Like many of the stories I’ve written, “Old Country,” recently adapted for the Consternation of Monsters Podcast, has its origins in a shared fictional universe created by me and several friends during our college years in the early to mid-1990s. We were big fans of the I.C.E. Heroes Role Playing system used by the game Champions. (Specifically, we were playing the 4th edition of the system, which had then recently been published in a big blue hard cover book with extraordinarily sketchy binding, resulting, almost universally, in what “handy pull-out sections” when that binding failed. I should add that my own personal copy of the book remains completely intact, but this has more to do with my hardly ever bothering to open it then or now. But I digress.) Champions, and the Heroes RPG system it used, was a game designed to let you simulate super heroic battles on paper and within your imagination. Much like any other role playing game, the players played characters who went on adventures designed by a central game master, who subsequently ran all the non-player characters, both villainous and non, who the players would encounter and often fight. We eschewed the use of the store-bought Champions characters, of course, in favor of characters of our own creation. For our own superheroic characters we chose to imagine what we ourselves would be like were we equipped with super powers of our own. So I played a version of myself, Eric Fritzius, who had the perhaps unfortunate luck to have been consulted on directions by a crew of lost alien in a big black space ship, and who, in the process, was accidentally injured mortally. Guilt-ridden, the aliens, the Tentriconians, crammed his consciousness into a new body composed of their primary form of technology, a wondrous substance called 5thMatter. Only it didn’t seem to work, so they dumped the body and fled the planet. (There is, of course, more to it than that.) Eric awoke, days later, to find news reports of a strange ebony-colored being floating around his college campus, and to subsequently find that this being was himself in a different form. Naturally, he became a super hero and joined with a team of fellow super-heroic college students called Avatar.
“What what?” you say. “Avatar? There are only a billion other franchises using that term. Can’t you guys be more original?” Well, in 1991 we were the major holders of the title, as far as we were concerned. James Cameron and the Last Airbender folks came along well over a decade later. So shut it.
Avatar, we decided early on, was a legacy team and ours was the third incarnation of it. The first existed in the 1920s, the second in the `60s through the early `70s, and then on to us starting in 1991. Similarly, our major enemies–a technocratic semi-terrorist organization called Chess–had also existed in one form or another in each of these eras. My friend Sujay Shaunak (Mobius) was our primary GM, mapping out some challenges for us to face, keeping long-term storytelling plans close to the vest so that the various plot points could be revealed along the way in a very comic-style sequential storytelling style. Occasionally others among us would GM, primarily Joe Evans and C. Marcus Hammack. They too had their own little corners of the universe separate from the adventures Sujay was leading us on. (This also meant Sujay could actually play his character once in a while.) They tended to come up with their own villainous teams for us to fight which did not overlap with the backstories of the other GMs, so as not to step on anyone’s toes. I wound up becoming a defacto 4th co-developer of this shared universe due to my penchant for world-building. I set about creating a database of all the characters and concepts we’d created, along with a timeline to keep our adventures all straight. While I was at it, I sketched in some details of the previous incarnations of our team, creating most of the characters on those teams in the process and fleshing out the backstory of our universe. Eventually, as our characters did a bit of time traveling and so forth, further historical events were added to the timeline and database. I took a special shine to one of the characters Marcus created, a mysterious little old lady he called Madam Z who I outright stole from him and imagined much of her backstory. Wrote a handful of short stories about her as well, one of which hinted at possibilities of this backstory, though revealed nothing too tangible. She tends to wander through other stories, though, and appears more than twice in A Consternation of Monsters. So I became the 4th guardian of what was then called the Avatar Universe.
What does this have to do with mobsters with mystic ties in 1983? Glad you asked.
Having determined that the second team called Avatar had disbanned in the early `70s, we felt it necessary to explain why they would have done this if Chess was still around–which they clearly were since we were fighting them in the `90s. Our solution was that Chess had only seemingly been defeated in the 1970s, but reared their head again in the 1980s, slowly and quietly seeking to wrest control of organized crime in our home turf city of New Auckland, Va. We figured they would have overwhelmed the mob of the era had they wanted to. Trouble was, Joe’s part of our shared universe revolved largely around a mob in the early 1990s that still existed and were not run by Chess. So I came up with the notion that the mob of the 1980s wound up bringing in reinforcements to fight off the advance of Chess. And these reinforcements, I imagined, would be called the Spirit Syndicate. I further imagined that this was not the first time in the history of the Sicilian Mafia that this had occurred. I speculated that it could even have happened centuries back, during the formative days of what would become this Thing of Ours.
The original version of “Old Country” told that story, but it appears in much the same manner as you see it in the published version. Other than a possible allusion to unnamed forces stepping in and messing with the “family” business, not much differs. I was mainly interested in telling the story of Martin Riscilli receiving a phone call alerting him to his impending doom and being forced by circumstances to try the craziest thing he can think of, following the advice of his crazy old grandmothers. The outcome of the original story implies that the forces he summons to help him might be sticking around for a while, which could potentially lead to a new renaissance for the local mob against any forces that might be trying to subvert them–be they technocratic semi-terrorist organizations or human men and women within an organized crime family looking to consolidate power, as the case may be. The story could still work in either scenario, but from my point of view now we’re going with the later.
I even began toying with the idea that this story could be set in my new home state of West Virginia, as there is a certain amount of organized crime activity such as this in parts of the state. One reviewer already picked up on this, though there are scarcely any hints toward that in the story itself.
“Old Country” ends on something of a cliffhanger. It implies there is more story to come and was designed to allow the reader to fill in what that story might be. That’s kind of my philosophy in short story writing. Of course, I have my own version of what that story will be (“New Country”), as well as the story that comes after it (“Other Country”). What will Martin do now that he’s been presented with tremendous power and a painful loss? After all, if Jimmy Jambalaya made this move on Martin, the son of a valued mob soldier, would it really have been done without some degree of consent from those at a higher rank? And what is his sister Rachel’s role in all this? She was, after all, another recipient of the stories of Sparrow Salvatore and Natale; she too received a birthright. What does the future hold for 1983?