Northernness

Writers sometimes say that their characters start to lead a life of their own. This definitely has turned out to be true for Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien. We started out with a basic outline of who they were, but during the stories we wrote for The Red Man and Others and the follow-ups we’re working on, their personalities definitely have become more complex and nuanced. It’s not easy to define exactly who they are, and often it comes down to ‘Kaila would definitely do this’ or ‘Sebastien would never say that’. For Ymke, we found the one word that encompasses a lot of who she is, how she thinks and what she believes in: Northernness.

This actually came up during a discussion about a project we’ve got in the fridge, about the ornery northern Dutch writer/traveller M.S. Teenstra – and in the back of the fridge, slightly mouldy, a project about the ornery northern Dutch writer/traveller J.J. Slauerhoff. Angeline mentioned Northernness, a term used by C.S. Lewis in his Surprised by Joy, and asked whether it’d be translatable to Dutch. It’s a term that encompasses a lot, but has no strict boundaries:

Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago. …And with that plunge back into my own past, there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country…

And to go a bit deeper into the rabbit hole, Joy is understood as:

it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. …I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.

Jannes de Vries – Seagulls behind the plough

To answer Angeline’s question: Northernness can be translated as Noordsigheid, and it is applicable to Teenstra and Slauerhoff, both writers who travelled to the remote corners of their world, had experiences they could not hope to explain to others (not for want of trying), and yet could never find that single thing that would truly make them happy. Perhaps it was because searched so far that they forgot to look close by; I am reminded of John Boorman’s Excalibur, in which the Knights of the Round Table seek the length and breadth of the realm for the Grail, until Parcival dreams of it while on the verge of death. What is the secret of the Grail? The King and the Land are one, is the answer. Who does it serve? The shadowy figure asks. We may be mistaken this figure for Christ, or God, but no; when the King and the Land are one, we’re looking at a pre-Christian, rural past of agrarian cycles and customs like the May Queen and, per James George Frazer, the Sacred King, who’d take place next to the Earth Goddess for a year.

A sidestep to my dad. While we’re from very orthodox Protestant stock, my grandfather broke with the church, and my father was a Christian in name only. However, he found spirituality outdoors; even when pensioned he’d be up at dawn and on his bicycle, and could be found in the nature reserve close by, or in the polder, the land reclaimed from the sea, while the world was still asleep. This, for me, is a feature of Northernness: the spirituality of the landscape, and the way the northern soul is attuned to it. This is not something that is talked about; it’s a personal relationship. God does not live in a church; God is in the landscape, is the land. With that, the Sacred King, like Arthur, is a stand-in for that deity, but in a way all us northerners are.

Dad

One of the most popular and enduring songs in my native Gronings dialect is Ede Staal’s ‘Mien Hogelaand’. You can find the full text here, with the Dutch translation which Google will help you render in your language of choice. It’s worth listening to, even if you don’t get the words, as part of the song’s meaning is in the melody. (Hogelaand, or Highland, is what the area is called – it’s ever so slightly raised, which was a plus in bygone times of floods).

It’s the sky behind Uithuizen, it’s the little tower of Spijk,
It’s the road from Leens to Kloosterburen, and through Westpolder along the dike.
It’s the windmills and the canals, the churches and the strongholds.
It’s the land where as a child, I didn’t know of pain or sorrow.
That’s my land, my High Land

These examples are not postcard pictures. The accumulation of places, for anyone having grown up there, will go straight to the heart. Ede zooms in gradually, his broad strokes becoming more detailed:

It’s the wheat fields, it’s the oats, It’s the rapeseed in bloom
It’s the horizon at Ranum, Just after a thunderstorm

The song goes from the permanence of the landscape to the cyclical nature of the harvest, and to the momentary, to how the horizon looks after a thunderstorm. That he mentions the village of Ranum is immaterial; we from Groningen recognise the wideness of the landscape, and how that sky looks in the distance. Then, he gets personal, and places himself inside of the landscape and the song:

It’s a nice evening in May; a cow is coughing in the grassland.
I’m dating for the first time, and feel the sparks from your hand.
The wild plans that I had – Nothing will come of them,
until the night in the High Land, lays its dark cloak over us.

This is Northernness, Ede sings about, and Joy: it’s a nostalgia that lies as much in a moment as in the place. Did that moment indeed happen the way he describes, or is his longing for how he remembers it, or wants to remember? There’s a Dutch word, Heimwee, homesickness, which reaches further than ‘home’ alone. It’s a yearning like the German Sehnsucht, or the Welsh term hireath, described as ‘the feeling of longing for a home that no longer exists or never was. A deep and irrational bond felt with a time, era, place or person.’ In Groninger dialect, there’s the word wènst, as in “Ik heb wènst van die”, for which the translation “I miss you” doesn’t reach deep enough. For the Northerner, this longed-for place does exist; the villages may have changed, with shops closing and doors no longer kept unlocked, the landscape in its broad strokes is still there.

Artists from Groningen have tried to tap into this. Of a younger generation than Ede Staal is Marlene Bakker, whose Waarkhanden exudes the same heimwee, linking a personal past with the rural landscape. Its video celebrates the heavy clay of which the Groninger soil is made and which sticks to our feet (figuratively) wherever we go. From the early 1920s, inspired by German expressionists, the members of the artistic circle De Ploeg started portraying the landscape, not as it strictly was (no impressionism or realism here), but as they felt it. That Grail, which Parcival sought, is there, be it perhaps just out of reach: the Northerner and the Land are as one, and for better or worse, this is where the well of happiness, Joy, lies.

So, Northernness. That’s how we’ve decided to characterise Ymke, who comes from an analogue to the rural Dutch north. It’s still a somewhat amorphous description, but it’ll do. As a farm girl she was keenly aware of the enduringness of the landscape – the fields that had been there for generations, the paths that were trod since the first people came to the area, but also the cyclical nature of the seasons. She knows about patience, about sowing a seed and then to wait, trusting that it’ll come up much later, and about finding the brightness in the moment, the way the morning sky looks a bit different every time, the singing bird and ribbitting frog, the flower opening up and the bee with its pollen-encrusted butt. She feels deeply and passionately, yet her convictions are strong as tree roots, below the clay.

(RvS)

The Red Man and Others

About The Red Man and Others
In a divided city, two rogues try to get their own back on a religious cult; the small but tough sell-sword Kaila and the teenage con-artist Sebastien don their disguises and play their parts.
In the war-torn north of Cruoningha, Ymke and her father live in exile. When her father rescues a giant warrior, Ymke learns that strength is not a matter of muscle alone, and that sometimes the price of hiding is too great.
As Sebastien is elevated to sainthood on the rock of Otasfaust, the Kaila and Ymke find each other, and a new purpose for their talents.
Three journeys of self-discovery; three stories of loss, love and adventure.

What others said
“… a bit like Robert E. Howard’s gritty historical adventures with a dash of Fritz Leiber’s insouciant humor… Issues of queerness, coping with disability, and found family arise organically within the stories, signalling not a deconstruction of sword & sorcery, but a broader inclusivity.” – Ngo Vinh-Hoi, co-host of the Appendix N Book Club podcast
“Intimate, literate and touching scenes erupt into visceral violence; I was reminded of Poe’s Hop-Frog.” – Ricardo Pinto, author of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon
“Call it New Wave Sword & Sorcery… a reaction to the musclebound masculinity, the unbridled machismo that is found and often-times put at the forefront of Sword & Sorcery. It’s good stuff if you’re open to the idea of new takes on Sword & Sorcery.” – Rogues in the House podcast

About the authors
Over the past decade Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten have been mainly active in journalism, working for various local and national publications. They wrote about film, theatre and books, and interviewed authors like Neil Jordan, James Ellroy and Anne Rice. The biographical piece on Robert E. Howard they wrote for Fortean Times received a REH Foundation Award nomination.
Now they are focusing on telling their own tales, instead writing about those of others. These stories are firmly rooted in the green hills of Northern Ireland where Angeline grew up, and the heavy clay of the Dutch coast from which Remco came. They are steeped in their shared love for history and folklore, not shying away from treasured genres and format, yet are infused with modern sensibilities and a healthy dose of black humour. Recently, their stories appeared in the Sesheta anthology Underneath the Tree, in Air & Nothingness Press’ The Wild Hunt, and in Dutch translation in Wonderwaan.
Angeline Adams is involved in disability activism and wrote about disability for various online magazines like The Toast and Disability in Kidlit.
On Ymke, the protagonist of The Red Man and The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, she says: “Ymke’s rebellions, like mine, have often been subtle ones: staying alive in a world that oppresses disabled people is also a form of resistance. But sometimes we’re both surprised by what we’re capable of doing when we really have to – and with the right person by our side.”
Remco van Straten co-created Waen Sinne, an anthology which had a lasting impact on Dutch SFF publishing, and was a jury member for the Paul Harland Award, Holland’s leading contest for speculative fiction. “I spent a lot of my childhood and teens reading, and discovering Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories was a watershed moment. I have always wanted to emulate him, and indeed the title of this collection is a hat-tip to his collection, The Dark Man and Others.”

Further resources for The Red Man and Others
Goodreads
Amazon UK and Amazon US
Book trailer
Short story reading
And find Angeline and Remco on Twitter

Why Turnip Lanterns?
Hallowe’en is one of our favourite festivals, and from childhood both of us have been fascinated with ghosts, monsters and other scary and mysterious things. Over the last few years we’ve gone back to the age-old tradition of carving turnips instead of pumpkins. The turnip’s texture is irregular, with lumps and bumps that decide the features for the carved face. Unlike pumpkins, turnips grow underground and hint at things hidden and slowly emerging from the soil. They symbolise the much older, much more forbidding tradition of Hallowe’en.

The Right To Choose and Live

Less than a year after new laws came into force to give people in Northern Ireland access to abortion services, the Democratic Unionist Party (via a private member’s bill brought by Paul Givan) has proposed a new law to prevent abortions being carried out in cases of non-fatal disabilities.

It’s often assumed that disabled people all feel the same way about abortion: that we see it as an existential threat and proof of society’s prejudice against us. What’s often forgotten is that disabled people also have abortions – or need them, and aren’t able to access them. I have great respect for my comrades in disability activism who argue on both sides of this issue. Unlike many politicians, as disabled people, what we have in common is that we don’t only focus on disability when it’s politically convenient.

As a disabled woman, I will always be pro-choice. It’s a line in the sand for me precisely because I have had so many experiences in which my bodily autonomy has been eroded. And I think the appropriate response to people feeling they need to have an abortion because their child will be disabled is to actually create a society in which disabled people and our families are adequately supported. That’s a whole lot more useful than creating a climate of judgment around difficult choices which are not made in a social or political vacuum.

And at the end of it all, when we create that society where support is guaranteed? Where disabled people are valued as much as anyone else? Whether to have a baby, any baby, still needs to be the choice of the pregnant person, every time. Not Paul Givan’s choice, not the DUP’s choice, but the choice of the individual. I’m not suggesting we need to prioritise disabled people’s needs as a way of reducing the number of abortions, I’m saying we need to do it because it’s the right thing to do. And so is making abortion available on the same terms as in the rest of the UK.

The DUP’s pro-life attitude also appears to stop at the point of birth. It stops with supporting a Conservative government whose policies cause children to grow up in poverty – that’s more than one in four children in the UK today. And here’s another glaring statistic: nearly half the people living in poverty in the UK today are either disabled, or live with a disabled person.

Disabled people should be at the centre of conversations that affect us, and not only when we offer a politically convenient prop to ideologically motivated attacks on everyone’s rights. It has been very, very noticeable when individual politicians and political parties in Northern Ireland actually support disabled people’s rights, and engage substantively with disabled people’s organisations across a range of issues, and not just abortion.

Where ableist government policy leads, the general public follow, and none of this does a thing to challenge the ableism endemic in medical settings. It is a scandal that a staggering 59% of the people who have died from Covid-19 in England have been disabled adults. And despite the outcry and investigation that followed the revelation that autistic and learning disabled adults were being targeted by GPs and hospitals for DNRs since the pandemic began, it is still happening. Where is the pro-life brigade now? Mr. Givan?

At a fundamental, institutional level in this country, the disabled people who are already here are regarded as disposable. We are seen as acceptable collateral damage. We are presumably the same disabled people who are of enormous value to the DUP as political footballs before we are born. And that is what Paul Givan and the DUP leadership do not want to acknowledge. Their complicity in supporting a Conservative government, that has disastrously handled everything it has touched that affects disabled people, is what the DUP hope to distract you from with a debate about abortion.

Don’t fall for it.

(ABA)

Frankenstein Cometh!

How far can you trace back your personal canons?

Anyone who has spent just a bit of time in our house will notice that Frankenstein’s monster has a bit of a presence. My ur-text is King Kong, which I saw when I was about six, but it was Frankenstein which really took root in my imagination a few years later. It’d be tempting to tell you how I identified with the sad, lonesome creature, trying to make sense of the world, but – I won’t. At that age I firmly saw the monsters as them while my heroes were more like Superman and Tarzan.

To be honest, aside from ‘general cultural osmosis’ I don’t quite know where I had picked up the basic story of “scientist creates monster, and monster goes on a rampage,” but I do know that in my imagination the creature was firmly that: a monster, an it even. I was ten when I saw my first Frankenstein film, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and I managed to ignore the comedy and be scared by the tropes it sought to parody: thin gruel does satisfy the hungry. My mind extracted from it a story of a man-made monster, a castle in thunderstorm and a sinister assistant mournfully blowing his horn. All that, hung on the skeleton of a single picture found in library book when I was seven.

The book is Hilary Henson’s Robots (in Dutch, pedantically, Robots en Computer) and the miracles of the Internet brought it to my doorstep today. And there it was, on page 19: it’s just a small image, a cut-out of Boris Karloff in his monster makeup. Out of all the other things that could grip me, and may have at another time (like the robot from Metropolis) it was that one image that fascinated me; I must indeed have been in a monsters! frame of mind. At the time, I made a drawing of it in my sketchbook. I can’t account, really, for the shirt. Perhaps it’s a transplant from the Universal Werewolf movies, but I think it’s more that these were typical shirts of the early ’80s.

It would be years before I got to see James Whale’s Frankenstein films properly. That is; I’d saved up for my own small TV set for in my room, and with the advent of cable, the BBC had been added to the few Dutch and German channels we’d received until then. The Beeb had an all-night Frankenstein night, and I remember watching Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride with the skylight above the bedroom door taped shut with black cardboard; mom and dad wouldn’t approve staying up until an ungodly hour. I also had the sound turned completely off. Just as well; I doubt I’d have appreciated the campiness of Bride of Frankenstein!

(RvS)

Vaccinated!

No essay on pop culture or folklore for you today, but some really good news instead: I got the Covid-19 vaccine today! 

For those who don’t know, I have Crohn’s disease, Short Bowel Syndrome, and Intestinal Failure. What that basically means is that I have an auto-immune disorder which I manage with immunosuppressants, and due to complications from it I need tube-feeding. Collectively these and other factors put me at much higher risk than the average person regarding Covid-19. 

I hugged my mum for the last time on 12th March last year. I haven’t been on a bus, or been able to attend a medical clinic without considerable precautions, since the middle of that month, and Remco hasn’t been to his workplace in person. I haven’t been into a shop since 29th March 2020, nor can I visit a bank, library or post office, or anyone else’s house. The only people in our house since we began shielding that day have been medical staff, and we’ve relied on the kindness of neighbours, as well as the support of my medical team, in order to cope. 

In short, despite enjoying considerable privilege compared with people who’ve had no choice but to attend work in person throughout the pandemic, we’ve had a terribly hard, lonely year. It was particularly tough when we learned that I wasn’t allowed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, due to my history of anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction), and when I got a call from the hospital a couple of weeks ago to invite me for vaccination, unfortunately it was the only vaccine they had, so we were looking at another wait for either them or our GP to get supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine. On my GP’s website I saw that they were hoping to vaccine CEV (Clinically Extremely Vulnerable) people next week. 

This afternoon, just after 5, I got an unexpected call from my GP. They had one dose of the vaccine left, and as I literally live round the corner from the surgery and they didn’t want that dose to go to waste, they called me first. They asked when I last had my immunosuppressant, and as I’m right at the midpoint between doses, they felt secure that this would not conflict with the vaccine. They said it’s not often they get to call people with something that makes them happy! I masked up and was there within five minutes. 

They went through the questionnaire with me, and had me check the list of vaccine components to confirm none of my allergens was on there. I would say that anyone concerned about their specific health situation and the vaccine can be reassured by how very thorough they’re being. Then I got the vaccination.

So, I’m not going to go wild just yet – we know that the vaccine doesn’t achieve maximum efficacy until you’ve had both doses, and it’ll be another ten weeks until I get my second dose. I’m aware there are more transmissible variants of the virus out there, and my trips beyond my own front gate for exercise are cautious and seldom. We’re still waiting to learn to what extent the various vaccines prevent transmission, so there’s every reason for everyone to remain careful, whether they’re at additional risk or not. 

Hopefully though, some of the fear a lot of us have been feeling about our health can lift, and the NHS can begin to recover from the enormous strain this has put on the system, the people who work in it, and everyone who relies on it to stay alive. For now, stay safe, avoid crowds as much as you can, and mask up when you can’t! 

Control Your Shelves

Content warning throughout, for discussion of sexual violence and racism, including examples of racist language.

A few weeks ago we literally had to extend our Billy bookcases, as this year’s Christmas haul had joined last year’s unshelved presents. So, the question came up: why would we give shelf space to writers we really don’t want there? Whose works are you willing to be in dialogue with, even when they and their authors are not perfect? Whose works do reflect who you are? And which works and authors cause embarrassing silences at the table?

Death of the Author, in short, is the theory that argues that creation and creator are unrelated. There are many facets to this, and your personal mileage may vary: what one puts up with, another will not. Emotions may come into play here, but principles too. For me, death of the author doesn’t wash, as what an author says and does is of influence on how I perceive their work. This extends to writers, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists. Critics may say that this is Cancel Culture, yet as a consumer I have the right to choose what I consume, just as publishers have the right to choose what they publish, and can choose whether or not to listen to calls from the public to publish – or not – a writer/artist. And if they are published, we can choose whether or not to financially support that work.

These choices are not always based on what’s legal. Material proof of Marilyn Manson’s abuse of Evan Rachel Wood has yet to be produced. Yet, her testimony is powerful and convincing, as are the reports of others who have experienced similar abuse. I believe her. But what to make of the hordes of men (mainly men) in the comments sections of entertainment websites, with their cries of “pics or it didn’t happen”? What climate does this create for any woman who suffers sexual or other abuse, when the default setting at coming forward is not being believed?

When will the Didn’t happen crowd be satisfied? Amber Heard did come with the pictures, yet it was easily spun as “self inflicted” and “she abused Johnny Depp first”. What proof will men be satisfied with, when in the UK less than 5% of rape cases reported to the police are referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, and of these, only three quarters make it to court? And what chance do women stand in court, when the defence attacks their morality and underwear, whereas the promising future of young men must not be compromised? And as for Marilyn Manson, if his own words are explained away as “That’s just his media persona talking,” can I understand why women feel embattled and a #metoo movement sprung up? Yes, I can. Does it affect how I listen to Manson’s music? Oh, yes!

Mists of Avalon: feminism and female empowerment?

Likewise, could I re-read the “feminist masterpiece” Mists of Avalon knowing how she sexually abused her daughter from the age 3-12 (should I add “allegedly” here?) and how she remained silent about the child molestation by her husband, for which he received multiple convictions? No, when finding that out, Avalon and other stray MZBs left our house. I wouldn’t be able to read them without adding a mental “yes, but you abused your daughter,” after each “strong female protagonist” bit of writing. This, also because she’s so very present in her books: the author may be dead to me, but it’s not a case of Death of the Author. Less clear-cut, of course, are films, the products of many hands and many talents: auteur films from the likes of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen may have lost their gloss, but films produced by Harvey Weinstein, not so much.

Then there are films that I can enjoy, though I won’t support the author. Don’t @ me; the first Twilight film isn’t bad. However, as I will not support the Mormon church and their wacky and homophobic beliefs, and knowing that Stephenie Meyer is a member of the church and will pay 10% tithe of all money she earns, I’ll not see a single penny of mine go towards her. Likewise for noted transphobe J.K. Rowling. And sometimes I’m just petty: a noted horror writer was rude to me in a Facebook group, so his books went from my shelf to the charity box.

And then you’ve got authors whose attitudes where, perhaps, “of their time”. How do you deal with sexism and racism in works from an era where these were the standard? Firstly, there is the work itself: is it unreadable? H. Rider Haggard is at times patronising about Black people and too often falls into the Mighty Whitey or White Man’s Burden tropes, but you can read he’s sympathetic towards his major Black characters. You feel he’s trying at least, as opposed to for example Edgar Wallace in his Sanders of the River stories. Rider Haggard I’ll happily read – She, for all its faults, is a powerful work, in which the Mighty Whitey’s rule is not at portrayed as entirely benevolent. Wallace’s “gunboat diplomacy”, however, I can do without. Then over to the people “behind the page”; what of H.P. Lovecraft, for instance? It’s pretty well known that the Weird Tales stalwart and Call of Cthulhu writer was racist. But, which white man in the 1920s and ’30s wasn’t? To answer this, I’m aided by the question: “How would they vote, now?”

Colonial justice: Sanders of the River. Illustration: William Marshall, 1976

I believe that HPL would’ve voted Trump, would’ve been very much in favour of The Wall, and I’d dare go as far as to say that he’d be liable to adhere to some QAnon trappings. He was a learned man, had ample opportunity to create a broader worldview, but stubbornly and unapologetically refused to do so. That racism is part and parcel of stories like Shadow Over Innsmouth is extensively documented.Now, Lovecraft scholar Bobby Derie, in his Deep Cuts, has chronicled some of HPL’s real life encounters with Black people. It’s worse than I imagined. In 1933 he wrote of Hitler: I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears ….. & the same goes for the dago slums!)

Compare this with what Robert E. Howard wrote on Nazi Germany, in a 1933 letter to Lovecraft: I might also point out that no one has ever been hanged in Texas for a witch, and that we have never persecuted any class or race because of its religious beliefs or chance of birth; nor have we ever banned or burned any books, as the “civilized” Nazis are now doing in “civilized” Germany.

Both letters are from 1933; before the concentration camps, before the worst excesses of the Reich, yet the writing was already on the wall, and with his “poison gas” comment, Lovecraft of course hearkens back to World War I gas attacks, so we’re not talking abstracts here. What (finally) did it for me was Derie’s quoting of a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1922. To colleagues and others further removed he could be polite, even to a Black editor, but writing to close family we get the unfiltered HPL, not only drawing a link between apes and Black people, but also using a slur frequently used by slave holders for Black men: Before the chimpanzee cage; gazing with rapt interest, & unconscious of the time, we noted two huge, jet-black buck niggers; one of them—curiously enough—in army uniform with a very businesslike trench helmet.

Shadow Over Innsmouth: “queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. (Art: Hannes Bok, 1942)

But how about Robert E. Howard then? Yes, he was racist too. However, his is a more tangled web where very bad portrayals of Black people go hand in hand with sympathetic descriptions of non-white characters. In his article Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior Jason Ray Carney writes about the story Worms of the Earth as a story about oppression, yet recognises that it is also written against a theoretical background of inter-war racist pseudoscience. While Lovecraft travelled and lived in New York for a spell, Howard pretty much stayed in Texas, and his literary influences go back decades, so there seems to be an element of ignorance too, less wilful than Lovecraft’s.

Howard’s ambivalence and confusion regarding race is can be illustrated with a 1932 letter to Lovecraft: I am not yet able to understand my own preference for these so-called Picts. Bran Mak Morn has not changed in the years; he is exactly as he leaped full-grown into my mind – a pantherish man of medium height with inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. This was not my own type; I was blond and rather above medium size than below. Most of my friends were of the same mold. Pronounced brunet types such as this were mainly represented by Mexicans and Indians, whom I disliked.

Bran Mak Morn: inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. (Art: Gary Gianni)

Howard’s more blatant racism (and sexism) seem to mainly occur in the more cliché Conan stories, which makes me wonder whether he wrote them pandering to a market which he knew was receptive to such tropes, much like he got the coveted cover spot by including lesbian flogging. This doesn’t excuse racism but implies a similar cultural landscape to today, in which it was a choice to act, or not, on principles of equality; in Howard’s case, earning his daily bread seems to have won out in the end. What for me is important is that Howard shows the capacity to grow and learn. Had he lived, I think he’d have enlisted to punch Nazis in WWII, shoulder to shoulder with Black soldiers. Lovecraft, I think, would merely bemoan the loss of American, Aryan, life and prudently keep his deeper thoughts from polite society.

With Derie’s work, and in particular discussions around the television series Lovecraft Country, a taking stock of sorts is underway. The Mythos, stories based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other cosmic horrors, is not to be scrapped completely, but conversations like this make it easier to discern which implicit and explicit elements to get rid of, and which to keep and foster. I am not convinced that a similar consensus has been reached around Howard’s work. Due to its more ambiguous nature, fans roughly fall into the camps of, “I like it, though it’s flawed, and we need to talk about it,” and “I like it just as it is. No SJW in my books!” Howard’s Conan stories, and the Sword & Sorcery genre in general, were discovered by many in their teens, and it’s hard for some to reconcile their undeveloped teenage views and nostalgia with a more adult, critical view. One publisher of a recent S&S anthology states, amongst other dog whistles: No political correctness and No social justice warriors.

Lovecraft Country: reclaiming Mythos territory.

Even so, with a recent flux of podcasts like The Cromcast (their episode on The Moon of Skulls, on racism in the Solomon Kane stories, is a must), Rogues in the House and Appendix N, all looking at the genre from a critical perspective, as well as a host of magazines who aim to make the genre about more than Manly White Men, the genre is slowly emerging from its unreconstructed ghetto. Robert E. Howard himself can yet be redeemed too; I just finished rereading the Kull stories, and found little racism or sexism in them: women are written with agency and personality, and I got the feeling that Kull’s Pictish, and non-white, brother in arms Brule is far wiser and hardly less skilled a fighter than Kull is. Then, as was pointed out by commenter Cora Buhlert: Yes, he was prejudiced and yes, there are racist bits in his fiction, but he also had Kull smash Valusia’s miscegenation laws with his battle axe.

Adaptations too need not be uncritical, and can be transformative. The Dark Horse Conan comics were generally well received, though Becky Cloonan’s portrayal of Conan was derided as “too thin.” Aside from this being a younger Conan and previous Conans perhaps having been drawn “too muscular,” I also wonder how much misogyny against a female artist has played a part in its reception. Cloonan drew the adaptation of Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast, as scripted by Brian Wood. Wood has a history of harassing women, and is a good example of Death of the Author. The adaptation, despite Wood’s interpolations, is still predominantly Howard’s story, and Cloonan’s art is worth sticking around for, so I don’t feel that urge to throw it out; Wood did lose his gig at Dark Horse when word got out, which I feel is just.

What strikes me on reading, and in particularly viewing, the comic is how it deals with its crew of Black pirates. When Conan first encounters them, they are (in Howard’s prose) “painted and plumed, and mostly naked, brandishing spears and spotted shields” with their white queen Bêlit forming “a dazzling contrast to the glossy ebon hides about it.” Cloonan depicts them as anonymous, almost black shapes with empty eyes and a suggestion of sharpened teeth; the idea of the savage as a 1930s reader, and a young Conan, would have it.

Conan joins the pirate queen on the Tigress and becomes the Mighty Whitey himself next to her. But as the story goes on, we get to know some of the crew better, like old N’Yaga and sub-Chief N’Gora. The language gets toned down a bit to blacks, black warriors, with huge muscles coiling and straining under their ebon skin when they try to shift a stone altar; terms which, aside from the words black and ebon were used to describe Conan. Later still, it’s N’Gora and his comrades. Cloonan’s pirates too morph into recognisable individuals, away from stereotypical depictions.

So, this is what we can do with what we don’t like; certain writers and artists we can take off our shelves, and not spend our coin on. Genres with a history of racism and sexism we can investigate and then transform and subvert. Inclusivity, in 2021, is a must, yet it involves excluding or changing that which is toxic. Because – who needs the presence of a writer who (“but think of the children!”) would want women barred from female toilets? Who’d want a Mythos that espouses fear of strangers, when those “strangers” are our neighbours and colleagues? What is a Heroic Fantasy fandom which cannot imagine heroes who are different but equal to the white, heterosexual male?

(RvS)

Red Man Genesis

In our bookcase we’ve got a binder with notes I’ve made for stories, stretching back more than two decades. Every now and then I dig through them to see whether something is worth using. One note was for a class of warriors, called The Red Butchers. It goes:

These are giant, muscled men, who in a battle stand in the front lines for encouragement and inspiration for the soldiers. Compare them, if you will, with mascots. Only, they do fight along; they’ve had the sort of training of gladiators, and usually live segregated, but luxuriously. Spartans. Maybe they are under influence from drugs, so that they are in a state of battle frenzy.

Their appearance is remarkable, aside from their size, for which they are selected/bred, by the Tribal tattoos covering their whole bodies. These, mainly red, tattoos serve as recognition marks (living flag) but also to frighten the enemy. They also serve to hide scars and sustained wounds. Feared warriors, used in moderation, for a maximum effect. Compare with the way the Celts presented themselves in the wars against the Romans.

This is pretty much how we find The Red Man in the titular story from The Red Man and Others. However, in that story we wanted to subvert the trope of “big guy, fighting” by exploring what happens when a warrior like this is taken out of action.

The typed note says (For Christallum). Christallum was a shared universe project I was asked to contribute artwork for. When I received their 15-page (!) contract, however, I had questions. I raised an eyebrow on reading that commissioned art would only benefit from profit-share after it was published. The other eyebrow disappeared underneath my hairline with the clause that as long as Christallum held any artwork, I would share the financial risk of the project. This to me meant that Christallum could take a piece of art I’d produce, put it in the drawer to never publish (and never paid), and meanwhile send any creditors my way in case of losses. As a friend working for a major Dutch publisher advised me: “Don’t go to sea with these pirates!” So, I didn’t, and the note remained in my own file until Angeline and I wrote The Red Man.

This is the very first sketch of Kaila, which this week I found again, used as a bookmark in my copy of Robert E. Howard’s King Kull stories. We’d been talking about the “Badass and Child” trope (usually big guy, young girl), which we’d already subverted in The Red Man. Examples of the trope are Wolverine + Kitty Pride, or Jubilee, or his daughter X-23; The Professional, The Terminator, Sin City’s Marv and Nancy, GoT‘s Sandor and Arya. This first sketch has Kaila as a dwarf, “30ish”, with “guy 13, 14ish” barely sketched in. The notes to the side place it around the time we were first drafting The Red Man, some five years back. It looks like I was also wanting to see the Clark Gable vehicle Mogambo.

Kaila changed quite a bit during the drafting of the first Kaila and Sebastien story. We made her a little bit younger, and we decided not to make her of the dwarf race, but just very short. We’d been struggling to visualise her, until I got a new colleague at work, from the Middle East. She talked me into dressing up as Gandalf, while she went as Frodo, and her husband as Legolas. Kaila typically doesn’t fight with the double-bladed axe, though one will pop up in the novella we’re drafting right now. It’s a call-back to the King Kull story I must’ve been reading at the time, By This Axe I Rule, one of the stories that’s found permanent resonance with me, ever since I read it first in my early twenties.

(RvS)

World Building

A confession: we’re not much into world building in what, in our own shorthand, we call our Wheelworld stories, the stories around the sell-sword Kaila, scribe Ymke and teenage rogue Sebastien.

From a thread on Twitter about King Arthur, which is worth reading: ...the popularity of arthur stories is largely a manufacture of british protestants to invent a pre-catholic, post-roman, christian romantic past that could be deployed in the service of social conservatism as articulated through storytelling, architecture, and interior design.

We find this thought very freeing as authors who have lost too much time to find out “which foods are old world and which new world produce” and are reluctant to make their late medieval-ish fantasy conform precisely to the limits of what tech existed in what analog country in our world. It’s detail-focused, rather than processing from generalities upward. It’s never been our ambition for Wheelworld (the clue is in the fact we’ve begun ironically referring to it like that) to be one of those ultra-precise fantasy worlds where we know every linguistic, historical, topographical, flora/fauna detail.

One of the maps of Ricardo Pinto’s Three Lands, from Stone Dance of the Chameleon

We love created worlds like that. There’s an incredible complexity and subtlety that becomes possible when you truly know every inch of your fantasy world. Our friend Ricardo Pinto, with his Stone Dance of the Chameleon series, surpasses Tolkien in the depth and originality of his conlangs, genealogies and history. His website offers a taste of the background material he created for his magnum opus (and we really recommend the revised, seven-part edition). Our imagination however works the other way round, and we lean into that: broadly, we look at what the story needs, and make the world to fit those needs.

In this approach, we follow in the footsteps of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, whose Hyborian world is overlaid on the map of Europe as we know it, and whose place and personal names purposely echo cultures we know. His Aquilonian kingdom reminds us of the medieval French Aquitaine; when he mentions the people of Shem, we know roughly where they come from. It’s a shorthand for him, using the general knowledge of the readers, so that he can get on with the story he wants to tell. Likewise, for The Red Man we’ve used a version of the northern Netherlands, Road to Starohrad is set in Prague (sort of) and for The Return of the Uncomplaining Child we looked (literally) at Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen. We allow our readers’ associations to construct our world in their minds.

Map of the Hyborian Age by Robert E Howard

If we had made a map of Wheelworld, it would be a bit like that of Europe, though stretched out in certain parts, shrunk to insignificance in others. Our “northern Netherlands” definitely seem to be larger. Our approach has been to unfurl the world under our characters’ feet as we’ve needed new parts of it. None of them had the kind of education, or the kind of things expected of them in life, to give them a king’s or a scholar’s understanding of their world. So that world has… unrendered bits. Their world is like a medieval map, with vague “somewhere over there”s and “here be monsters”.

And things work a bit differently in that world generally. How different depends on what we’d like to do, or sometimes where our trio leads us. We haven’t talked about this before because it always seems like such a cop-out when meticulous world-building is a thing many people adore in fantasy.

Detail of the Hereford Mappa Mundi

Our curiosity lies more in the daily human relations of the world than its full historical record. Oh, bits of its history have emerged and continue to emerge. It’s getting more solid, and parts of it will get very solid as we take you through the rest of our heroes’ adventures. But its life and vigour rely on there being hinterlands; unmapped, unregarded bits. And one theme that keeps coming up is the precarity of civilisation: not even the lofty bits, but the everyday standards, like not murdering your neighbour. In that sense too it’s Howardian.

Granted, at least he did have a map!

25K!

That’s not Couch to 5 K; it’s the word count of the story of which I’ve just finished the first draft. It’s twice as long as anything we’ve done before, and we’re going outside our usual routine with it too. Normally, we’d discuss a story idea, then I’ll do an outline, after which Angeline does the first draft. I take over and complete the draft, including any bits in all-caps which haven’t been figured out yet. This time, I did the full first draft, while Angeline is concentrating on another story.

She did read the story while I wrote, gave feedback, spotted continuity errors and plot holes, and helped tease out the story’s themes. Her draft will further sharpen the characters’ voices, sharpen the prose and do anything else that make a story ‘work’. Then we’ll hand it to and fro a few more times, and the end result will be that the story isn’t mine; it’s ours. The characters, definitely, are from us both. It’s another story with Sebastien, Ymke and -most of all- Kaila. Both of us have similar ideas of who each of them are, and even where we’d ‘fan cast’ a different celeb in our heads for Ymke, they were remarkably similar in appearance.

At last year’s WorldCon in Dublin, Diane Duane and Peter Morwood described how they were asked to write an opening scene for the Nibelungen film they were working on, “like Conan’s forging or the sword”. What they came up with was two rods of iron, heated, twisted together and hammered until it becomes one bar of strong steel. We like to think our writing is like that; and if the two bars have slightly different properties; well, the visible textures give the resulting sword extra beauty, right?

Photos from Dr. Susie C. Rijnhart’s With The Tibetans In Tent And Temple

“Are you a plotter or a pantser?” is the question often asked amongst writers. We’re definitely plotters, yet that still leaves a lot of room for discovery. Going in, you know what happens, but what remains to learn is why it happens and how it affects the characters. This one definitely affects Kaila greatly, though without the story in front of you it’s of course of no use to go into details. The story incorporates three flash fics I wrote last year during October, using Inktober prompts, but sets them in a bigger context, finding more meaning for them. One of the story’s characters, in a ‘this happened before’ arc, is Kaila’s mentor. This at first gave us the notion that the story was about women: there’d be the maiden, the mother and the crone. However, at 19K words, Angeline having had her first thorough read-through of the thing without framing narrative, we mulled it over and figured that the story really is about family. As we’ve described Kaila, Sebastien and Ymke as found family, the family you choose instead of the ties that come with blood, this was just as well, and it was easy to write towards it.

It’s not going to be bogged down in philosophy though. At least, that’s the idea. The working title is The Wolves of Scorr. It’s actually a title from the Dutch Eric de Noorman comicbook cycle (one of my favourite comics – this year I bought the complete, deluxe, set!). It’s mostly set in the mountains, so I got to do research with the excellent Tresspassers on the Roof of the World, about the early Western explorers in Tibet and the race to Llhasa, and the primary sources mentioned in it, like Dr. Susie C. Rijnhart’s With The Tibetans In Tent And Temple. We also made use of the 1956 documentary Seven Years in Tibet (not to be confused with the Brad Pitt vehicle). Kaila’s mentor is from a region vaguely synonymous to Eastern Europe so we borrowed bits of Ukrainian, Scythian and Latvian (Baltic) folklore and myth. Stumbling upon a cache of cradle songs around the Baltic primal mother figure Mara, Google translate helped me putting together some decidedly dark songs for our character to sing.

The Roseau Stone: the mask of the ancient Russian goddess Jara, circled with runes, or a pitted pebble with a non-rune border? We’re writing fiction, so a goddess it is!

So, what we have is 25.000 words of framing narrative, a few flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, an attempt to make the narratives distinct, and still quite a bit of work to do. As in the other stories set in what we lazily call Wheelworld, there are swords, and there is sorcery. We’re again not quite sure though whether Sword & Sorcery is the right label for this thing. While our adventurous trio is avoiding capture and being tied down, perhaps it’s for the best not to strive for the label too eagerly.

RvS

The Brides

It was mid-December 1960, and my mother went to the movies with her cousin. Two teenage girls on their bicycles, to the bigger village further on, where they had a cinema. They’d been in the mood for something romantic, and in the listing between advertisements of fireworks and explosive carbid, and aside the death notices, they found just the thing: there were brides in the title, and some foreign nobleman. Just the thing to warm the cockles of the heart! They set off early; the roads were slippery with ice, and the gritters wouldn’t treat the backroad they’d take, from Niekerk-Oldekerk to the next village.

They were not so careful on the way back. They flew over the bridge over the Matsloot moat, wheels leaving the stones, through the marshy land of ‘t Kret, over the straight Mensumaweg back. They shrieked when they heard mournful moans behind them, the dynamos of their bicycle lights whirring more hysterically as they pumped their pedals. Some boys overtook them, laughing. They too had been to the cinema, to that film with the brides of the foreign count.

The Brides of Dracula.

When people ask where I get my love of horror, I usually mention seeing King Kong (1933) when I was 6, or when I found a little picture of Karloff’s Frankenstein in a library book about robots. I don’t credit my mother enough, who sat with me through numerous horror films when I probably was too young for them; who indeed enjoyed Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979) after the opening shot of the mummies already was too much for me. She’s still at it, happily knitting while watching the most gruesome true crime documentaries after midnight…

(My mom didn’t read this review in the Nieuwsblad van het Noorden, 17th December 1960, otherwise she may have reconsidered)

Because count Dracula, the vampire, is known to be dead, but because his attraction – also for film producers – remains, it has been decided to keep his evil ghost alive for a while. Probably forever. Afterall, he’s had opportunity enough to make victims, who had not yet been discovered in the previous film (also directed by Terence Fisher). One like that is now produced from his coffin under the name Baron Meinster, who also lives in a suitable ghostly castle in the Carpathians.

Luckily there’s also scientist – from Leiden (sic) – Van Helsing, who is a fiery crusader against vampirism. One thing Hammer Studios has learnt: there was not enough female beauty in the previous production. “Come on boys, let’s throw a whole girls’ school at it.” But before the whole boarding school will go up in air as bloodthirsty bats, the scientist from Leiden gets involved and Transylvania is safe for a while from a vampire plague. That’ll not last long, though; there must be another evil spirit lurking in the cash register of Hammer Studios which is ever thirsty. And so Brides of Dracula will not be the last sturdily made, but sometimes quite ridiculous, horror film, trying to build a bridge between our 20th century mentality and the superstitious caveman who sits hidden in everyone – very deep.