Interview: David Mack on Battling History’s Demons in The Midnight Front

In an epic new series, David Mack asks the question: what if history as we know it masks a secret war between good and evil? Drawing on centuries-old grimoires and Renaissance era magic, Mack imagines a world in which sorcerers yoke demons to their will at great personal sacrifice. But without them, the world would be lost. The first novel in the series, The Midnight Front, depicts a shadow war in conjunction with the events of World War II.

I caught up with David on the eve of the release of The Midnight Front (available now) to talk about his inspiration for the series, the magic system, the difference between secret history and alternate history, and more.

The Midnight Front introduces a mind-bending secret history that perfectly fuses with history as we know it. What did you find to be the opportunities in this form of storytelling? The challenges?
The challenges of writing secret history far outweigh the opportunities, in my opinion. Unlike alternative-history stories, which are free to change the outcomes of events both great and intimate, secret-history narratives have to spin their tales without disturbing the delicate balance of established historical fact.

Consequently, writing a secret-history novel entailed an intimidating degree of research and preparation. I had to familiarize myself with more than just the dates and details of the Second World War in Europe and the major events of the Holocaust. I also had to learn about the music of the period, both in the Allied and Axis territories; what kinds of cigarettes and medicines were available within the European theater at various times during the war; the period’s popular hairstyles and fashions for women; cars, motorcycles, and other vehicles of the era; and a trove of minutiae concerning Allied and Axis military equipment, weapons, and fortifications. Not to mention digging up floor plans and photos for every inch of the interior of Eilean Donan Castle in Dornie, Scotland.

If there are “opportunities” to be found in the secret-history subgenre, I suspect they lie in the possibility of grounding one’s narrative in situations that, for many readers, come pre-associated with emotional significance.

That said, there is a certain cachet that comes with being able to set a scene inside the frame of, say, the Battle of Britain, the machinations of the Babi Yar Massacre in Kiev, or the harrowing spectacle of D-Day. In fact, it was because our culture’s collective memory of the events of D-Day verges on mythology that in my novel I set that one date apart from all others in the book, which spans a period of six years (September 1939–September 1945). By doing so, I hope that the profound emotional resonance with which western culture has imbued that day will, at least in some small measure, carry forward into that portion of my story.

Magic in The Midnight Front relies on demons—and for that, there is always a cost. The magic system is intricate and detailed, with just enough familiar references to seem like it could really exist. Can you talk about how this system of magic came into being, and the idea of power exacting great cost from its users?
Much of the depiction of ceremonial magick (I chose to spell it in my novel with a terminal K, to distinguish it from sleight-of-hand and engineered stage magic) in my novel is based upon its descriptions in a number of old grimoires from the Renaissance-era Christian tradition.

I derived rituals, symbols, diagrams, and physical descriptions of the various demons, as well as their rigidly enforced Descending Hierarchy, from such tomes as the anonymously authored Clavicula Salomonis Regis (also known as The Lesser Key of Solomon, aka The Lemegeton), The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts by Arthur Edward Waite, and The Sworn Book of Honorius (also known by its Latin title, Liber Juratus Honorii).

My inspiration for developing a literary magic system from these historical sources was one of my all-time favorite novels, Black Easter by James Blish. His scholarly approach to the depiction of ceremonial and talismanic magic made it seem scientifically rigorous in its method, and that had the effect of making it feel more “real” to me than had many other authors’ fictional magic systems.

From the beginning of my development process on The Midnight Front and the Dark Arts series, I knew that this was an approach I wanted to emulate. Fortunately for me, the primary source texts are all long since part of the public domain, so I was free to borrow from them just as liberally as Blish had fifty years earlier.

The next step in making the magic system workable for the kinds of novels I wanted to write was to make it better suited to individual duels of a cinematic and highly kinetic nature. I also wanted to impose some additional costs and restrictions on this manner of wielding magick, so that it would not threaten to overpower my sorcerers (or “karcists,” as they are known in the parlance of ceremonial magick).

With help from my friend, fellow author, and veteran game designer Aaron Rosenberg, I added to the repetoire of ceremonial magick a practice known as “yoking.” The principle of yoking is that karcists forcibly bind demons to their bodies and minds in order to wield that demon’s unique powers as if they were their own.

The duration of the yoking is sometimes predetermined by a karcist’s pact with the spirit to last either for a limited time or for a fixed number of uses of the power; in other cases, the power lasts for as long as the karcist is strong enough to keep the demon under control. But when the karcist weakens — especially because of wounding or exhaustion — they will often lose their hold on all of their yoked spirits and be left defenseless at the worst possible times.

Adding to the risk of yoking is that it comes with dire side effects. Among them are nosebleeds, migraine headaches, nausea, diarrhea, nightmares, insomnia, suicidal urges, and self-destructive obsessive-compulsive behaviors such as self-cutting, hair-pulling, lip-biting, etc. To quell the torments of the demons kicking around inside their pysches, most karcists who practice yoking on a frequent basis eventually turn to alcohol, chain-smoking, opiates, narcotics, hallucinogens, overeating, or any of a number of other self-medicating behaviors.

The worst part of this for the magicians is that if they practice yoked magick for too long, even after they release their spirits the bad habits provoked by the demons will remain. As a result, most battle-karcists wind up as psychologically scarred alcoholics and junkies. That gibbering madman under the bridge downtown? For all we know, he might once have been a karcist who saved the world from an army of demons. Now he’s just a homeless drug addict.

Oddly enough, it was only after I had locked down all of the methods and costs of my series’ magic system that I realized it functions as an allegory for my own creative process and relationship with consciousness-altering substances.

Several of your Star Trek novels are acclaimed New York Times bestsellers. What was it like making the transition from writing novels in someone else’s world to creating your own?
More difficult than I had expected, to be honest. After more than a decade of writing licensed fiction for such series as Star Trek, The 4400, Wolverine, 24, and Farscape, I had grown accustomed to being able to knock out a detailed outline in about two weeks and a polished novel manuscript in roughly 10 weeks. I had come to think of that as my normal pace.

Then I confronted the mountains of research that stood between me and the faintest conception of a novel outline for The Midnight Front, and I was more than slightly daunted.

After I accepted that writing this book was going to take longer than writing a media tie-in novel, I did find that one aspect of my tie-in experience still proved useful.

One of the cardinal rules of writing media tie-in fiction in any medium is that one is expected to put back all of the series’ characters and situations just as one found them, with no major changes to the status quo. There are exceptions to that rule, of course (especially in Star Trek novels published since 2003, or in the post-series Farscape comic books, which were plotted by series co-creator Rockne S. O’Bannon), but it’s a good rule of thumb that tie-in writers have to be good at “coloring inside the lines.”

This experience served me well as I steered my plot through the rocks and shoals of documented history. There were several moments during the writing of The Midnight Front where I was confronted by a clash between what I wanted my characters to do and what history dictated actually happened. Because my novel is secret history and not alternative history, I had to play by strict rules. Had it not been for my many years of tie-in experience, learning to respect that restriction might have driven me mad.

The Dark Arts series will explore various historical events. Can you talk about your choice of World War II as the springboard event for the series?
I’ve had an interest in the World War II period since before I was in high school, probably thanks in part to my older brother. He was a real WW2 buff, and he used to build models of tanks, aircraft, and warships, as well as battle dioramas. When I was young he’d sit with me to watch documentaries about the war, or movies like The Guns of Navarone or The Big Red One.

During my first attempt at developing the Dark Arts series, my plan had been to create a near-future blend of high-tech and ceremonial black magick, and to have the principal villain be a semi-legendary figure who had been thought defeated in the World War II era. I’d intended to have a few flashbacks to WW2 but to have most of the action take place in the mid-21st century. However, the more I worked on the story, the more I found the villain’s backstory taking over my narrative. After a few months of resisting the inevitable, I surrendered to a dispiriting epiphany: I had been writing the wrong book.

Once I committed to the World War II setting, the narrative became much easier to plot. I think a big part of what attracted me to that time period is that it represents a major turning point, for both good and ill, in human history. There was so much at stake—the whole world, really, and all of its possible futures. The outcome of the struggles in Europe and the Pacific felt more potentially consequential than just about anything that had ever happened before or since (with the possible exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which very nearly ended the world as we know it).

Looming large even within the grand scope of World War II, of course, is June 6, 1944 — D-Day. It’s staggering to think of how much was on the line that day. Thousands of ships. Thousands of aircraft. More than 150,000 troops. All of them gambled on an assault that had been years in the planning and preparation. And riding on the attack’s outcome? The fate of Europe and possibly the entire world. I don’t think anyone can really question the importance of D-Day as a linchpin moment in human history.

If that isn’t a lure for the writerly imagination, I don’t know what would be.

A book this epic in scope, with characters operating on multiple fronts of World War II, must have been a devil to construct. Do you have a process?
I didn’t have a process before I started. I had to invent one as I went along.

Because I wanted to connect my narrative to real events from the war, one of my first steps was to build a two-sided timeline. Branching off of the bottom were real moments of significance in the war, from the first rumblings of aggression by Germany’s leadership in the late 1930s, through the first few months after the surrender of Japan in August 1945. This timeline included such details as when German troops entered Poland, France, and other nations, as well as events on the Eastern Front — in particular, the battles of Stalingrad, Kharkov, and Kursk.

The next step was to research major moments from the Holocaust and place them on the same timeline. This included the creation (and subsequent liquidation) of the Polish ghettos, the actions of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazis’ creation of their network of concentration camps, the massacre at Babi Yar, the executions at Chelmno nad Nerem, the horrors of Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and many other camps, and the eventual liberation of the camps.

Some of my research during this period was conducted in person at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Some of my fact-checking was done online via those organizations’ websites. In order to do justice to the terrors of events like Babi Yar, I relied on the first-hand accounts of survivors to guide my depictions of those and other atrocities.

After I had my research compiled, I plugged events from my narrative onto branches from the top of the timeline, and whenever possible, I looked for opportunities to align important plot points with major moments from history.

This latter part of the process was labor-intensive; every time I revised my narrative structure, events fell out of temporal alignment, forcing me to start over. In some cases, events that I wanted to work into the book (such as the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk) just didn’t fit the timing, or would have slowed down my narrative to no great benefit.

As far as how I built the various interlocking personal stories, I wrote multiple versions of the story outline — one customized for each of my major and supporting characters, based on what their journey through the story looks like from their perspective. This enabled me to give each character in the book their own variation on the Campbellian “hero’s journey,” but with some of them ending in failure or tragedy.

Part of my rationale was that every character considers himself or herself the main character of their own life’s story, so why not plot the book that way? The result, I hope, is a richly layered and complex story in which every character feels and acts with agency, affecting the outcome of events in ways great and small. No character’s success or failure is wasted or happens in isolation. As a result, every action, every victory, and every defeat proves consequential to the story’s climactic resolution.

The next book in the series, The Iron Codex, looks intriguing. What can you share about your plans for the series?
One of the ideas that appealed to my editor, Marco Palmieri, when I pitched him the Dark Arts series was the proposition that not only would each book take place in a different era of 20th-century geopolitical history, each novel in the series would be a different kind of story.

Whereas the first book, The Midnight Front, is a years-spanning war epic, the second book, The Iron Codex, transpires over roughly two months in early 1954 and is a classic Cold War espionage thriller. I am currently plotting and outlining book three, The Shadow Commission, which is going to be a paranoid conspiracy piece set in November 1963, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Part of why I chose this approach to the series was to keep readers from getting bored reading the same story repackaged into different period dress. The other reason is to keep myself from getting bored writing the same book over and over again. I don’t want the series to bog down into one war story after another: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc. I also want to be able to challenge myself to shift genres and styles with each book, partly for fun, and also so that I can tailor the style of each book to fit the mood of its era.

My hope is that the Dark Arts series will do well enough that it will continue past book three. If it does, some of the ideas I’m kicking around for the next three installments would be a crime-thriller/murder mystery set in gritty 1970s New York; a sleek corporate-heist caper tale set in 1980s Los Angeles; and a revenge story in the war-torn Balkan states of the 1990s.

If I’m lucky, maybe one day the series can get around to examining how Americans went from fighting fascists in the 1940s to voting for them in 2016. But I suspect that day’s a long ways off.

David Mack is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of more than three dozen novels, numerous works of short fiction, and two produced episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space NineRead an excerpt from The Midnight Front. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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