Authors are inspired by great works of art. But is it also possible to be inspires by… not-so-great art as well? Nicholas Kaufmann would argue it is, and explains how a throwaway bit in a B-movie ultimately inspired his latest novel, Dying Is My Business.
I think anybody would be hard pressed to argue that Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is the best of the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad trilogy. Sure, it’s a passable and occasionally thrilling adventure, but it’s no 7th Voyage, or even Golden Voyage. (Although it does feature a post-Doctor Who Patrick Troughton, so it definitely has that in its favor!) And yet, the film’s influence on Dying Is My Business is enormous in ways I didn’t recognize until late in the process. Believe me, no one was more surprised than I was!
In the novel, magic is a natural, albeit secret, element. It’s also extremely dangerous. You can’t carry magic inside you without it driving you mad. It twists your mind and mutates your body, often into something monstrous and inhuman. This is known as “the infection.” The only safe way to handle magic without becoming infected is by containing safely inside a protected vessel, such as a charm or an artifact. Otherwise, if the magic gets inside you, it corrupts you. There’s no known cure. Unfortunately, there are a lot more infected magicians in the world than uninfected. Our heroes are vastly outnumbered. And yet, for all its inherent danger, magic may be the only way to protect themselves against those already infected by it.
This was where my memories of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger began to drift surreptitiously into the writing process. In the film, the evil sorceress Zenobia chases Sinbad across the ocean, determined to stop him from reaching Hyperborea and saving his friend Prince Kassim. At one point, Zenobia transforms herself into a seagull so she can fly to Sinbad’s ship and spy on him. However, when she returns to her own ship, something goes wrong with the spell meant to transform her back. She manages to become human again, but not completely. She winds up retaining one hideous, clawed seagull foot.
The scene shocked me when I first saw it as a kid. Even then I thought to myself, This never would have happened if Zenobia weren’t messing around with bad magic! Somehow, unexpectedly, that thought came back to me more than three decades later when I was writing Dying Is My Business, even if I didn’t recognize Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger as source material right away. (Once I realized its profound influence, I decided to pay it more direct homage by naming one of the novel’s characters Melanthius, the name of Patrick Troughton’s character in the film.)
But I don’t consider toxic magic to be the novel’s Big Idea. After all, this is hardly the first novel where magic is presented as extremely dangerous. Rather, I consider the reason why magic is so dangerous to be the Big Idea.
Though Dying Is My Business takes place in a contemporary and recognizable New York City, the world of the novel is very different from ours. Their world is watched over by the Guardians, eight immortal beings who, at the dawn of time, were granted dominion over the eight elements: air, earth, water, fire, metal, wood, time, and magic. Their job is to maintain the balance of all things. But a thousand years ago, the Guardian of Magic disappeared. No one knows what happened or where the Guardian went, but the sudden absence caused a cataclysmic event known as the Shift. I’ll let one of the characters, Thornton Redler, explain:
“It’s not safe out there, and it’s getting worse by the day. There are forces at work that are supposed to keep everything in balance, but I’ll be damned if they’re doing their job anymore. Sure, once upon a time everything was supposedly in perfect balance, the light and the dark. Then the Shift happened, and everything went to hell. It tipped the balance. The darkness got stronger, and the light got weaker. Over time, magic grew darker and darker. You can’t carry it inside you anymore the way magicians used to. If magic gets inside you it infects you, corrupts you, turns you dark. It changes you into something wrong. I don’t even know if it can be stopped anymore, or if things can be put back to rights.”
I created a gritty, dangerous world in Dying Is My Business where dark magic turns people into insane, inhuman creatures because a cosmic, godlike entity abandoned his post—and somehow I have a cheesy children’s adventure film from 1977 to thank for it. I always knew I loved Ray Harryhausen’s movies, especially the Sinbad films. I always knew they influenced who I became on some level. I guess I just never realized how much they influenced me, or how deep that influence ran.