Vampires and Themes

So vampires. I hates them. But if vampires were just an oldschool monster that no longer seems quite so intimidating in the light of a modern understanding of biology and contagion then they wouldn’t bother me nearly as much as they do. In fact, they wouldn’t bother me at all because frankly mining old ideas of their themes and adapting them to the modern era is all writers really do. There’s no new stories, just new takes on them. It took a long time for me to work it all out but I knew from about the time I first watched Hellsing (the original anime adaptation not the more recent Hellsing Ultimate which I will most likely never watch) what exactly about vampires that no matter the context or the way they were presented, I would never like vampires and always find myself cringing when they were introduced as characters.

Let’s just start at the top and run down the bothersome baggage vampires have one point at a time. The first is parasitism. Vampires are parasites, pure and simple. We almost never see them building things or influencing people for the good, or if they do it’s handwaved off screen. Central vampiric characters are literal leeches. They tend to only contribute through their manipulative powers (more on this in a sec) but their abilities are fueled by stealing blood from people, usually involuntarily. Sympathetic vampires either justify their parasitism by turning it on their adversaries or feed it some way that they consider harmless like taking blood from the blood bank.

UNRELATED: The best introduction to the “vampires run blood banks to find useful food sources” idea I’ve ever seen is when Dr. McNinja tells the Clone of Benjamin Franklin, “Vampires run the Red Cross you know.”

And Clone of Ben Franklin answers, “Oh, my!”

This happens while they’re riding an elevator in the local Red Cross branch.

BACK TO THE MAIN TOPIC

While at first glance only taking blood from murderers or blood banks doesn’t seem so bad the fact is the vampire is still a parasite and unable to do avoid destructive actions. Murderers aren’t the only ones who need justice, so do the families of victims. They need closure and a sense of finality, things they’ll never get that if a vampire just randomly offs the murderer before it happens. (And let’s face it – encounters with hunger vampires are pretty much always fatal with one exception – which we’ll talk about in a second.) The fact that our existing legal system is bad at providing closure and finality for victims does not justify a vampire robbing victims of those things as well.

Likewise, blood banks exist for people who need blood transfusions and they are often dangerously low on reserves and that’s without vampires chowing down on huge amounts of blood and making the reserves even lower. Regardless of what they do, vampires are taking from the world around them and giving nothing in return.

Well talk some more about parasitism in a second but I’m going to talk about points one and two together and point two is that vampires are irredeemable. They are never cured. EVER.

On an intellectual level, I get that. Vampires are creatures that are already dead but, for whatever reason, keep having an impact on the living. You can’t just undo their death – in fact they’re often undead because someone tried just that – and so there’s no way to fix their condition unless resurrecting people is a part of your story’s schtick and that’s generally a bad idea because it’s hard to maintain verisimilitude when your actions have no consequences. So cheating death = bad plots as well as bad other things.

But on a thematic level it effectively removes free will from the equation. And that makes your characters puppets of FATE (or the author but, you know, that’s one of the things your audience isn’t supposed to think about while immersed in your story). Yeah, I know, the vampires have this hunger and they can’t continue to survive without it blah, blah, blah.

You know what I have to say to that? Human beings have starved themselves to death to protest things. Or set themselves on fire. Or just willingly walked OFF OF CLIFFS just because they chose to obey the orders of their general over preserving their own lives.

According to legend Alexander the Great actually intimidated a city into surrendering to him that way, by the by.

So the themes of parasitism and irredeemability come together to create a truly horrific message behind vampires, whether they be antagonistic or sympathetic. Basically, every time you put a vampire into a story, you say that people with problems cannot be fixed. Kleptomaniac? He’ll never get over it, you’ll just have to pay for the stuff he stole. Video game addict? Better just make sure he stays fed while he’s lost in his fantasy worlds. Drug addict? Make sure he doesn’t overdose! Violent? Better just slap him in jail.

Stop and think about this for a second. Vampires can only be dealt with in two ways. They can be allowed to exist as a burden on society, with the people around them trying to somehow keep them out of trouble regardless of the cost, or they can be destroyed if they can’t or don’t want to be controlled. You can be an enabler or an annihilator. People with problems have no way out.

It’s the exact opposite of the idea that a problem, no matter how hideous it may seem at first glance, can be overcome. It may take sacrifice and hard work and painful amounts of compassion, it may take a realistic attitude and acceptance of the fact that you can and sometimes (frequently) will fail, but it can be overcome. The two ideas are polar opposites, and of the two I will take the second immediately and always.

But there’s one more implication of vampires that makes their popularity in this day and age both surprising and disgusting. Unlike the previous two points, this is something that’s come into the vampire mythos only with their updating to the modern age. And in particular, with the vampire’s use as a “romantic” protagonist.

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. Vampires are naturally horrific creatures. They drink blood and ruthlessly destroy people who come after them in an attempt to hold them accountable for their crimes. They manipulate people through telepathy or the use of their blood as some kind of a brainwashing drug. And, once again, they drain blood from their victims in order to gain power.

How is it possible, in the age of feminism and it’s many mixed blessings, advanced psychology and widespread literary criticism, that no one has realized vampires are directly analogous to AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP?!

How can we look at vampires, their physical appearance, their manipulative sexual maneuvering and their chemical and emotional manipulation of of their victims and only see an abstract symbol of “the forbidden” or “the other” or “the unknown” and not admit to ourselves that vampires are horrific abusive monsters? When we say it’s just the way they are or the romantic interest will change them or that the way the vampire cares for their romantic interest makes them different we are giving the exact same excuses battered spouses give for not leaving their abusive partner! It’s like culture as a whole has been sucked into an abusive relationship with vampires and we can’t admit to what we’ve stumbled into! Thousands and thousands of young people are reading stories that present abusive partners as not only acceptable but desirable! Where is the outcry?

It would almost be acceptable if the vampire in the story were an abusive partner who the romantic protagonist eventually broke up with. Except then we’re slipping into the first two thematic problems, the flaws of which I’ve already discussed. Yes, I believe even abusive spouses can be redeemed and healed. But doing it from in a romantic relationship is very, very dangerous and not behavior that should be encouraged.

But encourage it is exactly what every vampire love story I’ve heard of does. They show the POWER OF LUV changing the vampire protagonist, magically giving the vampire to control their urges and treat the other half of the couple in a way totally different from the way they treat everyone else. That’s great for creating romantic feelings in the readership but the message is that if you just stand by your partner, no matter how abusive, eventually your love will change them. Which, in real life, almost never actually works and is frequently traumatic and sometimes fatal for the people trying it.

It’s unhealthy, and I hate what it says about us as a society that we haven’t challenged this idea at all. When you take it as a whole, between the unfortunate message about personal problems being unsolvable, enabling being encouraged and abusive behavior being glorified I find vampires to be a pretty despicable addition to works of fiction. So this Halloween, consider taking your fake fangs and tossing them in the trash and forswear vampires and their horrible themes for good. There are plenty of better things to do with your time.

Nate Hates Vampires

It’s come up before. Now it’s time to actually talk about it. I hate vampires, and Halloween sounds like a great time to talk about why; because if there’s one thing this blog does well it’s overanalyze silly fantasy concepts.

I just don’t understand why people are so interested in vampires. Traditionally they’re villains and they’re not actually very good ones. For starters, in terms of raw intimidation power, they’re middle of the pack. Sure, they drink human blood and that’s just plain weird, and historically they have super strength and no heart beat. They don’t show up in mirrors, they sleep in coffins and killing them requires half a carpenter’s workshop but really, in terms of legendary monsters, that’s nothing special.

On the flip side of the coin, vampires have more holes in their defenses than a colander. For starters, there’s the well known stuff. They can be warded off with crosses or sometimes the Star of David or some other holy symbol. They can’t enter a residence without an invitation. They can’t cross running water. If they don’t sleep in their native earth, they don’t really get rest. They BURN UP IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT.

That’s right. 50% of the normal day is almost INSTANTLY FATAL TO THEM.

And that’s just the more commonly known stuff. A lesser known weakness of vampires is arithmomania, a burning need to count large numbers of similar objects. Yeah, you know how Sesame Street’s Count von Count counts everything? Yeah, all vampires do that. Well, except for the thunder and lightning bit whenever they laugh. Toss a bag of marbles on the floor and they’ll be far too busy counting them to defend themselves when you stab them with a pointy stick.

Now it could be argued that vampires have plenty of strengths to balance out their encyclopedia of weaknesses. But honestly I have my doubts about that. The traditional depictions of vampires tends to represent them as just very strong and hard to kill. There is the association with bats and wolves but that’s still not a fantastic power – any falconer or dog trainer can have trained attack beasts at beck and call. The mental abilities of vampires, things like mind control/hypnosis or controlling humans by blood, are not part of the traditional power set of vampires. I’m not sure if Bram Stoker introduced these abilities or just made them popular but before Dracula there’s not a lot of indication that vampires really did anything of the sort, nor can I see any reason to assume what is essentially a glorified cannibal should have fantastic mental abilities.

Now I know that it’s okay to put your own spin on an archetype. But for the most part I feel like a lot of those abilities got added simply because the stock vampire lacked punch and needed something that actually made it feel like it was menacing. The loss of free will is certainly menacing, so the end goal was accomplished, but the fact that such a thing seemed necessary indicates how lame they were originally.

The final aspect of vampires that I think attracts people to them is the way they’re frequently portrayed as mysterious and aristocratic. But any villain can be affably evil and in the case of vampires it’s, once again, not even a good fit. Traditional vampires were horrific creatures of appetite, not creatures of restraint. They were so filthy and caked in carrion that they reeked. The proper use of garlic was not to ward them off but rather to mask the smell so you could fight them without retching all over the place while trying to keep them from biting out your throat.

You see I agree with the theory that vampires, like zombies, are an attempt to explain the behavior we see in rabies victims when they finally flip out and go feral. Hydrophobia and fear of bright lights are both symptoms of rabies and canines and bats are both carriers of the disease, which might explain the connection vampires have with those animals. What rabid people are not is suave and charming.

So the modern use of vampires has nothing to do with the traditional folklore that they tend to come from. So what? We don’t need explanations for rabid people anymore, we understand rabies! That leaves the vampire mythos open to new ways of using it! PROGRESS! The new abilities and power level represent these things! Now vampires fill totally different places in modern stories than the traditional ones!

Yes. Yes they do. While traditional vampires are pretty much terrible villains for a story, the modern vampire is a thing of pathos and temptation. They’re not always villains and when they are they’re the likable, charming one that you can almost get along with. Only rarely are vampires a villain to be dealt with, like in Dracula.

So while on one level my objections to vampires are just a bunch of superficial griping about slapping together a bunch of weird stuff that seems totally unrelated and calling it a monster my most basic problem with vampires is one of themes. On a fundamental level vampires in modern fiction are being used to push forward themes that are very disturbing to me, and at times I wonder why they’re not more disturbing to others. Come back on Friday and we’ll talk about that some more.

Thunder Clap: Sifting the Ashes

Helix

“Okay, thanks.” I thumbed off the wifi phone my calls were being forwarded to and slammed it down on the table in irritation. With the exception of HiRes, a Secret Service agent who’d come in from Washington with Voorman and who jumped a little at the sudden noise, no one batted an eye.

Sanders, who had been tinkering with his tablet and updating the floor as he waited for my phone call to finish, looked up and asked, “Didn’t go well?”

“We found out why there was no answer at Keller’s house.” I paced back out onto the huge map that made up most of the floor of the room we were in. Once upon a time it had been the bullpen for field agents, now it was reserved for national emergencies. “The place has been broken into, signs of a struggle but no one home.”

“Mr. Keller and his whole family is missing?” Voorman asked.

“Thankfully, no. Roger Keller is divorced and his daughter lives with his ex.” I shrugged. “No one in the house but him. There’s a housekeeper but she doesn’t live there. The team that went to check the place talked to her. He was there just before 6 PM last night, so he must have been grabbed some time after that.”

Sanders looked slowly across the map of the country and shook his head. “This was really well coordinated. If it wasn’t such a nasty move I’d be impressed.”

Following Sanders’ line of thought wasn’t very difficult, it was laid out on the map at our feet and highlighted in red. We weren’t the only city without power. A total of five cities, one in each administrative branch of Project Sumter, had suffered a massive power outage at 10:22 PM the night before. Atlanta was dark in the South, Boston on the East Coast, Portland in the North West and San Francisco on the West Coast. With the exception of Frisco all of the cities effected tied back to Project history in some way, although Portland was the only other city with a regional office in it.

The always-perceptive Analysis department had pointed out that October 22nd was the date of our raid on Circuit’s bunker nearly two years before, making it likely  the time 10:22 was intentional. No-one had bothered to suggest otherwise.

Project Sumter was at Condition One but pretty much every local, state and national government agency that touched on national defense in some way was scrambling to respond as well. In some cases the response basically boiled down to getting all their ducks in a row while they waited for the other shoe to drop but even that was better than getting caught flat footed. The real hang-up was that, until Samson and I had gotten out of the blackout zone with news that Circuit, or someone who looked a lot like him, was styling himself newly crowned dictator of the city there was no indication that this particular disaster was in our sphere of influence.

Sure, Sanders had seen a major series of power outages and immediately jumped to the conclusion that Circuit was involved and Voorman had flown out in part because he’d wanted to know for sure one way or the other – and he was a Senator for Illinois so being on the scene rather than going to one of the other attack sites just made sense – but the vast weight of the Federal Government was still getting used to the idea of talented people existing. It wasn’t used to crediting national emergencies to them yet.

Okay, hopefully as a nation we never get used to crediting national disasters to any one person or group. But Circuit’s made that an empty hope for some of us as individuals.

And that was the meeting we’d just gone through in a nutshell. The news about the other cities that had been hit was a surprise but the steps being taken to mobilize the National Guard and field other resources was about what I’d expected. In turn, nothing I’d said had really surprised anyone who was familiar with Circuit’s history.

“Has anyone else claimed responsibility for this yet?” I asked, staring moodily at the five large red dots that indicated areas of operations around the five effected cities.

“Not that we know of,” Voorman answered. “Plenty of finger pointing but so far no one’s stood up and said they did it.”

“Actually,” Sanders waved a print out he’d been handed as the meeting wrapped up. “A video just went out to major video distribution sites on the internet shortly after you landed, Senator. We’ve got a group of talents claiming they’re looking to establish an independent nation and saying their responsible. Analysis is still looking into whether this video is real or was just made using some kind of special effects as a prank but it’s probably best to act as if it was real. I’m expecting calls to start coming in from Washington about it any minute now.”

“Any ties back into Circuit’s preexisting organization?” I asked.

Sanders glanced around, some of the other people who had been in the meeting were still around but not the two he was looking for. “You’d have to ask Mossburger or Cheryl’s assistant, wherever they got off to. Analysis and Records will have to sort that out, although I’ve no idea how long it would take to turn anything up.”

“We’re behind again,” I muttered. “Something big is going down and we don’t have the pieces to figure out the big picture. We need to take a proactive move, break up his processes, and still be getting a better picture of what’s going on.”

“The National Guard is mobilizing,” Voorman said. “Elements of several units should be here by late morning. That might give us enough time and manpower to begin searching for and deactivating the EMP weapons that have been keeping people out of the city. We’re not sure if that will end the communications blackout or not.”

“It would help if we had a better idea where these things might be hidden.” Sanders ran a hand over his closely shaven scalp, droplets of perspiration in the cool air hinting at how stressed he was feeling though otherwise his relaxed attitude gave no hint that he might be nervous. “Not being able to get ahold of Keller was a bad break.”

“I’ll try and get a warrant to look at his company’s records put together and find a judge who will sign off on it. If we can get into the offices and pull the files early enough we might not even loose any time.” Something nagged at the back of my mind. “And Keller had an investment partner sometimes. Name was Cynic or something…”

“Cynic is something you are, Helix.” Voorman pointed out.

“Whatever. I’ll check the file, we may want to bring him in and see what he knows.” I pressed my palms into my eyes and yawned hard enough that my jaw cracked. “And then I’m going to grab a nap.”

“Are you going to want to go back into the city?” Sanders asked as I started towards my office. “I can arrange for a tactical team to go back in with you, if you want.”

I thought about it for a second. Deep down I knew I wanted to be out there, back in the field and hunting for Circuit. But my new job description needed to be filled and the only other person I could think of who I would trust with it was Massif, who was already out in the field. Swapping places with him now would just be counterproductive. “No. Not at the moment. But if you can get Cheryl and Teresa out of there and put a few more field agents and trained tactical people in the field it would be a good move. Field analysts, too. Movsessian is the only one out there right now.”

“Will do.”

I picked up my temporary phone off the side table and headed towards my office.

——–

The name was Sykes and he was actually at home when I called. I made arrangements to have him brought in to the Springfield office and then to interview him by video call. The warrant paperwork I turned over to the Administration office assistant and then I pulled out the collapsible cot I kept in my office and settled in for a couple of hours of sleep.

I got about forty minutes.

The frantic buzzing and beeping of my phone woke me suddenly and I banged my hand into the wall as I reached towards my dresser. Which reminded me that my dresser was in my apartment and I was in my office. Groggily I rolled over to my other side and dragged my hand across my desk, sending a bunch of paperwork, pencils and other junk falling to the ground along with the phone. I fished it off of the floor and answered it.

A few minutes later it got slammed down for the second time that day, and since we hadn’t even hit sunrise yet it probably wouldn’t be working by sunset. A string of profanity drifted up from the phone, protesting my nearly deafening the tactical team leader on the other end.

So I switched it off, pushed up off the cot and pocketed the phone, doing some swearing of my own. It only took me a few minutes to call Pritchard Mossburger, our head analyst, and ask for the files we’d built on Keller and Sykes during the Enchanter investigation then head out to find Jack and tell him to add Matthew Sykes to our list of people we needed to watch out for since he, too, had disappeared from his house in the time it took our pickup team to arrive. In all I was back in my office in about ten minutes. To my surprise, Mossburger was already there with files in hand.

For a moment I considered whether I could club him with one of the office chairs and get another hour or two’s worth of sleep before having to deal with this but gave up on the idea. A guy my size doesn’t have the leverage to swing one of those things fast enough to knock someone out.

Mossburger apparently took my silent staring as surprise rather than considering violence because he shrugged and said, “You mentioned the Waltham Towers connection during the meeting so I went ahead pulled Keller’s file. Sykes’ was right in there with it and I seemed to remember the two were connected so I pulled it at the same time.”

He handed me the two manila folders with a flourish. They weren’t particularly thick or impressive considering that they’d been a part of one of our most important ongoing investigations for nearly two years but, at the same time, the Keller Realty angle hadn’t been considered a high priority line of investigation at the time so it hadn’t gone that far. But in my groggy state getting anything out of them was out of the question. “Give me a summary?”

Mossburger grabbed a large cup of coffee off of my desk and swallowed some of it before answering. “Roger Keller is a bit of an enigma. Adopted at the age of eleven, brought up to run his adopted parents real estate and development firm. Went to Stanford, took over the business, did okay with it. Married when he was twenty six, divorced eight years later. No obvious connections to crime, ties to local politics and the governor mainly through campaign contributions. Keller Realty is a large firm in local realty but other than the Waltham Towers deal there hasn’t been anything high profile. That list of properties we found during the Enchanter case is really the only thing that makes them of any interest at all.”

“That sounds exactly like what we knew when we formed the task force to find Circuit after he disappeared.” I kneaded my knuckles into my eyes, feeling exhaustion that wasn’t entirely due to lack of sleep. “We haven’t gotten anything new since then?”

“We’ve been keeping an eye on the properties they’ve handled since then but there’s not patterns we can use to connect them with the ones on Circuit’s lists.”

“Right. I need some coffee. Tell me about Matthew Sykes on the way.” I got up from my desk and headed towards the kitchenette, Mossburger trailing along behind.

“Sykes is actually more interesting than Keller. He was also adopted, in fact he and Keller seem to have lived in the same group home for a while which is how they know each other.” Mossburger was lagging a few steps behind since he had brought the file with him and was looking through it as a reference. “Sykes Telecom was originally a local phone company that dabbled in a lot of other communications possibilities but really hit it’s stride in the ’90s when they became an ISP. The Sykes the elder started the transformation from phone line internet delivery to fiber optics shortly before he died, something Matthew continued with.”

I thought back to my meeting with Sykes a couple of years ago. He hadn’t seemed that old. “When did Sykes’ father die?”

“About ten years ago. That’s the really interesting thing.” Mossburger handed me a photo of a small airplane, one wing broken and the fuselage a bit crumpled up, sitting in the middle of a field. I handed it back and quirked my eyebrows to ask what it meant. “Matthew Sykes wanted to learn to fly and his adoptive parents indulged him. After he got his license he took his parents on a celebratory flight and something went wrong with the plane. The crash killed both parents and left Sykes a cripple.”

I stopped in the middle of pouring my coffee. “Any signs of foul play?”

“None that they could find. Sykes blamed an instrument outage followed by the engine cutting out and the black box backed him up on that. The telemetry just goes weird about a minute before the crash although the intact stuff worked again when they tested it afterwards.” Mossburger shrugged and closed the folder back up. “Ever since he’s become an almost total recluse, doesn’t really go anywhere but to his office, his house and his charities. And he never flies anymore. He was actually scheduled to be in Dallas this week for a charity drive but his wife went instead for some reason.”

Something about that sounded off but I wasn’t sure what so I asked, “Did she fly?”

“Yes. She doesn’t seem to share her husband’s dislike for it.”

Finally my brain reminded me of the fact I was looking for. “Wait. Sykes was married?”

“Not at the time of our preliminary investigation. The wedding was last June. We don’t know anything about the wife and she came into the picture late so we assumed she wasn’t a factor.”

“No, I guess by the time she entered the picture things would have been in motion for years.” I sipped my coffee for a moment and then sighed. “None of that really sounds that useful. I don’t understand why Circuit would want to abduct them…”

Mossburger held up a finger for me to wait, then dug through Sykes’ file again, finally pulling out a sheet of paper. “This is our best bet. It’s a list of places that were completely rewired with a fiber optic local network as part of their renovation by Keller Realty. Sykes Telecom did the work on each and every one of these places. Waltham Towers is on the list and we’re operating under the assumption that Circuit was trying to find places where his network of gadgets would run with optimal efficiency. Possibly there’s some kind of back door in their work that Circuit is taking advantage of and he doesn’t want them telling us about it. It’s not much to go on but it’s something.”

“I guess.” I sighed again, then a third time because the situation seemed to warrant it. For some reason this prompted Mossburger to smile. The law of conservation of a good mood required that I scowl to keep the total amusement in the room equal. “What?”

Mossburger sat down on top of the kitchenette’s small table, ignoring the chairs available, and wound up just above my eye level. “Do you ever wish you could just sink a bunch of heat, turn into a walking funeral pyre and walk through problems? No matter how well prepared he is there’s no way Circuit could stop you if you did something like that. I’ve seen the stats on the kinds of updrafts and storm winds you create when you really get hot, it’s unlikely you could get shot with anything short of light artillery, it’s like you’re standing at the center of a small tornado. Sure, there’s the whole throwing lightning bolts thing Circuit can do but when we finally reproduced it in the labs our fuse boxes all needed a good idea of where their target was to hit it and if you made a big enough of a storm he’d never know for sure where you were in it.”

I hefted myself up and sat on the counter, putting us level, and stared at my coffee for a minute. He did have a point. Although people like Samson or my grandfather seemed incredibly powerful and unstoppable it was heat sinks like me or wave makers like Amp that Project Sumter really worried about going rogue. The potential for widespread mayhem in the short period of time before we could be stopped was really a lot higher for those of us that could effect large areas or over a distance than taxmen, who were at least limited to destroying things they could touch.

And then there were matter shifts like Gearshift, who could make things more or less dense just by pushing on them a little. They’re the kind of people we still haven’t told the public everything about. One matter shift with enough enriched uranium and a death wish could do what no terror organization has ever accomplished before.

“Let me ask you a question first, Pritchard.” I looked up from my coffee and gave him a hard stare. “When we first met you came up with conspiracy theories for fun. When was the last time you did that?”

He held my gaze for a second or two then looked down at the folder in his hands. After a moment he shrugged and said, “Not since I agreed to start working here, I guess. When Mona Templeton died… well, I didn’t know her all that well but…” He looked for the right words, couldn’t find them and so ended with another shrug.

I knew the feeling. “When I was a kid, yeah I wanted to go white hot, walk through everything that got in my way and bring justice to the world. It’s still really, really tempting. And I’m not gonna lie, I have tried it once or twice. But sooner or later you’ve got to face the consequences of your fantasies. They effect real people in real ways and not always for the better. If I didn’t let that fact change the way I acted I’d be exactly like Circuit. There’s a real chance large parts of the city wouldn’t even be there anymore.”

Mossburger didn’t look up but he did nod his understanding. I hopped off the counter and clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, Mossman, we’ve got work to do. Why don’t you call up Jack and have him get someone on watching Sykes’ wife, if he doesn’t have someone doing it already. Tell him I want to talk to her as soon as she can get here. She flies here, not back to Springfield.”

“I can do that,” he said, standing up as well. “But what are you going to be doing?”

“You reminded me of someone I need to talk to.”

I left him with that useful bit of information and scoured the building until I found Voorman and Samson in Samson’s office. I wasn’t sure if they were discussing the case or just catching up and I didn’t really care because I really wanted to talk to Voorman’s bodyguard, HiRes, who was in the hallway outside. He gave me a brief nod in acknowledgement when I arrived.

“Call your boss,” I said.

He tilted his head to one side. “Any particular reason?”

“Because outside of possibly me Darryl is the biggest expert on Circuit in the nation. And he’s hands down the person who hates Circuit the most. Last time, after the Michigan Avenue Proclamation, Circuit got away from us when we might have caught him if we coordinated.”

HiRes glowered at me. “You were dead set against Director Templeton working on that case, Helix.”

I spread my hands. “That was my mistake. And it would be a shame to repeat it. Now are you going to call him at whatever place he’s at here in town or do I have to call Washington, plow through a forest of red tape to get in touch with him and possibly miss out on a chance to do things right?”

HiRes held his glower a few seconds longer as he thought it over, then nodded slowly. “I’ll talk to him about it.”

“Good.” I turned and headed back towards my own desk and the subpoena paperwork that would sooner or later be needing my signature. “I’ll be in my office so he can call me there if he’s interested. Just tell him to make up his mind fast.”

October Daye and the Hazards of Long Running Characters

Consider this more of a rant than a real examination of writing as such. There’s nothing quite like a breakdown of what’s going on here, mainly because the character arcs aren’t resolved yet and the stories in them aren’t over. There’s holes in what’s going on and the picture isn’t complete. But the picture that I’m getting points towards some of the problems with managing your characters in a very long running series.

As you’ve probably gathered by the title, this is about the main character of the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire, which I’ve recommended in the past. I recently finished the most recent installment, The Winter Long, and it was mostly everything I expected of it. But it’s developed a problem I’ve noticed in a lot of long running series and rarely effectively addressed.

So for starters, what is the problem?

Basically, the problem is familiarity versus dynamic characterization.

We all know the feeling of coming back to the characters we know and love for another round of fun and hijinks. This is what makes TV shows, particularly sitcoms or some of the light hearted dramas, run for so long. They start with a bunch of people we know, they throw a new problem at them, and when the dust settles the problem is dealt with and the people go back to what they were doing before. Status Quo is God. There’s no problem with that, it’s part of the formula.

But in most books it’s taken as a given that characters, both the central cast and some or even all of the peripheral characters, need to change some over the course of a story. Given that books (and movies) are a format that allows for a much deeper and more extensive exploration of characters than even an hour long TV show; there’s more room for it to take place and we expect it. Regardless of whether character development is the focus of the story, it’s expected.

The problem that long running series encounter is that, as your characters are growing and changing, all those small changes are going to stack up and turn your cast into something that the readers are no longer familiar and comfortable with.

Now. There’s nothing wrong with this on the face of it. This brings into play the elusive quality of verisimilitude that all writers need to work into their stories. Real people change over time and, if you just check in with them every six months or a year instead of living with them constantly, you’re going to find them weirdly unfamiliar due to the ways they’ve changed and you’ll probably be made a little uncomfortable by this. The rare exceptions to this will be your friends for life but, and let’s face it, those are just as rare as the fiction characters who you will easily connect with at any time and in any place.

So as a general rule the characters that fill long running series tend to slowly warp into something other than the person we got to know. It’s just a part of the format. In fact, if they don’t they actually start to feel flat and unbelievable. But the opposite also poses problems.

The problem with this gradual change is embodied in the relationship between October, or Toby, and her liege lord Sylvester Torquill and his wife, Luna. When Toby first introduces us to these two characters they all have a good relationship, there’s real warmth between them in spite of a kidnapping incident that Toby failed to clear up, mainly because she’d been turned into a goldfish. It’s a long story.

Over time the relationship between them builds up problems. Sylvester and Luna have been keeping secrets from Toby – I’m not sure why this is such a big problem for Toby since the lives of all the characters are built on an interlocking series of secrets they keep from each other and the world at large. Regardless, Toby starts finding things out and wondering why Sylvester has been keeping them from her.

My problem with the way this has fallen out is this.

First, we never really see signs of the falling out between Sylvester and Toby until The Winter Long. We’re told Toby is having more and more questions about Sylvester’s behavior but she never does much to hash it out, at least not that we see. In The Winter Long Toby actually gets a in-her-face suggestion for why Sylvester’s behavior towards her is so favorable – along with another more subtle one she might not have caught. Yet Toby never gives this man, who has been supportive and kind to her since the day they met, the benefit of the doubt.

This is particularly bizarre as Toby has given several of her other friends that benefit, particularly the Luidaeg (don’t as how that’s pronounced), who have been under or are under a series of interlocking agreements and bindings that force them to talk in circles in order to get information across, when they can communicate information at all, or otherwise constrained by their magical nature. Sylvester is very old (McGuire’s fairies don’t age, although they can be killed) and he’s also fairly important in the grand scheme of things, yet Toby never stops to think that decisions he made hundreds of years before she was born might now be tying his hands regarding what he can or cannot tell her.

We don’t know that they do, but it’s very odd that the possibility never even seems to cross Toby’s mind.

Also, Sylvester’s biological daughter was abducted and missing for fourteen years, during which time the poor man was mad with grief. Now she’s a moderately psychopathic person in an induced coma. Sylvester can be excused for being a little over protective and secretive, not that Toby ever acknowledges that. And the relationship between Toby and Luna has been even more neurotic.

It’s like every volume of the series that comes out we find the two ladies on worse footing with little examination of why things are getting worse, other than Toby’s found she doesn’t know Luna as well as she thought. Rather than trying to come to a closer understanding of a person she claims is a friend, Toby avoids Luna and otherwise undermines Luna’s attempts to keep the Torquill family from dissolving under the trauma it’s sustained. And the worst part about this is, the October Daye series is written in the first person. There is literally no other side to the story.

There’s a lot of character arc going on and we’re not getting perspective on it. Maybe part of the point is that Toby finds these characters as strange and alien as we do, but my biggest gripe is she’s not reacting to these changes like she’d react if any other character started to display the same behaviors. She’s taking it very passively, and that’s woefully out of character for a woman who springs into action before reinforcements arrive half the time.

The worst part about it is, it feels like it’s dragging down the series. This really feels like something that needs to get wrapped up promptly, that’s the kind of action we expect from our heroine. But instead it’s just sitting there and casting a shadow over the series. There’s a better than good chance McGuire intends to resolve this at some point in the future but leaving characters that felt so very central to the early portion of the series out in the cold for so long is displeasing.

To summarize: Long running series, especially in the case of books and movies TV series that have to restart at the beginning of each season are actually better at this, have a bad habit of creating character growth in characters in one installment and then not giving the audience time to reacquaint themselves with those characters and where they are in life in the next. This tends to happen more with supporting characters, since they don’t get the same amount of screen time as the central cast, and it results in those once beloved characters turning into something strange and foreign when they do show up. And I’m worried that the treatment of the Torquills in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is going to fall apart as a result of this.

Do I see this as a potential problem? Yeah. Do I have any idea what to do about it? I’ll have to get back to you on that…

How to Survive a Horror Movie

Well they tell me Halloween’s coming up. I’ve never been a huge fan of this particular occasion, since I’m only moderately enthusiastic about dressing up in costumes and my sweet tooth isn’t that big either. Still, I thought it might be fun to take another tongue in cheek look at genre savvy this year and so, without further ado, I present you with How to Survive a Horror Movie.

Now this idea may sound preposterous on the face of it. After all, there are so many different approaches to horror movies, different kinds of threats and/or monsters to menace the characters (henceforth “the opposition” in this article) that being prepared for all of them seems like an impossible task. But it’s important to keep in mind that tackling impossible tasks is what fiction is all about and horror movies are just as much fiction as anything else. So let’s get dangerously genre savvy and see what you’ll need to survive should you find the creepy music tinkling in the soundtrack of your life.

Now I’m going to assume that you’re media savvy enough, or common sensical enough, to realize the basic measures that need to be taken to survive a horror movie. Things like:

  • Avoid dark places.
  • Don’t go anywhere alone.
  • But don’t couple up. Three is a good number.
  • Don’t investigate strange noises even if you have an entire combat infantry regiment for backup.

But there’s more to surviving a horror movie than just that. Let’s take a look at some things you shouldn’t do, let me make a few suggestions on added precautions to take and finally look at a few places where your mileage may vary.

For starters, don’t:

  • Try to acquire conventional weapons, at least nothing beyond a decent knife. The opposition tends to target the largest, most dangerous people first to prove its overwhelming power and make itself as scary as possible.
  • Mock the opposition directly or the people you’re with. Antagonizing the opposition just draws it’s attention, much like trying to out muscle it. On the other hand, being a jerk is a lot like looping a millstone around your neck. People will hesitate just a fraction of a second when you’re in trouble, and that’s enough to sink you.
  • Try and drop off the radar completely. The opposition never forgets you’re there and if your friends do… well, it’s like asking to be left alone. And we all know how that ends.

On the other hand, do:

  • Try and keep the attitude light. Jokes are okay, just not mean-spirited ones. While the opposition often strikes when you’re feeling relatively secure, and breaking up a lighthearted mood does add to it’s threatening nature, it can’t strike you directly, as then you die unafraid (which is unacceptable) and it can’t continually strike during a punch line – that makes it predictable and thus less frightening.
  • Get ahold of a bag of salt. From giant slugs or oozes to ghosts and demons, salt is  a great general purpose horror survival tool, either as a weapon or a defense. And if you get trapped somewhere for a long period of time you can use it to season your food.
  • Get ahold of a bag of rice. If the opposition is OCD, as vampires (see Sesame Street or just look up arithmania) or human psychopaths tend to be, the need to count it, or at least clean it up when you spill it, will slow them down.
  • Get ahold of a bag of fresh garlic. The opposition often smells horribly, which is to say you will not enjoy smelling them; often to the point where your attempts to flee will be overcome by gagging. Garlic was good enough for Van Hellsing to overcome this problem, so it’s good enough for you.
  • Try to avoid confusion over which bag is which and combine all three of the above items into one bag. Trying to dissolve a giant slug with a bag of garlic will just make you look silly. Shortly before you end up looking dead.
  • Find and burn anything that falls into the uncanny valley. Leaving that stuff around is just asking for trouble.
  • Burn any documents in languages you can’t read, especially when it’s in dead languages. Don’t try and figure them out. Don’t take them around to experts. Don’t hang sings around your neck that say “Victim, Please Eat Me”. Just get ‘em gone then get out of town.
  • Put objects to be destroyed directly into the fire and watch them burn. Put them in a box or something else before burning them and you’ll walk away thinking they’re gone when they’re actually hidden in the ashes. Or worse, some kind of switcharoo will take place and you’ll burn the wrong thing.
  • Maintain a respectful attitude towards the objects you destroy. The fact that you regret destroying them may be enough to deflect whatever vengeful spirit is using them as a vessel to attack you. Yeah, the odds are bad but it’s worth a shot. Don’t laugh like a maniac unless you’re prepared to try and out-evil horrible ancient evils.

Finally, here are a few things where value is going to depend on what your opposition is, or what kind of person you are.

  • First and foremost, wearing a cross or other holy symbol. If you wear one all the time, great, keep it on. Ditching it probably paints you as a target. But if you don’t wear one normally, putting one on is just as big a target – the opposition loves hypocrites. And not in a good way. Of course, many forms of opposition don’t care about your faith one way or another but oftentimes you won’t know what you’re facing until it’s too late.
  • Learning about the opposition is a two edged sword. The opposition gets a lot of it’s fear factor from the fact that you don’t know anything about it. On the other hand, it’s a bad idea to start your research before you know you’re in a horror movie – being the know-it-all is just a another kind of target on your back, so don’t do this until you’re sure you’re in a horror movie so finding out the opposition’s weaknesses, if it has any, can be a death sentence. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Just don’t be the annoying dumb guy.
  • Building positive relationships with the people you’re stuck with seems like a good idea. It keeps them from leaving you behind and it makes the time pass easier. However, the opposition likes nice guys. And not in a way that’s any better than it likes hypocrites. There’s a careful balance between being a target and getting along, especially since jerks are just as big a target as the overly nice. It’s probably best to act like yourself and hope everything pans out. Not much of a plan, I know, but in some ways fiction is exactly like life…

So there you have it. The next time you find atonal music drifting through the background you’ll be ready, or as ready as anyone ever can be, to face the horrors of… horror. So long as the film has a decent budget you should come out okay.

Thunder Clap: Smash Up

Izzy

Amp leaned one shoulder against the side of the alley, eyes closed in concentration. Her head swiveled slowly back and forth as she listened to things only she could hear. I shifted impatiently as we waited, I’d grown up in the city and never seen the streets so dark before. An empty building looks a little sinister lit by streetlights as you walk by it but, in near total darkness, crouched by a looming wall and wondering what it was Amp was hearing, the city itself seemed alive and malevolent.

Maybe it was just because I knew there was more to listen for than I was used to but I found myself focusing on the soft, inconsistent breeze that blew down the alley, almost like the hissing of breath. A sudden metallic popping sound echoed down the alley. All of us except Amp jumped.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Probably a trash can or something, cooling down from the heat of the day,” Clark answered.

“Or something’s rummaging around in it,” Al suggested. “Anything yet, Amp?”

She didn’t answer so I took the opportunity to ask Al about something that had been bothering me for the last few minutes. “Didn’t she say the acoustics in the city aren’t right for this kind of thing?”

“I can’t here clearly over long distances,” she said, annoyed. “The streets are like canyons, they make echoes that muddle words up. But I can hear across one street fine. Now shut up, all of you.”

We did as instructed. There were a few seconds while Amp just listened, then finally she said, “There’s three cameras on the front of the building, one stationary at the main entrance, two at the corners with a five second interval panning from one side to the other. And I think there’s someone inside the building, although the noise is coming from the top floor.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem, utility rooms are always on the first floor when they’re not in the basement so they’re easier to hook up to the grid,” Clark said.

“Except they could see us coming across the street and, if it is some kind of guard posted by Circuit or whatever sick mind knocked the power out, they might have reinforcements they could call in.” Al tapped Amp on the shoulder and, once he had her attention, motioned for us to move further back into the alley. “Clark, how likely is it that Circuit would bother to guard these locations?”

“Honestly? Not terribly.” He was quiet a second and I caught flickers of movement that may have been him counting things on his fingers. “He has to have at least forty or fifty of these things in town, maybe a little more, maybe a lot. It’s hard to say, since we don’t have a clear picture what the radius of effect on his EMP weapons is, or, for that matter, whether that’s even a primary part of his strategy. Remember, Helix didn’t know how he’d taken out the thugs he found. If he has armed response teams ‘protecting the city’ like he’s said his goal is then he’s fielding a lot of personnel already and they’ll have a hard time also guarding these installations.”

“And if he’s not dealing with looters using hired guns he’s not protecting his toys with them either,” Amp finished. “Nasty situation.”

Actually, from the way they described it the solution seemed pretty obvious to me. “Why don’t I just throw you all onto the roof here, then across the street to the roof of the store? Whoever’s down there probably isn’t expecting us to come in from the air and-“

“Okay, wait.” Amp cut me off with an emphatic wave of the hand. “Maybe you and Massif can survive that but Clark and I are squishy, remember? Regular people and most talents cannot survive a direct shotgun blast.”

“Neither can I,” I said patiently. “The way this goes down is, I toss Massif up to the roof, he breaks his fall and catches the two of you when I toss you up.”

There was a grunt of comprehension of Clark. “Vector shifts can transfer momentum from one object to another. If Massif does catch us he can literally break our fall by moving the momentum from us to the building at his feet. The key being his actually catching us. Have the two of you actually practiced this before?”

“It’s not actually been a priority so far,” Massif said, “since she was theoretically a couple of months away from testing for field work. It’s not that complicated a maneuver if the precision is there but, no offense, Izzy, based on the way you tossed that planter at Lincoln’s place the fine control isn’t there yet. Plus there’s the added complication of doing it in the dark. If we were just trying to get up on a roof I might say try it but going across the street? I’d rather not. Other suggestions?”

“Actually, I think that idea can work,” Clark said, “And it does have the plus side of giving us an angle of attack Circuit might not be expecting. Although I can’t remember if there was a rooftop entrance or not…”

“We’re not tearing out a skylight just so we can get in the building,” Al said. There was a moment of quiet, I think he was waiting to see if anyone else had ideas, then he sighed and said, “Okay, I was hoping someone else might have a better idea but I guess not. I did come with a plan, it’s just a little risky. Lincoln’s family knows the owner of this shop – I think they know every small business and franchise owner in the state – and they use the same security provider. He has a master key for most of their security doors.”

“Why?” Amp asked.

Al laughed. “If I knew that there’s a real chance someone would be in jail and we wouldn’t have them now.”

My eyes widened a little. “What, is he a part of the Triad or something?”

“So here’s what we’re going to do.” Al handed a huge ring of keys to me, ignoring my question, and said, “Izzy, you take these, Clark, you’re with me, Amp-“

“Don’t tell me. I’m the communications relay.”

“And long range artillery,” Clark added quickly.

Al didn’t let the byplay slow him down too much. “Speaking of weaponry, Clark, you’ll need to leave the tire iron here.”

“You’re still carrying that?”

“Like I said, Izzy, I don’t have-“

“Tire iron. On the ground please.” Al waited until the soft ting of metal told him Clark had done as told. “If there are no other interruptions? Good. This is what we do…”

——–

So my plan wasn’t really all that far off from what we wound up doing. I did wind up jumping from rooftop to rooftop, which I’d never done before and is not nearly as cool as you think it is. Okay, it’s pretty cool when you can see where you’re going and don’t have to worry about where you’re going to land or if there’s anything there to trip over or if you’re going to smash your face into something on landing. But trying to sick a landing in the middle of the night, during a power outage, after jumping over a street that looks more like a river of ink is not fun.

I managed to make the landing in spite of not being able to see anything although I did wind up having to use the break fall technique Al’s always praising as the basis of superpowered hand to hand combat. Apparently we spend a lot more of our time getting thrown around than we do blocking or throwing punches. Still, I was over on the roof of the bookstore with no problems other than a few scratches and a racing heart.

At a glance I couldn’t see any security cameras along the back side of the store. It was a short drop from up there to ground below. Now under normal circumstances there would have been plenty of light to see by and unlock the back door of the building with. There was a carriage light above the door and a street lamp in the small parking area behind me. But with the city still out of power I was reduced to pulling out my cell phone and using the dim glow from it’s screen to help me figure out what I was doing as I fumbled to unlock the door.

The building had a fairly standard security setup. The door was a standard lock and deadbolt assembly, but once you were past that you had to enter a security code into a control panel near the door or alarms of some kind went off. Except, of course, that there was no electricity for any of that stuff to run on and a bookstore does not exactly have the budget for a backup generator like the concert venue did.

It was kind of scary how dependent on electricity I was finding life in the city to be. As I let myself into the back of the shop I started to wonder how safe my mother and two little sisters were at home. No one had a clear idea how far the outage extended but from the sound of things most of the city was in the affected area and we certainly didn’t live out in the suburbs.

Worries about family were quickly squashed by the sound of pounding on the front door of the shop. That would be Al and Clark, providing a distraction for me by walking brazenly up to the door and knocking. I let the door swing closed behind me and stumbled through the back of the store. The checkout counter was to my right, stacks of books ran off to my left and in front was a shapeless gloom that the glow from my phone didn’t illuminate far enough to show anything.

According to Clark and Lincoln’s fuzzy memories of the building layout the utility room was behind the counter. I crept quickly up to the counter and, rather than look for a way behind it, just climbed over. There was a door in the corner behind it although it was locked and the key I had didn’t open it. I was fumbling through the keyring, hoping one of them might unlock the door, when Al pounded on the door again and a deep voice like James Earl Jones boomed out saying, “This is the police! Open up!”

I hadn’t known Amp could do that with her voice.

To my surprise we actually got an answer. A couple of gunshots cracked from the second floor and I heard a surprised yelp from out front. Without thinking I dropped the keys, threw my arms over my head and jumped.

Breaking through the floor or a wall is no more fun than jumping over a street. Mostly it’s just a sudden, sharp pain in your forearms. Even concentrating on pushing up and out like papa taught me to the pain of impact was pretty harsh. Almost as bad was the knowledge that somewhere back at the regional office stacks of paperwork was spontaneously printing and collating itself for the inevitable after action, property damage and expense reports. Worse was realizing that I had again overshot the mark and smashing into the roof of the building – from the inside this time – after going clear through the second story in spite of the fact that crashing through the floor really slowed me down.

Fortunately I’d put a bit of an angle into my jump so, although the impact stunned me a bit, I didn’t fall straight back down to the ground floor but instead landed in a heap on the second floor. Winded, I staggered to my feet, absently brushing debris off of my arms and shoulders as I tried to get my bearings.

Up on the second floor was most of the café part of the establishment so sight lines were a lot better. Also, there was just enough light filtering in the windows that I could actually see vague shapes like tables, chairs and a man leaning against an open window frame. I couldn’t see his face but from his posture it looked like he’s just turned around in surprise. “Drop the gun,” I croaked, my voice not really big on the talking thing at the moment. “And put your hands in the air.”

After a second’s hesitation the silhouette bent down and I heard a soft thunk, then it straightened back up with it’s hands over it’s head.

“Muey impressive,” Amp said, her normal voice drifting in through the window. “Massif says good work, bring the shooter downstairs and let us in. Might as well figure out who this guy is while we look for EMP weapons.”

“Right,” I said.

“Right what?” A nervous sounding male voice asked. Apparently Amp had directed her voice so only I could hear it.

“Never mind. Come with me, sir, and we’ll go for a little walk. We need to have a little talk with some nice people.”

For some reason, that idea didn’t seem to appeal to him much.

——–

As it turned out the store’s owner had stayed behind to lock up and guard the shop against looters once the power had gone out. I’m not sure why he thought that was necessary, bookstores aren’t exactly the kinds of places that get looted in survival situations. Maybe he’d just never seen The Day After Tomorrow. Not that I blame him.

Anyway, he hadn’t hit anything other than ground and Al managed to get him calmed down and assured him that we weren’t interested in dragging him off to jail, mainly since he was still under the impression we were local police when we were actually Federal agents. Saying you’re the police when you’re not, even if you are still technically law enforcers, is the kind of thing papa used to do but is now against the rules so we didn’t want him realizing we’d lied to him and possibly spreading word about it.

He was even nice enough to unlock his utility room for us and let us rummage around in it. After about fifteen minutes of rummaging around by the light of a small flashlight the owner had produced, stubbing toes and clunking heads, Clark finally found a metal box in the drab olive color power companies seem to favor tucked in a corner underneath the water hookups. It was locked but Al gave me the okay to break the latch and open it up.

Clark took one glance inside and whispered, “Jackpot.”

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Hello. I’m Nate and I’m an Idiot…

Hello, dear readers. This is a quick note to apologize for the lack of a story post today. Funny thing about that…

I’ve written in the past about what I call nonlinear writing, the process of writing the bits of a story that are most interesting to you and slowly filling in the gaps rather than starting at the beginning and writing straight through to the end. It’s a technique I employ from time to time to good effect but it does have one danger… It’s possible to never write chunks of the story you intended to.

Or in this case, to skip a part of the story fully intending to come back to it and not actually get back to it by the time I intended to post it. In truth the entirety of today’s chapter got skipped over while I charged forward into next week’s chapter (and finished it!) only for me to sit down last Friday to make this weeks posts and discover… I had nothing for today. I thought I could get that fixed by today but, long story short, I didn’t.

This week’s chapter is mostly finished as of this moment. But in order to do the last quarter of it justice and give the whole thing a good copy edit I think I’m going to need most of this evening. Rather than postpone the whole story by a week I’m going to scratch out those last few paragraphs tonight, let the whole thing sit for a while and watch Scorpion, then give it all an edit and schedule it to go up tomorrow. So tune back in Tuesday morning for the next installment of Thunder Clap and thank you for your patience and understanding.

Nate Chen