Fieldnotes #2: secret cults

Nothing is more fun than researching secret cults. Okay, seriously, there are a lot of things more fun than researching secret cults. However, a writer has to do what a writer must do, so in this second installment of Fieldnotes, I'm going to briefly talk about one aspect of secret cults that finally found it's way into Where Oblivion Dwells.


There are quite a few books on the Nazis and the occult, but the one most referenced is The occult roots of Nazism: secret Aryan cults and their influence on Nazi ideology by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. This book is simultaneously the most thorough and driest examination of the subject that you will find.


Desert dry.

But thorough. Very thorough and very informative. Three pages of notes informative.

How much of this information made it into the novel? Probably a quarter of those notes actually landed in the story.

The practice of vehmgericht played a large role in the initial draft of Where Oblivion Dwells. The idea of secret courts went hand-in-hand with my nefilim, who operate undercover within the mortal realm.

What is vehmgericht?

According to Goodrick-Clarke:

The vehmgericht constituted the last of List's guilds and was supposed to have translated the holy Armanist gnosis into a 'kalic' form so that it might survive the Christian epoch. Since the vehmgericht really was a a secret institution, founded to administer law in the Holy Roman Empire between the early thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, it seemed a most effective agent for List's occult heritage. Vehmic law most probably originated in pre-Carolingian times, but it was not until the late twelfth century that it assumed historical significance. At this time the imperial jurisdiction was being usurped by the new territorial princes, who were striving to assume the political authority of the old feudal estates. To counter this modern tendency the Archbishop of Cologne placed himself at the head of a long-standing system of local courts, which were to pass capital sentences in the name of the Emperor. An old parochial institution thus assumed a new historical role. From their origin in Westphalia these vehmgerichts soon spread through the Empire wherever conservative men sought to hinder the power of princes.

That is the historical basis for vehmgericht. Due to the secretive nature of the proceedings, vehmgericht later slipped into the realm of Gothic novels written between 1780 and 1820, which redefined the vehmgericht to represent a powerful secret court that exercised justice against "local despots and their lackeys." Resurrecting this mysterious court for my own novel, I added a few twists, but maintained the name vehmgericht primarily due to the location of the novel's events, which are in Germany.

Like my Gothic predecessors, I kept the essential structure of vehmgericht, but reshaped other parts of the practice to meet my own story's needs. In the Los Nefilim series, vehmgericht are secret courts used by the nefilim to judge those members who betray the angels. The kings and queens of the nefilim's Inner Guards administer these courts, and they may pass capital sentences in the name of the Thrones, the angels who rule the celestial realms.


Hold onto that word.

Fieldnotes #1: how society and law affects characterization

I tried to think of where to begin this series, and as with all things, I suppose the best beginning place is at the beginning. In this case, the story begins with Diago, who is the protagonist of my Los Nefilim series. Diago is a bisexual man in Spain, married to his husband Miquel, who is gay.

Several years ago, when I first imagined Diago, he came across as a very stereotypical gay male and was meant to be a walk-on character, not the protagonist. At the time I wrote the first draft, there was a great deal of discussion in the SFF community about representation, and as I listened, or read as the case was, I realized I needed to write with better awareness. I got some feedback from friends, and one thing led to another until Diago became a whole person, rather than a caricature. At that point, his role shifted from walk-on to central character.

The shift allowed me to make my story more inclusive, which made me very happy. At the same time, I didn't feel confident portraying a gay man due to my own ignorance about gay culture in Spain. To further complicate the issue, I had to place Diago within the cultural framework of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century Spain. This is where I had to do the footwork necessary to flesh out both the historical aspects of the novel and the characterization.

In order to have a good understanding of Spanish cultural attitudes toward LGBT culture, I needed to go backward, at the very least a hundred years, preferably more. Beliefs and prejudices are not created in a vacuum or overnight. To give me an idea of how we got from there to here, and also how LGBT culture fit into the broader spectrum of Spanish literature and jurisprudence, Queer Iberia: sexualities, cultures, and crossing from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance [edited by Josiah Blackmore and Gregory S. Hutcheson] was invaluable.

Meanwhile, my own research of Germany in the early twentieth century gave me a basic understanding of Berlin in the 1920s. With magazines such as Der Eigene and Die Freundin, LGBT culture was making inroads to move into the mainstream during this period. However, that was Germany, and Germany isn't Spain, so I had to dig deeper.

Finding resources in English became a daunting prospect until I located a book entitled 'Los Invisibles': a history of male homosexuality in Spain, 1850-1940 by Richard Cleminson and Francisco Vazquez Garcia. Here I found that gay subcultures were prevalent in the larger cities during the late nineteenth century. This was by no means a cohesive sub-culture. Social class, which was still deeply entrenched in Spanish society during the late nineteenth century, is one factor that defined social discourse. Other issues such as "effeminacy, the level of open acknowledgement of homosexuality or its hidden nature" also dictated the composition  of these groups and how they functioned and interacted.

I was surprised to find that in Barcelona and Madrid homosexual balls and dances took place relatively openly. The authors cite the following:

"In 1879, for example, in the dance hall 'El Ramillete', in Alameda Street in Madrid, on the last day of Carnival, 'más de cien sodomitas con elegantes trajes y ricas joyas' [more than one hundred sodomites in elegant dress and sumptuous jewels] could be counted."

Unfortunately in both Madrid and Barcelona, this dance culture seems to have declined by the early twentieth century:

"'Yo no he podido encontrar en el homosexualismo barcelonés las apariencias que tenía muchos años atrás; las fiestas en que se celebraban los bautizos de un homosexual; los bailes escandalosísimos; las fiestas sardanapalicas, vergüenza de una ciudad' [I have not been able to find amongst Barcelona homosexuals the aspects that were found years ago--the parties in which the baptism of a homosexual was celebrated, the scandalous dances, the fiestas characteristic of Sardanapalus ...] This was possibly ... as a result of the public scandal laws, whose effect had been the withdrawal of homosexuals from the streets and the reliance on small groups of friends for socializing."

That last sentence is the primary example of how legislators in all countries marginalize specific groups by prohibiting their activities and/or gatherings under the law. The difference between Spain's Articles 69 and 616 and Germany's infamous Paragraph 175 is that while Germany's laws dealt specifically with gay men, Spain's laws dealt with same sex encounters regardless of gender.

Spain's 1928 Penal Code, which was enacted under the dictatorship of General Primo de Riveria, imposed "a punishment of two to twelve years in prison for anyone convicted of indecent offenses with a person of the same sex." Article 616 stipulated that "whosoever engages habitually or scandalously in indecent acts with a person of the same sex, will be fined 1,000 to 10,000 pesetas and will be declared unfit for public service for a period of six to twelve years." (The dictionary of homophobia: a global history of gay and lesbian experience, [edited] by Louis-Georges Tin, 2008)

Now that I know all of these things, how do I place this information into my story without it sounding like I'm giving the reader a lecture? That's where characterization comes in. I had to think about how these various things would affect Diago and Miquel. Would they go to the types of balls mentioned in 'Los Invisibles'? Probably not due to their association with Los Nefilim. They would keep a lower profile among the mortals; however, both would frequent cafes with other musicians and poets.

They would also stay abreast of the ways in which laws changed from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. I have a brief scene in Without Light or Guide between Diago, Miquel, and Guillermo:

Guillermo nodded. “Good. And remember, you won’t be alone. Garcia is going with you.”

Diago glanced across the street where Inspector Juan Garcia’s dark wiry frame was partially hidden in the shadows. Garcia was all edges and serrations, with a temper thin as a blade. He wasn’t as old as Guillermo, Diago, and Miquel, but he had a couple of centuries on the younger Nefilim. His age and loyal service had won him trusted positions from Guillermo. Now he served as a police inspector in Barcelona’s Urban Guard. He touched the brim of his hat when he caught Diago looking at him.

Diago returned the gesture with a nod, but that was as far as his courtesy went. “Anybody but him.”

Guillermo glanced over his shoulder at Garcia. “I know you two have had differences in the past—”

“He threatened to arrest me on deviancy charges.”

Miquel popped the knuckles of his right hand. “I had a talk with him about that.”

Guillermo frowned. “So I heard. You’re my second-in-command, and I won’t have you settling disputes with your fists.”

Miquel opened his mouth to protest.

Guillermo cut him off. “Control your temper. From now on, if you have a problem you can’t fix with diplomacy, you come to me.”

Miquel’s dark eyes slid away from Guillermo’s gaze in a maybe, maybe not look Diago knew too well.

There is no need for me to go into a great deal of detail about either Article 69 or 616 here, because this is a novella (read: word counts). I want my dialogue to pop, not devolve into a legal treatise. Yet with this short passage I've shown the reader that Garcia is homophobic and hates Diago enough to use his position as Inspector to make trouble for him. The reader also gets a better sense of Miquel, who sees himself as Diago's protector, as well as his relationship with Guillermo. All because of one law.

In the new novel Where Oblivion Dwells, I have a couple of scenes where Diago has to take existing laws into consideration as he moves from one country to another. He realizes in one scene that he can't out himself to a younger man for fear of being stopped and convicted under the laws in Germany, where Guillermo's influence wouldn't be able to mitigate the court's decisions.

While I need a strong understanding of the laws and cultural attitudes of the time period, I don't necessarily need to bore my reader with them. Finding interesting ways in which to give my characters more depth is part of the fun of writing.

I hope you enjoyed the first episode of Fieldnotes. This one was a little longer than I intended to write, but I felt that was okay given this is the inaugural post. Stay tuned ... there will be more later; although most won't be quite this long.

Fieldnotes: a new series

Strangely enough, a lot of you (and by "a lot of you" I mean more than the usual ten or so) voted to read blog posts about both my research process and some of the facts I discover about the early twentieth century as I research information for my novels. Since I'll be able to give you a few excerpts here and there from my notes, I've decided to run with the Fieldnotes series. This will be much like my friend Beth Cato's Bready or Not blog, where she gives out recipes, only my posts won't make you fat and you'll have citations and a little bit of an explanation as to how the passage relates to the story.

If I decide to write longer posts with cites, those may roll through my newsletter, which you can sign up for in the sidebar. 

Wait. Scientists use fieldnotes.

Yeah, I know, but I needed something catchy, because nobody is going to read a blog series entitled HISTORIC FACTS, or NOTES, which is too vague, and NOTES FROM THE FIELD is ... well ... fieldnotes. I'm not good at this marketing bit, so do me a favor and just run with it.

Frankly, in a lot of ways, fieldnotes more accurately describes my process. I'm not exactly doing the same type of linear research that a historian might do, where the researcher sticks with a single subject and connects the dots along the way. My research is more sporadic and focuses on a variety of events or phenomena as it relates to my story and the world of Los Nefilim.

That doesn't mean we won't talk about historical events. As I bounced early drafts of the novel off a lot of readers, I realized how little some people knew about the early twentieth century and (for my American readers) the Spanish Civil War. For example: one reader questioned the indoor plumbing and electricity in the Spanish countryside during the early thirties. This is a perfectly valid question. The answer is that wealthy households would have these things, and that is one way in which I show the reader Guillermo's wealth and also a little bit about his personality: Guillermo loves being on the cutting edge of technology.

The Fieldnotes series will also encompass research in religion, history, Nazi cults (because we all want to know about Nazi cults, amirite?), cars (such as Guillermo's 1930 Hispano Suiza H6C or Jordi's Monastella Cabriolet), trains, planes, battles during the Spanish Civil War, politics, angelology, demonology--frankly, if I have to research it, I'll talk about it a little in Fieldnotes at some point. If enough people request more information, I'll expand on the topic in a newsletter essay.

As an added bonus, if you follow the Fieldnotes series, the posts will give the upcoming Los Nefilim novel a little more meaning for you. Who knows? You might learn something, too. I know I certainly did.

So look for Fieldnotes ... coming soon.

What I'm watching: Babylon Berlin, Dark, and The Ministry of Time

I've noticed a lot of people asking for recommendations on Netflix recently. Having no further ideas for a post this week, I thought I'd share some of current favorites. In case some of you have trouble watching shows with subtitles, I'm putting the language in brackets behind the title. 

Babylon Berlin [German]
Police commissioner Gereon Rath is transferred from Cologne to Berlin, the epicenter of political and social change in the Golden Twenties. Shellshocked from his service during World War I, he uncovers a dangerous web of intrigue while investigating one of Berlin's biggest pornography rings. There's an even bigger conspiracy unfolding, though, when Soviet rebels hijack a train as part of a mission hatched by Trotsky supporters in the city.

The truth here is that I initially misread the tagline, which had the word "demon" in it. My brain automatically said: 1930s! BERLIN! DEMONS! and I clicked play. Then I realized that "demons" referred to the figurative demons in Lotte's homelife, but by then it was too late, I was hooked.

[Author's note and obligatory book plug: if you want actual demons in the 1930s, you're stuck with Diago and company, and they're in Barcelona, and it's here.]

Meanwhile, in Babylon Berlin:

The series begins with Rath investigating a series of pornography rings and then segues to a White Russian plot to overthrow Stalin. Along the way we meet characters such as: the mysterious gangster known as the Armenian; a German businessman, who is backing the emerging Nazi party; a beautiful Russian countess, who has fled the Reds and is seeking to reestablish her wealth; and a tough young girl determined to work as a homicide detective.

I can't begin to enumerate all of the beautiful things about Babylon Berlin. It's seedy and dark and historically accurate. The writers have found a way to interweave the various political factions into the story in such as way as to illustrate the history without bogging down the pace. I'm so in love with this show, I binge on weekends and hope it never ends.

Dark [German]
When two children go missing in a small German town, its sinful past is exposed along with the double lives and fractured relationships that exist among four families as they search for the kids. The mystery-drama series introduces an intricate puzzle filled with twists that includes a web of curious characters, all of whom have a connection to the town's troubled history -- whether they know it or not. The story includes supernatural elements that tie back to the same town in 1986. "Dark" represents the first German original series produced for Netflix.

I'd initially avoided this, because I imagined it would be something like Stranger Things. John Hornor Jacobs persuaded me to give it a shot, and he is right--the title nails it. This is a mind-twisting series centering on time travel, a nuclear power plant, and a small community of people, all of which are entwined in one another's lives. I'm about midway through the first season, and I'm engrossed with the characterization and the twisty plot. The acting is superb, the menace is low-key but looms over both the town and the characters like the massive nuclear plant, and there is enough mind-bending ideas going on to keep me intrigued.

The Ministry of Time [Spanish]
The Ministry of Time is the best kept secret of the Spanish state: an autonomous government institution that reports directly to the Prime Minister. Its patrols have to watch the doors of time so that no intruder from other eras can change history for their own benefit.

The series follows the assignments of the Ministry's newest patrol: the one formed by Army of Flanders soldier, Alonso de Entrerríos, 19th century student Amelia Folch, and 21st century Samur paramedic, Julián Martínez.

This is a great show if you want to learn a little Spanish history, have some fun, and just let your brain unwind. I'd first encountered El Ministerio del Tiempo when someone on Twitter mentioned it about a year ago, but my Spanish isn't good enough to watch shows in Spanish ... yet. So I was positively thrilled when I saw it on Netflix's offerings with English subtitles.

In a series of catacombs beneath a building in Madrid, there are actual doors to various time periods. These are the "authorized" doors used by the members of the Ministry of Time to ensure that someone doesn't slip through and change the past. There are also "unauthorized" doors through which people sometimes enter, and this is where the Ministry becomes involved so as to avoid butterfly effects in time.

I'm only an episode in and loving it. The show doesn't take itself too seriously. You don't have to be Spanish to get some of the running jokes, but knowing a little about Spanish literature and history helps.

For example: Velásquez pops into the Ministry to sketch composites for the agents. He's also intrigued by Picasso's works.

Everyone keeps asking the Flanders soldier Alonso if he is Alatriste. Completely confused by the reference, Alonso happens to be in a bookstore and sees a book entitled Alatriste. He steals it, and while the Ministry's rules forbid taking articles from the one time period to another, Alonso returns to the 16th Century with the novel. [For those not in the know: Alatriste is a character from a popular series of novels, The Adventures of Captain Alatriste, written by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.]

So it's all quite fun and actually made me laugh out loud a couple of times.

And that is how I've been spending my viewing time lately. If you're watching something you're in love with, drop it in the comments. I'm always on the lookout for new shows, too.

The Ritual--a movie review

I was very excited for this movie, especially after having enjoyed Netflix's 1922 back in the autumn. Like 1922, which was based on a novella by Stephen King, The Ritual is based on a novel by Adam Nevill. I haven't read Nevill's novel yet, so I can't say how closely the movie followed his work, nor is the novel relevant to this review.

Books and films are completely different mediums for expressing a story, and I firmly believe in judging them based on their individual merits. The movie did intrigue me enough to want to read the novel, just to see how he handled the characterization. Sometimes what translates beautifully on the page isn't conveyed as neatly onscreen. This might have been one of those times.

For those who haven't seen it, The Ritual is about five college friends who go on annual vacations together. When one of the men is murdered, the other four set out on a hike through the Scandinavian wilderness to honor their lost friend's passing. When they take a shortcut, the find themselves in a mysterious forest, "where an ancient evil exists and stalks them at every turn."

So what we have is The Blair Witch Project (sans the shaky camera work) meets Deliverance (sans the rednecks and banjos). Toss in some good old-fashioned ancient evil to liven things up, and yea and truly, that is my kind of movie.

The cinematography is magnificent. The plot is good and there are some genuinely creepy moments. I loved the monster and the bits of mind-bending, which went along with being stalked by something that could see into a person's mind.

I was even more excited by the fact that the lead roles were played by four Shakespearean actors. The acting was excellent, or I wouldn't have sat through it to the end, but these gentlemen weren't given material worthy of their talent. I mean, I suppose screaming FUCK at the top of one's lungs might require the same lung capacity as delivering a soliloquy; however, it lacks a certain eloquence.

My problem with The Ritual had to do with the characters. It's not about the men's likeability. I didn't like Wilfred James (1922), but I stuck with both the novella and the movie, because the story was so good. James' slow descent into madness was a horrific thing to watch. I didn't have to like James, but I did understand his motives and could see that--in the beginning at least--he possessed some redeeming qualities.

This brings me to the crux of my problem with The Ritual. The men had few redeeming qualities. They didn't seem to even like one another, or themselves. From the opening scene, they were just nasty to each other. None of their dialogue seemed like good-natured bantering. The jibes were delivered with barbs, not fondness. There was simply no chemistry between these people. I would have had more sympathy for their plight if I'd thought they liked one another even a little bit, or if perhaps one of them had some redeeming quality to their personalty.

Instead we have the whiny man in pain, the incompetent hiker, the leader by default, the angry man forced to face his guilt. These four types of people could have actually been the perfect recipe for a subtle underplay of tension between the characters had they been fleshed out somewhat. Unfortunately, in the case of the The Ritual, the script never quite allows them to rise above caricatures.

Don't get me wrong. In terms of good horror, I believe the pluses of The Ritual (cinematography, good story, excellent acting) save the movie. I enjoyed it and didn't feel like I'd wasted my time watching it, although it did fall a little flat for me. I just wish the screenplay had spent a little more time bolstering the men's bonds with one another before sending them into the wilderness. I hate it when I root for the monster to win.

Rating: Your mileage may vary.