The Bonds of Blood: A Review of Scourge by Gail Z. Martin

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

A raven carrying a twig on a scarlet crest on a parchment-colored background describes the cover art for Martin's latest novel, Scorge. Scourge and the author's name are written in a red script to match the crest.
Cover art for Gail Z. Martin’s latest novel, Scourge, welcoming you all to the realm 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.

You can pre-order Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst here!

Stock photo of Gail Z. Martin, author of Scourge.
Gail Z Martin is the author of Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst

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!

I designed the -shirt for fantasy author Gail Z. Martin's grassroots marketing group, the Shadow Alliance. It is a digital composite design that utilizes some of the effects of her cover art for The Summoner, runes, and text that reads, "Gail Martin's Shadow Alliance. Forged in Iron and Blood, Straight Outta Edgeland".

 

Dark Corners Presents: An Excerpt of Scourge by Gail Z. Martin

A full moon on a twilit sky highlights "The Hawthorn Moon: A Sneak Peak Event" on the banner for Gail Z. Martin's book tour artwork.
Gail Z. Martin’s book tour event, The Hawthorne Moon.

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 raven carrying a twig on a scarlet crest on a parchment-colored background describes the cover art for Martin's latest novel, Scorge. Scourge and the author's name are written in a red script to match the crest.
Cover art for Gail Z. Martin’s latest novel, Scourge, welcoming you all to the realm of Darkhurst.

Chapter One

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.

Avenge me.

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.

“You’re hurt.”

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.

“Yeah.”

“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
scarce.”

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.

Rigan kept his blade sharpened.

———————————————————

Scourge is available for pre-order on Amazon and at your local purveyors of fine parchment products.

 

A Gathering of Ravens, a Simple Review from a Humbled Reader

Some Spoilers Ahead

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

I am sitting in my living room holding my copy of A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden for a selfie.
The pink says “cutie pie” but the hair cut says “We muster at first light.” I’m holding my advanced reader copy of Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens.

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.

Conclusions

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 find A 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.

Beep Beep, Richie: Stephen King’s IT in 2017

Bill Skarsgard's Pennywise is unamused as he observes strange doings from his avantguard perch inside a storm drain. He's a much darker, less campy Pennywise than Tim Curry.
“Did someone say my name? Thought I heard someone say my name. Who wants a balloon?”

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!

Pennywise the clown stairs up out of a storm drain at little Georgie.
Georgie chases his paper boat down the street, where it falls into a storm drain, and Pennywise is waiting.

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.

Pennywise, the evil clown, played by Tim Curry, climbs out of the showers at the school gym as Eddie Kasbrack watches in horror and dismay.
Pennywise emerges from the gym showers to frighten Eddie Kasbrack. I knew a few people I wouldn’t have minded feeding to It.

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.

Killjoy's smile is relentless. His teeth are filed down to points, and they're green. His hair is black and tuffed out like a tircorn hat. He wears pink and green.
Killjoy is the story of an evil clown doll awakened by unwary victims. There were four Killjoy films, true to the nature of B Horror film studio, Full Moon Pictures.

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 IT it 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.

The Losers Club stand their ground against Henry Bowers and the bullies at the fight at the rock quarry, a scene that is inconic in both the novel and the miniseries.
From left to right: Bev, Richie, Ben, Mike, Bill, Stan, and Eddie, the Losers Club from Stephen King’s IT.

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.

Tim Curry balances on an old-time light pole in the picture of Derry during a parade that suddenly comes to life in a history book.
Tim Curry plays Pennywise in the original miniseries. In this scene Pennywise emerges from a history book in Ben’s hands to issue his threat to the Losers Club.

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.

Pennywise emerges in stop-motion from the face of a woman into the face of a clown behind red hair blowing in the wind.
Pennywise emerges from a slideshow to issue It’s threat to the Losers Club, a new take on an old fan favorite.

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.

Henry Bowers, in a brown leather jacket, his hair comebed into a pompedor, threatens to kill Mike Hanion, the only black person in the Losers Club.
Henry Bowers leads Butch Huggins, Vic Criss, and some other bullies in an attack on the Losers Club at the rock quarry, a scene iconic in both the miniseries and the novel.

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.

Pennywise crouches in black sewer water behind a doppleganger of Georgie, taunting Bill. It's eyes are glowing sulferous yellow and green.
Aren’t you all even a little curious to see how this scene plays out, even if we already know?

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!”

Update 4/11/2017

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.

Tempering my expectations just got a lot harder.

Folklore Thursday: The Island of No Return

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.

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.

A front page section of a newspaper from The San Antonio Express News in 1938. The headline mentions that the death toll of the school bus accident continues to rise.
It seems in 1938 there really was an accident involving a bus and a train.

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.

Lydia the Phantom Hitchhiker from North Carolina is another popular one. On a family trip to St. James Island for Cousins Week, my ex’s mother’s cousin told us she had actually seen the ghost of Lydia on her way home one night. The story goes that Lydia died in a car accident on Highway 70 South in North Carolina. In a book called The Vanishing Hitchhiker, Professor Jan Harold Brunvand documents over eleven different variations on the story circulating in North Carolina. However, the story seems to be as old as time itself. According to the book, hitchhiker disappearances were a real problem in the US, and almost every state in the Union has a story about a ghost girl who died in a car crash and who is trying to get back home.

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.

Though printed officially, and now out of the realm of the urban legend, it seems the legend is as old as the 1950s, and serves as a cautionary tale about teenage sex. In the story, the boyfriend guns the engine in anger and tears off into the woods, explaining how a bloody hook has come to be stuck to the car door handle. The couple narrowly escapes dying in the woods. In the instance of this story, the girl’s refusal to have sex saves them both from being murdered.

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.

A black and white photo of an abnormally tall, faceless creature holding the hand of a young girl in a forrest. Slender Man
This is the Slender Man, originally a Photoshop contest entry that took on a life of its own.

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.

Influences on the Legend of Poveglia

In the Venetian Lagoon there sits a small island. It is uninhabited, and has been so since 1968, after a sanitarium and long-term care facility had officially been abandoned. Several attempts were made by the Italian government to sell or lease it, hoping to revive the island.

A lagoon vista at sunset, with pastel light. The island of Poveglia's bell tower is plainly visible.
The small Venetian island of Poveglia, seen from a distance. The bell tower is plainly visible.

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.

A person of unknown identity stands in a black tricorn hat and black robe wearinga white bauta mask during Carnival.
An example of the full “bauta” costume and mask, popular now during the Venetian Carnival.

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.

Papa Emeritus wears a papal Mitre and black and green robes. His mask is painted to resemble a skull face. The Nameless Ghouls are dressed in black robes with cowels and bauta masks.
The band, Ghost, at Coachella in full regalia. Papa Emeritus is in the center, surrounded by the Nameless Ghouls. Notice the masks.

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.

Standing in a camp site, Jeremy cuts an impressive figure in his black leather hat, cloak, and bird face mask. He is not holding his cane in this picture.
Jeremy Shoemaker dressed as a plague doctor for The Texas Renaissance Festival in Magnolia, Texas. How many people can say they have a fairly recent picture of a plague doctor?

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.

Two plague doctors stand over a fire of burning bodies.
Did someone call a doctor?… No?

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.

Deep in the ruins of Poveglia appears to be some round apperature leading into a chamber. Rumor has it this is the crematoria of the mad doctor.
Part of the ruins of Poveglia island’s asylum and outbuildings.

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.”

A hallway in what is ostensibly one of the hospital buildings on the island, now fallen to ruins. Vines and shrubbery covers the left wall, and parts of the celing and windows have caved in.
Nature seems to be reclaiming Poveglia, wiping the stain of man from its face.

Drawing on this inspiration, Emanuele set out to create a stunning piece of cinema that at once inspired thrilling terror while exploring the old legends of Poveglia and the plague doctors who have gained the reputation of heralds of doom rather than benevolent rescuers. Emanuele is reinventing a vision of Italy and Poveglia through the lens of one who has walked where others dare not tread, though he does keep the pragmatic mindset of a local expert.

A man dressed in tall hat and white plague doctor mask stands in the waves on the coast, a strange vision indeed.
A still image from the concept preview of Emanuele Mengotti’s film The Plague Doctor.

“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.

Conclusion

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.

 

Dark Sarah is Metal Theater Of the Highest Order


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

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

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

What the Sam Hill is Symphonic Metal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nightwish

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

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

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

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

Dark Sarah

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

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

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

The Puzzle

Spoiler Alert: It is a story after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Keep dreaming, Constant Followers, and follow the light.

 

 

 

Kate McKinnon Tributes Leonard Cohen On SNL Cold Open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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