“The Showstopper!”: Chapter 4

4

 

The esteemed Mr. Johnson C. DuBois, Esquire, owner of the Royale Theatre, was in a rather bad mood.

“This is disgraceful!” he bawled. “Unacceptable! I demand an answer at once! Do you hear me? At once! Who is responsible for this catastrophe?”

Andre Levash and the rest of the cast of The Hound of the Baskervilles shuffled their feet and tried very hard to avoid eye contact with their livid employer, mumbling incoherently about nothing in particular.

DuBois furiously stamped on the stage and stumbled to right himself as his foot broke through the splintered paneling with a crack, punching a jagged hole in the surface of the already battered platform.

“Just look at this place!” he raged, beside himself as he surveyed the carnage of the once-pristine auditorium. “My stage! My furniture!” He sniffed tearfully, dabbing at his eye with a handkerchief. “My chandelier!”

Daniels, who had never been terribly bright, made the mistake of speaking up first.

“Ah yes, the chandelier. I’m awfully sorry about that, Mr. DuBois. I always did think it was rather nice.”

“Rather nice?” the manager exploded, cowing Daniels into silence with a look that was terrifying to behold. “That crystal masterpiece was a gift from the crown prince of Denmark himself! It was worth more than any of you will make in the rest of your miserable lives! I should think you would be sorry!”

The cast shuffled some more and muttered a few noncommittal apologies.

“Enough!” snapped DuBois. “My theater is in shambles, and it’s going to cost me a fortune to repair and replace everything. All the props were demolished, and the company I rented them from wants ridiculous sums for compensation. What’s more, my financial backers have backed themselves right out of my business. I’ll have to find new ones if I ever want to see another show. And to top it all off, my credibility with the public has been shattered, and I haven’t the foggiest notion on how to get that back.”

Levash stepped forward, manufacturing the most patronizingly subservient face possible.

“Excuse me, Mr. DuBois, sir, but if I may…”

“You may not!”

Levash dropped the act and sulked while the other actors stared daggers at him.

“As I was saying,” DuBois continued, “I may not know how to get my public faith back, but I know a good place to start. You’re all fired. Clear out.”

Turmoil erupted on the stage.

“Fired?”

“What do you mean, fired?”

“You can’t fire us!”

“We haven’t even done one show!”

“This is outrageous!”

“Shut up!” roared DuBois, silencing them. “I can, I will, and I have. I need a new crowd of faces on this stage if I ever want to see my patrons again. But before I do,” he added darkly, stalking across the platform and staring down each sweating actor and actress in turn, “I want an answer. Who is to blame for this mess?”

He folded his arms and tapped his foot expectantly.

“Well? Cat got your tongue, you gutless bunch of dandies? Speak up!”

Daniels spoke again, carefully considering his response.

“Wait a moment. If we tell you what happened, then you won’t fire us?”

DuBois shook his head.

“Oh no, Mr. Daniels. Don’t misunderstand me. You’re going to get fired one way or the other. I just thought it would a kind Christian gesture on my part to offer you all a chance at clean consciences before I boot you out the door.”

“Then why should we answer you?” sniffed Levash, any mask of respect for his employer gone.

“Because,” growled DuBois, shoving his beet-red face belligerently into the actor’s, “if I find out you’ve been holding out on me, there will be no place on this street you can hide. I’ll drum you out of the business and string you up from the rafters!”

The cast stared at the floor in uncomfortable silence. They knew he would do it, too.

“So come on then!” cried DuBois. “Out with it! Speak up, damn you!”

“Well, sir, if I may, I think it may have been the…the…” Daniels said, trying to get up the nerve to utter the words. “The Showstopper, sir?”

The manager smacked his forehead in disgust.

“Of course it was the Showstopper, you imbecile! Who else could have done all this?” He gestured around them. “No, I know perfectly well who committed the crime. But like any other criminal, the Showstopper doesn’t do these things for his health. He must have had some motivation to attack our production.”

“Like what, sir?” asked one of the female cast members, a minor housemaid. Levash wasn’t quite sure, but he seemed to recall sleeping with her at some point.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said DuBois sarcastically. “How about revenge, for starters?”

“Revenge?” Daniels repeated. “What do you mean, sir?”

Levash decided he just couldn’t stand the stupidity of these people for another minute.

“He means that the Showstopper or whoever employed him had a grudge, you half-wit,” he snapped, his harshness making Daniels cringe. “Someone was trying to pay someone else back by making this show fail.”

“Very astute, Andre,” said DuBois, his eyebrows raised. “I wouldn’t have expected such an intelligent remark from you. Tell me, do you have something you wish to share with the rest of us?”

The rest of the cast stared suspiciously at Levash, making his skin crawl.

“Aside from my intellect, which is obviously far superior to these fools?” he said, affecting an air of indifference. “Hardly. I don’t make a habit of associating with common thugs.”

“Come now,” probed DuBois. “The Showstopper may be a thug, but I think we can agree he is far from common.”

His eyes narrowed.

“I seem to recall that you were quite angry when I cut down your lines in the first act and refused you your own costuming and makeup staff. You’ve disagreed with me on many matters during your employment here. Surely you had adequate motive for an act of vengeance?”

Levash had to work very hard to keep from soiling his trousers in fright.

“You have proof, do you?” he babbled furiously. “Conclusive, undeniable proof linking me to the Showstopper? Perhaps that I am the Showstopper? Well, have you?”

He jabbed a finger at the manager.

“You have nothing on me, and you know it. Besides, am I really the only one here who had motive?”

Levash stalked over to Daniels, who eyed him nervously.

“Daniels here has had it in for me ever since I was given the part of Holmes which he so desperately wanted.” He smirked. “And rightfully so, I must say, my good man. Your audition was atrocious.”

“That’s a damned lie!” Daniels exclaimed, now finding himself on the hot seat. “I’m a good actor! I deserved that part! You only got it because you paid off the casting director!”

“And so,” Levash overrode him, “is it really too far-fetched to assume that if I could be driven to destroy my own performance over a few meaningless lines and private attendants, isn’t it similarly possible that this bumbling idiot could resort to such methods because of his anger at me? He knew very well that it would spell the end of my career here and would mean lead roles for him in the future.” He smiled while Daniels quaked in his boots, on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but your sad little plan has backfired.”

“Well…I…err…” Daniels stammered, sweating bullets. “What about Mrs. Johnston, then?”

The older woman next to him gasped and stared at him as though he had slapped her.

“She’s hated Mr. DuBois since the first day of rehearsal when he bawled her out for her sloppy diction!” the weighty actor blurted out. “She’s the one!”

Instantly, the auditorium was filled by angry shouts and bitter accusations as the one-time cast members turned on each other. DuBois had to shout himself nearly hoarse to restore order.

“Right! That’s enough of this, then!” he said with finality. “I will not allow this disgusting witch-hunt to go on any longer. You all make me sick! You can finish each other off in the streets for all I care. Now, get out of my theater! Out, out, out!”

Still grumbling half-heartedly, the actors filed offstage to pack their belongings.

DuBois took another look around at his once-proud theater and sighed.

“Wilkins!”

A young man stepped out from backstage, where he had been eavesdropping discreetly for the past several minutes. He was of medium height and had a slight but muscular build, with calloused hands from years of grueling cleanup jobs and unruly brown hair that strongly resembled the head of the mop in his hand. His dress consisted of faded blue coveralls, with aged, scuffed boots, and a worn work cap clamped over his head.

He doffed the cap respectfully at DuBois, revealing an almost perfectly nondescript face, spotted all over with the grease and grime his life entailed.

“Yeah, boss. What can I do for you?”

The manager regarded the shattered glass, the torn backdrop, the broken panels, and the various pieces of props and other unidentifiable objects strewn about the stage.

“Just…just clean this up, Wilkins,” he said, and walked off in the direction of his office, temporarily defeated.

“Yes, sir. I’ll get right on it.”

The janitor walked behind the curtain and returned a moment later with a bucket full of dingy water. He stuffed the mop head into the water and slapped it down again, attempting to brush the glass fragments into a neat pile.

At the same time, Andre Levash, still fuming and newly unemployed, stalked onto the stage, searching for something upon which to vent his anger. He strolled casually up to the unsuspecting Wilkins, a thin and dangerous smile on his lips.

“So, boy,” he said. “Just because you’re that old walrus’s pet, you think you can laugh at us getting sacked?”

Wilkins shrugged, trying to avoid confrontation.

“I wouldn’t know, sir. My old mother always told me not to laugh at other folks’ bad luck.”

Levash nodded, and then without warning lashed out with his foot. The water bucket was kicked over with a clang, its contents spilling across the stage. Wilkins rushed to pick it up and stop the water from running onto the carpet.

“Confound it!” he exclaimed. “Now I have to walk down to the corner and get more water. These boards warp, you know.”

Levash seized the young man by the shirt collar and glared at him.

“Don’t tell me what the boards do, you little ingrate!” he seethed. “I know you think you’ve better than me. All of you do. But no one, and I mean no one, gets the last laugh on Andre Levash! Do you hear? No one!”

Wilkins ground his teeth, but did his best to keep a civil tongue and not make the situation any worse.

“I’m sorry, sir, but may I get back to my cleaning now? If I don’t step on it, this is going to take all night, and Mr. DuBois will put my butt in traction.”

“Nuts to your cleaning, nuts to Mr. DuBois, and nuts to this theater!” Levash shouted, shoving Wilkins aside. “This doesn’t hurt me. I’m a top-billed actor. I can just go find another job at another theater. I’ll still be rich and famous. And as for you, you’ll be nothing. You’ll always be nothing. Just a sad little boy cleaning up after the real men in this world. Remember that.”

The actor turned and strode off the stage, not forgetting to send the empty bucket flying again with another well-placed kick.

Wilkins stared after Levash for a moment, and then returned to his cleaning, but not before a small, secretive smile flitted across his face as if he understood a joke the actor had failed to grasp.

The Struggles of World-Building in Fiction

And now for something completely different.

*cues “Philadelphia March” music*

But seriously though, for this post I thought I’d take a break from all my blabbing on about “The Showstopper!” to talk about something a little different. But in case you haven’t heard, my debut novel, “The Showstopper!” is currently available on Amazon.com and the Kindle store, plus I’m publishing it online, chapter by chapter, every week for now on this website. You should read it.

Okay, really, I’m done now. For those of you who may not be that closely associated with my writing process, over the past couple of years I’ve been working on another story entirely unrelated to “The Showstopper!”, with the working title of “Camp Ferguson”. It’s inspired by a lot of things, but mostly that magical cult classic series “Harry Potter”. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

First, a brief background on what the heck this book is about anyway. I’ve never been a huge fan of “Harry Potter”: there, I said it. I’m not saying they’re bad books by any stretch, but I’ve just never really cared for them, despite my love of fantasy and sci-fi stuff. One thing I did love about them, though, are the uncountable parodies of them that have risen up over the years, and I’ve always kind of wanted to do one of my own. I was also very much looking to try my hand at humorous writing, and thought this might be the place to do it, but I promised myself I wouldn’t be content with simple parody. If I was going to do this, it had to be good. It had to be original. It had to be a spin on the teen wizard genre that no one else had done before.

My first logical move was to set it in the U.S. instead of Britain: there’s just so much more material for cultural satire here, in my opinion. I also decided that the wizard characters in the story would be older, so as to dip into the somewhat raunchy college-and-above humor scene, a la “Animal House” and TV shows like “The League” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”. But I was stuck on a potential setting until I saw the awesome Wes Anderson movie “Moonrise Kingdom” and fell in love with the raggedy crew of Khaki Scouts. That’s when it hit me: instead of a ritzy, classy school for wizards like Hogwarts, what if I dropped them into the other end of the spectrum and put them in a place that’s a cross between Boy Scouts and Army boot camp? Plus, I could then also draw from the humor of “MASH”, one of my other favorite shows. It seemed like the perfect plan.

The name of the book comes from the main character, Jack Ferguson, a gifted young wizard who is also a huge slacker and an incorrigible prankster. Upon coming to the camp that’s the main setting of the story, he makes friends with a rag-tag crew of geeks, freaks, and rejects who eventually band together to take on the forces of evil at this camp: a.k.a., the overbearing, authoritarian Scoutmaster, his greasy yes-man assistant, and a group of more privileged and higher-ranking scouts who want to keep everyone else under their thumb. Like I said, “Animal House” factors into the plotline A LOT. Sorry not sorry.

Anyway, as you may have guessed by the fact that “Camp Ferguson” isn’t on the shelves yet, it never ended up happening. I decided I just wasn’t happy with the way the story turned out after numerous re-writes and benched the whole project indefinitely. I’ll go back to it eventually, but I figured it might be a good move to put it aside for a while because it was becoming very frustrating for me.

Which brings me to the main purpose of my entry today: discussing world-building in a world of magic. See, part of the reason “Camp Ferguson” didn’t turn out like I wanted, as I now realize, is because I didn’t put enough thought ahead of time into just what this fictional magical world would be like. One of my biggest beefs with “Harry Potter” is that, while the wizarding world is portrayed in great detail, we never really see how it interacts with the REAL world and all those societal institutions we know so well. Thus, one of my goals in “Camp Ferguson” is to blend the normal (mundane) and magical worlds together so that they seem incredibly intertwined, while at the same time invisible to everyone who doesn’t have magic. Trust me, it’s not as hard as it sounds. It’s harder.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Military

I don’t know about you, but when I attempted to think about the existence of magic in the world with a “realistic” point of view, the first thing that jumped to mind was how much it would change the game militarily. In the world of “Camp Ferguson”, the primary driving tool for the recruitment of young wizards is to drive them into military service in one form or another; hence the boot camp situation. The hierarchy of the Bureau of Magical Affairs (which I’ll get to in a minute) is made up very much like the military, with ranked officers, the topmost of whom is called “Scout Marshal”. Other inferior grade officers under the Scout Marshal are Scoutmasters and Assistant Scoutmasters, who may have control of a camp in the camp system or may have been given it as an honorary title. There is also a governing body called the Scoutmasters’ Council, made up of many of these people. Finally, there are magical units in all military branches (secretly of course), as well as in the police, but I really haven’t hashed out details on those just yet.

Government

Okay, this is the one I’ve put the most thought into. In my world, there exists a secret government agency called the BMA, or the Bureau of Magical Affairs, which handles all things magical in the country. Instead of having branch offices all across the U.S., the main BMA office is a gigantic complex that, through magic, is only accessible in another plane of existence, and has access points on the 13th floor of every building everywhere (hence why buildings don’t have 13th floors). As mentioned before, the hierarchy of the BMA is very militaristic, with the exception of its head, who is always a civilian, as compared to the mainly military backgrounds of all the other officials. As with most government agencies (he said, with satire intended), the BMA runs on inefficiency, bureaucracy, and mountains upon mountains of irrelevant red tape and paperwork. I really want to make the point that wizards, despite having magical powers, have just the same concerns and issues that normal people (here referred to as “mundanes”) have. For a bit of history, the BMA was founded in the 1930s by Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the “alphabet soup” agencies of the New Deal, in response to outcry from the wizard community about their lack of legal protections and civil rights up to that point. The BMA is tasked with protecting, regulating, and monitoring the magical community, up to the point of spying programs like the NSA, CIA, or the “men in black”-type agents they use to track down underage wizards and take them away to camp. Paradoxically, the vast majority of employees at the BMA, including most field agents, are not actually magical themselves.

Business

This is one area that I haven’t really given a lot of attention to, but that I plan to going forward. Obviously with the whole government satire thing I have going on here, I’d like to also put it out there that, much like real life, monied interests and businesses pervade every level of decision-making and government in the magical world. One example of this is how the head of the BMA, as of the first book, is Marcus Masterson, the scion of the Masterson family, which is one of the oldest, richest, and most powerful magical families around. I’d also love to joke around with magic and Wall Street because, let’s face it, no one really understands how all that stuff works.

Sports

I focus on this a little bit over the course of the story, and while I’m not looking to make it a major point, I would like it to mean something. Rather than inventing a crazy made-up sport for wizards to play like Quidditch in “Harry Potter”, the established sport of the magical world in “Camp Ferguson” is baseball. However, it is common practice for participating wizards to use magic during games and effectively “cheat” by doing it, which is something that is not discouraged and actually encouraged at points. Therefore, the whole sport is shown to dissolve in a way as creative cheating has become the whole point of the game, along with teams’ attempts to counteract or better the cheating of their opponents.

Religion

This is the area I’ve probably focused the least on, and it’s something I’d really like to pursue a bit more, especially given that I’d eventually like the camp’s student chaplain to be one of my characters at some point. I know that in one of the books my characters will have to deal with the Cult of the Phoenix, a magical apocalyptic cult that’s sort of related to religion, but only in the vaguest of ways. I also know a lot of the more senior wizard characters often use “Merlin” as a synonym for “God”, but I’m not sure where I want to go with that. Really can’t say I have many ideas here.

Race/Gender Equality

While the “Harry Potter” series didn’t really show this off a lot, I always kind of thought of that world of wizards being a lot more open, accepting, and liberal philosophy-wise than the real world, seeing as how the wizards themselves are outcasts from traditional society in a lot of ways. In the world of “Camp Ferguson”, however, I thought I would turn this perception on its head. What if wizards, because they had magic and can do things most other people can’t, were even more bigoted and prejudiced than normal people? I haven’t really gotten into specifics, but I plan to explore this a bit, especially in relation to some of my characters who are minorities, and one who is gay. The way I see it right now, the wizarding world should be very behind the times when it comes to equality, especially in the conflict between men and women (women, or witches, are still looked down upon in general), same-sex relationships, and race relations. Also, I’ve thrown in quite a few subtle and not-so-subtle hints that some of the “bad” characters, especially the Scoutmaster and his henchmen, see magical people as a superior race to mundanes, and think that wizards should rule society in a vaguely sort-of-creepy Hitler Youth vibe, and spend a lot of their time promoting this kind of propaganda. I wouldn’t want to get too deep into that part though, at least not at first, because of how dark and heavy that could get.

History/Society

Again, this portion would take a while to get into in great detail, but I’ve had some ideas. First of all, part of the humor could come from established historical events and famous people being recast as wizards, or as having happened because of wizards. My short list of secret wizards right now includes Babe Ruth, Mick Jagger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nicolas Cage, and Morgan Freeman. I think those kind of speak for themselves. Wizards who don’t go into the military I could also see as gravitating toward law and medical professions, for obvious reasons. Also, this might be the segment to explain the whole “camp” system I’ve been talking about. The story takes place at Camp Prospero, which is just one of three camps across the country where wizards are trained. This normally happens over the summer for a three or four-year program (haven’t decided which yet) so they can still go to college like normal kids. The other camps are Camp Gandalf and Camp Merlin; as you can see, all named after pop culture wizards. What camp you get into is based on standardized test scores. Camp Merlin is considered the best and gets the best treatment from the government, followed by Camp Gandalf, and then Camp Prospero at the bottom of the barrel. The camps have a vaguely-established rivalry that I haven’t really gotten a chance to explore that much yet. Social division is also enforced within the camps: at Camp Prospero, scouts are divided into four troops, mostly based on their background. Griffin Troop is for ROTC members and jocks, Quetzal Troop takes mostly kids from rich and influential families, Sphinx Troop is full of geeks and socially-awkward nerds, and Jackalope Troop, which most of my main characters are in, is made up of rejects and losers who don’t really belong anywhere else. As mentioned before, a lot of the classes the scouts take turn out to be pro-wizard propaganda, as magical officials have rewritten much of history to suit their own self-empowering narrative, which makes the characters question the value of their magical education. Also, there are very real and serious consequences for wizards who wash out of the camp program. First, they have to go to remedial instruction, and if that doesn’t work, they get put away without trial in a specialized “containment facility”, kind of like Guantanamo Bay. The logic by the government is that wizards who can’t control their abilities properly are dangerous and can’t be allowed out in public, but the social injustice of it all is a big point of hypocrisy and conflict for the characters in the story.

Science/Technology

I’m planning on exploring a lot of this through one of my side characters, who is an inventor, scientist, and generally a child prodigy. He’s one of a certain type of wizard who can’t actually use magic themselves, but who can sense it and build artifacts or devices that can harness magical energy. He ends up constructing several such devices throughout the series, including magical gauntlets, a wrist-mounted magical manipulator, and even a magic-powered battle suit to keep up with the more powerful wizards around him. I’m portraying magic as a universal force, just like gravity, but one that most people just don’t or can’t accept exist because it doesn’t conform to any known laws of physics. This came from my interest in exploring the concept of a wizard who had the gift of magic, but didn’t believe in it because he can’t accept that magic is real, and nearly drives himself crazy with denial. In the end, though, my character will come out of the problem stronger because he is now driven by science to understand how magic works and to deconstruct its mystical nature.

Nature of Magic

Just a few more notes on the nature of magic here. In my world, most wizards find out they have magic around the end of puberty and the beginning of adulthood: i.e., just entering college or in their 18-19 age range. This starts with uncontrollable bouts of magic and making things happen that most people would say are impossible, which allows the government to track them down and put them into the camp system to contain them. All wizards carry wands, because without a wand to focus a person’s magical energy, that magic would be dangerously unstable and could get out of control. Some more senior wizards also use staffs, for more control over more powerful forms of magic. Wizards also associate themselves with one of the four major elements, a la “Avatar: The Last Airbender”: earth, wind, fire, or water, which allows them to manipulate the chosen element in all of its forms and control related types of magic and/or emotional states. Earth is the most common, followed by water, with fire being rare and wind being rarer still. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Fire—destruction, lightning, magma, anger

Water—inner peace, illusion, invisibility, ice

Wind—capricious, teleportation, tricky

Earth—solidity, earthquakes, strength enhancement, defense

I’m still working on these definitions, of course. Also, again very much like in “Avatar”, there is a legend in the magical world about the “Archmage”, a wizard who has power over all four elements and can bend them all to their will to champion the magical world at times of great crisis in history. How does that figure into the story, you ask? Sorry, no spoilers.

Again, this is just the start of my magical world-building, and some of these categories are much more well-thought-out than others. If anyone has any suggestions for any of these and how I can relate magic to the “real” world or established things in life and culture, please feel free to share.