Scratches by Joshua Marsella is a surprising and haunting novella about the lingering power of evil. A mother and son inherit an old house, but something is terribly wrong. It’s a classic haunted house tale, a la Shirley Jackson and many other greats, but Marsella startlingly manages to bring something new to the table.
I had heard great things about this novella from a variety of people, and it did not disappoint. Marsella writes with great passion about his characters; they are at once archetypal, but also very three-dimensional and grounded. Perhaps one of my favourite lines in the whole novella is when the young boy, Connor, explains to his mother that it’s BECAUSE he’s not easily scared that he likes to read horror comics. This is a character detail that stands out and becomes relevant later on; Connor wants to test his own boundaries. And this is consistent throughout as Connor bravely tries to get to the bottom of the supernatural occurrences happening in the house.
Just when you think one character is going to become a cliché – for example, the drunken single mom – Marsella twists it and offers you a window into their lives that cannot but elicit real sympathy. Furthermore, there are some genuinely surprising – even shocking – revelations in this book that are deeply unsettling. No easy answers are provided here as we learn the dark truth about Connor, his mother, and the spectre haunting their lives.
As well as character work, Marsella is very good at dropping in specific details that elevate what could be a generic horror scene to something genuinely saturated with dread. And speaking of dread, the atmosphere of this novella is perhaps one of its most stand-out elements; there is an awful sense of inevitability that pervades every scene, so that even when we’re outside the house, visiting a comicbook store or riding a bike down the street, we know we’re going to be drawn back to it. If I could compare this to one other book, it would be Stephen King’s Cujo. Both King and Marsella’s books deal with themes of how evil finds a way to endure, and tap into the archetypal childhood fear of the bogeyman in the closet.
Marsella is a potent new voice in horror, and I’ll definitely read his other books!
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As an editor, one of the most common problems I see in prose is anomalous or ill-fitting diction. Before I go onto why diction is so important, particularly in the English language, it’s worth outlining what diction is, as it is often confused with grammar.
Diction has nothing to do with grammar or syntax. Grammar refers to the specific rules of language that make sentences comprehensible. Syntax refers to the organisation of those words within a sentence. There is a great article over at Let’s Get Published that tackles this subject in more depth. The subject of today’s article, however, is diction, which is about specific word choices. For example, is the word “wife” or “spouse” better to use in a given context? Technically, they mean the same thing (although one has an associated gender). Either word could “do the job” in the sentence, but which is better? That is the true question of diction, and while this may seem inconsequential, as we shall see, it is far from it. Whereas the rules of grammar are largely fixed, and syntax is flexible, there are no rules for diction other than “what is good”. This makes it both hugely problematic and hugely important to address in our fiction.
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand why the question of diction is especially important and relevant for those writing in the English language. Don’t get me wrong, diction is important for every writer, no matter what language they’re writing in. However, in English, we have to give it extra consideration and thought. This is because English has more root-languages than any other in the world. English is influenced by: Greek, Latin, Egyptian (yes! the word “hex” is of Egyptian etymology), German, Anglo Saxon (or “Old English”), French, the list goes on and on. In addition, it is the fastest growing language because it can absorb words into its pantheon easily. To illustrate what I mean by this, consider the word “tsunami”. This is a Japanese word, (formed by the hiragana つなみ) yet it has been so thoroughly integrated, few people even realise that this word has been pilfered. By contrast, it is exceptionally difficult for non-Japanese words to be integrated into Japanese. To do so, they have a secondary alphabet (katakana) which allows them to sound out foreign words. However, due to the fact that Japanese does not possess the same range of sounds we do in the Western world (they do not have “L” for example), this leads to awkward approximations. For example, the English word “coffee” is written コーヒー, which reads more like “Kohi” (they do not have the FEE sound).
I should make it clear that I am not suggesting English is superior in any way. Every language has unique properties, strengths, and weaknesses. I adore the Japanese language and find it to be achingly beautiful; what it lacks in flexibility it makes up for in specificity. In Japanese, it is far easier to distinguish between ambiguities because of how pin-point accurate their lexicon is, and I’ve often thought that this is why writers like Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami, and Kobo Abe are able to create such razor-sharp, precise prose. However, the purpose of today’s article is to explore diction in English, so I won’t digress!
As a result of these two factors: the multifaceted origins of English, and its ability to adopt new words with striking ease, the English speaker is confronted with an abundance of synonyms (words with the same or similar meaning) – each one deriving from a different root. Unlike many other languages, we are constantly presented with choices as we write. The wrong choice can dampen and weaken our prose. The right one can elevate it.
But how do we know what is “right” and what is “wrong”?
The answer to this, of course, is that it depends on what we’re writing for a start. However, there are some overriding principles that I think can help.
1) Consider what’s more emotive
Most writers (and particularly horror writers) resort to Latinate words all too frequently in their prose. Words of Latin derivation tend (but not always) to have either a scientific or abstract quality about them, or else a more “formal” and rigid one. Anglo Saxon or Germanic-origin words tend to be more emotive. The earlier example of wife (from the Old English wif) versus spouse (from the Latin sponsa) is revealing. If your Romance novel character were to shout “My wife!” (or “My husband!” for that matter), that would be fairly dramatic. But “My spouse!” does not quite have the same effect. This is obvious, once we see it in such bold terms, but sometimes when one is writing it’s easy to miss these subtleties or to rationalise a “fancier” word over a plainer one.
A more subtle example can be found in the difference between an eldritch horror being “incomprehensible” versus “unknowable”.
Both words seem valid, but we shall soon see one is far superior if we’re trying to evoke fear. The word “know” derives from the Old English cnāwan, and as a result it creates a more intimate and therefore – in my mind – scarier effect upon the reader. If something is unknowable, it is mysterious, unknown, frightening; there’s a simple, almost primitive, quality to the word. Whereas the word “incomprehensible” derives from French and Latin sources (comprehender). It sounds like a diagnosis, and it’s similar to the word “illegible” which we use to describe someone with poor hand-writing. In fact, it sounds like we simply cannot understand the creature on a linguistic basis, which creates an almost comic effect of imagining someone making all the hand-signs of a lost tourist. This is opposed to something we cannot “know”. To “know” is beyond mere intellectual processing, it’s in the heart, the gut, maybe even the soul, and so to confront something unknowable is therefore a far deeper state of uncertainty. Now, I’ve taken this example to extremes, and it is not to say that the word “incomprehensible” couldn’t work, but context is all-important.
2) Consider your context
I always think that these complex ideas are easier to tackle with specific examples, so let’s look at the example of one of the most famous – and also problematic – writers of all time: H. P. Lovecraft. For those who don’t know, Lovecraft writes what has become known as “cosmic horror”: confrontations with eldritch beings from beyond our sphere of existence or understanding. Lovecraft uses Latinate words all the time, and he has been criticised for this. However, the brilliance of Lovecraft’s writing and why I believe it works (and the evidence that it works is in his enduring legacy) is twofold. Firstly, Lovecraft’s viewpoint protagonists are often archeologists or scientists – in other words, people more inclined to use Latinate vocabulary – so in that sense we accept their verbose word-choices as being more natural to the character. Secondly, Lovecraft uses the Latinate vocabulary to conceal the naked truth in the same way that an artful bit of filmmaking turns the camera away from the monster, or wreaths it in shadow, which makes the horror even more palpable by virtue of absence.
Latinate words, as I mentioned before, tend to be abstract. For example, “amorous”, “inexorable”, or, a Lovecraft favourite, “gibbous”. Because they are abstract, this can be used to create a kind of impressionistic effect, whereby we get some sense of what the monster is, and this impression works upon us more deeply than a specific or intimate description. Lovecraft’s abstractions and Latinate vocabulary serve him well because it creates the double-blind of his protagonists shying away from fully describing what they are seeing, which fertilises the imagination of the reader. I should make a point here that this is very different from just resorting to the odd Latinate word. This is utilising diction to its fullest to create a mimetic effect.
So, whilst I’ve advocated to avoid too many Latinate words,they can work if deployed in the correct context, and that is perhaps the most important lesson to learn about diction: consider your context.
3) Consider the associations
A really good example of this can be found in a project I’ve been working on recently with a collaborator. We were creating an ice-mage in a fantastical world. I coined the term “Gelumancer”. My collaborator said he’d prefer the term “Cryomancer”. Now, on the surface, this seems pretty arbitrary. Does it really matter? Butwords have associations, and when you use certain words, they carry those associations with them for better or worse. Just consider how the word “twilight” is impossible to say nowadays without thinking of sparkly vampires and muscle-bound werewolves. My gut instincts as a writer told me that Cryomancy was the wrong choice. I wasn’t sure why, at first, but then it hit me; I pointed out to my collaborator that Cryomancy is too sci-fi: cryogenic freezing, cryo-sleep, cryotherapy (an actual thing), cryo-weaponry (see Borderlands). Cryo is a scientific word. This is an epic fantasy. Gelumancy is the one we want. Incidentally, this is another one of those weird incidents where the rule-of-thumb is reversed: Gelu is the Latin word for “ice” or “frost”. Cryo is from the Greek kruos. So, as said before, sometimes the Latin works, and you have to use your instincts and the wider context to fathom it out. Unlike with grammar, there are no hard and fast rules. Every word, whatever its origin, is unique and must be deciphered in relation to its wider string of associations and meanings.
4) Consistency is key
One final point is that diction needs to be consistent. To again revert to the example of Lovecraft, his stories have a very consistent tone which is, in part, created through the use of consistent diction. If you are going for a scientific, Latinate diction because your character is an anthropologist or a bio-weapons engineer, then make sure that this is maintained throughout. If, however, your characters are down-to-earth, and one of them suddenly uses the word “incandescent” in the midst of a heated argument, it will destroy your narrative and the suspension of disbelief. One of the reasons I love the Sick trilogy by Christa Wojciechowski is that whichever character she is writing, she remains faithful to them in terms of her diction; and as we shift between different characters, we feel the shift from one vocabulary to another.
I am in danger of going on too long, but as you can see from even these few examples, diction is vitally important. Often when we read a book and feel like the prose lacks a certain punch, it is because the diction is weak or ill-considered. Inconsistent diction gives the impression the author has no narrative voice. The wrong diction – such as scientific language used unironically in an emotional scene – will jar your readers and ultimately throw them off.
By looking more closely at the etymology and associations of words, and thinking about the context of our scenes and stories, we can make better word choices and increase the power of our writing.
I should emphasise that I am not saying you need to be a linguistics expert to do this! Usually, gut instinct and tapping into your feeling state is the best way to work out what word is working, and one can only improve these instincts through practice! So, get writing my dear friends!
I hope you enjoyed this article on the importance of diction and some tips for improving it. If you can’t get enough of articles like this and want to read more, you can sign up to the Mindflayer’s Patreon (for only £3 p/m) where I release one article like this every month, as well as other exclusive content. Join other cultists and thralls on the journey to discovering the secrets of great writing!
7 Weeks In Hellis the sequel to Iseult Murphy’s outstanding slow-burn horror gem 7 Days In Hell. You’ll notice, from the naming conventions of those two titles, a reference to the 28 Days Later series, and this is apt, because 7 Days In Hell and its sequel are zombie narratives with a difference. During the early 2000s, there was a proliferation of zombie novels, games, graphic novels, movies, and of course one particularly mega TV series, which led to what might be described as “zombie burn out”. However, when done well, I believe that the zombie subgenre still has a lot to offer, and Iseult Murphy’s zombie-narrative is certainly anything but conventional.
7 Days In Hell was also a “creepy town” tale, in the vein of The Wicker Man or perhaps more appropriately H. P. Lovecraft’s A Shadow Over Innsmouth. We follow twin sisters Vicky and Irene on a much-needed getaway from the horrors of the modern world in the remote town of Basard. However, they soon discover that something is deeply amiss. What seemed a cosy tale, akin to a murder mystery, quickly escalated beyond all my expectations – going into the realm of the dark occult – and leading to a catastrophic finale. The final image or “stinger” in 7 Days In Hell was simply hair-raising, and made me impatient to read the inevitable sequel.
In the style of Hollywood sequels, the settings and sweep of 7 Weeks in Hell have a much larger budget. We’re now in the urban city of Galway, where Vicky has moved in order to get away from her family and inner demons. One of the main focuses of 7 Weeks In Hell is the fallout, both psychological and otherwise, from those events in Basard. In many ways, Vicky isn’t even sure that what happened was real, and her slew of counsellors and consolers support this belief that she’s mentally unstable. Iseult Murphy accurately and sensitively portrays the paranoia and anxiety of a traumatised mind as we follow Vicky battling against her memories, her desire to act, but her terror of what will happen if she steps outside into the real world.
Mixed in with this psychological framework is an undercurrent of spiritual commentary on the modern world, a sense that the “zombies” are only a metaphor for what we become when we abandon our most human aspect: our spiritual self, our soul. These zombies are not so much infected disease-carriers (one cannot be infected via a bite), they are supernatural slaves, serving the bidding of a dark master. They only go frenzied and eat flesh when their master loses control of them, which brings me to the most interesting part of the novel, or at least the part that captured me the most: the Dark One. This character – whom I can’t reveal the name of as it would be a spoiler – is a fascinating study in evil, and they go on an immense and surprising character arc. Not only that, but we see the introduction of a new foil to them, a protege, if you will, who proves to be almost worse than the original. The toxic and frightening dynamic between the two felt like entirely new narrative ground for the series. The previous novel did not explore the perspective of evil in such depth, but Iseult Murphy here plumbs the thought-processes, and even some of the magical mechanisms of occult practice, in order to fully convey the horror – and let’s be honest, the fascination – of total evil. There are more than a few shades of Clive Barker emerging in Murphy’s work, particularly The Great and Secret Show.
7 Weeks In Hell is a step up from its already impressive predecessor in so many ways: the character development, writing style, the scale and scope, and the deeper philosophical commentary running through it which seems to hit home a lot harder than the first book, perhaps due to the city setting. Whilst 7 Days In Hell was surprisingly disturbing, catching one off-guard, Iseult Murphy manages to pull the rug out from under us yet again, with a disturbing turn of events towards the close of the novel that has almost unthinkable implications, as well as parallels with the corruption of Hollywood and TV culture. Iseult Murphy remakes old tropes, and wields these tropes in service of her themes with precision elegance.
Iseult Murphy once wrote of one of my own novels “There is a sadness that pervades this book” and I believe the same could be said of her novel. Repeatedly, characters reflect that it is the better-person, the better-friend, and symbolically the better part of themselves, that has been lost, and the survivors are there to carry on the story: but they don’t know how. There is a sense of grieving throughout, and hardship, and loneliness; only loyal and lovable dogs alleviate the latter somewhat. This is not a hero narrative. It is a book where evil is a reality of life, and it must be faced and resisted, though this increasingly becomes difficult. One gets the sense of a mind subjected to tremendous pressure and temptation, strong enough not to give in, but not strong enough to send the darkness back from whence it came. There is something haunting in that, and over and above the zombies, this is the true horror of the book.
I would say that this is an almost flawless book, save for the ending, which – without giving it away – leaves a bit too much to the reader in my humble view. However, anyone who has read my blogs or books will know that I am very particular about my endings, so it may simply be that it didn’t conform to my taste or expectations. Ultimately, the journey of this novel is quite incredible, with many surprises in store for even jaded readers; I’ll be first in line to get a copy of book 3!
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In our modern world, we have many advantages, but one major disadvantage is sometimes knowing too much. By this, I mean that it is more and more difficult to surprise a modern reader, gamer, or film-viewer because each of us sits at the heart of a constant information flow. Speaking with a good friend of mine the other day, we were both lamenting how the advent of YouTube, whilst useful, has led to video-game worlds feeling smaller and more predictable. Gone are the days of trying to find a cure of vampirism in Oblivion and not knowing even the first place to start. Now, all the info is available online. Of course, one could resist the temptation to look, but there is not that same sense of communal excitement at the possibilities of the unknown, except, perhaps, when you encounter a Dark Souls title. Those games still manage to hide a wealth of secrets even as they are being plumbed to the nth degree.
Dark Souls isn’t the only exception. There are other great works out there that surprise and awe us with their lack of conventional storytelling, and the way the keep their cards close to their chest. Serpent King, by Brian Barr, is one of those artefacts; it is a powerful and imaginatively vast novel set in the far flung galaxy of the Dracos Constellation.
The narrative predominantly follows Razen Ur, a Commander General in the Nagan Empire, and his son, Zian Ur, born in mysterious circumstances, and gifted beyond natural means. Yet to say this is to deny the scope of the book, which also involves the mysterious priesthood of the Plumed Serpent, the occult gatherings of the Shadowsnakes, the internal politics of the Imperial Family and the Emperor of Naga, and the colonisation of the outer worlds of the Dracos Constellation. Barr describes this novel as “science-fantasy”, which fairly accurately invokes the superb blend of science-fiction action and world-building, mixed with an undercurrent of something far darker and more magical.
In this novel, it is snakes, not monkeys, that have evolved to intelligent, bipedal form: the reptilis sapiens. In this way, there is also an element of “alternative history” about the book, a depiction of how evolution might have played out a different way, and what civilisation would have looked like if that were the case. Although inhuman, Barr’s cast of characters are disarmingly sympathetic, and that is where the power of this novel comes in. The Nagans are clearly a metaphorical representation of empire-building cultures, particularly the Roman, British, and Spanish empires. Yet, whilst Barr exposes and satirises the xenophobic thought patterns and brainwashed jingoism of these cultures, he also shows more morally upright, sympathetic, and “human” figures caught in the midst; these aren’t bad people, they are individuals with loves and losses doing their best under an oppressive regime. This really shows how dangerous and potent writing can be, because before long, Barr had me sympathising with Razen Ur, the relatively humble Commander General of the Nagan fleet. Razen is troubled by his impotence, a human concern if ever there was one,and unwilling to shed any more blood than necessary during his conquests. He is a devoted husband, and a kind father. Yet, he is also a mass-murderer who has brought more worlds to heel than any of his contemporaries in the military. Barr allows the moral ambiguity of all of this to breathe, which makes his work rich and compelling.
Whilst it would be easy to dismiss the choice of writing about an empire of bipedal snake-people as simply a flight of fancy, or perhaps a “cool” sci-fi idea, I think there is a lot more going on. Snakes, firstly, are almost universally a symbol of knowledge. Interestingly, one of the recurrent motifs throughout the novel is that of two entwined “proto-snakes” (snakes that never evolved from their slithering form) around a caduceus. In the real world, this symbol is emblazoned on every Western ambulance, hospital, and medical centre. The emblem has its roots in Hermetic principles: the two wings crowning the caduceus symbolise the winged feet of Hermes / Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Of course, Biblically, snakes also represent knowledge, for it is the serpent that persuades Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit that brings “knowledge of good and evil”. Interestingly, the sub-title of the book is “Shadow and Light”. Things in shadow are darkened to us, things that are in light are revealed. Shadow often represents “evil”. Light, “good”. There is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Naga, the Empire of the “Reptilians”, therefore, is not just a cipher for the empires of human history, but could well be construed as an extended metaphor for the battle between good and evil, for secret knowledge, and for a path through the middle all of these contrasts, a path that only people with a certain mindset, and certain tools, can tread.
Having previously been impressed with Barr’s re-imagining of the King In Yellow mythos of Robert W. Chambers, I anticipated some occult elements in Serpent King, and I was not disappointed. There are layers beneath even the simplest interactions in this story. Hints that seem innocuous are actually gateways to greater narrative truths that Barr deftly hides from us until later stages. I do not know what Barr’s influences were, but many scenes remind me of the occult practices outlined by Kenneth Grant and, though he is often purely regarded as a fictional writer, H. P. Lovecraft. Beneath the civilised surface of Naga and these “cold-blooded” reptilian snakes, who are all about duty, honour, and logic (and have even named one of their choicest weapons “logic bombs”), is something far more emotional, dark, and irrational. Whilst it would be easy to construe the Reptilians as a kind of nod to the Illuminati conspiracy theories of lizard-people ruling the stars, I think Barr has done something even cleverer: he has shown that deep down we’re the snakes, traitors to our own warm-blooded nature, hiding behind a veneer of science and reason, when the reality of the universe is very different indeed.
In many respects, Serpent King is also a coming-of-age story. Much of the book follows Zian Ur as he is tutored by different masters, demonstrates his supremacy in the fighting ring, and finally is appointed to a high rank in adulthood; all while his father, Razen, continues to conquer in the name of the Emperor off-world. The coming-of-age elements are so well done, that one can easily forget how many other facets to this novel there are. And, one becomes fondly attached to the places and characters Zian interacts with as he grows up, to the point of nostalgia in later parts of the book.
Zian is also a fascinating character, and Barr manages to reflect how different he is from all the people surrounding him simply through dialogue and action alone. This is partly achieved through the sheer contrast between Zian and his father Razen; the two are endlessly juxtaposed. Whereas Razen makes for an incredibly human and empathetic portrait; Zian is much harder to understand. We fear what Zian is capable of, but we also root for him. Barr goes into great detail about the slow but satisfying process of how Zian unlocks his full potential, and again, clearly demonstrates a knowledge of how occult practice works, and how certain practices can lead to an expanding awareness and deeper insight. This culminates in an incredibly satisfying evolution and climactic battle in which Zian must use all that he has learned to survive. The ending of this novel is apocalyptic, sad, arguably bleak, but also strangely satisfying. I’m not sure I can think of a comparable ending in any other book I have read, which is saying something.
Serpent King is weird, and wonderful because of it. It will transport you to another universe, make you care about an empire of snake-people, and then dash your expectations to smithereens. It is a book of magic, with hidden meanings, but above all that: it is a compelling story of awakened potential.
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A new extreme horror author has exploded onto the scene, and her name is Nikki Noir. I first encountered Nikki Noir via her non-fiction work. I found her essays over at Redrum Reviews, reflecting on horror and its cultural significance, extremely illuminating. I then went on to read a novella / short novel Noir had collaboratively written with S. C. Mendes. I am a huge fan of S. C. Mendes, as he wrote the conspiracy theorist’s wet dream: The City, a detective novel that involves a secret city, lying just beneath the world we know. Their collaboration, Algorithm Of The Gods, was like The Matrix mixed with a grim-dark universe. It probed human psychological depths through the mechanism of virtual reality (a subject which is very close to my heart). It was a complete slam dunk, faulted only by not being longer! At the back of Algorithm Of The Gods, Noir included an extract from her ongoing series Black Planet. After reading merely a few pages, I knew I had to read the entire thing.
Black Planet is currently a four-part series, although it’s clear that Noir intends to write more. You can get all four existing volumes together in a gorgeous paperback edition here.
Black Planet is not a book for the faint of heart: it features black magic, gruesome sex rites, and cosmic horror. There is a lot going on in these four volumes, but to attempt a rough summary: forces, perhaps from another dimension, arrive within the small American town of Shale, Arizona. These forces begin to worm their way into the population. Whilst the immediate temptation would be to draw comparisons with something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I actually think it has a little bit more of the flavour of The Shining; there are profoundly dark powers at work, and they begin to affect everyone within their reach. Some are more easily influenced than others, and they become the instruments of these powers.
What particularly intrigued me about the book were its Thelemic influences: the magick (with an intentional ‘k’) of Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Grant, and other such mystics. Noir deftly utilises these influences to create a sense of something awful and beyond understanding, but without falling into the trap many occult writers fall victim to of lacing their work with impenetrable and aloof symbolism. She tells a compelling yarn of human addiction and desire, in which characters feel (arguably rightfully) wronged by the modern world, and have resorted to dark paths to success and freedom from their current state. This is embodied in the opening volume (“Corpse Paint and Rabbit Hole”) in which a disillusioned webcam model, Claire, and her boyfriend slash “manager”, Brian, are sucked into the whirlpool ofnecromantic arts. Noir perfectly encapsulates the feeling of spiritual and physical awakening in a hair-raising sexual encounter in the midst of a violent storm, in which the transcendental experience of an orgasm amidst rains of lightning becomes emblematic of something else.
But despite the fact there is a lot of sex in Black Planet, Noir isn’t writing just to titillate us. More often than not, strikingly erotic scenes are suddenly undercut by intense horror. One teenager’s sexual fantasy suddenly becomes a process of bodily invasion – where the penetrator becomes the penetratee. This is reminiscent of the harrowing descriptions in Jack Parson’s Book of the Antichrist in which he finds punishment for his hubristic pursuit of the magical arts at the hand of demonic entities. Noir is playing a dark and delicious game with us, showing how easily we might be allured by our fantasies – to use a crude phrase: led by the dick – only for her to then turn it on us, which is, of course, the universal testimony of anyone who has dabbled with the dark arts, or drugs for that matter. First, all seems wonderful. Then cometh the fall.
Each volume of this four-parter has a slightly different flavour. There are characters who run throughout the entire story, but we see less or more of them depending on the focus of a particular volume. This creates quite an unsettling and unconventional narrative experience. At times I felt like perhaps the net had been cast too wide, and I wanted Noir to focus more on a tighter cast of characters – but she also managed to pull off some incredible plot dovetails that were very satisfactory. In addition, characters whom I had very little interest in at one stage, suddenly developed and became fascinating later on. She practices “less is more”, and knows that readers need space to flesh out characters with their own imaginative fuel. Noir doesn’t overprescribe them.
Amidst all the darkness, however, there is also innocence, and one of the most moving aspects of the novel is the fact that this innocence can be preserved, even where there is trauma and violation. Haley and Tyler are two siblings, good kids, who have to endure the maelstrom that is steadily enveloping Shale. They only really have each other. Throughout the novel we see both of them go through hell, and a good deal of character development. Haley moves from someone who is uncertain about her future, to someone who will do whatever it takes to protect her brother, and her evolving resourcefulness is well depicted. She doesn’t jump from frightened girl to Sigourney Weaver overnight, but we see the steady progression and how each new experience transforms her attitude to the world. This kind of character development is hard to achieve, and in a novel with this many moving parts, even more so; Noir is to be commended for this triumphant effort.
Lastly, Black Planet has an ending, but it’s clear it’s not the ending, and we’ll be following Tyler and Haley again some time in the future. Anyone who has read my work will know I’m very big on endings, and whilst I’ve no qualms with a slightly open-ended approach, especially where there is clearly more story to be told, I would be interested to see Noir tackle a more “final” and conclusive ending in subsequent books or future volumes of Black Planet itself. That said, this is perhaps my own personal preference, and nothing more.
If you’re looking for extreme horror (and it really is extreme folks), something dark that deals with what lies just beyond our civilised sphere, then I cannot recommend picking up Black Planet enough. Nikki Noir has immense writing talent, and I cannot wait to see what she does next.
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Firstly, a very happy holiday season to you all: whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah just past, the Solstice, or one of a myriad of other occasions I have failed to mention, I hope you have the best one possible. And, very importantly, I hope that the New Year which awaits you in 2021 is truly awesome and brings all you want and deserve.
I hope you can forgive me for reiterating what millions have already stated, but this year has been tough. Really tough. And in all kinds of different ways: financially, emotionally, hell even physically. For many, it’s been far worse, and some have even lost their lives. However, I’m ever an optimist, and I must be grateful that despite everything many of my friends and loved ones have held on; I am still able to do creative things, my business is still running, and I’ve managed to survive.
Not only that, but some truly remarkable things have come to pass despite all the setbacks and weirdness of life in varying degrees of lockdown; and I’m not just talking about things I’ve done! As an editor and indie publisher, it’s amazing to see great writers and artists and creatives of all sorts achieving their goals through the pain and uncertainty that’s afflicted us all. I wanted to do a round up of some of those things and perhaps even share some plans with you for the future!
Let’s start just by giving you some stats. This year I have…
edited over 300,000 words!
facilitated the publication of five brilliant books by new authors:
The Age of Wellbeingby David Green: a comprehensive examination of the state of wellbeing in the modern world, and what we need to do to improve it.
Hecctrossipy Book 1by Bia Bella Baker: an amazing YA fantasy novel that will transport you to an intricate and mind-blowingly detailed new world. Get ready for more than a few surprises!
What Do They Really Know?by M. S. Morgan: a brilliant review of UFO sightings made by RAF personnel in the UK over the last fifty years by a senior investigator. Unlike many books of this nature, he takes a completely impartial and unbiased view of the evidence, using his experience as a detective to reveal some surprising truths.
From Liverpool With Love by Joan Collins Owen: a heartbreaking story of love in the face of encephalitis. This biography of an amazing woman and her fight to hold on to the man she loves will have you crying, make no mistake!
A Thing With Feathers by J. John Nordstrom (coming Feb 2021 from The Writing Collective): this is an amazing tale of romantic-era love in the modern world, at once funny, literary, human, and heartrending.
written over half a million words of non-fiction and fiction (some ghost-writing)
launched a Patreon (The Mind-Vault) that has over 2 hours of videos on it now, plus about 30,000 words of fiction and commentary; I update it every month with loads of stuff. Right now there are videos on Spenser’s Faerie Queene, an extract from a VERY dark novel I abandoned, and a video on some upcoming projects for 2021.
joined a writer’s mastermind group, Let’s Get Published!
announced my new novel, Dark Hilarity, which is coming January 31st 2021, as well as an exciting new project, Desecrated Empires, an RPG and world-building experience like no other, which is coming later that same year!
And I sometimes wonder why I’m so knackered! I’ve also read some amazing books this year. Here are a few highlights…
A brilliantly written tale of black magic, spirituality, and loss that can’t but rend the heartstrings. I also marks the beginning of an exciting new series. Definitely one to check out if you like creepy-town tales and well-developed characters.
This really surprising novella is The Matrix meets something infinitely more twisted. This is not just a sci-fi, but also a psychological thriller, in that the technology in this book serves to highlight the perversion of human minds. Noir and Mendes build an incredible world here and just give us a toe-dip into it. Definitely looking forward to more from them.
Headcase is a wild and funny romp through vampires, werewolves, demons and other monsters living in our modern world. Expect buckets of gore, one-liners, and a hell of a lot of sex magic. This is really fun and I can easily see this gaining a cult following.
Dungeon Party was the big surprise of 2020 for me. It is one of the most psychologically rich books I’ve read in a while. It follows a group of nerds who love playing D&D together, until one of them is spurned by the DM, and decides to go rogue. There are very real-world consequences for this and the interaction between the game-world and fantasy world are profound. If you liked my book Save Game, you’ll probably really enjoy this. I found the resolution to be slightlytoo neat but the climax that comes before it is really awe-inspiring. The wild-card of 2020!
Okay, I’m massively biased on this one, but my father’s epic narrative poem is unbelievably good, and I’m not the only one saying it! If you like Dante, visions of hell so vivid they scour the brain, commentary on the state of the modern world, and also a personal journey from cancer to recovery, then you will love this. There’s only one word for it — masterpiece.
I don’t need to say much about Tome, because Ross Jeffery is making waves with his fiction. Tome is my favourite thing he’s written and a truly remarkable book that combines so many elements I love: prisons, dark magic, cosmic horror, Christian theology, and finally a little dose of The Exorcist. It’s a tour de force but not for the faint of heart.
The Ash is one of Soule’s best books yet, a horror with bromance that features a stellar cast of characters, some despicable, some virtuous, and all entertaining as hell. The Ash is all about a policeman trying desperately to find his way home during an apocalyptic event, but like Odysseus, he keeps getting diverted. This homecoming tale (a voyage and return if you will) is really quite powerful.
I have probably missed off a few people. If you are one of them, I sincerely apologise. It has been a busy and confusing year!
There are also many books I’ve read which I can’t speak on yet, but the reasons for my secrecy will be revealed in time! Suffice to say, I had an incredible trip to Glastonbury and raided the bookstores there for some fascinating esoteric tomes which I think are going to feed into some new writing.
Outside of the writing sphere, my mother, Linda Sale, has also been hard at work creating a shopfront for her beautiful artwork (some of which features on the front covers of many books!). You can check it out here.
I would also like to take this moment to thank each of my Patreon subscribers, who have kept me going not just with their financial contributions but also with their feedback, encouragement, and creativity. These Thralls and Cultists are: Kelly, Edward, Tom, Christa, Erik, Iseult & Michelle. You are AMAZING people. Thank you.
Lastly, but certainly not least, I would like to thank the truly incredible reviewers who have supported my work with such tenacity. Without them, I would truly have given up long ago. These awesome people include but are not limited to:
So, that’s my year in review. I’m curious, what have you done this year that you’re really proud of? We’ve all achieved things this year, even if it’s just holding on and surviving. Let’s share our success stories and celebrate that we came this far, even through adversity!
Life has been very busy of late in the mindflayer’s pelagic dwelling place. I have had a few epiphanies, and I have re-focused my energies and intentions. That all translates into this: I am now fully committed to becoming an independent author!
As a result of that, I am announcing my next novel, Dark Hilarity! Check out the cover and blurb below!
Tara Dufrain and Nicola Morgan are eleven year old girls growing up in the ‘90s, obsessed by Valentine Killshot, a metal screamo band. In particular, they’re enamoured by the lead singer, the mysterious yet charismatic Jed Maine who bears the epithet “The Cretin”. In Jed’s lyrics, he describes a world beyond the Dark Stars that he hopes one day to reach. The girls think it’s all just make-believe they share together, until a freak, traumatic incident makes this world very real.
As adults, Tara and Nicola try to come to terms with the devastating catastrophe that changed their lives growing up, but to do so they will have to step once more into Jed Maine’s world, and confront the man who took everything from them.
Dark Hilarity is My Best Friend’s Exorcism meets The Never-Ending Story, a fantasy that explores addiction, depression, and the healing power of friendship.
I have no doubts in my mind that Dark Hilarity is the best thing I have ever done. This is for several reasons. Firstly, I’ve been taking a lot of time to work on my craft and improving my prose sentence-by-sentence . But secondly and perhaps more importantly, because I have finally found a way to write about some really personal stuff that happened in my childhood. There are some elements of this people might find surprising or even shocking. It is not my intention to be provocative to shock for shock’s sake, but there are things that I have finally been able to explore in fiction which I never could before. Not all of those are bad things, however. The friendship at the heart of this novel is very real, and has been one of the most redeeming things in my life.
Finishing this book nearly killed me (it’s longer than my usual fare at 110,000 words, but more than that, the emotional dimension of it was so much deeper than anything I had attempted previously), and I wrestled for a long time with whether I should be pursuing agents and publishers, or going my own way. Ultimately I realised I could not “sit” on this novel for years waiting for someone to notice. I had to show it to you, to share it with you. Every word is infused with love. And love is for sharing.
The book will be released in full (paperback and Kindle) on 31st January 2021. Meanwhile, you can pre-order the Kindle from one of the links below! Please do pre-order and help me generate some momentum and interest in this!
I hope you’re safe and well during these weird and unpredictable times. I’ve been hard at work in the creative laboratory, and I can now announce my next project, Dead World: Desecrated Empires, produced in collaboration with fabulous writers Robert Monaghan and Edward Kennard. In addition, we also have a fabulous artist, my own mother Linda Sale, producing some incredible illustrations! Here is a teaser of one I love:
But what is Desecrated Empires? I’m glad you asked!
Desecrated Empires is the ultimate RPG experience and must-have book for lovers of dark fantasy world-building. Set in the twisted and foreboding universe of Dead World, Desecrated Empires allows you to craft taut and immersivenarrative experiences using its unique, strategic rules-system. The “Era of Empires” story-arc, characterised by blood and betrayal, introduces a sophisticated “Competitive Team Play” model that will unleash the full cathartic power of your role-play campaigns. Take control of an adventurer and create your own unique legend, build a campaign as a Dungeon Master using Desecrated Empires’ omnifariousworld-building toolkit, or utilise the special mechanics and tactical nuance of Desecrated Empires’ combat to command armies, build empires, form rebellions, lay sieges, and wage cataclysmic wars in a mythical world.
11 Races (including esoteric or maligned races, such as Featherfolk, Plantfolk, and Undead); each Race hasmultiple unique origins that create further variation
14 unique Classes, each of which offers a radically different style of play, from classic brute Warriors to masters of manipulation such as Illusionists
Every Class can choose one of two paths, empowering players with even more choice, and meaning there are 200+ potential adventurer Race/Class combinations
A progressive Skills system that allows adventurers to learn further crafts outside of their Class, including Blacksmithing, Alchemy, and Arcana; these aren’t static but also progress as you level and learn.
A unique combat system that eschews the clumsier elements of role-play combat in favour of more strategic and tactical gameplay; imagine the precision of an RTS game inserted into a world full of lore and epic stories.
A Bestiary & Diseasary with 100+ entries, each with beautiful descriptions and in-depth mechanics, including many monsters and characters entirely unique to Dead World’s strange universe.
Detailed lore-descriptions of every item, from the humble “Rope” to legendary artefacts such as the “Bloodthirst Cowl”!
With succinct and precise rules-wording, get your Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual all in one explosive volume! No need to buy multiple books.
Here is the epic cover-reveal!
We anticipate Dead World: Desecrated Empires being ready in early 2021! We’ll keep you updated on our progress. Over 97,000 words are written so far, but we have even further yet to go. The whole thing is going to be beautifully produced and brimming with lore and magic!
To get announcements like this even earlier, you can subscribe to my Patreon. In addition, all of my Patrons gain FREE copies of my Kindles / eBooks, including this one!
When I say the words “Gothic novel” to you, a few names and titles might spring to mind. First and foremost is probably the groundbreaking Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) – arguably also the birth of science fiction in its current form. Next, perhaps, would be Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). Then, there’s Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847), Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847), The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde (1890), the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and, for the real aficionados among you, such relics as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). One might also include playful mockeries of the genre, such as Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1803), along with a profusion of short stories so innumerable that it would be foolish to try sum them up here. There are of course numerous twentieth century contributors to the genre, such as Shirley Jackson, and indeed older works, such as the plays of Shakespeare – perhaps most notably Macbeth (1606) and Hamlet (1609) – that whilst not technically “Gothic novels”, certainly laid groundwork for the genre we understand today. In short, it’s a rich genre that’s yielded many gems over the years and continues to be reimagined and interpreted by a variety of writers today. I love the Southern Gothic of writers such as Eden Royce (I highly recommend her two collections Spook Lights I & II). I’ve not read Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, yet, but I’ve yet to see a bad review!
However, today, I want to take you off the beaten track to observe a Gothic novel that possibly stands above all of these (controversial, I know), and yet has been largely forgotten, perhaps due to the obscurity of the writer, perhaps due to changing circumstance and literary taste, or perhaps even due to the cursed and enigmatic nature of its eponymous villain… This novel is Melmoth The Wanderer, published in 1820 by an Irish Anglican curate, Charles Maturin. Melmoth The Wanderer was ostensibly written as a satire of organised religion, specifically Catholicism, but is far greater in scope and cannot adequately be described as purely “satire”, in part due to the sheer horror and power of some of the scenes it describes that climb to the heights of epic.
In my article on How to write Gothic Fiction, I outlined the four key elements I believed were essential to making Gothic fiction work: Mood, Architecture, Religion, Lyricism. It is probably best for me to approach analysing the novel from the perspective of these four tenets, and therefore to practice what I preach!
Melmoth The Wanderer is the most paranoid book I have ever read. Without wishing to cut into the segment on lyricism, the writing style might be described as a horribly compelling labyrinth. Sentences run on, sometimes for entire pages. Just when you think Maturin has lost this thread, he brings his point home, sometimes in ways so surprising and ingenious they’re frightening. The rhythms of the prose in this book began to effect my thought patterns and circadian cycle. I found myself unable to write particularly well while I was reading this book, because Maturin’s infectious prose-style kept taking over my own; it sucked me in, just as our protagonist, John, is drawn into the tale of the eponymous Melmoth. What’s brilliant about this writing style is not just how impressive it is simply for the sake of aesthetics, but also how the style reflects the crumbling and warped psyches of the novel’s characters. For example, here Maturin describes the dichotomy of addiction:
“When once fierce passion is devouring the soul, we feel more than ever the necessity of external excitement; and our dependence on the world for temporary relief increases in direct proportion to our contempt for the world and all its works.”
Maturin writes, at times, with savage zeal, but the brilliant thing is he doesn’t just rant with a singular viewpoint. He gives voices to unexpected characters and allows them to air controversial or disturbing viewpoints. He isn’t a preacher, delivering his moral lessons to the reader in fatuous and belaboured sermons. On the contrary, he seems to delight in having characters justify the unjustifiable, and trusting the reader to discern what’s right and what isn’t, which becomes increasingly difficult as the novel approaches its climax and morality becomes greyer and greyer. It is almost as if the novel, itself, is an article of temptation, a seduction to the darkside.
Unlike many Gothic writers, who resort to supernatural phenomena as a way to excite strong passions or escalate the extremity of their novel, Maturin’s novel plays down the supernatural in favour of human psychology far more disturbed and troubling than any ghost could be. When the supernatural does occur, it’s often with psychological cause. Our mind creates phantoms of doubt and temptation, and these phantoms often become literally realised. At times we are unsure whether there are supernatural events occurring or whether we (and our narrator) are being artfully deceived, which thickens the fog of paranoia. Maturin makes conspiracy theorists of all of us.
In one of the most memorable and haunting sections of the novel, one of the main characters, a bastard Spanish royal by the name of Alonzo Moncada, is forced into a monastery against his will. His time in the monastery is made tortuous by his sadistic fellow monks, who excruciate him physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Eventually, Alonzo discovers who one of his chief tormentors is on their deathbed. Alonzo seeks to forgive his tormentor (and thereby ease his own mind too), but his tormentor refutes his forgiveness, confessing he doesn’t really believe in God, and that monastic life ironically destroyed his belief. Horrified, Alonzo supplicates him, thinking they are kindred spirits after all – both wanting out of the monastic life. He asks if there is any hope of one day escaping the monastery. His enemy says there is no hope, that monastic life will crush all but “two” types of people:
“…those who can every day renew, by aid of imagination, the hope of escape, and who cherish that hope even on their dying bed; and those who, like me, diminish their misery by dividing it, and like the spider, feel relieved of the poison that swells, and would burst them, by instilling a drop of it into every insect that toils, agonizes, and perishes in their net—like you.”
The monk’s dying speech is so spiritually amoral that it led to Melmoth The Wanderer being banned in several regions of Britain and some countries. It is similar to the narrative of the men infected with HIV in the ‘80s, who decided to spread the disease to as many people as possible rather than isolate; and of course, there is also a relevant comparison with COVID-19 behaviours today. To reflect once more on mood, the sheer untenable misanthropy of the dying monk’s final metaphor cannot but work on the reader’s mind, just as it works on Alonzo’s. That is Melmoth The Wanderer’s uniquepower, and we shall see how it is further enhanced by the novel’s architecture.
The topic of architecture in this novel is not lightly taken on, partly because it is one of the most complex books I have ever read. There are two sides to architecture as I see it: literal and structural.
If we address literal first: Melmoth The Wanderer is packed full of many of the usual tropes of Gothic fiction: decaying castles, dusty manors, monasteries, churchyards, asylums and prisons. However, it is the latter two that make up the majority of the novel, and this fact is key to why Melmoth The Wanderer began to fascinate me so much.
Melmoth, our eponymous villain, is a demon of sorts, with powers of translocation and invisibility, among others. His modus operandi is to appear to incarcerated souls and offer them freedom and emancipation in exchange for their souls. The brilliance of this is that Maturin begins to stretch the definition of incarceration as we move deeper into the novel, so that it is not just physical interment, but familial, financial, and eventually, even psychological imprisonment. Linking physical architecture – the trope-settings of Gothic fiction – with an internal landscape of the mind is part of what makes Melmoth The Wanderer so atmospheric and affecting. Dante-esque, Maturin shows us people who are unable to escape the chains of their own behaviours and thought-patterns, and Melmoth himself is an example of such a person, trapped in an endless cycle. He can emancipate others, but not himself. This dichotomy becomes the heart of the novel’s power and tragedy. We begin to feel sorry for Melmoth as he wrestles with his own inescapable destiny. The scholar Chris Baldick observed that “Melmoth is not just a Faust, he is Mephistopheles at the same time” (1989). He is tempter and tempted, and that gives him layers of psychological complexity that even brilliant characters like Victor Frankenstein and Dracula lack. Melmoth is a living hypocrisy.
To now address the structural architecture is far more difficult. Melmoth The Wanderer takes the Gothic concept of the “framed narrative” – a story within a story – to such extremes that they defy sanity. Mary Shelly artfully gives Frankenstein a triple-layer of narrative: we start on a boat heading into the Antarctic, with the Genovese noble Captain Walton, who then hears the tale of Victor Frankenstein, who then in turn relates the tale told to him by The Creature. The Creature’s story is buried at the heart of the narrative, and the other two stories frame it. The structure is logical and creates many intriguing mimetic effects, which I don’t have the space to discuss here.
Now compare this with Maturin’s frames: John Melmoth (a descendent of the “true” Melmoth of the title) attends his relative’s deathbed, and is bequeathed in the Will a narrative from an inmate of an insane asylum called Stanton. So far, so good. But then, Alonzo, the monk that I previously mentioned, is washed up on the beachhead near to where John is staying. Alonzo, recognising John as a descendent of Melmoth, begins to relate his own tale of incarceration in the monastery and eventual encounter with Melmoth The Wanderer. During the course of this tale, Alonzo meets a Jewish scholar by the name of Adonijah, who has retrieved several manuscripts describing a tale that takes place nearly a century earlier, a tale in which a young woman, Immalee, is abandoned on a desert island, only to be discovered by – you guessed it – Melmoth himself. Alonzo has to translate these manuscripts for Adonijah, and he is shocked to learn that they pertain to Melmoth and his own situation, so he relates these stories (third or fourth hand?) to the young John Melmoth… This section is referred to as The Tale of the Indians.Within this story, we meet another character, the father to the abandoned young Immalee, Don Francisco, who in turn relates his own story, and in doing so, relates another tale told to him by a mysterious stranger at an inn (The Tale of the Guzman’s Family). Within this story, there is another story buried (The Lovers’ Tale) and so on – you get the gist.
But the weirdest thing about this structure is less its total insanity but the fact it works. Like Christopher Nolan’s popular film Inception, each layer of reality leads us down to a new more disturbing one, and the deeper we go, the more uncertain we become of what is true, who is speaking, and what it all means. Yet, at the same time, the emotions we feel intensify, as though we’re upping the dosage of a drug. This means that in the latter stages of the novel, the narrative works on us in a way that a more straightforward narrative can’t. Like a dream, it bypasses conscious analysis and plugs into some more emotive and primitive part of our brain, which is what makes it so fucking scary in places, and moving in others.
Through the course of these “descents” we begin to assemble a clear timeline of Melmoth’s life. Melmoth is almost never the main focus of the narrative; he is elusive and alluded to in mysterious whispers and oblique dialogue. He weaves in and out of these seemingly disparate stories, connecting them all. In this way, he becomes far more sinister and compelling than if he’d been “on screen” the majority of the story. Maturin again understands that psychological paradox that what we don’t see is often more frightening than what we do.
So much can be said of the religious elements in this book. The entire novel is steeped in religion, with the language itself laced with Biblical and mythological imagery. For example, there is one friar, whose curses are so vile, Maturin tells us they were “viperous as the suicide foam of the dying Judas”. This imagery is sublimely disturbed. The very religiosity of it is what makes it heretical and unsettling.
Similarly, Maturin’s decimation of organised religion is at once heretical and righteous. It screams into the modern day, but also runs far deeper than superficial modern allegations of corruption and vice in the church. Maturin, himself a member of the clergy, uses his deep immersion in theology to expose deeper spiritualhypocrisies in the church: “The inhabitants of the world you are about to see call this worship—and they have adopted (a Satanic smile curled his lip as he spoke) very different modes; so different, that, in fact, there is but one point in which they all agree—that of making their religion a torment…” We see this reflected in TheSpaniard’s Tale, where the monks devote every hour of the day to contemplating how to inflict misery on others and themselves; and in The Tale of the Indians, where Immalee, having been finally discovered by her parents and brought home from the mysterious island where she grew up, is then educated in strict and rigid Catholicism, which retrogresses all the spirituality she obtained living in the natural world without human contact.
Maturin’s criticism goes well beyond religion, however, also addressing how it intersects with every other facet of human life. Through the mouthpiece of Melmoth educating a wild, young Immalee on human “civilised” life, he offers criticism of
social injustice and urbanisation:
“those who live in uncontrasted and untantalised misery, can hardly feel it—suffering becomes their habit, and they feel no more jealousy of their situation than the bat, who clings in blind and famishing stupefaction to the cleft of a rock, feels of the situation of the butterfly, drinks of the dew, and bathes in the bloom of every flower. But the people of the other world have invented, by means of living in cities, a new and singular mode of aggravating human wretchedness—that of contrasting it with wild and wanton excess of superfluous and extravagant splendour”;
“These people have made unto themselves kings, that is, beings whom they voluntarily invest with the privilege of draining, by taxation, whatever wealth their vices have left to the rich, and whatever means of subsistence their want has left to the poor, till their extortion is cursed from the castle to the cottage”;
“Sometimes exhausted by the monotony of perpetual fruition, which has no parallel even in the monotony of suffering… they amuse themselves by making war, that is, collecting the greatest number of human beings that can be bribed to the task, to cut the throats of a less, equal, or greater number of beings, bribed in the same manner for the same purpose.”
Maturin claimed these views were not his own in his notations, and perhaps they aren’t, but they certainly ring true to modern sensibilities; Maturin’s, or perhaps we should say Melmoth’s, view is that it is often, ironically, the rigidity of rules-systems that compel us to greater acts of depravity than if we were free and wild and could do whatever we wished. One can’t help but think he would be more at home in our time than he was in his own.
But not only is Melmoth The Wanderer a vehicle for satire and critique, it is also a powerful vindication of religious belief. I spoke about the dichotomy of Melmoth as both tempter and tempted, and the novel replicates this psychological duality in its own theological premise: whilst with one hand it brings a wrecking ball against the walls of the Vatican, with the other, it builds an impenetrable fortress dedicated to the beauty and transcendence of true belief. When Immalee observes a humble woman praying at a cross, she exclaims, “Christ shall be my God, and I will be a Christian” – which instantly banishes Melmoth, where no physical force could. The line that Maturin uses to conjure the image of the fleeing Melmoth is taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) (a line which is, in turn, a reference to the final line of Virgil’s Aeneid, circa 29 BC), “He fled murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night.” This line puts Melmoth on the same level as Satan, yet rather than the touch of Gabriel’s almighty spear being the cause of his flight, it is simply a true-hearted declaration of spiritual belief.
As you can see from the length of this article, Melmoth The Wanderer is one of the most quotable books I have read in a long time. I certainly believe a mark of literary greatness is one’s ability to produce quotable work, with the reverse also being true: that bad writers are hardly quotable at all. As my own father, James Sale, wrote in his seminal HellWard(2020), “That poets be oceans; he is a pond. / The final proof? Poetry no-one quotes.”
Melmoth The Wanderer is lyrical to the core. Its imagery, extended metaphors, and prose-styling are astonishingly unique. Maturin oscillates between horror and sublimity with an intensity that Oxford World Classics described as “reckless”; I’m inclined to agree. I can’t say much more about this mammoth 550 page Gothic masterpiece other than it is probably one of the greatest books I have ever read and it has fundamentally changed my outlook on what is possible in fiction. If that is not a good enough recommendation for you, then I don’t know what is. I will say this is not an easy book to read. But, as the subject of this blog (and book) seems to be dichotomy, that is, of course, precisely what makes it so compelling. Like a challenging video-game, it makes us work for its best secrets.
Charles Maturin died in 1824 at the age of forty-four, in abject poverty, just four years after Melmoth The Wanderer was published. Like Keats, he enjoyed very little commercial or critical success in life, and was only truly acknowledged posthumously, and even then, nowhere near to the degree of many of his contemporaries (though Maturin remains very popular in France, where he is revered among the Gothic greats). I am a sucker for the underdog, the reject, and the outcast – the weirdoes working at the fringes. Maturin was odd, maintained odd views, and wrote very odd books. But that does not mean he should be forgotten. Quite the reverse. The oddballs show us the reality of the human condition the rest of us are too scared to believe is real. Indeed, perhaps the reason Melmoth The Wanderer is so quotable is precisely because its leans toward madness. As Alan Moore sadly observed in his magnum opus, From Hell (1989), “Our lunatics were prophets once, and had a prophet’s power.”
Thanks for reading this epic-sized blog! If you’ve come this far, then I can only profusely thank you for your dedication. If you want to support my work, including the production of more detailed content like this, then you can head on over to my Patreon where I post monthly fiction with accompanying breakdowns of how and why the scenes came to be, and behind-the-scenes videos, plus a ton of other bonus content every week!
Credit to :https://www.siff.net/education/sherlock-holmes?fbclid=IwAR1yrownffy0XTb-CeLluP9LROUHvpRC0j-g_bp2kVFBghPJKuTRf57LvSw#elevent for the image
In modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes is often cast as an atheist. We see this most prominently in the BBC Cumberbatch and Freeman adaptation, where Cumberbatch’s Holmes remarks that God is “a ludicrous fantasy designed to provide a career opportunity to the family idiot.” I think this quote summarises neatly my ultimate frustrations and disillusion with the series; the writers profoundly misunderstand the source material, or perhaps have intentionally warped it to conform to a worldview they perceive to be aligned with the zeitgeist. This atheistic sentiment is present in other adaptations as well. In the original Conan-Doyle stories, however, Holmes is a firm believer. It’s amiable Watson who has doubts about whether there really is a God.
This is a fascinating switch, and I think indicates a weakness on the part of modern writers interpreting Holmes. For the ultimate cold and rational “thinking machine” that is Sherlock Holmes to believe in a Creator is not an inconsistency in character, but precisely what makes his character so fascinating. Sherlock Holmes sees patterns that others can’t see, and is able to make incredible deductions from the smallest minutiae. Holmes stands in opposition to the idea of coincidence – everything, in his view, has logical cause and effect; everything has meaning.In a way, Sherlock Holmes is like God himself, an almost omniscient viewpoint, piercing the veil of distractions to see the unseen clues beneath. As much as it is an unexpected juxtaposition, it also makes sense that Holmes would conclude God really exists; he’s perhaps the only mortal person who shares His perspective.
The scene in which Holmes confirms his belief occurs in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, when he observes a small flower, “Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it.” In other words, it’s the existence of superfluous beauty that confirms the cosmos is not accidental; as with all other things, including the crimes Holmes solves, the universe has come into being for a reason.
Humans are, by nature, hypocritical and contradictory. In our modern world of social media backlash and “cancel culture” we believe that to be integrous, we have to be consistent, but such a hypothesis is fundamentally flawed because human beings cannot be consistent in this way. For a start, we grow and develop over time. Our opinions should alter with new experiences, otherwise, what was the point of having the experience? Likewise, just because somebody does a good thing, doesn’t mean they are a good person; the reverse is also palpably true.
Great writers such as Conan-Doyle understood this principle of human hypocrisy and also change. We might also look to Shakespeare for wisdom here. In Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra, Anthony spends the first twenty minutes bemoaning the fact that he is burdened with his marriage to Fulvia, and can’t fully abscond with his true heart’s desire: the beautiful Cleopatra. But when his wife, Fulvia, unexpectedly dies, thereby seemingly freeing him to pursue his heart’s want, he suddenly feels bound by duty to honour his dead wife and break ties with Cleopatra. It seems contradictory or even irrational to us, but how well observed of human nature: that it is often in being freed and liberated from moral duty that we are sobered and clarified on the issue of our wrongdoing. Conan-Doyle similarly explores this in the contradiction of Holmes – the rational scientist – believing in a greater power.
If you want to write great characters, characters who feel real and three-dimensional, then we have to internalise this principle that human beings are deeply inconsistent. It’s clear that Shakespeare, in particular, found a certain joy in this. He loved his characters most when they were being completely hypocritical and unreasonable, as can be evidenced by the enduring popularity (and verbosity) of perhaps his most hypocritical character: John Falstaff. Shakespeare’s best characterssometimes contradict themselves within the same flow of speech, but this only adds to our profound love of them, and often leads to unexpected pearls of wisdom.
If we interrogate ourselves honestly, we’ll find we all have these little idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. By leaning into our own, we can learn to bring them out in our characters, and not only make those characters feel realer, but perhaps surprise ourselves with a revelation – like Holmes seems to surprise himself, looking at the rose, and intuiting all that it means.
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