ll actually get a free eBook copy of my book The Meaning of the Dark guaranteed when you sign up too, so potentially that’s two horror books in one! If you’ve already signed up to my mailing list, don’t worry, you’ll automatically be entered into the competition with a chance to win!
Anyway, thanks for stopping by. It’s my pleasure to share this journey into the darkest vaults of the Mind-Palace with you. Don’t mind the ancient thing chained in the lower chambers, it will never wake…
This is a short blog just to let you know that I am going to be running a small giveaway until the end of April (30th)! The prize is a signed paperback copy of my recently released novel Beyond the Black Gate! It’s a beautiful book, with cover-art by Igor Sid, and proper high-quality paper! Here’s what it looks like below (minus the deranged lunatic holding it and the map of Cyrodiil in the background):
But it’s not just pretty, some reviewers have said some really nice things about it. Dan Stubbings of The Dimension Between Worldsdescribed it as something that “opened windows to ideas you quite simply didn’t know were possible. Joseph has been able to go beyond the perimeters and troupes of specific genres, and engineer something that is a work of art.”
Steve Stred of Kendall Reviews said of it: “Beyond is a well done mash-up of HEAVY METAL with Barker-esque gore set in a Lovecraftian reality. There’s no other way to describe it.”
Thanks so much Steve and Dan!
So, this book could be yours! All you have to do is sign up to my mailing list the “Mind-Palace” and you’ll be in with a chance to win the book (it will be decided randomized)! You’ll actually get a free eBook copy of my book The Meaning of the Dark guaranteed when you sign up too, so potentially that’s two horror books in one! If you’ve already signed up to my mailing list, don’t worry, you’ll automatically be entered into the competition with a chance to win!
Anyway, thanks for stopping by. It’s my pleasure to share this journey into the darkest vaults of the Mind-Palace with you. Don’t mind the oozings you encounter along the way.
It was Spring in a sleepy little town when I finished reading Storgy’s Shallow Creek. I sat back from the glaring digital screen, hollows where youthful eyes had once been. Youthful. I scorn the word. Younger than I am now. To read this collection is to step outside of time, to travel across something of indeterminable depth, to glimpse things in the crevasses and folds, the cracks and tears; things which are better left unseen.
I wax poetical, but I said that I would set pen to paper and review the collection, this testimony to all Shallow Creek is, was, and might be. Firstly, I should say it is more like a multi-authored novel than a collection, stories carefully placed to tell a single – if treacherous – narrative. The editors Tomek, Ross and Tony are to be commended for their Herculean effort in assembling and editing these tales to make them into a singular yet fragmented tale.
Each story is accompanied by dazzling artwork by Michael To. These pieces are truly exquisite dark illustrations that often bring the images and metaphors at the heart of these stories to life. Michael has a way of synthesising two dispirit images that brings new meaning: a home springing from the curve of anchor, a bleeding rollercoaster, a mouth fountaining liquid…
The stories have been arranged, like the studded gems of a crown, in specific order. Characters waltz into the story, only to vanish and re-appear like ghosts; some commit terrible sins but are never punished; some seem to suffer grandly but never lose their ever-too-wide smile. Each story focuses in on a moment, a shining jewel-like moment, but with the close of each story these moments fade as the focus shifts. It is like surveying the town through a microscope, the lens only able to focus on one microcosm at a time. As it moves, you yearn for it to linger, to spend more time unravelling the delicate story it burningly fixes on, but move on it must, revealing new insights.
Our story starts with Dave Danvers’ Last Foray Into All Things Woo Woo by Stuart Croskell. This brilliant introductory story has been well chosen, opening with a man driving into Shallow Creek, treating us to a panoramic view of its squalid infamy. The story’s premise is at once meta- and original: a paranormal TV show host arrives in Shallow Creek in order to write a story about the town. Over the years, his belief in the supernatural has waned: ‘No bigfoot, no spooks, no little green men. The bastards. Only us. Us. Jesus.’ The twist of horror in the final line, in realising we are only alone with ourselves, and that humans are perhaps the worst monster of all, is deftly and subtly done. Our protagonist, Dave Danver, must go to Devil’s Gorge to write his story. As we follow him on his strange journey to the Devil’s Gorge summit via immaculate prose, the story gains Stoker-esque qualities – introducing us to enigmatic characters galore, bated-breath conspiracy, and the horrifying motif of a forced smile. The ending is nothing short of cathartic and sets the tone for the whole collection as one that aims to not just scare us, but also make us weep with epiphany. It’s here we first meet Krinkles the Klown, but it sure as hell isn’t the last time we see him.
Throughout Shallow Creek, we see nods to the old masters of horror like Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, and there is something jubilant in that. However, there is also something fresh here. In Behind These Eyes by Alice Noel, we see juxtapositions of old-school horror vibes, an almost Victorian macabre storytelling, with the modern and comical: ‘Gothic is so in this year.’Shallow Creek is a commentary on how just because we make fun of the oldest horrors in the book, it doesn’t mean they aren’t still scary.
The Soil of Stonier Hearts by Erik Bergstrom is another masterful blend of the old and new. Employing a poetic style throughout much akin to the glorious and rich elegance of Edgar Allan Poe, with brilliantly controlled language, Erik effortlessly invokes the Gothic aesthetic. The story is loaded with intriguing turns of phrase, as twisted as the nature of the town: a ‘phantom drunkenness’ haunting characters, suggesting that the line between supernatural and psychological is thin. With such fine writing, the smallest details become potential portents: “Something’s wrong with our soil, Gordy.” Jed heard the short echo of his voice in Gordon Anderson’s answering machine.’ This story is part TheOmen, photos revealing mysteries and prophecies, and part The Happening, with moments of shocking inevitability.
This is also the story, the fourth in the collection, where things begin to interconnect. The events of Devil’s Gorge resonate here with what is going on in St Mary’s Cemetery. But who can say if these things are all happening in the same universe? Even the inhabitants of Shallow Creek are not to be trusted on that front.
Janet’s Vision of Love by Tom Heaton pushes the boundaries of what we will believe, offering us a story that is surreal and Twin Peaks-esque. It’s in every detail down to the inept law enforcement, the slightly off-kilter banter, and the characters that intentionally don’t seem to fit. The story is peppered with threatening and psychedelic imagery: ‘the occasional prophylactic wrapped around a fern like some species of woodland jellyfish’ This tale is truly a vision: of horror, consumerism, with a repeated line that genuinely sent chills along my arms. It transitions from a Lynchian creepy-town mystery to full-fledged Night Shift Stephen King horror. A triumph, to say the least.
Anchor by Marion Coleman offers us something a little different, a strong first person voice that seems meek at first but actually proves to be quite cunning and determined. Throughout this story I could not help but think this entire collection feels like it is building up to Krinkles the Klown. Storgy set up the dominoes oh so long ago with their character sheets and essays of one Mallum Colt, sparking the imagination in writers. They are at once homaging Stephen King’s Pennywisein Krinkles, but also taking him on, showing a modern and complex character that is his own unique brand of horror. This story ends with a brilliant subversion of desire, where our ‘hero’ gets what they want, but not in the way they think.
‘I met myself in Silverpine Forest. And I’ll never forget his grin.’ Some lines grab you by the throat, and this is one of them. It is the opening sentence of Backwards by Adrian J. Walker. This story almost has a True Detective feeling: A quest for a missing girl; A sheriff lost in his own failings; The sense of a secret about the town, and aid found in unlikely places, such as Mallum Colt himself. This line reminded me of a nonsense rhyme that has long haunted my dreams: As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. Backwards proves a convergence point for many stories and people in the world of Shallow Creek: Chelsea, Janet Lopez, the secrets of the forest… It introduces us to a Gothic trope as old as sin and also recently explored in Jordan Peele’s much anticipated Us: that of doppelgängers and parallel worlds.
The whole collection has the feel of a paranormal documentary gone wrong and off the rails, a documentary about the making of a documentary in which the paranormal activity suddenly becomes real and the presenters look sideways at the camera wondering whether a terrible, terrible practical joke has just been played. Some of the horror here hits hard, unflinchingly hard, but it is done not for shock value but to reality-check us to the world. We are told: ‘Her daughter couldn’t sleep… not because of memories or nightmares, but because she couldn’t expel the taste from her mouth.’ All of this culminates in a surprisingly redemptive and hopeful ending. Shallow Creek, bleak as it is, still harbours the human spirit. It is in every page of writing in this tome.
My mind boggles at the complexity of the interwoven plots. It isn’t just ordering the events into a logical continuum. There are subtle thematic and internal threads that are drawn throughout, such as Janet Lopez’s repressed sexuality, and the repeated and weird motif that Sister Augustine has not aged, which at some point starts to become sinister. We slowly unearth more details about Sister Augustine in Heather Cuthbertson’s Secret Ingredientwhich are alarming to say the least.
Shallow Creek is not just horror. Nor is it mystery. It is a hybrid that slips into whatever genre it feels will best unnerve you. So, with Brian Wilson’s Distraction, it slides into neo-noir. A midnight meeting at a pier with a dark becomes transcendentally significant. There are shades of Christopher Nolan’s cinematic masterpiece Memento here as Brian Wilson elegantly explores the things we do for peace of mind through the motif of a needle and nightdress. He describes a ‘seven eyed beast’ that is actually the light of seven cigarettes in the dark. It becomes like a biblical allusion to the Beast of Revelations. The cigarette butts light the gloom, but they are not hopeful. The narrator counts them again and again as one by one they are extinguished. What are we counting down to? Suspense and terror meet here. We are told by the narrator: ‘I had no intention of putting my family’s life in the hands of a man who professed to hear voices.’ Yet the narrator himself seems semi-delusional, unreliable, not quite honest with himself. We all hear voices, in fact. We’re all insane.
This is as much a commentary on the stories we tell ourselves as it is on religion. Wilson weaves a masterful tapestry here, tying the cigarettes directly into the tragedy at the heart of the story, the ‘filthy habit’. Now, our narrator Maurice has a new filthy habit, his addiction to a syringe filled with a nameless substance. This story is a flawless dovetailing of ideas. Just as the cigarettes remind our Maurice of his flaw, so too do they literally resurrect that which he has lost. The final two cigarettes become the eyes of someone we might just know… As they haunted Maurice, so they will haunt us in the future.
There are so many gems in this collection, I can scarcely catalogue them all. And the World Fades to Black by Adam Lock gives us Groundhog Day but with a sinister twist. It made me realise that so many moments in Shallow Creek are defined by fixations on talismanic objects. Trapped in a moment. Trapped in a grave mistake. This is where horror is so profound, it reflects out self-inflicted psychological punishment.
The Lurid Trance byGregg Williard, as well as offering us some of the most disturbing artwork in the whole collection, gives us something different. It is about the betrayal of memory. And tardigrades. The premise runs so: someone takes credit for an artist’s work from forty years ago and sends them the envelope. This is a fascinating narrative hook that quickly becomes an esoteric, surreal descent into lost identity. ‘Hard to say how many of the town are descendants of the pseudo psychos.’ Each part of Shallow Creek feels like an attempt to describe exactly what Shallow Creek is. As this story moves towards one of my favourite tropes, that of the ‘lost film’, we are treated to a list of insane movie titles, an exercise in Nate Crowley-esque catalogue, except when I typed the titles in Google, there were actual results. It’s as though Shallow Creek is coming alive. The research Gregg Williard has done to achieve this (or perhaps it is merely a field of study for him and he knows?) is staggering. The faux manifesto for the eponymous movie The Lurid Trance, which lies at the heart of this disturbing meta-story, is exquisitely observed: a satire of film critique as well as a disturbing portent of what’s to come.
Throughout the stories of Shallow Creek we encounter more and more of the mythos of Krinkles, as well as old VHS tapes and unanswered questions. In places the descriptions of Shallow Creek are Melville-esque, unbelievably lavish, such as in Knock, Knock, Knuckle Bone by Allyson Kersel. We are told of one Shallow Creek regular Angus Runt: ‘Runt will have an opinion and, whether informed or fabricated, it’s bound to be interesting.’ In a way, this reflects the entire meaning of Shallow Creek. We cannot verify any of these stories. They shift even as the townspeople shift, as we slip into one multi-verse and out of another. But regardless, it sure as hell is going to be interesting.
In places, Shallow Creek is downright experimental. David Hartley’s masterpiece Pentameter is one such example, the entire thing written in iambic pentameter stanzas rounded off with rhyming couplets. At first, I railed against this form, but the conceit for this device was too well thought out to ignore it. The Lighthouse Keeper thinks in pentameter because he finds comfort in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, which have helped him cope with profound loss. This leads to moving moments of poetry amidst prose:
I sprawl back on our steps and think of you.
My Molly, who always knew what to do.
“Arkady,” I say, “yes.” The asylum,
where old Jud was zapped into this shadow.
Jud, the Lighthouse Keeper, believes that Shakespeare is speaking to him through the walkie talkie. As we move towards the conclusion of this tale, we will see more and more evidence that someone may well be manipulating Jud. It all ends with a terrible threat which is Shakespearean in itself, recalling the ending of Twelfth Night, where the shamed Malvolio claims he will be ‘revenged on the whole pack of you’. This was certainly one of the most unexpected and hair-raising stories in the collection.
There is something for everyone here in Shallow Creek, including black humour, which is expertly employed by Sarah Lotz in The Eyes Have It, the title a pun in and of itself. We’re told: ‘The town was the kind of place where you could get away with murder. He’d done it to free himself up to see his girlfriend at the time.’ It makes us laugh, but it’s also frightening, how casual people can be when referring to murder. Our journey through Shallow Creek desensitises us, but Sarah Lotz brings us back around again, ‘waking us up’ to the horror of what we’re seeing. Towards the end of the collection, a new theme emerges, that of forgiveness and whether we even can be forgiven, by human or divine. Lotz takes us on a rollercoaster ride: a bleak quest that is Dexter meets Frankenstein, an exploration of our deepest existential dreads and spiritual fears. It is a paedophile on mission from God, or rather, to cheat God’s will, and in doing so, kill a whole load of sinners in very satisfying ways. Interspersed with some very real theology are observations so darkly witty they make me a little crazy: The notes were signed ‘Dr Ruth Usiskin’, the facility’s psychologist, who clearly wasn’t averse to doodling on her reports. In the margin, next to ‘sexual deviant’, she’d drawn a smiley face.’
Shallow Creek is a celebration of genre fiction, but it also proves that the distinctions between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ are not only arbitrary but unnecessary. In Aliya Whiteley’s The Alteration we see a staggering portrait of what it is like to have a relationship with someone who is a compulsive liar and losing their mind. Madeleine, bound to a wheelchair, confesses to murders which Ruth, her carer, does not believe, but slowly but surely, we sense the terrible coming of ‘the change’. We’re told ‘Books had stories in them, and my mother said all stories were lies.’ – I think this includes the stories we tell ourselves.
So much of Shallow Creek revolves around the act of finding something that should not be found, whether it be as simple as a wedding ring, or as controversial as a licentious VHS tape. Shallow Creek is a library located in some near-unreachable place, some deep place, far from the crowds and sanitising technology. Within this library are forbidden stories. Profane tales. Tales that can scarcely be given credence, yet they ring true. Why are we so fascinated by darkness? It’s a question that keeps being asked in this collection, but never more potently than in Andrea Hardaker’s The Fulmar’s Cry: ‘She relocated to a small town out west, accepted a job in a store, re-built her life. But all that did was trigger a different unexpected issue. Despite everything—she missed the terror.’
While Shallow Creek feels eternal, all stories need an end. The final story, The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation, by Richard Thomas, feels like the culmination of the entire collection. I am biased as a huge fan of Richard’s work, but he genuinely pulls out all the stops in this Lovecraftian tale. In it, he shows us Krinkles as an old man, staring out at us from his ramshackle hut in the heart of the woods, a figure of ague and remorse, of dark hilarity and mirthless terror. There are so many unsettling details here. Why is Krinkles vomiting up balloons, marbles, and other items? Why is he keeping what might be a child’s heart in a jar? Why do six figures – ‘tall shadows’ – pray outside his hut in the dark? And why is the time of his departure near? There is a religious reverence in the way Richard describes the scene, a kind of sacred wonder at the horror of it all. Like Krinkles’ audience, we await the dreaded punchline with what is tantamount to agony.
This tale is about sin too, and about the price we pay to get what we want: ‘Eventually, it was inverted. Not the death of one for the good of many, but the opposite—the death of many for the good of one. Or the few.’
It is a dark creation story, delving into the origin of all myths. Richard peels back the layers, gives us an almost glacial sequence of images that lead to revelation, like the atom-bomb episode of the third season of Twin Peaks, yet he condenses that extended form into something comparatively microscopic – the prose is so controlled. At the end, we are left with a sense of the entirety of what has happened, something bargained, something lost, something dark and terrible learned. He re-writes the entire script of what we think we know about Shallow Creek, and shows us a side of Krinkles we could not have ever anticipated. Richard may not be as prolific as Stephen King, but his work is just as memorable.
In all its horror, and all its glory, this collection has captured the spirit of my mucilaginous hometown.
Oh, didn’t I say?
I was born and raised in Shallow Creek. I live in the flat above Croskell’s pornography store. And before then, I lived in the caves that run deep beneath the old bones of the settlement. And before then… well. Not many in the town know me. I am something of a recluse. I have lived in Shallow Creek a long, long time as I’ve said. Too long, by any reckoning. I’ve thought many times about moving on to other cities, those teeming millions just so tempting, like a ripe fruit full of sugary, sweet juices. But if the people here loathe and distrust me, then elsewhere, I stand very little chance of going unnoticed.
But I grow tired of hiding. My kind are a dying kind. I might even be the last one. What would be the use of passing from ageless history unremembered? One last act of glory, then. I will draw them to us as moths to a flame! My light! My blinding true form!
Come then ye curious souls! Follow my light. Pour in your millions down to Shallow Creek. Follow my good friend Mallum Colt, whom I call the Pied Piper, down to the rancid streets and silver trees and stagnant waters – to the stones that smell of secrets – and I promise you shall see wonders like you have never seen before.
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Hello, and welcome to what will be the final instalment in Entering Carcosa. It has been a fabulous and rewarding experience writing about these epics, and I hope that anyone reading these has found inspiration for their own work. I am going to post links to the six previous articles here for ease of navigation.
For this last episode, I intend to write about an epic novel. Yes, I said I wouldn’t do it, but this novel is an exception because it is such an anomaly. Not only has the novel been largely forgotten, but the author too remains fringe even though they continue to write intriguing books today. It is a novel of incredible paradox and contradiction: as poetic as it is pornographic, as profound as it is problematic. The novel in question is Eric Van Lustbader’s Black Heart. It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Lustbader, but what I find startling is how little credit he is given for his lyrical style. Whilst he is most famous, perhaps, to modern audiences, for continuing the late Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series, I find his personal projects far more remarkable, not simply for the stories he tells, but the way he tells them. Why is this epic poet neglected, then? I think, there are a number of reasons.
Firstly, let me tell you how I came to read this novel, because the process itself was something on an epic journey. This is a long book: some 800 pages, and easily over 240,000 words. I had picked up a battered old copy from a local second-hand bookshop around two years ago. I enjoyed Lustbader’s first book The Ninja greatly and wanted to read a standalone by him. I got to roughly 50% the way through the novel, when my duties as a fiction reviewer got in the way. I told myself I would finish up reading some of the new books I had to review, and then return to Black Heart. The problem was, the book was so complex, with so many characters and intersecting plot-lines, I couldn’t get back into it. I eventually had to abandon the attempt. For two years, this book kind of haunted my imagination. I rarely give up on books, and especially not books I was enjoying. Odd scenes that I could remember from it went round and round in my head.
Eventually, I realised I had to finish it, so I decided to once again attempt it. This time, I was able to easily blast through it. The feeling of deja vu and synchronicity reading it for the (sort of) second time only added to the mythical weight of the some of the scenes. This was made even more weird by the fact that the 1984 re-print that I had a copy of was littered with copy-editing mistakes. I mean, tonnes of mistakes. And not small ones, but full word-replacements and repeated lines and missing sentences. Reading it became a kind of scholastic activity rather than merely a leisurely one, like filling in the blank spaces left in Anglo Saxon poetry manuscripts. How could there be so much here but also there be so much missing? I became obsessed and fascinated to the point where I considered reaching out to Lustbader to work with him producing a cleanly edited version of the novel. I felt angered he had been so deeply let down by the publisher, I would hate to suffer such negligence myself.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, because I think it tells us something interesting about Black Heart. For many reasons – it’s action, sex, intensely passionate writing style – this book is considered pulp. Yet, how easily do we forget that the great Homeric epics are practically bursting with vicious combat scenes, sensuous affairs and sexual encounters, and written in a style that defies traditional writing conventions. In other words, I think it shows we have confined what was once epic to the pulp shelf, and now praise – well, whatever stuffiness stepped into its place.
Written in 1983 and subsequently republished, Black Heart is about the Cambodian genocide of the 1960s and a group of inter-connected special-operatives at once haunted by the past and struggling against sinister forces behind the scenes in the present. It is a strangely prescient book, predicting a rigged American election with Russian influence and corporate backing. The presidential candidate depicted in Black Heart, Atherton Gottschalk, is even a kind of Trump parallel, with an obsession with protecting the borders of American from ‘foreign invasion’ and deploying the military to safeguard American ideals. Gottschalk’s paranoia about terrorism, with frequent monologues about the nature of Islamic terrorist attacks, becomes frighteningly foreshadowing, in some ways predicting the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001, an event which would occur eighteen years after the book was published.
Gottschalk is being put into power via the machinations of several parties. At their heart is Delmar Davis Macomber, an elite American operative stationed in Cambodia who now runs a weapons manufacturing corporation called Metronics Incorporated. However, this company is but a front for a secretive organisation founded in the blood and atrocity of Cambodia, one that is prepared to kill to exert its influence over Western politics. Whilst Macomber may seem a villain, and even sports a villain’s moustache, Lustbader is never so simplistic, and offers compelling motivations for Macomber’s behaviour. At one point, roughly halfway through the book, our impression of Macomber shifts dramatically as new information comes to light and he transforms almost into the truly wronged party and one of the heroic figures of the narrative.
The true protagonist of this novel, however, is Khieu Sok. Khieu is an assassin in Macomber’s employ who began life as the son of a wealthy Cambodian family and a devout Buddhist. During the communist genocide, he joined the Khmer Rouge and turned on his own family and ideals in order to survive, committing atrocities to maintain his life. He was taught the art of stealth and hand-to-hand combat by the Khmer’s ‘secret weapon’, a Japanese martial arts master called Murano Musashi (a nod to the real Miyamoto Musashi, widely regarded as the most legendary swordsman in history). Macomber ‘rescued’ Khieu from his violent life in the communist regime only to manipulate him into carrying out high-profile assassinations on American soil. If you are thinking that this sounds vaguely like the plot of a Tarantino movie, you would not be far wrong. Lustbader’s love of unarmed combat is unabashed and he sees no problem delivering some of the most memorable and ultra-violent fight sequences in fiction. However, to say Black Heart is all action would be a gross miss-sell; it is just as concerned with introspection as it is with high-octane adrenaline, just as intrigued by the sundries of life and what deeper meaning they may hold, as it is with vividly described anal-play. It is full of life and willingly embraces all facets of life, whether they are palatable or not.
Khieu is the heart of this novel all about heart. He is dichotomy personified, at once viewing himself as a Buddhist and therefore pacifist and holy, and also as a weapon of mass destruction and cold-blooded killer. Khieu has compartmentalised his life, and slowly throughout the course of the book the strain of holding these contradictory identities in mind tears him apart. The counterpart to Khieu is the seemingly ‘heroic’ Tracy Richter, another American who fought in Cambodia as part of a secret operation connected with Macomber. Tracy appears to be the classic ‘good guy’, a match for Khieu, having also been trained by a Japanese martial arts master Jinsoku-san. However, we slowly realise throughout the book, as we learn more about Tracy’s past, that in fact he enjoys killing. Like Khieu, he is victim of double think. He sees himself as a loving partner to his true love, the ballet dancer Lauren. A loyal son to his father, Louise Richter, who also plays a key role in the novel. But he also loves the power of ending a life. It’s a dark and morally grey portrayal that catches us off guard. Who do we really root for? The warrior who is trying to be a Buddhist, or the warrior who embraces what they are?
Just as Khieu and Tracy embody the juxtaposition of conflicting identities, Black Heart is similarly a book of incredible dichotomy. Double-think is present throughout the entirety of the novel. On the one hand, the most intelligent character in the novel is probably Kathleen Christian, a woman whom we initially believe is being used by Atherton as a ‘bit on the side’ but slowly realise is actually the one manipulating the presidential candidate. Her intelligence and cunning are an intriguing and complex counterpoint to the more directive schemes of men like Macomber. However, on the other hand, she is sexualised at every possible turn, as are all the female characters. That is, until they are murdered. Black Heart revels in its violence and explicit sex; you can tell by the language and the verbosity with which it is described. Yet, it is also about transcending both of those things, which is Khieu’s ultimate character arc. It simultaneously exhibits both positions without shame or fear.
Lustbader does not fall into the Madonna-Whore trap that so many male writers do. He manages to portray women who have complex sexual identities but also moral dimensions and intelligence. Lauren, Tracy’s partner, proves to be a key player at the end of the novel, and it is her act of astonishing courage at the novel’s denouement that saves Tracy’s life and redeems him. At the same time, Lustbader never misses an opportunity to tell us just how great her breasts are. Given how explicit and graphic some of the sex scenes in this book are (sex that makes D. H. Lawrence and Byron look like rank amateurs) one can kind of see why he zeroes in on these physical endowments. He sexualises the men, too, after all. Does this make it okay? Perhaps not, but it shows that Black Heart has its own kind of weird internal logic and consistency, and it is these through lines that I believe make it great and worthy of the epic. Khieu, as a subversion of the epic hero, has a unique weapon, which is his magnetism. His martial ability is secondary to his ability to lure people, men and women alike in fact, to him. Like a Gorgon, he often transfixes them with his eyes before striking the killing blow.
Thematically, Black Heart is mind-meltingly rich. The direct derivation of the title is an alternative name for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who refer to themselves as a Chet Khmau. It also becomes a kind of pseudonym for one of Khieu’s bifurcated personalities as his violent side emerges more strongly. In Western language, the word ‘heart’ is directly derived from ‘courage’. Corazón in Spanish means both. Le cœur in French is similarly synonymous. In Japanese, kokoro literally means heart or ‘inner mind’. However, we are given two deeper definitions of kokoro by the two different Japanese masters in the novel. Murano Musashi, Khieu’s master, defines it: ‘The killing spirit is here. Believe that if you believe nothing else.’ This echoes Stephen King’s world-famous line from The Dark Tower: ‘I kill with my heart’.
The second definition we receive, however, is even more profound. Jinsoku, Tracy’s master, tells us that ‘To peer into this and survive is life’s only heroic act’. To look inwardly, to truly interrogate ourselves, in other words, is the only heroism. Interestingly, I think Black Heart itself asks for our heroism as readers, for us to look beneath the surface and work out what the real mystery is, and this book is full of mysteries right up until its final page. The deeper into the past it plunges, the more we hunger to learn and the more we realise we can never know. Tracy says ‘the past holds the key to everything’ (this becomes a segue-way for the first flashback in the book), and in the case of this story he is utterly right. All of the characters are connected by their traumatic past and are drawn back to it. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, drawn ceaselessly back to the past.’
Each character in the novel, regardless of how major they are, is required to look inward, to ‘peer into kokoro’. Tracy refuses at first to look inward, unable to acknowledge the ‘vice of killing’. Lauren cannot admit how she really feels about Tracy. Her heart is literally in the wrong place. Khieu cannot order his binary identities. Macomber cannot interrogate his motivations and therefore transcend them and let them go. There is a kind of ironic touch in that one of the weapons Macomber’s company, Metronics Inc., is working on, is called the Vampire, a new type of AI-controlled fighter jet. Vampires, of course, can only be killed by putting a stake through the heart.
Atherton Gottschalk’s ‘black heart’ is semi-literal, a weak heart he is terrified will give out on him due to genetic defects running through his family. When Macomber stages an assassination attempt on his life to boost his popularity, he is shot in the heart. Even though he was wearing a bullet-proof vest, the experience unmans him. In the end, once Macomber’s plot and his artificially boosted bid to presidency is exposed, Atherton kills himself because he lacks the courage to face the press and shame.
Black Heart, of course, also evokes the Chinese philosophy of ‘Thick Face, Black Heart’, first postulated by Li Zongwu and later developed by Chin-Ning Chu. It is a sociological technique of concealing one’s true motivations in order not to be victimised by the world. This philosophy is so nuanced that to restate or summarise here would be to grossly bastardize and do it injustice. However, conceptually it marries with a lot of what Lustbader thematically explores in Black Heart. No one is who they seem. People who seem altruistic prove selfish, and people who seem selfish prove devotionally selfless.
One of the most fascinating characters in this regard is Kim, a Vietnamese master-torturer. It would be easy to hate Kim, especially in the hands of another writer, but Lustbader shows remarkable empathy in his portrayal of a (literally) tortured person. Kim has watched the genocide of his people and the decimation of his entire culture. His story, which proves more relevant to the main plot than we could ever imagine at first, is in some ways a ‘last human on Earth’ narrative – a man out of time and place who has nothing in common with the rest of humanity, who feels utterly alienated by Europe and America, where he is forced to survive. Kim is consumed by the flames of the past and a desire for revenge. Yet, his motives are not selfish as they first appear. He acts on behalf of his family, all of whom save his brother were killed by Cambodians. Kim’s interactions with his brother are some of the most fascinating in the novel. His brother, Thu, has embraced Western culture, marrying a blonde American woman who seems the epitome of American beauty and 50s domesticity. Kim, however, cannot let go of the past and who he is. It is about how the West has trampled on cultures and subsumed them.
Throughout, Lustbader invests massive time and energy making his characters, particularly his Asian cast, feel real and three-dimensional. I couldn’t stop myself asking how many major books, films, and games of the last ten years have over 50% of the main cast made up by Asians, and not only that, but a diverse range that pays subtle attention to the colossal cultural differences between Japanese and Chinese ways of life, Vietnamese and Cambodian, and more. Is Lustbader culturally appropriating, or is his work a Shakespearean achievement of sympathy and recognition in the vein of The Merchant of Venice? It is not for me to say, of course. Others more qualified will be the judge. I can see that if this novel were to be released tomorrow, it would be extremely divisive in this regard.
In fact, I’m not sure this kind of novel could get a major publishing deal nowadays, not because I do not think it is up to standard, but because it is too radically what it is. It is lavishly stylistic, borderline psycho-tropically sensual, and doggedly true to itself. No overzealous editor has paired down Lustbader’s ferocious prose, and that is entirely a good thing. There are so many vast droves of sterile, boring books these days that have been edited into oblivion and unmeaning. Black Heart is not one of them. It does what its blurb says: ‘Explodes with supernova intensity’. Is it a little much at times? Maybe for some readers, but I personally found myself riveted from word go.
Lustbader isn’t afraid of an extended metaphor, nor a mixed one for that matter. Just look at how he describes Khieu feeling once again the loss of his sister, for whom he had an incestuous infatuation: ‘His right hand would ache and he’d look around wildly, feeling the heated breath of the unknown furnace closing on him, brushing past him just a heartbeat away.’ That final line is transcendental, not only connecting to the title of the book but also transporting us with an auditory stimuli rather than a visual. Sound, of course, has far more of a capacity to transport in time than any other medium. Just think of hearing an old song and the way it puts you into that exact location in time. Similarly the ‘heated breath’ of the furnace is psycho-sexual, as is the use of the word ‘brushing’.
Not all of Lustbader’s sex is perverse either. Sometimes, he surprises you with something wholesome, or else deflates or interrupts the sexual congress with some startling revelation or observation. Let’s examine again Khieu’s obsession with Malis, which is in part an act of semi-religious devotion in which he describes her as ‘apsara’, an interpreter of the gods. In one traumatic flashback, a young Khieu watches his sister Malis masturbate in bed, a voyeurism he succumbs to nightly, only to then have his fantasy destroyed as Malis’ real lover climbs through the window in the dead of night. It’s a shocking moment, for us and Khieu. Khieu becomes aware of himself as an observer, and sees the baseness of what he is doing. It is a startling moment where we as readers are also jerked out of the passionate frenzy and come to see ourselves as slightly perverse voyeurs.
In Black Heart, the ultimate katabasis, the ultimate hell, is the past itself. Just as we drawn back to it, so too we are haunted by it. All of the heroes are literally drawn back to China and Cambodia, and their respective pasts, where they discover numerous horrifying revelations. However, in the final sequence, we return to the past in a spiritual and symbolic sense as Khieu finally sheds his guilt and once more returns to the beauty of Buddha which he glimpsed as a child. It is a hair-raising scene that caused me to profusely weep, a moment of divine revelation in which the entire meaning of the cosmos hinges on one profound image: ‘… at last he saw the eternal face of his Amidha Buddha…’ Black Heart, for all its love of action, ends on a note of spiritual re-awakening.
All of the characters are called to free themselves from the past and let go of old grudges, to purify their black hearts. Tracy Richter is utterly defeated; he does not triumph over the villain in physical combat. However, he learns that there are more important things that settling the score. Khieu, similarly, stops fighting and becomes one with the Buddha whom he adored as a child. Kim, however, is another story, eaten up by the flames and cast down into oblivion, all because he cannot let go of the wrong done to him. Black Heart is strangely a tale of redemption that offers the surprising revelation that it really is never too late, provided we do not allow ourselves to be conquered by our desires and temptations. It has been said that the Western story is characterised by the straight line, the journey, and the Eastern story is characterised by the returning circle. Whether this is true or not, Lustbader reflects this tradition by having his novel circle fully back to the profound opening line: ‘From within the eye of the Buddha, all things could be seen.’
Black Heart is honestly unlike anything I have read in the world of fiction or am likely to read again. It changed the way I think about narrative and prose in startling ways, and offered me a glimpse into an astonishing time period and historical event that in the West we still know very little about. I could not help but feel a profound sadness as I put down the book. It was the sense that something truly great, for all its flaws, had been lost from the world, was no longer remembered as it should be. But then, that is very fitting, as the very message of Black Heart is to let go of the past.
This has been the final entry in the Entering Carcosa series. I hoped you have enjoyed investigating these modern epics with me. The only thing that remains is for you to write your own.
I will not be disappearing, however, far from it. I’m looking to transition these discussions about literature, films, movies, games, and more, to another medium, possibly a podcast, though I haven’t fully made my mind up yet! Keep your eye out, especially on my Twitter: @josephwordsmith. If you ever need help, advice, or simply someone to rage against the world with, feel free to message me there! Also, if you have any suggestions about the kind of content you would like me to produce, people get in touch via this website’s contact page or Twitter.
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