The Sea, My High Tide Lover

We’ve made a trailer for our story For All the Dead, which will appear in Flame Tree Press’ collection of horror stories, Beyond the Veil. You can read more about it here, and of course order it at your indie book store or online.

We really had fun with this one! The frame you see at the start was carved about 125 years ago by my great-grandfather, Sietze van Dijk, in traditionally Frisian style. It (usually) holds the 1895 wedding photo of my great-grandparents.

The shanty, with lyrics, is our own, though of course we’d secretly be quite chuffed if someone were to think it a traditional song:

The sea she is my high tide lover,
She provides me with her waves.
The sea she is a jealous lover,
And she took back all she gave.

In preparation for our story we wrote down several bits of lore the people of our (fictional) Soltcamp would believe about the sea. Not all of it made it into the story, though we hope that the idea of the sea as an off-page but very present character remains. We’d like to share some of those thoughts with you:

  • They knew that the sea would keep taking; a different force acted there than on the land. On the first day, God divided the Earth and the Sea. While God dwelled on the land, he was not welcome beyond the dike.
  • The sea is like a mistress: the men of Soltcamp plow her at night-time with the prows of their boats, and in daytime they return home to their wives’ beds to sleep and rest.
  • There wasn’t a man or woman born on the coast who couldn’t read the sea and the sky like a book. It was the book they read next to the Bible – they kept one eye on the Bible, the other on the sea.
  • It was a thing for the widows and orphans, and fewer orphans came every year, as the boys grew up and followed their dead fathers to the sea, or followed their own instincts inland, away from the salt air. There were some whose blood the sea never called to, and sometimes she thought they were the lucky ones.
  • The people from Ollerom look down on the Soltcampers as a lesser community. They call them fish heads, and act as if the smell of fish never leaves them, no matter how much soap they use.
  • Pastor Arend was at one point called Joannes: Oane is an old Frysian version of Anne, and I guess of Joannes. Joannes is a call-back too, to Oannes, the fish-man sage of Sumerian legend, who brought writing, arts and the sciences to man. It wouldn’t make sense for there to be a connection, of course.
  • The underlying event here is initiation into womanhood. Does the girl want the knowledge that comes with growing up and taking on the responsibility of marriage? Or, to turn it around: does the mother want to pass on the knowledge that will mean her daughter is decisively no longer a child and has to make her own mistakes?

Angeline on a very cold day in early April 2013, at the monument for the 83 fishermen of the village of Paesens-Moddergat, who drowned in the night from 5 on 6 March 1883.

Mists and Mummers: Robin Hood

It doesn’t have doesn’t have Bryan Adams rasping “Everything I do” and it doesn’t have Kevin Costner, or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio with big hair. Nor does it have Alan Rickman sneering away as the Sheriff of Nothingham. It doesn’t have a the Sheriff of N. at all, actually (nor any other plot points and characters directly lifted from TV’s Robin of Sherwood).  This Robin Hood film  did also come out in 1991, and as a result withered in the shadow of the mega-hit Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

You may encounter this one on one of the streaming channels, and think it some sort of Asylum-like mockbuster. I mean, who is Patrick Bergin? But then you look at the supporting cast: Uma Thurman, Jürgen Pronchow, Edward Fox, Jeroen Krabbé – none are top billers (in Thurman’s case, not yet at least), but all  far from C-listers. Something else is going on: that thing where two movies about the same topic arrive at the same time, and one just has that edge. 

And yet, though RH:PoT had Costner, hot off Dances with Wolves, Robin Hood has what it lacked: atmosphere and charisma. In this regard it reminds us more than anything of Robin of SherwoodPoT may have taken its superficial trappings, like the Saracen merry man (not part of the Robin Hood story until Richard Carpenter wrote him in) and a passing resemblance between Mastrantonio’s Maid Marian and Judi Trott’s, but the other Robin Hood film has its heart. 

It is similarly drenched in atmosphere, with the camera lingering lovingly on foggy winter forest scapes, and some absolutely cracking locations. The story really works too: it’s very focused on the conflict between Saxon and Norman, peasant and landowner. The conflict is described as peasants, ruled by a corrupt and thieving upperclass – topical. The film discards Gisbourne, and the Sheriff of Nothingham, and instead gives us Sir Miles Folcanet (Pronchow) and Baron Roger Daguerre (Krabbé), giving it a slightly more historical edge. 

Uma Thurman too is a departure from the ethereal image of Maid Marian we got from PoT and RoS, but she’s got what this Robin needs: guts and keen insight. Hers are some of the better lines, like when she’s forced into marriage with Baron Roger, who declares her the most beautiful bride England has ever seen: “I am the most pitiful bride England has ever seen.” Or at her eventual marriage to Robin (surely not a spoiler!): “I will not marry to symbolise a peace, or to ratify a treaty. But… this man I will have… because he makes the May tree blossom and the bees buzz in my breast. I will take this man because he brings springtime to my heart.”

The big difference between this take and Robin of Sherwood is the 1991 film’s lack of supernatural elements. Yet,  it does have pagan festivities, mummers, and someone dressed as a Green Man present at Robin and Marian’s wedding! Patrick Bergin’s native Irish accent sometimes slips through a bit, but this hardly hurts his Robin Hood, while Costner’s was just so – American!

A literate script, spirited performances, a camera that makes Sherwood Forest into something much more than a collection of trees; all that with a hint of folklore and a pagan past living side by side with Christ. If you’ve loved Robin of Sherwood (by the way, see our blog post on how it blended social justice, folklore and supernatural elements to create some very resonant storytelling) and are in the mood for more: do seek this one out! You can find it on Disney+, pay to stream it on Prime, or buy the DVD. 

Pandering

From the “As I Was Saying…” editorial, Science Fiction Quarterly vol.1 No.2, January 1951:

There are some matters outside of the editor’s province. To a large extent, the covers and artwork are dictated by company policy; advertising is out of the editor’s hands completely. I can modify the cover and artwork in accordance with reader’s opinions, but cannot change the type of cover and artwork we use – unless a large volume of comment indicates disapproval. That means thousands, not hundreds, of letters saying, “We don’t like girlie covers.” As matters stand, there has, at times, been a small plurality of disapproval in regards to a particular cover, or set of illustrations – and nothing like uniform reasons for the disapproval even here. Some haven’t liked the artist, or the particular scene, or the amount of lettering on the cover, etc.

Of course, most of the above applies more strictly to Future, inasmuch as this is only the second issue of Quarterly, but since our “policy” is the same for both magazines, it applies here. So – the cover policy is “set” but it can be “unset” if enough of you let us know what you want.

One of the most common come-backs to my explanation of why we use the type of covers we do is something like “Well, Astounding sells very well, and they haven’t used the kind of lurid covers you use use for years.” Quite true. But Astounding didn’t start out with the type of cover it uses today; the early issues were definitely action-pictures, with bright colours, fantastic scenes, and girls. The book had a large, well-established audience before any basic changes were made; we’re trying to build up an audience, and we are frankly making as wide an appeal as possible. If you help me build up this audience, then I can help you get the kind of magazine you want, covers included.

We’re at the Virtual 2021 Octocon

Like last year, Octocon has gone virtual again. Octocon is the Irish national science fiction convention, and will take place from 1 – 3 October. It is packed with a great program that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own living room! Registration is entirely free, though donations are of course welcome.

That’s one golden lining of the Covid cloud; events have not only opened up for audience worldwide, but also for people who live on its doorstep but because of health/accessibility/other reasons wouldn’t be able to attend. We, for one (or two?), hope that ‘back to normal’ won’t include conventions going offline again!

You can find us on the following program items:

Saturday, October 2, 10:00 Irish Summer Time (UST+1) – The Resurgence of Fantasy on TV

Edmond Barrett (moderator), Juliet E McKenna, Paul Anthony Shortt, Karina Steffens, Remco van Straten

One thing is for sure, the Witcher is being pelted with coins right now. What has allowed fantasy in all its forms to be produced now in a way that other shows couldn’t match in years past? Is it just the locations and visual effects or do we have a better understanding of the material and what viewers are looking for? Are we writing better for television and streaming? And now that winter is over, where will you be tossing your coins next?

Saturday, October 2, 16:00 Irish Summer Time (UST+1) – Talk: Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fantasy

Angeline B. Adams

Why is Henry Cavill in “The Witcher” bigger than Superman? And why did Yennefer have to get rid of her disability? For the answers, we have to go back to the Father of Heroic Fantasy, Robert E. Howard. His Conan the Barbarian is the ultimate survivor, who walked away from his own crucifixion. We discover his origins in a mix of macho culture and concealed vulnerability, Texan tough guys and hidden narratives of disability.

Saturday, October 2, 19:00 Irish Summer Time (UST+1) – The Pen is Mighty: Writing Fight Sequences

Damien Larkin (moderator), Juliet E McKenna, Kat Dodd, Jo Zebedee, Remco van Straten

A clear, readable and compelling action sequence is difficult enough to create when you have a team of martial artists working it out between live bodies; what hope does a single writer have alone against the most insidious of foes, the blank page? Join us as we talk to the creators who woke up and chose violence as they explain how to connect the punches when writing an action scene.

Saturday, October 2, 20:00 Irish Summer Time (UST+1) – Reading – Otherworlds NI

Angeline B. Adams, Samuel Poots, Sarah Murray, Gary McKay, Remco van Straten

Otherworlds NI is a group of SFF writers based in (or with links to) Northern Ireland. They will give a taster from their work.

Saturday, October 2, 21:00 Irish Summer Time (UST+1) – How Not to Code Your Non-Humans

Faranae (moderator), Angeline B. Adams, Kat Dodd, Cheryl Morgan, S.L. Dove Cooper

Writers often use traits of neurodiverse, non-binary, queer or disabled people as blueprints for their aliens, robots and monsters, but don’t allow their humans to share these characteristics. How can we build both human and non-human characters to exhibit a wide range of identities without resorting to mere ambiguous coding or else to using racist, sexist or other bigoted stereotypes?


Beyond the Veil

Just in time for Hallowe’en, but certainly in time for Christmas, the horror anthology Beyond the Veil is appearing with Flame Tree Press. You can already pre-order it in hardback, paperback and ebook, which we’d urge you to do, what with the paper shortages. Beyond the Veil is the second collection in a horror series; the first, After Sundown, was nominated for both the Shirley Jackson and the British Fantasy Awards for Best Anthology, with three of its stories selected for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year.

Beyond the Veil contains twenty original horror stories, sixteen of which were commissioned from some of the top names of the genre, with the other four selected from hundreds of submissions. It was again edited by Mark Morris, who writes: “I’m not interested in reassuring tales of monsters vanquished and the status quo restored. Horror stories to be should be confrontational. They should be about things that truly disturb us; things that prey on our minds. Things like loneliness and isolation; loss and grief; illness and death; the fear we feel for our own personal safety when faced with intimidation, violence and abuse.”

You can find the full list on Flame Tree Press’s blog post, as well as links to further info on each author. It’s a great list of names, and we are really proud to see ours amongst Priya Sharma, Toby Litt, Matthew Holness (Dream Weaver, and actor, of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace of which we’re huge fans), Lisa Tuttle, and Jeremy Dyson (League of Gentlemen, another favourite of ours).

For our story, For All The Dead, we returned to the area I grew up in, close to the Northern Dutch coast, but that of a century and a bit back. We find ourselves in Soltcamp, the fictionalised version of Zoutkamp, the fisherman’s village that once lay by the sea. It’s a village where the people kept, in the words of one of our characters, ‘one eye on the Bible, the other on the sea.’ It allowed us to play with the folklore of the sea, and embroider our own mythology.

Familiar as we are with the history of Zoutkamp, we worked in elements of one of its infamous residents of the past, the seer Meldine, who was said to have made many predictions of things still to happen, and with her followers to practice her own particular version of Christianity. She is said to have appeared at funerals to preach about the fate of the departed, until the villagers felt she carried that too far and told her to stop. You can read more about Meldine, and other prophets of the sea, in our article for Northern Earth.

The sea, an ever lurking danger behind the dikes of the low-lying areas, certainly had a hold over the people of the coast. It provided their livelihood, but several big floods also devastated the countryside. Chief amongst them was the Christmas flood of 1717, claiming 14,000 lives, but there were other dangers. For our story we were thinking of the disaster of of 1883. A few years ago we visited the monument on the dike of the village of Moddergat on a cold and windy April day; its plaque tells how 109 fishermen went out on 22 ships, and how 17 ships and 83 men remained at sea.

The sea giveth, and she taketh away.

Disability and Heroic Fantasy

When the first season of “The Witcher” launched at the end of 2019, two conversations dominated my Twitter timeline: “Look at the size of Henry Cavill!” and “Why did the witch Yennefer have to lose her disability to be powerful?” These two elements are interlinked, and can be directly traced back to the roots of Heroic Fantasy as we know it, with the Texan pulp writer Robert E. Howard. 

“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of.” – We all know this fragment, ending with the introduction of that ultimate survivor, Conan, “the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

Having died at the age of 30, by his own hand, Conan’s creator, Robert Ervin Howard is an enigmatic and complicated figure. Several biographies have been written about him, pouring over his writing, letters and background to make sense of him. The tone was set by science fiction and fantasy writer L. Sprague De Camp, who brought Conan back into print along with “posthumous collaborations.” He summed Howard up as “maladjusted to the point of psychosis.” There’s a surprising lack of sympathy there, and you have to wonder if he found in Howard some sort of distorted mirror, into which he all too easily projected his own dreams, fears and failures. 

Perhaps I am doing the same, as a disabled author, in looking at Robert E. Howard, and the genre he created, through the lens of disability. Yet, given Howard’s disabled mother, and his father, a country doctor in an area where serious accidents were a fact of life, it’s worth looking at how disability filtered into his work, both implicitly and explicitly, and often through rejection of vulnerability. Howard, of course, did not invent the superhuman hero, but he did infuse his protagonists with grit, with insistence. For Howard “this is just how heroes are,” no longer suffices. For him, “this is how they need to be.” 

We find Robert E. Howard staring in that Mirror of Tuzun Thune, and seeing Conan, an idealised essence of himself. Conan endlessly reaches towards life, towards survival, in a world where barbarism will always win out over civilisation. These have become the central tenets of Heroic Fantasy, and its defining features, from Howard onwards to The Witcher, Game of Thrones, and The First Law.  

Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fantasy: A Reading List

If you’ve enjoyed my Octocon talk, Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fantasy, and would like to explore these subjects further, I can recommend the resources below. You can also download the slideshow Remco made to accompany the talk here.

Books:

  • Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard – Mark Finn. Get it on Amazon UK or US.
  • Disability, Literature, Genre: Representation and Affect in Contemporary Fiction – Ria Cheyne. An open access PDF is available from the publisher.

Film:

  • The Whole Wide World (1996) – Robert E. Howard biopic, available to rent on Amazon Prime.

Articles and blog posts:

Historical context:

Worms of the Earth

Between the menhirs flowed a dark tide of shadows, unstable and chaotic. The Ring filled with glittering eyes, which hovered beyond the dim illusive circle of illumination cast by the phosphorescent altar. Somewhere in the darkness a human voice tittered and gibbered idiotically. Bran stiffened, the shadows of a horror clawing at his soul.
He strained his eyes, trying to make out the shapes of those who ringed him. But he glimpsed only billowing masses of shadow which heaved and writhed and squirmed with almost fluid consistency.
“Let them make good their bargain!” he exclaimed angrily.
“Then see, oh king!” cried Atla in a voice of piercing mockery.

There was a stir, a seething in the writhing shadows, and from the darkness crept, like a foor-legged animal, a human shape that fell down and groveled at Bran’s feet and writhed and mowed, and lifting a death’s-head, howled like a dying dog. In the ghastly light, Bran, soul-shaken, saw the blank glass eyes, the bloodless features, the loose, writhing, froth-covered lips of sheer lunacy – gods, was this Titus Sulla, the proud lord of life and death in Eboracum’s proud city?

– Robert E. Howard, Worms of the Earth.

This is from towards the ending of the Bran Mak Morn story Worms of the Earth, in which the wronged Pictish king takes revenge on the Romans that oppress his people, by enlisting the aid of those that once were driven away and underground by the Picts themselves, and there devolved into something presented as less than human. It was accepted by Weird Tales in January or February of 1932, and published in its November issue. Also in February 1932, Tod Browning’s Freaks appeared in the cinemas. This famous scene (the better copy won’t embed), is from its end :

Unless we stretch this timeline beyond the reasonable, it’s unlikely that it has inspired Howard. It had to have played in Howard’s local picture house on release, and not after a long journey to the sticks. He’d had to rush home, bang out his story on the old Underwood no. 5, post it and have it approved within days. Perhaps word of the ending get out from the previews held in January? Or was it something that was just in the water?

The similarities between the endings of Worms of the Earth and Freaks are there, and it does make you wonder: how did (and do) we regard those with bodies different than ours, and where lies the line between compassion and discomfort? As the some of a country practitioner and a disabled mother, Robert E. Howard was all too aware of bodies broken by disaster and disease. This can certainly be found in his work, be it explicit, more implicit or present in the negative space around his super humans.

Angeline will do a talk on Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fantasy at OctoCon, the national Irish science fiction convention. This will be held virtually, on Saturday 2 October, 4pm (“Dublin Time”; 3pm GMT). Registering is free – we hope to see you there!

Was it worth it, Joanne?

We’re not trans, so we’ve been wondering whether it’s our place to speak up. But we have trans and NB friends, and we are all too aware of their stress, anger and fear. We ourselves are minorities (Angeline is disabled, Remco an immigrant in the UK) faced with discrimination in our own ways. We are all too conscious of “first they come for…” In a way, ‘they’ have already come for us, and if there is one thing we believe in, it’s that where minorities support each other they form a stronger, intersectional opposing voice and campaigning platform.

Not being trans certainly hasn’t stopped other people from speaking out, and hurting the trans community. One famous person whose voice has massively changed the discourse, influencing public opinion and government policy is JK Rowling. She got pilloried for it by angry and fearful people from the trans community and their allies, which in turn lead to a rallying around her of others, denouncing ‘cancel culture’. Bullying is bad, y’all! We must stay polite!

We don’t need to go into Rowling’s whole terf history, but want to just highlight this, from her infamous public letter:When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman (…) then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.

Her whole letter may speak of concern for trans people, acknowledge that they’re vulnerable, but there’s an overarching feeling of “but will somebody think of our children!” And this is the point where that all coalesces for her: “if you’re a trans woman, I don’t want you in a female bathroom.” Of course, there are plenty arguments to be made against this, but we’re very curious to hear her views on where trans women then should go when they’ve got to pee. Her logic dictates that trans women go to male bathrooms, and trans men go to the female restrooms. She can’t be expecting their bodily functions to cease, can she?

So, what then? There are many scenarios possible. You’ve got non-trans women and men who “don’t look female or manly enough,” and are now scrutinised. There are trans people who may not currently experience any issues, but will now feel unsafe. There are predators who have never felt the need to put on a dress to violate women, and will still not go through the effort of learning to walk on heels. Perhaps there is that one exception, and he’ll find pretty much the same as in the male bathrooms: stalls with closed doors, feet perhaps visible below the doors, and women washing their hands.

Nicole Maines and Brian Michael Smith (composite photo)

But let’s take two trans actors from the USA as an example; Nicole Maines and Brian Michael Smith. Let’s say Nicole is on a night out and needs to go to the toilet. As per Rowling’s Law, she goes to the male toilet. Here’s the thing though: JKR is so afraid of male abuse towards women in toilets, but the likelihood that Nicole will now face abuse, verbally or physically, is big. That same afternoon, Brian had been getting some early Christmas shopping in at Macy’s, and goes to the female toilet. Inside, a woman panics (so much in the news about predators violating female spaces!), grabs her phone and calls the cops.

Was it all worth it, Joanne?

Patrick’s Neck

Somehow, a few days ago, I picked up the merest draught – perhaps by having two small windows at the same time to air the house? This resulted in my neck muscle tensing, and I’m still trying to un-tense it three days later, with hot water bottle, electric shrug and scarf. It goes beyond a stiff neck: the muscle that runs from my ear to my sternum has a bulge the size of an egg, and it shoots pain into the back of my head with every movement, with my heartbeat, even. In the worst case, nausea an a full blown migraine soon follow. It’s got a name: sternocleidomastoid syndrome.

We’ve previously blogged about Wuthering Heights, the Brontë sisters, and their father Patrick Brontë. In all his photos you’ll see him as some sort of turtle, his head peeking out of a cocoon of fabric. In his days, people were already laughing about the lengths of silk (‘neck stock’) he would wind around his neck, as if it was some kind of affectation, the Reverend Brontë being eccentric.

I wonder though; he was living in that draughty parsonage of Haworth, with the cold winds sweeping up from the Yorkshire moors. Might it be that he too was prone to his neck muscle catching any draught, and did he just take a sensible precaution against days of being impaired by neck pain and a thumping head ache, in an era without electric heated pads?

RvS

Did GRRM Read The BirthGrave?

The late Tanith Lee has been considered somewhat of a writers’ writer – she never stuck to one market, her prose is often quixotic, and her stories full of these little things that make us common hacks sit upright and reevaluate our own writing prowess. Even when we can’t remember the plots of her books exactly, scenes stay with us, and characters, set-pieces, and moods. Her first novel for adults, The Birthgrave, was published by DAW in 1975, and I wonder whether it lodged itself in the mind of George R.R. Martin, then a budding writer as of yet not burdened with finishing his magnum opus or the pronunciation of international names.

Let’s consider the start of The Birthgrave.

A young woman wakes up in a volcano. She finds her way out, and the volcano erupts behind her, but leaves her unscathed. She finds herself in a village, and she’s definitely different than the villagers, with her hair and her face – well, the villagers amongst which she finds herself can’t bear looking at it. She spends a short time in the village, worshipped as a goddess, before she’s kidnapped by the warrior-king Darak. She tries to escape but is no match for him and she submits. He ravages her. Darak is the leader of the Hill People, who live in tents. She slowly warms to him, and as his wife she quickly gains influence with the tribe. She has the healing gift, but in healing one of Darak’s pregnant wifes, she kills both her and the unborn child. Darak’s got great plans for his tribe, but alas, he dies. She goes on a quest to find out her heritage -meets a dragon, gets pregnant by one of her captors- before she finds out that she’s the last survivor of lost civilisation.

Daenerys is a young woman, with her brother one of the last surviving Targaryens. She’s definitely different from the people she lives with in exile, with her white hair and striking good looks.She lives the life of a princess, before she is forced into marriage with the horse lord Khal Drogo. She fights him, but is no match for him and she submits. He ravages her. Khal Drogo is the leader of the Dothraki, who live in tents. She slowly warms to him, and as his wife she gains the respect of the tribe. She’s got great plans, reclaiming the Iron Throne, which she sees as her birthright. She gets pregnant of him, but alas, he dies, and so does her unborn child. She walks through Khal’s funeral pyre, but the fire leaves her unscathed. Now worshipped as a goddess, she becomes the mother of dragons, and goes on to try and reclaim her heritage.

When discussing the influences on his A Song of Ice and Fire cycle, George R.R. Martin has mainly cited the historical War of the Roses, and in a Guardian interview he pays his dues to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. “…after Tolkien there was a dark period in the history of epic fantasy where there were a lot of Tolkien imitations coming out that were terrible,” he’s said “I didn’t necessarily want to be associated with those books, which just seemed to me to be imitating the worst things of Tolkien and not capturing any of the great things.”

Did he capture some of the great things of Tanith Lee work? He wouldn’t be the first. On the long list Martin has cited as influences or sources of enjoyment, Lee’s name can’t be found. For me, the parallels between how The Birthgrave and Danenerys’ storyline in A Game of Thrones begin are just too striking. Plagiarism? Or imagery that had nestled in GRRM’s mind before he started writing professionally, to jump onto the page when he began his own series a decade and a half later?

And another thing: does he correct people when they mispronounce Dothraki?