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:
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.