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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)

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Nekyia (2017)

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Gods of the Black Gate (2018)

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Beyond The Black Gate (2019)

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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What The Last Jedi meant to me: Mark Hamill’s journey

[Needless to say, here be spoilers…]

In the light of recent Oscar nominations, I think it would be a good time to talk a little bit about The Last Jedi. Whilst it received four nominations for technical aspects, it didn’t get put forward for anything to do with performance, screenplay or narrative. Although I agree that there were perhaps some more deserving films on this front, such as the incredible Get Out and The Shape of the Water, I do think it’s a crying shame that one person, in particular, was not recognised for outstanding achievement. I’m talking about Mark Hamill.

Let’s take it back a few frames. The Last Jedi has been one of the most divisive Star Wars movies ever made. In fact, it may even be one of the most divisive movies of all time. Fans, critics and everyone inbetween seem to be conflicted, with criticism levelled at its disregard of the central mysteries established in The Force Awakens as well as its complicated plotlines, which subverted many audience expectations of hero narrative. There has been both praise and condemnation of its feminist messages (as there unfortunately always is), coupled with sheer outrage at the character decisions made about one of the most iconic Star Wars characters of all time: Luke Skywalker. Whilst there have already been several eloquent defences of this complex and culturally significant film, I want to add my own, but not as a film critic. I want to speak as someone who witnessed a deep, personal, emotional journey not just for the characters on screen, but for the actors behind them.

Hamill has been an idol of mine for many years. For me, Luke Skywalker was one of the best parts of the original Star Wars. Although I was always in love with the villains as a kid (and who really can boast being a bigger villain than Darth Vader?), Luke Skywalker was perhaps the most inspiring hero-figure I could have wished for. Whilst some fans found the roguish, anti-hero Han Solo more entertaining and down-to-earth (show me the damn money!), for me, it was always Hamill’s Luke that held the three films together. He portrayed and owned an incredible journey from naive farm-boy to self-sacrificial saviour, willing to endure the most terrifying torture imaginable rather than compromise his beliefs. Hamill brought a unique stamp to the role. While not all liked it, few could argue that it was something unique: iconoclastic heroism that still remembered its roots: “I’m Luke Skywalker, I’m here to rescue you”. Luke embodied the mythic archetype of the Nobody who becomes Somebody whilst always hitting the off-beat. A farmer’s boy raised on a shit-hole who one day, with the guidance of a teacher to unlock his potential, rose to become a hero and save the Galaxy. I guess I connected with that dream more than I ever realised at the time. I saw myself in this young, naive person who came from nothing, someone who dreamed they could become somebody heroic. As a kid, I arrogantly believed I had all the pre-requisites. I even loved milk.

Mark Hamill said on the Graham Norton Show, following the release of The Last Jedi in 2017: ‘Back then [when the original Star Wars was being filmed], I though that every movie I did would become a pop-culture phenomenon.’ People in the audience laughed, and so did he, but you can tell he isn’t joking. He was young, and had the arrogance of youth. I’d argue there was a certain arrogance in the Luke of the original trilogy too – even at the end in Return of the Jedi. Luke’s near-flippant defiance of the Emperor seems almost ridiculous when we consider both the cost in lives to the Rebellion his game represents, and the potential waste of his training from Yoda and Ben Kenobi as the last member of the Jedi order. Despite his belief that there is ‘still good’ in his father, it could be interpreted that his entire final stand is nothing more than impetuousness, a refusal to bow to anyone no matter the cost. Of course, many fans do not see it that way. Luke’s faith in the Jedi, and all they stood for, and his commitment to die for that cause just to prove the way of Light is the right path, was nothing short of a Messianic act.

We are asked to believe, in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, that Luke has lost faith. His failure to create a new Jedi order, his loss of Ben Solo to the Dark Side, and his own inflated legend-status have worn him down – he no longer uses or connects to the Force. Many have complained about this direction, saying that this angle reverses the lessons Luke learned in the original trilogy, and makes the ending of Return of the Jedi redundant. Even Hamill argued against it and is purported to have disagreed with Rian Johnson about several elements (although subsequently he expressed his regret at voicing the concerns in public and said Rian Johnson’s vision was ‘a great one’.) Nothing to me could be more realistic to me than a legendary, rigorously righteous hero becoming cynical and misanthropic in later life. There’s a recent Nolan quote which you will all know too well that illustrates this point: ‘You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’ Heroes are not meant to go home. This is one of the oldest archetypes in the book. Heroes love war, they come alive in chaos, and when it’s all over, they stagnate and rot, corrupt and lose themselves. Luke hasn’t lost himself as dearly as this. In many respects, his self-imposed exile to Ahch-To, and from use of the Force, is like a return to his boyhood on the desert planet Tatooine. He’s even back on the milk. But, he has forgone his identity as the Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. He is no longer a hero. He is no longer sought after and starring. He is cynical and carries the scars of the past. He will not even look at his old lightsaber, tossing it over his shoulder as though it’s a worthless trinket. The pain is still too near.

The thing about this plotting and character-decision that rings so true for me is that this is exactly what happened to Hamill. Once, he was the centre of attention, a super-star hero, one of the most well-known faces on Earth – bar China and a few other countries where Star Wars wasn’t aired until recently. He – from humble beginnings – had become a hero. Exactly like Luke Skywalker. From that point on, he expected, perhaps like Luke Skywalker did, that success would follow success, that his legacy would continue on. But it didn’t. He left the limelight, instead transitioning predominantly to voice-work (at which he was exemplary, it should be noted – his performance as The Joker stands against Nicholson and Ledger’s easily). He admits candidly he became disillusioned with Hollywood, with the industry, with everything. In other words, he became cynical.

I’d go so far to say that Hamill was fed up of being Luke Skywalker. Fed up of being called upon for endless conventions, to be goggled at by adoring fans who only saw him as a character and not a human being. Luke Skywalker had made him and broken him. Who can blame him for feeling angry? Anyone would be. You can feel this pain in Luke’s speech in The Last Jedi, where he extols the consequences – moral, spiritual, and emotional – of being a ‘legend’. He confesses his own arrogance to Rey, that he saw all the danger of what he was doing but couldn’t stop himself anyway. This speech is surely one of the greatest performances of 2017, a raw, fourth-wall breaking moment where Hamill finally gets to confess the truth of how he really feels and who he really is. Luke Skywalker is a lie, an accident, he is not really The Legend we believe. Hamill delivers a speech that de-constructs millennia of hero-worship in a way that makes it seem as though this issue has burned at the core of him his whole life. Only an actor of his caliber could carry such an awesome and important speech.

But that isn’t the end of the story. Whilst The Last Jedi de-constructs toxic masculinity with a deft hand, subverting our aggressive ‘kill those we hate’ narratives with beautiful pathos, it does not abandon the concept of heroism or heroic identity entirely as some have supposed. In fact, it lovingly, jubilantly affirms it. On the Graham Norton Show, Mark Hamill explained: ‘[Carrie Fisher] said to me: “I will always be Princess Leia, and you will always be Luke Skywalker. Get used to it!” She was always way ahead of me in these things’, and I think that’s a perfect encapsulation not only of his journey as an actor and a human being, from frustration and disappointment to a kind of acceptance of who he is and the community he will forever be a part of, but also a perfect encapsulation of what The Last Jedi is really about. Hamill displays an incredible gift for comedy, lighting up a room and satirising his flaws, and I think this demonstrates a move away from taking himself seriously to something truly humble and life-affirming. Luke tells Rey, when he is training her on Achc-To, that the Force ‘Does not belong to you’ – because it belongs to everything. To me, this mirrors the beautiful revelation that Luke Skywalker and Star Wars is for everyone. Mark Hamill has realised that just as Carrie Fisher said, whether he likes it or not, he will always be Luke, and Luke will always be for everyone. He is part of something bigger than himself. And he is the hero. It doesn’t matter how much time passes or what people say, he will always be Luke Skywalker. And it’s not such a bad thing.

At the nadir in The Last Jedi, when all hope seems lost, Luke returns to save the Resistance on Crait. He faces down an army, a cavalcade of AT-ATs, and the newly crowned Kylo-Ren, but he does it non-violently, projecting an illusionary image to the other side of the Galaxy in an incredible demonstration of Force-power we have never seen hitherto in the series. He buys the Resistance just enough time to escape while he distracts Kylo with the promise of a one-on-one duel. This is surely the epitome of Luke’s character. He would not violently kill the Emperor or Vader in Return of the Jedi; he had learned the lessons of violently confronting Vader in Empire Strikes Back. And in The Last Jedi, he does not kill Kylo Ren (though he was once tempted too – as he was with Vader – because he sensed the darkness in him growing). Instead, he chooses to rescue those he loves and once again use the Force for good. During his exchange with Kylo, he echoes his old role-model Ben Kenobi, telling Kylo that he will be with him forever should Kylo kill him. At the end, the exertion of projecting this illusion kills Luke, using up too much of his strength. He becomes one with the Force, but just before his death, sees twin-suns shining on the horizon, the twin-suns of Tatootine, a complete close of the cycle – returning to our very first image of Luke, that of the farm-boy beneath those suns.

It’s difficult for me to think of a more fitting farewell to the screen for this heroic icon of popular culture (although he may return as a Force-ghost the final trilogy instalment). He mirrors his master and role-model before him, dying the honourable death of a true ‘true’ Jedi; he returns to his point of origin symbolically completing the cycle of life and birth; he re-affirms his status as a hero and icon, and upholds the character-defining pacifist ideology that is his hallmark. His passing is at once grandiose, like the denouement of an ancient Greek mythological hero or Arthurian Knight, but with its own flavour of subtle humility that Mark Hamill effortlessly captures. When people talk about the arc of Luke Skywalker, they do so without acknowledging the man behind all that. Luke’s journey is as much Hamill’s as it is his. The two are intertwined. And that’s the whole point of The Last Jedi. Hamill is a hero: he is Luke and Luke is Hamill. His performance in The Last Jedi is the culmination of thirty years of learning and experience and growth. Let’s acknowledge the beauty of that, and be glad we lived to see it.