Christian Fantasy Fans: What’s Your Highest Purpose?

Christian fantasy fans have a much greater purpose than merely doing ministry for others.
| Nov 13, 2018 | 6 comments |

Not long ago, I found myself having more debates over the topic of fantasy and magic in fiction. Now that I’ve done this a majority of my life, I detect this pattern:

  1. I share something, usually an article or thought, about the topic. (Such as Deuteronomy 18 Witchcraft: What It Is and Isn’t, or the fall 2018 Lorehaven Magazine issue’s Roundtable feature about fictional magic.)
  2. Someone else responds with a (usually respectful) objection.
  3. The respondent says things like, “We should be holy,” or “Magic is all about the occult,” or “Pagans say XYZ so we should pay special attention to them.”
  4. I say back, “I already responded to those things here, here, and here.1 What’s your response to my existing response? Otherwise we’ll just go in circles.”
  5. The person repeats the same previously answered notions they said before.
  6. We keep going in (non-magical) circles.

To avoid these circles, I try to point to the topic’s real center of gravity—that weighty center that the whole discussion ends up orbiting but never actually lands upon.

I ask this question:

Q. Whenever we talk about fiction, fantasy, and fictional magic, what is the Christian’s chief purpose, or core identity?

And yet, frustratingly, I often get replies like this:

Well, as writers, we …

Too many impressionable children need to …

Christian writers in their stories must teach about …

Such responses so easily, even gaily skip past such a crucial, pivotal theme for the Christian’s very purpose in life. It’s like someone is trying to communicate an entire textbook worth of ideas when I’m not even convinced he can draw the alphabet.

I realize this is the internet, and we all fancy ourselves writers because we can put together anything we like and find instant publication and instant audience.

But writer is not the Christian’s chief purpose. It is not the Christian’s core identity.

Here’s the problem with assuming our purpose or identity is first writer or leader:

1. This assumption casts ourselves as big darn heroes.

Often I wonder if some Christians, who are either in “the ministry” proper, or subconsciously suspect they should be, can’t help think of themselves first as big darn heroes. Maybe we assume—so far back in our hearts that even reading the assumption aloud looks bizarre—that we’re qualified heroes who can “save” all those Impressionable People from bad stories and art. Yet we don’t even stop to question if we’ve figured out this whole story/fiction/culture thing in the first place.

We “think globally” without acting locally—starting with ourselves.

We want to change the cultural “world,” but we haven’t even changed a diaper.2

2. This assumption speaks only about other people.

There’s a kind of well-meaning Christian “unselfishness” that focuses on helping, teaching, or otherwise leading our human neighbors, while skipping a huge primary purpose for the Christian. In other words, that big-darn-hero may sincerely want to help all those weak folks out there. They proceed as if they have just mastered the basics of the faith, so that they are already strong and wise enough to spend the rest of our lives simply helping The Weak (like impressionable children).

But if we don’t constantly, consciously review and focus upon our highest purpose, as taught and always assumed in the Scripture, we’ll end up worshiping ourselves. Instead of serving our neighbors for God’s sake, we will slowly begin to crave the social approval, ministry platform, or influential roles that can feed our quiet idols.

I haven’t even gotten very far up this “enjoying stories biblically” ministry ladder. But already I feel these temptations from every side. So I can imagine what it’s like for someone who does ministry full-time, writing books and speaking at conferences.

3. This assumption can make God a means to other ends.

Here we come to my first and primary answer to this central question:

Q. Whenever we talk about fiction, fantasy, and fictional magic, what is the Christian’s chief purpose, or core identity?

My answer is this, based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s question 1:3

A. The Christian’s chief purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. This means my core identity can be summarized in one word: God-worshiper.

Not author. Not writer. Not creator. Not ministry leader. Not parent, discerner, teacher, preacher, pastor, defender, or holy internet Bible pulpit word blog-running guardian of the sacred orthodoxy against all true doctrine compromisers both foreign and domestic.

Even in our language, even in our passing comments, if we skip directly to all those other callings (which have secondary importance!), we’ll be vulnerable. We’ll be left open to assaults from our own flesh—it’s always looking for some chance to twist good gifts into self-worship—and we’ll make God-worship a means to other ends.

Here someone, starting with myself, might quietly or loudly object: “Well, sure our main purpose is to worship God in all we do. We know that. But as writers, we—”

No. Stop.

We’re not all writers. We’re not all big-darn-heroes. We’re not, first and foremost, the saviors of this fiction genre or or this church or this human culture. Especially if we are asked directly, we must think and speak first of ourselves as God-worshipers.

This must be a reflex. Someone whacks your knee. What are you? “God-worshiper.”

Someone pricks your skin. What’s your highest purpose? You bleed, “God-worshiper.”

Only then can we begin to reform any of the flippancy, sinful twisting, or made-up traditions on which we’ve based our view of culture, stories, and fictional magic.

Only then can we quit trying to “save” others and recall we ourselves need a Savior.

Only then can we stop trying to be big-darn-heroes and clear way for the real Hero.

  1. For instance, I would say (1) Yes, of course we should be holy, and that’s why I claim that some mature Christians don’t actually sin (any more than usual) while enjoying fictional magic in stories; (2) Reading about fictional magic (or even real-life pagan practice of the occult!) does not equal personal idolatrous practice of the occult, according to texts like Deut. 18 and Gal. 5: 19–21, and it’s improper reading of Scripture and reality to claim these are the same; (3) Sure, I’m interested in what pagans say, but any pagans’ self-association with particular mythologies, holidays, or anything else doesn’t rule my life.
  2. I paraphrase this quote from author/pastor Kevin DeYoung, who is quoted in Counterfeit Gospels (2011): “Our generation is prone to radicalism without follow-through. We want to change the world and we have never changed a diaper.”
  3. “Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” (Source.)

Veterans Day: Mayhem And Its Meaning, A Reprise

While stories in the general market are not intentionally reflecting this spiritual reality, they nonetheless reveal the truth that the world is not as it should be, that there are forces of evil, seemingly insurmountable at times, against which forces of good must strive. Mayhem in speculative fiction also shows that the struggle isn’t just external. Mankind struggles against that part of ourselves that seems bewitched or entrapped or bound to a chair.
| Nov 12, 2018 | 2 comments |

Today, in the US we are celebrating a holiday which actually took place yesterday: Veterans Day. As so often happens, if the holiday falls on a Sunday, we extend the celebration to a Monday as a national holiday that gives a number of workers paid time off. I want to post something to honor our veterans. No matter what their service or what the duration, these military veterans, their families, and their friends, have sacrificed for the rest of us.

Interestingly, speculative fiction frequently involves conflict, which in turn can create veterans. If in doubt, read the current Spec Faith series by Travis Perry and Travis Chapman entitled “Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War.”

At the same time, as the anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death approaches (November 23), I want to cast some light on him and his influence. Remarkably, in our archives is an article which, at least in part, accomplishes both goals. Here, then is “Mayhem And Its Meaning.”

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Much speculative literature, Christian or otherwise, is marked by mayhem—a violent disruption to life and/or to society. Often mayhem shows up in the form of an actual battle.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit ends in the dramatic Battle of Five Armies, for example, when old animosities between dwarfs and men are subsumed in the conflict against the army of goblins and Wargs. George Lucas’s Star Wars IV: A New Hope is set in a universe suffering mayhem because of the civil war between the Federation and the Rebels. Similarly, Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis takes place in the middle of a conflict between the Old Narnians and the Telmarines who have taken control.

Other stories with grand battles that come to mind include The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by Lewis, The Black Cauldron and The High King by Lloyd Alexander, Return of the Guardian King by Karen Hancock, From Darkness Won by Jill Williamson, The Door Within trilogy by Wayne Thomas Batson, Daughter of Light by Morgan Busse, and Patrick Carr’s A Draw of Kings, third in his The Staff and The Sword trilogy.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy might be the benchmark for grand battles, notably in the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the Battle of Bywater in The Return of the King.

Not all mayhem is the direct result of an actual battle. Much occurs as a result of the threat of battle or from the efforts to escape a superior force. Certainly Book 1 of Fellowship of the Ring makes the most of the disruption of Frodo’s life and plans by the arrival of the Black Riders and their subsequent efforts to hunt Frodo down. The ultimate confrontation takes place following a skirmish on Weathertop as the wounded Frodo escapes on the elfen horse and reaches the Ford of Bruinen, barely avoiding the ambush of the nine Black Riders.

Another similar near miss took place in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation as the crew of the Enterprise sought to evade the Borg. Then too, in The Hobbit Bilbo discovers the One Ring in the goblins’ tunnels as he tries to avoid capture. He must then escape Gollum as well.

Not all mayhem comes from attempted or actuated assault. Some is the result of corrupting influence. In The Two Towers Wormtongue, for instance, nearly handed the men of Rohan over to Saruman because of his poisonous council to King Théoden. Saruman himself turned traitor and held Gandalf captive, preventing him from meeting Frodo when he’d promised. In Lewis’s The Last Battle, Shift duped Puzzle into pretending to be Aslan, throwing Narnia into confusion. In The Silver Chair an enchantress held the true prince captive by a spell that made him forget who he was.

Some of the most powerful and effective mayhem results in defeat of the forces of good, at least for a time. The White Witch killed Aslan on the stone table, Gandalf fell to his death in the Mines of Moria, Captain Picard in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is captured by the Borg and turned into one of them, and the orcs kill Boromir in the opening of The Two Towers. Shannon Dittemore’s Angel Eyes, a contemporary Christian supernatural young adult novel released in 2012, shows the mayhem of evil appearing to win against forces of good when main character Brielle’s best friend is murdered.

Why does mayhem play such an important role in speculative fiction? The clearest and best explanation is that these stories reveal the great struggle of the world—the struggle between the rebel Satan and God. All of creation is aligning with one or the other. The skirmishes, the battles, the sacrifices in speculative fiction are echoes of God’s great triumph over sin and death and His yet-to-take-place final judgment over those who stand against Him.

While stories in the general market are not intentionally reflecting this spiritual reality, they nonetheless reveal the truth that the world is not as it should be, that there are forces of evil, seemingly insurmountable at times, against which forces of good must strive.

Mayhem in speculative fiction also shows that the struggle isn’t just external. Mankind struggles against that part of ourselves that seems bewitched or entrapped or bound to a chair.

It also shows that the conflict has consequences. If left unchecked, evil spreads, but even when it is resisted, people die and the world changes. Still, hope infuses most speculative fiction, and ultimately Lewis showed it best when his characters didn’t leave Narnia but went further up and further in.

What are your favorite battles in speculative fiction? What other purpose might they serve besides showing the ultimate battle between spiritual forces?

Minus a few additions, this post first appeared here at Spec Faith in September 2012.

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To any veterans who might be reading: thank you from the bottom of my heart for the sacrifice you made and the service you gave. Blessings.

Fiction Friday: The Crescent Stone By Matt Mikalatos

Madeline Oliver has never wanted for anything, but now she would give anything just to breathe. Jason Wu skates through life on jokes, but when a tragedy leaves him guilt-stricken, he promises to tell only the truth, no matter the price. When a mysterious stranger named Hanali appears to Madeline and offers to heal her in exchange for one year of service to his people, Madeline and Jason are swept into a strange land where they don’t know the rules and where their decisions carry consequences that reach farther than they could ever guess.

The Crescent Stone

The Sunlit Lands Book 1

by Matt Mikalatos

INTRODUCTION—The Crescent Stone

“For Narnia fans who enjoy heavy snark, this is a must-read.” —Kirkus Reviews

A girl with a deadly lung disease . . .
A boy with a tragic past . . .
A land where the sun never sets but darkness still creeps in . . .

Madeline Oliver has never wanted for anything, but now she would give anything just to breathe. Jason Wu skates through life on jokes, but when a tragedy leaves him guilt-stricken, he promises to tell only the truth, no matter the price. When a mysterious stranger named Hanali appears to Madeline and offers to heal her in exchange for one year of service to his people, Madeline and Jason are swept into a strange land where they don’t know the rules and where their decisions carry consequences that reach farther than they could ever guess.

THE CRESCENT STONE — EXCERPT

1

THE GARDEN LADY

The king’s gardener spoke the secret language of all growing things. She knew the songs of the morning flowers and spoke the poems of the weeks. She spent long afternoons in conversation with the trees. From “the Triumph of the Peasant King,” A Scrim Legend

The bench stood twenty feet away. Such a short distance. Such an impossible one. Madeline clung to the trellis of ivy that bordered her mother’s garden path as she tried to force air into her ruined lungs. Every gasp felt like pushing sludge through broken glass.

It was late morning on a Sunday, and she’d taken her inhaler an hour before—a quick, sharp breath of cold that disappeared much too quickly. She should have been in bed, flat on her back—not sitting, not standing, much less walking. But if the doctors were to be believed, it was one of the last spring Sundays she would ever see. Her chest and back hurt from the coughing.

The sunlight caressed her face. She couldn’t stand at the trellis forever, and the return path to the house was longer. A few steps set off the coughing again. She pushed her fist hard into her ribs. She had dislocated them coughing three days ago, and they still didn’t feel right. Three steps brought her to the maple tree which crowded the path. Her vision dimmed, and her knees softened. She slid down the trunk, and when the coughing fit passed she dropped her head against the rough bark.

A hummingbird spun into the air beside her, its shining green body hanging to the right of her face. It chirped three times, then zipped to her left, its small, dark eyes studying her before disappearing toward the pineapple sage. The citrusy fragrance of the roses hung heavy across this part of the path. She took little half breaths, and it felt close to natural. The bees hummed as they visited the flowers. A squirrel hung off a sunflower by its hind lets, plucking seeds out of the wide circle of the flower’s face with its forepaws. This garden never quite seemed to follow the seasons . . . sunflowers blooming in spring instead of summer, roses year-round, frogs singing in the evenings no matter the weather. It was an oasis of near-magic in their suburban lot. Madeline used to build fairy houses along the “shore” of the fountain when she was a kind, using bark, leaves, and flowers to make tiny homes for make-believe friends.

Her mother never cared for those little homes. She had planned the garden, a full acre of wandering paths, stone bridges, and small fountains. It was eclectic and a bit overgrown in places. Mr. García had done the planting and did the upkeep, too. Mom liked it a bit unkempt, and he worked to give it the impression of slight wildness. It didn’t look manicured, but there weren’t weeks, either. The fairy houses, Mom had said, looked like someone had forgotten to clean up after doing yard work.

Everything in its place, Mom always said.

Then again, Mom also wanted her house to “look lived in.” That meant strange habits like telling their housekeeper, Sofía that she couldn’t immediately put an abandoned glass in the dishwasher. Once Madeline had come home and smelled fresh cookies, only to discover it was an air freshener her mother had bought from a Realtor. “To make it smell like home,” Mom had said, seemingly oblivious to the reality that she was, indeed, home, and that actually baking cookies would have been simpler.

A few more steps, Madeline decided, but halfway to the bench a racking army of coughs marched across her chest. She touched her lips, then wiped the blood in the grass. With her eyes closed and the little half breaths coming again, she counted to twelve. When the jagged feeling in her chest passed, she lay flat and watched the clouds drifting in some high, distant wind. Air moved so easily for everyone but her.

It may have been a mistake, sneaking into the garden without telling anyone, with no way to call for help. She had chosen the perfect moment. Mom and Sofía had gone upstairs, something about washing the curtains. Dad was at the golf course, or work, or both. Her phone sat inside, turned off. The constant texts from Darius were making her feel guilty, but she had made a decision, and it was final. He couldn’t waste his life waiting for her. There wasn’t a cure. He needed to live his life. She needed to live what remained of hers.

AUTHOR BIO—MATT MIKALATOS

Whether it’s writing fantasy and science fiction novels, or writing spiritual books (yes, Christian spiritual books), I am passionate about creating books which are entertaining and change the lives of my readers for the better.

My most recent books are The Crescent Stone (a fantasy novel which anyone will love), Good News for a Change (a book for Christians about how to talk about your faith without being a jerk), and Sky Lantern (a spiritual memoir about one of the weirdest, most beautiful things that has happened to my family). I’ve had articles or stories with Today.com, Time Magazine, Relevant Magazine, Nature, and Daily Science Fiction, among others.

I’m on staff with a non-profit (twenty years!) that works to help people live fuller, more balanced lives. I live in the Portland, Oregon, area with my family.

You may learn more about Matt and his writing at his website.

Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War, part 10: The Aftermath of Combat

In the aftermath of combat, post-traumatic stress creates changes in a warrior.

Travis P here. The picture I’ve included above is by Tom Lea, an artist who traveled with US Marines in the Pacific during World War II (this particular painting is called “The Two Thousand Yard Stare”). The image captures better than words ever can one of the effects combat has, a particular example of what the aftermath of combat can be.

I first meant this post to talk about long-term after the fact effects of combat, how it changes the warrior who fights in battle permanently. But I’ve found the actual information on this topic more elusive than I believed it was. So I’m going to broaden the topic a bit to talk about the effects of combat after the fact in general, not just long-term.

Let’s start with the “thousand yard stare.” I read one source that suggested that eyes staring unfocused in the distance is adaptive for survival, because by not focusing on any particular thing, the peripheral vision expands, so any potentially dangerous motion is easily detected. I mention this source more to illustrate that many of the actual realities of why human beings do what they do under various circumstances is in fact still at least partially a matter of speculation. And sometimes a whole lot more than “partially” speculative.

Unlike the source I just quoted, I think it’s more normal to see the thousand yard stare as a product of information overload to the brain. Normal eye movement, normal inquisitive engagement of the environment ceases, because the brain has seen enough and engaged enough. It may be true a person in that state defaults to a form of vision designed to pick up motion, but the primary reason for such a reaction is sensory and emotional overload.

Such a state of staring is usually temporary, as are all the effects of what is now commonly called a “Combat Stress Reaction.” In addition to the stare, troops coming off hard fighting often share the following traits:

Slowing of reaction time
Slowness of thought
Difficulty prioritizing tasks
Difficulty initiating routine tasks           
Preoccupation with minor issues and familiar tasks
Indecision and lack of concentration
Loss of initiative with fatigue
Exhaustion
Headaches
Back pains
Inability to relax
Shaking and tremors
Sweating
Nausea and vomiting
Loss of appetite
Abdominal distress
Frequency of urination           
Urinary incontinence
Heart palpitations
Hyperventilation
Dizziness
Insomnia
Nightmares
Restless sleep
Excessive sleep
Excessive startle
Hyper-vigilance
Heightened sense of threat           
Anxiety
Irritability
Depression
Substance abuse
Loss of adaptability
Attempted suicides
Disruptive behavior
Mistrust of others
Confusion
Extreme feeling of losing control

Obviously not everyone experiences all of these traits. In fact, a number of these reactions cannot be experienced together because they are opposites, e.g. excessive sleep versus insomnia. For most people exposed to combat, a have a number of these reactions (but not all of them) are normal. And for most warriors, the bulk of these effects fade after a few days. The experience of US Military medicine in WWII indicated that a person was in fact more likely to fully recover from “battle fatigue” if after only a short break he returned to his unit and continued to engage in combat. Why this is true is a matter of speculation, but it may be the case that someone who disengages from combat stress can see himself as a permanent failure if not allowed to return to duty with the rest of the “normal” soldiers.

Acute or short-term combat reactions are fairly well understood. Most people experience them at a level that will hamper their ability to continue fighting if under enough combat stress–that amounts to something like 96% to 98% of all combat soldiers if under continuous contact with the enemy for an extended period (6 weeks or more). This figure comes with a very small group of exceptions, as previously noted in the previous post, The Fearless Elite, who show no observable reaction to combat, even of the sort that causes most warriors to become psychological casualties. Yet a reaction to combat stress can exist at a level which affects a warrior without fully paralyzing him or her and is in fact common.

The list of affects above starts to morph into longer-term effects when it lists depression, substance abuse, loss of adaptability, attempted suicides, disruptive behavior, and mistrust of others. These particular traits can become long-term conditions. And acute reactions, from nightmares, to depression, hyper-vigilance, heart palpitations, and more, can occur in someone who has been long removed from combat if something occurs that triggers the memories of warfare. A mild example would be how for a long while after returning from Iraq (where I was subjected to rocket attacks for an extended period), I would “excessively startle” at loud banging noises from firecrackers to slamming doors.

Other reactions include a sense that life outside of combat is ridiculously trivial, which is understandable when dealing with life and death in war versus dealing with running errands in regular life. In addition, a person who has experienced extremes of emotion on the battlefield often shows signs of emotions being fused in ordinary life. So a person can rapidly become angry or experience other rapid shifts of emotion. I found myself experiencing some of the sense that ordinary life doesn’t matter much, as well as quicker-than-normal anger.

My reactions, such as they were, faded in me over a period of several years. They do in fact fade for most people, but for many, never very much. True stories of veterans who suffer from nightmares, or who can not be safely awakened unexpectedly in the middle of the night, or who always sit in the corners of restaurants to keep an eye on an entire room due to hyper-vigilance are extremely common.

Note that modern warfare is different from ancient or medieval in the fact it can put stress on a person day and night for extended periods of time. Usually, in the past, warfare was only fought during daylight hours. Yet even though ancient times record less of people being disabled by psychological stresses, the type of stresses that became greatly evident for the first time during World War I, there still exists evidence that combat stress was a “thing,” even in the distant past. Travis C is going to share how both the Iliad and the Odyssey show elements of how war changes warriors, not just in modern interpretations of those texts, but also in the way these accounts were first composed.

II Samuel 20:12 likewise records how people passing by reacted to an Israelite named Amasa who had been disemboweled and left to die along a road (by Joab). The sight stopped them in their tracks to the degree that Amasa had to be pulled off the road and covered with a cloth for people to keep moving. In other words, even in times where people saw more bloodshed than we do, the sight of a disemboweled man painfully wallowing in his own blood wasn’t something people could ignore. They were clearly affected by it, almost certainly horrified.

And historical accounts of medieval behavior, in which knights seem to show very little emotional control, also function as examples. That is, the knights seem to have demonstrated signs of the kind of emotional swings experienced by someone exposed to traumatic stress. Please note that these stresses are not limited to combat–people can experience this from other kinds of trauma, especially when they are exposed to it as children. Please also note that many children in the medieval world were exposed to violent trauma that would have impacted them strongly–and this would also be common in many worlds of epic fantasy.

This situation is a bit like the fact that nearly everyone in Medieval Europe had at least some scarring from smallpox–yet since everyone had it, they simply considered that condition normal. Having eliminated smallpox from the world, today we see such scarring on people as unusual. Likewise, in modern societies that have eliminated much of the gruesomeness of childhood that was common in the past, we see post-traumatic stress reactions as abnormal. Our ancestors took far less notice of people acting in a way we’d associate with post-traumatic stress–most likely because it used to be far more common.

What exactly is the connection between acute combat reactions and long-term post traumatic stress is difficult to say in a broadly meaningful way. Some people have a greater tendency to suffer from long-term problems than others, though why isn’t clear. Note though that a person is not necessarily disabled by continuing to have (a) post-traumatic reaction(s). People can have sudden unexpected reactions to certain smells or sounds or other stimuli that remind them of their combat stress without being paralyzed by such reactions. People can suffer from black moods and have suicidal thoughts and overcome such conditions, especially with help from others who have gone through the same sorts of things. In fact, it’s important for veterans to realize such reactions are to a degree, normal. And that talking to one another, or at times to professionals, about their experiences is healthy and good.

One factor that seems to relate to how soldiers react to combat over the long-term stems from whether people are able to justify their actions in combat to themselves. A person who looks back and feels he acted morally and correctly does much better in dealing with post-traumatic stress than those who look at back at their own behavior and see it as reprehensible. Note the sense of “morality” I’m referencing does not necessarily mean a person is good–a knight judging his actions from a  warped view of Christianity may have felt morally justified in killing defenseless Muslims and Jews (say when Jerusalem was taken in the First Crusade)–that doesn’t mean he actually was justified in a broader moral sense. But the ability to feel justified has always helped warriors deal with the aftermath of combat. Those who cannot justify their actions to themselves have a harder time.

Let me emphasize there is a difference between having post-traumatic stress or a post-traumatic stress reaction and having PTSD–Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The disorder occurs when veterans are disabled by their experiences, when their lives are interrupted significantly.  A person can have a certain amount of permanent effects from combat–it is normal in fact to have some–while still functioning in life in a normal way. Or mostly normal…

Stories that include combat should at least consider these realities for both human and non-human characters.

Travis C here with some illustrative resources for writers of combat. As Travis P notes, we’re talking about two broad categories of combat impact: physiological and psychological responses in the midst of action or shortly afterwards (often labeled as combat stress response), and the responses that last after a warrior withdraws from combat and returns to “normal” living. I was at a training session for the Coming Home Dialogues  which uses the humanities as a means for veterans to process their war experiences and during a poetry-writing exercise one veteran wrote the following conclusion to a poem about “things every soldier should know”:

You don’t come home.

Sounds harsh, but the message was beautiful. The “you” that began a deployment or mission isn’t the same as the one coming back, and while many effects will pass with time, the experience is etched there and for many the effects do not always pass.

Instead of analyzing the popular media which often captures the physiological responses to some degree (movies can do well as focusing on bodily responses, for instance) and may use story narrative to expose a warrior’s psychological reactions, I’d like to very briefly introduce two resources that helped me work through my own challenges by unpacking two fantasy works of literature: Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Jonathan Shay is a psychologist and counselor of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Two of his popular works are Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America. Each work analyzes the main character of The Iliad and Odyssey respectively and posits that Homer is writing about warrior issues of moral injury and betrayal (Achilles) and the psychological impact of returning home from war (Odysseus). For writers looking to hone their ability to write about warrior culture I can’t recommend each book highly enough.

Credit: www.warnerbros.com/troy

Let’s begin with Achilles. The Greeks have been fighting the Trojans for some time, and Achilles represents the noble, honorable Greek warrior fighting for a just cause. He and his Myrmidon are spectacular in battle, winning many engagements and bringing honor and encouragement to the Greek forces. Then Agamemnon, the king of the Greeks (though not Achilles’ ruler), decides to take back part of Achilles’ rightful war spoils for himself. The movie Troy attempts to capture this moment but fails to fully reveal the cultural and personal affront this is to Achilles. He is enraged at the dishonorable actions of his leadership and is wounded in a moral way: the Greeks no longer serve someone who holds the ethical high ground. In fact, maybe they never did. After losing his brother Patroclus, Achilles goes into a berserk rage as his worldview of rightness and honor comes spiraling down, ultimately leading to his death.

Gavin Hamilton, Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus
www.nationalgalleries.org

The Iliad shows us the warrior’s response to several specific traumas of battle. The death of a close comrade. Wrongful substitution (i.e., survivors guilt). Revenge through a berserk state of mind. The impact of dishonoring the enemy and having the enemy dishonor your own. The destruction of trust in the social and moral order the warrior exists in. A betrayal of what’s right.

The Odyssey represents another interesting case study for writers. If Achilles represents the honorable warrior operating from a worldview of moral rightness, Odysseus represents a different worldview. He is cunning and wily. It is Odysseus who suggests the use of the Trojan horse as a means of breaking through the Trojan forces and winning the war from the inside. Sneak inside, open the gates, kill as many as possible, and the Trojans will break. Prey upon their religious beliefs and lie to them. Odysseus inappropriately takes Achilles’ armor when it should have gone to Ajax. Not exactly honorable conduct.

Once the war is ended the remainder of the Greek forces sail for home after ten long years of sustained combat. Odysseus, King of Ithaca, tries to bring his men home but fails. After ten more long years he washes ashore and becomes a guest of the King of Phaecia. Among the civilian court, trapped in riches and focused on trivial things, Odysseus’ identity is learned and he recounts his tale of wayward misadventures that have cost him his entire army (none of the Ithacans come home except Odysseus).

Shay unpacks the Odyssey in much richer detail than we can do justice to here, but consider the tales of cyclops, sirens, Scylla and other monsters as a metaphor for a returning warrior’s internal challenges to coming home:

  • A success warrior’s repertoire of skills looks a lot like a criminal’s. Cunning, critical thinking, adaptability, focus on a task, control of fear, control of violence, capacity to respond skillfully and instantly to danger, disregard for fixed rules if it endangers the mission. Odysseus’ men raid the island of Ismarus and find their warrior training has prepared them for a career as thieves.
  • Odysseus’ crew tempt the island of the cyclops for only one apparent reason: to see what would happen. They knew danger lay there, but wanted to see what would happen if they prodded the beast. Returning warriors often find regular life boring and will find ways to create dangerous situations and thrill-seeking even in the midst of peace.
  • Odysseus encounters his friend Ajax in the Underworld, and finds within himself “a lack of moral pain, guilt, self-reproach, and self-criticism.” Warriors must wrestle with returning home and often suffer from internal agreements they’ve made, including a relentless search for the truth, an acceptance that anyone close to them will be harmed, and that the losses they suffered are irretrievable. In Shay’s words, “The lone wolf feels at home nowhere.”

    Columbia University:
    Odysseus and the Sirens, red figure stamnos vase, c. 480-460 BC

  • It’s often forgotten that the sirens weren’t calling out to the ships’ crews in a sensually seductive manner; they were calling out seductive truths that Odysseus heard nowhere else. They called out selective truths, but truth nonetheless. A warrior will often find themselves on a search for the truth (Why were we really there? What was our true impact? Did ____’s death really matter?) and that struggle may persist for a lifetime.
  • To be frank, Odysseus has problems with women. Relationships are challenging to begin with, but combine that with extended time away from one another, limited communications, and the added stress of homecoming expectations and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.

These are but a few examples from each of Homer’s works that describe the challenges a warrior faces when returning home. We recognize the risk of physical injury to the warrior on the field, and can paint a picture of maimed and broken soldiers back in society. The mental tax, the psychological impact of warfare, may not be as well appreciated. We recognize the impacts through secondary effects of the aftermath of combat: the veteran who can’t relate well to others, the warrior who never lets go the memory of a fallen comrade, the pent up anger and frustration if the system has failed them. Good writing will attempt to capture those impacts and show our readers the holistic story of the warrior’s combat experience.

Lastly, as we’ve pointed out before, these are realities for human combatants. Shifting our view to different races or species, the impacts may be different. How a culture processes the aftermath of combat might play a pivotal role in your story. Maybe there are genetic or physiological differences that make a character work different. The contrast to what is recognized as a human condition will be that much more important.

A Fatal Flaw in Pixar’s ‘Coco’

Despite its strengths and its appeal, “Coco” is undermined by the vision it presents of the afterlife.
| Nov 7, 2018 | 5 comments |

Amid all the sequels Pixar has been rattling off the assembly line, last year’s Coco comes as something of a relief: original and visually brilliant, funny and tender in the good old Pixar way. Disney can’t handle two living parents; Pixar can handle a whole clan, in the capable, work-roughened hands of a fiery matriarch. Despite its strengths and its appeal, Coco is undermined by the vision it presents of the afterlife.

The vision unfolds along with the story. Our first glimpse is a gorgeous cityscape made of color and lights – the Land of the Dead, shimmering beyond the mortal world. The unearthly appearance of the Land of the Dead is quickly juxtaposed by the bureaucratic procedures that surround entering and leaving it. The dead themselves hustle about on humdrum activities – working, traveling, eating and drinking, going to talent shows and arguing with customer service. They do much what they did in life, only they do it without skin. On some level, this is a pleasing incongruity; on another, it is a letdown. Why go to all the trouble to die if life just goes on the same?

It is revealed that death resembles life in still another way: You are going to die, this time the final death. All these skeletons will die of being forgotten. As they and their stories pass out of the memories of the living, they will be afflicted with spasms of weakness and pain before they finally collapse into dust. Some people will be kept alive in the Land of the Dead for years upon years, as long as their stories are still told among the living. Others must have a very short stay. Here we begin to sight the marrow-deep injustice of the vision, but it comes clear only later.

The villain in the Land of the Dead lives in luxury – gratis, we are told, of his admirers, who heap him with gifts on the Day of the Dead. And we see the old murderer in his celebrity and wealth, and think of the poor forgotten skeleton shivering into the final death, and we know …

There is no justice in the end. None at all. Your career, bred in the abuse of others, may be halted in life, but you will just resume it in death. Sell your soul to get this world and the next will be thrown in, too. Meanwhile, the unwanted, the unloved, the outcast and the forgotten – they are forever the losers. All the inequities of this life are transferred into the next. Indeed, new inequities are created by the fact that the dead can visit the living only through the possession and display of a material object. This opens, too, avenues of revenge, ways that the living can spite the dead and be sure they will know it.

Think of it: Even after you die, they can still get you.

All of this would be bearable if we could imagine that the Land of the Dead was only a stopping-place on the way to some other destination. The movie throws a bone in this direction, one skeleton shrugging that no one knows what happens after the final death. But the fact that they call it final hints at what they think. The story’s happy ending – Now you get to live as a skeleton in the Land of the Dead indefinitely! Pop the champagne! – makes it clear that no one has a better end in mind.

Coco presents an appalling vision of the afterlife. It would be easier to take if the movie knew it was appalling, but it doesn’t. Coco’s dreary afterlife drags down the whole story with a faint sense of depression, a subtle distaste. It’s well enough to imagine that the Land of the Dead is, but to imagine that it is all there is – that is the fatal flaw.

Castaways and Magnified Truths

Novelist Jes Drew: “Even if we can’t experience that peril ourselves, we can still enjoy it vicariously, and strive to do something bigger in our small world.”
| Nov 6, 2018 | 2 comments |

I love reading a good epic. Or, for those of you more old-fashioned folk who believe only a very long poem deserves that title, I love action stories. And what are epics but magnifying glasses on normal, every day life with all its mundane challenges and little triumphs?

Enter one of the greatest adventure stories ever told: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Like the books we define as “speculative fiction,” today, Robinson Crusoe was a compelling adventure that took its readers away from their own world and into the dramatic life of a certain man with the initials of RC.

Jes Drew

This week we feature Jes Drew and her novel Castaways. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

Subscribe to Lorehaven Magazine for free! You can read the fall 2018 issue online, or download the free PDF copy.

But Robinson Crusoe was more than just an adventurer or a castaway or even a friend of Friday’s. He was something we can all relate to, whether we want to or not. He was a person running away from God. In fact, his every misadventure at sea up to the island seemed to be a call of repentance. And when he didn’t, the island was phase two to bring Robinson Crusoe into a relationship with his Maker as he learns how to survive.

Emily Rogers in my novel Castaways may not be purposefully running away from her God like Crusoe was, but, like many of us, she was inadvertently walking further into herself and into the inevitable arms of despair. Of course, being stranded on an apparently deserted island with two small children and an acquaintance (albeit a handsome one), is definitely a wake-up call.

I don’t know about you, but I need a wake-up call (both physical and spiritual) about every single day. Thankfully I’m not being thrown onto deserted island every day (or not so thankfully, if a handsome acquaintance was to be thrown there too), but I do need to remind myself of these truths. And reading epic adventures are a tried and true way to do that.

Castaways, Jes DrewIn the words of Emily Dickinson:

“Peril as a possession
‘tis good to bear,
Danger disintegrates satiety;
There’s Basis there
Begets an awe,
That searches Human Nature’s creases
As clean as Fire”

Even if we can’t experience that peril ourselves, we can still enjoy it vicariously, and strive to do something bigger in our small world. Even if that small thing is learning to surrender to God like Robinson Crusoe or find hope in Him like Emily Rogers.

Again in the words of Miss Dickinson:

 “The Gleam of an heroic act,
Such strange illumination-
The Possible’s slow fuse is literary
By the Imagination!”

So that is why I’m an epiomaniac. And that is why I am a bibliomaniac. Whether it’s a teenage superhero learning how to truly thwart evil, a trained spy realizing he’s not alone, or even a completely normal person getting thrown into an extraordinary adventure that reminds her there is a God taking care of her, I want to remind myself important truths that get shuffled under the carpet by everyday mundane life. I want to inspire myself to rise above it all, even if it’s just doing the same stuff–but to God’s glory. And, yes, I find it easiest to examine this truth while the characters are on the run, uncovering secrets, or falling in love–preferably all at the same time.

So until I can be either a superhero or a spy (or a superhero spy!… spy superhero?), I’ll just be a self-diagnosed maniac.

“Younger readers will take delight in this light, sweet tale.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore more about Jes Drew’s novel:

Thanksgiving Day And Speculative Fiction

In many respects, we’re witnessing in the US the change in the Thanksgiving Day celebration from a major holiday to a minor one. The presence of Thanksgiving or harvest day celebrations seem more apt to be important to a culture if the people are in tune with the growth cycle. As our urban society has become divorced from the way food gets to our table, we seem less thankful and more inclined to take for granted the food we eat.
| Nov 5, 2018 | 5 comments |

A number of years ago, I wrote an article reflecting on how holidays and celebrations deepen the worldbuilding in speculative fiction, but today I’d like to think specifically about Thanksgiving.

I know a declared Thanksgiving Day is not a universal holiday. Canadians, for example, celebrate Thanksgiving on a different day than we do in the US, and many countries don’t have a specific Thanksgiving Day. Harvest Festivals are a different story.

Places as diverse as Australia, Egypt, Barbados, India, Korea, Portugal, Greece, and China have harvest festivals, either locally or nationally.

So what about the worlds in speculative fiction?

I can understand why dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic fantasy might not include Thanksgiving Day. Along with the death of much of civilization, celebrations such as Thanksgiving might become a think of the past.

In many respects, we’re witnessing in the US the change in the Thanksgiving Day celebration from a major holiday to a minor one. The presence of Thanksgiving or harvest day celebrations seem more apt to be important to a culture if the people are in tune with the growth cycle. As our urban society has become divorced from the way food gets to our table, we seem less thankful and more inclined to take for granted the food we eat.

As a result, Thanksgiving Day is losing its special-ness. For instance, most fast food places remain open on Thanksgiving Day, as do a good number of restaurants and grocery stores. In the past few years, “black Friday”—the day after Thanksgiving when retail stores slashed their prices to induce consumers to begin their Christmas shopping in earnest—has gone from “open at midnight” to “open on Thanksgiving Day at 6” or 5 or whenever the businesses think they can woo people out of their homes.

Add in the fact that football has become an integral part of the celebration so that it’s reduced to Food, Family, and Football, and fewer people are commemorating the holiday as a day to give thanks.

Even my church, which has a rich tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving, including decades when we held a service in the morning on Thanksgiving Day, didn’t so much as sing a single Thanksgiving hymn a few years ago or focus the sermon on what the Bible says about Thanksgiving.

All that to say, if Thanksgiving is fading before our very eyes as a major holiday, it’s understandable that worlds set in the future, especially if that future is bleak or dominated by a heavy-handed, perhaps Godless, government, would be less inclined to have a Thanksgiving or harvest day celebration.

grain-fieldOn the other hand, if these futuristic societies are a return to a more agrarian way of life or if the world of an epic fantasy has a rural setting in which people are dependent upon cultivating the soil and growing their own food, then perhaps a harvest festival would be appropriate.

In speculative literature, then, Thanksgiving can be much more than just a celebration. Whether or not a story world holds harvest festivals and how they are celebrated can define a culture and make it come alive.

Does this place recognize God as sovereign over the provision of daily food? Are there gods, with one particular god controlling fertile soil and sun and rain? Or are each of those under the purview of a different god? Must they all three be in agreement if the harvest is to be plentiful? How do the people express their thanks for what they receive?

Or is this world self-sufficient and so advanced in their technology that they can make the skies pour rain at their command? Perhaps they’ve put all food growth inside in the equivalent of gigantic greenhouses, and they have no understanding of nature being independent of humankind’s manipulation.

In such a culture, sentient beings, then, would think of themselves as gods. They might have forgotten the one true God, living with no thought other than meeting their own needs and pleasures. In their eyes, they are the highest authority, the ones in charge.

All these varied storyworlds and the peculiarities of their cultures can be established by the presence or absence of a Thanksgiving Day or harvest day celebration. Such a brief holiday, easily over looked and yet as full of potential in fiction as in real life.

I’m curious. Can you think of any stories, Christian or secular, that include a Thanksgiving celebration?

This article is a revised version of one that appeared here in November, 2014.

Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War, Part 9: Perceptual Distortions in Combat

Tunnel vision, slow-motion time, abnormal hearing, memory loss, and intrusive thoughts are just a few possible effects of combat stresses.

The last article in this series looked at exceptional human beings and their reactions to combat over the long-term in terms of their ability to manage the stresses of warfare without suffering psychological harm. This article looks at the physical effects a life or death struggle has on a person during fighting itself and next week’s article will go into long-term effects of combat on human beings. (Information below is derived from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book, On Combat. Psychological effects in general, including perceptual distortions, are summarized in an article on Lt. Col. Grossman’s website.)

Let’s observe up front that there are inherent difficulties in this kind of study. People going into battle don’t usually have heart monitors attached to them. But the available evidence from laboratory experiments shows that when the human heart rate increases from stress alone (as opposed to exercise), certain predictable effects take place:

Note a trend in this chart. A certain level of elevation of the heart rate, between 115-145 bpm, benefits everything a human being can do, except fine motor skills. (If you need to thread a needle, it’s best to be at resting heart rate.) Beyond that heart rate, human performance generally deteriorates, except for gross motor skills and movement, which are best over 160. The heart rate that supports best the activities of, say, swinging a sword with a full adrenaline power boost, generally shuts down the higher brain functions that are good at conducting strategy.

One of the effects of training is to be able to enable a warrior to act appropriately in combat by rote memory, a.k.a, “muscle memory,” which is especially necessary in physical combat, since higher brain functions tend to shut down.

Another form of training, probably more ancient that the Zen Buddhism that utilizes this approach, teaches a warrior to calm himself or herself, in particular through controlled breathing. Note that an archer needs calmness more than a front-line swordsman. And a bomb-disposal technician needs to be even calmer than an archer.

In stories, human characters who are good at fine motor skills under stress (like bomb disposal) should not be sweating with a pulse throbbing in the neck–the person good at that kind of job will strike others as being unnaturally level-headed, eerily calm, like someone with “ice water in the veins.” Being a berserker works for a swordsman. A berserker bomb disposal technician, or berserker archer–or fighter pilot–is not a realistic character.

The higher heart rate chart only tracks some of the effects combat stress can have on a human being. The following chart is from On Combat, based on a study done on police officers in kill-or-be-killed encounters:

One of the difficulties concerning this chart is it’s hard to fully match it up with the heart rate chart above. It’s not as if police officers in a shootout–or soldiers in combat–are wearing a heart monitor during action. But other studies seem to indicate most of these perceptual changes occur most often when the heart beats over 160 per minute.

Another difficulty with the chart is that not everyone experiences the same effects. I personally (Travis P) have experienced high-stress situations that include both combat and non-combat situations (non-combat including involvement in traumatic accidents). People who read my descriptions of combat will find characters having strange random thoughts in the midst of stress, or making odd, out-of-place observations. According to the chart above, only 26% of people under circumstances like ones I have experienced reported “Intrusive Distracting Thoughts” (though perhaps fewer people reported them than actually happened). An example of an “Intrusive Distracting Thought” would be if a rocket exploded less than fifty meters from where you’re standing (for me, on the other side of a concrete wall) and you feel a shock wave impact your body and know according to training you need to run to a nearby bunker, yet the thought passes through your mind, “What a pretty blue the sky is today.” That’s the last sort of thing you’d expect someone to think in the midst of a life or death situation–but such thoughts actually do occur to some people in the real world during times of extreme stress. Including me.

I personally have also experienced diminished sound, tunnel vision, automatic pilot (where you can act but cannot speak), slow motion time, and a degree of dissociation. I write what I know myself, but studying information like that in the chart above has helped me understand my own reactions are not necessarily the only ones–and are not necessarily typical.

(A crude example of stress tunnel vision–my peripheral vision I remember as more reddish…) Credit: Monderno.com.

Some of these perceptual reactions can be very adaptive. For example, slow motion time, caused by the brain increasing its processing rate, gives the ability to react to something happening much more quickly than a person normally could do. Yet often a person experiencing slow motion time is not able to make a good independent decision and will only usually be able to repeat something learned by rote in training. Lieutenant Colonel Grossman points out that a person can repeatedly train in high stress situations and learn to think and act more rationally, while still reaping the benefits of greater gross motor ability and perceptual benefits such as slow motion time. This is part of the secret of success of special forces units, according to Grossman. They train in high stress so often, they are very nearly fully functional mentally with heart rates over 160–as opposed to not having any increased heart rate at all. (Though very little change in heart rate is probably what happens for certain highly unusual individuals in combat. Though it is simply unknown if naturally elite soldiers have a different set of effects than most people.)

Let me part by pointing out that these are natural human reactions and seem to transcend culture, as best anyone is able to determine. But they are natural reactions, so a speculative fiction story could easily feature artificial manipulation of these effects. Say, designer drugs or a magical spell that let one effect, say slow-motion time, be turned on without the negative side effect of, say, being unable to speak. (Of course these drugs or spells could go horribly wrong somehow.) Clearly a cyborg does not operate by these rules at all and could be completely calm in battle. Which is in fact portrayed often enough in science fiction.

Second, these are natural human reactions. Lord of the Rings Dwarves might go straight to a high heart rate, getting gross motor benefits, while nonetheless being able to think. Elves may stay icy calm, but still be able to fight. Aliens from other worlds might have high stress reactions quite unlike humans altogether. For example, an alien race might have to fight a natural tendency to go into deep hibernation based on a common predator of theirs that would not detect them in that state (which would be far from adaptive when fighting humans).

Overall, combat stress reactions are a reality any fiction writer who portrays combat should be considering. People don’t think the same way during combat as they do during situations without stress, though those effects might be different than what you’d anticipate. This topic can provide some especially interesting story opportunities for speculative fiction writers.

Travis C here with a few illustrations of physical combat reactions. I recall a time when I ended up sinking my sailboat with family aboard. Once we were all ashore several people mentioned how calm I sounded over the marine radio: “We didn’t think anything was going wrong until you called MayDay.” Well, that’s training for you. During months at sea as a submariner we trained in simulated high-stress environments for the kinds of casualties we anticipated might occur, and when they did occur (I have many memories of fires underway and submerged), our teams tended to react appropriately with a combination of rote action while maintaining decision-making capacity.

Working through the physical reactions of characters in combat in the right level of detail can be a challenge. In a world of audio-visual stimuli, the media moguls have given us many beautiful examples of these combat reactions that convey the reality of the warrior coping with his or her natural reactions coupled with training and experience. The film director can cut to scenes of pulsing blood vessels, dilated pupils, cut the sound out or narrow the field of vision, make us experience the pounding chest and heavy breathing. We can experience those reactions through observation. As writers, our job is tougher.

We need to keep the scene moving forward toward its payoff, driving the plot and character development while keeping with a theme and narrative arc. We need to be descriptive in a way that engages and captures the reader. A battle might last hours, or days or weeks of persistent action with random lulls. How many times can we write “Her pulse pounded and vision narrowed…” before losing their attention? Your ability to use tools like metaphors and navigate the dreaded adverb will be challenged in order to show, not tell, what’s happening.

Let’s look at some popular examples of these combat reactions with some possible writing exercises to go along.

Slowing down the problem

Two movies that show (not tell) the experience of time slowing down are The Matrix and Wanted. The Matrix is likely the more familiar and introduced the world to a unique form of filmmaking and special effects as the digital avatars of the characters wove their way in acrobatic delight while firing near-infinite magazines. Once Neo came to accept his identity and figured out how to do so, he could move as fast as the Agents due to understanding the rules of the program and how to manipulate it.

Credit: YouTube: The Matrix Reloaded (Note that unlike The Matrix, real world slowed time is at a natural maximum about 1/3 speed–which isn’t fast enough to dodge bullets.)

In Wanted, James McAvoy plays an unassuming office worker who is really the son of a supernaturally-gifted assassin. His test to join the guild? Shooting the wings off flies while threatening to be shot himself. We witness his internal reaction as heightened abilities take over and he watches in slow-motion each fly’s wings beat.

Writing prompt: How can you describe a character’s reaction to internally speeding up their actions and the perception of time slowing? What language might capture a before/after moment? One possible example is a character “seeing the problem through” and having time to visualize future actions until success (i.e., Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes).

Sight and sound

Hitting the beach. Credit: D-Day Overlord.com

The use of camera lens techniques and audio muting is easy to play with in visual arts like movies, but requires a writer to describe their characters’ senses working. Travis P described examples of auditory reactions in combat; reducing outside noises to a din, or the opposite as multiple sounds overwhelm a person’s natural processing capacity. Visually we know of narrowing of vision, a possible reaction by the body to shut-out unwanted stimuli and focus a person toward the highest threat. We witnessed these techniques in Saving Private Ryan during the opening scenes as Captain Miller exits his landing craft and hits the beach. Shells going off all around, we watch the dazed vision and hear the persistent ringing as he fights for control of his body.

In movies like Dracula Untold we have examples of magic (or supernatural causes) enhancing those traits to improve a warrior’s effectiveness. Luke Evans plays Count Vlad who makes a deal with a near-immortal vampire to gain strength to defend his people. When he awakes from the transfer of power he is acutely aware of his new abilities, including hearing a spider weaving its web (an example of a distracted thought in the next section). He is able to use these abilities to his advantage, but we also witness the potential side effects of a warrior having enhanced senses (both in creating blindspots as well as his overall cost of gaining such abilities).

Writing prompt: Pick one sense, sight or sound, that your character will experience a combat-related impact to. Imagine what that change will be like on the battlefield. Cover your eyes to slits or ears and describe the difference in words. What does the lack of periphery look like? What fills the void when sound is cut out? What will penetrate that barrier?

Distracted Thoughts

Credit: wot.wikia.com Rand al’Thor

Travis P mentioned the brilliant blue sky. I’m imagining a light, folky soundtrack playing in the background as mist-formed sheep graze across pastures of blue sky and the sudden return to reality when the moment passes. We often see this reaction, either the unintentional distracted thought or the ability to remain engaged while having distracted thoughts, in an almost comic trope. The expert swordsman fighting off an adversary while looking away and having an unrelated conversation. The completely random line or thought thrown into a fight scene to add levity while showing the distracted response (OK, I’m guilty of this…)

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series includes an interesting take on this in the form of a mental candle flame. During his initiation into the warrior role, main character Rand is taught to imagine a flame in his mind that he focuses his attention and energy into as a method establishing control of his physical and emotional reactions in high-stress environments like combat. As this practice becomes more mature he is able to engage opponents while having simultaneous and seemingly unrelated thought trains that the reader follows. Strategy, tactics, relationships: it’s all fair game. In that way the fighting scenes are broken up and we don’t have as much run-on fight sequence but we do get more character insight.

Writing prompt: What detail can you provide about your character in the form of a distracted thought? How will you deliver that detail (humor, off-handedness, weightiness, grim, sarcasm)?

These little details add up. They paint a realistic picture of your characters reacting to the stimuli of combat and their natural responses. When you choose to deviate from a human’s natural reactions, give your reader a reason to believe you. Is it due to a difference in species or race Travis P spoke of? Genetic or supernatural causes? We’ll suspend disbelief up to a point, but you should provide a plausible explanation at some point. Even if it’s the impact of unicorn horn and fairy dust.

Halloween and the Aesthetic of Evil

“Halloween is all about darkness and ugliness.” But Christians who say this confuse aesthetics with morality.
| Oct 31, 2018 | 22 comments |

A while back, Steven Wedgeworth wrote an outstanding essay  over at The Calvinist International on the origins of Halloween.1

It’s an annual must-read. The CliffsNotes version is that Halloween is not some vestige of ancient paganism or even a Christian subversion of demonic shenanigans (as a lot of Christian writers have claimed over the years). The truth is actually pretty boring. Halloween as we know it is little more than a 20th century invention designed to sell stuff.

After I posted Wedgeworth’s piece, some friends of mine raised the somewhat different objection that no matter what the origin of Halloween, it’s still “dark,” which violates 1 Corinthians 6:14-18.

“Witches, ghosts, demons, and death–” remarked one friend–“why would I want anything to do with it?”

It’s a common question, so let me take a stab at answering it.

First, “darkness” in such criticisms is ill-defined. What does it mean, exactly? I’m inclined to think from the context that my friends and many others who use the word this way mean something like “menacing,” “fearful,” or “sinister.” Perhaps their intended meaning is just “ugly.” Halloween can be ugly, certainly. I don’t know anyone who would be flattered if you told them they had a smile like a jack-o’-lantern, or a zombie-like complexion. But what’s wrong with ugliness, if used in the right way?

I know people who don’t watch or read The Lord of the Rings because it has too much “darkness” and “ugliness” in it. They don’t like the look of orcs and Nazgul, and think these baddies must have something to do with Satan. Well, they do. That’s the point! Tolkien’s story is rooted in a mytho-poetic battle between good and evil—one that makes it clear we each have varying amounts of both in us. And by placing appearances over storytelling, critics who balk at “darkness” or “ugliness” miss out on the best Christian fantasy of the 20th century, among many other wholesome, worldview-shaping works of art.

Christians who object to Halloween often confuse aesthetics with morality.

This is why I think that Christians who object to Halloween often confuse aesthetics with morality. It looks evil, therefore it actually be evil. There’s no way to redeem the spooky or the dark. Contra Frodo, they think that if it looks foul, it must really be foul, and if it looks fair, it must really be fair.

This is part of a more pervasive evangelical failure to appreciate the full scope of human experience, and the grand sweep of God’s redemptive story. I think of the New Testament’s vivid pictures of Hell as well as its rapturous portrayals of the New Jerusalem—of its hair-raising bestiary of symbolic evil as well as its awestruck glimpses at the transfigured Lord. You can see the result of this one-sided aesthetic in many churches. “Dark” imagery, such as that found in some of Christianity’s greatest works of literature, is no longer allowed, and neither is mournful or sorrowful music, which has historically played a key role in the Church’s worship and liturgical life.

The evangelical reaction against the sugar-saturated, commercialized shindig we call Halloween displays the tendency of many modern Christians (I’m going to say it—particularly moms) to mistake the aesthetic of evil for actual evil. In this way of thinking, spiderwebs and paper witches stand in as signs of moral corruption and rebellion against God. The outward tokens of the sinister, the predatory, and the ugly proclaim allegiance to the author of the fall and the father of lies.

But the Bible seems to hint at rather the opposite arrangement. While the Son of God “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him,”2 “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.”3 If the New Testament’s warnings are taken at face value, there’s more spiritual danger in the radiant smile of a false prophet than there is in all the latex werewolf masks Spirit Halloween supply can sell. The forces of the enemy present themselves as lovely, successful, happy, and holy precisely because such things are appealing. We buy products from beautiful people, after all. The homely seldom show up on billboards.

Certainly, if Satan had a physical form, it would be terrible. He is figuratively described by John as a dragon. If there is a lesson in Genesis 3, it is that moral corruption inevitably corrupts creation. All ugliness as we know it is ultimately a consequence of sin, and the damned are, as C. S. Lewis puts it in The Weight of Glory, “immortal horrors”—to themselves, no doubt, most of all.

Some may argue from this fact that Halloween still “celebrates” evil by encouraging us to revel in decorations, costumes, and entertainment that look like they were chosen by Hell’s interior designer. I don’t buy this. Aside from the change of seasons, tasty treats, and (as happens at every holiday) overindulgence in alcohol—it seems to me that what most people are actually celebrating on Halloween is fear. More precisely, they are taking pleasure in being afraid, just as people who ride roller coasters or watch suspenseful movies are doing the rest of the year. It feels good to be afraid. It triggers adrenaline and dopamine rushes. It makes you feel alive to fear for your life (even if it is only a game). It can even be kind of romantic.

Celebrating fear is a far cry from celebrating evil. Indeed, it strongly suggests that the things we fear really are dangerous, and need to be subdued or destroyed.

Celebrating fear is a far cry from celebrating evil. Indeed, it strongly suggests that the things we fear really are dangerous, and need to be subdued or destroyed. Almost all good stories trade in fear, because a plot requires a villain, and a villain not worth fearing is not worth writing or reading about. Fear is the spark that gets the engine of every epic turning, and makes us turn the pages, too, if I may be permitted to mix metaphors. Sauron is scary. Lord Voldemort is scary. Jaws, the walking dead, and the creature from the black lagoon all trigger fear. They also inspire us to root all the harder for the hero of the story. And therein, I think, lies the real value of fear, and of days like Halloween.

As with all things, the rules of prudence and good taste apply. Placing re-creations of bloody chainsaw massacres and replicas of bodies in sundry states of decay in your yard is not very charitable to your neighbors. And fixating on the spooky, without acknowledging the story of redemption which gives it meaning, is not healthy either. But it’s clear to me that in rejecting Halloween on aesthetic grounds, Christians are making a category error. Darkness is not evil. And confusing the two can do more than blind us to real spiritual danger. It can keep us from appreciating the victory of our Savior over all that we fear.

  1. This article is based on the original version at G. Shane Morris’s personal page, “Halloween and the Aesthetic of Evil,” Troubler of Israel, Patheos, Oct. 24, 2016.
  2. Isaiah 53:2.
  3. 2 Corinthians 11:14.

A Horror Newbie Discovers Dracula

This year I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time, and here’s what I thought about it.
| Oct 30, 2018 | 11 comments |

Last spring I read1 Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. You might say I read the book six months early. But in fact, I actually read the book—for the very first time—perhaps twenty years too late.

I enjoyed Dracula way more than I thought I would. Now I may finally “get” horror.

Sure, at Speculative Faith we’ve creaked open the great doors and invited several Christian horror fans into our castle to explore the genre, including novelists Mike Duran and Brian Godawa. (Also, be sure you catch novelist C. W. Briar’s excellent expose of werewolves in this month’s issue of Lorehaven Magazine.)

However, analyzing the genre is one thing. Actually reading a horror classic literally helps me develop personal appreciation for you horror fans. “Ah,” said I, having finally finished this Gothic horror tale for the first time, “so that’s why you love it.”

By no means can this horror newbie analyze the story, review this classic, or try to explain vampire lore and such. Nor would I make this article all about apologetics for the horror genre; our previous writers well cover that topic. Instead, I’d like to share a few responses I had during and after finishing my first read of Dracula.

1. I was weirdly giddy at hearing all the vampire tropes.

When I joined Jonathan Harker, rolling into Transylvania for the first time, I had this bizarre sense: that Dracula might be like one of those old genre books that you suspect doesn’t have a lot of genre in it. It’s a silly suspicion, but I had it. What if the book barely had any vampires? What if it were just some dry pseudo-historical tale, and in fact the modern vampire—cape, fangs, and all—is a modern mutation?

Again, what a silly suspicion. Once our villain himself confronts poor Mr. Harker, the genuine horror leaps out of its supposedly dry, empty coffin of history. And I found that I was weirdly happy about this. Yes, folks, here he was, Mr. The Count, dwelling in the castle in the mountains with lightning and terrified locals and everything. He had everything I expected: creepy gentility, pointy teeth, invisibility in mirrors, craving for human blood, aversion to garlic and religious symbols, and fog– and bat-based transformation powers (at minimum). He also had things I hadn’t expected, such as the ability to control creatures of the night, plus a harem of she-vampires.

However, a bonus: the overly weak notion that vampires explode in the sunlight? That’s a myth at least insofar as Dracula is concerned. Stoker’s vampires don’t do this. They simply lose their powers and become as mortal men. That’s much better.

2. I was repulsed/fascinated by the vampires’ inherent sensuality.

I’m no late-19th-century Gothic literature scholar, so I don’t know how much Stoker’s style and themes followed or diverged from expectations of the era. But I do know that even 120-plus years later, Dracula and especially his three vampire henchwomen were described as overtly sensual and sexualized.

Stoker, to be sure, shows more restraint than a modern author would, at portraying exactly what these henchwomen do and say when they confront a paralyzed Jonathan Harker. That restraint almost makes them worse. He’s fascinated by them, with lips and teeth and all, and I grew rightfully uncomfortable hearing it all. From a biblical perspective, I’m struck with many parallels. For example, see the various frightening fates that befall the victim of the adulteress in Proverbs 7: 21–23.

In our world, people are literally rejecting the gospel of Jesus Christ because he conflicts with particular sexual appetites. I think it’s time for Stoker-style vampires to make a comeback, especially with their fleshly lusts that the story shows for what they are: “dishonorable passions … contrary to nature” (Romans 1:26).

3. I found Stoker’s female characters (mostly) strong.

As a male reader, I love stories in which female characters act like, you know, human beings, with their own wills and opinions and agendas. The best stories do this so well with female characters that their readers don’t even need to write awkward calling-attention-to-it paragraphs like this one.

Not the actual Dr. Van Helsing, whom Stoker portrays as an elderly gentleman scholar who goes out of his way to respect women and men.

As for Dracula, the results are mixed. However, many things could have gone wrong with Stoker’s portrayal of the female vampires’ sensuality. He could have tried the “female sexuality is inherently bad” route, but I didn’t see that going on, especially because Dracula himself is shown as super-sensual, with a hyper-“masculinity” that masks his evil. Moreover, female leads Mina Murray (Harker’s fiancée) and her friend Lucy Westenra hold their own so well that, again, you may hardly want to bring up the stigma of the “Strong Female Character” for risk of bringing it all down.

Still, one portion of the novel made me roll my eyes a bit. It occurs later in the tale, when the gentle, elderly scholar (not beefcake action star) Dr. Van Helsing and his posse of male vampire-hunting recruits praise Mina for her most excellent and womanly virtues, and really there is no one equaled in all civilized society who has not the courage and the fortitude for such an endeavor. They’re all correct, of course. But their rhapsodies do go on, seeming to oversell Mina’s genuine strength.

Disgusting.

4. I think I can join fans who despise ‘teen vampires.’

Dracula is so captivating and so genuinely evil a figure—with just enough empathy to provoke a finale tinged with tragedy—that I can now empathize with those fans who resent the Twilight-ification of vampire lore.

Sure, I just got here, and I won’t pretend I can “culturally appropriate” the fandom for you professional vampire fans. But I can, at least, see why you particularly loathe the watered-down “sparkling” vampire.2

5. I found Dracula’s religious elements captivating and plausible.

From what I can tell, the reason why Hellboy uses bullets made of saints’ bones, and every other vampire-killing action star has other mystical-related weaponry, is because Dr. Van Helsing uses uniquely religious elements to subdue Dracula. For example, this gentleman scholar (again, not beefcake action star) uses sacramental bread from the ceremony of Mass to keep Dracula out of his places of refuge.

Now, of course, the Irish-born Stoker likely had in the back of his mind the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. This is the belief that bread is literally transformed into Jesus’s body during the Mass. So, in this universe, the evil Dracula is literally defeated—at least in part—by elements of the literal slain body of Jesus Christ.

That works for me. At the same time, I couldn’t help but develop a little headcanon. What if, in fact, it’s the association of these elements—in some spiritual way—with Christ and one of his church’s activities that actually deterred Dracula? For example, would you have to use “consecrated” bread to ward off vampires with spiritual power? Would a page of Scripture work just as well? Or a simple cross necklace?

6. I wanted to learn more.

Here is where I invite actual horror fans to help further induct this vampire newbie.

Sure, I’ve done some research into Stoker and the older tales from which he drew to create the modern vampire template. I’ve also read fascinating articles about the Icelandic translation/remake of the novel, and the fact that Stoker believed at least some of his fictional elements were based in reality. And, of course, I’ve been made grossly aware that some people claim to be “vampires” who drink human blood.

But now I want to hear from you. When did you read Dracula? What did you think or like about it? As a biblical Christian, what did/do you think or like about it? And what pictures of sin—and the power of righteousness over sin—does the story illustrate?

  1. Technically I listened to it, courtesy a talented team of Librivox volunteers.
  2. To be consistent, we longtime professional Christian fans of horror stories may also want to add the Hotel Transylvania movies to our withering criticism. That’s because while Twilight tries to positively teen-sex up the vampire, the animated movies seem to turn this evil figure into a crazy cartoon character.