Guest Writer: Matthew Stephen Sunrich
When it comes to video games, I am strictly a classicist. I obsessively played arcade games all throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, starting, appropriately enough, with Pac-Man and ending sometime around the release of the original Mortal Kombat. The last home console I owned was the NES, which was a major force in my development as a lover of both fantasy and 8-bit music (the latter is essentially the soundtrack of my life). I have dabbled here and there since then, but for me the golden years ended when the SNES hit the shelves. I know that system has a lot of fans, but it represented an aesthetic shift that failed to appeal to my sensibilities. In recent years, I have ignored modern games in favor of contenting myself with emulators and plug-and-play systems featuring my favorites from yesteryear.
Because of this, I have never played any of the Dark Souls video games. My introduction to its world manifested itself in my exposure to the board game, which a friend of mine acquired and invited me to play. I could tell that it was influenced by Dungeons & Dragons and its ilk, so I decided it was worth a shot. It drew me in immediately. I have played it several times since then and really enjoy it, though it’s hard as crap, an element carried over from the video games, as I understand it.
Having developed a taste for the game’s unique setting, I found my interest piqued when I discovered that it had found its way onto the comic page. Titan’s Dark Souls: Legends of the Flame trade paperback compiles a brace of two-issue miniseries, Legends of the Flame and Tales of Ember. These series are anthologies, and between them twelve stories are presented, thirteen counting the frame story, “The Shrine.” A variety of creators were involved in these tales, and as a whole it comprises an attractive collection.
The most appealing thing about it is its dark fantasy motif, which represents a mixture of horror and fantasy. These two genres are closely related (in fact, Stephen King maintains that they are the same thing), and this relationship is well exemplified here. Many modern fantasy series have impelled readers to reassess their conception of what horror really means, however. We typically associate it with some form of the supernatural, but on a more fundamental level it is more related to the capacity for evil in intelligent creatures. While animals are capable of what we interpret as horrific acts, they are incapable of evil because they are amoral. They act completely on instinct, while the horrific acts of humans are, at least to some degree, premeditated.
It has often been said, and rightly so, that the real monsters are not orcs or kobolds but humans; we have seen this perhaps best illustrated in the hugely popular HBO program Game of Thrones, which, by design, concerns a fantasy world in which the supernatural is, for the most part, background noise. The morally ambiguous nature of this show, the books it’s based on, and its myriad imitators, have been termed “grimdark” because it seems that none of the characters fit the traditional definition of “good.” No one is beyond reproach; there are no closets free of skeletons in anyone’s house. Many horrific things have taken place in the show, but it would be a stretch to refer to it as horror. Unlike horror, its objective is not to scare viewers but to intrigue, engage, and entertain them.
Moreover, the settings of dark fantasy are typically oppressive. Even when the sun is out, the shadows appear to dominate the landscape. The air is seldom clear, filled with smoke, dust, and mist, and the weather is typically unpleasant. Rain does not wash away the filth; it merely spreads it around and makes traversing the landscape more challenging. In the case of Thrones, snow and ice are virtually ubiquitous, a constant reminder that the characters will ultimately be overpowered by the encroaching evil.
All of that being said, the most important thing to know about Dark Souls is that it deals with the grimmer side of fantasy. There are traditional monsters to be found, but it’s frequently difficult to distinguish them from the humans. It’s also easy to forget that some of the helmets and masks conceal human faces rather than decaying mockeries of them. The world these men and women occupy is not one into which much goodness penetrates. According to the afterword of the trade paperback, “The worlds of Dark Souls are cruel and unforgiving; its necrotic landscapes littered with stories of loss, suffering, and grim regret.”
The first three stories, “Crossroads,” “The Flame’s Return,” and “The Labyrinth,” illustrate the theme that there is no escape from the horrors of the world. The characters’ attempts to undo the evil that has befallen them or to at least keep it at bay prove fruitless. There is no going back. There will never be another happy ending. The best they can do is accept the way things are and try to endure, although one has to wonder why they would even choose to. Why do they not just let death claim them to put an end to the misery? The answer is perhaps best stated by the part of Hamlet’s soliloquy in which he avers that death is frightening primarily because of what might be waiting on the other side. It could be something better, but it could also be something worse. The uncertainty is forever staring us in the face with a cold eye. All three stories involve the undead in some manner and exemplify that both death and undeath are beyond mortal control.
The next three, “The Devoted,” “That Which Holds Us Human,” and “Action Replay” are poetic reflections on the nature of battle and how delusion can seep into the minds of men who find themselves in realms where madness holds sway. I was struck by the inclusion of a monster in the first story that resembles a drider (a drow/spider hybrid from Forgotten Realms) but has a few alterations. The idea of human/animal hybrids goes back thousands of years, and it’s always interesting to see it used in fantasy in unexpected ways. All three stories explore the relationship between horror and philosophy, often using symbolism, and while the endings provide little in the way of closure, they leave readers with a lot to think about.
“Savior,” “The Infected,” and “Witches” explore the idea that salvation does not always come in the form that we expect. Those in unpleasant circumstances usually seek a way out, and desperation can often cloud their judgment; they tend to be more trusting because they no longer have anything to lose. Any avenue of escape draws them. It’s not hard to imagine that there are many who find ways to exploit these poor souls. There are also those who fancy themselves saviors; they are motivated by what passes for altruism in a realm of endless misery. They have the best of intentions, but you know what they say about that. Whether or not they are misguided, whether or not their actions are justified, is for the reader to decide.
The final triad of stories, “Behold, Townsfolk!”, “Shattered Mirror,” and “Pound of Flesh,” concerns the value of appearances. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s famous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the primary theme of which is the retention of physical beauty. It is but one of many stories of people attempting to stay youthfully attractive through whatever means necessary. The story of Elizabeth Bathory is also well recognized, as she is rumored to have bathed in the blood of the young girls she had murdered to retain her looks. The young woman in “Behold” exemplifies this idea best in her quest to gain immortality. The mirror imagery in “Shattered Mirror” isn’t hard to recognize, though it is less overt in its message. What does the mirror’s reflection tell us about ourselves? Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” tells us, “When a mirror speaks, the reflection lies.” What you see is not always what you get, and a person’s face often betrays what dwells within.
One of the most interesting things to be found here is that one character reveals that there was a time in this world’s history “when the flame of life still burned bright and pure,” before it was “blighted.” What was it, one cannot help but wonder, that plunged the world into despair?
It would be fair to state that the offerings in this collection are less stories than they are portraits of a world in which “hope” has faded from the active vocabulary. One character describes them as “echoes of adventures lost, glances of lives half-spun,” which encapsulates things rather well. There is a certain beauty in darkness, however, and for those who can appreciate it, there is much to like here.