I was about to talk for a bit tonight about world-building. But, the anecdotes that were going to drive a bit of that discussion were actually around incremental mythology and what inspired me as a kid, so that’s what I’m going to turn this into.
The phrase ‘incremental mythology’ – which I just created, huzzah for me – means shared texts, folk tales passed down or discovered piece-by-piece. It can have that element of ‘what this says about Us, or That, or how This came to be’, but it’s the incrementality that is particularly important to me. You know the deal; so you may know the story of how Hyena stole the sun, but what about when he tricked Lion? These stories aren’t sequels to each other, most of the time. There’s no fixed chronology between events, necessarily, but together they tell a broader story that can be (but isn’t always) consistent in theme, mood, morals… and sometimes, it’s just about firing imagination, about the craft of Telling itself.
Mythology began in a few different places for me. From about the age of 5 I was entranced by legends. Ancient Greek and Roman myths came first, as they often do – Heracles / Hercules bounding about the landscape, Odyessus / Ulysses and his trials and tribulations, Zeus transforming into various things to fuck some unfortunate nymph. It was nasty, funny, violent stuff, simple and complex all at once. It was riddled with inconsistencies, naturally; even as a precocious 5-year old I knew there was something odd about having two sun gods (Apollo and Helios – what’s with that?) but figured there was another story out there that probably explained that mystery – so I dove further, looking for more information to fill in the gaps.
A couple of years into all this (Christmas ’86, to be precise), I was given a hardcover tome named ‘Out Of This World’ by Michael Page & Robert Ingpen. I know their surnames even now; as a child, I thought it fascinating that “Page” and “‘Pen” were author and artists – one of those things that has stuck with me, through the years. OoTW was a beautifully illustrated compendium of legends and stories from various cultures (Baba Yaga, King Arthur), combined with literary characters (Frankenstein’s Monster, Wind in the Willows) and through to locations (Atlantis, Gulliver’s Lilliput, More’s Utopia) and ‘magic items’. A chapter up the back was devoted to the dark, nasty things – succubi, werewolves, baykoks – which naturally drew my attention, and not just for the occasional nudity contained therein. The upshot was that, by age 8, I perceived legends as some amorphous, overlapping, glorious mess. I realised that mythology was story – old story – and that you could create your own stories to fill in the gaps. I also knew how to spell lycanthrope and use it in everyday conversation. I was, it bears saying, an odd child, and would shape the conversation to fit such words in where I could.
My first concerted effort to add to a mythos came 4-5 years later, with my Lovecraft/Derleth-inspired piece named The Mindstealers, a nasty 1000-word piece about Nyarlothotep-worshipping beasties living in a town named Wendigo.
I entered it into a short story competition. It didn’t win. Perhaps the judges thought it best not to encourage my apparent prediliction toward gibbering, brain-eating monsters that haunted the dark forests of Wendigo, hidden amongst the twisted standing stones and carved effigies to ancient gods. Hahah, FAIL.
Anyhow, let’s rewind a little. Besides for ‘proper’ mythology of the Greeks, Romans and other ancient cultures, my childhood was marked by a couple of other key texts. The first of those – and this will come as little surprise – was Doctor Who. Terrance Dicks was my childhood hero – the man was, quite literally for me, a Legend-Maker – and one of his DW novelisations was in fact the first book I ever read with chapters. I didn’t know how chapters worked, so I started reading the book at Chapter 6 because it sounded interesting, then worked backward and forward from there. I was, as mentioned before, odd child, and it should be pointed out that linear storytelling wasn’t my strong point.
Nowadays DW adds in some nice clever metatextual elements – Who as Trickster Spirit, Who as Healer – but as a kid I didn’t think in those terms, at least not explicitly. The Doctor could have different faces, he came from his own pantheon (Time Lords = Gods) but was exiled from it, and he faced creatures in a frequently disconnected, non-chronological manner that echoed those stories of ancient deities. The Daleks faced by the Second Doctor might have been before or after the Daleks faced by the Third or Fourth, in their own timeline; for the purposes of the story, it really didn’t matter. Sometimes a new story or thread of interconnectedness would appear – Davros, for example, explained ‘what happened first’ even if it came years after the introduction of his Daleks, and Davros’ subsequent death and eventual resurrection clearly defined ‘what happened later’.
I experienced the Doctors non-sequentially; the Third and Fourth together, with fits of #2, 5 and 6 scattered throughout. McCoy, #7, came later – interesting enough in his own right but A Doctor at the time rather than The Doctor (in retrospect, both Davison and Baker2 got downgraded to that status as well; ‘my’ Doctor was early to mid 70s). The apparent unendingness of Who was something that made it myth-like; there were always more stories to tell. The serial’s sad end in the late 80s burst that bubble for me.
The other source of myth and story was Fighting Fantasy. I’d read a couple of choose-your-own-adventure gamebooks from other publishers at about age 6 or 7, but I inherited my brother’s collection of FF and added to it quickly. It had lizard-men, brain-controlling spiders and evil panthers. All in the same book – nay, in the same image?
How can you beat that, honestly?
I rediscovered FF recently thanks to the joy of the internet, and the memories came thundering through, thick and fast. Thanks to my brother I had eight of the first nine books (missing Starship Traveller; I never had a taste for the sci-fi entries in the series) and got plenty more. I’d share them with friends too, and borrowed a ton from the local library. The names of the stories are so evocative to me: Temple of Terror. Battleblade Warrior. Armies of Death. The scarred face glowering at the Slaves of the Abyss, the demonic creature rising in Dead of Night, the masked and blinded gladiator undergoing the Trial of Champions. Say Caverns of the Snow Witch and I’ll instantly think of that green-skinned orc, clutching his iron collar. Mention Deathtrap Dungeon and I’ll think of the multiple eyes of the dreaded Bloodbeast.
I kept up with the series up until the mid-40s. The last one I bought was the slightly odd Black Vein Prophecy, the last one I read was the very enjoyable Legend of the Shadow Warriors, with a cover showing a undead pumpkin-headed foe. What I liked about early Fighting Fantasy books was how disjointed the whole thing was. There was clearly no worldbuilding at play, just cool ideas being thrown at the page to see what stuck. Who would really call a town ‘Fang’, and why was a region named ‘Chiang Mai’ if it wasn’t Oriental in any apparent way? Where was Khakkabad in relation to all this? Within the first few years, that all changed, and all of a sudden there was Titan, an honest-to-goodness world that had been put together to fill in all the gaps. I loved it, although it did lose some of the charm – the blank spaces on the map always interested me, after all. (Saying that, I did read that the authors did actually keep some bits of the maps relatively empty so that they could be filled in later down the track as new books came out – very clever boys, nice and open-ended.)
By late primary school, Lone Wolf was where it was at – it had an overarching narrative, a pre-developed world and character arcs – but when I think back to what defined my interest of mythology, legends and monsters, Fighting Fantasy was my first love.