To begin, a definition: “Triptychs” are typically three-paneled paintings or a photograph series that explores a unified theme in different ways.
The triptych of this collection is three short stories: “Long Live the King,” “The Deposition,” and “Lunar Seas.” Thematically, there could be several broad-based connections between the three stories, as they each cover a range of human emotions and relationships. Other reviewers have put forth their own theories. To me, the triptych here is unified as Past, Present, and Future explorations of what is most “savage” (read primitive, archetypal, low-vibrational) in Humankind’s relationships to its dark secrets as they are expressed in both our codified, societal Myths and the ones we individually construct.
The cover design, by Keri Knutson, creates an initial unification of the stories by overlaying key elements from each on a macabre human skull. The chosen symbols could be used as a start, if the reader so chooses.
The first story, “Long Live the King,” opens with a quote from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a large volume of comparative religion published in 1890 that includes case studies on the world-wide phenomena of tribal kings being ritually killed when they began to show signs of weakness, physically or in the mind. The story is written with a syntax that situates the reader firmly in the ancient world of ritual and myth, which makes for a challenging read (almost like trying to read the transcript of a dream-in-progress) but well worth the effort expended.
Frazer’s book also examined rites of passage, which is another unifying element across this triptych.
My biggest takeaway from “Long Live the King” is the idea that the kings of old were all too human in their signing on, knowing the cost, and then resisting the contract to be killed as the time drew near. It’s all too rare that this aspect of these tribal conditions is explored; the only other instance that comes to mind is an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, from the mid-1970s, in an episode guest-starring Eric Estrada.
The second story, “The Deposition,” is a fun read in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, where Hell is situated as a bureaucratic nightmare where managers and case workers struggle to win souls of humans that are just clever enough to sometimes win. Ball’s story focuses on connection through the dream state, where various strategies are employed to keep the Dreamer from realizing it is a dream, or waking up. The story drips with the boredom and frustration of the average worker inherent in so much British writing and music, from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to The Police song “Synchronicity II.”
The third story, set in the Future, is a dystopian tale of an off-Earth colony where education, relationships, and even one’s inclinations toward free thought are carefully controlled by an oligarchy of corporate/government interests even more intertwined than they are today. A little bit 1984, the film Equilibrium, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and Rush’s 2112 concept album, this story evoked the clearest visual imagery for me. It is the stuff of which good film adaptations are made. It has elements of romance, rebellion, and a terrible aloneness made manifest in the main character. This is also the longest of the three stories, taking up half the book.
As I have processed the stories, and further thought about the idea of the triptych, I have come to realize that the stories function like Russian nesting dolls, which accounts for them getting larger as they progress, because the Future contains the Past and the Present and the Present contains the Past, while the Past itself sits alone and often disconnected, distanced from us through its archaic language and rituals.
Which is, of course, not the case at all, as this collection shows.
In Savages, Ball has accomplished a great deal in its forty or so pages, not the least of which is showcasing his ability to write in a wide range of voices, each particularly suited to the position of Past/Present/Future and the needed tonal weight of the tale being told.
If you consider each story carefully on its own, and then together as the triptych, you will find that, in all of the desperate darkness in which the characters of the stories reside, there is a speck of light, which, when followed deeply enough, becomes Hope.
TITLE: Savages: A Triptych
AUTHOR: Brendan Ball