Archeology of Five: the Origin of the Feast

I did not create Etude Étranger. I summoned him. All of my other characters were deliberate inventions. They were iterative, the result of quiet, intentional reflection requiring several revisions to make right. Xana, for example, 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 a lot with spreadsheets, so I fell back on what I knew. I populated a tab with as many occupations as I could find online—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:

Shaman-Chef-Detective

Almost immediately, I saw an archetypal trinity—Doctor Strange, Ferran Adria, and Sherlock Holmes—and the details of Etude’s life rushed into 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.

The first version of “Agony in Violet,” which was roughly 35 pages long, 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 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, 76,000 words of jumping the shark.

But Etude doesn’t sleep. He appeared to me at odd times—in the shower, working in the garden, 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.) 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 centuries across the globe: that their neighbors, or those in power, rise not from their gifts but from dark, possibly 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.

Looking out at the world, 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 (sometimes 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 that way. 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. 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.

The first version of the story was radically different than what you’ve read here. Although many details of the plot are the same, the original narrator was unnamed and very few details of his life were revealed. The “camera eye” was fixed squarely on Etude, whom I was still getting to know.

As my notes began to coalesce for the second installment, I became fascinated with the idea of telling a mystery from the standpoint of the people affected by the crime rather than from the standpoint of the detective. I also 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 Lord of Shadows 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 warlocks’ 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 athame, to secure the Lord of Shadows’ next unholy power, immortality via a corruption of the hieros gamos, or sacred marriage—a rite 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. Taken to its logical extreme, it becomes the winter of the world. A fascist white. But fascists of course never see themselves as evil, nor does anyone else. The belief that because our cause is “just” we therefore commit no evil is the common fault of movements Right and Left. We also tend to see others this way, as all good or all bad. The NYPD were hailed as heroes in the aftermath of 9/11. They’ve since returned to persecutor status. But then, power is like that. Just like truth, authority is not a virtue. It’s not intrinsically good or bad, and which means there’s no reason to respect it intrinsically. Harriet is a case in point.

But there remain people in the world who strive for something higher, who are reborn out of their animal selves. It sounds hokey, but 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 an abundance of passion but of compassion, and with that realization, a resurrection of hope, the return of spring. It is no accident that the narrator of the fourth course is a child, the new bud from the tree. (And if you’re very observant, you’ll note that each course takes place at the turn of the appropriate season.)

Evil, however, does not easily retreat, and it takes more than simple 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 inevitably 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 to bind 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 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.

How often do we really try? 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 whereby all of us become the saint—when we find a way work together. That to me is the defining characteristic of our time—the erosion of the web of trust that holds society together. It’s not gone, but it has frayed under the corrosive influence of technology. It typically takes a war to reset it. Let’s hope we realize the higher path.

And that is the archeology of five.

Outtake: Rediscovery of the Necronomicon

Once men were wicked. They cared only for wealth and status. With their hearts darkened by sin, they fell to a great plague that swallowed all the lands like a flood.

Or so the story goes.

Half the population of Europe fell to the Black Death. For a period of seven years, from 1346 to 1353, one out of every two humans on the continent lost their lives—not to mention countless animals and livestock. In their desperation to find a cure, an escape from the slaughter that took king and peasant alike, every nobleman from Moscow to Lisbon ordered their physicians to scour every text, every manuscript, every scroll in existence.

But you have to understand, this was a time, not just before printing, but indexing as well. Books were copied by hand and space was used as available, even where the copied texts had nothing to do with each other. The 12th century Codex Gigas, for example, contains a Vulgate Bible and several works by the Jewish historian Josephus along with a number of ancient Greek medical treatises by Hippocrates, Theophilus, and others. What’s worse, those texts weren’t appended to the end but were actually stuck between the Old and New Testaments.

Libraries were full of hodgepodge books like that, on top of innumerable scrolls and loose-leaf parchment—a cobbled mess. And to top it off, monks often added commentaries in the margins—or erased texts outright. Since both vellum and parchment were rare and expensive, manuscripts of marginal value were sometimes bleached and copied over, creating what’s known as a palimpsest.

That’s how its existence, long a rumor, was first confirmed. During the Black Death, a sorcerer, who was court physician to a nobleman in the Kingdom of Hungary, was examining every written document in his lord’s possession for any facts or theories that might help combat the contagion that threatened to erase civilization, when he came across a tenth-century copy of several ancient Greek works of geography—including one by Theophrastus, who was successor to Aristotle. At the bottom of each page, the unknown copyist—known only “the meister of Zakynthos”—kept a diary whereby he described how long it took to complete both the lettering and the geographical illuminations and under what conditions. It’s here that he makes casual reference to a completely different manuscript he had meticulously scraped clean in order to find enough vellum to appease his Abbott—his order having already slaughtered the last of the donkeys for food that winter. It was, he described, “a work of gibberish,” whose symbols “conformed to no alphabet known to the learned ancients nor to any man of high order in all of Christendom.” His only knowledge of it came from the accompanying illuminations, which were “abominable,” and full of “the surest marks of Satan upon the earth.”

He should’ve burned it. But the simple man from a tiny island in the Ionian wanted his daily ration, which required continual copying and preserving to appease the master of his order. And so it was men the world over began searching for the missing “Zakynthite Atlas.”

The quest was complicated because the book in question was a known palimpsest. There was nothing to say the geographical work hadn’t been copied over in its time, as the work it replaced. Visual inspection was irrelevant. Special equipment was needed, which is why the Atlas wasn’t found for many centuries. Scholars at the University of Leipzig, using the newly developed technique of photography, were preserving vellum pages taken from a crumbling castle in Bavaria when, with the help of magnifying equipment, they noticed trace evidence of earlier markings. They put the pages under “differential illumination,” and living men once again laid eyes on the ancient and arcane “gibberish,” shining through the overlaid ink in a dark glow.

It was called lots of things in its life. The Necronomicon. The Book of Shadows. The Devil’s Bible. All we know for certain is that discovery started a war—and ended it too, when the only known copy was destroyed. And everyone rejoiced. Without their fabled tome, it was assumed the seekers of the dark, now scattered and ruined, would simply ease to be—eradicated, like the plague.

But it was not so. It turns out, the war never ends. Not in our lifetimes anyway.

For near the turn of the millennium, when many people expected an end to come, a new book was penned . . .

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                         Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) by Marvin Gaye

I had one lead                                                           Stars and Moons by Dizzy

The dead can wait                                                    Lava by Flatbush Zombies

Dr. Alexander's Theme (without hesitation)             Me and the Devil/Your Soul and Mine by Gil Scott-Heron

Granny's Theme (don't let her touch you)                I put a spell on you by Screamin' Jay Hawkins

Without hesitation                                                     Paradis Perdus by Christine & the Queens

I missed something                                                   Eyes of a Stranger by Queensrÿche

Without hesitation                                                     Byegone by Volcano Choir

 

(La Soupe) Curse of the Red Dagger

My very best friend                                                  The Perils by Old Man Saxon

Kell's Theme (random acts of chaos)                       Cruel by The Veronicas

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

The Cosmic/Reap the Harvest                                 Fire by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

We've made mistakes                                              Mistakes by Basenji feat. Tkay Maidza

Bastien's Theme (she's just a friend)                        A Love Like Blood by The Killing Joke

It seemed a shame to break the spell                     Loveless by Lo Moon

Watching the cranes on the water                           Er Quan Ying Yue by Abing performed by Song Fei 

 

(L'Entrée) Bone White

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

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

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

On the trail of a killer                                        Ghost Rider by Suicide

You're not gonna get a warrant                       The Yabba by Battles

Breaking the seal/vision quest                        Anvil by LORN

They were celebrating something                  Filth Pig by Ministry

Beware the wolf with three eyes                    Thirteen Silver Dollars by Colter Wall

 

(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     Shaman's Call by R. Carlos Nakai

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

The return of the shaman                           The Lone Descent by Of the Wand and the Moon

 

(Le Plat Principal) Bright Black

Milan’s Theme (an eternity began)        Arrow by LEVV

Lost in memory                                       Se Telefonando by Mina

Long friends lost                                     Friendship from The Snow Goose by Camel

The forest of forgetting                          Hol Ara Yéze (Call of the Earth) by Lévon Minassian

 

This is why we fight                                Warrior by Anilah (feat. Wardruna)

Revenge of the demon                          4101 by Roly Porter

Turn on the light                                     The Sound of Silence by Disturbed

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

 

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