With the fine publication by Reliquary Press of my fantasy novel The Journey of Jacob Bleek, I thought I would set down in writing, for the benefit of the book's fans, my observations on the work. In this essay I attempt to describe the novel, its literary background, and what I intended to artistically accomplish by writing it. To whom it may concern, the facts and notions presented here may be thought of as "cheater" notes; otherwise, as hopefully enjoyable supplementary material.
The Journey of Jacob Bleek relates the adventures of the titular hero, a cunning young wizard of long ago who sets forth on a daring quest to wrest from the Gods the secrets of Their wisdom and power. During the course of his wanderings about the wide world he encounters many strange situations, plus unusual people and potent foes; not all of them, strictly speaking, human, some of them not so at all. As he passes through the course of events in the tale he gains sorcerial knowledge, uncovering clues vital to his quest, leading to a climax in which the fruits of his endeavors are ultimately gathered and his goal, after a fashion, realized.
The presentation of this novel to its readers crowns an already lengthy literary career on the part of Jacob Bleek, several of his adventures having been previously published in magazines and anthologies of fantasy and horror. His origin dates back many years, references to the character appearing in a mass of weird poetry which I initially began composing over a decade ago. Here is the very first written mention, dated 12-27-01, from "The Grave of Jacob Bleek":
Legend claims a ring of power I'd seek In the shunned grave of evil Jacob Bleek So in the shadow of night I slip out Sneaking through the dark when none are about.
I dig deep into that unholy ground I gag at the stench but make not a sound A corpse worm writhes and causes me to shake It's slick and slimy but fat as a snake.
Still down into the damp, stinking ferment Filthy loam of an older interment Uncover the coffin, rip up the lid Spying the ring is the last thing I did.
Jacob lunges, laughing, to spring his trap He grabs my hand; the bones begin to snap.
I'm sure I didn't think of it at the time, but this little ditty is obviously a nod to Lovecraft's "The Hound". I penned a number of others like this, all set in modern times, then a whole bunch purporting to comprise excerpts from an evil tome written by this olden fellow, his Black Book, a concept which does not appear in the novel, and which I of course derived also from Lovecraft and his Necronomicon. This batch of poems looms large in my mind only because these bits (some of them quite long) purport to be his actual words, revealing the true nature of the man. The poetry definitely suggests a dark and dangerous guy. It also establishes a literary conceit of Bleek's: as did several Classical Roman authors, he wrote his massive work in sonnet form, and several of these are scattered throughout the prose stories about him.
In fact, his first short story, "The Book of Jacob Bleek", from July of 2002, deals with the book more than the man, and is another modern tale of a researcher going too far. I wrote a few stories shortly afterward, and more since, referencing the man or his book, but Bleek doesn't come alive as a character until January of 2004, with "The Love of Jacob Bleek". Composed as a gloomy, one-off fable, this story set me firmly on the path to inventing my hero as he has come to be known. The mage of this tale, experiencing one of his exceedingly rare romantic interludes, comes across as brilliant, cold, secretive, and daunting. He never speaks directly to the reader, his persona being expressed by actions and thoughts rather than dialogue. This latter point became a hallmark of my character study, a kind of distancing mechanism which serves to accentuate the mystery of the man. In tales to come, the reader "hears" the words of those who confront Bleek, while Bleek himself is seen only to wisely or cleverly ponder, then forcefully act.
With this story also commences what I might call a loose biography of Jacob Bleek, in that ever since the works about him have consisted of accounts of his adventures, tales of his mighty-- and mighty strange-- doings, rather than merely regarding him as an antique historical figure. Starting with "Jacob Bleek On the Mountain" (of which more presently) the reader begins to live with Bleek, through an avalanche of tales, in his travels about his world, often to exotic or mysterious places; his encounters with competing sorcerers or other creepy enemies; and thrill to the consequences of his relentless lust for knowledge and power that will raise him above all other men.
I append here a chronological list (in order of composition) of all the genuinely Bleek short stories to date:
The Book of Jacob Bleek The Love of Jacob Bleek Jacob Bleek On the Mountain The Companion of Jacob Bleek The Search For Maltheus the Wise Morstenburg The City At the End of Time The Cave of Ceratos The Cross of Xenophor Beyond the Crossroads The Crags of the Schwartzenburg The Dwellers In the Black Forest
Mention should also be made of a more recently completed novel, The Journey Through the Black Book, another dark fantasy with sword and sorcery elements set in the lost kingdom of Dyrezan, the focus of another cycle of stories. This one really stars Professor Anton Vorchek and Theresa Delaney, modern hero and heroine of my most popular series dealing with their investigations into strange mysteries. Here they employ spells from Bleek's book to propel themselves into the fantastic, magic-soaked past of thousands of years B.C., where they actually meet up with the time-jumping author, who grants them mystical aid in his cavalier, callous fashion. In the relevant scenes Bleek receives a unique speaking part.
Most of the stories listed above may be considered supplements to, or lost chapters from, The Journey of Jacob Bleek, therefore providing more information about his long trek. The novel, however, offers the only true framework of his career in one big package, and may be deemed a kind of formal biography, touching upon the highlights of his amazing life.
In this section I shall outline the novel by chapter, providing background information, where useful, on plot elements and the sources of ideas. I trust this will pique and satisfy the curiosity of readers who wonder how the shreds and patches of weird conceptions unite to create a coherent story-telling experience.
First, though, a digression which reveals how the whole notion of the novel came to me. The minor tale "Jacob Bleek On the Mountain" started the ball rolling. That short piece, like "Love" a morbid fable, described Bleek's venture to the abode of the Gods to demand of Them Their secrets, and what transpired from that. Succinct, a snap to read, a few minutes of amusement... yet scarcely had I completed the story than the possibilities began to swell in my mind. In short order I decided to re-use the concept, convert it into a collection of episodic adventures logically leading to the same end. Indeed, the final chapter of Journey is a greatly expanded version of the original work.
I organize the novel thus: Prologue; the ten core chapters entitled "The Haunted Village", "The Error of Helvetius", "At the Court of the Graf Von Waldorff", "The Hermit's Curse", "The Countess Kronnberg", "Into the Catacombs", "The Conclave of the Telkonians", "The City of Dyrezan", "The Vault of Azamodias", and "The Mountain of the Gods"; Epilogue.
The material in this section below, without brazen spoilers, nevertheless assumes a prior reading of the novel. Those who haven't, and desire to approach the story fresh, are advised to skip it.
Here I briefly introduce the hero, explain who he is and what he intends to do. Right off the bat it's made clear that Jacob Bleek is no conventional hero; that he lusts for arcane knowledge and the omnipotent power he expects to derive from it; that already, at the tender age of twenty-one when he sets out on his quest, Bleek is a grand master of the sorceric arts who holds himself above the common herd and thinks himself their natural superior. This man will not tolerate fools-- as he broadly defines them-- nor brook opposition to his megalomaniacal designs. He doesn't sound very sympathetic, does he? How, then, can the reader relate to him? I will come back to that in a moment.
Bleek hails from, and spent his early years in, the port city of Brugges in the Netherlands. Why there, of all places? Most people have never heard of it. The answer lies in two "author's reasons": one, his name (coined long before out of thin air) sounded to me passably Dutch; two, I visited the city years ago while on time off from an archeological dig, and its beauty and history continued to fascinate me. Having occasionally considered setting a story there, I at last gave Jacob Bleek the honors of residency.
Embarked upon his epic journey, Bleek crosses into Germany, where he chances to stop for the night at the isolated, forest-shrouded hamlet of Wetzelburg, whose inhabitants cower under hostile, ghostly visitations. Here the reader first gets to see Bleek strut his stuff, as he investigates the cause of the macabre mystery, then delivers to the village folk a, for him, typically just and typically heartless solution.
I get the story going with this tale, seemingly unconnected to the novel's over-arching theme, in order to show the wizard performing wizardry. So, he's the real thing: he does possess mastery of peculiar arts, he can cast spells, conjure up the dead, affect lives with his incantations. This being established, I need justify later on only his prowess in special cases, not his general efficacy as a learned mage.
As well, I make plain the cold, cruel aspects of his character. Yet I intend-- and do believe I succeed-- to convince (or trick?) the reader to root for Jacob Bleek. So often, like here, the people he confronts are clearly nastier than he!
A short story which may fit into Bleek's chronology somewhere around here is "Beyond the Crossroads". This one, in grimly amusing fashion, also deals with his adventures in a haunted village.
Pushing on into Germany, Bleek sojourns for a period among the covert wizards who conceal their illicit delvings within the halls of the University of Heidelburg. There he meets the friendly Matthias (a rare sympathetic character in this work), and butts head with the formidable and haughty Helvetius, who recognizes in the young traveler a keen competitor, whom he eventually conspires to destroy. Needless to say, smug, self-assured Helvetius comes out on the short end of the stick, in gruesomely dramatic fashion.
Once more I employ a tale to illustrate Bleek's burgeoning prowess at sorcery. I chose the locale simply due to having heard of that school's centuried status. As the hero passes among these learned men, I clarify the point that his quest is truly grandiose, even by their lofty standards. Bleek is tackling a goal few of his colleagues would dare attempt.
Two later stories, "Morstenburg" and "The Crags of the Schwartzenburg", continue the account of Bleek's German travels. Both deal with hideous survivals from the past; the former involving a secret pagan society, the latter the malicious ghosts of evil priests.
"The Error of Helvetius" entertained me enough that, much later, I wrote a short story as sequel to the chapter. "The Dwellers In the Black Forest" describes events many years later, when the wanderer passes through the area seeking the lost documents of Helvetius. Bleek learns, as he might have feared, that it's difficult to keep an evil warlock down.
In this, the last of what I call the introductory adventures, Jacob Bleek runs afoul of a brutal and greedy Austrian nobleman. Here I show how a wise wizard deals with the realities of the hostile mundane world. Held hostage in return for conjured gold, Bleek spitefully turns the tables on his thuggish tormentor. This chapter serves to hint at the science underlying the magic pervading the novel. The reader learns that there are rules to the game; natural law binds magic as well as matter.
Oh yes, about the Graf's name: I did derive it from the salad. This suggests how little seriously a man like Bleek considers a brute like that.
This critical chapter begins to open up the story, presenting a plot factor that magnifies itself through the later adventures. Bleek bargains with a lofty fellow mage, acquiring the gift-- he hopes-- of eternal life in return for a grant of his own magical abilities. The Jewish sorcerer Josiah begs help in resurrecting his cherished, long dead, murdered wife. Sadly, Bleek's colleague gains naught but despair from the proffered boon, and in the end Josiah curses Bleek and his quest. For once, the hero departs an adventure keenly distressed, even afraid.
I set this tale in the Jewish quarter of Cracow in Poland, and in Josiah create one of the most congenial of Bleek's associates. Why the Jewish element? Well, in "Supernatural Horror In Literature", Lovecraft discusses the medieval Cabalistic tradition, opines that more could be made of it in fiction. Like him, I've seen the 1920 film version of "The Golem", although I didn't care for it as much as he did. Anyway, I decided to take up Lovecraft on his challenge, weave such material into my novel. Thus came to be this chapter.
This chapter, and the preceding, and the beginning of the next, constitute what I think of as the intermediate section of the novel, in which Jacob Bleek, still operating within conventionally familiar territory, acquires clues or learns possibilities vital to his quest. More importantly, this lengthy adventure spotlights Bleek during his sole romantic entanglement in the book, as he sinks into the blissful spell woven for him by the peerless Countess Kronnberg.
I set these events in Hungary, to which Bleek has fled upon hastily taking leave of Josiah. There he finds wonder, delight, and terror in the castle atop the grim mountain frowning down upon the forgotten village of Istrakyager. The Countess, epitome of perfect womanhood, craves Bleek for her own. In this he rejoices, until...
The Countess marks one of my extremely rare forays into the theme of vampirism. This once rewarding concept of the macabre has been so despoiled in recent years-- I fear to the destruction-- that I deliberately avoid it in the main. Even here I reject the tired old trappings repeatedly borrowed from Bram Stoker, and lately mocked (I presume unintentionally) by pop writers.
In fact, the Countess may be more accurately styled a lamia. When I composed this novel I had not yet added to my library the complete weird tales of Clark Ashton Smith, which include his magnificent short work, "The End of the Story". Reading that, I was astounded by the thematic similarities. It pleased me greatly, also.
I believe I picked up the term "Istrakyager" as a memory corruption, connoting "witch", from the word "Stregoicavar" in "The Black Stone" by Robert E. Howard.
In this chapter Jacob Bleek commences his explorations of wholly unknown lands, fantasy creations quite different from what has gone before. In Rome the wise blind seer directs Bleek to seek for knowledge within the Catacombs, the underground cemetery fashioned by the early Christians to hide their dead from the hostile pagans. Uncovering evidence of grisly grave molestation, Bleek finds himself in the lowest level on the verge of a vastly greater, hitherto unsuspected subterranean world. Into this he bravely descends, and there he faces unspeakable peril while discovering the remains of an infinitely old lost civilization. There he collects imperishable documents, in the form of plates of silver alloy, that may illuminate the history and lore of that ancient land, perhaps too provide him with information critical to his quest. His lengthy, increasingly desperate trek eventually leads him to the surface in a blazing desert, obviously incredibly far from Rome and his known world.
The repulsive troglodytes which he frantically battles first appeared in a previous short story, "The Legend of the Vulture Mine", a modern tale featuring Professor Vorchek and his assistant Theresa, who confront brief but similar dangers at the bottom of a storied mine shaft in Arizona. I incorporated those creatures into the novel, that I might suggest an insidious horror spanning all the Earth and man's history.
The blind seer reappears in a later conceived adventure of Jacob Bleek, set during this same period in Rome. "The Cross of Xenophor" relates Bleek's attempts to acquire a magical relic from its undead possessor, and what befell all concerned.
During this chapter Bleek, in his spare time, deciphers what he comes to call the Rhexellite plates. The reader sees how the wizard researcher acquires his knowledge, upon which a man of his capabilities may act. He learns much of the shadowy history of the prehistoric Rhexellite civilization, learns also a great deal concerning the mystical "zones of power", where the cosmic forces of the Gods bleed through onto the Earth. In addition, he first gleans from these plates reference to the dread word "Xenophor".
Unfortunately for Jacob Bleek's scholarly joy, his solitary studies attract the attention of greedy and grasping enemies. This chapter-- though clearly placed somewhere in North Africa-- continues the setting in a fantasy domain. In the drab city of Apharia "by the shores of the placid, muddy River Nelas" (meant to suggest a variation on "Nile") he comes under the evil scrutiny of the Telkon League, a clutch of powerful sorcerers, the true rulers of the land, who wish to seize Bleek's plates and eliminate this intruding competitor. In their duel to the death, one man against the entire League, the reader realizes just how formidable Bleek has become.
Entering the final phase of the story, the journey of Jacob Bleek continues with now enormous strides, spanning vast distances. This single chapter leads Bleek to Egypt, where he gains fresh knowledge of the vortices of the Old Ones, foci of energy where the Gods have been known to pass in elder times; and sets out on a trek of many years into the Orient, during which he passes through India, Tibet, and on into China, where he resides and wanders, ever questing for the fabled city of Dyrezan, the city that hovers magically amidst the clouds, legendary seat of a magical kingdom, located at a vortex, home of a race of wizards who knew the Gods and who could materially aid Bleek in achieving his goal.
Two later composed adventures serve to flesh out the earlier portions of this mammoth trek. The line from the novel in which Bleek "studied the writings on jeweled scarabs torn from a mummy's breast" suggested the grotesque events in "The Companion of Jacob Bleek"; while in his march across India I conceived a harrowing detour loathsomely described in "The Search For Maltheus the Wise".The core tale of this chapter occurs in China, where Bleek seeks the wonderful magicians of Dyrezan whom he expects to propel him to victory. Along the way he takes as servant the young Ting-po, the last of the book's sympathetic characters. Ting-po, selflessly devoted, sees only good in his master, and marvels at the extraordinary lives they lead together. His kindly naiveté highlights Bleek's selfish coldness, which looms larger in the novel from this point.
Dyrezan is a gigantic subject in its own right, being the focus of poetry, short stories, and its own novel, the aforementioned The Journey Through the Black Book. Most of these stories are set during the heyday of Dyrezan, a period long before recorded history, but after the civilization of the Rhexellites. At one time the Dyrezanians made war against a degenerate resurgence of their predecessors. The complete short stories to date in this series are "A Tale of Dyrezan", "Skyrax, Lord of Dyrezan", "Nantrech of Dyrezan", "The Charming of Carmeline", "The Tale of Nantrech", "The Adventure of Captain Morca", "The Guardian of the Treasure", "Kardowan", "A Sojourn In Crost", "In the Hills of Yost", "The Gorge of Pentono", "The Wheel of Dargalon", "The Castle of Chakaron", and "The Ghouls of Kalkris".
Bleek's last additional adventure, so far, set at the tail end of this one, is "The Voice Out of Dyrezan", which involves the raising of the spirit of Lord Morca, hero of most of the above stories.
Following a heart-breaking disappointment, Jacob Bleek's continued wanderings throughout China are mentioned, without further detail, solely to make the point that many years pass. Ting-po, still by his side, matures, feels the touch of old age, yet Bleek remains the same as ever. The fruits of the Hermit's bargain are spectacularly verified.
Bleek seizes upon a fresh clue: ages before, another grand mage undertook a quest identical to his own. What did famed Azamodias discover? In another huge geographical leap Bleek pursues the lead across the frozen wilds of Siberia into Russia, where he and Ting-po are directed to the shunned, ruinous abode of that antique worthy on the frigid coast of Finland far above the Arctic Circle. There Bleek's dedicated servant performs one final service before forever departing, there Bleek dares the haunted castle, descending into the dreadful vault where the remains of Azamodias-- and his secrets-- lie. Bleek finds what he seeks, a map that can guide his feet to the Gods, to the throne of Xenophor, but is lucky to live to tell about it. At the end of this chapter the obsessed hero has learned everything he needs to know in order to successfully complete his long journey.
In this concluding chapter the shattering climax rushes upon the reader. Quickly passing through Brugges, the unsentimental Bleek engages a ship to transport him across the unknown western sea to the location of the mightiest vortex, where exists his best chance of finding the Old Ones, masters of the universe. In constant peril at every juncture, the canny Bleek wins his way to the coast of a mysterious continent, which he crosses in his longest trek yet, until he arrives at the edge of a strange, deadly valley inhabited on its margins by curiously learned barbarians. Their wisest man, Tonipah, knows of the Mountain of the Old Ones, site of the vortex, can show him the way, though he dare not approach himself. Bleek dares, and he climbs the unscalable mountain, arrives at that peculiarly level plateau... and from that point on he enters a realm beyond dreams, beyond sanity.
The journey of Jacob Bleek, rest assured, culminates fittingly. Wreathed in marvels, the epochal meeting with great Xenophor occurs, and deeds are done. I forebear to diminish the hopeful pleasure of the experience with details. A short epilogue tersely describes Bleek's life after the main event.
The chief terrestrial setting of this chapter I based on real locales. The weird valley is the Verde Valley of central Arizona. The natural red rock shrine of the local folk is no less than the popular hiking destination of Cathedral Rock. On the way to that place Bleek and Tonipah pass the grand ruins of prehistoric Tuzigoot. From Cathedral Rock they gaze upon the Mountain of the Old Ones, an imaginatively magnified version of eye-catching Courthouse Butte.
The frightful "Messengers" whom Bleek confronts on the mountain appear in a later story, one supposedly derived from Bleek's Black Book. "An Eastern Tale" warns against dealing with such creatures. It is set in Elibama, the same city visited by Bleek in "The Search For Maltheus the Wise", in which the Messengers also appear.
I deliberately kept the time period of the novel hazy and imprecise, not wanting to unnecessarily restrict myself or my hero. Suffice to say that these events occur sometime from the High Middle Ages to before Columbus. Anywhere within that broad range satisfies me. Jacob Bleek knows all about the Classical Age, has never heard of America, understands that a dark age has preceded his own. I'm sure that numerous minor anachronisms have crept in (the reference in "The Hermit's Curse" to Poniatowski Square may be the biggest, as I borrowed the name from my knowledge of Napoleonic history!), but only such as would offend the professional historian. I desired at all times the proper sense of fantasy, which I consider quasi-mythical, so firm dating would damage that important feel.
I'm a big fan of classic fantasy stories. In years past I read, numerous times, the famous works of J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Later on I delighted myself with Robert E. Howard's tales of Conan of Cimmeria, including his superb The Hour of the Dragon, and most of his fantasies for that matter. In more recent years, I discovered what may be my favorite of them all, The Worm Ouroboros of E.R. Eddison. These, plus much other eclectic reading, shape my notions of what good fantasy should be.
Desiring to write my own, I attempted to conceive of a quest worthy of a monumental tale. With something of Jacob Bleek's character already known to me, I eschewed the conventional "good guy doing good" scenario, opted for a goal of personal interest to one such as Bleek. I imagine men of such power and wisdom to be fairly self-centered, to see themselves superior to the despised herd. This has also been my approach to another major creation, Professor Anton Vorchek, who investigates other-worldly mysteries mainly out of a craving for rare knowledge. Bleek, I decided, was the medieval counterpart of Vorchek, perhaps a little more ruthless, in keeping with that hard age.
I approved of the episodic quality of Howard's Hour-- a series of lesser adventures, capsule stories, tied to a greater-- chose that form for my work. The chapters of Journey can be enjoyed independently. They take on even greater meaning, however, when read as a whole.
In one key sense I reacted against the norm, in that with this novel I emphasize sorcery over sword. The hero is a magician; he makes magic; he defeats or overawes mundane foes. The sword is never the final arbiter in The Journey of Jacob Bleek.
Also, I considerably emphasize-- much more than most, I reckon-- the scholarly bent of the wizard. As a rule, magic intrudes into fantasy stories only when the mage (usually the villain) conjures and chants, waves his arms or stirs his bubbling pot. Perhaps because of my scholarly background I found entertaining the image of Bleek the dutiful researcher. Crucial sections of the novel, as in "The Hermit's Curse" and "The Conclave of the Telkonians", show Bleek at study, analyzing data, puzzling over possibilities, sifting documents. That is how I expect a learned wizard to spend most of his time.
Surely H.P. Lovecraft's intellectual heroes have influenced this latter case as well. While I have never set out to imitate him, I can not stress strongly enough the effect of his work on my own. I believe that an acute reading of Journey, and many of my other tales, proves this beyond doubt. The conception of Xenophor, to cite only one instance, reflects my take on the master's Azathoth.
Lovecraft must also be the literary father of all the spooky-sounding books I scatter throughout the novel. As previously stated, Jacob Bleek eventually compiled his own massive volume, The Black Book, filled with revelations and insights obtained during his lengthy career and, presumably, from older works to which he gained access. The complete Bleek no longer exists (and a good thing too, for the world's safety and sanity), but modern delvers such as Professor Vorchek cherish fragments of that work. What earlier productions may have influenced Bleek? Here is the whole list of named (by title or author) esoteric tomes from the novel:
Incantations of Power of Narcassus Forbidden Transformations of Lestronius "the peculiar writings of Thutmoses the Egyptian" "books transcribed by Artocris the Greek" "unbreakable cypher of Belisarius Augustus" works of Porfidias of Toledo Fathoming of the Elder Secrets of Boris Revetsky Dialogues On Devils of Vegellius Esoteric Morbidities of Axion the Younger treatises of Josephus Magnus treatise on natural philosophy by Gordian The Book of Xenophor "account by the monk Gregorias" "the book of Azamodias"
Jacob Bleek is a cool customer to be sure, but I like to think he possesses a certain panache, a peculiar flair for living the strange life that renders him oddly attractive. His talents for seeking and finding grand adventure are, I believe, unquestionable. As he journeys ever onward into the unknown, may he continue to please his fans!
Enjoy the book. Reliquary Press and I have devoted ourselves to presenting our readers with a novel entertaining, frightening, and thrilling. I hope The Journey of Jacob Bleek stands as a worthy addition to the illustrious line of mind-expanding fantasy tales created by imaginative writers of the last century and more.
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