Can Fantasy Truly Tackle the Real Horrors of History? (Guest Post by M.D. Lachlan)
Writers don’t always choose what they write about. Ten or more years ago, when I sat down to do my daily 2000 words, I had intended to begin another of my stock-in trade modern urban comedies. A man, a woman, modern life, one liners, a little bit of farce, you know the sort of thing.
I didn’t expect to start writing about a werewolf looking out over the London blitz, but that’s what happened. This werewolf intrigued me – he was staring at the full moon but he was not transforming. Instead he was watching the past destroyed under the bombs of the Luftwaffe.
So I kept writing. Where the story took me surprised me – back to Norse times, to a cavern full of witches summoning magic through starving, freezing and inflicting wilful madness on themselves, to what is modern Finland, to my home town of Coventry suffering its own cataclysmic break with the past under Hitler’s bombs and, most troublingly, to Wewelsburg castle, the ‘spiritual’ centre of the SS, the ‘Black Vatican’. It was here, among other places, that the Nazi occult experiments took place.
Why was this troubling? Well, the Nazis and the occult have been done to death and are a pulp standard. I didn’t think I was writing pulp. If I had, I might have been less troubled. Comic book Nazis are easily created and easily dismissed. They are just two-dimensional villains and we rarely get a glimpse into their true barbarity. We get a sort of ‘Nazis, bad, mnnnOk?’ a la South Park and that’s as deep as it goes.
In fact, the Nazis of pulp fiction are somewhat dangerous. We all like to identify a little with the villain, right? Seen only as a sharp-cut uniform, an arrogant attitude, a monocle and some duelling scars, these two-dimensional Nazis might be seen as attractive to some.
But can you put the true Nazis into a novel, moreover a fantasy novel? Is a genre associated with entertainment the right place for those hideous creatures? Would I be reducing their horrible crimes to the status of a gore-fest horror movie? I would do everything I could to stop that happening, but would I be successful?
Twenty thousand words into writing the original novel, when the Nazis first appeared, I didn’t have to worry about that. Writers write what they have to write. They don’t, however, have to publish it. I would finish the novel and assess it as a whole.
My story immediately went into dark waters. Wewelsburg was served by the Niederhagen concentration camp. Its inmates were largely, though not exclusively Bible Students – Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Witnesses have long held a fascination for me – ever since the cleverest kid I knew at school, a scientific, atheist evangelist, converted one day.
The Witnesses were among the first into the concentration camps and were seen as ‘good survivors’ – sustained by their intense faith. Remarkably, they had the option to walk out any time they wanted to. All they had to do was acknowledge Adolf Hitler as supreme authority and they could go. They could not put him above God, however, so they stayed. This struck me as a story that hadn’t been told very much, least of all in fiction.
Then another character appeared – a faithless man. He was someone very like me when he first appeared on the page – flippant, shallow, gliding through life without thinking of very much, unspiritual, atheist if he ever bothered to think about it, which he rarely did. I began to wonder what I would have done faced by the growth of Nazism. Would I have resisted? Would I have joined in? Would I have just tried to pretend it wasn’t happening and hoped it would go away?
I did my research, I kept writing,. When I had finished I had 200,000 words that I was convinced could not be published.
The material was too raw, the subject too difficult. Fantasy – and this was a fantasy – could not handle such serious subject matter. John Updike wrote: ‘The Holocaust…is not to be played with. It still gives off a poisonous heat.’ So I rewrote the book completely, cutting out Niederhagen and Wewelsburg, cutting out the character of the faithless Dr Voller, and restricting the action solely to Coventry in England, flashing back to the Norse period.
And then I rewrote it again, just as a Norse fantasy. Around 250,000 words that were the most difficult I’ve ever written went in the bin, but I had something – the book that eventually became the first in the Wolfsangel series.
However, the original work, and its later version, sat simmering in my digital drawer for over a decade. In that time, the world has changed. Far right groups we thought had been relegated to the fringes forever have taken centre stage. We have seen the rise of dictators within Europe and on its doorstep. Unthinkable things are now thinkable and entering mainstream politics. Reason is in decline and the idea ‘my ignorance is as valuable as your knowledge’ is gaining currency.
These are ominous signs. Among the fantasy community, at cons and online, you have a strong reactionary element who, despite belonging to the most pampered, mollycoddled and indulged social group in history – modern, white, middle class and above men – seem to take anyone else’s affirmation as their own denial, anyone else’s victory as their defeat, the mildest request to change the way they behave as a grievous insult.
These populist grievances, this abandonment of the principles of pluralism and decency, of respect for difference, is very dangerous. But it’s not so much those people I am worried about but more those who don’t engage with politics particularly, those who let things slide and think, ‘it will all be all right’. People a bit like me, for most of the time. There are far more of them than there are ideologues, idiots, Sad Puppies or whoever.
The final straw for me came when Trump announced that, in the Charlottesville riots, there were ‘very fine people on both sides’. I heard these sentiments echoed at home when Antifa confronted fascists on the streets of my own city. ‘They’re as bad as each other’. No, they are not.
One is standing up for decency, the other is undermining it and setting off on a path that has proved utterly disastrous before, and we all need to decide whose side we are on.
So I got the original manuscript out and looked at it again. I am under no illusions that me publishing it is going to do anything at all, influence anyone. But I’m a writer and it’s through fiction that I have my say. It just seemed time for the book, though it would have never seen the light of day if it wasn’t for current events.
So can fantasy handle this stuff? I would say very often, no. As Updike’s full quote says, ‘…perhaps none but those who actually endured the camps like Primo Levi and Tadeusz Borowski, should be licensed to make art of them.’ However, the generation that went through that horror is dying away, its sufferings being forgotten or ignored, dismissed and in some places – including countries where my books have appeared in translation – deliberately erased . So, at times like these, I do think it’s legitimate for writers to take on that subject matter in whatever genre they are able, to remind people of what went on and to try to make it resonate with them.
If I had been a detective writer, I would have handled this material as a detective story, a science fiction writer, as science fiction. But I’m a fantasy writer, so I wrote a fantasy. Besides, fantasy has a balance to restore when it comes to the Nazis. It’s right and it’s necessary for fantasy to go beyond the cardboard villains, to show us the Nazis in their chaotic, squalid, kleptomaniac, debased horror. And also to remind us that the people who fell to such depths were, on the whole, not psychos or sadists but people like me and you. To quote Primo Levi:
‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.’
That’s the theme of Night Lies Bleeding and I hope I’ve done it justice.
MD Lachlan’s THE NIGHT LIES BLEEDING is out NOW.