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Night Watch: The Gothic Noir of Sergei Lukyanenko (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 4)

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Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series is an example of a sub-genre I call “gothic noir.” Gothic noir combines the imagery of film noir- its gritty realism, its down-on-their-luck characters, moral ambiguity, and sense of fatalism- with the supernatural themes and concepts of horror fiction. As the result naturally involves placing the mythic in a modern and streetwise context, pretty much any gothic noir would also be mythorealist by default:

 

The world of noir is already a horrifying place- people are accused of crimes they didn’t commit, but then again they can’t be sure they’re really innocent; the past is an inescapable force that makes choices irrelevant and true freedom impossible; no statement can be taken at face value and love leads almost inevitably to betrayal. In such a world there is no escape and little chance of survival… Some writers and filmmakers have taken this concept further, introducing elements of supernatural horror to noir’s grimly romantic world, or placing archetypal noir characters in a horror setting… This borderland dates back to the beginning of the noir style… Despite this history of overlap between the styles, this borderland has only just begun to be explored. Noir’s no-escape mindset would seem to be an ideal match for the darkness of horror fiction. There’s a lot more exploration to be done. (From the article “Gothic Noir” on the Noir Originals website)

 

At the time that I wrote these words for Noir Originals, I didn’t feel that most of the available work in this sub-genre had lived up to its potential. A great deal more gothic noir has been published since then under the label of “urban fantasy,” and most of it has been conspicuously unimaginative- “Sam Spade vs. Dracula” would about sum it up, with a number of equally dull variations such as a private eye who happens to be a werewolf or a witch or an escapee from Hell.

 

But then there is Night Watch. In the first volume of Sergei Lukyanenko’s tetralogy, Anton Gorodetsky is a low-level mage in the employment of the Night Watch, a kind of police force of the magical world. His job is to monitor Dark Others (vampires, witches and the like) to make sure they aren’t violating the ancient Treaty that governs the Cold War between Dark and Light. Naturally the Dark Others have a Day Watch to police the Light Others, and the machiavellian plotting and counter-plotting between the rival agencies provides the primary conflict in the series.

 

The eternal struggle between Dark and Light is nothing new- not only is it the oldest cliche in fantasy fiction, it was also the basis of the Zoroastrian and Manichean religions, as well of the Bogomil and Cathar heresies- but Lukyanenko has no intention of letting things remain that straightforward. Our hero, Anton Gorodetsky, is not initially very good at his job, but he does have a strong moral center- something you might assume that all the Light Others would have, but then you would be wrong.

 

It turns out that the Light Others feed on the pleasant and happy emotions of ordinary humans, draining them for magical power and thus leaving them depressed and lonely. The Dark Others feed on the negative emotions, with the result that contact with a Dark Other makes you feel better. On the other hand, the joy that the Light Others steal from you will return even stronger, as will the sorrow the Dark Others steal. The Light Others help you in the end, but they make you feel bad in the short term, while the Dark Others are the reverse. Both classes of Others are essentially parasitic, depending on humans for magical energy.

 

The Dark Others are nihilists, believing in sociopathic selfishness as their only philosophy. The Light Others are idealists, believing that they can create the perfect world if only the Dark Others would stop interfering. Communism and Nazism? Creations of the Light Others, subsequently corrupted by the Dark Others to prevent their victory. Joan of Arc, on the other hand, was a Dark Other. The Dark Others include creatures such as vampires and werewolves that prey on the living by their very nature. Not all of them are malicious, however, and some are capable of love and kindness. The witch Alisa Donnikova in the second novel of the series, Day Watch, is doomed by her love for Zabulon, the Day Watch commander, and even more so by her love for a Night Watch agent whom she fails to recognize as her enemy.

 

Many of the Night Watch agents- particularly the commanding officers- have become so morally corrupted by centuries of warfare, manipulation and compromise, that it is impossible to describe them as “the good guys” and the Day Watch as “the bad guys.” Rather, there is a growing sense that the whole thing is a sham, an artificial structure in which the only real difference between the Watches is the difference between the wolf and the shepherd- which, to a sheep being fattened for slaughter, is an academic distinction. Night Watch operative Anton Gorodetsky must navigate this treacherous world to the best of his ability, seeking not only to do his job but to retain his soul. In tackling morally significant questions with a serious attitude, Lukyanenko’s work stands on a different level than virtually everything else in the gothic noir category.

 

Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

 

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$2.99 Kindle Edition

The Unbeheld’s Many Mansions: The Fiction of Clive Barker (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 3)

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Clive Barker is usually described as a horror writer, but that isn’t really accurate. This description has stuck with him because of the Books of Blood, the uneven but sometimes awe-inspiring collection of short horror fiction that made him famous. He also created the Cenobites of the popular Hellraiser series of movies, inspired by his novella The Hellbound Heart, and he wrote and directed the movie Lord of Illusions.

Still, even though Barker’s work is almost always horrific, he would be more accurately described as a fantasy writer, and his fantasy has everything to do with the realms of myth and their tendency to bleed over into our reality. Even in the Hellraiser series, which is overtly horrifying, the action turns around a mysterious puzzle box, which has the ability to open the gateway between the worlds, allowing the entities of the mythic realm to come through to our own. (An outcome which is very much to be avoided in this particular series!)

Clive Barker’s masterpiece is Imajica, a sprawling epic fantasy unencumbered by the pseudo-medieval trappings of so much of the genre. Barker has commented in the past that too little use is made by most fantasy writers of  their own Christian mythological background. Although Imajica is very far from being a Sunday school lesson, it is nevertheless strangely Christian, though mostly in the Gnostic sense. According to the author:

Imajica started with my thinking about the images which appear in the great paintings of Christian mythology. Whether or not they’re true, they seemed to me to be potent, powerful and important cyphers of image and meaning. So I considered writing a book which would be a fantasy, but which would also be about God, about belief, about a man who discovers that all his life he has been prepared for an act of massive consequence but didn’t realize it.

The central themes of this novel are distinctly mythorealist. The concept of personal gnosis, for example- finding out for yourself, going directly to the realm of magic and seeing its truths with your own eyes:

Jude surveyed the labyrinth that spread from the foot of the stairs with fresh respect. ‘Have you tried to find the book since?’ ‘I didn’t need to. When Papa died I went in search of the real thing. I traveled back and forth as though Christos had succeeded and the Fifth was reconciled. And there they were, the Unbeheld’s many mansions.’

The Unbeheld is Hapaxemendios, a deity rather similar to the Gnostic Demiurge or “False Creator.” This enigmatic and terrifying entity conquered the magical realms known as the Imajica by slaughtering all of the goddesses, then veiled himself behind a wall of nothingness in the First Dominion. In Barker’s own words:

Hapexamendios, the villain of Imajica, is the personification of that God. He is the personification of the joyless, loveless, corrupt thing, which has over eons created his own city of his own flesh. It happens to be, when you look at it, an extraordinary city, a glorious city. But when you look really closely at it, you see that it a completely empty city. There’s nobody there, there’s no love there, there’s no joy there, there’s no compassion there because there are no people there. It’s just a self serving system of self glorification.

The Five Dominions of the Imajica are five separate worlds, of which our own world is the Fifth. Travel between the first four Dominions is relatively easy, but the Fifth Dominion is “unreconciled,” cut off from the rest by the horrors of the void space known as the In Ovo. Few of the Fifth’s inhabitants know anything about the other Dominions, but the inhabitants of the Reconciled Dominions long to be reunited with the Fifth, as only such a Reconciliation can make the Imajica whole. This Reconciliation can be attempted only once every two hundred years, but all previous attempts have failed catastrophically. Two hundred years before the events of the novel, the Maestro Sartori attempted to perform the ritual, the results of which were so disastrous that they upset the balance of power in the Imajica itself, resulting in the conquest of three of the Dominions by the tyrannical Autarch. Now events are converging toward another attempt, but powerful forces are also at work to sabotage it.

The main players in this epic are a callow playboy and art forger known as Gentle, a sexually ambiguous assassin and prostitute named Pie’oh’Pah, and a woman named Judith whose personality veers between slavish devotion and stubborn rage depending on the circumstances. As Gentle and Pie’oh’Pah cross the reconciled Dominions, they come face to face with alien species and strange modes of life more reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting than any traditional fairyland. These manifestations of wonder are rendered all the more potent by their bizarre spontaneity- they don’t derive from any book on folklore, but from a direct and very personal vision of the magical world, one vivid enough to make you suspect that Barker has been there personally.

We need more of this in fantasy fiction- a lot more. Tolkien portrayed his elves as being one of the many peoples of Middle Earth, but he still gave them an otherworldly aloofness, a feeling of not quite belonging among mortals, an aura of magic. Legions of second-rate imitators have simply presented the elves as ordinary humans with pointy ears and Renn Faire names, with all the magic of an accountant playing dress-up. Writers with a greater sense of the numinous have turned to folklore, presenting us with modern versions of the ancient Sidhe-folk or the Norse Alfar, such as Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks or the works of Charles de Lint.

Barker and Gaiman stand out through their willingness to not simply rely on folklore but to take a fresh drink from the source itself, which is not lore but gnosis. The creatures in Barker’s fairyland drive in cars and ride on trains, and the power of the Autarch is upheld by tanks and machine guns, not swords and spears. But the sense of immediacy and vivid reality, the feeling of genuine magic in all of its power, is far more intense here than in mainstream fantasy, because it doesn’t have that feeling of second-hand magic. This is myth in the raw, myth pulled straight from the source.

The magic in Barker’s world doesn’t come for free, nor can it be called upon free of consequences. The burden of personal guilt weighs heavily on these characters, all of whom are connected to each other by a forgotten history, the great tragedy of the previous attempt at Reconciliation. The disaster of that attempt was due to ordinary human failings, arrogance and lust in particular but most significantly the urge to objectify, to treat the other person as a thing to be used. The revelations of past crimes shed a new light on several of the characters, changing the reader’s perception of them and their perceptions of themselves.

The Imajica is not a playground any more than the Earth is, and the aftereffects of a single bad decision can cross the centuries like a series of ripples, leaving destruction and suffering behind them. Yet the hope for personal redemption remains intact, as well as the hope for a Reconciliation that will reunite the Dominions, restoring magic to our world and our world to magic. The core of this Reconciliation is a change in our mythology, balancing gods with the returning goddesses- and overthrowing the bloody-minded and tyrannical god of the patriarchal religions. Whether or not one agrees with the viewpoint in this particular mythology, it is certainly a powerful expression of modern spiritual trends and needs.

Imajica achieves real heights of wonder and awe, but these heights are not always reached in Barker’s other works. The numinous is evoked with tremendous effect in some of his short stories, particularly “Dread” and “Rawhead Rex.” The last line of “Dread” is one of the most effective in all of modern horror:

There was pain without hope of healing. There was life that refused to end, long after the mind has begged the body to cease. And worst, there were dreams come true.

Some of the other stories in The Books of Blood can be inconsistent, often sacrificing pacing and craftsmanship for raw power. The Books of Blood are the punk rock of horror fiction, and like the best punk bands they often work for the very reasons they shouldn’t work.

The Great and Secret Show and its sequel Everville is another epic of alternate worlds, and of the secret lives and struggles of the few humans who know of their existence and seek to reach out to them. Barker’s genius is still apparent in these books, and they are well worth reading, but they never achieve the sheer sense of delight and wonder that Imajica evokes.

Cabal- the novel that inspired the movie Nightbreed- is about the secret city of Midian where the monsters dwell, the old-fashioned monsters of mythology and folklore, who find their hidden existence threatened by the 20th century’s archetypal monster, the serial killer. Midian is a kind of fairyland, an underground place of magic and mystery, where the hero Boone flees when he is cast out of our own world.

The realm of fairy as it is traditionally conceived has a lot in common with Clive Barker’s non-human characters, including the assassin Pie’oh’Pah from Imajica and the monsters of Midian. The fairies are said to have “no soul” or “no heart,” either because they are fallen angels or perhaps because they haven’t eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The creatures of fairy display a small child’s capacity for both empathy and sadism, as well as a small child’s lack of any culturally conditioned sense of right and wrong, and finally a childlike sense of wonder and amazement- which is, after all, an accurate assessment of reality, if only we could remember that. That’s why the fairies are so very beautiful and so very dangerous- they are exactly what we would be if we never grew up, but they have the powers of fallen angels or minor gods.

Barker manages to create this precise feeling with the creatures of Cabal, as well as with their counterparts in his epic Weaveworld, which I see as his most successful work other than Imajica. The Weaveworld is literally a magic carpet, a fairy-tale kingdom hidden within a carpet to protect it from the malevolence of the angel who guards the abandoned gates of Eden. The Seerkind are the fairy folk (of sorts) who have concealed themselves within the weave, and who are hunted by the vengeful demigoddess Immaculata and her terrible sisters. The heroes of the story are Calhoun Moody, grandson of a half-mad poet, and his platonic love Suzanna. The Seerkind don’t like or trust them for the most part, because they are human, and humans have never really been friends to the Seerkind. Nevertheless Calhoun and Suzanna persist in their devoted protection of the hidden fairyland, even when the angel awakens from his slumber and comes back to destroy them. According to Barker:

We live, it seems to me, in a society in which meaning is being drained away, in which metaphysical significance is under siege… We live in a world in which fear and anxiety are commonplace. On one curious level, one of the ways that people have responded to this high level anxiety is not to search. I don’t see a massive explosion of genuine metaphysical enquiry, I see Jonestown… Relating that to the fears that I have and the hope that I have, my fears are finally related to the death of meaning… One of the things that ‘Weaveworld’ is about is meaning being frail in the world, a frail thing subject to forgetfulness. The major theme of ‘Weaveworld’ above all is memory. It’s about how you hold on to something that you had when you were a child…

The thing we had when we were children is precisely the sense of magic, the sense that everything in this mundane world is a secret key to something vast and hidden and perilous and wonderful. Clive Barker hasn’t lost that magical sense, or his understanding of its dark side either. The realm of fairy is one of horror and wonder, and when Clive Barker is described as a “horror” writer, he should also be described as a “wonder” writer. As one of the Cenobites says in the Hellraiser movies, the entities of the mythic realm are “Demons to some. Angels to others.”

Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition