Thursday, June 20, 2024

GRRM flirts with fanfiction in Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark

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Part of the GRRM Reading Project.

If George R. R. Martin (GRRM) were a writer for The Fandomentals, he would likely be one of the Fanfinites. His involvement with the comic book fandom on its infancy in early ‘60s was a formative experience for young George, changing his career dreams for good. Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark is a product of those years, being one of GRRM’s oldest published stories.

Originally published in 1967 in Star-Studded Comics #10, the short story made GRRM’s name in the comics fandom and won him a Silver Alley for Best Story, a fan category in the now-defunct Alley Awards. Star-Studded Comics was a fanzine run by three Texas comic book fans named Larry Herndon, Buddy Saunders, and Howard Keltner, who called themselves the Texas Trio. The Trio had their own roster of superheroes and were looking to publish stories told with their existing characters. Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark is one of such stories, starring the superpowered spirit Doctor Weird.

It’s a very short story—according to Kindle it only took me half an hour to read it—and it feels surprisingly superficial for the reader accustomed to GRRM’s complex themes, rich dialogue, or multi-layered characters. It still makes sense to have it in a career-spanning retrospective like Dreamsongs, since it shows a different side of his writing as well as some of his major influences.

Due to its size and content, the story doesn’t have a lot to unpack, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

What’s up, Doc?

For those of you unfamiliar, here’s what happens in Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark.

The story introduces us the dark realm of Corlos, an evil dimension of demonic horrors ruled by Saagael. Saagael is waiting to be unleashed on Earth again to destroy human souls and be Evil™. Luckily for him, this story has two idiots: Jasper and Will, treasure thieves that hide from natives in the obviously ominous temple of Saagael.

The brilliant ideas don’t stop there, and Will chooses to sleep in what’s clearly a sacrificial altar. Jasper wants the stolen treasure all for himself, so he decides to off his companion while he sleeps. This is enough to summon Saagael and the horrors of Corlos. In retribution, the demon lord destroys Jasper’s soul, leaving his body as a functional but empty shell.

Doctor Weird senses Saagael’s arrival and confronts him, but defeating one of his demons is already difficult enough. Saagael then leaves to hunt for human souls and turn the Earth into a crappier place.

After an unspecified amount of time, Doctor Weird returns to the temple to stop Saagael priests from sacrificing a maiden. Saagael doesn’t like this and shows up again to finish Doc, but somehow our hero survives all the blows that should have destroyed a spirit like him. Doctor Weird in turn unleashes his full power against Saagael, forcing him back to Corlos.

It is then revealed that Doc was using Jasper’s body as a decoy of sorts, entering him to attract Saagael’s attacks. Since those could only affect souls and not bodies, all Doctor Weird had to do was leave Jasper body whenever the demon lord attacked and then return. With Saagael gone, all is well again.

Fan fiction and fanfiction

Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark is unlike any other story from Dreamsongs, since it’s the closest GRRM ever did to fanfiction. This raises a few questions on the nature of fanworks, especially because his distaste for fanfiction as we know it is well-documented.

While GRRM himself calls Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark a fan fiction, he defines the term as stories written by fans and for fans, amateur fiction published in fanzines. But what’s the distinction between amateur and professional fiction? Is it just the fact that you were paid to do one and not the other? Can we consider the stories published through Star-Studded Comics as self-publishing? Then why do we need to call it “fan fiction” instead of simply “fiction”?

Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark may contain fan-created characters instead of famous DC or Marvel superheroes, but it’s still a story told using someone else’s characters and setting and adding the author’s own views and contributions to it. The key here is that GRRM had permission from the Texas Trio to write a Doctor Weird story, and presumably they wouldn’t publish it if they didn’t like how it turned out. But then isn’t that a shared universe, not too different from Wild Cards?

Sorry if I’m being too picky with this, but fanfic is still commonly seen as “lesser” writing, when in fact it’s not inherently worse than published or paid works, copyright issues aside.

Genre and expectations

GRRM is fond of mixing and matching different genres of fiction, something we see in all of his stories. As he says himself later in Dreamsongs,

“Let’s mix this with that and see what happens. Let’s cross some genre lines and blur some boundaries, make some stories that are both and neither.”

This quality can be seen as early as Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark, a story that is mixes horror with superheroes, and even a touch of fantasy.

Doctor Weird, with his fantastical origins or powers, is very clearly inspired in classic superhero stories. Even his aliases evoke the kind of naming convention we see in the genre. The battle between Doctor and the demon summoned by Saagael has a strong comic book vibe as well; I could almost hear all the SOC, POW and CRASH that came from it.

The horror elements are more present in descriptions of Saagael and his realm, with certain passages fitting the tone of an horror book:

“From above, where polished ebony steps wound upward into the highest reaches of the black temple’s tower and steeple, a viscous, fluid, living darkness seemed to ooze down the winding staircase. Like a great cloud of absolute black from the nightmare of a madman it descended until, halfway down, it solidified and took shape. The thing that stood on the stairs was vaguely manlike, but the resemblance only made it even more horrible. Its laughter filled the temple again.”

There’s even some fantasy influence as well. It was written around the time GRRM became acquainted to Tolkien, so I wonder if his dark lord ruling a dark land or his tower made of glowing black stone were inspired by the old master.

What’s more fascinating is the cliche approach that Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark takes to all those genres. Everything is by the book, predictable and quite flat. The morality is very black-and-white, and Doctor Weird ultimately defeats Saagael because he’s the hero and that’s what heroes do. Sure, there’s a reason why he deflects the blows, but his finishing attack doesn’t feel particularly difficult to perform even if he struggled to defeat a weaker foe a few paragraphs earlier.

Much of that is due to the story’s diminutive size, I have no doubt, but I’ve seen what GRRM can do with only a couple of pages so I’m not taking that as a full excuse.

So why is that fascinating, you ask? Because one of the most distinguishing features of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), the epic series GRRM is now best known for, is how it subverts expectations for the fantasy genre. With ASOIAF, he examines fantasy tropes and conventions, making them feel earned instead of something that happens simply because that’s how the genre must work. To quote Emmett Booth (of poorquentyn fame):

“The series is often referred to as deconstructive, a saw-toothed machine that eats tropes and poops sadness. I get why that is, but I think it’s more reconstructive than deconstructive, not tearing the genre apart so much as reminding readers of why it was worth falling in love with in the first place. It’s not that being the hero is stupid, it’s that being the hero is hard, and you might fail at it. But that doesn’t mean the attempt is worthless.”

GRRM said in several interviews that he tries to create a dialogue between his fantasy series and the stories told by Tolkien and other fantasy writers. I think it goes further than that, and Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark shows that he’s also creating a dialogue with his own work. He starts by giving us a very commonplace story and works his way towards more complex characters, richer settings, earned tropes, and a more critical look at genre conventions.

What works and what doesn’t

We can see GRRM’s ability to create rich descriptions as early in his career as Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark. The prose can be too flowery sometimes, but he’s successful in creating vivid images and invoking sensations in his reader. I could feel the atmosphere of Corlos or be immersed in the vision Saagael presented to Doctor Weird.

Too bad this effect is often undermined by the dialogue. This may be a legacy of old superhero stories, but the dialogue feels stiff and is partially responsible for the characters being so flat. For instance, it’s hard to take the dark lord as a serious threat when this is his first line:

“Feeble sport. There is better to be had in the realm of mortals, where once I reigned, and where I would roam once more, to hunt again for human souls! When will the commandment be fulfilled, and the sacrifice be made that will release me from this eternal exile?”

Better than Benioff and Weiss, I suppose. Every time Saagael opened his mouth I laughed and he sounded a little less scary, which is a terrible effect for a character whose only appeal is being Evil™.

Speaking of evil, Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark has a very black-and-white morality, which may surprise the reader familiar with GRRM’s morally grey characters and their complex motivations. There are no hard choices, no human heart in conflict with itself.

To his credit, it’s surprising that in a story this short GRRM managed to add some flavour with the reveal of how Doctor Weird resisted Saagael’s attacks. It’s a clever twist, but also a problematic one. The ethics of using Jasper’s body as a shield are never brought into question. Sure, Jasper no longer has a soul, so one could argue that he’s no longer alive and no longer human. But Doctor Weird is, and so are we. You don’t simply wear another human being “like a suit of clothing” without so much as batting an eye. Of course GRRM will improve a lot in how he handles the implications of wearing other people’s bodies, but it was unsettling to see how fast Jasper was dehumanized.

It’s hardly the only problematic aspect of the story. GRRM would be later known for his compelling female characters, but in Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark women exist only as maidens to be sacrificed by the villains or rescued by the hero. Even among extras, this is the only context in which they are mentioned.

There’s also an uncomfortable racist element too. Jasper and Will are running from superstitious “natives”, but we don’t have any idea what culture those natives belong to, what does the stolen treasure means for them, or even more importantly, what happens to them when the embodiment of evil shows up in a temple near their homes. It feels very otherizing.

Towers and plains

Forgive me if I’m on the verge of crack territory, but it’s interesting how certain imageries are present in several of GRRM’s stories. For example, his description of Corlos is very evocative of A Song for Lya’s “darkling plain”. Compare:

“Darkness. Everywhere there was darkness. Grim, foreboding, omnipresent; it hung over the plain like a great stifling mantle. No moonlight sifted down; no stars shone from above; only night, sinister and eternal, and the swirling, choking gray mists that shifted and stirred with every movement. Something screeched in the distance, but its form could not be seen. The mists and the shadows cloaked all.”


“I was back on the plain again, the infinite darkling plain with its starless sky and black shapes in the distance, the plain Lya had spoken of so often. It was from one of her favorite poems. I was alone, forever alone, and I knew it. That was the nature of things. I was the only reality in the universe, and I was cold and hungry and frightened, and the shapes were moving toward me, inhuman and inexorable.”

Yet my favorite example are probably towers. Towers keep coming back in GRRM’s work and they always invoke a certain sense of isolation. The very image of a tower indicates that: a building that stands tall above and apart everything else. It’s even more interesting in the context, though.

In ASOIAF you have the Tower of Joy isolating Lyanna Stark from the outside world and her family, or the Spear Tower where Arianne is imprisoned and no one will speak to her. In A Song for Lya this is even more evident, with the only tower in Shkea serving as a symbol for humanity’s loneliness and isolation (“Where are their towers?” “Where are our bells? And our joy?”).

While it’s hard to infer a lot from a story this short, again we have a tower and again it invokes loneliness. Saagael seems rather bored, is definitely peerless, and is the sole owner of this place:

“One object was visible. In the middle of the plain, rising to challenge the grim black mountains in the distance, a smooth, needle-like tower thrust up into the dead sky. Miles it rose, up to where the crackling crimson lightnings played eternally on the polished black rock. A dull scarlet light gleamed from the lone tower window, one single isle in a sea of night.”

I don’t think it means anything in particular, but it’s interesting to see those elements and imageries coming back. I wonder what other towers GRRM’s work will have for us.

Oh, and there was also a line from Doctor Weird acknowledging that in the end it was a human that put an end to “the long night”, but I fail to see how that concept is ever coming back again in his stories…

Closing thoughts

In the end, Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark has interesting elements here and there, but it’s a somewhat shallow story that doesn’t offer much on its own. It’s an interesting read for the GRRM fan that wants to check his earlier writing or anyone who wants a peek at the state of comics fandom in the ‘60s. Would it get your kudos on AO3?

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