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)
Gods of the Black Gate (2018)
Beyond The Black Gate (2019)