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The Cathedral of the Deep Part 1: What Gothic Is

INTRODUCTION

Last year, I ran a workshop where I talked about Gothic and Horror literature. This was called: “The Cathedral of the Deep: What Gothic Is and How To Write It”. I thought, given there was some interest in the topic, that it would be great to share some of the ideas I talked about in this seminar online. Now, while I have studied Gothic literature pretty extensively (and Horror is a kind of raison d’etre), I am by no means the sole expert on the subject, and there are many other academics, writers, and enthusiasts who have their own opinions on the matter. I do not purport to present the only way to understand and write Gothic here, this is merely my own approach to it. What I hope is that these methods and ideas can help you in producing your own work, whether it be a short story, poem, or even a video-game, script, or movie. The underlying concepts of Gothic are beyond one medium of expression.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED

This is not just a blog or opinion piece; I intend it more as a class. So, I’d recommend that you have a notebook and pen handy. Also, you might want to have Twitter open in another window. You can message me any questions as you read along: @josephwordsmith . I will try my best to get back to you as quickly as possible. I’m also going to dropping a lot of reading/viewing recommendations, so make sure you make a note of the things you want to check out. This class is going to be divided into two parts, due to the depth into which I plan to go. That’s pretty much it folks!

A (VERY, VERY) SELECTIVE HISTORY OF HORROR

Modern Horror has its roots in Gothic literature. While there are subtle differences, shaped by time and society, understanding classic Gothic literature, and how it works, can give us insight into how to write Horror that is a cut above the rest, that is more than cheap scares or gratuity and transcends into something cathartic and emotionally resonant. So, let us take a walk through a history of horror.

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is widely regarded as the first Gothic-Horror novel, but the Gothic stretches back much farther. In the Elizabethan period, Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe both wrote plays that can not only easily be classifiable as Gothic, but may even have been used as templates by subsequent writers for what Gothic is. First, let’s consider two of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays: Macbeth and Hamlet. Macbeth is the height of Gothic, with its bloody deeds, visions, ghosts, magic and atmosphere of terror. It remains one of the most concentrated examinations of evil ever written. Hamlet is perhaps less typically Gothic than Macbeth, but contains ghosts, religiosity, madness, and many other themes that are explored within a tense narrative that breeds unease in the audience. I would recommend you go to see either of these plays, so long as they are being put on by a good company. If you wish to see a truly Gothic cinematic adaptation of Macbeth, I recommend you watch the 1971 film version by Roman Polanski, in which the symbolic elements of the play are drawn out in staggeringly vivid ways.

Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is perhaps less well known (despite “Faustian pact” being a common idiom), although in 2016 the Duke of York Theatre in London put on a sublime production of it starring Kit Harington which did something to revitalise interest in the play. This iconic work portrays a magician who makes a deal with the devil: his soul for 27 years of unlimited power. It is an extremely Gothic work, with its magical rituals, sexual undertones, metaphysical discourse, spirits, demons and religiosity. If you can find a good version of this play, I’d highly recommend it. The language is challenging, but once you get into it, this barrier will fall away.

These plays were written towards the end of the sixteenth / beginning of the seventeenth century, and remain some of the most celebrated plays in any language to this day. How is it that they remain so potent, even now? And why do we hold onto these plays, when many of their contemporaries are now being forgotten? One answer, I believe, is in the nature of Gothic, and Horror, itself. Horror is perhaps the only genre defined by an emotion. It’s about feeling, powerful emotional response, and of course strong emotional reactions stays with us.

I would be remiss not to mention the great Mary Shelley, whose Victorian novel Frankenstein has become a benchmark for Horror and Science Fiction writers throughout the world, and is Gothic through to its bones. Again, the success of Frankenstein is not in clever plotting or even in its Horror, because there are scarier books. No, its success is in the emotional resonance of the ending, and realising that we have misjudged the “monster” all along. Sympathy is an integral part of Horror. We must sympathise with Macbeth, to understand the gravity of his errors, to feel his terror as the walls close in. We must sympathise with both Victor Frankenstein, the tortured rebel creator, and his creation, “the monster”, in order to learn a profound lesson at the end of Frankenstein.

Emotion is the key. As a reader, you read a Horror book to be scared, or at least repulsed. As a Horror writer, you aim to write a book that will haunt your readers. Stephen King said: “First, I’ll try to make you feel terror. If I can’t I’ll make you feel horror. If I can’t do that I’ll gross you out. I’m not proud”. These words, in a way, show three key forms of Horror. The empathetic (terror), which means we experience the emotions of the protagonist as our own. The sympathetic (horror), which means we feel sorry for, can relate to the protagonist and their predicament. The gruesome (disgust), which means we feel revulsion or are “grossed out”. All three are valid, and can be intermixed at will.

THE FOUR KEY ELEMENTS OF GOTHIC WRITING

So, I have listed some things that define Macbeth, Hamlet and Doctor Faustus as Gothic texts. However, this is all a bit vague. I’m now going to narrow it down to the four key elements that define a text as Gothic, and how these “serve the beam”, to quote Stephen King once more. When you understand how each of these four elements work, and how they work in cohesion, you will be able to look at classic Gothic literature, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Doctor Faustus, Frankenstein, Dracula, Jane Eyre or even modern Horror texts for that matter, and see how these elements have been used. What’s more, you’ll be able to use them yourself to create a Gothic piece. This is not to say that all the writers I have listed are thinking about the genre in this way, they probably don’t, but I believe there are mechanics beneath the surface that writers pick up subconsciously from years of study and internalisation.

MOOD

Dean Koontz said many faults in a writer could be forgiven if they could “weave a warp and weft of mood”. Gothic is about atmosphere: how do we feel stepping into the haunted castle, or walking through the woods alone, or seeing the seductive vampire? One technique for creating mood is sense. Most writers focus only on one, vision, so they spend hours laboriously describing their scenes, as though their novel/story were a transcript of a movie. Think deeper. What are the sounds, smells, sensations?

ARCHITECTURE

This works in two ways:

Literal

The first location described in Macbeth is Macbeth’s imposing fortress home which sits upon a high hill overlooking a forest: “This castle hath a pleasant seat”. You can immediately see parallels with the later novel The Castle of Otranto, where the setting of the ‘castle’, and its labyrinthine mazes, becomes symbolic of the labyrinthine mind of Lord Manfred and his schemes. In Dracula, the first quarter of the novel is set in Dracula’s keep, and we even return there at the end. Dracula also has another castle in London which becomes his base of operations.

Structural

Most Gothic literature is structured in elegant and baroque ways. For example, in Frankenstein, we have the ‘framed narrative’ device, going deeper and deeper into the story through different lenses. In Dracula, we have the epistolary device, the story told through various letters. A fabulous modern Horror story that uses ‘architecture’ in a compelling way is ‘The Woman in the Hill’ by Tamsyn Muir, a short story recently re-published in Best of Horror 2016. This used an epistolary device to create a sense of verisimilitude.

You maybe asking ‘what is verisimilitude?’

Think about the plethora of recent Horror films using the ‘found footage’ trope. This is the cinematic equivalent of a letter, because the story is being posed as authentic and coming from one authentic source. These kinds of structures have evolved in one sense from the early Gothic ‘epistolary’ novels, but also have remained bizarrely consistent for hundreds of years. Walpole’s novel The Castle of Ortranto was released, posing as a real translation of an Italian manuscript found in a crypt. Only later did he reveal the truth. This is Gothic verisimilitude. The supposition of believability. Narrative architecture in Gothic literature can be used to create this sense of believability in order to draw your reader deeper into the maze of your story.

The title of this seminar: The Cathedral of the Deep, comes from the video-game Dark Souls, which is created by Japanese game-developer Hidetaka Miyazaki. The Cathedral of the Deep is a location the player can explore which is said to house the remains of the god-eating monster Aldlich, Lord of the Deep, who’s actually a kind of viscus sludge. The Cathedral itself is full of gorgeous paintings, golden braziers, candles, statues, gargoyles (some of which come alive and attack you), undead, maggot-ridden creatures that thrash in pools of blood, and also, invading spirits from other worlds, ghosts, and a fanatical cult of archbishops. Miyazaki is clearly a big fan of the Gothic – he revealed in an interview he read many English Gothic and Fantasy writers in his youth, though he struggled to translate them – and the worlds he creates are based on Western Gothic and medieval traditions, even if they do have a Japanese twist to them.

Here architecture is reflected in the artistic game and level design, as well as the elliptical storytelling. “The Cathedral of the Deep” is, I believe, a perfect encapsulation of the Gothic. The Cathedral represents architecture, structure, design, trappings, style. The Deep represents deeper meanings, what’s buried beneath, desires, emotions. Bear these two concepts in mind when you begin to write your Gothic fiction. What is the external architecture of your piece? Are you writing it as a letter, or a journal, or is it rather that the setting is baroque and magnificent? Then, what are the underlying emotions? Often the degraded emotions of Gothic protagonists contrast with the splendour of their surroundings.

RELIGION

All Gothic literature is spiritual in some way, or else, extensively utilises the mythos and trappings of religion. This is linked to the architecture. Often, the Gothic uses religious structures as key focal points: cathedrals, churches, holy ground, or, metaphorically, internal religious structures of belief and faith.

This also includes deeper themes and questions of reality: who are we, where do we come from, what is reality?

  • A modern fantasy novel such as City of the Iron Fish (Simon Ings) captures this perfectly, where we go into the nature of existence by exploring this mysterious city, which slowly comes unravelled. When the hero tries to leave this city in the story, he eventually reaches a liminal barrier in the desert where everything fades into stick drawings – including the hero himself. This is a terrifyingly meta/fourth-wall breaking moment that reflects Gothic ideas.

  • Modern cinema uses religion too. Alien, apparently a simple survival tale, is steeped in religious questions. There is evidence of a master-race that creates both the human race and the xenomorphs – therefore exploring the origin of our species. The more recent films, whilst not a patch on the original (for lack of mood I’d wager), go into the questions of what constitutes humanity, intelligence, love, connection, morality and much more through the character of David (played by Michael Fassbender). In addition, the xenomorphs’ home planet is presented as a cipher for Hell itself.

  • Madness is also linked to religion in the Gothic, because madness was, in the past, suggested to represent a deeper connection to God. For, how could God’s will and power be understood by a sane person? So, madness, and how it de-constructs the architecture of normal life, is a common theme of the Gothic. The novels of Christa Wojciechowski explore madness and perception in extremely Gothic ways, and are well worth reading.

You might ask the question: ‘Could a Gothic novel be written without religious elements?’ I hate to be prescriptive, so my final answer is ‘Maybe’. However, I’d argue it would be almost impossible. The novel, Hidden People, attempted to do this quite ambitious, but sadly, for me, it was not quite successful.

LYRICISM

Last but not least. The language of Gothic literature is often elevated and poetic. Frequently, throughout the history of Gothic literature, poetry and prose are blended. Think of Horace Walpole’s sonnet introducing The Castle of Otranto, the works of Edgar Allan Poe (Fall of the House of Usher in particular), the poetry of Percy Shelley, Byron (the poem ‘Darkness’ perhaps the most Gothic poem ever written), and, of course, Shakespeare and Marlowe’s plays. There’s a sense of richness and beauty to the language essential to contrast and juxtapose with the horror. If you want a modern example, the short stories and novels of Richard Thomas, in particular something like Tribulations, perfectly strikes a balance between Horror and beauty.

SUMMATION

The acronym for these elements is M.A.R.L. and the way I remember it is: Marlborough Reds, the cigarette brand. It’s easy to remember because ‘red’ is a key Gothic colour: red is the colour of desire, blood, and red and black are the colours of death. The red lips of the seductor, the red eyes of the vampire. Red is also the colour of sexually transmitted diseases: red spots on the genitals, face or hands. Sexually transmitted diseases are another key Gothic theme (Dracula is arguably an allegory of about STDs), because they imply the taboo, transgression. Transgression ties in with religion as one of the four key elements of Gothic.

Exercise 1.

Now, we’re going to do some practical work to exercise our creative muscles and see how we can use this theoretical knowledge. Pick your favourite Horror film, story, book, whatever. Write down the four key elements as headings, and then, beneath those headings, list all the elements that fit into these categories. Some elements may even fall into more than one. For example, the creepy setting of a graveyard (which evokes mood) also has a specific layout, which becomes plot-integral later, therefore this graveyard is also part of the architecture of the piece. This example is from Stephen King’s story “Graveyard Shift” if you hadn’t guessed already! Try to write a few of these, see what elements really appeal to you, and think about how you might subvert their usage for your own tales.

X

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 1, where we’ve closely examined “What Gothic Is”. In the next class, we will look in more depth at “How To Write It”. Specifically, in Part 2, we will cover: writing a five act structure synopsis for our story, writing a compelling opening, writing a first paragraph, and more!

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 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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If you enjoyed this blog, why not follow me on Twitter @josephwordsmith? I offer writing advice, editing services, and tell stories of inter-dimensional horror. As always, thanks so much for stopping by! お幸せに!

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Good News for a Change: The Short Story is Reborn!

2017 was a remarkably challenging year. However, despite the challenges of difficult socio-economic circumstances, political warmongering and the continual disintegration of values in our society, the artistic and beautiful still managed to triumph and blossom. I don’t maintain utopian ideals. I do not believe humans are perfectible or that government or law can fix the issues that stem from our human condition, but I do believe that there is a glimmer of hope, and that hope is what we must hold onto in 2018.

I believe one of the greatest of these glimmers in 2017 was revitalisation of the short story form in the UK. The short story has long been neglected by writers and publishers here, whereas it is still held in high esteem in the US, often viewed as a kind of ‘rite of passage’ by which authors can win accolades and critical acclaim before they go for the big novel pitch. There are far more markets in the US for the short story form as well as anthologies collating the best of specific genres. The ‘Best American’ literary series epitomises this outlook, treating the short story much in the same reverence as the sonnet of Elizabethan England, whereby a writer could not really claim to be a poet unless they had written one.

But even in the US, the short story has been in danger for a while now. More and more markets are starting to close and many newer markets are not able to offer professional paying rates. Publishers put out fewer single-author short story collections each year. Extremely long-standing and well-reputed markets remain open, of course, such as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Shimmer, and Analog. However, this creates issues in and of itself, because these markets are so prestigious many new writers feel they represent pipe-dream ambition. With diminishing opportunities, a greater number of authors feel there is no point in writing short stories, as no one will publish them and no one will read them. It’s not the publishers’ fault by any means, but a result of economic, societal and philosophical changes, and these changes are far from over if the current political climate in the West is anything to go by.

But all is not lost, because there has been a miraculous recovery of the short story.

Firstly though, why is the short story so important? Well, I believe it is its very concision that makes it valuable. Writing is healing. We’ve known this for millennia. Writing is both therapy for the writer and reader, especially when it achieves the pre-eminent quality of inducing catharsis. Catharsis often comes at the end of a story, and the power of short stories is that they are endings and nothing else. Sure, there are structures and formulas and ways to de-construct them, but I honestly believe that the greatest short stories are the ones that feel like walking into the end of a movie, where everything is rich with meaning but you do not have the full context. A good friend of mine once told me to watch the third season of Twin Peaks: The Return without first watching the original seasons 1 & 2. ‘It’ll add to the weirdness,’ he said. ‘And make it even better.’ Boy, was he right. Piecing together the missing history of the series in the implied dialogue and imagery was one of the most joyous aspects to watching that momentous television event of 2017.

So, the same is true of good short stories. You come into the movie with ten minutes left, and while you wonder what the hell it’s all about, you feel this cataclysmic swell of emotion that defies logic-driven attempts to fill in the gaps and create ‘plot’. With a short story, a good one, as with poetry, you get straight to the healing part without having to wade through plot and narrative mechanics. Of course, good novels and long-form narrative make the plot and narrative enhance the emotional experience, but that’s an essay for another time. I think this can be summed up best in the words of Dan Coxon, the editor of The Shadow Booth (more on this anon), in a recent interview with LitReactor: ‘There’s nothing better than a short story that evokes a strong emotional response in the reader but defies all attempts to pin it down.’

The tradition of short stories dates way back, as far and if not farther than Ovid, with his eclectic and electric collection of tales Metamorphoses, one of the books that most greatly influenced Shakespeare. The first time I personally realised the incredible potential of the short story was when I read a piece by Raymond Carver called ‘Are These Actual Miles?’. I would later learn Carver contributed to the revitalisation of the short story in the 80s. In this story, the state of a disintegrating marriage is symbolically represented by the condition of a car. This tale made apparent the power of the image to tell a story, without the need explain it with clunky narrative exposition. The naturalistic dialogue, and the way it created such a rich sense of character, was also a wake-up call to me, as hitherto I’d hardly used dialogue in my storytelling. After that, I was inspired by the ‘daughters of decadence’ – the astonishing female writers of the 19th century whose short stories are shining examples of stylistic excellence and emotional power. In particular, the works of Olive Custance (the featured image of this article in case you were wondering), Olive Schreiner, Victoria Cross and Charlotte Perkins Gillman. The often fantastic and phantasmagorical ideas of these writers were always nuanced and subtle, and deeply influenced my own approach to how Fantasy should be written. I later discovered Thomas Mann, Stephen King, and a sea of other phenomenal writers employing the short form.

Now we come to the present day, where many consider the short story redundant. Recently, a close friend of mine, having read one of my short works, smiled and said: ‘This is why I don’t read short stories. They frustrate me.’ He was annoyed, perhaps understandably, that I didn’t specify exactly what happened at the end. Did the characters live? Get blown up? I could see where he was coming from, but it also made me realise how little attuned we are as a culture to this form. Once, it was a mainstay, but somehow we’ve lost the beat of it. He somewhat admitted it himself, perceptively observing that the form had always ‘frustrated’ him. I wonder if schools put more emphasis on this form whether we would change things. But that is also a topic for another time. So much good work is being done in the short story field. For anyone new to the scene, or looking to fall in love with short stories, I would highly recommend the collection The New Black, published by Dark House Press; it represents a triumph of the short story form and this should come as no surprise given that the collection was collated by none other than Richard Thomas, whose own single-author short story collection Tribulations was a master-stroke. I’ve praised this collection in numerous places, so I won’t re-iterate it here, but suffice to say Richard Thomas is one of the best advocates for the short story precisely because he wields it with such efficacy. Another collection for lovers of the Fantastic is Songs of the Dying Earth, which has stories from a number of prestigious authors including George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman. These stories, written in styles creatively imitating Jack Vance’s original ‘baroque’ prose, are inventive, zany and profoundly weird, some of the best speculative fiction I’ve read in a long time.

Gamut magazine, another Richard Thomas innovation, spearheaded an incredible movement to create a quality neo-noir zine. And though, tragically, it will not be going forward into a second year (the take up was not significant enough), the quality of stories it offered, and the number of new voices it discovered, has set the bar exceedingly high for all time. You might think it strange I’m spending time in my ‘hopeful’ essay with an example of a short story market that is no longer running, but Gamut demonstrated that with a clear vision for quality, and aesthetic taste, it was possible to create something unique and beautiful. Whilst it did not gain enough of a following to continue, it set an example, reinvigorating the literary community, particularly in the realms of Speculative and Horror fiction, with a thirst for quality short fiction. I certainly found myself feverishly logging in to the Gamut website during my lunch-breaks at work in order to read the latest article or story. I find it hard to remember the last time I had such a hunger for literary content.

In the UK, we are beginning to cotton on, and new short story markets have emerged. My own effort, 13Dark, clawed its way into existence, introducing three new voices in fiction. What’s unique about 13Dark is that it focuses on longer short stories, those tricky pieces of fiction that fall between the arbitrary boundaries of 5,000 words or less, or 20,000 or more. These longer forms achieve tremendous power and impact precisely because of their added depth and complexity (but they still retain the poetic concision of the short form). I’ve always been a fan of the ‘long short story’ – and it was a delight to showcase such shining examples of it. There will be more from 13Dark in the future, so watch this space.

Perhaps more significantly, STORGY and The Shadow Booth released their début publications last year. STORGY’S epic 24 story collection Exit Earth is a tour de force, treading a dividing line between literary and genre, writing both timelessly about issues of power and humanity whilst also screaming into the present with commentary on the state of technology and contemporary socio-political issues. The Shadow Booth Vol. 1 is a profound exploration of Weird fiction and like 13Dark explored longer story forms. There were many incredible contributions to this collection, notably Daniel Carpenter’s ‘Flotsam’ and Richard Thomas’ ‘White Picket Fences’. I had the incredible fortune to have stories in both volumes, and attended both launch-events in London (they were on consecutive days!). The energy at these events was awe-inspiring (you can check out pictures of the STORGY event here), and there was a real feeling that the short story was once again attaining capturing interest. The fact so many upcoming writers are contributing to the form, alongside more established names, shows that people still thinks there is value in it, and that new ideas can still be expressed within its constraints.

Theodore Dalrymple once said in his seminal work Our Culture, What’s Left of It: ‘Art is precisely the means by which man makes sense of, and transcend, his own limitations and flaws’. While it might sound lofty, I think it’s most probably true. The short story is a particularly effective way to do this because it is not onerous to write – it can be completed in a few sittings, and refined and refined at leisure. I would argue that in our increasingly time-restricted culture, where we are asked to work more and more with less personal development time, the resurgence of the short story is not just timely and convenient, but a complete necessity for literature to continue to thrive, and therefore, for people to continue to thrive, because good writing heals us, good writing imparts understanding and empathy, good writing is the antidote to total corporate anaesthetisation.

So what are you waiting for? Go write.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to follow @josephwordsmith on Twitter, or alternatively discover more about 13Dark on their Facebook page. To discover his writing, you can check out his work at Amazon.

To celebrate the re-emergence of the short story, I’m offering 15% off 13Dark’s first issue: DEAD VOICES. Follow this link, and use the code JAN15 to at checkout.

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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,

Like what you read here? Why not follow @josephwordsmith for more updates and content. You can check out The Mindflayer’s publishing venture 13Dark on Facebook or Twitter. For his books, go to Amazon.