Sunday, August 2, 2020

Guest Post: The Last Egyptian, A Black Comedy Set In Late Roman Egypt

Got another guest post from Luis "Lou" Salcedo, he who wrote the earlier synopsis for a Seth Rogen comedy set during the reign of Justinian. Now he's decided to write a black comedy set in late Roman Egypt. Behold...

The Last Egyptian

Since there are sparingly few notable movies on Roman Egypt, besides Agora (2009), I had a fleeting thought for an A24-style black comedy-drama. The Last Egyptian would be a satirical black comedy starring Rami Malek as Flavius Onuphrius, a mid 5th Century Roman officer from Egypt who comes home after years serving the Empire abroad.

Flavius Onuphrius (Rami Malek) serves under Magister Arnegisclus (Mads Mikkelsen), leading a detachment of the Emperor's Palatines. Onuphrius scouts ahead and is ambushed in a skirmish. Onuphrius and a select few return to Arnegisclus, who decides that it's time to take the battle to Attila (Fabio Ide). On the following day, the Romans meet the Huns at the river Utus.

Arnegisclus' army is wiped out. Onuphrius is shot in the eye and left for dead, witnessing Arnegisclus and his fellow soldiers get cut down one by one. Fade to black. Onuphrius is discovered by Prefect Constantinus (Mark Ruffalo) and made to report his findings to Emperor Theodosius (Chris Sarandon) and he faints from shell shock.

Onuphrius finds himself in the imperial infirmary and receives word from the doctor (Hank Azaria) that he's been dismissed unceremoniously from service. No pension or land, especially since we're talking a millennia and some change prior to OSHA. He finds out that his long term partner, the actress Eudoxia (Dasha Nekrasova) had left him for senator Liberius Babylas (Rob Lowe).

Onuphrius gets a letter from his father informing that his mother had passed away and he would want him to come visit Syene (modern day Aswan) to give respect to her gravesite. Having nothing better to do, he decides that it's time to come home.

In Syene, Onuphrius reunites with his baby sister Kattrin (Yara Shahidi), a Rupi Kaur-esque poet/scribe and his elder sister Lucra (Hannah Simone) who's married to Isidorus (Dominic Rains), a bandit leader who seeks to drive out the Romans. Onuphrius' father Pamoun (Bassem Youssef) is the priest to Isis. He guilt-trips his son into helping him maintain the temple as his youngest brother Shenoute (Mena Massoud) converted to Christianity and is now a deacon in the newly constructed church.

As the weeks turn into months, Onuphrius' assistance turns into being a participant in Pamoun's schemes, chiefly trying to accuse the newly appointed priest Hormisdas (David Chokachi) of being a proto-Pizzagate guy grooming young men and women to serving a foreign god and being responsible for the climate change, barbarian invasions, etc. All these accusations fall flat and the temple continues to fall into disrepair as more people visit the church.

Onuphrius starts a relationship with Sophia (Lucy Boynton), a down to earth baker. He confides that he wants to run away from everything, ever since his father would spend more time worshiping Isis than raising him. Sophia suggests that he tries to rebuild that connection.

The relationship between Onuphrius and his father is slowly rebuilt and he gains more enthusiasm participating in his father's crazy, hare-brained schemes, seeing it as making up for lost time. Onuphrius suggests using Isidorus and his bandits to ransack the church. The bandits do so but this only angers the town. The temple of Isis, also Onuphrius' mother's burial place, is burned to the ground by a mob.

Onuphrius and his family, including a saddened Shenoute watches the temple's destruction from a distance. Pamoun mourns the temple, seeing it as an extension of his devotion to his wife. Onuphrius points out that while the temple's destruction is a loss, the family's shared memory of the mother, the temple and conspiring together made them a much stronger family.


Flavius Onuphrius - Rami Malek
Pamoun - Bassam Youssef
Sophia - Lucy Boynton
Kattrin - Yara Shahidi
Shenoute - Mena Massoud
Lucra - Hannah Simone
Hormisdas - David Chokachi
Liberius Babylas - Rob Lowe
Isidorus - Dominic Rains
Arnegisclus - Mads Mikkelsen
Constantinus - Mark Ruffalo
Byzantine Doctor - Hank Azaria
Emperor Theodosius - Chris Sarandon
Attila - Fabio Ide

Friday, July 31, 2020

FALLEN EMPIRE What Might Have Been #2: Independent Stories

In a previous post, I described how I would have continued writing in Lindsay Buroker's Fallen Empire science fiction universe had Amazon continued the Kindle Worlds program. My main focus would've been the "Choi and Watson" prequel series ("Ten Davids, Two Goliaths" and "Discovery and Flight"), but I had several ideas for independent stories.

Fallen Titan-This one takes place in the aftermath of "Ten Davids." The survivors of the Imperial warships the Tri-Suns Alliance rebels destroy--mostly trainees--have to survive on the swampy surface until rescuers arrive. Survive while being hunted by...something. This is loosely based on accounts I've read about the Battle of Ramree Island during World War II in which Japanese soldiers were attacked by crocodiles. The protagonist is an Imperial enlisted seaman ("starman" since we're dealing with spacecraft) under the thumb of an abusive superior who gets progressively sick of her to the point they he frags her and calls the Alliance salvaging crews overhead for rescue instead of waiting for the Imperials. In the canonical series Buroker has protagonist Alisa Marchenko reference the Imperial military's stern disciplinary practices (potentially including flogging), so many members of the Tri-Suns Alliance might've been Imperial personnel who'd deserted due to mistreatment. This one is fully outlined and partially written.

Rebellion of the Dead-I'd heard on a podcast that zombie fiction fans were voracious readers, so what better way to make some cash than by writing a zombie story set in the Fallen Empire universe? This ties in with the ruthless side of the Alliance mentioned in the canonical novels--the zombie virus is created by the Alliance, not the Empire, to compensate for their lack of numbers. The zombies can be controlled by pro-Alliance Starseers (more on them later) or simply unleashed as indiscriminate weapons like Arcturus Mengsk uses the Zerg in the original Starcraft. Fully outlined and partially written.

Apprentice-The Fallen Empire universe features a subspecies of humanity called "Starseers," who have psychic abilities. They're divided between a good (or at least neutral) faction and an evil group called the chasadski, which want to take over the Tribus Solis system much like their ancestors had attempted centuries past. Although some took sides in the rebellion, most stayed neutral and pursued their own goals. This particular story was inspired by "Darth Maul: Apprentice," a Star Wars fan-film in which Darth Maul hunts a group of Jedi who find his training ground. However, when the villainous chasadski Lord Thomas Smith has sole "Good Starseer" survivor Khaila Sokolov--powerful but young and relatively untrained--at his mercy, he decides not to kill her. Instead he claims her as his new apprentice (and heavily implied concubine). This is very much like Dryden Vos did Qi'ra in the back-story for the Solo film, even I don't recall using the movie as a model.

(I recall discussing this one with Lindsay and pondering this as the back-story for a member of the main villain's entourage in one of the later books. Given how...uncomfortable...the whole plot is, I was planning a second story in which a fully-trained Khaila gets the drop on Smith and disposes of him Sith Apprentice-style during a mission--incidentally like Qi'ra ultimately does to Vos in Solo. I don't have a synopsis in my notes for the second story, so I mustn't have gotten very far after outlining the first.)

It would have probably needed a new title, to avoid being too blatant a rip-off, but I didn't get the chance to get started on it.

Kurultai-In the Fallen Empire universe, the victorious Alliance was only able to take control of three planets, while the Imperial capital remained under the control of the dead emperor's successor. The rest of the Tribus Solis system fell under the control of various warlord types and Mafia bosses. In this one, a retired Imperial general of Mongol background deposes the corrupt Imperial governor of his largely Mongol-Chinese planet and is chosen by the people to be the new khagan (Great Khan). Once in power, he suborns some local Imperial spacecraft and launches a war of conquest against a nearby world that had been a historical rival of his own. Like "Apprentice," I outlined it but didn't get started.

Commander of the Faithful-Somewhat similar to the above, except it's an Islamist instead of a wannabe Genghis Khan. In Angle of Truth, the adherents of the Old Earth religions are shown to have been largely exiled to one outlying planet in the system and I can't recall any discussion of serious fighting on the planet during the rebellion. Either this happened somewhere else or got squashed pretty quickly. I don't even really have a plot here, just a concept.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

FALLEN EMPIRE What Might Have Been #1: Choi and Watson

Awhile back, I wrote two Kindle Worlds novellas set in independent science fiction author Lindsay Buroker's Fallen Empire universe, "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths" and its sequel "Discovery and Flight."Both were part of a sub-series called "Choi and Watson" that took place during the rebellion preceding the events of the first novel Star Nomad. They followed Geun Choi, a Korean Buddhist warrior-mystic, and his friend Tammy Watson, a recovering drug addict. Both are fighter pilots for the rebellion that brought down the titular Empire and repeatedly cross paths with canonical characters like main-series protagonist Alisa Marchenko and her lecherous friend Bradford Tomich.

(Since neither character is part of the main series, this avoids the prequel problem of knowing a character's eventual fate. See this comment from Mad Magazine about the duel between Palpatine and Yoda in Revenge of the Sith. Since Choi and Watson aren't canon characters, it's entirely possible one or both of them could die in the events of a story and that allows for suspense.)

However, Amazon shut down Kindle Worlds not long after I started writing for it. Although Lindsay allowed those who'd written KW stories already to republish them ourselves, I didn't see any point in writing more. Here's where "Choi and Watson" would have gone if Kindle Worlds had kept going.

(I had some ideas for unrelated stories, but those will have to wait for a later blog post.)

"Torpedo Protocol" (Choi and Watson #3)-The Alliance unit that includes our heroes expended almost all of their torpedoes during the events of "Discovery and Flight," so the rebels have to steal more. While the mission is being planned, Tomich (who has had an eye on Watson since the beginning of "D&F" at least) finally sleeps with her, much to the protective Choi's irritation. To shut him up, Tomich tries to hook up Choi with one of his (many) previous flings, who's also a Buddhist. This one gets into the Empire's religious policies--in one of the later books, it's revealed the Empire required everybody to join the state religion centered on the three suns and exiled the die-hards of Earth's old faiths to a reservation planet. Choi's syncretic Buddhist faith was tolerated due to its similarity with the official religion, while Tomich's ex had to suffer for her more traditionalist beliefs and is surprisingly resentful of her date. And then the battle starts...

"Fire From The Sky" (Choi and Watson #4)-In the main series the rebels' Tri-Suns Alliance engaged in ruthless tactics like deliberately attacking civilians because they couldn't defeat the Empire in open combat, at least until very late in the game. In this story, we see this firsthand--after the Imperial admiral from "Discovery and Flight" bombards a rebellious planet from orbit, the Alliance uses captured civilian ships as relativistic weapons, devastating a loyalist planet in return. This causes the horrified Watson to break up with Tomich, who abandons his habit of poaching among the lower ranks to start sleeping up the chain of command, which we see throughout the main series. In his mind, Watson didn't want anything to do with him anymore because owing to her lower rank she's not aware of the "big picture," but someone higher on the totem pole would be.

Both of these novellas were plotted out when Kindle Worlds shut down, but I hadn't started writing them. I had some ideas for later novellas involving the characters stealing fighter spacecraft ("Stealing Strikers"), seeking to recover a psychic-amplification device referenced in one of the canonical prequels ("Psychic Fire"), and destroying a factory producing android soldiers for the Empire ("Android Rising"). The latter is particularly important because although sapient androids exist in this world, the Empire didn't mass-produce them to crush the rebellion. The point of this story would be to explain why.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Book Review: "Fantastic Schools Vol. 1"

Once upon a time, the mighty Chris Nuttall reviewed on his blog my debut novel The Thing in the Woods, I believe in exchange for my review of his telepathic sci-fi novel The Mind's Eye. Now at long last the Thing sequel The Atlanta Incursion is here, and he's reviewing that for me in exchange for my review of his newest project, the collection Fantastic Schools Vol. 1 that he edited in addition to contributing a story.

The Plot

Most people are probably aware of the Harry Potter series that takes place at the magical boarding school Hogwarts, but the "magical boarding school" genre is actually much older. Chris and several other authors have written stories of their own set in these types of environments--Chris himself has a lengthy series entitled Schooled In Magic--and this volume collects fourteen of these magical tales into a book of respectable length.

The Good

*The collection is pretty long for an anthology--the Kindle version has 500-odd pages, as does the paperback. You're definitely getting a lot for your money with this one.

*The collection ends with "Gennady's Tale" by Chris himself. I haven't read any of his Schooled In Magic series, but I know enough that this is one of the villains' Start of Darkness. This story starts out with him as a crippled boy treated horrendously by the superstitious ignorant villagers he grew up among. And though magical school brings many improvements to his life, it also brings more bullies. His need to be respected, his need to be powerful, is understandable under such circumstances, but how he goes about trying to get these leads down a very dark road. This story serves as a warning to those whose bad circumstances might tempt them to envy, resentment, and spitefulness. 1 Corinthians 10:12 comes to mind--everybody who thinks they're standing should take heed lest they fall. You can see the train wreck coming, the temptation he falls to, but it's relentless. Our hero definitely has an arc, but it's a very bad one. Definitely well-done, and rather sad.

*One of the other top stories in the collection is "The Last Academy" by G. Scott Huggins,  a parody of Harry Potter with a dash of Lovecraft. The Chosen One has defected to the Dark Lord and the only bastion of wizarding society not under his control is a school for magical misfits meant more for containment than teaching them how to function in society. I enjoyed the evil counterparts to the HP Golden Trio (Harry, Ron, and Hermione), especially evil Hermione, and there's a good joke in there about the misuses of the Invisibility Cloak. Not going to go into any more detail for reasons of spoilers.

*Another story I really liked is "How To Get Into A Magic School" by Erin N.H. Furby. Not only do they touch on some deeper topics like high-stakes testing and apply the whole "hidden magical world" to an American setting rather than Harry Potter's British one, but it made me care about the characters and the choices they make. It also touches on Native American mythology in some interesting ways.

*Another story with well-developed characters that makes me care about them is "Metamorphosis" by Roger D. Strahan. Although some of the stories set in pre-existing worlds didn't stand on their own--more on that later--this one followed a completely new character and made the protagonist of his novel The Witch of New Orleans a side character. That seems like a good technique for writing short works in an established fictional universe and it's something to keep in mind.

*I also liked the opening story "Little Witches" by Mel Lee Newmin. It takes a lighthearted approach to a fairly heavy topic--sexism among British wizarding schools in the Victorian era, with the girls' school getting the short shrift on funding. It doesn't appear to be set in a broader fictional universe based on my googling the author's name and checking out their Amazon page. That's helpful because there's no need to be more familiar with a broader fictional universe to understand it, which was an issue with some other stories in the collection.

*Another interesting one is essentially a LitRPG story featuring a Christian seminary student from our world who ends up as a wizard in a Dungeons and Dragons style fantasy. Who knew that knowing Koine Greek could be so helpful? :)

The Bad

*Some of the stories are set in the authors' pre-existing fictional universes and don't really stand well on their own.

*In "Gennady's Tale," a couple characters' actions seem rather out of character and severe and happen far too quickly. It seems like they're there for plot purposes rather than happening organically due to the characters.

*Unfortunately "Metamorphosis," despite being one of the best stories in the collection, begins with what appear to be formatting problems. The paragraphs aren't indented, nor do they have spaces between the paragraphs. The rest of the story looks normal, so I assume this is an error rather than an artistic choice.

*The shadow of Harry Potter hangs heavily on the stories. Although some hang a lampshade on that and even poke fun at the Potterverse, one story does have something that looks to me like the author was copying the Sorting process.

*One of the stories has an absolutely unsympathetic, two-dimensionally evil Complete Monster lead whose capabilities and actions reach Villain Sue territory. The story would have been much better if the reader were able to sympathize with them at all.

The Verdict

Definitely a good concept and with some very good stories in it. Some weaknesses though. 8.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Myopia Movies: Ranking the ALIENS Film (Except for The AVPs)

For those of you not in the know, I'm a regular participant in the film podcast Myopia Movies (formerly Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, but we haven't done the "defense" part in a long time) and we have a Patreon page. We did a Patreon-only series devoted to the Alien franchise, culminating in the most recent film Alien Covenant. At the end of the episode, podcast host Nic asked us to rank the films in the order we most enjoyed. I was first to go, but I was also very tired and might not have been at my most coherent, especially compared to the other three gentlemen.

(The Alien vs. Predator films have been left out because we haven't done the second yet, and the episode on Predator 2 hasn't been released yet. These are the Patreon-only films.)

So here are mine:

1. Alien-Very well-done, very atmospheric. And since the cast is so small, we can get to know them better and care more about them.

2. Aliens-Although I was visiting friends in D.C. when this episode was recorded, I remembered a lot of well-done bits from when I did see it, like Ripley's power-loader battle with the xenomorph queen, the last stand of Vazquez and Gorman, and the overall coolness of the concept. And it elaborates a lot on the xenomorph biology too, like introducing the entire concept of the queen in the first place.

3. Alien Resurrection-I found this a lot more entertaining than Alien 3, or at least the theatrical cut we saw. I also liked a lot of the concepts, like the android Annalee Call being a devout Catholic, the implied holocaust of the sapient androids, and the hilarious and super-creepy station doctor. It's also a lot more genuinely fun despite quite a number of areas it could have done better. If you sign up for the Patreon, you can read a "how I would have done it" newsletter article I wrote. :)

4. Alien 3-A ponderous boring mess that starts out by giving the audience the middle finger and killing off Hicks and Newt, the other two survivors of the first film. It's like they wanted to return to the form of the original film (no guns, one alien, confined location) but did it in a very ham-handed way. Combine it with the first Alien vs. Predator film (which I will still insist is canon) and you get into the conundrum of just whom the Bishop android model is based on. And while the earlier films used practical effects, this is where the bad CGI gets introduced into the franchise.

5. Prometheus-I'll give this movie credit for the the seriously squick-inducing "alien c-section" scene. There's not a lot in monster movies that can rattle me, but that did it. However, it suffers from idiot-character syndrome to a degree exceeded only by the next film Covenant. It also gets into "ancient aliens" theories that I have problems with on a philosophical level. To be fair, I wasn't there for this episode and the last time I saw this it was in theaters, so I might not be remembering it properly.

6. Alien Covenant-The only way the movie can be described as "character-driven" is if you focus on how absolutely moronic the characters act. Captain Chris Oram is a particularly extreme example--they visit the new planet rather than finishing repairs and continuing on their journey to the planet they'd prepared beforehand to colonize because he doesn't have the backbone to order the crew to return to their potentially-malfunctioning stasis pods. Once there, he becomes entranced with the new planet and thinks it's a perfect alternative colony than the planet they're going to even though that seems like something that would need approval from higher up. And even after killing a xenomorph the sociopathic android David was trying to tame, he trusts David even in circumstances where the most hopeful and naive person should be screaming "NO!" And although the idea of having the crew consist of seven married couples to preserve harmony on the ship during a long journey seems like a good idea, we see the dangers of that up close--characters endanger the mission by taking stupid risks to protect their spouses and the death of crew members cause disproportionate problems for that reason. Not to mention it's my recollection David was literally dismembered in Prometheus--even if he was able to help teach Dr. Shaw how to rebuild him, he's not going to be at 100% function.

(It would have been interesting if, having spent ten years with only the talking severed head of David for company, the villain was a deranged Dr. Shaw instead. She could carry his head around like Jason carries the head of Freddy at the end of Freddy vs. Jason.)

Furthermore, the cast is too large for the film to develop significantly and the movie butchers the lore by depicting David as having created the xenormorphs within ten years of the prior film, even though there are ancient murals in Prometheus depicting xenomorphs. Furthermore, the Engineer ship Ripley and friends find in Alien is itself quite old, has thousands of new-style xenomorph eggs rather than the few David managed to create, and was captained by an Engineer. As somebody (I think it was Nic) pointed out in the podcast, if they make a third film, they're going to have to get very creative to avoid it contradicting Alien.

So those are my thoughts on which of the Alien films are the best. If you want to listen to the podcast episodes and see the "How I Would Have Done It" article for Alien Resurrection, sign up for the Myopia Patreon. The AR analysis is in the newsletter that went out on May 4, 2020.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

A Hungarian Byzantine Dynasty? Venetian Revival? Italy (Mostly) United in 1848?

Although I'm still self-banned from the alternate-history forum and have no inclination to go back (cutting down on Twitter usage to free up time and avoid social media anger fatigue as well), I still drop in on the public forums. The pre-1900 section has some fun stuff lately.

A History of the Oungrikos Dynasty of Roman Emperors: The Six Emperors – 1180 to 1330-My first professional publication was an article in a military history magazine on the Battle of Manzikert, so the Byzantines during their early decline (after Manzikert, before the Fourth Crusade) is a period of particular interest. Apparently there was an episode of Byzantine history in which seemed a dynastic union of the Byzantine Empire and the kingdom of Hungary was possible--sometime last year someone wrote a timeline called "The Turul on the Bosporus" that covers the same ground (and has a more entertaining narrative besides). In this version, the personal union allows for a revival of Byzantine fortunes in Anatolia and a formal alliance with the Mongol Ilkhanate, which benefits my favorite maybe-heretical Christian branch the Nestorian Church of the East.

(They established the first large-scale presence of Christians in China under the Tang Dynasty, a Japanese Nestorian may have been the inspiration for the alleged grave of Jesus in Japan, and the Mongol ruler Sartaq Khan was either Nestorian or Orthodox.)

The Lion of St. Mark: Venice and the Morean War-The divergence from our history seems to be the early death of Louis XIV, who in real life died in 1715 but in this timeline dies in 1683. This in turn affects The Great Turkish War and leads to a very different Louis XV--the Sun King's adult son, not his real-life grandson. I think the overall "point" of the timeline is that the decline of Venice is averted and its Mediterranean empire continues. I once read a book called City of Fortune about the medieval Venetian republic and although they were oftentimes very unpleasant people (the Fourth Crusade comes to mind, as does their chronic mistreatment of the Greeks under their rule), they were masters of trade and the inspiration for the city-state of Everett in my steampunk novel Battle for the Wastelands.

(Although Grendel, first lord of the Northlands, is the master of the land, Everett controls the sea and thus the majority of the trade with the lands beyond the Iron Desert. They play quite a role in the future of the series.)

The timeline seems to have only just started, but the Hapsburg dynasty of Austria in particular seems to be doing better. No Bourbon dynasty in Spain will also have plenty of effects on Latin America.

Italico Valore - A more successful 1848 revolution in Italy - a TL-The revolutions of 1848 were a major lost opportunity in terms of human freedom, with the kings ultimately suppressing the people and maintaining some form of the monarchical regimes for another generation or so (longer if you count the imperial government in Germany). This time around, the Italians are more decisive and effective when the Austrians are at their weakest and northern Italy is unified in a sort of federal constitutional monarchy, with the son of the Sardinian king as the new king of Sicily. Only Naples remains under the old regime. Side effects include the permanent legal exclusion of the Bonaparte family from power in France, so there's no Second Empire. Good riddance.

Thursday, July 9, 2020


Nearly two years after I completed and submitted it for publication, The Atlanta Incursion, the more science fiction-oriented sequel to my debut horror novel The Thing in the Woods, is now available for purchase. As of the time of this writing, the e-book and paperback have not yet linked--if you prefer your books physical, here is the paperback version.

Thing stood on its own, but the way my imagination works, I soon started devising new adventures for the characters that survived what went down in small-town Edington, GA. Before the cult of the ancient tentacle god got involved, male lead James Daly was planning on going to Georgia State University to get his core curriculum done in preparation to transfer to his parents' alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, while female lead Amber Webb was heading for Valdosta State University to double major in PR and theater.


Although both survived, neither survived unscathed. James in particular is afflicted by insomnia and post-traumatic stress, while Amber, though less overtly traumatized, blames herself for the death of her distant in-law Sam Dixon. Furthermore, both of them are now dating--Amber had been crushing on him before and although James would grudgingly admit liking her too, he'd thought he could do better in college. Owing to their shared battle against the titular monster and its worshipers, things changed. Although Atlanta-Valdosta is not much as far as long-distance relationships go, things are going to get interesting when James finishes his core curriculum.

And this new adventure brings us additional characters. We'll meet James' close friend Eli, who's mentioned in Thing, as well as completely new Javion Jackson. When I wrote the book in 2016-2018, #Occupy and #BLM were things that had apparently come and gone (Thing and TAI both take place in 2010), but recent events dramatically revived the latter and the concerns raised by the former never really went away. As the book takes place during the lead-up to these social movements, those two characters in particular reflect them.

And shout-out to Armand Rosamilia. Not only did he produce a podcast episode discussing Thing, but he also provided an author blurb for TAI.

"Another topnotch monstrous tale. I loved the first one and this is even better!"

Monday, June 15, 2020

How I Would Have Done Ramsey Campbell's THE HUNGRY MOON

A week or two ago, I read British horror author Ramsey Campbell's Lovecraftian tale The Hungry Moon. Although I liked the title and the concept and there were some good moments (like a psychic vision revealing the monstrous Lovecraftian moon god's full back-story), overall I didn't enjoy the book. The American evangelist Godwin Mann came off to me like a massive anti-Christian straw-man, the ending didn't really make a lot of sense, and there was too much psychodrama and not enough otherworldly stuff.

However, it's easy to complain. Like I've done before on this blog with movies like The Last StarfighterMortal Kombat, and Priest and on Myopia Movies' Patreon, here are some ideas I had that could improve the book. Warning--here there be spoilers.

*In general, I'd tighten up the cast. There are lots and lots of characters and it's hard to tell them all apart. And so many of them have problems that the story is filled up with their drama rather than focusing on the "American preacher accidentally unleashes a Druidic moon god who now wants nuclear weapons" that brought the story to my attention.

*Ix-nay on how the outside world forgets the town of Moonwell exists. If the events of the story took place on a faster timetable, there'd be no need for it. Furthermore, the fact people in London are forgetting about a town in the Peak District hundreds of miles north raises questions as to just how powerful the moon-god is and whether it even really needs to storm the nearby nuclear base in the first place. Why not just mind-control Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and have her launch one at Moscow?

*Play up the nuclear fears. The placement of U.S. nuclear weapons in Great Britain was a very controversial topic in the 1980s, but other than anti-nuclear protests being mentioned and the danger that the moon god would seize control of nearby nukes in order to effect its revenge on mankind for defeating and imprisoning it, this isn't a big part of the story. It's a massive missed opportunity, especially since the climax of the story involves several characters trying to escape the town to get to the missile base ahead of the moon-god and its minions. Female lead Diana Kramer is already an American working in Britain; in my version, she's the wife or daughter of a soldier on the base who got a job working in the town's British school (perhaps the base's school didn't have any teaching positions but administration knew someone who could get her a work permit) rather than someone who emigrated to Britain on her own. She sees what's going down in Moonwell and owing to her direct connection to the base and greater knowledge of what's there, she knows exactly what could happen if the moon god and its devotees gain access to the nukes.

*Consequently, when the possessed Mann fully manifests as the monstrous moon-god, Diana and her remaining allies (after some are killed by the moon-god or its devotees) rush back to the base to warn them of impending assault by "Mann" and its followers. Meanwhile, the cultists are in hot pursuit and the moon god is tormenting them with psychic visions. The book would then climax with something more like a zombie apocalypse outside the now-warned base's gates but with an extraterrestrial monster as the commander and heavy combatant, rather the rather strange and sedate failed escape sequence and the Deus Ex Machina ending.

*Play up the fears of losing control of one's country more broadly. The British once ruled most of the world, but they lost their empire in the 1950s and 1960s and endured a stagnant 1970s. The defeat of the Argentines in the Falklands War boosted their self-esteem, but at the same time they did receive logistical help from the U.S. The placement of American nukes in Britain--weapons that could be launched at the Soviets and invite retaliation on British soil theoretically without any input from the British themselves--is a particularly extreme symptom of a bigger cause.

To that end, I'd connect the nuclear fears and the semi-villainous Mann. Rather than just randomly showing up, I'd have him associated with the nearby American base in some capacity. Perhaps he's a military chaplain or someone associated with the American Christian Right who pulled strings to travel with some followers to live on the facility and use it as a base for his own evangelical efforts.

(A hanger-on would be better, as a military chaplain has very specific responsibilities and is subject to the chain of command. If the base chaplain is spending all his time having rallies in a nearby town and neglecting his soldiers, his superior officer can put a stop to it. A civilian employee or someone who's associated with the base but nobody can explain how might have more leeway.)

I'd also play up the clash between the more easygoing Anglicans represented by the more liberal-minded local vicar, who protested against the nukes and apparently lost congregants as a result, and the more zealous American preacher and his converts. We do see a little bit of that with the Americans' children bothering British children in the school about the sins they need to confess and Mann's Americans followers willing to work without pay to get teaching positions and making the local school, which already had problems, much more unpleasant, but we could get more theological. Mann could cite Revelation 3:14-22 to claim the Anglican churches are the area are "lukewarm," for example, and that he, being British on his father's side and the son of a celebrity to boot, is particularly qualified to revitalize it. Meanwhile, the older vicar thinks Mann is a combination of "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" and too much enthusiasm (Proverbs 19:2 comes to mind) and when he starts trying to interfere with the annual ceremony at the Druids' cave, he's stirring up something that's beyond him. Even from a Christian point of view he might think it's something Mann cannot handle--see the biblical story of the demon the Apostles couldn't drive out or the misadventures of the sons of Sceva.

*I would also tone down Mann. The back-story for him Campbell establishes explains his mentality pretty well--as a result of drug use and sexual abuse at the hands of his British actor father's friends culminating in a suicide attempt, he converts to a very zealous sort of Christianity and then devotes himself to spreading it. And Campbell does avoid the temptation of making him a hypocrite stealing money from the till or sleeping with his secretary--he may be a meddling zealot, but his willingness to confront what he thinks is a demon (the imprisoned moon god in the druids' cave) shows great physical courage (the ropes he uses to rappel into a seemingly bottomless cave could break) and faith that whatever lurks there, his God is stronger. He's an antagonist, but he's not a cliche.

However, although Campbell states that he based him on Billy Graham after seeing him at a crusade in Liverpool, his beliefs and actions (and those his followers undertake in his name) are very out of character for Graham. I have never heard of Graham exhorting his followers to burn "ungodly" books, for example, or engage in subversive and control-freak behavior. Really hard-core fundamentalists objected to Graham's openness toward Catholicism, for example. This Catholic writer agrees with their claims about Graham's ecumenism, although he obviously doesn't think this is a bad thing. The same with this one. And it was the Klan who burned Beatles albums, not Graham or his followers. Graham seemed primarily focused on spreading the core Christian gospel above all else, especially after his association with Richard Nixon burned him so badly.

If Mann is supposed to be an evil (or at least arrogant and bone-headed) version of Graham, once he's possessed by the god he confronts in the cave, it would make more sense for him to have near-continuous rallies--the worshipers' fervor is reviving the moon god to its ancient potency--rather than meddle in the town's affairs overmuch. That would also provide a reason for his followers to persecute those who don't go along--he/it needs as many people fueling it as possible and they're not helping. That way we could still have the confrontation with the local comedian who mocks Mann and the eventual killing of the vicar--"Mann" doesn't want any distractions or rivals for attention.

*Furthermore, although Mann does convert some locals to his way of thinking, the vibe I get is that most of his followers are actually Americans who have moved to Moonwell. I'm not even sure how mass importation of foreigners, even white, English-speaking Christians who won't raise so many hackles, is supposed to work--in order to get a British job visa, an American needs a job offer from a British employer and must meet a bunch of other requirements. And although those are the current rules, Britain in the 1980s was tightening its immigration control, not loosening them. Here's more. If one of the local skeptics complained and was told they had valid tourist visas that would make more sense, but it seems they're living in the town, getting jobs, etc. rather than staying in the local hotel. Tourist visas specifically bar working or drawing on public funds, although the willingness of a couple of Mann's followers to teach for free at the school is a convenient workaround.

It would make much more sense that the majority of his followers are Britons from the town--youth bored with formal Anglicanism, conservatives who objected to the vicar preaching against the nuclear base, people feeling guilty about sins they'd committed (one of his converts is a girl who confesses to stealing from her employer, for example) attracted to the notion of forgiveness, spiritual-seeker types, or bored small-town people just looking for something new and interesting. Rather than leading an army of outsiders, Mann is a charismatic cult leader type who, despite being a foreigner and coming from a religious tradition the villagers find strange, is able to sway most of the people of the town to his side anyway. That would make him more sinister, not less. And the fact the villagers who don't go along with Mann, be they liberal Christians like the vicar or irreligious people, become pariahs so suddenly might crank up the horror even further--it'd be like Jews in early Nazi Germany before the killing starts suddenly finding most of their Gentile friends either don't like them anymore or are afraid to associate with them.

This is how I would have done the book. Obviously I'm not going to try to tread on another author's turf so blatantly by trying to write "Matthew W. Quinn's The Hungry Moon" or something with the serial numbers filed off in a more subtle fashion, nor am I going to write a "How I Would Have Done It" fan-fic like I did for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I don't have the knowledge of 1980s Britain, nor do I have the time with my own things to work on. Still, this was a fun thought exercise. :)