Promoting the “Other” When You Don’t Fit the Bill

Photo by Nong Vang

Storytelling is one of the most fundamental, universal aspects of the human species. We tell stories to learn what it is to walk in someone else’s shoes. The notion that you can’t tell someone else’s story is ludicrous, and so is the idea that you can’t learn someone else’s tales. Will you tell it the same as they could? Almost assuredly not. Does that make you any less genuine in intent or depiction? No. Does it make the story any less important? Hell no.

The key is consideration versus appropriation. Empathy is critical.

Example: a character should not be included simply because they are black, or trans, or bipolar. These are aspects, not the sum. A scene should not unfold where a character enters and we are left to think, “and here is the gay character.” It’s an aspect of who they are. It may be completely unimportant to the story you are trying to tell. Yet they are there, and they should be there, with stories to engage. That story should not begin and end with their gayness, blackness, mental illness, disability, etc., but hell if each of these traits don’t affect a person’s life to varying degrees. They are important. They matter.

We’re all human. We have love lives, yes. But we also have passions. Doubts. Fears. We have quirks and faults.

It is the sum of our capabilities and failures and deeds—not the prominence or lack of any one—which makes us who we are.

It is unfathomably tricky to write outside of who you are with the care it requires, but I also fully believe that those with the power and stage to write should, as well as working to open the doors to equal voices throughout, in the meantime, speak for those who can’t. To do so, they must work as hard as possible to be authentic. One of the main points of writing is, after all, to tell the stories of people we may not recognize, so we might better understand everyone.

The story is not about you, but it can be about people, as much as ideas and events.

The word of the day is nuance, and it should accompany any scribbles. Yet it is especially important when including the traditionally underrepresented – particularly if you aren’t one of them. I dare say it’s more important now than ever, as the world slides into an age of illiberalism and authoritarianism, lashing out at one and all seen as “the other.”

There are some out there who do take umbrage with people who write outside their element. Whether it is an extension of the belief that writing is experience and nothing more, or  addressing things beyond your own experience is disingenuous, or even using the idea as a convenient way to stifle inclusion, the fact is the uncertainty shows one important thing: it’s not easy. As such, if you’re not a member of the community you’re writing about, you must be amazingly respectful.

Note I don’t say “should.” I say “must.” Treat your subjects as any less than human for an instant, any sense of caricature, and that’s it. You’re done. That’s all she wrote. Pack up the bags and head home, because you just undid everything you were trying to do.

To those who say don’t do it, I say: as long as you recognize your space, your power, and your limitations, approach it from that. Be open to feedback, be prepared to accept criticism, but most importantly, work hard to do it right and open a space and opportunity for the voiceless to come forward.

To those who fear appropriation, I certainly can’t blame them, but I urge just as much caution. After all, to silence ourselves entirely for fear of facing appropriation anywhere, we lose chances left, right and center to learn about the myriad identities which make up our world. More people should be able to write and engage with who they are and what that means—but people should also be able to think and opine outside of who they are. Fiction lets us do that, and sometimes it does it wrong, horribly wrong, but the best writer acknowledges this when it happens and uses it as an opportunity for serious discussion.

So what it all comes down to is this: nuance is good. Engagement is good. One needs to do it without being insincere, but they do need to do it. All of us have a responsibility as creators and influencers to do better.

It is our responsibility to give voice to the voiceless.


Beyond Limbo

Photo by Nicolas Jehly

Somewhere north of nowhere, past a road fueled by rumor, where merchants but rarely travel and music seems to stretch on forever beneath the sky, a woman walks. In her wake is a train of sycophants—those who traveled here just to seek her, or those who were left here to whither under an endless cosmic array of appetites no belly could contain.

Yet come she does. Out on the parched dunes, far beyond the oldest ruins. The dunes, after all, cannot be bothered to rest on foundations. They eat and eat, savage as wolves and greedy as leeches, gorging on wind and earth alike. They know no names, unlike the hills they consume, and neither does she. She shuns those who ask one of her. She slaughters those who demand one of her.

Such is her right.

Her silence has as much to say as a thousand words sputtered from drunken men. It has turned folk to contemplation, deep in the caves where faith has become a palace only as great as the heart.

“You will only hear her on the full moon,” a caravanner whispers after drinks one night. “She will wear a crown of peacock feathers, and you will know her by the beat of a pellet drum.”

He has never heard it himself, of course. Those who do rarely choose to leave it behind.

North beyond the last tavern, north beyond the final well, north so far the rivers have turned back for fear of being forgotten, the world parches. Wind grinds the skin to pulp, wearing all to gold. Even prayer beads bleach, a bead for each prayer the desert does not hear.

At this point, there is no turning back.

When the desert wears the sun for a mane and walks between rest and sleep, the world loses meaning. A bell that rings, rings on forever, inviting the rain, calling to wisdom, and receiving no answer. In such a moment, it is as wise as any sage.

All that is left to do is to feel the tapping of a heart’s demands. It counts the seconds, minutes, hours, inexorably pressing toward the moment.

A hand closes its fist about the blazing heart of the world and she appears.

Her drumming is a conjured echo of the bell. She is as unquiet as the howl of the wind, and as ancient. Wrapped in skins and cloths dyed as if by iron, she swirls through the contours of her starlight hammered realm. Incantations pour from beauty glowing with the alchemical crescendo of the world, and for once, there is no deceit to be sensed.

About her the hungry ghosts dance in an endless parade, without malevolence or concern. Every strum of the woman’s hands sign words for them, sign voices for them, and it can be felt all the way to that tapping of the heart. It becomes the beat of it, wailing in tune.

For a tick, all is reborn and unborn, a hollowed out train of eyes pouring from the darkness. It stains the world. There is no escaping it. Only then does the drum settle and the woman cup her palm instead to the distant mountain. Her other hand hovers, as if waiting to clap it—but the sound never comes.

It is at this moment one might bear witness to the henna birds on her hands. They circle her, rising into the clouds of her garments, and one cannot be sure where they end and she begins. Other stories tell of men and women that can become birds that fly and fly until they find their hearts’ desire, somewhere in the green that exists beyond the sand. This is the birds’ favorite song when they fly.

Tears track the woman’s face, and she begins to call to ignorance.

“Leave me!” she cries. “Be not shackled by your lust and your hate and your pain. There is peace beyond the limbo. There is magic yet to be found in the emptiness of existence. There is a silhouette of a cage just beyond a rainbow. Tears will rust it. You would break it.”

From the unborn expanse, the ghosts mewl until no line can be found in the sand. The woman sinks, drifting through fog and silence, to the finest dab of dew on the ground. In this light, her garments are a prism, and the faint slants of light make her polychromatic. It just so happens the gesture is a bow to the full moon.

There is nothing for it but to bow with her. The gesture scatters and compels, until there is no chasm between the world and its ghosts. She looks up on approach, waiting for the hiss of self-interest.

But the perch is empty. Love has made another summit, somewhere closer to earth.

Dreams from the Lunar Sea

Photo by Uroš Jovičić on Unsplash

She had always wanted to live on the moon. People called it barren, but in its dryness, its isolated streets, she saw endless possibility—untouched, untainted. When she got there, she walked the streets every night, reborn under the reversed sky. She drank in the scents of abandonment and stale, recycled air.

Somewhere off of Main Street and Liberty, though, she caught herself absorbing the rotating waves of the blue satellite above her head. People looked at her oddly, called her out of place. And it was just so cold, here. The moon disappeared from her dreams one night, leaving her in darkness.

It wasn’t so long before she began to dream of living on the earth.

(Happy National Science Fiction Day, everybody!)

Those Hits, They Keep On Coming

Dedicated to a Changing World, just for the blog:

Photo by Aimee Vogelsang

The first hit makes him think of hands. Hands like small stones, weighing down his pockets.

The second hit makes him think of eyes. Eyes that never let him see them cry, because of what that might do to him.

The third hit makes him think of lips. Lips that drink alone to forget, breathe out bloodless clouds into the silent air between them.

The fourth hit makes him think of hearts. Broken hearts that end him, piece by piece, for all the lies his lips told, all the secrets his eyes held back, and all the pain his hands brought.

Microfiction: Spreading Roots

Daniel has never been much of a gardener. Yet he knows what his lover likes. He clears and tills a space near the back fence, out of the way, where people might miss him between all the pot plants and strawberries (the two go well together). When he pauses to breathe and to sweat, he can feel the tingles where she kissed him, like poison ivy spreading, out in the national forest. It’s evening before he can plant her seed, but it doesn’t take long after that.

Drunk on pollen, he could wait all night. Her vines scrabble in the dirt, inch by inch, awaiting their crown of flowers. A dryad can sprout wherever her tree takes root.

Book Birthday for The Company of the Eagles!

So this here is one of those good news, bad news situations. I won’t beat around the bush: publishing efforts on my two outstanding standalone novels have stalled. It’s why I have been so quiet on that front since making all those less than subtle announcements a few months back.

EaglesCoverEbookWhile I find my footing in literary limbo, though, it’s my pleasure to announce that on Monday–yes, this Monday, October 2–I will be releasing a collection of fantasy shorts set in days well before the events of my Haunted Shadows novels. Which means that the month of Spooktober will begin with sword duels, rabid gryphons and some good old fashioned bounty hunting, care of: THE COMPANY OF THE EAGLES–the first part of a two part collection. There will be six short stories in total, though their lengths vary significantly, with the second collection of seven to follow in early 2018, if everything goes according to plan.

It’s only going to be coming out in ebook form, though, at least for the foreseeable future. That has less to do with an aversion to ye olde classic forms–I have enough bookshelves to disprove THAT–and more to do with number crunching. Nearly all my previous sales have come from ebook purchases, leaving little reason for a print run at this time. If any of you are interested, though, write me, and I’ll see what I can do.

Additionally, in honor of the release, the first book in the aforementioned series (The Hollow March) will also see a price drop to $0.99 for the first week! If you’ve been waiting to pick it up, on the fence, or just want to be able to grab two books for less than two dollars, now is definitely the time.

And remember, if you want to help my little book get out into the world, spread the word anyway you can! Every RT, share, review or chit-chat at the local drinking establishment helps.

I hope you all enjoy! I’ll post links when the book goes live.

The Art of Healing

(I’m feeling energetic and adventurous for both the weekend and for the newly minted summer, so here, say I, is a most short tale of the fantastical persuasion. Tattoos, rejuvenation and dogs follow. Put it up on your phone or tablet, wander outside, and have yourself a picnic of words!)

Photo by Jake Davies on Unsplash

Kalesh was somewhat out of his element here. The cool tiles beneath his feet were the closest he had come to home in months, a relief from the pungent, sticky weather waiting to clobber the first stride out the door. Still, it seemed a welcome oppression compared to the utter silence of this room. Stillness was an art he had never perfected and never wished to learn.

Back home, in the well-preserved confines of his native lands, there was never a chance for silence. Everything was about the people—they flooded the air with smells, packed broad streets, filled waves with cobbled ships, ate the trees which hemmed them in, and spat out the ringing tunes of war. Silence, for them, was the demesne of death, and Kalesh’s people spent their whole lives wielding or fleeing from that. They had no interest in rooming with it.

He breathed in the air of Ha Tram Kas. Every now and then, he thought he could still hear it: the steady trickle of droplets that were his life, dribbling out onto the cobbles. Months ago, it had almost brought his steady descent into death’s realm. Morning after morning, he still woke with the phantom pains sorry men said would haunt him until that final day.

Kalesh was missing an arm. It was the final memento of a warlord’s life—a mockery of the path he had always taken to be the only truth. After he had refused to die, his lord had thanked him for his service, and kindly let him go. There was no need for a one-armed warrior in his world.

The tap, tap, tap of a bamboo stick roused him.

A dozen other heads did not so much as lift. They were quiet, complacent—trained in a different path. At their fore, the room’s focus swished her stick around, but remained otherwise jovial, focused, but serene. Everyone here awaited her attentions. Though Kalesh had but limited practice with the language, he had picked up enough to know: not all had come for spiritual reasons; for some, this was nothing more than an expression of art, but all gave the act a spiritual reverence. Their focus was a monk, though as far from one as Kalesh had ever known.

She was young, and fit, and had she been born over the mountains, her parents would have been working ever so hard to see she kept the bloodline going. Here, that did not even seem to enter into consideration.

The bamboo stick rose and fell in fluid motions, dotting skin wherever it dipped. Word on the street was that it was an act of unity between man and earth—that each drop was distilled from some piece of nature, and that by its embrace and a bit of magical aid from the crafter, man was brought closer to nature. Depending on whom he asked, that took the form of protection from violence or spirits, good luck, or healing. It was the latter which caught his interest.

It had also been something Kalesh dismissed as rank superstition, not so long before. A chance meeting with a traveler in the mountains between worlds had changed all that. At the time, months spent wandering wherever his feet carried him meant Kalesh had been down to his last coins and looking for a proper place to drink even those away. Followed by a rock from which to throw himself.

The traveler had stopped him. Literally held him down and forced him to see reason.

“Life takes many forms,” that man had said. “This is not one.”

The man had been covered head to toe in tattoos, all black and white, lending him a balanced, if terrifying complexion that seemed suitably inhuman. He wore no armor, though an axe dangled from his hip.

“I, too, am a soldier. Battles bled me. I have wept with fear at the darkest of thoughts.” His back, Kalesh was shown, was little more than a rictus of scars. By all accounts, he should hardly have been able to walk, let alone clobber him. “Since I took this ink upon my flesh, I have not bled. I have not known a blade’s weight. I am safe as a man can be, led to a path devoid of death.”

It took some time to make a pattern of the scars, but as he had sobered up, Kalesh became aware of the colors linking them, ink mingling with pink flesh to form a bizarre geometric pattern that shifted with each crease of the traveler’s skin. It was like a series of round circles each within the other, all tipped by eight distinct spokes. It dazzled.

“Not all paths are ended by blood. Ha Tram Kas reveals this.”

The man’s words had led him to this temple, which, as it turned out, was a place of pilgrimage in Tajalik—the land which he now walked. Unlike the array of needles and brands which accompanied the art in his own land, Kalesh felt scandalized by the wooden stick the monk waved around here. It seemed so…primitive. Yet if it would bring him bring him back to his calling, if something in the inks or the process could make him the man he had used to be, Kalesh would put up with anything these backward savages could muster.

“Kalesha ka?”

His head jerked at the bumbling of his name. The person who had knelt beside the monk a moment ago was shuffling out a back way, eyes forward, not meandering. Many had made the point clear to Kalesh: ritual was strong here. One did not look back when the art was done, for in the art was transcendence. A path forward. To look back was to insult the art, the artist, and cling to the past at a time when they were supposed to be reveling in change.

Somewhat nervously, but not unsteadily—he had months of practice at moving now without the extra limb—Kalesh inched forward across the floor. As he looked across the sea of souls between him and the monk, he felt a moment’s hesitation. Sweat actually tickled the back of his neck. He cursed himself for a fool, to come so far only to doubt now. No one looked up. No one examined the foreigner in a strange land. By all reason, he should feel honored this temple was giving him the opportunity to participate in something so far beyond his ken.

The monk was steady at his approach. She smiled absently and extended a hand, though not to shake.

“Kalesha ka?” She repeated. “Khun ca nang kab pohm wela hurushimi?”

As he had seen countless others do before him, day after day, Kalesh took this opportunity to touch his head to the floor two times, grunting only softly at the effort involved. It was supposed to be a moment of prayer and final contemplation. The woman watched it all.

When he was on steady feet again, he met that gaze and inclined his head.

“I don’t…”

He started, thought better of it, and bulled forward in the woman’s native tongue. The smile widened slightly as he did, until it touched her whole face. Kalesh blushed at that, for he could feel the laughter behind it. This was a fool’s idea.

The woman’s voice switched tack with seeming ease. “Would sit with me, friend?” She asked in his tongue. Startled, Kalesh was certain he gawked, but if the woman noticed, she had the grace to say nothing. The monk gestured to the pillowed step settled beside her bare knees and he, swallowing the last of his doubts, obliged. Kalesh leaned over, back facing the monk, and waited for the bamboo stick to puncture his skin.

Carefully, she pulled the tunic from his back. Then she unhooked his belt and shimmied it down his waist just so. He started to stir with offense at the latter, but either sensing this, or having no need of further descent, the woman ceased the effort. Then her hands floated above him by mere inches—enough to warm, but not close enough to make any appreciable impact on his skin. Kalesh shuffled, restless, uncertain of the purpose of this.

“Bare,” the monk observed. “Tell, what bring you Ha Tram Kas?”

For a moment, he weighed the virtues of lying. His eyes flicked down and settled on his missing forearm, and he reckoned there wasn’t much point.

“I have spent…months with this wound,” he said haltingly, raising his useless limb for emphasis. “I have been told Ha Tram Kas holds the means for revival. Without my hand, I am nothing. A warrior with no weapon to wield. I would have you work your magic, to make me whole.”

The hands moving up his back stilled, hovering. “We are no doctors,” the monk observed.

“I met a man.” He swallowed. “On the road. He told me—he said that he had been wounded, before. That he too had thought that he would die, but Ha Tram Kas helped him overcome. He showed me a marvelous tattoo—”

The woman nodded and her hands fell away.

“Turn so shoulder toward me,” she said. He started to turn his good arm that way, but she shook her head and tapped the other. “Turn.” So he turned, letting his arm hang pointlessly at his side. Tiles dug into him. It made him shiver.

Unlike in his own nation, Kalesh had no control here. There, a man pointed and the artist obeyed. Here, the pilgrims had no means to choose their tattoo’s design or location. It was implied, well before they had ever been allowed to step into the temple, that as this act had no cost, the sole burden upon them was to release the notion that they had control.

When the bamboo stick hissed, Kalesh flinched despite himself. He followed its arc, like a scholar’s quill, as it flicked across his arm. Blood welled at its passing and a strange warmth flushed beneath the thin wound. After each passing, it dipped into a darkening bowl of translucent liquid, then intova separate bowl filled with the actual ink. It had a slightly green tint to it, that ink, putting him in mind of grass waving beneath the spring sun.

In one of the local bars, he had heard that each monk made their own blend of ink. What exactly they used was thus a matter of some conjecture. Some spoke of nuts or berries. Others referenced oils and even venom. All had spoken of it like a stream, though, gently pressed into selected ridges of the flesh. Some surprise came, then, when he saw the monk’s bamboo stick sprouted a grooved metal spike at its end, more accustomed to a stiletto than a workshop.

When he had first arrived, Kalesh had been instructed to bring an offering of incense and local flowers—purple, and rather fragrant themselves. He smelled the former, cinnamon sweet, as the blade whisked lines down his shoulder. He was dizzy by this point, but still had the sense of mind to wonder when the monk had time to retrieve his offering.

The stick punctured him, but never delved too deep. It was exact in its measurements, and though it was difficult to make out through the initial press of blood, Kalesh watched as a dual swirl of infinities began to take on a blade-like shape. At the end of every flourish, the stick tapped the right side of his back, as if to claim his attention.

The monk worked quickly, without pause. She had been doing this for hours, but she showed no sign of fatigue. Even concealed as her lips were behind a cloth façade, Kalesh realized she was lovely, though not in any traditional sense. It was something in the ease she exuded.

She whispered something as the clack of the stick on the cobbles announced its journey’s completion. Kalesh tried to catch a proper look at the end result, but she had leaned over him, and with a gentle effort, blew on the settling ink. Already it dyed the skin. As it healed, he knew, it would overtake the body’s natural knitting.

Out of habit, he flexed his nonexistent hand, but felt nothing answer him. It was impossible to keep the disappointment at bay. In truth, he hadn’t known what to expect.

Desperation made strange dens in the mind’s eye.

“I have settled spirit in this,” the monk said, after. She settled back on her haunches and stretched—the most human gesture he had seen her make over hours of labor. “In time you forget.”

He should have risen and made himself scarce, but in this moment, Kalesh could not work up the effort for ritual. He swallowed hard, staring.

“Does something confuse, friend?”

There was no bile in the asking.

Kalesh replied, “I expected the ghost might leave me. Or my hand might…” He breathed hard with exhaustion. “I do not know what I expected.”

Gentle fingers settled against his elbow, stirring a different sort of warmth. This, too, was something he had not felt in many long moons.

“It is a making thing. All life is making. Is possibility. You must see.”

“And the healing?”

“Like ink,” she said. “It stirs within.”

There was no religious ecstasy, no all-consuming trance. He rolled to his feet, tugging up the bundle his shirt had made while craning to study his tattoo. It was something he had seen etched into a road outside a burned village, not far from this place. When he had inquired, a merchant had told him it was meant to be a talisman against “the black magic of the soul.”

It was not a soldier’s purview to understand. Just now, though, he thought he grasped the meaning. Overhead, the temple’s polished stones yawned into the heat beyond. Nothing echoed. He looked skyward, closed his eyes, and put the stone firmly beneath his sole again.


(P.S. Happy Bring Your Dog To Work Day!)


Alter-Egos, Stories and even some Scifaiku

I’m typing this while waiting for PR reps to get back to me in regards to my day job. They are nice enough people, chatty and warm with their affectations, even though they know I’m a journalist. You never know these days.

After I finish up with them and the day’s work, I intend to return to a different sort of work–chiefly, writing my next novel. It’s shaping up to involve Dryads, but without any of the lust and affection we seem to eager to put upon them. Given my nature, it will likely turn into a tale of man’s relentless assault upon nature. We’ll see how it goes.

It’s been a while. A lot of blank wordpress pages between now and the last. I thought it was about time to cast out an update into the world, lest I crawl out of the void at some later date, to the sounds of people saying, “My god! He’s so disheveled!” I am, but I assure you that’s just from hat hair. Mostly.

18698548_1381531808601184_7092780631146215060_nThere have been some big developments since last we spoke.

For starters, May brought out a 17-syllable salute to sci-fi in the form of Scifaikuest (which I am told could be pronounced Sci-fi-quest, but which I prefer to pronounce as Sci-fi-coo-ist, because it sounds more like the sci-fi-est of haiku), an Alban Lake produced magazine for which I was selected to be one of the newest contributors. It’s sci-fi in its shortest form, but quite a few portraits can still be painted in such few strokes.

Then, to kick off June and the summer heat, I dribbled a few words onto the page for Westminster College’s Ellipsis…Literature and Art Journal! This short bit of fiction is about the beauty and unifying humanity of art, told through the eyes of a graffiti artist faced with a demolition deadline.

18835965_1387757447978620_8084501619355453303_nI’m still here shopping around some more out there fantasy works, but you may also notice a doppelganger of mine hanging out in the land of Tweets and Honey…He even has representation!

Do not be alarmed. He does, in fact, wear my face. Sometimes, you have to go in-chris-nito. I’ll share more details if that becomes less of an “in the works” thing and more of a, “BIG NEWS, EVERYONE!” event. I’ll bring the sparklers in that case.

William Shakespeare: Grimdark by any Other Name

Right now, the genre folks have taken to calling “Grimdark” is all the literary and popular rage. One need look no further than Cable TV. As people the world over continuously decry the gore, guts, and sexual violence inherent in programs like Hannibal, True Detective, and the televised adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—“Game of Thrones”—(yet continue to watch it unrepentantly, in numbers yearly growing), and the awards roll out, the global lust for the more, shall we say, “gritty realist” tones to fiction and fantasy has never been more apparent.

Romanticism? Eat your heart out.

a691ee0ace063a9602d851f5c25825e4_yousaytomesetblackfires-meme-hannibal_500-281.jpegSorry about that one, Hannibal.

Yet even as people boldly proclaim the genre as a rebuttal of the age-old idealism of more classic fiction, a boy that loves a bard must take a moment to turn these modern cross bearers to the classics as well. See, Grimdark is, in truth, nothing new. Writers like Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin and R. Scott Bakker might be heaping fuel on the flames, but the darkness has been broached before, by an age old master. We don’t tend to associate him with the term, but I can assure: William Shakespeare—poet, playwright, bane of many a high schooler’s days—was bringing darkness to fiction well before any dragons were lighting up a TV screen.

Writer Genevieve Valentine has called the Grimdark phenomenon “shorthand for a subgenre of fantasy fiction that claims to trade on the psychology of those sword-toting heroes, and the dark realism behind all those kingdom politics.”

The Bard is often remembered for his flowery speeches and sharp wit. Why, many are those who can turn to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, and bawdily recall such gems as: “Though she be but little, she is fierce!” There’s no denying it was an amusing, fairy filled and silly little play, utterly ridiculous by even modern standards. Yet if one looks at a few of the events even in this comedy of yore, I think those focusing on feistiness would be a little offset.

A handful of characters are essentially drugged and made to fall in love with others against their will. Another character, by the name of Hermia, is not only threatened with death for failure to marry the character Demetrius, but threatened with rape for following the fellow in the woods over the course of the play. It kind of gets lost in all the silliness, but that’s pretty dark, wouldn’t you say?

Then there is the case of Hamlet. Madness, mistaken stabbings, poisoning, suicide, and an ending that can only be described as a bloodbath of epic proportions are not only the order of the day, they’re the very things which drive the plot. In King Lear? The Earl of Gloucester is blinded on stage, and I don’t mean by sudden, painless, divine inspiration.

Yet if one really wishes to prove the case of the Grimdark to a modern enthusiast, one need look no further than one of Shakespeare’s presently most overlooked and least understood plays: The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. I say “presently” because Titus Andronicus was actually quite the hit back in Shakespeare’s day.

Titus Andronicus is, truly, darkness for darkness’s sake.

In true bardic fashion, allow me to build the hype a bit. People like to read juicy reviews, right? Think of these as the back cover blurbs. The writer Samuel Johnson, about 250 years ago, denounced the play as being little more than a “barbarity of spectacles and the general massacre which are exhibited can scarcely be conceived.” Following in his shoes 100 years later, German poet and translator August Wilhelm Schlegel labeled it “framed according to a false idea of the tragic, which by an accumulation of cruelties and enormities, degenerated into the horrible.” Both meant their labels in terms of scathing rebukes, but it does give one a feel for the level of depravity they were dealing with therein.

Titus Andronicus is, truly, darkness for darkness’s sake. Politics and revenge drive the beast onward. Set in Rome, and being entirely fantasy—no, really, the Bard may have liked to draw from historical sources for many of his works, but this one was off the rails—it follows the namesake general in his triumphant return to Rome, Goths defeated and all the world at his fingertips. Which is to say: the beginning was the high point of the whole piece. From there, Titus makes the error in judgement of bringing the Queen of the Goths back to Rome in chains, sacrificing many of her sons along the way, and in turn, deciding to get himself involved in the drama of imperial politics, choosing one brother over another for the august spot at the helm of the Empire. Unfortunately, that brother also becomes besotted with Tamora, that captive Queen of the Goths, and marries her, while she thirsts for nothing but revenge against Titus.

Did I mention the brother that wasn’t picked also happens to be in love with Titus’s daughter? Silly me.

It’s a downward spiral from start to finish. The level of anarchy and bloodshed this play reaches is in excess—at times, one might even call it downright absurd. Fighting is a fairly standard facet of Shakespearean plays, but nobody’s just biting thumbs at anyone in this piece. At one point, two of Tamora’s sons not only rape Titus’s daughter, they then cut off her hands and tongue so she can’t reveal who did it to her. If that doesn’t sound like a Game of Thrones scene, or something from 13 Assassins, then I don’t think we’re on the same page of darkness. Throughout this play murder, mutilation, and people being baked into pies (ala Sweeney Todd) are all legitimate and commonplace grotesqueries abundantly inflicted upon the plot. There is not an act in the play in which someone is not introduced to the afterlife. It’s so commonplace one could be forgiven for mistaking the play for an American slasher film. One becomes dulled to the violence, because it starts to feel like gore for gore’s sake. It becomes a set piece.

Shakespeare was never one to shy from violence in his works, but for most, the piece stirred the violence, rather than violence necessarily stirring the piece. Titus Andronicus was at once an offspring of bloody history and a forebear to another age, a sort of degenerate toss to the days of the Coliseum, when folk liked to indulge in nothing more than pure, unadulterated violence. It dispensed with the grand oratory for which many often recognize the Bard, the philosophy, the black comedy, and drove itself forward largely on action. In other words, it removed itself utterly from the romanticism we more often associate with Shakespeare’s name, surrendering to what he no doubt hoped would be an appealing grab at a more worldly public opinion. Bear in mind, bear baiting and public executions were the order of the day in his time.

Of course, between now and then, that public attitude has gone through a few shifts. Elizabethan became Victorian, Free Love turned to Cold War and the Lost Generation twisted and turned into the Millennial Generation, and so on and so forth. What might be taken for crude in one generation becomes simple reality in another, and comical in still another; what was, is forgotten over time, cast aside, only to be revived and renewed in another age. So it is with so many motifs of life, so it is with literary trends.

Romantic chivalry is not the state of the modern world. Rather, we live in a period where aggression and violence has once more come under scrutiny. No longer hidden under a rug, with folk pretending it simply does not exist in any meaningful sense, it is met head on. Thus the resurrection of Grimdark, albeit under the rather shadowy new title. As reviewer Liz Bourke noted, Grimdark is essentially “a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness’s sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action…as either impossible or futile.” Grimdark, then, is an answer to the desensitized, and were plays like Titus Andronicus truly any different? Crank up the CGI, make liberal with the acting bug, and it would fit right in with the modern aesthetic of media.

Cue Frank Underwood slapping the desk with his “FU” rings.