Dark Advent: The Missing Afterword

by Brian on July 24, 2015

in Fiction

About that newly released edition of Dark Advent: It was supposed to have an Afterword. I wrote it. The publisher typeset it. When I proofread the book in galley form, it was there. But when I received a finished copy in the mail the other day, guess what was nowhere to be found…

Jason Hart sets off on a bloody quest to find the missing afterword.

Jason Hart sets off on a bloody quest to find the missing afterword.

One of the staffers, it turns out, was having problems with the production file, dismantled it, then neglected to reassemble it as it had been.

They tell me they’ll be e-mailing the Afterword as a PDF file to pre-order buyers. It’s supposed to be reinstated in the forthcoming e-book edition. We’ll see.

In the meantime, here it is.

Afterword: If You Can’t Go Home Again, Renovate

Way deep into Dark Advent, hero-verging-on-antihero Jason Hart tells a new friend his own reasons why, as Thomas Wolfe observed, you can’t go home again:

“It’s never like you imagine it. It’s like you find gaps there … They were always there, only before you leave you don’t notice them much, and after you’re gone you forget about them. Then when you come back, it’s like you discover them all over again. And it’s a letdown.”

There’s prescience for you. When I first wrote those lines, I had no clue that I was also describing my reaction to looking at the novel again for the first time in more than twenty years. The pattern: Here and there are bits that make me glad I wrote them, that wouldn’t look or feel out of place in later work, but mostly I just groan a lot and want to bang my head against the desk, unable to believe that this was the published draft. It makes it seem all the greater a miracle that I’ve seen and heard, many times, Dark Advent mentioned in the same favorable breath with Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert R. McCammon’s Swan Song.

This novel was and is a lot of things to me … including a lesson in the merits of forging ahead with what you truly believe in, of following the path your heart insists on taking and ignoring the arguments against it that your head comes up with.

In spite of that, and maybe because of it, if you were to have memorized Dark Advent’s first incarnation the way ardent believers sometimes memorize religious texts — a ridiculous notion, but go with it — you would find yourself tripped up on every page while trying to recite along with this incarnation. Word-for-word, the texts don’t much match up anymore.

I’ve been down this road before, just not as far. Deathgrip and Prototype both got a light dusting and spritz of polish before new editions, along with a jillion shorter pieces. As I write this, I’m going through the same process with Oasis, my first novel; despite its even earlier genesis, it’s told in an easygoing, conversational, first-person narrative, so I’m mostly content to leave well enough alone.

Dark Advent is different. This is the first (and probably the only) time that the process has been extensive enough that I feel compelled to issue a warning. This time the results could legitimately be called a brand new draft.

Not to worry — the story is still the same. Nobody behaves any differently. If it were Star Wars, Han would still shoot first. If it were E.T., the feds would still have guns instead of walkie-talkies. A couple things did get expanded and morphed a bit, to shore up spots where, the first time around, either my sense of logic took a holiday or I got lazy. Mostly I think of this epic tweak job as addressing immaturities of presentation in an early, formative work.

I’m entertaining the suspicion that Dark Advent was probably too ambitious a novel to have written when I did, although to get that through my thick skull at the time you would’ve needed a pneumatic bolt-gun. Oasis was begun a bit over a year after I’d graduated from college. Dark Advent set sail approximately a year after that. The reason the central characters of both are students is because, at the time, a student was still about all I knew how to be.

But Oasis was a relatively small novel, intimate in scope. As it was getting beaten up on its first naïve, wide-eyed trips to New York, and I was casting about for what to tackle next, it felt as if I had to up the ante or risk dying of stagnation … and what could be greater stakes than ending the world as we know it?

*

I’d been sitting on the idea of mass extinction for years already.

Dark Advent has its roots in a particularly vivid and unsettling dream I had while a college freshman. In it, I found myself wandering alone in a near-empty St. Louis after some unspecified or unremembered catastrophe had eradicated most of the world’s population. I was taken in by a girl about my age and her father, who had made a new home in the top floor of one of the towers near the Mississippi riverfront, all the better to see for miles around.

Be careful, they warned me. While there were other survivors, many had banded together to serve some darker spirit of the age. Somehow — dreams are always big on somehow — one night we ended up captives of these people inside Busch Stadium, which sat in crumbly ruins, not unlike the Roman Coliseum. To this day I can still clearly recall the soul-crushing feeling of being unable to save this girl and her father as the others pulled them out of my hands, dragging them off to their fate.

The dream had an even more enigmatic coda. A few minutes after losing my new people, I was back out on the streets again. Standing outside the stadium, I spotted a guy a few years older than I, probably in his early- to mid-twenties, jogging toward me, all the things he needed to get by in the world stowed in a small backpack.

“You shouldn’t stay here,” I told him. “It’s not safe here.”

“Why don’t you run with me, then?”

Except I couldn’t. For me, there was no leaving. He didn’t ask again, and I could only watch as he kicked up his heels, resumed his pace, and jogged into the distance until he disappeared from sight.

Damn, boy.

This wasn’t one of the usual dreams that leave you alone by breakfast time. This one stuck like a thorn. So I wrote it up into a longish story of 30 or so pages, filling in the many gaps that the dream had been inconsiderate enough to leave. Most everyone had died from the one-two punch of a nuclear war and a flu virus that had mutated in the aftermath. The young woman I named Erika, after someone I’d recently met during a spring break trip to New England.

And that was that. Still, I thought I had something there worth coming back to, once I thought my chops were up to it.

A year later, exquisite tragedy: As a recent convert to Stephen King, I worked my way up to The Stand, much of it read while hurtling through a spring break trip to Florida. Love the book though I did, the experience was also a little like having a stake driven into my heart, one page at a time. And there were a lot of pages. This, I realized, was the novel I’d wanted to grow from that early seed. This was what I’d aspired to, but could never come close to. This was the gold standard, and — cue music for moping — since I knew I could never better it, I decided why bother even trying.

*

Fast-forward: Further education. Graduation. A job I couldn’t wait to quit. One novel in the can, a handful of short stories that a few editors had thought were worth publishing, and still feeding on the invaluable encouragement of a Harvard professor — my workshop leader at a weeklong writers conference in Boston — who’d assured me I was ready to do this writing thing for real, and had backed up her faith with a list of literary agents to approach.

I was feeling just cocky enough to go from “why bother” to “why not.”

The vital thing was to turn the core idea over and look at it in a different light, and commit to making it into a different kind of story than what The Stand was, despite the obvious surface similarities. I believe that King himself has described The Stand as an epic fantasy quest novel told against a modern American backdrop. Tolkien in work boots.

I, on the other hand, decided after a lot of mud-wrestling with myself to dispense with fantasy and supernatural elements altogether. Yes, there’s Erika and her knack, but that doesn’t count. There really are people like her; for more on that, I refer you to the life and work of psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff, whose childhood and teen years could’ve served as a template for Erika’s.

Instead, along the way I’d gotten interested in the medieval and Viking eras, the latter, at least, obvious from the thousand-year-old bloodfeud at the heart of Oasis. So that’s how I started to look at Dark Advent: as a gritty medieval fable arising out of a fallen modern world and its trappings. And, to kick it all off, what sort of pandemic could be more medieval than the plague? But weaponized, a product of the emerging threat of global terrorism and, at the time, national fears of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. (Ironic, then, that he was finally deposed and killed around the time I started going through the novel again.)

Jason I began to see as a commoner turned knight errant. It wasn’t by accident that he usually drives cars named for horses. Travis Lane became the brutish warlord who arises in a lawless power vacuum, and Peter Solomon the evil wizard behind him, with his own agenda. To house their growing warband, there could be only one choice: Union Station. If you’ve never seen it — a glorious old train station restored to new life after decades of decrepitude — just Google a picture, then try arguing that it’s not the perfect urban castle.

At the same time, the novel was also inevitably influenced by several other post-apocalyptic works I’d injected into my gene pool over the years: chiefly, the novels Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank, Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and Richard Matheson’s classic I Am Legend, as well as the films Mad Max and The Road Warrior, Dawn of the Dead, and Escape From New York. I’ve always loved the tie-in trivia that much of Escape was filmed in blighted areas of St. Louis. The bloodsport scene, in which Snake Plissken is forced into the ring to battle it out with a gigantic gladiator played by wrestler Ox Baker — whose moustache and eyebrows were obviously on steroids — was shot in Union Station itself, pre-renovation.

With all this DNA combining and recombining, whether or not my reach exceeded my grasp isn’t really for me to decide or deny.

What’s unquestionably true, however, is that I was barely past the baby-steps stage of not only learning how to write, but learning in public. I have no trunk novels, that now-anachronistic euphemism for manuscripts condemned to cold storage because there were no takers. I don’t even have that many trunk stories. All together, my unpublished stuff tallies around 37,500 words, easily under the strictest word-count ceiling for a single novella.

That’s not much of a foundation. Not a lot of margin for what I call the enema phase: getting the crap out of your system, when crap is all you have, so that one day you can start clean.

Instead, for better or for worse, my post-graduate degree in writing was earned almost entirely before an audience, readers and editors and critics who ended up being teachers as good as, or better than, any that I could’ve encountered in a classroom.

Which is why I feel I owe you something better with this outing of Dark Advent: the same novel, but with the roughest edges buffed away, without violating the spirit of the original. A remastered recording, hoping that the composition and performance shine through with fewer distractions left by earlier technical limitations.

If this is your first time reading it, you of course won’t know any different.

And if you’re coming back to it after years and miles of your own, the finest thing I could hope for is that you never even notice, and think, “Sweet … it’s just like I remembered.”

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