Religion in Fantasy

Thor's battle against the giants, by Marten Eskil Winge, 1872

Thor’s battle against the giants, by Marten Eskil Winge, 1872

Over the weekend, my wife and I saw Deliver Us from Evil. As a horror film it’s well worth seeing, but today I want to focus on one element of it: the priest.

In many horror films, a priest is a wasted character. He’s there to show us how bad the bad guy is (ooh, the priest is powerless against the bad guy. Couldn’t have seen that one coming), or he doesn’t really believe (the crisis-of-faith or evil-as-idea priest), or other similarly impotent options. I call this a wasted character because the character’s flaw renders the character useless for the role.

But in Deliver Us from Evil the priest has a past, and a pretty serious flaw, and yet both drive him further into his faith. And when the time comes for him to match his faith against the great evil, his faith holds strong.

It isn’t quick and easy. It doesn’t guarantee saving everyone. His faith is not, if you’ll pardon the expression, a deus ex machina. But it’s real and it fits his story role.

Now on most days this would have spun me off into thinking about horror and religion. But today, for some reason, my mind ran off in the fantasy direction.

Priests in fantasy can run into the same issues that they do in horror. Worse, in some ways, because in second-world fantasies (set in other worlds, or intersecting other worlds, as opposed to urban fantasies which are supposed to take place in our world, with a few modifications) the religions are invented.

I suspect the direction of my thinking is my wife’s fault this time. She observed a month or two – during an episode of Game of Thrones – that the Red God seems to have all the power. The Seven of the southerners can’t do anything. The septons and septas are powerless, for all their devotion. It’s unfair.

Now I can’t recall how true that is in the books, but it’s certainly the case in the show. Priests and priestesses of the Red God can raise the dead, call forth shadow demons, and still more besides, but the septons and septas can’t do much more than offer a few kind words.

Which got me thinking – George R. R. Martin obviously chose to make religion a plot element in the story. Which is perfectly fine, of course. But does it have to be that way? Is the nature of fantasy, as a genre, such that the presence of religion in a story must make of it a plot element?

Do the gods have to either be absent or battling each other for our souls?

I had actually been prepared to analyze the whys and wherefores of that, but the exception came to mind: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

If you haven’t read it – and I think you should, because it’s an excellent novel – it’s fantasy in the tradition of the tales of the Arabian Nights. Religion is as much a core element of the setting as the land and the cities themselves. The two main characters are both devout believers, but in very different ways, and with very different ideas of what devotion means.

But it doesn’t stop there. The monotheistic faith is also common to the villains. The monsters are not enemies of the faith. They know their place in the hierarchy and their role in creation.

And yet, best of all, there’s no sense of religious treatise to the novel. I suspect that most readers finished the book, enjoyed it, and never thought much about the belief systems of the characters. It’s part of the world-building, not part of some agenda.

I notice the religion in stories because a) I’m a writer, and b) I have a degree in Religious Studies.

In my own novels to date I’ve leaned the other direction so far. In both Magician’s Choice and Sleight of Mind the religion of the characters informs their viewpoints, but has little if any direct impact on the story. (Full disclosure, the same cannot be said of my short fiction. “The Curse of Valassa” very much involves two priests battling for the souls of humans.)

What do you think about religion in fantasy? Do you like it as a plot point? Do you prefer it in the background as window dressing? Or do you like to see it central to the story, where you can’t miss it (even if you don’t necessarily pay attention to it)? Chime in below!

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Introducing the Washington Orcs!

Another Orc by phew_album

Here we go, Big Green, here we go!

So the Washington Redskins might be losing the registration on their name’s trademark. They can choose to fight if they want to, but I think they should look at this as an opportunity.

In one fell swoop they can not only leave behind their old name and all its associations and history, but also embrace the rising popularity of fantasy in the modern culture.

Try this name on for size: Washington Greenskins! (Yes, they could go with the Washington Orcs, but I like the symmetry of greenskins.)

That’s right. Orcs. Perfect for a football team. The owner can even choose the style of orc he wants, for associations. Orcs come in a variety of types. They can be brutal and warlike, they can be noble and honorable, or any shade or combination in between.

Orcs have a long, storied history in the public consciousness going back at least as far as The Hobbit. In fact, Wikipedia says Tolkien gave them their start as the foot soldiers of darkness.

But they’re not under trademark.

Other writers have included orcs in their stories, as have roleplaying games, video games and more.

Orcs even have a history of playing a game that’s kind of like football: Blood Bowl.*

Think of the ad campaigns they could run. The merchandising. The mascot! Gordak the Mighty! Slayer of Opposing Quarterbacks!

And their fan base. A whole cross-section of fantasy gamers and readers who don’t watch football might just give it a shot for the novelty.

This could even start a trend. We could get sports teams away from real people entirely, replace them with creatures from fantasy and folklore. Gone are the Spartans, Braves, Trojans, Highlanders, Vikings, Celtics, Fighting Irish and more. Instead we have dragons, wyverns, goblins, trolls, and more.

Heck, if my favorite baseball team decided to change its imagery, the San Francisco Giants could have fantasy associations right now.

So what do you say, Washington fans? Could you embrace the Greenskins?

*Also, an old Dragon Magazine had a fantasy football game that included orcs. (Full disclosure: I still have a copy.)

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Predictably Unpredictable — Flip the Trope

Hmmm … Jon and Daenerys on the same side….

This post will contain spoilers for the Game of Thrones episode “The Mountain and the Viper” and for the season one finale of Agents of SHIELD. If either of these would bother you, then you should probably stop reading. But come back after you’ve seen what you need to see. I think the post will be worth it.

Of course, I would say that, so there you go.

Okay, that’s as much spoiler space as I’m going to worry about.

I read the first four books of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire about a decade ago, and quickly, so some things I remember very well and some things not as well. That puts me in the perfect position to enjoy the show, because much is familiar but the details are often missing.

For example, I’ve been looking forward to the duel between Oberyn Martell and Gregor Clegane since the Martell prince first appeared in the show. But I didn’t remember how it went. Honestly, though, that was mostly because the Martells seemed at the time to be just another plotline taking me away from the characters I wanted to read about.

But this time, watching the show, I wanted to see the Lannisters taken down a peg and Oberyn seemed like the perfect person to do it. In fact, as the season wore on, he began to look almost heroic, there in a place he hated among people he despised to seek justice for his sister and her children.

That was when my stomach began to sink. They were definitely setting him up to look like a hero.

So, naturally, I knew he was going to fail. And die. Probably horribly.

Traditional western fantasy has a characteristic that could be considered a rule or a trope, depending on how you like your definitions. While that statement could apply several ways, the characteristic I have in mind is this one: heroes win, bad guys lose and good triumphs over evil.

Now it’s true that this only applies to the end of the story. It’s also true there’s a countercurrent these days in fantasy referred to in its gentle form as “gray” fantasy and in its harsher form as “grimdark” fantasy.

But whatever flavor of fantasy a story is, a hero cannot triumph at the end if he dies in chapter three.

So when Oberyn Martell dies in his duel with the Mountain That Rides, I should be surprised. His cause is righteous. His skill matchless. Traditional narrative says he should win.

But this is season four, and Game of Thrones has long since established that “all men must die,” especially heroes. I could run the list for you, but it would just get depressing. (I like the Starks, darn it.)

So by the time we actually reached the duel I had no doubts about its outcome. And as a viewer I probably should have. Which on the one hand makes me wonder if they tried too hard to set him up as a hero when he’d only walked onstage this season just so they could flip the trope

On the other, it reminded me of the season finale of Agents of SHIELD.

I enjoyed the season finale. I thought it worked well, accomplished everything it needed to, and gave me a fun ride in the process.

And then we get to a little bit at the ending. Everyone thinks the Big Bad (if you’ll forgive me for cribbing a term from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is dead, and after they leave the Big Bad stands up and begins a process that will make him even tougher. This is a classic trope – the villain, apparently defeated, rises again stronger.

And I didn’t buy it for a second.

While I wouldn’t describe myself as a Joss Whedon fantatic – I enjoy his work, but to a lesser degree than many, many others – I’ve been watching his shows and movies for a long time now. I remember, for example, the end of a Buffy season four episode when Spike returns to the show and is mid-villainous monolog when he’s taken by the Initiative. I remember the season five episode of the same show when Buffy faced Dracula and staked him. Then, just as he is reforming, there she is, staking him again.

So of course Agent Coulson is waiting off-camera with the disintegration ray. Of course he gives the Big Bad a moment to think his triumph is coming before pulling the trigger. It’s practically a Joss Whedon signature.

And as a viewer, it made me happy.

Now on the one hand we have a show predictably flipping the traditional expectation and I feel disappointed in my lack of surprise. On the other we have a show flipping a traditional expectation and it pleases me.

Why is that? Am I just nuts?

Well, maybe. Let’s be honest here.

But if I’m not, then there must be a reason, and I think I know what it is.

On Agents of SHIELD the bad guy had already been defeated. Adding the trope flip does not change anything in the story. It merely winks at the audience and confirms the ending we’ve already seen.

But on Game of Thrones, multiple plotlines hang in the balance. If Oberyn wins his duel, Tyrion is set free, Tywin’s aura of invincibility is cracked, and the Martells gain at least a step on their path of vengeance. It changes the tenor of everything in King’s Landing. Oberyn’s loss merely confirms the status quo. It’s hardly worth noticing. The show had to build the duel up for episodes just to make Tyrion’s conviction something more than a clerical matter.

And that’s important. But by trying to play up Oberyn – showing his sympathy for Tyrion when he was a baby, emphasizing the horror of the crimes he has come to avenge, his fury at the Lannisters (and the viewers have had three-and-a-half seasons to find out how bad the Lannisters are) – the viewer is supposed to expect more out of the duel. To believe that more is on the line here than Tyrion’s guilt or innocence. To believe that this could be a turning point in the story.

Except that it won’t be. And we know it won’t be for the very same reason we were supposed to think it could be. The show worked to build up Oberyn Martell as a hero.

And on Game of Thrones, heroes die. Badly.

That’s what I think, anyway. What do you think? Tell me about it below.

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Power of the Pooch — Never Shoot the Dog

Hunting Dog

Could you shoot this face?

Blake Snyder has written a very good screenwriting book called Save the Cat.* The idea that gives the book its title is that a gruff or potentially dislikable protagonist can gain viewer sympathy quickly if you show the protagonist saving an innocent. This can include saving the life or innocence of a child, or the life of an animal, especially a pet. Like, say, a cat.

(Actually, the core of his argument is that the screenwriter has to do something to give the audience a connection to the protagonist. But I’m going to focus on the animal angle for this post.)

The flip side of this, of course, is that if a character kills an innocent, such as a child, or a pet, then they come across to the audience as irredeemable. All sympathy is lost and the viewers will want to see that character go down.**

Here’s one example, the movie Drag Me to Hell, directed by Sam Raimi. The main character has been cursed to be pursued by a demon intent on – as you might expect – dragging her to hell. Early on, she’s a very sympathetic character. My wife and I saw this in the theater and we were pulling for her. We didn’t want to see her get dragged to hell.

Until…

That’s right, the main character committed the irredeemable act. She killed a kitten. No hesitation. No remorse.

In case there was any doubt about where my sympathies lie in this matter, I have three cats.

Yep, the moment she did that my wife and I were ready to watch that bitch go to hell by the movie’s end. Sam Raimi knew this. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he counted on it. Because sending his formerly sympathetic main character to hell was exactly his goal, and exactly what happened by the movie’s end.

My wife and I were quite happy with this resolution.

Which brings us to this week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

(This space provided to warn you of spoilers ahead, in case you haven’t seen the episode yet.)

(If you’re wondering why I provided no spoiler space before talking about Drag Me to Hell, give me a break! The movie came out five years ago!)

In this week’s episode we got to see some of Ward’s history with Garrett. This included Garrett getting Ward out of juvenile hall, and leaving him to fend for himself in the woods, with only a hunting dog to help him. The hunting dog – whose name is Buddy, of course – was Ward’s only constant companion for several years out there.

I’m sure you see where this is going, even if you didn’t see the episode.

That’s right, before Ward gets to go off to S.H.I.E.L.D. academy, he is ordered to shoot the dog. We are shown this scene in quick cuts with current time, where Ward has been ordered to kill Fitz and Simmons, the former of which has been the only one arguing that deep down Ward was good, that he would not hurt them.

In other words, Fitz was showing the unwavering devotion one might expect from one’s hunting dog.

We see Ward aiming his sidearm at the pooch’s head. We hear him pull the trigger – but he shot into the air, startling the dog into running away. We cut back to current time, expecting to see Ward find some way to release Fitz and Simmons.

But then we cut back to the past, where Ward is targeting the dog through a rifle scope. There’s a sound that might be a gunshot, or it might be the current time sound of the release as Ward dumps Fitz and Simmons into the ocean in a powerless, sealed box. It might be both.

Now, that’s a deathtrap, not a murder. And we all know that when you put heroes in a deathtrap, you’re only slowing them down, not killing them.

You could argue that Ward knows they have a tracker (which the viewers know they have, even though we have seen nothing to suggest that Ward knows about it). You could argue that Ward was taking one last look at his dog and never intended to pull the trigger. You could argue that we never saw Ward holding the rifle whose scope is trained on the pooch.

I don’t buy any of those arguments.

(Well, I might buy the argument about the tracker, if people tell me in the comments below that there’s a moment of Ward’s discovering it. I was a bit distracted last night after the Blazers loss and might have missed a detail. However, it does not resolve the question of how else he could have killed them, since implicit in the scene was that the room, once sealed from the inside, was impenetrable. Otherwise the whole confrontation is meaningless. Jettisoning them into the water is no meaningful alternative to killing them, unless we know he had a better way of doing it and chose not to use it.)

I don’t buy that Ward was just taking one last look at his dog. If he chose to set the dog free and not kill it, he would have needed to turn his back and walk away. To deal with his decision. Also, Garrett would have found out. Ward got the dog from Garrett after all. Whoever was looking down that scope at the dog shot it.

Which brings us to the it-wasn’t-Ward argument. It might be that in the next episode we will revisit the scene and pan back to reveal that Garrett was holding the rifle. That Garrett shot the dog when Ward couldn’t do it.

And if they show us such a scene, I will feel cheated. In this week’s episode we were shown cuts in and out of Ward’s memory, not Garrett’s. We were looking down the scope first-person, the same way we saw Ward take aim at the dog with his pistol.

It’s true we didn’t see Ward pull the trigger. We didn’t see the dog drop, dead. But you could also argue that this show is intended to appeal to the whole family, and the show avoids portraying deaths unless plot-important. (One reason that Skye is able to emphasize that Ward is a murderer. He actually kills someone on camera.)

Ward has been revealed as a villain who has been in disguise all season. Ward is Hydra, the viewer’s link to the betrayal that the other characters are experiencing. The show can do a lot with that premise and carry it through into next season. This could be big. This could be awesome.

But if they back off in the finale – without a damned good and believable explanation – I won’t be likely to tune in next season.

What do you think? Is killing that dog enough to make Ward irredeemable? Or is the issue more complex in your mind? Let me know below!

*Plus follow-ups Save the Cat Strikes Back, and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies

**TV Tropes has an astonishing number of links around this concept. Here’s one if you’re interested. But I’ve already warned you that it leads to TV Tropes, so if you lose several hours there, don’t blame me.

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Ready to Spin the Wheel of Time

cover - The Eye of the World

I just bet those horses have names and histories…

Back in the 90s, I used to read the Sword of Truth books by Terry Goodkind. I really enjoyed the first couple, but then I realized something: three books in it showed no sign of stopping. A major threat loomed in the background, with implications that this threat would become imminent. And yet more characters came into the story, along with more side plots, and no real progress on what I thought of as the main plot.

I’m not trying to slam the series. I enjoyed the books I read, and what I wanted from the books was not necessarily what other people wanted. I’m just trying to establish my frame of mind here. I had just given up on a series because I thought it would never end.*

Cue my best friend, extolling the virtues of the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.

“No,” I said. “No way. I’m not starting another endless series.”

Undeterred, my best friend continued to read Jordan’s books as fast as he could get them and tell me how wonderful they were.

So I relented. A bit. I said, “When they’ve all come out. When the series is finally done. Then, I will read them.”

I’m sure you see where this is going. Robert Jordan died before finishing his series, but Brandon Sanderson finished it for him (with full permission, access to notes, etc.). The final book came out last year.

My best friend was quick to point out to me that this meant that the series was finished. The throat-clearing was implied.

Not good enough for me. I waited to make sure it was the last book. No sudden codas, no newly discovered final book.** I wanted to make sure it was done.

So I gave it more time. Even I have to say, the series looks finished.

So, true to my word, I have started reading The Eye of the World. I’m only about a chapter in and so far I have to say, ye gods! does this guy like to throw names at you. But it seems interesting enough so far, so I’ll stay with it.***

Who knows, maybe after I finish I’ll go back and read the whole Sword of Truth series

Wish me luck.

Have an opinion on The Wheel of Time? Want to gush or warn me about what I’m in for? Let me know in the comments!

*I think this must be because the big threat, Jagang, looked so dangerous and so imminent that I needed to see him dealt with. Contrast that with the Vlad Taltos series by Stephen Brust and the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, neither of which shows any signs of stopping and yet I devour each new book on release.

**A la Gormenghast

***This does not constitute a promise to finish the series. It may not be for me.

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Maybe I Should Have Taken That Left at Hyades…

The King in Yellow Cover

My copy

I was just a kid back in the mid-1970s, when my brother and I were first getting into Blue Öyster Cult. Now BÖC has some … eccentric lyrics, which meant that I would often ask my brother what various lines meant. “Who is Sir Rastus Bear?” “What’s a diz-buster and why do they scream?” That sort of thing.

I’m thinking about this because of HBO’s newish show True Detective. (I have the show on my DVR, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.) In case you haven’t heard, word around the internet says that “the key to understanding this show” is in Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow. To most people that’s an obscure book. If you’re the sort of person who would come to this site and read these words, you’ve probably heard of it because Chambers is widely known to have influenced H.P. Lovecraft.

But I first heard of the collection because of a Blue Öyster Cult song: “E.T.I. (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence)” from their album Agents of Fortune.

I’m in fairy rings and tower beds
“Don’t report this,” three men said
Books by the blameless and by the dead
King in yellow, queen in red

I can still remember hearing that verse coming out of the speakers of my dad’s stereo one afternoon and saying to my brother, “The queen in red? As in Alice in Wonderland?”

“That’s right,” said my brother, not looking up from his novel. (Actually, I think it was the book club three novel collection Three to Dorsai by Gordon Dickson.)

“But what’s the king in yellow?”

His response carried the essence of the correct answer, but he made it sound like the most boring book in the world. In his defense, when your six-year-younger kid brother keeps bugging you with questions, dull answers are the quickest way to get him to stop.

So even when I did start reading Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith, I didn’t bother with The King in Yellow. I did find a copy in a used bookstore sometime in the ‘80s, so I picked it up and put it on my Lovecraft shelf, for completeness’ sake.

And all but forgot about it.

Now, nearly forty years after bugging my brother about a Blue Öyster Cult song, I’m hearing people rave about this television show that owes itself, somehow, to that collection of short stories.

Fine.

I finally took it down from its shelf and read it.

I must say, if it weren’t called The King in Yellow it might have been titled Bohemian Artists in Paris. Several of the stories are set in Paris and involve painters with inconstant affections. In fact, the fictive play “The King in Yellow” appears only briefly in a couple of stories, and not at all in others. Only in the first story is it truly featured (though it does have an important role in another couple).

But when he could stop talking about his inconstant painters, Chambers handled gothic horror pretty darn well.

And I think those scant references lend weight to it, the way it can be more effective to not show a monster in a monster movie, only hint at it and keep it in shadows. If Chambers had shined his light too brightly on dim Carcosa, his work might not have inspired others as it did.

So would I recommend it?

Personally, I think every Lovecraft fan should read the first few stories, to see what the fuss is all about and experience Chambers’ version of gothic horror. And now that I have read it, I am prepared to watch True Detective and find out if it’s as good as people say.

I confess, though, I do hope that their King in Yellow references aren’t slammed in my face. I’ll be disappointed if I find out that what I had learned through literary osmosis was enough to make everything clear.

Still, just the rumor was enough to get me to finally read The King in Yellow, so maybe it was worthwhile even if I find out that the show’s killer is serving the tattered king or dreams of Carcosa, and Hyades, and Hastur, or something like that.

Have you read The King in Yellow? If so, what did you think? If not, and you want to, you can find it at Project Gutenberg.

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Going Berserk

The First Law Books -- cover shot

I dig these covers.

“For when the War God fills this flesh I wear
I am no more your friend I am the spirit of the bear”
– “Don’t Call My Name in Battle,” from Songsmith by Alexander James Adams (as Heather Alexander)

I recently read the First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie and I was struck by the character Logen Ninefingers, called “The Bloody Nine.” When I started the first book, I suspected that the character was something of an homage to Robert E. Howard’s Conan and others of the great sword and sorcery heroes of yore.

But I was wrong.

Logen’s roots go much further back, to the like of Beowulf and Cú Chulainn. Both of those mythic heroes were known for the power of their battle rages. Among the Celts, this was known as the ríastrad (sometimes translated as warp spasm).

But the character of Logen Ninefingers does not come from an analog of Ireland. Instead he comes from an analog of the old Germanic tribes, which makes him a berserker.

Berserk — derived from the term bear shirt (also bare-shirted, though this translation is less accepted now) which is supposed to refer to how they went into battle — is the word associated with the frenzied battle trances of certain types of warriors, in which fire and edged weapons seemed unable to harm them. The berserkers were almost unstoppable when their fits were upon them.

Logen Ninefingers is a fearsome warrior, even when he is fully in control of his faculties. But sometimes, just sometimes, a wave of cold overwhelms him, and the side of him that he refers to as “the Bloody Nine” takes over. The Bloody Nine fights on through wounds that would cripple or kill another man. The Bloody Nine kills wantonly, not caring for friend or foe, nor warrior or innocent.

It’s the best portrayal of the berserker I’ve seen in modern fiction.

Logen hates the Bloody Nine. Every sane person fear it. But worst of all for Logen, no one but him distinguishes between the two.

In mythic or epic fantasy, Logen might have become a hero. But Abercrombie’s part of the new school of fantasy that many have taken to calling grimdark. So as far as the people of his world are concerned, Logen is a villain. The reader may understand him and care for him, but this grants him no immunity from the ways of plot.

I’m tempted to say more, but I don’t want to delve into spoilers. The trilogy is quite good, but be warned: it’s also dark and depressing.

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The Ubiquity of the Eldritch

Hanging in Stephen Colbert's living room?

Hanging in Stephen Colbert’s living room?

I went to Dundracon last weekend. It’s a great chance to game and spend time with friends I see all too infrequently.

One of these games involved a law firm called August and Howard. Now to me that was an obvious allusion to August Derleth and Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft. I assumed that most other players caught this reference and took it as a sign that occult matters were afoot. I even mentioned this to the game master when we were discussing the game over drinks later.

I was wrong. Most people missed it. In fact, he had used that firm in other games, but people usually missed the significance of the name choice.

That amazed me. I had trouble believing it at first. But the more I thought about it the more sense it made.

When I was growing up, the only people who understood references to Cthulhu (and similar) were those who read Lovecraft.

But that’s no longer true.

Lovecraft is everywhere these days. Cthulhu has made appearances in tech-oriented web comics, cartoons, and even has plush toys. He has his own film festival. Basic information about the Cthulhu mythos is a click away on countless websites.

In short: Lovecraft has become a pop culture phenomenon. People who have never read his work understand basic references the way I understand references to Twilight.

Now this is not a complaint. Personally I think it’s great that so many people get the sort of references I like to make.

I just have to remind myself that just because they enjoy Cthulhu holiday music does not mean they will understand my Whateley knock-knock jokes. But that’s fine too.

What do you think of the Lovecraft phenomenon?

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Fanboy Moments

Blue Öyster Cult Logo

BÖC’s symbol, the symbol of Cronus

At the Super Bowl party I attended yesterday the question came up about the greatest concerts we’d ever gone to. That’s a tough one. I’ve been to many. But it got me thinking about my best concert experience. And for me it was the first time I got to see Blue Öyster Cult.

First, some context. I’ve been listening to BÖC since Agents of Fortune came out, which was 1976, thanks largely to my brother, who bought the album. Mike and I both really got into the band’s entire catalog. We threw BÖC references into our roleplaying games the way some people throw in Lovecraft references.

“Threw.” Whom do I kid? I still do. I just don’t call attention to them and I don’t do it every game.

Anyway, fast forward to 1989. I was a nineteen-year-old college student. BÖC was touring for Imaginos, and they played at a club down the street from my Oakland apartment. The club was The Omni, which was one of the major Bay Area hard rock clubs in those days. But still, it was a club. Not a big venue like the Cow Palace, much less a stadium. (It wasn’t the smallest venue I’ve seen them play, but that’s another story.)

Obviously I bought my ticket at the earliest opportunity. I showed up early on the night (no, I was not the first in line). I only really remember a couple of things from the early part of the evening:

1) I left my place in line to run across the street and help a couple of guys push-start a stalled car. I was the only one who went to help. That still amazes me. Everyone else just watched. But at least no one questioned my reclaiming my spot.

2) There were two or three opening acts, local metal bands. No one worth remembering. I recall one of them made a point of saying “This is a song about vampires,” before starting into a song called “The Vampire Attacks.” It was as bad as you might be thinking.* I remember that another band lifted two of its main rhythm figures from Iron Maiden.

But then the lights went down for BÖC and none of the rest mattered.

The single biggest band in a life filled with music hit the stage, a stage I was pressed against. That’s right, I was at the front of the crowd. I had gone up from the moment the doors opened and I hadn’t budged. Not for a drink. Not for the bathroom. Nothing was more important than being right at the front for this.

They gave an amazing performance. For more than four hours they played, not just all the hits but the more obscure songs that only the more devoted fans would know. And I was right there at the front, singing my heart out with every line.

Sound like a big fanboy experience? Yes. But in fanboy terms you haven’t heard the highlight yet.

You see, lead guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser could hear me. I know this because every so often he would look up at me, then smile and give me a nod. All through the concert. Me singing along, him looking up at me, getting more impressed as the show went on.

After the last encore, the band came up to slap hands with those near the front, but Buck grabbed my hand and shook it.

How freaking cool was that for a nineteen-year-old me? I still remember the handshake.

Then the house lights came up and the crowd began to thin. While I recovered my voice and my hearing (I wore earplugs, but it was loud), a roadie came out and started gathering up cables. He couldn’t believe some of the songs they’d dusted off to play for us. He told us that we’d just gotten the best show of the tour.

I already knew.

*Especially compared with, say, “I Love the Night”, which BÖC played later, along with “Nosferatu”.

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I now have an agent!

I am now officially represented by Laurie McLean of Foreword Literary!

I’ve known Laurie for a couple of years, and we’re both on the same page with the hybrid direction I have in mind for my career. I am so psyched to be working with her!

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