Can’t swing a cat these days without hitting some fantasy or urban fantasy property obsessed with demons. Television is awash with them: Sleepy Hollow, Supernatural, Constantine, and so on and so forth. We just love watching mortals dabble in “powers they can’t possibly comprehend.” It’s all pretty good fun, admittedly. There are, however, some pretty odd conventions about the whole thing I’d like to explore for a moment.
Demons Always Double-Cross You
We’ve all seen it: ill-trained sorcerer or power-hungry doofus decides to summon a demon to extort some kind of boon. Demon acts as though everything will go as advertised, but then betrays said doofus at last minute (or first minute – some of these people are pretty dumb), and then the demon gets to escape/claim doofus-soul/do something else nasty. This apparently happens all the damned time. Here’s my question:
If you are going to summon a demon for this kind of deal, what did you expect would happen? You’ve just yanked some hellspawn from Hell and forced it to talk to you – cool, fair enough – but then you start barking demands and you expect it to roll over and obey? Why should it? Because you won’t release it? Dude, it just got out of hell! Do you honestly think an eternity of fiery brimstone will make it poorly prepared to squat in your garage for a few months? You just brought it to the demonic equivalent of ClubMed! It has literally no impetus to assist you so it can “return,” nor does it have any particularly good motivation to tell you the truth. Do you think telling the truth is useful or valued characteristic in Hell?
Basically, you cannot trust these things at all. You can reasonably assume it will act only in its own best interest. If you want to make a deal, you really need to make sure the whole thing is mutually beneficial and build in a plan that assumes you’ll be double-crossed. You’d think more people would catch on to this.
Demons Are All Murderous, Destructive Monsters
Okay, okay – I get it, they’re from Hell. Still, evil does extend beyond homicide and vandalism, you know. Just because you get sprung from Hell doesn’t mean you go on a bloody rampage across town. If you were a soul that just spent umpteen thousands of years locked in an oven full of pitchforks, don’t you think you might have better things to do upon release besides stabbing the lovable neighbor kid or eating the dog? Heck, I’d guess they’d go straight to a nice restaurant, use their infernal influence to get a free meal, and eat good food and drink good drink until the angelic authorities come to drag them away. That’s gluttony, right? Beyond that, might the occasional demon go in for the other less brutal sins? A non-stop demonic sex party in Bangkok, perhaps (Lust)? Binge-watching every episode of every CSI in a comfy motel room (Sloth)? Heck, there might be a demon who might just love bopping around violating the first couple commandments – yelling obscenities in church, starting random religions oriented around various food products, and so on. Maybe one of them is responsible for organizing bus schedules. That sounds like it would be right up an enterprising demon’s alley.
Demons Like to Possess the Innocent Above All
Sure, the innocent are annoying and such easy targets, but exactly how much mileage is your average demon going to get out of possessing a child or a child’s toy? Demonic possession targets all seem to be such waify, miserable things – bony women, kittens, despondent mental patients, toddlers, etc.. If you were a demon, wouldn’t you prefer to possess a 6’5″ brute named Bruno with a neck thick as a Honey-Baked Ham? Why go for the skinny kid when you could possess her real estate attorney mom? Demons, you’ve only got one shot at bringing about the apocalypse – start at the top!
(By the way, all of this reminds me to remind you all to check out my friend Gina’s book, Hellhole, which is about a particularly invasive but a-typical demon)
Demons, if they are meant to represent evil, can and should be as varied and as numerous as the forms of evil itself. Horror movies have seemed to back us into a corner over all of this – demons are simply base, bestial, and bloodthirsty. Evil, though, can be as calm and collected as anything. It needn’t be powered by lust or rage or avarice, necessarily. A demon can play the long game. A demon can be polite. The only thing a demon needs to be is wicked. Let’s all use our imagination about that, as the truly wicked in the world (few though they are) seem to have no shortage of it.
All right, all right—settle down you apes and listen up. I’m Captain Elroy Landry, and it seems as though I pissed in somebody’s lemonade down at City Hall, so they put me in command of you dumbasses. If it were up to me, you bunch of hotshots would have your badges taken away or else I’d have you picking up litter on the interstate where you’re unlikely to do much harm. That’s not how it’s going to be, though, and more’s the pity. Instead, you bozos are the inaugural members of the Danger Patrol.
See, it just so happens that the city is broke. So, rather than spend money preventing crime in the first place—which is expensive—they’d rather spend money cleaning it up after it happens, which is where you guys come in. You two-bit nutjobs are apparently the best the police department has to offer (God help us), and so it is your job to track down and haul in the most dangerous criminals the city has to offer.
So, when a bunch a guys with uzis break into a billionare’s penthouse and chuck him off the roof, we call you to scrape him off the pavement. If terrorists are putting bombs in lunchboxes, it’s you jerks in the cafeteria doing inspections. If Godzilla shows up down the docks, well, then it’s the Army’s problem. But if he starts selling coke to gang-bangers, then I want you to slap giant handcuffs on that reptilian scumbag and HAUL HIM IN!
Alive, understand? As you are all supposedly police officers, I shouldn’t have to say this, but I am anyway: Try not to kill every damn crook you catch! I want arrests and I want convictions and I ain’t gonna get ‘em if you dickheads are tossing them off cliffs, blowing them up in cars, or putting so many holes in their sorry asses we could use them to strain spaghetti. Oh, and if you could do it without blowing up entire city blocks or driving your patrol vehicles through the goddamned mall, I’d be real grateful.
Now, if you find yourself in need of additional wisdom apart from yours truly, you can also talk with Lieutenant O’Leary over here. He’s my second in command; he don’t take a shit without me knowing about it, so don’t get smart. We do shit by the book in here, understand? Or, so help me God, I will have your asses in a sling before you can say ‘Hamburglar!’
Christ, to think that this had to happen to me…
All right, dismissed!
The preceding is the introductory text to a hack of the RPG, Danger Patrol by John Harper with much thanks and credit to my friend John Perich and *his* hack of Danger Patrol, Star Wars: Never Tell Me the Odds. I’ve been spending entirely too much time putting this game together over the past week or so, and hopefully this will get it off my chest. Thanks!
It all starts in a tavern. All pointless stories start there, since that is the place we can easiest imagine meeting others and doing something interesting, despite the fact that meeting in taverns rarely leads to anything more interesting than intoxication. There’s an elf and a dwarf, and let’s say an orc. Or ork – whichever. Everybody’s drinking ale (which is more interesting than beer) and the barmaid has an irresponsibly plunging neckline. Let’s presume she works for tips.
This is the point in the story where somebody runs in from outside, breathless and bloody. Or where some loud-mouth starts spouting off about ‘the only good orc is a dead orc’ or whatever. Perhaps some lunk gets handsy with the barmaid. Maybe somebody mysterious posts a note on the bulletin board. It says the following:
Wanted: 1 Warrior, 1 Thief, 1 Wizard (Elves, Priests, and Dwarves optional)
Meet the Creepy Stranger in the Inexplicably Empty Back Room
Maybe all of these things happen. The point is this: what happens next is a bar fight.
Why? Evidently such things are fun. Heroic music plays, as is fitting for acts of criminal vandalism and assault. The fight rages on, and heroes emerge. Why are they heroes? Well, they’re winning the fight, of course. They find in each other a ready ally, a surprise to no one save themselves. Maybe, at the end of all this, they rescue a princess in disguise (she was slumming it, you know. Why drink in the palace when there’s a perfectly good dive down the road where you might get assaulted by a dwarf?). Whatever happens, the drunk under the table never notices; he rises, alone, and is delighted to find free beer.
I mean ale. Sorry.
So begins a tale of adventure. High drama. Endless banter. Derring do on every other page. Maybe, by the end, the elf and the dwarf and the orc become friends. A little tear forms in the corner of our eye, but we refuse to ever acknowledge its existence. The tear is undercover, you see. Top Secret. Hush-hush.
I bet you were rolling your eyes up there. Chuckling, perhaps? Sure, and why not – the cliché is so banal, it’s comedy. Then again, though, there’s something to be said for mindless fun. I recently read an article by Adam Sternbergh in the NYT magazine considering the worth of so-called ‘guilty pleasures’. I enjoyed it immensely and enjoin you to read it.
Why do we feel so bad about liking things considered low-brow? I mean, isn’t it okay to have fun – even dumb fun – on occasion? Must everything be so deep and serious all the time? I confess to feeling the pressure myself. As an academic (or pseudo-academic, given that my terminal degree is not a PhD but rather an MFA), there is a certain pressure to make what I write and what I enjoy somehow important. Not all of it is, though, no matter what I do to it. When I confess to liking Armageddon or Army of Darkness, there isn’t much that can be said to give such works merit. Likewise my hobbies: despite its sophistication, there is nothing truly artistically redeeming about Warhammer 40, 000 unless you put far more effort into painting miniatures than I do. And even then it’s suspect.
So what, though? I think sometimes we spend too much time decrying the frivolous, forgetting just how important frivolity can be. As much as being serious adults is important, it isn’t the only game in town. We also need to have fun. We also need to do things that are easy. All work and no play makes Homer…something…something…
Right then – let’s go to the tavern. I’ll buy you an ale. Later, when we’re riding dragons to save the King of Thumbershire from the Daemon Princess of Xoon, you’ll thank me. Dwarf’s honor.
Most stories have a good love interest somewhere in there. The hero or heroine pines after this fella or that girl while in the midst of fighting the forces of evil or passing the bar or getting the band together for one last gig or whatever. We’re humans – we’re saps for a good romance. Fantasy fiction is no exception, either. I might even go so far as to say that the ‘love interest’ angle present in a lot of fantasy novels is, in some ways, more central to the plot than in many other genres. Maybe.
Well, if not more central, then certainly odder and potentially more problematic.
I’ve written previously about my difficulty with the female image in fantasy literature; this isn’t precisely about that. What I’m talking about is less the objectification of women and more about the romanticized idea of love. In fantasy novels, there is a certain male and a certain female character who are destined to fall in romantic love with one another and that is that. We all know who it is, too. Mad Martigan and Sorsha, Conan and Valeria, Rand Al’Thor and Elayne, Min, Aviendha and god-knows how many others in that series…
I could go on, but you know what I mean. Did any of us honestly think Luke was going to walk off with Leia? Nope. She was for Han the whole time. We could tell, you see, because they fought. Fighting means love, folks. If you don’t bicker, you don’t care. I know if I were locked in a rusty old space freighter for what was probably months with some woman I was always fighting with, we would almost certainly fall in love and make babies. Obviously. That’s how love works, right?
Fantasy and science fiction have a tendency to treat romance with idealized and ham-handed attention. They make it into something it’s not, they warp and define it to suit the story. Some of this can be blamed back on the old fairy tales of our youth – normalized gender relations rendered into gory and terrifying metaphors about witches and towers and wolves in the forest. Others can be blamed on the typical audience for fantasy and science fiction literature – young, single men. The idea of romance is tailored to suit their fantasies, as silly as that is. That these fantasies are wrong or even offensive to women (and men!) is only understood by those with a little age and experience behind them. In other words: when I was 14, much like all men, I had certain romanticized ideas of what falling in love would be like, and they were almost all entirely wrong. I blame the books I read for this, and the books I read were primarily of the fantasy and science fiction persuasion.
Some things I learned:
Terrifying Experiences Do Not Enhance Romance: Horror movies are one thing, but actual terrifying things do not make you want to cuddle. Or, if they do, it isn’t the kind of cuddling that involves making out and fondling each other in front of a roaring fire. It usually involves shivering while one or the other of you sobs and the other one tries to find some way to make the other feel better by cracking bad jokes. No sex is had. None at all.
Not All Women Admire Your Competitiveness: Remember that scene in the movie Red Sonja, where Arnold and Red Sonja fight each other all day until eventually discovering they loved one another? Well, that might be a thing if you’re going after Red Sonja, but in general being over-competitive jerk who wants to beat his girlfriend at Trivial Pursuit to the point where he’s grimacing at the game board and cursing at a die roll of ‘3’ is not sexy. They think you’re crazy. They are right.
Violence is Not a Turn On: No matter how much you think otherwise, gents, beating the crap out of somebody, no matter how much of a douche they are, is not likely to engender the affections of the opposite sex. Most girls will just be disgusted with the entire affair, since fighting (contrary to fantasy literature) is an unattractive thing to witness.
Sometimes You’re Just Friends: Look, guys, you are not the main character in your own epic saga of fantastic adventure. All the women will not be falling for you. Even if they’re nice and they seem to like you, that doesn’t mean you are just one date request away from deep and abiding love. Sometimes they just like you because they like you, not because they want to be with you. Sorry, them’s the brakes, kids.
The Opposite Thing From That Last: If a girl treats you badly and makes fun of you and abuses you physically and says she hates you, guess what? SHE HATES YOU. It is almost certainly not a game and, if it is, I’d suggest looking elsewhere since this girl seems to have severe self-esteem issues if she feels the need to abuse those she likes. In either event, the whole ‘love you until you stop saying no’ concept is both bonkers and borderline creepy. Cut it out. In the real world, people tell you who they are.
Now, the caveat here is that all people are different and all relationships operate differently, so I suppose it’s arrogant of me to say all of the things I said above – ‘your mileage may vary’, as they say. That said, I think it’s fair to assume that basing our expectations of our love lives based off of works where people ride dragons and throw fireballs from their hands is, speaking generously, completely ridiculous.
To give the genre credit, many of the most recent crop of fantasy novels (A Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and so on) do a pretty good job of interfering with the standard tropes, and romance has become a much more complicated affair in those worlds of late. Still and although, it is often the job of the fantasy reader, hard as it may sound, to separate the fantasies we choose to believe and the ones we don’t when taking our magical journeys into dreamland and beyond.
I saw GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra the other day. It was on television and nothing else was on, just to defend myself a bit. I caught it somewhere in the second act or so and managed to watch the entire thing, even though it had commercials. I did it more as a thought exercise than because I was enjoying the movie.
Years ago, when it came out in theaters, a couple friends of mine were going to see it and were excited. “Have you seen it yet?” they asked me. My answer was no, I haven’t seen it specifically, but that I had seen it before, and so had they. I then told them the approximate plot of the movie, based largely off of the trailer and what kind of movie it was. Now that I’ve seen the film, I am (dis)pleased to see that I was, for the most part, exactly correct. I even predicted who would betray whom and when and more-or-less why, the location of Cobra’s secret base, and the general timbre of the final battle.
I was able to do this for one reason and one reason alone: Star Wars. The original trilogy, Lucas’ masterwork, has had a
pervasive influence on how big budget action/sci-fi movies are made pretty much since the original trilogy completed with Return of the Jedi. The GI Joe movie was worse than most. They had the super death fortress, the guys getting thrown down pits full of lightning, the big gun turrets (and, by the way, why would you install underwater gun turrets on your secret arctic base? Isn’t that sort of a waste of resources? How often will you be attacked by fleets of mini-subs?), the Death Star-esque super weapon, the plucky band of
X-wings minisubs going head-to-head with Cobra TIE fighters minisubs, and even the race against the clock to keep the doomsday weapon from
destroying the good guys’ base. It was so re-hashed it was embarrassing. Even the sets looked extremely similar.
GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra might be a particularly egregious example, but there are plenty of others. Avatar and its pseudonatural mysticism, for instance, or Independence Day and its multi-layered battle to destroy the enemy superweapon before it destroyed home base. There are lots of others, too. Now, some of this is understandable and, to some extent, inevitable – the reason Star Wars is so popular is because it, itself, is drawing upon very old adventure story tropes. It isn’t necessarily bad, either – there are always ways to make tropes fresh and fun and interesting. Tropes can create a kind of conversation among works, a progression of innovation and growth within a genre, in the same sense that one can write a variety of waltzes or marches or bluegrass music and not be boring or uncreative.
GI Joe, though, wasn’t doing this. It wasn’t even interested in being interesting, per se. They were being formulaic for the sake of safety. The producers were investing vast sums of money into that film and they wanted a guaranteed return on that investment. The best way to do that, of course, is to mimic those properties which did just that. In this case, that means Star Wars. In a fit of irony that boggles the mind, Lucas himself opted to mimic his own work in Episode I to attempt to achieve the same effect. He didn’t add anything new, though, and he failed to gain the audience’s sympathies for the characters which, itself, undermined the entire enterprise. He couldn’t escape from his own shadow.
It is important, though, for writers (screenwriters or otherwise) to escape from the shadow of Star Wars if writing a story in that genre. Joss Whedon, for instance, managed to do it well in Avengers and Firefly. It can be done. It should be done, so that the geeks of the universe aren’t constantly pandered to by Hollywood with more formulaic nonsense which, honestly, we shouldn’t indulge. I’m not going to call for a moratorium on doomsday weapons or giant space battles or swordfights near power generators, but I think we can all ask ourselves to strive to go a bit further than the minimum when trying to amaze and stupefy the audience. Right?