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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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Epic Bootcamp Is Here!

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 into seven 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! 

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Review of BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie

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!

X

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

 

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Mindflayer Mini-Giveaway

Hey everyone!

This is a short blog just to let you know that I am going to be running a small giveaway until the end of April (30th)! The prize is a signed paperback copy of my recently released novel Beyond the Black Gate! It’s a beautiful book, with cover-art by Igor Sid, and proper high-quality paper! Here’s what it looks like below (minus the deranged lunatic holding it and the map of Cyrodiil in the background):

But it’s not just pretty, some reviewers have said some really nice things about it. Dan Stubbings of The Dimension Between Worlds described it as something that “opened windows to ideas you quite simply didn’t know were possible. Joseph has been able to go beyond the perimeters and troupes of specific genres, and engineer something that is a work of art.”

Steve Stred of Kendall Reviews said of it: “Beyond is a well done mash-up of HEAVY METAL with Barker-esque gore set in a Lovecraftian reality. There’s no other way to describe it.”

Thanks so much Steve and Dan!

So, this book could be yours! All you have to do is sign up to my mailing list the “Mind-Palace” and you’ll be in with a chance to win the book (it will be decided randomized)! You’ll actually get a free eBook copy of my book The Meaning of the Dark guaranteed when you sign up too, so potentially that’s two horror books in one!  If you’ve already signed up to my mailing list, don’t worry, you’ll automatically be entered into the competition with a chance to win!

Anyway, thanks for stopping by. It’s my pleasure to share this journey into the darkest vaults of the Mind-Palace with you. Don’t mind the oozings you encounter along the way.

 

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Entering Carcosa Part 5: The Book of the New Sun

Hello dear scholars! Welcome to the fifth installment of Entering Carcosa, a series that examines the modern epic. Our aim is to show that epic narrative is far from dead, far from confined to the dusty shelves of snooty academics, but rather a living breathing thing. And we need it more than ever. We’ve looked at a variety of epics so far, from video-games: Metal Gear Solid, to collaborative novel series: The Horus Heresy and TV: True Detective. I retreated into the dark recesses of my ‘workshop of filthy creation’ for a time, poring over your suggestions for further entries in this series, and one suggestion above all captured my imagination. So, today, I want to write about an often over-looked Fantasy-Science Fiction epic, a quartet called The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe. I’d like to thank Dana, a senior developer at Red Hook Games (the geniuses who made Darkest Dungeon), for recommending The Book of the New Sun to me. It has honestly been a life-changing experience reading it, and it is certainly a fitting entry into the epic canon.

The Book of the New Sun was published in four segments: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982) and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). Since, it has reached a kind of cult-status among fandoms, but is not as widely known as say The Lord of the Rings or even the works of Raymond E. Feist or David Eddings. However, Gene Wolfe’s quartet is surely a masterpiece, one that probes the nature of time, love, destiny, morality and divinity. The true brilliance of the novel is not simply the scope of its world ‘Urth’ (which in fact is our own post-technological world thousands, or perhaps even millions, of years in the future), or the scope of its themes, but the way these are conveyed to us via the first person narration of its protagonist, Severian the Torturer. Severian recounts to us his complicated and colourful life, from being a humble apprentice with the Guild of Torturers, to ascending to the very apex of society. He is an unreliable narrator, prone to tweaking facts and investing too much thought in certain interpretations of events. Everything we see in this world is filtered through his perception, and Gene Wolfe does a phenomenal job sustaining this viewpoint for the entirety of this lengthy narrative. Severian is as real to me as any historical figure.

Introducing an element of unrealiable narration into the Fantasy genre is a stroke of brilliance because it creates space for the reader to create their own interpretations, to question, and to draw their own conclusions about events. Whereas Fantasy has a tendency to be simplistic, or even didactic (the prophecy is the prophecy and is undoubtedly true, for example), Gene Wolfe’s epic muddies the waters, which actually more closely resembles Homer’s own grey and ambiguous morality. Are we supposed to see Achilles in The Iliad as a hero or monster? Are we supposed to condemn Odysseus for his unfaithfulness to Penelope or forgive him? The epics of old created complex characters that were in no way saintly in their actions, and so we see this in Severian, who is remarkably convoluted. On the one hand, he has no qualms about torture and execution, and even prides himself on his relative mastery of the art. On the other, he shows remarkable compassion for certain people and things: his dog Triskele, whom he rescues, his lover Thecla, whom he spares further torture (which causes him to be banished from the Guild, initiating his quest), Dorcas, whom he takes under his wing despite knowing nothing about, and even his arch-nemesis Agia, who tries to kill him on more than one occasion. However, it is precisely this complexity that has potentially stymied The Book of the New Sun from reaching mass-market appeal, unlike some of our other entries in this series, which are more broadly popular. Still, it is widely regarded as one of the best Fantasy novels of all time (according to Locus magazine and many others).

Not only is this first person close perspective a deeply intimate and personal style, which makes it incredibly emotive, it is also elusive. By this, I mean that Gene Wolfe manages to bury many secrets in his narrative. The answers to the narrative’s many questions are there for the observant reader, but they are not spelled out to us. We must seek them ourselves. This, I would argue, is a relatively new idea in the epic, which as a genre has never been much about twists or ‘surprises’. However, Gene Wolfe’s narrative is not reliant on it. The story can be read at a surface level: a rip-roaring fast-paced and unusually well-written Fantasy novel. However, look a little deeper, and you will see threads connecting characters, events, and timelines in the most astonishing ways. Gene Wolfe has achieved such remarkable narrative depth that, thirty five years on or more, it is still being discussed on reddit forums, podcasts, and in book clubs. There are wild schools of interpretation that take certain angles on the events described in the book, piecing together the elliptical parts of the storytelling. In addition, writing in Severian’s voice, Wolfe uses a plethora of antiquated words to evoke a post-technological (and therefore, paradoxically ‘ancient’ even though it is in the future) world, such as sabretache, oubliette, zoanthrope, eidolon. Though Severian writes in a fairly accessible way, his vocabulary is that of an older world and often dazzling, matching the high, elevated style of the epic.

Time and again, Wolfe draws us back to the classical epics with his work. Severian is, in many ways, the epitome of an epic hero. He bears a double-edged executioner’s blade called Terminus Est, and a ‘fuligin’ mask and cloak, a colour dimmer than black which hides him in darkness. He also carries the Claw of the Conciliator itself, a magical talisman, remnant of a Messianic saviour, that can ‘heal’ people and create awe-inspiring light. His cloak echoes the magical cloak used by Siegfried in the German epic The Nibelungenlied which can turn its wearer invisible (think also of the cloaks given to Frodo and Sam by the elves of Lothlorien). His sword echoes numerous ‘epic’ blades, including Siegfried’s Balmund, King Arthur’s Excalibur, and the Spear of Achilles, which can ‘cut the wind itself’. This magical equipment allows Severian to overcome many perils on his journey.

He has been trained as an instrument of the law (all epic heroes require a sense of justice), and is proud of the fact that he never ‘exceeds’ allotted punishments, which is his idea of fairness. Severian of course, as the narrator, tries frequently to persuade us to his point of view. Odysseus narrates part of his tale in The Odyssey, and during this story he often asserts his moral rectitude. In this way Wolfe mirrors the classical epics, but he stretches our empathy even further, perhaps to breaking point. Many of the acts Severian commits would make Odysseus pale. In addition, Severian has several powers, including ‘perfect recall’, although some instances of omission in the narrative lead us to question the veracity of this.

Severian is an orphan who does not know his true parentage and has been raised by the Guild itself, though hints of his origins (and his true nature) become evident later. Here, he echoes Achilles, who was sent away from his mother Thetis to be raised in a secluded sect of women, dressed and disguised as a woman, so that he might never go to war. The prophecy about Achilles was that if he went to war, he would die young but win great glory. Thetis does this to protect Achilles, but of course, as with all Greek tragedy, it ends up becoming part of the prophecy’s fulfilment, for the sect is discovered by Odysseus who recruits Achilles for the war. Achilles has been dispossessed of his masculinity, his royalty, and his free choice by being hidden away, and in going to fight in the Trojan war he reclaims it. So, too, Severian is dispossessed in his own fashion, dispossessed of an identity and a ties to other people, hence his sociopathic nature. He is forced to wear the habit of the Torturer, which he remarks upon himself is ‘a disguise’ of his true nature. Many characters refer to him as ‘Death’, yet as he says himself he is not Death but simply ‘a man’. However, we sense as readers deep down he may not even be a man at all. There are many layers of disguise and symbolism here at work. In a way, The Book of the New Sun is a rags to riches story of Severian coming to inherit what is rightfully his, though whether he truly knew himself that he had been dispossessed is up for much debate. He arguably shares one other trait with Achilles, that of his indestructibility, yet this too is uncertain given the lens of unreliable narration.

Severian possesses many tragic flaws; he might even be described as monstrous from a certain point of view. He is full of lust, morally unscrupulous, deceitful in his narrative and frankly terrifying to most people he meets, and is it any wonder: he is described (roughly) as a six-foot tall man in a black gimp mask with a blade longer than he is tall. Certainly not a knight in shining armour, but he does have redemptive qualities that make him compelling to read. Much like the compellingly vile heroes of Ancient Greece (Ajax, Achilles and Agamemnon come to mind).

Severian is our ‘guide’ through this story, in one sense, though not an entirely reliable one. He does have his own guide too, that of Thecla, who in some ways, like Penelope, is symbolic of his deeper, better self. The anima of his soul (for our souls are said in Greek philosophy to be the opposite gender to our bodies). She is also a philosophical teacher, much like Virgil was to Dante. Thecla is the first person to introduce Severian to the tales of the old world in the ‘little brown book’ that she reads to him and subsequently bequeths him. Her wisdom and knowledge, the stories she imparts to him, prove a comfort and guide in his times of need. Though Thecla is no longer with him (in one sense), her voice continues to guide him throughout the events of the story. This becomes more literal later on, whereby ingesting the gland of the alzabo (a creature possibly hailing from another world) along with a piece of Thecla’s flesh, Severian absorbs her consciousness and becomes a dual self. He also gains her memories which become essential to infiltrating the citadel of the Autarch later in the story. Severian, in one sense, becomes a keeper of the dead.

The Book of the New Sun is many things. I have mentioned that in some ways it resembles a ‘rags to riches’ story, and I think at its heart that is the narrative that most resonates. At the end of the story, we revisit many of the locations and people that formed the early narrative in an unexpected yet heart-breaking return. It is this moment we realise ‘how far we have come’, how Severian has grown, now being at the highest eschalon of society, and how much has been lost and gained. It is a truly masterful turn from Wolfe – an Odyssey moment where the hero comes home. However, he subverts this. Whereas Odysseus’ home is more traditionally comforting (his loyal servants, his roaring hearth, his family, his loving wife), Severian’s ‘comforting’ return is to the torture cells of his old Guild tower. Somehow this is no less emotive.

However, despite this ‘rags to riches’ moment, it is undeniable that Severian’s journey into the north and south of his land feel like a traditional quest, with episodic encounters, recurring characters, and unexpected turns of fate. He even has a party of followers, which changes from time to time with the ebb and flow of the story. He winds up in a war against the Ascians, climbing Mount Typhon to meet with an Autarch of old, plumbing ruins filled with devolved man-apes, a captive prisoner of a renegade of the state, and a respected official in the city of Thrax far away from his home of Nessus, and much more besides. In essence, the scope of this story in a literal sense is immense. Underlying this are the thematic elements which are what truly make the story work and give it such powerful resonance. Severian describes a world to us that once knew interstellar travel, but which now regards technology as a kind of magic. The sun of the world is dying, fading to a dull red glow, the Urth dying with it. There is a prophecy, however, that one day the New Sun (which may in actuality be a New Son) will arise, causing Urth to be reborn and ushering in a new age of technological greatness. The New Sun, and the other quasi-deities that are worshipped in this strange future world are, in a way, the Muse which Severian invokes to tell this tale. They are the promise of a redemptive future and a new hope to which Severian has dedicated this tale of his life. Wolfe performs the invocation of the Muse within the universe and mindset of his character, never breaking the illusion he has created.

Through this lens, Wolfe is able to make all kinds of anachronistic observations of our world, as well as predictions about the worlds of the future and commentary on the past. Still, timeless themes prevail as well as political or sociological ones (the Ascians are certainly a commentary on Communism in the East, for example, only able to recite ‘approved’ scripture, yet an entire language is formed around this and Wolfe subverts expectations by having one of the most powerful framed narratives in the whole book told by an Ascian prisoner). Love and its antithesis is a big theme in this novel. Severian’s many encounters with women are often unwholesome and cause us to judge and condemn his repulsive behaviour; we are supposed to feel this way about them. Yet, these give way to moments of transcendent beauty and forgiveness too. Death and religion are also big themes. Severian is Death, in a sense, a man in black with an executioner’s blade stalking the land. Yet, he is also life, because he bears the Claw. He is, in some sense, an adjudicator, the ultimate judge with the power to give and take away. The world itself is dying, but there are also possible futures where it is renewed, and this is not only through technology but also a spiritual occurrence, the return of the Messianic Conciliator (New Sun). For some this hope is nothing but a faint delusion, but for others it is real. The power of religion to inspire and deceive is dealt with in equal measure. Ultimately, Severian’s beliefs shape the whole narrative, because as insightful as he is, he is blind to the truth about what he really is. Wolfe, I think, is making the point here that perhaps we all are.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a katabasis, a descent into hell. There are many instances where Severian descends into a kind of ‘land of the dead’, the first of which in The Shadow of the Torturer, significantly, is his pursuit of his dog through the tunnels beneath the Guild Tower, where he stumbles upon the forgotten Atrium of Time. In this place, he meets an eerie maiden, Valeria, and time itself seems to be stopped. You will not know it upon first reading, but his conversation with Valeria, much like Odysseus’ with Tiresias in Hades, is prescient, and foreshadows many events of the later narrative. Time remains a theme throughout The Book of the New Sun. Severian seemingly steps into the past in The Claw of the Conciliator via the incantations of the Cumean, a witch queen. He sees a strange ritual and sees a vision of a dead man: Apa-Punchau. He also experiences the horrifying rite at Vodalus’ camp whereby he eats the dead body of the woman he loves most in the world, Thecla, in order to absorb her consciousness. This is truly hellish, yet it leads to a moment of beauty in which Severian is, finally, re-united with the woman he lost. Nekyia is the Greek word for the rite by which the dead are summoned (e.g. necromancy), and here we see that rite not only allows Severian to see the dead but to keep them alive. [see my own ‘epic’ novel Nekyia if you’re interested in more on this theme]. In The Sword of the Lictor, Severian has many hellish encounters, including an assault on a keep overlooking Lake Diaturna, a keep occupied by a terrible giant. Within the keep, he sees many malformed experiments, twisted once-humans the giant has created, and which he must fight through. This ends with a frankly hair-raising confrontation with the giant himself which is almost reminiscent of the battle between Achilles and Hector. In the final book, The Citadel of the Autarch, Severian goes to war, finding himself amidst the horrors of the front, though this is not nearly so dramatic as his escape into the Corridors of Time, glimpsing the world behind the world.

Ultimately, The Book of the New Sun can easily be considered an epic. In its scope, pathos, style, structure and most of all: its protagonist. Wolfe has created a modern legend that is deeper than it appears on first glimpse, full of hidden meanings, subtexts, and secrets. Yet, it does not lose its narrative power or pace. Rather, each part augments the whole. Were our society to come to an end, and The Book of the New Sun be one of the only surviving fragments, no doubt whatever species discovered our ruination would be curious as to what incredible and convoluted hero it was that wrote such an account.

It has been a pleasure to bring you a fifth part of this series. I am always looking for more examples of modern epics, and while I have some thoughts myself, I quite enjoy taking your suggestions, as it introduces me to new material! Please, feel free to leave a comment with your suggestions for further epics or thoughts about The Book of the New Sun.

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Until next time, my friends!

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The Triumph of Death: 2000AD’s Iconic Dark Judge

 

Time and again, I keep returning to 2000AD’s Dark Judges. There’s something about them which is innately magical, and I don’t just mean their supernatural powers. They seem to have a life off the page. I find myself thinking about them, dreaming about them, and seeing parallel versions, alternate realities where they are darker, or sillier, more human or less. Like all the greatest villains, they actually don’t have that much ‘screen-time’. Darth Vader is only on screen for 12 minutes in A New Hope, yet in those minutes he left an indelible mark on our culture, so much so that the latter films Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi featured more and more of him, and the prequels were entirely dedicated to his back-story. Whilst this latter move was perhaps inadvisable, it goes to show the sheer impact that villains have on us, especially when they tap into some deep psychological meaning, when they become symbolic. Vader, of course, was the ultimate Freudian archetype of the ‘Dark Father’, the shadowy patriarch looming over the promising child, who must be overcome so that the child can be free.

The Dark Judges are a vision of the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse, a version of them, that seems undeniable. They are radical philosophers who have realised the ultimate truth of the universe: all crime is committed by the living, therefore life itself must be a crime. They are heralds of the end-times, dimension-killing fanatics, tasked with a holy mission to bring all existence to its end. They herald from the Deadworld, a dimension once like our own, now expunged of all life. But they are not just poor imitations of the horsemen. There is something unique about them. Perhaps it is their aesthetic; there’s something of the punk rock-band about them, with their skin-tight trousers, chains, black leathers, gothic regalia, and medieval helmets. Perhaps it is their wise-cracking – the stupid puns that contrast the very real horror of what it would be like to face such monstrous, psychotic, and immortal beings. I think it also has to do with the fact they are cops – that effectively the greatest threat to the universe, the thing which will destroy us all, is a team of over-zealous police-officers. With a little bit of voodoo thrown in too, of course.

It is all these things and more which makes the Dark Judges fascinating. The iconic hissing speech, which is almost parody; the twisted reasoning behind their actions (it’s a logical train of thought, isn’t it?); and the immense powers they wield, which are never quite enough to stop Judges Dredd and Anderson from defeating them. They have featured in some incredible stories, over the years, written and illustrated by some amazing writers and artists – and the stories are still coming – so, I want to look back at some of my favourite moments from across this rich history, and share with you some of my thoughts on what make these stories and panels so brilliant, in terms of symbolism, character, colour, and narrative. Let’s begin with Necropolis.

NECROPOLIS

Published in 1990, this 26-part epic tells the story of Death’s sisters: Nausea and Phobia, the two witches of the Deadworld who made him into the ‘super-fiend’, and their attempt to turn Mega City One into a necropolis, a city of the dead. The Judges do not, surprisingly, feature that much in this mind-blowing and disturbing tale, and in fact it is Judge Mortis who gets the most panel-time. But, at the very end of the story, as good begins to turn the tide and fight back, finally defeating the sisters and the other three Judges, there is an incredible scene with Judge Death, a moment of Macbethian grandeur as he realises the sum of his failings and decides to end all on his own terms. Here is the iconic series of panels:

John Wagner’s writing here is extraordinary. We see Death gripped by despair, the very emotion which has pervaded the graphic novel from its first panel. After witnessing countless broad-stroke scenes of mass suicide, slaughter, and utter moral degradation, we are now, bizarrely, made to feel this despair intimately, sympathetically, through the villain himself. In this moment, the telescopic narrative suddenly zooms in, focusing its lens on one character alone. What beautiful irony this is, on a near Shakespearean level, that it is in Death we feel pain and despair most vividly. The panel work, too, is illuminating. Carlos Ezquerra captures perfectly the sudden fear as Death casts himself from the precipice – “Necropolis no more” – and the sense of profound emptiness as he spins down into the depths of Mega City One. In a way, Carlos echoes Turner here, for Turner’s famous The Fall of Anarchy c. 1825-1830 (more popularly known as Death on a pale horse) depicts Death lying, dead, on his pale steed. Death has been defeated. Death is dead. In Necropolis, Death commits suicide, a deeply symbolic, perhaps even Christian metaphor. Death is overcome in the literal sense. There is no more end of life in the story once Judge Death is gone.

Death on a Pale Horse (?) c.1825-30 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05504

The colour work for Necropolis is, in general, quite profound. Unlike later 2000AD output, which had near photorealistic artwork, this simpler artstyle leant itself to more limited pallets. Hence, there are eerie contrasts and transitions throughout the story. The start of Necropolis is almost entirely rendered in greens and purples, often bleeding together into unpleasant necrotic hues. Here, at the end, we end in reds, yellows and whites. Notice too how, as Death falls, the colour hue lightens steadily, like blood draining from a corpse.

There is also a kind of intertextual joke in these panels. Death’s masterpiece is “incomplete”, and we too feel a sense that more was supposed to happen, that maybe this time the Dark Judges were supposed to win. After all, Judge Dredd, the alleged hero of the story, doesn’t appear until about halfway through. And Judge McGruder even remarks to the great Dredd: “You look like Judge Death” – as though their roles have been reversed. It’s as if we’re supposed to be rooting for the Dark Judges in some warped way. That, perhaps, is the magic I referred to earlier. The Dark Judges are, against all sane reasoning, likeable.

DIE LAUGHING

In 1998, we saw the culmination of several Judge Dredd-Batman crossover comics. The reviews of these were mixed, but I personally loved the work Alan Grant and John Wagner did during this time, particularly their collaboration on Die Laughing. Die Laughing was a zany gore-fest, with panels by Glenn Fabry so photo-real you could also smell the blood dripping from them. In contrast to these exceedingly visceral and dark panels, the Joker’s goofy humour – he becomes the Fifth Dark Judge and can explode heads by laughing – and the familiar wise-cracking of the Dark Judges is ramped up a notch.

There has always been an element of dark hilarity about Death. When, for example, in Boyhood of a Super-fiend, he describes his father as the most psychotic, sadistic, twisted individual… [pause]… a dentist! He mocks Judge Dredd for his doggedness, his sheer mono-dimensional incorruptibility. The slurred serpentine speech, and the odd politeness: “Greettinggsssss” go some way towards this as well. That grin of too-many-teeth, beneath the visored helmet, it is almost an acknowledgement of his own absurdity. Unlike the other Dark Judges, Fear, Mortis, and Fire, who take themselves seriously, Death recognises his own ridiculousness. And he sure enjoys “dispensing justice”, as he terms it. In a way, Judge Death and the Joker are two sides of the same coin, though Death is more of a religious zealot, and the Joker a court jester; seeing them together is interesting and challenging, and as a result, in parts of Die Laughing, we see a slightly different Judge Death. We see an over-confident one. But perhaps with good reason:

Feast your eyes on this double-page masterpiece! If ever there were call to re-use the title of Pieter Bruegel’s 16th century oil work, The Triumph of Death, is it here. Death emerges from the roil of blood and flesh, impaling two “sinneerrsss” with his iconic claws. In Necropolis we witnessed him at his most humane, recognising defeat. Here, he is utterly victorious, Death at his very Death-est. Like Hieronymous Bosche and Bruegel, Glenn Fabry captures the epic scale and minuatiae of hell-scapes. The religious influences are more than appropriate, for Death is not only a symbol of death, but also of Satan. Outcast from a kind of heavenly state – at one with the law and order of the world – for taking his philosophy too far, he now dispenses justice on the unrighteous. The setting of the hedonist’s Pleasure Dome for the action of Die Laughing was utterly inspired, for it represented his spiritual role, as well as also giving us, as readers, a grim sense of schadenfreude – a satisfaction in seeing others punished for misdeeds. Again, in a weird way, the writers align us with the Dark Judges. They are misunderstood anti-heroes, not really villains.

The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

THE FALL OF DEADWORLD (BOOK I)

Last year, 2017, we were treated to the first instalment of a new series by Kek-W and Dave Kendall: The Fall of Deadworld. This epic story will tell of how the Dark Judges came to conquer Deadworld and eventually enter the universe of Mega City One. What’s clear is that these two understand the Dark Judges, their fragility as well as their power, at a bone-deep level. Dave Kendall’s Goya-inspired panelling is possibly some of the most haunting and iconic yet produced by 2000AD. It really is magnificent to behold, capturing the profound weirdness of these almost-human characters with abyssal intensity. Even the “ordinary” people in Deadworld seem a bit off, as though they’ve started to go gangrene but haven’t realised it yet. There’s a rot behind it all, and as you read this tome, you can feel it taking hold of you too. There’s more than a healthy dose of Lovecraft in there, but it never overshadows the true heart of the story, the unique feeling which is the Dark Judges and 2000AD.

Kek-W has masterfully drawn on Stephen King for inspiration with the narrative; the anti-hero, Judge Fairfax, Judge Death’s favourite to become his fourth disciple, must protect the Child, a girl who dreams of being a Judge, who is prophesied to defeat Death. This new dimension to the story is electric, and both characters are ones who you deeply root for. More than any other Judge story, The Fall of Deadworld feels like true epic-fantasy. The setting of ancient Deadworld, where all the technology seems slightly outmoded against Mega City One’s (though still sci-fi) – facilitates this. Deadworld seems, too, to have much more potential than Earth for psychic occurrence, magic, and the supernatural. Here, the four Dark Judges are not the only fiends to contend with. There are other dark forces at work, and these new terrors add a delightful freshness to the story.

The Judges themselves seem to be stronger in their home-turf. Judge Fear, in particular, reclaims some of his lost face (pun intended) from being punched out by Dredd so often in the 80s. But more than that, the characters feel as rich and deep as they were always meant to be. At times, especially towards the latter end of the spectrum post-Wagner, the Judges had increasingly felt shallow, resorting to one-liners, comic relief, and often being dealt with in laughably easy ways. Now, they are back on form and one feels that this is finally it, this is the story where the bad guys get to win. And it ain’t gunna be a picnic, that’s for sure. We can be pretty sure that Deadworld will fall from what we’ve been told in so many other tales. And hell, it’s in the damn title. Of course, their victory may not be as absolute or sweet as we imagine, and I’m sure there are plenty of surprises in store. Book I of this series was full of many fascinating and unexpected subversions, new angles on old characters and ideas. Sometimes, it can be a joy to experience new hands on the wheel of your favourite car. This is one of those times.

I won’t show too much of The Fall of Deadworld, because I honestly think you must go out and get it yourself. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first foray into the Dark Judges, you’ll still get a huge kick. If anything, you might get a little more of a kick than a veteran, because you’ll see them for the first time in their full majesty. But I will talk a little about these two panels featuring Sydney De’Ath, AKA Judge Death before his full transformation, because they encapsulate his character to a tee.

Cruelty is something Sydney understands all too well from his terrifying childhood. As a Judge, of course, he has been conditioned to believe it is “admirable”, but what’s brilliant here, and completely in tune with his psychology, is that he would seek to rise above it – to use it for “good”, or his own version of it. The artwork reflects his inner complexity, with the ragged lines – suggesting he is old beyond his years – and the sunken eyes, as though he is withdrawing from humanity. The stark contrast (there is your Goya styling) between the pitch-dark backdrop and his pallid skin-tone makes it all the more unsettling. There is no crazy loon smile here. Not yet. He has not yet become the “fiend” in the literal sense.

Here, we see the beginnings of the grin, the dark hilarity that makes Judge Death so interesting and iconic. And it is notable it comes at the exact moment that Sydney pulls the trigger, the exact moment he ends a life. As well, the punchline, that the ‘e’ in his name (De’Ath) is actually silent, his humour emerging, like the first droplets from a cracked faucet. I almost cracked a grin myself when I saw this panel.

So, we begin a new journey into the dark heart of the apocalyptic judges, and I, for one, am very glad. The greatest myths are told and re-told, with many different hands and writers attempting to render them. In olden days, before copyright and the pervasive sense of ownership, writers shared much more readily. There were many versions of the same stories, all being told simultaneously. This is sometimes linked to the “oral tradition”, but really, it goes deeper than that. People intuitively knew that heroes, monsters, villains, narrative, did not belong to any one person. It belonged to the collective unconscious. The originator, whoever that might be, had found a way of tapping into the dream-language of the soul, into the root of things. We do this sometimes, often by mistake or seeming accident. We dream a dream. We sleepwalk into a discovery. We allow the raw tainted imagination of the cosmos to pour through some kinetic gateway into our consciousness. And some of these images and words are iconic, so much so they become archetypal, ever-speaking, and the Dark Judges are certainly in that category. Whilst they may not be as well known as, say, The Avengers or Justice League, they are in a league of their own for those who know of them. And growing. Even the Incredible Hulk cannot stand against Death itself in the long run. He might “smash” and break him, over and over, but the Dark Judge and his colleagues will keep crawling back, hisses frothing at those bulbous Mick Jagger lips, a smile showing tarnished teeth.

The real triumph of Death is not that he will win, but that the stories of his defeat will be told forever.

***

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Good Writers Turn Weaknesses Into Strengths

So often we talk about what good writers do well. Or what bad writers do badly. Or to perhaps be more even-handed: what makes good or bad pieces of writing what they are. We rarely talk about the sometimes chronic weaknesses even the greatest writers exhibit or how they turn these seemingly inhibitive habits or traits into some of the strongest aspects of their work. I think this is one of the most fascinating topics, and examining it can help us less well-known writers improve dramatically. Half of becoming good at anything, after all, is learning how to play to your strengths, and fight the battle on your terms. If you were facing off against someone in a boxing match, and they had an incredibly swift jab, it would be a mistake to try and punch faster than them. Rather, you might find another way around, perhaps maintaining a good distance so their jabs are useless, or else waiting for the jab to come before making any kind of offensive manoeuvre so you can catch it with a parry. The same applies to writing. Whilst we can always work on and improve our weaknesses, sometimes it is also pertinent to steer the writing away from areas we might struggle with.

Let’s start with the one-and-only Stephen King.

Stephen King, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last thirty years, is perhaps the greatest Horror writer alive today, and one of the most successful novelists of all time. His trademark is his compulsive un-put-downable prose style that drags you into its undercurrent like a vindictive ocean. However, despite King’s penchant for thrilling narrative and terrifying scenes, he is surprisingly indirect when it comes to unfolding his story. In fact, he loves to meander, sometimes going into literally hundreds of pages of sidebar for the sake of setting up his characters. For example, in 11.22.63, it is almost 250 pages, a third of the book, before we get to the main thrust of the narrative, in which our time-travelling protagonist meets the beautiful school-teacher Sadie back in the 60s. Imagine any other romantic novel in which the love interest was introduced so late… In The Stand, similarly, it is something like 600 pages before we even have all the heroes gathered in Boulder in order to prepare for the confrontation with Randall Flagg. Part of this is King’s self-professed discovery writing, feeling his way into the story by remaining emotionally true to his characters rather than planning his narrative arcs out at length. Another part of this, at least in my opinion, is that he is simply in love with his characters and cares more about their everyday humdrum than you might expect from a writer of fantasy.

You’d think that this tendency to get sidetracked, especially for a writer of genre fiction that necessitates a degree of plot and pace, would be career-crippling, but on the contrary, King has made it into a strength in many ways. Firstly, he uses these sidebars to build tension, which is essential for any Horror writer. He plants a seed of something sinister in our minds, then meanders off onto another topic: perhaps a mechanic fixing a car, or a kid playing with a paper boat in the rain, leaving us with this slowly growing dread as we sense something brooding out of the corner of our eye, something the ‘camera lens’ of the narrative refuses to focus on. Secondly, he uses it to deepen his characters so that we care. King said that horror is “rooted in sympathy” and so by taking his time to set up the people in his story and drawing us into their worlds, he makes the Horror, the tragedy, the tension all so much realer when we get to it. All good Horror movies, in fact almost any movie with real high-stakes storytelling, has to have that set up, that golden period before everything goes wrong. The Lord of the Rings is one of the best examples of this. Think how much time we spend in the Shire at the start of the book and films, how disproportionate it might seem in comparison with all the other important stuff that comes later and is so key to the narrative. But, without that time in the Shire and all the details of Bilbo’s birthday and this ludicrously pleasant and peaceful way of life, we cannot understand what is at stake, and even deeper, what Frodo must lose at the end.

Awareness is key. King is aware of what his genre requires and aware of his own style and his preferred way of writing it. What he’s done is found a way to draw the two together. He has made discovery writing and a habit of fleshing out seemingly mundane scenes into the perfect tool for creating intense horror.

Let’s look at another writer with a very different kind of weakness.

J. R. R. Tolkien, the creator of Middle Earth and its many languages, acclaimed Oxford scholar, author of The Lord of the Rings and numerous other best-selling works, has been accused time and again of simplistic storytelling. Michael Moorcook wrote a devastating essay on the topic in which he accused The Lord of the Rings as being no more stylistically worthy than Winnie the Pooh. It is perhaps for this reason that The Lord of the Rings has never been academically acclaimed, despite its enduring popularity, its mythological dimensions, and its undeniable power. Only now is The Lord of the Rings being studied at Universities in the UK but I would argue it is the very simplicity of Tolkien’s language that proves the driving strength of his narrative, and that gives it the incredible emotional payoff. Tolkien, it must be remembered, was an extraordinarily academic person, an expert in languages. He had an immense vocabulary at his disposal, however, he chose deliberately to write in a childlike, innocent way, forgoing long Latinate words that many of his Modernist contemporaries favoured and instead using the humbler Anglo-Saxon words as his foundation. What emerges is a prose-style that is unlike any other, and quite simply heartbreaking in its innocence.

Naivety is something publishers often reject upcoming writers about (I’ve been rejected for it myself) and the success of gritty stories such as Martin’s Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire as the book series is called) reinforces this view that we want more violence, more sex, more horror, more realism. Tolkien, however, defies the idea that readers/viewers want gratuity, turning what might appear to be naivety into an astonishing purity, something so intertwined with the narrative that the story would literally have been impossible to tell without it. Think, for a moment, what The Lord of the Rings might have been like if halfway through we were treated to a graphic sexual scene between Aragorn and Arwen because “that’s what couples do”? Actually, it’s probably not wise for me to ask this question of the internet; invariably this has already been pictured at great length in some dark corner of the web… but you see what I’m saying about how that kind of grittiness would destroy the beauty and myth of their relationship?

The final scene at the Grey Havens is so moving because of the elegiac simplicity of the prose, as well as the simplicity of the story itself. Frodo and Sam’s relationship is heartwarmingly true, truer than almost any other friendship in the history of fiction, and so to see it ended, when seemingly nothing should now stand in the way of them growing old together, is almost unbearably sad. But then there is also hope, hope that Frodo might finally find rest. The Christian message at the end is pretty unmissable – and is another reason The Lord of the Rings comes under fire from the likes of Moorcock – but Tolkien here exposes, at least to my mind, a profound truth: regardless of what our rational beliefs are, any sane person desires that catharsis, that hope for something beyond death, beyond parting with loved ones, beyond the sorrow of the world, beyond pain and grief. People of extraordinarly widely ranging beliefs are still moved by what George R. R. Martin called the “bittersweet” ending of LOTR, and I think its because Tolkien taps in to how desperately we crave this better world, even if we think it’s fantasy.

Tolkien was no stranger to grittiness. He fought in World War I and returned home with trench-fever and shellshock, taking nearly a year to recover. He lived through World War II also. He was one of the last British soldiers ever to ride a horse into battle (and now you see why those cavalry scenes are so well done). He knew about grittiness, and there are moments where we get hints of it, such as when Frodo and Sam sit on the “blasted heath”, within view of Mordor, listening to the sound of fatal drumming in the distance. Does this sound like a soldier waiting on the hill, listening to bombs dropping in the distance? Less can be more, and Tolkien certainly makes it so. Tolkien’s prose has far broader appeal in some ways because it is less graphic. We populate the battle scenes with our own sense of what fighting looks like (although with the advent of the films we now most likely visualise these scenes). We populate the romance with our own degree of intimacy. And we feel the story at the deep level of a childhood fable, one that sticks with us and shapes us for all time.

Whereas King uses his “weakness” to enhance the effects he’s trying to achieve and work within his genre, Tolkien used his “weakness” to resonate on a deeper emotional level.

I’m now going to go back even further back in time and talk about the legendary poet John Milton.

This weakness, I believe, did not so much derive from the writing itself but from his personal circumstances.

Milton wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost published in 1667, depicting the war in heaven and the fall of human kind at the hands of Satan, who is, bizarrely, the hero of the narrative (or one of them). Milton is sort of going out of vogue at the moment. His writing could be described as a polar opposite to Tolkien: Latinate, extravagant, borderline bombastic. His language is difficult to access for those who have not read Greek and Roman literature, and he re-tells a Christian story in a very explicitly Christian way. Or so it seems. I actually believe the perception of Milton as a “stuffy academic” is completely false, because Paradise Lost ripples with sensual subversion, scenes of haunting sexual and violent intensity, and problematic morality. For one thing, Satan is a figure of empathy in the story, one who heroically defies the tyrannical God, using every ounce of his cunning to subvert the natural course of the universe and bring humanity to its knees. Is this the work of someone enamored of the status-quo? Methinks not.

As it stands, I do not believe that Milton’s taste for high-styling and complex writing was his weakness at all, though some would argue this was the case. Instead, I would argue it was something simpler and more overt: Milton was blind. Partway through writing Paradise Lost, he lost his sight. At the key moment, when he most needed vision, he was unable to see. For most writers, this would have proved a fatal blow. How could you compose poetry without the ability to see the text in front of you, or, to look out into the natural world and draw inspiration? But Milton found the strength to go on, and, helped by his daughter who transcribed his spoken composition, he finished the work. In the below extract from Book III of Paradise Lost, we see how Milton breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader about the absence of his sight and calling on God and the angels to give him a different kind of sight, an inner vision. Effectively, he kindles his own imagination, knowing that he can no longer draw on the world around him in the same way:

Thus with the Year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev’n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature’s works to mee expung’d and ras’d,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

In this astonishingly moving extract we see quite clearly how Milton turned his disadvantage into an advantage. He dispensed with the real and conjured pure imaginative thought. I think it’s fairly safe to say, like it or not, that he succeeded. Paradise Lost is one of the most richly vivid, visual, image-laden pieces of writing ever produced.

So, there you have it. Three writers who, in very different ways, turned their very weaknesses into astonishing triumphs of power and imagination.

Let’s open it up! What weaknesses do you think certain writers have and how do they overcome them? Let’s keep it respectful, peaceful and interesting; looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Au revoir,

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