Ghost Is As Irreverent As Ever: He Is

The embosed word "Ghost" with upside down cross for a "T" hovers above as in previous videos, shining in gold.
Opening title to Ghost’s latest music video, “He Is”

Ghost Takes it to the Next Level

Ghost is back to show their friends, fans, and enemies that there is no drama that can stop this dynamic band from doing what they do best: attempt to topple the establishment and open the eyes of the blind sheep that follow the established order. Ghost reveals that they are as steadfast and irreverent as ever with this one! At last, a long-awaited music video has arrived to accompany the song featured on Ghost’s third full-length studio album, Meliora, the controversial song that Ghost performed at the Grammis to the chagrine of everyone in attendance, “He Is”.

“He Is”

“He Is” has a turbulent existence. It was languishing in demo for a while, but was finally written for Meliora in tribute to the lead singer of The Devil’s Blood, Selim Lemouchi, a close friend of each member of Ghost, who sadly took his own life in March of 2014 at the age of 33.   A Nameless Ghoul speaking on behalf of the band to Loudwire said that there were various personal meanings to the song, but ultimately it’s about “an expression of faith to “the great beyond””.

Though the song has a deep meaning that those outside of Ghost’s immediate circle may never understand, clearly “He Is” embraces some kind of faith. Papa Emeritus III returns in all of his romantic glory, a glory he has spent the last three years cultivating in everything from the way he makes enigmatic eye contact with those in the front row (I was so lucky to be drawn into those mismatched eyes myself), his more than sexual gestures, the way he will take a random girl fan’s hand and holds it (why not me, Papa!), and the rekindled inclusion of “Monstrance Clock” at the end of every set.

Papa Emeritus III reclines in a dazzling suit of white and gold, holding a white rose close to his nose. He glances up, seemingly surprised to see us here.
Papa Emeritus is ready to receive you in the opening of Ghost’s latest music video, “He Is”

Though Ghost and Papa Emeritus have always been seductive, Meliora took that concept to the next level. Meliora was meant to be listened to as a full service, with each song representing a section of a mass or church service itself. There are processionals, recessionals, hymns, and worship songs. “He Is” on the outside, is a worship song. It moves slowly, seductively, inclusive of all, and offering comfort and salvation inside a dark faith that is both ironic and twisted. The video, released Thursday morning at 11:59 PM, illustrates it far more clearly. Though Ghost’s performance of the song at the Grammis presented him in papal regalia, Papa’s role in “He Is” is far different than even his stage performances.

Join Him: Ghost and Satire

Like Ghost’s previous single, “Cirice”, heralding the album’s debut in 2015, “He Is” is set in yet another worship scenario. In one of the most hilarious scenes I’ve ever seen from this band, Papa first embraces the small children, hinting at what is to come. The children run to embrace him in what can only be described as cherubim baptism robes. They know him. They trust him. They love him unconditionally. Zev Deans, the director for “He Is”, drew on a statue of Michael Jackson as inspiration for Papa’s outfit for this video.

Papa, on a black background, is flanked by a girl and a boy, hugging either of his legs. He is dressed in a white coat and suit and spreads his arms wide to embrace them.
Papa Emeritus III embraces the youngest of his flock. I wish those were my children.

This is also what makes my following remarks so disturbing.

Papa greets his congregation in a white suit emblazoned with gold buttons and aviator sunglasses in a blindingly bright church under stained glass. I’m not kidding about the blinding. Bright lights from behind make it almost impossible to look directly at him. Notice Papa’s outstretched arms, his palms turned up in the photo above. Papa is well-known (in all of his incarnations) for grandiose gestures both on stage and in videos. Though his gestures tend to make great theater, this one is clearly meant to be an imitation of Christ on the cross, as Christ has his hands turned out to be nailed to the wooden rails through his palms. Despite the obvious jab, I have never laughed harder at a Ghost video.

Papa Emeritus III eschews his black papal robes and tunic for a white suit jacket and aviator-framed sunglasses. He stands in his black and white skull makeup under stained glass, lit from behind by large lights. A choir stands behind him in bright pastel robes, singing the chorus.
Papa Emeritus III looking very Jim Jones in his white suit jacket and aviator sunglasses. Notice our evangelical pastor retains his makeup.

Hilarity aside, though (who doesn’t look at all of this and laugh?) perhaps what is most disturbing about this display is Papa is specifically portraying evangelical minsisters. The evangelical leader Jim Jones comes quickest to mind. He was the leader of the People’s Temple and later responsible for the mass suicide of 918 of his followers, 300 of which were children, in his self-titled city state of Jonestown in Guyana in South America, removed from American intervention and cut off from the outside to prevent Jones’ hold on his followers from slipping. Papa’s embrace of the children, then, is frightening as hell when you consider the magnitude of Jim Jones’ influence over his people, who were able to not only convince themselves to join God alongside Jones, but to believe in Jones so much, that they, to a man, decided to bring their children to meet God too. It is no surprise either, that Jones’ idea to take his congregation directly to God came as the United States government closed in on him to liberate his followers.

Jim Jones, the evangelical pastor turned cult leader, speaks to his congregation. Notice the white jacket and aviator sunglasses.
Jim Jones was the leader of the cult called the People’s Temple, and established a cult base in Guyana called Jonestown.

 

With this imagery, Ghost plays with both the seductive nature of Jones’ charisma and the seductive power Ghost, and Papa Emeritus (and arguably all celebrities, but especially evangelical ministers), have over their fans during a “ritual”. As the video progresses, Papa speaks to his congregation in escalating fervor and violence. His faithful beg to be presented to him. They fall on their knees before him and rejoice that he bestows his grace on them. He incites them to speaking in tongues, clearly a representation of of an evangelical Christian pastor.

Papa Emeritus III, dressed in similar fashion to Jim Jones, takes his place before a willing congretation, dramatically posed, with pink and purple difused lighting bathing the church in a wash of warmth and comfort, while the minister himself wears skull makeup.
Papa Emeritus addresses the congregation like an evangelical minister.

Fan interaction at a Ghost concert is paramount to their success, and Ghost is so far the only band to successfully make their fans a part of the overall performance. They openly take advantage of the seductive power of the performance and their fans’ willingness to partake in the act. As I mentioned earlier, Papa III has been known to wade out into his fans and grasp the hand of a lady of his choice, much the way Papa Jim Jones does in the video. In the video, a select few of the congregation are presented to Papa, whom he incites to some sort of violent reaction, though it’s open to speculation about what that reaction is to. At a Ghost ritual, or any metal concert, violent, sympathetic reaction is common. The crowd bangs heads, forms a circle pit, and depending on the show, otherwise descends into chaos. A Ghost ritual finds mostly devoted females (myself among them) clamoring to get closer to Papa. Notice Papa has a much more gentle touch with the women than he does with the men of this video. I’ll get to the significance of that in the next section.

The Sisters of Sin are another example of fan interaction, where two “nuns” with Ghost emblems wander down the front row and hand out the unholy sacrament and blood of Satan. I actually got to partake at their show in Austin in April of 2016. It’s wine and communion wafer, but the fact that Ghost as a concept espouses anti-Christian rhetoric through pro-Satanic “rituals” turns the entire idea of the Eucharist on it’s head, especially when accompanied with the song, “Body and Blood”, which, when performed is nothing short of irreverent. This draws a lot of criticism, as you can well imagine. Ghost’s purpose, though, is not to turn people into God-haters, but to point out how ridiculous the idea of the Eucharist is, how it operates only as a form of mass hysteria: it only works if everyone believes in it, ironizing the mob mentality it requires to be an active member of an organized religion. Unlike most Christian rhetoric that relies on the belief of the flock, Satanism emphasizes the development of the self, the individual, and Ghost has taken it upon themselves since their inception to open the eyes of their followers.

For a more in-depth look at the tradition of satire in Satanism, director Zev Deans has the director’s cut of the video and behind-the-scenes footage here.

Ghost As Sexual Awakening

I mentioned earlier that Papa Emeritus III pays particular attention to the ladies. Not that Papa has not always paid attention to the ladies. However, Papa III does not merely invite the sexually awakened to follow in his wake like Papa II:

Papa Emeritus II sits with a young female who is naked except for a pair of black underwear and a Ghost emblem. She has black stars censoring her breasts.
Papa Emeritus II from the music video “Year Zero” from second studio album, Infestissumam.

Papa III is by all accounts, “the one lascivious”. In “He Is” Papa III is responsible for the sexual awakening of his female followers. By the end of the video, he performs a strange baptism on all the girls who are sexually of age.

Papa Emeritus III and his female follower embrace in a brightly shining pond. She stares into Papa's eyes after receiving a sort of strange baptism. She emerges from the water soaking wet, shocked, with erect nipples and breasts plainly visble.
Papa Emeritus and a female follower, in bright pastels, complete the baptism ritual of awakening.

Each of the girls is dunked into the bright baptism pool, fully submerged. They go in dry and smiling, and they come up visibly shaken, shocked even, changed. Their breasts are clearly visible under their shifts. They stare at him in utter disbelief. Before they were too awe-struck to touch him. Notice the girl’s hand on Papa’s shoulder after her dunking, a lover’s touch.

This does a couple of things: it is yet another example of Ghost’s rhetoric of freedom through individuality and shared sexual experience. Since Ghost is the antithesis of a religion that enslaves women through sexual suppression and repression, then Ghost is the religion that frees them. Sexual awakening and sexual power have always had a major role to play for Ghost. Another thing this does is reinforce the previous dangerous imagery of the evangelical minister. Jim Jones and other cult leaders, including Charles Manson, often separated the females from the males, ostensibly to protect their sacred bodies, but more often than not so as to keep the women and sexually mature girls for themselves, with always their choice of virgins to “liberate”. Notice Papa does not baptize any men in this scene.

General Observations

First, this is the only music video of Ghost’s that I have ever seen in which the entire band is not present. Ghost is a packaged deal. You do not usually see Papa Emeritus unaccompanied by the Nameless Ghouls. There has been some drama with the band behind the scenes. I do not spread or perpetuate rumors, and I do not speculate about the absence of the band. There are those better qualified than I to write on the subject of the band’s absence from this video.

Second, Ghost has come a long way from the low-budget stage productions and music videos of past Ghost albums, namely Opus Eponymous and Infestissumam. Though always in keeping with the band’s theme and concept, music videos have always been straight forward and conceptual. For example, “Secular Haze” has the feel of being broadcast from a local access evangelical television station.

“Year Zero” only has two scenes in which “plot” actually occurs.

With the coming of Meliora and Popestar, we see a rise in animated, artistic videos, such as “Pinnacle to the Pit” and “Square Hammer”.

And then of course there are videos like “Cirice” and “He Is” in which there is a clear story and what Zev Deans, director of “He Is”, refers to as a “punch line” which is meant to convey criticism as opposed to simply offending anyone (though that does not really matter).

Third, Papa retains the black and white skull makeup marking him as the third incarnation of Papa Emeritus for the video. Papa always has a place in Ghost videos. Notice in “Cirice” that Papa III is played by a small child in the talent show. Papa usually always plays himself in one form or another, and in this, “He Is” is no different. However, it gives the video’s message an edge of irony. You do not serve just any evangelical prophet, you serve Papa Emeritus III. Ultimately the bright pastels and lighting is a lie, a criticism of the highest order of the ridiculousness of evangelical liturgy.

Fourth (I’m sorry!), but the idea of the sexual awakening is not sexually liberating. I feel that the unfortunate result of Ghost’s message is that sexual awakening and sexual growth does not serve the women of Papa’s following, but it serves Papa in much the same way as the evangelical cult leaders that Papa imitates in the video monopolized the female bodies of their followers. In every instance of female sexual awakening, Papa is at the center of it, even with the music video for “Monstrance Clock” in which a young, sexy woman can be seen towards the video, meant to embody the spirit of “Coming together”. Papa and Ghost is the center of this awakening, and it exists only to further romanticize the band. Ghost enjoys a singular coed fan base that is largely due to the power and seduction exuded by Papa in all of his incarnations, even his nasty first incarnation. In my opinion, I feel that to call Ghost “woke” to any feminist idea of sexual liberation grossly misses the point of feminism in which females own their own sexuality as opposed to only being sexualized for a male agenda. If anything, Ghost undermines this and has done so ever since it’s inception. If Ghost were to reverse this, it could be classified as yet another part of their rhetoric, but since they don’t reverse the undermining of female sexual power through individual ownership (which is clear from their depictions of women in their videos), no assertion can be made to me that Papa’s vow to invite sexual freedom to his female followers and promote the enjoyment of sex for all of Ghost’s followers is anything more than sensationalism. Know it, see it, own it, recognize it, and take it for what it is. I do not enjoy Ghost less for this. It’s part of the romance of the band, and part of its allure.

Conclusion

Ghost is one of my favorite bands. While it’s saddening to see that the full band was not part of the video for “He Is”, it is jeartening to see that Ghost is still committed to criticizing organized, evangelical religion that preys on the faith of it’s followers for the sake of a privileged few instead of bringing a community closer together for the sake of the many. Ghost embodies the spirit of individualism, pushes boundaries, encourages conversation, and above all, preaches tolerance through a rhetoric of allegory and satire with decadent spectacle that goes back to the days of Faust. There is Satanism and theater at work in Ghost. Those who tell you otherwise do not understand Ghost.

Though Ghost offers a clear ironic message in “He Is”, it cannot be mistaken for anything but the satire and theatrics the band presents and, unfortunately, continues to undermine feminist individualism (though it is not weaponized and certainly is not meant to be undermining in a way that subjugates. It just doesn’t do its job that well).

The music video for “He Is” is available to watch on YouTube. Spread the Word!

 

Experience Stephen King’s IT in Virtual Reality

For the select few cities lucky enough to receive this gem from San Diego Comic Con, slip into your big girl panties and don’t chicken out on the ultimate introduction to the new IT film, set for release September 8, 2017! The exhibit is free and open to the public, but for us Austin-ites, it was only here for two days! I had heard about it by mid-week but couldn’t land where it was actually taking place until 5 o’clock yesterday. If you missed it, Austin-ites, I’m dreadfully sorry. IT has since moved on.

I would like to preface this write-up by saying I am the least qualified to bring you a run-down of this virtual reality sensory overload. I have a history of reacting badly to horror related events, like haunted houses, haunted hayrides, the Halloween aisle at Party City–all of the Spirit Store…

You get the idea. From almost my earliest memories, I have been absolutely afraid of horror in person. So it was with some trepidation that I talked myself into making the hour long drive up from South Austin to the Alamo Drafthouse at Lakeline Mall to stand before the mere 45 foot long tube of nightmares.

An old retired school bus has been rendered filthy and blackened as if by age and grime. At the tail end of it, the logo for "IT" is scrawled in red paint. Screens on the side of the bus previewed the latest trailer for the film
The FLOAT simulation is a mobile virtual reality experience, first exhibited at San Diego Comic Con, and now on a limited tour ahead of the release of the new IT film.

I almost got back in my car and left.

Outside, a line formed, mostly of people leaving the theater. The experience didn’t open it’s doors until 7, which meant those leaving the new Annabelle: Creation showing were able to catch it on their way out. The folks in line ahead of me spoke in animated tones, having seen the four-minute clip of Georgie’s final moments before Annabelle. Some are calling that clip the best part of going to see the latest installation of the Annabelle franchise, but that’s neither here nor there.

I'm standing in along the profile of the school bus, which has "Derry High School" stenciled on the side of it like the school bus from the film. Blood and grime spatters the sides.
See, proof I went to a scary exhibit. Alone. Like a big girl.

I signed the waiver saying I don’t have any medical conditions and took my place in line. This was to be me no real film footage, but rather a cinematic adventure that lasted only about 12 minutes at the most. An excellent aperitif to anyone going into the theater and a night cap for those leaving–if one dared.

Upon entering, you are bathed in strobing light pulsing over a pair of sliding double doors at the end of the space (roughly half the size of the bus). Normally I would have been nauseously afraid, being at the end of the line, a prime target for any other haunted house exhibit. But this was nor ordinary haunted house. The strobing light gave the cramped space the impression of being bigger than it was. Fog–dare I say it–floated from nozzles at our feet. All around us were the haunting, anxious sounds of the sewer we “Losers” found ourselves standing in.

Scott Wampler got a few shots of the interior of the space on his write-up at birthmoviesdeath.com. I’ve taken the liberty of showing them off here. Credit goes to the photographer. This was the same exhibit I went to yesterday.

Scott Wampler stands patiently waiting for the double doors to slide back.
Fellow Austin-ite Scott Wampler at birthmoviesdeath.com snapped this shot of the doors of the “pipe” we all stood in. I stood with about six other people during my visit, so pictures were impossible. Credit to the photographer.

In the same room as the sliding double doors, a backlit floor representing the floor of the “pipe” we were standing in. In the streaming “water” lay the scattered “remains” of the children lured into Pennywise’s lair. George’s boat was easily recognizable, along with a shoe and a Frisbee.

The backlit floor looked as close to streaming sewer water as you could get without getting your feet wet. "Debris" littered the "water", including Georgie's boat.
Scott Wampler and the folks at birthmoviesdeath.com snapped a shot of the floor of the “pipe” we were standing in.

 

As we stood in the “pipe” listening to Pennywise “approach” and laughing in a strained manner, a cold rush of air blasted us out of nowhere. We all got quiet, then laughed it off nervously, anticipating the sliding doors, which did eventually slide open after the last of the exhibit group before us exited the bus. Our “tour guide” surprised us with a good-natured “Boo!”

Stepping inside the back half of the bus was an altogether different experience than the “tube”. Red light flooded the “cabin”, and two rows of high-quality cinematic motion chairs greeted us. We adjusted our headsets and headphones. Be wary. As soon as the headset goes on, the event starts, so be quick, and don’t take it off. Remember to turn your chair, and look around. Some of the scenes have images that take place around and behind you. Don’t be afraid to move around. And don’t sit on your cords.

Obviously you can’t take pictures of the exhibit. I won’t reveal any scenes or events. None of it was “spoilery” in any case. Nothing you haven’t seen in the trailers. The motion of the VR environment and the movement of the chair make for an adventure rarely had even in the Capital of High Tech Entertainment. Prepare to have your spatial orientation tested, along with your mettle. From the fog floating around our feet, to the motion of the chairs, everything floated. VR is an excellent medium for voyeurism. You are not part of the reality so much as you are on a journey through it. You still live through the experience of someone or something that is not yourself. There you are in the chair, already suspended, and constantly in motion. Your lack of control over the situation is just one part of the cosmic fear you will experience on this exhibit. You are alone in the headset. You came with friends, but none of them can save you. This is the essence of IT. In the end, each of the Losers, though in company, journeys into the sewers alone to face their own particular fears. Pennywise just happens to be the face of them.

I will say this. Bill Skarsgard is the end-all-and-be-all of Pennywise. Tim Curry’s camp is a thing of the past, and in the past is where it shall stay. Bill Skarsgard frightens with his gravelly accent. He seduces with friendly tones. He invites you with open arms. You want to go play with him. What could possibly go wrong? Bill Skarsgard and Tim Curry both offered their victims the promise a good time; an empty promise, with a cold grave, but each went about it in their own way, and each were successful. If you look at it that way, you won’t be disappointed with Skarsgard as the new Pennywise. Like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Tim Curry will go down as much-beloved and fondly-remembered as Pennywise (and still a favorite!), but no longer King Clown.

They assured us we were being recorded. I’m waiting for video to surface of me talking to Pennywise like an old friend before gradually changing my tune.

Myself standing outside the FLOAT exhibit, too jangled to go back in. Later I would wish I had.
My nerves were so jangled after that, I could only be on the highway for a few seconds before I nearly had a panic attack. I took the back roads back to Mopac and sped all the way home.

I should have gone back through a second time. The event was free, so there is no cost prohibition. I did not ask if I could go back through. At the time, once was enough for me. But I had one eye open through all of it, and kept my back purposefully to Pennywise for a lot of it. His voice followed me. The balloons…

The exhibit’s next stop is Miami. If you are in any of the upcoming towns, I strongly urge you to go step inside and let Pennywise take you for a literal spin.

The front of the exhibit in partial opacity with FLOAT: A Cinematic VR Experience as the title. Upcoming tour dates are Miami August 14, Philidephia, PA the 18th through the 20th, Chicago, Illanoise the 24th through the 27th, Toronto, Canada August 30th through September 3rd, and heads back to Los Angeles, CA September 8 (film release date) through September 10th.
The upcoming tour dates for FLOAT.

 

Stephen King’s IT: Trailer #1

A large, glowing pair of letters, I T, are emblazoned on a blood splattered black background.
IT’s new title and logo is a throwback to the old logo released on the cover of King’s novel in 1986.

Let’s all be real for a second. The first two glimpses we had of IT thus far have only been teasers. Here we are two months out from the release of the film, and we get our first real trailer, a full two-minutes and twenty-three seconds.

And quite honestly, the hype is starting to get to me.

Falling Back In Love With IT

For those of you just joining us, and who’ve managed to live under a rock for the last seventeen years, the film adaptation of Stephen King’s enduring novel, IT, is getting a reboot. There are some notable changes to the costume, characters, and nature of the monster from the mini-series, which starred Tim Curry as the clown aspect of a monster haunting the small town of Derry, Maine.

There are those of us who spent our childhood terrified of clowns thanks to Tim Curry’s performance in 1990. Then, there are those of us whose love of horror and the weird is encapsulated in this iconic horror character. For those whom this fear is enduring, I feel for you, because the rest of us are going to go see IT in theaters. In the dark. With our closest friends.

IT was both a bright spot and a turning point in my childhood. My twin sister and I were die-hard horror fans. By the age of 14, she and I had been renting–because that was a thing!–and reading horror stories and films that required a parents’ presence. Our parents never censored our reading, and my mom handed over her ID in irritation every time it was asked for.

“I don’t understand why I have to be here,” she would say, “They can watch whatever they want, but if it gives ’em nightmares, they ain’t sleepin’ with me.”

Callous, yes, but I appreciated it. It made me feel in control. The bright spot was that, as a young teen, I knew that at any point I could make my own decisions about what I read and saw, and I never let anyone make those decisions for me. As result, I’m now quite sensitive as an adult to how my step-son feels about some content. We don’t force violent or explicit content on him (we have small living situation and only one TV), yet we don’t actively monitor what he is watching (unless there is sex, of course. Jeez yall.).

My best friend, conversely, was having every step of her existence monitored because it was believed that her “bad behavior” was linked to what I was doing. If anything, her bad behavior was linked to the negative attention she was getting at home. The only time her parents paid any attention to her was when she was doing something wrong. I became the house pariah. If I got to watch horror movies in my house, she didn’t in hers. If I got to go to metal concerts, she didn’t. If my mom bought me a book, and I let her borrow it, her parents took it and gave it circuitously back to my parents, who handed it right back to me with a sideways smirk, more aggravated that they had been brought out into public after six p.m. than by anything someone else thought I had done wrong.

My friend was trying to live through me, and IT became our best-kept secret. IT was one of the few films we thought we got away with. There was little sex, and most of the horror was supernatural. No slicing and dicing (unless you count Henry Bowers). IT the miniseries was largely harmless compared to the novel, which my friend never made it all the way through–at least at the time.

The cover art for the novel features Georgie's paper boat resting beside a sewer grate, through which green claws emerge to grasp at the surface.
Cover art for Stephen King’s 1985 novel, IT

I read the book at an age where many parents would have slapped it out of my hands had they known exactly how graphic it was. As sharply adult as the contents were, I did not put it down. I read it four times, twice in the summer before high school. My sister read through it the first and second time with me, but after I began it the third time, then the fourth time, she put it down in favor of other King novels, The Tommyknockers, Misery, and Carrie. I had read The Eyes of the Dragon in middle school, and I would go on to read The Green Mile, but IT will forever be cemented as my gateway drug to Stephen King.

The turning point was certainly the content. Up to that point, IT was the hardest novel I had ever read (and I had been reading adult novels for a year by then–none of them “age-appropriate”). Though it would be several years before I attempted anymore hardcore adult books (Brian Lumley), I found that I learned something about human nature every time I read it. I learned that all bullies come from somewhere, and that somewhere is usually their home. I learned that our parents can be very dangerous to us. I learned that abuse is not love. I learned that sex is not love–and I probably learned a lot about sex. I learned that some people are born evil, and some are made that way by circumstance and hardship, but that no evil is excusable. I was more afraid of the way Tom treated Bev than I was of the wolfman in the old house. I was more afraid of Bev’s dad than I ever was of Pennywise. I learned that even a bully like Henry Bowers was nothing compared to the serial killer in the making that was Patrick Hocksetter, and I learned how satisfying it can be when a truly bad character gets what is coming to him. I learned about the soul-crushing grief of a losing a child. Thanks to IT, I learned about Lovecraft’s weird tale before I had ever even heard his name, and that set the stage for further reading, which has led me to this point in life, where everything we touch seems to be connected to Ol’ Howard in some way, and though I was not truly introduced to Lovecraft through King–I have Brian Lumley to thank for that pleasure–the essence of Lovecraft’s danger from the Outside is tangible in IT.

I learned a lot when I read that novel, and like the Losers Club, I will say that I learned far too much about life, sex, and fear, and I learned it far too fast.

Trailer Break-Down

Our first two introductions to Andrés Muschietti’s take on this much-debated favorite were teasers. Each of them featured iconic scenes that those who favored both the miniseries and the novel would have recognized: Georgie’s end, and the venture into the sewer in the Barrens. Who could have guessed that a clown emerging from inside a sewer drain could have come to represent so much fear and anxiety when King wrote it? Who even gave that any consideration? Up until IT, I was just afraid of that flatworm from season two of The X Files. Who could have thought that it could be so much more frightening than just a campy clown with a balloon? Bill Skarsgard thought so, and his portrayal of Pennywise thus far has left nay-sayers in dismay and die-hards in confusion. The departure of the campy Pennywise is having the same effect the departure of campy Batman did, and not everyone is pleased. I am not one of those people.

Bill Skarsgard in Pennywise costume and makeup taunts Georgie, tempting him with his own paper boat. The character is shrouded in shadow, revealing only his slightly glowing eyes and riktus grin.
Pennywise offers Georgie his boat back from his hiding place in the sewer, a new take on a classic scene that is cemented in the minds of all horror fans.

The new Pennywise is much closer to the novel version, with a dingy silver suit and jester’s ruff. He’s less loquacious than Tim Curry’s character. The Pennywise of the novel had always disappointed me a little because he was nothing like Tim Curry, but I think ol’ Pennywise is about to be redeemed. The makeup is far more severe. I love those bucked teeth! I love that crazy hair! I love how gross he gets in standing water! There was never a hair out of place on Tim Curry’s head at any time, but Bill gets down and dirty like the filthy monster that he is!–not Bill himself, duh you guys. Have you all seen Bill Skarsard? Bill’s hot!

The scene in which Pennywise kills Georgie is important to the entire story for two reasons: 1) it gives Bill the motivation he needs to unite the Loser’s Club against the monster stalking Derry; 2) the monster uses Georgie a number of times to lure Bill into a trap. Like the novel and the miniseries, Bill is going to have a large part to play in Derry’s future.

Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise crouches in standing water at the feet of his puppet, the corpse of little Georgie. He is laying or crouching in standing water as Georgie floats above him. Only the top of his soaked head and glowing eyes are visible.
Pennywise uses Georgie to lure Bill into a trap.

Beverly is going to be an interesting character from what I can see in the trailer. It looks like Bev and Bill have a lot of chemistry, and that would not really be terribly off base. Bev and Bill had chemistry in the novel as well. I had more to add to that, but I’m afraid I’ll divulge too much of what’s to come. Read the novel. There are only a few places where you will slightly regret this single life choice.

Bev is not the only female character Pennywise targeted in either the miniseries or the novel, but Bev’s character was unique. Her father abused her mercilessly. It’s almost as if Bev were being groomed for Pennywise, weakened, but Bev surprised It. She fought back. I have more to add to this as well, but again, it may be giving too much plot away for those who haven’t read the novel. So go read the novel!

In each instance in the trailer, Pennywise can be seen targeting specific Losers, not as a group. Not only does this increase the tension for each of the flashes of scene presented, Pennywise is at It’s most frightening when It targets a lone child. Remember in the miniseries when Pennywise threatened Bev in her bathroom. It only sent her a nasty “love note” in the drain, and disappeared as quickly as her father approached. Pennywise’s true power lays in sneak attacks, scare tactics, and a long end game. Pennywise has no power over the average human adult, and the average human adult is only too used to letting things slip under the radar as long as they are not themselves affected. The good people of Derry, as we see in many of the trailer’s scenes, and as Bill asserts, are content to let the matter drop, even as their own children start to disappear.

Bill Skarsgard dressed as Pennywise seems to lean into Bev's window, grabbing her by the throat.
Pennywise surprises Bev in her home.

All in all, I think this trailer, combined with the teasers, has been most enlightening. According to The Verge, there is going to be a lot that derails from the novel and the miniseries, and that is totally fine. Remember that the miniseries was IT Lite, a shallow, bare-bones representation of the book, focused more on giving you the willies about clowns than remaining true to the unique, fully-flensed, robust characters of King’s novel. “The film will also add plot beats and scenes that don’t appear in either the novel or miniseries. It will, however, still use the town of Derry to help illustrate just how deep Pennywise’s influence runs,” writes

Not sure how I feel about referring to the main villain as “Pennywise” considering that was just one of It’s many aspects. Also I’m not too keen on the film setting, but that’s a hold over for nostalgia. In the novel, the Losers grew up in the 50s, and were in their thirties during the adult scenes, which were set in the mid 1980s. Director Andrés Muschietti is giving the story a more contemporary feel, having the Losers grow up in the 1980s, making them my age for the adult plot. This might infuse the story with new blood, and I will more than likely be able to identify with the characters in the story–I assume. Granted, I never had any trouble identifying with the children in the novel despite a 30 year age difference.

I cannot wait to see how this pans out, and I can’t believe we have to wait until September.

Success or Failure: The Nature of a Stephen King Novel

Stephen King’s novels are defined by their characters. No single King novel adaptation has been worth its salt if it is anything but driven by the characters that King worked his bum off to create. This is arguably why the original IT fell a smidge short as a King adaptation, and this where others of his novels excelled, such as the film adaptation of The Green Mile, which adhered close to the plot of the novels and focused its energy on the characters of the novel, which might have been easier than, say, The Langoliers, or IT due to it’s setting. It’s hard not to concentrate on a single aspect of cinema when almost the entire story is set in a single cell block. This is going to be a major challenge for Nikolaj Arcel and his cast as they navigate and condense the boundless realm of The Dark Tower.

Whatever Andrés Muschietti has in mind for the film, it’s success or failure will hinge on his ability to bring not only the monster to life, but the children as well. Stephen King’s cast of characters represented the power of acting in numbers to effect real change. The Losers learned that family and love are not always bonds of blood. There are going to be scenes in the novel that illustrated this that will never see the silver screen. There are also going to be scenes whose lessons were clear in the novel, but were so disturbing in nature that I certainly never want to see them brought to the screen. The genius of King is what he does to the psyche. The genius of those who adapt his works is doing the same thing with fewer child murders. Muschietti will have to find some other way to fill in those gaps for scenes that won’t make it past the FCC.

Conclusion

It cannot be denied that if this film strives to only be a monster movie, it will fail. IT was not a novel about a scary clown. IT was a novel of courage, vengeance, love, and resistance. The monster was merely a universal force to be reckoned with. The true terrors of Derry were bullies who went unchecked; apathetic, abusive, and overprotective parents; and the dreary malignancy that settles on small towns like Derry; and no matter how far we run away from the monsters of our childhood, they have a horrifying way of dragging us back.

I am wholeheartedly looking forward to the new IT. Whether it lives up to the reputation the film is building for itself remains to be seen.

For now, though, we float on.

 

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.”

“Why Aren’t You Laughing!?” Review of The Killing Joke

“Smells like piss. Can’t tell if it’s human or rat, but it’s definitely piss.”

–The Joker, The Killing Joke

Batman: The Killing Joke is a masterpiece.

Artwork of The Joker on the cover of the comic version of The Killing Joke. The Joker holds up a camera portrait style and says, "Smile". Imagine Mark Hamill's voice when you read that.
Cover art for The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland.

That’s the spoiler-free review anyway. If you have not seen the animated film yet, it is out today on iTunes and Blue Ray. I was fortunate to see it the night before with my good friend and resident Pokemon expert, Pixie Phoenix.

SPOILER ALERT!! I WILL TALK ABOUT THE ENDING!!

If you have not seen or read the comic, I highly suggest you do one or the other since those who find themselves better experts on the subject say that the film deviated very, very little from the actual comic plot, the half hour “preamble” about Barabara notwithstanding. This is going to be a long post, so TL;DR: I will address a key argument against The Killing Joke in this review. I’ll talk about my love of the Joker. I’ll talk about the parallels I’ve made between The Killing Joke and other aspects of the Batman lore that have drawn on that comic when it seemed bringing this comic to life was a dark nightmare that no one ever thought we’d get to see in motion (least of all Mark Hamill!). I’ll give a review of the film in general, and close.

Update 7/27/2016:

I agree with Tor.com writer Emily Asher-Perrin when she says there was no way to make this film without offense. It was either derail the plot and risk upsetting the die-hards, or stick completely to the plot and risk upsetting the slew of critics just waiting to pounce on this work, and pounce they did–and with good, ample reason. I think I spent quite a bit of time enraptured in the snare writers and producers set for long-time fans: “give them what they want in almost the way they want it with the people they want most and we can cover up the shoddy characterization, misogyny, and bad transitions.” When I describe the film as a “masterpiece”, I am almost strictly talking about Hamill and Conroy’s acting, the music, and the dialogue. Most other aspects of the film don’t mesh, and they do not correct the graphic novel plot to be inclusive of Barbara without objectifying her. I focused on the Joker. A lot of people are focusing on Barbara. The line has been drawn, and apparently, I have chosen my side. I just want to be very clear that I do not condone or agree with Barbara’s treatment in either the film or the comic. That was something that the writers could have easily corrected with just a hint of female involvement in writing, production, or any aspect of the character. I’m not sure why Tara Strong went along with the character. I’m not sure why any of the explanations offered by the writers and producers are half-assed and shifty at best. I can only offer what I walked away with. I leave the scathing review of The Killing Joke that I wanted to include but couldn’t bring myself to write in the hands of people far more qualified to write it here.

Batman: The Animated Series  And Why I Love The Joker

I am sitting at my desk wearing a children's Joker t-shirt from Gap Kids. It's a pastel blue, purple and green shirt.
Ashley wearing her favorite old-school Joker t-shirt.

You would not know it by looking at me–and I mean this as sarcastically as humanly possible–but I have a thing for the Joker. Always have, always will. I suppose you might say *cue the montage* that it all started with my childhood…

Most afternoons we had to make choices about which cartoons we watched. I say “we” because I shared this afternoon burden with a twin sister. Batman: The Animated Series ran congruously with Superman: The Animated Series. If Superman came on, we watched something else. If Batman came on, we watched Batman. These were some of the most pleasant afternoons of my life. The Batman was my childhood companion rivaled only by Indiana Jones. Batman villains were my bread and butter. My friends up and down the block proclaimed profusely that I either A) could not love the Batman because I was a girl and therefore did not understand or B) did not love the Batman as much as they did because I didn’t have any action figures, and my parents would not buy them because I was a girl. That assumption was not true. My parents did not buy me Batman figures because we were flat broke and I had priorities. I never asked for Batman figures. I did not need Batman figures. I thought that if anyone understood the Batman, it was me, and I kept it to myself–and considering how much crap I got about being a girl and liking Batman, that’s not altogether surprising.

Second only to my love for the Batman was my love for the Joker, a love that was something childish and not childish (if you take my meaning). I knew from my earliest days that the Batman and the Joker were always going to oppose each other. I knew that like the Yin and Yang you could not have Batman without the Joker. Of course, as a child, I could not tell you why I loved the Joker. I just did. It made sense for that to be true, and I never questioned it.

As an adult, I can tell you now that the Joker represents the lawlessness I am looking for in a heavily-structured life. He is the chaos machine I want to be. He is the pain, the rage, the part of me that walked up the abyss and fell in. He is the part of me that was desperate to give into the madness and spiral out of control. He is the part of me that laughs at the enormous joke that is humanity. Like HPL, he knows–perhaps through better experience–that humanity’s role in the universe represents only a passing moment in time, and that everything we care about is meaningless, and our attempts to attach meaning to any one thing or person is laughable. The Joker makes the case for giving up and letting life and meaninglessness wash over you. The Batman is the example of why you should never allow that.

This is not Barbara’s Story

Feminist author and Twitter enthusiast, Cat Valente, is highly respected in literature, though she does have her detractors among the Sick Puppies and Gamergate movements. I myself hold her work in very high regard, and I consider her to be one of the foremost women writers of our time. However, Ms. Valente and I usually part ways at Batman. She shares many of her contemporaries’ opinion that Batman is a “militarized extension of the elite.” Whether or not this is true is not up for debate today. She and I got into it on Twitter about her views on The Killing Joke. Her primary argument to me (and it was not a conversation she relished) was that “[The Killing Joke] is everyone’s story but Barbara’s.”

Barbara Gordon, "Batgirl" hangs from a water tower as she scopes out a crime. It is night.
Barbara Gordon, “Batgirl” hangs from a water tower as she scopes out a crime.

I don’t disagree. At the end of the comic of The Killing Joke, Barbara’s story is unresolved. Her paralysis, rape, and degradation had no meaning outside of the Joker using it to try to break her father, Jim Gordon. Women of the Batman universe have little use except to move plot. Batman stays single. The Joker likes hookers and animatronics. Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and Harley Quinn are all sex symbols, and Harley’s treatment at the hands of Bob Kane’s successors was no more empowering and no less degrading than her original incarnations. Her Suicide Squad incarnation is downright infuriating. The Birds of Prey are little more than eye-candy. Batgirl (Barbara) was a bright, shining light in the sausage fest that is the Batman universe, and in The Killing Joke, Alan Moore snuffed her light out. I do not like her treatment. I think the story of Batman, in general, could benefit from strong female characters. That’s why I like Oracle.

Fans of the comics, televisions shows, film spin-offs, and the games will remember that Barbara rekindled her work with the Batman as Oracle, the wheel-chair bound computer wiz using the cameras her father placed around Gotham to give the Batman a bird’s eye view of the city. This was how she was portrayed in the film. She transcended what was done to her in The Killing Joke, but the comic did not seem to portray this. The film made only a passing attempt to resolve her story. Still, even with the transcendence, Oracle was a compromise. Yes, they had a strong female character, yes they degraded her, but, “Hey look at that! She rose above the pain and horror! She’s strong!”

That might have made sense if she had been a strong character to begin with. In the film, The Killing Joke, Barbara is a plaything for the sociopathic, often-indulged third nephew of a mob boss, Paris Francesco. Despite warnings from the Batman, Barbara walks into the sociopath’s trap. She could not resist the flattery he offered her–something she was not getting from her partner. The relationship she had with Batman was meaningless, and she was willing to let it be meaningless if it meant she could stay by his side. She lacked everything that made the Batman strong, and he was only too quick to point that out to her. In the end, she gave it up, settling for a normal life as a college student, the daughter of Commissioner Gordon, and nothing more. People say Barbara was the catalyst for the plot of The Killing Joke, but even that is giving her too much. The Joker’s breaking point was the catalyst of The Killing Joke, not Barbara’s. The Batman left her to languish in a hospital bed while he sought the enemy, but not for her vengeance. In the end, that did not matter. What mattered was the Batman needed to reconcile with the Joker, to help him, to know him, so that they would not have to kill each other. He was as interested in helping Barbara as he was in being with her. Even Jim’s unwillingness to break, paralleled with his daughter’s and Batman’s, does little to soften the downright unkind manner with which this character is treated.

Batman leans over Barbara's hospital bed as she awakes from unconsciousness. The full horror of her situation dawns on her, and Batman has just been told she will never walk again.
Barbara lays in a full body cast after she has been battered and raped by The Joker.

No, this is not Barabara’s story. You have to realize that. If it makes the film unenjoyable, then so be it. It is something that I have to reconcile myself to. I have to deal with that cognitive dissonance on my own, as each of us must. The important thing to take away from The Killing Joke is that while it may not be Barbara’s story, we now have the ability to recognize this and say, “this is not fair; this is wrong,” where before we just accepted it. The fact that The Killing Joke is not Barbara’s story is not something we have to languish over. The fact that Harley Quinn is now a sexual, as well as emotional and physical, punching bag for the Joker is nothing new and we do not have to languish over it. If we are smart, we’ll look at these two examples of what’s wrong with Batman and try, again and again, to make sure we stop making those mistakes. Know it, recognize it, remember it, and when we move on, correct it, then I’ll be happy.

Borrowing from The Killing Joke

The Killing Joke always seemed so unattainable. Its grit and brutality meant it might never hold a place in the film franchises making up the Batman lore. Only recently have we come to see true grit, mindless rampage, and brutal terrorism on a numbing scale in the last three Batman films, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. The Dark Knight is the film that borrows most heavily from The Killing Joke.

Up until The Killing Joke, the origin of the Joker is fuzzy at best. There are several origin points that are all possible, but The Killing Joke is the first attempt to nail down the Joker’s past. The Joker told the Batman in The Killing Joke, “I remember it differently every time…if I’m going to have a test, then I prefer it to be multiple choice.”

I took this to mean that the Joker’s memories of his past are purely based on a subjective reasoning. Each time he remembers what drove him past the breaking point, he remembers it differently. To illustrate the fact that his world–however it happened–was turned upside down, he recreates the kitchen he shared with his wife in the carnival, only all of the fixtures and furniture hang upside down from the ceiling. It represents the jumble of memories, and the fact that no matter how he looks at it, the outcome was the same. It did not matter how it happened or whose fault it was. None of it mattered in the end, a testament to his outlook on life and sanity.

This scene made me think immediately about The Dark Knight. In several places–as you die-hards will know–the Joker asks his victims, “Do you want to know how I got these scars?” It’s one of my favorite aspects of the franchise because it always hit on the fact that there are so many different origin stories of the Joker, and that any or all of them might be true.

The Joker agrees to release Rachel if the Batman reveals who he is. He has Rachel in a headlock, backing towards a window.
The Joker, Heath Ledger, waves a pistol threateningly as he puts Rachel in a headlock.

However, looking back on the Joker’s statement, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker with many stories is a throw back to The Killing Joke instead of the other origins. Some die-hards may already have drawn this conclusion. Heath Ledger’s Joker tells every story of his breaking point differently, doing the same thing to his victims that he does to himself. He recreates himself every time he crafts his origins, and he does it specifically for each victim, to impress upon them the gravity of their situation, to humanize himself, to say “I was just like you once, but then I broke, and so will you.”

Earlier in the scene, the Joker presses a knife to Rachel's face as he tells her a personalized version of how he got his scars. He wraps up by pressing the knife to her lips and says, "Now I see the funny side. Now I'm always smiling."
Earlier in the scene, the Joker tells Rachel a version of how he got his scars.

Other aspects of The Killing Joke in The Dark Knight is the Joker’s treatment of Harvey Dent. Instead of raping and paralyzing Rachel, the Joker breaks Dent by killing Rachel. The physical disfigurement was icing on the cake, but the objective is the same: life is meaningless, justice is meaningless; the Joker did everything he did, “to prove a point,” that “the only way to live is without rules.” Though the method was different, the motivation between the two films was the same. The ending, in which Batman points out to the Joker, “You are alone,” is a stark contrast to the end of The Killing Joke‘s “You don’t have to be alone.” I love both, but I think I love The Killing Joke‘s ending more.

Mask of the Phantasm touches a bit of The Killing Joke‘s darkness, though here we have a much different origin for the Joker, one of many. The Joker must protect himself from the daughter of an enemy from his past. Though it is still very much set in the style and character of The Animated Series, there is a low-lying brutality to the Joker’s character.

The Joker, voiced by Mark Hamill, makes an appearance in the Batman animated film, Mask of the Phantasm. He is wearing a black coat and wide brimmed hat, with that killer grin on his face we remember from the tv show, but there is added menace to it. It's not as campy. He is as frightening as he was meant to be.
The Joker, voiced by Mark Hamill, makes an appearance in the Batman animated film, Mask of the Phantasm.

Up until that point, I had never seen the Joker actually physically assault someone, or express sexual interest in anyone–not even Harley Quinn–on television or in the movies. The other aspect that borrows from The Killing Joke is the World of Tomorrow, the amusement park in which the Joker sets up his shop in Mask of the Phantasm. In The Killing Joke, the Joker sets up in an amusement park or carnival, where he intends to drive Gordon mad. In many ways, Mask of the Phantasm may have been considered a compromise between lovers of The Animated Series and The Killing Joke.

Film Review

The Killing Joke is a masterpiece.

The Joker rides a small train through his lair in an episode of Batman the Animated Series.
The Joker rides a small train through his lair in an episode of Batman the Animated Series.
The Joker stands dramatically behind a the large canon of a tank wearing a mockery of a tank driver's uniform with his right arm raised in a very Nazi pose that most children would not get, but that is easily visible to adults. This is from Batman the Animated Series
The Joker was a far campier character in the Animated Series.

I keep trying to explain that The Killing Joke was my childhood and yet not. The story is nowhere near what I would have been exposed to as a child. The “dark Joker” that the Internet is raving about was not the same Joker. Mark Hamill highlighted the many ways in which the Joker changed for him in a short interview before the film began. He mentioned that his role as the Joker progressed into something different with each franchise.

The Joker in the Animated Series was not the same Joker as The Mask of the Phantasm even though it was the same universe. I’ll never forget the Joker smacking Adrien Beaumont, masked as the Phantasm, with a giant salami–perhaps the best phallic symbol of all time–and pinching the ass of an animatronic wife in the House of Tomorrow. That Joker was not the same as the abusive, vitriolic, sick Joker of the Arkham  games. The one that had only ever threatened Harley Quinn died under the brutality of this Joker, wasted and even more unpredictable in ways we had only ever imagined. The Joker of the Arkham games was only a taste of the darkness the Joker became in The Killing Joke. 

The Joker in the video game Arkham City. In this version, the Joker's hairline is receding, his face is scarred and pocked as if from disease, and his facial structure is gaunt and frail. He is neither handsome like Jared Leto nor the solid wall of chaos that was Heath Ledger.
The Joker leers at Batman in Arkham City.

All the same voice, always the same actor, always the same character throughout, yet somehow different every time. Mark Hamill’s voice as the Joker defined what an entire generation believes the Joker to sound like. Many believe Jack Nicholson to be the penultimate Joker. For myself, and many of my age group, if Mark Hamill was the best Joker, then Heath Ledger was the last Joker. There is an entire market devoted to The Suicide Squad, but Jared Leto is not my Joker. The Suicide Squad is not my Batman. Unlike Batman vs. Superman, where at least the introduction to the Justice League saves the film, The Suicide Squad has no place in my lore.

This is a promotional image for Jared Leto in the Suicide Squad film. He is tattooed, white skinned, with short cropped hair and a pimp-like purple alligator skin coat.
Jared Leto’s promotional picture for his role as the Joker in Suicide Squad.

Mark Hamill will always and forever be my first, my best Joker. It was not the PR nightmare Mark Hamill envisioned, “Luke Skywalker cannot be the Joker!” It was the next step. Mark Hamill will always be known as the man who gave us all some of the best parts of our culture. Kevin Conroy was amazing, as always, and in my mind, he was and always will be the Batman. His character changed with the Arkham games too, but Batman is always fundamentally the same. His principles never change, even if his voice does, and that is what I have always loved about Batman.

It was very important to me when I heard that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill would reprise their roles in the Arkham games. As a longtime fan of the show, and a connoisseur of all things that spun off of it (The Mask of the Phantasm) the games were part of the Batman lore cycle that I accepted (and still accept) and were, therefore, necessary to my existence. They reunited my childhood hero and villain duo in an adult object that I could enjoy and no adult males masquerading as social justice warriors could ruin for me. It was equally important for me, and pivotal to my interest in seeing it, that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill take their places once again in front of the microphone to give voice to the Batman and the Joker, alongside character voices of Ray Wise as Commissioner Jim Gordon and Tara Strong as Barbara Gordon. Wise and Strong have long histories in animation voice acting in the DC universe.

The music was key to this film. Soundtrack adds to tension and creates atmosphere. There was a beautiful documentary on the music of The Killing Joke at the end of the theater showing I saw. I loved to hear how much thought was put into the musical number the Joker performs in the fun house while he parades Jim Gordon up and down pictures of his daughter naked and laying in a pool of blood, her legs laying in directions they shouldn’t be, degraded and defiled, Gordon screaming the whole way through. Mister J sings and dances a Broadway show tune, upbeat tempo and major notes like something out of Cole Porter with lyrics about going bat-shit crazy to escape reality. The composers, animators, and actors wanted to show that the Joker perverts everything. He takes a fun filled place like an old carnival and turns it into a house of horrors.

The Joker holds a cane in one hand and a straw hat in the other and opens his song-and-dance number as Gordon is paraded through images of his raped daughter.
The Joker opens up his song-and-dance number in The Killing Joke.

He takes a show tune and twists it around to make something lively and animated into something slovenly and brutal. He uses a haunted house to haunt a naked and shaking father and lawman. Everything that is joy in life he turns into hate. Everything that’s beautiful, he defiles. The music in the haunted house is key to the character, and gives life to the musical number in the comic that was not there before. According to composers, they used some aspects of the episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, “The Music Meister” as a reference, drawing on more lore to supplement their repertoire.

 The Killing Joke was an exploration of the depravity of human nature. The Killing Joke was the illustration of how “one bad day” can make or break a person, and it is up to that person to decide if we will be broken or remain whole. In trying to break Barbara, the Joker made Oracle. In trying to break Gordon, the Joker only reminded Gordon of why he does everything “by the book”. Gordon wanted to show the Joker “that our way works” even after what the Joker did to his daughter; in trying to show Batman the error of his ways, to teach him to join the Joker in his madness, the Joker proved that he only saw in Batman everything that he was not. It took the Joker to show Batman that he did not have to hate the Joker, that he could stand by his rules and never bring the Joker to his death; it took the Batman to show the Joker that there had always been another way, if only he had been strong enough to see it. He saw it then, staring at the Batman’s outstretched hand, the hand of friendship in spite of everything the Joker had ever done to him. He saw it too late, but in that moment the Joker was finally strong enough to see it. In that strength, he admitted his weakness, and then embraced that weakness. The Joker and the Batman stand as equals in the rain, sharing a laugh at a Joke. The Batman laughs with his enemy, reminding us all that the Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin. The man who laughs last is perhaps more revealing than the man who laughs first.

Though lacking in strong female characters, The Killing Joke is a cultural milestone, a reminder that we are not always ready for the art that has been created for us. Though Alan Moore and Brian Bolland gave us The Killing Joke in 1988, it took 28 years to get it to the screen. It needed time to ripen, time to fester and brood, and it need an audience mature enough to accept it and read all of Moore’s and Bolland’s genius into it. Everything is well-planned, down to the pile of baby heads upon which the Joker’s throne sits, perhaps representing the baby that died with his wife, all the babies he would never have, and all the babies no one would ever have if he had his way. The Joker is everything about human nature that we hate, and yet there he is, lurking deep down inside each one of us. Each of us must eventually step up to the edge of that abyss, and not all of us can bring ourselves to fall in; not all of us will go down and rise like the Batman did. I have a sign up over my desk at home that says, “Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman, then you should always be Batman.” I try to take that to heart because when I walk up to the abyss and look down, I remember that a weak man once did the same thing, and he drowned in it. I try to be Batman. I try to be strong. I try to forgive. That is the beauty of The Killing Joke. It is a story of brutal hatred, self-hatred, and forgiveness, even if the one that needed to forgive himself the most can no longer do it.

The Joker stares with shiny eyes around him as he turns on the lights at the dingy, filthy carnival he has just purchased.
The Joker hits the lights at his “new” carinval in The Killing Joke

Download or buy The Killing Joke. In terms of true art and genius, you will not be disappointed. Those looking for some sort of Barbara reclamation are going to be sad. Know it, recognize it, remember it, and when we move on, correct it. That is all we can do.

Folklore Thursday: Norse Mythology and the Descendants of Sigmar

The Norse God, Odin, sits on his throne in this black and white woodcutting. He is flanked by his wolves and his ravens.
A depiction of Odin sitting on his throne with his ravens.

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

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

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

Religious Rituals and Myth in Pre-Christian Norse Pagans

In a very condensed overview, the mythological cycles and religious practices of pre-Christian Scandinavia (Norse Pagans) were decentralized (read “not organized”) rituals and practices that were passed orally and whose primary purpose was the “survival and regeneration of the society,” (“Norse Rituals” wikipedia).  There is little written or recorded of the various religious practices, rituals, and worship, and though I lack sufficient primary sources to back up the claim, my experience reading Beowulf  (arguably a very big compromise between the “new customs” and “ancient customs”) revealed that Christians discouraged–if not reviled–the “ancient customs” of the Norse pagans. Unfortunately for contemporary scholars whose interest lies in documenting or compiling the rituals and traditions of the Norse Pagans, the Christian church kept better records during the Conversion Period than the Norse Pagans did. The most exemplary collection of Norse Mythology (though not a great source of information regarding rituals and religious customs) is the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda compiled by Snorii Sturluson.

The practice of religion was, as I mentioned, decentralized, meaning that it was sort of the responsibility of each village and family to carry on the traditions of the Norse Pagans and pass down the “ancient customs” (forn sidr). The structure of the Norse state in the Middle Ages was emulated at the local level by the village leaders, then in the home by the family leader, probably the oldest surviving male progenitor (in ancient Greece, this was called the Patra Familias). If you want an excellent glimpse into the power structure of the Norse pre-Christian Pagans, watch Vikings . It’s not exactly scholarly, but it satisfies as a basic glimpse.

According to a well-documented Wiki article, “Sacrifice (blót) played a huge role in most of the rituals that are known about today, and communal feasting on the meat of sacrificed animals, together with the consumption of beer or mead, played a large role in the calendar feasts. In everyday practice, other foodstuffs like grain are likely to have been used instead. The purpose of these sacrifices was to ensure fertility and growth. However, sudden crises or transitions such as births, weddings and burials could also be the reason. In those times there was a clear distinction between private and public faith, and the rituals were thus tied either to the household and the individual or to the structures of society,” (“Norse Rituals” wikipedia).

Pure Speculation: a possible example of the residual affects of Anglo Saxon (read “Viking”) occupation of the Celtic peoples of Northern England may lie in the Madrigal Feasts of the Yultide during the Mideaval times. During the Madrigal Feasts, songs would be sung (like the “Wassail”–consisting of warmed mead or mulled wine) over a wild pig or boar. Though heavily Christianized, the Medieval practice speaks heavily to the rituals of sacrifice at a key point in the Celtic calendar, Yule. During the Yule season, the people celebrated the regeneration or rebirth of the sun’s power, which is not altogether different from some of the birth and regeneration sacrificial rituals of the Norse Pagans.

The Myth of Thor: Protector of the Humans

The Norse God Thor rides his chariot, drawn forward by mountain goats, over snow as the red-headed god waves his mighty hammer, Mjolnir.
The Norse god Thor rides his chariot over snow, wielding Mjolnir.

Thor was incredibly popular during the Middle Ages. During the Conversion, many Scandinavians worse symbols of his hammer, Mjolnir, and his was just one of the many names of the Norse gods that found their way into baby names in defiance of the Conversion. Thor represented humanity’s protection from the many enemies that beset them, namely the Jotuns of Jotunheim, also known as the Frost Giants, who are said to have been driven away by Odin, the All Father. King Olaff II came to embody the myth of Thor. He had red hair, a red beard, and wielded a hammer. After the Christianization, Thor was being invoked in England and Norway as late as the 11th Century. During a time of incredible upheaval involving the villainization and demonizing of the forn sidr, it is not too much of a stretch to postulate that the Norse were looking for guidance in their ever-changing world. As the ages-long symbolic protector of the Norse people, Thor was very likely who they turned to for leadership. Thor and his father, Odin, probably represented a return to the old ways, the vestiges of a glorious time.

Warhammer and Norse Folklore: Sigmar Heldenhammer

Sigmar, the leader of the human empire, holds the might Warhammer aloft over he corpses of Orcs.
Sigmar holds the mighty Warhammer aloft.

In the Warhammer universe, there existed in the Time of Legends a warrior, Sigmar Heldenhammer. He became the eternal patron god of the Cult of Sigmar among the human descendants of the warrior tribes of the world that would later be united under the banner of the Empire of Man. According to the Warhammer lore, Heldenhammer stands for “Hammer of the Goblins”. Sigmar united twelve tribes under a single banner, destroying all who opposed his rule. His rise to power was dogged by the warring tribes such as the Jotuns and Endals. After uniting the tribes, he used his “hammer and fury” to push the Greenskins and Norsii (tribes that worshiped Chaos) from his lands. He ruled for 50 years after being crowned Emperor. During the Golden Age, Sigmar would go on to defeat Nagash the Undying himself to stop him from bringing about the End Times. After defeating the new enemies to the empire, he retreated East, never to be seen again. Many claimed to have seen him in visions, and thus the Cult of Sigmar was born, in which worshippers believed Sigmar had in fact ascended to Heaven.

Sigmar was depicted as a huge man, a barbarian by Wizards of the Coast standards, blond (perhaps Scandanavian in origin?), and he wielded a mighty hammer called the Warhammer. Later in the Warhammer version of Total War, the new emperor leading the human faction must prove himself worthy of wielding the Warhammer by leading his people to glory. The Warhammer (Heldenhammer) bears similarities to Thor’s Mjolnir, the mighty hammer that only Thor could wield. Sigmar united his tribes and proclaimed himself the protector of his people. It was ride with Sigmar or die under the hammer, not unlike the warlike nature of the Vikings. Sigmar, who started out as a “historical figure” in the Warhammer universe was later elevated to a deity and worshiped. Arguably, most mythic figures (it can be surmised) derives from folktales and folkstories regarding legendary hero (Heracles, for example, in Greek myth, was not exactly a god, though later he would be worshiped within cults devoted to his exploits), later deified. In Sigmar Heldenhammer, the legends of the Norse Pagans receive renewed attention.

Side note: there are other aspects of Norse influence in the Warhammer universe. The Dwarf faction of the original table top game were structured by clans that closely resembled the pre-Christian power structure. In Total War, the clans are then divided into villages. Each village is governed/protected by a Thane who answers to a Clan Lord, who then answers to the High King. The Dwafes practice rituals designed to appease the gods and worship their ancestors.

Conclusion

Examining the history of the Norse people and their folklore enraptured me as I made my way through my college classes. We explored many aspects of the world folklore in literature in several of my advanced literature courses. University of Texas at San Antonio professor of the Classics, Ken Burchenal, often assigned projects in which we were meant to explore the influence of folklore on classical literature. Dr. Mark Allen, professor of English Literature at the same school, conducted my senior seminar on the Literature of Troy, in which we tracked the influence of The Iliad down through the ages. I wrote my senior seminar research paper on the influence of Greek myth and The Iliad on Science Fiction and Fantasy, namely regarding the works of Dan Simmons Ilium and Olympos. I consider myself a loyal member of the cult of Odin. Also, Loki forever.

Warhammer embodies the best example of the continuing influence over contemporary fantasy literature. Dark Corners‘ coverage of Folklore Thursday and it’s relevance to Warhammer continues next week with the Eastern European Folktales of the Undead, Mannfred von Carstein, and the Vampire Lords.

Folklore Thursday: The God Thoth

A stylized depiction of the god, Thoth, in Ancient Egypt, who was often depicted with the head of an Ibis or babboon. Here he is depicted with the Ibis head with a muscular body holding scroll.
Thoth, the Ibis-headed God of Wisdom and writing in ancient Egyptian lore.

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

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

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

Thoth, Scribes, and Folkways

The God associated in Ancient Egypt with the practice of writing, learning, wisdom, and knowledge was Thoth. Thoth is depicted either as a baboon or a dog-faced baboon, a full ibis, or a man with the head of an ibis. The ibis beak seemed to represent the moon, while the dog-faced baboon or baboon chattered in the morning, Thoth greeting Ra as he rises in the East. It is believed that Thoth was a creator god who gave mankind civilization and language. (Seawright, Caroline “Thoth, God of the Moon, Magic, and Writing”; 2001 thekeep.org). He also assisted Nut in conceiving children (Osiris, Horus (elder) and Set) despite Ra’s protests that any offspring of his and Nut’s would end his reign on Earth (Lace 6).

The Ancient Egyptians employed scribes to read and write. Not all Egyptians had the benefit of those skills. Only certain persons within a family or village could be scribes, and their job was closely regulated. They had to hold apprenticeship within their guild in order to gain the title. Writing for them was a craft, an art form, and a life skill only some were worthy of. It was directly tied to their religion, though they did leave documents behind as clues to everyday life. They composed everything from the mundane, like receipts and calendars, to the important spells used in what has collectively come to be called The Book of the Dead, known individually by the Egyptians as The Book of the Coming of the Forth Day. This is the body of work that includes funerary and protective spells designed to aid the deceased, mummified, member of society through the Duat, the series of challenges faced by the deceased as they make their way to the Hall of the Two Ma’ats. The journey towards final judgement by Osiris in The Hall of the Two Ma’ats was dangerous, and without the knowledge, spells, and names necessary to defeat enemies, the deceased would “die a second death”, having failed to make their way to Osiris be judged, and hopefully join their brethren in the Field of Reeds. Thoth was among the gods whose job it was to assist in getting souls to the afterlife. There is no definitive Book of the Dead because each one was commissioned “to be written during the person’s lifetime and were thus individualized to fit that person’s circumstances,” (Lace, William W. Mummification and Death Rituals of Ancient Egypt, pg 16). In my mind, and to my knowledge, this is one of the few religions in which each person’s needs were seen to in death as opposed to a blanket ritual that encompasses the whole (think Rosary for Catholicism).

Though certain aspects of the religious rites and symbols were closely adhered to, especially in the religious funerary rituals, there were variations on each symbol that was considered acceptable. For instance, the representation of the ba (the human-headed bird representing “personality”) was depicted either as rising through the tomb shaft, hovering above the coffin, or perched in a tree above a tomb (15). These variations represent subtle shifts in folkways, depending almost on taste as form. Each of these variations adheres to the fact that the ba can leave the tomb and roam the earth, and then return. Since most of the funerary spells and depictions were customizable, it was up to individuals how they wanted their tombs to be decorated. As long as the rituals and symbols were adhered to, it could have been simply a matter of taste, or what was fashionable. That, of course, is my own speculation.

The notion of the afterlife and mummification is linked to the creation myths of Ancient Egypt, but it is unclear if the mythic cycle began and then gave rise to the method of burial, or if the Egyptians noticed the particular way bodies buried in the sand seemed to go on and on, giving rise to the idea that the body is the direct link to the afterlife (Lace 19). The iconography, practice, and history are so closely tied together that is difficult to distinguish the beginning of one and the end of another. The origins of and refinement of the religion and the society-wide preoccupation with the celebration of life and death seems inextricably connected. The people believed the gods and the afterlife to be inextricably tied to their lives on Earth, with even the souls of the dead having influence over fortune and misfortune.

There are others in a less historically identifiable capacity that not only believed in gods and the afterlife, but that those gods walked among them and lent them strength and guidance.

Egyptain Tradition Meets Contemporary Literature: Warhammer: Time of Legends

The Warhammer: Time of Legends literary cycle is based off of a table top game by Game Workshops that borrowed real mythic cycles and folklore to build up a gaming system centered on the movement and contest between opposing armies of warring factions. In the current Warhammer cycle in the game Total War, players can build armies under the banner of the Empire, the Dwarfes, the Greenskins (Orcs and Goblins), and the Vampires (base game, not including expansions). Their history is rich and steeped in real-world folklore, not least of which are the chaos hordes. In the original tabletop game, players can build a Horde race (read “hive-mind” or “collective unconsciousness”) called Tomb Kings, which were based almost entirely off of the Ancient Egyptian civilization and borrowed extensively from their military and religious history. In the universe of Warhammer, the region of Nehekhara is located in what we might consider north Africa, like the real Egypt.

This image is a fantasy painting of what might be the great Necropolis of Khemri in the Tomb Kings lore of the table top game, Warhammer.
The remains of a Nehekaran city lay behind and the Necropolis sprawls in the foreground.

The Tomb Kings had their own history and religion that looked very like Ancient Egypt. Nehekhara, the country of origin, was supposedly ruled by a pantheon of gods before the coming of man. They diminished, taking on the aspects of animals or disappearing entirely. Priest-Kings devoted to their worship lead their people in righteous life. Each city–much like Ancient Egypt–had a patron deity. The patron deity of the lesser city of Lybaras was Tahoth, the God of Knowledge and Keeper of the Sacred Lore. Like Thoth, Tahoth is depicted in the pylons of Settra’s court as having an ibis head. In Nagash: The Usurper, the worshipers of Tahoth in Lybaras brought flying ships and their particular knowledge of warfare against the armies of Khemri after Nagash the Usurper unleashed his unholy wrath on Nehekhara, desiring to drive out the old gods and proclaim himself a god.

Though the gods, Tahoth among them, would eventually fall to Nagash, each one represented a tangible power in Nehekhara. The priests were responsible for maintaining the connection to the gods for mankind. The race of Nehekharans was very advanced. They had extremely potent siege machinery, flying machines (Zepplins and airships for the worshippers of Tahoth). The supposedly stood over seven feet tall (Arkhan the Black was one of the tallest Nehekharans on record, towering a head shoulders above his rivals and frienemies), and the people of each lesser city was gifted with the power of their patron deity. The Lybarans were bright, talented people, pale of skin, intelligent, and prized for their technological advances. The leader of Rasetra, Rahk-man-hotep, often made fun of the spindly ruler of Lybaras, a quintessential “nerd”, though Lybaras king was vital in slowing down Nagash’s offensive attack on the holy city of Quatar.

Conclusion

Examining the history and folklore of the of the ancient Egyptians has been a long-time hobby of mine. I remember pleasant childhood memories of rifling through books and watching documentaries on the rites of mummification and the creation myth cycles of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. This love of the ancient world led me to other types of folklore, and my work in college with folklore in literature led me to the conclusion that there is still much to be learned from ancient and revered cultures. Their traditions live on in our own fiction and literature. Studying where our own culture comes from is one of the best ways to get to know ourselves as human beings, and folklore helps us understand that we have been asking ourselves the big questions since time immemorial.

Though our technological advances might outstrip the Lybarans, I can’t help but feel that Thoth, one of my personal patron deities, has always been watching over us.

Motionless In White Press Release: Roadrunner Records

The new logo for Motionless in White ahead of the release of the single track "570".
Motionless In White

Motionless In White, the Scranton, PA metalcore band that took the world by storm in 2010, is making headlines today following the release of their single “570” yesterday and this morning’s press release announcing their acquisition by the major label, Roadrunner Records (Slipknot, Cradle of Filth). It’s common knowledge that Fearless Records was affording the band marginal success. In my humble opinion, MIW is still being billed far too low for their talent level, fan base, and portfolio. Though fans pretty unanimously agree that they (and by “they” I mean “we”–I am loyal withall) deserve a much wider distribution through a major label, the news was received with mixed sentiments. Facebook fans lamented the loss of Motionless In White to Roadrunner over metalcore, thrash, and power metal label, Nuclear Blast (Slayer, Epica, Blind Guardian, Nightwish–do you see where I’m going here?). Others applauded the band’s next leap of success, while still others claim to have seen this coming in the close affiliation of former Roadrunner Records act Cradle of Filth and their frontman, Danny Filth, with  Puppets 3″ on Reincarnate,  as well as the tour with Slipknot (Roadrunner) and Lamb of God (formerly of Roadrunner Records, now with Nuclear Blast).

MIW band members from left to right: Vinny Mauro (drums), Ryan Sitkowski (guitar), Devin "Ghost" Sola (bass), Chris "Motionless" Ceruli, Josh Balz (keyboard), Ricky "Horror" Olson (guitar).
The 2016 promo picture for band Motionless in White ahead of “570” single release and Van’s Warped Tour.

We’ve seen MIW climb the ranks over the last six years. They released their third major studio album, Reincarnate,  in September of 2014 and toured nearly non-stop for most of 2015 and the early part of 2016, wrapping up in the Spring before heading back out on the road for the Van’s Warped Tour. Yesterday’s single mesmerized fans, lauded by some as a return to Creatures with the power and confidence of Reincarnate. I have more words for that in a second, but right now, let’s focus on the press release.

The image is the press release announcement taken from Facebook describing MIW's pride in being picked up by Roadrunner Records.
Motionless In White Press release announcing their acquisition by Roadrunner Records.

Roadrunner Records

According to knowledgeable persons (wiki), Roadrunner belongs to parent company Warner Music Group–formerly Island Def Jam (a far oversimplified history review). Though the label is carrying heavy-hitters like Slipknot and Gojira, their list of my favorite artists that left the label over mistreatment or lack of promotion (King Diamond in particular) is way bigger than the list of brands they support now. According to history, Roadrunner has a bad habit of running lesser bands off the market or dropping them for trendy acts, bands like Pestilence and Goreguts. Fan favorite and personal role model, Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls), dropped Roadrunner records over the portrayal of her body image. Within Temptation, King Diamond, Deicide, Type O Negative, Korn, Cradle of Filth, Nightwish, several of whom are now being supported on Nuclear Blast, all at one time were dropped or left Roadrunner for one reason or another. Though some moved to greener pastures and better European distribution, others had problems with management, marketing, and broken promises.

I am both pleased to hear that MIW has been picked up by the same label Slipknot trusts their brand to, but at the same time, I’m incredibly worried, both for the band and for the state of the metal industry.

The label racket–and it is just that–has made many bands internationally famous, but it has also left a few good bands broken and gasping in a wake of destruction. So many good bands are out there making it on indie or self-published labels that one might wonder just why any good band bothers with major labels anymore. This is not to be confused with my opinions on the digital gluttony that is the indie publication industry, which I still hold in severe reservation despite the fact that my hands are now thoroughly steeped in it. For many bands, indie recognition is just one of the many stepping stones towards getting noticed by major labels and building a brand. For many different bands, it’s all about the music. There are plenty of bands out there that are doomed to fail or never take off, and those are the ones that can’t hack it in the first place and deserve neither indie recognition or major label carriage. Fortunately, that is not MIW’s fate.

Another major question that enters my mind when discussing band infrastructure is the status of touring drummer Vinny Mauro, who replaced Brandon “Rage” Richter in 2014. MIW did not name a new permanent drummer, and did not disclose the name of the person who did the drum tracks in the studio for Reincarnate, but rather saw fit to keep Vinny on as a touring drummer. He was not in any of the promotional materials disseminated by the band in 2015, though he did appear in both of the third album’s official music videos. Only recently has Mauro become a more familiar face, appearing on the cover photo of this morning’s press release. However, there was no announcement with the press release to bring Mauro on as an official member of the band, which would make sense if suddenly MIW found themselves with a corporate sponsor, if you will. If money is the issue behind keeping Mauro on as a scab–because let’s face it, if he’s not an official member, they don’t have to pay him as much–then signing with a major label should remedy that. I don’t put it past Roadrunner to continue screwing Mauro, and I would like to see some announcement that Mauro has been made an official member. For a lot of fans, he’s an integral part of the band.

New Single: “570”

As for the single, “570”, I could not have been happier with it. Chris is such a powerful presence on stage and in the ear canals, and he has come so far vocally.

The song has a dual meaning, revealing some truth in the assessment that the new content from MIW will harken back to a time when the band preached authenticity, anger, and resentment towards the status quo. It is a message to the underdog, the underdog that MIW once was. It’s a proclamation of triumph; it’s looking back at how far the band has come–and Chris Motionless’ personal journey–but a reminder that fundamentally nothing has changed. Motionless In White has been proving their dedication since 2006, a point the song makes perfectly clear, a fact that gives them credibility at a time when belonging to a major label looks like selling out, “ten years on the road, this is sacred.”

“570” is a call to action and a stark reminder that you will never be handed anything in life, with lyrics, “If you mean it, you will make it,” and “I did my time.”

I am overjoyed at the new single, and can’t wait to hear the rest of the album. It’s a shame I won’t make the Saturday show in San Antonio this weekend.

Conclusion: 

I am proud to say I’ve been on board with this group since 2013. I’m proud to be a member of this diverse, young, loyal fan base, and I’m proud of how far the band has come since their first album. I’m excited to see where the band is headed.

Who is Motionless In White? MIW is a metalcore band who got their start touring on low-billed acts, and they’ve been doing the work of producing music and touring since 2006. Their first studio album was Creatures in 2010, followed by Infamous in 2012, then Reincarnate in 2014. You can catch them touring with the Van’s Warped Tour this summer. Check out their website for tour dates.

A gothic building with an antiquated light board that reads "Scranton: The Electric City" in the style characteristic of the artwork from Reincarnate with a more industrial feel.
Taken from the homepage of MIW.

My Personal Recap on the State of Metal and Radio in 2016

Many folks here in Austin, and San Antonio, might agree with me that metal ain’t what it used to be. In Austin, you can get metal–and new releases in metal–only twice a week. Chuck Loesch does No Control Radio on Friday nights at 10 Central on 101X, and L.A. Lloyd (formerly of 99.5 KISS in San Antonio) does the Rock Countdown on KLBJ at 10 Central on Saturday nights. There you’ll hear a delightful mixture of heavy metal, metalcore, power metal, the New Metal revival, and bands like In This Moment, Trivium, October Burns Red, new and old Chevelle, new and old Stone Sour, and a slew of old favorites and emerging talent, both female and male fronted, that you just don’t hear in the mainstream. That’s the problem. Metal is not mainstream, not even when it was mainstream in the 90s. We’ve always been a fringe, and as much as I like that, we’ve encountered an even heavier dismissal of the sound and the genre as the years have passed. Radio presence is slim to nil. Why should it be otherwise? The masses are clamoring for Drake, Taylor Swift, The Weekend, 21 Pilots (how dare Goth kids even speak that name!), and the Biebs. Even in Alternative, Alabama Shakes is the only band asking the hard questions. There is no anger left on the radio, and there is no place for it. The media is shaping our consumption in music with air time bought and paid for by labels no one should listen to with songs from talentless hacks containing messages about women and wealth that I don’t want my stepson to hear. When Meghan Trainor sings about being yourself and loving your body, then loses weight under pressure from the label, it’s hard to know who the heroes are and who is just out to make a few dollars for a couple weeks. We can sit here and say nothing about Motionless In White will change under label influence, but who knows what will be asked of them in the coming years. We saw the reception Ghost had when they accepted their Grammy, an unaired acceptance speech given to a disinterested group of milling celebrities and early arrivals. Metal has no place in the mainstream. The messages we’re trying to send get no bandwidth. The music industry that has the most honest grouping of like-minded individuals and consistent, loyal fan base is met with nothing but mainstream white noise.

People are questioning whether or not this dream was the best course of action for MIW to follow, and only time will tell. If fans think MIW will suddenly appear on the radio, they are sadly mistaken. There’s no room for anger in the mindless gluttony of radio-ready hits, half-insane Rhianna knock-offs, the truly insane Taylor Swift, and quasi-folk infusion bands.

Zul’Ftaghn: The Barrow Caller–A Story of the World of Warcraft: Conclusion

The names, settings, places, and characters of this work are the property of Blizzard Entertainment. I do not own any rights to the story, characters, or content of World of Warcraft. I have not reproduced any work of Blizzard’s for profit, and this blog is not monitized. Cover art design is the work of DeviantARTist Jay Carpenter. 

A Blood Elf Warlock stands resolutely beside his Void Walker companion. This is a digital painting by deviantARtist Jay Carpenter.
DeviantArt painting of a Blood Elf Warlock.

Silas Merricorn walked with a confident stride through the dusky streets of Darkshire. Even at full daylight, the sun did not shine down on the forsaken little town south of Elwyn in the decaying forest of Duskwood. Despite his confidence, the warlock kept his cowl up, his eyes sweeping every street corner and doorway. He approached the town hall, and the jittery man at the door.

“Ahh, Master Silas,” the man stuttered, staring over the taller man’s shoulder, “You never told us you could summon a demon such as that!”

“It was a skill hard won, my friend,” Silas said, smiling within the depths of his cowl, “I seek knowledge from the library.”

“Of course,” the jittery man stammered. He motioned Silas through with a wavering hand, scrambling out of the felguard’s way. He did not follow them into the town hall itself, leaving “Silas” to wend his way on his own. Several other scholars milled about the books in the archive housed within the small town hall.

“Now what, Master?” the felgaurd rumbled.

“Silence!” Zennith hissed, pulling his cowl down to his nose. He detested Mace’s presence, but he had brought the felguard along anyway. If his cover were blown, he would not have time to summon Mace. The felguard amplified Zennith’s Fel power and shielded him from sword and axe alike. Worse, it did not occur to him to make sure no one knew Silas in Darkshire, and unfortunately the jittery human was not the only one. Another human in royal blue robes approached them. Zennith cursed inwardly.

“Welcome back Master Merricorn,” the man said.

Zennith swore inwardly again, and smiled broadly.

Soon they will begin to realize that their Duskwood friend has a very Quel’Thalas accent, he thought.

“Er, greetings,” Zennith said enthusiastically, trying to find the words in the human tongue, of which he had only practiced with Silas. His words still mimicked the Quel’thalas greeting, “It has been too long.”

“Indeed it has,” said the man, who must have been some archivist, “And you’ve summoned a felguard. You must be very proud.”

“Yes, quite,” Zennith said shortly. The other man continued to stare at him, and Zennith wondered if he might be more useful alive than dead.

“I was wondering, my friend,” he said as fluidly as possible, “Where I might find information on this artifact. I was informed that it originated in the area.”

He produced the scroll depicting the Barrow-Caller. The man recognized it immediately.

“Hmm, the scroll did not originate here. It was an artistic rendering of the actual staff, a recreation from personal contact in Zul’Gurub. That scroll was stolen during a raid, along with other priceless records,” the man said, “However did you manage to get it back?”

Zennith, forced a chuckle behind Silas’ face, “You would be surprised at the effectiveness of a simple disguise and a well-placed spell of projection.”

“Indeed,” the man was satisfactorily impressed, “Allow me to show you the rest of the collection.”

Zennith nodded and folded his arms inside his robe, following the man straight to the records he needed, tucked away in a shadowy alcove behind several other shelves. Zennith glanced at Mace, hardly able to control his countenance. He started to bow in the customary politeness his own people showed their lore-keepers, but the librarian seemed very trusting of “Silas” and very easy with his manners.  Zennith tried to keep his own in check; a badly placed bow or unconscious gesture would blow his cover.

The man pulled a green leather-bound book from the shelf.

“This is the first known mention of that staff in our history,” said the man, “It is not very elaborate. The image in your hand is from this collection.” He pulled a sheaf of papers from between two other heavy books, “These papers trace a surprisingly detailed history of the staff from its forging to its last known whereabouts–before its discovery, that is.”

Discovery?” Zennith’s hand shot to his mouth, and he pretended to cough. He tried again with less of a screech, “Discovery, my friend?”

“Yes,” the librarian replied, unaffected by Zennith’s display, “The staff has been kept under wraps since it was discovered during the third war.”

The librarian suddenly dropped his voice. Apparently the existence of the staff was not common knowledge.

“Would you like to see it?”

Zennith’s breath caught. He coughed again.

“Thank you, my most kind friend,” Zennith said, truly sincere, and to himself: I owe you a drink, Silas. A very large, expensive drink. Gweer too.

“It is nothing. A well-known and trusted member of the archives such as yourself is welcome to see anything here. I would ask, however, that we keep this our little secret.”

I won’t tell a soul.

“Of course,” Zennith said with an air of amiable professionalism.

The librarian motioned the warlock and demon to follow him down a small flight of stairs to what Zennith had presumed to be the back door. His hackles rose. He began to suspect that the archivist had seen through his disguise and meant to get him out of the library before he raised the alarm, but the human led the now trembling Zennith to another flight of stairs. At the bottom landing sat a small basement, the walls of which were lined with crates of varying sizes. He eyed the archivist suspiciously as he made his way to a long, plain box that lay along the back wall. Wooden crates and other objects were stacked around it. The man seemed to pick up the box with no effort and set it down again on a workbench in the middle of the room. Zennith felt his mouth go dry.

The archivist untied several cords and pulled away plain brown paper, revealing an unadorned teakwood box that was almost as long as Zennith was tall. The box opened on silent little silver hinges. Zennith’s palms were sweaty in his gloves. In the dim light of the basement, the inside of the box looked almost empty. The archivist reached in and removed a staff of black wood. Zennith could see the silver caps at the ends, simply wrought, but powerful-looking. He did not have to heft it to know that it was perfectly balanced. He swallowed hard.

“Hold it with the cloth, Master Silas,” the librarian said, indicating a piece of black velvet he used to wrap his hands, “No man who has touched this staff with his flesh has lived.”

Zennith took his advice, and hefted the staff between hands sheathed in Frostweave gloves and black velvet. He felt a chill creep up his arms and settle into his bones despite the cloth. Zennith’s eyes were wide as he cradled the staff gingerly.

“It’s called Zul’Ftaghn, Zandalari for “The Barrow Caller.” It feeds from the life force of most beings, like the Fel you use, but it is not Fel. It is different. We do not know what it does, or why.”

“You have not studied it?” Zennith asked.

“What few scholars have handled it have unanimously declared it a damned thing and refused to look at it further.”

“I, um—” he started, swallowing hard, “I agree. I do not want to see this again, but I need to make a rubbing of the runes. The Zandalari are of interest to me.”

“Of course. Take your time. I must see to things up-stairs.”

When he had gone, Zennith whirled on Mace, the staff clutched to his chest.

“By the almighty Sunwell!” he hissed in elation, “the humans’ own archivist has led me to my reward!”

“How are we going to get out of here?” Mace asked.

“I’m working on that,” Zennith said, his brow furrowing, his composure returning, “If we leave like this, Silas will be marked as a thief, and I don’t see how killing the archivist will be any less damaging. Even for an Alliance human, Silas does not deserve that. No, we must find another way.”

He moved to replace the staff in the box. The chill made him shiver, but he ignored it. He stopped midway, and wrapped both of his hands around it.

The answer to all my problems, he thought, hanging his head, The end to my suffering.

He called on the Fel, and felt his heart in his chest, beating stronger than it ever had.  He felt as if he had consumed the mana of two full grown human mages in one go. All the herbs and mana he had obsessed over for years just to give him the strength to stand up and walk could not compare to the power the staff was feeding him.

“Does it ‘zing‘, Master?” Mace mocked.

“Yes,” Zennith said, turning to glare at the felguard, “it most certainly does.”

“Master? Your eyes–” the felguard started.

“Yes, Mace,” Zennith said, “I am your master. We will not be forgetting that again, will we?”

Mace did not respond. Zennith tightened his grip on the Fel connection he shared with Mace. Several runes glowed a sickly yellow in a cluster near bottom silver cap. Mace lurched forward with a strangled cry, reaching. Ignoring the advice of the archivist, Zennith covered the runes with his gloved hand, making more direct contact with the staff. Mace dropped to his knees, struggling to get back up. Zennith stared down at the prostrated felguard with a cruel smile.

“You will not threaten me again,” Zennith said, “Nor question my authority.”

“No, Master,” Mace said, his voice strained, speaking contrary to his own will.

“Good.”

Zennith swung back to the box, and laid the staff in the black velvet wrappings, caressing it with the tips of his fingers. A sudden sound caused the elated smile to drop from Zennith’s face. He started, his long, tapered ears pricked up.

“Ah, Master Merricorn, finished already?” the archivist’s voice carried from the stairway. Another man’s voice joined his, slightly more confused.

“I beg your pardon?”

Zennith gasped, “It cannot be.”

He brushed past the genuflecting felguard and took the stairs two at a time. He glanced down in mild confusion, for clenched in his Frostweave glove was the staff, his fingers wrapped tightly around it. Had he not just put the staff back in its case? He must have grabbed it up again when he heard the disturbance. He wondered, but only for a second, and even that was too long. He pushed the door open a crack. A crack was all he needed.

“Illidan’s bones! He is here,” Zennith swore, turning his back to the door, “How can he be here?”

“Dismiss me, quickly,” rasped Mace.

“Shut up!” Zennith hissed.

“Don’t be a fool. It will be easier to hide without me attached to you.”

“But there isn’t time,” Zennith said, reason replacing his suspicion. He dared another glance. The archivist motioned towards the door, and Silas seemed to look directly at him. Zennith reeled back. He took the stairs back to the basement at a jump. He wrapped the black cloth from the box around the staff and began searching for a way out. Mace was far too calm for Zennith’s comfort, but he had the presence of mind to notice a small cellar door leading back up to the ground level, though it could not possibly have been used in decades. The felguard slammed his heavy fist through the hatch, allowing his master freedom, though it was hardly the quiet escape Zennith had hoped for.

Zennith clamored out of the hatch, dropping to the ground, prepared to summon his dreadsteed, in plain view, when he heard a voice behind him.

“Zennith, is that you?”

Zennith stood, turning. His friend’s eyes widened as he beheld his own face and body before him. Zennith was still wearing his disguise, and he stared Silas straight in the eye, clutching the staff until he felt his hands ache.

“I beg your pardon?” he said. He thought it might have been funny once upon a time.

“Give me more credit than that, Master Shadowblast.” Silas scoffed.

Zennith sighed. He pulled the cowl back, dispelling the effect of his projection, himself once more. He continued to stare at his friend. Silas did not threaten him, though he was obviously disturbed.

“When I told you we would meet again, I did not exactly imagine this,” Silas said.

“I meant no harm, Silas,” Zennith said with a sigh.

“But to disguise yourself as me?” Silas said in incredulity, “You must have known that I was born in Duskwood.”

Zennith blinked in surprise. He had not known that, or if he did, he had forgotten, though it gave the evening’s events more clarity.

“I truly wish to have an explanation, and whatever that is,” Silas said, his voice all sincerity.

Zennith shook his head, holding the staff behind him, “I cannot. I require this item.”

“And this item,” Silas said, his voice grating with emotion, “is worth much.”

“You have no idea,” Zennith explained, flicking his eyes to Mace.

He understands, Zennith thought, He must understand.

“Tell me what it is,” Silas pleaded, “Perhaps I can help you without you stealing ancient relics.”

“I don’t know if that’s an option anymore,” Zennith said. He took a half step towards Silas, extending his hand, and the staff. He stopped.

I was going to leave the staff, he recalled, and find another way. Is it still possible?

No, Zennith’s mind raced ahead, Silas wants the staff for himself. He is a weak human.

Zennith shook his head and blinked.

What?

“You are afraid I will covet this item, or turn you over,” Silas was saying, “Believe me that is not true. I do not now, nor have I ever, desired anything of yours, and if you give it to me now, there is no need for anyone to find out about this.”

“This you will desire,” Zennith assured him with more force than he intended, “This you will fight me for. If we are to remain friends you must let me go.”

“You know I cannot do that,” Silas said, “I cannot let you tarnish my reputation, nor can I believe that you would betray like this.”

“I do not wish to betray you,” Zennith murmured, more to himself than to Silas. He was cold despite the warm night. Not even his heavy Frostweave could block out the chill. Terror made him shake.

If I leave the staff, Silas will keep my secret. He will know what to do.

If you leave it, he will keep it, and you will never see it again.

The voice in his head was a cruel sneer that he did not feel. He stared down at the staff in his hand, wrapped in black velvet, his mouth agape.

“Of course not,” Silas said. He held out a hand encouragingly, “Come now, brother. We’ll figure this out. We always do.”

He was so close. He extended his trembling hand again, the staff held out to Silas. Sials reached for it. Zennith reeled, suddenly nauseous. He recoiled, gripping the staff in his arms like a parent might hug their child. He shook with the cold. Silas, startled, stepped back from him. Zennith let the velvet fall to the ground. He heard Silas’ sharp gasp. Zennith glanced up. He had dropped the velvet wrap, revealing the black wood and silver caps of the Barrow-Caller.

“Zennith,” Silas said, his voice suddenly placating, as if Zennith were holding hostages at knife-point, “You should not have that. No one should.”

He bent down and retrieved the black velvet.

“Whatever it is you are seeking, whatever you are hoping for, this is not the way. This is not what you want. Hand it to me, brother, and we’ll go have a drink. Whatever you want, we’ll find a way to do it.”

He laid his outstretched hand on Zennith’s shaking shoulder. Zennith hung his head.

“Please, Zennith.”

Zennith squeezed his eyes shut, “Forgive me, brother.”

He clenched his fist. The felguard stepped forward. Half in shock, Silas fell back. He glanced once at Zennith, as if hoping to see his friend wrestling for control.

Silas began a banishment, but even in his strength, against Mace, there was little protection. Mace’s arm came down slowly, as if suspended. Silas only had seconds before the demon could recover, and he turned to aim a short spell at Zennith. Zennith blocked it with little effort, raising only two fingers in acknowledgment. With the staff in his hand, he had barely finished the block in his mind before it had manifested.

Mace was not moving fast enough. Silas began to yell.

“Blood-elf! Guards, quickly! Darkshire is under attack!”

Zennith pushed the gray-black hair from his face, heedless of his wet cheeks, and unleashed a spell, at once taking Silas’ mana for himself and silencing the other warlock. The spell wrenched Silas’ life force from him. Zennith gasped. He had siphoned mana and life force before but never had so much raw energy infused him afterward. The chill receded, and warmth flooded his being; the pulsing increased, as if its own heart beat in time with the blood-elf’s. Green veins wound through the staff. The runes glowed with putrescence. Zennith’s strange red eyes beheld the sight half in terror, and half in awe. His eyes continued to stream tears, though he could no longer discern their meaning.

It took only another second for Mace to recover from the half-banishment. Zennith had finally pulled his eyes from the staff. Silas was now scrambling backwards over tree roots and scrub brush, his eyes darting fearfully between the reaching demon and its traitorous master. His silencing spell’s duration came to an end, and Silas could scream.

Mace brought his massive fists down on the human. Zennith felt the bile rise in his throat at the sight of his friend’s body, his chest cavity caved in, limbs pointing in unnatural directions, gore soaking the ground from a gash in the side of his head. Fresh tears welled up in his eyes. He smelled blood, sweat and fear on the air. All the breath Zennith had been holding back came rushing out with a strangled cry. He fell to his knees beside the felguard, who had finally driven Silas’ body far enough into the ground that there could be no doubt as to whether or not he was dead or alive. His free hand reached out to take the hem of his friend’s robe.

He knew Mace stood above him, and he knew that with his back turned, Mace finally had his chance. He felt his felguard’s rough grip, and welcomed his death. Zennith’s winced as the felguard gripped his shoulder and lifted him to his feet.

“You did what you had to do,” the demon said quickly, “Many of the Alliance have died for less at your hand. Come! I cannot leave without you and you must be alive to release me.”

Already the sounds of inquiring guards could be heard in the town square. Soon the hounds would have his scent. Zennith heaved a great sigh and sank to the ground again, but with his palm to the grass. The sound of guards grew closer, and he could see torch light in the trees. He separated the two spells, releasing Mace even as he summoned his felsteed. The ability had come unbidden to his mind, but he did not have even a moment to ponder it, and he did not care in any case. He barely had time to glance down at Silas, biting back another strangled cry.

Fel’Athalas’ hooves left four fiery tracks on the ground. The rest disappeared behind the fleeing warlock as he rode into Duskwood to the west, heading for the river, which he would follow south, where the humans would lose his tracks and their dogs would lose his scent. He bent over the saddle horn, one hand tangled in a mass of mane and leather reins, the other clutched around his staff, and careened blindly through the blighted forest.