Thursday, March 17, 2011

"The High Priest" and Modern Lit

For anyone who is interested, I thought I might write a little about "The High Priest" regarding my thoughts while writing it and a little bit of response to some of the comments it has generated.

I wrote "The High Priest" in a deliberately ornamented style in honor of - or perhaps less generously, poor imitation of - Clark Ashton Smith. It's a style I enjoy affecting and, these days, I hardly write anything in a different mode. Renee Chambliss, the amazing narrator of the story, mentioned that she normally enjoys "transparent" prose which lets the "story shine through" without obscuring it. However, she did say that she really enjoyed the way "The High Priest" was written and enjoyed narrating it. For this I am eternally grateful - Renee did a fantastic job! I will be first to admit that "The High Priest" is a challenging piece to narrate - especially whilst holding the listener's attention as powerfully as she did.

Perhaps this is a subject too large to tackle here, but I will go into it briefly: essentially I believe that the school of "the writing should never obscure the story" has waxed too powerful in recent years. It is essentially the dictum of the modern school and comprises the totality of all "Creative Writing 101" courses. This is to the detriment of young authors everywhere. I for one despise most "modern lit" - the "clear and invisible" prose has become a powerful homogenizing force, in short: all modern stories sound alike - sound "bookish." I am always happy when someone reads a piece written in a deliberatly oblique style and enjoys it.

But on to "The High Priest" itself...

I was inspired by the work of Nox Arcana - particularly their song "The Awakening" from the album Necronomicon. But much of the imagery of the story was inspired by the music video for "Ov Fire and the Void" by Behemoth. Particularly the sequence of the girl holding out the baby to the enthroned lead singer Nergal, clad in a terrifying mask and clearly a representation of Satan.

This sort of imagery connects with something deep in the human psyche. The image of the titan on the throne instantly draws us in, makes us feel a sort of primal awe. Just why this is, I cannot say - why do towering megaliths or spirals carved in the ground immediatly feel mystical to us? Perhaps its some bizarre evolutionary byproduct of our intelligent minds. Perhaps something else entirely - I don't know. It's something for the ivory-tower ensconced philosophers to dwell on.

It was for this reason that I made the Death Clan deliberately Satanic. They are goats, bulls, pigs, ravens and wolves. Horned and fanged animals which we connect with dark forests and barbaric gods. But Satanism is a lazy image to create - the horned devil of today comes from a rich history of pagan gods altogether more complex and deeply rooted in our collective minds than any goateed man in a red suit with a pitchfork.

The children of Dionysus are satyrs and fauns. The symbols of Appollo are wolves and birds. These images are not coincidental - the melding of the human form and certain animals is, well, scary. Ardan could have very well been the wolf who asked Little Red Riding Hood whereto she was heading, and Caleb would be equally at home at the center of a labyrinth in Crete. My point here is that we, as humans, relate certain animals with a sinister portion of our evolutionary process. There is a reason we all get tense when confronted with a dark forest. I am convinced that some part of us all is deadly certain that somewhere, deep in the forest's black heart, there lies in wait the Death Clan - or creatures very similar to them.

One of the female voice actors for "The High Priest" mentioned that the story was like the Greek myth of Medea but with "Lovecraft and faeries." (We'll ignore the fact that she forgot to mention .50cals and locomotives.) I was originally a little put off. The Lovecraft connection is obvious: the High Priest himself is reminiscent of any number of eldritch horrors and Xethogga could be replaced by any number of Lovecraftian or Ashtonian elder gods. But faeries? Did she mean the Death Clan? The Dionysian, half-human monsters which lurked within the dark places of both forest and soul? Surely not.

Then I realized she had paid me the greatest compliment imaginable. I hadn't seen it, but the connection to Kournos, forest spirits and the fae in general was obvious. I was reminded that not all faeries are happy little Tinker-Bells - many are dark and amoral creatures (the changeling legends come to mind) subservient to equally brutish gods. I was charmed by the connection to faeries.

Why I was so charmed brings me to my final point. I deliberately write my fantasies as "mythic" as possible. That is to say, I invoke the images and create the characters without explaination. In other words, I bring the Death Clan and the High Priest to the reader without bothering with the whys and wherefores. Today's writing is crammed full of exasperated world-building and extensive, extensive construction of "canon" and "rules" - coupled with a fanatical adherance to invented dogma.

Christopher Paolini, for example, creates several fantastic cultures in his Inheritance "Cycle" then explains, in excruciating detail, every single aspect and rule part thereof. From the method by which elves smith their swords, to the manner by which humans tamed dragons, to the intricate construction of a dwarven lamp. Many people enjoy, it seems, this sort of overexplaination - where everything is explained right down to the complex (and often unecessary) rules of magic. People extort for hours the virtues of the Wheel of Time magic "system" described by Robert Jordan against that used by Terry Goodkind in his tiresome fantasy "epics." It seems the goal of many young writers is to have a wiki created just for their works and the ridiculously overdescribed cultures and systems they conjure up.

"The High Priest" - and "Ankor Sabat" - are in part deliberate rebellions against this trend. Robert E. Howard did not describe just exactly how his sorcerers combined words in some invented language to create magic, his sorcerers simply were. Lovecraft's Cthulhu was only slain when August Derleth overexamined him, made him concrete, gave him rules, shrunk him down to an entry in the Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous Manual. Cthulhu works best under his own power. He cannot be explained - he can only be presented. He just is.

In this way, the Death Clan and the monstrous High Priest are simply presented to the reader with no strings attached. They are not over-analyzed, nor their method of existence justified. It is my hope that they confront the reader with the vigorous and fearfully direct nature of a legend, a myth, a fable. When Ardan speaks, I hope the reader accepts his fearsome presence with the same childlike terror they accepted the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. I hope that the reader accepts the unspeakable High Priest as swiftly as they accepted the existence of any number of evil kings in the fairy-tales of yore.

I hope that the Death Clan is scary because, on some level, we all know that faeries are real.

And some of them, the dark ones, are waiting to devour us.


  1. I have to say I quite agree with your general literary philosophy. Although I criticize "The High Priest" somewhat, I do agree that there is nothing wrong with oblique writing, and often it can add extra layers of meaning to a story. Repeated descriptions can add resonance and long, poetic imagery can seriously shift how readers view a scene more than straight, sparse prose can.

    Anyway, i wanted to let you know that I've posted a review of The High Priest over on my blog . I did mean to listen to and review it much earlier, as soon as I saw your comment, but life and other reading got in the way, and I've just now got around to it. October is a good time for Horror though. I hope you'll take my criticism in the good nature that I mean it. I honestly prefer "Ankor Sabat" to "The High Priest", but I gave "The High Priest" a better rating. I think I've written too much both here and in my review, but I like to explain why. Anyway, I hope you see my criticisms in the good-natured way I mean them. I quite like your style, and while some descriptions don't excite me, in both stories others leave me excited and wanting to read more. You definitely are not bland, and that is an excellent complement against much of the literature today!

  2. I very much enjoyed your review! It's funny, most people prefer "Ankor Sabat" it seems - but "The High Priest" is by far my favorite.