This one’s a little different, but I wanted to share a bit of the story behind Way of the Wraith. Trust me, this isn’t your average fairytale…
Way of the Wraith was originally conceived in the army shacks of Edmonton, Alberta. It was a cold winter’s day, and we’d just handed in our paperwork containing our funerary arrangements and wills. We were infantry, and death was a real possibility. Morbid or not, it was this practice of death preparation that actually saved a lot of families extra grief in the long run. Still, drawing a map from my hometown to my mom’s house was sobering. I imagined a black car driving through those white frozen woods, slowly inching towards her gated driveway. Walking home that day, the cold air felt thick and heavy. It was in that moment that the burden of our commitment began to sink in. At least it did for me.
I was different than a lot of the other guys in barracks. For one, I was a lot older. I had just spent the last ten years of my life arresting “junkies,” mostly in Vancouver’s notoriously seedy downtown. A lot of bad things had happened down there over the years. For most of the incidents I was in a loss prevention management position. We did a lot of fighting in those days. At times, for extra money, I had also been a bouncer. In my other life I liked to consider myself a writer.
I had just finished my Criminology prerequisites – for policing – when I got the call. The phone rang and I suddenly had a choice to make. I would now be eligible to apply for the police forces, true, but the army was also on the table. It was very strange timing to be honest, as I’d actually tried to join the military a few years before. There were, apparently, some paperwork issues. Regardless, I decided that I would take the opportunity (it would still be a long road) sign up, get trained, and finally try to go to Afghanistan as an infantry soldier. It would take me a few years to do it, and it would be a tough slog, but I believed I could. I decided it would be worth it. If all went well I could always apply for the police afterwards.
I was in my thirties, had management experience, was reflective and liked to write. I had different tools to prepare me for going overseas. Ultimately, everyone would go through the mental preparation for tour in his or her own way.
I came home that night and I set up my laptop in the barrack room I shared with a couple of other guys. I then turned on that old Acer laptop and started to write. I don’t know if I knew what I was going to write, or not, but I knew I didn’t care. I suppose, in a metaphorical way, I was trying to say goodbye. These are the types of things you sometimes do when you’re a writer. Don’t ask me why.
As the tour approached I continued to write Way of the Wraith. Finally, in Afghanistan, from the old war-torn schoolhouse we sometimes called home, I would write a lot more. In fact, I wrote through my whole tour. I wrote when I was on leave. Portions of the book had already been written from several places in Canada, but this geographical list would ultimately include India, Cyprus and Dubai as well. In an extremely dark way, the whole writing process gained a life of its own.
While I was serving in Afghanistan, a family member was murdered back in Canada. It was hard not to be there for my mom and stepdad. I felt so far away. The whole legal process carried on a long time and was actually pretty despicable. The killer had no remorse despite asking for leniency due to addiction. The justice system also seemed lackadaisical. It was a hard time for a lot of people. It was hard to watch them suffer like that. Even from afar.
In Afghanistan, an IED explosion in the province of Kandahar killed one of my friends. This was also pretty tough. I look back now and I’m thankful I never knew more people that died. There were some hard times, for everyone, but it’s a little bit easier when the dead you see are strangers instead of friends. It sounds cold but its true. I wasn’t there when he died so I guess it made it easier. I think I see him in movie theatres sometimes, in crowds or in pictures.
These were some difficult times. My writing became a way for me to process what was happening in my life and to make sense of the world around me. My pagan-Buddhist philosophies carried me the rest of the way.
It was not all bad either. I would sometimes stop and gaze upon that foreign land around me. It would dawn on me that the landscape looked the same, as it must have looked a thousand years ago. It was easy to dream of an even stranger land while exposed in this way. The moon was different, for example. The two points of the crescent both reached skywards instead of to the side. That’s a little detail, but there were differences everywhere. It was beautiful, to be honest, but a lot of the guys would disagree.
It was no holiday. In Afghanistan we were constantly under the threat of ambush. In fact, death was all around us. We would respond to explosions only to discover that IEDs couldn’t discriminate between a Canadian soldier and an Afghan civilian. Sometimes we’d get shot at. This was usually by poorly trained snipers. Other shots fired were accidental; what some call “friendly fire.” The worst of these was a machine gun incident that should’ve killed – or at least wounded – some of us. Perhaps prayers do get answered? The incident lasted just long enough, that I’d logically concluded we were all about to die. I don’t feel I came to that conclusion quickly, either. Surviving was confusing.
Coping, for a solider, seemed to require an embracing of the warrior spirit. Those who did not surrender their life to a higher power, or cause, seemed to have had a more difficult time overall. There was a philosophy found that the Samurai would have called a willingness to die. This surrender-state allowed us to patrol through hostile villages, over proven IED grounds, and through opium fields that ultimately belonged to the Taliban. When something is real, when it’s right in front of you, you truly have no other choice but to deal with it. You either become afraid, you pretend that you’re not in danger, or you embrace whatever it is that you have to embrace. On some level a warrior simply decides that what will be will be.
I would have been considered old for the infantry. I was in my thirties while most of the other guys were in their early to mid twenties. These were selfless young men (there were no women in my platoon) who had given up everything to serve their country. You might think a whole generation can be selfish, but you’re wrong. Here were 20-year-old guys leaving home for the first time and they were giving up girls, education, drinking and every little comfort other people unwittingly took for granted! In my books that’s got to count for something.
It was more than age or life experience, though. I was a trained reservist placed with 1PPCLI for predeployment training. This meant I had even more to prove to the guys I would serve with because I wasn’t really one of them. Not at the start. Most reservists never even got this chance. To be part of a battle group meant that I would be patrolling through villages instead of standing guarding a gate somewhere. I could handle being an outsider for a little while. Some of these guys had been in the big fights of 2007. This was where I wanted to be. It felt like home.
It was a matter of pride I kept up. Eventually, I began to earn their respect. In return, these guys gave me more than they could ever have imagined. Not only did they bring me home safe, through their actions they taught me about being a better person and what it truly meant to be a warrior. I was older, more reflective, and able to witness and meditate upon things that may have been less visible to many of them. Being a writer, though, I could write it all down. As a result, my time in the army lives forever in the world found in Way of the Wraith.
In May of 2010 I returned safely to Canada. I arrived with an eagerness to reconstruct my life once more. Truthfully, I was thankful for being given a second chance to start over. It was bitter sweet, though. Almost every relationship in my life had failed, changed or was about to change. I’d been gone a long time.
By the beginning of July, while still technically employed by the military, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. They were operating on me before I even knew what hit me. No one noticed I was missing because I was on leave and had just landed back in Vancouver. I had too much pride to reach out to anyone. I spent the time alone in the hospital. It was a huge contrast to my life only a few weeks before.
I was sent home to my week-old unfurnished apartment. I slept on the floor that night. I spent the next little while trying to get better. I had movers take my things out of storage. I tried to move on.
The hope was that the surgery had gotten all of the cancer. There was this uncertainty, at the time, however, whether or not it had spread. During this period of uncertainty I finally finished writing Way of the Wraith.
When I first wrote Way of the Wraith it hadn’t been something that I’d planned on sharing. It was more of a dark secret to be honest. The guys overseas knew I journaled. They would see me sit down with my laptop or notebook whenever we were holed up in one strong point or another. I was somewhat embarrassed by what I was actually writing, though. This tale was entirely dark and incredibly pagan. Despite being fictional, it was more honest in some ways than anything I’d ever written. It showed me my rage and fears. It revealed to me the core of my own discontent, my suffering, and my disgust in current political and ecological landscapes. It was graphic. It was violent. It was sexual. It would lay bare to anyone who read it the underbelly of my writhing and twisting black soul! My sister had read my notes and pushed me to share it. I wasn’t so convinced at first.
Previously, I’d been published in a Canadian criminology textbook and online. I had several letters from Afghanistan printed in smaller newspapers. There was also the blog I had written for a year and a half, which focused on retail loss prevention. This was called the Hunters of the Damned, and it shared my career of arresting, “those committing criminal offenses on or in relation to the property” of my employer. The blog focused on the shadow side of the industry. These stories included snippets involving a horde of unnamed junkies, organized gang activity, fraud committing employees, weapon incidents, robberies, sexual assaults and prostitution. I personally thought that it was rather interesting and in entirely good taste. My employer, on the other hand, disagreed. The blog came down. This was all before Afghanistan.
Now, publishing something like Way of the Wraith would be like completely starting over. It didn’t matter, I finally decided. I wanted to write about ghosts and monsters dammit! In retrospect, I don’t think I wanted to write about anything too serious after my tour. I wrote Way of the Wraith and I started a new blog that focused on Celtic mythology and folklore. I had fooled myself. My writing took on a very dark taint. Instead of being light, it shifted to become a symbolic study of death and dying. I suppose at some point, a person’s just got to play the cards they’ve been given and carry on.
In August of 2011 Way of the Wraith was published. It was at this time, however, that I was told I would probably be needing chemotherapy. That was if the lump in my abdomen got any bigger.
In the fall of 2011 I began to receive aggressive chemotherapy. The good thing, I suppose, was that I started to write Shadow Empire. The months that followed were brutal. I had an adverse reaction to the drugs and developed blood clots. One broke off and went into my lung. A lot of other things started to happen, as well. It was a pretty rough ride to be honest.
Now, the side effects of the chemo persist. I’m starting to see specialists for pain and other symptoms. It’s hard to forget that I was fit not so long ago, and now I’m not. Instead of activity, however, I spend my days writing and resting. I will be well again. Whatever happens from here on in, I’ll continue to write. I’ll always try to do it part-time, for sure, but for now it’s one of the only things I can do.
When I was a kid, people used to always tell me that Dead people went “to a better place” when they died. Who am I to disagree? I look into the face of this thing, this mirror, and I disagree entirely though. The world found in Way of the Wraith, in Shadow Empire, reflects this disagreement. It’s not a good place to be.
*All pictures on this page are copyright and subject to copyright law 2012