The Court of the Red Death
And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
—Edgar Allan Poe
In Pripyat, the first snow of the year fell early on the deserted city and on the steel arch that hung over the Sarcophagus covering the ruined Chernobyl power plant. The windless cold was appropriate for this urban tomb, but unseasonable for early autumn, and the below-freezing temperature and snow were confined to this small, desolate pocket of Ukraine.
Seven Russian soldiers, five men and two women, arrived singly at the exclusion zone that enclosed the town, having entered the country in civilian dress by car, train, plane, bus, and boat. They were spetsnaz magi—special forces mages. One of them had been in Kiev for over a year; the Kremlin had kept him in place and ready for such occasions. Two had crossed through Belarus, whose Moscow-dominated craft authority had raised no fuss.
Tom Doyle writes:
To set my hook, I had an extra problem to consider besides the usual ones. The Left-Hand Way is a sequel to American Craftsmen, a contemporary fantasy of magic and military intrigue but with a backstory in which Poe and Hawthorne were writers of thinly veiled nonfiction. I needed a beginning that promised as much action as the special ops opening of the previous book, yet would welcome new readers.
I decided to establish the villain first, as the Devil often gets the best music. At the end of the otherwise self-contained first book, one of the antagonists, Roderick Morton, escapes to Ukraine, but his horrible condition seems more pathetic than menacing. Part of choosing to begin with Roderick was personal–I was anxious to write about him so that I too could find out what he had become.
In his earlier life, Roderick was known as the Red Death both for his numerous killings and for the corpse-like mask and grave garments he wore for his bloody rituals. I titled the opening “The Court of the Red Death” in a nod to “The Court of the Crimson King” by the prog-rock band King Crimson. That and the Poe quote regarding the Red Death’s dominion set the scene for a Roderick who is no longer nearly helpless and on the run, but is in full possession of his powers, old and new.
So that was how I made the choice of whom to begin with, though he is still offstage in this hook. The next question was where to start. Ukraine has two places sufficiently notorious and ghastly for the murderous Roderick. The first, Chernobyl and its ghost town, Pripyat, is where I have the hook. But I also use the second location, though later in the opening: Babi Yar, the ravine (now a park) in Kiev where the Germans massacred Jews and others, with over 100,000 killed there.
Finally, I introduce the opposition to Roderick for an opening fight scene: seven Russian soldiers who’ve been ordered to kill the American. Like most of my magician soldiers, the leader of the Russians has a ancestry with historical significance, as his great-grandfather died holding the line outside of Moscow during World War II after months of helping to delay the Germans until winter could descend on them.
In my magical world as in the real one, seven to one should be absurdly lopsided odds, but of course the villain will find a way to survive, establishing just how powerful he’s become in the interlude between books. Thus, when my protagonists come on the stage in the next section, readers will know better than they do how perilous their situation is, creating a tension that only grows throughout the story.
Buy The Left-Hand Way on Amazon.
About the author:
Tom Doyle is the author of the American Craft fantasy series from Tor Books. In the first book, American Craftsmen, two modern magician soldiers fight their way through the legacies of Poe and Hawthorne as they attempt to destroy an undying evil–and not kill each other first. In the sequel, The Left-Hand Way, the craftsmen are hunters and hunted in a global race to save humanity from a new occult threat out of America’s past. Tom’s collection of short fiction, The Wizard of Macatawa and Other Stories, includes his WSFA Small Press Award and Writers of the Future Award winners. He writes science fiction and fantasy in a spooky turret in Washington, DC. You can find the text and audio of many of his stories on his website, www.tomdoylewriter.com.
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