What is it with fantasy novels and the Middle Ages? I mean, seriously, think about it for a second: you have a genre in which you can do anything, anywhere, with anybody, and where is it always set?
12th-14th Century England. Every damned time.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a good medieval fantasy world as much as the next guy, but it does get old. To some extent I need a break from knights and castles and monarchies and so on. I need something fresh. Something more exotic, with perhaps fewer old Europe overtones. There are authors who have done this, and done it well (Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World comes to mind), and those works serve to remind us that Tolkien didn’t set any laws about where we could go and what we could do in fantasy. Just because he pirated Saxon lore to make Middle Earth doesn’t mean you need to follow in his footsteps.
Of course, that doesn’t have to mean an abandonment of Europe as a whole. As much as we need more African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Native American fantasy worlds (boy howdy, do we!), there is a reasonable argument to be made that fantasy literature is traditionally rooted in European myth and, as it is primarily marketed to Europeans, it seems reasonable that Europe and its reflections will remain a force to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre for a long time to come. Fine then.
So why does it need to be the middle ages all the time?
When I say ‘all the time’, I mean that literally. So many fantasy worlds are apparently frozen in a kind of permanent quasi-feudal society. It never changes, never grows, never evolves. Go back a thousand years in the world’s history, and they’re doing the same things – wearing the same armor, using the same technology, building the same kinds of places, farming the same kinds of stuff. Why is that? Are they just incapable of technological advancement? Are the people in that world just stupider than the ones in ours? Seems improbable to me.
The fantasy world should grow and change like our own. It should have shifts in culture and history and technology and religion, just like we have. It should change, and the way it reflects our world should change with it. Why not fantasy set in the High Renaissance? The Victorian Era? The 1950s? The Napoleonic Wars? The Ancient World? Why not have cultures based more on Renaissance Russia or 3rd Century Turkey?
The answer comes back to my old belief that fantasy novels are, at their heart, conservative. The fantasy genre is so often about the prevention of change, the preservation of the old in the face of the new. New is almost always bad in fantasy worlds. Change takes the form of conquerors and monsters, evil curses and world-shattering magic. The heroes, meanwhile, must dig up something ancient and powerful or listen to the counsel of the aged and the wise in order to prevail. Their victory is the preservation of the status quo or, perhaps, the reinstatement of that which was unrighteously usurped. Are we not all waiting for Daenerys to regain the Iron Throne? Do we not pine for the fall of the Old Republic and the doom of the Jedi? Are not the elves and old Gandalf the wisest voices in Middle Earth? Is not the existence of the Dragon Reborn proof positive of the cyclical nature of existence – nothing new under the sun, just the same old stuff come again? If the young save the world, it is not to remake it, but rather to restore it to the condition their forefathers maintained before them. There is always the attempt to return, to go back, to undo.
And yet we have the potential to explore so much more in fantasy literature. We can explore the repercussions of the new and the revolutions of thought and belief that go with it. We can shape a world that reforms itself, that learns from its mistakes, that leaves the past behind it and moves on to a brand new day. Perhaps this treads on the toes of science fiction too much – that has always been the genre of those who would look forward – but in an era where science fiction is increasingly obsessed with our society’s demise, maybe it should fall the fantasy to pick of the slack. Maybe fantasy can show us a way forward that science fiction, so tied down by the negativity of modern society, has forgotten how to find.
Most stories have a good love interest somewhere in there. The hero or heroine pines after this fella or that girl while in the midst of fighting the forces of evil or passing the bar or getting the band together for one last gig or whatever. We’re humans – we’re saps for a good romance. Fantasy fiction is no exception, either. I might even go so far as to say that the ‘love interest’ angle present in a lot of fantasy novels is, in some ways, more central to the plot than in many other genres. Maybe.
Well, if not more central, then certainly odder and potentially more problematic.
I’ve written previously about my difficulty with the female image in fantasy literature; this isn’t precisely about that. What I’m talking about is less the objectification of women and more about the romanticized idea of love. In fantasy novels, there is a certain male and a certain female character who are destined to fall in romantic love with one another and that is that. We all know who it is, too. Mad Martigan and Sorsha, Conan and Valeria, Rand Al’Thor and Elayne, Min, Aviendha and god-knows how many others in that series…
I could go on, but you know what I mean. Did any of us honestly think Luke was going to walk off with Leia? Nope. She was for Han the whole time. We could tell, you see, because they fought. Fighting means love, folks. If you don’t bicker, you don’t care. I know if I were locked in a rusty old space freighter for what was probably months with some woman I was always fighting with, we would almost certainly fall in love and make babies. Obviously. That’s how love works, right?
Fantasy and science fiction have a tendency to treat romance with idealized and ham-handed attention. They make it into something it’s not, they warp and define it to suit the story. Some of this can be blamed back on the old fairy tales of our youth – normalized gender relations rendered into gory and terrifying metaphors about witches and towers and wolves in the forest. Others can be blamed on the typical audience for fantasy and science fiction literature – young, single men. The idea of romance is tailored to suit their fantasies, as silly as that is. That these fantasies are wrong or even offensive to women (and men!) is only understood by those with a little age and experience behind them. In other words: when I was 14, much like all men, I had certain romanticized ideas of what falling in love would be like, and they were almost all entirely wrong. I blame the books I read for this, and the books I read were primarily of the fantasy and science fiction persuasion.
Some things I learned:
Terrifying Experiences Do Not Enhance Romance: Horror movies are one thing, but actual terrifying things do not make you want to cuddle. Or, if they do, it isn’t the kind of cuddling that involves making out and fondling each other in front of a roaring fire. It usually involves shivering while one or the other of you sobs and the other one tries to find some way to make the other feel better by cracking bad jokes. No sex is had. None at all.
Not All Women Admire Your Competitiveness: Remember that scene in the movie Red Sonja, where Arnold and Red Sonja fight each other all day until eventually discovering they loved one another? Well, that might be a thing if you’re going after Red Sonja, but in general being over-competitive jerk who wants to beat his girlfriend at Trivial Pursuit to the point where he’s grimacing at the game board and cursing at a die roll of ’3′ is not sexy. They think you’re crazy. They are right.
Violence is Not a Turn On: No matter how much you think otherwise, gents, beating the crap out of somebody, no matter how much of a douche they are, is not likely to engender the affections of the opposite sex. Most girls will just be disgusted with the entire affair, since fighting (contrary to fantasy literature) is an unattractive thing to witness.
Sometimes You’re Just Friends: Look, guys, you are not the main character in your own epic saga of fantastic adventure. All the women will not be falling for you. Even if they’re nice and they seem to like you, that doesn’t mean you are just one date request away from deep and abiding love. Sometimes they just like you because they like you, not because they want to be with you. Sorry, them’s the brakes, kids.
The Opposite Thing From That Last: If a girl treats you badly and makes fun of you and abuses you physically and says she hates you, guess what? SHE HATES YOU. It is almost certainly not a game and, if it is, I’d suggest looking elsewhere since this girl seems to have severe self-esteem issues if she feels the need to abuse those she likes. In either event, the whole ’love you until you stop saying no’ concept is both bonkers and borderline creepy. Cut it out. In the real world, people tell you who they are.
Now, the caveat here is that all people are different and all relationships operate differently, so I suppose it’s arrogant of me to say all of the things I said above – ‘your mileage may vary’, as they say. That said, I think it’s fair to assume that basing our expectations of our love lives based off of works where people ride dragons and throw fireballs from their hands is, speaking generously, completely ridiculous.
To give the genre credit, many of the most recent crop of fantasy novels (A Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and so on) do a pretty good job of interfering with the standard tropes, and romance has become a much more complicated affair in those worlds of late. Still and although, it is often the job of the fantasy reader, hard as it may sound, to separate the fantasies we choose to believe and the ones we don’t when taking our magical journeys into dreamland and beyond.
It has come to the attention of Vrokthar the Skull-Feaster, Scourge of the Northern Wastes and Bane of the Help Desk Cult, that you wetlanders have grown anxious about thy impending doom. This at first pleased the might ears of Vrokthar, for he thought that the miserable wretches of those weak peoples had, at last, realized the futility of their existence and resigned themselves to glorious slaughter at the swords of Vrokthar’s mighty ravaging hordes.
But lo, Vrokthar was wrong! The outrage! The insult!
You limp-wristed fools fear the ravages of a horde of zombies? Zombies? What nonsense is this? Why should you pathetic weaklings be more menacing when infected with diseases and parasites? Vrokthar is no master of logic, but he does have considerable experience with parasites and infections and, take it from me, they do not make you stronger. Packs of diseased wetlanders would be as dangerous as an average pack of poxy swine – easily slain and a wondrous source of fine bacon. If you have not sampled man-bacon, I assure you it is delicious, and you puffy overweight un-men are a wondrous source of both plentiful bacon and the lard in which to fry it.
So, aside from providing Vrotkthar and his multitudinous progeny with unending supplies of bacon, of what consequence is your pitiful zombie apocalypse? Do you honestly think that you, fat lazy hog lounging on your plush divans and speculating upon the pelvic gyrations of your vid-trollops, are a mere infection away from dangerous weapon? I would gladly remove your zombie spine and wear it as a belt to prove your inferiority, whether dead or alive, but the spines of your people are notoriously difficult to find.
I can hear now your sniveling protestations: “But Vrokthar,” you whimper, snot dribbling from your rosy little noses, “there will be hordes of us! We will be too many?”
Think you that your numbers are of account? Bah! My blade has hungered for such an opportunity to test its edge. Your pathetic sense, so dulled by whatever infection hath corrupted your reason, will fall easy prey to me. I shall hack and slash my way through your miserable masses to utmost victory. You will have no organization, no leaders, no weapons, and no sense – thy doom will be assured.
So, speak not to me of the menaces of your ‘zombie apocalypse’. Such a worthless event, were it to come to pass, would not be frightening enough to make Vrokthar pass gas. He would simply bide his time in the bitter vastness of the north and then, when your pathetic culture had finally managed to laze itself into near collapse, I would blow my mighty horn, gather the hordes, and descend upon thee like the judgment of angry gods.
And then, the man-bacon would flow.
When I was in kindergarten, I got on the wrong school bus home (there were two options – Bus 4 and Bus 6). Normal, right? Okay, when I was 11 years old, I attended a soccer camp. I got a ride there with one of the coaches. After the first day, I saw a lot of kids in my group going home on a school bus, so I got on the school bus to go home. I wound up in a town about 30 miles away from my house. I sat in some other coach’s living room while he called my mother while his kids – all, weirdly enough, wearing baseball uniforms – stared at me. He drove me to the parking lot of a police station halfway between my house and his own, where my Mom was waiting to pick me up.
“What were you thinking?” My mom finally said after a lot of hugging. “You didn’t even get on a bus at all this morning? Where was your head?”
I said I didn’t know. I just saw everybody getting on the bus and went along for the ride. I had not bothered to record the whys or hows for returning home that morning. It just didn’t seem that important to me at the time.
I spend a significant portion of my time not on planet Earth. I am always (ALWAYS) plotting stories and novels in my head. Often I’m plotting stories and novels I’m never, ever going to write (because who has the time? I’ve got enough projects lined up as it is). While I am writing this now, I am thinking of a story involving hyper-intelligent jellyfish who only communicate with each other in dreams. As of this moment, it has no plot, no characters, just colorful jellyfish floating in space, dreaming to each other and to the (hapless?) explorers who happen to discover them. The other day, while sitting in a faculty meeting, I developed an alien alphabet/language that uses quadrilateral pictograms. I found (to my surprise) that this species has the same word for ‘space’ as it has for ‘sea’. I’m still pondering what that means. It has displaced the jellyfish for the nonce.
And then I’ve still got that story about the guy hunted by aliens on a tidally-locked planet (no rotation) who is reduced to trying to determine his longitude by the size of a cat’s irises. It has a title: “Cat-Nav.”
In any event, this makes it difficult for some people to deal with me. Most notably my parents, but my kids and my wife and some of my friends, too. The other day, my eldest daughter (3 years) was pushing my youngest daughter (6 months) in one of those little walkers with the wheels around my parents’ house while both of them were giggling uncontrollably. It was extremely adorable, but I only paid attention for about half of it because I was deep in the middle of pondering the economic implications of a marsupial aliens species that reproduces in litters of 4-6 just about every 8 months in an interstellar society. Turns out its pretty grim.
I understand the real world is an important place (a stupid thing to say, but there you go). It contains all the things I legitimately love the most – my family, my home, my friends. For whatever reason, though, I can’t stay there all the time. I’m always leaving, going on journeys to places non-existent. There are perhaps a thousand answers why, and the most comforting ones come in some version of the statement ‘this dream has meaning for the waking world.’ Maybe it does. There’s a lot of work between me and finding out if that’s true, and I’m doing it. It’s hard, though – I need to go, but I want to stay. I’m here, but I’m also not. I work for the balance – the magical point where I can be in both places somehow. I haven’t found that yet. In all my travels, that is the destination I have yet to find.
And we wept, Precious. We wept to be so alone. And we forgot the taste of bread, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind. We even forgot our own name. My Precious.
The One Ring, for Tolkien, was always meant to symbolize the Machine – the industrial world, and everything that went with it (to Tolkien’s mind). Jackson captures this quite well in his film versions; we watch in horror as the goblins of Mordor tear down the ancient trees of Isengard, dig deep mines, and mass produce crude weapons with ruthless and casual efficiency. Whether we realize it or not, we are watching the psychological trauma of the First World War, filtered through Tolkien’s prose and passed down through the ages. The Shire – green, rural, quietly prosperous – is held in stark contrast to the black and soulless expanses of Gorgoroth beneath the baleful gaze of the Eye. We are also presented with shades of gray in the form of Minas Tirith, standing as it does against the ‘industrial evil’ of Sauron, but also standing as a prime example of man’s conquest over nature and the sickness that (to Tolkien’s mind) rests at the heart of such hubris.
At the heart of this contest between the forces of ‘nature’ and the forces of ‘industry’ is the cautionary tale of the Elves. Feanor, when he crafts the Silmarils, is crafting the thematic precursors of the One Ring. Feanor’s pride, his greed, and his anger nearly destroy the world, with the Elves paying a high price. So it is that we see the elves of the Third Age bearing a heavy spiritual load – few in number, wise in years, steeped in failure – they have retired from the business of making the world a better place and instead pine for what has been lost in the name of pride.
This idolization of the past and sanctification of nature has cast a long shadow in the fantasy genre. It is almost taken as given that the natural world is a force of good, that the great forests of the elves are the definition of beauty, and that the predations of humanity into the natural sphere are inherently abominable. This has become more evident with the increasing advent of environmentalism in the popular consciousness. The technological world is a thing apart from the world of magic, which is almost always closely tied to the ‘natural cycles’ of the world – solstices and equinoxes, day and night, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind.
But of course we live in an industrial society. I would go so far as to say we relish the fruits of our industries and, indeed, the division between what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘unnatural’ is actually a pretty difficult division to make. I will refrain from getting into the inherent logical fallacy that is the Appeal to Nature and, indeed, will spare you my own argued ambivalence for the environmental movement as a whole. Let me just leave it at this: If ‘industry’ and the progress of human technological endeavor is a tautological evil, how is it that humanity has always and consistently chosen to reshape the world rather than submit to it? At some point, way back before humans were even really human, some proto-human got it into his head that he could eat a lot better if he sharpened a rock and stuck it at the end of a stick, and so the whole process was born. We found our niche.
Maybe we’re just evil, I guess. I sort of doubt it, but if the decision is that reshaping nature to suit our needs is somehow ethically suspect, that is pretty much the conclusion at which one is forced to arrive. Of course, given that nature exists outside the scope of ethics and morality (and, for queries, I refer you to this essay by Stephen Jay Gould), really what we’re doing here is beating ourselves up for being so damned successful as a species. Discussions of sustainability aside (and that is a significant issue to be discussed), human civilization as a byproduct of its technological mastery has been a resounding success in the sphere of nature. Good for us, I say.
Fantasy, though, as something of an inherently conservative genre (and I mean that in its more literal sense, though overtones of political conservatism are certainly present and commonplace), often prefers to place the moral center firmly in the heart of the forest with the birds and the nuts and the fuzzy bunnies. The genre, taken in broad strokes, prefers a place where humans are not the top dog, not the big shots they think they are, and where they must fear the wrath of ‘forces beyond their comprehension’. It is important to many fantasy settings to give humanity a healthy dose of humility in the form of whatever ‘natural’ phenomenon or arboreal critters object to their building castles all over the place. We can see this in the coming of Winter in Martin’s work, in the power of the Aiel in Jordan’s Wheel of Time, in Narnia, in Butcher’s Dresden Files, and in almost every fantasy story where the fey/elves of the wood finally get out of their fairy circles and lay waste to the wicked (human) king and his assembled armies.
Need we be this negative, though? Is what humanity hath wrought so vile? Aren’t we, perhaps, whitewashing Mother Nature just a teensy bit? I mean, yeah, we probably shouldn’t burn down all the rainforests (oxygen and what-not), but that doesn’t mean the rainforests are full of adorable little creatures that cuddle up with their little pups in cozy little trees before the big, bad timber machines grind them up. Most of them critters will cut you, man, given half the chance. You don’t owe them shit. Nature, at its most basic level, isn’t a division of who’s right and wrong, but rather a division of who is right and who is left. It is indeed likely that our interference has changed the game, but it isn’t all negative. We are all humans, folks. Let’s get a little more team spirit, okay?
Ben Affleck is going to be Batman. Get over it.
No, seriously, just shut up. You’re being a giant child. Seeing as there is presumably nobody pointing a loaded weapon to your head and forcing you to go see this movie, you have two adult options here:
- Go and see the movie and see what happens. Life goes on.
- Don’t go and see the movie. Life goes on.
It’s not like Ben Affleck gassed kidnapped children in an abandoned coal mine. Calm the fuck down.
There is a bizarre cultural weight given certain fictional universes by the assembled masses of geekdom. A casting choice goes awry or so-and-so does such-and-such to Super-Guy’s underroos, and somewhere somebody is throwing an almighty hissy fit. I’ve done it, admittedly – I’ve done it here on this blog. I like to think my major objection in these instances isn’t to the choices made, though, as it is to the execution of said choices. If you want Gotham City to go into a kind of fascist lockdown, then fine. You need to have it make even a remote amount of sense, though. I object less to the ‘bat nipple’ than I do to the fact that Batman and Robin was a stupidly executed plot with poorly drawn characters and awkward performances. I also didn’t write the studio any hate mail.
When people start ranting about things like this, I like to ask them a question: What would you prefer? They inevitably produce a laundry list of things they would do differently – different actors, different costumes, different plots. Fine. The follow-up question is this:
Do you honestly think people wouldn’t get pissed at you, too?
If you grew up to become a hardcore geek, you also developed deep attachments to various characters. You loved Captain Kirk. You dreamed about fighting alongside Aragorn. On the playground, you were Han Solo’s niece with a blaster and a knack for fixing droids. I get it – I grew up the same way. These characters and these things stuck with you for a long, long time. They were folded into your personality, into your sense of self. I think this happens to everybody, geek or not. There was the kid who grew up wanting to be Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan, the guy who carried a copy of David Copperfield all through college, the girl who couldn’t stop watching My So-Called Life – all of these people have wrapped their self-image in with their heroes and heroines and stories. This is a fine thing to do – normal, even.
At some point, though, you need to know that somebody’s going to come along and try to capture the magic again. There are lots of reasons to do this – money, a love of the material, a desire to surpass what has been done before, etc.. In any event, they’re going to try. No matter how good it is, too, they’re probably going to fail with somebody. To some people, Michael Jordan is always going to be better than <whoever>, no one will ever capture the scope of Dickens in any other form, and all those other teen-dramas are just knock-offs. I met a guy once and we got to talking about James Bond. He hated Daniel Craig as Bond. His favorite? Roger Moore. Why? Roger Moore was cheesier, and that was what he liked. Seriously, that was his argument.
All of us have our ideal movie playing in our heads. It’s the thing we grew up with, it’s part of who we are. We can’t expect somebody else’s little movie in their head to match our own all the time, or even most of the time. What you consider ‘getting it right’ is inherently subjective. Will you hate Ben Affleck as Batman? Yeah, maybe. Maybe not – I bet you hated the idea of Heath Ledger as the Joker, too, and that was pretty stupid, wasn’t it (or do you think Mark Hamil is the perfect Joker? Jack Nicholson? Cesar Romero?)? In any event, the whole affair is no reason to get so upset. Just don’t go see the movie. You know you’re allowed to do that, right?
In the end, the thing I really want to tell people who get up in arms over how Hollywood ruined <blank> involves two additional things: First, that it isn’t like Hollywood erased the old thing (unless you’re George Lucas, but he gave us the originals back eventually), so just go back and watch that. Second, if you don’t like how they’re telling this story, tell it yourself. Nobody is ever going to make that movie you have in your head except you.
That’s half the reason I write, after all – nobody tells stories quite the way I would, so it’s up to me to tell them myself. Of course, being a writer isn’t for everybody – I understand that. You would think, though, that with that understanding people would elicit some degree of restraint in their criticism. If anybody ever asks you ‘could you do better’ and you can’t honestly say ‘yes’ (emphasis on honestly), maybe you shouldn’t be bitching so loudly. Furthermore, if the answer is yes, then go and do it.
For my money, I’m going to wait and see what Affleck does with the role. After all, you just never know and the worst that could happen has already happened. It’s called Daredevil.
As usually happens with me, I just saw the movie Red as its sequel hit the theatres. Enjoyed the hell out of that movie, so I’ll probably go catch Red 2 by the time the third one is out or they’re releasing the 25th anniversary edition or something.
It occurred to me in watching this movie that one of the things that I loved about it is that all the heroes were old hands at their profession – they were the best of the best, with decades of history, coming out for one last hurrah. This always plays well with me and, indeed, it occurs to me that those are the kind of heroes I love. I like veterans, old pros, grizzled campaigners; I like to watch the young whipper-snappers underestimate how badass they are and get their butt handed to them. Most of my stories and novels feature such characters prominently, often in the starring role. When I play an RPG, I often play a character that once had their heyday, but now are fading with age or disillusionment or injury. I love giving them that leg-up on the opposition and I love all the trouble that having that many enemies (or friends!) brings with it.
It occurs to me that, to some extent, our heroes are often struck in one of two molds, of which the above description is one. They are either young, scrappy up-and-comers (Luke Skywalker) or older, more experienced, more cynical veterans (Han Solo). Granted there’s a lot of variation in there (more a spectrum than a dichotomy), but I do think the basic distinction has a lot of legs.
Your Luke Skywalker types have their future ahead of them. They are often thrust into a world they barely understand, but there’s something special about them that sees them through. We identify with these characters readily – they’re the underdog, and besides they seem so nice. We struggle along with them to retain their values and their heroic nature in the face of evil. We know they have great things in store for them, and so we want to be along for the ride. We can see this in Rothfuss’s Kvothe, in Jon Snow, in Harry Potter, and in just about every other YA Fantasy hero/heroine on the shelves.
For me, the drawback of the Skywalker approach is that one builds from the ground up. There seem to be fewer surprises hidden in the characters themselves and that makes them a little more predictable and gives them a little less depth. Of course, they trade this for clear goals and bold purposes. They are less hampered by cynicism.
Now, as somebody who struggles with cynicism myself, it is small wonder that I find the frequent optimism of the Luke character frustrating. Perhaps because I, myself, am somewhat embittered at the weight of the world, I find it easier to identify with someone who already knows this. Then again, I cheer just as hard for the Skywalkers when they do things right (Kvothe’s victories, especially, strike a chord in me that has me on my feet clapping). Still, I feel a disconnect with them. I don’t see myself as them. Oddly enough, I never did.
The Han Solos of the world, on the other hand, are right up my alley. I love their history. I love their old friends popping up. I love it when a character says ‘I know a guy who might be able to help’, since that guy is always going to mean trouble. The Hans get the best one-liners, romance all the more interesting women, and have the coolest mystique about them. People roll their eyes at Luke – he has to prove himself. Han just jerks his head at Chewie, and people shut the hell up.
The struggle of the Han Solo hero is the struggle of redemption. It’s the story of the comeback. What they’re coming back from varies – from the loss of their conscience or from the weight of age, or the like. Still, it’s a story I love watching. Here is where you find Conan the Barbarian, James Bond, Unforgiven‘s Ed Munny, Druss the Legend, Kvothe (oddly enough – read Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and you’ll get it), Tyrion Lannister, Locke Lamora, and so on.
For whatever reason, nothing makes me smile more than the veteran proving he still has it, or the retired assassin finding something to be hopeful about, or the old soldier putting together his life after the long war. I want them to fight their way out of the pit they dug themselves. I find that fascinating.
So, where do your favorite heroes lie on the age-and-experience spectrum? Are they more a Han or more a Luke? Why?
Author’s Note: What follows is an excerpt of a project I’ve been working on for a little while now. It’s been a while since I’ve posted any of my own work, so I figured I’d toss this one out there. The novel itself is in a state of severe ‘take entirely apart and put back together again’ revision, so whether this scene even stays is on the ropes. I think it makes for a pretty sweet opening, anyway. Hope you enjoy it and, of note, it is *rough*, so please excuse the occasional typo/awkward phrase. Thanks! ~AAH
The men moved like hunting dogs in the dying light – heads cocked, ears pointed to the sky, every step made with ruthless caution. The ruined city looked as though cloaked in snow, a thin layer of white coating the blackened remnants of apartment buildings, machinery, and lampposts. It was not snow. It was ash.
Somewhere not very far away the frenetic pop and crack of rifles would start up and then stop and then start again. This was a time of peace for the city; in an hour or so, when darkness filled every empty doorway and rubble-choked trench, the real dirty fighting would begin again. Face-to-face, toe-to-toe, Stalin had ordered his soldiers as close to the Germans as they could get, hugging their lines in a masochistic embrace. The dead were piled in every alley, Russian and German alike.
Then men creeping down the ash-white street knew this. They were all veterans who had invaded the city with Hitler’s Sixth Army and had been here ever since, painting the masonry of Stalin’s city with the blood of its defenders. Hard men in chalk-grey coats, their eyes a thousand miles away, their fingers never far from the trigger. They moved quickly; they knew the way.
None of them looked at the officer who was with them, striding down the street as though this place were the corridors of his private library. His black trenchcoat was spotlessly clean, his peaked cap, which had never known the touch of dirt, sported the silver eagle of the Reich, and his leather gloves still shone. He had arrived in the city just yesterday, with a signed order from the Führer himself. He said his name was Hoffstadt, and that ten men were to take him behind Soviet lines and into an area of the city known to be abandoned and avoided by both sides for reasons no German officer had been able to adequately explain to his superiors.
No one had dared to argue with him; the men simply hoped Hoffstadt would catch a sniper’s bullet and then the ten of them could ditch his body and head back to their own lines. He had not. Not yet.
Stalingrad had been so ravaged by the battle that it was difficult, at times, to tell where a street ended and a ruin began and vice versa. Hoffstadt got the sense that they were crossing streets and slinking through ruins rather than following the map he’d been given; he found himself passing through the devastated remnants of kitchens and sitting rooms, bullet-riddled bedrooms and bathrooms. He felt like an archaeologist of sorts, passing through the living spaces of people long since dead and gone and for whom there would be no eulogy save their bathtub, shrapnel cracked and smoke stained, that had once served as a crucial machine gun nest.
The sergeant called the men to a halt with a silent hand gesture. They were at the base of a stairway that led to nothing – a building whose top floors had been removed by some work of explosive destruction – peering through a half-open doorway with the tangled concrete rubble of the rest of the city block on two sides. Not bothering to duck, Hoffstadt stepped beside the sergeant and whispered. “What is the matter? Why the delay?”
“Please, mein Herr, lower your voice.” The sergeant hissed. “The enemy could be anywhere.”
“We haven’t seen or heard a Russian for blocks now.” Hoffstadt said, brushing dust off his epaulets. “You men have become overly cautious. This area is devoid of enemy activity.”
“And yet, mein Herr, those who go in do not come out.”
“That, gentlemen, is why I am here. Trust me – I am prepared for what we face.” He patted the satchel at his side. “Is it just over there?”
The sergeant poked his head out of the door in the direction that Hoffstadt pointed. “The Russians claim the koldun lives in that church across that plaza, yes. Allow my men to secure the area, though, before you…”
Hoffstadt stepped through the door and into the open.
The church was not a church, of course. Not anymore – the communists had repurposed the building, torn down its iconography, and made it into a shrine to the Russian Worker, instead. Iron murals of taut-muscled young men working hammers and scythes flanked the entryway; posters with red stars and the mustachioed face of Comrade Stalin were plastered across fat stone pillars. The front of the church had taken a direct hit from an artillery shell, leaving a ragged hole in the upper façade, like a mouth wailing at the sky. Hoffstadt walked toward it, and when he was not shot, the soldiers followed, hopping from cover to cover as they crawled in his wake.
The plaza before the church was strewn with rubble and threaded haphazardly with razorwire, but these things did not catch Hoffstadt’s attention. He stepped around and past them, his eyes fixed on a spectacle spread out across the base of the wide stairs leading up to the church’s front doors. It was a row of wooden stakes, each over six feet long, set into the ground at regular intervals. Impaled on each was a human head, severed at the neck or perhaps torn from its moorings – it was difficult to tell. Flies buzzed around each stake, and as Hoffstadt grew closer, he could see that each was sticky with blood. He stopped just shy of crossing the line. The soldiers, weapons ready, crouched in the half-darkness behind him.
“Hello in there!” Hoffstadt yelled in Russian. The deathly silence of the plaza seemed to swallow the words. He raised his voice. “Is anyone at home? Hello?”
As one, the eyes of the severed heads opened. Hoffstadt’s breath caught in his throat. “Is that you, Khostov?”
The bloodied, lipless mouths of the heads moved in unison. The soft, rasping whisper of a dozen severed vocal chords awkwardly vibrating filled the air. “Who are you?”
Hoffstadt smiled and looked back at the soldiers. Their faces were as pale as those of the heads. They looked at him with wide, panicked eyes. He motioned for calm and, just for fun, gave them a wink. He then planted his feet and faced the heads again. “So it is you, isn’t it?”
“Who are you?”
“I am Ernst Hoffstadt, special advisor attached to the Führer’s SS. I am looking for the Russian sorcerer named Vitaly Khostov. Is there anyone by that name here?” Hoffstadt grinned. “Perhaps it is one of these heads, eh?”
“You are not welcome here.” The heads moaned. Their fish-white eyes rolled in their blackened sockets.
“Yes. I had gathered that.” Hoffstadt reached into the satchel and drew out a small pewter flask embossed with a golden swastika. He casually unscrewed the cap.
“Sir!” The sergeant had his MP40 trained on the heads; his hands shook. “What…what is this? Is this real?”
Hoffstadt looked down at the man and thought about it. No, there was no sense in explaining. “It’s electronics, Sergeant. A theatre show, yes? Remain calm – all is well.”
“You are not welcome here.” The heads repeated.
Hoffstadt chuckled. “And yet, here I am.” He stepped forward a full pace, up to the very edge of the line of stakes, and poured a fine white powder out of the flask. It collected in a small pile at his feet; he began to walk, drawing a white line against the scorched, blackened earth in a large circle about two paces across and then took up a position at the center of it.
“Begone.” The whispers from the dead lips lacked inflection, but Hoffstadt felt he could detect something behind the words—frustration, perhaps. Annoyance? All the better.
“I will not leave until I’ve completed my mission, Herr Khostov. My mission is to speak with you, in person. If you will come out of your little ruin and have a conversation with me, I will gladly go away. Until then, I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.” Hoffstadt smiled and folded his hands behind his back. He waited for the counterstroke.
It came from one of the soldiers. He was a simple private – a youngish man with an uneven yellow beard. His blue eyes were transfixed on the heads, his face locked in an expression of mute horror. Out of the corner of his eye, Hoffstadt saw him slowly stand up, Mauser rifle gripped tightly in his hands, eyes still glued to the heads. Hoffstadt could see their lips moving, but they made no sound. Whatever they said, it was for the soldier alone.
“Gerd!” The sergeant barked, “Get down! What is the matter with you.”
Hoffstadt smiled and drew his nickel-plated P38 from its embossed holster. “Do not worry, Sergeant. Gerd isn’t himself at the moment.”
The soldier turned his rifle towards Hoffstadt, his eyes nearly popping out of his head, his veins bulging from his neck. Hoffstadt waited just long enough to make certain the young private couldn’t snap out of it, and then he shot him once through the heart. Gerd dropped his rifle, fell to his knees, and then collapsed, face first, into the ash. The soldiers were utterly still; some of them looked to the sergeant.
“You acknowledge, Sergeant, that young Gerd over there was about to shoot me, yes?”
The sergeant was looking at Gerd’s body. His face was as gray as his coat. “Yes, mein Herr. Yes, but…”
Hoffstadt turned back to the heads. “A very good trick, Herr Khostov, but you must agree that it is inefficient. I can shoot down any man you seek to dominate, and then where are we, eh?”
The heads regarded him with their empty eyes, their mouths quivering in unison. It took Hoffstadt a moment, but he realized that they were laughing.
“Mein…mein Herr…” The sergeant managed to croak, his voice labored as though he were carrying a great weight. Hoffstadt looked – the sergeant was slowly rising, his eyes fixed upon the dead gaze of the heads, just as Gerd’s had been. All nine of the remaining men were doing the same, all of their faces frozen with terror, all of them slowly, inexorably turning their weapons towards Hoffstadt.
Seven rounds left in the magazine, nine men. Hoffstadt kept calm, taking careful aim. The pistol barked seven times, and seven more bodies dropped. The last two were the Sergeant and his corporal. Hoffstadt could see them fighting the compulsion, their bodies trembling as though they might shake apart at any moment. Hoffstadt fell to one knee as the corporal fired, the rifle shot zinging past his head close enough to blow off his hat. He ejected the P38 magazine with one hand as the other fished its replacement out of his satchel. The corporal’s trembling hands reluctantly worked the bolt on his Mauser.
The sergeant’s MP40, though, was unlikely to miss at this range. The submachine gun roared to life, spitting a half dozen rounds into Hoffstadt’s chest, ripping apart his fine trenchcoat and throwing the SS operative onto his back.
The sergeant’s weapon jammed, but the compelled German soldier could not stop holding down the trigger. Hoffstadt rolled to knees and stood up, chuckling. “You are not the only one with secrets, Herr Khostov.” He chambered the first round in his pistol and shot the sergeant in the face, then the corporal in the throat – his aim was a bit off.
The heads had fallen silent.
Hoffstadt took off the trenchcoat. His uniform beneath was likewise riddled with bullets, but the effect was less noticeable. He shook himself and the flattened slugs clattered out from underneath his shirt. “The Green Draught – surely you know it, yes? My, but it tastes terrible. The effects, though,” Hoffstadt pointed to his chest. “They cannot be argued with.”
“It only protects against some things.” A figure in a dark cowl stood in the doors of the old church. Hoffstadt could see nothing of his features, but his voice was somehow still and cold, like a pond in winter.
“Herr Khostov, I presume.”
The figure did not move. “What do you want?”
Hoffstadt holstered his pistol and picked his hat up, brushing the ashes off its brim. “It is not what I want, Herr Khostov, but what you want. I come with an offer from the Führer himself.”
The black-cowled form of Khostov came closer, seeming to float down the cracked steps. In the distance, an artillery shell exploded, lighting the sky. “And why would I accept an offer made by your Führer?”
“Do you think there is a future for you here?” Hoffstadt squinted in the dying light at the Russian sorcerer. He thought he might have seen something…glowing. Underneath the hood of the cowl, perhaps?
“You presume a great deal.” Khostov stood at the edge of the line of stakes, their grisly top-pieces now silent. Another shell brightened the waning light of day.
“The Russians are finished, Herr Khostov. When we have crushed them here, it will all soon be over. Even if it weren’t true, just how welcoming do you think Comrade Stalin will be of a man of your…peculiar talents? He will seek to enslave you; the Reich would seek to uplift you. We welcome you as a member of the superior race. This could be the beginning of your greatest triumph.”
“You would have me abandon brutes to work with butchers.” Khostov observed quietly. Hoffstadt could definitely see something glimmering beneath the cowl, now, as the night was falling faster and faster.
“We are but pruning the tree of humanity, Herr Khostov. We are paying the price for a better tomorrow—surely you, of all people, would understand the need for sacrifice to achieve greatness.”
Khostov, now barely visible except as a black outline in the dark, shook his cowled head. “No. I am no judge of such things and neither is Hitler. I reject your offer, Ernst Hoffstadt.” The sorcerer moved to come closer, but paused at the edge of the white powder the nazi had poured around himself.
Hoffstadt grinned. “Salt, Herr Khostov. The barrier your kind cannot cross, yes? We have studied, you see. We know more than you realize.”
Khostov produced a sound that Hoffstadt thought was some kind of cough or wheeze, but as it intensified, he realized that the Russian sorcerer was laughing. It was a thin, gallows-laugh, mirthless and chilling. Somewhere, far away, another bomb dropped, shaking the earth. “I’m afraid I don’t understand what’s so funny, Herr Khostov…”
Khostov’s hooded head turned towards him, and now Hoffstadt could see the two globes of pale green light hanging there in the depths of the cowl – the eyes of something wicked, something damned. “You have made a mistake only a Nazi would, Hoffstadt.” The sorcerer – the creature – stepped smoothly over the line of salt. “This salt is not kosher.”
Hoffstadt staggered backwards, but Khostov’s hands – little more than bony claws – seized him by the arm. There was the flash of a distant flare and, for a split second, Hoffstadt saw what was beneath the sorcerer’s cowl: A half-decayed human skull, muscle clinging in tarry strips across the face, and floating in the empty eye-sockets was that deathly green light.
Ernst Hoffstadt’s screams were muffled by the sound of Nazi bombs and artillery shells rending asunder that which, with utmost care and hope, Russian hands had put together.
So it is again that I, Vrokthar the Skullfeaster, Scourge of the Northern Wastes, does again howl his curses into this magical word-slate, so that he might send word to his enemies that their miserable lives are to come to an end. Oh, yes, the puffy, limp-limbed wizards that rule this non-realm laugh at Vrokthar’s threats. “Ha!” sayeth the old-womanish cellar-dwelling gargoyles of the land of ‘Tech Support’, “you shall never find us, Vrokthar, for we are clever and hide behind our thick doors and send our mothers to the door when we knock.” “Also,” these pustulent web-toads cackle, “we are mostly located in the distant land of Asia, hiding among the many multitudes of our countrymen.”
These fools have no notion of Vrokthar’s wrath. Before his vengeance is sated, he shall bathe in a great cauldron of their steaming spinal fluid and use their knee-cartilage as chewing gum for many years to come.
But I get ahead of myself.
How hath these fetid, indolent mouse-goblins affronted the mighty Vrokthar? Listen then, and listen well to my grievances, so that your howls of rage might be added to mine own and so might the very stars tremble at our displeasure:
After many years of pillaging the pathetic wetlander nations, it occurred to the diseased and weakling brains of his enemies to provide the Northern Wastes with a spirit known as ’Wifi’, so that the mighty and warlike peoples of Vrokthar’s tribe might use the magical word-tablets of the south to appease their rage. The fools even expected to sell these objects of wonder to my people. Of course we did not buy them, but took them by force after slaughtering many idiot merchants from both the tribes of Microsoft and Apple. Their wails as they awaited their deaths upon the mounds of the Inferno Ants was most pleasing as we toyed with our new spoils. For some short while we were amused by the panoply of absurd cats and busty females to be found in the deep folds of Wifi’s realm. That was, of course, until we stumbled upon the one known as ‘Beiber’, and then took it upon ourselves to stage a great crusade against the wetlanders that would produce such a foul, effeminate wretch and, still more, allow him to bombard their ears with his pointless, idiotic screeching.
But Vrokthar digresses…
Vrokthar of course secured for himself the mightiest of the ‘computers’ that they seized, and told it a great many of his mightiest secrets, so that they might be held safe from the prying magicks of enemy witchcraft. So it was that Vrokthar came to value this prize. He sacrificed many wetlander infants for its long health, and ordered his bannermen to leave for it the finest parts of the caribou for it to feast upon. What mattered that it deigned not to eat? It was Vrokthar’s most trusted advisor, and any fool who sought to disobey it’s ‘Tweets’ was justly slain by mine own hand.
Then, one cursed morning, Vrokthar was about to consult his computer upon a matter of great import (and in no way related to that despicably buxom wetlander woman Christina Hendricks – this I swear!), his computer ceased to function. Great was Vrokthar’s wrath, but greater still his resolve to restore his lost secrets. He recalled the whimperings of a dying merchant, blubbering for his life as Vrokthar’s battle hounds tore out his entrails, that there were sages hidden deep within the ‘inter-net’ that could resurrect his advisor. So, Vrokthar quested for these men, and found them, and demanded of them their obedience. They promised to help, but their promises were the foulest of lies. They could not rescue Vrokthar’s data! They send Vrokthar not one, but two new ‘hard drives’, only for them both to not function! They asked Vrokthar stupid questions, such as whether or not his computer was switched on (OBVIOUSLY NOT, YOU INSUFFERABLE BOOB, ELSE I WOULD HAVE CUT OFF YOUR MANHOOD AND LEFT YOU TO PERISH HOURS AGO!) or whether his hard drive was hooked up to the computer (YOU SHALL WADE KNEE DEEP IN THE BLOOD OF YOUR OFFSPRING, YOU CONDESCENDING JACKAL!).
They gave Vrokthar incorrect instructions. They transferred Vrokthar to alternate sages who knew nothing. They gifted him with software that would not function. All this and more!
So it is that I swear to hunt down these fools in person, so that they might know the depth of my displeasure. They think they can hide? Know this, Sunjay of Tech Support: There is no population so large that could cushion you from the doom of Vrokthar the Skullfeaster. He will slay every Sunjay in India and fashion a shrine from their collected skulls only so he might desecrate it regularly with his mighty bowel movements. Your screams will sunder heaven and cause your gods to weep. Your family and your friends and your acquaintances and neighbors shall all be branded with Vrokthar’s mark and taken as slaves, there to sand the dead flesh of his bunions and shall be permitted to eat nothing but the sanded remnants of his mighty bunions until they waste away and die. Such is my oath. Even now, my hounds seek the scent of you and all your ilk.
Tell all who will listen: Vrokthar comes for you, and he is as pitiless as the dead clicking of a broken 360 gigabyte hard drive.