I’m trying not to dedicate a lot of my time to TV, but I like to keep a stock of television shows ready to be watched when getting ready for work or while eating. My TV habits are much more eclectic than my book tastes (which are fantasy, pure and simple) but what came as a surprise was American Horror Story: Coven.
Coven tells the story of a sort of Homicidal Hogwarts for Witches down in New Orleans. That was such a fun sentence to type. The story revolves around a conflict between this Coven and Marie Laveau, a voodoo queen who has long been in conflict with the largely white (skin, not magic) group of witches. There are a lot of race issues behind their conflict but also seems to be based on beliefs about magic and tradition as well.
That all works really well, but what has been so damn fun is the little detours the show has taken, the wild elements it’s introduced. I don’t want to spoil the story or where it’s gone but it has involved everything from the aforementioned voodoo and witchcraft (both of which are some truly epic takes on) to ghosts, serial killers, and monsters. Even with all this though, from what I understand they’re actually holding back when compared to last season.
I want to discuss both of these approaches, because, odd as it sounds, this is something really close to my heart.
If you’ve read Sorcerer Rising, or anything I’ve written, you’ll see that I love monsters. The various flavors of lore and myth are what drove me to fantasy and why I love stories like the Dresden Files or Fables. I always wanted to include these elements in my own work and why I ended up making the world I did. Some I make up as I go along, others I draw from real world tales. I have plans (or have done things) encompassing everything from wizards and sorcerers to witches and voodoo, demonology and pantheons to dragons and djinn. You name it, I either already have a plan for it to be incorporated in my world or want it to be.
Seriously, if you have any myths, legends, tales, stories, feel free to send them to me. I’ll talk about it here and somehow those elements will be absorbed into my world. Not that I want to take anyone’s ideas, please God, don’t send me your ideas, but if you have resources on fairy tales or mythology (from and and every religion or culture), I’m totally game to hear about them.
Anyway, Coven does a real good job of steadily and slowly expanding beyond its core idea (witchcraft) to encompass other themes (ghosts of musical serial killers and undercover, corporate backed, witch hunting spies).
You can go too far with this though. A big complaint of the second season was that it was just too damn much. These are the elements I know of from a friend: ghosts, psychotics, nazi doctors, aliens, demons, possessed nuns/priests, serial killers, and I think witchcraft. I can’t remember all the particulars and I didn’t want to look it up, but that’s a lot. The more you add to a story, the easier it is for it to wear thin. Individually, all those things are great, but if it dilutes the story than it can be a negative. Your goal is not only to have everything sum up well, you want it to be exponential, to give something that is greater than the sum of its parts. If you include too much it actually starts to detract and what could be wonderful on its own, or combined in the right way, actually ends up being worse than the sum of its parts.
With my own work, it’s something I’ve had to watch. I have a strong tendency to solve story roadblocks with fantastical elements and I almost never walk into an action scene or a Big Moment knowing what form the arcane critter is going to be. There are over a dozen instances where a one off thing that I threw out there to provide conflict ended up developing into a full document in my world bible. I have one clear example in my head that started as a basic, random encounter and is now just one member of a full blown civilization and global player in Virgil’s world. Part of doing that is preparing you, my reader, to expect that sort of thing. That’s the tone of my stories and of my world. It’s big place, filled with races and players and hundreds of magics and cultures.
Part of the what I like about this is the richness it loans the world, the sense of authenticity. In the case of Coven I have to go back to the Axeman because I didn’t see it coming and it is fucking great. A good seven or eight episodes in, they introduced the murdered ghost of a sax playing, jazz band serial killer who preyed upon the women of New Orleans in the twenties. The class of witches from that time drew him into a trap and murdered him and he has haunted their house ever since. The guy they got playing him is fantastic, smooth and creepy and suave all at the same time, and whenever he’s on screen they play a saxaphone in the background. Even though it was completely random, not foreshadowed, and totally out of nowhere, he has been such a fantastic source of conflict that moved the story forward and fleshed out their world. The perfect use of a random fantastical element.
It’s good to see a show go hogwild on its world like this, makes me think that maybe I’m doing something right.
And hopefully I’ll have a few more monsters for ya’ll soon.