Risingshadow has the honour of publishing a guest post by Michael Fiegel.
Michael Fiegel is a writer and game designer known in Internet circles as the creator of the satiric website Ninja Burger. He has written in both the pen-and-paper and computer game industries on award-winning and acclaimed titles such as Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising and Hellas: Worlds of Sun & Stone. His nonfiction humor book, Ninja Burger: Honorable Employee Handbook, was published in 2006.
Michael's first novel, Blackbird, is a literary thriller that releases on November 14, 2017. Learn more about Blackbird and read an excerpt at https://www.ibelieveincondiments.com/
GUEST POST: Blackbird: Deep Into That Darkness Peering...
By Michael Fiegel
Nobody warned you the tables would turn
And I could have told you everything you've learnt
Would burn to dust
Now there's no one you can trust
- Royal Blood, "How Did We Get So Dark"
When readers are describing my novel Blackbird, one of the words that often comes up is "dark." Blackbird contains "dark humor," is "darkly compelling," and is "unafraid to explore the darkest corners it can find." And so on.
It doesn't surprise me that the word gets used so often to describe the novel. After all, the first chapter features a serial mass murderer abducting a small child, after which he attempts to turn her into a killer like himself as they crisscross America, leaving a pile of bodies in their wake. That's pretty dark stuff.
But what about any of that makes it dark, specifically? Dark is a common adjective to use when describing lots of works, everything from novels to movies, comic books to music albums, but what exactly does it mean to be dark?
Dictionary.com has a few definitions for "dark", the most relevant ones being "a situation characterized by tragedy, unhappiness or unpleasantness" and "gloomily pessimistic." Wikipedia adds that darkness can "connote that a story is grim, heavy, and/or depressing."
There's a lot to unpack there, but a good place to start is with the idea of something being gloomy, as in literally poorly lit or dark. We try to avoid dark places and situations because they are inherently dangerous and uncomfortable. A "dark and stormy night" is something that's certainly unpleasant, and a dark alley or basement is a good place to either break an ankle, or get abducted by an evil clown. Rarely do murderers and monsters lurk in well-lit areas.
Then of course there is the archetypal "dark forest," filled with creatures and unseen hazards. Many fairy tales and fantasy stories use this imagery to suggest unknown danger and violence: Snow White is taken by a huntsman into a dark forest to be murdered; Hansel and Gretel meet a cannibal witch in such a forest; Little Red Riding Hood ventures into one only to be devoured by a wolf (albeit temporarily).
Blackbird similarly has a scene that takes place in a dark forest, where one of the protagonists teaches the other how to hunt. There are no witches or talking wolves, but the sense of danger, of unknown outcomes, and the threat of bloody violence are all similarly present, and serve the same ends as in a fantasy novel.
The idea of dark things representing unseen threats ties in with our fear of the unknown. We fear the dark not because of actual predators lurking there, but because we can't be sure what's there. This darkness can be literal, like the sort under a bed or in a closet where monsters dwell, or it can be more metaphorical and delve into conspiracy theories and real-life mysteries.
The X-Files did an excellent job of presenting both of these simultaneously; when Mulder and Scully were in search of the monster-of-the-week in a dark house, their narrow flashlight beams were not just attempting to cut through not just the absence of light, but the lack of truth. Whether the monster was an alien, a mutant, a serial killer, or a secretive shadow government, it was the fact that the agents were so often "in the dark" which made the series compelling.
Of course, as they often found out, the darkness has a protective quality as well. Sometimes the things hidden from us are hidden for a reason, and knowing does not make us better off. In several scenes in Blackbird, the young Christian finds herself trapped in a dark place with danger all around, and a difficult choice to make.
In each case, both of her options involve death, and what she ultimately discovers is something about herself. Will she shy away from a challenge and prove a coward? Will she face up to it and become something even more frightening? Either way leads her into a very dark, very uncertain place, and these sorts of moral conundrums are part of what makes a story dark.
This idea that the monster inside of us is the one we are most afraid of is also a part of what makes Blackbird dark, although my novel was hardly the first to walk down that road. All manner of fiction has covered that terrain, from Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane, to every story that features vampires, zombies or werewolves. We fear these creatures not because they exist but because they are us, and we might very well become one of them. Savage. Bestial. Monstrous.
Carl Jung discussed the need to face the darkness inside of us with his theory of the Shadow. He wrote that the unconscious negative impulses buried deep within us need to be faced head-on, made a part of us, before we can truly become whole. The deeper the Shadow is buried, he said, "the blacker" it is, and dark stories allow us to explore these Shadows within from a safe distance.
We may never fully understand what causes someone to commit murder and we may find the idea abhorrent, but we love stories, movies, and games about hit men and their shady underworlds. We want to explore those dark places, because in some way the process teaches us about ourselves. It makes us question whether there's a part of us that would be capable of doing that, and how we can avoid ever having to act upon that impulse.
In much the same way, people love horror movies and thriller novels because they allow us to explore our darker emotions. Anger, fear, hatred, disgust, even sadness to some extent: these are all generally accepted to be "bad" or negative emotions, dark feelings that we do our best to avoid in daily life, but which we feel comfortable exploring in fiction.
In real life, if someone appears happy you might ask them what they're happy about, but if someone looks angry, scared, or sad, you're more likely ask "what's wrong?" The emotion implies a wrongness that needs to be righted, and dark fiction like Blackbird is steeped in those wrong emotions, often questioning whether there's a way to make things right at all. And if there is, what it will take to get there.
Blackbird certainly has its share of killers and conspiracies, but at its core it is an emotional darkness which drives the characters from start to finish. It is the story of a killer and his trainee, and it is the story of unlikely companions amidst a much larger world of darkness, but it is most importantly the story of two people in an angry, fearful, often violent and very dark relationship.
It is, in essence, a story that asks not only if we are capable of stepping through our own Shadows, but what happens if that Shadow happens to be another person standing in our way. Someone we love and hate, someone we trust and fear. Someone dark.
Publishers Weekly called Blackbird "an electrifying debut... satisfying and original" and said it "...combines engaging sociopathy with a bit of the anarchist bent seen in the television show Mr. Robot."