When a writer starts an ongoing series of novels, their plan is often for the books to all be about the same character or organization, and for the novels to all have the same style or genre. But in talking to writer David Mack about his new Dark Arts series, which kicks off with the occult World War II tale The Midnight Front (paperback, Kindle), he explained that not only will every book in this series be a self-contained, stand-alone novel, they’ll all employ a different literary style as well.
To begin, what is The Midnight Front about?
The Midnight Front is about Cade Martin, a young American man studying at Oxford at the start of the Second World War. After his parents are killed by a Nazi ambush involving a U-boat and a demon — a strike that was meant to kill Cade — he learns that his attacker was a Nazi master sorcerer who leads an army of amateur magicians known as The Thule Society. To avenge his parents, Cade lets himself be recruited into the Allies’ short-handed, underfunded, ragtag secret magickal-warfare initiative, The Midnight Front. Soon afterward he learns that all magick is predicated on the conjuring and control of demons, and that there is nothing more difficult than trying to do good with a power born of pure evil.
There have long been rumors that the Nazis experimented with the occult during World War II. In writing The Midnight Front, did you consult any movies or books on the subject for ideas, or to make your story fit in with possible historical occurrences?
I shied away from using movies as research tools for The Midnight Front, in part because I didn’t want to risk accidentally regurgitating ideas from other fictionalized accounts of the war. I did some research online and with books into the history of the Nazis’ long association with the occult, including their early origins within the Thule-Gesellschaft, or Thule Society. And I did a great deal of research on the novel’s other historical elements.
Though I was familiar with certain accounts of real-life attempts by the Allies to counter the Nazis’ occult efforts, including some defensive magickal rituals led by none other than Aleister Crowley and his Thelema cohort, I chose not to include them in my book for a number of reasons. The first was that I wanted to minimize the depiction of real-life historical figures, except in a few cases where I considered them essential to the story. The second reason was that the specific application of ceremonial magick by Crowley and his associates, while intriguing from a historical perspective, didn’t fit the cinematic approach that I wanted to embrace with The Midnight Front.
In a similar vein, what kind of tone did you strike with The Midnight Front? Is the book fantastical, or did you go for a grittier, more realistic approach?
From the beginning, I was committed to a gritty, bloody, realistic approach. I didn’t want to write something that felt overly sanitized or fantastical, such as the Harry Potter novels, which are wonderful in their own right, but not a milieu I wish to emulate. It was important to me that my Dark Arts series be imbued with a feeling of verisimilitude. It’s my opinion that this helps ground the series by linking it to the real world, and I think that taking a more realistic approach to the material heightens readers’ perception of its perils.
Of course, The Midnight Front is not the first work of fiction to inject magic or the occult into World War II. And it won’t be the last. What makes The Midnight Front different from things like the Hellboy comics, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and the video game Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus?
The difference always lies in the details of a story’s specific execution. The Midnight Front is an ensemble piece, whereas the Hellboy and Indiana Jones stories have always been more or less focused on their titular main characters. Hellboy and the Wolfenstein games are also both rooted in alternative histories, unlike The Midnight Front, which is built on a “secret history” model that presupposes its events took place within — and in the shadows of — the real history we know. The Indiana Jones adventures might also be considered secret history, but both Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Last Crusade are stories about recovering specific artifacts, whereas The Midnight Front is a years-spanning epic about waging a war.
But again, as I said before, it’s not a tale’s setting or tropes that make it what it is. It’s the myriad small details that bring a story to life. None of the works you’ve cited have a system of magick as complex or as precisely defined as the one I developed for The Midnight Front. None of the other works you’ve mentioned explore cosmological ideas in the way that my novel does. And none of them have my story’s unique blend of characters, with all of their loves, hopes, resentments, fears, and regrets. In fiction, those details are everything.
You touched on this already, but did any occult-flavored WWII movies, comics, or games have an influence on The Midnight Front?
The only movie set in the World War II era that had an influence on The Midnight Front — so far as I’m aware — was Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s my favorite of the recent crop of Marvel movies, and the most profound effect it had on my thinking with regard to The Midnight Front was that it reinforced my ideas about what it means to fulfill a hero’s story arc — in particular, with regard to the need for self-sacrifice.
What about other kinds of books? Are there any novels or writers that you feel had a big impact on The Midnight Front, but were not an influence on other novels you’ve written?
There is one novel that I’ve long credited as a major influence on, and inspiration for, The Midnight Front, and that book is Black Easter by James Blish. Originally published in 1968, it tells the story of an arms dealer who hires a dark magician to unleash all the demons of Hell upon the Earth for one night, without direction or restriction, just to see what will happen.
It’s a short novel and a talky one. Not a lot of action. Almost the opposite of cinematic. What I’ve always loved about it was the way that Blish brought to life the rituals and details of Renaissance-era Christian-tradition ceremonial black magic. He proceeded from the premise that all of it works exactly as stated in the ancient grimoires, and then he treated the subject with cold scientific rigor. As a result, he makes magic feel procedural, technical, and terrifyingly real. That, plus its chilling ending, make Black Easter a novel that has haunted my imagination since I first read it more than thirty-five years ago.
For my novel, I adopted Blish’s approach to the depiction of ceremonial magic — which I chose to spell “magick,” with a terminal K, to distinguish it from stage magic — and then I modified it to make it more cinematic and better suited to dramatic action sequences.
This is my last influence question, I swear: You’ve written a lot of Star Trek novels, including the recent Star Trek Titan: Fortune Of War, as well as books based on the Wolverine comics [Wolverine: Road Of Bones] and the TV series The 4400 [The 4400: Promises Broken]. How did working in someone else’s universe, with someone else’s rules, influence The Midnight Front?
My experience with writing licensed fiction had little to no influence on my work in The Midnight Front. Writing original fiction is neither easier nor more difficult than writing media tie-in fiction; it’s just different. Different expectations. Different skill sets.
Though I will note that the manuscript for The Midnight Front took me longer to write than any of my previous tie-in novels. This was partly because it was a larger, more complex, more ambitious narrative than any I’d ever attempted before. It also required more rewriting and revision than any of my tie-in novels, again because original novels are much more fluid creations. Tie-in manuscripts are, for the most part, expected to hew to their approved story outlines. In original fiction, the outline is like the Pirate Code — more of a guideline, really.
If writing a wide range of media tie-in fiction had any effect on my work in original fiction, it is simply to have made me comfortable inhabiting almost any era, setting, or character perspective. If tie-in work teaches a writer nothing else, it will teach one flexibility.
As we’ve already discussed, The Midnight Front is the first book in The Dark Arts series. What can you tell us about it?
The Dark Arts series follows a small cadre of sorcerers through various eras and key events of 20th-century geopolitics, employing the tropes of the “secret history” subgenre to weave fictional narratives around real moments in history. Dark Arts was designed to be open-ended, so that it could continue for as long as there remain readers interested in buying it.
The initial deal with Tor Books is for three novels: The Midnight Front, The Iron Codex, and The Shadow Commission. The first book is a war epic that spans six years of the Second World War in Europe. The second book is a Cold War spy thriller set in early 1954. The third novel is planned to be a paranoid conspiracy piece that takes place in late 1963 and early 1964, in the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
My intention at the outset of the project was for each volume in the series to be not just a self-contained narrative, but for each novel to be a different style of book. If I’m fortunate enough that the series continues beyond book three, I’m imagining such future installments as a crime thriller set in gritty mid-1970s New York City, a slick corporate heist caper set in 1980s Los Angeles or perhaps in Europe or Japan, and a cyber-thriller about the rise of the surveillance state during the 1990s. I can also envision change-of-pace novellas set between the novels; perhaps a Hunter S. Thompson-esque drug-fueled road trip comedy, or an elegiac tale from the point of view of a character who has spent decades on the run.
I haven’t thought much about where the series and characters might go after six books, but that’s a problem I would love to have someday.
We’ve talked earlier about World War II fantasy movies, TV shows, and video games. Has there been any interest in adapting The Midnight Front into a movie, show, or game?
No one has approached me yet to secure film-, television-, or game-adaptation rights. But I think the series could definitely work as a premium cable or streaming-service television series or — because of the work I did on the magic system with help from my friend Aaron Rosenberg, a veteran writer and designer of role-playing games — it could be the very interesting basis for a role-playing game. I’m open to all possibilities at this stage.
If The Midnight Front was to be made into a show, who would you like to see cast in the main roles?
I think that Tom Holland [Spider-Man Homecoming] would be great as Cade Martin, Susanna Skaggs [Halt And Catch Fire] would be an excellent Anja Kernova, and Karen Gillan [Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2] would be wonderful as Briet Segfrunsdóttir. I also envisioned actor Michael Fassbender [Alien Covenant] as my villain Kein Engel, and imagined Scottish actor Tommy Flanagan [Sons Of Anarchy] as the good guys’ master magician Adair Macrae.
And if it was made into a role-playing game, are you thinking video game or table-top?
My first instinct is to say it would be best as a pencil-and-paper RPG. But if it were adapted as a video game, I’d hope to see it developed by the team at Rockstar Games using an open-world architecture that would give the player some flexibility and variation as they explore the narrative.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Midnight Front, which of your other novels would you suggest they read while waiting for The Iron Codex to come out?
I’d suggest they track down a copy of my 2009 novel The Calling. While it’s a very different type of story from The Midnight Front — more of a supernatural detective thriller — an astute reader might notice some elements that would suggest it and Dark Arts belong to the same fictional universe. Not coincidentally, I developed that novel with the same editor, Marco Palmieri, with whom I developed Dark Arts. What goes around comes around.