Game Write: Marc Laidlaw’s the 37th Mandala (1996)

Game Write is a recurring series dedicated to the fiction of game industry veterans. From the best-selling titles of Drew Karpyshyn and Austin Grossman, to the obscure classics of Jane Jensen and Sheldon Pacotti, this series hopes to unearth both the gems and the trash we tend to leave buried in the credits. In this entry, we look at Marc Laidlaw’s 1996 horror novel, the 37th Mandala, a tale of new-age charlatans and Lovecraftian beasts, recently reprinted for the first time since 2000.

Prior to helping instigate a paradigm shift in game narrative under Valve Software, Marc Laidlaw was a cult figure primarily known for embedding eastern mysticism into otherwise traditional cyberpunk tales. The result was a string of snarky satires like Neon Lotus (1988) and Kalifornia (1993) that infused originality into the otherwise limited genre he — however small his role — helped define in the mid-’80s with names like Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling. Today, Laidlaw’s known for his work with Valve Software from 1997–2016, where he worked as the narrative lead on games like Half-Life (1998) and Dota 2 (2013).

Before he got that gig, however, he published a clever horror novel called the 37th Mandala. Like with his cyberpunk stories, Laidlaw’s voice was snarky and lighthearted, even when the narrative itself was squirming with Lovecraft’s unknown cosmos, whipping ethereal tentacles, and gore pouring from the walls.

Half-Life‘s Gordon Freeman, clearly a fan of his creator, keeps copies of two very real Marc Laidlaw novels tucked away in his Black Mesa locker.

Derek Crowe, a rotten person and an equally-rotten author, has just published his latest ‘non-fiction’ treat to a new-age audience desperate for enlightenment. This book, the Mandala Rites — which taps into the Eastern concept of the mandalas heretofore unknown to cultural appropriation — proves a perfect addition to a market spuming for meaningless symbolism and ever-increasing nebulousness, to a crowd of the lost fighting to find any kind of point amidst the waves of consumerism.

“I suspect they are organisms, or something like organisms. Archetypes of decay….Each I think is a template from which an infinite number can be struck — an astral chromosome, if you will….Our souls are their food, the human race their hunting ground, and they breed in our souls like maggots in carrion, giving birth to flies.” [Loc. 2575]

Using a fictitious source, Derek presents rites to channel 37 different mandalas, all meant to guide an aimless generation down the road to easy enlightenment. The real source for the material comes from a deceased friend, who presented the rites to him as a warning against unseen astral forces seeking the psychological enslavement of humanity. Derek keeps the invocations for the 37 mandalas unchanged, but rewrites the text from oppressive and sinister to generic feel-good mysticism.

At an east-coast lecture for his newly-released Rites, Derek gets a ride to the airport from an adoring fan named Michael and his skeptical wife Lenore, both members of this new generation of hopeless victims. Lenore finds herself uncharacteristically drawn to the mandala symbols, enough to partake in her husband’s ridiculous rituals.

In this yarn, Michael’s something of a sick puppy; a naive new-ager eager to believe anything and everything — Derek’s perfect victim and worst nightmare. Likable, his main characteristics are however subservience to those around him and impressionability. As he settles into the 37th mandala ritual, waving his arms around and visualizing beams of energy flowing every which way from his sweaty palms, Lenore acts under the influence of the unseen 37th mandala, which uses her and the ritual to fully tether itself to body and soul. The pair wake up among dead, used-up bodies, and Lenore under the thrall of a dangerous power. Desperate to find answers with Derek and his imaginary team of occultists in San Francisco, the couple unwittingly leave a trail of abuse, bodies, and gore in their race across the country.

Paperback edition of the 37th Mandala.

Derek’s never likable. Not believing a word of what he writes, he’s always too eager to assume the worst in everyone around him — Lenore, rather than being possessed and indifferent to his ‘charm,’ is nothing more than a fan stalking him, desperate to get intimate; Michael’s a sheep, trying to pimp his wife to get closer to an occult idol (despite his openly poor view of Derek’s veracity). Though Derek’s rotten for a reason — he’s haunted by accidentally killing his childhood sweetheart, getting her viciously stung by bees (she’s allergic) and delivering her to her Christian Scientist mother instead of doctors — the reasons aren’t enough to redeem his character. It’s not enough to redeem his taking advantage of the original author of the Mandala Rites, either, pushing the author to his death, nor is it enough to excuse him stealing a withered human skin covered in all 37 mandala symbols and then wearing that skin in a full body suit.

When Michael and Lenore catch up with Derek, he’s neck-deep in his skin-suit of symbols, bowing to the crowds of obsessive fans lining up. (Eyes obviously obscured by the prospect of money. Brain not really sure why he’s wearing a literal skin-suit, but feeling propelled by the mandalas nonetheless.) Real occult forces are now using Derek and his fanbase as puppets to usher in a new age defined by the mandala’s psychological, devouring hunger. The mandalas, it’s suggested, are already having a parasitic influence across the country, spreading into pop culture as part of a night club, as a string of murders, as trading cards, as Derek’s book.

It’s subtly horrific, subtly Lovecraftian. Laidlaw’s writing style bounces between pedestrian and arthouse and bizarro satire, which benefits a unique voice and unique ideas, but doesn’t always feel cohesive (as seen in Derek’s past tragedy completely failing to humanize him). There’s way too much going on in the background, beginning to end, too many styles the book tries to cover at times. The 37th Mandala is a solid page-turner, and an addictive novel of ideas desperately needed in horror, but it’s not always enough to stop the narrative from feeling overcrowded, or the characters underdeveloped. A good turn for horror aficionados hungering for something original, it’s best left with genre fans.

The 37th Mandala is available via Amazon as an affordable e-book.

7 / 10

Since retiring from Valve Software, Marc Laidlaw has republished nearly all of his novels and short stories as affordable e-books via Amazon. More information on his fiction can be found on his website. His fiction credits include Dad’s Nuke (1985), Neon Lotus (1988), Kalifornia (1993), the Orchid Eater (1994), the Third Force (1996), the 37th Mandala (1996), White Spawn (2015), and 400 Boys & 50 More (2016). With Valve Software, he served as lead writer for the Half-Life series (1998-2007), and Dota 2 (2013).

The 37th mandala itself, as seen on the original hardcover edition, representing a harsh universe of teeth and tentacles.
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