There’s Hope For Writing Sequels
Sequels are a much-maligned fare these days. Most people assume that the only reason for writing a sequel is to make more money, to wring an idea like a sponge in order to get more and more juice out of it. Sequels have a reputation for being worse than their originals, with a few rare exceptions; though most of the cited exceptions are in the cinematic realm.
However, I was reflecting the other day on my work, and something suddenly occurred to me: sequels are by far where I do my best work. In fact, sequels are where I began writing. My first real attempt at a novel was trying to write a “sequel” to the German literary epic The Nibelungenlied. This was very difficult, as most of the characters die by the end of The Nibelungenlied in typical tragic style! However, I was fascinated by the characters who made it through, and the trauma they would be living with, and wondered what could happen next. This birthed my first ever book, which I decided not to publish as it was not very good, but it was in this soil that the seeds of my writing career and vocation were planted.
Interestingly things have come full circle, as the most recent thing I’ve published, Virtue’s End, is another poetic sequel, but this time to Spenser’s inimitable Faerie Queene. Spenser’s allegorical work was seemingly unfinished, having only addressed 6 of the 24 proposed Aristotlean virtues (12 personal and 12 public virtues). It’s clear Spenser had abandoned the idea of completing all 24 early on, as the virtues he chose to write about include both personal ones (like Holiness) and public ones (such as Justice). In some ways, Spenser’s work does feel finished, as the final canto has a haunting vision in it that seems to predict the coming of the modern world.
Spenser’s vision, along with a spiritual experience in Glastonbury, led me to realising there was a way for this story to be continued and reborn in the modern world; not only that, but that this needed to happen. Spenser’s sense of virtue was becoming more pertinent than ever to our world. Virtue’s End is fundamentally built on the edifice of The Faerie Queene’s majesty, and could not exist without it.
If we go back further, looking at the Black Gate trilogy, it wasn’t until the sequel Beyond The Black Gate that things became interesting and the story entered another stratosphere. The first book is “True Detective in space”. There are one or two mildly original things in it, but on the whole it is merely a decent example of a detective story with some genre splicing. It is the second book, where we enter the fantastical and mythical realms, and where the focus shifts from Caleb Rogers, the detective, to Craig Smiley, our crazed anti-hero, that the story really finds its feet and goes to another level. The same might be said of the whole of my Nekyia sequence. In one sense, Nekyia is simply a multiverse of crazy sequels that defy logical narrative conventions but somehow come together. I’ve always had a knack for figuring out where a story goes next, and I think that is why I now have a career as a writing coach, with a particular emphasis on structure and narrative itself.
Don’t worry, I am not going to spend the whole article talking about my own work! I know I am not the only author for whom this is true. Many authors hit their stride on the second or third book. For example, Christa Wojciechowski’s sensational Sick series really gets going in book 2, where we go deeper into one of the main characters, John Branch. Book 1 is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but really it is a set up that allows the stratospheric ascension of the second and third books. This series is soon to be re-published, by the way, so if you missed the first run, don’t hesitate to pick it up in re-released form, because I promise you will not regret it.
Christa Wojciechowski’s Sculptor series, which is coming out this year (and I had the pleasure of reading an early of) is similar. Oblivion Black, the first book in the series, sets up the characters and the action, but book 2 takes it to another place entirely, a darker place than you could ever imagine. If you are in the US, you can read some early chapters of Oblivion Black over at Kindle Vella.
Steve Stred’s Father of Lies trilogy is a work of dark brilliance. Ritual, the first of the three-novel sequence is a harrowing delve into the world of cults and dark magic. However, it is the second book, Communion, where things begin to unfold, and the central narrative thrust takes on a momentum that is almost frightening.
I would similarly and perhaps even controversially argue that Barker’s Everville is a superior sequel to the original Great & Secret Show. The original is a masterpiece, don’t get me wrong, but it has issues with pace, a few problems with forced dialogue, and at times it feels like 4 or 5 books compressed into one, which makes things messy. Everville is a huge tome, but it feels more focused, and the emotional punches hit with titanic force as a result of this.
So, what to make of all this? If you are an author writing a series, or contemplating a sequel, I’d encourage you to go for it. Use the original as a building block. Construct your masterpiece on the foundations of what went before. Don’t be afraid of popular opinion or backlash. Sequels are sometimes where we do our best work.
If you are a reader, I would love to know what you think a great example of a sequel book is!
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Joseph Sale is a prolific novelist and occult author of strange and fantastical horrors. His first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published by Dark Hall Press in 2014. He currently writes and is published with The Writing Collective. He has authored more than ten novels, including his Black Gate trilogy and Dark Hilarity. He grew up in the Lovecraftian seaside town of Bournemouth.
He edits non-fiction and fiction, helping fledgling authors to realise their potential. He has edited some of the best new voices in speculative fiction including Ross Jeffery, Emily Harrison, Christa Wojciechowski, and more. His short fiction has appeared in Tales from the Shadow Booth, edited by Dan Coxon, as well as in Idle Ink, Silver Blade, Fiction Vortex, Nonbinary Review, Edgar Allan Poet and Storgy Magazine. His stories have also appeared in anthologies such as Lost Voices (The Writing Collective), Technological Horror (Dark Hall Press), Burnt Fur (Blood Bound Books) and Exit Earth (Storgy). In 2017 he was nominated for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ prize.
You can chat with him on Twitter @josephwordsmith, or, if you want to go deeper down the rabbit hole, you can sign up to his Patreon for occult insight into the magic behind writing www.patreon.com/themindflayer