Devil in the Details
Greetings! This month I wanted to pivot a bit and talk about Darkdrifters for, surprisingly, the first time in a long while.
For those of you who don't know: Darkdrifters is my novel series which I Kickstarted last year, currently consisting of my debut novel, The Key and the Crescent, and A Drift Apart, which is a short story collection that was made in collaboration with Kickstarter backers at the "Chancel-maker" pledge tier. Darkdrifters is a story very near and dear to my heart, years in the making.
When you work on something as long as I worked on The Key and the Crescent, even the smallest details become incredibly important. From recurring motifs and overarching themes to references hidden and overt, from the basic building blocks of your setting to the finest details, everything is important.
Today—partly because I thought it would be cool to share some behind-the-scenes stuff, and partly because I don't know how many of these little bits were caught by readers, I wanted to go over just a few of these details. But don't worry—if you haven't read The Key and the Crescent or A Drift Apart, there will be no major spoilers ahead, just some very minor bits here and there. So, whether your eyes are already open to the world of the Drift, or whether this is the first time you've even heard of Darkdrifters, read on!
The Act Breaks
I am really into unique presentations in books, so one of my absolute favorite bits in The Key and the Crescent is the spreads that break up each of the book's four major acts. If you're unfamiliar, they look like this:
The artwork for these act breaks was done in an incredible minimalist style by vacuumchan, the same artist who did the cover art. They are just so cool, and each of them is perfectly evocative of the content of that act.
Each one of these also contains a mysterious message in both English and Japanese that conveys an essential truth about the nature of the Drift, and in doing so, reveals the major themes of the book. Two of these four messages, in fact, were themes that I wrote down in my original outline for the book, long before I even got around to writing those acts!
The Japanese text here and in several other places is not entirely decorative. It serves to establish a sort of motif of the story very early on: that there are two tales being told within the book, one a mirror of the other. This is true right from the very first two chapters of the book, and as you might suspect, one of those two narratives is set in Japan. By seeing English text next to Japanese text, it serves to ground the reader in this style of disjointed narrative, and the reader is encouraged to read on to discover how these tales intertwine.
But there is something else here that you probably did not notice. What is really cool about the Japanese text is that it does not echo precisely what the English text says. They are, instead, reversed. "Every nightmare is a lesson," the English text for Act I reads. The Japanese, "すべてのレッスンは悪夢", translates to: "Every lesson is a nightmare."
I'll reveal one more:
"Every world bears a purpose." And in Japanese: "目的それぞれに世界がある", which translates roughly to "For each purpose, there is a world."
In addition to being poignant idioms that fit the lore of Darkdrifters perfectly, this also points to the cyclical nature of the Drift, which is another major motif of the setting. It may not seem like much, but to me, this little detail is super meaningful.
If you've ever created something—anything, really; a story, a script, even a D&D character—you know how important names are. Even if you don't know the inherent meaning behind a name, names convey meaning simply by their very nature. In Lord of the Rings, beautiful Sindarin and Quenya names like Galadriel and Eärendil evoke different emotions in the reader than, say, the playful rhyming names of Thorin's company (Nori, Ori, Dori, and the like). This is also why a sinister-sounding name is often used for villains.
In Darkdrifters, I took great care with all of the names used not just for the major characters, but also every major element of the lore. Even the names of every cat in the book were carefully chosen. I'll go through a few of the ones I really like.
Perhaps the most obvious is Poppy. In addition to referencing a well-known red flower (which makes the name a suitable choice for a girl with red hair), poppies are often associated with sleep. For me, the first time I encountered this theme was in The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy is lulled to sleep in a field of poisonous poppies. This gives the name an immediate through-line with the book's overarching theme of dreams and nightmares. Poppy's name was chosen long before I started writing the full novel, back when The Key and the Crescent was just a character short entitled "The Girl in the Attic." The very first words I jotted down that had anything to do with Darkdrifters was: "It would be nice if anybody cared what Poppy was up to."
Another major character in The Key and the Crescent is the Drifter, Ahtamankh. Ahtamankh's name is, of course, an anagram of Kaman-Thah, one of the two guardians of H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. I thought it was pretty cool that I was able to spin this name into something that sounded both fantastical and also distinctly Egyptian-adjacent, which made sense given his ethnicity. (Readers: did you spot the anagram for Kaman-Thah's fellow guardian? Sound off in the comments!)
My favorite of these character names is Atticus—the mysterious black cat you see on the book's cover, and also on Poppy's shoulder in that first act break. Atticus is actually named by Poppy in the book, and even you get to see her thought process when Charlotte asks her about it:
“The names in your notebook,” Charlotte pointed out. “You were picking out a name for him, right? And you chose ‘Atticus.’ Why?”
“I dunno, cuz like…he seemed really smart, and Atticus Finch is really smart, and I guess cuz I was up in the attic, so…” she trailed off, perhaps in disappointment that her clever name was not all too clever after all.
In chapter one, it is established that one of Poppy's favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird, which also happens to be my favorite book of all time. I thought that Poppy, like me, would want to pay homage to her favorite book, and the fact that Atticus's name references Poppy's attic hideaway where she first meets him was just too perfect to pass up.
The last name I want to talk about is the term "Mara," which is an important word in Drifter nomenclature. I won't spoil what precisely a Mara is for those of you who have not read the book, but I wanted to call attention to where the name came from. In Buddhist cosmology, Mara is an entity similar to a demon, representing "the personification of forces antagonistic to enlightenment." This is pretty fitting, symbolically, for what a Mara is in Darkdrifters. Since all terms relating to the Drift are invented by Drifters in the lore of the book, it seemed more appropriate to use a real-world term, rather than invent one. It's likely that whichever Drifter first named this sort of entity a "Mara" knew the meaning of the word when they named it, and chose it for that reason. I can't claim total credit for this one, though, as it was a friend and editor who first introduced me to the term.
There are many other names used throughout the book that have similar thought put into them. I won't go into all of them here, because it would take me forever, but suffice it to say that I really love these little details.
One of the themes of The Key and the Crescent I wrote in my original outline is "Imagination is our true strength." This is true of Drifters in general, but is especially true for the main character, Poppy. As a result, it was fitting for Poppy's personality for her to constantly be referencing her favorite video games (many of which happen to be my favorites, as well). I imagine most of these will already be quite familiar to those who grew up with video games and anime in the 90s, like I did. But for younger or older readers who may have missed where these references come from, here are just a few examples:
Super Metroid was paused. Her tiny CRTV bathed her attic hideaway in a dark blue glow. Somehow, miraculously, she’d hit pause while she was drifting off. She’d been trying to beat the game in under three hours and unlock its secret ending for months.
The opening lines of the reader's introduction to Poppy shows her trying (and failing) to complete a speedrun of Super Metroid for the SNES. While speedrunning wasn't as big in the 90s as it is today, this secret ending is famously quite real, and not easy to achieve. To me, as a gamer, this introduction immediately tells me a lot about Poppy's personality. She is persistent, passionate, and doesn't like to quit. And yes, the pause menu of Super Metroid does indeed give off a dark blue glow—trust me, I tested it.
They were garbed in long, tattered cloaks, with hoods covering their faces, much like the Ringwraith on the cover of Poppy’s edition of The Fellowship of the Ring.
There have been literally hundreds of editions of The Fellowship of the Ring over the years, with dozens upon dozens of different covers. The exact edition Poppy is referring to here is this one, published in August of 1986, which also happens to be the month I was born. It's also the copy I owned when I was Poppy's age.
Poppy pulled her arm back and swung her sword across her chest in a horizontal cut, imagining herself as Link from The Legend of Zelda, and her blade to be the Master Sword. If Link was at full health, a beam of energy would shoot out from his blade and hit anything at a distance.
How would an eleven-year-old child fight? She would emulate her favorite video game characters. Poppy is trying to wield her blade like it's a famous blade from video game lore. The "Master Sword" exists in nearly every Zelda game ever made, and its ability—the power to perform ranged attacks while at full health—is well-documented. With references like this one, I tried my best to explain the concept using Poppy's own thoughts so that the reader would understand even if they had never played a Zelda game.
He grimaced and circled around her, observing her posture. Then he pulled a wooden walking cane from the air and rapped Poppy hard on her shoulder. “Keep your body lower,” he commanded.
The blow smarted. “Ow! What the hell was that for?”
“If that truly hurt you, then you stand no chance against the nightmare,” he scolded.
Poppy gulped and bent her knees slightly, lowering her posture.
“Good. Now, widen your stance,” Ahtamankh said, rapping the inside her of knees with his cane. She did as she was told. “Pull your hands closer to your waist. Good. A little higher.” She continued to do as he instructed, until he had circled around to her front. He raised his cane, pressing it against the flat edge of her blade as one might an épée. “Now fight.”
Okay, this one is a little different, since it's not a reference Poppy is making, nor is it a reference Poppy would even understand. But if you're a fan of Steven Universe, you would be forgiven for finding this sequence somewhat familiar. It's referenced again in chapter 51, near the end of the book.
Poppy hesitated, her eyes drawn to the advancing creature. No, this is just like the miniboss in Norfair. There’s no way to avoid it. It just keeps advancing till it corners Samus. The only way to defeat it is to shoot it with missiles until it backs up into a pit of lava, and—
Here Poppy is referencing an actual miniboss from Super Metroid. It's this guy, in case you're wondering. His name is Crocomire. Isn't he cute?
“First time for everything. Speaking of which…” Charlotte examined the stack of VHS tapes next to the TV and took the top one: Sailor Moon: A Moon Star is Born. She held it up to Poppy with a smile. “You’re always drawing stuff like this. It looks cool."
This actually is the title of the original English vol 1 VHS of Sailor Moon. I know because I rented it from my local video store from time to time.
“Firenectar,” she repeated curiously. “Like the vials on your bandolier?” She pointed to the liquid-filled orbs that dangled from the vine along his chest. “So you’re like an Alchemist class?”
Originally, I planned on Poppy explicitly referencing Final Fantasy Tactics here, but the Chemist job in that game was more about healing than damage-dealing, so I changed it to be more of an AD&D reference. It seems likely that Poppy knows the term from AD&D supplements from the early 90s (like Tome of Magic) that added alchemy, potion crafting, and the like.
I could go on and on. I made a point to scatter these references to 90s video games and anime only in Poppy's chapters, as a way of differentiating her from Charlotte (who has had no exposure to video games before meeting Poppy). By contrast, Charlotte—who is very observant—is constantly noticing things that other characters would not. I love little character touches like this, as they really help to sell each character's strengths and weaknesses.
The Key and the Crescent contains a host of visual motifs that are repeated throughout the book in order to hammer home certain themes and occasionally to help guide the reader toward a particular emotion or conclusion.
Eyes and Darkness: Darkdrifters, as evidenced by the very title, is a series about overcoming the darkness that dwells within one’s own self. This is described in numerous ways, from darkness swirling within the eyes of those who are infected by nightmare to darkness that “tugs” at characters' senses whenever they have negative thoughts. Conversely, positive thoughts like love and self-care is always described as bright, and counteracts the effects of this darkness. The idiom "eyes are a window to the soul" struck me as particularly evocative of the effect I wanted to get across. This led to eyes as an important recurring focal point in character descriptions. Normally I would not focus on describing a character's eyes quite as often as I did in Darkdrifters, but here it became a motif that was important to repeat, from the sliver of darkness hiding behind somebody's pupil to the juxtaposed bright and dark eyes that Drifters possess while channeling dream-essence (the left eye always dark, and the right eye always bright, which is a bit of a subtle nod to many of the fictional myths surrounding the famous Japanese swordsman, Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyoshi). I also particularly love how the strength of the darkness in certain characters' eyes becomes a way for me to overtly convey the stakes in the story as the narrative progresses.
Cats: Cats aren't just important in Darkdrifters because I'm a cat person. Some are a reference to the Cats of Ulthar, of course, but that's not truly it, either. To me, cats represent a coin with two sides: simultaneously cuddly, adorable, and beautiful; but also deadly, graceful hunters at heart. I feel like this somewhat represents the double-edged nature of the Drift. It is simultaneously a world of infinite imagination and hope, and also home to the universe's unimaginable horrors. This double-sided nature is echoed in each of the characters as well, as each one possesses both unique strengths and their own inner darkness. For these reasons, cats feature prominently throughout Darkdrifters, as both characters and visual motifs. It is because of a cat that the events of The Key and the Crescent are kicked into motion. Whenever Poppy or another Drifter receives a vision, their eyes become “cat-like,” and throughout the story, such visions are called "cat-visions." Ahtamankh’s cafe is filled with cats, and the Neon City features graffiti with cats all throughout. Ahtamankh explains the nature of the Drift to Poppy using the metaphor of latte art, and the artwork is, of course, a cat.
Nightmares: In Darkdrifters, nightmares can (and do) take on many forms. However, many nightmarish descriptions contain several recurring visual motifs—chitinous exoskeletons, insect-like shapes, myriad legs and eyes, and black, slimy insides. These descriptions aren't just chosen because they sound gross; they're deliberately evocative of insectlike anatomy. Insects are the perfect visual allegory for nightmares because they are countless in number, honed to a razor's edge by evolution, possess a sort of alien, hivelike intelligence, and have no desire beyond hunger, growth, and reproduction. And yet, insects are still familiar to us in everyday life, just like nightmares themselves are to those who bear them. The word "infestation" is also used often to describe how a nightmare's influence worms its way through the Drift, and this is also evocative of insects.
That's all I have for you today. If this post makes you interested in picking up a copy of The Key and the Crescent for yourself, check out the store on this very site and purchase a copy! If you've already read The Key and the Crescent and want to discuss more spoiler-y things, feel free to head over to the Darkdrifters discord server. There is a LOT more I chose not to disclose in this post because I didn't want to spoil anything! And if you're interested in seeing a blog entry similar to this but for Arkham LCG, let me know in the comments or on Twitter!
Until next time!