Castle of Shadow [Chapter Two]

Castle of Shadow [Chapter Two]

Castle of Shadow launches today and can be purchased here

Chapter One is available for free here.

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The morning began, however, with an element of confusion, as we were not accustomed to the east country’s atmosphere and it appeared, upon first glance that the hours still belonged to the night. Robert made mention of the sky’s refusal of the sun’s rays and had to check his watch against that of an attendant to ensure himself that morning had indeed come. A cart came bearing coffee and buttered scones and that did much to improve our temperament, although Robert remarked that perhaps his mother was right and expected Zenborough to be a likewise gloomy place. I soon came to enjoy the dramatic romance of the scenery as it looked remarkably like the paintings I had come to adore within the church where my flower bed once resided.

Once we had performed our morning toilet and dressed for the day, Robert mused over the figures of his business while I stared out of the window, entranced with the somber landscape outside. Just as it had happened the night previous, I lost track of time and before I knew it nearly an hour and a quarter had passed and had been non-risible to Robert’s touch. A morbid curiosity weighed on my mind then: had I been watching the land outside or had I been once again bewitched by my faint reflection on the windowpane? I shook it off and made the excuse to Robert that I was simply not feeling well. Robert apologized profusely and said that he had been a fool for not expecting that I might endure some travel sickness, never having ventured so far before. He left and returned a few minutes later with a glass of brandy and a quinine tablet. I accepted the medicine gratefully and returned my attention to my novel, fearing any prolonged stare through the glass would lapse my attention back into my trance.

I still allowed myself brief glances to note the progress of our journey. It struck me as strange as to how many owls flew in the sky— generally solitary and nocturnal hunters, the creatures seemed to congregate en masse like a flock of sparrows. When I last glanced at the countryside, I took notice of how densely forested the area had become and how thick the trees themselves were. Black coniferous giants walled off any other features of the countryside and this frustrated any attempt to gauge our distance. I was again flummoxed when an attendant notified us that we were to arrive in Zenborough in a quarter-hour. I remarked to my Robert that there was surely no way any town or village could exist in such dense arboreal vegetation and that seemed to amuse him although I suspect he had the very same inkling.

On the train platform, Robert took care of the particulars to have our luggage delivered to our hotel and asked the bag man for a recommendation for a place that would serve some coffee or tea. The man, whose face was flushed red and carried an odor of bitter alcohol and petulant pipe tobacco, directed us to a cafe near the town square. Robert thanked the man and pressed a silver coin into his palm and we made haste at once, eager to get out of the misting rain and muddy streets.

Robert enjoyed a coffee and a small cigar while I chose chamomile and nibbled on a petite cake. Robert warned me not to eat too much as a Duke’s feast was sure to warrant a healthy appetite. After our luncheon, we settled into the hotel, bathed and took care of our toilet duties before donning our nicest garments— Robert looked absolutely handsome in his dark suit and I slipped into a green dress, an engagement present from my beloved after he had noticed me coveting it through a window. The principle adornment was the silver crucifix necklace and I was moved nearly to tears when Robert said that he had been stricken breathless by my stunning beauty.

Our carriage arrived to take us out to the manor driven by none other than the drunkard who had taken our bags just a few hours earlier. I’m afraid my feelings were not friendly towards the man as intoxication does not usually make for a charming disposition. Robert, however, smiling and eager as ever gave the man two pieces of silver and even asked to know the drunkard’s name which he gave as Klaus. The moment humbled me as I am occasionally too quick to judgment about the lower classes, now that I have been elevated. A true lady remembers her beginnings or she hazards losing her gratitude.

The misting rain turned to downpour on our way to the Duke’s manor and the noise of raindrops against our carriage roof was to be accompanied by the owls’ fevered screeching overhead. This did not seem to affect Robert and thusly I vowed that it would have no effect on me. As the windows of the carriage had no glass, I felt I was again free to gaze outside and take in the sights, what little I could see through the rain and the trees in the night’s gloom. An interesting notion caught me when I regarded the moon— which bore larger here than back home and with a muddled orangish tint— and then some minutes later, after a few miles had been crossed, the queer notion caught me again. It could be the coincidence of our location, but it appeared to me that the moon had not shifted in its location in the sky. Robert squeezed my hand and remarked on how excited he was to meet this Duke and I soon put any thought about the moon and the peculiar absence of stars out of my mind.

 

If you are interested in reading further, please purchase a digital copy of the story here. CoS_cover_small

Castle of Shadow [Sample Chapter]

Castle of Shadow [Sample Chapter]

Below is the first chapter of Castle of Shadow, released November 26th. The eBook is available for pre-order here.

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It all began innocuously enough when my fiancé received an invitation to attend dinner from the esteemed Duke of Zenborough in the late of September. My fiancé and benevolent darling, Robert Littelfield, to whom I adore more than anything in this world, is a remarkable craftsman of fine jewelry and purveyor of magnificent gems. He positively delighted in the news that we were welcome at the gracious Duke’s dining table. I’m afraid that I did not catch the significance. Truth be told, Robert curried my favor well out of his class. I was lowly born and orphaned young and had been paying for my room and board by merchandising the flowers I kept in a small bed in the shadow of a church on the east side of town and I was therefore ignorant of the value in twining social connections amongst the world of fine jewelry. My fiancé patiently assured me that this was indeed great news— the Duke, who is a renowned collector of arcane curios, would surely wish to hire my sweet Robert for his skill in his trade.

“We must make arrangements,” declared Robert. Oh, it was the happiest I have ever seen him and his enthusiasm soon spread to my heart as well.

His mother was not as warm on the idea, claiming that Zenborough was a grisly place and crossed herself doubly over her chest. She is not a cold woman, Mrs. Littelfield, but I have never won her affection. She has inspected me as if I am some horrid insect that has crawled into her supper. When Robert was first courting me the woman would not even utter a word towards me. She regarded some perceived slight in my mere existence and there was nothing to be done to win her forgiveness. She nearly fell from a faint when Robert told her that we were betrothed and intended to marry in the spring. On this matter, Robert heartily reminded her that the invitation to the manor was not hers to decide and he happily went to town to send back a reply and to arrange the train tickets due to depart in a mere nine days.

The days passed easily and I would contend that it was the happiest I have ever been. Robert reminded me daily that he loved me more than he did yesterday and did not think that was possible. Robert was able to expedite a few sales that freed up a sizable allowance for us to live as we wished in the days leading up to our journey and so we delighted in the city’s finer offerings, taking in amusements at the theater and dining on fresh fish and sweet wines by the bay. During a promenade around the park with my head firmly nestled into the cradle of his neck, I was reminded about how Robert first came to court me, having stopped by my flower cart to make a purchase and then handed me the flower. It was such a romantic gesture, I was nearly horrified for I had forgotten how to behave! My word, he was so cordial and allowed me to hide my fluster with a whole bouquet next. I do not understand how a woman of my low bearing could have been so lucky as to have found a man as gentle and generous as the one at my side.

When finally the day arrived for us to depart my excitement gave me a barely containable and buoyant energy and Robert was of easy and gregarious cheer. We kissed Mrs. Littelfield goodbye although her mood was dark and ominous. She told us to go with God and draped a silver crucifix necklace over her son’s neck. Robert laughed and accepted the gift but when we were seated he claimed that it was too girlish a feature for himself to wear, and quickly removed it and draped it over my breast. When the train lurched and took off I admit I was glad to be free from the overbearing presence of Mrs. Littelfield and looked forward to a few days without her admonishments. Robert busied himself with the gazette and I a small novel. A cart brought us a tray of cured meats and exquisite cheeses although the bread was rather stale. At nightfall, I made use of the water closet for my evening toilet when a strange thing occurred. I examined my face in the looking glass, although that of itself is not unusual but rather the nightly routine of a young woman who wishes to remain the precious object of her fiancé’s affection, but the peculiarity arose when a knock fell on the door and the concerned tone of my dear Robert came muffled through the wood.

“Are you all right, my love? You’ve been in there for nearly half the hour.”

I snapped alert and it dawned on me that I had been staring into my smiling reflection and fondling the silver cross between my thumb and forefinger. I was dreadfully embarrassed as it is not a woman’s place to reveal her toilet activities to the man she intends to marry and I called back that I was indeed fine and made an excuse about worrying over combing my hair. My beloved Robert mentioned something about never understanding the minds of women and I heard his footfalls retreat to our cabin where I soon joined him. We toasted a small glass of brandy and were both quickly asleep in our beds amidst the rocking cradle of the moving train. Silly dreams filled my head that night and awful ones at that. When I woke and foolishly concerned Robert with the matter he gently reminded me that foul dreams are merely the apparitions of the body’s strained nerves. I was simply anxious about my first big social gathering and nothing more. Robert is so clever and wise and I felt small and childish for even bringing it up. I resumed my slumber and slept easily enough until morning.

I hoped you enjoyed this sample. This book will be released on November 26th. If you would like to pre-order this book, simply click here.

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The Orphan Principle

The Orphan Principle

My mom is pretty candid with her opinions about my books. After she read The Fish Fox Boys she was really supportive. And then in that special way that mothers do, she hemmed a little bit and hawed the following: “… NOT A WHOLE LOT OF MOTHERS IN THE BOOK.”

And I shrugged and said, “Well, obviously.”

But it’s partially untrue as there are matronly characters present in my quaint little novelette– Franny, who takes her name from my IRL Grandmother to whom the piece is dedicated (OH STOP IT, ME! TOO CUTE! SHUCKS!) and of course the Mother Bearoon (the nuclear mutated conglomeration of a bear and a raccoon and aptly named to boot).

But there’s a trope in fiction, primarily in YA oriented genres, that the primary children in most stories are orphans. Harry Potter is the first example that leaps to mind. In thrillers, you have Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. Because this isn’t relegated to literature alone, Zelda: Ocarina of Time follows suit. Batman AND Superman. And Spiderman, now that I think about it. Fuck me, most super heroes, actually. Each character from the addictive goddamn shonen anime series One Piece? Orphans. Little orphan Annie, the Chronicles of Narnia, hell, even Game of Thrones by the end of the Red Wedding (too soon?). Oh yeah, and Luke fuckin’ Skywalker.

It’s an ongoing trope that seemingly verges on self-parody and there’s been discussion as to why the hell this storytelling format exists and why it’s so pervasive in children’s entertainment. There’s a Lithub article by Liz Moore called “Why Do We Write About Orphans So Much” that I found poking around this concept. Moore’s got some pretty good insight on why it matters in a character-driven sense:

…the pain of the orphan occupies a place of precedence among all other types of pain, feels instinctively true, and makes writing about orphans tempting for a novelist.

It’s hard to argue with that logic. After all, Harry “Big Slytherin” Potter (and you thought there wouldn’t be any dick jokes in a post that started with a charming story about my mother, shame on you) has to confront his parent’s death various times through his journey and his acceptance into a famial structure at Hogwarts and at the Weasleys completes his character’s needs. Skywalker’s shit gets all fucked up when he finds out that his dad’s the biggest bastard of all time, Batman flashes back to a fuckin’ rose or some pearls or whatever every time he pours a bowl of cereal in the morning and… you get it.

But I think there’s a more practical explanation (and I might even go as far as to say that all of that Freudian family psychology might have been found in writing exploration after the fact). In the recent episode of The Self Publishing Show, James Blatch offers that it might be a children’s power fantasy of being able to handle adult responsibilities, which is probably true, but Hutchinson lays down the neccessary pragmatism of the trope:

Get rid of the parents in chapter one. Find a way to get the parents out of it so the children can’t just get mum and dad to sort everything out. And then put them in a difficult situation. It’s the same thing writing any genre or any age group, you put your character in a difficult situation and you remove any kind of support for them. It’s exactly the same for children’s books, your characters just happen to be children, so you need to get the parents out of the way so they don’t fix everything.

To make these kind of stories work structurally, they need to start out from a place where traditional family consequences and safety nets are absent. I call it the Orphan Principle. Ron Weasely has a family and you know what? His magic power is that he’s NICE. Without the cursed orphan Godhead as his best friend and main character, the books would be called Ron Weasley: A Bumbling Academic of Little Consequence Who’s Good at Wizard’s Chess Which is Actually Just Kind of Chess, Fuck’s Sake. Batman would be called A Rich and Entitled Twerp Who Should Stop Doing Ninja Shit Outside and Do His Homework, Fuck’s Sake. If Superman came down with his whole family intact, his dad would be Superman who would take care of all the bullshit and he would be like that egg-sucking Superboy who wore a leather jacket despite obviously not being punk (Obviously the Invincibles is great and works in the subversion of the trope). 

Does this mean in order to write a story that you need to kill off the parents every time? Of course not. You just need to get them out of the way. Steven Spielberg accomplishes this in his latchkey kids classic, The Goonies, by having working-class parents simply go to work. Or they’re moving or something. It doesn’t matter, the movie’s not about them, it’s about the kids and they are fo-sho out of the way the entire film.

A better example might be how Stranger Things handles things. The writers cleverly split the Adults and Children protagonists into two parties (three, including the teens) with their own interesting plotlines. The adults are alive and kicking and holding down the B Plot, while the dork children helm the A Plot. The teenagers carry the C Plot, which is mostly about kissing or something gross like that (I wanna say that girl, uh, B…Bart… Banana went missing?). All plotlines intertwine by the season’s end and it never feels forced or hokey. The children characters get all of the adventurous independence that comes from their absent parents and the adults characters carry the emotional weight to a satisfying conclusion. And I guess the teenagers, also with absent parents who are involved with the scary shit, are like, “Hey, you ever hear about this sex thing? Ha! Wouldn’t it be crazy if sex was like, I don’t know, like just a funny thing we– huh? Barbara who?”

Point being it’s not always necessary to orphan your kids to establish a starting point of conflict– but it is damned convenient. What is necessary, parents or no, is that those characters are free from support so that they may overcome the conflicts they encounter.

 

If you’d like to read a YA book featuring orphans that ISN’T a bummer, The Fish Boys: Part One is a great place to start. It’s a post-nuclear fairytale following the adventures ore_cover_smallf three idiot-savant inventors as they traverse the wasteland and it is available to purchase in paperback and Kindle here.

 

The Absurdist Detective: Philosophy of Literary Noir

The Absurdist Detective: Philosophy of Literary Noir

A common question I’ve been asking throughout the course of this blog-essay project is “what defines the literary genre of noir?” After all, the term was coined to describe a brief but potent era of American cinema twenty years later by French auteurs to describe the dark contrast and emphasis on black. There are no established rules, per se, but rather a tone and look. A vibe. And yet, the term was retroactively applied to the hard-boiled detective novels that inspired the films of the cinematic period, despite the confusion as to what the term actually means. It is a genre category on Amazon. And since mankind has now morphed into one 7-billion-person human centipede with Bezos taking the shit, that makes the genre official official.

Also, probably Powell’s has a noir section.

Regardless, in the effort to help define what the genre means, I’d like to examine the suggested philosophy of the literary genre. Sure, this will vary from author to author, book to book, but we can probably find a gestalt that binds the genre together in a nice, inky ribbon.

LET’S BEGIN WITH WORLDVIEW.

The world according to noir heroes is gritty, decadent, sleazy and corrupt. One almost wishes to project an almost eastern philosophical bent to their prose, echoing the Buddhist maxim “life is suffering.” But whereas Buddhism and Hinduism seek holistic release from cyclical torture, the noir protagonist (or pro-no, which I hope isn’t an offensive way to describe the noir heroes in shorthand) always dives back in, seemingly to almost relish the experience. And you could make the argument that Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha numero uno) refused Nirvana so that he could cycle back into life to help bring every other living thing to enlightenment… but pro-nos usually aren’t in the business of actually saving anybody. They’re either in it for the truth or the gelt. Or the revenge.

Phillip Marlowe doesn’t give a shit about money or rekindling the one genuine friendship he made in The Long Goodbye– he throws all of it away after the truth of his friend’s betrayal becomes apparent. On the grim ending, Chandler said, “any man who tries to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish,” despite always portraying Marlowe as an honest man. Likewise, the Continental Op chose to burn every bad motherfucker to the ground in a swelling chorus of murder and double-crosses in Red Harvest, after being struck, in his words, “blood simple.” The common consensus seems to be that the world is not only corrupt, but it is also corrupting.

These are not necessarily worlds without moral values. Our No-Pros live and die by a code. Phillip Marlowe is the shining white knight walking down crooked alleyways, even though he’ll withhold evidence from the police, work his own agenda, and succumbs to bouts of violence. The Continental-Op is the “good guy” because he’s tasked with bringing down the “bad guys”– it just so happens that his license to kill gives him carte blanche to decide who the bad guys are. There is a sense of good and evil in noir, and our heroes slum through the grayscale reality of crime to establish their own sense of justice.

James Ellroy’s latest, This Storm, sets a perfect model of this confused dialectic. On one hand, you have the alcoholic chief “Whiskey Bill” Parker (THE GOOD GUY) organizing a group of drunk, drug-addled, racist, murderous, corrupt cops attempting to bring down a drunk, violent, murderous, drug-addled, racist, corrupt and fascist cop Dudley Smith (THE BAD GUY). The amount of characters is numerous enough to require a personae dramatis in the book’s index but those two totem characters serve as GOD and DEVIL attempting to win the souls of those in their orbit and execute their different agendas. OH BUT IF IT WERE SO SIMPLE. See, the Good Guy’s shenanigans gets a primary character, a clockwork orange being wound by both sides, killed out of well-meaning obfuscation of her prior misdeeds, while the Bad Guy’s gift to her satisfies her life-long yen for revenge. Meanwhile, murders and terrorist bombings occur at the negligence of Team God and street-level, murderous and racially-charged violence happens at the behest of Team Devil. As fucked up as Dudley Smith is with his ideas of pugilism and eugenics (and the first LA Quartet demonstrates this at a majestic and delibrate pace), we see a complicated and even vulnerable face of evil. Even though the reader (I hope) agrees with the (erm, comlicated) Good Guys that this motherfucker needs to go down, you find a politically-fried fascist-patriot, a closeted bisexual libertine guilty of an unforgivable hate crime, a racist and eugenecist who falls in love with Mexican men and women, and adores a homosexual Japanese man more than anything and saved him from the nationalistic wave of Japanese-Internment during WWII America. The exegesis I squeeze from this is that even in this corrupt world, in the most corrupted men, there are undeniable shades of humanity, just as within our exonnerated “heroes,” there are equally as many villanious shades. I’m not talking moralistic relativism here, because that’s a cop-out and there is a clear distinction between Good and Evil, but that in the world presented here, both sides zig-zag across the line to meet their ends.

Like Kandera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being,  noir heroes (por-nos, as we call ’em) are stuck within that quandary of their actions both holding little to no value in a world that doesn’t accept them and the weight of responsibility put on their shoulders as they are the only ones likely to carry out any kind of virtuous action, no matter how futile.

Which brings me to Albert Camus, AKA “Sadder Joe Strummer.”

Albert Camus fielded the existentialist brand of Absurdism. Absurdism, for a quick refresher, “refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe.”

The Absurdist Hero, in my mind, is a character that strives to find meaning in the world and tangos with the psychological dissonance when they find none– and yet they carry on with integrity. Phillip Marlowe discovers that the real killer is the loony younger sister in Big Sleep. Once he confirms it with the older sister, he does nothing with the information and goes back to work. The Continental Op washes the blood off his hands in Red Harvest and goes back to work. After the dust settles in LA Confidential, and it becomes apparent that they cannot release the truth behind the LAPD’s most corrupt cop or the revelation of a pedophilic necrophiliac, the surviving heroes are promoted and left to face future uncertainties and bureaucratic injustices.

Just as Sisyphus is doomed to keep rolling his rock up the hill, our No-Pros are doomed to repeatedly affirm what they already knew– that the world is chaotic and cruel– and the knowledge of that Truth is inevitably in vain.

Noir Protagonists are the quintessential Absurdist heroes of fiction. And we must imagine Phillip Marlowe content, if not particularly happy.

 

MS_cover_small   If you are interested in reading some of my own noir fiction,  please check out Muddy Sunset, available hereThe book follows PI Roy Delon as he untangles a web of corporate deceit in St. Louis, 1955. 

 

Saving Humanity – Game of Thrones Speculation

Saving Humanity – Game of Thrones Speculation

Let’s do something fun. You like Game of Thrones, I like Game of Thrones. I wanna get some thoughts down on what I think the overall theme of the series is– and get some projections on how the whole thing’s gonna shake out for certain characters. But be warned: I’m gonna spoil shit. It’s gonna spoil up in here worse than a sack of rotten eggs. I’m gonna spoil harder than your fuckwit nephew whose videogame collection’s resale value is equivalent to a mortgage downpayment on a house in the Sylvan area of Portland metro.

The first two episodes of the eighth season have been light on advancing the plot, choosing instead to focus on the relationships between the thus surviving characters. It’s a good choice, I feel, to have them all be together before the shit storm hits the fan. In the “bottle episode” of A Knight of Seven Kingdoms, everyone gets on the same page as to what’s at stake: Humanity.

But on a more subtextual level, that’s been the overarching theme of each individual character, hasn’t it? Whether it’s the HBO series or A Song of Ice and Fire, the personal journeys of our favorite Westerossi stick to a format of losing/having lost humanity followed by the struggle to reclaim it. It pairs well with the macro narrative of fighting a legion of the undead.

Let’s focus on one undead guy first.

Beric Dondarrion gets slept on as a tragic hero. He’s been revived by Thoros 19 times by the Hound’s count and he’s said (more explicatively in Storm of Swords) that he’s lost more of who he once was every time he’s been revived. If memory, as Brann and Sam see it, is the defining feature of what it means to be human, Dondarrion has been long dead, despite his Lazarussian return to form. He’s lost himself and he’s lost the friend who could bring him back. The only thing he seems to regret is that he wasn’t able to dole out justice for Arya when they last met. Beric Dondarrion is the ace up the show’s sleeve, as his book counterpart fell dead one last time as he gave the kiss of life to Cathryn Stark’s corpse, giving rise to Lady Stoneheart. Since that’s been nixed from the show, Beric serves as the proverbial extra life to one very lucky player in the game. A lot of people are going to die in the next episode, including Beric. But he’s going to die by bestowing the kiss of life to someone who justly deserves it. The question is who?

My first impulse was to think that, given how Sandor Clegane and Beric have become something close to war buddies that he might revive the Hound. There’s some poeticism to that choice in giving the gift of living fire to the man who despises fire most. And there’s something in the way that he’s proud of telling Arya “I fought for you, didn’t I?” Because Sandor’s character arc was about letting the murderous dog in himself die so that he could become human. No longer the pet of a sociopath, Sandor has certainly proved himself worthy of resuscitation. But that theory fucks up the path that I think the showrunners have in mind for him, so I’ll just say that Sandor “The badass formerly known as the Hound” Clegane survives the White Walkers.

Jorah Mormont lost his humanity when he got involved in the slave trade– one of the “strange things men do for the women they love.” He lost his honor when he refused to take the black. This cost him a further penalty– his sword, Longclaw, which he had the decency to return to his father before absconding to Essos. Longclaw is given to Jon Snow, instead, by Jeor Mormont. More on that in a minute. In Essos, Jorah earned some of himself back (and his citizenship) by spying on/ aiding noted abolitionist Daenerys Stormborn. He once again lost his humanity when infected by greyscale and was brought back from the brink of death by Sam Tarly. Sam gifts his family’s Valerian steel sword to Jorah as a familial payment to Jeor– a moment that had your guy on the brink of tears, folks. You’ll remember Sam held Jeor Mormont in his hands as he died, “Tell Jorah. Forgive him. My son. Please.” (Storm of Swords, pg. a billion). The moment encapsulates Jorah’s full forgiveness– he’s been forgiven by the state of Westeros, by Daenerys, by medicine, and finally by his own house, receiving the steel that was his birthright. Jorah has finally regained all that he lost. Jeor Mormont also told Sam something in the HBO series: “Sam Tarly, I forbid you to die.” Which leads me to believe that Jorah is going to sacrifice himself for the sake of Sam Tarly, the unsung best friend to the house of bears.

Theon lost his humanity after he betrayed the Starks and was then captured by Ramsey Bolton. He lost his dick, too. Torture and psychological manipulation burned his identity down to Reek. But after being reduced to nothing, Theon climbed out of the well of depersonalisation and grasped for his humanity when he and Sansa suicide dove from the walls of the Flayed Man’s Winterfell. When he ultimately chooses fighting for the Starks over staying safe with Yara on the Iron Islands, Sansa’s tears are very well earned as they embrace. It’s also kind of nice that the two get to have a quasi-romantic dinner together and it’s kinda cool how scissoring exists in Westeros, just saying. But he’s probably going to die in Winterfell, which makes the most narrative sense, protecting the crippled boy he took advantage over to feel big. Theon’ll die in Winterfell, his true home, but he’ll die Theon, not Reek, and full of valor. This will break Yara’s heart.

Tormund’s great. He’s the fuckin’ best. He’s horny as shit, a strident feminist, and an ardent believer in giant titty milk. My bet’s that he’ll live through the White Walkers, for no other reason than there hasn’t been a Wildling in King’s Landing yet. And he’d make a great impression.

There’s a huge preoccupation with hands amongst the Lannister boys. Twyin served as the hand twice. So has Tyrion. Jaime, of course, lost his right hand. While Tyrion has always been seen as “half” a person, Jaime learns wisdom by losing his natural talent through an act of valor. The brothers exchange places, Tyrion, whose intellect is only matched by a few, is thrown on the battlefield where he actually kind of kicks ass. Jaime, on the other… hand (oh, the slapping upon my knee), learns to think and behave more and more rationally, instead of impulsively (although, one of those impulses saved Kings Landing from a horrible death by Wild Fire). Jaime, of course, ended the first episode with an impulsive shove of a child out a window to protect his sister’s virtue and social standing. Where one brother errs, another corrects– it was Tyrion who devised a way for Brann to ride a horse, the designs of which were put to use in making his wheelchair. Now that they’ve both leveled out, so to speak, it’s hard to say who’ll die in the next episode. I imagine it’s Tyrion, as Jaime always knew that he’d die with his sister. But not before Tyrion rides a dragon.

Speaking of hands, the irony that Davos, who’s right hand had been shortened to the mid-knuckle by Stannis (for justice) was given the honor of Hand to the King also rings ironic. He’s incapable of fighting, but always has a brusque sense of honor. He’s the most human and honorable character in the entire series and I hope, though he never lost his way, he survives. Fuck shit piss don’t kill Davos. He’ll be fine. In the show, he’s become the Drowned God and he’ll likely team up with Yara to fight Euron. ONION KNIGHT vs THE KRAKEN.

Brienne beat Loras Tyrell. Brienne beat a bound Kingslayer. Brienne beat the Hound. She killed Stannis. She’s been King’s Guard to Renly Baratheon and personal security detail to Cathryn and Sansa Stark. She had the shining moment of becoming the titular Knight of Seven Kingdoms when she was officially knighted by Jaime. In the world of Thrones, women are seen as subhuman. The Wildlings know better (even if their marriage proposals are iffy), but here comes a woman warrior, stronger than anyone this side of the Mountain, and has always either suffered humiliation by faux-suitors or disrespect by the patriarchal institutions of valor. To achieve the same level of “humanity” as her male counterparts, she has to kick the fucking Hound off a fucking mountain. It’s a great moment when she finally receives the knighthood and well celebrated. My take is that she’ll survive the White Walkers and make it back to King’s Landing. Further take: She kills Cersei after Cersei kills Jaime (via Bronn?). Cersei’s teenage frog woman fortune did say that she’ll be replaced by someone more beautiful than her. Cersei’s paranoia led her to believe that she’d be replaced as queen, hence her jealousy of Sansa, hence her domestic terrorism to wipe out Margery Tyrell and the hold she had on her remaining, only wholesome son… Whereas I think Cersei’s been replaced in Jaime’s heart by “the Beauty of Tarth.” Cersei’s only allowed to die when she sees Jaime choose the comfort of Brienne over hers.

Podrick’s fuckin’ chowder.

Varys is known as the spider. With his dongle ripped off and burned, it’s hard to see him fight for the Lord of Light. But that being said, Varys knows too much, probably including that Jon Snow was a Targaryan. This will be his undoing. Spiders get squished.

Gendry’s a dead man. He’s the last Baratheon. It was never that he lacked humanity, quite the opposite. He’s fun, he’s sexy, he’s a devout acolyte of the Smith–he’s a hell of a blacksmith. But narratively speaking, he’s already been back to King’s Landing. And he and Arya have already consummated their pre-adolescent feelings towards each other in what has to be, somehow, the most uncomfortable sex scene in Game of Thrones’s 8 season run. Which, unfortunately for him, no longer makes him the last Baratheon. Remember that the friendship between the Starks and the Baratheons kept Westeros together? That promise lives on within Arya now, as squicky as it feels. And Gendry will go out, hammer in hand, no doubt.

There’s also no doubt that the character most unfairly accosted with the concept of death is Arya Stark. After the Hound kills the baker boy, she witnesses her father’s death, kills a boy her age, then she’s carted off with criminals, only to witness the murder of her friends, atrocities from the hands of the Tickler and the Mountain. The Men without Banners (‘sup, Beric. Thoros.) find her, from which she’s taken and reluctantly fathered by the Hound. After notching a few more kills, she denies the Hound the gift of mercy and flees on a ship to Braavos and becomes an acolyte for the Faceless Men. She learns to worship death, the many faced god, and in the process loses her own sense of humanity and identity. She clings to it by measures of extreme compartmentalization, vowing to return to herself when the time is right. Still, by the time Arya rejoins her family in Winterfell, she’s afraid to show who she’s become to her siblings, fearing that they’d be horrified at what she’s become. It’s not so much the killing; it’s that she shirked off the Stark name to become anyone. (Sidenote: that the word stark is used to describe contrast and Arya might be the greyest, despite her time in the House of Black and White… oooh). Arya has become the accustomed to death. In Knight of The Seven Kingdoms, Gendry tells her that the White Walkers are simply death. She’s lowkey giddy to see this face of death. And she will. My take: Arya will be killed in the next episode. Beric Donndarrion, who not only owes an oath of service to Ned Stark, will succumb to Sandor Clegane’s pleas to give her the kiss of life. He’ll do it. And once Arya is revived, she’ll know the true face of The Stranger and what death really means and her allegiances thenceforth will probably align with that of the living for goodsies. Especially when she understands what Beric Dondarrion, the Coolest of His Name, did for her.

Sansa’s whole arc begins with an earnest trust that the songs of knighthood and virtue are true. She is cruelly denied that reality, over, and over again. It’s less that she’s robbed of humanity– although she’s passed around as a political chip more than once– and more that her faith in humanity has been rendered bankrupt. Everyone that she looked to for help eventually burned her. Which is why it’s satisfying to see her as the hard-eyed Lady of Winterfell that she’s become. A few things. First, the adage “there must always be a Stark in Winterfell” falls on her shoulders. Jon’s officially a Targaryen (and officially a Stark, but hey) and Arya contains multitudes. Second, she will believe in those songs once again. Whereas she once naively trusted that knights are always righteous, she’s since learned that war is a grisly, horrific affair… which is why it’s right to honor those who’ve acted virtuously despite their brutal nature. Again, if memory is mankind’s only tie to humanity, then how you wish to remember the dead becomes all the more valuable. Theon, I imagine, will get a verse, but the one she’ll sing for is the Hound.

Sandor Clegane, before he kidnapped Arya for his charge, rescued Sansa from Joffrey’s brutality, killed her would-be-rapists, and offered sympathy from humiliation when she was stripped in court. He was a wretch, a broken-man, and under the thumb of a sociopath, but even then he acted in virtue, despite his murderous tendencies and grotesque world-view, and hatred for knights. Jumping into the endgame, my take is that Sandor Clegane will become the quintessential knight that the songs spoke of. During the “Trial By Seven” Cersei will feint the Mountain in battle only to turn towards Sansa. Sandor Clegane will save her, suffering mortal wounds. Sansa will finally sing him the song that Sandor bragged about during the Battle of Blackwater and Arya will finally make good on the gift of mercy. “You remember where the heart is.”

Daenerys entered the ring as a token to the Dothraki and currently sits as Queen. Jon Snow was born a bastard, and rose through the ranks of the Night’s Watch to Commander, then King of the North(!!!), and then lover to his sexy aunt. While both have slogged through inhumane existences, they now are aware that they both have claim to the Iron Throne. Who gets it? My answer? Neither. They both bite it. In a plume of blue flame. Snow’s sworn to the Night’s Watch and it’s ultimate goal– to fend off the Night King. Daenerys’s values lean towards freeing people from oppressive regime. She might indulge some fascism before she gets there (prolly kill Varys) but should they make it through the next two episodes, I’m certain that neither Targaryan will sit on the throne. I imagine that Daenerys will lose Drogon and die mid embrace with Jon “Aegon-Whatever-TheFuck” Snow, leaving Rhaegal untamed, and Viserion, a puppet of the Knight King and the Targaryan line finally put to incestuous rest.

Brann’s lost more humanity than maybe anyone else, having accepted the charge the old gods. He doesn’t hate anyone, as he tells Jaime, the man responsible for crippling him. His powers of green sight allow him to replay history like a DVD with commentary– his commentary has been known to fuck with his dad, Hodor, and perhaps the Mad King Aegon himself. But he’s also a talented warg— someone who can control beasts. And Hodor. The Knight King is going to kill Brann, while Brann has warged into Rhaegal, encapsulating his soul into the dragon. Brann’s humanity is long gone– his story is about attaining something greater.

Which brings us to the Night King. I misspoke when I said than Brann had lost the most humanity– the Night King was once a man who was changed by the Children of the Forest with an obsidian dagger and some of that sweet blood magic that keeps the Weirwoods crying. While he commands an undead army of Wights, the Night King and his turned White Walkers remember where they come from and want to make it theirs. Their play is no different from any family dispute we’ve seen in Westeros– they’ve just been planning it longer. But short of creating the Endless Night, what the Night King really craves is a return to his human form, so that he can die. I expect Mellisandre, now that Thoros is gone, will do the honors there.

I expect that it’ll be a long night– not an endless one. Any many characters dead by the end of it. And I can’t judge how the events at King’s Landing will go down specifically. But how I see the whole thing wrapping up is a member from each house in the great hall before the Iron Throne: Sansa Stark, Arya (carrying the last Baratheon), Lyanna Mormont, Brienne of Tarth, Tormund, Jaime Lannister, and Brann the Targaryran dragon, Rhaegal,to burn the throne to the fucking ground– it took dragon fire to forge the throne, it’ll take dragon fire to melt it down.

And wouldn’t it be cute if Hot Pie married Arya or whatever? HOT PIE IS OFF LIMITS FOR KILLING, HEAR ME?

I just released my Fantasy-Dystopian trilogy of the Fish Fox Boys as a complete volume. Get the paperback or Kindle version here.

The Process of Empathy

The Process of Empathy

Steve Morris from the Cine-Files podcast made a really great observation during their discussion of the movie Psycho: for a while, you’re on Norman Bates’s side. It’s after the scene when he discovers Marion, dead, in the shower (“Mother! Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!“) and before the scene of the car sinking into the bog (while Bates chews candies, nervously, before expressing a smug satisfaction when the car’s fully swallowed). Both of those scenes show Bates’s arrested development (the candy, the way he cries “mother” over and again…) but what happens in between (and I couldn’t find a clip for this to my shame. DAMMIT PIERRE!) is the meticulous cleaning Norman Bates performs on the murder scene. Without knowing the ending (as I somehow didn’t on my first watch all those years ago, through some miracle), we assume Bates feels compelled to protect his mother. But it’s being alongside him as he washes away the blood and carries the body to the car that we actually root for the villain, ending reveal notwithstanding. As Morris puts it, “Whenever we watch somebody in a process, we end up on their side.”

I think there’s a lot to that.

Watching somebody work gives you a different, occasionally more insightful, look into their personality than simply talking to them. You ever hire somebody? Or be involved in the hiring process? You can talk to a person and get a performance highlighting all of their best attributes but the day they show up to work, they’re a shitshow. Watching someone wash their hands before handling food is ultimately more important than them saying “I’m a good cook.”

Which throws us back to the old writing adage, “show don’t tell.” With which, I’ll refry this down into two questions: why is it effective to show a process in narrative and why does that gain audience sympathy?

The immediate answer is that work is common. On the grand scale, few people have actually cleaned blood in any real sense (side note: I interviewed some folks who worked in some bath houses and found that cum, piss and vomit were no issue. Blood, however…) but they have had to deal with mess. Few people have actually carried a body and shoved it into a car but, most people have carried an awkward TV, couch, or bed frame and have tried to make it work spatially in a van. Not everyone cleans, but everyone works. That alone makes you empathize, on a dark level, with Norman Bates.

There’s an oft mentioned study about how reading fiction makes people more empathetic. The casual explanation is that by reading with someone else’s brain for 300 pages, one tends to carry that perspective along with them back into the real world– or at least, the learned ability to entertain notions that are not their own. I’d agree with that assessment, but I also think there’s something to be said about any and all media that challenges the audience to ask themselves, “what would I do in this situation?” or perhaps, “what would I ideally to do in this situation?”

See, if I was Lewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, I would probably spend the entire book not hunting and eating chips on the couch as a seedy world of intrigue and carnage obliviously passes me by. Luckily, for art’s sake, I’m not Lewellyn. Cormac McCarthy (and the Coen’s faithful film adaptation) does something simple and brilliant: we’re shown characters of few words and inner reflection simply work through solving problems step by step without us being told what the problem is.

Moss is carrying a bag filled with two million dollars. He rents a motel room and stashes the money in a vent. He suspects (correctly) that the cartel is waiting to murder him and reclaim the money. So he rents another motel room behind his current one. Then he buys tent poles, leaving the audience going “buh-why?” It’s only when he tapes a bunch of coat hangers to the end of it that we realize that he intends to snake the bag of money through the vent and reclaim it in the new, parallel room. Similarly, we see Anton Chigurh use a bag of gas station sundries to blow up a car, only to find that that it’s a ruse to steal anesthetic drugs so he can perform self-surgery.

Scenes like these build tension because you have to wonder “the hell does he need a lid to a box of cotton swabs for?” Once you’ve been shown the reason, or the problem solved, you like it for a different reason: the characters’ intelligence is fully illustrated. Whether it’s Moss blowing water out of the chamber of a gun so it’ll ignite a bullet when he shoots a dog in the face or Chigurh turning off the light in the hallway so his feet won’t shadow under the door, we see something being worked out during the action of the story and we double-down on our admiration/respect for these characters because we’re either thinking, “I wish I had thought of that,” or “Yes. That is what I would ideally have done in the same scenario.”

The reason why heist movies like Oceans 11 (or Hereditary, a heist movie) are so engaging is because it’s 90% process. We like seeing a plan come together even if we don’t know what the plan is. Ocean’s 11 is primarily about a bunch of criminals, doing crimes. Or, rather, a bunch of criminals executing a convoluted strategy to pull off one crime. The actors are charming, which helps, but robbery usually isn’t that sexy of a crime (see: Raising Arizona, Reservoir Dogs). But if you add a sequential series of fancy pranks, some glib banter shared between 13 Hollywood stars, and a grand revealing of a few red-herrings, you get a competent, satisfying story– but only because you watched the characters earn it step by step.

Ocean’s 11 is an oddly apt example because, just as you don’t know what the plan really looks like, you also don’t know what Danny Ocean’s true motivation is as it could be revenge against the man who’s dating his wife, an attempt to get back with his wife, or pure greed. Surprise! It’s all three! But that only comes together in the very end when the audience is led to believe that he would betray one motivation for another. It’s not high-cerebral storytelling here, but it does work, and it is clever in its own right (for a movie I watched with my mom while my brother was at a youth group superbowl party 18 years ago that I wasn’t invited to).

The obfuscation of motivation is important when showing a process. In Psycho, no matter what we’re led to believe, we want Bates to succeed in hiding that body. In No Country, we want Chigurh to heal his leg because we suffered through watching him tweeze buckshot from the meat of his thigh. What a character wants is an integral part of writing but it’s something that drives a character throughout an entire arc and is only understood in retrospect. In fiction and cinema, we’re only exposed to these characters scene by scene and those characters have very immediate needs despite their longterm desires. Hey, kinda like life, ya know?

Showing a process of action is not unlike showing a thought process, brought to you by this new-fangled technology of first person narrative, where the reader is up against the grain of a character’s decision making. It’s a more intimate relationship, to be sure, as the reader might stop thinking “that’s what I would do,” and instead entertain, “this is what I did,” but the story itself shouldn’t be too different. And the reason, with, you know, good fiction, is a certain with-holding of motivation.

It’s noir time.

Phillip Marlowe is a pretty damn good chess player. He strategizes, he thinks, he mulls, he makes decisions. Even still, he bumbles into situations making him a hapless sap that often leaves him bloody and bruised with yet another body laying in the next room. Homeboy once smoked a laced cigarette and spent three hours on a floor. Sometimes he has a theory about how everything shakes out only to find that all of his instincts were wrong. Then he makes some plays against the antagonist and the truth finally outs. There’s a disconnect there, yeah? Even though he’s telegraphing his story to you, he isn’t going to tell you how he brought everything together until the very end, because it’s very likely that Marlowe is flying without a map until all the pieces are aligned and even then you’re still taken aback that the bastard fit it all together. It’s a bit of a motherfucker to know the narrator’s opinion about a secretary’s dress and not know the plan. That’s part of how story works, sure, but it’s also an example of how the narration itself is a strategic process– the narrator decides what to tell you and when, despite the narrator living in your brain.

It’s the whole principle behind Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, wherein our Continental Op is dropped into a corrupt town, expected to pick sides between the corrupt cops and the criminals. The Op plays off of ALL of those expectations and nets so, so many bodies. Only it turns out, The Op’s motivation was to simply stir chaos on both sides, not necessarily knowing that they would murder each other– he had no plan, he’s just a drunk fucking psychopath. Still, he tells us every decision he makes as he systematically destroys the institutions and crooks, but he never tells us why, likely because he doesn’t know or doesn’t remember. He’s driven, in his own words, “blood simple.”

And we’re in their corner, despite them being monsters or virtuous, if occasionally inept, troublemakers. What people respond to are decisions, whether that’s shown through cleaning blood from a bathroom or scheduling a massacre of the police force with a phone call.

Still.

With the advent of reality television and video games, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that we find routine processes humanizing. We watch entire blocks of entertainment dedicated to showing us the machines that make taffy, step by step. We follow Alaskan fishermen into the waves, cops into the streets, chefs into the kitchens. We come home from work to watch someone else do their job. We’ve attached so much personality to an Italian plumber because of the personal satisfaction of bringing him from the left side of a screen to the right (and we’ve apparently made so much goddamn pornography from a blue hedgehog, simply because he had to go fast).

It’s not surprising, but it’s something that I consider often when writing. I utilize “showing the process” of a character regularly, for the reasons I’ve explained: it illustrates intelligence, it creates tension, and it can exist outside of the over-arching motivation and focus on the immediate’s scene’s needs. There’s a delicate balance at stake here, as a reader’s attention-span is only so thick, and I sometimes worry that I’m tugging the boat a little too far. Truth be told, sometimes I think tugging the boat is pretty funny. Sometimes you need to “yada-yada” the reader along. But in writing The Fish Fox Boys Part Three: Ballad of the Badger Knights (which is free for Kindle until 3/15), I found that exploring the process in how someone builds or grows things provides several opportunities to further explore setting (In FFBIII, we get a better sense of the geographical landscape when Anne puts her mind to mutating corn. We get inside the old dilapidated schools, twice, when Fred and Adam go scavenging for parts, once in a rural school and again in an inner city one and there should be a difference felt between the two). I found that there’s an opportunity for characterization when the process frustrates the hero and we get to see how they handle that frustration. And while I tried to keep the flow of information economical, hints of motivation are indeed present, although mostly through subtext. Anne’s obsession with winning the Corn Festival had less to do with her justification of philanthropy and more to do with vain ambition just as Adam’s willingness to scavenge has more to say about his need to please a new friend, instead of serving his old friend’s needs.

And then there’s the logic itself: the simple satisfaction one receives from solving a problem, even if the character was responsible for the problem in the first place. It doesn’t matter if the reader themselves never invented a Zamboodlator, they’ll still listen to how you made it. I know this, because every time I pop the hood of my 1984 Volvo, there’s suddenly six dudes from no-where, peering over my shoulder, examining something that they do not understand yet have advice anyway.

Makes me think if I ever discover a body in my shower, the same audience will appear and one would say, “Clean the bathroom.” Another, “Put it in the trunk of a car.”

And another would agree, saying, “That’s what I would do.”

I just officially released The Fish Fox Boys Part Three yesterday. If you catch this blog before 3/15/2019, you can get a free copy of the book here. If paperback’s your game, as is mine, get that shit here. It’s a fairy-tale about the end of the world, what’s not to like?