20th CENTURY GHOSTS by Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son, is a collection of speculative fiction that amazed me with its psychologically disturbing and unsettling material. I’m not normally a fan of short stories, particularly anthologies by the same author, but nearly every story in this book grabbed me with its truth, realism and escalating tension. Recommended.
In THE STORE by Bentley Little, a Walmart-type giant store comes to a small Arizona town, promising huge economic gains. At first, the citizens of Juniper are dazzled at the amazing array of products on the shelves offered at discount prices. Then the giant retailer begins to suck the life out of the town like a giant parasite, killing local businesses and soon after the local government with lack of revenue and commitment to expensive concessions. Little’s a great writer and the story flows along, focusing on one man who fights back to protect his family and try to save his community.
The basic plot suggests a social realism novel about the proven costs and benefits large discount retailing has on small communities, and it delivers on this. But Little goes much farther than that into something that reads like both satire and a cautionary tale. The giant retailer, The Store, takes over the town government, issues its own laws, builds a bizarre cult of personality among its employees around the corporation’s founder, sells unsafe and bizarre products, hires sadistic managers, violates privacy, humiliates its workforce, forces people into debt with dire consequences for default, and many other horrible acts.
But this is a horror novel, and the extremes to which The Store goes to control all aspects of life in the town, the sadism of its top managers, the Night Managers, the ritual humiliation of the employees, the evil at the core of the corporation and its founder, and the understanding that the Store is spreading everywhere around the country, puts it squarely in horror territory.
Good horror titillates but occasionally makes you think, and THE STORE accomplishes that. But the horror elements are purely seasoning for its social realism and satirical goals. For this reader, THE STORE is primarily a dystopic vision of corporate power run amok.
I was far more horrified by how easily the town surrendered everything it treasured for a wider selection of products at lower prices. I consider myself a citizen first, a worker second, and a consumer third. As a citizen, I want just laws and maximum liberty. As a worker, I want to sell my labor without being exploited. As a consumer, I want access to things I want at a reasonable cost. I sometimes feel like America’s greatest weakness is we’ve become a nation of consumers, with severe consequences. THE STORE embodies these fears, taking them into the realm of horror.
Minister Faust (Malcolm Azania), an artist, author and activist living in Canada, is the author of THE ALCHEMISTS OF KUSH, which I reviewed here, and other works of speculative fiction. I enjoyed the opportunity to interview him about his work and ideas.
Craig: Let me start off by saying THE ALCHEMISTS OF KUSH is a hell of a beautiful book. Please describe the story briefly, and what the story behind the story is–what compelled you to write it?
Minister Faust: Thanks for the kind words. TAOK is the story of two Sudanese “lost boys.” Both lost their fathers to war’s violence, and both got separated from their mothers because of war’s fallout. Each boy encounters a mystic mentor who gives them the means for self-transformation, which in turn leads to the ability to change the world. One of those boys lives in Kush, the NE African district of modern Edmonton. The other is Hru, son of Usir and Aset, otherwise known as the Egyptian falcon god Horus, who lived 7,000 years ago along the Nile.
I’m fascinated by what’s usually called “the hero’s journey” in the Joseph Campbell sense, and by stories of initiation, particularly those that examine the relationship between mentors and their charges, especially if those examine the ways in which wounded men and boys can heal themselves through that mentor-apprentice relationship (Robert Bly’s Iron John was a great inspiration, as was Walter Mosley’s Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned).
For years I’d been wanting to write a story the combined the above concerns with a revisionist version of the foundational Egyptian myth, but I didn’t know how to connect them. But I’d also been fascinated with the real-life mystic society called the Nation of Gods and Earths. I love allegory, and found their culture remarkable, once I made that connection, everything fit together easily.
Craig: Why did you choose particular structure and plot for the story?
Minister Faust: Making structural choices for a book is like choosing gender for your child: it’s going to have a massive effect on the shape and experience. Whereas my previous books had dwelt in single temporal settings, for this one, I needed to represent an ancient experience and a modern one. I’d long been impressed by the structure of Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, in which the protagonist’s life is split into two stories that alternate chapters (one childhood to adulthood departure, and the other the moment of departure onwards). I thought I could write two stories that paralleled each other in events and characters (mostly), with the modern story an allegory for the founding of the Nation of Gods and Earths. The result is a three-way allegory. I’m sure someone has done that somewhere, but I’ve never come across it, myself.
Craig: How does the Book of the Golden Falcon relate to the struggles people experience today?
Minister Faust: The Book of the Golden Falcon is the scripture of the Alchemists, the Africentric mystics who are at the heart of the modern-day story. Like any scripture, it’s poetical and brief; the ancient story (The Book of Then) works as a revisionist version of it, fully and viscerally exploring what the Alchemists know only as lines to be memorized.
Craig: The book deals with the concept of spiritual alchemy–transforming from a person oppressed by forces in their environment they can’t control to one in charge of their life. The two boys in the story face a difficult spiritual journey over the book’s dual story arcs. How do you define an Alchemist? What are the challenges in practicing Alchemy, and what are the rewards?
Minister Faust: You’re completely correct in your definition of spiritual or personal alchemy. It’s the transformation of base materials into pristine ones. Some people are naturally upbeat, dedicated, kind, and energetic… but even they can become self-destructively self-sacrificing, because any strength can be a weakness. The alchemy in the book is a system intended to help people identify where they’re harming themselves and others, so they can stop harming. That alchemy also synthesizes a community and sets out a series of values so that people can actively build hope, joy, and justice through their own creativity. Those are the reward: happier people in a supportive, industrious community. The main challenge in practicing alchemy, which one character realizes and expresses in her own exegesis, is the danger of self-satisfaction, the egotism of assuming one is better than others. She realizes that every accusation you might direct at others, you need to direct at yourself first (and broaden it to scan for similar problems) to make sure you’re not pointing out the mote in your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the asteroid in your own. But more than serving as a check against hypocrisy (which might simply be a way of claiming the spiritual high ground), doing so gives you the chance to gain compassion. After all, if it turns out that you’re angry at someone for something you’re doing, you have a chance to understand why both you and he are that way, which can connect you. And if you change your behavior towards him, he may sense your compassion and accept your foray towards connection.
Craig: The Alchemist movement portrayed in the book was inspired by the history of the Nation of Gods and Earths movement in the 1960s, as you point out, but the Alchemist philosophy is strongly realized as an independent concept based on Egyptian mythology. How did you conceptualize the Alchemist philosophy? I had a hard time believing it wasn’t already a real thing. Has the book spawned any interest in practicing Alchemy in real life as a discipline?
Minister Faust: Because the book is an allegory, much of the Alchemy is a direct parallel to the NGE teachings of Supreme Mathematics and Supreme Alphabet, which are consistent with various traditions of numerology and letter-codes. Adherents use the number and letter codes to reflect upon their own experiences and the world. In my allegory, I assigned Africentric (especially Egyptian or Kemetic) meanings, as well as (as it is in the NGE system) scientific references. I love world-building in my novels, and so developing a vocabulary and history are among the most fun things I can do. As to whether someone wants to practice Alchemy as it is in the book, for me to write the book and really believe in the world, I actually did practice it in the conceptual phase, during 2007 in particular. Others have told me they feel it could be of use to them. Of course, the credit should go to where it belongs—to the NGE and their historical sources, too.
Craig: Your writing has a breathless enthusiasm to it, an overwhelming charm that sweeps the reader along and never gets tired. How do you maintain that energy for so many pages?
Minister Faust: Thank you! That’s an excellent compliment to receive. I’d attribute what you’re describing to three things. First, I read the brilliant writing book Don’t Murder Your Mystery by former mystery/detective editor Chris Roerden; her book is something like twenty-four lessons with examples of how to write mystery fiction by eliminating common mistakes and replacing them with entertaining construction. I bought it because I was working for a video game company at the time on an unannounced (and later cancelled) thriller title that was going to contain aspects of detective fiction. The book was the best lesson in writing I’d ever received, and I studied creative writing at university (the only worthwhile instruction was from my fellow students) and had already published two books through Random House. So Roerden’s work made me re-examine everything I was doing, and I’d say that all writers could benefit from studying the construction of, and reading, detective fiction (I’d particularly recommend Walter Mosley’s work and A. Lee Martinez’s SF-noir-satire The Automatic Detective). Second, I’d just read Jeff VanderMeer’s terrific SFF noir book Finch, and VanderMeer was experimenting in it with sentence fragments. I’d already been using fragments in my writing, but I was fascinated by how often VanderMeer could use them without over-using them. Third, from Mosley, I used in media res as often as I could, opening scenes in the middle of action, especially with dialogue. I found that was the best way to eliminate the “build-up sag” that was a problem in my unpublished manuscripts (which I plan to excise so I can publish them).
Craig: A trademark of your fiction is incredible characters. They jump out of the page as real people–when I was done with the book, it was strange, I missed the characters more than the story itself. What is your process for developing such great characters?
Minister Faust: If I create characters completely out of thin air, it could take me more than a hundred pages of writing before I feel as I understand them, and that’s too much waste or potential for time-consuming revision. I tend to draw upon people I know: friends, former students, acquaintances, and even foes. Nobody is a clone—characters are more likely composites of several people I know. Of course, I can still do character-creation exercises if I need or want to, but the result is usually less satisfying for me. Since I’m an allegorical writer generally, it suits my temperament more to use composites, anyway.
Craig: In the glossary for the book, you define justice as “equality of rights and treatment, proportionate compensation for labor and punishment for crime, and compassion and relief for sufferers.” That’s a beautiful definition. You’ve spent years fighting for social justice. What do you feel is wrong with our institutions that they cannot provide social justice, why should people personally dedicated their time and effort to it, and where can they start?
Minister Faust: Some our institutions work fairly well: education and health care in Alberta, generally, are successful programs for most of the people who access them (it’s worthwhile noting that post-secondary education is so expensive that it’s no longer universal, and universal health care in this country doesn’t include dental or eye care for adults, and those are gaping wounds in our system). However, as Malcolm X taught with his famous parable “The Chicken and the Duck Egg”–Google it–many institutions are designed to block freedom and prevent people from using their own power. The economic system follows the ”Matthew Effect” that many people know from the line in the Billie Holiday song: “Them that’s got will get/Them that’s not will lose.” It’s far easier to start a business (or buy one) if you’re already rich, or if your spouse has a high-paying job, or if you’ve got an inheritance of money or identity-privilege (which varies depending upon your society). I’d argue that, especially for those of us raised on the Left, it’s vital to recognize that inside a plutocracy, all people raised to fear and despise money and those who have it will forever remain at the mercy of those who possess, know how to make, and do not fear and despise money. Left-libertarians need to study how to create ethical businesses—social enterprises and co-ops. The world runs on money. To create the world we want to live in, we need to start now. Don’t wait for the “Red Rapture,” because it’s not coming. Instead, win small victories everywhere you can, and roll them into bigger ones. If you’re waiting for a collapse to come so you can make a better world, you need to draw a lesson from the Weimar Republic.
Craig: The Savage Lands described in the book, to me, include cycles of despair, crime and addiction that come with poverty, which the individual can overcome using Alchemy or other positive discipline, and movements can overcome by fighting for social justice. The novel implies various relationships with race. How do you see race in terms of its relationship to both the problem and the solution?
Minister Faust: It’s become fashionable for some people to declare that race is a social construct, meaning that it’s a fantasy. But, uh, then isn’t culture a social construct? And aren’t cultures real? “Race” isn’t “real” in the way that matter is real, but it’s as real as any caste or culture. At its least harmful, it’s a way of grouping people according to ancestry and physical characteristics, and it needn’t be an obstacle to anybody… anymore than saying that some people speak Romance languages is an attack on them. Of course, some people don’t know that “race” is a fluid concept, which the powerful change in order to play divide and rule; some don’t understand that “race” can’t predict intelligence, emotional disposition, education, artistry, industry, tastes, or any other acquired aspect, and most other innate aspects, of human beings. Generally, I say that anyone who is the target of racial discrimination might find organisational value in grouping together racially to fight that discrimination; that being said, it’s much easier to organise on the basis of culture or language, which are stronger ties.
Craig: In 1990, you confronted a group of Nazi skinheads that had been attacking people in the community, and talked them down. Could you describe the incident, and what you told them?
Minister Faust: They harassed and hurt many young punkers, and also blinded (in one eye) elderly retired broadcaster Keith Rutherford. Daniel Sims was implicated in that attack. Months before, I once showed up at a shopping mall because I was told in advance that he (who’d I never heard of at the time) and some other skinheads were going to cause trouble, but fortunately nothing happened. The night you’re asking about was in the fall of 1990, an unusually warm October night, if I recall. Some anti-racist skinheads (SHARPs: skinheads against race prejudice) and punkers asked me to join them on an anti-fascist postering drive. Along the way, they told me we’d poster outside the skinhead “base” which was a house near Kush (just as the area was beginning to become a Horn-of-Africa district). The group selected several spokespeople for when we arrived, and eventually that group asked me to be the sole speaker. When we got to the house, three skinheads came onto the front porch, and one was carrying either a rifle or a shotgun. Another warned us that if we stepped foot on their property, they’d shoot us. I answered that if that was the deal, since we had no intention of stepping foot on their property, they’d effectively just told us that they planned to do absolutely nothing. (I still marvel at my youthful bluster and completely irrational lack of fear… what can I say? Too many superhero comics, I guess). I then (no kidding) proceeded to explain to them how their racist philosophy was false and that they should be fighting in the class struggle (it was slightly more dramatic than that). At some point the police showed up and threatened to arrest us, the protesters. A news crew also showed up. To be honest, the event really was pretty exciting, but I for whatever reasons I can’t bring myself to dramatize the experience properly.
I’ve posted about Minister Faust before, and how much I admire his intellect and his talent as a writer. His ALCHEMISTS OF KUSH is a fantastic read, told so well that after I closed the covers I missed the characters as if they were real people. The book contains two parallel stories (The Book of Then and the Book of Now) about Sudanese “lost boys.” Both lost their fathers to war and were separated from their mothers. Each ends up mentored by a man who gives him the means of self transformation. One is a teenager living in Kush, the Northeastern district of modern Edmonton, Canada, where many African immigrants live. The other is Hru, son of Usir and Aset, also known as the Egyptian falcon god Horus, who lived 7,000 years ago along the Nile. The whole is speculative fiction with a social realism objective.
Minister Faust, an artist, author and activist, tells The Book of Now with his singular voice and a huge amount of energy that keeps the story humming. The story is about Raphael Garang, a boy who conquers the demons of his past and gains the ability to change himself, and his journey of self transformation had me turning pages as if it were a thriller. Raphael has a chance encounter with another boy who would become his best friend and a man who would become a mystic mentor, introducing him to a philosophy of self-transformation called the Alchemy, which the author based on the mystic society Nation of Gods and Earths of the 1960s. This transformation doesn’t happen overnight; Raphael has a lot of baggage, and is immature has hell, resulting in him making as many messes himself as are thrust upon him. In many ways, he’s his own worst enemy–just like most of us, I think–keeping him from achieving his potential. Minister Faust creates his characters with love, and they interact with a charm that will tickle you, with the narrative swept forward with an energy I can even now hardly believe the author could sustain for so many pages.
The Book of Then buttresses the modern narrative, and this is where the speculative fiction shines as we are introduced to Hru and his trials in the Savage Lands. The stories contain many parallels, and the Alchemy uses the myth of Horus as a mystical text, further tying them together. These parts of the book are told in a leaner, crisper style, in keeping with the voice of myth.
THE ALCHEMISTS OF KUSH is a great book with charming characters, interesting story of self transformation, and enough philosophy and mysticism to keep you thinking long after the book is over. Highly recommended.
In THE CARRIER by Holden Scott, Jack Collier dedicates his life to a radical cure of cancer to save his girlfriend–flesh-eating bacteria redesigned to eat tumors. But something goes wrong, turning him into a carrier of disease that consumes its victims in seconds. Great writing, Michael Crichton-quality blend of science and fiction, but a little too neat–e.g., the disease never becomes a plague–leaving me wanting.
Great trailer for Jeff Carlson’s PLAGUE YEAR. His PLAGUE series is hands down one of the best, if not the best, post-apocalyptic trilogy I ever read.