RIP, Peter Straub

A sad day for me: we’ve lost Peter Straub. He wasn’t as popular as Stephen King, and many readers found him too literary and cerebral, but I always thought him the superior writer. He was a joy to correspond with. RIP, Peter.

I’m reposting my ranking of Straub’s novels. If you’ve never given Straub a try, it’s never too late.

throat1. The Throat, 1993. 5+ stars. I’ve read this thing six times. It’s the final piece to the Blue Rose Trilogy, Straub’s masterpiece of meta-fiction that deals with murder and secrets and how crimes of the past hold the present in a vise. Koko did this in the context of Vietnam war horrors, and Mystery was about a Sherlock Holmes figure mentoring a gifted boy. Those stories actually have nothing to do with each other aside from the indirect influence of a serial killer called Blue Rose. In The Throat, the Blue Rose killings become the focus: “I really had to solve the Blue Rose Murders,” said Straub, “and that meant I was in for as long, long book. It not only had to do that, but also had to swallow Koko and Mystery, to digest them and exist around them like an onion.” Put simply, The Throat is Straub doing best at what he does best. I resent having to put it down whenever I read it. Tim Underhill is a thoroughly intimate character, his world (both inner and outer) suffused with an organic realism few novels achieve. Heartless people. Bleak childhoods. Religious rites of cannibalism. The specter of Vietnam. It’s a novel about the ugly violence people are capable of, for reasons barely comprehensible, deep scars, and the question of healing. Only Lord of the Rings and Shogun have affected me more deeply.

lost boy lost girl2. Lost Boy, Lost Girl, 2003. 5+ stars. There’s a scene from this book burned in my psyche: It’s evening. Jimbo creeps onto the front porch. From the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window. Jimbo is so terrified by what he sees that he leaps backwards and passes out before Mark revives him and they run away. Pages later we find out what he saw: “A guy was hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me.” That may fall flat in the retelling, but in context it’s a ripper. It appears that Jimbo has seen the ghost of a serial killer who used to live in the house and customized it to facilitate his murders. (The killer had used secret passageways to spy on his terrified captives, torment them on beds of pain, and do all sorts of hideous stuff.) But it turns out the ghost isn’t the only entity inside the house; there’s something or someone even worse, and this mixture of terrors is handled so brilliantly we’re never sure what’s going on. Soon after, one of the boys disappears, and the question is whether he was abducted by a pedophile or snatched into a spiritual world by the ghost of the serial killer’s daughter. How you answer determines your reaction when you turn the final page. Lost Boy, Lost Girl is that rare novel completely beyond criticism.

shadowland23. Shadowland, 1980. 5 stars. The best of the early period isn’t Ghost Story. It’s Shadowland, and it holds up gorgeously. But I forgot how Straub plagiarized the magic-user spells of Dungeons & Dragons to a tee. Tom and Del are taught to fly and water-breathe. Tom takes a sleigh-ride over an arctic hallucinatory terrain. A school bully is magic jarred and transformed into the hideous Collector. Del’s girlfriend Rose was created stone to flesh from a statue. How could I have forgotten this? On the other hand, I do remember Tom getting a hand-job from Rose, as they fall in love and betray Del. I certainly remember Tom getting crucified. When he frees himself of the nails by pushing his hands forward (his hands incarnations of pain), I hurt in every atom of my being. Shadowland is about a punishing education on a fairy-ground. The magician takes in the kids on pretext of grooming one of them (whoever can prove the better) to be his successor, but he really wants to kill them both, and needs to make them rebel against him so he can rob their talents with impunity. At heart it’s the tragedy of a broken friendship and doomed romance. Del is killed, shapechanged into a glass sparrow, and Rose leaves Tom for a water-world, to escape her feeling of walking on knives. Tom grows up to become a penniless stage trickster. The final pages are as heartbreaking as the Grey Havens — and I don’t make that comparison lightly.

mystery4. Mystery, 1990. 5 stars. This novel is so well crafted to qualify as lasting literature, the kind you imagine Cliff Notes for. As the middle book of the Blue Rose trilogy, it examines how harms of the past eat into the present. What Koko set the stage for, and The Throat exposed every membrane of, Mystery runs parallel with a coming of age story. It’s set in the ’60s, and introduces the character of Tom Pasmore, a young boy who is almost killed when hit by a car (this happened to Straub in his youth, and the autobiographical fingerprints are evident). In recovery he becomes obsessed with solving mysteries, and is mentored by an elderly Sherlock Holmes figure who is implied to have inspired “The Shadow” of the ’30s radio show. Tom becomes a natural mystery-solver but gets in over his head when he insists on finding a killer close to home. The settings are inspired: a Caribbean island, where destitute natives are ruled over by white aristocrats who play by their own rules; and a lakeside residence in Wisconsin, where said aristocrats spend their summers — and where vile deeds play out. Mystery is about a teen learning life’s hard truths. Besides mystery, there’s romance; and loss. And people brimming with ugliness under the facades Straub portrays so well.

hellfire5. The Hellfire Club, 1996. 5 stars. Most of Straub’s serial killers work off-stage, but Dick Dart leads in the spotlight, and he’s by far the most theatrical character Straub ever wrote. He regales his captive with obscene wisdom, rapes her repeatedly, but also enables her to break away from her ineffectual husband. This quasi-Stockholm drama is framed around a string of murders from the past that steamroll into the present, and Nora is caught between Hell and Hades — her in-laws and Dart, each who want to suppress the secrets of a stolen manuscript for different reasons. Shorelands is one of the most inspired settings I’ve read in a work of fiction, a writer’s colony seething with fascist history and secrets unveiled as lies and half-truths. It becomes Dick Dart’s playground for the final act which is so depraved I always go back and read it twice. The Hellfire Club basically inverts the conceit of Mystery: Alden Chancel is a carbon-copy of Glendenning Upshaw, but instead of the positive role model of Lamont von Heilitz, there is now the diabolical “mentor” Dick Dart, who like Heilitz empowers the novel’s protagonist to go against a corrupt white-collar top dog. Nora is resolved to do justice to victims long dead, and she’s  a heroine nailed just right by a male author; a woman friend of mine testifies strongly to this.

the-talisman6. The Talisman, 1984. 4 ½ stars. There’s a special place in my heart for The Talisman, and not just because I’m a sucker for parallel worlds. I first read it in my high school years while visiting Grinnell College, and so Jack Sawyer’s westward trek starting in New Hampshire (my home state) resonated in spades. I expected any moment to flip into a Territories-version of Iowa, and the Grinnell campus to sideslip out of reality like Thayer School or transform into a hellish pit mine run by Sunlight Gardener. I even spotted my Twinner in a classroom. What King and Straub produced is amazing in both story and style. In the ’80s it was hard to find dark fantasy (George Martin being a decade away) and for me this was the next best thing after The Wounded Land. Donaldson gave us the Sunbane, and King & Straub came up with horrors just as vile (see here for the Covenant parallels). There are admittedly some quaint fantasy tropes that stand out today, like the melodramatic obscurity. It’s never clear why Speedy, Farren and others can’t tell Jack things that would help him — this isn’t a world like the Land, where the danger of unearned knowledge is woven into the fabric of reality. But the occasional laziness is forgivable in an otherwise outstanding tale of a 12-year old boy on a dark quest to save his mother and, in the process, the cosmos.

koko7. Koko, 1988. 4 ½ stars. Straub calls this his best novel, and I can understand why. “It was a very difficult book to write, but somewhere in the middle I saw that I had raised my game and felt as though I had reached a new level. I’ve never wanted to feel as though I was working at a lower level than I was in Koko.” It was his breakaway from the horror genre and completely on his own terms. It took me a few years to give it a try, because I’d assumed he was drying up like Stephen King. (After Misery in 1987, King went completely downhill.) But he was getting better — and Koko blew me away. I read it in ’91, a month before joining the Peace Corps, which turned out to be a bit creepy, since in my host country “koko” is what you say when you knock on a door. Koko was fresh in my mind when I learned this, and my head filled with crazy images of Basotho serial killers who announced their intentions by knocking. Straub’s killer did no such courtesy. The story is about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold It’s a brilliant novel, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. I completely respect Straub’s reasons for calling it his best, but I think those are mostly writer’s reasons. The fact is that he’s done even better — the top five on this list.

ghost story8. Ghost Story, 1979. 4 ½ stars. Many will object to it placing this low. Stephen King pronounced it the best horror novel of the ’70s that trailed the classics Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Other. He was humble, because that accolade goes to his ‘Salem’s Lot. And it’s not often I compare King and Straub with the former coming out ahead. Straub is usually the better writer. But ‘Salem’s Lot is a mighty work, and Ghost Story stands in its shadow. To be fair, Straub acknowledges this: “I wanted to work on a large canvas. Salem’s Lot showed me how to do this without getting lost among a lot of minor characters.” Both novels deal with small towns under siege from the supernatural. In each town, the arrival of a writer triggers the calamity. The writer in each case becomes closely involved with a young teen and takes on a parental role as the kid’s life ends up ruined. Don’t mistake me, I love Ghost Story and am not dismissing it as derivative. King reinvented vampires, while Straub wrote ghosts who adopt the motives and souls of people who witness them. It’s certainly the most polished novel in the Straub canon (aside from perhaps Mystery), and a classic for good reason. It falls at the bottom of my 4 ½ category for the simple reason that it ultimately feels like Peter Straub beating someone else’s drum.

BlackHouseHC9. Black House, 2001. 4 stars. The sequel to The Talisman is the most difficult to rank. The writing on display is brilliant; the plot an ultimate let-down. The town dynamics of French Landing are as irresistible as ‘Salem’s Lot; the other-worldly dynamics, however, involve not only the Territories, but King’s Dark Tower series which is problematic. Then there is Jack Sawyer, now an adult and ex-homicide detective who is caught up in a string of pedophile killings. But he’s one of many point-of-view characters — unlike in The Talisman, which showed almost everything through his eyes — and this results in a narrative which is all over the map. Ironically, this turns out a strength as much a weakness, because Jack’s point of view is the least compelling; the Dark Tower baggage comes in his chapters. In the shoes of other characters, we’re treated to some of the most engaging sequences you’ll find in any novel. The mystery of “the Fisherman” — who cannibalizes children and leaves their half eaten corpses displayed in hen-houses and abandoned shops — and the discovery of the repulsive Black House concealed in a haunted wood, drive incredibly powerful scenes. Black House is so well written (even better than The Talisman), with a poetic and morbid humor that’s mesmerizing, that even the most trivial characters come vivaciously alive. I love reading this book; I’m deflated by what’s really going on behind the Black House.

in the night room10. In the Night Room, 2004.  4 stars. This one pushes bold ideas. Some might say questionable ideas, and admittedly there are points where Straub’s reach exceeds his grasp. But it works for the most part. We learn that Lost Boy, Lost Girl is a novel Tim Underhill wrote to cope with his nephew’s murder: in the story Mark explores a haunted house and bonds with the ghost of a girl who had been abused, raped and killed by her father. The novel left open the question of Mark’s fate. On one reading, he and the girl-ghost escape to a peaceful otherworld where they heal each others wounds; on another, he was abducted and killed by a real-life psychopath. In the Night Room makes clear that the latter is true. But it’s not realistic revisionism. Things get even more wild. It turns out that the ghost of Joseph Kalendar is enraged at Underhill: he didn’t in fact kill his daughter as his novel suggests. (Though he did abuse her horribly.) Tim must acknowledge the mercy Kalendar showed his daughter by sending her away to a foster home, but also the price she paid for this mercy trying to grow up sane. Meanwhile, Underhill falls in love with a woman fated to die in order to appease demonic powers. In the Night Room reminds me of William Peter Blatty’s Legion, his thoughtful sequel to The Exorcist. Each trails a brilliant horror piece and explores how forces on “the other side” retaliate when pissed off.

julia11. Julia, 1975. 3 ½ stars. This one holds up surprisingly well for a first effort. The narrative is simple and straight-forward, but more engaging than the complexities of Floating Dragon and A Dark Matter — proof that convoluted plots aren’t necessary for a good story. Julia is a clear product of the ’70s, with the kind of subtle scares we don’t see much anymore. It’s about the spirit of a long dead child, who is suddenly able to manifest in the house where she was killed, when another woman moves in. This woman (Julia) killed her own daughter recently, and is married to the same man who sired the other girl. These connections empower the spirit of the dead girl, who strongly resembles the other girl, so it’s unclear which girl is out for revenge until certain things come to light. There’s a dreamy Gothic feel, with the cruel husband and his manipulative sister, but never feeling cliche. The scene where Julia meets the other woman in the mental hospital still unnerves me after all these years. (“Get out of here, Mrs. Shit.”) Julia shouts the potential of a fledgling author and foreshadows the mightier Ghost Story. To think I was in first grade when it was published.

mr x12. Mr. X, 1999. 3 ½ stars. It shows off style at the expense of story, but the ideas are so fun that Straub can at least partly get away with it. The best part is the Lovecraft theme, found in the chapters narrated by Mr. X, who devotes his serial-murders to the Elder Gods and Far-flung Entities. He believes that his son will be the agent of his own destruction, but it turns out he has two sons, which brings in a doppelganger theme. This has been a bone of contention among readers, because while it’s a neat idea it’s handled confusingly throughout the story, as for that matter is the entire nature of Ned’s family. Moreover, when Ned is accused of crimes he didn’t commit, the drama should be more intense than it is, and it probably would have been if the author wasn’t so busy enjoying the sound of his voice. Mr. X is the equivalent of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, forcing reams of creativity into a crazy-8 narrative… but damned if I wasn’t turning pages and admiring the mess. It’s refreshing to see Cthulhu mythology supplanting the tired formula of anti-Christs. It’s safe to say that Mr. X will please hard-core Straub fans like myself for whom the cerebral style and weird ideas compensate significantly for the misassembled story crying for a ruthless editor.

if you could see me now13. If You Could See Me Now, 1977. 3 stars. Into the good-but-nothing-memorable category falls If You Could See Me Now. I enjoyed reading it today as I did long ago, but it’s nothing I’d go out of my way to recommend. Miles Teagarden is a detached character and hard to warm to, but his story proceeds apace. In the prologue his thirteen-year old self is in a Wisconsin town, where he makes a promise to his fourteen-year old cousin with whom he is infatuated: in twenty years time, no matter where they are in life, they will return to this town and meet. After so swearing, they go skinny-dipping in an abandoned quarry. Something happens in that quarry. The novel begins years later, with Miles holding up his end of the vow and expecting Alison to do the same, even though she’s long dead. On the one hand, her death is presented later as a grand reveal; on the other, it’s fairly obvious from the get. These features seem subtly intended, and indeed complement rather than oppose each other, since the narrative is more arresting if the reader “knows” Alison is dead if not entirely sure. Miles must face memories about what happened in the quarry on top of now being a suspect in a new set of murders. If Julia foreshadows Ghost Story, this novel anticipates the Blue Rose Trilogy, with themes of obscured memories and past violence, even if it involves the supernatural.

floating dragon14. Floating Dragon, 1983. 2 stars. Floating Dragon is to It as Ghost Story is to ‘Salem’s Lot. The difference being that King’s novel followed Straub’s in this case, the commonality being that he did it better than Straub as before. The novel’s chief liability is its stale characters. But the It-like formula is a problem too. (It is a pretty good novel but hasn’t aged well.) The pattern seems tired. Sleepy towns torn apart by supernatural forces; cyclical evil which only a small group of locals can defeat; cumbersome back-stories; confused plotting. The “floating dragon” is a gas leaked from the Defense Department, and the supernatural element is never clear. The gas causes people to go insane, hallucinate, and their bodies to liquefy (there are some admittedly memorable dissolving scenes I’ll never forget). Because people are losing their minds, it could be that the supernatural is in fact psychological, but there’s no real interplay between the real and surreal forces, and so the story feels underdeveloped. The final act is trite for an author of Straub’s talents, and the worst conclusion of any of his stories. Floating Dragon does score for the nasty gas effects, but not much else.

dark_matter15. A Dark Matter, 2010. 2 stars. In which nothing matters. It’s a go-nowhere novel that offers scarce intrigue, repetitions of the same event with trivial variations, and characters less impressive than Floating Dragon‘s. Spencer Mallon himself being the worst offender. When your villain is less intimidating than Lassie, that’s a fail. The crying shame is that this could have been a good story. I like the premise of an apocalyptic guru: “Like every other phony sage and prophet wandering through campuses in the mid- to late sixties, Spencer Mallon promised an end to time and a new apocalypse; unlike most of the others, he admitted that the end of time might last only a moment, or take place only in the throwing open of a mental window. I hate the man, but I have to respect this evidence of what feels to me like wisdom. If not wisdom, a conscience.” This fraud gathers a group of students in a field one night for a mysterious rite; one of the students is savaged and killed, and another disappears forever. The other students carry scars into adulthood, and the novel consists solely of these (rather uninteresting) adult student survivors taking turns at recalling the night’s horror. But nothing scary emerges, quite frankly, and in the end there’s just not enough story to warrant 400 pages.

The Targaryen Kings Ranked

House of the Dragon starts this weekend, and in preparation I’ve been going through the Targaryen histories presented in The World of Ice and Fire and Fire and Blood. The kings are a colorful lot, and I rank all seventeen of them. (In the TV series we’ll get the fifth and sixth kings, Viserys I and Aegon II, neither of whom score very well on my list.) I rank them similarly to the way I ranked the U.S. presidents, not on the basis of how likeable or mean they were, rather on how good or bad they were for the Seven Kingdoms. With the presidents, I used categories of peace, prosperity, and liberty, and here I operate similarly, with peace, prosperity, and justice, since the concept of “liberty” doesn’t make much sense in the feudal world of Westeros (unless perhaps you’re a Wildling).

1. Jaehaerys I, 4th king. Excellent.
2. Aegon V, 15th king. Very good.
3. Viserys II, 10th king. Very good.
4. Daeron II, 12th king. Very good.
5. Aegon III, 7th king. Good.
6. Jaehaerys II, 16th king. Good.
7. Maekar I, 14th king. Average.
8. Aegon 1, 1st king. Average.
9. Viserys I, 5th king. Poor.
10. Maegor I, 3rd king. Poor.
11. Aerys I, 13th king. Bad.
12. Baelor I, 9th king. Bad.
13. Aenys I, 2nd king. Bad.
14. Daeron I, 8th king. Very bad.
15. Aegon II, 6th king. Very bad.
16. Aegon IV, 11th king. Atrocious.
17. Aerys II, 17th king. Atrocious.

1. Jaehaerys I, the Conciliator (4th King, 48-103 AC). Rating: Excellent. United the Seven Kingdoms and started a golden age.

If only the Targaryens could have cloned this guy. He had the longest reign of any Targaryen king, and those fifty-five years were chock full of peace, prosperity, and justice. Westeros became a near paradise, thanks to the king’s fair and level-headed policies, not to mention his progressive ambitions. He improved infrastructure dramatically, with new networks of roads. He created a unified code of law for all the Seven Kingdoms. This was arguably both good and bad — bad because locals lost some autonomy, but mostly good, since many of the local customs were barbaric. His sister-wife, Queen Alysanne, ruled at his side and was also widely loved. She persuaded him to outlaw the practice of First Night, whereby a male noble could claim the right to have sex with any man’s wife on the first night of their marriage (if the man was of lesser rank). Jaehaerys disarmed the Faith Militant, forbidding the clergy weapons, and worked hard to heal the schism between crown and faith that had threatened the kingdom’s fabric since the Targaryen conquest. He appointed a new High Septon who preached the doctrine of exceptionalism (that incest is an abomination for the Andal peoples, but it’s okay for the Targaryens of Valyrian stock). Thanks to this evangelical campaign, the people of Westeros came to accept Targaryen incest, removing an eternal threat of rebellion. When Jaehaerys died, “Westeros mourned, and it was claimed that even in Dorne men wept and women tore their garments in lament for a king who had been so just and good. His ashes were interred with that of Good Queen Alysanne, beneath the Red Keep. And the realm never saw their like again.” (WoIaF, p 65)

2. Aegon V, the Unlikely (15th King, 233-259 AC). Rating: Very Good. Gave rights to the peasants and was adored by them.

Known to many of us as “Egg” (from The Tales of Dunk and Egg), Aegon came to feel a kinship with the peasantry during his career as a boy squire. He traveled the realm like this, disguised as a commoner, during the reigns of Daeron II, Aerys I, and his father Maekar I. His major takeaway from those travels was the plight of the peasants, and how to navigate squabbles among petty lords. As soon as he became king he launched reform after reform to improve the lives of commoners: raising taxes on aristocrats, and punishing lords who abused their peasants. On whole this was a stunning mark of progress in Westeros. Aegon V took cues from his grandfather Daeron II (see #4 below), in putting diplomacy above military might. He gets a bad rap for the lousy economy during his reign (thanks to drought), but he at least tried to address the issue (unlike Aerys I, who all but ignored the problem of drought in his reign). He also had a bad image among nobles who felt they lost too much power over the peasantry. But this is to Aegon’s credit; rulers who are willing to suffer unpopularity for doing the right thing should be commended. Virtually all of the peasant rights and protections would be undone by Tywin Lannister, the Hand of King under Aerys the Mad (see #17 below), but for a few decades at least, under Aegon V and Jaehaerys II (see #6 below), the commoners of Westeros enjoyed remarkable freedoms for a feudal society. Aegon is also famous in how he died: trying to bring dragons back to life by hatching the last surviving dragon eggs. This resulted in the tragedy of Summerhall — a mysterious fire erupted, destroying most of the castle and killing the king.

3. Viserys II (10th King, 171-172 AC). Rating: Very Good. Did more in a single year than the best kings do in ten.

He reigned for only a year but showed enough potential to be a new Conciliator even better than Jaehaerys I. Ruling came natural to him, since he had served as the Hand for the three previous kings — Aegon III, Daeron I, and Baelor I. Those latter two were quite bad, and it was Viserys who moderated the worst of their obsessions, almost single-handedly keeping the realm from falling apart. As king he went full progressive, reforming the law codes that Jaehaerys I established. He founded a new royal mint and expanded trade with Essos, skyrocketing Westeros into prosperity. He died suddenly from illness, but many believe that he was poisoned by his son and successor, Aegon IV (see #16 below), which I think rather likely.

4. Daeron II, the Good (12th King, 184-209 AC). Rating: Very Good. Made peace with Dorne and brought it into the realm. At home put down a civil war mercifully.

Unlike the first Daeron in every way (see #14 below), he was no warrior but a skilled diplomat, and exactly what was needed to mend the fences broken by his terrible predecessor Aegon IV (see #16 below). He gave the court a full-fledged enema, flushing away Aegon IV’s corruption, and removing incompetent people from their positions. Also opposite Daeron I, the second Daeron succeeded in bringing Dorne into the realm — not by belligerence, war, or occupation but peaceful diplomacy. He didn’t have many warriors on his court, preferring maesters, septons, and singers. Needless to say, this earned him enemies, as many of the warrior elite disdained intellectualism and preferred the sword to the pen. So they threw their support behind Daeron’s half-brother Daemon Blackfyre (a bastard of Aegon IV who had been legitimized by Aegon) which ignited a civil war, to which Daeron responded most effectively — crushing the rebellion with the help of the Dornish. He was merciful in victory, accepting the defeated lords back into the king’s peace instead of punishing them as some of his advisors urged.

5. Aegon III, the Dragonbane (7th King, 131-157 AC). Rating: Good. Hated kingship but kept the realm stable.

He isn’t remembered kindly, but that doesn’t mean he was a bad king, and in fact he was better than most on this list. After the civil war of the Dance of Dragons (129-131 AC, see #15 below), Aegon III established the much needed peace. It’s true he wasn’t warm. He was traumatized by the Dance of Dragons and the slaughter of so many family members, including his mother Rhaenyra, the rightful queen, who was roasted to death before his eyes. He was young, didn’t court the nobles, hated kingship, and (largely to his credit) cared more about the common people than his lords. But sometimes those who are thrust into unwanted leadership roles end up doing better than others would, precisely by not being too activist. Like Jaehaerys II (at #6 below), Aegon III ranks high because he didn’t fuck things up. For a twenty-six year reign, that’s a success story. The worst thing about him is that he didn’t like dragons or try to prevent their passing, though there wasn’t much he could have done to stop that. There were only four dragons left at the start of his reign, thanks to Aegon II (see #15 below); by 153 AC all of them were dead, and the world wouldn’t see any more until Danaerys a century and a half later. What matters most is that Aegon III’s rule was long, stable, and peaceful. That’s what people want, especially after a nasty civil war.

6. Jaehaerys II (16th King, 259-262 AC). Rating: Good. Defeated the last of the Blackfyre rebels. Reconciled the great houses to the Iron Throne.

Most remember him for the War of the Ninepenny Kings — the fifth and final Blackfyre rebellion — which Jaehaerys halted on the Stepstones before the rebels could set foot on Westeros. Also in his favor, though arguably a mixed bag, is the reconciliation he brought about between nobles and the crown. The nobles had come to resent the Iron Throne since Aegon V enacted reforms that hugely favored the common people (see #2 above). Jaehaerys kept most of these reforms alive (it was Tywin Lannister under Aerys the Mad King who would eradicate them), while massaging some of the rough edges, and doing other things for nobles to balance the pro-peasant law codes. Aside from that, he places this high on my list because nothing bad happened during his reign. For any king, especially a Targaryen king, that’s a good show.

7. Maekar I (14th King, 221-233 AC). Rating: Average. Didn’t do much, but didn’t do harm.

Maekar gets a pass because he didn’t fuck things up, which in itself is very commendable for a Targaryen king. He was a warrior at heart but never started any wars and for the most part presided over a period of peace (in between the Second and Third Blackfyre Rebellions under Aerys I, and the Fourth Blackfyre Rebellion under Aegon V). When he fought, it was defensively, as in the Peake Rebellion, in which he was killed. There’s not much to know about Maekar, and when there’s not much to know about a king, he’s in all likelihood pretty much okay.

8. Aegon I, the Conqueror (1st King, 1-37 AC). Rating: Average. Founded the Seven Kingdoms by conquest.

The most famous Targaryen king is difficult to rank. On the one hand, wars of conquest are hardly admirable. On the other hand, his invasion of Westeros ended the permanent state of war that had existed in the Seven Kingdoms for ages. Aegon’s conquest can probably be esteemed like other wars of unification in which the ends barely justify the means. After the conquest he pursued a pointless bloody conflict with Dorne for many years (4-13 AC). He did nothing to actually unify the realm besides subjecting it to his rule. (The real task of unification was left to the 4th king, Jaehaerys (see #1).) Aegon was similar to his descendant Danaerys of three centuries later: “bend the knee to me or die”. When provoked, he was ruthless like Danaerys, incinerating Harrenhal as she would later do to King’s Landing. But he genuinely cared for his subjects (like Dany did for the slaves of Mereen), and tried to navigate conflict by being politic, especially with the lords of the Seven Kingdoms and the clerics of the Faith. Ultimately, he was better than Dany, because for all her positives, Dany was tainted by the madness of her father Aerys II, which got the better of her in the end.

9. Viserys I (5th King, 103-129 AC). Rating: PoorPresided over the best period in Targaryen history, while seeding it with civil war, the decline of his house, and the death of the last of the dragons.

I’ve seen rankings that put this guy pretty high, on grounds that his reign was peaceful and prosperous, and that the Targaryens were at the height of their power during these twenty-six years. (There were more dragons at this time than ever before.) While all of that is true, the credit for it goes entirely to his predecessor Jaehaerys I (see #1). Viserys inherited a great realm, and on the surface he maintained it, but without doing anything to ensure those blessings would continue — and indeed doing enough to ensure they would not. He avoided war and bloodshed, but did a terrible job as a leader and failed to secure the line of succession. He broke precedent by insisting on his daughter Rhaenyra as his heir, which fueled endless factionalism. While upholding his choice of Rhaenyra, he never did it forcefully enough, and people ran over him left and right. The result was the worst civil war in Targaryen history — the Dance of Dragons — which broke out after his death when his son Aegon usurped the throne (see #15 below). In fairness, there are some things to commend in Viserys’ rule. He was generous and open-handed. But he basically wanted to be everyone’s friend, which a king can’t afford to do, especially in his situation.

10. Maegor I, the Cruel (3rd King, 42-48 AC). Rating: Poor. Cruel and sadistic, but did what needed doing against the Faith Militant.

This one will also be controversial, for the opposite reason of Viserys I. Most rankers put Maegor somewhere in the bottom three, casting him as a bloodthirsty tyrant who craved violence. I read him a bit differently. That he was a sadist is beyond doubt. The question is to what degree that impacted his kingship and made the realm suffer. One thing should be cleared up: his so-called overzealous treatment of the Faith Militant. When it came to the clergy, Maegor did exactly what needed doing, especially after the ineptitude of Aenys I (see #13 below). His conflict with the Faith was a war, and his actions and atrocities against the Faith were no worse than the actions of almost any king in most wars. For that matter, there were far more atrocities under Aegon’s conquest than Maegor’s war against the clergy. (Maegor never pulled an equivalent of the Burning of Harrenhal or the Field of Fire.) He smashed the Faith Militant as they deserved. His cruelty had more to do with the way he treated rebel lords — over-punishing lords who did wrong — though at least they were actually doing wrong. He also occasionally punished the innocent, like when he killed all the craftsmen involved in the building of the Red Keep (so that only he would know the Keep’s secret passageways). Maegor I ranks at #10 mostly for securing the Targaryen hold in Westeros after Aenys almost lost it. If you steered clear of him, you might think him a good king to have. If you worked in his circle, or if you were an artisan of the Red Keep, or if you were one of the many ladies he raped and disfigured, well, then you’d rightly wish him dead.

11. Aerys I (13th King, 209-221 AC). Rating: Bad. Kept his head in books while his Hand created a police state.

The bookworm king was always reading; always a book in his hand about philosophy and deep mysteries, when he should have been reading up on military strategies and how to improve trade and address disasters like plague. The Blackfyres (the legitimized bastards of Aegon IV, see #16 below) took advantage of his weakness and staged not one, but two rebellions during his reign (the Second and Third Blackfyre Rebellions). The Greyjoys also rebelled against the Iron Throne. There was drought that drove hordes of people into banditry and lawlessness. Aerys dealt with all these problems by avoidance — by giving his Hand, Brynden Rivers, virtual autonomy. He deserves a large amount of credit for this, as Rivers swiftly putting down the rebellions, but Rivers was also a tyrant, installing a police state in Westeros that made people terrified of the Hand’s “thousand eyes and one”; people distrusted their neighbors for fear of spies. Aerys I ranks at #11 for not taking his office seriously, poorly managing the economy, and failing to address crime and banditry properly instead relying on a tyrannical police state.

12. Baelor I, the Blessed (9th King, 161-171 AC). Rating: Bad. Shoved religion down everyone’s throat to the detriment of the realm.

The most pious Targaryen to sit the Iron Throne is proof that you should never put a religious zealot in power. To his credit he cleaned up Daeron I’s mess by making peace with Dorne. Though he did this in a lunatic way, by walking to Sunspear barefoot; and when the Dornishmen refused to free Aemon the Dragonknight, Baelor rescued him personally by walking through a viper nest — believing that the vipers would not harm a religiously devout man like himself. He was bitten twelve times for his convictions and forced to lie in bed for months. Traumatized by the event, he grew increasingly mad, and locked away his sisters so that no men could have sex with them. He took a septon’s vows of chastity (which threatened the line of succession) and obsessed spiritual matters even more, shoving affairs of state to the periphery. He tried to outlaw prostitution and prosecuted whores (and even the whores’ children), exiling them from King’s Landing to horrible fates. He gave tax exemptions to fathers who made their daughters wear chastity belts. He turned the city into beggars by giving out free bread to everyone. He pissed off nobles by forcing them into publicly pious acts, like washing the feet of lepers. Thankfully he killed himself — unintentionally, by starvation, when he chose to fast for 40 days and 40 nights, in order to cleanse himself of lust — and the realm was saved from many more years of fanaticism. His very able Hand became Viserys II (see #3), and a very good king, if for only a single year.

13. Aenys I (2nd King, 37-42 AC). Rating: Bad. Thoroughly indecisive.

This guy wasn’t made for kingship or affairs of state. He was a daydreamer and lost himself in hobbies — singing, mummery, and mimes. He craved approval (a bad trait in a king), and was frequently paralyzed by indecision for not wanting to disappoint one side or another. In the wake of Aegon the Conqueror, there were rebellions that needed putting down — in the Riverlands, the Vale, the Iron Islands, and Dorne. Instead of either putting them down or negotiating a settlement, Aenys dithered and made bad situations worse. He left problems for his advisers to solve. Eventually the Faith Militant rose up and besieged the Red Keep, when Aenys refused to abandon the Targaryen practice of incest — the one issue he had the balls to stand firm on. But he lost his balls when the Faith attacked the Keep; he fled like a coward to Dragonstone where his Aunt Visenya advised him to respond to the Faith with the fire and blood they deserved. Aenys refused to do that, and died soon after. (He may have been poisoned by Visenya, who wanted her son Maegor on the throne.) Aenys I ranks at #13 as a thoroughly ineffectual king who came close to losing the realm.

14. Daeron I, the Young Dragon (8th King, 157-161 AC). Rating: Very Bad. Started a pointless war to prove to himself that he was super-human, and got tens of thousands of people killed.

He faced the challenges of the new post-dragon era in the way of boy-kings who think themselves invincible. He was 14 when he took the throne, and right away hell-bent on “completing the conquest” that Aegon I never finished: he would bring Dorne into the realm. When reminded by his councilors that there were no more dragons (the last dragons died in the reign of his predecessor Aegon III, see #5 above), Daeron was undaunted, replying, “You have a dragon. He stands before you.” People died for that ego. The boy-king conquered Dorne for a brief moment, until the Dornish rose up and overthrew everything he accomplished. The death toll on both sides totaled about a hundred thousand, and it was all for vain dreams of glory. What made this so reprehensible wasn’t just the fact that the Targaryens lacked the might to take Dorne (without dragons), but that Dorne wasn’t even an enemy at this point. The Young Dragon got what he deserved: in the fourth year of his reign, he went to discuss terms with the Dornishmen after they murdered Lord Tyrell, and was treacherously attacked and killed under a peace banner. Can’t say I blame Dorne, even for treachery, and good riddance to this sword-happy fool who spared the realm more catastrophe by dying after only four years.

15. Aegon II, the Usurper (6th King, 129-131 AC). Rating: Very Bad. Started a devastating civil war by claiming a crown that wasn’t his, and having zero competence to rule.

This worthless twit was the son of Viserys I (see #9) but not the king’s designated heir; that was Aegon’s half-sister Rhaenyra. No matter. Incited by his mother Alicent Hightower and the knight Criston Cole — and by his pathetic sense of entitlement — he usurped the crown on Viserys’ death and started the worst civil war in history, the infamous Dance of the Dragons. Thoroughly incompetent in matters of state, he left most of the governing to governing to Criston Cole. Meanwhile his brother Aemond One-Eye fanned the civil war flames by pursuing outrageous vendettas. He and Aemond attacked his aunt Rhaenys during the war and killed her, though the king was burned by dragonfire and maimed in the process; he had to recover for almost a year and a half on Dragonstone while Aemond carried on as regent. Eventually he murdered his half-sister Rhaenyra (right in front of her son, the soon-to-be Aegon III, see #5 above) by commanding his dragon to roast her. As a huge northern army descended on King’s Landing, Aegon was thankfully murdered — poisoned by his own councilors —  before he could fuck things up even more and turn Westeros into a wasteland. Aegon II ranks this low for torpedoing the Targaryen legacy (dragons would soon go extinct) and bringing utter ruin down on the realm.

16. Aegon IV, the Unworthy (11th King, 172-184 AC). Rating: Atrocious. Ruled badly on purpose, through rank cronyism.

How this fat toxic piece of shit didn’t start any immediate wars is beyond me, but he certainly made future wars inevitable — the five Blackfyre Rebellions of 196, 212, 219, 236, and 260 — by legitimizing all his bastards. And he had bastards up the wazoo. Lust and gluttony ruled him, and while those vices don’t necessarily a bad king make (Robert Baratheon was lustful and gluttonous and a rather average king), they do when they are directly the cause of misrule. Aegon IV filled his court with undeserving fools who had no skills other than to amuse him, flatter him, or satiate him in bed. When he grew increasingly fat he ended up forcing himself on the ladies. Some chronicles say he slept with over 900 women. He’s known as the Unworthy, but “King Rape” would be just as fitting. He stole from one house and gave to another purely on whims, doing more than any other king to misrule the realm through cronyism — selling offices to flatterers and dimwits, and wreaking 100% havoc on the political fabric of Westeros. Again, it’s amazing that this didn’t lead to any immediate wars. George Martin says that Aegon IV was the worst Targaryen king, and I give the author’s opinion its proper due. But I say the worst has to be…

17. Aerys II, the Mad King (17th King, 262-283 AC). Rating: Atrocious. Caused the end of the Targaryen dynasty. Wanted the world to burn and everyone to die.

Seriously. What can I say about the Mad King that hasn’t been said throughout the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire? The singular good thing he did was make Tywin Lannister his Hand, which brought immense prosperity to the realm, not to mention that Tywin often rescued the realm from Aerys’ stupidities. (Though Tywin also stripped peasants of their rights codified into law under Aegon V, which was bad.) Aside from that, Aerys was completely insane and cruel. He wiped out houses for perceived slights, usually imagined. He alienated the realm out of obsessive paranoia. He manufactured a dispute with the Iron Bank of Braavos. He began to fulfill his sexual desires by watching people burn to death, and by randomly torturing and killing people. He tried to murder the entire city of King’s Landing, and allowed Rhaegar to kidnap Lynanna Stark, which ignited a realm-wide civil war. His madness was off the scales, and it finally caught up to him, leading to the downfall of House Targaryen. He’s easily the worst king by any standard.

Parallels Between My Novels and Stranger Things 3 and 4

There are strong parallels between Stranger Things 3 and 4, and and my fanfiction series. I wrote my stories with no knowledge at all of what would happen in those later seasons, so these similarities are striking to say the least.

1. El dumps Mike, at the engineering of Hopper. In the TV series (season 3, episodes 1 & 2), Hopper manipulates Mike, and also threatens him, in order to break up the relationship between him and Eleven. In my story, Hopper manipulates Eleven rather than Mike, in order to achieve the same goal. In each case the person being manipulated by Hopper doesn’t come clean: in the TV series, Mike starts avoiding El but lies about his reasons for doing so, to which she responds by “dumping his ass”. In my story, El tells Mike that she needs to break up with him, but won’t say why, which breaks his heart.

2. Dangers of the Void. In the TV series (season 3, episode 6), Mike warns Eleven of the dangers of communing with Billy in the Void. She has only tried this once before, when she accessed the memories of her mother in season 2 (and her mother was a willing subject who wanted to show El what Dr. Brenner did to her). Sure enough, when El accesses Billy’s memories, he is able to latch onto her mind, and see where she is in Hopper’s cabin. In my story, El warns Hopper of the same dangers, when he wants her to access the memories of a comatose hospital victim. She tells her father that the victim may rebel against her intrusion or even die from shock. Sure enough, that almost happens; the victim’s monitors bleep momentarily, though she doesn’t end up dying.

3. El loses her psychic powers, thanks to a creature of the Upside Down. In the TV series (season 3, episode 8), El loses her powers after a piece of the Mind Flayer gets in her leg. In my story, she loses her powers for two days (January 22-24, 1987), when she’s snared on the shadow tree and injected with anti-psychic sap.

4. El leaves Hawkins for the West Coast. In the TV series (season 3, episode 8), Joyce moves out of Hawkins, taking Will, Jonathan, and El to California (in October 1985). In my story, Hopper leaves Hawkins with El (in April 1987), when he takes a job as Sheriff of Yamhill County in Oregon.

5. D&D game. In the TV series (season 4, episode 1), there is a new dungeon-master (Eddie Munson), who puts a lot of players through a killer module. All the PCs are killed, except for Dustin and newcomer Erica. Dustin screws up, and newcomer Erica completes the quest. In my story, there is a new dungeon-master (Vijay Agarwal), who puts a lot of players through a killer module. All the PCs are killed, except for Dustin and newcomer Eleven. Dustin screws up, and newcomer Eleven completes the quest.

6. A major character assumed dead is alive and fighting like a gladiator. In the TV series (season 4, episode 7), Hopper is assumed dead, but is captive in a Russian prison and forced to fight a demogorgon in a “demo-pit” for the guards’ entertainment. In my story, Mike is assumed dead, but enslaved in the Upside Down and forced to fight shadow creatures, also like a gladiator, for the amusement of the Illithid.

7. Vecna. In the TV series (season 4, episodes 4 and 7), Max and Nancy are inflicted by a curse inspired by the figure of Vecna. In my story, Will and Mike are inflicted by a curse inspired by the figure of Vecna.

8. Speaking humanoid more powerful than the Mind Flayer. In the TV series (seasons 4 and 5), the Big Bad (Vecna) who rules the Upside Down is smaller than the Mind Flayer but more powerful, and he speaks. In my story, the Illithid rules the Upside Down; he too is humanoid sized and speaks.

9. A major character dies and is soon after resurrected. That character is also blinded and crippled. In the TV series (season 4, episode 9), Max is killed by Vecna through the creature’s process of blinding and disfigurement. Max is then resurrected by Eleven into a coma state; if she comes out of her coma in season 5, she will be disfigured and (presumably) blind. In my story, Mike is killed by the Illithid and then raised back to life by the same creature. Much later the creature forces him to tear out his own eyeballs, and it also cripples his leg.

10. The End of the World. In the TV series (season 4, episode 9), multiple gates open in Hawkins, initiating the apocalypse — the “beginning of the end of the world”, as Vecna calls it. In my story, multiples gates open in Hawkins, blooming out across Indiana and many other states, initiating a shadow apocalypse — or, as my novella is titled, the “World’s End”.

If You Could Live (or Relive) Two Years in the Past

Here’s an interesting exercise: If you could go back in time and live out two full years in America, any two years between 1913-1992, what would they be? In other words, sometime after all continental states were admitted to the union, but before the World Wide Web was made public. My years of choice are 1925 and 1973.

The Year 1925

The mid-twenties in general were a time to be alive. It was the ultimate decade of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Presidents Warren Harding (1921-23) and Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) kept the nation out of war and needless costly foreign intervention. They raised the standard of living for millions. Technological advances and mass production made consumer goods affordable, and the spread of electrical power created a demand for appliances. Many people could buy cars, yielding a new world of paved roads and stores. New York became the largest city in the world, overtaking London. Child mortality rates dropped across the nation. Money was spent lavishly on public education. Women were now able to vote, giving the country 26 million new voters. People danced the nights away, to the latest music on radio. There was Prohibition, which was bad itself, but yielded the benefit of the black market with bootlegging and speakeasies; in effect the price of booze went way down. If there was a decade I could visit during the first half of the twentieth century, it would be the 20s hands down, and the particular year I choose is 1925.

Here are some of the note-worthies of 1925.

Great Books. Some say the greatest year for books was 1925. Books like An American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby were hugely influential.

The First Motel. Hotels had been around since 1794, but the first motel opened in California in 1925, located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It charged a rate of $1.25 per night. Motels hinted that car culture would soon take over the American way of life.

Gitlow v. New York. This year the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling: that the right of free speech protects a person from state interference as much as federal interference. The Court had previously held, in Barron v. Baltimore (1833), that the Constitution’s Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, but Gitlow reversed that precedent and established that while the Bill of Rights was designed to limit the power of the federal government, the denial of these rights by a state government constitutes a denial of due process which is prohibited under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Pierce v. Society of Sisters. In this year the Court also held that children did not have to attend public schools. States that made such a requirement were acting unconstitutionally.

Scopes Monkey Trial. In the summer of 1925, the Scopes Trial was all the rage — staged deliberately to attract publicity. Tennessee upheld a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools, and fined Scopes $100, although the state supreme court overturned the ruling on a technicality. The nation would have to wait until 1968 for SCOTUS’s substantive ruling: that banning evolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, since the bans are primarily religious. But the Scopes trial itself was a benchmark in forcing the question of whether or not evolution should be taught in public schools.

Weird Tales and Adventure (“The Camp-Fire”). The pulp magazines became wildly popular in the 20s. Weird Tales — still regarded today as the most important and influential of all fantasy magazines — had launched its first issue in 1923, and in 1925 began publishing an issue every month. Adventure Magazine, started back in 1910, had grown so popular by the 20s that its letters page, “The Camp-Fire” (not to be confused with the youth development organization by the same name, that also started in 1910), had become a major cultural phenomenon. The Camp-Fire featured editorials and fiery discussions about all sorts of topics, usually about whether or not the author had the right facts in his or her story. Historical accuracy, geographical accuracy, the kind of weapons the characters used — all of these and more were debated with passion. By 1924, a number of Camp-Fire Stations — locations where Adventure readers could hook up — were established across the U.S. and even in other countries. In 1925 one of the Camp-Fire’s most fiery debates was over the character of Julius Caesar. The writers often embellished their lives, reinvented themselves with outlandish fictions (even in their bio sketches); some were con artists. By 1925 Adventure was unquestionably the most important pulp magazine in the world, let alone the U.S. I’d love to live in 1925 as a subscriber to Weird Tales and Adventure, and as a Camp-Fire freak.

Drag Balls. The tradition of masquerade and civil balls (“drag balls”) goes back to 1869 in Harlem. By the mid-1920s, at the height of Prohibition, they were attracting thousands of people of different races and social classes—whether straight or gay. We tend to think of Stonewall (in 1969) as the beginning of the gay rights movement, but decades before that, Harlem’s drag balls were part of an LGBTQ nightlife-culture that gave us gay and lesbian enclaves. What fun. Only after the Depression would this libertine culture fall out of favor, as many would blame this cultural experimentation for the economic collapse.

The Year 1973

The early 70s were gloomy and nihilistic, but that’s what generated so much artistic creativity and cultural progress. Disillusion, cynicism, paranoia, and frustrated rage coalesced in the ’60s aftermath, yielding introspection and existentialism. Films were about dirty cops, shady leaders, conspiracies, isolation, and loneliness. Rock lyrics were about individuals trying desperately to connect to others, to themselves, and to the world around them. The dress and hair styles were awful, granted, but aside from that, it was a groovy period. The best year in particular is 1973. I was alive that year, but so tiny and young that I remember nothing about it. I’d love to go back and live out the year as an adult.

Here are the note-worthies of 1973:

The Exorcist. The best and scariest film of all time is released. I’d give anything to see this masterpiece on screen when everyone was fainting in the isle and running from the theaters.

The Godfather. The epic film wins Best Picture, becoming the new Citizen Kane.

Selling England by the Pound. The best album by the best band of all time. Or at least, Genesis was the best band while Peter Gabriel was involved.

Dark Side of the Moon. The most important album by the most important band of all time. Even if The Wall is Floyd’s best, Dark Side’s influence can’t be exaggerated.

All in the Family. The best episodes — meaning the most offensive and insanely hilarious ones — from the best TV sitcom of all time come from the late part of season 3 and the early part of season 4, which spanned the year of 1973: “Archie Goes Too Far”, “Archie Learns His Lesson”, “The Battle of the Month”, “We’re Having a Heat Wave”, “Henry’s Farewell”, “The Games Bunkers Play”, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Wig”, to name the very best episodes.

Roe v. Wade. Landmark supreme court ruling protecting the right to abortions.

The Paris Peace Accords. After 16 years, American involvement in the Vietnam War ended. Peace at last.

The War Powers Resolution. The congressional resolution (vetoed by Richard Nixon but then overridden) limits the president’s ability to initiate or escalate military actions abroad. It states that “the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply” whenever the American armed forces are deployed overseas. Many presidents since then have failed to comply with this resolution, and for the worse.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. The American Psychiatric Association declares that homosexuality is not a mental illness or sickness, and removes from its manuals the listing of same-sex activity as a disorder.

The Endangered Species Act. The most comprehensive legislation enacted (in any nation) for the protection of endangered species.

Reading Roundup: 2021

This was a good year for books. Here are my ten picks. Most of them were published this year, but I was late catching up on others. Especially my #1 choice.

1. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (Expanded Edition). Jonathan Rauch, 1993 (2013). Rauch stood at a crossroads in ’93 and saw the coming of 2014. It began with alarming trends — feminists joining hands with fundies in attempts to censor pornography because porn “hurt” people — and reached a defining moment with Salman Rushdie. Suddenly liberals were pandering to the inexcusable and retreating from their most important values. They haven’t looked back since. It’s so rare to find a superb analysis of the processes that go into formulating our opinions (instead of just focusing on “where we stand”), and Rauch outlines different processes that people use to get at the truth. He argues for the liberal science approach (public criticism is the only way to determine who is right) and shows that the egalitarian and humanitarian approaches are not only misguided but dangerous. Hearing that Islam is a religion of violence is hurtful to many Muslims, but that’s a necessary truth that needs confronting. Hearing that biological sex is not on a spectrum may be hurtful to transgendered people, but what hurts is often factual. Science can screw up and fail, but it has a built-in mechanism to improve on itself when it does. On whole, when everything is subjected to public criticism, the result is a system that has never been surpassed anywhere in human history. After hundreds of years, the community of liberal science has outlived all its challengers. It has criticized itself and been made the stronger for it. You certainly can’t say that about the fundamentalist, egalitarian, or humanitarian approaches. The results speak for themselves: offensive speech is a precious commodity. Full review here.

2. Boundaries of Eden. Glenn Arbery, 2020. This novel started my new year and blew me away. (It would be at #1 if Kindly Inquisitors weren’t so goddamn perfect.) It blends genres subtly across a philosophical canvas, and is a bit hard to summarize. Call it a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and an unsparing look at the mind of a serial killer. It’s about the way sins of the past impinge on the present, and the pain that comes with digging up the past. The main character is Walter Peach, who runs a newspaper in the central county of Georgia, treats his wife and kids like sewage, falls in love with his niece, openly fawns on said niece around his family, while at work he publishes screeds against Mexican cartels that no one takes seriously. Pivotal to the drama (and Peach’s past) is an abandoned 40-year old house buried under a sea of kudzu. Some of the scenes inside the house show that Arbery could be a horror writer if he wanted to; he has a gift for summoning dread that many horror writers only aspire to. Some of the most horrifying parts, though, are revelations unearthed about the main character’s mother, her slave heritage, and crimes committed in the name of justice. Well crafted and multi-layered — even poetic at times — Boundaries of Eden begins like a Faulkner classic and slow-burns into something much more; it never cheats the reader because it’s a novel that does everything, and because Arbery is simply incapable of writing a dull paragraph. I didn’t want it to end.

3. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity. Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. Critiques of postmodernism usually strawman their subject, but Pluckrose and Lindsay do right by it, allowing us to scorn postmodern theories with a clean conscience: theories saying that objective truth is unobtainable, and that the scientific method is overrated; that power and hierarchies are the number one evil; that words are powerful and dangerous, and language can be as harmful as physical violence. This stuff was always bonkers, but when applied to social justice agendas of the woke left it goes off the cliff, giving us Critical Race Theory (all whites are complicit in racism), Queer Theory (sex isn’t biological and exists on a spectrum), Postcolonial Theory (describing Islam as a religion of violence is hateful), Fat Studies (the desire to remedy obesity is hateful), and so on. The authors conclude that while racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and social injustices continue to be problems, postmodern theories are religious anti-solutions making the problems worse. The proper solutions lie where they always have — and where they have produced tangible positive results — namely, in classical liberalism. This is a perfect book to read in tandem with Kindly Inquisitors (#1), which the authors have clearly learned from. Full review here.

4. Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse. Dave Goulson, 2021. This is a strident plea to protect insects before they’re wiped out, and the planet along with them. The author (an entomologist and conservationist) explains how global insect populations are declining through habitat fragmentation, industrial farming practices, pesticides, and climate change — and in some cases the decline is by as much as 75%. It continues to astonish me that many people don’t realize how critical pollination is. Nearly 90% of plant species require pollination in order to produce fruits or seeds, including most agricultural food crops, and while honeybees and bumblebees do most of the pollination legwork, other insects do too, like butterflies, wasps, and beetles. In some parts of the world farmers have to do the labor-intensive job of hand-pollinating their crops. Goulson calls for action to protect insects and rethink our heavy reliance on pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. We can help insect populations recover in a variety of ways: by reducing lawn space in favor of flowering plants, mowing grass less often, incorporating wide ranges of native plants into our gardens, and giving predatory insects a first crack at the problem that pesticides address. If we don’t want fruits and vegetables to become the food of kings — and for humanity to be reduced to eating wind-pollinated cereal grains — this is a book we’d do well to heed.

5. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages That Led to America. Carol Delaney, 2011. I’m not a fan of Columbus, and there’s certainly no reason to have a holiday in his name, but after reading this book I appreciate him more in the context of his time. He wasn’t a greedy colonizer but a zealous apocalyptic. Many fifteenth-century Christians believed that the apocalypse wasn’t far off (especially since the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453), and that conditions had to be fulfilled before Christ could come again: the Turks had to be defeated and Jerusalem liberated from Muslim control. Columbus believed a crusade was necessary, and he knew there was enough gold in the east to finance a holy war. He also knew that if the Great Khan could be converted, that would mean a reliable eastern flank to converge on Jerusalem at the same time European crusaders attacked from the west. He presented his plan to Queen Isabella in 1486, which she liked but wouldn’t run with until the conquest of Muslim Granada was over six years later. The rest is famous history. What’s not well known is the religious fervor that drove Columbus: by discovering new islands and evangelizing “savage” peoples, Columbus was preparing the world for the Last Judgment, and acquiring the necessary riches to finance the Last Crusade. Delaney is no apologist for Columbus, but she does show how he’s been over-maligned. At least he tried treating the Indians decently, unlike many of the men he led, and especially unlike the governors (Bobadilla, Ovando, etc.) who came after him. Full review here.

6. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Jonathan Rauch, 2021. The sequel to Kindly Inquisitors (see #1) addresses the major epistemic crisis facing America today — a two-pronged assault elevating falsehoods above facts, from the populist right and elitist left. Rauch starts by showing how human beings are biologically and socially conditioned to believe whatever they want, irrespective of evidence, and that our institutions of expertise tame those tribal urges through rigorous practices such as peer review and fact checking. He draws a parallel between this constitution of knowledge and two of liberalism’s other institutions, constitutional government and free-market economics. All of them together, working at their best, result in political cooperation, economic prosperity, and reliable scientific findings. But recently there have been two particular forces seriously undermining the constitution of knowledge. The first is the nihilism of the internet, with its metrics and algorithms that are sensitive to popularity but wholly indifferent to truth. Fake news, trolling, and junk science flood the web giving the alt-right a voice everywhere. Instead of banning ideas, the right swamps and swarms them with garbage to overwhelm people. The second is cancel culture, rooted in what Rauch calls “emotional safetyism,” which construes disagreeable or upsetting arguments as threats that need policing. His list of the dozen ways in which emotional safetyism poisons us is one of the best exposes on the subject. So is his seven-fold criteria of how to tell whether you’re being criticized or cancelled. The left has gone a long way in turning a culture of critical review into a culture of confirmation bias and censorship. Full review here.

7. Sins of Empire. Brian McClellan, 2017. I gave this novel a try based on its reputation as a fantasy set in a world of guns and magic. The world evokes our Napoleonic era and there’s a mood to it unlike typical fantasy that feels like fresh air. I was hooked immediately by the three major characters. First is Michel Bravis, my favorite; he works for the secret police force and is an antihero, a coward who does everything in his power to obtain a promotion by kissing the asses of those above him. He’s my favorite character because of this; he’s so real and authentic. Second is Ben Styke, a legendary military veteran rotting in a labor camp until he gets pulled out and set on a course of action that he’s not really clear about. Finally there is Vlora, or Lady Flint, the general leading her company of Riflejacks mercenaries, who gets summoned to the city for a new contract, but quickly learns that nothing is safe or as it seems. It’s a good story and I look forward to the next two books when I have time for them. McClellan’s plotting is impressive, as he focuses on mysteries as much the usual fantasy tropes, and his self-serving characters are very entertaining. Fantasy novels don’t always have the most engaging characters, but Sins of Empire has plenty of them.

8. Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2021. Vilified for speaking truth and common sense, Hirsi Ali has now turned her guns on the problem of Muslim immigrants in Europe, especially since 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees crossed the border and ignited the well-known crisis. It’s important to stress that Hirsi Ali’s book doesn’t demonize migrant men from the Muslim world. As she says, there’s no racial component to her argument at all. A certain proportion of men of all ethnicities will rape and harass women. But the rates are vastly lower in some parts of the world than in others, especially in places where men are raised to respect a woman’s autonomy. In many parts of Europe now, women who walk outdoors (assuming they don’t stay shut inside at home) have adopted some of the mannerisms of women in the Middle-East and Africa — shrinking from men, being on guard, and avoiding drawing attention to themselves. The simple act of traveling or enjoying lunch in a cafe has become a thing of the past for many women. The unpleasant fact is that hard-won gains that women have made are being eroded in Europe by immigrants from the Muslim world where such rights to women are not granted, and the problem is compounded by the fact that Muslim immigrants have a poor track record of assimilating to western culture even by the second or third generations. Islam’s demands are too absolute to allow for it. Hirsi Ali rejects right-wing populist solutions (expelling illegal immigrants and restricting Muslim immigration), and instead advocates a massive reform of the European systems of integrating immigrants, from which she herself has benefited. Full review here.

9. The Plot. Jean Hanff Korelitz, 2021. A novel-within-a-novel that focuses on the inner turmoil of the author, and kind of reminds me of Misery (no surprise that Stephen King loves it). Misery was about a guy who was forced to write the story he didn’t want. The Plot is about a guy who writes a story that’s not his. Jake is a third-rate novelist who steals a story from a former student now dead, becomes rich and famous for it, and then out of the blue gets trolled by an anonymous stalker and repeatedly called out for plagiarism. Panicked, he tries to uncover the person who is harassing him, and one bizarre twist leads to another. Turns out (major spoiler) that Jake stole a real-life story of a murder, and when he decides to rewrite his novel as a piece of true crime, he ends up in much deeper shit. I never read anything by Jean Korelitz before; she’s pretty good. But while The Plot is a cracking suspense novel, it’s also, I think, a serious mediation on — and rather unflattering look at — writers in general. Their egos, insecurities, vanities. At points I felt a bit naked reading it.

10. Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. David Gessner, 2021. Yes, Teddy Roosevelt was mostly a terrible president, but he did one thing for which we owe him a debt of gratitude: saving hundreds of millions of acres of land from being developed and despoiled. Gessner reminds us that the GOP was Teddy’s party, and that many of our most important environmental laws came from the Republican party, all the way up through the end of Nixon’s presidency. In fact I would argue that Teddy and Richard Nixon were the best pro-environmental presidents. (The GOP anti-environmental shift came with Reagan.) Yes, they were overall failures. Aside from Donald Trump, no president was so narcissist and drunk on his self-regard than Teddy Roosevelt; and also aside from Trump, no president so openly disdained the Constitution and claimed himself to be above the document like Teddy did. And Tricky Dick was a Constitutional crook. Yet we do owe these men gratitude for their environmental causes, Teddy for land preservation, Nixon for signing loads of progressive legislation. Gessner’s book is a tour of all the sites we can savor thanks to Teddy, and let’s hope these sites will be around for a long time to come.

The 50th Anniversary of the Nashua Public Library

This year the Nashua Public Library will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the months of November and December. The celebration will include an exhibit of library artifacts and a slideshow of photographs in the gallery, a banner and a special anniversary edition library card, and also special displays of material from the collection that were released in 1971 — books, films, music, TV series, and events. The library’s actual anniversary is September 26 (when the dedication ceremony took place), so technically the celebration should already be under way. So I’m doing my own personal homage to the library and the year 1971. Here’s looking back at what was happening that year: books that would leave their mark, like The Exorcist; rock ‘n roll masterpieces like Zeppelin IV; the debut of All in the Family and unprecedented political incorrectness. It turns out that 1971 was a critical year in many ways — it started the ’70s in the way 1983 started the ’80s — an important year (though I wasn’t old enough to appreciate most of it) and suitable moment to open a town library. There were shifts in the cultural milieu that would have lasting impact, and here are some of the highlights.

1. The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. It started with the book in ’71, even if the film pushed it into infamy two years later. Not great literature by any means (unlike the film, which was a cinematic masterpiece), but Blatty presented demonic possession like no one has done since, and never scarier.

2. All in the Family, by Normal Lear. The best TV sitcom of all time hit its peak in ’73-’74 (the excellent third and fourth seasons), but it began on that fateful January in 1971 (you can watch the full premiere here), when Archie and Mike screamed at each other about racism over a Sunday brunch. The show would keep going to the tail end of the ’70s.

3. The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. The 50th anniversary for this one has already been widely celebrated. It was a book ahead of its time, making its urgent plea for preservation and a clean environment, showing how species disappear when food runs out or pollution is left unchecked.

4. Led Zeppelin IV, by Led Zeppelin. Yeah, this one. The opening “Black Dog”, the medieval “Battle of Evermore” (my favorite), the epic “Stairway to Heaven”,  the ballad “Going to California”, and everything else… hard to believe this masterpiece has 50 years under its belt.

5. Harold and Maude, by Hal Ashby. A morbid love affair between a suicidal teen and a 79-year old woman was widely panned at the time of its release, but today it’s much more appreciated it deserves. One of the darkest comedies ever made, and a fitting start to the ’70s era of creative cinema.

6. The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin. In the middle of writing the Earthsea Trilogy, Le Guin released this sci-fic tale of a world racked by violence and environmental catastrophe. One man’s dreams controls the fate of humanity, and a psychiatrist manipulates those dreams for his own purposes. I’m reading this now and lamenting that we don’t have writers like this anymore.

7. Hell House, by Richard Matheson. Stephen King calls it the best haunted house story of all time. Perhaps. It’s about two previous expeditions to the awful house that ended up with the investigators killed or going insane, and now a new investigation is under way.

8. The Monster at the End of this Book, by Jon Stone. It may sound strange, but this book terrified me as a kid. My mother got for me about three years after publication. Hysterical images like these petrified the shit out of me and kept me awake at night. I dreaded the monster at the end, even knowing it was just Grover. The things that scare little kids.

9. The French Connection, by William Friedkin. Known for the infamous car chase that could have gotten people killed (it was shot illegally without Friedkin getting anyone’s permission, or without even closing off the streets), the film was a landmark shot in the “induced documentary” style that put Friedkin on the map.

10. Nursery Cryme, by Genesis. Prog rock excellence from Genesis in their glory days. In the epic “Musical Box” a girl knocks her boy cousin’s head off with a croquet mallet, and his spirit returns to lust for her and assault her. In “The Fountain of Salmacis” Hermaphroditus is seduced by the nymph Salmacis and becomes fused with her. Great imagination on display here.

11. The Electric Company, by Paul Dooley. Sesame Street (launched in ’69) had pride of place when I was growing up, but The Electric Company (’71-’77) was my favorite and the reason I became a fan of Spider-Man. Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader was pretty cool too. This is his first appearance on the show.

12. Dragonquest, by Anne McCaffrey. Arguably the best of The Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, the second book involves complex storylines. In the first book Lessa traveled back in time centuries in order to bring an army forward. In this one F’nor takes on an even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread forever.

13. The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. Like The Exorcist, the book would be made into a successful 1973 film. It was also awarded on its strength as a novel, receiving the Best Novel Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America. it’s about the assassination attempt of Charles De Gaulle, and it holds up well today.

14. A Clockwork Orange, by Stanley Kubrick. Kubric went for the jugular in adapting the 1962 novel, depicting a miserable journey through a world of decaying cities, psycho adolescents, and nightmare technologies of rehabilitative punishment. Viewers were stunned. Welcome to the ’70s.

15. The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, by Robert Foster. Before the age of the internet and Tolkien webpages, this was my go-to book for Tolkien lore (which I acquired, I think, in either ’79 or ’80). It was as complete as I could imagine a resource for Tolkien’s world. How little I knew back then.

16. Who’s Next, by The Who. A song like “Baba O’Riley” comes along once in a blue moon, and an album like Who’s Next? even more infrequently. I’ve never been a Who fan, but I do love this album, and I could play “Baba O’Riley” any day of the week.

 

As for events, in 1971…

17. The digital age began. We don’t tend to associate the early ’70s with that, but January 1971 is when the microprocessor was invented.

18. The voting age was lowered to 18. The 2th Amendment was finally ratified, after the drafting age had been lowered to 18 during World War II. The drinking age, of course, still needs to be lowered to 18 (if not abolished altogether).

19. Charles Manson was executed. He and three of his darlings got the death penalty.

20. Disney World opened. I’ve still never been and probably will never make it.

All was not rosy, however, in 1971. Probably the worst thing that happened was…

21. The gold standard was abandoned. Nixon announced that the United States would no longer convert dollars to gold at a fixed value, thus completely abandoning the gold standard. From 1971 onwards productivity increased as wages flatlined; Gross Domestic Product surged but the shares going to workers plummeted; house prices skyrocketed; hyperinflation increased; currencies crashed. The personal savings rate went down the toilet; incarceration rates went up by a factor of five; divorce rates shot up too, and the number of people in their late 20s living with their parents increased; the number of lawyers quadrupled.

Graphically, this is what happened in 1971, thanks to Nixon’s abandoning the gold standard (click to enlarge). The graphs come from the WTF Happened in 1971? website.

No denying that 1971 is a year to pay homage to, in more ways than one. Happy anniversary, Nashua Public Library!

Reading Radar Update

Loren’s Recommendations

It’s my month to be featured on the Nashua Public Library’s Reading Radar (our staff pick display). I have some new recommendations, and I reproduce all my picks here on this blog, since I’ve reviewed many of them in the past, and supply the links at the end of the blurbs. Fiction and non-fiction alike are included in the following recommendations. (Click on the right image for my feature page on the library website.)

1. The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks, 2013. A crusader enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) and goes on a slaughter-mission, tearing up the city to find his lost wife. His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of abused children he rescues along the way. Full review here.

2. The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon, 6 volume series, 1955-1960. George Martin calls this series the “original Game of Thrones”, and I can see why. It’s historical fiction (not fantasy) set in France (1314-1336), showing the downfall of the Capetian dynasty amidst self-serving ambitions. Endless family quarrels, clashes between church and throne, civil war, adultery, backbiting, regicide, baby-switching, baby-killing, you name it.

3. Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. A book I wish everyone would read. The authors explore the tension between classical liberalism and woke postmodernism, and the differences between their approaches to social justice. They conclude that classical liberalism stands the test of time against the emptiness of woke theories. Full review here.

4. Veritas, by Ariel Sabar, 2020. A real-life conspiracy thriller, the true story of a pornographer who conned Harvard University into believing that a “gospel of Jesus’s wife” was genuine. This brilliant piece of investigative journalism was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. Full review here.

5. The History of Jihad, by Robert Spencer, 2018. Featured front and center: the first book of its kind, that covers all theaters of the Islamic holy wars, starting with Muhammad and then proceeding through every century, showing how jihad has always been an essential ingredient of Islam. It even covers the jihads in India (usually hard information to come by). While there are many peaceful and moderate Muslims, there has never been a form of moderate Islam; it’s not a religion of peace, which is why disproportionate numbers of Muslims have been jihadists in every day and age. Full review here.

6. Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland, 2014. If you want a book that ranks the U.S. presidents who were good for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty (like Tyler and Harding), then read this book. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized (like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan), or who were charismatics, then get any of the mainstream rankings that fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores. Full review here.

7. Free Speech on Campus, by Erwin Chemerinsky & Howard Gillman, 2017. “We should prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” Sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — and these students are the future of our legislators and supreme court justices. If every college student read this book, it might go a long way to making strong thinkers again. Full review here.

8. Koko, by Peter Straub, 1988. A novel about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold. An absolutely brilliant story, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. Full review (retrospective) here.

9. Boundaries of Eden, by Glenn Arbery, 2020. Last but not least, and in fact I’ll call it my #1 pick. It’s a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and examines the tormented mind of a serial killer. It’s that rare novel that does a bit of everything, very literary, and I didn’t want it to end.

 

The Lost City (Epilogue): Fading

It may be an epilogue but it’s my favorite part. I knew I had to get it right, or there was no point in writing the novel. To get the boys back to Hawkins and provide a segue into season 1, after all they experienced in the Lost City, without it feeling like a cheat. I think it works and has the right emotional payoff.

                                             The Lost City — Epilogue:

                                     Fading

 

He knew before he raised his head that he was as a kid again. He’d been so long and tall that his truncation was obvious – an emasculation felt in every bone. Without thinking, he reached for his sword, but of course that security was gone; discarded in a room now demolished.

The air was warm as he opened his eyes. He was on his stomach, his head resting on a soft floor: fabrics of orange, green, and brown. The rug by his gaming table.

For a long moment he lay still, fearing to get up and look at his surroundings. He was terrified that everything he’d been through was a dream – or that his friends might try to persuade him of that. He needed reassurance it had all been real: the pyramid; Demetrius; the mushroom gardens; Jilanka; the desert; Areesha; the invasion; the feeding…

“Holy shit,” said someone standing over him.

He levered his arms under him, pushed himself to his knees, and stood. And at that moment Mike Wheeler realized how much he’d missed home.

It hit him hard, seeing his basement and all the familiars – the gaming table, couch, wall posters, the stairs going up to the kitchen. Then his friends: Lucas, who was already on his feet; Dustin who was slowly getting up; and Will, who was still on the floor. Lucas was the one who had spoken. He was doing a slow 360, taking in the room they had played in so often.

“We made it, guys,” said Dustin. “Jesus, we really made it back.”

“And we’re kids again,” said Lucas. “How do we go back to being kids?”

“Will,” said Mike, moving to help him stand. “Are you okay?”

Will stumbled a bit as he rose. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Look at me,” said Mike, holding the sides of Will’s face. Two normal hazel-colored eyes stared back at him. Thank the gods. He hugged Will fiercely, relieved for his friend’s liberation.

“Your hand looks fine too,” said Will, when they disengaged.

“Yeah, dude,” said Mike, holding up his right hand and waving it around. “Like it was never there.” But it made me invincible. He felt a pang of loss. They had reclaimed themselves, but at the expense of miracles that wouldn’t come again.

“We need out of these clothes,” said Lucas.

Mike only then registered that they had on Cynidicean attire. They were way too small for these adult clothes, except for Will. They were barefoot too, having thrown aside their cumbersome war boots (and Will his bedroom slippers).

“We need to save these clothes forever,” said Dustin. “They’re our only souvenirs of the Lost City.”

“Yeah,” said Mike absently. And they were something else: the assurance he craved. The proof that what they had lived through was real and not a dream.

“I’ll get some clothes from my room you guys can borrow,” said Mike. “For you too, Will. Your mom would freak out if you came home dressed like that.”

“Will, what made you do it?” asked Lucas.

“Huh?” said Will.

“The Temple of Zargon,” said Lucas. “You demolished that fucking thing.”

“It was a nightmare getting you out of that wreck,” said Dustin. “All the Magi who had levitate and telekinesis spells were putting in overtime.”

“Oh, you guys,” said Will, suddenly looking sick. “You’d never believe… the things I saw in that temple…”

“Hey!” said Mike, catching him. “Are you okay?”

Will looked pale and not okay.

“You need the bathroom?” asked Mike. “Come on.” He walked Will over to the basement bathroom. Will went inside without shutting the door, fell to his knees and was promptly sick.

He saw too much, thought Mike. Not just in that temple, but everywhere in the world, with that Eye. A child’s mind couldn’t take so much evil and trauma. Probably no one could, really.

Will threw up a second time and then came out, looking a little better. He rejoined them and sat down at the gaming table. “I’m okay. But I don’t want to talk about anything I saw in that temple.”

“It’s okay, Will,” said Lucas. “We have some idea. Kanadius told us about Zargonite sacrifice. I’m glad I never saw what they did in those rites.”

“I killed so many people,” said Will, putting his face in his hands.

“Whoa, Byers,” said Dustin. “You killed nasty people. The temple priests and warriors? They deserved to die. The zoombies on the island? Seriously. And Auriga? Don’t shed a tear.”

“There were innocent slaves and captives in the temple,” said Will.

“Jesus, Will,” said Dustin.

“You couldn’t even help yourself,” said Mike. “You had to be triggered. None of us had any idea how to trigger you.”

“It was my mom,” said Will.

“What?” asked Mike.

“When I saw threats to a mother, I think that’s what set me off,” said Will. “Not the first time. On the isle, it was just the shock over the Eye surgery. But Auriga told me he did something really bad to his mother. And in the temple I saw a mother and her kid… ” He shuddered.

“Will, you have no idea how much I hated having to hold you down for that Eye transplant,” said Lucas.

Mike felt sick remembering that. For a moment he relived his fury with Lucas. Then he remembered his shame over killing Lucas.

“Listen carefully, Will,” said Dustin. “You were never a bad person.”

“Yeah, I was the bad person,” said Mike. He looked at Lucas, hating himself all over.

Lucas shook his head. “You were cursed, Mike, just like Will.”

But I remember wanting to strike you down, not just feeling compelled to. I remember choosing you over Coval, as my fifth kill. I remember despising your pity, hating you and envying you. How much could be absolved and forgiven on account of a curse?

“Maybe,” said Mike. “But I think I failed you.”

“Don’t talk to me about failure,” said Lucas. “I was king and I failed my people a hundred percent. They all died. They’re dying now, in that other world.”

“Cut yourself some slack,” said Dustin. “It was a fucking earthquake, Lucas. In an underground. Fucking Hazor.”

“Which was my fault,” said Will. “Hazor did that because I -”

“Stop already!” said Lucas. “Maybe we’re all just a mess.”

“Lucas, you would have made a great king,” said Mike, meaning it completely. “You and Pandora… I would have followed you both forever. You and she could have made Cynidicea great again.”

“Agreed,” said Dustin. “But forgive me, I can’t for the life of me imagine you sharing a bed with that woman.”

Lucas looked thoughtful. “We did. Or the floor anyway.”

“What?” Dustin and Mike said at the same time.

“That night,” said Lucas. “After our crowning in the temple of Gorm. Dustin, you and Demetrius had already gone back down to the city. And Mike, you and Jilanka were in your room. The Brothers and the Maidens decided that Pandora and I should – you know – for good luck against the invasion the next day. They forced us into the shrine of Madarua and barred us inside. And said we could come out only after we ‘sealed our marriage’.”

“That’s hysterical,” said Dustin.

“The only time I got laid,” said Lucas. “The day of my crowning.”

“More times than I did,” said Dustin. “Demetrius tried for me. He asked Shira one night if she wanted to. He was going to let me drive during sex, but Shira told him to fuck off.”

“You’ll get there some day, dude,” said Lucas.

Dustin looked at Mike. “We won’t talk about all the filthy times you got laid.”

Mike was conflicted thinking about Jilanka. He missed her already, missed what they did in bed, and yet he didn’t feel those desires now that he was a kid again. He wanted to feel them. And then didn’t; feelings like that would only torment him, now that she was gone forever and probably dead.

“I need to get home, guys,” said Will. “My mom is going to kill me. I wasn’t supposed to come here today.”

“None of us should have come here today,” said Dustin. “And I am going to kill that fucking clerk at Rotten Gargoyle.”

Lucas looked alarmed. “I don’t know about that, Dustin. I think we should steer clear of that store, until we know that guy is gone. I mean, who the fuck is he to have a scroll like that?”

“Wait here, Will,” said Mike. “I’ll get some clothes for all of us. We all need to see our families again. But I don’t have four pairs of sneakers.”

Mike raced up the stairs and checked around the house before going to his room. He knew everyone would still be gone; his parents were out with baby Holly, and Nancy was over Barbara Holland’s. He couldn’t wait to see them all again.

A half hour later, the boys looked like Americans from the ’80s, courtesy of Mike Wheeler’s wardrobe. They went outside and rode their bikes home barefoot.

 

That night Mike was in his room, leafing through his comics. It had been forever since he read a comic book, but frankly they weren’t doing much for him. The stories seemed silly and overblown, with the superheroes winning too easily. Reality was a cruel teacher. Mike knew the costs of being a hero. And the devastating consequences of failure.

He heard the front door bang open downstairs and immediately forgot about the X-Men. Nancy was home. Mike’s heart raced as he heard her come up the stairs. He leaped from his bed and rushed out to meet her. She was at her bedroom door when he cried her name and flew into her arms, hugging her desperately.

“Michael, what the hell?”

He kept hugging her, his head against her chest. It felt so good to be home.

She finally pried him loose and looked at him, alarmed. “Michael, what’s wrong? What happened?”

He almost laughed at the question. “Nothing,” he said, turning around and going back to his room.

Dumbfounded, his sister followed him down the hall. She stood inside his doorway, looking at him as if he’d grown two heads. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine,” said Mike, getting back on the bed, and opening another comic. Spiderman. More silliness. Will was the true Spider Child.

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what that was all about,” said Nancy.

“It’s nothing, Nancy. I was just happy to see you.”

“To see me? We see each other every day.”

“I missed you today,” he said honestly. “Is it okay to miss my sister once in a while?”

She stared at him for a long time, then threw up her hands and left.

He knew she was going downstairs to tell their mother. And his mother would report that Mike had done the same thing to her hours ago, and she was just as mystified. They’d worry and they’d obsess. Let them. They’d get over it. He had more to get over than curious displays of affection.

A lot more, as it turned out.

 

The four boys didn’t see each other again until four days later. It was Friday, August 5, and the heat hadn’t let up. Mike missed the desert climate. The village of Suqatra had been scorching but at least dry. Indiana humidity was brutal.

Usually they saw each other every day, or every other, during summer vacation, but they’d needed time alone. To be with their families, and to process the fact that they weren’t adults anymore – or in Will’s case, a godlike seer – and that they were back in a world where they couldn’t solve problems by killing people. Their thinking had become medieval, and it clashed with the personas they had rewound to.

Mike’s basement was the eternal haven. There they could solve the world’s problems and their own. At the gaming table, no subject was too daunting or out of bounds. And on that Friday they did an oral tally of the pros and cons of this world and that. This world had flushing toilets, movies, bikes, games, cars, and all sorts of good food – donuts and pizzas especially. That world had magic, swords, spells, monsters, gods, and the stuff of epic legends. In the end it was a draw. Only Will came down squarely on the pros of this world. He had suffered too much in Cynidicea.

But they were all glad to be back. They rode their bikes that afternoon in the miserable heat, savoring the paths they’d always taken. They went to Sattler Quarry and imagined the Isle of Death out there, with zoombies waiting for Lucas to summon. Then they went to the movies to escape the heat. Two films caught their eyes: a fantasy called Krull and a new release called Risky Business. Normally Krull would have been the no-brainer, but they had lived and breathed fantasy for too long. They needed a dramatic change.

They loved Risky Business. Mike thought of Jilanka as he watched Tom Cruise fuck that gorgeous blonde through the night. The others thought it was the most racy sex they’d ever seen, but for Mike it was nothing. He and Jilanka had put to shame every whore in the multiverse. And yet, as he watched Cruise and the blonde go at it on the stairs, he felt an emptiness where fire used to be. The sex show was more amusing than arousing; Mike didn’t get aroused anymore. He felt like he had been erased in some way.

When the film ended, they left for home on their bikes, promising to see each other soon.

 

They saw each other next on the following Monday afternoon, one week after their return from the Lost City. As they ate cheese and crackers, and talked more about their re-acclimation into modern America, Mike noticed an alarming development: they were forgetting some of their experiences in Cynidicea. And not just details, but whoppers.

Mike couldn’t recall if it was the Maidens who had rooms on the second and third tiers of the pyramid, or if it was the Brothers. He remembered having his own special room with Jilanka on the third, but couldn’t remember where the rest of his sisters lived and slept.

“Sisters?” said Lucas. “You were never a Maiden, stupid. You were a Brother. And it was the Brothers who had rooms on both tiers. Their barracks was on Tier 2 and their temple was on Tier 3. The Maidens and the Magi had their barracks and temples on Tier 3.”

“Lucas, I was a Maiden,” said Mike.

Lucas looked at him uncertainly then laughed. “You fucked a Maiden, and I married one. You and I were Brothers, Mike. Don’t be silly.”

“We started out together as Brothers,” said Mike. “But later I… joined the Maidens.” He avoided saying, I betrayed the Brothers by stealing the Hand and giving it to Pandora. How could Lucas forget this?

“Yeah, Lucas,” said Dustin, making shapes with his cheese. “Mike joined the ladies. And Will got sick and I had to take care of him down in the city.”

“Sick?” asked Will.

“Yeah,” said Dustin. “You got a nasty disease. Remember, you could hardly talk? You ate mushrooms and got poisoning from them. I think.”

“No,” said Will. “The Eye triggered me. And” – he struggled to think – “I caused an accident in my room. And you took me out of the pyramid.”

“That was earlier,” said Dustin. “Your accident in the room. Man, I forgot about that. You really destroyed that room, Byers. But that accident snapped you out of it – whatever daze you were in at the time. That’s when you became the head librarian. For the Magi.”

“He became the Chief Mage, you idiot,” said Lucas, glad to be the one to rub someone else’s nose in a piss-poor memory. “Not a librarian.”

“Oh,” said Dustin. “Yeah. Christ, how could I forget?”

We’re all forgetting, thought Mike, suddenly scared. We’re forgetting what happened, because the spell was supposed to rewind us back to our original points, as if nothing happened. It did that to our bodies… but our minds are only slowly catching up.

He didn’t share that thought with the others. He was too scared they were true. They couldn’t be true.

I don’t want to forget.

 

Over the next few days, Mike did his best to keep his memories sharp but found that was difficult. The harder he tried, the more he lost. It made him panic. What he and his friends had shared in the Lost City was sacred; miraculous. Terrible and tragic, yes, but precious too. They were life-defining experiences outside the reach of most people. Yet it was all starting to feel like a fleeting dream. The more he chased thoughts of what he was forgetting, the more they skipped over the horizon.

By the weekend – nearly two weeks after their departure and return – the events of the Lost City had become so fragmented they seemed almost unreal. The miracles were leaving him, and Mike found that to be far more terrifying than any of the horrors he faced in Cynidicea. Was this the same as dying? To lose things of great value and be unable to prevent their passing? To have those things fade in front of you, just out of reach as you grasped in vain?

That night he called Lucas on his walkie-talkie.

“Yeah, Mike. Over.”

“Lucas, I was thinking. About that day you were crowned in the Lost City.” When you hugged me and forgave me. “Do you think you would have made me your knight? Over.”

“What are you talking about, Mike? Over.”

“I mean… if things had worked out there. Would you have made me a knight, like, your special guard? Over.”

“You mean in our game?” asked Lucas. “Over.”

“No,” said Mike, feeling frantic. “It was real. Don’t you remember? I… I killed you, Lucas, and then you came back, and we charged the hordes of those Muslims, or whoever they were. Over.” Mike was in tears and trying to be quiet about it.

There was silence at Lucas’s end.

“Lucas? Don’t you remember?” Say you remember. “Over.”

“Mike, I… I have to go. Over and out.”

“No, Lucas, don’t hang up!”

But the talkie was already dead.

Mike threw himself onto the bed and buried his face in his pillow, crying harder than ever before in his life.

 

The next day he lost more memories, and before breakfast he sat down and wrote what he could remember. He wrote names down too, but some of them looked wrong, and it was a struggle to put faces to any of them.

That night his obsessed mind dreamt it all: Queen Zenobia and Lucas dying as a child. The ghost who ripped away years of their lives. The bird-man who molested Will, and then died at the hand of Mike’s rage. Magic mushrooms, and the wild sex that Mike’s body was no longer equipped for. The Isle of Death. The Eye, the Hand, and the misery that followed their uses. His murder of Lucas. The jihad. Life in the desert, with a sweet girl whose sister had been raped and executed. His return to the city. Lucas’s crowning. The Yshian invasion. Zargon, his Whelps, and the horrible Feed. The earthquake… and everyone dying…

Mike woke up screaming. He screamed for a long time, and then began crying – the deep cry of adult hurt. His mother flew into his room and clutched him to her, terrified, asking him what on earth was wrong. Nancy, roused from sleep, stood in his doorway, biting her fingers. She had never seen Mike like this.

His mother gave him a sleeping pill, and stayed in his bed holding him until he drifted off.

 

Two days after that, on Wednesday, August 17, Mike stood looking into his bottom clothes drawer. It was the drawer he used for costumes, mostly Halloween outfits, and it was in this drawer he had placed his Cynidicean clothes over two weeks ago.

He looked at the clothes for a long time. They drew memories, but only barely. He’d lost so much of the Lost City that he’d become convinced it was all a dream, that he’d confused with their D&D campaign. The clothes removed all doubt: those eight months had been real.

But it meant nothing if that time couldn’t be remembered.

It has to be done.

Mike removed the clothes from his drawer and folded them neatly into a plastic garbage bag. He was calm, Stoic even, as he tied up the bag and brought it outside to the trash. It was time to stop fighting and let go of the memories. They were almost all gone anyway.

It was for the better, he told himself as he walked back into the house. He was a child of twelve, not a drug-popping warrior who betrayed his vows, murdered his friends, and shagged a girlfriend sixty ways to Sunday. Experiences like that would come later, as he grew older in this world. When they did, he hoped that his experiences in the Lost City would inform him on a subconscious level, so that where he failed before, he might do right a second time.

But he would stop looking back. It was time to look forward and live as Demetrius had urged them to live, and reclaim the magic of childhood – not the magic of spells and curses, but of innocence that opened kids to raw possibilities.

He went inside and closed the front door, and with it the final page of his life in the Lost City.

 

That weekend, on Saturday morning, an excited Mike Wheeler came thundering down the stairs to answer the front doorbell.

“Move it, Nancy!” he yelled, pushing her aside and opening the door.

“Jesus, Mike!” She had been reaching to open it herself.

The trio was on his doorstep, all smiles. They’d parked their bikes in the driveway and brought their packs of D&D material. Dustin had a box of donuts too, from the local bakery.

“Did you get lemons?” asked Mike, letting them all in.

” ‘Did I get lemons?’, he asks,” said Dustin, throwing down his pack in the foyer, and flipping open the box lid for all to see. “Here we have lemon donuts – three – jelly donuts – three – chocolate glazed – three – honey-dipped – three – and French crullers – four. That’s sixteen donuts, four for each of us.”

“You guys are going to be sick,” said Nancy, looking at them from the living room archway.

“You’re sick,” said Mike.

“I love these crullers,” said Will, taking one right away.

“Jesus, help yourself, Will,” said Dustin.

“So will I,” said Lucas, snagging a jelly and biting into it. “Mm. These are good.”

Mike took a lemon.

Dustin turned to the living room. “Do you want one, Nancy? I can do with three.”

Nancy rolled her eyes and walked off.

“Come on, guys,” said Mike, his mouth full of lemon gel. “Downstairs. I have something to show you.” He picked up Dustin’s pack for him and led them all downstairs to the basement.

At the gaming table, the dungeon master screens were up and the dice were out. Mike was ready to punish them.

“This better be a good module,” said Dustin, putting the donuts on the table and sitting down. There were cold Cokes that Mike had brought down, and he passed one to everyone. “We haven’t had a good game in over a month.”

“Yeah, not since the Lost City,” said Will, sitting as usual across from Mike, and facing the staircase. “This summer went by way too fast.”

“Tell me about it,” said Lucas, taking his place across from Dustin, with his back to the lounge area and the TV. He opened his can of Coke. “The last three weeks have been a fog. We hardly saw each other at all.”

“It was too hot,” said Mike. Since yesterday, the highs had been down to the low 80s, and the infernal humidity was gone.

“So what do we have?” asked Dustin.

From behind the dungeon-master screen, Mike produced the module, showing them the cover: The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun.

They peered at it, eager.

“What is that thing?” muttered Lucas.

That “thing” on the module cover was a faceless unisex humanoid surrounded by writhing snakes of various colors – black, purple, green, and yellow. It was deeply unsettling.

“Wow, that’s creepy,” said Will, all excited.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” said Mike. “It’s going to be a weird adventure. But before we start, I’ve got even better news. I’m designing my own module.”

“Gods help us,” said Dustin.

“It’s going to be a killer,” promised Mike. “And this is what you have to look forward to.” He opened the Monster Manual to the “D” section, turned to a page, and slapped the book down on the table. He pointed to an awful looking creature.

They leaned over to look.

“The Demogorgon?” asked Will.

“Jesus,” said Dustin, reading the description under the creature. “We’re in deep shit.”

“That thing is a nightmare,” said Lucas.

“Just you guys wait,” said Mike. “I started mapping out the dungeon last night. It’s going to be a campaign that will take at least ten hours to play.”

“When will it be ready?” asked Lucas.

“Not for a while,” said Mike. “I’m putting a lot of thought in it. Maybe in a couple months. I’ll try to have it done by Halloween.”

“Ten hours,” said Dustin. “It took us almost that long to play the Lost City.”

“Yeah,” said Mike. He felt a sadness, for some reason, when Dustin said that. “But the Demogorgon will smoke the Lost City.”

“Well, cheers to the Demogorgon,” said Lucas, raising his Coke. “And Mike’s killer module.”

“To the Demogorgon!” they all shouted, clicking their cans.

Mike smiled, relishing life – friendship, D&D, donuts, and all that was good and fun. If there was more to it than that, he didn’t care to know. The dice rolled and the quest took off. He put his friends in a bad place, and they had to enact bizarre rituals to escape. They hollered, protested, threw the dice, and laughed.

It was a great, great game.

 

THE END

(Previous Chapter: Feed Me)

The Lost City: Feed Me

This sixteen-chapter novel is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series and the Lost City D&D module. I do not profit from it. It’s a story set prior to the events of the television seasons, before the boys met Eleven. If I learn that the Duffer Brothers or Wizards of the Coast do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if either of them order a cease-and-desist, I will pull the story down.

                                       The Lost City — Chapter Sixteen:

                                     Feed Me

 

The attack began at dawn. It was dawn in the Lost City when the ceiling lamps swelled in sudden brightness, regardless of what the sun was doing on the surface. The lamps were huge orbs that radiated magic light for twelve hours, then dimmed to a bare glow for the same duration to let it be night. They were fastened to the ceiling by clamps – gods only knew how the first Zargonites had gotten them up there – hundreds of them, spaced at the right intervals to give the undercity the light it needed in all the right places.

Crouched behind ruined buildings by the lake bridges, Mike wondered about the upkeep of those lamps. The Zargonites were no longer in power and wouldn’t be replacing orbs that ran out of magic or needed recharging. Another problem for Lucas and Pandora to think about. They’d put the Magi to work on it.

Next to him, Jilanka swore. The invaders were entering the city. Being quiet but not terribly cautious, as they had no clue what was waiting for them. A thousand of them, supposedly. Will had said about 300 of the jihadists were being supplied by Sayid al-Naji from the town of Sulba. The caliph had also ordered the Emir of Makistan to send 700 jihadists from Parsa, since Cynidicea was technically in Makistan, though close on the border. So a thousand total, and no reason to question Will’s judgment. Still, Mike wished the poor kid wasn’t zoned out. Sometimes his visions changed, and his original prediction was two weeks old. An updated report would have made everyone feel better.

“Get ready to smash these fuckers,” said Mike, waiting for Lucas’s signal.

“You want to keep score?” asked Jilanka. She had told Mike she’d thought of taking a berserker mushroom, but in the end chose to respect her king and queen’s prohibition against drugs. Besides, she had nothing but contempt for the Yshians. To rely on drug-rage would be an admission that she couldn’t kick their asses straight up. She was high enough – on confidence. And confident enough to want to keep score against her boyfriend who wielded the Hand. Mike thought of Gimli and Legolas at Helm’s Deep.

He also thought of Aragorn taking the Paths of the Dead. Behind Mike and his Maidens stretched a horde of 340 zoombies. Over on the other side of the lake, Lucas and Pandora commanded the Gormish warriors with another 340. Each side was supplemented by Magi from the Usamigarans. Between the 680 zoombies and the sixty warriors and mages from the old cults, the Lost City was defended by 740 against the thousand invaders. Lucas believed it would suffice. Mike wasn’t so sure. It all came down to the strike force of these zoombies. He knew their savagery, but worried about their discipline and obedience. So far, though, they seemed to be obeying Lucas’s commands to a tee. Even on this side of the lake, by proxy, under Mike’s command.

At first Mike had resisted command of the south side, and told Pandora the night before:

“You should be leading the southern attack,” he’d said. “You’re the queen.”

“As your queen, I delegate command as I please,” said Pandora, her eyes blazing. “Do you agree?”

“Of course,” said Mike. “I mean, yes, your Grace. I just think you’re better for morale than I am.”

“Nonsense,” said Pandora. “You wield the Hand of Gaius. Your near invincibility will ignite morale more effectively than any crown. What good is the Hand if it’s not put to visible use? You’re perfectly suitable to lead the Maidens.”

“Yes, your Grace.”

“If you want to second-guess me, you can use that Hand to scrub the latrines.”

“Yes, your Grace.”

“And it’s better that I command the Brothers anyway. Some of them have a weed up their ass about taking orders from a woman. Lucas and I agreed they need to get used to obeying their queen – right away.”

Inspired by this wisdom, Mike had chosen Jilanka to share command of the southern force. He’d signal when to charge the invaders, but let her manage everything up to that point. Lucas and Pandora were right. Share the rule.

The zoombies started growling. They could smell the invaders three hundred feet away. Mike looked back and silenced them with a downward slash of his hand.

Edgy little fuckers.

Only hours ago, Lucas had summoned this undead army and led it across the lake. It was like something out of both the Bible and The Return of the King. Demetrius had prayed a control water spell to part the waters of the lake. Lucas had walked down to the Island of Death, entered the remains of Vark’s Ring, and summoned every zoombie that his crown would channel. It might have been a thousand – a perfect match for the invading army – but because Will had slain over three hundred zoombies during their quest, it left less that could be summoned at any given time. Lucas was able to summon 680 of them. The zoombies had materialized, fawning over Lucas like dogs snapping for prey. They followed him back through the parted waters. Citizens came to watch – in varying degrees of alarm, nonchalance, or laughter. With acid you could hardly predict.

The results would be predictable enough if the drug heads didn’t steer clear of the west side. Priests from all the strongholds were organizing efforts to keep citizens safe in their homes.

Come on, Lucas. What are you waiting for? The northern forces were supposed to signal to Mike when the king was ready to charge. Mike could see jihadists pouring in the northern entrance, and he cursed Lucas again. They had to act soon. They couldn’t stay hidden in this light, and couldn’t afford to lose the element of surprise.

Seconds later, from across the lake, came the dancing lights signal from one of the Magi.

Mike motioned to everyone behind him and led the charge. He ran over one of the lake bridges as Jilanka bounded over the other. The other Maidens and the zoombies rushed behind them both. Ahead of them at the southern entrance, the Yshians were appraising the interior of the Lost City. Then they saw the defenders and cried in alarm, drawing their cruel-looking scimitars.

No need for silence anymore. Holding his sword high, Mike screamed as he ran straight at the them: “Kill these fucking desert freaks!”

The Yshians screamed back: “Panna-jois!!!”

Mike knew what panna-jois (pronounced “panna-zhwah”) meant from his months of living in Yshia. It was a holy litany: kill the infidels.

Infidel me, assholes.

With twenty Maidens and over three hundred zoombies, Mike Wheeler smashed into the horde of some five hundred invaders. His sword was everywhere at once, inside the gut of one Yshian, through the neck of another, chopping off the arm of a third. His right hand was a blur, his sword blade impossible to get a fix on. He sliced a fourth one down, and then plowed deeper into the horde.

“Panna-jois!!!”

The shriek came from behind, and a scimitar lodged itself halfway into his neck. Mike felt the odd sensation of being wounded fatally without blood or pain or loss of momentum. The wound closed and his neck healed in seconds, as he spun to face his attacker. The Yshian gaped, unable to believe his eyes, and raised his scimitar for another swing. The Hand of Gaius gave the man his own medicine: Mike’s sword buried itself halfway into his neck – and then went all the way through, sending the head rolling.

The furious cries of the Yshians were drowned by shrieks from the undead. The zoombies tore the invaders apart limb from limb; for every zoombie that was killed, two jihadists went down. The undead were feral; one and half times as fast as a human being, and twice as savage as a devout jihadist. They feasted from their kills as they leaped on the next invader.

“Panna-jois!!!”

Mike was exhilarated by blood lust, imagining Malik’s face on every screaming jihadist he cut down; the murderer of his own sister, for the crime of being raped. How Areesha could live with Malik and call what he did honorable. Mike killed and killed, took wounds that healed, and realized that he had thrown himself so deeply into the enemy that he could barely see his own army anymore. He caught sight of a Maiden being run through by a jihadist. He saw a zoombie turning an Yshian into raw hamburger. A blade came out of nowhere and went into his stomach – his reward for stopping to stare. Furious, Mike grabbed the blade with his hand, tore it out of him, turned, and disemboweled the Yshian with his own scimitar.

“Paaaanna-joooois!!!”

Mike swore. That was a voice he recognized, and it wasn’t far. He was pushing in closer to the western wall. Then he saw the figure. It was Omar, the mullah from Sulba, who had interrogated him at the Jalal home. The cleric was frothing at the mouth – in a towering fury that the tables had been turned on his invasion so quickly.

Mike roared, slashing his way forward. He was going to kill Omar with his bare hands. Two jihadists attacked him, and his leg took a slice before he felled them. Then the mullah was right before him. His eyes locked on Mike and widened in shock. Mike laughed. Omar knew nothing of Will and the Eye; he obviously thought Mike was the reason the city was so well prepared. Good. Glad you think that.

With both hands he threw his sword at an Yshian coming straight at him. It spun in the air and smacked the jihadist’s head with the pommel. The man cursed and kept coming. Mike ignored him and lunged at Omar, seizing the mullah by the arms. Omar screamed. Calculating, Mike spun the mullah around at the moment his attacker brought down the scimitar that would have cut open Mike’s back. Instead it bisected Omar’s face, from his forehead down to his chin. For good measure, Mike bear-hugged the mullah’s neck, heaved, and snapped it. He dropped the corpse at his attacker’s feet.

The jihadist yelled in fury at what he’d been made to do, and raised his weapon on Mike – and then his head went sailing as a sword took it off. Mike saw Esranet standing before him. She was the deadliest swordswoman aside from Pandora, and judging from the blood she was covered with, she had evidently killed as many Yshians as Mike. He looked around and saw other Maidens nearby, and zoombies pouncing on jihadists. Unbelievably, there were few invaders left standing.

“That was too easy,” said Esranet.

Mike looked at her, smiling. “Zoombies. They put us to shame.”

She made a face. “Your Hand put us to shame. You should kill yourself.” She walked off scowling, and casually stabbed an Yshian lying on the ground, half-dead.

Even in victory that bitch is foul.

And then it was over. Five hundred Yshians lay slain around the southern entrance. The invaders had killed about half that many zoombies. Between eighty and ninety of the undead remained, feasting now on Yshian corpses. Eight of the twenty Maidens had been killed: three from the pyramid temple, five from the Madaruan stronghold.

It was a better victory than anyone had dared hope for – assuming that things had gone just as well on the north side.

Mike looked over and saw that Lucas’s forces were killing off the last Yshians. There was no surrender. Per the commands of The Raysh, every jihadist went down dying, in order to obtain the highest reward in the afterlife. Their attempt to bring the Dream of the Desert Garden to Cynidicea had massively failed. But there were plenty more Yshians out there, and Mike was sure they would come in stronger numbers. The jihad went on. Always. Those who denied the Prophet had to be slaughtered.

We’ll be ready for them. Between Will’s Eye, my Hand, and Lucas’s crown, we can defend this city.

But that self-assurance rang hollow. What if the Caliph sent ten thousand jihadists next time?

“How many?”

He turned and saw Jilanka, bathed in gore. “What?”

“I killed five. You?”

“I don’t know,” said Mike. “Thirteen, maybe fourteen.” Including that filthy mullah. Burn in Hell, Omar.

She laughed. “That Hand is handy. Let’s go see our king and queen.”

Mike looked up at the north end, where zoombies were satisfying their appetites. Mike thrilled to the savaging of the invaders’ corpses. He spotted Lucas and Pandora amidst the carnage, talking to the surviving Brothers. “Yeah, let’s go.”

“Maidens!” called Jilanka. “To our king and qu -”

She was interrupted as screams pierced the air, high and shrill. They came from all the way over on the east side of the city – the hub of the population.

Mike swore, fearing they had been fooled by a decoy army. Had another jihadist army come down the pyramid? But no, that was impossible. The pyramid entrance was too well defended, and the pyramid itself a death trap on all tiers for the uninitiated.

Then he saw what was over there, and his day turned black.

No. 

“Madarua,” breathed Jilanka, unbelieving.

You can’t be serious.

It towered high in the air, at least thirty-five feet. Its head was reptilian, with a horn that curved upward above its single eye. Mike knew it all from the gaming module. The mouth dripped saliva around razor-sharp teeth. It had six “arm” tentacles, three on each side of its torso, ending in razor-sharp talons. It moved by slithering forward, on six “leg” tentacles. He could see the arm tentacles lashing the air like whips, seizing people on the streets, raising them high in the air – and then shoving them into the maw, to be swallowed in a slurping gulp.

Zargon. He’d been loosed.

“A Centennial Feed,” said Jilanka. “We’re fucked, Mike.”

So this was Hazor’s revenge. In return for his temple and priests being wiped out, he was unleashing a Feed right on top of an Yshian invasion. Demetrius had once told him that the high priest had a magic device that could release Zargon from his lair – a teleportation device that worked only once a century.

Feed me. Will hadn’t been asking for food. He had seen the future and channeled the beast’s hunger.

The Centennial Feed was the most sacred tradition to the Zargonites, the most appalling one to the old cults, and the most feared one by the Cynidicean population. It was an apocalyptic threat because of what came from Zargon’s mouth. His saliva was an acidic slime that reproduced death on the spot. Anyone spat on by Zargon, or bitten by his teeth, collapsed into a puddle of ooze that began transforming into a Whelp of Zargon: a mindless Cthulhu-like amoeba that spread the same disease with its bite. There was no shortage of victims, because they were acid heads. They feared phantoms, not their own Deity; many embraced death or transformation. Those who ran and hid weren’t necessarily safe: Zargon’s tentacles reached through doors and windows.

A Centennial Feed lasted for three whole days.

“Fucked,” repeated Jilanka.

“Not if I can help it,” he said. He rallied his team. “Maidens! To the main avenue!” He barked a command at the zoombies, who broke off from their own feed. They readied to follow Mike, still bound by his proxy command until Lucas released them.

As they raced back over the bridges to the east side, Mike looked left and saw Lucas and Pandora’s group doing the same. They were closer to Zargon than he was. The creature was on the main avenue between the strongholds of Gorm and Usamigaras. In front of the communal dormitories, where he could do plenty of damage.

More screams tore the air.

They reached the main avenue between the Usamigaran and Madaruan strongholds and turned left. On their immediate left, the Zargonite temple lay devastated; a mountain of rubble, courtesy of Will. Down the street about three hundred feet, the Devourer was terrorizing the population. Masked Cynidiceans dashed about everywhere, whooping in ecstasy. Others knelt in the street, praying – some to the monstrosity before them, others to gods that never existed. A few recited elaborate scripts, using the main avenue as a theater stage. Others had sex with the nearest person. The beast was indiscriminate: he made them all his feed.

“Mike!” Jilanka and the Maidens had stopped.

“What?” he said, stopping, out of breath.

“We’re not going down there,” she said. “You can’t kill Zargon – not even with the benefit of the Hand. He’s a god.”

God, my ass. “He’s a cretinous monster.” But the more he thought about it, he knew she was right. Whatever his precise nature, Zargon couldn’t be killed. In D&D terms he had a whopping 342 hit points. And that blasted horn: if you did somehow manage to miraculously kill him, he would simply regenerate and return to life. The only way to permanently kill Zargon was to remove his horn and destroy it in the lava pit on the west side of the city. Zargon was effectively a god; practically invincible.

Unless Will could kill him.

Mike looked at the Usamigaran stronghold on their right. Will was in Demetrius’s chamber, still catatonic. Demetrius had returned to the stronghold after parting the lake’s waters for Lucas. Do I try? Mike had no idea how to trigger Will.

There was a sudden furor down the road. Shrieks of rabid animals. Lucas’s zoombies. Scores of them were assaulting Zargon, giving the acid heads a temporary reprieve. Behind him, Mike’s zoombies howled, craving a target. He barked a command, sending them to join the attack on Zargon, and to leave any people alone. They poured down the street in fury.

“Oh, that was a shitty idea,” said Jilanka.

“What do you mean?” asked Mike.

Jilanka began answering, but was cut off by a cry from one of the Maidens:

“Our king and queen!”

Lucas and Pandora were running down the street towards them. They had emerged from a back street onto the main avenue just slightly ahead. They were alone without the Brothers.

“What do we do?” asked Mike, when they arrived. “It’s a Centennial Feed!”

“We retreat to the strongholds,” said Pandora, in a tone allowing for no debate. “And take any citizens who wish to come. Most of them won’t.”

That’s where they had probably sent the Brothers: to the stronghold of Gorm.

Lucas nodded, catching his breath. “Get inside and stay away from windows. Our strongholds are defended with outer walls, but take nothing for granted. It’s going to be three days of Hell, especially for the Zargonite citizens.” He looked down the street. “That thing is fucking huge.”

The chaos down there got worse. There were weird moaning sounds – like people drowning in mud.

“Shit,” said Jilanka.

“What’s happening?” asked Lucas.

“Not to criticize you, Your Grace,” said Jilanka. “But all those zoombies? They’re not doing any good, and they’re being bitten. In a few hours they’ll be Whelps of the Devourer.”

Pandora swore. “I’d forgotten about the Whelp legend.”

“And they’re undead,” said Jilanka. “Try to imagine a zoombie Whelp. We’re going to see plenty of them.”

Mike cursed himself. There were nearly two hundred zoombies attacking Zargon. He was beating them off like flies and either killing them – strangling them with his tentacles swallowing them whole – or spitting on them, and letting them collapse into a puddle of ooze. It must have been the pools of ooze making the weird moaning sounds; they were beginning the hideous transformation process. They’d be Whelps in a few hours.

“Great gods,” said Lucas.

More citizens were arriving to play or pray in the street. Mike couldn’t believe it. It was too surreal. Zargon roared, still smacking down the zoombies. His tentacles lashed everywhere. He killed, devoured, and transformed by his whim. And the people played hopscotch under his nose. Took off their clothes and danced. Sang songs, prayed prayers, and masturbated to ecstatic climaxes.

They were all about to become the next feed – to die or be made into Whelps.

“Let’s get inside,” said Pandora. “Maidens, into your stronghold! I’ll be joining you there.”

The Maidens obeyed their queen and left for the Madaruan fortress. Except Mike. Jilanka looked back at him, and Pandora frowned.

“Your Grace,” said Mike, addressing Pandora. “Would it be okay with you if I join the Usamigarans? Will is there, and he doesn’t say much except my name. Maybe I can reach him. And if I can reach him, maybe he can kill Zargon.”

“Maybe he can also bring this city down around our ears,” said Pandora.

“Maybe,” admitted Lucas. “But I think it’s worth a try. To slay this beast once and for all.”

Pandora hesitated and then nodded. “Very well.”

“I’ll use backstreets to get to the Brothers’ stronghold,” said Lucas to his queen. “Between me, you, and Raen, the three strongholds will be in good hands.”

Mike walked up to Jilanka. “I’ll see you in three days.”

“Good luck with Will,” she said, and then left with Pandora.

Lucas looked at Mike before leaving. “We kicked their asses.”

“What?” said Mike.

“The Yshians,” said Lucas. “That was good work.”

“For all the good,” said Mike.

“All we need to do is wait out this Feed,” said Lucas. “Or if Will can be reached…” He left it hanging.

Mike nodded. “I’ll try. See you in three.”

Lucas left, and Mike walked over to the Usamigaran stronghold. He hailed the gatekeeper, who recognized him and threw open the double doors. Mike went inside, glad to get away from the slaughterfest.

 

It was three days of unremitting hell. Zargon left not a street uncovered – as long as he could fit down it. The east side of the city was his stomping ground, but he went everywhere, sniffing all corners. He moved by sliding; reaching out with his leg tentacles to pull himself forward. As he went, he left slime and body parts behind him.

The only place he avoided was the west side. Somehow he knew the lava pit could be the end of him. But many of his Whelps were drawn over there, especially the zoombie Whelps. They’d been feasting on Yshian corpses when they had to break off at Lucas and Mike’s commands. Now they finished their feast in a new form – as slaves of the Devourer.

The Whelps were insidious because, unlike their Master, they could hide in shadows. By the second day, the streets had been cleansed of all rhapsody. Those who saw Zargon as cause for celebration had been devoured or Whelped. Everyone else hunkered in their dorms and boarded up the windows. They came out for air, when the Devourer was hunting somewhere else, because they needed food. They plundered abandoned shops and raced back home. But some of them strayed. They were still acid heads after all. And the Whelps were waiting to pounce, in alleys and around corners.

And then there were kids. Mike was on top of the outer wall of the Usamigaran fortress when he heard two of them screaming not far below. A Whelp was assaulting them. It looked like Zargon was up in the area of the mushroom gardens; far away for the moment. Mike raced down and out the front gate of the stronghold, ignoring the advice of the gatekeeper that he stay inside. It was probably sound advice. He had the Hand, but he doubted that Gaius’s enchantments made him immune to being Whelped. The Hand protected against damage, not transformation.

Outside the gate he saw the kids right away: a boy maybe eight and a girl maybe ten. An amoeba-like mass with four tentacles was lashing at them, its jaw slavering. It had the kids cornered against the wall of a building. Mike yelled and drew his sword, glad that it was magical. He doubted that normal weapons would harm a Whelp. When the kids saw him racing to their rescue, they made a dash for it. That was a mistake. The Whelp was ignoring Mike, fixated on the kids. One of its tentacles snapped the air and snagged the girl like a lasso. She screamed and Mike swore, running harder. The Whelp pulled the girl close, opened its jaw wide, and spat. Brown slime drenched the girl and took effect at once. She shook as if with a fever of a hundred and ten – and then collapsed into a pool of ooze, right as Mike reached her. The boy wailed. Mike slashed the Whelp with his sword. The creature moaned and backed off in surprise, not used to being hurt. Mike grabbed the boy and picked him up with his free arm, and then ran back to the stronghold right away. He got the kid safely inside, and had him sent to the communal hall. The boy kept crying for his dead sister. Gods knew who or where his parents were, if they were still alive. Slaughter and transformation were everywhere.

But at least the goblins are safe. Halle-fucking-lujah. The goblins lived in cliffs on the west side of the lake, and their caves were accessible only by ladders and handholds cut into the rock. Zargon and his Whelps didn’t bother trying. Living inside cliffs had its benefit during a Feed.

Through it all, Will remained a stone. Mike tended to him, brought him his meals, and tried coaxing him into more awareness. He would croak Mike’s name occasionally, but nothing more, not even his previous mantra.

” ‘Feed me’,” said Mike. “I had no idea what you meant.” Just tell me it ends okay. Tell me we can pick up the pieces and get this kingdom off its ass and back in the running.

And then Will did look at him. His Eye bulged with a bad promise. “Back.”

Mike sat up straight. Had Will just read his mind? Was he saying yes, that the kingdom could get back on track, like in the days of yore? But then why did Will look like demons were standing in front of him?

The answer came on the third day, in the late afternoon. Mike was on wall patrol when suddenly a concussion shook the air. It sounded like an earthquake, rumbling the city’s ceiling hundreds of feet above. Mike looked up and around. Zargon was over by the ruined buildings where Mike had waited to ambush the Yshians. It didn’t look he was doing anything to cause this.

A sharper convulsion came. Mike swore as huge chunks of rock came crashing down on buildings and into the streets. One struck the wall he was standing only a few feet away.

He raced down into the courtyard where he saw a guard. Mike asked him if the city had ever had earthquakes before.

“Earthquakes?” the guard said. “Are you insane? Someone is doing this to us!”

Mike thought of going to see Raen, but he needed answers, not counsel. He left the stronghold through the gate and went out into the main avenue. Not a soul was anywhere to be seen, but plenty of rock that used to be the ceiling. Mike looked up. Most of the ceiling was still there – but it wouldn’t be for long, if this went on.

The next concussion reverberated like an indoor thunderclap. More ruin came down. A piece of rock smashed Mike’s head; if not for the Hand he’d have been out cold or dead. When the dust settled, he heard laughter off to his left. He peered through the dust and walked towards the sound. The laughter grew louder. Then the dust cleared, and his bowels almost burst. Less than a hundred feet ahead he saw Hazor. He had seen the high priest twice before at a distance, when he was down in the city on errands, and from about the same distance he was now. The High Priest of Zargon was standing on top of the building to the catacombs, shrieking laughter. His arms were spread wide in the air, welcoming the apocalyptic onslaught.

The crazy son of a bitch had prayed an earthquake spell. In an underground.

“Hazor!” yelled Mike, running toward the catacombs building.

Another convulsion ripped overhead. To his left, a boulder smashed the wall of the Madaruan stronghold, tearing a curtain of it off. Around him, rock fell everywhere. Hazor roared approval.

He’s committing suicide. And taking every goddamn Cynidicean with him.

Mike reached the building and looked up. “Cancel that prayer, Hazor! What the fuck is wrong with you?” Mike had no idea if the prayer could even be cancelled.

The priest looked down on him, his eyes lit in ecstasy. “Yeeeeessss! All prayers cancelled! All of them! The Devourer heeds them not!” He shrieked more laughter, as the ceiling took another dump.

“Hazor!” Mike screamed, dodging rock. “You’re going to kill us all!”

“Yeeeeessss!” laughed the priest. “All and everyone! The Devourer claims the world!”

Mike knew he was being stupid trying to talk Hazor down. This was what the high priest wanted. How did one negate an earthquake spell? It couldn’t be done. You’d need a wish spell or some equivalent miracle.

He turned and ran back to the Usamigaran stronghold. He had no idea what to do. There was nothing to do. The roof was about to bury everything.

When he reached the front gate, he heard a cry from the northern end of the road. He looked and saw someone running towards him. The figure shouted his name.

Mike’s heart leaped. “Lucas!” He waved his hand high.

The next tremor brought down so much rock and dirt that Mike thought it was the end. But the ceiling hadn’t collapsed yet. He yelled at Lucas to hurry. The King of Cynidicea dodged death in every direction, and finally met Mike at the gate. They took cover under the overhang.

“What made you come out in this shit?” demanded Mike.

“I got a flare from Demetrius,” said Lucas. That meant a sending prayer: a telepathic message. “He told me to come here right away, and to risk my life if necessary. What the hell does he want?”

“Fucked if I know,” said Mike.

“What are you doing out?”

He told Lucas about Hazor. Lucas couldn’t believe what he was hearing. As Mike finished, Lucas swore and pointed.

Mike turned and and looked. “Holy shit,” he said.

Zargon was at the catacombs building, looking down at his highest servant. The servant who had visited him weekly in the pyramid. The only human being allowed on that bottom tier. The only one with the privilege of feeding Zargon, whether weekly or centennially.

Who now had the privilege of being the feed.

Zargon swiped Hazor into the air, snapping the high priest back and forth. Rock rained down, some of it on Zargon’s head. The creature was unfazed. He toyed with Hazor some more, and then used his talons to rip the priest open. Hazor was still screaming in ecstasy as his disemboweled body was chewed to pieces by the beast he’d served his whole life.

It made no difference. The earthquake couldn’t be stopped.

The ceiling tremors became more constant as Mike and Lucas rushed through the gate, across the courtyard, into Demetrius’s chamber. The priest was waiting for them and Will was in his chair. Will’s Eye stared monstrously at them as they entered.

“Thank the gods,” said Demetrius, looking at Lucas. He turned to Mike: “Where the hell were you?”

“I went outside,” said Mike. “Hazor caused the earthquake. And Zargon just ate him.”

“I figured it was Hazor,” said the priest. “Good riddance. Not that it matters.”

“Demetrius, why did you bring me here?” demanded Lucas. “The people of this city need me to do something. I’m their king.”

“Your people don’t stand a chance,” said Demetrius. “I’m sorry, Lucas. This city is coming down and nothing can stop it. And Zargon has fed on the population like never before – there wouldn’t be much of a kingdom left to rule anyway.”

“I don’t accept that!” shouted Lucas.

“Why did you want us here, Demetrius?” asked Mike.

The priest looked at Will and then at them both. “To send you all home. All four of you. You three and Dustin. And to say good-bye. It’s time for me to let myself die, as I should have on that first day you all came here. After I killed my brother.”

“Whoa, slow down,” said Lucas. “We’ve been through this already. There’s no future for us in our world.”

“Lucas, look around you,” said Demetrius. “As of now, there’s no future for you in this world.”

Another convulsion tore through the city. More rock came down. Through the window of the room came faint but horrible screams. Homes were being destroyed. People were dying.

“Demetrius,” said Mike, “you just told me a few days ago that the ‘Black Passage’ spell doesn’t work in the reverse direction. You said that you tried to send Will home and the spell failed.” This was during Mike’s exile in Yshia, shortly after he killed Lucas.

“I lied,” said the priest.

“Obviously I never heard about this,” said Lucas.

“Listen to me,” said Demetrius. “I was selfish. I love Dustin and sharing his body with him, and it made it easy for me, since he likes me too. I love all of you. I didn’t want to see any of you go. You were aliens and offering this city a fresh hope, even with all the setbacks. And then the Brothers asked me to resurrect Lucas, and then, of all things, Lucas restored the monarchy. But it’s all for naught. This city is gone.”

“No,” said Mike. He knew he was in denial but didn’t care. “I mean, there’s always recovery after a Centennial Feed. It happens every century.”

“There’s never been an earthquake,” said Demetrius. “Never a high priest so insane and bent on revenge that he wants to self-destruct. The city is caving in. Most people will die, and those who don’t will wish they had – with Zargon and his Whelps on the loose.”

“I’ll take my chances,” said Lucas. “If these people are going to die, then I can die with them. I’m their king, Demetrius.”

“Ditto,” said Mike. “These people are my own. Besides, I can’t go back to Hawkins ten years older and with this Hand. I’d be a freak. They’d put me in a lab.”

“No,” said Demetrius. “When I said I lied, I was lying about a lot.”

“What do you mean?” asked Lucas.

“I told Will that the ‘Black Passage’ spell didn’t work in reverse after trying to send him home. But the reason it didn’t work is because I wasn’t reading it properly. In order to get back to your original world, the spell has to be read in reverse – you have to read the spell backwards. I knew this, but like I said, I didn’t want any of you to go.”

“So?” asked Mike.

“I lied about more than that,” said Demetrius. “I mean, I’d been keeping crucial information from you all along. When you read the spell in reverse, it sends you back in reverse. Your bodies reverse, biologically, to the state they were in when you left, and they arrive at the exact point in time you left.”

“Are you fucking serious?” said Mike.

“That’s a shitty thing to keep from us, Demetrius,” said Lucas.

“I know,” said the priest. “And I won’t blame you to hate me for it. I was selfish. I wanted to keep living, and I wanted you all, as Dustin’s friends, to stay here too. There’s no point in any of that now. I can send you back, leave Dustin’s body, and you’ll return home as twelve-year olds. Will won’t have the Eye and Mike won’t have the Hand. And no one will have missed you.”

Mike was poleaxed. “But -”

Another concussion: a storm of rock pulverized the stronghold. The floor and walls shook. People in the fortress were screaming now.

“No arguments, please,” said Demetrius. “It makes no sense for any of you to die, when you have your original lives to live for. Your families to go back to. Please. Come here.”

Demetrius embraced them then, and drew them close to Will. He took out the scroll and prepared to read. Mike looked at Will, then at Lucas. They nodded to each other.

“Take off your armor and weapons,” said the priest. “Your boots too. The less weight, the less likely the spell will malfunction.” They hurriedly did as he instructed, throwing their boots and metal aside.

And as Demetrius began the incantation, Mike wept. For the Lost City he’d come to love; for Jilanka; his Maiden sisters; for everyone who was about to die. But also positively, for the life he was returning to. Home. I’m going home. We’re going home…

The spell read backwards sounded like a prayer from the Grim Reaper. The words were thick as syrup. They clung to the body and worked it over, sent it spiraling back to a long forgotten point. Mike felt himself breaking apart, then coming together, and falling apart again. Oh God, what’s happening? He was still in Will’s room in the stronghold, but also in the Black Passage, straddling two worlds. Breaking down and reassembling. His mind ballooned as it shrank; his body a contradiction. Terrible amounts of time seemed to pass in the space of no time at all, and as he finally came together for good, he heard the spell end.

And then Demetrius’s fading voice, as he let Dustin go and himself die: Remember me kindly, boys, if you’ve the grace for it. I love you all.

Mike cried, unable to say good-bye. As he and his friends disappeared, the roof of the Lost City came down entirely, as final as the end of an age. Heavier than sorrow, greater than loss. Nothing would revive Cynidicea; few would remember it.

Mike would remember it though. Or so he thought, as the blackness swept him away.

 

Last up, the Epilogue: Fading

(Previous Chapter: Everything Unholy)

The Lost City Reincarnated: Comparisons with my Novel

Only recently was I made aware of a special series of reincarnated D&D modules. These are more than just 1e classics with a 5e make-over, which I generally have no use for. What Original Adventures Reincarnated does is reproduce the 1e versions exactly, followed by a hugely expanded 5e version that retains the old-school vibe. There are more maps and new encounter areas, written for 5e, yes, but with a distinctly 1e tone. There are also essays written by grognards who reflect on why these classics have such enduring value. (James Maliszewski has articles in all the ones I’ve acquired.) I can hardly imagine a greater homage.

So far the following modules have been brought back: The Keep on the Borderlands (2018), The Isle of Dread (2018), Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (2019), The Lost City (2020), and Castle Amber (2020). Next month will come The Temple of Elemental Evil (2021). My wish list is for Vault of the Drow and Dwellers of the Forbidden City, as they would be perfect to flesh out with this kind of expansive detail.

But I’m here to talk about The Lost City. Readers know how I feel about the original and I hardly need to repeat that praise here. Others have read my novel of the Lost City, and I’m pleased at how well it’s been received. But if I’d only known of the reincarnated module when writing that novel! This product is simply a dream come true, leaving not a stone uncovered in the Cynidicean underworld. Everything, and I mean everything — the temple of Zargon, the strongholds of the old gods (Gorm, Usamigaras, and Madarua), the goblin caves by the lake, the mushroom gardens beneath the catacombs, the Island of Death, the volcanic Eye of Zargon, and more — is done justice, and provides material to keep a campaign going for months if not years, depending on how often you play at the table.

To start with the goblin caves, they’re more impressive than anything I imagined, and populated with more than just goblins. The goblins inhabit the first two levels, under a king and a snake-handling shaman (whose altar-room is best avoided at all costs). The militant hobgoblins rule the third level under an efficient warlord. The fourth level has many domains: a hill giant cave, a troll cave, two ogre lairs, and a thoul lair (seven of them ruled by a nasty necromage). Honestly, these caves are more inspired than even the Caves of Chaos, and you could get as much rewarding adventure from them as the B2 classic. Some of the encounter areas depend on 3D visuals, as they span more than one level simultaneously. The cavern entrances are on a sheer cliff face, and the four levels are accessed by climbing poles, zip lines, and rope bridges — all of which can easily kill you if you’re not a proficient climber or scaler, like the goblins are.

The lower catacombs contain some of the most dangerous places in the Lost City (aside from the temple of Zargon and Zargon’s lair in the pyramid), with nasty surprises spread across five immense caverns. The most significant one is the mushroom farm, cultivated by myconids in thrall to a mind flayer. This is where the module writers place the mass production of hallucinogenics, the drugs that ensure the Cynidiceans will be kept enthralled in a dream-like state so the Zargonites can easily control them. In my novel I didn’t do anything with the catacombs; I had most of the drugs grown in the public mushroom fields (at Area A, below, as opposed to under Area G; click map to enlarge):

However, I left unanswered the question of where the powerful priestly mushrooms (used exclusively by the Zargonite priests) were grown, and so the shroom farms under the catacombs could have served my purposes in any case. (For clarity, in my novel I put most of the drug-shrooms in the public gardens at A, under heavy guard: hallucinogenic, sedative, amphetamine, poison, and medicine. I suggested that the priestly shrooms might be grown in the catacombs, but left it a mystery. In the reincarnated module, none of the mushrooms in the public gardens are drugs and they aren’t guarded; all the drug-shrooms are under the catacombs.)

Moving to the Isle of Death, I wasn’t surprised to see its size inflated. In the classic module it had a puny diameter of 60 feet. In my novel I stretched it to a liberal 80 feet. The reincarnated module gives it 120 feet. So obviously I wasn’t the only one who thought the original was way too small. I have since amended my 80 feet to 120, following the reincarnation, and the dimensions of the stone ring accordingly, so that my characters aren’t crammed onto that hellish rock like sardines in a can.

As for the temple of Zargon, my version is a close cousin of the one in the reincarnation. It’s the largest building in the city, obviously the most notorious and where all the power resides. Here’s how it looks (click to enlarge):

If you reworked the entry hall as below, and then add a fourth floor (in my novel, I call the 2nd-4th floor tower “Zargon’s Rise”), then it’s pretty close to what I imagine (click to enlarge):

Also, I staffed the temple with more warriors. In the module there are 37 priests/cultists, and only 16 warriors (for a total of 53 staff). In my novel I have 25 priests and 60 warriors (36 Cynidiceans and 24 hobgoblins) (for a total of 85 staff). It’s simply unrealistic that the Zargonites wouldn’t have a lot of manpower at the ready, to maintain control and keep the old cults from rising up in revolution.

Finally, let’s consider the strongholds of the old cults, whose deities I adore impartially: Gorm, war god of thunderstorms, justice, and law; Madarua, war goddess of birth, death, and the seasons; Usamigaras, the cherub-hobbit deity of magic, thievery, and chaos. These cults are what make the Lost City so fun and ripe for identity politicking. In my novel, Mike and Lucas begin as proud Brothers of Gorm, but Mike ends up betraying the Brothers for the Madaruans — becoming the first male Maiden in centuries — when disillusioned by Gormish doctrine. Will and Dustin have little use for either, preferring the libertarian practices of the Magi. But all the cults have their problems, they can barely co-exist with each other, and they seem to give fuck-all about opposing the Zargonites when they have themselves to snipe at over petty resentments. Kanadius, Pandora, and Auriga are the stars of the Lost City, or at least of the pyramid; it would have been nice to see more cult leaders teased out in the underground strongholds. The layout designs are fine, but I imagine the inhabitants a bit differently, on two key points.

First, I imagine citizens living in these strongholds, safe behind the walls and under the protection of the cult they elect to follow instead of Zargon. And I imagine less warriors (for Gorm and Madarua) and mages (for Usamigaras), for the same reason I inflated the number of warriors for the Zargonite temple. If the old cults have too much of a fighting or wizard force, it becomes harder to explain why they don’t suspend their feuds and rise up against the Zargonites.

Second, I imagine priests running the strongholds. In the module, the strongholds are led by the same warriors or mage who lead the temple cults: Kanadius, Pandora, and Auriga. So apparently these three divide their time equally between the temples far up in the pyramid and the strongholds in the underground. I don’t buy that. I keep Kanadius, Pandora, and Auriga based in the pyramid, and they only occasionally visit the underground. The strongholds are instead run by priests. In my novel, the Gormish high priest is Zoran, the Madaruan high priestess is Fiana; and the Usamigaran high priest is Raen.

Here’s exactly how our differences break down:

Reincarnated module

Stronghold of Gorm – 29 (all warriors)
Stronghold of Madarua – 37 (all warriors)
Stronghold of Usamigaras – 25 (all magi)

But a total warrior/wizard force of 91 is a bit much, especially with a Zargonite temple force of 53. There’s no way the old cults would have remained submissive to the oppressive Zargonites (for centuries) with numbers like these.

My novel

Stronghold of Gorm – 49 (4 priests, 10 warriors, 26 adult citizens, 9 youths)
Stronghold of Madarua – 36 (2 priestesses, 11 warriors, 17 adult citizens, 6 youths)
Stronghold of Usamigaras – 25 (3 priests, 5 mages, 13 adult citizens, 4 youths)

This gives a total warrior/wizard/priestly force of 35, which is much more realistic. It’s enough to hold their own, but clearly not enough for an effective rebellion, against (my) Zargonite temple force of 85, in addition to the reserves they can summon. (Interesting that the total number of inhabitants I came up with for the strongholds is either the same as the module’s or very close, though I did have a bit more for Gorm, factoring in his popularity and seniority in the pantheon.)

The layouts of these compounds work pretty well for my purposes. I didn’t write any scenes that take place inside the strongholds of Gorm or Madarua, but I did for the stronghold of Usamigaras. This is the reincarnated module layout (click to enlarge):

 

M1. Double-door gate. Opens on a command word known to the Magi.

M2. Walls patrolled by 4 Magi on rotating shifts.

M3. Living quarters for the Magi. 6 mages in each (24 total).

M4. Archive. Massive library.

M5. Office. Card catalog to search the archive library.

M6. Study cubicles. Six of them, for private research.

M7. Living quarters for the Chief Mage, Auriga.

M8. Lower level testing ground for the Magi.

As stated above, I imagine only 5 mages, not 24, and in place of the chief mage Auriga (who stays up in the pyramid temple) I have the high priest Raen, who is assisted by two other clerics. And I also imagine citizens living here — Cynidiceans who bravely refuse to worship Zargon. Here’s my reworking of the map (click to enlarge):

 

M1. Double-door gate. Opens on a command word known to the Magi.

M2. Walls patrolled by 2 Magi on rotating shifts.

M3. Living quarters for the Magi. 1 priest in the upper left, 1 priest in the upper right, 2 mages in the lower left, 3 mages in the lower right (7 total).

M4. Archive. Massive library.

M5. Office. Card catalog to search the archive library.

M6. Study cubicles. Six of them, for private research.

M7. Living quarters for the high priest Raen.

M8. Lower level testing ground for the Magi.

M9. These new areas I add are the communal living quarters for citizens who have openly rejected Zargon and worship Usamigaras: 6 adults and 2 youths in one, 7 adults and 2 youths in another (17 total).

M10. Not sure why the module doesn’t have a mess hall; it does for the other two strongholds. Probably an oversight. This is where I put the mess — with tables, benches, and a cooking hearth.

You get the idea. The other two strongholds can be just as easily modified to accommodate what I imagined for them.

Verdict

I can’t stress enough how wonderful these reincarnated classics are, and the Lost City in particular. Part of me wishes I’d known of it before I wrote my novel, but the other part (the stronger, I think) is glad I was only afterwards made aware of it. It might have stifled my imagination, and I really like what I came up with, especially for the old-cult strongholds. I also like my idea of the drugs being cultivated in the open fields (though under heavy guard), rather than secretly in the catacombs, except for the especially powerful shrooms.

 

Appendix: The Population of the Lost City

According to both the original and reincarnated modules, there are about 1000 adult Cynidiceans in the Lost City. That would mean about probably 200 youths (under age 16). Here’s how the demographics break down in the module, followed by what I came up with in my novel. In each case, about 1200 Cynidiceans and 400 humanoids.

In the reincarnated module

In the Underground City

Throughout the City – 1038 (838 adult citizens, c. 200 youths)
Temple of Zargon – 53 (37 priests/cultists, 16 hobgoblins)

Stronghold of Gorm – 29 (all warriors)
Stronghold of Madarua – 37 (all warriors)
Stronghold of Usamigaras – 25 (all magi)

In the Goblin Cliffs – 260 (of which 122 of them – 61 goblin and 61 hobgoblin warriors – are at the emergency call of the Zargonites), broken down as follows:

— 182 goblins (king, queen, shaman, 61 warriors, 118 non-warriors)
— 62 hobgoblins (1 warlord, 61 warriors)
— 16 “giants” (1 hill giant, 6 ogres, 8 thouls, 1 troll)

At the Catacombs – 164 hobgoblins (30 at the entrance, 134 in the depths), plus other creatures (darklings, myconids, etc.) (This force of hobgoblins is also used to patrol the main streets of the city)

In the Pyramid

Temple of Gorm – 11 (1 Grand Master, 10 warriors)
Temple of Madarua – 10 (1 Champion, 9 warriors)
Temple of Usamigaras – 13 (1 Chief Mage, 12 mages)

In my novel (for the Census of Cynidicea taken in the year 1052 AC).

In the Underground City

Throughout the City – 996 (809 adult citizens, 187 youths)
Temple of Zargon – 85 (25 priests, 36 warriors, 24 hobgoblins)

Stronghold of Gorm – 49 (4 priests, 10 warriors, 26 adult citizens, 9 youths)
Stronghold of Madarua – 36 (2 priestesses, 11 warriors, 17 adult citizens, 6 youths)
Stronghold of Usamigaras – 25 (3 priests/priestesses, 5 mages, 13 adult citizens, 4 youths)

In the Goblin Cliffs – 300 (estimated; about 120 goblin and hobgoblin warriors at the emergency call of the Zargonites)

At the Catacombs – 100 (estimated; mostly hobgoblins who guard the area and patrol the main streets of the city)

In the Pyramid

Temple of Gorm – 11 (1 Grand Master, 10 warriors)
Temple of Madarua – 10 (1 Champion, 9 warriors)
Temple of Usamigaras – 12 (1 Chief Mage, 11 mages)