From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Mark Teppo: Of Men and Magick . . .

“Mark Teppo suffers from a mild case of bibliomania, which serves him well in his on-going pursuit of a writing career. He also owns a pink bunny suit. Fascinated with the mystical and the extra-ordinary, he channels this enthusiasm into fictional explorations of magic realism, urban fantasy, and surreal experimentation. Maybe, one day, he’ll write a space opera. With rabbits.”

A significant plot element in Lightbreaker is the intersection between a magician, Markham, and the Seattle police department, and a police detective accompanies him for most of the novel’s length. When I think of magicians and the police, my mind can’t help but leap to the Jim Butcher’s hugely successful Dresden Files. Was Lightbreaker inspired by Butcher’s work, or a reaction against it? Do you see there being significant points of similarity? What are the points of departure?

Yes and no. Storm Front, the first of the Harry Dresden books, came out in 2000, and by that time, the initial draft of Lightbreaker was at least five years old. The first iteration, which we’ll call Souls to distinguish it from Lightbreaker, as there are some significant differences, was written at near light speed at the beginning of 1995 in just under sixty days. The Chorus was there, the urban setting was there, the detective was there, and the big ‘xplody ending was there, and the rest was this weird melange of more traditional urban fantasy (werewolves and vampires) than the distinct un-traditional “fantasy” that it is now. It got me an agent and we shopped it pretty hard, but as the urban fantasy genre (as we know it today) didn’t exist then, we couldn’t find anyone willing to take on a weird cross-genre book from an unknown. We got comments like “Thanks, but we’re not doing thrillers,” followed by “Thanks, but we’re not in horror right now.” Each rejection cited a different genre that the publisher didn’t think that it fit.

These days? When we sold the book, Publisher’s Marketplace ran the blurb of “Jim Butcher channeling Aleister Crowley” as a description, and I don’t think anyone has any trouble knowing where to shelve that book. So, in that sense, yes, Butcher’s work has certainly made it easier to find an audience for this sort of thing, but he wasn’t an overt influence as far as structure goes. As a reaction to the Dresden Files, I suppose you could see it that way, but the last few Dresden books have seen Harry moving in a direction that I like much better, and so I’m more happy to see that I might have company. But, overall, yes, Lightbreaker is a reaction to the urban fantasy tropes as the majority of the marketplace uses them, specifically werewolves, vampires, and other creatures of myth and folklore. I jettisoned all of them for historical occult practices, secret religious doctrines, alchemical theories, and other religious magic practices.

Why? Because I couldn’t sort out a worldview where vampires didn’t turn us all into cattle, or we got our shit together to wipe them out. Couldn’t do it. Stopped trying after a while. Though, to be fair, Markham is, essentially, a psychic vampire, and the soul-dead are zombies, so I haven’t quite abandoned the tropes. The antecedents of my “vampires” would be Colin Wilson (The Philosopher’s Stone and The Space Vampires) instead of Bram Stoker. For a while, the nursery rhyme that ran in my head was “men and magick/sigils and shotguns” and I meant to be monster-free (or, at least, the only monster being man), but then my first reader pointed out that the ibis-hounds kind of violated that rule.

It’s more of a guideline than a rule, anyway.

There was a major subplot in Souls that involved werewolf killings, and as you can’t really have a murder mystery set in an urban setting and NOT involve the police, Nicols used Markham more aggressively to solve that crime. The relationship was a little more inverted with Markham providing support for Nicols’ investigation. When all of that was dropped, Nicols remained and found a new place within the structure, one that I think suits him fairly well. I do still miss Dr. Alexandra Farris–the sexy, redheaded coroner–who got cut. There were a couple of great scenes between Markham and her that . . . ah well, these things happen.

It’s interesting to me that you chose to use an urban setting before it was popular to do so. What lead you to that setting? Were there any key authors that influenced that decision? Or were the influences from outside of your literary experiences?

Well, the mundane answer is that it’s what I knew, really. I was still caught up in the “write what you know” mentality, and 20th century urban life was my default worldview.

How did the choice of Seattle as a backdrop influence the style of the book? And, on a related note, (bear with me on this one) I couldn’t help but notice that at one point you describe one of the antagonists, Bernard by saying “His dark hair was cut close to his head in an unassuming style favored by the recent fashion dictates of glam rock stars and the eternal vigilance of Cistercian monks and penitent ascetics.” The mention of glam rock seems to stand in stark contrast with Markham’s style. Is Markham a grunge hero?

I came to Seattle at the end of 1995, and I remember a few trips prior to that were for research, and the grunge era was definitely in full swing, but I was oblivious to it, really. In fact, the only reason I’ve heard all of Pearl Jam’s 10 is because it ended up on Rock Band recently and we’ve played through most of it; Nirvana was something you couldn’t ignore, but I tried very hard. Soundgarden, though, they were the shit. I remember working in the record store in Eugene, Oregon, and we had a midnight sale for Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral (of which I was definite fan) and Superunknown. I loved The Downward Spiral, but we ended up playing Superunknown a lot over the next few days. I had to backtrack to Badmotorfinger, and was happy that I did, but that was about the extend of my involvement with grunge.

I suppose, given Markham’s background and the relative timeline of the book, he’d have been a grungie. But, given his adopted profession, I think it’s more of an observation in keeping with his awareness of current trends in art and culture and how they adopt and re-animate the past. He’s an antiques dealer, among other things, and part of being an occultist in this world is being aware of the re-contextualization of previous cycles–the styles and sigils and implements. As for his own style, he has none really. And this was a bit of a problem when I was trying to come up with a visual guide for the artist (Christian McGrath who, by the way, did an outstanding with what we gave him as a guide) and all that I had for Markham was: “He knows what a decent coat is worth, and doesn’t mind spending the money for one, but he prefers anonymity. He likes to vanish simply by not standing out.” Yeah, that’s the sort of visual clue that really endears the writer to the artist.

I definitely sympathize with your inability to come up with a satisfying plotline involving werewolves and vampires, but it still seems like a fairly long step from supernatural beasts to alchemy and religion-based magic. What led to that change in direction?

I had studied mythology and folklore in college (which was shortly before I started Souls), and had written my thesis on the concept of the sacred and the profane as undercurrents of popular literature (Clive Cussler’s Treasure to be exact; my adviser was somewhat appalled that I ran with the off-hand idea she suggested). That led me to Campbell, Eliade, Durkheim, Doninger, Eco, and the like. A fascination with Campbell’s Monomyth concept led me to start digging around in some of the source material; from there, it’s just been something that nags at me, really. This idea that there are enough similarities across disparate cultures that to give one any more credence than the other is to be short-sighted in the consideration of the Whole.

This is one of the reasons I like Aleister Crowley’s stuff so much. He might have been a complete nut, but he was really good at synthesizing material and making it all look like it worked together. Maybe he was right, maybe not, but it’s a Divine Mystery that I like trying to solve. So, to answer your question: it was a natural direction to go when I came around to the book again.

Actually, when we couldn’t sell Souls and I didn’t have anything else but a sequel (Hunter), I was dropped by the agency when my agent of record left. I went on to other things for awhile (five or six years, I think), and as I was coming back to writing again, I was approached by a new agent who knew of the book from back in the day and he wanted to give it another shot. I asked to be allowed to update it (the “New Millennium Update”), and that’s when all the vampire/werewolf stuff was ripped out. That was a conscious decision to separate myself from the current trend (this would have been about three years ago) because I didn’t see myself adding anything new to it (and not wanting to, really). The new direction was clear to me then: as an outlet for my growing fascination with the occult and secret religious histories.

And, “updating” was a full page one rewrite. One of the last things to go was the first line, and I really fought to make that work for a long time. I don’t know why; maybe as some sort of link to the past or something, but in the end, it went too. I’d have to go look, but I don’t think I saved anything. If I did, it was retyped into its new location and changed enough that it probably won’t be recognizable.

The idea of synthesis, of trying to resolve dichotomies, seems to be a major thread throughout the novel. There seems to be a tension between two dichotomies in particular: divine/human and faith/knowledge. Do you think such syntheses are actually possible?

Attempting to achieve these syntheses is the ultimate goal of any sort of religious world-view. Creative thought, in general, is an attempt to think outside the parameters of the known. From there it just an extrapolation to the sort of concepts like the Tree of the Sephiroth and the possibility of alchemical change through the application of the instructions encoded in the Emerald Tablet, or whatever manner of apprehension of the Divine is in fashion in your pocket of the world. We’re in a period of extreme stress right now, and it’s not surprising that “cultish” thinking is on the rise. There’s an interesting story on All Things Considered a while back that talks about how we react to the loss of control, and the article is careful to stay away from talking about religion, but that’s all religion is: an attempt to control the world around you by quantifying it and giving it a ruleset by which it operates.

“God” is a cop-out, really, because you can just say He is Divine and Omnipotent, and that kills any possibility for discussion. Because we’re not infinite, we can’t possibly conceive of His design or plan, and we should just have “faith” that it is a good plan. And while “faith” is a good thing to have, it isn’t enough because it makes you passive. It makes you docile. It makes you fall into thinking that because you don’t understand the universe, you shouldn’t try, and that’s denying the very majesty of the creative possibilities of our brains.

We invented God. Once, long ago, a bunch of guys came up with some ideas and wrote them down. Since then, we’ve become afraid to challenge their ideas. I think it is sad that we’ve given up.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you’re coming from a fairly existentialist point of view. One of the key moments, it felt to me, as I was reading was the moment when Markham declared “My Will be done.” Would you say that that’s a reasonable message for readers to take away from Lightbreaker?

It’s a very inward looking moment that you’re referencing, and I’m glad you are pointing it out. It’s a synthesis (there we are again) of Crowley’s aphorism and the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a very existential exhortation, fueled by Crowley’s Thelemic Law: “Do what thou wilt shall be the Whole of the Law.” A lot of people tend to leave off the second part which is: “Love under Will.” The Lord’s Prayer says, “Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven,” and by changing it to “My Will be done,” Markham is delivering both a maxim of self-reliance and ego consciousness, but he’s also referencing the alchemical maxim of “As Above, So Below.” He’s just creating fire, but he is creating a change in the world around him, and that is a very powerful thing on a fundamental level.

To extrapolate to the larger canvas, yes, it is the core tenet that drives Markham, and the book is nothing if not an expression of Markham’s Will and Intent. Another dichotomy that he’s wrestling with is the idea of Free Will and Determinism, and if Lightbreaker is, ultimately, an expression of Free Will, then Heartland is the Deterministic reaction. Our boys discover they aren’t as radical free agents as they thought, and the resolution will be to see how they deal with being pawns in a larger game.

Fire seemed like a frequently encountered elemental force in Lightbreaker. I don’t know much about alchemy myself, but is that significant in some way? Or is it just shinier than using wind to blow people over?

It is significant in that it is the easiest way to effect change upon something. Most of these kids are all about the path of least resistance when you get right down to it. While fire does figure heavily in the alchemical process, it is equally met by water. And, yes, there is a bit of the shiny to it as well. Action doesn’t translate as effectively if it is all about drenching someone under six feet of water. Not to mention that it is a bit harder to summon water than it is fire, or rather, water doesn’t propagate itself as easily as fire does. That’s part of it too. Fire, once started, tends to spread. Water, once summoned, tends to turn to vapor.

Sticking with he theme of dichotomy’s and existentialism, two more strong forces of opposition in the novel seems to be faith versus knowledge and faith versus ignorance. At one point you write “If the only vice of the soul was ignorance, then the only virtue was faith. Like good and evil, black and white, light and dark: this was the dichotomy of our existence.” How are you differentiating between faith, knowledge, and ignorance? Do you see either faith or knowledge (or even ignorance, I suppose) as being a victor in Lightbreaker?

Ignorance is not the victor; that is certain. Ignorance is what gets Markham into trouble and what hounds him during the ten years he spends wandering. In Lightbreaker, it does come down to a faith and/or knowledge, and not to dodge the question, but which the reader chooses will inform how they interpret the last chapter. Markham is certainly seeking knowledge, and the series is built around him trying to get back that place where he finds himself at the end of Lightbreaker. Whether he gets there or not remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see readers’ reactions, as I’m not sure which I would choose myself.

In Part X of the Corpus Hermeticum, the core document ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, Hermes tells his son, Tat, that “the only vice of the soul is ignorance,” and, in contrast, the only virtue is knowledge. Knowledge is acquired through apprehension of God, through an ascension away from the bodily passions that disallow the mind from considering and understanding the higher realms. The quote I use at the beginning of The Fifth Work is from the end of Part X, and summarizes, albeit in a somewhat esoteric manner, this end goal. “For this cause can man dare say that man on earth is god subject to death, while god in heaven is man from death immune.”

This is one of the core tenants that always gets esoteric religious arguments in trouble, but I really liked how he doesn’t differentiate between god and man and how he suggests that we are just as divine as God, but we have been pulled down by our physical shells. And that the mind is a divine invention, and as such, is on par with any other manner of divinity. This goes back to the idea of self-reliance, that it is our responsibility to figure out our own path to ascension and that we don’t depend on something (or someone) carrying us when things get hard.

In The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade talks about the concept of the deus otiosus–the absent god, who having built the world, has scampered off to some other realm and left us to our own devices. It’s somewhat of a have-cake-and-eat-it scenario in that it allows you to posit the existence of a Divine Hand that started this world, but lets you off the hook for any argument as to why we have been abandoned in the wilderness since. God made the world, and has gone into hiding. In some ways, it’s the ultimate test for qualification. If we can find him, we can join him.

So, I guess, to answer the question: knowledge is Knowing, faith is believing you have the capacity to Know, and ignorance is not caring to Know. I would say that I have faith in knowledge, but not necessarily in God, but that also that statement isn’t contradictory.

At one point in the novel, Markham tells Nicols “‘Magick’ is just a word. Like ‘belief,’ or ‘science.’ It only has the meaning you give it. If I can demonstrate and re-create a phenomenon through reasoned and quantifiable steps, you would say that I have ‘scientifically’ verified the existence of this phenomenon. If you required faith to understand the phenomenon, it would be an act of magick. The terms are subjective to the viewer.” This seems to tap directly into his struggle with the faith/knowledge dichotomy. Does Markham have a definite opinion on his powers? And do you? Did you go about rigorously designing the magic system for the novel, or did it evolve more organically?

I’ve attempted to map most of the “spells,” if you will, to existing practices, but as the foundation of the system is the rigorous belief that Will powers intent and expression, the resulting system becomes fairly organic. It is fantastic, let’s be honest about that, and I don’t necessarily believe that these sorts of abilities and actions are possible, but the underlying philosophy is one that I can get behind. I’ve been referencing this book as “occult,” and the connotations of that word lend credence to the fantastic elements within the story, but more properly–from a standpoint of the things the writer wants his audience to mull over after all the sound and fury has passed–this is a “gnostic” novel. And so, yes, it’s all about faith and knowledge, isn’t it?

One thing that interests me in these discussions of faith versus knowledge, is that this is a world where there is definitely, undeniably, is a soul. Markham has a(n incredibly bad-ass) whip made out of souls. He chases a man’s soul as it hijacks bodies. So there seems to definitely be more proof of the hand of the divine in creation than there is in our world. Does that tip the balance between faith and knowledge?

The coy answer is “no,” because the fallacy in your initial statement is that you are precluding the idea that there is “definitely, undeniably” a soul in our non-fictitious lives. Many people would argue otherwise with you, and while their idea of “soul” might not be the same as the manner in which they are exposed or exploited in Lightbreaker, that doesn’t mean that their reality is less “reality” based. It is one of those tricky questions that lies at the concept of faith, and it is one of those things that knowledge is hard pressed to provide empirical, objective evidence. But, faith is subjective, just as reality and perception–and even the concept of knowledge–is subjective. The Codex of Souls isn’t quite that sort of introspective, turning your eye toward your inner naval, contemplative path toward gnosis, but I hope that it allows for some of that amid all the explosive trappings of genre and the thriller format. It’s the Left Behind series for Forteans!

Changing tack a little, I’d like to talk about the structure of the novel. It starts out very much in media res, and slowly you hand out pieces of Markham’s past. You’ve done some exciting things with structure in the past (I’ll get to that in a minute), but I was wondering what the thinking was in Lightbreaker?

It’s part of the first novel curse, in that I don’t have much more than a chapter to suck the readers in. It’s the old supermarket trick: you’re standing in line, you see the paperback racks, you pick one up, and read the first few pages. If you can put it down, then the writer has lost. If you suddenly discover that everyone is queuing up behind you, you get flustered and toss the book in your cart and check out. It’s all about manipulating the reader into taking me home.

Though, more seriously, first-person narrative has always struck me as starting in the middle of things. When you tell a joke, if you wind up too much with asides and background, the listener has forgotten where you’re going and they start thinking about their sock drawer or what’s in the freezer at home. Kurt Vonnegut said once that you should always enter the story as late as possible, and another writer said (oh, dear, I can’t remember who mentioned this) that you should always give information to the reader on the page after they realize they want it. “Wait? Why is the gizmo blue?” [turns page] “Oh, right, here’s a short history of the gizmo and why it is blue. Gotcha.”

There are some risks. Sure. If I recall correctly, Markham is unnamed until Chapter 4, and I think a physical description doesn’t drop until chapter 7 or 8. I know these are things that ground the reader, but I decided that putting them in earlier (especially during the opening sequence) would be too transparent of an authorial dump on the reader. I cheated, really: I assume you’ll have looked at the cover and read the back blurb, which means you already know both of these things.

I suppose any story about an outsider trying to solve a police case using his own rules isn’t going to feel a little noir-ish, but Lightbreaker definitely seemed to have some hard-boiled overtones. Were any of the Black Mask writers an influence on the novel?

The immediateness of the first-person narrative plays to that a little bit. A lot of the old pulps were told with this level of visceral intimacy where you never really got a good glimpse of the narrator. You knew who he was and what made him tick, but he never stopped to deliver an aside that revealed himself to you. So, just from that sense, there’s a link the hard-boiled structure in how we land in the thick of it.

The Black Mask writers themselves weren’t a direct influence, but both Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon and James Ellroy’s White Jazz are the model of effective first-person narratives that are my bread and butter influences. In White Jazz, Ellroy has distilled hard-boiled dialogue down so far that nouns and verbs barely survive. Every other piece of speech has been burned off. It’s brutal, brutal stuff that he manages to make work. In Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs is, well, one of the best modern noir characters who inhabit genre.

You’ve mentioned a couple of times that Lightbreaker is the first in a series. What are your long term plans for Markham?

It started as a trilogy (as all things do these days), and then I happened upon an old Indian myth about secret books of knowledge that seemed too good to not use, and that became the secret spine of the series for a while (each book would have at its heart some ancient text). That would have been nine books, but eventually we lit upon the idea of doing paired sequels, i.e., each two volumes would round out a story arc, so that readers could, if they were so inclined, jump on every odd book. That’s not to say that there wouldn’t be continuing threads running throughout the series, but we’d break it into digestible chucks. Once we decided on that format, nine was the wrong number, and so I added one more in my head.

Just as well, anyway, as I have moved on from the secret text architecture. Oh, it’ll still be there, probably, but not as integral to the series structure. Someone recently reminded me that there are ten Spheres of the Sephiroth (which may seem like an obvious point, but as I was digging around down in Malkuth on this one, I sort of forgot the big picture), and as the Tree features prominently in the series, matching the Spheres to the books seemed the way to go. It also matches nicely with my secret plans too, so yes, there is a long term plan and it runs ten books.

The big picture plan is to run out the story line that starts, essentially, in Lightbreaker, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be resolution along the way. Heartland will tie up the Lightbreaker story fairly neatly (except for a few elements, which will kick off Angel Tongue); leftover pieces of Heartland will jump start the story for Books 5 and 6. Parts of Angel Tongue and The Volume To Be Named Later (aka Book 4) will inform Book 7 and Book 8, and then Book 9 and 10 will come back and deal with the last chapter of Lightbreaker. More or less. These things tend to drift a bit as time goes on, and I’ve got skeletal structures of the pairs in my head, but the details will wait until I get to those books.

And when I say “jump start” the next odd numbered book, I only mean that one of the loose ends from the previous odd book will figure heavily into the impetus of the next odd book. Without going into details about the climax of Lightbreaker, it may seem that I’ve completely forgotten about what happened in a big way there during Heartland, but I haven’t. The fallout from that final event is what Angel Tongue and the following volume, Karma Kiss, are all about. And there’s at least one question that is going to be floating around the readers’ heads when Heartland is over, and I’ll get to that too. All in good time, my friends. All in good time.

It’s the curse of the organic writer, really. I tend to throw things into the mix, stir them awhile, go off and let them simmer, and then come back and find out what they’ve become. These sorts of stews that develop can quickly overwhelm the writer and the reader if you try to do too much at once, and so I’m happy to increment the course of the story and really explore each facet. As such, there are one paragraph summaries of the books as well as some thematic structures, but the raw details are all unknown–one big mystery I won’t explore until I get there. I like it that way. It makes the writing experience more exciting for me–more of a journey of discovery–which I think translates to the reader. They’d rather be reading something that they know was fun for the writer to write. If it ever gets to be a fill-in-the-blanks grind, then I’ve overstayed my welcome and it will be time to move on to something else. So, we’ll see.

Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. He lives on Long Island with his family and keeps 80 monkeys chained to typewriters in his garage. He passes their work off as his own, selling it to places like Weird Tales, Behind the Wainscot, Fantasy Magazine, and Electric Velocipede. Their less coherent meanderings can be found at The Rambles of My Headspace.