Brutal Light and My Path to Writing Dark Fantasy
That my debut novel, Brutal Light, is a work of dark fantasy–a shifty genre label indicating its place near the hazy crossroads between fantasy and horror–has come as something of a surprise to my friends and family. They knew me as a reader of science fiction first, and though they did know how my reading habits expanded as I grew older, the first identification remained.
So what the hell happened? How did a kid who cut his teeth on Star Wars, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Frank Herbert end up writing about flesh-eating spirits, decadent occult societies, and sanity-eroding seas of light?
It took me a long time to realize how thoroughly the idea of identity fascinates me–both in the ways we build it and the ways the world can tear it down. It incorporates so many of the core aspects of our lives–politics, culture, spirituality, sexuality, just to name a few–and yet has a vulnerability that invites speculation. We build identity to secure our place in the world, often taking bits simply because they appear work well for others, or because we feel strongly about a few bits and we end up taking those plus many others that seem attached to them. We defend these identities when we feel they are threatened, and seek out others who have woven similar cloaks for reinforcement and understanding. And when these fragile creations are ripped away, we have to face what lies underneath–which may be something dark and ugly, or worse, not there at all.
I suspect the fascination started with Frank Herbert–more specifically with Dune, that magnificent, weird beast of a novel. Though ‘science fiction’ in many of its trappings, it blurred the lines between that genre and fantasy in its use of the spice as a means of looking into the past and the future, and its depiction of how that knowledge affected those who partook. Memory, so mutable and yet so important to self-definition, is both a foundation and a strait-jacket, to be both built upon and struggled against.
From there, I slid into cyberpunk and its chrome-burnished worlds filled with identities that could shift between reality and cyberspace, and the questions this raised. It probably should not be a surprise that so many authors who came to prominence writing cyberpunk books–Richard Kadrey and Pat Cadigan, to name but two–are these days writing dark fantasy. We already live in a world where our identities in the real world change, either through conscious effort or despite it, when we go online, so that cyberspace isn’t even science fictional any more. The strangeness has been chased further back, into ideas of a technological Singularity, and into the realms of the fantastic.
While chasing this path, I also came to be intrigued by the non-fictional side of the identity question. Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works” got me thinking on how the mind processes religious experiences, and why it is so hard for agnostics (such as myself) to fully believe. V.S. Ramachandran’s “Phantoms in the Brain” probed the bizarre ways some can heal (or fail to heal) from trauma, and how mercilessly perception can override reality. Susan Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine” set me to thinking on the illusion of self (the idea that there is a ‘you’ behind your eyes, working the controls and watching the show) and what the possibility of dropping that illusion might mean.
Dark fantasy was the most natural path I could see for exploring these ideas. As a screen for the weird, the visceral, and the terrifying, it seemed perfect for me to project my own speculations and fears into my characters–to dress them up in bloodstained clothes, hand them knives, and watch them go to work on one another. They eventually had to face who they were. In a way, so did I.
Blurb for “Brutal Light”:
All Kagami Takeda wants is to be left alone, so that no one else can be destroyed by the madness she keeps at bay. Her connection to the Radiance–a merciless and godlike sea of light–has driven her family insane and given her lover strange abilities and terrible visions. But the occult forces that covet her access to the Radiance are relentless in their pursuit. Worse, the Radiance itself has created an enemy who can kill her–a fate that would unleash its ravenous power on a defenseless city…
Rhea Cole is also on the run, after murdering her husband with a power she never knew she had–a power given her by a strange girl with a single touch. Pursued by a grim man unable to dream and a dead soul with a taste for human flesh, she must contend with those who would use her to open the way to the Radiance, and fight a battle that stretches from the streets of Detroit to a forest of terrifying rogue memories.
Excerpt from “Brutal Light”:
Rhea wouldn’t be still. She plunged into the trees, along the thin dirt path. The park was familiar now, though she still couldn’t name it. Had she ever been in a place where the trees pressed so close to the path? Was there really such a place in the city?
She stepped into a clearing. It was roughly circular, maybe a hundred feet in diameter, lit by the stars and the gibbous moon. A man-made pond occupied two-thirds of it. One cement bench was close to the pond, and seated on it was a shoeless ten or eleven year-old boy in an orange T-shirt, and blue jean cutoffs. He tossed a closed pocketknife in the air, then caught it without looking. When she approached, he smiled.
“Who are you?” she asked. He didn’t look up at her, nor did he stop tossing the pocketknife. She sat beside him and placed a hand over his. It was wet, but the moisture didn’t feel like rainwater.
She saw it now. What she had thought was dark skin, close to Marcus’s shade, was made darker by blood. In his hair, in his dead eyes, in his hands. It was as though he had bathed in it earlier, and put on his clothes when he was done.
But I’m not afraid. Why the hell am I not afraid?
He lifted his chin. There was still no life in his eyes, but he now looked directly at her. Something about it made her feel sick and unreal. If he saw, it was not a person he was looking at. She was no more alive to him than the bench, or the knife he continued to toss.
His smile grew wide.
“He’ll be with you soon,” he said. “Stay where you are.”
“Marcus?” she asked. “I…he can’t–”
“He can pull you free,” the boy interrupted. “That’s why he is.”
The boy tossed the pocketknife handle again. It arced toward her, and her hands jerked up. The handle bounced against one palm, but she caught it with her left hand. When she looked back at the boy, he was gone.
Buy links for “Brutal Light”:
Amazon.com (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.com/Brutal-Light-ebook/dp/B006EVZYIC/
DamnationBooks.com (.mobi, .epub, .lit, .pdf, .pdb): http://www.damnationbooks.com/book.php?isbn=9781615725380
Links for of all other vendors (continually updated): http://BrutalLight.GaryWOlson.com
Print ISBN (for ordering paperback via bookstore): 978-1-61572-539-7
Digital ISBN: 978-1-61572-538-0
Bio for Gary W. Olson:
Gary W. Olson grew up in Michigan and, despite the weather, stuck around. In 1991 he graduated from Central Michigan University and went to work as a software engineer. He loves to read and write stories that transgress the boundaries of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, while examining ideas of identity and its loss in the many forms it can have.
Away from working and writing, Gary enjoys spending time with his wife, their cats, and their mostly reputable family and friends. His website is at http://www.garywolson.com, and features his blog, A Taste of Strange (http://www.garywolson.com/blog), as well as links to everyplace else he is on the Internet, such as Twitter (http://twitter.com/gwox) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/gary.w.olson.author).