There is something primal and timeless within us when it comes to borderlands. They may be physical divides – a wall, an ocean, a gulf of empty space – or they can be lines drawn across maps by men in suits. They can be brief areas of no-man’s land, or they can be vast expanses of endless plain. But whatever they are, the frontier is a place where stories happen.
The old west, a place of lawlessness, where eager pioneers have moved far from civilisation, fleeing persecution, seeking freedom and something better in a cruel and dangerous land.
The hundred yards between trenches, where soldiers know that just a short sprint away, men with guns and blades would coldly take their lives.
The gulf of space above us, vast, infinite, and unreachable.
When I came to write Blackwing, I knew that there had to be a frontier. Frontiers are where action happens, where things come to a head. When the sum total of events is added together, it is along the frontier that world events are decided. Who governs the west? Can the Triple Entente be held? Will we colonise Mars? But they’re also a place where the small, personal details become ever more important. While the pilgrims crossed the prairies, it’s not the scale of migration that really reaches us. It’s the stories of broken wagon axles, of cholera, of the child that didn’t survive the night. It’s the woman standing nervously by her door with an unfamiliar gun when her husband doesn’t come back from the storm, it’s the raising of a new town in a nowhere-place with so much hope behind it, it’s the cruelty revealed by the greed for gold and the savagery of mankind in the absence of governance.
My great-grandfather, Charles Ellis, was in the British Royal Horse Artillery and fought in the first the first world war before being recalled to train engineers. In 1916 he fought in the Battle of the Somme, where on the first day alone, the British army suffered over 57,000 casualties, and by the end of the fighting over a million men were dead or wounded. They fought across a muddy frontier a few hundred yards of… nothing. Countless bullets, thundering artillery, the cries of the dead and dying all over worthless fields of shell-holes and barbed wire. But it was a frontier and it had to be assaulted. It had to be crossed. There’s no doubt that his experiences and stories there inspired the writing of the Misery. The twisted hell-scapes of the Misery that I’ve written about are a nightmare, but in truth, I expect that the Somme must have been so much worse.
There is something in a frontier that appeals to a certain kind of person: it says “Here I lie. Defeat me, if you can.” I guess that I’m one of those people. I like to be challenged, to push at the limits of what’s safe, what I know I’m capable of. My characters are those kinds of people too. They don’t want to lie down and take what’s coming across the void. They take the fight back into the Misery, though they know that it’s unconquerable and far beyond any of them to tame.
Ridley Scott may think of a frontier as the Unknown, that place beyond which our realm of reason and safety is darkened and lost. But, to me, the frontier is thrilling because we know exactly what it holds for us. It is the divide. A border between the world of living, civilised people, and the animal that lies within us all, the one that will come out when our need to survive is pushed to its limit.