I’ve said this before: magic should not be science. Magic can be systematic and internally consistent, but it shouldn’t be reduced to a human tool, like astronomy or chemistry. A lot of writers and worldbuilders don’t seem to understand the difference–didn’t Arthur C. Clarke famously say that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?”
But there is a difference. That’s what my new essay is about.
In this essay, titled “Frodo is Dead” I wanted to show how basing magic off of science, ration, and the Enlightenment philosophies that informed them inevitably leads to a breakdown of its fantasy world by turning it into a mirror of our world.
This is Vol. 3 of the Occult Reading list, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week.
Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.
Disclaimer: There’s no conspiracy between me and New Retro Wave–I just listen to their songs all the goddamn time. But if they want to talk sponsorship deals, I’m down to sell out and get some of that sweet 80’s merch.
Trevor Something, give me a call. We’ll work something out.
THE Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
This is the Hugo Award-winning sci-fi book by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. It’s garnered some unreal praise, and I finally got around to reading it. So far, I’m 200 pages in and I’m not a fan. Putting aside the difficulties of translation, the plot and pacing are where the book comes up seriously short. So far, the plot has been a very choppy clockwork affair, with the main character essentially shuttling himself from place to place, listening to exposition, then periodically popping in to the VR world of Three Body. Every exposition scene happens almost back-to-back, with Wang Miao acting as a plot-automaton who decides, “hey, let’s give this person a call,” followed immediately by “let’s visit this person,” and then “they told me to visit this person, so let’s go here and speak to this person.” Rather than Jack Bauer in 24, who is propelled from place to place by desperation, gunfire, and a constant stream of new discoveries, the countdown Wang faces doesn’t drive the action, and the only thing Wang needs to do is go to places so people can talk at him. There’s no tension or challenge to ferreting out the information he needs, and the plot comes off as a series of mechanical scenes strung together without much attempt at subtlety or tension. The scene in which Wang discovers the murder of Shen Yufei and listens to the revelations of her husband are the worst perpetrators of this.
On top of the lackluster plotting, the video game world of Three Body ends up being a bizarre, pseudo-metaphorical dream sequence. Unlike Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse in Snow Crash or William Gibson’s Grid in Neuromancer, the rules and logic of the virtual world are opaque and confusing. Characters can randomly speed up the passage of time as it suits them, the logic and mechanics behind player dehydration are completely unexplained (do they go into spectator mode? Log out?), and it’s not even clear if the entities Wang is encountering are NPCs or players. The most baffling question is about advancement: the game revolves around trying to predict the movements of the sun, but a succession of players (if they’re indeed human players) seem to put forth antiquated versions of the solar system. No human player but the protagonist seems to contribute to the game or its advancement but the protagonist, who always arrives at exactly the right time to see the key developments.
I haven’t finished the book yet, but already I’m feeling like The Three Body Problem is going to be a monumental disappointment.
This is a nice survey of how different fantasy series have used language as the basis for magic systems (a topic I’ve written about in relation to both binary and poetry). It deals with the big-name franchises, including LoTR and Harry Potter, but also The Spellwright Trilogy and video games like Skyrim and Treasure of the Rudras.
I still remember opening up a book in Morrowind after clearing out a den of necromancers and reading about the Nords shouting down their enemies’ walls with the magic of their voices, and how the most powerful had to be gagged to keep their voices from destroying everything around them. At the time, I thought “They could never turn that into a real magic system. It’s cool flavor, though.”
So it was an awe-inspiring bash to the head to find out that that little, innocuous passage from the early 2000s was kept in mind across the development of Oblivion and brought to glorious fruition in a fully realized magical language and system in Skyrim. Next, I want to see the snake people from that one hidden continent!
This is a cool little post from V.E. Schwab, author of A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, both of which I own (thanks, publishing friends!). Schwab touches on the difficulty of composing languages for a fantasy world, as well as the promise: she explains how the poetry and sound of language can reveal something about the nature of the world and its speakers, and how it can immerse a reader in the world of the story by forcing them “to learn as they go, just as travelers would, when passing through a foreign land.”
Schwab also touches on the dangers of fantasy languages: “Used poorly, fictional languages can feel like a wall, preventing all but the well-versed from feeling included in a world.” I’ve seen this pretty often, and it comes from the tricky management of a learning curve within the narrative, by which a reader learns about the world, the culture, and the events of the book. Introducing too much foreign information leads to alienation and frustration, like a mother spelling out words so she can speak over the head of a toddler. “Don’t you know what a ba’aleth is, reader? No? It’s very important.”
This is just a couple thoughts from Eric Honour, who has a page on Medium. It’s mostly some criticism on the simplicity and lack of verisimilitude that characterizes language and naming in fantasy. One thing he touches on is how monolithic language and names become when the creator just sits down and pushes two words together like a caveman, like “Iron Walker” or (my personal pet peeve term from Dune) “lasgun”. But one particular insight from Eric struck me:
“This is something that turns me off about a lot of fantasy. It’s also something that I can see is difficult to navigate — having multiple names for things is more realistic, but also can feel like it’s overwhelming the reader. Real-life historical names are full of metonymy and misapplication and the shifting sands of living language, and that’s a level of complexity that might not even be advantageous to a fictional world. But not even making the attempt feels sort of lazy.”
Something that the articles from Tor and V.E. Schwab also touch on is that language shifts and changes to reflect its culture and its world. To create a language, or even naming conventions for armies, you have to think about how words and people use and abuse terminology. A great example is military slang and acronyms like FUBAR, SNAFU, BDU, and MOPP, or the backronyms of gang culture. There’s something more than the denotative meaning of words, a kind of vitality to them, and that’s what a lot of fantasy writers gloss over.
“Just Like You (Hazy Mountains Remix)” by Chromatics
One of my top three favorites from the world of New Retro Wave, Just Like You is one of those haunting love songs that evokes the kind of otherworldly, illusory lover that ELO sang about in Yours Truly, 2095, or even the twisted virtual love in Bad Religion’s I Love My Computer. It’s a song wrapped up in nostalgia and ethereal, lovesick illusions, and the reverb clings to your mind like cobwebs. Most disturbing (or enticing) of all is the idea of a doppleganger, a lover who “looks just like you/he even says the same things/he even wears the same clothes,” who ultimately “loves like you used to.”
“The Glory” by Reapers
The Glory is another of my top three favorites from the good folks over at New Retro Wave (THERE IS NO SPONSORSHIP DEAL), and one of my favorite songs, period. The contrast between the low, dirge-like like chanting and the full-throated, almost plaintive rock-and-roll yelling of the chorus gives the whole song a sense of loss and bitterness. The lyrics, which seem to be an ode to death, end up making it the perfect song for people interested in the dark side of the 80’s.
Magic in fantasy, as I’ve said before, shouldn’t be a science. It shouldn’t be a palette-swapped form of electricity or physics, where mages carry out “experiments” like Isaac Newton (though he himself was apparently a big fan of alchemy). The reason is that magic, when approached like a science, brings up same reductionism that haunts modern people: if we’re all just chemical reactions in our brains, is there space for truth, or meaning, or wonder? Because those are the very things fantasy can explore like no other genre.
I think magic in fantasy should have rules. The way I conceive it, it should undergird the workings of nature and the world, similar to how Ursula LeGuin’s used taxonomy as magic. But when I imagine magic, there’s something transcendental about it that goes beyond science and materialism. How do you begin designing a system like that? It’s like making up a fictional branch of aeronautics. But that’s what’s so amazing about worldbuilding: you get to make the rules.
What follows is the basic building blocks for a magic system that I conceived back in 2014, combining the art of Buddhist mandalas, computer coding, and musical theory with metaphysics, astronomy, and trigonometry. This is, in the realest sense, a product of an occult triangle lab. One note, however: this is all hypothetical. I don’t have a degree in linguistics like Tolkien, or in graphology. To actually create the symbolic language I describe and to embed these kinds of patterns in it would be something akin to making a crossword puzzle out of an entire language. It would take years of careful construction. So maybe a long-term project for me.
But in the meantime…
Spell Maps, COMPUTER CODE and GEOMETRY
A couple years ago, I started to sketch out the beginnings of a written magic system for my fantasy world. I imagined putting together a bunch of symbols in a sequence that expresses what you want to happen, like you’d do with a line of computer code. But there is something inherently beautiful about how these symbols would fit together: if you deconstruct the interactions between the symbols, you would find that all the symbols could be grouped into discrete units, with the groups’ unity based around shared markings in their graphic composition (similar strokes and dots in the symbols) or the part of the spell they affect (such as binding or flight). These rows of symbols would form rectangular paragraphs, and these rectangles could be oriented to one another like building blocks to form geometric shapes, with each paragraph forming a side of the shape.
These shapes would be arranged into a “spell map,” a geometric representation of how the different parts of the spell work together. It would form a radial or symmetrical design based around a central polygonal figure, such as a square or hexagon. Arms extending from the central polygonal shape would represent the different aspects of the spell, and the smaller components of the arms would be based around their own geometric patterns, making a chain of hexagons, squares, triangles, and so on. So the patterns contained within the individual lines of magical code would eventually form spirals of meta-patterns.
A functioning, well-written spell would have perfect symmetry when all the symbols are arranged in this manner, so a mage writing a new spell could actually lay out their writing in a half-made spell map and figure out what to write next based on their knowledge of geometry and angles. They can also figure out where their spell is going wrong based on the symmetry of the design.
Spell Maps, Triangles, and Designa
The thing is, every polygon is made up of triangles. When you have a regular polygon, like a pentagon, you can subtract 2 from its number of sides and multiply that by 180 to get the sum of its internal angles. Why 180? Because that’s the sum of the angles in a triangle! If you’re trying to create huge, perfectly geometrical spiral designs, the key lies in the shapes that will work well with the central polygonal shape; linking together a hexagon and a pentagon will make for some crowded, chaotic spiral arms. Shapes made from the same sort of triangles that make up the central polygonal figure, on the other hand, might work to create perfect mandala-like designs.
Working with triangles as the basic building block of all shapes, you can figure out the angle measures of the “ideal” triangle for your central polygon (say, a hexagon, which is made up of equilateral triangles with angle measures of 60 degrees) and create a grid made entirely of those triangles. Using this grid, you can be assured that all shapes made from those triangles will have angles measures and lengths that will synch well together. If you’re a mage, it also means that you have all routes for the development of a new spell map.
But in practice, single-triangle grids may not contain all the triangles necessary to create perfect designs, especially if you want a mix of different shapes. You’ll need permutations of the right triangle, the equilateral triangle, and 30-60-90 triangle, with angles and lengths adjusted to fit the angle measures of your central polygonal figure to have all possible options. This means, to see all possible shapes, you should be working with three triangles grids superimposed on top of one another, calibrated to the right angle measures.
So that’s where things get complicated.
A book I picked up from The Strand is a great guide to this kind of geometrical drafting–it’s called Designa by Wooden Books, and it walks you through the history, drafting techniques, and mathematics behind different designs from all over the world, including Muslim religious patterns and Celtic knots. Woven into these patterns are symbolic meanings and symmetries, reflecting beliefs about the universe, nature, and God.
So there you have the first stage: the idea of a spell map, a meta-pattern that gives a geometric structure to a normally linear, code-like spell made of symbols. Like a computer system, it can be revised and troubleshot based on the patterns embedded in its operations. When it’s evoked, it casts the spell coded into it.
SPELL MAPS, MAGIC, and MUSIC
After looking at the triangular grids I’d made, I used the horizontal lines made naturally when you mirror two rows of triangles vertically to measure the size of a map, which would express its “magnitude”: the larger and more complex the spell, the more space on the grid it will require, and the greater its “magnitude,” since larger spells means using more lines of symbols. And that led to a new idea.
As I looked at the designs I’d made, I wondered what it would look like if I tried to reduce all of the symbols and patterns to binary, so that a spell could be fed through a punch card-computer, like UNIVAC. I also realized that the “magnitude lines” I’d drawn also imposed something like a musical staff on the whole design. It reminded me of Deadmau5 playing the Castlevania theme on a bunch of modular synthesizers, and the Black Midi series, especially this one, where the designs made by the notes end up looking like large spell map. I imagined playing cross-sections of a spell map like Black Midi, with every symbol being a note.
Music is made of patterns and mathematics, and the same kinds of waves that describe sound can apply to light, energy, and matter (I dove into sound waves and quantum mechanics in this post). In my sketches, I started to see how a given spell could be expressed as a song as well as a mandala-like graphical representation. And if you look back to wizards like Vainamoinen, spell-songs are exactly what mages used to change the world around them. It’s a really cool piece of synchronicity, and it’s one of the fascinating coincidences that pops up when you delve into this kind of worldbuilding.
Metaphysics, Spell Maps, and the Universe
But when I looked closer at my sketches, another pattern started to appear. I started to see how a spell map could also be a reflection of the symmetry of the universe, in the same way that Buddhist and Hindu mandalas supposedly reflect the order of all creation. In fact, the structure of a spell map looks like a universe of sorts: it’s a miniature galaxy, with spiral arms containing dozens of individual ‘solar systems’ (symbol-rows grouped around the center of a shape) containing sometimes hundreds of individual ‘worlds’ (symbols) and comprising thousands of ‘people’ (individual strokes that make up the symbols).
In my conception of this magic system, this is where magic crosses over from being a computer program and reveals its ties directly to metaphysics. Like a fractal, the pattern of the whole universe is expressed in miniature in the spell map, because magic is essentially a way to change the universe. And in this system, the way to change reality is to build a microcosm of the universe and rewrite it by hand. In this way, a spell map could also act as a kind of divination or scrying tool, like the I-Ching (a book that fascinated Phillip K. Dick to no end), reflecting the conditions of the world rather than changing it.
Great worldbuilding should work like an iceberg: 10% on the surface, 90% below the waterline. I think this is one of the reasons the worldbuilding in Dark Souls rakes in such unreal praise. There’s a sense that beneath the immediate information you’re given, there’s whole volumes of knowledge and secrets to learn and immerse yourself in. It’s the opposite reason people can’t get through Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. But whether you’re revealing all of it or letting the reader unravel how everything fits together, I think the best way to accomplish that feeling of a vast, immersive world is to actually build it behind the scenes. I spoke about this before, but the small details are crucial to making fantasy work, and this is especially true when it comes to magic.
So if you’re a fantasy writer building a world from the ground up, explore everything. Everything feeds into everything else, the world is a frightening and wonderful place, and when you dig deep enough, triangles lie at the heart of everything.
Yesterday my new essay,Paradise Lost: A History of Fantasy and the Otherworld, was published online in the July Issue of the Hugo Award-winning Clarkesworld Magazine! This marks the culmination of a conversation that started four or five years ago, when I was standing in my driveway at night with my friend Joel Clapp.
We had just finished a game of D&D, and I was telling Joel about “the candlelit world,” a theory I had about what made the fantasy genre unique. I said that fantasy was defined by folktales and myths, which came from a world lit by candlelight. Humans lived within the flickering circle of their lights, and the great, unknown world loomed out in the dark. Looking up at the fifty-foot pine trees in the dark, I said there were two sides to that unknown world: horror and wonder. There were wondrous adventures to be had in the unknown, paradises to be found and treasures beyond imagination, but also nightmares, unspeakable horrors, and death.
I grew up in Washington State, surrounded by forests and the outdoors. There, the immensity of the world seems to hit home a lot harder than here in New York. The sheer vastness of it, the oldness of it, boggles the mind. There’s a sense that you could explore for years and never scratch the surface of it. It evokes Jon Krakaeur’s Into the Wild, but what I thought of when I looked out into the rolling dark forests were the stories in Time-Life’s Enchanted World series.
The 2013 article I wrote for Clarkesworld was titled The Candlelit World, spoke about myths and the woods, but it only spoke about the horror and darkness–its subtitle was The Dark Roots of Myth and Fantasy. It drew heavily on H.P. Lovecraft and his essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and It was the first chance I got to speak about my view of fantasy. Now, three years later, I finally get to tell the other half.
The Encyclopedia is a collection of tattoos from a very specific time and place. Most of the tattoos and their owners were prisoners in the GULAG, the nation-spanning prison system of the Soviet Union, where everyone from political prisoners to murderers and “hooligans” were forced to work under horrifying conditions. The tattoos, as the book explains, act as a resume for a criminal, and each tattoo can have several layers of hidden meaning based on where it is on the body, what words and symbols appear on it, etc. It’s fascinating how the cruelty, despair, corruption, and sheer violence of the whole Soviet police state is summed up so elegantly in one medium, the prison tattoo.
As you read through the encyclopedia, the book asks you to think about the language of symbols. It asks you to imagine a world in multiple dimensions. You have to take on the mindset of an artist, an anthropologist, and (especially with the tattoos) an occultist. This is the mindset of esotericism, where everything has hidden meanings, and it’s the mindset that should inform worldbuilding.
The symbols and levels of initiation in the Russian criminal underworld, as well as the “made men” of the Mafia, ended up inspiring the way I thought about mages and hedge wizards–if a true wizard is a master of his or her craft, how do they distinguish themselves from one-trick mages and beginners? If there’s no central authority that dubs people bona-fide wizards, like Roke in Wizard of Earthsea, what keeps amateurs from claiming to be masters?
Wizards and the Bona Fide Hallmarks
“When I was growing up, there were seven hallmarks to a wizard: a name, a song, a card, a craft, a hand, a tongue, and tired feet. For Muzin, there were tattoos added in.” — Samal of Muzin
Masters of any craft can always recognize one another. It’s expressed in the smallest things they do: how a wu-shu master walks, how a carpenter makes his measurements, or how a guitarist bends a string up only a half-step.
When you become a monk of the Shaolin temple, you are told to master three types of techniques: physical or “basic” skills (like stances, stamina, and balance), combat skills (like barehanded and weapon fighting), and the 72 arts of Shaolin qi-gong. Similarly, when you become a Buddhist monk you are given several different tiers of techniques to master, each one more difficult than the last. When I imagine wizards, I think in these terms. I ask “What kinds of things does a mage have to master to become a bona-fide wizard?”
I decided that wizards, true wizards, would have something like a secret handshake that would allow them to identify who was bona-fide and who was a neophyte. I came up with certain hallmarks that would serve as guidelines. These would not be meticulously defined tests; whether someone met each of the hallmarks would be left up to the observer, but for those who were bona-fide, there would be no question.
A Name: every wizard an epithet or nickname bestowed on them, similar to those given to the warriors in The Illiad. It sums them up and serves as the center of their reputation.
A Song: every wizard has a song or a story about their accomplishments. These don’t have to be true, but behind the lie should be something significant. A Song should be a wizard’s legend.
A Card: every wizard has a trick, a little demonstration of who they are and what they’re capable of. Like someone who can tie a knot in a cherry stem, it should be simple and quick. This is their “calling card.”
A Craft: every wizard must be a master of at least one school of magic, whether it be weather control, elemental control of water, beast-taming, summoning, or something else. Mastery is relative; if no challenger can beat a wizard in a contest, they are considered a master.
A Hand: every wizard must have a part of their body replaced with something other than flesh. This alteration often gives them heightened abilities, such as a second heart granting the ability to survive impalement.
A Tongue: every wizard must be fluent in at least one other language, though the best can speak multiple languages. This is meant to demonstrate one’s worldliness and commitment to understanding different sides of the world.
and Tired Feet: every wizard must have traveled to the ten extant continents and stayed at least a year in each. This is, again, meant to demonstrate one’s worldliness, as well as one’s ability to travel and survive many different parts of the world.
Any mage can begin trying to attain these hallmarks, but only once they gain all seven can they try to claim the title of bona-fide wizard. Every self-respecting mage, however, would have at least Card, a little demonstration of who they are so that other mages could recognize what kind of mage they are.
But as the wizard Samal says in his short scene with his apprentice in The Crownless King, the original and enduring hallmark of a bona-fide wizard is much more pragmatic:
Samal made eight points on his chest with his fingers, each one touching a different star. “The eight points of the world, the eight ports…the seven hallmarks and the tattoos show you’re bona-fide.” Samal shook his head slowly. “Real bona-fide wizards don’t die.”
Samal reveals that the most important hallmark is the one that is unspoken: survival. If a wizard is dead, they can no longer influence the world. They no longer matter. This belief is a product of its world, and it guides the ethos of its masters, the wizards. The Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo offers the ultimate counterpoint, however: for Tsunetomo, the ultimate hallmark of a bona-fide samurai is loyalty for their master, demonstrated through their death in his service. Tsunetomo claims that the masters of swordsmanship and martial prowess, the samurai, are not masters because they are able to survive any opponent, but because they have already resigned themselves to death.
When I think of necromancers, I imagine a cross between a Zen Buddhist monk, an amateur surgeon, and a hardcore survivalist preparing for the end of the world. It’s not about raising an army of the dead and taking a kingdom, it’s about being the last man standing when the Sun falls out of the sky. It’s about living forever. This is someone with the apocalypse constantly on their mind, thinking of contingencies. That obsession with survival made me think of an astronaut’s space helmet, a kind of sealed, self-contained piece of headwear that could protect the skull and seal out dust, fire, and the vacuum of space.
I started to wonder what a survivalist necromancer’s helmet would like, so I drew on some of my favorite helmet designs from across all kinds of media, from Neon Genesis Evangelion and Elfen Lied to Daft Punk and TES III: Morrowind. The final product was appropriately macabre, frightening, and functional for someone bent on eating souls and living forever.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind: The Native Chuzei Bonemold Helm
(If you haven’t read my long-ass post about how Morrowind should be the gold standard for fantasy worldbuilding, read it here)
Morrowind’s Bonemold armor is so damn cool: crafted from bonemeal, the individual pieces of armor are molded in hard, light shapes, like the lacquered wooden armor of samurai. Each Dunmer House has its own style of armor, with their own custom helmets and shields, each reflecting their own unique character. House Redoran’s helmet had a shawl to keep out the dust and House Telvanni had some kind of insane squid helmet because they’re weird-ass wizards who live in mushrooms. But the single coolest helmet in the history of fantasy gaming is the Native Chuzei Bonemold Helm.
The swept-back design with the swooping crest on the back and lack of conventional eyeholes in favor of dual slits made it look intimidating, alien, and sort of like a grinning, demonic face. I loved this helmet, and I wanted to steal its design for any kind of helmet I made in the future.
Daft Punk: Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s helmet
I have an obsession with Daft Punk, especially their helmets. There’s something about the anonymity of masks that makes the wearer larger than life. My favorite version of Guy-Manuel’s helmet is still the one used in ELECTROMA.
When I was still in high school, I actually attempted to make Guy’s gold and black helmet from a skateboard helmet, a motorcycle visor, and a paintball mask:
I loved the helmet design so much that I wanted to incorporate in my stories, which is where Guy Manuel’s helmet merged with the Chuzei helm to create the helmets that the Elves in my stories wear:
Elves in my stories are the end-products of generations of the pursuit of immortality: humans warped and altered into a completely different species. Their helmets, like my initial astronaut helmet idea, allowed them to survive the vacuum of space, like the starfish-headed Old Ones in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. And like other human necromancers, survival was the ultimate priority.
The skull-hugging shape, smooth lines and lack of conventional eyeholes stuck with me in particular. But that changed when I saw…
Neon Genesis Evangelion: EVA Unit-01’s helmet
Evangelion is my favorite piece of media, hands-down. Between the Kabbalah occultism, the Phillip K. Dick-inspired apocalyptica, the complex mathematics and existentialist philosophers snuck into the show, it is the Space Odyssey: 2001 of mindfucks. And they had some really cool robots.
There’s a rumor that Hideaki Anno, the creator of NGE, wanted the EVA units to be extremely complicated so that the famously aggressive Japanese toy industry wouldn’t be able to create action figures of them. In the end, we still got Evangelion canned bread.
The most beloved EVA unit, and my favorite, too, is Unit 01. It’s got a kind of kabuto helmet, and its giant, toothed jaws are both really cool and absolutely horrifying once it starts screaming and eating other EVA units.
Yeah, the EVAs are nightmarish homonculi made of human flesh and bone grafted onto mechanical parts, animated by trapped human souls with the capability for madness and rage. The reveal that EVA Unit 01’s helmet covers something approximating a metallic skull is one of the images from NGE that stuck with me. The teeth and jaw especially appealed to me.
Elfen Lied: Lucy’s helmet
Elfen Lied is the most violent, gory, and traumatic romantic comedy anime ever (only half-joking here). From the opening minutes of the first episode, a naked pre-pubescent girl sealed in a helmet from The Man in the Iron Mask starts vivisecting, decapitating, and ripping the literal hearts out of a team of security personnel in a juxtaposition of eroticism, innocence, and relentless, brutal gore.
And damn is that helmet cool.
Lucy’s helmet is relatively simple, both in its design and concept: round head and jaw piece sealed onto the skull to restrain a prisoner in a test facility. It looks suitably clinical, the kind of medical appliance you’d imagine would be in use in a telekinesis research facility. In Lucy’s case, wearing this helmet isn’t a choice–it’s forced onto her, as a means of control, as if they were trying to seal her skull in a container, like an airtight jar.
The Necromancer Helmet: THE GRINNING MAN
Building off the idea of “the crownless king,” the title I made for a necromancer who could survive decapitation, I wanted to create a helmet for a character who would keep their head sealed in a helmet like a safe. This would be Oroboro, the same necromancer mentioned in the Ergodica posts. From there, this character could actually substitute other people’s heads for their own, as a sort of voodoo: with possession of another person’s head, they could gain all of that person’s knowledge, speak in their voice, and communicate with their ghost. The idea emerged of a necromantic collector, someone who collects trophies from their dead enemies and binds their ghosts to his helmet by stealing their heads.
I imagined an eyeless helmet with a hinge on the front, so the entire thing could open like a pear of anguish, and a removable jaw.
I decided to describe the helmet to a friend of mine, Joel, who has done a lot of fantasy concept art in the past. This is what I told him:
“When you consume someone’s ghost or soul, you gain all of their memories, identity, and knowledge…he keeps the heads of people he values in his helmet, or their teeth embedded in it. The teeth are like quick-keys to call up the ghosts of those he wants to channel, and the head in the helmet is possessed. He’s supposed to be an abomination. The helmet and everything connected to it breaks every rule I could think of when it comes to magical morality…I’m not sure how I want the jaw mechanism to work–I was hoping you could help me figure that out. The goal of it is to be able to unhinge the jaw, so he can take abnormally large objects into himself, like a snake. As for the material, I was thinking of either iron or heavily pitted and varnished wood.”
After some back and forth about the lore behind the helmet, the magic and mechanisms, Joel produced this rough sketch, meant to depict an iron helmet:
Joel described his sketch like this: “I really liked the worked metal aspect around the teeth, like it’s been scratched or welded into shape to hold the teeth, so I ran with that. Tried to give it more of the welded look, it makes it look almost flesh while the rest of the helmet is obviously metal. I thought the concave shape around the teeth gave it a more unnatural look and gave the impression that you almost had to dig out some of the mask to find the teeth underneath.”
I loved Joel’s sketch, especially the teeth–they evoke the ravenous, all-consuming potential of the eyeless Langoliers from Stephen King’s story The Langoliers, as well as David Hine’s graphic novel, “The Man Who Laughs,” published by Self Made Hero, which was the inspiration for Batman’s Joker. I decided to dub this helmet “The Grinning Man.”
With Joel’s rough sketch showing how it all would fit together, I decided to do a sketch of my own based off Joel’s art, showing the complete helmet:
Necromancers can be a lot more than guys summoning skeletons. These are the people who are plumbing the depths of life and death, the decay of the body and the action of time, searching for the line between man and god, mortal and immortal. They can be horrifying in their own right, and they don’t even need zombies to get the job done. And they can look absolutely terrifying while doing it.