Companion Dogs as Seers, Healers, and Fairy Steeds — Mimi Matthews

When considering dog folklore, we generally think of those stories which feature the Grimm, the Gytrash, or other sinister black dogs roaming the moors in the North of England. But there is more to canine folklore than the ominous black dogs of legend. Companion dogs, such as pugs and corgis, have their place in dog…

via Companion Dogs as Seers, Healers, and Fairy Steeds — Mimi Matthews

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Super Relaxed Fantasy Club

Hello again.

Last night I went along to the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, which meets every month at various locations, but yesterday was at the quite extraordinarily posh offices of Hachette UK in central London, right up on the sixth floor, where their meeting room gives onto a spectacular view of the London skyline.

Three authors currently making waves in SFF read from their debut novels – Anna Stephens with Godblind, Alexandra Christo and To Kill a Kingdom, and Nick Clark Windo with The Feed.

All three authors fought valiantly against the room’s aircon unit to read from their work, and to talk engagingly and informatively about how they came to write their novels, and of their struggle to be published (in Anna Stephens’s case, it took 13 years from writing the first draft to publication). Nick Clark Windo’s book has just been picked up by Amazon for adaptation into a TV series, and all three books – very different in theme and scope, and a reminder of how broad a genre SFF can be – have gone on to my Want to Read list.

There is a (very reasonable) entrance fee for the meetings, and as you get an evening of readings and talk from some of the most prominent SFF writers around, plus a free book (I picked up No Present Like Time by Steph Swainston), it seems like a bargain to me. Well worth popping along if you enjoy fantasy and live in or near London.

“Annihilation” review

 

There has been a lot of chatter about Alex Garland’s new film, Annihilation, and much of it has been asking why, outside of the United States and China, it has not received a theatrical release (it premiered in the rest of the world on Netflix on March 12th).

In my opinion, though I think the film has flaws, it was certainly deserving of being seen on big screens worldwide, and it’s a great shame that hasn’t happened (apparently it’s due to differences between Paramount Pictures and the film’s producer, Scott Rudin). Nevertheless, for those of us who subscribe to Netflix and have had a chance to see the movie, it’s a fascinating and beautifully made science fiction film that treads a well-worn path in terms of both tone and subject matter, but does so with some style.

Warning: spoilers.

It tells the story of biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) suddenly reappears after going missing a year before, on a top secret mission. He’s acting strangely on his return, and when he becomes violently ill Lena calls an ambulance; but on the way to the hospital she and her husband are intercepted by shadowy government agents who take them to the top secret research facility known as “Area X”, whose psychologist, Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), explains to Lena that Kane was part of an expedition into the nearby “Shimmer”, a strange force-field somewhere on the coast of North America, whose centre is an old abandoned lighthouse. Little is known about the Shimmer except that none of the people so far sent in have come out – with the exception of Kane. Oh, and it’s growing…

So, racked with guilt about her husband as he lies in intensive care, Lena decides to join an all-female team of scientists led by Dr Ventress to explore the Shimmer, and find out what’s happening inside.

This is an intriguing premise for a story, no doubt, though the pedant in me couldn’t help but question the lack of common sense the characters display – why, when the Shimmer has been growing for three years, and countless teams have disappeared inside, would you send yet another team of researchers into it? Wouldn’t they use drones or something? And if you’re going to send people, at least put them in hazmat suits, right? Honestly, anyone would think these folks have never seen Eddie Izzard’s routine about the forest of death and blood:

The Shimmer certainly looks beautiful (location shooting was in Windsor and Norfolk), and the vegetation and bizarre animals (a result of the Shimmer’s strange mutating effects) are a credit to production designer Mark Digby and his team. The human/bear hybrid was especially disturbing (and surely owes a debt to the alzabo, a bear-like creature who speaks in the voice of its victims in Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun”), and there is a scene involving human intestines which is not for the squeamish. As the team get closer and closer to the lighthouse, they become increasingly unhinged, and the final confrontation between Lena and the alien presence there is an extraordinary, bravura sequence which reminded me of Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”.

Like that film, “Annihilation” is apparently only loosely based on its source novel (by Jeff VanderMeer), and made me curious to know how and why Garland has deviated from the original story. In sci-fi movies, the theme of human beings being physically and/or psychically altered by encounters with extra-terrestrial life goes back at least as far as The Quatermass XperimentThe Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and on through Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Ridley Scott’s Alien, the work of David Cronenberg, and the recent Netflix adaptation of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse novels:

So Annihilation isn’t doing anything spectacularly original in that sense. But its predominantly female cast (Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny & Tessa Thompson play the other three scientists assigned to Ventress’s team) , and unsympathetic heroine (Portman’s character has been having an affair, and it is implied that this may have pushed her husband to embark on such a dangerous mission) are major plus points for a Hollywood blockbuster (at one point Kane tells Lena, before he leaves, that at least they will be in the same hemisphere, and so when he’s gone she can “look up and see the same stars”, and she angrily retorts that she has better things to do in his absence than just stare at the stars), and thus, disappointingly, may also have contributed to Paramount’s getting cold feet about an international release (see Helen Lewis’s detailed discussion of this in the New Statesman).

But though it boasts a superb cast and creative team, and I wanted very much to like it, I fear the film left me a little cold in the end. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s not a romcom, after all – but I felt that its precarious balancing act between the commercial imperative to deliver an exciting slice of commercial cinema, and its makers’ desire to reach for Some Deeper Meaning, never fully resolved itself. That said, we need science fiction and fantasy that has ambitions beyond simple audience titillation, and for that I salute this film, and heartily recommend that you see it if you can.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

Wraiths or zombies?

I’ve always tried to avoid zombies.

Good idea, you say.

More specifically, I’ve always tried to avoid the term “zombie” in my fiction, or anything resembling it.

Or have I?

There are certainly creatures in my stories who act like classic zombies, as they appear in popular culture: Watchers, I call them, or shadowmen. They are men robbed of their souls, their eyes removed, and a “third eye” etched on their foreheads:

“…their cloaks the colour of darkness, and their faces pale and sightless, the hungry mouths hanging open like black pits, and the cruel mark of the Third Eye set deep into their foreheads.”

(from The Witch of Glenaster)

A common trait of zombies is that they are essentially mindless, driven only by a never-sated desire for death, violence and human flesh. This mindlessness, or lack of agency, presents its own problems for the writer. How do you write convincingly about a character with such a lack of complex motivation (and usually with no higher brain functions at all, which also tends to result in their famously shambling gait)?

“Famously shambling gait.”

The word “zombie” is of West African origin, from “zumbi”, meaning “fetish”, and existing folk traditions of the Africans brought to Haiti as slaves developed as part of voodoo belief (the “zombies” being controlled by sorcerers called bokors), and were picked up on by Hollywood in the Twentieth Century with films like White Zombie (made at a time when the US was occupying Haiti) and I Walked With A Zombie. Writers like HP Lovecraft and Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”) also contributed to modern zombie mythology, as of course did director George A. Romero with “Night of the Living Dead”:

 

With the success of modern movies and TV shows like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland and The Walking Dead, zombies have become big box office, and even a zombie-sceptic like myself can enjoy this kind of beautifully filmed gory mayhem, and there’s no doubt that zombies lend themselves well to comedy and satire. But the interaction between zombies and ordinary humans in these stories, and the knowledge that zombies were once just like us, is surely key to their appeal. A story featuring only zombies might quickly become tedious. At the very least the dialogue would be somewhat limited.

Wraiths, on the other hand, are harbingers (rather than bringers) of death, and in English folklore tradition can be seen between midnight and one o’clock on St Mark’s Eve (24th April) – or sometimes Midsummer Night (23rd June) or All Souls’ Eve (1st November) – trooping into the local church in the order that their human counterparts will die during the coming year. If you see your own wraith, or “fetch”, then you too will be dead within twelve months. In 1608 a woman in Nottinghamshire was charged with “…watching upon Sainte Markes even at Nighte laste in the Church porche to presage by divelishe demonstracion the death of somme neighbours within this yeere”, and some sources say the watcher must fast or circle the church before being able to see the wraiths.

The wraiths in my own stories are physical beings rather than ghosts, so I suppose in that sense they are more like zombies, under the spell of a witch or necromancer. But then there has never been a strict delineation between different supernatural creatures in folklore, and one of the joys of writing is the freedom to pick and choose!

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

 

Glenaster

Hi there.

Just thought I’d write a little more about the Glenaster Chronicles, and some of the world-building and terminology that’s gone into it.

Today I thought I’d dwell briefly on Glenaster itself.

The first thing to say is that this word is (as far as I can tell, and I have checked) completely made up (if anyone knows of any mentions of it prior to 2010, when I created it, please let me know!). I just liked the sound if it, indeed originally it was spelt slightly differently, as “Glenastor” with an “o”.

But I’m glad I changed the spelling, as it now makes (theoretical) sense. Though there isn’t a Glenaster in reality, there could be one. The word “glen” is Scottish Gaelic in origin and refers to a long, narrow valley. And an aster (derived from the Greek for star) is a type of flower commonly known as the Michaelmas Daisy, as it blooms around Michaelmas time (29th September). Devotees of Scotch whisky will be familiar with such single malts as Glenmorangie (meaning “vale of tranquillity” or “vale of big meadows”) or Glenfiddich (“valley of the deer”), and so my fictional Glenaster is referred to by one of my characters, Thomas Taper, as the “vale of the smallest flower”.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

Ursula K. Le Guin 1929-2018

Book News Roundup: Ursula K. Le Guin inducted into the ...

Photo: culturefly.co.uk

 

Light is the left hand of darkness

And darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

Together like lovers in kemmer,

Like hands joined together,

Like the end and the way.

(from “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula Le Guin)

On Wednesday morning I woke up to discover that one of my favourite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin, a woman who has influenced not just my writing but how I think, had died. She had passed away on the Monday, and the news had filtered through over the following 24 hours.

Her death was not unexpected, I suppose, as she had reached a great age, but still it seemed shocking, as it always is when a great artist or a great writer – indeed, a great person – leaves us, a bafflement that so important and beloved a figure could be gone.

She was 88, and had had a long and fulfilling life and career, for which we should be grateful, and she could be proud of her lasting influence on literature, especially science fiction and fantasy. And she was a robust defender of her chosen genre(s) – here she is giving the acceptance speech when she won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014:

I first discovered her work about fifteen years ago, when I bought an omnibus edition of her first four Earthsea novels from my local bookshop in North London. I knew next to nothing about her, except that I was intrigued by her name – which I thought was a memorable one, especially for a fantasy writer – and by the little I had heard about her writing. I opened the book, and started to read:

“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards…”

Here was an imaginative landscape both familiar – wizards, dragons, strange lands and a simple but well-drawn map tucked between the title page and the first chapter to tell you where you were – and yet strange, as Le Guin took some of the tropes of epic fantasy that had been invented or reinvented by writers like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and proceeded to shape them to her own ends. Her interest in Taoism, in the balance of light and dark, and in cultures different to her own (her parents were anthropologists) led her to explore the ultimate questions of what makes us human, and what we are capable of being, by placing her characters in fantastic or extraordinary situations and then showing how they – and, by implication, we – might react, might grow and change.

In both the Earthsea books and stories, and in her Hainish Cycle of science fiction (Hain being the fictional planet where in Le Guin’s universe humanoid civilization first develops before spreading out across the galaxy), her tone is thoughtful, compassionate, non-judgemental, and she does the reader the great courtesy of treating them as an equal, even (perhaps especially) in her work for children. There are no literary pyrotechnics, no “look what I can do” showing off, and she is never pretentious or condescending. All this might sound overly worthy, but as well as being beautifully written her stories are also exciting and gripping to read, her invented worlds so well crafted that one can become completely absorbed in them.

She can be angry, too, and her polemical novel “The Word for World Is Forest” (which I have discussed in an earlier post) seethes with barely suppressed rage against the Vietnam War (it was written in 1968), and some of her short fiction, notably “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, upend the reader’s expectations and leave us with more questions than answers, which is as it should be. Though clearly she believed that there were better and fairer ways of organising society than those currently on offer, she was too alive to the contradictions and idiosyncrasies of human nature to assert unambiguous fidelity to a particular political creed. Her novel “The Dispossessed” is subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia”, and neither Anarres nor Urras, the two contrasting worlds of the story, are presented as perfect or necessarily worthy of emulation.

The more enlightened societies of her stories are often small, village-like, living in harmony with nature rather than against it, effectively autonomous from central authority, gently anarchist, valuing technology only in terms of its practical utility and not as an end in itself. They are places you believe she has visited, which of course she has, in her mind, with a keen anthropologist’s determination to study and record, and report back. To build a better world you first have to imagine it, and what an imagination Ursula Le Guin had, an imagination that could change minds, and will continue to do so, long after she is gone. She has died, but she leaves us a wealth of fiction and non-fiction (her best essays, like her stories, are laced with a dry wit and the sharp observations of this most pragmatic of enlightened thinkers) to read and re-read, and to cherish and pass on. It’s somewhat of a cliché, I know, to describe someone as casting “a long shadow”, but for a great lover of the natural world like Ursula Le Guin I think it is entirely apposite to say that many people will find hope and refreshment in that cool shade, and that her words will continue to nourish those of us who love them, and those yet to discover them, as long as they are read.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

Drooj

“She is drooj – a magus of the ancient world.”

Hi there.

Here’s the first of a projected series of posts on some of the terminology used in the Glenaster Chronicles, and – hopefully – I’ll be writing about some of the main characters and places, etc. too.

I thought I’d start with the term “drooj”, which crops up quite a bit in both The Witch of Glenaster and The Widow’s Thorn.

Like most of the unusual words that appear in my work, it is real and not made up, and is my (no doubt clumsy) attempt to render phonetically the word “druj”, which comes from Zoroastrianism, the ancient Iranian religion based on the principle of order and truth (“asha”) as opposed to disorder and falsehood (“druj”).

Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia for over a thousand years, until the rise of Islam in the 7th Century, but there are still several thousand Zoroastrians worldwide. Fire and water are sacred elements in their belief, and their places of worship are called fire temples, with a source of natural water such as a well somewhere in the grounds, and an inner chamber containing a fire that is tended day and night by magi or priests.

The word “druj” in Zoroastrianism appears to be an abstract noun, but apparently it can also be feminine, and from my limited reading on the subject “Druj” with a capital “D” seems to refer to a female demon.

My own version of the word, “drooj”, is used as the collective term for many if not all followers of the Witch of Glenaster, specifically those with magical or supernatural powers.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.