Guest Blog: AJ Hartley connects the barbaric concepts in Cathedrals of Glass
The Concept: Alien meets Lord of the Flies
by AJ Hartley
When I’m working on a book, I like to come up with a pithy summary that encapsulates the heart of the story, partly because it makes an instant pitch for potential readers (or publishers), and partly because it helps me keep a core idea in mind as I work. Planet of Blood and Ice, the first Cathedrals of Glass book, came to live in between two of my favorite pieces of art, Nobel Prize winner William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, and Ridley Scott’s 1979 scifi classic movie, Alien.
The two are closely related. Both involve a small group of people cut off from the world they have grown up in, a group which then improvises its way through a series of survival puzzles and crises which tear the group apart. In the Alien movie, the danger comes mostly from outside in the form of a bizarre, shape shifting creature which seeks to wipe out the crew of the isolated space ship. In Lord of the Flies, the threat is mostly internal, the group of boys turning viciously against each other as they give over to primal urges in the absence of any kind of law or relevant code of behavior. The film is a study in suspense and horror—and features one of the most alarming scenes in movie history when the creature bursts from the chest of the late John Hurt—relying on showing as little as possible of the mysterious alien until the very end, but is also a testament to courage, survival and sacrifice. So is Lord of the Flies, though its concentration is more lyric and cerebral, focusing on how easily the trappings of civilization fall away, revealing not just an inherent barbarism in the boys, but a culture of bullying and intimidation which is actually ingrained in the very civilization which shaped them before they ever reached the island.
Both stories dodge what might have been schlocky melodrama with finely drawn characters and environments which feel entirely real. Golding’s novel might have turned into abstraction and lecture were it not for the detail of the island itself and the carefully developed sense of the boys and their relationships, particularly the hero, Ralph, Simon (the mystic), Piggy (timid, overweight and bookish) and Jack (your common or garden bully revealed as a psychotic by the circumstances). The Nostromo, the ship which is the heart of Alien, is quite unlike the sleek space vessels that dominate science fiction, feeling more like a second world war submarine, basic, dirty and utilitarian. That environment is mirrored in the (marvelously acted) ship’s crew who bicker over performance bonuses and job assignments, and who move around the vessel like workers, bored, cramped and keen to get home.
In the first Cathedrals of Glass book, I wanted to combine key elements of these two works, particularly the sense of isolation, increasing hostility amongst the survivors and the purveying tension around a very basic question: what is going on here? For Golding that question is profound and gets to the heart of what it is to be a civilized human being, while in Alien, the questions are more insistently practical: what is this creature, how do we kill it and why were we here in the first place? Similar questions dominate Cathedrals, which takes the young people of Flies and puts them in an environment like that of Alien, forcing the issue of how to survive, first simply in a hostile environment, second when it becomes clear that they are not alone. What the book tries to do then, is blend the internal danger of Flies with the external danger of Alien: the monster is crucially outside and inside the characters. The core questions of both previous works then inform Cathedrals too: what is going on here, how do we survive it, what do we learn about ourselves in the process, and finally—and most problematically—who is the real enemy?
Of course, this is all very intellectual, distant from the meat of the story itself, which progresses not by ideas but by watching actual people wrestle with concrete problems, by teasing the reader with an unsettling mystery or two and, hopefully, by scaring the crap out of them along the way…