Disability and Heroic Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

Angeline’s talk “Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fantasy” will be held on Saturday 2 October at 4pm (Dublin time). OctoCon 2021, the National Irish Science Fiction Convention, is again virtual this year, and you can register for free! We hope to see you there! 

Did GRRM Read The BirthGrave?

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

Let’s consider the start of The Birthgrave.

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

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

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

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

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

Ricardo Pinto: The Masters

In the Three Lands, the rule of the Chosen is absolute. At the top of a society they have stratified and subjugated, the Chosen marinate in their ludicrous wealth in the walled city of Osrakum. Their time is spent endlessly plotting against each other and refining the purity of their bloodlines – a project for the ages whose pinnacle is godhood. Never mind the thousands of debased sartlar who toil on the land, or the marumaga house slaves who will meet a cruel end if they accidentally glimpse the unmasked face of a Chosen lord they don’t serve. For masks, in this world, are everything.

Enter fifteen-year-old Carnelian, raised in faraway exile by his father, Lord Suth. Oblivious to his heritage, Carnelian enjoys a homely relationship with his marumaga household, embracing his half-brothers as playmates and protectors. So it’s a shock when three Chosen Masters arrive to strip his island home of its resources for a forced return trip to Osrakum. There, Lord Suth must supervise an election to replace the dying God Emperor. But it’s a long way to Osrakum, and on the way Carnelian will be threatened by the sea crossing, assassins, and his own ignorance of the ruthless world to which he must assimilate.

If Carnelian’s introduction to his native culture is rough, it’s a picnic compared to that of his family. The fact is that Carnelian’s marumaga relations are also his property, and Lord Suth has fatally insulated his son from the full meaning of that power relationship. The other Masters, who exploit vulnerability as a reflex, use Carnelian’s naivety for sport, but he’s not the one who has to bleed. And other people do bleed, a lot, while Carnelian (gradually) summons up a poker face and a little political acumen. This doesn’t always make for easy reading. 

The Chosen play the world like a four-dimensional game of chess, both empowered and constrained by the elaborate rituals, rules and lawmakers that govern their every move. Everything is done for show, and every move hides a sleight of hand.The Stone Dance of the Chameleon as a whole is about Carnelian’s attempt to upend the chess board with compassion. To refuse to play, like Suth, is still a move in the game, with consequences for the pawns. So the larger question asked both by The Masters and the series overall is: do we have to play the game in order to beat it? 

This is a book that intentionally seduces you with a rich culture, a deep history and a beautiful constructed language. You wallow in the aesthetic, and then you catch yourself in the (gilt, bejewelled) mirror, and you start asking yourself: are those blood diamonds? And then you look more closely at your own reflection, at the garments you wear, at the systems of power and exploitation in which you are complicit in our modern world. 

Originally, The Stone Dance of the Chameleon was published as a trilogy, and Pinto’s reworking of it into a septet is a bravura choice, but a canny one. The editing only refines both the beauty and the horror of the text, and the ending of The Masters, once a pause in a longer novel, is recontextualised here as a moment of psychedelic transcendence, leaving Carnelian on the threshold of a new and threatening world. The complexity, both moral and narrative, remain intact, and the message is more relevant than ever before. 

The first part of Ricardo Pinto’s The Stone Dance of the Chameleon: The Masters can be found on here. Ricardo’s website gives a wealth of background information on his books. Find more info on The Masters here.

(ABA)

Support Your Indie Writers!

(That’s us.)

It takes much longer to write stories than to read them; plotting, drafting, screaming in frustration and starting again – never mind all the tear-stained pages on which we honed our craft, which will never see the light of day. We’re fortunate that it’s not our book sales that keep our cat (and ourselves) in kibble. However, when you buy our book, you help us to justify the time and energy we spend on the adventures of Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien. While we’ve been overwhelmed by the great reactions we’ve had on our book, it all comes down to this: do we have enough sales to make it worth writing their further adventures, or do we focus on other stories?

If you like what we’ve been doing with The Red Man and Others and would like to support us (or any other indie writer whose work you’ve enjoyed) you can do the following.

Spread the word on social media. This is an important one, if not the most important: if people don’t know our book exists, they can’t buy it. The indie writer’s social media reach is limited, and their friends-list will at a certain point be fed up with them banging their drum. So, they need to break out of their own tweet-circle. You can help by retweeting, and definitely by letting your own peeps know that you’ve read an amazing book, and why you thought it was amazing.

Give our book as a present. Did you read our book, and you think it’d be perfect for this or that friend or family member? Buy it for them as a gift. More and more authors these days are offering to sign bookplates remotely, and we hope that physical events will return soon, so we can meet you and sign and dedicate our book in person.

Let us know that you love our work, and what particularly spoke to you. We spend a lot of time behind our keyboards wondering whether we’re reaching people, whether our characters have truly come to life, and whether our messages have landed. Our egos may be tender, but they can really blossom with a well-placed kind word.

Review or rate our book on sites like Amazon, Goodreads and The Storygraph. Reviews help further sales, push us up the Amazon rankings, and help authors get (better) contracts or other opportunities. Do you write reviews for a magazine, website or blog? We’d be overjoyed with the exposure (if, let’s be honest, it’s positive) and will happily provide you with images and other info to present it well.

Read it with your book group. Perhaps The Red Man and Others is something you’d like to read with your book group? Let us know! We might not be able to provide you with bulk-discounted copies, but we can provide you with talking points and anything else that might make it a great group reading experience. If the stars align, we’ll even come by (through the power of Zoom) to chat about our work and answer questions.

Buy ebooks legitimately! Research showed that only a fraction of the books on the average e-reader were bought legally. People assume that big names can absorb the losses through piracy, and for a small number of bestselling authors that may be true, at least financially speaking. It affects publishers’ bottom line, however, and with it their willingness to support ongoing series or to take a chance on lesser known name. Ultimately, this hurts us all, authors and readers alike.

Buying a physical copy? If your indie author is lucky enough not to be beholden to Amazon for their sales, choose an indie bookshop that supports local authors. Two of our favourite local bookshops are No Alibis in Belfast, and The Secret Bookshelf in Carrickfergus. They’re both brilliant at helping readers find books they don’t yet know they’ll love.

Check their book out from the library, and if they don’t have it – ask for it. The UK has Public Lending Right, which means that authors get a bit of money every time their book is checked out.

Attend events like arts/lit festivals, book launches and readings. Sometimes, writers are allowed out in the wild, and they’ll be happy to see you in the audience. With Covid stalking the land, it’s even easier to attend events through Facebook, Zoom and other platforms; you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home and your pyjamas! If there’s a chance of a Q&A you might think of some questions to stimulate audience participation.

Connect with us! Visit our blog to read our thoughts on fiction writing, folklore and pop culture, and subscribe to our email newsletter to keep up to speed on what we’re working on, and with a grab bag of what we found around the ‘net. You can find all our useful links on Linktree.

…And of course, if you haven’t got it yet, you can still buy our paperback!

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!

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!

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. 

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

A&N’s Wild Hunt

Today we received the proof of our story for the upcoming Air & Nothingness Press collection The Wild Hunt, which contains our tale With One Eye, Bright As A Star. This is something we’re enormously proud of!

Air & Nothingness Press publishes poetry and translations in letterpress and handmade limited editions. In an age of POD they publish collector’s items, books which are beautiful and nicely produced as objects. We already loved the cover of their previous collection, Upon a Once Time, and find the one for The Wild Hunt absolutely stunning! In French folded covers, it samples art by Franz von Stuck, and combines it with daring typography. We are very much looking forward to its appearance, so we can share it and our story with you!

We’re especially proud of this story appearing in the collection, as it’s one of the more personal stories we’ve written. Sure, it has a supernatural angle (how could it not!), but the boy at the centre of this particular Wild Hunt could have been me, in the distant past. It is set in the landscape where I grew up, where stories of the Wild Hunt are indeed part of our folklore. The boy’s grandfather meanwhile is a lot like the one I knew, with elements of my other grandfather, who died before I was born; he’d been in the Royal Dutch Cavalry before he settled back in the village where he was born (and I too) and became a farm hand. I never knew him, but have often imagined what he was like.

My opa Kees, on the left

(RvS)