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Entering Carcosa Part 2: Metal Gear Solid

Welcome back to Carcosa, mortal! In this continuation of my series on the modern epic, we’ll be discussing one of my favourite stories of all time. I hope that in reading this analysis, you will see places where you can draw from this rich well for your own work, and find ways to expand your narrative from ordinary to epic. So, let us begin.

It’s no secret to those who know me that I love Hideo Kojima’s legendary Metal Gear Solid series. But one of the reasons I love it so much is that I consider it a modern epic. Video-games have delivered some of the most iconic stories and characters of the last thirty years. They stand on their own as valid artistic works. Not only that, but they culturally connect with a vast, vast number of people in a way that films and poetry increasingly don’t. Statistics have shown more young people play games than watch films. In some ways, films have become a cinephile niche, save for the one or two major blockbusters that draw colossal numbers. Whilst games are anchored with technology (therefore it becomes more difficult to play older titles as technology advances), this is no different from how epics are anchored to language. Who now speaks Ancient Greek? Very few among us, except perhaps within Greece itself, where it is compulsory and they are aided by the affinity of their modern language with the ancient one. Yet, The Odyssey can be read and enjoyed in translation around the world. So, too, can Metal Gear Solid be enjoyed in English (translated from the original Japanese) and by those with older consoles, emulators or even by those willing to purchase premium ‘remasters’ of the game that overhaul graphical fidelity and allow games to be played on later consoles. Of course, there is irony in this, as Metal Gear Solid is itself an exploration of technology and its relentless advance; the eponymous ‘Metal Gear’ represents a threat to the world, a mobile robotic walker capable of launching a nuke from anywhere.

I believe Metal Gear Solid has surpassed pretty much all other video-games in terms of its storytelling. This is because it reaches for that lofty trophy of the epic. Kojima-san is someone who clearly, intuitively, understands what constitutes an epic, and how to execute it. Tackling tremendous themes such as nuclear proliferation and the horrors of modern warfare alongside subtle emotional complexities such as the sins of parenthood (especially fatherhood), friendship and love, the epic scope cannot be questioned. He has learned from Western and Eastern masters alike, and synthesised the best of both to create something truly unique. Despite his cinematic leanings, Kojima-san uses a 5 Act structure in most of his stories (overtly dividing Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots with five title screens). This undoubtedly takes its precedence from Greek tragedy and the work of Shakespeare, themselves epic influences.

In creating Solid Snake, Kojima-san has created an iconic epic hero, rivalling the greats of cinema such as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name or Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken (off whom Solid Snake was certainly based). But how does Snake fit the epic archetype? Well, he’s a clone for a start (his unusual origin, royal genealogy and unusual power in one), inheriting the inferior genes of Big Boss, a legendary special operative gone rogue. Even though he has inherited the ‘inferior’ genes, Snake is not to be dismissed: his abilities are super-human, with lightning-fast reflexes and above-average toughness and strength. He inherently has a sense of right and wrong, of justice, even though he has been trained to kill from an early age. In a cold yet heartbreaking moment of self awareness, he says: ‘Unfortunately, killing is one of those things that gets easier the more you do it.’

Left: Snake Plissken from John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York”, played by Kurt Russel / Right: Venom Snake from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Snake uses specialist kit – including stealth camouflage, nano-machines, and high-tech weaponry – employed by only the most elite military units (magical equipment). His clone origin means he was not raised by his true parents (orphaned), but instead trained from birth to be part of FOXHOUND. Jokingly, Snake believes his smoking addiction to be his major flaw, but this is superseded by his real physical weakness which is a form of Werner’s disease, a byproduct of his artificial creation, leading to extremely accelerated ageing. In an emotional sense, Snake’s tragic flaw is his inability to form true human relationships, his lack of trust, meaning that even those closest to him feel they don’t know him. It is only by overcoming this weakness, trusting his friends, that he can defeat his nemesis Liquid Snake, his clone brother, at the close of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. It should be noted that the fourth instalment in the game’s series is actually the last one chronologically. Like a true epic, Metal Gear Solid’s story is told out of order. In terms of narrative chronology, the ‘first’ game is Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, followed by V, followed by 1, then 2, then 4.

Kojima-san’s invocation to the Muse is not a one time thing, but an ever-present trope through the series, in that he auteuristically homages movies and television that have informed his work. The style and characters of Metal Gear Solid are heavily influenced by John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, and many scenes reference and recall this iconic cult-classic, including one scene in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in which Snake, asked to reveal his identity, gives the codename: Iroquois Plissken. In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, there are many uses of the ‘split-screen’, showing multiple threads of action at once, which is almost certainly a direct homage to the American TV series 24 which aired its first series 7 years prior to MGS4. 24 has many obvious thematic and plot similarities with Kojima-san’s work (spies, espionage, terrorism, how war breaks down human relationships). Later, Kiefer Sutherland, who plays 24’s legendary agent Jack Bauer, would voice Venom Snake in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and go on to collect an award (Game of the Year) on behalf of Hideo Kojima when Konami, the developer Kojima-san previously worked for, refused to allow him to attend the ceremony. Here, the Muse is not only invoked but becomes part of the story. There is direct interplay between inspiration and output.

The split-screen action culminates in Metal Gear Solid 4 in one of the most iconic gaming scenes of all time, a scene in which the player must force Solid Snake through a microwave emitting corridor in order to disarm Liquid’s all-pervading digital control system, a system which will give him absolute control over warfare across the globe. On one screen, we see Snake literally coming apart at the seams, the microwaves frying musculature and braincells. On the other, we see his friends, Otacon, Raiden, Meryl, Johnny, Dreben, Mei Ling, fighting for their very lives against impossible odds. This scene is brilliant because it forces us to watch beloved characters fall, their last resistance against Liquid’s superior armies crumbling before our eyes, giving us all the incentive we need to force Snake on, even though he himself, a character we have known and loved for 20 years, is falling apart. Through its framing, it becomes a culmination of seemingly every war ever fought, the entirety of human suffering, condensed into a 5 minute sequence. The further we push Snake down that corridor, the worse it gets. In the background, a piece of music aptly entitled ‘Love Theme’ plays with sorrowful, funereal strength. Snake’s love is what sets him apart from his clone brothers Liquid and Solidus, and his corrupted father Big Boss. Although he is not perfect, he is more human than all of them. Broken, aged, he gives everything, redefining heroism for our era.

Kojima-san’s games subvert the tropes of video-games, that of killing to win, by forcing the player to focus on stealth and espionage. Avoidance of conflict is the solution, and this is reflected in the gameplay as well as in the cinematic storytelling; at the end of the series, it’s about passively enduring something un-endurable. He takes his influence from the Japanese writer Kobo Abe, who wrote: ‘The rope and the stick are two of humankind’s oldest tools. The stick to keep evil at a bay, the rope to bring that which is good closer, both were the first friends conceived by humankind. The rope and stick were wherever humankind was to be found’ (The Rope). The idea is that we use the stick to destroy things, and this is the predominant narrative focus of most games, movies and books, but there is an alternative path – that of the rope. Kojima-san discussed this philosophy at length an article for Rolling Stone. This not only subverts video-game tropes, but epic ones. In The Odyssey and The Iliad, killing is at the heart of the narrative, and is the method by which the heroes overcome most of their problems. Whilst the violence is not always justified or portrayed in a positive light (in a tragic scene in The Odyssey, Odysseus ‘weeps’ to hear Achilles described like a ‘human being’), it nonetheless proves the ultimate solution. Kojima-san creates an epic in which violence is a tragic reality, but not the ultimate resort of the true hero. Snake rises above violence in entering the corridor. He can’t fight the corridor, he simply must survive it, crawling on his belly (like a snake) to reach the end.

Stylistically, the use of the split-screen and music to generate such emotion is certainly epic. It has grandeur, ambition, and homages other epic tales that have gone before it. Like Orpheus, who was told never to look back as he walked from hell with the soul of his wife behind him, Snake cannot look back down the corridor. If he does, he will weaken and turn back. He must keep going forward through hell itself and trust his friends can hold just long enough. Similarly, epic catalog is employed frequently through the Metal Gear Solid series. Endless names, ranks, numbers, data, historical events, political treaties, technology and more are described and referenced, and you can call your allies on your Codec to get more information at any time. Military acronyms, tech-jargon, cutting edge science, are spliced with rich philosophy and poetic sentiment: ‘I’m a shadow that no light will shine upon,’ Snake says, ‘As long as you follow me, you will never see the day.’ Not only do the characters speak in weighty monologues rich with extended metaphor and double-meaning, but the names of the characters themselves are a kind of extended metaphor. Snake is told to ‘crawl on his belly’ by Vulcan Raven in Metal Gear Solid 1, an insult referring to his codename and the fact he spends a lot of time, well, crawling around like the sneaky agent he is. But later we are told that ‘A name means nothing on the battlefield’. Snake is not really a snake, he is a human being.

Snake finds himself frequently descending into hell. In Metal Gear Solid 1 this is perhaps best expressed. Snake must infiltrate a secret base in the depths of freezing Alaska called Shadow Moses. Cut off from help, struggling to survive in hypothermia-inducing temperatures, the stark landscape, concealing layers and layers of military facility which he must literally descend into, becomes a kind of hell. It is even cold, much like Dante’s Inferno is at its absolute abyssal inverse-apex on the Ninth Circle. Hell literally freezes over. In Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater we follow Big Boss (Solid and Liquid Snake’s forbearer) as a young, naive soldier (not the jaded villain we know from later parts of the narrative) as he journeys into a kind of Heart of Darkness, a 1960s Soviet jungle. ‘Hell is murky’, Lady Macbeth claims in one of Shakespeare’s iconic monologues. This is eminently true of the jungle we explore in the game. But in a breathtaking scene where Big Boss must throw himself down a sheer cliff into a river to escape Soviet prison, we enter a more literal hell. Big Boss seems to die, and begins wading down a river in the dark. Suddenly, he meets the deceased member of the elite Cobra Unit, The Sorrow. The Sorrow summons the dead against Big Boss, forcing him to experience the suffering he has inflicted on others. In a brilliant twist, Kojima engineers the game so that every person you have killed confronts the player, in exactly the state you killed them. There are soldiers burning forever, clutching at slit throats, riddled with bullet-holes. It’s harrowing and punishing. The more people you’ve killed, the longer the sequence goes on for. This is true katabasis.

In terms of a guide, I’ve already mentioned a few who help Snake throughout his missions. The most significant is Snake’s friend Otacon, who takes his name from the Japanese word ‘Otaku’, which means ‘geek’. He’s an anime fan, a kind of sly wink-nod to the audience playing the game, who will most likely be fans of Japanese culture and anime themselves. He’s a cowardly scientist (pissing himself with fear the first time we meet him), but extremely intelligent, loyal, and kind. Although arguably he displays a different kind of bravery to Snake’s, trying to help undo the terrible wrongs of helping to create Metal Gear, even though he knows he will face consequences for betraying his former masters.

Metal Gear Solid is an incredible tale, told over twenty years. It’s a miracle that Kojima-san got a chance to tell it. And while his last efforts were partially scuppered by Konami at the very end (MGSV: The Phantom Pain is unfortunately unfinished – Kojima’s original plans for it would have brought the series full circle with a beautiful closing arc, but sadly this was not to be), the series still holds up without any major gaps in the tale. Epics, after all, are notorious for being left unfinished anyway. It’s part of the risk in undertaking such a vast story. Virgil’s Aeneid was half finished. On his deathbed, the Roman poet commanded it to be burned because he was disappointed with it, but the Emperor decreed that it be saved. Strangely, though Virgil had another 12 books (chapters) planned, the poem ends at a perfect, spine tingling point: ‘Turner’s soul fled murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night’ – the soul of the antagonist finally going down to hell, defeated. Similarly, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen was purportedly half completed when he died, and yet it ends at a moment that to me perfectly encapsulates the transition from the era of the heroic and epic into the modern day, when the Blatant Beast, a creature that destroys art and sincerity, escapes from captivity to roam the world again.

But of course, the Blatant Beast cannot truly destroy beauty in the world, because there will always be epic poets, and epic stories worth telling, we simply have to look for them. Whilst epics always bridge the gap between past and present, they do not have to be backward looking, or rehashes. They can be bold, different and unique – and they can be modern. We like to think the Ancient Greeks could never have conceived of the idea of a giant walking robot with nuclear capability, but what then is Talos, the gigantic iron guardian who attempts to halt Jason and the Argonauts? Resonant imagery is eternal, echoing down through time, through generations, finding new ways of expression that are concurrent with the era we live in. At the same time, epics cause us to reconsider the world around us and our culture. Metal Gear Solid, while undoubtedly a story of war, is also its sincerest critic. It tells us that the epic is still alive and well, and that heroism exists, but not in the way we think.

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We’ve now come to the end of part 2 of this series. I do hope you enjoyed it. In part 3, we’ll look at our second example of a ‘modern epic’, an ambitious collaborate narrative work… If you want to find out more, or ask me any questions, feel free to leave a comment on my website, or to message me on Twitter!

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Until next time, my friends!

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Entering Carcosa Part 1: The Epic Isn’t Dead

Hello and welcome to a new four-part series, Entering Carcosa, by your friendly neighbourhood Mindflayer! In this series, I’ll be discussing what defines an epic, how they’re changing in the modern world, and I’ll explore ways in which you can shape your own epic narrative. My aim with this series is to inspire people to engage with more epics, to widen the discussion of epics to include other mediums such as video-games and serializations, and to lastly, perhaps most importantly, aid people wanting to write one themselves. So, let us begin.

Throughout time and culture, one artistic pursuit has, by and large, been held in regard above all others. This is the creation of an ‘epic’. Narrative is central to human ideology, identity, and our relationship with the world around us, it helps us make sense of things, processing both our external and internal worlds. At its deepest level, it is healing. The act of writing is therapy, catharsis, liberation. And core to the literary heart of so many cultures, peoples, tribes, religions and countries throughout the ages is the concept of an epic. A story that is greater than other stories. A story that operates on an entirely other scale. These are some of the most powerful and healing stories of all time. To write one is one of the highest forms of artistic achievement. But rarely is one written purely for praise and honour and bragging rights. They are written from a deep place. They can only be written from that deep place, which is why so many of them begin with an invocation to gods, or the Muses, or even human sources of inspiration. To write an epic is to shake the soul of a person.

Now, I can’t teach you how to write an epic. I’m not sure that’s even possible. I maintain I can teach anyone to write and that everyone has one story in them, but I’m not sure I believe everyone has an epic in them. An epic is a one in a million. An epic is lightning bottled. However, having studied epics for a long time, I think I can give you some steering on what they involve, how they work, and give you examples of recent modern and accessible works that use epic tropes. These will act like Muses in themselves, guiding your path. From there on, it’s all you. But if you really feel you have an epic in you and you’re reading this, I’m telling you: You have to write it. We need epics, like we need food, water, air. Yes, that’s not melodrama. Without them, we wither. Culture withers, human relationships wither, our sense of who we are and what life means withers. Stephen King said that art is a support system for life. Never were truer words spoken. Science helps us to live. Art gives us a reason to.

So, let’s start with an overview and go from there. Are you excited? I’m excited. I hope you have a pen and notepad ready.

OVERVIEW

Traditionally, the epic is relayed in poetic form. Some were performed by the poet, or upon a theatrical stage. Some were set down. Either way, the epics of the past are unified in poetry, although the poetic form they might be expressed in differs drastically. In recent years, it seems there has been a tailing off of epic poems, although they are certainly still being written in our time. One such example being my own father’s astounding work The English Cantos: a modern journey into hell recounting his experience in Bournemouth Hospital battling cancer. It is penned in fluid terza rima, homaging Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first three Cantos of this amazing poem have been published by the Society of Classical Poets, and are available to read for free. He continues to write it, aiming to publish 33 cantos in total. This work in progress is what I would call a poem penned in the ‘true epic style’. It tackles the issues of modernism, the disintegration of moral values and the meaninglessness of a modern world driven by profit and gratification. It uses many of the epic tropes: the invocation of the muse (calling on Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry specifically), the wise guide (in my father’s case, Dante himself, the poet who perhaps best explored hell before him), and the katabasis, the descent into hell itself.

My father is not the only one to attempt an epic poem. In the last decade, many ‘new’ epic attempts have emerged, including Tim Miller’s To the House of the Sun and Apocalypse by Frederick Turner. But, it’s safe to say that these are obscure works, not popularly known as the epics of Homer, Dante, and Milton would have been in their day, confined to study by poetry-nerds (such as my father and I) concerned with this ‘niche’. In fairness, my father’s epic is being fairly widely read, partly due to its accessibility in terms of theme (we all feel the dearth of this era), style (it is beautifully written in form that propels the narrative on, as opposed to many other modern poems written in formless free-verse), and its publication online which allows anyone to read it. However, poetry in general is not the pick of the day. How many people can truly say they regularly read poetry? It has become a niche of a niche, a subset of writing itself, whereas once it was the entire aim of it.

The long and short is, unless you are a poet of considerable experience reading this, I think it’s highly unlike you’d want to attempt an epic poem. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, of course. If you’re that way inclined, go for it. Poetry will never die. There will always be poets, and poetry, and it will always have validity. You see, epics are a bridge between past and present. Often, they refer back to a past time, but use modern language to describe it. Similarly, most epics are written when the language is young or even unformed.

To get specific, it’s thought that when Homer penned The Iliad, the first of his two major known works, around 750 BC, that the Greek language had not formally been set down prior to his writing of that book. In a way, writing The Iliad, was a way to document the rules, vocabulary and possibility of the language. In short, The Iliad may have served a dual function as an extremely beautiful grammar book. It covered the full spectrum of linguistic potential, and concretised much of the spelling and punctuation. Similarly, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales after the invasion of the Normans and the influx of French words into the language which broadened the ‘primitive’ vernacular tongue of Anglo Saxon into what scholars refer to as ‘Middle English’. Before then, the language was limited to predominantly Germanic-influenced words. Chaucer introduced Latinate and French words (and some others too) in penning his epic, vastly increasingly the potential of the language. Whilst Anglo Saxon had been around for a while, it went through an evolution when he wrote The Canterbury Tales.

This would happen again and again, particularly in English, perhaps because the language was just so darn pliable. Edmund Spenser would pen his beautiful epic fantasy romance The Faerie Queene after the language had leapt forward again in the 16th Century, eschewing many of its clunky qualifiers and taking on board many Italian poetic techniques. Shakespeare would then advance the language much, much further – only forty or so years later. In fact, we can track a distinct evolution of language through Shakespeare’s work from his early, quite archaic plays such as The Comedy of Errors, which is written in a more medieval style, right up to Hamlet, which opens with the line: ‘Who’s there?’ – practically modern English. By the time Shakespeare was done with the language, adding a plethora of words, expressions and neologisms to the dictionary, the language was unrecognisable and infinitely closer to the language we speak today. In the 17th Century, Milton was able to pen his epic Paradise Lost using an ‘argumentative’ stylein keeping with the cultural changes brought on by the Protestant Reformation (which in turn coincided with the boom of literacy and printing presses). This included the idea of religious debate in vernacular language. It opened up many wide possibilities for Milton make political and theological points within his work in a way never hitherto attempted. For example, this from the first book:

‘What in me is dark / Illumin, what is low raise and support; / That to the highth of this great Argument / I may assert Eternal Providence, /And justifie the wayes of God to men.

Just pick out the words: ‘argument’, ‘assert’, ‘justify’ – the language of a legal associate going through her case opening. But this, married and juxtaposed with the stunning, heart-breaking imagery, and the depth of incredible feeling, is what makes Paradise Lost work. So, you see, when the language evolves, it often provides new, fertile ground for writers to pen an epic. Once the ground has been well-trodden, it’s very difficult indeed to write one. And whilst our modern language is certainly changing and evolving, I’m not sure it’s changing in such a way that facilitates the writing of an epic. Normally, it is when a language expands that new possibilities for another level of storytelling emerge. However, I’d argue that many changes to our language now are merely to increase its basic functionality and efficiency. Text-speak, abbreviations, emojis. There’s nothing wrong with these (and many epics contain phrases and conflations which would have been known to people of the time), but too many of them makes writing at a feeling level difficult, because they are ultimately mechanical, designed to conserve space and time.

But does this mean the epic is dead? No, I believe it is far from it. Over the course of this series, I want to talk about what a modern epic looks like, specifically focusing in depth on three ‘epics in spirit’ that take on the tropes of the epic but express them in modern forms. These are perhaps genres or mediums you would not immediately think of when considering the ‘epic’. I hope analysing them will inspire and steer you on your course to attempting your own. There is a certain mythos, a Holy Grail allure to writing an epic, that is tantalising to almost all writers. So why not? After all, the Grail Quest is as much about the journey as the end result. Attempting it is, itself, an achievement. What the hell have we got to lose?

To conclude part 1, I’m going to run you through what I deem to be the six key tropes of the epic. There are many more than six tropes, of course. Some of the ones I will not be covering today include the ‘extended argument’ (characters, or even one character internally, debating an important or weighty theme in great detail), nationalism (many epics purport to detail the genesis of a people, even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) or macrologia (playing with scale and size). Sadly, we do not have time to cover everything, and I’ve chosen to focus on the six ones I believe are most important to defining what an epic is and more importantly how it feels.

In parts 2 – 4, I’m going to talk about my three modern examples, and how they play with and use these tropes. Note, whilst the novel undoubtedly facilitates epic writing and epic stories, I actually don’t want to focus on the novelin its basic form too much (save in overview), because I want to get on to some more unusual examples. I think sometimes it’s easier to find inspiration from genres outside our own, and I know many of you reading this will be writing novels and avid novel-readers. Similarly, I think film is again a too obvious example, so I’ll be avoiding discussing movies, except in terms of references, stylings and allusions. So, without more ado, let us begin…

(1) DEFINING EPICS – SCOPE & SUBJECT MATTER

Part of the epic is this idea of scope. Vast, complex stories with huge casts of characters. Novels, needless to say, facilitate this rather well, as they are not restricted by factors such as audience attention-span or memory (readers can put down the book and then pick it up again – they don’t have to sit through a four-hour movie). Many obvious examples of epic novels spring to mind (I’m sure you have some too). For me, Stephen King’s The Stand has to be one, with its length, breadth of characters, and theme (subject) – the timeless battle of good and evil. Another, I would argue, is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In fact, Tolkien intentionally set out to write the ‘unwritten epic’ of the modern English language. After all, the English people had adopted the Greek and Italian epics (with Homer, Virgil & Dante), or alternatively Christian frameworks (Milton & Spenser). Tolkien wanted to create something that uniquely belonged to us, and I think it’s fairly safe to say he achieved it. In terms of recent entries, I recommend you check out Anna Smith Spark’s incredible Empires of Dust series, which is written in a fresh yet epic style that has a flavour of The Iliad’s blood-drenched intensity.

Scope and subject matter go hand in hand. Milton spent a long time thinking about what the subject of his epic would be, because he knew it would determine all the possibilities of his story. One theme he contemplated writing about was the Arthurian myths, though this had already been partly done by Edmund Spenser and Chaucer, the former of which was one of his inspirations. Eventually, Milton settled on the Christian Fall of Mankind. It should be noted that epic subjects do not always have to be original. Milton’s poem drew heavily from, of course, the Bible, but also from Anglo Saxon/Old English poetry that re-told the story of Adam and Eve to align the Christian stories with Pagan values (Genesis A & B). The Anglo Saxon poems of Genesis A & B make Eve into a complex character, seduced by knowledge, tricked by Lucifer’s superior powers, and ultimately sympathetic, as opposed to many earlier Christian narratives that blamed her for mankind’s misstep. Milton hugely incorporated this in his own re-telling. Shakespeare drew most of his stories from Roman or Greek plays, or history, and reworked the narratives to suit his ends. The long and short is that with the epic, it is as much the telling of the tale as anything else. But, you need a tale that is going to provide you with enough scope to reach epic heights.

(2) DEFINING EPICS – STYLE

Epics have a certain style about them. It is often called the ‘elevated’ style. It conveys grandeur and scale and significance. Pulling this off without sounding pompous is very difficult and something every epic writer has struggled with for millennia.

Epics are often told out of order, with a device called in media res, a Latin phrase meaning quite literally: ‘in the middle of the thing’. The stories start mid-action and work backwards and then forwards, allowing for incredible resonances and webworks of emotional complexity to be developed in a way that is more sophisticated than standard narratives.

Another part of epic style is what is called ‘epic catalog’, what I affectionately term the ‘roll call’, the listings of endless ranks, positions, people, places, events, times, dates, and items. Epics have scope, remember, and they can increase their scope by listing minutiae to give the reader a sense that this is a detailed and real world. In The Iliad, we don’t just know who the main actors are, we also know who practically every damn soldier in the Greek armada is. Many fantasy novels use this trope poorly, resulting in podgy prose that is laborious to wade through. When done well, it creates a sense of excitement and scale and three-dimensionality.

Finally, a key part of this style is the ‘extended metaphor’. Elaborate metaphors and similes, as well as comparisons, that are more developed and in-depth than standard imagery. Epics are beautiful, and should evoke beauty even in their most horrifying moments. Part of the way they can do this is with extended metaphor and beautiful imagery. They elevate an image to something else entirely.

(3) DEFINING EPICS – INVOCATION TO THE MUSE

Epics must invoke the Muse, because they are not simply stories written from the brains of writers, but divinely inspired. Epics often open, or at some point feature, a calling upon a divine entity to aid in the recital of the poem.

(4) DEFINING EPICS – THE HERO / HEROINE

The hero or heroine of an epic is often defined in very specific ways. They are:

  • often from an unusual place or land
  • they have an unusual power
  • they usually have a sense of justice (even if it is a warped one, such as Satan in Paradise Lost)
  • they possess magical weapons or equipment
  • in some way royal, or dispossessed of something that belongs to them
  • often orphaned or not raised by their true parents
  • lastly, they possess a tragic flaw, a weakness

(5) DEFINING EPICS – THE GUIDE

The hero is often guided by either another hero that has gone before them or a sage guide or counsellor. Odysseus, in Homer’s The Odyssey, is guided by the goddess of wisdom Athena. Dante is guided by Virgil in hell (and in turn my father is guided by Dante in his version of hell)! Adam is (mis)guided by Satan in Paradise Lost. Satan himself is guided by Chaos. The list goes on and on.

(6) DEFINING EPICS – KATABASIS

All heroes must descend into hell. Hence, the title of this series: Entering Carcosa. This is arguably the most important aspect of the epic, in my humble view. The hero proves himself/herself above all normal heroes or normal stories by surviving hell itself, whether literally or figuratively, is up to the writer to decide.

So, these are the six key tropes of epic literature. You have now had a potted history of predominantly Western poetic literature (as much as I would love to discuss the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, or the Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, there is simply not time – nor am I sufficiently qualified to speak on these). This should, however, give us a background to launch into discussing our first ‘modern epic’ next week, which in fact hails from Japan. Until then, adieu!

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We’ve now come to the end of part 1 of this series. I do hope you enjoyed it. In part 2, we’ll look at our first example of a ‘modern epic’, a famous video-game series… If you want to find out more, or ask me any questions, feel free to leave a comment on my website, or to message me on Twitter!

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Until next time, my friends!

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The Cathedral of the Deep Part 3: The Gothic Ending

And we’re back! Like a slippery thing from the grave, the Cathedral of the Deep series returns for its third installment. Thank you to everyone who sent me kind messages about these talks; it was wonderful to hear how the classes had benefited writers and helped them finish stories they were struggling with, or given them ideas for new stories!

To recap, in parts one and two of this talk, we looked at how we can define Gothic, and how to write a Gothic opening, respectively. We covered the four key elements of Gothic: mood, architecture, religion, and lyricism. We also looked at opening lines, and how they work in relation to the rest of a piece. We also looked at the five act structure.

Today, we will specifically be looking at endings, which is the fifth act of the five act structure: catharsis. Catharsis is something that is quite difficult to grasp without a concrete definition. The Oxford dictionary defines it as: “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.” The secondary definition is “purgation”. I think the word “release” is most helpful here. Catharsis is the moment of “release” at the end of a film, poem, story, piece of music, whatever the medium is. We have experienced something terrible, something that has taken a hold of us, and then are freed from it, often through tears.

Now, in order to talk about catharsis and endings, I’m going to need to talk about plot, so inevitably I’m going to be spoiling certain shows, books, and stories. There’s no way around it. So, steel yourselves friends! Spoilers are coming!

LOSS & GAIN

Before we can talk about catharsis, we need to talk more broadly about how endings work. I’m going to give you one of my best-ever pieces of advice for ending a story – any story. It’s from Tristine Rainer’s book Your Life As Story, where she says: the definition of a climax is that something is lost so something can be gained. It should be noted that this doesn’t have to be literal. For example, in a Romantic Comedy, a character’s pride might die so that they can become a better person and their love might live. In Fantasy novels and films, often one of the heroes must make a sacrifice and give their own life so that others might live and return home after their adventures to a joyful and healed world. To use a Gothic example: Dracula is the epitome of this. The heroic American Quincy P. Morris perishes in the final assault on Dracula, giving his life so that the curse of Dracula might be abated. In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff must lose his sight (the distractions and corruption of appearances and social ideals) in order to truly find love with the one who is right for him: Catherine.

It is vitally important that the ending has both something lost and something gained. Often, when endings “don’t work”, it’s because the balance is wrong. Nothing is lost, but the heroes all manage to save the day without a single consequence. There’s no threat, there’s no significance, there’s no reality. Or, the other way, where everything is lost, and the gain is so minimal that it is meaningless. Increasingly, with the advent of modernist ideologies and criticism of heroic narrative, films are looking to the “hopeless ending”. The recent horror movie Hereditary is one such example, although there is arguably a small nugget of “gain” in that the daughter, Charlie, realises her true purpose in the world. However, in my view it does not land with the sledgehammer of emotional resonance for this reason: The balance is wrong.

There is a phrase I hear a lot among my fellows which is: “The movie earned that ending”. I like it a lot, because it exactly encapsulates this ending theory: you have to pay a price to gain something.

Exercise 1.1

So, when you are thinking about your short story, or whatever project it is (and it even works for music – though they call it “counterpoint”, and it is to do with the relationship between harmony and disharmony), ask yourself this important question: what is lost so what can be gained?

Create a table, with two columns, one entitled “loss” and the other “gain” and make a full list of everything in your narrative that is lost and gained. Now ask yourself whether the balance is right. If you are going for a bleaker, darker story: then more needs to be lost. If you are going for a more up-beat story, then more needs to be gained.

FRAMES & STAGES

So, now that we know this foundation, how can we take this one step further and use this to elicit emotional release? Killing off a beloved character is not a guarantee of emotion by any stretch. Think of how poorly the fifth Harry Potter movie, Order of the Phoenix, rendered the death of Sirius Black in contrast with the books. In the novel, I felt his death (which is the cathartic moment of that book) like a stab wound to the chest. In the films, it was laughable, a side-note. There are many reasons, some technical and some broad, about why the execution was flawed, but the primary one is that the balance was not framed right. Gothic endings, indeed any ending, needs what I call a frame. This is the window through which you are seeing the ending, it is the lens you have placed over your cinematic camera as well as the positioning of the camera itself.

If you imagine the events of your story as transpiring in a mysterious other world, which can only be glimpsed through a window, the window and its frame is how this vision of another world is presented to you. Through another window, things might look quite different. This applies, of course, to the whole story, in one sense, but it is specifically relevant to the end. The other way I think of this is not as a frame but as a stage. If your ending was being performed dramatically (for some of you reading this it may be literally true) then how would it be staged? What type of stage would it be set on? I will be looking at these stages and frames, particularly ones relevant to Gothic, and talking about how they work.

This is not to suggest that this list compiles every ending known to human kind or possible. Of course, there are variations, anomalies, and infinite complexity within (and without) of the framework, but these will certainly help you get started and thinking about your ending. When you have mastered how these work, you can then subvert them for your own end.

THE MIRROR

In True Detective’s iconic first season, there are many complex losses and gains. The killer, in one sense, is lost, which gains closure for many characters and us as followers of the investigation. Rust’s nihilism is lost, which gains a newfound spirituality and hope. The resentment between Rust and his partner Marty is lost – they forgive one another – so their friendship might live. The list goes on, which is why it is so powerful. The moment of catharsis is achieved by having the seemingly invincible, inscrutable, unshakeable Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) finally break down with the realisation that there is a life after death and his daughter is waiting for him there with “nothing but that love” – in other words, she has forgiven him. He expects enmity and blames himself for her death – it is what’s haunted him his whole life – but the realisation of this love, something positive after the seemingly endless bleakness of his world, breaks him. In watching his release of emotion, we as an audience are triggered, and our buried emotions are released. This frame is what I call the mirror. We witness the moment of catharsis and are moved ourselves. Rust’s loss of hopelessness, by realising there is hope in life after death, is directly tied in to the moment of cathartic narrative and emotional release, which is why it works so beautifully.

Shakespeare often uses the mirror. For example, the ending of Hamlet (which I consider a Gothic play) shows us Hamlet’s death in the arms of his one true friend, possibly even lover depending on interpretation, Horatio. Horatio’s profound grief, and the sense of someone truly magnificent needlessly lost, is what moves us to tears. Hamlet himself is seemingly at peace: “The rest is silence”, but it is Horatio’s sorrow: “Goodnight sweet prince” which rouses such catastrophic emotion within us. Horatio is the everyman whom we can relate to. As audience members, we recognise ourselves in him. He tries to guide Hamlet and curb his madness, frustrated by his irrationality and procrastination. In showing us a broken Horatio, we see the mirror of ourselves, our sense of hopelessness. The gain at the end of Hamlet is, of course, diplomatic unity and the avenging of his father, but there is also a tragically small gain in that we feel Hamlet can finally know peace from his own raging thoughts.

THE SECRET

This is a subtle, subtle frame that is very difficult to pull off. The most successful example of it of recent years is the film Calvary, which starred Brendan Gleeson. This masterful film, which depicts the final days of a priest who is told, in the confession box, he will be killed in seven days, is one of the most profoundly moving I have seen in a long time (it might even be my favourite film). This film is very low budget, carried by its brilliant actors and poetic script, which probes the nature of sin, suffering, detachment, and, of course, God. Increasingly, one feels the despair of being a person of God in our modern world, which is so without values or dignity. Yet, the brilliance of the film is the courage the humble priest shows in the face of such mind-breaking adversity, and his compassion even for those that spit at him. There is also an element of who-dunnit, about it, as we try to work out who the killer might be.

The ending of the film is deceptively powerful. The priest, after contemplating running away, decides to meet his fate as Christ did. He confronts the killer on the beach, and is shot dead. Following his death, there is a slow reel of all the people in the village whom the priest has interacted with. We see that the adulterers are still committing adultery, the money launderers still stealing, the world unchanged. The final scene is the priest’s daughter, about to speak to her father’s killer (who is now in prison), weeping as she remembers her fathers words, which are that “forgiveness is underrated”. You might, quite rightly, be asking, what in the name of Hell is gained here? The priest dies, the killer is arrested, nobody learns anything. Except, that is what we learn as an audience. We are witnesses to something momentous and awe-inspiring: an act of sacrifice for people who do not actually care. This is the “unsung hero” narrative. The hero has saved everyone, but nobody knows or cares. He has saved them, died for them as Christ did, despite their ingratitude. That is the breathtaking nobility of the film. The priest loses his life, so that we might gain an understanding of what true human courage is. I call this frame the secret, because it is almost as if the story has shared a secret with the audience, something not even the characters can see.

A good example from the literary world is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. In this book, the hero Jake Epping travels back through time in order to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Eventually, he realises it is impossible to accomplish this without un-seaming the universe. The problem is that he has fallen in love with a high school teacher, Sadie, in that previous timeline, but he must give up that love to fix the world. There is a terrible, heart-rending scene at the end of the book where Jake goes to visit Sadie in his own current (and now fixed) timeline; Sadie is in her 80s and has no memory of Jake, but she experiences a strange sensation that she might know him. The two share a dance. It is an incredible scene that reduced me to floods of tears when I first read it, and it is this powerful because we sense just how much is lost: the future they should have, by rights, shared together. It is also heart-rending because no one can ever know what Jake has been through and how much he has given up to, quite literally, save the world. This is the secret. Only we, the Constant Readers, and perhaps Jake, are privy to all the facts of the case that means we can experience this cathartic moment.

THE TRANSFERENCE / THE CURSE

This is in some ways similar to the secret except that the knowledge/ revelation is passed from one character in the story to another. One of the most iconic and easiest examples of this is: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The poem details an encounter between a young and naive wedding guest and the eponymous mariner. The mariner, cursed to wander the land forever telling his bleak, harrowing tale, accosts the wedding guest and tells him his story. At the end of the story, it tells us that the wedding guest goes to bed and “a sadder and a wiser man / he rose the morrow morn”. In other words, though the mariner is still cursed to repeat his tale, the wedding guest has learned from the experience, and the transference of knowledge has had a positive effect. This is highly cathartic, as we realise that someone else’s suffering is another’s learning, and that while the mariner is doomed and a “fixed point”, others can still avoid his tragic fate.

Another great example of this is Frankenstein. I mentioned in part two of the Cathedral of the Deep that Frankenstein uses a framed narrative, couching Victor Frankenstein’s bitter tale within the journals of a seafarer in the Artic, the “Genevese” noble. It is the Genevese noble who is changed by hearing the tale of Frankenstein, and who goes forward into their life with a new sense of perspective.

It is also possible to subvert this ending by making the transference a “curse” that is passed on to the next generation. This is a classic 80s horror cinematic trope. Evil is seemingly defeated, but in actuality, the curse is merely transferred on to the next person. This can be cathartic as well (catharsis can come from downer endings too). For example, the ending of something like Kubrick’s The Shining, which shows us Jack Torrance has “always been here” at the hotel, is a cathartic moment, because it implies some deeper history behind the psychological breakdown. Is the entire film, in fact, from the perspective of Danny Torrance, who is feeling the dirty secrets of the hotel through his psychic sensitivity? Or did Jack Torrance have some undisclosed history at the hotel which is glimpsed at the end? Is Jack the subject of some kind of curse – transferred to him by the other dark spirits that speak to him when he is in captivity in the store room? There are no straight answers (although perhaps Mr King thinks differently!), but it is certainly that final shot that completes the film and draws together the dissonant elements into a well of emotion and release.

THE CRUX / SCALES

This frame works particularly well for short stories and movies, but not so well for novels or longer cinematic forms (such as a television series). This essentially is when you build to a climactic moment, a crux, where everything hangs in the balance, and then you end at that moment. This might sound like you are cheating the reader / audience of an ending, but in actual fact, if you have set up enough of the dominoes, the reader will have already drawn their own conclusions on how it is going to turn out, and it is in feeling this sense of climax, of everything weighed (hence the scales), that they feel the emotion. The reason it does not work with long forms is that when you, as a reader, have invested so much time, you cannot leave it to chance. Too much uncertainty here will break the story’s spell and create anger and discord. But for short forms, the ambiguity, what some coaches call “negative capability”, will work in your favour.

So, let’s look at an example. John Carpenter’s The Thing ends on what some people consider a cliff-hanger, but I consider it a perfect example of a crux or scales ending. At the conclusion of the film, there are two survivors, Childs (Keith David) and MacReady (Kurt Russel), sitting in the snow, watching their facility, and any hope of getting out of the Arctic wastes, burn to the ground. They have the following exchange:

Childs: Fire’s got the temperature up all over the camp. Won’t last long though.

MacReady: Neither will we.

Childs: How will we make it?

MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.

Childs: If you’re worried about me…

MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it.

Childs: Well, what do we do?

MacReady: Why don’t we just… wait here for a little while… see what happens?

As a viewer, we realise there are two possibilities: either the Thing is dead and they are both going to die out in the cold, or one of them is the Thing, and everything is in jeopardy, because it means at some point the Thing will be dug up and the cycle will start again. There is no definitive answer as to what the reality of the situation is (and it has been hotly debated for years), but that is not the point. The film ends on this ominous, bleak note. Yet, there is an immense catharsis in this. We realise at this moment what the movie is really about, which is paranoia. If we look past the shape-shifting body-horror elements, we can see that this is a movie about suspecting those close to us, being unsure of everything we know, and how doubt can tear apart even the strongest and most disciplined people.

Another famous example, though perhaps less Gothic, is the 60s movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. At the end, we do not really see what happens to the pair, we are left on a moment of heroic confrontation, where they stand up together to impossible odds. It is left to our imaginations exactly how that showdown goes down, although we can be fairly certain both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid are slain. If they had showed us the conclusion, a slow motion shot of them being gunned down, it would have been piteous and melodramatic. By holding back, leaving us on the crux moment where everything hangs in the balance, we feel the emotion of it all the more powerfully. This technique taps into the power of human imagination too. Our own version of what happens when that door bursts open will actually always be better than anything they could show us.

 

X

So, those are four frames which you can use to elicit catharsis for your Gothic ending, along with a foundation of loss & gain to weight it and make it land, to “earn” it. To recap, we have: the mirror, where you show the reader a mirror of themselves, the secret, where something is accomplished beyond the knowledge of the characters, the transference, where tragic knowledge is passed on, and the crux, where we end at a moment of climactic confrontation. There are many more frames, but I have gone on long enough, so these are perhaps best reserved for another essay

Exercise 1.2

Choose one frame and re-write your story through this prism. How does it change things? Do you need to add characters or take away certain scenes? Has it improved the overall emotional resonance of the scene?

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Thank you so much for coming this far. I hope that this class has been of use to you. We’ve now reached the end of Part 3. I really enjoyed writing up these notes from my seminar, and I hope they are of use to you in some way. Thanks very much for taking the time to read it, it means a lot to me. In the future, there may be further classes, with more frames and techniques, depending on interest. If you do want more, feel free to leave a comment on my website, or to message me on Twitter.

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Until next time, my friends!