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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 The Stone Door by Steve Stred

After he went down there, an unspoken hush fell across our streets, like a fog that settled one day and decided not to leave.”

The Stone Door is the unexpected but highly welcome sequel to one of Steve Stred’s best-ever short novels, The Window In The Ground. The Window In The Ground will always remain one of my favourite Steve Stred stories for the simple reason that it so deftly explores two primary (and interrelated) aspects of human nature: curiosity and innocence.

In the original novel, curiosity almost seems to be allegorically embodied by the eponymous window in the ground—the anomaly that sits at the edge of a quotidian, rural town. At first, the image might strike you as ordinary, but the more you think about it, the more you detect a sense of wrongness, and the more your mind begins to conjure questions: why is it in the ground? is there anything on the other side of it? who put it there? The ending of The Window In The Ground answers some of these riddles, but not others. To reveal too much of the mystery is, of course, to destroy it. But be that as it may, the original premise held such power, I was delighted to discover there would be a sequel.

Following on from the events of The Window In The Ground, The Stone Door takes us farther out to new dimensions of fantasy and horror. Like the first book, The Stone Door is written in an intimate and confessional first-person style. Stred is truly a master of making even the most esoteric concepts feel grounded, often using narrative voice to achieve this. However, in this book, we follow a different character from the first, one who remains nameless, and who watched from the sidelines as the events of book 1 unfolded. Now, they have to deal with the aftermath of what occurred.

This new character is similar to our former protagonist. Older, and yet also likewise naive, he wishes he could do something about the horrors that have been unleashed on the town due to the actions of “the boy”. But his father is controlling and has preordained a life for him working at the mill. Luckily, our protagonist has a rebellious streak, coupled with a fantasy of desire for the mysterious “girl next door” Sue Ellen, who turns out to be the very person who can lead him towards his true destiny.

The Stone Door’s early chapters are full of subtle omens that imply an impending doom for our town and townsfolk:

We kept our eyes on each other’s for as long as we could, young love and all that, but the moon was high, its illumination forever changed, and my blood had never run so cold.”

Stred takes the “slow burn” approach and steadily builds a sense of unease and “not-rightness” which is barely defined, more felt, and he impresses this upon us with the sinuous language and the use of images (such as the moon and blood in the above quotation).

Like the first book, The Stone Door explores innocence and curiosity. Stred also unpacks more of the relationship between these two primary facets of human thinking and being. He shows that curiosity is a trait of innocence, and yet ironically curiosity often leads to the loss of innocence. Our protagonist is drawn to things he doesn’t understand, and to the beautiful Sue Ellen who is certainly more than she appears, but the nearer he draws to these mysteries, the nearer he draws to a flame that will burn away his naivety. Can his sanity survive this awakening to the truth? Are human beings meant to understand what lies on the other side of the window in the ground, or the stone door, which represents an even deeper mystery?

Reading this short novel reminded me of Blue Velvet by David Lynch. Lynch’s masterpiece hinges upon the power of curiosity to draw the innocent Jeffery into that mysterious room on the seventh floor, and thus into a world of darkness he never new existed, but which has always been there just below the surface, much like the coprophagic, atavistic beetles we see in the film’s opening scene, roiling in the dark underworld beneath the American Dream. Stred similarly propels his narrative with a sense of curiosity that draws its protagonist—and the reader—deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. As in Lynch’s film, there is a sexual dimension to The Stone Door, and it also contains surreal moments that, on the surface of things, don’t seem to make much sense. The story is not a traditional type of plot, motivated by achieving objectives, it is a subconscious unfolding that is conveyed to us through a language of symbols: doorways, dreams of sex, forest pathways, stone circles, characters from mythology, fairy-tale cottages, and worlds parallel to our own that are dangerous yet beautiful. Time is slippery. Perception is not to be trusted.

Some will take issue with this approach, and it seems Stred anticipated this, for our protagonist reflects on the nature of the mystery he is embroiled in:

“Sometimes in life, like in the great books you’d read, not all the answers would be there. A person either let it go and accepted things for how they were, or filled in the blanks on their own.”

The reality is that we cannot know all the answers—at least on this side of the veil—and even if we could, they would likely destroy us. In this way, The Stone Door is not only about innocence and curiosity, but also about the greatest mystery of all: the mystery of life and death itself.

And isn’t that often the case? When you arrive at a point in your life, an apex, or a cliff hanger at the end of a chapter in your favourite book, where you’ve gone too far, invested in it too much, that there’s no coming back?”

The book comes out 1st March, 2024. You can pre-order the book here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

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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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Review of Inside: Perron Manor by Lee Mountford

Inside: Perron Manor is the prequel novella to Lee Mountford’s six-book Haunted series. I’m not normally a fan of the classic horror ghost-story, unless I’m reading the Gothic masters, but Lee Mountford’s novella blew me away.

Inside: Perron Manor is an exercise in verisimilitude, a literary technique—most often deployed by horror writer—to make a manuscript seem like an authentic document. The most famous example of this is Horace Walpole, who originally claimed that he found the manuscript for The Castle of Otranto in an ancient church in Europe and translated it from medieval Italian; he didn’t even claim authorship. Readers believed him and the book sold like wildfire. In reality, The Castle of Otranto is a cleverly written epistemological Gothic novel, and eventually Walpole came clean about that fact. However, it just goes to show how badly readers wanted to believe the legend. We can see an echo of this process in modern “found footage” films and CreepyPasta, a site where the more anonymous the author makes themselves in the process of the telling, the better. Consider how Paranormal Activity caused waves of controversy for not having a credits list at the end of the film; if no Directors or Actors were cited… surely that meant it was real?

Inside: Perron Manor continues this rich tradition and pulls it off with spectacular aplomb. The novella poses as a non-fiction book written by paranormal investigator David Ritter. Ritter is an obsessive who is drawn to Perron Manor, a house of infamy and legend on the outskirts of a crumbling little village called Alnmouth. Many writers have similarly tried to create their own verisimilitudes: posing their novels as investigative journals, or a collection of letters, or a tape-recording, but Lee Mountford (or should I say David Ritter, I am already getting confused about what’s reality and what’s fiction) succeeds where they fail because of his research. Simply put: he’s done his homework. Whilst taking us through the troubled and cursed history of the house, Ritter (I mean Mountford) illuminates each time period with a deft brush. Tiny details only a medieval history buff would know give this authenticity, to the point where I was looking up place and character names to double check which were real and which weren’t. Mountford (or is it Ritter?) so deftly interweaves real history with his own fiction that it becomes impossible to extricate the two, and that’s where the horror begins to settle in. Horror works best in the liminal spaces of ambiguity, where reality is dissolved and rationality destroyed. An author who can skillfully destabilise his readers will achieve far greater heights of terror.

I’ve read a lot of Splatterpunk and Extreme Horror in my time. I’m certainly not against the spilling of guts. But I admire an author who can turn the camera away and give me a different kind of fear even more than one who can twist my insides in disgust. Lee Mountford has taken to heart the age-old lesson that what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. He never oversteps the mark, which many horror authors do, where the plot then descends into parody, and even at the tense conclusion of the novella what is waiting for Ritter never quite steps into the light… Coupled with this intuitive sense of when not to show us something, or when to let the silence speak, is a concise descriptive power. Many of the “scares” in this book are classic horror fare: faces in windows, shadows at the end of the bed, and yet Mountford will often offer up just one subtle little detail that sets his image apart from the generic. For example,

Skin was dark and mottled. I could see bone through her cheeks. No lips. Just teeth and black gums. No eyes, either.”

This description (delivered by one of Ritter’s interviewees) is understated, yet extremely vivid. The fact it sounds like dialogue lends further potency to it. The detail I think is most unique here is actually the “no lips”. I can totally see those ape-like gums. But, in terms of scare factor, he saves the best until last: “No eyes”. It’s an iconic, almost archetypal image, that is made more powerful by what went before. We can’t help but picture Sam Neil in Event Horizon. Chilling.

The main purpose of this novella is to give us some of the background of the house in order to set us up for the main event of Book 1 in the Haunted series. It would be easy for this to therefore feel like an info-dump, but despite the fact Ritter (or Mountford? Help!) does take us through a long stretch of history (the house has deep roots), we don’t feel like it’s purely informational. Ritter has his own arc, though I suspect it’s not fully done with by the end of the novella—we’ll see him again in subsequent books, I’m sure. And the way the history of the house is layered feels more like the layers of a human mind, its Unconscious component stretching back into the dismal savagery of antiquity, and its Conscious component haunted by what lies in its id.

Inside: Perron Manor is a quick and thrilling read for anyone who loves haunted house fare but wants something with a bit more edge. Lee Mountford is an extraordinarily talented writer, and I may just have to read all 6 books of his series.

You can buy Inside: Perron Manor here:

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Amazon US

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Review of Chasing The Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar


Chasing The Boogeyman is a unique horror novel that transgresses the boundaries between fiction and reality. Set in the humble town of Edgewood, where the author Richard Chizmar grew up, the novel follows the account of the author’s early life as the shadow of a serial killer threatens the peace and prosperity of his once-innocent home. As the killer, known as “The Boogeyman” for how he seems to disappear without a trace, begins to kill young women, Edgewood is plunged into darkness and suspicion. This novel might be described as a meditation on evil and on how that evil changes all who come into contact with it, however obliquely. 

I was fascinated by the premise of this novel – with Richard Chizmar as the narrator and central character of the story. I had attempted to write my own meta-fictional account of my battle with suicidal depression in 2017. Whilst I did finish the book, I ultimately do not deem it publishable; the book was more of a therapy than a story, and while there is nothing wrong with that and it was important to write, I ultimately did not want to subject other people to it. I mention this only to explain why I had—shall we say—an almost personal interest in how Richard Chizmar would approach writing about himself, and the potential traumas of his childhood or young adulthood. Suffice to say, there were more than a few surprises in store with this book. 

The closest parallel I can give to Chasing The Boogeyman is in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. In the Divine Comedy, Dante inserts himself into the epic narrative, and goes on a journey into Hell guided by his mentor Vergil. It’s worth noting that many contemporaries of Dante actually believed he had been to Hell: the vividness of his descriptions, as well as the force of his personality, suggested an authentic mystical experience. Indeed, Dante was inundated with letters from occult readers asking that he teach them the “black magic of Hell” in order to assassinate corrupt officials. Whilst this may seem ludicrous, anyone who has actually read The Inferno or indeed The Divine Comedy as a whole will testify that there is a strangely convincing reality to the whole experience. Dante gives us ageography and psychology of Hell that feels cast-iron; Hell and its circles are very specifically mapped in a way that seems compellingly “real”. There are many NDEers who testify that the Hell they entered on death resembled Dante’s work! This total verisimilitude has endured for 700 years. 

Likewise, Chizmar’s narrative in Chasing The Boogeyman seems frighteningly real. We believe every word, every interaction, even though Chizmar warns us at the start of the book that elements are fictionalised. The book takes after true crime narratives and provides photographs of various people and places in Edgewood, and this furthers the sense of absolute reality. Verisimilitude is especially important in horror, hence the existence of epistolary novels (such as classics Frankenstein and Dracula) and found-footage horror movies; we have to believe in order to feel fear. And this is so: the “reality” of Chasing The Boogeyman augments the spine-tingling dread pervading the narrative. 

But if we step back from how “real” it all feels and just look at it as a novel, for a second, there is brilliant work here. Chizmar’s first person narrative is compelling. He never allows the narrative to be carried away by cleverness or too much introspection. There are moments where he allows the symbolism of the text to soar. For example, Chizmar describes his father as the wizard from Fantasia in his workshop of mechanical wonders, and the two of them watch a storm roll in over the town of Edgewood with a mixture of dread and awe. This moment evokes mythic archetypes, an almost Arthurian confrontation with oncoming evil. Yet it is not so poetically done that it loses the grounding of the story. 

The account is gritty enough but Chizmar also leaves lots to the imagination. This space for the reader’s imagination to go wild is perhaps the greatest strength of the novel; Chizmar shows incredible restraint and control in “holding back” from the desire to give us all the answers or to spell out the whys and hows. Thus, we fill in the blanks with the worst possibilities, and because of this, the Boogeyman becomes genuinely scary. To illustrate: there is a scene in which a young girl tells their parents that a monster was tapping at their window, and their concerns are dismissed as idle fantasy. We don’t think anything of it, until a moment later where we put two and two together and realise it was the boogeyman—he was right there, we literally just missed him—it makes the heart plummet through the bottom of one’s stomach. 

The character of the Boogeyman is fascinating. They represent a duality that runs through the whole novel: a night and day cycle that seems to represent the alternation between the conscious and unconscious mind. When darkness falls, the unconscious, in all its horrid splendour, comes forth. So, the killer has a “conscious” identity, someone in the town going about their business, though we don’t know who—and this forms a big reveal at the end—but the Boogeyman himself also has a personality. Sickeningly, we almost—almost—begin to admire his cunning and skill: how does he keep getting away with it? why can’t they find him? Chizmar does not shy away from admitting his own fascination with the macabre began to lead him down this dark rabbit hole, and this is perhaps the truer “descent” of the narrative, as we are drawn inexorably towards an admiration of total evil. Thankfully the ending is redemptive of this. 

And speaking of endings, as the killer takes more lives, we sense an awesome and hair-raising confrontation approaching. Whilst we don’t get anything so overtly dramatic as, for example, the ending of Stephen King’s underrated masterpiece Joyland, like Dante, we do get a confrontation with pure evil, a moment where we look the Devil in the eye at the nadir—the inverse apex—of existence. This final “interview” is harrowing reading, brilliantly written, and clearly inspired by the likes of Bundy and Gein. One also senses a Tolkien-esque philosophy behind the narrative: that evil is ultimately a form of nothingness, an absence rather than a presence, where meaning, love, and understanding are void. 

Chasing The Boogeyman is described as “meta-fiction” but it is deeply unpretentious. It is a harrowing journey into the circles of a modern Hell, leading to a confrontation with darkness. It is masterfully written, and the plotting is so watertight that not a single droplet of blood spills. Chasing The Boogeyman will leave you questioning what and who is real, and will have you checking your window is locked more than once during the long night. 

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Review of Scratches by Joshua Marsella

Scratches by Joshua Marsella is a surprising and haunting novella about the lingering power of evil. A mother and son inherit an old house, but something is terribly wrong. It’s a classic haunted house tale, a la Shirley Jackson and many other greats, but Marsella startlingly manages to bring something new to the table. 

I had heard great things about this novella from a variety of people, and it did not disappoint. Marsella writes with great passion about his characters; they are at once archetypal, but also very three-dimensional and grounded. Perhaps one of my favourite lines in the whole novella is when the young boy, Connor, explains to his mother that it’s BECAUSE he’s not easily scared that he likes to read horror comics. This is a character detail that stands out and becomes relevant later on; Connor wants to test his own boundaries. And this is consistent throughout as Connor bravely tries to get to the bottom of the supernatural occurrences happening in the house. 

Just when you think one character is going to become a cliché – for example, the drunken single mom – Marsella twists it and offers you a window into their lives that cannot but elicit real sympathy. Furthermore, there are some genuinely surprising – even shocking – revelations in this book that are deeply unsettling. No easy answers are provided here as we learn the dark truth about Connor, his mother, and the spectre haunting their lives. 

As well as character work, Marsella is very good at dropping in specific details that elevate what could be a generic horror scene to something genuinely saturated with dread. And speaking of dread, the atmosphere of this novella is perhaps one of its most stand-out elements; there is an awful sense of inevitability that pervades every scene, so that even when we’re outside the house, visiting a comicbook store or riding a bike down the street, we know we’re going to be drawn back to it. If I could compare this to one other book, it would be Stephen King’s Cujo. Both King and Marsella’s books deal with themes of how evil finds a way to endure, and tap into the archetypal childhood fear of the bogeyman in the closet. 

Marsella is a potent new voice in horror, and I’ll definitely read his other books!


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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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Mindflayer Mini-Giveaway #2

Hello everyone!

Back in April I ran a little mini-giveaway of a hardback copy of Beyond the Black Gate. Through July (until July 31st) I am going to be running a second give-away, because YAY to free stuff! The prize is a signed copy of my 700 page monolith Nekyia! It’s a hefty tome and produced to insane quality, so it’s normally £21 for the paperback on Amazon; you could have it for £0! Here it is below…

Author presented for size comparison! Look at that unit (meaning the book, of course)! Apologies for the bad hair day!

Here’s a little teaser of what Nekyia is about:

Across time, across worlds, the dark prophets are surfacing. And above the rabble of maniacs and heretics are four supreme lords. A weaver of illusions. A life-drinking mastermind. A psychotic scientist breaking with reality. And, highest of all, The Prince with his hypnogogic eye. Where the horsemen go, hunger, death, terror and sickness follow. As their dark plots unfold, their paths will converge, centering on a city only spoken of in dreams. There are also those who resist the end times. A wolf-woman. A desert seer. A cripple. A fortune-teller. And the Last Knight. From the slums and shadows come these defenders of the old ways of life, but how can they face the dark when it is unified and they are disparate, lost, broken? Lines will blur in the darkening city. Secrets kept beneath its black stone will unspell the rule of tyrants and reveal the hidden fate of all wayward souls. Light will meet dark. Dark will meet deeper dark. And all will perish; all will rise.

Here’s what the great Christa Wojciechowski said about this book:

“Nekyia is a long book, but it’s broken up into sections, each one with their own unique texture and flavor. It’s a fine five-course meal rather than one overwhelming feast, peppered with Sale’s beautiful and lurid imagery. Nekyia is more of an experience than a book.”

So, this experience could be yours! All you have to do is sign up to my mailing list the “Mind-Palace” BEFORE July 31st and you’ll be in with a chance to win the book (it will be decided randomized)! You’ll actually get a free eBook copy of my book The Meaning of the Dark guaranteed when you sign up too, so potentially that’s two horror books in one!  If you’ve already signed up to my mailing list, don’t worry, you’ll automatically be entered into the competition with a chance to win!

Anyway, thanks for stopping by. It’s my pleasure to share this journey into the darkest vaults of the Mind-Palace with you. Don’t mind the ancient thing chained in the lower chambers, it will never wake…

 

 

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Mindflayer Mini-Giveaway

Hey everyone!

This is a short blog just to let you know that I am going to be running a small giveaway until the end of April (30th)! The prize is a signed paperback copy of my recently released novel Beyond the Black Gate! It’s a beautiful book, with cover-art by Igor Sid, and proper high-quality paper! Here’s what it looks like below (minus the deranged lunatic holding it and the map of Cyrodiil in the background):

But it’s not just pretty, some reviewers have said some really nice things about it. Dan Stubbings of The Dimension Between Worlds described it as something that “opened windows to ideas you quite simply didn’t know were possible. Joseph has been able to go beyond the perimeters and troupes of specific genres, and engineer something that is a work of art.”

Steve Stred of Kendall Reviews said of it: “Beyond is a well done mash-up of HEAVY METAL with Barker-esque gore set in a Lovecraftian reality. There’s no other way to describe it.”

Thanks so much Steve and Dan!

So, this book could be yours! All you have to do is sign up to my mailing list the “Mind-Palace” and you’ll be in with a chance to win the book (it will be decided randomized)! You’ll actually get a free eBook copy of my book The Meaning of the Dark guaranteed when you sign up too, so potentially that’s two horror books in one!  If you’ve already signed up to my mailing list, don’t worry, you’ll automatically be entered into the competition with a chance to win!

Anyway, thanks for stopping by. It’s my pleasure to share this journey into the darkest vaults of the Mind-Palace with you. Don’t mind the oozings you encounter along the way.

 

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Entering Carcosa Part 1: The Epic Isn’t Dead

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

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

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

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

OVERVIEW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) DEFINING EPICS – SCOPE & SUBJECT MATTER

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

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

(2) DEFINING EPICS – STYLE

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

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

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

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

(3) DEFINING EPICS – INVOCATION TO THE MUSE

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

(4) DEFINING EPICS – THE HERO / HEROINE

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

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

(5) DEFINING EPICS – THE GUIDE

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

(6) DEFINING EPICS – KATABASIS

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

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

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

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

Until next time, my friends!