Thursday, December 16, 2010

"The Pressure of Darkness" by Harry Shannon

            So there I was, parked in my personal darkness. Stuck, facing an empty white screen and a blinking cursor…
After three horror novels and two Mick Callahan mysteries (‘Memorial Day’ and ‘Eye of the Burning Man’) I’d decided to try my hand at a thriller. The initial steps were easy. My protagonist would be a young black-ops guy named Jack Burke, whose back story allowed him to work for both the mob and the government. Burke’s two best friends, former Delta soldiers, also lived in Los Angeles. All I needed was a big enough canvas, an enticing world-class mess for them to clean up. Unfortunately, my muse has a way of playing hooky at crucial moments. This time, she left for another dimension. Needless to say, substantial anxiety ensued.
When darkness strikes, I generally look for an answer in the junkyard of my mind. Like most authors, I’ve worked at a lot of professions, pursued a lot of hobbies. What interests could I draw on for this one? I came close to praying about it. And that’s when the dimmer switch cranked up a notch.
            Although I’d never claim to be an expert, I’m intrigued by comparative religion; eastern religions in particular. The ball finally started rolling when I remembered a lecture on something a Professor euphemistically referred to as the ‘theodicy trilemma.” He said to imagine a triangle that cannot be reconciled into a straight, logical line of cause and effect. At the top, the human need to believe in a Supreme Being or force, something thing that is present in all cultures. At the left end of the base, the familiar idea that this central power is essentially beneficent.  Now, at the right end of said base parks the ageless human question: Why are we suffering? These three points cannot easily be reconciled.
            Thus, dogma: One group holds that God is a jealous deity and punishes us for breaking His rules. Others see a pantheon of deities, who play with us for their own amusement. Some believe we sinned in the Garden of Eden and it’s due to beautiful, seductive Eve and a damned snake. Or perhaps it’s that we have lived and died before, and it’s all for growth; that’s why we’re suffering. And so it goes. In the end, all religions struggle to make sense of what Joseph Campbell referred to as the “cosmogonic cycle,” a numbing awareness that life is fatal. It will always end in death. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Every marvelously engineered living thing will ultimately collapse and rot, its eternal spark unaccountably removed by an unseen hand. Our little minds have a problem wrapping around that very spooky fact. And that darkness pressures the hell out of us on a daily basis.
            Ahem, you say—very interesting. But what the heck does any of this have to do with plotting a thriller?
            Well, the day my darkness lifted, I was discussing such fascinating, if somber, truths with a young woman who had spent a great deal of time in India. During the conversation, she reminded me of an obscure Hindu sect called the Aghora, part of the left-hand path of Tantra. They hold that one should befriend what others consider unacceptable as a way of removing dualism; to join the divine as a unified “one,” see nothing in creation is ugly or repulsive. Adherents will sit on rotting corpses to meditate, eat excrement, or visit funeral pyres to remove tiny pieces of charred human flesh. Some gentle teachers carry this flesh in bags around their necks. They nibble on it when feeling too removed from universal truth.
            A little spark like that can turn out to be a bonfire. I’d read about this sect in the past, and had a couple of tattered books at home. I studied them again, and was gripped by an idea. What if a new cult evolved, similar to the peaceful Aghora, but far beyond the doctrine of acceptance; in fact, one so twisted it actually worshipped death and decay? They’d be apocalyptic, of course. And only my former D-boy could save the day.
            In keeping with that theme, protagonist Jack Burke soon became older. He’s in the grip of a personal crisis, a man with The End on his mind. Someone he loves is gravely ill. He’s torn between personal demons and professional obligations, his love of youth and his fear of the rapidly approaching unknown. Like all of us, courageous and frightened, smart and foolhardy, dreaming big and just trying to get by. Wishing time would slow down. But the clock just keeps on ticking…
I found my title when I remembered something Victor Hugo once wrote, “There is such a thing as the pressure of darkness.” 
When Burke comes to terms with his own fears, he’s given an opportunity to redeem himself, and just maybe save the world. In short, inventing that new cult allowed me to explore richer themes, scare the hell out of myself with an all too plausible doomsday device, and even riff on the relationship between three aging men who saw inglorious combat together back in Somalia in the early 90’s.
And that anxious writers block, my personal darkness? Gone!
…Well, until the next time.      

“If Michael Herr, David Morrell and Robert Stone wrote a book together, this would be it. ‘The Pressure of Darkness’ is a tremendous novel that works on every level.”
--Ken Bruen
(Author of “The Dramatist” and “The Guards”)
“A blend of horror, Eastern philosophy, Spec Ops thriller, and virus
white-knuckler, The Pressure of Darkness keeps the pages turning as fast as
your hands can move. Strap in and read fast, or this one'll leave without
--Gregg Hurwitz (Author of the Tim Rackley novels)
(First appeared in MYSTERY SCENE magazine 2007)


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