A Review of Born in Blood: Volume One, first published September 13, 2019.
They watch, the Flesh-Singers, the Old Fathers; watch and whisper their lullabies into dreaming and fevered minds, inspiration stoked by despair; an escalating need for solutions to apocalyptic ills: drought, rising sea levels, pandemics, economic collapses, mass starvation, over-population, corruption and war and genocide . . . Not their work, not entirely, but stoked and agitated where necessary; spurs to the enlightened and empathetic souls; the born wounded, naked and writhing, already choking on the ash of Armageddon.
I tell them the truth, the ones that come to my door, to speak and sing with me: that the world is a lie, that they are its slaves and children. Country, religion, race, sex, species; synthetic divisions, only our common suffering… that we are picked apart and fed to one another, that we sob the stories of our own Hells; all that unites us.
Discussing Phil Sloman’s Broken on The Inside for his podcast, George Daniel Lea describes an emerging strand of indie horror writing in various mediums (cinema, games, short stories, novels). Condensed to a shared ethos, this can be summed up as ‘that kind of fiction where there isn’t a distinction between the internal and the external.’ In Lea’s latest, we see such a demarcation demolished, as the book resists ‘the twin lies of day and night, of Heaven and Hell’.
In his forward for Born in Blood: Volume One (one part of a magisterial project, encompassing Lea’s prose and Nick Hardy’s photography), Lea gives an autobiographical sense of what motivates his work. He writes of a time when ‘the notion that I would live to see thirty seemed perfectly absurd’. He describes clinical depression, social anxiety and insomnia, how he ‘came very, very close to total mental collapse at myriad points during those days, saved from it only by the stories I consumed and wove from the state’. Within this context—the redemptive power of narrative—he situates his first book, Strange Playgrounds, which was made possible by a time of self-renewal.
Born in Blood represents a plunging of those former nihilistic depths, an examination of the abysses we can spin around ourselves, and a creative plundering of that selfsame hellscape. In consequence, it serves as a ‘gospel of despair’ that ‘trespasses upon the forbidden deeps of humanity’s collective sub-conscious. They are not places where potential is born, but where it is murdered, where angels are mutilated, where Gods and messiahs are aborted.’
This collection, if it is not already apparent, is unforgiving. Not only is its content bleak, but it also has a brutal, nightmare vision of the world to impart, a sense of reality's fractures and fissures, which Lea uses to hack away at everything false and hackneyed.
Immediately, we get an inverted mythos. ‘The First World’ charts a familial and terrifying pantheon in the midst of an elliptic, dreamlike creation story, conveyed from the perspective of the Androgyne or Neither-Child of ‘Mathers and Burkitt, down here, together; unlikely parents’. This being is one of the ‘abortions of humanity, what Isaac’s bastards call Neverborn’. And in this place, those twisted father-mother archetypes predominate, creating an uncertain (or no) purpose. Their end, their goal, is granted a strange name, one central to this new, multi-volume narrative in vignettes: ‘Only one; the name of what waits, that we will open the way to, when we are born: Abarise.’
Is this a God, a person, a place? Elsewhere in the book, it is characterised as ‘Cain’s Garden, what some call the Abattoir.’ Abarise is pantheistic in how it is presented, somehow nascent and all-encompassing, yet also always liminal.
Only one; the name of what waits, that we will open the way to, when we are born: Abarise.
As the collection unfolds, we encounter a great number of named creatures, beings, persons and monsters in a layered, perplexing, fictive world where boundaries are nebulous and fragile. Such signifiers, thrown about one after the other, serve as a desperate attempt to find an anchor: ‘Names are so important in these matters… the thing inside, the thing threaded throughout’. That is, names are important because it would be impossible to perceive a coherent ontology for the denizens we meet without them. And yet they always prove inadequate, intentionally so.
What proves most compelling about Lea’s worldbuilding — with all these strange and threatening entities — is how uninterested he is in authorial handholding. One senses an elaborate universe of people and conflicts told in delirious, lyrical prose that refuses to allow its reader the cheap ease of simple exposition. Born in Blood does not pause to take stock, providing a more intoxicating, entrancing experience.
their humanity surgically and spiritually cut from them, out of some misguided enshrinement of the state.
What can nonetheless be gleamed is an archetypal war. There are the heralds of imagination and a ‘Revolution; red renaissance.’ They are the aforementioned Neverborn, ‘creatures that represented deviation from the patterns of History’, the sighted, self-prophesied to eventually ‘outnumber the blind, when the dream begins to fail.’ The Neverborn’s neutered and deadened antithesis, Isaac’s bastards, servants of the wonderfully named Uncle Gregory Fairchild, are the Severed (or Hollows), who protect ‘the status quo they so revered’.
These archetypes of the pregiven are ‘flickering, phantasmal[…] agents of the Loom’, creatures ‘who’d purportedly had their humanity surgically and spiritually cut from them, out of some misguided enshrinement of the state.’ They are ‘forces of stasis and stagnation; those that worshipped greyness and silence’ and ‘sought the species’ corruption and eventual undoing, in accord with whatever ego-swelling, narcissistic myths they cleaved to.’
The Loom itself is ‘an institution that — purportedly — traced its roots back to Abraham and Isaac, whose members regarded themselves as the inheritors of that legacy; their blood descendants.’ They are agents of a sinister, misotheist force, ‘The Weaver of History, The God of Many Names and None. The Father of All.’ In that service, they propagandise a false, confining reality and are as close as the stories come to an antagonist.
Lea’s anti-fables interweave so that even the boundaries between them blur; they build on one another, suggesting (rather than dully describing) a larger context in which everything is birthed and transmuted, always becoming something else, resisting petrification and sleep. In ‘A Meal For Vermin’ a depressed comedian, Harold, finds an entryway to Lea’s equivalent of Dante’s Inferno made stranger. Harold finds himself cast in an unending cycle of birth, ‘endless; reborn again and again beyond endurance, all notion of life and death dissolving.’ ‘Cain’s Gospel’ introduces another archetype of primordial chaos, in intimate conversation with someone named Cecile, teasing and prying hopes: ‘You can’t lie to me, like you do to yourself. I see, sweetheart, oh yes… I see.’ These early pieces establish a motif of imprisonment and a desperate search for liberation.
‘It Would Be Necessary’ confronts us with the fruits of Project Pavonae: ’The Argosite; the one who sees.’ This man accesses all counterfactuals simultaneously, as a ‘synthetic messiah’ who was to ‘put an end to it, to heal history,’ but instead is rendered monstrously impotent by that multifaceted vision: ‘you murder, you make war; you destroy yourselves and one another. They knew; the ones who made me…’ One of the multiverse’s other Argosites is encountered in a subsequent story, ‘One Apart’, about an apprentice sorcerer, Thomas, connected to an occult Temple, whose spells are Divertants and who is guarded by Urges, strange stalking creatures.
‘Our Own Songs’ opens with the ravings of a homophobic mother, Theresa, as she harasses and bullies her gay son Saul. This is conveyed to the residents of the Garden (another recurring metaphysical domain, sustained by the Veil), where one Lucy hears that ‘shit of a dead world’. Lucy’s ‘grandfather’ refers to them as the Before-Kind (Ghosts, Sheol), ‘pouring their confessions into her, desperate’ for a foothold. But to what end?
The longest stories are ‘An Absurd Answer’ and ‘The Welcome Wound’. The former centres on the experiments of its narrator-protagonist, Langdon Cole, alongside Christopher Wren, wonderfully introduced as a ‘sleek, quiet-eyed youth, hair dark, slicked back over his scalp like an otter’s pelt, every inch of him seemingly considered and composed for this very meeting.’ Cole has been involved in a scandal obscurely referenced as the Roseblade affair or ‘imaginatively christened “Cole-gate.”’ His downfall has something to do with the opposing forces of The Temple of the Morning Star and the often recurring Loom, but also with new characters in this fragmentary drama: Detective Nathaniel Roseblade, a self-hating magician with a Mormon upbringing, Elias Kirchner, an even more enigmatic personae.
Wren and Cole help create Wrexham, Ellie, Magritte and Lovelace, beautiful monsters who join them to resist the Severed and The Madonna, a kind of twisted maternal figure, a feminine demiurge. ‘The Welcome Wound’, the penultimate piece in the collection, is part noir and part metaphysical comedy, beginning like an odyssey or Moses tale, with a homeward trek through the desert. Felix, cast from reality by the Severed, seeks ‘The Wood, The First Dream, Via Oneiron.’ It puts a lot of the sprawling metaphysic puzzle together while leaving many deeper ambiguities.
Reviewing Strange Playgrounds back in 2013, and writing the forward to his other book Essential Atrocities, I described Lea’s style as having the quality of a utopian horror, found in the ‘struggle to create a world of the outcasts, a world overcome by a sense of its own becoming and permanent state of reinvention.’ Has that thread been woven into this collection, too? Born in Blood is more an elegy for the wounded, a lament to everything beautiful crushed by deceptions and hubris. Its paradises are invariably false havens and secret gaols, its gardens undermined by hidden rots and decays.
However, the anti-utopia hides its embryonic opposite, and the first impulse behind Lea’s writing is always to break down neat distinctions. This book is not concerned with moral prescription; it does not outline how humanity can get it right. One character even scoffs ‘Evil. As though that means anything.’ Nonetheless, a sensibility emerges, and from that, the outline, perhaps not of paradise, but of better dreams, or just new ones: ‘Let them die with me. Time for a new dream to begin.’
The nihilism of these stories is not indiscriminate. It’s applied foremost to artifice, to ‘the mask of humanity,’ revealing, ‘the pulsing, dark-seeping, maggot state.’ It is applied to pretences justifying mere cruelties: ‘Do you have any idea how many times I’ve heard that? I don’t enjoy it; it’s my job. It’s not my decision; it’s my duty. It’s necessary, for the greater good, for God, for humanity, for civilisation, for the future. Fucking Hell, you wouldn’t dare, you wouldn’t dare, if you knew. It’s bullshit, Doctor; I know you love this; I can smell it on you.’
This is a criticism applied especially to those who commodify miracles, macabre or otherwise: ‘An unpleasant truth; that the self-proclaimed truth-seekers; who marketed themselves as further sighted, deeper knowing than the common or garden herd, only wanted ghost stories and fairy tales; things they could package and market, sell like plastic toys.’ And it aims at those who worship states of stasis, seamless, changeless posthistories.
I don’t enjoy it; it’s my job. It’s not my decision; it’s my duty. It’s necessary, for the greater good, for God, for humanity, for civilisation, for the future.
Whether trespassing forbidden deeps or celebrating imaginative potential, Lea’s work has a definite current, an evolving but continuous voice — even, in its paradoxical, necessarily incomplete way, an evolving mythos with recurring archetypes and demi-gods. That voice is found in a rejection of the stale in favour of aesthetic novelty, of elevating dangerous meanderings over safe certainties. If Strange Playgrounds celebrates such meanderings, Born in Blood tears apart every remaining certainty.