By Victor D. Infante
“My king, something has been created that no one has created before.” — Enheduanna, from The Sumerian Temple Hymns
These are stories with which you are probably unacquainted:
Crimson Nightshade thought she’d hit the jackpot when The Union chose her as the prototype for a possible vigilante program. But once they abandoned her to the city night, she had to learn to survive or die, never mind fighting crime …
Whitney Bierce never chose to be a witch, but now she’s the only thing that stands between her city and an unspeakable evil from the past ….
Running out of cash, Nina finds a job making easy money as a dancer in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, but she discovers what everyone else knows – that nothing is ever as easy as it seems …
When seemingly random phone calls turn the listeners into mindless killers, black ops trained philanthropist Luke Warfield must act quickly to prevent further deaths, and uncover the true reason behind this mind-control villainy …
Certainly, there are familiar elements: We recognize the name “Crimson Nightshade” as probably belonging to either a superhero or a wrestler, and the word “vigilante” tips our understanding toward the former. We know what a witch is, and while our oldest recollections of that phrase infer an evil, everything recent – from Wicked to Maleficent to American Horror Story – tells us it’s probably more complicated than that.
We recognize the tell-tale markers of noir and action-adventure as fast as you can say Sam Spade or James Bond, of pulp fiction mass-produced for the masses, and we recognize the classism that accompanies that populism, how they spring from genres often denigrated by contemporary literary critics.
But underneath these unfamiliar stories is something older, the primordial soup of our entire literature: Gods and heroes, metaphors and symbols, prayers and stories.
Prayers and stories: When you boil the vast history of poetry down, this is what remains.
Enheduanna, the earliest poet whose name we still know, preserved hymns to the Sumerian Gods in what we now call The Sumerian Temple Hymns: Prayers and devotions to the Babylonian goddess Inanna, carried down to us across centuries on 37 tablets.
Inanna is a fascinating figure in mythology, her stories encompassing love and war being waged in her name, her rape and subsequent vengeance, and her descent into the underworld of her own volition. If not exactly what many would consider a “hero” – although I do – the sense of power and agency that resounds through her stories place her near the center of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, his hero with a thousand faces. Certainly, you can hear her voice echo through the stories that came later: Orpheus, Persephone and Theseus leap to mind immediately. And her stories were preserved in poetry, as Gilgamesh’s were, as Beowulf’s, as King Arthur was much later.
From the Sumerian Temple Hymns to Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, poems kept stories – and heroes – from disappearing into the night. But Inanna’s story is special, because not only is her story preserved in writing, the myths give her some credit for the birth of writing itself: Created, as the story goes, during a war between the cities of Aratta and Uruk, whose rulers were battling over her heart, Helen of Troy style.
There are other mythological contenders for the creation of writing, of course: The Egyptians, for one, would point to their god Thoth. But personally, I find something appealing about Inanna being the spark at the center of poetry and writing itself, just as I find it compelling that one of the first ostensible “heroes” was female, and that the first known poet was a woman.
We live in a world where Warner Bros. And DC Comics struggle to make a Wonder Woman movie, despite the success of Frozen and The Hunger Games, and where the presence of female writers in “pulp” genres is still seen as anomalous, despite the success of J.K. Rowlings, Suzanne Collins and others. And don’t even get me started on ethnic diversity.
But the idea that neither the creator nor creation at – from one angle at least – the heart of our literature is neither male nor white is an idea I find both telling and amusing. It tells me that the struggles of contemporary female writers and writers of color is the aberration. Some people, especially in genre fiction and comic book circles, seem to think “diversity” is a dirty, or at least loaded, word, but I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s not something new, it’s something, very, very old, and it’s at the core of everything we do.
This, then, is what we’re looking for in Radius‘ new fiction experiment: A return of sorts. In addition to all of our normal poetry endeavors, beginning Monday we’ll be spending some time exploring the connections between classic epic poetry and the contemporary action-adventure hero.
We’ll begin our journey with four stories: Union Dues: Freedom with an f, by Jeffrey R. DeRego, Pink Aviary, by B. DeMarco-Barrett, Baby Detonate For Me, by myself, and Murder Makes the Call: An Essex Man Story by Gary Phillips, along with essays that illustrate and dig deep into the the natures of heroes, stories, metaphor and symbolism.
The stories we’re starting with will be serialized over the course of a few weeks, each installment appearing on the same day each week. For example, installments of DeRego’s story will appear every Monday. We did this in part to see if we could recapture the serialized story magic of the 19th century – which served Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle well – to see if that could work in the digital era.
And while the stories that we’re beginning with are all in different genres – superhero, noir, urban fantasy and action-adventure – they have a few a few things in common: They each center on a central protagonist who may or may not be a “hero,” per se, but who are nonetheless plunged into darkness that they have to emerge from. And all the stories are set on a contemporary Earth. No disrespect to historical fiction or stories set on alien worlds, but we wanted the stories we were telling to be set in the world outside your window, no matter how fantastic they seemed.
In the end, we were looking for new heroes, new stories and new legends. And only time will tell if we’ve found any, but we certainly hope you enjoy the ride.