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Enter the Dark Age: An Interview with Mark Chadbourn
conducted by Sandy Auden

© Mark Chadbourn
Mark Chadbourn
Mark Chadbourn
Mark Chadbourn's writing career began in 1990 when his first published short story won the Best New Author award in Fear magazine. His first novel, Underground, was followed by Nocturne (nominated for British Fantasy Society Award for Best Novel), The Eternal, and Scissorman. He has also written a non-fiction study of the paranormal, Testimony.

Mark Chadbourn Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:The Hounds of Avalon
SF Site Review:The Hounds of Avalon
SF Site Review: The Age Of Misrule
SF Site Review: The Queen of Sinister
SF Site Review: The Devil In Green
SF Site Review: World's End
Mark Chadbourn Message Board
Interview with Mark Chadbourn

The Hounds of Avalon
The Queen of Sinister
The Devil In Green
World's End
Darkest Hour
Always Forever
A Mark Chadbourn novel always delivers more than expected. For those willing to look between the lines, there is wealth of abstract symbolism and social comment to be discovered, as well as a multitude of profound philosophical insights. This depth has always been present in Chadbourn's novels -- augmenting his earlier Age of Misrule series, and continuing to underpin his new series, The Dark Age.

Set in the same universe as the Age of Misrule series, The Dark Age opens with Devil In Green and picks up events nearly two years after the return of the Old Gods with a completely new set of characters. Mallory is heading for Salisbury cathedral to become one of the new Knights Templar when he rescues Miller, an idealistic young man also hoping to join the Knights. Together they start their grueling training but it's not long before they notice that the Templar Elite Guard appear to be running some dubious missions and the religious leaders are turning somewhat fanatical. When the cathedral is besieged by hordes of supernatural creatures, their food supplies start to dwindle and the Christians are forced to turn to the only people who can help them -- the Pagan encampment just outside their gates...

Devil In Green challenges the reader's religious beliefs at a very fundamental level. It's not a book that is likely to be found on the Pope's bedside table and it's not difficult to assume, at least superficially, that Chadbourn is criticizing Christianity in favour of Paganism...

Actually, I'm not. We're all struggling to understand the big questions of who we are and why we're here. All religions are fumbling towards that from different directions, and they all have a very decent heart and a hope for the betterment of humanity. That's a good thing.

But when religions are filtered through human interpretation they often turn into the opposite of what they profess, filled with repression, bigotry, deceit, lies and corruption. The problem is that people who want power -- whether it is in politics, business, or in this case, religion -- should not be allowed to have power, because the simple act of wanting it is a signifier of a particular pathology that works against the betterment of humanity.

We all know on a very fundamental level that the solutions to big problems are relatively easy. We say, 'I can't understand why they don't do this, or that. The world would be so much better'. But people who seek power will never do that because they have a different agenda to the rest of us. Me, I'm behind the Basques, who choose their leaders by public lottery, like jury service!

Without the Pope, the Priests, the Archbishops, the Imans and Rabbis, religions would be a good thing. Unfortunately, we're stuck with a bunch of people who think they can translate their particular supreme being's Word for the rabble. And look how many times they've got it wrong -- with terrifying results -- in the history of civilisation. One of the points I was making in the book, is that paganism does not have leaders. As a religion, it all comes down to individual interpretation so there's no base for the power-seekers to pervert it.

And I don't bother about offending anyone with my opinions on this. If people don't like what I write, no one's going to force them to read it. I always attempt to write the 'truth.' It's a particularly nebulous concept, but in my terms, it means that I don't do propaganda. I attempt to paint things the way I see them, using historical fact.

Now governments, businesses and religions are in the market for propaganda, it's the essence of what they do. Readers should make their own judgments based on that principle. But I will say that any religion that can't take dissenting or controversial views of its conduct can't be a very strong religion.

One area of historical fact that Chadbourn gives some particular emphasis is the consumption of Paganism into Christianity.

I wanted to underline how the power-seekers in a religion will manipulate situations to achieve their aims. For any student of Machiavellian politics, the history of the Christian Church is a field day. It set up its religious centers on ancient sacred sites so the worshippers would keep coming out of habit. It turned the old gods into saints, and the old festivals into holy days. One might think it's a little coincidental that Christ's birthday is celebrated at the same time as the old pagan festival for the rebirth of the 'king' nature, and that Christ's crucifixion is celebrated at exactly the same time as the old pagan festival where the 'king' was killed to mark an act of renewal and fertility. All these issues gelled with some of the themes I wanted to discuss in the book.

All of these themes are, once more, slotted into a complex story structure but Chadbourn is frugal with the details.

There is a hidden structure in the story, but I'm inclined to leave it there because any discussion of structure means the reader automatically looks for it and therefore loses out when the revelation comes from left-field at the end. I will say that the structure is not so obvious as in Age of Misrule. The clues are buried very deeply.

Coating this complex structure is a rich layer of Celtic history. There are numerous references to facts and mythology through out the novel and it can be fun trying to spot them.

I'm just showing off really! I want people to say, 'Oooh, doesn't he know a lot of things!' But there are actual reasons. The utilization of these things has subtle resonances that work on the reader's subconscious without them even realizing. I tend to put in a lot of hidden detail -- symbolic, historical, mythological -- without drawing attention to it because, I think, this makes for a richer experience for the reader.

And balancing this richness are some pretty bleak experiences.

Much of my writing is about duality, how everything is defined by its opposite. You can only understand true goodness by seeing it in the context of evil. And the issues of hope, redemption and transcendence that I tackle in Devil In Green needed to be set against despair. That's why I love fantasy -- because it allows you to tackle big issues in a big way. Overcoming the worst possible scenario means you need the best possible abilities to do it. The issues become polarized, and therefore very clear. Besides, I'm a very optimistic person, particularly about the essence of humanity, but if you discuss that without the context of something very dark it will come across as quite sickening and saccharine.

The second book of Dark Age is The Queen of Sinister, set in a Britain where magic has returned to the world, and modern technology has become useless. A new order of good and evil has taken hold of the country -- thugs rule the urban landscapes, terrible creatures terrorize the villages with their blood-lust. And now humanity has another enemy: a plague is spreading across the country and once contracted, death swiftly follows. Dr Caitlin Shepherd learns that the cure for the plague lies beyond the veil, in the mystical Celtic Otherworld. Driven by grief and pursued by the fearsome Lament Brood, she enters the world of dreams and nightmare to petition the Gods to help save humanity. But there are other things in motion that she doesn't know about yet, and any one of them could bring about her death.

Again, the duality aspects of Chadbourn's writing follows through into The Queen of Sinister.

We only know inhumanity and evil because we see and understand true, unqualified love for a fellow human being. Like me, my books have an inherently positive message, but to get that across I have to show the worst of what existence has to offer or else that message is meaningless. So, in The Queen of Sinister, human life is failing all over the place and by that we can actually see how valuable life is.

This duality is merely one strand of a plot that flies along at a rapid pace. There are no long descriptions to endure and no obvious info-dumps. Words have been selected carefully to produce their vivid images but how does Chadbourn achieve this sleekness of phrase?

It's a combination of several factors. Certainly, I'm a very harsh self-editor. I took a whole chapter out of the start of the book on the second draft and chopped out massive chunks in other places because I thought it was dragging.

Even if you feel it's the best writing you've done, you have to be brutal if it's not serving the story. I think that harks back to my days as a journalist where you're always taught not to waste words. Journalism is about precision and an understanding of character -- because that job is about much more than just writing; it's about getting into the heads of people and finding out what they really think as opposed to what they say. Journalistic training helps you to edit yourself, and to use as few words as possible to get where you're trying to go.

Then there's my film and TV writing work. That gives me the ability to think visually and shape stories efficiently. Film and TV programs never ramble and are rarely padded, unlike many books. Again, you have to be very precise in your use of words because there is so little time available -- every second is valuable and needs to work towards telling the story or defining the character. When I approach a novel, it plays out in my mind like a movie and I attempt to break it down into acts and scenes to get a structure that works. When the first draft is done, the brutalist, hard-nosed journalist comes to the fore and I hack out anything that's wool-gathering or irrelevant. Authors love their worlds so much they'd happily tell you every aspect of them, but that will, sooner or later, make for a dull experience for the reader.

And a lot has to do with passion for what I'm doing. I immerse myself fully in my story -- I'm there with the characters, in the thick of battle or trying to uncover a mystery. When you reach that state, you delve into the deepest parts of your subconscious and ideas come hard and fast. Some of them are so left-field you'd never have found them otherwise, and you really don't want to lose them so you try to get them on-screen as quickly as you can. That tends to keep the story throbbing along.

The Queen of Sinister is Chadbourn's first novel to spend so much of the story throbbing along in the Otherworld rather than in Britain.

I used Otherworld this time partly because it's symbolic of the lead character's mind as she retreats into various fantasies to escape the misery of her own life; but also because, in the book, our own world is falling into darkness and suffering and I wanted a numinous place of wonder as a counterpoint. I was stimulated by the fact that we hadn't seen it in any detail before in any of my other books and I wanted to show the reader what it was like. This Otherworld has an incredibly rich background of races, cities, history, culture, beliefs, which I know intricately. And as a reader and lover of fantasy, a place of wonder and mystery is the sunny uplands to which we're all continually moving.

The non-pretentious reason for using Otherworld so much is that the previous books I've written were predominantly set in our contemporary world and I relished the opportunity to do something completely different, create new landscapes and take full advantage of what fantasy fiction has to offer -- no barriers.

The pretentious reason is that the Otherworld is symbolic of Caitlin's fracturing state of mind. It's a place where rationality and reason do not exist, where madness and chaos is the norm.

All of my Otherworld has been dreamed up by me and I have a very clear idea of its topography. But the Otherworld in myth is -- pretension alarm again -- symbolic of the subconscious, as I've said, the flip side of reason. The subconscious is the place where all those Jungian archetypes live, and what I wanted to do with my Otherworld was give it lots of archetypal settings -- the primeval forest, the great river -- which is why it probably seems new and unusual and familiar at the same time.

As well as landscape, The Queen of Sinister has a strong focus on character too. Each person goes through five shades of hell and high water before the end of the book, and those who survive are changed by it.

In its purest form, 'story' is all about change. If characters aren't changed by the events they experience, those events are pointless -- unless the lack of change is an important character point in itself, of course.

We are all changed by the things we go through in our lives, whether its the mundane fact of starting a new job with new people, or the big things like the death of a loved one, or the birth of a child. Once you've passed through that experience you're not the person you were before and can never go back to being that person. If characters are not altered in a story, the book is not being 'true' in any real sense and, personally, I think it's just bad writing.

It's unusual for the character of a Sister of Dragons to be so deeply flawed. What themes is he trying to explore using this premise?

I suppose one of the themes of all my books is that heroes are not aristocrats, or people born to greatness -- they are normal people who manage to transcend their basic flaws to do great things. Caitlin is in that tradition. She's a woman striving to do the right thing, who at first simply cannot cope with what's demanded of her. At the start of the book, she is forced to suffer one of the most devastating things any human being can go through -- so bad that she had to take refuge from the memory of it in a very strange place. Is she deeply flawed? I don't know. I think she's a normal person who has to deal with extraordinarily bad things. How would we all cope with that?

The bad things continue to plague the characters in the third book of the series too. In fact, in Hounds of Avalon, events get even worse. We finally meet the remaining two people that make up the mystical five Brothers and Sisters of Dragons. Their role is to save the world from a creature who is the very essence of anti-life, the opposite of Existence, the Void.

As the Void's minions sweep across the UK destroying all life in their path, the British government has retreated to Oxford to await the final battle. In a desperate attempt to find an effective weapon against the dark hordes, the government seek out and capture Mallory, a Brother of Dragons but accidentally shoot and abandon Mallory's partner, Sophie, a Sister of Dragons. Helped by someone from the government ranks, Mallory escapes to search for the first group of Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, seeking their waning powers to fill the gap in their ranks and help them face the end of Existence.

Not happy with creating a host of new characters for Hounds, Chadbourn has also roped in several characters from the original Age of Misrule series.

There were several reasons for doing this. I wanted to remind old readers about characters they'd met before and get those characters into a certain place for any future stories. And I wanted to introduce those characters to new readers. There are plenty of people who have started with The Dark Age sequence and have then gone back to explore The Age of Misrule. I also wanted to show how people are affected, further down the line, by being forced into the position where they have to be a 'hero.' That was a good contrast with the novices of The Dark Age. It was hard keeping them all in the limelight because I wanted to give more space to the old characters, who always demand more, but I had to keep them as supporting characters because the story wasn't about them.

The two main characters in Hounds are civil servant Hal and soldier Hunter. Hal is certainly not your stereo-typical hero but Hunter manages to fulfill that role with a high level of aplomb.

In simple terms, with Hal I was saying you don't have to go out and kill people or put yourself in dangerous situations to be a hero. Sometimes it comes down to one simple choice that no one else might ever know about. But Hal goes back to what I said earlier about heroes being people who are just normal folk who manage to transcend the flaws in their character to do something good.

Our history books are filled with tales of kings and politicians who are supposed to be the heroes of our culture... like Winston Churchill, for instance. Well, frankly, he wasn't out getting limbs blown off. The real heroes were the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers who had to give up their regular mundane lives and families to do the right thing, whatever the cost.

Where Religion got a good kicking previously, in Hounds the Government takes both barrels.

I have a problem with anyone who sets out to impose their will or ideals on my life. As I have said, I firmly believe that many people who set out to achieve power -- whether religious or temporal -- are not only not up to it, they should actually be discouraged because they are potentially dangerous.

Religion and politics are essentially control systems. To operate, both demand a wide, middle-ground which is deemed 'the norm.' If you are on the fringes for whatever reason -- political thought, spiritual belief -- those systems will attempt to subsume you, and if they fail they will attempt to destroy you. I feel like an outsider most of the time so naturally I'm not going to be comfortable with either of those control systems.

On a more general note, the title of this sequence is The Dark Age, and the machinations of Church and State were big in our own dark age. The Queen of Sinister is about disease, or plague, which was the other big concern of that time.

This is yet another fact that illustrates how hard Chadbourn has planned to create stories with many layers. Plans which are decided well in advance...

When I started World's End (volume one of The Age of Misrule) I knew where Hounds of Avalon would finish (five volumes later). And I know where the next three books will finish too. You can read the stories in isolation, but if you choose to read them all you'll find a wealth of information that prefigures coming events or adds background to other books. I don't just throw this stuff together, you know.

Those next three books form The Kingdom of the Serpent series.

They're about a battle between two opposing supreme beings across all of existence, with humanity caught in the middle. It ranges across 2,300 years of human history, moves around the globe, takes in five of our great cultural mythologies and crosses the barrier between life and death. It has its basis in gnostic belief systems, and also deals with the missing suit of the tarot, to which only the gods have access. The two opposing symbols are the serpent or dragon, the giver of knowledge (as we see in Genesis), and the spider, the bringer of despair.

The first book is called Jack of Ravens. The central hero, a modern day man, walks out of the mist into the Celtic landscape 2,300 years ago. He doesn't know how he got there. All he wants to do is get home to the love of his life. But there's an evil force in our modern times that will do anything to stop him returning. My publisher calls it 'massively ambitious,' which probably means they expect me to crash and burn. They also call it 'the ultimate fantasy' which is kind of nice, and kind of a lot to live up to.

Jack of Ravens is due out from Gollancz in 2006.

Copyright © 2005 by Sandy Auden

Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; a diligent interviewer/reviewer for The Third Alternative and Interzone magazines and a combination of all the above for The Alien Online. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. Visit her site at The Auden Interviews.

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