The goddess of darkness and a man who fell on her knees in front of her. Fantasy illustration. Black and white background.
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.
samurai with sword standing on sunset background,illustration painting
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.
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!
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!
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?
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.
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?
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.
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 (coughSnokecough)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:
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.