A Little Mythology Goes a Long Way, by Dan Rabarts

Please welcome author Dan Rabarts to the blog today! He is going to tell us a little about using mythology in our fiction, and why mythology continues to resonate with us even in this age of science. Be sure to check out the new book Teeth of the Wolf, which he co-authored with Lee Murray! It the second book in the Path of Ra series, which started with Hounds of the Underworld.

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Down here in New Zealand, we live on an unlikely strip of land between an ocean and a sea, on a planet which exists in a tiny fraction of a void between eternal heat and eternal cold, where life has taken hold and refuses to let go. It is little wonder that our ancestors looked up at the stars, the sun, the moon, and wove the mystery of those lights in the sky into folklore. They put names and stories to the celestial faces, just as they named the rage of the ocean, the howl of the wind, and the black embrace of the beyond. 

Ra, the sun. Marama, the moon. 

Tangaroa, god of the sea. Tāwhirimātea, god of the winds. 

Hine-nui-te-pō, goddess of night and death.  

Mythology predates science by thousands of years. It has been with us since we first heard the rumble of thunder and imagined gods roaring at each other among the clouds. Fear of the unknown has been part of our collective subconscious for longer than civilisation has stood, and will be with us long after it has fallen.

 So even when science, that inevitable and inexorable juggernaut, continues to reveal the workings of the universe one quark at a time, we cling to our myths like we cling to life in this fragile strip of the solar system. Our mythologies were our explanations for all the forces at work around us which we did not understand. Now, as we learn how vast the universe truly is and how alone we are in it, those mythologies remain our security blankets, the persisting hope that something greater watches over us. That the fact of our existence is not so unlikely, and that we are not so very, very alone in the dark. 

This idea, the persistence of mythology and how humanity has an innate power to give a sort of life to that in which we are willing to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, is a key element in The Path of Ra, a supernatural crime-noir thriller series co-authored by myself and Lee Murray. In Hounds of the Underworld, scientific consult Penny Yee refuses to buy into her brother Matiu’s insistence that there is a dark force at work behind the murders she is investigating. As long as she can explain the bodies piling up as the doings of a criminal mind, she can accept any atrocity with scientific clarity. But in Teeth of the Wolf, the second book in the series, when the evidence starts to mount that not everything can be rationalised away, and that the shadows Matiu is always jumping at may indeed be something that all Penny’s science and logic cannot explain, Penny tastes doubt for the first time.

In the writing of The Path of Ra series, I’m very lucky to work with Lee Murray, who brings a sense of rationale and reason to the story through Penny Yee. Lee works hard to drive the science in our science fiction/dark fantasy/crime-noir mash-up, while Matiu insists that the things scratching at the inside of the walls are not rats, nothing that can be so easily explained away. This conflict between the logical and the weight of the mythological lends the books a constant tension, between the need to make sense of the madness the world is falling into, and the need to hold back the faceless, inexplicable dark. It’s a powerful dynamic, and a testament to the success of the co-author relationship that this tension sustains both the story and the characters. Matiu brings the monsters; Penny explains why they simply can’t actually be there.

Science will keep on solving the riddles of our existence. It will continue to drive the changes we are making to this world, for better or worse. Science has given us, in equal measures,  space travel and space junk. Global travel and global pollution. A knowledge economy and the age of internet trolling. Nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry. Climate change and the means to combat it, if we have the will. 

Science will, in time, become our new mythology, the making and the breaking of civilisation. 

But as long as we hear voices in the dark when there is no-one there to speak, we will cling to our deeply-ingrained beliefs in the unknown, the unknowable. As long as we can cast a light into the shadows and the shadows swallow that light, we will continue to fear and revere our gods and monsters.

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Dan Rabarts is a New Zealand author, editor and podcast narrator, winner of four Sir Julius Vogel Awards and two Australian Shadows Awards, occasional sailor of sailing things, part-time metalhead and father of two wee miracles in a house on a hill under the southern sun. His science fiction, dark fantasy and horror short stories have been published in venues such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Together with Lee Murray, he co-edited the award-winning anthologies Baby Teeth - Bite-sized Tales of Terror and At The Edge, and co-writes the Path of Ra series. His first solo novel, Brothers of the Knife, kicks off the grimdark-yet-madcap Children of Bane fantasy series (Omnium Gatherum). Find out more at dan.rabarts.com.

Do We Belong Dead? A Guest Article by Dan Stout

On page and on screen, we love to see monsters wreak havoc. They rampage and destroy, tear and rend. Their simple existence threatens our lives, our worlds, even our sense of self. But for makers of monsters, it can be a trick to strike the right note with our creations. To get there, it may help to ask: do these terrifying figures see themselves as monsters?

Imagine a spectrum with Dracula, Hannibal Lector, and the cenobites from Hellraiser on one side, embracing their nature and delighting in preying on the weak. On the other is the Wolfman and the Hulk, humans fighting to keep their darker side constrained. And in the middle is the place where monsters deny their monstrous nature: the realm of the misunderstood and misunderstanding. 

This middle is where we find Frankenstein’s monster, Edward Scissorhands, Bad Ronald, and Michael Douglas’s character from FALLING DOWN (1993). (Think of his scene on the pier, looking befuddled and asking Robert Duvall’s policeman, “I’m the bad guy?”)

Sometimes, the monster is only monstrous when perceived through human eyes. The Amphibian Man in THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), for example, is gallant and charming, and it's clear that the real villains are his human captors. Guillermo del Toro’s work often embraces the monstrous, as does the work of Tim Burton. Edward Scissorhands and the Amphibian have a great deal in common in the way they address the status and soul of the outsider. This is true of both the physically different characters and the “normal” people who embrace them. 

But while Edward Scissorhands is self-aware, other monsters are self-deluded. BAD RONALD (1974) is an example of a monstrous character who believes himself to be the victim, unable to accept responsibility for his own actions. Ronald conflates an imaginary narrative to justify his series of progressively violent assaults (in the book, Ronald is far less sympathetic, and his actions significantly more malevolent than in the televised film.) 

Some works, such as 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), feature both soulless monsters and relatable, human characters who harness the strength of the monstrous but turn their back upon the destructive nature that power brings, showing us that all hope is not lost. In other works, the monster’s self-image changes or shifts. In THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) the monster believes that his hopes of finding happiness were delusional, uttering his famous line, “We belong dead.”

Wondering how audiences perceive these figures, I reached out to other lovers of the monstrous and horrific, and the members of the TV Terror Facebook group [https://www.facebook.com/groups/tvterror/] responded with a collection of monsters and their preferences in specific monstrous flavor. One interesting point that came out was that there are also monsters that exist wholly separate from our imaginary spectrum. Godzilla and his kaiju breather are forces of nature, similar to their dark reflections: the other-worldly Lovecraftian entities. All of them exist and go about their business, indifferent to our world and our conception of them as monsters. Natural monsters and mythological creatures tend to fall into this range as well. (For a look at drawing monstrous inspiration from facts, check out Lee Murray’s entry on the Once and Future Blog: Monster Fiction. )

All this comes together in multiple stories that I've been working on. In my contribution to the ONCE UPON THE LONGEST NIGHT anthology, I was able to explore the archetypal roles of Vampire and Hunter and ask what the concepts of right and wrong mean when both sides believe they're doing the right thing? Similarly, my novel TITANSHADE explores what sets people apart physically, culturally, and economically. Each of us exists on many axes, and we all see ourselves as outsiders on at least one of them. Not that this self-examination takes away from the action and romance of the stories—rather, if done well, it adds a depth an nuance that makes the rest of the story that much more enjoyable.

I believe that this is the great calling of Story. Well-told fiction blurs the line between “The Other” and the “Us”, strengthening understanding and pushing back against hate and paranoia. Whether our monsters are sympathetic or villainous, a successful story hinges on an act of empathy between the reader and at least one character. And when characters we empathize with make bad decisions, it causes us to reflect.

If we look at monsters and see our own beliefs and behavior, we’re forced to ask: Are we the monster? Is it us that belongs dead?

ONCE UPON THE LONGEST NIGHT is now on Kickstarter! A collection of novelettes that combine vampire mythos and romance with sacred symbolism and magic of the winter solstice. 

Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about fever dreams and half-glimpsed shapes in the shadows. Dan's stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Nature, and Mad Scientist Journal. His debut novel Titanshade is available for pre-order from DAW Books. To say hello, visit him at www.danstout.com.

Et tu, Reader: Five Books About the Ides of March

It's the Ides of March! And...what does that mean, exactly? Well, the ides of any month in Ancient Rome was the day in the middle of the month--the fifteenth day. The Ides of March is so important because in the year 44 BC, Julius Caesar, having been declared dictator of Rome for life just prior, was assassinated in a plot by some of the wealthiest and influential men of Rome--including a couple he considered his friends. He was stabbed twenty three times.

Caesar's assassination has been the inspiration behind prose and poetry for a couple thousand years, including a play by William Shakespeare. But why was he killed, and what really happened? Here are some books to show some different sides of the story:

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1. The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome, by Michael Parenti This is a great look at not only the assassination itself, but at the happenings in Rome around the time. It focuses on the people, plebs, and their situations, and asks questions not often seen in history text concerning this time. It's the story of the people of Rome, and the murder of a man who, in this book, is portrayed as a man for those people, pitted against rich and powerful men who only sought their own comfort and status at the expense of others. A really interesting take on things.

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2. The Death of Caesar: The Story of History's Most Famous Assassination by Barry Strauss This book takes a look not only at the assassination and the people behind it, but also looks at the aftermath. The death of Caesar closed the book on one civil war only to open another. Friends become enemies, enemies friends, and speeches incite riots that take the city by storm and cause its leaders to flee. Strauss introduces the key players in the assassination from both sides, and shows history in a fresh way that reads almost like a novel.

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3. Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland Another book characterized by its passionate handling of the subject, reading like a novel rather than a nonfiction book, Rubicon tells of the years leading up to the assassination of Caesar. It's the portrayal of an era along with its major players, and is not just about the death of Caesar, but the death of the Roman Republic itself. It's a very readable book that will stay in the reader's thoughts.

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4. Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy This huge book is a biography of Julius Caesar, looking at Caesar's life as a politician, soldier, husband, lover, and man. Ancient Rome comes to life in this book, a complex, power-hungry society. Goldsworthy portrays Caesar as a cunning military man, a charismatic speaker, a powerful ruler, and seducer of powerful women. He explores why Caesar still impacts us today as one of history's most important figures.

 

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5. The Throne of Caesar: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor I couldn't resist throwing a novel in here, because Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa mystery series is so rich in historical detail and also, so fun to read, that I think folks who find the nonfiction a bit much could easily lose themselves in Ancient Rome via these books. This is the newest book in the series, and can be read as a standalone. After you read it, however, you'll want to go back to read the others. This book has Gordianus the Finder, on the eve of his retirement, smack dab in the middle of the troubles and intrigue leading up to the Ides of March. 

Do you have any favorite books on the subject? Let us know on social media or in the comments!

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Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy stories where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her fiction has appeared in Circle MagazinePrick of the Spindle, and in the anthology Champions of AetaltisShe studied astronomy and physics at Northern Arizona University and has published some non-fiction in the field of astronomy and library sciences. She's the co-editor of the anthology MECH: Age of Steel and editor of Hath No Fury, and she is a blogger and general b*tch monkey at The Once and Future Podcast.