Once upon a time, our fairy king in a rage betook a wife and she served him in goodness and kindness and with a child in time. It crawled forth from the red gate of her body and drew out her life with it as well. And the king laughed and howled and wept and carried on as he is wont to do and as the world permits, and silver beads of sweat stood out on the black curls of his dead’s wife hair. Her eyes as wide as the high-noon summer’s sky outside and her mouth agape with still and unexpected terror, from her frozen stare, they said, the summer ceased and snow began to fall on everything, and never stopped.

From the room then the king drove all his attendants—the midwives and nurses, the courtiers and his snake-mouthed scribe, summoned solely to record the blessed event.

But keyholes being made to fit a servant’s ear, those who crouched outside to eavesdrop in heard not only the wailing of grief in death’s embrace and a newborn’s how but also a bestial grunting that ended with a long groan.

Or so that asp, the scribe, scribbled it, since nothing could please him more than to spit venom in the eye that feeds him.

History knows the rest. The king’s grief covered his head like a velvet sack, and he set out to revisit on every mortal thing that breathed a long shadow of his own grief. In the body of Plague, he spread through the land until the wailing of the love-stricken as they stood by heaps of wide-eyed dead pealed at every corner of the globe, at the peaks of the tallest mountains and in the fathoms of the deepest seas—even the blind fish there turned the lantern-stalks of their false eyes toward the howling.

You must count my kith and kin amongst those dead. And if I lived, that is solely because for grief to leave its deepest wound, someone must remain behind to stand by at the grave-heaps.

But I was young, of course, as you know. So if plague’s dagger cut deep into my gut, I yet had time to grow it over. In truth, I did not grasp the scope of the destruction. Had more from my home survived the rigours of the plague to stand there and tell me, “Nothing worse than this could ever pass,” I might then have grasped it better. I did with my own eyes watch grown-up men and womenfolk alike, ripping off their cyst-speckled flesh as if to escape. It frightened me, of course, but how was I to know that I would never, once grown myself, have to perform this strange rite of passage?

But then I found myself swept up, transported with some other precious few I’d never seen before, to the aerial palace of the king.

I’ve never told you this—because no story needed it at the time—but mortal-born as I am (or so I’m told) I’ve always had second sight, of course: still ponds, pools of ink, or even tear-glassed eyes, but above all mirrors, will disclose the truth to me. But secretly—or superstitiously, more like, which is why I never told you—I harboured the thought, “Perhaps that’s why he spared me?” In truth, he never betrayed if he knew of my gift, never used or abused it. Maybe I’m only spinning out a fair lie to explain my fate. In any case, my memories of then have dimmed.

One wise old crone who years now has passed once said, “That’s what happens when you die.” But if all this world of spirits and light is mortal Death for me, what difference does it make? I’m here, and so are you. Your hands are warm and the fairy king is real enough for anyone. It’s enough in the end to say: he plucked me out and had me brought here. To serve him in goodness and kindness though I can bear him no child.

By the time I came, his grief had run. I saw him, as I first entered the court, slumped upon his scarlet throne, panting and pale, with his hand looped through the dark curls of his hair and his eyes hardly looking out at the court. I remember the height of the court’s walls then, their shining gold and silver that reached up into the darkness of the sky. And the snow that fell turned to mist before it reached us.

But I was not presented to the king there, but only later came into a chamber I’d been lavishly accoutred with. You may guess what I expected next, but instead he took me out into the snowy woods, across an old rope bridge that led to the far-wilds, and laid me on a copse of grass. The expected happen then, with on additional detail: the scribe was there to watch us, summoned solely to record the blessed event.

When I glanced back, I could see his green eye and ear cocked, could hear the slap of his hand beneath his robe and did not fault him—I am of course the fairest in the land, as you have verified yourself—but turned my haunches that he might better huff and puff and seize me with his fancy.

The king by then had taken out his rod to flog my unclothed flesh—he hadn’t brought himself as yet to use his sex on me—but as I heard him groaning still and pleased, I said, “Sire, if you’d disrobe as well, we both might find more pleasure.” He paused click, but that night only kept up with the corded leather strips that tasselled the end of his rod. He didn’t strike me hard—not then; it’d take some weeks before I could prevail upon his strength—but still he quickly lost his wind, and began to pant again.

Well do we know that some efforts take more from the spirit than the flesh. Even on that first of nights in the far-wilds, I could sense the crumbled ruins within the king’s heart. I knew nothing of his former wife except what I saw traced and distorted in the lines of the veins of his flexing arm as emotion so gripped his chest that he doubled over, panting, gasping, begging, “Air … air … air.”

And that—but listen closely now—that one fateful word is the whole and entire root of the scribe’s most stupid lie. There’s none deny—at least I won’t—that the offspring who’d robbed the king of his queen’s life had drained also what life remained in him too. Daily to look upon that child and see his dead wife’s eyes and face: how much can one ask of a father? Unjust or not, should hate spring from that poisoned ground in place of his love, must we really act surprised? Like a carnival balloon with its fires gone out, the king could only sink and sink and sink, his silks more wrinkled and slumped as he fell, until his sorry husk spread out across the all-accepting earth and moved no more. I don’t deny it.

But all the same, to hate your child does not ensure you’ll act with overt malice toward it. No doubt, even the stupidest of pups must eventually grasp that Papa has no love for you—and perhaps for some, a very lack of actual violence might do more harm than overt rape or beating—but nothing swaps these sordid insinuations by the scribe for the fact: never did the king touch his heir, not even in a fatherly embrace. So much so that he forbade even the servants and beasts to touch the heir and taught them to shun his child like the plague.

Some court gossips, with patronising sympathy, will say I say this because I’m nothing but a cuckold and deceived—for in certain kinds of families, they say, how often is one cheated as the other raids the children’s beds at night? But you well know my vanity is not the type to imagine that the king’s exclusive preference for the knout with me, and not his sex, must mean he’d never treat (or function for) some lucky other. But there’s no need to speculate. Gossip as people however will, still never—not in my mirror or a pool of ink, not in the snow-strewn oil of a night pond or the waveless stillness of the king’s eyes themselves—was there ever the least sign that the king touched his heir.

And if that snake-tongued scribe makes it out otherwise, that’s his fantasy, not fact.

No matter. Common-sense alone should mock such nonsense out of hand—which the king’s impotence confirms in any case—but here’s the further truth then: never did I plot to kill the heir for my jealousy or vanity and much less for sucking the life out of the king through his member or soul.

But truly! How easy it always seems to be to blame me or to come up with some still more far-fetched nonsense about the heir. The simple, brutal truth is, and has always been: the king commissioned his heir’s murder.

That’s not surprise or disbelief I see, is it, my sweet? You know I wouldn’t lie, but is it really quite so hard to take? Startling perhaps, I’ll grant you, but hard?

No.

Stop.

No. I only brought this up because in you alone … I trusted you to believe me! No, don’t. … It’s too late to protest.

No, I’ve made a terrible mistake. Forget I said—

This is not manipulation. You know the lies they tell of me. I not only have to live with them but deal their consequences to my reputation abroad. It’s not …

Stop.

Stop being sweet to mollify me.

Stop.

Let go. Don’t … don’t … Well, then, why was it really so hard to believe that the king …

What, truly? Startled?

Not doubt?

You suave rogue. If you’re slyly lying, then … then I’ll permit you to trick me, beast.

No, fine. I’ll go on. But it really should be easy for you. Forever eternally always more given to action than self-reflection, even the king eventually sensed the effect that the heir was having on him and chose to call it a curse. So, surely you can see then: having murdered nations of innocents with plague for no reason but the death of the woman he’d burdened with his own seed, why wouldn’t the king—once he felt the “curse” of his heir—not have murdered him as well?

That decision irreversibly reached, he chose a date eight days from then, one day before the heir’s birth-day of all things. All of this, of course, I oversaw in my mirrors and glass, as well as his commanding his most ancient and loyal huntsman to transport the heir to the far-wilds to do the thing.

“I will bring back as proof his heart,” the huntsman said.

“No, your word is enough,” answered the king. “Lest you bring me a pig’s, or a hart’s, or some otherkin’s to deceive me.”

The huntsman took no offense at that, but said, “Still, I would cut out the heart.”

“What you do with my heir in the far-wilds is not my concern,” said the king. “So long as it’s done.”

So that’s plain enough. And as for that quaint fib people love to repeat about heartless killers: that this huntsman—one who had for centuries slaughtered endless mortals and immortals alike in the name of the king—turned suddenly into an innocent ray of sunshine in the far-wilds and let the heir go out of sympathy? I promise you: any angelic bone in the body of that man came from having devoured one earlier. The heir did not escape because of him.

Having seen the king’s scheme in my mirror, with only vague notions of rescue in mind, I risked the king’s direct wrath and sought him out in his chambers. Wriggling into his good graces and knots, in vain I then plied him to let out some hint about the scheme, that I might propose an alternative to it. At my rope’s end finally, I dared to remark idly (lying) how I’d of late read in a book about the loyalty of poison—which steadfastly kills also any creature so brash as to devour a part of one’s victim—and that the humiliation of a corpse is that much more complete when left whole. There was hardly any logic to my words, but perhaps our proximity to climax lent some effective rhetoric to my ramble. In any case, I immediately could see in the pools of the king’s eyes that my suggestion had hit home, so much that I had next to remind him to untie my wrists and ankles before dashing from the room with a fire in his gait I hardly saw anymore. He had to tell his huntsman: change of plans.

From that, the rest was only delicate and tricky, and I felt continuously the crush of those only eight days to save the heir.

I first went to the huntsman. By habit a greater enthusiast of bloodbaths, he preferred the gore and intimate moments of hacking to any dullness and quiet of poison. And though the king had already commanded him, “I’ve changed my mind, don’t touch the heir,” I could see in his eyes—but even you could have seen in his eyes—he planned to disobey. How, after all, would the king ever know? And when, in fact, had the king ever demanded he deny himself his pleasures? If one more time he hacked off the limbs and head before using the heart to gratify himself, what reason could there be this time to change routine? In this way, the huntsman deceived himself he had a tacit, unvoiced permission from the king.

“You must enjoy the odour of your workshop,” I said as I entered, unable not to remark upon the stench of carcases and viscera of beasts and people slumped in heaps around the stone room. He wiped off offal from his hands on a once-white apron and stared down his bulbous nose at me, annoyed by the interruption. I knew of his appetites, and so knew also that they didn’t run to the likes of me.

“What are you here for?”

“I confess,” I said, tracing a finger with a shudder over the rows of used hearts on a cedar plank, “I have an interest in your work.” Looking up, I fathomed his pale blue eyes for disbelief. Seeing little enough, I added, “I’d like to study under you.”

“Still too young,” he grunted.

“Oh, yes,” I agreed hastily, “but the king hints that I have the heart for it, and I have found one does best to do the king’s desires exactly.”

He said nothing.

It was the vanity of his sense of duty, not his conscience, I’d appealed to. Preoccupied by the rigours of his work, I could still see in the blue glass of his eyes that I’d made my point.

“We can begin after the heir’s birth-day,” he affirmed, touching his hand to a pig’s heart on spit. “For now, go. I have urgent work to do.”

I went then to the dead wing of the palace to wait for the alchemist’s return. A fine young witch, forever up to her eyeballs in personal research or out in the forest grabbing ingredients, I found her spice-tinged workshop empty as expected. On glass shelves were rows of hand-marked phials and flasks of powdered hide and hair I knew nothing about, but the room itself was familiar: I’d overseen it when the king, in person, commissioned poison from her.

“Something that’ll do a foe in,” he said.

“There’re many slow and subtle,” she drawled, without taking her nose from a book. “What kind—”

“No, one that’ll drop him like an ox, in front of everyone,” the king said. “At a feast,” he improvised.

“In food?” she asked. “Then skin-poisoned apples will serve you best.”

“How you make it is not my concern,” said the king. “So long as it’s done.”

“Go away, then,” she barked and shooed him off like a flittering pest gotten on the rim of her tea’s cup and put her nose back in her book.

Longer I waited, and more. But at last she bustled in, carrying baskets of mushrooms and greenery from the forest. “Out of the way, out of the way,” she yipped, setting her haul gently on the floor and sticking her hooked nose directly back into her book, forgetting I’d ever existed.

I waited more, twice or three times cleared my throat, offered to help her sort her baskets’ haul, which she didn’t even seem to hear, then dared to touch the handle of one, at which she finally sprung up, “Ack!” and squawked and beat her wings while berating me in no language anyone speaks. I apologised but assured her I’d only come because she alone could help me.

“Too bad,” she hissed, sweeping up both baskets protectively in her arms.

“It will only take a moment,” I insisted, but she wouldn’t hear me out and put her nose back into her book, slowly turning the pages and scrunching her monocle back against one eye. I went on rambling anyway—concocting an improvised lie about desiring to write a ballad with a poisoning that required her expert advice. And though she made a show of being undistracted, she betrayed her interest in the shut ups and quiets she spat back over her shoulder at me from time to time. At last, however, she finally swivelled on her stool and glared through her monocle at me.

“Here’s the problem with you scribblers,” she hissed, her eye falling from its socket on its nerve with the monocle before. “You all have the most idiotic ideas about alchemy.” Furiously, she resocketed her eye and screwed the monocle back into place, and for more than a minute went on breathlessly in a tirade against all bards who’d complicate the simple nature and effects of spirit-poisons with innumerable stupid fictions. “All you need to know, if you want your facts straight in your fiction,” she yakked, “is don’t drop spirit-poisoned things into water. Running water,” she corrected, unbending an index finger to make the point.

“Running water? Like a river?”

“It dilutes the poison. Death instant gets protracted out to weeks or longer. While slower deaths will take up to centuries then. Very inconvenient if you want to drop a fellow like an ox.” I could see in the eyes of her remark she was thinking on the king’s commission then. “Just once, I’d like to see one of you hacks get the facts straight!”

“Well, that’s why I came.”

“Too bad. Go away. I have apple-skins to paint.”

“So, would a lot of running water neutralise the poison completely?”

“What would be the point of that?” she groused, her wings hunched over as she stared into her book again. “Not much of a poison then.”

“So there’s an antidote?”

“A spirit-poison that kills you instantly,” she asked, lifting her monocle to turn and glare at me. “And you want to know if there’s an antidote?”

“No, I mean for one that’s been diluted. If it puts you to sleep for endless centuries—?”

“There’d still be no such th—” she said, even as her hand of its own accord rose to pull along her chin. “Now there’s an interesting thought,” she said to herself. “Could you even make such an antidote?”

I slipped from the witch’s room then before she could drive me away in another fury of wing-beats, but by then I sketched the haziest of plans. I’d only have to fray the ties of the far-wild’s old rope bridge before the huntsman crossed, and down he would go, poisoned apples and all, into the running river below. And then the heir, poisoned unbeknownst to the king and huntsman alike only into a death-like sleep, would soon enough (I hoped) have the antidote from the witch that I’d bring to him, and then … and then something. I‘d work it out, but meanwhile he’d be safe. And I, meanwhile, relaxing, had simply to wait a few more impatient days.

The king came to me those days, and the heat of my own secret plot met the passion and fervour of his. It’d been years since he’d ever shown such passion.

Or hope.

When alone, I hourly watched the huntsmen and the alchemist at their works, fascinated, and finally feeling a thrill of things coming together as they finally met, the witch handing the huntsman three handsome gleaming red apples in a silver bowl.

“Don’t touch them without gloves,” she warned.

“They’re that deadly?”

“The deadliest,” she answered.

“Prove it,” he said calmly. “Eat one.”

“But it would kill me.”

“You’d better hope so.”

Carrying her corpse first back to his workshop, he set out soon after with the heir, who had no inkling of his fate, of course: lied to that some birth-day gift awaited him in the far-wilds. (A horse, they hinted.)

I followed far behind, knowing the talents and nose of the huntsman, but had already gone ahead to cut halfway through the bridge’s frozen stays. And when I saw the huntsman and heir more than halfway across, I cut through the rest of the ropes.

It occurred to me as they fell that either might look up to see me, or that the heir might drown below. It occurred to me I was lucky the huntsman hadn’t poisoned the heir before crossing, and that I had now no way to cross.

Deftly, the huntsman looped his arm in the bridge ropes to catch his fall, but the heir had no such presence of mind and tumbled down into the froth—rolling his eyes, the huntsman let himself go a moment after.

Swiftly, they washed down-stream. I lost sight of them, and crept the opposite way up-shore to find a place to ford, uncertain how I could follow or find the huntsman and heir now, if at all. Wet and cold in the sunlight and snowfall, I climbed up out of the river onto its opposite shore and followed it back to the broken dangle of the rope bridge again. It occurred to me then that the king may have already found me missing from my rooms, and that even if I returned now, it was already too late.

From the top of the broken bridge, I followed a footpath into the far-wilds themselves. Green light suffused the air as beams of white-gold pierced the leaves and snowfall. And in one molten pool of light I found the heir half-covered with snow on a copse of grass, as still as death, not breathing, intact. I let out a sigh of relief.

And then I heard a twig snap. The huntsman’s footfall returning.

And I ran and ran and ran and had snuck back into my rooms by nightfall.

My precaution wasn’t called for. From noon, the king had raged at the news of his alchemist’s death. And had, before the court and everyone there, pierced a dirk through the back of his huntsman’s mouth when the man tried to explain himself.

After that, with the body of the huntsman still gagging and dying on the floor, the king called for his horse and without any entourage set off into the forest. He returned later to the palace later than I had, his horse wet to the withers with river muck and mud dappled with snow.

By then, his snake-tongued scribe had penned already “The Huntsman’s Crime” and had it cried at every corner of the world.

Only to be found dangling by the neck from his room’s crossbeam the next evening. Some wanted to think his conscience killed him, but of all the deaths, no one could really deny the murder. But for all we might revile the huntsman and king, at least they both believed in what they did. No so the scribe.

The loose ends of the heir’s murder all tied up by the king, only then did he pay me a very generous visit. He asked what I’d known of the huntsman’s plot in advance, and his play with his knout edged quickly into torture. He spread my legs and flogged my groin until I came, used clamps and pins, my fairy king, but still I confessed him nothing.

Never again would I find him ever so ferocious and passionate.

The rest you know.

The king ruled long and hard and died finally, smiling, with his boots on. I ascended to the throne then for want of any others, and the whipped dogs the king had left behind began their gossips against me in earnest. Because they could.

That was when the rumour caught flame then, of a ghost of the heir wailing in the dead wing. And I still cannot thank you enough for your kindness then. That you’d denounce such nasty talk, when I could not have raised my voice without incurring further suspicion, was brave of you. And how I wish I could have told you at the time that I knew as fact, not guess, that there simply could be no ghost, that the heir still “lived” so to speak, if only amongst that horde of dwarves and forest-beasts who’d found both him and his deathly stillness so amenable to their predilections. But I’d still not mastered yet the poison’s antidote from the dead alchemist’s notes, and my own cowardice had made me loathe before the king’s death to secretly transport the heir back lest the king should catch wind of it. Or even to venture to the dwarves’ glade, in case I got missed or followed.

All that changed when the king passed, of course. Even at his pompous funeral—I saw your sly smirk at the spectacle and grinned inwardly to myself as well—I was silently making plans along with the requisite signs of piety as I mouthed the eulogy. At graveside, too, I saw that wandering prince, one of those charming faces with an empty mouth—or an empty face with a charming mouth!—who had just happened by, or so he claimed: petty royalty at most, the king’s distant nephew or somesuch, but plainly with his nose out on chance the throne proved up for grabs.

“It must be such a drag to be queen,” he leaned in to whisper as the pallbearers raised the king’s hearse-box with a grunt.

“Only if you have no glamour,” I replied, to put him off.

“Even so, I wish to help,” he persisted.

“Help yourself,” I smiled.

But I found his eager doggedness to help to my advantage and sent him on a task into the far-wilds that would chance him across the dwarves’ camp and the heir. He …

What? You can’t recall this “prince”? Well, it’s true. He never returned. They ate him.

And so forth.

I admit, I did have but very little faith in the amateur contrivance of that prince. What, really, could he hope to do? But all the same, it’d hurt me none to hope he might manage to spare me some small trouble. No matter. Back to plan A.

I met the dwarves and forest-beasts without an entourage and told them what they already feared: the heir was not quite dead.

“But him,” I said, and opened up the hearse-box of the king. “He breathes no more at all.”

A lie, but it’d be centuries or more before they found it out.

At my words, they grunted and sniffed the king and heir, and I could see in the darkness of their luminescent eyes that they’d caught the self-same scent: the relatedness of blood and poison both. “One never takes a thing without giving something in exchange,” I continued. “But I think you’ll find this king in every way larger than his heir.”

“But won’t he rot?” one asked.

“He’d better not,” I laughed. “Especially if you take good care of him,” I hinted. Since the humiliation of a corpse is that much more complete when left whole.

“O, we will,” one cooed, touching his hairy paw to the black thicket on the king’s chest. “We’ll lacquer him in milky glass and tunnel down.”

“Be sure you do,” I scolded gently, hungry then to be gone while the dwarves swapped out the king for the heir on the altar-slab of stone they’d strewn with leaves and boughs white not with snow.

The exchange complete, I returned with the heir.

I hid him in the king’s crypt without the help or servants’ knowledge to keep him from the prying eyes of gossips, and set about again to master perfectly the alchemist’s antidote from her notes. It took me years to learn the art and try get it right, of course, though even now it does not always work. I’m baffled why. Still, I’m pleased to say: of the last three criminals I surreptitiously poisoned instead and then brought back, only one rose up as a ghoul. The others showed their boundless gratitude by thanking me for my fairness and abandoning our kingdom with heartfelt promises never to return.

And I know I don’t have to convince you, but I swear I plan to fathom the alchemist’s art still more until I perfect the poison’s cure—you know I will. But the possibility of failure keeps haunting me. When I do go on to dare to try to wake the heir again, if the whole thing goes awry—if he crumbles to dust on the spot or worse, returns as something disgusting—you at least will not say, “See? Maybe we were wrong in the details, but were right in the spirit: all along we were right that you killed the heir.” Of course, you, in the wretched tortures of your sweetness, will instead just slyly grin and tease my vanity, “Look how much trouble you went to, just so people would not think ill of you!”

But even that’s hardly fair. I’ve troubled myself a lot, it’s true, but not only my vanity is at stake. Simple logic by itself insists that the heir, not I, more legitimately sits on the throne, but at the same time … Why dissemble? I love him.

He was always so alone! Even the servants made to shun him like the plague. From my rooms, I’d watch him—as white and hard as alabaster—at his baths or on the palace rooftop in the sun as it sparkled off the falling snow, touching himself.

Of course, you’ve guessed this already. The oldest story in the book, I know: the tried and true of trite and true.

But once I succeed an bring him back, the world will know the truth as well. And who could then deny it? Once heat flows again in his veins, and the eternal snow at last stops falling?

But just not yet. Not without a certainty of success.

Two of three of late is good, of course, but still not good enough. It’s not fair yet to try. I’ll only have one chance with him. Besides, there are criminals aplenty still in the docks glad to barter undeath or a pardon on the sly for execution outright. Their gratitude always touches me. Each who thanks me in the gloom of the dungeon before they slink away to foreign lands proves at least to me the fairness of my hopes and sends a rush of approaching success at last along my spine, as if it’s finally close.

But yes. It’s close at last. Like death approaching, can’t you taste it almost?

O mirror, mirror, on the wall: who is the fairest one of all?

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Summary (TLDR Version)

Between death and a fate worse than death, which would you choose.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Gaiman, McKean, & Klein’s (2012) [2] Black Orchid

I often start in on books using claims made in the promo or ad text on the back to illustrate how wide of those claims there the book actually goes. In its own way, this makes my reply sometimes as much about how the book gets received as the book itself, some might say unfairly.

In the present case, by contrast, if I start with Mikal Gilmore’s[3] introduction to Black Orchid, it may in fact become the sole and only focus of this reply. With graphic novels (books of fiction in general) I tend to avoid introductions, because they often have the effect (intended or not) of framing how you should read the book. Here, Gilmore announces, “the tale you are about to read begins in violence … but in this tale, something unanticipated happens” (4).

His major claim for the book, in fact, consists of insisting it amounts to a game-changer for the genre. This certainly seems valid for McKean’s contribution, although the work here falls short of his subsequent work, but whether the story deserves such praise remains far more doubtful. Especially in the terms that Gilmore states.

To begin with, he makes a great deal of the fact that the heroine gets killed at the outset, prefaced by her murderer declaring, “Hey, you know something? I’ve read the comics … I’m not going to lock you up in the basement before interrogating you … then leave you alone to escape. That stuff is so dub. But you know what I am going to do? I’m going to kill you. Now” (4). He ignores two major details here. First, the murderer first shoots Black Orchid in the head, but this does not kill her because, as he says, while “our data files on you are pretty thin on hard facts, … they do claim you’ve got some kind of bullet proof body” (14). So then he burns her alive and also blows up the top of the building. Second, this only kills one body the Black Orchid has; her consciousness, or something like it, regrows in another body.

So, in point of fact, contrary to Gilmore’s claim, the villain does not kill Black Orchid—or, we might say even more precisely, to kill Black Orchid involves more than the usual. Certainly, Gaiman announces don’t expect the expected by providing a scene like this at the outset. But just like Alan Moore’s swamp thing, which provides at least one of the obvious backdrops for Gaiman’s book, the scene does less to change the comic genre than to orient the reader (in this case) to the tacit immortality of the heroine.

Having apparently misread the opening, Gilmore says:

Either way, BLACK ORCHID works against all these conventions of violence: it begins in the horror of reality and its works its way towards a lovely dreamlike end that is no less powerful or hard-hitting for all its fable-style grace. As a result, BLACK ORCHID is the first major work of comic book literature that uses violence as a critique of the uses of violence (6).

That he calls this the “first major work of comic book literature” to pursue this theme suggests that others have pursued it, albeit in “minor” form. So we would have to wonder why Black Orchid deserves credit as the first, especially when Moore’s Swamp Thing has already (more than once) demonstrated that endings other than violence may solve the conventional villain-crisis of comic books. This happens, for instance, immediately with the story arc of Jason Woodrue, who has hijacked the world power of all plant life to destroy mammalian life on the planet. Swamp Thing literally asks the plants to stop their destruction (explaining that if all mammalian life were dead, plant life would die off as well). Moore also sets up this resolution by surveying the many, many powers that other superheroes have, showing how none of them can intervene into this kind of world-destruction, and so it makes the simplicity and elegance of the solution to the crisis that he (and Swamp Thing) articulate all the more amazing.

So, the solution of nonviolence already has a spectacular representation. But even in the present case, Gilmore seems to fatally misunderstand what he reads. Confronted by the proponents of violence in her sanctuary of nonviolence, Black Orchid does not respond with retributive violence when a human gets killed there (expressly against her wishes), but she also explicitly warns her opponents if his forces ever interfere with her again she will retaliate. He replies, “Sure. You’re the one who’s so down on violence!” and she replies, “I didn’t mention violence. But if he persists … I will find whatever it is that he loves … and I will take it away from him” (152).

She promises a quid pro quo, but it will not come in the form of violence, which in this book generally means death outright. Why Gilmore thinks this marks a game-changer, when virtually all comic book heroes, even a thoroughly violent one like Batman, has specifically and on principle not killed bad guys, seems baffling. The Joker seems to have endlessly enjoyed tormenting Batman with this point, and certainly Arkham Asylum, as perhaps the most laxly run containment facility ever, similarly serves to make the heroes’ refusals to kill (once and for all) their problematic villains probably the single-most important contribution of comic literature in general to the world.

Meanwhile, Gilmore seems to miss entirely the substance of Black Orchid’s threat: most succinctly, that one may suffer fates worse than death—fates suffered, in fact, by everyone in Arkham Asylum. One may say, precisely, that what containment in Arkham inflicts amounts to a denial of what the villain loves: the freedom to torment others and cause mayhem, &c. And since those in the asylum spend a great deal of time escaping, we may assume they don’t much enjoy their confinement.

Similarly, Black Orchid promises retaliation by taking away what others love—even if what they love amounts to power, opportunities for cruelty, circumstances to practice the fine art of sexual psychopathy, &c. Thus, the eschewal of (the violence of) death doesn’t come with anything resembling the truly radical solution Swamp Thing arrived at: to speak to the interests of those who plan to destroy the world.

One may insist that you can’t simply talk to the Joker or Poison, &c. First, let me say that heroes need villains, so making villains irredeemably immune to any form of rationality, therapy, or even alternative satisfaction to whatever mania inflicts them first and foremost serves the aims of an on-going narrative. But to insist on this absolutely impenetrable character tries to argue—or at least provides an image of—some theoretically imaginary or real limit to the power of human speech. Some people want to imagine that some people remain forever beyond the pale, and this simply serves those arguments of power that want to incarcerate or contain people—and thereby inflict fates worse than death upon them.

It points to the limits of our willingness, not necessarily our capacity, to redeem people from “madness” or “criminality”. It underscores our laziness, even if it also points to a woeful lack of resources provided to support the effort to reach those who suffer “madness” or “criminality”. And in a nation that has 2.2 million people in prison and where the construction of the “black male” as inherently criminal has wide social cache—most unfortunately amongst police in our police departments—the idea that retaliation (whether in the typical form of murder/death or in a heroic confinement to an institution) hardly amounts to a desirable social response. Swamp Thing’s “talk to them,” admittedly in a fantasy setting and done by a character very close to a deity, nonetheless provides an alternative image that seems far more worth striving for.

Black Orchid’s refusal of violence offers nothing more than a standard super-hero obligation; her substitution of retaliation does not necessarily mark any sort of humanistic or progressive advance, especially when confinement in someplace like Arkham Asylum serves as the major symbol of what “I won’t kill you” looks like and promises. Moreover, Gaiman’s subsequent demonstration of a considerable enthusiasm and knack for (sexual) psychopathology makes this supposedly progressive avoidance of violence less convincing. As Sandman and other texts make clear, he wallows adroitly in the horrific—and the “solution” promised here by Black Orchid amounts to a more horrible threat than death.

As such, it seems more that Gaiman articulates a way for super-heroes to inflict greater punishment and cruelty than simply murdering their opponents. Black Orchid herself has lived this horror herself, having suffered “death” (in quotation marks) at the outset. She ultimately arrives at a place of peace (her own Heaven), and this presents an image of hope (“where there is life, there’s hope”), yes, but not for those she inflicts retaliation upon.

Whatever complicated thematic unravelling this might lead to (in this book or in the comic genre generally), the major gesture here seems more akin to, “Silly mortal, you thought death was the worst that could happen to you?” In Sandman, Death certainly causes less agony and mayhem than Dream or Desire. Whatever shift Gaiman affects here, it seems to have far less to do with any structural change to the genre as Gilmore claims; such a remark applies more to Moore’s imaginative breakthrough in addressing rationality to plants. At most, all Gaiman has done amounts to pulling back the veil on the (im)polite fiction that permits super-heroes (and us) to pat ourselves on the back for torturing those we deem irredeemable.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Gaiman, N., McKean, D., & Klein, T. (2012). Black Orchid. Deluxe ed. New York, N.Y: DC Comics/Vertigo., pp. 1–160.

[3] A senior writer at Rolling Stone, the introduction assures me.