Monday, September 25, 2017

Martin Re-read: "Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark"

Read the next entry in this series here.

You didn't think just because Game of Thrones is over (for now) that you'd get rid of me, did you? Nope! George R.R. Martin has done a lot besides A Song of Ice and Fire, and I plan to go through the short stories in Dreamsongs volumes 1 and 2 with a fine-toothed comb.

The stories in Dreamsongs span Martin's career, from his earliest work writing for fanzines in the 1960s to just-pre-ASOIAF in the late 1980s. I can't promise that I'm going to discuss every short story (fantasy is more my jam than sci-fi, for example, and Tales After Tolkien is primarily a fantasy outlet), but I plan to do most of them.

By the time I'm done with that, maybe the show will be back on. And maybe I'll have to move on to his earlier novels, like The Armageddon Rag or Fevre Dream. DARN.

There's no reason to delay; let's get right to it!

“Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark”
Star Studded Comics #10, 1967

“Only Kids” is one of Martin’s earliest stories, and the earliest one we have available in Dreamsongs. In the commentary preceding the story itself, he invites the reader to “have a look at [his] apprentice work, if you dare,” and indeed, for a modern reader this can be quite jarring. The prose is very pulp-y (appropriately enough) and shows clear influences from comics, Howard, Lovecraft, and even Christian mythology.

In “Only Kids,” a demon rises from an accidental sacrifice born of greed and proceeds to take over the world for a short time, stopped only by Doctor Weird, a spectral hero. The morality is very black-and-white, which can be startling for readers only/mostly familiar with A Song of Ice and Fire. The demon is a literal demon—its name is Saagael—that wants to subjugate the entire human race to its will (and succeeds, albeit briefly). Doctor Weird, also (in grand comic book form) given the appellations the Astral Avenger, the Super Spirit, and the Golden Ghost, is an avenging angel standing between Saagael and the world. The fight between them is a battle between ultimate good and ultimate evil, and of course Doctor Weird wins, though it’s a tough fight.

Even leaving aside literal demons and something resembling an angel, the story has two types of people—evil and innocent. The first two people introduced, who start the whole thing, are Jasper and Willie, who are fleeing from vague “natives” from whom they’ve stolen “sacred rubies.” They take shelter in the ancient temple (like idiots), Willie falls asleep on the altar (like an idiot), and then Jasper gets greedy and murders Willie on the altar, which is all Saagael needed to bust out of his dark realm. When Saagael begins his reign, people from all over the world—“the hard ones, the brutal ones, the cruel ones, those who had long waited the coming of one like the Demon Prince and welcomed him now”—descend on the temple to worship him, ultimately bringing in a sacrifice (the one innocent human in all this) to entice him to return to the temple. We have two named evil/idiot characters, a horde of unnamed evil characters, and a single innocent (also unnamed) girl.

Doctor Weird attempts to stop Saagael as soon as he manifests, but the demon is too strong for him—and has power over the spirit, so he can manipulate Doctor Weird’s energies to defeat him—but human sacrifice is a bridge too far for Doctor Weird, so he fights again despite his handicap. Interestingly, Doctor Weird doesn’t overpower Saagael; he finds a loophole, using Jasper’s body (made up to look like Doctor Weird) to absorb Saagael’s attacks. Then, when it looks like Saagael hasn’t made a dent on Doctor Weird, he scares the demon off with a threat. He’s made himself look far more powerful than he actually is so he doesn’t have to actually fight.

Although the morality of the story is far more black-and-white than we see in later works, Martin’s penchant for mixing his genres is clear here. He’s often said that his father lumped science fiction, fantasy, and horror together as “the weird stuff,” and as is clear from this earliest offering we’re presented, he’s never respected the genre boundaries. (Genre boundaries are crap, anyway, but that’s a rant for another time.) This blends high superhero fantasy with dark horror of the Lovecraftian variety (hence my comparison to Howard, too, who had a tendency to do things like that). The dark parts are very very dark—oppressive, even—with a tendency toward purple prose in the descriptions:

Darkness. Everywhere there was darkness. Grim, foreboding, omnipresent; it hung over the plain like a great stifling mantle. No moonlight sifted down; no stars shone from above; only night, sinister and eternal, and the swirling, choking gray mists that shifted and stirred with every movement. Something screeched in the distance, but its form could not be seen. The mists and shadows cloaked all.

Doctor Weird, on the other hand, is the light in the darkness. He stands against Saagael, and the word choices in his sections focus on various intensities of light. When he tricks Saagael, he takes the demon’s power-bolts to the chest with his hands on his hips. Doctor Weird wins because he’s the hero, more than anything else; the victory is convenient more than earned, but that’s comic books and pulp fiction for you.

The dialogue is supremely comic-booky, as well, overwrought and overwritten. If it were adapted for the screen, it would require scenery-chewing actors of the highest caliber.

“Rash moral, you presume to challenge forces you cannot begin to comprehend! Yet, I shall fulfill [sic] your request—I shall reveal myself! [. . .] You shall soon rue your foolhardy words!”

“You were born of darkness and death and blood, Saagael. You stand for all that is evil and foul-made-flesh. But I was created by the Will of Powers that dwarf you, that could destroy you with but a mere thought. I stand in defiance of you, those like you, and the vermin who serve you!”

Now, in all fairness to Martin, he didn’t create Doctor Weird; the “Texas Trio” who ran Star Studded Comics did, and Martin is just playing in their world with their characters (which, considering his current hatred of fan-fiction, is interesting).

So, early work, at least this example of it, shows the seeds of what Martin’s work would later grow into, though this particular story was a bit hard for me to get through, mostly due to the prose.

Next week: The roots of Martin’s love of historical fiction.

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