Heroes? Villains? Please… don’t bore me

underwood

Like most people with a Netflix account, I spent much of this past weekend doing a marathon of House of Cards’ second season. The protagonist, the character we are supposed to identify with is a ruthless Congressman who plays people against each other in order to gain more power, and he’s not afraid to kill in order to achieve his goals. Needless to say, he’s kind of a bastard and not someone I’d want as a friend.

But I couldn’t stop watching.

A few days before re-immersing myself into the world of Congressman Frank Underwood, Jean and I went to see Martin Scorcese’s newest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, a film where the protagonist’s actions, at times, made me physically ill. After all, this wasn’t a fantasy where naughty teenagers get chopped up in the woods, this was a real person fucking up the lives of real people.

But again, I couldn’t stop watching, and the film will probably be recognized by The Academy this year.

These two stories have much in common with some of the best entertainment in recent memory in that there are no clear heroes or villains. They are populated with gritty, more realistic antiheroes. Breaking Bad. The Walking Dead (I can’t tell you how many people have told me they were on Team Shane, not Team Cowboy Rick). Game of Thrones. 24. Even the most recent Superman film explored the messianic figure’s dark side.

And I couldn’t be more excited.

So, what’s the deal, you ask? Is this part of the unraveling of society’s moral fiber? A creeping cynicism that threatens to turn us all into indifferent sociopaths?

I disagree whole-heartedly. Flawed protagonists, antiheroes if you will, have been a part of literature for a long time. Shakespeare’s works are overflowing with them. The best stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses consist of prideful humans who challenge the gods and ignore oracles–actually, even the gods in those stories are kind of conniving douche-bags. The Bible, too, has its share of antiheroes; David, “a man after God’s own heart,” is a murdering, womanizing, power-abusing king.

But David’s also a gifted psalmist. And it’s from his bloodline that the Messiah comes. Interesting, but more on that later.

david

What’s so compelling about the antihero is that the archetype covers a wide range. Batman is an antihero. His seemingly noble quest is really quite personal, isn’t it? With every crime he prevents, he’s trying to save his parents over and over again. Also, he’s a little arrogant to think that dressing up as a bat and going vigilante is going to make the world a better place. But he’s real. He hurts. That hurt drives a goal that does achieve a lot of good. So we like him.

And we like Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belforte, because he’s not a one-dimensional character. This is best revealed by the generous advance he gives a new employee, a struggling single mother in a desperate situation. Even though he’s despicable, he’s capable of good. He’s no Batman. I’d say he falls on the “more villainous” side of the antihero spectrum, as does Frank Underwood. Despite his darker tendencies, he’s compelling because he has many dimensions and some of his qualities (ambition, the ability to lead) are downright admirable, even if he uses them for less than admirable purposes.

Breaking Bad’s Walter White falls somewhere in the middle. He’s a fuck-up, no doubt. Maybe one could even argue that he falls more towards the villainous side as the show goes on, but what separates him from Belforte and Underwood is that initially, his goals are noble. A dying man who wants to secure his family’s future. Even if his methods are dubious, often downright detestable, who can’t align with him, at least on some level?

eff it

My novel, Flesh and Fire (coming Spring, 2015), is chock full of characters who buck traditional archetypes. The three characters who make up the story’s main arc are Todd, Chloe, and Samael. Ignoring the rule that male protagonists should be an alpha hero, Todd is a once bright soul whose on the verge of a midlife crisis when we meet him. He gave up his dreams and the love of his life in order to pursue a life of simplicity. He’s very much a beta-male in the sense that he doesn’t act except in moments where he’s pushed to his absolute limits (not a beta-male in the hilarious, Christopher Moore sense).

Chloe’s journey, however, is closer to that of a traditional hero’s. In fact, as during subsequent drafts of the novel, I came to see her quest as the focal point of the story, rather than Todd’s. She descends into the pit; she makes crucial sacrifices to serve the greater good. These are two qualities of a traditional hero. But she also qualifies as an antihero because her methods of achieving her goals are sometimes questionable.

The most conflicted character of the three, at least to me, is the antagonist Samael. Early on in life, he got some really twisted information on what it means to love and be loved. His near redemption comes in the form of a woman named Clare (who he believes Chloe has been reincarnated as), but after she’s taken from him, he begins a life of service to evil. By the time he meets Chloe, he no longer understands how to love, only to possess and destroy. He’s a villain to many of us, but a hero in his own mind, so if I’ve done my job as an author his scenes should be just as compelling, if not more so, than the protagonists’.

What I’m trying to say, in probably too many words, is that the antihero covers a lot of ground from the flawed protagonist with whom the reader can identify to the corrupted central character who has a warped sense of right and wrong, but has motivations the reader can understand (in other words, he’s not Big Bad). The ground covered by the term antihero is fertile for what I believe are the most interesting characters.

If you’re a creative type, don’t settle with a protagonist that is a hero with a capital H or an antagonist that you can picture going “MUAHAHAHAHAHA.” Give your hero wounds. Your villain dreams. Make your characters real.

villain

I am happy to see so many works that blur these lines between good and bad, because regardless of what we tell ourselves when we lay down to go to sleep, we’re capable of both.

Publishing Deal!

Friends! I am proud to announce that Flesh and Fire will be published by Christopher C. Payne and Journalstone Publishing as part of their Double Down series. My piece will be paired with a brand new Pine Deep novella by Jonathan Maberry, and it’s set to come out in Spring/Summer of 2015.

I’m having trouble trying to find the words for how psyched I am. This has been a long road–the first incarnation of Flesh and Fire was written in 2011–and I have a ton of people to whom I’m grateful. While I realize this is what an acknowledgments page is for, some of this can’t wait. My wife Jean has been wonderfully supportive; the short novel has been in progress the entirety of our marriage and she’s always been encouraging. Secondly, Jonathan Maberry is owed a huge thanks for being a friend, mentor and an endless well of inspiration. Knowing him has taught me many facets of the craft and the business, as well as introduced me to some great professionals who have since become friends. Thirdly, Christopher Payne and the folks at Journalstone for believing the manuscript is worth publishing. This promises to be the beginning of a great relationship. Lastly, everyone who has looked at the manuscript and given me valuable feedback and advice: my brother Vincent Mangum, writer Patrick Galloway, crime writer Dennis Tafoya, author/screenwriter Joe Augustyn, and filmmaker Dave Tafoya. If I left anyone out, please remember I wrote this in a fit of excitement and my acknowledgments page will be composed by a more composed me.

Stay tuned for future updates.

Within This Garden Weeping

within-this-garden-weeping

Within This Garden Weeping reads like a book of the Old Testament by way of Ray Bradbury and Twin Peaks.

Part of Lee Thompson’s Division Mythos, the novella picks up two years after the conclusion of Before Leonora Wakes. Red Piccirilli fears that something strange is about to begin again after he and his mother are visited by the mysterious Ash. Soon he is taken into a world where nothing is as it seems, time has little meaning, and he learns he possesses frightening powers. On his quest he meets a variety of bizarre characters and battles the evil Wind with a Thousand Eyes.

Within This Garden Weeping is filled with cosmic violence, but never stops being beautiful. The language is poetic and evocative, prose you can feel as you read and not a word is wasted. Thompson’s craft is best on display when he explores his lead character’s inner workings. Red is in that awkward stage between childhood and adulthood. He wants people around him to take him seriously and treat him as a grown-up, but the adults in his life rarely do. It’s only in this alternate world where his powers are recognized.

Where Before Leonora Wakes was a coming of age story, this tale recognizes that growing up is too large a feat to take place over the course of one event, no matter how dramatic that event may be. Continuing Red’s journey in Within This Garden Weeping allowed for opportunities to further explore his transition from a child to someone with great power. An overwhelming sadness lingers over each set-piece and makes Red’s struggles much larger, likely to resonate long after the story’s end.

Thompson’s mythology is nearly biblical, his characters achingly real, and the story never stops moving. I’d recommend this book to fans of horror or dark fantasy who also like to be challenged by a story’s themes.

Kathe Koja-The Cipher

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of back-pedaling and exploring seminal books in the genre that I may have missed. In my journeys I came across Kathe Koja’s psychological horror novel, The Cipher. It was the title that launched the now-infamous Dell/Abyss line in the early ’90s. I won’t go into the history of that line, only because it’s already been done so well here and here.

This bleak, grimy novel tells the story of a poet, Nicholas, and his girlfriend, Nakota, whose lives are changed when a black hole appears in one of the rooms of their apartment. As their obsession with the Funhole (as they call it) grows, they continue to experiment with it, bringing others into their increasingly obsessive experience. What they find is that its sinister purpose is tied fundamentally to their marginalized existence and that its appearance is no accident.

Koja’s novel shines, above all, for its prose. Told in the first person, from Nicholas’ point of view, she captures his increasingly fractured thoughts with intense precision, delving deeper within him and his toxic relationships as the saga of the Funhole progresses. Each character he meets is real and their purposes in relation to him are revealed so clearly. Nakota is the lover who wants to go further down the hole. Malcom is the pretentious artist who wants to exploit Nicholas and his plight. Randy and Vanese are the concerned friends, though Randy also sees a way to put the Funhole to use.

Koja’s prose and the depth of Nicholas’ character make for obsessive reading right up until the fitting, tragic conclusion. Highly recommended for Koja’s prose and the uniqueness of the story.

20131127-140815.jpg

Headed South

Wow! Only four days until I head to Austin, Texas. I hesitate to say that I’ll be starting a new life, because I don’t anticipate doing a whole lot differently. I still intend to write every day, update this blog as much as possible (read: sporadically), and remain connected to my family and friends through social media (or picking up the phone, you know, that thing you use to post Instagram photos?).

Really, is there a limit to the ways we can stay in touch in the digital age?

In spite of the things that will remain the same and in spite of the excitement, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss, an overwhelming weight about me that sometimes makes it nearly impossible to so much as get up and walk, let alone want to drive halfway across the country. I’ve put on a pretty tough front over the last little while, following the decision, even going as far as to tell my mother that I’m fine, I hardly feel anything.

Yesterday I saw an old friend for what may be one of the last times and forced me to really face this. After all, he and I had known each other nearly ten years. We’ve played and recorded music together. We share a deep love for the horror genre. He was at my wedding and was around for many of my other romantic relationships. We survived through the suicide of a mutual friend. He’s one of those people that I can just bullshit with and not have to worry about going out and doing things to pass the time. Yesterday we talked about old times. He put it out there that he’d miss me and I did the same. Honesty like that is important, I think, even though I find it hard to be that honest with people all of the time. While it’d be all too easy to blame my dishonesty on the fact that society and people in general frown down upon displays of emotion, it comes from my own fears more than anything and it’s gotten harder the older I get. Maybe I’ll learn a lesson from this. Maybe I won’t.

I hope I do.

I guess what I’m saying here, if I’m saying anything, is that it felt good being able to confront some of the scarier aspects of relocating. On Tuesday, I’ll embark on an adventure. I’ll have the woman I love beside me and we won’t be totally alone down there. But damn, it’s scary, because it is a new life, isn’t it? And it’s okay to be afraid. It’s better than okay, because it’s the stuff we do when we’re afraid that really helps us grow, isn’t it? Like your lead character’s growth over the course of your manuscript. Like taking that job even your afraid you may not be good at it. Like asking out that attractive person making eyes at you across the room. Like going out and speaking about a cause you believe in. Like your first night sleeping with all the lights out.

I hate when people say, “don’t be afraid.” It’s always felt false to me. I say, “be afraid, be very afraid, but don’t let that stop you.”

All the beast,

Lucas