51Jxztd2h9LI heard about this book from my friend Pat Prescott’s review, and it sounded interesting, so I checked it out. I’m glad I did.

Oblivion is the name of a long-abandoned ghost town in New Mexico. A woman named Belinda finds it after walking out of her corporate job in frustration. In the town, she meets an artist named Ben and the two are immediately attracted, but initially are shy and afraid of one another.

Ben grows obsessed with Belinda and, at the urging of his friends, sells some of his art to raise enough money so he can buy the ghost town at auction, out-bidding the local tycoon, Cal Benton, the richest man in the country. Benton vows to get revenge, as he needs the land to build his business empire.

Ben and Belinda need people in order for the town to be recognized by local authorities, and so gradually draw homeless people, migrant workers, mystics, scientists and all sorts of colorful people into the town, gradually turning it into an experimental community. Benton and his family business, meanwhile, are gradually torn apart by their own attempts to destroy the community.

It’s very much a Utopian novel. Throughout the rebuilding of Oblivion, all the town’s residents are focused on environmental concerns. From scientists experimenting with solar energy to the mystics who seem to have supernatural power over nature itself, the book is a deep exploration of environmentalist themes, with the town and its inhabitants serving as models for these philosophies.

That said, some of the characters are more than mere puppets to act out the ideas. Cal Benton evolves quite a bit over the course of the novel, though the same cannot be said for his two hot-tempered sons. His daughter Brandy’s story is left unresolved, which is too bad, because in some ways she was the most interesting Benton.

There are a lot of odd characters espousing different philosophies in Oblivion, and it would take too long to summarize all of them here. For the most part, I enjoyed the colorful and diverse cast, though I did have a problem with one character, introduced very late in the book, and seemingly with no purpose other than to die. This character seemed like more of a caricature than the rest, and I felt the book would have been stronger had she simply been cut out entirely.

It’s in the descriptions that the book really shines, though. There are whole paragraphs describing the look of desert flowers growing over the abandoned buildings. Bruce has a knack for turning a phrase, and there were several times where I reread sentences just to savor how well-constructed they were.

The dialogue is not as strong. Possibly this is inevitable in a book where the main point is to communicate philosophical concepts, but often I found the characters’ lines just too awkward to be believable as things people would say to one another. 

There were a few typos, and in a couple cases, it was clear that autocorrect had just changed a character’s name completely, and no one realized it. I’m very sympathetic to this problem, as I know firsthand how hard it is to catch every typo. This is one of the great things about eBooks: it makes it relatively easy to revise such things.

The other technical flaw that bothered me was Bruce’s overuse of the passive voice. I am not an absolutist who opposes the passive voice always and everywhere, but it really was too much here. I lost track of how many times “a decision was reached” or “an apple was sliced”.  Maybe this was meant to create an effect, but it didn’t work for me.

Despite these reservations, Oblivion is a very interesting book, full of experimental, New Age ideas. I don’t agree with all of them by any means. Sometimes it seemed too idealistic for my tastes. But then again, I could just be a jaded reactionary.

The book it most reminded me of was Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes. Just as Hurst’s novel was a dreamlike, mystical love letter to the ocean with a strong environmentalist theme, so Oblivion is a love letter to the desert, and all the life that hides in the apparent desolation. It’s not as polished as Ocean Echoes, but that same compelling, dream-like quality is there. It’s clear the author has great passion for his setting. Oblivion has its flaws, but it’s still worth reading just for the ideas it explores.

51r5HIQ4ckLMiira tells the story of Miira Tahn, a dying woman who enters a virtual world where she can live in a perfectly realistic simulation of health and youth. However, the medical team tasked with performing the procedures necessary to prepare her for this are not all to be trusted, nor is the corporation overseeing it innocent of unsavory business practices. 

The first half of the book tells of Miira’s preparation to enter Innerscape, her psychological distress at leaving the physical world behind, and fear at the procedures necessary to prepare her for it. 

I should warn readers: I actually found some the descriptions of the surgeries unsettling to read. They were actually more disturbing to me than many books I’ve read that depict actual violence—I’m not sure why this is, as obviously there is no harm or peril intended in these scenes, but that was my reaction. That’s not a criticism, though; indeed, it shows how well-written these scenes are.

The second half of the book deals with Miira adjusting to the new world of Innerscape, all while dealing with the machinations of the various staff members assigned to help her adjust. At times, in the whirlwind of all the tests they need to run to ensure that all Miira’s senses are functioning properly, it seemed like a sex comedy set in a cyberpunk world. Again, that’s not a bad thing. I’m all for genre-mixing.

I admit, I thought the last quarter or so of Miira felt a bit rushed. Throughout the book, there are also several sub-plots and hints of a dystopian real world outside the virtual Innerscape. These are never fully explored, and the ending felt rather abrupt. But then, this is only book 1 of a trilogy—it’s clear that there are many questions to be answered in subsequent books.

And, make no mistake, I love the premise here—virtual worlds are a neat idea, especially to a gamer such as myself. It was fun to read this after just recently re-reading Ben Trube’s Surreality earlier in the summer. Both books, while very different in style and tone, examine how virtual reality grants a chance at an “idealized” new life, and how it brings out different facets of different people. 

Miira is a fast-paced read with a compelling premise. I’m curious to see how the plot and characters introduced in it are developed in subsequent books.

51KJSpI02SLEarlier in the year I read Audrey Driscoll’s terrific re-imagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West–Reanimator short story, The Friendship of Mortals. So I was eager to read this second book in the series, which sees West changing his name, his home, and most of all, his personality.

The book begins by retelling certain parts of Friendship of Mortals from the point of view of West’s servant, Andre Boudreau, whom West restored to life after he was killed in  World War I. Andre of how he and West flee Arkham, and embark on a wild journey that takes them to various locales across America, with West–now living under the name Francis Dexter–showing unusual flashes of irrationality, romanticism, and guilt that were completely foreign to him in his old life.

Eventually, with West fearing that the law will catch up to him, the pair board a ship bound for Alaska, helmed by an eccentric Russian who, in addition to employing them in his kitchen, holds forth on his vaguely Fortean philosophies that suggest he knows more than he says. Eventually, after a series of adventures including a thwarted mutiny, West and Andre arrive at Bellefleur island in British Columbia. There, Andre finds employment at the local lighthouse and the narration shifts to the perspective of Margaret Bellgarde, a widow whose husband Richard encountered West during the war–though she does not know that the new island doctor Francis Dexter is the same man her late husband wrote to her about.

On Bellefleur Island (as everywhere he goes) West acquires a reputation for his miraculous healing powers, and this despite the fact that he has sworn off the revivifying techniques he used during his time in Arkham. He gradually becomes popular among the denizens of the island, and begins to form close relationships with the inhabitants of the region. It is these relationships that form the central drama that drives the latter half of the book, but I won’t spoil them here. Let it suffice to say that the book ends on a cliffhanger that promises far more will be revealed in the subsequent volume.

The alert reader will have noticed that I didn’t mention much of anything about Lovecraftian horrors, or the Necronomicon, or even of reanimation, in the above synopsis. And indeed, the horror element is greatly reduced here compared with The Friendship of Mortals. The Journey contains elements of many genres–from mystery to seafaring adventure to romance, and even a dash of courtroom drama towards the end; but Lovecraftian elements are at a premium.

In a way, I can see how this might bother some readers. When one reads a book about a character created by Lovecraft, one might reasonably expect a good deal of the old Lovecraftian staples. And when they fail to appear, one might feel cheated.

However, it didn’t bother me much. Here’s why: I felt the whole concept of “Herbert West: He Revivifies The Dead” had been explored about as thoroughly as possible in Friendship of Mortals. To have him simply doing it again in a different place would have been dull. I liked that Driscoll chose instead to transform the character into a man haunted by what he did.

Friendship of Mortals was impressive to me because it reminded me so strongly of Lovecraft. The Journey is a very different beast; and indeed, there is little in it that evoked Lovecraft at all. At times, I almost forgot the origin of the character altogether, and would actually be surprised when I saw a Lovecraft word like “Arkham” or “Miskatonic” on the page. There were a few dashes of horror here and there; and perhaps their very scarcity made them more effective. It made me think of M.R. James’s way of putting flashes of unspeakable horror into what at first appeared to be a mere comedy of manners.

But the author The Journey most strongly reminded me of was Steinbeck. Specifically, East of Eden. That was also a sprawling, sometimes downright meandering tale, which would wander so far afield of the core story that I would forget what the plot was, and sometimes find myself pausing to remember just how I’d come to be reading about these characters, who seemed to have nothing to do with ones I’d started reading about at the beginning.

And yet Driscoll, like Steinbeck was, is such a keen observer and has such a gift for storytelling that I never lost interest. I may not have known how the narrative got where it was, but I always wanted to know where it was going. The Journey is many things, but it was never tiresome or dull. It’s more firmly planted in the “literary novel” camp, as opposed to flirting with the “genre” one like Friendship did, but it’s still an awfully good piece of storytelling, which is the ultimate test of any novel.

There were a few weak points: the courtroom drama I referenced earlier seemed forced to me, and the suddenness with which Andrew Boudreau abandons West to work at the lighthouse seemed unbelievable to me, after all the time he’d served him. There were one or two other plot points that rang false to me as well, but I won’t spoil them here. None of them were so significant as to ruin the overall effect of the book; especially the latter half–I especially enjoyed the characters of Margaret and Captain Bellgarde.

Lastly, there was something that may be of interest only to me, but which I mention because it struck me so: at one point, Margaret develops a migraine headache, which is preceded by a visual disturbance that makes it impossible for her to read. The description of this was amazing to me, because I have had this, but never encountered anyone else who did. The first time it happened to me, I thought I must be having a stroke. It turns out to be a harmless thing called an “aura”, but it’s extremely strange when you don’t know what it is. Naturally, I felt a lot of sympathy for poor Margaret!

The Journey might not be what you expect. It’s so many different things, it’s hard to see how anyone could expect it, frankly. But while it may have its share of rough spots, it also has an incredible way of compelling the reader to keep going, to see what strange development is coming next. It’s an odd and sometimes puzzling book. I think that it might suffer a bit because the people most likely to enjoy it–literary fiction fans–are unlikely to read it because of the association with Lovecraftian horror. But don’t fall into that trap–it’s well worth a read.

I hate writing summaries of my books. I’m not sure why it’s so painful, given that, you know, I already wrote the book. The description should just be a condensed version of what I already have. No big deal, right?

Except it’s absolutely excruciating. I’ve often thought I should try to trick beta readers (the ones who like the book, anyway) into writing it for me. Then I can just tweak their descriptions of it, and voila! I’ll have a ready-made blurb.

It’s actually not only for my books, but anything, that I hate writing a summary. For me, the worst part of writing a review is recapping the story. I guess it’s because when you write it, you are just regurgitating stuff you already know. It doesn’t feel productive. It’s like writing a book report in school.

Writing most things is a loose art–you start putting down words and gradually see where they take you. But writing a summary is more like carving something out of marble. You know where you need to go and it’s just a matter of chipping away until you get there. Which feels tedious when you are used to writing in a more natural way.

The most fun ones to write are casual, even humorous ones, where you’re not taking things too seriously. These are most easily done when you don’t like the subject, and want to poke fun at it. That makes this difficult, since authors generally write these things specifically to get people to buy our books–we don’t want to be making fun of them.

But it occurred to me that maybe that is a good clue. For your first draft at writing the summary blurb, try deliberately writing in a super-casual, almost comedic style.

As an experiment, I tried rewriting the description of The Directorate this way. (What I’ve got now kind of makes me wince, even though it was the best I could do at the time) If it were somebody else’s book, and I were describing it to a friend, here’s what I’d say:

“So there’s this woman who’s in the space army, and she’s a big fan of this guy who won this huge war in the past and established the current government where Earth, the Moon and Mars are united. But there are these pro-Earth  traitors who are trying to topple the government, and she gets sent to work on a remote station where the government is running secret projects.”

That’s obviously way too informal. But without much effort, I turned it into:

“Lt. Theresa Gannon is a loyal soldier, even as she gradually discovers that there are traitors in the ranks. But when she is sent to a remote station on the edge of Directorate-controlled space, she begins to learn the full scope of what the traitors are planning, and uncover troubling secrets about the Directorate itself.”

I think the latter is better than what I originally had. So I think one good way of writing a blurb is to write it as casually as if you were telling your best friend about the book, and refine from there.

waiting-for-earl-to-dieI’ve been following Lydia’s blog for some time now, but I just recently read this entertaining collection of her short stories. Most of the stories have some science-fiction or fantasy element to them, and usually involve some unexpected twist or surprise ending. I won’t write about any one of the stories in too much detail, because I don’t want to spoil them.

My favorite story is the one entitled “Proof”. I don’t think it’s giving away anything to say that I had no idea where it was going or even really what type of story it was until I read the very last line, and then it all clicked into place, and I laughed at how well I had been set up.

Most of the tales in the collection are like that. Some of them seem like fragments of a larger story, still waiting to be fleshed out, because each has a thought-provoking premise.

The collection is small, and takes only about an hour to read. Some readers might be disappointed at the short length, but given that it’s available for free on Kobo, there’s really no excuse for not getting it if you’re a fan of short stories with a touch of irony to them. It’s a quick and fun read, and it left me eager for more of Lydia’s fiction.

51Gowi2XyLLTiny Shoes Dancing is a beautifully-written collection of short stories, most of which are about people struggling to connect emotionally with one another, or even with themselves. Most of the short story collections I’ve read are loosely tied together by a character or a place or simply a genre style. This one is tied together by a feeling: a persistent melancholy that permeates all. Many of the stories involve failed or failing marriages, and others involve still darker themes of emotional separation–including one particularly haunting tale of reincarnation.

Kalman’s writing is gorgeous, and the pacing of the tales is terrific. And although the mood is generally dark, there are flashes of humor here and there, as well as a few stories that include suspenseful moments worthy of a thriller.

For the most part though, it is a collection about the sadness that can be found in the relationships of everyday life. Repeatedly as I was reading it, I thought of a line from the game Knights of the Old Republic II: “It is all that is left unsaid upon which tragedies are built.” Kalman is interested in exploring just what those unsaid things are, and examining the tragedies built upon them.

As is probably true of all literary fiction, these stories might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you prefer plots to characterization, some of the tales might not suit you, and if you like happy endings, be warned that happiness is at a premium in these tales. I remember my friend Pat Prescott telling me about a collection of Harlan Ellison stories that cautioned against reading all the stories at once, because the effect would be too depressing. Something similar might be warranted here.

But let me also tell you this: I myself typically don’t like literary fiction, and I prefer happy endings, or at least bittersweet ones. But I devoured this book in just a few reading sessions, mesmerized by Kalman’s prose and her empathetic characterizations. With many of the stories, I just had to keep reading, had to know what happened next, even though it was so far from my usual tastes. On the strength of that alone, I recommend giving this book a try. It might not be for everyone, but even so, it’s well worth reading.

One year ago today, I began work on a sci-fi novel. The day before, I had gone to interview for a job I really wanted. I resolved that I’d either get the job or write a novel, and I figured I’d have about a week to start on the novel before I got a call back.

At the start, I called the file for my novel “SFN” for “Science-Fiction Novel”, because I had no clue what the title ought to be.  I’d been wanting to write a science fiction adventure with a space elevator in it since I was 12 years old, and had tried several times before, but never got anywhere with it. And at first, it didn’t seem like this time would work out any better. I remember sitting at my computer, wondering how I was ever going to do this, when inspiration struck.

As a junior in college, I’d had an idea for a completely unrelated story about a soldier named Theresa Gannon. It was set in the present day, and followed Gannon as she tried to cope with some sort of traumatic battle in her past. But again, I never got much beyond an outline of the story and a sketch of the main character. I hadn’t thought about it in years.

And as I sat there, staring at the blank page, I decided to put Gannon in the space elevator story. (Previous drafts had been written from various perspectives, including that of the character who would eventually become Chairman Wilson, as well as various denizens of the space station connected to the elevator.)

Making Gannon the protagonist turned out to be the spark I needed: after that, the story came together relatively quickly. I finished the first draft by early October, and from there started revising based on beta readers’ and editors’ comments. There were a few moments of frustration, but for the most part, it was exhilarating. During those few times when I felt the creeping shadow of discouragement, I reminded myself that Chris Avellone had written Planescape: Torment when he was my age. If he could manage that, surely I could do this.

The end result was The Directorate.  That it took pulling together multiple threads of story ideas from my past makes me all the prouder of it. And the fact that I’ve met so many wonderful authors along the way has just made it even sweeter. Thanks to all of you wonderful folks who read the book, follow my work, and provide such terrific feedback and support. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you guys are the best!

 

Oh… and that job I mentioned interviewing for? I didn’t get it. But I’m not sorry–in fact, I’m glad, because if I had, I would not have finished the book. And you know what? My 12-year-old self would not be remotely impressed if he knew that I got some slightly higher-paying office job. But if I could go back and tell him that yes, we finally did write that story about the space elevator, he’d be absolutely thrilled.

***

To hear me read an excerpt from The Directorate, click here.

To read reviews of The Directorate on GoodReads, click here.

To read Pat Prescott’s review, click here.

Finally, to get it on Amazon, click here.

The Directorate

printed musical note page
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I was inspired to write this after reading Audrey Driscoll’s post on the same subject. Audrey lists the music that influenced her writing, some of which she worked into her books, and some of which, as she puts it, “lurk[s] unseen, despite its huge influence”. It’s a good post, and I encourage you to read it.

I don’t usually listen to music with lyrics while I am in the act of writing. That would just distract me. Sometimes I’ll put on a little atmospheric instrumental music that suits the mood, but that’s about it.

But as any author knows, writing a book is more than just the time spent hitting the keyboard. You spend most of the time “writing” a book thinking about it, mulling over plot intricacies and character motivations in your head. And then is when what you’re listening to really plays a role.

I didn’t listen to much music for The Start of the Majestic World, but I did listen to quite a bit of the radio show Coast to Coast AM while I was planning it. That definitely influenced the story. A few times while writing, I did cue up the soundtrack to Deus Ex, because that game was just the right vibe of weirdness I was trying to get in Majestic World.

The Directorate also has relatively few musical influences. I listened to “The Captain” by Leonard Cohen almost daily while I was writing it, as well as assorted military songs and marches, including “Heart of Oak” and “The British Grenadiers”, which probably influenced the militaristic tone of the novel.

For my current work-in-progress, I’ve been listening to Western music and soundtracks from Western films. Also, the folk song “The Bonnie Earl of Morey”, which I currently have referenced in the book itself, though I may yet cut that.

For the most part, in all my work, music is a minor influence. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’m not very knowledgeable about music, and so don’t think about it that much. I couldn’t write about it the way Audrey does, for example.

But there is one other story I wrote that was much, much more influenced by music than any of the rest. It’s the super-dark tale I alluded to in this post. 

First of all, during the process of writing that one, I was listening over and over again to Kay Starr’s performance of “The Headless Horseman” song. It’s a children’s song, so it’s more cutesy than scary, but for some reason it was running through my head constantly when I wrote this book. I don’t know how to explain, but the light-hearted handling of a rather frightening subject somehow fit very well with my mood.

Then, while I was writing the story, a friend played Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” for me. I thought the unnerving blend of romance and death was exactly the sort of eerie dissonance I was going for in my book, so I included a reference to the song.

Coincidentally, on the same album that includes “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, there is also a song called “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)” that references The King in Yellow, which was a major influence on my book as well.

But the weirdest part of what was already a surreal writing experience didn’t become apparent until nearly a year after I had already finished writing the story, when I heard the song “The End” by The Doors.

I had heard the beginning before, in the film Apocalypse Now. But when I heard the full, uncensored version, I was immediately stunned by how well the disturbing imagery Morrison used in his lyrics matched the tone of my book. Images and motifs in each fit together eerily well, as did the song’s general feeling of a slow descent into madness. I felt like Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell could have had a field day with it.

What about you? When you write something do you listen to music, or otherwise let it influence your writing process? Any examples of a song that really fit your work?

mlI blogged about Mark Paxson’s story The Marfa Lights a while back. This week I finally got around to reading the rest of the stories in the collection, and I enjoyed them tremendously. I think my favorites were the post-apocalyptic poem (bonus points to Mark for his use of the excellent word “gloaming”) and the sci-fi tale laced with David Bowie references. All the stories are quite good.

Some of the stories have a bit of a Twilight Zone-like feel to them, which I liked quite a lot. Like Phillip McCollum, Mark has a knack for setting the reader up for a surprising ending in a subtle and economical way.

Branded-Book-Cover-e1531246444684Speaking of Phillip, I blogged about him recently as well, and since then he’s just kept on putting out more terrific stories. Branded and Halfway are two of his most recent works that I’ve enjoyed lately.

Both Phillip and Mark are very adventurous in their writing. While there are certain themes that recur, they are always experimenting–trying on different voices, styles and genres, and it never fails to make for an engaging read.

Ever since I first started dabbling in the writing business, I’ve read numerous people claiming that short stories aren’t read much outside of schools and small literary circles. If you want wide acclaim as an author, goes the conventional wisdom, you’ve got to write novels.

Halfway-Book-CoverThis has always baffled me. Modern audiences are famous for their short attention spans. If anything, you’d think they would be more interested in a short tale that can be finished in a few minutes or an hour than a long, drawn-out novel. (Or, as is even more popular, series of novels.)

Think about it: when it comes to other entertainment, most people watch sit-coms or hour-long episodic dramas. A sizable but somewhat smaller audience goes to two-hour movies. And only hardcore artsy types go to sit through really long movies or, for the truly committed, operas. Why is this situation reversed when it comes to literature?

Maybe in the past you could have said it was because novels were all that was widely available, but the internet changed that dynamic in two ways. The first is simple economics–you can get a good short story collection like The Marfa Lights for ninety-nine cents on Kindle. Phillip publishes his work on his blog. You can get good writing while spending less of your time and money than a novel requires.

The second thing is that the internet makes it easy to discover authors that big publishing outfits haven’t taken yet because they are too risk-averse. I would never have read the work of Mark, Phillip, and other terrific indie authors if not for the internet.

So why aren’t the short, independently-published stories flourishing? Talented writers are all around us and easier to find than ever. The big publishers’ stranglehold has been broken, just as the major traditional news outlets have lost out to bloggers and independent, specialized news services. What is holding so many readers back?

In a way, novels from big-name authors and publishers are like major Hollywood movie franchises, in that they are a relatively safe investment. Audiences go to them because they know pretty much what to expect. Similarly, when it comes to novels, people feel like they can be confident about what they’re getting–especially once they know a certain genre or author. And moreover, once you get into a novel, you (usually) don’t have to worry about changing gears and getting reintroduced to a new situation and set of characters with every new chapter.¹

Short story collections, by definition, can’t be like this. There has to be variation in them, or reading the collection will be a slog. For that matter, writing such a collection would be a slog. Almost every writer likes to try out different things now and then.²

So consumers are still playing it close to the vest with their entertainment choices. Most of them would rather invest in novels from major authors and publishers, from which they think they know what to expect. (Ironically, consumers of news couldn’t wait to jump at any excuse to ignore the traditional news outlets. They’re more careful with how they invest their entertainment budgets than who they trust to tell them the news.)

Don’t be like typical consumers. Give independent authors and short stories a shot. Reading is like anything else in life–if you want better than average return, you can’t just do what everyone else is doing and hope someone will give you exactly what you want. You have to be willing to be different if you want the best.

Footnotes

1. Lest anybody misinterpret what I’m saying here, I’m not claiming that novels are somehow intrinsically inferior to short stories. Some stories really do need to be 40,000 words or more in order to be told well. My point is just that I can’t see why novels should attract more readers than short stories. A satisfying story is a satisfying story, regardless of its length.

2. The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers, which contains one of my all-time favorite short stories, “The Repairer of Reputations”, is a good example. Chambers loosely tied the first four stories together using the sinister title character and some other elements, but the later stories gradually turn away from the weird and more to the romantic. But all the stories contain elements of weird horror and fin de siecle romance, so the reader is always a little uncertain of what’s going to happen next. That’s what makes it good.

 

 

Casca1Before I begin, let me give a special shout-out to my blogger friend and loyal reader, Pat Prescott: yes, Pat; it’s finally happened! I don’t know how many years it’s been since you first told me about this series, but I finally have gotten around to reading it. Many thanks to Pat for the suggestion, and for all his support over the years.

Also, for those of you who don’t want to wade all the way through my long-winded review, I made a short video review for your convenience. (And also just for my own amusement.)

Casca begins with military doctors in war-torn Vietnam finding an American soldier named Casey suffering what should be a mortal wound that miraculously begins to heal. As the doctor examines him, he feels himself drawn into a vivid recollection of the man’s past: a flashback to his time as a Roman soldier, Casca Rufio Longinus, a legionnaire assigned to the province of Judea.

During his time in Judea, Casca torments a prisoner about to be crucified–Jesus of Nazareth, who curses him to an eternity as a soldier of fortune, until the Last Judgment. (Note that in the above video, I mistakenly said Casca stabs him on the way to the crucifixion. I meant to say he guards him on the way, and then stabs him.)

Casca dismisses the curse as the raving of a mad prisoner, but as he fights and receives wounds and does not die, he begins to realize that it truly is his doom to live forever, always moving from one battle to the next.

He is sent into slavery for a time, where he is mentored for by a kindly Chinese man who teaches him martial arts as well as philosophy. Eventually, he makes his way into the gladiatorial arena and battles his way to freedom. Ultimately he rejoins the Legion, centuries after he originally knew it, when Rome has seen many emperors rise and fall, and the once-mighty empire verges on collapse.

The book flashes forward again to the hospital in Vietnam–Casey having gone, and the doctors shaken by the experience. In the final chapter, the action moves to Egypt, where young Israeli soldiers fight alongside a grizzled mercenary–Casey again, who recalls fighting in the same desert many centuries before.

The writing is straightforward with no frills, so the book is a quick read. The description is limited, with most heavily-described parts being those relating to battles and Roman tactics.

There is a lot of violence, naturally, and quite a bit of sex as well. Actually one of the things that bothered me about the book was the sexism–women are described exclusively in sexual terms, and rape is commonplace. The worst part is, this probably is an accurate depiction of attitudes during the time period. There was also one section during Casca’s time as a gladiator about his rivalry with a cruel Numidian (African) gladiator that was dripping with racism (and sexism, in terms of how the man is depicted preying upon women) that rivaled Lovecraft in terms of appalling the modern reader. I could have done without that.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by this from a book written in the 1970s by a man who grew up in pre-Civil Rights America. All in all, Sadler had a strange life–maybe one that would have been worthy of a novel in its own right. His military career was cut short when, to quote Wikipedia, “he was severely wounded in the knee by a feces-covered punji stick“. Before writing Casca, he wrote and performed the patriotic song “The Ballad of the Green Berets”. Later on, he shot and killed a romantic rival, for which he served 28 days in jail. Years later, he himself would be shot–whether accidentally by his own hand or by a would-be killer is unclear.

Honestly, people who don’t like to learn the biographical details of authors are missing out on a lot.

Anyway, back to Casca: for me, the most memorable character in the book was the Chinese slave whom Casca meets when sailing back to Rome. He’s also a bit of a cliché–an Asian philosopher-warrior-monk who dispenses wisdom as well as being a master of martial arts–but it kinda works anyway. Unlike most of the characters, he does a bit of introspection, and seems to grasp the horror of Casca’s curse even before Casca does.

What I liked most about the book was the concept: the idea of a man condemned to live forever is an ancient one. Or, as Harlan Ellison wrote for an episode of The Outer Limits:

“Through all the legends of ancient peoples — Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Semitic — runs the saga of the Eternal Man, the one who never dies, called by various names in various times, but historically known as Gilgamesh, the man who has never tasted death … the hero who strides through the centuries …”

This idea of an immortal condemned to live through endless cycles of fruitless quests is a great one. It’s the premise for the legendary video game Planescape: Torment, as well as Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. (I’ve also heard some claim that King’s protagonist Roland was influenced by the soldier-of-fortune character “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner“, from the song by Warren Zevon, which features the line “the eternal Thompson gunner”.) It’s a great premise for exploring themes like the futility of war, “man’s inhumanity to man”, etc.

Because the concept is so fruitful, the Casca series currently spans 47 books and counting, following Casca’s adventures across pretty much every war in recorded history. It surprises me the series was never made into a movie. I could see it very easily being adapted into one of those over-the-top, hacking and slashing and/or guns-blazing action films like they made in the 1980s. Or maybe that’s the problem: the teenage boys who would probably have been the perfect audience for these books in past eras are now spending their leisure time watching action movies and playing online first-person shooting games, and don’t even know about them.