Go Then, There Are Other Worlds Than These: Universe Building and Fictional Crossover in Literature
In little more than a month, several comic-book films will culminate in The Avengers finally assembling. Different directors, different actors in some instances, all finally blending into one pop-culture phenomenon. As of late, I've found similar trending in the books I've been reading. I adore it when authors I like combine their series, when they pull characters from their other series, like Joey eating the Triffle on "Friends." Custard? Good. Jam? Good. Meat? Gooooood. It's a secret Easter egg for fans, a payoff for having followed an author's career for so long. While on television and film it can feel like a cheap ratings grab, this trend seems to work in literature. Even when it's clearly not intended from the beginning.
Richard Belzer has played Detective Munch on at least ten different television series in over 18 years. He started on "Homicide: Life on the Street," and then ended up popping up in several incarnations of "Law and Order," including a reoccurring role on "Special Victims Unit." But it didn't end there. Munch would suddenly make guest appearances. He was on "X-Files," he appeared as a liaison on "Luther," and he famously appeared in some of the penultimate episodes of "Arrested Development" and "The Wire." And while sometimes it could feel like "Geez, Belzer, stop betting on the horses," more often than not it's like seeing an old friend in a new city.
WARNING: This will get mildly spoilery. So if you plan on reading The Dark Tower series, Bret Easton Ellis' Lunar Park, The Aloysius Pendergast works and other works by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, The Repairman Jack series by F. Paul Wilson, or "Inspector Jack Daniels" series and "Andrew Z. Thomas" by Blake Crouch and J.A. Konrath, be forewarned. Read them all first and then come back and read this article. It'll probably take a few years. Don't worry, this is the internet and will be here forever.
The most famous instance of this has to be Stephen King's Dark Tower series. It was somewhere after the third book in the series, The Waste Lands that we began to see glowing red lights between the cracks, and the connections started to appear. It started with Randall Flagg, the villain of The Stand, who suddenly appears in 1986's The Eyes of the Dragon as an evil wizard. Then, we discover that Randall Flagg is sort of a dark force who exists in the background of several of King's works, usually as some sort of character with R.F. as his initials. Right around the Christmas before he would release Wizard and Glass, King released a box set of two books: Desperation as Stephen King, and The Regulators as his alter ego Richard Bachman. I bought them mostly for the brief sneak peak at Wizard and Glass included, but then I settled in to read the books. It was captivating: both included the same cast of characters, only with differing roles. One character who would be executed in the opening chapters of one novel became the ultimate villain of the other. At this point, King released heavily revised versions of The Gunslinger and The Stand and then his "master plan" was finally unveiled.
The world of Roland Deschain controlled all of King's literature. Suddenly, it became even more crazy as connections began to appear in practically every single piece of work King would release afterwards. His characters were all interconnected, all of their stories gave clues to this greater picture. There's no coincidence that "Lost" was heavily, heavily influenced by King's Dark Tower opus. We even got brief glimpses into the writing process with the release of Bag of Bones.
And then he got hit by a van. Which also fed into King's literature. It tried to stop him. But by then whatever ka was within him didn't let him stop. And things got even more strange and bizarre. By the fifth book, he was pulling characters from other novels, and then other authors. The Wolves of The Wolves of the Calla turn out to be Doctor Doom replicants who kill people with hyperheadsploding versions of Harry Potter's golden snitches. By book six, Stephen King had flaunted celebrity paradox and became a character in his own series. Stephen King actually typed up paragraphs where he and Roland drink beers in his fucking Maine kitchen, and it became a best seller. I haven't seen a Mary Sue that fucking ballsy until Jason Segel made himself a Muppet. And even when he let most of the free world down with his finale, where he pulled an inverted Wizard of Oz, he still wasn't finished. (Think about it. If Dorothy clicked her heels, and woke up back in the house, but this time, she found out she was back in Munchkinland and had to walk the Yellow Brick Road again. Meanwhile, Tin Man, Lion, and Scarecrow find themselves back in Kansas with vague amnesia and say, "Boy you guys sure look familiar. We should get an apartment together even though we're total strangers and be friends for life? Right?" Why do you think ruby roses surround the tower, and they had to go through Emerald City. CONNECTIONS!) Later in April, we're getting a NEW Dark Tower book, The Wind Through The Keyhole. I don't find it to be a coincidence that he's setting this book right before he became a special at the Roadkill Café. And while I razz, I fucking adore King. The sheer scope and mass of the undertaking of tying all of his novels together is admirable. And has influenced the shit out of others who came after him.
King making himself a character in The Song of Susannah felt like a weird ploy -- like how he always writes himself a character in the adaptations of his novels. But for the most glorious Mary Sue, you have to turn to Bret Easton Ellis. If the Brat Pack didn't exist, Ellis would have snorted them and then drank champagne in L.A. His books are easily adaptable, because they're of the same flavor - disenfranchised West Coasters wandering the 1980's doing drugs and being models and having sex with everyone (boys, girls, corpses). Several films have been made. And Ellis has been clearly having fun. His characters often blend together through the works - American Psycho himself Patrick Bateman's younger brother Sean is the protagonist of The Rules of Attraction. Glamorama was when you realized he was having a full on laugh at his readership - a star-fuckery worthy of Perez Hilton where careful readers find Marilyn Manson and Winona Ryder and Neil Diamond sitting together in a club doing rails of Ritalin off a Liberace Record. But it wasn't until Lunar Park when you realize he's not just laughing at you, but he's been touching himself under the table. Because Bret Easton Ellis turned himself into a Bret Easton Ellis character - a disenfranchised West Coast author who was famous for a hot minute who drinks and screws and drugs his way through celebrity filled parties while he's being stalked by someone who either thinks they're Patrick Bateman or is actually Bateman mystically brought to life from the pages of Ellis' work. It's one of my favorite books because in order to full appreciate it, you have to have read all of Ellis' other books. It's a fuck you and a thank you at the same time, and I loved every goddamn page.
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child worked together on playing with several different supernatural novels in all different exotic locales across the globe. If you're going to read their novels, start at the beginning and move from there. Around the time they published Cabinet of Curiosities, a clear path forward emerged. They decided to tie all of their characters from all of their previous novels into one sprawling insane adventure, and then focused on one character, the fascinating Aloysius Pendergast. Since 2003, Pendergast has been their boy, and they've written a series of terrific trilogies involving the rogue FBI agent and his captivating history. However, it was the writing of this article that has me focusing on a different character, Eli Glinn. To be glib, Glinn runs a super spy tech company. He was introduced in The Ice Limit, and then miraculously reappears in Dance of Death. But where I finally declared my adoration for Preston and Child was when I discovered that in their newest series, The Gideon Books, Glinn REAPPEARS. The motherfucker's Batman. And it's not a gimmicky deus ex machina, it's a total nod to the long loyal fans of the series.
King seemed to reshuffle the deck to fit connections to his earlier works, but he's got nothing on F. Paul Wilson. Back when Amanda Amos and I gave birth to the Cannonball Read and I was taking recommendations, someone started me on Wilson's Repairman Jack series. Now here's some Secret History of the World. Before Repairman Jack, Wilson had written a series of six novels often referred to as The Adversary Cycle. Continuity-wise, the novels are actually out of order; the seemingly disparate events happen starting in World War II with the first book and span through until modern times. The first three novels were written as stand alone, it was only when we got to the sixth book, Nightworld, that all of the characters were tied together. Nightworld was written in 1992.
Okay. So. The Tomb, written in 1984, was where we get introduced to the character of Repairman Jack, a seemingly ordinary looking "fix-it" man who lives between the cracks of society and helps people like a non-tights wearing Batman. Six years after the publication of Nightworld, Wilson starts writing the Repairman Jack series, which went for fifteen novels (counting The Tomb), and started to bring in characters from his other earlier works as he tied the series together. THEN, in 2008, he wrote a young adult trilogy about Repairman Jack as a child. All of this comes to a head with the 2011 release of The Dark at the End, the final book in the Repairman Jack series. Only it's not. See, after reading the first five Adversary books, the three children's books, and the fifteen Repairman Jack's, we found out that Wilson is reissuing Nightworld in a heavily revised edition in May of 2012. So the world that he created already ended in 1992, only we had to wait twenty years to get the real story. It blew my mind when I got to the end of The End only to find out that it already ended only not really. But I wasn't mad and it didn't feel like a cheat.
What comes next is the question. These series have been running for decades. King's Dark Tower started in 1977 with The Gunslinger and supposedly ended 30 years later, and we used to have to wait seven years between novels. And it's still not over. He's written another. Preston and Child still have miles to go before we see the end of Pendergast. Ellis followed up Lunar Park with a spare sequel to Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms. I have no idea what's in store for Wilson, who basically ends his twentysomething novel series in two months. How do you gracefully bow out of a series you've been writing forever. Especially if it's gotten twenty deep or so? Let's look at the interesting choice of J.A. Konrath.
I've been a fan of Inspector Jacqueline Daniels from the getgo. Konrath wrote a fine series, including one of the most "Fuck You, No Way, Throw The Book Across The Room" endings in a while. At one point, as many authors do, he started on a few other stand alone novels. One of these was "Serial" which he wrote as Jack Kilborn and co-wrote with Blake Crouch, a relatively new author. This eventually became Serial Killers Uncut. Afterwards, Konrath and Crouch suddenly became co-authors on the next two Jacqueline Daniels novels, Shaken and Stirred. Which as I settled in to start them this morning would turn out to be the final books in the series. But that's wasn't the whole story.
You see, it turns out, Crouch wrote a trilogy of books starring Andrew Z. Thomas and a super ominous villain named Luther Kite. And what Crouch and Konrath decided to was end both series in the same novel. So Shaken and Stirred are not just the end of one series, but TWO. And now I find myself having to stop midstream and quickly fire through three more books before I get my satisfaction. The same thing happened to me with Wilson. I read the Adversary books alongside the last few Repairman Jack novels so that I would end with Nightworld. Luckily, I found out that I still had a few more miles to go before the world ended. But it was like discovering that there was fourth book in the Inheritance trilogy. Or when George R.R. Martin put up the "COMING SOON - 2005!" at the end of A Feast for Crows and then completed the book seven years later. The Winds of Winter aren't due to blow until supposedly 2014 or 2015.
I don't think authors owe us novels. Martin can take forever to finish if he needs to, because his books are outstanding. King rushed the release on his last three Dark Tower novels, and it showed. Which is why I look forward to The Wind Through The Keyhole, because he's had time to think about it. And while it's annoying to find out that you've got more homework to do before you get your just rewards, it's great to know there are rewards. All that work pays off because the author has thrown you a treat. Sure, I'm feverishly awaiting the next Martin, but because I've been re-reading them, when I sat down to read the superb Tales of Dunk and Egg novellas, I was picking up on little asides I totally would have missed if I hadn't re-familiarized myself with the other books. Plus, when someone says, "I'm looking for something new to read" you don't just hand them a single book. You hand them a stack of books and a map to follow so they get the same rich rewards.