There are two things you need to understand about Benedict in order to really grasp how he does what he does. The first is that Flitwick was correct; he is a nephil (plural nephilim), which is defined for the purposes of this story in the Lexicon. The second is that he's a Catholic priest. Now, the exact nature of what it means to be a nephil will be explored throughout his story and another character appearing soon in the Narrator blog, and who Benedict's biological parents are will be revealed in story. So let's focus on the second for now.
Within the Roman Catholic Church, there is a belief that people undergo a number of specific ontological changes throughout their lives of faith; that is, the very essence of who they are is altered in some way through specific sacraments, such as baptism. These changes are more or less considered permanent, as they cannot be lost but the benefits of them may be sacrificed through mortal sin. There seems to be quite a lot wrapped up in this doctrine, and since I'm not Catholic I only have so much exposure to it anyway, so the focus here is on how this affects Benedict in terms of the story. If you are interested in the actual doctrine, this website seems to be helpful.
The belief relevant here is that the ordination into priesthood makes the priest a functionary of Christ. On a spiritual level, they are united with Christ in such a way that there can be times when it is Him acting or speaking or listening. Now, whether or not this is accurate within the world of Tall Tales is somewhat irrelevant. What matters is that, whatever it is that happened to the priest, it works. They administer sacraments, they preach powerful homilies, they cast out demons, they receive confession and are able to deliver a real sense of absolution, and so on. This state of priesthood cannot be lost, but the office of priest can, in fairly extreme cases. This means that Benedict, as a priest, will always be a priest as far as the spiritual nature goes, though if the Catholic church were to reject him for some reason he would no longer be allowed to act as a priest or administer sacraments or be paid by the church or any of that.
Now, in actual Catholic doctrine, this is about as far as this goes. There is no physical change to the priest, and there was no physical change to Benedict when he became a priest. What this means for Benedict, however, is that whatever benefits he has naturally by being a nephil, he gets to keep. Those are part of his biological reality and do not change through ordination. However, spiritually, he is not a nephil, but a priest. This means that, even if a being can detect his nephil biology, if they had enough information on his spiritual nature they would encounter something very different.
Within the rules of Tall Tales, this gives priests power that they are not believed to have in the real world, at least as far as I know. Mainly, this means that when dealing with spiritual entities, they are treated as holy beings. Their blood and spit and sweat function as holy water. This is because they are already consecrated, and their bodies are being used for divine purposes, which is basically all that needs to happen to create holy water. Their spirits are resistant to demonic attack (something that I think Catholics in general would agree on). They aren't immune to magic, at least in any way comparable to Matteson, but they are protected.
So, what you see from Benedict in the story is a combination of his biological nature and his ontological nature, based on taking what the Catholic church believes about priests and just applying that to a world that operates on slightly different rules. Maybe they work because this description is accurate, or maybe they work because enough people believe they work, but for the story all that matters is that they do, in fact, work.
Jacqueline Sofia Veracruz has gone through some of the most extensive changes of any character in Tall Tales. Originally a one-shot character, the reader was going to meet her in a story arc that involved Matteson investigating some strange behavior from the Loch Ness Monster. It was planned that she would be someone Matteson had known for a long time, but had moved to Scotland some time before the overall story started and was therefore largely a part of Matteson's past.
It is worth remembering that, in its original form, Tall Tales was a much more narrow story, telling the events of about four years of Matteson's life in his mid-to-late-forties. The character that became Jackie, who I think was actually named Samantha at the time, would have met Matteson in the events that are now the Born of Water arc, which I was debating referencing in flashbacks. It would have been known that Matteson and Samantha remained in contact and occasionally helped each other out, but had grown distant when she left the country and his career took off.
When it was decided that the story was going to be much larger, I realized I should actually allow Samantha to become a full character who would be active throughout, and began to seriously consider the idea that she doesn't entirely leave the story at any point. This latter concern was especially noted when I found the Loch Ness story may not even fit the larger plot anymore. I also forgot her name and had to come up with a new one (I only remember it now because I've found some of my old notes). Of course, this meant fleshing out her personality more, and I ended up borrowing a bit from real sources.
This sort of thing happens throughout Tall Tales. There are a small handful of stories which are actually based on real events, to some degree or another. Every one is significantly fictionalized, and reformatted to fit the larger story which is entirely fiction, but there are traces of personal experiences and therefore traces of real people I encountered along the way. In "Born of Water," Jackie is largely filling the role of a young woman I met in Chicago named Barbie, who I never spoke to again after I returned home. Occasionally she will borrow influence from Nicki White or Jen Dietz, witches I knew from high school and art school, respectively. But the bulk of her personality, and her involvement in most stories, are only true of her. All three of these sources, however, are white, and originally so was Samantha.
One thing I wanted to do was make her not Wiccan, which Samantha had been. There were a couple reasons for this, one being that if I specifically named a tradition I would have to be very careful to represent that tradition accurately, and I needed more freedom than that to fit the story. Also, frankly, I wanted something different, something I don't see much of in media. It seems like every witch I come across in fiction is either Wiccan or vaguely European, so I looked for other sources. Brujah ended up catching my attention, as what I found of it suggested that it fit pretty well the character that I was planning. But again, I needed the flexibility to go outside that tradition, and wanted to avoid misrepresenting something I really don't understand, so I went beyond that and started looking at other Central American folk magic traditions.
In the end, I decided that she would be using some unstated amalgam of these traditions, with a splash of influence from her mentor who I already knew was Anatolian. But hey, if she's going to be using that, why should she be white? It made more sense to me that she would have picked up these traditions from her family, so I went ahead and made her Latina. Thankfully, her story is about her exploration of magic and not a "this is what life is like as a Latina," so I can fairly easily avoid acting like I know what their experiences are actually like. There is research involved in how I have her handle things, of course, and her personality has been colored by the Latin women I've known, but I do not claim to be able to tell their stories their way and Jackie's blog is not designed to be read as though I'm trying to do that.
There's more I want to say about Jackie, but some of it should probably wait until the story develops a bit more and you see more of her.
I've been trying hard to keep up with daily writing prompts on my tumblr, and earlier this week I wrote a scene in which Jackie briefly explains the nature of magic to a character named Lori (that will be included in the story when we get to it; in fact, almost all the prompts are, so if you're interested in sneak peeks, you should be checking those out). She said:
"...it’s just a connection to the other world. There’s a spiritual backstage to reality, and changing things there can change them here. Sometimes it’s more efficient to make changes if you’re working with the spiritual side than with the physical side, and sometimes it isn’t. Magic just gives us the option."
Now, she isn't wrong. This is a functional definition for everything she does with it up until this point in the story. But readers who have been paying attention to "Benediction" may notice that it doesn't quite sound sufficient to what some characters there are doing. So how can we best understand magic as a broad concept in Tall Tales?
The short answer is that 'magic' is essentially any act that intentionally reaches across the divide between the physical and metaphysical realms. It doesn't much matter which side of that divide one is on; nor does it matter whether the effects manifest on the caster's side, the other side, or both. Magic in Tall Tales is capable of nearly anything, as long as a caster can find a way to do it and pay the price for it.
The longer explanation is that magic in Tall Tales is fundamentally about tracking down the intricate connections that exist between all things, which may or may not exist in the same realm as the things themselves. Magic will always, without exception, exploit the innate connections between things; sometimes by manipulating the connection, sometimes by interrupting it, and even by making new connections.
An example. Aaboukingon has an innate connection to the Ohio River. He isn't the only spirit that does, and there are several names he can be accurately called, but that connection exists and it is strong. The problem, aside from the overt racism of some of the characters, in "Land of Goshen" is that this connection is being severed by Aaboukingon drawing distant from his nature and role as a river spirit. By damaging the connection, both Aaboukingon and the river suffer.
Connections can be ranked as follows:
Humans have an innate connection between their physical and metaphysical selves, and the degree to which one is in tune with the other is called the Ontological Gap. A smaller gap means that there is less room for the connection to be accessed and manipulated. A gap that is functionally closed, such as the case with Warlocks and Anchors, prevent access to their ontological connection entirely; this means that magic which relies on that connection will not work. Such magic includes possession (in which a being inserts themselves into the gap and effectively overrides the connection) and mind control (in which a being implants information into the connection that the physical self reads as coming from the metaphysical self). Humans with a smaller gap, except Anchors, are therefore slightly more shielded from invasive magic and also find it easier to perform magic as they have greater access to their metaphysical selves. A full explanation of this concept will have to wait until a later post.
I did not know about this song when I developed the plot, mind you. It would be somewhat inaccurate to say that this song, or really any song, influenced the actual overarching story of Tall Tales directly (as stated previously, this is not always true for specific story arcs). However, I have found that when I find something that resonates with some aspect of the story, it is much easier to get into the mode of thinking about the story. Even if I don't borrow any details from the song, the fact that the song makes the story more accessible to me is itself a massive benefit to my inspiration.
This is probably true of all writers, really. I can't imagine I'm saying anything as yet that is particularly unique. The point is that "The Yawning Grave" is that kind of story. The central conflict of the song, a human encroaching into affairs that they should understand but may not and drawing the ire of some great entity, is the central conflict of Tall Tales. This was sufficient for me to draw a great deal of help from the song, by listening to it and drifting off into thinking of Matteson and his enemy.
As the story progresses, I would encourage you to occasionally come back and listen to this song and think about how things are playing out, and let your speculations run wild about what is coming. Maybe, if you're lucky, you'll see some of the same things I have.
I think it's time to introduce the concept of the metaphysical realm as Tall Tales understands it.
The first thing you should know, dear reader, is that it will be described in a number of different ways and those ways will sometimes conflict. This is because the blog editors have different perspectives on what the realm is and filter their information through different worldviews. As far as Benedict is concerned, there are two realms, the physical and the spiritual, and a thin veil between them. Jackie does not believe they are separate, but that humans have somehow become blind to what surrounds them and must rely on extraordinary means to access the truth of reality; wherever it is people go after they die, if they do not linger as ghosts, is a more complex concept. Matteson believes in at least three realms, a physical, a metaphysical overlaid on it, and something beyond both where souls go after they pass on and probably where angels and demons originate.
There is some truth to all of this, at least enough truth that all of their approaches work. As the Lexicon states, there are at least three realms, and the non-story text will be using Matteson's labels. They are not as separate as Benedict and Matteson believe, but they are more distinct than Jackie believes.
The fundamental nature of the Metaphysical Realm is that it serves as both a spiritual realm and an astral plane. It is the common ground of all human thought, and anything that enough people have imagined or believed or feared lurks there. It has its own tides and weather, as the fabric of the Realm itself is manipulated by ongoing changes to the collective human psyche. Beings that reside in the Realm can be altered by changes in how humans perceive them, and some degree of their relative power is based on the amount of power mankind ascribes to them.
How and why mankind can or should have this power is a mystery that will be revealed eventually as the characters continue to interact with it. But the point is that they do, and the most notable and powerful spirits have a habit of knowing this, and as such they curate their images very carefully. If they can influence how mankind see them (and they can, with effort), they can set their own course. As such, a great deal of inter-species drama in the Metaphysical Realm is focused largely on manipulating mankind and the hold each spirit has over some group of humans or another. Influence within a given fae court would never acknowledge the role of any outside forces, for instance, but the more clever fae recognize that allowing a demon or Spirit of the People to manipulate mankind's perception unchallenged is akin to begging for lost favor.
In future posts we'll explore a bit more about the history and development of the Realm, both in-world and out, as well as some of the more notable forces within it. But for a basic introduction, I think this will suffice for this week.
First of all, the name.
I did not create the name Aaboukingon. It actually came up in a list of alternate names for the Ohio River, and was cited as having an origin in one of the languages of the Native Americans. This has proven hard to determine; the chain of citation for that name, or at least the only chain I found, ends at a paper written in 1910 by one E.L. Taylor. "La Salle's Route Down the Ohio," in the Ohio History Journal, was part of an ongoing debate about a journey taken in 1669 which may or may not have been the first time a European had seen the Ohio River. I have no idea if this debate has ever been settled. Taylor makes the case that the translation work being cited by an alternate theory is incorrect, and as part of his argument notes that Aaboukingon is one of the variant names used by the peoples who lived near the Ohio. He gives no further information and I have not at this time found anything that clarified what language this name would have been used in, or what their relationship to the river was. Presumably La Salle's own notes would give more light, if he used that name in his notes, but this would rely on finding his notes (which I did not do) and then translating them (presumably from French, which I am not adequately prepared to do). So in the end I had to just accept Taylor's description.
Alternate names for the Ohio would actually have still been a matter of some importance at the time of "Land of Goshen." The United States Geological Survey did not settle on a name for the river until 1931, so it had different names at different places and sometimes conflicting names in the same place. The story assumes that the crew of the Hastings used what was, at the time, a common practice around Pittsburgh where the Ohio River was not seen as a separate body but as a part of the Allegheny. This is why the crew talk about the Allegheny "above and below Pittsburg;" below (downstream) of Pittsburgh would be the Ohio. Incidentally, the spelling of the city was not yet formalized in 1905, either. I purposefully incorporated common misspellings used at the time.
Anyway, as such, I avoided any specific references to who, exactly, Aaboukingon was to his people. While Aaboukingon, one of the spirits of the Ohio River, remembers interacting with people who do not look European (as he himself doesn't), no record exists in Tall Tales about the nature of those interactions. I felt that it was more respectful than guessing or using stereotypes. Some may raise concerns about me using the name at all. There is little I can say regarding that matter except that I needed a name older than the Europeans would have used, and have tried to use it in a way that did not misrepresent anyone. Being that this story can still be edited, I would welcome constructive feedback on how to make it more appropriate, but I'm sure you understand I have little use for complaints that offer no better solution.
But that brings us to our next point, that Aaboukingon is a river spirit. He would be considered a god in some cultures, though I have no evidence he was in the culture that used his name. It is likely he remembered far more than Joanna recorded, but since he isn't doing the writing I get to avoid giving bad details.
As a notable river spirit of a large river, Aaboukingon is among the more powerful nature spirits in the world. He pales in comparison to others, like the primary spirit of the Nile or Amazon, and the exact power balance between nature spirits and other spirits vary somewhat; but it is safe to say that he is far stronger than he even seems to realize in his interactions so far. But his power, and life force, are tied to the river itself. This is a major driving force of the plot of "Land of Goshen." More about his power will be addressed in a future post.
Father Benedict Michael de Monte was not originally one character, but two. And he wasn't in the world of Tall Tales. And he wasn't named Benedict.
The original comic idea that became this project was the joint work of me and Alex, who has been mentioned before. Alex was working on another comic at the time, about a demon hunter who had managed to enslave one demon who was very desperate to not be cast into the Abyss and had agreed to turn on his own kind to save his own hide. The hunter was named Orion, and I know surprisingly little about the plans Alex had for him. I asked, a bit, but it seemed like it was still pretty rough in his mind at the time and he didn't feel the need to ask for my help with it, so it was left at that.
But there was one story arc I had decided to do that would take place at the Devil's Church. This setting will be explained in a one-shot lore story on the narrator blog here after "Land of Goshen" ends, because I plan to still use the setting for something. Anyway, I had decided that demons would be an issue in that arc, but Matteson was reluctant to deal with demons. He wasn't afraid of them, per se, at least not more so than anything else. But he was written at the time with the view that they were far more hassle than they were worth and tended to be vengeful. So Alex suggested a crossover, in which Matteson would call a guy he knew named Orion and Orion would 'lend' him his demon to help with the case. There was hope that both comics would be known by that point in the story and this would be an exciting thing for readers of both comics. To my knowledge, neither comic has ever actually existed in a public form.
It isn't necessary to go into the whole thing here, but Mephitz Omega was basically a prequel to the apocalypse in which the big reveal at the end was that the boy they were protecting was destined to become the Antichrist. Alex did concept art for this story, but we never got far enough with it for him to do much else. It relied on some of the same theology as stories like Left Behind, though I no longer held those views myself. Unlike those stories, it also included werewolves, vampires, and pretty active angels and demons. Father Raphael Centuri was a secondary character in that story, a priest who was actively hunting a specific powerful vampire and would occasionally cross paths with the main cast. He was also a half-demon, the son of a nun and the demon Balthazar as part of a bet that Balthazar won. Raphael had a subplot running in which he was attempting to find the means to kill his demon father in order to help this friend of his, but that's getting pretty well off track. Balthazar had been designed by another friend, Josh Flynn, but I gather he stole a lot of the design from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or one of the other similar shows he was watching at the time. To be fair, Raphael himself showed a fair bit of influence from Nicholas D. Wolfwood, the priest(ish) character in Trigun.
I, uh...I abandoned this story for a number of reasons, guys.
I decided to drop Balthazar, and some of the more anime aspects of the priest (like a literal set of ephemeral armor styled after the armor analogy in Ephesians 6:10-18), and his kind of ridiculous name, and a number of other things. I took what was left, and rebuilt it as Benedict. As you can probably tell from the story, there's still something inhuman about Benedict, but that will be explained in time. He also has a similar job, as an inquisitor, though he tends to deal much less with vampires.
I actually really like Benedict a lot more than I liked Raphael, in the end. I think he works better, he's in a world that I enjoy more, and the stuff I liked about him gets to be explored more. When I set out to make him a recurring character, I found myself developing a whole story he was doing alongside Matteson, and ended up deciding that he needed his own space to really get into that. So he went from one character who would make a cameo appearance and another who would pop in rarely, to one of the core storytellers of this project. And I'm excited to see if you all end up loving him as much as I do.
Bonus: Below the cut are Alex's designs for other characters in Mephitz Omega. I can't imagine another post where these people would come up, as none of this specific lot are being brought over to Tall Tales. If you like Alex's over-decade-old work, you should really check out his current stuff. I'm pretty sure he takes commissions. I got that link from him after we reconnected about a year ago. Note that I did all the coloring here, on my computer (which was a limited affair back then), and that I'm colorblind.
Tall Tales began with a single scene.
I took a vacation to Chicago during the last week of October, 2004, and my flight home was scheduled for election day. I was visiting a friend, named Brandon, who I had met through an IRC tabletop campaign based on the World of Darkness. We had met in person before, and when I was looking for somewhere to go to kill a week he offered to let me stay at his place and invited me to attend the Halloween party he and his roommates were planning.
The events of that week will be addressed on this blog in more detail another time, because there are a number of aspects of my trip that found their way into one story arc of Tall Tales, specifically the Matteson story arc "Born of Water," which will be the first one covered by his blog when it releases...soon. In the meantime, however, I wanted to talk about how this whole thing started, and I mostly only need you to know that that trip happened, weird things happened on that trip, and everything you see here began about a month later while I was thinking about it.
The scene that introduced me to Tall Tales was not a real event that happened during that trip, and it isn't even in the story anymore. But in thinking about other things that did happen, and some conversations that we had, I ended up daydreaming later and imagined a scene with a guy, about my age, helping some druids and witches in a ritual to exorcise the apartment I had been visiting. That was it; a brief snapshot of a single event in the lives of these characters. I liked the scene, though, so I started asking myself who these people were, why they were there, and what they were trying to exorcise.
That guy, I came to understand, was named John Matteson. As I thought more about him, I ended up developing a little story about a certain period of his life, and jotting down notes about the characters for that story and the general idea of what was happening. As soon as I had a rough idea of a beginning, ending, and overarching theme, I went to a friend of mine named Alex Portal and pitched the idea of making a webcomic. This would have been January, maybe February 2005.
I'll talk more about that webcomic in another post, but the reason that scene didn't last was because, ultimately, the story I developed didn't need it. In its original form, as that first webcomic, the story actually took place about twenty years after that scene. The scene itself was preserved as a possible flashback, but we never really decided whether or not we were going to do that. I eventually changed the model of the story to be two parallel periods in Matteson's life, about twenty years apart, and the scene was going to make a comeback until I realized that in order for the overall story to work, that scene had to be changed. By the time those changes were settled, the scene was scrapped entirely.
But I can still imagine it just fine, or at least as well as I mentally view anything; Matteson standing next to the fire, his back to me, smoking a cigarette and listening as his newly-found friends performed their ceremony, only really there because they had asked him to be because he was somehow connected to what they were exorcising. With that single snapshot, a character was created that would haunt my dreams and projects for the next fourteen years, until I finally decided it was time to let everyone else see him.
As I was trying to work out some more details about the story, I came across "The Stable Song" by Gregory Alan Isakov, which I have included in this post. Feel free to take a listen. The song evoked something in me, and I latched onto it immediately. As I learned the lyrics, I found myself imagining situations that would suit the song. I considered the idea of doing a short story called "The Stable Song" and directly translating the story to the world of Tall Tales, if I could secure permission from Isakov. I never actually reached out to him, I don't know how I would have even done that, but as I was thinking through what that would even look like I began to see some ways to fill holes in the plot I had been working on for Joanna.
The story I originally developed based on the lyrics and feel of the song were heavily adapted. Most parts were scrapped entirely. Some were changed so that the general imagery still worked, but it was absolutely not the same details. One detail that remained fairly well intact was the line "ring out those ghosts on the Ohio" which became a silver bell, etched with strange markings, that disturbed a river spirit from its slumber. The end result is a story that doesn't really quite fit with the song, but I think the song's influence can still be felt. They are closely related in my mind, now. I can imagine scenes of Joanna and Aaboukingon when I hear the song, I can hear the song in my head when I'm writing the story. Listen, and read, and see if you can find some of the same connections.
What is this?
Worldbuilding Wednesdays is a real-world blog, written by Tim McLaughlin, that gives a little peek behind the curtain of Tall Tales. That includes the process of creating the story and world, influences, world rules, and even the occasional story.