Monday, April 30, 2012

A Meme of Alphabet, Part 9

Q is for—Queerness

As I've stated, my motivation for writing a trilogy in which the main character is gay was two-fold: A) I was writing A Book of Tongues “for me”, and as a slasher, that's my bag, baby, but B) around the same time I began, I also ran across some of Hal Duncan (Vellum, Ink)'s writing about QUILTBAG representation in popular media, and though “yes, I can do that—complicated, tough gay dudes whose tragedy doesn't necessarily come attached to their sexuality ahoy!” By the end of A Book, however, I was happy to see that the spectrum of non-default character sexuality already seemed to be expanding far beyond the “hard gay” axis, embracing functional bisexuality and straight-with-an-exceptionality alike. This has continued to happen throughout the rest of the series, with A Rope of Thorns adding polysexual relationships and lesbianism with a hint of transgender issues, depending on how Yiska actually sees herself (more on that later); in A Tree of Bones, those existing currents are continued, hopefully remaining emotionally front and centre as the characters those sexualities come attached to stay in play. And while I'm sad to say I wan't quite able to push it far enough to include any overtly asexual characters, who knows? I already know this universe ain't completely done with me.

What's become particularly interesting for me, however, is that while my original impulse contained a healthy dose of prurience, the actual ratio of sex-to-action has gone down in each instalment, partly due to lack of time vs. intensity of immediate physical threat. This hopefully reduces the fetishistic angle somewhat, which I'm happy with, but it also goes back to Duncan's observation that while sexuality is obviously a cornerstone of most people's motivations, it's not the be-all and end-all we privilege it as in most narratives. And since queerness is a concept which has its roots in a reclaimed slur, a way of self-definition which says: “Yes, I am 'different', but there's nothing wrong with that”, how much further do you have to push before you can note that that sounds as much like hexes defining themselves “against” non-hexes and vice versa as it does like it necessarily has anything to do with who does or doesn't sleep with whom? So the spectrum widens further, hopefully, the default shifting, until you end up in (to my mind) an interesting world where maybe even the non-default characters can feel pretty “queer” themselves, in certain contexts.

(Apologies, of course, for any interesectional toes I may have stepped on with this line of rumination—as a straight person with a particular kink, it's never my intention to co-opt anyone's identity, except in fiction.)

R is for—Red Weed

By A Tree, the Red Weed—Datura nazacul, as Doc Asbury calls it, that parasite infestation of Hell Kudzu spawned by Chess Pargeter's Xipe Totec incarnation throughout A Rope of Thorns—has become a bit of a non-speaking supporting character in some ways, a plot device in others. Some people have rightly noted that it's reminiscent of the trickster predator vines in Scott Smith's The Ruins, which I'll totally cop to; frankly, I don't see how the two couldn't have had some sort of relationship, considering said ruins are those of a Mayan temple. I'd say the main difference in presentation with the Weed this time 'round is that in Rope, Chess didn't know how to control it, and didn't want to know—but here it's being wielded by the Enemy, who understands innately how best to let it do his bidding. Also, given that I'm not a big fan of the re-set mode in storytelling, the Weed is probably here to stay, even by this part of the saga's end...a severe ecological shift, a sort of lasting hex-pollution. Which will have interesing implications for my version of the Weird West in future, no doubt.

Tomorrow: S and T!

A Meme of Alphabet, Part 8

O is for—Opera

There's a reason I keep on calling the Hexslinger series my “blood-soaked black magic gay porno horse opera” (or various recombinations thereof), aside from the fact that it obviously amuses the crap out of me. And essentially, that reason goes right back to my formative years, when I would tell people I liked horror and people would wrinkle their noses and ask: “Uh...why?” The implication always being that horror is (to any reasoning human being) a disgusting, exploitative genre which aims to make entertainment out of our most intimate and dreadful fears—it's sexist by nature because of fetishizing female victimhood, often -ist of multiple other stripes through exoticization-of-evil tropes, heterosexist and heteronormative, nihilistically bleak, etc. Also just plain gross, with all those bodily fluids. What kind of a person are you, tiny Gemma?

Answer: I'm the kind of person who likes opera, lit and fig. I don't see these things as icky or wrenching. They uplift me in a literally awful way. I don't know why, but each succeeding clusterfuck is like yet another aria, black and red and purple all over. It's glorious. Expect more of the same.

P is for—Pinkerton

Oh Allan Pinkerton, you probably weren't a good guy, exactly, but you sure weren't as bad as I've spent three books making you out to be. That being said, I think the way Pinkerton's degenerated by the beginning of A Tree of Bones is set in stark, fairly intentional parallel with Ixchel's degeneration on the other side of the War on Hex: He's the same sort of villain, the same sort of monster, the same sort of addict, but he thinks he's different, because he's using science rather than superstition to tap into that massive field of what one can only assume is a natural force, hexation. But just like her, he's sacrificing other people right and left to his “cause”; just like her, what he really wants at base is to usher in a bold new era of parasitism and slavery. And half my people have to work with/for him!

Then again, lurking in the background, we do have those two agents who've broken from the fold and are now working against Pinkerton, Frank Geyer (first introduced in A Rope of Thorns) and George Thiel, who we've heard of but not from, thus far. Like Pinkerton, both are actual historical characters who I seized on and bent to my own ends; Thiel, for example, is mainly known as the guy who split off to form his own detective agency, but didn't manage to eclipse Pinkerton's original brand. The great part about alternate universes, however, is that things can end up very differently—and to me, in both cases, the true legacy of Allan Pinkerton is the “detective agency” concept he pioneered, an unacknowledged branch of the government with ties to the Secret Service who functioned as a sort of proto-Federal Bureau of Investigation. A very useful thing to have control of, in any universe that contains hexation.

Tomorrow: Q and R!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Meme of Alphabet, Part 7

M is for—Mommy Issues

Though not exactly otherwise describable in any way, shape or form as a typical Mama's boy, our frilly Mister Pargeter is nevertheless doomed from his first appearance in A Book of Tongues—when a drunken San Francisco idjit tries valiantly to insult him by explicitly comparing him to his drug-addicted (literal) whore of a mother, “English” Oona—to always be thinking about the ways in which they're either similar or different. Doesn't help that they're both small, red-headed, vicious and apt to trade sex for favours, of course...but from the very minute I decided to have Chess let his boyfriend dispose of Oona long-distance, I knew that the worst place he could ever end up after that would be getting stuck in some version of Hell with only his dead Ma for company. Not exactly coincidentally (and not a spoiler, per se), it is this exact situation Chess finds himself in at the end of A Rope of Thorns/beginning of A Tree of Bones. Cue bonding! Sort of. Let's put it this way: Oona and her flamin' molly of an only child will never not have far more in common than either of them are happy to admit. And frankly, I like it that way.

N is for—Normals (Badass)

Much like Hawkeye, Black Widow and Nick Fury when compared with the rest of the Avengers, “normal” people often tend to take a certain background stance when everybody else in a given narrative has genuine superpowers. Except, of course, that all three of the above-mentioned actually do have a shared superpower: Being badass. In a funny way, part of the internal debate driving Chess Pargeter at this point has a lot to do with the fact is that while he started out thinking he was awesome/cursed for being so special-snowflake different, it actually turns out he was part of a bigger picture all along—that at least part of him, possibly the most important part, comes with a semi-predictable set of rules attached. Having always been a hex explains his ridiculous way with guns, if not the inclinations that prompted him to take them up, in the first place; does it automatically dismiss every other ingredient of what makes him him?

Meanwhile, my favourite badass normal—Ed Morrow—just keeps on keepin' on, even surrounded as he is by magic-addicted once and future bosses, drunken arcanists, various hexacological consorts, his demigod pal with benefits and the not-exactly-girlfriend he thought was normal when they first hooked up, but is now carving out a corner of the board for herself, using a completely different set of powers. Luckily, he has good instincts, stamina and a fair sense of humour to support him, so I'm pretty sure he'll manage to come out of things all right.

Tomorrow: O and P!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Meme of Alphabet, Part 6

K is for—Kill Your Darlings

The great part about making a horror movie, director Bernard Rose (Candyman, Paperhouse) used to say, is that you can kill off your entire cast, if you want/need to. To that observation I would add a paraphrasing of Stephen King's explanation of The Ghost Trick, as used in the supernatural soap Dark Shadows: Yes, but the problem is—especially when you're dealing with magicians, in a universe already full of both resurrected gods and simple human ghosts—killing people off doesn't always take. So the lure is knowing that you can exploit at will the narrative emotional outpouring which accompanies the “death” of any given character, without ever actually having to permanently shift them off the board at all. Do that too many times, however, and you end up being Marvel (or DC); nobody believes the stakes anymore, because you've bent them so many times in order to bring your darlings/franchises literally back to life. Nothing matters.

I told myself many times that if I pushed the Hexslinger series to where it should logically go, I really would have to kill a lot of people. Which is why it didn't surprise me when the characters I knew I knew in my gut were probably going to survive did, but I must admit, it did surprise me how much the other ones not doing so actually hurt. Which is good, I guess...

L is for—Love's A Curse

Or so Chess Pargeter's Ma always used to say, and she'd certainly know. It continues to interest me how much of my idea of epic love seems to have been inextricably influenced by listening to way too many Joan Baez albums as a kid, in that I just can't reconcile myself with the concept that a love big enough to kill or die for is ever a good thing, exactly. Instead, it strikes me as a sort of wound, a two-person trauma which inevitably hurts as much as it heals. Within the context of the Hexslinger series, for example, I don't think it's debatable that Chess has learned a lot from loving Reverend Rook, and that the people around him have benefited from that same sorrowful tuition in self-knowledge. And once upon a time, Chess's automatic reply to that observation would've been a simple: Oh yeah? Well, fuck 'em all, anyhow...but the fact that he isn't quite as inclined to do so anymore (or rather not as inclined to act on it, because he'd probably still say it, if only to be a bitch) is another consequence of the same scar tissue. Ash Rook has changed him, irreparably, making him a different person. Yet in much the same way Chess has already benefited from the damage he took in loving Rook, by the beginning of A Tree of Bones, Rook—who still justifies the worst of his betrayals by saying he only did what he did in order to “save” Chess from future harm—has already begun to accept that his baseline ideal of love may be exactly as hollow as his hypocrite preacher's faith ever was...and that if he wants to redeem himself at all, if not his choices, he has to give up on the idea of getting any sort of return on his investments, to serve without expectation—or even hope—of gain, like the “true” Christian he's never really felt himself to be. Which really can't help but get messy, as a strategy.

Tomorrow: M and N!

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Meme of Alphabet, Part 5

I is for—Ixchel

I think we can all probably agree that by this point in the narrative, no matter her dreamlike seductiveness earlier on, Dread Lady Ixchel has become very firmly a monster, both morally and visibly. This mostly has to do with the degeneration of her chosen vessel, poor Miss Adaluz, whose suicide and resurrection Rook oversaw in A Book of Tongues. Now she's looking for a replacement body, but just as Larry Cohen noted in his film Q: The Winged Serpent, Mexica faith-based magic has one very particular limitation—nine times out of ten, it requires a willing sacrifice. And trying to make someone “love” you enough to lay down their life “for” you so that you can possess their body after it's vacant is sometimes a little bit harder than it seems. Luckily for Ixchel—and unluckily, for everybody else—she always has a fall-back position.

J is for—Johnson (Andrew)

Who was President in 1867, exactly? Chances are, if I was actually American, this might not have proved such a goddamn stumper. As it is, if I had a dollar for every time I mistook Andrew Johnson (1986-1869) for Andrew Jackson (aka “Old Hickory”, 1829-1837) while writing and editing all three books, I'd have a nice little nest-egg. One way or the other, Johnson comes a little more directly into the narrative in A Tree—I vaguely discuss his failed impeachment, have him conferring with Allan Pinkerton via ectoplasmic avatar, and note that his admission of Nebraska to the Union makes him the sort of guy who might be okay with signing off on a new state, in theory. Given the timing, he seems like a President who'd understand that in a world where hexes can suddenly cooperate, matters hexalogical would really have to be put on the table from now on, along with whatever arcanistric measures could be raised to deal with them. (I also make him a bit of a racist, for which I apologize, especially if it wasn't true.)

Tomorrow: K and L!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Meme of Alphabet, Part 4

G is for—Gangsters

When I first got the idea which would become the Hexslinger Series, I was deeply in love with Martin Scorsese's epic Gangs of New York. I did scads of historical research, wrote a bunch of fanfiction you can probably find pretty easily (as usual, I was almost the only person doing so), and started putting together a completely different book that I will probably return to, though not immediately. But nothing caught fire. Maybe it was the scope, or the fact that you need to be far more careful in terms of metropolitan geography than you do when writing a Western, because in the latter case it's an option to just claim the interiors of Arizona and New Mexico are mainly empty space unless you tell the audience different. By the time I got to A Rope of Thorns, however, I had to come up with some new hexes, and my mind defaulted to Gotham. Thus was born dapper pimp Three-Fingered Hank Fennig, late of the Glorious Know-Nothing Order of Native Americans, along with his three lovely Missuses, Clodagh Killeen, Eulalia Parr and Roberta Schemerhorne. Fennig, being well-used to gang dynamics, supports Rook and Ixchel overtly while studying them for flaws he can press on if needed, especially her; his true interest is in the city Ixchel sees mainly as a flabby meat by-product of her quest to restore the Mexica Fourth World, not least because it's the only place he and massively pregnant Clo could ever raise their probably-hexacious baby without being afraid they'd be tempted to suck it dry. And in A Tree of Bones, these considerations only become stronger, making Fennig and company a surprisingly integral part of the plot.

H is for—Hex City

Like I said before, storytelling is alchemical; nothing stays the same, and really, nothing should. So while I'm not entirely sure if I knew from the start that I was going to shatter one of the key assumptions of the Hexslinger-'verse by the end of A Book of Tongues—the idea that “mages don't meddle” because there are simply no circumstances, ever, under which they might be able to work together—when A Rope of Thorns rolled around, I found myself in the unenviable position of having to figure out how a place like New Aztectlan/Hex City would actually function. Who would seek it out, and why; how would it be constructed; what would be the division of labour; how would the mechanics of the Ixchel-imposed Oath be enacted. I had had the impression that there were occasionally circumstances under which hexes would agree to work together, but that those were few and far between because at any moment, either of those involved might turn on the other. But once the Oath itself was sketched out—in A Rope—I began to see the ways that it might be modified or twisted to fit a bunch of different circumstances. Thus the “problem” of both Hex City—ie, the fact that its inhabitants want it to survive more than they want its founder to triumph—and how the Oath might be translated out into the wider world of hexes who don't happen to be New Aztectlites becomes front-and-centre in A Tree of Bones, with hopefully interesting results.

Tomorrow: I and J!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Meme of Alphabet, Part 3

E is for—Enemy

It took me almost the whole of A Book of Tongues to decide that I was, in fact, going to bring Tezcatlipoca (the Smoking Mirror, Mexica Trickster god of magic) on board as Ixchel's not-exactly-opposite number, but once I did, things fell into place with surprising ease. One thing I've learned to trust about my process is that just as things always change alchemically while making their way from here to there, what we originally think are mistakes are sometimes plot twists in disguise. So when I realized—as a reviewer recently kindly pointed out—that I'd initially mistaken the Mayan goddess Ixchel (goddess of the moon, of the rainbow, of childbirth) for the Mayan goddess Ixtab (She of the Rope, Mother of Hanged Men), what occurred to me as a way to “fix” this assumption was the idea of Ixchel having “eaten” Ixtab (along with a bunch of other Mexica and Mayan goddesses), consuming her essence vampirically, the way living hexes do with other hexes. With that in mind, it turns out that “The Enemy”—or T-Cat, as I call him—is already acknowledged by Mexica mythology to be four gods in one: Xipe Totec (god of corn, of new growth, Our Lord the Flayed One), Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent or God Who Dies), Tezcatlipoca (as she wrote) and Huitzilopochtli (god of royalty, of lightning, of war)...and by the end of A Rope of Thorns, we'd seen all these aspects represented except one. So Chess Pargeter, having completed his Xipe Totec cycle with a self-sacrifice so huge it brings an entire town back to life, enters A Tree of Bones as a man divided: His soul is stuck downstairs in the Underworld, while his body struts around being occupied by Tezcatlipoca-as-Huitzilopochtli, blue skin, Red Weed underpants, lightning-snake whip and all. So the Enemy becomes the real enemy, one more wild card added to the deck, both on and off the battlefield; untrustworthy by nature, but always interesting. Just the way a Trickster should be.

F is forFaith

Like a lot of people not raised with any sort of religion, I find Fundamentalist Christianity both fascinating and slightly scary. But seeing how I'd already had Nazarene preacher-turned-Sheriff Mesach Love rampaging 'cross the landscape as a secondary villain in A Rope, I felt it was high time for someone of similar philosophical leanings to be developed as a character who was complicated and human yet essentially positive. This, then, is why Mesach's widow Sophronia Love starts A Tree having already assumed the position of Bewelcome township's unofficial Joan of Arc; by showing how her compassion, sense of responsibility, and rectitude counterbalance the ruthlessness of ostensible “good guy” Allan Pinkerton, we retroactively get some idea not only what kind of man Love must once have been and why the Bewelcomites followed them out here in the first place, but why faith and devotion were such driving forces in settling the West generally. In the Hexslinger-'verse, of course, faith—a powerful, deliberate commitment to something “higher”—can be used both to actively neutralize hexation or (if the faith itself allows this, as with Grandma's Diné traditions) support and enhance its effects; the parallels between the commitment of true faith, and the commitment of the binding Hex City Oath, are completely deliberate, eventually playing out for Sophy in an intensely personal and shocking way...

Tomorrow: G and H!

A Meme of Alphabet, Part 2

C is for—Colour (People of)

Since A Book of Tongues was frankly a bit of a sausage party, in A Rope of Thorns, I began by deliberately developing at least one awesome lady character, only to watch others start spilling out of the woodwork by Act Three. And while I genuinely tried to make sure there were Native characters involved from the beginning of the story (more on this later), as well as at least some other People of Colour here and there, by the time Tree rolled around, two things were obvious: A) A lot more of said PoCs had thus far been represented as “monsters” than I felt comfortable with, overall, and B) I was also starting to find the lack of straight-up African-Americans in my own narrative disturbing, especially since it was explicitly set post-Civil War. So one decision I made before even starting the book was that if any portion of the U.S. Army was assigned to support Allan Pinkerton's war against Hex City, it would probably consist of one of those legendary Coloured Brigades like the one showcased in Edward Zwick's film Glory. This allowed me to bring in new characters such as the 13th Louisiana Regiment of Infantry (African Descent)'s commander, Captain Washford—definitely a departure from historical accuracy, I'm sad to say—and a soldier who becomes friends with Ed Morrow, Private Carver. I'm also fairly proud of a lady who calls herself Sal Followell, using that post-slavery shorthand of taking your former owner's last name, who emerges as one of the backbone mages on the Hex City Council. She's nobody's “auntie”, and knows more about the cannibal mechanics of hexation vs. hexation than some of her more idealistic comrades have ever dreamt of, so she makes a damn good devil's advocate without actually advocating for the Devil.

D is for—Diné

Like I said, I really wanted to have Native/First Nations characters from the get-go, difficult and potentially problematic as I knew that would be. In A Book of Tongues, the main representative from this group was the Diné Hataalli known as “Grandma” or “Spinner”, a devotee of the Great Spider Mother, the Weaver, the Changing Woman—sworn enemy of all Anaye, and of every hex who makes him- or herself a monster by walking the Witchery Way. One of the reasons I love writing Grandma so much is that I've tried throughout to make her as little like the Magical Native Person stereotype as possible; she's a crusty old lady, blunt and bruisingly practical, with about as little inherent respect for Stupid White (People)/Bilagaana as Gary Farmer's character Nobody from Jim Jarmusch's Acid Western Dead Man. This attitude gets her killed by the end of A Book, but being a hex, that's not the drawback it might be: She returns at the end of A Rope, and enters A Tree as a grumpy ghost trapped inside a gigantic, haphazard golem made from bone-dust. Like a lot of hexes, Grandma devoutly believes that her way/tradition is the right one, and while her ideal of Balance between natural and unnatural forces does indeed seem smart—antithetical to Ixchel's blood-soaked craziness, at any rate—part of her overall journey has always been towards the realization that she does not have all the answers, just because she has one or two. But then again, none of the hexes, or even my characters, do; the final lesson is, I suppose, that the best version of an “answer” can really only be assembled by committee.

Tomorrow: E and F!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Meme of Alphabet, Part One

It's official—May 15, 2012, is the release date for A Tree of Bones, the third and final Hexslinger Series instalment. As our blood-soaked gay porno black magic horse opera trilogy reaches its intense conclusion, meanwhile, I'm going to be counting down the days with various supplemental goodies, starting today with the beginning of a Hexslinger Alphabet Meme: Two letters per day, one concept per letter. Without further ado, then...

A is for—Arcanistry

As A Tree of Bones begins, Columbia University Doctor of Sciences Joachim Asbury—by now known colloquially as “Doc Hex”—is widely considered America's foremost expert in the relatively new field of Experimental Arcanistry. He's attained this position through the invention of Asbury's Manifold, a device which (in A Book of Tongues) finally gave non-hexacious humans the means to both identify unexpressed hexes and measure the power-fields of expressed ones by tracking the flow of “what the Celestials call ch'i” through the body. From there, the Manifold's applications have only widened: Latest-generation models can be used to deflect hexes' magic, channel it, or even momentarily suppress it, while Asbury's battlefield researches have created an entire sub-class of collared hexes who wrangle their own kind under Pinkerton Detective Agency supervision. While there's no doubt that this sort of black science may seem like the only logical weapon of choice when arrayed against the wild chaos-power of demigods like Ixchel Rainbow and her Enemy, however—plus the scarily organized “smaller” mages of Hex City itself—even Asbury has to admit that the technological learning curve has accelerated under pressure far past the point where he can predict it anymore, let alone control it. Can a full-bore magic vs. anti-magic Second Civil War be far behind?

B is for—Blood

Blood, bright-hot and flowery, is the fuel Dread Lady Ixchel's Machine runs on, the coinage that New World she wants to “bring on” will be paid for in. What's becoming clearer, however, is that the mostly-American hexes she and Reverend Rook have gathered around themselves to help Make It So are far less enchanted with the basic principle of self-sacrifice than the Mexica and Mayan flocks who once supported Ixchel's pantheon ever were. (Hell, even the Chinese and Shoshone ones don't like it much, for that matter.) As Rook notes, Americans—however hexacious in nature—are universally raised to expect to be paid for what they do and to keep what they've earned. And while they're perfectly willing to spill blood to get what they want—both their own, or that of anybody stupid enough get in their way—they also have very specific ideas about what constitutes the best use of that blood, once shed. Ixchel expects her hungers, being god-sized, to trump theirs; Rook thinks she may be fooling herself, though he isn't about to say that out loud. Not yet, anyhow.

Tomorrow: C and D!