I was beyond honored to receive an ARC of Scourge to review. I have been a fan of Gail Z. Martin since her debut novel, The Summoner, and for every year since I have not missed a release. Waiting for another novel from Ms. Martin is like waiting for the latest season of your favorite show. You’re not sure how it could get better. It just does, and with each passing episode (or page) you become more heavily endeared to the characters and settings. Getting into the rich worlds of Gail Z. Martin is a privilege I hope everyone will take advantage of.
Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst
Spoiler Free Review
Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst has everything the adventurous seeker of a swashbuckling good time could hope for: forbidden magic, a household of undertakers unwillingly drawn into a war they cannot see for a purpose they cannot hope to understand without further aid, a rich cityscape woven into a larger world map full of corruption to be overcome. While the Valmonde brothers fight for their lives and livelihood on the ground, the Lord Mayor of the province of Ravenwood plays a dangerous game of political intrigue, holding a loose-canon blood mage in the palm of his hand the way a desperate man clutches the stock of a gun, full of amazement at the raw power and afraid to use it. Unknown to all is an even more elaborate game that not even the Lord Mayor is privy to, and over it all is yet another rich pantheon of guild gods and goddesses that demand loyalty from their artisan worshipers, driven before a frightening pantheon of Elder Gods that will not be denied.
The Valmonde brothers, Corran, Rigan, and Kell, are worshipers of Doharmu, the only Guild God of the Bakaran League who doubles as a Guild God and an Elder God, the only god that requires no sacrifice because all must go to Doharmu in the end. As Undertakers, the Valmondes perform the ritual rights of burial, sending the souls of good men, women, and children on to the After, and sending the scum of the earth to the Void where they belong. The Valmondes are Martin’s most endearing family, held together by ties of family and blood that even the worst tragedy cannot tear apart. When Rigan discovers the grave magic of his order is fueled by more than ritual, Rigan must find a way to control the dangerous weapon his being has become before he loses control entirely, or else forfeit his life to the witch hunters in Lord Mayor Machison’s employ. Corran fights to defend his home and brothers and friends from vicious monsters attacking the city that seem to spring from the ground. Corran soon discovers the city’s guards seem more interested in stopping the hunters than protecting the people from the monsters, and behind it all is the cruelty of a blood mage worthy of any GrimDark tale. Between the fight of the Valmondes and the Lord Mayor’s machinations are the innocent people of Ravenwood. Gail Z. Martin stretches her legs as a mastermind of political intrigue with a cast of characters whose greed knows no bounds, and gives voice to one of her most vile monsters.
Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst offers the reader a popcorn-popping page turner that will brook no interruption!
No Holds Barred! Spoiler Alert!
Do Not Proceed If You Haven’t Read It!
WAIT. WHERE AM I?
Scourge has something for everyone from casual readers to veteran scholars of epic fantasy. Though Martin isn’t known for gross sex scenes and even her horror scenes lack a little bit of brute force (this isn’t the creepy death-ridden landscape of Deadly Curiosities) Martin has surprised me of late with a few characters that make me question my moral compass. Vedrand Pollard from the Ascendant Kingdoms was the start of the trend. To this day I can’t quite figure out if I hate him or not. Lord Mayor Machison, for all that he ends his reign of terror on a down beat, also seems to only be doing the best he can with what he has. Sure, Machison has zero conscience and doesn’t see himself for the butcher that he is, but that’s the beauty of his character. No one, no matter how awful they are, considers themselves to be wholly evil. They will always find a redeeming quality in themselves. Though Machison will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, he is not at first prepared to sell his own people out wholesale. Machison is at war as much with himself as he is with his rivals, and Martin’s walk with Machison down the dark road of utter insanity and desperation that culminates in Machison’s final fall from grace leads me to wonder: when the Hell did we wander into GrimDark country?
For those who are unfamiliar, GrimDark is a genre of fantasy that may or may not include protagonists whose moral compass points due south and and whose monsters make better heroes than the beautiful people. Those who understand GrimDark will understand why I don’t entirely hate Pollard and why Machison is easily the most compelling character in Scourge.
Unseasoned fantasy readers may find Martin’s political intrigue hard to follow at first, but with Machison at the rudder, you’ll soon get your bearings.
Oh. now that’s just not fair.
I have so little to criticize in this latest gem from one of my favorite authors, for whom I am a legacy reviewer and would be happy to continue writing reviews as long as she keeps writing novels! But for the love of all that’s GrimDark, not Blackholt!
Haha! You thought I was gonna talk about Kell. Well…I can’t talk about Kell…I’m not crying, you are!
I tried to make my peace, but I cannot leave this alone! Blackholt is easily one of Martin’s most vile bad guys. Pentreath Reese might have been a mad man–and a vampire!–but he was at least partially on a leash. Blackholt is a loose canon. He works on a cash-only basis but to Blackholt, wealth is immaterial. Preservation of the balance is Blackholt’s sole motivation, though it cannot be denied he’s married to his work. Martin let go of the leash a little with Blackholt and has proven yet again that the monster is truly at his worst when he speaks.
It is Blackholt’s treatment that left me in agony. One can only hope that this is not the last we have heard of a monster as powerful as Blackholt, and if that is the end of the blood mage, I hope that the next time we get a gruesome character as unstable as Blackholt, we get to hold onto him a little longer. There was a great potential of emotional depth and depravity that is hinted at but never followed through with.
I know…I’m weird. I like the bad guys. I’m sure I’m alone in this. For all that he was a shade of black that I want wrap up in like my favorite sweater, he was the bad guy, and he got what every bad guy deserves, and no one can say it was not satisfying to see the Valmondes in their moment of triumph!
Back In The Safe Zone: Closing
It is my sincere hope that we have not heard the last of the Valmonde brothers as they strive to pull Ravenwood, and the rest of Darkhurst, back from the brink of destruction. Scourge is a bright beginning to an all new realm that combines the familiar comfort of The Summoner and the Winter Kingdoms with Martin’s latest work in the realms of urban fantasy with her Deadly Curiosities novels. Gail Z. Martin is a veteran author with an on-going bibliography that, Oj and Ren willing, shows no signs of stopping.
Gail Z. Martin is the acclaimed author of The Winter Kingdoms Novels, The Fallen Kings Cycle, The Ascendant Kingdoms, and The Deadly Curiosities novels, as well as the author of several collections of short fiction from her various worlds and realms. She released the Essential Social Media Marketing Handbook in 2017, and is an anchor author for several anthologies. You can find her on Twitter @GailZMartin, disquietingvisions.com, and the Ghost In the Machine podcast to name just a few of the ways you can find out more about this talented, prolific author and brand manager.
Want to get in on the goods and get to know Gail, join us at The Shadow Alliance on Facebook. DM me at @SquealingNerd on Twitter to get you an invite! We still have a few t-shirts and tote bags!
Dark Corners is proud to host Gail Z. Martin on her Hawthorn Moon book tour this sweltering summer. This year, we’re featuring one of Ms. Martin’s latest offerings, Scourge: A Darkhurst Novel
An Excerpt from Scourge: A Darkhurst Novel
By Gail Z. Martin
A HEAVY IRON candleholder slammed against the wall, just missing Corran Valmonde’s head.
“Son of a bitch!”
“Try not to make her mad, Corran.”
Rigan Valmonde knelt on the worn floor, drawing a sigil in charcoal, moving as quickly as he dared.
Not quickly enough; a piece of firewood spun from the hearth and flew across the room, slamming him in the shoulder hard enough to make him grunt in pain.
“Keep her off me!” he snapped, repairing the smudge in the soot line. Sloppy symbols meant sloppy magic, and that could get someone killed.
“I would if I could see her.” Corran stepped away from the wall, raising his iron sword, putting himself between the fireplace and his brother. His breath misted in the unnaturally cold room and moisture condensed on the wavy glass of the only window.
“Watch where you step.” Rigan worked on the second sigil, widdershins from the soot marking, this one daubed in ochre. “I don’t want to have to do this again.”
A small ceramic bowl careened from the mantle, and, for an instant, Rigan glimpsed a young woman in a blood-soaked dress, one hand clutching her heavily pregnant belly. The other hand slipped right through the bowl, even as the dish hurtled at Rigan’s head. Rigan dove to one side
and the bowl smashed against the opposite wall. At the same time, Corran’s sword slashed down through the specter. A howl of rage filled the air as the ghost dissipated.
You have no right to be in my home. The dead woman’s voice echoed in Rigan’s mind.
Get out of my head.
You are a confessor. Hear me!
Not while you’re trying to kill my brother.
“You’d better hurry.” Corran slowly turned, watching for the ghost.
“I can’t rush the ritual.” Rigan tried to shut out the ghost’s voice, focusing on the complex chalk sigil. He reached into a pouch and drew a thin curved line of salt, aconite, and powdered amanita, connecting the first sigil to the second, and the second to the third and fourth, working
his way to drawing a complete warded circle.
The ghost materialized without warning on the other side of the line, thrusting a thin arm toward Rigan, her long fingers crabbed into claws, old blood beneath her torn nails. She opened a gash on Rigan’s cheek as he stumbled backward, grabbed a handful of the salt mixture and
threw it. The apparition vanished with a wail.
“Corran!” Rigan’s warning came a breath too late as the ghost appeared right behind his brother, and took a swipe with her sharp, filthy nails, clawing Corran’s left shoulder.
He wronged me. He let me die, let my baby die— The voice shrieked in Rigan’s mind.
“Draw the damn signs!” Corran yelled. “I’ll handle her.” He wheeled, and before the blood- smeared ghost could strike again, the tip of his iron blade caught her in the chest. Her image dissipated like smoke, with a shriek that echoed from the walls.
Sorry, lady, Rigan thought as he reached for a pot of pigment. I’m stuck listening to dead people’s dirty little secrets and last regrets, but I just bury people. Take your complaints up with the gods.
“Last one.” Rigan marked the rune in blue woad. The condensation on the window turned to frost, and he shivered. The ghost flickered, insubstantial but still identifiable as the young woman who had died bringing her stillborn child into the world. Her blood still stained the floor
in the center of the warded circle and held her to this world as surely as her grief. Wind whipped through the room, and would have scattered the salt and aconite line if Rigan had not daubed the mixture onto the floor in paste. Fragments of the broken bowl scythed through the air. The iron candle holder sailed across the room; Corran dodged it again, and a
shard caught the side of his brother’s head, opening a cut on Rigan’s scalp, sending a warm rush of blood down the side of his face.
The ghost raged on, her anger and grief whipping the air into a whirlwind.
I will not leave without justice for myself and my son.
You don’t really have a choice about it, Rigan replied silently and stepped across the warding, careful not to smudge the lines, pulling an iron knife from his belt. He nodded to Corran and together their voices rose as they chanted the burial rite, harmonizing out of long practice, the words of the Old Language as familiar as their own names.
The ghostly woman’s image flickered again, solid enough now that Rigan could see the streaks of blood on her pale arms and make out the pattern of her dress. She appeared right next to him, close enough that his shoulder bumped against her chest, and her mouth brushed his ear.
’Twas not nature that killed me. My faithless husband let us bleed because he thought the child was not his own.
The ghost vanished, compelled to reappear in the center of the circle, standing on the bloodstained floor. Rigan extended his trembling right hand and called to the magic, drawing on the old, familiar currents of power. The circle and runes flared with light. The sigils burned in red,
white, blue, and black, with the salt-aconite lines a golden glow between them.
Corran and Rigan’s voices rose as the glow grew steadily brighter, and the ghost raged all the harder against the power that held her, thinning the line between this world and the next, opening a door and forcing her through it. One heartbeat she was present; in the next she was gone, though her screams continued to echo.
Rigan and Corran kept on chanting, finishing the rite as the circle’s glow faded and the sigils dulled to mere pigment once more. Rigan lowered his palm and dispelled the magic, then blew out a deep breath.
“That was not supposed to happen.” Corran’s scowl deepened as he looked around the room, taking in the shattered bowl and the dented candle holder. He flinched, noticing Rigan’s wounds now that the immediate danger had passed.
Rigan shrugged. “Not as bad as you are.” He wiped blood from his face with his sleeve, then bent to gather the ritual materials.
“She confessed to you?” Corran bent to help his brother, wincing at the movement.
“Yeah. And she had her reasons,” Rigan replied. He looked at Corran, frowning at the blood that soaked his shirt. “We’ll need to wash and bind your wounds when we get back to the shop.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
They packed up their gear, but Corran did not sheath his iron sword until they were ready to step outside. A small crowd had gathered, no doubt drawn by the shrieks and thuds and the flares of light through the cracked, dirty window.
“Nothing to see here, folks,” Corran said, exhaustion clear in his voice. “We’re just the undertakers.”
Once they were convinced the excitement was over, the onlookers dispersed, leaving one man standing to the side. He looked up anxiously as Rigan and Corran approached him.
“Is it done? Is she gone?” For an instant, eagerness shone too clearly in his eyes. Then his posture shifted, shoulders hunching, gaze dropping, and mask slipped back into place. “I mean, is she at rest? After all she’s been through?”
Before Corran could answer, Rigan grabbed the man by the collar, pulled him around the corner into an alley and threw him up against the wall.
“You can stop the grieving widower act,” he growled. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Corran standing guard at the mouth of the alley, gripping his sword.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” The denial did not reach the man’s eyes.
“You let her bleed out, you let the baby die, because you didn’t think the child was yours.”
Rigan’s voice was rough as gravel, pitched low so that only the trembling man could hear him.
“She betrayed me—”
“No.” The word brought the man up short. “No, if she had been lying, her spirit wouldn’t have been trapped here.” Rigan slammed the widower against the wall again to get his attention.
“Rigan—” Corran cautioned.
“Lying spirits don’t get trapped.” Rigan had a tight grip on the man’s shirt, enough that he could feel his body trembling. “Your wife. Your baby. Your fault.” He stepped back and let the man down, then threw him aside to land on the cobblestones.
“The dead are at peace. You’ve got the rest of your life to live with what you did.” With that, he turned on his heel and walked away, as the man choked back a sob.
Corran sheathed his sword. “I really wish you’d stop beating up paying customers,” he grumbled as they turned to walk back to the shop.
“Wish I could. Don’t know how to stop being confessor to the dead, not sure what else to do once I know the dirt,” Rigan replied, an edge of pain and bitterness in his voice.
“So the husband brought us in to clean up his mess?” Corran winced as he walked; the gashes on his arm and back had to be throbbing.
“I like it better when the ghosts confess something like where they buried their money,” Corran replied.
“So do I.”
The sign over the front of the shop read Valmonde Undertakers. Around back, in the alley, the sign over the door just said Bodies. Corran led the way, dropping the small rucksack containing their gear just inside the entrance, and cursed under his breath as the strap raked across raw shoulders.
“Sit down,” Rigan said, nodding at an unoccupied mortuary table. He tied his brown hair into a queue before washing his hands in a bucket of fresh water drawn from the pump. “Let me have a look at those wounds.”
Footsteps descended the stairs from the small apartment above.
“You’re back? How bad was it?” Kell, the youngest of the Valmonde brothers, stopped halfway down the stairs. He had Corran’s coloring, taking after their father, with dark blond hair that curled when it grew long. Rigan’s brown hair favored their mother. All three brothers’ blue
eyes were the same shade, making the resemblance impossible to overlook.
“Shit.” Kell jumped the last several steps as he saw his brothers’ injuries. He grabbed a bucket of water and scanned a row of powders and elixirs, grabbing bottles and measuring out with a practiced eye and long experience. “I thought you said it was just a banishing.”
“It was supposed to be ‘just’ a banishing,” Rigan said as Corran stripped off his bloody shirt.
“But it didn’t go entirely to plan.” He soaked a clean cloth in the bucket Kell held and wrung it out.
“A murder, not a natural death,” Corran said, and his breath hitched as Rigan daubed his wounds. “Another ghost with more power than it should have had.”
Rigan saw Kell appraising Corran’s wounds, glancing at the gashes on Rigan’s face and hairline.
“Mine aren’t as bad,” Rigan said.
“When you’re done with Corran, I’ll take care of them,” Kell said. “So I’m guessing Mama’s magic kicked in again, if you knew about the murder?”
“Yeah,” Rigan replied in a flat voice.
Undertaking, like all the trades in Ravenwood, was a hereditary profession. That it came with its own magic held no surprise; all the trades did. The power and the profession were passed down from one generation to the next. Undertakers could ease a spirit’s transition to the realm beyond, nudge a lost soul onward, or release one held back by unfinished business. Sigils, grave markings, corpse paints, and ritual chants were all part of the job. But none of the other undertakers that Rigan knew had a mama who was part Wanderer. Of the three Valmonde
brothers, only Rigan had inherited her ability to hear the confessions of the dead, something not even the temple priests could do. His mother had called it a gift. Most of the time, Rigan regarded it as a burden, sometimes a curse. Usually, it just made things more complicated than they needed to be.
“Hold still,” Rigan chided as Corran winced. “Ghost wounds draw taint.” He wiped away the blood, cleaned the cuts, and then applied ointment from the jar Kell handed him. All three of them knew the routine; they had done this kind of thing far too many times.
“There,” he said, binding up Corran’s arm and shoulder with strips of gauze torn from a clean linen shroud. “That should do it.”
Corran slid off the table to make room for Rigan. While Kell dealt with his brother’s wounds, Corran went to pour them each a whiskey.
“That’s the second time this month we’ve had a spirit go from angry to dangerous,” Corran said, returning with their drinks. He pushed a glass into Rigan’s hand, and set one aside for Kell, who was busy wiping the blood from his brother’s face.
“I’d love to know why.” Rigan tried not to wince as Kell probed his wounds. The deep gash where the pottery shard had sliced his hairline bled more freely than the cut on his cheek. Kell swore under his breath as he tried to staunch the bleeding.
“It’s happening all over Ravenwood, and no one in the Guild seems to know a damn thing about why or what to do about it,” Corran said, knocking his drink back in one shot. “Old Daniels said he’d heard his father talk about the same sort of thing, but that was fifty years ago.
So why did the ghosts stop being dangerous then, and what made them start being dangerous now?”
Rigan started to shake his head, but stopped at a glare from Kell, who said, “Hold still.”
He let out a long breath and complied, but his mind raced. Until the last few months, banishings were routine. Violence and tragedy sometimes produced ghosts, but in all the years since Rigan and Corran had been undertakers—first helping their father and uncles and then running the business since the older men had passed away—banishings were usually uneventful.
Make the marks, sing the chant, the ghost goes on and we go home. So what’s changed?
“I’m sick of being handed my ass by things that aren’t even solid,” Rigan grumbled. “If this keeps up, we’ll need to charge more.”
Corran snorted. “Good luck convincing Guild Master Orlo to raise the rates.”
Rigan’s eyes narrowed. “Guild Master Orlo can dodge flying candlesticks and broken pottery. See how he likes it.”
“Once you’ve finished grumbling we’ve got four new bodies to attend to,” Kell said. “One’s a Guild burial and the others are worth a few silvers a piece.” Rigan did not doubt that Kell had negotiated the best fees possible, he always did.
“Nice,” Rigan replied, and for the first time noticed that there were corpses on the other tables in the workshop, covered with sheets. “We can probably have these ready to take to the cemetery in the morning.”
“One of them was killed by a guard,” Kell said, turning his back and keeping his voice carefully neutral.
“Do you know why?” Corran tensed.
“His wife said he protested when the guard doubled the ‘protection’ fee. Guess the guard felt he needed to be taught a lesson.” Bribes were part of everyday life in Ravenwood, and residents generally went along with the hated extortion. Guilds promised to shield their members from the
guards’ worst abuses, but in reality, the Guild Masters only intervened in the most extreme cases, fearful of drawing the Lord Mayor’s ire. At least, that had been the excuse when Corran sought justice from the Undertakers’ Guild for their father’s murder, a fatal beating on flimsy charges.
Rigan suspected the guards had killed their father because the neighborhood looked up to him, and if he’d decided to speak out in opposition, others might have followed. Even with the passing years, the grief remained sharp, the injustice bitter. Kell went to wash his hands in a bucket by the door.
“Trent came by while you and Corran were out. There’s been another attack, three dead. He wants you to go have a look and take care
of the bodies.”
Rigan and Corran exchanged a glance. “What kind of attack?”
Kell sighed. “What kind do you think? Creatures.” He hesitated. “I got the feeling from Trent this was worse than usual.”
“Did Trent say what kind of creatures?” Corran asked, and Rigan picked up on an edge to his brother’s voice.
Kell nodded. “Ghouls.”
Corran swore under his breath and looked away, pushing back old memories.
“All right,” he said, not quite managing to hide a shudder. “Let’s go get the bodies before it gets any later. We’re going to have our hands full tonight.”
“Kell and I can go, if you want to start on the ones here,” Rigan offered.
Corran shook his head. “No. I’m not much use as an undertaker if I can’t go get the corpses no matter how they came to an end,” Corran said.
Rigan heard the undercurrent in his tone. Kell glanced at Rigan, who gave a barely perceptible nod, warning Kell to say nothing. Corran’s dealing with the memories the best way he knows how, Rigan thought. I just wish there weren’t so many reminders.
“I’ll prepare the wash and the pigments, and get the shrouds ready,” Kell said. “I’ll have these folks ready for your part of the ritual by the time you get back.” He gestured to the bodies already laid out. “Might have to park the new ones in the cart for a bit and switch out—tables are
Corran grimaced. “That’ll help.” He turned to Rigan. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.”
Kell gave them the directions Trent had provided. Corran took up the long poles of the undertaker’s cart, which clattered behind him as they walked. Rigan knew better than to talk to his brother when he was in this kind of mood. At best he could be present, keep Corran from having to deal with the ghouls’ victims alone, and sit up with him afterward.
It’s only been three months since he buried Jora, since we almost had to bury him. The memory’s raw, although he won’t mention it. But Kell and I both hear what he shouts in his sleep. He’s still fighting them in his dreams, and still losing.
Rigan’s memories of that night were bad enough—Trent stumbling to the back door of the shop, carrying Corran, bloody and unconscious; Corran’s too-still body on one of the mortuary tables; Kell praying to Doharmu and any god who would listen to stave off death; Trent, covered in Corran’s blood, telling them how he had found their brother and Jora out in the tavern barn, the ghoul that attacked them already feasting on Jora’s fresh corpse.
Rigan never did understand why Trent had gone to the barn that night, or how he managed to fight off the ghoul. Corran and Jora, no doubt, had slipped away for a tryst, expecting the barn to be safe and private. Corran said little of the attack, and Rigan hoped his brother truly did not remember all the details.
“We’re here.” Corran’s rough voice and expressionless face revealed more than any words.
Ross, the farrier, met them at the door. “I’m sorry to have to call you out,” he said.
“It’s our job,” Corran replied. “I’m just sorry the godsdamned ghouls are back.”
“Not for long,” Ross said under his breath. A glance passed between Corran and Ross. Rigan filed it away to ask Corran about later.
The stench hit Rigan as soon as they entered the barn. Two horses lay gutted in their stalls and partially dismembered. Blood spattered the wooden walls and soaked the sawdust. Flies swarmed on what the ghouls had left behind.
“They’re over here,” Ross said. The bodies of two men and a woman had been tossed aside like discarded bones at a feast. Rigan swallowed down bile. Corran paled, his jaw working as he ground his teeth.
Rigan and Corran knew better than most what remained of a corpse once a ghoul had finished with it. Belly torn open to get to the soft organs; ribs split wide to access the heart. How much of the flesh remained depended on the ghoul’s hunger and whether or not it feasted undisturbed. Given the state these bodies were in—their faces were the only parts left
untouched—the ghouls had taken their time. Rigan closed his eyes and took a deep breath, willing himself not to retch.
“What about the creatures?” Corran asked.
“Must have fled when they heard us coming,” Ross said. “We were making plenty of noise.”
Ross handed them each a shovel, and took one up himself. “There’s not much left, and what’s there is… loose.”
“Who were they?” Rigan asked, not sure Corran felt up to asking questions.
Ross swallowed hard. “One of the men was my cousin, Tad. The other two were customers. They brought in the two horses late in the day, and my cousin said he’d handle it.”
Rigan heard the guilt in Ross’s tone.
“Guild honors?” Corran asked, finding his voice, and Ross nodded.
Rigan brought the cart into the barn, stopping as close as possible to the mangled corpses. The bodies were likely to fall to pieces as soon as they began shoveling.
“Yeah,” Ross replied, getting past the lump in his throat. “Send them off right.” He shook his head. “They say the monsters are all part of the Balance, like life and death cancel each other out somehow. That’s bullshit, if you ask me.”
The three men bent to their work, trying not to think of the slippery bones and bloody bits as bodies. Carcasses. Like what’s left when the butcher’s done with a hog, or the vultures are finished with a cow, Rigan thought. The barn smelled of blood and entrails, copper and shit.
Rigan looked at what they loaded into the cart. Only the skulls made it possible to tell that the remains had once been human.
“I’m sorry about this, but I need to do it—to keep them from rising as ghouls or restless spirits,” Rigan said. He pulled a glass bottle from the bag at the front of the wagon, and carefully removed the stopper, sprinkling the bodies with green vitriol to burn the flesh and prevent the
corpses from rising. The acid sizzled, sending up noxious tendrils of smoke. Rigan stoppered the bottle and pulled out a bag of the salt-aconite-amanita mixture, dusting it over the bodies,
assuring that the spirits would remain at rest.
Ross nodded. “Better than having them return as one of those… things,” he said, shuddering.
“We’ll have them buried tomorrow,” Corran said as Rigan secured their grisly load.
“That’s more than fair,” Ross agreed. “Corran—you know if I’d had a choice about calling you—”
“It’s our job.” Corran cut off the apology. Ross knew about Jora’s death. That didn’t change the fact that they were the only Guild undertakers in this area of Ravenwood, and Ross was a friend.
“I’ll be by tomorrow afternoon with the money,” Ross said, accompanying them to the door.
“We’ll be done by then,” Corran replied. Rigan went to pick up the cart’s poles, but Corran shook his head and lifted them himself.
Rigan did not argue. Easier for him to haul the wagon; that way he doesn’t have to look at the bodies and remember when Jora’s brother brought her for burial.
Rigan felt for the reassuring bulk of his knife beneath his cloak—a steel blade rather than the iron weapon they used in the banishing rite. No one knew the true nature of the monsters, or why so many more had started appearing in Ravenwood of late. Ghouls weren’t like angry ghosts or
restless spirits that could be banished with salt, aconite, and iron. Whatever darkness spawned them and the rest of their monstrous brethren, they were creatures of skin and bone; only beheading would stop them.
For those of you who are tired of ordinary fantasy, fed up with the same spry elves with gorgeous hair, and bored with the same old, tired, almost-always male protagonists and below-average intelligence bestiaries:
Welcome to Grimdark
Grimdark is that section of speculative fantasy and science fiction that just doesn’t go anywhere. Cross-platform plots, mixed bestiaries, unicorns in space, and a host of morally bankrupt protagonists make it difficult for Barnes and Noble to parse it by shelf section, so the readers and writers of Grimdark have created a class all their own.
Arguably, it was Michael Moorcock’s harsh criticism of his predecessor, Tolkien, that may have sparked the movement, but it is also found as far back as Mervyn Peake (Moorcock’s own inspiration) where we first begin to see the signs of decadence in a setting ruled by a monarchy no one would be sad to see die off in a genre traditionally ruled by monarchies whose protagonists are sworn to uphold them. In Peake we see the rise of the kitchen boy destined to be greater than he is, no matter who he has to drown, starve, maim, or humiliate to realize his endgame. Peake and Moorcock gave us the beautiful people we can’t love and villains we don’t hate.
Grimdark is defined by protagonists who are morally ambiguous. Sex is in your face, and not everyone enjoys it. Damsels save themselves. Elves are perhaps perverse and decadent while Orcs are the only beings you can trust. Anything Warhammer.
Leading the way in the pop culture front, often characterized as “Low Fantasy” is George R. R. Martin, R. Scott Baker, and the traditional Grimdark go-to’s: Glen Cook, Richard A. Knaak, and of course Michael Moorcock. Down here among the plebeians, we’re happy to promote the-up-and-comers: Michael Fletcher, Dyrk Ashton, and the inimitable Scott Oden. In fact that’s why I’ve gathered you all here today.
Let’s talk Grimdark: A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden
If you were looking for a historical Grimdark fantasy tale that is one half-shaved head away from Ragnor Lothbrok, look no further than A Gathering of Ravens, set for publication June 20, 2017 from Thomas Dunne Books. Scott Oden is no self-published novice. He’s a veteran author known for his previous works, Memnon and The Lion of Cairo, which I hope to pick up before the year is out. Scott Oden returns to his place among the scholars with A Gathering of Ravens, a novel set in medieval Scandinavia, England, and Ireland that tells a fast-paced, epic story of vengeance, oath breaking, kin slaying, and unshakeable faith. Fans of the History Channel television show Vikings will find a lot to love in this novel, especially if you have made it to any of the later seasons.
I was fortunate to be among the few who were given an ARC of AGoR, and let me tell you, my friends, you are in for a treat. Oden does not handle this novel like a traditional fantasy or traditional history novel. He blends the singular combination of a race of mythical people that spans three separate historical civilizations with a creature from the beastiaries we love to hate: orcs. Oden’s main character, Grimnir, is the last of a cursed race called the kaunr, so hated by the Norse that they are called skrailinger, and that wrecked such havoc during the Norse and Danish invasions that they are even known in England as the orcneas, and in Ireland as the fomorach. Mythically, they were the children of Ymir. According to Oden’s notes at the end of the novel, traces of the kaunr could be glimpsed in Grendel from Beowulf, and among the Fomorian of Irish legend, from which Oden takes their Irish name. Oden cleverly weaves these scraps of legend into a race of creatures bred for war and destruction, but with a keen sense of clannishness and bonds of blood that cannot be forgotten no matter how poisonous that particular blood relation might be. Hated and marginalized, the kaunr are wiped out, leaving only Grimnir Baelegyr’s Son and one other hated half-blood relative, Bjarki Half Dane.
Caught up in Grimnir’s quest for weregild (blood for blood) is Etain, a woman hiding as a Christian priest to escape a vengeful husband and devote her life to God. She has a role to play in Grimnir’s fate that she cannot escape, and must use her faith in God to hold onto her humanity as the last of her innocence is stripped from her.
As a story, Oden’s pacing for this novel is unmatched. In only 319 pages, Oden’s characters cross three countries and two timelines. The novel is episodic yet never strays from its original story arch. Oden’s characters are infuriatingly bull-headed (both of them) yet where Grimnir’s stalwart refusal to give up is unhealthy, Etain’s steadfast faith is a testament to her character as a human being. Her refusal to give up that faith against the onslaught of pagan magic surrounding her seems naive at first, and one expects her to break eventually from it. However, Etain soon learns that her faith is a shield and her greatest weapon. Etain is literally the embodiment of, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not falter.”
As a member of a race nearly forgotten by man, Grimnir’s own faith infuriates Etain, who is convinced that even Grimnir can be saved if he finds God. Grimnir does not compromise. He is everything you could possibly hope for in a strong protagonist, except for the part where he literally does not care about anyone but himself, not even Etain really.
The battle between the two faiths has no clear-cut good or evil, one true God or Allfather. No matter who is worshiped, everyone is going to Hell. Every character in the novel is the protagonist of his or her own story. For those who are looking for morals and happy endings, you’ll find it here but juuuuust barely. Characteristic of true Grimdark, no one is truly good or truly evil in this novel, which will draw many in the current market that made a hero out of Walter White and never got past the second book of Paradise Lost, but it may repulse traditional fantasy readers who are looking for Aragorn and Frodo. Grimnir killed them and he is not sorry.
As the fantasy market continues to prove itself as glutted and pretentious as all pop culture markets, Grimdark is a genre of fiction by the people for the people. When the industry stopped giving us what we needed from fiction, Grimdark authors wrote it themselves. You will be able to findA Gathering of Ravens on sale on Amazon in June. As a belated birthday present to me, please do yourself a favor and pre-order this novel. Scott Oden is proving that the independent publication industry is here to stay while deserving a wide readership among those who frequent the New York Times bestseller lists for their nightstand book pile.
Once again, thank you for this book, Scott. It took me forever to finish it because I did not want it to end.
I wasn’t going to watch the trailer for Stephen King’s IT, as the film is not set for release until September of 2017. I wanted to see if the film would live up to the hype that IT was going to be much closer to King’s novel. However, I have serious misgivings, now, as the trailer has met with mixed reviews among horror aficionados that I know and respect for their highly educated opinions on contemporary horror. I sat down to the trailer this morning and for the life of me I can’t understand why this film is already catching so much shade.
I would like to put my misgivings to rest right now. If your absolute argument against the trailer for the film is that it doesn’t look enough like the original miniseries, or it looks too much like the original series, please read on. If you’re argument against the new IT is that it looks just like Stranger Things, then please get off this page, go read Stephen King’s novel, which he wrote in 1986, then tell me who is ripping off who.
Let’s start at the beginning:
Your Fear of Clowns
I have never been afraid of clowns.
One time, I was lost a camp fair event and clowns helped me find my parents. Never was afraid of clowns ever again. Not even Pennywise. Pennywise gave me new reasons to love clowns. After seeing the original miniseries as a child, and again as a teenager, there was never a moment of my childhood where I was afraid of Pennywise the clown. Thanks to The X:Files season 2 episode 1 “The Host”, I was already afraid of things coming out of my drain, and storm drains, and porta potties. I was so happy to discover there was a clown in the drains that might eat that damn fluke worm man! Bless you, Evil Clown!
When Pennywise came out of the drain in the shower scene with Eddie, all I could imagine was Pennywise doing that to every single girl in my middle-school locker room that picked on me.
Killjoy from the uninspired, but still relentlessly creative, mind of Charles Band and Full Moon Pictures is a highly underrated clown film. Killjoy the Clown rides Pennywise’ coat tails for campy horror, but the frightening world Killjoy builds is a universe of mindlessness and chaos that is also the Joker and Hellraiser.
I was never afraid of clowns. Clowns became my protectors. The one room at the Terror Mansion that I didn’t scream my way through was the killer clowns. My ex-boyfriend was not so lucky, but I walked through with a pleasant wave. Not afraid of clowns.
Stephen King’s Genius
What frightened me about the original IT was not the clown, but rather what the clown stood for. Stephen King’s IT was Lovecraftian cosmic horror at it’s finest, and I read IT at a time when I had no idea who Lovecraft was. Once I read The Colour out of Space, I knew immediately who had inspired King to write IT, just as I knew years later who inspired Dan Simmons to write Ilium and Olympos. IT was not just a reflection of the a child’s demons coming back to haunt them. IT was Stephen King’s answer to Lovecraft’s “fear of the unknown”. The novel opens on the scene of a drag queen describing to an officer the strange death of his lover. The officer is disdainful of the account, and King wrote the scene with a frightening lack of compassion towards the transvestite, and a disquieting contempt from the officer. By the end of the scene, a young reader is just as disgusted as the cop. Yet, there is something so pathetic about the transvestite’s tale. Could it have been true? King explores fears of the unknown throughout the entire novel, everything from homophobia, to racism, to puberty and sexuality, to ultimate cosmic terror.
For those who have not read IT, it’s a daunting 1,048 pages, and I read it four times one summer. I learned new things from IT each time I read it. I found new things to hate about some of the characters. I found new ways to sympathize with some, but there were always going to be things about the book I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized Mike Hanion’s archival work on the origins of ITit was Lovecraft in disguise.
King’s novel is not about overcoming impossible fear; it’s about learning to deal with the cosmic forces around us; it’s about accepting one’s place in the universe, and about challenging our antagonizers; it’s a celebration of the individual will to survive, to forge an identity, to be heard; King’s novel is not about facing childhood demons; it’s a gritty coming-of-age story whose characters are who they are because of what they’ve experienced; it’s about knowing you never have to fight alone, and accepting change.
Thematically, it was very different from the miniseries.
What I Took From the Miniseries
I knew as a kid that there was no way all of King’s genius was going to be boiled down into a miniseries, so I decided that I liked both for different reasons. I loved how casting made Richie Tozier look like Jeff Foxworthy (or maybe that’s hindsight, I don’t know). I loved the camp Tim Curry brought to the character of Pennywise. There was no camp in the book. I loved how the kids in the miniseries dealt with their fears the way children would deal with them. The main difference is that, though the Losers Club fought with the tools they had with the only knowledge they had against a foe that was not of this world, in the novel they were forced to grow up hard and fast, and all in one day, to protect themselves.
I loved how both the novel and the miniseries characterized adults as just as unsafe and unhealthy as the monster the kids were fighting. Bev’s dad is abusive in the miniseries, and downright incestuous in the novel. Eddie’s mother suffocates him with her love and protection in both. Bill’s parents were never the same after Georgie’s death in the novel, and treated their oldest son with benign neglect. Something the miniseries lacked was motivation for Henry Bowers, something King provides, which rounds out the character and gives a voice to yet another monster: the bully.
If you are looking for much of the novel in the miniseries, you won’t find it. Sex was a huge part of King’s novel, and even in this day and age, I doubt a group of twelve-year-olds are going to have sex on screen in any movie theater in the US. The clown played a central roll in the miniseries, though It does take other forms; but considering the fact that It only takes the shape of a clown a few times in the novel, It’s other forms don’t play that big of a role in the miniseries. All of Mike Hanion’s archival work is scrapped in the miniseries, and Mike is relegated to the token black kid, when in fact the novel was much more dependent on him. Several other characters were cut, like Patrick Hocksetter. Vic and Butch were token characters in the miniseries as well.
The word I would best use to describe the miniseries’ relevance to the book is “oversimplified,”–not “hacked”, not “gutted”, just “oversimplified.” The miniseries took the basic plot of the novel and made it digestible.
For me, King’s novel and the miniseries were two very different things. I like them both for entirely different reasons, and it is with this in mind that I approach the trailer for the 2017 version of Stephen King’s IT.
We All Float Down Here…Do We Really, Though?
The new trailer excited me! I know so many erudite people are unimpressed with it. Julia Morgan of Morbid and Unhealthy was not ambiguous about her disappointment with the trailer. Sagan Amery of the band Sagan had very mixed feelings regarding the way a reboot should be made, but was overall kind in her assessment that it fell short of her expectations that the film version should not copy the original miniseries. What I’m not getting from anyone is what exactly everyone was expecting. I invite you all to leave me comments or tweet those to me. Let’s be adults about this.
I know exactly what I was expecting:
I was expecting the scene with Georgie. It’s canonical to the novel and a throwback to the miniseries. I was expecting Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise to be nothing like Tim Curry. I would never agree to see the film if Skarsgard was just a Pennywise reboot. I was expecting the sit down scene in which the Losers Club hashes out what they’ve seen and I was even expecting the bad child actors. I was expecting all of the characteristic and iconic scenes of the miniseries because they were also present in the novel. One thing I approved of the miniseries for was adhering to the bare bones of the plot of the novel. The bare bones, mind you. Like I mentioned before, the plot of the miniseries was just IT Lite.
I expect there to be a few key scenes in the Barrens. Fun fact, that’s where a good portion of the novel takes place. I expect the scene in the old house, I expect the scene at the rock quarry, and the scene in the sewers (both of them), and many of the scenes of the adults. Because that’s how the book was as well.
I loved the unrelentingly dark atmosphere of the new trailer. I was glad to see that the trailer hinted, much better than the miniseries, that there was no safe place in Derry, Maine. I loved how Eddie uses his inhaler as a shield, the way he does in the book.
I loved the slideshow scene. I don’t remember that from the book, but I loved, loved how Pennywise emerged from the slideshow, just like he does from the history book in the miniseries, to make his presence known to the Losers Club and declare war. There is a very similar scene in the novel too, though I believe it takes place in the Barrens.
I like the new take on that scene despite the fact that it is a throwback to the miniseries. I love the fact that Pennywise doesn’t really speak in this trailer. Good. Can’t wait to hear It in the theater.
What I didn’t like were the kids. Are there really no two children on the planet to play Bill and Eddie that don’t look like they could be brothers? I always thought this about the miniseries too. Their reactions in the slideshow scene are over-wrought at best. They destroy the tension of that scene. Georgie hitting his head in the opening destroys the tension of that scene. Horror film rule number one: don’t break tension. I hope this isn’t exemplary of the rest of the film. I also couldn’t pin down the timeline of the film. Where was Henry Bowers? He was important to both the novel and the miniseries.
Is it all going to be set in the 50s? Where were the grown up scenes in the 80s? Perhaps the lack of grown-up scenes and contemporary setting for the last quarter of the film will be the absolute derailment that critics are looking for. You could have given a whole miniseries to the Losers Club alone and still done a good job. If they leave the adults out, I will be slightly confused; but as I did with the book, the miniseries, and this trailer, I will temper my expectations.
My Final Thoughts, As If You Asked For Them.
I think that unless you have read the novel, you will not understand that a reboot of the film is going to resemble the miniseries in a lot of ways. I had read the novel four times by the time I was fourteen. I’m one of the few people of my age group that can say the novel had more of an influence on my childhood than the miniseries did. However, as I mentioned before, if you are looking for the camp of the original, or for a happy go lucky killer in Pennywise, yer gonna be sad. If you are looking for a completely original story from the miniseries, yer gonna be sad.
Nostalgia is going to be one of the key tools for marketing this film. Like the people who played Pokemon Go in their adulthood loved Pokemon in their childhood, this film is playing on the fact that the adults seeing this film remember the miniseries from their childhood. Producers cannot afford to alienate that market. Conversely, audiences are going to be looking for Pennywise and Co to be brought into the modern era. We’re looking for shock and awe, not slow-burn psychological torture. We’re looking to reincarnate the monster film, which has long been dead. The new IT has some very big clown shoes to fill. I imagine there are going to be a fair number of disappointed fans and newcomers on both sides, but I will temper my expectations, and try to remember that if I can love both the novel and the miniseries despite their key differences, then maybe I can still enjoy this film too, and enjoy it for what it is.
I’ll do a write-up on the life and times of the American monster movie when the next trailer for IT is released. For now, though, I’m just going to hop on this silver Schwinn here with the playing cards pined to the wheel spokes. I’m armed with my trusty slingshot, and I don’t need no stinkin’ batches.
“High-ho Silver! Away!”
I was doing a little research and discovered the emphasis of this film will be on the children of the Losers Club with the adult Losers getting their own sequel film. Hope this helps. It definitely reassures me that both the kid Losers and the adult Losers will get more than enough exploration. Also, I had a great conversation with one of my friends in Washington state, and he made an excellent point: the success of this film definitely hinges on the treatment of the human characters rather than the monster. Stephen King uses the supernatural as a tool, but always King’s novels are character-driven. As I mentioned before, IT is not just a story about cosmic horror. Both as a child and as an adult, monsters lurk in the shadows, masquerading as our parents, our lovers, and classmates. King would have had an entire award-winning novel even without the impending threat of cosmic dread. This is the strength of King’s writing. I hope the film embraces this. If not, it will just be a monster movie. If it’s going to be a killer clown slasher, it should be just that. Leave the cosmic terror out of it. Unfortunately, when it comes to a King novel adaptation, it has to be all or nothing.
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 one of the primary religious influences: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism.
We’re continuing with the unknowable and the macabre this week with an examination the urban legends of the haunted island of Poveglia, and the face of a figure whose very presence inspires fear and revulsion to this day: the mysterious, ominous plague doctor.
But first, an introduction to urban legends.
According to the textbook definition, urban legends are, “humorous or horrific stories or pieces of information circulated as though true, especially one purporting to involve someone vaguely related or known to the teller.”
Urban legends spread a lot like folk traditions. Almost no one you talk to can pinpoint an exact source. They may tell you they heard it from a friend, but it’s not very specific, or that it happened to someone they know. However, some are sparked by a rash of crimes (like the clowns in the woods in the Carolinas last year). There may be more than one version of the story, but here is one that is a local favorite in my home town, San Antonio.
A school bus stalled on a set of train tracks south of Mission San Juan in San Antonio, and was struck by a train. Every so often, rumors would surface in my home town that so-and-so parked their car on the tracks (as the area is a popular artist haunt, and San Antonio is a tourist town, heralded as the most haunted city in Texas). They would leave their car in neutral on the tracks in the dead of night and wait. People would report that they could hear voices of the children, or that their car would mysteriously roll forward, off the tracks, and the next day, you could see small hand prints on the dust on their car. As the story goes, the children’s ghosts would try to push the car off the train tracks.
It doesn’t help that it appears to have actually happened. However, whether or not the ghosts of the children killed in the crash actually push your car off the tracks is unknowable.
Most urban legends today are being fueled by the speed with which we can now access and spread information. In the 1970s, the girl’s name was not Lydia. One usually heard “Mary” or another common name. It is only in recent years that not only has the ghost girl been given a name, but people have actually nailed down a destination called “Lydia’s Bridge” on Highway 70 south between Raleigh and Greensboro. Never mind that, according to research, it’s not even a bridge, but a culvert.
As Lidia says with a shrug, “Details.”
Other urban legends have sprung from pop culture. It is easy to confuse urban legends with pop culture, as sometimes one doesn’t know where the urban legend ends and the source begins. For example, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark was popular in the 1990s, and documented several urban legends into print, including “The Hook” in which a couple decides to make out at Lookout Point. A radio announcer warns people that a serial killer with a hook for a hand is on the loose, just across the wood from where the couple is parked. Though the boyfriend blows it off, the girl becomes nervous and begs to be driven home, which the angry boyfriend does. When they arrive at her house, they discover a hook dangling from the car door. The story may have first appeared in a “Dear Abby” column, and news stories of teenagers going into the woods for some necking and getting slaughtered would have set whole neighborhoods on edge.
A more recent example of pop culture’s influence over our urban legends is a site called Creepypasta. It’s a user-generated content site designed to share frightening art and stories from around the world, a form of social media for the artistic and chronically bored. It is from a similar wellspring of daytime distraction called Something Awful that the Slender Man was born.
The Slender Man was supposedly a tall figure in a pinstripe suit with no face. A few photographs of him holding the hand of a young girl were entered as part of a Photoshop contest on Something Awful. A video game in which you had to solve his riddles cropped up, followed by a slew of reaction videos on YouTube. In May of 2014, two twelve-year-old girls lured their friend out into the woods of Wisconsin and stabbed her nineteen times. She was able to crawl to a nearby roadside, where a biker rendered aid. She was able to recover, but it was the Nation who would spend the next several years reeling in shock. The girls claimed that they stabbed the other girl to please the Slender Man.
Though not originally an urban legend, the Slender Man took on a life of his own on the Internet in a frenzy of hysteria that led to actual crime, and ever since, children all over the country warn against traveling too deep into the woods, lest they fall victim to the Slender Man.
Urban legends can often be mistaken for folklore, but because they are not tied to any one particular group and often take their source from pop culture or the media, they are not classified as folklore. Television shows on networks like Scyfy and The Travel Channel perpetuate unsubstantiated claims and scripted descriptions of haunted places, mixing urban legend with fact, weaving a dizzying narrative to excite and frighten. There is no place on Earth that could possibly exude the kind of harrowing, nightmare aura and downright evil spirit, steeped in the blood of thousands talked about on The Travel Channel. There is no place on Earth quite like the small Venetian island of Poveglia.
But, as urban legend would have it, apparently the island of Poveglia is accursed indeed.
What dark secrets lurk behind the crumbling walls and packed earth of Poveglia? Why has ScyFy’s Scariest Places on Earth dubbed Poveglia, “the Island of No Return”?
The Rich Occult History Of Venice
According to The Scariest Places on Earth, pre-Renaissance and Renaissance Venice was awash in blood. At the epicenter of the cultural revival, rebirth, upheaval, and wealth, Venice, according to myth and popular imagination, was fueled on the life blood of dark energy.
Much of this might be boiled down to urban legend and myth–and let’s all remember that television shows like Scariest Places in the World rely heavily on dramatic representation. There is even a disclaimer at the beginning of the show that warns that some reproductions are purely for dramatic effect. Translations can be made to say anything that suits the show’s purpose. Despite the unreliability of most made-for-tv documentaries, a resurgence in ceremonial magic during Renaissance Humanism may point to a prevalence of a sort of cognitive dissonance that allowed for both the belief in the ritual of the transmutation during the Eucharist and pagan ceremonial magic. Side-by-side, they don’t seem terribly different. By definition, ceremonial magic involves a complex ritual to produce a magical effect. What could possibly be more magical than a piece of bread and some wine turning into the body of Christ as it enters you? Among the wealthy and bored, even magical practices banned under canon law held much Romance and allure, such as chiromancy, or palm reading, which became popular during the Renaissance with the influx of Romani into Europe.
There are other aspects of Venetian life in pre-Renaissance and Renaissance Italy that point to the hint of licentious activities, and that was the cultural norm of mask-wearing. The “bauta” was the most common. It covered the whole face, and had a protruding bottom half that tapered, allowing the wearer to eat, drink and talk. Mask-wearing was generally accepted only by the elite.
However, if a pauper or low-class person donned the mask, it was incredibly objectionable to force them to identify themselves. Mask-wearing was culturally inviolate. There was too great of a risk that one might offend a peer. Often this was how lower classes mingled with the wealthy. More specifically, the bauta also refers to the style of costume worn along with the mask, involving a tricorn hat and red cape. It is only too easy to wonder what darkness lay at the heart of a culture that reveled in assuming alternate identities.
The bauta may be best recognized by it’s use in, arguably, the greatest metal band in the world right now, Ghost, who brought back the bauta for their first and second incarnations. Ghost’s major selling point is that no one really knows who each of the band members actually is. Revealing their true identities, even among fans, is likely to get you ostracized and banned from groups on Facebook (I’ve never done it, but I’ve seen it before–Ghost fans are protective). It is a gimmick that is as highly favored among Ghost fans. Even Papa Emeritus (the Pope one) is actually wearing a mask.
But of all the ways in which Italy may be steeped in a horrifying history, none is more horrifying than the toll taken upon the land during The Black Death.
The Black Death
According to History.com, the bubonic plague, or the Black Death (or what we refer to these days as “The Plague” or “The Black Plague”) arrived in Europe by sea in 1347, though by the time the Plague reached Messina in Sicily, rumors were already spreading of a pestilence carving a swatch through the East and Middle East.
The Black Death was the single most devastating epidemic to ever strike humanity. According to the CDC, the Ebola virus outbreak killed 22,620 people in West Africa in 2014, and still pales in comparison to the 20 million deaths across Europe attributed to the Black Death. Death by Plague was horrific. According to the History channel, one could lay down to sleep a healthy person, and be dead by morning. Poet and writer Boccaccio wrote, “the mere touching of the clothes appeared itself to communicate the malady to the toucher.” The Black Death was indiscriminate and efficient. The streets were lined with corpses of the fallen, family members fled the homes of plague victims, and mass graves were dug to accommodate the piles of corpses.
And out of the rising smoke of pyres and treading lightly over the fallen stepped a creature with the face of a bird beneath a wide-brimmed black hat and cloak that came to gloved hands and trailed the feet.
The Plague Doctors
Though long-since debunked, The Plague Doctors were not considered harbingers of doom during the Black Plague. They were revered, respected, and admired for their courage. For many they were a symbol of hope. It is through science that we discover that they were perhaps more harmful than helpful.
In medieval times, it was believed that disease was transmitted in the air, a school of thought called miasma theory, which states that air smelling foul due to decay also carried disease, and that by purifying the air and making it smell good, one could dispel the diseased air. This lead to the bird-like beak of the plague mask, which was far from the nose of the wearer and stuffed with perfumes and herbs to purify the air the plague doctor breathed. Unfortunately, that was useless. We now know that illness and disease are spread by germs. Their black oilcloth cloaks that were worn under the mask, hat, and gloves were perhaps far more useful. However, it has been surmised that the disease was spread even if one touched the clothes of the infected. The plague doctors moved among plague victims freely, though they often prodded them with a stick to avoid contact. They truly were doctors–well some of them. Others were hack doctors hoping to make a little coin. Many were looking for a cure, but with every victim they came into contact with, they carried the contagion with them on their clothes. And as there was no treatment that worked, they often simply helped their victims into the grave. A common joke at the Renaissance Festival my friend attended was to ask for a picture, then flee the scene, afraid to catch the plague. Others took pictures from a distance. They did not want to bother him, but we joked that they were afraid he was bringing the plague with him. From a historical standpoint, that’s not even remotely funny.
Folk Traditions of Poveglia
There are two very persistent tales of Poveglia.
The first is the Plague quarantine. Poveglia is situated right in the Venetian lagoon. It had formerly been an abbey or convent, and so it was equipped with a church and outbuildings to serve as a quarantine. Plague doctors would take shiploads of plague victims out to the island to keep them away from the populace. Unfortunately, the Plague killed so quickly that victims who were supposedly shipped out never returned. If the urban legend is to be believed, there were over 160,000 people buried or burned in plague pits (mass graves) on Povegelia.
The second tale is that of the doctor at the sanitarium. In real life, Poveglia’s structures were converted into an asylum. There, it is said, that the dark energy and spirits of the damned drove the doctor who worked there mad. He began lobotomizing and torturing the patients that came into his care, adding to the blood spilled on the island.
Let that fire your imagination for a bit.
It is rumored around the world that no sane Italian will set foot on Poveglia, and that ghost hunters have brought back poundage of definitive proof of supernatural activity on the island. Rumor also has it that those brave souls who dare enter the island at night never return.
But how true is any of this?
For Italian-born film director Emanuele Mengotti, the island of Poveglia proved to be a constant source of wonder. Growing up on the island closest to Poveglia, Emanuele was always full of curiosity regarding its dark legends.
“I have to say that to me, more than haunted, I felt attracted to that island since I was a kid with my parents,” he said in an interview, “I used to go there and my dad, telling me ghost stories about it, and it was very exciting for me!”
Contrary to the rumor that no Italians will visit the island, Emanuele has made many trips to the island.
“I loved to spend my time there and explore the island, sometimes even by myself! I was always getting lost and having to find my way back.”
“Unfortunately the info that you can find on the web are wrong. The interesting thing is that we are witnessing the origin of a Legend…twenty years ago the island was so different. You were still able to find old books–now its just ruins!”
According to historical accounts, that Emanuele was kind enough to confirm for me, Poveglia once served as a small quarantine base for ships bearing confirmed cases of the Black Plague. In the early twentieth century, some of the small buildings were re-purposed into a mental health facility, and it was again used sometimes as a quarantine for plague victims. There was a section meant for the mentally ill, but no mad doctor.
Still, the dark atmosphere and pervading sense of dread persists regarding Poveglia. It is this dark energy that Emanuele hopes to capitalize on as he brings his film to life. Emanuele says that many people still do believe the island to be haunted with the ghosts of plague victims. He says the atmosphere of the island is “creepy” and that it is, in fact, abandoned. Like many of us who are enamored of their own homeland, Emanuele is comfortable both with the historical facts of Poveglia and with the dark legends that fuel his imagination.
Urban legends may not be the modern equivalent of folktales, but they spread roughly in the same way and may sometimes take their sources from historical fact or popular culture. In the case of the Italian island of Poveglia, the remnants of the Black Death frighten and wrap the unwary tourist in a web of Romanticism and gruesome flights of fancy. Like the Alamo here in Texas, there are two sides to the same story. One just happens to be significantly more interesting than the other. Frankly I’d rather dance a jig with the ghosts of Travis, Bowie, and Crockett at the Alamo than walk among the restless spirits of 160,000 plague victims, but it seems history would have us recognize that Travis and Bowie probably don’t haunt the Alamo anymore than the rampant poltergeist of a mad doctor haunts Poveglia. Legend has it that all 113 men died at the Alamo. History says prisoners were taken, including Crockett, since he was a congressman, and therefore a political time bomb. Why listen to history books when the tales of death and destruction during the Black Plague are far more entertaining?
It is the legend and myth of a place that will stay with you long after you get home and take off your bauta mask or coonskin cap. Myth, legend, and folktale. Don’t care how many times Emanuele Mengotti may say the place is only creepy, you won’t catch me out on that island anywhere near dark.
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.
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 one of the primary religious influences: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
This Folklore Thursday is taking a dark turn as we delve into the rich history of African religious and folk traditions, though we will then turn our attention to the Western stigmatization of pagan cults through the lens of the new FX television series, Taboo.
West African Voudo and Juju, and Ashanti Obeah
Voudo and Juju
I’m keeping to the Western or Gold Coast for the purposes of exploring the major folk traditions of the Africans who were captured and sold into slavery during the Atlantic Slave Trade, as these are the ones who were most likely to be encountered by Western Culture, and whose magic is most closely associated with the television show, Taboo.
Voudo was largely practiced on the Gold Coast among tribes that belonged to what we now call Nigeria and Ghana. Voudo came to the United States through the slaves traded into the Carribean first–Haiti and Jamaia. It was later carried to Louisiana,the Carolinas, and Virginia, and is now unlovingly referred to as Voudon or Voodoo. However, Voudo does not always have the haunting and evil repugnance assigned to it by Christian slave owners of the Antebellum South. Voudo refers to the monotheistic religion that stems from Mesopotamian traditions centering around a single Creator with two aspects, the moon (female) and the sun (male) along with a pantheon of lesser spirits (Loas).
Voudo worshipers believe the gods of Voudo appear in their every day lives, and that pleasing the gods with small rituals will ensure health and prosperity. Though the manifestations of the Loas can sometimes occur, it is only under certain ceremonial circumstances along with the necessary offerings. Author Gail Z. Martin explores Voudon traditions among the Gullah people of Charleston, South Carolina in her Deadly Curiosities novels, Deadly Curiosities and Vendetta.
There are evil or dangerous spirits among the Loas, particularly the Guédé family headed by Baron Samedi, or “Saturday”, the Evil Doer. This group of Loas is closely associated with the dead. Baron Samedi can be ritualistically summoned with proper offerings of tobacco and rum.
Juju is often mistaken for Voudo, but the two words are not interchangeable. While Voudon worshipers believe in a spiritual connection to the gods and Loas that can be accessed through ceremony and offerings, Juju is the practice that binds or forms the pact, or agreement, enforcing compliance. The witch who practices good or bad juju can bind spirits and elements to amulets and talismans for use for against others. This is where the image of the Voodoo doll comes from, though it is in fact not at all related to Voudo.
It is the from the Obeah traditions that Southern white plantation owners came to fear the power of African magic.
Obeah is still commonly practiced among Western Africans and their descendants. According to Obeah Rituals, the Ashanti of Western Africa were of the Akan ethnicity that formed the Ashanti state, Asanteman, and were the geographical neighbors to the Dahomey and Fon tribes that went on to become the caretakers of Vodou in the Caribbean and Gulf territories of the United States. According to Obeah Rituals, the Ashanti of what is now called Ghana were some of the only Africans to successfully repel British occupation.
Obeah and Voudo are fairly similar. The practice of Obeah is second part of the two-part magic practiced by the Ashanti on the Gold Coast, and then later among the Jamaicans and Gullah practitioners of the Carolinas. The first part is an herb-based medicinal practice. Among the Gullah and in Jamaica, these are sometimes called “Root Workers”. It was purely for treating bodily ailments.
Obeah targets the spirit of the person. The Obayifo worked to heal spiritual wounds and ailments inflicted by witchcraft. The Obayifo traditionally had access to two spirits, one evil, and one neutral. Failure of the Obayifo to stay vigilant could result in the complete takeover of his body, which would require cleansing by another Obeah man.
But the Obayifo has a darker side to it. Among the Ashanti, an Obayifo can make pacts with the spirits, including the Sasabonsam, or Asabonsam, an evil spirit that was commonly connected to the Obayifo. This association has given rise to the belief among scholars and folklorists that the Obayifo is the root of the legend of the vampire. Several of the depictions I discovered included a creature who could hang upside down. According to Scribol, the creature was said to have wings that could be as wide as twenty feet. Other depictions include an simian type creature, like the one below from deviantARTist Darrel Tan.
According to John L. Vellutini, author of the Journal of Vampirology, the Ashanti Obayifo (whose name is sometimes synonymous with the Sasabosnam or Asasabonsam), shares many similarities to the European vampire, though the literal vampire is not often found in African tradition. It was common among white slave owners to free Obeah men that were enslaved to keep them from practicing their black magic against the slave owners who bought them.
But it is perhaps the Obeah from the Ashanti on the Gold Coast that loaned some of their witchs’ evil intent to the one “sworn to do very foolish things” in FX’s new television show, Taboo.
But first, a quick primer on British occupation.
What British Occupation Meant at the Close of the Eighteenth Century
It’s important to start off a comparison to Western pop cultural appropriation of African culture with the hefty reminder that much of what Western Civilization considered “magic” in the eighteenth century stems from the heavy stigmatization of pagan religions, though not just African religions. It is also important to note that religious and magical traditions among African slaves was actively suppressed. Not only did it further marginalize the already enslaved black people under British rule, but it can also be surmised that suppression also prevented the kind of fear that spread throughout the Colonies and Britain before the Enlightenment and that resulted in the European witch hunts. Not to mention that there was indeed a superstitious streak among white slave owners. If I had been a slave owner, I’d probably be a little afraid of the resentment that stemmed from enslavement that might drive a person to witchcraft.
In a grossly oversimplified reduction, by the end of the eighteenth century, the British empire was well on its way to colonizing much of the globe. The new television sensation, Taboo, opens on the story of James Delaney, who left home in 1800 on a purchased commission in the widely prosperous monopoly, the Honorable East India Company. This colonization, and the rape of the cultures unfortunate enough to fall under British occupation, came with a lovely Conversion to the Christianity best favored by the monarch of the time. In the year of our Lord 1802, when James Delaney sets out for Africa, that is King George III, who lost the Revolutionary War to the disloyal British colonists in New England in 1783, and who practiced Protestantism through the Church of England (Anglican church), which kept up a network of churches known as the Anglican Communion throughout the British colonies–with possibly the exception of the US. By 1814, when James Delaney returns to England under George III’s prince regent, George IV, the 15 United States were not doing anything England was doing.
Those who could not be converted spiritually where often converted permanently by way of an unmarked grave. Only those who converted served any purpose to the Crown. This was no exception to the Western African merchants who were only too happy to sell their native traditions out for a cut of the profits in the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Some Representations of African Magic in Western Art
Magic from the Dark Continent has been a source of fear and confusion for centuries. There are two references to African black magic in Western culture that I can name off the top of my head.
The first is not actually Western. The OVA adaptation of Kota Hirano’s Hellsing originally included the ultimate villain of season one as a magician from the Dark Continent, Incognito.
This plot line was never followed through, as it derailed too far from Hirano’s original plot involving the rise of a Fourth Reich, not to mention the fact that it involved a very “colonized” view of Africans. The fact that this anime was set in England did not help matters. Hirano was a miserable writer at best, but one thing he did manage to get right is that the England’s natural enemy was not Africa, but rather Germany.
Another example of the biased representation of African folk traditions comes from the Father of Contemporary Horror, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Lovecraft had no love, pun intended, for immigrants of any kind. He had even less love for the people of color he was forced to live with in Brooklyn while in exile following the failure of his marriage to Sonia Greene. Lovecraft had zero problems lashing out at those immigrants he despised in several stories, though the one most closely associated with African folk traditions is “The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn.”
In Lovecraft’s story, Arthur Jermyn is the descendant of the decadent line of Jermyn, whose great grandfather had ventured into Africa and taken a strange wife that no one had ever seen from a tribe who seemed to have some strange obsession with an ape princess–Lovecraft was indelicate at best. It is discovered that Jermyn is related to this ape princess, who was mummified and brought to England for him. When he discovers the unwholesome truth of his bloodline, he douses himself in oil and sets himself on fire.
Though not a comprehensive list, this is definitely a pair of examples that best illustrate the overall stigma associated with anything that has come from Africa. Of course, it is much easier for white colonists to enslave blacks if they are first dehumanized and stripped of dignity, even in their religious beliefs. It is this dehumanization that manifests in the absolute hatred and terror that strides on confident legs through London in the early nineteenth century. His name is James Delaney.
Western Stigma: African and Native American Traditions in Taboo
H. P. Lovecraft says that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Naturally the British and Westerners Civilization as a whole were wary of anything they could not easily and quickly understand. Like the Borg, it was easier for the Empire to assimilate first and ask questions later. I’ll touch on how the empire more than likely used the folklore of the African people to dehumanize them and make it easier to enslave them in my review of Taboo at the end of the series, but right now I want to focus on the stigma surrounding James Delaney.
There are two notable points of disgust regarding James Delaney’s reception by the East India Company and his own relatives: unbeknownst to most, Delaney is half Native American; James Delaney spent a great deal of time in Africa. According to the social norms of Regency England, neither of things are good.
The first point to pick apart is the Native American lineage. Delaney’s mother was bought from the Nootka tribe of Vancouver Island. I’ll get to the importance of this particular setting in my full review, but for now, it is important to remember that in the second episode, Delaney’s mother was insane and committed to Bedlam. No word yet on how this will be further treated in the show, but the trope of mixed-race children going or being born half-insane or fully-insane is not new territory. Author Larry McMurtry often employed villains and madmen and madwomen of mixed-race or racial ambiguity, a sort of stab at a perverse Manifest Destiny that white men are the only thing capable of stabilizing the Western Frontier.
Where Taboo derails from this norm is the fact that though considered mad by many, Delaney is not insane. Director Anders Engstrom and Kristoffer Nyholm and writers Tom Hardy, Edward Hardy, and Steven Knight take care to differentiate Delaney’s cruel nature, hardened soul, and worldly knowledge from true insanity, unlike writer Larry McMurtry of the 1990s, for whom most of his mixed race characters were cut and dry and possessed no redeemable qualities.
The second point: James Delaney’s venture into Africa.
Ventures into Africa were ill advised and dangerous in Regency England and her Empire, as well as highly stigmatized. Trade with Africa was limited to Egypt and slave trading. Only the insane traveled into Africa. Taboo it set in 1814. Real exposure of the African interior did not begin until 1856, when Sir Richard Francis Burton began his many dangerous expeditions to Mecca and the African lakes that brought renewed sense of wonder and fancy to a largely ethnocentric English market. Sir Richard nearly died in Africa, which won the continent no points.
What is Really Taboo about James Delaney?
Though Delaney’s time in Africa isn’t the only taboo featured in the show, his character is largely fueled by the events leading to his return to England.
Rumors fly of unholy rituals performed with powers conferred on Delaney during his time in Africa, which it seems the East India Company was at least aware of. Word of Delaney’s secret doings in Africa traveled annoyingly fast in Regency London. A madman, Old Delaney, standing on the banks of the foreshore of the Thames calling to his son in Africa is bound to stir up gossip. Delaney’s half sister accuses him of eating flesh. Delaney has little interest in confirming or denying any of it.
The accusations of his eating flesh no doubt stem from the folk traditions of the Gold Coast who claimed the creature Asabonsam stalked the woods. Knowing a little of African folk traditions, it’s easy to see where some of the images from Taboo have their source. At the end of Episode 2, we see Delaney savagely rip out the throat of the Malaysian assassin sent to kill him with his teeth, validating accusations from Zilpha that her half-brother ate flesh in Africa (this is the half-sister that is also the other reason why this show is called Taboo). Though it is unclear where this will lead in the show, it is not too hard to imagine that Delaney embodying some version of Sasabonsam.
We can see that Delaney’s behavior is a sort of backwards hegemony, in which he has been driven to a hatred of half of his own lineage, the white Anglican, by a deep-seated guilt and rage that comes from the treatment of the people he becomes kindred to, and from being mixed-race himself. He embraces the African traditions and turns his black hatred on England, possibly to avenge the people he has seen enslaved, and possibly to avenge his mother, a purchased Native American in exchange for trading rights in the Nootka Sound.
The second episode also seems to suggest that Delaney’s close identification with the African tribes he mingled with is fueling an incredible sense of guilt and obligation, especially towards those slaves who were lost on the slave ship he was sailing on, bound for Antigua and the US, upon which he ostensibly died. We see this in episode two as Delaney, tattooed, sweating, his nerves rattling, possibly with what we call PTSD, uses a ritual to cleanse the hold of a ship he has purchased that formerly transported slaves.
We’ll be able to see in practice that the show’s writers knew that Delaney’s time in Africa would have impaired his judgement by Western Standards. Delaney’s time in Africa is half of the resentment from everyone associated with the Delaney Trading Company, inherited by testate will and by the laws of primogeniture in England. In addition to whatever supernatural powers Delaney possesses as a result of his time in Africa, the Eighteenth-Century implications of what he is are much more mundane. Rumors that he ate flesh further discredit him in the eyes of British society and in the eyes of the organization hoping to take what is rightfully the property of the Delaney bloodline.
I wonder what will happen when the general public is made aware that he is also half Native American…
Though not all African traditions are steeped in blood, it is easy to see how the East India Company and Western slave owners latched onto the darker traditions of the Africans they enslaved. Angry and in pain, it is no wonder that perhaps some of those trafficked into the British Colonies turned to their darker spirits to aid them against the whites that did them harm. Thanks to the Atlantic Slave Trade, some of those dark traditions now form part of the overall African folk traditions of the Gulf Coast and Antebellum South of the United States, many of which persist into the Twentieth Century. The new television show on FX Network, Taboo, capitalizes on some of those dark traditions that circulated in back-room rumor and parlor gossip. The popularity of shows like Taboo illustrate that we as a Western society are still drawn to the strange and unfamiliar, as horrifying as it may be.
I will conduct a detailed post-colonial viewing of Taboo in my review following the close of the first season.
TL;DR: African folk traditions are rich and abundant and vary from tribe to tribe, and some of those traditions made it all the way to the United States during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Also watch Taboo on FX on Tuesdays at 10pm Eastern.
Since the dawn of sentient humans, we have been obsessed with dreams.
We are perhaps the only beings in the known universe with the capability to question and interpret our dreams. Mankind searches for itself behind closed eyes, casting probes out into the expanding and contracting multiverse of infinite possibilities, asking questions we are not even aware we’re looking for answers to. We have sought deep within our own subconscious to uncover hidden truths presented to us in flashes of color, barely-remembered feelings, and alien vistas. No dream is perhaps more highly interpreted and picked apart than one’s nightmares. It is in nightmares that we run from our pasts, pursue our own self-punishment, and search for our place in the infinite cosmos.
Some of the greatest horror authors have been inspired by the snatches of mystery and half-understood disquiet following them during the wakeful day that gives way to oppressive treks through nighted forests. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was plagued by night terrors throughout his youth, and many of his characters dream strange things themselves. Fantasy and Speculative Fiction author Michael Moorcock wrote of Prince Elric, who travels the multiverse on the moonbeam roads and visits with demons on the dream couches of decadent Melnibone.
And now a new class of writers of the weird explore the depth of their psyches in the latest compilation by Dark Regions Press, Nightmare’s Realm.
Nightmare’s Realm itself is well assembled, and there is an impressive A-list of authors including Ramsey Campbell, Nancy Kilpatrick (whom I’ve met–she’s a lovely lady), and Caitlin R. Kiernan, as well as an award-winning lineup of fiction writers who have stepped out of the waking world to bring us this talent-fueled, fast-paced, eclectic read, and there is no better way to kick off the compilation than with an introduction by editor, S.T. Joshi, the career scholar of the weird tale, as well as a poem by Joshi’s chief subject, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “To A Dreamer”.
The editors at Dark Regions Press have not only presented a masterful compilation, but they have successfully curated a collection of stories that tackles both the practical nature of dreams, specifically nightmares, and embraces the speculative and the weird tale in its purest form.
Sanity Needs Not Apply
One of my favorite aspects of Nightmare’s Realm is how many stories use the most common tropes of nightmare worlds to rob their characters of agency. In dreams, especially nightmares, we rarely have control over our own actions. From the very first story, “The Dreamed” by Ramsey Campbell, we see not only an example of the speculative or weird tale, but also the first example of lack of agency in a dream, in which the main character is trapped at a hotel in Greece that consists only of a travel agency, a single room, and a few restaurants. The author emphasizes an aspect of dreaming that I have often experienced myself: the feeling that I can’t open my eyes. I can see, and I can know what’s happening around me, but it’s as if my eyes are shut and I can’t move them. Campbell illustrates this perfectly while ratcheting up the tension to truly frighten the reader. It’s a great step off on the right foot.
Another of my favorites that perfectly sums up a dream scenario is the last story of the anthology, “An Actor’s Nightmare” by Reggie Oliver, in which the identity of an actor is fully subsumed in a coma. In this story the most impressive aspect is that everything is huge. The opera house is massive with floor upon floor of dressing rooms, wings upon wings of stage, row upon row up on eave upon eave of boxes and seats. I worked in restaurants for twelve years. There are still times that I dream I’m selling Greek food (yes, Greek food) in a Chinese restaurant (the one I worked in, but before it was remodeled, the way I remember it as a child) that was the size of an airport, where I can’t find my tables.
Death and Grief
Several of the stories deal with how a nightmare seems to represent trauma. Though not pure psychoanalysis, the nightmare tales dealing with trauma and death take a very philosophical tone. Nancy Kilpatrick’s story seems to deal with Frued’s theory of the underlying wish, in which the meaning of the dream can be interpreted as a subconscious wish for some sort of outcome. In Kilpatrick’s story, the narrator spends time with the first of this anthology’s many useless therapists (beginning to see not everyone was as fortunate with their therapist as I was) in trying to workout the underlying meaning of the dreams of suicide. Many of the stories operate on Freud’s level of dream interpretation, which speaks to past events rather than Carl Jung’s theory that the subject level dream analysis reveals individual transformations. My favorite of these is “Purging Mom” by Jonathan Thomas, in which the narrator is beset by dreams that his mother is trying to kill him from beyond the grave. Thomas deals with the grief of the son with dreams of the mother as Freud would have dealt with it, with the mother representing the literal mother, and dealing less with the identity of the dreamer, as Jung would have done. “The Wake” by Steve Rasnic Tem also deals with death and grief manifestations in dreams.
Spec Fiction, Sci-Fi, and the Weird Tale
For the philosopher, the multiverse traveler, the dream realms are places of fancy and endless possibilities. Following our dreams, whether they’re pleasant and quaint or a living Hell, leads to enlightenment and growth. Thus it is with the speculative stories of Nightmare’s Realm.
My favorites in the weird tales genre involved delving into the dream realms in search of answers, a seeker looking to alter the events of their lives…or to just get some damn sleep. “Sleep Hygiene” by Gemma Files, “In the City of Sharp Edges” by Stephen Woodworth, and “The Art of Memory” by Donald Tyson feature dreamers who venture willingly into their dreams and nightmares, each hoping to conquer their own demons for their own ends, a derailment from the previously discussed aspect of dreams in which the narrator has no control over his or her journey. These narrators take matters into their own hands in a very un-Lovecraftian attempt to regain control of their lives as a whole, though in a very Lovecraftian fashion, this does not always have the intended outcome.
The speculative tales venture far out into the realms of sci-fi and fantasy with stories like “Dreams Downstream” by John Shirley, “Cast Lots” by Richard Gavin, “Dead Letter Office” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, and “The Barrier Between” by W. H. Pugmire in which each author explores the nature of dreams through the subject of a dreamscape, not necessarily the dreamer. Other speculative tales examine the “dreamer” through an entirely different lens, such as epilepsy in “The Fifth Stone” by Simon Strantzas. “The City of Sharp Edges” also explores this, as the dreamer is not just a seeker, but also blind.
The most speculative of these stories is at once the essence of Michael Moorcock and a moving tribute piece, “Kafkaesque” by Jason V Brock. This is by far one of my favorite stories of the entire anthology. Fans of David Bowie will recognize the chapter titles as well as the end, and give the obligated nod to the departed Starman, who was perhaps the greatest dreamer of us all.
When I asked Dark Regions to allow me to read and review an arc for the anthology, I did not dare think they would allow me to lay my eyes on such an exploratory, philosophical compilation. Nightmare’s Realm will ask you to dare to do more than dream as you read these stories. I am proud to have been chosen to preview this wonderful collection. I hope you enjoy Nightmare’s Realm as much as I did. You can purchase a pre-order of Nightmare’s Realm on Dark Regions Press’ official site.
I cannot decide if I feel terrible for all the people who unsuspectingly listened to the culmination of David Bowie’s artistic soul in Blackstar the day that it dropped, or if I am jealous of them. What must it have been like to listen to the haunting tones, colorful warbles, synthetic vibrations, and elegiac sax? I wouldn’t know. I was still operating under the impression the man was going to live forever, so while I purchased Blackstar on January 8, 2016, I hadn’t listened to it yet. I was still reeling on Ghost and powering my way through the Christmas aftermath. It was Hellish enough waking up at 5:00 am to my twin sister’s text message that David Bowie had died a mere two days after releasing his latest album. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to look back at Blackstar and realize he was giving his own eulogy. I also never imagined I would get to the point where I could talk about it without breaking down. I suppose I could have popped Blackstar on at any time over the summer, as I had moved on, a feeling I didn’t think I could ever possibly achieve back on January 10, 2016. But after a few months, probably six months exactly, I was at least stable when I talked about Bowie’s death and what it did to me, and the part of my soul that died with him.
After that day, I swore I would not listen to Blackstar until the anniversary of its release. I was true to my sworn oath. I swore I would make no attempt to speak on the subject until I could do so from a place of reason and stability, that way I could articulate every single feeling I couldn’t even name last year. I did not sit down to Blackstar until Sunday night, January 8, 2017.
Let’s talk about David Bowie.
When it comes to the Thin White Duke, there is absolutely nothing I can say that someone else has not already said, and they have already said it better. I can reiterate that he was more than a pop icon. I can restate all the ways he paved the way for artists like Arcade Fire, and I can pontificate on what his accomplishments to the gender nonconformists and artists of color meant for civil rights and pop culture, both at the height of his career and afterward. It won’t mean any more or any less than it did last year. What I can tell you is what he did for me, and even now, exactly twelve months later, I’m about to cry.
When I was six years old, our Prime Time administrators showed us Labyrinth and scared the Hell out of us. Bowie’s teeth were uncapped. He veritably towered, the dark, melancholy labyrinth loomed so black and forboding, and that baby just kept crying. To a six year old, that was the mental equivalent of child abuse. I was a sensitive kid, though. I also had a huge problem with The Secret Garden. Refused to watch it. Black Beauty was a waking nightmare. I don’t do well where babies, children, and horses are concerned.
When I was fourteen I rented Labyrinth and I fell in love. I fell in love with the story. I fell in love with the characters, and I fell in love with David Bowie. He was rock and roll. He was the vaunted king of goblins, but to me he was Oberon, Lord of the Fairies. He was timeless. He was unwholesome. He was between genders: long hair, big package. He was smirking and very adult. The story spoke of a woman’s awakening, and Sarah, the main character, was only a year older than I at the time. I picked Labyrinth apart with a fine-toothed comb. If I had back every cent I spent on Labyrinth books, pins, bags, shirts, and photos, I could probably pay off my credit card.
My parents hated him from the start. Of course, they both had known for fifteen years who David Bowie was, and none of it was to their liking. However, my mom, looking back on her borderline unhealthy devotion to Tom Jones, did very little to discourage myself and my sister from roaming the decades in search of the Starman.
The Fall of 1999 saw the release of hours. By then, we had already collected a pretty vast discography of his works: Earthling, Diamond Dogs, Let’s Dance, Station to Station, Heroes. While we were also rummaging through the CDs of the harbingers of pop of our time (my sister was into most boy bands. I was just discovering Nu Metal) we were also exploring songs about transcendence, tolerance, xenophobia, and the depths of addiction–though we would never, could never, have known it at the time. We were only kids, and we were trying to figure out why so many of the songs he sang involved both men and women.
hours was our time to shine. Here was an album we could get behind as members of contemporary society because he released it during our lifetime. I remember being completely satisfied with the album–which we pooled our weekend money working for my mom to afford, and the good lady drove us to Best Buy to pick it up from a freckle-faced autamaton who stared at us in dumbfounded dismay and half-snarled, “Who’s David Bowie?” But I also remember being confused. Why so melancholy? Why so…I would’t have the word for it until college: “elegiac”. hours was searching for something, and like David Bowie’s many personas, perhaps best illustrated by Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius, Bowie was searching for a lost self, an identity cultivated in the urban centers of New York and London.
As I laid in my room last night, knowing I would murder my boyfriend if he interrupted me during “Lazarus”, I asked myself that if David Bowie was searching for something in hours, then what was he doing with Blackstar?
By now you’ll have read the reviews that Blackstar was David Bowie trying to tell us “goodbye”. The utter confusion with which I greeted the titular song on the album must have been echoed in the minds of all of his fans as they listened to it. The listeners of Blackstar probably felt the same way I did about hours.
I believe that Bowie felt that even in his death, that someone would stand in his place and declare themselves his equal. In this respect David Bowie is a lot like Voldemort. There can be only one. It took a lot of arrogance to be David Bowie and do everything he did. In “Blackstar” Bowie asserts that someone will rise in the wake of his passing and take his place, declaring the place in which he stood a “Black Star”. He was going to die, but someone would take his place, but it would be an empty place, void and without meaning. Bowie illustrated what I felt in his passing: that a light had gone out of the world, that something would forever be missing, that the sun would shine without David Bowie, but it would be only a black star. Only David Bowie would feel the need to point that out in his own album, yet for all that David Bowie knew where he stood in the grand scheme of things, he also knew that his passing was going to hurt. It was going to hurt his family, and it was going to hurt the legions of underdogs who looked up to him. Bowie was always conscious of his impact. He was a force for change. He wanted to be an impact, and he set out to do that. He was not humble, and even in death he showed a particular audacity that has no rival.
In “Lazarus” David Bowie is his most reassuring even as the video is haunting. The video opens on a frightened-looking Bowie with sheets twisted in his hands, his eyes covered by a blindfold, with button eyes. Unfortunately, I can get no further than that. This is song is exactly what it is supposed to be: visiting Bowie on his deathbed. I feel like I am standing just outside the bedroom door as the family gathers around to pay their final respects while the man still draws breath. I can’t watch it. I’m terrified to watch it. Like taking his hand as he draws you down to sit beside him, the video is Bowie trying to comfort us. I am inconsolable. In fact, I would have been too much of a coward to even show up. Even then he looked so different than he had even just a couple of years ago. Watch the video if you can. I can’t. I don’t want to see him like that.
“Sue (Or the Season of Crime)” definitely sounds angry. It is a song about death, but it is also a song of murder. By the end of the song, it is clear the narrator is not just dealing with a loss, but a loss of his own making. Like “Blackstar”, “Sue” harkens back to a synthetic vibe found on Station to Station and in “Brilliant Adventures” on hours.
Violence and the passage of time are present in “Tis a Pity She’s a Whore” and “Dollar Days”. The sense of helplessness and confusion is felt in “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. Each stage of grief is present in the album: anger, denial, depression, acceptance, etc.
Vocally the album does not seem diminished by the ravages of age and time. The reverb and filters were a little heavy on this album, but in many ways this is characteristic of Bowie. I listened to a remastered version of “Man Who Sold the World” today that used easily as many filters as Blackstar, though perhaps not as heavily as Earthling. In terms of one’s ability to listen to it, the second time round is much more enjoyable. Though the clear message is still present, we get to explore a side of Bowie that is heretofore not been seen. Bowie has always been the beacon of hope, the bright light. What began with hours culminated in Blackstar, and we explore the deeper side of David Bowie. Bowie once commented on hours, “You are getting older as you listen to it.” I think with Blackstar, Bowie has achieved the musical equivalent of letting go of a parent or loved one. Bowie held our hand and guided us through, preparing us for the inevitable.
By now you’ll also have read that David Bowie may have known he had cancer three months before he died. The man had to have known a lot longer than that. Blackstar did not feel rushed, but there was definitely a sense of urgency. Little did we know, he had to get it out, to get it down on the track. The world had to know. Only David Bowie would have given us an album telling us “goodbye” only two days before his death. Only David Bowie could have orchestrated his own album going platinum after he ceased to exist. Only David Bowie could have strategically left enough material behind to drop an EP, No Plan, a year later. Many artists, like Bob Marley and Jimmy Hendrix, were worth more dead than alive. Only David Bowie could have capitalized on that, and long after he would cease to care about it. What this does is forever solidify the idea that David Bowie can never die. He is Lazarus. In death, David Bowie has been reborn.
What David Bowie Did For Me
David Bowie was for me what he was to many people: a role model–minus the drugs and sex with Mick Jagger. He was my voice.
When I was fourteen years old, I was struggling with what would now be called an identity crisis. I sat on the edge somewhere between female and male. These days one might refer to me as gender binary. Back then, I was just weird. I was bullied, even by my own family. Then, one night, our mom let us stay up to watch David Letterman (having seen in the TV guide that he was gonna be Letterman’s guest), as he performed and interviewed with Letterman to promote hours. This is by far the best way I’ll remember him, laying in front of our big, bulky, 1990 television as he performed “Pretty Things Are Going to Hell”.
We recorded it on for posterity. We wore out that vhs, “we wore it out but we wore it well”. I remember after this song he disappointed me a little, as I was hoping for “Thursday’s Child”. Instead, he sang “Rebel Rebel.”
But in my disappointment, my life was changed forever. He sang to me that, “they’re not sure if you’re a boy or a girl. Well hey babe, your hair’s all right. Hey babe, let’s stay out tonight.”
In that moment, David Bowie became my voice. I knew that he spoke for me, that he understood me, and he did not just create the most beautiful art. He did not just perform the first pop culture reforms. He was my voice. He gave me hope. Over the years, I had forgotten the hope that he gave me, until exactly one year ago today, when I felt every hope in the world crash, shattered as so many of my dreams had.
He will always sing “Rebel Rebel” to me on The Late Show. He will always say, “You remind me of the babe.” I will never think of him as he was on Blackstar. I will always remember “Golden Years” on the soundtrack to A Knight’s Tale. I will always remember him calling the walk-off on Zoolander. It’s so hard to believe that was sixteen years ago. We should have had him for a lot longer than 69 years.
Today, don’t sit down to Blackstar because you feel like you have to. Sit down to “Tis A Pity She’s a Whore” because you’ve never heard him say “cock” in a song before. Sit down to “Dollar Days” because it’s an amazing song. Don’t listen to “Space Oddity” and “Changes” because you feel like you should. You don’t do him justice that way. Sit down to Station to Station because “The Return of the Thin White Duke” reminds you of Elric. Sit down to hours because that was your childhood. Sit down to Earthling because it’s hard gritty. You don’t have to listen to “Seven Years in Tibet” if you don’t want to. Listen to “Modern Love” because it’s the only song your mom likes by Bowie and you make her admit it when it comes on. Don’t listen to “Heroes” on that album. Listen to “Sons of the Silent Age” and “Joe Lion” because that’s what came over the speakers while your tattoo artist worked on your sleeve. Watch Labyrinth because it’s the rarely-told story of a woman’s awakening and Jareth is everything wrong with fairy tales. Watch it just to see him smile, or smirk, or dance. Celebrate his life. Fall in love with him again. Salute the Starman.
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 (and in some case, institutional) influences.
For many people, Christmas is essentially over, but for most Eastern Orthodox Christians, Christmas has not yet begun. Due to the quirky differences between the Julian Calendar (followed by the Eastern Orthodox tradition), and the Gregorian Calendar (followed by the majority of other Christian traditions), when we in the West are finishing celebrating Epiphany (if we do celebrate it), those in the East will be preparing for Christmas on January 7.
While Christmas in the West means Jelly-Bellied Santa, Red-Nosed Rudolph, and, more recently, an obnoxiously-situated Elf on the Shelf, for Eastern European countries Christmas means the tall, staff-carrying figure of Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost or Father Frost), and his beautiful, pale granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). Yet just as Rudolph and Elf on the Shelf are more recent additions, Snegurochka was not always a part of the Christmas tradition.
Origins of Snegurochka
It’s not entirely clear when or where Snegurochka originated. Some believe she has roots in Slavic pagan beliefs, while others argue that she came from folktales outside of the Slavic world.
In any case, Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev first published the story of Snegurochka in the mid 19th century as part of his multi-volume collection of Russian folktales. In Afanasyev’s version, Snegurochka comes to life from a little snow doll made by two childless peasants, Ivan and Marya. One day, some girls invite her to walk in the woods, and when it gets cold, the girls make a fire. As part of a game, they take turns jumping over the fire, but when it is Snegurochka’s turn, she evaporates in a small cloud.
In other versions, she is the daughter of the gods Father Frost and Mother Spring, but she lives with an elderly, childless couple. She grows attached to a young man, but finds she is incapable of love. In an act of pity, Mother Spring gives her the ability to love, but when she does, the warmth of her heart causes her to melt.
Snow Maidens of the World
Of course, Snegurochka is not the only snow child in the tales and myths of the world. The Germans have the Schneekind (Snow Child), a boy who melts, although in earlier accounts, the boy’s origin and fate are not so enchanted. In one version, a man returns to his wife after a two-year absence, and his unfaithful wife explains her newborn son by saying she became pregnant when swallowing a snowflake while thinking of her husband. The husband raises the boy until he is old enough to be sold as a slave, and explains the boy’s absence by saying the child melted in the heat.
The Japanese snow maiden, Yuki Onna, is a much more supernatural character who lulls unfortunate souls to a deep, permanent sleep and uses her icy breath to leave only a frost-covered corpse behind. However, not all spirits of the snow are so malicious. While not a child, the snow-person most of us are familiar with today is, of course, Frosty the Snowman.
Snegurochka and the Persistence of Folk Traditions
Yet while these snow-characters are understandably associated with winter, the association with Christmas is less obvious. In the case of Snegurochka, it was ironically the spirit of Soviet anti-Christmas that sealed her fate as a Christmas character. In the nineteenth century, just as the character of Santa Claus was becoming wrapped up with Christmas in Western Europe, Ded Moroz became synonymous with Christmas in Eastern Europe, thanks in part to the popularization of Snegurochka. In 1873, Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s play “The Snow Maiden” was performed at the Moscow Imperial Theater with music written by Tchaikovsky. Five years later, the folktale became a ballet thanks to composer Ludwig Minkus’ “The Daughter of the Snows.” Finally, the story became an opera in Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1881, “The Snow Maiden: A Spring Fairy Tale.” By the turn of the twentieth century, Snegurochka figurines could be found adorning fir trees and every children’s New Year’s pageant had a Snegurochka.
All of these traditions, as well as many others, were ended during the Soviet anti-religious campaign. Yet, just as the French had discovered in one of their own revolutions, it wasn’t so simple to just abolish religion or secular traditions. As a kind of compromise, New Years celebrations were allowed starting in 1935, along with the Yolka (New Year’s tree), Ded Moroz, and Snegurochka. New Years Eve remains the winter holiday for many living in post-Soviet countries, though now the holiday season has been re-injected with traditional Christmas themes and iconography. Modern Snegurochka and Ded Moroz (who, through various adaptations of the story, became her grandfather) live in Veliky Ustyug, but during the New Year’s celebration they deliver gifts to good children.
Christmas Traditions in Post-Soviet Ukraine
After the fall of the USSR, post-Soviet peoples had to figure out how to revive the old Christmas traditions in a time when most people had grown up without them. In 1993, my family and I lived in Lviv, Ukraine and I got to witness part of this transformation firsthand. I was very young at the time and my memories are few and far between, but some things I will never forget. First and foremost, I was delighted to discover all the new opportunities to receive presents; there was Western Christmas (December 25), New Years Eve (December 31), and Eastern Christmas (January 7). I will also always remember the first group of carolers that came to our door. Unlike the rag-tag gang of off-tune singers I’ve been a part of here in America, Ukrainian Christmas caroling is more of an elaborate folk performance, and a cherished part of the Christmas tradition.
Of course, none of that had been allowed for decades, and as the small group crowded our doorway of our tiny, Soviet-style flat, my three-year-old self couldn’t help but notice a tiny, weathered lady in the far corner. She had leathery wrinkled skin, wet with tears that streamed down her face as she sang songs she probably hadn’t sung since she was my age.
However, what I remember best about Ukraine was the New Year/Christmas pageant put on by my preschool. I was cast in the role of “The Spirit of the New Year,” at least according to my family’s limited understanding of Ukrainian. I had to recite a short poem (which I still remember) and I wore a silver dress with a snowflake crown, very much like modern depictions of Snegurochka.
“my three-year-old self couldn’t help but notice a tiny, weathered lady in the far corner. She had leathery wrinkled skin, wet with tears that streamed down her face as she sang songs she probably hadn’t sung since she was my age. “
Snegurockha in South Texas
While Santa almost always wears red, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka often wear silver and blue, some say in a Soviet effort to distance the characters from Christmas. Inspired by an old picture of me in my outfit, I decided to spend some time this Christmas season doing a Snegurochka-type look.
The blouse I found at a thrift store many years ago, but the crown I made myself. It was a bit of a rushed job as the holidays are not exactly a season of free time, but it was a lot of fun and I hope you enjoy it.
About the Guest Blog
Lidia Plaza graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a double major in History and Anthropology. She was the winner of the 2013 Bram Stoker Undergraduate Award in Historical Studies for her thesis on the rise in theft of textiles in Eighteenth-Century England. She is currently seeking positions in grad school where she hopes to bring her unique expertise and eye for detail to the field of artifact conservation. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, Jeremy, and their two dogs, Squirt and Dottie.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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, 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.
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).
“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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.