Thing a day



Stephen Billias is the author of seven published science fiction/fantasy novels, including The American Book of the Dead and Quest for the Thirty-Six, both published by Warner Books. Mr. Billias has also written several screenplays. In 2005 he sold a film treatment with director/writer John Harrison to The Walt Disney Company for Disney's Animated Features Division. In 2009, Mr. Billias co-produced the documentary Seeking the 36 with director/writer Dennis Lanson Mr. Billias lives in Deerfield, Massachusetts. He is married and has a daughter who is currently attending University of Vermont. His hobbies include backpacking trips to the Grand Canyon and the Sierra Nevada range, and the practice of Shintaido, a Japanese body movement and martial art. In 2006, Mr. Billias and his wife Bela Breslau opened the Shintaido Farm, a center for the practice of Shintaido.

A Few More Scenes

It’s been fun to deconstruct the screenplay of The 23rd Letter and present scenes out of order, and it’s been fantastic to see Patrick visualize and bring the words into pictures.

I don’t want to give away the ending, you’ll have to wait for the graphic novel and the film, but let’s just say it’s groundbreaking, and involves the whales, a volcano, and an earthquake, among other earth-shattering events!

Here are a few other scenes:

  1. A mysterious and possibly magical monkey frees Dexter from the ship’s hold where Shiyama’s cultists have imprisoned him.
  2. Dexter and Shiyama duke it out in the desert outside Jerusalem, in the midst of the war.
  3. Lola meets an old Turkish man who takes her into Israeli waters by piyade (a small boat).

I salute all the creative Thing a Day contributors!

Stephen Billias


The 23rd Letter and the Middle East

A big question for me is how will people react to a graphic novel about war in the Middle East? Even though the story is whimsical, it involves talking whales and a miracle at the end, it’s still about Israel and Palestine, and the ever tense situation in the Middle East.  Will people accept the idea that you can treat this story as magical, and not have to meet the standards of a high-tech thriller or a dark apocalyptic vision?  Our story is, ultimately, one of hope. Is there room for hope among the conflicts, clashes, and brutality of the current situation?  These are big questions, and the answers will come when we put our vision out there as a graphic novel, and later as a film.

The Sound

What do you think the 23rd Letter would sound like?  What would it sound like if the whales were the only ones who could make it?  I’ve always envisioned a very deep OM-like sound, such a deep, vibrating, rumbling low-end bass that it could cause earthquakes and volcanoes!  But I’m open to other ideas.  Whales have an amazing range. Their songs morph continuously. They make the deep sounds I’m thinking of, but ethereal, otherworldly high-pitched moans, and crackling, popping noises also.  Too bad Thing a Day can’t host audio files. Or maybe it can!  If you have a link to a whale sound you think would work well for The 23rd Letter, please post it!

Dan Epstein and Ras Mohamed

Dex and Lola’s daughter Rachel arrives in Tel Aviv just as the war is starting. She’s supposed to meet Dexter’s friend Dan Epstein, but he isn’t there. Rachel and her group take refuge in a Tel Aviv hotel. We meet Dan and his wife Hillel. Dan’s struggle to get back to his family after the war starts is one thread of the film. The Israelis are in danger of being pushed into the sea. If the U.S. military intervenes the only result will be nuclear holocaust and the destruction of the Middle East and perhaps the whole world. Exactly what Shiyama’s Shidoists want!

Also we meet Ras Mohammed, a Palestinian leader, not a fanatic, a determined pragmatist seeking establish a Palestinian state. While the U. S. President temporizes and equivocates, Ras Mohammed coordinates attacks by Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, and Egyptian troops. Ras and Dan were childhood friends, and their paths cross in the film. Dan Epstein is desperate to get back to his family, and follows the trail of destruction toward the sea. Dan survives with Ras’s help (and Dexter’s) and is re-united with his wife and family. Ras achieves his vision of a separate, contiguous Palestinain state. The two childhood friends don’t necessarily reconcile, but all ends well for both.

Where We’re Going

During Thing a Day month in February, we’ve been posting snippets from the screenplay of The 23rd Letter, to accompany artist Patrick McColley’s illustrations for the graphic novel we’re writing of the story.  Without giving away the whole plot, so far we’ve revealed that a mysterious rabbi sends our hero Dexter Sinister on  a mission to find the missing letter and sound. Dexter’s psychic daughter Rachel is on a trip to Israel when Japanese fanatic Shiyama’s Shidoists blow up the Dome of the Rock, precipitating a Middle East conflict that they hope will bring on the apocalypse.  The whole Dexter Sinister family including Dex’s wife Lola Corolla will be involved in the events culminating in the midst of an Arab-Israeli war. There  a few subplots we haven’t delved into yet, like the boyhood friendship between Israel Dan Epstein and Arab leader Ras Mohamed. Maybe we’ll get to those before the end of this year’s Thing a Day. But we’ll have to hold back on revealing the exciting resolution to the screenplay, when the whales arrive in the Mediterranean by parachute and…gotta save something for the movie!

Shiyama and the Shidoists

The Japanese cult leader Shiyama precipitates an Arab-Israeli conflict by having his group the Shodists blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Ultimately this action bring Dexter, Rachel, Lola, and the whales to the Middle East. Wait till you see what happens then!

Whale Magic

In the magical realism of The 23rd Letter, whales have learned how to talk, imitating human speech. This is not so far-fetched. See this news story.

The whales are the ones who are guardians of the sound of the 23rd letter. The Japanese fanatic Shiyama is trying to force them to make the sound for his own evil uses.  They have refused, and he is torturing and killing them.  Dexter’s psychic daughter Rachel has a special connection to the whales, and will come to their aid later in the story.  The whales give artist Patrick McColley lots of opportunities for interesting visual panels in the graphic novel, like the moment when the whales are parachuted into the Mediterranean by the U.S. military!



Dexter and the Rabbi

The “inciting incident” of the screenplay of The 23rd Letter is the moment when a mysterious rabbi confronts Dexter on the New York subway and tells him he must find the missing letter, which has been stolen and is in the possession of evil people.  Dexter is skeptical. At the end of the scene, as Dexter is getting off, the rabbi makes ALL SOUND FALL AWAY. The #2 IRS Express races into the station on the center tracks, but NOISELESSLY. It’s as if the station has suddenly been submerged in water. Dexter reaches up to clear his ears, but it doesn’t help, he’s a prisoner in a mad mime’s nightmare. People are shouting and shoving, trains are pulling in and out, but he can’t hear anything except the  Rabbi’s smooth, insistent voice, from the open subway door: “What you are searching for is a sound.” The doors close silently. The #1 Broadway Downtown pulls out. Sound returns slowly. Dexter is stunned!

Patrick’s challenge as an artist is to visually represent the absence of sound.  He’s talked about a couple different ways he might do that. It will be interesting to se what he comes up with!



Dexter, The 23rd Letter, and The 36

The 23rd Letter is the second story by Billias and Lanson to use Dexter Sinister, “cosmic detective”, as its hero.  The first story is The 36, also based on Jewish folkore.  In The 36, Dexter has to find and bring together the Thirty-Six Just Men of legend, to restore order a world that is getting wildly out of balance.  Check out Seeking the 36, where you can watch a free half-hour documentary using the same ideas in non-fiction. The 36 is based on the novel Quest for the 36 by Billias and a screenplay by Billias and Lanson that was optioned twice by production companies but never produced.

We’re excited that Patrick McColley has decided to make a graphic novel version of The 23rd Letter !

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