Thursday, June 22, 2017


Brethren Sample Illustration 

I have nearly finished a new novel, Brethren. Here’s a possible blurb:

1984. The Miners’ Strike. Liverpool win the European Cup, and the Militant-led city council is on a collision course with the Thatcher government. But Robert only cares about how many references to God he can find in the lyrics of U2, and the imminent arrival of evangelist Billy Graham for Mission England. 

And the visitors from God. If they are from God. 

The first keeps changing: sometimes it’s a giant; sometimes a dwarf. Is it an angel, with a message for him? But when it finally speaks, it says, 'I know you will never forgive me leaving you with this terrible mess. I would like to say I love you but after this you won’t believe it.'

The second visitor is a starved, naked girl. Much chattier. She says Robert knows her—she sacrificed herself for him. Now she wants a sacrifice in return.

She’s definitely not an angel.

I am now thinking about possible illustrations for this novel. As usual, I am collaborating with Dan Hallett to create a few samples for publishers, who can then decide if this is something they would like to see more of. The picture above is the first such sample. The rest of this post is a simplified account of the creation of this illustration, including: some general notes I wrote for Dan to introduce the novel; a short extract from chapter 14; and a script for this particular illustration.

General Notes for Dan

Brethren is set in evangelical Protestant church (the Brethren are a particularly austere non-conformist group). So my original idea was that its depiction of angels and demons would be rigorously Protestant, and use only Biblical sources. This is important because most of our ideas about demons, and some of those about angels, actually come from the New Testament Apocrypha (i.e. works judged unreliable by the early church) or the similar Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. But Robert’s theories about angels are taken solely from the canonical books of the Bible, which leads him to rather different conclusions to those of Christian traditions informed by these other sources.
However, Brethren is also a horror story: that is, a story in the Gothic tradition, in which the protagonist is haunted by repressed secrets. And one of the ideas behind the Gothic as it emerged in eighteenth-century novels is that England is similarly haunted by its medieval past: that is, by its Catholic past. The ruined monasteries and abbeys and castles that were the settings for Gothic fiction were ruined because of the destruction caused by Henry VIII’s reformation.
So my protagonist tries to construct an austere Protestant system of belief, but he’s haunted by Catholic ideas, which seep into his visions and experiences: e.g. transubstantiation (the idea that the bread and wine somehow become the actual body of Christ during communion), and the Harrowing of Hell (the idea, derived from the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus, that Christ preached to the imprisoned spirits in hell between his death and resurrection). I also draw on late-medieval Catholic sources like morality plays, in which the soul of Everyman was besieged by demons and angels; and medieval characters like Joan of Arc (who was visited by saints and angels).
So I want the images to have a late-medieval, Catholic feel, with a visual style from the 15th and early 16th centuries (i.e. just before the Reformation), but (if and when they include human figures) these will be dressed in 1980s clothes (I have some photos I can supply for reference, but they’re not necessary for this particular illustration). I was thinking of an engraving style, but really, if we’re talking 15th century, woodcut is more appropriate (and will probably be easier to do).
The sample illustration is based on the idea of the scapegoat from Leviticus in the Old Testament, which is discussed in chapter 14 of the novel. The relevant extract is appended below. Robert, the main protagonist, is the only one who can see or hear the ‘girl’, a.k.a. the demon Azazel. His friend Tracey’s there for moral support, as is Jenny, who’s an R.E. teacher with a background in theology. Mark’s an autodidact lay preacher. He’s the one actually performing the exorcism.

Novel Extract

‘My name is Azazel,’ the girl says.
Robert copies her. ‘Az-a-zel.’
‘What does that mean?’ Mark says. ‘Who are you?’
‘Ask Jenny,’ the girl says. ‘She knows.’
‘Jenny knows what it means.’
‘Me? I’m not …’ Everyone looks at her. ‘Fine. It’s from Leviticus. The ritual for the Day of Atonement. It might not even be a name.’
‘It’s my name,’ the girl says.
‘We don’t have theological discussions with demons,’ Mark says. ‘They’ve got nothing to teach us about God.’
Jenny pulls her bag out from under the chair, and gets her Bible out. She places it on her lap. ‘Maybe it’s something Robert needs to tell us.’
Mark says, ‘Well, there’s no harm in reading from God’s Word. But I’m not having a demon explain it to me.’
‘Take your time,’ the girl says. ‘Talk it over.’
‘On the Day of Atonement,’ Jenny says, ‘the High Priest stood before the Ark, in the presence of God. But first he had to make a special sacrifice.’
‘Nothing to do with demons,’ Mark says.
‘So he took two goats, and he cast lots between them.’
‘That’s you and Tracey,’ the girl says to Robert.
‘One goat for God; the other … for Azazel.’
‘It doesn’t say that.’ Mark gives in and goes to get his Bible from the top of the dresser on the other side of the room. He gives the bed a wide berth.
‘You won’t find it in the NIV,’ Jenny says. ‘Or the King James. Or the Living Bible. They all translate it. But they’re guessing, because no-one knows what it means.’
‘I do,’ the girl says.
Jenny says, ‘In Hebrew, it’s something like “sent away”; “removed”.’
‘Exorcised,’ the girl says.
‘In the Latin Bible, it’s caper emissarius. Messenger goat. Scout, spy.’
‘Angel,’ Robert says.
Jenny flicks through her Bible to Leviticus. ‘In English, it’s usually scapegoat, but Tyndale invented that word in 1530 for his translation, and everyone else copied him. Except the RSV.’ She reads, ‘The goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
‘So the High Priest sacrifices one goat; sprinkles its blood in the Holy of Holies. Then he puts his hands on the head of the other, and confesses the sins of the people.’ She reads again. ‘The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land. To Azazel. Which could just be a place in the desert. Or a demon who lives there.’
‘Both,’ the girl says.
‘Jesus,’ Mark says. ‘He’s the scapegoat.’
‘But they don’t kill the scapegoat,’ Tracey says. She hooks her feet around the front legs of her chair and looks down again.
‘Right,’ Jenny says. ‘Literally, “the goat who escapes”. Because it doesn’t matter what happens to it, after they send it away.’
‘One for God,’ the girl says, ‘one for me. But the one for God dies; and the one for me lives.’
Robert doesn’t believe her. ‘Maybe Azazel kills the scapegoat.’
‘Jesus is the scapegoat,’ Mark says. ‘And He wasn’t sacrificed to a demon.’
Jenny closes her Bible, but keeps her finger inside it to mark her place. ‘Why Azazel, Robert?’ she says, as if he chose the name. ‘Did you hear it in a sermon?’
Robert makes his hands into fists. ‘No.’
‘In the desert, outside the camp.’ Jenny taps her Bible against her knee. ‘The Greek word for hell is Gehenna. Which was a place outside Jerusalem where people sacrificed their children.’
‘Maybe Abraham went there to kill Isaac,’ the girl says, drawing patterns on the quilt with her finger.
‘In Jesus’ day, it was abandoned, cursed. A rubbish dump.’
‘So Azazel is hell?’ Robert says, thinking of Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by Satan. Maybe that was Gehenna too.
‘No. I don’t know.’
‘If Azazel eats the goat, does that mean it’s eating sin?’
‘What else would a demon eat?’ Mark says.
Jenny says, ‘In medieval paintings, the entrance to hell is a mouth. So when Jesus dies, it tries to eat Him. But He’s too pure; it can’t digest Him. So it spits Him out.’
‘Does Azazel spit the scapegoat out?’ Robert asks.
The girl burps.
‘We don’t need to know this,’ Mark says. ‘It’s not relevant.’
Jenny says, ‘Christ bears the sins of the world, but He’s still pure. He takes the penalty, but not the guilt.’
The girl burps again, and says, ‘His flavour doesn’t change. He still tastes the same.’
‘For the scapegoat, it’s more like the other way round. It takes the guilt, but not the penalty.’
‘You take the penalty; Tracey takes the guilt,’ the girl says to Robert. ‘Or the other way round. It’s up to you.’
‘I don’t want it to be up to me.’
‘Robert,’ Mark says, ‘stop talking to it.’
‘But it is up to you,’ the girl says. ‘So who do you want to be? The goat for God; or the goat for Azazel?’

Script for Dan

A really boring illustration of these ideas would be a picture of two goats: maybe one black, and one white. So I thought, what if it’s not two goats? What if it’s half a goat? This ties in to another famous Biblical story about King Solomon, who decided to cut a baby in half to find out which of two women was the mother: she was the one willing to give the baby away rather than see it harmed. In the context of the novel, depicting the goat cut in half could suggest that choice is painful, disruptive, and reveals secrets (the inside of the goat). It always involves violence and the renunciation of possibilities (by choosing one thing, by definition you exclude another).
I started off by thinking of Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child, but if you look at the cross-sectioned cow in that, its interior just seems a mess. It’s difficult to make out the shapes of internal organs, etc. So we want a goat cut in half, but rendered somewhat non-realistically, more like the ‘self-dissecting man’ from the anatomy treatises of Vesalius, who displays all his internal organs, etc. In fact, the high priest often had to separate individual organs as part of the different Old Testament sacrificial rites.
So: a cross-sectioned black goat, with a (probably simplified and stylised) set of visible internal organs.
The idea that the scapegoat is Christ also made me think of the image of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, which is shown with a halo, carrying a flag with a Saint George’s Cross. So our goat will similarly have a halo and flag. It’s both the Lamb of God and the scapegoat. But a goat (particularly a black goat) is normally a Satanic symbol, so it’s also both Christ and the devil.
The Hirst cows look very odd with only two legs, and similarly I suspect it will be difficult to render a convincing two-legged goat. This is something you’ll have to figure out. I guess the Hirst one is neither sitting nor standing, but suspended, and that’s probably the impression we want too.
Brethren also has several allusions to the Minotaur and the labyrinth, which represent the devil and hell in medieval allegory, with Theseus as Christ, penetrating the labyrinth to kill the devil. So one final layer is to have a red maze in the background behind the goat. This maze begins / comes out / is analogous with the spaces between the goat’s various internal organs, i.e. the organs sit on a red background inside the goat, where they block out most of that background, reducing the visible part of the background to a series of lines, whose shapes resemble those of a maze / labyrinth. A drop / line of blood trickles out of the goat and down onto the background of the page, where it begins another, similar path through a larger maze / labyrinth. (N. B. For reference, there’s a labyrinth filled by an advancing rivulet of blood in the first Hellboy film.)
The blood coming out of the goat is therefore a trickling red thread like the thread Ariadne gives to Theseus in the minotaur's labyrinth. So there's a sense in which we should be able to see the blood flow as reversible: we should be able to follow its thread from the outside inwards, as well as from the centre out.
Mazes / labyrinths are common elements in the floor decorations of medieval cathedrals, where they represent the idea of pilgrimage. Here’s the one from Chartres: http://www.luc.edu/medieval/labyrinths/chartres.shtml In this context, it's Jerusalem at the centre of the labyrinth, not the devil. This alternative, positive meaning ties in with the goat / lamb doubling / superimposition.

No comments: