From Thundercats to S&S

One of my formative Sword & Sorcery influences is Thundercats, the 1980s cartoon series (and comic, and action figure line, and shampoo bottle, and…) in which a group of anthropomorphic cats flee their dying planet, Thundera, to make new home on Third Earth.

Their leader Lion-O is the hereditary wielder of the mystical Sword of Omens, and finds there a rich array of dangers, both mechanical and magical. He also finds a worthy foe in Mumm-Ra, an ancient sorcerer bent on taking the Sword’s power for himself. To that end, Mumm-Ra often manipulates the barbarian Mutants into doing his dirty work. The observant among you will have spotted that this science-fantasy blend makes Thundercats Sword & Planet rather than pure Sword & Sorcery. That hardly matters, as many of the ingredients that primed me to enjoy S&S later were already there: the Sword of Omens, towers with traps and treasure, a wicked sorcerer, and a threatening world.

I was five when the Rankin Bass cartoon series and the Marvel UK comic arrived, so I didn’t know there was such a thing as Sword & Sorcery, and some of its key elements aren’t present in Thundercats, like the lone wolf protagonist alienated from society. Granted, Lion-O – a ten-year-old accelerated to manhood during space hypersleep – does a fair bit of lone prowling around Third Earth, but he’s got his adopted family to temper his rashness. Mumm-Ra and the Mutants generally thwart the Thundercats by trapping them individually or luring them into isolation, so the ‘cats largely survive through cooperation.

The world they live in is still rich in Sword & Sorcery influences, and that’s hardly surprising: the writers of both the show and the comics were of an age to have enjoyed the S&S revival of the 60s and 70s, and they gleefully funnelled everything else they liked into Thundercats. So, there’s a Viking story, and an Arthurian story, as well as straightforward Sword & Sorcery episodes like The Tower of Traps, in which one of the younger ‘cats gets trapped in the booby-trapped tower of Baron Karnor after foiling a robbery. In rescuing him, Lion-O escapes giant swinging blades and a precarious bridge over a fire pit.

It’s the sort of thing that could happen to Conan – if Conan had a kid sidekick prone to getting into scrapes. When they discover the Baron’s corpse in a treasure room, it looks exactly as we’d seen in Conan the Barbarian. And come to think of it, when Mumm-Ra is in his beefier shape, he wears Thulsa Doom’s double-snaked helmet.

Of course Lion-O is, aesthetically speaking, your classic S&S barbarian, as are the mutants: scantily-clad, muscular avatars of masculinity. If the show is rich in science fiction elements – notably the Thundercats’ own advanced technology, the neighbouring robot bears, and the occasional fugitives and troublemakers who visit Third Earth by spaceship – then it’s arguably the fantasy and occult aspects that lend it its atmosphere.

Nobility in the world they came from, the Thundercats bring an honour code of “justice, truth, honour and loyalty” that many S&S antiheroes would roll their eyes at. On reaching Third Earth, they stop short of conquering ambitions, but in their urge to cultivate their new land and mine its natural resources to power their high-tech fortress and vehicles, they flaunt their power and wealth. In effect, they become the sort of people S&S protagonists typically try to rob. The series often contrasts their scientific and technological expertise with their naive susceptibility to magic, which often threatens to divide and destroy them.

Some Thundercats themselves have uncanny powers, though they’re innate abilities rather than derived from arcane studies, and they play second fiddle to their more obvious learned combat skills. Tygra can telepathically create illusions in his enemies’ minds and become invisible to them, and Cheetarah has a ‘sixth sense’ warning her of danger – though when she forces it, it drains her energy. The stealthy disciplines of the sorcerer are beyond them. Only Jaga, Lion-O’s mentor, offers consistent supernatural aid – and it’s more in the form of hints that drive Lion-O’s moral education than anything else.

Usually, the magic of Third Earth is an uncanny and threatening outside force, whether it’s Mumm-Ra’s machinations, the terrifying Netherwitch, or deadly supernatural phenomena native to the planet. Treasure offers temptations, but often proves not to be worth the risk of acquiring it, and though they make friends, the Thundercats remain threatened by Third Earth. That very name, and Mumm-Ra’s onyx pyramid and Egyptian regalia, suggest it is our world’s far future, after two cataclysms. This is underscored by the explosive fate of Thundera, whose high civilisation could not save it from annihilation.

In the end, the Thundercats are saved from inhabiting a fully S&S world mainly by the fact they live in a 1980s children’s cartoon. In that decade’s atmosphere of moral angst around children’s shows, the production team included a child psychologist tasked with ensuring prosocial values in its storylines, and vetoing elements deemed too violent, scary or adult. We grew up with action cartoons ending with a heavy-handed moral, followed by a cheesy group laugh. In the same spirit, Jaga did not do anything as horrible as dying on their long voyage, but instead “translated himself to the spiritual plane”.

Thundercats, like its Filmation Sword & Planet peers He-Man and She-Ra, still had enough darker elements to feed our imaginations, along with enough S&S tropes to lead the youngest Gen Xers and the eldest Millennials to the genre that we would eventually explore in depth, fed by the glut of 80s S&S movies, video games and tabletop adventures.

And with a string of remakes of each of these shows, revamped and reissued toy lines, not to mention more straightforward Sword & Sorcery action in the pipeline across different media, and the massive groundswell of new D&D players, it seems certain that today’s children are getting their first taste of both Sword & Sorcery and Sword & Planet. They are the creators of the future, and I can’t wait to find out what they will make.

aba

The Stories We Shouldn’t Keep Hearing

On 17 June 1994, when I was twelve and in form one, an ex-pupil with a grudge came to Sullivan Upper School in Holywood, Northern Ireland. He carried with him an improvised flamethrower, with which he attacked the sixth-form pupils who were sitting their A-Levels in the assembly hall. Six boys were hurt, three of them seriously enough to need skin grafts.

In the last years of the armed conflict known as the Troubles, naturally some of us thought it was a terrorist attack. And as many people observed at the time, it is a painful outcome of the Troubles that we had considerable medical expertise locally in treating burns injuries. Afterwards, the school community raised funds to buy the hospital a new skin grafting device.

Then as now, non-Troubles-related attempts at mass murder were rare in the UK. Two years later, the Dunblane Primary School massacre occurred, in which a former scout leader murdered sixteen children and their teacher, and injured fifteen other people. The standards of media behaviour in the 1990s were such that, when the Dunblane news broke, journalists turned up outside our school and harassed pupils going in for their thoughts on the events in Scotland.

The wider public response was one of horror. Both of these attacks, and the March 1994 knife attack at Hall Garth School in England, in which a twelve-year-old girl was murdered, were regarded as incomprehensible. The pupils at Hall Garth wrote to us all after it happened – then the one other school community in the UK who understood such a thing. Later, the Dunblane incident led to a ban on most private ownership of handguns in the UK, and in the longer term, increased surveillance and security became more standard in schools around the country.

When the Sullivan pupils were attacked, there was a fully operational British army base virtually next-door. The response from the Bomb Squad and emergency services was extremely fast. It says everything about Northern Ireland back then that, within a couple of days, the story was eclipsed in the news cycle by the subsequent Loughinisland massacre, in which six were murdered and five injured. Yet only now, watching the aftermath of yet another horror in America, does it fully settle for me just how many illegal weapons circulated in Northern Ireland back then, and how lethal the attack might have been had the attacker been obsessed not with fire, but with guns.

As it was, his victims suffered life-changing injuries, lifelong scarring. And the more we learned about the attacker and his motivations, the less sense it all made. In the days that followed, the details came through local gossip and news stories. Of course we turned out to know people who knew him – Holywood (and Northern Ireland at large) is like that.

He’d rented 18-certificate videos and then tutted to the video shop owner about their violence. His relationship with his family was typified by an arson attack at his brother’s home. He’d displayed a sticker calling Sullivan “the Skoda of the education system” – on his Skoda. The motive for the attack had been, he claimed, inadequate careers advice. To sum up, he was a man whose motives were incomprehensible even to himself, looking to lethally blame others for his problems.

I remember that a local newspaper at the time made a lot of hay with a mental health diagnosis the attacker might or might not have had, one I won’t further stigmatise by connecting it with his crimes. Reportedly, he’d had treatment, but that’s not some gotcha: an awful lot of us in Northern Ireland, have had, or lacked, mental health treatment. Damned out of his own mouth, not by his mental circuitry but his actions, unable to explain his behaviour or make sense of his plan, he got six life sentences, and died in prison three years later.

And I never ever thought, back then, that we would all become so familiar with boys and men (usually) like him; with seeing our entire social media timelines get into the psychological brace position when the first reports come out for what is always, somehow, the same story. I see that bracing in my American friends who’ve lost people to gun violence, or whose kids have to go to school the day after another atrocity. My friends here who’ve felt sectarian violence. My many friends with psychiatric and neurodevelopmental conditions that will inevitably get thrown around online as the investigation proceeds, because it’s easier to scapegoat already marginalised people (who are more often victims than perpetrators of violence) than question the public’s access to weapons designed for war zones.

As guns and the politics of fear continue to damage another society, I think about how hard it was for us to get rid of our guns, here. How incomplete that work is. How incomplete peace is. How important it still is to try and build it. Most of all I hate that I’m seeing friends experience that repetitive dread and horror that we grew up with, that we know is not over so much as constantly, conscientiously and imperfectly held back by political process.

I’m old enough to remember that sick feeling of inevitability, the way we never went into town on a Friday, the adjustments and affordances ordinary families made in an unnatural situation, and whose equivalent American communities make now, as small children take part in active shooter drills. I want my friends there not to have to hope for the complicated relief of reading that the latest attacker is not of their ethnicity, their neurotype, their political persuasion. They are not about to witness a trial that debates whether people who share their diagnosis know right from wrong. Community stigma is a thing we know about over here too.

The situations of Northern Ireland, the UK and the USA are not identical, and it’s very important that, in laying these histories side by side, I don’t deny the white supremacist hold the gun lobby has on American powerbrokers. I draw parallels not because I would fatuously prescribe what worked, somewhat, here to a culture on the other side of the world, but because I remember when attacks on schools were rare, bizarre – not yet normalised or politicised. I remember being able to respond to ours as a horrifying one-off, something we didn’t have to fear would happen again. Because enough time has passed, because my classmates and I were unscathed, stories of school shootings don’t automatically bring it back, every time.

But sometimes, like this past week, I do think about it and it doesn’t let go – because I remember the time before this was routine.

(aba)

Polly, March 2007 – 17 May 2022

We first met Polly in the Cats Protection Dundonald in December 2014. She was friendly and curious, and we didn’t hesitate to adopt her. She immediately decided that our home was a good home for her, and though we had prepared a basket for her to sleep in, she slept between us on the big bed – something she never stopped doing.

We’d chosen Polly because she was a cat who’d otherwise be skipped over: at seven years old she wasn’t the youngest, and she was missing an eye. She’d had a troubled past, and was brought in after a car accident: at the time the vet hadn’t been sure she’d pull through, but she did, though she always had sinus problems. For us, her one eye and her snorting were as much part of her personality as her gentleness.

She didn’t play a lot, but when she did, it was with us: she’d ask us to drag the yellow crocheted mousey or fishy around for her, or play Pollyball – we’d roll the ball to her and she’d bat it back. She had her perch on the back of the chair where she could look out over the street, and see the children go to school or be fetched (and they knew her by sight), yet mostly she’d be where we were – either in the library with Angeline or in the upstairs office with Remco. She had her rituals: a casual yawn and stretched paws to draw our attention became a pokey-paw asking for her biccies – she always got three Dreamies, and she could count. And at a certain time in the evening she’d sit in front of Remco, lead him to her place on the sofa for kisses-on-the-head. She’d purr loudly and nuzzle his beard.

She loved meeting new people, and had a curious charm that worked on most of them, whether they regarded themselves as cat people or not. She never showed much interest in birds, and while she wasn’t too fond of other cats, she was likely not to notice them as they snuck past her in the garden. She didn’t like going to the vet, having her nose treated or having an (occasionally essential) bath, but was very quick to forgive and forget.

We always had the cotton buds ready to clean up her snot, and occasionally Rem disappeared with her under a blanket, over a pan with boiling water and olbas oil, which helped us manage the chronic nose infection resulting from the car accident she’d been in. She was mostly an indoor cat, and only allowed outside while watched. Every now and then she decided to go on an adventure, though her ambition didn’t take her further than our next-door neighbour’s front doorstep. We found out that she was a wobbly cat, and she wasn’t very strong. She could be held with one hand while washing her paws in the bathtub, after she had dug too vigorously in the garden.

A bad nose infection in January that wouldn’t clear brought us to the vet, where they decided to do further tests. Earlswood Veterinary had been very good in the past; their Dr Millar had suggested the olbas oil and, as she’d had had some bowel problems, her diet of chicken instead of wet food. He seemed fond of her: “Och Polly, with her crooked we face,” he’d say in his Scottish accent.

It wasn’t good news this time, and no home-and-garden remedy. She had bowel cancer, and the prognosis: they didn’t know. It could be months, but then it’d go fast. We came home with a new diet, several different pills and, as it was impossible to get pills into Polly, a pill crusher. We knew the signs to look out for, and hoped that she’d still get to spend some time in the sun.

And she did. She loved being outside in the sun with us. Whenever it got warmer, and the sun was out, Polly would take us to the back door, and then she’d sit on that spot in front of the garage, as if to say: “now get the chairs out, and we’ll hang out here!” She’d alternate between the sun and the shadow, often underneath our chairs. Last Sunday she did just that. She’d also looked over the garden, and gazed at the stone lion in it, as she was wont to do, making us wonder what she made of it.

Then, in the evening, she was sick, and it went very quickly. She wasn’t in pain, but bit by bit stopped enjoying what she liked, stopped – being. She spent Tuesday on the sofa, sleeping and dozing, lapping up diluted fruit yoghurt from a spoon a few times. She gave a few cat smiles, and reached out to us with her paw, but she made it clear that she’d had enough. So we let her go.

She’s in the garden now, on a bed of rushes, wrapped in her unicorn blanket with her favourite toys, Dreamies – more than the customary three – and food to tide her over. The stone lion watches over her.

Our first photo of Polly – immediately at home

Retreating Into Make Belief

I remember when I wrote my first Fantasy story. It was when I was six years old, and it was pure escapism for me: one of the formidable women in my family had broken down. (Content note: Alzheimer’s, mental health meltdown, stillbirth)

My Great Aunt Auk was one of the rocks on which our family was built. The older sister of my dad’s mother, she didn’t have any children herself. She’d wanted to, as will become clear, and instead became my dad’s favourite aunt, and a surrogate grandmother for me and my brothers. My mother’s father was still alive then, but he and his wife were distant figures, so it was Aunt Auk who came over for birthdays, and she who packed her suitcase and locked up her flat for a month when I was four and my mother was in hospital. I remember her surprisingly long hair, before she’d bun it up in the morning, and the vice-like grip of her hand when she took me to kindergarten.

My brothers stayed with her for a few weeks in the summer holidays, when money was too tight for our family to go anywhere else; I myself was too little for that. She came over for St Nicholas, and after her death my mom had to break it to me that St Nicholas’ gifts would be far less bountiful from now on: my Aunt Auk had always paid for most of them. She was kind – perhaps kinder than I could’ve known then, as her kindness was overlaid with a certain firmness more typical of her generation. She was Frisian; she had suffered personal tragedies, and yet persevered.

Aunt Auk and Uncle Geert, early in their marriage (around 1930).

When we wrote The Red Man, it was no coincidence that Ymke got a Frisian name. Hers, too, is a kindness that’s not opulent, and her determined strength is born from necessity. She makes herself a family where she once had none. While Ymke grows up on a farm, Aukje grew up in the city, as the middle child of three sisters. While her younger sister became the ‘friendly one’, Aukje was the stronger sister – she needed to be. She was seamstress when she married in 1929. Seven years later, she and her husband Geert had a stillborn daughter, and afterwards she couldn’t have any more children.

Her husband was imprisoned at one point for a crime (something not spoken of in the family), and that didn’t make the couple any friends. However, as part of his rehabilitation, Geert was offered the local convenience store/library, and my aunt’s shepherding of it after he died in 1968 is one of my lasting memories of her. Her sister, my grandmother, had her own strengths, and I wound those into Ymke’s character too, but I imagine that as she grows older, Ymke will be more and more like my Aunt Auk. I do hope that her last story will have a less sad ending, though.

Aukje and her younger sister Anna; typical 1920s middle-class Frisian.

My father’s education had been erratic due to the war, but Aunt Auk’s access to books through the convenience store/library fed my dad’s love of reading, and by extension, the love of books that he passed down to me and my brothers. We are all of us, in different ways, readers; my oldest brother likes detectives and historical fiction, while my other brother reads about anything as long as it’s got some connection with the sea. From a young age I’ve read science fiction, in whatever shape or form, and was intrigued by Frankenstein before I’d read it or seen a film.

The first science fiction books I owned were my dad’s; he got them from Aunt Auk as a teen. I’ve got them still: they’re pocket-sized, literally. They were published for boy scouts, at 3.5 by 4.5 inch – less than half the size of a paperback – a format that someone should bring back today. With their bright covers, illustrations and adventures of young boys in outer space or on lost continents, they got me hooked.

Exciting adventures for in your pocket.

Aunt Auk had already retired when I knew her, and lived in a flat in Leeuwarden, in Friesland. As it was quite an journey for her to come to us – she’d first have to travel to the city of Groningen, then take the bus up north, a journey of several hours – we more frequently visited her, at weekends. It was on one of those car drives that my father first told me of the Frisian freedom fighter/pirate Grutte Pier and his giant sword.

We didn’t really know anything was wrong with her at first, not even my dad, who knew her better than anyone. There was this burglary of course, in which the cupboard where she kept her valuables and jewellery had been ransacked. Just a few items had disappeared, thankfully, and it wasn’t entirely clear how they’d entered her home. After her death, when my parents cleared the house, they would find these jewels, squirrelled away in odd places, but when Aunt Auk originally told them about the burglary they saw no reason to doubt what had happened.

She was staying at our home when things really went wrong. She came downstairs one Saturday morning angrily, telling my mother how my brother Kees, twelve at the time, had snuck into her bedroom and burnt holes in the curtains. My brother, while not one for mischief, had a habit of letting his imagination run away with him and getting into trouble, so my mom called him down: “What have you done? What is this about?” He swore he hadn’t done anything. So my mom went upstairs and found nothing wrong with the curtains. Then Aunt Auk got really furious: he’d been in her room, for sure. She’d seen him, and he’d been rummaging in her things. My brother by then was crying, as he really didn’t understand what was going on, or what he was being blamed for.

Aunt Auk, her father and husband, in the late 1940s.

My dad was doing overtime at work at the time, so my mom sent us upstairs and called my dad to come home immediately, as something was not right. I have no memory of any of this: it’s just what I’ve been told since. Perhaps I was particularly unobservant as a six-year-old, or perhaps I’d shut down, as mental health meltdowns were not unknown in our house. My dad couldn’t make sense of my aunt either, so they called out the village’s GP, who came with his nurse. This did nothing to calm my aunt down, and eventually my dad and the doctor had to hold her while the nurse gave her a calming injection. My aunt spat in her face, and cursed them. Then they bundled her into my dad’s car, as the GP felt she was likely to come back to herself once at home. Indeed, at first my aunt was indignant, ranting about the way she’d been treated, but the closer they got to Leeuwarden, the calmer she became, and she started talking about everyday things, having seemingly forgotten the whole episode.

Meanwhile, we’d been in the bedroom of my eldest brother, Kees. He and my other brother Marten had been instructed to stay upstairs and to keep me there. I knew that something weird was going on, beyond the explanation that Aunt Auk was ill. Marten had been working on a comic, and he suggested I should also make one. We had some tiny multi-coloured notebooks, and I remember writing and drawing in mine a story about a gnome. I wrote with pencil in large print, which filled the pages in a very pleasing way, making it look just like a real children’s book, and I did a drawing on every other page. Of all my childhood writing and art, I wish I still had it, but the memory of that, if nothing else that day, is clear.

Aunt Auk got better afterwards, though it didn’t last. I remember visiting her, and my mother instructing us that, if she offered us a biscuit, we should take it, but hide it instead of eating it – she was worried that they might be out of date. Once Aunt Auk gave me a toy monkey. She’d bought it for another boy, she said, but as she hadn’t seen him for quite a while, she wanted me to have it. She had probably heard me talking about watching King Kong, the 1933 version, which had made a big impression on me. Possibly, she’d originally bought the toy monkey for her own son.

Faithful childhood companions, and our cat Polly.

My parents soon started visiting Aunt Auk without us, as she was increasingly sliding into a world which was not quite ours. They arrived to find the television on really loud, my aunt having forgotten her hearing aid, or to my aunt exclaiming “late evening visits make for fine people,” while it was only early afternoon. One day, on my parents’ arrival, she left the living room and called up the stairs to her children, that their aunt and uncle had come. My mother hurried after her, and told her to leave them to play. Of course, my great aunt didn’t have children, and the stairs outside her door led to the upstairs neighbours. My parents listened to her as she spoke proudly of her children. A boy and a girl, they were in a swimming club (like my brothers), and loved reading (like us) and drawing (like I did). She’d constructed the children she didn’t have, with me and my brothers as her template.

The neighbourhood cop got to know her, and had to bring her back home when she went outside in the middle of the night, on her way to visit people who’d long died. My aunt didn’t understand why the shops were closed in daytime and everyone was up at the oddest hours of the night. “Just adapt,” was the best advice my parents had for her. Her neighbours kept an eye on her, and my father drove over often. Discussions were had about what could be done, but there was very little as long as she wasn’t a danger to herself or her environment. For my dad to seek power of attorney was not recommended: she was fiercely independent, and “she would not thank him for it.” He and my mom were a strong tether to normality for her, which should not be broken.

Aunt Auk, in her shop in its later years.

At a certain point she really was no longer able to take care of herself, and my mother went over. How it went has never really been discussed; I just know that Aunt Auk was admitted to the hospital. My mom went over to stay, sleeping in the flat and spending her the days with my aunt at the hospital, and I assume cleaning and clearing up. It became clear that Aunt Auk wasn’t going to come home; her body had given up where her mind had already started wandering. Aukje van Dijk died on 25 August 1983, 78 years old.

(RvS)

The Problem with Lou and Andy

One summer’s day in 2006, we took the wheelchair to the park for a picnic. Some local youngsters came, set fire to the bushes edging the park, then disappeared. While I tried to stop the fire, and chased off the teens who came with more burnables, Angeline got out of her wheelchair to find reception for her phone and call the fire brigade. Once the firemen had arrived, we made to head home.

Nearby, a small group of men had been watching the whole spectacle, and as we passed them, they had something to say to us:

“Get out of your chair – you can walk!”

“Lou and Andy!”

Lou and Andy, of course, are recurring Little Britain characters: The demanding, vest-wearing wheelchair user Andy Pipkin, and the mullet-sporting do-gooder Lou Todd who pushes Andy’s wheelchair round. Both are coded lower class, but the real joke is that whenever Lou isn’t paying attention, Andy gets up from his wheelchair and hijinks ensue. He is faking his disability!

Since then, Angeline has been hesitant to leave the wheelchair in public, afraid of comments from bystanders. The spectre of Lou and Andy is ever present, and they’ve come to symbolise the government’s ‘anti-scrounger’ witch hunt, and its hostile environment for benefits claimants. Others too have been reluctant to leave their wheelchairs in public, afraid of being called benefits cheats, or even of being reported via the government’s dedicated 0800 number.

Many people do not realise that not all wheelchair users always use their wheelchair. For most people, disabled people using a wheelchair are “wheelchair bound”, “confined” to their wheelchair. However, there are ambulatory wheelchair users, who can walk, but not always, or not for long distances.

Matt Lucas and David Walliams’ Little Britain was full of examples of kick-down comedy: a whole slew of minorities found themselves the butt of cruel humour, dogged by catch-phrases that went viral before we used the word in that way. In 2020, for the BBC’s Big Night In, the duo revived their favourites, including what Pink News called “a cruel, anti-trans joke that should have been left in the past,” despite Matt Lucas claiming in 2017: “If I could go back and do Little Britain again, I wouldn’t make those jokes about transvestites. I wouldn’t play black characters.” Perhaps it was just too easy.

The duo apologised for their use of blackface too, after the programme had been dropped from streaming services including BBC iPlayer – as stated by the BBC two years ago, because “times have changed” since the program first aired in 2003. It’s 2022 now, and times have changed again, apparently: Anti-trans sentiments are all the rage, the Telegraph headlines that Victorian paupers enjoyed luxury goods, and Lou and Andy are back on BBC iPlayer.

We’re very disappointed in the BBC’s decision to reinstate Little Britain. The overtly racist segments have been removed – even in Tory Britain blackface is beyond the pale, as it were – but disabled people are still fair game. We can only hope that this does not lead to a renewed Lou and Andy-ing of ambulatory wheelchair users. But we worry.

(RvS)

On Ending Restrictions

So Northern Ireland just said fuck you to immunosuppressed and other high-risk people, because of course it did.

These protections that we’re now losing have made me feel safe enough to take calculated risks. While I have attempted eating out indoors exactly twice since 12th March 2020, both made me really uneasy because it was very obvious that it was a situation where there was more chance of infection. I have however gone into shops because proprietors didn’t allow them to get overly crowded, and taken the bus at quiet times.

At peak times, there were still too many people without face masks in the bus, with no enforcement. Now the protection that there was, the signal to the public that Covid is not over, has been severely weakened, and I’ll have to rely on the kindness of others to protect me. Last summer, a writing group for speculative fiction writers started in a pub literally! a stone’s throw away. It wasn’t safe enough for me to go.

The bottom line is: I cannot afford to get Covid. With my underlying conditions, it’s easy for me to get Covid, and getting Covid (even the ‘mild’ variant) would severely impact my health. Would be dangerous. Getting Long Covid, something most people don’t seem to think about, would mean having my already limited energy and functionality even further reduced.

It seems people like me are resented for even asking for the precautions that allow that extremely truncated level of normality. So often you hear people saying that we should just stay in, while that means we lose the stuff we do feel able to do.

And I hate being like this. I hate the feeling of wasting a very hard-won Crohn’s remission. I hate saying no to stuff all the time. I hate how impossible it is to make new friends and how hard it is to keep old friendships going. I hate seeing films and gigs coming up which I would love to go to, and knowing that a small enclosed venue with a lot of people is not a good place for me.

But here’s the thing: I’ve seen plenty of vaccinated, chronically ill friends get Covid, and I’ve seen some of them take months, even years to recover even a fraction of their former activity levels. And I am painfully aware that my medical team know me as that one patient who gets all the weird, edge case complications.

I’m the one who got that weird mystery illness months before Covid was a thing – and yes, you can bet I’ve been over the calendar a dozen times wondering about that; but if that was Covid then I would’ve had to have it several months earlier than the earliest documented case. That seems unlikely. Regardless of what it actually was – and they tested me for a lot of infectious diseases at the time – it caused untold disruption in our lives, as it came back over and over, caused five separate hospitalisations, resisted multiple courses of strong antibiotics, and finally forced an incredibly challenging and difficult change of treatment for my underlying condition.

That illness, whatever it was, was hell bent on lying dormant in my system. We still don’t know what the hell it was, and we don’t know how I finally beat it. We only know that every time we fed it TPN, it roared back into life. I recovered from the effects of transferring from TPN back to enteral feeding just in time for the first lockdown, and you’d better believe that shapes my bitterness about how much freedom I’ve lost.

And I’m not prepared to go through that again, and potentially much worse, with Long Covid or worse. I’m just not.

So, I don’t know what happens next for me. A lot of people in my position don’t. When I go for medical appointments, when I go into shops, when I eyeball the number of people on a bus before getting on, I am going to be watching for the number of masks. I am going to be watching how crowded things get. I am going to be watching the Covid numbers – if that’s even going to be meaningful any more, with the pressure from Westminster (and in this, as in other things, we must assume Northern Ireland will follow, as if with no mind of its own) to wind down testing.

That’s actually one of the scariest things about all this: if we reduce testing, we have no real way of quantifying the absolute risk around us, and to take that away from clinically vulnerable people forces us to make choices based on unknowns. So it’ll be my mental health and my need to be among other human beings, having a life, versus potentially spiralling infection rates. We’ve seen the latter happen over and over again, and we can’t pretend that’s not what happens when we get rid of protections.

I want to be wrong about this. I would love nothing more than to be wrong: for Covid to just fizzle out, for us all to be able to go out unmasked and hug each other with abandon, belting out the choruses at gigs with our friends – all stuff people think is worth any cost to individuals medically, and to the NHS as a functioning system. But what has been made clear to clinically vulnerable people over and over again is that many voters and politicians would sooner see us disappear from public life indefinitely than extend the protections that let us be included.

(ABA)

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)

Hastur’s Canvas (Novelette, 14500 words)
Paris, 1886.
Drawn by the bright light of the Paris art world, Vincent van Gogh finds himself caught in the web of the mysterious count DeBontés, whose dark shadow reaches throughout history. Vincent, however, is not so easily corrupted.
“Constructed with all the care of a good hoax. Lovecraft would approve.” – Bobby Derie, author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos

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.

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)