The Hydra Files: Mark Onspaugh: ‘The Allure of the Older Hero’



Welcome to the Hydra Files, a ongoing series of feature articles, essays and more from Hydra authors? What is Hydra? It’s an ebook-only imprint devoted to bringing you the best in dark fiction: SF, horror and beyond.

To launch the Hydra Files, we have the following essay by Mark Onspaugh, author of The Faceless One.

About The Faceless One:

In 1948, when he was just a boy, Jimmy Kalmaku trained with his uncle to be the shaman of his Tlingit village in Alaska. There he learned the old legends, the old myths, the old secrets. Chief among them was that of a mask locked in a prison of ice, and of the faceless god imprisoned within: a cruel and vengeful god called T’Nathluk, dedicated to the infliction of pain and suffering.

Now all but forgotten in a Seattle retirement home, Jimmy finds his life turned upside down. For when an unwitting archaeologist pries the mask free of its icy tomb, he frees T’Nathluk as well. Stuck in spirit form, the Faceless One seeks a human to serve as a portal through which he can enter our reality. The Faceless One can control—and mercilessly torture—anyone who touches the mask, which means there is no shortage of slaves to ferry it across the country to its chosen host.

Yet the Faceless One has foes as well: Stan Roberts, a tough New York cop whose pursuit of justice will lead him into a dark abyss of the soul; Steven, Liz, and Bobby, the family of the doomed archaeologist; and Jimmy Kalmaku, who must at last become the shaman of his boyhood dreams.

The Allure of the Older Hero
By Mark Onspaugh

“Your powers are weak, old man.” – Darth Vader to Obi Wan Kenobi in STAR WARS CHAPTER IV: A NEW HOPE

“He is too old… too old to begin the training.” – Yoda, speaking about Luke Skywalker in STAR WARS CHAPTER V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

In the STAR WARS saga, Darth Vader tells his former teacher Obi Wan Kenobi he is too old to fight, while Yoda (no spring chicken by at least a couple of centuries) later tells Kenobi that teen Luke Skywalker is too old to train as a Jedi.

Clearly, both Vader and Yoda were wrong.

Still, how old is too old for a hero? Do heroes have an expiration date? Should they have a mandatory retirement date? Will a day come when the Justice League of America or the Avengers spend their days in some super-rest home, talking about their glory days over Matlock, Super-Scrabble and Jeopardy?
As more venues and platforms vie for content, creators and storytellers are looking everywhere for compelling characters and content. The myths and legends of indigenous cultures provide a rich storehouse for such tales, and these societies usually revere the aged, looking to them for wisdom and guidance.

Lately, we’ve been seeing a surge of movies dealing with older heroes. Films like THE EXPENDABLES, RED, ESCAPE PLAN and the upcoming GRUDGE MATCH concern heroes long past their physical prime as it is usually measured in action films. These middle-aged and older warriors are no longer whining “I’m getting too old for this!”, but diving into their respective schemes, missions or exploits with gusto and verve.
Even Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and John McClane (of the DIE HARD movies with Bruce Willis) are feeling their years, finding those stunts and feats of derring-do harder to pull off.

Why? Is it simply because cherished action heroes like Harrison Ford (71), Arnold Schwarzenegger (66), Sylvester Stallone (67) and Bruce Willis (58) are aging? Surely younger stars like Tom Cruise (51), Will Smith (45) and Matt Damon (43) can fill that void, and even younger actors like Chris Hemsworth (30) and Henry Cavill (30) are coming up fast.

Perhaps it’s because the audience is also aging – the Baby Boomers, once the most desired demographic on the planet by advertisers and merchants, are now entering their 60’s. Sure, they like looking at younger, prettier people, but want heroes of their own age to identify with, their own Matlock, Dr. Mark Sloan or Jessica Fletcher.

But then, these movies are proving popular with the current 18 to 20-something demographic, and one would think these viewers would want heroes their own age.

Perhaps it is the victory of the underdog, always a staple in the cinema. Often the character dismissed as too old or frail surprises his/her young detractors, sometimes using guile and cunning when outmatched physically.

And the advances in technology have allowed filmmakers to make whole worlds more realistically and cheaper than ever before, leading to a sort of Renaissance in the genres of fantasy and science fiction.

Mythology, and by extension, fantasy, have always embraced the aged hero. The Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh reigned as king for over a hundred and twenty-five years. Noah was some 600 years old when he built the ark. In the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Gandalf is not an aged seer who merely advises the hero and then sends him on a quest. He is a powerful warrior who fights alongside the members of the Fellowship, and even confronts that most fearsome foe, the balrog. Were it not for old Gandalf, would Good have prevailed? Unlikely.

And in the movie THOR: THE DARK WORLD, Marvel’s riff on Norse mythology, Odin is not content to sit back and rule quietly – he fights, using his skills and experience to compensate for any infirmities age.

In my book, The Faceless One, I wondered what would happen if someone who had been dismissed as a senior citizen (even by himself) was the one person on Earth with the knowledge and skills to combat an ancient and malevolent god.

My protagonist, Jimmy Kalmaku, is a former shaman of the Tlingit people of Alaska. His village embraced the rise of technology and rejected the magic of their past. Disillusioned and grieving over the loss of his wife years before, Jimmy now languishes in a rest home in Seattle, hating his bland and purposeless existence. His only happiness comes from his friendship with George Watters, a feisty and convivial African-American senior.

When Jimmy is visited by Raven the trickster, he tries to ignore its clarion call, or pass it on to someone else – but there is no one else. Together with George he journeys to Los Angeles to confront this most dreadful entity. If not for the efforts of these two old and forgotten men, the world will be plunged into a nightmare realm of pain, ice and darkness.

Gandalf, Odin, Indiana Jones and John McClane – my two seniors are in good company!

Finally, stories teach us that life is cycle. Often the elder hero will reach a state of transformation, seeming to die only to return even more powerful. Obi Wan knows he may not win a light saber duel with Darth Vader, but that is beside the point. Obi Wan needs to become transcendent if he is to help Luke later – so he sacrifices himself, doing so when Luke will bear witness, and be inspired to fight. Gandalf sacrifices himself so that the Fellowship may continue, and in so doing becomes Gandalf the White. My own hero Jimmy faces a moment of sacrifice, and I am happy to report he acts as a true hero. In each case, no younger hero would have had the knowledge or the ability to become something more, something new, and thus save the day.

So, why this sudden fascination with older heroes? It’s our love of tales, from around the fire in a cave or longhouse to the small screen or movie house. No matter the state of technology, we humans will always hunger for stories, for sagas of bravery, of sacrifice, of loss and redemption. Perhaps we are remembering that good stories, like life, are made up of people of all kinds… Even those who may seem too old to matter.