Archaeology of Five: The Origin of the Feast

I did not create Etude Étranger. I summoned him. All of my other characters were deliberate inventions, and they were iterative, the result of quiet, intentional reflection requiring several revisions to make right. For example, Xana, the eight-foot-tall heart of THE MINUS FACTION, started life as a 110-lb. teenager. Etude alone appeared fully formed through a process I invented but did not control — a process which, importantly, I have never used again.

In the fall of 2012, I had no idea how to create a novel. I had tried several times before, going back at least to the late 90s, and in every case the project either died quickly, like the mutant mess after a transporter malfunction, or spiraled off into a rambling, pedantic word-circus, like the work I had just then abandoned, and early, terrible version of what became THE MINUS FACTION, my second finished project.

I was looking for a way to spark my creative power, to (quite literally) summon a story from the dark waters of my subconscious the way a sorcerer might summon a demon from the void. I had just quit a corporate job where I worked with spreadsheets, so I fell back on what I knew. I populated a tab with as many occupations as I could find — everything from fletcher and glass-blower to clown and terrorist. Then I created three identical formulas that selected one element at random from the list such that each refresh of the file resulted in a new three-word combination, like the pull of a slot machine. I sat at my desk and kept reloading, and within a dozen or so tries, the following appeared:


Almost immediately, the details of Etude’s life filled my head. Shaman from the Amazon. Trained as a chef in France. Solves supernatural mysteries. Even the man’s name came forth: Etude Emile sur Saint-Antoine Étranger — Lessons from the Lost Stranger, so-called by his adoptive anthropologist parents (Saint Anthony being the patron saint of the lost).

Etude would say I created a spell, an act of intention without control, although few of us would see it that way, myself included. But it’s slightly eerie that, of all my characters, he’s the only one who actually could, if real, reach out from a parallel dimension.

Agony in Violet, the first course of the story, proceeded from that three-occupation combo as little more than a character study. The narrator’s words were effectively my own as I tried to describe the man to no one in particular, and by the time I was done, I had a short mystery that hinted at a larger conflict, a much larger conflict — universal even — between the high sorcerer of our time and the nameless dark that perpetually seeks to devour all.

Just like Etude, Agony was never intended to stand alone. It was always just the opening act. But I couldn’t pierce the curtain then. I lacked the necessary skill at the time to bring the rest of it forth. And if there is one thing I’ve always been good at, it’s scaling my projects to my abilities. So I set Etude aside and began work on what became my first complete novel, FANTASMAGORIA, a falsely superficial, deliberately sensationalist homage to the pulp novels of yore.

But the man doesn’t sleep! He appeared to me at odd times — in the shower, in my mother’s garden, while driving late at night. I recorded what I could on my phone, and after FANTASMAGORIA was published in 2014, I gathered all the scraps and began to read in earnest about occult symbology. (Instrumental in that research was Tashen’s Book of Symbols, which still holds a place of honor on the miscellany shelf right here next to my desk.)

When writing occult fiction, the significance of the pentagram is hard to escape. It’s the iconic symbol of black magic, of the secret fears of good people across the globe and the centuries: that their neighbors, or those in power, rise not from their gifts but from dark (not necessarily supernatural) bargains; that such people are free to indulge their perverse fantasies in ways we never can; that they can afflict our children, or ourselves; that our fortunes will wither; that we’ll be powerless; that self-determination, which we lack, proceeds from an invisible source, a devil-mass — like a party for the beautiful and popular to which we were not invited.

How easy it is to believe such things are real.

The pentagram has five sides. Being a retired foodie, I knew a little about haute cuisine and how a traditional French meal usually has five (or seven) courses. My ex-wife, suffering through my addiction, had given me a copy of Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Cookbook, and as I flipped through the pages, I immediately noticed how similar experimental chefery was to a witch’s brew: strange ingredients from far away lands had to be mixed with special skill over heat to produce a magical effect. It seemed I was onto something.

I wondered if it were possible to trace an occult story in five courses, as in a meal. Each one would, like a plate, have to be different than the others, independently satisfying, and yet still fit into a larger whole. Each one would have to be unexpected and yet completely accessible. And most importantly, there would have to be a good, story-centric reason to tell it in five courses. Otherwise it’s just window dressing. Eating all your fries, then your burger, then your shake does not make a multi-course meal.

I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, honestly, but then I’ve never been one to write the same things everyone else is writing.

I called the first course Agony in Violet as a nod to the first third of Etude’s archetypal trinity: Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Strange, and Ferran Adria. I had read Arthur Conan Doyle’s complete works in high school, and I recalled the Victorian penchant for naming with colors. Holmes had his A Study in Scarlet. The American artist James McNeill Whistler, who lived in London for most of his career and who was a near-contemporary of A.C. Doyle, gave his works names like “A Symphony in White No. 1” (which we know as “The White Girl”). Indeed, he did not call his portrait of his mother, probably the most famous American painting of all time, “Mother” or “My Mother” or even “Whistler’s Mother” (as we do) but rather “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.” That his mother sat for it was almost incidental.

As my notes began to coalesce for the second installment, I saw how color could be a uniting feature and also an powerful accent to the dominant theme of each course, which collectively progress through our basest instincts up to our highest calling. So violet, the regal color, as the warlock assumes his mantle, works well in a story about every organism’s first primal urge: to consume. (In the story, that color even surrounds the very place where the warlock’s assumption takes place, amid the most abominable meal of the series.)

After we eat comes our urge to procreate, and what is the color of passion, of love — even of jealousy — but red? And so the ancient ceremonial dagger, the bloodstone, to secure the warlock’s next unholy power, immortality via a corruption of the hieros gamos (or sacred marriage) which was thought to produce the lapis philosophorum (or philosopher’s stone) — sought even by the likes of Sir Isaac Newton!

After food and sex comes the urge for power, to secure not just momentary but lasting sustenance, not just our replacement in the gene pool but a dominating legacy. The winter of the world. A fascist white. And what is the fascist’s aim but to eradicate the weak, the needy, and the foreign? And who defends them but the saint? To become the Adversary, the warlock must create his own throne from which to sit atop the bones of his rivals.

But there remain saints in the world, people reborn out of their animal selves to strive for something higher. All that’s required, really, is a basic recognition of others, not as threats, not as rivals to dominate but partners to explore. In short, not passion but compassion, and with that realization, a resurrection of hope, the return of spring. It is no accident that the narrator of that course is a child, the new bud from the tree.

(And if you are very observant, you will note that each course takes place at the turn of the appropriate season.)

Evil, however, does not easily retreat, and it takes more than compassion to defeat the resurgent dark, the Bright Black. It takes all the qualities of the saint: the knowledge of both good and evil, the love for another that brings us outside ourselves, the courage to face the darkness when it comes, the compassion for others that compels us to stand our ground even as we suffer — this is where most of us normal folks fail — and the wisdom that binds them all together.

Here is the antithesis of the pentagram — five noble qualities that shepherd us, not to the Right, because righteousness is rarely holy, but to the Good; not to Truth, because who can ever know that, but to Understanding. Of course, the path is no secret. Every great holy person (man and woman alike) for the entire length of recorded history has told us how to get there. We make a choice each and every day: not to yell at the dog, not to get annoyed with our spouse, not to curse the jerk who cut in line, but to be, at that moment (if not the next), the better enemies of our worser selves.

So few of us genuinely try. At the moment of insult, who even wants to? Etude certainly doesn’t. He’ll be the first to admit it. He’s not the one to defeat evil. He’s the one to summon those who can. But when the forces of darkness have murdered all the saints, what is a sorcerer-chef to do?

The only thing he knows how: make a recipe, his great and final arcanum. And thence our story.

And that is the archaeology of five.

Curse of the Tiger's Eye: The True Story of Rudolph Valentino's Ring

Curses are a common theme in the occult, and stories abound, none more macabre than that of tiger's eye ring of Rudolph Valentino.

Rudolph Valentino ring.jpg

Tiger's eye is a kind of gold-and-brown quartz crystal whose vibrant sheen comes from alternating bands of inclusions. One such crystal, polished and set into a man's ring, caught the eye of famed actor Rudolph Valentino, star of the silent screen and the first international male sex symbol. Known as "the Latin lover," the Italian-born American was at the height of his fame when he bought his infamous ring at a shop in San Francisco, despite the warnings from the shop keeper, who told the actor that the ring's previous owners had all met misfortune.

Undeterred, Valentino wore the ring through filming of "The Young Rajah," which turned out to be his only box office flop. It seems his common sense got the better of him for a time, and Valentino put the ring away, only to take it out again for the premiere of his next film, "Son of the Sheik." A few weeks after the movie opened, Valentino collapsed outside of his New York apartment and was rushed to the hospital. Initially diagnosed with acute appendicitis, it was later discovered that he had several ruptured ulcers. He went for surgery but soon died of septicemia.

In the aftermath of his funeral, which drew 100,000 mourners and caused several suicides from grief, the executors of his will gave his lover, Pola Negri, her choice of Valentino's belongings. She chose her beloved's favorite ring... and almost immediately fell gravely ill.

This painting by Federico Beltrán Masses depicts a reclining Valentino and his lover, Pola Negri, wearing the infamous ring 

This painting by Federico Beltrán Masses depicts a reclining Valentino and his lover, Pola Negri, wearing the infamous ring 

Pola Negri put the ring away, and there it stayed for several years, until she met a young actor named Russ Columbo, who was said to be a near-double for the striking Valentino. Pola gave the ring to the young man as a gift, "from one Valentino to another." A few days later, after a heated argument, Russ Columbo was shot by a friend and killed.

Columbo's possessions went to his cousin, who immediately gave the ring to Columbo's best friend, an entertainer named Joe Casino, who locked the accursed thing in a glass case and never wore it. That is, until many years later, when, deciding the curse was all a fantasy, he started sporting it around town. It wasn't long -- mere weeks, in fact -- before Joe Casino got into an automobile accident. His car was hit by a truck and he died on the scene.

The ring passed to Joe Casino's brother, Del, who was convinced the "curse" was nothing but a series of grim coincidences and wore it for many years without incident, even loaning it to a Valentino impersonator, who also suffered no ill effects. For the longest time, it seemed like Del was correct and the curse was all a bunch of hooey -- that is, until his home was robbed. Unable to make an escape in time, the thief was trapped by police, who fired a warning shot that struck the man, killing him instantly... with the ring in his pocket.

Del decided not to tempt fate any further and kept the ring under lock and key, until it was requested by a 21-year-old figure skater named Jack Dunn, who was being considered for the role of Rudolph Valentino in an upcoming biopic on the infamous actor's life. Dunn wore the ring, and some of Valentino's clothing, to a screen test -- only to die ten days later from tularemia, a rare blood disorder he'd contracted after handling a dead rabbit on a hunting trip.

The ring was returned to Del Casino, who kept it in a chest until his death (of natural causes), whereupon the executors of his will moved it, along with several other possessions, to a bank vault in Los Angeles. While the tiger's eye was in residence, the bank suffered two robberies, one of which saw the ring itself stolen. Several of the thieves were shot and killed by police in the ensuing chase. After being arrested, the leader of the gang said if he'd known what was in the vault, he would've chosen a different bank.

After the robberies came a cashier's strike and a fire, after which the ring disappeared. It's current whereabouts are unknown, as is the origin of the ring and its prodigious curse.

Although I don't explicitly reference it in the story, attentive readers will note the doctor's description of Etude's apartment in the first course:

Light poured in through the high windows and bounced off the white walls, illuminating the art even under an overcast sky. A long, stone-studded Polynesian battle club hung from the wall next to a six-foot-tall black-and-white photograph of a naked woman in chains resting intimately with a leather-clad pig with a cat-o’-nine-tails in its mouth. I turned away. There was a mummified hand in a glass case. Each finger wore a ring and each ring flaunted a different colored gem.

That is not, as some have suggested, a reference to the Infinity Gauntlet of the Marvel universe. The mummified hand is a reliquary, the preserved remains of a saint. By placing the ring on it, the old sorcerer has neutralized its evil. And there it stays until...

Soundtrack to FEAST OF SHADOWS

I come up with a soundtrack for all of my projects. It usually starts with theme songs for my characters, which helps crystallize them in my mind. The rest is either music that reminded me of certain scenes or that I listened to while writing the book.

This playlist is available on YouTube. Click here to listen in order.

You can also follow my ongoing, ever-expanding playlist built from my social media posts. It's called All the Music You Missed, and it covers almost every genre, including songs you may not have heard -- or just may not have heard in awhile.


SCENE                                                           TRACK                  ARTIST

Intro: The Lord of Shadows                     02 Ghosts I by Nine Inch Nails


(Hors d'oeuvre) Agony in Violet

That was my welcome to New York       Stars and Moons by Dizzy

Dr. Alexander's Theme (until now)          Out of Sight by Jonwayne

Strike two                                                A Strange Arrangement of Colour by I Am Kloot

Prepare the Way                                     Spreading the Disease by Queensrÿche

I think I just wanted to understand         I'd Love to Change the World by Ten Years After

Don't let her touch you                           I put a spell on you by Screamin' Jay Hawkins

The bitter swallow                                  Sun Will Set by Zoë Keating

Without hesitation                                   Paradis Perdus by Christine & the Queens


(La Soupe) Curse of the Red Dagger

Kell's Theme (cheap whiskey & sour candy)            Sour Candy by Bleached

Ever fall in love with someone you shouldn't've?    Ever Fallen In Love (With Some You Shouldn't've) by Buzzcocks

Bastien's Theme (I'll make you all wanna sin)          Odd Look by Kavinsky (feat. The Weeknd)

I wanna show you something                                   Fire by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

You act like you're this really good person             Hurt You First by Niia

You gotta stop with the Nancy Drew bit                  Surf by The Skins

Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas                              In Spite of Me by Morphine

Cerise's Theme (do you still wear my coat?)           Softkiss by Lemonade


(L'Entrée) Bone White

Harriet’s Theme (sounds like a challenge)      Tin Can Motorbike by WDL (feat. Mouthe)

A minor exorcism                                              Don't Play With Guns by The Black Angels

Disappearance and presumed death             Ghost in a Kiss by Clams Casino (feat. Samuel T. Herring)

It's not like I'm hiding                                        Confidently Lost by Sabrina Claudio

You're not gonna get a warrant                       Lava by Flatbush Zombies

Breaking the seal/Vision quest                       Anvil by LORN

They were celebrating something                  Aching Bones by Nadine Shah

Exeunt: the wolf with three eyes                     Broken Bones by Kaleo


(La Salade) The Song on the Green

Ólafur's Theme (the good kind of bad)      Sweet Child O' Mine by Taken By Trees

The nightmare that eats children               Dreams Made Flesh by This Mortal Coil (feat. Lisa Gerrard)

Every time I played the flute you came     Night Forest by Coyote Oldman

Why did my mom send me away?             No one is ever going to want me by Giles Corey

Return of the heretic                                  The Lone Descent by Of the Wand and the Moon


(Le Plat Principal) Bright Black

Milan’s Theme (I guess I never left)        Arrow by LEVV

Funeral for a friend                                 Big Screens by Oshwa

On the run                                               Silent Running by Mike + The Mechanics

Lost in the forest                                     Hol Ara Yéze (Call of the Earth) by Lévon Minassian

I think we're in a spell                             Warrior by Anilah (feat. Wardruna)

Revenge of the demon                          Polymorphia for 48 stringed instruments by Krzysztof Penderecki

The pentacle formed                             The Sound of Silence by Disturbed

We here gathered in holy number seven             12 O'Clock by Vangelis

Etude's Theme (the greatest spell ever cast)       White Buffalo by Cusco


End: But that is another story                 Come All Sufferers by Gabriel Bruce