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New Release: Servants of the Dark Gods!

The silhouette of the king on his knees, he holds two whips for self-flagellation in the middle of a Gothic cathedral with bright sunny stained glass windows , his back is wounded and bleeding 2d art

Hello everyone,

I am pleased to announce my new book SERVANTS OF THE DARK GODS will be released in May! See below the cover reveal!

This collection, set in The Book of Thrice Dead multiverse, pulls together six of my best and most horrifying short stories, three of my most popular dark novellas (including The Meaning of the Dark), and includes a new original short story entitled “Spring Offensive”.

Many of these stories have been out of print for several years, so it is a delight to see them in print again! These stories contribute to the wider lore and origin stories of the principle cast of The Book of Thrice Dead, so those familiar with this series will meet some old friends—and learn some surprising truths.

The stunning cover design was done by dear friend and awesome writer Dan Soule. The art is Warm Tail.

Furthermore, I am delighted to announce that the incredible Lezlie Smith, of The Nerdy Narrative booktube channel, has written a stunning Foreword for the collection. Honestly, it might be better than the stories themselves!

Here is a short extract:

For those familiar with Sale's work, this collection offers a tantalizing glimpse into the origins of characters, tracing their paths through the web of existence to the precipice of villainy. For newcomers, it serves as a portal to worlds beyond imagination, where every story is a gateway to discovery and self introspection.”

You can view the Amazon pre-order page for more information:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amazon CA

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Review of Legends of Liberty Volume 2 by Andrew Benson Brown

In today’s blog we shall continue the trend of reviewing amazing sequels!

In 2021, I reviewed Volume 1 of Andrew Benson Brown’s mock-epic masterpiece Legends of Liberty. Three years later, the much-anticipated continuation will be released March 1st.

The first volume of Legends of Liberty was a masterstroke, blending history with myth, the absurd with the all-too-true, and the blatantly untrue with the sublimely comedic. Volume 2 continues in this vein, effortlessly picking up where we left off at the end of Volume 1.

In brief, Legends of Liberty follows a number of major figures from American history, along with one or two that time seems to have forgotten. We have Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, George Washington, and, on the other side of the pond, King George, Lord Howe, and Thomas Gage.

What is fascinating for historian and casual reader alike is how Benson Brown treats his characters. He viciously satirises them but at the same time handles their stories with compassion and surprising sympathy. For example, his portrait of Benjamin Franklin, or “Lightning Ben”, is of an obsessive who, for all his nerdy attention to scientific details, misses the one truly important thing in his life: his family.

Like all great writers, Benson Brown does not shackle himself to one mode or tone, and often punctuates his wit and humour with real pathos. The stanza below explores Ben Franklin’s return home to find his wife has passed away:

A priest bears crosses with his prioress:

Their souls, in distant abbeys, window-gaze.

A captured lion craves his lioness

And languishes until his cage his raised—

But when, returning to his shaded lair,

He finds the cubs are grown, the mother gone,

His youth departed, cautious of each snare,

His hunting instinct loses taste for fawn.

The priest, likewise, can only pray and nod

When his abstracted nun departs to be with God.”

Quite apart from the sentiment and imagery, which are beautiful and poignant in and of themselves, the control of language—in terms of meter, diction, and rhyme—are totally astonishing. In fact, it is hard to think of any other poet in the English language working today who demonstrates such technical prowess without succumbing to the lure of virtuosity. Benson Brown’s restraint and control render this passage even more moving. Coleridge said that poetry is “The right words in the right order” and Benson Brown’s epic seems the embodiment of this sentiment.

But not only does Benson Brown triumph in these extended images and passages that shape big narrative moments. He is also he master of the pithy and aphoristic witticism, the seemingly throwaway “one-liner” that speaks an entire century’s worth of words:

When morals lead to maxims, lend them:

Those prone to citing rules are liable to bend them.”

The poem is full of similar insightful and funny couplets; they illuminate the story by making the historical and mythological events feel incredibly down to earth. For all the we grandeur of these figures from history (and myth) we recognise in them hypocrisies and human flaws that allow us to access the narrative more fully.

Poetry is often accused of being intellectual and abstract, but Legends of Liberty proves this a false accusation. Legends of Liberty is a poem grounded in the humdrum details of everyday life and ordinary people making the best decisions they can in bad situations. But this everyday and ordinary life also borders realms more weird, fantastical, and dreamlike.

In this way, the evils of King George are explained—and rendered almost sympathetic— through supernatural means: he has been possessed by the Devil, who takes the form of a cockcroach and whispers into King George’s ear. This is an imaginative and ingenious literary device that threads history with layers of biblical significance. Benson Brown further mythologises his version of history with allusions and similes that draw upon the old masters. For example, the ruthless John Burgoyne is described in terms that evoke both the demon Moloch from Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

The third man, John Burgoyne – a dashing idol

Of ladies, scourge of children he’d had ripped

Untimely, from used wombs he wouldn’t bridle,

In marriage (no Macduffs, these babes in crypts) –”

The contrast with Macduff, the hero of Macberth, is savagely ironic. As, unlike Macduff, who is born via Caesarian but lives to save Scotland from Macbeth's tyranny, these children are denied a future by Burgoyne's viciousness. 

Again, though Benson Brown’s poem is a mock-epic—and laugh-out-loud humour abounds—he does not limit himself solely to comedy. This is particularly evident when we reach the bloody details of the Battle of Bunker Hill:

Monomaniacal, Lord Howe made red

Rain down: the sun burned darker, hotter, rayed

Its heat; the planet Mars, enlarging, rowed

Against the starry ocean’s course and reigned

In the red sky, a pumpkin moon; the raid

Uphill accelerated: runners rode

Over the red-stained stumps, all bent like reeds…”

The repetition of “red” and the alliteration of “R” serve to onomatopoeically hammer home the brutality of the conflict. The cosmic imagery of Mars—the planet of war—overhead, altering its celestial path, is juxtaposed with the broken, severed limbs on the ground.

All of this is saying nothing of the notes Andrew Benson Brown has written to annotate his poem, which are almost funnier than the poem itself, or of the incredible attention to detail he has put into designing the poem. Every page features relevant artwork, usually a historical piece that has been manipulated to live up to the poem’s surreal intensity. The text snakes and warps around these images, so that both text and image work together to create something worthy of an art installation. It’s truly mind-boggling the effort and attention this must have required and it seriously augments the poem’s readability and enjoyment even further.

As I said in my last review, even if you are not normally interested in history or poetry, I cannot strongly recommend Legends of Liberty enough. There is so much in both Volumes 1 and 2 to delight you, whether it be the surreal comedy of Thomas Jefferson, having met the ghost of Dante Alighieri, tarzaning butt-naked into a conference of delegates from Virginia, the rap-battle-level dressing down of some of history’s most significant institutions, or the pathos of the human stories that beat at the heart of this “divine comedy”.

You can check out the series page for Legends of Liberty here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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Review of Writing and Rising From Addiction by Brian Bowyer

Every once in a while, one encounters a truly special book. Usually, this book connects with us on an individual level. It feels as though the work was written for us, and that the writer plucked the emotional turmoil out of our minds and fashioned an antidote in the form of alchemical narrative. Not only this, but these special books are usually difficult to place in terms of their genre. They don’t fall into easy categories. In fact, they transcend them.

Writing and Rising From Addiction by Brian Bowyer is one such special book. I have never read a book like it and I highly doubt I am ever likely to read a book like it again. It bears the qualities of a story that simply had to be told, lest the author combust from the internal pressure of the story trying to escape. What is even more astonishing about this book is that it is autobiographical, and whilst the events related seem fantastical—impossible by today’s standards of officious “realism”—the level of detail and the earnestness with which they are conveyed leave me in no doubt that it is all true.

Writing and Rising From Addiction covers the first forty-three years of Brian Bowyer’s (highly eventful) life, from his earliest memories right up until a climactic moment of transformation in his forty-third year. Clocking in at 535 pages, it’s epic in chronological and geographical scope as well as emotional depth.

I must preface everything I’m about to say with this: this is not a book for the faint of heart. If you are looking for a cosy autobiography about a middle-class journey to Hollywood success, then this is not for you. Right from the first page, Bowyer lets us know we’re in for a rough ride, and the darkness of addiction takes hold of his life at an obscenely young age. This book deals with childhood abuse and trauma, violent crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide. Every trigger warning applies. But if you’re brave enough to peer into the abyss, you’ll discover the diamonds within.

Clive Barker was an early influence on Bowyer, and one can see similarity in Bowyer's life and work with Barker's paranormal realities, where the fantastical and ordinary abut one another!

Bowyer’s literary style is one of minimalism, of great empty spaces that the reader can populate with their own responses. Only rarely does Bowyer interrupt the narrative flow to tell us how he felt at a given time. He presents us with events in the cold and methodical way of a pathologist establishing the cause of death. I am not sure this book have been written in any other style. There are no frills or self-indulgences to distract us from the journey. And there is likewise no cushioning to soften the heartbreak. And this book will break your heart. Some of the things Bowyer has endured go beyond torture—they are nearly unspeakable. Yet speak about them he does. 

I am not going to go into great detail analysing specific events in the story, as to do so would be to destroy the wonderful surprise of discovery. I guarantee you will not be able to predict even half of what happens in this story, and even when you do have an inkling of what is about to occur, it is normally by Bowyer’s design, a careful foreshadowing that lets us know storms are gathering on the horizon. But, despite not detailing specific events, there are some devices and themes I want to highlight that contribute to making this book so special.

Firstly, Bowyer understands that in order to tell your own story, you have to establish yourself as the epic hero of yourlife. I’m not saying here that Bowyer is egotistically bigging himself up. On the contrary, he lays his faults bare and then some. He confesses to crimes that are genuinely shocking. Indeed, he walks right up to the line of possible redemption. But, he grasps that even though this is an autobiography, it’s also a story like any other, and he is the protagonist, just as we are all the protagonist of our own lives. And what a remarkable protagonist he is: equal turns absurdly resilient, ingeniously creative, seductive, magnetic, cruel, kind, blind, and despite everything utterly, utterly likeable. You desperately want things to turn out well for Bowyer, and every time they don’t, and life throws him another catastrophic curveball, you feel your heart riven in two. To speak bluntly: the shit this man has endured is worthy of a hundred Hollywood movies, though no one would ever believe it had all happened to one person.

Pulp Fiction was a huge influence on Bowyer, and at one point he seemed poised to take over Hollywood himself.

Secondly, Bowyer is to be praised for unashamedly discussing the numerous supernatural occurrences in his life. Some of these are so startling that they will raise the hair on your arms. If you’re a horror reader and have enjoyed Bowyer’s other books, never fear, this autobiography has plenty of supernatural horror to keep you awake at night. Although, it must be said, the occurrences are so numerous, one has to wonder whether Bowyer himself is the magnet for all these strange apparitions and hauntings. His energy and vitality—despite drug and alcohol abuse on a scale that is difficult to comprehend without reading the book—suggest a supernatural power working through him. And indeed, that power works upon us via his book as he keeps us hypnotically glued to the page, hanging on every word.

One of the aspects I found most fascinating is how Bowyer weaves in both his love of books, and the writing and publication of his own novels, throughout the narrative. As a big fan of Bowyer’s novels, particularly Autumn Gothic and Flesh Rehearsal, I was fascinated by Bowyer’s journey as a writer. He discovers a love of reading in the most unlikely of circumstances, and from there always has a book in hand, at one point amassing a library of nearly five thousand paperbacks. As you might expect, the books he is reading and writing—and the music he selects, as he is also a talented songwriter and guitar-player—always seem to have a strange relationship with the events in his real life. Fiction is imitating life, to a degree, but it is also occurring the other way around, with his life taking on dimensions of the fiction he devours and creates. Bowyer is deftly able to explore the notion that stories, just like drugs and alcohol, can become another method of escapism, and there is a peril in that of a different kind. But unlike drugs and alcohol, there is also a hope and a healing to be found.

Ultimately, Writing and Rising From Addiction is a unique work, an autobiography that reads like a modern gothic novel, an epic that remains intensely personal, a true story that stretches credulity to its utter breaking point, a moment in history that yet feels like an eternal archetype. I devoured hundreds of pages in single sittings. It is utterly compelling just as it is disturbing. At times, the journey feels so bitterly dark you wonder whether you will ever find the light—only to emerge like Dante at the foot of the mountain of Purgatory, startled and awed, the black of hell falling away from your eyes. Writing and Rising From Addiction is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in horror, writing, addiction, magic, and love. It is a testament to the human spirit and the courage necessary to follow the ineffable paths set before our feet by powers mightier than ourselves.

You can get the book at one of the links below:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

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Review of The War Eternal by Rob J. Hayes

I recently had the pleasure of finishing the fifth and final book in Rob J. Hayes’ dark fantasy series The War Eternal. For many of you, Rob J. Hayes needs no introduction. He is an independent author taking the world by storm with his epic fantasy and sci-fi novels. I read (and reviewed) the first book in the series, Along The Razor’s Edge, last year, and it was compelling enough to entice me to read the next book in the sequence. Initially, I wanted to review each book as I read along, but given the number of fantasy series that are either unfinished or don’t stick the landing, I decided to restrain that impulse and read through to the very end, then write a review of the whole thing.

Suffice to say, Rob J. Hayes absolutely sticks the landing. The War Eternal is epic not just in the modern sense of a loose genre-cleping, but in the true, original meaning of the word. As a diehard fantasy fan, The War Eternal reminded my slightly cynical older self exactly why I had fallen in love with the genre in the first place, and showed just how powerful the genre can be in the hands of someone prepared to push its limits.

There are a few key aspects of this series that make it really special. One of which is character. Good novels and great ones are often separated by two major factors in my humble view: structure and character. We’ll come onto the structure of The War Eternal in a little bit, but for now I want to zoom in on the characters, who are truly this series’ strength. Rob J. Hayes has a bit of a magical way with getting you to like his characters, even when they behave like idiots, or worse when they behave despicably.

First and foremost, there’s our first person point of view narrator, the protagonist, Eskara Helsene. Eskara is an amazing protagonist for a number of reasons. She is incredibly powerful, which opens up a huge range of possibility for a storyteller (though it can also be daunting, and in the wrong hands the power takes away the tension of the novel). Eskara is full of those little hypocrisies (or some people prefer to call them idiosyncrasies) that make people who they truly are. My favourite example of this is to be found in Sherlock Holmes. Modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes totally miss the point of the character by making him an atheist. Turning Holmes into a ranting Dawkins-esque killjoy makes his character mono-dimensional and rather less interesting than having him stand at the absolute pinnacle of logical intelligence yet also hold room in his heart for the idea of a higher power, which is how he is presented in the original Arthur Conan-Doyle stories (it’s actually good-natured Watson, the surgeon, who has doubts).

Eskara is similar to Holmes, in this regard, only she is the other way around. Eskara is not only continually confronted with living proof of the gods, the afterlife (or at least that the soul exists after the body is gone), demonic entities, and other worlds, she even wields necromantic power connected with these realms, so has experienced them more fully and cogently than, say, an ordinary person without magical attunement. Yet, she refuses point blank to “believe” in anything more than the body. She is a creature of the flesh, without a religious bone in her, and time and again she chooses the flesh over the spirit, the body over the heart, despite being a sort of epicentre for the conflux of these energies and spiritual forces. Put another way, The War Eternal feels like the tale of Joan of Arc if Joan constantly denied the spiritual forces at play in her life. This might sound frustrating, and one or two times it is, but it’s also funny, perceptive, and a wonderfully original way to explore a fantasy world. The eyes of a complete rationalist render a lot of the fantastical elements—the creatures and places, the magic-system and metallurgies—concrete. Ovaeris feels like a place you can touch, taste, smell, hear—a place that really exists because of this logical consistency.

But we are not done with hypocrisies and paradoxes. Eskara, despite her rationalism, is also a creature of wild rage and overwhelming emotion. At times, she is prepared to make the ultimate, logical sacrifices for the greater good. At other times, she is willing to throw away a planet to meet her emotional needs. She wars (and note carefully that choice of words) with depression and anger throughout the story. Louise Hay once said that “Depression is anger you do not feel you have a right to have.” Rob J. Hayes absolutely nails the psychological reality of this. Everything we are told about Eskara (or maybe it should be said: that she tells us about herself), leads us to believe the things she has endured would have shaped her in this way. There is a logic even to her illogical actions. She, too, feels totally real.

And one last thing to say about Eskara, and this tying into the world-building. Not only is the world Rob J. Hayes has created a unique fantasy world that yet incorporates enough of the great tropes you love (deserts full of bustling cities, portals to other worlds, taverns full of horny bards, and multiple gibbous moons) to give you those feel-good chills, but it is also a mirror of Eskara, our protagonist. In other words, the outer world mirrors the inner world. The shifting landscape of Ovaeris is, in many respects, reflective of the shifting landscape within Eskara, and as the threat to this world mounts and increases in power, we begin to realise just what this threat allegorically embodies, and just what is really going on inside Eskara.

But Eskara, whilst the undisputed star of the show, is not the only phenomenal actor in this series. As with any great fantasy story, we need a cast of mad adventurers to accompany our protagonist on their journey. There’s Tamura, a crazy old martial-artist who only speaks in riddles. Hardt, a gentle giant with a dark past. Imiko, a thief who becomes a little sister to Eskara. Later on, we meet Eskara’s daughters, one of whom becomes the focal point of book 4: Sins of the Mother. These are fairly major characters, however. Rob J. Hayes also understands that the minor characters need their moments to shine too, whether they be smooth-talking merchants, Polasian sword-masters, or garn battle-masters. I haven’t told you about the garn yet. They are awesome. Absolutely fucking awesome. That’s about all I can say without writing an essay on them.

There is one character I have left out, a quite major omission, and that is Ssserakis. There is not too much I can say about Ssserakis without giving away major spoilers. In ludicrous summary we might say that he is the yang to Eskara’s yin, the certainty to her doubt, the wrath to her emotional weakness, the pride to her cripplingly low self-esteem, a constant, beautiful foil for our protagonist who really embodies the Jungian idea of a “shadow self”, a version of us composed of all the facets we have rejected. Without Ssserakis, the story would still be good but not reach the heights of greatness that it does. Suffice to say, the way Ssserakis and Eskara’s characters develop together, their fates entwined, is truly a masterpiece of storytelling that evokes the brilliance of Tolkien’s trio: Frodo, Sam, and Gollum.

Speaking of fate, and character arcs, brings us to structure. Overall, The War Eternal is pretty watertight, though it’s quite clear that the story was originally planned as a trilogy, for the first three books form an arc that is relatively complete in and of itself. There is a time jump at the start of book 4 of several decades, and the Eskara Helsene we meet at this point has changed considerably, at the very least on the outside, but perhaps a little on the inside too. This time jump means that certain characters have moved more to the background of the story, which may displease some fans, and I admit I was sorry to see a couple of my favourites relegated. However, this relegation is in service to the true heart of the story, which we discover—and is explored most fully—in the final book, aptly named Death’s Beating Heart.

Because you see, The War Eternal has meaning on many levels. Yes, there is a literal “War Eternal” in the story that is being fought between rival factions of petty gods. But that is really just scratching the surface. The true War Eternal is being fought within. At this point, I have to admit that I cannot truly review this series in an unbiased way.

In 2017, I became suicidally depressed, though in truth it had probably been building towards this point in my life for a while. I knew, for the sake of my wonderful partner (now wife), for the sake of my family and friends, I had to fight against this depression, and fight I did. But the thing about depression is it cannot be killed. It is not an external foe who can be slain with a sword or hammer. It can only be kept at bay with a titanic effort of will and daily vigilance. Of course, these days, I am happier than I have ever been. I have a wonderful daughter who fills my life with pure, unadulterated magic. I have the best wife in the world. My mother and father are living angels (they even bought me book 5 of Rob J Hayes’s series as a 30th birthday present, so it feels even more right to mention them here!). I am surrounded by the most crazy and amazing friends anyone could wish for (and who make for the perfect inspiration for a band of fantasy adventurers). So depression feels very, very far away.

But…

I am not so arrogant as to relax my vigilance—not for one second. I am not telling you this to make you feel sorry for me, but simply to convey what it is like, and also to explain that whether Rob J. Hayes had experienced depression himself, I do not know, but he writes about depression with tremendous compassion and insight. And the ending of this series reaches a truly sublime apogee in which all the struggles I have just discussed are intertwined with the epic fantasy narrative, with the world-building and magic-system and the lore, in such a startling and symbolic way that, I freely admit, I broke down and wept.

The War Eternal isn’t perfect. Nothing is. I could put my editor hat on and nitpick diction here or structure there. But these are pointless, pernickety niggles. The beating heart of The War Eternal is what matters, and it is a powerful heart indeed, a heart that cannot fail to move you, whether with humorous aphoristic insight, with roiling emotional drama, or with what approaches a spiritual synthesis at the end. The War Eternal is a book written by a burgeoning master-storyteller who really has something to say about psychology, religion, life and loss, and about who we are as human beings fighting the War Eternal for the salvation of our own souls.

***

You can check out Rob J. Hayes’s War Eternal series on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CHS34BX5

Rob J. Hayes is also running a Kickstarter for phase 1 of his new 9-book sequence The God-Eater Saga, which I highly recommend you back: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/godeater-phase1/3-epic-fantasy-novels-the-god-eater-saga-phase-1

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FANTASY, HORROR, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

Recently, I had the good fortune to see my novel The Claw of Craving reviewed over on Monster Librarian. The fantastic reviewer, Murray Samuelson, opened the review with a really profound and intriguing observation:

Some of the best horror novels of the 80s and 90s weren’t really horror at all. They were, at heart, fantasy books with a dark core, with James Herbert’s Once, Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, and Ronald Kelly’s Fear being standout examples.”

In my view, he is absolutely right, and has hit upon a truth that leads us to thought-provoking questions about our contemporary and genre-obsessed era. In my view, it’s undoubted that some of the best “horror” novels of the twentieth century were, in fact, epic, sprawling fantasies that contained dark or horrifying scenes. But more than that, I would argue the connection between fantasy and horror has existed for a much longer time. We need only think of the nineteenth century gothic novels, with their dazzling supernaturalism and magic alongside scenes of cannibalism and terror (I’m thinking of Melmoth The Wanderer here), to realise that horror and fantasy are inextricably linked despite occupying separate shelves in Waterstones (or Barnes & Noble, if you are a friend from across the Atlantic!).

If we consider the conceptual nature of “fantasy” and “horror” this connection becomes not only more interesting but also self-explanatory. A “fantasy” is something we dream of, something that carries with it positive connotations of hope, magic, and illumination. There is also a sexual and desirous undertone, which is where the danger comes in, for a fantasy is often something taboo in society, something we must confine to the realms of dream lest it be enacted in reality at terrible cost… As you can see, we’re already veering into the territory of horror. What is horror but the nightmare to fantasy’s dream? Horror is the unveiling of that which lies in the subconscious psyche of its readers. The early gothic masterpieces, despite predating the establishment of psychological theory by some way, have an undeniably psychological bent to them, an inherent understanding that ghosts, whilst they may be literal, truly stand for the aberrances of our memory, the hauntings of guilt and shame and regret and love lost that manifest in a tangible way in our livesin ways that feel like horrible magic. But are we not now veering back into fantasy?

Horror and fantasy might be seen as two sides of the same coin, though I think it is more accurate to say they are a yin-yang, a ceaseless dance of “opposites” that in reality form a oneness. Desire creates fear creates desire creates fear in an endless cycle that leads us deeper into the mysteries of the human soul.

So, when did this bifurcation occur? When did we decide that horror and fantasy were separate entities, and that too much of one “spoiled” the other?

The honest answer is, of course, no one knows for certain. I am sure that an academic could research and reason out a fairly probable conclusion. But no answer can reflect the great complexity of forces that shapes human thought over decades or centuries. Tolstoy wrote despairingly about the folly of attempting to do such a thing, so I will not try. The truth is, over time, things change, and one thing that changed was that around the mid-twentieth century, fantasy began to acquire a new aesthetic and identity that was more aligned with the bright and colourful covers of Dungeons & Dragons modules than with the magic-strewn brutality of The Nibelungenlied. Our image of what fantasy is became altogether more aligned with Tolkien’s The Hobbit. That isn’t to say writers weren’t writing dark fantasy—they always have been and always will—but the fantasy in the public eye, and what critics and readers considered fantasy, was becoming dragons, treasure hoards, elves, dwarves, and heroic battles.

Let me be clear, I love all of those things with unapologetic and childlike abandon.

But I also have a darker side. As an eighteen year old, who knew he wanted to be a writer but didn’t know how, I remember reading Stephen King’s The Stand and meeting Randall Flagg for the first time, and having my tiny mind blown, realising that the mythic grandeur of old tales could still be told upon a modern canvas. I was awed equally by the dark magic that lived in the hands of this leather-jacket wearing madman, and by the cruelty of which he was capable; the gloves were off. No cutaways or convenient concealed armour. Here, I had a taste of fantasy and horror meeting in the middle. But it wasn’t until I was much older, in my late twenties, that I would experience Clive Barker for the first time, and realise what was truly possible when fantasy and horror collided.

Fantasy and horror complete each other. Fantasy without horror feels trite and shallow (and also highly predictable), whereas horror without fantasy feels nihilistic and obscene. Some people do enjoy books about relentless torture without hope, but I think they are in the minority. For most of us, the horror of someone’s skull being kerb-stomped into smithereens must be tempered by the awe and wonder of a spirit materialising in the hour of need; the beauty of a first magical kiss must be properly seasoned by the bloody hand of a cowled killer. This interplay is, to my mind, what I find sorely lacking in many novels, both horror and fantasy, but the fantastic news is we are now seeing a glorious revival of this genre marriage.

Of course, I cannot cite every example, because no one can read everything out there in the world, but here are just a few of recent books I’v encountered embodying the best of fantasy and horror:

BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie is perhaps one of the greatest fantasy novels I have ever read: occult, metaphysical, labyrinthine, daring, bloody, mystical, yet bizarrely and paradoxically hopeful. It is one of the most hyperviolent and hypersexual stories I’ve ever encountered, and yet it wields its violence and sexuality not for the sake of shock value, but to probe the absolute limits of the human condition and human sanity. BleakWarrior is a non-dual meditation on the interconnectedness of all things, explored via the medium of a darkly fantastical world whose rules can be bent and broken by those with sufficient madness and will. It is Highlander with occult philosophy and a triple R rating.

Daniel Volpe’s A Story of Sorrow is a splatterpunk fantasy that pushes the brutality of a dark, medieval world to its very limits. Volpe’s characters are callous and bloodthirsty, his magic is twisted and disturbing, and yet within this harsh framework is a vitality of human spirit, even a sense of adventure. Though A Story of Sorrow is really only a brief toe-dip into Volpe’s world, I am excited to see where his story goes. It has an episodic feeling which is very much aligned with fantasy’s roots, yet is clearly all building to a crescendo which will transform our woebegone hero from a killer into something more. Then again, perhaps I’m projecting my optimism onto a story that is, ultimately, one of sorrow…

Full Metal Octopus by Carlton Mellick III is filed under bizarro, but at heart is a fantasy novel that contains scenes of nightmarish horror, especially for those with claustrophobia. The novel follows a precocious fairy, Eliot, living in the slums of Grub Town—a city located in Mellick’s fantastical version of America—who gets involved in a gang war on a mythical scale. The adventure features tentacle sex, death-by-vaginal-constriction inside lamia strippers, and yakuza elves. The tone oscillates between enchanting romance, pure weird, and a desperate bid for survival in the bleak reality of a world that stands allegorical of our own whilst losing none of its dark magic. The ending made me ugly cry. It’s a tour de force that, for all its modern perversions, exposes the true, enduring power of magic and fantasy and its connection with the timeless hope that lives in the human spirit. Truly a masterpiece.

The Serpent King by Brian Barr is an occult, science-fantasy epic that contains scenes of abject horror intermingled with startling, dazzling magic. Set in another galaxy, one in which serpents rather than apes have become the dominant, sapient species of their planet, The Serpent King charts the rise and fall of the galaxy-spanning Nagan empire and the quixotic sorcerer Zian. Brian Barr has one of the most fecund imaginations of any writer working today, and his unique blend of science-fiction and fantasy offers up a feast of world-building and sociological commentary that cuts to the bone of contemporary struggles. In addition, Barr’s understanding of occult principles lends grisly verisimilitude to his magic. The Serpent King is equal parts Illuminati conspiracy, a satire of that very premise, and a terrifying bloodsoaked tragedy, all combined by the finest of dark alchemical magics.

Iseult Murphy’s The Mountains of Sorrow may seem like a cute tale about a wood-witch and her squirrel friends, but do not be deceived. The Mountains of Sorrow contains harrowing scenes worthy of a canto in Dante’s Inferno. The evil queen, Zelda, may sound like a princess from a popular video-game series, but she is anything but: Zelda is a cruel, terrifying antagonist whose masterplan is so callous and gruesome it leaves one reeling. Murphy uses the fantasy setting to brilliantly underscore her horror themes by way of contrast. For example, juxtaposing the beauty of the natural world and those who defend it with those who worship technological idols, and the sacrilege of the human flesh and spirit that is the only possible result of such idolatry.

I also want to add a forthcoming book to this list. I had the privilege of reading Stolen Pallor by Sean Eads and JoshuaViola, a book soon to be published by Blood Bound Books. This novella is a darkly fantastical horror that explores the meaning of art. Set in a modern world that parallels our own, yet is also just different enough to enchant us, we are soon drawn down the rabbit hole of strangeness until we reach what seems the very precipice of hell itself. This book feels like Fincher’s Seven and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser conceived a warped lovechild. It has such sights to show you.

Well, I think that does it for now. Thank you so much for coming this far. If you can think of any books that do this well and haven’t been mentioned, or would like to chat about the ones I have included, please let me know in the comments! As always, my love to you, brave explorers of these subterranean realms!

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THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF NICHOLAS APPLEYARD, AUTHOR OF GRIMMSBANE

Hello my dear friends,

Today I have tragic news, but also hope.

For over a year, I worked with a writer called Nicholas Appleyard. He was a phenomenally talented author writing a fantasy epic called Grimmsbane. Sadly, he passed away on Christmas Eve of last year, due to cancer, before his book could see the light of day. He is survived by his wife and his daughter.

I can’t begin to express how I feel about this. Over the course of working with Nick, we became friends. I won’t pretend we were best mates, or exceedingly close, but we shared a laugh and a love of old-school fantasy stories.

It was Nick’s dream to see his book in print. And he was so damn close. The only items left to complete were a final edit, the book’s description, and the technical process of uploading it onto Amazon. Nick was within a hair’s breadth of realising his life-long ambition.

Over the last few months, I’ve been working alongside his wife and daughter to help put the book out into the world. It is, after all, what Nick would have wanted. All the royalties will go to his daughter, whom he adored and whom the book is dedicated to.

I’m asking all of you now to support this book, so that we can remember the life and legacy of a great man: a father, a friend, and a fantastic writer.

But you shouldn’t buy this book just to support his family, or to honour a dead poet, though both of these are certainly worthy causes. You should buy this book because it’s actually bloody brilliant. In my Foreword to Grimmsbane, I wrote:

His writing was not only passionate and rousing, as any good fantasy epic should be, but hair-raisingly supernatural, romantic, blackly comic, and deeply psychological. At times it was a struggle to edit his manuscript because I simply wanted to read on and discover what happened next...”

And if that were not enough, here is the description of the book, along with a review I wrote for Nick before he sadly passed away:

Conan The Barbarian meets George R. R. Martin in this epic revitalisation of the sword and sorcery tale…

In times past, the Grimm Horde—a cursed people corrupted and commanded the dread sorcerer Aihaab—were defeated and banished to the underground kingdom of Ash Ul M’on. Their master, Aihaab, was slain, and the world breathed a sigh of relief.

But now fell auguries whisper that the darkness has returned. Crows circle the skies. Men quarrel and worship the shadows. And a changeling warrior, Steeleye, adopted by the noble clans of the North, dreams of a vast field of destruction and death in which a beautiful red-headed woman calls to him.

Though Aihaab was defeated, his seven dark servants—great demons of old—were not. Called by the Goddess of Death, The Morriggu, Steeleye must now embark upon a quest to rid the world of these ancient terrors before their new master, a force far more terrifying than Aihaab, completes the work Aihaab left undone…

Grimmsbane is the startling first book in the intended Steeleye series, an epic sword and sorcery tale in the tradition of Robert E. Howard. Combining heroic fantasy with cosmic horror, Grimmsbane explores the psychological price of heroism, the meaning of fellowship, and what it means to face one’s death with courage.

Most fantasy is described as ‘epic’ but really isn’t. Grimmsbane is. Somehow Nicholas Appleyard has resurrected the classical sense of epic heroism, and more than that, has combined it with profound, modern psychological insight. With rich characters and compelling mythology, Grimmsbane is a feverously passionate narrative of death and glory; page-turning fiction at its very finest.” —Joseph Sale, author of The Book of Thrice Dead

You may have noticed that Grimmsbane was intended as the first book in a series, and this may put some people off buying. I understand this sentiment, as no one wants an unfinished story. But Grimmsbane is a complete and satisfying tale. What’s more, I have every faith that the series is going to be continued, either by Nick’s daughter—who is also a talented writer—or by someone else who knew and loved him.

Ultimately, all storytelling is an act of “passing the torch”, either onto the next generation, or simply onto the next soul willing to listen. My hope is that the legend of Nicholas Appleyard continues to be told and retold for generations to come, and that his inspiring book catalysts the birth of new fantasy writers sharing his sense of heroism, of humour, and of beauty.

Grimmsbane is available here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

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Entering Carcosa Part 8: Deadly Premonition

Hello my dear friends. Entering Carcosa has returned from beyond the veil. For those who don’t know what Entering Carcosa is, way back in 2018 I started up a series of articles talking about modern epics in unconventional mediums, such as videogames, anime, and anthologic series. There were seven installations in this epic series before I finally called it a day; seven seemed apt as it’s a divine number, and a number intimately connected with the epic. For example, epic heroes have seven key qualities1.

However, I recently had an experience so earth-shattering that I’ve been compelled to reopen the warped gateway to Carcosa and add one additional entry: Deadly Premonition.

For those who know what Deadly Premonition is, you may be scratching your heads; can it really be considered epic? But trust me, if any narrative has earned its place in the halls of dim Carcosa, home of the epic, it’s this unconventional masterpiece by the mad genius SWERY65.

So, what is Deadly Premonition? In short, it’s a 2010 videogame released exclusively for the Playstation 3 (it subsequently was re-released in various formats, including a Director's Cut, which is the version I played). It had one of the most divisive launches of any videogame in history, with players at loggerheads over whether the game was a strange masterpiece or a janky failure. Over time, the game and its creator has developed a cult following, and Deadly Premonition has become legendary in the industry as one of the most unique and original games ever made.

When I settled down to play Deadly Premonition, albeit twelve years late to the party, I knew something of what to expect. Or so I thought. I’d seen clips of the game on YouTube. I’d seen memes made out of some of the game’s more esoteric or gonzo moments. But the truth is, as Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix, “There is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.” And, “You cannot be told what The Matrix is. You have to be shown.” I’d been told a lot about Deadly Premonition, I knew a lot about the game, but honestly none of that could prepare me for what I experienced.

For those used to more traditional game-reviews, this article is not going to go deep into gameplay mechanics—although there is a lot to be said about them. This series is about epics and narrative, and so we’re going to keep pretty focused throughout on what makes the story of Deadly Premonition, and how it’s unfolded to the player, so special.

The premise starts off in a relatively familiar fashion. FBI agent Francis York Morgan is dispatched to an isolated town in rural America called Greenvale. A young woman has been murdered in a particularly brutal fashion, and York is something of a specialist in cases involving the murder of young women. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, he’s an expert profiler who understands the psychology behind the killers, especially killers who prey on vulnerable girls; the second reason, of course, is a deep personal motivation which is only revealed towards the middle of the story.

Detectives—which is essentially what York is—are really the equivalent of the knight-errants of classical literature. Knights are men and women bearing special badges of office and talismans of authority, charged with a quest, something they have to go out and seek by whatever means they have available to them. Detectives are no different. They are special individuals granted a badge of office and weapons that allow them to go out and seek the object of their quest. In most cases: the Truth. This is quite an intriguing development of the quest theme because it allows the quest to unfold not just spatially but also chronometrically, aka, across the sands of time. This is very relevant for discussing Deadly Premonition, which is incredibly preoccupied with our relationship with time.

But to come back to knights, in other words, we have an archetypal setup: knight on quest, detective on mission. However, York is anything but conventional, and the quest he is about to see to its dark conclusion is metaphysical, spiritual, indeed, even cosmic.

Let’s explain why York is so unconventional. Please note this is going to involve spoilers, so if you want to go into Deadly Premonition blind, then please stop reading and enjoy on your own terms! In honesty, it’s probably the best way to experience the game. However, if you don’t have a PS3 or aren’t likely to play it, then enjoy my all-too-brief examination.

There are two things about York that make him such a unique and fascinating character. Firstly, there’s his weird and wonderful mind. Our introduction to York sees him driving down a rain-slick highway towards Greenvale. He’s on the phone with one of his FBI superiors. He’s discussing a case, or at least that’s what we think. He describes how the victim is in an abusive relationship.

They both need each-other. It’s called interdependency. Yeah, I know. He does terrible things to Tom. Nasty, even sadistic things. But that’s fine, as long as that’s what Tom wants...”

About mid-way through York’s monologue, you realise he’s talking about the cartoon Tom & Jerry. I laughed out loud at this. But while it’s a hilarious gag, and instantly locates York as a kind of obsessive nerd with glimmers of genius, it’s also a subtle foreshadowing of what’s to come. Indeed, a terrible co-dependent (or interdependent as York terms it) relationship is at the heart of the villainy plaguing Greenvale, and one of the members of this relationship is even called Thomas!

So, York’s whacky mind, which draws comparisons with unconventional sources, is one point of interest about him. But if that were not enough, he also talks to himself. Or rather, he talks to an imaginary friend called Zach. This is perhaps one of the most powerful and important aspects of the entire story. On a surface level, Zach basically seems like a cipher for the player themselves. York calls on Zach for guidance, and as we—the player—are literally “controlling” York in the game, there’s almost a sense of Zach being the guiding hand of the player upon him. This meta-device doesn’t come across as pretentious, however. Instead, it establishes a kind of delicate intimacy between York and the player. Suddenly, you feel very responsible for York, like he is baring his very soul to you. It’s also a good excuse for York to explain complex ideas very directly to the player. Lastly, it’s also played for a few laughs: picture if you will the anxious inhabitants of Greenvale when they realise that their supposed expert FBI investigator has an “imaginary friend” advising him on the case!

If this were all Zach was, it would make for great entertainment. But just over halfway through the story, we realise Zach is something more. Indeed, the revelation of what or who Zach is, is perhaps the most astonishing scene in the whole game. Although, having said that, it has stiff competition, because there are at least four or five other moments of sublimity that indelibly leave their mark. But I’m skipping ahead.

York explains to Emily—the deputy Sheriff of Greenvale and a woman whom he slowly starts to develop feelings for throughout the story—that when he was seven years old, his father killed his mother then put the gun to his own head and committed suicide. York witnessed the whole thing. In the depths of this tragedy, however, York heard a still, quiet voice, like Elijah does in the Old Testament. The voice said, “I am here with you. I will always be here with you. You are not alone.” The voice comforted the traumatised seven-year-old York and became his companion ever since.

I confess the revelation Zach is not merely a narrative joke, but connected to something so deeply traumatic, so deeply moving, so deeply spiritual, shocked me into floods of tears. I thought I understood what Deadly Premonition was: a zany horror game with great dialogue and janky mechanics. But this made me realise Deadly Premonition was going to offer a lot more, it was going to become a spiritual journey.

And indeed, there’s even more to say about Zach. In the final terrifying confrontation with the evil at the heart of Greenvale, where York must face an impossible choice, we realise that York’s memories of the event of his parents’ death are not entirely accurate. He has suppressed one truth because of the pain. The truth is that he was originally Zach. Zach is his real name and his childhood self. His pure and uncorrupted divine self. York is the bitter and hardened armour he has built around it. York is essentially a personality construct, an image Zach has made up that fits his idea of what a “man” or “detective” should look like. Zach is the true version of himself, a vulnerable and scared version, an inner child.

If you're paying attention, you'll realise that this "interdependent" relationship between York and Zach is a mirror of the evil interdependent relationship foreshadowed by the Tom and Jerry joke at the start of the whole story... Premonition indeed. And this, of course, means that unlike the villains, who are stuck in their ways, York and Zach have to change, which leads us to arguably the most incredible moment of. the whole story, a moment that took my breath away.

At the crisis point, the protective personality construct, York, recognises the spiritual danger faced by Zach and Emily, recognises that the inner child might be finally killed if he does not act, and sacrifices himself to protect the inner child. It’s a moment of astonishing beauty and pathos. It not only has massive psychological implications, for don’t we all have these armoured shells we use to deflect pain, and aren’t there always situations that cause us to make difficult choices about them? But it also has Jungian and metaphysical meanings. York is Zach’s projected self, a cigarette-smoking anti-social persona. But he is also a protective angel constructed from a child’s terrified imagination. Throughout this story, York has acted like a guardian angel, shouldering the burden of horror and pain so that Zach doesn’t have to. But in the final moments, Zach must stand on his own and face the very evil that scarred him in the first place. I don’t think I need to use any of the technical terms surrounding epic literature to convey the simple fact that this is epic, cathartic, even sublime.

These examples all come from the main story of Deadly Premonition, the meat and bones, but the brilliance is that just as much loving attention and detail was paid to the minor characters and side-plots (bear in mind that all good epics must show scale and scope). Indeed, there is a b-character called “The General” who owns a junkyard, and does car repairs. York notes early on that “The General” is actually wearing a Sergeant’s insignia, and begins to suspect that most of The General’s war stories are in fact bullshit. Over the course of the game, you can run errands for The General, and each time you complete one he will fix up your car (which has in-game benefits) and share another war story.

The General tells us three tales. The first is exceedingly comic, centred around soldiers nearly dying from diarrhoea. The second is a little more grounded, in that it details how the soldiers failed to make an attack upon an enemy base in time, which resulted in mass casualties. In both of these stories the General repeatedly expresses his hatred for their squad’s Sergeant, a man called Timothy, whom the General refers to as “cry baby Timothy”. Timothy is one of those officers with very little military experience, elected due to their degree qualifications and little more. Timothy continually exhibits behaviours of cowardice, which enrages The General even in memory. York notes, however, that the General spends a lot of time talking about Timothy considering how much he supposedly hates him… The third story reveals the truth of the matter. The General nearly died from dehydration during one particularly gruelling battle. He collapsed and blacked out. When he awoke, there was water on his face and in his mouth. A body lay next to him, dead. Thesoldier had run back and forth between a puddle and carried water to The General’s parched lips. It was “cry baby Timothy”. He was shot dead saving The General’s life. The General could not psychologically reconcile the man he hated and thought of as a coward with the man who risked his life to save him. Hence, The General’s contrary,cantankerous, and divided nature, and why he wears a Sergeant’s lapel even though he eventually rose to a much higher rank. If this isn’t genius writing, I don’t know what is.

And that’s just one of the many side stories you can find in the town of Greenvale. Deadly Premonition is a treasure trove. Every time I thought I had exhausted a character’s dialogue they gave me more. Every time I ran an obscure errand for a character, I told myself the payout would be trivial, and yet I was rewarded time after time with depth: dialogue, cutscenes, story, and all of it interconnected, all of it adding up, all of it becoming part of this glorious whole. Indeed, in any great story, every microcosm reflects the whole. This is important, especially when Deadly Premonition takes on such deep themes.

And what are these themes? It would be easy to see Deadly Premonition is a bit of an eclectic mess, equal parts Twin Peaks, Japanese anime, and True Detective (although Deadly Premonition actually came out four years before True Detective, and I can't help but see parallels—the opening shot of True Detective's first episode is almost identical with the opening of Deadly Premonition; was Nic Pizzollato inspired?). However, despite the mix of tones and influences, the narrative is remarkably cohesive, and focused on two core themes (which themselves are interrelated). 

The first of these is quite obviously Time. It’s a suitably epic theme, explored by many of the world’s greatest poets and writers. If there’s any doubt Deadly Premonition is fixated on time, consider that one of the climactic showdowns of the game happens inside a clocktower, and indeed, the clocktower is a location we return to time and time again throughout the story, at one point travelling back in time to witness an event from the ‘50s that shaped the town forever. Quite apart from the game mechanics themselves, which forces us to establish a relationship with time via a real clock you have to adhere to (in other words, you have to be certain places at certain times to see things happen – shops open at regular hours, and all the townsfolk obey their idiosyncratic routines), the narrative of the game is brimming with explorations of what time means. The mysterious capitalist (those are the exact words used to introduce him—you have to love the sense of humour) Harry Stewart, for example, tells York that he became rich because he understood timing. It’s not about how fast you do something, it’s about doing it at the right moment. York is constantly—and counterintuitively—slowing down during his investigation, rather than rushing, which infuriates many of the townsfolk and the other police officers. However, his unconventional methods produce results. By moving backward we move forward. This is one of the primal underpinning qualities of an epic, for all the true epics understand the bidirectional relationship with history necessary to create a cultural artefact.

The other key theme of Deadly Premonition is in the title: Premonition. Magic, divination, sixth sense, and all of this occult goodness woven into the quotidian fabric of everyday reality. Whilst undoubtedly SWERY learned a lot from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks in this regard, SWERY’s magic has its own unique flavour. Indeed, though York uses rational deduction and psychological profiling, most of his methods of detection are entirely esoteric, which comes in handy, as his enemies are also using supernatural means to achieve their ends. The intermixture of ordinary and occult is no better typified than by York’s coffee, which has an uncanny knack of predicting the future. One senses that SWERY sees the magical in everyday life and understands that every person has their own idiosyncrasies that allow them to have a relationship with the universe. The genius of the writing is the empathy with which these idiosyncrasies are rendered.

But more than this, premonition is also connected to destiny, and a sense of destiny—or fate—pervades Deadly Premonition. York (or should we say Zach) is meant to come to Greenvale. Indeed, the evil at the heart of Greenvale is directly connected to his tragic past and the mysterious scar that warps his hairline. Only York can cure Greenvale’s sickness. The ultimate victory of good over evil—though won at a heavy price—is written in the stars (and shown in the swirling milk within the coffee cup—as above, so below!). The ending of Deadly Premonition therefore feels not only earned but inevitable—and like all great epics, will probably stay with me for as long as I live.

***

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Footnotes

1They are from an unusual place or land, they have an unusual power, they usually have a keen sense of justice (even if it is a warped one, such as Satan in Paradise Lost), they possess magical weapons or equipment, they are in some way royal, or dispossessed of something that belonged to them, they are often orphaned or not raised by their true parents, and lastly, they possess a tragic flaw or weakness.

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I F*CKING LOVE NARRATIVE POETRY

There. I said it. It’s been a long time coming, this confession. I guess some of you already knew it, but I have to announce it to the world.

Reasonably recently, I released a book called Virtue’s End, a 70,000 word epic poem written in iambic, taking influence from sources as diverse as Spenser’s 16th Century fantasy masterpiece The Faerie Queene, and T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Unlike the latter of these two sources, however, the poem is grounded in a story with lots of action, drive, even one or two twists, alongside the usual poetic fare of imagery, symbolism, and synaesthesia. I did this because, frankly, I had to. I experienced a mystical epiphany on a trip to Glastonbury, and the outcome of this experience was a transmission—what I believe might well have been a direct channeling of something beyond. I couldn’t not write the book. In many ways, the book was writing me.

But once this outpouring was over, I think a part of me believed I would go back to writing novels like a good little modern author. I’ve never exactly been a “commercial” writer. I write weird stuff for weird people who like multiverses and serial killers who go on fantasy adventures—oh, and telepathic crabs. But, obviously fantasy is a big genre and lots of people read it.

Less so for poetry.

But the thing is, the novels weren’t flowing like they used to. I had this block. Instead of prose, I wanted to write poetry, LOTS more of it. Dissenting voices in my head kept telling me that was dumb. I should stick to more commercial stuff. Hell, I should start writing thrillers and romances and really break into the big leagues…

But the Muse has to be respected, and the Muse cannot be compelled. Something was, and still is, telling me to write poetry.

And now I really am not certain I’m going to go back to novels…

There are many reasons, but perhaps the main one is I am falling in love with narrative poetry.

I love how it can cut to the heart of the matter. One is not burdened with describing every little detail, or making a scene feel grounded by drilling down to the boring mechanics and logistics.

In narrative poetry, you excavate the very core of the story. Who is saying what to whom? Who is feeling what? And what are we looking at? There’s no need for the fluff that pads so much of modern narrative—the epaulettes on a soldier’s pauldron or the exact mechanics of zero-g space-travel—because you’re driving to the centre of meaning, or as close as you can come without going mad. Faery tales and myths do the same thing. The greatest stories in the Bible and other spiritual texts are sometimes merely a few paragraphs of text, sometimes only a few lines

And deeper than this, the condensed and distilled form of poetry means that the language—at least in good poetry—becomes loaded with associations, double or triple meanings, and symbolic power. Through this mechanism poetry reaches the Jungian realm of archetype. 

It is also possible to blend and marry concepts that in a “realistic” prose novel simply cannot be married, because the laws of so-called reality restrain them. Even full-on bizarro novels must make their worlds obey the confines of linear reality, although the best of them at least comment on this fact, such as Alistair Rennie’s epic BleakWarrior.

But in poetry, all bets are off. So long as the feeling and the sense rings true and is comprehensible, then it works. Poems are like dreams in this respect. Upon emerging from their grasp, we recognise their weirdness, but in the throes of deep REM, we care not.

Environments and actors within these environments can be elided subtly by the choice placement of words. Images can ambiguously refer to multiple people or places. For a non-dualist, poetry is a paradise of synergy, a Hieros Gamos that allows us to synthesise wronger and wronged, righter and condemned, flame and burning spirit.

I think poetry, therefore, provides a new frontier for writers and readers alike. Especially poetry that uses form. For form creates beauty. And on the subject of "beauty", poetry is often considered snobby and intellectual, but the irony is that poetry—able to access the direct feeling state—is the exact opposite of intellectual. In many ways, it is pure feeling. 

It is no surprise to me that some of my favourite books over the last two years have been narrative poems. The first of these is my father’s epic poem, HellWard, a masterful homage to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. In this epic, my father describes his battle with cancer in Bournemouth Royal Hospital, which leads to a near death experience, and a descent into hell worthy of The Inferno.

A more playful—but still epic—narrative poem can be found in Andrew Benson Brown’s Legends of Liberty Vol. 1, which rewrites American history whilst, using fiendishly inventive language and imagery, making a satirical commentary on our present day.

Lastly, I had the pleasure to read Michael Pietrack’s upcoming fable, Legacy. This story seems like it’s written for children, but the honest truth is adults will have a lot to learn from it too, and the storytelling and imagination on display here are simply magnificent.

What are your favourite narrative poems? They can be as obvious as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or something completely obscure. Let me know!

Blog, Publishing

RE-RELEASE NEWS! THE HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE ARE BACK!

THE NEXT RE-RELEASE BY THE MINDFLAYER… 

As some of you know, I recently faced a small crisis in my book publishing career. Due to a thoughtless and frankly disconcerting change to a publishing platform I had used for ten years, many of my books were either disappearing or no longer yielding me any royalties. I promised you all that as a result of this I wouldn’t be giving up, but migrating my books into a new platform and giving them a rebirth. The first of these efforts was the Black Gate: Omnibuswhich features all three books of my Black Gate trilogy in one volume! I cannot begin to express my gratitude to all those that supported this effort, many of whom had already read the Black Gate trilogy in its entirety but still went ahead and bought the Omnibus anyway. My thanks goes out to you with the full knowledge I can never repay this insanely kind act. Gods bless you all. 

I’m now pleased to announce the next effort.

And it’s not one but TWO books! A double-re-release!

My tome Nekyia is going to be removed from the old publishing platform and re-released as it was originally intended: as a two-volume set entitled Four Horsemen and The Fifth Horseman. Both of these books have faced numerous setbacks and obstacles to being published, including two publishers reneging on contractual agreements to publish them (hence why I was forced to release it as one very unwieldy volume – to differentiate it as a “new” title). But now, at last, they can be released as intended, and my, my, the apocalyptic heralds are looking better than ever! Just look at those covers… 

Thanks to Likozor, who also did the art for Black Gate: Omnibus, for the insane covers.

Both texts have been edited and improved. Four Horsemen features a new introduction with some additional insight into how the book came about. More than ever before, I want to tie together my underlying multiverse, and so these books really make it clear how Four Horsemen and The Fifth Horseman relate to the Black Gate series. 

I hardly sold any copies of Nekyia. I think it was arguably my worst-ever performing book, especially considering its cost to produce. I only blame myself for this. The old publishing platform I used meant it cost me £20.50 to print the damn paperback, so I had to sell it for £21.00 (and made only 50p per copy – if that). I know that price is way too high, and quite apart from the price of entry, it was 800 pages long (but unlike the Black Gate: Omnibus, which is a similar length but cohesiveNekyia was chopped seemingly haphazardly: divided into two halves, the first part then furtherdivided into four, and the second part divided into five, and so on). It was confusing and broke the story up in ways that made it a slog to read. They were always meant as two interrelated books, not as one. 

So, the tale of Nekyia is finally coming out as it was always meant to be, and I can’t wait to share these two books with you in this unique double-release! If you want to check out the blurbs, you can head on over to the Amazon page (where the Kindle is already available!) 

FOUR HORSEMEN

Amazon UK

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THE FIFTH HORSEMAN

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Why I Had To Return To The Black Gate, One Last Time

Freud once described a phenomenon known as “the return of the uncanny”. Though we may try to banish our repressed fears and memories, they have a knack of coming back, often in a different form. They resurface, like dead bodies made buoyant by the swelling of gas inside the intestinal tract. We can’t quite keep them down and out of sight.

I am obsessed with “endings”. For me, a story is an ending. Everything that happens in a story, right from the opening line, is all part of building up to a conclusion, a moment where everything adds up, and everything obtains new meaning. If a story doesn’t end well, there’s no point to it. I can’t re-watch or re-read something if I know the ending doesn’t satisfy. I won’t name and shame various TV series, but you know who you are. Bad endings render everything that came before pointless.

These two ideas have been at war within myself for some time. On the one hand, my old demons and fears keep coming back, nudging me, telling me to write about them a little more. On the other, my artistic sensibilities, my desire for closure, prods me to do away with them, to end the story. What has emerged from these two polarities is a kind of saga of self-contained works that interrelate, telling one story in sporadic bursts of imagination. Frequently, the books in these sagas purport to end the story. Then, they don’t.

I am thinking of calling these books the Sevenverse Saga.

Another thing about me: I love tangents. Anyone who has held a conversation with me knows I dance from one issue to the other, like a bee excited by the smell of different flowers. I call it the “pursuit of threads”. I love following a train of thought to its bitter end, no matter how bizarre. Nothing pleases me more than a conversation that derails and goes into weird territory. When I used to work for “the man” I would play a game in the office – how quickly could I change the topic to something imaginative or weird? How quickly could I get people who wouldn’t watch Star Wars if you paid them money talking about telekinesis or pyromania or serial killers? It was the only way I could stay sane.

Nothing bores me more than polite-society chit-chat. Tell me about your fears, your hopes and aspirations, your secret ambitions. I’ll tell you mine. We’re all human. Let’s do away with the masks.

After years of publishing fiction, and a growing number of titles out in the world, I realised that other people actually liked my tangential tendencies. It was part of my storytelling aesthetic. So, I leant into it, embraced it, used it to explore my weirdness in new ways. It’s clear to me now that sometimes the most interesting bits are the tangents. But it wasn’t always. I was caught in the trap of trying to write stories I thought other people wanted to read, rather than writing stories I wanted to read that didn’t yet exist in the world.

Take Star Wars. An incidental line from Revenge of the Sith from Palpatine: “Have I ever told you the story of Darth Plagueis the wise?” has become an object of fascination for millions. And yes, it’s also become an internet meme, a joke. But the fact remains that the story of Darth Plagueis, who never appears on screen, has titillated the imagination of fans more so than many of the major characters, to the extent many people wanted certain major characters (coughSnoke cough) to actually be Plagueis. It’s no surprise that Disney have finally capitalised on this interest, releasing a novel entitled Darth Plagueis, which fills in some of the gaps. My point here is that sometimes it’s the small things, the side issues, that are most interesting to explore. Community and Rick & Morty creator Dan Harmon knows this all-too-well. His shows are always about the stuff happening around the story, not the story themselves. Who cares about the actual community-college classes in Community? That’s sundry stuff. It’s about what happens to “the group” around that. Jeff is allegedly interested in Britta, but the real love story is with Annie – yet that love-story is never consummated. It simmers beneath things, a constant through-line. It’s not the story.

Or is it?

Similarly, nine times out of ten, Rick & Morty is about the aftermath of an adventure, or the preparation for one, never about the actual “adventure” itself. The show regularly self-deprecates on this theme, expressing a desire for more “self-contained classic adventures”. But that would be boring. Shows like Elementary, as fun an inventive as they are, inevitably run out of steam following the formula (in the case of Elementary: self-contained 40-minute detective stories). They fail to recognise this simple fact: sometimes the best stories are not the stories. We don’t care about murders in New York, they happen every minute (tragic though that is). We’re interested in Holmes and Watson, this unique frisson between them, how the gender-swap transforms the dynamic and makes a new commentary.

The same is true, to an extent, of my own work and philosophy, and never is it more true than with Craig Smiley. Smiley was not intended to be the main character of Gods of the Black Gate. Caleb was. It’s Caleb’s tale of rectifying a wrong and coming to terms with his own hatred. But the more I wrote, the more Smiley there was, until the two characters kind of ended up sharing a double-billing. Smiley got out of hand, because once I created him and could see him in my mind’s eye, he had a will of his own. I was merely recording what he was doing and saying, not directing it.

In Beyond The Black Gate, Smiley fully took over, relegating Caleb to a smaller role in the narrative. It was now Smiley’s redemption story. Smiley’s arc. In order to make this work – because let’s just say I created some pretty major obstacles to a sequel – I had to do some of my most imaginative world-building to date. My fixation on the tangent, on the stories behind and between the stories, paid off in a weird way, because it pushed me to create something that feels, though I say it myself, pretty unique. That’s the thing: tangents, or these points of interest that seem irrelevant, allow us to explore ourselves. Many people have a fascination with serial killers, and there are a million-and-one amazing serial-killer books out there, but how many of them depict that killer in a fantasy world, and how many of those fantasy worlds smash modern technology with face-wearing assassins living in a flesh-forest? How many of those are also love-stories? The tangents make the story mine.

There is, however, a danger with this: tangents can create more tangents. Looking at this another way, questions create more questions. I answered a question of what lay beyond the Black Gate, but that led to another question, what lay beyond that. Welcome to infinite regression!

I thought it was a question I would never answer, that I would leave buried, but like Freud’s “return of the uncanny”, it kept coming back to me, waking me up in the dead of night, interrupting me as I tried to work on some other project. It grew infuriating, because I didn’t know what to do. I was paralysed by the overflow of my own creativity, startled by a hundred different directions it could go. None of them seemed right.

I remember taking a walk up a place near where I live unimaginatively named “The Mount”. It’s a huge hill that overlooks the city and the cathedral. I often go up there, some kind of meditative pilgrimage, and stand looking out over the city and into the distance and thinking. I get some of my best ideas here. This time, I had gone with my wife, Michelle. We were talking about books, films, creative stuff. I confessed to her I felt blocked and troubled by this “uncanny” return. Should I bother with a third book? A few people had messaged me directly asking for one, but could I pull it off? The story wanted to come out, but everything I came up with seemed wrong. I told her about where the story stood at the end of Beyond. She listened incredibly patiently, and it’s then she had a startling observation: “To me, the most interesting part of what you’ve just said is Caleb’s story. I want to know more about what happens to him, what he’s going through.”

It clicked. I had been ignoring my own advice, telling myself about who the major players were. Smiley took over Beyond The Black Gate, but this next story wasn’t his, it was someone else’s. Caleb was finally going to have his day.

At the end of Beyond The Black Gate, I linked the universe of the Black Gate with another, that of Nekyia and The Prince. This was a story I “ended” in 2017. In my wife’s trepidatious words upon learning I had re-opened that can of worms: “Erm, it felt pretty final at the time…” Again, with another return of the uncanny, some prompting of my inner subconscious had led me to write an ending in which something came back from the grave: this other world was resurrected and joined with the Black Gate’s mythos. It had felt right. However, now, I was faced with writing a book that essentially drew together two universes and brought both of them to a satisfying head. Although without the pressure of Game of Thrones’ insane mass-appeal, I thought I knew an inkling of George R. R. Martin’s problem – the Gordian Knot of narrative that I was now faced with unwinding. I had made it difficult for myself. A sensible person would have written two separate trilogies and planned them both out from word go. A sensible person would just let the dead stay dead.

I am not a sensible person.

I realised that I had grown a lot as a person and writer since I published Nekyia in 2017. A lot can change in 3 years. If I was writing that book now, I thought, I would do so many things differently. So, I decided to embrace that, too. I began a process of “re-writing” elements of Nekyia, re-imagining my past. Return to the Black Gate, as the third book is entitled (which is really the seventh book if you take it in the whole of the Sevenverse Saga), was originally titled The War For The Black Gate, but that didn’t sit right. Just as Smiley had to go back, so too did I. It was about me once more wandering through the worlds and meeting the characters I had inhabited for more than five years.

Those who liked Nekyia are in for a few surprises. There were threads (tangents!) I discarded from the book (not having the skill or space to weave them in), but I’ve now picked them up again, like old tools I’ve re-learned the value of. You will see the return of several players from that story, some of them unexpected. But if you haven’t read Nekyia, don’t worry, I make all of it new. Or at least, I try.

The threads and tangents spread wider still, expanding far beyond simply two books. I went all the way back to my first published title in 2014, The Darkest Touch, drawing on unresolved arcs, unfinished business. All beginnings serve endings, remember? There was a surprising amount there, stored away in my brain. Ideas within ideas, places I’d longed to go that for whatever strange reason I never went. It was like the ghosts of the past returning to help me fight a final boss.

As the stories came together, forming one, I began to realise what my book was really about, and that it was unlike anything I had ever written before. When I realised that, I found faith in the project, and knew I had to finish it. In more senses than one. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so many times writing a book. Some scenes broke me. They still do thinking about them.

Return To The Black Gate may not be the best book I’ve ever written, but it is possibly my favourite. I doubt it will be read by legions, but if it resonates with the few people that have been following the tangents, looking for the stories between the stories, then I will have succeeded – and it was worth every second.

Writing Return To The Black Gate will stay with me as long as I live and no matter how many books I write, of that I’m sure. It is a book that says farewell to a lot of ideas, characters, and worlds that I love. It is a book that says farewell to my former self. It is a book that says farewell to the Black Gate forever. This time, I really mean it.

But, the beauty of all true farewells, is that we get to give and receive a final parting kiss.

I hope it’s as sweet, if not sweeter, than the first.

Return To The Black Gate is coming March 2020. If you want to be kept updated, why not sign up to the “The Mind-Palace”, a monthly newsletter full of fiction-advice, stories from the cavernous vaults of the mindflayer’s lair, and freebies.

If you wish to begin your journey through the multi-verse, why not look at one of the following titles:

The Darkest Touch (2014)

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Nekyia (2017)

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Gods of the Black Gate (2018)

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Beyond The Black Gate (2019)

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