The Black Cauldron: Darkest Disney Movie Ever

The Cauldron

The Early 80’s was a magical time when kids movies like  NeverEnding Story, The Last Unicorn, The Dark Crystal, and Secret of NIMH all subscribed to the theory that the most effective way to entertain children is by scaring the living crap out of them.    Not to be out-shined by any one else, Disney tried their hand at terrifying children, too.  After some test runs with Watcher in the Woods, and Dragonslayer, they perfected their sinister craft and laid down the child-scaring law with the darkest Disney movie of all time, The Black Cauldron.

black_cauldron_posterThe poster is about as cheerful as this movie gets


The movie opens with a tale of a king who was so cruel and evil that even the gods feared him, so the threw him alive into a molten crucible to hold his demonic soul, and forming the Black Cauldron (One minute into the movie we have tales of throwing people into molten iron.).

Fast forward to “present day” and we meet Taran, an assistant pig keeper who protects a magic pig that knows where the cauldron is hidden.  Because the evil Horned King is after the cauldron so that he may summon a deathless army, Taran, Princess Eilonwy, a pathologically lying minstrel, and an annoying creature named Gurgi (who is essentially Sméagol mated with a schnauzer), quest to find the cauldron before the Horned King can get it.

So far, this sounds a lot like Star Wars.  Nothing too dark in that.  Taran even has a light saber glowing sword that can cut through anything (which he stole from a corpse).  But hold on, this is about to get a whole lot darker…



the-black-cauldron-brightBright and cheerful = 5%

black cauldron castleHeavy Metal album art = 95%

Disney movies (at least the good ones) all have dark scenes, and I don’t just mean dark-theme, I mean visually dark and uncomfortable scenes.  But the Black Cauldron ups that by making every piece of this movie foreboding and bleak.  Even the normally bright and cheery scenes have a darker quality than other animated movies.  They called this The Black Cauldron and by-god Disney wanted some blackness.  That being said, the art in this movie is extremely good.  Disney spared no expense in hiring the best animators to show your children the blackest pits of their souls.



The villain is a terrifying creature called the Horned King.  The best way to describe him is to take Skeletor from He-Man and Darkness from Legend then mix and concentrate only the scariest parts.  Disney chose actor John Hurt to lend his gravelly voice to their perfect evil overlord.


Most Disney villains have a light moment, such as a joke at their expense or maybe a funny expression.  But not the Horned King.  His always serious and always scary.



The Black Cauldron was the first Disney animated feature with no singing.  Our hero never sings how misunderstood and different he is.  Our villain never sings about his nefarious plans.  Singing lightens the mood, and Disney wanted none of that.

Black Cauldron Dead RoomInstead of singing about it, the Horned King just monologues to thousands of rotting corpses about his evil plot.




Once the Horned King gets his claws on the Cauldron, he creates his undying army out of the mountain of bodies he keeps lying around.  Now alive, terrifying, and insanely evil, his Cauldron Born (Sorry, another Heavy Metal band already took that sweet name) immediately kill and devour(probably) the Horned King’s living and loyal army.  They die screaming.



In the end, The Horned King dies.  Now many Disney villains die, but rarely is that death the kind of death normally reserved for Nazis in Indiana Jones movies.  Namely, having the flesh graphically stripped from his bones as he screams.





So you’re probably thinking, “Yeah yeah, I get it, Seth.  This movie is a bit dark.  But that doesn’t make it darker than the others.”

OK, but how many children’s movies have you seen where a character kills themselves because they have no friends?


During the climax, when the Horned King has summoned an army of skeletal warriors to murder everyone in their path, Taran volunteers to destroy the army the only way possible, by selflessly throwing himself into The Black Cauldron, and dying.  Gurgi stops him, saying that Taran shouldn’t kill himself because he has many friends.  Since Gurgi has no friends, he should die instead.  And with that uplifting message, Gurgi kills himself.  That’s right, a Disney character outright commits suicide because the world is a better place without him.

For obvious reasons, The Black Cauldron was a box office bomb.  It’s only started gaining a cult following, mostly from the generation that grew up scarred by it.  And it’s actually a very enjoyable movie and I plan on reading Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Pydain novels on which it was based.

“Escape into a world of darkness…”
Can’t say they didn’t warn you.




Journey of The Black Raven


The upcoming release of Mountain of Daggers is a dream come true.  A dream I once feared would never happen.  But like it’s titular hero, it has overcome all obstacles.  In honor of its release, I wanted to share the Black Raven’s journey.

The Black Raven started with a little short story I penned.  Birth of the Black Raven follows a sailor\pickpocket named Ahren who is framed for murder by a nobleman.  Trapped in a foreign city, injured, and unable to speak the language, he finds himself under the care of a crime lord.  Ahren manages a level of vengeance, but the cost is that he’s pressed into the service of the Tyenee, an international crime syndicate.  I intentionally left an open ending to the story, and swore I would never continue it as a series (obviously, I was wrong).

A year or more later, I went to Venice.  While there, I was inspired to write a thieving story, and the Black Raven was the perfect hero for it.  The story would take place years after the first, and Ahren would now be a master thief.  Race for the Night Ruby is still one of my favorite Black Raven adventures.  After it was completed, I had no choice but to continue the series.  I was hooked.

Porvov300dpi4x6My plan was to publish a series of adventures in various fantasy magazines, and anthologies, then eventually publishing a collection.  I submitted Birth of the Black Raven to a few different magazines, but no one wanted it.  Eventually, I submitted it to Flashing Swords Magazine.  The editor, Crystalwizard, sent me a message saying that she loved it, but the open ending (the one that I thought was brilliant) would just leave the reader feeling unfulfilled.  She suggested I either change the ending or write a series.  I told her that I had a series planned and had six stories already.  Intrigued, she requested the second story.  I did, and she sent me a contract almost immediately.  The Porvov Switch was published in Flashing Swords #9 in 2008.  MikO’s illustration of Ahren wasn’t exactly true to how I imagined him, but that didn’t change the joy of seeing my first character illustration.

Reluctant Assassin-color

Flashing Swords purchased six stories total.  The second, The Reluctant Assassin, was the featured story for Flashing Swords #11.  I got to work with artist Johnney Perkins for both the cover and interior picture.  That was a real treat.

Crystalwizard introduced me to editor Jason Waltz to discuss publishing a Black Raven collection after all six stories had hit print.  Things were moving so much faster than I had dreamed, and I was fervently writing out new adventures to fill the collection.

FS12After Flashing Swords #11, the magazine sold to Daverana Enterprises.  After a slow start, issue #12 came out 4 months late.  The interior was poorly laid out, and it wasn’t marketed very well.  Even my contributor’s copy incorrectly has Issue #10 printed on the cover.  That issue contained Race for the Night Ruby, and I was terribly disappointed that my cherished story had such a bad run.

Flashing Swords #13 looked pretty good.  Ahren’s adventure, The Ferrymaster’s Toll, was to be the featured story.  Sadly, Flashing Swords went under before it hit print.  It was a good magazine.  I’ll miss it.

However, I do have a proof image of the cover that never was.  flashswordscovermockup13

Meanwhile, Jason and I continued to plan for our Black Raven Collection under Rogue Blades Entertainment.  I had 13 stories, and we’d decided on the collection’s title.  We chose Mountain of Daggers, which is the symbol stamped on the medallions of the Tyenee. I’d also sold a 14th adventure, The Second Gift, to the Time in a Bottle Anthology.  

Then, at Dragon Con, Jason met with the editor of a large publisher that was interested in a sword and sorcery rogue. Because the larger publisher would be a better opportunity for me, he selflessly pitched Mountain of Daggers to the editor (earning himself my sincere loyalty and gratitude) and they were interested. We sent the editor the first story, they liked it and requested the full manuscript.  Things looked promising.

Two years later, they still hadn’t made a decision on it.  Frustrated, I withdrew the submission at the 24-month mark.  Rogue Blades still wanted it, but said it would be a while before print.  So again, The Black Raven waited.

 And eventually it happened. Jason Waltz sent me a message saying that Rogue Blades was ready to roll with it. We decided that instead of just a single book of 90,000 words, to add the additional Black Raven stories I’d written in the meantime, and divide it into two collections of 70,000 words each.

The joy in seeing Didier Normand’s cover art for Mountain of Daggers was incredible. After four years, I didn’t believe I’d ever see it come.

Mountain Cover 1st Dr

We’ve already reviewed the concept sketches for the second collection, Sea of Quills, and it looks even better than the first.  I can’t wait to see the final version of it.

One of the first lessons I learned in the publishing industry is to be patient.  My very first short story took 30 months from the day it sold to the day it printed.  It’s just the nature of the beast, and I never hesitate to warn other authors that patience isn’t a virtue, it’s essential.

The Black Raven’s journey isn’t a story of setbacks and defeats.  It’s a story of publishing.  Sometimes things move in a whirlwind and the author is racing to keep up to meet deadlines, but most often it’s waiting.  For any new authors out there, please remember that.  Be patient.  It will happen, but it can take time.



Role Playing Games – What I Play

Hi all,

Tabletop Role Playing Games have been a huge part of my life for over 20 years, now.   Some of my closest friendships have been forged over the gaming table. Because RPGs have been such an influence, I figured I’d write a little bit about what I like to play.

Like most gaD&D Box Setmers, my love affair with RPGs began with Dungeons & Dragons. When I was 13, my mother bought me the D&D box set.  It came with some basic rules, a poster, some dice, and a little adventure.  (That red dragon poster lived on my wall until I was 22.) Shortly after that, I found some friends that played in my Boy Scout troop, and one of the dads was an experienced DM.  He opened my head to the awesome possibilities of gaming.

Second Edition D&D had just come out, and my DM refused to buy new books, so we plundered garage sales and used book stores.  Even today, when I play D&D, it’s 95% First Edition (talking it back to the old school ’cause I’m an old fool)

cyberpunk rpg

A few years later, when I was 18, a friend introduced me to a completely different type of game, Cyberpunk 2020.  Cyberpunk is a near-future setting featuring evil mega-corporations, cyber technology, and punk-rock attitude.  The rule-system itself was brilliantly simple and I enjoyed it.  In fact, the Cyberpunk universe is the most well-crafted game setting world I’ve ever encountered.  However, D&D was still my true love and Cyberpunk was usually reserved for special occasions.

Over the years, my friends and I would occasionally try out 1-off games on the side. We did vampire hunters, zombie apocalypse survivors, battled Nazi mummies, and other fun scenarios.  For those we used the Cyberpunk 2020 Interlock rules.  It was the most versatile system, and makes combat extremely cinematic and brutal.

Eventually I got frustrated with D&D and decided to run Cyberpunk 2020 as a primary game.  I picked up the remaining few books that I didn’t already own and started running a campaign.  Around this time, I found Datafortress2020, which is an amazing fan-run site.  Among their resources is an improved rules system called Interlock Unlimited (IU).  IU uses all the simplicity of the original Interlock system, but streamlines it, making it usable for any setting and situation.  I was in love.


After running a couple campaigns of Cyberpunk using the IU rules, we switched to a historic fantasy setting for about a year.  It was fun, but just wasn’t D&D (you can’t mess with the king).  Meanwhile, I was reading Lovecraft for the first time (yeah, I’m a late bloomer) and went on some crazed Hellraiser/horror movie bender on Netflix.  Then I discovered Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu 1920’s isCthulhu Chaosium a historic horror RPG that focuses primarily on story, investigation, and role-playing.  It’s not very combat-oriented (Most of the monsters will simply shatter your mind and eat your face.  So it’s best to avoid them directly).  It was exactly what I needed. 

The only problem I saw with it was that playing in a strictly Lovecraftian setting would quickly bore me.  I wanted to bring in The Mummy, The Shadow, King Kong, Tales of the Golden Monkey, Indiana Jones, and all the other 20’s and 30’s pulp adventures, as wells as some classics baddies like vampires and lycanthropes.  So again…Interlock Unlimited to the rescue.

It took me a few months to convert and write rules, but we now have a fully-functional game set in 1925.  I call it Pulp-Era Unlimited, but when people ask me what I play, I simply tell them Call of Cthulhu.  That’s a lot easier than saying that I play a home-made game inspired by Call of Cthulhu and Brendan Fraser movies that uses a fan-modified Cyberpunk 2020 rule system.

So there it is.  I’m a massive nerd.  I admit it.






5 Lessons I Learned When Querying a Novel

Hi all,

Most authors will agree that the hardest part of writing a novel is getting a publisher to notice it.  This is usually accomplished by getting yourself a literary agent. But then the problem just shifts to getting an agent to notice your work.  Querying a novel to an agent or editor is an art.  It’s also hell.  A cold, horrible hell.

Dozens of sites and books are out there, all telling you how to query effectively.  A good query letter should sell the book, the main conflict, and hero’s goal in just 3-5 sentences.  This requires cutting out all the beautiful twists, subplots, characters, and everything else you love as the author.  Now you must trivialize that brilliant story you’ve spent months or years carefully crafting, and sum it up in the barest of ways, all while still trying to make it sound remotely appealing.  (Did I mention that it’s hell?)

I’ve queried two novels in my time.  The first was a failure. The second, Dämoren, was a success.  I submitted the first query for Dämoren on March 2, 2013.  In honor of its anniversary I want to share the lessons that I learned.


 5: Know Your Sub-Genre

Before you query an agent, you first need to be sure that they handle your genre.  They say you should look in a bookstore and see what section your book belongs in.  Dämoren is a modern-day fantasy.  So…Fantasy, right?  OK, that’s a start.  But then we get into the bizarre world of sub-genres.  Modern-day fantasy (or Contemporary Fantasy) can be broken into several categories, such as Urban Fantasy, Magical Realism, Paranormal Fiction, or Supernatural Fantasy.  This is before we even splinter it further into Young Adult, or Romance categories for each of those.  Some agents won’t handle Urban Fantasy, but will gladly do Magical Realism.   Some have Urban Fantasy listed on their website bio, but then somewhere else specifies that they’re strictly Young Adult Urban Fantasy. 

Amazingly, there is no standardized set of rules defining these sub-genres, and even worse, most agent websites will spend 95% of an agent’s bio page talking about their cats, but not really mention what specific micro-sub-genre categories they want or don’t want.  This means you will likely query an agent that doesn’t represent your sub-genre.  I actually found it easier to research most agents on sites that weren’t actually the agency’s website, just to find out what sub-genres they were looking for.

Once you figure out your specific sub-genre, and what agents represent it, list them on a spreadsheet.  Do this before you send a single query because…


4:  Organization is Critical

When querying my first novel, I queried every agency that I could find.  I have no clue who all I queried because I didn’t keep the best notes.  I shot queries out like Yosemite Sam shooting his pistols in the air.  After several months, it started getting harder and harder to remember who had and hadn’t rejected me.

yosemite-sam“Yee haw, I’m sending queries!”

Querying Dämoren was a different story.  I built a detailed and color-coded spreadsheet that listed which agents, agencies, and publishers I submitted to, what date I submitted, if any page samples accompanied the query, what their expected turnaround time was, and any other information I thought I might need.  I also listed the date I received a rejection.  This spreadsheet kept my sanity, which is good because…


3:  You Will Experience Horrible Self-Doubt

When writing Dämoren I received a lot of praise from my writer’s group.  It made me feel good. It pushed me to complete it.  Positive reinforcement from your writing peers is wonderful, but it doesn’t mean jack when the rejections start coming.  No matter how emotionless you try to be about it, that’s going to get to you.

crying-spock“No one likes my book.”

At first I thought maybe my query letter sucked (which it did).  That’s a valid theory (because it did).  Two month into my query storm I attended the DFW Writing Conference.  There, I attended a workshop that taught me what was wrong with my query letter.  I rewrote it, and then submitted it for their Query Letter Gong Show.

The Gong Show is a fun little exercise the conference does where all the agents and editors attending get a gong, and anonymous query letters are drawn and read aloud.  Whenever an agent/editor hits the point that they’d stop reading the query letter, they hit the gong.  At the third gonging, the letter is discarded.  Afterwards, the agents tell the audience why they would have rejected it.  Also, since they’re up on stage, they want it to be entertaining as well as vent some of their exhaustion/frustration from being locked in a conference center for an entire weekend with 300 desperate writers, they’re pretty savage in their criticism.  Seriously, this is like American Idol, but they’re all Simon.  After the first few public eviscerations, I was horrified when they drew mine and began to read it.

Amazingly, no one gonged it.  Not only was mine the only query letter to make it through, it didn’t even receive a single gong.  I was cheered, applauded, blogged about (Here and Here), and told that I now had a perfectly crafted query letter.

Query Gong Show Victory“My query letter is victorious!”

Armed with the “perfect” query letter, I went on to receive 6 more months of rejections.  I also no longer had the excuse that it was my query letter’s fault that no one loved me.  Saying that this was a punch to the nuts for my self-esteem is a lot like calling the Polar Vortex a “slight chill”. It was crushingly depressing.

Just remember that you’ve got to muscle through it.  Start that next project to keep your brain occupied.  Make yourself write.  Writing the next project is better than just sitting around and waiting.  Especially since…


2:  Waiting Leads to Paranoia

Some agencies have a listed wait time of just a couple days.  For most it’s 6-12 weeks.  That’s a lot of time to sit around and wonder.  After a while, you start to worry. “What if they didn’t get it?”  “What if it ended up in a SPAM folder or I sent it to the wrong email?” These questions gnaw at you.  They keep you up at night.

Most agencies forbid follow-up emails.  I’m sure they get hundreds of them anyway.  Still, you don’t want to ruin your chances by nagging them, and a simple “hey did you get it?” might just cause them to delete your message and cast you into the pit of rejections.


This means all you can do is just stalk Query Tracker, and check your Spam box in case your reply ended up in there.  During my nine months of querying, I checked my Spam folder daily.  It got to the point that I knew the names of those penis enlargement and cheap meds swindlers more than I knew my own friends.  And for all my efforts scrolling through thousands and thousands of Lottery Winner Notifications and desperate pleas from the Nigerian Royal Family I found exactly zero agent emails.

In fact, I didn’t get that many emails at all. Which leads us to…


1:  Closure is Better Than Rejection

It’s hard to imagine, but there is a fate worse than rejection, and that’s not receiving anything at all.  Literary Agents get flooded with thousands upon thousands of queries (and yes, most are terrible).  This never-ending river of hopes and dreams from prospective writers leaves many agents too busy to take the 4.68 seconds to hit “Reply” and paste in a standard form rejection from a bounce-back mailbox.  How many agents do this?  About 50%.

Exactly one half of agents sent me rejection letters (including the one that came in an envelope that I had stamped and addressed myself when I submitted it.  So it’s like giving yourself bad news.). The other rejections came in the form of silence.

The silence is worse than anything.  You will spend weeks wondering, praying, hoping that they just haven’t accepted you yet.  This tiny thread of hope is worse than any rejection notice.  A rejection means closure. It means you can move on.  Silence is forever.

And don’t think that if an agent requests pages from you that it gets any better.  It doesn’t.  I had several agents request pages.  One requested the first 50.  Never heard from him again.  Another requested a full manuscript.  No reply (I later found out she had left the agency).  Another requested 50 pages, then the manuscript, confirmed she had it…then nothing.  To be completely honest, I’d rather have had a cruel, hateful, whiskey-fueled rejection than the pain of not knowing.

Your Manuscript Sucks.  Thank you for checking“Dear author, after careful consideration we’ve decided that your manuscript is fucking awful.
You will never have any future in this industry and should probably hang yourself.
Thank you for giving us this opportunity to witness the worst writing imaginable.
Please lose our email address and die.”

At the DFW Writers’ Conference I listened to a panel on ‘Finding an Agent’.  It was hosted by two agents that spent half an hour sharing the secrets to win their hearts.  Their suggestions started out pretty standard.  Look up the agent first.  Be sure they represent your genre.  Address the query to the agent by name, and if possible, list a reason why you chose them.  The agents then went on to suggest that writers go to their local bookstore and look over the books that those agents represented.  Mention those books in your query.  Compliment them.  Tell them they’re great, but don’t overdo it.  This research of scouring bookstores should take at least a day per agent.

Later, they revealed that one of them did send rejection notices, while the other proudly stated that she did not.  So even though she wants you to physically drive to a store and spend 1-2 days researching her work in order to craft her a custom ego-inflating query letter, don’t expect a simple “No thanks, but this project isn’t what I’m looking for.  Good luck in your endeavors.”  That message will never come.

Just accept that this is part of the business.  If an agency says their turn-around time is 8 weeks, then unless you hear otherwise from them, after 8 weeks mark that query as “rejected” and move on to the next.

In the end, querying is just a part of writing.  We face the trial by fire and survive it. When you see all the thousands of titles filling a bookstore, just remember that every author there has endured what you are going through.  They know what it’s like.  They want you to succeed and to join them.  You just have to survive it.  It gets better on the other side.

Welcome to ValhallaThe other side is Valhalla, BTW.

 And just in case you’re wondering how many rejections your favorite authors received, check out



“Lo there do I see Tolkien. Lo there do I see Howard, Jordan, and Rowling. Lo there do I see the line of my genre, back to the beginning. Lo, they do call me, they bid me take my place among them, in the halls of Valhalla, where the published may live forever.” ~  Genre Viking