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MELMOTH THE WANDERER: Remembering a forgotten Gothic masterpiece on its 200th anniversary

When I say the words “Gothic novel” to you, a few names and titles might spring to mind. First and foremost is probably the groundbreaking Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) – arguably also the birth of science fiction in its current form. Next, perhaps, would be Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). Then, there’s Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847), Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847), The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde (1890), the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and, for the real aficionados among you, such relics as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). One might also include playful mockeries of the genre, such as Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1803), along with a profusion of short stories so innumerable that it would be foolish to try sum them up here. There are of course numerous twentieth century contributors to the genre, such as Shirley Jackson, and indeed older works, such as the plays of Shakespeare – perhaps most notably Macbeth (1606) and Hamlet (1609) – that whilst not technically “Gothic novels”, certainly laid groundwork for the genre we understand today. In short, it’s a rich genre that’s yielded many gems over the years and continues to be reimagined and interpreted by a variety of writers today. I love the Southern Gothic of writers such as Eden Royce (I highly recommend her two collections Spook Lights I & II). I’ve not read Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, yet, but I’ve yet to see a bad review! 

However, today, I want to take you off the beaten track to observe a Gothic novel that possibly stands above all of these (controversial, I know), and yet has been largely forgotten, perhaps due to the obscurity of the writer, perhaps due to changing circumstance and literary taste, or perhaps even due to the cursed and enigmatic nature of its eponymous villain… This novel is Melmoth The Wanderer, published in 1820 by an Irish Anglican curate, Charles Maturin. Melmoth The Wanderer was ostensibly written as a satire of organised religion, specifically Catholicism, but is far greater in scope and cannot adequately be described as purely “satire”, in part due to the sheer horror and power of some of the scenes it describes that climb to the heights of epic.

In my article on How to write Gothic Fiction, I outlined the four key elements I believed were essential to making Gothic fiction work: Mood, Architecture, Religion, Lyricism. It is probably best for me to approach analysing the novel from the perspective of these four tenets, and therefore to practice what I preach!

MOOD 

Melmoth The Wanderer is the most paranoid book I have ever read. Without wishing to cut into the segment on lyricism, the writing style might be described as a horribly compelling labyrinth. Sentences run on, sometimes for entire pages. Just when you think Maturin has lost this thread, he brings his point home, sometimes in ways so surprising and ingenious they’re frightening. The rhythms of the prose in this book began to effect my thought patterns and circadian cycle. I found myself unable to write particularly well while I was reading this book, because Maturin’s infectious prose-style kept taking over my own; it sucked me in, just as our protagonist, John, is drawn into the tale of the eponymous Melmoth. What’s brilliant about this writing style is not just how impressive it is simply for the sake of aesthetics, but also how the style reflects the crumbling and warped psyches of the novel’s characters. For example, here Maturin describes the dichotomy of addiction: 

“When once fierce passion is devouring the soul, we feel more than ever the necessity of external excitement; and our dependence on the world for temporary relief increases in direct proportion to our contempt for the world and all its works.” 

Maturin writes, at times, with savage zeal, but the brilliant thing is he doesn’t just rant with a singular viewpoint. He gives voices to unexpected characters and allows them to air controversial or disturbing viewpoints. He isn’t a preacher, delivering his moral lessons to the reader in fatuous and belaboured sermons. On the contrary, he seems to delight in having characters justify the unjustifiable, and trusting the reader to discern what’s right and what isn’t, which becomes increasingly difficult as the novel approaches its climax and morality becomes greyer and greyer. It is almost as if the novel, itself, is an article of temptation, a seduction to the darkside.

Unlike many Gothic writers, who resort to supernatural phenomena as a way to excite strong passions or escalate the extremity of their novel, Maturin’s novel plays down the supernatural in favour of human psychology far more disturbed and troubling than any ghost could be. When the supernatural does occur, it’s often with psychological cause. Our mind creates phantoms of doubt and temptation, and these phantoms often become literally realised. At times we are unsure whether there are supernatural events occurring or whether we (and our narrator) are being artfully deceived, which thickens the fog of paranoia. Maturin makes conspiracy theorists of all of us. 

In one of the most memorable and haunting sections of the novel, one of the main characters, a bastard Spanish royal by the name of Alonzo Moncada, is forced into a monastery against his will. His time in the monastery is made tortuous by his sadistic fellow monks, who excruciate him physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Eventually, Alonzo discovers who one of his chief tormentors is on their deathbed. Alonzo seeks to forgive his tormentor (and thereby ease his own mind too), but his tormentor refutes his forgiveness, confessing he doesn’t really believe in God, and that monastic life ironically destroyed his belief. Horrified, Alonzo supplicates him, thinking they are kindred spirits after all – both wanting out of the monastic life. He asks if there is any hope of one day escaping the monastery. His enemy says there is no hope, that monastic life will crush all but “two” types of people:

“…those who can every day renew, by aid of imagination, the hope of escape, and who cherish that hope even on their dying bed; and those who, like me, diminish their misery by dividing it, and like the spider, feel relieved of the poison that swells, and would burst them, by instilling a drop of it into every insect that toils, agonizes, and perishes in their net—like you.” 

The monk’s dying speech is so spiritually amoral that it led to Melmoth The Wanderer being banned in several regions of Britain and some countries. It is similar to the narrative of the men infected with HIV in the ‘80s, who decided to spread the disease to as many people as possible rather than isolate; and of course, there is also a relevant comparison with COVID-19 behaviours today. To reflect once more on mood, the sheer untenable misanthropy of the dying monk’s final metaphor cannot but work on the reader’s mind, just as it works on Alonzo’s. That is Melmoth The Wanderer’s unique power, and we shall see how it is further enhanced by the novel’s architecture.

“Two Old Ones Eating Soup” by Francisco Goya

ARCHITECTURE 

The topic of architecture in this novel is not lightly taken on, partly because it is one of the most complex books I have ever read. There are two sides to architecture as I see it: literal and structural. 

If we address literal first: Melmoth The Wanderer is packed full of many of the usual tropes of Gothic fiction: decaying castles, dusty manors, monasteries, churchyards, asylums and prisons. However, it is the latter two that make up the majority of the novel, and this fact is key to why Melmoth The Wanderer began to fascinate me so much.

Melmoth, our eponymous villain, is a demon of sorts, with powers of translocation and invisibility, among others. His modus operandi is to appear to incarcerated souls and offer them freedom and emancipation in exchange for their souls. The brilliance of this is that Maturin begins to stretch the definition of incarceration as we move deeper into the novel, so that it is not just physical interment, but familial, financial, and eventually, even psychological imprisonment. Linking physical architecture – the trope-settings of Gothic fiction – with an internal landscape of the mind is part of what makes Melmoth The Wanderer so atmospheric and affecting. Dante-esque, Maturin shows us people who are unable to escape the chains of their own behaviours and thought-patterns, and Melmoth himself is an example of such a person, trapped in an endless cycle. He can emancipate others, but not himself. This dichotomy becomes the heart of the novel’s power and tragedy. We begin to feel sorry for Melmoth as he wrestles with his own inescapable destiny. The scholar Chris Baldick observed that “Melmoth is not just a Faust, he is Mephistopheles at the same time” (1989). He is tempter and tempted, and that gives him layers of psychological complexity that even brilliant characters like Victor Frankenstein and Dracula lack. Melmoth is a living hypocrisy. 

To now address the structural architecture is far more difficult. Melmoth The Wanderer takes the Gothic concept of the “framed narrative” – a story within a story – to such extremes that they defy sanity. Mary Shelly artfully gives Frankenstein a triple-layer of narrative: we start on a boat heading into the Antarctic, with the Genovese noble Captain Walton, who then hears the tale of Victor Frankenstein, who then in turn relates the tale told to him by The Creature. The Creature’s story is buried at the heart of the narrative, and the other two stories frame it. The structure is logical and creates many intriguing mimetic effects, which I don’t have the space to discuss here. 

Now compare this with Maturin’s frames: John Melmoth (a descendent of the “true” Melmoth of the title) attends his relative’s deathbed, and is bequeathed in the Will a narrative from an inmate of an insane asylum called Stanton. So far, so good. But then, Alonzo, the monk that I previously mentioned, is washed up on the beachhead near to where John is staying. Alonzo, recognising John as a descendent of Melmoth, begins to relate his own tale of incarceration in the monastery and eventual encounter with Melmoth The Wanderer. During the course of this tale, Alonzo meets a Jewish scholar by the name of Adonijah, who has retrieved several manuscripts describing a tale that takes place nearly a century earlier, a tale in which a young woman, Immalee, is abandoned on a desert island, only to be discovered by – you guessed it – Melmoth himself. Alonzo has to translate these manuscripts for Adonijah, and he is shocked to learn that they pertain to Melmoth and his own situation, so he relates these stories (third or fourth hand?) to the young John Melmoth… This section is referred to as The Tale of the Indians. Within this story, we meet another character, the father to the abandoned young Immalee, Don Francisco, who in turn relates his own story, and in doing so, relates another tale told to him by a mysterious stranger at an inn (The Tale of the Guzman’s Family). Within this story, there is another story buried (The Lovers’ Tale) and so on – you get the gist. 

But the weirdest thing about this structure is less its total insanity but the fact it works. Like Christopher Nolan’s popular film Inception, each layer of reality leads us down to a new more disturbing one, and the deeper we go, the more uncertain we become of what is true, who is speaking, and what it all means. Yet, at the same time, the emotions we feel intensify, as though we’re upping the dosage of a drug. This means that in the latter stages of the novel, the narrative works on us in a way that a more straightforward narrative can’t. Like a dream, it bypasses conscious analysis and plugs into some more emotive and primitive part of our brain, which is what makes it so fucking scary in places, and moving in others.

Through the course of these “descents” we begin to assemble a clear timeline of Melmoth’s life. Melmoth is almost never the main focus of the narrative; he is elusive and alluded to in mysterious whispers and oblique dialogue. He weaves in and out of these seemingly disparate stories, connecting them all. In this way, he becomes far more sinister and compelling than if he’d been “on screen” the majority of the story. Maturin again understands that psychological paradox that what we don’t see is often more frightening than what we do. 

RELIGION 

So much can be said of the religious elements in this book. The entire novel is steeped in religion, with the language itself laced with Biblical and mythological imagery. For example, there is one friar, whose curses are so vile, Maturin tells us they were “viperous as the suicide foam of the dying Judas”. This imagery is sublimely disturbed. The very religiosity of it is what makes it heretical and unsettling. 

Similarly, Maturin’s decimation of organised religion is at once heretical and righteous. It screams into the modern day, but also runs far deeper than superficial modern allegations of corruption and vice in the church. Maturin, himself a member of the clergy, uses his deep immersion in theology to expose deeper spiritual hypocrisies in the church: “The inhabitants of the world you are about to see call this worship—and they have adopted (a Satanic smile curled his lip as he spoke) very different modes; so different, that, in fact, there is but one point in which they all agree—that of making their religion a torment…” We see this reflected in The Spaniard’s Tale, where the monks devote every hour of the day to contemplating how to inflict misery on others and themselves; and in The Tale of the Indians, where Immalee, having been finally discovered by her parents and brought home from the mysterious island where she grew up, is then educated in strict and rigid Catholicism, which retrogresses all the spirituality she obtained living in the natural world without human contact. 

Maturin’s criticism goes well beyond religion, however, also addressing how it intersects with every other facet of human life. Through the mouthpiece of Melmoth educating a wild, young Immalee on human “civilised” life, he offers criticism of 

social injustice and urbanisation:

“those who live in uncontrasted and untantalised misery, can hardly feel it—suffering becomes their habit, and they feel no more jealousy of their situation than the bat, who clings in blind and famishing stupefaction to the cleft of a rock, feels of the situation of the butterfly, drinks of the dew, and bathes in the bloom of every flower. But the people of the other world have invented, by means of living in cities, a new and singular mode of aggravating human wretchedness—that of contrasting it with wild and wanton excess of superfluous and extravagant splendour”; 

monarchy: 

“These people have made unto themselves kings, that is, beings whom they voluntarily invest with the privilege of draining, by taxation, whatever wealth their vices have left to the rich, and whatever means of subsistence their want has left to the poor, till their extortion is cursed from the castle to the cottage”; 

and war: 

“Sometimes exhausted by the monotony of perpetual fruition, which has no parallel even in the monotony of suffering… they amuse themselves by making war, that is, collecting the greatest number of human beings that can be bribed to the task, to cut the throats of a less, equal, or greater number of beings, bribed in the same manner for the same purpose.” 

Maturin claimed these views were not his own in his notations, and perhaps they aren’t, but they certainly ring true to modern sensibilities; Maturin’s, or perhaps we should say Melmoth’s, view is that it is often, ironically, the rigidity of rules-systems that compel us to greater acts of depravity than if we were free and wild and could do whatever we wished. One can’t help but think he would be more at home in our time than he was in his own.

But not only is Melmoth The Wanderer a vehicle for satire and critique, it is also a powerful vindication of religious belief. I spoke about the dichotomy of Melmoth as both tempter and tempted, and the novel replicates this psychological duality in its own theological premise: whilst with one hand it brings a wrecking ball against the walls of the Vatican, with the other, it builds an impenetrable fortress dedicated to the beauty and transcendence of true belief. When Immalee observes a humble woman praying at a cross, she exclaims, “Christ shall be my God, and I will be a Christian” – which instantly banishes Melmoth, where no physical force could. The line that Maturin uses to conjure the image of the fleeing Melmoth is taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) (a line which is, in turn, a reference to the final line of Virgil’s Aeneid, circa 29 BC)“He fled murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night.” This line puts Melmoth on the same level as Satan, yet rather than the touch of Gabriel’s almighty spear being the cause of his flight, it is simply a true-hearted declaration of spiritual belief. 

LYRICISM

As you can see from the length of this article, Melmoth The Wanderer is one of the most quotable books I have read in a long time. I certainly believe a mark of literary greatness is one’s ability to produce quotable work, with the reverse also being true: that bad writers are hardly quotable at all. As my own father, James Sale, wrote in his seminal HellWard (2020), “That poets be oceans; he is a pond. / The final proof? Poetry no-one quotes.”

Melmoth The Wanderer is lyrical to the core. Its imagery, extended metaphors, and prose-styling are astonishingly unique. Maturin oscillates between horror and sublimity with an intensity that Oxford World Classics described as “reckless”; I’m inclined to agree. I can’t say much more about this mammoth 550 page Gothic masterpiece other than it is probably one of the greatest books I have ever read and it has fundamentally changed my outlook on what is possible in fiction. If that is not a good enough recommendation for you, then I don’t know what is. I will say this is not an easy book to read. But, as the subject of this blog (and book) seems to be dichotomy, that is, of course, precisely what makes it so compelling. Like a challenging video-game, it makes us work for its best secrets.

Charles Maturin died in 1824 at the age of forty-four, in abject poverty, just four years after Melmoth The Wanderer was published. Like Keats, he enjoyed very little commercial or critical success in life, and was only truly acknowledged posthumously, and even then, nowhere near to the degree of many of his contemporaries (though Maturin remains very popular in France, where he is revered among the Gothic greats). I am a sucker for the underdog, the reject, and the outcast – the weirdoes working at the fringes. Maturin was odd, maintained odd views, and wrote very odd books. But that does not mean he should be forgotten. Quite the reverse. The oddballs show us the reality of the human condition the rest of us are too scared to believe is real. Indeed, perhaps the reason Melmoth The Wanderer is so quotable is precisely because its leans toward madness. As Alan Moore sadly observed in his magnum opus, From Hell (1989)“Our lunatics were prophets once, and had a prophet’s power.” 

***

Thanks for reading this epic-sized blog! If you’ve come this far, then I can only profusely thank you for your dedication. If you want to support my work, including the production of more detailed content like this, then you can head on over to my Patreon where I post monthly fiction with accompanying breakdowns of how and why the scenes came to be, and behind-the-scenes videos, plus a ton of other bonus content every week! 

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Why Sherlock Holmes was never an atheist, and what that can teach us about writing character

Credit to :https://www.siff.net/education/sherlock-holmes?fbclid=IwAR1yrownffy0XTb-CeLluP9LROUHvpRC0j-g_bp2kVFBghPJKuTRf57LvSw#elevent for the image

In modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes is often cast as an atheist. We see this most prominently in the BBC Cumberbatch and Freeman adaptation, where Cumberbatch’s Holmes remarks that God is “a ludicrous fantasy designed to provide a career opportunity to the family idiot.” I think this quote summarises neatly my ultimate frustrations and disillusion with the series; the writers profoundly misunderstand the source material, or perhaps have intentionally warped it to conform to a worldview they perceive to be aligned with the zeitgeist. This atheistic sentiment is present in other adaptations as well. In the original Conan-Doyle stories, however, Holmes is a firm believer. It’s amiable Watson who has doubts about whether there really is a God.

This is a fascinating switch, and I think indicates a weakness on the part of modern writers interpreting Holmes. For the ultimate cold and rational “thinking machine” that is Sherlock Holmes to believe in a Creator is not an inconsistency in character, but precisely what makes his character so fascinating. Sherlock Holmes sees patterns that others can’t see, and is able to make incredible deductions from the smallest minutiae. Holmes stands in opposition to the idea of coincidence – everything, in his view, has logical cause and effect; everything has meaning. In a way, Sherlock Holmes is like God himself, an almost omniscient viewpoint, piercing the veil of distractions to see the unseen clues beneath. As much as it is an unexpected juxtaposition, it also makes sense that Holmes would conclude God really exists; he’s perhaps the only mortal person who shares His perspective. 

The scene in which Holmes confirms his belief occurs in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, when he observes a small flower, “Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it.” In other words, it’s the existence of superfluous beauty that confirms the cosmos is not accidental; as with all other things, including the crimes Holmes solves, the universe has come into being for a reason. 

Humans are, by nature, hypocritical and contradictory. In our modern world of social media backlash and “cancel culture” we believe that to be integrous, we have to be consistent, but such a hypothesis is fundamentally flawed because human beings cannot be consistent in this way. For a start, we grow and develop over time. Our opinions should alter with new experiences, otherwise, what was the point of having the experience? Likewise, just because somebody does a good thing, doesn’t mean they are a good person; the reverse is also palpably true. 

Great writers such as Conan-Doyle understood this principle of human hypocrisy and also change. We might also look to Shakespeare for wisdom here. In Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra, Anthony spends the first twenty minutes bemoaning the fact that he is burdened with his marriage to Fulvia, and can’t fully abscond with his true heart’s desire: the beautiful Cleopatra. But when his wife, Fulvia, unexpectedly dies, thereby seemingly freeing him to pursue his heart’s want, he suddenly feels bound by duty to honour his dead wife and break ties with Cleopatra. It seems contradictory or even irrational to us, but how well observed of human nature: that it is often in being freed and liberated from moral duty that we are sobered and clarified on the issue of our wrongdoing. Conan-Doyle similarly explores this in the contradiction of Holmes – the rational scientist – believing in a greater power. 

If you want to write great characters, characters who feel real and three-dimensional, then we have to internalise this principle that human beings are deeply inconsistent. It’s clear that Shakespeare, in particular, found a certain joy in this. He loved his characters most when they were being completely hypocritical and unreasonable, as can be evidenced by the enduring popularity (and verbosity) of perhaps his most hypocritical character: John Falstaff. Shakespeare’s best characters sometimes contradict themselves within the same flow of speech, but this only adds to our profound love of them, and often leads to unexpected pearls of wisdom.

If we interrogate ourselves honestly, we’ll find we all have these little idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. By leaning into our own, we can learn to bring them out in our characters, and not only make those characters feel realer, but perhaps surprise ourselves with a revelation – like Holmes seems to surprise himself, looking at the rose, and intuiting all that it means. 


Thanks for reading this blog! I hope it has been useful. If you’d like more writing advice from the Mindflayer, then you can do a number of things: (1) You can sign up to his mailing list for a free monthly injection of culture and weirdness into your veins (plus a free ebook novella!) (2) You can sign up to his epic bootcamp to (for just £39) and get access to hours and hours of scripted content and interviews on how to take your stories to the next level (3) or you can subscribe up to his Patreon, where every month he shares a Lost Literary Relic, with an accompanying story behind how it came to be, and a 10 – 30 minute behind the scenes video!

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RE-RELEASE NEWS! THE HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE ARE BACK!

THE NEXT RE-RELEASE BY THE MINDFLAYER… 

As some of you know, I recently faced a small crisis in my book publishing career. Due to a thoughtless and frankly disconcerting change to a publishing platform I had used for ten years, many of my books were either disappearing or no longer yielding me any royalties. I promised you all that as a result of this I wouldn’t be giving up, but migrating my books into a new platform and giving them a rebirth. The first of these efforts was the Black Gate: Omnibuswhich features all three books of my Black Gate trilogy in one volume! I cannot begin to express my gratitude to all those that supported this effort, many of whom had already read the Black Gate trilogy in its entirety but still went ahead and bought the Omnibus anyway. My thanks goes out to you with the full knowledge I can never repay this insanely kind act. Gods bless you all. 

I’m now pleased to announce the next effort.

And it’s not one but TWO books! A double-re-release!

My tome Nekyia is going to be removed from the old publishing platform and re-released as it was originally intended: as a two-volume set entitled Four Horsemen and The Fifth Horseman. Both of these books have faced numerous setbacks and obstacles to being published, including two publishers reneging on contractual agreements to publish them (hence why I was forced to release it as one very unwieldy volume – to differentiate it as a “new” title). But now, at last, they can be released as intended, and my, my, the apocalyptic heralds are looking better than ever! Just look at those covers… 

Thanks to Likozor, who also did the art for Black Gate: Omnibus, for the insane covers.

Both texts have been edited and improved. Four Horsemen features a new introduction with some additional insight into how the book came about. More than ever before, I want to tie together my underlying multiverse, and so these books really make it clear how Four Horsemen and The Fifth Horseman relate to the Black Gate series. 

I hardly sold any copies of Nekyia. I think it was arguably my worst-ever performing book, especially considering its cost to produce. I only blame myself for this. The old publishing platform I used meant it cost me £20.50 to print the damn paperback, so I had to sell it for £21.00 (and made only 50p per copy – if that). I know that price is way too high, and quite apart from the price of entry, it was 800 pages long (but unlike the Black Gate: Omnibus, which is a similar length but cohesiveNekyia was chopped seemingly haphazardly: divided into two halves, the first part then furtherdivided into four, and the second part divided into five, and so on). It was confusing and broke the story up in ways that made it a slog to read. They were always meant as two interrelated books, not as one. 

So, the tale of Nekyia is finally coming out as it was always meant to be, and I can’t wait to share these two books with you in this unique double-release! If you want to check out the blurbs, you can head on over to the Amazon page (where the Kindle is already available!) 

FOUR HORSEMEN

Amazon UK

Amazon US

THE FIFTH HORSEMAN

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Paperbacks are on their way! 

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Presentable Liberty – isolation & meaning

Around 2014, I was an avid consumer of YouTube videos. I still am, in some ways, but my taste in channels has shifted, and I no longer binge like I used to. However, back in those days, I was really into gamers and “let’s play” videos. There is something fascinating about watching someone who is an expert take you through a game, especially if it’s a game you cannot get access to or have no intention of playing yourself. Of course, nowadays, many games are more like extended movies anyway, so there’s a lot story-wise to learn from and absorb. Anyway, you all know I’m an aficionado of games, so I don’t need to justify myself! 

At the time, I was subscribed to Markiplier, who is still one of the world’s biggest YouTubers and gamers. He put out a video that had a clickbait title: THIS GAME WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE. I clicked on it begrudgingly, expecting nothing remotely life-changing and a little annoyed at being caralled into investigating this, but unable to repress my human curiosity. 

But, unbelievably, the title proved true, both for me and Markiplier himself. The clickbait video was for a game called Presentable Liberty, by an indie game developer known only as Wertpol. Markiplier’s video was a one-hour playthrough of Presentable Liberty.

At first, Markiplier was mocking. The game seemed ludicrously basic. Its graphics were primitive polygons. And, on top of that, the gameplay was limited: the premise of the game being that you were stuck in a cell somewhere high up, unable to escape, with the world around you slowly succumbing to a virus… (and yes, there are spooky parallels with today). The only way you can interact with the outside world is by (a) reading letters and (b) playing on your Portable Entertainment Product™ (essentially a parody of a GameBoy).

But the story that unfolds from this point on is nothing short of breathtaking and spellbinding, as well as a frightening allegory for our modern times and the corrupting power of money. The game’s pace is like a train leaving the station. At first, all seems pretty safe and predictable, but then with each new revelation, the train picks up speed, until we’re biting our nails with fear at this 150 mile-per-hour rollercoaster.

Markiplier himself became completely immersed in the game, to the point where he says, “Halfway through I stopped playing it and started living it.” In an hour or two, Presentable Liberty takes you on a journey to the very depths of despair and beyond. It forces you to experience an isolation that I have never known any other book, play, film, or game to convey. The letters – your vital line to reality – bring tidings from four key individuals in your life. Over the course of the game (which spans five “days” in the prisoner’s life) you get to know these people intimately, to care about them, and to desperately long to hear from them again. The effect of this game had on me was so profound it caused me to write The Meaning of the Dark, which was my own attempt at an isolation narrative. There is an epigraph from Wertpol, the creator, at the start of the novel. 

Towards the end of the game, there is a moment of hope that breaks through the despair that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. 

Earlier this month, myself and my wife sat down to re-watch Markiplier’s 2014 play-through of Presentable Liberty. I’m not entirely sure what compelled us to do this. Perhaps the lockdown? Perhaps general conversations about “great video-game stories”? I’m not sure. However, we watched it together, and both of us were reduced to floods by the end of it. It’s work of profound genius, and has taught me so much about storytelling. It’s then my wife asked me a question about the creator, Wertpol. I went to look up Wertpol on my phone, and found to my surprise and shock that, sadly, he had committed suicide in 2018.

Wertpol’s real name was Robert Brock. I never met him. I only interacted with him once, where I asked if it would be okay on Twitter to use a quote from Presentable Liberty in The Meaning of the Dark and he said “yes”. I never told him, fully, how much his games meant to me. I never told him that Presentable Liberty had helped me in my own battle with depression and loneliness. I never told him that I thought he was a genius. So (and I recognise I am perhaps assigning myself too much importance and agency) I could not help but feel a little bit responsible. All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. I hadn’t done anything. To quote True Detective: “My true failing was inattention.”

The hammer-blow of that revelation shook me to my core. It was like I’d lost a dear friend, someone I knew, yet he had been dead two years and I hadn’t even known it. The shock, which left me numb for several days, led to anger. Why hadn’t there been news reports? Why hadn’t there been conversations about this tragedy, the awfulness that someone as talented as Robert Brock had killed themselves because they felt so unrecognised? How had he died with hardly any press?

I was lost and speechless. And, I admit, there was a strange feeling of a “road not taken”, that our lives had run so in parallel, both battling toxic despair in the same year, yet his life had ended, and mine had not. I had come out of my depressive slump in 2018, just as he had gone into his final downer. 

The isolating effects of COVID-19 now mean that we are all, to a degree, like Presentable Liberty’s nameless protagonist, trapped in cells, surrounded by a changing civilisation morphed by a virus. We need to look after ourselves, and our mental wellbeing in this time, more than ever. Things are beginning to open up here in the UK. Whether that’s sensible or not, I can’t say. But we must not underestimate how important human connection is, virus or no. Presentable Liberty illustrates that like nothing else I’ve encountered.

I don’t know enough, really, to say any more than I have said. All I can add, is that Presentable Liberty moved me in ways very few other games or even books or films have done. We cannot change the past. What’s done is done. And maybe, Robert Brock was always going to commit suicide. But, I won’t avert my eyes, and I won’t forget to say how much I value a creator ever again. We can’t give him back life, but we can ensure all he created and achieved lives on. Robert Brock created a masterpiece, and one that, strangely, had the power to save someone else from the very darkness that consumed him. Whether he meant to or not, Robert Brock gave his life to save mine.

Love yourself, and always reach out if you need me. 

Blog

The genius of Jordan Peele’s Get Out revisited

When I first saw Get Out, there was a lot of hype surrounding the film. I’m always sceptical of “hyped” films as they tend to be puffed up by their relationship to some kind of zeitgeist. But I was a big fan of Key & Peele and the trailer was brilliant, so I thought I’d give it a go. Within two minutes of having sat down in the Odeon, and the film starting, I realised I was watching a genius piece of cinema. There are so many things I loved about Get Out; the way that the film operates on three levels: sociological (the allegory of racism), spiritual (Chris’ journey to overcoming being paralysed by fear), and literal / physical (a lock-in horror movie). I loved the phenomenal acting. I loved the elements of hypnotism and concept of “The Sunken Place”. I loved the camerawork and colour palette. I loved the references to other horror classics, including Night of the Living Dead. I loved the sometimes unnerving interspersions of humour amidst the horror.

But the thing I loved most about it is the subject of today’s article, and is also why I think it’s more important than ever to revisit this piece of cinema. This blog is going to contain some spoilers, so if you still haven’t seen Get Out, please go and buy it and watch it now!

Okay.

Get Out uses several clever cinematic techniques to put us in Chris’s (Daniel Kaluuya) shoes. Chris is a photographer; he is “an eye”. We frequently focus in on Chris’s eyes (in fact, the iconic poster-image for the movie is of Chris weeping with his eyes wide open). This shows that, to some degree, we’re seeing this world through Chris’s perspective. We’re looking through him.

Chris has to come to Rose’s (Allison Williams) family home to meet her parents. He’s nervous about it, and soon he finds his nerves are not unfounded; Rose’s parents and brother give off a weird vibe. Chris begins to experience racism from the family and the guests. When I watched Get Out in the cinema, there was nervous laughter when Dean Armitage (the father, played by Bradley Whitford) says, “I would have voted for Obama three times if I could”. It’s funny, because we know what he’s doing, he’s overcompensating. In the same vein, another guest at the Armitage’s party immediately starts talking about Tiger Woods as soon as Chris shows up. We don’t know whether we’re allowed or supposed to laugh at this, but after a while, of course, we can’t help it.

As Get Out progresses, it wears down our defences until we’re laughing openly at the insanity of Chris’s situation (as well as feeling an almost nausea-level tension building). Because it’s a horror film, we feel the threat to him more profoundly than in a thriller – we know horror movies can go super-dark. By the time we near the end, and Chris is being hypnotised in preparation for an operation that will destroy his brain and personality forever, we’re biting our nails with fear and anxiety. Get Out is about white people stealing and appropriating black bodies – for their own often twisted ends. Ironically, the film achieves this very feat, placing us inside of Chris’s head. Or perhaps it actually achieves the reverse? Chris gets into us. Whatever the case, it’s rare that I feel such intense empathy for a character.

And here’s where that empathy achieves its transcendental peak.

At the end of Get Out, Chris is finally giving his fake girlfriend Rose the strangling she deserves, when suddenly, we see a bloom of blue and red lights. It is at this moment that my heart plummeted out of my chest into my stomach. I didn’t have to make any logical leaps. I didn’t have to think. I knew instantly what Chris knew: Those cops are going to arrest me.

In that split second, I felt something of what it might be like to be Chris. I will never know what it’s like to be black, of course. I would never claim that. But, Jordan Peele manages to get his audience to a point where they can see a tiny glimpse. The cops showing up at the end wasn’t delivery and salvation – like it is in so many movies. It was the final lowest point. The cinema audience audibly groaned with sympathy and despair as the lights drew nearer and Chris stood up, holding his hands over his head.

When I left the cinema, I remember using the word “Shakespearean” to describe Get Out, and among other stylistic elements (people who are not themselves, for a start) I think that’s what I meant. Whatever you think of The Bard, I believe he had an uncanny knack for allowing his audiences glimpses of what it might feel like to be someone else: whether it’s Beatrice or Caliban or Macbeth. Shakespeare’s gift was empathy.

Jordan Peele follows in those footsteps. He gives us empathy into Chris’s plight. And that makes the ending so powerful.

Of course, as it happens, it isn’t the cops arriving, but actually Chris’s friend Rod. There’s a message in that too, which is perhaps best saved for another article.

In our current climate, where it’s clearer than ever that the police are not the solution, but the problem, I thought it would be good to meditate again on why Get Out struck such a chord.

Blog, Publishing

URGENT ANNOUNCEMENT: MY BOOKS ARE GOING TO DISAPPEAR

The goddess of darkness and a man who fell on her knees in front of her. Fantasy illustration. Black and white background.

Hey everyone, 

I don’t really know how to begin, so I think it’s best I just say it how it is.

As many of you know, the majority of the books I’ve released over the years have been self-published. To do this, I used a platform, which I won’t say the name of, but it wasn’t Amazon’s in-built one. This platform had a lot of features that were really useful to authors and a wider distribution network than just Amazon’s. I have used them for a decade now, and never had any problems until now. I’ve probably produced over 50 books with them if you include works I’ve produced collaboratively with other authors and also clients. 

But earlier this year, they made a dramatic change. I won’t go into all the boring and technical details, but suffice to say my faith with this platform has utterly disintegrated. The new system is unusable and almost all of my old data has been damaged in some way. I have lost sales and revenue significantly. Most of my books are no longer distributing and if they are, I’m not being paid when they sell. Ten years of work has been compromised. It’s been very stressful and tough. I’m not the only one affected by this – thousands of authors have, including some great writers you know and love. We’ve been chatting about this at length, though I’ve kept silent about it publicly, waiting for solutions to emerge, but it seems none are forthcoming. This is real and happening. So, I thought I finally had to air it. 

I should say, if you’re a Writing Collective author reading this and you’re concerned, then your books are okay! We’re monitoring it daily, but we think that due to the way they were set up, they will not be affected in the same way as my individual books.

I am never one to despair! With destruction comes new beginnings. I am going to be working on removing my work from this platform and republishing it on new platforms. This will likely mean my books disappearing from Amazon over the next few weeks / months (or at least becoming “out of stock”). This is sadly unavoidable if I want to reclaim the rights, which I certainly do. But the good thing is that I’m not powerless here. In the words of Escanor from Seven Deadly Sins:

The books WILL be re-released! And on a better platform, which gives more creative freedom, and overall a better deal for me. I’m not going to be able to re-release them all overnight, as there are simply far too many. But I am going to work on rebuilding my list book by book. I’m going to try and make it fun – letting people vote on which books come back next, making a game of it. I already have plans for the first couple of books, and boy are they going to look better than any book I’ve released previously. At the end of the day, I had fun writing these books, and so as challenging as this process is, we should still try to claim something fun and positive from it. 

The first thing I’m going to release to start this process of resurrection is Black Gate: Omnibus – a collation of all three books in the trilogy into one epic volume! This will be coming out June 2020.

The Black Gate trilogy is kind of a calling card for me as a writer, so it makes sense that this is the first book to be risen from the ashes. Check out the cover reveal below! I think it might be my best-ever book design-wise – I’m still trying to keep going forward through this! (thanks to Lizokor for the amazing artwork).

Don’t worry, all the major books I’ve published will be coming back. Some of them needed updating and proofing anyway, so in some strange way, this has been good: it means further refinement and improvement. 

One other thing I would mention is that if you really like my work, and want to see more of it, one way you could help me during this difficult time is by becoming a patron. I have recently set up a Patreon account, where I’m sharing never-before-seen writing and behind-the-scenes videos every month. The good thing about being so prolific, is that even with these setbacks, the surface of my creative output has yet to be even scratched. There’s enough in the archives to keep us all entertained for years. 

Patreon is proving a really fabulous and vibrant community, and its growing daily. So please, if you’re interested, take a look and consider backing me; I’ll be eternally grateful. 

To all those who have read, reviewed, shared, and studied my books over the years: I salute you with every one of my mindflayer tentacles. You’re the best, the bomb, and you’ve literally helped keep me sane and alive. I promise never to give up, never to surrender, and to keep fighting the good fight. You guys make it all worth it. 

Lots of love, 

Your friendly neighbourhood mindflayer

Become a Patron!

Games

Dead World: Reborn (the RPG behind Save Game)

samurai with sword standing on sunset background,illustration painting

Hello everyone.

A lot of people asked me "How did you create such a detailed world in Save Game?" The reality is, Save Game is the result of more than a decade of work!

I have been building RPGs and games ever since my wonderful god-mother, Helen, first introduced me to a Dungeons & Dragons game. I played as a warrior, and was pretty useless overall, but enjoyed every second of it. It was such a rich and immersive experience, it blew my mind. Ever since then, storytelling and role-play have been kind of indistinguishable from each other. I use D&D to help me tell stories, and writing novels and telling stories helps me make a better Dungeon Master and player. D&D helps me to hand over the story to my characters and let them decide what to do. Writing novels helps me to create worlds that are more solidly built, and to avoid cliches that are present in so many fantasy adventures.

Whilst I love traditional D&D, I'm never one to do things the easy way. I like to take things apart and rebuild them the way I want them. So, I created my own role-play system, called Dead World: Reborn (due to it having many iterations), which focuses more on the narrative side of Dungeons & Dragons, whilst still providing a logical rules framework.

It occurred to me the other day, that with all the craziness in the world resulting from coronavirus, and lots of people at home looking for ways to spend time and to connect with those around them, whether digitally or under lockdown, that role-play is one of the best ways to do this. Some of the best friends I have are those I spent hours, days, weeks even playing Dead World: Reborn with. They battled, bargained, and boasted their way through what must be tens of thousands of encounters. Their energy, creativity, and enthusiasm made me the writer, and DM, I am today. I cannot thank them enough.

And here they are on my wedding day. From left to right (above): Valthorian The Elf Warrior, Perturabo Lord of Iron, Tydorr The Lizardkin, yours truly, Aron The Avatar, Harragan The Ranger, Ferrus Manus The Smithy, Hugo The Third (below) Kopperberg The Druid, Fulgrim The Perfectionist, Sir Lancelittle, & Sammus The Necromancer

Role-play allows you to step out of your own body in a way that is unique and unparalleled. I've seen people overcome severe mental difficulties during role-play, such as anxiety or even depression, all because the shared storytelling experience facilitates a healing journey. There's a reason why some of the best episodes of The IT Crowd and Community were about Dungeons & Dragons! 

So, we're all trapped inside, to a degree (or working on the front lines, if you're in the NHS!), but either way, we need ways to healthily escape and bond. You can play this game with those you're isolated with, or with people over Zoom / online. It's up to you. You don't need much, and in fact, the dice are largely optional; the storytelling mechanics are what's important.

So, I wanted to offer you all the tools to play my special homemade (sometimes called "home-brew") system for free. Below you will find a rulebook download, a character-sheet download, as well as a package containing details of a small campaign to get you started. However, I also consider this game a tool for writers building their worlds. You don't actually have to play the game, but you can use the character sheets and mechanics to determine elements of your story. For example, you can use the character sheets to understanding your hero's strengths and weaknesses, and you can use their "stats" to understand what challenges they can and can't face up to. What kind of opponents might be difficult for them to face-off against? And I'm not just speaking combatively. Role-play encompasses the entire wheel of human endeavour, that's the beauty of it.

But of course, it's fun to play as a game too, and sometimes it can be liberating to free oneself from the onus of creating a novel or screenplay or short story, which at times can feel like "work". Games allow us to be free without imaginations, because the only purpose is entertainment and fun (although the irony is this often leads to great ideas)!

Dead World: Reborn is a dark and fantastical role-play game. Step into the shoes (or claws) of a demon, undead, or rat-person. Wield massively overpowered magical spells. Begin your own epic legend, just like Levi Jensen from Save Game. And remember, it's best enjoyed with friends!

RULEBOOK

Download the rules for Dead World: Reborn. Whether player or potential Dungeon Master, this will help you craft characters and worlds for people to journey through or play as!

Dead World Reborn_D&D5_28032020_JS

CAMPAIGN: ZIGGURAT OF DREADFUL NIGHT 

This is a small campaign for relatively new players. The legendary hero Valthorian has journeyed into the dark north. You are tasked with finding him. But what if he has gone beyond even the Ziggurats, a place where dark cultists worship forbidden gods? What could possibly have driven him to do such a thing?

Ziggurat of Dreadful Night_Campaign_online download package

CHARACTER SHEET

To create your Dead World: Reborn character, you'll need a character sheet. Feel free to download and print, or edit via a PDF editor to create a digital sheet.

Character Sheet

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If you've downloaded this game and enjoyed The Mindflayer's whacky worlds, please consider buying him a coffee / tea via his Ko-Fi page. Lapsang Souchong is the favourite beverage of the Mindflayer, and he can subsist on its smokey aroma for many eons; it also stimulates him to create more weird and wonderful games.

 

 

Blog

CONNECTING THREAT AND CHARACTER: THE SECRETS OF COMPELLING STORY

 

The other day, I finished reading a book called Cold Storage by legendary screenwriter David Koepp, the man behind the original Jurassic Park, among other significant screenplays. It was a good book, but not a great one, and that got me thinking about why, because it wasn’t immediately obvious to me what was out of place with the narrative, or if indeed anything was out of place at all and it wasn’t simply a genre mismatch with me. Cold Storage was certainly more thriller than my usual fare.

To briefly summarise: Cold Storage is about a new genus of fungus, cordyceps novus, a mutating semi-intelligent infection that can take over human bodies the way ophiocordyceps unilateralis can turn ants into “zombies” that harbour fungus-spreading spores. The threat is very real here, and following a few devastating scenes at the start of the novel expertly rendered by Koepp in truly cinematic fashion, we believe just how bad things could get if cordyceps novus got into the wider populace. There is even a whiff of zombie-apocalypse here, albeit subtly toned down; think more The Last Of Us or The Girl With All The Gifts than let’s say, 28 Days Later.

But cool as it was, I didn’t find myself caring very much about it, despite how well researched and inventively conceived cordyceps novus was. The other problem was that I didn’t care much about the characters either, and that really bugged me, because objectively I could say the dialogue was pretty good. Koepp’s screenplay background was showing its worth here, and the characters each had interesting hooks in their backstories that made me want to know more. I couldn’t understand why solidly developed characters and an interesting threat weren’t working in combination, and then of course it became clear. The problem was, the threat and the characters did not meaningfully connect. The characters were intriguing, but they were not characters whom I felt were unique to the story. In other words, these characters could have inhabited any story. I didn’t understand why they were inhabiting this one.

I think to understand this better, we have to look at examples of where this worked well. One recent novel that immediately springs to mind is Dan Soule’s Neolithica. Soule does a brilliant job of connecting the threat, that of an ancient bog body unearthed in the north of England which then comes back to necromantic un-life, with the main through-line of the protagonist Mirin. Mirin has just lost her husband, and is terrified of losing her child, Oran, as well. The bog-body or mummy is also a young boy, though he is warped by his interment in the earth and the dark things that happened to him before he was mummified. The mummy is actually referred to as “the boy” throughout the story. We can immediately see the parallels with Mirin’s fears and that “the boy” almost represents a Freudian return of the repressed. Mirin’s fears of a dead child are embodied in the literal dead child that now comes to ravage her hometown. Because the threat and character through-line connect so strongly, the story takes on a profound and powerful life. We understand why Mirin is the only person who can resolve this problem, why she has been “chosen” to face this ordeal. This is as much about her psychological battle as any supernatural one, and the story is all the stronger as a result.

Steve Stred similarly does a brilliant job of this in his horror novel The Stranger. The main character, Malcolm, is a racist, with an ingrained hatred for Native Americans. However, he and his family end up haunted by a supernatural being known only as The Stranger. This horrifying entity embodies the protagonist’s fear of the “other” perfectly, yet ironically The Stranger is in fact a god and one with the land he protects. It’s the human beings that are the unwelcome “foreigners” or “strangers” to its creation, a commentary on how Americans, and indeed many Western peoples, are all, in some way, strangers to their own land; violent interlopers, if you will.

We might also look to Christa Wojciechowski’s genius Sick trilogy to see how threat connects with character. In Sick book one, Susan tries desperately to keep her terribly ill husband, John, well, even resorting to desperate criminal activity to obtain painkillers and other medications, but his sickness is constant and overwhelming. On the surface, sickness itself seems to be the threat, but look a little deeper, and we begin to understand that perhaps Susan needs John to be ill as much as he needs her to look after him, and the two are in a parasitic relationship that is self-reinforcing. The real threat is not sickness, but getting better.

To look to a more classical example, Homer’s Iliad centres around the myopic, arrogant, selfish, narcissistic, brutal Achilles. The threat in the narrative is Hector, Prince of Troy, the greatest of the Trojans and perhaps the only combatant on their side who can match Achilles at arms. Hector is a brilliant threat, because he connects with Achilles on so many levels. The two are mirrors of each other. Both are princes. Both are unwilling participants in the war. Hector only fights because he feels familial obligation to defend his brother Paris (though he daily advises Paris to give up Helen, whom he stole in the first place, and therefore save thousands of lives). Achilles is refusing to fight because he fell in love with a Trojan woman, Briseis. But even before then, he only came along to the war because of the false promises of Odysseus, so was never fully committed to the cause anyhow. Both men have two key people they are passionately devoted to. In Achilles’ case, the young boy Patroklus, his best friend and lover, and Briseis, his other Trojan lover. In Hector’s case, his wife Andromache and his son Astyanax.

Yet the two are not only mirrors but polar opposites. Achilles is thuggish and dishonourable, defiling corpses and throwing tantrums. Hector is noble and spares the defenceless. Achilles’ two “loves” are both sexual in nature (even if we read Patroklus in the crustiest classics professor way as a “best friend” and not homosexual lover, there is still a scene where he and Achilles both share women in the same bed together – so the relationship is sexual, whether or not the two themselves share intercourse). Hector’s loves are familial, however: son and wife.

But perhaps most importantly, Achilles is a demigod, born of Thetis, the Nymph. Hector is mortal. In this way, Hector almost represents Achilles’ own fears of mortality, the fragility of life. Achilles believes himself invulnerable, but he has also been told by Thetis that he will die young if he goes to war. The story of Homer’s Iliad, without the context of other epics in the Trojan saga, is of a man being humanised by confronting death. In the end, after Achilles kills Hector and defiles his corpse for days on end, he finally is moved to tears by the grief of Old Priam, Hector’s father and Lord of Troy. He comes to understand that his own sense of loss for Patroklus is shared by others, who are suffering and have also lost love ones, and indeed, Achilles himself has caused much of this suffering. He returns Hector’s body to Priam, and the gods work a miracle whereby Achilles’ cretinous defacing of Hector’s corpse is undone, so that the hero can be given a proper funeral. It’s perhaps Achilles’ first noble and empathetic act.

Of course, it’s also possible to read The Iliad the other way. Or rather, from the Trojan perspective. Hector is the noble hero, and Achilles is the “threat” or “monster” that waits for him. Achilles represents Hector’s own repressed emotions: rage and sexuality, all of which have been subsumed by endless duty to his father, to his brother, and to Troy. Such deep readings, some might even say falsely anachronistic in their use of psychology to analyse a text that predates Freud by nearly 2,500 years, are only possible because of the way Homer connects the threat and his character.

So, as writers, we need to learn from this. If we want to create meaningful stories, we have to make sure that our characters inhabit a tale that was made specifically for them. The threat has to be not only relevant to the characters or protagonist, but part of them. The threat is self-generated. We each create the horror that we must one day face. In that way, perhaps the most archetypal example of this I can give is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What monster has your protagonist birthed, and how does it return to dog their steps?

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Thank you for reading this blog! If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to The Mind-Palace, a mailing list that has further writing advice, free fiction, and more.

If you’re interested in developing your fiction, you can also sign up to The Mindflayer’s Epic Bootcamp, an online course packed with exercises, creator interviews, and insight onto how to make your stories epic.

You can also check out Monaghan & The Mindflayer, a podcast for nerds and storytellers that explores everything from Warhammer lore to conspiracy theories. Season 2 has just dropped.

 

Blog

Why I Had To Return To The Black Gate, One Last Time

Freud once described a phenomenon known as “the return of the uncanny”. Though we may try to banish our repressed fears and memories, they have a knack of coming back, often in a different form. They resurface, like dead bodies made buoyant by the swelling of gas inside the intestinal tract. We can’t quite keep them down and out of sight.

I am obsessed with “endings”. For me, a story is an ending. Everything that happens in a story, right from the opening line, is all part of building up to a conclusion, a moment where everything adds up, and everything obtains new meaning. If a story doesn’t end well, there’s no point to it. I can’t re-watch or re-read something if I know the ending doesn’t satisfy. I won’t name and shame various TV series, but you know who you are. Bad endings render everything that came before pointless.

These two ideas have been at war within myself for some time. On the one hand, my old demons and fears keep coming back, nudging me, telling me to write about them a little more. On the other, my artistic sensibilities, my desire for closure, prods me to do away with them, to end the story. What has emerged from these two polarities is a kind of saga of self-contained works that interrelate, telling one story in sporadic bursts of imagination. Frequently, the books in these sagas purport to end the story. Then, they don’t.

I am thinking of calling these books the Sevenverse Saga.

Another thing about me: I love tangents. Anyone who has held a conversation with me knows I dance from one issue to the other, like a bee excited by the smell of different flowers. I call it the “pursuit of threads”. I love following a train of thought to its bitter end, no matter how bizarre. Nothing pleases me more than a conversation that derails and goes into weird territory. When I used to work for “the man” I would play a game in the office – how quickly could I change the topic to something imaginative or weird? How quickly could I get people who wouldn’t watch Star Wars if you paid them money talking about telekinesis or pyromania or serial killers? It was the only way I could stay sane.

Nothing bores me more than polite-society chit-chat. Tell me about your fears, your hopes and aspirations, your secret ambitions. I’ll tell you mine. We’re all human. Let’s do away with the masks.

After years of publishing fiction, and a growing number of titles out in the world, I realised that other people actually liked my tangential tendencies. It was part of my storytelling aesthetic. So, I leant into it, embraced it, used it to explore my weirdness in new ways. It’s clear to me now that sometimes the most interesting bits are the tangents. But it wasn’t always. I was caught in the trap of trying to write stories I thought other people wanted to read, rather than writing stories I wanted to read that didn’t yet exist in the world.

Take Star Wars. An incidental line from Revenge of the Sith from Palpatine: “Have I ever told you the story of Darth Plagueis the wise?” has become an object of fascination for millions. And yes, it’s also become an internet meme, a joke. But the fact remains that the story of Darth Plagueis, who never appears on screen, has titillated the imagination of fans more so than many of the major characters, to the extent many people wanted certain major characters (coughSnoke cough) to actually be Plagueis. It’s no surprise that Disney have finally capitalised on this interest, releasing a novel entitled Darth Plagueis, which fills in some of the gaps. My point here is that sometimes it’s the small things, the side issues, that are most interesting to explore. Community and Rick & Morty creator Dan Harmon knows this all-too-well. His shows are always about the stuff happening around the story, not the story themselves. Who cares about the actual community-college classes in Community? That’s sundry stuff. It’s about what happens to “the group” around that. Jeff is allegedly interested in Britta, but the real love story is with Annie – yet that love-story is never consummated. It simmers beneath things, a constant through-line. It’s not the story.

Or is it?

Similarly, nine times out of ten, Rick & Morty is about the aftermath of an adventure, or the preparation for one, never about the actual “adventure” itself. The show regularly self-deprecates on this theme, expressing a desire for more “self-contained classic adventures”. But that would be boring. Shows like Elementary, as fun an inventive as they are, inevitably run out of steam following the formula (in the case of Elementary: self-contained 40-minute detective stories). They fail to recognise this simple fact: sometimes the best stories are not the stories. We don’t care about murders in New York, they happen every minute (tragic though that is). We’re interested in Holmes and Watson, this unique frisson between them, how the gender-swap transforms the dynamic and makes a new commentary.

The same is true, to an extent, of my own work and philosophy, and never is it more true than with Craig Smiley. Smiley was not intended to be the main character of Gods of the Black Gate. Caleb was. It’s Caleb’s tale of rectifying a wrong and coming to terms with his own hatred. But the more I wrote, the more Smiley there was, until the two characters kind of ended up sharing a double-billing. Smiley got out of hand, because once I created him and could see him in my mind’s eye, he had a will of his own. I was merely recording what he was doing and saying, not directing it.

In Beyond The Black Gate, Smiley fully took over, relegating Caleb to a smaller role in the narrative. It was now Smiley’s redemption story. Smiley’s arc. In order to make this work – because let’s just say I created some pretty major obstacles to a sequel – I had to do some of my most imaginative world-building to date. My fixation on the tangent, on the stories behind and between the stories, paid off in a weird way, because it pushed me to create something that feels, though I say it myself, pretty unique. That’s the thing: tangents, or these points of interest that seem irrelevant, allow us to explore ourselves. Many people have a fascination with serial killers, and there are a million-and-one amazing serial-killer books out there, but how many of them depict that killer in a fantasy world, and how many of those fantasy worlds smash modern technology with face-wearing assassins living in a flesh-forest? How many of those are also love-stories? The tangents make the story mine.

There is, however, a danger with this: tangents can create more tangents. Looking at this another way, questions create more questions. I answered a question of what lay beyond the Black Gate, but that led to another question, what lay beyond that. Welcome to infinite regression!

I thought it was a question I would never answer, that I would leave buried, but like Freud’s “return of the uncanny”, it kept coming back to me, waking me up in the dead of night, interrupting me as I tried to work on some other project. It grew infuriating, because I didn’t know what to do. I was paralysed by the overflow of my own creativity, startled by a hundred different directions it could go. None of them seemed right.

I remember taking a walk up a place near where I live unimaginatively named “The Mount”. It’s a huge hill that overlooks the city and the cathedral. I often go up there, some kind of meditative pilgrimage, and stand looking out over the city and into the distance and thinking. I get some of my best ideas here. This time, I had gone with my wife, Michelle. We were talking about books, films, creative stuff. I confessed to her I felt blocked and troubled by this “uncanny” return. Should I bother with a third book? A few people had messaged me directly asking for one, but could I pull it off? The story wanted to come out, but everything I came up with seemed wrong. I told her about where the story stood at the end of Beyond. She listened incredibly patiently, and it’s then she had a startling observation: “To me, the most interesting part of what you’ve just said is Caleb’s story. I want to know more about what happens to him, what he’s going through.”

It clicked. I had been ignoring my own advice, telling myself about who the major players were. Smiley took over Beyond The Black Gate, but this next story wasn’t his, it was someone else’s. Caleb was finally going to have his day.

At the end of Beyond The Black Gate, I linked the universe of the Black Gate with another, that of Nekyia and The Prince. This was a story I “ended” in 2017. In my wife’s trepidatious words upon learning I had re-opened that can of worms: “Erm, it felt pretty final at the time…” Again, with another return of the uncanny, some prompting of my inner subconscious had led me to write an ending in which something came back from the grave: this other world was resurrected and joined with the Black Gate’s mythos. It had felt right. However, now, I was faced with writing a book that essentially drew together two universes and brought both of them to a satisfying head. Although without the pressure of Game of Thrones’ insane mass-appeal, I thought I knew an inkling of George R. R. Martin’s problem – the Gordian Knot of narrative that I was now faced with unwinding. I had made it difficult for myself. A sensible person would have written two separate trilogies and planned them both out from word go. A sensible person would just let the dead stay dead.

I am not a sensible person.

I realised that I had grown a lot as a person and writer since I published Nekyia in 2017. A lot can change in 3 years. If I was writing that book now, I thought, I would do so many things differently. So, I decided to embrace that, too. I began a process of “re-writing” elements of Nekyia, re-imagining my past. Return to the Black Gate, as the third book is entitled (which is really the seventh book if you take it in the whole of the Sevenverse Saga), was originally titled The War For The Black Gate, but that didn’t sit right. Just as Smiley had to go back, so too did I. It was about me once more wandering through the worlds and meeting the characters I had inhabited for more than five years.

Those who liked Nekyia are in for a few surprises. There were threads (tangents!) I discarded from the book (not having the skill or space to weave them in), but I’ve now picked them up again, like old tools I’ve re-learned the value of. You will see the return of several players from that story, some of them unexpected. But if you haven’t read Nekyia, don’t worry, I make all of it new. Or at least, I try.

The threads and tangents spread wider still, expanding far beyond simply two books. I went all the way back to my first published title in 2014, The Darkest Touch, drawing on unresolved arcs, unfinished business. All beginnings serve endings, remember? There was a surprising amount there, stored away in my brain. Ideas within ideas, places I’d longed to go that for whatever strange reason I never went. It was like the ghosts of the past returning to help me fight a final boss.

As the stories came together, forming one, I began to realise what my book was really about, and that it was unlike anything I had ever written before. When I realised that, I found faith in the project, and knew I had to finish it. In more senses than one. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so many times writing a book. Some scenes broke me. They still do thinking about them.

Return To The Black Gate may not be the best book I’ve ever written, but it is possibly my favourite. I doubt it will be read by legions, but if it resonates with the few people that have been following the tangents, looking for the stories between the stories, then I will have succeeded – and it was worth every second.

Writing Return To The Black Gate will stay with me as long as I live and no matter how many books I write, of that I’m sure. It is a book that says farewell to a lot of ideas, characters, and worlds that I love. It is a book that says farewell to my former self. It is a book that says farewell to the Black Gate forever. This time, I really mean it.

But, the beauty of all true farewells, is that we get to give and receive a final parting kiss.

I hope it’s as sweet, if not sweeter, than the first.

Return To The Black Gate is coming March 2020. If you want to be kept updated, why not sign up to the “The Mind-Palace”, a monthly newsletter full of fiction-advice, stories from the cavernous vaults of the mindflayer’s lair, and freebies.

If you wish to begin your journey through the multi-verse, why not look at one of the following titles:

The Darkest Touch (2014)

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Nekyia (2017)

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Gods of the Black Gate (2018)

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Beyond The Black Gate (2019)

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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Review – Steve Stred’s The Stranger

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.