Monthly Archives: November 2014

Werewolves

27566315_sContinuing with the examination of fantasy tropes, especially those in contemporary fantasy, I’ll now deal with that second horror genre crossover to non-horror fantasy, the werewolf.

Werewolves are, in most cases, human beings that can — and often must — transform into animals, typically wolves. As such, they are a blend of the human and the animal. In many werewolf stories, the transformation is treated as a curse. The werewolf lives something approximating a normal life except on the night of the full moon, when the curse seizes control, turns the human into a super-powered wolf, and causes him or her to lose all control and go on a killing rampage. In other stories, the cursed side of the werewolf nature gets downplayed or doesn’t exist, the werewolf can change form at any time, and retains control of his own behavior while transformed. Usually, the werewolf experiences some aspects of the animal nature even in human form. He may have heightened senses, anger issues, or wolf-like behaviors intruding onto human patterns.

Lycanthropy, like vampirism, is communicable, although the exact mechanism varies. Most commonly, a human victim who survives a werewolf attack becomes infected with the curse. Sometimes another mechanism applies. (In The Vampire Diaries, lycanthropy was hereditary with the curse being triggered if the proto-werewolf killed anyone, deliberately or accidentally.) One way or another, though, a human being faces the possibility of becoming a werewolf, usually to the extent he interacts with existing werewolves.

In many stories, antipathy exists between werewolves and vampires. It’s generally agreed that werewolves are more dangerous than vampires on the full moon; usually, on other nights of the month, the reverse is true.

Werewolves sometimes, but not always, run in packs, with their human lives exhibiting a mix of human and wolf instincts and natures, with the wolf nature taking over completely when they assume that form, whether voluntarily or involuntarily.

And that’s enough to begin with. What I want to do now is consider the mythic ramifications of the werewolf in fiction.

Animal Magnetism

Let’s start with the obvious. Werewolves are an invocation of the primitive, the pre-human, the animal. Although werewolf legends go back at least to classical Greece, if not earlier, the werewolf as a staple of fantasy fiction is modern, and even folkloric fear of werewolves dates only to the 17th century in Europe. Since the invention of the printing press, change in culture has been accelerating and today we live in a largely artificial world, removed from anything appropriate to our animal instincts — by which I mean our human instincts, not those of some other animal.

An old song by the Police calls us “spirits in the material world,” but it is more accurate to say that we are animals in the civilized world, experiencing internal conflict between what our genes tell us to do and what our reason sees as appropriate behavior. The werewolf is an atavistic throwback, an image of ourselves as primal, vital creatures removed from our natural habitat and inserted into a strange environment.

This makes sense of the werewolf-vampire antipathy. The vampire isn’t animal but diabolical, a perversion of the human, an opposite pole of our nature to the werewolf.

We’re becoming more accustomed to civilized life, and better adapted to it, as time and generations go by, but we’re still not quite there. The werewolf speaks to a part of ourselves that feels more at home in the wilderness, in small groups living a primitive lifestyle. It’s a trope very well suited to contemporary fantasy, and that helps explain why it appears more in modern-day settings than in ancient or Medieval ones.

The Pack

The social element in the werewolf doesn’t always show up in fiction. Plenty of werewolf stories, especially the older ones, feature lone wolves or cursed individuals who, as far as they know, are the only ones of their kind alive. This can happen for instance when the werewolf victim survives by virtue of killing the werewolf who attacked him.

A different type of story emerges when the storyteller deals with pack dynamics, though, and both wolves and humans are social animals, so including other werewolves in a tightly knit society makes sense. When the werewolf runs in a pack, an opportunity emerges to contrast the werewolf society in its authority structure, ethics, and general approach to life with that of the city-dwellers.

The Curse

The werewolf as a cursed person also relates to the primitive versus modern and animal versus human conflict that defines the werewolf in all its aspects. The beast within is unsuited to life in a modern world. The werewolf on the full moon night is likely to become a murderer, and even to slaughter the very people that he most cherishes and wants preserve when in human form.

This dichotomy often makes werewolves leave civilized life and live in the wilderness, pursuing a simple existence close to the earth. In the wilds, the hunting is good, and the chance to murder people is minimized.

The curse makes the werewolf a tragic figure. In the end, that’s what manifesting a primitive nature in the modern world amounts to.

Copyright: ibreaker213 / 123RF Stock Photo

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Vampires

10996512_sThis is the first in a series of posts on tropes in fantasy storytelling, particularly in contemporary fantasy.

Vampires were a tremendous fad in contemporary fantasy for a while. Currently the popularity of the trope is fading somewhat, so this is perhaps as good a time as any to look at it with a view towards what makes for a good story and good myth-making.

The vampire is potentially a unique and powerful story element, but it’s rare to see it done right. Ideally, the vampire combines two opposite emotional triggers, horror and temptation, but usually one side is emphasized to the detriment of the other. Dracula by Bram Stoker captures the horror very well, but the temptation is never properly shown; those who feel it (and succumb to it) are never viewpoint characters, so we never feel how drawn they are to becoming a vampire. At the other extreme, Twilight romanticizes vampires so that the temptation is evoked, but the horror disappears. The real power of the trope lies in the tension between the two, so that the temptation increases the danger and the horror makes the temptation all the more poignant.

The horrible element in the vampire is obvious and simple: it’s a deadly, blood-sucking monster that is incredibly powerful and difficult to fight. A human being must exploit knowledge of the vampire’s weaknesses (sunlight and fire, a stake through the heart, restrictions on where it can go such as barriers to crossing a threshold uninvited, sometimes religious symbols or faith or certain herbs, depending on the story) to counteract its incredible power: enhanced physical strength and speed, the ability to cloud and control the human mind, cunning, and ruthlessness. A vampire comes out of nowhere, moves faster than the eye can follow, cannot be resisted physically any more than a thundering express train, and kills in a split second. Even more horribly, the vampire may kidnap victims and keep them as a blood source and mind-controlled plaything for a long time before finally tiring of the game and killing.

The temptation in the vampire story involves the opportunity to become a vampire. In most vampire stories, it’s possible for vampires to turn human beings into vampires by one method or another. A human being interacting with a vampire must confront not only the awful danger that the creature may kill him at any moment, but also the seductive opportunity. He can, if the vampire is willing to cooperate, become immortal and inhumanly powerful — if he’s also willing to become a killer, a monster, a predatory menace to the human race. The danger of giving in to this temptation, and, having done so, the struggle to control one’s nature after the transformation, create much of the conflict in the best vampire stories.

On top of this, not universally but quite often, the vampire is a sexually seductive figure. A human can be drawn to the vampire’s monstrous beauty and raw sexual vitality, and this enhances both the temptation and the danger of the creature. (This is sometimes true even when vampires are sexually impotent, as in Anne Rice’s vampire stories, but obviously more so when they aren’t.) The increased danger arises because a human being can be paralyzed by erotic desire and fail to fight or flee. The increased temptation comes from falling in love with the vampire and wanting to become immortal so as to be with the immortal beloved.

At this point, the trope is overdone and I have never been strongly tempted to write a vampire story mainly for that reason. It’s seldom done well, though, as noted above, so there’s room for a really good vampire story. If I were to create a vampire tale, the challenge would be to keep the tension between the horror and the temptation so that the reader experiences this tension all the way through. The temptation must never be overwhelmed by the fear, nor the mind become so tempted as go numb to the horror of the creature. To be tempted and afraid, and more tempted because of the fear, and more afraid because of the temptation, is the potential of the vampire at its best.

Whether I could do the trope justice — I don’t know. Perhaps one day I’ll find out.

Copyright: subbotina / 123RF Stock Photo

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World-Building Elements In My Stories: The Star Mages

The Star MagesThird and last in the series of posts outlining the world-building elements and fantasy/science fiction elements in my fiction series, I’ll deal today with The Star Mages, which is the oldest of the three series, the first book (The Stairway to Nowhere) having been published in 2010.

The Star Mages is contemporary or near-future fantasy. The story covers the time from about the 2050s through a hundred years later. It isn’t really science fiction, however, because the developments in technology and the societal changes resulting from them are peripheral to the story rather than central. The story follows the lives and conflicts of the Star Mages, Crystal Mages, and Sword Mages, and of the Star, Crystal, and Sword themselves, involving a lot of magic, spiritual evolution and musings, and moral questions and those of personal development. It’s got a futuristic setting, but The Star Mages is decidedly fantasy, not SF.

On top of the real-world base, the series erects an involved fantasy structure with really awesome magical powers, non-human intelligences, travel to fantasy universes, and just about anything my imagination could concoct and make consistent and intelligible. I pulled out more stops with this series than I did with the other two.

Magic

The magic in The Star Mages starts with real-world occult magic, based on alteration of probability. Normally, magic users can affect probabilities only at the macroscopic level, but if it were possible to impact probability at the level of molecular motion or quantum indeterminacy, much more impressive effects could be produced. This is “deep tier magic.” One of the main characters theorizes that deep tier magic isn’t normally possible because it’s not safe, as a human being with a death wish or other unconscious destructive tendencies could destroy the world with it. My Star Mages, Crystal Mages, and Sword Mages are able to do that, assisted and empowered by one of the three deep-tier talismans, sentient magical objects that give them limited use of the power while preventing annihilation. The talismans also deny the mages any use of deep-tier power which would be noticed by the general world — the powers can only be used secretly.

Deep-tier mages can do magic from fairy tales. They can change shape, heal injuries instantly, make themselves invisible, summon and channel great creative and destructive energies, move things with their minds, and generally act like demigods. The power keeps them from aging as well, so they are immortal in the sense of not growing old and dying a natural death, although they can still be slain.

The Background Realm

One of the important aspects of deep-tier magic is the ability to enter the “Astral Plane” or world of imagination in the flesh. A deep-tier mage can open a portal into this alternate world and step through it, moving into a fantasy realm. The deep-tier mages call this entering the “background realm.” A lot of the action in The Star Mages takes place in the background realm rather than in physical reality.

Deep-tier mages can practice a kind of teleportation using the background realm. Entry into the background realm always starts in a replica of the physical location where the entry takes place. Then the mage can instantly transport himself to a different background location, and if that location exactly resembles another physical-world location the mage can then step from background to the corresponding part of the physical world. So a deep-tier mage could enter background in New York, jump to a replica in background of a location in Paris, and then step out into the real-world Paris, all in about a second of travel time. That entry into or exit from the background realm must take place in a background location resembling a corresponding part of the real world is the only real limitation on the process, and provides a plot device in The Stairway to Nowhere.

The background realm isn’t just a replica of the physical world, though. From that starting point, mages can transport themselves to wildly imaginative worlds of fantasy, and do.

Deep-Tier Talismans

Two deep-tier talismans exist at the beginning of the story, and a third comes into being at the end of volume one. The oldest of the three is the Star, made from a meteorite some 6000 years in the past. Next is the Crystal, made from a large piece of blood-red quartz, created about 1000 years after the Star. The third is the Sword, which is created by the main antagonists over the course of the first book in the trilogy, and becomes itself the main antagonist of the second and third volumes.

Each of the talismans operates in the same way in terms of magical mechanics, but has a distinct personality. The Star is idealistic and progressive and has shaped human history over the centuries, aiming to create a utopia. The Crystal is ruthless and amoral, its adepts acting in pure selfishness. The conflict between them seems intractable, but proves to be an illusion, and the two are actually working together to achieve the Star’s goals — which may not be quite what it has told the Star Mages.

The third talisman, the Sword, was created by the antagonists in Stairway to get around the secrecy restrictions imposed by the Star and the Crystal. The power of the Sword could be used openly, or so the antagonists intended. In personality, the Sword emerged much like the Crystal, but without the Crystal’s hidden Star-friendly agenda; it is a genuine antagonist for the Star and the Star Mages.

The Golden Game

Running through the trilogy is the concept of the Golden Game, which is also the title of the third volume. The Golden Game is a struggle between love and power, played out on an interstellar scale. Spirits like the ones inhabiting the Star and the Sword take over the evolution of worlds, and a conflict happens between worlds oriented to the Star’s path or the Sword’s. But the Golden Game is itself a mask for a deeper cosmic conflict between creation and ending, represented by the Big Bang and the final heat death of the cosmos. The immensity of the conflict and its layers and layers of hidden aspects and meanings impact much of the action in The Star Mages and the struggles of the characters.

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