Guest Post: “Interview With A Villain” by Bishop O’Connell
Hi folks – I’m back! And by “back” I mean “I’ve got somebody to cover for me today as I recover from jet lag.” Allow me to introduce Bishop O’Connell: friend, author, and apparent Irish ecclesiarch. He’s here to talk about villains and, as a frustrated super-villain myself, I can tell you that you ought to listen to his advice, because he knows what he’s talking about. He also has a series of urban fantasy novels out, the most recent being The Returned (I’ll let Bishop describe it for you at the bottom). For now, read his post. Then read his books. Then hack into and read his e-mails (they’re hilarious).
Wait…never mind that last part. You didn’t see that. Ummm…errr…just read the post, okay?
Interview with a Villain
Villains are important. Every book has one, in one form or another. No, I don’t (necessarily) mean a Blofeld-esque villain who lives in an active volcano, on a skull shaped island, laughing as he strokes his beloved cat.
I’m talking about the antagonist. While the story might not have a true villain per se, there is always an antagonist. I learned early in my writing career that if I wanted my stories to be compelling and interesting, I’d need to spend at least as much time on my “bad guys” as I do on my “good guy.” It’s true, not every antagonist is a person, it can be an environment, a society, or anything else. But for those times when it is a person, here are some things I’ve learned about making a good counter to my protagonist (main character):
Goals – “What’s my motivation in this scene?”
Every antagonist has one, and no, “because they’re evil” only makes for a sad caricature of a villain.
I’m not saying their motive has to fit with societal mores, but it does need to be believable; it has to make sense for that character. I could ask myself what my character wants, but better to ask them directly, and better style to ask them why they want it. I’ve found this can actually be incredibly helpful, especially if you pain the full picture. I imagine the scene where I’m meeting my villain. What is the character wearing? Is she waiting for me, or am I waiting for her? If he is waiting for me, does he stand when I arrive, or even acknowledge my presence? Who chose the venue? Are other people there? If so, are they staring? If they are, how does the character react? The more detailed the imagining, the fuller the character will be to me, and thus (hopefully) to my readers. As an example—since you might not know my work and to prevent potential spoilers—let’s take a villain from a story just about everyone has either read or knows about: Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. Apologies to Ms. Rowling for the butchering that follows. I hope you have a good sense of humor.
Voldemort met me at a popular London café overlooking the Thames River. His pale skin, serpent like nose, and trademark flowing, black robes made him easy to spot. He was sitting at a table with a view of the bustling river traffic, a cup of tea in hand, pinky extended. His now-famous wand sat on the table next to some kind of Asian inspired salad. I think he smiled when he saw me, it was hard to tell, and invited me to join him. A cup of tea was waiting for me, but since the wait staff was nowhere to be seen he poured the tea himself. I didn’t drink it.
Bishop: Thank you for meeting with me, Voldemort.
Voldemort: Lord Voldemort, if you please. I didn’t raise a dark army and commit mass murder to not use my title.
B: Apologies, thank you, Lord Voldemort, for meeting with me.
V: Certainly. I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t wait for you. They have the most exquisite quinoa salad here.
B: Not at all.
There is a moment of awkward silence as he takes a bite of his salad and a look comes to his face. It’s either pleasure or disgust, it’s hard to tell which with someone who looks like an escape from the Island of Dr. Moreau. After a moment he dabs the cloth napkin at the corners of his mouth and turns his attention back to me.
V: I’d ask if you want anything, but the wait staff is, well, indisposed at the moment.
He laughs, and it’s more comical than unsettling.
B: I’m fine, thank you. Let’s get to it, shall we? Lord Voldemort, tell me, what do you want?
He skewers some salad on his fork and looks bored.
V: I want to kill Harry Potter, of course.
B: Okay, I got that. I know that, you know that, Harry knows that, everyone knows that. But isn’t that kind of a simplistic goal? That’s kind of short term for you, isn’t it? I mean, what do you really want?
He chews the salad and a smile, or his version of one, returns to his face. He sets his fork down and pours himself more tea.
V: I’m so very glad you asked. No one ever really seems to care. My underlings are just trying to suckle at the master’s teat, and everyone else is just running for their lives. What I really want, and I know it’s terribly cliché, but what I truly want is to rule the world. My personal twist is that I also want to be the most powerful wizard ever. Harry Potter is really just an obstacle, the one who can best deny me those things.
B: Now we’re getting somewhere. Why do you want to rule the world?
V: Well, everybody wants to rule the world.
B: I had no idea you were a Tears for Fears fan.
V: Those are two of my favorite things.
He laughs and drinks more tea.
V: Seriously, though, I suppose I could say it’s the power I want, and I do, but that’s so simplistic. Power is a means, not an end. In truth, I’m a good old fashioned racist.
B: You’re a racist? That’s not something many people would openly admit.
V: I know. The word has such a negative connotation. The difference here is that my racism is based on genuine fact. I’m not biased based on anything as petty as skin color, birthplace, religion, anything like that. No, this is about magic. You muggles, quite frankly, are inferior to us wizards. In every way that matters.
B: Could you explain?
V: Happily. As wizards, we wield immense power. We have the capability to do things you only dream about by just saying the right words and moving a piece of wood through the air. We can violate your sad little “laws” of physics at whim. You are to us, what chimps are to you. We have flying cars, for crying out loud! Your scientists have been promising you flying cars since the 1950s, and yet the only ones I have ever seen are magical. Not that I need one of course, I can fly just find on my own.
B: So your racism is based on magical ability. Why are you opposed to muggle-born wizards and witches, or those from mixed families?
V: Just because the proverbial room full of monkeys with typewriters comes up with a play doesn’t make them Shakespeare.
B: Interesting analogy. Are you saying you admire Shakespeare’s work?
V: Not at all, I’m just using a comparison your small mind can grasp. To continue the analogy, you might find said monkeys an interesting oddity, but you’d never call them human. Likewise, Mud-Bloods, those wizards born from the horrible mixing of a wizard and a muggle, are just a sad half breed. While it elevates the muggle half, it pollutes the wizard blood beyond repair. Muggle-born wizards are just freaks of nature, abominations. No, it’s pure-blood wizards who can, and should, be the ones to rule. We’ve had magic in our families for countless centuries. We are the superior race, and I know it’s overplayed, but might really does make right.
B: It is a bit cliché.
V: Well, with rare exceptions, the one with the bigger club, and the ability to use it, wins. Your history has proven this over and over.
B: Okay, so you’re saying wizards—
V: Pure-blood wizards.
B: Sorry, pure-blood wizards should rule the world, and you being the most powerful, should rule them?
V: Exactly. You muggles, are an inferior species of the human race, like the Neanderthals—
B: Actually, I think it’s pronounced Neander-tal—
V: AVADA KEDAVRA!
And….scene. Obviously I had fun with this, partly because parody covers me from a lawsuit, but also because it kept you reading. Regardless, you see that he wanted more than to kill the kid with the lightning bolt on his face. It’s important as a writer to understand not just your villains’ immediate goals, but their long term motivations as well. When you go to the store, it’s not just to buy food. It’s because you have to eat to live, and odds are you don’t or can’t raise enough food on your own to sustain yourself. The disparity isn’t terribly complicated, but it has a big impact on the story. It doesn’t matter if the antagonist is a normal everyday person, or a scary, murderous monster. In fact, for a villain to be a monster, having a good motive is vital. Which is more frightening: A raving lunatic walking the street hunting people (insert generic horror movie monster here), or a true sociopath who is well organized, has a goal (however twisted), a detailed plan to achieve it, and goes about executing said plan in a cold, ruthless manner (Hannibal Lecter-esque)? Odds are you picked the latter. At least according to movie ticket sales, book sales, and cultural impact.
Tom Hiddleston, probably best known in the U.S. for his role as Loki in the various Marvel movies said, “Every villain is a hero in his own mind.” Hearing that quote for the first time was an “aha moment” for me. It made sense. Villains never think they’re the villain. Oh, they might recognize that society will see them that way, but THEY know the truth and it’s that truth that drives them. Look at your favorite book, movie, TV show, what have you, and think of the antagonist in it. I’d be willing to bet (but please don’t email me offering a bet because you found an exception to this) that they’re doing what they felt had to be done. It might be their own ideals, looking for vengeance (justice in their mind), because their dog told them, or anything else. Regardless, they have their reasons and they are meaningful to them.
No, villains don’t have to be likeable. But, if you make them understandable, and there is a difference, the reader will really love to hate them.
Barnes & Noble
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Bishop O’Connell is the author of the American Faerie Tale series, a consultant, writer, blogger, and lover of kilts and beer, as well as a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Born in Naples Italy while his father was stationed in Sardinia, Bishop grew up in San Diego, CA where he fell in love with the ocean and fish tacos. After wandering the country for work and school (absolutely not because he was in hiding from mind controlling bunnies), he settled Richmond VA, where he writes, collects swords, revels in his immortality as a critically acclaimed “visionary” of the urban fantasy genre, and is regularly chastised for making up things for his bio. He can also be found online at A Quiet Pint (aquietpint.com), where he muses philosophical on life, the universe, and everything, as well as various aspects of writing and the road to getting published.
Blog – https://aquietpint.com/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/AuthorBishopOConnell
Twitter – https://twitter.com/BishopMOConnell
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Amazon Author Page – http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00L74LE4Y
Book Excerpt: Three Promises by Bishop O’Connell
Hey, all! Remember those term papers I was digging out from under? Still digging. Good news, though! Here is Bishop O’Connell, my friend and fellow Harper Voyager author, who is celebrating the release of his third book. Check it out!
Three Promises: An American Faerie Tale Collection is my third book. It’s a compilation of short stories—technically three short stories and a novella—and while I’ve always struggled with short fiction, that wasn’t the case here. These stories seemed to write themselves, and the characters truly shine. In my previous books, The Stolen & The Forgotten (available anywhere books are sold) the stories drove the characters. In Three Promises, the opposite is true. There’s no child to rescue, no shadowy enemy snatching kids off the street, and you get to see the characters for who they are. I was worried they wouldn’t stand on their own, but I think they didn’t just stand, they soared I really liked my characters before; now, I love them. I hope you will, too.
Here’s a sample from one of the short stories, “The Legacy of Past Promises”:
Elaine stared at the painting. While her body didn’t move, her heart and mind danced in the halls of heaven. The depth and intensity of mortal passion was astounding to her, and her ability to experience it through art was like a drug. The heavy silence that filled her vast loft was broken by the high-pitched whistle of the teakettle. Elaine extricated herself from the old battered chair, which was so comfortable it should be considered a holy relic. She crossed her warehouse flat to the kitchen area, purposely stepping heavily so the old hardwood floor creaked. She smiled at the sound. It was like a whisper that contained all the memories the building had seen. Unlike the fae, the mortal world was constantly aging. But for those who knew how to listen, it sang of a life well lived in every tired sound. The flat took up the entire top floor of a warehouse that had been abandoned in the early 1900s. She owned it now and was its only permanent tenant. The lower floors of the five-story building were offered as a place to stay to the fifties—half-mortal, half-fae street kids, unwelcome in either world—she knew and trusted. But with all the unrest in Seattle, she was currently its only occupant.
She turned off the burner and the kettle went quiet. Three teaspoons of her personal tea blend went into the pot. The water, still bubbling, went next. The familiar and comforting aroma filled the air, black tea with whispers of orange blossom. Light poured in from the south-facing wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. But she ignored the view of the Seattle skyline. The twenty-foot ceiling was constructed of heavy wooden beams and slats, broken only by the silver of air ducts, a relatively recent addition. The floor was oak, original to the building but well maintained over the years, as were the exposed bricks of the walls and pillars. The flat was large, 5,000 square feet of open space, sparsely furnished with secondhand pieces. They had been purchased so long ago, they were technically antiques now. But she looked past all that to the paintings that covered the walls, collected over centuries and not always through strictly legal means. Nearly every school was represented by at least one piece. Her eyes followed the heavy strokes of a Van Gogh, thought lost by the general public. The emotions and impressions left behind by the artist washed over her. The melancholy and near madness, the longing and love, all mixed together like the colors of the painting itself.
The smell of her tea, now perfectly brewed, broke her reverie. As she poured tea into a large clay mug, her gaze settled on a Rossetti. Elaine smiled as she remembered seeing the painting come to life. Gabriel Rossetti—Elaine could never bring herself to think of him as Dante, it was such an absurd name—had captured Jane’s beauty spectacularly. Jane Morris had been a truly beautiful mortal; it was no wonder Gabriel so often chose her as a model.
Elaine carried the mug back to her chair, sank into the plush cushions, and hit play on the remote. Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto no. 4 in A Minor filled the space. She closed her eyes, letting the music fill her soul. The mournful cello danced with the playful harpsichord. She sipped her tea, opened her eyes, and her gaze fell upon another painting, the one she’d almost lost. Unwanted memories rose to the surface—and just like that, she was back in France, deep in the occupied zone.
The war—or more correctly, the Nazis—had mostly turned the once beautiful countryside and small villages to rubble. The jackbooted thugs had marched with impunity, leaving only death and destruction in their wake
Even now she could almost hear the voices of her long-dead friends.
Elaine blinked. “Pardon?”
François narrowed his eyes. “I asked if you were paying attention,” he said, his French heavy with a Parisian accent. “But you answer my question anyway, yes?”
There were snickers from the collection of men, scarcely more than boys, gathered around the table and map.
“Sorry,” Elaine said, her own carefully applied accent fitting someone from the southern countryside. “You were saying a convoy of three German trucks will be coming down this road.” She traced the route on the map with her finger. “And this being one of the few remaining bridges, they’ll attempt to cross here. Did I miss something?”
François turned a little pink, then a deeper red when the chuckles turned on him. When Paul offered him the bottle of wine, François’s smile returned, and he laughed as well.
“Our little sparrow misses nothing, no?” he asked, then took a swallow of wine before offering her the bottle.
Elaine smiled and accepted.
Six hours later, just before dawn, the explosives had been set and the group was in position. She sat high in a tree, her rifle held close. Despite having cast a charm to turn the iron into innocuous fae iron (a taxing process that had taken her the better part of three weeks), she still wore gloves. On more than one occasion she’d had to use another weapon, one that hadn’t been magically treated.
As the first rays of dawn touched her cheeks, she had only a moment to savor the sublime joy of the morning light. Her keen eyes picked up the telltale clouds of black diesel smoke before she ever saw the vehicles. She made a sparrow call, alerting her fellow resistance fighters.
A thrush sounded back.
They were ready.
Elaine hefted her rifle and sighted down the barrel, her fingertip caressing the trigger. She watched the rise, waiting for the first truck to come into view.
Her eyes went wide and her stomach twisted when she saw the two Hanomags, armored halftrack personnel carriers, leading the three big trucks. That was two units, more than twenty soldiers. She made another birdcall, a nightingale, the signal to abort.
The thrush call came in reply, repeated twice. Proceed.
“Fools,” she swore. “You’re going to get us all killed.”
She sighted down the rifle again and slowed her breathing. They were outnumbered almost three to one and up against armor with nothing but rifles and a few grenades.
“Just an afternoon walk along the Seine,” she said. Of course Germany now controlled Paris and the Seine, so maybe it was an accurate comparison.
The caravan crawled down the muddy road, inching closer to the bridge. Looking through the scope, she watched the gunner on the lead Hanomag. His head was on a swivel, constantly looking one way then another. Not that she could blame him. This was a textbook place for an ambush.
The first Hanomag stopped just shy of the explosive charges.
Her heart began to race. Had they spotted it? No, it was buried and the mud didn’t leave any sign that even she could see. No way could these mortal goose-steppers have—
An officer in the black uniform of the SS stepped out of the second Hanomag, flanked by half a dozen regular army soldiers. Elaine sighted him with her scope, noted her heartbeat, and placed her finger on the trigger.
The tingle of magic danced across her skin as the officer drew a talisman from under his coat. “Offenbaren sich!” he shouted.
There was a gust of wind, and the leaves on the trees near her rustled. She whispered a charm and felt it come up just as the magic reached her. The spell slid over her harmlessly. Her friends weren’t so lucky. A red glow pulsed from the spot where the explosives had been set, and faint pinkish light shone from six spots around the convoy.
“Aus dem Hinterhalt überfallen!” the officer shouted and pointed to the lights.
The gunners on the Hanomags turned and the soldiers protecting the officer took aim.
“Merde,” Elaine cursed, then sighted and fired.
There was a crack, and the officer’s face was a red mist.
Then everything went to hell.
Soldiers poured from the trucks and the Hanomags, the gunners turned their MG-42s toward the now-fading lights marking François and the others. The soldiers took cover behind the armored vehicles and divided their fire between her and her compatriots. She was well concealed, so most of the shots did nothing more than send shredded leaves and bark through the air. Only a few smacked close enough to cause her unease.
Elaine ignored them and sighted one of the MG-42 gunners.
“Vive la France!” someone shouted.
Elaine looked up just in time to see Paul leap from cover and charge at the soldiers, drawing their attention and fire. She watched in horror as the Nazi guns tore him to shreds. Somehow, before falling, he lobbed two grenades into one of the armored vehicles. There came a shout of panic from inside the Hanomag and seconds later came two concussive booms. Debris flew up from the open top of the halftrack and the shouts stopped.
François and the others took advantage of Paul’s sacrifice, moved to different cover, and started firing. A few Nazi soldiers dropped, but the remaining MG-42 began spraying the area with a hail of bullets.
Elaine gritted her teeth and fired two shots; both hit the gunner, and he fell. This again drew fire in her direction.
The fight became a blur after that. She took aim and fired, took aim and fired, over and over again, pausing only long enough to reload. It wasn’t until she couldn’t find another target that Elaine realized it was done, and all the Nazis were dead or dying.
She lay on the branch for a long moment, until the ringing in her ears began to fade. When she moved, a sharp pain in her shoulder brought her up short. More gingerly, she shifted and saw tendrils of white light filled with motes of green drifting from her shoulder. At the center was a growing blossom of gold blood. She rolled and dropped from the tree, landing only slightly less gracefully than normal. Still, the jolt made the pain jump a few numbers on the intensity scale.
She clenched her jaw, hefted her rifle, and carefully inspected the scene. The Germans were all dead, but the driver of one of the Hanomags was still alive. He took a couple shots at her with his Luger, but he’d apparently caught some ricochets or shrapnel because he didn’t even come close. Elaine put him down with a shot through the viewing port.
“Please, help me,” someone said in bad French.
Elaine spun to see a German soldier lying on the ground. He was little more than a kid, maybe sixteen; it didn’t even look like he’d started shaving. She just stared at his tear-filled eyes, blood running down his cheek from the corner of his mouth. He had at least half a dozen holes in his chest. He was already dead, he just didn’t know it.
“Ja,” she said.
His thanks were swallowed by the loud report of the rifle as she put a bullet between his eyes. There was nothing she, or anyone else, could’ve done for him. She wiped tears away and muttered a curse at Hitler and his megalomaniacal plans.
After double-checking that all the soldiers were dead, Elaine made her sparrow call. Her mouth was so dry, the call was hardly recognizable.
Only silence answered her.
Swallowing, she hardened her heart and went to where François and the others had been taking cover. She couldn’t bring herself to look down at the bloodied mess that had been Paul. She just kept walking. Her rifle fell to the ground, then she went to her knees, sobbing, covering her mouth with her good hand.
They were dead, which wasn’t a surprise, but it didn’t make finding them any less heartbreaking. Rémy was almost unrecognizable. If it wasn’t for his blond hair, now matted with blood—Elaine’s stomach twisted and she retched to one side. Michel, Julien, Daniel, Christophe, and Christian were in slightly better shape, for the most part. Julien’s left arm had been chewed up by the machine gun, and Christophe’s torso had been ripped open, allowing his insides to spill out. Elaine sobbed and turned to François. His rifle had been discarded and his pistol was still clutched in his left hand, two fingers having been shot off his right.
Sadness mixed with anger, and she screamed curses at him.
“You arrogant fool!” she said between sobs. “Why didn’t you just call off the operation? You got them all killed!”
It wasn’t long before Elaine grew numb inside. She used her fae healer’s kit to remove the bullet from her shoulder, and a liberal smearing of healing ointment numbed the pain enough to give her almost full use of her arm again. Lastly, she set the pinkish, putty-like dóú craiceann over the wound, sealing it like a second skin. She’d never been much of a healer herself, but she got the job done. With effort, and still careful of her wounded shoulder, she dragged Paul into the cover to join his brothers-in-arms. Elaine whispered a charm and the earth drew itself up and over her friends. A moment later, lush green grass covered the seven mounds.
“Adieu, mes amis,” she said softly.
The ebook is only $0.99 (and how can you not buy a $0.99 book?), but if you preorder the paperback (releases 1/8/16 and is only $3.99) from The Fountain Bookstore, not only will it be signed, but you’ll get an exclusive gift. As a nice bonus, you can also order signed copies of The Stolen and The Forgotten while you’re there, and don’t worry, they ship worldwide.
Bishop O’Connell is the author of the American Faerie Tale series, a consultant, writer, blogger, and lover of kilts and beer, as well as a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Born in Naples Italy while his father was stationed in Sardinia, Bishop grew up in San Diego, CA where he fell in love with the ocean and fish tacos. While wandering the country for work and school (absolutely not because he was in hiding from mind controlling bunnies), he experienced autumn in New England. Soon after, he settled in Manchester, NH, where he writes, collects swords, revels in his immortality as a critically acclaimed “visionary” of the urban fantasy genre, and is regularly chastised for making up things for his bio. He can also be found online at A Quiet Pint (aquietpint.com), where he muses philosophical on life, the universe, and everything, as well as various aspects of writing and the road to getting published.
Trafficking With Demons
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.
Frankenstein, the Monster, and Hollywood
If you haven’t already, you will probably see the trailer for the new movie I, Frankenstein very shortly. For this, I am profoundly sorry and wish there were some way I could spare you the experience but, alas, I cannot. Hollywood has too much money tied up in that abomination, and they have every intention of stuffing it down your throat.
Now, I haven’t seen the movie and I didn’t read the graphic novel, so I suppose I leave myself wide open to criticism when I say that this movie will probably be unutterably terrible. Unlike Pacific Rim (which also was not a good movie by any objective appraisal), I, Frankenstein doesn’t even look like it will be fun. It looks like a maudlin, overly CGI-ed monstrosity representing a music video director’s idea of ‘gothic.’ We get to watch Frankenstein’s monster fight with gargoyles or something, which is a scene I doubt anybody was secretly hankering for, and we are led to believe that the monster is humanity’s only hope, which is so cliché at this point as to be an open insult to the viewing audience’s intelligence. Aaron Eckhart, who I like a lot and is a fine actor, evidently has a few house payments to make and this is how he’s chosen to do it. Fine – more power to him.
However, this film bothers me on a level beyond its apparent lack of quality. Plenty of crappy sci fi/fantasy/horror movies are made every year and very few of them actively annoy me the way this one does. In this case, the thing that sets this film apart is the title: I, Frankenstein. First of all, the monster is not Frankenstein nor would the monster ever willingly take his creator’s name. Victor Frankenstein created the monster and the monster destroyed him by systematically murdering everyone who mattered to him in his life. Dr. Frankenstein visited nothing but horror and hatred on his creation, and the creation responded in kind. To have the monster identify himself as his most hated enemy is bonkers and demonstrates either an ignorance or indifference to the source material that I find rankling.
Why does it rankle? Well, the whole point of the novel Frankenstein is about man’s relationship with his creations or, more broadly, about the ethical dilemmas surrounding scientific and technological research. Conflating the monster and the creator into a single entity or, as this film seems to do, having the monster self-identify with the creator removes what is interesting about the story in the first place. Granted people have been calling the monster ‘Frankenstein’ since the early 20th century – it may sound snooty of me to quibble with what has become common parlance – but to me the difference is essential to the essence of what the monster is about. If the man is not in the story, what are we left with, exactly? A big, strong man with scars? So? He is alone, he is apart, and the denial he feels from his creator drives him to do terrible things. Remove that motivation and all you have left is a grouchy man.
Now, I suppose the film could deal with the monster’s feeling of isolation, which would be understandable to some degree, but one has to wonder what he’s been doing for the last two-hundred years if not figuring out where to fit in. Additionally, having a loner character act as savior to the people he hates has been done to death, most recently by Hellboy, which at least has a better comic book pedigree to draw on.
World-building in comtemporary/urban fantasy tales is a tricky thing. Rare are the stories in that genre that I feel do it well (Jim Butcher’s work comes to mind). Too often these stories are the fevered imaginings of the adolescent mind (and not in the good way), beginning with the phrase ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ and then trailing off into indulgent, scarcely sane explanations of a normal world containing people with incredible properties. The more egregiously the author violates the ‘normal’ world with the ‘special’ world, the harder suspension of disbelief becomes until, eventually, you get something like this film. This nonsense is just slapped together to the point where you can see the seams in the work, much like Doctor Frankenstein’s stitching is still visible on his creation.
That, then, is the final irony. I, Frankenstein is, itself, a monster. It was made in a laboratory of a different sort – one featuring advertising executives and movie producers instead of scientists. Using laptops and powerpoints instead of beakers and test tubes, they have given life to a creature they intend as beautiful – a blockbuster movie to entertain the masses and coax a river of money to flow into their pockets. Instead, though, they’ve created an ugly thing – something dug up from the grave and not fully understood, made to walk about against its will. Rather than cheer, we recoil in horror. We abandon it in its infancy, leaving it bitter and alone and forgotten in the lower recesses of Comcast’s On-Demand menu. It leaves behind it the corpses of those fools who sought to bring it to life and, as punishment, are relegated to directing Vin Diesel vehicles for the rest of eternity.
Or so we can hope.
The Lych of Stalingrad
Author’s Note: What follows is an excerpt of a project I’ve been working on for a little while now. It’s been a while since I’ve posted any of my own work, so I figured I’d toss this one out there. The novel itself is in a state of severe ‘take entirely apart and put back together again’ revision, so whether this scene even stays is on the ropes. I think it makes for a pretty sweet opening, anyway. Hope you enjoy it and, of note, it is *rough*, so please excuse the occasional typo/awkward phrase. Thanks! ~AAH
The men moved like hunting dogs in the dying light – heads cocked, ears pointed to the sky, every step made with ruthless caution. The ruined city looked as though cloaked in snow, a thin layer of white coating the blackened remnants of apartment buildings, machinery, and lampposts. It was not snow. It was ash.
Somewhere not very far away the frenetic pop and crack of rifles would start up and then stop and then start again. This was a time of peace for the city; in an hour or so, when darkness filled every empty doorway and rubble-choked trench, the real dirty fighting would begin again. Face-to-face, toe-to-toe, Stalin had ordered his soldiers as close to the Germans as they could get, hugging their lines in a masochistic embrace. The dead were piled in every alley, Russian and German alike.
Then men creeping down the ash-white street knew this. They were all veterans who had invaded the city with Hitler’s Sixth Army and had been here ever since, painting the masonry of Stalin’s city with the blood of its defenders. Hard men in chalk-grey coats, their eyes a thousand miles away, their fingers never far from the trigger. They moved quickly; they knew the way.
None of them looked at the officer who was with them, striding down the street as though this place were the corridors of his private library. His black trenchcoat was spotlessly clean, his peaked cap, which had never known the touch of dirt, sported the silver eagle of the Reich, and his leather gloves still shone. He had arrived in the city just yesterday, with a signed order from the Führer himself. He said his name was Hoffstadt, and that ten men were to take him behind Soviet lines and into an area of the city known to be abandoned and avoided by both sides for reasons no German officer had been able to adequately explain to his superiors.
No one had dared to argue with him; the men simply hoped Hoffstadt would catch a sniper’s bullet and then the ten of them could ditch his body and head back to their own lines. He had not. Not yet.
Stalingrad had been so ravaged by the battle that it was difficult, at times, to tell where a street ended and a ruin began and vice versa. Hoffstadt got the sense that they were crossing streets and slinking through ruins rather than following the map he’d been given; he found himself passing through the devastated remnants of kitchens and sitting rooms, bullet-riddled bedrooms and bathrooms. He felt like an archaeologist of sorts, passing through the living spaces of people long since dead and gone and for whom there would be no eulogy save their bathtub, shrapnel cracked and smoke stained, that had once served as a crucial machine gun nest.
The sergeant called the men to a halt with a silent hand gesture. They were at the base of a stairway that led to nothing – a building whose top floors had been removed by some work of explosive destruction – peering through a half-open doorway with the tangled concrete rubble of the rest of the city block on two sides. Not bothering to duck, Hoffstadt stepped beside the sergeant and whispered. “What is the matter? Why the delay?”
“Please, mein Herr, lower your voice.” The sergeant hissed. “The enemy could be anywhere.”
“We haven’t seen or heard a Russian for blocks now.” Hoffstadt said, brushing dust off his epaulets. “You men have become overly cautious. This area is devoid of enemy activity.”
“And yet, mein Herr, those who go in do not come out.”
“That, gentlemen, is why I am here. Trust me – I am prepared for what we face.” He patted the satchel at his side. “Is it just over there?”
The sergeant poked his head out of the door in the direction that Hoffstadt pointed. “The Russians claim the koldun lives in that church across that plaza, yes. Allow my men to secure the area, though, before you…”
Hoffstadt stepped through the door and into the open.
The church was not a church, of course. Not anymore – the communists had repurposed the building, torn down its iconography, and made it into a shrine to the Russian Worker, instead. Iron murals of taut-muscled young men working hammers and scythes flanked the entryway; posters with red stars and the mustachioed face of Comrade Stalin were plastered across fat stone pillars. The front of the church had taken a direct hit from an artillery shell, leaving a ragged hole in the upper façade, like a mouth wailing at the sky. Hoffstadt walked toward it, and when he was not shot, the soldiers followed, hopping from cover to cover as they crawled in his wake.
The plaza before the church was strewn with rubble and threaded haphazardly with razorwire, but these things did not catch Hoffstadt’s attention. He stepped around and past them, his eyes fixed on a spectacle spread out across the base of the wide stairs leading up to the church’s front doors. It was a row of wooden stakes, each over six feet long, set into the ground at regular intervals. Impaled on each was a human head, severed at the neck or perhaps torn from its moorings – it was difficult to tell. Flies buzzed around each stake, and as Hoffstadt grew closer, he could see that each was sticky with blood. He stopped just shy of crossing the line. The soldiers, weapons ready, crouched in the half-darkness behind him.
“Hello in there!” Hoffstadt yelled in Russian. The deathly silence of the plaza seemed to swallow the words. He raised his voice. “Is anyone at home? Hello?”
As one, the eyes of the severed heads opened. Hoffstadt’s breath caught in his throat. “Is that you, Khostov?”
The bloodied, lipless mouths of the heads moved in unison. The soft, rasping whisper of a dozen severed vocal chords awkwardly vibrating filled the air. “Who are you?”
Hoffstadt smiled and looked back at the soldiers. Their faces were as pale as those of the heads. They looked at him with wide, panicked eyes. He motioned for calm and, just for fun, gave them a wink. He then planted his feet and faced the heads again. “So it is you, isn’t it?”
“Who are you?”
“I am Ernst Hoffstadt, special advisor attached to the Führer’s SS. I am looking for the Russian sorcerer named Vitaly Khostov. Is there anyone by that name here?” Hoffstadt grinned. “Perhaps it is one of these heads, eh?”
“You are not welcome here.” The heads moaned. Their fish-white eyes rolled in their blackened sockets.
“Yes. I had gathered that.” Hoffstadt reached into the satchel and drew out a small pewter flask embossed with a golden swastika. He casually unscrewed the cap.
“Sir!” The sergeant had his MP40 trained on the heads; his hands shook. “What…what is this? Is this real?”
Hoffstadt looked down at the man and thought about it. No, there was no sense in explaining. “It’s electronics, Sergeant. A theatre show, yes? Remain calm – all is well.”
“You are not welcome here.” The heads repeated.
Hoffstadt chuckled. “And yet, here I am.” He stepped forward a full pace, up to the very edge of the line of stakes, and poured a fine white powder out of the flask. It collected in a small pile at his feet; he began to walk, drawing a white line against the scorched, blackened earth in a large circle about two paces across and then took up a position at the center of it.
“Begone.” The whispers from the dead lips lacked inflection, but Hoffstadt felt he could detect something behind the words—frustration, perhaps. Annoyance? All the better.
“I will not leave until I’ve completed my mission, Herr Khostov. My mission is to speak with you, in person. If you will come out of your little ruin and have a conversation with me, I will gladly go away. Until then, I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.” Hoffstadt smiled and folded his hands behind his back. He waited for the counterstroke.
It came from one of the soldiers. He was a simple private – a youngish man with an uneven yellow beard. His blue eyes were transfixed on the heads, his face locked in an expression of mute horror. Out of the corner of his eye, Hoffstadt saw him slowly stand up, Mauser rifle gripped tightly in his hands, eyes still glued to the heads. Hoffstadt could see their lips moving, but they made no sound. Whatever they said, it was for the soldier alone.
“Gerd!” The sergeant barked, “Get down! What is the matter with you.”
Hoffstadt smiled and drew his nickel-plated P38 from its embossed holster. “Do not worry, Sergeant. Gerd isn’t himself at the moment.”
The soldier turned his rifle towards Hoffstadt, his eyes nearly popping out of his head, his veins bulging from his neck. Hoffstadt waited just long enough to make certain the young private couldn’t snap out of it, and then he shot him once through the heart. Gerd dropped his rifle, fell to his knees, and then collapsed, face first, into the ash. The soldiers were utterly still; some of them looked to the sergeant.
“You acknowledge, Sergeant, that young Gerd over there was about to shoot me, yes?”
The sergeant was looking at Gerd’s body. His face was as gray as his coat. “Yes, mein Herr. Yes, but…”
Hoffstadt turned back to the heads. “A very good trick, Herr Khostov, but you must agree that it is inefficient. I can shoot down any man you seek to dominate, and then where are we, eh?”
The heads regarded him with their empty eyes, their mouths quivering in unison. It took Hoffstadt a moment, but he realized that they were laughing.
“Mein…mein Herr…” The sergeant managed to croak, his voice labored as though he were carrying a great weight. Hoffstadt looked – the sergeant was slowly rising, his eyes fixed upon the dead gaze of the heads, just as Gerd’s had been. All nine of the remaining men were doing the same, all of their faces frozen with terror, all of them slowly, inexorably turning their weapons towards Hoffstadt.
Seven rounds left in the magazine, nine men. Hoffstadt kept calm, taking careful aim. The pistol barked seven times, and seven more bodies dropped. The last two were the Sergeant and his corporal. Hoffstadt could see them fighting the compulsion, their bodies trembling as though they might shake apart at any moment. Hoffstadt fell to one knee as the corporal fired, the rifle shot zinging past his head close enough to blow off his hat. He ejected the P38 magazine with one hand as the other fished its replacement out of his satchel. The corporal’s trembling hands reluctantly worked the bolt on his Mauser.
The sergeant’s MP40, though, was unlikely to miss at this range. The submachine gun roared to life, spitting a half dozen rounds into Hoffstadt’s chest, ripping apart his fine trenchcoat and throwing the SS operative onto his back.
The sergeant’s weapon jammed, but the compelled German soldier could not stop holding down the trigger. Hoffstadt rolled to knees and stood up, chuckling. “You are not the only one with secrets, Herr Khostov.” He chambered the first round in his pistol and shot the sergeant in the face, then the corporal in the throat – his aim was a bit off.
The heads had fallen silent.
Hoffstadt took off the trenchcoat. His uniform beneath was likewise riddled with bullets, but the effect was less noticeable. He shook himself and the flattened slugs clattered out from underneath his shirt. “The Green Draught – surely you know it, yes? My, but it tastes terrible. The effects, though,” Hoffstadt pointed to his chest. “They cannot be argued with.”
“It only protects against some things.” A figure in a dark cowl stood in the doors of the old church. Hoffstadt could see nothing of his features, but his voice was somehow still and cold, like a pond in winter.
“Herr Khostov, I presume.”
The figure did not move. “What do you want?”
Hoffstadt holstered his pistol and picked his hat up, brushing the ashes off its brim. “It is not what I want, Herr Khostov, but what you want. I come with an offer from the Führer himself.”
The black-cowled form of Khostov came closer, seeming to float down the cracked steps. In the distance, an artillery shell exploded, lighting the sky. “And why would I accept an offer made by your Führer?”
“Do you think there is a future for you here?” Hoffstadt squinted in the dying light at the Russian sorcerer. He thought he might have seen something…glowing. Underneath the hood of the cowl, perhaps?
“You presume a great deal.” Khostov stood at the edge of the line of stakes, their grisly top-pieces now silent. Another shell brightened the waning light of day.
“The Russians are finished, Herr Khostov. When we have crushed them here, it will all soon be over. Even if it weren’t true, just how welcoming do you think Comrade Stalin will be of a man of your…peculiar talents? He will seek to enslave you; the Reich would seek to uplift you. We welcome you as a member of the superior race. This could be the beginning of your greatest triumph.”
“You would have me abandon brutes to work with butchers.” Khostov observed quietly. Hoffstadt could definitely see something glimmering beneath the cowl, now, as the night was falling faster and faster.
“We are but pruning the tree of humanity, Herr Khostov. We are paying the price for a better tomorrow—surely you, of all people, would understand the need for sacrifice to achieve greatness.”
Khostov, now barely visible except as a black outline in the dark, shook his cowled head. “No. I am no judge of such things and neither is Hitler. I reject your offer, Ernst Hoffstadt.” The sorcerer moved to come closer, but paused at the edge of the white powder the nazi had poured around himself.
Hoffstadt grinned. “Salt, Herr Khostov. The barrier your kind cannot cross, yes? We have studied, you see. We know more than you realize.”
Khostov produced a sound that Hoffstadt thought was some kind of cough or wheeze, but as it intensified, he realized that the Russian sorcerer was laughing. It was a thin, gallows-laugh, mirthless and chilling. Somewhere, far away, another bomb dropped, shaking the earth. “I’m afraid I don’t understand what’s so funny, Herr Khostov…”
Khostov’s hooded head turned towards him, and now Hoffstadt could see the two globes of pale green light hanging there in the depths of the cowl – the eyes of something wicked, something damned. “You have made a mistake only a Nazi would, Hoffstadt.” The sorcerer – the creature – stepped smoothly over the line of salt. “This salt is not kosher.”
Hoffstadt staggered backwards, but Khostov’s hands – little more than bony claws – seized him by the arm. There was the flash of a distant flare and, for a split second, Hoffstadt saw what was beneath the sorcerer’s cowl: A half-decayed human skull, muscle clinging in tarry strips across the face, and floating in the empty eye-sockets was that deathly green light.
Ernst Hoffstadt’s screams were muffled by the sound of Nazi bombs and artillery shells rending asunder that which, with utmost care and hope, Russian hands had put together.
The Importance (and Danger) of Myth
I’ve been coming across various blogs, sites, and fantasy-related discussions in which participants have discussed the
importance of understanding and studying mythology when constructing a fantasy world. This has particularly been the case when discussing the creation of urban or contemporary fantasy novels (which, for the initiated, are those fantastical stories set in our own world–think things like the Dresden Files, Harry Potter (to some extent), Twilight, most zombie or vampire tales, etc.). Now, on the one hand, I agree that having a good grasp of various cultural myths can be a great help when world-building. On the other hand, I also see the adherence to and obsession with the minutiae of these myths to be a severe limitation on what the fantasy genre can do.
If I write a story and I want fairies in it, it would behoove me to read up on fairie mythology–this only makes sense. If you want to contribute to a long-standing ‘conversation’ if you will surrounding a certain topic, you ought to do a little bit of research. However, if I want to change my fairies so that they operate at variance with the behavior of the prototypical ‘fairie’, I should be able to do so. In fact, I would go so far as to encourage people to do so. It is a constant wonder to me that the speculative fiction genres are, at times, so damned rigid in what is acceptable or unacceptable. The whole reason the genre is called ‘fantasy’ is that you can do anything you damned well please. Fairies aren’t real, so there are no actual rules regarding how they can be portrayed. There are only perceived rules.
That said, you can’t go about writing about amphibious vampires who feed on gelatin and thrive in the sunlight and still call them vampires. There is a certain essence to ‘vampireness’ that must be respected in order for your contribution to the vampire genre to have meaning. To figure out what that is, you need to really sit down and think about what a ‘vampire’ really represents. I, personally, find vampires cowardly and pathetic creatures–slaves to their baser instincts and self-absorbed parasites too terrified of their own mortality to accept it. Now, if I take that idea (what I consider to be the thematic core of vampirism) and filter it into a vampire character that picks and chooses from the mythology in accordance with the overall idea, I’m going to wind up with something that is both vampire and not vampire. My vampires won’t be heroic or even anti-heroic. They will be irresponsible, cowardly, ruled by fear and lust and hunger. They will probably have only false bravado, not the firm confidence of Dracula. I will probably give them an aversion to sunlight, but not for the same reasons everyone else does. I won’t have them working in large family groups. I won’t have vampirism be a disease or a contagious curse. You’ll know they’re vampires, but I’ll be using them in a different way and for a different purpose. They will remake the old into the new.
The above is what I think fantasy should always seek to do. Take a bit of the old, but don’t enslave yourself to it. If you want to make fairies more like regular people with regular jobs, then do it. Who cares if that isn’t the trope? Tropes lead you to predictable stories, boring characters, and forgettable writing. Take the tropes and break them. Make up your own rules. Twist the ideas around into something new–something of your own. It’s okay; you’re allowed to do it. Not every werewolf is killed by silver bullets. Yours can be different, new, interesting–they can go from the mundane to the fantastic.
That, after all, is where we fantasy fans all want to be.
Notes from the Red Necromancer
The following was excised from a KGB black ops facility by CIA deep cover operatives in the winter of 1971. It is an incomplete fragment of what is apparently a much longer work, and it is uncertain how, if at all, the Soviets intended to use or had used its contents or, indeed, who the author is. It is the advice of this translator that this file is some kind of fiction or the rantings of a lunatic. There is, however, far too much associated KGB and CIA documentation to discount it entirely. Something was going on here, though what is terrible to contemplate.
What is often misunderstood is this: all sorcery is black sorcery. There is no other type. The flashy tricks and dramatic swoops of the stage illusionist are charades, nothing more. Likewise, the mentalist and the so-called psychic are nothing but talented charlatans and liars. Sorcery—true sorcery—is dirty and abhorrent to so-called cultured men. This I know.
The irony of black sorcery is that it is as old as God Himself. Its power derives from His own, at least in part. We may not cast back the waters of the Red Sea, nor may we transmute staff into snake; these miracles are beyond us, just as they were beyond Pharaoh. We know, however, a deeper secret. It is one more subtle and every bit as powerful.
Sorcery is the power of Life and Death.
The great Gift given to the world by the Almighty and wielded by Jesus over the body of Lazarus is the power which we manipulate, though to a much lesser degree. If Eden were the great bonfire that began it all, that which we toy with is but the sputtering embers and errant sparks of that great conflagration. Still, with sparks one may do much, if one is clever.
Sorcery involves the viscera and fluids of living creatures to be enacted. If you are opposed to shedding of blood and disturbed by the touch of dead flesh, you will never be a sorcerer. Indeed, one should not wish to be a sorcerer at all; it is no blessing. Perhaps in the courts of ancient Egypt our skills were esteemed, but now we are reviled, abhorred, or simply denied. Only upon the tiny island of Hispaniola can you find members of our order practicing their art openly, and even then they are met with derision. The societies of mankind deny what they know is true—life is a power beyond the simple physics of anatomy. Were it not, every doctor could bring life where there is death; every scientist would have a Monster like Victor Frankenstien’s.
I am one of the last, true necromancers. I write this to explain myself and my work, but I do not seek your forgiveness or pardon. I have done nothing wrong. Raising the dead is no crime if the cause for which they are raised is just, and I am a just man. Or I was a just man until recently.
My captors—these wretched, drab bureaucrats who fawn in Stalin’s wake and worship the fiction of their Party—they have made me do what I would not have done otherwise. I have created things for them and I know that they will be misused. I have given eternal life to the unworthy and the vicious; I have raised the innocent to obey the guilty. These are crimes, but I will make amends. I have all the time in the world, though they refuse to believe it. I was old when Tsar Nicholas II was a boy, so what do they know, these children of Lenin?
It may come to pass, however, that they will somehow destroy me. If this were to happen, it would be unwise for me to leave this world without laying out the weaknesses of those things which I have created. Heed me well:
Your enemy is not the servants—what the bokor of dark Haiti call zombi—for, while they have many uses, their power is brief and worthless without direction. No, it is the masters you must fear—those who have never passed the lychgate or similar after their deaths, those bodies that still live. They are the lych [editor’s note: this word originally written in the Latin alphabet; it is presumed the author was not satisfied with its Cyrillic equivalent for reasons I can only infer. It should be noted that the word is most probably derived from the Old English ‘lic,’ meaning ‘corpse’ or ‘body’ and nothing more], and they are the only ones besides our Lord and those who have passed into His Kingdom who have achieved eternal life. This life, though, is a shadow of its former self.
The lych persist in this world in full possession of their mind and willpower (so long as the one can maintain the other), but they rest within a body that is physically dead. They are sorcerers almost without exception or, at the very least, they know something of sorcery otherwise they will not be long for this world. They should not be underestimated under any circumstances.
You cannot murder a lych. They are already dead. Stab them and they will only bleed insofar as their blood is still present. Shoot them and you create a hole and nothing more. Cut off their head and their body and their head will seek to find one another. They do not feel pain, or at least not strongly—many come to miss the sensation; it drives some mad. Break their bones and you damage their vessel, but you do not harm their resolve or their intelligence.
It has been suggested that the lych may be killed by fire or by utterly obliterating their body. This is only partially true. Destroy the body and you rob the lych of his vessel, but his spirit will not dissipate. He will lurk and fester in the place where he was struck dead—for an eternity, if need be—until he is either truly released from this life or a new vessel presents itself. This is most easily accomplished with another dead body. It may be accomplished otherwise, as well. Possession is a very risky endeavor for the lych, but bears with it proportional benefits. I digress, however—more about possession later.
The lych is sustained by the captured essence of his life force. This is contained in his phylactery or phylacteries, known also as zombi to the bokor of West Africa, though this should not be confused with the servants the lych often employs. The process for preparing a phylactery is long and complex and requires much blood. It is a process I will not share with you, nor with my captors. What is important is that the phylactery or phylacteries are the only true weakness of the lych and their only bond to mortality. If it cannot be found and destroyed utterly, the lych can never truly depart this world for his final reward or punishment, as is appropriate to his actions.
The weapons of the lych are numerous and mysterious, and vary according to individual. To list them all here would be pointless—there are always exceptions. I have mentioned their sorcery, and that is enough for you to know their power. They have spent many mortal lifetimes perfecting their arts, and they are more skilled in them than any other save another of their kind. In general, it is enough to know that the lych have power over the dead and the living, the spiritual and the physical, and can learn and do much with the simple application of certain rituals. Their intelligence is their weapon, and it is a potent one.
Of their weaknesses, however, I can speak more directly. I have already mentioned the phylactery, but this is as much advantage as it is weakness—a lych may hide his phylactery anywhere on the Earth, even many thousands of miles from himself, and make his foes despair in hoping to defeat him. There are those lych who have buried theirs deep in the darkness of continental forests and jungles, never to be found again, and lived for ages without fear of compromise. The lych who wears his phylactery about his neck is a fool, but few of them are fools.
The greatest weakness of the lych is his body. It is dead, rotting, and weakening with every passing day. If they sustain injuries, they never heal. If they contract diseases, their body falls away to rot around them. This is of great concern to the lych, as he is then less able to blend into society and also less physically capable of interacting with the world. The ancient Egyptians embalmed their immortal high priests so that this rotting process would slow itself, and most modern lych do so as well. This, however, leaves them gaunt and thin—very corpselike in appearance and physically weak—but enables them to live in relative stability for long periods. They will cover up their gaunt appearance with make-up and wigs (the lych loses his hair very quickly) and wear concealing clothing. They will also seek to avoid infection and exposure to bacteria with ruthless attention, as the simple germs common mortals encounter on a daily basis are sufficient to devour the lych’s body. They will need to moisten their eyes and tongues often to prevent them from drying out and withering (though it should be noted they do not need these organs to see or be heard). Finally, they will avoid bright sunlight, as even minor burning from the sun is irreversible and leads to further complications. The lych values his body, even though he does not need it to persist—it is his primary tool for interacting with the world, and he spends much of his time caring for it.
There are those lych who seek to maintain some of their vitality through the consumption of fresh blood. This has its uses for a lych, as he is typically in need of fresh blood to engage in sorcery (which can, in turn, be used to delay his gradual decay). This habit among some is undoubtedly the origin of the so-called vampyr, but the lych is considerably more dangerous, if physically less potent.
Another important weakness of the lych lies with purified salt. Salt is an element that connects humanity with God and is a symbol of His various covenants with the faithful throughout time. Salt, particularly if pure and consecrated, interferes with the connection between the lych and his phylactery. If you were to make a ring of pure salt around a lych, the body would fall inert and the spirit banished back to his phylactery, as the link cannot pass a barrier of pure salt. Likewise, a lych may not pass onto consecrated ground. It should be noted to the fanatical that this is not an indication of the wickedness of the lych, but rather a regrettable fact of their existence. Throwing salt on them does not hurt them anymore than it would hurt a mortal person.
As a final caution, those who would combat the unrighteous lych must be made aware of certain misconceptions about the living dead. Holy water and holy symbols are of no worth against them, except perhaps as psychological weapons. Running water does not stop them anymore than it stops another man (though the embalmed lych is a poor swimmer and usually too weak to cross any great breadth of water). Burning them destroys their body, but has no effect on their spirit (though it should be mentioned that those lych that are embalmed with certain alcohol-based chemicals will occasionally explode as much as burn—be warned). With proper sun protection, a lych has no compunction walking about during the day, and even direct sunlight, though bad for their body’s long-term duration, does not harm them. To rely upon these superstitions in your battle against the lych is to court your own death.
That is enough for today. My captors are coming—I can smell them. I am interested in how they will choose to motivate me this time; they have given up on torture, of course. There are still things they cannot make me do. What evil they have compelled me to commit is only a fraction of my potential; I only hope they do not suspect this. I hope I am strong enough to endure longer than this new Union of theirs. I must be, even if I must live on as a spirit in this dismal place forever.
Where Have All the Wizards Gone?
The undead are in-vogue of late. Vampires, Zombies, Ghosts and so-on are all pretty popular in movies, TV, books, and so on. One thing I’ve found odd, however, is that more and more of these critters are the result of either technology or religion to almost the exclusion of all else, and I’ve been thinking about that idea vis-a-vis the undead, and I’m not sure I love the idea.
The Undead and Science
The science-creating-the-undead thing is much, much more recent than the religious angle and, for my money, also more ridiculous. Science – even pseudoscience – is poorly applied to things that are ostensibly dead. Just think about it for a few minutes and much of the scientific explanations for werewolves, zombies, vampires, and the rest of our popular monsters rapidly fall apart.
I’ve already explored why this idea is nonsense for zombies (if you don’t recall, check out my anti-zombie manifesto), but let’s take Vampires, instead. The Blade franchise, in addition to others, have maintained that Vampires are essentially people who (1) don’t grow old, (2) drink blood, (3) are ‘allergic’ to silver, (4) have poor defenses against sunlight, and so on. You watch Blade devising new technogadgets to combat them, they rationalize things like ‘UV light works like sunlight’ and ‘the vampires can wear sunblock, so…’ and on and on and on. Thing is, they very rarely take it all the way, which is what I find annoying. I ask lots and lots of questions like ‘why can’t the metabolize regular food instead of drinking blood?’ or, ‘if they can’t make their own blood, why don’t they get transfusions instead of drinking it – wouldn’t that be faster?’ or ‘if they’re dead, how come they don’t rot?’ and so on and so forth until I just get so frustrated with the damn thing and start yelling ‘why didn’t you just call it magic? MAGIC!’
The Undead and Religion
The other common origin for the undead comes from religious or spiritual material. Now, this I don’t really have a problem with, per se, in that this is from antiquity. Usually used in reference to ghosts more than any other kind of undead, the religious/spiritual angle is a story with lots of dramatic potential and is firmly based in our collective human canon – everybody’s got their stories of demons, ghosts, vampires, and so on who had something terrible happen to them and they linger on in this world, waiting for something to either destroy them or show them how to ‘cross over’, so to speak.The only issue I have with this particular version of the tale is that it’s so, well, wishy-washy. There aren’t any rules, really, and it’s the rules that make monsters fun. Vampires are the most popular not because they are inherently the coolest, but because they have the most lore built up around them in the form of rules, laws, and ‘gubbins’, if you will, that give the protagonists in stories involving vampires more to ‘sink their teeth into’, if you’ll pardon the pun. Without these rules, we’re stuck with talking about our feelings and trying to ‘make things right’. This can be interesting, but it doesn’t lend itself to rip-roaring adventure, exactly.
The Middle Ground
What I’d like to see more of (and it’s out there, mind you, just I want more) are monster stories that (1) acknowledge we’re working magically here and (2) have set rules in place to keep things crunchy. Buffy/Angel tended to do this, I think Supernatural has done this to some extent, and of course their are Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, but it hasn’t seemed to propagate.
Perhaps that’s just me, anyway, from my position on the periphery of the Urban Fantasy subgenre. Perhaps this is just my knee-jerk reaction to zombie mania, which I find aggrevating, and to the wussing-down of vampires from ‘fearsome monsters’ to basically plain old supervillains/heroes (if that). I want me some scary-ass new monsters, or old ones dredged up, preferably created by wizards or, better yet, are wizards themselves.
Yeah, I’m talking about the lich.
You know what I mean – the oldest, nastiest, most badass undead creature in Dungeons and Dragons, brought back into a new housing. The most recent incarnation of this fella was Voldemort, really, but I’d like to see more done with the idea. Heck, I plan on doing more with it myself, provided I ever get around to it. I want an intelligent, powerful, sorcerous monster who is neither attractive nor numerous to kick some mortal ass. I think much could be done with these wizards-turned-immortal undead, and I’m hoping it happens.
I’m also hoping I can contribute. Perhaps I’ll introduce the character I have in mind here on this blog sometime. Maybe I’ll discuss the Rules of the Lich. In any event, I really want to see fewer plots involving monster-making viruses or demonic possession.