Nominate us for a Hugo!

For the first time in our sojourn as writers, we find ourselves with Hugo eligible stories, so please allow us to set out our stalls, praise our wares, and beg your consideration and indulgence!

With One Eye, Bright as a Star (Short story, 3200 words)
In the stark northern Dutch countryside, an old man teaches his grandson to be a man, but the forging of their fragile bond is interrupted by a confrontation with the supernatural – and the family secret.
(Published in The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase, Air and Nothingness Press, January 2021).

For All the Dead (Short story, 6800 words)
“The sea gives and the sea takes away.” Raised in a remote Dutch fishing village, in the shadow of a storm that took most of its men, Hanne’s heard this truism all her life. But as a new storm rolls in, Hanne issues the sea a terrible challenge. Find more background here, and reviews here.
(Published in Beyond the Veil, Flame Tree Press, October 2021)

Caught in Wax (Short story, 3600 words)
In an Amsterdam divided by poverty and disease, where the First World War never happened and the vampires scream from the rooftops, a band of misfits puts together a show to raise the dead.
The Chill Inside (Short story, 2200 words)
Anton, a medium who heals hearts and hides his own lost love, welcomes a skeptical guest to his circle, giving him an epiphany he’ll never forget.
Reel Number Seven (Short story, 6100 words)
It is the early days of cinema, when the pictures are silent and the cameras cranked by hand. A terrible incident disrupts the filming of “Wuthering Heights”, and Lawrence Olivier must go to desperate lengths to save his film, and bring his lover Vivien to the screen.
(These three stories form AaNX 1: Emerging From Darkness, Air and Nothingness Press, December 2021)

And if you nominate nothing else, please consider nominating Air and Nothingness Press’ editor Todd Sanders for the Editor (Short Form) category! There is an excellent interview with Todd on HorrorTree.com, but we’d also like to share our own experiences.

When Todd chose With One Eye, Bright as a Star for The Wild Hunt, we appreciated Todd’s prompt handling of contract and payment, and his communication throughout the editing process. Even our authors’ copies, neatly wrapped and sealed with an AaNP sticker, showed Todd’s attention to detail. The book itself is beautiful: smaller than your usual paperback, with immaculate interior design, and a heavy stock cover with french flaps. Todd has experimented with the form throughout AaNP’s twenty-five years, and when he has an idea, he makes it happen, such as his take on the old Ace Doubles.

When Todd requested stories for a Steampunk collection, we were game and immediately began Reel Number Seven: a take on Wuthering Heights, a perennial favourite of ours. We transplanted the Olivier version to the silent film era, with a dash of the German Expressionist Zur Chronik von Grieshuus (if you have a good quality DVD, please send it over!). Well over word count, we started again with Caught in Wax, loosely inspired by Rem’s goth days in Amsterdam; the warehouse building in which the trio of outcasts have their concert is real, though now converted into luxury flats. Our strange story intrigued Todd: it wasn’t quite what his anthology needed, but he was curious about its background. Meanwhile, we took the opportunity to strengthen its structure.

Though Caught in Wax was not selected for the anthology, Todd was eager to use it, and asked if we had similar stories. We sent him the other story, and his reply: “So how did you guys get so good?” encouraged us in an otherwise deeply trying autumn. He told us his idea for a newsletter-type mini-collection, and asked if we could tie these stories together with something small, set in the same universe. We already had an idea based on a fragment written and discarded years ago, and set to work. Meanwhile, he shared with us the first rough newsletter layouts. We felt very much collaborators in the project, and were even able to make suggestions. When we handed in the last of the stories, The Chill Inside, a contract followed immediately, as did arrangements for payment.

Todd Sanders produces beautiful books with great stories. The reader gets something really special; in a world of mass market paperbacks and print on demand, he has found a niche producing books that offer a sense of occasion so rare for some of us, as reading becomes a snatched pleasure amid life’s pressures. This is what he set out to do as a one-man publisher 25 years ago, and he still maintains this quality. However, why we want to highlight his work as an editor in particular is because of his impeccable and generous work with his authors: he keeps them informed throughout, from submission to authors’ copies, he edits with consideration, and he is very punctual with paperwork and pay!

Too often, small time press can make for a disappointing product and a frustrating experience for the writer. For Todd, Air and Nothingness Press is a labour of love; he extends this his readers and authors.

Vampire: the Scourge of Amsterdam (1919)

As I looked through the Dutch newspaper archive for information on Nosferatu‘s Dutch premiere for a blog post, I stumbled upon something that I, fairly knowledgeable on horror film history, didn’t know about: an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was produced in the Netherlands in 1919, a full three years before Murnau made Nosferatu in 1922!

As the advertisement from the Flora cinema in The Hague proclaims:
VAMPIRE
The Scourge of Amsterdam

Mysterious film play in 6 acts. Freely adapted from the novel “Drasula” from Bram Stoker.
VAMPIRE
Does this word not sound like the midnight call of the death bird? Take heed to voice that thought; otherwise the images of life will bleach to shadows. The child Belia’s was the vampire who lived off – and fed from the blood of mankind. Ghostly shapes arise from the midnight fog and creep up to their prey.
Do reserve Your seat early!!

This certainly sounds like something the Dutch cinema-going audience can’t have been used to, and a review from the national newspaper the Algemeen Handelsblad of 11 April 1919 supports this, if not without a critical note.

Vampire, the scourge of Amsterdam, the plague, the spectral mystery. The bloodsucking ghost with horrific rats as escort and coffins full of cursed earth as luggage; see here the appealing-sensational image of the film.
It is true that with the excessive demand for increased sensation and emotions, the audience is making it difficult for the scenario writers. Scary absurdities, death leaps and dangerous stunts, unnatural happenings “that should not be” and “easy girls” are still popular, in film as in the theatre; serious works of art in contrast get low receipts. And that’s the pity with this film.
The subject, with a somewhat less Grand Guignol-like treatment, could have made for an engaging story. The director certainly chose the appropriate settings for it: the vampire seems completely at one with the crumbling castle near the German city of Bremen which he haunts, and the dark-romantic forest that surrounds it. Once this harbinger of sorrow and plague moves to the quiet-complacent old city of Amsterdam, with its picturesque homes and streets and the so appropriate clothing of almost a century ago, he stands out by contrast.
For a first rate work one could also not wish for better players: the eminent Louis Bouwmeester as the professor who matches his wits with the vampire, the young man and his wife (the lovely Mientje Kling), and the vampire himself all give a splendid and gripping performance. But we are convinced that within a somewhat less overdone framework they would contributed to an even better whole.

I haven’t seen any mentions of it in the usually dependable reference books, and have found only a few vague allusions online. From the available information, a tantalising picture emerges of a film all but forgotten, and almost certainly lost.

The female lead was played by the Dutch actress Mientje Kling, who started as a theatre performer and then worked in silent movies for the Film Fabriek Hollandia, the main Dutch film production company, and Theo Frenkel’s Amsterdam Film Compagnie. After her marriage she mainly worked in radio.
Louis Bouwmeester is a surprising member of the cast: he was one of the great Dutch actors of the late 19th century. He was a Dutch Henry Irving if you will – especially interesting as Irving employed Dracula’s author Bram Stoker, and may have inspired the Count. Like Irving, Bouwmeester excelled in meaty dramatic roles; we can get a sense of his acting from a celebration of his 60 years on the stage.
The director of Vampire, Theo Frenkel, was Louis Bouwmeester’s nephew, and actually worked in the UK using his uncle’s surname. Family ties will account for his uncle’s appearance in his film, and we can imagine that the elder Bouwmeester was offered the part of the vampire, but agreed to the smaller but still pivotal part of the Professor.

The few photographs I could find of the film can be matched up with scenes from Stoker’s book, if you squint: Harker escaping from the castle (though it resembles an Amsterdam rooftop); the vampire bringing a baby to his brides, but here surrounded by several people I assume are his servants; then with windswept hair at a seaside graveyard, but as Amsterdam and Bremen are both harbour towns it’s difficult to judge whether it is from before or after he boards the Demeter. Only the shot of him and Mina behind the window – note the similarity with lead actress Mientje’s name – seems completely right, though Mina seems more welcoming of the vampire’s attentions than we usually see. It is somewhat curious that there are no photos of Louis Bouwmeester as the Professor, though his name will surely have been intended as a box office draw. Perhaps the old man’s generosity towards his film-making nephew did not include promotional pictures?

Even more strangely, while the vampire is visible in several of the images, we do not have a name for the character, or even for the actor. The review mentions Bremen as the origin of the vampire, which reminds me of the late-Medieval, early-Renaissance alchemist Dietrich von Buntes, who was said to never appear outside in daylight, or to eat, and who was known as Die Wampür von Bremen. Bram Stoker, when researching his novel, likely stumbled on contemporary accounts of Von Buntes, as an early draft of Dracula perfectly describes the figure we also find in Vampire – the Scourge of Amsterdam, with the moustache, eye-glasses, peculiarly arched nostrils and lofty domed forehead.

When Bram Stoker’s widow got wind of W.F. Murnau’s Nosferatu, she successfully claimed copyright infringement, which led to the destruction of the film. It is only through some copies that were sent to the USA that we can still enjoy this gem of early horror cinema. Murnau had been careful, though unsuccessfully so: the names of Stoker’s characters were changed, and the stiff, bald, ugly Orlok bears no resemblance to Dracula as we know him from the book. Had Murnau and his fellow filmmakers been alerted by what happened just a few years earlier in the neighbouring Netherlands? Frenkel didn’t hide that his Vampire was an adaptation of Dracula (the mention of Drasula in the advertisement will have been the work of a non-fan typesetter). Had he naively tried to sell the film to his contacts in the UK? What’s clear is that Florence Stoker was very quick with her ‘burn it all’, as after this first advertisement and write-up in the Dutch newspaper, there is no further mention of the film. Lost films are still being found, mislabelled in archives, or in the hoards of elderly film collectors. There is still hope, then, that Vampire, the Scourge of Amsterdam will turn up again.

Meanwhile, Dietrich von Buntes remains an enigmatic figure, about whom there is plenty to read in the book I recently edited, Hastur’s Canvas, mainly dealing with Von Buntes’ time in Paris in the 1880s, in which he tried to win Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh for the causes of the Elder Gods. You can read more about it here, and order it via Amazon UK and US. Von Buntes had an extraordinarily long life, weaving his way through history, not only showing up in Paris, but also making his mark in England, and eventually in India during the First World War. It would be tempting to imagine him on Dutch soil in 1919, involving himself with a movie about a vampire which was, in a roundabout way, inspired by the legends about himself. A fanciful thought, of course, but just the kind of irony that would appeal to an immortal alchemist.

(RvS)

Van Gogh’s Ear

What really happened on the evening of 23 December 1888 in Arles? And how much of his ear did Vincent van Gogh actually cut off? And why did he do it? Usually, I’m wary of “now, finally: the true story!” books, as they’re too easily a set-up for crackpottery (no, DaVinci did not paint Mary Magdalen in his Last Supper, and Walter Sickert was not Jack the Ripper). Bernadette Murphy’s Van Gogh’s Ear, however, wipes away a century’s worth of careless reporting, gossip, myth-making and speculating, instead unearthing primary sources to bring a careful, particularly thorough and compelling narrative surrounding that one event.

The colour section contains a spread of two self-portraits Vincent painted in January ‘89, shortly after he was released from the hospital where he was treated. Murphy writes about them:

There is not a shred of self-pity or melodrama: he looks straight out from the canvas at the viewer, unnervingly steady. Vincent was not only acknowledging in paint what he had done – his own particular way of expressing emotional experience – but he was also recording his self-harm. (…)

Despite the Van Gogh Museum having accepted both portraits as authentic, there has been much debate about them amongst critics: why would he paint the same portrait twice? What about the differences between both paintings, like the colour of the fur trimming of the hat (black on one painting, blue on another)? The Japanese print in the background of the second portrait is taken as a sign that it’s the genuine article of the two, as it’s known that Vincent had it in his collection. However, others think the latter an “absolute fraud,” with the copyist omitting the pipe from Vincent’s mouth, but keeping the lips pursed. To my eye, both of the paintings are genuine. Should an art critic want to make anything of the colour of the fur trimming, they don’t understand anything about light, colour or art, and have no business critiquing art.

The first portrait, made immediately on his return to his Yellow House, is a record of himself after the traumatic event, much as I have photographed myself after a serious accident, and Angeline has photographed herself immediately after major surgery. It’s a psychological need, and perhaps a way of coming to terms with a changed ‘self’. The portrait is also the work of someone who is really good at what he does, but at the same time is physically unwell. In the background and the green cape we see Vincent’s familiar technique and colour use. We know it well from so many paintings, and he could probably do that in his sleep. When he paints his face, however, he gets unstuck. He’d done many self-portraits by then, but the bandage and the new fur-trimmed hat he’d bought would’ve changed his usual set-up for painting his face. Also, being still weak, probably tired and perhaps medicated, meant he wasn’t in the best form to paint his portrait – you wouldn’t do your best work in his circumstances either.

However, he’d recorded what he wanted, and left it that for the moment – perhaps happy that he got the thing done at all. I can imagine, though, that a week or so later, he looked at the painting and had a change of heart. Rather than fixing the painting, he made a new one. After all, it wasn’t uncommon for him to return to the same subject several times. The pose he takes is knowingly similar to the earlier painting, as it is a reaction to it. We can see that the padding beneath the bandage is not as bulky; he’ll have had it renewed, and with his wound slowly healing, less padding will have been needed. Vincent’s face in the painting looks more like the one we’re used to seeing, though still clean-shaven, and he proves to himself that his painting skills are returning to him. Where the earlier red and orange background can be seen as the depiction of a mind that had been in turmoil, he now paints the Japanese print and a painting easel behind him: he is feeling calmer now, and looking to the future again, as an artist.

There’s another self-portrait which has been considered a fake. There have apparently been decades of doubt about it, but I cannot imagine why – if you’d forge a Van Gogh, surely you’d at least make it look more like one, doing some of the stripey and swirly stuff? And you’d not give him that weird expression, surely? He painted this portrait in August 1889 while in the asylum of Saint-Rémy. Vincent had been suffering from depression, and a psychotic episode that started in July and lasted for a month and a half. In a later letter to his brother Theo, Vincent wrote about a self-potrait “attempt from when I was ill”, and it’s a haunting piece of work. Van Gogh’s usual painting style is still there, somewhat, but it’s subdued by the heavily tamped-on paint. There’s no surety of line or light touch, but muddy colours and impasto noodling.

Anyone who is familiar with depression will recognise the look in Vincent’s face – it’s complete withdrawal, with slack and lifeless features. I’m not sure which title Vincent would have given it if he’d been in a poetic frame of mind, but I imagine “portrait of the artist as a hollow man” would be fitting. It’s not the portrait of a man who is mentally well at all, and yet Vincent felt the need to record this state of being; perhaps another attempt to getting to grips with this ‘self’ he had been confronting for the larger part of a year. And of course we know how it ended all too soon. His later paintings still have signs of doom and turmoil, though also colour and life; at times he had hope for the future. Resignation, at least.

Vincent’s time in Arles plays a large role in my novelette Hastur’s Canvas, out via Amazon UK and US.There’s depression in there, and Vincent’s descent on the path that would ultimately lead to his death. However, the book is set against the background of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, so fact and fiction play hide and seek with each other!

(RvS)

Hastur’s Canvas

The last months of 2021 were very heavy for us, and I looked for something creative but not too demanding that could serve as a ‘mental health anchor’. I decided to dust off a story I’d written decades ago, expand and edit it, and present it to the world as an illustrated, compact novella. Hastur’s Canvas is the result of this, and it can now be bought on Amazon (UK and US). It’s in ebook and paperback versions, but I recommend getting the paperback. If I say so myself: it looks very handsome!

I wrote the first draft of Hastur’s Canvas for a collection I co-edited decades ago. The magazine was supposed to recall the old Weird Tales and had the Lovecraft Mythos as its theme, but I can’t remember how I settled on Van Gogh. Maybe I was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model, or I looked in my bookcase, and my eye fell on the battered Van Gogh book that had been one of the few art books my parents had. When I browsed through that book, though, I felt: “this could work!”

It started as a bit of a joke, really; nothing serious. It’s not Shakespeare – though the Bard may well have turned up, as have Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and indeed Vincent Van Gogh. Because the shadowy figure at the heart of Hastur’s Canvas moves in mysterious ways!

The Magician and the Artist, as the story was called then, had all the obligatory Lovecraftian tropes: Old Ones, forbidden tomes, descent into insanity (not too much of a stretch, with Van Gogh) and self-referential nods. Lovecraft and his colleagues worked each other into their stories (August Derleth becomes the Compte d’Erlette, Robert Bloch turned up as Robert Blake, the great dark wizard Klarkash-Ton of course is Clark Ashton Smith. Likewise, we worked each other into our stories, subtly or not, and so it was that Dutch science fiction writer and mainstay Dirk Bontes became the pivotal figure in my story. He returned the favour, of course, with a painter of dreadful seascapes, who I in turn reclaimed.

The meeting between Van Gogh and DeBontés is not unlike my entrance into Dutch fandom. As an 18-year old, I made my way to The Hague to a monthly Science Fiction meet-up I’d heard about. It was held on the premises of a glorified sex club, making it a small miracle that I went in at all. Dirk spotted my uncomfortable self, and immediately took me under his wing and introduced me to some people worth knowing, like the editor of the club’s magazine (the Science Fiction club, that is) and other people I might find a connection with, like Jaap Boekestein, with whom I’d edit Waen Sinne some years later.

That first Waen Sinne from 2002 had as good a line-up as we could have, with both Dutch fan favourite Paul Harland and Mythos stalwart Eddy C. Bertin on board. As an extra for the magazine, I created a glossary in which I took all names and elements of all stories and, with a bit of elbow grease, forced them into a coherent mythology – a Dutch offshoot of the Cthulhu Mythos. A biographical sketch of the Comte DeBontés was part of this, with Dirk (or Derek, Dietrich, etc) popping in and out of history, in particular in the last century or so.

The Magician and the Artist made a reprise in the Mythos zine Cyäegha 17 about a decade later, somewhat revised, and retitled Canvas of Insanity. The glossary appeared there too, as did the other stories of Waen Sinne (Cyäegha 10). Still, I always felt that there was more I could do with it. And if it was good enough for Eddy Bertin – after all, his Waen Sinne story The Waiting Dark had appeared in English and Dutch, in several versions, as Mythos and ghost story. In fact, the Waen Sinne version was a translated and expanded version of an English version which appeared in Crypt of Cthulhu in 1985, and it was then translated back to English for Cyäegha. These tomes and their scribes!

Hastur’s Canvas is also edited and expanded quite a bit from the earlier story, making use of a proper biography of Vincent van Gogh, doing a fair amount of polishing, and picking up on some missed opportunities: with Gauguin’s travels to the South Sea, both before and after his time in Arles, why not lay a link to captain Obed Marsh and the inhabitants of those Pacific islanders of his (and en passant nod at Lovecraft’s racism)? I also expanded Von Buntes’ biography a bit, integrating it somewhat more with the overall narrative. Then, as I was falsifying history anyway, I repurposed art by Van Gogh, his contemporaries and others, to fit the story and the Mythos (Von Buntes as portrayed by Toulouse-Lautrec and Aubrey Beardsley are favourites), and capped the whole off with a new afterword, setting everything, including my original introduction, in the context of the now.

How much of the book is real, and what’s imaginary, may be hard to make out, and when editing the main narrative I wasn’t sure at times whether a biographical detail for Van Gogh was real or not. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, or perhaps it offers a chance for a second read: where does reality end and fiction begin? I won’t tell you…

Disability and Heroic Fantasy

Imagine 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.

This is what my talk, Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fantasy is about.

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.” 

If you’ve enjoyed my talk, 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:

Language and Identity

People like to place people; know in which box to put them. There are all sorts of shorthand for this; people can be tagged by the colour of their skin, by the clothes they wear or (like in Northern Ireland) by which sports club they support. I usually get tagged by speech – but it’s a fraught process that’s bedevilled people for my whole life.

I’m from the Netherlands, and while I’ve been in Northern Ireland for nearly 17 years, I haven’t shed my accent. It’s not the typical Dutch accent that people know from television, though, and while people may guess I’m Dutch, I also got Danish, Norwegian or any other Scandinavian country. Whatever they guess is, It does mark me as a stranger, and outsider. Angeline, meanwhile, gets asked whether she’s from New Zealand, Canada, or any other English-speaking country, except her native Northern Ireland; perhaps it’s her English grandmother’s accent that has rubbed off on her via her mother, though it’s also an autism thing.

My Dutch accent is heavily influenced by being from the Dutch north. It’s an accent I’ve carried with me from when I left the area when I was 18. I lived in Zwolle, towards the middle of the country for a few years, before living in Amsterdam for the better part of a decade – where my speech marked me as an outsider. While at University, they’ve called me ‘the barbarian from the north’, something I usually went along with, as it allowed me a freedom of expression and non-conformity – though being ‘a tribe of one’ could be lonely at times.

Weird thing is, though, that when I went to high school in the city of Groningen, capital of the likewise named province of Groningen, the very first day had me singled out for my heavy Gronings accent. Most kids had grown up speaking ‘proper’ Dutch, or could switch to it, while Dutch was my second language. I lived furthest away from school, in a village close to the northern coast. I grew up speaking the Gronings dialect at home, and with friends in the village I would either speak dialect or a hybrid – nominally Dutch, but with the Groninger inflections: “luisteren” (“to listen”) would become “luistern”, “lopen” would be pronounced “loopm”. Bringing this to the city immediately tagged me as a peasant from the sticks.

Well, at least back in the village of Ulrum all was fine, language-wise, right? You guessed it. My father’s mother had come from the province of Friesland, which also lies in the north but has a completely separate language and accent. While my mother is from Groningen, she comes from an area we called ‘the other side of the water’. The province of Groningen is divided by a river that runs from the Wadden Sea to the city of Groningen. In the north-eastern part, from where I grew up ‘the other side’, the Groninger dialect has been influenced by the Frisian language. And that’s the version of the dialect that my brothers and I grew up speaking.

When it comes down to it, I’ve never really ‘properly’ spoken the language of wherever I’ve lived. I wonder in what ways that has influenced me.

(RvS)

Why is that Santa Creepy?

Every December, compilations of creepy vintage Santas go viral online, as people laugh at terrifying Saint Nicks culled from family photo albums, old print media and the depths of the internet. These Santas’ eyes are either dead or filled with an infernal rage, and their beards are either unconvincing or all too convincing, more evoking a wild man of the woods than a saint dedicated to rewarding good children and punishing bad ones: one almost suspects that meeting some of these Santas was the punishment!

Some of the scariest Santas wear masks, giving the impression either of the reanimated dead, or of something alive but unwholesome lurking within. It’s those masks that we want to talk about. As is the case with so much around Christmas, they seem to be a modern, urban survival of a much older and rural custom, drawing on not just the Christian St. Nicholas, but on various, sometimes pagan winter guising customs found across Europe, in which scares, disguise and disruption are often intentional and prominent.

Over the years, with immigration and urbanisation, Saint Nicholas customs from different times and places met and merged with each other and with new ideas from literary culture and illustration. As the 20th century wore on, both Santa Claus in the UK and US, and Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, became familiar and homogenised due to mass media advertising. But in small communities, costumes would often have been improvised with what was to hand, and the collective memory of earlier traditions may have been less diluted, and clinging on tenaciously – as indeed happened in the northern Netherlands. This too must eventually have fed into commercial Santa masks.

Nicholas, in various countries, was often accompanied by a servant or herald character, such as Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, Ruprecht in Germany, or the Alpine Krampus. Sometimes he did not appear as a stately old man, but as a more frightening figure, such as Belsnickel, in the Dutch north and Germany. Immigrants to Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch, actually, German), took Belsnickel with them and there he took the form of a bewigged and masked figure, in a sort of parody of gentleman’s dress, though he was generally played by a lower class man.

And Belsnickel was only sometimes there to reward good children, or even punish bad ones: in 1831, shopkeeper James L. Morris, in Morgantown, Pennsylvania, described in his diary a visit from several marauding Beksnickels:

Christmas Eve – a few ‘belsnickels or ‘kriskinckles’ were prowling about this evening frightening the women and children, with their uncouth appearance – made up of cast-off garments made parti-colored with patches, a false face, a shaggy head of tow, or rather wig, falling profusely over the shoulders and finished out by a most patriarchal beard of whatsoever foreign [material] that could possibly be pressed into such service.”

Far from bearing gifts, they often demanded them. There was a strong tradition, in the early 19th century American Christmas, of class resentments being played out via raucous “callithumpian bands,” door-to-door demands, and general drunken disorder, and the disguised nature of Belsnickel provided both licence and cover for boys and youths to take part. But sometimes it was Saint Nicholas himself who was the frightening, disruptive figure, as in the Boerensinterklaas, or Farmers’ Sinterklaas, who was a terrifying, thumping, chain-shaking character, who we’ve written about before.

In the Netherlands, the small seaside town of Zoutkamp has to this day the tradition of the Sinterklaaslopen, or the Sinterklaas Walk, generally celebrated on the Saturday closest to St. Nicholas Eve (5 December). Townspeople go door to door masked and costumed (often in ways that humorously or critically reference local events), visiting homes where the lights are on, where householders must try to figure out their identity by asking questions which the masked walkers can only answer by nodding or shaking their heads, as they aim to hide who they are. On being recognised, they remove their masks to reveal their faces, and receive an alcoholic drink. Those who have been recognised the most are subsequently noticeable by their unsteady walk.

Likewise, on St. Nicholas Eve, children traditionally receive presents from Sinterklaas, often played by a disguised neighbour. (https://turniplanterns.wordpress.com/2020/12/05/visit-from-sint/) That folk memory of masked winter visitors is bound to have merged, as time went on, with the need to disguise a familiar teacher or congregation member for a school or church children’s Christmas party, with the commercial exploitation of Christmas, and with department stores’ need for Santa to have a consistent appearance throughout the season, regardless of who happens to be playing him.

In 2005 or 2006, we went to an event run by the Northern Ireland Dutch Club: the arrival in Belfast of Sinterklaas. In the Netherlands, he arrives by boat from Spain at the end of November, and the Club had done their best to re-enact that – even the Lord Mayor of the time turned up with his chain of office to receive Sint with due pomp. But the performance felt a little thrown together. Several teenagers played Zwarte Piets in blink-182 hoodies, the distinctive hats worn by Moorish servants in Golden Age paintings (and therefore associated with Sint’s servant), and half-hearted blackface – mimicking soot, rather than melanin, per the tradition now thankfully in retreat in the Netherlands.

To provide some context: in the mid-2000s, the annual protests against racist Zwarte Piet performances were beginning to attract international attention, but white Dutch people at the time still, for the most part, resisted change. So we can speculate that the makeshift nature of the costumes allowed for compromise: had they worn full Piet regalia, the barely-there soot makeup might have implied that a political position was being taken. In just the hats, the less conventional make-up could be handwaved due to the lack of commercially available Piet costumes outside the Netherlands.

And this highlighted an interesting thing about Santa and St. Nicholas customs generally: these are child-centred festivals, but they’re not organised by children, so the imagery and behaviour of the gift-giving (or punishing) figure are inevitably shaped by the memories of the adults in a community, and the traditions they grew up with. Masking, guising, features heavily in the northern European Midwinter traditions, like the mummers in Ireland and Britain, and the masks, schebelskoppen, that would feature in northern Dutch shop displays in living memory.

While traditions and customs change, they tend to be preserved longer by diasporic communities. Especially in rural areas without much inward population movement, like the 19th century immigrant communities in America, older folkways are more likely to live on, in a conscious preservation of cultural identity, though eventually adapted through general cultural influences and materials available for costuming – including a creepier, masked Santa.

Of course, in 2021, masks on seasonal visitors have a new and inescapable significance, and with that in mind we wish you all a happy, safe and healthy Christmas season.

ABA

Interview with Anne Rice

This interview we had with Anne Rice in 2014 originally ran in Fortean Times, and was held on occasion of the publication of Prince Lestat, and the 20th anniversary of the movie of Interview with the Vampire.

In 2003 Blood Canticle was published as the final volume of the Vampire Chronicles. What made you return to the vampires?
After an absence of ten years, I found I had a fresh take on the characters and their ongoing story, new ideas, etc. I started to reread the Chronicles and I was soon bubbling over with new things to write. In retrospect I think the long absence from the characters was an excellent idea. I could not have written a book like Prince Lestat in 2003.

You’re planning for Prince Lestat to be the first in a new vampire series – how will it differ from the Chronicles?
I don’t focus much on how the new books will be different except to say that my interest now is on the whole tribe of the Undead in the modern age, on how Lestat and others are meeting challenges in the “now.” I don’t see myself as mining the series for more back story memoir books right now.

Do you feel that you resolved the questions that arose in the Vampire Chronicles about man’s relationship with the supernatural?
That question will never have any real resolution. Humanity will always struggle with its relationship to evidence of the supernatural. It is the nature of the human condition to Iive with cosmic uncertainty.

I’ve read your Christ the Lord books, and feel that they succeeded in giving a human dimension to Jesus, while also portraying the struggles of someone destined for great things. What are your feelings now regarding belief versus religion?
I took on a special challenge with the Christ the Lord novels: to make the Jesus of Scripture and Tradition real to a reading audience, without watering down anything. I wanted to present Jesus as God and Man, Divine and human, living in a world where an angel had come to his mother to announce his conception, a world in which shepherds did see angels singing at the hour of his birth. —- The books were embraced widely by Catholics, Protestants and people of all denominations and I was very pleased. I did NOT ever set out to write a book about a modern, redacted, revised Jesus. It was always an effort devoted to Jesus Christ of the Christian faith.

We always ask our Fortean Times interviewees this question: have you ever seen a ghost or had what you would regard as a paranormal experience?
Do you believe that such things happen? No, I’ve never seen a ghost or had a supernatural experience. But research has led me to believe that we have an immense body of testimony as to the “reality” of ghosts. We have accounts from all eras, and from all parts of the world as to credible individuals who claim to have seen ghosts. I do not know whether ghosts exist or not. I suspect they do.

Do you believe vampirism exists in the broader sense, not opera capes and fangs, but, for example, in the form of people who drain others of energy? Is this part of what readers relate to in the concept of the vampire?
I’m in love with the vampire of fiction and film. I believe the vampire is a metaphor for the outsider in us, the predatory, the being who realizes he must destroy in order to prosper. I see that as much more interesting than any comparison of the vampire with those who drain others. But I can understand that some might want to speak of individuals in our society as energy vampires, yes.

Are there any other areas of the metaphysical that you are interested in, or would still like to explore through your fiction? For example, it struck me that while you lived in New Orleans for much of your life and many of your books are steeped in “Southern Gothic”, voodoo beliefs have only appeared marginally.
My research never turned up a whole lot that was interesting about Voodoo in Louisiana. Now Voodoo in Haiti is an entirely different topic, but that has never been my focus. I am more interested in werewolves, vampires, witches, and the glorious “monsters” of fiction the world over.

What was your relationship with the horror genre before the Vampire Chronicles? Were any books or films particularly influential? And what are you enjoying in the genre today?
I have always loved ghost stories, and had read many by the great English ghost story writers, Algenon Blackwood, M.J. James and others. And I loved atmospheric black and white horror films made before I was born. Dracula’s Daughter, a moody and some times beautiful vampire film with Gloria Holden from the 1930’s enchanted me when I was a young child. When I wrote my first vampire novel, the subject was not mainstream and I do not think we had had any great films involving it in a very long time.

What inspired you to create your particular band of vampire? Aside Dracula’s Daughter being of influence, but how about Dark Shadows for instance, where the vampire was also the protagonist and the tragic/sympathetic character?
Dracula’s Daughter fixed the idea in my mind of the vampire as a tragic, doomed aristocrat, a being of exalted sensibility whose immortality had been procured at a terrible price. That was the primary influence on my interest in the vampire. When I set out to explore the whole idea in Interview with the Vampire, I went by instinct and didn’t hesitate to make up my own cosmology. You could say Hollywood was the chief influence, in that Hollywood had brought to America the influence of Bram Stoker and Sheridan Le Fanu.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Interview with the Vampire. How do you feel about the film, looking back, and are there more screen versions of your books on the horizon?
I felt at the time I saw the film that it was destined to become a classic. I was awed and grateful. Neil Jordan is a genius, a unique director of extraordinary talent and singularity of vision; and David Geffen who produced the film lavished upon it immense dedication and love. It was a film that did not hesitate to go to extremes, to be transgressive, and it was amazingly faithful to the books. Amazingly so. It was faithful to the script I’d written, as well, though Neil made many changes of his own. Neil’s recent series The Borgias is perhaps the finest thing I have ever seen on television. He made the film, Interview with the Vampire into art. Clearly the film is embraced and loved and after twenty years is as fresh and beautiful as when it was made. With talk of new film adaptations, article after article around the world references Neil’s great film with clips, pix etc from it. And I’m not surprised. As I said I’m grateful. I do think the film is on its way to classic status. New people discover it and embrace it all the time.

Since we last saw Lestat, a vampire media empire has risen around Twilight, True Blood etc. Does that change your approach, or Lestat’s fictional landscape?
No. I have found the Twilight and True Blood worlds interesting but they have nothing really to do with my approach. I honor the imagination of Stephenie Meyer and Charlaine Harris but they approach the vampire in a different way from the way I approach it. They tend to domesticate the blood drinker, explore him as the guy next door, the guy you meet in high school in biology class, the guy you run into at the neighborhood tavern. My focus has always been on the vampire as hero, as great tragic figure, transcending time and life, a larger than life being who pays a ghastly price for his immortality and powers.

And how do you feel about how your vampires have gone on to influence others? For instance, I’d argue that Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is more Anne Rice than Bram Stoker.
I must leave this judgment or assessment to others. It’s not appropriate for me to try to do this. If I have influenced the genre, if I significantly popularized it, or inspired others, I’m grateful for that, very grateful. In the beginning with my first vampire novel, I was certainly very much alone. Many scoffed at the very idea of a serious novel about vampires. I suppose I feel vindicated in that vampires have now gone mainstream, and many writers are mining the rich concept of the vampire for new books, TV series, and films. But again, my role in all this is something for critics and critical historians to figure out. I can’t figure it out. I’m too close to it all.

Why do you think horror and the supernatural are still so compelling to us culturally? And what is the place of vampires in our imagination and cultural identity?
There are three answers. First off, horror and the supernatural have always been compelling to audiences, in one form or another, because we as a species have so many cosmic questions. Second, horror and the supernatural in our literature and films today are associated with good and dramatic storytelling, and people crave this very much and always have. Third, the vampire is, as I mentioned before, a powerful metaphor for the outsider in all of us, the predator in all of us, the monster in all of us, and he hold a powerful glamor for us because we identify with him, and glory in his powers. He (or she) is the most beautiful and seductive of all paranormal heroes or heroines; he’s the monster to whom you can talk, with whom you can reason, and with whom you can fall in love.

And finally, what do you hope to be remembered for as an author?
I’d love to be remembered for the scope of my work, for my many prose experiments, and my relentless drive to tackle supernatural topics, and erotic topics, my fearlessness in taking on the controversial and the transgressive. To put it much more simply, I’d love to be remembered for writing books that people love.

Anne Rice, 4 October 1941 – 11 December 2021.

Our Christmas Stall

You may be wondering: How do we get a bit of Angeline and Remco under the Christmas tree? Unless your tree comes with a comfy sofa, it’ll have to be by way of anthology!

SPECIAL DISPATCH (in UNDERNEATH THE TREE): On Christmas Eve, a young Northern Irish soldier in WWI gets a visitor from home.
(All profits of this collection are for World of Owls NI and the Simon Community).

WITH ONE EYE, BRIGHT AS A STAR (in Air & Nothingness press’ THE WILD HUNT): A stormy night on a small, northern-Dutch farm. A boy and his grandfather have reckoning with the past.

EMERGING FROM DARKNESS (from Air & Nothingness Press): Three ghost stories, set in an alternate past/present. Lawrence Olivier films Wuthering Heights, Three young punks stage a party in a fever-ridden Amsterdam, and a séance brings more than the sitters’ loved ones.

FOR ALL THE DEAD (in Flame Tree Press’ BEYOND THE VEIL): The women of the northern-Dutch coast know all too well that the sea gives and takes, and dealing with loss and grief is an inevitability.
(“especially worth to be mentioned… well told” – Ginger Nuts of Horror)

AMBER (in PAPER LANTERNS #7): A divorced father takes his teenage daughter to the Kent coast to see the bones of a baby mammoth.
(“…captivating in its writing and really draws the reader in with its atmospheric prose”)

THE RED MAN AND OTHERS (from our own TURNIP LANTERNS PRESS), in which lovers Kaila and Ymke (with their teenage sidekick Sebastien) use swords and words against evil cultists! Three journeys of self-discovery; three stories of loss, love and adventure. Be gay do crimes.
(“Sword & Sorcery has a Future.” – Black Gate)

Beyond the Veil Reviews

Praise for our story For All the Dead in the Flame Tree Press anthology Beyond the Veil:

Ginger Nuts of Horror: My task, as a reviewer of such a hefty volume, is to point out the tales that I feel are the best, hence especially worth to be mentioned. (…) in the well told “ For All the Dead” by Angeline B Adams & Remco van Straten we learn about the sad fate of fishermen lost at sea and their desire to get back home alive or dead.

Blue Book Balloon: For All the Dead by Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten takes place in the Soltcamp, a small fishing village on, I think, the Dutch coast. It’s an atmospheric, sea-drenched story focussing on young Hanne whose father was lost, with many other men of the place, in a catastrophe at sea. The story is steeped in the superstition of those whose lives depend on the unpredictable sea. It’s a place and time where customs are fiercely protected and change is distrusted. A real classic ghost story, to read on a dark night when the wind is growing. (…) Those are only some of my favourites.

On the Shelf Reviews: My standouts were: (…) A historical story about a young woman who lived in a small fishing village, where life and death were controlled by the sea. There was almost a fairytale-like quality to this one that I found magical.

Run Along the Shelves: This tale is remorseless heading to it’s final page with a tale of women living a hard life of watching their lovers and family live and die on the cruel sea their tow lives on. Lost hopes, fleeting moments of life and a final bittersweet ending make it quite a spectacle we have to watch. A really impressive tale.

And from the Goodreads reviews:

Irene: For All The Dead by Angeline B Adams and Remco Van Straten takes place in a small coastal village where the women know that their men may not always return from the sea. This was suspenseful, sad, and spooky all at once. (…) These are just a few of what for me were 5 star reads.

Kelly Van Damme: in a small coastal town, the people are subject to a sea that is a fickle mistress: “she may hear you but never does she obey”.

Leanne: My favourite stories from the anthology were: (…) For all the Dead by Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten, with a wonderful sense of place and character in the fishing village in this story.

…And these are all authors’ own introductions to their stories.

For a last taste of For all the Dead: