Preface: Born in Blood
Updated: Mar 28
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This is my preface for Born in Blood: Volume II by George Daniel Lea, first released online on April 2020. You can also read my review of volume I here.
Love your music, for silence descends. You shouldn’t have seen this, but now that you have, you may as well enjoy the show.
Volume Two in the Born in Blood series is a magisterial addition to what is as much a mythos as a frame for diverse fictions. Unique in its prose, forever approaching verse in its lyrical intensity, and demanding that the reader simply lose oneself to it. Unique also in its demand to squarely face tragedy and ruin and abysses without sentiment or illusion, but with an attitude of innocent if sometimes wicked wonderment. The stories of George Daniel Lea never did take time to set themselves up, never lulled you into the other, nether worlds depicted, and here less than even usually. This is in medias res at its most ambitious. And at its most successful. So like in earlier collections, expect to be presented immediately with the blurring of a nightmare reality bleeding into ours, and ours only in a state of entropy, of imminent undoing — perhaps not so distant from ours now.
Over and over, the goal of the stories — the characters and monsters — is precisely to ‘be reborn in blood'...
From the opening piece, ‘The Love of Fathers’, readers are asked to submit to the strange entity or force or universal principal that is Abarise, ‘en masse, to be happily slaughtered, picked apart and pieced back together; our parts, our selves, intermingled, all distinction and divorce from one another undone.’ What Lea does with this intermingling is to create a collage, collapsing impressionist takes of a cosmic finale that is also a revelation, a revealing. It is as though John Martin, Hieronymus Bosch and Zdzislaw Beksinski were told to paint twenty-first century capitalism in a medley-pastiche of the others’ styles, and having just finished reading Jakob Böhme’s The Signature of All Things. It is a contemporary, esoteric end times.
All of Lea’s fiction could be described as a metaphysical war against conservativism. That is as true when he is at his most utopic and his most dystopic, when he is exploring the mind of a serial killer in ‘A Play Called Pity’ or taking us on a walkabout through paradises in ‘For An Hour’. Following a fall into the unconscious ‘echoed in so many stories, by Dante, Milton, and Blake,’ the allusion-rich, prose Lea deploys allows his writing to go places it otherwise would be barred. Into streams of consciousness and the suppressed, traumatised landscapes of our most buried collective psyches. Once there, we encounter new entities and realms, the two categories not always so neatly delineated: such as ‘Lilith’s Well, The Sea of Tiamat.’ This is a generative and regenerative ocean, one that escapes easy moral labels, and too vast to be described in a way that is more than elliptical. It is also a place from which people can emerge ‘naked and newborn beneath storms.’ Over and over, the goal of the stories — the characters and monsters — is precisely to ‘be reborn in blood, and wash the lie of Heaven from the world.’ Both that rebirth and that lie, in as much as is possible, deserve unpacking.
In the delightfully titled ’Celesticide’, we get the clearest in-text interpretation of this series’s title, ’the born in blood. They come with blades, with guns, with bombs. They murder, they maim. The death cries of our lovers rip the world open, turn the seas to boiling blood, the mountains and cities to ash.’ This idea of being born, however, is contrasted with the semi-gnostic rebirth evoked above, and likewise in ‘Another Nightmare’ where we find a ‘welcome Hell, where we are all unravelled, but only a few ever reborn.’ Or conversely, in refusing to be reborn, as with ‘One Man’s Sickness’ where those too tied to certainties, the merely born, come ’apart rather than be re-knitted; drowning themselves rather than breathe with new lungs.’ This violent but contingent rebirth is as close as Lea ever comes to salvation in his narratives. In ‘An Idiot’s Hope’, the conventional salvation of Heaven is even explicitly foreclosed, and exposed as a lie; ‘a world where they wouldn’t have to think or feel pain any more; where they’d be absolved of responsibility for being themselves. Like I said: an idiot’s hope.’ The sacred elect in this fiction, which is more anti-popular than elitist, but certainly not universal in its offer of hope, are those who are willing to change with a universe that cannot tolerate stasis, but still offers strange joys to those who embrace this difficult metamorphosis.
Alex and Valerie in ‘No Finer Heaven’ are of this shapeshifting elect. There’s a utopianism, here; more apparent than in Volume One, if slightly twisted by the earlier instalment’s nihilism. Even a Cockaygne style paradise, one which only excludes those who exempt themselves from change. It’s ‘a hymn that sheared me through, slit me open; scalpel fingers and shard-tongues moving over my seams, coaxing me to split and spill out on the winds, every mote of me becoming the seed of a new god or abomination, in the storm above or ocean below.’ These two characters, a sort of uncanny, self-made Adam and Eve, slowly come to challenge even the duality of sex they equally imply, with ‘states and probabilities in which neither come to be; in which Valerie was born male and Alex female’. A kind of alchemical androgyny is most apparent in this story, but appears elsewhere too; in the aforementioned ‘Celesticide’ the titular angelic entities are: ‘Androgynous forms emerging; vaguely human, but humanity viewed through the most inspired, idealised eyes.’ In ‘For An Hour’ we encounter: ‘Beautiful youths; men and women, their perfection making a mockery of sex or gender; all equally aching, all equally desired.’ Again in ‘One Man’s Sickness’, two beings become ‘a single, androgyne anatomy, his body blossoming to accept her violations; rivulets and streamers of her fluid form that she poured into him, scouring him clean from within.’ The erotic in Born in Blood is always also about a mutual alteration of lovers, or just a self-alteration.
We reencounter characters from earlier in the collection, from Volume One and the stories accompanying Nick Hardy’s photography in the mixed-media volumes. For example, Sander as he again recalls his discordant impression of his father, and his father’s nightmarish workshop, from that impression the public would come to possess: ’Nothing of what the papers described, nothing he could remember.’ ‘An Idiot’s Hope’ is also a continuation of earlier narrative threads, and a central one to the larger mythology. Picking up from ‘An Absurd Answer’ and ‘The Welcome Wound’ in Volume One, we find that troubled ex-Mormon Nathaniel Roseblade, The Demon Detective of Huxley Row, as he continues to intersect with larger-than-life characters such as Elias Kirchner, the man who made a hole in Heaven, and the more troubled existences of Jessica and Arnold Weathers, as well as the ex-member of The Via Oneiron Edmund Riley, or the fey dream-boy Jacob Maddox, and so on. Each ‘person’ is archetypal, if not initially then soon absorbed in a primal clash, playing out the metaphysical struggle that is the kernel of Born in Blood — that between a sterile order and fertile chaos. But that dichotomy is never simply instantiated; the idea of being able to track a clear linear narrative, with affixed identities, is explicitly mocked.
Creatures so vast as to eclipse oceans or span the spaces between stars...
Similarly, in another major development of the inverted myth Lea is spinning, ’The Last Gospel’ imagines a biblically-derived demon, a twisted Hobbesian Leviathan, Legion, named ‘at the end of Abarise; its own story, that began so long ago, in a world that it made Eden’, and an entity ‘born of art, of inspiration and extremity; many souls bound as one’. Legion is a crystallisation of rebirth, of that androgeny that stands in proxy for the suffusion and alteration of opposites, for the primal chaos as a pathway to salvation. In this story the full, cosmic grandeur of Born in Blood is allowed freedom, and the reader is met with images and depictions that are purposefully excessive and sublime. For instance, and in one of my favourite passages of the book, we are met by:
Creatures so vast as to eclipse oceans or span the spaces between stars; whose forms fluctuate between states of luminous gas and blistering flesh, the space they occupy, infest, congealing, flowering as though with cancer, with parasitic nodules; blooms as elaborate as the most complex of labyrinths, the most ambitious of roses, swarming with parasitic children; the flesh that Wren and his incestuous descendent crafted for them. Entities that erupt from empty skies like inverted, fungal cities; spires conglomerating, architecture elaborating without any input from builders or inspired minds, dissolving in a matter of moments; an apocalypse that spreads throughout its parent flesh, turning expanses vaster than the Sahara to mire and filth; worm-infested mulch that boils and foments, rendering down to base elements from which fresh atrocities emerge.
In giving my reading of Lea’s Born in Blood: Volume Two, I have not exhausted all of the narratives in the collection. There are many smaller, more self-contained pieces, characterised by clever conceits and intimate, sometimes tender moments that belie the side of the collection I have aimed to emphasise. These are best encountered personally, with the resonances and suggestions speaking to you on an individual level. And it should go without saying that my interpretation of the metaphysics is also personal — a fiction like Lea’s, so resolutely committed to attacking simple dualities, including the very tug and toss of forces that propels it, is richly open to different reader’s perspectives.
With that in mind, it is worth leaving off with a moment from another piece that resonated strangely and wonderfully for me: ‘The Age of Collapse’. And indeed, a moment towards the culmination of this story, where the narrator-protagonist has leapt into rain, ‘falling, falling, a moment of perfect, black clarity, skull and neck breaking against wet concrete.’ What follows this meeting of breakable flesh and hard ground deserves to be discovered fresh, but it epitomises the strange transcendence, amoral and eerie, that brilliantly suffuses the horror and the magic at play in this book. One I hope you will find as satisfying as I did.
If you enjoyed my preface, subscribe to my monthly newsletter for similar pieces on writing, politics, utopia and horror.