Sunday, 27 November 2016

Shadows Lengthen: A Discussion of Grimdark Fantasy

KT Davies telling me off for suggesting
that Tolkien isn't all that dark.
On November 26th I took part in a fascinating panel at Sledge-Lit, about whether fantasy becoming darker has been good for the genre overall. The discussion inevitably focussed on the topic of ‘grimdark’ fantasy (by which we also mean science fiction and other spec-fic genres and sub-genres).
The following is cribbed from my notes on the panel. Thanks to fellow panellists KT Davies and Graham Edwards, and to moderator Freda Warrington for such an illuminating debate!

How would we define ‘Grimdark’, and is the label helpful.

The term ‘grimdark’ originated in the Warhammer 40k fandom, derived from the tagline ‘In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war’. It was tongue-in-cheek at the time, but has become more universally applied even retrospectively to dark, gritty spec fic (i.e. Game of Thrones). Consider me particularly amused when I saw online recently an assertion that grimdark only applies to fantasy, and not to SF. Mate, it started with SF!

Adam Roberts described it as fiction ‘where nobody is honourable and Might is Right’.

No consensus as to what it actually means (like Brexit. Grimdark means grimdark). Personal take: It’s a reaction to heroic idealism. Anything where the traditional fantasy binary of good and evil is sufficiently blurred, so we have lots of shades of grey, murder-death-kill, and protagonists who make questionable moral judgements, can be described as grimdark. Where everyone is a bit murky, you end up rooting for the least worst option.

Has fantasy always had dark elements, before Grimdark was even a thing?

It’s intrinsically linked! Fellow panellist Graham Edwards said that ‘a lot of fantasy is rooted in folklore, which can be VERY dark. Just think Hansel and Gretel. So is fantasy just inherently grim?’
We can see dark fantasy in lots of classic works, from books and films to comics. A Song of Ice and Fire is the obvious choice. Everything to ever feature in 2000AD, from Dredd and Slaine to Nemesis the Warlock and ABC Warriors. Many of the old Conan the Barbarian stories could be considered grimdark, even though they’re written in the pulp style. Conan himself is a reaver, thief, pillager. He commits some questionable acts, although we always see his as this noble savage whose moral compass is (allegedly) far straighter than the corrupt city-folk around him. And what about writing that is often viewed as separate from genre fic? Is Cormac McCarthy grimdark by the above definitions? Probably so!

Do writers/filmmakers use darkness/violence to make fantasy more accessible to a wider audience?

Would Game of Thrones be as popular on TV without all the beheadings (And sex?)? Is it exploitative, or a way to reach the mainstream audience? We’ve definitely seen this rise of more ‘mature’ programming in the last decade or so. Game of Thrones taps into the same vein of sex n’ violence as 300, Spartacus, Rome, The Walking Dead, etc. (Ian McShane called Game of Thrones ‘just a load of tits and dragons’ recently, and he probably has a point that those particular aspects have attracted the more casual viewer – but writing off grimdark fantasy as immature for the inclusion of those elements is dangerous, as it prevents discussion of the serious topics conveyed within).

Grimdark is sometimes called an ‘anti-Tolkien’ movement, which is probably why columnist Damien G Walter – a huge fan of Tolkien – dismisses it out of hand as fantasy written to appeal to adolescent boys. I think it’s pretty hard to see George R R Martin and Joe Abercrombie fitting into that camp. And if anyone gave my books to an under-16 I’d raise an eyebrow. Our ideals of heroic fantasy do come from Tolkien, who was virtually a Victorian. He puts those old-fashioned manners and mores, and an idealising of chivalric values, into his stories. But he completely glosses over the ethnic cleansing, and ideological reasons for the mass wars in his stories. Grimdark fiction goes deeper. It adds the grit. It shows the horrors of war, the horrible decisions that those so-called heroes have to make to secure victory. It’s on the battlefield at eye-level with Boromir, not taking a nostalgic view from the quill of a hobbit.

The crucial element is: do you glorify those horrors, or do you use the story to shine a light on them, and to comment on them? If the former, then it’s just gratuitous, and I’d wager that there’s a lot of it out there, which is why grimdark gets a bad rep.

Grit itself is becoming ubiquitous. Has it gone too far? How dark is too dark?

A quote from Lord Grimdark himself, Joe Abercrombie:

“But the dividing line between what is righteous and worthwhile, and what is wrongful and gratuitous, is so fuzzy as to be a blur, and will be in a totally different place… for every author and reader.  Often people have limitless capacity for savage ultraviolence but find a consensual sex scene, or indeed someone having a wee, just a bit too edgy for their sensibilities.  One person’s disgracefully titillating torture porn can be another’s searing examination of how far one might go to get the truth.  One person’s profanity is another’s hilarious and realistic dialogue. One person’s disheartening pessimism that threatens the heart of western civilisation is another’s thought provoking deconstruction of conventions.”
-- JA
Possibly we’re reaching a tipping point. The Walking Dead has started reporting falling viewing figures at a time that it’s pushing its darkest ever series. The first few episodes of series 7 have established that hope is lost – the series doesn’t have a reputation for heroic triumph, so a lot of people are tuning out probably because they don’t know if the ‘good guys’, such as they are, can actually win.

Real life has been looking very bleak this year. There’s a lot of pessimism and moral panic surrounding events in 2016 so far. Maybe viewers just don’t want to compound their misery with more misery. ‘Well, things are bad, but at least my favourite character is still alive… oh…’

This is where maybe Grimdark can go too far. Victory for the hero can be hard fought, and come at great cost, but there has to be victory nonetheless. When the outcome is universally bleak, perhaps we’re straying too far into the horror genre, and alienating the core audience.

Shameless selfie with old mate
and fellow grimdarker Gav Thorpe.

Has it been good for the genre?

I certainly hope so, because by some definitions I’m writing it!

Like any movement, grimdark fiction has explored previously untested avenues, and has provided a home for those lovers of darker, perhaps horror or ultraviolent fiction, who wouldn’t ordinarily have gone for fantasy and SF. Anything that brings more readers to the genre is a good thing.

So what is the next new thing that will reinvigorate fantasy further? Where can fantasy go next?

We might be seeing a trend towards more hopeful fiction again. BUT the Game of thrones TV show, and the revived popularity of the books, shows us that grit certainly isn’t dead.

Personally, I think mash-up fiction is gathering momentum. Adding horror to fantasy or SF often makes a property ‘grimdark’ while also providing a new twist. But why stop there? And look at what Marvel Studios are doing with their movies – the Marvel universe is really a science fiction one, but they’ll make a heist movie, a spy thriller, a buddy road-trip comedy… all in the same universe, all with those superhero/SF elements. I think we’ll see more of that. Grimdark fantasy has tended to be focused primarily on war and politics, but I wonder if we’ll start to see the grimdark sci-fi ghost story (Adam Christopher is doing a bit of this at the moment), the grimdark fantasy crime caper, and so on.

Further Reading

As I was compiling these notes, I found an excellent essay by Mark Lawrence on the subject of grimdark fantasy. Check it out here.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

A Tour of the Apollonian Club

The cab drew to a halt outside the clubhouse, which occupied a prime location on the corner of Pall Mall and St. James’s Square. This had long been the centre of both power and club life in London, housing not only this famous institution, but also the Reform Club, and the Athenaeum amongst others. I was but a stone’s throw from a royal residence, and the war office to boot. I gazed up at the imposing white walls of the Apollonian, which seemed to glow as they were hit by a few weak rays of evening light that somehow found the strength to permeate the dark grey clouds. The shaft of sunlight glinted from the golden bow brandished by the statue of Apollo above the entrance, before vanishing again, returning the vista to dreary grey gloom. […] I stepped between the Portland stone columns of the classically styled frontage and onto the tiled porch. The rain dripped from the brim of my hat and ran down my neck. I had been out of the hansom for but a moment, and was already half-soaked. Yet the grand old building was welcoming, and the weather could not dampen my spirits. All those years ago, when I had harboured ambitions of becoming a man of letters, I dreamt of following in the footsteps of those proud members of the Apollonian; Tennyson, Thackeray, Scott—even Dickens was said to have been an occasional visitor. Once on the threshold that had been trod by such great men, under the great glass lanterns that flickered above me, I was relieved to see the warm glow of lights and fires within the clubhouse itself, and a servant of the club opening the door to meet me.
– The Lazarus Gate

Your esteemed author in Clubland.
In The Apollonian Casefiles, the eponymous club is almost as much of a character as John Hardwick and the other agents of Apollo Lycea. A noble building, housing the great secrets of the empire, and providing a home-from-home for some of the greatest luminaries of Victorian Britain.

I’ve always had a bit of a fascination for ‘clubland’. There’s something reassuringly old-fashioned about the idea of this private retreat for gentlemen – a well-stocked library and a glass of port; a game of cards and a bedroom for those times when home life is just too trying. Of course, as a confirmed pleb, I’d never have made it past the front door, but a chap can dream, eh?

The Apollonian itself isn’t a real club. I know, I know, sorry to shatter your illusions. As most real clubs are home to the rich and powerful to this day, and are all privately owned, it’s rather dicey to set a novel about secret agencies and political manoeuvring in one of them. However, I took inspiration from not one, not two, but three clubs for the Apollonian, and so I thought it’d be fun to reveal which, and what for…

The Athenaeum

It’s kind of an obvious place to start. The Athenaeum is the inspiration for the name and outward appearance of the Apollonian (with the exception being that the Apollonian has an extra storey). It is an elite club, with a reputation for intellectuality, deep respectability and episcopacy. Both Athena and Apollo have Lycean counterparts in ancient history, so the lore aspect worked, too – symbolised by the statues outside. The description of the entrance hall and grand staircase are close to the Athenaeum. Finally, the Athenaeum is renowned for its library, one of the finest in clubland – however, although I stole that bit of lore for the Apollonian, the physical description of the library is actually closer to the Reform Club’s, below.

The Reform Club

The Reform Club is one of the less secretive of the old gentlemen’s clubs, and has been used in fiction many times – most notably as Phileas Fogg’s club in Around the Worldin 80 Days. It was a great political retreat of the liberal-minded, and attracted those great politicians who supported the Reform Act, such as Brunei, Palmerston and, later, Gladstone.

The Reform Club provided the inspiration not just for the layout of the Apollonian’s library, but also for the skills of its chef, whose fantastic cuisine was the especial favourite of Ambrose Hanlocke. The Reform Club’s chef, Alexis Soyer, was a bit of a Victorian Jamie Oliver, pioneering a mission to improve provisions for British troops serving abroad. The Reform’s actual dining room, on the other hand, was in my mind when picturing the large boardroom of the Apollonian; its dark panelling and long table seemed fitting for those important meetings of secret agents and world leaders alike. It was also one of the first clubs to have private bedrooms for its members – a trait referred to often in the Apollonian Casefiles, when agents of the Crown are forced to seek sanctuary in the club’s hallowed halls.

The Carlton Club

The Reform Club in the foreground, with
bitter rival the Carlton Club behind it.
Despite the Athenaeum’s formidable reputation as housing London’s movers and shakers, it was not actually the centre of the political world in clubland. That honour belonged to the Carlton Club, its neighbour the Reform Club, and Brooks’s. The Carlton Club is probably the most famous of all political establishments, and its influence was tremendous. The club was said to have fulfilled many of the functions now performed by the Conservative Central Office. Indeed, When Disraeli joined the Tory Party, one of his first tasks was to secure membership – the rest, as they say, is history. Gladstone was already a member at that time. When the Tory membership discovered that Gladstone had accepted the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Aberdeen’s (gasp) coalition government, it was suggested that the venerable politician be pitched out of an upper window in the direction of the (more liberal) Reform Club.

The Carlton Club was hit by a German bomb in WWII (several members of the Conservative cabinet narrowly escaped, prompting one Labour politician to quip ‘the Devil looks after his own’), and had to move to St James’s Street. There’s now an office block on the site, which isn’t quite in keeping with the rest of the row.

The Location

The Apollonian Club is located on the corner of St, James’s Square and Pall Mall, opposite the Reform Club. There are actually three separate buildings on that site, which back onto Norfolk House – today, one is the office of an investment bank, and the other a noted dealership in old masters. In the novels, however, this is one large building, with a Portland stone façade. Sir Toby’s office is situated in one of the upper corners. From this fictional location, he can look out across the park at St. James’s Square, but if he looks left he can also see the Carlton Club. In reality, this view would not be possible, because there’s a building in the way of the park, but I won’t tell anyone if you won’t. Behind all those venerable old buildings are private gardens and enclosed back yards, which we can imagine provide access for secret visitors to the club.

Honourable Mention

I must shout out to the Army & Navy Club, which is mentioned several times. It is first lampooned by Ambrose Hanlocke, when he refers to the ‘Rag & Famish’ – an old nickname for the club based on its notoriously meagre food (the actual Rag and Famish was a squalid gaming house off Cranbourne Alley). Jim Denny is a member there, and later John Hardwick joins too, when he becomes too jaded to continue socialising at the Apollonian.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Send Forth the Auxilia!

Rejoice, fans of Broken Legions, for today I bring you not one, not two, but three new Auxilia for your battles! Now you can hire the Wandering Druid, the Nazarene Missionary, and the Herodian Magician and his fearsome Golem.

These new hired swords were left on the cutting-room floor during the editing process, and as I'm not sure there's a natural home for them elsewhere, I figured I'd let them loose upon you here, for free!

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Ghosts on Film

As it’s that spooky time of year – the time when, weirdly, I’m at my most productive due to the naturally atmospheric environs in which I’m writing – I’ve taken to watching lots of horror movies. Now, I love horror films, but I also hate them. Why? Because they’re so often hackneyed, low-budget, jump-scare-laden bore-fests that every time I rent a new movie it feels a bit like Russian roulette. Or, worse, eating a bag of Revels.

So every time my dear lady wife gets annoyed that I’ve made her sit through yet another stinker, I instead turn to the classics – those scary movies that are proven winners. They’re not all oldies, but they all have common elements: they value atmosphere over CG high-jinks, and storytelling over gore.

As Hallowe’en fast approaches, I give you my top 5 spooky movies (with the emphasis on spooky, as opposed to horror). Do check them out – you won’t be disappointed.

The Woman in Black (1989)

“Oo, that one with Harry Potter in it?” I hear you cry. Nope (although I don’t actually mind that verison – see below). Written by Nigel Kneale, the talent behind Quatermass, this was ITV’s answer to the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and what an answer it was. Dripping with atmosphere, this TV movie remains one of my favourite creepy tales on screen – I saw it as a nipper, and ‘That Scene’, which many people who watched it first time around remember all too well, gave me nightmares for some time to come.

Even though this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the book (which I love), rumour has it that Susan Hill wasn’t happy with some of the minor changes, and blocked its release on DVD in the UK. It’s now pretty hard to get hold of, although you can find it on YouTube of all places.

The Haunting (1963)

Dr. John Markway (the late, great Richard Johnson), an anthropologist with an interest in psychic phenomena, takes two specially selected women to Hill House, a reportedly haunted mansion. Eleanor (Julie Harris), a lonely, eccentric woman with a supernatural event in her past, and the bold Theodora (Claire Bloom), who has ESP, join John and the mansion’s heir, cynical Luke (Russ Tamblyn). They are immediately overwhelmed by strange sounds and events, and Eleanor comes to believe the house is alive and speaking directly to her.

This is another movie that spawned a terrible remake (starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Owen Wilson), but the original stands the test of time, in no part due to phenomenal cinematography and sturdy performances. You won’t find any ghost special effects here – but you’ll be spooked nonetheless.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)

In my view the best of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas (just pipping The Signalman), and the quintessential M R James adaptation, ‘Whistle’ is carried by a bravura performance by Michael Hordern. He’s almost alone in the hour-long production, and hardly has any coherent lines, and yet he manages to convey perfectly the character of the bumbling old antiquarian on a busman’s holiday to the seaside, unleashing dark forces. His portrayal of a rational man forced to confront the supernatural is simply brilliant, and his decent into madness more terrifying than even the thing that follows him relentlessly across a deserted beach.

It Follows (2014)

Speaking of things following relentlessly, It Follows undoubtedly takes some cues from M R James, with shades of Oh, Whistle and perhaps the Treasure of Abbot Thomas in the evil antagonist. The idea of a personal haunting, in this case passed on through intercourse, hunting down the current bearer of the curse is an interesting one. The film does not shy away from presenting the whole gamut of moral dilemmas one might face in that situation, and once the curse is unleashed the onslaught is inexorable. This movie is not only genuinely frightening, but clever, too. It sets its own internal ‘rules’ for the entity at the heart of the action, and never once breaks those rules, which allows the protagonists to plan accordingly. A rare thing in horror movies.

Session 9 (2001)

“Hello… Gordon…”

Perhaps an odd one for the list, this film for me defies classification. Is it a psychological horror film? A ghost story? A mystery? I have no idea, but it’s almost impossible to watch without being forced into a perpetual state of tension. Seriously, it’s exhausting. And the plot isn’t really wrapped up either, so you carry that tension around for days, trying to work out what was going on, and feeling unnerved by it. Pretty successful, I’d say.

The movie was shot in the now-demolished Danvers StateAsylum, and follows the exploits of a work crew hired to strip all the asbestos out of the building. What can be creepier than a huge, deserted asylum? Nothing, that’s what.

Honourable Mentions

The following movies (and one three-part TV series, as it happens, but it’s brilliant so you’ll have to forgive me) almost made the list, and have made this year’s watch-list. If you like the ones above, you may well get a kick out of these, too.

Night of the Demon (1957): A brilliantly staged telling of the M R James classic ‘Casting the runes’, this is a slow, thoughtful tale of black magic and demonology. It hasn’t aged quite as well as the others presented above, hence it makes the footnotes.

Midwinter of the Spirit (2015): A three-part exorcism TV drama written by the modern master of the genre, Stephen Volk? Oh, go on then. Seriously, it’s a crime this was never commissioned for a second series.

The Borderlands (2013): Even though I hate found footage movies, I loved this. Ultra-low-budget, with elements of folk-horror, this film has one of the most mind-bending twists in recent memory.

The Canal (2015): This is an effective, low-budget British horror film. Ostensibly a psychological horror, there’s an element of the unreliable narrator here, a bit like Session 9, that keeps you guessing even after you think you’ve guessed it!

The Woman in Black (2012): Not a faithful retelling, and full of jump-scares ripped straight from J-Horror, this is nonetheless an incredibly atmospheric movie, thanks largely to its cinematography and soundtrack. The haunted house is brilliantly done; the protagonist less so.

The Conjuring 2 (2016): I had a bit of a soft spot for the first Conjuring movie, and I think this recent sequel actually tops it/ James Wan uses his now-familiar bag of tricks again here, but he seems to have mastered his art in this offering. If you can forgive the bending of history here (the real-life Enfield Haunting was never quite like this!), then you’re in for quite the ride, I should also mention here the recent Enfield Haunting TV series, which was also brilliant, but very much a different experience.