A step by step guide to the creation of Toten Herzen
Genesis may be the wrong word; a story about a rock band and I’m using the word Genesis. (Sorry, genesis.) It would be more accurate to say 10cc, but 10cc doesn’t mean origin, it means something entirely different.
The source of the Toten Herzen idea was the confluence of two events. One, an interest in making music, the other, an article in the Guardian newspaper. For years I messed about in Logic Pro trying to become the next big thing in trance and failing, thwarted by a Mac that couldn’t handle thirty midi tracks playing simultaneously. Rock music was simpler, or so I thought. I would give up trying to be the next big thing in trance and become a rock star instead.
I needed a better name than Chris Harrison to be a rock star. It wasn’t up there with the likes of Alice Cooper, Til Lindemann, Iggy Pop or Brian Johnson (he’s the exception that proves the rule). I spent a couple of days brainstorming, but nothing came forward. However, what did emerge was a better idea than me becoming a rock star, which was always a long shot. A new rock band, a fictitious rock band.
At about the same time I came across the 10cc article in the Guardian. The basic theme was that they wrote some great underrated songs in the Seventies, many of them being ahead of their time, the sum of the parts contributing to their eclectic mix of haunting ballads, sub-calypso and quirky pop. It was a description I didn’t recognise so I headed over to YouTube to reacquaint myself with the songs in the article.
The songs were there, but what caught my eye was a track lurking in the YouTube suggestions list. The Sweet performing Hellraiser live. For those who don’t know, The Sweet were a double-headed entity; known for their ridiculous glam image and catchy pop songs, but not so well known for their live performances in which they could give any major rock band a run for their money. The video on YouTube was proof, and it was the first time I’d ever seen them live on stage.
The plan to record rock music, alongside an embryonic idea for a fictitious band and the musical landscape of the 1970s came together and a name finally emerged from the brainstorming: Toten Herzen. (Dead Hearts.)
It didn’t occur to me at the time that there was a novel lurking in there somewhere. I hadn’t written a novel since The Excitement of Solitude in 2001, preferring to concentrate on scriptwriting and bothering the BBC’s Writers’ Room until they closed the door to unsolicited submissions. The only alternative I could find was a London-based production company that accepted submissions from debut scriptwriters. All I needed was a story.
How the story formed could have come straight from the novel itself. A boring Sunday, the Moon must have been in the right phase because the Toten Herzen legend came out fully formed as if I had inadvertently tuned in to some pre-existing broadcast. I knew their names, their original bands, home towns and how they came to meet up, what they went on to achieve and how the band’s career came to an end one night . . . in Highgate Cemetery.
What I wanted to avoid was the usual debauched biography of a band’s battles with drugs, booze and bent managers. Having a lifelong interest in the supernatural opened a door through which a different story could be found and developed. Drawing on the excessive imagery of glam rock and the wide spectrum of characters found there from Abba to Aladdin Sane I gave Toten Herzen their own vampiric image.
I met up with a friend, a fellow rock fan, and gave her the outline of the story and how it could make a good screenplay, but she thought it would make a better novel. A novel, a twelve month investment of time and energy with nothing to show at the end apart from a ring binder full of agents’ rejection letters. For the novel to work there needed to be something more than the rise and fall of vampiric rock musicians.
The same friend and I shared a long-standing joke called Bob Wallet; a shifty pseudonym for anyone involved in dodgy goings-on such as false expenses invoices, unreliable office equipment and dubious medical practices. In the twelve months leading up to the discovery of Toten Herzen I had been developing an idea, a story about a cartoonist in post-World War 2 France; a world in which the Nazi’s won the war and satire was banned. The cartoonist would have his work confiscated and hidden away for decades until it was discovered in a former government building being redeveloped. A vast cache of satirical cartoons.
That story is still on the back burner, but the idea of a historical event being investigated offered promise and without him knowing, Bob Wallet begot a son, Rob Wallet, UK music journalist and author of Clowns Don’t Laugh, a history of glam rock in the 1970s. According to his own story Rob Wallet was twelve years old when the four members of Toten Herzen were murdered in 1977. The idea of the boy growing up to be the man who would investigate the murders and discover the truth was the final angle needed for the story.
The novel was written, it took twelve months and went through five drafts before the final version was ready in 2013. The theme explored the various reasons for ‘coming back.’ Redemption, restoration and revenge. Centring on the band’s lead guitarist Susan Bekker, she carried the theme of redemption – wanting to put right the mistakes she made in the 70s; Wallet carried the theme of restoration and the attempts to repair a failing career; and revenge came in the form of Terence Pearl, an eccentric blogger who offers to help a relative of the band’s rumoured ‘fifth member’ who disappeared in 1973.
What I found particularly pleasing and often surprising was how the story virtually told itself with very little plotting by me other than a basic structure to guide me to a conclusion. Events described early on would come to have significance as the story unfolded later, a significance I hadn’t planned. And this unplanned significance would explode in the second novel, Toten Herzen Malandanti.
Like most self-published novels, We Are Toten Herzen sank without trace, although did make it through to the second round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. (One of the judges hated it so much he offered to cut my throat and drink the blood.) But the writing bug had bitten and during a long walk near Pendle Hill in Lancashire I started thinking about witchcraft.
Growing up, (at the same time as 10cc bedazzling the charts and Toten Herzen being murdered in their coffins) my family would have day trips out to Pendle, scene of the 17th Century witch craze. It was an evocative environment and to this day Pendle Hill’s brooding sandstone bulk still looms over the surrounding countryside with suspicious menace. Having written about vampires I wanted to write about witches. Proper witches, old school witchcraft with pointy hats and cauldrons, the kind of wicked witches who flew up chimneys and were chucked on bonfires in Bamberg. The second Toten Herzen novel would involve witchcraft.
Even when the second novel was complete I still wasn’t aware of the potential contained within it. The name Malandanti had been found by accident in a book about secret societies. The Benandanti, a group of witches from the Friuli region of Italy were hardly a fraternity, they were the product of superstition; babies born with part of the amniotic sac covering their faces were believed to be blessed with supernatural powers and in later life would use those powers to protect the crops from evil spirits. Those evil spirits were the Malandanti and in the world of Toten Herzen the name Malandanti would refer to a network of corrupt covens caught up in extortion, political conspiracy and murder.
Toten Herzen Malandanti, like its predecessor disappeared in the quicksand of ebooks and self-publishing, in spite of some heavy promotion and a feature in a local newspaper. Frustrated by the lack of sales and exposure I abandoned promoting the book to concentrate on a new idea, one that would engulf what I called the TotenSeries. Story opportunities thrown out by the Malandanti led to the TotenUniverse.
The first spin-off novel telling the story of the Malandanti bubbled up from scribbled notes in a pub one weekday afternoon, but the idea was left to ferment for several months, a lack of strong vivid characters being the initial problem. Toten Herzen was quite a focussed subject, the Malandanti was a much bigger proposition. The floodgates opened when an old adversary showed his face.
In spite of an interest in the supernatural, I was brought up Catholic and conditioned/programmed to fear the Devil. I avoided anything Satanic, convinced I was damned with bad luck every time I watched a film such as Polanski’s The Ninth Gate. But then I analysed my life and realised it was pretty shot through without any help from the Devil. The Malandanti novel awoke from hibernation thanks to its first substantial character, a Satanist called Jennifer Enzo.
With one character established the others soon followed. In Bamberg Frieda Schoenhofer would follow the course set by her predecessor from the second Toten Herzen novel, Lena Siebert-Neved. And in Wurzburg, Virginia Bruck, professor of advanced computing and wife of eccentric German artist Earnst Bruck completed the line up. The story unrolled, a tale of internal conflict and the collapse of a four hundred year old organisation. Who Among Us… was completed in a year and published in 2014.
By now the TotenUniverse had reached such a level of development I had novels planned for every year up to 2021. A matrix of interconnected plots with characters crossing over and dropping into one another’s stories. (Susan Bekker makes a guest appearance in Who Among Us… The Malandanti spin-off novel The One Rule of Magic covers events that happen at the same time as those covered in the third Toten Herzen Novel There Will be Blood.)
With each new novel another door to the TotenUniverse opens and goodness knows how big it will be in a couple of years time. Raven, Toten Herzen’s number one fan has potential; There Will Be Blood, the Belarussian rivals to Toten Herzen could feature in a series of organised crime thrillers; and Bernadette Maldini, the Interpol agent has already sidestepped her way into the third Toten Herzen novel and could go even further as the influence of the Malandanti is discovered to run deeper than anyone thought.
None of this existed in January 2012. I had no interest in writing novels. Now I’m consumed by an ever expanding 21st Century urban myth without any clear knowledge of where it’s heading or how it will all conclude. My biggest fear is that it will be discovered after I’m gone, or maybe that would be the most fitting form of discovery; lost for years in the drifting magma of the self-publishing ‘shit volcano,’ a sprawling world of vampires and black magic, human drama and one man’s attempt to escape mundanity. Not me, well perhaps it might be me, but rather Rob Wallet, son of Bob Wallet, who may or not have been a fan of 10cc. And come to think of it, if you know what 10cc alludes to, it is a sort of euphemism for origins, birth, the source of life. The source of an idea.