Chicago witches, along with witches across the nation, are gathering to cast a “binding spell” on the Trump Administration. This is true. But what happened after the first ceremony is a darker tale, one that is officially being called FAKE NEWS.
The President realized immediately that he was being constrained. His Executive Order-signing pens kept running out of ink, and he found himself unable to utter complete sentences — which in itself was not unusual, but now, his staff could not decipher his commands. “Steve,” he called out. “I need you.” The shadow the President cast on the Oval Office wall detached itself, slithered along the floor, and wrapped itself like a snake around the Leader of the Free World. Its head stretched over the President’s left shoulder, and pressed a phantom ear to his lips. “I’m being attacked,” the President whispered. The shadow flowed away and snaked its way into the greater shadows at the far side of the room, where it vanished.
In his sanctum at the top of Trump Tower, Steve Bannon chuckled without mirth as a tendril of shadow entered his nostril. For a moment, his eyes clouded with darkness, and he nodded. “Witches and hedge magicians, thinking they know power…” He went to the window, and opened it with a gesture. Outside, the sun shone in a cloudless sky. He frowned. Something passed in front of the sun, rippling as it ate the light. Rising from the far horizon, black vapors streaked up into the sky. As the darkness grew, so did Bannon’s power. The shadows cocooned him, and he transformed. A huge, shapeless, pale thing rose into the darkening sky like a misshapen balloon, and then sped westward.
The Chicago witches swayed in their circle in Trump Plaza. There was a stench on the wind from the east, and waves of nausea hit them. The witch Kloë looked up at the darkening sky, and said to her Sister, “Is… is that us?”
“No,” Breeannaugh said. “There’s someone… else…” She cast her mind skyward, and braving the ethereal miasma that tainted the air, she quested for the source of the disturbance. Her mind met something formless, terrifying, and radiating hideous power. Her body burst like rotten fruit dropped from a height. The witches’ hex snapped and recoiled, hitting the coven with a backlash of magic. With a single voice, they screamed.
A mass of pale flesh slopped onto the ground in the witches’ broken circle. It rose on tendon and sinew from its amorphous roiling. Steve Bannon’s face emerged from a sheath of quivering skin. It grinned. Qaitlynn vomited noisily.
“Hello Snowflakes,” said the thing with Bannon’s face. I still have plans for the President. You will not meddle in matters so far beyond you.”
Elyyzah’s fingers closed on her knife hilt and she whispered a curse, the strongest she knew. Then she leaped at the Alt-Right horror. Her blade sunk to the hilt in Steve Bannon’s gelatin-soft forehead. He smiled. “Nevertheless you persist?” he whispered. She herd mockery in the thing’s voice. And… admiration? She recoiled from the thought of being admired by this thing.
“FLY YOU FOOLS!” Elyyzah screamed to her coven as Bannon slithered over her and began to feed.
Far to the east, from his golden toilet, the President tweeted that the Left, still unable to get over his landslide victory, had resorted to witchcraft to defy the will of the people. Sad!
Hours later, a furious Sean Spicer condemned the dishonest media for its lies about the Administration’s dealings with dark forces, and about the very existence of the Massacre at Trump Plaza.
Cupid lay dying
His bow snapped in twain
At my feet he lay writhing
And moaning in pain
An eye for an eye
So Cupid did pay
For sending his poisonous arrows
My blood is afire. The wound is just a nick, but poison throbs hot in my shoulder. My Queen is in anguish. The poison is taking her too. Stand. Nock. Draw. Hold. Loose. I know failure before the arrow leaves my bow. The demon flaps its wings and sends another shaft into my thigh. Cherub it may seem, but it is the deadliest archer I’ve faced. Again I draw. “For my King,” I whisper. My arrow finds sinew through feathers, and the demon tilts and spirals low. I leap, grasp its foot, and drag it to earth.
I snap its wings like dry branches, and kick its bow from its reach. Its youthful, curl-framed visage belies hideous strength, and we grapple as I strain for my sword.
I glance to Guinevere — my Queen — and too late i see the arrow in the demon’s fist. It pierces my heart. My very soul catches fire.
I am vanquished. My foe is gone. Guinevere cradles my head in her lap. Tears stream down her cheeks, falling like sparks on my fevered brow. The poison roars in our blood. I can feel it in her, throbbing in time with mine. She shakes her head, denying something unseen.
My mouth is sere. Her lips are pink, parted, and — suddenly I learn — impossibly soft. I mustn’t. But we are twin bonfires consuming each other, uncontrolled. I try to fix in my mind the image of my King, but the thought blackens, curls, and disappears in bitter smoke.
Now we know that Star Wars Episode VIII will be called The Last Jedi. So who is the last Jedi? Let’s not belabor it. It’s Luke. The Last Jedi is Luke Skywalker.
I’ve laid out what the prophecy of “bringing balance to the Force” means in terms of Star Wars’ ring cycle. [In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Answers Hide In Plain Sight] It bears repeating that in Episodes I-III, we see Anakin Skywalker turned to the Sith — the dark polar end of the Force. In Episodes IV-VI, we see him brought back to the light polar end — the return of Anakin the Jedi. Structurally, it makes sense that the final ring in the saga will be the emergence of the prophesied balance between dark and light.
Luke Skywalker figured it out. He wouldn’t have saved his father in Episode VI had he not tapped the strength of the Dark Side to physically defeat Vader, but then brought himself back under control to spare Vader, once beaten. Luke was never indoctrinated into the Jedi’s pitiless stance against forsaking duty to rescue loved ones. Guided by his compassion instead of Jedi dogma, he was able to do what Obi-Wan and Yoda could not.
By Episode VII, Luke has suffered a disastrous failure trying to be a Jedi Master, and his students are dead by the hand of his Dark-seduced nephew. So he fled to an ancient and lost Jedi Temple, to learn something that neither Obi-Wan nor Yoda had taught him. It’s not a stretch to guess that, spurred by his experience with Darth Vader, he was in search of the true nature of the Force, one that neither Jedi nor Sith had mastered. He has learned about the Balance.
Now Rey has come to him, a Force-strong young woman in need of training. Luke won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. He will remain the last Jedi. The purple light that bathed Rey’s and Kylo Ren’s faces as their blue and red lightsabers clashed was no accident. When Luke trains Rey in the Balanced Force, she will become something new, requiring a new name. And after the Revenge of the Sith and the Return of the Jedi, I’m confident that the new name will figure into the title of Episode IX.
The non-English movie posters have revealed that “Jedi” in the title is being used as the plural. So it’s not just Luke. But no matter how many there are, the fact that they’re the last is what’s significant. The reasoning stands. After this set, Force practitioners will be something else.
Oddly, the French translation of Return of the Jedi was Le Retour Du Jedi — singular. Which rather minimizes the impact of Luke’s journey.
(An excerpt from the novel 2017, by Steve Bannon.)
Behind his screwed-up eyelids a forest of people seemed to be moving in a sort of dance, weaving in and out of the National Mall, disappearing behind one another and reappearing again. He was trying to count them, he could not remember why. He knew only that it was impossible to count them, and that this was somehow due to the mysterious identity between 1.5 million and 250 thousand. The pain died down again. When he opened his eyes it was to find that he was still seeing the same thing. Innumerable crowds, like moving trees, were still streaming past in either direction, crossing and recrossing. He shut his eyes again.
“How many people attended the inauguration, Winston?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. You will kill me if you do that again. 1.5 million, 250 thousand, 7 billion — in all honesty I don’t know.”
“Better,” said Sean Spicer.
(With apologies to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”)
(Some SPOILERS for Rogue One)
The Emperor condemned Darth Vader to live in a castle straddling a river of lava, on a planet where he had killed his wife in anger, and was betrayed, maimed, and burned by his one-time mentor and friend. The Emperor had thought, with some reason, that there was no more effective a way to tether Vader’s loyalty to the Dark Side than to be constantly faced with the worst day of his life.
If one believes George Lucas, Anikin Skywalker, the child who would be Vader, was plucked from enslavement by a Jedi who believed him to be an instrument of prophecy. Presented to the High Council, he was chastised for feeling fear and being too old — things over which he had no control. The Council accepted him only after the Jedi who took him from his home — without informed consent — vouched for his behavior. In this way, Anikin was passed from one form of bondage to another. The rules of the Jedi demanded the abjuration of passion and strict loyalty to the Jedi order. Beyond that, the Jedi held expectations that he would “bring balance to the Force,” without having any consensus on what that meant.
Anikin trained under a system that wasn’t equipped to deal with students with his — or any — life experience. His natural talents and innate power grew, but the yoke placed on him by the Jedi chafed and provided no succor. He had but two friends outside the Jedi order. The first was a woman he knew since childhood, the only woman he knew well. The second was a man who admired his instincts instead of condemning them, and was willing to discuss topics unspoken inside the Jedi orthodoxy. Anikin’s acts of volition, and there were only a few, were considered acts of defiance. He set off to rescue his captive, dying mother. He married the woman he loved. He fought against what he saw as the unlawful arrest of his friend. At this point, he passed to his third form of bondage: accepting Darth Sidious as his master, and embracing the Dark Side of the Force. It is in the Dark Side’s grip that Anikin — now Darth Vader — killed his wife and battled his former friend over the lava flows of Mustafar, resulting in yet another form of bondage: to the machines necessary to keep him alive.
You have already grasped that Darth Vader is the absurd hero, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the Jedi, his hatred of betrayal, and his passion for the freedom to pursue his own desires won him that unspeakable penalty in which his whole being is exerted toward accomplishing his master’s goals, which are meaningless to himself. If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Encased in black robotic armor, Darth Vader understands that the few choices he exercised led him to this state of utter servitude. A moment of anger and violence led him to become a machine of anger and violence, an attack dog on the Emperor’s leash, kept alive and functional to serve a purpose outside himself.
In those quiet moments in his hell-castle home, when the Emperor has no need of him, Darth Vader may contemplate his fate. He can no longer lie in repose or take his ease as other men. When he is not being used as a blunt instrument, Darth Vader hangs naked in a bacta tank, letting the medicinal organisms soothe what cannot be healed. Perhaps, during those moments, he broods over what could have been had he rejected vengeance, love, or justice. But during those ruminations, suspended like a specimen in a jar, he must also see that in different choices he would have found different servitude. His very conception was by another’s design, he was born into slavery, and at no turn in his life was he left answerable only to himself. And as the fatigue of railing against his fate becomes tedious, he must realize that at that moment, his thoughts are his own. The world inside his tank is the world of his own unfettered imagination. Boredom of monotony alone would inspire him to imagine joy instead of rage. And eventually he would realize that external forces are so intent on controlling his actions that his actions could just as well go on without the presence of his mind. At that moment, he is free. One must imagine Darth Vader happy.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Star Wars: A New Hope are two adjacent tales, told forty years apart. The graphical wizardry that creates some of the important connective tissue is breathtaking. But even more stunning is how the modern Rogue One reinterprets A New Hope even as it expands on it. It’s like learning the more complicated, adult underpinnings of a family history you’ve known since childhood. In that way, Rogue One feels like a film speaking directly to my generation of fans. And it has a lot to say about the concept of rebellion.
The Rebels in A New Hope were easy for Americans to identify with. Americans were once rebels, after all, and we were (per our own mythology) plucky and righteous, with the idealistic goal to found a new nation on liberty and self-determination. In 1977, despite withdrawing from Vietnam in disgrace, the Cold War narrative of freedom-loving underdogs resisting the oppressive militarized might of an Evil Empire was strong. There were complications, and there was ugliness, but on principle, America stood with the Rebels.
In Rogue One, we are still with the Rebels — their cause is righteous — but they look less like the mythologized “us” and more like the fighters we see on the news: urban guerillas ambushing tank patrols in town, spies who will coldly kill an ally in order to escape, or paranoid, cave-dwelling militants who share traits with Star Wars’ most iconic villain. Children get caught in the crossfire, and soldiers are haunted by things they’ve done in the name of the cause that they still believe in, despite everything. They are willing to die for their cause, and that is exactly what they do. These hardened, violent rebels are recognizable to Americans, but most often as the “other” in our geopolitics. Sometimes, this kind of rebel in the real world is our enemy.
In the universe of Rogue One, the Rebel Alliance — the one we know with Mon Mothma and Bail Organa — is a splintered and toothless confederacy that dithers and leans toward Imperial appeasement. It’s significant that they are mobilized to war by their radical fringe. A faction of rebels who admit to doing terrible things — and will sacrifice themselves to ensure it was worth it — go rogue (ta-DA!) and draw the entire Rebellion into a desperate play that leads directly into A New Hope. We know now that the destruction of the Death Star and the rise of Luke Skywalker only happened because a few days before, a motley bunch of doomed radicals called for unity in violent revolution.
A colleague used to work for Constellation Brands, distributing various American wines. He shared his Friends and Family discount, and I used it to buy a “mystery” mixed case for $15/bottle. I just cracked the first bottle, and I’d like to tell you about the 2013 Clos du Bois Sonoma Coast Reserve Pinot Noir ($35 retail).
I liked this one a lot, and it changed what I thought of Clos du Bois. It’s a pretty looking wine — brick to Christmas red. In your nose it’s all cherry and vanilla, telling you exactly what you’re getting: American pinot noir in French oak. This one is silky smooth and a little fuller bodied than I’d expect — the website reveals why: 14.5% ABV. If you’re into doing that, you can really make the legs run down the side of your glass. In the mouth, it’s bright, ripe fruit: cherry on the attack, strawberry in mid-palate and finish, with vanilla throughout. The finish is longer than I expected, and made me think of a cherry compote with game like venison, duck, or boar. Of course, I haven’t had dinner, so factor that in.
This is a great surprise to get in a “mystery case” — a wine I probably would never have picked up on my own, but one I’d now shortlist, drawing me away from being just a Willamette Valley/Burgundy/Russian River snob for Pinot Noir.
By Edward Saul Excitement abounds for we enthusiasts of Alan Moore, HP Lovecraft and Weird Fiction, as the crashing denouement to Providence looms overhead. Considering that the exact release date for Providence #11, let alone #12, is aptly unknowable, now is the prime time for speculation. Such speculation should not, of course, be limited merely […]
(Sung to the tune of “Mother” by Pink Floyd)
Donald do you want to drop the bomb?
Donald will you sue me for this song?
Donald do you think it’s time to break some balls?
Donald should we build a wall?
Donald will you run for President?
Donald I don’t trust the government!
Donald when will the U.S.A. be great?
Donald I’m just filled with hate.
Hush now angry White guy, don’t you cry.
Donald’s gonna make liberal nightmares come true.
Donald’s gotta put all of his fears into you.
Donald’s gonna redefine this nation’s Right Wing.
Donald’s gonna make us great friends with Putin.
Donald’s gonna make America mighty and strong.
Ooh babe, ooh babe, ooh babe,
We’ll make Mexico pay for our wall.
Donald will the world be good enough
Donald is the world too dangerous,
Donald will they tear our way of life apart?
Donald when’d it get so hard?
Hush now angry White guy don’t you cry.
Donald’s gonna close down all the borders for you.
Donald won’t let anyone Muslim get through.
Donald’s gonna armor our country’s thin skin.
Donald’s gonna fix it so America wins.
Donald knows that truth can depend how you feel.
Ooh babe, ooh babe, ooh babe,
Show them we’re not yet a dying breed.
Donald, did it need to go so low?
I’m smiling today. There’s a bounce in my step. You see, I sold a piece of fiction for the first time, making me — at last — a paid writer. It’s the first step down a road I want to keep walking, well past my days of open floor plan offices, conference rooms, and software project estimates (although arguably, those are my first paid works of fiction).
This one’s a short (2,000 word) piece for Unlikely Story‘s issue 12.5, “The Journal of Unlikely Observances.” It’s a themed issue around rites of spring, festivals of renewal, and role reversals. I hope you enjoy “Old Customs.”
SFF short fiction reviewer Charles Payseur has proposed drink pairings with selected stories from July, including this one. Read his review on Nerds Of a Feather: http://www.nerds-feather.com/2016/08/the-monthly-round-tasters-guide-to.html?m=1
Author’s End Notes (because I’m an author now)
(I humbly request, dear reader, that you read the story, linked above, first.)
The Indian holiday of Holi inspired “Old Customs,” in particular, the variant of Lathmar Holi, in which the women beat the men with sticks. Filmmaker Prashant Bhargava (a childhood friend, taken from us much too soon) did a study in footage and music of Holi, including the lathmar practice, in “Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi.” What struck me in his images was how, under the color and exuberance, there seemed to bubble a real, visceral something that was looking for cathartic release. That was the seed of this story.
I never say “India” in this story, nor do I say “Holi.” It’s obviously about Holi, and is obviously set in India (I was thinking of Colaba, in Mumbai, during the hotel scene), but I wanted to give myself license to create a fictional history for this holiday. It was harder than I thought to grant myself that permission. Instead of imagining, I kept researching, checking the things I dreamed up against fact. I had no small amount of anxiety about misrepresenting a real cultural practice. Refraining from explicitly naming the festival Holi and setting the story in India helped me move past those hang-ups. It astonished me how much that helped.
On the topic of anxious sensitivity, I’m a man, writing about women, in circumstances where harassment and abuse are at the center. It wasn’t lost on me that I was writing about things I’m not especially qualified to write. When I did the fiction certificate program at Northwestern, a couple of our instructors encouraged us not to shy away from this. Writing is an exercise in empathy, and attempts — however imperfect or flawed — to empathize are valuable in themselves. So here, I’ve tried. And even if I’ve failed, I’ll try again.
“Old Customs” walks backwards through (fictional) history to reveal the history behind a myth. Pretty early in the writing, I was aware I was stealing from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. After all, each book in the series starts with the catechism:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.
Book 4, The Shadow Rising, even provided me with a structure for my story. But I spared the reader from having to journey to Rhuidean and walk through the glass columns to learn this history.