Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Dark Coil in contact with Gestalt Therapy - First Entry

Making contact

Dolorosa Topaz - Thunderground?

And so we come to it. Well I’ll tell you what I know, but be warned that my mind may wander.

These are the first words of Fire Caste, the first novel in "The Dark Coil", the spiralling web of stories written by Peter Fehervari. It was the first of his stories I ever read, back in May 2017. Five years, three changes of residence, one marriage and one child birth later, I had the privilege to meet the author himself - on video, of course, what with him and myself living 600 kilometres and at least one national border apart. Excerpts from the transcription of our video chat will be littered throughout this article and form the backbone of or at least a red ribbon along which the writing of this piece will develop.

Now, a few weeks after our meeting, I’m sitting at the desk in the room that we’re using as office, hobby and guest room, and trying to find the words for a good introduction to this article. Gestalt Therapy and the Dark Coil - I’ll have to find a better title down the line. By the way, if you don’t know what ‘Gestalt therapy’ is, don’t worry, I’ll explain later on.

Right now I’m thinking of quoting Herbert’s famous first line from Dune about delicate beginnings, but I feel like using the first line of the Dark Coil is a more fitting entry to my thoughts on it.

A friend who read over a first draft of parts of this article asked me “whether this is an interview with Peter, an article discussing your personal relationship to the Dark Coil and the GW hobby as a whole, or more of a scientific essay.” Good question. My spontaneous answer was “...all of the above?”.

After thinking it through, I stand by this answer. I’m deliberate in letting my writing on this piece be informed more by my intuition rather than a pre-set plan or a list of bullet-points that I need to work through. So yes, this will be all of this: It’s about sharing some of the thoughts of the Coil’s author from my interview with him, it will be a discussion and exploration of my personal relationship with the Dark Coil and Warhammer in general, and it will also have aspects of a scientific essay on Gestalt therapy. I don’t know yet which of these will become the dominant figure and which will recede to the ground - or whether something altogether else will eventually emerge from the process - but this is part of the fun.

If you’re willing to travel with me along this journey through uncharted wilds, I’m happy to share it with you.

So. What is the Dark Coil?

The “Dark Coil” is a collective term for the stories written by Peter Fehervari set within Warhammer 40,000, “the grim darkness of the far future” in which there is “only war”. While Warhammer 40,000 is a fictional universe in which dozens of authors write hundreds of stories every year, Fehervari’s stories are mostly set in their own “bubble” of the universe, away from the big events, grand storylines and major happenings of the wider franchise. The Coil-stories are not a series, but more of a web of stories: spread out over several planets, over a thousand years of timeline and various factions, the stories are all subtly, sometimes overtly, linked: by characters, factions, places, visions, concepts and phrases repeating, contrasting and transforming themselves all over Fevervari’s stories.

When I say that I quote the first line of the Dark Coil at the beginning of this article, I’m factually misleading. My first line of the Dark Coil would be a more precise wording, because while Fire Caste is indeed the Coil’s first novel and was indeed my personal introduction to Fehervari’s twisted world, it is not the oldest story in it.

On the face of it, the story of the Dark Coil begins in 2009 with the release of Nightfall, the first story of Peter Fehevari ever to be published by Black Library, the publisher responsible for handling the literary works set in the fantastical worlds of Warhammer. And maybe even that is an imprecise approximation of the truth, because the seeds for Nightfall were planted even earlier with its authors own introduction to the grim darkness of the far future:

Peter: I remember that I was there right at the very beginning of this. I was 17 when Rogue Trader hit [in 1987], the first Warhammer 40k book.

So my history with this stuff is that I'm a massive sci-fi horror fan. I was into Dungeons and Dragons and The Call of Cthulhu, and I loved the miniatures that went into it. And I was always the storyteller. [...] I was never particularly interested in fantasy Warhammer. It seemed quite - I dunno if it's true or not, and it probably isn't true - but it seemed very generic to me at the time. And I'm not very into swords and sorcery stuff, which is not something that excites me particularly. But in the Rogue Trader book, when that appeared, the imagery on it was so striking. [...]

I can't say it enough, how refreshing it was to see that book. It was so dark and it was such a dystopian looking world. It was sealed for me by things like the little quotations, about the madness of it, the religious fanaticism, just the sheer sense of hopelessness about it, with the cover image of the Marines doing the last stand…

At the time, I had no idea what Space Marines were. I thought they were just human warriors doing the last stand - which in a way I think was cooler at the time. I bought the book on the spot because I liked the looks of it, the artwork of it, and it immediately caught my imagination. The bizarre thing is, when the minis appeared, I started collecting them, but I never actually played Warhammer. I played with the minis, but I played in my own universe; I just used them to tell my own stories and I made up my own rules set. I remember reading the rules and going, ‘hm, I don't like this, it doesn't use the full range of dice, I like my 20-sided dice, I'm more of an RPG person’. So I ended up creating a custom game with it.

So the bizarre thing is that I had this long relationship with Warhammer without ever playing the game. And I only got into the lore of Warhammer much later. Obviously I knew the books and I knew the characters, but it was much later that I really started to learn about the detailed history of it.

So it was probably not that long before the Horus Heresy series started [in 2006] that I actually started seriously reading Black Library books. [...] At that point I was already very much in love with the miniatures and the imagery, but I just did my own world with it. And some of that world has seeped into the Dark Coil. So that my books turned out quite weird is in part because a lot of the thinking had gone on outside in my RPG stuff. When I did get hooked on Dan Abnett’s writing, I thought it was great, and there were other books like Lord of the Night [by Simon Spurrier] that I really liked. And so that led me on my love affair with [Warhammer 40k].

My own history with Warhammer 40.000 doesn’t date quite as long back as Peter’s - for starters, I wasn’t even born when Rogue Trader was released. My first memory associated with 40k is of the local toy shop in my home town doing a little promotional event for Games Workshop products in the back of the store. I couldn’t have been older than 10 at the time and probably didn’t even know what ‘Games Workshop’ was, but I was a big fan of The Lord of the Rings and had started collecting the miniatures of the LotR tabletop game together with the boy who was my best friend at the time. So while we mostly looked after the Lord of the Rings stuff at the time, I remember the guy running the promotion (it was really just one table with one adult and a handful of kids around it) also having a few different miniatures with him. I remember being struck by the looks of them - a Chaos Barbarian from Warhammer Fantasy and a Tyranid from Warhammer 40,000.

So while I stuck with collecting only the Lord of the Rings - our few coins of pocket money a month didn’t really get us far - I had been hooked without realising it. At some point I came across the Lexicanum website and started reading up on the lore and gawping at the artworks of Warhammer on the internet - wikis were free, after all - and later started reading my first Black Library books. William King’s Space Wolf books were first, but Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts-stories really sealed the deal for me. The darkness, the weird mix of magic and science fiction, and the sheer, unbridled, gory violence of it all really struck a nerve with young me. I have been a fan ever since, although I’d like to think that my fascination for the grim darkness of the far future has become a bit more sophisticated since then.

But back to Peter. This would be a good place to tell the episode of how he got to write a Black Library story in the first place, but my recording of our conversation didn’t start at the very beginning of our conversation and I’m afraid that I have forgotten the exact circumstances of him getting a publication deal with Black Library. He did tell me, though, how his first novel Fire Caste came to be:

Peter: So I'd had a short story which was reasonably well receive, which was 'Nightfall'. And on the back of that, I saw a chance. I went along to a Black Library Live at the time after writing 'Nightfall' and I met Nick Kyme and said: I'm Peter, you very kindly commissioned my short story. Would you be interested in more?’ And he mentioned the chance of a novel. Black Library’s tradition with new authors has always been - or certainly was back then - to start them with Imperial Guard stories, so this is where that came in. And then he said that the T'au are very underdeveloped in terms of stories. ‘Could you do something with the T'au?’.

[...] I think I was very, very lucky, so with this book I started out saying: 'This is my first book. This is a big chance. I'm gonna be careful about this one. So I'll try and do something interesting, but I won't go overboard.' And I started writing it.

At that time, I'd just turned 40. It was a time in my life where a lot of things came together. I decided to take redundancy from the BBC. I'd been working at the BBC for 12 years and I decided, this is it. I'm gonna go freelance so I'll have the time to do the writing.

So you have that big change in your age and that big change in the job. All of this was happening and I had this great ambition to do it. And then that year as I was writing 'Fire Caste' and I was about a quarter through it, my father had a stroke. It was very…the book is dedicated to him.

It shook my life drastically and that I had this kind of, how can I explain it? I had this feeling that life is very short. Opportunities are very few to do something special. And this might be the only book I ever write. So I wanna write something…that I feel. I'd got about a quarter of the way and the thought of writing another 80,000 or so words trying to be a kind of Dan Abnett imitator…I just couldn't do it. So I scrapped it all. I threw away what I'd written and I started again.

And I rewrote that first bit in this much more strange, bleak tone. The opening part of 'Fire Caste' is still some of my favourite writing, just Iverson's beginning with the planet, how he describes Phaedra. And that was written from the heart. A lot of 'Fire Caste' was written with that experience, this sort of shadow looming over everything and my lifebeing cast into a degree of chaos from all this stuff.

So 'Fire Caste' is a profoundly emotional book. It was written with a real kind of visceral intensity. Several segments of that were written in quite difficult circumstances.For me, that's where I think the strength of that book lies.

Fire Caste is about the Arkhan Confederates, an Imperial Guard regiment freshly recruited from a planet only recently annexed into the Imperium of Mankind. For their first assignment, they get sent into the stale-mate war of the Imperium with the alien T’au on Phaedra, a planet “too lazy to be a death world, too bitter to be anything else”. Eager to prove themselves in the eyes of their interstellar overlords, the Arkhans quickly realise that they have been thrown into a nightmare. Their alien combatants turn out to be only one of the teeth of the meat grinder that they find themselves in: bloodthirsty commissars, a seemingly incompetent high command, zealous preachers, encroaching madness, substance abuse, disease and despair and above all the tainting presence of Phaedra Herself, “corrupt to Her mouldering, waterlogged core”. Along for the ride is Commissar Iverson, a broken man struggling with his sanity and violent past on his own mission of redemption, whose diary entries and letters to High Command are one of the primary literary devices through which Fehervari tells his unsettling story.

The novel was ultimately released in 2013. As far as I’m aware, it wasn’t - and never became - what you’d call a big hit. But it struck a nerve with some fans, and it created buzz, and a sort of cult following started to grow. Fehervari’s work back then and to this day never reached the wide-spread popularity of authors like Guy Haley or Aaron Dembski-Bowden - who released their own debut Imperial Guard novels around the same time as Fehervari - but a dedicated fan community started to huddle together near the black flame of The Dark Coil.

Peter: [...] the Dark Coil took on a life of its own by people just talking about it.

I think I dropped the term ‘dark coil’ in a couple of conversations and then it got talked about online and became a thing and eventually got back to Black Library and they started talking to me about ‘the Dark Coil’ which was…such a flipping victory.

I was quite active on the 40klore subreddit at the time and kept coming across recommendations to check out this weird, dark novel which was supposed to be refreshingly different to the usual 40 fare. I didn’t pick it up for quite some time - the title ‘Fire Caste’ suggested that it was about the T’au, which I wasn’t very interested in at the time, and that it was supposed to be another Guard novel also didn’t really entice me. Peter was aware of this effect on potential readers and argued for different titles for the novel. When talking about it 9 years later, he still seems dismayed about the decision:

Peter: I said that we're gonna get into trouble for this. People will be angry and it will put people off who aren't into the Tau and it will annoy people who are into the Tau because [it’s not actually about them].

But still, the novel was out there, and eventually I decided to follow the buzz and give it a go…and was richly rewarded.

I like to say that there are three Black Library authors that have blown my mind in my years as a reader of Warhammer 40,000 fiction. There were and are others that are great and whose works I love dearly, but by ‘blowing my mind’ I mean that these particular three authors significantly expanded the borders of my experience and my expectation of what Warhammer fiction could do and what it could be like. These authors had until then been Dan Abnett and Aaron Dembski-Bowden, and in 2017 Peter Fehervari completed the triumvirate. His work was dark, weird and bleak, but also poetic and musical, touching on aspects of Abnett’s groundedness and Dembski-Bowden’s emotional depth while creating something distinctly different and unique. Fire Caste also approached the metaphysics and emotional reality of the fictional universe of 40k in a way that really resonated with the place in which I myself felt connected to the grim darkness of the far future.

Afterwards, I went on the hunt for all the other Fehervari stories available at the time and went on my first ‘Coil tour’. The stories were scattered, almost hidden, across various publications, and I felt almost like one of the ‘travellers’ of the Coil myself - hunting for pieces of lore and scraps of half-forgotten stories in a vain attempt to create meaning from a spiral of darkness. At that point, Peter had published two novels (Fire Caste and Cult of the Spiral Dawn), six short-stories (including Nightfall) and one novella (Fire and Ice), most of which I read more than once that year. Later in 2017 he released one of my favourite short stories of his, The Greater Evil, and added over the following years two more novels (Requiem Infernal in 2019 and The Reverie in 2020) and four short stories to the mix, all of which together bring The Dark Coil to a number of sixteen stories in total.

Post scriptum: December 2022 saw the release of Fehervari's short story Aria Arcana, the seventeenth story of the Dark Coil, as part of Black Library’s Advent calendar event. May 2023 followed up with the release of the short story Altar of Maws, bringing the number of Coil stories up to eighteen.

Over the years, I have made it a personal tradition of sorts to go on a new ‘tour of the Coil’ whenever a new story gets released. I start with the new story and afterwards re-read the story that it is most closely linked to, which usually leads me onto an unpredictable path of free association across Fehervari’s story-cycle, following my gut alongside intuitively chosen themes, quotes or characters. It really is quite fun.

Inspired by the passionate, eloquent writings of Michael, the author behind the review site Track Of Words who I got friends with over the years, I started to develop a liking for writing reviews of my own and started to do those for the Dark Coil, too. I don’t know which of the Coil stories I did first, but I have over the years written reviews for ten of the sixteen Coil stories. Because the Coil stories were so dear to my heart and I liked Peter’s experimental, poetic style of writing so much, I put extra effort into the writing of the Coil reviews, to almost align them with the type of writing one could find in a Coil story itself. I felt very validated when the author himself at one point commented on one of my reviews and thanked me for the effort of writing it. Reading over them, I’m still proud of those little pieces of authorship that I can call mine, and I’ll link to them at the bottom of the article.

When I had the idea to write an article about the Coil stories from a psychological perspective and talked to Michael about it, he asked me whether I’d like to talk to Peter himself about this. I hadn’t considered this, but in the end contacted Peter about it, who was so kind as to agree to a virtual meeting. Which brings me back to the start of the article.

What was the title again? Ah, yes. "Gestalt Therapy and the Dark Coil". I'll have to find a better title down the line.

I realise that I have now already written a short article’s worth of words about Peter Fehervari, the Dark Coil and myself, without even touching on Gestalt Therapy and the analytical part of the article.

But I had warned you that my mind would wander. Or was that someone else?

The spiral turns: Continue here with the second part.

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