Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why I Wrote "Blue Moon of Cthulhu"

My introduction to the Mythos came about in a strange way — appropriately for the Mythos. While I was living in Ashland, Kentucky between 1976 and 1978, I read a science-fiction magazine, which I no longer have, in which Dr. Jerry Pournelle wrote of attending a symposium given by Dr. Stephen Hawking on black holes. What he revealed about them was so unsettling to Dr. Pournelle that he felt impelled to describe the symposium as "a quiet afternoon of Lovecraftian horror." To learn what Dr. Pournelle meant by his outlandish adjective, I tracked down the works of H. P. Lovecraft and got hooked on them, as many of you who are reading this blog have gotten.

[Something to which I did not have access while I was living in Ashland was the Internet. Entering the phrase in quotes into Google, I learn that Dr. Pournelle's article appeared in Galaxy, volume 36, number 9. Maybe, somewhere, you'll find the copy of it that was once mine — if it hasn't gone down a black hole. Still, it would not have been wholly lost.]

Like many another who has gotten hooked on the Mythos, I have succumbed to the temptation to produce my own writings in it. The seven of these that took the form of short stories are collected in Blue Moon of Cthulhu. The first of these stories, "The Calming of Cthulhu," began in the mid-1980's when the sentence "A blood-red moon hung low over Arkham as Cthulhu rode into town" popped into my head. I had a clear image of the Great Old One and of his steed, but nothing else for nearly a decade until, one day while I was walking around on the campus of the University of Kentucky, the rest of the story came to me in a flash. The story turned out to be a lighthearted treatment of the Mythos, but, at least so far, I've suffered no ill consequences from the lightheartedness. Perhaps, when the stars are right…

Sometime in the Nineties, I bought from a huckster at a science-fiction a chapbook titled The Second Book of Rimel. From Duane Rimel of Washington, I learned that tales of the Mythos could be set in places besides Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Inspired by Rimel, I turned my hand in 2001, shortly after a new millennium had begun, to writing a tale of the Mythos set in Kentucky, which, of course, supplies the "blue moon" to my own book's title. This time was dark in my life; the darkness shows up in the story that I wrote, "The Transformation of the Troglodyte." Residents of the Bluegrass will recognize nearly all of the places mentioned in the story (I except only the protagonist's residence, which was in real life the obscure duplex in which I lived then), though not even the most determined investigator will find the bookseller's door in Midway or the cavern in McConnell Springs Park. I was haunted by "The Mad Prophet of the Shakers" until I put his story onto paper. Will he haunt you, too?

What does "when the stars are right" mean? I recall asking myself this question one time early in the new millennium while I was looking at a conjunction in the evening sky — not in the morning sky, when the protagonist of "Dreams of a Conjunction" is looking. My conjunction may have been of Mars at opposition and a crescent moon, but memory is mutable — and fickle. I wrote the short story for submission to an anthology that was suggesting original creatures of the Mythos. My original creature is Rasidep, whose name is an anagram of despair. Perceptive readers may guess Rasidep's source. The verse in the short story is original with me.

"Heritage of the Heretic" began as a title in search of a story. Readers of August Derleth's posthumous collaboration with H. P. Lovecraft The Lurker at the Threshold will recognize how it influenced a key point of the short story that would complete the title. I set the story largely at Harvard University because I was researching it for a novel that I ended up not writing. Had I known that I would publish the story in Blue Moon of Kentucky, I would have set the story in one of Kentucky's premier private liberal arts institutions: not Transylvania University, here in Lexington, as that institution's name would be both trite and misleading in this context, but perhaps Centre College in nearby Danville. I include in the story the notion that a character in my story reads Lovecraft's stories and learns that they are true. The story's protagonist, Ahithophel Grant III, also learns that each of us has his or her own role to play in the Mythos…

Among other things, I am a Civil War buff. I have been studying that war in Kentucky for nigh on to forty years now. When an anthology called for short stories set in nontraditional (in terms of the Mythos) historical settings, I chose to try my hand at a Lovecraftian tale set during the Civil War in Kentucky. Yes, the blue moon has risen again. The war crime that Second Lieutenant Laban Whittington, USA, sets out to avenge is based on a true bushwhacker murder that took place in Morgan County, whence my ancestors came. When Lt. Whittington enters Eastern Kentucky's hills, he takes a detour into — well, not The Twilight Zone, as that never dealt with the Mythos, did it? What a pity. I think that others besides me would have enjoyed an episode titled "The Lurker in the Hills. What do you think?

I wrote "Bookworms" while I was holed up in a motel room as the temperature plummeted outside in what weathercasters then called a "polar vortex." That sounds Cthulhian, doesn't it? Oddly enough, the story's protagonist has never seen winter. I wanted to write a story from an alien's viewpoint and show how the Mythos might affect creatures both like and unlike us. Note that bookworms can have more than one meaning — also that another conjunction is occurring. I guess that I am still asking what "when the stars are right" means. Briefly, they were right for the Great Old One Hixiling…

"The Dark Between the Stars began as another title in search of a story. The story that it found emerged from background to a hard science fiction Oort Cloud novel, Madness of the Glyphs, in which Cthulhu is mentioned in passing. In the short story, in an all-but-forgotten space station in orbit over the dwarf planet Eris, a Mythos role-playing game has evolved into a religion. What happens to the religionists — and to a skeptic among them — when a long-buried alien intelligence is willing to play the role of their god? I had fun writing the story of an arch-skeptic, Keturah Harness. Will you have fun reading it?

I wrote "Once in a Blue Moon" for the short-story collection. I've wondered what life-in-death would be like for a Great Old One bound to such a state by cosmic forces. I answer this question for a Great Old One trapped in a bend of the palisades of the gorge of the Kentucky River between Camp Nelson and High Bridge. Yes, the "blue moon" shines for the last time. The Great Old One's blue moon is different from Kentucky's. Also, the Great Old One's view of history as revealed in Lovecraft's classic tales of Yog-Sothothery may be somewhat biassed. Would it surprise you to learn that Great Old Ones are opinionated?


You can read the first short story and part of the second in Blue Moon of Cthulhu by clicking on Look inside.

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Friday, January 26, 2018

WHY I WROTE "PARABLES BEFORE JESUS"

Those of us who are Christians associate parables with our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly a master of them, He painted with them clear pictures, not only of the world around Him, but also of the world to come — the Kingdom of Heaven — a realm that lies beyond human experience, yet can be illustrated for us humans with homely, everday objects and actions that all of us know and understand.

In Christian thought, parables are so closely linked to Jesus that many Christians think that they began with Him. He didn't invent parables; they were teachings with which He had grown familiar through Hebrew Scripture as He heard it in the synagogue and in everyday life. As Jesus used parables, earlier prophets had used them to teach heavenly truths in earthly terms — to explain the unexplainable in stories that would stick in a listener's mind. The goal of a teller of parables was to turn a common object — a bramble bush, a lamb, a linen belt, or a clay pot — into an object lesson reminding us — as bread and wine remind those of us who are Christians of the body and blood of Christ given in sacrifice for our sins — of something greater than ourselves — of the God Who is above and beyond our earthly lives, yet connected with them at every instant.

In Hebrew Scripture, parables were generally told by prophets, persons called by God to reveal heavenly truths to God's people. A parable came amid a crisis in an individual's or in the people's life to teach that person or the people what'd gone wrong. Often, we — for a parable to do us any good, we need to see that it may well apply to each of us just as much as it applied to the person to whom it was originally told — have grown blind to a situation around us and need a parable to help us see that situation with new eyes — with God's eyes, which see clearly what we may wish to hide, however much denial may hurt us and those around us. We can thus think of a parable as a divine wake-up call, which comes to us loud and clear when we've fallen asleep to the truth. If we sleep through the wake-up call, we have only ourselves to blame for the consequences of ignoring a warning meant to save us from ourselves.

The earliest parables, given in the time of the judges (leaders called by God to deal with specific crises among the Children of Israel in the Promised Land) or of good King David and evil King Ahab, dealt with political turmoil among the Hebrews, yet have clear lessons for us today. From "King Bramble," we learn that, if good persons refuse to govern a land, an evil person will govern it. From "One Little Ewe Lamb," we learn that, in God's eyes, a ruler has no right to oppress his subjects for personal gain. From "The Lying Spirit," we learn that a ruler who rejects good advice will come someday not even to recognize it when he hears it. The situations to which these parables responded are distant from our own, and the details of these parables are foreign to our modern world, but the truths that the parables teach are as current as today's headlines.

As the kingdom founded by God through good King David fell and went into exile, Hebrew parables reached their zenith through four great prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. In "God's Vineyard," Isaiah shows us how God cares for us with love, yet we discard his blessings and bring catastrophe on ourselves by doing things in our own way. In "The Yokes," Jeremiah shows us how God works through the world's events, and how what we may see as evil, God may be using for good. In the shocking, scandalous "Two Sisters," Ezekiel shows us that the relationship between God and His people is a spiritual marriage — a marriage that we can ruin, with disastrous effects on ourselves, through our unfaithfulness to our heavenly spouse. In "The Bad Shepherd," Zechariah shows us how a people, grown used to the corruption of bad rulers, may spurn a good ruler when he comes.

In presenting and explaining a selection of twenty parables from Hebrew Scripture, I've tried to give you a chronological picture of the life of God's people, Israel, and the crises that arose among it. When we learn what God was telling His people through these parables, we'll see that they're not dry facts from a distant time, but life lessons for all of time — for us today as we face crises that the Children of Israel would've understood from their own experiences. God's light, regardless of the situation on which it shines, is eternal, revealing to those who have eyes to see truths that are always valid. Let's learn from the parables of Hebrew Scriptures what we can use to live at peace with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with God today.


You can learn more about Parables before Jesus by clicking on Look Inside.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

WHY I WROTE "STAND AT THE CROSSROADS"

Few events are more dramatic than is a city's fall to a foreign invader. Such an event awakens in us questions:

what went wrong?
how did a place once strong become weak enough to succumb to outside forces?
did weakness come from within?
could that weakness also be in us?
what can we do to avoid the fallen city's fate?

In the Book of Jeremiah, we witness the fall of God's holy city, Jerusalem, and get answers to our questions about that fall — answers valid for us today. The answers come through a prophet — a person called by God to reveal God's word to the world — a young man born to be a priest, but repurposed by God for a thankless, but needful task. He'd face relentless opposition to his work in revealing God's will, yet would persist in that work through the fire of God's Holy Spirit within him. He was a hero of the faith because he stood up for the truth amid a world in which all things had become relative to the people's short-term desires and fears. In facing opposition, he felt all of the fear natural to one in deadly danger. He was not a superhero, but an ordinary person like any of us. From him, we can learn how to rely on God's promises to enable us to do what fear would keep us from doing.

Tragically, Jeremiah had to oppose rulers whose authority had come from God. The kings of Judah, the kingdom in which Jeremiah lived, were legitimate successors to David, the shepherd — the man after God's own heart — whom God had called to reign from the holy city of Jerusalem. The priests in God's temple were, as Jeremiah himself was, legitimate descendants of Aaron, the high priest whom God had called to start the cycle of offerings and sacrifices still going on at Solomon's Temple in Jeremiah's day.

Sadly, the leaders were legitimate, but their beliefs, their speech, and their actions weren't. As the leaders had gone, so had the people. They'd chosen short-term, material benefits in the here and now at the cost of abandoning the long-term, spiritual benefits of staying faithful to God. They'd chosen to justify their choice of wrong beliefs, speech, and action at the cost of oppressing those who desired to believe, say, and do what's right in God's eyes. They'd chosen to make peace with a world that'd fallen into apostasy, idolatry, materialism, aggressive war, slavery, and political oppression — a world more like our own than we may wish to admit it is.

Whether we know peace — our living safely and prosperously with one another in right relationships rooted in a right relationship with God — depends on the kind of shepherd that we have over us. We don't like to think of ourselves as sheep, but, in terms of our acting blindly, going astray, and harming ourselves and others through unwise choices, we often are. To make things worse, we're sheep with the nature of wolves, preying on other members of our flock. It takes a good shepherd, whether of sheep or of human beings, to ensure that a flock's physical needs are met and that it's protected from outside predators — in the case of human beings, sometimes from its own members. Sadly, in Jeremiah's day, many of the shepherds had become wolves, preying on the weak and the needy whom they were supposed to protect. What was the people of Judah supposed to do? What are we when we face bad shepherds?

In the short term, the faithful citizens of Judah suffered. They watched their beloved city go through a siege and be burned to the ground; they went into exile in Babylon, a city that's become a byword for godless, self-indulgent, oppressive materialism. There, they faced choices: they could fall into despair, they could strike out against their oppressors in vengeful violence — or they could choose hope. Jeremiah's word to them was to choose a lifestyle based on trusting in God and doing the right thing: building homes, raising families, praying and working for the good of the evil city in which they lived, and waiting for God to restore them to their homeland of faith.

In the long run, Judah's faithful citizens expected the coming of a heaven-sent deliverer, the Branch — Messiah, the anointed ruler who'd deliver the faithful from oppression and rule the world with righteousness. Those of us who are Christian identify Messiah with Jesus Christ, the Son of God — our Savior. The Branch, Messiah, would be a faithful shepherd who'd put the flock's needs ahead of his own and win for the flock safety in which it could serve God, not with outward ritual, but with inner belief resulting in outward service of love for God and of love for neighbors.

Through the examples of Jeremiah's successes and failures, and through God's word as he revealed it, we can learn how to handle hard times. While we wait, as the faithful in Judah waited, for Messiah's coming, we can believe, think, and act as God wants us to. We can be witnesses to a fallen world by living in faith rather than surrendering to despair. We can be lanterns shedding the light of God amid the world's darkness.


STAND AT THE CROSSROADS: Lessons from the Book of Jeremiah is available in Kindle format. You can read the book's opening chapters by clicking on Look inside.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

A SUGGESTED ORDER FOR WATCHING THE X-MEN MOVIES

written for a friend who hasn't seen them

by Alfred D. Byrd

[A PLEA: I've written this blog as much as I could write it without spoilers for persons who haven't seen the series. If you comment on this blog, please avoid spoilers in your comment.]

****X-MEN (2000). You must watch this movie first to get the full effect of its opening scene. I take away one star for Storm (Halle Berry's role was badly miswritten on at least two levels), Frog, and especially Storm v. Frog. Otherwise, the movie is a magnificent blend of writing, directing, and brilliant casting. A great antagonist doth a great movie make.

*****X2 (2003). A greater villain doth a greater movie make. 'Nuff said. (You know that I began to read Marvel back in the '60's if I use that phrase.)

** X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009). Many fans of the series will tell you not to watch this movie. If you do watch it, it fits best here, as X2 alludes to Wolverine's motivations in this movie, and this movie contains massive spoilers for X2. This movie has a magnificent opening half that focuses tightly on the many levels of conflict within and around Wolverine. When he rides off to sneer and bloating in Las Vegas, the movie stumbles badly. Hardcore fanboys, who hate what the movie does to the character Deadpool, give this movie a * or a BOMB rating. As a writer, not a fanboy, I think that the movie deserves better press than it's gotten.

* X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006). It's difficult to pull off "everything but the kitchen sink" without the kitchen sink's showing up for clobberin' time. (Oops, that's an F4 line!) This movie doesn't pull off the trick. I predict that the MCU is about to learn the same lesson that X-Men:The Last Stand taught its series. Still, you need to watch this movie, as it ties up the conflicts from X-Men and X2 and provides motivation for the Wolverine in his 2013 movie of the same name. As a writer, you can learn from The Last Stand that too much is just too much.

***THE WOLVERINE (2013). Like the earlier Wolverine movie, this movie is magnificent as long as it focuses tightly on the many levels of conflict inside and around the Wolverine, as this movie does for longer than its prequel did. This movie even does the impossible by giving him a cute sidekick. A comic-book ending broke the movie's spell, but it's still well worth watching and is required viewing for the scene in the closing credits.

****X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011). In terms of internal chronology, this is the earliest X-Men movie, but watching it any earlier in the series would spoils parts of just every movie that I've already listed. The movie does a magnificent job of casting earlier versions of characters from the "later" movies, and it's so much fun for me to visit the '60's again. If not for what the movie did to the character Emma Frost, I'd give it five stars. Maybe, there's a little fanboy in me after all.

*****X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014). It's always amazing when a movie pulls off a time-travel plot, and this one does so in style as we get to see both the "old" and the "new" versions of our heroes in a cross-time conflict. The movie is chock-a-block with fine antagonists. Peter Dinklage almost makes me want to watch Game of Thrones. I must confess that I'd watch this movie over and over just for Quicksilver's "music video." [NOTE to fanboys who are about to flame me for my being inconsistent: this is a tease, not a spoiler!] At the movie's end, you'll understand why I say that it's best viewed in this spot. My five-star rating applies to the theatrical-release version of the movie. I take off one star for the director's cut, as the extended footage is extraneous to the movie's core conflict and breaks the movie's tension. Now, I'll really get flamed by fans of the movie version of Rogue…

**X-MEN APOCALYPSE (2016). An Apocalypse is only as good as its Antichrist. How can you respect an Antichrist who can barely move and has to wheeze his lines because his costume it too heavy even for Superman (who's been a crossover character in the Marvel universe a time or two) to lift? Too, the kitchen sink makes an encore appearance in this movie. I'd give it one star but for its getting Storm right at last and for Quicksilver's glorious encore "music video."

I must confess that I haven't yet seen DEADPOOL and LOGAN. Thus, I won't comment on them or rate them. I have read enough about them to gather that Deadpool fits well after Days of Future Past and that Logan is chronologically the last of the series, after even the upcoming Deadpool 2 and X-Men: Dark Phoenix.

Enjoy, X-newbie!

If you liked this blog, you may be interested in how I've written superheroes in my Orion series: Daughter of Orion, Message of Orion, and Mission of Orion, all available from Smashwords, Nook, and other on-line booksellers with the exception of Amazon. You can read Daughter of Orion for free!

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

WHY I WROTE "A SONG OF THE ONE"

An age-old story for a new millennium, A Song of the One is an epic poem that retells the central narrative of the Bible. The poem flows from Genesis to Revelation and includes all of Scripture's key stories: Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the Lives of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Kingdom of David, the Babylonian Exile, the Return to the Holy Land, the Life of Christ, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Revelation.

To keep the poem flowing and short enough for you to read in a single night, I've had to leave out some stories that, though important in themselves, didn't fit the poem's flow. I've also had to leave out most of the wealth of the Wisdom literature and prophecies of Jewish Scripture, as well as the epistles of the New Testament. My goal wasn't to try to replace the Bible. Instead, I want you to experience the drama of the Biblical narrative and come to, or come back to, the Bible with new eyes.

As part of helping you come to the Bible with new eyes, I've tried, while being faithful to the Biblical narrative, to take it out of its cultural context and make it universal. As part of my effort to do so, I've changed all of the names from the forms that they had in the original Hebrew and Greek. Some names, I've translated into English; others, I've replaced with words that describe the basic character or role of a person or people. My goal in changing their names was to make ancient persons live for you today.

I've written A Song of the One in American English, my native tongue. The form of verse that I used in the poem is one that began with Homer, but was adapted to American English by Longfellow in his epic poems "Evangeline" and "The Courtship of Miles Standish." I've used this form because great poets of the past have used it to write immortal verse. I've tried to make this form live today by using everyday words and putting conversations into everyday speech.

My goal was to write something that would be accessible, and appeal, to persons of every culture who've learned to read English. I've tried to write something that'll entertain you. Beyond that, I've tried to write something that'll bring you with fresh zeal to the sacred text that's been changing hearts and lives for thousands of years.

You can learn more about A Song of the One here. You can read the Prelude and the first two cantos for free by clicking on Preview.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

WHY I WROTE "THE LAST DAYS OF THE KINGDOM OF JUDAH"

A kingdom's fall is dramatic whether in fiction or in history. For those of us who read The Bible, few kingdoms' falls outweigh that of Judah to the Babylonian Empire, as described in II Kings, II Chronicles, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. There, the House of David, of which Jesus Christ appeared as heir in the New Testament, had held power for centuries while worship of the LORD went on in Solomon's Temple.

The kingdom had been living on borrowed time since the reign of Manasseh, who'd given himself up to idolatrous worship of foreign gods — worship including ritual prostitution and infant sacrifice — when his young grandson Josiah took the Throne of David. No one could've expected much of an eight-year-old of apostate ancestry, yet he became a pleasant surprise for Judah as he restored it to the worship of the LORD under Moses' law.

Josiah was young when he took the throne, and young when he died. What would've become of Judah had he lived a full life, we'll never know. He died because, unwisely for a small nation's king, he chose to play a game of empires. Assyria, which had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and had brutally invaded the southern kingdom of Judah, was swiftly decaying, its fate a plaything between the resurgent empire of Egypt to Judah's south and the resurgent empire of Babylon to Judah's north. Perhaps because of a bad decision by his great-grandfather Hezekiah, another godly king who played a game of empire, Josiah chose to back Babylon and went to war against Egypt. He may have been David's heir, but Egypt was no Goliath to fall to a weaker opponent. Josiah was fatally wounded in action, and his kingdom became an Egyptian puppet-state.

Things might still have gone well for Judah had Josiah's heirs not fallen away from his reform of Judah's faith and practice. Sadly, his first successor, his son Jehoahaz, chosen by Judah's people to replace him on the throne, got little chance to show the world who he was or what he could do, as the victorious pharaoh of Egypt took him into exile and replaced him with a puppet, his brother Eliakim, whom the pharaoh gave the regnal name Jehoiakim.

Jehoiakim was loyal to Egypt as long as a strong pharaoh was on its throne, but switched his loyalty to Babylon when its ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, showed up around Jerusalem with a strong army. Switching sides whenever someone stronger showed up became a theme of the House of David in its decline. To make things worse, Jehoiakim bankrupted Judah by taxing it heavily, first to pay tribute to Egypt and then to build an impressive palace for himself. Jehoiakim also burned a book of the Bible — the first draft of the Book of Jeremiah, which the prophet had to dictate again from memory. Jehoiakim was no more faithful to Babylon than he'd been to Egypt or to God: after three years of serving Bablyon, he tried to switch sides back to Egypt. When his diplomatic maneuvering went awry, he was taken prisoner by Babylon and died in exile.

Jehoiakim's son Jeconiah (or Jehoiachin) took the throne for three months while Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem for the first time. Like Jehoahaz, Jeconiah never got a chance to show what he could do; like Jehoiakim, he ended his days in Babylonian exile. Unlike his father, he was honored in Babylon and became head of an advisory council of captured kings.

Borrowing a page from the pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar put onto Judah's throne a puppet, Jeconiah's uncle Mattaniah, who received the regnal name Zedekiah. The Bible paints Zedekiah as a man of consummate wickedness, but, if you read the accounts of his actions closely, you'll likely see him as a man of consummate weakness. Trapped between Babylon and Egypt as his father, brothers, and nephew had been, Zedekiah repeated all of their mistakes and made new ones of his own. A weather-vane turning in every breeze, he sought endless ways out of his dilemma: listening to false prophets and at times even to a true one, freeing slaves and then re-enslaving them, being a loyal subject of Babylon and then betraying it for the weak reed of Egypt, and asking advice from everyone and taking it from no one. Is it any wonder that his reign led to the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the destruction of David's palace and of Solomon's temple, and the exile of the Jews to what's now Iraq for seventy years? God could hardly have sent a harsher judgment on Judah than letting it be ruled by Zedekiah.

The Bible's accounts of Jerusalem's fall have a sad coda. As Nebuchadnezzar was willing to give the remaining Jews of Judah limited self-government under his sovereignty, he appointed a Judean court official, Gedaliah, as governor of a newly made Babylonian province. With Jeremiah's help, Gediliah was on course to revive Judah as a Babylonian protectorate when foreign intrigue, an internal traitor, and his own blind pride conspired to assassinate him. The surviving Jews, fearing Babylonian reprisals for the governor's death, headed off to Egypt for sanctuary. They dragged there Jeremiah, mourning that his people had returned to the land from which Moses had freed that people's ancestors from slavery.

I've given you a brief history of the last years of the kingdom of Judah as background for why I've chosen to write about that period. It combines several themes that have fascinated me as a writer: the nature of prophecy, political intrigue, and the fall of a once flourishing civilization. That period holds the fate of objects of mystery and wonder: Solomon's temple and the Ark of the Covenant. That period is relevant to today, when small states in the Middle East maneuver in a game of great powers. One of those small states is Israel…

Above all, that period raises questions still relevant today. How should we behave in a world where great powers act seemingly without regard for, or even in defiance of, God's law? How relevant is that law to Jews and Christians today? What should we do when patriotism to our nation conflicts with service to our God? Does the fall of Judah and Jerusalem to the Babylonians hold lessons from history that we do ill to forget?

The Last Days of the Kingdom of Judah deals with its period of history chronologically and completely. I've dealt with Jeremiah as prophet in greater detail in Parables before Jesus and Stand at the Crossroads, a book of devotionals based on Jeremiah's teachings. In the end, I hope to use all that I've learned about this history to write a novelization of Jeremiah's life — the life of a compelling man in dangerous times.

You can read the opening sections of The Last Days of the Kingdom of Judah by clicking on Look inside.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

WHY I WROTE "BETWEEN TWO FIRES"

Sometimes, you find a title before you find a story that fits it. I wrote down "Between Two Fires" in a notebook years before I began the novel that would get that name. Between the writing down and the beginning, I tried several times to write a short story based on the title. I got my viewpoint character away from the fire that began the story (the fire of a burning city, as it happened), but I never got him to the fire that was supposed to end the story. Poor guy. Imagine being a character whose story never ends…

Meanwhile, I'd been reading J. R. R. Tolkien's Silmarillion and lamenting his never finishing a long version of his oldest story, "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin," which he wrote in the trenches of France during World War One. So much could've been done with his tale of a hidden city betrayed by its king's son and destroyed by dragons sent by the dark lord Morgoth. The sudden flight of a hero through darkness from a burning city…

Yes, the fall of Gondolin influenced me when, during my first NaNoWriMo (2006), I wrote the first draft of Between Two Fires. How many present-day writers of fantasy can honestly say that Tolkien hasn't influenced them? Still, my story soon diverged from Tolkien's. My viewpoint character wasn't a Man who wed an Elf-maid, the king's daughter, but a king's distant heir whose marital prospects are clear to everyone else but him. You'll learn what comes of them before story's end. Too, my story has no dragons, but what I made up to replace them is I hope as dramatic as dragons would be.

As the story went on, it became ever more my own. Onto a doomed city's battlements came a prophetic priestess, like, yet unlike other members of the Tinisarai, the Star-Begotten. As Tolkienesque novels should have poems, she spoke her prophecies in chokas, examples of a form of Japanese verse of which I learned one day when, bored in a library, I was browsing through the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was fun and easy for me to compose chokas, and I didn't see why only the Japanese should've invented them. Later, I'd give forest-dwelling Vikings called the Vorsteren a literature of alliterative verse (all right, Tolkien wrote scads of this), and the Cavern Dwellers, my version of Dwarves, recorded their lore in the easy running meter, as Lewis Carroll called it, in which Longfellow wrote Hiawatha.

Please don't think that, if you read Between Two Fires, you must wade through long stretches of poetry that interrupts the story's flow. The discipline of writing a first draft of over (but not much over) 50,000 words in a thirty-day month forced me to be extremely tight. The novel focuses principally on battle. As a history buff, I've studied wars — World War One, World War Two, the American Civil War, the wars of the late Roman Republic, and the Crusades, inter alia — for most of my life, and I put into the novel all that I'd learned of war. Still, as the novel is fantasy, it needs fantasy weapons. I hope that you like light-lances and sunwings powered by prayer. Oh, yes, and my substitute for dragons.

Every story needs a MacGuffin, in Alfred Hitchcock's immortal terminology. Mine has seven MacGuffins, the Oracle-Stones, brought from the One by the Nine Messengers at the world's dawn to turn primitive Men into the Star-Begotten. Why I had nine Messengers for seven Oracle-Stones, I must confess to having forgotten in the past eleven years, but, in any case, only one of the Messengers matters: Olarak, who refused to return to the One when his work in the world was done. He claimed the seven Oracle-Stones for a purpose as nefarious as I could imagine, but, before he could fulfill that purpose, the Star-Begotten stole them back from him and crossed the sea to a refuge in the east. He followed them there and, over the centuries, recovered three of the Oracle-Stones. As our story starts, he makes a play to regain the other four. What becomes of his play will I hope please and surprise you.

Despite his evil intent, Olarak is no dark lord. One criticism that I have of Tolkien's Morgoth and Sauron is that they're too nihilistic ever to rule a sustainable world, and their followers, the Balrogs, Dragons, Orcs, and Trolls, are too debased, disorderly, and wantonly destructive to survive. Once they ran out of plunder and slaves, they'd starve to death. Successful villains are disciplined, goal directed, and hard working. Indeed, a worthy villain works harder than any nine-to-fiver works. You might as well live an honest life. In any case, as for Olarak, as Scripture says, "Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light" (II Corinthians 11:14). Olarak is angelically beautiful and desires only immortality amid a world of imperishable beauty. It's the means that he's willing to embrace to reach his goal that makes him absolutely evil…

You can read the opening of Between Two Fires for free by clicking on Look inside.

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