Well now, if I’m going to attempt this mad thing, discussing all of the stories that have been published in Black Static over the years (and it seems that I am, at least until something more interesting occurs to me), then a story from Daniel Kaysen is a very good place to start. With six credits to his name, Kaysen is the author who has been published in the magazine more than any other.
“Babylon’s Burning” appeared in #15 and is a very short piece, just four pages including a three quarter page illustration, but a near pitch perfect example of the slick, inference laden storytelling at which Kaysen excels.
It’s the story of a young man called Daniel, who is engaged to the ‘saving herself until after we’re married’ Sarah, and puts his knowledge of ancient languages to good use by working in a call centre.
Daniel is invited to a party at the offices of Bell, Chase, Herr, by his brother who works for the firm as a headhunter. Bell, Chase, Herr are engaged in international security but come across as a good deal more sinister than even that might imply (think Wolfram and Hart, or if you’re not a fan of Angel imagine Blackwater with a Tory ex-minister as CEO and you’ll be close). Daniel is an idealist and wants nothing to do with them, but he owes his brother a favour and besides, there’ll be lots of high class hookers in attendance. Where’s the harm, as the saying goes.
Of course, Daniel isn’t being invited just to make up the numbers at dinner. There’s a test for him, and there’s temptation.
At bottom this story is a deal with devil variation, though instead of a Faust figure it has a slightly naive and definitely innocent protagonist. It reinvents the Biblical story of Daniel at Belshazzar’s Feast, with his modern day counterpart putting a very different spin on the meaning of ‘Mene? Mene? Tekel! Upharsin.’
There’s little in the way of plot surprises. Most readers will figure out where the story is going pretty early on, if not the particulars. It even has a few cliches, such as Daniel mistaking a female executive for a hooker (she’s beautiful, so it’s an obvious conclusion for him, right?) and the whole scene where he is the only one in the room who doesn’t realise that a woman is being killed.
And yet the story is eminently engaging, rising above such things, partly because of the way in which Kaysen’s laidback prose subtly slips into the reader’s consciousness, carrying us along effortlessly, and partly because of the klutzy protagonist, who it’s impossible not to like, even as we sit agog at his total naivety (the guy doesn’t even realise that he hasn’t lost his virginity). His presence makes possible a gentle, self-mocking humour that slips down a treat, and defuses any possible offense.
And then there are the revelations inserted into the text about the ruthlessness of commercial entities, the lengths Bell, Chase, Herr will go to to achieve their ends. Most of us have a ‘fondness’ for conspiracy theories and this conglomerate, with its fingers in so many pies and pervasive influence, feeds that appetite, revealing to us that the bad guys really are as evil as we imagine, and then some. And it’s always been like this, the conspiracy stretches back into the mists of time, Bablyon and beyond, the Illuminati running a shell game.
Underlying this there’s a very obvious subtext, that ‘deal with the devil’ aspect I mentioned. Daniel abhors Bell, Chase, Herr, and yet he is drawn into their web, one compromise leading to another and then the next. But at the end he accepts their offer, not because they entice him with sex (of a sort), unlimited wealth or even because of the crimes they have framed him for. He accepts because it’s a chance to use his talents and intelligence; he accepts because they give him a challenge, and even though it might ultimately lead to his death, that’s something worth having. The tempter knows exactly which strings to pull, what combination of stick and carrot will best achieve his ends.
The moral here seems to be that not only does the devil find use for idle hands, but he makes use of gifts that don’t find any more positive and socially acceptable outlet.
Based on this conclusion, one may hazard a guess as to how many thwarted novelists now write for the Daily Mule.
Right, my work here is done, political snark and all. I’m off round the chippie for my lunch.