Dark Sarah is Metal Theater Of the Highest Order


I know you’ve read or–for the unfortunate–listened to me go on about Symphonic Metal before, and I know my opinion on the lack of female-fronted bands of worth that recall the glory days of Nightwish is not a secret. This weekend, to open up 2017 with a gloriously dark, romantic bang, there is Dark Sarah.

Heidi Parviainen is the female front of Dark Sarah, a concept Symphonic Metal band. Here she stands in black against a nighted forest background for the cover of their debut album, Behind the Black Veil.
Dark Sarah’s cover art for their debut album, Behind the Black Veil.

Dark Sarah is at once original and elegiac, and you will be entranced from the start, so welcome new readers, Constant Followers, one and all to the wonderful world of Symphonic Metal.

What the Sam Hill is Symphonic Metal?

Let me start out by saying I have zero problem with Black Metal, Death Metal, Metalcore, and Goth Metal. I am accepting of all the metal, but my heart has always belong to the Power Metal gods and the grand fantasy they weave. I have blasted my ears with the best of them, and I’ve sank into the depths of balmy despair without regret. The splintering of subgenres in metal has never been a problem for me, and we’re probably the most inclusive music genre in the world.

So Before you tell me yer not into all that opera shit, sit down and let me learn you a thing.

Symphonic Metal is not just some froo-froo subgenre. Symphonic Metal has its roots in Power Metal (Ronnie James Dio, Scorpions, Accept, Manowar, and Iron Maiden–I could go on), borrowing the keyboards prevalent to that genre and incorporating classically trained female front-ladies, Yngwie Malmsteen’s guitar concertos, and male backing vocals with low ranges and growls–you know, metal.

Symphonic Metal was born in Finland, Sweden, and Holland, where the most metal parts of Western Civilization got their start. Here the Vikings wrought havoc and made their initial raids from Scandinavian ports, turning Britain into its own personal whipping boy from 793 to 1066, where Michiel de Ruyter successfully defended the Netherlands from ongoing attempts at colonization by France, the Danish, and England, revolutionizing the tactics of naval warfare and introducing the world to the original Marine Corps.

Power Metal, Goth Metal, and Symphonic Metal carry many of the same hallmarks of Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery, drawing on material from artists like Michael Moorcock and J. R. R. Tolkien (like Blind Guardian–technically German).

A dragon twines itself between a glowing gateway beneath an arch of grinning skulls in this cover art for Blind Guardian's album, a Twist in the Myth.
Fantasy and sorcery characterize much of Hansi Kursch’s band, Blind Guardian, famed for it’s high fantasy influences and heavy atmosphere.

Bands like Hammerfall were some of the first to incorporate orchestral composition into their metal. Then there was Nightwish, launching their debut in 1997 with Angels Fall First, giving rise to the reputation of Tarja Tarunen and the birth of Symphonic Metal, relying on story-telling, the masterful composition and rhythmic genius of Tuomos Halopanian on keyboard, and high romance instead of broiling anger, though if one wants broiling anger in their metal, the Northern European countries have plenty to offer on that score as well.

Symphonic Metal has yet to see a downfall. Though not popular in the United States, bands like Within Temptation, Epica, and Delain enjoy a wide audience throughout most of Northern and Eastern Europe. Other European bands that do not technically fall under Symphonic Metal that rely heavily on thematic content, album-wide concept, and vocal talent are male-fronted Swedish bands Ghost and Falconer (which has since disbanded). Symphonic Metal is, by virtue of the talent leading it, is a ladies’ genre.

Papa Emeritus the III stands between the five Nameless Ghouls in this black and white promo photo.
The band, Ghost, is a Swedish metal band that relies heavily on stage theatrics and Papa’s strong vocal talent.
This is a very un-recent picture of the band posing in a promotional shot. Falconer was originally a side project, and so the members were not always available to be a regular band.
The Swedish metal band Falconer who is best known for vocal diversity and grimdark lyrics.

Nightwish

The one band that always stands out as exemplary of the genre is Nightwish. The Finnish Symphonic/Power Metal band has always been a band of evolution, which began long before Mezzo Soprano Tarja Tarunen left the band on hiatus after the release and tour of Once. Though the band gained popularity with its orchestral composition lead by famed keyboardist, composer, and vocalist Tuomos Halopanian, it still remained far too literary for the contemporary metal critics leading the overarching genre, and was further crippled by the on-going stigma of a female front person, as metal is overrun with male-fronted bands like a playground sandbox, or the tech industry. Taking the edge off Tarja’s operatic vocals was original backup vocalist and bassist Sami Vänskä, providing the depth and darkness of “Pharaoh Sails to Orion” on Oceanborn and “Beauty and the Beast” on Wishmaster. Later in 2002, bassist and vocals Marco Hietala brought new depth and range as the counterpoint opposite all three Nightwish female fronts from Once (Tarunen) to End of Innocence (Annette Olzon), to Endless Forms Most Beautiful (Floor Jansen).

Tarja Tarunen stands and sings with her band on an open mounainside in the driven snow as the sun slowly begins to rise.
Tarja Tarunen and bandmates sing Nemo in the 2004 music video promoting Once. This is perhaps one of Nightwish’s albums most overtly Christian albums.

Though their content is deeply steeped in Tuomos Halopanien’s fantasy inspirations, Nightwish was also heavily influenced by Tarunen’s Christian faith, something that did not win the band any points among its detractors, but for its fans presented the band, and the Symphonic Metal genre, as a thing of beauty, a Romantic expression of eternal love and the journey through worldly perils to find the magic waiting just beyond the rising sun, an expression that came to a crescendo with Once in 2004.

It is this legacy of eternal love, danse macabre, magic, sacrifice, and the journey that is being lived in Dark Sarah.

Dark Sarah

Dark Sarah is in the foreground, with a massive dragon hovering in the background. The tone is a midnight blue that shrouds all in moonlight. Sarah holds a rose.
Cover art for Dark Sarah’s latest album, The Puzzle, released in 2016.

Dark Sarah, like many Power/Symphonic Metal bands, is a concept band that is story-driven in its content and powerful in its delivery. Dark Sarah is fronted by Heidi Parviainen, whose wide eyes, innocent face, and powerful voice takes the listener through the band’s content on a journey that is both fantastic and spiritual.

Dark Sarah’s debut album in 2015 was Behind the Black Veil, the story of Sarah, a girl left at the alter by her fiance, who fleas in tears, and who finds within herself a darkness that is at once herself and someone else. Dark Sarah and Behind the Black Veil is a journey of self-discovery and reclamation, but it is also a story of loss and betrayal.

The Puzzle

Spoiler Alert: It is a story after all.

The Puzzle is Dark Sarah’s second concept album released in November of 2016, telling the story of Dark Sarah in limbo as she traverses a fantastic island between Life and Death. Sarah must traverse the Misty Island to redeem her second chance at life, and only by unlocking the puzzle can she gain the keys that will grant her not only freedom, but the answers to the questions of her Fate.

The music videos are pieces of art all their own, though the content is not stand-alone. If pursued out of order, the story might not sound like a puzzle needing to be solved, but rather a story purely of escape, which it is, but it is also so much more than that.

The song “Little Men” is a danse macabre of Dia de los Muertos style that is lively and engrossing, a fantasy that dares the listener and Dark Sarah, to follow (sort of like the Fieries in Labyrinth only…whoa).

Dark Sarah watches a gathering of little men, sort of like faeries, as they dance magically, inviting Dark Sarah to join them, though she is not permited to. Here, black dancers amids purple and green faeries decorated in the style of Dio de los Muertos frolic, with Heidi playing both the faerie and Dark Sarah.
The black-light glow reflects the pagentry of the Little Men that Dark Sarah sees upon her arrival to the Misty Island.

“Dance With The Dragon” features the earth-shattering vocals of JP Leppäluoto, front-man of the Finnish band formerly known as Charon, and one of the five members of Northern Kings (which also included Nightwish’s Marco Hietala). The song is an eye-to-eye showdown with Dark Sarah brought before The Dragon, who poses the second question Dark Sarah must answer to receive a key. Sarah does not know the answer, and so begs the dragon to let her have the key anyway. The dragon invites her in a number of ways to answer the question, but each time is rebuffed. The song is replete with unfulfilled promises, and though handsome Leppäluoto seems to feel for Sarah in her plight, despite being her antagonizer (much like Jareth in the crystal dance scene) the dance is also a challenge, a test of wills, a “coupling” that has Dark Sarah and the Dragon vying for dominance, something I sort of wish Sarah had done in Labyrinth instead of letting Jareth lead her around by the nose.

Sarah and the Dragon are locked in a battle in which the Dragon possess the key which Sarah needs to continue her journey. In this picture, the dance between Heidi Parviainen and JP Leppäluoto is also a struggle, as he is not gentle, and each step is jarring and sharp, hardly a romantic gesture.
A battle of wills and desperation, Dark Sarah Dances with The Dragon, JP Leppäluoto, pushing him away.
Surrounded by the band members, dressed as granite statues, Dark Sarah and the Dragon dance, but it is almost like a duel. Each dancers holds the other in awkward, unpleasant way, and the Dragon whips Dark Sarah around like a "rag doll". She is not so much dancing with him as she is struggling.
Dark Sarah is not afraid of The Dragon, for she looks him directly in the eye–as only proper for two dancers locked in a battle. The lyrics to the song hint a desperation, as Dark Sarah cannot answer the question the Dragon poses to her.

Though similarly staged to another well-known dance scene, Dark Sarah does not let us forget that her misfortunes in life have made her strong and resilient. However, even at her strongest in the darkness she has cloaked herself in, she is no match for the Dragon. There is very heavy influence from Labyrinth here, but unlike the Sarah of Jim Henson’s film, Dark Sarah is not seduced by her dance partner, but confronted. She is not a listless wanderer, and the dragon demands her answer to his question, “What is stronger than death?”

Jareth (David Bowie) dances with Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) as the goblin king attempts to woo her with a song of love, hoping she will forget her quest to find her brother Toby.
Jareth seduces Sarah into forgetting her purpose.

In the song, Dark Sarah cannot answer the question, and begs for the key. She is tossed back to the beginning, another very similar throwback to Henson’s film.

I begin to feel as if The Puzzle is a much, much darker and existential version of Labyrinth–the similarity in title is notwithstanding. Like many of my generation, Labyrinth became an everywoman-tale about finding one’s self, forgiving one’s self, renouncing the blindness of Romance, and remembering that living in the past is dark, toxic, and deprives you of the joy of the present and the love that may surround you even if you don’t see it.

Conclusion

The Puzzle is Dark Sarah’s reconciliation, her struggle to find the meaning of the events that have stamped out the light side of her. It is a story of bravely facing mortality. Like the Labyrinth from which it draws so very, very heavily, Dark Sarah comes to grips with the darkness that shaped her and rediscovers her light, the light that never left her. Like the journey of Sarah, The Puzzle is also a story of forgiveness. Dark Sarah learns that life is short, and that she must not squander the light that is within her and waste her days in darkness.

Heidi Parviainen as Dark Sarah floats on a moonlit sea. The portrait is a concept piece for the story portion of the album.
Dark Sarah floats on a moon lit sea, adrift between Life and Death.

Musically, The Puzzle is a masterpiece that weaves a delicate story that unites Gothic Romance with heavy metal and orchestral composition, an opera in every sense of the word. If you all thought Symphonic Metal died with Once in 2004, you were sadly mistaken. Sorry Black Metal, Metalcore, and Death Metal, but Symphonic Metal is here to stay, and their fearless leader is young, beautiful Heidi Parviainen, who should be inducted into the ranks of front-ladies who are destined to inherit metal after all the men have broken their vocal chords.

As we say goodbye to 2016 and welcome the refreshing rebirth of good fortune and hope that is 2017, we reflect on what we have learned in the past year. We’ve all grown in some way. We’ve taken the good with the bad, and if we have fallen on hard times, let us remember that we are allowed to grieve our mistakes, grieve our losses, and move on. We are not bound to the past. We can change, and yet remain true to ourselves and our purpose. In each of us, there is darkness and light, and though the light may reveal harsh realities that cause us pain, the life lived in darkness is no real sanctuary, but a prison we have built ourselves.

You can buy The Puzzle on iTunes and read the full story of Dark Sarah’s journey through the Misty Island on the Dark Sarah official site. I strongly encourage you to do this, as it will give the songs and videos that accompany it a little more context. I did this with all of Trans Siberian Orchestra’s albums, and so was very glad to see Dark Sarah provide this as well.

Keep dreaming, Constant Followers, and follow the light.

 

 

 

Contemporary Folk Traditions: Texas Renaissance Festival

(As a note, when it comes to pictures, I give credit where it is due, and if no credit is given, it is because I took the picture myself).

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious influences.

Today we’re looking at the contemporary folk traditions of the thousands of patrons who visit TRF year after year.

The round official logo of the Texas Renaissance Festival features the king holding a flagon of ale, or mead, above the tagline, "Life Up Your Cares".
The official logo of the TRF.

Every state has that one attraction that is an absolute must for every group of friends. For Texas, that attraction has been, and perhaps always shall be, the Texas Renaissance Festival. Texas residents who share the love of the renaissance fair know that the TRF is not just any fair, and there are others in Texas that have relatively the same things: there is Sherwood Forest, Austin Celtic Festival, and others, but there is something special about the TRF situated between Magnolia and Houston. Of all the attractions to visit in Texas, the TRF has a certain magic to it that is difficult to place, and after almost eight years of attending, I am still not tired of it.

Camping

A small fire pit and bbq are surrounded by a pair of small tents. This was one of our fist official group outings to the Renaissance Festival.
Lidia and John sit around the remains of the camp fire of our first official group outing in 2009.

The TRF is a wonderful event to attend as a group, which is even better for those who decide to camp. Whether treking out with eleven of your best friends or going as a family event, camping is a huge part of the TRF. Recently, the park had to expand its camping grounds, pushing and reducing regular parking back away from the main road. Camping at the TRF is its own attraction. In previous years, camping also included the large “Boob Tents”, where fire dancers entertained and alcohol did flow. However, as the TRF grew in popularity among families, the Boob Tent was banned, and a new tradition arose: the bonfire. It had originally been a ring of logs around a massive fire that could be seen from all over the camp ground. Unfortunately, the large brush fires of 2011 saw the end of the bonfire as well, as Texas went into a burn ban for the foreseeable future. Now, the bonfire area has a large dedicated wall to protect the surrounding grass.

A fire pit in the center of a group of friends dressed in medium cold weather gear. It is dark, and the grass is wet.
The usual suspects seated around the campfire. This year we sang each other songs. Of course, Lidia brought s’mores. November 2016.

Camp attendance dropped off during the fires of 2011, when the warmest Ren. Fest. season in our memory descended on Texas. With no camp fire, and no camp fun, many park attendees felt little inclination to attend. Camping is part and parcel of the entire experience. Of the few years we all declined to attend the festival, it was mostly because we would not have had time to camp.

Behind our tents this year, someone decided to bring two massive hot air balloon burners. They occasionally lit them, or left them running. The park security allowed this, but only because officers were stationed at the camp site until the evening died down.

The last two Texas Renaissance Festival seasons were cooler, with 2015 being unusually cold for November in Texas. I imagine the cloak tailors made a killing last year. After the rains of 2015-2016, the burn ban has been lifted and we are now able to have fires again. This year, Lidia brought s’mores, and Jeremy brought his small violin.

Not only is camping a huge part of the festival experience, but so is the music. Nothing will ever beat the year all of us brought instruments, and sat around the camp fire singing or playing different songs. I’m not going to say the alcohol did not play a major role in how we sounded, but had we been a cohesive band, we might have attracted a fair number of gawkers.

This year, Zarissa sang us Scottish love songs that her grandfather had written while she played Jeremy’s violin. We were all so entranced with the experience that none of us snapped any pictures. What’s nice about the Renaissance Fair is that “there is always next year.”

The camp grounds feature both weekend adventurers and weekly warriors. Lately, the Isle of Tortuga camp group changed it’s banner to the “Aisle of Tortuga”, as they now occupy one of the old parking lot lanes of the camp grounds.

The castle. That was new for everyone. However, this is just one of the things that makes camping at the TRF special.

Tents line the sides of a large "castle" that had been constructed out of playwood and painted slate gray. The gate "gate" opened toward the "road".
An intrepid group at the TRF built an entire castle in the camp grounds this year.

The Park

The Texas Renaissance Festival is massive. According to the main site, the park sits on 55 acres of park and camp grounds.

Each weekend of the TRF season features a different theme. Our group’s two favorite themes are the 1001 Dreams Weekend (roughly the weekend of Halloween) and the Celtic weekend. This year we changed it up a little and attended the Yule weekend, which was themed Celtic Christmas. The Holiday or Yule weekend is always the last weekend of the season, roughly the weekend of Thanksgiving. This years was our first Holiday weekend attendance, but it far from our last. The park was gorgeously decorated for the event. Large Christmas trees (and large Christmas tree costumes dotted the crossroads of the park.

A guard in the official TRF park livery hitches his thumbs in his belt as I snapped this picture in front of Santa's pavillion at the front entrance to the park. Santa sits in front of a large Christmas tree on a pillared pavillion, greeting patrons and checking his list twice.
A noble guard stands watch, ready to help any attendee who needs it, and also to keep order in the line of spectators waiting to sit on Santa’s lap in front of the entrance to the park.
Patrons gather around one of the pavillions at the front of the park listening to a band perform Christmas carols on violin, flute, tin whistle, and guitar.
One of the pavilions at the entrance to the park, close to Santa’s pavilion, played a series of Christmas carols for patrons as they entered.

In addition to the Holiday theme, there were some major changes to the park this year. The Magic Gardens have been completed at last. One of the major attractions and stopping points in the Garden was the shrine of St. Felix.

A skeleton propped up on red cushions in an ornate case is a replica of the bones of Saint Felix.
The Shrine to the Saint Felix at Texas Renaissance Festival in the Magic Gardens. The shrine is meant to be a replica of the bones of Saint Felix, who was beheaded as a Christian heretic who would not worship the Roman emperor. He supposedly picked up his own head and walked 30 paces before falling down.
A picture of the ivied garden gables at the Texas Renaissance Fair.
The gardens of the TRF are some magical venues, excellent for taking pictures, and often booked out for weddings.

The parade is another TRF tradition. This year we popped into the leather book store before being rushed out into the “street” at the trumpeted fanfare to greet the parade of vendors and performers who make up the shining spectacle of the park every year. One of the most magical aspects of the park is the sense of ritual. Each year, patrons come expecting things to be the exact same as the year before, and for the most part, they are. It is comforting. Fond memories mix with the expectation of the moment. The parade is one of those rituals that has changed over the years, yet has always been the same.

A large, old looking set of seven-foot-tall puppets mingle with the parade of vendors in costume as they wend their way down the main thoroughfare of the park. They are dressed in red and purple velvet, and appear to be a holdover from the '70s.
The Oversized King and Queen and their court in the TRF parade of vendors in 2009. Image courtesy of Alicia Wright.
The Oversized King and Queen at TRF 2016, coming down a much more cramped thoroughfare, reminding everyone of how much the park has changed over the years.
The King and Queen and their Oversized court at Texas Renaissance Festival 2016. It’s nice to see that some things never change.

Costumes!

So many of the folk traditions at the TRF are subtle, but the costumes are not one of those traditions! Elaborate costumes are a staple of the TRF. Though it was once a taboo to wear fairy wings on any weekend but the 1001 Dreams weekend, costumes of all types have become very popular, and there does not seem to be any sign of that coming to an end any time soon. Though the TRF is technically a “Renaissance” Festival, the costumes are not exactly historically accurate. This can be seen in the number of chain mail bikinis and pirate costumes favored by many patrons. Costume styles are almost cliquish. Groups often come wearing similar fashions, especially for the barbarian and pirate themed weekends. This also has a lot to do with the products available for purchase. Those who dress up tend to get their costumes from the same vendors, which lends a streamlined appearance to the costumes. If we all seem like we planned our outfits together, it’s because they all came from the same place. The Steampunk movement also has a heavy representation at the TRF despite being–in its purist form–a Victorian era fashion.

Many patrons spend years amassing their Renaissance Festival costumes. My own is a sort of “Joker” wench style that I usually layer leggings and long sleeves under with a shawl (it’s not the park that is cold–it’s the walk back to the camp site in the dark that always gets me). Though I did not grab any good pictures of me in my costume for 2016, here is a good picture of my usual costume from 2014.

I am standing between two trees at Sherwood Renaissance Festival in Elgin in 2014. I am wearing my "Joker" green and purple wench costume consisting of a purple overskirt, green underskirt, and purple bodice. I am fond of wearing black leggings and a black blouse with it, with a shawl of green and purple paislies.
I have been wearing this costume since 2012 or so. This is my Joker wench costume. The bodice is double-sided, and is supposed to be worn with a lavender colored blouse that I actually don’t like. This picture is from the Sherwood Renaissance Festival, but it’s also what I wore to TRF this year.

As I mentioned, costumes range from historically accurate to outlandishly fantastic, and none are more outlandishly fantastic than the character costumes that seem to get bigger with every passing year. One of the stars of this year was the familiar and frightening aspect of Krampus, the Eastern European punisher of naughty children. I dropped a curtsy and allowed myself to be suitably chastised.

I stand between a white faced she-devil that laughed maniacally and a tall, menacing, horned figure of Krampus, complete with red velvet robe, long white hair, and thick bunch of twigs for beating the naughty children.
A familiar piece of Eastern European folklore. I had to get a picture with Krampus. Say hello to my Christmas card. I made a point of dropping a curtsy to the lord of punishment before the picture.

Making another appearance was the Raven Lady, another very familiar face.

The Raven Lady, a lady in a purple and black gown with the head of a raven, walks in the vendor parade every year.
The Raven Lady made several appearances this weekend, and as always, was lavish and resplendent in the vendor parade.

The Bat and the Dragon squared off as if to do battle for supremacy, but because they are only men in costumes on stilts, they hugged it out instead.

On the left, a man in a very large bat costume. On the right, a man in large dragon costume. They both walk upright on stilts, and they are both over seven feet tall.
Two costumed men in stilts masquerade as the Bat and the Dragon. Occasionally they cross paths and square off, but they usually end up hugging it out.

The King and Queen of costumes are actually my two best friends, Jeremy Shoemaker and Lidia Plaza. This year, Jeremy wowed patrons and attendees in his Plague Doctor costume, which he perfected at Halloween and reprised on Saturday. Next year I’m going to make him charge a fee to take a picture with him.

My best friend wore is very elaborate Plague Doctor costume on Satruday at the TRF. Most of the pieces of the costume he had purchased from previous Ren Fair visits with the exception of the hat and mask.
The Plague Doctor stands back and assesses the damage before heading in…to our camp site to break down the camp stove before we head into the park.

Lidia wore one of her regular ensembles–and she has several that she mixes and matches. Lidia is a dedicated costumer with a long history of outdoing her fellow patrons with hand-made costumes. Lidia’s costumes, unlike so many in the park, do tend to be more historically accurate, as Lidia majored in history with a specialization in textiles at UT Austin and plans to go into conservation after grad school.

Jeremy and Lidia stand next to the wall of the Spanish fountain garden. Lidia is wearing a version of the dress she wore for Halloween, and Jeremy is dressed as a very convincing plague doctor.
Lidia stands next to her husband the Plague Doctor–I mean Jeremy. Contrary to popular belief, a plague doctor did not necessarily mean you were not going to get the plague.

Attractions

No matter how many times I attend the Texas Renaissance Festival, the one thing that we never change is our program.

The TRF spans an entire season. It starts in October and runs through most of November. Because of the length of the season, the acts for each season almost never change, and neither does their material. That is totally fine, by the way, as loyal spectators and patrons would not have it any other way.

Dead Bob is a skeletal puppet that uses call and response to lead his audience–when he’s not insulting his audience. Dead Bob is a famous act the world over for his scathing comedy and–dare I say it–dead pan humor. The call is “Hey audience!” who responds with, “Hey Bob!”

Dead Bob is perched on the arm of his masked, "dummy" as he gives his performance.
Though this picture is from the Michigan Renaissance Festival, Dead Bob can also be seen at the Texas Renaissance Festival. Image courtesy of Jason Hynes.

Though we did not see them outright this time, Tartanic is a powerhouse at the TRF. Tartanic is world-famous for its traditional Celtic music. Here is Tartanic on opening day of the TRF in 2016. Tartanic also played us out of the park on Saturday night during the fireworks display. Video is courtesy of Suzanne Chapa.

The acts and performances rarely change from year to year, and their material varies only a little. Veteran festival goers remember, for example, Arsene the magicians old material and appreciate his new material very much–at least “new” material that he’s been performing for the last five years. Sound and Fury are fond of mixing various pop culture references into their material, as they are a vaudeville improv group that draws heavily on the energy of the crowd and mixes Shakespeare’s old baudy humor with Twenty-First century euphemisms for private parts.

It’s not unheard of then, for an act to suddenly shift material a little to reflect the political climate of the time. In this respect, the traditions of the TRF do not vary much from the traditions of Renaissance and late Renaissance performances. If anything, this enhances the sense of ritual that comes with the TRF. The performances say “Renaissance” but the jokes say “Instagram meme”.

The Great Rondini is an escape artist and sword master who makes several appearances in Texas during the Renaissance Festival seasons. I couldn’t get close enough to the stage for pictures with Rondini this last weekend, but fortunately the Sherwood Renaissance Festival in 2014 offered us a more intimate meeting with Rondini.

On a stage at Sherwood Ren. Fest. Kelsey (left) squares off en piste with the great Rondini (right). Rondini is holding a rapier, but Kelsey is holding an epee, her weapon of choice when we all fenced at university.
Kelsey (the same Kelsey that cosplays Black Widow) shows off her epee skills with the Great Rondini at Sherwood Renaissance Festival in 2014.

My friends and I speculated that at least a few of the acts would be colored by the election results from earlier in the month. We were not disappointed. The Great Rondini made several off-color references to white people chaining a black man and other small references that marked him as a supporter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. He saluted the veterans in the crowd and announced that he would accept no money from his fellow servicemen, and even heckled an audience member. Rondini bent down to have a man test the strength authenticity of his hand-cuffs, but the man seemed hesitant. Rondini exclaimed, “It’s okay. You can touch me. I’m just a black man.”

Under the great billowing canopy of one of TRF's many stages, the escape artist and swordmaster The Great Rondini invites the veterans of the crowd to stand and be recognized and honored for their service.
The Great Rondini invited the service veterans of the crowd to stand. He saluted them and proclaimed that no service man or woman would never accept tips or donations from his fellow veterans.

Rondini performed amazing feats of magic by escaping a chained straight jacket. More than one audience member looked away as he dislocated his shoulder to slip out of the chain looping his back.

Four audience members that assisted Rondini into the straight jacket and chains stand behind Rondini as he makes his way unsteadily onto the platform, preparing to escape from his bond.
The Great Rondini escaped a chained straight jacket, though his method had a few audience members cringing in their seats.

Yet another favored performer who draws more than two hundred spectators per show is the world-renowned whip-cracking performer Adam “Crack” Winrich, who may or may not be sponsored by Axe Body Spray. Adam Crack has performed on America’s Got Talent and has broken 16 Guinness World Records for whip cracking. Whip cracking is not easy, as the whip must be swung in such a way as to cause the tip to break the sound-barrier, which causes the “crack”. He punctuates his feats with his signature, “I know!” as the crowd oohs and awes. Perhaps 60 or 70 percent of the audience has seen his show before, and so the oohs and awes are more of the same call-and response interaction that is customary to TRF shows.

Dakota stands with her hands on her hips, prepared for anything, with a rose poised above her face in her mouth. Adam, playing the harmonica as he goes, snaps the whip, and snaps the rose in half.
Adam cracks his whip over the face of his assistant, Dakota, as he snaps a rose out of her mouth.

He calls Dakota, his assistant onto the stage to demonstrate his precision with a whip, cracking roses out of her hands and out of her mouth. He begins as he always does.

“And if this goes horribly wrong, my name is Dead Bob!”

The crowd laughs, but it seems–to new comers–that he might be serious, so he calls, “Hey Audience!”

To which the crowd replies, “Hey Bob!”

“And that ladies and gentlemen is how you build an alibi!”

Adam stands on the stage, his stance wide, and his signature "I know!" on his lips as he prepares to knock the soda can off of his head with a whip that is on fire.
Adam has removed his hat to avoid catching himself on fire as he performs stunts with is world-famous fire whip.

Adam’s performance is not as audience participatory as some other shows, and this is due in large part to the fact that Adam’s stunts are quite dangerous and require skill and practice. Adam sells a DVD set that will teach the participant how to crack a whip. Try to have an acre of space on which to practice, though.

The last of my group’s favorite acts is Sound and Fury, the improvisation group from California that performs a “pg-13” show in the evening and is trending towards an unscheduled “Dicking Around” after 6 pm. As always, the evening show is “Testicles: and the Sack of Rome?”

At the Globe Theater stage, Sound and Fury give their last real performance of the day. From left to right: Ryan, Patrick, and Richard.
Ryan, Patrick, and Richard comprise the trio of vaudeville improv comedians, Sound and Fury.

Sound and Fury is a unique group. Despite the Shakespearian bent to their “plays” the group performs in the style of vaudeville, a form of variety performance that was popular in United States in the 1880s that was spawned from concert saloons, dive bar performances, dime show theater, side shows (or freak shows), and American burlesque. Sound and Fury combines Renaissance style theater material (like the Greek tragedies), with the baudy humor Shakespeare, the vaudeville style of 19th century America, and modern pop culture references. “Testicles: and the Sack of Rome?” often includes references to Trojans (condoms), The Matrix, The Village People, The Wizard of Oz, and a lot more, mixed into the comedy. At the end of the first “act” the trio will perform a one-minute “encore” in any language the audience requests. This year was Gaelic. Patrick and Richard squared off on stage while Ryan acted as “CG” with Patrick yelling a stream of what sounded like Gaelic–which the group pulled off at least moderately well, considering none of them speak it–before muttering, “You piece of shit,” concluding the farce of foreign language. Last year was “redneck”, which had Patrick swinging wildly at Richard yelling, “You better not be one o’ them Obamas!”

Dicking Around with Sound and Fury is a treat. It is far more intimate than the regular show. They regaled the audience with adventures in Dungeons and Dragons (and the audience is usually receptive to this, as a large portion of Renaissance Festival patrons tend to also be members of the Geek Culture). The trio tell stories that may be new to some, but are often the same from the year before, prompting the audience to request stories like the “Collar Bone Story” or “Thwomp” (ask Patrick about “Thwomp”). Sound and Fury push the limits of stage appropriateness with dirty limericks and this year Richard stopped an on-stage improv “kiss” between Ryan and Patrick during a skit about an affair at a soup kitchen by demanding that the audience pony up $20 before he would allow it to continue. $20 was quickly collected (another $10 prompted the Collar Bone Story), and Ryan assailed Patrick with a meaty man-kiss full of beard!

The best part of the TRF is, because of the remote location and huge crowds, cell phone use is virtually nonexistent. It is far easier to make calls from the camp site on most networks, but the lack of information flooding into the park via social media makes it hard to get the news. This is a blessing and a curse, as the atmosphere of the park is lived entirely in the moment, but at a pretty significant deficit of being cut-off from the rest of the world (which is largely historically-accurate–like the way we all smell at the end of the weekend).

This year, Ryan ran out onto the stage at the end of Dicking Around with his guitar and announced to us the passing of Ron Glass, the gentle soul who played Shepherd Book on Firefly. Firefly–for those not deeply immersed in the Geek Culture–is the story of a band of rogues as a Space Opera Western, a phenomena that ended after one season on Fox, had one film, and has never been rebooted, reprised, nor is there even plans of a reunion. FIrefly has a special place in the hearts of many in both the Geek and Popular Cultures, and to hear that 2016 had claimed yet another beloved celebrity had many in the crowd reaching for phones with no cell service in hopes of proving Ryan wrong. Of course, he was not. Having confirmed that at least 60 percent of the audience knew who we was talking about, Ryan led us in a group song to the theme of Firefly. The Texas Renaissance Festival is a place of wonder, and it is one of the last places in the modern world where magic can still be made by one man and guitar on a rickety stage. That night under the canopy of the “Globe Theater” stage, a group of dedicated fans joined the performers in honoring a beloved character and brilliant actor.

In the foreground, Ryan plays guitar while Richard uses his mic to allow everyone in back to hear. Patrick stands at the back, watching, as we all sing the theme song to Firefly.
Ryan played guitar, while Richard lent his microphone to amplify the sound as we all sang the theme song to Firefly in honor of the passing of Ron Glass.

Back to the Modern World

As we packed up our tents and changed back into blue jeans and t-shirts for the ride home, with camp site pickup trucks blaring Twenty One Pilots, we were once again hit with that strange sense of elegy that comes from leaving the TRF and returning to the modern world. It is incredibly strange to leave the campsite and come home to the world of cell phones and social media, and in my case, cars that go very fast. Perhaps that’s why I’m sitting here writing this at ten o’clock on a Tuesday night. I don’t know if I was ready to leave.

Thank you again, TRF! We’ll be back next year! And you can catch the dynamic trio at Sherwood Renaissance Festival in Elgin in February or March, more details coming soon.

Kate McKinnon Tributes Leonard Cohen On SNL Cold Open

Kate McKinnon dressed as Hillary Clinton across from an image of Leonard Cohen singing "Halleluja" live. McKinnon played the song during SNL's cold open as a message of hope, and also to tribute the late musician, who died Monday, November 7, 2016.
Kate McKinnon paid tribute to Leonard Cohen this last Saturday during Saturday Night Live’s cold open dressed as the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.

My friend, Lidia, told me that the result of the elections and its implications and legitimizations hit her full on Thursday. She ran to her husband in tears, so very low and afraid, not for herself, but for people she has never met, people who do not enjoy the same privileges that we do. The worst part of the election of Donald Trump for her is that for myself, my husband, herself and her husband, our lives will continue largely unaffected because we read as white, the fact that we are heterosexual and married, and that we are healthy and able-bodied. The hardest part of this is that we are not minorities and we, as allies, will watch from the side lines as others fight battles we have never needed to fight.

I think the implications of our choices as a nation only finally hit me Sunday morning, and I think it’s because no one fully articulates how I’m feeling except musicians. I can read the words of authors and see clear messages, even those written between the lines, but there is something deeper inside me that can only be tapped by music. I’m not sure that just any type of music was going to truly express how I felt after the election. I was leaning toward Infant Annihilator, or something as equally destructive and anarchistic, but now I am certain that Leonard Cohen was the only artist that was going to deliver the crushing blow. I spent some time on Thursday sampling the best of his music. He was not only a lyrical genius, but a poet of the highest order, the son of Ginsberg and Whitman. If anyone last week had asked me who spoke the language of America, I would have said Leonard Cohen, and he was the last artist that did. Cohen, like Ginsberg, Whitman, and Kerouac, did not really represent America to the rest of the world. The rest of the world speaks Bad American: the language of spaghetti westerns, Second Amendment activists, the DOW Jones Industrial Average, Beyonce, Ford trucks, and the Kardashians. Leonard Cohen spoke American: the language of meager crops scratched from the dirt, gray water circling filthy drains, whiskey on the rocks, love affairs, dive bars, scratched floors, unbroken faith, and coming home. He was the only poet make High Romance available at the bottom of a shot glass. He wrote love stories involving bar stools and sticky linoleum. He was the last of American Naturalism. Leonard Cohen was the artist who could paint “Man Gets Shot Walking Down Sidewalk” in oil on canvas using only words. He wove brilliant tapestries out of cheap denim. He wore a satin suit, stained and dirty, but sharp and with class. Naturalism defined the Modern poet of America, and that was Leonard Cohen.

I’m not a fan of Hillary, but Leonard Cohen’s message on the lips of Kate McKinnon is perhaps the most hopeful thing I’ve heard all week.

SNL has always represented the best parts of America. SNL is a constant reminder that we have something a lot of countries do not have: an open democratic republic of the people who has no problem laughing at itself. Comedy is the highest form of social criticism. All over the world, comedians, comic artists, and satirists are imprisoned and silenced, and then silently erased, because they dare to mock and criticize leaders or influencers. In the United States, we praise these people, we elevate them, and we rely on them. The day we can no longer laugh at our president, our presidential nominees, our elected officials, and our leaders will be the day this nation truly crumbles.

I believe SNL was making a bold statement with their somber and muted cold open the other day. Kate McKinnon sat at her piano, singing the most iconic song from America’s last great poet, and presented herself gracefully as the figure of hope for women and gender-fluid sexes, and her message was that even though we might have lost faith in the system, and that we seem to be without hope, lightless in the crushing dark, that the voice of the comedians can still be heard, that the artists fill the quiet spaces between the raging proscenium of the media’s global stages with humble words. There might be a day when our country loses sight of what is most important, but Kate McKinnon, not Hillary Clinton, turned to the camera and said, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”

The message was from a woman, an artist, sitting on a stage that for decades was dominated by men, in an industry that preys on women the hardest. That line hit harder than any raging battle cry. Until that moment, I had not truly mourned for Leonard Cohen, not even with the numbing cold that followed the death of David Bowie.

We find ourselves sitting on the front lines prepared to battle each other and die with our hands around each others’ throats, threatened in our own ways by enemies that have been created for us, fearful of the unknown horror waiting for us at the hands of the orange madman, emboldened by the legitimacy of hate and anger, enraged by the show of protest, or morally outraged. We have one thing in common: we are Americans, and we are free to speak in any voice, in any way, no matter how threatening and frightening, and until that right infringes on the rights of another, our voice will not be silenced for speaking whatever truth we happen to hold. No matter how afraid we are, no one has dropped the cage over us yet. No one has unleashed the dogs of war and we still outnumber our leaders a hundred to one (I’m not sure that’s accurate, but there are a lot more of us than there are of them). This lady told us, just by her presence, her persistence, and the will of the American people that there is hope.

I did not see Clinton, nor did I even see Kate McKinnon as Clinton, sitting at that piano. I saw Kate, the lady of a thousand faces, performing not only her tribute to the loss of the democratic party and the loss of Leonard Cohen, but also doing her job as a comedian.

If we don’t listen to anyone else, let us listen to the comedians. They are our voice. The ones most closely followed in the media may not represent your particular voice, but the collective voice of the comedians is the one voice that should never be silenced. That voice is freedom itself.

Folklore Thursday: The Seriousness of Cosplay

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious influences.

Today we examine the contemporary folk traditions of the counterculture of cosplay.

German veteran cosplayer Svetlana Quindt (AKA Kamui Cosplay) poses in her Wonder Woman cosplay. Here she poses in a rocky backdrop under a clear sky, her stance is powerful and shows off the red, gold, and silver of her Wonder Woman costume,which she hand-built using Worbla's Finest Art.
German veteran cosplayer Svetlana Quindt (AKA Kamui Cosplay) poses in her Wonder Woman cosplay.

What is Cosplay?

Cosplay is defined as, “the practice of dressing up as a character from a movie, book, or video game, especially one from the Japanese genres of manga and anime.”

In its purest form, cosplay originated as a costume style derived from Japanese anime and manga. The object of the costume was to recreate the anime or manga character to such an extent that the person became the character. The cosplay is often judged on accuracy and attention to detail. Even forcing one’s own hair–or styling a wig–into the often unrealistic anime or manga style presented in the source material is taken into account. Seen below is one of my personal favorites: a cosplay of Sebastian Michaelis from Kuroshitsuji Project, or Black Butler.

Cosplayers depicting Sebastian and his master Ciel Phantomhive from Black Butler pose for the camera. Sebastian stands in the foreground while Ciel, dressed in his lady's outfit from His Butler: Capricious.
Cosplayers depicting Sebastian and his master Ciel Phantomhive from Black Butler pose for the camera.

Anime and manga utilize a literary character called “bishonen”. This refers to a male character in anime and manga that exhibits feminine facial and body characteristics. Usually a Bishonen has long hair (but not always), a pointed chin, high cheekbones, and his clothing can sometimes be drawn to suggest the presence of breasts. I go into detail about this in my anime/manga breakdown. A bishonen male is also often characterized by incredible power and audacity. He is usually a threat to more traditionally masculine characters.

I chose the above version because it illustrates several tropes of Japanese anime and manga that are unique to the fantasy subgenre. I touched on this in a guest lecture I taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2014. The class was a two-part lecture entitled “Cultural Eroticism in Japanese Anime and Manga”. Day two of the lecture involved cosplay as a gender fluid fantasyscape. Because the trope of the bishonen male is represented as an androginous gender in cosplay, to achieve the most realistic depiction of an anime or manga character, it is common and acceptable for women to portray male characters. In the example above. Sebastian poses in front of Ciel Phantomhive dressed in his lady’s dress from the episode, “His Butler: Capricious” in which Ciel must infiltrate the mansion of the Viscount Lord Druitt and discover is he is in fact Jack the Ripper. Ciel is a characteristic “bishojo”, a young male with androginous facial features. Here we see Ciel swap his gender for a female identity. In the cosplay depicted above, we see a male character dressed as a female. In the cosplay culture, this is acceptable and expected. However, though it is not always the case, Ciel and Sebastian are often played by females, introducing a triple gender swap: a female playing a male pretending to be female.

This is a depiction of Sebasian and Ciel (right) and Claude and Aloise Earl Trauncy (left) in cosplay. All of the characters depicted here are played by females.
Sebasian and Ciel (right) and Claude and Alois, Earl Trauncy (left).

Notice that each character depicted above has the suggestion of breasts. That is because all of them are females playing male characters. Notice that each character’s hair matches their source.

A promotional still from Kuroshitsuji Project, AKA Black Butler. From left to right: Alois, Claude, Sebastian, Ciel.
From left to right: Alois, Claud, Sebastian, Ciel.

Judging by the appearance of the costumes versus their source material, you can see how seriously cosplay is taken, but that is nothing compared to how seriously cosplay is judged. In the Japanese culture–that has rapidly spilled into the United States–failure to commit fully to the character is not acceptable. Amateurs are labeled as such. Those who fail to fully depict the character can be torn down a peg rather quickly. Good cosplayers enjoy celebrity status online and in the convention communities.

This is not the case in the United States.

Cosplay in the United States

As I discussed in my lecture, gender stereotypes in American literature–even in the American “Comic” or “Con” Cultures–are drastically different than the gender stereotypes of Japanese anime and manga. Women are expected to portray women. Men are expected to portray men. Though it is not often the case, and sentiment is shifting, women who step into male costumes can expect at least a low-to-medium risk of being labeled a “fake gamer girl”. As I discussed in my previous article regarding anime and manga, this stems from a “Sorry Mario, your princess is in another castle,” complex in which a female is a prize to be won by a male if he is good enough and strong enough. Females are supposed to be the last achievement, the unattainable made attainable by strength and success. It is still common for women in social media and in the Con Culture to be sexually harassed in public and threatened and humiliated online.

Though many women embrace their sexuality and prefer female characters, particularly strong ones (Wonder Woman and Black Widow are just two examples), many women in the online SFX community embrace male characters as well.

Black Widow (cosplay by Kelsey Moore) poses dramatically in a photoshoot.
My personal friend Kelsey Moore’s Black Widow Cosplay.
Self-taught YouTube sensation Ellimacs poses as Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter.
Female, self-taught sfx artist and YouTube sensation Ellimacs poses as Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter.

Cosplay rules are not as strictly followed in the US Convention Community. Cosplay has come out of the realm of anime and manga and now encompasses video games, books, film, and even music (I mean, just look at KISS’s old fanbase). Usually the most recognizable forms of iconography are all that is needed to achieve cosplay success. However, there are cosplayers that take it to the extreme. This is done through the amazing world of cosplay armor-making

The Evolution of Plate Armor in Cosplay

A young lady plays a Troll from World of Warcraft. She has long, red hair, and striking blue maks on her face to characterize her as a troll. Her armor is huge, constructed of Worbla.
Blizzard Entertainment hosts its annual BlizzCon, featuring this Troll tank from World of Warcraft.

Armor has come a long way from the functional plate armor protection worn by feudal soldiers. Cosplay armor has become a life skill that many in the Geek culture consider not only the pinnacle of artistic success but also the purest expression of true fandom. Judging by the attention to detail in this cosplay of a Troll from World of Warcraft, you can see that cosplayers enjoy lavish costumes to go with our lavish games.

Cosplay armor is a mixed media project. It can consist of anything from EVA foam heated and warped into plates to a thermal plastic called Worbla that can also be heated and warped into any shape necessary.

Three views of a Mass Effect Cosplayer in the gray armor of an N7 Armor set from Mass Effect.
This cosplayer used EVA foam to create is Mass Effect Cosplay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This BlizzCon attendee is dressed in the armor of a ranger from World of Warcraft
Another example of BlizzCon armor, this time using Worbla. The most convincing part of the costume is the GoPro on one of his pauldrons.

Though there is no real playbook to how to design a cosplay armor set, Worbla has become widely available (and almost affordable) to the general public in the last ten years. Worbla is a thermal plastic that, when heated, becomes soft and malleable. By pressing patterned Worbla over craft foam and allowing it to cool, one can create stunning pieces of armor. The skill level depicted above is Master Class. Getting Worbla in the pattern, shape, and appearance of the character in question takes time, practice, patience, and skill. Though Worbla comes in a variety of colors, it is important to finish, prime, and paint the Worbla armor to give it the illusion of being made of metal. Worbla starts out in large sheets.

I took a picture of my Worbla Black Art arranged on the floor in the patterns I used to create the armor pieces.
Pieces of Worbla shaped into patterns arranged on the garage floor.

It is then stretched over craft foam and heated until it is soft. Then it can be formed into whatever piece is being created. Gauntlets, breast plates…spinal columns, and so on.

Last week I finished assembling my armor pieces. I arranged them in pairs on the floor. It's made of Worbla Black Art.
My basic armor is finished and ready to be detailed.

Like anime and manga cosplays, the cosplayer is looking to recreate the effect of the character from top to bottom. The cosplayer uses a combination of color, fabric, hard material, paint, and iconography to distinguish their character. For example: a Tyrial cosplay consists of Tyrial’s swords, and his wings. A Stormwind soldier from Warcraft depicts the Alliance emblem on shields and tabards. Some cosplayers cast their ears and faces to create prosthetics to wear as elf ears and larger facial features to match those of the fantasy characters they are trying to portray.

A young lady with black hair has her head turned in profile to show off her long, conichal ears, the ones closely associated with the elf races in World of Warcraft.
This lady has crafted a pair of ears belonging to a Blood Elf from World of Warcraft.

Conclusion

Though highly-regarded as a self-serving fantasyscape by both the Japanese and American popular culture, Cosplay Culture is a thriving industry driven by fans who push the limits of homemade crafts every year, creating artwork that Hollywood would be proud of, perfecting costumes single-handedly that take Hollywood artists months to create with help in just a few weeks (if you don’t have a job). Though relegated to the weird and subversive by many, Cosplay offers its participants a creative outlet based on community and connection, and it is steeped in evolving traditions that continue to shape the definition of what it means to be a Geek in the Twenty-First Century.

#HoldOnToTheLight: Grief, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Substance Addiction

This greenish-gold image is the Facebook banner for the Sci-Fi/Fantasy movement, "Hold On To the Light", a campaign to raise awareness of mental illness.
#HoldOnToTheLight

Early in the morning in 1974, so early that no little boy believes in their wildest dreams that he would be awakened, Bart Howell was in fact pulled from a restful, blissful sleep. He awoke with bleary eyes in the harsh lamplight; the only thing he could really see was his aunt bending over him and the popcorn ceiling. She urged him to get up and hurried him into clothing. He was rushed out of the house before dawn, and for the next month, he slept on pallets on the floor with his middle brothers and sisters, in spare rooms, shared beds, and couches, passed from family member to friend and back, staying with anyone who had the time or energy to watch him. He was the youngest of eleven children born to Elizabeth and Robert Howell. He asked questions, his big, brown eyes wide with uncertainty and terror. He was repeatedly rebuffed.

“I would ask, “Where’s my mom?” and was told, “”Don’t worry about it.””

It would be over a month before he was told that his mother had died, having lost her battle with the cancer that had riddled her body. She had been sick for some time when she had given birth to him, and for five years, tried to ensure that by the time she died, he would be strong and healthy. She left behind a bright, intelligent, five-year-old, but could do no more. She slipped quietly into oblivion. Bart and his brothers and sisters did not come home until after Carol and Robert had married, solidifying the family and ensuring that the children would not be split up.

A year later, Bart’s oldest sister was killed in a car accident, leaving three children behind, Bart’s cousins, who were adopted by Carol and Robert. The two boys and the girl were raised alongside Bart, the boys becoming Bart’s brothers and greatest childhood friends.

Bart’s father, Robert, had been orphaned as a child, along with his older brothers. Now a widower, and knowing what happened to single parents who couldn’t be there all the time for children, he and Elizabeth had seen no alternative to his immediate remarrying after her death. The horror of a family split was avoided, but the damage was done. Bart’s brothers and remaining sisters grew up resentful towards their stepmother, only too happy to place the blame of their suffering on someone. Their mother was dead. It was someone’s fault. How could they be expected to love Carol? Wasn’t she the reason their mother was gone? No matter how logical it was, no matter who explained it, to a child who has lost a parent in the dead of night, there must be a cause. Carol came in, and Elizabeth quit the earth. There was a connection, but anger and resentment twisted the logic around until only the most evil explanation remained. It must be so. They could hardly blame their own mother, after all.

Bart never blamed Carol for his mother’s death. Of all the stepchildren that maybe had the right to be resentful, Bart never held his mother’s death against his stepmother, the woman who stepped into a pack of “wild savages”.

“It killed my sister. I’m sure of it,” Bart said, “It gave her a brain tumor. Hate breeds cancer.”

Despite the unified family, the loss of the mother created an unbreachable rift, spiraling several of Bart’s siblings into drug addiction at young ages that lasted well into their adult lives. Carol herself, beset by the chaos of–by then–fourteen children, became an alcoholic and pill addict. Bart’s father was truck driver, and was rarely home. When he was at home, he was a mental presence, a physical dragon, a commander of respect, the dealer of justice, but he was an emotional void.

Bart was no exception to drug addiction. In the 1990s, after an uneasy childhood and teenage years, Bart found himself at the height of his artistic boom as the lead singer of a punk band called The Stumbletons. He drank profusely and had been introduced to Speed, which led to a heavy use of Methamphetamine. Bart was committed to court-ordered rehab, which ended in disaster with his release. He completed the program, becoming a sort of mentor in his own right, his penchant and disposition towards teaching taking possession of him as he threw himself into the program, hopeful that he would come out a clean man. He cried the night he was released as he lit up a Meth pipe. Like so many others in drug rehabilitation, the only home he had was a drug house. His girlfriend and roommates cooked Meth. They delighted in mental torture, participated in an underground ring of human and drug trafficking, practiced incest as if it were a job, and even subscribed to their own brand of occultism. Pursued by his roommates, on the run from law enforcement, and desperate to be clean, Bart’s salvation laid half a country away. He fled to Dallas by bus, and never looked back.

Last night, I laid beside him, the man who will one day be my husband and who is already my life partner, and felt him jerk himself awake every few minutes.

“It’s been this way since I was five. I walk up to the edge, and just as I’m about to sink down, I’m instantly awake.”

Some nights, I’ve heard the sharp intake of breath as he wakes, not from some nightmare–he tells me he doesn’t dream–but from peaceful sleep, as if he were on the verge of screaming. In the morning, after he does manage to fall asleep, he is no more rested than he was when he laid down, if he in fact laid down at all. All he wants is to sleep, but he can’t. In his mind, the last time he sank into peaceful slumber, he was shaken awake, hurried into clothes, rushed out the door, and told a month later that his mother was dead. At the age of 47, this is a deep-seated fear, a consuming terror that no amount of time can take the edge from, no drug can dull, no art can pacify, no amount of love, sex, beer, hugging, or personal comfort can ever undo.

Grief over his mother’s death, compounded so closely by his sister’s death, has been punctuated in years following by the violent murder of his brother in the 1990s. A drug deal had gone horribly wrong, and his brother, pounding on Bart’s door, begged to be let in. Bart, struggling with his own addiction, turned him away. That night, he was killed by a drug dealer that had been tailed by the FBI for years. Though Bart was informed that the feds knew who had killed his brother, they could not move on the charge of murder, lest they lose their chances at federal charges.

“If I had let him in, he would still be alive,” Bart says in agony, holding up the scarf his brother had given him the day he died, “or, if I had let him in, they’d have found us both, and we’d both be dead.”

To a man struggling to come to grips with the cruel passing of his mother, the violent accidental death of his sister, the slow death of his second sister, and his father’s agonized death, the fact that his brother’s murderer would go free was more than he could bear. He sank deeper into depression, a depression that only the birth of his beautiful child could dispel, but that has been creeping back in bit by bit as one more birthday, one more Christmas, one more Thanksgiving at a time puts distance between the boy he was when he closed his eyes as a five-year-old and the man he is now.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is directly linked to drug addiction in what can often be described as a dual-diagnosis situation. Dualdiagnoses.org defines PTSD as “One of the most emotionally debilitating mental disorders…post-traumatic stress disorder causes intense anxiety, intrusive memories and nightmarish flashbacks that interfere with daily life…PTSD is a condition in which an individual experiences tremendous stress or anxiety after witnessing or being engaged in a traumatic event. Any physical or psychological trauma that leaves the individual feeling powerless and out of control may lead to PTSD.”

Multiple family deaths, then his brother’s murder, and the torture he endured in the meth house each contributed to his PTSD. He prefers to fall asleep with the television on to keep his ears from ringing. He has tinitus, but the silence also oppresses him. It invites memories in. He hears his brother banging on his door that night. He hears his father’s bitterness as he implores him not to lie to his brothers about enrolling in college, even after presenting the man with his school ID. He stares off into the distance often. It took nine years to realize no amount of intoxication would bury his mother, that no drug would silence his father. However, the depression persists, and the night time terror creeps up on him as he lays down in the dark, jerking him awake and forcing his eyes open to sudden wakefulness. He prefers to sleep during the day if possible. If he can see the sun, if he has to get up and get Jetty from school, he doesn’t have to worry that he will wake up and his mother will be dead. He barely sleeps at night, and though it has gotten easier now that Jetty is in school, he still uses a substance to fall asleep. Conversely, there is no pain medicine in the house stronger than Advil, and no one in the house drinks any spirit stronger than beer. No one is allowed to even use cold medicine. He often preaches the importance of physical health to all of us. He embraced my therapeutic attempt at homeopathic therapy through generous portions of soup and brothy foods. I think Pho anchors his soul to his body.

Something that is little talked of is the prevalence of occultism during the waking nightmare that was Bart’s residence in the Meth house, where reality and hallucination wound and unwound themselves in his mind until he no longer knew if his physical surroundings were a product of the drugs, or true horrors. Because of this, Bart has an incredible problem with any kind of study of occultism, even for amusement. For him, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, even written fiction, is an indulgence that has brought him only real terror and constitutes a real and present threat to himself and his son. This was especially difficult when he and I first started dating. I was writing a story involving a human trafficker and sociopath. I was nearly ejected from the house one night, and railroaded to tears over it. Later, he apologized to me as we stood in our kitchen, rehashing a few sore points. I write Fantasy and Horror fiction, and I enjoy tabletop gaming. I sometimes indulge in small rituals around the house that have their roots in Celtic rituals from which we are both descendants. For him, any kind of impression of magic is a deep-seated evil. It takes a lot of explanation before hand for him to realize that it is really only play. I was almost ejected from the house a second time when he found my sister’s ominous, large, black Renaissance Fair cloak that I used to stay warm while we camped at the Ren Fair outside of Houston. I had to dig out pictures of us at the fair wearing our costumes to convince him that the cloak had no ulterior purpose. He doesn’t mind it anymore, and it gets used regularly for our play and costume projects, but it originally triggered him so hard that he was inches from removing me bodily from his presence. My cosplay project has brought him new pangs of anxiety, as I took up an increased interest in Ancient Egyptian mythology as pertains to mummification.

Bart’s condition has improved since our relationship began. It is no longer a daily struggle for him to reassure himself that I am not a threat, that I don’t really believe in vampires, or worship Satan (he himself is probably as big of a fan of Ghost as I am). However, Bart’s mental state reminds me on a daily basis that fear cannot be explained away. Time may have no effect on fear. Terror takes many forms. As frightened as one may be sitting down to the unknowable and unnameable abominations by H.P. Lovecraft, nothing could be more terrifying than being rushed out your house before dawn, begging to see your mother, not knowing where you will sleep the next day, or the next. Perhaps Bart is not a tragic character is some epic fantasy. Perhaps he has never been enslaved by angry elves, taken prisoner by necromantic priests, perhaps he has never killed anyone. These are the plights of heroes we pursue in Fantasy and Science Fiction. For those for whom the darkness has spread out angry shadows and invaded every possible point of egress, threatening to choke the life out of your body, such stories are feeble fumblings of the bored and pacified.

Yet for all his distaste for the fancy trappings of fiction, Bart respects my work, enjoys the pleasure I take in my art, and encourages me to follow my dreams. For him, there is light around me. He wants very badly to stand in it. In me, he sees the artist he could have been had he lived a different life. For Bart, the pool of light cast by the happiness of his woman and his child is his guiding force, his true purpose, his only calling. In my art, fantasy or horror, he sees the light of imagination. For many sufferers of PTSD and Depression, Fantasy fiction, Sci-Fi, gaming, and pure whimsical fun offer a unique escape from their own pain and suffering. Bart is no exception.

As authors of Science Fiction and Fantasy, we have a duty not just to amuse the unburdened, but to help the burdened shoulder their load. We are the guiding light, offering a sweet salvation from everyday worry and terror. Consumers of media have all of their own myriad reasons for wanting to escape, but for those who have known true horrors, any other horror is merely a brief respite from the real ones lurking always. It is my pleasure to give what comfort my art can offer to one who is so burdened. It is my duty to tell his story, as I have told so many others, both real and fictional.

“#HoldOntoTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.”

Folklore Thursday: The Use of Linen Bandages–An “Oh My Ra” Post

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually meant that folk traditions were passed by word of mouth. Folk stories can be spread down through the generations by telling and re-telling. Other folk traditions are carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious influences.

This week I began the tedious task of staining my linen bandages for my project series entitle, “Oh My Ra”, showcasing the process by which I construct a Worbla armor cosplay of the Tomb Kings from Warhammer, the incredible body of lore centered around the tabletop game of the same name. The Tomb Kings of Warhammer were entirely based on the Ancient Egyptian culture.

Plot Holes In the History

(Taken predominately from the reading of Bob Brier’s book, Egyptian Mummification: Unraveling the Mysteries of An Ancient Art)

There is no definitive guide to Egyptian mummification. Techniques varied between the very early (perhaps as early as the Fourth Dynasty) and very last dynasties. Toward the end of the reign of the indigenous kings, the techniques had been taken over first by the Greek, then by Roman occupiers. There are a number of other supporting theories as to why there is no definitive guide, no play-by-play rule book to the sacred act of mummification. One is that during each of the unstable periods (called Intermediate Periods), the practice was not as closely adhered to as in previous or following ages. Since these periods could last upwards of centuries, it’s logical that certain of the practices were lost. Another is that politics and current events often shaped the practice of mummification, and post-humous retaliation has made for an inconsistent timeline for many of the known mummies, muddying study and identification. The reign of Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Ankhenaten (known to the general public as the father of Tutankhamen) is just such an example of political upheaval affecting the mortuary cults of Egypt. The Pharaoh that would be called Ankhenaten cast down the priests of the old gods and proclaimed himself the high-priest of a monotheistic religion which his son, Tut, was only too happy to disband upon his father’s death.

Perhaps the most logical reason mummification had no set rulebook–the way Christianity has the Holy Bible upon which to base it’s assertions regarding the afterlife–is that mummification and the mortuary practice was an entire industry. Whole sections of society were devoted to the industry of mummification: coffin makers, tomb designers, priests of the numerous cults in each region, even hawkers of the mummies of dead animals for the shrines to Thoth and others all had a part to play in the daily life of the average Egyptian and their deep-seated connection to the afterlife. The economy of mummification was dependent on each citizen’s caste; the level of devotion, the size of the funeral, and even the process of how your body was mummified all depended on how much money your family had. Of course, royalty was treated as such, but as the dubious historian Herodotus described, there were certain levels of care that were taken with each body. When a family member died, his remaining kin beat their breasts, tore their hair, covered their faces with mud, and made their wailing way down to the embalmers’ hut. The undertaker would wheel out wooden caskets (according to Herodotus), each depicting an available level of embalming. The cheapest were undoubtedly for paupers. The very wealthy got some of the best treatment short of royalty–for a price.

Though Herodotus couldn’t be trusted in most things as far as he could be thrown, it is easy to imagine, and verified by certain remains found, that each person’s fate was determined by how much gold they could pony up at the end.

The most prevalent theory regarding the undocumented way in which mummification was handled was that the art was passed from master to apprentice, and each priest and sacred person associated with the mortuary cults were taught the ancient practice as his master before him had learned it, making the industry of mummification the most epic pieces of oral tradition, and with that, the best kept secret in history. We are still learning about this process, and though technology has gone a long way to aiding our search for the truth in this matter, it seems that there will always be a few things lost to the sands of time. One thing that is very well documented, easy to see, and verified by numerous examples is the prevalence and importance of wrapping the body in linen bandages.

Linen Bandages

 There were a number of reasons linen (spun fibers of Flax woven into a light, comfortable cloth) bandages were used. For many, linen garments were all you were buried in. The poor would be buried in whatever linen shirts or skirts they possessed. The very rich could be buried in their expensive linen bed sheets. Even Pharaohs and queens were buried in linen bandages torn from their bed sheets and curtains. Linen is a wonderful cloth. It’s fibers are breathable, making it perfect for desert wear. A few layers of it as bed sheets made very adequate blankets to keep off the desert night chill. When washed and used, time and water and use cause the thin, but stiff, linen fibers to soften, making it a light-weight, warm, soft fabric that anyone would be happy to have in their home, not least of all myself.

Certainly the expense of most textiles had a large part to play in the material used for the bandages. Lidia Plaza, my partner in the on-going (sometimes screaming hell parade) project, wrote extensively regarding the reasons for the theft of textiles in the Eighteenth-Century, attributing the expense of textiles to theft and citing court records as her primary source. Textiles, up until recently, have always held their value. The price of precious metals would dip and rise, and most other markets for consumer goods were shaky, but textiles could be horded (sometimes for decades and generations), passed on as heirlooms, sold for hard coin, used, reused, and resold second hand. This seems to have held true for the Ancient Egyptians.

Linen bandages were the most expensive part of the mummification process. Though the production of linen  was profitable, it was by no means cheap, and lean floods in the Nile Valley could spell doom for whole Flax crops, driving the price of linen sky-high. It was illogical to purchase and shred fresh linen for the use of mummification when even the most sad pauper had a linen shirt to use. It was not until much later (think Greek and Roman occupation) that linen bandages were made specifically for mortuary preparation. Though some corpses were covered in up to a hundred yards of linen, it was not until much later that the art of linen wrapping really took off, and linen was cut and sewn specifically to be used as bandages.

This is an example of a Greco-Roman mummy. There is a "fayum" portrait over the cartonage, and the linen bandages have been wound into intricate geometric shapes.
Notice the portrait, or Fayum, and intricate linen wrappings.

This is an example of a Greco-Roman mummy. Notice the intricate pattern of weaving over the cartonage, and the Fayum portrait depicting a Grecian youth. The Greeks noticed the late dynasties’ penchant for stylized weaving of the layers of linen, and so adopted it themselves.

Linen bandages were also torn from bed sheets and curtains as a fitting addition to the slew of objects the mummified person would need in the afterlife. Soldiers were buried with weapons. Artisans were buried with their tools. Royalty were usually buried with all manner of leisure and sport objects. Anything the person would find useful in the afterlife, or that had served them well in this life, would be buried with them. It made sense to be buried in the same linens you slept in. What could be more comforting? Mmm, smells like me.

#OhMyRa Linen Bandages and My Tomb King Cosplay

I would have torn up my own bed sheets, but I sort of like those. Instead, I got on eBay and bought myself 30 square feet of European Linen. Though I’m operating on a budget, this was relatively inexpensive. I bought five yards for $32 American from a lovely lady in Maryland that worked with me on shipping, making this the least expensive part of this cosplay. As an example, each of my forehead prosthetics will cost $40 a piece. You cannot beat linen for authenticity and cost-effectiveness. Avoid fabric stores. Their overhead contributes to their ridiculous prices. Avoid old linens, and read descriptions carefully. I almost bought eighty-year-old linen (1930 or so). You will feel terrible that you ripped thirty feet of linen from 1878. Fortunately these types of fabric hold their value. Linen from 1878 (unless the seller can’t verify the date) will usually be priced accordingly.

Here I can be seen tearing long strips of cloth off of a fifteen foot long section of linen fabric.
I tore my own bandages for my Warhammer Tomb Kings Cosplay.

True to tradition, I decided to tear linen strips instead of cutting them. First of all, I can’t cut in a straight line. Second, I did not have all night. And third, well, I don’t think any other Egyptians used their Singer scissors to cut through their linen. Nope, good old fashioned tearing. I did snip the fabric in order to start the tear.

I continue to tear bandages. It took an hour or so to finish tearing the entire fifteen feet.
It took an hour to tear all of it.

By the end of it, my mouth was so tight I could hardly talk, my shoulders were knotted, and I had a migraine the next day, but it was all done in one night.

I began rolling up the bandages for safe storage and arranged them on my bed.
Roles of linen bandages torn from European linen.

From a sheet of linen fifteen feet long and a little less than a yard wide, I managed to get fourteen rolls of linen bandages that are four inches wide and fifteen feet long.

Next came the passive task of staining the bandages to a brown color. Now, I don’t need to tell you how off-base the average YouTuber is  when it comes to the reason behind the color of their linen bandages (usually cut from pillow cases, or store-bought gauze. Savages. Usurian forbid!). For the most part, any costume fanatic, SFX fan, or cosplayer will tell you that clean bandages aren’t ideal. Stained, dirty bandages are the order, but not for the reason you might think. Linen bandages did not necessarily take on their brown color from being “aged”. Most often linen bandages were brown in color because resin was used to adhere the bandages to the body and lock in that extra fresh Natron essence. Amulets were woven into the body’s bandages and protected with resin. So much resin was used on some bodies that they had to be hacked out of their coffins before untried “Egyptologists” could get a look at them.

My purpose for the Tomb Kings Cosplay is to give the impression that my warrior body was in its tomb for some time before emerging at the call of Nagash the Undying. However, I won’t be achieving this with bandages alone. In addition to my bandages and armor, I will also use liquid latex and grease paint to give the impression that I am in fact, dead on my feet. Therefore, the bandages will not be brown from age, but rather as a result of having been used in mummification as part of my mortuary preparation.

I used my stainless steel kitchen sink and filled it with hot water, instant coffee, and tea bags to stain my linen a brown, "resin" color.
Staining linen bandages for that “resin” look.

To achieve the “resin-stained” look, I filled my sink with instant coffee (the first time) and loaded it up with my torn bandages. However, in my impatience, I forgot about the process by which fabric is stained, and why it is so difficult to remove staining. You see, fabric is woven of these things called fibers, usually of some plant or animal material. When I spill smoothie in my car as I roll up to work, and I clean it up with a shirt, chances are that the shirt will not be washed immediately. It will sit in my hot car and bake in the Austin sun. When I get home, I’ll throw it in the hamper, and there it shall remain for some time. On Thursday, I will pull the shirt out of the hamper and wash it at Lidia’s. I will pull it from the dryer, examine the smoothie stain, raise my eyes to the ceiling and declare, “How did that happen?”

With my batch of staining linens, I decided to pull them out after only an hour or so. I rinsed them, like an idiot, and hung them up to dry. They were not entirely stained. I had rinsed all the pigment out before it had a chance to soak into the fibers. The Lipton tea batch came out much better.

I am using a plastic tub to soak linen bandages in a Lipton tea stain.
Staining linen bandages was the story of September 2016 for me.

The bright brown tea stain gave me the impression that the bandages would “naturally” take on the color of resin as it soaked through the bandages from previous layers. Since I’ll be wearing armor as well, it is probably not necessary to darken bandages for my base layer. No one will see that layer and it’s an extra step that I don’t have time for. However, I am currently soaking more bandages in a coffee and tea mix stain. I don’t want to appear too uniform . Like the mummies of the al-Bahri cache opposite the ancient city of Luxor, I intend to look a little re-wrapped. Imagine a corpse lying in state for several centuries. Despite whatever care (or lack of care–there were perhaps six bad embalmers for every good priest) was taken with my body, a dead guy standing up in his tomb and walking out is going to cause some damage to the physical form. Like the priests of the Twenty-First Dynasty that re-wrapped and tried to salvage the ravaged and plundered bodies of their own ancestors (what a shock that must have been!), I intend to give the appearance that at some point I had to be re-wrapped. Therefore, layers of darker bandages will be layered over lighter bandages, giving the viewer who comes across me the impression that despite my very intimidating appearance, I’m actually falling apart.

Several strips of fifteen foot long linen bandages hang up to dry in my unused bathroom.
As you can see we dried the bandages in the bathroom known as “The Turkish Prison”.

You can imagine there are very few places to hang that much linen to dry in my apartment. I made use of the unused bathroom tub we have. The drain doesn’t work right, so we don’t use it, as I can’t even get water to drain to clean it. We’ve nick-named it the “Turkish Prison” tub, and it is here that I decided to hang my linen to dry. As you can see, the stain took very well on the tea-stained bandages. The light makes everything look stained and dingy in that bathroom. So I took the following outside on the balcony.

I laid several roles of linen bandages on my porch next to an unstained role. The difference is very stark. The stain definitely changed the color of the bandages.
Easy to see how different the stain makes the bandages look.

It is easy to see the difference in the bandage color. Though I did not use resin, and actually I don’t plan to do much adhering of the bandages except to my face and head for the sake of my art (if not for the sake of realism), the tea and coffee stains have given my bandages the appearance of being stiff with resin, having aged alongside me in my coffin. True to form, the tea and coffee took my previously soft linen and stiffened it considerably, to the point where it will be nearly impossible for someone of my moderate strength to tear the wider strips down into thinner strips for my fingers. It will be time-consuming, but I may have to do a straight-line mark with red chalk or Conte crayon, then use a seam ripper to get the torn effect.

I’ll be very excited to see how the armor fits over the linen. This was a crucial step. If you know anything about Worbla, you’ll know that if you are using it for armor, you’ll need to mold at least a few pieces directly onto your body. To get a correct fit, it’s very important to be wearing what you’ll be using under the armor when you mold it. In my case, I’ll be wearing exactly bra and underwear, and at least two layers of linen bandages.

I hope it’s cold this Halloween. I have a feeling I’m going to be a little warm.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled to my InstagramTwitter, and Facebook pages as I reveal more of the coming makeup project, more linen fun, and pictures of my Worbla armor as it slowly begins to take shape.

Next week, #OhMyRa will continue with our series of tribute posts to the greats of contemporary and pre-code horror. We started with Boris Karloff and The Mummy. Next, we’ll examine the genius of Lon Chaney and his work on The Phantom of the Opera. For more #OhMyRa fun on Thursdays hit up #FolkloreThursday on Twitter.

The Band Ghost Launches World Premiere of New Song, “Square Hammer”

The title for the world-debut of Ghost song, "Square Hammer". The words form a square, and lighting arches between the letters in a squamous green color.
Square Hammer Title

No one could ever accuse the Swedish metal band, Ghost, of being unproductive. The band thrives on the predominate tour schedule from which they got their start, a massive social media presence, undying fan support, and regular new material. Despite a Nameless Ghoul’s voiced concerns in 2015 that it was becoming difficult to meet the growing demand for new material while maintaining a grueling tour schedule, the band maintains their modus operandi of short songs (no longer than four minutes), short albums (no more than ten tracks usually), and even shorter EPs between full albums. The fall 2016 season is no exception. With the Black to the Future tour wrapping up in June, the Nameless Ghoul who acts as the voice of the faceless band announced a new EP release with a single due to drop ahead of the Fall 2016 tour, Popestar.

Papa Emeritus the III stands between the five Nameless Ghouls in this black and white promo photo.
The band, Ghost, poses with their newly acquired Papa Emeritus the III for the 2015 album release, Meliora.

This morning around 9 a.m. the Nameless Ghoul dropped a line at Sirus XM Radio Octane to announce the new song, “Square Hammer”, which Octane then played in its entirety to a very excited nerd who just happened to be swinging that white bum around as her manager walked into the office.

“Square Hammer” is nothing short of peppy Ghost perfection. Like “Spirit” before it on Meliora, and like the ritualistic opening prayer “Con Clavi Con Dio” on Opus Eponymous and “Per Aspera” on Infestissumam, it is an invitation to join the band on the next leg of their journey, the EP, Popestar, which the tour is named for.

“Square Hammer” is more like “Spirit” than the other openers, as Meliora was meant to convey the sense that the listener was going through an entire sermon, complete with opening worship song. “Square Hammer” continues the tradtion, stepping a little away from the full choir associated with the introductions to Opus Eponymous and Infestissumam.  This time round, the band relinquished the vocal heavy track for something a little harder, playing to the EP’s strength as a tour album, filling the requirement for peppy, strong stage songs to hold spectator attention while still adhering to the fun, traditional style of the opening song on the EP, If You Have Ghost and the faster-paced “Per Aspera”. Fans of Ghost from the days of Papa II may find further fault with this song’s hard guitar and drums, but those who are willing to embrace the band’s new direction following Meliora will love the creepy strong bass and warbling synth mimicking the pipe organ. “Square Hammer” is a challenge. Papa III and the Nameless Ghouls implore the listener to stand up and swear an oath to be part of the coming change. They are separating the true believers from the fronters. Here and now, the band is culling the herd, and only the most loyal, and the most faithful, will follow them as they play around with their own concept and carry forth their career-spanning messages. “Square Hammer” is an assertion that change is coming, but true followers know that the band is as true to their concept and their message as they have ever been and that change as ever been part of the Ghost endgame.

Children of Ghost released the EP listing to their Instagram page. Popestar will be a short EP including the songs:

“Square Hammer”

“Nocturnal Me”

“I Believe”

“Missionary Man”

“Bible”

The songs are incredibly dissimilar from the series of covers on If You Have Ghost, representing the band’s maturity and originality, though If You Have Ghost was a huge testament (literally) to the band’s ability to take just about anything, like ABBA’s “Marionette”, and twist it into something different, something melancholoy and dark despite the original’s intent. In Ghost’s hands, “Marionette” became ominous and hopeless, giving ABBA’s song a gross and dirty melody to accompany lyrics that are made bleak by the new atmosphere.

Ghost will be making its rounds through Texas in October, appearing in San Antonio at the Majestic Theater Halloween Weekend. I encourage all who can to attend, though I more than likely won’t be able to. I will be premiering the culmination of the “Oh My Ra” project that weekend alongside my best friend and project partner. The plans to release my “Oh My Ra” Warhammer Tomb King Cosplay has been in the works long before Ghost announced the release of the tour, and since I had only seen them in April, I didn’t anticipate their new tour season beginning so soon.

We’re keeping a weather eye out for Ghost’s album release date. Stay vigilant, get your iTunes accounts ready and clear some space off your phone! This one you’ll want on repeat! Listen to “Square Hammer” here!

Papa Emeritus III turned to my camera for the opening song of their live Ritual in Austin, "Spirit". He is dressed in his papal regalia, as he usually is for the opening of the Ritual.
Ghost live Ritual at EMO’s East in Austin, Texas.

Update: here is a better idea of the message and concept of Popestar, which if you ask me, is a clear play on the late David Bowie’s album, Blackstar. Check out this video, “The Summoning V”. Stand up and be counted. The level has been laid atop the coffin. Be prepared to swear “right here, right now, before the devil.” Ghost fans are legion, and we will not be silenced.

In The Beginning There Was Boris Karloff: an “Oh My Ra” Story

“Of all the fictitious mummies, the one that has had the greatest impact and success is Imhotep, the resurrected Egyptian priest played by Boris Karloff in the 1932 film The Mummy. The reason for the success of this fictional treatment above all others is the humanity of the mummy. Imhotep, or Ardath Bey, as he is called in his resurrected state, has a full range of emotions–he lives, fears, and gets angry. He is the lover desperately seeking to be reunited with is love. There is a psychological completeness here that is lacking in the many fictional treatments that precede the film, (Brier, Bob. Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art; William Morrow and Company Inc; New York, NY 1994 p 299-300).

A black and white photograph of Boris Karloff in a suit and tie.
A portrait of Boris Karloff (1887-1969).

When I was a little girl, I wanted to marry Yul Brynner. I wanted to have lunch every day with Vincent Price, and I wanted to grow up to be Boris Karloff. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but when you’re five years old, you don’t do things that make sense. When you’re five years old (and female), and the old Universal Horrors and Cecil B Demille films are new and bright in your eyes, and your best friends are actors that had been dead for years, you might imagine you’ll grow up one day to be as great as any of them, even if it meant growing up into the forty-two-year-old male British actor, Boris Karloff.

Humble Beginnings

“There is a psychological completeness here…” Bob Brier says in his account of his attempts to reconstruct the methods by which the most skilled of Ancient Egyptian embalmers preserved the dead of old Egypt, Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art. I’ve long thought that there was something special about Karloff’s mummy, Imhotep, but I suppose I lacked the finesse of Brier’s assessment. The “psychological completeness” of the character of Imhotep/Ardath Bey is uncharacteristic of the portrayal of mummy characters prior to the 1932 film, but it is entirely typical of the style and genius displayed by Boris Karloff in his career as one of the Princes of Hollywood Horror.

Boris Karloff got his start as a two-bit actor making his rounds in Hollywood. In 1926, at the age of 42, he was near to giving up when a chance conversation with Lon Chaney encouraged Karloff to keep trying. Soon he was working on gangster films, where he was likely to have overheard the conversation that sparked his interest in a new Universal horror film (Vieira, Mark A. Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic; Harry N Abrams, Inc., New York, NY 2003 p 36-37).

In March of 1930, Carl Laemmle Jr. secured the rights to the Mary Shelly adaptation of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (stage adaptation) for $20,000, which was half of what it cost him to secure the rights to Dracula in 1929. Hoping to cash in on the success of Dracula, Bela Lugosi was originally planned for the part of the monster, but he was obstinate through the original testing, insisting on his own makeup, and generally downplaying the entire thing. The role was non-verbal, and that was not at all to Lugosi’s liking. He proclaimed to deaf ears that any tall extra could play the part (Vieira, 37).  The honor of directing the film would fall to James Whale, a director and expert from the London stage that was already making a name for himself by bringing his adaptation of Waterloo Bridge to a conclusion ahead of schedule and under budget, aspects of character that were to be much admired in a director during the waxing Depression amid slumping box office profits for studios across the board (Vieira, 37). During edits, Whale noted the possibility of a sympathetic monster, and washed his hands of Bela Lugosi for the part, knowing the actor that gave life to Dracula was not likely to engender sympathy. Whale had seen Karloff in the mystery film, The Criminal Code, and loved the work. Whale’s lackeys found Karloff in the studio commissary (somehow I always feel like people came upon Karloff while he’s eating). Whale invited him to coffee and talked his ear off about nothing until he came to the point, inviting Karloff to test for a “damned awful monster!”. Karloff didn’t flinch. He took the offer. He said, “Of course I was delighted at the prospect of more work because it meant another job if I was able to land it…at the same time I felt rather hurt because at the time I had on very good straight makeup and my best suit–and he wanted to test me for a monster!” (Vieira, 38).

The Genius of Boris Karloff

“Whale and I both saw the creature as the innocent one. Within the heavy restrictions of my makeup, I tried to play it that way,” Karloff said of his performance as the monster in the original Frankenstein (1931) (Vieira, 39).

Boris Karloff is in the makeup for Frankenstein's monster. He crouches behind a piece of machinery or something. The photo is in black and white.
Frankenstein’s monster crouches behind some piece of machinery or workings.

The genius of Karloff’s character is easily seen from the first moments the creature stirs to an abnormal state of animation. Despite the intense makeup, heavily hooded eyes, and huge costume, Karloff and director James Whale created a monster that was at once frightening and endearing. There is no point of the film that does not inspire sorrow for the monster who never asked to be. No part of the monster, for all of its heterogeneous parts and lumbering gate, suggests it is anything but an infantile victim born to doom. Karloff adds a childishness to the monster as it learns to speak and interact with the sweet friar the finds him. Karloff adds the well-meaning but overly anxious aggression of an abused animal to the scene in which the monster drowns the little girl. Putty was used to give the monster, heavy, dumb eyes, disguising Karloff’s own bright, intelligent ones. Karloff was entirely human inside the monster, lending a semblance of humanity that the creature was supposed to possess. He lurched, lumbered, pawed, and groped his way through the character with such sincerity and feeling. He caused the filming crew at Lake Sherwood to stay inordinately late arguing with James Whale about the necessity of showing the drowning of a young girl on screen (38). He wore struts and pavement boots to lend him awkward height. I watched the film in one sitting one morning before work, and cried through most of it. His sleeves were shortened to give him the appearance of his arms being too long for his body. His head was layered in cheese cloth and collodion to give it the seamless, square shape. He was a marvel of modern cinema effects, and deep inside Karloff’s makeup was the “psychological completeness” Bob Brier noticed in another of Karloff’s monsters who took the screen some years later, in 1932, on a high-budget film that further cemented him into the fabric of early pre-code Universal Horror.

The Mummy

Boris Karloff lays with his arms across his chest. He is upright in a coffin in full makeup for his role as a risen mummy. The coffin is propped up. Karloff's eyes are closed. Imhotep rests in uneasy sleep.
Boris Karloff propped up in his coffin in his portrayal of the wicked priest, Imhotep.

Though Frankenstein was Karloff’s most iconic role, it was not the first film I had ever seen him in. The first time I ever saw Karloff on film, it was in the 1932 film, The Mummy. As a child, I spent my days enamored of the Ancient Egyptian culture, though childishly enough I thought there were only two Pharaohs: Ramses I and Ramses II. This is due in large part to the fact that as a child, I did not have access to extensive historical documents such as those available to me now, and in truth Yul Brynner’s portrayal of Ramses in The Ten Commandments might have informed my speculation about the existence of other Pharaohs. It made sense. Ramses was Pharaoh. There were two Pharaohs named Ramses (actually there were about eleven, but eight-year-olds don’t know that) badda bing badda boom. It was not until I saw Karloff on-screen that I could subscribe to the idea that there had been other mummies, and maybe other Pharaohs. It was only natural that I should be introduced to Boris Karloff in a film regarding the rising of an Ancient Egyptian mummy. I was drawn to the makeup, the frightful aspect of the monster, and then I was quickly bored. I was a child. What I wanted was to visit a museum and sit next to a mummy (ideally one that looked just like Karloff) and have him whisper to me all the secrets of the dead civilization. What I got was an old love story. Blah.

Years later, watching the film over Halloween, I was awestruck. Karloff’s portrayal through the painful makeup of Imhotep was so frightening, so imposing and intimidating, and he was taller than everyone else in the film. He was angry: at himself, at those who murdered him; he was angry at the loss of his beloved; he grieved like no other lover in the world; he knew the unimaginable and nameless terror of being mummified and buried alive. He rested in his uneasy tomb for 3,700 years. When he awoke, he was in a new world, but he had already been broken. He had now the stone heart of the conqueror, and the Scroll of Thoth gave him power over life and death. He was polite and civil in one moment, and commanding in the next. Perhaps the most endearing aspect of Karloff’s portrayal was the scene before he attempts to kill and mummify Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnation of his lost, forbidden  love, the vestal virgin of Isis, Ankh-sen-amen. Karloff kneels beside Ankh-sen-amen’s couch, imploring her to look into his own eyes to spare her the horror of her shocking surroundings, knowing she had traveled down the centuries to inhabit a body that was not her own, with her own coffin laying lifeless in a museum case behind him. He utters such kind words to her before revealing the magnitude of the horror of his own being, the unnatural life he now possessed, and the unnatural life he intended to work upon her. Then it is revealed: the sweet priest Ankh-sen-amen had known in Thebes was dead and gone, and the only thing that was left was the hard shell of a man bereaved beyond endurance, tortured before a slow death, and then animated to a semblance of humanity. Though he loved her, he was not best pleased at her hesitance. It made no sense to him, and Imhotep laid it out for her in an accusing tone, “For thy sake I was buried alive! I ask of thee only a moment of agony. Only so can we be united!”

My major criticism of the film is purely a historical one that has nothing to do with the picturesque. The entire embalming process was not known then, and it is not fully known now. Helen/Ankh-sen-amen and Imhotep stand in the museum–as if that made little enough sense–as a brainwashed Nubian servant stirs a boiling pot of something (as I said, this part makes little sense historically). I am a little perturbed these days to hear her moan, “That is the bath of Natron. You shall not plunge my body into that!”

First, it espouses the largely debunked theory that the Natron bath was actually a bath, as in Natron dissolved in water into which the corpse was submerged. Though that theory still circulates, Bob Brier asserts that the Natron bath was actually a bath of dry Natron used to desiccate the bodies after internal organs had been removed. Second, it encourages a very picturesque and unhealthy notion that Lovecraft probably touched on a bit in his story “Under the Pyramids” (ghostwritten for Harry Houdini), the notion that the Ancient Egyptian practice of preserving their dead came from an unnatural obsession with death, rather than as a celebration of this life, and the next. This unnatural obsession was not only a point of acute horror of the process described by the Ancient Egyptians in which the Ka of the mummified human could re-enter the body and allow it to be resurrected, but also a point of horror that came with the fear of what is not fully understood, a purely Hollywood reaction to an Ancient Civilization’s unknowable motivations and half-understood rituals. Historically accurate was not going to sell a film, and so the mummy is evil. End of story. Thank you for choosing AMC Theaters. Don’t forget to dispose of your popcorn bowls in the trash can conveniently located beside the exit.

Yet, for all my talk of historical accuracy, what must have the general public thought of the photographs of Seti I and Ramses I when they were unwrapped? Vieira points out that the discovery of Tuts tomb in 1924 was still very relevant during the film’s inception. There was mystery, horrors unimaginable, and a metric ton of market potential to capitalize on the whispered fears of a general public who stared at the desiccated faces coated in resin, their features preserved for more than 3,000 years. There were people inside those linen bandages. It was this aspect of Karloff’s mummy that was so frightening. Inside this shambling corpse was a very angry soul, but a soul nonetheless.

Boris Karloff stands before the Pharaoh in white linen shirt, white linen head dress, and skirt with gold inlays. The film is in black and white. He is flanked by guards, he is now a prisoner, caught working unspeakable black magic to regain the life of his lost princess.
Handsome Boris Karloff. All right, I think he’s handsome.

Also, can we talk about how handsome he was? I mean seriously, the man I swear is somehow related to Jeremy Irons. Even that lisp was cute.

Karloff the Eternal Sufferer: SFX for The Mummy

The makeup used on Karloff for this film was the most painful of his career. For a man who could portray the stolid, angry, rigid figures of the films he played in, he detested the makeup. He commented that the makeup for The Mummy was, “”the most trying ordeal I have ever endured,”” saying the, “”physical exhaustion was nothing compared to the nervous exhaustion I suffered,”” (Vieira 58). It took eight hours to wrap him up. Rigid collodion and layers of cotton covered his face, adhered with the unholy smelling spirit gum, a pain I know only too well. I hate rigid collodion. After two hours, he could no longer speak. Clay was adhered to his head and sculpted to match the pictures of Seti II. He was wrapped in linen bandages that had been distressed with acid and scorched in an oven to give them the dried out appearance of having been doused in bitumen resin. He couldn’t move, or talk, and he could not use the bathroom. He was wheeled into the sound stage at 7 pm, and that’s where he stayed until 2 am. It took two hours to remove the collodion and cotton mess, and it was a process he would have to repeat. Karloff was perhaps one of the most abused actors in the business. Even after he appealed to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to intervene regarding his exhausting and abusive treatment on the set of Frankenstein, The Mummy was even more emotionally and physically taxing. Ideally, using Karloff as the mummy instead of a dummy mummy (yeah I did that) made more sense to director Karl Freund, who wanted to get Karloff into the costume and shoot the first scene all in one day. There was no budget for an extra mummy that looked enough like Karloff to pull this off. These days, in addition to the actor in makeup, a silicone life cast of the actor would have been used to simulate the actor in the coffin, and actually would have been less expensive, as the less time an actor spends on set, the better.

Vieire reports, though, that Karloff was rewarded, even vindicated, for his treatment by the rave reviews from both the critics and the public regarding The Mummy. Critic Andre Sennwald wrote, “”for purposes of terror, there are two scenes in The Mummy that weird enough in all conscience. In the first, the mummy comes alive and a young archaeologist, going quite mad, laughs in a way that raises the hair on the scalp. In the second, Imhotep is embalmed alive, and that moment when the tape is drawn across the man’s mouth and nose, leaving only his wild eyes staring out of the coffin, is one of decided horror,”” (Vieire 58).

Sennewald was not wrong. If you’ve seen The Mummy (and it’s only an hour long, so there’s no excuse if you haven’t) then you’ll understand the look on Karloff’s face as the embalmers wrap him alive in linen bandages and place him in his coffin, ostensibly while he is still alive, but perhaps unconscious. It is a look of wild-eyed terror that intensifies as the bandages are wrapped over the nose and mouth. He struggled hard against the bandages, but to no avail. Some mummies were wrapped in over 1,500 feet of linen. To a young child–or even a fully-grown adult–this is the most frightening scene in the whole film.

Conclusion

Boris Karloff did not just have an indelible effect on me as a child, prompting me to begin my cosplay career with my own tribute to his masterwork. Boris Karloff, following the footsteps of his friend and mentor, Lon Chaney, defined the pre-code horror genre, infusing it with the concepts and methods sfx makeup artists and character designers still use today. Nothing can ever replace the vintage horror genre, and in no way will horror ever return to those glory days. Few actors today subscribe to the old ways, but the legacy of Boris Karloff lives on in actors like Doug Jones and directors like Guillermo Del Toro.

There seems to be some mix of fate in coming across the quote from Bob Brier that began this article, for only last night, I had the delightful surprise of watching The Black Cat and The Body Snatcher on TMC. Each film gave Karloff the opportunity to present the fullness of his range, the presence he exudes on screen. One’s eye is immediately drawn to him. Handsome, imposing, and intimidating, Boris Karloff was not only a master of his craft, but a reminder that inside the monstrous horrors presented on screen, there is a human being at the center of it, and though the lids might be hooded with putty, there is no mistaking the jovial good nature in his laughing eyes or the intelligence and wit behind that cheeky grin. There was not an actor like Karloff before, and there will never be another.

My work on my own special effects creations is as much a part of my own art as it is to the allegiance and honor I owe my predecessors. The next part of this series will explore Karloff’s own inspiration, the original Hollywood Monster, Lon Chaney.

Folklore Thursday: The Art of Bronze-Age Sword Casting, Part 1 of the “Oh My Ra” Series

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to Folklore Thursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually meant that folk traditions were passed by word of mouth. Folk stories can be spread down through the generations by telling and re-telling. Other folk traditions are carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious influences.

Last Thursday, my partner in crime, Lidia Plaza, and I attended a very intimate class on Bronze-Age style sword casting from Austin, Texas’ own Greg Wenderski, the Sword Casting Guy! This was a great way to kick off the “Oh My Ra” Warhammer Cosplay series!

Folk Traditions: The Art of Sword Casting in the ATX

Greg Wenderski teaches at the Khabele School in Austin, Texas, but he’s not any average teacher. In addition to his work with his students, Greg also teaches the art of Bronze-Age sword casting using molten aluminium. Everyone from adults to kiddos can attend his classes and learn the simple process, yet complex art, of casting a Bronze-Age weapon, and just like the old weapons smiths of old, the process is taught from master–that’s Greg–to the apprentice–that’s you.

Greg Wenderski stands with two of his students as they present their newly cast weapons for the camera. The student on the left holds a dagger. The student in the middle, and Greg, each hold a Gladius, a Greek weapon commonly cast in bronze, but cast in aluminum for Greg's students.
Greg Wenderski holds up shining examples of his students’ work in sword casting.

Last Thursday, Lidia and I arrived at the Khabele School down on Rio Grand Street in the fading light of downtown Austin. Greg met us exuberantly, and we were surprised to be the only attendees that night. Lidia and I got a first-hand taste of the process of casting. To say that it was hot–sultry even–was the understatement of the century. With weather edging up into 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat wave was on. Nevertheless we were prepared to get our hands dirty.

Greg doesn’t just cast in aluminium. Though the process is more involved and complex, Greg can also cast in real bronze. To see that, you can watch Greg’s video interview with Tania Ortega on FOX7.

Lidia and I had our choice of weapons for Thursday’s lesson. Of course, since these weapons are going to be for our cosplay projects, we chose based on what our characters would most likely be wielding on the field of battle. Lidia chose a basic blade that she will be modifying with thermal plastics (Worbla’s Finest Art) to give it more of an antique, yet updated look for her space-faring fawn. Since my character will be a Warhammer Tomb King, it made sense for me to choose the weapon most commonly depicted, if not most commonly used, by the Ancient Egyptians themselves, the Khopesh.

Outside, on a plastic folding table, sits a wooden casting box with it's top to the side. Across the open section is the wooden pattern of an Egyptian Khopesh, which will be used to cast an aluminium version.
The wooden Khopesh pattern atop a wooden casting box.

Ancient Egyptian Weapons and Military

The three major Egyptian Kingdoms–classified as the most stable time-periods of the Ancient Egyptian Civilizations before the Greek, and then Roman, occupations–began and ended during the Bronze Age. Egypt’s major moments of upheaval occurred  during the First, Second, and Third Intermediate Periods. Before the invasion of the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate Period, Egypt was largely a peaceful kingdom. Its place in the Nile River Valley successfully secluded it from rival nations, who would have had to cross vast deserts on all sides to reach her.  Bronze-Age armor and smithing, as well as the ores needed to smelt ingots for casting, were rare in Ancient Egypt, and the weapons were more than likely purchased rather than made in Egypt. The vast majority of warfare took place on the ground, with spear and shield, or at long range from bows and arrows. Egypt had little to fear from large invasions most of the time, and so utilized outposts and bastions to keep warring lesser tribes from causing trouble. Chariotry did not enter the Egyptian military until after its import from Eastern Asia during the invasion of the Hyksos. Major weapons would have been throwing sticks, spears, bow and arrow, and later, the Khopesh. Even armor was uncommon, as foot soldiers would have worn basic linen skirts and carried a shield, often using close ranged weapons like maces and short weapons, like the Khopesh, a version of which is depicted below, though this weapon is not cast in bronze, but rather steel.

This is a picture of a Khopesh-like weapon that is a steel version of the bronze age weapon. It is longer than a Bronze-Age Khopesh. It has a wooden handle.
A style of Khopesh cast in steel.

The steel weapon seen here is an adequate depiction. Notice the curved blade, like a sickle used for harvesting grain. The Bronze-Age weapon would have been no longer than 24 inches because, Greg Wenderski said, that was how far bronze could travel in a cast before it became too cool to flow. The hooked portion of the Bronze-Age style weapon would have been blunt. This feature of the weapon is thought to have been more for pulling an enemy into closer range for bludgeoning rather than stabbing or cutting. As the Bronze Age faded out towards the end of the New Kingdom, Khopheshes were cast in iron rather than bronze. Some pharaoh were buried with blunt ceremonial versions of gold. Tutankhamen was buried with two.

The Casting Process

Greg started us off with a brief tutorial. The brutal Austin heat kept many spectators and participants at bay, so Lidia and I were the only guests present. We dived right in.

We were each given a long box with the lids removed. We filled these with a gray sort of "sugar sand" much like very fine beach sand, which we leveled off with a board.
Lidia and I filled boxes with “sugar sand” before leveling them off.

First each of us filled one of Greg’s casting boxes with “sugar sand” a very fine sand that dried quickly in the warm evening air. It was like beach sand, only much finer. The gray color is probably from the fact that Greg reuses the sand after a cast as much as from the fact that it’s slightly damp.

Each box is in three parts: the top, the bottom, and lid. The top and bottom of the casting boxes latch together, a feature Greg told us was a result of one trial in which he poured hot aluminium into the boxes only to have steam separate the seams. Each casting box has had hinges ever since. The lid unscrews with  the aid of a suitably traditional electric drill.

It was important not to pack the sand too tightly, but it was also very important to make sure the edges and corners would form a tight seal during casting. If air were allowed to escape the corners or edges, the sword would possibly be ruined.

Greg assisted us by using the side of the casting box lid to press the wooden pattern into the sugar sand to leave a deep enough indentation in the sand for the aluminium to flow into.
Greg presses our wooden pattern of each of our weapons into the sugar sand. Neither of us were tall enough to do it.

We used the lids of the casting boxes to press the wooden molds of our swords as hard into the sand as we could. We were grateful for Greg’s help, as neither of us were tall enough to leverage the strength needed to press the sword and make the impression that would form the bottom of the sword cast. Though we couldn’t pack the sand down tightly, we tried our best to make sure the sand was very closely packed to the edge of the sword molds.

After we filled the bottom, we dusted the sand with separating minerals to ensure the metal would lift easily from the sand cast. Then we dusted the wooden casting mold with minerals. We reattached the top portion of the box–minus the lid–and packed the top very heavily with the sugar sand, pressing hard, sparing not an ounce of strength needed to make sure the top of the sword left a good impression in the top part of the cast. Then we replaced the lids and put the screws back in, sealing the whole box shut. Greg used a small tube to feel out the pommel of the sword, knocking enough sand away to ensure the molten aluminium would have room to travel freely into the cast.

Next, we lifted the tops off the casting boxes and removed the wooden mold, which left behind a clear impression in the damp sand. We stood the boxes on their ends, knocking off additional sand.

The casting box of Lidia's Greek weapon is ready to be closed up. On the left is the bottom of the box with the wooden pattern (which will be removed). On the right is the indentation left in the top of the box, which was also filled with sand.
Lidia’s casting box how has two almost perfect indentations made to cast her weapon.
On the left is the bottom of the casting box containing the Khopesh wooden pattern (which will be removed). The right side of the box is the top, which was also filled with sand, and will be closed up before the cast.
The Khopesh is ready to be cast as well. All that is left is to remove the wood pattern and close up the box.

We closed up the new casts and stood them up in a metal stand so that they would not fall over in the event of a random and unforeseen toppling, a lesson Greg learned early in his career. We then moved over to the furnace, where Greg was ready to smelt the aluminium ingots he would melt down to cast the swords.

Each of us placed our casting box in a stand on the ground, upright so that Greg could pour the molten aluminium into each box through a hole in the upward end.
Our casting boxes stand upright in order to receive the molten aluminum.

Smelting and Casting

I am holding an aluminium ingot that Greg poured himself. It is a little heavy, but not as heavy as bronze.
Greg’s hand-poured aluminium ingot.

Greg smelts his own aluminium ingots. As he makes his way around town on a daily basis, he picks up aluminium items he finds, things like bike frames, though he cannot use beer or soda cans, as they are lined with plastic. He melts the pieces down into ingots. He also recasts ingots from the unused aluminium from projects. Nothing goes to waste.

Greg has placed a modified propane tank on the brick floor of the outdoor patio. He has modified the propane tank to act as a small furnace.
Greg places two aluminium ingots in the furnace and prepares to melt them down.

The ingots go into the furnace. This particular furnace is a propane tank with the top sawed off, with a concrete lid that swings out. Greg learned on one occasion that setting the lid down in dry Texas grass might start a fire, and so devised a method that never involves setting the lid on the ground.  Aluminium melts at 1, 221 degrees Fahrenheit. Bronze melts at a much higher temperature depending on the amount of copper ore present in the alloy. It would require a furnace lined with ceramic, and a blower, which was not necessary for this particular arts and crafts project.

We stood well back as Greg poured the aluminium. It took surprisingly little metal to finish each cast. Greg poured three molds and had enough aluminium left over to pour into another whole ingot.

In the boxes, Greg has poured a small amount of aluminium into each cast. The aluminium is visible on the top of the box.
The aluminium boxes have been filled with molten aluminium.

We watched the steam billow from our boxes, marveling that Greg’s did not do that, and wondering which one of our weapons we had ruined. Fortunately that was not the case. The visible aluminium would form a small nugget at the end of the pommel that would be knocked off and it’s sharp edge ground down.

I place my left hand on one of the boxes after the metal has set. The box is still incredibly warm, though I can touch it.
My own personal “hand test” to see how hot the box actually got.

The company I work for makes heat insulation products for turbocharged engines. We pride ourselves on being able to touch our product while it’s under heavy heat, though no one can do that for very long as the turbo under the blanket becomes red hot. Here you can see I performed my own hand test on the hot casting box containing Lidia’s weapon.

Greg has taken the box off of Lidia's weapon. The aluminium is solid, if a bit dirty. It lays in it's box, as it's still to hot to touch.
Lidia’s fully cast weapon.
Greg has taken the lid off of the box containing the aluminium Khopesh.
The Khopesh is revealed, fully cast in aluminium.

Both weapons cooled in the almost blistering summer heat in the ATX. Greg dusted them off briefly before whisking them off to the bucket to be quenched.

Greg quenches the cast weapons in a bucket of water on the ground. Quenching hardens the metal, but makes it brittle. Unfortunately, the weapons cannot be tempered, as they are not steel, so no actually hitting anything with them.
Greg quenches the cast weapons in water to cool them.

In most weapons casting, the metal swords would be quenched and tempered to help them retain an edge. However, quenching causes the metal to become very brittle. I’m afraid we won’t be riding into battle with these aluminium weapons in the near or distant future, as one good strike, even to a soft and squishy enemy, would likely snap the weapon off at the hilt. Since these weapons are cast, not forged, we were not going to be tempering the metal. Tempering is the process by which swords are made more flexible to keep them from breaking,. Lidia and I each own Fencing weapons of tempered steel, which makes them bendable and “flicky”. They are not impossible to break, but the bendable blades are easier on the body and less likely to break under the 22k Newtons of force a Fencer is capable of inflicting on their opponent. To give you an idea of the strength of tempered steel, I used to be able to put dents in the hard body of my ’94 Mercury Tracer with just my practice weapon and  with normal lunge attacks.

I hold the Khopesh up to my phone's camera. It is a very unbalanced, but fine weapon for costumes, and it was cast using a historically accurate process.
My finished Khopesh, ready for my costume.

Greg later ground down the edges and flats of both of our weapons, both for safety and for aesthetic. He then wrapped the hilts of each of our weapons in leather.

And there we have it! Two freshly cast Bronze-Age style weapons for our life-encompassing projects. We lost the light not too long after we finished our weapons, but we left knowing we had something very special in hand. Not too many people at the Zombie Ball in October, or the Texas Renaissance Fair will carry weapons they themselves helped cast. Not only is the finished product well worth the price of admission, but the plain weapon can be modified in almost any way you desire. With the availability of thermal plastics like Worbla’s Finest Art, a little wire and clay or clay foam, the sky is the limit with modifications and additions that are sure to enhance the already impressive weapon you will hold in your hand, and allow you to enjoy this piece for years to come.

Conclusion

Greg still has space available for the last Sunday of August (August 28) and September 18 for the all ages class. These are the all-ages classes, so if you’re looking for something to do with the kids that’s education in a good way, then you can get tickets to Greg’s class at the Khabele School here. You can find the Sword Casting Guy on his website, or on his Facebook page.

It was great to work with Greg last week to cast a weapon that is sure to put the finishing touches on my Tomb King Cosplay, and in a true folk tradition. No guide books, no YouTube videos, just the master and his students on a hot evening in Austin, learning techniques that Bronze-Age weapons casters would have used 3,000 years ago. As I become better acquainted with the civilization that Warhammer borrowed so heavily from, I feel closer to the people, as if I were able to bridge the gap between the here and now and the distant past. Maybe one day I’ll have the pleasure of casting a weapon in bronze. If I ever do, I know who to call.

Keep your eyes peeled for more posts as the “Oh My Ra” Series continues. Next week, Linen Bandages and the art of mummifying the Ancient Egyptians!

Folklore Thursday: Vlad von Carstein and Eastern European Folklore

“Common sense has never been more frightening,”

–Mannfred von Carstein, Warhammer

Mannfred von Carnstein towers above his undead minions in battle in this black-and-white "woodcut" image.
Mannfred von Carstein, one of the “sons” of Vlad, the progenitor of the von Carstein Bloodline

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to Folklore Thursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world.

Folklore can be defined as “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually meant that folk traditions were passed by word of mouth. Folk stories can be spread down through the generations by telling and re-telling. Other folk traditions are carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious influences.

The Vampire Folk Traditions of Eastern Europe

I’m being very oversimplified here, and drawing very heavily on a series of references to Rand McNally and Radu Florescu’s work, Draclua: Prince of Many Faces, as a basis for my the beginning of this post, as McNally and Florescu did an excellent job of laying out the history of the Wallachian prince, Vlad III (sometimes called, Tepes, Drakula, or Drakoolya and who would later be called Dracula) in a geopolitical landscape that gave a lot of insight into the on-going warfare of the two opposing empires, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

Prior to occupation by the Ottoman Turks in the Fifteenth Century, the area of Europe that we now call Eastern Europe (the Balkan states) was once the Northern most section of the Byzantine Empire, seated in Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul. In 1453, the Ottomans, lead by Mehmed the II overturned rulership and set up shop there (Harris, William H & Levey, Judith S. The New Columbia Encyclopedia. New York; Columbia University Press, 1975). The Slavs of this region had been attempting to protect themselves from Ottoman invasion since the reign of Murad (Setton, Kenneth M, The Papacy and the Levant 1204-1571: The Fifteenth Century. American Philosophical Society, 1978). Among those who raised the most hell for the Ottomans were the Hunyadis and the line of princes set upon the throne by Murad–the line that would culminate with Vlad II, member of the Order of the Dragon, and his sons, Mircea, Vlad, and Radu. Vlad the III would go on to wage one of the most bloody counter-offensives against Ottoman occupation since the beginning of the Crusades, who would acquire the epithet, “Tepes” or “Impaler”, who would make example of hundreds of his own voivode, who enacted a heinous scratch and burn policy, and who would find himself under house arrest of Matthias Corvinus (tentative Holy Roman Emperor) for twelve years, and who is most closely associated with vampire lore today, as his body was reportedly never found. Rumors that the attrocities perpetrated by Vlad were attributed to some sort of demonic possession or vampirism abounded among his detractors, and even his people had a hard time justifying his actions as a sane man. Some Romanians that care, to this day, claim that Vlad may one day return and save his people, and it was to Vlad III that Cescescu prayed to save him as he fled for his helicopter during the fall of his Communist regime in 1989.

This painting is most commonly associated with the Wallachian Prince Vlad "Dracula", born in 1436 and died in 1476. He has a sharp nose, high cheeks, brown hair, ruddy lips, and a red cap jeweled in pearl.
A commonly copied painting of Vlad “Dracula” the third, prince of Wallachia.

Western European ignorance of vampire mythology prior to 1730 owes much to a sort of neighborhood bastardization of what we consider the Balkans (Hungary, Poland, Romania, Moldavia, Bukovina, Serbia, etc), which was ceded from the Ottoman Empire to the Hapsburg Monarchy in 1718 (Johnson, Eric Michael, “A Natural History of Vampires” Scientific America Blog Network October 31, 2011). Cut off from Europe by his Holiness the Pope (you’ll recall that the Byzantines were Orthodox Christians and not part of the Papacy), then again in 1453 by the Ottomans, the Balkan states did not mix with Europeans until 1718.

Dr. Johannes Flückinger’s account of his encounter with the vampire-hunting Gypsies of Serbia in 1732 was perhaps one of the most widely circulated accounts of Serbian vampiric folkways at the time (Johnson 2011). In his account, Flückinger is deployed to a Serbian village in the shadow of the Carpathian mountains, the name of which still strikes a bit of unease into this humble blogger to this day. He performs a sort of “autopsy” on a young mother and her baby, who had died in childbirth. According to his report, the woman, Stana, had seemed undecayed, with vivid and fresh organs despite being dead for two months, and blood was found in her chest and stomach. She seemed to exhibit all the signs of being alive after death, and she was treated as such by one of the many traditional methods. She was burned, along with the other fresh corpses deemed to be vampires, and her ashes were scattered over the river Morava. According to Johnson, the ceding of the Balkans to Europe, “came [with] a rich folkloric tradition which quickly merged with European ideas of witchcraft that had gripped the continent for the past three centuries. These stories would be widely reproduced in French, German and, later, in English, to eventually find their way into the hands of an obscure Irish writer and theater manager by the name of Bram Stoker” (Jonson, 2011).

Over the centuries, Slavic and European folklore would coalesce, eventually leading to a set of folktales in cycles that would give Bram Stoker the idea for his iconic (if not fantastically written) novel, Dracula (1897), in which a mysterious Romanian count tricks several British citizens into bringing him safely to a new home in London, where he reeks havoc, stopped only by decapitation at the hands of vampire hunters under the direction of one Abraham Van Helsing.

Gary Oldman's Prince Dracula prepares to do battle against the Turkish Hordes. In this scene, he takes one last look at his bride, Elizabeta (Winona Ryder) before he takes to the battlefield. He wears red plate armor that looks like the sinewy muscle. His hair is long, and he has a handsome beard. This film is Bram Stoker's Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, in 1992.
Gary Oldman plays the younger Prince Dracula as well as the vampire version in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula (opposite Winona Ryder).

This story, and it’s many incarnations, have been passed down through our pop culture media, making its most recent appearance in the Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan television phenomena, The Strain. Dracula‘s basis in some historical fact has also given rise to a set of hybrid stories by Fred Saberhagen and others in which Dracula is both the historical Vlad Tepes (1431-1476) and the vampire Count Dracula, which inspired the film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Dracula Untold.

Luke Evans plays Dracula as he strides in boiled leather armor (more historically accurate than Oldman's strange plate armor) across a war camp, his black hair wet with mist and sweat.
I kind of wish the real Dracula had looked like Luke Evans in the 2014 film, Dracula Untold.
The Master is played by Robert Maillet. He stands a full head and shoulders above Corey Stol's Ephraim Goodweather in The Strain. He is bald, with large, flat ears, and a mouth that opens extra wide to emit his "stinger".
Ephraim Goodweather confronts the Master, played by Robert Maillet, in the FX television series The Strain.

We never get tired of vampire stories. Even a dumbed down version of a vampire made it into Garth Ennis’s comic, Preacher. They are the go-to villain, the unattainable saint, the symbol of all that we fear as human beings, and also symbols of everything we had ever dreamed of. The vampire is at once abhorrent and beautiful. So many authors have explored this dichotomy, from the “bad vampires” of Brian Lumley to the “beautiful” vampires of Anne Rice. Each author finds their own way to explore this creature that we are so tempted and haunted by. The vampire is the ultimate masculine symbol of power despite the femininity of contemporary vampiric figures (Lestat, Vampire Hunter D, Edward Cullen). The vampire is reputedly a representation of fear of the spread of venereal diseases, such as Syphilis, which plagued England and Europe at the time Stoker’s writing. The Western vampire is arguably a symbol of Hollywood ideals of beauty made manifest, a being that is always young and beautiful, and can never die.

The Eastern European vampire, however, will always hold a place in pop culture’s heart, and it is from the history books and folktales of the Fifteenth-Century Slavs that we are given the basis for the undead horde of the von Carsteins of Warhammer.

Time of Legends: Rise of the Vampire Lords

As depicted in Time of Legends: The Rise of Nagash, the original vampire lords arose from a subgroup of rulers in Lahmia on the Northeastern border of Nehekhara. The Lahmians, led by their Priest-King Lahmizzar, believed themselves to possess the spells that gave the Immortals under the command of undying Nagash their longevity and necromantic power. In helping the Lahmians betray Nagash, the vizier Arkhan the Black thought he would be able to secure his freedom by slipping Lahmashizzar (son of Lahmizzar) and his sister-wife, Neferata, just enough of Nagash’s knowledge to keep them from killing him while he figured out a different plan. Regretting the betrayal of his master and his present predicament, Arkhan had helped Lahmashizzar and Neferata acquire only a few of the Books of Nagash from the temple in Khemri. Even Arkhan was not prepared for the outcome. In giving up only a fraction of his knowledge of Nagash’s power, Arkhan allowed Neferata and her cronies to begin a slow transition towards what we now refer to as vampires. Eventually, Neferata and her kind had to repeatedly fake their own deaths to ensure that no one discovered their secret. Later, with Nagash fighting his own battle against the Skaven at Nagashizaar, Neferata breeds a new prince for the throne of the court of Settra in Khemri and places the young Alcaldizaar there. W’soran, now head of the Mortuary Cult in Lahmia, flees to Nagashizaar to beseach the help of the Undying King. Alcaldizaar would later face Nagash and defeat him, but not before Nagash got off one last spell, bringing the Tomb Kings into existence, right before Alcaldizaar went mad. Neferata and her kind fled Lahmia during an uprising and headed to the North, what was called “The Old World”.

Warhammer: The Vampire Counts of the von Carstein Line

The Vampire Counts descending from the von Carstein blood are the most hated and feared faction of the Warhammer universe from the perspective of the Empire of Man. In the country of Sylvania, ruled by the von Drak line, there was a mad Count Otto von Drak, who vowed never to allow his daughter to marry any man. He would rather see her married to a demon before he allowed her marriage to a lesser man. That night, a strange, dark rider came to the castle by the name of Vlad von Carstein. Otto allowed the marriage of Vlad to his daughter Isabella on his death bed, and soon the greatest and worst love story ever told took off. Vlad and Isabella ruled side-by-side for several centuries before a particularly dim-witted populace began to notice. By then, it was too late. Vlad’s first Vampire War began with the subjugation of the people of Sylvania. The next step began with something straight out of the history books.

Vlad von Carstein sits on his throne in Castle Drakenhof after the doomed Totentanz Night dance that resulted in the death of the living in Sylvania.
Vlad von Carstein sits on his gruesome throne in resplendent armor.

In our own history, Vlad III had a very large problem with some of his boyars. Many of them had been directly responsible for selling his father, Vlad II, and his older brother, Mircea, to the Turks, resulting in their gruesome deaths after Vlad’s imprisonment along with his baby brother, Radu. Not long after being placed on the Wallachian throne at the age of nineteen, Vlad held a large feast for his boyars so that they could pledge their loyalty to him. He could hear lies dripping from every tongue that spoke, and it stoked his already raging ire. Somewhere near the end of the feast, Vlad slipped from the hall and had the doors locked from the outside. He burned the boyars alive in the hall, eliminating a vast majority of the threat that remained to his rule, decimating the Turkish sympathizers under his command, and exacting a terrible vengeance for the deaths of his brother and father.

In Warhammer, Vlad von Carstein “called forth all the nobles of the province to pledge loyalty to him during a festivity called the Totentanz, or the “Dance of the Dead”. The dance was to be held at Drakenhof Castle, on the eve of Geheimnisnacht,” (Warhammer Wiki). “The Totentanz was actually a huge coy, invented by Vlad to assemble the remaining living aristocracy into one place. At the height of the ball, he gave an order to his minions to close off the entrance and kill every living thing inside.”

After this, he climbed the parapet and spoke from one of the nine Books of Nagash. Every last remaining vestige of humanity was converted to the von Carstein bloodline.

Vlad, in his campaign of total war (see what I did there?), was beheaded, the way historical Vlad was said to have died, by one of the reanimated Imperial Commanders. Later, Herman Prosner and his retinue could not find Vlad’s body, in much the same way as the body of Vlad III was never found. Unlike Vlad III, however, Vlad von Carstein and Isabella went on to win the Battle of Essenford, and he marched his vampire horde all the way to Altdorf, where he was betrayed by Mannfred von Carstein, his oldest “son”.

“Following Vlad’s death, only five vampires claimed to be the heir to his legacy. These vampires were Fritz, Hans, Pieter, Konrad and Mannfred von Carstein. For more than forty years afterward, the Vampires of the von Carstein line have fought a vicious power struggle against each other, giving the Empire vital time to recover from the desolation brought about by Vlad’s invasion.”

In Total War: Warhammer, you play the vampire faction under a unified von Carstein bloodline. Like the other horde factions, the vampires carry their civilization with them as they rampage their way across the map. It is up to the defenders to protect their borders and their way of life from the necromantic, undead horde who can raise one’s own soldiers against them, an enemy who, with each death, only grows stronger.

Mannfred von Carstein waves a axe like weapon for a cutscene image in Total War: Warhammer. Notice he carries a book on his hip--it is one of the nine Books of Nagash.
Mannfred Von Carstein from the video game Total War: Warhammer

Conclusion

Warhammer owes much, if not all, of its lore to the legacies of the ancient human civilizations of our history. Steeped in the rich folk traditions of Eastern Europe, the vampire faction of Warhammer features those aspects of the vampire we all love to hate. The faction is of feudal design, with serfs serving the lord of each city-state. The folk traditions of the vampire combined with the feudal system of government in Medieval Eastern Europe lends itself well to Warhammer game mechanics, and is one of the most feared and most fun factions to play.

Because of their resemblance to humans and their cunning brutality, they are perhaps the most feared monster of humankind, and it seems that as long as we are insecure about our place in the universe and fearful of our own mortality, they will plague and inspire us, perhaps for as long as we exist.