A Valentine’s Day Playlist

We’ve gathered together some love songs for Sebastien, Ymke and Kaila, the heroes of our story collection, The Red Man and Others, and stories to come. We hope you enjoy these songs as much as we do!

Black Tape For A Blue Girl – Remnants of a Deeper Purity

Those eyes quietly tell me of a passion we could share
The dance reminds me of a life that we once knew
Snares for my hopes snares for my thoughts
Snares for my dreams drifting onto oblivion
Can you tell me about the intuition I feel
Can you tell me about everything I long to understand?

This one is for Sebastien. He doesn’t love easily, or let himself be loved. If his love life can be described in one word, it’s ‘regret’. Sebastien may come across as a happy-go-lucky rogue, but he keeps his true self well hidden. There are but few who can peel away his protective layers to see that deeper purity. Once, he met a woman he instantly fell for, who reached out and touched the good inside of him. She set him on the path that ultimately led to Kaila and then Ymke. Our story, Another Soul For The Bone Fire, is currently ‘doing the rounds,’ and we hope you’ll soon get the chance to read it!

Jocelyn Pook (with Parvin Cox) – Upon This Rock


ای شاه، درویشت منم، درویش دل ریشت منم
بیگانه و خویشت منم، دارم هوای عاشقی


Oh King, I am your dervish, your fragile Dervish
I am both a stranger and I am myself. I am in love.

These are the words of the 10th century Persian sufi Abu Saeed Abu al-Khair, and I imagine that the music could be like the music of Kaila’s childhood. She is a woman of strong passions, yet as they say: the candle that burns twice as bright burns twice as fast. Since she left her home beyond the mountains she’s lived by sword and by fortune, never really settling and going from one adventure, one war, one heist, to another. She’s known pleasure, joy, and laughter aplenty, yet only since meeting Ymke does she allow herself to experience a deeper and lasting happiness. We imagine her confessing to Ymke, in the depth of night, when souls lay bare: “I am your dervish, your fragile devish. I am both a stranger and I am myself. I am in love.”

The Dreamside – Paroles Dans La Nuit


Ta voix me cherche dans l’ombre,
Le lit est dans la chambre, dans la nuit. – Où?
Écoute le craquement des bambous.
La neige tombe sur les branches – dans la nuit;
Demain la terre sera blanche et froide.

Your voice seeks me in the shadows,
The bed is in the bedroom, in the night – Or?
Hear the creaking of the bamboo canes.
The snow falls on the branches, in the night;
Tomorrow, the earth will be white and cold.

This is from a poem by the northern Dutch writer J.J. Slauerhoff (1898-1936). He was a restless and somewhat difficult man, whose travels brought him to China and whose poems and books have expressionistic and romantic influences. Whereas Kaila’s love is one of a full conviction and certainty, Kayla is well aware of the fragility of love. She fears that one morning she’ll wake up and beside her the bed is cold.

Marlene Bakker – Waarkhanden

Waarkhanden dij t laand plougen,
En mie goud grootbrocht hebben.
Ik rie deur dreug plattelaand,
Terwiel de wind der deurhìn roast,
En ik aan die denk, hou of wie hier ooit woond hebben.

Dwirrels vegen t stof op in wolken,
Terwiel de wind aal meer hoelt om die.
Mien laiverd, kinst nait zain dat ik terugkommen bin?
Terug noar die.

Worn hands which plough the land,
And brought me up well.
I ride through the dry, flat land,
While the wind rushes over it,
And I think of you, how we once lived here.

Gusts sweep the dust up in clouds,
While the wind cries out for you.
My darling, can’t you see I’ve come back?
Back to you.

Ymke always dreamt of a life beyond the clay and the cold northern winds of where she grew up. Though she definitely got what she wanted, she never forgot the farm, and her father who lived there in exile. Will she ever go back?

If you loved this music, and what it tells about our characters, we’d love you to get further acquainted with Sebastien, Kaila and Ymke in The Red Man and Others. You can find it for Kindle on Amazon UK and Amazon US. If you think it’d make a nice Valentine’s Day present for someone, you can find instructions on this page.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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)

The Body Diverse

In a recent Guardian article, actress Carey Mulligan is reported to take issue with a Variety review of the black comedy Promising Young Woman, which read: “Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale – Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her.” Mulligan says about this: “We start to edit the way that women appear on-screen, and we want them to look a certain way. We want to airbrush them, and we want to make them look perfect. Or we want to edit the way that they work, the way they move and the way that they think and behave. And I think we need to see real women portrayed on-screen in all of their complexity.”

“Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as… femme fatale”

In our story, The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, we have Ymke, similarly to Mulligan’s character in Promising Young Woman, set a honey trap for an abusive husband. While Ymke is fairly average looking and disabled, we’ve got no doubt she could pull it off. Of course, she already turned Kaila’s head, and vice versa. And talking of Kaila, she is of course very short but also very muscled. And yes, she’s attractive. Attraction is not the same as beauty, whatever the contemporary idea of beauty may be.

Kaila and Ymke from The Red Man and Others

We’d love to see more ‘non-normative’ body types in our media, and in film and tv in particular. What the reader sees on the page is partially filled in by their own imagination. What we see on the big or the small screen leaves little room to fill in your own blanks. Genre films, superhero films in particular, have not been very diverse. Where you look at the Marvel films, you see some fairly ‘average’ looking guys like Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/Hulk) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), the women can all be classed as beautiful – even when they’re shaven-headed, black-eyed and blue, like Nebula (Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy). Hopping over to ‘the distinguished competitor’, why is Superman super-muscled and Wonder Woman isn’t?

Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill. One is not like the others.

It’s not like Superman needs to go to the gym every day after work to stay super. It all comes down to classic role patterns, right at the dawn of the pulp- and superhero: Superman’s template is the dynamic tension built Charles Atlas. Superman doesn’t get sand kicked in his face! The notes on the first sketch for Wonder Woman (1941) are revealing. Artist H.G. Peters notes that: “The shoes are like a stenographer’s.” Writer William Moulton Marston writes back: “Dear Pete – I think the gal with the hand up is very cute. I like her skirt, legs, hair.”

No more sand shall be kicked in *his* face!

Some artists draw Wonder Woman as fairly buff, but it never seems to stick. Likewise, much was made of Jessica Biel’s fitness regime for Blade: Trinity (2004), yet I also remember the ‘fanboy’ comments of her being “ugly”. I guess they’d rather stick with the female leads of the X-men movies, Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Mystique) and Halle Berry (Storm), who all started their careers as models! You’ve got to wonder how they’ll handle the upcoming She-Hulk series. Will Tatiana Maslany be set on a body building regime to bulk up like Cavill, Affleck, Bale, Helmsworth and Evans (the harmful amount of muscles expected of nowadays Hollywood leading men is another story)? I doubt it.

“Dear Pete – I think the gal with the hand up is very cute.”

There have been some tentative approaches to the diverse bodies in Fantasy franchises, but these have come with an amount of ‘but’. In Game of Thrones Gwendoline Christie was imposing as the female knight Brienne of Tarth, but it was made very clear that she was not attractive. The Witcher‘s Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) was disabled but she could only be attractive once that was ‘fixed’. Only Frøya from Norsemen (Silje Torp) comes to mind as being awesome while tall (1.78), past forty and with the muscle mass befitting a warrior woman.

Norsemen‘s Frøya (Silje Torp).

I’m also thinking of’s Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995), a straight-to-video Terminator-inspired actioner. Its lead is a young woman (Sue Price) who fights against a cyborg bounty hunter from the future. Think of the film what you will, but writer/director Albert Pyun at least had the thought: “Hey, if it’s good enough for Sly and Arnold, it’s good enough for my ass-kicking heroine to be absolutely ripped!”

Sue Price in Albert Pyun’s Nemesis 2: Nebula

Diversity, also in race, age and ability, is still very much a matter of ‘two hesitant steps forward, a frightened leap back’. It’s about time for the audience, us, to enjoy the rich variety of humanity, and not expect conventional standards of ‘beauty’. While typing this, we’re watching Doom Patrol which has a team of anti-heroes who are each, in one way or another, disabled. Vic (Jovian Wade), whose body is partially replaced by mechanical components, just made love with a woman, Roni (Karen Obilom) whose body is heavily scarred. “You’re beautiful,” he tells her, and means it. They accept each other’s disabilities, and invite the viewer to do the same. The next morning, he’s all aglow, while she withdraws, saying they’re just “two fucked-up people, who are trying to forget their shit.” This is the conversation between a woman who doesn’t want a relationship and a young man who is looking for romance. Roni asserts herself, and will take intimacy on her terms. She doesn’t need to be grateful.

Vic (Jovian Wade) and Roni (Karen Obilom) in Doom Patrol, s2e3

Unboxing The Hunt

Today the mailman brought a box with our copies of The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase, the Air And Nothingness Press anthology in which we have a story, With One Eye, Bright As A Star. It’s a story we’re proud of, and we’re enormously happy that it found a home in such a nice collection! It’s difficult to convey in photographs what a nice feel the cover has, how neatly it lies in the hand, the bookish smell of it (even after a lengthy transatlantic journey…). This is not just a collection of words and stories, it’s a book as an object in itself!

You can get a little taste of our story, set in the grim and cold northern Netherlands, with our story trailer…

Air and Nothingness Press publishes poetry and translations in letterpress, and limited editions. Head over to their catalog to order your own copy of The Wild Hunt, or any of their other publications!

Goals, Wishes and Dreams

Author Lee Brontide created this great meme for Twitter, which lets you talk about your main character’s goals, wishes and dreams, and we decided to make it the basis for a blog post. We’re answering here mainly for Ymke, one of the protagonists of the stories in The Red Man and Others, but also for the stories’ other heroes, Kaila and Sebastien, as the mood strikes us.

1. Do they like to have clear goals and plans? Ymke spent her early life just surviving and going with the flow, but since her experience with Alsigt, the Red Man, crystallised her need to escape, she’s always had some quiet personal goal in mind. She’s always learning something new, often illicitly.

2. Do they wish on stars? Ymke wishes on stars when she thinks Kaila’s not looking. Kaila pretends not to have noticed. Sebastien has a hidden sentimental streak, so we actually wouldn’t rule it out.

3. Any hidden talents? Forgery is the very definition of a hidden talent!

4. Their idea of having “made it”: For Ymke, it’s independence. She knows the world can be a cruel place for disabled people, that sometimes your nearest neighbours are also your biggest threat, and that there will be times when her body lets her down. She’s had to make peace with that, and part of how she’s done that is to find ways to earn her keep. Having grown up feeling tethered to a father who was living in exile and in fear, she wants to go places and be with people out of choice rather than because she has no other option economically. Our ambition for Ymke has always been for her life, even in an analogue of medieval Europe, to reflect the conflicts and ambitions and need for justice of real disabled people in the 21st century.

5. Do they believe in destiny? If you’d ask her, Ymke would hesitate. On one hand, she feels strongly that we make our own luck. On the other, some events and circumstances in life seem to have a very strong gravitational pull. The writer in her respects their symmetry. Was the Red Man meant to end up on her farm? Was he meant to leave again? What would their lives have been otherwise? Ymke tries to make her own luck, and Kaila and Sebastien definitely do, but all three of them also get swept up in the whims of destiny. To borrow a phrase (with thanks to Bernard Cornwell), Wyrd bið ful āræd – Fate is inexorable.

6. Are they sentimental? As above, Sebastien is surprisingly so. There is much about his early life that you don’t know yet (some of it we don’t even know yet!), but through all the turmoil, he has kept with him a small artefact of his childhood. There is also in Sebastien an urge to rescue people. Ymke would deny that she is sentimental or nostalgic. She still has her mother’s book, though, and sometimes she looks through it and remembers teaching Alsigt to read; remembers her father teaching her to read years earlier. Life on the road has made her travel light and focus on what’s next, but for all the places she’s lived in, and as suddenly as she’s sometimes had to leave them, she remembers the people of those places, and some of them she thinks on fondly, and wonders about, years later. And speaking of books: in many ways Kaila is a closed book. There’s much that she’d like to forget, and some things she’ll only tell late at night, when she’s had a few cups of wine.

7. Are they ambitious? Yes, sometimes fiercely and not necessarily always wisely, and we’re really looking forward to being able to share with you a story about that. Sebastien absolutely is ambitious. He wants the best that life has to offer, and he’ll get it. Will it be straightforward? Of course not. It’s Sebastien! We didn’t realise what we were doing, but in writing Ymke this year for one particular Red Man sequel, we accidentally caught ambition ourselves: it turned from a short story into a novella. Then another draft we’re working on did exactly the same, inching towards the 40K mark now. Oops.

8. Are they gracious winners? We wish we could tell you why that’s funny, with regard to one of our characters in particular, in one of the novellas we’re working on. We will say that Ymke is capable of being gracious and conciliatory in both victory and defeat. Sometimes, victory and defeat are two sides of the same coin, though.

9. Do they regret much? Ymke regrets blood spilled on her behalf, even though it’s the reason she’s alive. She regrets that it took the events in The Red Man for her to get out of the rut that was her life. She doesn’t regret the business with Father Folkhert, as dangerous as it got in the end. She meant well. She always means well. It’s just that things have a way of getting out of hand. Especially with Kaila and Sebastien around.

10. Do they keep their dreams secret? For a long time, Ymke was not accustomed to letting herself dream, and when she began to, her father was quick to clip her wings. So, she’s learned to nurture dreams quietly. And some dreams require a little skullduggery to make them happen, of course…

11. Are they prone to envy? Yes. This came as a surprise to Ymke. Living largely apart from others until her mid-teens means she didn’t realise just how much she had been missing out on, until she’d been out in the world a while. Sometimes it takes seeing other people – who are leading more ordinary lives – progress through life stages that were very different for you to fully realise what your life might have been. Encountering the sheltered city sons and daughters of her friends in middle age was strangely bitter for Ymke.

12. What skill are they most proud of? For Ymke, it’s cultivating people, in more than one sense of the word. She’s good at encouraging people and bringing out their potential. She’s also adept at making herself part of a place, so that she is valued and receives support that doesn’t feel like charity; like many disabled people, Ymke has a complicated relationship with that. And, when she has to, she can lie convincingly. These are achievements not taken for granted by someone who came from such an isolated upbringing.

13. What milestones do they care about? The irreversible ones, like “I can’t make it up these stairs any more,” which will inevitably come. When something changes in her body, Ymke waits it out through four seasons, in the hope that it is temporary and contextual. If it proves permanent, her way of life has to change – maybe a little, maybe a lot. Progressive disability is fun that way.

14. Do they procrastinate? No. There’s no procrastinating on a farm. The animals need fed and the seasons move on, so things need doing. This is how Ymke was brought up, and this is what she’s carried with her.

15. Are they good under pressure? All three of them are. They’ve had to be.

16. Do they daydream? Ymke certainly does. She certainly did on the farm, and she still did when the places she visited and the people she met far surpassed those of her imagination.

17. Do they believe in signs or omens? Ymke’s rational adult side is rather at war with the fearful, superstitious side that was cultivated in her childhood. She’ll very quietly feel a certain way about things that have enough symbolic weight. Sebastien, though he’s wise to the tricks of cold reading and the stacked deck of cards, also has seen enough to keep some room for the “What if?…”

18. Do other people believe in them? They believe in each other, though that is sometimes very considerably tested. In The Return of the Uncomplaining Child a great many people believe in Sebastien, and they worked very hard at that. None believe as much as Father Folkhert did: more than they could have hoped.

19. Would they rather be over- or underestimated? It changes. When our trio are up to chicanery, it serves them to be underestimated. Ymke chafed against her father’s underestimation of her in her early life, yet like many women, there have been times when her survival has depended on people underestimating her. She’s learned to leverage that. In the story we’re working on now she feels extremely frustrated and overlooked, though, and she’s coping with it in an unusual way.

20. How do they celebrate their successes? Depends on the nature of the success. Sometimes a quiet night together in front of a good fire is enough. Sometimes it requires a substantial quantity of drink. If they’ve made themselves rich, however temporarily, they’ll share some of it with someone who needs it more.

21. Are they good at accepting help? Sebastien does, though he may be less happy with the assumption of a debt owed. Ymke, only when she can convince herself she’s giving out at least twice as much support as she’s taking. Kaila may accept, but not ask for help.

22. How do they cope with failure? Ruthless self examination, in Ymke’s case; rants to well-chosen confidantes. And ultimately, by finding something to fix, which may take many forms. Sebastien brushes himself off, and turns the page. Kaila will be sore until she feels she’s restored the balance. This is not always the sensible course.

23. Smallest thing they’re proud of: For Ymke, it’s her stitching. For Sebastien it’s his moral compass. Kaila’s got this tattoo, you see…

24. Do they do New Year’s resolutions? Yes, very much so, in Ymke’s case. Sebastien will have many, Kaila none. At least none she’ll share with others.

25. Do they keep them? Ymke usually does.. She’s determined that way, and she sets realistic goals. Sebastien’s resolutions are broken as easy as hastily made promises. Kaila’s resolutions are not made at the start of a year, and may not be resolved within the year.

If you enjoyed this look into the minds and lives of Ymke, Kaila and Sebastien, we’d like – nay, we implore – you to seek out the collection The Red Man and Others on Amazon UK or US. We’ll meanwhile work on their further adventures!

The Oera Linda Book

Let’s start with this: the Oera Linda book is a fake, probably put together as a satire on the Frisian nationalism of the 1870s, orthodox Christians, and the Frisian antiquarians’ zeal to piece together a Great Frisian History that never existed. The joke got out of hand when a prominent Frisian antiquarian took it seriously and had it published as genuine. While by the late 1870s it was generally recognised as a forgery, it was translated into German in 1933, dubbed “the Nordic Bible” and a panel discussion in 1934 inspired Himmler’s Ahnenerbe. It again popped up with the neopagans from the late 1970s onwards, and it’s become a bit of a darling of neo-Nazis too.

“Okke min sun. Tissa boka mot i mit lif and sele waria” – as runes go, they’re not very runey.

As we live in an era in which history is all too easily dismissed as ‘old stuff for the scrapyard,’ we would do well to remember that the study of history is a living thing in itself. Not only do we keep learning about who we are, we also keep placing history in its proper context and finding new angles: a lot of our thinking about history, and indeed history writing, was formed by the 18th and 19th century culture of conquest, empire building and white male supremacy. Only now have we begun to write women back into history, and PoCs and other groups previously omitted. In studying and teaching history, another important role is to fight the misuse and perversion of history, for example by those neo-Nazis.

But let us go back to the earliest mentions of the Oera Linda book in the Dutch papers! The first mention we find is in the Provinciale Overijsselsche en Zwolsche Courant of 16th November, 1871.

Jan Gerardus Ottema, publisher of the Oera Linda book

The bookseller H. Kuipers in Leeuwarden has sent a prospectus of the much discussed manuscript: Thet Oera Linda Bok, of which dr. J. G. Ottema has taken on the editing and translating. The prospectus states that under this title a collection of writings is offered, of which the first is called: Thet bok thére Adela Folstar and is written by Adela, the wife of Apol Grêvetman ovir the Linda wrda, the second by Apollonia her daughter, the rest by her later descendants Frêthorik en Wiljow, their son Konerêd and grandson Bêden, who all have the family name Oera Linda. The first two pieces, the prospectus says, give the most important messages about the country, the people, the social position and religion of the Frisians in the earliest centuries. The later pieces contain a history of Friso and his successors. The authors mark themselves as contemporaries of the incidents of which they write, or give an attestation of the source of the messages. The whole is a strange addition to the old Frisian letters…

In the prospectus a page has been printed from the writing by Fréthorik Tobinomath Oera Linda about the arrival of Friso in Staveren. The first page, of which the first words are in the original language goes like this: Twa jêr nêi that Gosa moder wrde, kêm er en flâte to thet Flymare en fala. Thet folk hropte ho-n-sêen; which according to the prospectus should be read as: Two years after Gosa became honorary mother, a fleet came to the Flymeer. The people called ‘Houzee!’ They sailed to Staveren, and there they called again. The banners were in top and at night they shot burning arrows in the sky. When day broke, some of them rowed to the harbour. They again called ‘Houzee!’ When they came to land a young man jumped on the shore. In his hands he carried a shield; on which were laid bread and salt. After him came an old man. He said: we come from the far Krekaland, to preserve our customs; now we wish that you are so friendly as to give us enough land to live on. He told us a whole history, which I will narrate in more detail afterwards. The elder didn’t know what to do. They send messengers round, also to myself. I went to them and said: now we have a Mother, we should ask her counsel. (Provinciale Overijsselsche en Zwolsche Courant, 16Nov, 1871)

Friso, first King of Frisia, on his way to Staveren

It goes on like this. You may have noticed that Friso, the founding father of the Frisians according to myths, comes from Krekaland – a hardly disguised Greece, “Griekenland” in Dutch. They have sailed past an island called Kreta, after the shouting (“kreten”) of the inhabitants when they see the ship. This in itself should have been a tip-off for Dr. Ottema that this document was a stinker. Not so. From the same newspaper, on 10th of October 1872, this notice: At H. Kuipers from Leeuwarded rolls off the press: Thet oera linda bok. After a manuscript from the thirteenth century. Edited, translated and published by Dr. J.G. Ottema. Price: Fl 4.

And it was good enough for some! From the Leeuwarder Courant of a week later, a book report. The newspaper only prints part of what apparently was a longer letter.

Finally the manuscript, that last year caused so much ruction amongst men of letters, has been published. Then I’ve always said: we can and must not judge before the whole work has been printed and read by us. And what impression has reading it left us with? Such a thing could one not invent; like this could someone from our century, from the us known practitioners of the Frisian language, not have composed it. The new, and so far unknown and so mathematically formed writing system; – the peculiar spelling of the old-Frisian, older and better than that of the old Frisian laws; – the style and appearance of myths and legends, as pieces from different, from older times remained writings from different people in different times; but especially the contents, the thoughts, the characteristic expressions and original images, – this all contradicts the possibility that it could be an invention from our own time. (…)

It is a miracle book which, however you look at it, praise it or doubt it, will remain a mystery, while for its provenance the honesty of the owner, who won’t sell it for any money, is guaranteed. For him it is an heirloom from his father and forefathers, and he still lives in the area which was the stage of most of what happened: because this is remarkable too, that it contains so many details about the area between the province of Noord-Holland and the islands and Staveren, and mentions countries, forests and places of which we know so little, because they have been swallowed by the South Sea in the 12th and 13th century. Though – read the book yourself and write to me what you think. Your friend, F. (Leeuwarder Courant, 18 Oct 1872)

The ‘standing runes’ of the Oera Linda book.

In 1873 academics were still stroking their learned chins. The Frisian Society for History, Antiquities and Language had their 135th meeting on the 27th of August. Twenty members and two guests heard a lecture from Dr. A.T. Reitsma, a historical-critical investigation of Thet Oera Linda bok. He encapsulated its authenticity in three questions: 1. Was the manuscript really written in 1256 by Hiddo Oera Linda? 2. Is it a copy of another manuscript by Liko Oera Linda, from 803? 3. Are the pieces in that manuscript from the times and hands of the writers whose names they bear, and composed between 558 and mid-1st century before Christ?

Regarding the 1st question we argue for authenticity; aside from the way in which the manuscript has come to the family Over de Linden, a) the language in which it was written, similar to that of the oldest old-Frisian documents, b) the completely original script, differing from the later Roman script, and c) the writing tools that were used. Regarding the 2nd question; a remarkable gap which happened because of turning two pages at the same time proves that it is not an original but a copy. Also, the preface by Liko completely corresponds with the era of Charlemagne, in which it was written, and explains why the manuscript from that time on could no longer be counted as part of the national literature, but only has been saved as a relic in one family. Regarding the 3rd question; the relationship between the various pieces show that Adela has started in 558 with writing down the curious tales from antiquity, and that this work was continued by her offspring in the family of Oera Linda, maybe until the time of Liko, though the last part of the manuscript has been lost. In this manner, each writer is a witness to the authenticity of the previous writings.

Regarding the internal proof of authenticity, the speaker pointed out firstly the general level of culture in which Frya’s people according to these writings lived in the 6th century before Christ, which is not inconsistent with, but with keeping in mind the singularity of this people, completely in correspondence with the cultural situations of other older people. Secondly, that the manner of history writing was in its infancy, not showing any artistry, and can be compared with the histories of the Greek logographs from before Herodotus. On basis of these internal and external facts the speaker concluded that the manuscript was authentic.

François Haverschmidt’s student poetry.

Of course, the ‘evidence’ trotted out could well have been foreseen by the composers of the fake manuscript: for centuries, stories have been told in the form of diaries, and ‘here a page is missing’ is one of the tricks a writer has up their sleeve to give their story a veneer of authenticity. The (likely) main author of the book, François Haverschmidt, was a preacher who had published a collection of poetry in his student days, under a punning title translating as Sobs and Grim Smiles. He did so under the pseudonym of Piet Paaltjens, a student who, according to the collection’s preface, disappeared under mysterious circumstances in Leiden “on the 9th October 1853”. We see the same sort of mystification as used in the Oera Linda bok. In the collection, Haverschmidt fights his own lingering depression by ridiculing sentimentalism, and so it is a rare example of cynical romanticism. As a theology student, Haverschmidt lived above an undertaker, which lead to the following lines: When I see the mourner walk / my heart beats in joy / because I think how soon / I shall go out to pray.

“…Nei Atland sunken is…” Yes, it went there!

Haverschmidt, with help, wrote the book as an elaborate parody. As a result, scientists in 19th century Frisia found themselves the horses put behind the wagon, and confirmation bias was a significant factor: they wanted the documents to be real, and found the reasons why it was real; it conformed to their idea of what the Frisian history should be. The Oera Linda joke backfiring shows us why we need to be critical about history as we are being taught and told it, and consider: “How much of this is true? Is this interpretation of the evidence correct?” and, “What has been left out of the history books?”

Solomon Kane (2009) Revisited

Five years after Van Helsing brought curdled reviews but box office gold, Kane seemed calculated to fit that film’s mould but also to stretch it, and carve out a bigger space for dark fantasy and horror in a historical setting. However, despite its connection to the British folk horror film tradition, Michael J. Bassett’s film never quite found its audience. Today is the 115th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth, so let us meet again one of his most battle-scarred sons. Perhaps with the passage of time, we can see him a bit more clearly. 

Our introduction to Kane (James Purefoy) recalls Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). It feels as if it was made for the trailer instead of the film,  and is not very Howardian. Thankfully, there’s a lot more of Howard in what follows. It is the year 1600, a time of casual cruelty, when the only light comes from the flames of battle. Ruthless and greedy, the privateer Solomon Kane meets his match in the Devil’s Reaper, who accuses Kane of having made a Faustian pact, and threatens to collect his soul. Next, we find Kane as a tortured monk, complete with ecclesiastical serial killer wall, tattoos and scarification to protect him from evil. As the wealth he’s donated can only make up for so much screaming, he’s booted out. The monks foresee purpose for him out there: “There are many paths to redemption, not all of them peaceful.” 

What if…

Not all paths are well defined either, and the film feels scrapbook-like, taking set-pieces and ideas from films from films like Plague of Zombies, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Solomon Kane is definitely the spiritual child of the Hammer era, and had it been made back then, you can imagine Peter Cushing portraying Kane with both humility and righteous fury. As it is, James Purefoy gives us a Kane who is convincingly haunted, and the film also successfully borrows its precursors’ sinister atmostphere, as Kane travels misty roads and gnarly woods. 

Dead people hang by the roadside and Kane has his own unburied dead to contend with: his early refusal to become a priest, the legacy his father denied him, and accidentally killing his bully-boy brother. Redemption is the film’s big theme, and has to carry the film’s forward movement in lieu of a tight plot. But what is the price of redemption, and who pays it? Kane’s guilt keeps him from violence at first, but evil follows him like flies on shit. Purefoy’s performance evokes pity – he clearly feels as vulnerable as those whose lives he’s destroyed. This film is about a man of privilege who learns he’s no different – and cannot separate himself – from the rest of humanity. 

Puritan family Idyll – William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite) holds court.

Set upon by robbers, he’s rescued by the Puritan family of William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite). Their daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) sees the good in Kane, and even sews him a Puritan outfit, complicating the film’s theme of wicked paganism versus pious Christianity. Of course this is the writers shoehorning in his Weird Tales costume, but you also sense Meredith’s hope that the clothes maketh the man. Even Kane seems almost to believe he could be one of them. But the contrast with Kane’s broken family history and lonely future is acute: he cannot have a family like this, and when William (God love him) actually shows Kane a locket with pictures of his family, we know that by saving Kane they have doomed themselves. 

A band of raiders “recruits” villagers as thralls of the sorcerer Malachi. His lieutenant, the masked Overlord, does this by grasping their faces in his bare hands. It’s half contagion, half demonic possession – fitting in a time of plague (theirs, and ours). Of course, they meet our travellers. This is why Postlethwaite was cast: you can see his own soul escaping as he realises Kane cannot, will not, risk his soul by fighting and saving his son. The Crowthorns can’t look at Kane the same way now, and when he finally unleashes his wrath, it’s too late: Meredith is taken, and William mortally wounded. With the forbearance of one who truly trusts his God, he urges Kane to save his soul by rescuing his daughter. Then he dies in his wife’s arms. 

Meredith Crowthorn (Rachel Hurd-Wood), doffing her bonnet

After some sojourns – cue the crazed priest who tends to his flock-turned-zombies in the ruins of his church – Kane hears that Meredith is dead and goes looking for his soul at the bottom of a bottle. By coincidence (the borderlands of Somerset and Devonshire are a small place apparently), he meets some old shipmates who are rebelling against Malachi, and gets crucified alongside them. It’s Conan’s Tree of Woe all over again. Seeing Meredith alive, with his last strength he tears himself off the cross. The “pagan bad, Christian good” formula is disrupted again, as the rebels’ healer and seer tells him, “There’s more power here than your Christian god; you would do well to remember that.”

Juxtaposed against the simple and good Crowthorns are Kane’s own family. Back at the Kane family home we find out that Kane’s brother lives and – this is hardly a spoiler – is Malachi’s masked lieutenant. The sorcerer was brought in by Kane Sr. to save his son, and the magic made Marcus into the masked Overlord. So, this whole contagion of evil, this blight on the countryside, is the result of the power struggle in the local noble family. Toxic masculinity indeed! Kane gets to make up with his father, tossed in the dungeon for his troubles, and release him to whatever awaits beyond death. The final battle in the family’s great room then falters; it’s stuff we’ve seen in swashbucklers from the Douglas Fairbanks era onwards. Unmasking Marcus, of course, does not come without the tedious ableist trope of villains with facial differences. 

Masked villain

And far be it from me to suggest that more films kill women to motivate men, but to dangle Meredith’s fate, then reveal that the ritual to summon Kane’s infernal doom will leave her enough blood to get home on, feels anticlimactic! The demon coming for Kane’s soul works better; the human scale of Kane’s previous supernatural foes make this confrontation impressive. Anyway, Meredith safely delivered to her mother, Solomon’s vow is to continue his fight: “But evil is not so easily defeated, and I know I will have to fight again. I am a very different man now… I have found my purpose.”

Solomon Kane gets righteous

However, an intended trilogy never happened. Lest we sound overly negative: it’s not a bad film, not at all. For all of Kane’s searching for his own, the film has a soul. It has engaging characters and where the plot may not be surprising it at least has the familiarity of your genre favourites happily revisited. Instant nostalgia. Also, there is clearly an appetite for 17th century supernatural stories, given the later success of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), beautifully shot using available light to tell an even more claustrophobic tale of a Puritan family stalked by a supernatural evil. But The Witch benefited from the folk horror revival then reaching critical mass. Add Game of Thrones to that, stoking an unsuspected mainstream appetite for fantasy in gritty (pseudo-)historical settings, and you wonder whether Howard’s ‘doleful knight’ would’ve fared better in different circumstances. Perhaps, if the Netflix Conan project is successful, the Howard canon will be ransacked and Kane will ride again. 

Dwarves

Many years ago I spent a few weeks in Prague, at a friend’s who had a roleplaying and fantasy shop there. Prague, of course, appears in The Red Man and Others as the divided city of Starohrad. My friend introduced me to writer William King, writer of the Gotrek and Felix books, and got me one of the novels to read, which I liked quite a lot. Back home, I did a few drawings of the titular dwarf with the idea that perhaps I ought to do art for White Wolf, though nothing came of that.

William King’s Gotrek Gurnisson, my own drawing from 2000

While getting further into exploring the world of Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien, the homemade heroes of The Red Man and Others, we constantly have the push and pull of ‘how much sorcery is there with the swords?’ and ‘are there any monsters?’ too. We’ve still not quite figured these out; there is sorcery, but it’ll not be an easy matter of “here’s a spell to fix it all.” Here be no Harry Potters. In a story that’s currently ‘doing the rounds’ we do however have dwarves. Yet, fun as the Warhammer dwarves are, our ‘Wheelworld’ operates at a more human, realistic level.

So, the dwarves that you sometimes see, as wide as they’re high, and so muscled that they’re hardly should be able to move, are out. Also, where do they come from, in the history of our world which, if anything else, we want to give a ‘lived in’ feeling? There’s a few clues that guide our thinking in the right direction. Firstly, there’s the notion that tales of fairies and ‘the others’ are race memories of encounters with tribes which are like us, but not quite us. The fair folk of myth are often painted as shy and retiring, but also dangerous for ‘us normal people’ to encounter.

Basically, they want to be left alone, yet we cannot seem to do other than fear them. This actually is a known phenomenon: the Uncanny Valley is the point in which the relationship between something’s resemblance to a human and our emotional relationship to it takes a sudden plunge at the point at which it very much resembles us, but is not us. When a robot is a metal thing, we’re fine with it, but when it’s made to resemble us, we feel revulsion. This is something that’s hardwired in us, and I wonder whether it’s something to do with our own evolution: was this how we saw as enemies these people in far distant times who were not like ourselves?

Late-19th century image of a Pict

Robert E. Howard certainly made use of this in his work. His Picts were not as much the Picts of history, as they were a race of smaller, darker people. In this he was possibly influenced by the theory made popular by the Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie, who in his Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893) argues that the belief in ‘the little people’ was rooted in the folk memory of Picts, who he imagined to be the diminutive indigenous population of stone-age Britain, driven to its remote corners by incoming invaders. He quotes John Francis Campbell, from his 1860-62 Popular Tales of the West Highlands: “I believe there once was a small race of people in these islands, who are remembered as fairies (…) smaller in stature than the Celts; who used stone arrows, lived in conical mounds like the Lapps, knew some mechanical arts, pilfered goods and stole children; and were perhaps contemporary with some species of wild cattle and horses and great auks, which frequented marshy ground, and are now remembered as water-bulls and water-horses, and boobries, and such like impossible creatures.

MacRitchie notes that the Lapp-Fairy connection was already made earlier by Sir Walter Scott for whom “there seems reason to conclude that these duergar (in English, dwarfs) were originally nothing else than the diminutive natives of the Lappish, Lettish and Finnish nations, who, flying before the conquering weapons of the Asae, sought the most retired regions of the north, and there endeavoured to hide themselves from their eastern invaders.” So commonly accepted was this image of the Picts as diminutive, “swarthy” and hunted people that fellow-Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson describes the Picts in his Heather Ale poem of 1890: Rudely plucked from their hiding / Never a word they spoke: / A son and his aged father – / Last of the dwarfish folk.

Robert E Howard’s Bran Mak Morn with his people. Illustration by Gary Gianni

These, then, are the Picts of Robert E Howard, who in Roman times had fallen to a sorry state, with Bran Mak Morn fighting for his doomed people. Jason Ray Carney in his insightful article, Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior quotes Howard, who himself was an outcast, on the Picts: “My interest in these strange Neolithic people was so keen that I was not content with my Nordic appearance, and had I grown into the sort of man, which in childhood I wished to become, I would have been short, stock, with thick, gnarled limbs, beady black eyes, a low retreating forehead, heavy jaw, and straight, coarse black hair.

Robert E. Howard describes his childhood image of his grown-up self as a Pict, but it’s closer to the image we have of the old-fashioned ‘caveman’, the Neanderthal man reconstructed in 1911 on basis of the finds at Chapelle-aux-Saints. Now we know that this man was aged and had arthritis, but it formed the popular image of the ape-like, stooped, bent-kneed creature for decades to come. One example of this is in William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors in which a family of early men encounter the newer man, a meeting that inevitably spells their doom. While scientifically outdated, the novel is still a powerful and haunting read.

early illustration of the ‘Man of Chapelle-aux-Saints’ Neanderthal

Years ago we were lucky enough to see Beowulf & Grendel in the cinema, courtesy the Belfast Film Festival. It’s a gorgeous film, and not to mistaken with the Neil Gaiman-scripted CGI thing where you see the Uncanny Valley in action! It starts with the the child Grendel and his father who are hunted by a mob of angry Norsemen. They kill the father but leave the child, figuring it’ll not survive on its own. Grendel, however, does. The adult Grendel is played by the Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson, with body prosthesis to bulk him up and make him hairy, but with just enough make-up on his face to keep him human. Almost. When Grendel starts to exact his revenge on the Norse settlement, the truth comes out: the troll was killed for having stolen a fish. The instinctive hatred for the other at work.

Grendel’s father, hunted by the Norsemen. From Beowulf & Grendel, 2005

In Beowulf & Grendel the Norsemen call Grendel a troll. However, what we see is a species of Man. Neanderthal? Perhaps? Not to want to spoil the film (go! See it!), he does have a child with a human woman. We know that there has been interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals. On average a few percent of our DNA is made up of Neanderthal DNA. And here’s an uncomfortable one for the ‘race purists’ – if you want to look for the purest Homo Sapiens, you need to go to sub-Saharan Africa! Then you read stories about how the wooly mammoth survived, in isolated pockets, until 4000 years ago, when the Great Pyramid was already standing, and you think: ‘Could it be?’

Our dwarves are the last remnants of Neanderthal people, who have retreated to some of the most inhospitable places of Europe, like the Alp mountains. One dwarf in our story uses some Swiss-derived phrases, which also is a nice nod to our friends in Zürich. They are strong, yet cultured, as our understanding of Neanderthal people is now far removed from the brutish cave dweller: they created art, made twine and glue. That said, our own dwarves may have retreated to the caves, as it is the mountains, after all. They are the miners of fairytale, and they make beautiful things of the ores and crystals that they mine.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal man by the Kennis brothers

They are a race under a huge amount of pressure, and on the brink of extinction. They know this, and they mourn this. They’ve been pushed back, bit by bit, by the ‘big men’, either by expansion or aggression. They already were smaller than them, and adapting to their harsh existence and scarce food sources, they’ve become somewhat smaller even in size. Few of them have left the mountains, but wherever they go they’re met with distrust and rejection. If you meet a dwarf, most likely a man, you’ll find him sombre and brooding, his attitude an armour against the harsh treatment he expects.

Funny though, we’ve worked our way straight back to Grimm’s dwarves from Snow White!